The Hating Game Page 26

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.

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.

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