Brandon’s cousin and her friends relayed the plan to us, and it actually sounded like it would be a lot of fun. The place wasn’t that far, and it was another thing we could do. Sure, it took away from today feeling like a date with Brandon, but we agreed that we wouldn’t be long, and we’d have enough time after to go do something else. I had secured a second date with Brandon, anyways, so the low lights and scented candles could wait.
As for now, we were going to play paintball.
“Welcome,” an employee droned as we walked in. He was fumbling with a gun, setting it on a shelf above him. We had entered into the front lobby or ‘basecamp’ of Sheriff & Crook Paintball, a place that specialized in indoor paintball.
There were six of us. Me, Brandon, his cousin Jillian, and three others whose names I hadn’t gotten yet. Two other girls and a guy.
The establishment was located in a decent-sized warehouse, big enough to host at least two separate games at the same time, from what I heard from Brandon on the drive here. I heard about this place before, a lot of people I knew had been at least once, but I never had the opportunity to check it out myself. I had played paintball before, but that was a while back. Another reason why this ended up being worthwhile, I figured.
I was finally able to see what the big deal was about. I was glad, even if it meant having to be in another warehouse so soon.
I kept that to myself.
I followed the rest of the group to the front counter, which was also a display case featuring an assortment of different paint pellets and guns. The employee that ‘enthusiastically’ greeted us eventually met us there. His movements were slow.
“So, what’s up?” he asked. His brown hair was tied up in a bun, and the frame of his glasses were thick. He looked like he would be more interested in serving us coffee than a game of paintball.
“Here for a game,” Jillian said.
She seemingly ignored that. “Is there any hyperball games going on right now?”
He pressed on a tablet by the register there, tapping on it a few times. “Um, yeah, both arenas have somethin’ going on right now. Give it maybe like nine minutes? That okay?”
“Perfect.” Jillian turned to the rest of us. “Does one game sound good?”
We nodded in assent.
“Then one game,” Jillian said to the employee. She turned back to Brandon. She nudged her head in the direction of the cash register.
“You were gonna have me pay?” Brandon questioned, puzzled.
“Mm-hmm,” she hummed.
“Was that why you came to the arcade? To swindle me?”
“I ain’t swindling you. You owe me from before.”
“From before what?”
Jillian made a smug expression. It wasn’t intended for me, but I felt offended by it.
“Do you want me to mention it now?”
Brandon made a perplexed look before he groaned, mildly annoyed. He stepped up to the register, wallet in hand.
“Thank you,” she said, in a sing-songy voice.
Something about her tone, it’s grating, I thought, And familiar. But, I didn’t want to think on it any more.
I also didn’t like whatever that interaction was about. But, I wasn’t close enough with Brandon to prod. Not yet, anyways.
“Thirty bucks for a game,” the employee said. He was a shining example of that famous Stephenville customer service. Or infamous, rather.
Without complaint, Brandon gave him a credit card.
“You guys all played before?” the employee asked. “You know the drill?”
We all nodded. I knew the drill enough, I figured.
“Need to rent equipment?”
“Then that’ll be twenty bucks. Um, each.”
Brandon looked right at Jillian, eyes narrowed. “No way in hell am I paying that.”
Jillian laughed once. “I know, I know, we’ll cover ourselves there.”
We formed a small line, each ready to pay. I paid the appropriate amount, and looked over when he motioned to the armory side of the building, where we were free to pick whichever gun we wanted, all ready to go. He just had to unlock them from behind metal grates.
I wasn’t sure how I missed it. The lobby was pretty spacious, with tables and chairs set up by the windows on the farthest wall that you could look through and watch the other games. Doors were set up on either end of the room, leading into the different arenas. The armory was set up against the rightmost wall. Differents types of guns, different shapes and sizes. I didn’t know enough about the particulars to know what was what.
I stuck close to Brandon while we checked out the different guns. The others went elsewhere.
“Definitely didn’t expect this when I asked if you wanted to do something,” Brandon commented. It was like he was trying to apologize for something.
I reiterated what I had said before. “It’s cool. You didn’t know your cousin would show up out of nowhere, and I did randomly agree to come here. It’s not your fault.”
“Not my fault, but I still have to pay for it.” Brandon chuckled, which told me that he took the turn of events in stride.
“I’ve got you next time, then.”
“Cool.” He looked at a gun.
I wanted to pat myself on the back. A whole afternoon with Brandon, and things were going as smoothly as they ever could. I didn’t stumble or stammer over myself too much, and I managed to keep my cool, for the most part. Maybe there was a single, solitary benefit to being as busy as I was the past few weeks. My mind was taken off the stuff I would normally get hung up over, and now I could return to them refreshed, the worries I had not being as serious as before.
It was just the worries I did have now were deadly serious. Seriously.
“What gun you looking at?” he asked me. We started talking about something else.
I put a finger on my bottom lip, pondering over my different choices. I really didn’t know what the differences were between any of them, so I just went with what I liked, aesthetically.
Before I could go and declare my choice, I felt an elbow dig into my arm, and I was pushed to the side. I had to bring out my other hand and push against the metal grate in front of me to not get knocked over. It clanged.
“Oh, get that one Brandon! That one suits you!”
It was Jillian.
God fucking dammit, Jillian.
“Jill, watch where you’re going,” Brandon said, scolding her. “Alexis is right there.”
“Oh, didn’t see you there, sorry.”
I already fixed my stance, my hand off of the metal. I wore a smile.
“No big,” I said.
The fuck is wrong with you?
“But yeah,” Jillian continued, like I wasn’t there at all, “Let’s get going, our game is up. They’re pitting us up against another team that’s still sticking around.” She lifted up her gun, a green pistol with paint splatters on the handle. “See? Already have my gun. We’ll go get changed and we’ll see you in a bit.”
“Alright, just watch where you’re going.” Brandon said it again. I took that as him being on my side. Not that I needed it, but I appreciated the gesture.
I could’ve sworn I saw her roll her eyes. “Heard you the first time.” She left. Just like that. She joined her other friends and went through one of the doors leading into an arena.
Brandon shook his head, sighing. “Sorry about her,” he said. “She can get, well, you already saw it.”
I did see it. It was starting to come to me, but not completely. The way she talked, her tone. I’d heard it before, that was for sure.
“I won’t say anything, since she’s your family and all,” I said, “But you seem to already know what it is I would say.”
Brandon slightly grinned. “I’ll give you that. Yeah, we should actually get going.”
We got the attention of another employee to help us get our weapon of choice. Brandon picked out a black gun, and I went for my original choice, a pink mechanical gun.
We went through the same door Jillian and her friends went through, leaving the lobby and entering the ‘arena.’ A much larger, expansive, but still enclosed space. It was what you’d expect a paintball field to look like.
Cover was few and far between, and only stood at about waist high. There were some bunkers, however, made of black-tubing. Meaning that, even if you were behind a wall, you still left too many openings that others could exploit. So constant moving was a necessity, creating a high-action, fast-paced energy and atmosphere. Situational awareness and speed was required. Which was exactly what I had. Meaning I knew I had to be careful.
We joined up with Jillian and her friends. They were all equipped with their gear, worn on top of their clothes. Except Jillian, who had put on a pair of paint-caked, heavy overalls before she could wear her gear. You weren’t allowed to play unless you were wearing the proper clothing, which begged a question I didn’t care to ask, mainly because I didn’t want to think about Jillian more than I needed to.
They all had their headgear on, which also protected the face, but I could still tell which one was Jillian. I didn’t like that I could.
One of her other friends, a girl, pointed to a heavy-duty box by the door we had come through. Brandon and I went to go get our own gear. I pieced together the most mismatched, off-color armor ever. My headwear was yellow, my vest blue, and my joint pads were a gross orange. I felt like an art supply shop threw up on me. But they were the only pieces in my size. Oh well.
At least Brandon looked much the same.
We rejoined the others.
“We look fucking awesome, I have to say,” the other boy said. “Like Power Rangers.”
“What Power Rangers team has two Black Rangers?” Jillian asked.
I was lucky I had on my headgear, otherwise they’d see me crack a smile at that dumb joke.
Fuck you, Jillian.
A loud buzz sounded above, a signal that things were starting soon. With Jillian leading the way, we moved as a group, towards another group of six, standing in the middle of the field. From their build, I could guess that they were guys. College-aged, maybe. The headgear made it hard to tell.
“Hey!” one of them called out. He had the number ‘2’ spray painted across his vest. His squeaky voice was muffled by his headgear. “You the next batch of losers?” He pointed to me.
Why did he single me out? Cause I was shortest and probably least intimidating? What was I supposed to take from that?
“No, you are,” I said back, with little thought.
There was no need to correct him, and now I felt stupid for doing so. I wasn’t good with jokes as Blank Face, so why did I keep trying?
Everyone snicked. The other team, even Brandon beside me.
“Nice going, Alexis, we sure got them,” he said.
I shrugged, rolling with it. “Anytime.”
The guy I started to refer to as ‘Number Two’ immediately stopped. “We’re doing elimination.” He pointed to his team, who were numbered one through six, spray painted across their vest. “Alright with you losers?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jillian answered for us. “You’re not impressing anyone.” She waved them off, and that was enough for the opposite team to start huddling together.
Our team followed suit, picking a good place to start. I surveyed the field, thinking about how I should maneuver around.
If I wanted to, I could go in, and seriously do a number on those pricks. That way, we’d finish early, and Brandon and I could continue our actual date. Paintball was neat and all, but being around people like Jillian and Number Two was killing enough of my vibe to want to go and do anything else. Between the two of them, I felt like I was in the middle of an alley, between two large dumpsters, filled to the brim with rotting trash.
Okay, that was mostly due to my current feelings on Jillian spilling over to the other guy, but regardless…
If I wanted to, I could go in.
“So,” Brandon said, “I wanted to say. If you’re in a tight spot or something, just holler, and I’ll be there.”
I was still walking with Brandon. Checking around the the field, I had almost forgotten.
“How very macho of you, Brandon.”
“I try.” I could venture that he was joking, on some level, but he sounded pleased with himself. “Must be all this stuff I’m wearing. Makes me feel like I’m an action movie.”
“I’m wearing the same stuff too. That must make me twice as tough as you.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
“How very macho of you, Alexis,” Brandon said, spinning my earlier comment back at me.
“Ha ha, clever.”
I looked again. Everyone on our team went their own way. Brandon and I were the only ones who were still sticking together. Only now did the other team split up, moving into their own positions.
“Should we be talking strategy? How to take those guys out?” I asked.
Brandon adjusted his headgear. “We can if you want, but I don’t care if we win or lose this one. Jill might, but that’s because they’ll be staying here for a bit. We can go after a game.”
He is on my side. “Glad to know that we’re on the same wavelength, then,” I said, “I was thinking the same thing.”
“Cool,” he said. I had a feeling that was starting to become an inside joke. “I’ll make this quick, then.”
Me too, I thought.
We got into position as well, behind a small barrel. Another buzzing started over the speakers, a timer counting down. I heard the other team yell along. Perhaps an attempt at intimidation. I tightened my grip on my gun.
I breathed, focusing on finding a balance on getting this done fast, and not exposing myself to the world.
“Five, four, three, two, one!”
I jumped up, bursting past my cover, leaving Brandon well behind. I was the first to spring into action. The other team also went on the move, but I could track their movements easily. They were so sluggish. Like someone set a video in slow motion.
A guy was rushing from the corner of my vision. Like my team, he also had a number on his vest. Number Three. Shifting my weight, I dashed towards his direction.
Now, I was certain I wasn’t faster than a bullet, but I was at least faster than his finger.
I cleared the distance between us in only a few steps. My strategy was to just blitz my opponents, since I didn’t have much confidence in my aim. As long as I could close in fast enough, aiming didn’t have to be an issue.
After another step, I was within arms-length. I circled around him, so he wouldn’t see me as I rapidly came in. I readied my gun.
I took a shot at his back.
“Ah!” he cried out. He mumbled something else, which I couldn’t catch. Were we supposed to call out if we got hit? I should’ve asked. It had been some time since I played.
But I never played like this, before.
Someone new. Popped out of a bunker to my right. A number five. He was looking right me. I couldn’t just rush him anymore.
Instead, I ran towards nearby cover, then dove, to be safe.
I peeked out.
I saw him catch on, and hide back behind another piece of cover. He had to be crouching, behind one of the taller walls on the field, three feet high. I figured he’d wait until I came from either direction, and go from there. His tactic wasn’t hard to counter.
I ran towards the wall, and hopped.
I ended up overshooting it by a good foot, but for a moment, I was above him, and I saw him crouched by the wall, wary of his left and right. He was completely oblivious to my actual location.
With my gun out in front of me, I fired. He was out before I landed back down.
“Ay!” I heard a yell to my left.
Jillian. Brandon’s cousin. On her back, trying to get away from Number Two. He was walking slowly, but the shot was clearly his. Why wasn’t he firing?
I could’ve breathed out so hard my lips flapped together. People took themselves way too serious, sometimes.
Like you’re one to talk.
A third time, still a charm. I hurried towards my target, who was standing over Jillian, gun over her head. Gloating, probably. This should be good.
He never saw me coming. I only fired three successive shots, but my finger pulled the trigger four times.
He grunted, and fell down. I got him. I knew there were a few left, but I’d leave the rest to them. I more than played my part.
Standing over Jillian, I turned to her. I wished she wasn’t wearing her headgear, just to see her face.
“Here, I’ll help you up,” I stretched out a hand to her.
Nothing. She stayed down.
“You hurt?” I asked. “Need help?”
Something. She stayed down, but she mumbled.
“Come again?” I asked.
This time, she was audible.
“Thanks, shorty,” she said.
She threw her right arm out. She had her gun. One, two, three.
Three times, she pulled the trigger.
Three times, she shot me in the face.