Julilla bounced the ball and looked around. Still too early. That meant she had time for a warm-up. She went through a routine of her own devising, dribbling and dodging imaginary teammates as she moved across the blacktop and back again, then to the free throw line for a few practice shots. The first one bounced off the backboard, but she was unfazed. Her first shot always sucked. She had envied her teammates who never needed those first practice throws, but a lot of those girls were dead now, and so was the coach, while she carried on, muddling through the post-pandemic wreckage.
She threw again and this time the ball slipped through the basket without touching the rim and bounced off the asphalt with a satisfying sound. Julilla leaped to catch it and followed up with a couple of quick lay-ups and a hook shot. As she hit her groove, she forgot she was hungry and alone. She forgot the ever-present reminders of the dead in the empty streets and shops. She even managed to ignore the sickly smell of rot that occasionally wafted from the direction of a nearby parking garage where bodies lay piled up, waiting for transport trucks that would never arrive to take them to the pits.
For a few blessed minutes, Julilla’s world narrowed to just herself, the ball, and the shadows of the dead and missing girls who she dodged and scored off of in her imagination. If she let her fancy take hold, she could almost believe she was playing for the high school all-stars again, rallying her team for the final victory while her coaches, classmates, and dear Aunt Veegee screamed her name and the college recruiters tapped madly into their Blackberrys.
A movement at the edge of the blacktop caught her eye, bringing her back to the present. The children were arriving, but there weren’t enough yet. She continued to practice, adding a few exhibition moves—ball between the legs, catch, over the knee and down again, then a high bounce with a little twirl before catching it and spinning it on one finger.
A few more children wandered up and one clapped.
“I got better moves than this if you’ve got food,” she called.
One boy had a few crackers. For him, Julilla showed off a little of her quick footwork, and shot three hoops over her shoulder in rapid succession.
Another girl had a box of raisins. For her, she performed a new routine she had been working on—a hard bounce, then see how many times she could clap and twirl before catching it. This pleased the girl and her friends so much that they started digging through bags and pockets, and Julilla added some hand jive moves.
The girls were giggling and pooling their food resources into something that might take the edge of Julilla’s hunger when a group of rangy older boys wandered up. The chattering girls and clapping boys fell silent and Julilla paused, bouncing the ball slowly and returning the group leader’s cool look.
“You a real basketball player?” he sneered. “Or just some kind of Harlem Globetrotter showoff?”
Patience. Aunt Veegee, God rest her soul, always said to wait to see what the other guy would do first. That way you’d have time to plan. “I’m here,” she said. “So I guess that makes me as real as anyone.”
The boy reached in his pocket and for a panicked moment she thought he had a gun. A lot of the older boys did these days, and sometimes the young ones, too. But instead of a weapon, he took out a Milky Way bar.
Julilla’s stomach growled and she swallowed hard.
“Eleven points,” he said. “You game?”
“Is that the prize?”
“If you win. Want to know what mine is if you lose?” His eyes moved across her body.
Julilla had seen that look before. It was the same way her mother’s ill-chosen boyfriends had looked at her, including the one who—well, the pandemic had been good for something, at least. A wave of anger swept through her, spurring the killing urge that her coaches had so carefully channeled into a winner’s drive. “I won’t lose,” she snarled, and tossed him the ball. “You can even go first. That way your friends can see you make at least one good move before I wipe the blacktop with your ass.”
“The only move on anyone’s ass is going to be mine on yours, baby.”
The boy made a fast break, dodging Julilla’s blocking moves and going for a lay-up. Julilla leaped to knock the ball out of range, but he crashed into her with his shoulder and she stumbled. The ball swooshed through the basket and he caught it with a laugh while Julilla recovered her footing and the children on the sidelines screamed foul. Julilla thought of calling him on it, but could tell by the way he was breathing hard that earning just one point had cost him. She only needed to hold him off and let him wear himself down. It was just like playing defense for the all-stars.
Over the next twenty minutes, they panted, sweated and cursed each other as the boy twisted and feinted, unable to lose Julilla as she hovered over and around him, sometimes knocking the ball from his hands, sometimes waiting so she could block his shots. She took stomps to her feet and elbows to her ribs, all of which he pretended were accidental, but as she saw him grow winded and she stole the ball again and again, she didn’t bother to call him on his fouls. All she had to do was outlast this bastard, and as she sank her last shot, she beamed at the crowd of cheering kids.
“I think I earned my candy bar,” she told the boy, as he leaned forward, hands on his knees, breathing hard.
With a malevolent glare, he stood up and reached in his pocket. He threw the Milky Way to the ground in disgust and when he raised his foot like he would stomp on it, Julilla lunged toward him. Fouls and bruises were one thing, but that was breakfast!
To her surprise, the boy’s friends grabbed him and pulled him back. “Let it go, man. She won fair.”
As they dragged him off the blacktop, Julilla scooped up the candy bar and ripped open the paper. Dear lord, how long had it been since she had eaten chocolate?
The little girl who had offered her raisins tugged at her shirt and handed up a bottle of water.
Gratefully, Julilla accepted. Putting nasty teenage boys in their place was thirsty work.
The girl still stared at her with big eyes. “M’am?”
Julilla stifled a laugh. She was too young to be m’am to anyone.
“Can you teach me to play?”
Julilla assessed. The girl wasn’t much bigger than the ball. “It doesn’t come easy. You willing to work hard?”
“Everything’s hard since the Telo.”
“It was hard before, too.”
Julilla nodded and broke off a piece of Milky Way for her. “We gotta make the most of what we’ve got. That’s how we’re going to get through this.”
The girl sucked on her candy and nodded.
Julilla held out her hand. “Come on, girlfriend. I think I can show you a few moves.”