The door opens, through which walks a tall cool lad with the face of a student but the swagger of a confident adult, dragging a rolling duffel bag behind him which catches the door as he walks in. The newer members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team didn’t recognize him, but there was something about him — maybe the way he walked, every movement so fluid, or his demeanor, the way he barely noticed the door catching the rolling duffel, not even looking back but just jerking his arm forward a moment until the duffel cleared, then kept moving forward as if he was not pulling the bag but rather leading it, like a dog on a leash — that gave the impression they were supposed to know who he was.
“Over here, Francis.” The lad nods briskly at Coach Gavvy, continues without pausing in the direction his coach had indicated. Francis — yes, Francis Pine, last year’s captain of the Academy’s fencing team. He walked past Butch and I like they weren’t there; seeing Annie, he nodded in her direction, then nods in Rex’s direction as well. Rex remembered how Annie had eliminated two Academy fencers at the final tournament in the spring, had Francis tied at 12 too before he rallied to win the last three touches. He wondered if Francis knew they called him Frankenstein behind his back; even Coach Dan did it once.
Francis stopped walking, set the rolling duffel on the floor in the area his coach had pointed to. Unzipping the duffel, he started sorting through the white fencing jackets inside. All Academy fencers, Rex knew, had their own jacket, with zippers in the front (left side for righties and right side for lefties) and the Academy’s insignia on the sleeve, weapon side. Bark Bay’s jackets were all back-zippers, easily shared between righties and lefties but always requiring assistance; most were in pretty good shape, but would smell of stale perspiration if not washed every week, and always looked dirty even after being washed.
Francis removed his long jacket, revealing his white fencing knickers. Cut just below the knee, they were held up by a pair of thin white suspenders that extended from his waist past the front of his blue t-shirt, then over the shoulders and back down. On the outside of either leg, PINE is written in blue block letters. To Rex, Francis looked ready to jump on the strip and start fencing right away; then Rex looked over at Butch, still struggling to put on his jacket with Rune’s assistance, wearing jeans — at least Rex had remembered to wear his sweat pants, a size too small and patches ironed on to the knees but still adequately flexible — and for not the first time in his experience with the Academy, he could not help but think we don’t even look like we belong here. Except perhaps for Annie, wearing a sleek pair of blue track pants, with a white stripe down the sides.
Hey. The voice echoed as Rex turned, saw three more Academy fencers walking towards them. Always terrible with names, Rex quickly scanned the blue block letters down the legs as they approached, enabling him to remember them from past tournaments.
HARRIS. Jane Harris, the one who called hey, probably to Francis. Nearly as skillful as he, meaning she was more than a match for anyone at Bark Bay. But more open than Francis, willing to talk to anyone, make jokes, laugh at others even when they’re not funny. Rex liked Jane.
HAN. James Han, competes in all three weapons, pretty good at each, but seems to like sabre best. Good friends with Double-J. Rex fenced him in foil back in the spring, got maybe one touch. Fast. Asian fast, Double-J often said — there’s fast, really fast, and Asian fast. Didn’t seem bothered by Rex calling him out for his racial stereotyping.
JENSEN. Wanda Jensen’s smiling face always a welcome sight. The one Academy fencer Rune had beaten last year. They were tied at 4, and she hit with a parry-riposte but the referee said her action came after Ruen’s continuation, which had been off-target. Coach Gavvy got real upset and the ref almost gave her a warning, but they went on and Rune feinted a disengage (just like Rex had shown him that week in practice) and hit her on the left shoulder, just barely on target. Coach Dan was real happy after the tournament, said that victory meant everybody on the Bark Bay team had beaten at least one Academy fencer that day. We can take on anybody. Rex don’t know about that — even if the Academy wasn’t half as good as some of their team members thought they were, they would still better than he and his teammates.
The Academy fencers walk past Butch and Rune like they aren’t there, but they all nod to Annie, Wanda even greeting her by name. They all look at Rex, give him knowing yet silent nods. Rex set a goal to do well enough today so that the Academy fencers would start calling him by name.
Annie walks over to the Academy fencers, starts talking to them; Rune looks over at them, frowns. Calls to Butch, the Rex, points to an open area of the floor. “Let’s get stretched out.” The three teens sat together, their legs spread and extending into the circle formed by their bodies, as they reached forward with their knuckles above the floor, beginning the routine with which Coach Dan began all of their practices. Rex saw how Rune and Butch’s face would alight when the two teens made eye contact, and felt a respectful jealousy for the friendship the two had shared for many years. Buddies since grade school, some days the only thing good about going to school is seeing Butch Rune had told him once. In high school they rarely took any of the same classes, and for Butch to join the fencing team meant an opportunity to re-energize their friendship. Everybody seemed to enjoy having Butch on the team, even Double-J, who’d had some very public rows with his father, Reverend Goodman.
Rex had all but forgotten about Annie and the Academy fencers until they suddenly appeared, asked to join their stretching activities. Rex waved them into their circle, but Rune all but turned his back on them, sat facing Butch directly.
“You seen that new science fiction they got on television, started last month?” Butch pointed up as he spoke, Rune not able to tell what he was attempting to signify. Television waves? Space? God’s approval?
“Yeah.” Rune stood up to begin the next stretch. “I dunno — wasn’t impressed. Same old same old, if you ask me.”
“Think you’ll watch this week?”
Rune shrugged. “Maybe. Unless I’m doing something more interesting, like helping my dad sweep out the garage.”
“Oh! You don’t think — ”
SHHH! Rune’s command was an insistent whisper, loud enough to be heard only by Butch and Rex. He held his hands up, his eyes following the focus of his ears as he listened to the voices behind him. A word surfaced from the pool of murmuring from where Annie stretched with the Academy fencers, echoed off the high walls and arched ceiling of the enormous field house, fell on Rune’s ears like an alert. The word is scholarship, Rex heard it as well and recognized the voice right away, Wanda’s, then turned to see her sitting on the rubber floor, arms spread forward and out in the direction of her legs, her head tilted in the direction of Annie, listening to her intently.
His continued silence seemed to unnerve Butch. “I thought — ”
Rune held up a palm to towards Butch quickly, silencing him. Rex continued stretching, and if his ears were antennae they’d have been directed straight at Wanda and Annie. He was too far away from them, there was too much other noise — people talking, thwocks from the tennis court, the clang of weights further off — for him to catch much of the conversation, but Wanda’s voice rose for emphasis on several occasions, several words rising clearly above the din: graduating, available, two-year, scholarship (Annie shaking her head in response), prep school, hardship.
“Holy crap” — Rune walks further away from Annie and her friends at the Academy, waits for Butch and Rex to come within whispering distance — “Annie’s being recruited!”
Rex shook his head, frowning. “Nah, that’s crazy.”
“You know as well as I do,” Rune’s eyes wide with a bitter indignation, “that the Academy gives out fencing scholarships. Wouldn’t it be just like them to — aw man, now I’m pissed. The Academy’s already has all these advantages over us — full-time fencing coach, individual equipment for each team member, training facilities that don’t reek of mystery meat and bland spaghetti sauce — now they’re after our best fencer.” His expression quickly morphed into an apology directed at Rex. “Well, maybe third best. But she’d be second, after Double-J graduates in the spring.”
“Oh!” Rune’s warning elicited an apprehensive look on Butch’s face. “So — that means she’s leaving?”
“I don’t know. ” Rune shook his head, then in a move that seemed impulsive yet genuine, put his right arm across Butch’s shoulders. “I’m glad you’re here with me, with us. Your presence makes me enjoy being on this fencing team so much more. And if the team gets dropped, it’ll make me sad and angry but I’ll find some other way for the two of us to keep hanging out together. Nothing, not the social cliques forced on us by our class schedules, not the narrow-minded decisions of the athletic department, not the distrust between our parents — none of that’s ever gonna be enough to separate the two of us.”
Rex stared at his two friends, as Butch responded with an awkward thank you. Rex had always been annoyed at Rune’s manic energy, had thought of him as someone who required a worthwhile effort to ignore. He was glad to see his friend had a compassionate side as well, and was not afraid to show it. And he once again felt the pang of respectful jealousy.