Gray Metal Faces – February 6

9:01

Rune’s path closed almost as quickly as it opened, but the black water of the lake remained in sight as he navigated through the maze of barren branches. Then suddenly, the path to the shore was clear, and the teen rushed forward, relieved to have finally reached his destination.

He looked back. Past the rising vapor of his breath, he saw his footprints in the snow, and remembered not seeing any footprints (human, anyway) on his way down. Light would be a challenge, but if he didn’t panic on his return trip, he wouldn’t have much difficulty finding his way back.

Turning his attention back to the lake, he saw the water was frozen for about twenty feet from the shore; not being sure where the shoreline ended and the ice began, he couldn’t be sure.

Looking to his left, he saw acabin several hundred feet away; the generator sound was definitely coming from there, as were the lights he’d seen. He saw no movement, no sign of life around the cabin — what had seemed like a welcoming beacon as he stumbled through the forest now seemed darkly silent, ominous.

To the right, he thought he saw the outlines of more cabins in the distance, but none of them were illuminated, and the dense forest repelled the light from the moon. The shoreline seemed smoother in that direction — Rune walked forward, no more certain where he was headed by just as determined to find whatever was waiting there for him.

The third Friday

The doorbell rang a third time, and Rune concluded that whoever the hell it was, he or she or they weren’t going to go away. He ran from his room, propelled by annoyance rather than curiosity, then down the stairs to the front door of his house. Through the narrow windows to the right of the window, he saw the sleeve of a familiar brown jacket.

He rushed to the interior door, opened it swiftly. Annie’s eyes sprang open, as if they were bursting from her head, her lips pulled back into a tight smile.

“Lemme IN!” She bounced on her heels, teeth chattering.

Rune pushed open the glass exterior door, Annie brushing by him quickly. “GOD!” She stamped her booted feet loudly on an interior mat. “What is this, like four days in a row below ten?”

“Something like that.” Rune made sure the exterior door closed on its own, before closing the interior.

“And they’re saying, more snow!” She ripped off her wool cap, shook it angrily. “It’s four frickin’ degrees out there, and we’re supposed to get six inches by morning! Isn’t there a law that you can’t have more inches than degrees?”

Rune never saw the point in complaining about weather. “Thought you were going to a concert tonight.”

Annie unzipped her jacket, pulled her left arm from its sleeve. “Mom’s come down with something, said she didn’t feel like going. And Dad’s at a fundraiser for his campaign, in the city.” She had taken off her jacket, held it up to Rune. “So — change of plans!”

He looked at her curiously. “You drive here?”

She rolled her eyes. “Still on my temp. My brother’s home, Academy’s on break this weekend, he was going out anyway so I asked him to drop me off here.” She shook the jacket, hanging at the end of her extended arm. “You gonna take this?”

Rune blinked, shrugged, took the jacket, threw it onto an open knob of the coat rack.

“How’d you know I was going to be here?” Rune flinched with annoyance as the overhead light illuminated, Annie having flipped the switch.

“You TOLD me you were going to be here.” She came up to him, her hands rising and coming to rest on his shoulders, like doves gliding down on a branch. “Remember? Your brother’s hockey game, parents going to be there, leaving you — ” she sighed, smiling at him — “All. By. Your. Self.”

He did remember telling her, as well as the frustration he’d felt when she told him about the concert. “Yeah.” He felt her fingertips on his cheek, saw her mouth close on his. Let her kiss him.

He almost laughed on seeing the look on her face when she drew back. “What was THAT about?” She did look funny.

Rune shook his head. “Nothing. I mean, I’m sorry. It’s just — I don’t know, wasn’t planning on you being here.”

“Neither was I.” Her eyes blinked rapidly. “But that plan changed.” Licked her lips. “I — thought you’d like it if I came over.”

“You could have called.”

He didn’t expect his analysis to be met with the wild look that came over her face. “Called? And do what, make a damn appointment?”

“No!” He knew his tone of indignation was a mistake, and didn’t care. “Look, it’s OK, it’s just that, you shouldn’t surprise me like this.”

She crossed her arms across her chest, pony-tail prancing behind her head. “It’s called spontaneity. Allowing yourself to be caught up in the moment.” She looked down. “Sorry you don’t get it.” She turned, reached for her jacket on the coat rack.

“You’re leaving?”

“Yes, I’m leaving.” She did not turn to look at him as she thrust her arms into the jacket. “Let you return to whatever it was you were doing.”

“But it’s cold.” He grabbed her wool cap from the rack. “You were so cold, you couldn’t wait to get in here.”

She grunted while turning to him, in a manner which made him suspect she was restraining himself from striking him. “I had been more looking forward to being inside, than getting away from the outside.” She snatched the cap from his hands, spun towards the door — and stopped as her hand touched the handle.

“The tournament, two weeks ago.” Hand on the door handle, Annie kept her back turned to Rune. “That’s when it started. Been racking my brain, trying to figure out when it happened, and it just came to my now, it was that Saturday.”

Rune waved greasy hair off his brow. “It’s been a tough month.” He swallowed. “The weather, it’s been so bad, it’s making people — I don’t know, not act like themselves . . . ” Hearing the insincerity of his words, he forced himself to stop.

“I call, leave you a message, you don’t call back. I see you in the hall, you duck into a room.” He knew she would know his schedule. “At practice, you hardly say two words to me.”

An invisible force seemed to be bearing down on him. “Look, I know I’ve — ”

“And it’s not just me.” Now she turned, faced him with a look of compassionate accusation. “The way you talk at practice, to Coach Dan, The Bird, OK — even Butch, your best friend, you humiliated him the other day.”

He considered taking his jacket, walking out the door, then remembered he was home. “Butch and I, we’re always doing stuff like that to each other.” The look on her face revealed she knew he was lying. “All right, all right, so I’ve been a little off lately. I just, I don’t know, haven’t been feeling right.”

“Remember what you said to me, that Saturday, during the tournament at the Academy?”

Rune had no idea what conversation Annie was referencing. “I said a lot of things that day.”

“It was after the pools, before the DEs. You were sitting in the bleachers, by yourself. Had to look for you, nobody knew where you’d gone.”

Rune remembered. Christ, she was going to bring up that? “It was a rough tournament, I was frustrated.”

“All tournaments are rough. That’s why they call them competitions.”

Rune ran his hands back through his greasy hair. “Look, I’m sorry I acted like I did.” A smile weaker than tepid water. “Why don’t you stay? It’s not like your brother’s waiting for you.”

But Annie opened the interior door, a wave of arctic air rushing into the house. “It’s not that far from downtown. I’ll call Si, let him know where I am.” Her pony-tail was no longer visible, tucked under her wool cap. “I asked how you did in the pools, and a few grunts later I figured out you’d lost every bout. Then I asked what you’d learned, what you planned on doing different in your DE — you remember what you said?”

He did. “No.”

She pushed open the exterior glass door. “You said it didn’t make any difference, what you did. Outcome would be the same.” She pointed a mittened fist at him. “That’s how you’ve been acting all month, like nothing you do makes any difference. And what you’re not seeing, is that whatever it is that you do, it has an impact on the people around you. Whether you intend it, or not.”

She stepped out, onto the front step. “I’ll see you next week.” And then turned, the glass door closing behind her.

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