Chapter 6 – February 6A

The first Thursday

Clang of metal lockers, sneakered feet squeaking on tiled hallway floor, bubbling murmur of separate conversations. Loud laugh. “Hey.” Murmur.

Rune looks down the hallway to his left. 206, third door on right. Students, teachers walking by. 209, first door on left, Butch’s next class. The son of First Baptist Church minister was always early, he and Rune usually passed each other at this time. Wait outside 211, he’d see the outline of Butch’s broad body waddling up the stairs, sun from skylight would be in his eyes. Get to 206 just before the bell. Wait.

“Something wrong?” Miss Kinney, Honors US. On his right, just behind. Rune turns to her. Looks confused, a little annoyed.

“Nah.” Waves greasy hair off his forehead. “Just — hanging out. Before my next class.” Looks back down the hallway, all thin teenaged bodies.

“You enjoying fencing?” Rune turns to her suddenly, how did she know — Aurora, call her O.K. Has a different class with her, probably talks as much there as she does in practice.

“It’s great.” Still no waddling shapes, getting close to the bell. “I gotta go.”

Walks across and down the hall. 210, 208 —

“Hey!” Butch’s voice behind him.

Chapter 6 – February 5A

8:35

Fence of barren twigs, bending and occasionally snapping across Rune’s jacketed chest as he propelled himself into the forest. He reached a clearing, checked the cold darkness around him. Saw where his boots had caved into the snowpack, traced them back to the field where he’d entered — he could find his way back. The slope grew sharply deeper in these woods, he remembered that from carefree summers. A long time ago, a different person.

Down and to the left, that’s where the slope was leading him. The shore of Prosperity Lake, it would be somewhere in that direction. Hadn’t been there in years. Fishing with Butch. When he liked fishing. Saturday night, February — could be ice fishers down there. They’d be drinking, would make noise, have a stove or fire lit. He’d see them first.

Down and to the left. Sharp blow to the forehead, “AHH! Fuck.” He rubbed, stocking cap still in place. Looking down, hadn’t seen the branch. Took off a glove, reached under the cap with bare fingers and swiped the area on his forehead where he’d been hit. Brought the hand down, found a patch of blue light snaking among the branches. No blood.

His eyes cleared, looked forward. Less dense, up and left. Walk up that way a while, look for a path down to the lake. Feet crunched the top layer of snow, breath vapor rising from his mouth. Forward, keep the head up. Up a few steps, cut across, then down. To lake. Ice. Fish. No — just the lake. Crunch crunch.

Chapter 6 – February 4I

The Bird began twirling the sock. “That’s too fast, he said not to go too fast.” The Bird apologized, began spinning the sock so slowly it could barely loop up and over. Rune reached for the ball, but his hand whapped the sock, nearly knocking it from her hand.

“Like I said, you need to go slow.” The Bird offered a reluctant apology, like a student asking forgiveness for another student talking in class. She resumed twirling the sock, her arm movement more up and down than circular. The sock was hanging limp down from her fist when Rune finally reached and grabbed the ball.

He grinned with satisfaction as he handed the ball back to The Bird, who resumed the sock spinning while taking a step backwards. Rune did not follow, but put his hands back on his hips.

“What are you doing?” Coach Dan, moving among the team as the drill proceeded, was near them now, so The Bird called him over, asked if they were supposed to be moving.

“Of course, my friend!” Short curls of black hair on head and face, flecked with gray. “Judging exactly when you’re in distance for an attack is one of the points of the drill. Is there a problem?”

He was looking directly at Rune now, as was The Bird. He felt like a game show contestant who didn’t know the answer to a lightning round question. He shook his head, looked down. “This drill, it’s not . . . I can’t  . . . ”

He looked up. Their expression had not changed.

“Can we change partners?”

His bright eyes round as he called for everyone on the fencing squad to move one person to the left (your other left, Annie said to Butch). Her eyes quiet as she shifted left, Rune looking for some sign of hurt in them yet finding none, leaving him with an odd feeling of disappointment.

Chapter 6 – February 4H

Rune had a tennis ball he’d retrieved from the far end of the cafeteria, while The Bird held a sock given to her by Coach Dan. Rune held the ball with his fingertips up to The Bird.

The Bird asked Rune if he wanted to go first. “Sure.” Rune shrugged. “I don’t care.” The Bird replied that she could go first, if that’s — “I said I don’t care, just take the ball already.” The Bird asked him why he sounded so upset. “I’m not upset.” Rune’s eyes flared. “I just wanna get this dumb drill over with.” Sensing Rune was about to throw the ball at her, The Bird took it from his fingers.

Following the instructions of her coach, The Bird began the drill, holding the ball in her right hand while spinning the sock in front with her left. She took a step back, but stopped when she saw Rune’s hands on his hip.

“You’re doing it backwards.” The Bird replied that she was left-handed, it was easier for her to work the sock with her left. It’s like fencing a lefty, she said.

Rune shook his head, his greasy red hair quivering from the motion. “Whatever. It’s a stupid drill, anyway.”

Unable to heed the cautionary voice that told her that further questioning would do more harm than good, The Bird asked why he thought that way. Rune waved a dismissive hand in the direction of Coach Dan, after first glancing over and seeing he wasn’t looking in their direction. “He spent all that time making fun of me for what I said about looking at the arm, look at the shoulder instead, and then he has us do a drill where we never look at the shoulder!”

The Bird suggested that he was missing the point, that the drill was about using your peripheral vision.

“Like I said, whatever.” Rune squatted down into on-guard position with an air of resignation, as if he were being pushed down by an invisible giant hand.

Chapter 6 – February 4G

Coach Dan commanded The Bird to try the drill again. “Keep your eye on the ball, and watch for the movement of the sock with your peripheral vision.” And this time the slender teen snatched the tennis ball from the hand of her middle-aged coach, without being hit by the twirling sock.

“Excellent!” He held his palm up and flexed his fingers, The Bird reading his queue and tossing the ball up for him to catch. “Now, let’s add another element — Annie, if you would.”

The pony-tailed former ballerina took The Bird’s place in front of her coach, who began twirling the sock in front of the ball again. “Now, let’s add movement.” He took a quick step back, Annie shuffling forward to keep within distance. “Don’t go for the ball unless — ”

And suddenly Annie was holding the ball in her hand, holding it at eye level and peering at it as if she had just picked a delicious golden apple.

“It appears you were in distance.” Coach Dan was speaking to his fencers in his casual, self-deprecating manner which managed to capture their attention while simultaneously keeping them at ease. He then walked over to his equipment bag and retrieved several more socks, handing them to half the students with instructions to retrieve the other tennis balls that had rolled onto the cafeteria floor.

A few minutes later, he had the team in pairs, one side twirling a sock while holding a ball as they moved back and forth, the other side looking for the opportunity to snatch the ball away. Rune had lined up opposite Butch at the start of the drill, but Coach Dan switched the pairs, had Butch work with Big Paul, leaving Rune with The Bird.

Chapter 6 – February 4F

“This drill is about focus, and peripheral vision.” Coach Dan continued twirling the sock in front of the hand holding the tennis ball. “Your eyes are better able to see movement around the edges, instead of straight on.”

“It’s like baseball.” Big Paul was an outfielder on the Bark Bay High School team. “The hardest fly ball to judge, is the one hit straight at you.”

“Very good.” Coach Dan returned his focus to Butch. “All I want you to do — is take the ball.”

“While you’re spinning the sock?”

“Yes, Butch.”

“Oh! So am I allowed to look at the sock, or is that cheating?”

“It’s not cheating, but if you look at the sock, how are you going to get the ball?”

“Oh!” Butch scratched his head. “But if I don’t look at the sock, how can I stop it from hitting me?”

The Bird stepped forward, her soft feet not hitting the tiled cafeteria floor loud enough to cover Annie’s groan, and said she would like to try. Unable to conceal his relief, Coach Dan waved her forward. She stood in front of him, Butch to her left, the rest of the fencing squad looking on as Coach Dan twirled the sock, holding the ball. The Bird studied his hand for one, two, three sock twirls — then snatched her hand forward, grabbed the ball, the sock hitting her on the under side of her arm as she pulled her arm back.

“A little late, but you get the idea.”

Chapter 6 – February 4E

After some hurried explanation (no, stand in front of me, and turn around, yes that’s it), Coach Dan had Butch positioned where he wanted him. He then held the tennis ball in his right hand, out from his body at chest height.

“All you have to do — is take the ball.”

“Now?”

Coach Dan blinked. “Yes, now would be a good time, Butch.”

Butch took the ball from his fencing coach. “Good — now, put it back. No not there — ” Butch had begun walking back to the canvas sack which his coach had carried into practice that day — “back in my hand.”

“Oh! Which one?”

Coach Dan flexed the fingers of his right hand, and with another Oh!, Butch laid the ball back from where it had been taken. “Now I want you take it again — but with a difference.”

And suddenly the sock in his left hand seemed to come to life, flying up and to the right, coming down just beyond the reach of his right hand, then coming back up from the left, over, down, forming a garmented circle in front of the tennis ball.

“Your job — is to take the ball, without the sock hitting you.”

Chapter 6 – February 4D

As if following a command from the athletic teen, Coach Dan reached across his body with his left arm, and tapped his right shoulder. Rune noticed he hadn’t shaved that day. “The front shoulder provides a far more stable target than the arm, and also has the advantage of being in your opponent’s target area.

“But that doesn’t mean you’ll be free of distractions. Which is where this comes in.”

He then lifted his right arm high, towards the rectangular banks of fluorescent lights suspended from the cafeteria ceiling. The sock he had presented to them earlier, balled up in his fist as he talked with the Bark Bay High School fencing team about arms and shoulders, now fell down to his eye level, suspended from meaty fingers. He pointed behind the irregular line of fencers. “Big Paul — a ball, please!”

A moment later Coach Dan had a yellow tennis ball in his right hand, the sock transferred to his left. He called for Butch to stand in front of him.

Chapter 6 – February 4C

Coach Dan touched his right arm with his left hand, as he walked among the squad. “Your opponent’s arm can do all kinds of things during a bout — it can extend, retract, move up or down. And if your opponent knows that’s where your focus is, he can do all kinds of things to distract you, like twirl his blade.” He brought his right arm forward, swung it in a circular motion, like he was winding a garden hose onto a reel.

He then pointed suddenly to Rex. “What’s the other problem — for foil fencers, anyway.”

Rex looked bored, disappointed at having received such a heavy prompt. “Arm’s off-target.”

“Exactly!” Coach Dan continued pacing among the irregular line formed by the fencers of the Bark Bay High School squad. “The purpose of keeping distance, is as much offensive as it is defensive. You need to know, at all times, whether you’re in or out of striking distance.” He stopped, brought his legs together, left foot stomping for emphasis. “Annie, what area on your opponent’s target can you look at, to gauge your distance?”

In the split second before Annie responded, Rune analyzed where everyone was standing in the nearly empty cafeteria. Coach Dan had stopped almost directly in front of him, at the end of the irregular line of fencers, near the large bay windows that looked over the school parking lot and the back of the stands for the athletic fields. Butch and The Bird stood a few feet away, with Rex, Juan, and Big Paul forming a small triangle beyond them. At the other end of the line, Annie stood with O.K. and Micky. It occurred to Rune that Coach Dan’s two immediate actions were deliberate — he’d stopped next to the person who had, once again, given the wrong answer to his question, and by directing his question toward someone at the other end of the line (someone he could trust to answer correctly), he could indirectly address the entire squad. Rune admired his coach’s subtle calculation as much as he resented being its object.

“The front shoulder.”

Chapter 6 – February 4B

“Who can tell me — ” Coach Dan’s teaching moments were always punctuated with a purposeful stare that scanned above their heads — “what you should be focusing on during a fencing bout?”

“Distance.” Rex’s response was as swift and sharp as his riposte.

“Yes — ” Coach Dan swept his arm across his body — “but what’s the best way to judge the distance between you and your opponent?” Still holding the sock in his left hand, he pointed with two fingers at his eyes. “What should you be looking at?”

The members of the Bark Bay High School fencing squad looked quickly at each other. Rune saw a knowing-yet-eager-for-someone-else-to-answer expression from both Rex and Annie, and confusion from both Butch and The Bird. Growing uncomfortable with the silence, Rune decided to throw out a guess.

“Their arm.”

Coach Dan pursed his lips, nodded at Rune. “Interesting!” He extended an open palm, as if offering Rune a present. “Explain, please.”

Rune hated the way Coach Dan always asked them to explain their answers. Well, he was a teacher after all. “I don’t know. I guess . . . their arm’s closest to you, so it’s easier to judge distance that way.” His eyes brightened. “And if they extend the arm, you know they’re about to attack you!”

Coach Dan tilted his head sideways, his telltale sign that he had just heard a wrong answer. “Some sound logic there, yes. But — here’s the problem.”