Castle

Like most martial arts, fencing is a mano a mano contest — the sport does have team events, but they are composed of a series of individual bouts. Group competitions are rare, but every few months at the club, we have a good game of Castle.

It’s kind of like dodge ball, with weapons. Two teams gather at opposite ends of the floor, each behind a line designating their castle boundary. Fencers can stay inside the safety of their castle, or go outside to battle their foe, but can’t cross the other team’s boundary. Foil target area is in effect, with a catch — if your arm or leg is struck, that off-target blow renders that limb useless. If your weapon arm’s hit, you fence with the other arm; if a leg is hit, you can’t move it. An on-target hit, or losing both arms or both legs, knocks you out. It’s a game of timing, awareness, and teamwork; too much aggression can leave you open to a blindside attack, while an overly cautious approach can imperil your teammates and leave you the sole survivor against three opponents.

The holidays, when schools are on break and workplaces have all but shut down, are a good time to break from the routine of drills and practice at the fencing club. This past Monday we played a half-dozen or so games of Castle, and I felt like a kid in recess. Highlight of the evening for me came when I was left with one teammate, with two remaining on the other side. My teammate traded parries with one of our foes, as I eased into position on her flank. As the other opponent closed in, I reacted instinctively, striking the first and then pivoting to parry the attack of the second, and landing the riposte to end the battle. Bada-bing, baby!

A lot of men my age take up golf to challenge themselves. I choose to get my kicks by stabbing people. I’d be worried, if I weren’t having such a good time.

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Over the River 7

Alec’s apprehension was quickly dispelled by a thought — if ‘Todd’ wanted to harm us, he would have done so by now. He relaxed his shoulders, and addressed the dark-haired man sitting in his deceased father-in-law’s chair. “You say you’ve come to learn about our family. What have you learned?”

“You mistake me, Alec. I did not come seeking information; I already knew everything important about the Andersons. What I sought was understanding, more of a feeling than a thought. I came to understand how the Andersons responded to mortality. In the conversations I’ve had and overheard, I’ve felt your family’s fear and sorrow, but also your strength, and determination to enjoy the life that’s been given to them. Their lives are limited — but their love of life seems to have no bounds.”

“Do you consider that admirable?”

“Yes. Because, being who I am, those are sentiments I can never feel.”

A sound of shuffling feet echoed down from the second floor. By the weight and location of the steps, Alec could tell Stella had walked from guest bedroom into the hall bathroom. He had not heard any sound from Grammie Alice’s room for over an hour. Todd rose from his chair — “Now that we’ve had this talk, it’s time for me to depart. Good evening, Alec.”

“Wait.” Alec sat up quickly, and pointed to the stairs leading to the second floor. “Shouldn’t you — ”

“I said goodbye to Alice, and your wife, while you were washing dishes. There’s no need to disturb them.”

Alec sighed, and extended his hand toward Todd. “All right. Then this is goodbye, I guess.”

Todd shook his hand. “Yes.”

“Will we — see you again?” To Alec’s surprise, Todd laughed.

“I believe you’ve figured out that I’ll be seeing all of you again. But, to your question — no, I don’t imagine I’ll attend any further Thanksgiving dinners here.”

“Very well.” Releasing Todd’s hand, Alec stepped back once, then suddenly looked back at Todd. “So, do you know when — ”

Todd lifted his right index finger at Alec, and his eyes seemed to glow with a dark fury. “I cannot see the future, Alec. And it is foolish of you to attempt such insight.”

End of “Over the River”

Over the River 6

Alec took a seat on the sofa, across the room from where Todd was sitting. “My only observation, was there was more to you than meets the eye.”

“Indeed.” Todd shifted in his seat. “And my air of mystery must remain, for knowing the full truth about me would be — overwhelming to you.”

Alec nodded in response.

“You said you didn’t remember my first year at the Anderson Thanksgiving dinner. I, on the other hand, remember it well. Your father-in-law, Jeremiah, had just been diagnosed with cancer.”

Sitting on the sofa across the room, Alec sensed he was being given clues to a mystery he had yet to comprehend. So he waited, hoping Todd would continue to reveal himself.

“The Andersons were very confused, very afraid at that time. It had been over a decade since his sister Miriam had passed. Jeremiah had been so healthy — to hear the cancer had already reached stage four, inoperable, untreatable… six months, maximum.”

“Nobody could understand.”

“But I remember Jerry’s words that evening. We all die. We don’t have any choice. The only choice we have, is how we live our final days. Those words were what drew me to the Anderson family, the quest to create meaning out of senselessness, to defy the chaos so endemic in this world.”

Todd paused, and Alec sensed the older man was waiting for him to catch up. Then Alec’s eyes widened — “Miriam. If it had been over a decade, how could — ” and then he stared back at Todd, as he felt his heart sink into his stomach.

“Don’t be afraid, Alec. I meant what I said earlier about presenting no harm to your family, and I hope my assistance with your niece was proof of my good intent. I know being friends with your family can never be possible. My only wish, is that we come to understand each other, and our purpose in this world.”

Over the River 5

Amanda’s mother comforted her daughter, as her father thanked Todd, who brushed off all attempts to pay back the favor. “Your family’s continued hospitality is the only reward I need.”

Alec had been a spectator during the incident, and followed the entire family as they returned to the house. The sun had descended below the tree line, and Grammie Alice’s sons, daughters, grandchildren, and in-laws across multiple generations soon gathered their coats and left in their cars. Stella and Alec had already agreed to be in charge of clean-up, and Alec spent close to an hour at the kitchen sink, up to his elbows in suds as he cleaned serving bowls, plates, and silverware too delicate for machine washing.

His hands slick and red from being long enclosed in yellow rubber gloves, Alec finally retreated into the living room. Stella had gone up with her mother to rest, the two women weary from a half day of preparation for that afternoon’s feast. Believing that all the day’s guests had departed, Alec expected to watch the evening football game alone for a while, until his wife came down and announced she was ready to leave.

But he was not alone. Sitting in the room’s largest armchair, the one Stella’s father had deemed his throne, was Todd. His eyes beamed delight at Alec’s entry.

“I didn’t want to leave today, without finishing our conversation.” There was a hint of a challenge in Todd’s voice that unsettled Alec.

“I… if I seemed a little too suspicious this afternoon, it was only because I wanted to make sense of the stories I was hearing about you. What you did for my niece this afternoon, went a long way to dismissing — ”

“Please.” Todd blinked, and waved a hand dismissively. “I took no offense at your questioning. I quite enjoyed it, in fact. Rarely do I meet someone, as perceptive as yourself.”

Over the River 4

To Alec’s surprise, Todd seemed neither upset not defensive at the accusation. He pushed his plate forward, and folded his hands on the table. “I’m not accustomed to speaking about myself, as I’d much rather heat what others have to say. But if it would set your mind at ease, then please, ask me any question you’d like. I promise to answer as truthfully as possible.”

“All right. Let’s start at the beginning. Who was — ”

A sharp cry from outside interrupted their conversation. Alec sat up quickly, recognizing the voice of his niece Amanda. Her mother reached the front door before Alec, and the two of them raced into the yard, where children were gathered in a circle. Ignoring the stream of frantic explanations, Alec helped pull the children away to give room for his sister-in-law to attend to Amanda.

“Mom!” Amanda was writhing on the brown grass, her right hand grasping at her left shoulder. “It HURTS so MUCH!”

“Just breathe, dear.” Amanda’s mother helped the girl sit up, her arm lying useless at her side. Alec’s medical knowledge was limited, but he knew his niece’s shoulder was separated. Amanda’s father was soon at their side — “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll get you to a doctor.”

“If I may.” All eyes, young and old, turned in the direction of Todd. “The nearest hospital is twenty minutes away, and who knows how the emergency room will be staffed today. I know how to help your daughter — please, trust me.”

A swift survey by Amanda’s father revealed that none of the adults had medical training, and Grammie Alice knew of no doctors or nurses in the neighborhood. The girl was whimpering, and the car ride to the hospital promised further discomfort, followed by a disheartening wait. The father sighed, and waved Todd over — “You’ve done this before?”

Todd nodded as he stepped forward. “I’m a volunteer on overseas missions, and work with children like your daughter on a regular basis.” Todd knelt down beside Amanda, and encouraged her parents to hold the girl as he took hold of her shoulder.

He brushed hair from Amanda’s forehead. “You are going to feel a sharp pain, but it will go away quickly. I need you to relax your body, as much as possible. Can you do that for me?” Amanda nodded, her face contorted with pain and confusion, as Todd nodded to her parents and then grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

“YEEEEAAAAAH” Amanda’s scream was filled with more agony than anyone in the family had heard before, and the girl shot from her parents’ grasp. She stumbled forward two steps, turned back to Todd — and raised her left arm, crying now in relief rather than pain.

Over the River 3

“I told Alice how I’ve been coming here for Thanksgiving every year for a decade, since the year before Stella and I were married. The first year, it was just her parents and us. Year after, it was the entire family, like it’s been every year since. That’s how I met Stella’s sisters, brother, cousins — and you.” Alec fanned his fingers in Todd’s direction.

The older man wiped his chin with a napkin. “I don’t have a family of my own, Alec. I treasure your family’s hospitality.”

“The Andersons are a wonderful family. And I’ll do anything to make sure they are never harmed, or exploited.”

Todd arched his eyebrows. “Do you consider me a threat?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. For now, you’re a curiosity. I asked Alice today where she knew you from, and she told me you went to college with Gregory. He confirmed this when he arrived, but said that while you had graduated the same year, you had never actually met until these Thanksgiving dinners.”

“Ohio State is a large university, Alec. I’m sure your brother-in-law would have the same experience with thousands of alumni.”

“Certainly. But then Gregory told me how you had worked at the same company as Clarise, and believed she had invited you here initially. So I asked her, and she said yes you had worked together, but no, you’d never actually met there, and she hadn’t been the one to extend you an invitation. Then Norton overheard us, and said the two of you had worked on the campaign for Senator Brown. I was hardly surprised when I pressed for more information, and discovered you never actually worked together at that time.”

Alec leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve made it a point to ask every adult here today about you, Todd. How everyone knows you. And I’ve found a consistent pattern. You have some type of association with every one of them — a professional society, volunteer organization, a close friend. A shared experience which establishes a bond. And yet, nobody here has had any direct interaction with you outside of this home, this day. And, more significantly, nobody remembers who provided you with the initial invitation to Thanksgiving.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “We know you, Todd, but don’t know a damn thing about you. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’s a little odd.”

Over the River 2

Alec stood from his chair, and after glancing at the living room and its empty sofa, shuffled to the seat at the far end of the table, between Umberto and this man they knew as Todd. His wife’s uncle, loud and outspoken at most times, had been subdued that afternoon and grown more withdrawn and distant with each bite of the heavy holiday meal, along with several glasses of wine.

“Bertie.” Umberto lifted his bald head slowly at Alec’s call. “You looked tired. You want to rest on the couch?” Umberto smiled, excused himself, and stumbled his way into the living room.

Todd lifted a fork from the table, and stabbed at the pecan pie on the plate in front of him. “Umberto’s a brave man, coming here today.” Alec agreed, commenting about the distance he had to drive, at least a couple of hours, as Todd continued eating his pie. Stella’s mother entered from the kitchen, and asked about Umberto; Alec waved towards the living room, and his mother-in-law left the two men at the table.

Alec shifted his seat closer to Todd. “Speaking of travelling, where’s home for you?”

Todd chuckled, and took another bite of pie before replying. “I’m staying at a Hilton just across town. Own a condo downtown, but I’m renting it out this month. Got condo’s all over the place, there’s no real place I call home.”

“That so?” Alec watched Todd eat his pie a moment. “Seems funny, a man who travels as much as you do, has his choice of where he could spend Thanksgiving — how you’re here, every year.”

Todd leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his amble stomach. “It’s the food. Grammie Alice — ”

“I had a conversation with her, about you. Today, in the kitchen, right after Stella and I arrived, and I saw you in the living room.”

Over the River 1

It’s been a long time since my last short story, and I’ve got an idea inspired by the upcoming holiday in the United States, as well as a poem I wrote last year.

“You kids have fun.” Alec leaned back in his chair and waved a hand towards the front door of his mother-in-law’s home. “You don’t need an old man like me slowing you down.” His son and his cousins forgot about Alec’s apology as they raced out of the room, choosing sides for their touch football game as they tugged on their jackets.

Alec tilted his chair back into position at the dining room. Stella’s sister had left for the kitchen during Alec’s discussion with the children, so Alec’s was one of three occupied seats of the eleven that had been arranged at the large oak table.He was seated toward the end closest to the bay windows looking out on the front yard; across the table at the other end, close to the kitchen doorway, was Umberto, smiling weakly as he had all that afternoon. Stella had been surprised her uncle had arrived for Thanksgiving, so soon after his wife’s passing, and Alec had been watching him all afternoon.

Sitting directly across from Umberto, three chairs away from Alec, was the man Alec was determined to have a private conversation with before leaving that evening.

“American politics is like a pendulum.” The man whom Alec knew as Todd waved his meaty hand over his gravy-strewn plate, swooping it down from his right and then back up near the center of the plate.We’ve swung over to an extreme this year, but political gravity will pull Washington back to the center, and then –” he swooped his hand back down, then over the plate — “we’ll be back to the other extreme.” Todd spoke with the cool confidence he expressed on any topic, from gardening to government, football to physics, and in years past Alec had regretted only hearing Todd speak this one day of the year (he never visited for the December holidays). But today, Alec found himself annoyed at Todd’s self-assurance.

Helping Hands, Conclusion

After his call ended, Quentin entered the living room and renewed his proposal to assist with the bedframe. Ven rose from his seat eagerly, and the two men set to the task. Their argument from before the call hung silently in their air between them, like a humid summer evening.

Bonnie-B and the children arrived as the last of the frame was assembled. Nicholas and Hannah raced into the living room and began tearing into the paper, calling to their father in excited tones. As Quentin joined his children, Bonnie-B caught Ven’s gaze, and tilted her head in a silent question.

Ven nodded, a sad smile crawling across his face.

Lunch was consumed quickly, Ven and the Richardsons ravenous from the morning’s exertion. Quentin commanded Hannah to take care of the trash; as she left for the kitchen, Nicholas went to the bathroom, leaving Ven alone in the living room with the two adults.

“Hey.” Quentin and Bonnie-B looked up at Ven’s gentle call. “Really appreciate what you did for me today.”

“Of course,” Bonnie-B replied with pleasure. “You know, your still welcome to come over for dinner this evening.”

“Any evening.” Quentin leaned forward, and gazed intently at Ven. “Just because you’re living in the city now, doesn’t mean you need to be a stranger.”

Ven sighed heavily, and then stood slowly. “I’ll be up to see you, I promise. But, tonight — ” he waved a hand towards the nearest stack of boxes — “I really need to unpack.” Nodding, Quentin stood quickly, and called for the children.

“Mister Ven — ” Ven turned towards Hannah — “I really like your apartment.” Nicholas echoed his sister’s judgement.

“You guys are sweet.” The young man lowered himself to his right knee, and embraced the Richardson children. After shaking Ven’s hand, Quentin then lead the children out of the apartment, leaving Ven alone with Bonnie-B.

 She laid a hand on Ven’s shoulder. “Promise me, that you won’t spend every evening here alone.”

For a moment, Ven considered telling her Aidan was planning to come over tomorrow. But instead, he smiled, and simply said, “I won’t.”

She hugged him warmly, then left to join her family. The apartment door closed, and for the first time that day, Ven was alone in his new home. Sighing, he walked into the living room, located the nearest box, and ripped the packing tape off its cardboard top. 

Helping Hands, Part 10

Quentin removed his glasses, and pinched his eyes closed. “Ven — please understand, we have just as much compassion for Aidan as you do.” The words angered Ven, but the young man decided to let Quentin continue. “But the Bible isn’t a menu, you can’t just pick and choose the passages you like and ignore the rest. We either accept God’s word, or reject it, there’s no middle ground. And the Bible couldn’t be clearer, the laws against sexual deviance — ”

“Do you eat pork?” Ven pressed his challenge. “Shellfish? Do we stone adulterers?”

Quentin shook his head, his eyes downcast. “This again. Acts 10, Cornelius — the laws of Moses were abolished when salvation was opened to the Gentiles.”
Ven lifted his arms wide. “So if I can enjoy a BLT, why can’t you let Aidan live in peace?”

“Ven, Ven.” Quentin sighed wearily. “The New Testament — ”

“Epistles, not the Gospels.”

Hands on hips, head swiveling back, Quentin blew air through his lips, fbbbbbbt. “Aidan will always have my love. I told him that, after… we finished praying.”

Ven listened to the rain pounding on the bay window. He felt their conversation had reached its end, further words would only recycle their tiresome argument. He began searching his mind for a reason to excuse himself — something he left in the van, an errand he suddenly remembered — when Quentin’s ringtone interrupted the awkward silence. Quentin answered the call immediately, like a prison guard anticipating a pardon from the governor; Ven retreated to the living room, and after moving a box from the seat of his cushioned chair, sat and watched the rain.