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.