"You can't win a shell game." The upperclassman spoke with an air of authority, but Courtney thought it was undercut by the presence of a giant inflated condom on his head. He was instilling his undoubtedly hard-earned wisdom on a blonde freshman, who was either as dumb as she looked, or a hell of an actress.
Courtney thought the former. Courtney herself had gone blonde her first year in college, playing the ditz for a few months just to broaden her repertoire. She had discovered that no matter how dumb she acted, men took it as a challenge to outdo her in feats of stupidity, resulting in a race to the intellectual bottom. Playing the dumb blonde was exhausting, and she had soon switched back to her natural auburn. College is about discovering yourself, and Courtney knew she could not bear to go through life playing dumb.
"Why not?" the blonde asked. "I can follow the shell even from here." She brushed her hair behind her ear and smiled at her would-be mentor, and pointed toward the fake-walnut shells being manipulated around the table by the operator -- a skinny runt of a man, looking like a street-smart con man who decided to come to a costume party dressed as a street-smart con man.
Courtney could barely breathe in her corset, and the glittering mask and makeup made her skin itch. Trav had the air conditioning at full blast, but with a houseful of costumed inebriates, the temperature was suffocating her. She needed air, or she needed someone to rip the corset off her body. Preferably both, she thought.
"That's what you are supposed to think," the upperclassman explained with more condescension than Courtney thought was warranted, "but the operator is a con artist. The ball is wherever the operator wants it to be after you choose. Either the ball is palmed, or he drops a spare under a shell you didn't pick. You can't win."
Courtney's impatience added to her sense of suffocation. Where was he?
"At the Halloween party tomorrow," Michelle had said yesterday, "our boyfriends plan on switching costumes without telling us. Mike is going to try to fuck you, and Trav is coming after me."
She had spent the last day devising her plan. Her suitor wouldn't see this coming, but Courtney was discomfited that she hadn't seen their move coming even earlier. It should have been obvious that Mike would escalate after the Phantom of the Opera.
Three Weeks Earlier
"Dude, you know what would make this a better horror movie?" Mike watched as the Phantom stalked across the screen to the accompaniment of plinking piano music.
Courtney had been digging her fingernails into her forearm to keep from nodding off, but her ears sensed an impending tirade, which she felt would ease the monotony of Trav's movie-night borefest.
Trav ignored Mike, which was fine with Mike as he preferred to answer his own questions anyway. If you asked him why, he would say it made for better dialogue -- daring you to point out that a dialogue required two people. If you rose to the challenge, he would reply that he needed a second person to listen while making him a sandwich.
Mike was very fond of telling people to make him a sandwich.
"Do you know what would make this a better horror movie?" Mike repeated. "Actual horror. You know, like if the Phantom took a knife and started slashing the shit out of people, or if that underwater river of his gets oil poured on it, started on fire, and burns everyone alive. Instead, he tries to kill by chandelier, which has to be the gayest murder weapon ever."
The only response from Trav was a flash of a vacant smile that indicated he wasn't really listening, caught up as he was in a cineaste paradise of monochrome and mime.
Mike hated being ignored. "It would at least be slightly scary if he jumped up and yelled 'boo', but he would have to do it holding a title card because... it's a Silent! Fucking!! Movie!!!"
Courtney covered her face and coughed to cover the laugh, but knew she couldn't leave it at that. She was Trav's girlfriend. Even though the film was like watching a glacier melt in slow motion, she knew it was her role to defend Trav. He would never do it himself, and he might otherwise notice that she was as bored out of her skull as Mike was, which wouldn't do. She had invested too much time into pretending to like Trav's hobbies to throw it away now, so her voice rose in feigned annoyance. "You chose American Psycho, Travis chose this. Now shush."
Mike glared at her, but bit his tongue to ward off the verbal rejoinder. Mike knew that Trav might be gutless when it came to defending himself, but he had enough chivalry to defend the honor of his girlfriend. Courtney's behavior couldn't go unpunished, however, so Mike redirected it somewhere safe. "Michelle, make me a sandwich. Ham and Swiss on white. No mustard."
Michelle had been as engrossed in the film as Trav, but silently rose and walked to the kitchen. Michelle's blonde locks used to bounce when she walked, but the bounce disappeared from her step last spring, around the time she started dating Mike.
Mike's lips parted in a mocking smile, and he challenged Courtney with his eyes while Michelle obeyed his orders. To add imaginary insult to the imaginary injury he thought he had inflicted, he sucked down his bottle of beer, then obscenely tongued the opening, never breaking eye contact with her. He then called after Michelle. "And another Summit!"
The sexism was supposed to annoy her, so she pretended it did, scowling back at Mike. If Mike wasted his time pushing non-existent buttons, he wouldn't find real ones.
Courtney briefly considered whether Mike's treatment of Michelle should have annoyed her. The plucky little psych major Courtney had roomed with for two years wouldn't have put up with Mike's shit, but Courtney saw no reason to fight Michelle's battles for her. College is about discovering yourself, she thought, and it's your own damned fault if you discover you are nothing but a doormat.
Anyway, starting an argument about how Mike treated Michelle would distract Trav from his movie, which he probably wouldn't like.
Courtney looked back at the screen, frowned, and sent Michelle a quick text. What's the name of the actor again?
The reply came back from the kitchen thirty seconds later. Lon Chaney. The man of 1000 faces..
Courtney now had something with which to work. "That's impressive make-up. I read somewhere that Lon Chaney did his own and it's why he is called The Man of a Thousand Faces."
Trav reluctantly tilted his head away from the screen, as if fighting the resistance of an elastic cord connecting his eyes to the screen, but once he met eye contact with Courtney his attention was all hers. He smiled, showing brilliant teeth. Trav's smiles were beautiful, fueled by naive wonder, a lack of duplicity, and the best orthodonture money could buy.
Courtney returned his grin and Travis pulled her close and left a soft kiss on her mouth, which Courtney dutifully returned. Trav left his arm around her when he pulled back. "Yeah, the guy was amazing. He has wires pinning his nose up. Imagine Brad Pitt doing that to himself."
Mike grunted his exasperation at the screen. "Does he figure out a way to spare us the misery of listening to a harp for another hour? Why the fuck did they switch to a harp? I thought silent films only used pianos." Mike stopped and peered at the screen. "Wait, is that color?"
The Phantom was wearing a skull mask and was clad in red. Courtney was proud of herself for catching an Edgar Allen Poe reference without coaching from Michelle. After an hour of monochromatic boredom, the crimson costume on the screen was welcome respite.
Courtney decided to show off some more. "You rented a Ted Turnerized version? Surrender, Pod Person, and release the real Trav!" She was pretty sure he would be pleased by her knowing that colorization was deemed an outrage by film buffs. It was another tip Courtney had picked up from Michelle.
Trav switched into full lecture mode. "That isn't colorization. It's a Technicolor two-strip process. Only red and green. No yellow. A bunch of films had color scenes in The Twenties, and a few filmed the whole movie that way. Maybe we can watch Black Pirate next week."
Courtney forced a smile. She hadn't heard of it, and therefore doubted it starred Johnny Depp at his sexy best. "That sounds wonderful," she lied.
Trav's attention was back to the screen. "Wait, this is the scene I really wanted to watch."
Courtney leaned forward. "What, for your Halloween Party?"
"Bal Masque, mon petit chou chou. A Halloween Masquerade Ball. I want costume ideas." Trav paused the movie, taking notes.
Courtney did a quick tally: harlequin; guy with black hanky on face; Marie Antoinette before she met the sharp-toothed child of Monsieur Guillotine; Marie Antoinette's hotter, younger sister; guy with bird mask, and another guy with a hanky on his face. Not a single catwoman, ninja, french maid, phantom bride, or sexy she-devil. Damn, the French were boring.
No scion of billionaires is ever short on friends, and Trav would drop enough money that it would be a well-attended party with fun had by most, but Courtney knew it would be less than it could be. Trav had too many geeky pretentions, which sucked some of the fun out of any room, like tonight. It was why he needed someone to manage his social affairs — someone like Courtney, but she sensed it was too soon to make that move.
"How many kegs?" Mike asked, fulfilling his role as designated neanderthal.
Trav considered. "Probably five, plus a punch bowl which you have permission to spike." Mike would have done it anyway, of course. "And a champagne fountain. There is no sense in doing this half-assed."
Courtney saw an opening and couldn't resist taking it. She missed the insult banter she had perfected with her old high school friends, and Mike was one of the few people who could benefit from having his ego punctured once in awhile. "With Mike here, you should have no problem making this fully- assed."
Mike's smile looked benign to Travis, but Courtney looked for, and saw, the knife behind Mike's humorless grin. She caught her breath and involuntarily flinched away from him.
Satisfied with her reaction, Mike turned to watch Michelle walk toward him with a ham sandwich on a plate, and a beer. He threw Courtney a brief glance to tell her that the next line was for her benefit. "What, no napkin? Michelle, you have to be more considerate to Trav's furniture."
Courtney rolled her eyes as Michelle went off in search of napkins. She wondered once again how someone as sweet as Michelle could bear to be with such a jerk. Whenever she asked Michelle that question, the response was "Michael and Michelle just kind of go together don't they? And he makes me laugh."
Trav provided an answer similar to Michelle's whenever Courtney hinted he should be kicked out of the house. "Mike's fun. Yeah, he can be an asshole, but that is just part of having no governor between mouth and brain. People who stop to think about everything they say rarely offend anyone, but they aren't as funny as Mike."
Michelle and Trav were welcome to Mike's jokes. Courtney had to admit that Mike made her laugh as well, but she thought Trav was wrong. She had known several people who managed to make her laugh without being assholes. With Mike, there was always menace lurking behind his words. In many respects, he was a bully, able to dish out verbal attacks, but not take them, particularly if the attacker was a woman.
Courtney much preferred the safety of Trav's stability, temperament, and bank account. If only she could convince him to trade more on his family name.
This was becoming a point of contention between them. All Trav had to do was pick up the phone the day after graduation, and his sophomore-year switch to a major in film studies would be forgotten. He would be admitted into Harvard Business School, and be back on the fast track for success.
It might have been tolerable if he had planned to be a major Hollywood director, or producer. Trav's family name would easily secure financing, and Trav almost certainly had the talent, but of course he wouldn't consider that path. Instead, he wanted to make documentaries, or independent films with bleeding-heart themes, where the entire likely global audience probably couldn't fill Trav's home theater.
So far, Trav had brushed off Courtney's hints that he reconsider. So far. She wasn't defeated yet -- not by a long shot.
"I am just worried you will regret disappointing your father," she had said. "I know how much it means to him for you to follow him, and eventually take over."
"My father will get over it."
"You really think so?"
Trav shrugged. "If he doesn't, we are used to disappointing each other."
It was like he wanted to be estranged from the 63rd richest man in the country. College is about discovering yourself, and Courtney was determined that Trav would discover he was his father's heir.
Trav had thought he was rebelling from his father when he went to Minnesota instead of Harvard or Yale, but the old man had bought Trav a large house in the Dinkytown neighborhood for him to use during his education. For all his protestations of independence, Trav had grown used to the comforts of privilege, and hadn't been able -- or willing -- to turn his father down.
The four-bedroom house was too large and lonely for one college student. Trav hadn't sought roommates, but had found them just the same. Mike had been the first one to wheedle a spot, spilling his troubles to Trav after having been kicked out of the dorm his first semester for a practical joke on his R.A. where, with the help of advance planning and a power drill, he had removed and stolen every screw in the R.A.'s room in the brief time the R.A. was in the shower.
Mike had befriended Trav during a film studies class. Trav had taken the class because he was considering it as his major. Mike had taken it because he thought he would get college credit for watching "really old" movie classics like The Matrix and Spider-Man. Mike described the prank in the class, and ended with what was supposed to be a rhetorical question. "So, he comes back to the room, and discovers his bed is dismantled, and every door has been removed. How do you think he felt?"
Trav had the quick deadpan reply. "I imagine he became unhinged." Mike had laughed, and after class, Trav invited Mike to stay at his house.
While Mike insisted on paying rent, Courtney knew it was a token amount, about a fourth of what Mike had paid in the dorm, and a twentieth of what would normally rent a room in a house as large and well-furnished as Trav's.
Courtney had taunted Mike with that in the kitchen before the film started, and he had only returned the accusation, which infuriated her. It was true that Trav hadn't explicitly invited her to move in, but after spending the summer sleeping over at Trav's, it had simply been practical. She had cancelled her own lease, moved her things into one of Trav's unused bedrooms, and Trav never said a word. His lack of backbone occasionally had benefits.
But that was different. Courtney was Trav's girlfriend. If Mike were the one to sleep in Trav's bed, and fuck him every which way he wanted (which thankfully weren't that many ways), then Mike might have a point.
She wanted Mike gone.
Courtney watched as a horde (of what she presumed were angry opera fans) mutely chased the Phantom of the Opera through the Parisian sewers. She conceded that the direct approach had it's advantages, but Courtney believed she was making progress on her plans to have Mike evicted from the house, and she preferred the ancient, "more feminine" route of hints, sabotage, and sexual manipulation to a risky confrontation which could easily backfire.
It was time for her to step up her game. College is about discovering yourself, and Courtney believed Mike was about to discover what it was like to be homeless.
The heat of the costume deflected Courtney from her musings. Why the hell did we choose Marie Antoinette costumes? she thought. Her breasts were were packed tight enough that she could serve hors d'oeuvres on the shelf of her exposed cleavage, but at least they could breathe, unlike her face, back, and most importantly, her lungs.
She congratulated herself on her decision to not don underwear for the night's festivities. They would only get in the way later, and they at least helped cool her crotch, which was surprisingly warm anyway. Another effect of the costume, she thought. There was nothing about tonight's events that should drive her to become aroused. She was ice cold -- "That Bitch Courtney" had been her nickname even among her closest high school friends -- she was only aroused when it suited her purposes.
No wonder aristocratic ladies always carried fans. Courtney used hers liberally while she scanned the room, and billowed her skirts to cool her calves and thighs.
Where were they? Trav had made a few announcements as host an hour ago, but he had recently disappeared. Courtney was sure the costume switch was occurring, and she had chosen a conspicuous location on the stairs to make her easy to spot.
Michelle must have had similar thoughts, as she stood near the patio exit, idly watching the guy moving the walnut shells. The invites to Trav's party had all specified that it was a masquerade ball, not a costume party, but most guests had ignored the suggestion and shown up in standard Halloween gear. Batman was ass dancing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. James Bond was staying in character, swilling champagne from the fountain. Zombie JFK and Zombie Nixon debated the best zombie movie in the kitchen (Courtney could only assume they were some of Trav's film geek buddies). A Frank-the-Tank wannabe was doing a keg stand in the corner.
Stuck In her stiflling dress, Courtney envied them.
But there was no sign of the man in black wearing a white porcelain mask.
Three Weeks Earlier
Courtney rolled off of Trav, feeling his spent cock withdraw. She had ridden him as if he were a bronco, yelping the way he seemed to like until he grunted and spurted inside her. She was proud of herself, having successfully counterfeited three orgasms.
Trav should be putty in her hands for at least a half hour.
She rolled over and sighed.
Trav was too caught up in post-coital bliss to notice. His hand traced a line up her hip and across her flanks. He clearly thought he was being cuddly and romantic, but it was actually annoying. Courtney gritted her teeth to endure it and sighed louder.
This time Trav noticed. "What's wrong honey?"
"Good. You sounded upset."
God, he really could be thick sometimes. She sighed loud enough to stir the curtains.
"You are upset. What is it? Didn't you enjoy that?"
No worse than usual. "You were magnificent, Trav, I am just distracted."
"I just see him looking at me in a disturbing way, sometimes. I am not sure what he is thinking, but it isn't good."
"Yes, Mike," she replied.
Courtney felt the bed stir, and heard Trav walking around. The sound of the door opening and shutting caused her to turn and look. Trav was no longer in the room.
Fuck! Courtney pulled on her robe and hustled into the hallway, hoping to preserve her plan to talk Trav into promising to evict Mike.
It was too late. Trav was already at Mike's door. Mike was staring at him, with the dead, bleary eyes of interrupted sleep. Courtney could see Michelle lying facedown on the bed behind them, with her hands seemingly pinned behind her back Were they tied?