Chapter Four

"It's not like in paint-balling you need depth perception anyway." Luke's pathetic joke drifted over the snow to where Jack watched from behind a stand of juniper. It made him want to vomit.

"That bastard," Jack thought. "He puts on his wuss act and gets all cozy right up in Katherine's lap. Hasn't known her more than an hour and I bet he's plotting to get her back to his hotel room."

Jack sneered and turned away from the couple. He looked left, toward the field. "The old geezer's gonna rip me a new one if I go back there now," he thought, "and the rest of them are just waiting to take their turns making me look like a chump." He turned right and trudged up the mountain, shedding his spattered mask and fluorescent orange vest along the way. He didn't want any of the old man's crap. Jack imagined Katherine holding Luke's head in her lap, stroking his hair. "She'll help him stagger to the car, drive him to the hotel and nearly faint with joy at his miraculous recovery once she gets to his room. What a tramp," he muttered. "Who does she think she is, ordering me around?"

The snow grunted under Jack's boots, protesting each step, and the sun bit his eyes as he squinted at the ruthlessly blue sky. On the other side of a line of yellow tape, the calm shade of deeper forest beckoned him. He tore through the stubborn tape and raised his arms like a marathon runner, waving to the evergreens. The stoic trees made no judgments, unlike his so-called friends who found it hilarious to pelt him with paint balls and then call him an idiot when he got one of them back.

"Screw them," he whispered.

As Jack pushed his way into the forest, Luke clung to Katherine's hand. His eye felt like a red ember searing into his skull. The pain sent the world twirling around him, and her hand was the only still point left on the mountain.

"Try to hold still. Jack will get Marcus."

"You don't sound very convincing." Luke scrabbled at the snow, trying to sit up.

"What are you doing?"

"No one's coming," Luke grated. "We have to get to the shack ourselves."

Katherine nodded, "OK, but let me put your mask back on."

"It's a little late for that, isn't it?"

"Don't be an ass." Katherine stuffed her gloves into the mask and strapped it over Luke's face.

"Aarrrgh!" Luke screeched as white bolts of pain flashed through his eye.

"Sorry...sorry...I'm sorry. You have to keep pressure on your eye to stop the bleeding."

"Thanks," he croaked, "but now I can't see."

"You'll just have to trust me." She pulled him to his feet and put his hands on her shoulders. "Hold on and walk behind me."

Luke felt her move forward so he took a step and immediately tripped on the back of her boot, banging his mask against her back. The fresh jolt of pain nearly brought him to his knees, but he gripped Katherine's shoulders so hard that she yelped.

"Sorry," Luke groaned. "Try again?"

"Yes. Left foot. On three. One. Two..."

They marched in tandem at a toddler's pace all the way to the shack, Katherine chanting, "Left. Left. Left, right, left," the whole way. When they reached the playing field, Luke heard Jillian giggling.

"That's a mighty short conga line," she joked.

"Jill, call an ambulance, then get Marcus on the radio," Katherine shouted. "Jack shot Luke in the eye, and he's bleeding pretty bad."

"Holy sh--"

"Now, Jillian!"

The snow squelched under Jillian's feet as she ran to the shack and flung the door open so fast that it slammed against the wall. Luke heard the rotary dial on the old phone clattering like cold teeth.

"Can you make it a few more steps?"

"Just a few."

Katherine led him inside and helped him onto the tattered recliner that smelled like a wet dog. Jillian screeched directions into the phone. He could feel a blissful darkness pulling him away from the throbbing torment of his eye, but he couldn't give in to it. He had to warn them about Jack.

"Katherine."

"I'm right here, Luke."

"Jack's going to be a problem." Luke felt her shoulders slump and imagined her rolling her eyes. "I mean, more than just shooting my eye out. He's supposed to be on medication, but I don't think he's taken it since we've been on vacation."

"What kind of medication?" Jillian squeaked. "Like the kind that keeps him from washing his hands repeatedly, or the kind that keeps him from stabbing every person who beats him at paintball?"

"He didn't mean to hurt me!" Luke retorted. "He's not thinking straight and he might hurt himself. We have to help him."

"This is a nightmare," Jillian wailed.

Luke heard Ryan and Nathan talking outside, then the door to the shack opened, letting in a blast of air so frigid that it startled Luke.

"Any luck?" Nathan asked. "Holy crap! What happened to Luke?"

"Long story," Katherine replied, "but we need to tell Marcus what's going on."

Jillian keyed the radio, "Marcus, you out there?"

"Yep." His voice crackled through the static.

"Things got a lot worse."

Further up the mountain, Marcus listed as Jillian explained what had happened. When she finished he just shook his head. "You kids are a bushel of trouble."

"I didn't do anything!"

"Not yet," he grumbled.

He didn't know about the others, but Jillian sounded like she was about to fall apart. The sun would be down in an hour and the snow was falling heavier. Marcus thought about the boys who wandered into the woods two winters ago; the snow covered their tracks and it took the police four days to find their bodies. He couldn't let that happen again. He took two deep breaths, then decided on a course of action. "Jillian, go down and make sure the ambulance doesn't miss the turn-in. Ryan, stay by the radio. Nathan, call the police and tell them we've got a missing person. Katherine, watch Luke."

"You don't want us to look for Jack?"

"No use in the rest of you getting lost. I'll check-in every fifteen minutes."

Marcus waded through the snow towards the heavier forest, his eyes scanning side to side from ground to horizon, searching for anything out of the ordinary. After a few minutes, he caught a flash of orange in the snow and hustled toward it. He found Jack's vest, and, a few steps further, his mask. A trench in the snow led toward two arms of yellow warning tape flailing in the wind.

"Ready or not, here I come."

The End

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