Chapter 1: The Chicken Pox 1 The Chicken Pox
THE GIRL KNELT motionless before her saber, her eyes tightly shut. She pressed the hilt to her forehead with such force that the jagged imprint almost broke the skin.
“C’mon, Vivy, breathe,” she whispered to herself, doing everything she could to control the fury that surged through her.
A whistle shrieked, ending her troubled quiet.
She stood and padded onto the fencing strip. The dimly lit gymnasium quieted as her clubmates regathered around the mat. Agitated whispers bounced off the gym’s glazed-brick walls.
She slapped on her mask and toed the en-garde line, slowly lifting her eyes, piercing blue even through the mesh.
Ordinarily it wouldn’t have been a good idea to pick a fight with a boy practically twice your size, but this was fencing: not a game of strength, rather an art of speed and reflex. Few had a greater measure of these talents than twelve-year-old Vivian Van Tassel.
On the other end of the strip was Johnny Matona, a high school sophomore and the Viper Fencing Club’s top dog. He was Coach Raymond Pierre’s star student and the reigning state champion. He also happened to be a jerk.
Vivian grabbed the tip of her saber and straightened the thin blade, her eyes fixed unblinkingly at the boy.
Ever since Vivian joined the club four years ago, at the age of eight, Johnny had been nothing but cruel. On her very first day, he had been kind enough to “show her the ropes.” This included a training exercise Johnny called “human pincushion” where he and his snickering friends stood around her and jabbed her with their blunted fencing sabers, leaving her covered in blotchy red dots and bruises. When she got home, her parents thought she had caught the chicken pox.
Maybe it was that Johnny seemed to think he was better than everyone else, and deserved whatever he wanted—a “Malfoy,” Vivian called these types, named after Harry Potter’s snobby rival. Or maybe it was simple jealously. To be sure, anyone who had ever watched Vivian fence marveled at her speed and grace.
Whatever the case, Johnny had it out for Vivian, but today, he had crossed the line. After witnessing Vivian twist an ankle during a practice duel next to his strip, he suggested she “run home and cry to Mommy.”
Vivian’s mother was dead.
“Fourteen all! Next touch wins,” bellowed Coach Pierre in his thick French accent.
Vivian nodded coldly at Coach Pierre, who was playing the role of referee. A former Olympian, he had definitely lost a few steps over the years, but his pencil-thin mustache remained in top form.
Behind the coach stood a line of excited fencers awaiting the match’s conclusion—many of the younger students loving every moment as one of their own challenged the house bully. Meanwhile, Johnny’s gang of high-school cronies stood closely together on his side of the strip, half whispering taunts to the other side.
Vivian took another deep breath—she needed to calm down. She had already proven that she was the better fencer, Johnny only scoring using cheap tricks, which usually pushed her into a clumsy rage. Of course, that was the idea, Vivian having developed a reputation for her temper since her mother passed—a symptom of “unresolved grief,” according to the school counselor.
Johnny’s latest ruse had been an “injury time-out,” with him claiming that Vivian’s last thrust had somehow slipped under his neck guard. Vivian wished it were true. She had taken the last three points and this was another one of his tactics to get under her skin. It was working.
Vivian lifted her saber in salute. Johnny taunted her with a fake grimace and a wink before lowering his mesh mask and answering her with a cursory salute of his own.
Vivian’s anger swelled.
“En garde!” bellowed Coach Pierre.
Both fencers lowered their swords to the ready. Vivian’s muscles tensed and coiled.
“Fence!” yelled Coach Pierre.
Before Coach Pierre’s spittle had even hit the floor, Vivian had invaded Johnny’s end of the strip, charging furiously, lacking any of her usual precision and grace. Violent swipes and clicks were delivered so fast in the melee that no one could track the movements. But her maneuvers were clumsy and off-balance, and she nearly toppled over as she swiped and thrusted.
BEEEEP! blared the electronic scoring system as Vivian tumbled face-first at her opponent’s feet. A combination of gasps, cheers, and jeers echoed in her ears.
Vivian lay motionless on the strip, filled with anger and disbelief. She had been aggressive; she had been reckless; she had been beaten. Vivian’s temper had gotten the best of her… again. Her pounding heart had been pierced by her challenger, or at least it would have had this been authentic combat. How could she have let herself be played like that?
“Nice match, Vivy,” Johnny drawled patronizingly as he offered his hand. “I’m sure your mom would’ve been so proud.”
The flame already burning inside Vivian became an inferno. From the mat, she positioned her saber behind Johnny’s heel and forcefully swept his leg forward with the hilt as she sprung up to her feet. Shaking with anger, she unleashed a volley of hard saber thrusts on the tumbling boy, instinctively targeting seams in the padded fencing suit and other uncovered areas of his body with the blunted weapon.
A new burst of gasps filled the gym.
The vicious smiles from Johnny’s gang faded as they witnessed their leader under assault. All planning separate routes to rush to his aid, they became entangled in a mishmash of legs and fencing sabers and tumbled like dominoes beside the strip.
“Vivian! Viviaaaannn!” blared Coach Pierre as Vivian continued her bombardment of painful jabs.
Coach Pierre grabbed a nearby saber and lumbered onto the mat, positioning himself over Johnny. Even he struggled to parry Vivian’s cobra-like strikes.
“Arrêtez, Vivian! Stop!” shouted Coach Pierre. “Stand down! This is unacceptable!”
Vivian almost lost her sword amid a forceful parry from Coach Pierre. She pulled back, confused and shaken.
What had she done?
Her stomach dropped as she saw the shocked faces of her coach and clubmates. Even worse, near the entrance stood another spectator, who may have been more horrified than all the rest: her dad.
“Allez! Out!” screamed Coach Pierre as he knelt over his favorite student, who had been reduced to a whimpering mass. “It’s over! You’re done! You’re done for good! Allez!”
Terrified and humiliated, Vivian threw down her mask and saber and ran to the locker room, her father trailing behind. After a moment of tense silence, the gym once again began to echo with excited whispers and chuckles.
By the time Vivian emerged, class had ended and the facility was nearly deserted. Vivian’s father, Michael Van Tassel, rose from a nearby bench as soon as she came out, holding her discarded saber and mask. His tired, brown eyes gleamed with compassion.
“Hey Vivy,” said Mr. Van Tassel awkwardly. “I’ve got your stuff… You okay?”
Vivian didn’t answer. She pulled her backpack tight around her shoulders and stared at the floor.
“I… saw what happened. Do you want to talk about it?” asked her dad softly as he stepped toward her, a ceiling fan above them tousling his graying, curly hair.
If there was one thing Vivian’s time in school counseling had taught her, it was this: talking didn’t help.
“No,” said Vivian coldly as she walked past him, toward the exit.
It had been a bad day for Vivian. But she took some satisfaction in knowing that it had probably been a worse day for Johnny. He’d certainly think twice before tormenting someone smaller and weaker. Even better, in the wake of the event, rumor had it that when Johnny’s mother saw him the next morning dotted in red blotches, she immediately called the family doctor. She suspected that he might be coming down with the chicken pox.