. . . . .

Macky Makes a Deal with A Devil

. . . . .

Audrey Janine. Now there was somebody who needed Heart2Heart's services.

Macky stared at the back of Audrey's head, letting their Social Science teacher's lecture wash over him. Normally, he enjoyed Mr. Gregorio's lectures even though almost nobody else did, since the class was right after lunch so everyone tended to be dull and sleepy during that period. This time, though, he was preoccupied with observing his quarry and considering how best to use her to show that app for the fraud it was.

"Audrey? Awkward Audrey?" Billy had squawked when Macky had told him and John Eli about his plan to throw a wrench in Heart2Heart's success streak. John Eli had remained silent, giving Macky an inscrutable look in between spoonfuls of rice. "Why her?" Billy had asked bewilderedly. "Why not Angela Cruz from 9-Gold? Or Tricia Yap? Or Fiona Baldomero? Pretty sure she'd take you back even after you humiliated her last year. Well, maybe. Or how about Jaynee in our section? Nice ass, legs from here to Baguio, and she's had her eye on you since the start of the year. You won't even need Heart2Heart if it's Jaynee."

He rattled off more names from the ranks of hot girls in school until Macky held a hand up to stop him. "Exactly why I don't want Jaynee or Fiona or any of those girls. Besides, most of them can't think their way out of a wet paper bag," he explained. "I need someone who won't lose her head over some inane ideas about love. I especially need someone who won't fall for me no matter what I do. That damned app needs a challenge, and I aim to deliver."

"Wow. Must be nice inside your head," Billy muttered, rolling his eyes.

Macky shrugged. He didn't do false modesty, and neither did he have any illusions regarding his popularity, especially among the shallow-minded hordes in school. He knew he wasn't bad-looking, with his height and build and tousled brown hair and refined facial features. People often said he was the spitting image of his older brother, and Kuya Rahil had been the studliest stud in the entire campus in his time. Even now, his brother needed only to flash that crooked, sparkly-toothed smile to have both females and males fighting over him. Macky had been regarded as the odd, serious, less charming, second-rate version of his brother for as long as he could remember, a fact that had irritated him for nearly as long.

So yeah, he was fairly easy on the eyes. He also knew the limits of judging by physical appearances. After all, there was a reason he was only second or third or twentieth most popular guy in their year. That reason was sitting right across him, waving back at a group of girls who were passing by the bench where the three of them were eating lunch.

As if sensing Macky's gaze, John Eli turned to him and grinned. "Nah, I think he's right," he said to Billy. "It's got to be Audrey."

"Huh?" This was said in unison by both Billy and Macky, who was surprised that John Eli had agreed so easily with his plan. "But she's so…awkward, you know?" Billy went on, waving his hands about as though struggling to shape his thoughts. "She looks like stick insect that got turned into a human. She even moves like one, too. She doesn't laugh at my jokes, and she's always covered in so much cat hair that it triggers my allergies. And there was that time she went on and on about why the sky isn't actually blue but green, remember that?"

"She was talking about why the sky looks greenish yellow just before a tornado. You weren't listening. And nobody laughs at your jokes, Billy," Macky pointed out.

"Not everyone gets my offbeat sense of humor," Billy sniffed. "But that doesn't change the fact that Audrey's weird. Sometimes I see her behind the school talking to the grass, you know? And she can argue with you about anything…"

He trailed off, looking at Macky with dawning realization. "See? If anyone can deal with the Professor here, it's Audrey. And since she hates his guts, she's basically immune to his charms. She's the perfect choice," John Eli chortled, clearly enjoying himself at Macky's expense as evidenced by the gleam of wicked amusement in his eyes. "Congratulations on coming up with a fool-proof plan to sabotage Heart2Heart, Mack," he said.

"That's what I'm good at," Macky replied, matching his bland tone.

"Just one thing: how sure are you that it's fool-proof?" John Eli countered smoothly. "Because I say you're going to end up falling for Audrey, and you'll be eating your words about both her and Heart2Heart by the end of two weeks."

Macky laughed. "You've got to be kidding. Me and Awkward Audrey? I sure hope you don't plan to put money on that piece in lunacy because—"

"Yeah, I do." When Macky gaped at him, John Eli pushed his glasses up and gave him a devilish grin that was completely at odds with the angelic face his fangirls adored him for. "Care to bet on it?"

Very soon, Macky found himself betting a month's worth of lunch money on his plan to end Heart2Heart's success streak. Billy watched his friends with bemusement. "You're an idiot, Mackster, wasting a chance like this," he said, shaking his head. "You qualify for Heart2Heart's premium service on your first try, and what do you do? You go for the human stick insect just to prove a point. That's grade-A idiotic, I tell you."

And you don't have a clue what you're talking about, Billy, Macky thought now as he continued to study the back of his target's head. He'd been doing this for the past two days now—just watching her, as if signing up for Heart2Heart had given him a whole new set of eyes with which to observe her. And with his new set of eyes, he saw her as…as a…

Human stick insect is a fair assessment, he admitted. Audrey had always been reed-thin, ever since grade school, but in the years she'd spent away, she'd shot up in height. Now she towered over most of the girls and the guys in school. Macky himself topped her by mere inches, and it was aggravating to know he couldn't look down on her the way he could with most people. She tended to keep her long black hair braided or in a low ponytail, and it lent to the image of her as more straight lines than curves. If she did have any curves to speak of, there sure wasn't any sign of them underneath the yellow blouse and brown skirt of their school uniform. And with her black-rimmed glasses making her huge eyes look even huger, she did sort of resemble a bug-eyed coatrack.

Right now, she was sitting straight-back in her chair with only her head and hand moving slightly as she took notes. Aside from Macky, she was the only other person who consistently paid attention during Mr. Gregorio's lectures—and in all their other classes as well, including Music, which Macky tended to sleep through. She pushed her glasses up her nose, hesitating in the middle of the motion as if she'd forgotten what she was doing. It drew Macky's gaze down to her shoulder, where her blouse was lightly dusted with fine gray hairs. Cat hairs. No wonder Billy couldn't get anywhere near her without turning into a teary-eyed, tomato-nosed wreck.

He also had to conceded to his friend's description of her movements as stick insect-ish. He'd never seen anyone who could stay still the way she could. And when she moved, she did so in an exasperatingly slow, measured way. Given their last names and relative closeness in height, Macky often found himself positioned near her in lines or in seating arrangements, and he often had to snap at her to get her to move. She'd turn around and snap right back at him to stop bothering her. Which he gladly would, he'd point out, if her sloth-like pace didn't put her, like, literally in his way. Yes, well, his stopping her to yell at her didn't help now, did it, she'd retort. And besides, the more he ordered her around, the less she felt like obliging him by getting out of his way…

That was exactly how his exchange with her during yesterday's flag ceremony had gone. It had ended with him and Audrey glaring at each other, then him disgustedly pushing past her. It had also earned him his first broken arrow, according to the notification he got on his phone as soon as he took two steps away from her. When he figured out how that damned app was spying on his every move, asses were going to get kicked.

"Well, Macky? Am I right?"

Everyone except Audrey turned toward him with expressions ranging from apathetic to "oh God, not the Professor." Realizing that Mr. Gregorio had paused in his lecture and was looking at him, Macky straightened and asked, "Right about what, Sir?"

"That Audrey appears to be more interesting to you than Schopenhauer's take on pessimism, judging from the way you've been staring at her," his teacher replied dryly.

The class tittered, and Audrey blushed. Macky's own face grew hot until it occurred to him that this was a good opportunity to throw another rock into Heart2Heart's gears. "Sorry, Sir. There's a fly on top of her collar, and I was waiting to see if it'd fall in," he explained.

Audrey gasped and batted reflexively at her collar, while Billy hollered from the other side of the room: "Looks like somebody needs a bath."

The class laughed, mostly out of relief at finally having something interesting happen, and Billy beamed at having gotten a response to his crack. Audrey's face turned even redder, especially when her friend Nona shook her head to reassure her. Audrey whipped around and gave Macky a poisonous glare. "There wasn't any fly," she accused.

He shrugged. "It's gone now." Then he gave her smirk calculated to further infuriate her, a smirk that clearly said, What're you gonna do about it?

Audrey narrowed her eyes at him. In the background, Billy repeated his "somebody needs a bath" line for the third time, because it worked so well the first time around. "Real mature, Macky," she said coldly, and the way she flicked her eyes to the side made it clear that she considered Billy further proof of Macky's mental development or lack thereof.

Fair point, he conceded, struggling not to wince at his friend's antics until both John Eli and Nona told Billy to can it. It was regrettable, but Macky didn't have a choice. For the sake of defeating Heart2Heart, sacrifices had to be made.

As soon as he finished the thought, he felt a familiar buzzing sensation in his pocket. Surreptitiously, he pulled his phone out and glanced at the new notification: A black dagger. This was the third black dagger he'd earned since yesterday. The first had been when they'd been separated into groups during Filipino class to work on a skit—a mock-advertisement for a back-scratcher, of all things. Macky had found himself in the same group as Audrey, and he'd suggested that somebody else hold the back-scratcher during the skit because if Audrey did it, the audience wouldn't be able to tell which was which.

He'd gotten the second black dagger after class yesterday. He was walking down the hallway near the library, and he spotted Audrey walking alone not far ahead, carrying several books in her arms. When a bunch of boys had bumped into her, sending her books flying, Macky had automatically stopped to help her pick them up. He'd gotten a rose for that, but managed to salvage the situation by snickering and saying: "I told you. Move like a sloth, and you're road kill." Et voilà, instant black dagger.

Like I care what this damned app thinks. Bad luck isn't real, anyway. He stuffed his phone into his pocket as Mr. Gregorio tried to restore order in class. "All right, all right. Moving on to—" Audrey's hand shot up. "Yes, Audrey?" their teacher called.

"Sir, I want to talk about Schopenhauer some more," she said crisply, shooting Macky a pointed side-glance that said unlike some people who weren't listening. "I don't agree with his idea that human life is just a lot of meaningless struggles and dissatisfaction, and that the best thing for us is to just not exist. I mean, that's just so grim, isn't it? Besides, he was totally sexist, saying that women are by nature meant to obey. The only thing good about him was that he said anyone who's cruel to animals can't be a good person."

Mr. Gregorio smiled. "Well, Schopenhauer belongs to the group of German thinkers who promoted western asceticism—yes, Macky?"

There were a few audible groans as Macky raised his hand. "I want to ask Audrey this: if she doesn't think Schopenhauer's isn't a reasonable view of the state of humanity, then who does she agree with? With Marcel and his ideas about hope?"

Audrey turned to him, her mouth hanging slightly open. He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow in challenge. "W-well, yes, actually. I do like Marcel. You got a problem with that?" she sputtered.

"Naïve," Macky snorted. "Oh, I agree with you about Schopenhauer. Too much of him can turn you suicidal. But Marcel's ideas about freedom and hope are naïve and bordering on spiritualism." Warming up to the subject, he went on for a while about Marcel and Christian existentialism in general, ignoring the glazed looks on his classmates' faces with practiced ease. He finished with, "If you want an alternative to Schopenhauer who won't turn you into a total nihilist, look up Nietzche. I suggest you hunt down Thus Spake Zarathustra next time you're in the library."

"We get it, Professor! Have mercy!" Billy wailed, sparking more laughter around the room. Then some girl—Macky didn't bother to look to find out who—murmured, "Ugh, why is he so weird?"

Someone else replied, "I know, right? What a waste of a hot guy. Poor Audrey."

At that, Macky frowned. Poor Audrey? What the hell does that mean? However, Mr. Gregorio had already announced the customary quiz with which he ended each class. Soon, everyone was bent over their sheets of paper and scribbling down their answers to the questions flashed on the board.

Everyone, that is, except Macky, who was still searching for a pen that would work. He dug frantically through his backpack, trying every pen he could find. Every single one seemed to have dried up. Even his pencils wouldn't write. The lead in his mechanical pencil broke the moment it touched paper, while the Number 2 pencil he'd filched from Nisa's pencil case snapped in half as soon as he grasped it—then again and again when he attempted to write with the broken portion no matter how carefully he held it, until all that was left was a stump shorter than his thumb.

Macky stared at the array of broken and useless writing tools on his desk, feeling disconcerted and increasingly angry. Looking up, he saw one or two of his classmates glancing back at him before turning back to their papers. Both John Eli and Billy were too far away for him to go borrow a pen from without alerting Mr. Gregorio, who was already eyeing him curiously, probably because he was the only one who wasn't busily writing anything.

When a black dagger appears, you will experience bad luck.

Bullshit. There's no such thing as bad luck, he repeated to himself, fighting the urge to pull his phone out and yell at it. For something that worked through pure coincidence, that damned app's warning was sounding more and more convincing. After getting the first black dagger yesterday, he'd discovered that he'd forgotten his wallet at home and had to borrow lunch money from John Eli. Since he didn't have any money for the jeepney ride home, he decided to walk instead. He didn't consider that bad luck, though, since the longer route home took him past a secondhand book shop and an indie-film cinema house he wanted to check out.

But then he'd gotten the second black dagger, and the instant he stepped outside the school gates, a passing car ran through a puddle and splashed mud across his white uniform shirt, leaving a wide, diagonal streak of brown gunk dripping down his front. Why there was even a puddle there he couldn't imagine, since it hadn't rained once all weekend. He walked home in that state, trying not to think about shady apps and magic and warnings about bad luck.

Forgetting his wallet and getting splashed by cars driving through random mud puddles still made some sort of sense. But this? Even the black Bic he'd been writing with just minutes ago quit on him. Can you still call this coincidence? Scowling, he shoved the voice inside his head aside. Time was running out, and he had to figure out what to do about this impossible situation he was in.

A blue ballpoint pen bounced onto his desk. He looked up and met Audrey's gaze. "Use that," she mouthed to him before quickly turning back to her own quiz.

He picked up the blue pen. To his relief, it worked. As he wrote, a part of his mind mulled over this development. So far, the bad luck—if it was real, which it was not—seemed to be limited to him. Or maybe as his target, Audrey was immune to the jinx. Even though jinxes were just a product of his impressionable mind. It was galling to admit that even he could fall prey to Heart2Heart's mental suggestions. But since it could all be explained away by the placebo effect and the power of belief... Still no such thing as magic, he thought stubbornly.

One thing for sure: He owed Audrey one. And since she'd been nice to him even after he'd humiliated her in class, what he owed her was an apology. Great, just great.

He finished the quiz on time even though he'd started later than the others. As he passed his paper forward and got to his feet, he tapped Audrey on the shoulder. "Here. Thanks for this," he said, holding the pen out to her.

She took the pen from him, and her fingertips brushed his. For some reason, his skin felt warm where she had touched him. Warm with gratitude, he supposed. When she began to move away, he said: "Wait."

Pushing her glasses up, she looked at him directly. Her eyes were light brown, he noted. With silver shards around the iris, which made her eyes appear grayish when the light hit them at an angle. Funny, he didn't remember noticing that hint of silver in her eyes before.

"What is it? We've got to get to our next class," she said impatiently.

Looking away from her eyes, he focused instead on the hairclip holding her hair out of her face. "That's not a good look on you," he told her matter-of-factly. "You look like a grumpy old spinster with your hair scraped back like that. It makes other people's scalps ache."

As her brows snapped together in hurt and anger, he reached up and undid her hairclip, then tugged strands of her hair out so that they slid down over her forehead. Then he nodded in satisfaction. "There. That's better."

He turned away, feeling pleased with himself. Even though he hadn't exactly apologized, he'd at least given her a bit of advice in exchange for her lending him her pen. Then it was his turn to stop when she called out his name. "How did you know I like Marcel?" she asked curiously.

He shrugged. "I saw you in the library borrowing Creative Fidelity. How do you think?"

He walked off without waiting for her response, joining John Eli and Billy in the hallway. As they headed toward their next classroom, Billy chattered about funny it had been when Macky mentioned the fly on Awkward Audrey's collar and how he, Billy, had riffed on it. Macky was about to tell him off when John Eli's hand landed heavily on his shoulder.

"I know what you're doing," he told him. "You're treating Audrey like crap to sabotage Heart2Heart."

"Yeah, so?" Macky replied. "If that app is as magical as it says it is, it should be able to handle any amount of sabotage from me."

"So you're okay with all of your pens suddenly not working and things like that? Yeah, I saw what happened back there. Something similar happened to me, too, when I wanted to test things out," John Eli said when Macky looked surprised. "Situations like that are only going to get worse if you don't take the hint. Whether Heart2Heart's bad luck is real or not, it'd be the rational choice to stay on the safe side, don't you think?"

Macky looked at him sharply. "What are you getting at?"

"Nothing. Just that it might be in your best interest to do the mission seriously," John Eli answered. "Bad luck aside, I won't accept it if you win our bet because you threw the game. If you want to prove that Heart2Heart actually failed, then you've got to play it straight."

"I've got to what?" Macky echoed, appalled. "Wait, you mean I have to…with her?"

John Eli chuckled. "Yup. With Audrey. You're the one who chose her, so get used to saying her name already. Without the 'Awkward' in front of it."

"But then I'd have to—"

"Yup. Collect those five hearts like Heart2Heart told you to."

"But that means I'd have to—"

John Eli laughed again, and the sound of his mirth—again at Macky's expense, the angel-faced demon-bastard—drew girls' admiring gazes from every direction. "Yup. I guess it hasn't completely sunk in yet, huh? Don't worry about it," he added, thumping Macky on the back. "As long as you keep your mouth shut, Professor, I'm sure even you can pull off a seduction."

Macky shot John Eli a dark look, but his heart wasn't in it. His mind was too busy absorbing the horrifying prospect before him. As he sank into his chair, his gaze went to Audrey, who again sat almost right in front of him. Pulling his phone out, he glowered at the new notifications. Right below the black dagger was a lantern, followed by a rose. The lantern must've come from his admission of guilt over how he treated her.

But the rose… Where did that come from? He glanced at Audrey again, trying to divine her thoughts from his view of her right ear. Then his own thoughts drifted to how the strands of hair curving gracefully over her glasses made her face appear softer. A definite improvement over her usual dried-up librarian look. Also…her hair had felt silky soft between his fingers, which kind of surprised him. It was the first time he'd ever entertained the notion that there could be anything soft about the human stick insect.

See? Maybe earning hearts won't be as bad as you think, said that voice inside his head. It sounded like the voice he imagined Heart2Heart would have if it spoke out loud instead of flashed words at him. And if that damned app could grin, it would be that same evil, knowing grin John Eli was shooting at him after he'd caught him staring at Audrey.

Macky gripped his Bic pen, which was inexplicably working again. Fine. I'll do this for real, he decided grimly. All I have to do is kiss Awkward Audrey five times, right? Piece of cake.