Gray Metal Faces – January 4

*****

“Wasn’t that the time with Vash’s Walking Mask?”

Sitting with Rune in the back seat of Coach Dan’s sedan, The Bird saw Rex tilt his head back in response to Mr. Jacobs’ question (the teen’s brow nearly grazing the interior of the roof along the way), and, for one of the first times she could remember, heard him laugh.

“Aw man!” The tall junior and most experienced epee fencer at Bark Bay twisted in the passenger seat, his smiling profile directed toward the passengers in the rear. “This judge we had at the Midland tournament, total stickler for the rules. Vash had these skinny arms, looked like straws — she was even smaller than you.” The Bird recoiled as Rex pointed a finger at her. “You know that small mask, the one we never use?”

Rune leaned forward. “With the purple mesh?”

“Kids mask.” Mr. Jacobs kept his stone-faced focus on the icy road, as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

Rex, now fully facing the passengers in the rear, brought his hands to the side of his face. “Vash puts it on, and as she’s walking up for her first pool bout it’s wobbling side to side, like she’s a bobblehead doll. The judge, he sees her coming and says, that mask looks like its trying to walk away from your head. It’s not safe, I can’t allow you to compete.

“I believe you played a large role in solving that problem, my friend.” As he spoke, Mr. Jacobs remained focused on the sedan as it rumbled through the falling snow shower like a starship racing through stars in a science fiction movie.

“You were outside, talking to Coach Gavvy.” Rex’s voice was almost apologetic. “And Myles was fencing at the far strip.”

Mr. Jacobs raised his right index finger up to ear level. “And none of that phased y0u, my friend — you found a solution.”

Rex sank back into the passenger seat “That’s when we started calling Vash Towel Head.”

“And it’s the reason I thought of you first, when it came time to name a team captain for this year.” Mr. Jacobs flipped the sedan’s turn signal, click-CLICK click-CLICK, and the vehicle turned to the right, onto a dark county road. “A captain needs to take the initiative at times like that, because try as I might, I can’t always be around. And honestly, I’d rather not — if the team can find its own solutions, that’s worth more to me than any victory that any of you could achieve on strip.”

“So it’s a good thing — ” Rex turned his head right, sunken eyes peering out the car’s side window — “that Annie said yes.”

Rune fell back into the rear seat, his arm brushing The Bird’s jacket. Rex continued staring blankly, Mr. Jacobs maintained his forward focus; Rune turned briefly towards The Bird, smirked as he exhaled out his nostrils. Speaking even more softly than usual, The Bird asked Rune if he thought Annie liked being captain. “You kidding?” Rune smirked again — “She loves being in charge, just like her dad,” his voice cutting over the hum of the sedan’s engine. The Bird then asked him how he felt about her being captain.

His eyes widened. “Why shouldn’t I — ” and then his face narrowed, as he glared back at The Bird. He lowered his voice to her muted volume — “yeah, why wouldn’t I?”

The Bird swallowed, and told Rune that before he had arrived at practice today, she had heard OK and Butch talking about Annie. And Rune. About how —

“That’s nobody’s business, but my — our own.” The Bird recoiled, not only from Rune’s curt response but also from his hand, fastened tight on her forearm. She apologized, said she hadn’t meant to upset him; to her relief, Rune let go of his grasp, then shook his head slowly. “I just — you know how kids at school talk, say stuff whether it’s true or not. Me and Annie, don’t want people gossiping about us — ” his eyes met hers — “know what I mean?”

The Bird nodded, and said she knew what he meant. But she also said that gossip was just words, stupid words said by ignorant people, and those people and their words, they shouldn’t stop you from — she swallowed again — enjoying each other.

Rune shook his head, smirked, turned his attention towards the front of the sedan. Whispered — “We’re gonna be fine.” Lifted his chin, his voice rising — “Thanks for the ride, Coach.”

Mr. Jacobs waved back silently, as Rex pointed out the windshield’s left — “That’s my family’s trailer.” The sedan slowed, Mr. Jacobs flicking the turn signal, click-CLICK, click-CLICK. Long yellow cones from the headlights illuminated the front of a trailer, rust visible in spots on its battleship gray siding. Weathered wooden steps lead up to the narrow front door. A small plywood board, wrapped in plastic and attached to the door with gray duct tape, replaced what appeared to have been a window.

Immediately in front of the steps, two tiny daggers of light suddenly illuminated and barked loudly, ROWF, ROWF! As the sedan approached, the daggers changed into the shape of a dog, charging and barking crazily. It was a German Shepherd, the largest The Bird had ever seen, its head taller than the sedan’s headlights, its snarling snout snapping aggressively at the front fender as it passed.

“Jesus!” Rune sounded genuinely afraid as the dog ran around the rear of the sedan, ROWF ROWF, paws skittering across the frozen dirt. The sedan stopped, and the dog ran up to Rune’s door, growling. Rune backed away, his body pressing into The Bird’s.

Rex opened the passenger door, unfolded from the seat until he stood tall outside the sedan. “King!” — the dog’s growl lowered in volume — “Quiet.” The sound of paws padding away, the dog whimpering. the tall teen bent down, his head peering in to the interior of the sedan — “Coach, I weren’t gonna be comfortable with being captain.”

“Nobody was going to make you do anything against your will, my friend.” ROWF! — with a hand gesture, Rex silenced his dog. “That’s not how we run things.”

Rex nodded, then swiveled his head towards the rear seat. “You guys don’t mind, that I don’t wanna be captain, right?”

Rune shook his head, “that’s cool,” then looked over at The Bird. She licked her lips, then explained to Rex that everyone was the captain of their own fate.

“How poetic!” The Bird fought the temptation to explain to Mr. Jacobs that she’d read that line in a comic book.

“Huh.” Rex turned his head, looked at his family’s trailer, silent and dark in the winter night. “Wish I could agree with you. It’s just that — things seem to follow me, my family. And I don’t want any of that stuff following the team.”

King resumed barking, and Rex grabbed the outside handle of the passenger door. “Sorry, Coach — need to go.” Mr. Jacobs nodded as Rex closed the door, King rushing up to him and wagging a tail longer than most forest animals, then lifted its snout up to Rex and licked the back of his hand.

Mr. Jacobs turned back to his passengers. “One of you care to move up front?”

ROWF! ROWF! Rune’s hands flew back into surrender position — “No thanks.”

The third Wednesday

Of all her classes at Bark Bay, civics was The Bird’s least favorite, as the subject confused her to a far greater extent than any topic she’d encountered in science or math classes. This is where you learn how the world works, Mr. Justinian (a young man, a junior high school athletic coach) had said with all seriousness the first day of class, how YOU (a lean finger shooting out at the class) can make a difference. This failure at inspiration was followed by a recitation of what appeared to be facts about mostly single-digit numbers (three branches, two chambers, nine judges) which were somehow related to each other. The Bird’s memorization skills were sharp enough for her to maintain a satisfactory grade in the class, despite having no comprehension how anything she’d read or heard was at all pertinent to her.

The shift in focus last week to state government had so far promised more of the same, with slightly different numbers (three judges, apparently). She had resumed her habit of doodling in her notebook when she heard the word Hutchinson; she looked up, saw Mr. Justinian nodding at a student off to her right.

“A good man, Carl is.” That was how Mr. Justinian constructed most of his sentences, subordinate clause followed by subject and verb, In the hands of the executive branch, that is where final decisions are made. “Coached his son in basketball, I did my first year here. Sierra, his name was.”

“Doesn’t he own the land where they’re thinking of building that bridge?” The voice of an earnest boy whose name The Bird did not recall.

Mr. Justinian had been holding a marker in his hand, and now laid it on top of his metal table. “Been all over that, the Beacon has — you would have known that, young master Hassan, had you bothered to read the paper like I assigned you.” A nervous giggle rippled through the class. “The Hutchinson family sold the proposed bridge land several years ago. Real estate companies, in which the Hutchinson family holds no interest, they currently own that land.” He laughed — “If Carl Hutchinson was running for office this spring to build that bridge and make a few bucks, he’s going about it all wrong — yes?” His hand pointed off to The Bird’s right.

“I know Annie Hutchinson!” The Bird recognized Butch’s enthusiastic voice behind her. “She’s on the fencing team with me!” Another giggling ripple.

Mr. Justinian nodded. “That, I’d heard. About there being a fencing team, that is. How — ” he looked up at the ceiling a moment — “unusual.” Butch then explained how the team practiced on Tuesday after school, and then was quickly cut off by his civics instructor — “How the state budget is created, let’s resume our discussion there.”

Within minutes The Bird had resumed her doodling, and had begun drawing hair on her mother’s caricature when the bell rang to end the period. She packed her backpack swiftly, raced out of the room towards her biology class (more facts and figures, but at least the relationships made sense) into the sound salad of the Bark Bay High School hallway (locker doors schu-shing opening and klack-klunk closing, wait up basketball Saturday no no NO shit!, a laughing scream, underneath the sound of clumping shoes on the tiled floor), among which she was somehow able to hear Hey! and detect, because she faintly recognized the voice, that this solitary word was intended for her.

She turned, a taller student brushing past her in annoyance. Approaching her was the round body of Butch, the tow-headed boy from her civics class, and the fencing team. She knew she should respond, but did not know how because she had never been called out in the hall like this, and did not care for this new experience. But not only had it happened, she had acknowledged it, and now that she stopped and turned and faced this boy Butch she had to say something. But she could only think of one thing to say.

Hey.

Butch stopped, smiled, took in a deep breath. He seemed winded. “Talked — to my parents last night. They said — ” another deep breath — “I can go to the play tomorrow.”

The Bird nodded.

“But — they can’t take me. I need a ride.” He looked at her plaintively. “And — my father says I have to be home by ten.”

The Bird frowned, said the performance wouldn’t be over until after ten, and since the theater was in the city the earliest they could get home was sometime around eleven.

“Oh!” Butch looked up at the ceiling. “That’s what my mother told me too, and she said it would be OK but she would have to talk to my father.”

The Bird blinked, shook her head, then said she hoped her mother could persuade her father to let him come, and that if his parents were going to be OK with it then he should meet Mr. Jacobs in the school parking lot at five tomorrow afternoon.

“Oh! Coach Dan, right?” Nod. “So he’s going to drive us up?”

She replied that he would take as many people as would fit in his car.

“Oh! So some of us can’t go?”

She shook her head, and replied she believed that somebody else would be driving, too.

“Oh! Probably Double-J. You driving with him?”

No —

“Coach Dan? You’re going in his car?” The Bird shook her head. “You’re not going?”

At first she said no, then she said yes, she was going up with her mother.

“Oh! So she’s going to watch the play with us?”

The Bird blinked, and replied that her mother was in the play. She was Gertrude.

“Oh! I didn’t know you’re mother’s name was Gertrude.”

The voices and footfalls seemed louder to The Bird, as she stared back at Butch. She then explained that her mother’s name was actually Janet —

“Oh! Gertrude’s the character she’s playing! She’s the mother, right?”

The Bird, speaking slowly, replied that he was correct, that her mother was Hamlet’s mother — her face froze, as she feared Butch would ask if Hamlet was her brother.

“Oh!” The confusion in Butch’s face seemed to ease, like a passing storm. “So am I supposed to ride up with you?”

The hall bell rang loudly, and the pace of footfalls increased. She explained that her mother was picking her up right after school, and if that was all right with his parents he could come with them, but if not, perhaps he could ride up with Double-J, or Mr. Jacobs.

“Oh! You mean Coach Dan, right?”

The Bird looked around her quickly, then said she needed to go to her next class.

“OK. You know he likes to be called Coach Dan at practice, right?”

The Bird had already turned, taken a step in her classroom’s direction. She stopped, partially faced Butch, and explained that only the fencing team called him Coach Dan.

The grey cloud of confusion crossed over Butch’s face again. “But — you’re on the team, right?”

This time The Bird did not turn back to Butch. No, she whispered, and explained to nobody that she only showed up at practice.

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