Authors: Janet Gurtler
Copyright Â© 2013 by Janet Gurtler
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The boys were watching us, trying to get us to make mistakes. I knew from the swear words they were flinging around that they'd underestimated us. Inexperienced players shouted a lot. Kya and I didn't.
A surge of excitement blasted though me, and I grinned behind my paintball mask. Playing paintball made me feel alive, like licking a lollipop of adrenaline and wanting to explode with the rush. With my best friend, Kya, at my side, I sensed what it might be like to be invincible. Our goal was simple: shoot them before they shot us. Especially since the game was being streamed on a webcast. The people watching could change our lives.
But we had work to do. They had three players left. So did we.
At first, the other team wanted to kick our butts because of the girl thing, but now they knew we were good. Actually, if I were inclined to brag, I'd have to say the two of us were pretty great. I don't. Brag, that is. But Kya's a different story. And based on the way they were shooting right now, the other team not only wanted to hit us, they wanted to make it hurt.
It's easier to rock at paintball when you know someone has your back. I had Kya's and she had mine. No question asked. It made us somewhat unstoppable. She lifted her hand and pointed. I nodded, understanding.
Kya gave me the thumbs up, so I took a deep breath, stood, and then ran as fast as my legs could move in my gear. She shot crossfire, and a flurry of paintballs popped around me. One ball whizzed past my head, but with her diversion, I managed to dive behind a bunker without getting splattered.
Another flurry of swear words ripped through the air and then Kya yelled to me.
“Grace, you're a PAINTBALL PRINCESS.”
“Kya, you da QUEEN!” I yelled back. It was our version of trash talk. We knew to speak naturally and stay calm in the midst of huge adrenaline rushes. We only yelled to rattle. Paintball wasn't really life or death. It only felt like it sometimes.
I couldn't see Kya's grin under her paintball mask, but I imagined it. When she smiled, it lit up her already beautiful face. She didn't smile a lotâshe'd seen bad, bad things at a young age. Too young.
“Would you two quit glorifying and tell me what to do,” yelled James. He was the only other player left on our teamâKya's best friend since second grade, mine since Dad moved us to Tadita the summer before seventh grade.
“Don't get shot,” Kya called to him.
James was crouched behind a bunker. Paintball doesn't flow naturally through James's veins the way it does for Kya and me. He tended to panic a little, even though we look after him. He'd only agreed to join our team because one of our players didn't show up and the Lady Grinders scout had requested footage from the game. The Lady Grinders was a National College Paintball Association team out of Seattle University, the college team Kya and I would give up unborn children to play on. A college with an all-female paintball team. It couldn't get much better. But first we had to prove ourselves.
I glanced around, checking out the other players' positions, strategizing how we could lure them into the open.
Kya looked at me and tapped the side of her mask. My heart thumped in my chest as I nodded back. I was in a bad position. There was another set of loud pops, and James raised his hand in the air, then walked out from behind his bunker.
“I'm hit!” he yelled. “Sorry, Grace,” he added before he started toward the deadbox. He'd given himself away when he'd shouted to us. I didn't blame him for it. He tolerated the game; he didn't live and breathe it.
I waved to him, but a paintball whizzed by my arm, missing me by inches. A tall boy had stepped too far from his bunker and shot too fast. Kya took advantage and popped him, and then I caught his teammate running toward another bunker.
Two down. One to go.
Kya and I locked eyes and she tilted her head to the right. I blinked quickly and frowned, understanding her meaning but not wanting her to make the sacrifice for me. She ignored my signal. She flew out like Superman and ran hard to give me a chance to move to a better position.
She took a hit in the shoulder, but as intended, she'd drawn out the last guy. I lifted my gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
I hit him right in the back of the head and the webcam caught it all. The Lady Grinders would be impressed. Kya had set me up to look like the hero.
Kya whooped and ran toward me. When she got close, she jumped at me for a midair bump. I jumped to meet her and we smashed bellies. Then she grabbed my hand and held it in the air as if I were a boxer declared winner of the round.
“And that, my friends, is how it is done,” she yelled at the top of her lungs.
We put a hand around each other's hips and kicked our legs up like Vegas showgirls. Our version of the victory dance. My heart burst with love for my BFF. We ignored the angry callouts from the guys we'd beaten and let the game outcome speak for itself.
“I could not have made that shot without you,” I said for the benefit of the webcam as well as my best friend. Plus, it was true. I would not be the player I was without her.
She pulled off the headband outside her mask, and shut off the webcam attached to it.
“That was freaking awesome!” I yelled, still pumped up by the high of the win. I pulled off my mask and scrunched up my face in a faux dirty look. “But you totally sacrificed yourself to make me look good.”
She flipped her mask up and shrugged. “You're worth it. I know how much you want to make the Grinders.”
“Yeah. And you do too.” I punched her lightly on the shoulder and put my gun up on my shoulder as we walked toward the exit of the speedball arena.
“Consider it an early birthday gift,” she said.
“My birthday isn't for a month,” I reminded her.
“That's why I said early.” She rolled her eyes at me.
“We have to make that team,” I said for the millionth time that week. “I wish we could have gotten tickets for the Paintball Manifesto,” I whined, also for the millionth time. “That party would have secured our spots for next year.” VIP tickets for the first giant Paintball Tradeshow in Seattle sold out, and without them we had no way to get into the VIP Players Party. The Lady Grinders would be there. A perfect chance to get on their good side.
“I know, Skanklet,” she said.
“Good game, girls,” Dad called. He stood on the top bench of the bleachers, outside the ropes, waving down at us. I hadn't known he'd been watching the game, but it didn't surprise me.
Years back when he found out what happened to Kya, Dad drove both of us to Splatterfest, the paintball place he'd bought after retiring from the police force, and made us suit up. He didn't tell anyone to go easy on us. He said he wanted to toughen us up and build our confidence. He said we needed to learn to excel in a male-dominated world like paintball. That it would help us in “real life.”
I think how much we both loved paintball surprised him. We were both playing in tournaments by our second season. He said he'd thought it would be a good place for Kya to feel like she was taking back control. It made me sad that she needed to. But she did. There was nothing we could do to change what happened. Except be her friend.
I loved her before I found out what happened. I loved her more fiercely after. I would do anything to protect her.
“Solid footage. They won't be able to turn either of you down, even without going to the VIP party.” He took a lot of pride in our paintball skills. He'd obviously heard about the webcast we were making for the Grinders, even though I hadn't told him.
I waved at him, and Kya raised her hand and then turned back to me.
“Don't worry, my Skanklet. I have ways of making things happen.”
“Butâ” I started to say.
“Butt,” she interrupted, turned, and shook her butt at me as we headed out of the playing area.
I laughed. Kya grinned back and then placed her free hand on her belly. “God. I'm so bloated. I have a monster case of PMS.” She shook her butt some more and someone wolf whistled. We both automatically lifted our middle fingers without even looking over. Dad yelled something at the boys as he clomped noisily to his office in the back.
“You too, right?” Kya said with a grin. “PMS?”
Yes. We were so close, even our cycles were in harmony.
“You mean, Pass My Shotgun?” I asked, unable to resist, and lifted my paintball gun in the air.
She giggled. “No. Pass Me Sugar. Or Psychotic Mood Shifts.” She scrunched up her mouth and made a face. Then she giggle-snorted again. Kya had a ridiculous and contagious laugh that always made me lose it.
Another laugh spurted out of me and I covered my mouth. “Oh no.” A giggle fest started building, the contagious laughter tickling and threatening to erupt. We'd played this round of acronyms before with scream-laughter developing.
“Perpetual Munching Spree.” Kya blew up her cheeks again so they were puffy and round.
“Provide Me with Snacks,” I answered with a snort.
“Pimples May Surface,” she said, grinning and pointing at my forehead.
My amusement died. Panicking, I reached up to feel my skin. Kya broke out into another peal of wacky laughter.
“What?” I demanded, suddenly immune to her laugh.
She pointed at me. “You searching for zits. You're such a worrier, Grace. You're fine.” She laughed aloud. “Look at your faceâ¦Priceless Mood Shift.”
“Please Shut Mouth,” I said, and stuck my tongue out at her.
“Seriously?” James said when we stepped out of the roped-off area. He was already at the back counter cleaning out the rental gun he'd borrowed from my dad's supply. Dad ran the most organized indoor paintball place in the world and the neatest one too. Since James, Kya, and I were all his employees as well as players, we took good care of his equipment.
There was a blast of sound from Dad's office. Deaf in one ear from an on-the-job accident years before, he did everything a little too loudly. It sounded like he was testing the new speakers Mom bought him for his birthday last week.
“You really have to talk about female reproductive issues here?” James gestured around him to the boys in paintball gear and the counter filled with ammo and guns. “Voices carry, you know.”
“Like we care,” Kya said. “And trust me. Periods have nothing to do with reproduction at this point in our lives.”
“You better hope so,” he mumbled.
“You guys.” I glared at both of them.
Usually they didn't take their bad moods out on each other. I wanted them to quit fighting and make up already. James turned his back to put away the paintball gun he'd borrowed.
Kya's secret was lodged right in the middle of our three-way friendship. I wished she'd let me tell him. But she wouldn't. And because he didn't know, he was harder on her. He saw me taking her side. Sometimes he didn't understand my need to protect her from the world.
Dad says I'm a human sponge for anyone with a sad story. Me? I think everyone has a sad story if you look hard enough. Dad agrees, I know he does, but his years as a police officer hard-boiled him a little. Not all the way; he's still a tiny bit soft on the inside.
But he looks out for Kya. My mom too. They're the only other people who know what happened to her.
We guard her secret feverishly. And we guard Kya too.