Gray Metal Faces – March 8

Reach into the bag — “Allez.” Set the point in line, let him take the center. He pauses — good. Goes for my blade, misses my disengage but keeps coming, lunge, EEEP EEEP. Dammit, got him on the edge not the point, ref calls it right we’re done; right hand extends out, he’s giving it to me! Other guy’s arguing about the point but the ref’s not agreeing, dunno if he doesn’t know the rule or didn’t see how I hit, but I’ll take it.

The coupe continued along the county road, away from the center of the town which both Double-J and The Bird called, with more resignation than satisfaction, home. By this early evening hour, the streets of Bark Bay were mostly deserted, the majority of businesses and even most of the restaurants and gas stations closed, sidewalks empty of pedestrians, isolated vehicles crawling along the roads like stray animals. For The Bird it was a familiar scene, especially in winter, but experiencing it with Double-J inspired her to speak, saying it looked like the entire town was sleeping.

“Good.” He wiped his black mustache with the back of his right hand. “If they knew any better, they’d stay that way. They’d do less damage, and it’d make it easier to put them out of their misery.”

The Bird was accustomed to Double-J’s cynicism, and while this latest statement was hardly uncharacteristic, she decided a challenge was necessary, asking if he was actually proposing murder. The sound that came in response seemed a combination of sneeze, cough, and growl. “Not worth the effort. ‘Sides, would make them martyrs. No, better let them all die quietly, be killed by their own ineptitude. Implode, rather than explode.”

Even Rex? Her bold question surprised even The Bird.

From behind the steering wheel, Double-J’s eyes narrowed, lips drawing back. Her latest question had clearly upset him, a fact which demonstrated to The Bird that she was moving in the right direction.

“Rex — ” Double-J ran his tongue across the bottom of his mustache — “his family, they’re victims. Been punished all their lives by this town’s hypocrisy. We’ll help you, but only if you can prove — ” he jumped on the coupe’s brake pedal, nearly passing a red light — “The churches, all those charity organizations, they ain’t nothing but tax dodges. Helping people like Rex’s family, this town has no interest in paying what it takes to do that.” The traffic light turned green, Double-J revving the coupe forward. “Rex and his family, are examples of how this town can grind people down to ruin. When they’re awake.”

Two Saturdays to come

“Can I help you?” The orderly’s question was more a command, intended to stop the young man who had been running down the white-tiled third floor of building G in County General Hospital.

Double-J hustled past her, then suddenly stopped himself, turned to face the orderly — “Room 221.” Without taking her wary eyes off the teen, the orderly pointed wordlessly behind her, thumb pointing to Double-J’s left.

A moment later he had swept into 221. Sitting on a chair, Annie looked up, raising a finger vertically across her lips. Coach Dan was standing directly behind her, his attention focused on the occupant of the hospital bed beneath him.

“Jesus!” Double-J raced up to the open side of the bed, nearly knocking over a portable tray stand. “Rex — “

Coach Dan’s hand, extended across the bed and onto his right shoulder, stopped him. “Leave him be. He’s lost a lot of blood, needs the rest.”

Double-J nodded, gazed down on his friend. Rex’s face, turned slightly towards Coach Dan, looked calm but pale. His right arm, closest to Double-J, was not visible under a heavy wrapping of bandage. An IV tube, dangling from a stand next to Coach Dan, snaked down to his left arm. Double-J sniffed, reached down with his left hand, which hovered over Rex’s forehead a moment, then waved down to squeeze the sleeping teen’s hand.

Annie stood. “Francis feels terrible.” Her voice was weak, distant.

“He should.” Double-J released his grip, glared up at Coach Dan. “Cutting a guy — “

“It was an accident.” Coach Dan wasn’t sure how much Annie had told him when she called. “Just a cut to the arm, nothing vicious. Rex caught him with a strong parry, too strong, Francis’ blade broke on impact. No way to stop his momentum, and the broken blade . . . ” The volunteer fencing coach at Bark Bay High School sighed, nodding in the direction of Rex’s bandaged arm.

“He’ll be OK.” Stepping beside her coach, Annie seemed to regain her strength. “It was — there was blood all over the place, but they’ve sewn up the wound.”

Coach Dan almost smiled, raised a hand to Annie’s shoulder. “Your tourniquet — while everyone else was freaking out, you raced in there. They say what you did, saved his arm.”

The teen showed no sign of satisfaction on her face. “They’ll keep him a couple days, make sure there’s no infection. Soonest he could go home’s Monday.”

Double-J nodded, looked down again at Rex, the only person at Bark Bay High School he could unreservedly call his friend. He could hear Rex breathing, shallow and labored — and realized how unusual that was. Rex was quiet, if he wasn’t in your field of vision you could easily forget he was around. Double-J shouldn’t hear him breathing, shouldn’t be seeing this person lying helpless in a hospital bed.

“Did I ever tell you — ” Double-J was still looking down at Rex, but Coach Dan ad Annie knew he was addressing them — “what Rex told me, after I had that fight with Myles?” He didn’t look up to see the two other occupants in the room shaking their heads. “It was a few days after practice. Was giving Rex a ride back to his trailer, for some reason, can’t remember why. He started talking about fencing, and that’s when I told him I was done, wasn’t going back to the team. He asked me why, and I told him the team had become all about Myles, the golden boy, and I didn’t want any part of it.”

For a moment, the only sound was the rhythmic beeping of a monitor from a room down the hall. Double-J bit his lower lip — “He didn’t say nothing after that, ’til we got to his trailer. Before he gets out, he looks at me.” The senior winced, biting his lower lip again. “And he tells me he was pretty upset too, he liked Myles but didn’t like how the team’s focus had changed since he came on. The team, he told me, was like his second family, and he didn’t want…”

The burly teen closed his eyes, re-opened them slowly, as if the sight before him brought pain. “He didn’t want to lose his second family. And being in front of his trailer and all, I shoulda known he was thinking about his real family, how Family Services kept threatening to take his sisters away, put them in foster homes. But all thought was, hey I got me an ally, somebody who’s gonna have my back if I push back against Myles.”

With a sudden thrust of his left hand, Double-J struck the bed next to Rex’s pillow. “Goddammit, you shouldn’t be here, me neither. You should be in your family’s trailer, I should be at Lefty’s shop. This place, it’s an antiseptic abomination…”

Grabbing the bed’s rail with his right hand, Double-J closed his eyes, leaned over Rex’s unconscious body — and with an effort that looked like he was squeezing tears from his eyes, wept.

Across the bed, Coach Dan and Annie were paralyzed at the sound of Double-J’s wail, EEEEH – EEEEH – EEEH – EEEH. Neither could remember seeing him this vulnerable. Annie took a step to her left, towards the other side of the bed — but stopped as she saw Double-J lift his face.

No trace of sorrow. His face was red and wet with rage.

“My fault.” He exhaled, lungs rattling. “Shouldn’t have given him my equipment. He weren’t ready for saber — “

“He would have been, if I’d been around.” Coach Dan shook his head. “Jimmy could have worked with him, instead of running the team.”

“No, it’s me.” Annie patting her chest. “Should have been his strip coach, instead of hanging out with my friends.”

“No.” Both Coach Dan and Annie could tell Double-J was restraining from his customary vulgarity. “It was me, who doomed him.” The burly teen stood upright, wiped the wetness off his face. He shook his head, the thin black wires of his hair waving in the dim hospital light. “Nothing more I can do here. I’m going to his trailer, stay with his family ’till he can come home.”

Annie raised her hand. “I can — “

“No you can’t.” And without looking back, Double-J raced out of the room like man escaping prison.

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