This story is by Lydia Woodward and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The air is pungent from the sweat of the many bodies who have worn this vest before me. Its thick straps criss-cross over my shoulders and pinch my neck whenever the heavy plate on my chest slides lower.
I readjust the weight for what feels like the millionth time – simultaneously longing for enough girth to make it stay put and the ability to shrink into oblivion.
My heartbeat pounds in my ears as I try to swallow past the thick lump in my throat. I stuff my hands deep into my pockets to keep the others from seeing how bad I’m shaking, though I doubt any of them have noticed me yet.
There’s a rambunctious group of teenage boys to my left who keep slapping each other on the backs and whisper-shouting. I doubt I could hear the instructor above their noise even if I could pay attention.
To my right and in front of me, several fifth-graders hop from foot to foot as they giggle and point around the hazy lighting with wide-eyed wonder. A woman smiles at them – her lips thin and tight, and her eyes are beginning to strain at the corners. I briefly wonder whether she lost some bet with the other moms to be stuck in this place.
One of the boys turns to see me and waves, a wide grin lighting up his face and highlighting his dimples.
All I can manage back is a jerky nod before the room starts to spin. I close my eyes to focus on fighting back the bile that’s burning my throat.
Ches had dimples like that. I can see still see my best friend’s wavy hair falling over his eyes as he jumps in excitement. Each memory feels so fresh – as if he’s still here waiting for me to say yes, to put myself out there enough to join him and the rest of our friends.
But I never did.
He always loved laser tag. And every year on his birthday, I would tag along and wait for them outside the heavy metal doors. Telling myself that next year I would be brave enough – next year I would try.
My chest tightens, and I hastily wipe my eyes before the tears can fall. Today would have been Ches’s 21st birthday, a day now tainted as the anniversary of his death.
But I’m here now. It’s just ten years too late.
I jerk back to the sweaty atmosphere clouding my senses as I feel something cold brush my collar bone. The instructor is inches from my face – the plate on my chest lifts and drops when he readjusts the straps.
His grin makes me shiver, and I try to step back, but he still has his hands wrapped around the straps.
He chuckles and lifts his hands in the air – stepping back slowly like I’m a frightened bunny that he must handle with care.
His pupils are large – too big – and when he winks at me, I feel my skin crawl.
Suddenly, the tired mom is next to me and giving the instructor one of her tight smiles. Although this time, it doesn’t reach her eyes.
“She’s on our team,” her voice sounds far away, and I realize that I can’t look away from the man’s eyes until he nods and spins around to check on the teenagers.
I feel the air leave my lungs in a giant whoosh, and my hands are in front of me, shaking.
“Hey there,” she says as the tired mom takes my hands and presses a cold bottle between them. “Deep breaths, dear, and drink some water. It’s unopened.”
I nod as I twist the cap off the bottle, my neck and back starting to ache from the tension.
It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m just overthinking it.
The woman pats my arm, and her eyes are kind when I turn to look at her.
“Do you have anyone with you?”
It’s a simple question, but I don’t trust myself to speak while I shake my head.
“Okay,” she smiles, “then stick with me, and this will all be over quick. Okay?”
“Thank you,” my voice is raspy and strained, but I manage a smile.
There’s smoke everywhere. I strain my eyes to peer through the hazy shapes and flashes of light from the laser guns, but I can’t make out anything discernable.
I was shot several times before losing track of Clara, the tired mom, and her group. Now, I’m crouching behind some dinosaur statue, and my gun is shaking when I point it ahead of me.
I haven’t shot anyone. No matter how many times I tell myself it’s a game, it still feels too real. I can still see the blood pooling, see his lifeless eyes staring up at me. I should have died that day, not Ches. If only I had seen the man before Ches pushed me out of the way.
I should be dead. I cradle my knees and take a deep, shuddering breath. But I’m here. I’m safe.
There’s a blur to my left, and I jerk in that direction. No one is there.
Deep breaths. I need to breathe. My chest is tight, but I close my eyes and place my palm over my racing heart – trying to drown out the noise enough to focus on my irregular breathing.
Something cold and soft brushes against my arm, and I jerk back. My eyes fly open to see the instructor crouched in front of me, his forefinger pressed against his lips. In the hazy light, I can just make out something thick and dark trailing from the corner of his mouth to his chin. A drip dangles there for a moment when he reaches out to grab my wrist.
I can feel the tremors taking over my body. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out.
“There, there,” he says, his voice smooth and low, “it will all be over soon.” His chilling smile reveals his glinting canines in the eerie light, and his pupils have grown bigger with glowing red bands encircling them. Then, before I can blink, he twists my wrist and bites down, and it feels like fire is racing up my arm and towards my heart.
The pain is enough to shake me from my stupor. I scream – swinging the plastic gun at the side of his head, where it connects with a crunch of the thick plastic. I can’t – don’t – look back as I jump to my feet and barrel through several teenagers in my attempt to escape.
I stumble out the front doors and nearly trip on the steps. My vision is blurry in the blinding sunlight. Every nerve seems to be zapped with energy, and my skin sizzles.
My eyes water as my nostrils sting with the scent of burning – something’s burning. I shake my head and grip my keys tighter – the jagged edge digging into my palm.
I bend over as the pain on my face and arms becomes unbearable. My lips feel dry and cracked, and when I lick them, I can taste blood. But it’s too thick, too bitter to be mine.
I’m not sweating, but my shirt presses into the skin of my back like it’s trying to fuse together. I cry out as I trip and land on my palms – jerking them away from the pavement with a hiss. Through the hazy, blinding light, I can make out the blisters already forming on my skin. Popping open and oozing yellow down my arms that burns like acid.
I close my eyes and clutch them to my chest as I try to think through the pain. But all I see are his eyes – the glowing red rims around his pupils…
I cry – a hoarse, animalistic cry as I feel the blisters on my back burst open.
I shake my head, and I try to will it all away. This can’t be real.
It was a game – just a game.