Excerpt: Masks

I flicked my fingers in and out of the Bunsen burner’s flame, flirting with the flickering orange and purple and grinning with amusement. I’ve always felt akin to fire. It was so beautiful and brilliant, yet destructive. Fire could give and it could take.

“You know you could burn yourself doing that,” said a voice, rudely jolting me out of my fire fueled reverie.

I looked up at the intruder. I’d seen him before in chemistry class. With that bronzed skin, that black hair, and those dark eyes, he was hard not to recognize. Not that it really mattered. He was still just another student. Aside from his few defining features, he was just like everyone else.

Narrowing my eyes at him, I hoped he would just go away. I turned my attention back to the flame and resumed what I was doing, a clear dismissal. Instead of going away, he took the seat beside me. How obnoxious. Nobody ever sat by me.

“I’m Chayton,” he said.

I turned my glare back on him and frowned. “Okay… And?” He was smiling, which made my scowl deepen.

“You’re Avari Terran, right? We’re lab partners.”

Sighing and rolling my eyes, I looked at the burner again. Why did I need a lab partner? I was perfectly capable of doing all of the labs by myself. A lab partner would just get in the way, and mess things up. Did the phrase “doesn’t work well with others” that high school teachers so loved to put on report cards mean nothing to these blockheaded university professors?

“Just stay out of my way and don’t screw things up,” I snapped at him. When I heard him chuckling, I looked up. “What are you laughing at?” I growled. Maybe if I concentrated hard, his shirt would catch fire. If I was mad enough, I could easily do that.

“Sorry, it’s just…” Chayton trailed off as he fought back a few more laughs. “You’re so serious.”

Because this was a very serious matter! I failed to see why it was so amusing for me to be serious about my schoolwork. “Is there a problem with that?” I asked, frowning deeply, and wishing he’d go away already.

“You need to loosen up a little,” he said, leaning back in his seat and putting his arms behind his head.

I snorted. “Why?” I really wanted to ask why in the hell he even cared, but I stopped myself short.

“It’s not good for you, being serious all the time,” he said, smiling at me.

“And who says I’m serious all the time?” I countered his smile with a scowl.

Chayton leaned closer, and I caught a whiff of campfire smoke and pine. “Are you?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” I blurted quickly, meeting his midnight eyes sternly.

“Oh? What do you do for fun, then?”

“None of your business,” I replied, tearing my gaze from him then. Who did he think he was, interrogating me like this? I owed him no explanations or assurances about my behavior or hobbies during my leisure time.

“Okay, okay.” Chayton raised his hands in surrender.

The lab started, forcing Chayton to drop his line of questioning and focus, for which I was grateful. Of course I did well on the assignment. I didn’t credit any of my success to Chayton, though I guess he did help a little, which was much better than him screwing something up.

As soon as class ended, I threw my stuff in my bag and walked out. Footsteps ran up behind me, and I looked back to see Chayton following me. What did he think he was doing? Couldn’t he just buzz off? Why was he trying to catch up with me?

I stopped walking and turned completely around, glaring at him and crossing my arms. “Can I help you with something?”

“So, since we’re lab partners, we need to be able to get in touch with each other. We should exchange numbers.”

Immediately I frowned. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a phone. I did, mostly out of necessity. Places like the school needed a phone number on file. I would just as soon not have one, because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I really wasn’t too keen on the idea of giving my phone number so freely to him, but clearly there was no avoiding it. I sighed and took out my phone. “Fine. What’s your number?” I keyed in the digits as he said them and then called him so he’d get my number.

“Maybe we’ll see each other around the campus,” said Chayton with a smile.

“I hope not,” I mumbled.

I turned away and stared at my phone screen, pretending to look interested in something on it like most of the other students on campus often did. In reality, the only thing on my screen was Chayton’s phone number. I started to save it to my contacts. How was “Chayton” spelled? What kind of name was that anyway? I guess I would just save it as “C” for now and figure out how it was spelled later.

I returned to my dorm room. Locking the door behind me, I let out a heavy sigh.

Finally. Alone at last.

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