In addition to writing short fiction, Ken Rogers works as a blogger, journalist, technical writer, and teacher in northeast Ohio. His work has appeared in Fresh Water Cleveland, WISH Cleveland, The Forthcoming Anthology, and the Take Five Anthology. While writing and reading are his favorite activities, he’s also fond of doing his own yard work, which he does reasonably well, and grilling, where his success has been decidedly intermittent.
Annie Hutchinson was 17, a perpetual Honor Roll student at Bark Bay High School, president of her junior class, band member, and captain of the school’s fencing team. She also avoided Mike’s E-Z Stop whenever possible despite its convenient location next to the school, so she hoped this impromptu meeting would be as short as possible.
She sat at one of two square tables in front of the carafes and microwave oven. To Annie’s right sat Rori, a fellow junior and fencing team member, and across the table sat a diminutive girl everyone on the fencing team knew as Bird. Annie didn’t know Bird’s real name or had even paid much attention to her until today.
Bird rested her arms on the table, her narrow eyes and pointed nose aimed directly at the phone in her hands. Her thumbs tapped the tiny screen with solemn intent, as if she hoped the device would suck her in and allow her to disappear.
Annie tapped the table next to Bird’s phone. “Everything OK?”
“I’m fine,” Bird whispered without looking up.
“The fuck you are,” Rori grunted, taking off her wool hat and releasing wavy ribbons of red hair to cascade over the shoulders of her bulky coat. “Anyone who acted like you just did at practice is anything but fine.”
The phone in Annie’s jacket pocket vibrated and she retrieved it to glance at the incoming text message. Cody, another student on the fencing team: Coach wants to know why Bird ran away from practice. Annie unlocked her phone and tapped a reply: Don’t know yet. She wished school policy allowed her to exchange phone numbers with Coach Dan. She also wished he had come to the E-Z Stop instead of her. The store’s prepared foods were unhealthy, the prices too high (Annie’s friends found this judgement ironic, considering her family’s wealth), and the unisex bathroom… was best unvisited.
Bird continued staring at her phone. “I didn’t miss the rest of practice to sit here and watch you shut down,” Annie said gently, waiting for Bird to look up before continuing. “I’m not leaving until I understand what happened.”
“We push you too hard?” Rori asked. She and Annie had been working with Bird that afternoon when she had suddenly thrown her weapon down and rushed for the exit doors.
“No,” Bird replied. “I was just tired.”
Rori snorted. “Showed a lot of energy when you ran out on us.”
“I just wanted to leave.” Bird held her phone up to Annie. “Look, I really gotta go. My mother’s expecting me to call.”
Annie glanced at a clock above the checkout, then looked back at Bird and shook her head. “It’s 3:36. Your mother picks you up from fencing practice every week when we end at 4, so she wouldn’t be expecting a call. You were crying when Rori and I caught up to you. If our working with you didn’t set you off, something else must’ve happened.”
“And these next 24 minutes are really gonna suck for all of us if you don’t start talking,” Rori added.
Frowning, Bird set her phone face-down on the table, then brushed a strand of black hair away from her face. “Promise you’ll keep my mother out of this.”
“What the hell, you think this is Law and Order?” Rori said, throwing her hands back. “We didn’t come here to make a deal with you.”
Bird twitched her head swiftly, her eyes scanning the interior of the convenience store. Annie followed her gaze and saw the only other person in the store was a clerk busy restocking the cigarette cabinet behind the register. “You’re gonna think this is stupid,” Bird said.
“We all do stupid things,” Annie replied. “And sometimes people do things to us we think are stupid.” A look of embarrassed surprise flashed across Bird’s face as if she’d been caught in a lie. “Who did it?” Annie pressed.
“It wasn’t… “ Bird looked around the convenience store again.
“Don’t worry, the guy behind the counter’s too busy reloading cancer sticks to notice what you’re saying,” Annie said. “What happened? What did they do?”
“It’s only one person,” Bird said. “A boy.”
Annie leaned forward. “Who?”
Bird twitched-scanned her surroundings again. These sudden head movements, combined with her avian facial features, had inspired her name among the fencing team. “Peter. Peter Bohanon.”
“The basketball player?” Rori asked.
Bird nodded. Responding to a series of Annie’s questions, Bird said Peter sat across from her in US History, and had asked her last week what she did for fun. “I told him I did fencing.”
Annie took a sip from an over-sweetened iced tea she had purchased on arriving at the E-Z Stop, then set the plastic bottle on the table. “Then what happened?”
After a long pause, Bird said Peter hadn’t said anything more to her until today. She had gone to the library to read before fencing practice, and was sitting on a low stool by the reference books when she heard her name called. She looked up and saw Peter approaching. “I moved my backpack off the next stool to let him sit, but he stopped in front of me and asked if I was on the fencing team. I said yes, and then he stepped closer and asked if that meant I played with swords. Yes, I said. And then he grinned, and got really close to where I was sitting.” Bird blinked. “Close enough for me to read the label on the button of his jeans.”
Annie leaned forward. “Then what did he do?”
Bird swallowed, and looked down at the table. “He said… ”
“What did he say?” Rori asked.
Bird replied in a barely audible whisper. “What?” Annie and Rori asked in unison.
Bird looked up with eyes filled with fear.
“Annie, he was fucking joking.”
Sitting on her bedroom mattress, Annie shifted her phone from her left hand to her right. “Bird didn’t think Peter’s joke was funny. I don’t either.”
“Aw c’mon.” Rori lowered her voice in imitation of Peter. “Wanna play with my sword? I had to stop myself from laughing when Bird told us, it was so lame. The only thing more pathetic is how upset you two are getting over it.”
“I hope she reports him like I suggested.” Hearing Rori’s exasperated sigh, Annie got up from her bed and began pacing. “Why not? It’s harassment.”
“It was a joke, Annie. Yeah it was rude, but not any worse than what we hear all around us, even at fencing practice. What Peter said was nothing worse than the shit Myles used to say to us.” Before his graduation last spring, Myles Glosurrio had not only been captain of the fencing team, but also the school’s starting quarterback, All-State point guard in basketball, and the baseball team’s leading home run hitter. “Remember his ‘interviews’?”
“Yeah.” Annie stopped pacing, and leaned back against a closet door. “I remember.”
“Any time a new girl started on the fencing team, he had to ask how many boyfriends she’d screwed, and how much she liked it,” Rori said. “And if they didn’t, he wanted to know why not. It was some silly juvenile initiation of his, to see how we’d react —”
“I don’t want to talk about Myles.” Her back pressed against the door, Annie slumped down to the floor. “Peter’s the problem. If he keeps talking to Bird like that —”
“Oh he’s not gonna fucking stop.”
“Enough with the f-bombs, OK?” Annie returned to her feet and resumed pacing. “Not necessary.”
“Christ, Annie. Nobody’s gonna discipline Peter for bad taste. Unless he’s dumb enough to grope her or show her a dick pic, the school’s not gonna get involved. There’s dozens of Peters at the school, and the only reason none of them ever harass you is because your family’s got money. We can’t afford your golden shield.”
Rori often talked about people as if they were an open book. Annie knew there were pages to her story Rori had never read. “Bird’s the one getting harassed, not me.”
“And she’s the one who needs to fight back, like I did when people started calling me a slut after I dumped Timmy Halion and started dating Carson. I turned it back on them, said if Timmy had dumped me they’d be calling him a stud. That’s what Bird has to do, throw Peter’s words back in his face. Tell him to play with his own damn sword, or say she doesn’t play with pocketknives.”
“Seriously?” Annie asked, flopping back down on her bed. “You want Bird to tell penis jokes?”
Rori laughed. “All right, fine. Lemme talk to her. You mean well, but you’re in over your head. Bird needs to talk to someone who’s earned a few more Bitch Points than you.”
“No,” Annie replied. “Let’s see if she reports Peter to the school.”
Annie could feel Rori’s eyes rolling as they ended their call. She sat up on her mattress and looked outside her window on the darkness that was descending like a curtain. Feeling suddenly uncomfortable with being alone she left her room, and as she exited the staircase down to the first floor heard her phone chime with a text. Cody: Now that coach isn’t around wanna tell me what really happened? Knowing he was a friend of Peter’s, Annie tapped It was like I told you earlier, nothing important and hit send as she arrived at her father’s study.
Carl Hutchinson, patriarch of Bark Bay’s wealthiest family, a man who could change the headline of the town’s weekly newspaper with a phone call, sat behind a large mahogany table and looked up from a report he’d been reading. “Well hello, Anna-Banana.”
Annie relaxed on hearing her father’s nickname for her. “You have a minute?”
Carl set his report down. “Something wrong?”
“It’s not me, but a… well she’s not a friend, but someone I know at school. She’s having problems with another student, and I told her she should talk to someone at the school about it.”
Carl gestured toward an open chair to the side of the desk. As Annie sat, he said, “Sounds like you said the right thing. If this is happening at school, it’s the school’s problem to solve. Who’s this… student who isn’t your friend?”
Annie shook her head. “I really shouldn’t tell you her name. She doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. Which is why I doubt she’ll do anything.”
“And you should dismiss this idea I can sense you have of getting further involved.” Carl leaned towards Annie in his chair. “If the school doesn’t respond that’s one thing. I know principal Stephens — he’s a good man but a typical bureaucrat, slow to act. If the school won’t help tell your friend to let me know and I’ll rattle his cage. But the school can’t help her if it doesn’t know there’s a problem. And you wouldn’t be doing your not-friend any favor by doing for her what she won’t do for herself.”
“Thanks Dad,” Annie replied, satisfied at having her instincts reinforced.
“I’ve never had a student react like Bird did yesterday.” Dan Jacobs, known as Mr. Jacobs in his role as English instructor at Bark Bay High School and as Coach Dan when serving as volunteer coach of the school’s fencing team, slid his arms into his white fencing jacket. “I’m glad you and Rori left with her. Bird looked like she needed friends more than a coach.”
“I’m not really her friend,” Annie replied, already wearing her jacket and standing with her mask and foil in the center of the school’s cafeteria. The large room was empty except for Annie and her coach, its modular tables and benches now stored vertically against the walls. The athletic department may have relegated the fencing team (a club sport, not varsity) to the cafeteria, but Annie actually preferred its solitude and quiet to the activity and noise of the gym. In addition to team practices on Tuesday, Annie had a standing private lesson with Coach Dan in the cafeteria on Wednesday after school. Today’s lesson seemed particularly important to Annie, after missing the last half of yesterday’s practice and with reports of a massive winter storm approaching that evening. “I didn’t even know Bird until she started showing up at practice last month, and she’d hardly said two words to me before yesterday. And it’s not just me – she doesn’t talk to anyone, or even do much in practice. Most times she just… watches. She’s kind of creepy, actually.”
“Don’t be so rash.” Retrieving a mask and foil from an equipment bag, Coach Dan then stood a few feet in front of Annie. “I’ve found everyone on the team has a different reason for being here. Some like you are into the competition and tournaments, others just enjoy the exercise and activity of practice and won’t ever compete. Maybe Bird simply enjoys being around the team. We shouldn’t pass judgment on anyone until we know what they’ve experienced. Not everyone’s as driven as you, or Myles.”
“I’m not anything like Myles,” Annie snapped. “Don’t compare me to him.”
Coach Dan raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t intend –"
“I know you didn’t.” Annie pulled her fencing mask over her face. “I’m ready, Coach. Let’s go.”
Bark Bay wasn’t in the middle of nowhere but did lie on its outskirts. The small town’s limited resources were overwhelmed by an unusually heavy winter storm followed by subzero temperatures. Tree limbs fell under their frozen weight and sliced through power lines, plunging the town into darkness. Utility crews cleared the dead wood and restored power by Sunday evening, but the temperatures remained dangerously low, making the roads unsafe for travel. Schools were closed on Monday, then a warm front pushed in from the south, raising the temperature high enough for the town to return its customary activities.
Annie spent the long weekend in relative comfort, frequenting her family’s basement exercise room each day. Cody texted her frequently about the fencing team and occasionally about Bird; Annie replied prolifically to the former, curtly to the latter. “Any word from your not-friend?” her father asked once as she headed to the basement. Annie shrugged in response and went down the stairs without adding that she hadn’t received any response for her texts to Bird.
By Tuesday morning, Annie was eager for fencing practice that afternoon. After her father dropped her off in the family Cadillac as soon as the school building opened, Annie went to Coach Dan’s classroom. The room was empty – her coach wouldn’t arrive for another half hour – which was exactly what she wanted, a quiet place to practice her footwork. Soon after starting in the sport, Annie had realized the body control and leg strength developed through years of dance and gymnastics lessons had given her invaluable assets as a fencer. “You fence with your feet,” she often said at practice when a teammate whined about Coach Dan’s footwork drills. Annie actually found footwork relaxing, almost meditative, especially in the morning.
After pulling a row of desks to the side, Annie began an ascending series of advances and retreats (two forward one back, three forward two back, four forward three back). But as she began repeating that series, she stopped on seeing a familiar figure walk past the door.
“Hey!” she cried, running out into the hallway. Bird continued walking away, her eyes focused on the phone in her right hand, her left hand holding the strap of a backpack slung across her shoulder.
“Hey!” Annie called again, and this time Bird turned towards her. She then stepped back and swung her backpack off her shoulder, holding it close to her chest.
“I texted you all weekend,” Annie said on reaching her. “Why didn’t you respond?”
Bird bit her lower lip. “My phone wasn’t on.”
“Really?” Annie walked back into the classroom, waving Bird towards her. Bird followed reluctantly, backpack shielding her chest.
Annie closed the door behind them. “You had your phone off all weekend? You’re on it all the time outside of class. Coach Dan has to tell you to put it away at practice.”
“I always turn my phone off at home.” Bird squeezed her backpack. “It’s… not my decision. My mother doesn’t like me using my phone at home.”
Annie shook her head. “I only turn off my phone when I don’t want to be bothered. And I might feel that way if someone I didn’t want to talk to kept calling or texting me.” She pointed to the phone in Bird’s hand. “Does Peter have your number?”
Bird bowed her head, as if she were about to apologize.
“And last week, after he… talked to you in the library,” Annie said. “I bet he started calling you.”
Bird didn’t look up. Her phone hung loosely in her hand.
“He’s sending you text messages, as well. Pictures too. Things you wouldn’t want your mother to see.”
Bird closed her eyes. The screen on her phone locked into darkness.
“You talk to anyone at the school, like I told you?”
Still looking down, Bird whispered, “No.”
“Not yet, you mean. Until you do, you can still block his number.”
Bird finally looked up. “Every time I block a number, my mother gets a text notification and asks me why.”
“You don’t think she’d want to know you’re getting harassed? Want to stop it?”
“She can’t know. My mother just found work an hour away and it’s difficult enough for her to get away Tuesday afternoons to pick me up from practice. If the school finds out what’s happening with me they’ll want to contact her during the day, and she might have to miss more work. I’m not gonna do anything that would get her fired. So if you tell anyone about your crazy ideas about Peter, I’ll just say you’re wrong.”
As frustrated as she found Bird’s refusal to act, Annie saw hope. These were the most words she’d ever heard Bird speak, which meant she was finally attempting to communicate. “You don’t understand. Nobody can stop Peter unless you ask for help. I need you do something –"
“I’m not like you,” Bird replied. “You’re used to getting what you want, fighting for it when you don’t. I’m not as strong as you, Annie. I can’t fight. All I know how to do is deal with whatever happens.” She then brushed past Annie and into the hall, stopping just outside the door. “Please just let me live my life.”
Annie stood alone in the dark, quiet classroom. She then pulled one of the desks she’d moved back into position and sat. She lost track of the time she spent waiting.
“Annie?” Coach Dan stopped in the doorway, briefcase in his hand.
“Hi Coach.” Since joining the fencing team, Annie had grown to respect Coach Dan more than any other teacher at Bark Bay. She knew he was the right person to help Bird stop Peter’s harassment. Yet she also knew Bird’s cooperation was needed as well, and that her reticence would likely transform into defiant silence if Annie betrayed her confidence. “Has Bird talked to you?”
Coach Dan walked over to his desk, setting his briefcase down. “I didn’t see her last Wednesday, then we had the storm. If she’s here today –”
“She is.” Annie rose from her desk. “What she needs right now is someone she can trust. I’ve tried to be that person for her, but it hasn’t worked. I’m hoping you can succeed where I’ve failed.”
“Failed?” Coach Dan took off his jacket and hung it on a wall hook as he continued. “A judgement equally harsh and undeserved, Annie. You’re the reason Bird’s on the team, after all.”
Annie blinked. “Me?”
“I see it in her body language, how she relaxes around you at practice. She wouldn’t have left with anyone else the other day. Don’t underestimate your impact upon Bird, Annie.”
Annie realized there was some truth in Coach Dan’s words. Yet she wasn’t proud of her impact, as Coach Dan’s tone implied; it felt more like a burden than honor.
“I know you don’t think you’re anything like him,” Coach Dan continued, opening his briefcase and emptying its contents onto the desk, “but I can’t help thinking how you’re having just as much impact on the team as Myles had the last two years. You both get the best out of everyone, not only leading by example but by convincing people they can accomplish what they thought wasn’t possible, go places they didn’t think they could reach.” He finished unloading his briefcase, and clasped it shut. “I really do see a lot of Myles in you —”
Coach Dan looked up. “Yes?”
“I need to get to my locker,” Annie said, pointing her thumb behind her. “If you see Bird, can you be sure to talk to her?”
“What… yes. Of course.”
Annie nodded, and began walking out of the room, her gaze fixed on the floor. Coach Dan took a step towards her. “Annie… are you all right?”
She stopped in the doorway and grabbed the sides of the door frame. Annie then turned to face her coach. “I’m fine. See you at practice.”
After leaving the classroom, Annie went to the nearest restroom. Finding an empty stall, she closed the door and placed her backpack on the floor, then sat on the toilet and closed her eyes. She inhaled deeply through her nose. Held her breath a moment. Exhaled through her mouth. Tears formed at the outside corners of her closed eyes, and she brushed them away. After two more breaths, she opened her eyes and exited the stall. Taking her phone out of her backpack, Annie cleared her throat as she placed a call, which went to voicemail. “It’s Annie. I know it’s early, but call me when you get this.”
Seven hours later, Annie was getting her butt kicked.
She had changed into sweats after her final class and retrieved a foil from the school’s athletics storage room, as well as a roll of duct tape. She arrived at the cafeteria a half hour before the start of fencing practice and fashioned a gray X on a vacant wall space a few inches below the height of her chest. After stretching and buying an Evian from a vending machine, Annie took her foil and crouched down into en garde position before her improvised target, then ran through her progression of attacks.
Retreat, advance, hit.
Double retreat, double advance, hit.
Double retreat, lunge, hit.
Triple retreat, advance, lunge, hit.
The rubber tip of Annie’s foil landed at the center of the gray X nearly every time. She was about to cycle through the progression again when Cody arrived, the team’s bulging sacks of masks and jackets slung over his shoulder. “Stretch and suit up,” Annie said to one of few teammates who could consistently compete with her. Yet when their bout begin, she found her attacks were telegraphed and easily parried, while her own defenses were slow and ineffective. At one point she closed on him without clearing his blade, allowing Cody’s point to land effortlessly on her shoulder and causing him to step back and hold up his hand — “When was the last time you impaled yourself like that?”
Annie nodded, then saw the cafeteria doors open behind Cody as Coach Dan arrived with two students. Returning her focus to Cody, Annie called for their bout to resume. Seeing an opening, she aimed at Cody’s shoulder, but held back from lunging until she saw his blade come over. She relaxed her fingers to disengage under his parry, only to have her weapon fall from her hand and clatter onto the tiled floor.
“Shit!“ She picked up her foil, then realized every pair of eyes in the room was now staring at her. “I’m sorry. Shoot.”
Cody lifted the mask off his face, letting it crown his head. “You OK?”
“I’m fine,” Annie said. “Let’s keep going.”
“No, let’s not.” Coach Dan stepped between the students, his arms folded across his chest as he stared at Annie. “Masks off.” Sighing, Annie removed her mask.
The cafeteria doors opened again and a cry of “Hey bitches!” shot across the tiled cafeteria floor. As she did at most team practices, Rori strode in like an over-exuberant contestant on America’s Got Talent. She nodded at Coach Dan’s call to join the team in stretching, then walked up to Annie and whispered “I still can’t believe what that asshole did. I mean, I believe you, but it’s just… Jesus. He did that? To you?”
“I had to tell someone,” Annie whispered back. “Sorry it had to be you.”
“Think I now understand why Peter’s joke bothered you so much,” Rori said. “So what do you want to do now?”
“What do I want to do?” Annie drank from her Evian. “Something that works. Bird won’t fight back. I tried talking to Coach –”
“Ahem.” Coach Dan waited for Annie and Rori to look at him. “You ladies care to join us?”
“In a sec,” Rori snarled.
“You go stretch with the team,” Annie said to Rori. “I got here early, so I’m all set.”
“Annie.” Rori’s face had become unusually serious. “This is what the fuckers want, you thinking there’s nothing that can be done. You happy with letting them win?”
Annie shook her head. “I’m not. Which is why I need to figure out a different way to fight back.”
Rori frowned, tilting her head. Coach Dan called to her again and she went to him with no attempt to hide her annoyance. Sitting alone by the team’s equipment sacks, Annie thought of her father’s advice. Perhaps he was right; if Bird wasn’t going to do anything to stop Peter’s abuse, nobody could help her.
“Tournament this Saturday,” Coach Dan said, rolling his head. “I believe Francis Pine will be competing.”
A collective groan murmured through the team. Francis Pine was the most accomplished fencer in the region, and nobody at Bark Bay, not even Myles at the height of his ability, had been able to defeat Francis in competition.
“Look forward to the challenge, instead of anticipating defeat,” Coach Dan replied. “Shoulders,” he then said, rotating his backwards.
“He beat me 15-6 last month,” Cody said. “That’s the best I’ve ever done against him.”
“He was conserving his energy for his next bout,” Rori commented.
“Elbows,” Coach Dan commanded, whirling his forearms in wide circles.
“If I get aggressive with him, he just parries and hits me with the riposte,” Cody continued. “And being defensive doesn’t work either because he just disengages around my parries.”
“Wrists.” The team followed Coach Dan’s lead. “Have you considered getting him to attack the way you want?”
“What the hell does that mean?” Rori asked.
“Legs,” Coach Dan said, sitting on the floor and then reaching his hands towards his toes. “What’s your strongest parry, Cody?”
“High right,” replied the teen.
“So his attacking you high right is what you want. How can you get him to attack that way?”
“I can’t,” Cody replied. “He’s going to do what he wants.”
“Of course. But if you attack him high right and he parries, what’s his easiest riposte?”
Annie lowered her Evian to the floor.
“It’s called a second intention,” Coach Dan continued as Cody hesitated. “It begins with an attack designed solely to elicit a parry and riposte aimed at your strongest defense. You then counter-parry and strike with your own riposte — the second intention.”
“So the first attack is a fake?” asked Cody.
“Well, not exactly — ”
“It’s not an attack at all.” Annie walked into the circle of students sitting around their coach. “It’s about luring your opponent into your strategy. And hit them before they realize you’ve set them up.”
“Yes.” Coach Dan nodded. “That’s it, precisely.”
“Yeah. Brilliant.” For the first time that day, Annie smiled. She then went over to where Rori was stretching, and got down on her knees. “You going anywhere after practice,” she whispered.
Rori shrugged. “Not really.” Her eyes then widened. “You just thought of an idea, didn’t you?”
“Yeah I did. But I’m going to need your help.”
Peter Bohanon stepped outside the Bark Bay High School boy’s locker room after basketball practice, a teammate at either side. Wearing white-sleeved letter jackets customized with their names and uniform numbers, the trio stopped short when they saw two girls standing in front of the school’s exit doors.
“Peter.” Annie, a backpack slung over her shoulder, smiled at the boys. “Mind if we walk home with you?” She nodded at Rori, standing next to her.
The blonde boy on Peter’s left nudged him in the ribs, as the taller boy on his right snickered. “Catch you guys later,” Peter said as he left them and joined Annie and Rori as they pushed through the exit doors into the cold late afternoon air.
“How was basketball practice?” Annie asked.
“Went good,” Peter replied. “Coach Higgo’s starting me on Friday, on account of Greg turning his ankle.”
“I see,” Annie said. “Bad for him, but good for you.”
“Where’s your pickup?” Peter asked Rori.
“Wouldn’t start this morning,” Rori said. “My parents had an appointment and couldn’t stay. I’m getting a ride from my aunt when she’s done working at the bank.”
“She couldn’t drive here to pick you up?” Peter asked.
Rori snorted. “My aunt’s patience is shorter than she is, and she buys her clothes in the kids’ department.”
Peter and Annie laughed at Rori’s joke, and the three teens walked onto the street leading from the school. The street’s dirt shoulders were covered with mud and ice, and with school traffic having ceased for some hours they felt safe walking on the charcoal-colored road in dusk’s gloam.
“Little late to still be at school,” Peter observed.
“We had practice,” Rori replied. “Me and Annie are on the fencing team.”
“Sort of,” Annie said. “I mean, we have weapons, but it’s not like anything in the movies.”
“Yeah.” Peter stepped around a patch of ice that looked like a bruise on the road. “One time we visited my cousins out in Chicago, and our families took us to Medieval Times.”
Annie groaned. “Fencing’s definitely nothing like that!”
“You don’t wear paper crowns?”
“Nah,” Rori replied, “they’d look pretty ridiculous on top of our masks.”
Annie looked over at Rori, who nodded and slowed her pace until she was several steps behind. Annie shifted her backpack onto her other shoulder. “Peter, aren’t you a point guard?”
“That’s the position Myles played, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. Myles worked with me last year, showed me what I needed to do to take over for him after he graduated.”
“That’s cool. Myles was a fencer too, did you know that?”
“Yeah, heard him talking about that.”
“Myles worked with me too, on fencing. He taught me a lot.”
“Myles was the best.”
“That’s what I thought too.” Annie’s voice grew soft. “Right up to the day he tried to rape me.”
Peter stopped, as did Rori three paces behind him. Annie continued forward a few steps before turning towards Peter. “Myles’ parents threw him a graduation party last spring at a hotel up in the city. My parents were invited, but couldn’t make it. Neither could our fencing coach. I was the only other fencing team member there. This was right after the state tournament, where Myles won second in foil. He came up to me at the party, said he just got his name engraved on the trophy. He asked if I wanted to see it and I said yes.
“He took me to one of the rooms his family had rented for relatives coming in from out of town. His trophy was there like he said. I searched for his name but didn’t see it. I was about to ask him about it when he grabbed my shoulder, spun me around, and – I wouldn’t say he kissed me, more like he attacked me with his lips.
“I pushed back from him, more surprised than scared. But then he came at me, grabbed me, threw me on the bed. I told him to stop, said I didn’t want to do this, but he told me to relax, he wasn’t going to hurt me, he just — ” Annie looked off in the direction of the school — “he said he wanted to take me some place I’d never been before.”
She turned away from Peter and stared up the road a moment before resuming her walk. When Peter began following her, she said, “I wanted to scream, but I saw the snarl on his face. He was pressing down on me with one hand, while his other unbuttoned my jeans… then there was a knock on the door. It was his uncle, looking for his phone. He remembered using it to take a picture of Myles with his trophy, and thought maybe he’d left it there accidentally.
“Myles let me go, and waited until I’d gotten on my feet and buttoned my jeans before opening the door. His uncle came in, and when he saw me made a joke about his bad timing. I ran out of the room, left the party and drove home immediately. I haven’t seen Myles since.”
Peter pulled up beside Annie, and matched the pace of her steps. “That doesn’t sound like something Myles would do. I was at that party, and he didn’t act no different than usual. He’s not a criminal.”
“Sure acted like one at the time.”
“You report him?”
“No. I went home and stayed in my room all evening. Didn’t say a word about what happened to anyone. Not until just recently.” Annie looked back at Rori, maintaining a steady pace several yards behind Annie and Peter.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Peter said. “If something like that had actually happened, most people would’ve called the cops.”
Annie stopped walking and turned to look up at Peter. “And if I had called the cops, what exactly would I have said? I had no evidence. Myles didn’t rip any of my clothes or bruise me, I had no photos or video. It would’ve been my words against those of the town’s star athlete.” She looked down and ran her gloved hands back over her wool hat before looking back up at Peter. “But honestly, that wasn’t the reason I didn’t say anything. I was embarrassed, afraid of what people would think, the questions they’d ask. I was being selfish, protecting my reputation. I’m Annabel Carla freakin’ Hutchinson, after all — honor student, class president, lead trumpet in the band. Ballet dancer, piano player, gymnast. Fencer. I didn’t think rape victim was a good addition to that list.”
“But you’re telling me now.” Peter leaned forward. “Why?”
Annie pointed back towards the school without looking. “Because I’m opening my eyes, Peter. I’m starting to notice my friends being bullied, abused, and assaulted. And finally noticing it has made me look back and realize it’s been happening a long time. I’m realizing how anyone could be a victim, whether you’re an Annie Hutchinson, or someone who isn’t so full of herself.” Annie lowered her arm; her boots crunched a shallow ice puddle as she stepped towards Peter. “It can even happen to girls who don’t get noticed much, since they’re so quiet.”
Peter looked down at her. A car approached on the opposite side of the street, its headlights reflecting off the teens’ faces. When the vehicle sped past, Peter’s lips twisted into a faint smile. “I ain’t done nothing.”
Annie stared back at him, her face as silent as the chilled air.
“I’m not an idiot. I know that girl Bird’s on the fencing team with you. What’s she been saying about me?”
“All I know is you’ve been talking to her.”
“That’s right, just talking.”
Peter glanced to his right, then looked back at Annie. “I was only having fun — ”
“She doesn’t think you’re funny.” A light turned on in the house behind Peter as Annie continued. “Bird is a girl, practically a child, and what you consider fun has her as scared as I was after Myles attacked me.”
“Oh come on. You can’t think — ”
“No, I don’t think you’re a criminal, Peter, just someone who hasn’t thought about who’s on the receiving end of your fun. You’re playing with her like my dog does with her chew toy. And you need to stop.”
Peter stared back at her blankly. The light turned off in the house behind him. Peter then pointed his thumb up the street. “We’re at my house. I gotta get going.” Annie nodded, and walked beside him in silence, Rori keeping pace behind them. On reaching the top of a driveway that sloped down into a two-car garage, Peter turned toward Annie. “Look, I’m sorry your friend’s so sensitive, but if you think the shit I’m saying to her is anything like what you think Myles did — ”
“Think he did?”
“Yeah.” Peter shrugged. “You said this happened last year, but it don’t sound like something Myles would do, and you didn’t tell nobody. How am I supposed to believe you? Maybe what you’re telling me happened, maybe it didn’t. Or maybe what happened was way different than what you’re remembering.”
“I’ve thought about that.” Annie bit her lower lip, looked up a moment, then back at Peter. “And I’ve decided it really doesn’t matter whether you believe what I told you. The only thing I care about is the present. And what happens in the future.”
Annie took off her right glove and pointed the index finger of her exposed hand at Peter. The vapor of her breath rose from her nostrils, as her lips curled back, exposing her teeth in the weak light. “Leave Bird alone. Do not speak to her, other than to say hi or ask about school. Do not text her, do not send her any pictures. Do not touch her in any way that makes her uncomfortable. Because if you hurt her in any way, I will ruin you.”
Peter laughed. “So what, your father’s gonna — ”
“Stay the fuck away from her.”
Peter blinked. A moment later he snorted an uneasy laugh, then turned away from Annie. She watched him walk down the driveway and into the garage, past a car parked on the left. A door at the rear of the garage opened, revealing a sliver of interior light behind Peter’s silhouette as he reached up and pressed the garage door control. The white metal door lurched into motion and Peter disappeared into the house, the garage door slicing down to the concrete like a curtain, closing with a metallic thunk.
“Holy shit,” Rori said, approaching Annie. “You can actually drop an f-bomb pretty good.”
Annie pulled the glove back onto her hand. “How many Bitch Points did I just earn?”
“Not enough to level up to Mother of Dragons, but you’ll get there if you hang around me long enough.”
“I couldn’t have said all that if I’d faced him alone,” Annie replied, glancing up at the sky and exhaling. “Thanks for being there.”
“Honestly, the hardest part was keeping my mouth shut when Peter started doubting what you said about Myles,” Rori said. “Who would make up that shit?”
“That wasn’t the point,” Annie said. “This was all about getting him to admit what he was doing to Bird, because that’s the only to get him to at least think about stopping.”
“And you got him to do exactly what you wanted. Second intention. Shit, you’re so smart Annie. But you know this isn’t over, right? Even if Peter leaves Bird alone, he could let his friends know she’s an easy target. This could actually make things worse for her.”
“It would have gotten worse for her anyway.” Annie lifted her backpack strap higher on her shoulder. “Peter would have escalated his abuse, and even if he got bored with her, somebody would’ve taken his place. So yeah, Bird has to figure out how to defend herself. But that’s a conversation for another day.”
Rori twisted back in the direction of the school. “You were also right in thinking he’d be too oblivious to notice my pickup was parked in the school lot. Come on, I’ll give you a lift home.” She took three steps towards the school, but stopped on seeing Annie hadn’t followed.
“I’m not ready to go home yet,” Annie said. “Need a few minutes to let some of my anger go. The elementary school playground’s just up the street. You mind if we go there for a little?”
Rori’s eyes widened. “You wanna go to a playground? To what, freeze your ass off going down a slide?”
“I just need some time,” Annie replied, then began walking towards the elementary school.
A waist-high chain link fence ran along the sidewalk that bordered the playground. Annie led Rori to an opening in the fence, a portion of the chain link torn away from its post. “I used this all the time as a girl, racing to my father’s car after school,” she explained. They walked through the opening and slushed in the partially frozen mud until they reached three sets of swings. Annie walked up to the third seat from the left of the middle set. “This was my favorite,” Annie said, then smiled like a child opening a present. “It’s still missing a link on the right!” Annie set her backpack onto the ground, then brushed snow off the swing’s yellow rubber seat before sitting.
The seats were too low to allow Annie to swing, so she rocked gently back and forth, feeling the icy wind cross her face. “This is what I needed,” she said, closing her eyes as she tried to recall pleasant moments from elementary school recess. “A nice place to sit.”
Rori sat in the swing to Annie’s right. “Be a lot nicer if it were spring. How long you planning on staying?”
Annie didn’t reply. Childhood recollections were blocked from her consciousness by more recent memories. Conversations: I was only having fun. You’re the reason Bird’s on the team. I can’t afford your golden shield. I’m not as strong as you.
“Annie?” Rori asked.
Faces: Peter smirking with his teammates. Rori rolling her eyes. Coach Dan’s concern. Bird’s terror.
Myles, snarling and grappling with Annie’s jeans as he held her down.
“No,” Annie said, bending over her legs as hot tears began falling on the frigid ground. “I’m not OK.”
The dam of Annie’s denial collapsed and grief cascaded over her shattered defenses, flooding the valley of her soul. Annie lifted her head and shrieked, giving voice to the pain she had felt the day Myles attacked her. An arm crossed over her shoulder; Rori had shuffled over in her swing and clasped both arms around Annie. “I’ve got you,” she whispered, as Annie collapsed into her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Annie cried at how Myles had made her feel naive, weak, vulnerable. She cried because his attack had humiliated her, shown that her pride and independence were illusions. Cried as she remembered the lies she’d told herself in her room that evening — he didn’t mean to hurt me, it was my fault anyway, I shouldn’t have asked to see his trophy, should have known better than to go into that room alone with him.
She cried as she felt the scar from Myles’ attack tear open, and realized the invisible wound he’d inflicted would never completely heal.
Feeling her legs stiffen from the cold, Annie began to sit upright as Rori released her grip. Annie turned her face up toward the frigid sky, and saw the outline of a thin crescent moon, its light melding with the surrounding stars in her blurred vision. Focusing on the moon, she wept quietly, steadying her breath until her tears finally ran out.
Mucus dripped onto her lip, and she brought her head down, then took off her glove and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I must look ridiculous,” she said.
“Well yeah, you kinda do.”
They both laughed, and Rori then handed Annie a soft package of facial tissues from her backpack. Annie wiped her face and looked up at crescent moon, its points clearly visible now at 11 and 5. Her sorrow had run its course, for now anyway. Annie knew there would be no forgetting what Myles had done to her. More tears would be in her future. But no more tonight.
Annie handed the package of tissues back to Rori. “You’ve been there every time I’ve needed you today. Thank you.”
Rori picked up her backpack and set it on her lap. “I was wrong about you,” she said. “I thought you were comfortable living behind your golden shield. But to help Bird today, you set your shield down. I respect that.” Rori smiled. “And from now on, I’m protecting your back.”
Annie smiled and extended a gloved hand towards Rori, who clasped it in her own. They held hands a long moment.
“Jesus it’s cold,” Rori said, releasing her grip and standing. “It’s either go back with me to the pickup now or walk your ass home.”
Annie stood, then said she needed to call someone on their walk back to the school; “I think you know who.” Rori nodded as Annie picked up her backpack and took out her phone. As they began walking, Annie looked through her contacts and pressed a number. When her call went immediately to voicemail, Annie ended the call without leaving a message and dialed another number from the same contact. The phone at the other end buzzed once, twice, and then a middle-aged female voice picked up the call.
“Miss Wernick? This is Annie, a friend of your daughter from the fencing team. May I speak with her please?” Annie heard the receiver at the other end being laid down, as a voice called out a name. A moment later she heard footsteps. Annie’s body shuddered with her final sob of the evening as a soft young voice greeted her.
“Bird. It’s Annie.” She brushed a tear that had dried on her cheek. “There’s something I need to tell you.”