The tent was lit by patio lanterns, packed with mystical tchotchke, and filled with enough fragrant smoke to gag a bylaw officer. My eyes and mouth started watering immediately under the assault of the overpowering aroma of spiced coffee.
“Ah, welcome young lovers!” said the wizened hag that emerged from the haze. “Would you like Mistress Emilia to read your future?”
Karen squinted a bit. “Mistress Emilia? Aren’t you just Emily from the Crafty Carafe?”
“No, no, I am far more ancient and learned than she. I just happen to have her good looks.” She cackled maniacally to punctuate the statement; one of her wrinkles peeled loose and she smoothed it back down. “Now, shall I read your future Karen, or young Tom?”
“Do Tom. I’m sure his future will be more exciting than mine.”
Emily turned an oversized eye on me and pulled out a wand with a blue LED on the tip. She swirled it around so it drew light patterns in the air while she chanted nonsense syllables. Finally she produced a small paper cup half-full of the sort of spiced coffee that Crafty Carafe was becoming famous for.
I downed the coffee in one gulp; it tasted vaguely of cinnamon. My head immediately began to feel a bit light.
“I was going to say inhale the aroma and let it transport you; hopefully you didn’t get too much.”
The room started swirling and rocking from side to side. I found myself seated on a folding chair as she guided my hands to the surface of a crystal ball.
An image came into view; I was out on the beach at Morris Point with a girl I’ve never seen before. She was everything I’ve dreamed of, including some of the nightmares. Her body was obsidian black down the left side – skin, hair, eyes and everything – and pearlescent white down the right side. Her proportions were... imagine a renaissance sculptor’s idea of Venus and you’d be just a bit on the dowdy side. And what was happening? Well, Morris Point doesn’t have the nickname Make-Out Point for nothing.
Karen’s voice interrupted the vision. “NERA! You little HUSSY!”
Mistress E and I both looked at her.
“Karen? You know this girl?”
“I know her all right. But she shouldn’t be able to know you because she’s NOT REAL!”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s a fantasy! An illusion! Nera K. is the imaginary personification of my sense of sexual inadequacy and natural bi-cu-ri-” She trailed off and turned beet red. In a tiny voice she continued. “That’s what my therapist says.”
In the half-light and the smoke, now that I’d been primed to notice, I could see that Nera K. looked exactly like Karen, except for the colouration. I lightly clasped her shoulders and she trembled.
“Karen, how long have you been seeing Nera?”
“A couple of months. Ever since we, you know...”
“Is that why you’ve been trying to avoid being alone with me?”
She gulped. “Yeah. Kind of silly, huh?”
“No. But she’s something we can work through – together.”
Mistress Emilia chose that moment to break the mood. “And if you want to work on that repressed bicuriosity, I know a girl who can help.” She handed Karen a card.
Karen blushed even deeper, moreso on the left than the right.