Return of Miles 1V

Miles thrust his mask over his head, the cold grey metal muffling his ongoing chuckle. Double-J took the director’s position, to the side of the makeshift strip’s center. His arms hung down his sides.

“You guys ready?” Double-J followed his disinterested question with a quick glance at Annie, then Miles. It was not the behavior of a proper fencing director, but all too characteristic of the burly teen. “Fence,” he commanded, with the enthusiasm of an underpaid gym teacher.

Annie took two quick steps forward, planting her feet as she gained the center of the strip. She had planned this move before the boutnbegan, having noticed in the earlier bouts how eagerly Miles had competed for the center, just as he had the two years before, when the three-sport star of Bark Bay High School “played at fencing” as he called it.

Played. Prior to today Annie hadn’t attached any significance to Miles’ word choice. But this was a new year, and Miles was no longer the fencing team captain, he was at State, was only visiting this afternoon. No, not visiting, returning, acting as if he had never left, looking to play a little bit more before returning to State.

Play? Annie did not play at fencing. She fenced. In the month since the team had started practicing again that fall, she had learned that the passion she had felt at the end of spring had not abated, had grown even. It was not like the other activities she had pursued as a girl, even though the balance she had learned in ballet, the body control she had learned from gymnastics, the focus she had learned from taekwondo — all that training now seemed like preparation for what she was doing now.

I’m not playing, she thought, with an intensity that caused her to mouth the words silently. I’m here to compete. She allowed herself to smile, seeing Miles jerk his head in surprise as he saw Annie pounce upon the center of the strip, waiting for him to react.

Return of Miles 1U

HALT. The team recognized the sound that bounced off the tiled floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, knew it came from Coach Dan, yet they also knew he was using a voice the team did not often hear. It was the voice of his father, the surgeon who demanded his house be run as orderly as his operating room; of Rabbi Epstein, whose patient insistence deserved much of the credit for Danny Jacobs being able to not just read but chant the haftorah during his bar mitzvah; of his bear of a college fencing coach, Josef, you want play go gym, you want fence, shut up, you listen. The team knew it was not a voice he was comfortable using, but they also knew that, like a welder putting on a bulky blast mask before lighting his torch, it was a voice he was not afraid to use.

“Is there a problem over here?” Coach Dan was walking away from the younger fencers, who watched him with eyes filled with apprehension, towards the teens gathered around the makeshift practice strip.

Miles took off his mask, opened his arms wide towards Coach Dan as he smiled cloyingly. “So sorry to disrupt your drilling, Coach. Annie and I were just having a little disagreement over the proper etiquette for practice bouts.”

“He didn’t salute.” Annie still had her mask on, but the outline of her clenching jaw was visible behind the opaque gray metal.

Coach Dan turned towards Miles, impatience spawning on his face with each step he took. “Did you salute?” Miles nodded. “Eventually.” Miles winced at Annie’s one-word response.

Coach Dan waved his hands over his head. “OK, you’ve saluted. You need me to explain anything else? I know you haven’t been fencing at college, but you remember what to do when somebody says en garde?”

Miles nodded, then shook his head as he turned away, walked to his starting line. Coach Dan turned to Annie, made contact with the shadow of her eyes behind the mask. When she nodded, Coach Dan turned, walk back towards his group.

Return of Miles 1T

Annie picked up her fencing mask, stood behind one of the borders between black and white tiles that functioned as a starting line for the Bark Bay High School fencing team. She faced Miles, who stood off to the side of the improvised strip, talking in animated tones to Rex and Double-J.

Noticing that Annie was ready to begin their bout, Miles tugged his mask over his head, walked briskly to his starting position, turned to Annie. Who looked back at him with displeasure.

“You forgot to salute.” Miles shrugged in response. Annie’s displeasure grew visibly, and vocally. “Salute!”

Miles chuckled behind the gray metal of mask. “All right then.” He stood upright, bringing his feet together. Raised his foil to his mask, until the bell guard clicked against the metal.

“No!” Annie stomped her front foot. “Mask off for saluting!”

“Oh please.” Miles continued chuckling as he pulled the mask off his head. “This isn’t a duel, little girl. Do you really feel it necessary to confirm my identity?” He brought the bell guard up to his chin, then brought it down swiftly in front of him with a loud swoosh.

“No, I don’t need to confirm who you are.” Annie returned his salute, with an even louder swoosh. “As a matter of fact, I don’t really care who you are. But what I do care about is you respecting this sport.”

Respect?” Miles sound genuinely offended. “Is that what you’re so concerned about, little girl?”

“Yes.” Annie quickly pulled her mask over her head, leaned in Miles’ direction. “Boy.”

Return of Miles 1S

Rex replaced Double-J on strip, Miles turning down Annie’s offer to double up. Having seen how labored his breathing had been at the conclusion of his previous match, Annie was certain Miles would wilt in his second bout. Yet he instead seemed to gain strength as his bout with Rex progressed. This was also something she remembered seeing in Miles, the way his energy would increase when he advanced in each round of his DEs. His opponents’ shoulders were stooped from exhaustion, yet he would stand tall, confident, ready to exploit his advantage.

Rex scored the first touch, Miles missing on a riposte and being hit on the remise. Miles probed a few attacks, Annie recognizing that he was more interested in observing Rex’ reaction than in scoring touches. Rex parried, riposted — Miles counter-parried, his riposte landing. Miles pressed the attack, lunging this time with intent, scored two more touches. When Rex finally parried and scored on a riposte, Miles changed his strategy, waited for his opponent to commit himself. Rex searched for a weakness, but finding none, lost the bout, 5-2.

Miles was ebullient when he shook Rex’ hand after the bout. “I’m feeling it, man, I’m feeling it!” He hardly seemed out of breath, as he turned to Annie and motioned for her to take Rex’ place. This time, she didn’t even bother to ask if he’d like a break.

Return of Miles 1R

The bout continued, Double-J blasting past Miles’ weak parry for a touch, then catching Miles in a bind and jabbing to score a second. The short, burly teen lunged again at the athletic college student, counter-parried Miles’ riposte, disengaged his blade under his opponent’s, thrust, the tip landing, the foil bending in a crisp arc.

Rex called a halt, asked Miles where he was hit. Miles pointed to the outside of his shoulder. “Right on the edge. Not sure if it was on or off, but what the hell, give it to him.”

“It was off.” Miles and Rex turned at Double-J’s terse statement. “You don’t need to give me anything. I either take it, or I don’t.”

Miles shook his head, laughter coming from behind the gray metal face of his mask. “Have it your way, pal. Off-target.”

Rex called for the bout to resume. Double-J advanced agressively once more, but this time Miles seemed ready, his parry this time sharp quick strong, the riposte immediate and true. Miles pumped his left fist — “THAT’S more like it!”

Annie nodded, suppressed a smile. This was the Miles she remembered from last year, confident and quick. As his bout with Double-J progressed he continued regaining his old form, his muscles seeming to remember the movements that had made Miles a three-weapon competitor, nearly a state champion in last year’s tournament. Sensing his opponent’s growing prowess and confidence, Double-J pushed himself to attack stronger, faster, but found Miles more than ready for the challenge. Minutes later, after Miles landed a touch under Double-J’s weapon arm, Rex called the bout in Miles’ favor, 5 – 3.

Miles and Double-J saluted, shook hands. “Thank — ” Miles swallowed, caught his breath — “thank — you.” Annie didn’t remember Miles ever being this out of breath. Even after competing in multple weapons at a tournament, his breathing had always seemed controlled.

Return of Miles 1Q

Coach Dan stood facing the three teens, then bent at the knees, his body crouching down into en garde position. The teens mimicked his stance, and when he called for them to advance while stepping backward, they stepped forward in unison, like metal being drawn in by a magnet’s pull.

Coach Dan took a quick glance off to his left, saw Miles and Double-J, both fully equipped, facing each other in a foil bout (Double-J agreed to do foil? That’s a change.), Rex standing off to the side to direct the bout, Annie near to Rex, arms folded across her chest, the pensive look on her face visible even from a distance. Coach Dan returned his focus to the footwork drill he was conducting, ignored the clatter of the bout.

Rex called Halt, followed by a curse shot from Double-J. “This is why I don’t do POINT WEAPONS!”

“I’d have had you too if this was sabre.” Miles tone was aloof, as if he felt obliged to provide the information he was given, yet took no real pleasure or interest from it. “You drew your arm back before you lunged. Foil, sabre, I could see it coming, know what parry I want to use before you even begin your attack. Point weapons aren’t your problem, pal, it’s right-of-way weapons.”

Double-J scoffed. “If you’re trying to sell me on epee, I’m not buying.”

Rex stepped between the fencers. “Is this a bout or a debate? Score’s 1,” pointing to Miles, “zero,” pointing to Double-J. “Back to start, please.”

Return of Miles 1P

Coach Dan led Bernie, Butch, and Kassie to the far end of the cafeteria, near the short wall at the front of the stage. He motioned to a line formed at the border of white and black tiles, the brusqueness he had just displayed to Annie now evaporated under the warmth of his genial, bearded smile.

Butch nudged Bernie on the shoulder as Coach Dan positioned himself in front of the three teens. “Is Miles always like that?”

Bernie shrugged. “He never talked to me, much. Spent his time with the other seniors.”

Kassie asked Bernie if he tried talking to Miles. “What would I talk to him about?” Fencing? Bernie scoffed. “Miles doesn’t talk with you about fencing. He talks to you. So long as you come to him with the right attitude, he’ll talk to you.”

Kassie smiled. Said it sounded like you actually needed to come to him with the right preposition.

Coach Dan turned to her, in happy amazement. “Was that — a joke?”

Yes, Kassie replied.

“Told you!” Annie’s voice called from the middle of the cafeteria. “Kaz has a great sense of humor. You just need to listen to her.”

Coach Dan nodded at Kassie. “If you continue to be so clever, it’ll be worth the effort to pick out your voice from the crowd — my friend.”

The slender teen smiled, looked down at the tiled floor bashfully.

Return of Miles 1O

“Whenever I see more talking than fencing, I know it’s time for a change of pace.” Coach Dan walked over and placed his right hand gently on Kassie’s left shoulder. “Kassie, I’d like you and Butch to come over with me, do some footwork drills.” He could feel the teen’s slender shoulders relax as he spoke.  “Bernie, care to give me a hand with these two.”

“Yes!” Bernie replied with unnecessary exuberance.

“Great.” Coach Dan turned to Miles. “Looks like you’re eager to get in some bouts. You, Double-J, Rex, Annie — ” he pointed to each as he spoke their names — “take the center strip.” The cafeteria was not actually taped with fencing strips, but the evenly shaped and spaced rectangular islands of white tile in the black tiled sea of the floor formed a near enough approximation (at least for the sake of practice) of six fencing strips.

Annie raised her hand. “Coach, what do we do for judges?”

Coach Dan’s reply was uncharacteristically brusque. “You’re smart — figure it out. Have a director and no judges, I don’t know.”

Miles laughed again. “Still no room in the budget for electrical equipment? I’m sure the Academy would give us a good deal on their second-hand stuff.”

Coach Dan had already begun walking away, the three teens he had summoned scurrying in front of him as he called over his shoulder. “I think you already know the answer to that question, my friend.”

But Miles was not finished. “I’m just surprised you don’t put up a bigger fight, with the Big Stew.” Stewart Higgins was Bark Bay’s assistant principal, and de facto athletic director. “I mean, if you really want this team to be a success — ”

“We all do what we can, Miles.” Coach Dan’s voice trailed off as he continued walking away.

Return of Miles 1N

Butch walked back to the end of the line, leaving Kassie at the front of the line. But instead” of advancing she stood, arms straight down her sides, her fencing mask dropping from her head as if it were about to fall off.

“You’re next.” Miles statement was as much a command as a statement of fact. Kassie took a step back, almost backing into Annie, who put a gentle hand on the slender girl’s back.

Miles lowered his arms, tilted his head playfully. “Oh puh-leeze. You’re not supposed to retreat, it’s against the rules!”

Kassie replied that she didn’t know what to do.

Miles swept his foil in front of him, swoosh. “You’re supposed to fence, darling. That is why you’re here, isn’t it.”

Kassie shook her head.

“What?” Miles’ voice cracked through the air, Annie recognizing the tone from last year. Miles had a term, a combination of disgust and confusion, he called it confustion. His voice was filled with confustion as he spoke to Kassie. “So why are you here, darling? Looking for a date?”

Annie stepped forward. “Miles — ”

He swept his arms open. “I’m available, you know.”

Coach Dan stepped forward, but Kassie replied before her coach could speak. She said he couldn’t find what it was he was looking for, not here.

Every member of the Bark Bay High School fencing team turned to Kassie, their eyes filled with questions.

“Really now?” Miles’ confustion grew along with his volume. “And what is it, exactly, that I’m looking for?”

The person you used to be, Kassie replied.

Time seemed to stop in the cafeteria, as the gray metal of Miles’ fencing mask peered into Kassie. The sound of footsteps in the hall could be heard.

Miles crouched down into en garde position. He waved Kassie forward. “Let’s just do this, OK?”

“Hold on, my friend.” Coach Dan stepped between Kassie and Miles.

Return of Miles 1M

“I wouldn’t brag about your conditioning, pal.” Double-J had removed his mask, stepped forward from the line to face Miles. “You’re sucking some serious wind.”

Miles closed his mouth, which had been opened like a bellows. He inhaled deeply through his nose, then let out an appreciative sigh. “That’s better.” He turned to Butch. “I didn’t intend to slight you, I was just making an observation. I’m sorry if you got offended.” He slipped his fencing mask over his head, pointed his foil at Butch, nodded at him to advance.

Butch advanced a step, the tip of his right foot stubbing against the tiled floor, sending him forward awkwardly. Miles watched him, silent, still. Butch regained his footing, crouched down into en garde position (Annie noting quietly that his feet, arms, torso, all were out of position), sighed heavily as he faced Miles. Who had not moved throughout Butch’s stumbling.

The end came quickly, Butch lunging awakwardly only to be parried deftly, Miles’ riposte landing swiftly. Miles turned to the next person in line, ignoring Butch as if he were a fly he had just shooshed away from his meal.