Double-J turned to the senior section, raised both arms, his foil pointed triumphantly high. The seniors cheered in appreciation, as Double-J, his face hidden behind the mask he still wore, stuck out his tongue derisively.
“Fencers, salute!” Dan’s exhortation was lost in the sound made by hundreds of teenagers rising from the wooden bleachers, eager to exit. Double-J turned and saw Rex already standing back at the starting position, his mask off and tucked under his left arm, foil in his right hand pointed down and towards him. Double-J quickly returned to his starting position, took off his mask, and holding it by the back strap in his left hand pointed his foil down and towards Rex.
As the two fencers made eye contact, Double-J noted the wry grin on Rex’s face, and gave a playful rise of his eyebrows in response. The two fencers then raised their foils to their chins, and extended their hilts to the other in salute, followed by perfunctory salutes at Dan, who bowed and motioned for the teens to meet at the center, where the two shook with their left hands with a shared look of mutual respect.
“Looks like we have a new captain this year.” Double-J spoke with a clarity, emphasis, and volume that conveyed a determination to be heard. Rex looked at Double-J with puzzlement, as Double-J turned grinning at their coach. And in that instant, Dan suddenly realized what game Double-J had been playing. Of all the fencers from last year, Double-J was the least likely to participate in today’s demonstration, Dan expecting the combatants to be Rex and Juan. But Juan had not shown up, and Double-J had. Now Dan understood why — the teen had an agenda, and his confident grin told Dan he had accomplished his goal.
Principal Stephens had resumed his position behind the microphone. “Thank you, Coach Jacobs, and let’s have another hand for the Bark Bay High School fencing team!” The stands were emptying quickly, and no applause returned, the student body’s attention having been lost like the sun disappearing behind a cloud. Dan turned to Stephens, mouthed the word practice. “Right, thank you Coach, the next fencing practice will be next . . . Tuesday, I believe?” Dan nodded. “Yes, Tuesday, 3 pm in the cafeteria.” Gathering the students’ attention seemed futile, yet Stephens pressed on. “If you liked what you saw today, please, be there next Tuesday. No experience is necessary, and Coach Jacobs is an excellent teacher.” After a final reminder of that evening’s football game, he formally dismissed the students, many having already left the court in a jostling rush.
Coach Dan waved his four fencers together at the center of the floor, above the cartoon lumberjack. “Nice job out there. Good bout.” He looked at Rex. “You have fun out there?”
“I guess.” Rex seemed more nonplussed than usual. “Felt weird, having all those people watch us fence.”
“I thought it was really great!” Annie had stepped into the center of the circle, her face beaming. “People never came out to see us last year, even with Myles on the team. Really, it was nice to see some appreciation for our sport.”
Double-J’s snorting laugh attracted everyone’s attention. “You really think those clowns cared we were fencing? We coulda been wrestling in mud, gotten the same reaction. Seems to me, Jacobs did a good job today of manipulating that absurd senior-junior rivalry, and the crowd played along because they were bored, and not that bright. Kills me how easy it is to jerk these people around.”
“Excuse me?” The circle of fencers looked to their right, and then down. The voice who’d called them seemed impossibly short for anyone of high school age, and was nearly as broad as he was tall. He waved at the team with a nervous smile.
“Butch!” Rune nearly leapt from the circle, extending his hand toward the short, fat newcomer. “I was wondering if you’d ever take me up on my invitation.” Rune smiled broadly, happy to see his best friend from his earliest school days.
The boy, wearing blue slacks and a white dress shirt, shook Rune’s hand enthusiastically, then looked up at Dan. “Oh! I was wondering — ” he passed his right hand over the short tufts of tow on top of his head — “if there was a height requirement for being on the team?”
Dan stepped forward, extended his right arm, his head shaking. “Actually, those of your stature have a distinct advantage in a fencing bout — if you know what you’re doing.” He shook Butch’s hand, and winked.
Double-J shouldered his way past his coach, stood directly in front of Butch, his eyes bearing down into the newcomer. “Finally, someone shorter than me!” A collective laugh erupted from the team. “Interested in sabre, my friend?” Double-J brandished an invisible weapon, sliced its imaginary blade across the boy’s chest. Butch raised his eyebrows, opened his mouth slowly, was stopped by Dan rising a hand in Double-J’s direction. “Let’s stick with foil at the start. You need to learn the basics first — footwork, point control, right of way rules, that sort of thing.” Double-J shrugged — “That’s fine, for starters. Just lemme know when you’re ready to fence with a man’s weapon.”
Dan quickly laid a hand on Butch’s shoulder. “Butch, is that right?”
“Oh! Yeah, Butch. Not everyone calls me that, see, because that’s not my real name, it’s Benny — Benjamin, actually — my family calls me that, but my friends at school, well most people call me Butch. Even my teachers.”
Dan blinked. “Right. Butch. Just show up at our next practice — Tuesday at 3?”
Butch nodded. “Oh! Yes, sir!”
Dan grinned broadly. “You just call me Coach. Coach Dan, if you will. Show respect for the sport, and your teammates, and you’ll always have my support. Welcome to the team, Butch.”
Standing behind Dan, Rex pointed a slender finger past Butch. “Who’s your friend?” Six pairs of eyes followed the path of that finger, stopping at the sight of a slender girl standing several yards away, her straight hair dangling like black curtains down past her shoulders. Shallow eyes blinked as they met the team’s collective glaze.
“Oh!” Butch examined her a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t know you.” The girl backed two steps away.
Annie stepped past Butch briskly. “I do, I think.” The girl froze at Annie’s approach, appeared ready to back away running, yet stopped as she saw Annie pull up, raised her hands, palms forward. The girl nodded, as if giving permission for Annie to speak. “Aren’t you — Sandy?” Another nod.
“Sandy.” Dan stepped forward, in line with Annie’s right side. “Hello. Did you like the fencing bout?” Nod. “Interested in joining the team?” Nod. “Excellent. Pardon my directness, but you can speak, right?”
Double-J walked up to Annie’s left. “Well, pardon my rudeness — but prove it.”
Annie raised a hand. “It’s OK. I’ve known Sandy a while, and she’s always been quiet. It’s how she is. I actually like her that way — she’s a welcome break from some people I know.” She threw a frown towards Double-J.
Sandy then said, in a voice barely above a whisper, that she only liked to talk when she had something important to say.
Dan clapped his hands. “Well, the good thing about fencing is, that talking during a bout is against the rules, and there’s nothing you could say anyway that’s more important than nailing your opponent. So, my friend, your preference is actually an advantage in fencing.”
A hint of a smile wafted across Sandy’s face.
Rune looked out over Annie’s shoulder. “Didn’t I see you stand up during the bout? In the freshmen section?” Nod. “Can I ask why?”
Sandy hesitated, and looked down, appearing to gather strength to speak. She said she didn’t understand why she’d stood. She said she just needed to stand. And asked if she really needed to give a reason.
“Of course not!” Dan stepped forward, at first cautiously, then two more brisk steps when he was sure Sandy would not run away from him. “All I care to know is whether you can be at practice next Tuesday at 3.” Nod. “Excellent.”
Placing a hand on Sandy’s tiny shoulder, Dan turned and waved for the other five students to gather around them. “Well, here we have it, my friends — the Bark Bay High School fencing team. We’re — small — ” he waited for the appreciative laugh — “but our sport has a long, proud tradition. Some come to this sport and become champions, but everyone learns valuable lessons about themselves. I won’t guarantee anything to any of you, but I do offer you this — as your coach, I will match the commitment you make to this sport, and to yourself.
“Agreed?” The team nodded somewhat in unison. “Excellent. See you all Tuesday.”