• William Parsons

Masks


Attention, readers: This story contains adult subject matter and potentially offensive language.

MASKS

By William Parsons

I slap high-five with Christian—y’know, Marlon Brando’s kid—hey, sure, he’s a sophomore, and I’m a senior at The Buckley School—y’know, The Buckley School—but, hey, he’s Marlon Brando’s kid. Yeah, the kid’s weird, and rumor has it he drops shitloads of LSD, but, hey,...well, y’know.

I walk up to my best buddy. “So, Brad, you ready to kick some serious Oakwood Gorillas ass?” When I punch his shoulder, he practically jumps out of his skin.

Something’s really been up with my best bud lately. Ever since that exchange trip he took this summer to Heidelberg, Germany.

Anyway, I glance down the hallway where Brad’s staring. I crack a wide smile at the sight of the Three Musketeers harassing the hell out of Mike, the school queer. I whoop when Barry—“Porthos”—slams his fist into Mike’s stomach, and the faggot drops to his knees. It’s a riot how Mike’s art supplies spill all down the hallway. “Aramis” grinds some charcoals under his heel. I hear those things are expensive. Considering who the faggot’s granddad is, these charcoals probably are.

“Whatever.” I turn to Brad. “If we don’t get our asses on that basketball court, Coach is gonna skin us alive.”

Brad nods and slowly grins as he lets me lead him away.

The next afternoon, Saturday, we’re hiking Mount Baden-Powell, in Angeles National Forest, something Brad and I have done since we were little kids. Nothing like a good, sweaty hike to clear one’s head and clear the air, and I’m gonna get Brad to spill what’s been eating at him if I have to push him off the mountain to do it.

“So, Brad, you and Samantha, huh?”

“Me and Samantha what?”

“I saw you take her upstairs at the victory party last night.”

“She invited me to go outside.” He shakes his head, picks a leaf off a low-hanging branch and starts tearing it to shreds. “God, man, you have sex on the brain.”

I chuckle. “And you had sex on the lawn.”

“I did not! Sam and I talked. You know, talk, like, about real stuff. There’s more to life than basketball and sex, Logan.”

He drifts off into moody silence. I open my mouth to call him on it. All of this is just not like my best friend. The biggest thing Brad ever takes seriously is if his dad is going to ride his ass for coming in too late. But I straighten to my full height and puff out my chest when I see two girls coming down the path toward us. They’ve got expensive hiking gear, like ours.

“Hey, Sunshines!” I greet them as they come up beside us and stop. I drape my arm over Brad’s shoulders.

Brad squirms out from under my arm and steps away a couple of feet. I stare at him, then return my attention to these two lovelies.

They glance at each other and grin. They then look at us again—or, I should say, they look at Brad. Their grins widen. “Hi.”

Brad clears his throat. He shakes their hands, and I do the same. “Beautiful day, huh?” he asks.

“Great,” the blonde answers.

The redhead steps toward Brad. “Say, you parked at the bottom of the mountain?”

Brad shrugs. “Um...yeah.”

She glances at me like I’m a bug. She asks Brad, “You come in two cars? That Ferrari, that sweet ride’s yours, right?”

I nudge my way back into her attention. “Those are my wheels, actually, and we came together. And it is a sweet ride: my folks dropped a cool twenty grand for it.”

The redhead glances at me again. “How nice for you.” Back to Brad: “You think you’ll be back down there soon?”

I clear my throat. “We’re pitching camp and spending the night.”

The redhead shrugs and returns next to her friend. They wave and continue on their way down the mountain.

I watch them leave. God, what a bitch. I then notice Brad has resumed his hike. I race up to him and hit him on the arm. “What was all that about?”

“What was what all about?”

“Two babes like that. Meeeeooooooowww! Do you know how we could have scored tonight?”

Brad makes a face and starts off again.

I race up to him and grab his arm and twist it behind his back. “You better say it?”

He struggles. “Get off me.”

Brad knows I’m stronger than him. “Say it.”

“No, I won’t.” He twists and jerks.

“Bradley Cisneros, you know you ain’t gettin’ away till you say it.”

“Logan Peterson’s better than me,” he mutters.

I twist his arm tighter. “Louder.”

“Logan Peterson’s better than me!”

“At…?” I coax.

Brad rolls his eyes. “At everything!!!”

In a burst of strength and energy Brad shoves me, and I lose my footing and start to go over the side of the mountain.

“Logan!” Brad reaches me in time and grabs my hand and pulls me back onto the path. “Jesus, man, be careful.”

I blink at him and will my heart to stop pounding so hard. “Watch who you are shovin’.”

Brad cracks a grin, puts his arm around my shoulders and leads me up the path.

“C’mon. It’s starting to get dark.”

Years ago, Brad and I had found a small clearing near the top of the mountain. This is where we like to spread our sleeping bags and lie under the stars, like tonight, one of the most beautiful night skies I’ve seen in a while.

I toss Brad the second bag of Mom’s homemade trail mix. Tipping back his third beer, he misses catching it.

I wash down my mouthful of trail mix with a long swig from my own beer. I belch. “Another dead soldier.” I toss the bottle aside and laugh when I hear it shatter on a rock. “Well, some kid’s gonna cut himself on that, I guess.” I dig another beer out of my pack. I’ve always liked my beer warm. I don’t know why.

I poke the small campfire. “Stuff still shit at home?” I ask Brad.

He shrugs and nods. “My big brother went to Nam. Now I don’t know who this guy is who’s come back.”

I clear my throat. “Um...is that what’s got you so twisted up lately?”

Brad darts a sharp glance at me.

“C’mon, Brad. Your game’s for shit, you can’t take a joke anymore, you actually looked like you gave a damn about what was happening to Mike yesterday. What’s with you lately? What happened this summer over there in Germany?”

Brad finishes off his beer. He stares hard into the fire. He takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I can’t believe I have to get half plastered to tell my best friend this.”

He looks at me again. “I thought I could tell you anything.”

“You can.”

He fishes another beer out of his own pack, pops the top off it, and tips it back. He wipes his mouth. “Remember that time at Paul’s party. You were smashed. And stoned. You were going on about something when you were a kid, you were a hamster on a wheel, and some big monster was coming after you. You were talking like someone had dropped some acid in your drink. You were making the whole shit up, of course.”

I stare at him. “What are you talking about?” Must have been one helluva party, because I don’t have the foggiest what Brad’s going on about.

“Paul’s party. You know, the big one, at the lake.” He shrugs at my blank expression.

I throw a stone at him. “Brad, you’re stalling. Um...this summer?”

“This summer,” he whispers. A hint of a smile crosses his face.

I start to chuckle. “Ohhhh, I see. Bradley met himself a fraulein this summer. Bradley got himself laid this summer.” I feel my brows tightly knit together. “You’ve felt this whole time you couldn’t tell me that?”

Brad takes another deep breath. “Bradley met himself a guy this summer. And, yeah, Bradley did get himself laid this summer.”

I stare at him. I can’t seem to stop blinking. “Er...wai-wait a minute.”

Brad pushes himself up. “Logan, you can’t tell anyone. No one. Buddy, please, God, promise me. No one at school. Not Coach. Dear God, no one in my family. If Mom or Dad found out—”

“Wait. Just wait. Just wait a goddamn minute!” I don’t know why, but I’m shouting. I get control of myself. “You’re queer?”

Brad nods. I’ve never seen him look so miserable.

“Fuck,” I whisper.

He buries his face in his hands. “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”

“Brad.”

“Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”

“Brad!”

He looks up.

“I’m not going to tell anyone.” I stall by drinking my beer. I look at him again.

“You did it with a guy?”

He wipes his nose. “Yeah.”

I gulp. “Was it...was it nice?”

The corners of his mouth curl upwards. He nods.

“Yeah, it sure as hell was. What I shared with Helmut was...well, I can’t describe it.”

Wow, I mouth.

This time he tosses a stone at me. “Logan, you promise you won’t tell anyone?”

I toss the stone back at him, hard. “I can’t believe you think you even have to ask me that.”

Daybreak the next morning I open my eyes with the image from a weird-ass dream lingering in the cobwebs of my brain. A squirrel–a teddy bear maybe? No wait, a hamster–pinned under a brick wall. The wall seemed to reach all the way to Heaven. It came crashing down, in super slow motion, on the stupid little beast that couldn’t escape being crushed because it just ended up running in place. I feel like I’m supposed to feel something because of the dream, but I don’t, nothing, and, after a minute of staring at the brightening sky, I just shrug and get up. I relieve myself, then walk over to Brad and kick him in the foot.

“Rise and shine, you fuckin’ fairy.”

Brad rolls over and rubs his eyes. “Go fuck yerself,” he grumbles. No one wakes up worse than my best buddy.

After breakfast and packing up our camp, we set out. We’re going to reach the summit of Baden-Powell, then make it back down to the base by day’s end. Brad’s in the middle of telling a joke–it’s about 7:30 in the morning–when the quake hits. It’s not a big one, but, for a fast second, out of nowhere, it sounds like a freight train. Everything’s a blur, and I’m not sure what end is up. That’s because I’m falling.

As fast as the whole thing started, it’s over, and Brad’s holding my hand and pulling me back up onto the trail. For a brief second, as I look at our clasped hands, I do feel something—but it's not gratitude. Just as fast whatever it was passes, and I pull my best friend to me, and we embrace each other in a guy's back-slapping hug. We let each other go.

Brad punches me in the arm. “You were too close to the edge again.”

I grimace. “Yeah, I know.” I run a shaking hand through my hair. “Jeez, I wonder where that came from.”

“From the center of the Earth. Man, you’re thick.”

I roll my eyes. “Actually, it’s the surface of the Earth, shitferbrains, where quakes start, where two pieces of the Earth’s crust rub together. It’s called plate tectonics. God, don’t you keep up with anything new?”

Brad shrugs. “Whatever.”

The next morning the newspapers recap what we had experienced: “At 7:53 a.m. yesterday, 14 Oct, 1973, a 4.34 Richter Scale quake hit the Mt. Baden-Powell area in the Angeles National Forest.” The second Mom reads that, she goes into full Mother Hen mode. I can’t jump in my Ferrari and head over to Brad’s fast enough.

Now in the afternoon, late for basketball practice as usual, I meet Brad in the hallway where I always do. Right on cue, there’s the Three Musketeers, beating the snot out of Mike. Mr. Barron, the Middle School math instructor, walks right past them and

doesn’t say a word. I find Brad staring down the hall.

I put my arm around his shoulders and turn him facing the other direction.

“You’re not thinking of doing what I think you are.”

He looks at me with an expression that’s...I guess the word is “stricken” (English ain’t my subject).

“Shouldn’t I?” he asks. “I mean, considering.”

I lean in to him. “Man, Brad, you want to end up like that loser?”

He glances over his shoulder, then looks at me again and shakes his head. “It’s just a phase, right, Logan?”

I nod, then lean in even closer to my best bud. “That German faggot, you just got confused for a while, is all.

Brad frowns. “Yeah, Helmut, he was…” His frown deepens, then Brad straightens and looks at me squarely. “God, what an asshole. Him doing that to me. Dumb faggot.”

I suddenly step away and punch him, hard, in the arm. I whoop as I take off down the hall. “Last one to the gym has to run ten extra laps!”

***

William Parsons, a Latin teacher and tutor, has published short stories since 1996, when Nadia Giordana took a chance on the then-young author and published his story "The Vault of Heaven" in Poetry in Motion. Recently, he has enjoyed his foray into screenwriting, for which he has begun to accumulate awards and recognition for his work.

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