Oscar poured clear alcohol into a glass before quickly splashing red liquid over it. His hands moved mechanically, dashing the contents of another smaller bottle over it. He held up the glass with a satisfied smirk as the liquids coalesced into a soft red, before sliding the concoction to the woman across the counter.
The woman murmured her thanks, without as much as a glance up from her scribble-laden notebook. Her scribbles, more prose than research notes, piqued Oscar’s interest. However, with how her dark curls fell over her face, creating a sort of force field between her and Oscar, he knew she wanted to be left alone.
Oscar retreated to the other side of the bar. His eyes shifted behind him. A shadow gave him a little jump—as it always had over the last few weeks. Bob the Robot slumped against the back wall of the bar, beneath a layer of dust that blanketed its metal and forgotten body. A long split ran across the robot’s head, wires exposed. Its mouth hung open, resembling more a passed out person sleeping off a hangover than a bartending robot.
Weeks ago, some genius engineer had decided to show off their, as they called it, “bionic operating bartender”—or BOB for short. More efficient, they had said. Less overhead, they had said.
The clunky robot often got in Oscar’s way as it rolled around the bar to mix drinks, causing Oscar to stub his toe on many occasions. So much for efficiency, Oscar had groused, as he hopped around on one foot, inwardly cursing in pain while his automaton counterpart would continue zipping around with a metallic smile and dorky name tag with “Bob” scrawled on it.
But the genius engineer had failed to factor in another variable: what if someone—say, some unnamed bartender—stuck a foot out suddenly in front of Bob the Robot?
Oscar sauntered over to the robot and pressed its mouth shut, so that Bob looked as though he was frowning instead. He smirked and patted Bob on the head before returning to the bar, feeling his job secured. For now.
Oscar’s ears rang when he returned to the bar. On the stage, a man wailed a song about physics. He missed every note and resembled more of a preacher at a pulpit than a renowned scientist at karaoke night.
Somehow over the dissonant singing, Oscar heard the bar’s phone buzz. He picked up the device, grunting, “Edge Bar.”
“Hello?” a young voice squeaked from the other end. “I’m looking for my mom.”
Oscar cast a wary glance around the room. It was a typical Wednesday crowd—workers exhausted from their week, with a few others in the mix.
“Her name is Pia, but she goes by P. Last name: Ness.”
Oscar paused. “Ness?”
“You know, like the Loch Ness monster.” Muffled snickering.
“So… P. Ness?”
Laughter erupted at the end of the line. Oscar grumbled and hung up.
From across the bar, Angela sighed at him. “Did you really have to say it?”
“I thought saying it might take away some of its power.”
“Well, it didn’t,” Angela told him flatly. “I hope you find out who those jackasses are someday.”
Oscar pointed at the phone’s digital interface. “I have caller ID. I know exactly who it is.”
Angela gave Oscar an exasperated look. “Are you kidding me? Then why haven’t you confronted them yet?” When Oscar only shrugged, Angela shook her head. “You have to be practical. Confront that little jerk and he’ll stop prank calling you. Problem solved.”
“Always the problem solver,” Oscar remarked wryly.
Angela flashed an ironic smile before returning to examining the bottom of her glass, as though willing more whiskey to appear. Engineer by day, barfly by night, she nursed her old fashioned like a crutch, her eyes sunken and her dark hair frizzy and unkempt, even more so now than usual. Whatever top-secret project she was working on—something that he was not privy to— was really doing a number on her.
Oscar snorted, more to himself than anyone. Maybe it was better that he not know what crazy experiments these scientists in Selunia Falls were running. Oddly, his countless speculations on the matter made his life feel fuller in this strange town. While his own fiancé Sian, a biologist and his sole reason for being here, staunchly wouldn’t tell him any of the town’s secrets, other scientists, administrators, janitors, and even stray cats regaled Oscar from across the bar counter with a variety of answers and possibilities: nuclear bombs, renewable energy, ways to raise the dead, aliens, world domination.
Maybe none of them were telling the truth. Maybe this town was some outrageous thought experiment he wasn’t in on, and game show people would hop out from behind a curtain and point at the video cameras around the room.
“Not every problem needs to be solved,” Oscar grumbled.
“You’re not just saying that because of your doomsday caller, are you?”
Doomsday caller. Oscar’s eyes flicked to the bar’s clock—a digital contraption with the trappings of a cuckoo clock for charm.
Every midnight, for the past few midnights, an unregistered number would call the bar. Oscar would pick up. Static. Then, a monotone voice, which sounded eerily disembodied, would croak a number—a number that was one less than the night before. And then the phone call would go dead.
Oscar shivered. The person was clearly counting down. Yesterday, that number was one.
None of the other bartenders received this mysterious phone call on the nights he wasn’t working. Which meant that not only was this number counting down, but it was counting down specifically when Oscar was on shift.
A shuffling of papers snapped Oscar’s attention back to the woman with the notebook at the opposite end of the bar. She always came in by herself and drank her red whisky concoction while scribbling into her notebook. At exactly 11:53PM—Oscar knew this exact time due to the cash register’s timestamps—the woman would flag him down for the check and then disappear out the back door.
Angela leaned in, her voice barely audible. “Could it be her?”
“Why would you say that?” Oscar asked, his voice also low.
“She leaves at exactly 11:53PM,” Angela said, a finger pressed against the white counter as though a timeline was illustrated on it. She moved her finger along. “You get a call exactly seven minutes later.”
Oscar glanced back at the woman warily. “But why would she do that?”
“Maybe…” Angela tilted her head in thought. “Maybe she caught on to one of your shenanigans about pouring non-alcoholic drinks.”
“I never did that!” Oscar snapped. When Angela gave him a blank stare, he quipped, “Not to her anyways.” Scientists had their experiments. Oscar had his.
“Maybe she’s a vampire?”
“A… what?” Oscar crossed his arms over his chest, trying to remember if that was Angela’s third or fourth drink.
“A vampire.” Angela let out a little giggle. “You said you only see her when it’s dark!”
“As with a lot of people at this bar!” Oscar exclaimed with a snort. “Are you okay—-what are you doing?”
Angela had reached over the counter and to the garnishes, grabbing a fistful of pickled onions in her unsteady hand. She gave Oscar a triumphant look. “This should do the trick.”
“No!” Oscar hissed, shooting a glance at the other end of the bar, where the mysterious woman was looking at her phone, oblivious. “I know what you’re thinking! And those are pickled onions, not garlic!”
“Shhh!” Angela said, shooting a glance at the other end of the bar. She proceeded to plop a handful of pickled onions into her drink. She shoved her glass into Oscar’s hands. “Take this with you for your safety.”
“I’m cutting you off now.” Oscar turned to close Angela’s tab and stopped in his tracks. He noticed the other end of the bar was now empty. He whipped around to look at the cuckoo clock.
Early. Too early. Did he and Angela spook her?
She must have slipped out the back, Oscar thought. He clutched the pickled onion concoction as he made his way to the alleyway behind the bar. A cool night breeze greeted him in the empty alley.
The woman was nowhere in sight.
Oscsr turned around—-and right into the mysterious woman as she appeared behind him.
“Pardon me—HEY!” The woman screeched as Oscar threw the pickled onion concoction on the woman’s face.
Oscar clamped a hand over his mouth in horror and embarrassment. “Oh my god I’m so sorry!”
“What was that?” the woman demanded, wiping away the liquid from her face, her face stunned.
“Um. Garlic—I mean—onion water. Er, scotch.”
“It repels vampires!”
Oscar’s cheeks burned red as he awkwardly placed the glass of onioned scotch on the ground, unsure what to do. “I’m really sorry.”
The woman placed her hands on her hips, exasperated. Drops of scotch still dripped from her bangs. “Care to explain?”
Oscsr grasped for words. “I was wondering why you came and left when you did, without much of a word. And I let a drunken engineer convince me you were a vampire.”
The woman just stared at him. Then, she threw her head back and laughed. “That would be a great scene for the book I’m writing.”
Oscar let out a relieved chuckle. “Is that what you’ve been doing at the bar? You’re not a scientist?”
“Only of words,” the woman said with a smirk. She glanced at her watch and then back up at Oscar. “To answer your question, my wife Jackie returns home by 11:30PM. I have to wait half an hour before returning home. It takes me seven minutes to get home.”
Oscar frowned. “Why do you have to wait?”
“Science?” the woman offered with a shrug, her smile faltering. How could a smile seem so sad?
But Oscar oddly understood. “It just seems so… precise. You leave on the dot, without fail. Except for today.”
The woman snorted. “I had to use the bathroom. I wasn’t leaving yet. I still had to close my bill.”
The woman laughed. “Jackie is studying something that she can’t tell me about. She’s instructed to avoid people for thirty minutes after leaving the lab. Something about half life or some other mumbo jumbo.” The woman’s eyes fell to the ground. “Jackie has terminal cancer.”
Oscar winced. “I’m so sorry,” he croaked.
“Thank you,” the woman said. “Jackie is a scientist here. Always so busy, saving the world or whatever.” The woman let out a huff. “And I want to spend every moment I can with her. Half life be damned.”
Oscar fell silent, unsure what to say.
“I’m Priscilla by the way.” The woman held out a hand. “But you can call me P. Last name Ness.”
“I’m joking!” Priscilla threw back her head in a laugh. “It’s Ramos.”
“Oscar.” Oscar shook her hand, relief washing through his body.
A smile tugged at Priscilla’s lips as she looked up to the night sky with a dreamy sigh. Oscar followed her gaze—and immediately felt so small. A legion of stars, spread across a vast universe, winked at them. He and Priscilla stood together in silence, their eyes gazing up at the limitless heavens and possibilities that stretched beyond what their eyes could see. Oscar held his breath, hoping to never lose this sense of wonder.
After a few moments, Oscar turned his attention back to the world around him. ““I have no idea what’s going on with this town. But I hope Jackie is also saving herself while she’s out saving the world.”
“Me, too,” Priscilla said, her voice wistful. “We have lofty hopes for this odd little town, don’t we?”
“We do.” Oscar chuckled. “I think sometimes it’s best to keep things unanswered. Keep the whimsy. These scientists are so serious. Everything must have an answer.”
“This is why I write.” Priscilla pulled out her notebook from her bag and held it up. “I imagine fantastical worlds, with inspiration from Jackie.” She placed the notebook back into her bag, glancing at her watch as she did.
“Drinks are on me tonight,” Oscar said. He shrugged. “It’s the least I could do after trying to kill you with onion whiskey.”
“Thank you,” Priscilla replied with a laugh.
“Get outta here now.” Oscar jerked his head toward the street as Priscilla glanced at her watch again. “Don’t keep Jackie waiting.” When Priscilla turned to leave, he added, “Hey—don’t be a stranger next time, okay? We’re in this together.”
Priscilla smiled. “Until next time, Oscar.”
The bar phone was ringing off the hook when Oscar slipped back inside the bar. He pressed the phone to his ear. “The Edge Bar.”
Oscar’s heart dropped.
“Zero,” the monotone voice said. The soft chuckle cracked through the static, building in intensity with every hammering heartbeat in Oscar’s chest.
Oscar hastily slammed the phone back on the receiver.
“Is it your friend?” Angela asked from her spot, nursing a glass of water she must have helped herself to in his absence.
“It was nice knowing you,” Angela said, lifting her glass to him.
Oscar looked around the bar, searching, suddenly aware of everyone inside. People were laughing, singing, living life. Nothing that indicated impending doom.
A hand gripped Oscar’s shoulder. He yelped and spun around.
Sian stood before him, a stunned look on her face.
Oscar gripped his chest, his heart pounding against his ribcage. “You scared me.”
“Sorry!” Sian hugged Oscar before planting a kiss on Oscar’s cheek. She plopped herself on an empty bar seat, dusting soil off her jeans. She propped her hand on the bar and stifled a yawn..
“Long day?” Oscar asked, his heartbeat slowing to its normal pace. Though he always asked about her day, he knew she couldn’t tell him about her day.
Instead, she gave him a half smile that said: Someday.
Oscar returned her smile. As far as he was concerned, Oscar felt everything was going to be okay, whether it be zombies, aliens, or world domination—so long as he had Sian by his side.
Oscar turned to reach for a scotch bottle for Sian’s old fashion when something caught his eye. The robot at the back of the bar no longer looked like it was frowning. Rather, it looked like it was grinning.
But that wasn’t all that caught Oscar’s eye. He approached the robot slowly and realized with a frown that the robot was still, in fact, plugged in this whole time.
Which meant the robot was still hooked up to the internet. Maybe even… connected to the phone lines?
Oscar pulled the robot’s plug out of the socket. Just to be safe.