Raz sat in his dimly lit den with windows blocked with tinfoil and a layer of white Rustoleum. The only light in this tiny haven came from various computer monitors and an assortment of mysterious gray and silver boxes, each festooned with lights and wrapped in wire like lesions on a cancerous and devolved Christmas tree.
Raz didn't wake up, because that term implies sleep. Rather, he merely switched mental gears from the silence of predawn to the zombie energy of morning. All-night raid sessions with his clan were an almost daily occurrence in his addiction to various MMORPGs, and he had long since learned how to make sixteen hours of sleep last for three days straight.
Raz used the manic energy that sunrise brings to the insomniac to look through The Fool's Card's web page, searching for people he knew that could entertain him during the dry hours of the player vs. player hacker servers. Many slackers keep their IM programs up all day at work, so it normally was no problem to find someone to chat with. At the least, Todd was usually available during his office hours at the college and worse comes to worst, Straight Mike was almost constantly logged in.
Raz checked the list and was surprised to find Caroline's picture under the friends log. She'd always given him a nerdy-girl vibe so it wasn't too out of the ordinary to see she'd posted her information on the club's website.
Clicking her profile, Raz soon discovered just how big of a forum whore Caroline actually was. Xanga and Myspace were only the tip of the iceberg on the gratuitous list of accounts on her profile.
Raz clicked again; his eyes the only sign of life in his otherwise deadened and sleep deprived body. He chose the first link on the list, which was a site devoted to political debate called "polibicker.com." He snooped around and eventually came across Caroline's polibicker account with the sadly accurate alias FLWRGRL101.
Raz was just casually bored enough to pull up Caroline's recent post history. Even his jaded mind was shocked to immediately see the last post was a vulgar and immature display of exhibitionist lesbianism. Still, internet being serious business and all that, Raz decided to sign up a quick vagrant account just to post in Caroline's topic. After all, if Caroline could be so blasé about posting a rape story about his girlfriend, the least he could do was pop in and shake things up a bit.
Luckily the name "Raz" still hadn't been taken on the relatively small website. Posting under his newly formed spam account Raz posted the spammiest thing he type up quickly.
"OMFGTEHNOES!!!11! MAI GF R TEH GHEY!! FLWRGRL STOELS MAH GF!!
MODSPLS BAN, kthnxbai"
Underneath in more civilized language he posted in parentheses
"(sup Carl, long time no see)"
He opened the window in a fresh tab and waited in case Caroline came back to post. He really hadn't seen Caroline in a while, after all, and it would be nice to catch up with her.
Caroline, of course, was in the worst emotional state possible to deal with this.
What Caroline was prepared for, however, was another six tedious hours of waiting for more work orders. Heartbreak specials paid the bills, and funeral arrangements were steady work, but after a while there was something blindly mechanic about what should have been a very liberating profession. Technically flower arranging is a fine art, but as time wore on Caroline felt more and more like a short order cook instead of an emotional concierge.
As usual Caroline chalked up her last night of frenzied mania to nerves, just as she had the Exacto knife incident. She ignored the warnings of Mrs. Black just as she ignored that scar: ignored purely for the sake of convenience and lack of mental discipline. Such vices have been the downfall of common man for all of recorded time, and Caroline was no exception.
The mere act of clocking into work that morning overrode the lessons she had learned both through advice and misfortune. Luckily, the school of hard knocks can be relied on for a level of consistency no human instructor could ever match.
Caroline logged onto her polibicker account and once again went trolling through the sludge of adolescent linguistic failure as she searched for a spark of interesting philosophy. She checked her post history, selfishly preening in the mirror of Internet.
Fresh posts in her topic? Maybe today's reading might be some fun after all. Scrolling past a pathetic dribble of spam, Caroline found Raz's post but didn't quite register it's meaning. She read the post again looking for a funny way to reply when the two names in the post clicked insider her head. A poster named Raz, with only one post under his account, mentioning the name Carl? Isn't Carl what all her friends from The Fool's Card called her?
This wasn't just some alt account. No alt would know Raz was Berry's girlfriend. The land without consequences Caroline had foolishly allowed her mind to lack the discipline to reside in had come back to haunt her. Raz didn't seem mad, but Caroline didn't have the confidence to reply. Raz and Berry's relationship was in a sensitive situation. Did Raz really know she and Berry had been sleeping together? What if he thought it was a joke now, but if she replied, he'd give it more thought and realize what was happening?
Caroline used the Internet as a way of avoiding real situations, and yet here she was placed in a worse dilemma by the very thing she used to escape them. Caroline kept attempting to write something funny to diffuse the situation, but when she read it before posting it invariably had some fatal flaw that could potentially destroy her friend's relationship with each other and herself.
She agonized over the wording for fifteen minutes, typing and deleting numerous messages without sending them. Finally her indecision won out and she gave up entirely on the matter. What was the worst that could happen? Besides, Raz drank a lot, so there was a chance he wouldn't even remember about it later to mention it.
Caroline rose from her chair and slid her right forefinger over the monitor's power switch with practiced ease. She avoided even looking at the blank monitor directly as she threw her patterned cotton scrub coat from the winter over it to block the screen from view. She turned and walked towards the worktable determined to do some kind of productive work. She carefully filled the time by breaking and taping the stems of the bland arrangements awaiting pick-up, the breaks subtly changing the angles of the heady blooms. These new angles, created by seeming random destruction, were actually strategically placed to create expressive curves and lines much like seemingly random scars and laugh lines of a human face add intelligence and emotional content to an otherwise blank expression.
Two hours later she was surprised to find herself still fussing with the arrangements when the noon carrier arrived for pickup.
Caroline drove home that afternoon without ever turning on the radio, using the gritty pseudo-silence in her car's interior as a whetstone to sharpen her thoughts. Passivity and repetition such as what her radio had comfortably provided for so many years now made her feel paranoid and anxious, wary of the trap such distractions seemed to invariably hide. Perhaps it was time to pay Mrs. Black a visit?
It was with those thoughts in mind that Caroline drove past an uncharacteristic black Cadillac parked in the lot of her low-rent efficiency complex. Her preoccupied brain, however, gave it no notice as she walked up the stairs to her personal safe haven.
She'd even made it halfway through sautéing spinach Alfredo in accordance with Mrs. Black's instruction when a sloppy arrhythmic knock broke her concentration. Caroline turned down the heat, mentally calculating whether it was Berry or Todd seeking solace at her door.
The large shadow cast when she opened the door quickly disillusioned her of such simple notions. Thug stood in front of her with the stiffness and composure of an experienced alcoholic. The smell of whiskey enveloped him like a cloud, drawing Caroline's eyes to a brown paper bag peeking out from his suit coat pocket.
"Hello?" Caroline answered during Thug's delayed reaction time.
"Hey Carl..." Thug said slowly and carefully as he enunciated Caroline's curious nickname for the first time within earshot, "Mind if I have a seat? She couldn't explain it, and it's ripping me up..." Thug continued, finishing the statement with a bracer from the bottle in his pocket.
Considering the door was already open and that Thug was too drunk to be anything more than a charity case, Caroline let him inside to the couch and surreptitiously eased a round metal garbage can next to him with her foot.
"Explain what?" Caroline asked, genuinely confused.
"What I did wrong..." Thug stumbled, still not making any sense. Caroline looked at him questioningly until he continued.
" I mean... I was polite, right? I made sure you got the invitation and everything. She said it wouldn't matter, but she was the one that taught me not to give up hope..." Thug's wet eyes stared blankly ahead, no longer motivated to take in his surroundings.
"Who? Mrs. Black?" Caroline asked, guessing the obvious.
"Yeah. Her. Who else?" Thug rambled, "I tried to convince her, you know, that there was... was... A CHANCE... you know? I mean... people make choices. You can't just KNOW what someone is going to do. You can change people... She smiled, like it was cute, and stopped talking about it, but I had to try."
"A chance of what?" Caroline sniped, getting irritated by Thug's indirect nonsense.
"A chance that she could live. But now it's too late, and I believe her."
Thug was drunk and talking out of his head, but his thoughts ran in circles that were all orbiting the same issue as if he were just too drunk to spit it out. Caroline studied his face and was surprised to see his eyelashes filled to the edge with tears that never seemed to fall.
"She's gonna die, and I couldn't stop it..." he finally spat out.
Thug hungrily gulped from his glass bottle and then placed it back in his pocket.
"Mrs. Black said she was going to die?" Caroline said in shocked reflex. Mrs. Black was old, certainly, but she seemed to be in amazingly good health earlier.
"She's never wrong." Thug mumbled despairingly.
"But how is she doing to die?" Caroline asked, still trying to understand what could kill a woman nearly two hundred years old.
"She wouldn't tell me. She NEVER tells me. Dad had the same problem, back when he was First Boy. 'Go get burned in your own kitchen' she always says. Dad says she used the same thing on him. He never could figure out what it meant either."
Caroline had a lot of preconceptions of who Thug was from what Raz and Berry had told her, and nowhere in that stereotype was any room for the idea that Thug spent a lot of time helping an old lady. Thug seemed so monolithic on the surface; it was disarming to see him so vulnerable. He looked like the kind of guy that would eat his grandmother before he'd run an errand for her, and yet here he was, out of his mind with grief over a woman who wasn't even sick.
Caroline tried to think of some words of comfort and dredged up a memory of her now long dead grandmother.
"Nana Parker was hard to let go of too. We knew she was leaving two years before she passed, but it was still just as hard on us when she died."
Thug looked at her with a quizzical expression as if she'd said something totally irrelevant and unrelated.
"She always took care of us," Thug said, ignoring Caroline's point, "She delivered my grandfather. When he died, she was the one that put him in the coffin. She delivered my father. When he died, she put him in the coffin. She delivered me. What will happen when I die?" Thug spoke distantly with his eyes never meeting Caroline's gaze. "When Mike broke his leg, she set the bone. I've been shot twice, and each time, she was the one that pulled out the bullet." His eyes looked up, finally facing Caroline. "Did you know I've never even been inside a doctor's office?"
Caroline felt completely impotent. Here was a friend in a moment of weakness, and she had no way to comfort him, not even the capacity to understand his loss. This wasn't just existential depression for Thug, it was the loss of his entire belief system, like the death of the Pope would be to a Catholic, but without the anticipation of a new papal appointment and on a much more personal scale.
Thug raised the bottle to his lips, a thin dribble of whiskey spilling on his black silk tie. His knuckles turned white around the bottle as his head hung low between his shoulders. The smell of burning cheese crept its way into the room, yet another unwanted reminder of the unstoppable nature of harsh reality.
Caroline sprinted to the stove; relieved to see her Alfredo sauce was barely scorched. Thug continued to sit where she left him, oblivious to what she was doing.
"I've got some spinach Alfredo. You hungry?" Caroline said, trying to use food to comfort where words had failed. Thug looked up and shook his head, then groaned nauseously and rubbed his stomach, indicating his guts were far too fried to even consider eating.
Caroline scraped off of the supposedly stick-free Teflon cookware and winced at the thought of how much of that flaky plastic must have chipped out into her meal. Thug's empty bottle greeted her when she returned from her attempt at culinary salvation, gleaming evilly back up at him as he played with his keys. Caroline choked back an insincere offer for him to stay the night on her weather-beaten couch.
Thug rose unsteadily to his feet and took a moment to readjust his equilibrium through sheer drunken will.
"Are you okay?" Caroline asked.
"Hah. I've only had a pint. I gotta get out of here, though. 'S been nice seein' you."
Caroline walked him to the door, ignoring years of government propaganda and countless beer commercials.
"If there's anything I can do, let me know, ok?" Caroline said plastically.
"Like I 'd have a choice..." Thug responded, and then turned to walk down the concrete steps to his car.
Caroline watched him appraisingly as he tottered all the way to his car from the bedroom window. The black Cadillac backed up with surprising ease and precision from its parking place and roared into the evening, its driving lights cutting through the overcast sky.
Caroline finished her spinach in silence with no television or radio to distract her from her situation. There was a faint plink sound above her head, and her living room light burned out.
It is interesting to note that before any truly great darkness, there's a small but interesting hint of what might befall. The screw that resists just a little too much before it strips, the small chip in a windshield before it cracks, the whistling sound of a tornado before it hits, these are all barely noticeable in comparison to what they portend.
Before the great plague fell over Europe, there was an epidemic of sickly and dying rats, and before Pompeii there was a curious blizzard of gray ash. It's no dark and arcane secret, but rather, it's the same knowledge that gives a mechanic his ability to listen to an engine and know what's wrong with it, or for a doctor to take a patient's pulse and diagnose their symptoms.
So when Mrs. Black found a dead bird lying with it's neck broken outside one of the large windows of her cottage, it didn't take her long to look into her crystal ball and find Ms. Caroline Parker.