The Bird replied that no, she’d never been to the Academy before. “It’s a marvelous place,” Annie turning her head and looking out the front windshield. “So full of history. My brother, Sierra, is the fifth generation of Hutchinson at the Academy.”
Double-J steered the coupe left off the county road, onto a narrow strip of pavement that was more path than roadway, then rode between twin stone columns about eight feet tall, supporting a wrought iron arch, the insignia of the Academy at its crest. Tires scrunching loose gravel as it crossed the entrance, the car crawled along an uneven asphalt road cluttered with brown leaves from the large oak trees that formed a barrier between the road and large rolling green hills that flowed like water.
“Oh!” Butch had his hands and face pressed against rear passenger window. Through the barrier of oak trees, he saw a large brick building across an empty field that looked like it would take an hour to cross. “This place is so — big!”
“Lot of old money around here.” Switching hands on the steering wheel, Double-J wiped the corners of his mouth. “Seems to me the alums, they like to keep this place just like they remember it, like it’s some damn museum of their youth.”
“I dunno.” Rune pointed to a satellite dish he saw on top of a building they passed on their left. “Betcha they’re not lacking for any technology here. Satellite, high-speed Internet.” His eyes landed on Rex, who looked pale, like a nervous patient in a dentist’s office; Rune tapped him on the shoulder, asked if he was all right.
Rex frowned, embarrassed. “Yeah. I mean, you know, this place — it just gives me the creeps, every time we come out here.” He looked out the window as if the sight of the sprawling Academy campus brought him pain.
The coupe approached another large brick building, ivy covering most of its exterior. Next to the building was a small parking lot, covered in crushed white stone. The coupe stopped; as its occupants got out, Coach Dan’s sedan pulled up beside them. Rex, whose body seemed to relax upon his coach’s arrival, walked behind the sedan, and waited for the trunk to be opened with the same still patience of the cool autumnal air around him.
Coach Dan opened the trunk of his car, revealing the familiar khaki sacks that contained the team’s equipment – two large bulky sacks for masks, three medium-sized sacks of uniforms, and the smaller, longer duffel of weapons. Rex reached in and grabbed the weapons, while Double-J picked up the two mask sacks.
“Rex — ” the teen looked up at his coach’s call — “remember our tournament here, two years ago?”
The smile of a pleasant memory brightened the tall teen’s face. “We medaled in all three weapons.”
Coach Dan nodded, as he lifted a sack of uniforms from his trunk. “Yes. That was Miles’ first win. You came in third for epee, Greg got third in sabre. Had a bet, a drink with Gavvy that we’d get at least two medals, and when we wound up with more medals than the Academy that day, I told her she owed me dinner as well.”
“How’d that work out for you?” Annie’s voice rising above a crow’s caw.
Coach Dan laughed. “Had a liquid dinner that evening.” He closed the trunk door, then turned his attention to the team, his voice raising in volume. “This is what it’s all about, my friends. All the practices, all the drilling, all the hard work you’ve been putting in every Tuesday afternoon. It all pays off today. Yeah it’s just a scrimmage, but it’s the Academy, you won’t face stiffer competition than you will today. You should treat this like it’s the first tournament of the season.”
“Huh.” Double-J’s grunt sounded like a dismissal of his coach’s exhortation. He then looked directly at Rex. “Don’t know about anyone else — but I have something to prove today.” The burly teen turned, lifted the sacks of masks onto his thick shoulders, then walked up a short flight of weathered concrete steps, ending in two enormous wood and glass doors. Coach Dan shook his head, and the team followed him up the stairs.
During his four years on the Bark Bay fencing team, Rex had been inside the Academy’s field house several times, yet each time he entered he was amazed at its sheer size. The term field house, he thought, didn’t properly convey the building’s purpose; indoor athletic training facility seemed more appropriate. A large oval running track, eight lanes wide, loped along the outside edge. The interior was large enough to contain two football fields. From the ceiling hung several rows of tracks from which hung thick mesh curtains, some stretched thin across the entire width of the interior court, others bundled at one or the other end, the curtains opening or closing as needed to define a training or competition area.
As the team crossed the eight-lane track to enter the interior, they passed an area of tennis courts enclosed in chain fences. A man and a woman, clearly not students (Rex guessed they were teachers) were volleying to each other. Further into the interior lay a sand pit, which Rex recognized from watching the Olympics on television as a landing area for the long jump.
“They forget to pay the heating bill?” Rune’s voice sounded tiny in this cavernous space. Rex realized that the interior of the field house was not much warmer, indeed almost seemed colder than the autumn air outside.
“They don’t have central heat or AC in here.” Annie was beginning to sound like a tour guide. “Usually people are training, so they don’t mind it being a little cool. They bring in portable heaters sometimes in winters, big fans in the summer.”
“So this place does have power?” Annie responded to Rune’s question by pointing up at the banks of ceiling lights. “Makes sense. Coach says we’re gonna use electronics for our fencing tournament today. Or scrimmage, or whatever this is.”
“So their fencing team practices here?” While Rune’s eyes had popped back into his head, Butch seemed as awe-struck as before, like he’d never seen a building as big as the field house. Rex realized that could actually be the case — his father, Reverend Goodman, was known to not like travelling, and the biggest structure in Bark Bay was the old lumber mill, most of which was falling into decay.
Annie shook her head. “The Academy usually fences in the small gym, but Coach Dan said there’s a gymnastics meet there today, so they moved us in here.”
“Come on,” Coach Dan waving towards an open area of the interior court, “let’s warm up.” The floor in this area looked and felt like a tennis court, some type of hard green rubber. Rex looked around at the lines painted on the surface, saw two poles standing several dozen feet apart, at what appeared to be mid-court based on the lines. A net hung loosely from the top of one pole; if strung across to the other pole, Rex guessed it would be at the level of his head.
“Volleyball court.” Rune seemed pleased at his deduction, and when Annie offered a maybe in response, seemed almost insulted.
A metallic sound echoed from the left, beyond the track. The team turned and saw an opening door, through which emerged a short woman with straight black hair. Young, but certainly not student young, her body was trim and muscular. Rex couldn’t see her face from the distance, but knew instantly, from her hurried walk if nothing else, that Coach Gavvy, the Academy’s fencing coach, had arrived. She was smiling, which didn’t surprise Rex because he could never remember her not smiling.
“You’re early!” A jogger nearly collides with her as she race-walks across the track. “Are things really that boring in Bark Bay that you have nothing better to do than hang out in our field house?” Rex recognized the peculiar conversational tone Coach Gavvy, how if you didn’t know her you’d think half the things she said were insulting.
She’s carrying square boxes in both of her hands. “The team’s bringing the rest of the stuff. It’s a pain in the tukkes, having to lug all our gear from the gym, they wouldn’t let us in the field house last night. You guys are lucky, you don’t have much stuff to take along.”
Annie’s about to say something when Coach Gavvy cuts her off. “We’ve got our eye on you this year, Miss Hutchinson!” Annie laughs. “You going to give epee a try? You’ve got epeeist written all over you, all you anal retentives, epee’s made for you.”
Annie nods, begins to speak, but then Coach Gavvy’s turned and pointing at Butch, then Rune. “Dan, you need to help me with names.”
Coach Dan coughs, walks behind the greasy-haired son of Bark Bay’s leading accountant. “This is Rune. He was at the invitational — ”
“– last spring, yes!” Coach Gavvy seems impressed at her memory. “Dan’s probably had you training all summer, so we probably have to watch out for you as well.” She then turns her attention to Butch. “Who’s the new victim” — she shakes her head quickly, opens her eyes wide in mock surprise at her own words — “excuse me! I mean, who is Bark Bay’s latest fencing team member?” She extends her hand to Butch, who steps forward with a shy smile, says his name, and shakes her hand.
“So which one of you is sixteen?” Rune and Butch stare at each other in confusion at Coach Gavvy’s question. She turns to Annie, raises her hands above her head — “there’s no way all of you are fitting in Dan’s car, unless some of you rode in the trunk. And don’t tell me any of you walked the thirty-odd miles from Bark Bay!”
The members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team threw back their heads in a collective cry of oh OK, then Annie explained that Double-J had also driven up in his car. Coach Gavvy paid passing attention to the explanation as she set the metal boxes she had been carrying on the green rubber floor, one near where the team was standing, the other a few dozen feet away.
Rex saw Butch tap Rune on the shoulder, ask what the boxes were for. Rex remembered this would be Butch’s first organized competition, there was going to be a lot today he hadn’t seen before. Same for The Bird, as well — but as Rex saw her standing quietly outside the rough circle made his teammates, he sensed she preferred observation over questioning.
“It’s a cord reel.” Rune reached down to one of the boxes, pulled on a cord with a three-pronged connector that protruded from one of its ends. “This plug, it connects to a body cord we’ll be wearing when we compete. The cord’s reeled up inside the box, it will come out and back in as you advance and retreat.” He pointed to other cords protruding from the other end of the box. “That’s the power cord on the right, the other one runs over to the scoring machine, which lights up when you land a touch.”
Butch is smiling like a boy opening a Christmas present, which seemed an odd thought to Rex as he knew Butch’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Well they did, but only as a religious event, they didn’t exchange presents. “Oh! So there’s no judges?”
Rex was about to answer Butch’s question when Annie, apparently deciding she’s listened to Rune’s explanation enough, took over. “There’s still a referee in the middle, for right-of-way. The machine won’t tell you who initiates the action. But we won’t have judges behind the fencers — the machine takes care of that.”
Butch looked at the three-pronged adapter in his hand, his eyes following the cable leading from it to the cord reel. He held the adapter up to Annie — “So how does this plug into me?”
Now it was Coach Gavvy’s turn to interrupt. “We’ll show you all that when the rest of the equipment comes in.”