Gray Metal Faces – December 1

The Third Friday

Double-J lunged, right arm extending while at the same moment his wrist flexed deftly under Rex’s attempted parry, the burly teen’s right foot landing flat on the tiled floor as his attack landed on Rex’s chest, a second before the tip of his “weapon” broke off, falling to the floor in a shower of crumbs.

Annie and Rune, standing to the side of the combatants, laughed heartily. “My touch!” Double-J’s accentuated his cry by holding a long, thin loaf of French bread toward the ceiling.

Rex grinned as he pointed with his intact loaf to the floor at what had once been at the end of Double-J’s weapon. “But it appears I now have you at a disadvantage.”

“Not for long!” Double-J then quickly grabbed the end of Rex’ loaf, brought it to his mouth, tore off a bite, his three teammates laughing as he chewed with mock triumph on his face.

The doorbell rang. Annie hurried out of the dining room of her family’s home (the oldest and largest in Bark Bay), walked quickly into the foyer, opened the large oaken front door. Coach Dan walked in, stomping snow off his boots, and handed a wine bottle to Annie, who thanked him for coming. He shook his head as he sat on a long wooden bench to remove his boots – “My friend, it’s you I should be thanking, for hosting this party tonight. I’m sure the team will appreciate this.”

Annie nodded. “My parents love hosting Christmas – I mean, holiday parties.” Her eyes widened. “Did you hear, about the Academy?” Coach Dan shook his head wordlessly. “My brother, he told me they named JanHar the fencing captain today!”

“Jane?” Coach Dan nodded. “Excellent choice.”

Annie took Coach Dan’s large brown jacket, hung it within a large closet nearby. “Surprised me, actually, since she’s a senior. They usually pick a junior, so they can be captain three years.” Most Academy students attended the optional college prep year.

“Yet another advantage” – Coach Dan rose to his feet, a bemused smile on his face – “of that college prep year.”

The sound of slippered feet skimming across the hardwood floor approached, followed by the entrance of tall thin man, hair graying professorially along his temples, age lines gracefully accenting his brow, blue eyes sparkling, his smiling mouth opening a window to perfectly white teeth. Carl Hutchinson, Annie’s father, extended his arm toward Coach Dan – “How’s the weather out there?”

After the two men exchanged greetings, Annie held the bottle of wine to her father. “He brought us a gift, Father.” Reading the label quickly – “Muscato, an excellent choice” – Carl Hutchinson tucked the bottle into his left arm.

Annie touched her coach on his left elbow. “Rune and his parents are already here, so’s Rex and Double-J.”

Coach Dan frowned. “Was hoping for a bigger turnout.”

Annie took her phone from her pocket. “OK texted me a few minutes ago, said she couldn’t make it. Butch said he couldn’t get a ride, but I called The Bird’s mom, she’s picking him up, should be here soon. Haven’t heard from Micki or Coy yet. Juan’s a no, of course.” Her coach nodded, as Annie led him and her father away from the foyer.

Coach Dan blinked as his eyes encountered the brilliant lighting of the large dining room, hundreds of tiny holiday bulbs strung along the crown molding near the ceiling, the tiny points of light amplifying the large crystal chandelier hovering above the center. Double-J and Rex had resumed their duel with the bread loaves, crumbs now freely scattered across the marbled floor.

Rex stopped as he saw Annie’s father enter. “No please, resume,” Carl Hutchinson’s smile underscoring his laughing command.

Coach Dan stepped forward, his face contorted with mock exasperation. “How many times must I tell you – use French foils, not French bread!” Laughter and smiles erupted as he took the director’s position between the two teens – “Fencers ready!” Double-J and Rex quickly responded by crouching down and aiming their loaves at each other. “Let’s eat – I mean, fence!”

Double-J lunged wildly at Rex, who jumped back from the broken and jagged tip of his opponent’s freshly-baked weapon. Rex raised his floury foil, the parry sounding hollowly against Double-J’s meal-time menace, and followed with a yeasty thrust that landed on Double-J’s chest, a split-second before his loaf split, collapsing near the center; great were the crumbs that fell to the waiting floor.

Heeled shoes clacked the tiled floor, at first a distant sound more tactile than audible, then rising in volume to the same level as the laughter in the dining room, finally emerging as sharp sounds commanding attention as a middle-aged woman, wearing a green evening dress the color of fresh pine needles, adorned with a long string of ivory pearls stretching down just below her neckline, entered the room. She was followed by a man wearing a charcoal gray sports jacket and a neon yellow tie (the jacket and tie creating a sartorial clash so glaring as to seem intentional), and a woman wearing a red sweater decorated with snowmen wearing green scarves.

“Dear! Such a mess!” Laura Hutchinson tutted with mock exaggeration as she gazed at the bread crumbs on the floor. She turned quickly towards the kitchen as the man and woman behind her, entered the dining room.

“Carl, those portraits in the study are extraordinary!” Jenna Banks, mother of Rune and associate professor of linguistics at State, pointed behind her right shoulder. “Those came from Hill Street Studio?”

Carl Hutchinson nodded. “That young man Boynton shows some promise.”

The yellow-tied man next to Jenna snorted. “So why’s he still here?” Paul Banks, Rune’s father, and perhaps the most prominent accountant in Bark Bay, spoke as was his custom in a voice that made clear he neither expected nor wanted an answer. Indeed, he seemed surprised, perhaps even offended, when Carl Hutchinson replied that the young man had applied for a scholarship to an art school in New York.

Paul Banks shrugged. “Why not Chicago? There’s great art in Chicago, and I think that fits his style more, based on what I saw in the study.”

If Carl Hutchinson was impressed by Paul’s comment, he did not reveal it. “I believe the lad just prefers New York.”

Paul Banks shook his head, snorted. “Well, I wish him well. But Chicago’s the place he needs to be.”

Carl Hutchinson nodded. “You were in Chicago for what, fifteen years?”

“Sixteen.” Paul Banks smiled briefly before walking over to the counter where the drinks waited in tall bottles, nearly colliding with a man in a chef’s jacket, the white of its linen contrasting sharply against the man’s skin, as he walked in from the kitchen, broom and dustpan in hand, followed by Laura. The man walked over to Rex and Double-J, still engaged in their breadstick battle, and paused. Rex saw him first, stared a moment, then held up a hand to Double-J, who stopped and turned to see the man kneeling over the bread crumbs that bore witness to their dinner-party duel.

The room was silent, everyone watching the man as he swept the floor, then rose to return to the kitchen. Rex walked over to the long food table, picked up a plate, and held it at waist level, directly under his chin, as he began eating the weapon which he had so recently wielded. As Rex took his first bite, Double-J raised his eyebrows and, turning to the others in the room,     presented the blunted end of his floury foil. “Anyone want this?”

An awkward pause, then Carl Hutchinson laughed and stepped forward, motioning for Double-J to place the breadstick remnant on a side table. Carl then turned, raised his arms palms open towards his guests, and addressed his guests with a commanding voice that echoed his enameled smile.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming this evening. Annie – ” nodding his head in his daughter’s direction – ” asked me back in November if we could host a – ” now nodding to Coach Dan, and saying with emphasis – “holiday party, for her fencing team, Pamela and I not only couldn’t say no,” the exaggerated emphasis and nod back to Annie prompting a murmur of crowd laughter, “but we were overjoyed by the opportunity. Festive parties at this time of year are a tradition that reaches back to antiquity, and is nearly universal among all human cultures. Whether it’s called Saturnalia, or Christmas, or – ” nodding back to Coach Dan, then lowering his voice inquisitively – “is it Hanukah, or Chanukah?”

Dan blinked. “Either will do, my friend. And while Hanukah’s association with the winter solstice is a historical coincidence, it nevertheless provides an opportunity to provide light that will cut through the darkness of the season, and announce the triumph ascendancy of the sun.”

“Hear hear.” The yellow-tied Paul Banks, standing by the bar table, raised a glass tumbler of scotch and soda toward the ceiling.

“So please, enjoy!” Carl Hutchinson swept his long arms across the wide dining room, catching Coach Dan’s attention as he walked by. “I think what you’re doing is extraordinary. Three years ago I’d have put the odds of a fencing team succeeding at Bark Bay High as slightly less likely than jai alai becoming a varsity sport.”

Coach Dan laughed. “To be honest, I’d have agreed. I knew this idea was a long shot, but I gotta say, the kids made it work.”

“Oh please, spare me the coach speak! Annie tells me how many hours you put into this, the equipment you buy, the transportation to tournaments. You’re the one – ” Carl Hutchinson jabbed his index finger squarely into Coach Dan’s chest – “who makes this team what it is.”

Coach Dan smiled, closed his eyes, nodded at Carl.

“Just as you’re also responsible for Annie’s success so far.”

Coach Dan waved off this last bit of praise, then caught Annie’s eye and waved her over. “You –are the one working your tail off in practice.”

Annie smiled.

The first Tuesday

“Walk it off,” Coach Dan’s routine signal for the ending footwork drills. Rex, Butch, Rune and The Bird shuffled their tired legs toward the east end of the cafeteria, where their coats and other personal affects lay on the black tiled floor. Annie, however, stretched briefly, then crouched back down into en garde position, repeating the sequence they had just learned: double advance, then a retreat followed by a “revance” – a step back and then a push forward from the rear leg, extend-lunge.

Coach Dan caught her eye, waved in the direction of the other students. “Get some rest, before sparring starts.”

“I’m not tired.” Annie continued the drill, her focus intensified in defiance of her coach’s advice.

“You’re working your tail off.” She gave no indication of having heard her coach. “Must – “

“Hey Coach?” Dan spun in the direction of Rex’s voice, eyebrows raised. “You know, that – ” the teen’s voice grew soft – “thing, we talked about last week.”

Coach Dan scratched the short black curls of his beard a moment. “You know – ” his voice even softer – “the offer?”

“Yes, yes.” Coach Dan snapped fingers above his head.

Annie came out of her stance. “What offer?”

The volunteer coach of the Bark Bay High School fencing team raised two palms in her direction. “For now, this has to be a conversation between Rex and me, my friend.” He spoke quietly, his words intended for her alone, and she saw in his face a touch of apology, and a promise to be more open with her in the future.

NaNoWriEvenMo

Later today I continue the project I started last month. Chapter four should be about the length of the first three, close to 20k words; with more time available, my plan is to post a couple-few grand each day, finishing before the end of the year.

Have a lotta work ahead of me, but I’m pumped. Hope you enjoy the ride.

The Man in the High Castle

A very interesting novel, embellished by an extremely good audiobook performance.

The Amazon miniseries, and my interest in alternative-history fiction, inspired me to download this title for a long holiday road trip. The genre is most effective when the premise is treated as background rather than the primary focus; “what happened?” and “how is this world different?” aren’t as interesting questions as “how are people in this world different?” and “what does this world say about our own?” Fortunately this novel doesn’t provide a detailed explanation of how the Allies lose the Second World War, leaving Germany in possession of the eastern United States, Japan ruling the west, with the Rockies forming a buffer between the two occupying empires (sorry, Britain and Russia, you get scant mention in this very American-centric novel).

What we have instead is a compelling portrait of California under Japanese rule. Asian culture is everywhere, affecting even the speech patterns of the conquered Americans. Yet American art and creativity fascinate the Japanese, a fascination not shared by the Germans to their east; a merger of American and Japanese culture seems to be forming, and helps lead to a conflict between the two remaining world powers. In this world, America’s military has failed, but its culture has come to its rescue; this imaginary world provides an interesting insight into the influence of American culture in our own world.

The Brilliance Audio performance by Jeff Cummings is first-rate. Cummings provides a distinct voice for each of the American, Japanese, German, and Italian characters, and even does well with the female characters. The quality of this reading makes the novel even more engaging.

Don’t Poke The Dinosaur

Another post inspired by another blogger, Tony Single on the Unbolt blog

Shh! Don’t disturb him, whatever you do.
Leave him reclining in that plush rocket ship,
His remote-control wand sating his appetite for banality.

He’ll only get angry if you rouse him,
Demonstrate that the happiness he feels
Is merely pain with a painted face.

Let him watch the meteors falling from the sky,
Allow him to be amused by the celestial light show
As they doomfall around him.

Well that’s my advice, anyway.
You want to poke that dinosaur, knock yourself out!
Just don’t expect any help from me.

Rejuvinex

An interesting challenge from Eclectic Voices: “write 100 word fiction (or less) about a pagan tradition. Real or made-up, it doesn’t matter.” I’ll go the MSU route.

The Festival of Rejuvinex was celebrated in pre-Christian communities across the Mediterranean; manuscripts describing the festival have been discovered in modern-day Spain, Libya, and Greece. Some scholars claim the festival was also celebrated in Mesopotamia, although the evidence for this is contested.

Rejuvinex was celebrated during the first full moon after the winter solstice. Celebrants would fast from dawn to dusk, then raise ceremonial lights when the sun disappeared. A communal feast, followed by music and dancing, was held on all four evenings.

Some early Christian sects attempted to incorporate Rejuvinex into their practice; why those attempts failed is a unknown.

A Momentary Break

I’ve learned a lot about myself and this novel since I began the latest round of revisions on November 1. In no particular order, those lessons include:

  • Each chapter of the novel will be approximately 20K words
  • To post close to 1700 words a day (the average required to meet the NaNoWriMo goal of 50K words in November), I need to start with a decent rough draft of at least half that length, and a good three hours of writing
  • The only way I can devote three hours a day to writing is to set aside other obligations in my life, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice. But with next week being the start of a two-week vacation, I have an opportunity
  • Having a revised outline for the first two chapters significantly helped; not having a revised outline for chapter three lead to problems. Hadn’t expected to end this round of revision with the third chapter being the weakest — but there it is.

After 45 days and over 60K words, and having reached the end of my revision of the third chapter, I’m taking a short break from the novel. Short, as in, I’ll start on the chapter four revision next Monday, with a goal of finishing by the end of the year. Not sure what I’ll write about until then (not posting something every day is, of course, no longer an option for me). Let’s just see what strikes me during my lunch break tomorrow.

Gray Metal Faces – November 15

King, the family’s large German Shepherd, bounced on front paws as large as a baseball catcher’s glove as Rex approached, the dog’s enormous neck straining against the chain that tethered it to the ground outside the trailer. Rex let King leap onto his chest, scratched his dirty head; glancing down at the empty aluminum bowl (licked clean, Rex suspected, from not being filled yet today), he petted the dog down. “Don’t worry, boy, I’ll feed you in a minute.” The teen then ascended the wooden stairs leading up to the trailer’s front door, taking the first step with his left foot; Rex lead with his right foot on all other stairs, but years of experience had conditioned him to begin entering his home on his off-foot, the better to avoid the right side of the third tread, loose and apparently impervious to repair. He opened the screen door, its upper section a void, and pushed through the weathered, scratched front door.  

Reg, his older sister, was sitting at the green formica table in the space outside the bedrooms and bathroom, an area not separate enough from the food preparation appliances and utensils to be considered a dining room. She was eating from a plastic bowl with the orangey yellow stains of macaroni and cheese.

Rex pointed to the bowl, his mouth watering. “Hi. Save enough for me?” Reg nodded, swallowed, then gestured toward the back bedroom. “She didn’t have a good day.”

Rex nodded, took off his jacket, walked into the bedroom. The only light in the room was a nighlight low on the wall to the left. His mother was in bed, covers over her. Rex didn’t hear her breathe until he had leaned over her, but what he heard was labored, pained.

He was about to stand up, turn to leave, when her eyes suddenly snapped open, and she drew a deep shudder of a breath in, ending in a sob, her body tensing.

Rex (who had seen this reaction from her enough times to no longer be surprised by it) did not move, instead smiled, said hello. Her body relaxed, a weak smile seeping onto her face as she exhaled.

“Rex.” Her whisper a pained sigh. “When did you come back?”

“Just now.”

She looked up at the ceiling a moment. “You – where did you go?”

“Fencing tournament, Mother.” Better to misrepresent than have to define a scrimmage for her. “At the Academy.”

She cleared her throat. “Do . . . you need a ride?”

“Double-J – John Johnston gave me a ride.”

“I . . . don’t have a car.”

Rex did not answer, choosing to let the topic expire, like a sunbeam disappearing behind a cloud.

“Wiil that . . . Hutch – inson girl be there?”

“Yes, Annie was there.” His mother smiled at Rex’s response.

“Her family . . . they have been . . . so good to us.”

“They have good hearts. Especially Annie.”

“Rex!” Her voice suddenly rising into a soft, sharp shout.

“Yes, Mother?”

She hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with what she was about to say. “I’m . . . I’m . . .”

“Are you cold?”

She closed her eyes, sighed, moved her head up and down with just enough energy to indicate that Rex was correct.

“I can turn the furnace up –”

She shook her head forcefully. “We can’t . . . afford –”

“It’s OK.”

“No – not the . . . furnace.”

Rex sighed. “I can get you the comforter.” She nodded weakly. He walked to the wall behind him, opened the closet door and retrieved a faded, torn comforter. By the time he returned to his mother, she was sleeping.

He placed the comforter over her, kissed her forehead, and walked back into the main room of the trailer. Reg was watching television with their younger sister, Renee; Rex sat on the couch between them.

Rex had minimal interest in the program, but he was too tired to raise an objection or suggest an alternative. He thought of reading, taking a book into the kids’ bedroom, but knew he lacked the energy to pay sufficient attention.

During a commercial, Reg turned to him. “Did you win today?”

“Tied for third, in foil. Epee’s next week.”

“Mr. Williams came by today.”

Rex turned to her quickly. “Mr. Williams? Here?

Reg nodded. Rex rose, walked over to the television, turned it off, turned to his sister. “What did he want?”

She shrugged. “Nothing. Just wanted to talk to Momma. Wanted to look at our cupboard.” Renee remained still on the couch.

“And you let him?”

Reg nodded. “Refrigerator too.”

Rex closed his eyes, turned his head up at the ceiling, hands on his hips. “What we have for food is none of his business!”

“But he works for the state, isn’t he like a cop – ”

“Mr. Williams is NOT a cop, he does not have a BADGE, and he’s got NO BUSINESS snooping around in our cupboards!”

His sisters stared at him, unblinking. Rex sighed, relaxed his shoulders. “Sorry,” then leaned down to the television to restore its power.

They watched televsion for the next hour, not saying anything until Rex announced it was time for everyone to get to bed.

His two sisters went noiselessly to the smaller bedroom, followed by Rex. He helped them get undressed, got them into the bed that they shared, drew their covers over them.

Ref was practically asleep by the time he covered her. Renee, still very awake, looked up at him with a smile.

“Is Mr. Williams going to take us away?” Renee’s voice conveyed more curiosity than worry.

“No.” Rex shook his head aggressively. “Never.”

“When you grow up, are you going to try out for the Three Musketeers?”

Rex laughed. “The Three Musketeers aren’t real. It’s just a story. They’re not a team.”

“What team are you going to be on?”

Rex shook his head. “We don’t have . . . teams in fencing, really. Not like in baseball or basketball.”

“Aren’t you on the high school team?”

Rex paused. “We’re . . . a bunch of fencers. Not a team.”

He kissed her on the forehead, then rose and left the bedroom, turning out the light as he left.

He heard King whining, then the sound of his aluminum bowl being dragged across the frozen dirt. Cursing, Rex raced to the sink, grabbed the large bag of discount dog food from under the uncovered opening, raced outside and quickly spilled its contents onto the bowl, King nearly knocking him over as he began feeding. Rex remembered the last time Mr. Williams had visited them, over the summer, how he’d questioned whether the Ankiels should be providing for a pet. But there had already been so much taken away from his family; why, he wondered, did being poor mean you automatically lost the ability to make your own decisions?

Re-entering the trailer, Rex realized his body was more tired than his mind, but on this evening physical desires gave way to the intellect. He reached up to pull the chain that powered the light over the green table, when his eyes landed on a gray plastic bag. He had carried it in from Double-J’s car, had dropped it on the table when Reg told him about their mother, had let it leave his mind completely for the rest of the evening, until now. He reached down, parted the plastic opening, looked down on its contents.

The fencing shoes that Coach Dan had insisted he take seemed completely out of place within his family’s trailer. He remembered a discussion from last spring between Myles and Annie, regarding the cost of shoes and other fencing equipment; these shoes, he realized, were worth more money than was needed to feed his family for a week, perhaps two. I could seek them, he thought; nobody on the Bark Bay team were near his shoe size, but certainly someone from the Academy, or Midland, Woolford . . . But was that what he wanted? Shoes wouldn’t make him a better fencer, but they would reduce the wear on his sneakers — wearing these gifted shoes would save his family money, yes? He nodded, balled the plastic over the shoes again, reached up and pulled the light chain, darkness enveloping the trailer as he walked over to the main bedroom and opened the door gently.

There was just enough light from the nightlight to allow him to see his way around. His mother had not moved from the position where he had left her earlier that evening. He shut the door slowly behind him, walked over to the closet, and when his mother spoke he reacted without surprise.

“Have . . . you been home long?”

“I came back a few hours ago, Mother.” He put the bagged shoes on the highest of two shelves in the closet, where only he could reach, and made sure its contents were not visible.

“Did . . . what . . . ”

Rex began undressing as her voice trailed off. He had put on the t-shirt and shorts he wore for sleeping by the time she spoke again.

“When . . . is your fencing tournament?”

“It was today, Mother.”

“Do . . . you need a ride?”

“No, Mother. I’m fine. Please go back to sleep.”

She was silent. For a long moment. Then — “You are . . . such a good boy.”

Rex decided not to answer, trusting that remaining silent would help his mother sleep. A moment later, he heard her regular, soft breathing.

Rex lay next to his mother and stared at the ceiling, his mind still active. He thought about the conversations he had lately with his mother about the family sleeping arrangements. With no regular income, getting a bigger trailer was out of the question, and sharing a room with his sisters was potentially more uncomfortable than the current situation. Of course there was the option of putting Rex’s bed in the main room, in the place of the sofa, which had been the arrangement when they had first moved in, after his father had left.

But Rex was still very young then, the memory of Neb leaving too hurtful to him, and he complained about being alone at night. He found it comforting then to fall asleep in his mother’s bed, being wakened by her a few hours later and shuffling off to his bed in the main room. Then his mother’s sickness became more pronounced, and she would forget to wake him at night, until eventually his staying in his mother’s bed until morning became routine.

Rex closed his eyes, thought of the scrimmage that afternoon, how Francis Pine had goaded him into a position that neutralized his strength. When he thought of Francis, he was neither envious (as was Annie), disdainful (as was Double-J), or annoyed (as was Rune); instead he admired his opponent, admired him so much that he wanted to pay him the ultimate compliment, which was to commit himself to besting him, to acknowledge that he was an opponent worthy of challenge, skilled enough to inspire you to improve your own skill with the blade.
He was going to beat Francis Pine the next time they faced. And Francis would respond by committing to winning their next bout. And so on it would go, a back and forth battle which would make the two of them better.

Rex smiled, yawned, and turned to his mother, snoring silently next to him. Whispering “good night,” he turned and closed his eyes, as frost descended in the night sky.

End of “November”

Gray Metal Faces – November 14

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.