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The Best Birthday Soccer Ever

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I was the last person to arrive, I inferred, as I stepped out into the overcast afternoon glare and spotted the group. Sophia was sitting on a flat expanse of grass off to the right of the cobbled path, trying to open a cardboard box. Addison and Hiroko were forcing sticks into the ground so they stood upright, supposedly the goal posts, and Heath stood at the other end of the flat, trying to line his sticks up with theirs. All the while Kendra was instructing the lot of them, pointing and gesturing and wearing a beret I’d not seen her in before. The scene made me pause. There were key people missing, obviously, but this was the most inviting social situation I’d seen in weeks. Most of these people had been on my mental list of people to stay away from since Breakfast Confrontation V1, but today I was meant to play with them as a team. A tiny worm of doubt agitated my mind. If it looked fun and inviting, it probably wasn’t a social outing intended for me. Did they really want me here? How badly could this go? Kendra waved when she saw me, and the others glanced over. Everyone smiled; the worm went away.

“Happy birthday,” I called when I got close enough to not have to yell. “Sorry I’m late. Anything I can do?”

“Hiroko told us you might be,” Kendra dismissed lightly. She indicated her sister. “You can help Soph get into that box if you like. She asked for a new soccer ball for our birthday but the box seems to be made of iron cardboard.”

“I told you, I’ve got it,” Sophia sniped at her twin as she wrenched the top flap of the box off. “I’m eighteen now, I can do things myself.”

“You’re not eighteen for another…” Kendra checked her watch, unable to resist stirring. “Like, another hour.”

“Well, you’ve got another forty minutes before you can have that hat.”

Kendra protectively raised her hands to her new beret but Addison, the twins’ constant third wheel, appeared towering behind her and swiped it out from under her fingers. I watched him closely, worried again for the chances of a good afternoon. This pair had just broken up – should they really be forcing themselves to spend time together? But Addison was always at ease.

“I’m already eighteen,” he told us, arranging the hat atop his spiky black hair. He shot me a friendly smile as Kendra reached for it uselessly. “Hey. I’m glad you’re here.”

I couldn’t help smiling back.

We got the ball out of its packaging and split into two teams. I ended up on Sophia’s team with Addison; Heath had played football for a club for more than ten years and Hiroko was still having trouble grasping the rules, so it seemed fair that whoever got Hiroko also got Heath. I got the idea, however, that it wasn’t Heath’s soccer prowess that scored him a place on Kendra’s side.

“Two minutes to strategise with your team, loser,” Kendra said, backing up with her teammates. Sophia poked her tongue and retreated with Addison and me to our makeshift goal.

“I maintain that it isn’t soccer without nets,” Addison said sadly, adjusting his sad-looking goalpost as it started to fall to the side. “Let’s play AFL instead – they’ll never see it coming.”

“I don’t know what that made-up sport is,” Sophia answered. “Who wants to be goal-keep?”

“I will,” I offered. “I’m a baby sister; my brother used me as goalkeeper for years.” Because none of the neighbourhood boys wanted to stand around in the goal and Aidan would have been in trouble with our mum if he didn’t find some way to let me play.

“Alright, sorted.” Sophia rubbed her hands together and turned back to the other team. “Good to go.”

“Wait, I thought we were coming up with a strategy?” Addison stage-whispered. Kendra collected the ball on her way over. “What’s the strategy?”

“Don’t let them win. Keep Kendra and Heath from getting near the goal.”

The whole time I’d known the twins I’d known them for both their closeness and their competitiveness with each other. Addison had fallen in with them very quickly, connecting over a shared quick sense of humour, but he’d only ever been easygoing and uncompetitive in my experience, as Displacers seemed to often be. So the eager look in his eyes as he high-fived Sophia and moved onto the field surprised me.

The game started. My team was good but Heath was obviously more skilled than any of us, and he played a lot harder, especially when Addison got the ball. He seemed to be making it his personal mission to work the other boy as hard as he could and to show off his talent as often as opportunity allowed. He tackled Addison midfield in a move I was pretty sure his club would have penalised him for and took off in my direction, dribbling the ball with evident expertise. He was faster than Sophia and outstripped her quickly but mustn’t have accounted for Addison’s great height and long stride. The Australian made a few close attempts at the ball; Heath blocked him with his body, pulled up and glanced up at me to gauge the distance and angle. One foot on the ball, he twisted his ankle, expertly guiding the ball out of reach of Addison’s next grab, and took off again, diagonally across the field. I opened and closed my hands, prepared. As the goalkeeper I was the one person allowed to touch the ball with my hands during play. I was also allowed to head-butt it if I wanted, but, no. I was not taking the game that seriously.

Heath pulled up again as Addison threatened to overtake him, swivelled and took a shot at my goal. The ball came at me faster that I remembered them coming when I was a little girl, and my initial response was to protect myself from this projectile with a ward. The shimmery mushroom erupted from my hands before I could remind myself that this was a game, and the projectile was a toy, so when the ball hit my hands it really hit the ward that had retracted against my palms in the process of dissolving. The ball flew off to the right and well out of the boundary we’d established at the start of the game.

“No magic; it’s cheating,” Heath said as jogged up to me, sweat beading his forehead and dampening his blonde hair. “That’s got to be a penalty.”

“It’s already your throw-in, the ball went out,” Addison defended, approaching as well.  I saw now that he was panting more than just slightly, but, accustomed to much higher temperatures, hadn’t yet worked up a sweat. “Besides, a girl’s got a right to defend her fingers from missiles.” He waited until Heath went after the ball before pressing his hands on his knees and allowing himself a moment’s reprieve. “Dude needs to chill.”

“He takes the game pretty seriously,” I agreed. Sophia finally reached us, breathing hard.

“I don’t care if Kendra likes this guy, he is so not invited to our birthday party next year,” she decided between breaths. “You two can still come though. You’re doing great.”

“Want to swap?” I asked sympathetically. “Give yourself a break.”

“Just watch your fingers,” Addison advised as Sophia announced the role swap to the other team. “Someone reckons he’s playing for a spot on fucking Man United.”

Heath threw the ball in to Kendra but I felt all my brother’s lessons come back to me with suddenness and leapt forward. I was fresh from standing around in the goal and got between them at the right moment to catch the ball against the side of my foot. For a second I felt the traction fail and thought I was going to lose the ball, but as I started forward the ball came with me. Startled by my luck, I took off with the ball in Hiroko’s direction, Addison keeping pace.

Kendra caught up first, laughing as we both made a quick adjustment to our stride to get over the flat’s one dip and ended up banging shoulders. The collision slowed us both but we kept going, even when Heath tried to call out something about a free kick. I shook my hair out of my eyes as I steadied my stride, glad we weren’t listening to him. This was probably the most fun I’d had since arriving at Morrissey Estate and I didn’t want to stop.

Kendra remained on my heels the whole length of our makeshift field; it was as I got within striking distance of their goal that I got a sense of Heath and his determination approaching from my right. Pretty sure you weren’t allowed to tackle from behind but also sure that such rules didn’t worry Heath when he was the player in question, I curled my foot around the ball to slow it, and kicked it back to where I knew Addison was tailing Kendra. Heath sailed past me at speed and rounded off to come back at Addison.

I repositioned myself to receive the ball back. Kendra was no slacker at this game either, and shadowed me. Wherever I moved, she was already there, and I didn’t think she was that skilled at reading body language. Heath was the same with Addison. How were they so good at this? They were both Seers, I remembered. They could see what we were doing as soon as we made the decision to do it.

Unable to get the ball past the pair, Addison stopped trying and caught my eye briefly, just long enough for me to see the usual sparkle of fun that often resided in them. He feinted left, and as Heath moved with him, Addison and the ball disappeared completely. They reappeared, mid-step, several paces behind Heath, and came back in my direction. Kendra backed off, cracking up at the comical look of disbelief on Heath’s face, letting me accept the pass Addison sent me. I spun towards the goal.

Hiroko had never played soccer before and I could feel that she was nervous, but she was trying to look ready as she faced me. I was quite certain I could strike a goal from here, and I could hear Sophia cheering. I didn’t want to be the one to get a goal on Hiroko’s inexperience, though, so I passed back to Addison, who was less plagued by that sort of troublesome sense of honour. He kicked, not hard; just enough that the ball came up off the ground. Hiroko hurried forward to intercept it, missing the first time but catching the ball on the second attempt to stop it. She kicked it back and Addison tried a second time, faster, angling into the opposite corner of her goal. She couldn’t move there fast enough, but Hiroko was a swift learner. She Displaced the distance and shoved the ball away as she appeared in her new space.

On the next kick Addison got us our first goal but the seriousness of the game had been thankfully lifted, as both Displacers grinningly stepped forward to double high-five each other.

“What a champion goal-keeper!” Addison crowed, lifting a delighted Hiroko off the ground. “Next time I want you on my team.”

“Give her back, she’s ours,” Kendra teased as Heath trudged over.

“What happened to ‘no magic’?” he muttered, looking sour. The expression disappeared like a Displacer, though, when Kendra laughed at him again and wrapped her arms around his middle.

“You were so funny!” she giggled. “This is the best birthday soccer we’ve ever had.”

She hugged him tighter and rested her cheek against his chest briefly, and Heath was magically a much nicer and less aggressive player for the remainder of the game. After half an hour, I’d gotten another two goals past Hiroko and Heath had shot three into Sophia’s goal, and we were all so exhausted from that initial ten minutes of intense play that we agreed to accept a tie when Fionnuala came out of the house with a platter of cupcakes.

“Every birthday needs a cake,” she said dismissively when the twins tried to thank her profusely. She handed them two candles and a box of matches. “Drop the plate and the matches back to the kitchen tonight, won’t you, Sophia?”

As she retreated to the house, kind twinkle in her eye, I recalled that Sophia was doing her detentions in the kitchens. Obviously Renatus hadn’t been too mad with her outburst against Xanthe if he’d punished her by putting her to work under the kind of woman who made her cupcakes after only a day or two of service.

The sisters poked their candles into a cupcake each and lit one each. Lounging around on the lawn holding chocolate cupcakes, we sang an out-of-tune disjointed ‘happy birthday’ and then clapped when Kendra and Sophia blew out their candles and made their birthday wishes. I dug into my cake. Sometimes, life is just a wonderful thing.