Squire’s Isle Created by Geonn Cannon

Top of the First

Summary: Kate Price’s college softball team is on the verge of its first State championship title, while Kate herself is on the cusp of a much different, much more important milestone.

The bat hung from Kate Price’s arms like an extension of them, as if it was a part of her anatomy that evolution shunted away and technology had to recreate. She tapped the end against the base before lifting the bat to her shoulder and assuming the posture that had been second nature to her since sixth grade when she had to prove herself to the boys before they would let her play. She dug her heels in, watched the pitcher, and then swung for the fences at just the right moment. There were times when she thought softball players deserved an honorary physics degree for all the split-second calculations they had to do just to hit the ball.

But then she made contact, and she smiled as the white blur suddenly arced back and away. She dropped the bat and ran, knowing that the sensation of hitting the ball more than made up for not getting a degree. She reached second base and decided she wouldn’t push third, planting herself on the bag before her opponent could catch the ball to tag her.

Kate grinned and bent forward, hands on her knees as she watched Mary-Louise Stockton approach home plate. She clapped her hands, whistling for her teammate. One strike later, Kate was hauling ass past third. She planted her foot directly in the center of home plate and continued forward, not looking back until after Mary-Louise crossed home right behind her. She spun on her heel, held her arms out, and her teammate ran directly into her. Kate spun and lifted Mary-Louise off the ground. They were both soon swarmed by their teammates.

The game was over and Newton Gators had once again walked away champions. As they were mobbed by the rest of the team, Kate was very aware of how her body was pressed against Mary-Louise, how a gesture of celebration had turned into an awkward crush. Mary-Louise laughed against the side of her head and tightened her grip around Kate’s waist.

“Looks like I got a crush on you, Price.”

Kate hoped she wasn’t blushing and tried for a casual tone. “Keep it in your pants, Stockton.”

The team broke apart and let Kate pull away from Mary-Louise, and the coach broke through the crowd to congratulate them. Coach Shelby Holloway pulled them both into a hug, her short red hair brushing Kate’s cheek as she smiled at Mary-Louise.

“Very nice work, ladies! Go hit the showers and get dressed; we got a long drive home. You did yourselves proud out there.”

Kate beamed at the coach’s praise and slung her arm around Mary-Louise’s waist, once again comfortable now that they had a few inches of space between them. The team moved as a group toward the locker rooms, and Kate drifted away from Mary-Louise. She had taken a calculated locker position, one that kept her far away from the strawberry-blonde Georgia native so she wasn’t tempted to sneak a peek. She’d gone the entire season avoiding temptation, resisting the urge to just ask if Mary-Louise was gay. Not that she trusted herself to make a move even if the answer was yes. She wasn’t exactly well-practiced at romantic overtures. She was practiced at softball, and at journalism, and those were the important things. That was what mattered, no whether or not she was going to get laid.

She’d gone twenty-one years without getting laid, so she figured she could wait until she got out of college to see what the fuss was all about.

Kate gathered her towel and soap, shut her locker door, and made her way through the sea of half-naked athletes to the showers. She glanced to her right and saw Monica Fish, their pitcher, getting her shoulder massaged by third-basewoman Ana Baldwin. Monica was already wrapped in a towel, and Ana was still wearing her uniform pants but she’d taken off the top. The scene was so sexual that Kate nearly put up her hand to block the sight as she continued into the showers.

Temptation would be so much easier to avoid if it was men doing the tempting.

#

Kate had never been able to sleep on the long drives to and from games. She was too keyed up, and the scenery passing by too distracting, for her mind to settle. So she watched the glowing hotel and restaurant signs as they zipped past. Mary-Louise was sitting next to her, as always, her head on Kate’s shoulder. Actually she’d started on the shoulder and was making slow, slumping progress toward lying in her lap. Kate didn’t mind, but she wished Mary-Louise’s shoulder was less bony. She sighed and settled against the back of the seat, and Mary-Louise murmured and dropped down, sleepily rearranging herself until her cheek was smashed against Kate’s thigh.

Kate reached down and stroked her hair until she drifted off again, then lifted her head to scan the rest of the bus. Most of her teammates were asleep or bent over books with an Itty Bitty Book Light illuminating the pages. She could hear the tinny buzz of music coming from someone’s headphones. At the front of the bus she saw that Coach Holloway was awake and staring blearily out the window. She had her elbow on the back of the seat, her fist against her cheek, and she was watching the road as if hypnotized. Kate was about to look away when Coach felt the attention on her and turned to look at her.

Kate smiled, embarrassed that she’d been caught, and lifted three fingers in a wave. Coach nodded back and mouthed, “You did great.”

We did great,” she mouthed back.

Coach winked and gave her a thumbs-up. When Coach looked away, Kate found herself watching the back of her head. She reached up and ran her fingers through the short red strands of her hair. Coach was wearing an emerald green team hoodie and Kate liked how the colors complimented each other. If the light was strong enough she knew the hoodie would make her jade-green eyes come alive. Coach was so pretty.

And I must be really exhausted if I’m letting myself get this far down the road. She rubbed the bridge of her nose and whimpered quietly. Mary-Louise responded with a whimper of her own, and Kate rested one hand on the side of her friend’s head and closed her eyes. Even if she couldn’t fall asleep, she could at least rest her eyes a little before they got back to the depot.

At some point she did fall asleep, and the weight of another person’s head in her lap inspired disjointed and erotic dreams. When the bus slowed and then stopped in the parking lot, Kate woke to discover Mary-Louise had sat up at some point and they were slumped against each other in their seats. Kate straightened, stretched in her seat, and surreptitiously wiped her mouth and chin to make sure she hadn’t been drooling. Her face was dry, but she was still embarrassed.

“Sorry…”

“Hey, I used you as a pillow first. Serves me right.”

They took their bags off the bus, and Coach Holloway was waiting for them in the parking lot. She clapped her hands to get their attention before everyone drifted off to their own vehicles.

“You ladies showed a lot of heart out there tonight. You weren’t playing like an undefeated team, you were playing like you had something to prove. I’m so proud of all of you. Now I want you all to go home, get a good night’s rest, and get hungry for the next game. Enjoy your free time. Each and every one of you earned a little relaxation. Bring it in.”

She held out her hand, and the team crowded in to put their hands on top of it. “One, two, three Gators!”

Counter to her discomfort in the locker room, Kate enjoyed the crush of the dogpile. It was camaraderie, the joy of a job well done. When they broke up Kate made a point of finding Monica to congratulate her on an amazing game. The team broke up and Kate slung her bag over her right shoulder, pausing to say goodbye to another two players before she started walking.

She was halfway across the parking lot when a car pulled up alongside her. Coach leaned over the console to look through the passenger window.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“My dorm is about a half mile that way.”

“I’m not going to let one of my best players walk off into the dark at one-fifteen in the morning. Get in the car, Katherine.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She slipped the strap of her bag down her arm and tossed it into the backseat, then sat down. Third Eye Blind was playing on the radio, ‘Semi-Charmed Life,’ and Kate smiled. “Whoa, you have taste in music. I thought that was illegal in adults.”

“Well, you know how it is. Sometimes we old farts need a break from the big band music.”

Kate chuckled. “I’m in Hall H.”

“Have you there in a jiffy.” She drove them out of the parking lot. “I noticed you were one of the only girls not sleeping who didn’t have your nose in a book. How are your classes?”

“Classes are fine.”

“Good. It’s journalism, right?”

“Mm-hmm. I love it.”

Coach nodded. “Well, keep it up. I can’t afford to lose you. I know that if it came down to a choice, you’d pick class over sports. And I can admit that would be the right choice. In case you were wondering.”

Kate smiled. “Yeah. I came here for the degree, and the softball is just to decompress a little.”

“You play like it’s your first priority, though, and that’s what matters. If you need a little leeway on practice, just let me know.”

“Thanks. I’m here for you until the playoffs, at least. I can’t leave you in the lurch.”

“Glad to hear it. Left here, right?”

“Right, it’s a left.”

“It’s way too middle-of-the-night for that kind of humor.”

She followed a curving street until Hall H loomed on their right, and Kate directed her to the entrance closest to her room. When she parked, Coach put her hand on Kate’s arm to keep her from getting out immediately. “A quick question, and you can refuse to answer if you want. It’s off the record but I’d like to know for my own information. You and Mary-Louise.”

“What about us?”

“Are you a couple?”

Kate blushed and hoped it wasn’t visible in the dim light coming off the dashboard. “Uh. No. I’m single. We’re just friends.”

“Okay. I don’t have rules against that sort of thing if you were concerned. I just like to be aware of it in case there are issues.”

“Okay. I’m single,” she said again. “Looks like I’m probably going to stay that way for a while. And I’m-I’m not… I don’t like girls.”

Coach looked surprised but covered it well. “Oh! I thought… I’m sorry. I don’t know why I made the assumption.”

“It’s fine. Um. I’m going to go in and sleep now.”

Coach nodded. “Okay.”

“Thanks for the ride.”

“Sure. Sleep well, Katherine.”

Kate got out of the car, retrieved her bag, and waved once more as she went inside. She didn’t know why she lied to Coach about her sexuality. She wasn’t out to anyone because the whole thing was a moot point. She wasn’t sexually active so announcing her preference was the same as telling people what superpower she would want if she could have one. Fun to fantasize about, but no reason to discuss it. She also didn’t want to be seen as the cliché lesbian softball player. She knew part of college was finding the labels that defined you, but that wasn’t a label she was eager to accept. Ace reporter, softball star, yes. Walking stereotype, not so much.

Her dorm room was dark, so she quietly deposited her bag next to the door and tiptoed to her bed. She was untying her shoes when her roommate Mallory Ross, shifted and rolled over and lifted her head off the pillow.

“Hey,” Kate whispered. “Sorry. I tried to be quiet.”

“You were. I have to pee.” She kicked the blankets away and sat up, placing her feet on the floor and watching with dull-eyed focus as Kate put her shoes aside and unbuttoned her shirt. “How was the game?”

“We won.”

“Go Gators.”

Kate smiled. Mallory went to the bathroom and Kate quickly took off her clothes. She had pulled on her nightshirt and was drawing the blankets up over herself when Mallory returned from the bathroom.

“Jeremy asked about you again.”

Kate’s eyes were closed, but they snapped open again. Jeremy was in their journalism class, a handsome and chiseled boy with Clark Kent glasses who always made her think of TV news anchors from the fifties. Classy and clean and utterly trustworthy. “Yeah?”

“You oughta give the boy a chance. He’s like a little puppy every time you have an away game.”

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t be fair to him. I have class and games and practice, I don’t really have time for a boyfriend.”

“Hell, none of us have time for a boyfriend. He can just be a guy you fuck every now and then.”

Kate chuckled nervously.

“I don’t know. I’m pretty happy with my toys.”

Mallory sighed. “Suit yourself. But let Jeremy know. A guy that hot shouldn’t be wasted pining on a lost cause. He needs to be let loose on the ladies of this campus.”

“I’ll set him free next time I see him. Promise.” She looked across the room and saw Mallory had burrowed back into her bed while they were talking. “Night, Mal.”

“Night, Katherine.”

Despite her earlier exhaustion, she found herself staring at the ceiling for a long time after Mallory began to snore quietly.

#

Kate ended up going on three dates with Jeremy, just a movie in his dorm room and two dinners. She let him kiss her when he tried, but she could tell it was as unmagical for him as it was for her. They decided they were better off as friends, and she tried to hide her relief as she kissed him on the cheek at the end of their third and final date. Mallory was pissed that she hadn’t thrown the boy a roll in the hay for his trouble, but Kate didn’t dignify the criticism with a response.

It was a month after she saw Jeremy in the common room with Amber Knoller, and they were playing another away game. Monica was pitching like a machine, and they were currently up two runs with one inning to play. Kate was sitting on the bench with a strained shoulder. It wasn’t anything to worry about, but Coach decided it would be better to let her rest so they wouldn’t risk making it worse. She was sitting next to Mary-Louise, who had gotten the team’s first home run of the game.

Coach came over and raised her eyebrows without smiling, a nervous tic she had when she was anxious about a game’s outcome. Kate didn’t offer her reassurance or comfort; she knew it wasn’t what Coach wanted. She just nodded back to let her know she wasn’t alone.

Mary-Louise caught the exchange and bumped Kate’s leg with hers. “We’re up two runs against the Mavericks. You know they didn’t give those runs up easily. We knew who we were facing and we came prepared. They came in overconfident.”

Coach and Kate both nodded, and Kate reached over to take Mary-Louise’s hand. She squeezed as they watched the next batter walk up to the plate. It was the deciding game of the playoffs, and the Mavericks had made mincemeat out of every opponent to date. The Gators, on the other hand, were seen as the plucky and fortunate underdogs who somehow managed to win all their games and ascend to State levels. Kate knew how much Coach hated those articles, and she wanted to prove them wrong even more than she wanted to win the game.

Or… maybe she wanted both equally.

Kate and Mary-Louise were both on their feet at the end of the inning, and Kate watched as Monica’s arm twisted in a pinwheel pitch. The ball hurtled forward, one of those unbelievably fast throws Kate was glad she never had to swing at. The Maverick player made contact with the ball and dropped her bat as she ran for first base. Carrie Beckett, in the outfield, scooped the ball up and hurled it underhanded to third base at the same moment their opponent decided to steal. Kate resisted the urge to slap the concrete of the dugout, her nervous energy channeled into her right foot. Ana Baldwin at third base plucked the ball out of the air, did a near-perfect pirouette, and tapped the Maverick player’s right shoulder with the ball.

Mary-Louise jumped into the air and cheered, launching herself up and out to join the rest of the team on the field. Coach threw both arms into the air and Kate, originally intending to follow Mary-Louise out, turned and embraced her. Coach returned the hug with a ferocity that was surprising but not unwelcome. She buried her face against the collar of Kate’s uniform and said, “We’re going to State.”

“You got us here.”

“You got me here. You girls kicked butt.” She chuckled and gave Kate another squeeze before letting her go. “Go on, get out there and enjoy the celebration.”

Kate nodded and then hooked her hand on Coach’s elbow. “Come on. It’s your victory, too.”

After a moment Coach let herself be reluctantly dragged out into the late-afternoon sunshine. “Okay. But if I see anyone with a Gatorade jug, I’m running and cutting them from the team.”

#

There was no Gatorade, but Coach invited all the players to Red Lobster for a celebratory dinner the following Saturday. On the ride home no one studied and no one even tried to sleep. Coach tried to keep it to a dull roar, but even she was caught up in the excitement of the win. At one point Kate found herself turned in her seat with her legs in the aisle, and Mary-Louise plopped down on her lap and draped an arm around her neck.

“Kate and I are going to have a toast as soon as we get home and find some liquor. Y’all are welcome to join us, just so long as you’re over twenty-one.”

Kate wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect, but she was too wound up to be a buzzkill just then. They won. They’d beaten the Mavericks, and they were going to State. She was even relaxed about the idea of having Mary-Louise on her lap, so much so that she looped her arms around her friend’s waist and snuggled tighter against her.

“And anyone thinking of sleep tonight?” Monica shouted from the back of the bus. “You better think again! We’re going to tear this town up tonight! ‘Cause you know what we are?”

“Gators!”

“Damn straight!”

They pulled into the stadium parking lot at nearly two in the morning, and Coach remained by the bus doors to remind the girls they were within earshot of sleeping students and they had to be respectful. They quietly made arrangements for which cars to take, assigning designated drivers to bring them all home after the party ended. Kate didn’t have a car but she could drive and didn’t particularly like beer, so she agreed to be the designated driver with Mary-Louise’s car.

Mary-Louise put an arm around her shoulder. “You stay sober and get us home, and I’ll get you a beer when you’re walking distance from home.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

Coach tried to beg off, claiming it was their night and their celebration, but the team wouldn’t take no for an answer. Eventually she volunteered as one of the designated drivers so another girl would have a chance to celebrate. They broke off into their cars and set out for a nearby bar that had supported the team since the beginning of the season. Coach arrived in the first car and told the bartender about their victory, so he rang the bell every time a group of Gators entered. There were only a handful of other patrons at the bar, and the sort of people who frequented bars in the middle of the night weren’t exactly in a celebratory mood so they quickly drifted out and left the girls to their joy.

The bartender insisted on IDs, so the girls lined up at the bar to prove they were old enough to drink. Coach and the shortstop pushed three tables together and a waitress brought over the first pitchers. The girls identified as the designated drivers were given badges that qualified them for free appetizers and snacks for the entire evening.

Kate nursed a Dr. Pepper for most of the night, joining in the toasts and sitting back to enjoy the sight of her fellow players getting good and blotto. During the night some girls drifted off into their own cliques, while others remained in the central hub around Coach Holloway. She declared early on that they would only stay at the bar for an hour before they called it a night.

Around the forty-five minute mark, Sally Taylor got up on a chair and began listing the MVPs. It quickly became apparent that one, she was drunk, and two, she was simply naming everyone on the team and their accomplishments. Soon a few other girls joined in the chorus, and Coach started shushing them before the bartender got tired of their shenanigans.

Kate left the scene to visit the bathroom, pausing in the corridor long enough to make sure the list of accomplishments had ended. She was uncomfortable being the center of attention, having to sit and smile while someone else listed why she was good at sports. Hell, she didn’t even like it when a whole party sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

As she lingered, she heard something clatter and fall in the pool room behind her. The room was dark and, as far as she knew, off-limits. She took two steps back to peer around the corner. She saw Monica first, the pitcher, standing with her back against the wall. Ana Baldwin was in front of her. Monica’s shirt was pushed up to reveal her belly, her shorts unbuttoned, and the two were kissing as Ana pushed her hand into Monica’s underwear.

Kate gasped, and both girls opened their eyes and locked gazes with her. Kate waved her hand in apology, unable to make the sound come out, and fled back to the main room. She collapsed back into her seat, tucking her hair behind her ears with both hands, and was so twitchy that she jumped when Mary-Louise threw an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“Get off-a me…”

“There she is!” Mary-Louise said, shouting over Kate’s knee-jerk reaction. “We waited until you got back to do you. Sally! Katherine’s back!”

Sally hoisted her drink. “To Katherine Price! Who runs like a rabbit, and who can defy gravity to pluck an airborne ball out of the air…”

Kelly Donaldson laughed. “Look how nervous she is! She’s blushing!”

Kate was grateful for the excuse, glancing over her shoulder as Monica and Ana slipped out of the pool room and silently rejoined the party. Kate and Monica locked eyes and then both quickly looked away, and Kate smiled sheepishly as the team cheered her accomplishments. Sally moved on to the efforts of their first-basewoman and Kate felt the relief wash through her once the spotlight moved on.

“Sorry,” Mary-Louise said. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

Mary-Louise kissed Kate’s cheek and then twisted to watch more of Sally’s one-woman show.

Once every team member had been thoroughly praised, Coach declared the night was at an end. She went to the bar to settle the bill, and the designated drivers began arranging who they would be driving home based on location, distance, and available seating. Monica made her way through the group, gently pulled Kate away from the bar, and leaned in close so she could speak quietly.

“Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I… no. It wasn’t… I didn’t see it.” Kate swallowed hard. “None of my business.”

Monica looked down at her feet. “We’re not like that.”

“I know.”

“We’re just. You know.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah. Just goofing around.”

Monica shrugged. “Yeah. So glad you understand.”

“No problem.” Kate tapped the plastic badge hooked on her shirt pocket. “You need a ride?”

“No, I have someone. Thanks, though. Thanks…”

“Sure.” Kate knew she was being thanked for both the offer and for her silence. Monica slipped away again looking much more relieved, and Kate began gathering passengers for the trip home. Mary-Louise was a given, since they were best friends and Kate was driving her car. Mary-Louise leaned on Kate for support as they walked out to the parking lot.

“I still owe you that beer, so you have to take me home last.”

“Yeah. And the fact it’s your car.”

Mary-Louise squinted. “Oh, yeah. Right. So… yeah. Take me home last.”

Kate laughed and helped her into the passenger seat. The others loaded themselves into the back, a trio of half-asleep softball players that turned into a slumped and snoring pile of laundry as soon as they sat down. Kate squirmed between the front seats and somehow managed to get everyone belted in before she started the engine. As she waited on Coach’s car to clear out so she could leave the parking lot, Mary-Louise began to drunkenly sing the John Fogerty baseball song. By the time they were on the road they were all mumbling through the verses and shouting out the chorus.

Two of Kate’s passengers shared a dorm room, so they helped themselves into the building with a mumbled thanks for the ride as they leaned against each other. Kate helped her third passenger up two flights of stairs and deposited her in a dorm room where her roommate was still up studying for a Chem final. Kate whispered an apology and the roommate promised to watch over her drunken friend.

Finally Kate delivered Mary-Louise home. Mary-Louise hung from her side like a drowning woman, still humming the Fogerty song as Kate fumbled with the key and pushed the door open with her foot. She shuffled quietly inside and noticed both beds were empty.

“Where’s your roommate?”

“Ow fu-hun rou’.”

Kate sat Mary-Louise on the bed and knelt in front of her. “What was that in English?”

Mary-Louise made a circle with the fingers of one hand, then pushed her finger through the loop.

“Oh. Out fucking around. Well, good for her.”

“Heh. Yeah. What are you doing down there?”

“Taking off your shoes. So you’ll be comfortable.”

Mary-Louise said, “Oh. You’re nice. And I owe you a beer.”

She started to stand, but Kate pushed her back down. “Rain check.”

“You’re a really good friend, Katherine.”

Kate smiled. “Thanks. You’re a good friend, too.”

Mary-Louise played with Kate’s hair and chuckled quietly. “You just need a boyfriend. You know. You get too uptight sometimes. You need… you know what you need? You need to get laid.”

Kate remembered the image of Monica and Ana, remembered the feelings it had stirred in her, and she straightened up so her face was lined up with Mary-Louise’s. She held her breath as she leaned forward and kissed a girl for the first time. Mary-Louise inhaled sharply, and Kate saw her eyes fly open as their lips touched. She stayed as still as possible, trying to prolong the moment before its inevitable end. Mary-Louise made a noise in her throat and tilted her head to the side, parting her lips and forcing Kate’s apart with the motion, and for an instant Kate’s heart soared.

But then Mary-Louise hunched her shoulders, jerked back, and laughed breathlessly. “Whoa! Who-oa. What was that?”

“I don’t… I-I don’t know. I’m sorry. I was…” She swallowed hard. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“It’s not your fault.”

Kate wanted to be elsewhere, anywhere else, and she quickly stood. “I’m sorry,” she said again. She fled the room before giving Mary-Louise a chance to respond. She slumped against the wall outside of the dorm, tilted her head back, and resisted the urge to pummel herself for what she had just done. It was a dumb move, and she was even more annoyed that it had been good. Hell, it had been great. Every kiss she’d ever shared with a boy was pantomime and shtick compared to what she’d just experienced. She touched her mouth with two fingers and closed her eyes.

“Fuck,” she whispered. She looked around to see if anyone had spotted her, then hurried to the exit so she could walk to her own dorm. Hopefully the fresh air would clear her head and stop the replay loop of the kiss that she was already sick of seeing. She didn’t mind the kiss part so much; it was the brief moment when Mary-Louise started to kiss her back that was hard to take.

When she got back to the dorm Mallory was asleep. Kate took special care not to disturb her, and for once she was successful. She undressed and crawled under the blankets, feeling excited and queasy in equal measure. She pulled the blankets up to her shoulders and closed her eyes, trying to fight back the overwhelming feelings. They were going to State. She’d kissed a girl. Unsurprisingly her mind kept going back to that, the ill-advised moment when she and Mary-Louise had kissed each other.

She glanced to the left to reassure herself that Mallory was asleep, then bent her knees and spread her feet apart. She ducked under the blanket to take off her T-shirt and bra. She didn’t risk her vibrator, even if she felt like getting it out of the drawer, so she stretched out with her head on the pillow and closed her eyes. If her mind was going to replay the kiss on a loop she might as well get something out of it. She wet her lips and cupped her mound as the scene played over again.

In reality the kiss lasted seven, maybe eight seconds. In her imagination it stretched out into minutes. She stroked with two fingers and lifted her hips as the memory blended with what she’d seen in the pool room of the bar. She wanted to see more, wanted to take part, wanted to feel Mary-Louise’s lips tremble against hers as she used two fingers on her. She bit her bottom lip, imagining it was Mary-Louise, twisting her hips and folding her knees inward as the two memories melded and became one. Now she was the one pressed against the wall, and Mary-Louise was undoing her pants. She didn’t know why she had swapped positions since the beginning of the fantasy but she wasn’t going to question it.

She came far too soon for her tastes, draping her free arm across her mouth to moan into the crook of her elbow. She curled her toes in the sheet, thrust against her hand a few more times, and then sagged against the mattress. She tossed the arm she’d used as a muffler over her head as she caught her breath, turning to make sure Mallory had slept through it, and then rearranged her pillows under her head. Masturbation had taken some of the tension out of her, and she was able to fall asleep within a few minutes.

#

She got a little less than three hours of sleep before someone woke her by knocking on the door. She sat up, realizing a moment too late that she’d never put her shirt back on. The blankets had fallen away to leave her exposed, and she was very aware of Mallory sitting on the edge of her bed. Mallory had the good grace to pretend she was looking through her book bag as Kate put her shirt back on. She shouted, “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Katherine.”

Mary-Louise. Shit. She ran her fingers through her hair and climbed out of bed, tugging her shirt down to cover her underwear before she opened the door.

“Hey,” she said.

Mary-Louise smiled nervously. “Hey… uh. You still have my keys.”

“Oh, shit. I do. Sorry…” She turned and spotted her pants on the floor next to her bed. She crouched and dug through the pockets until she found the keys. “I meant to give them back to you last night. Sorry.”

“No problem.” She took the keys and fiddled nervously with them. “Look, about… uh. You know the whole…”

Kate stepped closer to the door and lowered her voice, as if that would prevent Mallory from eavesdropping. “Didn’t happen. It was a whole…” She hunched her shoulders and shook her head. “It was a whole thing, right? Everyone was overexcited, you know. And I was… I was kind of drunk. I kept sneaking drinks from the pitcher and I guess it caught up with me.”

Mary-Louise looked as if she’d been thrown a lifeline. “Oh! Yeah. God, next time someone suggests celebratory drinks, I’m sticking with virgin daiquiris.”

“Same here. So everything’s… okay?”

“Yeah. I’ve done worse with people I like less.”

Kate laughed.

“Well, I should… probably get going. I don’t want to be late for class. Thanks, Katherine.”

“Yeah, sure. See you at practice.”

When she was gone, Kate closed the door and returned to bed, burrowing head-first under the blankets. She heard Mallory get up, and then the blankets were being rearranged over her.

“Your ass was hanging out.”

“Thank you,” Kate said with her mouth smashed against the mattress.

Mallory said, “Do you have class?”

“Not until the afternoon.”

“See ya.”

She managed a half-hearted farewell and was quickly back to sleep. She wasn’t sure how long she slept the second time, but once again she was woken by a knock on the door. This time her guest sounded more frantic, but she took the time to step into a pair of sweatpants and yank them up her legs before she answered it.

“Who’s there?”

“Coach Holloway. Open the door, Price.”

Kate’s stomach sank at her tone and the use of her last name. Coach rarely last-named someone she wasn’t pissed at. She opened the door and stared wide-eyed at the angriest expression she’d ever seen Coach wear.

“What happened?”

“You tell me. What happened last night?”

Her mind rebelled, focusing on Monica and Ana, and spinning forward until she was again kneeling in front of Mary-Louise to plant an unwelcome kiss on her lips. Then there was a multitude of sins she was sure she’d committed and just forgotten about, so she was fully-prepared to confess any and everything if it meant getting Coach’s forgiveness.

“I-I don’t… know.”

“You don’t know. So you blacked out?”

Kate frowned. “Huh?”

“You were a designated driver, Katherine. Tell me you didn’t drive my girls home drunk.”

“No! God, no, I would never do that! You-you saw me at the bar. I was drinking soda all night.” She was surprised and dismayed to feel tears building in her eyes. “Coach, I would never.”

“Then why did your roommate tell me she overheard you say you were drunk last night?”

Kate’s eyes widened as she realized what had happened. “Oh. Oh, no… No! I was just… I was talking to Mary-Louise and I lied because…” The tears slipped free and she looked down at her feet. “I wasn’t drunk, Coach. I would never have driven drunk.”

Coach put her hand on Kate’s shoulder and ushered her gently back into the room. She shut the door behind her and, when she spoke again, her voice was gentle and kind.

“Then why would you say that?”

“I did something stupid. And I thought if I just said I was drunk it would make it okay.”

Coach sighed. “Something stupid and embarrassing is so much better than stupid and illegal. Katherine, I came over here thinking I was going to have to kick you off the team.”

“Oh, God.” Kate wrapped her arms around her stomach and squeezed.

“Stop that. Hey, come here.” Coach sat her on the edge of her bed and rubbed her back. “Whatever it is, you’ll survive it.”

Kate sniffled and blinked until her eyes were focused. “I kissed Mary-Louise.”

“Oh. I see.” Coach was silent for a long time. “And you were embarrassed about that?”

“I don’t know. I was embarrassed when she rejected me.”

“Ah. Yeah, that’ll do it. A couple weeks ago you told me you didn’t like girls.”

“I lied.”

Coach nodded. “Uh-huh. I remember how it was in school. The locker room can be tough enough without all the other girls knowing your preference.” She looked at the desk before she spotted the Kleenex on the nightstand. She offered one to Kate, who used it to wipe her eyes. “Talk to Mary-Louise, and to Mallory. Let them know what’s going on. I don’t want any rumors about you drinking or me letting it slip.”

“I’ll clear things up.”

“As for Mallory, don’t be mad at her–”

“She was just looking out for me. I’ll thank her.”

Coach nodded. “Good. Sorry I came down so hard on you.”

Kate chuckled. “No, it was good. Very authoritarian. It was good.”

“I made you cry, Katherine. I’m sort of a monster.”

“Aw.” Kate hugged her. “If I really was drunk driving, I’d have wanted you to do even worse to me. I’d have deserved it.”

“But you were innocent, so it was uncalled for. I’m sorry.”

They held the hug for a long moment and Kate closed her eyes.

“Katherine,” Coach said softly, “I know it hurts and it was humiliating for her to say no. But don’t be afraid of that rejection. Don’t let it stop you the next time you have feelings for someone. The no hurts, but the yeses you get more than make up for it. And you’re going to get a lot of yeses.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.” She leaned back and brushed her thumb over Kate’s cheek. “Think you’ll be okay?”

“Yeah. Thanks for bringing the hammer down.”

Coach grinned. “It’s my job. Get some rest. You had a big night last night.”

“I have a class in an hour. But afterward, early bedtime. I promise.”

“Good girl.” She stood up. “I’ll talk to Mallory to make sure she knows you’re good and legal.”

“Thanks.” Kate stood to escort her to the door. Just before she opened it, she turned and hugged Coach hard. It was part instinct, part unconscious move. “You’re the first person I’ve come out to.”

Coach hugged her back. “I’m honored, Katherine. If you need to talk, you know where to find me.”

“Thank you.”

Kate shut the door behind her, pushed her hands into her hair, and exhaled sharply. There. Someone knew she liked girls, and the world would be spinning just the same as it always had. She went back to bed, sat on the edge, and stared out the window. She would have to have a rough conversation with Mary-Louise, and she had to make sure Mallory knew she appreciated being ratted out. She had to get dressed and get ready for class. Just like any other day, only her biggest secret was out and it didn’t seem to have changed anything. She stood up to get dressed, knowing that there were still hurdles left to clear, but she was confident she could get past them without much trouble.

#

The Allenboro Shock came prepared for the championship game, stalwart and prepared to defend their title as the state’s reigning softball team. The Newton Gators stood ready to meet their challenge. An early lead in the first inning took some of the wind from the Gators’ sails, but they rallied to close the gap by the halfway point of the game. No players on either side relaxed or took victory for granted, and both teams had an uphill climb to the ninth inning.

When the final runner passed home and the score was finalized, the Gators were down by five runs. The Shock flooded the field in victory, while the Gators slumped off to the locker room trying to content themselves with second place. Coach gathered the girls before they could start undressing from their uniforms and getting into street clothes for the long drive home.

“You girls have nothing to be ashamed about. You went up against a Goliath and you put on a strong game. Did you see those girls out there? They’ve defeated every time in this league two years in a row, and they knew they couldn’t sit down and stroll through this game. You forced them to play. You made them fight for this championship, and they’re not going to forget that. They may have won this time, but you all made them look over their shoulder. They’re going to be wary next time they come up against you, because they know you’re only going to get stronger. I’m so goddamn proud of you girls right now.”

Kate found herself getting teary, something she’d fought when she realized they weren’t going to pull it out and win. This time her tears were prideful and she moved forward to join the group hug that had spontaneously broken out after Coach’s speech. She found herself pressed against Mary-Louise, an awkward moment that was defused when Mary-Louise pecked her cheek and whispered, “I love you, Katherine.”

Kate knew it wasn’t the way she would’ve hoped, but it was enough. Their exchanges had been awkward and stilted since Kate admitted the truth. She apologized for taking advantage, and swore it wouldn’t happen again. Mary-Louise accepted the apology but Kate was worried things wouldn’t be the same between them ever again. But now, with the hug and the kiss, and those sweet amazing words, Kate knew they would survive.

“I love you, too.”

Coach pulled back and waved her arms over her head. “Okay! Okay. We’ve got a long drive home ahead of us. Get showered, get dressed, and let’s get out of here. You girls had a champion’s season this year, even if you didn’t get the title. You got to the end, and you played your hardest. That counts for something. And it means that next year you’re going to be armed and ready to walk out of here with that trophy.”

The team broke apart, and Coach wandered toward the exit. Kate never tried to take the first shower, so she hurried to catch up before she got back onto the field.

“Coach.”

“Hey! Katherine.” She held her hand out and patted Kate’s arm. “That run in the fourth inning? I didn’t think you would stop even after you hit home. Absolutely amazing.”

“We’ll get you the championship next year.”

Coach smiled. “I don’t care about that. You girls kicked ass this season. If you think I’m the least bit disappointed…”

Kate cupped Coach’s face and kissed her. They stood in the middle of the ramp that led back to the field, the fans who had come on a bus close enough that Kate could hear their conversations, the murmur of other players in the locker room echoing all around them, but she didn’t care. She slipped her tongue across Coach’s lips but they remained closed. She dealt with her disappointment and broke the kiss, rocking back on her heels and looking down at her cleats.

“Sorry. You can tell me to get lost now. In my experience that’s the step that happens now.”

Coach looked conflicted. “Katherine, you’re a kid.”

“I’m twenty-two.”

Coach smiled. “Do me a favor. When you’re thirty-seven, find a twenty-two year old and be honest with yourself about how you feel.”

“I’m not talking about dating you. I’m coming back to the team next season. But right now I’m not one of your players, and you’re not my coach, and I thought…” She shrugged. “Never mind. Forget it.”

Coach touched her arm. “I’m sorry, Katherine.”

Kate smiled. “Gotta get those rejections before I earn a yes, right? It’s fine. To be honest, I didn’t really expect anything to happen. But I really wanted to do it. And I knew I couldn’t do it during the season, and if I didn’t do it now I would have to wait until the next championship game.” She took a deep breath. “Thanks for not shoving me away.”

“Hey, it’s been long enough since I’ve been kissed by a pretty girl that I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.”

“You think I’m pretty?”

Coach put a hand on Kate’s shoulder and playfully shoved her. “I’m not stroking your ego, Katherine. Get back in there and shower. We’re not going to hold the bus for you if you’re late.”

Kate saluted and headed back down the ramp.

#

Kate slept on the bus ride home, slumped against Mary-Louise just like old times. They had managed to have the “I’m gay and I like you, but you’re straight and I understand” conversation while they waited for the bus to load up, and Mary-Louise had taken Kate’s hand and sincerely said, “I wish I was gay. If I was, I’d be all over you.” The memory-slash-dream made Kate smile in her sleep. When she woke and checked her watch to see they were half an hour away from home, she scanned the bus with sleep-bleary eyes. Coach was in her usual seat at the front of the bus, twisted around, and Kate slowly blinked as she realized she was staring directly at her.

Kate smiled and lifted her hand in a wave. Coach lifted three fingers in response, but she didn’t return the smile. Kate felt like she’d ruined something potentially amazing, a relationship that could have had far-reaching branches in her future. But there were regrets no matter what she decided, so she was glad she’d gone for it when she had the chance.

The bus arrived at the school, and Kate woke Mary-Louise by gently shaking her leg. “We’re home, princess.”

“Mm.” She sat up, looked around, and stretched. She smiled, eyes closed, and bumped Kate with her elbow. “Looks like I’m not as opposed to sleeping with you as I thought.”

Kate grinned and bumped her again. The team filed off the bus, a process that took longer than necessary because Coach stopped each girl to hug them, thank them for a stellar season, and either express hopes to see them next year or wish them well after graduation. When she reached Kate she just smiled and chucked her chin.

“I think I said what needed to be said to you.”

“Yeah. I’ll miss you this summer, Coach.”

They hugged tightly, and Kate lingered to hear what Coach said to Mary-Louise before walking her friend to her car.

Mary-Louise reached for Kate’s hand, and Kate let her hold it. When they reached the car they faced each other.

“You know, if you wanted to just see what it was like…”

Kate smiled. “Lesbian Until Graduation?”

“Maybe bisexual. I don’t know. I do know I’ve had sex with guys I like way less than I like you, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Might even find out something about myself.”

Kate leaned in and kissed Mary-Louise’s cheek. “I took advantage of you once. I won’t do it again. Ask me again on a less emotional night.”

Mary-Louise smiled. “I do love you, Katherine.”

“I love you, too. Too much to risk it with sex.” She squeezed Mary-Louise’s hand. “Tomorrow, dinner? My treat.”

“Hell yeah.”

They hugged again, part of Kate’s mind that had been trying to get laid since college started shouting curses at her until the embrace broke. “Go home. Get some sleep.”

“Do you want a ride?”

“No. I want some fresh air.”

“Okay. Be safe.”

“I have a bat in my bag if anyone tries to abduct me.”

Mary-Louise chuckled and hugged her one more time. Kate stepped back and waved as she drove off, then started walking toward the end of the parking lot. She was washed in headlights from behind so she stepped out of the way and glanced over her shoulder as the car didn’t pull around her. She moved even farther to the side and the car slowly pulled up next to her.

Coach leaned across the passenger seat again. “I thought I made my feelings on this clear.”

“It’s not far.”

“In the car, Price.”

Kate sighed and tossed her bag into the backseat. She got into the car and fastened her seatbelt. “You know, I’m not your responsibility anymore. You’re not my coach.”

“You’re my responsibility until you stop playing softball. Until then, I own your ass.”

Kate smiled. It had been a long time since anyone outside her family claimed protection over her; it made her feel warm to know Coach meant it. That thought led to another.

“What do I call you? Ms. Holloway?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I probably shouldn’t call you Coach when it’s off-season.”

Coach shrugged. “I like it.”

“Okay.” They slowed at an intersection and Kate gestured with a chin. “Right, right here, right?” She smiled at her own joke and looked to see if Coach remembered the last time she’d driven her home. Coach was staring out the windshield, chewing on her bottom lip, working something over in her mind. “Coach? Everything okay?”

“Hall H is…”

“It’s a right.”

Coach nodded slowly. “My apartment is a left, though.”

Kate didn’t understand. She was about to suggest she could walk the rest of the way, but then she realized what Coach was saying. Her breathing sped up.

“Oh.”

Coach closed her eyes. “Christ, this could go wrong a thousand different ways.”

“Yeah.”

“But it could go right, too.”

“Yeah,” Kate said softly. “Whatever you decide, Coach… I’m okay with it. Really.”

Coach opened her eyes and looked at her. “I can’t afford a relationship.”

“I don’t have time for one,” Kate said.

Their hands met on the center console and Kate turned her wrist so their palms touched. Coach looked down and linked their fingers together, and Coach let out a harsh breath.

“Fuck.”

Kate held her breath.

Coach turned left.

#

The night was awkward, clumsy, both too long and over too soon. Kate tripped over her pants in the doorway of Coach’s bedroom. She apologized under her breath at least three dozen times before her bra even came off, and she felt like she sweated more than she ever had in her entire life by the time things were finished. She stroked Coach’s body, kissed whatever she could get her lips on, and accepted Coach’s patient instructions on what to do with her lips, fingers, and thighs. Her thigh! Who knew that could come into play?

She didn’t keep track of how many times she came, but she counted each time Coach seemed to be having an orgasm. They fell asleep at dawn with the tally at three, though two of them had been caused by Coach getting herself off while Kate watched. She dreamed of Coach, surrounded by her scent and cuddling against her side under the blankets. When she woke they were both naked, and certain parts of Kate’s body felt sticky with sweat and… other things. She kept her eyes closed as long as possible, but then Coach kissed her forehead.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.”

Kate opened her eyes and looked up at Coach. “I was scared to find out it was a dream.”

“That’s why I slept as little as possible. I just watched you.” Kate smiled and rested her cheek on the curve of Coach’s breast. “Are you okay?”

“Me? Fine. I’m fine.” She sat up so that she could kiss Coach. “Really, really fine.”

Coach stroked Kate’s cheek. “I needed last night, too. I talked big in the locker room, but it was still a loss. Thanks for helping me get through it. Now I can look back on the night and know we played great and the night ended well.” She wet her lips. “I don’t want you to think this is a trend with me. I don’t choose a player every season, take her home… I just don’t do that. You’re the first student I’ve ever done this with.”

“You’re the first person I’ve ever done this with.” Kate blushed, but Coach smiled and touched her hair. “I’m not going to become crazy stalker psycho chick. This was just a one-time thing. But I’ll always remember it. I’ll treasure the memory.”

“I will, too.”

They kissed, and Kate shifted on the mattress so that she was lying on top of her coach. “But just because this is a one-time thing doesn’t mean the one time is over, Shelby.”

“Be careful, Katherine… if you start out insatiable you just might stay hungry.”

Kate growled and bent down to start her work. She only had one day; she was planning to make it count.

Fifteen years later
Kate looked up from the computer when the door opened to deliver Nicole Bronwyn. She was soaked from the rain, which was still pouring down, and Kate stood up to grab a towel off the counter. Nicole shook her umbrella out over the sidewalk, struggled it shut, and then turned to have Kate wrap her head in the towel so she could aggressively scrub-dry her hair. She laughed and withstood the treatment, smiling when Kate lowered the towel to drape it around her neck.

“Thank you.”

“De nada.” They kissed hello, Nicole’s lips wet from the storm. When they parted Kate said, “Amy is staying at work until close, so it’s just me and you for dinner.”

“Cool. Sounds fun.”

Kate stepped back. “Want to see something else fun? Come here.” She took Nicole’s hand to lead her to the laptop. She sat, and Nicole bent over behind the chair so she could wrap her arms around her. She rested her chin on Kate’s shoulder and looked at the Facebook profile on the screen. The picture showed an attractive woman with a short, gray buzz-cut and tinted glasses smiling into the camera. A German shepherd was sitting in front of her, and another woman was peeking over the subject’s shoulder.

“Who is that?”

“Coach Shelby Holloway-Sutton. She was my softball coach in college. Led us to two state championships, and we won the title my senior year.”

“Nice way to end a college career.”

“Mm-hmm.” Kate dragged her finger over the trackpad. “I lost my virginity to her.”

Nicole laughed. “Whoa. Way to bury the lede, Lois Lane. You slept with your college coach?”

“Yep.” She grinned. “She told me when I was thirty-seven, I should find a twenty-two year old and see what I thought. I was interviewing some of those U-Dub college students working out at the marine labs, and one of the girls just off-handedly mentioned she got her laptop for her twenty-second birthday. And she was a baby. She had freckles and Taylor Swift on her iPod.” She sighed. “I was lucky Coach didn’t just pat me on the head and send me home with a note pinned to my T-shirt. ‘Please speak to Katherine about her inappropriate behavior.’”

Nicole kissed Kate’s ear. “You must have been irresistible, even back then.”

“Maybe so. But I would never go to bed with anyone that young.”

“No? You like ‘em a little more seasoned?”

Kate turned her chair around and guided Nicole down onto her lap. “Mm. I like a lady. A lady who knows what she’s doing.”

“Oh, yeah?” Nicole said, bowing down for a kiss.

“Mm-hmm. Better yet, two ladies who know what they’re doing.”

Nicole chuckled as their lips met, and Kate rested her hands on the back belt loops of Nicole’s jeans. When Nicole scooted forward, rainwater dripped from her shirt and trickled onto Kate’s wrist, making her shudder.

“About dinner…”

“Yeah?”

“I’m not hungry right now. If you want, we could go into the bedroom… I could get out some of my Squire’s Knights gear… I could show you what Coach Holloway found so irresistible. Granted, I’m not in my twenties anymore, but–”

Nicole rose from Kate’s lap, took her hands, and hauled her up out of the seat. Kate laughed as she was towed down the hall to the bedroom and cast another look over her shoulder at the laptop screen. Coach was still smiling at her, one hand on the dog and the other stretched back toward her wife. She turned away and looked at Nicole, the woman she and her partner both called “girlfriend,” and realized the lesson Coach had imparted that long-ago night.

She might not have won the game, but she had somehow won a prize she didn’t even know she’d been after. And she wouldn’t trade her trophies for anything in the world.

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