A guy in a camouflage Paintball Shootout coveralls poses like an army sergeant beside Joshua. They both have the same tall, muscled, marine body types. Maybe Joshua spends his every spare moment here. They’re brothers in arms. Comrades who’ve seen some seriously painty shit go down in this barren wasteland. When they both stare expectantly at me, I realize I’m supposed to be standing up front too.
Joshua demonstrates how to put the suit and protective gear on and everyone watches with keen interest. Sergeant Paintball fields the slew of stupid questions with practiced patience. We all receive our suits, helmets, kneepads. Then we’re armed.
We are adults undertaking a team-building activity in a professional capacity, so naturally we spend several minutes horsing around, striking poses with our paintball guns and making sound effects. Joshua and Sergeant Paintball watch us like orderlies at a mental facility. Alan, recent Birthday Boy, pretends to mow us all down. “Pew, pew, pew,” he intones in his grave baritone. “Pew, pew.”
I scramble out of the path of one fake skirmish and start to feel undersized and feeble. I look at all the long legs and eyes lit with paint-lust. Maybe tensions will boil over. They’ll all go rogue, Gamins versus Bexleys, swapping paintball guns for AK-47s.
Sweat is starting to bead on my brow and upper lip and whatever is going on with my stomach, it’s bad. My lipstick is a faded pink Popsicle stain and my hair is stuffed into a heavy helmet. The smallest suit they had is still so big that people laugh when they see me. Such elegance. Such grace. I am going to need to concentrate really hard on getting through this afternoon.
Helene waves to me. She is standing on an observation deck, wearing a white visor, cream linen shirt, and white cigarette pants, sipping Diet Coke through a straw. Only Helene would wear white to a paintball park. Mr. Bexley is sulking about something and remains seated, arms crossed, a bullfrog in khaki.
“Have fun, everyone,” Helene calls. “And remember, we can see you!” With that eerie Big Brother comment ringing in our ears we begin.
Joshua reads out the first teams and I’m on his. We stride out with our teammates, Andy and Annabelle. Two Gamins, two Bexleys. Our opposing team files out, a similar ratio. He must have sorted each team like this.
I should have opened my mouth this last week to ask him about the arrangements, but the awkwardness between us has been insurmountable. Plus, since my corporate retreat idea was completely destroyed I’ve felt lackluster and sulky about everything. He hijacked it, he can damn well organize it.
But as I realize the air is filled with palpable excitement, I realize my grand idea has now become his achievement. I’m such an idiot.
I spot Marion with the flag. She waves merrily with a pen gripped between her teeth, clipboard in hand, and binoculars hanging on her chest. She is taking her faux-important job seriously.
“What’s the plan, team?” I can’t see our opposition.
“Stick together or spread out?” Annabelle is unsure.
“Hmm, I’d say probably stick together, given this is a team-building challenge.” I prop myself up on some slender pine branches and wish I could wipe my face. In this suit I’m so hot I feel faint.
“We should pick one person who’ll be going for the flag, and protect them,” Andy says, which is a good idea.
“I like it. Who’s going to do it?”
They both peep furtively at Joshua, clearly fearful of him. Somehow, the helmet doesn’t look stupid on him. His gloved hand looks big enough to punch through a brick wall. He should be miniaturized and sold in toy stores for violent little boys.
“Annabelle,” Joshua decides. “And if she gets shot, we’ll go for the flag in alphabetical order, first names.”
Great. Meaning Andy, Joshua, and then Lucy. Basically, no one is protecting me at all. I’m cannon fodder. We file out and take cover. Andy sees my rising panic and smiles kindly. “We’ll all look after you Luce, don’t worry.”
I knew somehow Joshua would find a way to screw with me. I am coming out of this bruised, battered, and paint-splattered. And I can’t even shoot him until I’m rotated onto another team.
There’s a horn blast, and I’m crawling on hands and knees up an incline awkwardly, the loose dirt making me slide. I am moving first. It makes sense, given our strategy. I’ll scout the way forward. I’m the most expendable.
My arms won’t seem to hold me up properly and I collapse onto my stomach. Annabelle runs ahead of me with windmill limbs and zero strategy or stealth. I kneel up and try to call her back. A hand clamps on my calf and I’m dragged backward until Joshua flops down next to me, gun in hand. He motions at me to lie down.
“Don’t,” I hiss at him.
“You’ll get shot in the face if you pop up like that.”
“Why didn’t you let me then?”
His hand spreads across my lower back, pinning me firmly to the ground. In the privacy of my mind I can admit the weight of his hand is delicious. The slivers of fabric between our skin begins to glow.
“What’s wrong with you, anyway?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” I try to squirm away.
“You look terrible.”
“Thanks. We have to cover Annabelle.” I edge up to see her tottering awkwardly among slender tree trunks, completely exposed. Andy is gallantly leaping after her. The flag is an orange scrap in the distance.
I’m up and running, Joshua behind me. I fall behind a boulder and spot Marnie on the opposing team. Raising my gun, I fire off a couple of rounds, clipping her in the shoulder. She says a disappointed, “Aw,” and walks off.
When I look at Joshua he looks mildly impressed. “Badass.”
Annabelle is out of sight. The air is filled with cracks, pops, and cries of pain. After a few short runs, I find Andy kneeling on the ground trying to tie his boot lace with a big splat of paint on his chest.
He looks up at me with the weary eyes of a Vietnam vet who knows he’s about to die, blood geysering from a pulpy stomach wound. He grasps at my knee. “Go save her.”
He has been watching too many action movies, but so have I judging by the swell of responsibility and protectiveness inside me. I will save Annabelle.
“I’m going to get a Coke,” Andy tells me, ruining the moment.
I keep running. My breath feels short and I’m fogging my goggles a little. I hear a crack and jump behind a pyramid of barrels, which drum with the sound of shots. I look down. Nothing on me so far. I assume I’d feel it. I check the backs of my legs.
“You’re clear,” Joshua calls. I look over at him, crouched nearby behind a big tree stump. He’s holding his paintball gun in a cool way, pointed straight at the sky. I try to copy him and begin to drop it.
“Dork,” he comments unnecessarily. He must have strong wrists.
Annabelle is crouched behind a miserable, suicidal sapling. I watch her raise her gun and take out Matt from the opposition. I let out a yelp of delight and she turns and gives me the thumbs-up, grinning widely as she waves me forward. The flag is fluttering about thirty yards away. She is abruptly shot in the center of her back and yips in pain. I don’t need to even look at Joshua to know that he is shaking his head at me.
“Off you go then. I’ll protect you. Just you and me now, buddy. Age before beauty.”
“Great. I’m a dead man.” He makes the short run to my barrel hideout and checks his ammo, glancing over his shoulder.
“Were your parents in the military?” It would explain a lot. The rigid behaviors, the brisk, impersonal manner. Addiction to rules and sequences. His neatness and economy in everything he does. He’s now got a lack of friends and the inability to connect. I bet his parents had frequent foreign postings. He bounces a quarter off his perfectly made bed.
“No,” he tells me, checking my gun for me. “They’re doctors. Surgeons. Well, they were.”
“Are they dead? You’re an . . . orphan?”
“Am I what? They’re retired. Alive and well.”
“Huh. Are you from here?” The tip of my gun is resting in the dirt. I’m too tired. I hope I get shot. I need a rest.
“Only me and my brother live in the city.” He frowns at me and taps my gun with his. “Hold your gun up.”
“There’s two of you? Heaven help us.” I try to obey but my arms are watery.
“You’ll be pleased to know we’re nothing alike.”
“Do you see him much?”
“No.” He assesses the course in front of us.
“None of your business.” Sheesh.
I can see Danny in the distance stalking through the trees in the skirmish happening on the next rotation over, a dividing rope between us. I give him a wave and he lifts a hand in response, a smile spreading. Joshua raises his gun and shoots him twice on the back of the thigh with sharpshooter accuracy, then sniffs derisively.
“What gives? I’m not against you,” Danny shouts. He calls out to his flag marshal and resumes, this time with a slight limp.
“That was unnecessary, Joshua. Very bad sportsmanship.”
We begin to move forward, and he’s bent low at the waist, surprisingly light on his feet as he sidesteps a volley of shots, bumping me backward behind a tree. The flag is dangling close by, but there are still two of our opponents out there.
“Quiet,” we hiss to each other in unison and look at each other. The worst place to play the Staring Game is in the middle of a live paintball session.
I have to lean my helmet back against the tree to look up at him properly. His eyes are a color I’ve never seen. The thrill of live action combat electrifies him. He looks away to check behind us, a scowl darkening his face. How do I ever manage to keep my composure under those fierce eyes?
We’re pressed together. My skin instantly sensitizes, and when I glance sideways I get a peripheral glimpse of his curved, heavy bicep. My heart stutters when I remember how it felt to have his hand on my jaw, cradling it, tilting me up to meet his mouth. Tasting me like something sweet. He is looking at my mouth and I know he is remembering the exact same thing.