Called “rich and multidimensional” by School Library Journal in a starred review, Out of Nowhere follows Tom Bouchard: captain and star of the Enniston High School soccer team; boyfriend to one of the prettiest, most popular girls; and third in his class, likely to have his pick of any college (if he ever bothers filling out his applications). But life in his idyllic small Maine town quickly gets turned upside down after the events of 9/11.
Enniston has become a “secondary migration” location for Somali refugees seeking a better life after their country is destroyed by war. Tom hasn’t thought much about his Somali classmates until four of them join the soccer team, including Saeed. He comes out of nowhere on the field to make impossible shots, and suddenly the team is winning, dominating even.
But when Saeed’s eligibility is questioned and Tom screws up in a big way, he’s left to grapple with a culture he doesn’t understand and take responsibility for his actions. The refugees came out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. And Tom may find himself going nowhere, too, if he doesn’t start trying to get somewhere.
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It’s like he came out of nowhere.
I was stuck, okay? I’ll man up to that. We were playing Maquoit High School. I mean, more than half their guys play four-season private club soccer. Olympic Development Program, that sort of thing. So yeah, I’m in the midfield with the ball and there’s no one—repeat, no one—open on our team, and Maquoit’s big man, the one we call Sasquatch, is bearing down on me. Six foot three, hairy, and he flies over the field. He’s about to end my young life unless I dribble forward, right into their two equally behemoth defensive players.
I’m thinking, Is this what you want, God? Fine. Hurl me headlong into those two Maquoit defenders, who will not only strip the ball from me but lay me out on the green, green grass. Fine. So long, life.
That’s what I was thinking when I heard him.
Not God. I never hear God. I heard him. Saeed, the new guy.
There was something about his cry, and I don’t just mean the accent, that startled me. His voice . . . commanded. So while I didn’t see him, I didn’t hesitate. I mean, what the hell, there was nobody else open. So I flipped the ball behind me in the direction of that strange voice, then did the unthinkable: I took one step toward Sasquatch and planted my feet. Prepared for the impact.
The sidelines roared, and on my right this blur, this shadow dressed in our team uniform, flashed past me. I watched as he scooped up my pass and moved like blowing smoke, weaving a path toward the goal. The Maquoit defenders couldn’t close ranks on him in time. Sasquatch couldn’t change direction. I think half our team didn’t even realize he had possession, the guy was that quick. So when he lasered the ball into the net, inches from their goalie’s hands, and Sasquatch, traveling at forty miles per hour, body-slammed the wind right out of me, I don’t think anyone saw the impact. I heard cheering, yelling . . . before I hit the ground.
I don’t know how long I lay there, gently pressing each rib and testing for cracks, focusing on the challenge of pulling air into my lungs, before a face loomed over mine, blocking the sun.
“Bouchard? Hey, man, are you dead?”
Alex Rhodes, the Maquoit captain. I hadn’t spoken to Alex in a long time. But he has one of those voices you remember. Sense of humor you remember, too. I bent one knee, squinted. A second face appeared next to Alex.
Saeed. He was the first from our team to reach me.
“You okay?” he said.
I nodded automatically, even though I was anything but. I tried to draw another breath and it worked a little better. I had a sense of bodies moving close and a voice telling people to step back. I tried another breath, and it was good, so I nodded again. A hand grasped mine. Pulled me up. And people clapped. Outdoor claps, the sound carried by the wind, like Wiffle balls striking plastic bats. I turned to face him.
He was the kind of skinny you noticed. Like, you could make out the skeleton just beneath the surface. But he was strong. That hand in mine pulled hard, and the muscles of his arms stretched sinewy and tight.
I’d known he’d be strong. I’d sensed it that first day he showed up at school, wearing a Manchester United T-shirt. Everybody in homeroom was asking him, “Dude, where’d you get the shirt?” but he didn’t seem to understand the question. Mike Turcotte, who has a knack for communicating in made-up sign language with all the new Somali kids, got Saeed to show him the tag on the shirt’s collar. “Damn!” he’d exclaimed. “That’s a real Manchester United shirt! Made in England.”
While the rest of the guys tried to figure out where in hell a refugee kid with zero money got a shirt like that, I’d pulled up a chair next to Saeed.
“You like soccer?” I’d asked. Pointing to his shirt, I used the English name: “Football?”
Relief flooded his face. He understood.
“Soccer,” he repeated, nodding vigorously. He pressed his hand against his chest. “Yes. I play.”
As I stood on the field with him, feeling my ribs and wondering if Sasquatch had just handed me a season-ending injury, those words came back to me. It struck me that “I play” was possibly the understatement of the century.
Saeed smiled at me, his lips stretched back against his teeth, bright white in his face. Black, black face. African black, not American black.
“Great pass,” he said, lightly punching the side of my shoulder. He pronounced each word hesitantly, as if it were a new food he was tasting for the first time.
“Great goal,” I said. Wheezed, actually. It was hard to talk. He turned and sprinted back to his position on the field. The other Somali guys crowded him, laughing and slapping him on the back.
Alex was retreating, too. He winked at me.
“Nice goal, but you’re goin’ down, Bouchard,” he said. Quietly, for my ears only, glancing at the approaching referee: “Even if you do have Osama over there playing for you.” He turned and trotted back to center.
Yeah, fuck you, Rhodes, I managed to not say.
The ref spoke to me.
“You need to come out?” he said.
I shook my head. Nothing hurt anymore, and my lungs could fill again. As I walked slowly back to midfield I scanned the crowd. My mom was in her usual spot, standing in front of the folding camp chair that Dad got her from Marden’s. On the other side of the field, Donnie Plourde and the rest of them were taunting a pack of Maquoit fans and acting mad hammered. He probably was. Maquoit had better score fast and shut him up before a fight broke out.
To the left of Donnie and Co. I saw Cherisse. She had her girlfriends all clustered around her, and she was clutching her hands beneath her chin in this little worried pose. They squealed on cue when I nodded in her direction, and they gave her these little re- assuring squeezes when they saw that her boyfriend was still alive. It’s something I can never quite get over: the way girls are always hugging each other. Like, even when we change classes, as if years have passed since their last hug and not just the forty-five minutes between math and history.
We didn’t win that day—nobody beats Maquoit—but we gave ’em a scare. Saeed scored once more, and I managed a goal. Maybe three seems lame compared to their five, but usually they dominated us. Three to five was a step in the right direction.
After the handshake line and Coach’s wrap-up I looked for Saeed. He was at the far end of the bench, slipping a backpack over his shoulders. As I walked toward him this little kid approached. From the spectators’ side of the field he ran straight for Saeed, so fast you thought he was going to topple over. A girl chased him. Well, sort of chased. She wore a long skirt and couldn’t move like the kid. She was calling, “Aweys! Aweys, you come back here now!”
The kid closed the distance and jumped on Saeed as I reached them. I recognized him then. One of the little brothers I’d met the day I went to their apartment.
“Hey, man. Well done today,” I said. I put my hand out.
Saeed placed the kid on the ground. He shook my hand and smiled.
“Great game,” he said carefully.
I laughed. “Actually, we sucked. But we sucked less thanks to you. Where’d you learn to play like that?”
His brow contracted, forming a thin line over his nose. “Great pass,” he finally said, nodding at me. Smiling.
“I keep forgetting you don’t understand a thing I’m saying, do you?” I replied, grinning back at him. His smile deepened and he looked relieved. Pleased that he was pulling off a conversation.
“You know my brother’s English isn’t very good,” I heard.
It was the girl. The sister, actually. I recognized her, too, although I couldn’t remember the name. Sonya . . . Sasha? Anyway, she seemed a little out of breath from chasing the kid. Which probably wasn’t easy to do in a skirt. A long, colorful skirt all the way to her sneakers, and a leather bomber jacket on top. She wore big gold earrings that practically hit her shoulders, and unlike most of the Somali girls at our school, who covered up so that the only part of their heads you saw was this small circle of face, she had just a little black scarf tied around her hair.
Unlike her brothers, she wasn’t smiling at me.
And unlike her brothers, she spoke great English.
“Yeah, I know,” I said easily. “But his soccer kicks ass.” Her non-smile deepened to a frown at the word ass.
“I asked him where he learned to play,” I continued.
She hesitated for a moment, then said something to Saeed in what I assumed was Somali. He looked at me and shrugged.
“I, uh, always play.” He shrugged again. As if the outrageous soccer he’d just demonstrated on the field was no big deal.
“Where we come from, boys play soccer all the time,” the girl said. “Outside, every day. Saeed also played in the Ramadan leagues.”
Ramadan. Now that I knew. Only not in relation to sports.
“I thought Ramadan was the month when you don’t eat,” I said.
One corner of her mouth turned up. She was trying not to laugh at me.
“Ramadan is a holy month in which we fast during the day and eat in the evening,” she said. “In Nairobi, coaches form teams during Ramadan, and if you win, you earn money. Or dinner out, at night.” She looked steadily into my eyes. “When you’re hungry, a meal at a restaurant is a good incentive for scoring.”
The way she easily used words like incentive made you wonder how she could be related to smiling Saeed.
“Well, thanks for explaining that,” I said. “I’m Tom Bouchard, by the way. Tell me your name again?”
She bent to scoop the little guy into her arms. “I know who you are,” she said quietly. She glanced quickly at Saeed, then turned on her heel and headed back across the field. Saeed hooked his thumbs in the straps of his pack, nodded once more at me, and followed them.
As I watched them go, I thought, Wow. That girl does not like me.
It’s weird when a total stranger already has her mind made up about you.