By Jeff Baker
The sharp bouncing of ball on concrete and the squeaking of shoes echoed through the darkened park, if anybody could hear them. Lit by the moon the three players had no trouble seeing the old basketball goal standing against the wire fence that surrounded the court; open on one side to the playground and the grassy soccer field.
“Got it! Yeah! Slam dunk!”
Roddy, the muscular young Asian guy jumped up and down, pumping a fist in the air.
“Still got it!” he yelled.
“Yeah, but do you got this?” Anthony, the skinny Black guy grabbed the ball, ran between the other two and let the ball sail from his fingers, just missing the net.
“Outa practice!” Skid, the wiry Latino guy said, diving for the ball, grabbing it and jumping up. He floated over the goal and dropped it in. “Two points!” Skid said.
“No points! You cheated!” Anthony said, laughing.
“Yeah, I’m goin’ someplace bad!” Skid said, drifting down to the ground. The other two laughed.
“Hey, how much time we got?” Anthony asked.
“Probably about three more hours,” Roddy said, glancing at the horizon. “Here, think fast!”
He grabbed the ball from Skid and tossed it to Anthony. In another moment they were scrimmaging again. Blocking, jumping, shooting, laughing. At one point the ball bounced through the side of the enclosed court that wasn’t enclosed and bounced off an invisible wall and back onto the court. Roddy winced. He remembered one of his first nights on the basketball court, before Anthony and Skid had shown up, when he’d run screaming and had slammed into the invisible wall. Lying on the ground, dazed, he re-lived the night he’d lain there bleeding after the girl he’d tried to mug had shot him in the chest.
Anthony dunked again, this time letting himself float down to the ground.
“Wish I could do that,” came the small voice a few feet away. Anthony, Skid and Roddy turned and stared. There was a small figure curled-up at the base of the big tree between the sidewalk and the parking lot, just outside the fence surrounding the court.
“You talkin’ to us?” Anthony asked. People couldn’t see the three of them, or hear them either. They’d tried to communicate with some of the people who’d come to shoot hoops after dark, with no luck.
“Yeah,” the figure said. “I never played with the big kids before. I couldn’t toss a ball that far!” It was a little girl, maybe about six or seven. “Who are you?”
“We play here,” Anthony said. “At night. I’m Anthony. That’s Skid and Roddy.”
“You play there all the time? I can’t go in there. I’m Ella.”
“We’re here playing until the sun comes up,” Skid said. “We spend the day…someplace else…” His mouth suddenly felt dry.
“Watch my jump shot,” Roddy said. He ran under the basket, missed by a mile and slammed into the goal. He jumped up from the ground with a goofy smile and took a bow. Ella laughed. That was worth it.
“What about you?” Skid asked. “You hang out here all the time?”
“I sleep a lot,” she said. “I play in the park when it’s light. You’re not here. You ever see the man with wings?”
“Something like that,” Roddy said. “Right after my run in with…well, yeah…”
“The man with wings said I had to wait for Mommy and Daddy to come here and take me with them,” Ella said.
“Goin’ up.” Anthony said quietly.
“Lucky her.” Skid said.
“When do you three get to go home?” Ella asked.
“We…play at night here as long as that goal is standing,” Roddy said, thumbing at the hoop. “That’s what they told us. It’s to see what we lost.”
“At least you can play,” Ella said. She looked up. “Wow! Look at the stars.”
The four of them stared up at the starry sky. Anthony didn’t know when he’d looked at the stars last.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Ella said in a matter-of-fact little-girl way. She leaned against the tree, closed her eyes and was no longer visible.
“All right, whose ball?” Skid asked.
“Mine!” Anthony said, grabbing the ball and making a run for the basket.
The court echoed with squeaks and thumps which went unheard as the three lost souls played the night away.