Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

Personal Essays

Bonding in the Battlemaze

The family that plays together, stays together—unless they’re playing laser tag.

I shot my Aunt Maureen first. She had her back to me, waiting for Uncle Dick to walk by—big mistake. Unfortunately, before I could celebrate, my mother appeared out of nowhere and popped me in the shoulder. Bright colors flashed everywhere. My chest rumbled.

Laser tag was a lot harder than it looked.

It was my mother’s 59th birthday, and her friends and family were laser-shooting the hell out of one another. I hadn’t participated in an activity that involved pretend shooting since I was a child, when I played army games with my friends. We’d run around the yard doing our best Rambo impersonations—until my hippie parents found out about it and gave us a guilt trip for glorifying war and trampling their azaleas.

Now, many years later, I am the father of two young boys, and far more lenient when it comes to imaginary violence than my parents were. Both my sons have an uncanny knack for turning any found object into a sword or bazooka, and I’ve decided that praising their ingenuity is more important than quelling their desire to make-believe kill each other.

However, it seems that my parents’ attitude toward violence has become as lenient as mine over the years. One only had to witness my mother’s glee as she took down her brother and then her best friend with successive laser blasts to see this was true. While her chosen codename, “Aquarius,” lacked the aura of intimidation, she more than made up for it by kicking laser butt all over the Battlemaze. She shot me five times in total, twice in the chest. Me (codename: “Rambo Blade”), her only son.

I had hoped we’d team up and go after my father. Once and for all, we could teach him a lesson for years of bad table manners and showing up 10 minutes late to every non-sports-related event in our lives. But from the get-go it was apparent Mom was on a solo mission of her own. Thus I resolved to take down Dad (codename: “The Lone Ranger”) all by myself.

But after one sight of him, it was clear he’d be too easy a target. His giant chest pack fit clumsily over his torso, and he seemed to have trouble figuring out which end of his gun the laser shot out of. Upon hearing him call out, “Have we started yet?” a good two minutes into the game, I decided there were bigger fish to zap.

My next target was my wife (codename: “The Shadow Keeper”). She did a lot of trash talking in the lobby, just as a group of eight-year-old boys from another birthday party looked on, bewildered.

“I’m so going house on you!” she taunted.

I didn’t quite know what “going house” meant; she teaches high school and is more up on slang than I am. Still, I refused to let her bully me and suggested we wager on the battle: Whoever had the lowest score at the end of the game would have to change our younger son’s diapers for an entire month. I was pleased when she accepted, imagining 30 days off from listening to our two-year-old critique the size of his bowel movements.

But unfortunately, just like Aquarius, the Shadow Keeper proved a challenging foe, or better put: She was way more awesome at laser tag than I was. Whenever I thought I had her cornered, she’d bounce a laser off a mirrored wall and nail me. It totally sucked.

Just as he did, my wife and mother jumped out from behind a wall and fired at him merrily, sending his target lights into a red blinking fury. I hadn’t expected to be so bad at this; my peacenik upbringing must have stunted my laser tagging skills. All that time pretending to be Rambo was spent in vain; those azalea bushes died for nothing.

Worse yet was seeing the delight my wife and mother took in going house on me and everyone else. It was like they’d been waiting for this all their lives. Toward the end of the slaughter, the two of them joined forces, taking out four cousins, two significant others, and a sister-in-law. I desperately wanted to join them, but I knew that chances were they’d just add me to the body count. Again.

So I reset my sights on the one opponent I was sure I could vanquish: Dad. He was the guy who taught me non-violent opposition and the words to “Give Peace a Chance”—and for this he would pay.

I found him alone, readjusting his chest pack in a dimly lit section of the Battlemaze. I refused to feel sorry for him, no matter how helpless he appeared. Dad was mine. I would house him big time.

Stealthily, I waited for the right moment to pounce. Shooting Dad in the back would be too easy; Lieutenant John Rambo wouldn’t go out like that. So I shouted my dad’s name, prompting him to turn, but just as he did, my wife and mother jumped out from behind a wall and fired at him merrily, sending his target lights into a red blinking fury.

“Thanks a lot,” Dad said, convinced I had set him up.

And then, just like in some dumb war movie, he raised his gun and shot me.

Over the rumbling of my chest pack I heard him shout: “Yahoo!” Then he gave my mother and wife low fives, and they all fired on me again. As the lights on my chest whistled and flared, I vowed revenge—or at the very least, a sequel. And next time, I’ll bring my sons, who can be on my team. I only hope the Battlemaze has a changing table.