by Nancy Ellen Hird
“Cousins,” Julie muttered. “Why do families have to get together anyway?”
She thumped the soccer ball in her lap. Then releasing it, she batted it across the back seat. It hit the car door and rolled back. She batted it again.
“Julie,” her mom said from the front, “enough.”
Julie let the ball come to a stop. Thoughtfully, she drummed on it with her fingers. Maybe this time wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe she and the cousins could all play soccer. Maybe . . .
She saw herself in the rear view mirror. The blue ski sweater was the right choice. And the gray pants.
She shuddered. At Thanksgiving she had worn a dress. Her aunts had “oo-ed” and “ah-h-ed” and said how pretty she looked. The cousins however, had stared at her like she was peculiar, a loser. Pants, it seemed, were their rule, even for girls. Rachel had been nice though. She lent Julie a sweater and a pair of jeans.
For ten seconds everything had been great. Then the boys said, “Let’s play basketball.” Julie felt she played terrible, like a kindergartner. The cousins, all of them, were like Olympic-bound.
Dad pulled the car up to the sidewalk in front of Aunt Susan’s brick house. The cousins exploded from the front door and tore across the lawn to the van. Behind them Aunt Susan yelled to Julie. “Hurry, go grab a seat. Your uncle is dropping all of you off at the arcade for laser tag.
Laser tag? Julie flashed a hopeful smile. She’d heard of it. It was supposed to be exciting and fun. She raced for the van. There was no place to sit.
“Here, Julie, squeeze in,” said Rachel making room.
Julie grinned. Today was going to be good.
In the laser tag’s arming room each cousin was given a vest with big shoulder pads and a gun. Julie didn’t like guns, even play guns.
“Wow,” said Rachel when the overhead lights were turned off and the ultraviolet lights came on. She pointed to the glowing target on her vest. “Too cool,” she said.
The game operator explained the rules. “The object of laser tag is to shoot people on the other team and to destroy their control tower. The control tower is destroyed by . . .”
As the operator talked, Julie listened less and less. The game was sounding more and more creepy. The cousins didn’t think so. Julie could see their smiling teeth glowing in the darkened room . The instructions finished, the two teams entered the playing room. It wasn’t as dark as the arming room, but it was misty. The cousins scattered into the maze, hiding behind walls and tall oil drums. Julie stayed near the door. A bell sounded. Someone shot.
Nearby Rachel yelled, “Oh, no, I’ve been hit.”
Startled, Julie crouched down pointing the gun first left and then right. Shadowy figures darted out from hiding places and ran to others. She aimed. Then slowly she lowered the gun. “I don’t like this game,” she mumbled. “It’s weird.” Squinting into the darkness, Julie looked for Rachel. She spotted her ducking behind an oil drum. Obviously, Rachel was having a great time.
In the far corner someone cried out. Julie stood up. This wasn’t fun! She reached for the doorknob and slipped back into the arming room. Quickly she placed the gun in a rack, removed her vest, and left. In the arcade she stopped. What should she do now? Loneliness and fear nipped at her. She turned back to the laser tag entrance. Nervously, she tugged at her sleeve. The cousins were going to blast her for quitting. Feeling miserable, she wandered over to a video game. She stared at it, then stared at her watch. How long did a laser tag game last? She frowned. What did it matter, anyway? From now on the cousins would ignore her. She was a loser who couldn’t make friends.
You make friends, said a voice within her.
I don’t, Julie argued. Nobody likes me.
God does. God loves you. Your Sunday school teacher said so.
God must be the only one.
Suddenly Julie thought of Lisa. She and Lisa sang in the choir. Julie had spent the night at Lisa’s house lots of times. Lisa was her friend. And there were Bethany and Sara, her soccer teammates. Sometimes they practiced at each other’s homes. They were her friends.
“God loves me,” Julie whispered to herself, “and He has given me friends. I’m not a loser. Even if the cousins think so.”
Julie smiled. Fishing in her pocket, she found a dollar. Until the cousins came, she’d play video games.
© Nancy Ellen Hird
Nancy Ellen Hird is a freelance writer from Hayward, California.