ELEANOR and Bubba were bouncing a basketball between them on the stoop in front of their apartment building, waiting for an idea to come racing around the corner, like the neighborhood's tots on their bicycles. The afternoon was hot enough to make you sweat. Noisy traffic went by on the street. The first smells of dinner being cooked floated out of people's windows.
Eleanor's stomach growled. "I'm hungry," she said.
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
"Never mind that," Bubba said. "If we don't come up with something soon, it'll be too late. So think."
The trouble was that Eleanor had been thinking - hard. Where could they go to practice their shots, play one-on-one, or get into a game already under way? Not at the outdoor courts at the middle school where she and Bubba were sixth graders. Not at Mercy Park. Not behind Freeze's store. Not at the baskets next to the movie theater. Not way over on L Street, a place they rarely went because of all the street repairs.
They'd been everywhere with no success. The courts were occupied, mostly by bigger kids who wouldn't let them play, or were already too full of kids like themselves waiting for a game, or were unusable for some reason. The basket at Freeze's was missing its rim. The lines on the park's single court were being repainted. "Come back tomorrow!" a man had shouted.
No way - tomorrow was too late for a couple of kids who ate, drank, slept, dreamed, talked, argued, and basically lived for basketball. Not to play meant missing a day's worth of practice. Missing practice meant not getting better at something they loved to do. Not getting better was out of the question.
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
"Hey!" Eleanor finally exclaimed, loud enough to knock the ball from Bubba's hands. It rolled down the sidewalk and he had to run after it, between people's legs and baby carriages.
Eleanor was right behind him.
"You got something?" Bubba wondered. His face looked hopeful.
"Think I do," Eleanor said excitedly. "Remember when I got sent to the principal's office for dribbling my ball in the hallways? Well, while I was there I heard one of the gym teachers say the firemen over on Third Avenue set up a portable basket with a net and everything. It's mostly for kids: first come, first served.
Bubba let out a whistle. "You never told me that."
"Well, what're we waiting for?"
To get to Third Avenue you had to cut through the park, pass a long line of taxis parked in front of the newest skyscraper-hotel in town, make your way down several side streets, jump a fence if you wanted to shortcut, zigzag between double-parked cars, and, being extra careful, cross two busy thoroughfares.
Eleanor and Bubba knew the way by heart.
"There's the station!" they both said at once.
"Where's the court?" Bubba wanted to know.
"Behind, I think, " Eleanor told him.
It was, but there was a problem: The court looked like a lake. Nearby, water was gushing out of a hydrant, while a young fireman watched. He saw the basketball under Bubba's arm.
"Sorry, kids," he said. "Needed to run off some water, make sure the pumps are working. Should be dry by morning."
More waiting - oh, no!
"Now what?" Bubba said with dismay.
"Might as well go home."
"Guess so. No, wait!"
Now it was Eleanor's turn to look hopeful.
Bubba shook his head, "I'm so dumb!"
"Right," Eleanor said with a laugh. "So tell me."
"It's my Uncle Will," Bubba explained. "He's a science teacher at the high school. It's his first year."
Eleanor said, "You mean Central? That's only a couple of streets over. The outdoor courts'll be closed this late. You think he'll be there and let us use the gym?"
Bubba thought it'd be worth a try. "What've we got to lose?" he said.
Bounce, bounce, bounce. They ran all the way.
Eleanor was right: The outdoor courts were fenced off. Imagine, perfectly good courts that no one was allowed to use once school let out. She and Bubba almost never came over this way. Besides, it was pretty far from home.
There were three or four cars in the parking lot, but the building looked closed up tight. All the lights were off. "Are any of those cars your uncle's?" Eleanor asked.
Bubba scratched his chin. "I don't think he owns a car," he said.
Quickly the two friends went all around the school looking for a way to get inside, but no doors were open. In fact, they were chained shut.
"Guess not," Bubba said.
"Let's try that last one," said Eleanor, "over by the dumpster."
Bubba hadn't even seen it. "OK."
And sure enough, their persistence paid off. One pull and the door opened. Just like that. Cool air and the smell of cleaning liquid came zooming out.
Eleanor and Bubba did a little dance.
"Let's find your uncle's classroom," she suggested.
"It's upstairs this way," Bubba told her. "He brought me here once to show me what it's going to be like for us in a few years. You won't believe how big the classrooms are and all the equipment they have. Test tubes and machines, globes and maps. A whole wall of microscopes. And the gym...."
Eleanor cut in, "I know the gym, Bubba. Remember? We've been over here a million times to watch the team."
"Oh, yeah. Forgot."
She gave him a funny look.
They went to the top of the stairs and through some double doors, and then they stopped. Facing them was a long, dark hallway. The shades on the windows were down, but just enough late-afternoon light came in at the bottom to show the way.
There wasn't a sound, not on this floor. In fact, not anywhere in the building. Their whispers were echoes.
"Er, Bubba," Eleanor said. "Maybe coming here so late wasn't such a good idea. It's sorta creepy. What if we get locked in?"
Bubba gulped. "No," he said softly. "There are cars in the lot. Some people are still here, and my uncle works late. Mom says so. Come on, it's Room 250."
They found it easily enough - locked. Empty.
"You think we can use the gym anyway?" Eleanor asked.
Bubba thought not.
"We'd get in trouble," he said. "My uncle too. If they don't want anyone using the outdoor courts, they sure don't want anyone inside. Besides, we wouldn't even know how to turn on the lights. We better go."
"Guess so," Eleanor said with disappointment.
Just then there was a loud bang, metal on metal.
Eleanor and Bubba's mouths dropped open.
"The door!" they both shouted.
Down the stairs they ran, three at a time, but they were too late. The door they'd come in was locked, and the handle wouldn't turn. Not only that but the parking lot was now empty. Everyone had gone home.
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
"Now what?" Eleanor wanted to know.
"You tell me," Bubba said.
"There must be another way out."
"Right. Let's find it."
But there wasn't. All the doors except the one they'd come in were chained shut. As for the windows - weird little gadgets on every one made them impossible to open - not without breaking them, which was something they didn't want to do.
So they sat down on the steps to think.
"Too bad the office is locked or we could call home," Bubba said. "Mom could call my uncle and he could come let us out. We'd be in lots of trouble, but at least we'd be outa here. Safe at home, eating our dinner."
"I'll be grounded forever," Eleanor said with dismay.
"Wait!" Bubba shouted. "The gym!"
"What about it?"
"There's a pay phone down there. We've used it." He began to fish through his pockets. "Got any coins?"
Fortunately, Eleanor did.
"Way to go, Ellie!" Even in the near dark it was easy to find the gym and the phone. Eleanor gave a quarter to Bubba, who was about to put it into the slot when she stopped him. "Listen!"
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
The sound was unmistakable - someone was dribbling a ball. No doubt a basketball. No doubt in the gym. No doubt right on the other side of this door.
The two friends' faces lit up like a scoreboard.
"Couldn't be," Bubba said.
"Could," Eleanor said.
"But he's a scientist."
"So? You like science, too."
"Let's open the door and find out."
Bubba opened the door to the gym.
"Hi, kids," Uncle Will said. He was wearing a backwards baseball hat, Boston Celtics' T-shirt and shorts, and black high-top sneakers. "What brings you here?"
"Guess," Eleanor and Bubba said at once.
Everyone laughed. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.