“Wanna be teammates?”
“Yes,” I say at the same time as Joshua barks, No. He sure is good at saying that word.
“Teams are pre-allocated,” he snaps, and Danny shoots me a look that clearly says, What’s up his ass?
“I was hoping to—” Danny begins, but Joshua shoots him his own look: Whatever you’re trying? Don’t. The last person in the line gives me their cash, and we are left standing in a fog of weird tension.
I’ll talk to you in a bit,” Danny promises me and boards the bus. I don’t blame him. Joshua has his arms crossed like a nightclub bouncer.
“What the hell was that about?” I ask Joshua. He shakes his head.
Helene and Mr. Bexley swerve out in their respective Porsche and Rolls to meet us there. Of course, they’re not going to participate in the team building. They’re going to sit on the balcony overlooking the paintball park and drink coffee and hate each other’s guts.
“Let’s go,” Joshua says and pushes me onto the bus. There are only two seats left, and they’re right up front. Joshua has reserved them with stacks of clipboards. Danny leans into the aisle and shrugs regretfully.
Joshua sent the branch an email instructing us to change into old casual clothes at lunch. Things we won’t mind ruining. I’m wearing skintight jeans and a stretched-out vintage Elvis T-shirt. It used to belong to my dad. Fat, jumpsuit Elvis, microphone raised to his lips. It slides loosely off my shoulder. The look I was trying to emulate was Kate Moss at a music festival. Judging by Joshua’s face when he saw me, I’m a tragic loser. He did, however, look at the emerald-green strap of my sports bra. I know that for a fact.
Joshua also got changed into casual clothes. While he folded his black business shirt neatly on his desk like a retail assistant, I caught my reflection on the wall diagonal to him; a slack-jawed mask of idiotic lust. Firstly, Joshua is wearing jeans. They’re all beaten-up and worn, with ice-blue paint flecks, and they pull taut across his thighs as he sits. I can’t fault those jeans.
Next, he’s wearing a T-shirt. The soft, threadbare cotton melts all over his torso as he slouches. The shapes going on under that T-shirt are . . . The sleeves are cutting gently into biceps that are making me . . . But it’s his flat stomach that I’m . . . The skin is all gold like—
“May I help you with something?” He smoothes down the T-shirt. My eyes slither along behind his hand. I want to scrunch up that T-shirt into a bowl and eat it with a dessert spoon.
“I never thought you’d wear . . .” I gesture vaguely at his fabulous torso.
“You thought I’d be paintballing in Hugo Boss?”
“Hugo Boss, eh? Didn’t they design the Nazi uniforms?”
“Lucinda, I swear.” He closes his eyes for nearly a full minute. He pinches the bridge of his nose. I’d swear he’s trying to not laugh, or scream.
I cross my eyes at him, poke my tongue out, and say, “Derrrr.” He doesn’t crack. Defeated, I twist up and look over the seats until I see Danny’s ruffled hair. We wave to each other and pull identical faces to indicate how unhappy we are with our seatmates. Then it occurs to me my boobs are probably a couple of inches from Joshua’s head and I slide back down.
“You and him? It’s getting a little pathetic.” Joshua is testy.
The word cuts me deep. Pathetic. He’s called me that before. We’ve circuited back neatly to the same place we’re most comfortable. I had wondered how things would play out after the kiss, after the tears, the wounded sadness in his eyes. The apology. The silence that has stretched through each day since.
According to Joshua, we’re back to hate, and I can’t do it much longer. I can’t keep it going. It’s taking too much out of me. What was once as easy as breathing is now an uphill battle. I’m so tired I’m aching.
“Sure. I’m pathetic.” I watch the road ahead, and the Staring Game is going on, one-sided. I ignore him. No one can see us except the driver, if she chose to look, but she’s got traffic to contend with.
I ignore him.
“I do not know anyone by that name.”
“Play with me for a minute,” he says it softly, right in my ear. I turn my face to his and try to regulate my breathing.
“HR,” I manage. His face is so close to mine I can taste his breath, hot mint sweetness. I can see the tiny stripes in his irises, tiny unexpected sparks of yellow and green. There are so many blues I think of galaxies. Little stars.
“Are your roses still alive?”
Is there anything this man does not know? I try to not notice that our elbows are touching a little. Elbows are not erogenous. At least, I didn’t think they were.
“Who’d you hear about them from?”
“Well, everyone knows Danny Fletcher is your dream man. Roses and whatnot. Candlelit lunches for two in the work kitchen.” He looks at my lips, and I lick them. He looks at my bra strap, and my knees press together.
“Who’s your source?”
His eyes are getting darker. The pupil is eating the blue, and I think of his elevator eyes. Murderous eyes. Passionate eyes. Crazy-person eyes.
“Inside source? Like magazines have for celebrities? Are you a celebrity, Lucinda?”
“I don’t know how you know so much.”
“I’m perceptive. I know everything.”
“You know I have roses in my bedroom because of what, body language? Mind reading? You’re so full of shit. You probably look through my window with a long-range telescope.”
“Maybe I have the apartment opposite yours.”
“You wish you did, you creep.” I’m beginning to feel the first prickles of sweat on my spine. If he did, I’d probably be the one sitting in the dark with binoculars.
“Well? Are they?”
“They wilted. I had to toss them out this morning.”
His hand slides down my arm, slowly, softly, pressing the goose bumps flat. His hand is so cold I glance up at his face. His face is set to a default frown.
“You’re pretty hot.”
“Yeah, but that’s common knowledge.” I’m sarcastic as I pull away. The bus jolts around a corner and a little wave of dizziness blurs my vision and nausea turns my stomach over. I’m not getting sick. My body is probably reacting to the stress of the job application process, the kiss, and the murder-glint in Joshua’s eyes.
“Looking forward to being annihilated?”
I manage the best retort I can.
“I’m going to destroy you. The Hating Game. You versus me. It’s the only way this can possibly end.”
“Right,” Joshua barks abruptly, standing up and kneeling in his seat to address our colleagues. They all reluctantly stop talking, and I sense mutiny is afoot.
I kneel up too, and wave at everyone. They all smile. Good little cop, universally despised cop. I notice the Gamins are sitting to the left, the Bexleys to the right.
“There will be a total of six challenges today,” Joshua begins.
“Seven if you include him,” I add and get some cheap laughs. He scowls sideways at me.
“Six teams of four. Each challenge you’ll be in a different group. The aim is to get to know your colleagues in an outdoor, active environment. As teams you’ll come up with strategies to get the flag first.”
There are blank faces, and he sighs heavily. “Seriously? No one here has ever done paintball? You will be trying to get the flag before the opposing team. Main rule is no paintballing the flag marshals. Or each other’s faces, or groins.”
Darn it, that’s all I’ve been dreaming about.
“Marion, Tim, Fiona, Carey, you are flag marshals. You are assessing the team participation from the vantage point beside the flag. Scoring people, if you will.”
I’m slightly impressed. I was a bit concerned imagining those four heaving their heavy, pain-riddled, aging bodies across a paintball course. Carey and Marion nod to each other self-importantly as Joshua passes back four clipboards. I wish he’d discussed all of this with me. He’s in complete control and I don’t like it.
“After we finish, we will convene up on the deck for coffee and to discuss what we’ve learned about each other today.” He slithers back down into his seat.
“Any questions?” I look around and a few hands are raised.
“Do we get overalls?”
Joshua says something under his breath that sounds like fucking morons. I’ll field this one.
“You’ll each get a protective suit and a helmet to protect your eyes and face.” I feel Joshua’s sigh at my hip sink through my T-shirt.
“Yes.” I point, and Andy lowers his hand.
“How much do paintballs hurt?”
“A lot,” Joshua says from his seat.
“Remember, folks, the aim isn’t to hurt each other.” I glance down at Joshua. “No matter how bad you want to!”
“Are you two on opposing sides?” someone at the back calls, causing laughter.
Our reputation for hatred has gotten a little out of hand, and most of it is my fault. I have to quit with the hating-Joshua jokes.
“This is designed to bring us all together. We’ll all be on each other’s team at some point, like in a work situation. Even Joshua and I will find some common ground today. Anyway. The grand prize!” Everyone sits up straight.
“The prize,” Joshua interrupts loudly from his seat, “is an extra leave day credited to you. That’s right—a free day off. But you have to earn it displaying outstanding commitment to your team.”
There’s a buzz among the group. A free day off. A day release from jail. It dangles above them all like a brass ring.
Paintball Shootout is located in a small pine plantation. The ground is dusty and stark. The trees ache for death. A crow circles overhead, making ominous creaking noises. Everyone straggles into a lumpy circle near the gates.