MASKS
Excerpt, May 2000

by
Susan L. Williams


Part I: The Devil You Know
The ogres were pounding at the castle gates, trying to smash them in. Blue wizard's robes streaming behind him in the wind, he watched from the battlements, fingering the bones and feathers that hung from his belt, muttering spells to strengthen the gates. They would not be enough, he knew. Soon, the ogres would break through to slaughter the guards and take the castle, and there was nothing he could do. A panther stalked the battlements beside him, eyes shining gold in the torchlight. The Ogre-King looked up at him, and laughed.

"Open up, Sandburg! Come on, Sandburg, open the door!"

Blair's eyes snapped open. Heart racing, he stared around him for a moment, seeing the familiar furnishings of the loft in place of the besieged castle of his dream. A dream, that's all it was. He'd fallen asleep on the couch. But the pounding was still going on. What was--oh, right, the door.

"Sandburg, open up!"

Blair pushed himself off the couch. Papers fell from his lap, scattering across the floor. Great. The essays he'd been grading. No wonder he'd fallen asleep. Most of them weren't worth reading. At least half of them seemed to be written by people who didn't speak English. And he had to get them done tonight. If he didn't, he'd be doing this tomorrow night, too, instead of asking Mirelle to go to that new French art film with him. Rubbing bleary eyes, Blair stumbled toward the door.

"Who is it?"

"Who do you think it is? Open the door!"

Oops. It was Jim, sounding a little irritated. He must have put the chain on the door and forgotten it. Again. Blair reached up to take the chain off: it wasn't on. So what was the problem? Shrugging, Blair fumbled with the lock, and finally got the door open.

"Sorry, Jim. I was asleep."

Jim shoved past him without speaking. His elbow caught Blair in the ribs, knocking him back into the door.

"Ow! Hey, take it easy, man. I said I was sorry."

Ellison didn't answer. Blair closed the door, and turned to find Jim surveying the area around the couch. Uh-oh. If he worked fast, maybe he could forestall the lecture. With the mood Jim was in, if he didn't, he'd be hearing about every little thing he'd ever done, from leaving the cap off the toothpaste to using the last of the milk.

"Sorry about the mess." Blair edged past his partner and went to his knees, grabbing up papers. Jim watched without moving or offering to help. Fine. Be that way, Tough Guy. "Howcome you didn't use your key?"

"I lost it."

"You lost it?" Blair sat back on his heels, laughing. "You, Mr. 'Don't forget your key, Chief'? You lost it?"

Jim didn't laugh. Jim just glared at him, his blue eyes cold. Blair's grin vanished.

"Hey, no big deal. We'll get a copy made tomorrow."

"No, we won't. I'll use yours."

"Mine? What am I supposed to do?"

"Move out."

Jim didn't even crack a smile. Blair snorted. "Right. Big joke."

"It's no joke, Sandburg. I want you out of here. Now."

Blair couldn't feel the papers in his hands. Memory flashed: his grandfather, every gray hair in place, cashmere sweater buttoned over his white shirt and precisely knotted tie, his voice cold--never hot--with anger. "If you insist on wasting your time and intelligence with this sentinel nonsense, you are no longer welcome in my house. Nor will Harvard University fund you in any way. I'll see to that." He looked into Jim's eyes, trying to find some hint--anything--that his friend was kidding. There was nothing.

"You're serious."

"Believe it, Chief."

"But--why?"

"Why?" Ellison grabbed a fistful of Blair's jersey and jerked him to his feet. "Because I'm sick of being studied and examined like some lab rat. I'm sick of performing tricks so you can get ahead. I'm sick of your dissertation, and I'm sick of you!"

On the last word, Jim pushed him away. Blair staggered back, lost his balance and fell. Papers flew through the air, fluttering down to the floor. Jim stood over him for a minute, looking at him as if he were some kind of disgusting insect, then turned away.

Blair climbed to his feet. Something was really wrong here. Jim had never lost control like this before. Sure, when they first met, Jim had shoved him up against a few walls, but he'd been in a state of near-panic then, not knowing what was happening with his senses. He'd gotten over that a long time ago, with Blair's help.

Jim had his back to him. Blair hesitated, afraid of provoking more violence. No, that was ridiculous. Jim was his friend, Jim would never hurt him. Not on purpose. He reached out to touch the bigger man's arm.

"Jim? Come on, man, we can talk about this, can't we? I had no idea you--"

Ellison's fist smashed into Blair's face. Hurled backwards, he collided with the coffee table and fell over it. The corner of the table gouged his back, and he slammed onto the floor, the breath knocked out of him. Jim bent over and pulled him up, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't move to defend himself. Ellison backhanded him, then punched him in the stomach and the ribs, keeping him on his feet. His fist cracked twice more across Blair's face. Blair tasted blood, and felt it running down his chin. His mind whirled in confusion. This wasn't Jim. Jim wouldn't do this to him. Jim wouldn't hurt him. But the face above him was Jim's face, and the eyes were Jim's eyes.