Grab metal adapter, pull cord out from reel. Attach to rear of body cord, fasten clasp, hook onto rear plastic loop. Attach front of body cord to weapon. Find end of mask cord, clip onto mask.
“Test please.” Approach opponent at center of strip, tap each other’s masks. EEEP, EEEP. Step back to start line, point weapon above opponent’s head, bring it down SWOOSH, repeat for director. Put on mask, crouch down. “En garde. Pret.” Probably the only French this guy knows. “Allez.”
The second Wednesday
“Mind closing that door?” The shaven head of Henry Jennings scowled from the dim yellow rectangle of the kitchen window along the back wall of the Pizza Place, his annoyance amplified at recognizing the young man who had just entered his restaurant.
Double-J frowned, his shoulders suddenly rising as a cold March gale blasted through the partially closed door behind him. “How many times I gotta tell ya to fix that damn hinge?”
“Jesus! You don’t — ” a telephone rang in the kitchen, Henry turning quickly to its sound. A couple whom Double-J didn’t recognize had risen from their chairs as he arrived, and were now putting on their plump winter jackets as they walked towards the door. Double-J stepped aside, made eye contact with the man (late-twenties, the soft face and careful grooming of a professional), raised his right hand and pointed with his thumb behind his shoulder.
“Just give it a good pull, on your way out.” The young professional nodded, the smiling woman behind him thanking Double-J as they passed, the man opening the door fully (the PLEASE SHUT DOOR sign on its front catching Double-J’s eye) and letting his companion walk out first, then pulling on the door handle without looking behind him, the glass barrier to the late winter evening shutting with a heavy klump.
Grinning, Double-J cast his gaze across the Pizza Place’s dining area. A row of booths, two at the side near the front door and three on the far side, bookended six smaller square tables, each with two plastic chairs, arranged in no particular sense of order. Nearly every table was occupied, Double-J recognizing many people as customers of Lefty’s, the garage where he worked. An elderly man with white hair and dark eyebrows (brake job in November, fronts were just about gone but rears could wait until spring) sitting at a booth with two happy toddlers; a woman in her forties (Mallory? Marjie? Worked at a bank) reading a newspaper while chewing on a breadstick; two middle-aged men in flannel, faces dirty with grease (one facing the front might’ve been in for his transmission, last month); another couple he didn’t recognize —
She was sitting at a table, toward the back wall. Alone, a fact Double-J found hardly surprising. Strait, shoulder-length black hair curtained down the sides of her face, which stared with blank concentration at the red and white checkered tabletop, empty save for the small metal napkin dispenser and condiment jars. If Double-J hadn’t known she had asked for this meeting, he’d have assumed she was there to enjoy the sensation of being ignored.
The burly teen shuffled past tables and chairs, stopping behind the empty chair in front of the table at which sat this frail girl who seemed to have too many names (Kassie, Sandy, The Girl Whose Mother Is In Those Stupid Sav-Anna Commercials) and had now adopted the one he had given her as a joke during her first fencing practice that fall. He waited for her to acknowledge his presence; seeing no reaction, he cleared his throat audibly, her eyes finally raising to meet his.
“Do I call you Bird — or, The Bird?”
The Bird’s attempt at a smile failed, like a candle wick that wouldn’t light. She said it was not up to her what name people used to address her.
“Huh.” Double-J pulled out the empty chair, sat quickly. “You order yet?” The Bird shook her head. “Hungry?” Nod.
A harried waitress (coolant leak, late fall) delivered a pair of menus, large and double-sided, plastic laminate curling up at the corners. The Bird did not raise her hands to take the menu, and a moment later the waitress laid it on the table in front of the frail teen before hurrying back to the kitchen.
“Know what you want?” The Bird replied that she’d never eaten here before; Double-J grunted, jabbed his finger at a line about a third of the way down on her menu. “Chicken parm’s pretty good — ”
The Bird replied that she didn’t eat meat. “Didn’t know you were vegan.” She replied that she wasn’t a vegan, she just didn’t like the taste of meat. “That so?” Nod.
Double-J wiped the back of his right hand across his black mustache. “They got an eggplant parm too.” The Bird asked if it was good; Double-J shrugged. “Dunno. Never had it.” He then leaned forward across the table. “Don’t like the taste of eggplant.”
The Bird blinked, looked down at the menu again, finally deciding to order a salad (Double-J telling her he’d never had a salad here either, but said he’d heard they were good) and a glass of water. Double-J considered ordering the chicken parm, but the peckish impulse overruled the puckish and he ordered his usual — “Italian sausage, no onions. And a Coke.”
Double-J glared back at the waitress’ question. “No, regular — ” he leaned back in his chair, and pated his round belly — “Like being fat.”
The waitress left, slightly embarrassed. The Bird told Double-J that she didn’t think the waitress had been insulting him; the burly teen ran his left hand back across the thin black wires of his hair. “Might not’ve been what she was thinking, but it was in the back of her mind.” He waved his right arm in a sweep across the restaurant’s dining area. “Everybody in this town, think they’re so polite ‘cuz of not saying what’s on their mind. But really, it’s just dishonesty. Eleven thousand people, all just putting on a show, saying one thing but acting entirely different. Seems to me, Bark Bay needs more people like me, calling people out.”
The Bird then asked if that was the reason he’d agreed to meet with her, to call her out; Double-J snorted. “Nah. Nothing personal, but seems to me you’re pretty harmless.” The waitress returned, handed him his Coke, left briskly. “Honestly, my first instinct when you called me last night, said you was worried about the fencing team — ” she nodded quickly, head bobbing in the fashion Double-J remembered from that first practice when he said she moved like a bird — “wanted to say, sorry but that ain’t my concern no more. I’m done with the team, done with school, and with any luck, done with this damn town come summer.” He raised the plastic tumbler of Coke to his mouth without looking, stopping as the translucent plastic straw struck him in the cheek; he snatched the straw with his other hand, threw it down, drank deeply as tiny pools of brown carbonated liquid formed around the straw on the table.
The tumbler was half-empty when he turned his attention back to The Bird. “Don’t really know what changed my mind — guess I decided to find out if everyone’s still as messed up as they were when I left.” He smiled, contorting his face in a way which made his dark mustache seem to frown. “So, tell me, my avian friend. What’s on your mind?”
The Bird cleared her throat, and with eyes looking down at the table, began to speak.
The previous afternoon
“Look, why he went out there ain’t nobody’s business but his own.” Jimmy Saunders’ voice was terse, proactively dismissive. “All I know, is he called me on Friday, asked me to run practice today.” Tuesdays were typically slow for Jimmy’s catering business.
“It’s just strange, y’know.” Rex stepped up behind Annie, his head a foot higher than the sophomore team captain. “Coach Dan came late to some practices last three years, but I never remember him missing one.”
Annie’s eyes widened. “And this, is two weeks in a row! He keeps saying we need to get ready for regionals next week — ”
“That’s right.” Jimmy grabbed the large, bulky canvas sack lying on the floor next to him, raised it to waist level, towards Annie. “Academy gonna be there, so’s Midland, Woolford — all the schools, even some college kids. Daniel said they already got 30 or so in foil — ” he raised his chin towards Rex — “epee, just as many.” His late forties eyes darted across the large, empty cafeteria. “Where’s that Johnson boy?”
“Double-J?” Micky, sitting in a corner across from Big Paul and Coy, looked up, her red hair rising like a campfire. “Stop asking for trouble.”
“He quit the team.” Annie unclenched her jaw as she took the canvas sack from Jimmy.
“Quit?” Jimmy hadn’t asked about Double-J last week, had assumed he was working at Lefty’s. “What kind of nonsense — ” he shook his head as if trying to shake off a buzzing insect — “we ain’t got time for this, none of us. Everybody up!”
At the volunteer coach’s command, Annie pointed her index finger to Coy and Big Paul, curling it forward. Her head then darted to the left — “Butch, Bird, you too, let’s line up.”
The Bird let Butch walk in front of her as they approached Annie, standing on a border between the floor’s white and black tiles, one of several such lines used by the fencing team throughout their practices in the cafeteria. Annie remained at the far left of the line, with Rex on her right, followed by Big Paul, Coy, Butch, and, in her usual and preferred position at the right end, The Bird. Jimmy took a position in front of the line’s center, several tiles in front.
“All right, all right.” Putting his right foot forward and pointing his left perpendicular to his body, Jimmy then raised his hands to shoulder level and lowered them; all but one team member crouched down into en garde position. Jimmy frowned — “Butch?”
“Oh!” The portly teen with the short crop of tow looked surprised. “Yes, sir?”
“Don’t call me sir. We starting.”
“Oh!” Butch crouched down immediately. “Sorry, s — I mean, coach.”
Jimmy blinked. “Don’t call me coach, neither. Just Jimmy, all right?”
“Oh!” Butch opened his mouth again, then closed it with the sudden wisdom that further words would provide little to no additional benefit.
“All right. Now, like we done last week, just keep distance. Small steps.” Raising the toes of his right foot and then pushing out only a few inches, Jimmy slowly advanced, the team in front of him responding with a retreat nearly in unison.
The Bird whispered at Butch to move backwards. With a flinch and suppressed oh, he hastily complied.