The convenience store was one of the few remaining independent shops of its kind in the area, most having long been absorbed or run out of business by regional and national chains. The teens entered through a door with a handwritten cardboard sign stating REST ROOM FOR CUSTOMER USED ONLY, Annie running her finger under the misspelling as they entered. To their immediate left as they entered was the main counter, populated by an amalgam of newspapers, magazines, candy counters, displays of cigarette lighters, air fresheners, various and sundry other small wares, all arranged with no evident consideration of commercial appeal, like a hastily decorated Christmas tree.
In contrast to the immaculate plastic of modern convenience stores, the interior here had retained the wooden worn look of a building twice its actual age. As the teens walked through the poorly illuminated aisles, the wooden floor creaked as if in pain under each footfall.
Annie walked with Rex to the line of refrigerated containers at the far end of the store. As Annie opened one of the doors to retrieve a bottle of apple juice, she saw Rex inspecting a shelf of wrapped sandwiches.
“Hungry?” Seemingly ignoring her question, Rex picked up one of the sandwiches, brought it close to his bespectacled eyes. He turned it over to read the price tag, opened his eyes wide, placed it down quickly as if afraid of contamination. He glared at Annie — “Not any longer” — and turned to leave.
Annie walked to an aisle that contained potato chips and other snacks. Finding nothing there that appealed to her, she returned to the refrigerated section, inspected the sandwiches as Rex had done. After picking up a ham and cheese on wheat for herself, she noticed one of the other sandwiches had been placed upside down, and after a moment’s thought realized it had been the one Rex had inspected and put back. She grabbed this one, a roast beef on white, and walked to the front counter.
A customer in bright orange hunting garb had just paid when Annie arrived. She placed her items on the counter, and a large, fat-fingered man punched greasy keys on a register.
“Two sandwiches?” The large man’s friendliness was actually unnerving. “For such a little girl like you?”
“One’s for my friend.” Annie pointed behind her at the door.
“You mean that tall fella who just walked out?”
Annie looked up at the cashier, noticing the two-day beard stubble for the first time. “Yes, the tall fella.” She reached into her coat pocket for her wallet.
“Ankiel kid, right?”
Annie looked up again, surprised that the cashier knew Rex’s last name. The large man was evidently pleased to catch her off guard. “Been to their trailer a few times, hauling wood. I do some work for the government. They’re on assistance, you know.”
“Yes.” Annie couldn’t stop herself. “They’re a very poor family, had a lot of bad luck.”
“His father –- ”
“I know about his father.”
The cashier laughed. “How much else you know about the family? Even been to their trailer?” She shook her head. “It’s not right, the way they live.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Rex, or his family.” Annie stared at the cashier with an intensity she typically reserved for the strip. “They’re just poor.”
“Not natural -– ”
“They’re POOR, dammit!” Annie’s fist slammed onto the counter, the change she had placed there jumping, clattering. The athletic teen and the large man stared at each other with mutual distaste as a quarter rolled on its edge, lost its momentum, saurcered down onto the counter.
She reached for the sandwiches and drinks she had placed at the counter, ready it seemed to return them to their shelves. Yet she paused, making a mental calculation of the remaining distance to the Academy, the time left until the start of the scrimmage, and the resulting probability of stopping again.
Coach Dan thrust the door open, a look of concern on his face. “Everything OK?”
Annie nodded forcefully, took out her wallet with hands shaking from fury. Coach Dan looked up at the cashier, who shrugged his shoulders with an exaggerated look of innocence on his face. “We need to get going,” Coach Dan called to Annie, and walked out.
Annie counted out exact change and pushed it across the stained counter to the cashier, who grinned with some feeling of victory. “Doesn’t take much to get you going, does it?”
Annie ignored him as she picked up her goods.
The cashier leaned forward across the counter, whispered. “That trailer only has two beds, you know.”
She hurried out the door, hitting her knee by accident.
Butch walked up to Annie as she rushed out the door, asked if she would mind switching cars. Annie nodded, then called out to Rex as he opened the door to Double-J’s car. She walked up to him, looked around to make sure they weren’t being directly observed — “I got this for you,” and thrust the roast beef sandwich into his hands.
Rex’s lips contorted on his face like a caterpillar in pain. To Annie, it looked as though he was trying to smile and frown at the same time.
“Annie, you know I can’t – ”
“Yes you can, and you will. You need to be at your best, it’s going to be a long day and you need nourishment.”
“I’ll be OK – ”
“Yes, and you’ll be better after you eat.”
“But –- ” and now Annie rose on her toes, grabbed Rex by his coat, pulled him down to her upturned face, and with an expression and voice that clearly stated that this was no longer a conversation –-
Rex stood upright, eyes blinking behind his thick glasses, as Annie released her grip. A moment later he was unwrapping his sandwich in the front seat of Double-J’s coupe as it drove down the highway, followed by Coach Dan’s sedan.
Hearing Butch and Rune giggling to each other in the back seat, Rex turned and asked what they found so amusing. “It’s a song we came up with,” Butch’s eyes filled with excitement. “Want to hear?”
“Sure.” Rex made a point of turning towards Double-J and catching his pained reaction, as Butch hummed The Battle Hymn of the Republic to Rune’s singing:
All eyes will be astounded by the flurry of our blades
They will stagger in befuddlement as we disengage
The Academy will falter — won’t Gavvy be amazed
Our foils are thrusting on!
“How nice,” Double-J’s drawl rising above Rune and Butch’s giggles. “Glad to see you can keep yourselves amused back there.”
Butch tapped the back of Rex’s seat. “Who’s Gavvy?”
“Gavriella Simons.” Rune sounded as if he took offense to not being asked. “Fencing coach at the Academy.”
“Oh!” Butch scratched his chin. “Will she be there today?”
Rex nodded. “Oh yeah. And believe me, you’ll meet her.”
“Whether you want to, or not.” Rune looked out his window.
Double-J glanced up at the rearview mirror. “No more songs, I hope?”
Rex shrugged. “Better than knock-knock jokes.”
Pause. Rune leaned forward, “knock -knock!” Double-J punched Rex.
“So Rune,” Double-J’s question cutting off Rune’s joke, “what’s the deal with you and Annie?”
Pause. “What do you mean?”
“For the record, Double-J and I never dated.” In the back seat of Coach Dan’s sedan, The Bird seemed dissatisfied with Annie’s response, and said she’d heard they had at least gone out to a movie together; Annie scoffed. “If he’s calling that a date, then I dated about 50 other people that night. We started talking about this movie one night at practice and I said I wanted to see it, then Double-J was like great, I’ll pick you up at 6 on Saturday. And I didn’t know what to say since the whole team heard what he said, so I wound up saying sure only because I didn’t want to be rude. So we went to the movie, and that was it.” The Bird asked if anything happened after the movie; Annie looked up at Coach Dan, who seemed focused on driving, then leaned over to The Bird and whispered “He invited me up to his apartment.” How did you answer, asked The Bird.
“No.” Rex looked back at Butch as he answered. “I haven’t seen your father in a while.”
“We’re praying for your family,” Butch’s earnest voice filling the car’s interior. “Every evening.” Double-J and Rune visibly pretended not to be listening.
Rex turned to face forward, away from Butch. “I guess that’s what your family does.”
“Must come naturally to you,” Double-J’s eyes focused on the road in front of the coupe. “Praying all the time like that. Must feel natural to you, like eating is for some people, or taking . . . going to the bathroom.”
Butch laughed. “You think I’m just a praying machine? A robot?”
“Pretty much.” Rex turned to Double-J with disapproval, and Rune leaned forward to object. However, Butch spoke first.
“I pray because I like to pray. Yeah, for a long time I was going through the motions, when I was a kid, I’d recite the prayers because that’s what I was supposed to do. Didn’t really believe in God when I was a kid, and a couple years back, when I was middle school, I was beginning to wonder how long I’d be able to keep up the charade.
“But then there was this day, we was out on recess, and you know how you had to line up by your class at the end to get back into the school?” Double-J and Rex nodded. “Well, there was this one day, when I was still in fifth grade, and since we was the youngest class we all lined up against the brick wall, the one outside the cafeteria, you know which one I’m talking about right? Well there was this one day, we were all lined up and most of us are leaning against the brick wall, and the older kids are making fun of us like they always did, and I’m just looking down and ignoring them. Then all of a sudden I start thinking, why am I leaning against the wall like this, why are any of us fifth graders out here, why are the older kids yelling at us, why are our teachers here, why is any of us here, what is all of this about? I know, weird stuff for someone who’s ten to think about, but I couldn’t help it, all these thoughts kept coming to me.
“Then, all of a sudden –- I don’t know how else to describe it, other than I felt something. It was inside me, deep inside, and although I felt it physically it didn’t seem to have a physical origin. And though I didn’t know what it was, I knew what it meant, and what it meant was – I wasn’t alone, none of us was alone, at least we didn’t have to feel like we were alone if we didn’t want to be lonely. And it was until that moment that I finally believed in God, because that was the only way I could describe what I had just felt. There was something out there, bigger than any of us, and it was saying to me . . . ‘hello.’
“But then one of the older kids threw a rock that almost hit me, and I realized everyone in front of me had started walking, and the teachers and the kids behind me were yelling at me to get moving, so I went into school.”
“So you don’t feel lonely anymore?” Double-J was looking up at Butch’s reflection in the rearview mirror. Butch smiled contentedly, like a man savoring an enjoyable dinner, and shook his head.
“Why are you so afraid to speak?” Coming from others that question always seemed threatening to The Bird, but she was finding herself more at ease with Annie than she was with most everyone else. She explained that the words she used never said what she meant. Coach Dan tried to correct her, “If people don’t understand you that’s their problem,” but The Bird shook her head, said people understand the words she was saying, the problem was her words weren’t correct. She said she felt like a different person whenever she spoke, that she was one person when she thought to herself but someone entirely different when speaking, and those two people were never the same, could never agree on anything. Annie cleared her throat — “Is what your saying now what you’re thinking?” The Bird thought a moment, said that yes, they were the same. Coach Dan sounded relieved, “See what happens when you stand up for yourself — it’s like fencing, I’m always telling everyone to be aggressive, don’t sit back and wait for your opponent to come at you, take the initiative.” The Bird shook her head, thanked Mr. Jacobs for his words, but said that didn’t work for her.
“Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to facing the Academy again since last spring,” Rune stretching his arms across the back seat. “Want to prove to hot-shot up there,” thumbing in Double-J’s direction, “that last spring wasn’t a fluke.”
“Who’d you beat last spring?” Double-J’s tone sharply interrogative. “Wasn’t it some girl from Midland? And that guy Josh, from our squad?”
“Not sure if anyone from Midland High will be there,” disappointment tinting Coach Dan’s voice. “Coach Pat wouldn’t commit, either way. Be a shame if they weren’t coming, they’re the largest school in the state, they field teams in more sports than most any other, and they’re only about fifteen minutes away from State. They’ve got a good team.”
If Double-J’s window had been rolled down, he would most likely have spat out it. “Midland’s a bunch of losers. And that Josh guy who Zorro back there beat — ” throwing his right thumb behind his shoulder, then nudging Rex — “didn’t he show up for like, two practices, then never showed up after losing in the tournament to Banks?”
Between bites of his roast beef sandwich, Rex garbled out an mwhy gwuess.
“And how’d you do against the Academy, Zorro?” Double-J gazing again at the rearview. “You face Neil? How many touches did you score?”
“I faced her twice, in the pools and the DE. Got three touches against her.”
“Pool, or DE?”
Rune listened to the hum of the car’s engine for a moment. “DE. She — shut me out in the pool.”
“So let me get this straight,” Double-J’s voice a cold laugh. “You scored two touches against the Academy’s weakest foil fencer, who didn’t even crack the top ten at the tournament, and when you faced somebody who actually knew what she was doing, you failed miserably. You beat some nobody from Midland, and some guy from our school who was in it for kicks, and dropped out because he was embarrassed to have lost to you.
“So what makes you so confident about today?”