Butch crouched down into en garde position, and Annie noticed an immediate change in him, the clumsiness melting away like an icicle in the midday sun. He advanced, foil pointed directly at her, displaying none of the uncertainty which hung over all his awkward preparation for their bout. He was focused, he was determined, he was ready.
Annie smiled, lunging at him quickly, the tip of her foil landing on Butch’s chest before he could bring his foil across to parry. She stepped back, waited for him to crouch down again, then advanced again, lunging in nearly the same fashion as she had before, her attack so similar that Butch instantly recognized it, parried it soundly (Annie making a mental note to remind Butch at the next practice to keep his elbow stationary), and quickly riposted, landing a touch on Annie’s right shoulder.
“Aha!” A cautionary warning to Carl Hutchinson’s exclamation. “Got you that time. Don’t get overconfident, little girl.” Annie turned toward her father, the consternation on her face evident even through the opaque metal of her mask. Laura turned to her husband – “I think she knows what she’s doing.” Turning to Annie and Butch, she extended her right arm in their direction, waved her fingers pointed down at the floor – “Continue.”
Annie held her left index finger up to Butch – “One more.” The tow-headed sophomore nodded, resumed his crouch. The moment he appeared ready, Annie bolted forward until her weapon crossed Butch’s, squeezed her right hand, the action flicking her foil to the left until it struck Butch’s weapon, ting, the sound seeming to activate a spring in her body that propelled her forward, foil stabbing at Butch before he had time to react, the tip landing just under his right arm.
She heard Double-J’s voice from the buffet table. “Thought we stopped you from doing beat attacks last year.”
“Whatever works.” Annie stepped back, took off her mask. Butch removed his as well, raising his foil in salute (stopping before fully extending his arm to check the location of the chandelier). Annie saluted in Butch’s direction, then turned and located her mother, greeting her smiled with her own smiling salute, then turned again to see her silver-haired father talking with Double-J, their backs turned to her.
Annie cleared her throat, so purposefully that everyone in the room (including the white-jacketed Squisito employee) turned to her. Making eye contact with her father, she offered another salute, this one accompanied not only with a smile but a stare meant to convey a secret message.
She then pointed her foil at Rex, a serious smile on her face – “Next.” Gentle laughter percolated above the sound of “Sleigh Ride” playing in the background. Coach Dan turned and walked in Rex’s direction, as if directed by the motion of Annie’s weapon, to help him sort through the sack of fencing jackets.
Annie laid her mask and foil on the floor, walked over to the drink table, poured herself a glass of water. She heard the sound of her mother’s steps approaching. “I just had a nice conversation with Mr. Jacobs, while you two were fencing.”
“Coach Dan.” Annie drank quickly.
“He thinks highly of you, dear,” her mother’s pearls smiling as she spoke. “Says you’re on track to compete at the state tournament in the spring.”
“I’m looking forward to States.” The athletic teen set her glass down, her focus returning to her equipment.
“I asked him about getting you some additional training.”
Annie stopped. Turned to her mother quickly – “Who said I need more training?”
“Dear, nobody’s saying that you need more training.” There was no hint of apology in Laura’s voice. “Not any more than any of your teammates. What I asked Mr. Jacobs – Dan – Coach Dan, is whether we can get you more training, like from one of those fencing schools near the university.”
Annie pointed sharply in the direction of Coach Dan, nearly finished with helping Rex with his fencing jacket. “I’m good with what I have. Coach Dan got Myles to the state finals last year. I don’t need any additional training,” her tone inflecting disdainfully downward on the last word.
“Oh please, dear. This is no different than when we signed you up for gymnastics, or ballet.”
Annie felt her lips draw back in a snarl. “Fencing’s different. I already have a coach, a team. I’ve worked hard, I’ve earned my way onto the team, didn’t need anyone to buy my way onto it.”
Annie’s mother’s eyes widened, the gleam of her pearls disappearing under the darkness of her gaze. “I refuse to apologize for being able to provide you everything you need to be successful. You want to show your independence by turning down my offer to find you a fencing school, then enjoy your victory. If – ”
Annie! Rex called from across the dining room, where he stood in his fencing jacket, foil in his right hand, mask in his left. Mother and daughter both turned to him, smiled, then turned quickly back to each other, Annie speaking quickly before her mother resumed.
“Look, I know you’re just looking out for me, and I appreciate that. So how about I just say no thanks, and we leave it at that?”
Annie’s mother smiled disarmingly – “For now” – and turned to walk towards the kitchen.
Annie watched her mother walk away, hoping she took with her the unwanted desire to help, then turned to face Rex.
The First Saturday
“Him you know?” Dr. Schmidt, owner and lead instructor of the En Garde! School of Fencing, pointed in Rex’s direction. Annie nodded.
“Do you take class with him?”
Annie shook her head. “Not much. He’s a year ahead of me. We took biology together last year, but that’s it.”
“Yeah.” She paused in thought a moment, evaluating her instinctive reaction. “Studies hard.”
Dr. Schmidt nodded a smile. “Do you know family?”
“A little.” She glanced back at her strip, saw the bout in front of her next was still in progress. “Nobody sees his mother much, she’s real sick. He’s got two sisters, I see them every once in a while. Really cute. I – don’t know much about his dad, he died when Rex was really young, I never met him.”
“I see.” Dr. Schmidt looked two strips behind them, where Rex was finishing his last pool bout. A studiously aloof man in his late fifties, Dr. Schmidt (Annie doubted whether even his students knew his first name) had a habit of rubbing under his chin with his right thumb when deep in thought. Annie saw that motion now, and realized for not the first time today how unusual it was for En Garde! to be at today’s scrimmage.
“Excuse me.” Dr. Schmidt looked at her. “Can I ask why you’re so interested in Rex?”
Dr. Schmidt turned slowly back in Rex’s direction, continuing to stroke his chin. “I talk with your coach, told him Rex was best epee fencer I seen, ten years. He has talent to win state this year, but needs work, refinement. Coach agreed, said I should teach him.”
Annie turned quickly to find Coach Dan, who was two strips away from them, working with Rune, then turned back to Dr. Schmidt with wide eyes. “No way.”
Dr. Schmidt held up a finger, shook it at her. “Still your team. I just help coach, one day, each week. Thursday night, epee class.”
Eyes still wide, Annie turned quickly away from Dr. Schmidt (she will apologize to him later that day for her abruptness) and walked with purposed alacrity towards Coach Dan, whose eyes bore into Rune as the two of them talked. Coach Dan’s back was towards her as she approached, and Rune caught her eye briefly, giving her a glance that indicated now was not a good time for an interruption.
Annie turned from them quickly, saw Rex shaking hands with his opponent, their bout ended. She ran towards him, stopping briefly to apologize after accidentally kicking an unattended foil that lay on the floor. When she turned back in Rex’s direction, he stood tall above her.
“Will wonders ever cease?” Rex followed his question with a stiff giggle.
Annie blinked, cleared her throat. “What’s up?”
“I’m down to Cameron 13-9,” Rex’s eyes widening, “then all of a sudden, she can’t hit me. I’m not doing nothing different, she just can’t hit. I’m just doing parry-riposte, and before I know it, I’m winning.”
“That’s great.” Annie caught a glimpse of Dr. Schmidt off to the right.
“Something wrong?” Rex sounding more confused than anxious.
Annie looked back at Coach Dan, now intently watching the start of Rune’s bout. She turned quickly back, saw Dr. Schmidt walking away.
“It’s – I don’t think – ” she felt her uncertainty like a sharp stomach pains – “nothing,” and turned away.
Annie raised a salute towards Rex, then turned to the members of the dining party. Saw her father, saluted him. Did not see her mother.
Annie put on her mask, crouched down into en garde position, and with an alacrity that certainly annoyed her, most likely (she suspected) surprised both her opponent and coach, and certainly (of this she had no doubt) upset her father, lost. Three quick touches, Rex landing his first hit with a lazy lunge that was hardly more than a feint, the second more an act of her self-impalement as her rushed advance pounced onto the tip of his weapon, and the final touch coming off a riposte of her attack that was so poorly planned, so totally telegraphed, that Annie did not recognize her own actions, as if her body were being controlled by Butch or The Bird or some other novice fencer rather than herself.
After completing a curt handshake with Rex, Annie called to Rune – “You, next.”
Carl Hutchinson and his silver hair approached his daughter. “Isn’t it time for you to take a break?”
“I’m not tired,” Annie’s pony tail bouncing behind her head.
Carl Hutchinson smiled, placed his hand on her shoulder, turned with her away from the others, whispered – “This is a party, Annie. It’s supposed to be fun.”
“Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.”
“So why the competition? Why are you challenging everyone?”
“We’re a fencing team. We compete against each other. That’s what we do.”
“What are you trying to prove, Bunny?”
Annie stepped back, pulled away from her father’s touch. “Don’t call me that.”
“No need to be embarrassed, nobody heard – ”
“I heard. And I’m not eight years old.”
Carl Hutchinson’s mouth remained open a moment, his eyes narrowing, a hint of surprise and even anger creeping onto his face. He then closed his mouth, smiled, opened his eyes wide. “No – you’re not eight. You are – a Hutchinson woman.”
Rune stood across from Annie, the mop of his hair forming a brown crown on his scalp, tendrilling down and out the sides of his head, as if a bowl had been placed on his head.
Annie stared at him intently, waited for his eyes to meet hers, then – “You ready?”