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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Concluding the Experiment

Sandy withdrew her hand, and told Mr. Jacobs that she wasn’t on the fencing team. His face beamed in reply — “You’ve been here all afternoon, haven’t you? When you were apparently supposed to be somewhere else!” He pointed, without looking, behind him and up at the loudspeaker.

Feeling the wall she had erected was being demolished, Sandy stepped back, said she really needed to go. Mr. Jacobs nodded, but Annie stepped forward, blocking Sandy’s path to the large metal doors to the hallway. “Cassandra, right? That’s your name?”

The freshman nodded, and as she continued backing towards the exit, replied that most people called her Sandy. A dismissive grunt from behind Annie caught everyone’s attention. “They should call you The Bird, the way you jerk her head around.” Sandy remembered this boy with the wild stringy hair and moustache; Annie had all but grabbed him, insisted he demonstrate a proper lunge. He’d agreed, and Sandy had been impressed by the fluidity and power of his body, though she’d been confused by his subsequent complaint, something about having to use the wrong weapon.

Annie waved a dismissive hand in the boy’s direction. “Don’t let anything Double-J says bother you.”

Sandy replied that she didn’t mind (she was actually intrigued by the idea of being called The Bird), but she really needed to leave.

“We’re here every Tuesday.” Sandy liked the way Mr. Jacobs’ eyes seeemed to smile. “See you next week.” He was making demand, not an offer; Sandy thought his words presumptuous, yet also appealing. And as she turned to leave, to return to the guidance office, she began thinking of how she could arrange for staying after school next Tuesday.

Experiment, Part 6

Sandy stood up abruptly, pointed to the loudspeaker near the ceiling on the far end of the cafeteria wall, and announced to the group that had been slowly gathering around her that she was being called, and needed to leave. She was immediately filled with relief, as if the words she’d just spoken had formed an invisible shield around her, protecting against the attention that had been descending upon her.

“Very well.” The bearded teacher kept approaching, breaking through her shield. “I saw you working with Annie earlier — ” he nodded in the direction of the pony-tailed sophomore — “I didn’t want to interrupt, but did hope to at least introduce myself before you left.” He stepped forward, right hand extended. “Jacobs. Dan Jacobs.”

Sandy stared at his hand a moment, knowing instinctively how she should respond but pausing out of surprise, as she could not remember anyone, certainly not a man, ever offering to shake her hand. She blinked, then suddenly reached out and grabbed his hand. It was warm, slick with sweat. She then told Mr. Jacobs that it was a pleasure to meet him.

“We’re not in class now, my friend.” Before she could pull her hand away, she felt him squeeze firmly, then suddenly clap his other hand on top of their shake. “This is practice, for the fencing team. And during fencing time, I prefer to be called Coach Dan.”

Experiment, Part 5

Sandy’s outburst hit Annie like a shove, sending her back in her squat and forcing her to lay her right hand back to keep from falling. Juan, standing above Sandy, remained motionless, as the red-headed boy next to him took two steps back. Their attention was focused on Sandy, making her uncomfortable — and her discomfort grew upon realizing that the other students in the large room had also heard her outburst, and were now coming towards her, as was the teacher, the fencing coach, a concerned look on his bearded face. “Is everything all right?”

She wanted to leave, disappear, eliminate the attention that was now bearing down on her, but were she to turn and run they would certainly follow her, and they were stronger and faster and —

YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. Sandy recognized the admin’s voice, booming down from the PA loudspeakers on the ceiling. CASSANDRA WERNICK, PLEASE REPORT TO THE GUIDANCE OFFICE.

The Experiment Continues, Part 4

Sandy’s mind was like a blender, thoughts whirling furiously, colliding, blending. She she was supposed to be in the guidance office, her mother was coming, but what if she had already been there, would she have left, wait she’d told the the office admin she was going to the cafeteria, but that was, she didn’t know how long she’d been there, she’d told the admin she wanted a snack and that didn’t take long, what if the admin forgot, would her mother have assumed Sandy had gotten a ride home, that’s what happened one time last year —

“Juan, what’s going on?” Mask in left hand and foil in the right, Annie approached and glared at the tall Asian boy, who was still looking down at Sandy.

Sandy’s mind was stil racing — the time, the office, the admin, her mother, she got mad at her for that ride home, even though it was the parent of a friend from down the street —

Juan shrugged. “Your friend here, looks a little confused.”

— it’s not like he was a stranger, I couldn’t reach you, Juan doesn’t sound like an Asian name, why wouldn’t the admin tell her mother to look in the cafeteria  —

Annie squatted down, let her equipment fall gently to the tiled cafeteria floor, laid her forearms on her knees. “Don’t worry, we’re all friends here.”

The words erupted from Sandy’s mouth. I CAN TAKE CARE OF MYSELF!

Part the Third of the latest Experiment

The pale red-headed boy lifted his fencing jacket at the waist, exposing a pocket on his track pants. He then reached into the pocket, pulled out a paper sheet folded in quarters. He then handed the sheet to the other boy, along with a command — “Give this to your mom tonight.”

Mother. Sandy realized suddenly where she was, or rather, that she wasn’t where she was suppossed to be, where her mother — she looked quickly to her right and up, saw the large analog clock hung above the windows leading to the kitchen. 4:10. Sandy’s mother said she’d be at the school by 4:30; the teen sighed audibly.

“You OK?” The taller boy had come closer, was standing above her now. He seemed suspicious, as if he didn’t trust her being there. 

The Experiment Moves On To Part 2

[In Part 1, I had called one of my characters The Bird, a nickname she will be given and gleefully adopt in the novel only after the events of this scene. In this and subsequent parts of this experiment, I’ll call her Sandy, the name she is most often called at school.] 

Despite her curiosity, Sandy had entered the cafeteria tentatively. There were seven students, four engaged in two fencing bouts at the center of the large room, the other three observing; the teacher she’d met at the assembly was the only person she recognized. Every person in the room, even the ones who were just observing, had seemed to her large, powerful, and filled with a poise that made them seem alien. She had watched silently for several minutes, succeeding in her effort to to avoid being detected, until Annie had seen her, pulled her in from the dusty edges of the room, invited her to participate in the team’s practice with a voice that wouldn’t accept refusal.

That had been an hour ago, and as she sat among the team’s equipment sacks, Sandy felt tired, and a little overwhelmed by the abundance of information she had absorbed — her exhausation had motivated her refusal to observe Annie’s practice bout. Sandy’s curiosity about this unusual sport, however, remained strong, and she looked forward to watching the bout from a distance.

“Hey.” The voice was followed by the sound of approaching footfalls; Sandy twisted to her left, saw two boys approaching. She recognized one, from the assembly, pale skinned and curly red hair, but didn’t recall his name. The other was taller, Asian, black hair wet with perspiration, his athletic body reminding Sandy of the basketball players she occassionally saw at school. 

Another Untitled Experiment, Part 1

[I’m starting a short narrative today that may find its way into my novel, perhaps in chapter two. Like I did with “Giving Voice,” I’m beginning with the hope the title will come to me at some point.]

“Come watch.” Her thin, powerful legs pushing up from its squat, Annie kept her eyes on The Bird as she rose above the khaki sacks that contained the equipment used by the Bark Bay High School fencing team. The sophomore then pointed with her right thumb behind her, as her brown pony-tail drifted off her left shoulder. “Rex and I will trade a few touches, and we can talk to you about what we’re doing.”

The Bird did not move from her seat on the tiled cafeteria floor. The freshman looked up at Annie, and asked if she could watch from where she was. Annie pursed her lips, peeked behind her at the floor, then called to Rex — “We’ve got space, over here.” She then walked into the center of a rectangle of white tiles, one of several in the sea of the floor’s black tiles. Rex was perhaps a dozen yards away, in a different island of white, having just finished a bout with Juan. The tall junior waved Annie over to him, as if he hadn’t heard her proposal.

Annie began to repeat herself, but The Bird softly objected, said she could watch the two of them fence where she was. “Hey” — Annie turned, nodded in acknowledgment of Rex’s call, looked back quickly at The Bird — “It’s your first practice. Just watch, make a mental list of questions, we can talk about them when I’m done. OK?” The Bird said she would try, and Annie, swiftly picking up a mask and foil from the equipment sacks, hustled off towards Rex.

The Bird was glad that Annie had spent so much time with her alreadty. Her appearance at practice that afternoon had essentially been an accident; she had attended a tutoring session after school, and had been given permission to stay in the building until her mother arrived. Sitting in the guidance office, she had grown hungry, and asked if she could get a snack from the vending machines in the cafeteria; a bored administrative assistant replied by wordlessly twitching her head toward the door. Walking down the wide hall, The Bird then heard the sharp tinging of thin metal and sneakered feet thumping on tile, and immediately recognized the sounds, from the assembly the previous month, when those two boys fenced and that teacher talked about the fencing team.

She didn’t know why she had approached that teacher after the assembly, and hadn’t given fencing any thought since then; she didn’t even remember the teacher’s name. But when she’d heard those sounds echoing up from the cafeteria that afternoon, she’s felt the same mysterious draw of irresistable curisosity that had struck her during the assembly.


Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Test

“Here’s what you do.” As she talked, Annie removed the band that was losing its grip on her brown ponytail. “Extend your arm, like you’re trying to hit me, but keep the rest of your body quiet, don’t lunge yet. Wait for OK to bring her blade over to parry, then loosen your grip a little, let gravity drop the blade.” Band secured and ponytail once again riding pertly behind her head, Annie lowered her arms down to her side. “Start your lunge, and bring the blade up on the other side of hers. Understand?”

Standing to Annie’s left and several feet across from where Aurora O’Kelley waited in full fencing gear, The Bird nodded slowly, and said she guessed she was ready.

“Just take it slow.” OK’s voice raised in tone with each word. “Have some fun!”

The Bird nodded again, then placed her gray mask over her head. Securing the lower end under her chin, she then saw Annie offering her a foil. “The disengage is one of the most effective attacks in fencing.” The Bird noticed Annie was speaking in the same cadence as Coach Dan. “It’s all about timing and execution, not speed or strength.” Annie then commanded The Bird into en garde position, and waved OK closer.

“Extend.” At Annie’s prompt, The Bird propelled her slender body forward, stopping at Annie’s order to halt. “Don’t lunge yet, just extend.” The Bird stepped back, her apology dismissed by Annie’s waving hand. “Don’t show me you’re sorry, show me the correction. Extend.” The Bird brought her arm forward, a toothpick holding on to a match; Annie grasped the blade, directed its point at OK. “Aim at the target, always.” Still holding the blade, Annie looked over at OK — “Now parry.” Bringing her arm across her body and rotating, OK brought her foil towards The Bird’s. Annie let go of the blade, then grabbed The Bird’s wrist — “Keep your arm steady, just loosen your grip on the handle.”

The Bird realized she was completely under Annie’s command, obeying her instructions like a robot. As she unflexed her fingers, and watched the thin blade of her foil fall like a clock’s minute hand, she glanced over at Annie, whose eyes watched approvingly. The Bird sensed she was being tested, not so much for her ability to perform this action but rather for her coachability. OK’s blade continued along its path, passing over The Bird’s blade; Annie released her grip — “Now bring up the blade, and lunge.”

The Bird felt her body come forward, as if cords on her back had been suddenly cut, and her blade came up as if it were leading her. Her foot landed softly, as did the point of her blade, landing squarely on OK’s jacketed chest. “Cool!” OK’s smile was visible behind her gray mask. “That was awesome!”

Standing and bringing her foil back towards her, The Bird looked over at Annie. “Well done,” the sophomore said, her lips tight but eyes betraying a smile.

A Surprising Cover

[Using this week’s Discover Challenge from The Daily Post to explore a couple minor themes in my novel]

“What you reading there, son?” Jimmy had walked behind Butch, was now peering over the shoulder of the teen sitting on the cafeteria floor, legs crossed, a comic book folded open before him.

“Oh!” Butch flipped the comic book closed, then held it up to his coach as if he’d asked to borrow it.

Jimmy nodded. “Huh. ‘member reading that one, back in the day.” His face contorted in surprise, as he tapped the cover with the knuckle of his index finger. “Recognize the costume, but I thought that character was white, though.”

Butch’s attempt at explanation was cut off by Rune, coming back from his practice bout with Juan. “He was, but they changed him, couple years back.” The greasy-haired teen lay his fencing mask and foil on the tiled floor; the sound of thin metal colliding resumed from the center of the large room. “They’ve been changing a lot of characters lately, making them women 0r — ” Rune looked at Jimmy, blinked — “minorities.”

“That a fact?” Jimmy rubbed his chin, and laughed as he glared at the comic’s cover. “Well at least they kept the name the same. Back in the day, I remember all the black characters, their names, they all had the word black in it. You know, Black Lightning, Black Panther, Black Goliath. Like they was so pleased with themselves, for having a black guy with superpowers, they had to make sure we all knew about it.”

Rune’s face erupted into a hyperbolic grin, his voice comically lilting — “Well, that must mean we’re making progress towards racial harmony!”

The shake of Jimmy’s head had the dismissive force of a caustic rejection letter. “It’s a comic book, son.” He knuckled the cover again — “Ain’t got time for kid stuff no more.”

“Oh!” Butch pulled the comic book back down, away from Jimmy, who with fists propped on hips pointed his chin at a suddenly uncertain Rune. “How’d your bout with Juan go, son?”