The branches dug into Sam’s arms like vicious talons. His mask fogged up in front of his eyes and his breath came in ragged gasps. Ignoring every instinct, he forced his legs to stop moving. He leaned against a tree as the jagged bark crumbled under his fingertips. He greedily gulped down each breath as a sharp stab in his side demanded him to stop.
A rustling noise whispered through the woods.
Sam slammed his back against the tree and worked on calming his nerves. His heart boomed in his chest. He took in a deep lungful of air and tried to ease the anxiety out of his skin.
He was being followed.
A tree branch snapped out an ominous warning. Cold, prickly fear curdled in his veins as his hair stood on end. Despite the sweat soaking his camouflage shirt, a chill ran up and down his back. Immediately, his finger flew to the trigger. The metal felt slippery and warm. Another crack broke the woods with warning, but this time he was able to pinpoint the position of his pursuer.
A weight settled in his stomach. Tactically, he didn’t have much options. In front of him was sparse cover and if he made a run for it, he’d be exposed and picked off in seconds. No, the tree grinding into his spine offered the only advantage. Sam knew he was going to have to poke his head around to see his attacker. If his enemy knew he was hiding behind it, he’d be shot immediately, but if luck was on his side, he could squeeze off a few rounds before his assailant could respond. Sam licked his salted lips in anticipation and steadied his breath. He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants and recommitted his grip firmly on his Tippmann 98 Custom.
Now or never.
Sam threw his weight around and slid out from behind the tree. His gun was brought level as he aimed down the sights. A flash of color darting through the trees alerted him to his target just as his finger registered what his brain was screaming. With a gentle tug, the trigger fell. The weapon responded with a kick as a volley of projectiles scattered from the end of his gun.
The woods lit up with a spray of green as the paintballs splattered among the branches. The ones which did not break apart found their mark. In return, the teenager who fell victim to another one of Sam’s kill shots shrieked as the pellets hit him squarely in the chest.
“Dude! Alright! Alright! I’m dead. Chill out!” Steven shouted. Sam grinned wickedly as he looked at his prey who was now covered in fluorescent green goop.
“You sounded like a girl,” he mocked.
“Your mom sounded like a girl,” Steven retaliated as he took off his helmet. Underneath was a sweat covered teenager whose face was enflamed with annoyance and acne.
“Yeah. That makes sense.”
“Whatever. You get anyone else?”
Sam nodded as he scanned the area. There was no way he was going to take his helmet off or drop his guard. He wouldn’t put it past the others to use Steven as bait in order to draw him out. But, nothing moved in the underbrush, so he was in the clear.
“I tagged David and Greg. I think Austin, Peter, Logan, and Henry are out on my team, which just leaves me and Tommy as the lone warriors on Team Awesome,” Sam said proudly.
“Try hard,” Steven mumbled.
“What did you call me?” Sam asked as he raised his Tippman.
“Oh, nothing,” Steven claimed with false sheepishness. “Have you even seen Tommy?”
“Not lately. You?” Sam asked as Steven inspected his gun.
“Nah. The kid’s a weirdo. It’s his birthday party. You’d think he’d be around.”
“He’s not a weirdo,” Sam defended.
“Dude, all he talks about is trains. How’s that not weird?”
A weight plummeted in Sam’s stomach. He and Tommy had been friends for a long time—ever since kindergarten. Sam remembered their shared love of Hardy Boys books, treasure hunts, Star Wars, and late nights playing Secret Quest on Sam’s Atari. For a long time, they were the closest of friends. But, if Sam was honest with himself, they’d stopped being best friends almost a year ago when Tommy suddenly became fixated with trains and train history. Meanwhile, Sam was growing more and more popular while Tommy was still the rail thin kid who hadn’t yet hit puberty. Lately, they hadn’t hung out much at all.
“Everybody has a hobby, Steven. Yours is being a loser, and Tommy’s is trains. Simple.”
“Whatever, man. I just find it strange that it was you who invited all of us instead of him.”
“Tommy knows all of you. He’s just not good at inviting people.” It sounded so lame. Steven shook his head and flashed Sam an unconvinced stare. Sam knew he was out in the open. “Well, if you think he’s such a strange kid, then why’d you come to his birthday party?” Sam asked as an edge of annoyance crept into his voice. He hated it when the other kids made fun of Tommy. Thankfully, Tommy didn’t see it most of the time.
“Can’t beat free paintball and cake,” Steven said with a sly grin.
“I’m going to beat you in the head with paintball and cake,” Sam threatened. He knew it was no use, though. The other kids would continue making fun of Tommy even if Sam stuck up for him. Honestly, it had gotten to the point that it was exhausting to keep defending Tommy. Especially since Tommy didn’t ever do anything different to change their opinions of him. “When’d you last see him?” Sam asked as he changed the subject.
“Right before we started. He mentioned something about the river, but I have no idea what he was talking about. We’re miles away from the river.” Steven said with a shrug.
Sam shook his head in disappointment. “I think I know where he might be. While I hunt him down, let the rest of your team know I’m still alive. I welcome the challenge.”
“Yeah. Yeah,” Steven spoke with a wave of his hand as he walked off in the opposite direction with his head lowered in defeat. Sam waited until he was gone before he headed deeper into the woods.