Just down the road from their families, Deo and his friends play soccer in the dusty fields of Zimbabwe, cheered on by Deo's older brother, Innocent. It is a day like any other ..until the soldiers arrive and Deo and Innocent are forced to run for their lives, fleeing the wreckage of their village for the distant promise of safe haven. Along the way, they face the prejudice and poverty that await refugees everywhere, and must rely on the kindness of people they meet to make it through.
Relevant, timely, and accessibly written, Now Is the Time For Running is a staggering story of survival that follows Deo and his mentally handicapped older brother on a transformative journey that will stick with readers long after the last page.
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Now Is the Time for Running
By Williams, Michael
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2011 Williams, Michael
All right reserved.
GOOOAAAL IN GUTU
The game is 2-2 when the soldiers come in their jeeps down the path to Gutu.
Javu shouts at me. “Kick, Deo, kick!”
I catch the ball between my foot and the earth and point. “The soldiers are coming,” I say. The boys stop playing. They turn to look at where I’m pointing.
The president must have sent them. Perhaps he has heard how hungry we are? Grandpa Longdrop said that when there was no more sadza, no more cassava, and when the people cried with hunger, then the soldiers would come. He says our president will never let us go hungry. Grandpa Longdrop is never wrong, but I have never seen soldiers bringing food.
“We can still win before they get here,” shouts Shadrack. “Kick, Deo. I’m open.”
I turn back to the game. Javu is out right, running wide. He has his hand up in the air, calling for the ball. If I pass to him, he will be blocked by Pelo the Buster. Javu could never get around heavy Pelo, the best defender in Masvingo Province. Better to make some Deo magic myself.
I scoop the ball up with my foot, flick it up in the air, and head it past Bhuku, who is the plodder of the group. Shadrack runs into the space to my left. This is going to be so easy.
The old one-two-three move. First touch to Shadrack, pushing the ball through the legs of Pelo, and then Shadrack sending it back onto my right foot. A quick glance up at Lola in goal, crouching now, ready to save my cannon shot—or so she thinks!
I move to kick the ball with my right foot but don’t. The reason? Pelo the Buster is sliding toward me in a slow-moving heap of knobby knees, thick shins, and big feet to collect the ball and to upend me. I toe the ball into the air, jump over his legs, and kick with my left foot as hard as I can. The ball sails past Lola’s open arms.
“It was too high!” she shouts. “Too high!”
“She’s right, Deo. That’s too high.” Bhuku points at the imaginary bar my ball supposedly sailed over.
Innocent goes mad on the sidelines. He runs up and down, with his arms outstretched like the wings of an airplane, screaming, “Goooaaal!”
“Innocent said it’s a goal,” I point out. “And he can see from where he’s standing.”
It is always like this. When Lola misses, then the shot is always too high. I’m not sure why we let a girl play with us, but nobody else wants to be goalie, so she’s useful. I like Lola and I don’t like her. She can be friendly one moment and moody the next. Innocent says that’s why he stays well away from girls—he can’t make up his mind whether he likes them or not.
“He’s your brother. Of course he thinks it’s a goal.” This is Bhuku again, all hands on hips, head cocked back as if he has been robbed in broad daylight.
“No use asking that one. He’s crazy,” says Pelo, tapping his temple with his finger. “What does he know about—”
Pelo the Buster does not have the chance to finish what he’s saying because he has to deal with my fist in his mouth. Nobody talks about Innocent in front of me. Pelo should know better.
Shadrack wraps his arms around me and pulls me away. Pelo is looking to give me some of my own medicine. I glare at him, daring him to come at me, but he looks past me. Pelo the Buster can beat me any day of the week, but right now something else is more important to him than busting my brains.
The jeeps carrying the soldiers.
I hear their engines. They are closer now.
The jeeps bump and rattle down the path where only cattle and villagers coming from Mlagisa Town and Embandeni Kraal have walked. There are five, maybe six, soldiers in each jeep. Some of them are in full battle fatigues; others just wear army waistcoats and belts with ammunition. They all carry guns, porcupine quills pointing at the sky. They hold their guns as if the weapons weigh nothing. As if they are not dangerous. But I know the terrible noise they can make, and I have seen a cow cut in half from a burst of one of those guns. The soldiers look at us but don’t see us.
These men have been all over Zimbabwe. They went to Zaka when the people cried with hunger, but now the people cry no more. They went to Chipinge when the people were angry from hunger, so angry that some of them were killed. Auntie Aurelia told us that her niece was one of those who were hungry. She did not say how she bled to death. Auntie Aurelia cried for seven days and then spoke about her niece no more.
The soldiers have been to faraway Kamativi, but no one speaks about what they have done there. And now they are here—in Gutu, my home.
The president said the people should not be angry. He said we were hungry because the white man was blocking the food from coming into our country. He is right about the problem of our food. We eat only enough to keep us hungry. I have heard my amai talk to Grandpa Longdrop about food that is supposed to come from America, but it has not come yet. My amai is a teacher in Gutu. She has been writing to a church in America and telling them about how we have no food here.
The truckers no longer come from South Africa. They no longer bring stuff to fill the shelves of Mr. Singh’s shop in Bikita. Grandpa Longdrop said that the road from the south is quieter than he can ever remember. Amai grows quiet, too, when he speaks of the road and its trucks. She has long since stopped going to the gas station, hoping that one special trucker might come back.
I have stopped thinking about him too. Amai doesn’t talk about him anymore, and it’s hard to ask questions about him. She cries or gets angry when I mention my father.
The soldiers drive past us. In the front jeep, a soldier sits with his boot up on the dashboard. He wears a red beret and sunglasses. He raises his hand, and the jeep stops with an angry spurt of dust. The soldiers standing behind him grip the crash bar. One nearly topples to the ground. The other jeeps pull up behind. Red Beret climbs out and walks toward us. His face is a mask. I notice his black belt, his revolver in a leather holster, his heavy boots, and his shiny sunglasses. I do not see his eyes but see myself twice in his glasses. I look small and bent out of shape, just a scrappy kid in blue shorts wearing a no-longer-white school shirt and standing in the dust.
“You’ve got a good left foot. Bring me the ball.” He speaks, but I do not move. I am watching both of my scared reflections in his glasses. My mouth is open. I close it and swallow.
Pelo runs over and hands him the ball. It is no proper soccer ball. It is a pouch of cow-leather patches sewn together with twine, stuffed with tightly rolled plastic.
Red Beret throws my ball into the air and kicks it. The ball folds into itself. The men in the jeep laugh. He turns toward them, and they shut up. This man has broken my ball.
I am only half scared now. The other half of me is angry. He didn’t need to break the soccer ball Grandpa Longdrop made for me.
“I hear there are dissidents in this village. Is that true?” His words are soft. I cannot trust them. In his question I can feel the metal teeth of a leopard trap.
I look blankly at him. If I say no, then he will know that I know what a dissident is, and then he will want to know what I know about dissidents. If I say yes, then there will be more trouble than I can even imagine.
“Who does your father vote for?”
This is a question I can answer easily. “My father does not live here. He lives on the road.”
“And your father?” He looks at Pelo.
“The president,” says Pelo the Buster.
The man snorts as if this was the wrong answer.
“Your game is finished.”
He steps on the ball, which lets out a long fart. No one thinks it’s very funny.
“I will speak to the people of Gutu and find out if what you tell me is true.” The soldier is talking to all of us now. I see us in his glasses. We all look the same: small, scared children in the red dust. He turns around and walks back to the jeep.
I look around for Innocent. He is no longer standing beside the pitch. He is scared of soldiers and must have slipped away when the jeeps arrived. I should go and look for him, but I cannot take my eyes off Red Beret.
He jumps back into the front jeep. We are forgotten now. He lifts his hand and makes a cutting gesture in the direction of our village. The driver puts his foot down, and the jeep jumps forward, causing the men at the back to grab hold of the crossbar.
As soon as the jeeps are gone, we scatter.
I throw away the rolled plastic from my dead soccer ball. The leather pouch is all I need to make a new one.
I must find Innocent. Soldiers make him nervous. And when he’s nervous, he talks too much, and then there could be trouble. Blood trouble.
Excerpted from Now Is the Time for Running by Williams, Michael Copyright © 2011 by Williams, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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