A flash on his left — Rune’s vision shot over the lake, but he was only able to catch the fading flicker of the northern lights. A moment later, they had sunk entirely below the horizon. He looked ahead, saw the shoreline stretching beyond his vision; he had no idea how far he was from the dam, then suddenly wasn’t sure how close he could actually come. The dam was a vital public asset, the power source for the entire county, the surrounding area would certainly be restricted, they wouldn’t just let anyone walk up there.
The futility of his journey struck Rune, the very real possibility he was approaching a destination he wouldn’t be able to reach, but he still didn’t consider turning back. There was something out here, somewhere, that he needed to find. Perhaps in the dormant woods, or across the still lake, maybe even within the rock-strewn ground beneath his feet. It was here, somewhere, and he was determined to keep walking, despite his injured knee, until he found it.
Fourth Saturday, Early Evening
“It’s the ones who smile.” Reclining on his green sofa, left leg balanced on his right like a makeshift table, Double-J was frowning. “The users, they come out smiling. They’re the ones, gonna ruin themselves.”
Rune checked his vague reflection in a window glass behind Double-J before replying, making sure his face was appropriately nonplussed. “You ever smile?”
“Wadda ya think?” Double-J smiled, drew his right arm up to his mustachioed face, and inhaled on a cigarette. Pulling the white tube from his mouth, he blew smoke behind him. “Some people can just enjoy the ride, then walk away. Others, they think the ride’s the only thing. Once they get on, they never want to get off.”
Double-J shrugged, the thin wires of his black hair rising. “That’s only the word they use when they get help. Which most of them will need.”
A voice from the back room called to Double-J, who stood and replied with resignation. Rune sat back in his chair, took in the atmosphere of the apartment. The stereo blared an unfamiliar song, with a strong bass line, bluesy; there was no overhead light here in what Double-J had called the living room, and three small table lamps provided poor illumination; tobacco smoke and stale beer obliterated all other smells. Double-J shuffled around a low table, weathered wood, a black-and-white checkerboard barely visible under plastic cups, eviscerated snack food bags, and a large yellow ashtray. Rune was sitting on a sofa in front of two large windows, a television to the right, a pair of metal folding chairs to the left, in front of the kitchen area. A thin girl, the only other current occupant of the room, moved aside to make room for Double-J; she wore dark eye shadow, a ring through her right nostril, and held a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her left hand.
Double-J sat back in his chair, and Rune caught his eye. “If you’re so certain how they’ll wind up, why do you let them back there?” He had known Double-J long enough to know he would appreciate such as direct challenge.
“They made their choices.” Rune scanned Double-J’s poorly illuminated face for any sign of empathy, yet found none. “Damage, it’s been done. Nothing I do could make them undo that decision.”
“Hey.” The girl next to Rune had raised her chin in Rune’s direction. Her tone was friendly, inviting.
Rune waved hello. The guy in the Yankees cap (his name might be Mitch, Rune thought he’d heard that earlier in the evening) walked into the kitchen, and Rune heard a refrigerator door open. Double-J asked a question, but all Rune heard was do.
Double-J frowned. “How’d you do today?”
Rune ran a hand back through the waves of his greasy hair. “Eh. Not so hot.” He licked his lips, looked up. “Francis asked where you were.”
Disgusted snort. “What you tell him?”
Shrug. “Said it wasn’t none of my business.” Rune suddenly wondered how Double-J had known about today’s tournament.
Double-J’s eyes widened with surprised pleasure. “Think that’s the most intelligent thing I ever heard you say.”
“You’re a fencer too?” Rune hadn’t expected a question like that from this girl with a ring in her nose.
“Yeah.” She seemed genuinely interested. “You like fencing?”
Double-J laughed, clapping his hands. Ring-nose frowned at the party’s host, then turned back to Rune, smiling. “Not really. I just know Sunshine over here just quit on you.”
“It’s not really a team.” Double-J reached out and up with his arm, took a beer bottle from the Yankees cap guy who name might be Mitch. The song changed, this one Rune recognized, by a blues guitarist from Chicago whose name he couldn’t remember. “They’re a club, everyone fences for themselves. Don’t have enough warm bodies for a team.”
“Coach Dan — ”
” — is fucking delusional. He couldn’t get a team together for states last year, and that was when he had fucking Myles.” Double-J twisted the cap off his beer bottle like he was decapitating it.
Rune felt a tap on his shoulder, something hard and wet and cool. He turned his head, saw Yankee cap Mitch was offering him a beer bottle. The teen lifted a hand, waved. “No thanks.”
“You do know — ” mocking disdain dripped from Double-J’s voice — “that it’s rude to turn down an invitation from your host?”
“Go on.” Ring Nose’s voice was soft, playful, as she lifted her own beer bottle towards Rune. “We’re all underage too, you know.”
The teen’s eyes scanned the three faces in the room, as the music pulsated through the floor of the apartment. He heard voices, coming from the room beyond the kitchen. A door opened. Guitar strings screaming electricity, voice singing a wail, the sweet smell of tobacco smoke. “I — ” he waved his hand again — “no, really, no.”
Yankee Cap Mitch tapped his shoulder again with the bottle. “Go on, bud, it won’t hurt you none.”
Rune shook his head, caught Double-J’s gaze. “Got any soda?”
Without blinking, Double-J waved silently in the direction of the kitchen. Rune rose, twisting away from Yankee Cap Mitch, and walked to the refrigerator with a feeling of relief.
Rune leaned forward, opened and looked inside the refrigerator. A fence of brown and green beer bottles, at least five different brands, were lined up at the front of each shelf, other items obscured behind them. To the left, behind a pair of Budweiser sentries, was a plastic bottle of brownish black liquid, a few bubbles visible on top. Root beer? Rune reached behind the beer bottles, tried to grab the bottle of soda without disturbing the sentries, as if he were a thief trying to grab a diamond without tripping an alarm. He grabbed the soda bottle by its thin nick, lifted, judged having just enough room to clear the brown glass peaks. A woman’s voice began singing, Rune didn’t know her name either, but she was good, and the guy proved to be a better guitar player than singer. Rune pulled forward, wrist clearing the peak — his forearm brushed against a green bottle, it tilted right, pushed into other green bottles, shit!, the bottles were tumbling forward like dominoes; Rune raised his right elbow to stop their fall but his hand came forward, knocked the Bud sentries forward, he caught them with his left hand.
“Jesus.” Ring Nose was standing behind him. “Why don’t you just move stuff?” She knelt beside him, grabbed the green bottles from his right elbow. Rune put the Buds on the floor, moved other bottles to the side, pulled the soda bottle towards him, and turned it over. Coke, dammit. He didn’t like colas. But he wasn’t about to go ask Double-J if he had any root beer.
A moment later, as he poured Coke into a red plastic cup, Rune caught a scent, something he hadn’t detected before in the apartment. Lavender, sweet but not overpowering. Alluring. He heard the refrigerator door close, then looked over and saw Ring Nose. The scent was coming from her, lying gently under the pungent smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke.
Ring Nose smiled, a green bottle in her left hand, brown in her right. “I’m Jezz.” Her brown hair was spiked, she wore dark lipstick and eye shadow.
“Rune.” He inhaled, the scent of lavender filling his lungs like nitrous oxide. She nodded, and returned to the living room, Rune following her like a puppy.
Guitars, drums, trumpets, a salad of sound Rune felt in his teeth. Rune resumed his seat on the couch, then made room for Jezz to sit next to him. Yankee Cap Mitch was sitting on a metal chair, pointing at Double-J with his beer bottle. “So tell me — didn’t you say once, that fencing was the only reason you stayed in school?”
Double-J drank from his bottle while shaking his head. Drawing the bottle from his mouth, he swallowed, and stared back at Yankee Cap Mitch. “Listening to Jacobs’ nonsense, that served its purpose. But I don’t have any use for school, or his damn glee club.” Jezz whispered to Rune, asked who Jacob was, Rune whispered back he was their coach, Dan Jacobs. Coach Dan.
“You know why Jacobs started the club, right?” Rune felt Double-J’s dark eyes penetrating him, like a cross-examining attorney.
“Yeah.” Rune sat upright, finally comfortable with the discussion. “His old college, coach, said — ”
“Bullshit.” Double-J waved the bottle across his body, the beer inside swishing both audibly and visibly. “Had his sights on competing nationally, until he blew his knees out. Never got over it, so he started that fencing club. We’re just living his dream.”
“No way.” Rune pointed with his plastic cup of cola, withdrawing it as soon as he realized how silly the gesture looked. “He’s not like Dr. Schmidt, he doesn’t pressure us — ”
“Because none of you has any talent.” There was only a hint of an apology in Double-J’s voice. “You didn’t see him with Myles, he was always pushing him.”
“That Glossoro guy?” Yankee Cap Mitch looked like he knew he was butchering the name. “The quarterback?”
Double-J drank, and Rune took advantage. “Yeah. He fenced too. Real competitive guy, hated losing.” Stared at Double-J, who for once seemed eager to hear what he said. “Coach Dan didn’t push him, Myles was always charging ahead. Coach was just holding — ” He stopped himself, too late.
“The reins?” Double-J seemed delighted. “Perhaps a leash? Some way of keeping control of his pet, making sure he didn’t ruin his dream?”
Rune stared down into his cup, as the conversation around him switched to another topic. He looked up quickly at a digital clock above the television — 7:36. Home was an hour’s walk away, and his mother and brother would be back around 11. The party had been a curiosity, but he had seen and heard all he cared for one evening. Two, two and a half more hours, though. He focused on the music.