“It’s not far now,” Harold said, gesturing to a small pile of rocks on the side of the trail.
Taylor nodded and followed his friend deeper into the woods.
“Just wait until you see it. You’re not gonna believe your eyes.”
Taylor had heard those words before. Many times. But he trusted his friend. Harold knew a lot of cool things about the woods. He knew where to dig for arrowheads and worms. He knew how to track animals and read the stars in the night sky. He even knew how to mark a trail by leaving telltale signs such as piles of rocks or by notching trees. Having a father who was a Cub Scout leader had its advantages when it came to learning that kind of stuff.
“It’s right up here,” Harold said, “near that broken tree. The one that looks like it got hit by lightning. I remember it.”
Harold picked up his pace—and then, just as abruptly, stopped short.
A hustling Taylor slammed into his back and almost fell. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Harold didn’t even seem to notice. “It moved.” He pointed at the base of a thick tree maybe twenty feet away. “It was right over there before.” He bent to a knee and studied the ground in front of him. “It’s bigger, too. I’m sure of it.”
Taylor circled around his friend and leaned down for a closer look. Harold’s description had been surprisingly accurate. It looked like a blob of black goo. It was about the size of a baseball, maybe a little smaller, and was glistening like it was wet, pulsating like it was alive.
Harold sneezed, startling his friend. The sneeze sounded very loud in the silent forest. He wiped his nose on his T-shirt.
“It changed shape, too.”
“It smells sweet,” Taylor said. “Like candy.”
“I told you.”
Taylor watched as the black goo appeared to quiver slightly. It reminded him of a tiny black heart. He wanted to touch it, to pick it up and hold it in his hands. He wanted to take it home, but he knew better. First of all, it would be impossible to keep it hidden from the grown-ups. Secondly, if Gwen’s dad found out he had it in their car on the way home, he’d get in trouble.
“Well,” Harold said. “What do you think?”
Taylor looked up at his friend and smiled. “I think it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Okay, I think we’re ready.” Devin Fischer, dressed to blend into the woods, looked up from his clipboard. “Anyone seen Lydia or Tasha?”
The two assembled groups remained silent. Several of the Hirsch Capital employees looked around. A couple others shrugged.
Emilio finally spoke up, covering for his friend. “Lydia might be in the bathroom. I know her stomach was bothering her.”
Devin frowned. “Okay.” He scanned the handwritten rosters on his clipboard. “Mary, do me a favor and switch over to squad A. We can adjust the teams when the others get back.”
Mary Ng peeled off her vest and walked to the front of squad A. Her friend Amber handed her a new vest and gave her a sarcastically pantomimed fist bump. The members of squad A wore bright red mesh vests. The members of squad B wore bright blue vests. All the employees carried paintball guns and wore narrow belts holding clear plastic ammunition tubes filled with extra paintballs. A handful already wore protective face masks. The others carried them. They all looked ridiculous and knew it.
“Okay,” Devin said, a big smile back on his face. “The rules are simple. Two teams start at opposite ends of the clearing by the appropriately colored flags. The woods are in bounds, but please be careful. We don’t want to have to send out a search party for you.”
“No sweat there,” Mary said. “Don’t have to worry about me. I’m not going anywhere near those woods.”
Everyone laughed except for Jeremy, who stood next to Emilio with the opposite team. “Good to know,” he whispered. “She’ll be an easy kill.”
Emilio gave him a look. “You did not just say that.”
“Once you’ve been hit,” Devin continued, “put your hands up and keep them up until you’ve safely reached your home base. That will ensure that you don’t get shot again by accident.”
Amber raised her hand. She wore tight pink yoga pants and an even tighter tank top. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
Devin pointed at her, trying to suppress a grin. “Amber?”
“Ummm,” she cooed. “I’m just wondering if it hurts?”
Karen rolled her eyes.
“If what hurts?” he asked.
Amber blushed. “You know . . . when you get shot.”
“Just a little sting is all.” Devin scanned the two groups. “Amber brings up a good point,...