“Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.”
- George S. Patton Jr.
It’s a brisk, cold New York Winter day. Snow heaps to the sides of recently cleared sidewalks, as the cloud-filled sky threatens to shake loose more of the deceptively beautiful flakes any moment now. It’s one of the coldest winters on record. The day is bright despite the clouds, the sea of white reflecting light into the air. The roads of the neighborhood are all but closed, only a few cars braving the snow and ice. However, the streets are far from empty.
As he trundles through the streets of the neighborhood, Trevor sees children, home from school and playing in the winter wonderland their neighborhood has become. They play in the streets, building snowmen, and snow forts, and snow... is that a plow? Someone has made a snow plow. An old-fashioned plow. Made of snow. Someone’s attempt at humor, no doubt, though it’s quite ingeniously done. One can almost see the horse pulling the farmer’s implement.
Trevor turns the corner and heads up the last block. Ahead, on the far corner of the next intersection, he sees his destination, Think Coffee!, a popular neighborhood coffee shop and the place where he’s meeting Sarah today. She works there sometimes, picking up shifts here and there, and seems to have a very tight relationship with the shop’s owner and manager. Being the best coffee shop in the area, Trevor has been there more than once or twice in the past four years.
As children play in the streets and sidewalks he approaches, spotting the sign in the shop’s window which proudly proclaims Caffeine! in glowing, pink neon. This shop is never closed, even on a day like today. Sure, many of the baked goods might not have been delivered because of the weather. And perhaps the shop will be less packed than usual as more people will opt not to brave the weather for their daily cup of coffee or their foamy lattés and mochas. But it is nevertheless a point of pride to the owner that this shop has not been closed a day in twenty years. Which, upon reflection, is probably why Sarah’s working today. Living only a few blocks away, she’s the ideal sub.
Pondering all of this while he watches the children at play, Trevor reaches the intersection and turns to make the diagonal cross over the disused street. Treading carefully on packed snow, he looks toward the inviting warmth of the shop. The winter air is trying to push through Trevor’s coat, and the prospect of coffee looming so close has him eagerly anticipating that first sip. Perhaps that’s why he fails to notice as the children stop squealing and shouting in delight, as nearby shop doors close, as passing adults suddenly scurry away. As the intersection suddenly becomes as quiet and still as a wintery grave...
As Trevor reaches the midpoint of the deserted intersection, the first snowball strikes. A perfect lob strikes from behind, in the back of his wool-capped head. Instantly, Trevor feels tendrils of cold snaking down under his collar, freezing his neck, sending a chill right down his spine.
Trevor turns toward the source. Whatever he may be expecting, he’s probably not prepared for the sight of the little girl. She’s a waiflike little thing, a skinny, gangly, but still short, eleven year old. Long, curly brown hair spills out from under her black snow cap, her coat is buttoned, her mittens protect her hand from the second snowball, held at the ready. Her eyes hold a predatory look, and her lips hold a smile colder than the weapon she wields. She slowly reaches up with her left hand, and pulls down the cap, revealing it to be a balaclava, a black mask which leaves only her eyes visible.
Trevor suddenly realizes he’s not standing in a street. The intersection of West Third and Mercer has become no-man’s land. The snow shoveled to clear sidewalks has formed battlements on every corner, offering cover, leaving only one poor man cut off, laid out in the open, a sacrificial lamb.
Before Trevor can say anything, the second snowball strikes from behind, this one low, hitting his butt. Turning again, he spies another child, mask already in place, a second snowball at the ready. This seems to signal the barrage, as suddenly the strike force reveals itself. The team moves into position in a coordinated assault, cutting off all lines of retreat in a meticulously planned and executed ambush. All wearing black masks, the commandos close the trap, pelting him from all sides with snow. Only snow. These kids know the rules of engagement. No slush balls, no ice, nothing nasty. Just pure, driven snow, delivered in carefully rounded projectile form, striking from every side with overwhelming force.
The attack is thorough and ruthless. Trevor manages to ward off a few of the incoming attacks, but coming from all sides, the majority strike him. Arms, legs, torso, even a few more shots to the head, assail him without reprieve or mercy. Finally, after a long, brutal minute, the attack stops. Every inch of Trevor is covered in white powder, the massacre complete. Still surrounding him, a dozen children reach up to pull up their masks. Trevor turns in place, and sees several boys and girls, aged 11 to 16. Then Trevor stops turning, staring at one girl in particular. He looks at her, and everything falls into place.
“Just how bad is the payback going to be?” Trevor had asked that night. Sarah’s unprotected butt, covered with snow, a challenge seemingly declined, long forgotten. Now, almost two years later, he faces Bethany, Sarah’s kid sister, who smiles at him with cold, remorseless eyes, the eyes of a killer, or perhaps a Terminator, and Trevor finally has his answer.
Trevor had imagined at the time a western, a showdown, a contest between two combatants, a test of speed and skill. He sees now he was wrong. This was never a western. This is war. A war he started. Around him, a dozen snowballs wait in a dozen hands, ready to continue the war if necessary. Before him, Bethany’s smile begs Trevor to try something, anything. But Trevor knows he’s lost. Slowly, so slowly, making no sudden moves, Trevor raises his hands in surrender.
“Hot chocolate for everyone!”
The shout from behind draws Trevor’s attention. Turning, he sees Sarah leaning casually in the doorway of the coffee shop. The woman the world once knew as Quantum, now only Sarah, if only is a term which applies here. She smiles in her jeans, half-apron, and white, spaghetti strap tank top. The shirt bears a message, its ice-blue lettering telling Trevor why he’s here today.
All around Trevor, kids cheer, whether at their victory or for the upcoming spoils of war he can’t be sure. Probably a mixture of the two. Snowballs hit the ground, their purpose unfulfilled as the kids turn and run into the coffee shop, cheering and shouting in glee as they pass their General, whose eyes dance with humor and whose lips smile in amusement at Trevor’s plight.
“God help me,” she says in her gentle, slightly husky voice. “I do love it so.” Then she winks at him.
Sarah pushes from the doorway and turns to head inside. As she does, he notices what a fine target she presents: her pert denim-covered butt swaying away from him; the too-thin, white spaghetti-strap tank top offering so much pale flesh open to attack. It’s almost as if she’s inviting retaliation.
But... would that be playing into her hands? His foe is patient, and clearly willing - perhaps eager - to escalate a conflict. She has the tactical edge and the resources to wage a protracted, bloody conflict. She clearly loves the carnage, obviously delights in war. Worst of all she clearly has way too much time on her hands. Time to plan, to recruit, to outfit her soldiers. Trevor realizes... to respond now would invite disastrous reprisal.
“C’mon!” Sarah calls from inside. “Coffee’s on me!”
Finally, shivering, Trevor makes his way into the shop where the children are all already enjoying their reward. Sarah has already poured a fresh cup of coffee for Trevor. Still smiling in merriment, she tosses him a towel and points to the table nearest the shop’s fireplace. At least she knows how to treat a prisoner of war. Trevor removes his long wool coat, shaking off as much of the snow as he can. Then he makes his way to the table to await his armistice day.
Around him, children slowly release their grips on the squirt guns filled with ice water, easing them back into pockets, returning their attention to their treats. Sarah makes her way from behind the counter, offering a hot, toasted pizza bagel, slathered with cream cheese. Reparations.
Having won the war, Sarah sits down by her friend, her foe, to set about securing the peace as well, with idle talk of films and promises of further as-yet-undiscovered stories.
Revenge is best served cold. But the coffee and the fire are warm.