Coach Kate's Gambit
The Merlot Summit
“I can taste fish already,” the boy panted as he and two others stalked through the woods in the night, clutching their precious poles and buckets. “Ain’t had nuthin’ since breakfast, and that was just a bowl of mush. So sick of freaking cornmeal mush for breakfast, lunch and din…”
“Quit whining, Tommy,” came the voice of a teenage girl to this left. “Some folks are starving. At least we can – oomph!”
Her shadow dropped from sight with a crunch of undergrowth.
“Becky!” cried the boy, who stopped short, along with the larger shadow to this right.
“I’m fine,” Becky chuckled, her silhouette rising back into view. “Just… tripped.”
“Dad, this is crazy!” Tommy wailed. “We should use the flashlight before someone turns an ankle. Sprained ankle ain’t no joke these days.”
“Get serious boy!” spat Dad in a harsh whisper. “What’s the point of waiting after sundown if we’re gonna use a light? And while we’re at it, both of you keep your voices down!”
The forest soon opened up into a vast black plain. The same stars bedazzling the sky littered the black mirror below. Crickets and frogs sang as something – or someone -- splashed invisibly in front of them, and the aromas of natural water filled their nostrils. They’d reached the Lake.
The family followed the shoreline till they reached the main wooden pier. The stamp of Dad’s boots on the weathered boards seemed impossibly loud as they marched its length to the end. Here, they stopped, set down their gear, and sat on the pier, feet dangling over the water.
With a bucket, they carefully screened the flashlight while charging the glow tape lashed to their bobbers. Now they could see the bobbers glow in the dark, and would notice if they jerked when a fish took the bait. Only Dad possessed a modern fiberglass rod and reel; Becky and Tommy had to make do with fishing line attached to sticks. After about 10 minutes…
“Dad!” Becky gasped, “I… I got something!”
“Bring it in, baby girl,” her father urged, and she eventually let the others feel a wriggling prize about the size of a man’s hand.
“Barely a mouthful,” Tommy sneered.
“It’s a good start,” Dad declared. “At this rate, we’ll catch enough in an hour for dinner and breakfast both.”
“Ow!” the girl yelped suddenly. “Dammit. Daddy…!”
“Keep your voice down!” the older man hissed. “What is it?”
“The hook! It’s in my hand. It really hurts!”
“Oh my God, Becky. Just bring it over here…”
A shaft of radiance abruptly spotlighted the girl.
“What the hell are you doing boy?!” Dad roared, absolutely not keeping his voice down.
“We need to see to get the damn hook out of her hand!” Tommy protested, scooting to his sister’s side to illuminate her bleeding hand.
“Boy if you don’t turn that thing off, I swear…”
There was a buzz of an angry bee, and the light winked out with a crash and a distant crack that echoed from across the water. Becky screamed.
“Becky!” her father howled, dismayed.
“They got me!” she sobbed. “Can’t feel my arm but… I can run. We have to go!”
“Murderers!” Dad yelled, howling his defiance over his shoulder as he and his family ran for their lives. “You do this to hungry people? Where’s your humanity, you selfish bastards!”
A moonless summer night. Light came only from the occasional flickering candle or wan, battery-operated lantern in the dilapidated houses and frayed tents that lined the battered street. Sporadic breezes stirred trash while bringing brief respite from the lingering heat. The asphalt was pocked with holes, but the residents had filled these with dirt. After the next rain, they would no doubt fill them again. The tang of body odor and human waste pervaded.
A young man in the helmet, armor, and uniform of a deceased nation strode down the street, head held high. Tall and built like a football player, he had a pistol in a holster on his thigh and a machete sheathed on the front of his armor. About him were six grim-faced older men, each attired as he was down to the combat boots that stomped the decaying pavement. The gaunt residents in their dirty, ragged clothing – those still awake -- glared sullenly at the party as they passed. But no local spoke, much less made a threatening move, for each of the strangers carried automatic military rifles. The armored men soon approached a two-stack wall of intermodal shipping containers, the kind once so common to trains and trucks.
“Where did Coach Kate find all those conexes?” the young man asked. “And look at the windows and doors cut into the containers. Why would she let people live literally inside her defensive wall?”
“I reckon you can ask the old bat when you see her,” the eldest of his companions replied, looking every bit a scarred, grizzled old war veteran. “For the record, I still think this is a bad idea, boy.”
“Uncle Bill, Coach Kate has invited me to talk, so I will talk. And for the record, my name is ‘General’, not ‘boy’. I’m in charge now, remember?”
“Eh, don’t remind me,” Bill grumped. “Seriously Cal… General, what’s to keep this witch from kidnapping our leader for ransom or just slitting your throat as soon as you’re…?”
“Coach Kate’s brutal, I’ll give her that,” the young man agreed. “Pretty much have to be an ass to stay in charge these days. But Evelyn Kate never breaks her word once she gives it.”
“So far. But I hear tell the Director is stomping her from the north, likely making the Coach desperate. And desperate people do desperate things.”
By this time the squad had reached a gate made of welded steel plates, blocking the entrance to the container wall. The gate was flanked by two famed Wildcat guards and lit by a hanging solar camp lantern – the kind you would leave out in the sun to charge up.
“That’s close enough!” ordered a Wildcat. “Who goes there?”
“General Calvin Julius Washington, Commander of Camp Schuster!” Bill heralded. “Make way for the General!”
“Ah. We’ve been expecting you.”
The Wildcat turned and pounded on the gate, yelling, “He’s here! Bring up the escort.”
“Of course he’s got to be escorted. We’re not letting seven armed enemy soldiers inside our citadel!”
“The General may keep his arms,” the other Wildcat added. “But the rest of you will be disarmed and detained until this summit is concluded.”
“We will never leave our General’s side!” Bill thundered.
“Yes you will,” Calvin insisted. “Relax, Uncle Bill. I’ll be fine.”
“’I’ll be fine’ is just what your father said, poor bastard. And look who’s in charge now?”
A squad of ten Wildcats escorted Calvin through the grounds of the old high school and into the football stadium. They led him up the home side bleachers to the top of the press box. There, a young woman sat in one of two chairs at a small table. Said table sported a glowing wedding candle along with a wine bottle flanked by two wineglasses. The woman had a pretty, round face, bright, mischievous eyes, a buxom chest, and long hair that billowed in the summer breezes. But her sleeveless blouse and short, pleated skirt revealed rather more muscles in her arms and legs than Calvin thought desirable in a lady. She stood as the Wildcats approached and ordered, “Leave us!” with a dismissive wave of her hand. At that, the escort commander gave the woman a smart salute and then departed with the rest of his squad.
“With all due respect,” Calvin sniffed, “I came here to negotiate with Coach Kate, not her brat.”
“Coach is delayed,” the woman explained, and she sat down at the table and crossed her well-toned legs. “I suppose I have to entertain you till Her Royal Majesty deigns to make an appearance. So please have a seat, General; I’ll pour the wine. Merlot, to be precise, from the Bordeaux region of France; which, come to think of it, may as well be on the far side of the Moon these days. Sad, really.”
“What are we doing up here?” Calvin demanded, absolutely not having a seat. “Shouldn’t we be in your Mom’s headquarters?”
“It’s more romantic up here. Aren’t the stars lovely?”
“Romantic? What is this, a date?”
“A date? Why Calvin Washington, are you asking me out?”
Calvin was stunned as the younger Kate, a crooked smile on her lips, popped the cork on the Merlot with a “waiter’s friend”. Then she poured the red wine; first into the glass before her, then into the glass apparently meant for her guest. But Camp Schuster’s Commander regained his composure and removed his helmet, baring his head.
“And if I were asking you out,” he queried, “how would you respond?”
“How do you think I’d respond?”
“I don’t think you would say, ‘yes’.”
“Of course not. I don’t think it, I know you’d say ‘yes’!”
“Hah!” barked Calvin’s host, and she finished pouring before setting the bottle back on the table.
Calvin strode suddenly to the table and sat in the opposite chair, setting his rifle down on the press box roof. This close, he beheld his host’s comely visage bathed in the soft, warm glow of candlelight. He adored her full makeup, professionally done hair and lavender perfume; luxuries almost no woman bothered with anymore.
“I have not given you permission to use my name, General.”
“Very well, Princess. If I decide to take you out – in any sense of that phrase -- it won’t be tonight. I came here to do serious business.”
“Fine!” huffed Stacy, and she plucked up her wineglass, but then started swirling the liquid around in it with small, circular motions of her hand. “Let’s get serious, shall we? Stop shooting my people at Lake Schuster!”
“Your own mother signed the treaty stating that her territory ends north of Heaven Hill Road. The lake is south of that road.”
Stacy paused her swirling long enough for a dainty sip of wine, and then responded.
“Mom never dreamed you wouldn’t let our people go where they’ve fished, boated and swam for generations before the Collapse.”
“Times are hard, Princess. No lake has infinite fish. My smart people have calculated Lake Schuster’s fish population and determined how many can be harvested without driving them to extinction. We put catch limits on our people; limits you folks ignore. We told your Katelanders about a hundred times to stay away from our lake, but they just wouldn’t listen till we started shooting.”
The hostess halted the swirl for another sip, and then, “There’s enough fish in that lake for all of us.”
“My smart guys assure me, there is not.”
“Our Wildcats can take the lake by force!”
“No they can’t,” Calvin scoffed. “You want a two front war? The Director is owning you from the north. If we sandwich you from the south as well, Kateland is done, and you know it.”
Stacy abruptly shot back the wineglass. She then slammed the empty glass down on the table and leaned toward her guest, fulminating.
“Do you imagine the Director will spare Camp Schuster once we are destroyed!” she fumed.
“Of course not! The Director’s idea of resource conservation is mass murder. Coach Kate doesn’t stand a chance alone, but with the General, we can take that genocidal monster down together!”
Stacy suddenly seemed to deflate, as if letting out a breath she’d been holding.
“Full disclosure Calvin,” she sighed. “I only agreed to this ridiculous setup because Momma made me. But now… well, I’d honestly like to date you. For real. The name’s Stacy, by the way.”
“Outstanding, Princess!” Calvin declared, and lifting high his glass, he drained the precious Merlot in one gulp.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, “This stuff rocks! I can have some more, right?”
About the author
Timothy was raised on a farm in rural Mississippi. His experiences have since taken him all around the world. He now teaches at local university, where he urges his Students to Run the Race, Keep the faith, and Endure to the End