Taking an extended break from the “Warning Signs” narrative to embark on a far more ambitious project.

Tomorrow is the start of National Novel Writing Month, and over the course of November I’ll be writing the second draft of the novel I’ve been developing over the past several years. It won’t be completed — my plan is to revise the first four chapters, which if all goes as planned should get me over the 50K word goal suggested by NaNoWriMo — and as I have nine chapters planned for the novel, I’ll also be about half-way to my personal goal.

For those of you who follow my blog regularly, this coming month will be a little different. I’ll still post daily, but most will be significantly longer than my usual 200 to 400 words. Fifty thousand words over thirty days averages out to almost 1700 daily; there will be days when my word count will reach three, even four thousand. That’s a lot to read at one sitting, and if you decide there’s better things you should be doing, I’ll certainly understand. I just hope you decide to come back on December 1.

It’s a time of nervous excitement for me. I’m not certain that I’m ready, but am certain there will never be a time when I’ll feel ready. And to a certain extent, I don’t care if I’m disappointed in the end result — I just want to know what it feels like to have finished. Climbing this mountain will cause me a lot of discomfort, and I know I won’t ascend as quickly or gracefully as I’d like; breathing the thin cool air at the summit will make the effort worthwhile.


Warning Signs 11

Confident that Double-J would indeed accept his invitation, Dan stepped through the crotch strap of the fencing jacket he had selected, and after slipping his arms through its sleeves, turned his back as he stepped towards Jimmy. “Little help?”

Jimmy fastened the back zipper, lifted the slider, the back folds of the jacket enclosing Dan. Having retrieved his own jacket (a long plastic tie hanging from the slider allowed the teen to zip the back without assistance) from the equipment sack, Double-J walked several paces away before beginning to suit up.

“Hey.” Jimmy’s voice not a whisper as total concealment would be impossible in the almost empty room, but soft enought to be unintelligible to anyone not as close as Dan. “What’s this about?”

Dan turned, looked down at Jimmy’s right pocket, the corner of the letter still visible. “Just another leson, my friend.”

Jimmy stuffed the letter deep into his pocket. “Why you givin’ any mind to this? You know as well as me, this ain’t nuthin’ but small talk from small minds.”

“I hear you.” Dan bent at the waist, picked up the fencing mask and sabre he had picked out earlier. “But this isn’t about what’s written in that letter. It’s all about responding to letter writers.”

With a satisfied grunt, Double-J stood upright and stretched his arms, the zipper pull falling behind his jacketed back. The teen then picked up the mask and sabre at his feet, and hustled to the makeshift strip at the center of the cafeteria floor, arriving a few steps ahead of Dan, who tapped the floor outside the strip twice with his sabre, his eyes calling to Jimmy.

The owner of Squisito Catering and at times reluctant volunteer assistant coach of the Bark Bay High School fencing team sighed, and with a frown walked to the referee’s position.

Warning Signs 10

Double-J stared back at his coach warily, like he had just been invited to walk into a dark alley. “You want to fence?” The sabre his coach had tossed rolled slowly towards his feet.

Dan pursed his lips, closed his thoughtful eyes. “Yes — ” the eyes opened, found the teen’s gaze — “I’d like to fence.” He shuffled to his left, squatted next to the large equipment sack that contained the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s jackets, began sorting through the soiled white linen that smelled of old sweat.

The burly teen remained motionless until the sabre tapped the edge of his right foot. “Knees feeling better?” In his four years as volunteer fencing coach, Dan had only donned gear for demonstrating and drilling; when asked to fence, to scrimmage, to compete, he would always refuse, citing the damage from multiple knee injuries in college.

Yet now he stood, pulling a seldom-used large jacket from the sack, holding it above his head like a trophy. “Why should you kids have all the fun?” He turned his excited face towards Jimmy. “Mr. Saunders, would you care to officiate our bout?”

“What in the — ”

“GREAT!” Dan dropped the jacket dramatically in front of him, began searching through the sack of fencing masks. “Double-J, I suggest getting your gear on before the janitors arrive and send us home!”

Swearing under his breath, Double-J picked up the sabre at his feet, then started walking towards the equipement sacks. 

Warning Signs 9

Double-J brushed past Jimmy, the teen’s hulking body stomping towards the jacket he had tossed across the cafeteria floor. Dan knew this wouldn’t be the first time his student left practice in anger — and then he heard the words coming from his mouth before he realized what he was saying.

Jimmy’s head snapped in his direction, eyes wide at Dan’s words. Double-J kept storming away, giving no indication whether he’d heard his coach.

Dan looked down to his right, the long and narrow duffel that contained the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s weapons open. He knelt down, grabbed a sabre, then with a broad sweep of his arm tossed the weapon towards the center of the large room. The thin metal clattered on the tile floor, bounced, clattered again, the sharp sound echoing.

Double-J stopped, glared at the sabre, then over at Dan, who stood with arms folded across his shoulders, smiling greedily, as he repeated the words he had just spoken.

“One last bout.”


Warning Signs 8

“I understand.” Telling this lie did not bother Dan, as the truth would have only poured gasoline onto the noxious tire fire that was his student’s rage. No experience, no knowledge he had acquired in his thrity-six years of living had prepared Dan for Double-J’s anger. It never seemed to abate, genuine laughter always tinged with mocking disdain for the humor’s source, appreciation of an opponent’s well-executed attack sounding more like disappointment at his inability to stop it (not next time buddy), the rare moment of empathy coming with a promise to eradicate the cause of the pain he had chosen to share.

Dan had worked with Double-J for over three years, had noticed his rage from the very first practice, and at first trusted he could address the issue in the same manner he had approached the personality quirks of his other students. I don’t teach them anything, he’d tell parents, coaches from other schools, his fellow teachers at Bark Bay. I just make them aware of consequences — you do this, then that will happen. Get them to see the pattern, the predictability. Once they understand that, they’re smart enough to figure out what to do. Double-J was the first student who hadn’t cared about the consequences, saw the disastrous results of his destructive fury as just more reason to be even more angry.

And now, looking at Double-J’s snarl skidding across his bearded face as Jimmy stood blocking the teen’s path to him, Dan could only think about how he had failed his student.

Warning Signs 7

“Dorrie called me the other day.” Dan hadn’t planned to tell Doube-J about the call from the teen’s mother.

“Yeah?” Double-J leaned forward and snatched his down jacket from the floor, pulling it to him like the leash on a disobedient dog. “What’s she want?”

She had actually pocket-dialed his number, their conversation when he returned his call filled with apologies and reassurances, void of content yet meaningfully polite. “All she wants, is for you to be healthy and happy.”

“And graduate on time?”

Dan blinked. “She didn’t say that, but it’s funny you — ”

Christ!” Double-J thrust his snarling face forward, the thin wires of his black hair and moustache seeming to come alive. “This is fucking pathetic. I told you, told her,  I already got enough credits, all I’m doing now is killing time until spring.” With a disgusted roar, HRRRRRUR!, Double-J tossed his jacket across the cafeteria, the smooth cloth of its surface skimming across the tiled floor.

Jimmy stepped in between Double-J and Dan. “Ain’t no call — ”

“YOU WANT ME ON THIS GODDAMN TEAM, YOU GET OFF MY CASE!” The teen’s voice was echoing violently in the large room, as his right index finger jabbed past Jimmy’s shoulder, in a direct line to Dan’s face. “DON’T YOU SAY NOTHING ‘BOUT ME, TO MY PARENTS, OR LEFTY, OR ANYONE ELSE! YOU UNDERSTAND?”

Warning Signs 6

Double-J ripped his mask from his head, saluted Jimmy with the sincerity of a man thanking a police officer for a speeding ticket. He did not offer to shake hands, a violation of etiquette that Dan chose not to challenge for practices. The burly teen, his thin wires of sweaty black hair protruding from his head as if charged with static, walked swiftly over to the team’s equipment sacks, followed by Dan.

“I take it you’re being here tonight — ” it was the first practice Double-J had attended in a month — “means you’re fencing in the tournament Saturday?” Experienced high school fencers were able and encouraged to compete at State’s tournament.

“Yeah.” For one of the few if not only times that evening, Double-J looked up and made eye contact with Dan. “Heard Diaz was finally going to compete, for once. ” Hector Diaz, in his prep year at the Academy, was last year’s state champion in sabre, defeating Double-J in the quarters by three touches.

Double-J turned his back to Dan, who unzipped his jacket. “That’s what Coach Gavvy tells me.” Double-J let the jacket fall to the floor, his coach’s presence no longer a seeming concern.  Dan bit his lip. “Everything going OK for you?”

Double-J flinched, like a jittery fencer adjusting to an opponent’s disengage. The glance he turned and shot back at Dan was filled with wariness. “There’s nothing going on with me. At least, nothing you need to know anything about, or that I care to tell you.”

Warning Signs 5

The cafeteria, with seating for up to 500 students at lunch or as many spectators for evening school plays, felt cavernous with only three occupants, the squeaking of Jimmy and Double-J’s sneakers on the tiled floor echoing off the concrete walls. Dan waited for the twin metal doors to close behind Annie, then walked slowly to the center of the floor.

“Watcha distance.” Jimmy’s command seemed to draw Double-J, the burly teen’s right arm punching forward, threatening. The older man’s blade flashed under the pale overhead lights, metal kissing metal, followed by a slash against the teen’s arm. Double-J grunted, spun quickly on his heels, returning to his starting line.

Dan clapped his hands twice, quickly. “Hold up.”

Double-J raised a dismissive hand. “One more.” His voice tired yet defiant.

“Masks off.” Dan nodded to Jimmy, who responded by bringing his legs together, left hand reaching under his mask, lifting.

“One MORE.” Double-J punctuated his command with a foot stomp just behind the makeshift starting line, one of several borders between black and white tiles.

Jimmy, mask dangling from his left hand, right arm already extending his blade in salute, scanned back at Dan, eyes wide, his placid face waiting for the coach’s instruction. Dan’s eyes caught a corner of white protruding from Jimmy’s pocket — the letter.

“We’re done here.” Dan stepped into the makeshift strip, his eyes commanding Jimmy to complete his salute.

Warning Signs 4

Jimmy had read enough of the letter to feel confident of its remaining content. He looked over at Double-J, still in his white fencing jacket, sweat-stained head exposed as he crouched, laying his mask and sabre on the tiled cafeteria floor, and drank from a water bottle; Jimmy re-folded the paper, creasing it in new locations, and stuffed it quickly into his right rear pocket before approaching the strip.

On the far end of the cafeteria, next to the backpacks and jackets strewn haphazardly across the short wall in front of the stage, Dan asked the captain of the Bark Bay High School fencing team how that evening’s practice had gone.

“Fine, really.” Annie wiped her forehead, looked up at her coach with questioning eyes. “Anything wrong?”

“No, no.” Dan glanced back over his shoulder, then back at Annie. “Just — Rex seemed a little off tonight, didn’t get — ”

“He had to leave early.” Annie turned around, Dan following the clue to unzip her jacket. “His mom’s — sick.” She wrestled the jacket down off her torso, then pulled her right foot from the bottom loop. “Again. Really wish they’d call my family’s doctor.”

“And Butch?” The only other team member at practice that afternoon; his older brother had picked him and Rex up. “How was he?”

 Annie picked up her jacket, as the sound of Jimmy and Double-J sparring clattered across the floor. “Same as usual. Enthusiastic and clumsy.”

“HA! But he’s getting it, right?”

She zipped her jacket up to her chin. “Coach, one of the few things you’re not good at, is being obtuse.” She reached down, picked up her backpack, and with a swift motion hefted a strap onto her right shoulder. “Whatever it is you want to say to Double-J — well, good luck.”

Dan watched silently as Annie exited the cafeteria through its mettalic doors.

Warning Signs 3

crik-crik. Jimmy turned toward the sound of tearing paper, saw Dan opening the envelope. Instinctively he began walking away, but was stopped when Dan waved at him to remain as he removed the single sheet of folded paper from the envelope, unnfolded, and read.

Jimmy could see writing on both sides of the sheet. The handwriting was small. “Our friend has a lot to say.”

Dan grunted, furrows on his forehead growing. Behind the two men, Double-J and Annie continued their bout. They were the only two team members who remained at practice. The volunteer coach of the fencing team turned the paper over, his eyes scanning rather than reading the words, then handed the paper to Jimmy.

“You should read this.”

Jimmy took the paper reluctantly. “Why’s that?”

Dan’s forefinger flicked the paper, pap. “Read the second sentence.”

Jimmy read the letter, his lips pursing a moment later. “Ain’t that lovely.”

“Annie.” Dan walked past Jimmy as he called to his team captain, at a break in her bout. “A word, please.” She took off her mask, waved a quick salute at Double-J, who returned a perfunctory salute; she took a step towards him before remembering he refused to shake hands after practice bouts. Dan flicked his head back at Jimmy. “Mr. Saunders, I believe you and Double-J were working on head cuts?”

In all his lessons with Double-J, they hadn’t worked with head cuts at all. “Of course!”

“Continue.” Dan placed a hand on Annie’s shoulder, began guiding her away from the makeshift strip.