I’ve seen army helicopters before, but only in war movies.
Today is the first time I see one for real.
It happens during recess, when Mr. Miran is lining us up to pick teams for our fudbal game and the copter streaks across the sky above us. I’m excited to be so close—but it’s much louder than I thought it would be. The engine sounds like it’s inside me, rattling my brain. I put my hands over my ears. It doesn’t help. The crazy wind makes my hair stand on end. Even the blades of grass are shaking.
I run down the field with the other kids, my arms stretched out like wings, as if I’m flying.
“Who do you think is in there?” I ask my best friend, Vik.
“Important army generals,” he guesses. “I bet they’re gonna get all the bad guys.”
I wonder who the bad guys are. They must be in big trouble if generals are coming to arrest them from the sky.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Miran yells at us as the chopper flies out of view. “Get back here!”
I’m curious where it’s landing, but I don’t want to make Mr. Miran mad and lose my chance at a good position on the team. Fudbal is my life. I push to the front of the pack of fifth- and sixth-grade boys and start showing off some of my footwork.
“Choose me!” I wave, trying to get Mr. Miran’s attention.
“Kenan, you play right wing today,” he decides.
Yes! I squeeze my fists hard, totally pumped. The entire school will be watching our Friday pickup match, I bet—including Lena, the coolest girl in my class. I’ll impress her—and Mr. Miran, who never praises anyone. He’s reffing our game on the sidelines in his suit and leather loafers, smoking a cigarette as usual. When I’ve been standing too close to him at school, Mom tells me, “You reek like an ashtray.”
“Smoking’s bad for you,” my dad always says. He’s one of the few men I know who doesn’t smoke. He’s a sports coach, so we’re always talking fudbal, which he says people in the U.S. call soccer. So weird. On satellite TV, my older brother, Eldin, has shown me what the Americans call football: huge guys carrying what looks like a brown dinosaur egg. They run away from even bigger guys to avoid getting squashed. If a giant American player jumped me, I’d break like a toothpick.
I rush to the broken fence to throw my blue sweatshirt on a spike, and I peek over the top, where I can see the military base behind the school grounds. There are soldiers everywhere. Two sit on a bench, taking their guns apart to clean them. The barracks have always been here, but there’s more army men than usual. I want to tell Lena about the close helicopter and the troops, but Vik’s older brother, Marko, starts shouting, “Come on, Bugs! Chomp, chomp.”
Not this again. My stomach sinks as Marko points to my three huge, horrible front teeth. They hang over my bottom lip and make me look like a rabbit. He’s been calling me Bugs Bunny, from the American cartoon, because he knows I hate it. Mom makes me wear a retainer so my teeth will move into the right place, but I refuse to wear it at school and only put it on at night. What if it fell out of my mouth when I coughed or Lena saw me drool and the guys teased me even worse? No way. I try not to smile much and put my hand in front of my face so nobody notices.
I’ll show Marko. Today I’ll prove I’m a great athlete, small but speedy, so he’ll shut up about my screwy mouth. But he keeps making that stupid chomping noise, and everyone cracks up. I feel hot all over.
“Just ignore him, Kenan,” Vik says, joining me on the field. “I’m in, too.”
Of course Mr. Miran wants Vik, the best dribbler.
“Notice more soldiers around today?” I ask as we wait for the whistle.
“Yeah. I saw a sergeant with a stopwatch timing how fast they oiled their rifles,” Vik tells me.
Why do they need so many guns ready? I wonder. How many bad guys are there?
After kickoff, Vik gets the ball. He keeps it glued to his feet. Like me, he’s eleven and small. His two front teeth are twisted, so he has a lisp. If you stand close when he talks, he spits on you. The other kids sometimes make fun of him too, but I don’t. I never will. I know how terrible it feels to get picked on. Vik and I have been best buddies since first grade, when nobody would play with me at recess. Then Vik asked me to join his team, saving my whole school career. So I’ll always be loyal.
A few days ago, Vik, Marko, and I were at the store to get new numbers stenciled on our T-shirts. Marko snagged 10, the number I wanted—like my favorite players, Pelé and Maradona. Marko’s older and taller than me, so I sucked it up and took number 9. Later, I asked my parents for the same red Adidas shorts the other guys had. Dad insisted I stick with blue. When I asked him why, he said, “The Serbian Red Stars wear red. That’s Milošević’s team. He’s a sociopath.”
I don’t know exactly what a “social path” means, but I can tell it’s bad.
We live in Bosnia, and Milošević is the president of Serbia, the republic next door, just an hour and a half away. My family is Muslim, but we don’t pray five times a day like my grandmother, Majka Emina. She gets mad when I spend the money she gives me on sports. “Too much fudbal. You should go pray!” she shouts all the time. When I ask my parents why she’s been praying so much lately, Mom says, “We all go someplace to feel strong.”
I totally get that, ’cause I feel strong here and now all right, rocketing down the field with the ball. I kind of think this is the way I pray, like it’s what I’m put on earth to do. I fall, but get up fast, not even winded. I imagine breaking the tie in our game and being the star player. Mr. Miran will tell my father I’m important to the team, and for once, Dad will be prouder of me than Eldin. I’ll get tons of fans, and Lena will like me best.
I sprint up and down the rocky ground, focusing on the ball. I can’t stop the other team from sinking a goal, but we do get one back, tying the score again. I need to get a shot in.
“Three more minutes,” Mr. Miran calls.
Oh no. My time is running out. I’m desperate to show off the new killer kick I’ve been practi...