The Hating Game Page 24

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.

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.

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