Page 17

Chapter 9

You’re sweating.” Joshua frowns. Maybe not then.

I can hear a twig crack and realize someone is approaching behind us. I raise my eyebrows in askance and Joshua nods. My moment is here and he needs to get the flag. I grab handfuls of his paintball suit and swing him around behind me against the tree.

“What are you—” he starts to say behind my back, but I’m scanning the terrain for the ambush. I’m Lara Croft, raising her guns, eyes burning with retribution. I can see the shape of the enemy’s elbow behind the barrels.

“Go!” I yell. I fumble in my thick gloves for the trigger. “I’m covering you!”

It happens instantly. Pop, pop, pop. Pain radiates through me—arms, legs, stomach, boob. I howl, but the shots keep coming, white splats all over me. It’s complete overkill. Joshua pivots us neatly and blocks the shots with his body. I feel him jolting as he takes more hits and his arm rises to cradle my head. Can I freeze time and take a nap right here?

He turns his head and shouts angrily at our assailant. The shots stop, and nearby I hear Simon crow with triumph, standing on top of the mound and waving the flag. Dammit. My one job and he wouldn’t even let me do it.

“You should have gone. I was covering for you. Now we’ve lost.” Another wave of nausea nearly knocks me over.

“Sor-reeee,” Joshua says sarcastically. Rob is approaching, gun lowered. I’m making whimpering noises. The pain is throbbing in points all over me.

“Sorry, Lucy. I’m so sorry. I got a bit . . . excited. I play a lot of computer games.” Rob takes a few steps back when he sees Joshua’s expression.

“You’ve really hurt her,” Joshua snaps at him, and I feel his hand cup my head. He’s still pressing me against the tree, knee braced between mine, and when I look to my left I see Marion watching us with her binoculars. She drops them and writes something on her clipboard, a grin curling her mouth.

“Off.” I give him an almighty shove. His body is huge and heavy and I’m so boiling I want to rip my suit off and lie in cold paint. We’re all panting a little as we walk back to the starting point under the balcony. I’m limping and Joshua takes my arm brusquely, probably to move me on faster. I see Helene up ahead, lowering her sunglasses. I wave like a sad cartoon kitten; womp, womp.

Casualties abound. People groan as they press the painted parts of their bodies gingerly. Dozens of reenactments are taking place. I look down and realize my front is almost solid paint. Joshua’s front half is fine, but his back is a mess. Trust us to be opposites.

When I strip off my gloves and helmet, Joshua gives me his clipboard and a bottle of water. I raise it to my lips and it seems to be empty quickly. Everything feels weird. Joshua asks Sergeant Paintball if they have any aspirin.

Danny picks his way through our fallen comrades to join me. I’m acutely aware of how disgusting I must look. He looks at my front. “Ouch.”

“I’m seriously one big bruise.”

“Do I need to avenge you?”

“Sure, that’d be great. Rob from corporate is the definition of trigger happy.”

“Consider him taken care of. And what was that, Josh? You shot me in the leg and I was in a completely different game.”

“Sorry, I got confused,” Joshua says, insincerity ringing in his tone.

Danny shades his eyes and Joshua smirks up at the sky. Our colleagues stumble and flail, paint slicked and in pain, unsure of what to do next. Things are rapidly starting to disintegrate. I consult the clipboard. I see he’s written me on his team for every rotation, probably at Helene’s request. She’d never know. She’s doing a Sudoku puzzle. I quickly use a pencil and change it before calling out the next teams. People clump together, complaining.

“Wait, they’re getting the first-aid kit. You’d better sit the rest of the afternoon out. Something’s wrong with you,” Joshua says. I glance up at Helene again, and then look at everyone around me. I could be in charge of this bunch soon. This afternoon is an audition, no doubt about it. I’m not going to fail it now.

“Yeah, you’ve been telling me since the day we met. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.” I walk off without a backward glance into my new team.

It feels like the longest afternoon of my life, but it also goes by in a flash. The feeling of being stalked and watched is unnerving, and in our small teams we do form instant bonds. I shove Quintus from accounts receivable into a bunker as pink pellets rain down over us.

“Go! Go!” I roar like a SWAT team leader as Bridget goose steps through to the flag, bursts of paint clipping at her heels. The extent of how sick I am reveals itself during my third rotation, after I snatched the flag. I knew it was deeply tragic of me to feel so triumphant, but honestly I felt as though I’d scaled Everest. My teammates screamed, and big basketball-player Samantha—a Bexley—picked me up off the ground and swung me in a circle. I threw up a little in my mouth.

My arms shake from the strain of holding the gun. Everything feels slightly surreal, as if at any moment I’ll awake from a bad afternoon nap. The sky overhead is a silver-white dome.

I look at the faces surrounding me, shining with sweat. I feel such a kinship with these people. I watch a Gamin high-five a Bexley as they burst out laughing. We’re all in it together. Maybe Joshua had a good idea with this, after all. Maybe the only way to truly unite people is through battle and pain. Confrontation and competition. Maybe surviving something is the point.

Where is Joshua, anyway? I don’t see him for the rest of the afternoon except for the team rotation breaks. With every person stalking through the trees my eyes would play tricks. I’d see him kneeling down, reloading, and taking shots. I’d see the shape of his shoulders and the curve of his spine. But then I’d blink and it would be someone else.

I’m expecting that one fatal shot. A big red splat, straight to the heart.

“Where’s Joshua?” I ask the flag marshals and they shrug. “Where’s Joshua?” I ask everyone I pass. “Where’s Joshua?” The answers start to get clipped and irritated.

I tug at my paintball suit despite the rhythmic pops and cracks of live fire. I pull down the neckband ineffectually, baring half an inch of sweaty skin to the cold air. Then I throw up. It’s nothing but water and tea. I didn’t feel like lunch today. Or breakfast. I kick sand over it and wipe my mouth on the back of my hand. The planet is circling too quickly so I hold on to a tree.

The air is beginning to chill as the final horn sounds and we all trudge back to HQ. Everyone is visibly exhausted and there is a great deal of fuss as we strip out of our suits. Everybody is complaining. Sergeant Paintball looks like he’s evaluating his life choices. Joshua is standing with one hand on his hip and I instinctively raise my gun. It’s time.

Lucy versus Joshua, total annihilation.

He walks over to me, completely unperturbed by my action-man pose and takes the gun. I pull my helmet off. He steps behind me and his fingers slide in the sweat on the nape of my neck. It’s like he’s touched a live wire and I make a weird gurgle. He grips the zipper of my suit and slashes it down my back. I hop around to get it off, batting away his hands.

“You’re sick,” he accuses. I shrug noncommittally and weave up the stairs to where Helene and Fat Little Dick wait.

“Looks like some excellent teamwork went on,” Helene says. We let out a weak cheer, propping each other up. I lift the edge of my T-shirt. My bruises are purple. The smell of coffee makes me feel ill. I make my way to the front. Joshua’s been running this little show for too long. I can salvage this.

“Can I call our four flag marshals to stand and discuss the acts of teamwork and bravery they witnessed?”

The flag marshals make their observations and I try to hold it together. Apparently, Suzie caused a commotion, allowing her teammate to slip up and get the flag.

“I got four shots for that,” Suzie calls, patting her hip and wincing.

“But you took the shots for your team,” Mr. Bexley says, rousing himself out of his stupor, which I am beginning to suspect is caused by prescription drugs. “Good work, young lady.”

“And speaking of bravery,” Marion says, and my stomach sinks. “Little Lucy here did something quite remarkable.”

A cheer goes up and I wave it away. If one more person calls me little, small, or ridiculously small I am going to karate chop them.

“She took at least ten rounds for a colleague today, protecting him from someone who was going a little overboard. That person remains nameless.” She looks pointedly at Rob and he cowers lower to the ground like a guilty dog. Other people frown at him.

“She’s standing in front of her colleague, arms outstretched, protecting him to the death!” Marion mimes my actions, arms scarecrow straight, body jolting from the shots. She’s a good actress.

“And to my surprise, I see it’s none other than Josh Templeman that Lucy is protecting!”

A big laugh breaks out. People swap amused looks and two girls from HR elbow each other.

“But—but then! He swings her around to protect her and takes paintballs in the back! Protecting her! It was quite something.”

Another fun fact: Marion reads romance novels in the kitchen at lunchtime. I catch Joshua’s eye, and he wipes his forehead roughly on his forearm.

“It seems paintball has brought us all together today,” I manage to say and everyone claps. If this were a TV episode, we’ve just reached the little moral conclusion: Stop hating each other. Helene is pleased; her lips are pursed in a knowing smile.

The Day Off Prize is awarded to Suzie, and she accepts her little mock certificate with a deep bow. Deborah has taken some good action shots on her camera and I ask her to email them to me for the staff newsletter.

Helene catches me by the elbow. “Remember, I’m not in on Monday. I’ll be meditating under a tree.”

Everyone heads down to the bus, and I’m gratified to see it’s now harder to tell who’s Gamin and who’s Bexley. Everyone looks like a train wreck; bedraggled clothes and red, sweaty brows. Most of the women have panda eye makeup. Despite the physical discomfort, there’s a new sense of camaraderie.