The Hating Game Page 27

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.

Helene and Mr. Bexley peel out again like Wacky Racers. A few people are being picked up by spouses, and there’s a confusing swirl of cars and dust. The bus driver puts down her newspaper at our approach and unlocks the door.

“Please hold on for a few minutes,” I tell her, and jog back inside. I make it to the bathroom and am violently sick. Before I can feel like it’s completely out of my system there’s a sharp rap on the bathroom door. There’s only one person I know who could knock so impatiently, and put so much irritation into it.

“Go away,” I tell him.

“It’s Joshua.”

“I know.” I flush again.

“You’re sick. I told you.” He jiggles the doorknob lightly.

“I’ll get home by myself. Go away.”

There’s a silence and I figure he’s gone back to the bus. I throw up again. Flush again. I wash my hands, leaning my legs against the sink until the splash-back soaks into my jeans. Elvis clings to me damply.

“I’m sick,” I confide to my reflection. I’m fevered, eyes glittering. I’m blue and gray and white. The door is creaked open, and I squawk in fright.

“Holy shit.” Joshua’s eyebrows pinch together. “You look bad.”

I can barely focus my eyes. The floor is spinning. “I can’t make it. That bus trip. I can’t.”

“I could call Helene. She could come back, she couldn’t have gotten far.”

“No, no, I’ll be okay. She’s driving to a health retreat. I can take care of myself.” He leans on the doorframe, his brow creased.

I steel myself, cupping a little cold water in my hand and slosh it over the back of my neck. My hair has been unraveling from its bun and sticks to my neck. I rinse my mouth. “Okay, I’m all right.”

As we walk back, he pinches the little joint of my elbow between two fingers like a bag of garbage. I can feel the avid eyes watching us from the tinted bus windows. I think of the two girls nudging each other and shake him loose.

“I could leave you here and drive back and get you, but it would take an hour, at least.”

“You? Come back and get me? I’d be here all night.”

“Hey. Don’t talk like that anymore, all right?” He’s annoyed.

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