Gray Metal Faces – February 5

8:56

The frozen surface of the forest nearly disappeared as the trees and overhead branches grew more dense. Rune found himself in almost total blackness, and became increasingly unsure with each step whether he was still headed in the direction of the lake.

He stopped, listened. The night was as quiet as unspoken prayer. He held his breath, closed his eyes, focused on his hearing. Humming? He forced all his attention on that sound, above the ringing in his ears; there was a low steady murmur, most likely mechanical. An engine, or generator. To the right.

He took a few steps in that direction, then saw a small light, like a star but larger, between the trees. He stopped, examined the light, saw the outlines of others around it. Bulbs. He knew he hadn’t gone uphill, those lights couldn’t be from his subdivision. Those had to be from one of the homes on the lake.

Rune’s legs plunged forward, boots crunching into the frozen surface. He remembered the stories he’d heard about the lake, how it was created when the hydroelectric dam was built upstream of Bark Bahy, how the dam had nearly dried up the East River and the bay that had given the town its name. Creating the lake had dealt the death blow to the town’s crippled shipping and sailing industries.

Rune pressed on, stumbling between the dark trees, the tiny lights in the distance growing closer, the mechanical hum distinctive now, a  generator. He let the sound and lights draw him closer, serve as beacons for his mission to reach the lakeshore. His pace quickened with excited anticipation, clouds of vapor bursting from his mouth as he finally reached a clearing, now the walls of trees thinned in front of him and he could see it, the black water of the lake, the shore line no more than fifty feet away.

He coughed, again, held out a hand and leaned against an oak. He needed to catch his breath, before continuing his journey.

The second Tuesday

Rune’s eyes stung from the sweat descending off his brow, his labored breathing steamed the inside of his metal fencing mask, the bib on his chin saturated and warm.

“Fence.” O.K. advanced on him, her feet dancing lightly on the tiled cafeteria floor, and then she attacked, left arm extending high and outside, hand holding her foil, its tip pointed straight at Rune’s chest and coming down fast. He brought his arm over for the parry, his blade colliding with his opponent’s.

“Halt.” At the sound of Rex’s voice, Rune looked quickly at Annie, standing behind O.K., hand raised. He heard Rex ask for her judgment, the athletic teen responding that O.K. had indeed landed a touch.

“No way!” Rune lifted his mask from his chin, the gray metal shield resting on his head as his wet and red face stared at Annie in disbelief. “She got me on the arm!”

“Yeah, I thought it was off-target too.” O.K. was known for her honesty. Rune nodded, lowered the mask onto his face.

“No, it was on.” Annie sounded like her father when she announced her judgements. Certain, authoritative, dispassionate. “She hit him twice, once on the shoulder, then again on the arm.”

“But was it still a good touch?” Coach Dan, sitting on the cafeteria floor with his back against a half-wall that sat in front of the large room’s stage, waited for the full attention of each of his club members. “Flat of the blade, or the tip? Hard enough to register on a scoring machine?”

“Yes.” Annie sounded almost offended. “Definitely hit with the tip, and I saw the blade bend.” She turned her attention towards Rune, her gaze penetrating the metal mesh of the mask, bearing into his eyes. “A good touch.”

Rune lifted the mask onto his head again, stared at Little Paul (the other judge) who abstained, then at the director, Rex, who abstained as well. Annie’s call held up, awarding OK her fifth touch in their bout.

“Aw man.” Rune removed his mask completely, slumped back to his starting line (one of several edges of white and black tile on the cafeteria floor), but when he raised his blade to salute O.K., he saw she had remained where she’d been standing, her mask still covering her face.

“Let’s go to ten!” O.K. turned, her gray metal face peering at Rex, who nodded in agreement, as did Little Paul and Annie when presented with the same silent, gray-faced query.

His blade raised half-way to his chin, Rune considered O.K.’s offer a moment. But then he shook his head, and completed his salute. “Nah, that’s OK, O.K., you win.” As he walked away from the makeshift strip he looked behind him, at The Bird, who along with Juan had also been judging. “You can take over.”

The canvas sacks that contained the fencing club’s equipment lay in uneven clumps along the near wall of the cafeteria, in front of the serving windows, under the enormous analog clock (three, forty-two, nineteen). Rune lowered his mask into the largest of the sacks, currently half-empty, the unused masks shifting clumsily under his efforts.

“Hey.” Startled, Rune looked behind him, then up. You didn’t get a full appreciation for Rex’s height until he was standing next to you.

“Your summons was deliciously cryptic.” The lanky teen smiled hungrily.

Rune laughed spontaneously, his pleasure melting the frost that had crusted his mood. “You able to come over to my house?” He had seen Rex outside of class yesterday, had said he wanted to show him something at his house, something cool.

Rex nodded, and pushed his thick glasses up the bridge of his hose. “Talked to Annie, said her mother can pick me up at your place, at 5.”

“Cool.” Rune’s eyes widened in caution. “She’s not coming with us, is she?”

Rex’s eyes narrowed. “Negative. She’s staying here, ’til she gets picked up.”

“Ah.” Rune looked up at the enormous analog clock. Three forty-four. “Whose on bag duty this week?”

Rex pointed with his right thumb behind him. “Our capitan, she and O.K. are taking care of the equipment.”

“Ah.” Rune slapped his forehead. “She’s getting picked up here, duh!

Rex smirked, dismissing Rune’s self-deprecation. “Juan and I are up next, we can leave after I beat him.”

The bout between Rex and Juan was lengthy, Coach Dan unofficially calling the expiration of time when Rex broke their tied score with his third touch. Rex wasn’t ready to leave until five minutes past four, but Rune assured him there was still enough time. They then exited the cafeteria, burst past the school’s rear exit doors, and walked briskly to Rune’s home, engaging in conversation during their journey on a series of different topics (the team’s last tournament, school gossip, popular television shows, spectator sports).

As they approached Rune’s home, Rex cleared his throat. “I’ve heard rumors, about you and Annie.”

Rune kicked at a rock lying on the driveway. “People like to talk, don’t they?”

Rex grunted. “People are curious, is all.”

“Huh.” Rune scanned in futility for another rock to kick. “OK, I’ll admit it, we’re dating.”

“I see.” Rex took two quick steps forward, looked over and back and down at Rune. Their eyes connected. “Shall I assume the details of your — dating — are none of my business?”

Rune laughed. “If I told you the truth, and you fed it verbatim back into the rumor mill, by the time it came back out it wouldn’t look anything like what it really was.” He mounted the concrete stoop to his house’s front door. “So if it’s all the same to you, yeah, I’d like to keep the details to myself.”

As usual for this time of day, the house was empty when they arrived. As he threw Rex’s jacket onto the living room couch, Rune remembered his being there just a few days ago, with Annie. An urge rose within him to tell Rex what they’d done in their time alone on that couch, to force-feed information into the rumor mill. But, suspecting there was more power in withholding the secret than in setting it free, he walked away from the couch, into the kitchen.

“It’s in the basement.” Rune opened a door next to the stove, revealing narrow stairs leading down; he walked down two steps, footfalls echoing in the darkness, then flipped a light switch on the wall to his right. Rex followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting the ceiling. The basement was a cold gray room of concrete walls and floor, and smelled of laundry detergent. They walked past a matching pair of white washing and drying machines (unfolded bed linens piled on top of each) and a large floor drain in the middle of the floor. Rune stopped, pulled a string over his head, illuminating a set of metal shelves. He then reached to the top shelf, pulled down a long narrow bag, red with white lines and lettering.

Rex’s eyes widened. “Is that — ”

“Exactly what you think it is.” Rune lowered the bag onto the floor, pulled open its zipper, and with a satisfied smile, lifted an object from the bag, and extended it towards Rex.

The gray blade, thin and nearly three feet long, glistened under the sharp light of the unshielded bulb above them. Rune held the weapon by its bell guard, larger than the ones he was accustomed to using during fencing practice. After gazing in wonder at it a moment, Rex tentatively reached for it.

“An epee.” His voice was a whisper, as if Rex feared the mirage in front of him would disappear if he spoke.

“My aunt was at a yard sale the other day, in the city.” Rune released his hold on the weapon, let it fall into the taller teen’s appreciative hands. “She saw this on a table, lying on the bag. She remembered I was a fencer, so she asked how much it was.” The greasy-haired teen laughed. “Man who ran the sale, he was like, take it. Said he’d bought it for his daughter, but she didn’t fence no more, now he just wanted to get it out of his house.”

Rex grasped the handle of the weapon, extended his arm forward, the blade making a line off to Rune’s right. “There’s not many marks on it.” He rotated his wrist, eyes scanning the blade. “Like it’s hardly been used.” Then he grabbed the blade with his left hand, released his hold on the handle, brought the bell guard up to his eyes and peered inside. “It’s electrical!”

Rune’s eyes snapped wider. “Oh yeah.” He bent down, ruffled through the bag, then quickly stood up, long black wires dangling from his hands. “Body cords!”

“How much did she pay for all this?” Rex ran his hand over the near-pristine surface of the epee’s bellguard, like a mother rubbing the temple of her smiling infant.

Rune shook his greasy head. “Like I said, the guy was literally begging her to take it, but she gave him five bucks for it.”

“FIVE?” Rex’s eyes grew almost as large as his bottle-bottom spectacles. “Jesus, I know how much these things cost, more than my family’s grocery bill for a couple weeks. Five bucks?”

Rune drew in his breath. “Yep, that’s what she paid.”

Rex returned his attention to the weapon. “This is cool.” He grabbed the epee by its thin blade, then turned the weapon until the bellguard pointed at Rune. “So you’re switching to epee?”

Rune had picked up the slender bag from the floor of the basement, took the weapon from his tall thin friend, began wrestling it back into the bag. “Nah, got my hands full with foil.” Closing the zipper, he extended the bag towards Rex. “Figured I’d give it to someone who could use it.”

“No.” Rex backed away, but couldn’t hide the envy from his face. “You can’t. Your aunt, she gave it to you — ”

“When she gave it to me, she called it a sword.” Rune laughed, raised the bag up to Rex’s eyes. “I tried explaining to her about the three weapons — deer in headlights. So I just told her I couldn’t use it, then I asked about giving it to someone who could, and she was like, sure, it’s yours now, do what you want.” He stepped forward, the bag touching Rex’s chest. “And what I want, is to give this to the only epee fencer on our team.”

Rex raised his hands, grasped the bag from the bottom gently but securely, like its contents were made of glass. His eyes scanned the surface, stopping at the right corner. “That’s the patch for En Garde!” With his left hand he twirled the bag, the patch now facing Rune.

Rune’s eyes widened. “Yeah.” He shook his head. “I mean, I know, I saw that too.”

“Must have been one of Dr. Schmidt’s students.” Rex’s arms looked like pipe cleaners, even under his jacket. “Bet she and her parents got fed up with him.”

“And when they didn’t want to deal with him no more, giving it away at a yard sale seemed better than trying to sell it through his school.”

“It’ll be the team’s weapon.” Rex had lowered the bag containing the epee to his waist. “We can keep it in the storage locker, with the rest of our equipment.”

Rune blinked.“Why is it that, every time somebody offers you something, your first instinct is to refuse accepting it?” But it wasn’t until he saw Rex’s grin dissolve that Rune realized how intrusive his question had been. Rex looked down, studied his shorter and younger teammate. And then the tall teen tilted his head down, warmth returning to his face.

“My family — it’s no secret, we’re pretty hard up.” Rune smiled weakly, nodded. “We try to make it on our own, but truth is we couldn’t keep our head above water without help.”

Rune swallowed. “You talk to that lawyer, about DFS?” He’d heard from Annie that her family’s attorney had agreed to represent the Ankiel family pro bono in their fight to keep the Department of Family Services from sending Rex’s daughters into foster care.

“Lawyer told us not to worry.” Rex continued examine the epee bag as the continued. “Said the DFS case load was backed up several months, we’re not on their radar.” He looked back at Rune. “Not yet, anyway.”

The doorbell rang from upstairs, and Rex pointed back to the stairs with his thumb. “That must be my ride.” 

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