Still feeling the burn after her father gave her the third degree, Dylan’s conscious continued to replay the exchange she’d had with her step-mother from the night before. Somewhere, deep in her heart, Dylan felt what had been said was hurtful. She also felt it was true. Jill wouldn’t ever clear the bar set by Dylan’s real mom. Although, it may have been unfair to knock the lady down for trying. Jill was a mom for certain, but not Dylan’s. It was simply a matter of jurisdiction.
Dylan felt the familiar bumps in the road as the SUV rolled up into the YMCA parking lot. She cringed as each bump jostled her in the far back row. Dylan acceded to wait until the car had found a parking space before climbing out. Every place that could feel sore was, and every moment where Dylan didn’t have to move would be taken advantage of this morning. It was a tough call: her desire to get as far away from her step-family was equal to Dylan’s reluctance to attend camp today.
When the SUV found its spot, the twins spilled out through the same door like a pair of rottweiler puppies confined in the same kennel for too long. Luke exited the vehicle in far less spectacular fashion and shut the door behind him. As soon as Dylan was out, Jill had locked the doors and was already speed walking across the lot.
Dylan tried to catch up to Luke. Irritation began to brew in her with every aching step she took. Despite everything they’d gone through yesterday, Luke still gave her the silent treatment. Unable to match his pace, she shouted after her step-brother, “You’re sure in a hurry to get to the exact same place everyone else is going.”
Once on the sidewalk, Luke turned to face his step-sister. He waited for her to catch up before speaking in a hushed tone, “I’m not going to the same place.”
Dylan quickly put the pieces together, “You found another clue. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Luke put a hand on Dylan’s shoulder, “I don’t need anyone else getting hurt because of me. You’ve already helped plenty.”
“You still need my help though.”
Taking a step back, Jill jogged between the two siblings. In passing Dylan’s step-mom spoke nearly out of breath, “Be good.”
Exchanging looks, Dylan smirked, “That was probably meant for you. I’m sure she figures that “good” isn’t a thing I do.”
Luke smiled, “Yesterday you did good.”
Reaching out for his sleeve, Dylan protested, “Luke, please. Let me help. At least tell me about the lead you found.”
A breeze blew over the grass and Dylan watched the green blades bend beneath the wind. Luke’s eyes were locked on his shoes, “I love her.” He paused, still not looking up at his step-sister, “I loved her Dylan. She was my first. I can’t stand to think what it would be like to lose that kind of connection. I won’t,” he took a short breath, walking backwards, “Goodbye.”
With that, Luke readjusted his backpack and bolted toward Custer Road. Dylan tried to catch up to him, but with her foot injured from the day before, she could only manage a slight hobble. After a few more spaces, she stopped and watched Luke turn the corner out of sight.
For a moment Dylan continued to watch the road, half expecting Luke to return. Cars and SUV’s continued to pass through the lot. Campers filed in from the front lawn and into the gym. A few moments later, Dylan stood alone on the lawn staring at the road ahead. Gradually, an unsettling reality nested inside Dylan’s chest: she’d lost another family member.
Before grief could be fully realized, Holly’s voice spoke up from behind, “We got to do something about yo hair.”
Faking a smile, Dylan shot back, “Let’s just buzz the whole thing off.”
Holly snapped, “Nope. No, I don’t want another reminder of how much this place is like a prison whenever I look at my best friend.”
Dylan let out a little laugh, “I’m your best friend?”
Holly, “Best friend, sister, cellmate. Yeah. That okay with you?”
Dylan looked over her shoulder, waiting for Luke to have changed his mind. He didn’t. He was gone. Letting her guard drop, Dylan sighed out, “It’s only hair, Holly.”
Holly didn’t pick up on the change right away, which is why she said, “Listen, this ain’t a vanity thing, it’s about respecting yourself. I just like to start with the hair is all.” Circling around to the front of Dylan, Holly tried to lock eyes with her friend. “What you staring at? You thinking of running?”
Finally meeting Holly’s eyes, Dylan answered flatly, “Luke’s gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
Dylan found herself slowly walking toward Custer Road, “He found something, another clue. There must have been something else on that barcode.”
Walking alongside Dylan, Holly let out an exasperated, “Sweet baby Jesus, she’s talking in tongues.” She raised her hands in the air, “Help me Lordy, my friend’s lost her damn mind.”
Dylan gave an impatient, “My brother’s girlfriend got abducted. We broke into her house, stole a binder hidden in a steam room, and somewhere in that binder is a clue to where she is now.” Dylan looked back towards the road, “And where my brother is headed.”
Holly’s tone dropped, “He just left you?”
Before Dylan could answer, Councilor Brad interjected, “Ms. Yates, it’s time for roll call. We’re not going to have a problem today, are we?” Reluctantly, Dylan sulked toward Brad, towards the entrance of the gym. Just before she entered, Bradley asked pointedly, “Didn’t see your older brother this morning.”
With a shrug, Dylan kept walking as she replied, “I ain’t in charge of him. He’s probably in there playing basketball or whatever.”
Holly also covered for Luke in her usual timbre, “I wouldn’t mind taking charge of him.”
Dylan nearly gagged, “I will throw up. All over you, Holly.”
Blistering heat from the Dallas Summer Sun beat down on Dylan. Despite being roasted alive, the heat was enough to trick her brain into thinking it was just a normal summer’s day. Even with all evidence of a thunderstorm erased, a perfectly blue sky above her, and bright green grass beneath her, she ached. She ached like never before. It wasn’t her ankle, or the dull bruises from being jumped by the Ice Queen. It was an ache she fooled herself into thinking couldn’t possibly happen again, but it did. Loss was the greatest ache, and there was only one remedy.
Unfortunately, with her trusty electronic-side-arm revoked, Dylan would have to settle for playing the game she was currently engaged in. She quickly poked her head up from behind the inflatable cushion she was hiding behind, and scanned the field. A ten foot high fence made from transparent tarps had been erected as a pen around the soccer field. Dozens of inflatable barriers occupied the field, along with a handful of remaining campers armed with paintball guns.
Ducking back behind her cover, Dylan narrowly missed getting tagged by incoming fire. SPLAT, SPLAT, SPLAT! Each little plastic pellet exploded into a burst of pink paint on the tarp behind her. Clutching her paintball gun in one hand, Dylan clawed into the mud, pulling herself forward to the end of the barrier.
Beside her, kids on the bleachers were screaming at the top of their lungs, “She’s over here!” It sounded like a satanic variant of a Pentecostal church. It was nearly as hot as one too. Another camper squealed at the top of his lungs, “Come on, somebody get Dylan!”
Breathing heavy inside her mask, Dylan rolled out from behind her cover just as another camper ran around the corner. Looking down the end of her barrel, Dylan lined up her sights.
One in the head. Two in the chest. Just like her dad taught her on the range. Raising his arms above his head, the kid walked off the field. Dylan steadily advanced up to the next barricade. She’d been moving along the perimeter picking off the kids who ran for the center. With the stupid face-masks and mesh vests, it was nearly impossible to distinguish who was who. In a free for all fight though, all Dylan had to worry about was keeping herself alive.
From the other side of the tarp, Bradley blew his whistle and yelled, “Three minutes left! You girls hiding in the back, get out and shoot somebody!”
For once, Dylan thought, Bradley was being helpful. Rushing the bunker was out of the question. It may not have been a full sprain, but she wasn’t about to take the risk. Stalking carefully from bunker to bunker, Dylan advanced on her pray. She’d crawl all the way across the field. Those girls were as good as gone.
Suddenly, some kid ran out from behind the inflatable bunker in the back corner. He sprayed bullets wildly, forcing Dylan down behind a smaller sized barrier. Whoever this kid was, aiming wasn’t really a priority. It didn’t have to be either. This kid was fast, had plenty of ammo, and would be right on top of Dylan any second now.
Lying on her back, Dylan used her feet to push herself backwards through the mud towards better cover. She’d lost track of him. Sweeping her pistol from one blow-up-bunker to the next, Dylan’s breathing increased rapidly. Her facemask began to fog up. Sweat was pouring down into her eyes: salty liquid stinging her pupils.
Almost on accident, Dylan had pushed herself under one of the inflatable barriers that hadn’t been pinned down all the way. Rolling over onto her stomach, she kept her burning eyes on the lookout.
POP! POP! POP!
She heard his gun go off, but it was blind fire. He couldn’t see her. She couldn’t see him. Nearly at the back of the field, there was one thing she could see that brought a wide devious smile to her face. Cowering in the corner across from Dylan, pushing herself up against the largest inflatable bunker: Isabella Catarina Eklund.
Another burst of blind rounds drew Dylan’s attention back to the mystery gunner. Trying to stay calm, she pretend that she was sitting behind a monitor. Combat stress pressed down on Dylan like an anvil. All her attempts to force herself into an out of body experience were hopeless. If only Dylan could control herself like one of her game avatars, like the Robot, their wouldn’t be any fear of getting stung by paintball bullets. There wouldn’t be any fear at all.
Still no sign of the mystery gunner. It was now or never. Dylan lined up her shot and take out the Ice Queen while she had the chance. Isabella wasn’t even making it a challenge. She didn’t even bother to blind fire her gun into the arena. She just sat their in the fetal position. That’s when it dawned on Dylan: Isabella wasn’t hiding, she was bait.
Turning over at the last possible second, Dylan nearly unloaded her entire clip at the boy running up to her. With a satisfying series of SMACKS, she lit him up along his side and face mask. He stopped dead in his tracks. Wiping off the paint, the kid just shrugged it off and gave Dylan a thumbs up.
POP! POP! POP!
A blinding burst of pink covered the side of Dylan’s face mask. She also got pegged in the thigh and right under her armpit of all places. It stung like a bitch. The pain and the shooter had something in common. Lying on her chest with her gun still trained on Dylan was Isabella waving like an idiot. Before Dylan could fire back, Bradley blew his whistle, “Isabella wins! Ten points to team Double Ferrari.”
Half a dozen kids in the crowd cheered. Dylan growled. Smearing away paint from her mask, Dylan rolled out from under the inflatable barrier. As she limped past the boy she’d shot, he mumbled, “Nice shooting.”
Dylan said nothing. She kept hobbling toward the exit flap in the tarp.
With a yelp, Dylan felt the sting of another paintball bullet bite her right on the tail end of her spine. Then she heard that false eloquence float out from underneath Isabella’s face mask taunting, “I didn’t think I could hit such a small target, but I surprise even myself.”
More laughter rose from the crowd of kids in the bleachers.
Bradley blew his whistle again, “Game’s over Eklund, get your gun in the air.” Taking a bow, the Ice Queen straightened up and put her gun over her head. As she strut over to the exit, Dylan heard Bradley say nonchalantly, “Yates, take your shot.” Turning to the councilor in bewilderment, he simply gestured with his finger in the shape of a gun towards Isabella.
It still hurt to smile, but Dylan suffered through it. Firing from the hip, Dylan tagged the Ice Queen in the left boob. A satisfying yelp followed. Mocking Isabella’s accent Dylan called out, “I didn’t think I could hit such a non-existent target, but you know, I surprise myself sometimes.”
Brad once again blew his whistle, “Alright girls, that’s enough. Clear the field.”
Holly and Dylan were resting on the furthest bleachers from the makeshift paintball arena. Flipping through the pages of her magazine, Holly chuckled to herself.
Tilting her head towards Holly, Dylan quipped, “Didn’t know five hundred new ways to style your hair could be that funny.”
Pouting her lips, Holly replied, “That ain’t what I’m laughing at. An’ I told you, hair is serious business. I was laughing cause I keep replaying that chick getting shot in the tit. BLAM!”
Dylan smiled wide, “Yeah, that felt right.” Looking back up to the sky, Dylan let her smile fade, “Not part of the plan though.”
Holly scoffed, “What plan? You shot her. What more do ya need?”
Both girls turned towards Allan shouting from across the field, “Hey, Dylan!”
Holly’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor, “Oh my God, he’s totally comin’ over here.”
Putting a finger up to her lips, Dylan deadpanned, “Oh my God, he can totally hear you.” Allan stopped about six feet away from Dylan. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there. While the cloud of awkwardness continued to expand, Dylan finally asked, “Hey?”
Clearing his throat, Allan’s voice nearly cracked as he replied, “Just wanted to say nice shot.”
Holly gasped, and whispered to Dylan, “You shot Allan?”
Slapping the side of Holly’s thigh, Dylan shrugged off Allan’s comment, “Yeah, thanks.” She kept her eyes locked on Allan, trying to stare through him the way her father looked at people he would interrogate.
Feeling the pressure, Allan managed a meek, “That’s cool.”
Dylan smiled, and let out a bored, “Yeah, cool. Can I help you with something else?”
Fumbling for words, Allan’s cocky adolescent demeanor began to crack, “Um, yeah, so I was just wondering, could I call you or whatever?”
An epiphany flashed within Dylan’s brain pan, but she still played her game close to the chest. She replied with another relatively smooth, “Why don’t you give me your number?”
Allan’s eyes widened, “What?”
Equally shocked, Holly whispered a quiet, “Yeah, what?”
Dylan turned to Holly, “You have that Sharpie?” Without another word, Holly reached into her satchel and pulled out her pen. Looking up to Allan, she motioned for him to come closer. With each small step, the boy’s tween confidence crumbled.
Taking the pen, he asked timidly, “You have like a paper or something to write on?”
Reaching out for his wrist, Dylan laid her arm in his palm. Shaking, Allan wrote his phone number up the girl’s forearm with the penmanship of a drunk kindergartener. When he was finished, Dylan plucked the pen from his hand and gave it back to Holly.
From somewhere behind them, Isabella’s sing-song voice beckoned, “Allan!?”
Looking up at Dylan, Allan motioned awkwardly toward Isabella. With total indifference, Dylan shrugged him off. Making a less than graceful exit, Allan ran back to Isabella.
Holly was livid, “That boy thinks he can just write all over you and-”
Again, Dylan shushed her friend as she spoke, “Just wait.”
After Allan had caught up to Isabella and her hive, Dylan stood up and whistled. The Ice Queen glared over at Dylan. The Gamer Girl replied with a white washed smile and waved with her freshly tattooed arm, “I’ll call you tonight, ACE.”
Isabella’s eyes narrowed and turned on Allan. The poor boy was without an explanation. Still waving atop the bleachers, Dylan watched as the Ice Queen and her minions scurried off the field and into the locker room.