Coach Dan approached them and called to Annie, said he had spoken with the referee. “Championship bout begins in eight minutes.”
“I’m ready now.” Annie took the tethered clasp from Rex, answered all Coach Dan’s questions with unwavering confidence – yes she just had a snack, yes she had just had a drink, no she didn’t need to use the bathroom, no she didn’t need to sit down. Coach Dan finally rebuffed her eagerness, not so much convincing as ordering Annie to sit until at least the referee had returned to the strip. Annie sat on a metal folding chair, feet tapping the floor with more energy than rhythm, like raindrops on a tin roof.
Finally the referee for the championship bout approached, signaled for Annie and Francis to prepare for their bout. The teens rose from their seats, connected to the scoring equipment with assistance from their coaches. Standing ready at their starting positions, they saluted each other, the referee, and their coaches. The referee pointed with upturned palm to Francis on his right (Ready on my right?), repeated this motion with her other hand to Annie (Ready on my left?), then swiftly rotated both palms down and, in a firm yet quiet voice, commanded the competitors — “Fence.”
Annie quickly realized why Rex had encouraged her to focus on her game, as the analytical side wanted to admire how her opponent fenced. His footwork, his balance, his command both of body and of blade, Francis Pine was a textbook fencer, seeming to execute every instruction Annie had heard from Coach Dan. Her opponent, she realized, was what she hoped to become.
Quickly surrendering the first three touches, Annie walked to the end of her strip, exhaled heavily twice, then returned to her starting position. Fence your game. Yes, Francis Pine was the better fencer, but he did not have her background in dance and gymnastics. She advanced, retreated, advanced again, her feet moving smoothly and aggressively. Francis mirrored her movements, and when she sensed he was not perfectly balanced, she lunged short, lunged again, parried, disengage, thrust — “Halt!” The referee extended his left hand out from his body — “Attack left, parry right — ” his right arm raising shoulder height, left hand reaching across his body to slice-tap his upper forearm — “no riposte, second intention, touch left, score is one, three.”
On the bout’s resumption she advanced and retreated again, but this time Francis did not move from his position. He wasn’t playing her game this time, but he wasn’t attacking either. She reacted immediately, charging and lunging at him, throwing in a disengage at the last minute, scoring a second touch.
Several minutes later the referee called a halt for the first rest period. Coach Dan approached Annie, a bottle of water in his hand. “You’re doing great.”
“I’m losing, 11 – 8.” Her voice terse, a tone she reserved for her mother when told she needed to finish her homework.
“He can’t keep up with you. Get him to follow – ”
“I know that.” She drank quickly. “And he knows that. He’s trying not to follow me anymore, he’s waiting for me to come at him.” She drank two more quick gulps, then handed the bottle back to her coach. “Thanks. And – sorry.”
“What for?” Coach Dan took the bottle, spread his arms wide.
“Shouldn’t snap at you like that. Sorry.”
Coach Dan’s face beamed a moment, then he quickly dropped his smile. “You can apologize all you want after the bout. For now, I want you to keep that edge, that fire. You’re going to need it.”
She looked at him, confused. Coach Dan then put on a patronizing smile, and with his left hand patted her gently on the head, like she was a timid dog. “Good girl!” Annie scowled.
When their bout resumed a moment later, Annie played the irresistible force, dancing back and forth along the strip, to the immovable object that Francis had become. Annie scored a touch to bring her within two, but Francis’ patience soon began to pay off as he started to notice patterns to her movements, areas she would leave undefended as she focused on her footwork. He made it a battle of blade work, and in this area his advantage was clear. The last touch was a disengage riposte, his foil deflecting her attack and then circling under her blade, up towards her weapon side, followed by a thrust which landed his point on her shoulder, ending the bout 15 – 11.
They saluted, and as they approached each other to shake hands Annie heard hands clapping around her. About two dozen people, fencers from both Bark Bay and the Academy, along their coaches as well as the referees, were applauding.
Francis Pine relished the applause a moment, then returned his attention to Annie. “Thank you.”
“Congratulations.” She was using her most gracious voice. “You earned this.”
“You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished today.”
“Well — ” she now allowed her fatigue to show — “I hope to be a little more proud next time I face you.”
Francis Pine gazed at her a long moment, then smiled, and bowed his head in her direction.
Annie turned back to her team, Rune in front to greet her. “Now you know how I feel,” his chin rising to point at her.
“Not sure about that,” her head shaking. “How do you feel?”
“Like I shouldn’t have bothered to show up.” Seeing the confusion on her face, he continued. “When you lose every time, that’s a sign you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Annie shook her head purposely. “Is that what it’s all about for you? Winning and losing? Results? No, I guess I don’t know how you feel, because right now there’s no other place in the world I’d rather be. Yeah, I was looking for a better result against Francis, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy competing. I learned a lot out there, and I’m going to take that knowledge, build on it, get to a point where I compete better than I did today. I get the feeling you don’t think you learned anything today?”
Rune shrugged. “That I’ve got a lot to learn?”
Annie laughed, shook her head – and stared at Rune a long moment. She then looked around her a moment, started walking to her left, and motioned for Rune to follow her. Rune followed her to a corridor that lead to the locker rooms, which were currently unoccupied.
Annie stopped, put a hand on Rune’s chest Rune when they were finally out of sight of everyone else. “Got a secret for you.”
Rune stopped in front of her, a confused look on his face. She cleared her throat, whispered. “I had a feeling you’d prefer it this way –” throwing her arms around his shoulders, she pulled him down to her face, and kissed him. Gentle but firm, quickly but memorably.
She broke their embrace, stood back and gazed at him. He looked confused, like a man who had just been told his car had been stolen.
Annie smiled. “Yes, you have a lot to learn.” She then ran past Rune, back into the field house.
A tournament judge called to Coach Dan, said the sabre competition would begin in ten minutes. “Is Johnstone ready? He’s up first.” Coach Dan looked around, asked if anyone had seen Double-J, was greeted with blank stares and shrugs. Five minutes later, he sent Rune and Butch out to the parking lot. They returned immediately, saying they didn’t see Double-J’s coupe in the parking lot.
Minutes later, the tournament official approached Coach Dan again. “We’ve only got this area until 2.” The epee scrimmage, which would have nearly as many competitors as today’s foil, would be next week. “We need to start on time.” Coach Dan nodded, sent Rune and Butch out to the parking lot again, but just before they got to the exit the double-doors swung out, and Double-J entered. Coughing, he walked quickly past Rune and Butch without acknowledging them, not really seeming hurried but rather impatient to begin an unpleasant task, like a man dashing through a toll booth.
He reached Coach Dan, wrestled out of his jacket. Sneezed. Handed the jacket to Coach Dan, who let it fall to the ground. Reached into the sack of tunics, pulled out the first one he handled, quickly stepped into it, motioned for Rex to zip him up in the back. Grabbed a mask from another sack, a sabre from another, looking like a man in a buffet line unsatisfied with the offerings but anxious to appease his hunger. Pulled a glove from a jacket pocket, walked to his starting position, turned to the referee. With a quick command, “Let’s go,” he saluted, put on his mask, and crouched down into position.
The command to fence had not finished coming from the referee’s mouth when Double-J took a quick step forward, another, then simultaneously flexed his arm up and wrist down, his weapon avoiding his opponent’s attempted parry and slashing against his arm. The match went quickly, Double-J scoring all five touches, only being parried twice, his speed and aggression too much for his opponent. After being declared the winner, Double-J returned to his starting position, removed his mask, perfunctorily saluted his opponent, then the referee, quickly shook hands, then left the strip quickly, like a man leaving the DMV after renewing his license.
His next two pool bouts were nearly as swift, Double-J charging and slashing at every opportunity, surrendering only a single touch to each opponent. With a break before his next match, Double-J sat on a metal chair near the scorer’s table. Rex, who had finished with helping the Bark Bay team load the majority of their equipment back into their respective canvas sacks, sat next to him.
“Too bad Frankenstein doesn’t do sabre.” Double-J sounded more annoyed than disappointed.
Rex shrugged. “He’s pretty committed to foil and epee. Doesn’t want to extend himself.”
Double-J shook his head. “Tired of all you foil and epee people playing it safe. Wish people would challenge themselves. That’s the root of the problem with society, everybody’s content with ‘success’ — ” he signaled air quotes with his fingers — “winning victories that aren’t worth winning, beating opponents not at their level. That’s why nothing ever gets done, it’s just the same old same old, all the damn time.” Double-J shook his head in disgust, rose quickly from his chair, walked away before Rex could reply.
Double-J’s matches in the DEs were even more decisive and swift than the preliminaries.
Slash, down went Wanda Jensen.
Hack, Mike Paris fell.
And with a final jab, Ed Szurek was removed.
Double-J seemed to care little for the applause from either his teammates (which seemed genuine) or the other competitors, coaches, and tournament officials (which seemed obligatory). Some final words from Coach Gavvy, which included a reminder of next week’s epee scrimmage and the Academy invitational tournament in January, then Double-J announced that anyone who was planning on leaving with him had best be by his car in the next five minutes. The Bark Bay fencers packed Double-J’s gear into the canvas sacks, and after Coach Dan’s car was packed they drove back home, Rex riding with Annie and Rune in Double-J’s car, Butch and The Bird with Coach Dan.
“We did pretty well today,” Rune’s voice from the back seat rising above the engine’s roar as Double-J raced his car out of the parking lot. “Medals in both events – ”
” – and one last-place finish, to balance out those accomplishments.” Double-J smirked as he looked up in his rear-view mirror at Rune.
Rex and Annie objected immediately, but Double-J refused to back down. “Only way you’re going to get better,” continuing his rear-view gaze, “is to think about what you did wrong and what you can do to get better results next time, not indulging vicariously in somebody else’s victory.”
“Excuse me for supporting my teammates.” Rune sounded like he regretted not riding in Coach Dan’s sedan.
Double-J snorted. “This ain’t a team sport. On the strip, it’s just you and your opponent.”
They drove in silence. Several minutes. Then Double-J turned on the radio. A song with a driving backbeat blared through the car speakers, causing the passengers to cover their ears. Double-J apologized, turned the volume down.
Rune leaned forward. “I usually like this band, but I don’t like their new album.”
“All sounds the same to me.” Double-J kept focused on the road in front of his coupe.
Annie leaned forward, nudged Rune’s shoulder. “Who else do you like?” Rune answered with a quick list of a half-dozen artists and groups, Annie nodding her approval at each, then suggesting a few more names when he was finished, giving Rune an opportunity to nod his approval.
“I’ll admit I’m surprised,” Double-J glancing up at the rear-view. “Didn’t think you two would appreciate music that had some soul to it. I thought Princess would be into classical, or jazz that was old enough to be safe, and Banks would be all about Top 40. Glad to see you’re musical tastes are not so white.”
Pause. Rex cleared his throat — “You do realize, that you sound like someone who’s completely full of shit, don’t you?”
Everyone laughed, as Double-J nodded. “Good to see someone’s willing to speak the truth.”
Annie’s house, on the top of a hill immediately north of town, was the most convenient first stop on the way back. Double-J drove into the long, curved paved driveway that lead up to the solid two-story brick residence, with weathered white wooden columns near the entrance that testified to the building’s antiquity.
Annie tapped Double-J on the shoulder. “Your father going to be plowing again this winter?” Her family had employed Johnston’s Plow Service for over a decade.
“Ask him.” The curtness of his reply made it evident that Double-J would take no further interest in this subject.
The car stopped in front of the entrance, and Annie stepped out. “I meant what I said earlier about the gym,” her eyes scanning everyone’s face. “I’m there every afternoon we don’t have practice in the cafeteria, and Gandy said we can do what we want when classes end at 4.” After getting the answers she expected from Rex (sorry, too far from home) and Double-J (only if we get to terrorize toddlers), she turned to Rune, who replied that he’d think about it.
“No thought required.” Annie backed away from the coupe, pointed at Rune. “See you Monday at 4.” Shen then turned to walk into her home.
A few minutes later they arrived at Rune’s house, a modest split-level ranch in a new subdivision. Rex opened the door and stepped out, pulled the passenger seat forward for Rune to exit. As Rune got out of the car, Rex asked how he felt. Rune said he was fine.
“I meant, about the tournament today.”
Rune shrugged. “Had a tough day. I’ll do better next time.”
“What do you want to work on in practice?”
“Hmm. Dunno. Let me think about it.”
Rex patted him on the shoulder, then turned and got back into Double-J’s car as Rune walked into his home.
As he steered his car back onto the road, Double-J began asking questions about the scrimmage. “What did Frankenstein beat you on?”
“He bound me up. Got in close, we’d tangle up and he’d get his jabs in first.”
“Gotta keep your distance,” his voice suddenly sounding more like Coach Dan than Double-J. “Use your height advantage. You make it a distance game with Frankenstein, you’re going to win that one most of the time.”
“Gee, thanks coach.” Double-J snorted a laughing reply.
The route to Rex’s trailer went over several winding, narrow roads in various levels of disrepair, some stretches where the asphalt was so badly deteriorated that the dirt parts of the road were safer. Tall trees loomed on either side of the road, bare branches reaching darkly over the road and intersecting above the faded yellow traffic medians, lights from Double-J’s headlights reflecting off the bare brown branches, forming a tunnel of light that cut into the darkness.
Double-J pulled into the dirt area to the side of Rex’s trailer. The tire tracks his car had made that morning had frozen, turned grey with frost, and were now crushed and transformed back into mud as those same tires rolled over them again.
As Double-J rolled to a stop, Rex looked over at Double-J. “We really appreciate what your dad did for us.”
“Your pilot light fixed?”
“Yup. Been a week and a half now, hasn’t gone out once.” Double-J nodded his approval.
“Be sure to thank him – ”
Double-J shook his head. “You’re going to have to do that yourself.”
Rex nodded, extracted his long limbs from the car, and with a final thanks for the ride and a wave, turned to walk up the stairs to his trailer, as Double-J slooshed his car through the mud, back onto the road.