The glass almost fell from her grasp as Mara coughed into the sleeve of her jacket, the bitter liquid burning down her throat as the acrid scent assaulted her sense of smell. She hacked once more, then again, while the strange girl's words continued to loop around her head with a painful urgency. And yet, Mara just couldn't bring herself to believe the girl's prediction - how could she believe something so utterly ridiculous?
"Come again?" Mara asked with her brows shooting up, tone coated with doubt, when the numbness in her mouth had subsided.
The girl sitting on the stool next to her spoke as if she were merely talking about the sun's revolution. "Your parents are going to die tonight."
A beat passed before loud, brazen laughter escaped Mara but the obnoxious sound was lost in the cacophony of the bar, among the loud chatter of customers and the electronic music bouncing off the speakers. Her fingers tightened around the shot glass in her hand as she bent over in amusement while the girl beside her merely watched, failing to see the humor in the situation. As Mara continued to guffaw, the girl simply had her eyes glued on her, her face a mask that was mostly vacant of any expression save for a cold, indiscernible glint in her eyes. For several moments, Mara just laughed, until her sides began to ache and she realized that the girl's eyes were still on her. Oh, she was very much serious, Mara then realized as she met the girl's stare and saw her eyes devoid of any amusement.
"You're joking," Mara accused the girl lightly with a grin on her face.
"I'm not." The girl gave a shrug. "And you'll also find that I'm sober, much like you since I doubt that two shots are enough to inebriate you."
Mara glanced at the glass in her hand and blinked, realizing that it was indeed just her second shot for the night. But how did the girl know that? She'd seen her enter the bar just after the bartender had poured Mara her second glass. She decided not to mull over it too much - heck, she came here in the first place to relax - and shook her head, her fingers releasing their hold from the shot glass as she placed it down on the polished counter.
"Please don't tell me you walked in here and purposely sat next to me just to tell me my fortune," Mara retorted, waving over the bartender for a refill of gin.
"You obviously don't believe me," the girl replied, one corner of her lips quirking. "What can I do to change that?"
"Tell me whether I'll pass my second quarter exams?" Mara offered with a small smirk.
"No. How about something in view?" The girl began to sweep her surroundings with a sharp-eyed glance at every corner of the bar while Mara watched her with growing interest. If the girl was planning to test her knowledge of the place, Mara hoped, for the girl's dignity, that she wouldn't go down that road - Mara knew the bar like the back of her hand. From the geometric patterns that decorated the floor and the quietest spots in the place, down to the faulty backdoor that led to an alley at the building's right and the discolored spot in the chestnut paint that covered the far right wall.
When the bartender slid into the spot opposite Mara at the other side of the counter, she even recognized that the man was not a familiar face. He was newly hired and very much satisfied with his latest job, Mara could tell by the bounce in his step and the twinkle in his eyes. The sleeves of the black button-up shirt that he wore were rolled up to his elbows while a white bow tie sat the base of his neck - the required uniform of the bartenders that served around the place. He flashed Mara a smile, dimples showing, as he held a bottle of clear liquid in one hand.
"More gin?" he asked, his tone dripping with mirth, as he prepared to pour more of the spirit into Mara's glass.
"Yes, plea-" Mara lost her words when a gloved hand darted in front of her to cover the rim of her shot glass. It was the strange girl's hand, Mara realized, as she had finished her inspection of the bar and returned her attention to Mara. The girl dragged the glass across the counter, pulling it closer to her and out of the bartender's reach as she gave him a look, her eyes glaring with daggers. At this, the bartender merely blinked before walking away to tend to another customer.
The dirty look was not missed by Mara and a protest was about to leave her lips when the girl cut her off once again.
"The man sitting at the second table by the door's left," the girl spoke in an aloof tone. "White shirt, varsity jacket. He's going to hit on the girl wearing the denim tunic, leaning against the counter's left end."
Mara gave a huff but she could not deny the swell of curiosity in her chest and her eyes drifted to the second table to the door's left where she indeed saw a man donning a white shirt and a varsity jacket. He was bent over his table, brows furrowed, the unmistakable glow of his phone in his hands with his eyes glued to the small screen. Uninterested in his surroundings, Mara decided, and she was about to disprove the girl when she caught it, a small movement - the man's eyes flickered toward one end of the counter.
She followed his gaze and saw a trio of girls alongside the counter. Two of them sat on the stools while the one in the middle stood facing away from them, leaning against the counter. The one standing up was indeed wearing a long-sleeved denim tunic while her companions were more daringly costumed with sleeveless dresses that ended above their knees. To the average eye, the two girls' revealing outfits made them more preferable targets of affections but Mara saw differently.
Mara looked back at the girl beside her with an arched brow. "Of course he will. Her body's communicating openness - facing away from her companions, tilted towards the guy's direction whether or not she's aware of it - making her an easier target for interest while the two girls appear closed off. The guy's not looking for a challenge, just for a quick fix to distract himself from whatever problem he's currently attending to in his phone."
The girl gave a hum of approval as she gestured back to the man with a gloved hand. Mara watched as he stood up from his table and made a beeline for the girl in the denim dress who greeted him with a demure smile. Mara turned her back to them, not wanting to watch how the scene would further unfold. There was something sinister about the picture that Mara just refused to dwell on.
"Well, I had to start small," the girl remarked coolly, making Mara roll her eyes. She was not in the mood for this. She was about to voice out this thought to the girl when her mouth began to run once more.
"One of the men in the group four seats away from us, the one in a red polo, is going to tell a joke."
A scoff left Mara's lips as she glanced at the man in question, Edgar, who she recognized as a regular who was well-known for his poor taste in jokes. But despite that, there were always three of the other regulars who appreciated, even enjoyed, the black humor that left Edgar's motor mouth and at the moment, they swarmed Edgar like the loyal disciples that they were. Due to complaints in the past regarding Edgar's choice of humor, the man now only told his jokes in hushed tones for the ears of his small audience. But every now and then, there was a burst of laughter at whatever garbage Edgar was gushing. However, Mara noticed another man whom she identified as another regular, Jonas, who sat close and within earshot of Edgar's group; he was not joining in the laughter. Instead, he had a serene air about him as he stared at the bottle of beer before him, a pensive look on his face.
"Are you gonna tell me that Jonas is gonna take another swig from his bottle next? Because everyone in here knows that Edgar does nothing but spew sick bull every time he comes in here!" Mara's voice rose with ire as she slapped a hand on her forehead.
"No," the girl replied, not seeming the least fazed by Mara's irritated tone as the word rolled off her tongue like silk. "But I am going to tell you that Jonas is going to deliver a right hook to Edgar's jaw, a reaction to be expected from the sexual nature of Edgar's joke. Well, if you can call it a joke."
"What-" A cry of anguish tore Mara's attention away from the girl as she turned to see that Jonas had risen from his stool, his right hand balled into a fist as it trembled by his side. Edgar lied on the floor, his cronies flocking over him as their murmurs of distress muddled with Edgar's pained howl. Then one of Edgar's companions swung a fist back at Jonas who was able to duck in time from the attack while delivering a punch to the man's ribs. The man doubled over just as another struck at Jonas who blocked the oncoming fist with his elbow. Light on his feet and swift in his attacks, Mara could already see that Jonas was going to single-handedly win the fight.
Mara was not averse to such displays of violence, as the altercation escalated into a brawl between Jonas and Edgar's group, but she was caught off guard by the girl's prediction. Her mouth hanging open, she turned back to the girl just as the fight was broken off by a trio of men consisting of a concerned customer, the establishment's guard, and an older bartender.
Her mind was blank for a split-second before she found the words to say. "Sooner or later, someone was going to lose it-" Mara attempted to reason but the girl interrupted her again.
"No. The other regulars wouldn't have bothered with Edgar since they're used to him. A newcomer would've been easier to explain but Jonas is not one. What set off Jonas was Edgar's crass joke about a child being molested-"
It was Mara's turn to cut in on the girl's reply "Because Jonas has a kid, is that it?"
The girl cast her a bored look and Mara tried not to be offended by her blasé demeanor. Something about the apathy the girl radiated and her unchanging placid tone set off alarms in Mara's head but she tuned them out to listen to what the girl had to say.
"No. Jonas' daughter is fine. It's him," the girl said, the discord in the bar cooling down as the suspects behind the broken tranquility were kicked out of the place. "There's the story of a boy of eleven who was sexually assaulted a long, long time ago. He took up defense classes when he grew older in order to expel the weakness that he perceived to be what made him appealing to his assailants."
"Jonas?" The name left Mara's lips in a low whisper, almost as if hurt her to say it. "Wait - how do you even know that? W-what joke - what . . . I couldn't even hear whatever garbage Edgar and his friends were talking about!"
"Don't worry, your sense of hearing is unimpaired," the girl retorted.
"We're seated ten feet away from Edgar and you're telling me you heard whatever bull Edgar was saying?"
"I never said that, I know what he said," she snapped.
"No - no," Mara sputtered vehemently. "You could've made that up, for all I know-"
A gloved hand landed on Mara's own and she was forced to meet the girl's stare. Mara was met with eyes that managed to appear dull while gleaming with the smallest spark of mania. Mara was used to the girl's standoffish bearing but there was something different this time, something off.
"Your parents are going to die tonight," the girl echoed her words from earlier, every word spoken with such sharp clarity that Mara was convinced, for a second, that words could literally cut.
"You're making that up too," Mara answered with a shake of her head.
"Is that a challenge, Mara Adrienne Castell?"
At the sound of her full name, Mara's throat constricted as something hot pressed down on her chest. Her mind tried to trick her that it was the gin burning down her throat but - no. She glanced down at her chest but saw that her I.D. and her lanyard were not hanging from her neck. Nor was she wearing anything that could give away whatever school she went to - she'd always made sure of that whenever she visited the bar. She'd even changed her socks and traded her black school shoes for sneakers.
The moment the girl's hand left Mara's, her first thought screamed at her to run. But her rational side begged her to stay put, to listen to whatever the girl had left to say. Her guts, however, demanded that Mara challenge the girl's words, her stubbornness rearing its ugly head. For the first time that night, Mara inched away from the girl to take in her appearance. She wore leather fingerless gloves on her hands, a sleek black jacket that was zipped up, wrapped tightly around her slender frame, navy blue pants, and boots that completed her outfit. Typical. Her jet-black hair fell in loose waves down her back but there was a single highlight behind her left ear, a streak of pale blue.
"Are you a profiler?" The words escaped Mara's mouth before she could stop herself. "No, don't answer that," she hissed as she took note of the girl's youthful features, appearing close to be eighteen or even seventeen like she was. No, she was too young to be working for the police or what other law enforcement agencies existed out there. Or, she could be a prodigy. Mara sighed in exasperation.
The girl leaned in closer to Mara. "In twenty-five seconds, a man in a suit and tie will walk inside this place to confront the woman seated at the table in the right corner of the bar." Mara's expression contorted into one of confusion before she realized that the girl was reciting yet another prediction. "She's talking to a man wearing a gray sweater. It's a love triangle and the woman is having an affair with one of the men while she's married to the other, evident by the halo of light skin on her left ring finger where her wedding ring is supposed to be."
Mara's eyes darted to the right corner of the bar where a woman wearing a silk blouse, a pencil skirt, and a necklace around her neck quietly conversed with a man donning a gray sweater. They were almost easy to miss as the light that illuminated their spot was dim. Mara's mind raced as the gears inside her head stirred and kicked into action to keep up with what the girl was telling her.
"She's not wearing her ring because that's her lover that she's talking to right now. The man in the suit is her husband who's about to arrive." Mara's gaze fluttered to the bar's entrance which remained close. Ten seconds.
"What if I told you that that's her husband she's speaking to right now?" One corner of the girl's lips twisted to resemble a lopsided smirk. "And she is wearing her wedding ring."
"What?" Mara gasped. "You can't possibly deduce that-"
The telltale sound of the bar's door swinging out of place stole Mara's attention as she craned her neck to see the newcomer. True to the girl's words, a man in a suit and tie walked inside, his gait agile and hasty. His eyes, burning with determination, scanned the bar before they landed on the table in the dark corner, where the woman in the silk blouse grew aware of his presence and rose from her seat. The man in the sweater stood up as well.
Mara realized that she was holding in a breath as she watched the man rush to the table in the corner, his hand wrapping around the woman's arm as he trapped her with an iron grip. The man in the sweater approached the two but the woman placed a halting hand on his chest, a warning not to come any closer. The words they exchanged were in hushed tones but as the seconds bled by, their voices began to rise and the bar's casual ambience grew strained with conflict once more.
Soon, shouts were being thrown around in that dark corner of the bar.
"She's coming with me!" The man in the suit and tie pulled the woman closer to his chest.
"No, she's not! She's my wife!" The man in the gray sweater had clenched his hands into fists. Mara felt her heart sink.
"No! Not anymore," the woman screeched between the two men as she reached for the necklace around her neck. Yanking at the chain until it broke loose from her neck, Mara saw the glint of something shiny at the end of the chain before her eyes recognized it as a band of silver - a wedding ring.
Throwing her arm back, the woman flung the chain and the ring towards the man in the sweater and the jewelries hit his chest. His eyes forlorn, the man's stare dropped down to the floor where the necklace and the ring landed while the woman and the man in the suit and tie stormed out of the bar, the door closing with a resounding bang behind them.
Cold. There was something cold that spilled into the chasm of Mara's chest as her pulse escalated, the thundering in her chest making it painful to breathe. One hand latched onto the edge of the counter as Mara recalled the very first words that the girl said to her the moment she sat on the stool next to her.
The very same words that the girl repeated once more as they slipped from her tongue with ease. "Your parents are going to die tonight."
"You don't know that," Mara bit out through gritted teeth.
"Do you really want to take the risk?" the girl answered, not tauntingly but in the same composed tone that she had always used.
Mara's hand trembled with the irrational urge to slap the girl; instead, she tightened her grasp on the counter's edge. "No."
"Tell me what you want," the girl ordered.
"I want my parents to live."
"Do you believe me now?"
"Yes, I do!" Mara roared at the girl as she slammed a fist onto the counter. Pain flared up her hand and her wrist but it went ignored as she met the girl's impassive gaze, sharp and calculating as Mara found herself, against her will, silently marveling at the mind behind those eyes.
"Good," the girl replied. "A man will be standing in front of your house. He will kill your parents in their sleep. He will be armed with a knife."
"What do I do?" Mara's voice grew low as she wiped away the growing moisture in her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket. The pressure in her chest swelled.
"You can change how a scenario will play out but you cannot change how it will end," the girl began, running her fingers through her tousled hair, creating an image of nonchalance. "The girl in the denim dress could've rejected the guy but he will still go home with a girl at the end of the night. Jonas could've taken a different seat but someone will still, in your own words, 'lose it' in the end. The woman could've chosen to stay with her husband but one of the men will still end up alone in the end."
A breath stuck in Mara's throat as she turned her face away from the girl but fingers, their skin cool as ice, clutched onto Mara's jaw as a gloved hand forced her to look back at the girl. Her grasp on Mara was not strong nor was it gentle but Mara, at that moment, wanted nothing more than to scramble away from the strange girl. But the girl's aloof gaze rooted Mara to her seat.
"A girl will have to choose, yes," the girl said, her eyes boring into Mara's, "but in the end, someone will still die."
The second the girl released her hold on Mara, it took every ounce of self-control that Mara had to keep herself from running out of the bar. The building pressure in her chest threatened to choke her but she sucked in a steadying breath to alleviate the ache. Her mind verged on panic as the magnitude of what she was about to do dawned on her.
Yes, what she was about to do. It was no longer a question of if but of how.
Mara still refused to meet the girl's eyes but the girl's next words didn't go unheard.
"Thirty-eight minutes after eleven, twenty-two minutes from now. Your parents will be asleep, satisfied with the lie you fed them that you'd be at a classmate's house, working on a project. A man will be standing outside your house. Your house is nineteen minutes away from here, considering the traffic at this hour. That leaves you three minutes to do what you have to do."
A numbness spread all over Mara's body as she found herself giving a quick nod before she fell off her stool onto unsteady feet. Her limbs trembled but she soon mustered enough strength to take a step forward. And another, then another. When the tremors left, replaced with the drive of an adamant purpose, Mara broke into a run as she soon exited the bar, not bothering to grace the strange girl with even just a glance, as the door quietly slid back into its place in her wake.
Three minutes. Mara had three minutes to spare, three minutes to think, three minutes to decide how to commit the act. The word she was looking for was 'crime' but her mind blanked out at the very thought of the word, her denial providing her with a morbid sense of comfort just as it had during the first moments of her encounter with the girl.
True to the girl's words, as Mara brought a stop to her running as she approached her home, a man stood outside the house. All traces of doubt were wiped out from Mara's mind as she stared at the lone figure standing against the backdrop of the night. A streetlight stood several feet away on the sidewalk where the stranger stood but he was mindful to stay out of the area that the light managed to illuminate. The street was otherwise empty, deserted at the late hour as the darkness stretched out across the road.
Mara made use of the night to her advantage as she slid into the shadows, out of the man's peripheral view. She eyed the man with scrutiny as she felt her feet trample over grass, gravel, and a few rocks. The stranger wore a black jacket, ideal for staying out of sight during the night, and a cap to shield his face from any wandering eyes. Mara's restraint began to crumble as she wiped the sweat beading on her brow. Two minutes.
No! She couldn't do this, could she? The closest thing to illegal that she had committed was lying to her parents just to spend nights out in the bar, whether alone or with her friends. Taking a man's life - no. She wouldn't go there. But she had to, didn't she? She had a choice, after all, but her mind couldn't even bear to finish the thought of her parents lying lifeless and-
Mara drew in a sharp breath as tears began to blur her vision. With one dab from her sleeve, her vision grew clear again but this time, they clouded with red. Red from the horror she was about to go through tonight, red from the vile mixture of anger, spite, and sorrow that burned beneath her skin. Between the Devil and the deep blue sea . . . Oh, God.
Mara was no longer sure whether or not she was choosing the lesser of two evils. All she wanted to do was to keep her parents safe.
One minute. A choking sound left her lips as she bent down on one knee to feel around the ground beneath her. Her fingers dug into coarse gravel, gained cuts from the longer blades of grass that sprouted from what little soil could be found, as she blindly searched in the dark for it. Then her fingers came in contact with its jagged edges and uneven shape before she grasped it with her hand, clutching it tightly despite the tremors that she was fighting so hard to drive away.
The rock, roughly the size of a shoe, weighed heavy in Mara's hand. As she rose up to her feet, she silenced the chorus of cries and howls in her head as she began to inch closer to the man standing in front of her house. Once the chorus of voices had been silenced, Mara's mind slipped into autopilot, the rock in her hand growing lighter with each step and each passing second until she finally found herself standing behind the unsuspecting stranger.
Without a sound, she lifted her arm then brought it down in a rapid strike.
A quarter to midnight. She didn't need a watch or a clock to tell the time, she just knew. As she drank down the clear liquid in the shot glass - it was just water - she felt a familiar presence slide into the place at the other side of the counter, waiting for her to finish her drink.
The glass made a soft clink as she placed it down on the counter before she trained her apathetic gaze at the man before her. She arched a brow at him when she spotted the grin gracing his features, his dimples showing.
"Are you having fun?" he asked.
The girl scoffed. "You call this fun?"
"You are supposed to have fun while playing a game, are you not?" the bartender answered, shooting the empty glass a wary glance.
"What, this game? This game that we've been playing for decades? For centuries?" Not for the first time that night, the girl's temper flared but she reigned in her control before she could truly lose her hold.
The bartender's smile turned into a humorless one as his eyes narrowed at her, his voice absent of any mirth that he had spoken with before. "Don't tell me that you're still bored after all this time."
"Take a guess," she snapped.
He pressed his lips into a thin line. "You already cheated, isn't that enough for you?"
"Cheated? Excuse me?" The girl leaned in closer toward the man before her as her voice dropped to a low timbre. "I recall you trying to pour the girl her third glass of gin. That's called interfering. Next time, just try to stay put and wait for your turn."
"Now where would the fun be in that? Besides, I was just doing my job." Satisfied that he managed to get a rise out of her, the bartender's tone grew light again as his fingers began to work on untying the white bow tie wrapped around his neck. "Funny how you're trying to find order - taking turns and all that - amid the chaos we were designed to create." Once it came free, he dropped it onto the counter before him and he unbuttoned the first two buttons of his shirt. "There. I resign."
"You're supposed to take turns while playing a game, aren't you?" The girl gave a roll of her eyes. "And I'm afraid there's no resigning from our jobs, my friend."
"True," the man agreed. "Still, what you did to that poor girl . . ."
"I was just doing my job," she threw his own words back at him with a quirk of her lips. "Agent of chaos, instrument of a higher power and all that bull. Well. Mara Adrienne Castell was a smart girl, observant and quick-thinking, but she judged too much based on appearance, on outward aspects and exteriors. It narrowed her perspective and her stubbornness didn't help either," the girl recounted, weariness tainting her tone. "An easy target, really."
"So you lied to her?"
Her lips twisted into a smirk. "Maybe. Maybe not. Does it matter? I thought we were just playing a game."
"We are, old friend. After all, the world's not getting younger and less messier any time soon." A chuckle sat on the tip of the bartender's tongue, a smile curving his lips as his dimples returned. "Let's get it going then, shall we?"
The girl gave him a wink. "Of course. I believe it's your turn now."