Twenty-five months ago
“WHO’S NEXT? ” Myles Glossurio’s commanding voice bounced off the concrete walls of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, as eleven pairs of teenaged legs shuffled around him. “Barksdale? Slovich?” No matter the sport, no matter their year or position on the team, no matter his relationship outside the team to them — during practice, Myles always referred to teammates by their last name.
“Double-J — ” hearing his name, the sophomore looked up with his clean-shaven face at Juan Kwon — “think it’s about time you showed our captain what it’s like to fence saber.”
“GAHD!” Myles’ athletic body walked confidently over to the team’s equipment sacks. “Last time I picked up saber was at the Academy, last month.” He looked over at Coach Dan, whose arms were folded across his chest as he leaned against the short wall that served as the front of the cafeteria’s stage. “Who was that guy I beat?”
Coach Dan blinked. “Jamie.”
“Yoder?” Coach Dan nodded in response. “Ha! His dad played in the minors, topped out at Double A.” The golden arm of the school’s All-State quarterback pointed at Double-J. “Gear up, Johnson.”
“Call me Double-J.” He could not control wincing as his adolescent voice cracked. Myles stopped himself, and glared back in silence with amused eyes.
Double-J snarled as he hustled over to the wall where he had left his gear. Picking up mask, glove and weapon, he positioned himself a moment later at the far end of the makeshift strip at the center of the large floor.
“Edge weapon.” Stepping towards his starting line, Myles looked down at the blade of his saber like it was a younger sibling’s toy. “How charmingly imprecise.” Lifting his gaze, he caught Double-J’s eyes — “Johnson, you DO know that the only reason saber is still considered a legitimate competition weapon, is to keep the Russians from leaving the FIE?”
“This ain’t Russia.” Double-J extended his right arm up and out, the saber he held forming a line that extended from his shoulder to a point on the ceiling above and past Myles’ head. “And this ain’t one of those stupid point weapons.” He brought his weapon down swiftly, blade audibly cutting the distance between the two teens. “Seems to me, saber’s the closest thing we got in this sport, to a weapon a person would actually use in the real world.”
“HA!” Myles rocked his hand back and forth, the blade of his saber waving like a solitary strand of uncooked spaghetti. “What the hell could anyone do with this thing? Break up a robbery?”
Coach Dan’s chuckle was faint yet distinctive under the current of conversations that rippled through the team. He lifted his chin, arms still folded and body leaning against the short stage wall — “You love birds want a ref?”
Myles turned and nodded, but Double-J’s voice shot out — “Nah. This’ll be quick.” Myles glanced back at his opponent, smirked, and after a salute more obligatory than sincere, put on his fencing mask as Double-J did the same.
The two teens crouched down, right arms forward; Myles slapped his thigh with his left hand, and they stepped toward each other aggressively. Myles slashed towards Double-J’s head; two thin blades of steel collided, the crisp sound catching the attention of the other team members. The blades slid off each other, both fencers being hit in the mask.
“YA!” Double-J’s left arm bolted in the air like he was displaying a trophy.
“Nah, that’s mine.” Myles stepped back, raised his left hand, brought his blade down and past his open palm. “My attack landed, before your parry.”
“My parry.” Double-J pointed the tip of his saber directly at Myles’ chest. “Can’t talk your way outta this.”
“Rex!” At the sound of his coach’s commanding voice, the freshman (not only the tallest in his class, but already close to being the tallest at the entire school) jogged over from the canvas sacks that carried the team’s equipment. Coach Dan unfolded his arms, pushed his body off from the wall, spoke in a hushed but direct tone with his student.
Without further discussion, Myles and Double-J returned to their starting lines, then charged at each other again at Myles’ command. Double-J’s metal wing slashed at Myles arm, Myles following the attack with one of his own. As if in unison, both competitors raised their arms, exclaiming.
“His attack.” Juan had approached the combatants, and was now pointing at Double-J.
“Missed,” Myles shaking his head. “Knew he was going to be short, so I countered.” Pointing to the sophomore — “his remise came after the counter.”
Double-J yelled, the force of his exclamation almost as startling as its vulgarity. His point threatened Myles’ chest once again — “Not LETTING you STEAL this from me!”
From behind his gray metal mask, a frown could be seen to grow on Myles’ lips. Lifting his left hand gently like a man retrieving his wallet in front of a nervous mugger, the starting point guard who had lead the boys’ basketball team to last year’s Division Three semi-finals grabbed the bottom of the mask’s cloth bib, pulled it slowly up and away from under his chin until his face, now smiling, was visible, the mask coming to rest like a turtle on top of his head. “Johnson — you DO know this is supposed to be a friendly — “
“There’s no FRIENDS in fencing!” Double-J gave no indication he would even consider removing his mask. “The very MOMENT you get on strip and point a weapon at me, you’re the ENEMY!”
“Excuse me?” Two sets of eyes turned towards the soft voice coming from the elongated body approaching them. Rex had been, along with Double-J, one of three students to attend the first practice in October, and while that third student had long since left and been forgotten, the freshman and sophomore had developed a close friendship, one that strengthened as the team’s membership had exploded after Myles’ arrival. “Coach Dan — ” a slender pipe extended behind Rex — “he asked me, to be your ref?” His inflection rose with each word, as if he were suddenly questioning himself.
Double-J lifted his mask, revealing a face red with rage and exertion. He then waved at Rex with his unarmed hand — “Stay out. Don’t want you getting mixed up in this.”
The tall freshman paused in confusion, shoulder’s sagging in relief as Coach Dan’s voice carried across the cafeteria. “Reffing’s good experience. Let him direct, correct him if there’s a mistake.”
Myles spread his arms, palms up, saber dangling from between the middle and index fingers of his right hand. He pointed his forehead at Double-J — “You wouldn’t want to interrupt this lad’s development, would you?” Double-J’s grunt of disgust accentuated the sharp pull of his mask, covering his face.
The bout continued, neither fencer paying much attention to Rex’s calls. Double-J quickly began using his advantage in experience and bladework, parrying most attacks that came at him, scoring on ripostes. But Myles was the far superior athlete — faster, stronger, taller, better conditioned, his lunges covering a distance his foe simply could not match. And after the first few exchanges, Myles evidenced an additional advantage in poise. Each attack that came through Double-J’s defense, each of his ripostes that did not land, caused the younger, shorter fencer to growl, scowling visibly behind his gray metal face. Myles responded to his mistakes with curiosity (now isn’t that interesting), humor (that would have worked, if I were using a dagger), even what seemed at times gratitude (dude, thanks for not letting me score with slop). And as Myles’ confidence grew, so too did his skill — at the same time as Double-J’s frustration, and lack of conditioning, caused him to begin surrendering more touches than he scored.
Having returned from sparring with a sophomore, Juan Kwon walked up behind Rex. “What’s the score?”
Rex blinked. “I didn’t — “
“Eight – six.” Myles pointed across the makeshift strip. “He’s up — for now.” Double-J had been leaning forward, hands on knees, but at his opponent’s words stood erect, then crouched into en garde position.
“Fence.” At Rex’s command, Double-J charged forward, Myles letting him reach the center and then springing straight up, weapon arm flying forward, the thin metal of his blade whipping in an arc that swept down until it landed, with a sound that was a little bit tink and a lot more tunk, directly on top of Double-J’s mask.
“Halt.” Remembering Coach Dan’s instructions, Rex paused, recreating the action in his head before speaking. “Preparation, no attack on the right. Attack left — ” right arm pointed straight at Double-J, left hand raising towards Myles — “tooch.”
“Finish up, my friends.” Walking across a patch of sunlight reflecting off the cafeteria floor, Coach Dan pointed up at the large analog clock on the southern wall. “Polishing the floors tonight — gotta be out in five.”
Myles had already returned to en garde. “To nine, then.” At Rex’s command, Myles raced to the center this time, his exhausted opponent ceding the position, waiting to parry. A flinch towards the head — Double-J did not move — Myles brought his arm down, flinched again to the head, then began to bring his arm down again before deftly jabbing forward, blade crashing into mask.
“Eight all!” Myles pranced back to his starting line, gyrating in celebration as he did after racing into the end zone, drilling a three-pointer, or launching a home run. He turned, crouched back down into en garde — and discovered he no longer had an opponent.
Double-J had already pushed past Rex and Juan, and was in the process of tearing off his equipment, paying no attention to Coach Dan’s calm, firm voice as he reached the team’s equipment sacks. Only Rex, discovering rare self-assurance, dared to approach him.
“What — ” Rex realized his friend would have no interest in discussing the reason for his sudden departure — “where are you going?”
Double-J turned on him, his expression pained with indignation. “Anywhere, but here. Any place, that respects fencing, and doesn’t have time for self-indulgent ballers looking for kicks.” He pointed an angry finger at Myles, still standing at the strip, mask covering his face. “Knock yourself out. There’s more than enough pushovers here to gratify your damn ego.”
Casting the last of his great down, Double-J then exited the cafeteria through its large metal double-door, his storm of profanity finally silenced as the doors closed, ka-klack.