All things considered, maybe being mauled by a dozen twelve-year-olds in laser gear wasn’t the worst way to go. It could have been death by a weeks-old diaper in the ball pit, and likely no one would have found him for months. At least this way he had an audience, and Ben Nakamura knew too well the irony of being so noticed.
He had never been noticed in his life. Not the way he wanted to be.
“For the love of all that is good, just leave.” He knew he was begging, and he knew it wasn’t helping anything, but at this point he was seriously considering letting the group of preteens accomplish their goal of playing the world’s longest game of laser tag. It wasn’t like the fun center had closed an hour ago. Or the kids’ parents were growing more impatient by the minute. Or Ben could almost feel his phone about to start ringing with a call from his manager, wondering why the neon sign at the front of the building hadn’t been turned off.
Oh wait, it was all of those things.
The general manager had an uncanny ability to know when that O’Reilly’s Fun Center sign was still on after closing time. Ben suspected he had access to the street cameras and never went to bed until the sign was off.
“We haven’t conquered Team Voldemort yet,” one of the boys said. He was a particularly nasty-looking kid, with the kind of pinched expression that came from trying too hard to look intimidating. And he had somehow managed to wedge himself between the ceiling and one of the many walls that created the laser tag arena, which meant he was a good three feet over Ben’s head and firmly planted in his spot.
Ben knew for a fact the other team would not yield, which was the reason he was standing in the middle of the arena despite the very real threat of being tackled by someone not paying proper attention in the misty, black-lighted space.
His attempt to turn on the lights and end the game over an hour ago had resulted in a particularly feisty thirteen-year-old girl from Team Voldemort screaming at him until he turned them back off. It wasn’t that he was terrified of kids, but after working a double shift to cover someone who got sick, he didn’t have the energy to deal with this tonight.
And maybe he was a little terrified.
“Look, kid,” Ben said, doing his best to sound like he wasn’t completely unnerved by the unseen movement all around him. All he heard were laser gunshots and shouts of preteen death threats. “I know it’s your birthday, but I gotta close up the building. Your mom is waiting outside, and—”
“Team Godzilla Dragon will never surrender!” the boy shouted, and a resonating cry of agreement rose up around Ben, reminding him how completely surrounded he was.
Oh, how he hated working laser tag.
“And Team Voldemort will prevail!” another shout responded, followed by a chorus of demonic shrieks from the other end of the arena that made Ben wonder if the new generation of girls would be the one to finally take over the world. They were certainly fierce enough.
Ben just wanted to go to bed. Was that so much to ask? “Come on, kid. There’s honor in admitting you’re outmatched. They beat you in the last three rounds.”
The boy shook his head wildly. “I will not be defeated by a bunch of girls!”
“You just were,” the leader of Team Voldemort said from right behind Ben, and her very presence seemed to turn the air around them to ice.
The demonic shrieks returned, only now they were everywhere, and boys were falling left and right as the girls shot them with terrifying precision, until one by one each remaining Godzilla Dragon carried nothing but a useless gun and oversized equipment that flashed to tell them they had been thoroughly demolished.
Everyone except the king, whose laser sensors were protected by the wall and ceiling he had wedged himself between.
“You can’t beat me!” he screamed while eight girls aimed their guns at him.
Ben knew he was standing right in the middle of a massacre, but at this point he pretty much hoped he would be a casualty of the battle.
They didn’t pay him enough for this.
“Surrender!” ordered Team Voldemort’s leader.
“Never!” squeaked the dragon king.
A door opened just to Ben’s left, bringing with it blinding light from the outside lobby. All of the kids hissed like vampires hiding from the sun.
Recognizing the silhouette of the person who had just come in, Ben had never been so glad to see anyone in his life. “Kit,” he breathed. It was about time.
His best friend in the whole world came to stand by his side, squinting up at the lone survivor. “Ah, the top of the wall trick,” he muttered knowingly. “I remember that one.”
“I don’t remember you refusing to come down,” Ben replied. Surely Kit would know how to convince the kids to give up. He spent his whole work week with kids—granted, his students were a little younger—but if anyone knew how to force someone to get in line, it was Kit Morgan.
Taking in the situation, Kit gestured to the nearest girl and took hold of her gun. “The trick,” he said as he took aim in the opposite direction from the boy, “is to know the field and play it to your advantage.” He fired the weapon, and King Godzilla’s vest lit up with a techy explosion sound.
The girls burst into cheers and began hugging each other, and Kit—who was a good deal taller than Ben—reached up and plucked the kid off the wall, catching him before he hit the ground.
“Never underestimate a woman,” he said before the kid hurried off after his friends, sniffling as he went.
Ben felt like crying himself. “How did you do that?”
Kit chuckled. “Mirror. Oliver found it when we were ten, and it’s positioned just right to get whoever tries the wall trick.”
Ben had known Kit since they were eleven, so that must have been just before they met. Kit had been friends with Oliver practically their whole lives, and the two of them were thick as thieves. It was strange, thinking about how Kit might have been Ben’s best friend, but Ben wasn’t Kit’s. That spot would always be claimed by Oliver Hamilton.
Not that Ben was jealous. Usually. He had never been one to demand attention—or even get it—and he wasn’t nearly as cool as his friends. But sometimes Ben really wished he could stop being the one they always pitied.
Kit had only come tonight because Ben texted an S.O.S. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have seen each other for another week at least. When it came to Ben’s friends making time for him, they were doing it less and less.
It wasn’t their fault. Maybe if Ben wasn’t stuck working every night, he might have actually had more free time.
Once all the kids had been hauled off by their irritated parents, Ben worked as quickly as he could to close up the fun center. Kit tried to help, but he mostly played one of the arcade games while Ben scrubbed the bathrooms. Ben was just glad to have some company. He knew Kit wasn’t great with late nights during the school year, so he worked as quickly as he could until he was finally able to lock the doors—after he had to run back in and turn the sign off when his boss gave him an irate call.
The man definitely had access to the street cameras.
Though Kit was silent as they walked to the only two cars left in the parking lot, Ben could feel his comment lurking just beneath the surface, and he gritted his teeth. He knew it was coming—he always did—but that didn’t mean he wanted to hear it. It was the same thing every time. The same conversation for the last decade.
Finally, when they reached Ben’s crappy car that probably should have died years ago, Kit opened his mouth. “When are you going to quit?”
Ben forced himself not to show any frustration in his face, knowing that wouldn’t help anything. “It’s not that bad.”
Kit frowned, making the scrunched-up face he always made when he thought one of his friends was doing something stupid. “You have pepperoni in your hair, Ben. O’Reilly’s doesn’t even serve pizza.”
Ben had found worse things in his hair.
When Ben said nothing, Kit groaned and kicked one of Ben’s tires. “You’ve been working at this place for more than twelve years, and I’m pretty sure you hate it.”
Ben did hate it, but it wasn’t like he had any other options. At least he had a steady paycheck coming in, and he could afford a place to live, even if it was sharing an apartment with their friend Cam. Anything was better than living at home with his parents, where three of his siblings still lived, as well as his sister-in-law and four of his nephews. If he found a new job now, he would probably have to move back home while he worked his way up to a livable wage again.
He knew the way the world worked. Kit should too, being a teacher. It wasn’t like he made that much more than Ben.
“It’s not that bad,” Ben said again, even if it was an utter lie. It was pretty bad. In fact, working at the fun center was awful, and it always had been.
At least he had a trip to the grocery store to look forward to tomorrow, which out of context sounded downright depressing. Still, it was a good idea to offset the misery with a bright spot of happiness and hope, and no one knew better than Ben how important hope could be. At this point, it was one of the few things he had left. Even if seeing a random girl at a grocery store without talking to her was a bit uneventful, it was something.
It was the idea that his future had a chance, however slim, of becoming something better.
As tempting as his bed sounded once Kit drove off, as soon as Ben climbed into his car, he knew he would have to wind down before he would ever be able to sleep. Tonight’s laser tag fiasco, coupled with Kit’s well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful judgment, had left him feeling restless.
Not that that was a new sensation.
Grumbling a little, Ben coaxed his car awake and drove in the opposite direction of home, toward the mountain that loomed on the east side of town.
“You could get a different job,” he reminded himself as he gripped the steering wheel tight. It was late enough that there was hardly any traffic on the streets, but the tension in his shoulders kept him stiff. “All you would have to do is pull up a job site and find something new.”
He huffed a short laugh. He hadn’t had a job interview since he was eighteen, when he got hired on at the cafe in the college library. Eleven years was a long time. What if the whole process had changed and he didn’t know it? His friends would be no help, either. The only job Oliver had had was his own company, which he’d sold three years ago after four years of building it from the ground up. Kit had been teaching in the same classroom since graduating college. Cam hadn’t even interviewed for his personal training job; the owner of the gym had seen him working out and practically begged him to work for them. Even Madi, Kit’s sister and a crucial part of the gang, had been self-employed for the last decade.
If Ben wanted a new job, he would have to find it on his own.
“Your parents didn’t raise you to be pathetic,” he muttered as he turned onto the road to take him up into the hills. Technically, the area closed after dark, but there was a nice spot several miles up that gave him a great view of the city. Plus, it was an excellent place to scream without being heard.
“Great place for someone to murder you,” he tacked on with a shudder. Thankfully, he’d never seen anyone else up this way so late in the night, and he’d come up here enough times in the middle of the night to have a pretty good idea of how well most people followed the rules. They all had real jobs with realistic bedtimes.
His hands tightened around the steering wheel again as he imagined what a real job might look like. Yes, he absolutely wanted a change. No, he wasn’t feeling very brave about finding something new. He had limited skills and even fewer talents, and spending half his life working a prize counter hadn’t done him any favors. What would he even do?
Having an illustration degree was great until it came to picking a career to go with it.
“What would Grocery Girl think if she knew where you worked?” he asked himself, then rolled his eyes.
Grocery Girl didn’t even know he existed, despite the fact that he saw her almost every week because they shopped at the same time. It wasn’t like they’d ever spoken. Or ever would. But his negative self made a good point. No woman was ever going to look at him twice if he remained stuck in the same job he’d had since high school. Ben liked to think he was a good person, but what was he supposed to offer someone when the best he could boast about himself was having a top ten high score in laser tag?
As he pulled into a tiny lot and took the short trail out to the lookout point, using his phone’s flashlight to guide the way, Ben gritted his teeth. It was time to make a change. He didn’t know what that would look like, exactly, but he was tired of being stuck. He was tired of feeling like everyone else in the world was moving on but him.
He was tired. And it was about time he did something about it.