Gray Metal Faces – November 5

The door opens, through which walks a tall cool lad with the face of a student but the swagger of a confident adult, dragging a rolling duffel bag behind him which catches the door as he walks in. The newer members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team didn’t recognize him, but there was something about him — maybe the way he walked, every movement so fluid, or his demeanor, the way he barely noticed the door catching the rolling duffel, not even looking back but just jerking his arm forward a moment until the duffel cleared, then kept moving forward as if he was not pulling the bag but rather leading it, like a dog on a leash — that gave the impression they were supposed to know who he was.

“Over here, Francis.” The lad nods briskly at Coach Gavvy, continues without pausing in the direction his coach had indicated. Francis — yes, Francis Pine, last year’s captain of the Academy’s fencing team. He walked past Butch and I like they weren’t there; seeing Annie, he nodded in her direction, then nods in Rex’s direction as well. Rex remembered how Annie had eliminated two Academy fencers at the final tournament in the spring, had Francis tied at 12 too before he rallied to win the last three touches. He wondered if Francis knew they called him Frankenstein behind his back; even Coach Dan did it once.

Francis stopped walking, set the rolling duffel on the floor in the area his coach had pointed to. Unzipping the duffel, he started sorting through the white fencing jackets inside. All Academy fencers, Rex knew, had their own jacket, with zippers in the front (left side for righties and right side for lefties) and the Academy’s insignia on the sleeve, weapon side. Bark Bay’s jackets were all back-zippers, easily shared between righties and lefties but always requiring assistance; most were in pretty good shape, but would smell of stale perspiration if not washed every week, and always looked dirty even after being washed.

Francis removed his long jacket, revealing his white fencing knickers. Cut just below the knee, they were held up by a pair of thin white suspenders that extended from his waist past the front of his blue t-shirt, then over the shoulders and back down. On the outside of either leg, PINE is written in blue block letters. To Rex, Francis looked ready to jump on the strip and start fencing right away; then Rex looked over at Butch, still struggling to put on his jacket with Rune’s assistance, wearing jeans — at least Rex had remembered to wear his sweat pants, a size too small and patches ironed on to the knees but still adequately flexible — and for not the first time in his experience with the Academy, he could not help but think we don’t even look like we belong here. Except perhaps for Annie, wearing a sleek pair of blue track pants, with a white stripe down the sides.

Hey. The voice echoed as Rex turned, saw three more Academy fencers walking towards them. Always terrible with names, Rex quickly scanned the blue block letters down the legs as they approached, enabling him to remember them from past tournaments.

HARRIS. Jane Harris, the one who called hey, probably to Francis. Nearly as skillful as he, meaning she was more than a match for anyone at Bark Bay. But more open than Francis, willing to talk to anyone, make jokes, laugh at others even when they’re not funny. Rex liked Jane.

HAN. James Han, competes in all three weapons, pretty good at each, but seems to like sabre best. Good friends with Double-J. Rex fenced him in foil back in the spring, got maybe one touch. Fast. Asian fast, Double-J often said — there’s fast, really fast, and Asian fast. Didn’t seem bothered by Rex calling him out for his racial stereotyping.

JENSEN. Wanda Jensen’s smiling face always a welcome sight. The one Academy fencer Rune had beaten last year. They were tied at 4, and she hit with a parry-riposte but the referee said her action came after Ruen’s continuation, which had been off-target. Coach Gavvy got real upset and the ref almost gave her a warning, but they went on and Rune feinted a disengage (just like Rex had shown him that week in practice) and hit her on the left shoulder, just barely on target. Coach Dan was real happy after the tournament, said that victory meant everybody on the Bark Bay team had beaten at least one Academy fencer that day. We can take on anybody. Rex don’t know about that — even if the Academy wasn’t half as good as some of their team members thought they were, they would still better than he and his teammates.

The Academy fencers walk past Butch and Rune like they aren’t there, but they all nod to Annie, Wanda even greeting her by name. They all look at Rex, give him knowing yet silent nods. Rex set a goal to do well enough today so that the Academy fencers would start calling him by name.

Annie walks over to the Academy fencers, starts talking to them; Rune looks over at them, frowns. Calls to Butch, the Rex, points to an open area of the floor. “Let’s get stretched out.” The three teens sat together, their legs spread and extending into the circle formed by their bodies, as they reached forward with their knuckles above the floor,  beginning the routine with which Coach Dan began all of their practices. Rex saw how Rune and Butch’s face would alight when the two teens made eye contact, and felt a respectful jealousy for the friendship the two had shared for many years. Buddies since grade school, some days the only thing good about going to school is seeing Butch Rune had told him once. In high school they rarely took any of the same classes, and for Butch to join the fencing team meant an opportunity to re-energize their friendship. Everybody seemed to enjoy having Butch on the team, even Double-J, who’d had some very public rows with his father, Reverend Goodman.

Rex had all but forgotten about Annie and the Academy fencers until they suddenly appeared, asked to join their stretching activities. Rex waved them into their circle, but Rune all but turned his back on them, sat facing Butch directly.

“You seen that new science fiction they got on television, started last month?” Butch pointed up as he spoke, Rune not able to tell what he was attempting to signify. Television waves? Space? God’s approval?

“Yeah.” Rune stood up to begin the next stretch. “I dunno — wasn’t impressed. Same old same old, if you ask me.”

“Think you’ll watch this week?”

Rune shrugged. “Maybe. Unless I’m doing something more interesting, like helping my dad sweep out the garage.”

“Oh! You don’t think — ”

SHHH! Rune’s command was an insistent whisper, loud enough to be heard only by Butch and Rex. He held his hands up, his eyes following the focus of his ears as he listened to the voices behind him. A word surfaced from the pool of murmuring from where Annie stretched with the Academy fencers, echoed off the high walls and arched ceiling of the enormous field house, fell on Rune’s ears like an alert. The word is scholarship, Rex heard it as well and recognized the voice right away, Wanda’s, then turned to see her sitting on the rubber floor, arms spread forward and out in the direction of her legs, her head tilted in the direction of Annie, listening to her intently.

His continued silence seemed to unnerve Butch. “I thought — ”

Rune held up a palm to towards Butch quickly, silencing him. Rex continued stretching, and if his ears were antennae they’d have been directed straight at Wanda and Annie. He was too far away from them, there was too much other noise — people talking, thwocks from the tennis court, the clang of weights further off — for him to catch much of the conversation, but Wanda’s voice rose for emphasis on several occasions, several words rising clearly above the din: graduating, available, two-year, scholarship (Annie shaking her head in response), prep school, hardship.

“Holy crap” — Rune walks further away from Annie and her friends at the Academy, waits for Butch and Rex to come within whispering distance — “Annie’s being recruited!

Rex shook his head, frowning. “Nah, that’s crazy.”

“You know as well as I do,” Rune’s eyes wide with a bitter indignation, “that the Academy gives out fencing scholarships. Wouldn’t it be just like them to — aw man, now I’m pissed. The Academy’s already has all these advantages over us — full-time fencing coach, individual equipment for each team member, training facilities that don’t reek of mystery meat and bland spaghetti sauce — now they’re after our best fencer.” His expression quickly morphed into an apology directed at Rex. “Well, maybe third best. But she’d be second, after Double-J graduates in the spring.”

“Oh!” Rune’s warning elicited an apprehensive look on Butch’s face. “So — that means she’s leaving?”

“I don’t know. ” Rune shook his head, then in a move that seemed impulsive yet genuine, put his right arm across Butch’s shoulders. “I’m glad you’re here with me, with us. Your presence makes me enjoy being on this fencing team so much more. And if the team gets dropped, it’ll make me sad and angry but I’ll find some other way for the two of us to keep hanging out together. Nothing, not the social cliques forced on us by our class schedules, not the narrow-minded decisions of the athletic department, not the distrust between our parents — none of that’s ever gonna be enough to separate the two of us.”

Rex stared at his two friends, as Butch responded with an awkward thank you. Rex had always been annoyed at Rune’s manic energy, had thought of him as someone who required a worthwhile effort to ignore. He was glad to see his friend had a compassionate side as well, and was not afraid to show it. And he once again felt the pang of respectful jealousy.

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Gray Metal Faces – November 4

The Bird replied that no, she’d never been to the Academy before. “It’s a marvelous place,” Annie turning her head and looking out the front windshield. “So full of history. My brother, Sierra, is the fifth generation of Hutchinson at the Academy.”

Double-J steered the coupe left off the county road, onto a narrow strip of pavement that was more path than roadway, then rode between twin stone columns about eight feet tall, supporting a wrought iron arch, the insignia of the Academy at its crest. Tires scrunching loose gravel as it crossed the entrance, the car crawled along an uneven asphalt road cluttered with brown leaves from the large oak trees that formed a barrier between the road and large rolling green hills that flowed like water.

“Oh!” Butch had his hands and face pressed against rear passenger window. Through the barrier of oak trees, he saw a large brick building across an empty field that looked like it would take an hour to cross. “This place is so — big!”

“Lot of old money around here.” Switching hands on the steering wheel, Double-J wiped the corners of his mouth. “Seems to me the alums, they like to keep this place just like they remember it, like it’s some damn museum of their youth.”

“I dunno.” Rune pointed to a satellite dish he saw on top of a building they passed on their left. “Betcha they’re not lacking for any technology here. Satellite, high-speed Internet.” His eyes landed on Rex, who looked pale, like a nervous patient in a dentist’s office; Rune tapped him on the shoulder, asked if he was all right.

Rex frowned, embarrassed. “Yeah. I mean, you know, this place — it just gives me the creeps, every time we come out here.” He looked out the window as if the sight of the sprawling Academy campus brought him pain.

The coupe approached another large brick building, ivy covering most of its exterior. Next to the building was a small parking lot, covered in crushed white stone. The coupe stopped; as its occupants got out, Coach Dan’s sedan pulled up beside them. Rex, whose body seemed to relax upon his coach’s arrival, walked behind the sedan, and waited for the trunk to be opened with the same still patience of the cool autumnal air around him.

Coach Dan opened the trunk of his car, revealing the familiar khaki sacks that contained the team’s equipment – two large bulky sacks for masks, three medium-sized sacks of uniforms, and the smaller, longer duffel of weapons. Rex reached in and grabbed the weapons, while Double-J picked up the two mask sacks.

“Rex — ” the teen looked up at his coach’s call — “remember our tournament here, two years ago?”

The smile of a pleasant memory brightened the tall teen’s face. “We medaled in all three weapons.”

Coach Dan nodded, as he lifted a sack of uniforms from his trunk. “Yes. That was Miles’ first win. You came in third for epee, Greg got third in sabre. Had a bet, a drink with Gavvy that we’d get at least two medals, and when we wound up with more medals than the Academy that day, I told her she owed me dinner as well.”

“How’d that work out for you?” Annie’s voice rising above a crow’s caw.

Coach Dan laughed. “Had a liquid dinner that evening.” He closed the trunk door, then turned his attention to the team, his voice raising in volume. “This is what it’s all about, my friends. All the practices, all the drilling, all the hard work you’ve been putting in every Tuesday afternoon. It all pays off today. Yeah it’s just a scrimmage, but it’s the Academy, you won’t face stiffer competition than you will today. You should treat this like it’s the first tournament of the season.”

“Huh.” Double-J’s grunt sounded like a dismissal of his coach’s exhortation. He then looked directly at Rex. “Don’t know about anyone else — but I have something to prove today.” The burly teen turned, lifted the sacks of masks onto his thick shoulders, then walked up a short flight of weathered concrete steps, ending in two enormous wood and glass doors. Coach Dan shook his head, and the team followed him up the stairs.

During his four years on the Bark Bay fencing team, Rex had been inside the Academy’s field house several times, yet each time he entered he was amazed at its sheer size. The term field house, he thought, didn’t properly convey the building’s purpose; indoor athletic training facility seemed more appropriate. A large oval running track, eight lanes wide, loped along the outside edge. The interior was large enough to contain two football fields. From the ceiling hung several rows of tracks from which hung thick mesh curtains, some stretched thin across the entire width of the interior court, others bundled at one or the other end, the curtains opening or closing as needed to define a training or competition area.

As the team crossed the eight-lane track to enter the interior, they passed an area of tennis courts enclosed in chain fences. A man and a woman, clearly not students (Rex guessed they were teachers) were volleying to each other. Further into the interior lay a sand pit, which Rex recognized from watching the Olympics on television as a landing area for the long jump.

“They forget to pay the heating bill?” Rune’s voice sounded tiny in this cavernous space. Rex realized that the interior of the field house was not much warmer, indeed almost seemed colder than the autumn air outside.

“They don’t have central heat or AC in here.” Annie was beginning to sound like a tour guide. “Usually people are training, so they don’t mind it being a little cool. They bring in portable heaters sometimes in winters, big fans in the summer.”

“So this place does have power?” Annie responded to Rune’s question by pointing up at the banks of ceiling lights. “Makes sense. Coach says we’re gonna use electronics for our fencing tournament today. Or scrimmage, or whatever this is.”

“So their fencing team practices here?” While Rune’s eyes had popped back into his head, Butch seemed as awe-struck as before, like he’d never seen a building as big as the field house. Rex realized that could actually be the case — his father, Reverend Goodman, was known to not like travelling, and the biggest structure in Bark Bay was the old lumber mill, most of which was falling into decay.

Annie shook her head. “The Academy usually fences in the small gym, but Coach Dan said there’s a gymnastics meet there today, so they moved us in here.”

“Come on,” Coach Dan waving towards an open area of the interior court, “let’s warm up.” The floor in this area looked and felt like a tennis court, some type of hard green rubber. Rex looked around at the lines painted on the surface, saw two poles standing several dozen feet apart, at what appeared to be mid-court based on the lines. A net hung loosely from the top of one pole; if strung across to the other pole, Rex guessed it would be at the level of his head.

“Volleyball court.” Rune seemed pleased at his deduction, and when Annie offered a maybe in response, seemed almost insulted.

A metallic sound echoed from the left, beyond the track. The team turned and saw an opening door, through which emerged a short woman with straight black hair. Young, but certainly not student young, her body was trim and muscular. Rex couldn’t see her face from the distance, but knew instantly, from her hurried walk if nothing else, that Coach Gavvy, the Academy’s fencing coach, had arrived. She was smiling, which didn’t surprise Rex because he could never remember her not smiling.

“You’re early!” A jogger nearly collides with her as she race-walks across the track. “Are things really that boring in Bark Bay that you have nothing better to do than hang out in our field house?” Rex recognized the peculiar conversational tone Coach Gavvy, how if you didn’t know her you’d think half the things she said were insulting.

She’s carrying square boxes in both of her hands. “The team’s bringing the rest of the stuff. It’s a pain in the tukkes, having to lug all our gear from the gym, they wouldn’t let us in the field house last night. You guys are lucky, you don’t have much stuff to take along.”

Annie’s about to say something when Coach Gavvy cuts her off. “We’ve got our eye on you this year, Miss Hutchinson!” Annie laughs. “You going to give epee a try? You’ve got epeeist written all over you, all you anal retentives, epee’s made for you.”

Annie nods, begins to speak, but then Coach Gavvy’s turned and pointing at Butch, then Rune. “Dan, you need to help me with names.”

Coach Dan coughs, walks behind the greasy-haired son of Bark Bay’s leading accountant. “This is Rune. He was at the invitational — ”

“– last spring, yes!” Coach Gavvy seems impressed at her memory. “Dan’s probably had you training all summer, so we probably have to watch out for you as well.” She then turns her attention to Butch. “Who’s the new victim” — she shakes her head quickly, opens her eyes wide in mock surprise at her own words — “excuse me! I mean, who is Bark Bay’s latest fencing team member?” She extends her hand to Butch, who steps forward with a shy smile, says his name, and shakes her hand.

“So which one of you is sixteen?” Rune and Butch stare at each other in confusion at Coach Gavvy’s question. She turns to Annie, raises her hands above her head — “there’s no way all of you are fitting in Dan’s car, unless some of you rode in the trunk. And don’t tell me any of you walked the thirty-odd miles from Bark Bay!”

The members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team threw back their heads in a collective cry of oh OK, then Annie explained that Double-J had also driven up in his car. Coach Gavvy paid passing attention to the explanation as she set the metal boxes she had been carrying on the green rubber floor, one near where the team was standing, the other a few dozen feet away.

Rex saw Butch tap Rune on the shoulder, ask what the boxes were for. Rex remembered this would be Butch’s first organized competition, there was going to be a lot today he hadn’t seen before. Same for The Bird, as well — but as Rex saw her standing quietly outside the rough circle made his teammates, he sensed she preferred observation over questioning.

“It’s a cord reel.” Rune reached down to one of the boxes, pulled on a cord with a three-pronged connector that protruded from one of its ends. “This plug, it connects to a body cord we’ll be wearing when we compete. The cord’s reeled up inside the box, it will come out and back in as you advance and retreat.” He pointed to other cords protruding from the other end of the box. “That’s the power cord on the right, the other one runs over to the scoring machine, which lights up when you land a touch.”

Butch is smiling like a boy opening a Christmas present, which seemed an odd thought to Rex as he knew Butch’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Well they did, but only as a religious event, they didn’t exchange presents. “Oh! So there’s no judges?”

Rex was about to answer Butch’s question when Annie, apparently deciding she’s listened to Rune’s explanation enough, took over. “There’s still a referee in the middle, for right-of-way. The machine won’t tell you who initiates the action. But we won’t have judges behind the fencers — the machine takes care of that.”

Butch looked at the three-pronged adapter in his hand, his eyes following the cable leading from it to the cord reel. He held the adapter up to Annie — “So how does this plug into me?”

Now it was Coach Gavvy’s turn to interrupt. “We’ll show you all that when the rest of the equipment comes in.”

Gray Metal Faces – November 3

The convenience store was one of the few remaining independent shops of its kind in the area, most having long been absorbed or run out of business by regional and national chains. The teens entered through a door with a handwritten cardboard sign stating REST ROOM FOR CUSTOMER USED ONLY, Annie running her finger under the misspelling as they entered. To their immediate left as they entered was the main counter, populated by an amalgam of newspapers, magazines, candy counters, displays of cigarette lighters, air fresheners, various and sundry other small wares, all arranged with no evident consideration of commercial appeal, like a hastily decorated Christmas tree.

In contrast to the immaculate plastic of modern convenience stores, the interior here had retained the wooden worn look of a building twice its actual age. As the teens walked through the poorly illuminated aisles, the wooden floor creaked as if in pain under each footfall.

Annie walked with Rex to the line of refrigerated containers at the far end of the store. As Annie opened one of the doors to retrieve a bottle of apple juice, she saw Rex inspecting a shelf of wrapped sandwiches.

“Hungry?” Seemingly ignoring her question, Rex  picked up one of the sandwiches, brought it close to his bespectacled eyes. He turned it over to read the price tag, opened his eyes wide, placed it down quickly as if afraid of contamination. He glared at Annie — “Not any longer” — and turned to leave.

Annie walked to an aisle that contained potato chips and other snacks. Finding nothing there that appealed to her, she returned to the refrigerated section, inspected the sandwiches as Rex had done. After picking up a ham and cheese on wheat for herself, she noticed one of the other sandwiches had been placed upside down, and after a moment’s thought realized it had been the one Rex had inspected and put back. She grabbed this one, a roast beef on white, and walked to the front counter.

A customer in bright orange hunting garb had just paid when Annie arrived. She placed her items on the counter, and a large, fat-fingered man punched greasy keys on a register.

“Two sandwiches?” The large man’s friendliness was actually unnerving. “For such a little girl like you?”

“One’s for my friend.” Annie pointed behind her at the door.

“You mean that tall fella who just walked out?”

Annie looked up at the cashier, noticing the two-day beard stubble for the first time. “Yes, the tall fella.” She reached into her coat pocket for her wallet.

“Ankiel kid, right?”

Annie looked up again, surprised that the cashier knew Rex’s last name. The large man was evidently pleased to catch her off guard. “Been to their trailer a few times, hauling wood. I do some work for the government. They’re on assistance, you know.”

“Yes.” Annie couldn’t stop herself. “They’re a very poor family, had a lot of bad luck.”

“His father –- ”

“I know about his father.”

The cashier laughed. “How much else you know about the family? Even been to their trailer?” She shook her head. “It’s not right, the way they live.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Rex, or his family.” Annie stared at the cashier with an intensity she typically reserved for the strip. “They’re just poor.”

“Not natural -– ”

“They’re POOR, dammit!” Annie’s fist slammed onto the counter, the change she had placed there jumping, clattering. The athletic teen and the large man stared at each other with mutual distaste as a quarter rolled on its edge, lost its momentum, saurcered down onto the counter.

She reached for the sandwiches and drinks she had placed at the counter, ready it seemed to return them to their shelves. Yet she paused, making a mental calculation of the remaining distance to the Academy, the time left until the start of the scrimmage, and the resulting probability of stopping again.

Coach Dan thrust the door open, a look of concern on his face. “Everything OK?”

Annie nodded forcefully, took out her wallet with hands shaking from fury. Coach Dan looked up at the cashier, who shrugged his shoulders with an exaggerated look of innocence on his face. “We need to get going,” Coach Dan called to Annie, and walked out.

Annie counted out exact change and pushed it across the stained counter to the cashier, who grinned with some feeling of victory. “Doesn’t take much to get you going, does it?”

Annie ignored him as she picked up her goods.

The cashier leaned forward across the counter, whispered. “That trailer only has two beds, you know.”

She hurried out the door, hitting her knee by accident.

Butch walked up to Annie as she rushed out the door, asked if she would mind switching cars. Annie nodded, then called out to Rex as he opened the door to Double-J’s car. She walked up to him, looked around to make sure they weren’t being directly observed —  “I got this for you,” and thrust the roast beef sandwich into his hands.

Rex’s lips contorted on his face like a caterpillar in pain. To Annie, it looked as though he was trying to smile and frown at the same time.

“Annie, you know I can’t – ”

“Yes you can, and you will. You need to be at your best, it’s going to be a long day and you need nourishment.”

“I’ll be OK – ”

“Yes, and you’ll be better after you eat.”

“But –- ” and now Annie rose on her toes, grabbed Rex by his coat, pulled him down to her upturned face, and with an expression and voice that clearly stated that this was no longer a conversation –-

EAT.

THE.

SANDWICH.

Rex stood upright, eyes blinking behind his thick glasses, as Annie released her grip. A moment later he was unwrapping his sandwich in the front seat of Double-J’s coupe as it drove down the highway, followed by Coach Dan’s sedan.

Hearing Butch and Rune giggling to each other in the back seat, Rex turned and asked what they found so amusing. “It’s a song we came up with,” Butch’s eyes filled with excitement. “Want to hear?”

“Sure.” Rex made a point of turning towards Double-J and catching his pained reaction, as Butch hummed The Battle Hymn of the Republic to Rune’s singing:

All eyes will be astounded by the flurry of our blades

They will stagger in befuddlement as we disengage

The Academy will falter — won’t Gavvy be amazed

Our foils are thrusting on!

“How nice,” Double-J’s drawl rising above Rune and Butch’s giggles. “Glad to see you can keep yourselves amused back there.”

Butch tapped the back of Rex’s seat. “Who’s Gavvy?”

“Gavriella Simons.” Rune sounded as if he took offense to not being asked. “Fencing coach at the Academy.”

“Oh!” Butch scratched his chin. “Will she be there today?”

Rex nodded. “Oh yeah. And believe me, you’ll meet her.”

“Whether you want to, or not.” Rune looked out his window.

Double-J glanced up at the rearview mirror. “No more songs, I hope?”

Rex shrugged. “Better than knock-knock jokes.”

Pause. Rune leaned forward, “knock -knock!” Double-J punched Rex.

“So Rune,” Double-J’s question cutting off  Rune’s joke, “what’s the deal with you and Annie?”

Pause. “What do you mean?”

Double-J laughed.

“For the record, Double-J and I never dated.” In the back seat of Coach Dan’s sedan, The Bird seemed dissatisfied with Annie’s response, and said she’d heard they had at least gone out to a movie together; Annie scoffed. “If he’s calling that a date, then I dated about 50 other people that night. We started talking about this movie one night at practice and I said I wanted to see it, then Double-J was like great, I’ll pick you up at 6 on Saturday. And I didn’t know what to say since the whole team heard what he said, so I wound up saying sure only because I didn’t want to be rude. So we went to the movie, and that was it.” The Bird asked if anything happened after the movie; Annie looked up at Coach Dan, who seemed focused on driving, then leaned over to The Bird and whispered “He invited me up to his apartment.” How did you answer, asked The Bird.

“No.” Rex looked back at Butch as he answered. “I haven’t seen your father in a while.”

“We’re praying for your family,” Butch’s earnest voice filling the car’s interior. “Every evening.” Double-J and Rune visibly pretended not to be listening.

Rex turned to face forward, away from Butch. “I guess that’s what your family does.”

“Must come naturally to you,” Double-J’s eyes focused on the road in front of the coupe. “Praying all the time like that. Must feel natural to you, like eating is for some people, or taking . . . going to the bathroom.”

Butch laughed. “You think I’m just a praying machine? A robot?”

“Pretty much.” Rex turned to Double-J with disapproval, and Rune leaned forward to object. However, Butch spoke first.

“I pray because I like to pray. Yeah, for a long time I was going through the motions, when I was a kid, I’d recite the prayers because that’s what I was supposed to do. Didn’t really believe in God when I was a kid, and a couple years back, when I was middle school, I was beginning to wonder how long I’d be able to keep up the charade.

“But then there was this day, we was out on recess, and you know how you had to line up by your class at the end to get back into the school?” Double-J and Rex nodded. “Well, there was this one day, when I was still in fifth grade, and since we was the youngest class we all lined up against the brick wall, the one outside the cafeteria, you know which one I’m talking about right? Well there was this one day, we were all lined up and most of us are leaning against the brick wall, and the older kids are making fun of us like they always did, and I’m just looking down and ignoring them. Then all of a sudden I start thinking, why am I leaning against the wall like this, why are any of us fifth graders out here, why are the older kids yelling at us, why are our teachers here, why is any of us here, what is all of this about? I know, weird stuff for someone who’s ten to think about, but I couldn’t help it, all these thoughts kept coming to me.

“Then, all of a sudden –- I don’t know how else to describe it, other than I felt something. It was inside me, deep inside, and although I felt it physically it didn’t seem to have a physical origin. And though I didn’t know what it was, I knew what it meant, and what it meant was – I wasn’t alone, none of us was alone, at least we didn’t have to feel like we were alone if we didn’t want to be lonely. And it was until that moment that I finally believed in God, because that was the only way I could describe what I had just felt. There was something out there, bigger than any of us, and it was saying to me . . . ‘hello.’

“But then one of the older kids threw a rock that almost hit me, and I realized everyone in front of me had started walking, and the teachers and the kids behind me were yelling at me to get moving, so I went into school.”

“So you don’t feel lonely anymore?” Double-J was looking up at Butch’s reflection in the rearview mirror. Butch smiled contentedly, like a man savoring an enjoyable dinner, and shook his head.

“Why are you so afraid to speak?” Coming from others that question always seemed threatening to The Bird, but she was finding herself more at ease with Annie than she was with most everyone else. She explained that the words she used never said what she meant. Coach Dan tried to correct her, “If people don’t understand you that’s their problem,” but The Bird shook her head, said people understand the words she was saying, the problem was her words weren’t correct. She said she felt like a different person whenever she spoke, that she was one person when she thought to herself but someone entirely different when speaking, and those two people were never the same, could never agree on anything. Annie cleared her throat — “Is what your saying now what  you’re thinking?” The Bird thought a moment, said that yes, they were the same. Coach Dan sounded relieved, “See what happens when you stand up for yourself — it’s like fencing, I’m always telling everyone to be aggressive, don’t sit back and wait for your opponent to come at you, take the initiative.” The Bird shook her head, thanked Mr. Jacobs for his words, but said that didn’t work for her.

“Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to facing the Academy again since last spring,” Rune stretching his arms across the back seat. “Want to prove to hot-shot up there,” thumbing in Double-J’s direction, “that last spring wasn’t a fluke.”

“Who’d you beat last spring?” Double-J’s tone sharply interrogative. “Wasn’t it some girl from Midland? And that guy Josh, from our squad?”

“Not sure if anyone from Midland High will be there,” disappointment tinting Coach Dan’s voice. “Coach Pat wouldn’t commit, either way. Be a shame if they weren’t coming, they’re the largest school in the state, they field teams in more sports than most any other, and they’re only about fifteen minutes away from State. They’ve got a good team.”

If Double-J’s window had been rolled down, he would most likely have spat out it. “Midland’s a bunch of losers. And that Josh guy who Zorro back there beat — ” throwing his right thumb behind his shoulder, then nudging Rex — “didn’t he show up for like, two practices, then never showed up after losing in the tournament to Banks?”

Between bites of his roast beef sandwich, Rex garbled out an mwhy gwuess.

“And how’d you do against the Academy, Zorro?” Double-J gazing again at the rearview. “You face Neil? How many touches did you score?”

“Two.”

“Gwen?”

“I faced her twice, in the pools and the DE. Got three touches against her.”

“Pool, or DE?”

Rune listened to the hum of the car’s engine for a moment. “DE. She — shut me out in the pool.”

“So let me get this straight,” Double-J’s voice a cold laugh. “You scored two touches against the Academy’s weakest foil fencer, who didn’t even crack the top ten at the tournament, and when you faced somebody who actually knew what she was doing, you failed miserably. You beat some nobody from Midland, and some guy from our school who was in it for kicks, and dropped out because he was embarrassed to have lost to you.

“So what makes you so confident about today?”

Gray Metal Faces – November 2

Tilting his head back as he drove his sedan, Coach Dan addressed Butch and The Bird. “Think you’ll like this scrimmage, my friends. We’ll be in what they call the Field House, which was the first gym at the Academy. That’s where the basketball team used to play before they built the court. The Field House is nice and spacious, plenty of room for multiple simultaneous bouts.”

“What’s wrong with the Field House?” In the passenger seat of Double-J’s coupe, Rex sounded like he legitimately couldn’t understand his friend’s complaint.

“I just resent the second-class treatment.” Double-J twisted the end of his moustache. “Seems to me, it’s all about money. They can’t charge admission to fencing tournaments, nobody comes.”

“It’s a sham, really.” Annie’s voice interrupting from the back seat. “It has everything you want in a sport – fast action, the drama of the duel, colorful personalities. It’s really like tennis.”

“Except you get to use a better weapon!” Rune’s comment drew a laugh from Rex and Annie, and even a smile from Double-J before he continued in his dismissive tone.

“Don’t kid yourself. There’s no way fencing will ever become popular in our society. Seems to me, the major sports, the ones corrupted by money and greed, they’ve already bought up all the space in society’s tiny attention span. Society will never accept fencing, doesn’t deserve it either.”

“So we’re better off in the Field House anyway.” Rex wasn’t sure if he was asking a question or making a statement.

“Didn’t say that. The court’s not being used today, no reason we can’t use it. But they choose to insult us, seems to me. That’s what pisses me off.”

Rune leaned forward, his thin nick protruding from his winter jacket like a flower stem. ‘You guys going to compete in foil?”

Coach Dan cleared his throat. “Foil contest’s always first, and run all morning. After a lunch break, epee will start, then about an hour after that will be sabre. Since I know some of you need to get back earlier, I’ll leave right after foil ends. I already talked to Double-J, since he needs to stay until the end anyway he’ll take anyone with him who wants to stay.”

“What the hell would I want to do that for?” Double-J stared out his right at nothing, Rune’s question no longer of interest.

“Yeah, I’m doing foil,” Rex’s response as much to Double-J as it was to Rune. “You know, I’m looking forward to facing Francis again.”

“Francis Pine?” Annie sounded incredulous. “I thought he graduated.”

“Oh yes, the Academy will be there in full force today. I want you to watch one of their foil fencers today – his name is Francis Pine. If you meet him, call him Francis, not Fran, definitely not Frannie. He made it to the quarterfinals in States last spring, and he’s got the skill to win the whole thing this year. Watch him, see how he moves, how he handles the blade. He’s a very skilled fencer, and I know our team’s got a lot of respect for him.”

Double-J snorted. “Nah, we have to deal with Frankenstein for another year.”

Annie’s objection (you really shouldn’t call him that) was cut off by Rune, who leaned forward with his stem neck, cleared his throat, and with an anxious glance in Annie’s direction, sang:

Oh muh darling, oh muh darling, oh my daaaaah – ling Franics Pine
You have lost and suck forever
Dreadful saaaaw – ree Franics Pine!

Rex laughed aloud, and Annie smiled and nudged Rune with her left arm, Rune answering with a forceful nudge of his own. Double-J smirked. “That’s cute, Rune. And I’ve got a bad feeling you’ve got a lot more where that came from.”

“I have no idea how Rune will do,” Coach Dan answered Butch. “We’ll have to see. Now Annie, I think you’re going to see something special from her today.” The Bird said she hoped Annie wouldn’t get hurt. Coach Dan looked up into the rearview mirror, darted his eyes in the reflection of they young girl’s face. “You’ve been to practice, you know everyone’s safe. Worst you get in a fencing bout are a few bruises.” Butch turned to her — “You’re not talking about fencing, are you?” The Bird shook her head.

“You’re there every day?”

Annie nodded in response to Rex’s question. “After school, there’s a section of the gym that Gandy doesn’t use for classes. It’s great for practicing footwork. You should come sometime — all of you.”

Rex shook his head, thanked Annie but said he couldn’t accept her invitation to practice in Gandy’s gym, didn’t know anyone who could give him a ride home. “I live pretty far out, you know.” Double-J offered a quarter-turn of his head and a smirk which gave the impression that her invitation was as appealing to him as the prospect of having dinner with an unpleasant relative.

Annie turned to Rune, and while she had no idea what his reaction would be, she certainly had not anticipated to see the anxiety on his face. He composed himself, shrugged. “I dunno. We’ll see.”

“Annie knows how to take care of herself,” Coach Dan’s reassuring voice doing little to settle The Bird’s sudden anxiety. “She’s a Hutchinson, after all. Her family’s always been successful. Achievement is in their blood.” Butch tapped the rear of Dan’s seat — “Isn’t her father running for office?” — Coach Dan replying that yes, that was the rumor.

“So tell me,” Double-J’s grinning playful as he looked up at Annie’s reflection in the rearview mirror, “how long will it take your family to sell that land once your old man gets elected?”

“Who said anything about selling land?”

Double-J shook his head dismissively, like a tennis player letting a hard return from his opponent sail out of bounds. “Please. Everyone knows what’s going on, Hutchinson. Right, Ankiel?”

Rex stoicly turned his gaze away from Double-J, who, seeing that he wasn’t going to get an answer, looked up in his rearview at Rune’s reflection. “Banks? You’ve got this one figured out, right?”

Rune looked at Double-J, then Rex, who seemed intent on ignoring this part of the conversation, and finally Annie, whose eyes simmered with indignation.

“I . . . don’t know – ”

“OK, I’ll be the one to spell it out for you.” Double-J’s voice rose in the manner of an evangelical preacher as he continued. “The Hutchinsons own all this land outside of town -– we’re talking hundreds of acres. Developers have been after them to parcel it out, sell it for retail and housing developments, but they’ve always said no. Am I not right?” He raised his right hand off the steering wheel, as if signaling for an amen, receiving only a silent nod from Annie. “Oh, your family talks about how they’re conservationists and all, want to protect the –” and now Double-J spoke with an affected accent, rolling his eyes up — “beauty of the area –- but that’s not their true game. It’s all about the bridge.”

“Bridge?” Rex’s tone was uncharacteristically sarcastic. “You mean the project they’ve been talking about for a few decades?”

Exactly. Old man Stephen’s in the back pocket of the Chamber of Commerce, he’s done a good job blocking the bridge from being funded, which is why her father’s running against him.” Double-J thumbed past his shoulder in Annie’s direction. “The minute he’s elected, boom, the Department of Transportation finally gets state funding for the bridge they’ve wanted to build for decades. Of course, they’ll need land to build it, and guess where that will come from?”

“My father’s always fought the bridge, just like Stephens.” Annie threw her body back into her seat.

Rune cleared his throat. “And . . . and aren’t there laws against politicians writing legislation that benefit them financially?”

“Exactly!” Annie nudged Rune hard in the side. Rex also turned to him with an appreciative nod.

Double-J muttered something about holding companies, then turned his attention back to the road.

“Are you OK?” The Bird nodded in response to Butch’s question. “You don’t look comfortable,” concern in Coach Dan’s voice after taking a quick look back at her. The Bird shook her head. Pause. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Coach Dan asking in his most paternal voice. She nodded. “That’s OK, we’re ahead of schedule.” Coach Dan turned into the gravel parking area next to a roadside convenience store.

“Did they just pull off?” Rex pointed ahead and to his right. Double-J looked, nodded, said he needed a pit stop as well.

Coach Dan turned to the sound of tires scrunching the loose gravel, and smiled as he saw Double-J’s car. “Let’s make this quick, everyone.”

Gray Metal Faces – November 1

The second Saturday

Arms folded, impatience growing on his face like mold on bread, Double-J leaned against the fender of his car, parked in what passed for the driveway to Rex’s trailer. Most of the ground was solid in the early November cold, but turned easily to mud from the friction of tires or multiple footsteps. More concerned about mud’s annoyance rather than its impact on his appearance, Double-J resolved to remain stationary, let his boots rest on the hardened soil, rather than pace.

Rex’s sister opened the door (again), stuck out her head and called to Double-J that her brother would be out shortly (again). Double-J smiled and turned down her offer to come inside (again).

Rex helped ease his mother down into bed. Her shower that morning had gone well until she lost hold of Rex’s hand and slipped on the bathroom floor. A fall would certainly have incapacitated her, would have forced Rex to miss today’s scrimmage. But she had caught herself on the sink, did not fall but had twisted something in her back. She just needed to get back into bed, take her medicine, Rex’s sister could look after her today, call the ambulance if necessary.

Her grimace gave way to an anxious smile as Rex lowered her head onto the pillow.

“Is today the state tournament?” she asked.

“No, Mother. This isn’t even a tournament. Just a scrimmage, at the Academy.”

She closed her eyes. “Did you eat a good breakfast today?”

“Yes Mother.” A lie – he hadn’t eaten at all, had been too busy taking care of her. But telling the truth would only make it more difficult for him to leave.

“Do you have your fencing equipment?”

Unexpected question. Pause. “It’s at the school.” Not a lie. He did not have his own equipment, he used whatever equipment the school and Coach Dan could arrange for him. But there was no need, or time, to go to that level of detail.

Rex turned, faced the bedroom door, called to his sister. “Is . . . there anyone here for me yet?” Figuring that was the surest way to prompt his sister without causing her mother to ask questions, words such as friend, waiting, or Double-J surely leading to further conversation.

“Yes.” Pause. “He just pulled in.”

“Gottta go, mom.” His mother smiled, blew him a kiss. “Good luck today,” her voice trailing weakly as he left.

After gently closing the bedroom door, Rex rushed into the kitchen, looked at the clock above the sink, mouthed a silent profanity, reached over and threw open the refrigerator door. His sister, standing next to the kitchen table, coughed, Rex turning to see her holding a brown paper lunch bag in his direction.

Rex closed the refrigerator, grabbed the bag from his sister, bent over and kissed her gently on the cheek, then bolted out the front door of the trailer.

Double-J pushed from his ass off his car fender, “Jesus, let’s go.” “We might be going solo after all, don’t know if we’re going to make it before Coach leaves.”

“I’d still like to try.” Rex opened the passenger door, got in the car. A moment later Double-J was backing hurriedly out of the Ankiel driveway, onto the county road.

A moment after he hit his comfortable driving speed (70 on a 45), Double-J flicked his glance right. “Mind telling me why it’s so important for you to compete in foil today?”

“I like foil.” Rex inspected the contents of the bag (a banana, a carton of milk, and two slices of bread wrapped in plastic film, peanut butter smears visible). “Keeps me sharp, gets me warmed up for epee.”

Double-J laughed derisively. “Told Coach I’m done with foil. That’s why I said I’d meet up with you guys when the sabre starts at 11.”

Rex peeled the banana, broke off the top half of the fruit with his hand, and shoved it into the right side of his mouth, then spoke out of the left side between furtive chews and swallows. “So . . . wuh ahr . . . yoo dwy . . . win do skoo?”

“Just dropping you off.” Double-J sneezed. “Got to see my old man about something this morning.”

Rex spoke through the remaining half of the banana that he had shoveled into his mouth. “Smank . . . yoo.” Double-J grunted a half-smile in reply.

Rex rustled through the bag, pulled out the milk carton, opened it, tilted his head back as he drank. A white stream ran down his left cheek, which he wiped with the sleeve of his jacket. Swallowed, cleared his throat. “Do we know if Francis will be there?”

Double-J snorted. “Better be. Looking forward to humiliating him. Again.”

“Thought he beat you at States last year?”

“Yeah.” Double-J stroked the length of his black moustache. “But remember how he said I wouldn’t get to double-digits with him? Couldn’t you feel him sweat when I tied him at 12? He had to work to beat me by two. Jamie said Pine was complaining about not having enough break time. So yeah, he beat me, but I gave him more than he expected, wore him out, kept him from winning States. So yeah, I humiliated him. And I plan to do it again today, by beating him this time.”

“Hope that guy who beat me last spring is there.” Rex couldn’t remember his name.

“Be nice to get some revenge.”

Rex turned to him suddenly. “Who said anything about revenge? I want to face him because he’s a good fencer, a good competitor. I want to challenge myself by facing the best there is out there. That guy got all the way to the epee finals last year – facing him will give me an idea of whether my training’s paying off?”

“Training?” Double-J’s tone was incredulous, as if Rex had just told him he was an alien.

“Yeah, training. With tennis balls, you know, like Coach Dan told us to do. Hanging from the ceiling, I also have my sister toss me balls, and I poke them in mid-air.”

“So when have you been able to afford so many tennis balls?”

Rex was silent. Double-J could feel the angered embarrassment of his stare.

“Sorry.” Rex turned to face the road, then rummaged through the brown sack for his sandwich.

Five minutes later, Double-J pulled into the school parking lot, where Coach Dan’s sedan was the only vehicle, the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team gathered around it.

Double-J stopped the car, kept the motor running. Rex opened the passenger door, unfolded his body from the vehicle, stood and closed the door. Coach Dan approached the car, waving towards the driver’s side. Rex turned to see Double-J roll his eyes upward, then lower the window.

Rex walked towards the team as Coach Dan leaned onto and into Double-J’s car. Rex nodded to Annie and Rune. “Ready for the scrimmage?”

“Absolutely!” Annie’s voice as crisp as the chill in the late autumn air. “Been waiting a while for this. Been getting antsy in all these practices.” Rune simply nodded.

Rex turned to Butch. “It’s good that you’re coming. I learned a lot by watching my first couple of tournaments.”

“Oh!” Butch adjusted the wool cap on his head. “Are there going to be other schools there?”

“Just us and the Academy.” For the first time that morning, Rex felt his body relax. “But there’s not gonna be any scoreboard, no ‘Home’ and ‘Visitors’. No sideline, no benches. When we get there, we’ll find a place along the edge of the court, plop our stuff down, and just hang out there all morning, until we’re done.”

“Oh! So, nobody’s keeping score?” It was difficult to tell if Butch was confused or disappointed.

“Sure, the referee’s will record the number of hits scored by each fencer in every bout. We’ll do five-touch bouts, like we do in practice, until everybody’s faced each other. Then everyone’s ranked, by wins and number of touches – the referees will post the rankings on a bulletin board. Then it’s a single-elimination tournament, with these bouts going to 15 touches each.

“But it’s all individual results.” Rex waved his hands in front of his body. “Nobody’s keeping a team score.”

“Not officially, anyway.” Annie with a confident smile. “Trust me, we’re keeping track of how we’re doing against the Academy, and though they’d never admit it, the Academy has an eye on us.”

“Should have seen it when Rex beat the Academy’s top epee guy last spring,” Rune’s eyes growing big as he recalled the story to Butch. “Guy completely lost it – wouldn’t shake Rex’ hand, threw his mask against the wall, had to be escorted out the door by his coach.”

“He was a senior, too,” Annie eager to add the delicious detail. “They all thought he’d take the gold. It was a big upset when Rex beat him – nobody thought he’d end his Academy fencing career with a loss.”

“Yeah, what a shame.” Rex’s maintained a stoic face matching his nonplussed tone for a moment longer before breaking into a gluttonous grin, causing everyone else to laugh out loud.

Tires crunching loose gravel on tarmac. A blue sedan pulled into the school parking lot, pulled up beside Coach Dan’s car. The passenger side opened, and The Bird stepped out. The driver side window lowered, and out from the car came the face of who everyone on the team recognized as Save-Anna, the star of the Stop-N-Save department store commercials.

Coach Dan greeted her with a nod. “How are you, Mrs. Wernick?”

“Oh please, Daniel” said the woman who still looked like Save-Anna. “Call me Janet.”

“How’d your audition go the other night?”

“Very well, of course. Looks like I’ll be playing Gertrude once again.”

“I’ll be sure to come to opening night.”

The woman who was once just Save-Anna but was now also The Bird’s mother, Mrs. Wernick, and Janet, waved to Coach Dan. She called to her daughter to have fun, then pulled away in her car.

Coach Dan called The Bird over, opened his passenger door. “You and Butch, ride with me. Rune, Annie, probably best if you ride up with Double-J and Rex.” He held up three fingers, pointed to himself, then held up four and pointed to Double-J, whose shrug feigned indifference.

Annie opened the back door of Double-J’s car, and turned away with a disgusted laugh. Without looking in her direction, Double-J pointed to a nearby trash can as he opened the driver side door. Five minutes later, Double-J’s car left the school parking lot, with Annie, sitting behind Rex on the passenger side, leaving her window opened.

Rex turned in his seat to face Annie and Rune. “Either of you doing epee today? Sabre?” They both shook their heads.

“You guys are playing it too safe.” Double-J glared at the rear-view mirror, made no effort to hide his disapproval. “You keep listening to Jacobs, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Annie stared into the reflection of Double-J’s eyes in the mirror. “It’s over an hour to the Academy, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Your point?”

“That should give you enough time to figure out something worth listening to.”

Double-J laughed, and turned his attention to the road in front of him.

Chapter 3.3V

Rex closed his eyes, thought of the tournament 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 Bernie), 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 in the bed next to him. Whispering “good night,” he turned and closed his eyes, as frost descended in the night sky.

Chapter 3.3U

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 the old man had left.

But Rex was still very young then, the memory of his father 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.

For a while. By his early teens he was clearly no longer a child, and though nobody outside their home knew of their sleeping arrangements (so they believed), both Rex and his mother knew this state of affairs could not be maintained. Rex needed his own bed, and there were three possible locations to place it — in the main room (too public for Rex’ sensibilities), his sister’s room (which wasn’t going to work for any of the siblings), or his mother’s room.

Chapter 3.3T

Rex’s body was more tired than his mind, but on this evening physical desires gave way to the intellect. He turned off the light in the main trailer room, then 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.”

“Did . . . what . . . ”

Bernie 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.

Chapter 3.3S

They watched televsion for the next hour, not saying anything to the other 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.

His older sister was practically asleep by the time he covered her. His younger sister, still very awake, looked up at him with a smile.

“Is Mr. Williams going to take us away?” she asked, in a voice that suggested more curiosity than worry.

“No,” replied Rex. “Never.”

“When you grow up,” she asked, “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.

Chapter 3.3R

Rex had minimal interest in the program his sister was watching, 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, his sister turned to him. “Did you win today?”

“Came in second for epee. Didn’t do so well in foil.”

“Mr. Williams came by today.”

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

His sister 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.”

“And you let him?”

She 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’s with 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 sister stared at him, unblinking. Rex sighed, relaxed his shoulders. “Sorry,” he said, turning to the television to restore its power.