The Academy 4W

“You’re not tired,” Double-J says. Guess my lie wasn’t safe. “I saw the tournament sheet when I walked in.”

Coach Dan tries to interrupt, “I think,” but Double-J continues.

“You’ve had enough, haven’t you? You’re embarassed because you got your butt kicked today, and you just want to go home and feel sorry for yourself. I say,” turning from me to Coach Dan, “let him. Let him go pout in a corner somewhere. He’ll get over it, find some convenient alibi to explain it all away. He’ll come back to practice on Tuesdays, just as overconfident as he was at the start of today.”

Double-J turns back to me. “You don’t want to practice, work on your skills so that you might have a better chance for success in your next tournament– fine. Your choice, it’s a free country, least that’s how we like to imagine it. Just don’t come crying to us when you get the same result, Biscuit.” 

Double-J turns away, chuckling. Coach Dan looks at me quickly, and the regret I see in his face is not over what Double-J has just said, but that Coach Dan hadn’t been the one to say it. He turns away.

Annie turns to Rex, “we’ve got to get ready for epee.” They need to take off their lames, need different body cords. Rex looks down at me, tells me “don’t let Double-J get to you,” then turns away with Annie.

It’s just me with Butch and Kassie. “I’d like to keep practicing,” Kassie says, pointing to an open area of the green rubber floor of the field house, where she had been practicing with the Academy team during the tournament. I suddenly notice that Butch is now carrying a uniform, mask and foil. He must have picked those up during Double-J’s speeach. “You coming?” he asks me.

“I — don’t know. Maybe I’ll — catch up with you. I don’t know yet.”

Butch and Kassie nod, walk over to the practice area. I’m standing alone, next to the canvas sacks that contain the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s equipment. Everyone’s off doing what they need to do, Double-J starting his first sabre bout, Coach Dan directing, Annie and Rex preparing for epee, Butch and Kassie practicing along with a few of the Academy fencers.

And me, doing — nothing. Just standing there, doing nothing. Because that’s the only thing that feels safe for me to do at this time.

End of “The Academy”

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The Academy 4V

“Butch, Bernie,” Coach Dan calls to us. “Why’d you take your jackets off?”

I can see Butch is just as confused as I am, so I let him speak for us. “Aren’t we done?”

“We’re here another hour or so, for sabre and epee. Keep practicing, with Kassie.” I suddenly notice Kassie still has her fencing jacket on, still has foil in her right hand, mask in left. Butch looks at me, like all of a sudden I’m his guardian or something.

I shake my head. “No. I don’t feel like practicing.”

Coach Dan looks up at the ceiling, in exaggerated confusion, then glares at me. “I don’t — recall — asking if you felt like practicing. I seem to remember” — he looks up at the ceiling again, taps his chin with the index finger of his right hand — “yes, I told you to practice.” He points to the sack of jackets. “Suit up — now.”

By now Double-J’s picked out his jacket fromthe sack, has walked over just in time to catch the end of our discussion. “Problems, Coach?”

Coach Dan shakes his head. Double-J turns from him, faces me, raises his black eyebrows. “Coach Dan wants you to practice. It’s not like you to disobey your coach, Biscuit.”

Biscuit. That’s Double-J’s nickname for me. Get it, Bernie Scott, B-Scott, Biscuit. Guy should get his own morning radio show.

“I’m just — ” I don’t want to continue.

“What?” Double-J asks, a sarcastic smile on his face. Annie steps into the circle, asks “What’s going on?” Rex comes up behind her.

Great. I’ve got the entire Bark Bay fencing team looking at me, waiting for me to finish my sentence. Do I tell them what’s on my mind? That I want to get as far away from this noisy, dark field house? That I’m sick of the Academy, of being patronized by these stuck-up jerks? That I not only don’t feel like practicing fencing, I don’t want anything to do with fencing at all, want to get as far away from this tournament as possible, don’t feel like ever being in another tournament in my life, I just want to be done, end this, leave me alone.

But I know how petulant, how idiotic that would sound. And I remember what my father told me once, “better to say nothing and let people think you’re a fool, than open your mouth and prove it.” That’s his approach to life, don’t take chances. That probably explains why he’s been a successful accountant, if also why he’s still in Bark Bay.

“I’m tired,” I finally say. A lie, but a safe one, I think.

The Academy 4U

Coach Dan nods at Coach Sarah, walks over to where Double-J is resting — and kicks him in the feet.

“Showtime,” Coach Dan says, looking down. “Don’t mean to interrupt your nap, but I’ve got a couple Academy fencers who say they want a piece of you in sabre.”

Double-J has lifted his head, eyes half-closed and unfocused. He coughs roughly, like it should hurt, but he quickly wipes the thin dark curls of his long wiry hair from his face, and looks up at Coach Dan with this calm look.

“Done with foil?” Coach Dan nods. “Good. I don’t do foil. Hat even looking at it. That’s why I don’t show up at your goddam practices anymore, all you guys do on Tuesday is fucking foil.”

“Hey,” Coach Dan says sharply. Double-J stares at him, eyes filled with disdainful questioning. Coach Dan continues in a whisper, “We’re guests. Keep it clean.”

Double-J laughs, lifts his large body from its sitting position. “Sorry. Thought the Academy was a school, not a f — church.”

The Academy 4T

“Hey Daniel,” Coach Sarah calls in our direction as she walks towards up, holding up her index and middle fingers of her right hand. “I’ve got two for sabre” — now she holds up her ring and pinky — “four for epee.” Glad she held up those fingers, because as we all know they don’t teach arithmetic at Bark Bay because you just need to count with your fingers to get a job at the paper mill when you graduate and then one day get laid off when the decision to cut costs is made by some manager, who probably went to the Academy and learned how to count and shit.

“Just one, for sabre,” replies Coach Dan, holding up one finger (see?). “Two for epee.” We all look at each other with surprise, not because Coach Dan has forgotten to raise a second finger but cuz of Rex being the only one of us who does epee, just like Double-J (you can hear him snoring off to the side if you listen) is our only sabre guy. “Don’t get too comfortable,” Coach Dan says, turning to Annie. “You’re not done today.”

“You want me in epee?” Annie asks. Her voice is hesitant, like she’s just been asked to take a dog out for a walk in the rain, but the look in her eyes, I’ve seen that before. It’s an act, she doesn’t want everybody to know that competing in epee is really what she wants to do. The whole Hutchinson family’s like that, they like to hide their ambitions, get real defensive if you call their bluff. I did that once to Annie — we were in study hall and she was acting all surprised cuz of she was nominated for student council, and I laughed and she started to blush and asked me what was so funny, and I said come on, you’ve been sucking up to everyone on the nominating committee for weeks, and she stabbed a glare at me and said not true, then got up and left and didn’t talk to me for a week. So yeah, I’ve learned to just let her do her thing when she acts like this.

“I’m sure Francis would enjoy another shot at you today,” Coach Sarah interjects before Coach Dan can reply to Annie. I see Francis standing a bit back from his coach, and he nods. “But one of my sabre-ists needs to get going soon, so let’s do that first.” She waves a hand in the direction of the wall behind us. “Somebody want to rouse him?”

I turn in the direction Coach Sarah had indicated, see Double-J slumped against the field house wall, head resting forward on arms crossing the knees of his bent legs.

The Academy 4S

We gather around Annie like kids seeking an autograph from a baseball star.

Rex — You were awesome! Annie smiles, teeth reflecting the sun beaming through the upper windows of the field house.

Coach Dan — That was some impressive fencing. You should be proud. Annie nods, pony tail prancing behind her head.

Butch — Francis better watch out, you’re going to get him next time. Annie laughs, red cheeks puffing.

Kassie — says nothing. She turns, looks at Butch in confusion.

Annie turns to me, her smile spreading from her mouth to her eyes, which are now bearing down on me with an unspoken question, more of a demand — well?

“That was — ” and I know what I want to

The smile in her eyes broadens as they bore deeper into me. WELL?

” — you’re beautiful.” It just blurts out of me, and I’m just as surprised as everyone else is (Coach Dan’s got this look on his face like he’s just pissed himself) because what I originally was going to say was That was some beautifcul fencing, but that sounded too much like Coach Dan had just said about her impressive fencing, so I came up with You fenced beautifully but that sounded clumsy, so instead I was going to say You looked beautiful out there and I really was going to say it, but then something inside me caught those words and changed them as they came out of my mouth.

Suddenly I’m embarassed, but at the same time I’m proud of my accidental confession. Because when I look at Annie, with her broad smile and perfect skin and long hair that flows from her head in rivers of chocolate; when I see the athleticism in her actions, hear the vibrancy in her voice, feel the energy that emanates from her like a volcano; when she pushes Francis Pine to the limit, then accepts the outcome with a grace demonstrating that she may have lost, but had not been defeated —

Beautiful? Oh yes. Saying the word brings the relief that comes with honesty.

Annie’s smiles disappear, first from her eyes, then her mouth. She looks surprised a moment, but her face quickly steadies into one of appreciation.

“Thank you,” she says. Her mouth opens a moment as she raises her arms, but suddenly she catches herself, quickly smiles at me, and turns toward our equipment sacks.

The Academy 4R

There’s this second, it’s only a second, the second right after the scoring device buzzes. Everybody who’s watching the bout goes silent, stunned that this thrilling bout between two accomplished fencers could end with such a glaring blunder, Annie’s self-impalement on Francis’ foil as incomprehensible as Derek Jeter dropping a pop-up, Lebron James missing an uncontested layup, Gabby Douglas tripping over her feet during a floor exercise. I even notice that for the first time that morning I don’t hear any of the surrounding noises within the field house. Either the runners have stopped, tennis games ended, weight training halted, or I’m just too stunned to notice anything other than the sight of Annie’s body, suddenly limp in resignation, leaning helplessly against the tip of Francis’ bent foil.

Annie laughs. It’s the sound that breaks the silence that seems to last much longer than time would suggest, and the last sound I expected from someone so competitive, so driven. And it’s not one and done, she continues laughing, and is soon joined by Francis, then Coach Sarah, until finally it spreads around the strip, infecting both Academy and Bark Bay fencers.

Annie returns to her starting line, stands straight and throws her head back to issue an AAAAUUUGH that echoes both frustration and bemusement. Francis is already back at his line and has his mask off. Coach Sarah is laughing too hard to call the result, and Annie proceeds nonetheless, taking her mask off and, with a broad smile, salutes Francis, who returns the salute with an appreciative look that I would not have expected of him. They turn to salute Coach Sarah, almost doubled-over with laughter now, and as they meet in the middle of the strip to shake hands, Coach Dan begins a round of applause that ripples among the fencers. Beyond our strip, I catch a glimpse of two tennis players, towels over their shoulders, looking at us, and with warm smiles upon their faces, nodding.

The Academy 4Q

Coach Dan claps his hands, then raises his fists in Annie’s direction. “Beautiful, beauiful,” he says. “You’re fencing your skinny little ass off.”

I hear Annie chuckle as she returns to her starting line, a sound which ripples through the crowd of Bark Bay and Academy fencers gathered around the strip. Even Coach Sarah smiles from her director’s position. The only person who doesn’t seem amused is Francis, who’s already returned to his starting line. I wonder if he’s feeling tense, worried that Annie’s one touch away from tying him, two touches away from winning the tournament championship. Because despite what our coaches said earlier about this being an extended practice, this is a tournament, one that has a champion, who will come either from Bark Bay or the Academy, and right now Annie is standing at her starting line, pony tail arched behind her head, her body crouched in en garde position and waiting for Coach Sarah to resume the bout, waiting for her chance to steal today’s championship right from under Francis’ upturned nose. And I think about how sweet this would be for us Bark Bay fencers to walk out of this dreary field house with Francis’ championship, the Academy’s championship, to finally stick it to the Academy like they’ve done to us so many times before.

Do this, Annie. For you, for us — for me.

Fence. Annie and Francis advance toward each other slowly, then Francis extends, not really attacking, just presenting his point in line. Annie reacts immediately, lunging forward — and what she does next is so unbelievable, I think I must have missed something.

She impales herself. Well that’s what we call it in practice, yeah it’s a little graphic but it describes how you feel when you basically throw your target area onto the tip of your opponent’s weapon. After being nearly perfect in the bout to this point, Annie forgets to engage Francis’ blade, to deflect his point in line so that she takes right of way. No, she acts like I do in practice, reacting to an attack with a counter-attack, reflexes triumphing over training. All Francis has to do is stand there, with his extended arm holding his foil, and wait for Annie to lunge onto its red rubber tip. He has right of way, Annie hasn’t taken it away, so whatever Annie’s counter-attack does makes no difference, the fact that she misses only underscoring the futility of her action.

The Academy 4P

Annie resumes her dance as the bout continues, but without the vitality she had shown before. Her fast advances and retreats aren’t nearly as fast, and there’s not much variation in her tempo. She’s tired, and she can’t hide it.

Francis senses her fatigue, and feeds off it, becoming more aggressive, forcing Annie to retreat, to be on the defensive. A hard lunge, rear leg propelling him powerful forward, pushes past Annie’s weakened parry, bringing him one touch away from winning the bout and tournament.

I can hear Annie panting as she returns to her starting line. Francis stands at his, breathing calmly through his nose. He’s been letting her tire out, waiting for her to run out of energy, looking for the moment, this moment, to finish her off.

Fence. Annie’s flesch attack begins before Coach Sarah’s command completes, her feet racing towards Francis, catching him off guard long enough to throw off his parry, which Annie ducks under with her foil to score under her opponent’s weapon arm as she races past him. “Beautiful!” I hear Coach Dan yell as Annie’s red light illuminates on the buzzing scoring machine.

Touch right. 14 – 12.

Annie’s pumping her fist as she returns to her starting line. I notice she’s not panting any more. When the bout resumes, Francis advances immediately, closing fast and lunging, catching Annie’s riposte with his counter-parry, striking Annie with his riposte — on her upper arm, just off the shoulder, narrowly missing the edge of her lamme.

Off-target. Stops the action. Still 14 – 12.

Francis must still think Annie’s fatigued because he resumes his aggression immediately. Annie parries, retreats with no riposte — yes, she’s fatigued. A second parry, a third — Francis keeps coming at her, Annie’s dangerously close to retreating off the end of the stip, and then she flesches again, charging straight at Francis and feinting a disengage, landing a blow on Francis’ chest as she stumbles past him.

Touch right. 14 – 13.

The Academy 4O

I stand in the bathroom long enough to avoid looking like I was just trying to get away from Kassie. Fortunately nobody else is there so I don’t have to pretend pee or anything like that. When I come out, I see Francis lunge at Annie, followed by a buzz and his green light illuminating on the scoring machine. I rush up in time to hear Coach Sarah call the score, 13 – 9 for Francis. He’s two touches away from ending this.

Annie turns towards us, her gray oval face seeking wisdom. “Let’s go Annie,” calls Butch. Oh that’s brilliant, why didn’t any of us think of cheering for her before, maybe that’s what she’s needed all along. Coach Dan raises his hands, holds them in front of him at shoulder level with palms facing, quickly bringing them closer then pulling them apart. I remember this motion from practice, the words that come with it spoken often enough that he doesn’t need to utter them now — “Watch your distance.”

Annie nods, and the bout resumes. Annie tries coaxing him in with footwork again, but Francis isn’t buying it anymore. He waits patiently, lunges when Annie appears to get in too close, but she’s ready, pushing off her front foot with a force I haven’t seen from her before. His lunge is short, and Annie parries easily and ripostes, which generates a Yes!from Butch, Nice job from Coach Dan.

Touch right. 13 – 10.

Annie then shrinks back into a defensive posture, waiting for Francis to react. He feints an attack, recovers, and Annie lunges, catching him off guard.

Touch right. 13 – 11.

The Academy 4N

Coach Dan asks us to give her some room, his way of telling us that he has instructions for Annie before the third encounter starts. I wish her luck before I step back, and Annie turns to me with a smile, and a wink. I notice the smooth line of her chocolate ponytail running along the side of her smooth neck, the shimmer of her beaming face, the sharpness of her eyes as she looks up at Coach Dan.

I jump when I hear Kassie say “You should call Jane.” I turn to her, look down at her dark eyes. She apologizes for scaring me. I’m annoyed, not at what Kassie did but what she said. I protest, “Why does everyone want me to call Jane?”

For the first time that morning, I see Kassie smile. It’s not a happy smile, has all the warmth of a fall breeze. “I don’t care if you call her or not. I’m just saying you should.”

“Maybe I will. Like I said, I don’t know what I’m doing Saturday. Anyway, it’s my choice after all, right?”

Kassie nods. “Yes. It’s your choice. You have free will. We all have free will.”

“That’s right. Doing what you want to do, that’s the most important thing, right? Even if it turns out to be the wrong decision — it’s better to do what you want and be wrong, than to have the right choice forced upon you — isn’t it?” I conclude with uncertainty in my voice.

Kassie shrugs. “Don’t we also decide what’s right and wrong?”

“I guess,” I say, excusing myself to go to the bathroom (and no, I don’t really need to go).