He claps his hands. “Alright, let’s beat these guys. Pair up, you know the drill…”
No, wait, I don’t…
He snaps out scenarios for our strategy with words like bunker, battle pack, hopper, basecamp… I get lost.
They whoop and fist-bump, and, of course, I miss Sawyer’s high-five.
We walk to the other team and shake hands with the defensive players; most are brawny and thick and look as if they weigh twice what I do.
“Quarterback thinks he can roll in late…bunch of scared pussies…”
“Gonna aim for your face, Zane,” Dillon shoots out.
“Trophy is ours!” calls Troy, adjusting his visor.
“I’m taking down the girl,” someone cackles.
My eyes widen. “Can’t I just watch, like from the sidelines?”
Dillon pats my helmet. “I’ll take care of you.”
“Uh-huh. I’m the only girl.”
“Because I like you.”
“I like you too, jersey chaser,” a burly player says before snapping his teeth at me. Linebacker. Jagger something. Big and mean.
“He’s just messing with your head,” Dillon murmurs as he hands me my paintball gun. “Don’t hold it like it’s a bomb. Come here.” He stands next to me and positions the weapon in my hands, showing me the trigger and safety. “When you see a red glow stick, aim and shoot. You’re good at pool, this’ll be easy.”
A bead of sweat drips down my back. “As long as I don’t see blood…”
He grins. “Just breathe.”
Fairy lights flicker on as if they were on a timer, illuminating paths deep into the woods.
“What are the rules?” I ask anxiously. “It kind of ran together in the huddle.” In other words, I don’t understand your jargon.
“The game is like a horror movie—kidding. It’s awesome, and you’ll get high on the adrenaline. See the paths? We’ll run on those, hide in the woods, and take out the red team. Barricades make for great hiding places. Friendly fire counts, so if you shoot one of your own team, they’re out. Each team has a base.” He points at a small fort next to a fence and a green flag. “That’s us. Their camp is on the other side of those woods with a red flag.”
“The dark woods?”
“And I have to run with a helmet, a gun, and a vest?”
“I’m going to kill you.”
“Slowly. Maybe while you sleep. Or poison.”
He looks delighted. “You like to win, right?”
“Hell yeah.” Tension rolls off me.
“Badass girl—I knew you’d get it. The defense killed us last year, so we need your spunk. Two ways to win: either wipe out the players on the other side, or steal their flag and move it all the way back to our basecamp.”
He rubs black face paint on himself then on me.
“Defense has gone to their base,” Sawyer says to the group around us. I stare at his goggles. Fancy. He flashes me a smirk. “Out here they call me Bullseye because I never miss.”
Dillon smirks. “Bullseye was the last man standing last year and almost made it back with their flag before he was shot. This year he’s out for blood.”
Sawyer raises his gun and makes a shout.
“What’s up with the goggles?” I ask him.
He pulls them down over his eyes.
“Night vision. Army surplus.”
“Where are my night vision goggles?” I ask Dillon.
He throws an arm around me. “The rest of us just run around in the dark. More fun that way.”
So. Much. Fun.
I follow my team to our fort, counting nine of us as the guys touch the flag for luck. I dash for it, sending a prayer up. Lord, help me be decent at this.
I hear a voice off in the woods scream, “Ten seconds!”
Dillon rolls his neck and looks at me. “Hang with me.”
“Okay.” I breathe out, easing closer. I’ll be on him like a fly on a pie.
“Safeties off. All rounds are live!” Dillon calls as they tense, guns up.
I heave mine up, trying to mimic them.
My heart jumps in my chest. Five, four, three, two, one…
HOOOOOONK! An airhorn explodes around us, drowning out the crickets and frogs in the woods. The players split apart, darting down paths, obviously with a plan in their head.
Dillon, Sawyer, and I run down a trail between trees to a small barricade surrounded by bushes.
“Now what?” I whisper as I look around. I don’t see any other players on either team.
“Wait—” Dillon starts.
A paintball smashes into the tree next to me, making me scream as it splatters glow-in-the-dark red paint. Three more hit the tree in rapid succession.
I shut my eyes, duck down, squeeze the trigger, and fire a single shot—directly into Bullseye’s back.
He jumps up and turns around to try to see the green splotch on his vest.
“Seriously?” he says as he whips off his goggles.
“I am so sorry.” I try to wipe the green paint away.
“You weren’t supposed to kill me!” he wails.
I wince. “I got nervous.”
Dillon grimaces. “Oops. Rest in peace, Bullseye.” He flashes a mock salute.