Gray Metal Faces – October 14

“Whenever I see more talking than fencing, it’s time for practice to end.” Coach Dan walked over and placed his right hand gently on the Bird’s left shoulder. “Think we’re done for today.”

Myles turned to his former coach, looking perplexed and annoyed. He then glanced up at the large clock in the Bark Bay High School cafeteria. The thin red second hand ticked loudly as it moved from 3 to the next hash. “It’s 4:30, coach. Don’t you still have the cafeteria until 5?”

“Yeah, coach.” Butch spoke as if he believed Dan’s memory was faulty. “Didn’t we stay until 5 the last few weeks?”

Coach Dan held out his right hand, like a traffic cop commanding a vehicle to stop. “Yes, we usually stay until 5.” He turned to Myles, locking his gaze onto the young man’s eyes before continuing. “But today, I think we need to end now.”

The Bird said they needed to stay, that they should let happen what needed to happen. Myles pointed his foil in her direction. “What she said, I guess.”

Rex emerged from behind Coach Dan, his tall thin body seeming to suddenly fill the empty cafeteria. “Come on, Myles. You’ve beaten everyone here, there’s nothing left for you to prove.”

With eyes closed, Myles shifted his head left, then right. Not quick, not wide, but with just enough movement to signify his disagreement. He opened his eyes, darted his eyes to his right – finding Coach Dan (talking with Annie) with his gaze, he turned. “There’s one person I haven’t faced yet.”

“And when – ” Coach Dan stopped in mid-sentence. Blinked. Frowned, then after shifting to an accepting smile, turned towards Myles. “I don’t think – ”

“You were regional champion in foil for, what, northern Illinois?” Grinning, Myles walked in Coach Dan’s direction. “And had entered a few tournaments in college before your – ” his face dropping in comic hyperbolic sorrow – “poor, unfortunate accident.”

“Myles – ” Annie was stopped from speaking further by a quick hand signal from Coach Dan, now staring intently back at Myles.

The freshman student at State and former captain of Bark Bay High School’s fencing team turned slightly, placing his right foot forward, left foot perpendicular. Bent his knees, and extended his right arm forward, holding a foil that he now aimed towards Coach Dan’s head. “But that was – twenty years ago? I’ve seen you leading drills, coach, you never seem uncomfortable. So tell me – why is it that you don’t compete?”

Coach Dan voice was soft yet direct, a voice his team would hear during an unfocused practice session, a voice that said he was no longer asking for their cooperation, he was now telling them what they must do next. “Coaches shouldn’t compete against their team, Myles. I’ve seen it happen, seen how it disrupts, ruins the relationship.” He smiled, the edge in his tone disappearing. “Anyway, I’m not in high school anymore – ”

And neither am I!” Myles remained in en garde position, his smile venomous. “I’ve graduated, coach. Whoops, that’s right – you’re not my coach, no more. You’re just – ” Myles lowered his foil, straightened his knees, stared up thoughtfully as he came out of en garde. “Ah, yes.” He aimed his poisonous stare at Coach Dan. “You’re a middle-aged schoolteacher, from Chicago, who’s starting to feel uncomfortable in this sleepy little town of Bark Bay.”

Myles!

Myles’ face dropped into a scowl as he thrust his left arm in the direction of Annie. “Oh, I see it all the time, young professionals coming here. Doctors, lawyers, teachers – they get tired of city life. The stress, the congestion, the crime. They come here hoping to get away from it all, and at first it’s everything they were looking for. Quiet. Peaceful. Safe.”

Myles turned from Coach Dan, scanned the room and made eye contact with each current member of the Bark Bay High School fencing team as he spoke. “For some the romance ends the first time they order Chinese food.” A nervous laugh rippled through the cafeteria. “Others adjust, but after five years, maybe ten, they start getting – ” he turned back to Coach Dan – “restless.

“Tell me, coach.” Myles was crouched down into en garde position again, fencing mask removed but foil aimed in Coach Dan’s direction. “How goes your ongoing request to replace the team’s electronics?”

“Look around, Myles.” Coach Dan waved his right arm in front of him. “You don’t see any machines, any reels, lames even.” A scoring machine, two reels, and a handful of lames and wired weapons remain stored in the equipment room most practices.

Myles uttered a contemptuous short laugh. “You know, there was a time last year I actually thought old Stu Higgins would open up his budget for you.”

Coach Dan’s right hand transformed into a traffic cop’s, flat palm commanding Myles to stop. “We get by, Myles. Like we always have.”

“Of course, of course! Still, it must be difficult to face yet another year of being ignored, not having the equipment you need. Especially difficult because, back when I was on the team, we nearly came into our own? Stories in the paper, nearly two dozen team members, hosting our own tournament. But that’s all gone now, isn’t it? And you do know why, yes?”

For the first time that anyone on the Bark Bay High School fencing team could remember, their coach looked frustrated. “This isn’t – ”

“The problem, coach, is that you keep thinking of fencing as a team sport. You want the team to be successful, you’re always looking out for your team. But the reality is that all people care about is individuals, personalities. Back when I was around to be your golden boy, we had all the attention we needed. But now – ” he came out of his crouch, looked around quickly at the half-dozen team members – “sorry folks, but you really do look a bit sorry – ”

Give me a foil.” Coach Dan had thrust his right arm towards the team’s equipment bag, without taking his gaze off from Myles.

Myles smiled appreciatively, as Double-J called to Butch, who was closest to long canvas sack that contained the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s foils. “Give coach a foil.”

Butch bent over the sack, then stood upright, turning towards Coach Dan. “Which one?”

“Any one.” Coach Dan maintained his cold stare at Myles. “It doesn’t matter, just give me a foil.” Blades klacked as Butch searched, then came the sound of one rustling against the canvas as Butch retrieved it. Coach Dan turned, smiled at Butch as he accepted the foil.

“You’ll need this.” Annie stepped in front of Coach Dan, mask in hand. Behind her was Butch, carrying the thick black coaching jacket, worn and brown at the chest from hundreds of practice touches. Coach Dan took the mask from Annie, then pointed with his foil at the jacket. “I won’t need that.”

Annie and Rune looked back silently at their coach, their eyes widening. There were times he would conduct drills without his jacket, even times he would let himself be touched. But those were isolated incidents, occurring for the sake of convenience only, to complete an instruction (keep your arm out, turn the wrist, now extend – good – and lunge) without interruption. But this challenge from Myles was not one of those times.

Coach Dan smiled quickly. “It’s OK.” He turned towards Myles, with a determination that made unnecessary any request for Annie and Rune to clear the space between the coach and his former student.

“No jacket?” The tip of his foil pointed at Coach Dan, Myles tilted his head down, eyes staring out from behind a veil of eyebrows, and uttered a loud tsk-tsk. “Not being very safety conscious, are we? Not exactly your style.”

Coach Dan raised his foil, offered a perfunctory salute, quickly closed his mask over his head. Myles remained staring, his mask still at his feet. “No, not like you at all, coach. You seem threatened, like you need to prove something. Not your style at all. You usually try to be much more – avuncular, I think’s the word.”

Coach Dan crouched down into en garde position. The Bark Bay High School fencing team had seen him demonstrate this position before, but none of them had seen him display such coiled energy, such aggression. He was no longer interested in instruction. Coach Dan was now in position to compete, to fence against his former student.

Myles raised his foil in salute, grinning eagerly at Coach Dan. He completed the salute, then suddenly brightened in surprise. “A referee!” Myles turned to the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. “Which one of you cares to direct our bout?”

Rex raised his hand, his tall thin body looking like a flagpole planted in the middle of the cafeteria floor. Coach Dan lifted his mask from the bib, exposing his face, uttered a quick thanks before swiping a salute in the tall teen’s direction. He then shoved the mask down, his face disappearing behind its gray metal, and turned to face Myles, also masked and ready.

Rex called for the two fencers to begin. For the members of last year’s Bark Bay High School fencing team, seeing Myles advance with his customary aggression evoked strong memories. For behind the gray metal of his mask, under the smooth white linen of his jacket, the teen holding the foil whose red rubber tip twirled in tight threatening circles – they all recognized their former captain, the elite athlete whose natural abilities made him a force in whatever sport he undertook (and there were few he had not as a student at Bark Bay), whose skill with the blade was the envy even among the more accomplished fencers at the Academy, whose work ethic and determination to win brought feelings of shame to all of his teammates, even Double-J (although he would not admit to that). Yes, the person advancing to the center of the strip, this was Myles, the Myles, their Myles, their leader and captain, who they had enjoyed watching defeat, most times with ease, opponents none of the other Bark Bay fencers could even hope to conquer. Seeing Myles about to attack had always brought them comfort in the past, knowing that even if they could not have success, Myles would succeed for them.

But his opponent for this bout was far different than any other opponent they had seen him face. For Myles’ opponent was not only their coach, but the only reason that Bark Bay High School had a fencing team in the first place. Daniel Jacobs – Mr. Jacobs, as he was called in his day job as the Honors English teacher – Coach Dan had formed the team on his own initiative four years ago, had kept it going through both bad times (the years before Myles) and good (those two years when not only captained the team, but drew both members and media attention through the strength of his all-sport celebrity). Myles may have been their leader for two years, but everybody knew that Coach Dan was their foundation. Myles’ graduation had been a blow, but should Coach Dan suddenly find he no longer had time to lead the team, or become fed up with the perennial lack of funding from the athletic department, or (as Myles had just suggested) finally tired of small town life in Bark Bay and took a job in a larger, more prosperous community . . . everybody knew there would be no fencing team at their school should any of those events occur.

So as Rex called for the two opponents to begin their bout, they felt torn between wanting to see Myles launch himself, demonstrate the awesome power and skill of his blade, and needing to see their coach, their rock, withstand yet another challenge.

Myles advanced swiftly towards the center of the makeshift strip, Coach Dan remaining in his position, balancing between the balls of his feet. “You sure you remember how to do this, coach?” Myles tone was friendly, but mocking. “How long has it been since you’ve competed?”

Crouched down in his en garde position, Coach Dan continued bouncing silently on his feet, the blank gray metal of his mask hovering silently behind his extended foil.

Myles shook his head, the shadow of a grin visible behind his mask. “You’re just letting me take the middle? Aren’t you still telling your students to be the aggressor, take the center whenever possible?” He turned slightly towards Rex, standing in the director’s position outside the center. “That is still his strategy, right?” The tall teen nodded. “So coach, you must want me to take the center. Is this part of today’s fencing lesson?”

Coach Dan gave no reply as he continued the back-and-forth bounce between front and back foot. Annie thought he looked like a robot toy, his movements steady and predictable.

“No answer?” Myles’ tone sharpened with impatience. “Well I guess there’s only one thing TO DO,” as the last two words spat out behind his metal mask Myles stepped forward quickly, right arm extended and aiming his foil at Coach Dan, the weight of his body thrown into a powerful lunge –

Coach Dan stepped back, turning his wrist over, his foil flexing swiftly to his left, blade singing as it parried Myles’ attack.

Myles stepped back with reflexes trained to anticipate his opponent’s riposte. Yet Coach Dan did not riposte, did not make any attacking motion at all. Instead he resumed his quiet defensive pose, bouncing lightly between the balls of his feet.

Myles stepped back, uncertainty wafting over him like an unexpected cold breeze in autumn. The observers understood his hesitation. Coach Dan had always told them to follow a successful parry with an immediate riposte, to take advantage of their opportunity, seize control of the action. Yet he’d followed his parry of Myles attack by stepping back, withdrawing from the action. Coach Dan appeared calm and controlled, bouncing lightly between the balls of his feet at his end of the makeshift strip, yet everyone in the cafeteria sensed that what had happened, and would continue to happen as this practice bout between coach and former student progressed, would be far different than anything they had seen in practice.

Exhaling a loud grunt, Myles advanced again, with less power and speed than his initial attack. He threatened four, disengaged to six, lunged – Coach Dan stepped back, caught Myles’ blade with a circular parry. No riposte. Myles recoiled, then immediately resumed his attack, threatening six and feinting a disengage before lunging – Coach Dan stepped back, parried. No riposte.

The bout continued for several minutes along the same pattern, Myles continuing to attack with increased determination, each attack parried deftly by Coach Dan, who made no riposte or attack of his own. Myles attacked Dan’s low line, parried as efficiently as the others; Myles stepped back, his shoulders drooping, noisily inhaling behind the grey metal of his mask, Coach Dan’s breathing barely audible as he continued bouncing between the balls of his feet.

Another lunge from Myles, another parry from Coach Dan. No riposte. Myles turned quickly to Rex, standing in the director’s position outside the makeshift strip, between the two fencers. Rex shook his head, uttered a brief “no touch.” Myles raised his left hand, asked for time; Rex glanced at Coach Dan, who nodded curtly.

Waving his left hand up in Rex’s direction, Myles crouched back down into en garde position, behind the starting line of the makeshift strip. His crouch was lower than before, the coiled energy in his bent knees charging the air around him. Across the strip, behind his starting line, crouched Coach Dan, resuming the soft bounce between back and front feet he had maintained since the beginning of the bout.

Rex, standing in the director’s position outside the center of the strip, with elbows tight on his sides extended his forearms, his left pointed towards his coach, his right towards the young man who last year had been his closest friend on the Bark Bay High School fencing team. Turning his head swiftly from right to left, he called for the opponents to be ready.

“What’s the score?” Myles flinched with disgust at Butch’s question. Rex answered without turning back. “There is no score.” Another quick flick of his head to left and right, then Rex commanded the two opponents to fence.

Myles quickly advanced two steps, and with a guttural roar lunged at Coach Dan, his back leg propelling the young man forward like a leaf blown by a sudden powerful gust of wind.

Coach Dan had already begun to step back as Myles projectiled towards him. The older man’s blade deflected Myles’ attack, but again, the riposte did not come. Myles stepped back, the gray metal of his fencing mask staring at his opponent, and exhaled loudly. “Will – you – FIGHT?”

“I am.” Coach Dan’s reply was as curt as his parries had been.

“RIPOSTE!” Myles slammed his front foot on the tiled floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, the playfulness of his earlier taunts no longer present. “You parry, you riposte!”

Coach Dan stood upright, abruptly pushed his mask onto the top of his head, exposing his face. “Not always. Only riposte when the moment’s right.”

“And?” Spit flew from Myles’ masked face. “AND?” He threw his arms wide to his sides. “You haven’t attacked ONCE, haven’t riposted ONCE since we started. Why hasn’t the moment been right so far?”

Coach Dan smiled. “It’s all part of my strategy, my friend.” He pulled down the mask over his face, resumed his en garde crouch.

Myles did not wait for Rex to restart the bout, the teen charging at Coach Dan with an aggressive growl, his foil thrusting forward violently, only to be parried by his older opponent. No longer concerned about a possible riposte, Myles attacked again, followed this parry with another attack, and again, each attack seeming faster and more powerful than the one before, the sound of colliding metal sounding through the empty cafeteria like a printing press, hammering again and again . . .

And Myles stepped back, shoulders drooping, breath coming heavy from behind the gray metal of his fencing mask. He raised his head, looked across the makeshift strip at Coach Dan, who remained in his crouch, bouncing lightly between his feet, perhaps not with the same energy he had shown at the start of their bout, but still controlled, steady, ready for his opponent’s next move. Which was to raise his left hand, pointing the foil held in his right at the ground.

“You – you – ” Myles dropped his foil, which KANGed awkwardly on the tiled floor, then leaned forward, hands on knees. “OK. You win.”

Coach Dan was known for surprising his students, but what he did next amazed even Double-J, who had worked with him for four years. Coach Dan shook his head. “No. This bout isn’t over yet. You need to finish.”

Myles stood upright, laughing. “No –”

Finish.” The curt command wasn’t a shout – Coach Dan did not shout – but was uttered with the directness of an arresting officer.

Myles leaned forward more, now resting his forearms rather than hands on his knees, his masked head pointing straight down at the tiled floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria. He talked as if addressing someone standing behind him. His voice was soft.

“There’s . . . no point, coach. You . . . I can’t . . . are you trying to prove – ”

“I’m not trying to prove anything.” Although the bounce between his feet had dissipated into a gentle back-and-forth rocking, Coach Dan remained in his en garde crouch as he spoke. “I’m trying to win this bout, a bout that you requested.”

Myles continued to address the imaginary person crouching between his legs. “Then . . . then attack.”

“But that’s not my –”

YEAAAHHHR!” Myles stood up suddenly, brought his hands up to the sides of his head, tore off his fencing mask in one sudden, violent motion. His sweat-drenched face pained with hate, Myles held the mask over his head like a prehistoric caveman lifting a boulder, then swung his upper body down, arms following and continuing and releasing the mask, which clattered with a hollow metallic echo against the tiled floor, bouncing once, twice, then rolled gently along the convex oval of its front face.

The members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team stared in disbelief as Myles, their former captain, turned from the makeshift strip, took three steps, then fell on his knees to the floor, his chin dropping until it fell on his heaving chest.

“Call it.” Everyone in the room except Myles turned to the sound of Coach Dan’s voice. He was addressing Rex, who’d remained standing at the director’s position. Coach Dan pointed the tip of his foil at Rex. “Call it.”

Rex shook his head, pointed at Myles without looking at him. “Black – black card.” Later that evening, Rune will explain to Butch about the three levels of fencing infractions, how directors kept three cards with them, would show a yellow card to issue a warning, a red to penalize a touch against a fencer, and black for violations egregious enough to warrant immediate disqualification from a tournament. Yes, Rune will explain, poor sportsmanship could be grounds for a black card. No, he will explain, he had not seen a black card infraction prior to this afternoon.

Coach Dan leaned forward, pulled his fencing mask over the top of his head. His face was expressionless as he brought his legs together, turned in the direction of Myles (slumped with his knees on the floor outside their makeshift strip), raised his foil in salute, brought it swiftly down. His actions were stiff, performed with the enthusiasm of a waiting room patient filling out a medical form.

The large cafeteria was silent, save for the sound of Myles’ labored breathing, gradually subsiding like a steam engine powering down. Coach Dan caught Annie’s eyes, waved her over to him with a backwards nod of his bearded head. She hustled towards him, pony-tail dragging behind her head, as her coach extended his foil and mask in her direction. She took both, and turned towards the large canvas sacks that contained the equipment of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. Rune met her, waved the Bird and Butch over to join them.

Double-J walked behind Rex, clapped him on the right shoulder. The tall teen turned, saw his mustachioed friend jerk his thumb behind them, in the direction of the metal doors leading out of the cafeteria. Coach Dan called to them, asked them to wait a moment. He was about to give them information about the team’s upcoming practice at the Academy, when the sound of bitter laughter echoed jarringly through the large cafeteria.

Coach Dan turned at the sound, as did the members of the fencing team. They saw Myles, still slumped over, his body heaving with a sound filled with mixed emotions. Anger, sorrow, contempt, regret, pity, defiance – the range of emotions in his laugh fell on their ears like the taste of an over spiced soup.

Myles stopped laughing, sniffed loudly. His back still facing his former teammates, they watched him raise the back of his right hand to his nose, wipe dismissively. He inhaled, the mucus in his throat rattling noxiously. Pushing off the tiled cafeteria floor with his hands, he rose to his feet, and turned, the streams of tears on his cheeks glistening off the ceiling lights like war paint.

With swollen red eyes, Myles scanned the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, who had instinctively gathered around Coach Dan as Myles approached. Their former captain – second in foil at last year’s state tournament, four-year starting quarterback, career assist leader on the basketball team, drafted but not signed by the Cincinnati Reds in the amateur baseball draft – and currently just another nameless college freshman at State, raised his right arm to chest level, and pointed an accusing finger at his former teammates.

Myles scoffed, turned, walked two steps, turned back, face redder than before. He pointed down at the floor “This place. How you train here, what you learn in this school, what you or your parents do in this damn town – ” his voice was now a barely audible whisper – “none of it’s going to do you any good. All you’re doing now is just hiding, deluding yourself that you’re going to be ready for what’s out there when you’re eighteen, and nobody’s legally obligated to take care of you anymore.”

“Myles.” Rex stepped forward, his long legs looping past Coach Dan, his lean right arm extended towards his former teammate. “It’s OK. We can help you.” Coach Dan came up beside him, nodded.

Myles stood upright, frowned as he took Rex’s hand. “Hmmm. Believe me, buddy, I’d like to believe you. Problem is, I know better, and enough to know that your offer is part of the problem.”

Myles raised his hands to his face, wiping the tear stains from his cheeks, then flicked his head towards Coach Dan. “Sorry, coach – ”

“Call me Dan. And call me tomorrow.”

Myles shut his eyes, nodded as a small grin seeped onto his face. He turned again, this time walking quickly, the metal doors of the cafeteria clanking loudly as he exited.

Coach Dan and the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team stood silently, staring at the metal exit doors of the cafeteria, as if they expected Myles to walk back through them again. A moment later, as the distant opening sound of the glass doors leading to the school parking lot made its way to them, Rex exhaled loudly.

“I guess this means,” Rune’s voice lilting comically, “that Myles won’t be joining us at the Academy on Saturday?” He looked around the room, his eyes wide with laughter, but was met with cold stares from everyone.

“Just wish the bastard wasn’t right.” Coach Dan turned quickly at Double-J’s comment, was met with a frowning response. “Well he is.”

Annie walked up quickly to Double-J, stared directly into his mustachioed face, her pony-tail straight back and stiff behind her head. “What’s he right about? Us being losers?” Rune walked up behind Annie, joined her defiant stare. “Yeah, what’s up with that?”

Double-J held up both palms, his mouth twitching into a mashup of a bemused smile and disgusted grimace. “Chill out, you two. The safety part, is what I meant.” He turned to Coach Dan. “I remember when you started this team, it was all about fencing. But now it’s turned into, I don’t know,” Double-J throwing his arms up into the air, “some kind of glee club.”

Coach Dan pursed his lips, nodded sideways. “Yes, just like a glee club. Except there’s no music, no performances, and the singers stab each other with weapons.”

His response generating the rippling giggles he had wanted, Coach Dan moved to a location that was as equidistant as he could be to the six members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. He raised his voice, words echoing off the tiled floor and concrete walls of the cafeteria.

“Everyone has their own reasons for being on this team. Some of you are more competitive than others – ” he made quick eye contact with Double-J, then Rex, then Annie – “others, not so much. But I’ve never had try-outs, never cut anyone who wanted to be on the team. So long as you put in the work at practice, show you want to be here, there’s a place for you.

“Just like there was a place for Myles.” He quickly scanned the faces of the fencing team members, saw emotions ranging from disgust to shame. “I’ve never met an athlete like Myles, even when I was competing in college. He had God-given talent, a work ethic equal to none, and a consuming desire to win.”

He scanned the team’s faces again. They were getting uncomfortable. “And I failed him.” The faces turned back to him, eyes filled with questions.

Coach Dan looked down. “I saw his talent, and decided what he needed was to be pushed. That was foolish – Myles could push himself, he didn’t need me to motivate him. The only thing I did was to keep him focused entirely on himself, on what he could do. He was so popular here at school, he thought it was all about him. And I, foolishly, did nothing to help him think differently.”

The soft sound of a throat clearing interrupted. Coach Dan looked up, saw the Bird holding her hand in the air above her head. He nodded to her silently.

That’s not your fault, the slender girl said behind her straight black curtain of hair. When you fence, she continued, you’re always by yourself, alone on the strip. Maybe Myles was right to think it was all about him, because in fencing, it really is all about you.

Coach Dan raised his eyebrows quickly. “It’s easy to see it that way.” Then he smiled, the short dark curls of his beard seeming to grow as his face brightened. “But – no offense – it’s also short-sighted.”

He walked slowly among the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, making eye contact with each as he passed them. “Every fencer has to be a bit selfish. Accomplishing something for yourself is what gives you that drive, that energy to succeed, to get better at the sport. But this sport is too difficult for anyone to succeed on their own. High schoolers, college fencers, people in clubs – doesn’t matter what level you’re at – even people at the national, international level – everyone meets some obstacle they can’t overcome, some skill they can’t master, some opponent they just can’t beat.”

Standing in front of Double-J, Coach Dan raised his right index finger in the air. “That’s when you need help. Whether it’s someone coaching you, working with you on a drill, helping you strategize, or even just giving you moral support. Without people around to aid you when you need it – no, you’re not going to succeed.”

He now walked into the center of the cafeteria, in full view of his students. “And the only way you can get that help, is to give it. To show by your actions, that you’re not just fencing for yourself – you’re fencing for your teammates, your family, your friends. And that, that is what I forgot to teach Myles when he was here.”

Coach Dan turned in the direction of the large analog clock, suspended over the metal-curtained half-doors leading to the kitchen.  “Ten to five.” The fencing team officially had the cafeteria until 5, but since the janitors wouldn’t be polishing the floors for another week, they could stay a good three-quarters to a full hour longer. Coach Dan turned back to his team. “Today was – unusual, to say the least. If you’ve all had enough, I understand.”

Rex stepped forward. “But we’ve got that tournament at the Academy Saturday.”

“It’s – ” Coach Dan stopped himself from stating that Saturday was just a practice. “Go on.”

Rex walked up to one of the lines between black and white tile on the cafeteria floor. “If it’s OK, with you, Coach – ” Rex brought his right foot forward, toe just behind the line, and crouched into en garde position – “I’d like to prepare more for Saturday.”

“Yes!” Annie followed her exclamation by rushing up to Rex’ line, her head turned and left hand waving to the rest of the team, her pony-tail swishing her back. “Let’s go, guys!”

Rune smiled meekly, joined the line next to Annie, followed by the Bird, then Butch. Coach Dan looked beyond the line, saw Double-J standing where he had been, arms folded across his chest, bemusement still animating his mustachioed face. Coach Dan raised his chin. “You want the big kids to make fun of you?” Double-J laughed, shook his head, lowered his arms and with mock enthusiasm, joined the line to Rex’ left.

“Very good.” Coach Dan got into position, facing the team a few paces in front of their line, and came down into en garde position. The short dark curls of his beard brightened as he smiled, took one step backward, and called for the team to advance.

Advance. Advance advance. Retreat, double retreat. Advance, extend, lunge – what goes FIRST?

End of “October”

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