I laid flat against the wall. I could hear his labored breath. He was as tired as I. The forest did much to hide me among the foliage and ferns, but I feared my own heartbeat would give away my position. If I moved, he would find me. I knew this.
I positioned my paint gun and checked the ammo. I was down to less than a quarter. They would find me. It was only a matter of time. And when they did, I wouldn’t last the fight, but I’d give them hell. If I was going down, it was the least they could do.
They stepped. Leaves shuffled and, holding my breath, I pivoted. My paintballs flew sending red paint peppering the trees, the bushes, the strategically positioned hay bales and tires, but most of all, my opponent.
He let me have it. He was a marine, from the looks of him, as old as my Dad and then some.
“Abe! You got him!” John cried, but I didn’t hear. I caught a flash of his misaligned braces and his yellow mop of hair and then a bomb. An explosion maybe. That was no paint gun. I ceased firing unsure what I had just heard as the smile fell from John’s face along with the blood.
I didn’t understand, we had him. He was there.
The marine shifted and I caught the sheen of his semi-automatic, his fatigues, and nothing else. Unfazed by the load of red paint that peppered his back, he made his way through the forest, smoke trailing behind from his gun’s barrel.
John fell to his knees. Red blood, real blood mingled with the myriad of paint that covered his vest.
“John?” The forest was cold. I couldn’t understand. It was a game. Just a game. “John!”
John didn’t answer. He stared, dazed at something else behind me as if seeing something I couldn’t see. I put my arm around his back not sure what I was supposed to do.
“Help!” I cried. What else could I do. “Help me!” No answer. Like a dope, I sat beside my best friend and watched the life leave him. What else could I do? I was barely thirteen. So was John.
It took them hours to find us. I couldn’t leave him there. Not alone. I don’t know why. I don’t know anything anymore. The police spoke to me hours after I had told them everything I knew. They were mad at me, I think. Everyone always seemed to be mad at me. Even Dad. The only thing I could do about it was not to care. So I didn’t. John wasn’t mad at me. Not usually. We fought over trading cards and foam darts. None of that mattered anymore.
I shoved the angry tears from my eyes. I hated them. I hated everything. It was hard not to. Paint ball made it easier. I couldn’t hit people, not even the ones that deserved it. Paint ball helped with that. I can’t even do that anymore. Not without thinking about John laying there on the ground dead like that.
“And you’re sure you didn’t see his face?” I stared at the chief long. He was questioning me again as if I was the guy who pulled the trigger.
“I told you, he fired the shot and left. I didn’t see anything but his back.”
I hated this room. It was like a steel box. A giant steel box. It reminded me of my bug box in my room. There were windows too. Black ones. They looked like mirrors, but I knew they were windows.
“Those are windows,” I told the chief. I wanted him to know he wasn’t fooling me.
“Abe, yes they are windows.” He sighed and rubbed his hand over his old head. He had no hair. I wondered if I would lose mine too.
“You’re watching me.” I wouldn’t be their fool.
“Abe, tell me again what you saw.”
He was mad because I couldn’t talk to his artist who could draw a face. There wasn’t much to describe about the back of a guy’s head.
I humored him. I told him again.
The paintball arena was down the street from me. I loved it there. I started going when I was ten. Mom had gotten me a paintball gun for Christmas. Dad hated it. He didn’t think I deserved it. Mom said that I needed it. Mom always got me. When no one else did, Mom understood. I miss her.
It was dark, but I kept my head down on the drive home. I didn’t want to see the arena. I probably wouldn’t go back. I wanted to smash my guns. I wanted to smash my room and my father. I wanted to smash everything. I had so much hate I felt like I had a big bon fire in me that exploded from the top of my head.
I was hungry. I was always hungry. I hate being hungry.
I felt the car turn. The sound of the engine changed and Dad turned the key in the ignition. I didn’t want to be home. Home meant I would be alone. It was easier to cry at home. I hated being home.
Dad turned around in his seat at looked at me. I wish he wouldn’t.
I raised my face. Normally, I wouldn’t, but he wouldn’t leave me alone until I looked at him.
“How about, I make you something and bring it up to your room.”
I was hungry, but I knew me. I wouldn’t eat. So I said nothing.
“Abe.” He fumbled with his keys. He always fumbled with his keys when he had something to say to me that he didn’t want to say. The sounds made me hate more. Everything made me hate more.
“Abe, I spoke to Chief Daniels and he…” more keys rattling. “… he said I should have you speak to someone.”
I looked out the window. “Someone” obviously meant “therapist”. I was sick of therapists.
“I was thinking about giving Anne a call.”
My chest softened, but not a lot. I didn’t want it to soften. That also made me angry.
“You like Anne, remember?”
I kept staring and watched the wind push on my old tire swing. Paint plastered both sides. I remembered the day John and I stood shooting our paint guns at it. I suddenly wanted to throw up.
I grabbed the car door handle and yanked then swung the door open with my foot. I wanted to run, keep running, and not stop until the anger was out of me. I always felt that if I ran fast enough I could outrun the anger and leave it behind. Anger was exhausting and I was tired. But I ran. Past the tire swing, past the backyard, past the trees in my back yard. I would run and not stop until maybe I was no longer angry. Or dead. Whichever came first.
I heard Dad calling, but I didn’t listen. If I saw my room there was too much there to keep me angry. At least here in the woods, I couldn’t break anything.
Dad was always telling me I was breaking things. I didn’t mean to, I just didn’t know how to be careful. They always make things so weak. I can’t help but break them.
I dodged a couple trees, misjudged a few, and dropped to the old stump I had found months ago rotting in the middle of an ivy patch. I didn’t have to dig long to find what I had been looking for: my old back pack. I had stored it in a black, drawstring garbage bag to keep it dry and to keep the bugs out. I was thrilled to see that it worked. I opened the bag, wadded it up, and shoved it into my backpack.
I didn’t have time to stop and look through the contents. I didn’t want to be found, not yet. Maybe not ever. I threw the bag over my shoulder and continued through the forest. My heart was punching my chest. It hurt. Dad’s voice was fading.
I didn’t care. I knew how deep the forest went. It had no end. I wasn’t about to spend the next ten months talking to a girl about my feelings. Such bull crap.
“Shit,” I said. Because I could, and Dad wasn’t around me to tell me not to. I think I needed to swear. Sometimes, curse words say everything you want to say.
Sometimes, there wasn’t a word ugly enough.
I walked until my legs hurt. I liked them that way. It distracted me from thinking. The sun was up putting its light all over the place. I didn’t like the light or the morning. It reminded me too much that I was still alive and Mom wasn’t. I found a rock that resembled a chair and dumped my pack beside it. I could afford a few minutes to shuffle through my stuff.
I pulled out my rope and pushed aside my hatchet, a compass, and a watch that had apparently stopped working then grabbed the jar of peanut butter my father had asked me ten months ago and a spoon. I told him he didn’t buy any more peanut butter and he believed me.
I twisted off the red top, pulled back the seal, and licked the silver paper. Saliva filled my mouth, which made the peanut butter wet enough to eat. I looked around the forest. Two deer trails led into opposite directions. The hill slanted up, dropped down, and continued straight.
They would be looking for me soon. Straight would be obvious. The deer trail going up the hill would be too easy. I licked the spoon clean and peered down the hill. From my seat-rock it didn’t look like much, but past the trees and shrubs, it dropped down. It looked like the deer trail twisted around to a stream I could hear once I poked my head out further. The overgrowth was great. Chief Daniels would have dogs. The stream would be the way to go.
I dug my spoon into the peanut butter, licked it clean one more time, and capped the jar of peanut butter. After stuffing the rope back in my bag and sipping up the flap, I pulled the straps over my shoulders and headed down. I grabbed hold of the thin white birch trees with both hands and shifted my feet until they slid on the leaves. Supporting my balance on the trees, I let myself slide down into the next one and again as I pulled myself around and followed the trail.
I soon lost control of my balance as my momentum picked up and I slid forward, face first into the rock. I felt the bone in my cheek crack and I screamed. Fire exploded on my face and it hurt to open my eyes, to breathe… so I laid there letting the pain hurt me. I didn’t care. That was my plan anyway, to lie there letting my face hurt me, when a sound like a humming made me curious. I turned my head and there, buried behind some vines and green foliage things, I saw it: a faint blue light that pulsed with the humming. I pulled myself up and winced then forced myself not to wince as that encouraged a new kind of fire to my face. The stream seemed to start behind the vines.
I grabbed my bag and dabbed at my face. My fingers were clean, so no blood, but I was sure my cheek was broken. The swelling was already forcing my left eye closed kind of. Hoisting my bag over my shoulder, I made my way onto the stream and followed the water up. The humming stayed quiet even though I was getting closer. The light kept blinking blue. I pulled down the ivy, pushed back the ferns, and entered the mouth of a cave. Water seeped from the rocks. Ignaminous… Ignitious rock. That black, shale stuff that breaks apart like a book. I couldn’t remember my science classes. The blue light was brighter inside the cave away from the sunlight. I stepped carefully on the streambed and slipped a couple times. It didn’t help that my nose felt like I had shoved a basketball up my nostril.
I made it to the blue light where I could make out a round blue sphere imbedded in the igneous rock. Igneous. I was proud that I remembered. I tapped on the sphere. Glass. The light blinked on. This close, I could see an inscription carved into the rock. Light off. Light on. This close I could read the word: C.H.O.I.C.E.
I crinkled my face then swore. I could feel my heart pounding my face like a hammer. Eating was going to suck for the next week. I dragged my finger along each letter.
I dropped my hand and looked around the cave for the wire, but saw none. I was feeling tired. My face hurt. I closed my eyes. What if I had a concussion? I don’t think I was supposed to go to sleep. I opened my eyes again.
The cave was gone. The blue light was gone. The stream was gone. My pack was gone. The fire in my face was gone. I was back again in the forest with bales of hay and barrels; my back flat against a tree. My paintball gun gripped in my hand.
My heart was pounding, but for different reasons this time. Sweat balled on my forehead and I touched my face. The swelling and pain were gone.
I whipped my head to the side.
“John?” I said.
“Abe!” I heard John call me.
Then he was there all over again: the marine with the fatigues and the silver barrel.
My anger came back and I charged. I yelled and ran into his legs.
That voice wasn’t John’s.
“Abe! Calm down!” His hands gripped my arms and shook me a little. I opened my eyes and saw his face. My Dad’s face looking all worried like.
“Dad?” I wanted to cry. Then I did.