It's surprising how loud a quick inhale can sound, when it's made by every single kid in the playground at the exact same moment. Actually, every kid except three: (1) Todd Raskin just kept dribbling his basketball, staring at Josie with such disbelief that he wasn't even angry yet. (2) Josie stood directly in front of Todd, staring up at him with her hands balled into fists and resting on either hip as though she weren't in the least bit scared. (3) I was cringing behind the jungle-gym. "Cringing" is what Ms. Dopplemeyer told us the Souls of the Damned would do on Judgement Day -- basically the opposite of what Josie was doing.
"You talkin' to me?" Todd said in a strange voice, as though he was imitating someone from a movie. "There's no one else here, so I guess you must be."
"There's plenty of other people here," said Josie.
Todd didn't know what to say to this. He bounced his basketball a few times. Finally he said, "You talkin' to me?" again, but with less conviction.
Josie answered especially slowly, as though she were talking to someone who took the Special Bus. "Yes... Todd... I'm... talking... to... you..."
Todd kept bouncing his basketball, but he was starting to look angry. Amanda made a little gasping noise which meant she was holding her breath in excitement, which I noticed she always did right before Todd hit anyone.
"I hear you've got my friend's sketchbook." Josie said.
Todd laughed and produced my sketchbook from his back pocket. "This thing? I don't see her name on it."
Actually, it had my name on it in huge red letters. "Darla Whipp -- If found please return or be cast into the Extremely Uncomfortable Cauldron of Absolution for all eternity, and also possibly get in deep trouble."
"That's her name right there." Josie pointed out. "Are you in the slow class?"
Todd tossed the basketball to Bobby Droober and wound up to punch Josie right in the face. "Hold it!" said Josie. "I've got a challenge for you -- unless you're chicken."
Todd's fist hung in the air, not striking but not uncurling, either. "What kind of challenge?"
"You and me, one-on-one basketball. If I win, you give Darla the sketchbook back."
This made Todd lower his fist -- he needed the free hand to brace himself against the basketball pole, so he wouldn't fall over with laughter.
"If you win! If you win!" Todd wiped a tear of laughter from his eye and stood up again. "Kid, you've got spunk." Then he narrowed his eyes, like a sixth-grader trying to look like Clint Eastwood. "And what happens when I win?" he asked menacingly.
"You win, you can have my skateboard."
A murmur of approval rippled through the playground. Josie was already notorious for arriving that morning not by foot or on a schoolbus but by riding her skateboard. Her board was beat-up but sturdy-looking, and I could tell Todd was already imagining how it would look if the daisy were scraped off and replaced with a skull.
"Deal," said Todd, and they shook hands.
"Good," Josie said, motioning for Bobby Droober to toss her the ball. "Now, I assume you know how to play Engaño?"
Todd narrowed his eyes. "What? I thought we were going to play regular B-ball?"
"Well, we can do this the backwater way if you want, but in Spanish Harlem a duel of honor is always solved with a game of Engaño." The crowd starting murmuring again. Nobody had known Josie was from Harlem, where a lot of the best basketball players were from. Also, "duel of honor" sounded a lot cooler than "regular B-ball."
Todd looked around to see what all the other kids thought, but they were all waiting for the same thing.
"You do know how to play Engaño, right?" Josie asked in a tone of voice suggesting that if Todd didn't know, he was admitting he was a loser.
"Of course I know how to play Engaño!" Todd stammered. "But... maybe you'd better say the rules out loud, so everyone else knows."
Josie met my eyes, just for a second, and winked.
"Okay, as you know, every time you miss a basket, you get a letter. But every time you sink a basket, you get to go again. The first person to spell Engaño, E-N-G-A-Ñ-O, loses." Josie threw Todd the basketball. "I challenged, so you get to go first."
Todd grabbed the ball from the air, spun around, and expertly tossed it into the basket. Then he bowed, and all the other kids clapped.
"Good shot," said Josie, throwing him the ball. "You get to go again."
Todd sunk nine baskets in a row before his first miss.
"Not bad," said Josie. "Not you've got the letter 'E', and it's my turn."
Josie waltzed up to the penalty line and made the worst shot anyone had ever seen. It didn't even hit the backboard. Everyone burst out laughing, but Josie didn't look the slightest bit upset.
"Guess we've both got an 'E'," she said. "Your turn."
Todd smiled confidently. This time he got twelve baskets in a row, before missing a shot to earn the letter "N."
"Looks like I'm going to win." He smiled, handing the ball to Josie.
"To some people," Josie answered, smiling back. She dribbled, looked up at the basket, and threw another terrible shot. She look as if she didn't even care if it went in or not.
"Tied at 'N'!" She shouted happily. "Your shot!"
Bobby Droober ran up and whispered something in Todd's ear. Todd frowned and looked over at Josie.
"Hey, I think you're cheating!"
"I missed twice and got two letters, right?" Josie asked. Todd was frowning, but he didn't say anything. "And you missed twice and have two letters. How is that cheating?"
Todd dribbled a few times before answering. "I think the game is cheating."
Josie looked innocent. "The game? I thought you said you've played before?"
Todd looked around at all the other kids.
"Are you sure you've played before?" Josie asked sweetly.
"Just toss me the ball, Jerk," Todd snarled. He got twenty-seven baskets in a row, the longest unbroken record anyone in Forest Hill had ever gotten. Then he missed a shot, and got a "G." Within a few minutes he also had an "A" and an "Ñ," even Josie still hadn't gotten the ball through the hoop once.
"ENGAÑ," Josie said, spelling out each letter. "Looks like this is the big one," she smiled. She handed Todd the ball like she was his best friend in the whole world. "Good luck."
Todd took the ball like it was a dead cat. He looked like he was thinking about hitting somebody.
"Unless you're chicken," Josie said.
Todd dribbled the ball twice, spit, and threw a total rimshot. Josie won the duel of honor without making a single basket.
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