Grace was doing her best to enjoy the walk to the bar. Normally, she would take full advantage of the opportunity to properly people-watch, especially when downtown on a Saturday night such as this. Just from where she was standing at the red light, she could see all sorts of interesting sights – a gaggle of girls in mini-skirts bickering about what order to enter the club based on their fake IDs; a disheveled man wearing a face mask over his eyes like a superhero, two holes ripped to see through; a fat black rat scuttling across the street, a thick curly fry trapped in its maw. Under normal circumstances, this would be a god-damn jackpot. But tonight, Grace was on a mission: she was ravenous.
The chilliness of the late autumn air wasn’t exactly encouraging her to slow her pace. She felt almost silly in her strapless pale green dress – after all, hadn’t she outgrown this? Didn’t she know better? Comfort over style, always.
Tonight was different. She’d been focusing on her arms at the gym, which meant she simply had to show them off, even if her skin prickled with goosebumps and she shivered at the slightest breeze. You can still go back, a part of her pleaded. You can order a ridiculous amount of take-out and smoke a few cigs.
And yet, she kept walking, wrapping her arms around herself as she picked up the pace. Her sinister heels clicked aggressively against the wet pavement and as she passed a particularly dark alley, Grace wondered how well she could run in them.
Her favorite dive bar was more crowded than usual, which meant she was slammed by a wave of sticky body heat upon stepping over the threshold. The place was already pretty narrow with hardly any standing room besides the walkway behind the stools, so she had to practically shove her way to the bar, which was notably difficult in her heels. But she managed and after a few minutes of trying to get the bartender’s attention, she ordered a cocktail. Only when she had the glass in front of her, did she take a breath.
She knew it would be crowded tonight – was depending on it – but that didn’t mean a small part of her hadn’t hoped some other place nearby would draw away the younger crowd with a ladies’ night of some kind. It was louder than she had been prepared for, an endless swelling cycle of people talking over each other, desperate to be heard over the person next to them. The girl to her left laughed with her entire body, leaning back and bumping Grace every time her guy-friend said anything at all. A strip of bulbs on the string lights was out, disrupting the flow. And while the warmth was fine at first, it was becoming suffocating and her dress was growing damp under her arms. A blister was blooming where her shoe rubbed her skin raw and God, she was hungry. Too many sensations made her irritable, and she was certainly getting there much quicker than she would have liked.
Then go home. It’s not worth it.
Grace looked around, taking in all the faces. Everyone was young, practically glowing with an energy she had never shared. Her gaze caught on the flash of an earring as a woman a few seats away turned her head, grinning at the bartender after he handed her a blood-red drink. In the dim light, her skin looked tender and seamless, plump cheeks glinting with glitter, eyes popping with orange lining. She was beautiful, and Grace found herself leaning forward a bit to get a better look – but then someone walked over and kissed the woman’s temple and Grace had to look away.
She swiveled a bit, peering further into the room. Near the back, a young man with a buzzed head leaned against the wall, a glass of what appeared to be straight whiskey against his lips. He took a sip, and his sharp Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, taking Grace’s gaze to his throat and back up again. Silver rings married his pale skin and Grace found her eyes tracing how his hands curved around the drink, appreciating his long fingers and angry red knuckles. He seemed to feel her stare, but just as he turned his head, a few of what must have been his friends went over to him, one slinging an arm around his skeletal shoulders.
Look, this just isn’t the night, the voice said, restless. It’s a sign. You’ve been doing so well, don’t give up now. Go home.
She turned back to the bar. What was she doing? She told herself she wouldn’t return here until she was strong enough to resist, and she clearly wasn’t. She should head back. And she would – after she finished her drink.
She took a generous sip, grabbing hold of the song playing under all the shouting and following the lyrics.
–mended at the price
Insatiable an appetite
To avoid complications –
Grace blinked, turning to her right to see a guy looking back at her, a crooked smile on his face. It was a nice face, she thought, with dimples and a sharp nose, and long eyelashes over brown eyes. Nice and simple.
“I have to know what that drink did to make you want to hurt it so bad.”
Grace frowned. “Huh?”
The man’s smile flickered, his confidence wavering. “I said – You looked pissed is all. Like you were about to throw that glass at the wall.”
“Oh.” Get it together! “Oh yeah,” Grace laughed awkwardly, “yeah just a lot of noise. Hard to hear yourself think, you know?”
“Yeah, I hear you,” he relaxed a bit, seeming to settle against the bar beside her. “Or, well, I guess I kind of hear you.”
She gave him a polite chuckle, then took a sip of her drink. He had caught her off guard is all. She wasn’t usually like this…
“So uh,” he gestured to her hand. “What’re you drinking?”
“Oh, uh, a praying mantis.”
“Never heard of it. ‘S it good?”
“Well, I like it. I mean, if you like tequila and Coke, you’d like this.”
“Ah, I guess I’m more of a beer guy myself.”
“Ah, well…” Alright, good talk, time to go. “So uh…what’s your name? I’m Grace.”
“Tom.” He extended a hand, and she shook it. His skin was soft, she noted, supple. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“You as well. Come here often?”
He laughed, this time more genuinely. “Not really, no. I’m from out of town. Here for work.”
Her heart fluttered with a shock of excitement. “Most people are. Not many live around here unless they have to.”
“Yeah, it’s…a lot. I certainly wouldn’t. How about you? Where are you from?”
“Oh, I live a few blocks away.”
“Oh god, I’m sorry.” He caught himself, neck flushing. “Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come out like that. I just meant –”
It was Grace’s turn to laugh. “No no, you’re completely right. I appreciate the pity. Unfortunately, I’m stuck here for a while.”
“Oh? A boyfriend keeping you?”
“Wow, very subtle,” Grace teased, relaxing as Tom grinned. “No, no boyfriend. Just a job, like everybody else. I’m more of a lone wolf anyway.”
“I see. Well, I hope I’m not intruding on your brooding, thoughtful alone time.”
Fine, he’s funny! He’s sweet! Maybe you can go grab dinner somewhere that isn’t your apartment and see where things go!
“Ah yes, the bar, the ideal place for quiet, isolated contemplation.”
“Hey now, you never know! Maybe you have your best philosophical thoughts while playing the gorgeous, mysterious seductress.”
“Oh, so I’m a seductress now?” Hook, line, sinker. “Have you been properly seduced by my murderous glare?”
“Indubitably. My own sort of femme fatale.”
The voice in her head quieted, buried alive under the thrilled buzzing that fuzzed Grace’s head. She was good at this game, always had been. It simply took her a second to warm up. But she knew the combination of buttons to click, the dialogue option to choose, the steps of the dance…
Tilt head – “So what do you do for work?” – glance down and up – “That’s so interesting!” – lean forward a bit – “Huh, I didn’t know that.” – laugh at his joke – “In your dreams!” – lick your lips – “Prove it.” – touch his wrist – “Maybe you’re the seductress here.” – roll your shoulders.
It was a puzzle, and once she got the outline, she could piece the rest together, no problem. It was in her blood, really.
After a few hours of this dancing, flirting, and courtship, Tom finally put his mouth to her ear and said, “You said you live a few blocks from here?”
There was a flash of resistance, a painful lurch deep in her gut, but her violent craving consumed it easily. She had been restricting herself for too long, trying to quit cold turkey – when had that ever worked for anyone?
Just one more.
Grace took his hand, anxious excitement sparking in her veins as she weaved them through the maze of people and into the cold outside air.
The walk to her apartment was a straight line, an almost too-perfect distance from the bar. Just enough time for the alcohol to settle in, for the anticipation to build, for the excitement to make her mate feel invincible to the darkness and chill of the night.
The street had that two-a.m. silence, the cluster of college girls and the strange man with the mask long moved on. But the rat was still there, squashed in the road by someone’s wheel, its prize lying abandoned a few inches away, caked in the predator’s pulp.
Grace and Tom stumbled through the door, her body on autopilot, mind already ahead as he gave in to biology. He was good at this, she would give him that. Kind, considerate, and aware.
“Yes, of course.”
She was almost sorry.
She guided their momentum into the Other bedroom, the one with the tastefully thick tapestries covering the walls, blinds pulled down and shut, cheap new sheets on an equally cheap mattress, dim lamp as an excuse for ambiance, and speakers with music already playing. He was eager, distracted, too far ahead to notice the haunted emptiness of the room, the sudden lack of background noise from the outside.
It was his turn to lead the dance, so she gladly let him guide her, wrinkling her favorite green dress against the bed as she let her mind wander to the after. To the good part. To her knees against the carpet on either side of his hips, his delicate pulse fluttering under her palm as she pressed it against his throat. Would his eyes brighten? Would he struggle? She hoped not – adrenaline made the meat too tough.
She felt the outline of her knife against the small of her back from its spot under the mattress – her own little pea to keep her sleepless – and a thrill of pleasure ran up her spine. She imagined the familiar smoothness of its worn wooden grip, the glint of the blade as it caught the light. Tom’s hand found her thigh as she imagined the tear of the silken skin over his windpipe and through a carotid artery. She could practically feel the warmth of the blood on her hands, hear the sputter of his lips, see the twitch of his jaw. She shivered, the voice completely silent, drowned by the drive of the predator. How could she ever think she could live without this?
He was smiling above her now, those dimples casting a lovely shadow on his cheek. She smiled back, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him closer to kiss the spot, to taste it.
Yes, she decided, she would eat this part first.