The Tuesday after the next
Dan Jacobs knew practicing just three days after Rex’s injury would be difficult for the team, but he also knew cancelling would only exacerbate the psychological wound that had been inflicted along with the gash to Rex’s arm. As his sneakered feet hustled down the tiled corridor to the cafeteria entrance (he was late for the start of practice due to a mandatory faculty meeting), he wondered who would show today. Annie for certain (We ARE having practice this week, right? was the message she’d left on his school voicemail), most likely Juan (he hadn’t witnessed Saturday’s tragedy, and he and Rex were close), and… no other names came immediately to his mind. Both Butch and The Bird might still be too distraught at having seen Rex injured so badly, blood streaming out the gash in his arm like water from a ruptured hose, his gray lame turning crimson. Coach Dan shook his head, and shuddered; this practice would be as important for him as it was for his students.
Reaching the end of the corridor, he walked left through the open cafeteria doors — and saw something he hadn’t ever expected to see in his career as coach of the Bark Bay High School fencing team.
There must have been over thirty students in the cafeteria. Annie, Juan and yes, Butch and The Bird, but also Coy, OK, Big and Little Paul — Micky, Zeph — other young faces he barely recognized, and in some cases, not at all. Coach Dan couldn’t be sure, but it certainly seemed that any student who had been at more than one fencing team practice the last two years, all of them, were here. They had formed an uneven semi-circle around Annie, standing next to Jimmy at the center of the large cafeteria floor.
Jimmy was the first to recognize his arrival. “Daniel.” He felt scores of eyes turning towards him like search lights. “You hear any more, ’bout Slim?”
“Nothing recent.” The semicircle morphed, forming around their volunteer fencing coach. “He went home this morning, sure you all heard that. Been sleeping a lot. He’s still weak, but he was up this afternoon, moving around the trailer. He won’t be coming back to school this week, doctors orders — and obviously, he won’t be fencing any time soon.”
Annie walked in front of Coach Dan, her brown pony-tail waving. “I talked to everyone, we’ve got meals planned for his family, next couple weeks.”
The volunteer fencing coach and seven-year English instructor at Bark Bay High School put his hands on Annie’s shoulders, and nodded with approbation. “Thank you.” Then turning back towards the semicircle of students, Coach Dan raised his right arm, calling for the attention.
“Most of you here today — came for a few reasons, all related to Rex. To find out what really happened on Saturday, to hear how he’s doing now — but most importantly of all, because you care for Rex, love him like the big brother he’s been to many of you.”
He felt mucus forming in his throat, covered his mouth and coughed, let his arm fall to the side. “What happened to Rex on Saturday, no words are adequate to describe. Accidents such as that are rare in fencing, but when they do happen they can be quite grisly, as those of us who were there can attest.”
A slender figure then break from the semicircle, walking with caution, as if the cafeteria floor were littered with land mines. Coach Dan recognized The Bird’s typical reticence, but also saw the freshman’s eyes looking right into his, and within that gaze a determination to push beyond her natural instincts. She clearly wanted to speak — so very unusual for her, but then again, today was far beyond usual. Stopping in front of Coach Dan, The Bird turned to her fellow students and, with the air of a woman who found no reason to ask for permission, spoke.
“What I saw Saturday, was the scariest thing ever. Hearing Rex scream in pain, seeing the horror of his injury — as soon as it happened, there was a part of me that just wanted to run away from it, but I was too scared to do anything but watch other people come to his aid.”
Coach Dan had never heard her speak with such assurance. “But even after I knew he was going to be OK, I was still scared. Every time somebody asked me about the accident, I felt like running away, and I didn’t understand why. But when I got here tonight, saw everybody… that’s when I finally understood why I’ve been so afraid.”
She scanned the faces of the people around her, an act her fencing coach recognized as one of his own oratorical techniques. “My mother and I moved to Bark Bay three years ago; we’ve moved a lot, on account of her work. I had grown sick of having to leave friends almost as soon as I made them, so this time I was going to keep everyone at arm’s length, not get close to anyone. That way it wouldn’t hurt so much, the next time we had to leave.”
A bank of fluorescent lights above her head flickered, then seemed to shine more brightly than before. “But then, I started coming to fencing practice. It was weird, I’d never played any sport before, but there was something about fencing that kept me coming back each week. I didn’t want to admit it, but it was — ” she blinked, swallowed, the curtains of her hair momentarily covering her face as she looked down, then back up — “it was you guys. All of you. You’re funny, loud, strange, sometimes I think you’re just like every kid our age would be if only they dared to be honest. And yeah, sometimes it can get a little obnoxious and crude at practice, but I can’t help it, I like those times too.”
The Bird looked over at Coach Dan, who gave no indication of wanting her to stop. “This is going to sound really dumb, but I’m going to say it, for Rex’s sake. I want to be part of this team. I don’t care about competing, but I want to be here, and be part of all this craziness. And Rex, he’s a part of this team, an important part. So when people asked me this week, about what happened to him — I guess it hit me, how important he was to us, to me. How I cared about him. And I guess that’s why, I got so scared.”
She was silent a moment, but all eyes in the room looked at her patiently. But The Bird shook her head. “Sorry. I didn’t mean… to speak… so long.” And then she became the young girl everyone thought they had known, quiet and awkward, looking like she wanted nothing more than to have all eyes in the room find some other focus.
Coach Dan stepped forward, relieving his student from further attention. Catching a glance at the team’s equipment sacks, leaning unopened against the short wall in front of the stage, he addressed the crowd of students. “People ask me all the time — teachers, students, people in town — why I’m a fencing coach. And if I have the time, I give them the full story, from that time I met ol’ Josef — ” his emphasis drawing the appreciative giggle of recognition he expected — “but mostly there’s no time to get into all that, so I just say that being a fencing coach, allows me to see my students learn lessons I could never teach, insights I could never hope to provide in any classroom.” He caught the eyes of Butch, standing at the far left of the semicircle, and quickly but pointedly made his way across the sea of faces in front of him. “And I can see today, you’ve learned one of those lessons — that none of us are alone.” He felt Annie squeeze his stomach. “None of us, needs ever feel that we’re alone.”
A slow, sharp clapping of hands from the equipment sacks. Coach Dan turned, expecting yet another surprise this afternoon, and was not disappointed. Standing above the equipment sack, now opened, that contained the team’s weapons, was Double-J, glaring at him caustically. “Nice speech, Jacobs. But if you don’t mind — ” the burly teen stooped down, lifted a saber from the sack, then raised it and pointed its tip directly at his coach — “some of us would like to get ready for States.”