I couldn’t decide if she was really fine with my refusal or if now she was pretending. Either way, I was happy for the lighter turn in the conversation. I kept going in that direction. “Little? Did you just call my dick little? Maybe you need to put your foot back here again.”
“No, no, no!” She screamed as I grabbed her foot, pretending to want to pull it back to my crotch.
I held her foot in my hands while she scrambled to get away. “Just a minute ago, you were willing to put your mouth on me, and now you can’t even touch me with your foot?”
She put her hands up in surrender. “I was joking. I wouldn’t suck you, Hudson. Or f**k you. Ever. It would be…weird.”
“Very weird.” I let go of her foot, and she casually pulled her legs up under her again. “And it would mess up this.” I gestured back and forth from her to me.
She smiled. “Agreed. And this is nice.”
“I do like this.” We didn’t talk about this often. Or at all actually. We’d let our relationship evolve without commentary, but this felt like it needed to be said. Especially after her strange sexual innuendo. I had no intention of going there with her, but this—what we did have—it meant something to me. And that was interesting in itself—that any relationship I had meant something to me was unusual.
Still, if things got strange, if Celia tried to be something more than what we had, I’d be able to walk away. And I would walk away. Without looking back. Funny, then, how the idea bothered me.
It was more than I wanted to contemplate at the time. I stood and stretched, feigning a yawn. “Are you staying?”
Celia often stayed over at the loft with me, sharing my king-size bed like two school kids having a sleepover. It was never an issue, but this night I hoped she would say no. Some distance after our conversation might be needed.
But she didn’t seem to agree. “I’m staying,” she said. “Do I have any clothes still here? I couldn’t find any in the closet, and I usually have some items.”
“I hid all your things in case Monica stayed over. They’re not that hard to find. Back of the armoire, in the closet. If she snooped, she would have found them.”
Celia found some of her yoga pants and a tank and went into the bathroom to change. I wondered at that as I stripped from my clothes. She usually dressed and undressed in front of me. Perhaps she also noted a lingering strangeness from our discussion. I certainly did. Normally, I’d be sleeping in boxers. Tonight I’d chosen sweats and a T-shirt.
I was already in bed when she slipped in on the other side. Without speaking, I leaned over and clicked off the lamp. I stayed on my side, facing away from her, and waited for sleep to take me over.
We lay like that for several minutes in the dark. I could tell from her breathing that she was also still awake, so it didn’t completely surprise me when she spoke.
“Do you think you’ll ever stop playing?” Her voice was smaller than usual. Thin and unsure.
Or it was just the dark messing with my senses.
I lifted my head so I could talk over my shoulder. “The game?” There was nothing else she could mean, though. “No. I’ll always play.” It wasn’t a question I’d ever even considered asking. The experiments were part of me. Even when I didn’t try, I was constantly manipulating the wills of those around me and gauging their reactions. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Of course you have a choice.”
Though I didn’t know if she could see it in the dark, I shrugged, not agreeing but not wanting to debate it further. “What about you?”
“It’s good for now.” She cleared her throat. “But I could see myself quitting one day.”
Her answer bothered me. I didn’t like that she’d thought about quitting. I didn’t like that she believed it was a possibility for her.
I rolled to my back so I could look at her and found her also laying on her back. “You’re fooling yourself. You could never quit. You love it too much.” Perhaps I was speaking for myself. But I wanted those words to be true for her. Needed them to be true for her.
She turned her head to face me. “I do love it. Parts of it, anyway.”
Parts of it. Yes, there were parts that were better than others. My favorite part was correctly guessing how a person would react to a situation. I’d gotten so good at reading people that I rarely failed to predict the outcome of the schemes we created. But even as I could anticipate results, each experiment taught me something new about human emotion—about the things I didn’t feel. I grew more and more interested in studying further. And more and more alienated from the world around me.
Except not from Celia.
The experiments had brought me closer to her. We were friends now in the way we’d always been meant to be. It occurred to me, though, that I didn’t know what it was that Celia liked about the game. I’d always assumed she’d liked it all, and I’d never thought to ask her.
So I asked her now. “Which parts?”
“Hmm,” she pretended to think about it, though I was sure she already had an answer. “The pain,” she said finally. “I like seeing people in pain.”
Her answer baffled me. I liked seeing an outcome of an experiment, and very often it was pain, but when it wasn’t, I was just as satisfied. This desire of hers intrigued me as much as any other person’s desires.
I turned toward her, propping my head up with my hand. “Why?”
“I don’t know, really. I can’t explain it.”
She was quiet for a while, but eventually she spoke. “It makes my own pain feel diminished somehow.”
I laughed. “What pain can you possibly have?”
“Hey, even spoiled little rich girls can have things that hurt them.” She paused again, but I waited. I knew how the dark could draw things out that hid in the light. Wasn’t that where Celia and I always met? In dark rooms? In dark situations?
Seconds ticked by in silence, but eventually she did give more. “Don’t ask me what my pain is specifically, though. I haven’t felt anything in so long that I don’t remember. But it’s there somewhere—I know it. Waiting for me. And every time someone else cries and falls apart, it gets smaller. I keep thinking if I just hurt enough people, break enough hearts, then eventually it will all go away. And I won’t have to play anymore. I can go back to feeling.”