Old Connections
rating: +13+x

Chapter II.IV

Alice's fencing was interesting in its own way: she'd practically reinvented the sport. She never found a sparring partner in Boring, so she was left to mess with a dummy she'd bought way back when. A thousand tiny gouges, only barely visible at a distance, told of the decades Alice had been abusing the poor thing in this very backyard (and even before that). With the impossibility of one-on-one combat, Alice had learned to specialize in one-on-dummy combat. It became more spectacle sport than competitive.

Alice enjoyed being watched. She'd said before that fencing was when she felt at the top of her game. Each jab of the foil was a sting of clarity, a focus point, an energy that she directed with exemplary dexterity. I sat on the back porch, watching her dance about the dummy. The stance, the twists, the gear. She dodged invisible counters, shuffled feet to get into more favorable positions, held that one arm behind her back, and completely disregarded any feelings the mannequin harbored about its role in things. To tell the truth, I wondered if she was this rough in a real match. I winced at the thought of actually taking a blow from her — was she gentler with real people, or were you setting yourself up to look much like her lawn decoration?

Alice slowed and then stopped, taking off her mask and tossing it to one side, then putting her hands on her knees and leaning forward to catch her breath. I clapped, if a little sarcastically. She took it in stride, and that stride was making its way over to me.

"How do I look?"

"As if I have the know-how to assess you," I replied with a smile.

"Give it a shot."

"Don't know what to tell you, everything looks perfect to me."

Alice stretched her arms above her head. "And that's why you ask people without know-how." She chuckled at her own joke, and I joined her. "You have anywhere to be?"

"Oh, no, I don't. Today's my day off this week."

"Just one?"

"Just one. But I make sure Tuesdays are light."

"Good thing it lined up with mine. Spar with me."

She caught me in the middle of a sip, and I finished before responding. "Spar with you?"

She backed up, and made her body sideways compared to mine, pointing the foil at my neck from a safe distance. "Spar with me."

"I don't know. I'm not very fit."

"Don't have to be."

"Why me?"

"Fae, you know me. I won't let up. Give in now and get it over with."

I pursed my lips, and gave her a look. She responded by raising her eyebrows and aggressively reaffirming her foil's position. "Fine," I said, sounding as exasperated as I could, "show me how to put things on."

She looked very pleased with herself.

Alice hauled a second fencer's outfit from the shed my room was attached to, along with two practice foils, and brought them to me. They weren't perfect fits but she assured me it wouldn't matter too much.

I think it was something akin to: "You'll lose anyways."

She moved the dummy off of the raised and flattened dirt piste she'd made years before I moved there. We each got onto opposing sides, and she told me the ropes.

"If we want to start with the least rules, we can pretend this is epee fencing, which means if you hit anywhere on the body you score a point. We'll be playing with foils and not epees, but the difference is negligible. To give me the least space to attack, you're going to want to stand somewhat sideways, like this. It minimizes surface area that's facing me."

I tried to imitate her, and she came in close to position me manually, stepping back once she was satisfied with my stance.

"Good. The rest is intuitive."

"The rest?"

"Well, do what you'd do to stop me from touching you, and what you'd do to try to touch me. A touch is a point, but how about we don't keep score and just go until we feel like stopping."

"Oh that won't be long."

"Give it a good college try. Before I start, I like to say a little incantation. I'll give you time for something of your own if you'd like."

"I've got nothing."

"Then maybe just some deep breaths. Give me a moment before I'm ready."

Alice stood stock-straight like a pharaoh and pulled down her fencing mask. Beneath it, I couldn't tell what she was saying, but I heard the occasional plosive and sibilant — those sounds mics tried their damnedest to level out but which pierced the air like arrows in person. While she was lost in her own witchy world, I tried out some flicks and jabs with the foil. My wrists were about as responsive as they had to be for typing day-in and day-out. Keyboard finesse did not translate well to swords.

I'd always loved the sound blades made as they cut through the air. You'd think that it was played up in shows, and, well, it was, but there was truth to it. Everything had its own swoosh when waved around.

Then Alice jabbed me in the ribs.

"Hey!"

"Point," Alice said.

"You gave me no warning."

"Mm. Good thing no one's keeping score, then. Come on. En garde."

I wondered briefly if Alice channeling a spirit put her at an unfair advantage. I resolved that for myself: any advantage she had on top of being extremely practiced wasn't going to make a noticeable difference.

Then I had to smile, because I had just seriously considered her ritual as having worked. I was so far away from the skeptic of yesteryear.

She jabbed me in the quadriceps tendon right above the knee and I involuntarily bent forward.

"Are you spacing on me?"

"Sorry," I replied, getting back to an upright position, "I am."

"Alright. Stop that."

"Stopping that."

When next she lunged forward, I actually reacted. It didn't do much, of course. A leap to the left, and she swam her foil like a swordfish into my unprotected gut.

"Point," she shouted as if there was an audience to hear. "Jump back instead of to the side, as a rule of thumb. That's why the strip is so long."

"Are you going to announce when we start again?"

"Fine." She backed up. "On three. One, two, three!"

She had technically done what I asked, but I had no time to prepare. She began her frenzy in my direction, and I lasted maybe a couple seconds more than before. I once was able to actually push her foil away from my trunk, but she used the motion to jab me in the other arm.

"Point," she gloated. "You're going to want to keep that other arm behind your back. It's an easy target if it's out in the open."

We sparred over and over, and each time I survived just a bit longer. I remarked once that I had never thought fencing was this aggressive, to which Alice laughed and said it wasn't; she could get away with it since I didn't know how to punish her for leaving her guard down. Something in that statement gave me the smallest bit of confidence, which I used to score my first point on our thirteenth-or-so duel.

"Point!" I announced.

"Good one," she replied. "If you can keep that move under your belt, I'll have to actually monitor my distance."

The next match, she did keep her distance… and won by forcing me off the piste.

"Point," she said.

"Oh damn you."

"You were on the defensive too long. Again?"

"Again."

We continued like this for far longer than I had expected to dedicate. I got slowly better, but only at the basics. Every time I was able to pull one over on Alice, it was, as I learned, because she wasn't guarding for that move. She layered in her usual repertoire of footwork and techniques as I became comfortable enough to abuse their absences. What resulted would look like a parabola on a graph; I won just as much by the end as I had at the beginning, but there were some winning streaks in the middle. Unexpectedly, I found myself having a great deal of fun with it.

The swishes, the back and forth, the give and take. I had thought of her playing with the dummy as looking like a dance, and that continued into a real duel. I could see how, in her mind, it would tie in with her love of ritual. Exercise could put you in much the same trance as chanting could, if done right. This was more involved, sure, but I understood how it could fit under those altered states of consciousness.

When I asked, Alice just shrugged and said she liked to compete. Then she got me in the crook of my elbow and yelled: "Point!"

She tossed her foil aside. "I'd love to continue, but I have a book to read. Anders and I are revisiting Catcher in the Rye."

"Of course," I got out between heavy breaths. "I was about done anyways."

"Help me put the equipment away."

"Of course."

As I doffed and donned to return to my autumn afternoon attire, Alice finished stuffing fencing gear into the shed and closed the sliding door with a shumpf, locking it after herself. She turned, rubbed some dust off of her pants, and approached me.

Alice was the type I couldn't count on to respect personal space, but her proximity in this moment was still uncharacteristic. And even stranger, she neglected to make eye contact, instead opting to stare at the ground.

The pause was pregnant.

"Your dad couldn't ever compete with me," she started, and her voice was ever so subtly different. She'd put a twist on it. She was making some kind of attempt to bring her nasally voice down, into these lower, as-close-to-bass-as-the-female-voice-gets tones. The ones you use to hum someone to sleep.

And that was just the type of effect it was having.

"He couldn't exert himself even if he tried, and his body was a bit too wide to guard. But he still picked up a foil every once in a while to humor me."

That woman, the one so tall she had to lean down to peer into my truck. The blanket came back, the weight on my shoulders. That emotional equivalent to the warm pillow against my cheek, the flutter of comfort touching every inch of my body in turn, like kisses on small cuts to make everything feel better.

"He got the occasional point, either by luck or because I gave it to him."

The bearer of chocolates. The woman who had gifted me that letter, that smelled like sandalwood and was written in golden ink. The frequenter of my dreams. The woman with the circular eyes who wouldn't get out of my head. Not that I was particularly distraught that she was in it.

"He never got better even with the many hours he must have racked up by the end."

Except I was. I should have been. She was strange. She was an enigma. I doubted my memory of her at every turn. And yet, there she was, at Tim's funeral. An old friend? An acquaintance? Business partner? Who was she, and what was she doing in my life?

Tim's thinking spot, I thought, I haven't yet had the opportunity to go there.

And when I came back to reality, I saw that Alice's stance had changed. Her eyes had lifted to the sky above, staring at the semi-cloudy, mostly blue beyond. How long had we been standing here? I struggled to come up with an adequate response.

"Sounds… funny," were the words I decided on.

"He worked himself to death." My focus drew in sharper as I realized the weight of the conversation. "He stopped being able to fence with me because he stopped coming home at reasonable hours, and I wasn't about to fence in the dark. Too much work."

She gave me space to speak, but I just watched her. She lowered her head to make eye contact — she still had to tilt her head slightly up because she was shorter.

"Don't."

I creased my brow. "Don't what?"

"Don't stop fencing with me."

"Oh," my voice came out meek. "Okay."

She started walking right past me, towards the house. My eyes followed her, all the way to her closing the door and disappearing from sight.

"Okay," I said again, to no one in particular.




I parked just two spots to the right of Wilson's Wildlife Solutions, and stepped out of the car. So much of my wardrobe was green, now. As head of the organization, I felt the need to look the part, and I didn't want to wear the same thing to work every day — which was, by this point, six of the seven days of the week. Today, I went with no dress or skirt, instead opting for a leafy button-down and oak-brown pants. Simple, business-casual, I felt it made me approachable, as opposed to the bosses that were done up as much as possible every day to feel imposing and above everyone else. I preferred this aesthetic. Even if I didn't actually like being approached all that much.

The aesthetic was for them, not me.

"Hey Fae," Robin gave me a greeting as I stepped out of my turquoise hybrid. He was eating a sandwich while sitting on a bench under the awning. Just within speaking range.

"Good morning again, Robin. Taking an early lunch?" I hated that my position of power made that sound like it could be an accusation. As it exited my mouth, I wished I hadn't said it.

"I am," he replied with an apprehension that confirmed my fear. "That's Tim's spot."

Ah. There it was. I was wondering why he had said hello in the first place. People had spots in this parking lot like how students had seats in high school classes — with no written parking/seating chart, there were just spots that everyone had silently agreed belonged to certain people.

"It's the head's spot."

"Mm," he grunted in reply, and took a big bite of his sandwich to refuse elaboration.

I gave him a civil smile, and then walked in the doors. I didn't have the time nor the energy to try and pursue a pointless squabble, and I had work to get to.

As I entered the building, I waved to Sarah at the front desk, and walked by the many taxidermy animals that stood as guardians in our lobby. Our little hall of fame (and remembrance) for animals that had died within our care, either because we couldn't care for them or because they couldn't be released and had passed away of natural causes. It was always a little bittersweet. None of the animals chose to have abilities with unwieldy affects on the local ecosystem. No superspeed coyote knew that it being an apex hunter meant it had to stay here so it couldn't ruin the squirrel population. I always felt a little bad for them, even if we gave them the best life we could.

I went into the hallway that acted as the trunk for our right wing of the headquarters. The right flank of the Crater. My office was actually rather far down it, which was always quite a pain for people whose offices were on the left side and wanted to talk to me. I was thinking of moving it closer to the middle, but my feelings weren't strong enough to spur me into action just yet.

I entered the kind of cul de sac that housed myself and those most immediately important to my work. My office was straight across when you came in, centered between Old Al and Laura on my left, and Anders and storage on my right. A very nice symmetry. Laura was in the office that used to be mine when I was still the Chief Financial Officer, even though that wasn't her job.

But as I came into the cul de sac, someone was waiting for me. The redhead buzzcut Captain Esau.

"Good morning, Ms. Wilson."

"Good morning, Esau." I motioned for her to join me in my office, and she pulled the door open so I could enter first. It was a small gesture, but it reminded me of her quasi-military background. Something about respect. Many other people would have just gone in first because they were closer to the door.

She also waited for me to take my seat before she took hers. I was torn on whether I liked this demeanor or not.

"What brings you to my office?"

"I'm here to put in a request for promotion, but not on my own behalf."

"Oh? On whose?"

"Robin's," she said.

I raised eyebrows at that, and let her continue.

"There are precious few people outside of the Castaways that have the power to put together a crew. Feather is one. Albert is another, though he doesn't unless Feather is unavailable. And we've stumbled across a few other people who also have the ability to but nobody remembers that they do, because it's not their job. What I'm saying is that there is an opening for an organizer. Robin knows what he's doing out in the wild, he's very good at tracking animals and he's an excellent marksman with tranquilizers. He's wonderful at following orders and he's proven himself capable at giving them and making his own decisions." I nodded along. "I also think he's feeling underappreciated right now. It might do you two some good."

I bristled. "That's not your area, Ingrid Esau."

"I wanted to strengthen my argument with an emotional appeal."

Something about that forwardness made me loosen. It was nice to not have to work around unspoken rules.

"That is an emotional area that I want to keep distinctly separate from work."

"Understood, will not bring it up again."

"Thank you." Maybe I should have been harder. Esau simply sat with her hands in her lap. "Are you done?"

"I have made my point."

That was strangely succinct. I rarely had meetings come and go so fast. I found myself appreciating her approach, even when I was expending energy to not appreciate anything about her.

"I'll consider it."

"That was the idea." She smiled. "Thank you for seeing me."

Esau got up, and curtly waved at me.

I fished for ulterior motives Esau might have. What benefit would the Supervisors gain from Robin having a higher position? When nothing came up, I began to give credence to the idea that she might not have hid anything. It was a natural continuation from her praise at the… turbulent meeting some weeks ago.

I then had to make sure no element of my relationship with Robin colored my decision. It was playing dirty to bring up inter-family drama. That someone from the outside had both noticed and then acknowledged it breached some kind of invisible wall I was trying to put up between my work and my self.

If I was being honest with myself, it rattled me. I couldn't find out how deep the cut went, but I didn't search very hard. I promised myself I'd think it over when I could manage to have a clearer head. For now, there were bulk orders to put in, caretakers to consult, and critters to both put on and take off of the roster.




It was a windy Autumn day on the mountainside, a little more than an hour drive from the Wilson household. I had only been up here a couple of times, but it was a sacred family location. Off of this turnout was a rocky trail that hugged the mountain wall and stood over a cliffside. An unmarked trail at that; one bushwhacked by Tim himself. It was scenic. From here, I could kind of see the farms that became Boring, and beyond that, what might have been the beginnings of Portland, but there were some hills between here and there.

What was constant were the forests. Deep arboreal greens from horizon, to horizon, to the granite grey of the rock wall to my right. I was never a big fan of heights, but I was more-or-less used to it.

It was early morning and the sun was rising on the other side of this mountain. I found myself having to use my flashlight to find good footholds. That, combined with the sheer drop to my left, was just a little nerve-wracking.

The trail was short and dark. Just enough to get out of the way of the highway that passed over the Cascades. When people drove by, you could still hear them, but it was a faint enough sound to be ignored. An amazing sort of find. I wondered how many other trails Tim must have blazed before he found this one. Trial and error for sure.

After some walking, the trail reached its terminus: a rocky outcrop. This was his "thinking spot". Near the end, he didn't have time to come up here. Near the end, he didn't have time for anything.

I took a deep breath, and held my curiosity at bay so I could take in the sight. It was beautiful, in its own way. The wind whipping at my hands, hair, and ankles. The earthy smell from all around me. The rolling green hills of treetops. It wasn't my kind of beautiful, but it was beautiful. I looked wistfully towards Portland, and sighed. Tim liked to insult cities by calling them "The Great Indoors." It was one of his few sayings that really stuck with me. I often felt myself wanting to return.

But now wasn't the time nor the place. I took my eyes from the horizon, stooped, and turned over a medium-sized rock. The one under which I had left that letter for this mystery woman — this friend of Tim's, this bringer of chocolates.

Sure enough, I had received a response.

It was the same yellow as the envelope before it, with the same curly purple handwriting:

To Faeowynn,
From Holly

Something more direct. Holly? Nice to have a name to put to the face. I checked my phone. I had time. The early hour afforded me some meandering and contemplating before I had to check into work. Strange, to think I was actually setting my own hours. I very much disliked having to be completely self-directed, and accountable only to myself. It rubbed me wrong.

But there were more interesting things to dig into. I sat down, tore open the letter, and began to consume its contents.




A knock at my door interrupted me. I hastily folded the paper, opened my desk's thin drawer, stuffed it in, and stood. My heart pounded in my chest, so I took a deep breath to try and calm myself. Then when that didn't work, I took two more.

The knock came again. Usually I could tell who it was, like how you could tell the footsteps of your family members as they walked through the house. People were distinct even when they weren't trying to be, but these knocks were alien. Soft, and slower than a knock's usual rhythm.

"Coming," I said, pushing out my chair and standing up. I rubbed some sleep from my eyes, and then strode to the door. I opened onto the cold night air, and startled for a second time.

"Hey, Fae," Robin's tired voice popped like tires rolling over gravel.

"Hi Robin," I replied. "Eleven?"

"I couldn't sleep and I had something I wanted to say."

Even in the farmland, crickets sang in the night. Through the door, I could feel a slight breeze as it slipped past Robin's blue pajamas. He wore that slouch he always had, and though his hands were stuffed into his pockets I could see that there was something dry all over his wrists. Dirt? Clay? My body blocked the light coming from behind me and I couldn't be sure.

He breathed in deep. "Your room smells really nice."

"Thanks."

"Can I come in?"

"No," I rushed out. "It's a mess."

I instead came out of the door, and closed it behind me. We were suddenly both in the dark of the breezy, milky night, only a bright moon keeping us visible to one another, lights out for miles around.

"Oh," he said, a bit late, and a bit confused.

"What was it you wanted to tell me?"

He took in a deep breath. "Sorry, I'm just a bit drunk, it's hard to think."

"Alright."

"But, Prime Respondent."

I smiled slightly. "You were the best for the job."

"I heard Esau put in a good word for me."

"She did."

A tension in my chest released, almost without my noticing. I felt like I could breathe all of a sudden.

I continued: "It's never been my place to be out in the wilderness, but she and others have sang high praise about your ingenuity. I felt like there was no good reason you and Feather couldn't both share the burden. It's probably going to make things a lot easier from here on out."

"Yeah. Thanks, I just… you know, I didn't think you were going to be… one second."

He began to lean on the wall right next to the door, one hand keeping him steady at a sixty-degree angle from the ground. When he didn't continue, I prompted him.

"Didn't think I'd be…?"

"Right for the job, you know? I mean, it's not really your job."

There was a pause.

"Mmm," I replied. He's drunk, I reminded myself.

"So I'm surprised you're…"

"Robin, you're drunk."

Another pause.

"Right," he said, staring somewhere slightly to the right of me.

"Get some sleep, we'll talk tomorrow."

"No."

"No?"

"I'm not gonna be able to say this sober."

"Well maybe that's a good thing."

Robin's face — what I could see of it in the moonlight — screwed up, the bridge of his nose becoming several little ridges, his forehead developing several little creases. A moment after he donned that expression, he tried to hide it by looking towards the wall he was leaning on. "Faeowynn…"

"Robin."

"I came out here… I'm trying to… set things straight."

"Mmm," I hummed, arms crossed just to keep the cold out. The wind whipped at my hair, up in a loose bun which I had taken no time to readjust come nighttime and which now was leaking strands of frizz.

"Mmm?" Now he glared. He looked up, he made eye contact, and he glared, crickets playing their fiddles in the background, a chicken from a nearby farm up too late squawking once and then becoming silent.

I was antsy. He was keeping me from being inside, working on the letter.

I was starting somewhere easy, questions-wise. I was asking her who she was and what her relation to Tim was. It had been bothering me that her very existence suggested a secret Tim might have been keeping. On the other hand, it also bothered me that she might not have been a secret. That, much like my grandma's death, she simply… never came up.

I looked back to Robin, who my eyes had strayed away from. He knew who she was, didn't he? She had come up to him at the funeral, she had also given him a box of something. What if he and I were in on something together and we didn't know it? That was another question I had to ask Holly. I penned it in my mind, anxiously awaiting the moment I could get back inside. But for now, Robin was keeping me.

Robin, who had just said something I'd missed.

"Hmm?"

He looked at me with a pleading expression. A softer expression, an easier expression. I hadn't even noticed the glare had faded from his eyes, until he looked straight at me again. Straight at me, in response to my question.

"Hmm?" he repeated back at me.

"I didn't hear what you said."

He looked confused. He pushed himself up off the wall, standing fully upright. And he looked at me, and then back at the house for some unknowable reason. He put a hand on the back of his head, and then squatted down so his other hand was on his knee, like he was suddenly suffering a headache.

"Do you need some aspirin?"

"Your ego means that much to you, huh?"

"Mmm?"

"And that fucking noise again. I know when I'm being brushed off. Fine. Go enjoy your fucking tea, or your porn, or your work, or whatever it is that means so much to you."

I sighed. "Goodnight, Robin."

"Goodnight," he croaked back.

I opened the door and stepped back into my room. The warmth was welcome at once. So was the seclusion. Just to be sure, because drunk people were a mite unpredictable, I locked the door. I didn't fear that he'd do anything drastic, no. Nothing except breach my privacy and extend an uncomfortable conversation that shouldn't have happened in the first place.

I took a couple deep breaths. My heart still hurt slightly from the initial fear I got when he knocked on my door. But now, secure again in my privacy, I retrieved my pen and paper once more.

When a bang on my door made me flinch and make a big dash across the letter.

Then I heard him stumble off, towards the Wilson's house, soon to either crash on the couch or clumsily climb the stairs up and into his room. No longer did he live in the attic. He was too big, now.

I breathed heavily. My thrice-startled heart raced laps in my chest, threatening to reach escape velocity and pop out. I closed my eyes, and tried to center myself again. In, out. Breathe in, breathe out.

He's drunk, I reminded myself. He's just drunk.




« Out of Stasis | Stories I Tell Myself | The Fundraiser »

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License