Chapter 4.2W

Bernie’s hands pressed into the uneven surface of the foam pit, his arms holding his body above Annie’s. And then he lowered his mody, aiming his mouth in the direction of Annie’s, which arched up at the last second to meet his, their open lips meeting hungrily, each of their mouths acting with the force of a vacuum to draw the other in.

His kiss was strong, awkward, Bernie nearly drawing back as soon as he made impact, like a skydiver helplessly flailing to jump back into the plane. Sensing his panic, Annie threw her arms around him, pulled him close, down upon her body.


Chapter 4.2X

Annie stood in place, rocking back between her front and back legs as if her body was energized, like a motorized children’s ride (in the shape of a horse, or car) outside a grocery store, humming back and forth, stationary yet active. Opposite her stood Bernie, feet planted squarely on the tiled floor.

A long moment passed, until Carl Hutchinson pointed his silver hair in Bernie’s direction and said, “I think she’s waiting for you to make a move.”

Chapter 4.2W

Bernie returned to his starting position, turned to face Annie, already turned in his direction, knees bent and weapon arm extended in en garde position. Not waiting for Coach Dan’s pronouncement to begin, Annie advanced, one step, two. Bernie retreated, Annie responding by twitching her head inquisitively. She stopped, relaxed her shoulders, stared straight at Bernie, standing uncertainly.

Chapter 4.2V

Bernie saw she was waiting for his next move.

“Ready,” Bernie replied as he pulled the fencing mask down over his head, his face now hidden from Annie’s view behind the gray steel mesh. He crouched down into en garde position across from her in the dining room, the illumination brilliant both from the lights above and the reflection of those lights against the polished floor tiles.

Coach Dan, engaged in the act of eating an Italian ice, motioned for Annie and Bernie to begin fencing. Annie stepped forward aggressively, as was her custom, as she had done in her exhibition bouts with Kassandra and Butch earlier that evening. Bernie stepped forward as well, lunging suddenly, the blade of his foil arching towards Annie — and missed, the tip flying past Annie’s left shoulder, as if he were aiming for someone who was approaching her from behind.

Annie turned her hand over, the radius rotating over the ulna, and her blade clinked lightly against Bernie’s, pushing it even further off its intended target. Radius then rolling back over the ulna, her weapon now in line with Bernie’s body, she extended her arm, the point of her foil landing in the middle of Bernie’s chest.

Bernie swore, then his body jerked as if awakened. He turned to Carl Hutchinson, established what eye contact he could muster behind his mask, and apologized.

“No worries,” Carl Hutchinson replied under his silver hair. “It shows you’re passionate for success, which is an admirable quality.”

Chapter 4.2U

Bernie fell into the pit next to Annie, quickly rose his head in time to see her scurry away, hide in the foam blocks.

Woman no escape Bernie yelled, his knees knuckling himself forward across the uneven surface as he cast foam blocks aside. His senses now alert, he noticed the torn and jagged edges of the blocks, their colors faded from years of sunlight and impact, and also caught an uncomfortable miasma of odors, dust mingling with musty dried sweat, the lingering memory of oil changes, and the acrid stench of urine.

Bernie kneeded into a pocket of loose foam that instantly collapsed, sending him face-forward into the pit. Hearing Annie’s laugther, he attempted to sit upright, lurched sideways into the pit, yelled Dammit!, finally regained his balance and looked around. He did not see Annie anywhere, detected no movement in the pit either.

Woman? he called.

He heard Annie giggle behind him, followed by a flumpf of foam, Bernie turning toward the sounds just in time for a foam block to hit him square in the face.

She was close enough to him for Bernie to catch up with her before she could dive down into th the foam blocks. She laughed a scream as he caught her around the waist, yelled WOMAN!, pulld her towards him while rotating her body upwards.

They both laughed as they looked at each other, Bernie suddenly thrusting his body on top of hers. He gave another loud Tarzan yell, and noticed that Annie had stopped laughing. She was smiling, looking up at him expectantly. Bernie stopped laughing. Her smile became more gentle, her gaze more focused. Bernie saw she was waiting for his next move.

Chapter 4.2T

Annie sat up awkwardly in the foam pit, her weight shifting quickly in the uneven surface, called to Bernie, Jump in.

Bernie walked over to the side of the pit, a wry grin on his face.

Annie threw a foam block at Bernie, who ducked, watched it fly past his head as he called Hey!, then turned to receive a foam brick in the face.

Whoa, Annie called, having lost her balance. She looked up at Bernie, saw he was frozen in concentration, a look she had seen before, earlier that fall, when Coach Dan had asked him whether he wanted to try epee. She remembered Bernie eventually saying something like I do and I don’t, and Coach Dan replying that it didn’t matter, he could decide some other time.

Annie waited for Bernie’s contemplative freeze to thaw. She saw him blink, make eye contact with her again. She threw a foam ball the size of her fist, called out, You’re cute when you’re indecisive.

Bernie raised his arms quickly, snatched the ball, tossed it back at Annie, and with a hyperbolic Tarzan yell AWWW-AW-AW leapt into the foam pit at Annie, who shrieked in mock alarm.

Chapter 4.2S

Let me show you Annie said, dropping her fencing bag and rushing over to the balance beam, her pony-tail prancing behind her. With her strong hands she grabbed the top of the beam towards the end furthest from the foam pit, pulled her body up, legs spidering onto the beam and then pushing her towards the ceiling, Bernie’s eyes following her every movement as her slim and powerful frame now stood on the narrow beam, erect.

You don’t have to do this Bernie said.

Annie waved her hand across her body dismissively, I’ve done this hundreds of times. She extended her right leg pointedly forward across the beam, then raised her arms up from her sides, the backs of her hands nearly touching above her head, a smile on her face for invisible judges. Bringing her arms down and her legs together, she looked down at the beam in front of her, the smile giving way to a look of focused determnination. She sprinted forward across the beam one step, two, three, then leapt up and forward, body twisting sideways in mid-air, arms reaching up then coming down from the apex of her leap, hands grasping the beam and sending a puff of powder visible even in the late afternoon dusk, hips propelling her legs over body which now circled swiftly in a tight cartwheel, the legs swinging over past the end of the beam, hands releasing to follow her momentum as it carried her over, down, into the foam pit, the landing flumpf nearly obscured by the melodious ring of Annie’s giggle.

Chapter 4.2R

Bernie pointed to what was clearly a large rectangular hole in the floor, exercise mats aligned at all edges. Three sides of the rectangular opened into the gym, the fourth running along the edge of an exterior wall facing the street. The hole was filled with padding, of irregular shape and color, small yellow squares mixed with long white rectangles, the occassional cylindrical shape, some of the pads clearly torn from larger pieces, some discolored, others pristine in condition and appearance.

It looks like a bomb went off in a pillow factory, said Bernie.

This used to be garage, said Annie. Bernie looked up at the wall that lined the far end of the opening, and saw that it was a large garaage door. Pointing down at the hole, Annie said, This was an oil change pit. Gabin went all around the city before this place opened, collected every bit of foam she could gather, threw it in here. We use it as a landing pit — the kids love jumping into it.

Smart lady said Bernie, with sincere emphasis.

Sometimes I dismount off the balance beam into there, said Annie. Not with a foil, of course.

Chapter 4.2Q

Bernie cleared his throat, said Well, I’m glad to know that I provide such an important role on the team. But like I was trying to say, Tuesday was my mother’s birthday, and my father and I took her out to dinner, so that’s why I wasn’t at practice.

You didn’t say anything to Coach the week before, or at the tournament, replied Annie, pony-tail remaining stationary.

It was a surprise. My father didn’t tell me about it until I got home from school.

Annie blinked once, twice, and replied as her pony-tail bounced, Fencing practice is right after school. If your father told you in the morning, you could have told Coach Dan, or one of us, during the day. If he told you in the evening, you’d have no reason to skip practice.

Annie paused, waited for Bernie’s reply. He smiled, said OK, it was a rough tournament Saturday, I needed a break.

But —

Bernie held up a hand. I’ll be at practice next week. Promise.

Annie sighed in the awkward air. Bernie broke eye contact with Annie, began looking around the room. What’s that? he asked, pointing to an area to his right, just off the end of the balance beam on which Annie had just been practicing.

Chapter 4.2P

Annie stood, pulling her feet together on the balance beam, turned to Bernie. You weren’t at practice yesterday.

Bernie nodded, his head looking in the gray winter dimness like a red and white fishing bouy bobbing on dark waves.

Tough tournament on Saturday, Annie said, eliciting more nods.

I’m not letting you quit the fencing team, Annie said.

Bernie looked up at her. Who said I was quitting?

Annie jumped down from the balance beam, her feet landing with practiced elegance on the matted floor. She placed her foil next to a long, narrow canvas bag, Bernie noticing it for the first time. You finally bought your own equipment?

Yes, she replied, walking towards him. We need you at practice on Tuesdays.

I’m sorry, it’s just —

I miss you.

Bernie stared at her, too surprised by her last statement to respond. He examined her face in the dusky light, saw that her gray face was not pleading with him, was not in any way begging him to return to practice. She was looking at him with an emotionless expression, the face of an attorney during cross-examination, a look that demanded a response and would patiently until it was provided.

All Bernie could think of doing was to reply honestly. I don’t understand.

I need everyone on the team, she said. Rex inspires me, Double-J kicks me in the ass, teaching Kassandra and Butch keeps me focused. You — you probably do the most important thing. You know what that is?

Annie continued before Bernie could finish shaking his head. You make me smile (Bernie noticed she said this without smiling). No matter what happens, you always say something that lightens the mood at practice. I’m not the only one you affect — Butch would probably have quit the team by now if you weren’t there, Kassandra maybe as well. Rex was asking about you, Coach Dan too, not as a coach or teacher, more like an older brother.

Double-J? asked Bernie.

Annie smiled. Nobody should care what Double-J has to say about anyone.