Gray Metal Faces – December 10

[Update 12/31/15: Just realized I had the name of Annie’s mother wrong throughout this post; only that name has been changed in the update below.]

Carl Hutchinson would soon excuse himself, retreat to his office on the third floor. It was late, but Annie was too full of energy to retire. She walked into the library, a small room off the side of the front foyer that had existed since the house had been built over a century ago, a large brick hearth on the inside wall now serving as evidence of the room’s original use. An embering fire glowed orange and black within the hearth.

Annie’s family had converted this room into a library a generation before she was born. She scanned the shelves, hoping to find a book that would help calm her, reading herself to sleep being something she had long enjoyed. But she found her mind was racing too fast to focus even momentarily on the task of book selection.

Her attention turned quickly to the walls, the portraits and art with which she was long familiar, a large antique map hanging above the hearth finally captivating her. She walked slowly towards it, as if drawn in by gravity, stopping herself in front of the warm hearth as she looked up.

She found herself staring at the map a long time. Studying it. Analyzing its data in relation to other information she had heard earlier in the evening.

Hearing the sounds of her mother’s footsteps, she turned to the doorway, saw her enter, pearls smiling across her chest. Laura Hutchinson carried a foil in her right hand (held as her daughter had instructed her back in October – point down, blade between index and middle fingers, cup the hand under the bell guard like you were carrying a bowl), a fencing mask in her left – “I think one of your teammates left this behind.”

“Sorry,” Annie quickly turning to her mother with outstretched arms. “I’ll take care of that.” Taking the foil and mask, her momentum clearly indicating her intent to leave and find an appropriate storage location for the equipment – Annie stopped when her mother laid a gentle yet commanding hand on her shoulder.

“Over there, for now,” Laura pointing to an armchair to the side of the doorway. “I haven’t had a chance to talk with you all evening.” Annie seated the foil and mask, then turned with a smile to her mother, daughter wrapping her arms around the smiling woman’s left arm as they walked over to the gravitational warmth of the hearth.

“There was a lot going on tonight,” the apology in Annie’s voice hanging like a sentence. “I’m sorry – ”

Laura Hutchinson tutted, throwing her head back. “You have nothing to be sorry about. This was your night, Bunny – if I can still call you that.”

“While we’re alone, of course.”

They stopped in front of the hearth, orange embers in the remnants of the fire gasping for air. “I asked your coach, if many sophomores like you were captains of their fencing teams. He told me he didn’t know of any others.”

Annie looked down, blushing for the first time that evening. “Well, we’re an unusual team.”

Laura Hutchinson arched her eyebrows, relaxed her face, turned back to the fire. “You know, I realized this evening as I saw you – what do you call it, dueling?”

Annie looked in her direction a moment, her focus not on her mother’s face but rather on decrypting her question. “Oh – sparring. We call it sparring. Dueling sounds a little rough.”

Laura nodded. Annie saw a glint of the expiring fire in her mother’s pearls. “All right, when you were sparring tonight – that’s when I realized that I’ve never asked you, in this last year and a half that you started fencing – why, exactly, do you like it so much? There’s no problem of course – I’m just curious. You used to be so into gymnastics, so into dancing, but last year, all of that stopped. I’d just like to know – why fencing?”

Annie’s answer came to her effortlessly, some of the words she spoke surprising her even as she uttered them, as if she were speaking not from her conscious mind with its filters and catch phrases – her words seemed to come from some place deeper inside her, not a place as tangible as her conscious where she could identify thoughts, memories, emotions, yet a place that seemed far more real:

“I fence because it’s the only thing that’s ever inspired me. All the dance lessons, the gymnastics – the AP classes, college prep – debate club, Young Entrepreneurs – all of that was fun, but all I’ve ever done is go through the motions with any of that. No, it wasn’t all easy at first, but I never had any problem catching on. I’ve never actually enjoyed the act of doing something – until I started fencing.

“Fencing takes everything that I have, everything that I can deliver – physically, intellectually, emotionally. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done where I’ve responded to defeat not with disappointment, but excitement – here’s a new challenge to conquer, a new code to decipher. And the beauty is, it never ends, there’s always someone just a little better than the person you just beat.

“Why fencing?” Annie felt more certain than she had ever felt in her young life. “Because it makes me feel alive.”

Laura Hutchinson took a step back, looked at her daughter with surprise and awe. Then her face softened into a smile that was echoed by the arc of pearls across her chest – “Now I understand why they wanted you to be their captain.”

Annie smiled, turned her attention back to the map above the hearth, warmth still emanating from its fading orange embers. She opened her mouth to speak, but was stopped by her mother. “So what exactly does this mean? What exactly does a fencing captain – do?”

Annie shrugged. “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. You have to take charge at times during tournaments, when Coach Dan is too busy to talk with an official or help someone on the team – at least that’s what Myles did last year when he was captain. But that didn’t happen all the time, and I think Coach Dan allowed Myles to be in charge more than he needed to be. I dunno – guess he trusted him.”

“I’m sure Coach Dan will trust you as well.”

Annie smiled, looked down. “Yeah.” She looked up at the map again.

Laura Hutchinson looked in the direction that was obviously drawing her daughter’s attention. “Ah – the old map. Hasn’t been accurate for decades – shows the river before the hyrdro dam was built,” pointing up to the left corner, “before Lake George even existed – but the map’s so beautifully drawn, so artistic. It may not be functional, but it hasn’t lost its beauty over the years.”

Annie laughed, sarcasm in her utterance mixed with embarrassment at not being able to conceal her derision.

“Something wrong?”

The daughter of Carl and Laura Hutchinson realized she wouldn’t be able to conceal her thoughts much longer. Better to come out with it now – “It’s not about the bridge, is it?”

She looked over at her mother, mouth open in surprise, but eyes filled with recognition. Annie sighed – “Father running for state senate; it’s never been about the bridge.”

Annie’s mother closed her mouth, and crossed her arms, shoulders visibly raised.

Annie turned back to the map, pointed to the lower left section. “If they build the new bridge, the state’s going to need roads running to and from it. There’s two possibilities. Route 16” – Annie pointed to a location on the wall to the left and below the map – “comes in from the south, and they could run the access road off there. Other option” – now Annie pointed to a spot higher on the wall to the map’s left – “is to come down off the Interstate, from the north. The state would get money from the federal government if they connect to the Interstate, but it’s a much longer route, and more expensive, than the southern option.”

“I see you’ve been reading the Bark Bay Beacon,” a touch of impatience in her mother’s reply.

Annie turned back to her mother. “The northern route also goes through all that unincorporated land my uncles own.”

Laura Hutchinson clenched her arms more tightly.

“Have my uncles also bought land on the other side of the river?”

Laura Hutchinson smiled briefly, Annie seeing for a moment the same face she had seen after winning a gymnastics tournament, or completing a piano recital. But the smile quickly gave way to a stern look of defiance – “Go on.”

“Everyone’s so focused on the bridge, they’re not even thinking about the access roads – and when they do, they all assume it’s going to be the southern option. And the unincorporated land’s owned by holding companies, your brothers are only some of many investors. The connection back to our family – ”

” – is too subtle for the fools at the Beacon to figure out.” Laura Hutchinson sounded proud of her assertion.

Annie looked down, shaking her head. “But it’s not about the money, is it? What the family will make off selling the land to the government would be a fraction of what we already have.”

Laura Hutchinson nodded. “Running for office, letting the voters decide – that’s not a sound business plan.”

The fire sputtered in the hearth to her left. Annie swallowed visibly, stabbed her gaze into her mother’s unblinking eyes.

“Does Father know?”

A protesting look What on earth do you mean? Know what? crossed Laura Hutchinson’s face for a moment, was quickly replaced with a knowing smile.

“He knows – enough.”

Annie laughed. “Just enough to know that he shouldn’t ask any more questions?”

“Your father’s an intelligent man.”

“But not as smart as his wife?”

“Your father is a Hutchinson. The Hutchinsons have sat on their wealth for over a century, have rested on it, never using it, content to let it stagnate. There’s never been a plan, never been a next step.”

“But your family, the Stevens – you’ve come into your wealth recently – ”

“Your uncles know how to make money, a skill the Hutchinsons lost generations ago.”

Annie turned towards the hearth and gazed up at the map. She spoke to the map with words intended for her mother.

“Father wins the election, replacing the only state senator with enough clout to block the bridge project. Our family doesn’t own any of the land for the bridge, so we don’t get any money from the state. But Uncle Joe, Uncle Tom, they’ve been buying land for one of the proposed access routes; not the route people are expecting, but should that route be selected, we’ll see all kinds of development – retail, housing, maybe even an industrial park or two. We’ll have all this money coming in, all of it filtered through joint ownerships in holding companies – entities that can always be bought, after Father leaves office. He’s still talking about only serving one term?”

Annie turned to her mother, who nodded knowingly. Annie returned her gaze to the map.

“And if the Beacon, or somebody else puts all the pieces together – Father’s still distant enough from the real estate transactions to make his denials seem reasonably plausible, to the press, even a judge.

“But – ” Annie now turning to her mother ” – I can’t help feeling that there’s something else, something I’m not seeing. Yes, the family will grow even richer, but that’s not the objective, is it?”

Laura Hutchinson shook her head, her smile still pregnant with knowledge.

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