His shoes crunched against the brittle yellow-brown grass. The air was crackly dry and had been that way for so long that everything was dehydrated and dying. He crossed over the grass and noted a shock of green down the way. It was a small deformed circle of emerald, and he wondered what that little patch drew from to stay alive in the drought. Its vibrancy was an insult to the decay that surrounded it.
The clouds were a stark white mountain range stretched low and heavy across the sky. He surveyed the grainy black asphalt before him and felt its emptiness drop boulder-like in his stomach. He walked to the middle of the court and stood in the center of the faded yellow circle. He could hear the echo of her game, the hollow rubber bounce of the pimpled ball.
He could never beat her. When they played 21, he only ever got 12 or 13 points. Fifteen was his record, but he knew she had gifted him a few of those baskets. He had a good six inches on her, but she made his height a weakness. She played him low and fast, and he often felt like a lumbering giant against her.
She had a weakness too. A tell before she executed one of her favorite fake-out moves. Her thin pink lips would hook to the left, and he knew she was going to lunge to the right, but streak by his left. He read the move like a book, but he would only block it a few times per game. He didn’t want her to know that she had a tell or she would fix it, and he would lose his most reliable defensive protection.
He regarded the pole in front of him; its brassy brown surface blossomed with powdery orange buds of rust. He ran his eyes up the length of the pole as the sun burst through a break in the clouds. The court flooded with pulsing yellow light, and he shaded his brow with the side of his wrist. The clouds adjusted their gap, and the light faded to a silver glare. He let his arm fall.
She refused to play without a net. She said the net was the soundtrack of the game, that the rustle of the ball as it careened through the chains was the bell of victory. He had teased her about being a diva until he played a couple of games netless. She was right. His baskets felt anticlimactic without the satisfying tinkle of the net, and it made him careless about making or missing his shots. After that he stopped teasing her and always kept a backup net in his room.
The grey steel hoop was naked; there was no net. They had just bought one a week ago; he recalled the jangle of the loose chains as he had looped it around the hooks of the rim. The barrenness of the basket collided against him, and he felt the weight of the boulder in his stomach. He crouched down, and his knees creaked with the sudden motion. His head dropped, and his breath staggered out in labored staccato bursts.
They always talked leaving. She would take jump shots and dream of other courts while they complained about the suffocating closeness of a small town. He would dribble the ball between his legs, and they dreamed up ways to escape their claustrophobic home.
He hadn’t seen her, heard from her in two days.
He thrust his hand to the pavement to steady himself. It wasn’t hot, but his skin seared. He could see the swivel of her ankle as her heel peeled off the court, and she moved toward the hoop. He could see the blur of her favorite neon sneakers, the hinted edge of a black sock poking out of the top. He heard the squeak of those worn soles scuff the asphalt, and he couldn’t breathe.
He never thought the escape would be solitary.