Distractions

[A response to today’s prompt from The Daily Post]

“I mean, do they ever wash these things?” Lana’s scowl, and the way she held the fencing jacket at arm’s length after pulling it from the team’s equipment sack, told Annie that she needed to work with the newest potential recruit for the Bark Bay High School fencing team.
Stepping in front of Lana, Annie took the jacket from her. “Coach Dan sends them to the cleaners once a month.” The fencing team captain shook her head, waving her brown pony-tail, then released the jacket — “That one’s too small.” Squatting, she began rummaging through the sack, finally pulling one of the other jackets from the heap. Annie stood, and nodded at Lana — “This one should fit.”

Like all of Bark Bay’s jackets, this one was zippered in the back; front-zippered jackets were just as common and no more expensive, but since right-handed fencers could only use a jacket zippered on the left side, and left-handed fencers required zippers on the right, back-zippered jackets were more suited to the fluctuating membership of the Bark Bay squad. After explaining to Lana how to put on the jacket (first, step a leg through the hole formed by the nylon strap at the bottom of the jacket, then insert your arms), Annie fastened and raised the zipper.

“I mean, doesn’t it bother you?” Annie knew Lana was still talking about the distinct scent of the team’s equipment, the stale perspiration that permeated everything, even after it came back from the cleaners.

“A little, at the start.” Annie actually couldn’t remember her initial reaction to the scent, but felt she needed to establish some sort of bond with Lana. “But when I started scrimmaging, trading touches with other fencers — I didn’t care what I smelled.” She laid a hand on Lana’s shoulder, and smiled. “I knew right away, that fencing was the coolest, most exciting sport ever. From that point, all the smelly equipment, the noises, the bruises — those were all distractions. And I was too busy having fun, to let any distraction get in my way.”

For a moment, Lana stared back blankly. And then, to Annie’s relief, she smiled. “So when can I start scrimmaging?”

“Soon as we find you a mask.” Annie then led Lana to the team’s other equipment sack, which promised to have an even more pungent odor.

Revising to Build Relationships

Via Krista Stanley, I came across some interesting tips on ending scenes in a novel and creating links between those scenes. Feel like I’ve given insufficient attention to these concepts so far in Gray Metal Faces, as I’ve had a fairly narrow focus on each chapter during the drafting process. Will make these relationships a point of emphasis during the revision of The Land Without Mosquitos.

Final Thoughts on NaNoWriMo 2016

It’s been a few days since the end of this year’s National Novel Writing Month event. I’m happy I participated, and very satisfied at having reached the goal of 50K words. Chapters six and seven of “Gray Metal Faces” have been completely revised, and the first draft of chapter eight has begun; honestly, I don’t think I would have accomplished so much if I hadn’t been trying to “win” NaNoWriMo.

But I’m not happy with those last few days in November. Getting those final few thousand words was difficult, and while I got the job done, I certainly didn’t enjoy myself. Writing shouldn’t always be easy, and I’m definitely not afraid of the work; however, during those last few days in November I was writing because I had to, not because I wanted to. Working on the novel became just another obligation, and I approached those final blog entries with all the enthusiasm of a dental appointment.

That’s not a feeling I want to experience again, and makes me wonder if I’ll participate in next year’s NaNoWriMo. Yeah, there’s a real good chance that I could end next November with a complete draft of the entire novel, which would be completely awesome. But to have that empty, joyless feeling — I’m not sure any accomplishment would be worth that.

So yes, I’m happy to have participated in this year’s NaNoWriMo, but whether I take part in next year’s event is an open question.

And There You Have It

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_winnerIt hasn’t been pretty these last couple of days, but my NaNoWriMo goal of 50K words has been reached, with about 75 minutes to spare. Don’t have much energy (physical or mental) left to say anything more profound than that; right now, I don’t even feel victorious. Just tired, and a little grateful for being able to accomplish this feat.

Sprint to the finish

finish-line

Finished the chapter seven revision yesterday. Combined with the chapter six revision completed earlier this month, I’m up to a little less than 47k words so far in NaNoWriMo 2016. Started the first draft of chapter eight earlier today (I’ll have more to say tomorrow about how I’m drafting chapters eight and nine), and came to a convenient stopping point after 1100 words. Two more days like today, or maybe a big push tomorrow — either way, the finish line of personal victory is in sight.

Looking forward to ending this challenge. Really glad I’ve put in all this work, but after 28 days I’m feeling the urge to move on from the novel for a bit.

Gray Metal Faces – March 10

Guy salutes again, a silly ritual before the last touch but guess I gotta return it. “Pret — allez.” No tricks this time, get the center and attack, EEEP EEEP. “Together. Pret — allez.” Quicker this time, EEEP EEEP. “Together. Pret — ” could go all day like this, need to break his tempo — “allez.” Take the center but don’t attack, set up the parry, no he ain’t biting. Flinch to the head, still don’t — he’s moving, dammit he’s got me backing up, here’s the head cut parry-five, now the line change to four, drop the blade, catch it, riposte EEEP EEEP. We both gawk at the ref, know this call will decide it, matter of which struck first, his attack or my parry. “Attack right — ” yes? — “is parried — ” throw my arms up YES, other guy’s protesting but there’s no way this is getting reversed, walk back to my starting line and take off my mask.

At least she didn’t ask him to stay (another benefit of her mother’s imminent arrival). Double-J twisted the ignition of his coupe, shifted into reverse, glanced up occasionally at the rearview mirror as the coupe backed out of the gravel driveway, the two-story gray house with the high arches in front shrinking away.

As the rear tires found pavement on the county road, he turned the vehicle sharply left, and in looking up at the rearview caught a glimpse of light from a second-story window, surrounding a silhouette of head and shoulders. The Bird’s room, yes from what he remembered of the twists and turns inside. And it had to be her silhouette, of course. Watching him leave?

Double-J shook his head. He hadn’t liked her lack of experience, but had found her nervousness more arousing than he’d expected, perhaps because it was clear that she wasn’t afraid, in spite of her uncertainty. The mess — always the worst part with virgies (he’d helped her put the sheets in the wash, rinsing the stains as best they could first) — but her kisses had been warm and eager on his body. And she’d made no attempt to make him stay just a minute longer, hadn’t asked when they could be together again, hadn’t demanded he call. She had satisfied her need, much as he had satisfied his; had it been her, rather than him, who had been the true manipulator of this entire evening? The possibility actually pleased him.

The coupe coursed through Bark Bay once again, as Double-J made his way back to the Embassy. Yeah, there was always a chance that The Bird could change, attempt to latch onto him like a leech, just as this town tried to suck the life out of its youth, or the team, the damn fencing team, tried to suck the individuality out of its members. “Let ’em try,” he said to nobody. For Double-J knew his destiny would soon take him far from his latest conquest, far from the fencing team, far from this miserable, doomed town.

He’s pissed, can see that in his face when he takes off his mask. And he should be, losing after being up 4-2. We salute, shake hands — “nice bout” — but in his eyes I can see that he’s eager for the next opportunity to trade steel with me.

[End of “Gray Metal Faces – March”]

Gray Metal Faces – March 6.5

[As the conclusion to this chapter revision approached, I decided there needed to be an additional scene. This takes place between March 6C and March 7A; material from March 6A has been cut and added to this new scene.]

“A — halt.” Guy jumped the start, ref’s giving him a warning, not sure why he didn’t issue a yellow. “Pret — ” guy’s holding himself back, might be able to use it against him — “allez.” Take the center, he’s backing up, this one’s mine, small quick steps, wait for him to open — he flinches, I go, miss DAMMIT, hit on the backswing, EEEP EEEP, “halt.” All up to the ref, could go either way, he doesn’t look certain. Shakes his head, “attack no, counter no, the remises are together, no touch.” Got lucky there. 

Double-J smiled, nodded down at the first flanneled man, slowly getting to his feet. “You and your friend, best be getting outta here.” The newcomer picked up his companion and carried him away, Double-J standing over the man in the pickup as he watched the two men get into a green hatchback.

As the car drove out of the parking lot, Double-J got down to one knee, and glared down at the pickup man, who no longer had any fight left in him. The teen spoke with quiet anger, the man replying with short, shame-filled nods. Double-J then stood, and walked briskly back to his coupe.

The Bird heard him cursing under his breath as he opened the door and got into the driver’s seat. She asked what he’d said to the pickup man before leaving him alone on the pavement, and Double-J snorted. “Told him if he ever drew that shotgun he had in his front seat on me, I’d break both his arms.”

A week from Thursday

Double-J was exiting a pharmacy when he saw Butch walking in to the store three doors down the strip mall. He could not remember the last time he had been in Page Turners, and he was not sure why talking to Butch was suddenly so important enough to warrant this diversionary trip, but Double-J always enjoyed following his instincts.

He decided to follow the overweight junior with the short crop of tow, curious to see Butch’s literary destination. The aisle furthest to the left of Page Turners contained rows of newspapers and magazines; Butch walked past the News, Travel, Music, and Politics sections, finally stopping at the far corner stand: Comics.

Stopping at a comfortable distance, Double-J raised his chin. “Thought you usually came here with your buddy, Banks.”

Butch didn’t jump, but his face had its typically surprised expression. “Oh! You mean, Rune?”

Double-J frowned, as he recalled the memory of his roadside encounter with Hugh Banks. “Is it me, or has that guy gotten even more flaky lately?”

Butch stared back blankly, and for a moment Double-J thought he would have to define flaky in order to get a response. But then — “I don’t know what’s going on with him.” Butch’s voice was unusually cold. “He hasn’t been to practice, doesn’t wanna read comic books no more, won’t even talk to me, or Annie, or anyone.”

Double-J waved his right hand. “Nothing new there. Teen angst.”

Butch bit his lower lip, his eyes narrowing. “What did he ask?”

From experience, Double-J knew that if this conversation didn’t move forward, it would quickly get mired in a place he didn’t want to be stuck. “Didn’t see your family’s truck outside.” It had been in Lefty’s shop last week, and he had repaired the heat shield on the exhaust.

“Oh! I got a ride here from Mrs. Everett, and my mom, she won’t be here for another hour.”

“Ah.” Double-J pointed at the rack of comics. “Really going to take you that long to make your selections?” Butch replied that it wouldn’t, and after receiving Double-J’s promise to get them to the Baptist church before her mother left, and making a quick purchase of four Marvel comics, he left Page Turners with Double-J.

They had just exited the strip mall’s parking lot in the coupe, when Double-J, struck by an impulse he could not resist even if he had wanted, said that he was not actually certain Butch had a mother.

“Oh! Well, she’s dead.”

The coupe momentarily swerved over the center line. “You mind telling me who the hell’s over at your church?”

“Oh! Sorry, that’s my stepmother. My mom, she died, when I was a baby.”

“Ah.” Double-J made a silent promise to himself to not act on any more impulses on this trip.

“My dad, he married Faith after mom died. Faith, she’s my mom. Well she’s not — “

“Got it,” Double-J waving his right hand towards his passenger. “What I was trying to say before, not very effectively, was that I’ve never actually met your mo – stepmother.”

“Oh! Well, she don’t work, when she’s not home she’s at the church — “

“Been working on your family’s truck for years. Sometimes your dad brings it in to Lefty’s, or one of your brothers, or sisters. I’m pretty good with names, don’t ever remember a ‘Faith’ coming in to the shop.”

“Oh! Well, my mom, she doesn’t do a lot of the errands.”

Double-J smiled reflexively as he saw they were approaching the driveway to the Baptist church. “She sounds like a person who doesn’t like being away from home.”

As he pulled the coupe into the driveway, Double-J expected another Oh!, followed by another perplexing explanation. He certainly didn’t expect silence from his passenger. When he stopped the car, he looked over to see Butch staring blankly at the front of the church.

“My mom likes to do a lot of things. She’s asked to do more of the errands. But my dad — “

The image of Reverend Goodman’s stern face, from a summer camp many years in the past, came to Double-J’s mind.

“Thank you for giving me the ride.” Without another word between he and Double-J, Butch then quickly exited the vehicle, and a moment later entered the church through a side door.

Gray Metal Faces – March 9B

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.”

Gray Metal Faces – March 9A

Try absence of blade this time. “Allez.” Here you go buddy, take that center while I show you my entire target area. Hesitates — hasn’t seen this before, doesn’t know what to do. Step forward, he backs up, matching my tempo, this is working perfectly. Attack, here comes the counter don’t flinch, EEEP EEEP. “Attack left, is tooch.” Awesome, got it tied at 4. No valiant comeback, going for the WIN.

The coupe conveyed its occupants east on the county road, three point two miles past the Gulf station, eventually turning into the driveway of a house seemingly far too large for its two occupants, its windows dark.

Tires crunched the soft gravel; hitting a hidden pothole, the car jerked down to the right, splashing the partly frozen water underneath, then righted itself as the vehicle regained level ground. The car stopped before the front door a second later.

The Bird thanked Double-J for the ride home; he inhaled into his right cheek, kchk. “No problem. Good talking to ya.” Clearing her throat (which she rarely did), The Bird then suggested he come in for a while. She examined his face, saw the briefest glimmer of a smile, then a look of serenity delivered with a conviction that would, she thought, have pleased her thespian mother — “Awright. If that’s what you want.”

His slender passenger unlatched the coupe’ door, swung it open with a push of her right hand without looking. Catching Double-J’s gaze, she smiled at him with her eyes, then waited for him to begin exiting, before swinging her legs out into the crisp night air.

She walked swiftly up the front steps, then flipped a switch to the left of the door, an overhead light beaming down on her. She turned, saw Double-J approach. She held up a hand, her face hidden in the shadow thrown down by the light.

Double-J stopped and held his arms up, as if pleading. She then told him why she had called him that afternoon, at the shop. How she was worried about the fencing team, and had tried to talk about her concerns with Coach Dan, and Annie, but — she said they listened, but for some reason couldn’t understand her.

“So you thought — ” there was a tone of victory in Double-J’s voice — “why not talk to the only sensible person on the team?”

She explained that the two of them were part of the team, but were not part of the team’s social circle. That they were both more comfortable looking at the team from the outside. And because they were both, in their own way, outsiders on the team, she thought he might be more receptive to her concerns.

The burly teen nodded up at her — “All right.” She continued, explaining that she knew asking for his help would be a long shot, but she had to try. And when she finally called him at the shop, the first thing he heard was his anger, saw no indication he’d changed his mind about wanting anything to do with the team. And then — her lips turned up — then, she said, he asked when her mother was bringing in her car for the new brake pads she’d ordered.

His eyes widened, head nodding down to the left. “Figgered since they’d come in — “

She told him, she continued, that the earliest her mother could come in was Thursday. Because she was working in the city through Wednesday, would be home late each night. And after she’d said that, she added, he’d changed the subject back to the fencing team, and all of a sudden he was like sure, he would be glad to meet with her, but it had to be Tuesday, or Wednesday. That he were working evenings, the rest of the week.

Double-J dipped his head down, closed his eyes. And began to grin. Lifted his head — “I believe you are insinuating — ” opened his eyes, grin spreading — “that I have an ulterior motive.”

A cold brace of March wind whipped against The Bird’s face. Then, she said he was trying to get her to do what he’d wanted.

He nodded. Then raised his palms gently up at her, approached slowly. Lifted his right foot, placed it on the first step. “Seems to me, that all I’m trying to do — is go to that place you’ve always wanted to see me at.”

He waited, looking up at her. The Bird took her hands out of the coat pockets, said she had one more question — was there anything someone could say, anything somebody could do, that could change his mind about the fencing team, make him come back to practice, show up for the regional tournament at the end of the month.

Double-J was shaking his head before she could finish her question. “There ain’t nuthin’ there for me, no more.” And then his left foot raised, landed on the second step, The Bird waiting for him as he continued to ascend towards her.