Gray Metal Faces – December 11

As she waited for her mother to answer, Annie heard the tick of the large clock, seated on the mantle to her left, above the hearth. The clock chimed, quarter to the hour; Annie guessed it was coming towards midnight.

Laura finally responded with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh please, I shouldn’t have to connect the dots for you. You’re much smarter than that, dear. Please – ” she pointed to the antique map above the hearth – “complete the picture for me.”

Annie stared up at the map, the fire hissing at her feet; as much as her mother’s coyness annoyed her, she nevertheless felt coldly satisfied with the confidence expressed in her abilities. A vision of her two uncles, one on either side of the river, came to her as she studied the map. She swallowed. “Uncle Joe, Uncle Tom – they’ll probably lease the land, rather than sell it.”

“No doubt,” her mother’s voice dripping with impatience.

Annie scratched her chin, her habit when nervous. “They can find tenants – ” she stopped scratching her chin, turned to her mother – “they won’t need to find tenants, really.”

“Oh?”

“If it connects to the interstate and the new bridge, that area will become a really prime location. Tenants will come to them.”

Laura raised her eyebrows. “And how will your uncles chose among so many potential business partners? Will the highest bidder always win?”

Annie shook her head, turned back to the map. “No. Uncle Joe talks about that all the time, said he’s not always looking for the best deal now, but the one that puts him in the real best position for – ”

Annie turned back to her mother, the older woman’s face radiant in a broad grin.

” – the next deal.”

“Precisely,” Laura’s face celebrating her daughter’s discovery. “The next deal.”

“And what is that next deal?”

“Oh, who knows, dear.” Laura turned her attention back to the antique map. “But whoever does lease that land from your uncles – they’ll owe our family a favor. And the favors we accumulate will perhaps benefit someone from your generation – Sierra, perhaps, maybe one of your cousins – to pursue your own ambitions.”

Laura turned back to her daughter. “Perhaps even yourself, Bunny. Perhaps this night is the start of your political career.”

Annie turned away from her mother, stared down at the floor shaking her head. “That’s nuts. How – ”

“Do you really expect me to believe,” Laura’s voice a sharp accusation, “that you were named captain of the fencing team tonight by accident?”

Annie found her eyes darting over to the fencing mask and foil she had laid on an armchair across the room. She heard the clock ticking above the hiss of the fire.

“I never asked – ”

” – of course not, dear. But, if I’m reading between the lines of some conversation I heard this evening, you asked to speak to your coach when that Double-J boy insisted on being the captain?”

Annie couldn’t look up at her. “Yes. Told him Double-J would be a really terrible choice. He’s our best fencer, but he’s no leader.”

“And did I hear correctly that your coach also asked you about Rex being captain?”

Annie turned towards her mother, sighed heavily. “Yeah. And I said with all the stress in his life because of his family, he really didn’t need the added pressure of being captain.”

Laura’s face erupted with mock surprise. “Well then, dear – of all your friends who were here tonight, that leaves two experienced fencers, I believe. Paul and Jenna’s son, Rune – ”

Annie shook her head. “He isn’t interested.”

“And let me guess – that is a good thing. At least as far as the team is concerned, yes? At least in your opinion, anyway.”

Annie closed her eyes, nodded slowly.

“You’ve followed your father’s example very well, dear.” Laura’s back straightened. “You never asked to be fencing captain before your promotion – just the same as your father showed no interest in politics before the Chamber of Commerce approached him. Yet both of you positioned yourselves to look like the only logical choice. Some might call it a passive-aggressive strategy; I call it, subtle genius.”

Annie glanced over at the fencing mask and foil, then back at Laura, and wondered if anyone else that evening had detected her stealth campaign, her secret ambition. Perhaps, she thought; but then again, she realized now that she really didn’t care. “Fencing’s one thing, but what you’re talking about – this plan you have, if Father wins the election – that’s something really different.”

“Of course, dear!” The older woman laid her hands on Annnie’s shoulder. “And it will be wonderful!”

“For our family, certainly.” Annie lifted her hands, grabbed her mother’s wrists, lowered her arms. “But, why all the scheming? Why not be direct, let people know about our plans?”

Laura frowned, tutted. “Dear, do you remember when Uncle Joe ran for town manager?”

Annie glanced up at the ceiling, then nodded. “I remember, I was five – ”

” – do you also remember how badly he was clobbered?” Laura Hutchinson shuddered. “We don’t speak of it much anymore – 18 percent is not a pleasant memory – but we learned, oh we learned from that defeat. We learned that people, for all their talk about wanting honesty, don’t really want to know the truth. What they want is – a good story. And Uncle Joe learned that people didn’t want to hear the Stevens’ story, because we are so direct, we can’t help but tell the truth that’s so terrifying to the masses.”

Annie cleared her throat. “But Father – the Hutchinson family story – ”

“The Hutchinson family!” Laura threw her hands up in the air. “The good people of Bark Bay love the Hutchinsons, admire how the family acquired its wealth over the generations, respect our civic involvement, the legendary Hutchinson philanthropy. People want to believe the story of our family, so much that they’re willing to ignore its more illicit sides.”

“The bootlegging?”

“That – and more.” Laura smiled as she returned her gaze towards the hearth. Annie turned as well, mother and daughter standing side by side in front of the dying fire.

A log engulfed a pocket of air that had formed under it, sending an orange tongue of flame licking above the fire.

“It’s a wonder,” Laura’s voice soft as the dying flames, “that the family hasn’t dabbled in politics until now.”

Annie crossed her arms across her chest, turned and looked bemusedly at her mother. “All we needed was somebody willing to – ” she paused to allow her mother to complete turning in her direction, Annie noting the expectation in her face ” – cash in on the family’s name.”

Exactly.” Laura’s eyes were wide with an excitement that waved from her face, only to crest and expire on the shore’s of Annie’s stoic face. “Oh dear, you look so upset, Bunny. You must understand, this is just politics, business. What upsets you so?”

“It’s – ” the teen ran her hands back through her hair – “I just don’t like all the deception, the dishonesty. It’s not what we’ve done, not what this family is about.”

“Please, Bunny. Who, exactly, do you think we’re deceiving?”

Annie’s left arm shot out, pointed in the direction of their home’s front door. “The people of Bark Bay, Mother. All the people we’ve known all our lives, our neighbors. They’re my friends – ”

“They’re sheep!” The word shot out of Laura’s mouth like a bullet, as her arm grabbed Annie’s, pulled it down. “People like the parents of your friends this evening – belligerent drunks like Paul Banks, religious dimwits like the Goodmans, all those absent fathers and weak mothers! Do you honestly think that people like them, have any idea what’s good for them? How should any of them have a say in the future of this town? What they need, is someone strong enough, wise enough to make decisions for them, save them from their own incompetence! Bark Bay needs people like your father, Annie, if this town is to have any hope of survival!”

Annie stood frozen, both eyes and mouth wide with disbelief. The teen knew she needed to respond, but the pat phrases that came to her mind all seemed inadequate in comparison to the enormity of what she had just heard. It sounded wrong, all wrong to her, but in her mother’s searing gaze she detected no hint of uncertainty. Annie knew she wasn’t prepared to win this fight, not on this evening at least; yet that didn’t mean she had to concede.

“It’s late, Mother.” Perhaps she would accept a delay. “It’s been a really long evening. I don’t know about you – but I’m kind of tired.”

She saw a hint of disappointment in her mother’s face, replaced momentarily with a bemused grin. “Of course, Bunny. I understand.”

Annie smiled, raised her arms and hugged her mother warmly. Breaking the embrace a moment later, she kissed her mother on the cheek as the separated, stepped back as she held her mother’s hands – “I love you, Mother. I will always love you.”

“And I, you.” All traces of the scowl she’d displayed when discussing her schemes had vanished, replaced with a maternal smile of blessing. They hugged again, Laura following by asking if her daughter was coming to bed. “Not yet – ” she took the poker from the stand next to the hearth, parted the chain-link screen in front of the fire – “I’d like to stay until the fire goes out.”

With a final reminder to her daughter about closing the hearth when she was done, Laura Hutchinson strode out of the room. Annie opened the hearth screen, poked at the smoldering fire, orange sparks rising from the gray bark of the nearly consumed log; she watched the log collapse, erupting into small orange-blue flames.

She closed the hearth screen, stepped back from the warmth, looked up at the antique map again. She located the approximation locations of her uncle’s lands, and thought of what her mother had said that evening. Annie hadn’t liked the tone of her mother’s voice, detected a mendacity she had never suspected. She had meant what she had seen at the end of their talk, she did love her parents, knew with a certainty she felt as certain as the beating of her heart that her love for them would never change.

But she could not trust them anymore, not nearly as much as she had before this evening. Annie could love them, but not trust them – the thought sounded odd to her, but correct, like a perfect recital of a poem composed in a language she did not understand.

Annie looked around the room. She saw the fencing mask and foil that her mother had found, the one Butch had left behind by accident. She remembered the rush of excitement she’d felt when Rex recommended she be named captain. She turned back to the antique map, and in the dim glass that covered it, saw her reflection. She was Annie. Annie Hutchinson, captain of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. And for the first time that evening, that title sounded right and good to her.

End of “December”

Advertisements

Gray Metal Faces – December 10

[Update 12/31/15: Just realized I had the name of Annie’s mother wrong throughout this post; only that name has been changed in the update below.]

Carl Hutchinson would soon excuse himself, retreat to his office on the third floor. It was late, but Annie was too full of energy to retire. She walked into the library, a small room off the side of the front foyer that had existed since the house had been built over a century ago, a large brick hearth on the inside wall now serving as evidence of the room’s original use. An embering fire glowed orange and black within the hearth.

Annie’s family had converted this room into a library a generation before she was born. She scanned the shelves, hoping to find a book that would help calm her, reading herself to sleep being something she had long enjoyed. But she found her mind was racing too fast to focus even momentarily on the task of book selection.

Her attention turned quickly to the walls, the portraits and art with which she was long familiar, a large antique map hanging above the hearth finally captivating her. She walked slowly towards it, as if drawn in by gravity, stopping herself in front of the warm hearth as she looked up.

She found herself staring at the map a long time. Studying it. Analyzing its data in relation to other information she had heard earlier in the evening.

Hearing the sounds of her mother’s footsteps, she turned to the doorway, saw her enter, pearls smiling across her chest. Laura Hutchinson carried a foil in her right hand (held as her daughter had instructed her back in October – point down, blade between index and middle fingers, cup the hand under the bell guard like you were carrying a bowl), a fencing mask in her left – “I think one of your teammates left this behind.”

“Sorry,” Annie quickly turning to her mother with outstretched arms. “I’ll take care of that.” Taking the foil and mask, her momentum clearly indicating her intent to leave and find an appropriate storage location for the equipment – Annie stopped when her mother laid a gentle yet commanding hand on her shoulder.

“Over there, for now,” Laura pointing to an armchair to the side of the doorway. “I haven’t had a chance to talk with you all evening.” Annie seated the foil and mask, then turned with a smile to her mother, daughter wrapping her arms around the smiling woman’s left arm as they walked over to the gravitational warmth of the hearth.

“There was a lot going on tonight,” the apology in Annie’s voice hanging like a sentence. “I’m sorry – ”

Laura Hutchinson tutted, throwing her head back. “You have nothing to be sorry about. This was your night, Bunny – if I can still call you that.”

“While we’re alone, of course.”

They stopped in front of the hearth, orange embers in the remnants of the fire gasping for air. “I asked your coach, if many sophomores like you were captains of their fencing teams. He told me he didn’t know of any others.”

Annie looked down, blushing for the first time that evening. “Well, we’re an unusual team.”

Laura Hutchinson arched her eyebrows, relaxed her face, turned back to the fire. “You know, I realized this evening as I saw you – what do you call it, dueling?”

Annie looked in her direction a moment, her focus not on her mother’s face but rather on decrypting her question. “Oh – sparring. We call it sparring. Dueling sounds a little rough.”

Laura nodded. Annie saw a glint of the expiring fire in her mother’s pearls. “All right, when you were sparring tonight – that’s when I realized that I’ve never asked you, in this last year and a half that you started fencing – why, exactly, do you like it so much? There’s no problem of course – I’m just curious. You used to be so into gymnastics, so into dancing, but last year, all of that stopped. I’d just like to know – why fencing?”

Annie’s answer came to her effortlessly, some of the words she spoke surprising her even as she uttered them, as if she were speaking not from her conscious mind with its filters and catch phrases – her words seemed to come from some place deeper inside her, not a place as tangible as her conscious where she could identify thoughts, memories, emotions, yet a place that seemed far more real:

“I fence because it’s the only thing that’s ever inspired me. All the dance lessons, the gymnastics – the AP classes, college prep – debate club, Young Entrepreneurs – all of that was fun, but all I’ve ever done is go through the motions with any of that. No, it wasn’t all easy at first, but I never had any problem catching on. I’ve never actually enjoyed the act of doing something – until I started fencing.

“Fencing takes everything that I have, everything that I can deliver – physically, intellectually, emotionally. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done where I’ve responded to defeat not with disappointment, but excitement – here’s a new challenge to conquer, a new code to decipher. And the beauty is, it never ends, there’s always someone just a little better than the person you just beat.

“Why fencing?” Annie felt more certain than she had ever felt in her young life. “Because it makes me feel alive.”

Laura Hutchinson took a step back, looked at her daughter with surprise and awe. Then her face softened into a smile that was echoed by the arc of pearls across her chest – “Now I understand why they wanted you to be their captain.”

Annie smiled, turned her attention back to the map above the hearth, warmth still emanating from its fading orange embers. She opened her mouth to speak, but was stopped by her mother. “So what exactly does this mean? What exactly does a fencing captain – do?”

Annie shrugged. “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. You have to take charge at times during tournaments, when Coach Dan is too busy to talk with an official or help someone on the team – at least that’s what Myles did last year when he was captain. But that didn’t happen all the time, and I think Coach Dan allowed Myles to be in charge more than he needed to be. I dunno – guess he trusted him.”

“I’m sure Coach Dan will trust you as well.”

Annie smiled, looked down. “Yeah.” She looked up at the map again.

Laura Hutchinson looked in the direction that was obviously drawing her daughter’s attention. “Ah – the old map. Hasn’t been accurate for decades – shows the river before the hyrdro dam was built,” pointing up to the left corner, “before Lake George even existed – but the map’s so beautifully drawn, so artistic. It may not be functional, but it hasn’t lost its beauty over the years.”

Annie laughed, sarcasm in her utterance mixed with embarrassment at not being able to conceal her derision.

“Something wrong?”

The daughter of Carl and Laura Hutchinson realized she wouldn’t be able to conceal her thoughts much longer. Better to come out with it now – “It’s not about the bridge, is it?”

She looked over at her mother, mouth open in surprise, but eyes filled with recognition. Annie sighed – “Father running for state senate; it’s never been about the bridge.”

Annie’s mother closed her mouth, and crossed her arms, shoulders visibly raised.

Annie turned back to the map, pointed to the lower left section. “If they build the new bridge, the state’s going to need roads running to and from it. There’s two possibilities. Route 16” – Annie pointed to a location on the wall to the left and below the map – “comes in from the south, and they could run the access road off there. Other option” – now Annie pointed to a spot higher on the wall to the map’s left – “is to come down off the Interstate, from the north. The state would get money from the federal government if they connect to the Interstate, but it’s a much longer route, and more expensive, than the southern option.”

“I see you’ve been reading the Bark Bay Beacon,” a touch of impatience in her mother’s reply.

Annie turned back to her mother. “The northern route also goes through all that unincorporated land my uncles own.”

Laura Hutchinson clenched her arms more tightly.

“Have my uncles also bought land on the other side of the river?”

Laura Hutchinson smiled briefly, Annie seeing for a moment the same face she had seen after winning a gymnastics tournament, or completing a piano recital. But the smile quickly gave way to a stern look of defiance – “Go on.”

“Everyone’s so focused on the bridge, they’re not even thinking about the access roads – and when they do, they all assume it’s going to be the southern option. And the unincorporated land’s owned by holding companies, your brothers are only some of many investors. The connection back to our family – ”

” – is too subtle for the fools at the Beacon to figure out.” Laura Hutchinson sounded proud of her assertion.

Annie looked down, shaking her head. “But it’s not about the money, is it? What the family will make off selling the land to the government would be a fraction of what we already have.”

Laura Hutchinson nodded. “Running for office, letting the voters decide – that’s not a sound business plan.”

The fire sputtered in the hearth to her left. Annie swallowed visibly, stabbed her gaze into her mother’s unblinking eyes.

“Does Father know?”

A protesting look What on earth do you mean? Know what? crossed Laura Hutchinson’s face for a moment, was quickly replaced with a knowing smile.

“He knows – enough.”

Annie laughed. “Just enough to know that he shouldn’t ask any more questions?”

“Your father’s an intelligent man.”

“But not as smart as his wife?”

“Your father is a Hutchinson. The Hutchinsons have sat on their wealth for over a century, have rested on it, never using it, content to let it stagnate. There’s never been a plan, never been a next step.”

“But your family, the Stevens – you’ve come into your wealth recently – ”

“Your uncles know how to make money, a skill the Hutchinsons lost generations ago.”

Annie turned towards the hearth and gazed up at the map. She spoke to the map with words intended for her mother.

“Father wins the election, replacing the only state senator with enough clout to block the bridge project. Our family doesn’t own any of the land for the bridge, so we don’t get any money from the state. But Uncle Joe, Uncle Tom, they’ve been buying land for one of the proposed access routes; not the route people are expecting, but should that route be selected, we’ll see all kinds of development – retail, housing, maybe even an industrial park or two. We’ll have all this money coming in, all of it filtered through joint ownerships in holding companies – entities that can always be bought, after Father leaves office. He’s still talking about only serving one term?”

Annie turned to her mother, who nodded knowingly. Annie returned her gaze to the map.

“And if the Beacon, or somebody else puts all the pieces together – Father’s still distant enough from the real estate transactions to make his denials seem reasonably plausible, to the press, even a judge.

“But – ” Annie now turning to her mother ” – I can’t help feeling that there’s something else, something I’m not seeing. Yes, the family will grow even richer, but that’s not the objective, is it?”

Laura Hutchinson shook her head, her smile still pregnant with knowledge.

Gray Metal Faces – December 9

The caterers disassembled their equipment and left, followed soon by each of her teammates. A few hours later, Annie was alone in the kitchen, sitting on a high stool and eating a large bowl of orange sherbet, having ignored (with a plaintive but accepting sigh) the seductive call of the ice cream upon opening the freezer door.

The sound of stocking feet padded from the dining room, footfalls too quick to be from her parents. “Hey Si,” her greeting spoken before her brother came into full view.

Sierra waved quickly without looking at her, his eyes fixed on the refrigerator, his actions intent on unveiling its contents.

“Chicken was pretty good tonight,” Annie addressing the back of her brother.

“How’s the pasta?” Sierra opened the refrigerator door and scanning its contents, like an action movie hero opening a treasure chest.

“Too much salt.”

“Sounds good to me.” Sierra pulled a tin pan from the refrigerator, Annie watching silently as he opened a cupboard and retrieved a plate, heaping it high with pasta, the capers and seasoning barely recognizable in the smothering cheese sauce. She was reminded of the pleasure on Rex’s face as he had quickly devoured a similarly large plate earlier that evening.

“Rex asked about you tonight.” Annie wondered if her brother would respond.

Sierra did not look up at her. “I was in my room.”

“I know.” His fork clinked against the plate. “I don’t understand why you feel the need to hide like that.”

Sierra stopped, looked up at Annie, his face spiked with indignation.

“You want to have a party for your little fencing team, that’s fine,” Sierra’s voice rising indignantly. “But in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not into sword fighting.”

“They’re weapons, not swords.” Annie frowned. “And you know Double-J and Rex better than I do, from before you started going to the Academy, you’ve been hanging out with them ever since you got back on break.”

Sierra shrugged.

“So why didn’t you come down this evening?”

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t care.”

“Then why are you asking?”

Annie sighed, audibly but soft. The refrigerator compressor started, its electric hum filling the kitchen, causing Annie to raise the volume of her voice. “I’m worried about Rex. I see how people treat him at school, hear what people say about him, about his family. I know it bothers him, I’m amazed he never fights back. I’m afraid – afraid that if his friends don’t support him, he’ll crack some day, give in to that anger he feels.

“Si, you’re not only one of his oldest friends, you’re one of his only friends. You’re not bothering to come down this evening when he was here – I’m just concerned he’ll get the wrong message, see it as you ignoring him.

“That’s why I asked about where you were tonight. Not everything’s about you and me – what we do has an effect on a lot of people.”

The refrigerator compressor continued its white hum. Sierra looked at Annie, softness having returned to his face as she spoke. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll call Rex tomorrow.”

“How are you going to do that?”

Sierra raised his eyebrows, opened his mouth slowly, embarrassment creeping onto his face; Rex’s family didn’t have a phone.

Sierra looked down at his plate, began eating the pasta covered in clumps of white cheese. Annie tapped the plate’s edge – “Don’t you want to heat that up?”

Sierra shook his head slowly as he chewed, then swallowed. “Leftover Italian always tastes better cold. Like pizza.”

“Isn’t that what people eat when they’re hung over?”

Sierra looked up at Annie, offered what seemed to her an attempt at an evil smile.

“You win an award tonight?” Sierra then resumed eating, a thin strand of cheese attaching to the bottom of his fork, connecting the rising metal and stationary plate until it finally broke, settled back to the rest of the plate, as his mouth enclosed over the fork.

Annie shook her head. “No. I mean – well, I guess you could call it that.” Her face suddenly lit up with a broad smile. “I was asked to be fencing team captain tonight.”

Sierra nodded while looking down, clearly more interested in the contents of his plate than the substance of her words. He swallowed – “You accepted, right?”

Annie shrugged. “Yeah. Why not?”

“Oh please,” Sierra turning to the refrigerator and opening its door. “Knock off the aw shucks routine.” He retrieved a pitcher from the fridge’s interior, closed the door, grabbed a tumbler from the drain board next to the sink. “Modesty isn’t one of our family’s strengths. We’re at our best when we’re openly ambitious. Of course you accepted, not because it ‘sounds like a good idea'”, raising his hands awkwardly as he continued holding the pitcher and tumbler wh8le signaling quotation marks with his fingers, “but because that’s what you want. You’re a Hutchinson – we take over things. That’s what we do.”

The electric hum from the refrigerator ceased, the compressor having cycled down. Sierra resumed eating. Annie’s arms circled her legs as she brought her knees up to her chin, the heels of her feet landing on the front of her seat. Finally, she raised her head – “Everyone seemed happy about me being captain.”

Sierra giggled. “Even Double-J? Was he happy?”

“Is Double-J ever happy?”

Sierra nodded agreeingly, laid his fork on the plate in front of him clink, drank quickly. “You shouldn’t worry about what Double-J thinks, or any of them for what it’s worth. People like them, they need people like us, to show them what to do.”

“You’re full of it,” Annie’s voice slashing from behind her knees. “I’m only the third, maybe fourth best fencer on the team. I look up to Rex and Double-J.”

“But do you respect them?”

“Of course!”

Sierra smiled. “As fencers, or as people?”

Annie grunted, turned her face away from him.

Sierra drank again, hurrying the empty tumbler down to the table when he finished. “They say they’re happy for you, and yeah, they probably are. But they also know they need you, and you can bet they’re not happy about that. And sooner or later, they’re going to resent you for making them recognize their inadequacies.”

Her head still turned from Sierra, Annie laughed dismissively. “There are times I’m really glad you’re at the Academy.”

“And there’s never a time I regret not being at Bark Bay.”

“Jerk.”

“Loser.”

Annie slid her feet quickly off the chair, her eyes now wide, her mouth opening in response when she heard a voice call That’s enough.

Both Sierra and Annie turned quickly to see their silver-haired father standing in the kitchen doorway, his pleasant smile reinforcing his command for his children to cease arguing. “Enjoying your late-night snack?” Carl Hutchinson’s face now pointed in his son’s direction.

“Yeah,” Sierra looking down at the floor as he turned to leave. He had almost reached the doorway when he noticed his father had not stepped aside.

Carl Hutchinson cleared his throat; Sierra looked up to see him pointing at the kitchen table, Sierra’s plate and tumbler lying on top. Sierra apologized, turned back to the table.

“Thank you.” Carl Hutchinson stepped inside the kitchen, paying no further attention to his son as he placed the dirty dishes in the sink, then left quickly, making no attempt to hide his impatience.

“I trust you enjoyed this evening,” Carl Hutchinson sitting across from his daughter.

“Absolutely,” Annie’s pleasant demeanor returning. “What a complete surprise, I had no idea they wanted to make me captain.”

Carl Hutchinson smiled broadly, the light reflecting off his silver hair. “To be honest, I wasn’t surprised at all. If anything, I was relieved to see someone finally realizing your potential. Recognizing who it is that you really are.”

Annie smiled, looked down. She brought her feet up to the seat again, knees to her chin, arms around her legs.

“You look uncomfortable.” Annie realized she was frowning.

“It’s just – I’m remembering some stuff people were saying tonight.”

“About you?” Concern spread on his face like a fire on dry twigs.

Annie shook her head. “About – us. Our family. About – ”

“The election?” Carl Hutchinson leaned back in his chair with a confident smile. Annie nodded.

Carl Hutchinson leaned forward, and in that action underwent a transformation, or so Annie perceived, becoming the man she had seen standing tall at the steps of the Bark Bay City Hall that afternoon in October, announcing in proud terms that he was a candidate for the state Senate, answering questions about his motivations (I simply want to serve the people of this great city), his opponent (After four decades of distinguished public service, it’s time for him to gracefully step aside), his financial interest in the bridge project (Read my lips – I am NOT running this campaign in order to build a bridge).

“Annie,” began senatorial candidate Carl Benjamin Hutchinson, “remember what we talked about over the summer. We talked about what people would say about me, about our family. What you’re hearing now should come as no surprise to you.”

The senatorial candidate waited for Annie to respond. She nodded, he continued. “I understand how painful some of those things are to hear. Trust me, I feel your pain. Over the summer we talked about how difficult this campaign would be, and we all agreed – your mother, Sierra, yourself – that this was a noble ambition, not just for myself, but for our family.”

The severity in Carl’s expression melted as he addressed his daughter in hushed tones. “Our family has lived in this community for six generations. We came from humble beginnings – Jeremiah Hutchinson with his wife and four children in that one-room farmhouse out the back,” waving in the general direction of the decaying building that Annie and Sierra had played in as children. “We rose in prominence, founding the first lumber mill, becoming merchants, ship captains, then moving into the professions – doctors, teachers, lawyers. Our family has done so much over the years, Annie, but there’s one thing we have never done, and that is to lead, not just economic and civic leaders, but political leaders of this community.

“I’m not doing this just for myself, Annie. I’m doing this for all of us, our family as well as our ancestors. I am completing the journey that Jeremiah Hutchinson began nearly two centuries ago.”

Carl Hutchinson stood up, silver hair rising to the ceiling. “People will talk, there’s no stopping that. Just remember, when they do talk about me, they’re talking about Carl Hutchinson, state Senate candidate – not your father.”

Annie looked up at him, saw tears bubbling at the corners of his eyes. “Always remember – no matter what happens in this election – I will always be your father. And you shall remain my daughter, my dear one – my Bunny.”

Annie rose from her chair with a gentle smile, slid her arms around her father’s chest, buried her head into his body. He embraced her warmly, patted the back of her head. A moment later, she stepped back.

“I need – ” She looked down.

“What is it, Bunny?” placing a hand on her shoulder.

Annie closed her eyes, sighed, reached over to her father’s hand and removed his grasp of her. “I need to ask a question of the state Senate candidate,” looking up at him with a steady, expectant look.

Carl Hutchinson opened his mouth in surprise a moment, then quickly composed himself, cleared his throat. “Go on.”

“Do you maintain a financial or controlling interest in the land that the Department of Transportation has identified for purchasing the new bridge?”

The state Senate candidate looked down at Annie Hutchinson. He cleared his throat again, and recited the lines she had heard him rehearsing with his campaign manager the previous weekend. “It is true, the DOT last year proposed building the new bridge on land our family owned for over a century. What is also true is that we sold all that land six years ago, before the DOT even proposed the new bridge. Our family is neither financially invested in nor has representation in any fashion,” his voice rising with rehearsed emphasis, “on the board of directors of the holding company that now owns that land.”

Annie looked up at her father, and nodded with a tired smile. “Thank you.”

Gray Metal Faces – December 8

An hour later, Rex was shaking hands with Annie’s silver-haired father, thanking him for the evening’s hospitality, a large plastic bag containing the doggie bag Annie had forced on him (with surprisingly little resistance) lying on the floor by his right foot. “My pleasure,” Carl Hutchinson’s glistening white teeth catching a beam of light from the overhead chandelier.

Annie re-entered the dining room, positioned herself among her teammates to remain within earshot of the conversation between Rex and her father, while distant enough to conceal her intent. Over the murmur of other conversations, she was only able to hear individual words her father whispered – Johnson (a name she had heard Rex mention before – yes, that man from the state, Child And Family Services), attorney, fight – before Coach Dan called her over.

“Where’s Double-J?” Coach Dan’s eyes scanning the room around him.

“Outside, having a smoke,” Annie pointing in the direction of the kitchen. Coach Dan turned from her, called Butch over to him, asked him to get Double-J, finally turned back to Annie, who stared intently back at him – “What’s up?”

Coach Dan paused visibly a moment, Annie detecting in his face the quick formation of a plan, a response that would be as much calculation as communication. Then he smiled, the mechanism of his cunning seeming to come to a rest – “I have an – announcement to make.”

The sound of wet sneakers squeaking against the tiled floor came from the kitchen. “Hey Jacobs – ” Double-J entered the dining room, trailed by Butch – “since I already know what your big announcement is, think I’ll just get going.”

“Five minutes,” Coach Dan holding up the palm of his hand to Double-J, all five fingers extended, looking as if he were trying to cast a spell that would cause the young man to stay. Double-J shrugged, thrust his hands in his coat pockets, stood to the side of the room, the melting snow from his sneakers forming a pool at his feet.

Coach Dan called for Rex to stand next to him, then motioned with his right arm for everyone to gather in front of them. Butch turned to Double-J, pointed to an empty spot on the floor next to him, his offer met with a wry smirk and a shake of the head.

Placing his left hand on Rex’s shoulder, and raising his right arm toward the bright lights above the dining hall, Coach Dan cleared his throat dramatically. “Before Rex and I make our big announcement, I would like to again thank Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson, not only for their generous hospitality this evening – dinner was superb – but also their continued support of the Bark Bay fencing team.” Polite, sincere applause, even from Double-J. Coach Dan clasped his hands in front of him, and continued.

“As you know, we have been functioning without a team captain so far this season. Now this is not that unusual, given the highly individualistic nature of fencing – many of the teams we compete against do not have captains, function fine without them.”

“JanHar was named captain for the Academy today.” Annie seemed unconcerned that she had already conveyed this news to everyone in the room, multiple times.

Coach Dan nodded in her direction. “True. And the last two years, we also had a captain.” There was a brief silence as memories of Myles, both distant and recent, came to everyone. “Back then I saw there was a clear need for a captain, a leader who could help define our team’s identity. We were still the new kids on the block, and having someone serve such a visible role was crucial to our development.

“But it’s a new year, a new season, a new team. Many familiar faces, but some new. When we began practicing in the fall, I had no idea how you all would interact with each other, could not see what team you might become. What I did know was that if I appointed a captain,” – Annie could see that Coach Dan was now looking beyond them, was focused on Double-J – “the entire team would begin to revolve around that person, like moons pulled into orbit by the gravity from a powerful planet. I wanted to see every one of you – develop a bit first, before deciding if you needed a captain.

“And then,” Coach Dan turning to Rex, “the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, I had a conversation with this fine young gentleman. Told him I though the team could use a captain. He agreed.”

Rex seemed uncomfortable, as if he were forcing himself to speak. “We have a lot of – strong personalities on the team,” Annie sensing that he was also now addressing Double-J directly. “There is no shortage of advice given at practice. If anything, there’s too much advice, isn’t there, Butch?”

Butch head bobbed up and down swiftly. “Oh! Yeah. You remind me to keep my back straight, Annie tells me to concentrate on my footwork, Double-J says I need to pay attention to my arm position, then Coach Dan talks for five minutes about keeping distance – it’s overwhelming.”

Coach Dan regained control of the conversation quickly. “It’s a difficult sport, my friend. There’s a lot to take in, and I agreed with Rex about the babel of advice at practice. And that,” extending his right arm towards Rex, “is when I asked Rex to be this year’s captain of the Bark Bay fencing team.”

“YES,” Annie clapping enthusiastically. She looked to the teammates around her, who also began clapping, then turned to Double-J, who remained standing to the side of the room, not clapping, a sarcastic smile slithering onto his face as he saw Annie looking at him, the smile freezing into position as Double-J pointed back to Coach Dan.

Coach Dan waited until the applause ended. “And Rex’s response, was a complete surprise.”

Rex smiled, looked down at the lights reflecting off the marbled floor a moment, then looked up and addressed the party. “I told Coach I wasn’t the right person for the job. Then I told him that I had already been talking to Double-J about who should be captain.”

Annie turned to Double-J, still standing by himself off to the side, away from the lights in the darkest spot in the room. The joy that had been on her face disappeared, replaced with a look that conveyed concern, amazement, and anger, feelings that only increased when she saw that the snake of his mustache smile appeared to have grown.

Rex pointed at Double-J. “Care to tell everyone what you said?”

Double-J shrugged. “Not particularly,” drawing a ripple of nervous laughter in the room.

Annie felt eyes turning directly at her – first Double-J’s, then Coach Dan’s and Rex’s, and then if by silent cue everyone else in the room turned in her direction, as her mouth fell open.

“Right. Double-J and I agreed that there was only one person who had everyone’s respect on this team, one person everyone could look to, only one person with both the fencing skills and leadership ability to be this team’s captain. And that person,” Rex extending his right arm in her direction, “is Annie.”

Annie felt as if an invisible wave was descending upon her, a wave that refreshed her, invigorated her spirit, while at the same time overwhelming her, causing her to stagger backwards. She knew in an instant that this moment was the realization of her most secretive fantasy. She had never mentioned her desire to be fencing captain to anyone – hers had been a stealth campaign, conducted with the knowledge that overt ambition would have been met forcefully from more powerful personalities, would have created a struggle she was not sure she could win. She couldn’t contest openly for the position, but she could demonstrate to her teammates that she had the sharpest intellect, the greatest patience, and most pronounced skill of them all – as well as make sure each of them recognized these traits.

It was a fantasy she kept close to her, one she would dismiss quickly whenever it rose to her consciousness (which often happened whenever she heard Double-J openly proclaimed his desire to be captain). But now that Rex was offering her the captaincy, she felt embarrassed, as if he were saying We were on to you the whole time. And for a moment she felt like refusing the offer, to keep her secret fantasy safe. But only a moment.

The response from her team was uniform and enthusiastic. You’re exactly what we need (Rex) This is so cool (Butch) I’m so happy for you (The Bird) You’ve earned this (Rune). Even Double-J came in from the shadowed edge of the dining room, stood under the bright lights from the ceiling and, looking at Annie with an uncharacteristically pleasant smile, offered his right hand – “Congratulations.”

Having been congratulated by each of her teammates, Annie saw Coach Dan stepping towards her, extending his arms wide, not so much inviting as commanding. She ran up, threw herself into him with enough force to cause him to step back. Her face buried in his chest, she let loose the sob that she had been fighting back ever since Rex’s announcement.

“Aw, don’t be so sad,” Rune’s hyperbolic irony hanging over in his voice like a curtain. “We promise to be nicer to you than we were to Myles.”

Annie pulled away from Coach Dan, her wet eyes glistening above her broad smile. “I’m sorry,” sobbing a laugh. “I’m just . . . so happy.”

“If I may be so bold,” Coach Dan patting her on the shoulder, “I believe one of your new functions, is to provide motivational speeches. My friend, I believe it’s time for your first speech.”

Polite applause filtered through the circle as the crowd backed away from Annie, leaving her alone in a circle of bright light. Wiping the tears streaked on her cheek, she cleared her throat, raised both chin and voice, and spoke.

“Actually, you were on to something Rune.” She turned to smile at each of her teammates. “There is, actually, a reason to be sad. Up to now I was just someone on the team, one of the guys, or gals,” nodding in The Bird’s direction. “Part of the reason I enjoy fencing so much is being part of this team. We have so much fun together, enjoy hanging around before and after practice, joking around, that kind of stuff made me love being on the team since day one.

“But last year, I noticed there was one guy who didn’t joke around so much, didn’t seem to want to hang out with the rest of us. It was Myles, and it wasn’t that he was unfriendly – you could always approach him, ask him anything, he always made time for you – just kind of . . . aloof, was the best word for it.

“I remember asking him about it one day, asked if something was wrong, and he said Captains can’t be anybody’s buddy. I told him that I didn’t agree, that he just needed to loosen up a little, and he just shrugged and continued practicing. It wasn’t until late in the year, when I started competing in tournaments, that I appreciated what he had to say. When I really started to focus on my game, started thinking about what I needed to do to start winning, I noticed that aside from Coach Dan, the person whose advice I followed most closely was Myles’, not simply because he was our best fencer but because of the way he carried himself, showed that above all else he was dedicated to improving his game. He was leading by example, showing us by his actions that we needed to take this sport seriously if we wanted to get better at it.

“And I saw it had an effect – when Myles spoke, everyone listened, and that listening made everyone better. I’ll always appreciate how he acted back then – regardless of what happened last month – and that’s the example that I want to follow, now that you’ve chosen to make me your captain.”

Annie’s eyes glistened wetly as she continued, “So while I’m happy, so honored to be named your team captain, I’m also a little sad to know – that I can’t just be your buddy anymore. That I can’t be the person you used to know.”

To Annie’s surprise, it was The Bird who objected. Nothing had really changed, her voice squeaking like a cartoon mouse, because all of them were always changing. It was what they did.

“An excellent point,” Coach Dan stepping forward quickly, drawing everyone’s attention. “Change is inevitable, and while we can’t choose whether change will come, we can choose how we face it – we can be afraid, and let change dictate our destiny, or we can embrace it, search for the new opportunities that change presents.”

He turned, walked backwards a few steps until he stood next to Annie, put his right arm across her shoulders. “It’s true that Myles had a distinct approach to being the captain, and it was certainly effective. But you” – and now he pulled Annie in close to him – “are not Myles. What worked for him may not work for you, and if I may be so bold, if all you do as captain of this fencing team is try to imitate Myles – you’ll be ineffective, and miserable.”

Annie looked up at him, and nodded. Her eyes were red but now dry, her gaze steady. The tears on her cheeks evaporated like memories.

“I don’t want you to be Myles,” Coach Dan looking down intently at her. “I want you to be Annie. ANNIEHUTCHINSON,” tugging hard on her shoulders as he said her names, the action rising a giggle from Annie that ripped through the crowd around them. “Rex said earlier that both he and Double-J had recommended you for the captaincy. This is true – but what he didn’t tell you is that I had final say over the decision. And when they made their recommendation, they presented me with one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make. No, you are not Myles. You are Annie Hutchinson. And if the team decides on you as your captain, all I can say is – ” he now turned to face the crowd – “great choice.”

Enthusiastic applause erupted from her teammates. Annie stepped forward with beaming face, thrust her right arm high, then brought it down and carried it into her body as she bowed deeply.

As she brought her body upright, she saw her silver-haired father and mother with the smiling pearls approach, faces bright with pleasure. Carl Hutchinson reached his pony-tailed daughter first, and clasped her shoulders with both hands – “I am – so proud of you.”

Annie smiled at her father, her face then melting with tears.

Gray Metal Faces – December 7

Annie walked into the kitchen, the door closing swiftly, leaving Double-J alone in the cold winter night’s air. His body arched over the main sink, Jimmy looked up at the sound, smiled at Annie – “Are you a fan of the Tigers?”

Annie looked at him, confused. Jimmy pointed at his body, over his heart. “Your shirt.”

Annie looked down, saw the white of her fencing jacket, needing a moment to fully understood Jimmy’s reference. Under her jacket she was wearing a baseball shirt with the Detroit Tigers’ logo; Jimmy must have seen her wearing it before she started fencing that evening. Annie nodded, then shook her head. “Not a fan, no. I just like that old English D.” Jimmy nodded, began washing his hands over the sink as Annie walked into the dining room.

The large marble-floored room was surrounded on three sides by large bay windows. The silky white curtains were drawn back this evening, offering in the soft moonlight a clear view of the rear yard of the Hutchinson estate, covered this evening in a smooth layer of undisturbed snow, resembling a base layer of white frosting on a layered cake. The lights in the dining room were hung close enough to the high ceiling to avoid glare on the bay windows. When thick clouds covered the moon, the windows acted like mirrors against the darkness of night.

Annie looked across the dining room to her silver-haired father, smiling as he spoke with Paul Banks, his yellow tie unraveling from his neck, a glass filled again with icy scotch in his hand. Annie looked beyond them to their reflections on the wall-length windows behind them, counted the number of reflections she saw, her father and Paul Banks talking once, twice, three times.

She felt a hand on the back of her shoulder, knew from the touch it was her mother. “Dear, I thought you said your friends were sharp, perceptive.” Annie scanned the room quickly, saw savory steam rising from the uncovered serving trays, a stack of white plates undisturbed at the start of the line.

“Yes – ” she stepped forward, away from her mother, firing one last comment back – “and they’re polite as well” – before taking another step forward, lifting her chin – “Everybody, please, let’s eat!”

Carl Hutchinson turned his silver hair to Coach Dan as the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team descended on the buffet. “She’s a natural leader, isn’t she?” Coach Dan nodded in agreement – “Her facility in working with people like she does, that isn’t innate. It’s something that has to be nurtured. You and Laura have a lot to be proud of.”

Butch approached the buffet line, his reflection in the empty white plate he was holding almost as vivid as his appetite. A voice beckoned to him behind the table, and Butch looked up at Jimmy’s serene face. Butch’s answering smile was visibly calculated, noticeably uncomfortable; Jimmy responded with a question that spoke of his ability, culled from years over experience, at breaking awkward silences.

“Chicken or pasta?”

Butch’s reply got caught in his throat, coming out as krrc before he cleared his throat. “Chicken. Please.”

“Excellent choice.” Jimmy held out a hand to Butch as he looked down and reached with his other hand for the serving spoon. It wasn’t until Jimmy beckoned with his fingers that Butch realized he was asking for his plate.

“Have you been doing this long?”

Jimmy stopped, looked up at Butch. “Pardon?”

“Oh! Just – curious. Have you been a – waiter, all your life.”

From behind, Butch heard Rex clear his throat, then felt the tall teen lean down and whisper in his ear – “He’s the caterer. He owns Squisito.”

Butch looked up at Jimmy, whose face retained its calm demeanor. He laid the serving of chicken on the plate.

“Oh! Sorry, I just – ”

“Enjoy your meal.” Jimmy handed the plate back to Butch.

Butch took the plate with both hands. Then looked up at Jimmy. “So – have you been a caterer, all your life?”

“Not yet.” Jimmy looked off to Butch’s right, making eye contact with Rex.

As she was about to pick up a plate at the end of the line, Annie heard her silver-haired father laughing, and turned to see him patting the shoulder of Paul Banks, who made an effort to smile, succeeding with apparent difficulty.

“I just hope you’re finally able to build that damn bridge.” Paul Banks shook his head aggressively, as if to dislodge a napkin that had landed on his scalp. “Let the chips fall where they may.”

“But Paul, there’s so many parties involved in this process.” Annie could sense her father reverting to the campaign tone he had been developing in his young political career. “It’s not going anywhere until the county planning board gives approval, and they’re not going to budge, they still want to fix the Minimal Bridge. And no matter what route is approved, it’s eventually connecting to the interstate, so the feds have to be involved too. State funding’s only a small part in this.”

Paul’s yellow-tied smile was now uninhibited, full of what he imagined to be secret knowledge, as he pointed to Carl with the plate he held in his left hand. “Really, you don’t have to put on this act, Carl. I’d vote for you anyway, just to get rid of that fossil Stephens.”

“Lee Stephens has – ”

“– been in the fucking state senate since I was a kid!” Paul raised his unencumbered right arm in the air, brushing in flight under his yellow tie which now flew up and pointed at Carl Hutchinson’s silver hair. “He was barely competent when he first got elected, now he’s just a blithering idiot,” yellow tie dancing as Paul continued to gesticulate.

Annie took a step toward her father, who now seemed coolly concerned, but halted when she saw Jenna Banks and Rune walking hurriedly towards Paul with his dancing yellow tie, which had become a slashing sword, swinging from side to side as if he were warding off any attempt to bring him down from his soapbox.

“I used to believe,” tumbler raised high above their heads, “that our politicians should be honest, and competent. Like there’s these two big – I don’t know, bottles, one of them filled with Integrity and the other, Efficiency. And the leaders we elect to public office, they were supposed to drink from both.

“But I’ve learned over the years that it simply ain’t gonna happen, that there’s no way anyone who’s both honest and competent can hope to get anything done. That’s not how our system works. The best we can hope for is a politician who drinks from at least one, who is either corrupt but efficient, or honest but incompetent.

“Stephens, he’s been the most dangerous type of politician, the one who ain’t drunk from either. A corrupt boob, a dumbshit.

“But you, my friend – ” he stepped back, raised his glass in the direction of Carl Hutchinson – “I ain’t figured out which one you are, of yet. But you seem both clever enough to know that you need to drink from one of them bottles, and wise enough to know you can’t drink from both. And so, this spring, you will have my enthusiastic vote.”

Paul Banks lowered his glass, and with a quick nod to silver-haired Carl Hutchinson, who had maintained his cool unsmiling reserve throughout Paul’s speech, raised his glass and drank, the Scotch flowing quickly past his mouth, down through his yellow-tied throat. He finished his drink, and was quickly escorted to the side of the room by Jenna Banks, a look of concerned disdain on her face.

As he returned to the buffet line behind Annie, Rune stared straight down at the marbled floor. Annie placed a hand on the outside of his shoulder, waited for him to look up – “Is he going to be OK?”

Rune shrugged, his long hair waving over his acne-scared forehead. “We just need to get him home. Before he embarrasses himself any worse.” He finally looked up at Annie – “What he said, I’m sorry.”

Annie smirked. “He told me over the summer, just before he started his campaign – politics is a dirty business, so get used to seeing mud on my face.” She reached down for a plate, handed it to Rune. “He can take it. So can I.” She winked. “We’ll be OK.”

As the two teens spoke, Carl and Laura Hutchinson engaged the other dinner guests in polite conversation, Paul Banks’ profane diatribe forgotten like a painful insect bite. Paul would return, his face flush with apology, followed soon by Double-J.

The dinner proceeded without further incident. Several times Annie found herself examining her friends and family – Rex and Butch taking full advantage of the buffet’s abundance (she would later force on Rex a doggie bag filled with enough food to feed his family for several days, despite his objections), The Bird engaging her teammates in her distinctly reserved manner, Rune displaying none of his characteristic reserve, Double-J dominating whatever conversation in which he cared to partake, Coach Dan interacting with the members of her team not so much as coach or teacher but rather as a nurturing friend – and her parents gliding among all of them, enjoying the company of their daughter’s friends as much as her friends enjoyed the magnificent meal prepared on their behalf. It was, Annie realized, the fulfillment of all her ambitions for the evening.

Gray Metal Faces – December 6

“You must be tired,” silver-haired Carl Hutchinson called to her daughter, who responded with a dismissive shake of her brown pony-tail – “I’m not tired. Where’s Double-J?”

Annie stabbed her gaze at Coach Dan, who shrugged and looked over at Butch and Rune, shaking their heads in unison. The Bird’s soft voice announced that Double-J was outside; Annie spun quickly, startling the slender girl – “He left?”

The Bird told her no, and pointed toward the swinging half-doors at the far end of the dining room. “He’s in the kitchen?”

“No,” Rex’s voice commanding her attention. “He said he was going outside, for a smoke.”

In an aggressive walk, Annie pushed through the swinging doors, across the kitchen, past the rear door into the cold winter night, the noise from the hinges barely stopping before she heard Double-J’s mocking voice to her right – “Little chilly to be wearing just your fencing jacket.”

She turned, saw Double-J leaning against the brick wall just outside the doorway, a cigarette dangling between the index and middle fingers of his right hand, held out from his body, the elbow propped against his left hand as he held it across his body. Next to him stood one of the Squisito employees, white jacket lightly stained from the evening meal’s sauces and seasonings. He held his cigarette between his lips, the red glare of the lit end shining in the darkness. The pale kitchen light that reflected off Double-J’s white face and displayed his sarcastic grin seemed to be absorbed by the other man’s dark skin, obscuring his expression from her.

“Excuse me.” The Squisito employee (Jimmy, Annie remembering the name tag she had read earlier) took a step towards the door, only to be stopped by Annie – “It’s OK.” She then turned to Double-J. “You’re the only one I haven’t fenced yet.”

Double-J snorted. “There’s a reason for that,” his right arm levering up at the elbow to bring the cigarette to his mouth.

“I’m not letting you chicken out on me.”

“Call it what you want, I’m not taking part in this silly exhibition you’re putting on for your parents. Go ahead and fence Coach Dan, if you really want a bout.” He raised his dark eyebrows – “Or Jimmy.” Annie looked over, finding enough light to see no sign of surprise in his face, no reaction that indicated he found Double-J’s offer unusual. Jimmy exhaled slowly, twin streams of smoke exiting his nostrils like a dragon.

“You fence?” Annie hoped she gauged his reaction correctly.

“Back in the day.” Jimmy’s tone was coldly analytical. “Long time ago.”

“Where? I mean, I assume it wasn’t any place – local. Oh God,” she drew back, raising a hand to her forehead, “I didn’t mean to say that.”

Double-J uttered a groaning laugh. Jimmy smiled, shook his head. “You’re not the first person to assume I’m not from around here. Probably won’t be the last either. It’s OK, Miss Hutchinson, and you’re right, it weren’t no place local. The parochial school I went to in New Orleans had a fencing team. I played around, couple years.”

“Weapon?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Foil, like everyone else. Little epee too. Was best at saber, like our friend Mr. Johnson over here.”

“Christ, call me Double-J.”

Annie had regained her composure. “You didn’t fence in college?”

Jimmy grinned, shook his head. “Didn’t go to no college, Miss Hutchinson.” He brought his cigarette up to his mouth, inhaled deeply, the red glare at the tip drawing in and vaporizing the white paper. He brought his hand down, turned his head to the side twisting his mouth in the same direction, exhaled smoke behind him. “Fencing was something I did as a kid. Soon as I got done with school, I started working. Don’t have much time for games no more.”

She couldn’t leave that statement unchallenged. “You make time for the things you care about.”

Double-J rolled his eyes, turned away from Annie, drew on his cigarette. Jimmy looked at her, still smiling, but noticeably more serious. “All right then. No, I didn’t care enough about the sport to continue.”

“Or stay in New Orleans.” Double-J’s sudden question caught Jimmy by surprise, for a moment. He drew on his cigarette.

“Spent ten years in the Navy,” smoke puffing from his mouth as Jimmy spoke. “And even though all I saw of the world was what I could see through a periscope, I saw enough to know where I wanted to be, what I was looking for when I got out, could go anywhere I wanted.”

“And you chose Bark Bay because . . . ” Annie’s voice trailing off commanded Jimmy to answer, which he did with a shrug – “Bugs. Wanted to go some place that didn’t have no bugs. They all over the place in New Orleans, but here, most of them die off from the cold.” The metallic sound of a bowl bouncing on a formica counter came from the kitchen doorway; Jimmy threw down his cigarette, stomped and twisted his foot down on it – “I’d best be getting back” – then walked briskly past Double-J and Annie.

The door had yet to close behind Jimmy when Annie turned to Double-J – “Still want to fence you tonight.”

Cigarette balanced between his lips, he leaned against the brick wall behind him, left leg bent at the knee and foot propped against the wall. “Not interested,” cigarette bouncing up and down as he spoke.

“Ah come on. We can do saber if you want.”

Double-J looked down, his disinterest in the conversation as tangible as the winter chill.

A creak from the hinges announced that the door from the kitchen was opening. Annie turned, saw her silver-haired father lean outside, hand grasping the door knob. “Tables are ready – we’re ready to start dinner.”

Annie thanked him, said she would be there in a minute, her father nodding in reply and closing the door quickly, as if to protect his house from winter drafts. Annie took a step towards the door, paused, then turned to Double-J.

“You’re our best fencer. Not only that, you make everyone else better. Every time you show up to practice, or show up at a tournament, you bring an energy, a focus, that we don’t have when you’re not there. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I just want you to know that what you do, and don’t do, has an impact on all of us.”

Double-J continued to look down. He shrugged.

Annie grunted – “Just think about it” – and opened the door to the kitchen.

The Third Tuesday

“I’ll think about it.” Annie, knees on the cafeteria floor, continued stuffing fencing jackets into the canvas sack.

“What’s there to think about?” Standing above her with hands on hips, Double-J gave no indication of wanting to help Annie. “Coach has a teacher’s union meeting tonight, and with Rune not being here you can’t bum a ride off his parents.”

Annie looked past Double-J, waved towards The Bird and Butch; without looking, she could feel his dismissive scowl. “They’re on the other side of the river. C’mon, get your stuff together, I’ll take you home.”

She unflexed her knees quickly, rising sharply and with a bounce on her feet, then turned to where The Bird and Butch were standing in their street clothes, all fencing equipment now stowed in their respective sacks. She approached the two younger teens, and seeing The Bird’s widening eyes, explained she was getting a ride from Double-J. “Be sure to thank your Mom for her offer, and tell her good luck with rehearsals.”

The Bird thanked her, quickly adding that her mother was pretty excited to be working again with some of her old acting friends.

“That’s great.” Annie turned around fully, walked in the direction of Double-J, waiting at the metal double-doors that lead out of the cafeteria, his hand on the waist-high horizontal release bar.

“So what’s the deal with The Bird’s mother?” Double-J opened the door with a loud ka-klack.

“She’s in that production of Hamlet we’re going to see next month.” She followed him out into the hallway leading to the school’s rear entrance.

“Christ, that’s right.” Double-J shoved open one of the four glass doors leading to the narrow entryway, then turned his back and pushed open an exit door, stiff wind whipping pellets of snow in the cold winter night air. “Forgot we were conscripted into going.”

Annie ducked her head down as she walked forward, following Double-J’s footsteps. “Don’t see what you’re complaining about. We’re getting to go for free.”

“That’s not” – a gust of wind caught in his throat, forcing him to turn against the wind – “the point. Wouldn’t want to see Hamlet if they paid me.”

“Coach Dan says – ” she paused to recover from a sudden wind-induced intake of cold air – “some good stage fencing.”

“Who cares?” Reaching his coupe, he dug his hand into a coat pocket. “It’s fake, like saying you want to see a fight, and then you go watch a pro wrestling match.”

“He said Mr. Nestor – ”

“Can we drop this?” Double-J retrieved keys from his jacket, jammed one into the lock like it was a silver dagger. He opened his door, then stopped as he noticed Annie brushing the snow that had accumulated on the windshield – “What the hell are you doing?”

“Just trying to help.” She continued brushing.

Double-J scoffed, sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition, the coupe rattling awake, the windshield wipers then sweeping across the windshield and nearly hitting Annie, arcs of snow left in the mechanical wake that were only partly cleared during the return sweep. His guttural voice hurtled from his mouth, then veered left through the open door, took a sharp turn forward and across the front hood of the coupe, to where Annie stood on the passenger side – “All set.”

“I’ll get the back.”

“Jesus, will you get in the fucking car already?”

Annie stared at him a moment, her view of him obscured through the streaks of snow on the windshield. She saw her reflection, noticed her mouth was open, her eyes surprised. She shook her head, composed herself, did a quick check of her reflection to verify she was bearing the proper countenance, then turned her glance in the direction of Double-J’s eyes.

“In case you forgot, it was your idea to give me a ride. But hey, if you decide it’s too much of a pain in the ass for you, I can go ask The Bird’s mother to take me home. Otherwise, if you’re done with whatever the hell it is you’re trying to prove, I’d like to finish the job I started, so we can get going. Got it?”

She saw him raise his eyebrows, pause, then nod quickly several times. “Come here.”

Annie walked around the front of the car, stomping snow from her shoes as she made her way to the open door. She saw Double-J grinning up at her.

“Here you go.” He pulled a snow brush from the passenger seat, and handed it to her.

Gray Metal Faces – December 5

The Second Wednesday

“Don’t think she’s ready.” Forearms resting on top of the brightly-colored counter at the entrance to Riverside Gymnastics, Gandy twitched her head towards her right, in the direction of the door leading to the gym floor. “You can go in, so long as your boots are dry.”

“I’ll take them off anyway,” Rune walking over to the row of chairs beyond the gym entrance. He sat, pulled off his right boot – “Are we the only ones here?”

Gandy nodded. “Olivers picked up Lisa about fifteen minutes ago, she’s usually the last one, I let her play in my office, you know they both have to work. Evening class doesn’t start for another hour. No, Annie’ll often have the place all to herself for about an hour, she’s here every weekday afternoon, except Tuesday.”

Rune pulled off his left boot. “That’s when we have fencing practice.”

Gandy laughed, and stepped out from behind the counter painted brightly in yellow and red. Over a green blouse she wore a faded cardigan sweater that hung down over her brown slacks. Rune could smell the hairspray that kept her corona of light brown hair in place. “Every day is fencing practice for her.” The fifty-two-year-old business owner then walked past Rune, disappearing into her office.

Rune felt a cool draft of December air on his stocking feet as he walked into the gym. “Hey” he heard Annie’s voice calling off to his right. Turning in the direction of her voice, he caught a glimpse of himself in a row of tall mirrors, saw that a clump of his hair was standing upright, static electricity and the shape of his wool hat combining to shape the top of his head into an image that reminded Rune of a horror movie satire, hair standing on edge in exaggerated fright.

Rune stopped, looked around him and upon confirming his actions would be unseen, stared into the mirror and patted his hair down, licking his fingers after the first unsuccessful wipe to provide the necessary moisture.

Rune turned from the mirrors, in the direction of Annie’s voice. His feet bounced lightly on the floor, covered wall to wall with thick exercise mats laid over two layers of heavy-duty carpet padding, Gandy’s gym being renowned throughout the region for the safety and comfort it provided her students. The floor was strewn with all manner of athletic equipment – portable mats, hoops, balls, batons, weights, vaulting boards, pommel horses – which Rune found difficult at times to navigate in the dim light (a glance at the ceiling confirming that most of the lights had been turned off between classes).

A moment later he saw a figure standing in profile to him on a high balance beam, the pert pony-tail behind the head instantly identifying Annie. The balance beam was located in front of a large wall of glass, divided into twelve even rectangular panes, three across and four high. The glass was more opaque than translucent, intended more to protect privacy than to let in light, and in the late afternoon sun formed a dim gray background to Annie’s black silhouette.

Rune saw her profile standing high on the balance beam, her right arm extended away from her body, the dim outline of a foil visible in her hand. She held her left arm back, forearm pointed up at the ceiling, hand curled in line with the back of her head, fingers hanging loose. She stood effortlessly on the narrow beam, showing no sign of the effort required to maintain her balance, her right leg leading in the direction of her foil and resting softly in front of her, left leg planted firmly in line with her body and pointed out towards Rune.

Annie stepped forward once, twice, front foot picking up first and coming forward to land softly on the beam, left leg picking up and coming forward. She advanced a third time, still without visible sign of effort, seeming to move as comfortably as she would on the wide cushioned floor from which Rune watched her.

“About time you made it” – her voice from the darkness surprised him. Rune walked towards her – “Ow!” his right foot tripping over a balance beam positioned low on the floor, nearly impossible to see in the dim light.

“Careful.” Annie began to step backwards on the beam, back leg lifting and landing then pulling her front leg forward, both feet landing with a barely audible sound. One step, two step – Annie suddenly extended her arm fully, lifted her front leg and pushed from her back, her front foot landing on the beam with an authoritative stomp.

She held the pose for an unwavering moment. Rune examined her with open awe, tracing with his eyes a line that extended up and away from her back foot, through the powerful muscles in her back leg, through her trim and balanced torso, through the might and grace that glowed from her shoulders, up through her biceps, triceps, wrist, the energy generated from her body collecting like a battery in her hand, transferring that energy into her weapon, held now at the apex of her lunge, the blade angled slightly down, the tip positioned in the exact location of her invisible opponent’s chest.

Feeling compelled to speak but unable to articulate what he thought as he admired Annie, Rune uttered a simple “Wow.”

“It’s great practice.” Annie pulled up from her lunge until she returned to en garde position. “Especially when you throw in a gymnastics move” – she suddenly jumped up, right leg coming forward and left going back to form a mid-air split, both feet landing hard on the balance beam. Annie leaned to her right, only regaining her balance after an awkward circling of her arms, her foil nearly hitting the beam, an embarrassed “dammit” escaping her lips.

Rune wiped his wavy hair from his brow. “Don’t recommend doing that during a bout.”

“It’s about body control.” Annie continued with slow deliberate advances along the narrow beam. “Like I keep telling you in practice, the weapon arm’s the least important part of a fencer’s body. You need balance, you need footwork, you need” – she stood upright quickly, legs coming together, right arm holding her foil high, left arm held across her stomach, and quickly turned in the opposite direction, brought her right foot forward quickly, extended her right arm with its foil into attack position, the motion as fluid as it was swift – “control.”

Annie stood, pulling her feet together on the balance beam, turned to Rune. “You weren’t at practice yesterday.”

Rune nodded; in the gray winter dimness, the motion of his head looked like a red and white fishing buoy bobbing on dark waves.

“I’m not letting you quit the fencing team.”

Her sudden suggestion snapped Rune to attention. “Who said I was quitting?”

Annie jumped down from the balance beam, her feet landing with practiced elegance on the matted floor. She placed her foil next to a long, narrow canvas bag, Rune noticing it for the first time – “You finally bought your own equipment?”

“Yes.” She showed no interest in discussing his observation further. “We need you at practice on Tuesdays.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just – “

“I miss you.”

Rune stared at her, too surprised by her last statement to respond. He examined her face in the dusky light, saw that her gray face was not pleading with him, was not in any way begging him to return to practice. She was looking at him with an emotionless expression, the face of an attorney during cross-examination, a look that demanded a response and would patiently until it was provided.

All Rune could think of doing was to reply honestly. “I don’t understand.”

“I need everyone on the team.” She dropped the bag on the floor. “Rex and Juan inspire me, Double-J and OK kick me in the ass, teaching The Bird and Butch keeps me focused. You – you probably do the most important thing.”

Seeing Rune was at a loss for words, Annie continued. “You make me smile.” (Rune noticed she said this without smiling). “No matter what happens, you always say something that lightens the mood at practice. I’m not the only one you affect – Butch would probably have quit the team by now if you weren’t there, The Bird maybe as well. Rex was asking about you, Coach Dan too, not as a coach or teacher, more like an older brother.”

Rune cleared his throat. “Well, good to know I provide such an important role on the team. But like I was trying to say, Tuesday was my mother’s birthday, and my father and I took her out to dinner, so that’s why I wasn’t at practice.”

Annie blinked. “You didn’t say anything to Coach the week before.”

“Um.” Rune looked down. “It was – a surprise. My father didn’t tell me – ”

“If your father told you in the morning, you could have said something to Coach Dan, or me, during the day. If he told you in the evening, you’d have no reason to skip practice.”

Annie paused, waited for Rune’s reply. He smiled, waved his hands above his head. “OK, OK. I’ve been having a hard time lately, I needed a break.”

“But – “

Rune held up a hand. “I’ll be at practice next week. Promise.”

Annie sighed in the awkward air. Rune broke eye contact with Annie, began looking around the room. He pointed to an area to his right, just off the end of the balance beam on which Annie had just been practicing – “What’s that?”

The area was clearly a large rectangular hole in the floor, exercise mats aligned at all edges. Three sides of the rectangular opened into the gym, the fourth running along the edge of an exterior wall facing the street. The hole was filled with blocks of padding, of irregular shape and color, small yellow squares mixed with long white rectangles, the occasional cylindrical shape, some of the pads clearly torn from larger pieces, some discolored, others pristine in condition and appearance.

Rune lowered his arm. “It looks like a bomb went off in a pillow factory.”

“This building used to be a garage.” Annie pointed to the wall at the far end of the rectangle, and Rune recognized the shape of a large pull-up door. She pointed down at the hole – “This was their oil change pit. Gandy went all around the city before this place opened, collected every bit of foam she could gather, threw it in here. We use it as a landing pit – the kids love jumping into it.”

“Cool.”

“Sometimes I dismount off the beam into there. Let me show you.” Before Rune could object, Annie had stooped down, retrieved her foil from the fencing bag, began rushing over to the balance beam, pony-tail prancing behind her. She grabbed the end of the beam furthest from the pit with her left hand and pulled herself up, legs spidering onto the beam, Rune’s eyes following her every movement as her slim and powerful frame now stood confidently on the narrow beam, arms extended to her sides, foil in her right hand.

“You don’t have to do this,” the tone of Rune’s voice indicating he would most certainly like to ee her do this.

“I’ve done this hundreds of times.” She extended her right leg pointedly forward across the beam, then raised her arms up from her sides, the backs of her hands nearly touching above her head, a smile on her face for invisible judges. Bringing her arms down and her legs together, she looked down at the beam in front of her, the smile giving way to a look of focused determination. She sprinted forward across the beam one step, two, three, then as she neared the beam’s end she raised her arms again and twisted her torso left, arms torqueing her body up and forward, her feet pushing off from the beam, arms pulling into her body as it spun over the pit, the flumpf of her landing nearly obscured by the melodious ring of Annie’s giggle.

Annie sat up awkwardly in the foam pit, arms extended wide, the foil in her right hand then tossed in the direction of the beam. Her weight shifting quickly in the uneven surface, she called to Rune – “Jump in.”

Rune walked over to the side of the pit, a wry grin on his face – then ducked from the flight of the foam block thrown by Annie. “Hey!” – his objecting cry cut off by a second foam brick, this one striking his face.

“Whoa!” Losing her balance in the foam pit, Anne looked up at Rune, saw he was frozen in concentration, a look she had seen before, earlier that fall, when Coach Dan had asked him whether he wanted to try epee. She remembered Rune eventually saying something like “I do and I don’t.”

She threw another foam ball, this one the size of her fist – “You’re cute when you’re indecisive.”

Rune raised his arms quickly, snatched the ball, tossed it back at Annie, and with a hyperbolic Tarzan yell AWWW-AW-AW leapt into the foam pit at Annie, who shrieked in mock alarm.

Rune fell into the pit next to Annie, quickly raised his head in time to see her scurry away, hiding in the foam blocks.

“WOMAN NO ESCAPE!” His knees knuckled him forward across the uneven surface as he cast foam blocks aside. His senses now alert, he noticed the torn and jagged edges of the blocks, colors faded from years of sunlight and impact, and also caught an uncomfortable miasma of odors, dust mingling with musty dried sweat, the lingering memory of oil changes, and the acrid stench of urine.

Rune kneed into a pocket of loose foam that instantly collapsed, sending him face-forward into the pit. Hearing Annie’s laughter, he attempted to sit upright, lurched sideways into the pit – “Dammit!” – finally regained his balance and looked around. He did not see Annie anywhere, detected no movement in the pit either.

“WOMAN?”

He heard Annie giggle behind him, followed by a flumpf of foam, Rune turning toward the sounds just in time for a cube of foam to hit him square in the face.

She was close enough to him for Rune to catch up with her before she could dive down into the foam blocks. She laughed a scream as he caught her around the waist – “WOMAN!” – pulled her towards him while rotating her body upwards.

They both laughed as they looked at each other, Rune suddenly thrusting his body on top of hers. He beat his chest with both hands, gave another loud Tarzan yell, and noticed that Annie had stopped laughing. She was smiling, looking up at him expectantly. Rune stopped laughing. Her smile became gentler, her gaze more focused, inviting.

“Yeah, I’m ready.” Rune pulled the fencing mask down over his head, his face now hidden from Annie’s view behind the gray steel mesh. He crouched down into en garde position across from her in the dining room, the illumination brilliant both from the lights above and the reflection of those lights against the polished marble floor.

Coach Dan motioned for Annie and Rune to begin fencing. Annie stepped forward aggressively, as was her custom; Rune stepped forward as well, lunging suddenly, the blade of his foil arching towards Annie – and missed, the tip flying past Annie’s left shoulder, as if he were aiming for someone who was approaching her from behind.

Annie turned her hand over, the radius rotating over the ulna, her blade clinking lightly against Rune’s, pushing it even further away from her. Radius then rolling back over the ulna, her weapon now in line with Rune’s body, she extended her arm, the point of her foil landing in the middle of Rune’s chest.

Rune swore, then his body jerked as if awakened. He turned to Carl Hutchinson, established what eye contact he could muster behind his mask, and apologized.

“No worries.” Carl Hutchinson shook his head of silvery hair. “It shows you’re passionate for success, an admirable quality.”

Rune returned to his starting position, turned to face Annie, already turned in his direction, knees bent and weapon arm extended. Not waiting for Coach Dan, Annie advanced one step, two. Rune retreated, Annie responding by twitching her head inquisitively. She stopped, relaxed her shoulders, stared straight at Rune, standing uncertainly.

Annie stood in place, rocking back between her front and back legs as if her body was energized, like a motorized children’s ride outside a grocery store, humming back and forth, stationary yet active. Opposite her stood Rune, feet planted squarely on the tiled floor.

A long moment passed, until Carl Hutchinson pointed in Rune’s direction. “I think she’s waiting for you to make a move.”

Rune’s hands pressed into the uneven surface of the foam pit, his arms holding his body above Annie’s. And then he lowered his body, aiming his mouth in the direction of Annie’s, which arched up at the last second to meet his, their open lips meeting hungrily, each of their mouths acting with the force of a vacuum to draw the other in.

His kiss was strong, awkward, Rune nearly drawing back as soon as he made impact, like a scared skydiver helplessly flailing to jump back into the plane. Sensing his panic, Annie threw her arms around him, pulled him close, down upon her body.

Her kiss was warm, wet, filled with curiosity and wonder, her lips acting like a probe, examining his reactions, searching for some sign of what he was thinking, what he was feeling, what he was going to do, what he didn’t dare do.

Rune thrust his arms into the foam pit, pushed his body up (right side lifting higher having grasped firmer grounding), pulled his face away from hers, his mouth open and eyes wide, eyes staring down at Annie.

Annie looked up at him, and smiled. She brought her right hand up, Rune backing away, “No – ” she giggled, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him closer, then reaching with her left hand behind her head grabbed the fabric-covered elastic tie that held her pony-tail in place, pulled it loose, held it in front of Rune’s face.

Rune followed the tie with his eyes as she tossed it aside, landing a few feet away in the foam pit, then turned back to stare down at Annie, her dark brown hair cascading down across her shoulders, lying loose in parts across her chest, lying sprawled in other parts across the foam bricks.

“I never realized – ” her voice soft as the snow falling outside – “how strong you are.”

“Coach Taylor always said I was stronger than I looked.”

“You wrestled?”

“Eighth grade. Lasted the year, didn’t continue.”

“Were you good?”

“Didn’t matter. Didn’t like it. Too violent.”

Annie snorted. “And so you took up fencing?”

Rune’s laugh sounded as pleasant as a warm breeze through a thick green forest. “OK, so maybe being covered by some other guy’s sweat was what got to me.”

Annie grabbed Rune’s shoulders – “Hope this doesn’t gross you out – ” then pulled him down on top of her. Closed her eyes, arched her lips up, muffled a startled cry as he descended on her, kissing her firmly.

Annie stiffened suddenly, pushed Rune off her. “Sorry – ” Annie responding to his apology with a swift soft command, shhh. Rune noticed she was looking past his shoulder, in the direction of the door to the office. He heard the sound of a door hinge.

“Annie?” Gandy stepped into the gym, called to her again.

Annie pushed Rune aside, holding a hand up to his lips. She rose awkwardly on the uneven surface of the foam pit, her weight shifting among the discolored blocks, head finally rising above the top of the pit – “Yeah, I’m still here. Just practicing dismounts.”

“That boy with you?”

Annie hesitated a moment. “Think he went outside.”

“He forgot his books.” Gandy sounded annoyed. “You think he went home? When did he leave?”

“I didn’t notice him leaving.”

“Well he’s either here or he’s not,” Gandy’s annoyance now indisputable. “What was his name? Susie’s brother, that Hutchinson boy.”

Rune climbed out of the foam pit, waving in Gandy’s direction. “Here I am, it’s Rune.” He felt Annie’s eyes stabbing at him.

“Oh. There you are.” Gandy sounded only moderately relieved. “What were you doing in the foam pit?”

Rune turned to Annie, shrugged in the dark. “Looking for my books?”

Annie’s swift parry deflected Rune’s foil, her equally swift riposte landing on his chest.

“You’re telegraphing your attacks again,” Coach Dan stepping in Rune’s direction as he and Annie saluted, shook hands. “You come forward, but hesitate before you attack.”

“You’re thinking too much,” Annie taking off her mask. “You need to act instinctively, go with what seems right rather than trying to figure out the best move.” Rune nodded, turning away from both of them, and walked back towards Butch.

Gray Metal Faces – December 4

Butch crouched down into en garde position, and Annie noticed an immediate change in him, the clumsiness melting away like an icicle in the midday sun. He advanced, foil pointed directly at her, displaying none of the uncertainty which hung over all his awkward preparation for their bout. He was focused, he was determined, he was ready.

Annie smiled, lunging at him quickly, the tip of her foil landing on Butch’s chest before he could bring his foil across to parry. She stepped back, waited for him to crouch down again, then advanced again, lunging in nearly the same fashion as she had before, her attack so similar that Butch instantly recognized it, parried it soundly (Annie making a mental note to remind Butch at the next practice to keep his elbow stationary), and quickly riposted, landing a touch on Annie’s right shoulder.

“Aha!” A cautionary warning to Carl Hutchinson’s exclamation. “Got you that time. Don’t get overconfident, little girl.” Annie turned toward her father, the consternation on her face evident even through the opaque metal of her mask. Laura turned to her husband – “I think she knows what she’s doing.” Turning to Annie and Butch, she extended her right arm in their direction, waved her fingers pointed down at the floor – “Continue.”

Annie held her left index finger up to Butch – “One more.” The tow-headed sophomore nodded, resumed his crouch. The moment he appeared ready, Annie bolted forward until her weapon crossed Butch’s, squeezed her right hand, the action flicking her foil to the left until it struck Butch’s weapon, ting, the sound seeming to activate a spring in her body that propelled her forward, foil stabbing at Butch before he had time to react, the tip landing just under his right arm.

She heard Double-J’s voice from the buffet table. “Thought we stopped you from doing beat attacks last year.”

“Whatever works.” Annie stepped back, took off her mask. Butch removed his as well, raising his foil in salute (stopping before fully extending his arm to check the location of the chandelier). Annie saluted in Butch’s direction, then turned and located her mother, greeting her smiled with her own smiling salute, then turned again to see her silver-haired father talking with Double-J, their backs turned to her.

Annie cleared her throat, so purposefully that everyone in the room (including the white-jacketed Squisito employee) turned to her. Making eye contact with her father, she offered another salute, this one accompanied not only with a smile but a stare meant to convey a secret message.

She then pointed her foil at Rex, a serious smile on her face – “Next.” Gentle laughter percolated above the sound of “Sleigh Ride” playing in the background. Coach Dan turned and walked in Rex’s direction, as if directed by the motion of Annie’s weapon, to help him sort through the sack of fencing jackets.

Annie laid her mask and foil on the floor, walked over to the drink table, poured herself a glass of water. She heard the sound of her mother’s steps approaching. “I just had a nice conversation with Mr. Jacobs, while you two were fencing.”

“Coach Dan.” Annie drank quickly.

“He thinks highly of you, dear,” her mother’s pearls smiling as she spoke. “Says you’re on track to compete at the state tournament in the spring.”

“I’m looking forward to States.” The athletic teen set her glass down, her focus returning to her equipment.

“I asked him about getting you some additional training.”

Annie stopped. Turned to her mother quickly – “Who said I need more training?”

“Dear, nobody’s saying that you need more training.” There was no hint of apology in Laura’s voice. “Not any more than any of your teammates. What I asked Mr. Jacobs – Dan – Coach Dan, is whether we can get you more training, like from one of those fencing schools near the university.”

Annie pointed sharply in the direction of Coach Dan, nearly finished with helping Rex with his fencing jacket. “I’m good with what I have. Coach Dan got Myles to the state finals last year. I don’t need any additional training,” her tone inflecting disdainfully downward on the last word.

“Oh please, dear. This is no different than when we signed you up for gymnastics, or ballet.”

Annie felt her lips draw back in a snarl. “Fencing’s different. I already have a coach, a team. I’ve worked hard, I’ve earned my way onto the team, didn’t need anyone to buy my way onto it.”

Annie’s mother’s eyes widened, the gleam of her pearls disappearing under the darkness of her gaze. “I refuse to apologize for being able to provide you everything you need to be successful. You want to show your independence by turning down my offer to find you a fencing school, then enjoy your victory. If – ”

Annie! Rex called from across the dining room, where he stood in his fencing jacket, foil in his right hand, mask in his left. Mother and daughter both turned to him, smiled, then turned quickly back to each other, Annie speaking quickly before her mother resumed.

“Look, I know you’re just looking out for me, and I appreciate that. So how about I just say no thanks, and we leave it at that?”

Annie’s mother smiled disarmingly – “For now” – and turned to walk towards the kitchen.

Annie watched her mother walk away, hoping she took with her the unwanted desire to help, then turned to face Rex.

The First Saturday

“Him you know?” Dr. Schmidt, owner and lead instructor of the En Garde! School of Fencing, pointed in Rex’s direction. Annie nodded.

“Do you take class with him?”

Annie shook her head. “Not much. He’s a year ahead of me. We took biology together last year, but that’s it.”

“Good student?”

“Yeah.” She paused in thought a moment, evaluating her instinctive reaction. “Studies hard.”

Dr. Schmidt nodded a smile. “Do you know family?”

“A little.” She glanced back at her strip, saw the bout in front of her next was still in progress. “Nobody sees his mother much, she’s real sick. He’s got two sisters, I see them every once in a while. Really cute. I – don’t know much about his dad, he died when Rex was really young, I never met him.”

“I see.” Dr. Schmidt looked two strips behind them, where Rex was finishing his last pool bout. A studiously aloof man in his late fifties, Dr. Schmidt (Annie doubted whether even his students knew his first name) had a habit of rubbing under his chin with his right thumb when deep in thought. Annie saw that motion now, and realized for not the first time today how unusual it was for En Garde! to be at today’s scrimmage.

“Excuse me.” Dr. Schmidt looked at her. “Can I ask why you’re so interested in Rex?”

Dr. Schmidt turned slowly back in Rex’s direction, continuing to stroke his chin. “I talk with your coach, told him Rex was best epee fencer I seen, ten years. He has talent to win state this year, but needs work, refinement. Coach agreed, said I should teach him.”

Annie turned quickly to find Coach Dan, who was two strips away from them, working with Rune, then turned back to Dr. Schmidt with wide eyes. “No way.”

Dr. Schmidt held up a finger, shook it at her. “Still your team. I just help coach, one day, each week. Thursday night, epee class.”

Eyes still wide, Annie turned quickly away from Dr. Schmidt (she will apologize to him later that day for her abruptness) and walked with purposed alacrity towards Coach Dan, whose eyes bore into Rune as the two of them talked. Coach Dan’s back was towards her as she approached, and Rune caught her eye briefly, giving her a glance that indicated now was not a good time for an interruption.

Annie turned from them quickly, saw Rex shaking hands with his opponent, their bout ended. She ran towards him, stopping briefly to apologize after accidentally kicking an unattended foil that lay on the floor. When she turned back in Rex’s direction, he stood tall above her.

“Will wonders ever cease?” Rex followed his question with a stiff giggle.

Annie blinked, cleared her throat. “What’s up?”

“I’m down to Cameron 13-9,” Rex’s eyes widening, “then all of a sudden, she can’t hit me. I’m not doing nothing different, she just can’t hit. I’m just doing parry-riposte, and before I know it, I’m winning.”

“That’s great.” Annie caught a glimpse of Dr. Schmidt off to the right.

“Something wrong?” Rex sounding more confused than anxious.

Annie looked back at Coach Dan, now intently watching the start of Rune’s bout. She turned quickly back, saw Dr. Schmidt walking away.

“It’s – I don’t think – ” she felt her uncertainty like a sharp stomach pains – “nothing,” and turned away.

Annie raised a salute towards Rex, then turned to the members of the dining party. Saw her father, saluted him. Did not see her mother.

Annie put on her mask, crouched down into en garde position, and with an alacrity that certainly annoyed her, most likely (she suspected) surprised both her opponent and coach, and certainly (of this she had no doubt) upset her father, lost. Three quick touches, Rex landing his first hit with a lazy lunge that was hardly more than a feint, the second more an act of her self-impalement as her rushed advance pounced onto the tip of his weapon, and the final touch coming off a riposte of her attack that was so poorly planned, so totally telegraphed, that Annie did not recognize her own actions, as if her body were being controlled by Butch or The Bird or some other novice fencer rather than herself.

After completing a curt handshake with Rex, Annie called to Rune – “You, next.”

Carl Hutchinson and his silver hair approached his daughter. “Isn’t it time for you to take a break?”

“I’m not tired,” Annie’s pony tail bouncing behind her head.

Carl Hutchinson smiled, placed his hand on her shoulder, turned with her away from the others, whispered – “This is a party, Annie. It’s supposed to be fun.”

“Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.”

“So why the competition? Why are you challenging everyone?”

“We’re a fencing team. We compete against each other. That’s what we do.”

“What are you trying to prove, Bunny?”

Annie stepped back, pulled away from her father’s touch. “Don’t call me that.”

“No need to be embarrassed, nobody heard – ”

“I heard. And I’m not eight years old.”

Carl Hutchinson’s mouth remained open a moment, his eyes narrowing, a hint of surprise and even anger creeping onto his face. He then closed his mouth, smiled, opened his eyes wide. “No – you’re not eight. You are – a Hutchinson woman.”

Rune stood across from Annie, the mop of his hair forming a brown crown on his scalp, tendrilling down and out the sides of his head, as if a bowl had been placed on his head.

Annie stared at him intently, waited for his eyes to meet hers, then – “You ready?”

Gray Metal Faces – December 3

A pair of white-jacketed Squisito employees, arriving to set up tables and folding chairs for the upcoming meal, were promptly turned away as Coach Dan placed the equipment sacks on the dining room floor. Laura Hutchinson approached him with her smiling pearls – “Carl and I are looking forward to finally seeing Annie compete. We see her practice, but I imagine it’s just not the same as a – game, or battle, or whatever you call it.”

Bout will work.” Coach Dan opened the sack containing the team’s fencing jackets. ‘Have to admit, I was surprised you agreed to this.” He cocked his head sideways. “Not many people are inclined to host sword fights in their dining room.”

“Oh, we’ve had worse, believe me.” Laura laughed, then sighed. “It’s important for us to see her, in this world. Annie’s always been a strong-willed child, but I’ve always been able to talk to her, make her come around to my point of view.” Coach Dan stopped, looked up at Laura, silently encouraging her to continue. “Ever since she’s been fencing, though – my opinion doesn’t seem to matter to her anymore.”

Coach Dan nodded. “One thing I’ve learned from Annie, is that the best way to get her to listen is to let her say what’s on her mind. She’s not one to listen to a lecture, or follow orders blindly. What she wants is – the best way I can describe it, is a conversation with the world.”

The hurried rhythm from the carpeted staircase announced the return of Annie, looking far different than she had earlier that evening, her holiday sweater having been exchanged with a long-sleeved collarless white shirt bearing on its sternum the blue Old English D trademarked by the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, her dress pants replaced with track pants purchased in a store whose prices elicited varying levels of derision and intimidation from her teammates, her loafers replaced with inexpensive athletic shoes representing her family’s refusal to spend lavishly on items with only temporary use, her jewelry left behind in her bedroom.

Coach Dan greeted her as her feet glided onto the marbled floor of the dining room. “You appear to be ready. So – ” his bearded head pivoting so as to land his vision on all of his students – “who’s our first challenger?”

Butch’s eyes got big as he looked quickly back and forth between his teammates. The Bird quickly turned away, Rune shook his head, Rex smiled and looked down on the floor, and Double-J did his best to ignore everyone in his room, his eyes examining the buffet line with exaggerated interest.

“If I may – ” Laura stepped into the middle of the dining room, the ceiling lights reflecting off the shining marbled surface and illuminating the pearls that smiled from her bosom – “I would like to see the ladies fence each other first.” She extended her arm towards The Bird, whose only response was a wide-eyed silence.

“This would be a good time,” Annie pulling up beside her mother, “for you to finally pick up a blade.”

“What’s this?” Standing next to The Bird, Carl Hutchinson sounded amused. “A member of the fencing team, who doesn’t actually fence?”

“In Europe, novice fencers do not touch a weapon at all in their first year.” Coach Dan’s voice had resumed its pedagogical command. He walked over to The Bird, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Of course that approach doesn’t go over well in the US, but we still must be cautious about introducing new challenges to my students. I’ll leave it to you, my friend – would you care to fence this evening?”

The Bird looked up at the bearded middle-aged teacher with a look of relieved appreciation. And told him she preferred not to fence. She then looked over with her dark eyes at Annie, who smiled in return.

The First Monday

The Bird looked up, surprise and a hint of fear evident in the width of her dark eyes. Annie extended her right hand out to her, palm down. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” The athletic teen then placed her lunch tray onto the grey metal table across from her dark-eyed friend.

Over the next few minutes, Annie’s offerings of polite, safe conversation topics went largely unrewarded, her inquiries on The Bird’s health, school work, and opinion regarding the culinary merit of the lasagna served that day being met with silent nods and the occasional monosyllabic utterance, yeah no OK I guess.

The Bird finally raised her dark eyes when Annie asked whether she was enjoying fencing. She replied that yes, it was about the only thing she actually enjoyed about school.

“That’s great,” Annie’s ponytail bobbing up and down as she nodded. “Your footwork’s coming along real well.”

The Bird replied that it was the dance lessons, like Annie had said one time at practice.

“You fence with your feet.” Annie took a bite of her lasagna, her nose curling in distaste. The Bird then asked how many years had the two of them taken classes at the Courthouse Studio? Annie swallowed, threw her head back – “Oh God. Dancing Poodles, don’t remind me!”

In a lilting mock voice, The Bird reminded Annie that Miss Daigle had been a Rockette; she felt the darkness in her eyes disappearing in her dawning smile.

“And she made sure to remind us of that, at least once a lesson, more often if we acted up.” Annie’s ponytail pranced behind her. “And oh – remember Miss Downey?”

The Bird leaned forward over the table, closed eyes that no longer seemed so dark, and burst with a laugh that startled the students sitting nearby.

“Very well, then – ” Coach Dan lifted his hand off The Bird’s shoulder, pointed now at Butch – “how about our other newcomer?”

“Oh!” Butch looked around him, eyes wide in exaggerated surprise, as the room percolated with laughter. A moment later, he had agreed to compete against Annie, the two teens rummaging through the sack of uniforms.

With Rune’s assistance, Butch squeezed himself into the fencing tunic, his body stretching the faded white linen like icing expanding a pastry bag. Carl Hutchinson came up to Coach Dan as he fastened the zipper in the back of Butch’s jacket. “Is there a reason why the uniforms are all white?”

“Tradition, more than anything.” He finished with the zipper, slapped Butch lightly on the back. “Goes back to the days when fencing turned into a scored competition, instead of a blood sport. Back then there were foils with these little prongs at the end of them.” He picked up a nearby foil, held up its tip to Carl and tapped the plastic end to help him visualize where the prongs sat. “They’d dip a piece of cotton in red paint, and put it at the end of the foil, where the prongs held it in place. When you hit your opponent – if I may,” pointing his foil gently in the direction of Carl, who nodded to allow Coach Dan to touch him with its tip – “some of the red paint was supposed to get on your opponent’s uniform. Back then, you were required to wear white uniforms to make it easier to see when you got hit. Electronic scoring’s eliminated the need for wearing white, but by the time that came around white uniforms had become a long-standing tradition that nobody was willing to challenge.”

Carl’s eyes widened. “How interesting!”

“Of course, back when they were still using paint some fencers figured out they could coat their uniforms to repel paint – that was fencing’s first cheating scandal.”

Butch grabbed a fencing mask, stood across from Annie in the dining room, scrunched the mask over his head, dropped his foil kak-klang on the marbled floor, excused himself, twisted his mask until it was in position, picked up his foil, crouched down into en garde position, located the tip of his foil with his eyes, then pointed it in the direction of Annie.

She stood facing him, her legs together, feet perpendicular to each other, mask not on her head but cradled under her left arm, the right arm holding her foil, pointed down directly in front of her right foot. On her face was a smile more polite than patient.

Annie cleared her throat. Butch stood up, pointed his foil down, the opaque gray metal of his mask unable to conceal the confusion on his face. Annie rolled her eyes, smiled, then swiftly extended her right arm into the air, the foil in her hand rising, the blade extending from her arm in a line that extended to a point on the ceiling above Butch’s head.

Annie cleared her throat again.

“Oh!” said Butch, suddenly reaching up for his mask, his left hand grasping the handle on the back, the right hand reaching for a grasping point on the front as it continued to hold his foil, which then fell from his hand. Butch tried to catch it with his foot before the handle fell on the floor kang, his foot the kicking the blade which scuttled across the marble klik klik skree towards Annie. Distracted by the foil, Butch dropped his mask KUNK.

Annie stood still, foil still extended in salute, her smiling lips now curled up into her mouth, her ribs vibrating with an embarrassed laugh.

Butch reached down for his mask, accidentally kicking it bu-bunk. “I’m really sorry,” he said, finally grabbing the mask.

A white-jacketed Squisito employee hurried in from the kitchen, anxiety on his face. Carl Hutchinson turned to him, smiled, held up his hand. “No worries,” then turned to Coach Dan. “We’ll start the bout before young master Goodman manages to impale himself.”

Rex assisted Butch with gathering his equipment, and with an audible exhale accompanied with an embarrassed smile Butch turned to Annie, still waiting, still holding her salute, still politely smiling, ponytail still at attention. Butch extended his arm to return her salute – his blade striking the base of the chandelier, ting. The room percolated with murmured laughter as Annie finally lowered her weapon arm, brought the hilt of her foil in front of her chin, then extended her weapon forward and down with an audible whoosh. Butch mimicked her actions with the deliberate slowness of a driver decelerating five miles below the speed limit after receiving a speeding ticket.

The Second Tuesday

“Butch, hold on.” Annie walked up to the rotund teen, then commanded him to lift his right arm; she reached to his armpit and poked two fingers through a large hole in his fencing jacket.

Coach Dan approached the two teens. “Good eye, Annie. Butch, that jacket’s not safe, go put a different one on.” He waved in the direction of the canvas sacks that stored their equipment.

“Aw man.” Butch sounded genuinely disappointed. “This is the only one that fits me good.”

Coach Dan shook his head. “Sorry, safety first. There’s a couple other extra larges in there.” He walked in the direction of the sakes, taking Butch lightly by the arm.

“Think we can get this one repaired?” Butch sounded to Coach Dan like a toddler asking a parent to buy an ice cream to replace the one he had just dropped.

“I’ll see if I have time one evening this week.” They had reached the sacks, Coach Dan searching through the one containing the team’s jackets. “Can’t send it out for mending. No room in the budget.”

Annie was now beside them, as Butch began taking off his torn jacket. “Shame. Would be nice to get some respect.”

“It’s not about respect, my friend, it’s about money.” Coach Dan’s voice was cool, analytical. “Economy’s weak, school budget’s tight. Everybody’s feeling the pinch. Heck, I’m glad we still have money to send our equipment out for laundry once a month.”

“Huh.” Butch sounded impressed. “I guess we should count our roses.”

Coach Dan and Annie turned toward Butch with confused expressions. Butch stooped down, retrieved a new jacket from the sack, stood and looked quickly back and forth between them. “You know — stop, and count the roses.”

Annie shook the confusion from her face. “Smell. Smell the roses.”

“And count your blessings,” Coach Dan added.

Butch nodded, as he put his right leg through the jacket’s crotch strap. “Exactly. It’s a finger of speech. It means that when you start thinking the world’s so bad, you have to stop and count the roses.”

“You mean smell them,” Annie insisted.

“Of course.” Butch now sounded almost offended. “But how can you smell your roses unless you count them first?”

After completing his salute, Butch placed his foil on the floor before sliding the mask over his head. He then picked up his weapon and crouched down in the direction of Annie, who was waiting for him in en garde position.

Gray Metal Faces – December 2

The doorbell chimed again, Annie racing to front door ahead of her parents. At the entrance were Butch and The Bird, with Janet Wernick behind them, standing in the walkway below the stoop, the taller woman’s head at the same height as the two teens. Following a quick apology for not being able to stay for the party (rehearsal in the city) and confirmation of the pickup time (see you at 10), The Bird’s mother walked away from the door, back into the dark snowy night.

Annie noticed Butch was carrying sneakers in his right hand; in her invitation, she had recommended bringing slippers, or cruising around in their socks. She pointed to his legs – “why you wearing your sweats?”

“Oh!” Butch looked around the foyer quickly, disappointment on his round face. “Coach – he told me it was a surprise.”

“Really?” Annie excused herself, her soft feet padding the hardwood floor toward the dining room.

“Sandra.” Laura Hutchinson glided into the foyer; The Bird nearly walked away when she heard one of her least common names, yet held herself, presented her eyes to Annie’s mother as a polite shield, gazing with a dark sensitivity that was neither welcoming nor dismissive, a gaze that was simultaneously curious, pensive, attentive.

The older woman smiled, the pearls on her chest sparkling. “Dear, I hear your mother’s in the production of ‘Hamlet’ at the Hilltop next month.” The Bird nodded. “Carl – Mr. Hutchinson and I are looking forward to seeing her.” The Bird smiled weakly, nodded again. Laura cleared her throat, said, “Wasn’t she in a production there last summer? What was the title?”

The Bird nodded. Laura widened her eyes; The Bird picked up the silent cue, whispered that her mother played Arsinoé. Misanthrope. Moliere.

Laura closed her eyes appreciatively, tilted her head back. “Comedy suits your mother well. Even Sav-Anna manages to coax out a chuckle, even when she’s pitching toilet paper. Dear, can I get you anything?”

The Bird looked up at her, surprised. She apologized for being rude, thanked Mrs. Hutchinson for her hospitality. Then added a hope her husband would win the election.

Laura Hutchinson raised her hands quickly, threw them around The Bird. “My dear, the campaign won’t begin until the new year! Tonight is about you, and the team!” She led the girl from the foyer into the large dining room.

The buffet table for the evening’s party was still being assembled by Squisito, the largest catering business in Bark Bay. Along a long table in front of large bay windows that looked out into the Hutchinson’s bark yard, a series of aluminum serving trays were arranged in a neat row, sterno lighters wafting blue-orange flames underneath, handled covers set behind on the thick white tablecloth. Only the first of the trays was currently filled, a red lasagna layered with green garnish and dense ricotta; soon other trays would be transported from the kitchen, rigatoni with green and red vegetables smothered in milky white alfredo, plump chicken breasts covered in light breading and slices of mozzarella, plain linguini noodles resting next to a vat of marina sauce brimming with finely chopped cubes of tomato, the line of entrees finishing where a middle-aged woman with skin whiter than her freshly-pressed jacket stood with a rotating grater, waiting patiently for requests to add parmesan on top of their dishes (just say when). Beyond the main table was a smaller square table, adorned now with glass serving plates to be filled with cannoli sprinkled with powered sugar, cookies cut into shapes of snowmen and evergreens covered with sugar crystals colored green and red, and tiny glass bowls filled with gelato.

In the center of the dining room, Annie stood with arms folded across her chest; her attempts to command her coach’s attention frustrated by his continued discussion with her father, she let her eyes appreciate the developing buffet. To her right, she heard the sound of ice cubes clinking within a glass tumbler.

“Izat so?” Annie recognized Paul Banks’ guttural voice; she saw him speaking with Double-J, who shared with the older man a look of annoyed confusion.

The burly teen shook his head. “Beats the hell out of me, what they want to do with that land.” He caught Annie’s gaze, pointed to her. “Me and Banks here, we’re trying to figure out what your uncle’s are up to.”

Annie shrugged. “How should I know?”

Paul Banks pointed behind them, his yellow tie nearly falling into his tumbler. “Inna fall, they bought all this unincorporated land, north of the dam, helped them with the financing. Now this young fella here, hears that they set up some holding company, about to buy more land, other side of the lake.”

Double-J smiled. “Customers waiting in the shop, get so bored after a while they’ll tell you anything.”

“Well, they’re developers.” There was a tone of annoyance in Annie’s voice. “That’s what they do, they’re always buying, selling real estate.” Her mother approached, right arm across The Bird’s shoulder. “Our friends here have this sudden curiosity about Uncle Leonard and Uncles Leopold’s business.”

“Oh, dear!” Laura removed her arm from The Bird’s shoulder, waved it dismissively. “I never have any idea what the twins are up to.”

Paul Banks finished drinking from his tumbler, wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “That land – it has no value. Too remote.”

A swinging half-door leading to kitchen pushed open into the dining room; the man who had swept the bread crumbs from Double-J’s mock duel with Rex earlier hustled in, tray in hand. As he passed, Annie saw the scripted name stitched in white on the blue oval of his left breast: Jimmy.

After another question about her brothers from Paul, Laura invited him to another room. The white-jacketed man was soon joined by a white-jacketed woman, older and not quite as sure in her movements as the man she was aiding. Annie looked past The Bird, saw her father engaged in conversation with Coach Dan (whose attention , Rex, Butch, Rune and his mother Jenna.

“Nice spread.” Double-J twisted the end of his dark moustache. Annie nodded – “My family likes doing things the right way.”

“You can certainly afford it.” He chuckled as Annie rolled her eyes. “Just an observation.” The Bird stated that he made it sound more like an accusation.

“Look, if that’s how you chicks want to take it, I got no control over that.” He was speaking like he fenced, aggressively attacking. “All I’m doing is stating the facts.” His focus shifted solely towards Annie. “Your family’s got money, paying for this is no big deal. If the Banks paid for this – ” he motioned in the direction of Jenna – “they’d be in hock a few months. Look, it’s great that your family’s doing this, but don’t expect me to be impressed by your parents’ supposed altruism. To them, it’s like a park rec baseball coach taking his team of third graders out for ice cream.”

“Really?” Annie riposting a steady stare. “Good to see you’re feeling free to express your opinion.”

The Second Saturday

“How’d Francis do?” Annie walked away from her strip, having just defeated her last opponent.

“Finished a few minutes ago,” Coach Dan walking next to her. “You’ve got him next.”

Coach Sarah from the Academy called to Coach Dan, who excused himself. And then she saw Double-J, standing among the Bark Bay team’s equipment sacks, huddled in the middle of the Academy field house. She walked up to him – “Didn’t see you come in.”

“On my way back from the city, didn’t have nothing better to do.” He scanned the faces in the fencing area. “No Rex?”

Annie shook her head. “He had – family trouble.” Double-J nodded. “I’ve got Frankenstein next. Any pointers?”

Double-J laughed. “Only the one at the end of your weapon.”

“Ohh.” She made no attempt to hide her irritation. “C’mon, this scrimmage is my first time competing in epee, need all the help I can get. I know you and Rex watched him lose at States last year, what did you see?”

He frowned. “How should I know? Weren’t me who beat him.”

“I KNOW that. But what did you see, is what I want to know.”

He shrugged. “I saw the other guy get more touches.”

She stomped her right feet, the epee slipped from in her hand and falling onto the green rubber floor. “Dammit, Double-J, you’re our best FENCER! I’m not letting you get away with that chicken-shit answer, we need you! If you think – ”

“Temper!” His raised palm silencing her. “It’s your only weakness. That’s why you can’t beat Francis Pine, in foil or epee – he knows how to push your buttons, get you flustered. You stop thinking, you start reacting to what he’s doing, start fighting his game, on his terms. You’ll never beat Francis until you get your temper under control.”

Annie felt her body relax as a sarcastic smile grew across her face. “Now you’re sounding like Coach Dan.”

Double-J shrugged. “He’s a control freak. Doesn’t mean he’s not smart.”

“If I can have your attention, please.” Arms raised above his head, Coach Dan walked into the center of the marbled floor. “I have a surprise for everyone. Over the past year, Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson have been an enthusiastic supporter of our fencing program – ” Annie had convinced them to supply the funds required to purchase and repair the team’s electronic equipment – “but haven’t had the opportunity to see us compete. Tonight, I see an opportunity to correct that oversight, by putting on a little demonstration.”

Annie swung her head left, found Butch, who nodded with eyes growing large with curiosity. She then gauged her other teammates’ reactions – Rex rolling his smiling eyes and laughing, The Bird immediately looking away as if wounded, Butch’s eyes growing large with curiosity, Rune shaking his head, and Double-J turning away immediately, waving his right hand dismissively in the direction of her coach, as he exited to the study.

“Demonstration?” Laura’s pearls smiled on her evening gown.

Carl clicked his tongue. “Sounds more like a challenge to me.”

“Yes! A challenge.” Annie’s voice rang with excitement, as Rex laughed out loud at the sight of Coach Dan returned from the study, carrying the familiar sacks of the team’s fencing equipment into the dining room. Annie raised her right hand high – “I challenge every one of you – to a duel!”

Rex shook his head, smiling. “I really didn’t think he was gonna go through with this.”

“What do you mean?” Annie pointed at his shoes. “You wore your sneakers and track pants, didn’t you? Looks like you came ready to fence!”

Carl Hutchinson cleared his throat. “But you, my dear, are still in your evening dress.”

“Not for much longer!” She ran past Coach Dan, out of the dining room, through the foyer, up the stairs, a determined look on her face similar to what one might see on a man pouncing up the stairs of city hall to protest a parking ticket.