It was Stephanie Lauter who pointed to the obnoxiously neon-colored sign advertising the Laser Tag and casually suggested they gave it a try. Lex could have killed for less.
"That sounds nice, right? How about it, Hannah?"
The offer was met with instant looks of concern, though not directed at her. Rather, in various levels of obviousness, Lex, Tim, Becky and Hannah glanced at Tom to assess how he felt about the suggestion rather than the birthday girl. Tom, caught in too much attention, frowned and shook his head to dismiss them. He patted Hannah’s shoulder.
"So whatcha think, Hannah?" He asked, smiling warmly. "It’s your birthday. We’re here to do whatever you like."
Hannah was turning fifteen the next Wednesday and Tom and Becky had offered to take her and her friends out to the arcade for the day that weekend. She had been given free range over which of her friends to invite, if any at all. Her two close friends Sophia and Daniel had come as no surprise, though Lex had never expected Stephanie Lauter to make the cut − nor to accept it. In private, she had asked Becky if she thought there was a trick somewhere, a senior willingly agreeing to come to a young freshman’s birthday party, but Becky had implored her to think the best of Stephanie and to keep an open mind before making any accusation. Lex hardly knew anything about this friend her sister had supposedly made in Tom’s class. She seemed happy enough to have come, in any case. All the time they had been here hopping from one game to the next, she had joked around with Hannah, cheered on her when she won prizes, treated her with all the respect Lex’s sister deserved and yet seldom received. Whatever Stephanie was hiding − if indeed anything − Lex would have to wait to be proven right.
Becky gently touched Tom’s arm and gave him a smile full of compassion, wordlessly encouraging him to speak his discomfort if there was any. Lex said nothing, not because she felt like keeping silent but because she did not know what to say, especially in front of people who knew nothing of his trauma, and the only thing she knew was that it was his choice entirely what he revealed and what he kept between the family. Who did Stephanie Lauter think she was, after all, to presume she had a right to the private lives of the Houston-Foster-Barnes household?
"Oh, I don’t think Dad can do it," Tim piped up and Lex could have strangled him for less. He was eleven and old enough to understand the concept of oversharing. And to avoid it. "He can’t hold a gun, not even fake ones. It reminds him of the war in Irak."
Stephanie’s face turned as pale as a ghost and she stammered. Next to Hannah, her two friends politely tried not to stare and pretended instead they had not heard anything of this conversation. Sophia muttered something into Daniel’s ear, who nodded ever so faintly, trying not to attract attention. Tom looked as stunned as ever and it was a few long awkward seconds before he spoke up. There was a duality to Tom that Lex never ceased to admire, the stoic Tom who took whatever was thrown at his face and the fragile, whiny little Tom underneath who suffered the consequences. The two did not seem to get along.
"I mean… Well, now… I’m totally fine, I’m not incapable of…"
Becky’s hand rubbed his arm soothingly. She would never have dared to blurt out his weaknesses, especially in front of Hannah’s three friends who were for all intents and purposes strangers to the rest of them. In fact, Lex had often noticed that Becky hardly ever spoke a word of opposition against Tom. It was a habit she was painfully trying to shed, but then Tom never really gave her cause to oppose him either. Still, Lex could see how much Becky craved to try and convince him away from the game, but no such suggestion ever passed her lips.
"I’m so sorry, Mr Houston," Stephanie said timidly and Lex noticed just how very sincere she sounded − either a solid actress or a good soul. There was no way to tell. "We don’t have to do anything, I just saw the sign and… I didn’t know. Yeah, no, shitty idea, I’m sorry. I mean, erm, crappy idea."
Lex smirked at the correction and wondered whose sake it was for − Tim or Tom. Stephanie did not know, it seemed, that both of them swore like stranded sailors in each other’s absence.
"No, it’s a great idea," Tom said, trying and failing to sound cheerful. "I mean, weren’t you two playing that game together, what was it again, bud? The Fourth Night?"
Tim rolled his eyes, embarrassed. He seemed to be acutely aware of there being four whole high schoolers around to hear his dad shame him, which was to him the utmost injury, as a freshly enrolled middle schooler who thought high schoolers the pinnacle of freedom and coolness.
"Oh my god, dad, it’s called Fortnite," he said. "Keep up."
Tom only chuckled awkwardly. Still, he looked at Hannah with evident benevolence that even though it wasn’t directed at her made Lex feel like she was the recipient of a warm hug.
"Hannah gets to decide," he said, "If we play or not. Do you like laser tag?"
"I’ve… never played it," she admitted. "I don’t know."
Despite Tim and Becky warning him against it in so many words, despite Lex biting her cheek, concerned, Tom was not willing to admit he was uncomfortable. He never admitted to that.
"Well, why don’t we try it and find out?"
At the Laser Tag, they were asked to divide into pairs. At once, Tim caught Becky’s hand and lifted it as if in victory.
"I pick Becky! I got dibs!"
Becky laughed and, moving her arm with Tim’s hand still clasped in hers, wrapped it around his shoulder and kissed his temple. There had been an awkwardness between them in the early days of their living together, for sure, but after a couple of years of cohabitation, Tim was at least as much in love with Becky as Tom was and the two were inseparable when the boy decided as much. Becky was always afraid to refuse him.
"I’ll team up with you," Hannah told Tom, holding his hand. "So you’re safe."
Tom’s heart might as well have melted into a puddle. His eyes fluttered with deep fondness and he nodded.
"Yeah," he said, "Yeah, you’ll protect me."
Sophia and Daniel opted for teaming up together and laughed with Hannah as they were given their equipment and explained the rules of the game. Lex realized too late she should have offered to sit out the game with Tom. They would have sat quietly in near silence somewhere around the arcade − or better even, he would have tried to make conversation on whatever topic it was he was interested in, school or cars or trees or something. It might even have been really nice. And yet now that she was facing Stephanie Lauter who handed her the weirdly shaped vest they were all to wear, Lex knew that there was no escape to this at all. Laser Tag had trapped its nasty plastic claws on her and she would have to push through. Whatever score they managed to land, it would be a victory in and of itself just to have finished the game.
The battle raged the very moment they heard the chime marking the start of the first round. Tim and Becky were ruthless, particularly the former, whose goal was to shoot each and every person in his way. To compensate for his recklessness, Becky was covering his back and playing a more subtle game, all defensive to counter his offensiveness. Lex would have thought there was no better duo if it hadn’t been for Daniel and Sophia. The two moved in one accord, with one spirit, one frame of mind, and every single motion was impeccably executed. A dozen times, Lex was certain they would hit her before she had gotten a chance to even play and several times, they did exactly that, but she began to lurk around the terrain much more sleuth and only then did she start scoring some points.
Stephanie, she thought, must have been handling Tom and Hannah. That was for the better. Lex was not certain she could have had the heart to shoot her sister, even with a fake gun such as this. Piercing Tim with pretense shots was much easier, for the satisfaction of how disappointed whenever he got hit. It was almost too easy to upset him and Lex was tempted to hold off on him simply not to break his little heart. When she caught him taking aim at Hannah, however, she changed her mind in a heartbeat.
“Not my sister!” She cried and sent him all the way back to hell where he came from.
Behind her, Hannah cleared her throat. Lex could recognize her sister between a thousand, even without seeing her.
Lex swirled around to a gun pointed straight at her. Even Hannah seemed surprised to be aiming at her and her grip on the plastic gun loosened for a moment. It was only a flicker of time, but enough for a miracle. Before she could try anything, whether to give up or to fight back against Hannah for the sake of the game, something crashed into her side and she was pushed all the way out of sight from her sister. She groaned in discomfort. Someone had slammed into her and tackled her to the ground in a thin gap she had not even noticed, but when she tightened her grip on her gun to kill her assailant, she realized that it was her teammate.
“Do not make any sound,” Stephanie mouthed to her silently.
Behind them, Daniel and Sophia were roaming the empty space they had occupied mere seconds prior. Sophia was hit − there was no victory cry, so Lex assumed the attacker must have been Hannah. Still, Daniel did not seem to see them. Between two fake boulders, there was a crack in terrain so narrow Lex wondered if it was even meant to be there or if the set was faulty. Whatever the matter, they were now hidden in there so perfectly nobody could see them at all.
Stephanie’s arms were around her, their faces very close together. Lex realized her cheeks were burning up and looked away, but the tight space did not allow for her to extirpate herself from it, not without revealing their hiding spot.
“I’ve spent the first few rounds here,” Stephanie said in the lowest voice. “It’s impregnable. Don’t move.”
Lex did not move. Her heart was pounding in her ears and she gulped. She did not want to move.
“Just a little bit…” Stephanie whispered. Her chin rested against Lex’s shoulder and she looked behind her at the path where, Lex supposed, one of their opponents must have showed their face. She shot and Lex heard a quick expletive of frustration. Tim had been taken down again. “That’s it.”
Lex’s legs had turned to jelly. Stephanie’s perfume was light and flowery, but intoxicating from such a proximity. From up close, even in dim darkness, she could see the shape and tint of her eyes. Her mouth dropped open and she let out a strange sound she could not control.
Stephanie stared at her and Lex’s heart beat all the faster from the look she gave her. It wasn’t just her. Whatever she was feeling in this instant, and she was not sure she could explain it, she now saw mirrored on Stephanie’s face. She wanted to say something mean, to push her off, to run away and kill herself under the enemy’s blaze, and yet the longer they stood there cramped in a space too small for two, even for one, she could only stare and do nothing at all. And her guts were groaning with a lot she wanted to do.
“Good shot,” she eventually muttered.
Prying herself from their hiding place, she went back to the game, but it wasn’t long before Sophia caught her from behind and Lex grunted in frustration. Her head never quite managed to get back to the battle the entire time they were playing.
In the end, Hannah and Tom won the game. Although the easy explanation would have been that of course the birthday girl would have been granted more indulgence than the rest of the players, Lex was certain that it had little to do with her sister and everything to do with her teammate. Tom smiled at being given a prize and a medal, which was cheap plastic he would throw away as soon as he was out, but still Lex could very well see that he was proud of himself after all. She slapped his back cheerfully.
"Nice job, you two," she said. She did not want to attract attention to him in particular. She knew he hated for his wounds to be exposed and it was one of the most intricate ways the two of them understood each other. "Whatcha got, Banana?"
Hannah showed her the vouchers for a free game of Laser Tag to be cashed in any time within the next twelve months. Lex wondered if Tom meant to burn his the moment they came home or if he would ever ask to play again. She would not ask. Tim and Becky crowded around him to distract him with easy chatter and Hannah caught up with Sophia and Daniel, who each told her all about the impressive deeds the other had performed during the game.
Stephanie and Lex stared at each other, neither of them willing to break the silence that settled the moment there was but the two of them face to face. Lex had never thought of herself as a shy person − that was Hannah. And yet at the moment, Hannah was beaming and chatting with her friends, laughing at their reenactment of the battle. Lex couldn’t help a smile.
"You’re, erm, you’re pretty good," Stephanie said, "With a gun. A fake gun."
Lex snorted. She passed back the vest and the gun to the employee − she thought she recognized him from school, though she had never liked him. There were very few people Lex could claim to like, counted on the fingers of one hand. With one to spare.
"Thanks," she replied, fighting an urge to sass meanly. She smirked. "Wait till you see me with a real one." At once, she cringed. "I mean, I’ve never held one. I dunno why I said that. It’s dumb."
They looked at each other. Lex was taken with a desire to speak, to say something clever, but nothing came to mind and she could only stare dumbly. Stephanie smiled. She was making a dark red lipstick which made her look much more feminine than she would have been otherwise. It was a good look. It went well with her eyes. Lex frowned, unsure of where that thought had come from.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing you without either,” Stephanie blurted out.
She bit her lip as though she had not meant to say this out loud. Lex cocked an eyebrow.
Stephanie’s cheeks seemed to her a little more pink all of a sudden. Why was she blushing? Suddenly, Stephanie seemed utterly fascinated with the hem of her hoodie she stared at as she played with the zipper and shrugged.
“You’re… a good sister,” she said, as if hesitant on what she should say. “You’d have rather lost the game than shot her, even for play. And you’re a hell of a player, you could have beaten her flat.”
Lex was hesitant to accept the compliment. She still could not quite make out what to think of Stephanie. She had thought her shallow and conceited, but nothing today had given her any reason to keep that first impression. And the feel of her arms when they had been pressed together during the game…
“I think you’re cool,” Stephanie said in a nonchalant voice, as if she didn’t care. Her eyes told another story. “I thought it’d be nice to like… hang out? I mean, if you wanna.”
Lex had lived a life devoid of friendship for so long she only recognized now that it was shoved into her face − but was friendship what Stephanie was asking for in the first place? Lex didn’t think herself too stupid, yet the social clue she was supposed to catch in this moment was completely eluding her.
“You’re not into it,” Stephanie sighed. She was pouting. “It’s okay. I don’t know why I assumed you were…”
“I am,” Lex retorted, realizing she’d been silent for a tad too long. “Into it, I mean, er… Yeah. I… I am.”
Whatever else she was, she had yet to really parse and she kept for herself. Stephanie broke into the brightest smile, huffing with relief. Her eyes were so vivid. They made Lex want to stare at them, and she didn’t care for any sappy crap like that.
“Here,” she said, handing Lex her phone, “Give me your number. I’ll text you.”
Lex obeyed. Across the room, she was feeling Becky’s eyes noticing the exchange and she looked away. She was so awkward, and yet she could not remember ever feeling this giddy. Tom’s eyes fell on them and he approached them. His hand patted Lex’s shoulder affectionately.
“You hold your own in a fight,” he complimented the two of them. “Great cooperation. I like that.”
“Thank you Mr Houston,” Stephanie said politely. “I’m sorry again you had to…”
But Tom dismissed whatever apology she would come up with.
“I had a good time,” he said and Lex did not know if she believed him. “And Hannah did, too. That’s what matters.”
In the parking lot, it was decided that Tom would drive Sophia and Daniel home with Hannah while Becky took Tim and Lex. After fond goodbyes to the birthday girl, Stephanie nodded towards her car.
“This is me,” she told Lex.
Lex shoved her hands into her pockets. She did not know what to say. Something about Stephanie made her feel like an idiot, but somehow, she did not mind. She thought it was sort of nice, the fuzzy feeling born inside of her this afternoon she had not tamed yet. Perhaps this was not something she could ever reign in.
“We should hang out,” Stephanie said again. “It doesn’t have to be…”
“Lex,” Becky called out, who was parked a few rows away. “Are you ready?”
“Just a minute!” Lex called back.
She looked at Stephanie and nodded. Her mouth narrowed. What was she getting herself into? Stephanie took a big breath as if to give herself courage.
“It doesn’t have to be with Hannah,” she said rapidly, getting the words out as quick as she could. “I mean, it could be… just the two of us.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got that,” Lex said. “I’ve said yes. Get on with the program, Lauter.”
This made Stephanie snort and Lex couldn’t help smiling. She shuffled on her feet. Stephanie seemed to hesitate, then breached the distance between them to press a kiss against Lex’s cheek. Her lips were very soft. She wondered if she had left a mark. In a way, she hoped she had, but Tim would have questions and Lex had no answer to give him at the moment. One day, perhaps, she might.
“See you around,” Stephanie said and opened the door to her car.
Lex cocked a finger at her in a salute and nodded.
“Sure, yeah,” she said. “Bye.”
She walked back to Becky’s car cursing herself for whatever she had said, not just in this instant but everything that had come before. What had she gotten herself into? Why did she want to see Stephanie Lauter in the first place? But she knew that she could not have given any other answer. She was too curious not to open wide a door that had been breached today. In the car, Tim was already sitting shotgun and she crashed on the backseat with the biggest smile across her face.
She looked at her phone. So far, nothing. She was almost feeling upset at the thought when her screen lit up with a notification.
You better not have given me a false number
Lex’s grin got all the brighter as she hurried to reply. The car started and by the time they approached home, Lex was a little more sure of herself. Whatever was to come now, she could not say. All she knew was that today was for sure the start of something truly worth her while. One day, she would thank Hannah for it. In the meantime, there was something blossoming strictly between herself and Stephanie. And she would water it for as long as it took to grow to its fullest.