Myles’ teammates from last year gathered around him as Coach Dan called over the Bird and Butch, inquisitive looks on their faces. “The Wall starts with one person standing with their back to a wall. Everybody else forms a line in front of them, and takes turns fencing the person against the wall. Just one touch — soon as either the person against the wall or the person he faces scores, that person goes to the back of the line, and the next person goes up, fences to one touch. When the person against the wall’s faced everyone, somebody else goes to the wall, and you go through the line again.”
By the time Coach Dan had finished explaining the rules of the game to the Bird and Butch, Myles had already positioned himself with his back to the west wall of the cafeteria, facing a line headed by Rex. Myles pulled the fencing mask he had found down over his head. “Coach, I remember this damn thing from last year, thought you were going to throw it out?”
“You find a replacement for it, Myles, and I’ll go through with it.”
Myles chuckled, not caring to hide his disdain for Coach Dan’s response. “And this foil,” he continued, picking up the foil he had found and waving it in the air, his complaint now muffled from behind the grey metal of the mask. “Can’t you tighten this thing?” He pointed to the hilt, which made a large creaking sound as the blade wobbled wildly. “I mean, really.”
“You’re not looking to make excuses ahead of time, are you?” Rex’ tone was light, mocking but not challenging.
“On the contrary.” Myles’ tone indicated he had no interest in continuing to jest with Rex. “I just want everyone to know how inferior my equipment is, in order to make my coming victory all the more impressive.” Myles bent his knees, right foot extended forward and right arm holding his foil, its tip pointed directly at Rex.
“This one is for States,” Rex called, crouching down and advancing towards Myles. Rex lunged — the blades of the two teens clashed — HA! Myles exclaimed. The point of his foil dug into Rex’ right shoulder. “Rex, how many times do I have to tell you not to attack to six every time? You’re as predictable as ever. Anybody who’s faced you more than once knows to not go to the four parry, just wait for the disengage to six. I mean, really, Rex. Next!”
Rex turned, shaking his head as he walked back to the end of the line. Annie stepped forward, crouched into en garde position in front of Myles.
“Ah!” Myles exclamation jabbed at Annie. “The usurper!”
Annie tilted her head, her face questioning behind her gray metal mask. She heard Double-J grunt behind her as Myles continued. “Little girl, judging by the size of your feet, you’re going to need some newspaper to stuff the shoes you’re trying to fill.”
Annie shot back her reply. “Foot size doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with them that counts.”
Myles laughed, crouched down into en garde position. “We’re not in ballet class any more, little girl, and this isn’t Gandy’s gym.” He extended his foil at Annie. “Let’s see if you can dance your way past three feet of steel.”
Annie growled, launched herself at Myles. He deftly parried, his riposte fast and firm, and counter-parried by Annie. She attempted to riposte, but Myles swung his blade hard and to the right, overpowering Annie, who grunted in disgust as Myles forced the tip of his weapon onto Annie’s belly.
Annie stepped back, laughed, teased her response — “Bully!”
Myles nodded. “Every opponent’s a bully. They look for your weakness, then exploit it unmercifully. You’re fast, skilled, but there’s no meat on your upper body. If you want to survive in tournaments, start doing pushups. Next!”
Annie shrugged, turned and walk back to the end of line, giving way to Double-J. Myles faced him, raised his left hand in greeting. “And now it’s — ”
“Shut up,” Double-J following his curt command with a quick advance towards Myles.
Myles lunged at his opponent’s second step, Double-J recovering from the surprise move in time to parry, his riposte coming immediately and parried by Myles. The two teens drew their arms back, jabbed with their foils, both landing a touch on their opponent’s chest.
Double-J spoke in the voice of a man not willing to negotiate. “Second intention.”
Myles shook his head. “My counter-parry, I have right of way, my touch.”
Double-J swore loudly. “My blade never lost control of the action, it’s mine!”
Myles chuckled, a mocking smile visibly beaming behind his gray metal mask, but Coach Dan called before he could respond. “It’s a drill, my friends, not a debate. Move on to the next fencer, please.”
Double-J backed away towards the end of the line, not turning from Myles. “This isn’t over yet.”
Myles chuckled again. “John, I haven’t even gotten started yet. Trust me, you’ll know when I get going.”
Rune was next in line to face Myles in the drill. “Mind if I try something new?” When Myles shrugged his reply to Rune’s question, the younger teen extended his arm, charged forward quickly, the tip of his foil aimed at Myles’ chest. Myles parried the blow easily, waited for Rune to nearly reach him, then jabbed with his foil, the tip landing on Rune’s back.
After stopping his run, Rune turned to Myles. But Myles was already looking at Butch, next in line. “Fleche attacks look cool, but you shouldn’t try them unless you know what you’re doing.” Myles talked as if Rune wasn’t in the room.
“On the contrary!” Coach Dan’s booming voice echoed off the cafeteria walls and tiled floor. “The whole point of practice is to experiment, find things that work for you. Rune,” his eyes now directed at the teen’s gray metal mask, “good for you.”
Already near the end of the line, Rune stood silent a moment. Then, turning back to Myles, he pumped his fist into the air and bellowed with comic enthusiasm. YEAH! Laughter broke among the line of fencers, the amused absurdity of Rune’s reaction even penetrating the gruff visage of Double-J, who laughed with the detached reserve of a man allowing himself to be pleased while watching his son’s cartoons.
The shadow of a smile could even be seen through the metal of Myles’ mask. “How droll, Hugh. Now why don’t you get back to the end of the line, and let me see how good coach’s new recruits are.”
Butch walked forward from the line. Stopped, then raised his foil, the tip pointed above Myles’ head. Myles responded with a laugh that carried no humor. “It’s a drill, dude. You don’t salute for a drill.”
“Oh! Sorry.” Butch sounded genuinely embarrassed and apologetic. “I just started last month — ”
“I gathered that.” Myles came out of his crouch, turned his head until the face of his gray metal mask pointed in the direction of Coach Dan. “But I am surprised that you put a foil in his hand so soon, coach.”
Coach Dan raised his eyebrows, his chin lifting seemingly in response. “This isn’t Europe, my friend. You know as well as I do, you put a group of American teens in a room full of weapons, there’s no way they’re going to just practice footwork for a year. Tournaments no, but practice — I seem to recall you picking up a blade that day you wandered in here from basketball practice.”
“True.” Myles took off his mask, sought Coach Dan’s gaze with his eyes. “But let’s just say that was — different.”
Annie shot her reply before Coach Dan could speak — “Is that because you’re freaking Myles?”
Myles turned towards her, grinned brashly. “Well, since you seem so insistent — no, not because I am who I am. It’s because I was — ” he turned quickly to Butch — “sorry to be blunt — ” now turning back to Annie — “back then, I was in shape.”
Butch looked reflexively down at his rotund body, his embarrassment grown deeper.
“I wouldn’t brag about your conditioning, pal.” Double-J had removed his mask, stepped forward from the line to face Myles. “You’re sucking some serious wind.”
Myles 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. Myles 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 Myles. Who had not moved throughout Butch’s stumbling.
The end came quickly, Butch lunging awkwardly only to be parried deftly, Myles’ riposte landing swiftly. Myles turned to the next person in line, ignoring Butch as if he were a fly he had just shooshed away from his meal.
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.” Myles statement was as much a command as a statement of fact. The Bird took a step back, almost backing into Annie, who put a gentle hand on the slender girl’s back.
Myles lowered his arms, tilted his head playfully. “Oh puh-leeze. You’re not supposed to retreat, it’s against the rules!”
The Bird replied that she didn’t know what to do.
Myles swept his foil in front of him, swoosh. “You’re supposed to fence, darling. That is why you’re here, isn’t it.”
The Bird shook her head.
“What?” Myles’ voice cracked through the air, Annie recognizing the tone from last year. Myles had a term, a combination of disgust and confusion, he called it confustion. His voice was filled with confustion as he spoke to the Bird. “So why are you here, darling? Looking for a date?”
Annie stepped forward. “Myles — ”
He swept his arms open. “I’m available, you know.”
Coach Dan stepped forward, but the Bird 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 the Bird, their eyes filled with questions.
“Really now?” Myles’ confusion grew along with his volume. “And what is it, exactly, that I’m looking for?”
The person you used to be, she replied.
Time seemed to stop in the cafeteria, as the gray metal of Myles’ fencing mask peered into the Bird. The sound of footsteps in the hall could be heard.
Myles crouched down into en garde position. He waved the Bird forward. “Let’s just do this, OK?”
“Hold on, my friend.” Coach Dan stepped between the Bird and Myles.