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Chapter 5 of Holding the Fort: The Fatal Error

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Chapter 5

Preparing for the Games


Ethan rushed home after summer school and ate a quick lunch—a plain peanut butter sandwich, Nacho Cheese Doritos, and a tall glass of milk. It was his favorite pregame meal. Then he bounded upstairs to get ready for the afternoon’s laser battles.

His room wasn’t the cleanest in the world. With more clothes scattered on the floor than inside his hamper, it would never hold up to a military inspection. So Ethan scrambled to clean up the mess fast, remembering his mother’s threat not to let him go out and play until his room had reached at least a “tolerable level of filth.” He threw away some old papers, shelved some books, and tossed the dirty clothes into the hamper. Ethan stepped back and scanned his room quickly. A tolerable level of filth, he thought with an approving nod. Then he turned to the one area of his room that never needed any straightening up.

Ethan kept all of his Laser Wars gear neatly on a shelf by his bed. Everything he needed to play was there, arranged in meticulous order—laser pulse rifle, laser-sensor vest, headset with built-in video camera and two-way radio, along with his camouflage clothes, canteen and backpack. The Laser Wars equipment was all super high-tech; nothing was available in stores. Specialized laser rifles, made of heavy-duty steel and aluminum alloys, fired brilliant blue pulses of amplified light. The battles always looked more real than a game, with lasers streaking back and forth furiously through the woods between teams. It was the spoils of living next door to the most advanced military research facility on earth—toys years ahead of their time, the ultimate birthday presents, the kind that no other kid on earth could possibly receive.

Ethan put on his clothes and grabbed his gear, disconnecting his laser-sensor vest and laser gun from an electric charging tower. He rushed downstairs and out of the house as if he were summoned out of his barracks by an air raid siren. He had to hurry if he was going to make it to Judy’s by one o’clock.

#

Judy’s was an old-fashioned diner nestled in the middle of Main Street in the little downtown square of Blackwoods. It was a popular place to eat and hang out, with tasty food, a retro diner atmosphere, and an arcade in the back featuring video games and pinball machines. The restaurant was run by a seventy-year-old firecracker of a woman named Judy. Judy had been a cook in the Army for forty years, and it was said she’d peeled more potatoes and told more dirty jokes than anyone in her battalion. Judy was busy as usual at this time serving food to a full lunchtime crowd, zipping quickly in and out of the tables like a woman half her age.

Austin and his right-hand-man, Bradley, were already sitting at one of the tables in full gear. They had just finished their traditional captain/sergeant, pre-battle lunch and were waiting for their subordinates, who were never invited to actually eat with them. Judy swooped in promptly and collected their dirty dishes in one swift motion. She smiled at them mischievously in an attempt to get them to smile back. No luck. Austin drummed his fingers impatiently on the table as he scowled at the clock. The time was 1:02 p.m.

“Can I get you two soldiers some pie?” Judy asked.

“No, that’ll be all,” Austin responded, looking around her at the door like she didn’t even exist.

“Apple, blackberry, blueberry—”

“Listen, Judy. I don’t want any freaking pie,” Austin snapped. “We’re getting ready for war maneuvers today and we need to prepare.”

Judy nodded with a calm expression on her face. Then, slowly, an ornery grin emerged. “Well, I hope those maneuvers aren’t happening too soon. As many baked beans as you ate, your farts would give away your position,” she said with a chuckle.

Austin’s face turned red with embarrassment, then anger. “Do I need to call my father, General Turnbull?” he said in a threatening tone. “Leave us…now.”

Judy walked away.

At 1:05 p.m. Kevin Kim walked into the restaurant. Kevin was Korean American and the Bravo Team sniper. He was sharp in the field and a very accurate shot when he had the time to set up, though he was nowhere near as gifted and accomplished as Annika Pepper. Soon after Kevin entered the diner, Caleb and Ethan followed behind. The three of them sat down at the table with Austin and Bradley. The leaders of the Bravo Team did not look pleased. Austin tapped his green military-issue watch repeatedly in frustration.

“It’s five minutes after one,” Austin grumbled with an angry, curled lip. “I said one o’clock sharp.” All three of them were late, but Austin stared the longest at Ethan. Ethan knew all too well how this was going to play out. “Drop and give me twenty. Except for Tate… You give me thirty.”

“Yes sir,” Caleb and Kevin responded quickly. A few moments later, Ethan grudgingly choked out those words himself. They all got down on the floor, in front of everyone in the crowded restaurant, and began to do push-ups.

Ethan finished his thirty push-ups about the same time as Kevin finished his twenty. The benefit of always being on Austin’s bad side was that Ethan was getting really good at doing push-ups and was becoming noticeably stronger for it. Caleb huffed and puffed, but he managed to eke out a sloppy twenty push-ups soon afterward. The three of them stood and faced Austin, who inspected them from top to bottom. An attitude of superiority oozed from his pores.

“Straighten your shirt, Tate,” Austin barked. Ethan complied and tucked in a corner of his shirt that had managed to get pulled out during the push-ups. “Good… Now you may sit. I want to give you today’s battle briefing.” He laid out a map of the woods over the table. “Kevin, I need you posted here,” he explained, pointing to a particular spot on the battlefield. “Shoot anything that moves. Bradley and I will be out of the way leading an attack on the Delta base left flank.”

“Yes, sir,” Kevin said.

“Caleb, you will be manning the control center. I want that laser turret on-line and fully operational.”

“Yes, sir,” Caleb said.

“And you, Tate…” Austin chuckled with Bradley. “You will do what you always do…run like a lunatic at the enemy and cause a diversion while Bradley and I win this war and return home conquering heroes.”

“Yeah, and if you can’t do that, just stay out of our way,” Bradley added.

Bradley Wuddle was a ridiculous choice for a sergeant in about every way imaginable. He wasn’t very smart, not a motivating leader, and he had an attitude problem that related to his lack of height. He was the smallest boy in the class, and most of the girls were taller than him too. Of course, Ethan had no problem with diminutive people. In fact, he had seen many small-statured people fight courageously on the laser battlefield, but Bradley was not one of those people. He would throw his mother to the wolves to save his own hide. He was a mean-spirited boy who had a clear Napoleon Complex, like the French emperor whose ruthless cunning and desire for total world conquest was due to him just trying to make up for being small. Bradley Wuddle, however, was unable to conquer anything. He couldn’t even turn in his homework on time. He was simply Austin’s stooge and did whatever Austin wanted him to do without question. Ethan thought it was amazing how far a mean, dishonorable idiot could get in the chain of command just by being willing to always say “yes.”

Judy had noticed all of Austin’s tyrannical antics. She approached their table with three dishes of pecan pie with ice cream mounded on top.

“I think you three deserve these…on the house,” Judy said with a smile and a wink as she set down the desserts in front of Ethan, Caleb, and Kevin. She gave nothing to Austin and Bradley.

“Thank you,” they said together, smiling back at Judy. They grabbed their spoons and prepared to dig into the scrumptious-looking desserts. Austin scowled at Judy. Then he focused his glare at Ethan, Caleb, and Kevin.

“Do not eat that pie… That is an order,” Austin said, jaw tightening like a vise.

The three of them stopped in their tracks, spoonfuls of yumminess just inches away from their watering mouths. Judy shot a disgusted look at Austin, then gave Ethan, Caleb, and Kevin a reassuring smile. “Go ahead, it’s all right,” she said.

Austin clenched his teeth and shot a spiteful look at Judy. Then he glared at his scout, sniper, and engineer. Austin’s angry, piercing dark eyes told the whole story, but he added words for good measure. “If any of you take even one bite of that pie, so help me God you are off this team forever. You got that?” Ethan, Caleb, and Kevin lowered their spoons back onto their plates. Austin looked at Judy, flaunting a defiant smirk. “They’re my men, Judy. They’re my men. They listen to me.”

Judy grimaced. She turned to Ethan, Caleb, and Kevin. “You boys deserve better than this. You’re good boys and you deserve better.”

“Let’s get outta here,” Austin said, then looked at Judy dead in the eyes. “The food stinks here anyway.” Austin stormed off. Bradley followed him like a submissive puppy. Kevin and Caleb slowly departed next, but Ethan lingered for a moment. He smiled at Judy and gave her a soft pat on the back.

“Thank you,” Ethan said softly. “And everybody knows this is the best restaurant there is in the whole world.”

Judy’s face lightened up. “You’re a good man, Ethan. You should have your own team, you know. Captain Tate has a nice ring to it.”

Ethan smiled proudly. “It kinda does,” he said, indulging in the fantasy for a moment. Then he looked at the doorway of the diner and found his captain staring daggers at him. Austin made a few sharp gestures with his hands, military field signals, silently but forcefully ordering his retreat. Ethan sighed, abruptly brought back from his daydream. “But I’m just a scout.” Ethan left the restaurant with his head down and a noticeable droop to his shoulders. Judy watched him with a sympathetic face.

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