Chapter 3V

Rex turned to face forward, away from Butch. “I guess that’s what your family does.”

“Must come naturally to you,” said Double-J, not looking up at the rearview mirror. “Praying all the time like that. Must feel natural to you, like eating is for some people, or taking . . . going to the bathroom.”

Butch laughed. “You think I’m just a praying machine? A robot?”

“Pretty much,” said Double-J. Rex turned to him with disapproval, and Butch leaned forward to speak. However, Butch spoke first.

“I pray because I like to pray. Yeah, for a long time I was going through the motions, when I was a kid, I’d recite the prayers because that’s what I was suppossed to do. Didn’t really believe in God when I was a kid, and a couple years back, when I was middle school, I was beginning to wonder how long I’d be able to keep up the charade.

“But then there was this day, we was out on recess, and you know how you had to line up by your class at the end to get back into the school?” Double-J and Rex nodded. “Well, there was this one day, when I was still in fifth grade, and since we was the youngest class we all lined up against the brick wall, the one outside the cafeteria, you know which one I’m talking about right? Well there was this one day, we were all lined up and most of us are leaning against the brick wall, and the older kids are making fun of us like they always did, and I’m just looking down and ignoring them. Then all of a sudden I start thinking, why am I leaning against the wall like this, why are any of us fifth graders out here, why are the older kids yelling at us, why are our teachers here, why is any of us here, what is all of this about? I know, weird stuff for someone who’s ten to think about, but I couldn’t help it, all these thoughts kept coming to me.

“Then, all of a sudden — I don’t know how else to describe it, other than I felt something. It was inside me, deep inside, and although I felt it physically it didn’t seem to have a physical origin. And though I didn’t know what it was, I knew what it meant, and what it meant was — I wasn’t alone, none of us was alone, at least we didn’t have to feel like we were alone if we didn’t want to be lonely. And it was until that moment that I finally believed in God, because that was the only way I could describe what I had just felt. There was something out there, bigger than any of us, and it was saying to me . . . ‘hello.’

“But then one of the older kids threw a rock that almost hit me, and I realized everyone in front of me had started walking, and the teachers and the kids behind me were yelling at me to get moving, so I went into school.”

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Chapter 3U

“So Bernie, what’s the deal with you and Annie,” Double-J asked in the direction of the rearview mirror.

Pause. “What do you mean?”

Double-J laughed.

For the record, Double-J and I never dated, Annie answered Kassandra in the other car. Didn’t you go to a movie with him? If he’s calling that a date then I dated about 50 other people that night. We started talking about movies one night at practice and I said I wanted to see it, then Double-J was like great, I’ll pick you up at 6 on Saturday. And I didn’t know what to say since the whole team heard what he said, so I wound up saying sure only because I didn’t want to be rude. So we went to the movie, and that was it. What did you say to him after the movie? Annie looked up at Coach Dan, who seemed focused on driving, then she leaned over to Kassandra and whispered He invited me up to his apartment. What did you say?

“No,” said Rex, looking back at Butch, “I haven’t seen your father in a while.”

“We’re praying for your family,” said Butch. “Every evening.” Double-J and Bernie visibly pretended not to be listening.

Chapter 3T

Rex stood upright, eyes blinking behind his thick glasses, as Annie released his grip. A moment later he was unwrapping his sandwich in the front seat of Double-J’s copue as it drove down the highway, followed by Coach Dan’s compact.

Hearing Butch and Bernie giggling to each other in the back seat, Rex turned and asked what they found so amusing. “It’s a song we came up with,” said Butch. “Want to hear?”

“Sure,” Rex replied, making a point to turn towards Double-J and catch his pained reaction. Butch hummed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as Bernie sang:

All eyes will be astounded by the flurry of our blades
They will stagger in befuddlement as we disengage
The Academy will falter and Brighton will be amazed
Our foils are thrusting on!

“How nice,” drawled Double-J as Bernie and Butch giggled. “Glad to see you can keep yourselves amused back there.”

“Better than knock-knock jokes,” said Rex.

Pause. “Knock knock,” called Bernie. Double-J punched Rex.

Chapter 3S

Butch walked up to Annie as she rushed out the door, asked if she would mind switching cars. Annie nodded, then called out to Rex as he opened the door to Double-J’s car. She walked up to him, looked around to make sure they were’n’t being directly observed, said, “I got this for you,” and thrust the roast beef sandwich into his hands.

Rex’s lips contorted on his face like a catepillar in pain. To Annie, it looked as though he was trying to smile and frown at the same time.

“Annie, you know I can’t — ”

“Yes you can, and you will. You need to be at your best, it’s a long tournament and you need nourishment.”

“I’ll be OK — ”

“Yes, and you’ll be better after you eat.”

“But –,” and now Annie rose on her toes, grabbed Rex by his coat, pulled him down to her upturned face, and with an expression and voice that clearly stated that this was no longer a converation —

EAT.

THE.

SANDWICH.

Chapter 3R

Annie looked up at the cashier, noticing the two-day beard stubble for the first time. “Yes, the tall ‘fella.'” She reached into her coat pocket for her wallet.

“Ankiel kid, right?”

Annie looked up again, surprised that the cashier knew Rex’s last name. Evidently pleased that he had caught her off guard, he continued, “Been to their trailer a few times, hauling wood. I do some work for the government. They’re on assistance, you know.”

“Yes,” Annie replied. “They’re a very poor family, had a lot of bad luck.”

“His father — ”

“I know about his father.”

The cashier laughed. “How much else you know about the family? Even been to their trailer?” She shook her head. “It’s not right, the way they live.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Rex, or his family,” said Annie. “They’re just poor.”

“Not natural — ”

“They’re POOR, dammit!” she yelled, fist slamming the counter.

She reached for the sandwiches and drinks she had placed at the counter, ready it seemed to return them to their shelves. Yet she paused, making a mental calculation of the remaining distance to the College, the time left until the start of the tournament, and the resulting probability of stopping again.

Coach Dan walked opened the door, a look of concern on his face. “Everything OK?”

Annie nodded forcefully, took out her wallet with hands shaking from fury. Coach Dan looked up at the cashier, who shrugged his shoulders with an exaggerated look of innocence on his face. “We need to get going,” Coach Dan called to Annie, and walked out.

Annie counted out exact change and pushed it across the stained counter to the cashier. “Doesn’t take much to get you going, does it?” he said.

Annie ignored him as she picked up her goods.

The cashier leaned forward across the counter. “That trailer only has two beds, you know?”

She hurried out the door, hitting her knee by accident.

Chapter 3Q

Annie walked with Rex to the line of refrigerated containers at the far end of the store. As Annie opened one of the doors to retrieve a soda, she saw Rex inspecting a shelf of wrapped sandwiches.

“Hungry?” asked Annie. Rex picked up one of the sandwiches, brought it close to his bespectacled eyes. He turned it over to read the price tag, opened his eyes wide and placed it down. “Not any longer,” he replied, and turned to leave.

Annie walked to an aisle that contained potato chips and other snacks. Finding nothing there that appealed to her, she returned to the refrigerated section, inspected the sandwiches as Rex had done. After picking up a ham and cheese on wheat for herself, she noticed one of the other sandwiches had been placed upside down, and after a moment’s thought realized it had been the one Rex had inspected and put back. She grabbed this one, a roast beef on white, as well, and walked to the front counter.

A customer in bright orange hunting garb had just paid when Annie arrived. She placed her items on the counter, and a large, fat-fingered man punched greasy keys on a register.

“Two sandwiches?” said the large man. “For such a little girl like you?”

“One’s for my friend,” said Annie, suspecting her hope that this would end the conversation would most likely be disappointed.

“You mean that tall fella who just walked out?”

Chapter 3P

Are you OK? asked Butch. Kassandra nodded. You don’t look comfotable, said Coach Dan after taking a quick look back at her. Kassandra shook her head. Pause. Do you need to go to the bathroom? asked Coach Dan. She nodded. That’s OK, we’re ahead of schedule, said Coach Dan, as he turned into the gravel parking area next to a roadside convenience store.

“Did they just pull off?” asked Rex, pointing ahead and to his right. Double-J looked, nodded. “I need a pit stop as well,” said Double-J.

Coach Dan turned to the sound of tires scrunching the loose gravel, and smiled as he saw Double-J’s car. “Let’s make this quick, everyone,” he announced.

They entered the convenience store, through a door with a handwritten cardboard sign stating REST ROOM FOR CUSTOMER USED ONLY. To their immediate left as they entered was the main counter, which was populated by an amalgam of newspapers, magazines, candy counters, displays of cigarette lighters, air fresheners, various and sundry other small wares, all arranged with no evident consideration of commercial appeal, like a hastily decorated Christmas tree.

The wooden floor creaked as if in pain under each footfall.

Chapter 3O

“It’s all about the bypass,” said Double-J, right hand rising above the steering wheel.

“Bypass?” asked Rex. “You mean that project they’ve been talking about for a few decades?”

“Exactly. Old man Leavitt’s in the back pocket of the Chamber of Commerce, he’s done a good job blocking the project from being funded, which is why her father’s running against him,” Double-J said, thumbing past his shoulder in Annie’s direction. “The minute he’s elected, boom, the Department of Transportation finally gets their money for the bypass. Of course, they’ll need land to build it, and guess where that will come from?”

“My father’s always fought the bypass, just like Leavitt,” replied Annie, leaning forward in her seat.

Bernie cleared his throat. “And . . . and aren’t there laws against politicians writing legislation that benefit them financially?”

“Exactly!” Annie exclaimed, nudging Bernie hard in the side. Rex also turned to him with an appreciative nod.

Double-J muttered something about holding companies, then turned his attention back to the road.

Chapter 3N

“Who said anything about selling land?” snapped Annie.

Double-J shook his head dismissively, like a tennis player letting a hard return from his opponent sail out of bounds. “Please. Everyone knows what’s going on, Hutchinson. Right, Ankiel?”

Rex stoicly turned his gaze away from Double-J, who, seeing that he wasn’t going to get an answer, looked up in his rearview at Bernie’s reflection. “Scott? You’ve got this one figured out, right?”

Bernie looked at Double-J, then Rex, who seemed intent on ignoring this part of the conversation, and finally Annie, whose eyes simmered with indignation.

“I . . . don’t know — ”

“OK, I’ll be the one to spell it out for you,” Double-J said, his voice rising in the manner of an evangelical preacher as he spoke. “The Hutchinsons own all this land outside of town, along the state route — we’re talking hundreds of acres. Developers have been after them to parcel it out, sell it for retail and housing developments, but they’ve always said no. Am I not right?” he said, looking for an amen.

Annie nodded silently. “Oh, your family talks about how they’re conservationists and all, want to protect the–” and now Double-J spoke with an affected accent, rolling his eyes up “–beauty of the area — but that’s not their true game.”

Chapter 3M

Rex shook his head, thanked Annie but said he couldn’t accept her invitation to practice in Gabin’s gym, didn’t know anyone who could give him a ride home, “I live pretty far out you know.” Double-J offered a quarter-turn of his head and a smirk which gave the impression that her invitation was as appealing to him as the prospect of having dinner with an unpleasant relative.

Annie turned to Bernie, and while she had no idea what his reaction would be, she certainly had not anticipated to see the anxiety on his face. He composed himself, shrugged, and said, “we’ll see.”

Annie knows how to take care of herself, Coach Dan said to Butch and Kassandra as he drove them in the other car. She’s a Hutchinson, after all. Her family’s always been successful. Achievement is in their blood. Butch asked, Isn’t her father running for office, and Coach Dan said well that’s the rumor, he’ll be in the state senate election in the spring.

“So tell me,” said Double-J, his grin now playful as he looked up at Annie’s reflection in the rearview mirror, “how long will it take your family to sell that land once your old man gets elected?”