Caroline drifted in from work, from another day of aloof and unfulfilled detachment, from a world that was becoming less and less important to her. Once she'd cared intimately for what she was having for lunch, who got what workloads, or about the personal lives of various celebrities. Now, however, she luxuriated in the respite of the boring, reveled in the simple stillness of her cold, dead room.
Compared to places she's been in her dreams, or worse, places she'd been in real life, the knap of her carpet was every bit as ritzy as a silk couch. She didn't even think of turning on the computer or television. Life was dramatic enough; it was the peace and simplicity of this dark uninhabited room that was rare and exotic now.
Caroline stretched in the middle of her living room floor like a kitten, actively exploring every tendon of her body. She tensed and flexed each one as she examined the mixture of pain and pleasure they released. Thug had called her earlier, saying Mrs. Black had stabilized but wanted to be alone, and Caroline for once was ecstatic she had nothing to do that evening.
Nothing to do, that is, but cook something, her purring belly reminded her.
The peaceful security Caroline felt here, in her own home, was partially due to the faint but pervasive scent of roses, a scent she now associated with the hedges that protected 1st Holiness Pentecostal Church. That scent protected her, too, from the incursions of The Glass and other rogue psychological elements.
Caroline rose from the floor, tucking her stringy hair behind her ears to linger massagingly behind her neck as she meandered towards the kitchen. Her tub of bloody chicken livers had long since been replaced by extra firm tofu, tofu that in fact sounded quite nice battered and fried with garlic and then covered in honey barbecue sauce. She took her time cubing the tofu as she reveled in the simple task of pleasing herself with a home-cooked meal.
Pleasure she had once derived from passively watching television was replaced by craftsmanship, by shifting her focus to caring about things she could change as opposed to just reacting to those things she couldn't. The quality of her meal was a reflection of the quality within herself, giving her the same pleasure a model has preening in the mirror, or an artist re-examining their portfolio. For a moment, life was better without distractions, as opposed to living for distraction and diversion as she once did.
As the tofu slowly browned in it's skillet, Caroline couldn't help but look more deeply into it, not just seeing the bubbling oil, but letting that deeper focus set in, that rainbow static that revealed to her just how well cooked the inside was. There was a comfort in this too, a comfort in becoming familiar with what was once frightening and new, the comfort of mundanity, like she'd felt in the first few months after getting her first car. For once in her life she knew what she was doing, and didn't need to second guess herself or try to ignore what she knew to be true.
She ate her meal hot from the skillet in front of the stove, not paying any mind to useless formalities such as plates or seats or forks in this intimate solitude. The flavors of sweet honey and savory garlic mingled in her mouth orgasmically, stroking her ego in a way no other person's praise ever could.
Where was Todd at a time like this? Caroline mused as she rinsed the sticky sauce from her skillet before it had a chance to set like concrete.
A convocation of thoughts bombarded her at this concept. After all, she was safe behind the protections she'd laid out. In this place, her own altar really, she was at her strongest. The Glass invading her mind was no threat. Could Mrs. Black even interrupt her now? Of course not. She was too sick for visitors, a non-player. Besides, if Mrs. Black really was out of the picture, maybe it was time to expand and stretch her own abilities. She'd already taken the drastic step of joining Mrs. Black's bloodline, it was time to admit she was a burgeoning witch, and start acting like one.
Caroline returned to her dark living room floor, sitting cross-legged on the rough carpet. Knowing where Todd was, that was a challenge; just like the challenge her rumbling belly had been, just like the challenge Lucille's daughter had been. True pleasure, deserved pleasure, came from meeting challenges. To dodge a challenge was at best cowardly, at worst, an act of emotional suicide. Caroline knew that, now, which was why she slowed her breathing and opened her eyes without seeing.
Self possession. That was the key to everything; she knew that now, too. The trance was induced by stoically ignoring by body's needless requests on her conscious mind, by devoting her brainpower to what she wanted, not where it naturally fell by default. That was the key she had learned from Lucille, to react by her own standards. Many of the things she had done and enjoyed her earlier self would have been disgusted by. By interpreting things by the standards of the mind instead of the heart, however, allowed her to pervert any situation into a pleasurable.
The trance, for example, had once been bewildering to her, frightening. Now it was a comfort to be able to shut off the outside world and exist in a world where she controlled who and what she was, even if she didn't know how as well as Mrs. Black. With time and security on her side, though, it was only a matter of practice she had that kind of razor sharp control.
Millions of complicated patterns swirled on her retinas, so many as to seem completely random t the ignorant mind. There was no chance here, no randomness at all, rather, there were only things her mind had the capacity to interpret, and things that were beyond it, nothing more. Details were a matter of perception, not presentation. The illusion of self, of ego, was the only thing that separated her from truth. Dying to herself, freeing her spirit, then having that purified spirit return to her and possess her; this was the path to freedom from her natural, flawed instincts.
The trance enveloped her, buoyed her, like an adept swimmer floating asleep on their back on a calm, warm sea. The trance was merely a tool, though, a tool that Caroline had only just begun learn to use.
The formation of an avatar for example, she had no clue of. Many of the more flamboyant abilities Mrs. Black had in the dream space Caroline couldn't even begin to understand, let alone imitate. Still, she had to start somewhere.
She focused on a single point, and it formed into a ball before her, the irrelevant details seeming to scurry away into the background. This hardened core of relevant detail was still encoded in a convoluted pattern of light, still too complex to be intuitive to the untrained. It related to whom, but not when, or where. This knot of fractal wisdom clarified as she added the condition of time to her request, the time of now. The three dimensional ball lost its internal convolutions, becoming an opaque sphere where it was once semi-translucent. The patterns became recognizable, but distorted, like bad reception on an old-fashioned rabbit-ears television that had many layers of ghost images super-imposed on it. She had the "who" and the "when" right, but something was missing, a refinement she needed to make the pattern cross the line between recognizable and unrecognizable. Todd could only be a handful of places, after all. It's not like he had a car.
Caroline guessed he was at The Fool's Card, only for the colorful opaque sphere to go black. She guessed again, this time his apartment, to be rewarded with the familiar scene of Todd and Raz together on the couch of the tiny apartment playing video games.
The victory was electric, the power of it made her bowels vibrate like a hose full of rushing water. She felt giddy and fresh, like she had a busted lip but still had her adrenaline rushing too much to feel it. The visceral nature of it nearly sucked her out of the trance and back into her own body, but she steeled her discipline again, viciously severing all ties between mind and body.
A hiss differentiated itself from the pure white noise of the trance, a hiss that was modulated by bursts of coherent speech. The speech was visible as well, oscilloscope lines of sky blue with a touch of sunset for Todd, and an almost purplish dark set for Raz. Caroline filled in the details she already knew to clarify the sound, her own inferences on the random pattern giving the sound and picture clarity...
Todd held a piece of bloody rare steak in his bare hands uncharacteristically, the bowl of his wineglass smeared with blood and partially rendered animal fat from his fingertips as he sat on the couch wearing nothing but a pair of satin boxers. He watched Raz play some violent game detachedly, like a hobo staring into a barrel fire. Raz held his game controller lightly and precisely between his knees while the rest of his body leaned in, giving his all to the game, every muscle fiber screaming to escape their mundane prison.
Raz himself was oblivious, barefoot in sweat pants and a weather-beaten button down shirt without a single button fastened, the cuffs hanging limply towards the carpet from just above the wrist. The imaginary world some other man had created sucked him inside, like a creepy physics demonstration of air pressure sucking a cold egg into the vacuum of a once piping hot beer bottle.
Todd spoke, in the gruff way men use only around each other that is generally associated with sports and beer, with overtones of a slamming locker-room door.
"This is good." He mumbled through a half full mouth.
"Yeah, smells good." Raz answered almost as if from the spine, neither his eyes nor face changing without some prompting from the game.
"You want some?" Todd pressed, clearly needing some social entertainment over and above what online gaming could provide.
"Nah, I'm good." Replied the bony gamer, his ribs telling the tale of countless meals skipped for the sake of his passion.
Raz's face developed a scowl, his hands frantically jabbing the buttons just before the screen filtered red over the background of his dying character. Raz dropped the controller dejectedly, like an old poker player folding a bad hand in disgust.
"My turn." Todd piped, snatching for the controller with his greasy, bloody hands.
"No way dude, you'll get gunk all over it!" Raz replied in more words than he'd used in a single uninterrupted stream in the past two days as he diverted Todd's intruding fingers with a supple twist of his bony wrist.
Todd, however, was tired of passively watching his depressed friend sulk in his escapist world. He snatched for the controller again after a brief pause, allowing Raz room to make the tactical error of letting his guard back down, only to have Raz meet him there, each man holding the controller in a crab-like grip.
"You're gonna fuck up the action on the buttons!" Raz hissed between clenched teeth as he pulled as hard as he dared without breaking the controller.
"Whatever! You've been hogging it all day!" Todd retorted childishly, pulling the controller into his hip and then twisting sharply, trying to break Raz's grip with a fast mixture of brute force and practiced finesse. Raz allowed his arm to be dragged forward, keeping his grip while at the same time bringing his other hand to bear, each man now scrabbling at the controller with both hands like scavenging crustaceans on fresh carrion.
The violence of their tussle popped the controller neatly out of its socket as both men wrestled for it in the floor, saving the gaming console from serious damage. Raz pinned Todd to the ground, only to have Todd extend the controller at arms length away from Raz. Raz leaned over to collect his prize only to have Todd take advantage of his lost balance and escape, taking his controller with him. Raz leaped onto his back as he rose, wrapping his legs around Todd to keep him from escaping as he attempted to apply a half nelson to break Todd's two-handed grip.
It was then that Todd noticed something soft rubbing against his left kidney, something that had been less apparent before. As the two had broken a sweat wrestling, Raz had the beginnings of a sleepy erection.
It must be said at this point that whom one chooses for a mate is a deep reflection of self. One of the reasons Raz and Berry's relationship had worked so well at first was because of the fact they were both openly bisexual, meaning there was an understanding between the two regarding liaisons with the same sex, namely that they were allowed provided everything was out in the open. Part of the reason for their current problems was over time Berry and Raz were realizing they were much more homosexual than they had presented themselves, and the whole relationship reeked of cover-up.
It was not the sensation, then, that disturbed Todd, but his own reaction to it. Todd, after all, presented himself as not only a straight man, but as a bit of a Don Juan. He'd been around the block a few times, so the idea of a gay man being attracted to him wasn't exactly alien. He tried to think of them along the same line as unattractive women.
Raz released his grip on Todd, sensing the indecision as Todd's body went stiff. There were protocols between men regarding wrestling, a point at which a friendly tussle could easily become an all-out brawl with a single misstep. Raz valued his friendship with Todd, and that meant respecting his friend's boundaries.
Todd, however, wasn't giving up that easily. He was having fun, a kind of fun that he'd never experienced with another man. Furthermore his ego was too much not to think of Raz as a sexual compliment, another in a long string of people willing to touch and caress him.
It was Todd then, not Raz, who left a draping hand on the other man, giving him a sly wink with a greenish eye. That was all it took for Raz to mentally commit to what his body had involuntarily started...
Caroline watched this from her trance, not knowing whether this was a true dream or just some wild fantasy her subconscious mind had dreamed up. Until recently she'd been a sexual traditionalist, so such a fantasy didn't feel like her own. It was a single man with her that had been the main theme of her own erotic doldrums, not anything as exotic as this.
Was it real then? Was it real like the plane crash? Was it real like Mrs. Black? Or was it imaginary, like the hamster wheel, or The Glass's crystal ball? This practice was supposed to increase her certainty in her abilities, not weaken it. All of a sudden Caroline had a pressing need to know exactly what was going on in Todd's apartment.
Caroline rushed down the stairs; keys in hand, letting the door slam shut unlocked behind her. Once Todd and Raz were done with one another, they might never admit it, meaning she could never know if her vision was true. She didn't dare call Todd and warn him of her suspicions. She didn't feel jealous of Raz, but Todd had no way of knowing that and may lie just to hold the tenuous he and she shared together.
Caroline was excited and turned on by the prospect of catching Todd compromised, not only because of her attraction to Todd, but also because of the sexual attraction she had begun to develop for her own power. She'd never been pretty, and had certainly never felt pretty, but her power made her feel special in a way even supermodels never attained.
The prospect of her power being validated by catching Todd and Raz in the act gave her a gambler's high as she flew down the road, not even giving The Fool's card a second glance as she buzzed past recklessly. Only two more turns....
She took the stairs two at a time, making her fast and quiet although it strained her short legs a bit. She put an ear to Todd's door. Nothing. Gently she tried the lock, and finding it open gave her an excited shiver. Her face hurt with anticipation, her cheeks spasming tight like a kid on acid. She turned the knob slowly and quietly, retracting the tongue of the catch out of its notch in the doorframe as carefully as she could.
She was greeted by the flickering light of a game-over screen in the dark room. The sounds of heavy breathing drew her gaze downward, past the battered second hand couch. She opened the door more and entered, shutting it silently behind her. Her ears pricked to the sound of shifting cloth, adding it to the labored breathing. She was so close... so right...
She paused, not wanting to break the moment, not wanting her brashness to somehow negate the validity of her vision. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room and she recognized the short stubble of Todd's once shaven back trembling in the dark. She was drawn to it, her hand reaching out involuntarily to touch his nail-scarred skin.
He gasped, intently knowing where both Raz's hands were, and where his own hands were, for that matter. After all, as a man who had once been a boy, he knew the best way to please a man was with both hands. It was Raz's turn to gasp then as Todd turned from him to Caroline. Raz's eyes were filled with irritation and annoyance, like a house-pet having his belly rub interrupted as he glared up to see what was taking Todd's attention away from him.
"Carl... I can explain..." Todd said smoothly, immediately taking the defensive.
Raz was silent and exposed, neither embarrassed nor caring about Caroline's opinion. Caroline had certainly spent enough time with Berry; after all, if he had to explain himself to her, then she would have some explaining to do as well.
"It's not like that..." Caroline said, her hand never leaving Todd's skin. After all, Todd and Raz had always been strangely close. When she had first met Raz, she had assumed they were together anyways.
"...it's not like that at all." She continued, getting closer to Todd, aching to celebrate her victory over the metaphysical that allowed her to discover this tryst. Todd returned the touch, his left hand leaving Raz's body to stroke Caroline's calf through her pants.
Raz spoke up; one of the rare times he ever did so.
"So it's not enough to fuck my girlfriend behind my back? You have to cock block me with Todd, too?"
Todd looked back at him, shocked that he wouldn't play into Caroline's obvious intention.
Now it was Caroline's turn to gasp.
"Raz, it's not like that... I know we're not as close as you and Todd, but I like you too..."
"Jesus, you really think I'm going to buy that pack of bullshit?" Raz continued, standing unashamed naked. "You've been nothing but in my shit since the night I met you. If I hadn't rolled over for you, you probably wouldn't even be with Todd now." Raz's voice was eerily understated and hushed, as if he'd been thinking about this speech for a long time. Even as he spoke, he was already pulling on his sweat pants.
"Raz...she doesn't mean it like that..." Todd placated.
"Oh, so you're in on this shit too then? Fucking figures." Raz spat bitterly. "It explains why after all these years you pick today to come onto me. Always a bitch. Always a bitch fucking everything up!" Raz jammed his feet into his shoes angrily, already walking towards the door with his shirt in hand.
"That's not even..." Caroline tried to say, but it was too late.
"Not what? What the plan was? You couldn't get Berry to bring you home, so you try to use Todd to fuck me? I see through all you filthy fucks!"
And with that, Raz slammed the door.
Caroline looked up at Todd, all of a sudden understanding Raz's point of view.
"I don't know what to tell you." Todd intoned monolithically, not willing to explain to Caroline what had been going on, and not feeling she even had a right to know.
Caroline had known all too well what had been going on, but now just wasn't the right time to explain.
There was a pause as Caroline tried to think of something to say. Nothing had gone as she had expected, but exactly how she could have foreseen it had she bothered to think about the consequences of her vision being true.
"I think I should just go..." Caroline said as her former enthusiasm was quashed by her inability to think before she acted.
"Maybe you should." Todd agreed solemnly, "Call me later."
"Ok." Caroline answered, getting one last breath of Todd's cologne before walking back out into the parking lot.