Gray Metal Faces – February 1

The fourth Saturday, 8:30 PM

Rune exhaled, so softly that only a thin wisp of steam floated past his vision. Cold night air pricked his cheeks, as his gloved hand reached forward, then drew back before touching the door handle.

The teen stared at the front door of his family’s house. He typically entered through the garage, but his mother and brother wouldn’t be back from hockey until close to 11, and his father kept the garage door closed when alone in the house, to discourage passers-by from stopping by.

WELCOME. Orange and brown, the rectangular wooden sign hung on the door at eye level, and was festooned with painted pumpkins, miniature Indian corn, and two smiling Pilgrims, a man in a tall hat on the left, a bonneted woman on the right. Rune remembered his mother asking him to take the sign down the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and he remembered telling her he’d get to it in just a minute, and now he remembered that he’d forgotten.

He could take the sign down, walk into the house and go down into the basement, find the box where his mother kept the holiday decorations, put the sign in its place. It was, he knew, what he should do. But after all that had happened this day, he was no longer interested in being responsible. And he certainly wasn’t ready to be alone in the house with his father.

Rune turned quickly to his left, took two steps off the raised concrete stoop and stepped into the snow, his right leg disappearing half-way up to the knee.

The first Saturday

“How’s it going?” Rune looked up on hearing Jimmy’s question, mumbled an intentionally inaudible response.

“What’s that?” Jimmy squatted, forearms resting on knees, eyes searching the teen’s face.

Rune looked up. He was sitting on the floor of the main gymnasium at the Academy, his fencing team’s equipment bags surrounding him. His left leg was fully extended, left arm bent and propping up his body, the right arm resting on his bent right knee. “Said I’m OK. Just resting before the DEs.”

Jimmy nodded, looked off Rune’s left shoulder. “Butch’s starting again.” He stood up, the awkward expression on his face speaking the displeasure of his forty-year-old knees. The back of Jimmy’s right hand wave-slapped Rune’s right elbow as he walked past. “Let’s go.”

By the time Rune had gotten to his feet, Jimmy was standing next to Coach Dan beside one of the fencing strips marked with permanent tape on the gymnasium floor; the Academy was one of the few, if not only, schools in the area that did not need to construct temporary strips with black electrical tape. Annie was helping Butch connect to the cord coming from the reel at the end of the strip, her brown pony-tail swaying behind her head as she moved.

“Rune.” Coach Dan’s gravelly voice, upbeat as always. “How’d you do in your pool, my friend?”

The greasy-hair teen frowned. “Lost every bout. Only got to four once.”

Coach Dan scratched the short hairs of his dark beard, flecked with gray. “Tournaments at the Academy, they’re always strong. Remember what I said, only thing I care about is how much you learned today.”

Rune nodded, knowing that his coach was inviting, expecting him to explain what he’d learned.

“No, that’s left, twist it to the right.” Rune turned toward the sound of Annie’s voice, saw Butch staring at her, his round face confused, as if Annie were giving him instructions in a foreign language.

Rune glanced at the other end of the strip. Geri Masters was talking to a thin boy who looked as scared as Butch was confused. Hair like an enlarged Brillo pad, thick brown beard; if he were shaved bald, he’d be a skeleton with flesh. Rune had never seen him before, but the way Geri was talking to him, he had to be her teammate at Hillcrest.

Butch and the Hillcrest skeleton finished hooking in, then met at the center of the strip. The director (a short, stout woman with short brown hair, wearing a blue blazer and sneakers) grabbed the skeleton’s blade, held it straight up and placed a metal weight on its tip. The scoring machine’s white light flashed, then went out; Butch’s weapon passed the same test. Butch and his opponent then touched their blade tips on each other’s silvery lames, the scoring machine’s red and green lights buzzing in response.

“He almost looks like he knows what he’s doing out there.” Coach Dan’s tone might have sounded sarcastic, even demeaning, to someone who hadn’t spent as much time with him as Rune had.

The competitors retreated to their starting lines, saluted, and the director called for the bout to begin. They approached each other slowly, tentatively, Butch’s steps short and lurching, the Hillcrest skeleton’s longer, smoother. A spasmodic attack from the skeleton — Butch stepped back, swung his blade across his body in a wild parry. The skeleton lunged again, and again, the third thrust finally powering past Butch’s parry — the scoring machine buzzed loudly.

Rune looked over at the machine. White light — the attack had landed off-target.

“Distance, Butch.”

Rune could see Butch’s eyes widen behind the grey metal of his mask. “What’s that, Mister Jimmy?”

Jimmy blinked. “It’s just Jimmy. You letting your opponent get too close, watch your distance.”

“Oh! Thank you.”

The bout resumed, and the Hillcrest skeleton charging at Butch like he was late for an appointment. Butch retreated and parried, and his opponent attacked again, this time landing a touch on Butch’s right shoulder.

“Riposte, Butch.” Coach Dan folded his arms across his gray and white jacket. “Soon as you parry, riposte.”

“Oh!” Butch nodded, began walking back to his starting line — then stopped, looked over at Coach Dan. “What’s that mean?”

Jimmy clucked his tongue, as Rune hid a smile behind his hand. Coach Dan extended his left arm at Butch. “Parry — ” he brought his right hand slowly across his body, touching his left forearm with the palm — “riposte.” His right arm coming forward, pointed straight at Butch.

“Oh!” Butch paused, slowly absorbing the two words spoken by his coach.

The bout resumed, with the Hillcrest skeleton continuing to lunge at Butch repeatedly, arms and legs flailing wildly like a marionette in a tornado. The skeleton scored another touch on Butch, followed by a third, before Butch was able to land two ripostes off his parries, the second bringing him to within a touch of his opponent.

“What’s the time, Butch?” Annie’s tone was more commanding than inquisitive.

Butch glanced at the wall behind him. “A little after 11.”

Annie closed her eyes, shaking her head. Coach Dan raised a palm in Butch’s direction, and instructed him to ask the director (whose smile oozed bemusement) how much time was left in their bout.

“Oh!” Butch turned to the director. “What time does the bout end?”

As the director explained to Butch that there were 47 seconds of fencing time remaining, Annie glared at Rune, and whispered. Rune asked her to repeat, and she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, drawing him close. Strawberries, his nose sensed; must be from her shampoo. He inhaled deeply, savoring, his hand reaching down and touching her hip.

“Is he always like this?”

Rune blinked. “What do you mean?”

“You know — ” she tilted her head in the direction of the strip — “is he always this… ” Her voice trailed off apologetically.

“Dense?” He felt her hand on his back. Her strawberry scent was intoxicating.

She frowned back with disappointment. “Not the word I would have chosen, but it works.”

His hand drew her closer, taking in more of her strawberry essence. “Butch has a heart of gold. Just keep telling yourself that.”

Rune turned his attention back to the strip, and saw the director displaying a red 3-by-5 card to the Hillcrest skeleton. Rune glanced over at Jimmy; the slender-armed man with strong hands seemed to be expecting him. “Covering target. Blue — ” Jimmy pointed a thumb at the director — “gave the boy a yellow earlier, but he brought his hand in again.” Jimmy placed his left hand over his stomach, then pointed at Butch. “Big boy over here’s tied, with about ten seconds left.”

“No way!” Rune stared at the strip in disbelief, as the director called for the bout to resume. The skeleton resumed his spasmodic attack, arms and legs flailing wildly. A strike against Butch’s front shoulder landed barely off-target, as did another blow to Butch’s weapon arm; the skeleton was preparing another attack, when the director suddenly called halt.

“Come here, please.” The director waved Butch toward her, and retrieved a quarter from her right front pants pocket. She showed it Butch. “Heads — ” she turned the coin — “tails. You scored last, so you call it.”

Butch lifted the mask of his perplexed face. Coach Dan stepped behind the director, into Butch’s view. “She’s going to flip it in the air, Butch, and you have to call heads or tails.”

Butch stared at the director. “Oh! So when it lands, I tell you if its heads or tails?”

The director rolled her eyes, and Coach Dan stepped forward. “In the interest of time — how about I recommend you call heads, Butch.”

“Oh!” Butch blinked. “So how do you know it will be heads?”

Jimmy groaned. “Good thing she didn’t do the number of fingers thing.”

With a sigh, the director flipped the quarter into the air, let it fall to the hardwood floor. The quarter turned in a circle, fell flat.

“Heads.” The director turned to Butch. “You have priority.” Coach Dan explained to the tow-headed teen that there would be one more minute of fencing time; the first person scoring a touch would win, but if nobody scored after a minute, then Butch, having won priority through the coin flip, would be the winner.

“Oh! So I won?”

Coach Dan shook his head. “Only if you get a touch, or time runs out.”

“Oh! So what — ”

“Tell you what.” Coach Dan put his hands on Butch’s shoulders. “Why don’t you just fence, and I promise, we’ll let you know what happens, my friend.”

“Oh!”

Butch tilted his head to look at the director, who looked back despondently, like a patient waiting for a root canal. “Nothing would please me more than seeing the conclusion to this bout.”

After some whispered advice from Geri Masters to the Hillcrest skeleton, the bout resumed. Suddenly feeling hungry, Rune glanced up at the clock, but before he could read the time he heard the scoring machine buzz, and the director call halt; Rune looked back at strip, and saw the director raising a hand. On Butch’s side.

“No way!” Annie’s voice was a delighted whisper.

“Well done!” Coach Dan clapped vigorously.

Jimmy looked down, shaking his head. “Whaddaya know.”

Rune stood by the side of the strip as Annie, Coach Dan, and Jimmy rushed over to congratulate Butch. It had actually happened — participating in his first tournament, the one person on the Bark Bay fencing squad who never came close to winning any practice bouts, who had to be reminded before his first bout today that a right-handed fencer shouldn’t be leading with his left foot — Butch, Rune’s best friend, whose heart was fortunately much stronger than his mind — Butch, for crying out loud, had actually won a bout.

And now Rune’s friend,wearing a smile as broad as his belly, was walking up to him. “Hey Hugh — ”

“Rune.” Butch almost never called him by his chosen nickname.

“Did you see, I won!”

Rune swallowed. “Yeah. That’s awesome.” His eyes caught Annie’s, and then he reached for her, grabbed her by the left bicep, pulled her away from Butch, who heard a murmur of an objection, but no resistance. “Nice job, Butch.” And then Rune walked away, pulling Annie with him.

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