Ace


Carlo spotted his ex-girlfriend in line ahead of him. He thought of her as his ex because there is no other term for a married woman who sleeps with you. Like everyone else at this ridiculous, awful place, she wore a camouflage jumpsuit, a paintball gun slung over her stooped shoulders. She was talking and laughing with some women whom Carlo did not recognize. Although he was too far away to hear, they seemed to find their army outfits, awkward weaponry, and phony military surroundings to be amusing. They were among the only women at the paintball field, and their rented camouflage uniforms, long since faded to a brownish green, hung loosely on their bodies, several sizes too large.

It was the bun in Christina’s hair that he recognized first. She had such frizzy hair that people often asked if she was half black. Carlo kept staring until she turned around to face him, leaving no doubt that it was her. He could not catch the glint of her wedding ring, but knew that it was probably still on her finger. She often complained about how it was stuck there, as if her husband had latched it onto her like a medieval chastity belt. Instinctively, Carlo reached up to the mask that was perched atop his head and pulled it over his face. He knew then that it was probably going to remain there for the rest of the day. At the same time, he shifted his gun to his other shoulder, so that it would obscure the nickname that was stenciled on his jacket: ACE. It had been his nickname in another life, back when there was nothing to the world but basketball games and the 69th Street movie theater and the alley between the boys’ and girls’ schools where he made out with at least a dozen young women over the course of four years. Christina resurrected the name after their first night together, the night of the holiday party. “Are you sure they called you Ace because you were a good point guard?” she asked while lying on her side, guiding his hand over her hip.

His mind began to construct the next few hours of his life, lining up all of the worst-case scenarios: Christina pointing at him and giggling, while whispering to her friends. Christina shooting him and laughing. Christina spotting him and turning away. Christina noticing his ACE badge and shaking her head, both at him and her own choices in life. Christina recognizing him, giving him a fake one-armed hug, and then wishing him well. Christina running from him while he shot at her. Christina chasing him, firing blindly, cursing at him. Every scenario ended with him being alone, and her being better off for it.

“Are you here to get your tank filled?” a voice to his right asked.

Carlo thought that it was a man speaking, and was surprised when he turned to see a very tall woman with a silver mustache. She did not seem to have any upper teeth, only a lower set. She wore a black t-shirt with the word SKIRMISH on the front. Realizing that she worked here, Carlo shrugged and said, “Yeah.”

“This is the line for compressed air,” she said, sounding disappointed in him.

Carlo looked ahead to see one of Christina’s friends handing over her gun to a man at the booth. The man attached it to a hose, releasing a whine of air from the nozzle.

“You have a CO2 tank,” she said. “The CO2 line is over there.” She pointed to an even longer line twenty feet away. Carlo saw a few people from his office in that line, all looking equally skeptical of the usefulness of this so-called team-building activity. Before he could half-heartedly apologize, the woman with the mustache was already scolding someone else for the same infraction.

Carlo headed for the other booth, all the while keeping his eyes on Christina. As he expected, she sensed that someone was watching her and glanced in his direction. Shielded by his mask, he turned away as if he didn’t know her. It was only the beginning of the day. Soon, his boss, a man named Alex whose father owned the company, would give them some kind of pep talk. And then they would be led out into the various arenas, and would be hunting one another down. For fun, he had been told.

He took a deep breath. And then another. He was strong. He could handle defeat. And solitude. And failure. He would get through this.  

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