Chapter 6 – February 14F

“Hey.” Rex’s voice had grown softer, like someone about to reveal a secret. “This is for you.” The tall teen lifted his right hand, which held a white envelope. Rune’s name written in large block letters on the front.

Rune looked up, his acne-scarred face showing hyperbolic confusion. “What is it?”

Rex jabbed the envelope at Rune. “Exactly what you think it is.”

The younger, shorter teen took the envelope, examined its size (nearly square) and rigidity (firm but flexible, the contents were heavier than paper). He turned it over in his hand. He didn’t know why, but it was important for him to know it was sealed. Which it was.

“You got me a card?”

“Open it.”

Rune looked past Rex’s body, saw that the rest of the Bark Bay High School fencing team was engaged with practice or conversation. He lifted an unsealed section of the envelope’s flap, dug his index finger inside, tore across the back, pulled out the card. On the front was a poorly drawn cartoon of an absurdly obese man, waving a hand high above his bald head, his eyes wide with excitement. Orange and white words THANK YOU! appeared to explode over the man.

Rune stared up at Rex. “What’s this for?”

“The epee.” Rex motioned with his left thumb behind them. “What you did, letting the team have the weapon your aunt gave to you — that was really cool. And I just — ” he suddenly seemed as awkward as he was tall — “well you know, what with my family and all, I’m not exactly in position — ”

“No, it’s cool.” Rune had visited Rex’s trailer only once, and the experience left him not wanting to know anything more about his family.

“But, I didn’t want what you did, which really was cool, to go unrecognized. So — ” he tapped the card in Rune’s hand — “yeah, I got you a card. And I wrote you a message. Go on, read it.”

Without looking, Rune opened the front flap of the card, then looked down. The cartoon fat man had been joined by three other absurd individuals, all of them leaping from the ground, hands raised and faces beaming. There were more gold and red letters above them, but Rune’s eyes shifted to the left inside panel, and Rex’s handwriting in blue ink.

Chapter 6 – February 14E

To Rune’s relief, Coach Dan called to OK, began working with her on disengages, his calls of arm first replaced with fingers not wrist. Butch, his round belly accentuated by his tight fencing jacket, seemed eager to talk.

“You going to the tournament Saturday?”

Rune shrugged. “Not sure.”

“Oh! Coach Dan said we should all go.”

Frown. “Coach Dan says a lot of things.” Rubbed his temple. “You going to Page Turners this week?”

“Oh! You want to go to Page Turners?”

“Yeah.” Confusion wiped away by recalling their argument last week. “Y’know, the other day, you just caught me at a bad moment. I didn’t mean what I said, I still like comics.”

“Oh!” Butch scratched his chin. “Well, uh . . . there’s a problem. I can’t go to Page Turners, no more.”

Rune began questioning Butch, was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. Tall Rex. “Annie said your mom could give me a ride home tonight.”

“Yeah.” Rune had told her they’d be driving both Rex and Annie home that afternoon. He looked around the cafeteria. “Where’s Annie?”

“She had to leave.” Rex sounded surprised, like he’d expected Rune to already know this information.

Rune looked up at the large analog clock above the kitchen windows. Three twenty. “She never leaves before 3:30.”

Rex shrugged. “She did today.” And hadn’t told Rune she was leaving.

Chapter 6 – February 14D

The frustrated voice in Rune’s head hoped this was not one of Coach Dan’s ploys, that the man who’s expanding waistline was testing the elasticity of his fencing jacket was actually suggesting the teen surrender to the slings and arrows of his outrageous disappointment.

His more rational voice expected the actual response. “I don’t want you to try, I want you to do. Trying won’t score any touches for you, won’t parry any attacks. Won’t get you to start with your arm instead of your feet.” tap-tap “Every time I see you do something wrong, I’m going to correct you, because that’s my job, as your coach. I’m not going to get inside your head, figure out whether you want to fence well, or why — that’s your business. All I care about, is your execution, whether your making the right choices, doing the right movements, whenever you’re on strip. Whether it’s a tournament, like the one this Saturday — ” a noticeable inflection in his voice on that last phrase — “or here, during practice.

“So let’s take this slow, break it down.” tap tap, Rune crouched into en garde position without further prompting. “Extend.” Rune extended his arm, his coach grabbing the blade of his foil and directing the tip towards his chest. “Lift the front toes — ” he almost lost balance as the front of his right foot lifted, but he held his crouch — “now push, plow with the heel.” Rune felt more like he was falling than lunging, but he kept the line of his foil straight, its tip landing on Coach Dan’s right shoulder. “Very good.” tap tap “Doesn’t doing work a lot better than trying?”

Rune had no idea what his coach was talking about. “Yeah, sure.”

Chapter 6 – February 14C

Tap-tap on top of the mask. “Again.” Forward, back, back, back, forward, back — “What should you be doing?”

Rune hesitated. Lunged. An impatient parry, Coach Dan’s voice inflected like a cartoon character, “Naow naow naow! Get that arm out, little bit with each step!” tap-tap “Again.”

Forward, back, forward, forward, back — “get that arm out — ” back, back — “good” — forward, forward, back. Stop. “Lunge.”

Rune barely moved. “What goes first?”

The teen pulled up. “My arm did go first!”

Coach Dan swiped his foil across Rune’s right shin. “No it didn’t. Your front foot was leading your arm.” tap-tap “Again.”

Rune sighed, looked around quickly. The large cafeteria was almost entirely empty, tables and benches folded into the walls, the windows to the kitchen closed, a stale odor of marinara the only evidence of the room’s primary use. To his right, Rex and Annie spared each other, their grunts punctuated with the occasional sharp laugh. Beyond them, the canvas sacks containing the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s equipment lay in disheveled heaps on the tiled floor, masks and jackets and foils spilling out of the openings like abandoned packing material. He heard Butch talking in excited tones behind and to his left, probably to Little Paul, who’d made a surprise visit to practice this week.

tap-tap Rune shook his head, “sorry.” Forward, forward, back, forward, back, back. Stop. “Lunge.”

As he pushed all one hundred and twenty three pounds of his body forward from his back leg, the high-B student resigned himself to his coach’s judgment. “What goes first?”

“Hey, I get it.” The teen stood straight, pulled his mask up from his chin, lifting it onto the top of his head, exposing his face red with sweat and frustration. “I’m trying.”

Coach Dan pulled off his mask just as swiftly. “I can see you’re trying. And I’d wish you stop.”

Chapter 6 – February 14B

“Just keep distance.” Coach Dan followed his command by stepping forward (lift the front toes, push from the back leg, front heel like a plow), Rune responding by stepping back (lift the back leg, push back with the front). Forward, forward, back, forward.

Stop. “Check your distance.” In response, Rune lunged, was swiftly parried by his coach. “No, don’t attack, just check distance.” He tapped his blade on the top of Rune’s mask.

Rune recovered his stance, his eyes glaring behind his mask. “How?”

Coach Dan tapped his blade against Rune’s. “You’re too close. When you see blades cross like this, you either attack, or get the flip out of the way.”

“But I did attack.”

En garde.” Coach Dan’s no more discussion voice. “All I want you to do is keep distance.” Back, forward, forward, back, forward, forward, back, back. Stop. “Check distance.”

Rune extended his arm, demonstrating the tip of his foil was several inches from his coach’s. “Good?”

“Do an advance – lunge.” At his coach’s command, Rune pulled his arm back, took a step forward, then pushed from his left leg as his right arm came forward, propelling his foil towards his coach.

The lunge stopped inches short of its target. “Have to stay in advance-lunge distance. If you’re too far away, your opponent’s got no reason to be afraid of anything you do.” Tapped his right shoulder with his left hand. “Focus on your target, use that as your only gauge of distance. Watch the blade peripherally.” Crouched down, raised his palms and brought them down, Rune crouching. “Again.”

Forward, forward, back, back, forward, back, back, forward, forward, forward, back, forward, back, back. Stop. “Check your distance.”

Rune glanced at the tip of his foil. An inch away from his coach’s. “Good?”

“Advance – lunge.” Rune stepped forward, pushed with his left leg — a quick parry — “What goes first?”

“Arm.”

Chapter 6 – February 14A

The third Tuesday

Jimmy (who still refused to be called Mr. Saunders) held the epee, the blade resting along the palm of his left hand, his right grasping the handle. Then asked the same question that Rex (standing to Jimmy’s left) had asked last week.

Rune shook his head. “No, my aunt said that was all the fencing equipment the guy had for sale.”

“We’ll have to test weight.” Jimmy twisted the handle, brought the tip of the weapon up close to his eyes. Pursed his lips approvingly. “Coach, he got a test box back at his apartment — ” there was no need to keep it at the school, the team never got to practice with electronics — “he’ll make any adjustments necessary before Saturday.” He looked up at Rex, widened his eyes. “You are fencing Saturday.”

“Miss Blago, she’s gonna come over, stay with my family at the trailer.”

Jimmy blinked, understanding only enough to be certain Rex would indeed be fencing. Looked over at Rune. “How ’bout you, hot shot?”

Before the teen could answer, he heard Coach Dan’s voice behind him, calling his name. Rune saw him standing, foil in his right hand and mask in his left, wearing his tattered black plastron (purchased, for an undisclosed nominal fee, from Coach Gabby at the Academy). He tapped the foil’s tip twice on the tiled cafeteria floor, the sound barely audible but the signal unmistakably clear.

Rune raced over to the canvas sacks that contained the team’s equipment, quickly identified his preferred foil and mask, finally arriving a moment later in front of his coach. The middle aged English teacher at Bark Bay High School raised his foil, the blade extended in a line rising above the teen’s head, his salute matched by Rune; a swift downward swipe of their blades completed the action, and a moment later the teacher and his student, masks secured on their heads, crouched down into en garde position.

Chapter 6 – February 13B

Streams of light leapt up from the horizon and danced far above the lake’s black water. The streams were of multiple different colors, and among the familiar whites and yellows there were shades Rune had never seen before, one goldenly purplish, another rust red yet brilliant instead of dull, and a green that did not look in any way natural, but yet still undeniably beautiful.

“Whoa.” The lights ascended further, Rune tilting his head back as they soared above, and the light streams flickered, exchanging colors with each other, as if a cosmic choreographer were deftly flicking switches on a celestial instrument panel. For the first time since he had walked away from the front door of his house that evening, Rune felt at peace, content, and for a moment felt that these dancing streams of lights were the compelling force that had led him here.

Then suddenly, the lights disappeared, and Rune saw only black night above him. He looked back over the lake, saw the light streams receding back towards the horizon. And then, gone.

Disappointed, Rune still thought of heading back, following his trail back to his home. He sighed, stared over the frozen lake, heard the low mechanical hum of the dam’s turbines in the distance. And knew that the peace he’d felt a few seconds before, had vanished with the lights.

Rune resumed walking along the lake shore, his feet scuffing and digging into the unmarked snow. The celestial light show had been a distraction, he knew that with certainty now — when he found the reason for his nocturnal winter journey, he would know. He trudged forward with a renewed determination to reach the end of his search.

Chapter 6 – February 13A

8:49

The hum of the generator behind him faded as Rune began walking along the frozen shore of the lake, but a moment later he heard the mechanical murmur regain its strength, like a giant robot coming  online. He looked back, recognized the shape of the cottage lights he’d seen before, only more distant — he hadn’t accidently circled back. Had he misjudged the location of the generator? Was he actually walking towards it now? He listened again, focused on his hearing. There were two sounds, the generator he’d heard before faint, and this new sound, just as faint but distinct, different from what he’d heard earlier.

His eyes caught a glimpse of the frozen water to his left, and suddenly the mystery of the second sound was solved. He was on the shore of the artificial lake, created when the state built the hydroelectric dam, decades ago. He was upstream, walking in the direction of the dam, and this new sound, it came from the turbines, churning under the force of the water that still flowed among and under the ice, generating electricity for Bark Bay and the surrounding area.

Rune checked his trailing footsteps again, ensuring they were still distinct, then resumed walking downstream again. All his life he’d known about the lake, the dam, knew they lay somewhere beyond his back yard, but before this night he’d never been interested in exploring this area. The discovery of the unknown, was that his compulsion for going forward? No, that wasn’t it, of that much he was certain. He wasn’t motivated by the hope of surprise, he was looking for something, that something which was compelling his legs forward, and while he had no idea what that something was, he knew it lay somewhere ahead of them. And that recognition would come on sight.

A flash of light, to his left, from the direction of the frozen lake. Rune stopped, turned. “Whoa.”

Chapter 6 – February 12D

Rune had no idea what conversation Annie was referencing. “I said a lot of things that day.”

“It was after the pools, before the DEs. You were sitting in the bleachers, by yourself. Had to look for you, nobody knew where you’d gone.”

Rune remembered. Christ, she was going to bring up that? “It was a rough tournament, I was frustrated.”

All tournaments are rough. That’s why they call them competitions.”

Rune ran his hands back through his greasy hair. “Look, I’m sorry I acted like I did.” A smile weaker than tepid water. “Why don’t you stay? It’s not like your brother’s waiting for you.”

But Annie opened the interior door, a wave of arctic air rushing into the house. “It’s not that far from downtown. I’ll call Si, let him know where I am.” Her pony-tail was no longer visible, tucked under her wool cap. “I asked how you did in the pools, and a few grunts later I figured out you’d lost every bout. Then I asked what you’d learned, what you planned on doing different in your DE — you remember what you said?”

He did. “No.”

She pushed open the exterior glass door. “You said it didn’t make any difference, what you did. Outcome would be the same.” She pointed a mittened fist at him. “That’s how you’ve been acting all month, like nothing you do makes any difference. And what you’re not seeing, is that whatever it is that you do, it has an impact on the people around you. Whether you intend it, or not.”

She stepped out, onto the front step. “I’ll see you next week.” And then turned, the glass door closing behind her.

Chapter 6 – February 12C

“The tournament, at Midland.” Hand on the door handle, Annie kept her back turned to Rune. “That’s when it started. Been racking my brain, trying to figure out when it happened, and it just came to my now, it was that Saturday.”

Rune waved greasy hair off his brow. “It’s been a tough month.” He swallowed. “The weather, it’s been so bad, it’s making people — I don’t know, not act like themselves . . . ” Hearing the insincerity of his words, he forced himself to stop.

“I call, leave you a message, you don’t call back. I see you in the hall, you duck into a room.” He knew she would know his schedule. “At practice, you hardly say two words to me.”

An invisible force seemed to be bearing down on him. “Look, I know I’ve — ”

“And it’s not just me.” Now she turned, faced him with a look of compassionate accusation. “The way you talk at practice, to Coach Dan, The Bird, OK — even Butch, your best friend, you humiliated him the other day.”

He considered taking his jacket, walking out the door, then remembered he was home. “Butch and I, we’re always doing stuff like that to each other.” The look on her face revealed she knew he was lying. “All right, all right, so I’ve been a little off lately. I just, I don’t know, haven’t been feeling right.”

“Remember what you said to me, that Saturday, during the tournament at Midland?”