Gray Metal Faces – November 15

King, the family’s large German Shepherd, bounced on front paws as large as a baseball catcher’s glove as Rex approached, the dog’s enormous neck straining against the chain that tethered it to the ground outside the trailer. Rex let King leap onto his chest, scratched his dirty head; glancing down at the empty aluminum bowl (licked clean, Rex suspected, from not being filled yet today), he petted the dog down. “Don’t worry, boy, I’ll feed you in a minute.” The teen then ascended the wooden stairs leading up to the trailer’s front door, taking the first step with his left foot; Rex lead with his right foot on all other stairs, but years of experience had conditioned him to begin entering his home on his off-foot, the better to avoid the right side of the third tread, loose and apparently impervious to repair. He opened the screen door, its upper section a void, and pushed through the weathered, scratched front door.  

Reg, his older sister, was sitting at the green formica table in the space outside the bedrooms and bathroom, an area not separate enough from the food preparation appliances and utensils to be considered a dining room. She was eating from a plastic bowl with the orangey yellow stains of macaroni and cheese.

Rex pointed to the bowl, his mouth watering. “Hi. Save enough for me?” Reg nodded, swallowed, then gestured toward the back bedroom. “She didn’t have a good day.”

Rex nodded, took off his jacket, walked into the bedroom. The only light in the room was a nighlight low on the wall to the left. His mother was in bed, covers over her. Rex didn’t hear her breathe until he had leaned over her, but what he heard was labored, pained.

He was about to stand up, turn to leave, when her eyes suddenly snapped open, and she drew a deep shudder of a breath in, ending in a sob, her body tensing.

Rex (who had seen this reaction from her enough times to no longer be surprised by it) did not move, instead smiled, said hello. Her body relaxed, a weak smile seeping onto her face as she exhaled.

“Rex.” Her whisper a pained sigh. “When did you come back?”

“Just now.”

She looked up at the ceiling a moment. “You – where did you go?”

“Fencing tournament, Mother.” Better to misrepresent than have to define a scrimmage for her. “At the Academy.”

She cleared her throat. “Do . . . you need a ride?”

“Double-J – John Johnston gave me a ride.”

“I . . . don’t have a car.”

Rex did not answer, choosing to let the topic expire, like a sunbeam disappearing behind a cloud.

“Wiil that . . . Hutch – inson girl be there?”

“Yes, Annie was there.” His mother smiled at Rex’s response.

“Her family . . . they have been . . . so good to us.”

“They have good hearts. Especially Annie.”

“Rex!” Her voice suddenly rising into a soft, sharp shout.

“Yes, Mother?”

She hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with what she was about to say. “I’m . . . I’m . . .”

“Are you cold?”

She closed her eyes, sighed, moved her head up and down with just enough energy to indicate that Rex was correct.

“I can turn the furnace up –”

She shook her head forcefully. “We can’t . . . afford –”

“It’s OK.”

“No – not the . . . furnace.”

Rex sighed. “I can get you the comforter.” She nodded weakly. He walked to the wall behind him, opened the closet door and retrieved a faded, torn comforter. By the time he returned to his mother, she was sleeping.

He placed the comforter over her, kissed her forehead, and walked back into the main room of the trailer. Reg was watching television with their younger sister, Renee; Rex sat on the couch between them.

Rex had minimal interest in the program, but he was too tired to raise an objection or suggest an alternative. He thought of reading, taking a book into the kids’ bedroom, but knew he lacked the energy to pay sufficient attention.

During a commercial, Reg turned to him. “Did you win today?”

“Tied for third, in foil. Epee’s next week.”

“Mr. Williams came by today.”

Rex turned to her quickly. “Mr. Williams? Here?

Reg nodded. Rex rose, walked over to the television, turned it off, turned to his sister. “What did he want?”

She shrugged. “Nothing. Just wanted to talk to Momma. Wanted to look at our cupboard.” Renee remained still on the couch.

“And you let him?”

Reg nodded. “Refrigerator too.”

Rex closed his eyes, turned his head up at the ceiling, hands on his hips. “What we have for food is none of his business!”

“But he works for the state, isn’t he like a cop – ”

“Mr. Williams is NOT a cop, he does not have a BADGE, and he’s got NO BUSINESS snooping around in our cupboards!”

His sisters stared at him, unblinking. Rex sighed, relaxed his shoulders. “Sorry,” then leaned down to the television to restore its power.

They watched televsion for the next hour, not saying anything until Rex announced it was time for everyone to get to bed.

His two sisters went noiselessly to the smaller bedroom, followed by Rex. He helped them get undressed, got them into the bed that they shared, drew their covers over them.

Ref was practically asleep by the time he covered her. Renee, still very awake, looked up at him with a smile.

“Is Mr. Williams going to take us away?” Renee’s voice conveyed more curiosity than worry.

“No.” Rex shook his head aggressively. “Never.”

“When you grow up, are you going to try out for the Three Musketeers?”

Rex laughed. “The Three Musketeers aren’t real. It’s just a story. They’re not a team.”

“What team are you going to be on?”

Rex shook his head. “We don’t have . . . teams in fencing, really. Not like in baseball or basketball.”

“Aren’t you on the high school team?”

Rex paused. “We’re . . . a bunch of fencers. Not a team.”

He kissed her on the forehead, then rose and left the bedroom, turning out the light as he left.

He heard King whining, then the sound of his aluminum bowl being dragged across the frozen dirt. Cursing, Rex raced to the sink, grabbed the large bag of discount dog food from under the uncovered opening, raced outside and quickly spilled its contents onto the bowl, King nearly knocking him over as he began feeding. Rex remembered the last time Mr. Williams had visited them, over the summer, how he’d questioned whether the Ankiels should be providing for a pet. But there had already been so much taken away from his family; why, he wondered, did being poor mean you automatically lost the ability to make your own decisions?

Re-entering the trailer, Rex realized his body was more tired than his mind, but on this evening physical desires gave way to the intellect. He reached up to pull the chain that powered the light over the green table, when his eyes landed on a gray plastic bag. He had carried it in from Double-J’s car, had dropped it on the table when Reg told him about their mother, had let it leave his mind completely for the rest of the evening, until now. He reached down, parted the plastic opening, looked down on its contents.

The fencing shoes that Coach Dan had insisted he take seemed completely out of place within his family’s trailer. He remembered a discussion from last spring between Myles and Annie, regarding the cost of shoes and other fencing equipment; these shoes, he realized, were worth more money than was needed to feed his family for a week, perhaps two. I could seek them, he thought; nobody on the Bark Bay team were near his shoe size, but certainly someone from the Academy, or Midland, Woolford . . . But was that what he wanted? Shoes wouldn’t make him a better fencer, but they would reduce the wear on his sneakers — wearing these gifted shoes would save his family money, yes? He nodded, balled the plastic over the shoes again, reached up and pulled the light chain, darkness enveloping the trailer as he walked over to the main bedroom and opened the door gently.

There was just enough light from the nightlight to allow him to see his way around. His mother had not moved from the position where he had left her earlier that evening. He shut the door slowly behind him, walked over to the closet, and when his mother spoke he reacted without surprise.

“Have . . . you been home long?”

“I came back a few hours ago, Mother.” He put the bagged shoes on the highest of two shelves in the closet, where only he could reach, and made sure its contents were not visible.

“Did . . . what . . . ”

Rex began undressing as her voice trailed off. He had put on the t-shirt and shorts he wore for sleeping by the time she spoke again.

“When . . . is your fencing tournament?”

“It was today, Mother.”

“Do . . . you need a ride?”

“No, Mother. I’m fine. Please go back to sleep.”

She was silent. For a long moment. Then — “You are . . . such a good boy.”

Rex decided not to answer, trusting that remaining silent would help his mother sleep. A moment later, he heard her regular, soft breathing.

Rex lay next to his mother and stared at the ceiling, his mind still active. He thought about the conversations he had lately with his mother about the family sleeping arrangements. With no regular income, getting a bigger trailer was out of the question, and sharing a room with his sisters was potentially more uncomfortable than the current situation. Of course there was the option of putting Rex’s bed in the main room, in the place of the sofa, which had been the arrangement when they had first moved in, after his father had left.

But Rex was still very young then, the memory of Neb leaving too hurtful to him, and he complained about being alone at night. He found it comforting then to fall asleep in his mother’s bed, being wakened by her a few hours later and shuffling off to his bed in the main room. Then his mother’s sickness became more pronounced, and she would forget to wake him at night, until eventually his staying in his mother’s bed until morning became routine.

Rex closed his eyes, thought of the scrimmage that afternoon, how Francis Pine had goaded him into a position that neutralized his strength. When he thought of Francis, he was neither envious (as was Annie), disdainful (as was Double-J), or annoyed (as was Rune); instead he admired his opponent, admired him so much that he wanted to pay him the ultimate compliment, which was to commit himself to besting him, to acknowledge that he was an opponent worthy of challenge, skilled enough to inspire you to improve your own skill with the blade.
He was going to beat Francis Pine the next time they faced. And Francis would respond by committing to winning their next bout. And so on it would go, a back and forth battle which would make the two of them better.

Rex smiled, yawned, and turned to his mother, snoring silently next to him. Whispering “good night,” he turned and closed his eyes, as frost descended in the night sky.

End of “November”

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Gray Metal Faces – November 14

Coach Dan approached them and called to Annie, said he had spoken with the referee. “Championship bout begins in eight minutes.”

“I’m ready now.” Annie took the tethered clasp from Rex, answered all Coach Dan’s questions with unwavering confidence – yes she just had a snack, yes she had just had a drink, no she didn’t need to use the bathroom, no she didn’t need to sit down. Coach Dan finally rebuffed her eagerness, not so much convincing as ordering Annie to sit until at least the referee had returned to the strip. Annie sat on a metal folding chair, feet tapping the floor with more energy than rhythm, like raindrops on a tin roof.

Finally the referee for the championship bout approached, signaled for Annie and Francis to prepare for their bout. The teens rose from their seats, connected to the scoring equipment with assistance from their coaches. Standing ready at their starting positions, they saluted each other, the referee, and their coaches. The referee pointed with upturned palm to Francis on his right (Ready on my right?), repeated this motion with her other hand to Annie (Ready on my left?), then swiftly rotated both palms down and, in a firm yet quiet voice, commanded the competitors — “Fence.”

Annie quickly realized why Rex had encouraged her to focus on her game, as the analytical side wanted to admire how her opponent fenced. His footwork, his balance, his command both of body and of blade, Francis Pine was a textbook fencer, seeming to execute every instruction Annie had heard from Coach Dan. Her opponent, she realized, was what she hoped to become.

Quickly surrendering the first three touches, Annie walked to the end of her strip, exhaled heavily twice, then returned to her starting position. Fence your game. Yes, Francis Pine was the better fencer, but he did not have her background in dance and gymnastics. She advanced, retreated, advanced again, her feet moving smoothly and aggressively. Francis mirrored her movements, and when she sensed he was not perfectly balanced, she lunged short, lunged again, parried, disengage, thrust — “Halt!” The referee extended his left hand out from his body — “Attack left, parry right — ” his right arm raising shoulder height, left hand reaching across his body to slice-tap his upper forearm — “no riposte, second intention, touch left, score is one, three.”

On the bout’s resumption she advanced and retreated again, but this time Francis did not move from his position. He wasn’t playing her game this time, but he wasn’t attacking either. She reacted immediately, charging and lunging at him, throwing in a disengage at the last minute, scoring a second touch.

Several minutes later the referee called a halt for the first rest period. Coach Dan approached Annie, a bottle of water in his hand. “You’re doing great.”

“I’m losing, 11 – 8.” Her voice terse, a tone she reserved for her mother when told she needed to finish her homework.

“He can’t keep up with you. Get him to follow – ”

“I know that.” She drank quickly. “And he knows that. He’s trying not to follow me anymore, he’s waiting for me to come at him.” She drank two more quick gulps, then handed the bottle back to her coach. “Thanks. And – sorry.”

“What for?” Coach Dan took the bottle, spread his arms wide.

“Shouldn’t snap at you like that. Sorry.”

Coach Dan’s face beamed a moment, then he quickly dropped his smile. “You can apologize all you want after the bout. For now, I want you to keep that edge, that fire. You’re going to need it.”

She looked at him, confused. Coach Dan then put on a patronizing smile, and with his left hand patted her gently on the head, like she was a timid dog. “Good girl!” Annie scowled.

When their bout resumed a moment later, Annie played the irresistible force, dancing back and forth along the strip, to the immovable object that Francis had become. Annie scored a touch to bring her within two, but Francis’ patience soon began to pay off as he started to notice patterns to her movements, areas she would leave undefended as she focused on her footwork. He made it a battle of blade work, and in this area his advantage was clear. The last touch was a disengage riposte, his foil deflecting her attack and then circling under her blade, up towards her weapon side, followed by a thrust which landed his point on her shoulder, ending the bout 15 – 11.

They saluted, and as they approached each other to shake hands Annie heard hands clapping around her. About two dozen people, fencers from both Bark Bay and the Academy, along their coaches as well as the referees, were applauding.

Francis Pine relished the applause a moment, then returned his attention to Annie.  “Thank you.”

“Congratulations.” She was using her most gracious voice. “You earned this.”

“You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished today.”

“Well — ” she now allowed her fatigue to show — “I hope to be a little more proud next time I face you.”

Francis Pine gazed at her a long moment, then smiled, and bowed his head in her direction.

Annie turned back to her team, Rune in front to greet her. “Now you know how I feel,” his chin rising to point at her.

“Not sure about that,” her head shaking. “How do you feel?”

“Like I shouldn’t have bothered to show up.” Seeing the confusion on her face, he continued. “When you lose every time, that’s a sign you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

Annie shook her head purposely. “Is that what it’s all about for you? Winning and losing? Results? No, I guess I don’t know how you feel, because right now there’s no other place in the world I’d rather be. Yeah, I was looking for a better result against Francis, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy competing. I learned a lot out there, and I’m going to take that knowledge, build on it, get to a point where I compete better than I did today. I get the feeling you don’t think you learned anything today?”

Rune shrugged. “That I’ve got a lot to learn?”

Annie laughed, shook her head – and stared at Rune a long moment. She then looked around her a moment, started walking to her left, and motioned for Rune to follow her. Rune followed her to a corridor that lead to the locker rooms, which were currently unoccupied.

Annie stopped, put a hand on Rune’s chest Rune when they were finally out of sight of everyone else. “Got a secret for you.”

Rune stopped in front of her, a confused look on his face. She cleared her throat, whispered. “I had a feeling you’d prefer it this way –” throwing her arms around his shoulders, she pulled him down to her face, and kissed him. Gentle but firm, quickly but memorably.

She broke their embrace, stood back and gazed at him. He looked confused, like a man who had just been told his car had been stolen.

Annie smiled. “Yes, you have a lot to learn.” She then ran past Rune, back into the field house.

A tournament judge called to Coach Dan, said the sabre competition would begin in ten minutes. “Is Johnstone ready? He’s up first.” Coach Dan looked around, asked if anyone had seen Double-J, was greeted with blank stares and shrugs. Five minutes later, he sent Rune and Butch out to the parking lot. They returned immediately, saying they didn’t see Double-J’s coupe in the parking lot.

Minutes later, the tournament official approached Coach Dan again. “We’ve only got this area until 2.” The epee scrimmage, which would have nearly as many competitors as today’s foil, would be next week. “We need to start on time.” Coach Dan nodded, sent Rune and Butch out to the parking lot again, but just before they got to the exit the double-doors swung out, and Double-J entered. Coughing, he walked quickly past Rune and Butch without acknowledging them, not really seeming hurried but rather impatient to begin an unpleasant task, like a man dashing through a toll booth.

He reached Coach Dan, wrestled out of his jacket. Sneezed. Handed the jacket to Coach Dan, who let it fall to the ground. Reached into the sack of tunics, pulled out the first one he handled, quickly stepped into it, motioned for Rex to zip him up in the back. Grabbed a mask from another sack, a sabre from another, looking like a man in a buffet line unsatisfied with the offerings but anxious to appease his hunger. Pulled a glove from a jacket pocket, walked to his starting position, turned to the referee. With a quick command, “Let’s go,” he saluted, put on his mask, and crouched down into position.

The command to fence had not finished coming from the referee’s mouth when Double-J took a quick step forward, another, then simultaneously flexed his arm up and wrist down, his weapon avoiding his opponent’s attempted parry and slashing against his arm. The match went quickly, Double-J scoring all five touches, only being parried twice, his speed and aggression too much for his opponent. After being declared the winner, Double-J returned to his starting position, removed his mask, perfunctorily saluted his opponent, then the referee, quickly shook hands, then left the strip quickly, like a man leaving the DMV after renewing his license.

His next two pool bouts were nearly as swift, Double-J charging and slashing at every opportunity, surrendering only a single touch to each opponent. With a break before his next match, Double-J sat on a metal chair near the scorer’s table. Rex, who had finished with helping the Bark Bay team load the majority of their equipment back into their respective canvas sacks, sat next to him.

“Too bad Frankenstein doesn’t do sabre.” Double-J sounded more annoyed than disappointed.

Rex shrugged. “He’s pretty committed to foil and epee. Doesn’t want to extend himself.”

Double-J shook his head. “Tired of all you foil and epee people playing it safe. Wish people would challenge themselves. That’s the root of the problem with society, everybody’s content with ‘success’ — ” he signaled air quotes with his fingers — “winning victories that aren’t worth winning, beating opponents not at their level. That’s why nothing ever gets done, it’s just the same old same old, all the damn time.” Double-J shook his head in disgust, rose quickly from his chair, walked away before Rex could reply.

Double-J’s matches in the DEs were even more decisive and swift than the preliminaries.

Slash, down went Wanda Jensen.

Hack, Mike Paris fell.

And with a final jab, Ed Szurek was removed.

Double-J seemed to care little for the applause from either his teammates (which seemed genuine) or the other competitors, coaches, and tournament officials (which seemed obligatory). Some final words from Coach Gavvy, which included a reminder of next week’s epee scrimmage and the Academy invitational tournament in January, then Double-J announced that anyone who was planning on leaving with him had best be by his car in the next five minutes. The Bark Bay fencers packed Double-J’s gear into the canvas sacks, and after Coach Dan’s car was packed they drove back home, Rex riding with Annie and Rune in Double-J’s car, Butch and The Bird with Coach Dan.

“We did pretty well today,” Rune’s voice from the back seat rising above the engine’s roar as Double-J raced his car out of the parking lot. “Medals in both events – ”

” – and one last-place finish, to balance out those accomplishments.” Double-J smirked as he looked up in his rear-view mirror at Rune.

Rex and Annie objected immediately, but Double-J refused to back down. “Only way you’re going to get better,” continuing his rear-view gaze, “is to think about what you did wrong and what you can do to get better results next time, not indulging vicariously in somebody else’s victory.”

“Excuse me for supporting my teammates.” Rune sounded like he regretted not riding in Coach Dan’s sedan.

Double-J snorted. “This ain’t a team sport. On the strip, it’s just you and your opponent.”

They drove in silence. Several minutes. Then Double-J turned on the radio. A song with a driving backbeat blared through the car speakers, causing the passengers to cover their ears. Double-J apologized, turned the volume down.

Rune leaned forward. “I usually like this band, but I don’t like their new album.”

“All sounds the same to me.” Double-J kept focused on the road in front of his coupe.

Annie leaned forward, nudged Rune’s shoulder. “Who else do you like?” Rune answered with a quick list of a half-dozen artists and groups, Annie nodding her approval at each, then suggesting a few more names when he was finished, giving Rune an opportunity to nod his approval.

“I’ll admit I’m surprised,” Double-J glancing up at the rear-view. “Didn’t think you two would appreciate music that had some soul to it. I thought Princess would be into classical, or jazz that was old enough to be safe, and Banks would be all about Top 40. Glad to see you’re musical tastes are not so white.”

Pause. Rex cleared his throat —  “You do realize, that you sound like someone who’s completely full of shit, don’t you?”

Everyone laughed, as Double-J nodded. “Good to see someone’s willing to speak the truth.”

Annie’s house, on the top of a hill immediately north of town, was the most convenient first stop on the way back. Double-J drove into the long, curved paved driveway that lead up to the solid two-story brick residence, with weathered white wooden columns near the entrance that testified to the building’s antiquity.

Annie tapped Double-J on the shoulder. “Your father going to be plowing again this winter?” Her family had employed Johnston’s Plow Service for over a decade.

“Ask him.” The curtness of his reply made it evident that Double-J would take no further interest in this subject.

The car stopped in front of the entrance, and Annie stepped out. “I meant what I said earlier about the gym,” her eyes scanning everyone’s face. “I’m there every afternoon we don’t have practice in the cafeteria, and Gandy said we can do what we want when classes end at 4.” After getting the answers she expected from Rex (sorry, too far from home) and Double-J (only if we get to terrorize toddlers), she turned to Rune, who replied that he’d think about it.

“No thought required.” Annie backed away from the coupe, pointed at Rune. “See you Monday at 4.” Shen then turned to walk into her home.

A few minutes later they arrived at Rune’s house, a modest split-level ranch in a new subdivision. Rex opened the door and stepped out, pulled the passenger seat forward for Rune to exit. As Rune got out of the car, Rex asked how he felt. Rune said he was fine.

“I meant, about the tournament today.”

Rune shrugged. “Had a tough day. I’ll do better next time.”

“What do you want to work on in practice?”

“Hmm. Dunno. Let me think about it.”

Rex patted him on the shoulder, then turned and got back into Double-J’s car as Rune walked into his home.

As he steered his car back onto the road, Double-J began asking questions about the scrimmage. “What did Frankenstein beat you on?”

“He bound me up. Got in close, we’d tangle up and he’d get his jabs in first.”

“Gotta keep your distance,” his voice suddenly sounding more like Coach Dan than Double-J. “Use your height advantage. You make it a distance game with Frankenstein, you’re going to win that one most of the time.”

“Gee, thanks coach.” Double-J snorted a laughing reply.

The route to Rex’s trailer went over several winding, narrow roads in various levels of disrepair, some stretches where the asphalt was so badly deteriorated that the dirt parts of the road were safer. Tall trees loomed on either side of the road, bare branches reaching darkly over the road and intersecting above the faded yellow traffic medians, lights from Double-J’s headlights reflecting off the bare brown branches, forming a tunnel of light that cut into the darkness.

Double-J pulled into the dirt area to the side of Rex’s trailer. The tire tracks his car had made that morning had frozen, turned grey with frost, and were now crushed and transformed back into mud as those same tires rolled over them again.

As Double-J rolled to a stop, Rex looked over at Double-J. “We really appreciate what your dad did for us.”

“Your pilot light fixed?”

“Yup. Been a week and a half now, hasn’t gone out once.” Double-J nodded his approval.

“Be sure to thank him – ”

Double-J shook his head. “You’re going to have to do that yourself.”

Rex nodded, extracted his long limbs from the car, and with a final thanks for the ride and a wave, turned to walk up the stairs to his trailer, as Double-J slooshed his car through the mud, back onto the road.

Gray Metal Faces – November 13

Rex’s coach and teammates expected the tall teen’s reaction to fall anywhere within a wide range — excitement, curiosity, perhaps even an attempt at modest refusal. They had neither expected nor even conceived as possible the embarrassment that now showed over him like a rash. “I — I can’t think about this right now.” It was as if Rex wanted his consciousness to escape his body and find another host. “I need to — need to get ready for Francis.”

Which he most certainly did. An entire bottle of water for hydration, stretching, quick stop at the bathroom, more stretching, a few practice lunges without mask or weapon — Coach Dan was pleased to see his student’s face resume its look of relaxed focus in the moments before the first semi-final bout was called to begin.

As he helped Rex hook into his cord reel, Coach Dan offered some final advice. “Watch the disengage thrust, Francis loves to sucker people in, get them to over-commit on their lunges. Circular parry — ” Coach Dan rotated his arm counter-clockwise in front of him — “throw that in there, you need to mix it up with him, don’t let him get comfortable.” Rex nodded with silent confidence.

A quick check of equipment, and Rex stepped behind his starting line, raised his foil in line above the head of the opponent he both respected and wanted so badly to defeat, then brought his weapon down with a quick, audible swish. Francis Pine answered with a bow and a salute more subtle; donning their masks, they crouched into their fighting stances, and the referee called for their bout to begin.

Francis began more aggressively than was usual for him; caught temporarily off-guard, Rex was soon down two touches. When the bout resumed and Francis again pressed the attack, this time Rex caught Francis’ disengage attack with the circular parry that Coach Dan had recommended, his riposte landing squarely on Francis’ chest.

The referee called halt and Francis backed two steps, then pointed with his no-weapon hand towards Rex. “Nice touch.” Rex nodded back.

As their bout progressed, Francis’ superior point control became evident, Rex landing a touch to his opponent’s arms, mask, or other off-target area as often as his point landed on the target area, while Francis, although not striking as often, nearly always struck a scoring touch.

Rex’ twelfth score, off a counter-parry whose riposte caught Francis leaning forward, brought him within one, but Francis responded with a flurry of energy, scoring the final two touches, winning by three.

Francis greeted Rex with a broad smile as they shook hands after the bout. “I am not looking forward to facing you in epee, my friend,” Francis’ last two words nearly as surprising to Rex as the sincerity with which they were spoken.

Annie greeted Rex as he withdrew to the end of the strip to disconnect. “Any advice?”

Rex smiled. “You made the final?”

Annie nodded. “Beat Ed, 15 – 7.”

“Szurek?” Rex exclaimed. “Beat in the pools at State last year, 5 – 2. He only got seven against you?” His question answered with an enthusiastic nod.

“Francis Pine’s a different story, though. You haven’t faced him yet, have you?” Shake. “He’s so graceful, so fluid, you sometimes catch yourself watching him, admiring. Believe me, I’ve talked to other guys who’ve faced him, they say the same thing. Best advice I can give you is to fence your game – don’t get caught up in what he’s trying to do. Anybody who can whup Ed Szurek like you did doesn’t need to admire anyone, not even a Francis Pine.”

Gray Metal Faces – November 12

Whatever consternation Rex felt from his conversation with Butch disappeared as he parried JanHar’s first attack after the break, his riposte landing for a 7-3 lead. JanHar then found success attacking Rex’s low line, a common approach against his towering frame; he needed a few attempts to regain form on his seven and eight parries, but when the execution came he regained control of the bout. After a brief conversation at the second break with Coach Dan (whose recommendation to watch the end of Annie’s bout at her strip was eagerly received by Butch), Rex completed his bout early in the third period with a 15-11 victory.

After completing his handshake with JanHar at center strip, Rex took a step to his right, was greeted with a nod from his next opponent. He retreated back to his cord reel, Coach Dan addressing him as he unhooked.

“How many times have you faced Francis?” Rex held up two fingers. “Yes, I remember now. You got three touches your first bout with him, four the second. The trend is in your favor, my friend.”

“You’re gonna beat him this time.” Rune, standing to Coach Dan’s right, routinely sounded supremely confident when discussing his teammates’ abilities, far less so when the subject was his own. “I can feel it, the time has come!”

“Don’t believe in feeling things.” With ten minutes before his DE with Francis Pine, Rex walked back to the Bark Bay camp, his commanding voice towing Rune along with him. “I believe in doing things.”

“Hey.” Butch’s voice from behind caused everyone to stop. Rex looked down; the nervous anticipation on the round, clean-cut face made him uncomfortable. He clucked his tongue on the roof of his mouth, pointed to the far strip beyond Butch’s shoulder — “how’s Annie doing?”

“Oh!” Butch paused, his mind frantically recalling the information from the bout he’d just witnessed. “It’s over, she won already.”

“Indeed?” Coach Dan’s eyebrows raising, as if ready to fly off his forehead.

“Two of your THREE fencers, in the semis of MY scrimmage!” Coach Gavvy ran past Butch, her wide eyes grinning with the ferocity of a snarl. “Daniel, you’ve got some nerve, coming in here and showing up my team like this!”

Coach Dan shrugged, his bearded face serene. “Sorry we’re not pushovers anymore, Gavriella.”

“With Myles gone, I hadn’t expected such a strong showing from you!” She either did not notice or care for Rune’s frown, as she then pointed up at Rex. “Now, about that scholarship.”

Rex’s jaw fell, like he was allowing a doctor to shine a flashlight down his throat. “Scholarship?”

“Yes, the scholarship — Annie’s been asking about it.” She pointed with her thumb behind her, to where Annie and members of the Academy fencing team were talking with a referee. “Are you thinking just the prep year, or senior year as well? You’re a junior, right?”

Rex was obviously too surprised to respond. Coach Dan cleared his throat — “Rex, do you have any idea what she’s talking about.”

“The scholarship.” Rune’s voice distant, as he recalled the conversation earlier that day. “Annie — she wasn’t asking about herself — ”

“Oh hell no!” Coach Gavvy waving her arms in front of her face. “Believe me, I can’t convince Annie to step into the light! But this tall drink of water here — you qualify in epee at states in the spring, I’ll be glad to take you in!”

A brief discussion followed of Rex’s grades and the Academy’s admission standards, Coach Dan assuring both Coach Gavvy and Rex that the teen could qualify. Rune, Butch, and The Bird (returning from the bathroom in mid-discussion) observed the conversation in silence, until Coach Gavvy abruptly left.

“Are you SERIOUS?” Rune’s eyes shifted quickly between Rex and Coach Dan, making it difficult to determine who he was addressing. “He — you just can’t LEAVE us, to go to the Academy?”

“Why not?” Coach Dan spoke in a matter-of-fact manner. “People leave the team all the time — all those seniors graduated last spring, others like Juan and OK decide not t0 come back on their own.” He looked up at Rex. “It’s a great opportunity, my friend — tell me you will consider it, yes?”

Gray Metal Faces – November 11

Annie’s match with JENSEN ended shortly into the second period, the Bark Bay sophomore scoring the last three touches to win 15-5. Rex’s next DE had begun on the other strip, and when he came down for the first break he had built a 6-3 lead on JanHar.

“Finally finding my tempo.”  His face tired but content.

“Your first competition in almost six months.” Coach Dan pulled up on his track pants. “It’s why I wanted you all at this scrimmage today, give you a taste of action before the season starts.” An air of unapologetic satisfaction in his voice.

The tall teen then coughed violently, several times, his long body folding at the waist, head bobbing inches off the floor. The closest person to him, Butch, put a hand on his back — “You OK?”

Rex waited a moment, let his cough leave like a dark cloud passing over the horizon. He then raised his torso like a drawbridge, his arm brushing aside Butch’s hand. “I’ll be OK. Just get a little out of breath some time.”

“Your face.” Butch pointing up at Rex. “It’s all — red.” Rex picked up the mask he had laid on the floor when his coughing spasm had struck, placed it on top of his head, acknowledging Butch’s comment with a nod. Butch laughed — “you almost look like an Indian!”

Rex’s face snapped in Butch’s direction, his mask flinging off his head, landing on the green rubber floor of the field house, pum-paah. Butch blinked as the glare of rage fell down on him.

Coach Dan stepped between the teens, pointed toward the referee, whose back was turned in discussion with Coach Gavvy. “Bout’s resuming, my friend. Get your focus back.”

Rex frowned, picked up his mask, suddenly acting as if Coach Dan and Butch were not there. “I’m — ” Butch’s attempted apology intercepted by his coach’s hand signal.

“I’ve got this, coach.” Rune’s calm voice a relief. He and Butch walked away as Coach Dan remained standing next to the strip, his attention on the action about to resume. The two teens had almost reached the other strip before Rune stopped them.

“What did I say?” Butch’s tone apologetic yet insistent.

Rune put a hand on the shoulder of his best friend since grade school. “Rex has Native American ancestry. On his father’s side — a few generations away, but some people say they can see it in his features, especially the face.”

“Oh!” Butch bit his lower lip. “So, why’s that so bad?”

Rune lowered his hand, shook his head. “It’s — I dunno, it’s complicated, Rex and his family. His dad ran off when he was a kid, and he’s pretty upset about that. Any time someone tells him his features look native, it reminds him of his dad, and that upsets him.”

“Oh! But what I said, I wasn’t saying — ”

“It’s best if you just drop it.” Rune scissored his hands closed, then open. “Say you’re sorry if you want, and leave it like that. Believe me, he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Butch stared at his friend’s face a moment. “You’ve — seen people call him that — name, haven’t you?”

Rune sighed. “I know you don’t like the language, but there’s only one way to say this — there’s some real assholes in the world, Butch, and unfortunately we met more than our fair share at fencing tournaments last year.”

Gray Metal Faces – November 10

Rex and The Bird walked over to Annie’s strip, where Butch and Rune were watching their Bark Bay teammate dominate her first DE against her Academy opponent, JENSEN. Annie’s brown pony-tail flitting from the back of her mask as she launched each attack, the score 8-2 in her favor at the first break.

Rex had faced JENSEN in the pools, beating her by a single touch. Annie’s performance so far today was astonishing. “You’re really on fire today,” the deep tones of his voice underscoring his analysis.

“Thanks.” Annie tapped Butch, the closest person to her, on the shoulder. “Next year, this is you.”

“Oh!” Butch looked nervously between Rune and Annie. “Actually, I don’t think I want to compete.”

“What?” Annie glared back at him in disbelief. “Competing is really fun, why don’t you want your share?”

“I have fun when I practice.” His voice uncharacteristically calm, analytical. “That’s good enough for me.”

“But how do you know how good you are, unless you compete?” She was leaning forward, her head tilted, eyes bearing down on Butch’s round face. “It’s like taking tests in school, they prove that you know all that knowledge you’ve been studying.”

“Annie,” Rex allowing himself a moment of sarcasm, “you might be the only person I know who enjoys taking a test.”

The athletic teen frowned as her teammates shared a laugh at her expense. She picked up the mask she had laid on the floor during the break. “You guys do whatever it is you want. But if you’ll excuse me — ” she nodded in the direction of JENSEN as she raised the mask to her face — “I have a job to do.”

And she did her job quite well, scoring two more quick touches when the bout resumed, then exchanging a few more touches with JENSEN before finishing strong, reaching her fifteenth touch against six before the end of the second period. The Bird greeted her as she unhooked, said she looked very happy.

“Of course I am!” She waved a slender arm back at the strip behind her. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than fencing, nothing. When I fence, every muscle, every cell, every part of my body feels alive.” She nodded at The Bird. “And I want to share that feeling with you. When you start fencing — ” The Bird had yet to even pick up a weapon at practice — “I don’t want you to be like the boys on the team, all worried about wins and losses, all that crap they learned from playing football. I want you to compete, like I do, feel that fire of life within you.” With the bck of her left hand, she slapped The Bird on the chest. “Think you can do that?”

The Bird was too surprised by Annie’s challenge to respond immediately. But then she said she wasn’t sure if she could feel in the same way Annie did.

Gray Metal Faces – November 9

After some final advice from Coach Dan (keep your elbow in), Rex (gotta extend before you lunge, man), Annie (watch your footwork, you’re turning your front foot in when you advance, it’s throwing off your balance), Butch (I saw his match against Annie, just stay aggressive and you’ll have a good chance), and The Bird (don’t forget to breathe), Rune hooked in for what he was certain would be his elimination bout.

The bout was as predictable as it was short, Rune lunging wildly and Jamie calmly parrying, riposting, scoring. Standing at the end of the strip, Rex at first tried to change Rune’s focus, suggested different strategies for his friend to pursue, but when the scroe reached 8-1  (Rune finally scoring on a remise after a missed riposte from Jamie) it was clear that the sophomore from Bark Bay had stopped listening, was attuned only to his building rage and frustration, had surrendered any hope of winning or even scoring as many touches as he could. Rune was rushing to end the bout as soon as possible, and when that conclusion finally arrived with a 15-2 loss that did not extend beyond the first three-minute period, Rune’s disappointment was only exceeded by his relief.

Rex had been called to start his first DE before the end of Rune’s bout, so he left the job of unhooking and debriefing Rune to Coach Dan.  His opponent (Rex heard him being called Ski) was another freshman at the Academy; Rex noted that aside from Francis and Jane and a few others, the upperclass Academy fencers were absent from today’s scrimmage.

Almost immediately after the start of their bout, Rex realized that Ski’s freshman status was highly deceiving; this muscular young male with long curtains of brown curly hair combined prep school energy with the blade skill of a collegiate competitor. Rex soon found himself down 3-0, and as his attacks continued to be parried or land outside Ski’s target area, the tall teen from Bark Bay wondered how he would be able to dispatch this surprising foe.

“Halt.” The command from the referee came unexpectedly, Rex needing a breath’s moment to realize they had reached the end of the first three-minute period, the score 6-2. Waiting for him at the end of the strip was Coach Dan, extending a water bottle in his right hand, the older man’s face filled with friendly concern.

“You look frustrated, my friend.”

Mask resting on top of his head, Rex took the bottle from his coach and drank swiftly, a trickle of water spilling from the corner of his mouth and mixing with his sweat. He lowered the bottle, then used it to catch his mask as it began to slip down his slick forehead. “He’s good. Fast, mad blade skills.”

“But only one victory in the pools.” The placid look on Coach Dan’s face made it apparent he had nothing more to add, that the only coaching he was going to provide at this moment would be to insist that his student discover the answers that lay before him.

Rex replayed the last few touches in his mind. “Distance — ” the word came to him the second before he spoke — “he’s not lunging. Using his speed to cut the distance, then use his blade skill to thrust.”

Coach Dan tilted his head, asking a silent question — counter?

“I’m taller than he is.”

“I’ve noticed that about you.” Coach Dan looked up, blinked.

Rex drank again from the bottle, handed it back to his coach. “Control the tempo, get longer in my attacks.” Without waiting for confirmation, he pulled the mask down onto his face, pivoted back to his starting line. By the end of the second period, Rex had tied the score at 9 and sought nothing but water from his coach during the break. After the final three minutes of fencing time, the bout ended with a 14-12 victory for Rex.

Coach Dan was no longer at the end of his strip, having gone to the other strip for Annie’s first DE. The Bird was the lone teammate he saw as he unhooked. She told him that he must be happy.

“No time for that.” He pointed to the water bottle in her hand, asked if he could have a drink; she apologize, explained she had been told to give this to him. She reached up with the bottle, Rex noticing her head barely came up to his chest. He drank, shook his head.

“I’m never happy when I’m fencing.” He drank again. “But then again, I’m not unhappy, neither. I just — just a fencer, is what I is. Minute I put on that mask, it’s like I’m in this whole other world, totally different than any place else I know. Don’t think about nothing else, don’t really know where I am, it’s almost like I don’t even know who I am no more. I just feel so — ” he looked up at the ceiling, lowered his head to drink again from the bottle, swallowed — “actually, I don’t feel anything, other than the weapon in my hand. It’s like I feel nothing, but that feeling fills my entire body. That make any sense?”

The Bird replied that what he said made no kind of logical sense at all. Yet sounded perfectly right to her.

Gray Metal Faces – November 8

After witnessing the farcical melodrama between Rune and Annie, Rex entered his next pool bout with a sense of relief. A 5-4 victory (holding a six-parry and attacking in opposition for the final touch) was followed by 5-3 loss, a number of frustrating off-target hits throwing off his concentration. Finished with his pool, Rex signed the referee’s scoresheet, then returned to the Bark Bay camp within the field house.

Coach Dan was seated cross-legged on the floor, his hands orchestrating his tale of Annie’s final bout.  Rex saw Annie and Rune in conversation on the far end of the designated fencing area, deliberately apart from everyone else; he saw no sign of Double-J, then remembered his friend had departed soon after unloading the team’s equipment, declaring his intent to return only in time for the start of sabre at 2.

“Rex, my friend — ” Coach Dan’s voice rising from his bearded face — “how’d it go?” Coach Dan had excused himself for long conversations with Coach Gavvy, and had therefore spent little time watching either strip.

“3-2.” The tall teen frowned. “Almost 2-3. Felt rusty out there.”  On glancing down at the floor, he noticed his new shoes, the ones Coach Dan had given him. “But these — ” sticking his right foot forward like he was about to do the Hokey-Pokey — “they fit great!”

“Continue to use them well, is all I ask.” Coach Dan looked over at Butch and The Bird. “I was just reviewing with our new friends here what they’ve learned today.”

“Oh!” Butch wiped his ample brow. “Well, I can see how important it is to keep your balance. I was watching Rune fence most the time, and I seen when he leaned forward too much, or started backing up too fast, he’d get hit.”

“Excellent!” Coach Dan pointed to The Bird. “And you, Kassie — ” he hadn’t become familiar with her team name yet — “what have you seen today?”

The Bird said she had seen a lot of things today, but did not know yet what words to use for them. Coach Dan was about to elicit more from her when YES! Annie’s excited yell echoed from the far end of the field house’s fencing area. Coach Dan peered over to where Annie, Rune, and the Academy fencers had gathered in front of a moveable bulletin board, on which was posted a large sheet of paper.

“Must have posted the results from the pools.” Coach Dan pointed his chin at Rex. “Go show Butch and — The Bird, right?” She nodded in response, the hint of satisfaction on her face — “go show them.”

The group of fencers had mostly dispersed by the time Rex arrived with his two teammates. Rex searched for his name, saw he was seeded seventh, which sounded right to him based on how well (or not, in his estimation) he had competed.  He also found his teammates’ results, discovering why Annie had screamed and feeling relief that Rune had not finished last.

“Oh!” Rex looked down, saw a shared look of bewilderment on his friends’ faces as they scanned the results:

1 Hutchinson 5 25 12 +13
2 Pine 5 25 14 +11
3 Harris 4 23 10 +12
4 Szurek 3 18 12 +6
5 Williams 3 19 16 +3
6 Yoder 3 20 18 +2
7 Ankiel 3 19 17 +2
8 Jensen 2 19 21 -2
9 Pulaski 1 17 20 -3
10 Owen 1 13 22 -9
11 Banks 0 8 25  -17
12 Mohaptra 0 7 25 -18

It was Rex’s turn, he realized, to be the instructor.  “This shows the results of the pool bouts. Since we had two pools, not everyone fenced each other, so you have to go by the number of victories each fencer had, and how many times they scored or got hit.”

He pointed to the number to the right of his last name. “The three, that’s how many bouts I won in my pool. The next — ” his index finger landing on the number 19 — “is  how many touches I scored in all my pool bouts, and the one after that — ” finger sliding across the page to the 17 — “is how many touches were scored on me.” Totally too many, he wanted to add. “That last number, that’s what’s called the indicator. It’s how many touches you scored, minus the touches scored on you. So I’m a plus two.” And none too happy about that.

The Bird asked what the numbers on the left meant; Rex thought it was obvious, but retained his politely pedantic tone. “That’s your seeding, out of the pools. Annie won all five of her bouts, and had a better indicator than Francis, who also won all five of his in the other pool, so she gets seeded ahead of him.”

“But Harris — ” Butch pointed up at the +12 to the far right of her name — “had a better indicator than Pine.”

Rex shook his head, pointed to the four next to Harris’ name. “You go by wins first. Indicator only matters when the number of wins is the same. Usually the people with more wins have better indicators too, but that’s not always the case.”

The Bird asked why Yoder was seeded higher than Rex, since their wins and indicators were the same. “Next tiebreaker is touches scored. He had one more than me, so he’s sixth, I’m seventh.”

The Bird said she didn’t understand something; how, she wondered, could Annie win the tournament, if she didn’t fence Francis.

“Because I haven’t won anything yet.” Annie’s voice, sharper than usual, came up from behind and commanded everyone to turn in her direction. “Those are just the pool results. Now it’s time for the DEs.”

Rex saw Butch’s blank stare. “Direct elimination.”

“Instead of five touches, we go to fifteen.” Annie was clearly enjoying having everyone’s attention; behind her, Rune stood pensive and silent. “Instead of three minutes of fencing time, there’s three three-minute periods.” She walked up to the results, pointed to Rex’s name. “You’re not in the top four, so you’ve got a play-in bout with Owen. Leslie — ” she looked around quickly, made sure no Academy fencers were nearby — “no problem there. Rune, you’ve got Jamie — I beat him 5-3, how’d you do against him Rex?”

“Lost, 5-2.” Rex wished he had paid more attention to Annie’s bouts, observed what she had done to have so much success in the pools.

“Really?” She backed away from the bulletin board until she caught Rune’s gaze again. “With Jamie, it’s all about tempo. Get him moving his feet, he’ll open himself up if you can just be patient.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Got it?”

Rune nodded wordlessly. And for some reason, Rex felt inspired to speak.

“Did I tell you what I heard Coach Pat say at States last year?” Fencing coach at Midland High, a volunteer like Coach Dan. Rune shook his head. “I was sitting by myself, waiting for my next bout, and this guy from Midland, can’t his name, but he walked past me real quick and he’s swearing up a storm, then all of a sudden I hear this loud ‘HEY’, and he turns and then I see it’s Coach Pat, running to catch up with this guy.

“Coach Pat faces the guy, puts an arm on his shoulder – I don’t know if he didn’t see me, or saw me and didn’t care – and he says, lemme tell you something about fencing, about sports in general. They’ll keep you young at heart, they tap into that youthful energy we all have, but learn to suppress when we get to be adults. Even if we’re just spectators, sports let us be kids again. But – and there’s a big but here – that only works if you can take the good with the bad. If you only enjoy sports when you win, or your favorite team wins, if loses devastate you, then you’ll grow into a spiteful, mean-spirited person, an old man before his time.

“Now sure, this was Coach Pat talking, but he made a lot of sense to me. We fence to win, and nobody should be happy with a loss. But not being happy is not the same as being miserable.”

Rex pointed with his chin at Rune. “You’re not looking forward to this DE, are you?” Rune shook his head. “Tell you what. This bout with Jamie, think about something you want to improve on. Don’t worry about the score, just focus on that one thing. Next week, in practice, you and I’ll work on that one thing. However much you want, ’till you get the hang of it. And when you’ve got, and can use it to defend yourself in a bout, you’re gonna feel happy again – like a kid.

“I’m making you a promise, right now, to work one-on-one with you in practice, on whatever you want. Deal?” Rex extended his hand towards Rune.

Rune looked up at him, as was the rest of the team. Standingslightly behind Rune, Annie smiled at Rex, gave him a thumbs up.

Rune smiled weakly, slouched forward, took Rex’s, shook. “Deal.”

Gray Metal Faces – November 7

Rex’s next bout, against a freshman Academy fencer with more enthusiasm than experience, ended with a 5-2 victory for the Bark Bay junior. Annie helped him unhook; Coach Dan joined them as Rex leaned down and released his cord, letting it retract into the reel.

“You two have a break this next bout.” Their middle-aged volunteer coach pointed his thumb past his right shoulder. “Let’s check on Rune.”

A few steps ahead of the others, Annie was stopped by one of the last statements she would have expected from her coach. “This is when having Myles really came in handy.”

Myles?” The look on Annie’s face showed the memory of his brief, eventful return to practice last month bothered her greatly.

But her coach was clearly focusing on a memory from an earlier, more pleasant time, as he walked with Annie and Rex to Rune’s strip. “Myles was a leader, especially when the team was struggling. Always knew what to say to inspire, to motivate. He’d know what to say to Rune. I’ll talk to him, but I know back from my competition days, you take things differently from a teammate, a colleague, than you do a coach, an authority figure.” Rex felt his coach’s eyes focus on him. “You know what I mean?”

Rex nodded, as the three came upon Butch, standing outside of Rune’s strip. “Oh!” Butch pointed to his right. “Rune just hooked in, he’s about to start.” They watched the two fencers in front of them lunge at each other, colored lights on the scoring machine indicating a valid touch. The referee halted the action, declared that Rune had attacked first and had right of way, giving the point to Rune, who pumped his fist.

Rune continued to have success, scoring a second touch, a third. Rex heard his name called by the referee from his strip, turned and left with a nod towards Rune.

Jamie, the Academy fencer that Rex now faced, had been his opponent in foil at States last spring. He had escaped with a two-point victory back then (his last at States), but it soon became clear that Jamie had been practicing, and improving. Jamie persistently pressed the attack, and before Rex could figure out an effective counter strategy he had lost the bout, 5 – 2.

Rex returned to the other strip, but did not see Rune there. Or his coach, or any of his teammates. He looked around quickly, saw Rune sitting with Annie, Butch and The Bird, in the courtside area where the team had dropped their equipment.

“How’d that bout end up?” Rex said as he approached them. Rune looked up at him, while the rest of the team looked away.

“Lost, 5 – 3.” Rune looked down.

Rex blinked. Five straight. Holy crap. What would Myles say about this?

“He figured out I couldn’t defend a double-disengage.”

Rex cleared his throat. “It happens.” Pause. “Did you learn anything from the bout?”

Rune shrugged his shoulders.

Rex stared at him, then took a quick look at the others, sensed they had already had this conversation with Rune and were worn out from the effort of building his confidence, like a child frustrated at not being able to build a sand castle. Rex looked around for Coach Dan, when his desperation was suddenly relieved by an unlikely appearance.

“Hey there!” Rex glanced down at the legs of the Academy gal who had walked into their circle; seeing the name HARRIS, he recalled Jane’s first name. She beamed her smile down at Rune. “Rune, whom do you have next?”

“I dunno.” Rune’s indifference reverberated within the small circle of teens.

“Well let’s go find out!” And before any of the Bark Bay team members realized what Jane was doing, she had reached down and pulled Rune up by his arm, started walking him over to their referee, her grinning face radiating warmth.

Annie stood to return to her strip, called for Rune to check in with Coach Dan when he returned. Jane seemed amused — “Since when did you become assistant coach at Bark Bay, Annie?”

Annie shrugged. “Just looking out for my teammate, is all.” Feeling a need to reassure Annie, Rex joined Rune and Jane as they approached their referee.

Jane scanned the score sheet, identified Rune’s next opponent. She grasped his bicep with her hands. “You’re up against Tim next.” Tim Mzurek, senior Academy fencer. Rex was certain his teammate was looking at another shutout loss, and he saw in his friend’s face a similar grim assurance.

“Hey, do you know Ellie Fredrichs?” It appeared to Rex that Jane enjoyed her evident mastery of the unexpected.

“Yeah. Well, no, not really, I just know the name, from school.”

“Yes, she goes to Bark Bay. I’m her cousin, you know. Every few weeks our families get together for the weekend. Sometimes her family visits us, sometimes we go to her house.”

“How nice.” Rune suddenly seemed to recognize she was squeezing his right bicep.

“I’m spending the night there next Friday and Saturday. Do you know the Pizza Place?”

“Yeah.” Everybody in Bark Bay knew the Pizza Place. Hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had been in the town’s first strip mall, never moved after all of its neighbor businesses had relocated or folded. The food was mediocre but cheap, the beer cheaper. Ownership changed every few years; everybody in Bark Bay seemed to be related to someone who’s owned the Pizza Place at some point.

Rex wondered if Rune realized how odd it was for an Academy student, and one of the best fencers in the state, to be asking about the Pizza Place.

“Want to meet us there next Saturday?” Rex’s jaw dropped, but Rune seemed barely to register her question, as he began looking around desperately, his face relaxing upon seeing Annie suddenly return.

“Scoring machine’s messed up, they have to swap it — ” her explanation stopped upon seeing Jane’s hand on Rune’s bicep — “what’s going on?”

Rune coughs. “You know the Pizza Place, right?” Annie nods and shrugs. “We’ve been invited to go there Saturday night.” He pointed to Jane, and in his desperate look and quick nod in her direction Rex realized that Rune didn’t know her name.

Jane glared at him, confused. “We?

“Ahhh . . . yeah, thought we should all go. I dunno, get the Academy and Bark Bay fencing teams together, have some fun.”

Annie looked at Rune with even more confusion than did Jane. “Why would the Academy go all the way to Bark Bay for pizza?”

“But — ” Rune looked desperate for some way out of this conversation ” — your cousin — ”

“She lives in Bark Bay, she’s never been to the Academy.”

“Right.” Rune swallowed. “Well — I think she likes pizza — ”

Annie starts waving her hands in front of her face, her ponytail wagging back and forth behind her head. “I’m outta here.” She turned, walked away.

Jane suddenly released her grasp on Rune’s bicep. “Mind telling me what that was all about?”

Rune stared at her blankly, and before Rex could step in and bail out his friend — “JANE!” Coach Gavvy’s voice rang above the murmur of noises in the field house. Jane turned her head in the direction of her coach’s voice, responded with a promise to be with her in a moment. Rune’s face relaxed.

Jane turned back to Rune before leaving. “Just think about it.”

“What?”

Her smile dropped under the weight of her impatience. “Saturday? Pizza Place?”

“Oh. Yeah. Maybe. How about I — call you?”

Jane’s smile returns, but its former brilliance and warmth are absent. She folds her arms in front of her and leans back on her right leg, her lips squirming into a sarcastic grin.

Rex leaned down towards Rune. “Might want to ask what her phone number is.”

“Oh. Yeah, what’s — ” Jane cut him off, handing me a small piece of paper. The student equivalent of a business card, with her name, number, address, even the Academy shield on it. Rex wondered if the Academy fencers had secretaries too.

Rune looked up, began to thank Jane, but the girl in front of him wasn’t Jane; she was already gone, running off to where Coach Gavvy was waiting for her. The girl in front of Rune was Annie.

“Well?” Annie’s hands were folded across her chest.

“Well — what?”

“You going?”

Rune looked down at the small rectangular of stiff card stock in his hands. “Saturday. Huh. I dunno what I’m doing Saturday.”

Annie stamps her right foot on the green rubber mat of the field house floor. “Jesus Christ on a crutch, Rune.” Annie only swore when she was agitated. “Don’t you — ” And then she froze, her body becoming rigid and her face sticking in a wide-eyed glare, directly at Rune. Rex had never seen her like this before, never seen her not seem in complete control. She was a Hutchinson after all, from the wealthiest and most influential family in Bark Bay for generations, her father was likely going to be the town’s next state senator. Being in control is what the Hutchinsons had always been about. But she didn’t look like a Hutchinson now — she appeared dumbfounded, vulnerable, she looked . . . Rex wondered if Rune realized how beautiful she looked at that moment.

“Right.” She shook her had, regained her composure. “You don’t know what you’re doing Saturday.”

“Yeah, well I — ”

“Have to check with your parents, yes?”

Rune shrugged. “Yeah.”

Annie smiled. “Well, if you decide not to go to the Pizza Place with Jane, let me know, OK?”

“Sure.” Rune laughed, his face brightening suddently with hyperbolic enthusiasm. “Maybe I could call you!”

“That would be nice.” Annie pursed her lips, as Rune held up Jane’s business card. “And you don’t have to give me one of these things, because I already know your number!”

“I know.” Annie turned away slowly, and as she caught Rex’s eye on her way back to her strip, threw him a playful wink.

Gray Metal Faces – November 6

“Got the pools.” Coach Dan gathered the team around him, two sheets of paper in his hand. “Two strips today. Rex, Annie — ” he pointed off to his right –- “far strip. Rune, congrats –- you get Francis Pine in your pool.”

Rune’s reaction ejaculated from his mouth, as he flung his arms dramatically, wide and over his shoulders. “Oh God, not Frankenstein!” And as if on cue, the angular form of the Academy’s top fencer entered the team’s circle. A horrified look of embarrassment erupted on Rune’s face, although his placid countenance indicated he either had not heard Rune, or had chosen not to acknowledge him. His pencil-thin right index finger pointed at Annie — “Your brother goes to the Academy, doesn’t he?”

“Yes. Sierra.”

“Yes, I’ve met Si, good man. I’m surprised you don’t go to the Academy as well. Dual tuition too much even for the Hutchinson family?”

Rex’s eyes reflexively sought Rune’s face, saw the look of suspicion appear again, as Annie laughed. “No. Hutchinson women don’t go to the Academy. Only the males.”

“How — odd.” Francis’ expression was equally odd. “That must bother you.”

Annie smiled, shaking her head. “There’s no place I’d rather be. I grew up in Bark Bay, developed a lot of friendships that I don’t want to abandon. The school’s got a good reputation, I’m in the honors track, they say I’ll wind up in a good college. Me, I’m good.”

Francis nodded, looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned his head. “I’ll let Si know how happy you are next time I see him.”

Annie’s reply was dismissive. “I can tell him myself.”

“Bouts start in five minutes.” Coach Dan walked over to the canvas equipment bags. Rex joined him, stepped into his jacket, which Coach Dan zippered in the back. He then turned Rex around to face him.

“Size 10, right?” Coach Dan smiled with hidden knowledge.

Rex looked confused, until Coach Dan looked down at his feet. “Shoes -– yes, 10.”

“Then I have something for you.” Coach Dan returned to the equipment sacks, reached down for a duffel that Rex didn’t recognize. He opened the zipper, retrieved a short rectangular box. Standing, he offered the box to Rex.

“Found these when rummaging around in my closet the other day. They’re from my college days, never been worn. Bought them after my injury, when I still thought I could come all the way back. I bought these to inspire myself, said I wasn’t going to wear them until I won my next tournament, proved that I was worthy of wearing them. Well, that victory never came, and since I’d lost the receipt I couldn’t return them. Been carrying them around ever since, with the vague idea that they would come in handy some day. Well, today’s finally that day.”

Rex opened the box, immediately recognized the contents. Fencing shoes, similar to traditional indoor court shoes, but with additional padding in the toe area (important especially in epee, where every body part was a valid target and toes were often an inviting area of attack), and soles that were particularly skid resistant, providing extra stability for lunging and landing.

Rex looked at the shoes, feeling embarassed at the reaction that was welling up in him, the instinct to reject charity, to show his self-sufficiency. He knew Coach Dan would expect that reaction, would have a response at the ready. Rex could block this offering, but his attempt to riposte the gift back would be deftly counter-parried, and he knew that there would be no blocking his coach’s second intention.

Rex was embarassed to look up at Coach Dan. He looked to his right instead, and saw Annie, who smiled, and nodded in the direction of the box.

He had to try. “How much do I owe you?”

“Miles was a size 9,” Coach Dan explained dismissively. “He’d have been flopping around like a clown in these. No, you’re the only fencer I’ve had with the same shoe size as me, so face it – these are yours now.”

A white-haired man in the center of the court called for attention, and announced the first bouts were beginning. Coach Dan patted Rex on the shoulder, told him to relax — “checked the sheet, you’re up third.” Rex took off his running shoes with all the eagerness of a hospital patient undressing to put on a surgical gown.

Coach Dan handed Rune, Annie and Rex each a length of rubber-coated wire with plugs at either end. The fencers worked the wire through the inside of their jacket’s right arm until the end with a single-pronged plug emerged from their sleeves. They then worked the wire through to their backs, where the other end, which contained a plug with three prongs, emerged from the bottom of their jackets.

Butch walked behind Rune as the latter went to the end of his assigned fencing strip. Butch offered his assistance, and Rune responded by pointing to the clip protruding from the flat rectangular box on the floor at the end of the strip. Butch picked up the clip, which was attached to a rubber-coated wire that was coiled inside the box. Rune took this end of the wire from Butch, and hooked it to the three-pronged plug at the end of the wire which dangled from the back of his jacket.

Rune took the forward end of his wire and inserted its single-pronged plug into his foil, just under the hilt. The circuit was now complete, running from the tip of Rune’s foil through the wires inside his foil, connecting to the wire which ran from the hilt of the foil through his right arm down though to the end of his jacket, connecting there to the coiled wire running from the rectangular box at the end of the strip, which was in turn connected to the scoring device at the center of the strip.

The device had four lights, two for each fencer’s side, one white and another colored. When a fencer landed a scoring hit, his colored light would illuminate; the white lights illuminated for off-target hits.

Rex helped Butch with Rune’s connections, then Rune walked to the center of the strip. He held his foil straight up, hilt at waist level, and the referee placed a short cylindrical object on it.  Seeing Butch’s questioning face, Rex explained. “It’s a weight, to make sure his foil can register a hit.” The white light on Rune’s side illuminated, and the judge removed the weight and walked over to Francis Pine to perform the same test.

“You ready?” A weak smile was the only response Rune could muster to Rex’s question. “Francis is pretty aggressive, likes to take the initiative. Parry/riposte should score you some touches.”

“Right.” Rune nodded with no enthusiasm. “Just like in practice.”

The referee called the two fencers to attention. Rune and Francis stood near the center of the strip, toes of their front feet inches behind lines of masking tape that designated their starting positions. The referee called for a salute, and Rune, mask tucked like a football under his left arm, brought his foil up to his face until the hilt was nearly touching his lips. A quick flick from his elbow indicated his salute to Francis, followed by another salute to the referee. Francis’ salute was more dramatic, a whoosh of his foil in front of his body, followed by a bow, first towards Rune and then the referee.

Rune and Francis then put on their masks, and crouched down into en garde position, foils pointed directly at each other. The referee glanced at each fencer quickly, then softly but firmly commanded — fence.

Had Rex been asked for his honest opinion, he would have confidently said Francis would win handily, that Rune would do well to score twice in this five-touch pool bout. Seconds into the bout, before the referee had fully brought his hands down from calling the start, Francis stepped forward once and leapt into a lunge, the point of his foil landing squarely on Rune’s chest, the colored light on the scoring device illuminating. Francis immediately lunged again when the bout resumed, yet this time swung his foil deftly under Rune’s attempted parry, his disengage scoring with as much authority as his first attack.

The referee called the fencers back to their starting positions, and when the bout resumed Rune reflexively stepped back, only to realize that Francis had not moved. Rune advanced towards him slowly, Francis still unmoving. A lunge from Rune was immediately parried, Francis’ forearm flinching with just enough force to deflect Rune’s foil, followed by a quick, elegant, almost gentle riposte. Francis’ feet never moved for this third hit.

Rune returned to his starting position, and when the bout resumed Francis again remained still. Rune swore softly, then advanced a step – his motion immediately met with a lunge from Francis, scoring a touch before Rune even moved to parry.

Four to zero. Francis again kept his feet silent when the bout resumed, yet this time pointed his foil down, the tip nearly touching the floor. Rune froze, stood thinking a moment, then advanced two steps, Francis maintaining his open, inviting stance. Rune stood in front of him another moment, clearly unsure what to do, and when he realized Francis was forcing him to make the first move, he lunged with an attack, not truly believing he would be successful but no longer comfortable waiting for what seemed the inevitable.

Francis parried – but instead of riposting, ending the bout, he retreated two steps, and again pointed his foil down. Rune advanced, lunged again, was met with another parry with no riposte – Rune disengaged, his entire arm swooping in a broad semi-circle that fully announced his intention – lunge, parry, another retreat from Francis, again the open stance, foil pointed to the floor.

Now breathing heavily, Rune stopped and looked squarely at his opponent. He saw the shadow of a broad smile behind Franci’s opaque grey mask, then saw him silently speak, with exaggerated mouth movements, Frank – en – stein.

Rune grunted and lunged. Francis parried, advanced forward, forcing Rune to retreat, Francis advanced forward again, Rune retreated, another advance from Francis and finally, when Rune seemed ready to turn and run away, Francis lunged, scoring a hit, Rune not even bothering to attempt a parry.

Total bout time, between the referee’s calls to fence and halt, was less than 30 seconds. Francis had disposed of Rune with minimal effort, like a man sweeping the dirt from the floor of his garage.

Francis turned, walked quickly back to his starting line, turned briskly on his heel and raised his foil to his chin, saluting Rune with a forward swoosh of his foil, his face expressionless, favoring neither a smile nor frown all the way through their concluding handshake.

Rex greeted Rune as he unhooked from the cord reel. “Better luck next time.” Rune, removing his connection with the swift desperation of a man escaping a swarm of enraged hornets, shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about.”

Rex heard his name called, saw Coach Dan approaching with The Bird and Annie, whose face beamed a contagious smile. “Off to a good start,” Coach Dan slapping Annie on the back, “5-2, against Han no less. Rune — ” his bearded chin raising in Rune’s direction — “how’d it go with Mr. Pine?”

Rune shook his head, without looking at anyone, his muttered lost barely audible.

“How many touches did you get?” Rune turned away without answering Annie’s question.

The team’s focus shifted to Rex’s first bout, a 5-2 victory. Coach Dan counseled Annie before her second bout, against a tall Academy fencer. “Bruce is an epee guy, he let his foil game slip last year. He doesn’t like infighting.” Annie nodded, walked over to her starting position.

Bruce, several inches taller than Annie, used his advantage in height and arm length to score the first two touches. He then over-reached with a lunge, the tip of his foil sailing past Annie’s head; she deflected his blade out of her path, and finding he had landed too close for her to effectively lunge, jabbed at his chest, the tip of her weapon landing squarely on his chest. Coach Dan clapped loudly, “there you go.”

They returned to their starting positions, and when the bout resumed Annie advanced quickly on her opponent, who retreated a step only to see Annie continuing to advance. After scoring a second hit, Annie continued her strategy of coming in close throughout the bout. Yet this was not the first time Bruce had seen this tactic employed against him, so the bout turned into a dance, Annie coming in close, Bruce keeping his distance.

Years of dance and gymnastics paid off for Annie, who never lost her balance as Bruce struggled to maintain his composure. The bout was close, Bruce nearly winning when he landed a touch on Annie’s right arm just below the shoulder, less than an inch from being on target, but Annie prevailed, 5-4.

“Nice work,” Coach Dan’s voice pleased as he assisted Annie in getting disconnected. “Bruce is the top rated fencer in your group. That was a great win.”