Gray Metal Faces – February 14

10:21

The house Rune had seen as he exited the forest bore the familiar shape of homes in his subdivision (“a terrible place to come home to when your drunk,” his uncle had wisecracked on his first visit), but he quickly realized he had arrived to the rear of the Florentino house, with its distinctive deck. Only five houses up the street from his home.

Rune plodded through the knee-deep snow between the Florentinos and Morgans. (No, not the Morgans, they’d moved. New family, the oldest child was in third grade — that was all he remembered.) Finding the sidewalks were equally as deep (few homes in their subdivision bothered to shovel past driveway edges), the teen decided the street was a much better option. He nearly had to leap over a snowbank to reach pavement, and his rear leg caught the top of the bank, causing him to stumble but not fall.

He righted himself, and exhaled. For the first time since walking off the front stoop of his home earlier that evening, Rune’s boots were touching solid ground, and he suddenly realized his feet were numb. More irritated than concerned, he began jogging to his family’s house.

Plows from the city had come by this afternoon, leaving a thin stripe of snow on the black pavement, reminding Rune of the inside of an Oreo cookie with its frosting scraped off. As he approached his home, he saw a light turn off on the second floor, his parent’s bedroom. Had his father gone to bed? He had no idea what the time was, but in the driveway of the  house he was currently jogging past, he saw two children and an elderly man get into a sedan. It couldn’t be that late, sometime around 10 he guessed. His father must have gone upstairs for something, found it, turned off the light as he left the room. We own stock in the power company?

He sighed with relief as he finally walked onto his family’s driveway. The garage door was still closed, and he did not see any fresh tire tracks that would indicated his mother and brother had come back from hockey. He walked up to the front door, tested the knob — finding it unlocked, he walked in, and heard the television in the living room.

Warmth returned to his body like a good meal. He sat on a bench and tugged off his boots, sensation returning prickly into his toes. Tossing his wool cap and jacket to the floor, he then walked into the living room, and saw his father sitting in his recliner, legs parallel to the floor; a short half-empty glass, containing a solitary half-melted ice cube, rested on a side table to his father’s right.

The senior accountant at the only financial services firm in Bark Bay did not move, and continued staring at the televsion screen; Rune stopped, wondering if his father was actually sleeping. But then, he spoke: “You’re home late.” A statement spiced with more suspicion than accusation.

“I was — ” Rune always stalled when about to lie — “out with some friends. From the fencing team.” Double-J wasn’t a friend, but at least he had been on the team at one point.

“Huh.” His father continued staring at the television; Rune crossed the room quickly, sat on the sofa, at the edge closest to his father. The teen looked at the screen. A basketball game — of all the spectator sports his father watched, Rune knew it to be his least favorite. Refs let the players show off too much, there wasn’t enough discipline in the game, not any more anyway. In the Banks household, it was taken as fact that all spectator sports had been so much better when his father was Rune’s age.

“How was the fencing tournament, this morning?” Wearing a white t-shirt that was five years too tight on him and gray sweatpants, his father raised a glass of bourbon to his lips, his eyes still focused on the television screen.

“It totally sucked.” Rune could be honest with his father in a way he couldn’t with his teammates. “Lost every bout. Most of them weren’t even close.”

“Huh.” His father placed his glass on a side table, eyes still screen-focused.

A moment later, Rune had gathered enough information from the screen to determine they were watching a collegiate basketball game, between two schools with names that didn’t reference a city, state, or region; the teams could have been from anywhere between here and Timbuktu. Assuming his father would be too distracted by this nondescript game to care about his departure, Rune rose from the sofa, took a step toward the dining room — but stopped when his father asked him a question. He looked down at his father, whose eyes were still focused on the television — “What?”

His father frowned, and looked over at his drink. Picking it up, he drank, the ice cube sliding down the glass, now empty of liquid, and slamming into his father’s upper lip. Paul Banks swore, spat at the cube, then lowered the glass onto his stomach. And resumed staring at the television screen. For a moment, Rune thought his father had forgotten about him. But then, he cleared his throat — “What I said was, I don’t know why you even bother.”

“About what?”

His father waved his left hand in Rune’s direction. “This fencing, thing that you do. I mean, I don’t understand why you keep doing it.”

“Because it’s fun.” Rune realized he was speaking from instinct rather than feeling, that he wasn’t so much responding to his father’s question but rather hoping to cut off further questioning. “I really enjoy fencing.”

“Huh.” His father turned his head, looked on his son with eyes too tired to be angry. “You don’t sound like you enjoyed yourself this morning. And most times, you come home from practice Tuesday and shut yourself in your room.”

It’s also the night you start drinking. “I just get a little frustrated, is all. Not having as much success as I used to.”

His father smiled, and seemed barely able to withhold his laughter. He placed his glass back on the side table, and pointed at his son — “This is all I’m saying. What’s the point of putting up with all that frustration? Why don’t you take up, I don’t know, chess or something?”

I suck at chess too. “I’m OK, dad.”

“Huh.” A trumpet’s blare rose from the television screen; Rune’s father turned his attention back to the game.

“You want me to quit fencing?” The words had escaped before Rune had fully considered their wisdom.

“Quit?” Sounding insulted, his father stood up quickly from his recliner, like a prop pulled by exuberant stagehands. “Now why would I try to ruin all this fun you’re having.” Grabbing his glass from the side table, he then moved swiftly into the kitchen.

Rune sat back on the sofa, feeling his father would have more to say and would be angered if his son left. He looked out the bay windows, to the front of their yard, covered in white and gray layers of snow. Sounds from the kitchen, the freezer door opening, hands fumbling in the ice tray, the door closing. Moccasined feet swishing over the tiled kitchen floors. Rune turned his attention back to the meaningless game, waited until his father returned with his refilled glass. The score flashed on the screen; Rune saw an opportunity to engage his father. “Not many points. Bad offense, or good defense?”

“Huh.” Paul Banks sat down, seemingly oblivious to the question just asked of him. Rune focused on the screen again, looking for something that could initiate a conversation — an impressive play, some antic on the sidelines, a player’s bad haircut, anything. Then suddenly, his father’s weary voice: “I just want to see you have some success.”

Rune waved his greasy hair off his forehead as he looked back at his father, whose face had grown soft, thoughtful. “I’m worried about you, Hugh.” Nobody in his family called him Rune. “Your grades are good, but not what they could be — you’re coasting. Only thing you do outside of school, and eating here at home, is that fencing club. And that’s only one day a week.” An ice cube cracked in his drink, fizzed. “I mean, don’t you ever want to get out of this town?”

Rune didn’t know if his father’s question counted as a non-sequitur. Ice cracked again in the glass. “I . . . don’t know — ”

“Bullshit you don’t know.” There was an edge now to Paul Banks’ voice. “Every child in Bark Bay dreams of leaving.”

Rune felt the urge to argue; he knew his friends well enough to realize many would be quite content staying in town. Sure, Double-J already had one foot out the door and The Bird also seemed ready to take wing, but Butch? Rex? They never expressed an interest in getting out. Even Annie, yes, who had not only traveled extensively with her family but also had the brains, skills, and means to go pretty much wherever she wanted, even Annie had never seemed eager to get out of town. Bark Bay is home for me (it hurt him now to remember her words, but her father’s argument forced the memory onto him like a powerful lunge to his four). It’s the place where everything I’ve ever enjoyed exists, everybody I’ve ever loved lives. Rune knew he should cut his father off and tell him he was wrong, but the edge he heard in the middle-aged man’s voice kept him silent.

“You’re still young, Hugh. Your life, it’s like an exam sheet that hasn’t been filled in. There’s no mistakes yet, no wrong answers you wish you could change.”

An idea came to the teen, too inspiring to keep to himself. “So maybe, instead of trying all kinds of stuff and starting to fill in those answers, I should take my time and look at the questions a little longer.” 

Paul Banks’ scoffing laugh rippled through his son like an ocean wave powering through a sand castle. “This isn’t some pop quiz” — apparently he’d abandoned the analogy he’d just created — “not something you decide to do, or not do. It’s more like, you’re always being evaluated. Somebody’s always watching you. And at some point, probably when you don’t expect it, they come up to you, and say, here’s how you did. And they give you this little score card, with all the marks filled in — what you did right, what you did wrong. And if you just sit back and try to figure things out, like you’re saying… ”

Paul Banks exhaled, letting his lips vibrate, fbbbbbbt, spittle spraying onto his chin. Rune guessed his father had realized the futility of his absurd analogy. He wanted to tell his father to relax, enjoy watching his game, not to worry. He wanted to say he’d be all right. He wanted to say — something. But found that he couldn’t.

“You do want to be successful, don’t you?” His father’s face looked like a wounded deer’s.

“Of course.” The only safe answer. “But I don’t know what being successful means, just yet.” Oh stupid, stupid, stupid.

“JESUS!” His father’s mercurial face was now twisted with disgusted rage. “Have you HEARD anything I’ve said? Nobody gives a SHIT about your opinion, it don’t MATTER how you define success, it’s something that’s defined FOR YOU!”

Rune looked at the man sitting in his father’s recliner, wearing his father’s t-shirt and sweats, his father’s favorite drinking glass lying on the side table to right of his father’s recliner, filled with the familiar smell of his father’s favorite bourbon, on the rocks. And the teen realized he had to recognize this person as his father, because any other perspective would mean treating this man with pity, contempt, and ridicule.

He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came. He heard laughter from the television; turning to look, he saw a stand-up comic grimacing sardonically, and quickly determined he was seeing a commercial. After a glance at the mantle clock above the screen, 10:44, he turned back to his father, only to see that the older man’s chin had fallen onto his chest, his head rolling off to the right, his eyes closed. As if his sudden outburst had exhausted him.

Waving greasy hair off his brow again, Rune dismissed the idea of going up to his room. From experience, he knew his father’s naps were very uneven, and he could wake suddenly at the slightest noise or movement. The game resumed on the television, and he did his best to watch with interest as his father began snoring softly in the recliner to his left.

11:08

As she staggered through the heavy door leading to her home’s kitchen, Jenna Banks jabbed the garage door remote on the wall, causing the garage door to close as noisily as it had just opened. Seeing Chet had already dispensed with his winter clothing, she marvelled at her son’s energy after so many hours of hockey. Well, he had slept on the ride back.

Slipping off her boots, she walked past the kitchen into the living room. The television was on, and her husband was in his recliner, out cold; a typical Saturday night. She sighed, prepared herself for the reaction to come, and spoke — “Paul.” As if responding to a command, her husband’s eyes shot open, and he yelled in surprise. She said it was time for him to get up, go upstairs and into bed; she watched as, without seeming to acknowledge her words, he began to rise deliberately from his chair.

Knowing it would take her husband several minutes to begin walking, she went to the foot of the stairs, and called up to Chet. “Is Hugh home?”

“I dunno.”

Jenna frowned. “Is his door closed?” Every Banks child complied with the family rule that bedroom doors were to be kept open unless the occupant was there sleeping.

Impatient feet stamped on the carpeted hallway upstairs. Then — “Yeah.” Jenna nodded, as the impatient feet returned to their room.

The father of the house had begun walking towards the stairs, and Jenna stayed out of his somnambulant path. She then went over to the recliner, grabbed the remote, turned off the television. On the side table he had left a glass, smelling of bourbon but now empty except for two nearly dissolved ice cubes; she carried it into the kitchen, dumped the remnant liquid into the sink, and left the glass on the counter. Turning lights off in her wake, Jenna Banks then made her way to the master bedroom on the second floor of her family’s warm, comfortable home.

End of “Gray Metal Faces – February”

Gray Metal Faces – February 13

Rune lurched forward, hands pressing down into the snow, his body convulsing in sobs he no longer wished to subdue. He had lost her. She had felt like his reward for a lifetime of loneliness, her presence awakening sensations he had never experienced. Having Annie as his girlfriend made him feel like a winner, for the first time in his life. But his triumph had driven away that afternoon in a Caddy.

He opened his eyes without realizing he’d shut them. Still sobbing, he wiped his eyes with the back of his right hand. In the dim light he could see the outlines of his tears where they had fallen in the snow. His cheeks stung with streaks of ice.

The mechanical hum of the dam turbines caught his attention again. Though he was far from its source, the hum was more distinctive than ever, and had an anthropomorphic quality he had not detected earlier. He heard a word in the depths of its low rumble: rrrrruuuuunnnnneeeeeee. His own name, or at least the one he most often chose for himself. And the mechanical voice of the dam, it also sounded — thirsty, quenching its insatiable desire by taking in the waters of the lake, churning that water through its turbines, then exhuming the water down to the river far underneath.

The edges of his vision caught a change in the lights above him. He sniffled, propped his body erect, his knees still dug into the snow. He looked up — the lights, yes, they had changed. They were all white now, almost cloud-like.

And then… she appeared.

A young girl, dressed in silver, sailing down from among the lights like an angel, but Rune sensed in her a heart of lead, black and cold, her eyes growling red. His instincts urged him to get onto his feet, turn and run from this misguided spirit, as he feared that continuing to look into her fiery night eyes might drive him to madness.

But then his body relaxed, like an animal accepting it could not escape from its trap. For while he knew this apparition contained a terror that was powerful and rich, he also sensed that they two of them were, as absurd as the idea sounded, kindred souls.

The spirit coming down to him was not from his world, this goddess from beyond the sea, yet there was compassion in its ethereal face, an understanding of his sadness. Rune didn’t know what this sea goddess would do with its knowledge; perhaps this creature would exploit their bond, use it to torment him, be the cause of even more suffering. But he had stepped onto the carousel, and could not get off until this ride was over.

Unable and unwilling to move, Rune looked up as the terrible beauty descended upon him, this angelic demon from another world, this Sea Goddess, as her lips closed in a gentle smile, and began singing in his mind:

Down long black clouds of ink you see me wave,
A silver vision from a distant sphere.
My time has come to shine your dreams away,
Forever starts tonight, so have no fear.

For life, a fragile song of bitter joy,
Plays no key that will ease your ceaseless pain.
Sweet love gives pleasure, but time will destroy
All life’s glory, and sorrow will sustain.

Some have to lose, and losers have no name.
Why let life leave you standing there alone?
I can take you to where sleep has no shame –
All you must do, is journey to my throne.

Come fly away, high away, to my sea
And from life’s misery you shall be free.

The silver clouds surrounding the apparition shimmered, and Rune knew her song had completed.

In the distance, he heard the mechanical hum of the turbines. Churning. Waiting. Thirsting.

The edge of the lake water was just a few feet away.

He looked up again at the Sea Goddess, who smiled and opened her white arms.

rrrrruuuuunnnnneeeeeee

“No.” As if Rune’s monosyllabic utterance was a command, the apparition above the lake vanished, leaving him staring up at the black canvas of night again. And the hum of the turbines became a distant murmur again, its anthropomorphic thirst no longer audible.

Rune blinked, and shook his head. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he had no intention of sticking around to see if it would happen again. Rising quickly to his feet, he turned back towards the woods, scanning the ground for the footfalls he had left earlier. The light was poor, but the path he had made when exiting the woods was unmistakable. He sighed with relief as he stepped back into the pillars of trees, his previous footfalls distinct, the tree branches above hiding him from the northern lights.

Trusting his eyes to lead him back, Rune allowed his thoughts to reflect on the apparition he had just seen, or at least thought he’d seen. Whatever it was, it had challenged, invited him; declining seemed the right decision, but he wasn’t sure why. What had motivated his answer?

He then arrived at an area where his solitary footfalls among the even white surface gave way a disheveled mass of loose snow. Rather than a single pair of feet, it looked like several people had been there, and engaged in some struggle. Then from the corner of his vision he saw a tree limb dangling, one he somehow recognized. He stepped closer, and then realized he was looking at the cedar branch that had temporarily trapped him on his way down to the lake; it now hung limply, like a hanged convict. Rune smirked, reached out and grabbed the limb, pulled it free of the cedar, then tossed the now dead branch aside.

Whatever he had experienced down by lake — a vision, a mirage, a delusion — the only thing it had offered was an empty promise. The Sea Goddess, whatever she was, had offered to take him to a place where he wouldn’t feel alone, wouldn’t suffer the pain of loss — bullshit. Just another lie. The agony he felt would stay with him wherever he went, and there was no sense in trying to run away from it. The world he knew may be cruel, but he understood it, and wasn’t about to take his chances anywhere else.

He picked up his trail again, and resumed navigating through the woods until he saw a distant light. Perhaps his house, or another family’s — didn’t matter, really, if he followed the lights and exited the woods he would surely find his way back home. Abandoning the tracks of his previous journey, Rune rushed towards the light, until he reached the edge of the forest.

Gray Metal Faces – February 12

9:31

The northern lights shot into the sky in columns of luminous green, the color of garish Halloween decorations, with a backlight of yellow, capped with warm orange tips. The columns pulsated, alternately rising and falling against the sky’s black canvas rhythmically, as if synchronized to music Rune could not hear.

The teen stood on the shore of the lake, gaping up at the display. He sighed, and felt relaxed, at peace, for the first time all day. These lights, they did not ask anything of him, weren’t there to judge him, did not care about his existence even. They just rose, pulsated, illuminated his vision from the horizon to high above his head.

And then, they were gone, leaving the sky black, as if someone had flipped off a celestial light switch. Please stand by, an unspoken voice apologized.

Rune remembered the lights had temporarily disappeared earlier, at least once during his trek along the lake. He stood, waiting for the cosmic lightbringer to flip the switch back on. Maybe this was the reason for his long walk in the cold night, maybe he sensed the lights would be there —

Cool. Jezz had said that, as he had gotten out of her car parked in his family’s driveway. At the time he hadn’t known what she was referencing, but he remembered her looking away to her left. Was this the reason for his journey? Had he picked up her suggestion, headed in the direction she had been looking, trusting he would find what she had seen?

The sky remained black. The pause in the celestial light show allowed him time to be honest with himself. As impressive as the northern lights had been, he hadn’t come here to watch them, or to find the lake, or struggle through the forest. He hadn’t come to find anything, but rather to get away. From his father, from Double-J, from Bark Bay, from fencing. And, from Annie. And what she’d said that afternoon.

Fourth Saturday, Early Afternoon

“No there isn’t.” Her face betrayed no emotion, showed no sign of sharing the dismay that so pained his heart. “We just need to stop dating, that’s all there is to it.” Annie brushed her long brown-pony tail off her shoulder, let it fall down her jacketed back.

Rune released his hold on the handle of his house’s front door. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, the fencing tournament was over, Coach Dan had dropped them off at his house, they were going upstairs to his room (concealing the sounds of their loving wrestling from his father would only add to their excitement), she’d stay for dinner, might even still be there when his mother and brother returned from hockey. She’d call her parents to pick her up when she was ready to go home, which Rune knew wouldn’t be any time soon.

That was the plan. And what she had just told him, no, that was not in the plan at all.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. That’s how she’d started the conversation — no, it was We can’t date anymore, but before that was No, I can’t go inside, and There’s something I have to tell you. Rune desperately tried to arrange her words in his memory in order to understand, to control this situation.

“You’re seeing someone else, aren’t you?” The words came out of him reflexively. “Double-J, is it him?”

Annie rolled her eyes. “Double-J so much as touches me, I’ll deck him. There’s no — there really isn’t — ” it was one of the few times he saw her being uncertain — “I just don’t think you know what you want.”

He could hear himself pleading with her, and saw her reply with cool defiance. “No, I really can’t stay.” And then he heard the sound of tires crunching salt on asphalt, looked past Annie and saw her parents’ white Cadillac pulling into the driveway.

And then she just walked away, saying she was sorry, and telling him to take care of himelf. She approached the Cadillac, opened a back door, and got in. Never looked back. The door closed, and the Cadillac pulled away.

9:32

He fell to his knees on the lake shore, waiting for the northern lights to return.

It was over. He’d pleaded with her, couldn’t remember the words he used (other than please, repeated several times) but he’d definitely clamped his hands together, like a hungry man begging for bread. She’d never wavered, showed no willingness to change her mind. Just walked into her Caddy, and rode away. And he’d known her long enough, well enough, to have any hope that she’d change her mind.

He had lost her. Cold crept into his knees like ants. The sky remained black.

A sound, the first Rune heard above the humming of the distant dam turbines. At first it sounded like a piston or some other device striking against metal, but softly; he focused on the noise until he realized there was a rhythm, those were piano keys he was hearing. He continued listening, began recognizing the melody. It was a song, a popular one, this wasn’t a recording but somebody was playing it, on a piano, in one of the cabins along the lake. Rune nodded; the song was sad but beautiful, and the pianist was performing it quite well.

The sky above Rune erupted again in a brilliant display of green jets streamed with red, like fireworks launched from the surface of the frozen lake. He looked up, smiling, felt his body relax, muscles sighing from relief.

“So . . . ” Several words came to his mind, were rejected before they reached his throat, none able to convey the effect of the dancing lights above him. It was just . . . “So.”

Then the memory of everything he’d experienced that day erupted into his consciousness. Finishing last in the fencing tournament, Double-J kicking his ass, Annie saying they shouldn’t date any more. Annie breaking up with him. Annie riding away in her family’s Cadillac.

Above him, the northern lights quivered. And then, began to take shape.

Gray Metal Faces – February 11

9:27

Within minutes, Rune felt the snow deepen. A drift had accumulated, starting on the lake ice and reaching across the shore to the edge of the forest. Rune began continued through snow that ran up to his ankles, then his knees, and did not stop until the drift ran up to his hips. Looking into the distance, he could see the drift began tapering a few yards ahead, and bare ground was visible no more than a few dozen feet away. And to his right, the snow also tapered down as it approached the forest, and also to his left, although it was always treacherous to walk onto the lake. Still, he had options for continuing his trek towards the dam.

He took a few more steps forward — then stumbled, and fell forward, his face planting into the drift. “Shit!” And by the time he had regained his feet, Rune had changed his mind.

His journey suddenly seemed to him no more than an exercise in futility. The mechanical hum had been pulling him forward like a dog lured by a whistle, but he no more wanted to continue forward than he wanted his teeth drilled. He turned quickly, saw the cabin lights that had led him down to the lake, as well as his bootprints leading back. He knew it was time to head back, and face whatever was waiting for him in his family’s house.

Rune’s pace quickened as he cleared the drift, and with his bootprints guiding him he could let his mind wander. He began thinking how this whole day had been a waste, not just now as he dragged his frozen ass up and down this lonely shore, but earlier, from the beginning. The tournament in the morning, losing every single pool bout, again, then injuring his knee in the DE — 

Another flash of light over the lake. He glanced over and saw this was not just another flicker, multicolored streams were leaping over the distant horizon. The northern lights had returned.

Fourth Saturday, Late Evening

“Sure you’re OK?” Jezz kept her eyes on the road as she laid her right hand on Rune’s leg. Sitting in the passenger seat, Rune grunted, nodded slowly, keeping the truth to himself — No I’m not, but I don’t want your help.

He laid his head on the inside door of Jezz’s car, his cheek feeling the vibration from the tires. He could hear here telling him not to feel bad about what Double-J had done, he did that a lot, pick fights with people for no reason. In between directions to his house, he acknowledged her words with grunts, trying his best to shut her out.

He could feel the areas of his stomach where Double-J had punched him, of his back where Double-J had thrown him into a wall What had I done? He found it odd that the thought hadn’t occurred to him until just now. What made Double-J attack me? Maybe it was the way Rune had challenged him, after Yankee Cap Mitch asked again what made him leave the fencing team. The words had blurted out of Rune — “It’s because they made Annie the captain, instead of him.”

Annie. Dammit, Annie. Rune wasn’t ready to think of Annie, so he forced himself to recall Double-J’s response, and suddenly the memory of the burly senior surged into his mind as swiftly as he rushed at his opponents during bouts. He’d waved his beer bottle at Yankee Cap Mitch like he was wielding his saber, the only weapon he ever cared to use (foil’s for newbies, and epee is just too fucking boring). “I just got fed up with Jacobs trying to turn it into another dumb sport. Team points, phony rivalries with the Academy, other schools. Know why I like fencing? It’s one of the only sports that ain’t been corrupted by greed or celebrity. Not yet anyway.” Rune remembered how Double-J then drank from his bottle, eyes glaring down into the glass as if he were commanding its contents into his mouth.

Spittle had dripped from his lip onto his chin as he lowered the bottle. “Jacobs’ trying to change that — saw what he was doing with Myles, thought he’d give up when he graduated but no, now he wants fucking us — ” beer splashed onto his sweat shirt as he slammed the beer bottle into his chest — “to pick up where Myles left off.” He sat back down in his chair. “Jacobs, he wants fencing to be cool — uses that word all the time, hey new guy you should come to practice on Tuesday it’s really cool, hey Rex that was a cool counter-tempo, hey Annie you did some cool footwork in that bout — and he’s too blind to see that if fencing ever did get cool, it would just become another obnoxious distraction.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” That’s right, Jezz had challenged him too. But at that point Double-J no longer appeared interested in continuing the conversation, so he’d left for the room at the back of the apartment.

Since he’d arrived, Rune had watched people go back there, close the door, come out a few minutes later, some with faces bright and giggling, others somber and serious. His eyes now followed Double-J as he walked into the room. As the door shut, he felt Jezz nudge his shoulder — “Curious?”

Rune had shook his head. “I guess.”

“So — ” she had waited for him to look at her — “why not go in?”

The door had opened, and Rune saw Double-J returning, his laughter cold and sarcastic.

He’d turned his attention back to Jezz. “Not really my type of place.”

She had smirked. “And you would know that, because?” He’d blinked, and she’d continued. “What’s wrong with taking a chance?”

And her words broke through the barriers of his reticence, opened a door to his curiosity. He should take a chance, he’d realized, because what he’d been doing in life wasn’t working, wasn’t getting him what he wanted, in any area of his life. Home, friends, fencing — even his grades had been slipping. He knew enough about Double-J’s friends to have a good idea of what to expect at the apartment, and while little of that had any appeal to him, at least it would be different. Yeah, that was it. Try something different, see if it would work for him. And the sound of Jezz’s laugh, and the way the dim lamplight glistened off her nose ring, suggested that maybe there was something in that back room would actually work out for him. It was an invitation he didn’t want to turn down, he wanted to find out what all the giggling smiles were about, so he’d reached out and taken Jezz’s hand, took a step with her towards the closed door of the back room.

And that’s when Double-J had pounced on him, pummeled him with his fists, thrown him around the apartment. He’d balled up on the floor, heard Jezz’s sneakers squeak near his head, her voice loud above the blaring music, he’s had enough! Smart enough not to get between them, kind enough to care for the fallen. He’d closed his eyes, focused on the sounds around him, heard only music. Then Double-J’s heavy footfalls, backing away. Get the fuck out of here, Double-J’s gruff voice directed across at Jezz, not down at Rune. He had then felt Jezz’s hand on his shoulder, her soft voice telling him she’d drive him home. Rune had been too embarrassed to protest, he knew he’d been beaten, just like he’d been beaten that morning at the fencing tournament. He’d let Jezz help him get up, his eyes catching the apartment’s front door on which he then focused as he quickly exited, Jezz’s footsteps behind him. Minutes later he was in the front seat of her smelly car (she’d tossed a pile of newspapers onto the sidewalk before he got in, like she was clearing leaves from a gutter).

You shouldn’t let Double-J get away with shit like that.” Jezz hadn’t said anything to him for several minutes, and now she sounded more angry than concerned. “What an asshole.” Rune laughed, not sure if Jezz was referring to Double-J or himself?

 

“This it?” Rune raised his head, looked out the window, his eyes blinking from the sudden light. He recognized the blurry outlines of his house. The garage door was closed, as usual on nights his father was by himself. He thought for a moment about asking Jezz if she wanted to go somewhere, he didn’t care where, maybe the Pizza Place again.

But he decided that some doors in his life should remain shut. “Thanks for the ride.” He exited the car, thanked Jezz again, and a moment later her car was noisily chugging away. Rune walked up to front door of his family’s home, reached for the handle — and then had begun his journey into the cold darkness.

Gray Metal Faces – February 10

9:22

A flash on his left — Rune’s vision shot over the lake, but he was only able to catch the fading flicker of the northern lights. A moment later, they had sunk entirely below the horizon. He looked ahead, saw the shoreline stretching beyond his vision; he had no idea how far he was from the dam, then suddenly wasn’t sure how close he could actually come. The dam was a vital public asset, the power source for the entire county, the surrounding area would certainly be restricted, they wouldn’t just let anyone walk up there.

The futility of his journey struck Rune, the very real possibility he was approaching a destination he wouldn’t be able to reach, but he still didn’t consider turning back. There was something out here, somewhere, that he needed to find. Perhaps in the dormant woods, or across the still lake, maybe even within the rock-strewn ground beneath his feet. It was here, somewhere, and he was determined to keep walking, despite his injured knee, until he found it.

Fourth Saturday, Early Evening

“It’s the ones who smile.” Reclining on his green sofa, left leg balanced on his right like a makeshift table, Double-J was frowning. “The users, they come out smiling. They’re the ones, gonna ruin themselves.”

Rune checked his vague reflection in a window glass behind Double-J before replying, making sure his face was appropriately nonplussed. “You ever smile?”

“Wadda ya think?” Double-J smiled, drew his right arm up to his mustachioed face, and inhaled on a cigarette. Pulling the white tube from his mouth, he blew smoke behind him. “Some people can just enjoy the ride, then walk away. Others, they think the ride’s the only thing. Once they get on, they never want to get off.”

“Addicts?”

Double-J shrugged, the thin wires of his black hair rising. “That’s only the word they use when they get help. Which most of them will need.”

A voice from the back room called to Double-J, who stood and replied with resignation. Rune sat back in his chair, took in the atmosphere of the apartment. The stereo blared an unfamiliar song, with a strong bass line, bluesy; there was no overhead light here in what Double-J had called the living room, and three small table lamps provided poor illumination; tobacco smoke and stale beer obliterated all other smells. Double-J shuffled around a low table, weathered wood, a black-and-white checkerboard barely visible under plastic cups, eviscerated snack food bags, and a large yellow ashtray. Rune was sitting on a sofa in front of two large windows, a television to the right, a pair of metal folding chairs to the left, in front of the kitchen area. A thin girl, the only other current occupant of the room, moved aside to make room for Double-J; she wore dark eye shadow, a ring through her right nostril, and held a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her left hand.

Double-J sat back in his chair, and Rune caught his eye. “If you’re so certain how they’ll wind up, why do you let them back there?” He had known Double-J long enough to know he would appreciate such as direct challenge.

“They made their choices.” Rune scanned Double-J’s poorly illuminated face for any sign of empathy, yet found none. “Damage, it’s been done. Nothing I do could make them undo that decision.”

“Hey.” The girl next to Rune had raised her chin in Rune’s direction. Her tone was friendly, inviting.

Rune waved hello. The guy in the Yankees cap (his name might be Mitch, Rune thought he’d heard that earlier in the evening) walked into the kitchen, and Rune heard a refrigerator door open. Double-J asked a question, but all Rune heard was do.

“What?”

Double-J frowned. “How’d you do today?”

Rune ran a hand back through the waves of his greasy hair. “Eh. Not so hot.” He licked his lips, looked up. “Francis asked where you were.”

Disgusted snort. “What you tell him?”

Shrug. “Said it wasn’t none of my business.” Rune suddenly wondered how Double-J had known about today’s tournament.

Double-J’s eyes widened with surprised pleasure. “Think that’s the most intelligent thing I ever heard you say.”

“You’re a fencer too?” Rune hadn’t expected a question like that from this girl with a ring in her nose.

“Yeah.” She seemed genuinely interested. “You like fencing?”

Double-J laughed, clapping his hands. Ring-nose frowned at the party’s host, then turned back to Rune, smiling. “Not really. I just know Sunshine over here just quit on you.”

“It’s not really a team.” Double-J reached out and up with his arm, took a beer bottle from the Yankees cap guy who name might be Mitch. The song changed, this one Rune recognized, by a blues guitarist from Chicago whose name he couldn’t remember. “They’re a club, everyone fences for themselves. Don’t have enough warm bodies for a team.”

“Coach Dan — ”

” — is fucking delusional. He couldn’t get a team together for states last year, and that was when he had fucking Myles.” Double-J twisted the cap off his beer bottle like he was decapitating it.

Rune felt a tap on his shoulder, something hard and wet and cool. He turned his head, saw Yankee cap Mitch was offering him a beer bottle. The teen lifted a hand, waved. “No thanks.”

“You do know — ” mocking disdain dripped from Double-J’s voice — “that it’s rude to turn down an invitation from your host?”

“Go on.” Ring Nose’s voice was soft, playful, as she lifted her own beer bottle towards Rune. “We’re all underage too, you know.”

The teen’s eyes scanned the three faces in the room, as the music pulsated through the floor of the apartment. He heard voices, coming from the room beyond the kitchen. A door opened. Guitar strings screaming electricity, voice singing a wail, the sweet smell of tobacco smoke. “I — ” he waved his hand again — “no, really, no.”

Yankee Cap Mitch tapped his shoulder again with the bottle. “Go on, bud, it won’t hurt you none.”

Rune shook his head, caught Double-J’s gaze. “Got any soda?”

Without blinking, Double-J waved silently in the direction of the kitchen. Rune rose, twisting away from Yankee Cap Mitch, and walked to the refrigerator with a feeling of relief.

Rune leaned forward, opened and looked inside the refrigerator. A fence of brown and green beer bottles, at least five different brands, were lined up at the front of each shelf, other items obscured behind them. To the left, behind a pair of Budweiser sentries, was a plastic bottle of brownish black liquid, a few bubbles visible on top. Root beer? Rune reached behind the beer bottles, tried to grab the bottle of soda without disturbing the sentries, as if he were a thief trying to grab a diamond without tripping an alarm. He grabbed the soda bottle by its thin nick, lifted, judged having just enough room to clear the brown glass peaks. A woman’s voice began singing, Rune didn’t know her name either, but she was good, and the guy proved to be a better guitar player than singer. Rune pulled forward, wrist clearing the peak — his forearm brushed against a green bottle, it tilted right, pushed into other green bottles, shit!, the bottles were tumbling forward like dominoes; Rune raised his right elbow to stop their fall but his hand came forward, knocked the Bud sentries forward, he caught them with his left hand.

“Jesus.” Ring Nose was standing behind him. “Why don’t you just move stuff?” She knelt beside him, grabbed the green bottles from his right elbow. Rune put the Buds on the floor, moved other bottles to the side, pulled the soda bottle towards him, and turned it over. Coke, dammit. He didn’t like colas. But he wasn’t about to go ask Double-J if he had any root beer.

A moment later, as he poured Coke into a red plastic cup, Rune caught a scent, something he hadn’t detected before in the apartment. Lavender, sweet but not overpowering. Alluring. He heard the refrigerator door close, then looked over and saw Ring Nose. The scent was coming from her, lying gently under the pungent smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke.

Ring Nose smiled, a green bottle in her left hand, brown in her right. “I’m Jezz.” Her brown hair was spiked, she wore dark lipstick and eye shadow.

“Rune.” He inhaled, the scent of lavender filling his lungs like nitrous oxide. She nodded, and returned to the living room, Rune following her like a puppy.

Guitars, drums, trumpets, a salad of sound Rune felt in his teeth. Rune resumed his seat on the couch, then made room for Jezz to sit next to him. Yankee Cap Mitch was sitting on a metal chair, pointing at Double-J with his beer bottle. “So tell me — didn’t you say once, that fencing was the only reason you stayed in school?”

Double-J drank from his bottle while shaking his head. Drawing the bottle from his mouth, he swallowed, and stared back at Yankee Cap Mitch. “Listening to Jacobs’ nonsense, that served its purpose. But I don’t have any use for school, or his damn glee club.” Jezz whispered to Rune, asked who Jacob was, Rune whispered back he was their coach, Dan Jacobs. Coach Dan.

“You know why Jacobs started the club, right?” Rune felt Double-J’s dark eyes penetrating him, like a cross-examining attorney.

“Yeah.” Rune sat upright, finally comfortable with the discussion. “His old college, coach, said — ”

“Bullshit.” Double-J waved the bottle across his body, the beer inside swishing both audibly and visibly. “Had his sights on competing nationally, until he blew his knees out. Never got over it, so he started that fencing club. We’re just living his dream.”

“No way.” Rune pointed with his plastic cup of cola, withdrawing it as soon as he realized how silly the gesture looked. “He’s not like Dr. Schmidt, he doesn’t pressure us — ”

“Because none of you has any talent.” There was only a hint of an apology in Double-J’s voice. “You didn’t see him with Myles, he was always pushing him.”

“That Glossoro guy?” Yankee Cap Mitch looked like he knew he was butchering the name. “The quarterback?”

Double-J drank, and Rune took advantage. “Yeah. He fenced too. Real competitive guy, hated losing.” Stared at Double-J, who for once seemed eager to hear what he said. “Coach Dan didn’t push him, Myles was always charging ahead. Coach was just holding — ” He stopped himself, too late.

“The reins?” Double-J seemed delighted. “Perhaps a leash? Some way of keeping control of his pet, making sure he didn’t ruin his dream?”

Rune stared down into his cup, as the conversation around him switched to another topic. He looked up quickly at a digital clock above the television — 7:36. Home was an hour’s walk away, and his mother and brother would be back around 11. The party had been a curiosity, but he had seen and heard all he cared for one evening. Two, two and a half more hours, though. He focused on the music.

Gray Metal Faces – February 9

9:15

A swift sudden noise in the forest; Rune looked to his left, scanning the dark woods. Another noise, similar to what he’d just heard, only slower, not as close. An animal, raccoon perhaps. He couldn’t remember if raccoons hibernated. Maybe a fox, then.

Hey. Rune stopped, looked around quickly. Dark woods to his right, snow-covered shoreline in front of him, a large sheet of frozen lake water to his left. No sign of life anywhere, save for his own breath vapor. But for the first time since walking away from the front door of his house that evening, he was certain that he wasn’t alone. When he had been stumbling through the woods towards the lake, he’d thought he heard something or seen someone a few times, but each time he’d quickly dismissed the idea. Yet the voice he’d just heard, was accompanied by something he hadn’t experienced in those earlier moments, a presence, a tangible force he could reach for and grasp, if only he knew where it was. Perhaps this presence had been following him all through the woods; perhaps it had just arrived, had just announced itself.

Options. He could call out, something brilliant like who’s there? If he was right, they’d probably answer. But what if he were wrong and there wasn’t anybody there, he’d look like a fool — but if he was alone, nobody would notice. Unless there was somebody there, but they hadn’t said anything. Say nothing, then. But if someone was there, was trying to get his attention, that person, that presence, it would see that he’d stopped — and then he’d certainly look like a fool.

Compromise. “Must have been a fox.” Worst case scenario (someone was there but choose to remain silent) was that he looked a little odd, talking to himself out loud. But he wouldn’t look foolish.

He waited. No sounds, no movements — no presence. Nothing.

His ears picked up the mechanical hum of the dam, and Rune resumed walking. His left knee still ached, but he found walking actually helped ease the pain, so he continued, his ears alert for any further noises from the forest to his right.

Fourth Saturday, Late Afternoon

Rune was sitting at one of the small square plastic tables at the Pizza Place, staring intently at his meatball sub and soda. Always a quick eater, the slender teen with wavy hair slick with grease had forced himself to slow down this afternoon. The longer he took to eat, the longer he could sit in the restaurant without feeling the need to leave or having to answer any questions (can I get you anything else?), and the longer he sat here meant more time he wasn’t out in the frigid air, wandering aimlessly around Bark Bay, where weeks of steady snowfall had turned the sidewalks into narrow canyons of dirty snow and black ice. He couldn’t go home yet — well he could, but his mother would have already left with with his brother several hours ago and wouldn’t be back until late that evening, and he didn’t want to be alone in that house, or to be precise, not be alone —

“Hey.” As he felt the slap on the back of his right shoulder, Rune lurched forward and began rising and turning in indignation. But he tripped over his own feet, his body stumbling forward and nearly crashing into the table. Forcing his body back into the plastic chair, Rune finally looked up at the person who’d slapped him; he didn’t recall the name of this guy or where he’d seen him before, but there was enough friendly recognition in the bearded face looking down at him to give him reason to relax.

“Fencing tournament, last spring.” He was wearing a navy blue baseball cap, and talked in a casual tone that assumed Rune wouldn’t recognize him. “I was hanging out with Double-J that day, you and I got into it a little.”

Rune’s mouth opened slowly. “Yeah. Right.” He snapped his fingers, then glanced up at the insignia on the baseball cap, the interlocking N and Y. “Yankees!”

The guy in the baseball cap smirked. “They got the money, and the brains!”

Rune picked up the argument like an actor reciting his lines. “Only brains they have, is the ones they buy!”

They swapped names and shook hands, and the man in the Yankees cap then sat in the chair across the table from Rune, and stroked his beard. “So tell me, you often sit alone at restaurants?”

The question sounded to Rune like the opening line of a sales pitch. “Only when I’m hungry, and by myself.”

The man slapped the table. “Ha! Well, I need to eat too, don’t mind if I keep you company, do ya?”

Rune shook his head. “No.” The teen realized he had already forgotten the name this guy had given him, and he was still bothered by his overt friendliness, which seemed far more expansive than their brief encounter several months ago had warranted. But he also recognized his presence would help keep his mind off the events from earlier that day. Getting hurt at the fencing tournament, Rex’s awkward card — the trip back home, had she really said those words — “Not at all.”

The man (early twenties, Rune guessed) took off his Yankees cap, scratched his head, then pulled the cap back on. “So tell me, how’s that sub?”

Rune glanced down at his nearly empty plate as if he where searching for words, but the nearly devoured sandwich gave him no inspiration, like a pile of junk mail. “I dunno. OK, I guess.”

“Mind?” His arm had already reached across the table, he had nearly touched the sub before glancing up at Rune. The teen nodded, there was only a bite or two left so he told the man to take it, finish it off. Without a word the man grabbed the sub, and shoved the entire remnant into his mouth — “Oh, muh guh!” The partially masticated bread and meat, mixed with red sauce and yellow cheese, was on full display in his gaping mouth as he looked up at Rune — “Gon geh me un tuh!”

After swallowing, the man ordered his own meatball sub, and asked if Rune wanted anything else. “This one’s on me, bud, you get what you want!” Rune thanked the man, and decided this was an opportunity to discover if the Pizza Place’s cheesecake was everything it was cracked up to be. The man across the table seemed to be genuinely enjoying Rune’s company, and the teen thought how this man in the Yankees cap was like a lot of young adults in Bark Bay — brash, unmannerly, even rude at times, but also disarmingly unpretentious and generous. Rune still didn’t remember this man’s name, but realized that his not knowing, oddly enough, made him feel more comfortable.

“So tell me — ” Rune had been staring out the large window, turned his attention back to this strange friend — “you going to Double-J’s party tonight?”

The question took Rune entirely by surprise. He hadn’t seen or heard from Double-J in weeks, not since that night the fencing team had gone up to the city to see “Hamlet.” Word had gotten around soon after that Double-J had left school entirely, and would no longer be fencing with the team. He hadn’t been to any of the practices, or the tournament at Midland, or the tournament this morning at the Academy. Rune wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that Double-J had moved away, far from the town he so often railed against. But he was still around, and evidently, hosting a party this evening. Rune shook his head — “Nah. Didn’t invite me.”

The man threw his arms back. “Ha! Well, consider this your own personal invitation.”

Rune quickly objected, but the man dismissed him with a wave. “So tell me, what you got planned that’s so important?”

A long walk home in the cold, and an evening alone with his father. Rune sighed — “So, where’s Double-J living these days?”

“Over at the Embassy.” Rune remembered being at the small apartment building once, to see a friend of his uncle several years ago; the building had seemed older than any of its graying residents. “Said to show up at six, but if we’re early that’ll be his problem.”

Rune pointed at himself. “Think I should call him first?”

The meatball sub and cheesecake arrived, and the man told Rune not to bother calling. “He says anything ’bout you not having no invite, I’ll just tell him to go fuck himself.” They ate quickly, Rune finding the cheesecake was good, but not quite up to its reputation. As they prepared to leave, the thought of meeting Double-J again caused the teen to consider changing his mind, to recall a fabricated appointment he really shouldn’t blow off — but then decided that the uncertainty of the party was preferable to the certainty of the long walk home.

Gray Metal Faces – February 8

9:10

Rune sighed with disappointment as the northern lights sank below the horizon, leaving the night sky a canvas of black. The peace that had filled him fled with his breath, and the inchoate yearning that had inspired the cold walk from his home returned. Reflexively, he twisted back to his right, towards the dam, his legs —

His right foot slipped, the heel coming forward and off the ice before he could regain his balance, and he quickly attempted to maintain equilibrium with his left leg. But that foot was also on ice, his arms flew out and his body contorted wildly, then he began falling, he knew there was no stopping so he twisted right, let his back land hard on the ground, the muffled kumpf a poor indication of the fall’s force.

The teen stared up at the starless night. Rune’s head had barely hit, and his wool cap had easily absorbed the impact; his thick winter jacket had also protected his arms and back from harm. But as he lifted his knees, he felt a stabbing pain on the left, the same knee he had twisted that morning, at the fencing tournament. He flexed, grimacing; the knee hurt as badly as it had earlier. Sitting up from his waist, he put his feet on the ground, and applied some force. The pain remained, but he felt it was bearable, so he got up slowly, putting most of his weight on the right leg, and a moment later was standing again.

He looked down at where he had slipped, and saw a small shallow pool, completely covered in ice and a thin layer of snow that had almost entirely been swept away during his frantic attempt to stay on his feet. Distracted by the northern lights, he must not have noticed wandering onto that surface. Rune put his full weight on the left leg, then took a step; he winced, but knew he could go on.

But before he continued along the shore, towards the dam, he walked over to the pool and stomped on it hard, cracking but not breaking its surface. He considered finishing the demolition job, but shook his head dismissively, then continued his journey, cursing himself for re-injuring the knee that now pained him, and for injuring it that morning in the first place.

The fourth Saturday, Morning

At the east end of the Academy’s east wall, on the top row of a set of permanent wooden bench seats, far from the sacks that contained the Bark Bay team fencing team’s equipment, Rune sat alone, his extended left leg lying along the bench, an ice pack on the knee. The teen stared down blankly at his right leg, his greasy hair hanging down like a stained curtain. He was aware of the sounds on the gymnasium floor beneath him — the ting of colliding thin metal blades, rubber shoes pounding the floor, the buzzing of the scoring machines, grunts and exited yells from competitors and urgent commands from coaches and referees. But he had stopped having interest in seeing any of the action immediately after twisting his knee and withdrawing from his DE, in which he had been losing someteen-something to three.

“Hey.” On hearing Rex’s voice, Rune realized his older teammate had been walking up the seats towards him. Rex pointed to the ice pack — “How’s it feeling?”

Rune leaned forward, picked up the ice pack, and flexed his knee. “I’ll be all right.” He unflexed the knee, but let the ice pack fall onto the bench below.

Rex nodded, then with his right hand extended an object tentatively, like someone about to reveal a secret. “Was getting a snack from my bag, when I realized I still had this.” Rune looked at the object — a white envelope. “Meant to give it to you at practice this week, but I forgot.” Rune looked closer, and saw his name written in large block letters on the front.

Rune looked up, his acne-scarred face showing hyperbolic confusion. “What is it?”

Rex jabbed the envelope at Rune. “Exactly what you think it is.”

The younger, shorter teen took the envelope, examined its size (nearly square) and rigidity (firm but flexible, the contents were heavier than paper). He turned it over in his hand. He didn’t know why, but it was important for him to know it was sealed. Which it was.

“You got me a card?”

“Open it.”

Rune looked past Rex’s body, saw the tournament commencing beneath them, everyone oblivious to his conversation. He lifted an unsealed section of the envelope’s flap, dug his index finger inside, tore across the back, and pulled out the card. On the front was a poorly drawn cartoon of an absurdly obese man, waving a hand high above his bald head, his eyes wide with excitement. Orange and white words THANK YOU! appeared to explode over the man.

Rune stared up at Rex. “What’s this for?”

“The epee.” Rex motioned with his left thumb behind them. “What you did, letting the team have the weapon your aunt gave to you — that was really cool. And I just — ” he suddenly seemed as awkward as he was tall — “well you know, what with my family and all, I’m not exactly in position — ”

“No, it’s cool.” Rune had visited Rex’s trailer only once, and the experience left him not wanting to know anything more about his family.

“But, I didn’t want what you did, which really was cool, to go unrecognized. So — ” he tapped the card in Rune’s hand — “yeah, I got you a card. And I wrote you a message. Go on, read it.”

Without looking, Rune opened the front flap of the card, then looked down. The cartoon fat man had been joined by three other absurd individuals, all of them leaping from the ground, hands raised and faces beaming. There were more gold and red letters above them, but Rune’s eyes shifted to the left inside panel, and Rex’s handwriting in blue ink.

Rain —

The teen blinked, knowing he must have read the first word wrong. Rex’s penmanship was notoriously bad.

Rune [that was more like it] —

Thank you so much for much for donating [Rex’s grammar also tended to be weak] the epee that your ant brought for you, to the fencing team. It is good to know we have a weapon that can be used in tournaments. I know I certainly could of [Rune winced] used it last month, an I look forward to using it this Saturday!

Since you joined the fencing team last year, I have seen your kindness and genorisity many times. You are truly special person.

I want you to know, that I will always be your friend. Any time you want to practice fencing with me, I will make time with you. Or if you need help at home. I would say that I would help with your school work, but you are the better student by far, you don’t kneed my help!

I don think, I can never be as smart as you. But I do want to try, to be as kind as you. I really hope we can spend more time together.

Your friend,

Rex

Rune looked up at the card, saw Rex staring down at him. Rune felt like his face was being scanned for emotions, like Rex was some spaceship computer searching for life forms on a planet’s surface.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He almost handed the card back to Rex, before realizing how rude that act would be.

Rex pulled back, his head rising until it seemed to brush the high ceiling. “What?”

“Spending time together.” He pointed to the last line of Rex’s message. “We shouldn’t do that.”

The tall teen pursed his lips. “Can I ask — why you think that way?”

Rune frowned. “Because you have enough problems of your own. And so do I.”

Rex raised his eyebrows, excused himself, turned and walked back down the long wooden benches, back to the tournament. Rune quickly stuffed the card into a pocket of his sweatshirt. The two did not speak to each other the rest of that day.

Gray Metal Faces – February 7

9:05

The hum of the generator faded as Rune resumed walking along the frozen shore of the lake, but a moment later he heard the mechanical murmur regain its strength, like a giant robot coming online. Wondering whether he had misjudged the location of the generator, Rune stopped, focused on his hearing. A moment later he could make out two sounds, the generator he’d been walking away from and a new sound, similar to the first but distinct, coming from the opposite direction.

His eyes caught a glimpse of the frozen water to his left, and he remembered he was on the shore of an artificial lake, created decades ago when the state built the hydroelectric dam north of Bark Bay. He was walking in the direction of the dam, and this new sound was probably coming from its turbines, churning under the force of the water flowing among and under the ice, generating electricity for the town and its surrounding county.

Rune checked his trailing footsteps again, ensuring they were still distinct, then resumed walking downstream again. He had been to the lake dozens of times, but had never approached the dam like he was doing now. And while he still had no interest in the dam this evening, he was certain that whatever he was seeking lay in that direction.

A flash of light, to his left, above the surface of the frozen lake. Rune stopped, turned. “Whoa.”

Streams of light leapt from the horizon and danced far above the lake’s black water. The streams were of multiple colors, and among the familiar whites and yellows there were shades Rune had never seen before, one goldenly purplish, another rust red yet brilliant instead of dull, and a green that did not look in any way natural, but was still undeniably beautiful.

“Whoa.” The lights ascended further, Rune tilting his head back as they soared above, and the light streams flickered, exchanging colors with each other, as if a cosmic choreographer were deftly flicking switches on a celestial instrument panel. For the first time since he had walked away from the front door of his house that evening, Rune felt at peace, content, and for a moment felt that these dancing streams of lights were the compelling force that had led him here.

Then suddenly, the lights disappeared, and Rune saw only black night above him. He looked back over the lake, saw the light streams receding back towards the horizon. And then, they were gone.

The third Tuesday

Jimmy (who still refused to be called Mr. Saunders) held the epee, the blade resting along the palm of his left hand, his right grasping the handle. Then he asked the same question Rex (standing to Jimmy’s left) had asked last week.

Rune shook his head. “No, my aunt said that was all the fencing equipment the guy had for sale.”

“We have to test weight.” Jimmy twisted the handle, brought the tip of the weapon up close to his eyes, then pursed his lips approvingly. “Coach, he got a test box back at his apartment — ” there was no need to keep it at the school, the team almost never practiced with electronics — “he’ll make any adjustments necessary before Saturday.” He looked up at Rex, widened his eyes. “You are fencing Saturday.”

The tall teen nodded. “Miss Blago, she’s gonna come over, stay with my family at the trailer.”

Jimmy blinked, understanding only enough to be certain Rex would indeed be fencing, then looked over at Rune. “How ’bout you, son?”

Before the teen could answer, he heard Coach Dan’s voice behind him, calling his name. Rune saw him standing, foil in his right hand and mask in his left, wearing his tattered black plastron (purchased, for a nominal fee, from Coach Gabby at the Academy). He tapped the foil’s tip twice on the tiled cafeteria floor, the sound barely audible but the signal unmistakable.

Rune raced over to the team’s equipment sacks, quickly identified his preferred foil and mask, and finally arrived a moment later in front of his coach. The middle aged English teacher at Bark Bay High School raised his foil, the blade extended in a line rising above the teen’s head, his salute matched by Rune; a swift downward swipe of their blades completed the action, and a moment later the teacher and his student, masks secured on their heads, crouched down into en garde position.

“Just keep distance.” Coach Dan followed his command by stepping forward (lift the front toes, push from the back leg, front heel like a plow), Rune responding by stepping back (lift the back leg, push back with the front). Forward, forward, back, forward.

Stop. “Check your distance.” In response, Rune lunged, was swiftly parried by his coach. “No, don’t attack, just check distance.” He tapped his blade on the top of Rune’s mask.

Rune recovered his stance, his eyes glaring behind his mask. “What?”

Coach Dan tapped his blade against Rune’s. “You’re too close. When you see blades cross like this, you either attack, or get the flip out of the way.”

“But I did attack.”

En garde.” Coach Dan had switched to his no more discussion voice. “All I want you to do, is keep distance.”

Back, forward, forward, back, forward, forward, back, back. Stop. “Check distance.”

Rune extended his arm, demonstrating the tip of his foil was several inches from his coach’s. “Good?”

“Do an advance – lunge.” At his coach’s command, Rune took a step forward, then pushed from his left leg as his right arm came forward, propelling his foil towards his coach.

The lunge stopped inches short of its target. “Have to stay in advance-lunge distance, my friend. If you’re too far away, your opponent’s got no reason to be afraid of anything you do.” The coach tapped his right shoulder with his left hand. “Focus on your target, use that as your only gauge of distance. Watch the blade peripherally.” He crouched down, raised his palms and brought them down, Rune crouching in response. “Again.”

Forward, forward, back, back, forward, back, back, forward, forward, forward, back, forward, back, back. Stop. “Check your distance.”

Rune glanced at the tip of his foil, much closer than it had been at the last halt. “Good?”

“Advance – lunge.” Rune stepped forward, pushed with his left leg — a quick parry — “What goes first?”

“Arm.”

Tap-tap on top of the mask. “Again.” Forward, back, back, back, forward, back — “What should you be doing?”

Rune hesitated. Lunged. An impatient parry, Coach Dan’s voice inflected like a cartoon character, “Naow naow naow! Get that arm out, little bit with each step!” tap-tap “Again.”

Forward, back, forward, forward, back — “get that arm out — ” back, back — “good” — forward, forward, back. Stop. “Lunge.”

Rune rushed forward, stopping when his coach grabbed his blade — “What goes first?”

The teen pulled up. “My arm did go first!”

Coach Dan swiped his foil across Rune’s right shin. “No it didn’t. Your front foot was leading your arm.” tap-tap “Again.”

Rune sighed, looked around quickly. The large cafeteria was almost entirely empty, tables and benches folded into the walls, the windows to the kitchen closed, a stale odor of marinara the only evidence of the room’s primary use. To his right, Rex and Annie spared each other, their grunts punctuated with the occasional sharp laugh. Beyond them, the canvas equipment sacks lay in disheveled heaps on the tiled floor, masks and jackets and foils spilling out of the openings like abandoned packing material. He heard Butch talking in excited tones behind and to his left, probably to Little Paul, who’d made a surprise visit to practice this week.

Tap-tap. Rune shook his head, “sorry.” Forward, forward, back, forward, back, back. Stop. “Lunge.”

As he pushed all one hundred and twenty three pounds of his body forward from his back leg, the high-B student heard his coach’s question in his mind before it was spoken. “What goes first?”

“Hey, I get it.” The teen stood straight, pulled his mask up from his chin, lifting it onto the top of his head, exposing his face red with sweat and frustration. “I’m trying.”

Coach Dan pulled off his mask just as swiftly. “I can see you’re trying. And I’d wish you’d knock it off.”

The frustrated voice in Rune’s head hoped this was not one of Coach Dan’s ploys, that the man who’s expanding waistline was testing the elasticity of his fencing jacket was actually suggesting he surrender to the slings and arrows of his outrageous disappointment. But the teen had known his coach long enough to know what to expect. “You’re focusing so much on trying, you’re forgetting what you need to do — scoring a touch, parrying an attack.” tap-tap “I don’t care if you try. Every time I see you do something wrong, I’m going to correct you, because that’s my job, as your coach. All I care about, is your execution, whether your making the right choices, doing the right movements, whenever you’re on strip. Whether it’s a tournament, like this Saturday — ” there was a noticeable inflection in his voice on that last phrase — “or here, during practice.”

Tap-tap “So let’s take this slow, break it down.” Rune crouched into en garde position without further prompting. “Extend.” Rune extended his arm, his coach grabbing the blade of his foil and directing the tip towards his chest. “Lift the front toes — ” Rune almost lost his balance as the front of his right foot lifted, but he held his crouch — “now push, plow with the heel.” Rune felt more like he was falling than lunging, but he kept the line of his foil straight, its tip landing on Coach Dan’s right shoulder. “Very good.” tap tap “See what happens when you stop trying?”

Rune had no idea what his coach was talking about. “Yeah, sure.”

To Rune’s relief, Coach Dan called to O.K., began working with her on disengages, his calls of arm first replaced with fingers not wrist. Wiping his greasy hair off his brow, Rune returned to the equipment sacks, where Butch, his round belly accentuated by his tight fencing jacket, seemed eager to talk.

“You going to the tournament Saturday?”

Rune shrugged. “Not sure.” He laid his mask and foil on the floor.

“Oh! Coach Dan said we should all go.”

Butch’s childhood friend frowned. “Coach Dan says a lot of things.” Then rubbed his temple. “You going to Page Turners this week?”

“Oh! You want to go to Page Turners?”

“Yeah.” The memory of his dismissive words last week pained Rune. “Y’know, the other day, you just caught me at a bad moment. I didn’t mean what I said, I still like comics.”

“Oh!” Butch scratched his chin. “Well, uh . . . I don’t think I can go to Page Turners, no more.”

“What?” Rune looked hard at his friend, but as he prepared to examine his friend, he noticed a mark he hadn’t seen before. A bruise, under Butch’s left eye.

Gray Metal Faces – February 6

9:01

Rune’s path closed almost as quickly as it opened, but the black water of the lake remained in sight as he navigated through the maze of barren branches. Then suddenly, the path to the shore was clear, and the teen rushed forward, relieved to have finally reached his destination.

He looked back. Past the rising vapor of his breath, he saw his footprints in the snow, and remembered not seeing any footprints (human, anyway) on his way down. Light would be a challenge, but if he didn’t panic on his return trip, he wouldn’t have much difficulty finding his way back.

Turning his attention back to the lake, he saw the water was frozen for about twenty feet from the shore; not being sure where the shoreline ended and the ice began, he couldn’t be sure.

Looking to his left, he saw acabin several hundred feet away; the generator sound was definitely coming from there, as were the lights he’d seen. He saw no movement, no sign of life around the cabin — what had seemed like a welcoming beacon as he stumbled through the forest now seemed darkly silent, ominous.

To the right, he thought he saw the outlines of more cabins in the distance, but none of them were illuminated, and the dense forest repelled the light from the moon. The shoreline seemed smoother in that direction — Rune walked forward, no more certain where he was headed by just as determined to find whatever was waiting there for him.

The third Friday

The doorbell rang a third time, and Rune concluded that whoever the hell it was, he or she or they weren’t going to go away. He ran from his room, propelled by annoyance rather than curiosity, then down the stairs to the front door of his house. Through the narrow windows to the right of the window, he saw the sleeve of a familiar brown jacket.

He rushed to the interior door, opened it swiftly. Annie’s eyes sprang open, as if they were bursting from her head, her lips pulled back into a tight smile.

“Lemme IN!” She bounced on her heels, teeth chattering.

Rune pushed open the glass exterior door, Annie brushing by him quickly. “GOD!” She stamped her booted feet loudly on an interior mat. “What is this, like four days in a row below ten?”

“Something like that.” Rune made sure the exterior door closed on its own, before closing the interior.

“And they’re saying, more snow!” She ripped off her wool cap, shook it angrily. “It’s four frickin’ degrees out there, and we’re supposed to get six inches by morning! Isn’t there a law that you can’t have more inches than degrees?”

Rune never saw the point in complaining about weather. “Thought you were going to a concert tonight.”

Annie unzipped her jacket, pulled her left arm from its sleeve. “Mom’s come down with something, said she didn’t feel like going. And Dad’s at a fundraiser for his campaign, in the city.” She had taken off her jacket, held it up to Rune. “So — change of plans!”

He looked at her curiously. “You drive here?”

She rolled her eyes. “Still on my temp. My brother’s home, Academy’s on break this weekend, he was going out anyway so I asked him to drop me off here.” She shook the jacket, hanging at the end of her extended arm. “You gonna take this?”

Rune blinked, shrugged, took the jacket, threw it onto an open knob of the coat rack.

“How’d you know I was going to be here?” Rune flinched with annoyance as the overhead light illuminated, Annie having flipped the switch.

“You TOLD me you were going to be here.” She came up to him, her hands rising and coming to rest on his shoulders, like doves gliding down on a branch. “Remember? Your brother’s hockey game, parents going to be there, leaving you — ” she sighed, smiling at him — “All. By. Your. Self.”

He did remember telling her, as well as the frustration he’d felt when she told him about the concert. “Yeah.” He felt her fingertips on his cheek, saw her mouth close on his. Let her kiss him.

He almost laughed on seeing the look on her face when she drew back. “What was THAT about?” She did look funny.

Rune shook his head. “Nothing. I mean, I’m sorry. It’s just — I don’t know, wasn’t planning on you being here.”

“Neither was I.” Her eyes blinked rapidly. “But that plan changed.” Licked her lips. “I — thought you’d like it if I came over.”

“You could have called.”

He didn’t expect his analysis to be met with the wild look that came over her face. “Called? And do what, make a damn appointment?”

“No!” He knew his tone of indignation was a mistake, and didn’t care. “Look, it’s OK, it’s just that, you shouldn’t surprise me like this.”

She crossed her arms across her chest, pony-tail prancing behind her head. “It’s called spontaneity. Allowing yourself to be caught up in the moment.” She looked down. “Sorry you don’t get it.” She turned, reached for her jacket on the coat rack.

“You’re leaving?”

“Yes, I’m leaving.” She did not turn to look at him as she thrust her arms into the jacket. “Let you return to whatever it was you were doing.”

“But it’s cold.” He grabbed her wool cap from the rack. “You were so cold, you couldn’t wait to get in here.”

She grunted while turning to him, in a manner which made him suspect she was restraining himself from striking him. “I had been more looking forward to being inside, than getting away from the outside.” She snatched the cap from his hands, spun towards the door — and stopped as her hand touched the handle.

“The tournament, two weeks ago.” Hand on the door handle, Annie kept her back turned to Rune. “That’s when it started. Been racking my brain, trying to figure out when it happened, and it just came to my now, it was that Saturday.”

Rune waved greasy hair off his brow. “It’s been a tough month.” He swallowed. “The weather, it’s been so bad, it’s making people — I don’t know, not act like themselves . . . ” Hearing the insincerity of his words, he forced himself to stop.

“I call, leave you a message, you don’t call back. I see you in the hall, you duck into a room.” He knew she would know his schedule. “At practice, you hardly say two words to me.”

An invisible force seemed to be bearing down on him. “Look, I know I’ve — ”

“And it’s not just me.” Now she turned, faced him with a look of compassionate accusation. “The way you talk at practice, to Coach Dan, The Bird, OK — even Butch, your best friend, you humiliated him the other day.”

He considered taking his jacket, walking out the door, then remembered he was home. “Butch and I, we’re always doing stuff like that to each other.” The look on her face revealed she knew he was lying. “All right, all right, so I’ve been a little off lately. I just, I don’t know, haven’t been feeling right.”

“Remember what you said to me, that Saturday, during the tournament at the Academy?”

Rune had no idea what conversation Annie was referencing. “I said a lot of things that day.”

“It was after the pools, before the DEs. You were sitting in the bleachers, by yourself. Had to look for you, nobody knew where you’d gone.”

Rune remembered. Christ, she was going to bring up that? “It was a rough tournament, I was frustrated.”

“All tournaments are rough. That’s why they call them competitions.”

Rune ran his hands back through his greasy hair. “Look, I’m sorry I acted like I did.” A smile weaker than tepid water. “Why don’t you stay? It’s not like your brother’s waiting for you.”

But Annie opened the interior door, a wave of arctic air rushing into the house. “It’s not that far from downtown. I’ll call Si, let him know where I am.” Her pony-tail was no longer visible, tucked under her wool cap. “I asked how you did in the pools, and a few grunts later I figured out you’d lost every bout. Then I asked what you’d learned, what you planned on doing different in your DE — you remember what you said?”

He did. “No.”

She pushed open the exterior glass door. “You said it didn’t make any difference, what you did. Outcome would be the same.” She pointed a mittened fist at him. “That’s how you’ve been acting all month, like nothing you do makes any difference. And what you’re not seeing, is that whatever it is that you do, it has an impact on the people around you. Whether you intend it, or not.”

She stepped out, onto the front step. “I’ll see you next week.” And then turned, the glass door closing behind her.

Gray Metal Faces – February 5

8:56

The frozen surface of the forest nearly disappeared as the trees and overhead branches grew more dense. Rune found himself in almost total blackness, and became increasingly unsure with each step whether he was still headed in the direction of the lake.

He stopped, listened. The night was as quiet as unspoken prayer. He held his breath, closed his eyes, focused on his hearing. Humming? He forced all his attention on that sound, above the ringing in his ears; there was a low steady murmur, most likely mechanical. An engine, or generator. To the right.

He took a few steps in that direction, then saw a small light, like a star but larger, between the trees. He stopped, examined the light, saw the outlines of others around it. Bulbs. He knew he hadn’t gone uphill, those lights couldn’t be from his subdivision. Those had to be from one of the homes on the lake.

Rune’s legs plunged forward, boots crunching into the frozen surface. He remembered the stories he’d heard about the lake, how it was created when the hydroelectric dam was built upstream of Bark Bahy, how the dam had nearly dried up the East River and the bay that had given the town its name. Creating the lake had dealt the death blow to the town’s crippled shipping and sailing industries.

Rune pressed on, stumbling between the dark trees, the tiny lights in the distance growing closer, the mechanical hum distinctive now, a  generator. He let the sound and lights draw him closer, serve as beacons for his mission to reach the lakeshore. His pace quickened with excited anticipation, clouds of vapor bursting from his mouth as he finally reached a clearing, now the walls of trees thinned in front of him and he could see it, the black water of the lake, the shore line no more than fifty feet away.

He coughed, again, held out a hand and leaned against an oak. He needed to catch his breath, before continuing his journey.

The second Tuesday

Rune’s eyes stung from the sweat descending off his brow, his labored breathing steamed the inside of his metal fencing mask, the bib on his chin saturated and warm.

“Fence.” O.K. advanced on him, her feet dancing lightly on the tiled cafeteria floor, and then she attacked, left arm extending high and outside, hand holding her foil, its tip pointed straight at Rune’s chest and coming down fast. He brought his arm over for the parry, his blade colliding with his opponent’s.

“Halt.” At the sound of Rex’s voice, Rune looked quickly at Annie, standing behind O.K., hand raised. He heard Rex ask for her judgment, the athletic teen responding that O.K. had indeed landed a touch.

“No way!” Rune lifted his mask from his chin, the gray metal shield resting on his head as his wet and red face stared at Annie in disbelief. “She got me on the arm!”

“Yeah, I thought it was off-target too.” O.K. was known for her honesty. Rune nodded, lowered the mask onto his face.

“No, it was on.” Annie sounded like her father when she announced her judgements. Certain, authoritative, dispassionate. “She hit him twice, once on the shoulder, then again on the arm.”

“But was it still a good touch?” Coach Dan, sitting on the cafeteria floor with his back against a half-wall that sat in front of the large room’s stage, waited for the full attention of each of his club members. “Flat of the blade, or the tip? Hard enough to register on a scoring machine?”

“Yes.” Annie sounded almost offended. “Definitely hit with the tip, and I saw the blade bend.” She turned her attention towards Rune, her gaze penetrating the metal mesh of the mask, bearing into his eyes. “A good touch.”

Rune lifted the mask onto his head again, stared at Little Paul (the other judge) who abstained, then at the director, Rex, who abstained as well. Annie’s call held up, awarding OK her fifth touch in their bout.

“Aw man.” Rune removed his mask completely, slumped back to his starting line (one of several edges of white and black tile on the cafeteria floor), but when he raised his blade to salute O.K., he saw she had remained where she’d been standing, her mask still covering her face.

“Let’s go to ten!” O.K. turned, her gray metal face peering at Rex, who nodded in agreement, as did Little Paul and Annie when presented with the same silent, gray-faced query.

His blade raised half-way to his chin, Rune considered O.K.’s offer a moment. But then he shook his head, and completed his salute. “Nah, that’s OK, O.K., you win.” As he walked away from the makeshift strip he looked behind him, at The Bird, who along with Juan had also been judging. “You can take over.”

The canvas sacks that contained the fencing club’s equipment lay in uneven clumps along the near wall of the cafeteria, in front of the serving windows, under the enormous analog clock (three, forty-two, nineteen). Rune lowered his mask into the largest of the sacks, currently half-empty, the unused masks shifting clumsily under his efforts.

“Hey.” Startled, Rune looked behind him, then up. You didn’t get a full appreciation for Rex’s height until he was standing next to you.

“Your summons was deliciously cryptic.” The lanky teen smiled hungrily.

Rune laughed spontaneously, his pleasure melting the frost that had crusted his mood. “You able to come over to my house?” He had seen Rex outside of class yesterday, had said he wanted to show him something at his house, something cool.

Rex nodded, and pushed his thick glasses up the bridge of his hose. “Talked to Annie, said her mother can pick me up at your place, at 5.”

“Cool.” Rune’s eyes widened in caution. “She’s not coming with us, is she?”

Rex’s eyes narrowed. “Negative. She’s staying here, ’til she gets picked up.”

“Ah.” Rune looked up at the enormous analog clock. Three forty-four. “Whose on bag duty this week?”

Rex pointed with his right thumb behind him. “Our capitan, she and O.K. are taking care of the equipment.”

“Ah.” Rune slapped his forehead. “She’s getting picked up here, duh!

Rex smirked, dismissing Rune’s self-deprecation. “Juan and I are up next, we can leave after I beat him.”

The bout between Rex and Juan was lengthy, Coach Dan unofficially calling the expiration of time when Rex broke their tied score with his third touch. Rex wasn’t ready to leave until five minutes past four, but Rune assured him there was still enough time. They then exited the cafeteria, burst past the school’s rear exit doors, and walked briskly to Rune’s home, engaging in conversation during their journey on a series of different topics (the team’s last tournament, school gossip, popular television shows, spectator sports).

As they approached Rune’s home, Rex cleared his throat. “I’ve heard rumors, about you and Annie.”

Rune kicked at a rock lying on the driveway. “People like to talk, don’t they?”

Rex grunted. “People are curious, is all.”

“Huh.” Rune scanned in futility for another rock to kick. “OK, I’ll admit it, we’re dating.”

“I see.” Rex took two quick steps forward, looked over and back and down at Rune. Their eyes connected. “Shall I assume the details of your — dating — are none of my business?”

Rune laughed. “If I told you the truth, and you fed it verbatim back into the rumor mill, by the time it came back out it wouldn’t look anything like what it really was.” He mounted the concrete stoop to his house’s front door. “So if it’s all the same to you, yeah, I’d like to keep the details to myself.”

As usual for this time of day, the house was empty when they arrived. As he threw Rex’s jacket onto the living room couch, Rune remembered his being there just a few days ago, with Annie. An urge rose within him to tell Rex what they’d done in their time alone on that couch, to force-feed information into the rumor mill. But, suspecting there was more power in withholding the secret than in setting it free, he walked away from the couch, into the kitchen.

“It’s in the basement.” Rune opened a door next to the stove, revealing narrow stairs leading down; he walked down two steps, footfalls echoing in the darkness, then flipped a light switch on the wall to his right. Rex followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting the ceiling. The basement was a cold gray room of concrete walls and floor, and smelled of laundry detergent. They walked past a matching pair of white washing and drying machines (unfolded bed linens piled on top of each) and a large floor drain in the middle of the floor. Rune stopped, pulled a string over his head, illuminating a set of metal shelves. He then reached to the top shelf, pulled down a long narrow bag, red with white lines and lettering.

Rex’s eyes widened. “Is that — ”

“Exactly what you think it is.” Rune lowered the bag onto the floor, pulled open its zipper, and with a satisfied smile, lifted an object from the bag, and extended it towards Rex.

The gray blade, thin and nearly three feet long, glistened under the sharp light of the unshielded bulb above them. Rune held the weapon by its bell guard, larger than the ones he was accustomed to using during fencing practice. After gazing in wonder at it a moment, Rex tentatively reached for it.

“An epee.” His voice was a whisper, as if Rex feared the mirage in front of him would disappear if he spoke.

“My aunt was at a yard sale the other day, in the city.” Rune released his hold on the weapon, let it fall into the taller teen’s appreciative hands. “She saw this on a table, lying on the bag. She remembered I was a fencer, so she asked how much it was.” The greasy-haired teen laughed. “Man who ran the sale, he was like, take it. Said he’d bought it for his daughter, but she didn’t fence no more, now he just wanted to get it out of his house.”

Rex grasped the handle of the weapon, extended his arm forward, the blade making a line off to Rune’s right. “There’s not many marks on it.” He rotated his wrist, eyes scanning the blade. “Like it’s hardly been used.” Then he grabbed the blade with his left hand, released his hold on the handle, brought the bell guard up to his eyes and peered inside. “It’s electrical!”

Rune’s eyes snapped wider. “Oh yeah.” He bent down, ruffled through the bag, then quickly stood up, long black wires dangling from his hands. “Body cords!”

“How much did she pay for all this?” Rex ran his hand over the near-pristine surface of the epee’s bellguard, like a mother rubbing the temple of her smiling infant.

Rune shook his greasy head. “Like I said, the guy was literally begging her to take it, but she gave him five bucks for it.”

“FIVE?” Rex’s eyes grew almost as large as his bottle-bottom spectacles. “Jesus, I know how much these things cost, more than my family’s grocery bill for a couple weeks. Five bucks?”

Rune drew in his breath. “Yep, that’s what she paid.”

Rex returned his attention to the weapon. “This is cool.” He grabbed the epee by its thin blade, then turned the weapon until the bellguard pointed at Rune. “So you’re switching to epee?”

Rune had picked up the slender bag from the floor of the basement, took the weapon from his tall thin friend, began wrestling it back into the bag. “Nah, got my hands full with foil.” Closing the zipper, he extended the bag towards Rex. “Figured I’d give it to someone who could use it.”

“No.” Rex backed away, but couldn’t hide the envy from his face. “You can’t. Your aunt, she gave it to you — ”

“When she gave it to me, she called it a sword.” Rune laughed, raised the bag up to Rex’s eyes. “I tried explaining to her about the three weapons — deer in headlights. So I just told her I couldn’t use it, then I asked about giving it to someone who could, and she was like, sure, it’s yours now, do what you want.” He stepped forward, the bag touching Rex’s chest. “And what I want, is to give this to the only epee fencer on our team.”

Rex raised his hands, grasped the bag from the bottom gently but securely, like its contents were made of glass. His eyes scanned the surface, stopping at the right corner. “That’s the patch for En Garde!” With his left hand he twirled the bag, the patch now facing Rune.

Rune’s eyes widened. “Yeah.” He shook his head. “I mean, I know, I saw that too.”

“Must have been one of Dr. Schmidt’s students.” Rex’s arms looked like pipe cleaners, even under his jacket. “Bet she and her parents got fed up with him.”

“And when they didn’t want to deal with him no more, giving it away at a yard sale seemed better than trying to sell it through his school.”

“It’ll be the team’s weapon.” Rex had lowered the bag containing the epee to his waist. “We can keep it in the storage locker, with the rest of our equipment.”

Rune blinked.“Why is it that, every time somebody offers you something, your first instinct is to refuse accepting it?” But it wasn’t until he saw Rex’s grin dissolve that Rune realized how intrusive his question had been. Rex looked down, studied his shorter and younger teammate. And then the tall teen tilted his head down, warmth returning to his face.

“My family — it’s no secret, we’re pretty hard up.” Rune smiled weakly, nodded. “We try to make it on our own, but truth is we couldn’t keep our head above water without help.”

Rune swallowed. “You talk to that lawyer, about DFS?” He’d heard from Annie that her family’s attorney had agreed to represent the Ankiel family pro bono in their fight to keep the Department of Family Services from sending Rex’s daughters into foster care.

“Lawyer told us not to worry.” Rex continued examine the epee bag as the continued. “Said the DFS case load was backed up several months, we’re not on their radar.” He looked back at Rune. “Not yet, anyway.”

The doorbell rang from upstairs, and Rex pointed back to the stairs with his thumb. “That must be my ride.”