of baskets and balls

"Bet you can't make a basket," the boy said, and smiled challengingly. He held in his arms a wooden crate the size of a barrel sliced in half. It was big enough to hold a bushel of apples, or a litter of puppies. It was completely empty, and the way he angled it toward her seemed like an invitation to fill it.

The girl glanced at it and scoffed, because she knew only a clumsy fool would miss the shot. "Are you kidding?" she teased. "I could do that in my sleep." She lobbed the ball softly and without thinking, and it landed with a satisfying clud. They both peered in at the ball, which settled quickly and easily in the deep vessel. Immediately, she picked up another ball, and this time using her left hand, flung it in just as handily.

He raised his eyebrows. "I'm impressed," he admitted, looking pleasantly surprised.

"That's nothing," she said. "Watch this." The girl turned her body completely away from the boy and the crate, and, closing her eyes, lightly tossed a ball over her shoulder. She waited until she heard the tell-tale thud before spinning back around, grinning in anticipation of her success. When she did, she saw that the boy had moved a few steps away from her while she wasn't looking. Still, the ball had gone in. Undeniably, it had gone in.

"Ok," he said to her, nodding begrudgingly. "But I bet you can't do it like that again."

She held up her open palms in acceptance of the challenge. Let's find out, her gesture said.

It was then that she realized he was no longer holding a large crate, but a medium-sized woven basket. It looked familiar to her, but she didn't know why. She wasn't sure if this counted as cheating on the part of the boy, but she didn't want to be a whiner or a spoilsport, so she wordlessly turned away, and got into position. This throw would be the trickiest yet. But she had faith in herself. She knew she had a good arm. And she had been collecting the best, surest softballs she could find, for years. She couldn't have been better prepared.

The girl took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, steadied her shoulders, and visualized the empty basket. It took a lot more concentration to throw at a target she couldn't see. A lot more work and focus and even - anxiety. She knew she was overthinking, but she didn't see a way around it. The situation seemed to require it.

Finally, she silenced her mind and let her body take over. The ball slipped from her fingers in the way it always did, neither too soon nor too late: only when it was ready to go. But this time, instead of a single clunk, there was a rattle, then a thonk-thonk-roll. She'd missed. Or rather, the ball had gone in momentarily before bouncing back out again. She'd scored - and then lost - all in a split second.

She turned back around and looked at the boy, whom, she noted, had stepped several paces from the spot he'd been in before. He didn't seem surprised by her failure, but neither did he seem disappointed. He wasn't gloating and he wasn't satisfied. He was just...expressionless.

It was at that moment that it dawned on the girl why the basket he held seemed so familiar. She cocked her head, unsure and unwilling to ask what she knew she had to. "Did you..." she faltered. "Is that from...the carnival?"

"The carnival?" he echoed, frowning slightly.

"The basket," she said, pointing at it, noticing that it seemed even smaller than before. "Is it yours, or is it from the midway?" He looked down at what he held in his hands, as if seeing it for the first time. The girl walked to him so she could examine it, too. As she reached him, she gave a start. The basket he held was indeed smaller. In fact, it was so tiny, it probably wouldn't have held even her smallest, most worn down ball. Or it might have, had they jammed it in with force - but then she might never have gotten it back out again. Or worse: they might have broken the basket in their effort.

"Never mind," she said, and gathered up the balls she hadn't yet thrown. "I should probably keep these for now, anyway."

And with that, the girl went home to practice some more.