Minnesota has some pretty avid sport hunters and who knows? Maybe Ethan is one of them.
He nods and then falls silent while my brain goes down a crazy tunnel, imagining the tragedy of a zebra head mounted on his living room wall. Or a lion. Oh my God, what if he’s one of those horrible people who goes to Africa and hunts rhinos?
My fury at this version of Ethan Thomas starts to return in its full, heated glory, but then he adds, “Just at the shooting range with Dane a couple times, though. It’s more his thing than mine.” He does a double take when he sees my face. “What?”
I pull in a hulking lungful of air, realizing I just did what I always seem to do, which is to immediately dive into the worst-case scenario. “Before you clarified that, I had an image of you in a safari hat with your foot propped up on a dead giraffe.”
“Stop that,” he says. “Gross.”
I shrug, wincing. “It’s just how I’m built.”
“Just get to know me, then. Give me the benefit of the doubt.”
He says these words calmly, almost offhand, and then frowns down at a belt buckle on the counter that reads, The first rule of gun safety: Don’t piss me off.
But I’m still reeling in the deep enormity of his insight—and how exposed I suddenly feel—when Hogg returns, thick arms loaded with gear. He hands us each a pair of camouflage coveralls and gloves, a helmet, and a set of goggles. The gun is plastic and very lightweight, with a long barrel and a plastic hopper affixed to the top where the paintballs are stored. But everything else is heavy. I try to imagine running in this and can’t.
Ethan inspects his gear and leans over the counter. “Do you have any, uh, protection?”
The tops of Ethan’s ears turn red, and I know in that moment that he is a mind reader and saw my imaginary green paint splats all over his junk. He stares at Hogg meaningfully, but Hogg just shakes his head with a laugh.
“Don’t worry about it, big fella. You’re gonna be just fine.”
I pat his shoulder. “Yeah, big fella. I’ve got your back.”
• • •
THE GAME TAKES PLACE ON five acres of dense forest. Dozens of wooden shelters lead off into the tree line, bundles of logs are scattered for cover, and a few bridges stretch overhead, spanning the length between trees. We’re instructed to gather, along with other players, beneath a large metal overhang. The rain is more mist than droplets now, but there’s a damp chill in the air and I feel my shoulders inch up toward my ears beneath my baggy coveralls.
Ethan glances down at me, and from behind his goggles his eyes crinkle in mirth. He’s barely stopped laughing since I stepped out of the changing stall.
“You look like a cartoon,” he said.
“I mean, it’s super flattering on you, too,” I shoot back. But as far as comebacks go, it’s pretty limp given that Ethan actually does look pretty great in the camo paintball get-up. He has this sexy-soldier thing happening that I did not expect to be into, but apparently I am.
“Elmer Fudd,” he adds. “Hunting wabbits.”
“Would you shut up?”
“You’re like a pathetic Private Benjamin.”
“Private Benjamin is already pretty pathetic.”
Ethan is gleeful. “I know!”
Blessed be: our instructor, Bob, approaches. He is short but solid and paces in front of our group like a general readying his troops. One immediately gets the sense that Bob wanted to be a cop but it didn’t work out.
He tells us we’ll be playing a version called death match. It sounds both great and terrible: our group of about twenty is split up into two teams, and we essentially just run around shooting each other until everyone on one team is eliminated.
“Each player has five lives,” he says, eyeing each of us shrewdly as he passes. “Once you’re hit you’ll lock your weapon, attach the barrel cover, and return to camp.” He points to a small building wrapped in protective fencing; a scribbled sign reading BASE CAMP hangs overhead. “You’ll stay there until your wait time is up, then return to the game.”
Ethan leans in, his words warm against my ear. “No hard feelings when I take you out immediately, right?”
I look up at him. His hair is damp from the humidity, and he’s biting back a grin. He’s literally biting his lip, and for a breathy moment I want to reach out and tug it free.
But I’m mostly glad he doesn’t assume that we’re going to be working together today.
“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” I say.
“There are some hard and fast rules,” Bob continues. “Safety first. If you think it’s dumb, don’t do it. Goggles on, always. Anytime your gun is not in use, you are to keep it locked and the barrel covered. That includes if you’ve been hit and are exiting the field.”
Someone claps just behind me and I look over my shoulder. A tall, heavyset bald man is nodding along with the instructor and practically vibrating with energy. He’s also shirtless, which seems . . . odd, and wearing a utility belt with canisters of extra paint and supplies. I share a quizzical look with Ethan.
“You’ve played before?” Ethan surmises.
“As often as I can,” the man says. “Clancy.” He reaches out, shaking Ethan’s hand.
“Ethan.” He points to me, and I wave. “Her name’s Skittle.”
“Actually,” I say, glaring up at him, “it’s—”
“You must be pretty good then,” Ethan says to Clancy.
Clancy folds hairy arms across his chest. “I’ve hit prestige in Call of Duty about twelve times, so I’ll let you be the judge.”
I can’t resist. “If you don’t mind my asking, why aren’t you wearing a shirt? Won’t it hurt to be hit?”
“The pain is part of the experience,” Clancy explains. Ethan nods like this makes a hell of a lot of sense, but I know him well enough by now to see the amusement in his eyes.
“Any tips for newbies?” I ask.
Clancy is clearly delighted to have been asked. “Use the trees—they’re better than flat surfaces because you can move around them, real slinky. For lookout, always bend at the waist.” He illustrates for us, popping up and down a few times. “Keeps the rest of your body protected. Don’t, and you’ll know what it feels like to take a power ball to your biscuits at two hundred and seventy feet per second.” He blinks over to me. “No offense, Skittle.”
I wave him off. “No one likes being hit in the biscuits.”
He nods, continuing. “Most important, never, ever go prone. Hit the ground, and you’re a dead man.”
People around us clap as Bob finishes and begins to divide us up into two teams. Ethan and I deflate a little when we both end up on Team Thunder. This means, sadly, I will not be hunting him through the forest. His dismay deepens when he sees the opposing team: a small handful of adults and a group of seven fourteen-year-old boys here for a birthday party.
“Hold up,” Ethan says, motioning in their direction. “We can’t shoot at a bunch of kids.”
One with braces and a backward cap steps forward. “Who’re you calling a kid? You scared, Grandpa?”
Ethan grins easily. “If your mom drove you here, you’re a kid.”
His friends snicker in the background, egging him on. “Actually, your mom drove me here. Took my dick in the back seat.”
At this, Ethan lets out a bursting laugh. “Yeah, that sounds exactly like something Barb Thomas would do.” He turns away.
“Look at him hiding like a little bitch,” the kid says.
Bob steps in and levels a glare at the teen. “Watch your mouth.” He turns to Ethan. “Save it for the field.”
“I think Bob just gave me permission to take out that little asshole,” Ethan says in wonder, lowering his goggles.
“Ethan, he’s scrawny.”
“Means I won’t waste much ammo on him.”
I put a hand on his arm. “You may be taking this a little too seriously.”
He grins over at me and winks so I can see he’s just having fun. Something flutters alive in my rib cage. Playful Ethan is the newest evolution in my traveling partner, and I am completely here for it.
• • •
“I FEEL LIKE I SHOULD have paid closer attention to the rules.” Ethan is panting at my side, mud-streaked and splattered with purple paint. We both are. Spoiler alert: paintball fucking hurts. “Is there a time limit for this game?” He pulls out his phone and starts Googling, groaning when the service is spotty.
I roll my head back against the wooden shelter and squint up into the sky. Our team’s original plan was to divide up and hide near the bunkers, assigning a few defenders to stay in the neutral territory and cover advancing attackers. I’m not really sure where that plan went wrong, but at some point there was an ill-advised ambush and there are only like four of us remaining. Everyone on the opposing team—including all the teenage shit-talkers—is still in.
Now Ethan and I are trapped behind a dilapidated wall, being hunted from all sides by children who are way more cutthroat than we expected. “Are they still out there?” I ask.
Ethan stretches to see over the barricade and immediately drops back down again. “Yeah.”
“I only saw two. I don’t think they know where we are.” He crawls to look out the other side and quickly gives up. “One of them is pretty far away, the other is just hanging out on the bridge. I say we wait. Someone will come by and draw his attention sooner or later, and we can run for that stand of trees over there.”
A few seconds pass, filled with the sound of distant screams and the occasional eruption of paintballs. This is about as far from the real world as I can imagine. I can’t believe I’m enjoying myself.
“Maybe we should try to outrun them,” I say. I don’t relish the thought of taking more paintballs to the ass, but it’s cold and damp where we’re hunkered, and my thighs are starting to do the shaky cramp dance. “We might be able to get away. You’re surprisingly not terrible at this.”