An hour later, Rex was shaking hands with Annie’s silver-haired father, thanking him for the evening’s hospitality, a large plastic bag containing the doggie bag Annie had forced on him (with surprisingly little resistance) lying on the floor by his right foot. “My pleasure,” Carl Hutchinson’s glistening white teeth catching a beam of light from the overhead chandelier.
Annie re-entered the dining room, positioned herself among her teammates to remain within earshot of the conversation between Rex and her father, while distant enough to conceal her intent. Over the murmur of other conversations, she was only able to hear individual words her father whispered – Johnson (a name she had heard Rex mention before – yes, that man from the state, Child And Family Services), attorney, fight – before Coach Dan called her over.
“Where’s Double-J?” Coach Dan’s eyes scanning the room around him.
“Outside, having a smoke,” Annie pointing in the direction of the kitchen. Coach Dan turned from her, called Butch over to him, asked him to get Double-J, finally turned back to Annie, who stared intently back at him – “What’s up?”
Coach Dan paused visibly a moment, Annie detecting in his face the quick formation of a plan, a response that would be as much calculation as communication. Then he smiled, the mechanism of his cunning seeming to come to a rest – “I have an – announcement to make.”
The sound of wet sneakers squeaking against the tiled floor came from the kitchen. “Hey Jacobs – ” Double-J entered the dining room, trailed by Butch – “since I already know what your big announcement is, think I’ll just get going.”
“Five minutes,” Coach Dan holding up the palm of his hand to Double-J, all five fingers extended, looking as if he were trying to cast a spell that would cause the young man to stay. Double-J shrugged, thrust his hands in his coat pockets, stood to the side of the room, the melting snow from his sneakers forming a pool at his feet.
Coach Dan called for Rex to stand next to him, then motioned with his right arm for everyone to gather in front of them. Butch turned to Double-J, pointed to an empty spot on the floor next to him, his offer met with a wry smirk and a shake of the head.
Placing his left hand on Rex’s shoulder, and raising his right arm toward the bright lights above the dining hall, Coach Dan cleared his throat dramatically. “Before Rex and I make our big announcement, I would like to again thank Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson, not only for their generous hospitality this evening – dinner was superb – but also their continued support of the Bark Bay fencing team.” Polite, sincere applause, even from Double-J. Coach Dan clasped his hands in front of him, and continued.
“As you know, we have been functioning without a team captain so far this season. Now this is not that unusual, given the highly individualistic nature of fencing – many of the teams we compete against do not have captains, function fine without them.”
“JanHar was named captain for the Academy today.” Annie seemed unconcerned that she had already conveyed this news to everyone in the room, multiple times.
Coach Dan nodded in her direction. “True. And the last two years, we also had a captain.” There was a brief silence as memories of Myles, both distant and recent, came to everyone. “Back then I saw there was a clear need for a captain, a leader who could help define our team’s identity. We were still the new kids on the block, and having someone serve such a visible role was crucial to our development.
“But it’s a new year, a new season, a new team. Many familiar faces, but some new. When we began practicing in the fall, I had no idea how you all would interact with each other, could not see what team you might become. What I did know was that if I appointed a captain,” – Annie could see that Coach Dan was now looking beyond them, was focused on Double-J – “the entire team would begin to revolve around that person, like moons pulled into orbit by the gravity from a powerful planet. I wanted to see every one of you – develop a bit first, before deciding if you needed a captain.
“And then,” Coach Dan turning to Rex, “the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, I had a conversation with this fine young gentleman. Told him I though the team could use a captain. He agreed.”
Rex seemed uncomfortable, as if he were forcing himself to speak. “We have a lot of – strong personalities on the team,” Annie sensing that he was also now addressing Double-J directly. “There is no shortage of advice given at practice. If anything, there’s too much advice, isn’t there, Butch?”
Butch head bobbed up and down swiftly. “Oh! Yeah. You remind me to keep my back straight, Annie tells me to concentrate on my footwork, Double-J says I need to pay attention to my arm position, then Coach Dan talks for five minutes about keeping distance – it’s overwhelming.”
Coach Dan regained control of the conversation quickly. “It’s a difficult sport, my friend. There’s a lot to take in, and I agreed with Rex about the babel of advice at practice. And that,” extending his right arm towards Rex, “is when I asked Rex to be this year’s captain of the Bark Bay fencing team.”
“YES,” Annie clapping enthusiastically. She looked to the teammates around her, who also began clapping, then turned to Double-J, who remained standing to the side of the room, not clapping, a sarcastic smile slithering onto his face as he saw Annie looking at him, the smile freezing into position as Double-J pointed back to Coach Dan.
Coach Dan waited until the applause ended. “And Rex’s response, was a complete surprise.”
Rex smiled, looked down at the lights reflecting off the marbled floor a moment, then looked up and addressed the party. “I told Coach I wasn’t the right person for the job. Then I told him that I had already been talking to Double-J about who should be captain.”
Annie turned to Double-J, still standing by himself off to the side, away from the lights in the darkest spot in the room. The joy that had been on her face disappeared, replaced with a look that conveyed concern, amazement, and anger, feelings that only increased when she saw that the snake of his mustache smile appeared to have grown.
Rex pointed at Double-J. “Care to tell everyone what you said?”
Double-J shrugged. “Not particularly,” drawing a ripple of nervous laughter in the room.
Annie felt eyes turning directly at her – first Double-J’s, then Coach Dan’s and Rex’s, and then if by silent cue everyone else in the room turned in her direction, as her mouth fell open.
“Right. Double-J and I agreed that there was only one person who had everyone’s respect on this team, one person everyone could look to, only one person with both the fencing skills and leadership ability to be this team’s captain. And that person,” Rex extending his right arm in her direction, “is Annie.”
Annie felt as if an invisible wave was descending upon her, a wave that refreshed her, invigorated her spirit, while at the same time overwhelming her, causing her to stagger backwards. She knew in an instant that this moment was the realization of her most secretive fantasy. She had never mentioned her desire to be fencing captain to anyone – hers had been a stealth campaign, conducted with the knowledge that overt ambition would have been met forcefully from more powerful personalities, would have created a struggle she was not sure she could win. She couldn’t contest openly for the position, but she could demonstrate to her teammates that she had the sharpest intellect, the greatest patience, and most pronounced skill of them all – as well as make sure each of them recognized these traits.
It was a fantasy she kept close to her, one she would dismiss quickly whenever it rose to her consciousness (which often happened whenever she heard Double-J openly proclaimed his desire to be captain). But now that Rex was offering her the captaincy, she felt embarrassed, as if he were saying We were on to you the whole time. And for a moment she felt like refusing the offer, to keep her secret fantasy safe. But only a moment.
The response from her team was uniform and enthusiastic. You’re exactly what we need (Rex) This is so cool (Butch) I’m so happy for you (The Bird) You’ve earned this (Rune). Even Double-J came in from the shadowed edge of the dining room, stood under the bright lights from the ceiling and, looking at Annie with an uncharacteristically pleasant smile, offered his right hand – “Congratulations.”
Having been congratulated by each of her teammates, Annie saw Coach Dan stepping towards her, extending his arms wide, not so much inviting as commanding. She ran up, threw herself into him with enough force to cause him to step back. Her face buried in his chest, she let loose the sob that she had been fighting back ever since Rex’s announcement.
“Aw, don’t be so sad,” Rune’s hyperbolic irony hanging over in his voice like a curtain. “We promise to be nicer to you than we were to Myles.”
Annie pulled away from Coach Dan, her wet eyes glistening above her broad smile. “I’m sorry,” sobbing a laugh. “I’m just . . . so happy.”
“If I may be so bold,” Coach Dan patting her on the shoulder, “I believe one of your new functions, is to provide motivational speeches. My friend, I believe it’s time for your first speech.”
Polite applause filtered through the circle as the crowd backed away from Annie, leaving her alone in a circle of bright light. Wiping the tears streaked on her cheek, she cleared her throat, raised both chin and voice, and spoke.
“Actually, you were on to something Rune.” She turned to smile at each of her teammates. “There is, actually, a reason to be sad. Up to now I was just someone on the team, one of the guys, or gals,” nodding in The Bird’s direction. “Part of the reason I enjoy fencing so much is being part of this team. We have so much fun together, enjoy hanging around before and after practice, joking around, that kind of stuff made me love being on the team since day one.
“But last year, I noticed there was one guy who didn’t joke around so much, didn’t seem to want to hang out with the rest of us. It was Myles, and it wasn’t that he was unfriendly – you could always approach him, ask him anything, he always made time for you – just kind of . . . aloof, was the best word for it.
“I remember asking him about it one day, asked if something was wrong, and he said Captains can’t be anybody’s buddy. I told him that I didn’t agree, that he just needed to loosen up a little, and he just shrugged and continued practicing. It wasn’t until late in the year, when I started competing in tournaments, that I appreciated what he had to say. When I really started to focus on my game, started thinking about what I needed to do to start winning, I noticed that aside from Coach Dan, the person whose advice I followed most closely was Myles’, not simply because he was our best fencer but because of the way he carried himself, showed that above all else he was dedicated to improving his game. He was leading by example, showing us by his actions that we needed to take this sport seriously if we wanted to get better at it.
“And I saw it had an effect – when Myles spoke, everyone listened, and that listening made everyone better. I’ll always appreciate how he acted back then – regardless of what happened last month – and that’s the example that I want to follow, now that you’ve chosen to make me your captain.”
Annie’s eyes glistened wetly as she continued, “So while I’m happy, so honored to be named your team captain, I’m also a little sad to know – that I can’t just be your buddy anymore. That I can’t be the person you used to know.”
To Annie’s surprise, it was The Bird who objected. Nothing had really changed, her voice squeaking like a cartoon mouse, because all of them were always changing. It was what they did.
“An excellent point,” Coach Dan stepping forward quickly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Change is inevitable, and while we can’t choose whether change will come, we can choose how we face it – we can be afraid, and let change dictate our destiny, or we can embrace it, search for the new opportunities that change presents.”
He turned, walked backwards a few steps until he stood next to Annie, put his right arm across her shoulders. “It’s true that Myles had a distinct approach to being the captain, and it was certainly effective. But you” – and now he pulled Annie in close to him – “are not Myles. What worked for him may not work for you, and if I may be so bold, if all you do as captain of this fencing team is try to imitate Myles – you’ll be ineffective, and miserable.”
Annie looked up at him, and nodded. Her eyes were red but now dry, her gaze steady. The tears on her cheeks evaporated like memories.
“I don’t want you to be Myles,” Coach Dan looking down intently at her. “I want you to be Annie. ANNIE – HUTCHINSON,” tugging hard on her shoulders as he said her names, the action rising a giggle from Annie that ripped through the crowd around them. “Rex said earlier that both he and Double-J had recommended you for the captaincy. This is true – but what he didn’t tell you is that I had final say over the decision. And when they made their recommendation, they presented me with one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make. No, you are not Myles. You are Annie Hutchinson. And if the team decides on you as your captain, all I can say is – ” he now turned to face the crowd – “great choice.”
Enthusiastic applause erupted from her teammates. Annie stepped forward with beaming face, thrust her right arm high, then brought it down and carried it into her body as she bowed deeply.
As she brought her body upright, she saw her silver-haired father and mother with the smiling pearls approach, faces bright with pleasure. Carl Hutchinson reached his pony-tailed daughter first, and clasped her shoulders with both hands – “I am – so proud of you.”
Annie smiled at her father, her face then melting with tears.