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Shuffling. Shuffling, and shuffling again. The dense bodies around the table look around at each other hoping to see a difference, even if it is a small one, to prove that there might be an advantage that they can exploit. The shuffling stops. Tension rises to the ceiling and goes around the room, forever increasing like the heat in a pressure cooker. Each person is sweating not due to the heat, but due to the pressure that they’re under. This is life or death, it really feels like it is life or death. The next hand, the next card, could result in life, or death.

Michael looks around the table, same thing as he looked at them the last few times, no change. He then glances at Jay, forcing his body to mimic the same blandness that the others have shown. Covering the desire, covering the fear, covering the fact that he has no way to win this round. He’ll just have to bluff.

Jay’s glance at him doesn’t give anything away either, he knows he has a powerful hand but not the strongest, and the one with the royal flush is the one who wins in this moment, but does anyone have that? Everyone around the table raises, but not to an amount to give anything away, it’s a simple raise, not a raise of confidence or fear. No one is cracking.

Anyone looking at this scene would believe that they were in a championship final, not a simple fresher’s party where a game got a little tense. No one wants to lose, too much is at stake. Pride, student loan, and life is at stake. The seven people around the table are not giving anything away, every action takes an interval of a few seconds for every person to acknowledge what has happened, check themselves to give nothing away, then decide what they are going to do next. Spy thrillers could not compare to the tension in that room.

Ace, the leader of the gang and one of the most influential among those at the university, reinforced his leadership qualities by showing that he is the least likely to break. His voice didn’t break when he said what his next action was, he was barely sweating (Barely, because everyone was sweating), and there was no hesitation in his actions, something that the other six were doing consistently. Ace did not change as the tension increased, his visible pressure only reached a slight sweat and that was it. Ace’s right hand man, Face, was known for always wearing a bandana or a gas mask when he was in tight situations. As the game was on-going, Face’s bandana continually rose until his mouth was barely visible, he shouldn’t really be allowed to hide his face at a time like this but none of the group would tell Face anything, except for Ace but he never really did.

Jay, Michael’s best friend, was there but his mind seemed to be somewhere else, his mind was focused enough to play the game but he didn’t look like he could win anything with the mentality that he had. He obviously could surprise everyone, but no one believed that, they all believed that he would be one of the first to go. Whatever he was thinking about in his mind was the reason why he was sweating more than the others.

The game is not the problem with Jay, Michael knew that and wanted to ask him what it was but that wouldn’t seem right in the middle of such a tense game, so he decided to wait until after. Everyone around the table, whether they knew it or not, had reached their limit and Ace knew that.

“Show of cards guys”. Now was the moment the majority of those on the table were dreading, to bare all before the others, what they were hiding for so many minutes. Michael and two others were immediately defeated when Jay placed his cards down. The ranking of cards increased as it went from Jay to the other two players, and with Ace concluding business with a royal flush. It felt off-putting for the other players that Ace won so casually, with a hand that no one could beat, they replayed his actions in their minds, looking for a moment in their mental recordings where they could definitely accuse him of cheating. As the cards were all down, and the winner decided, the tension began to fall, and the championship players found themselves in a fresher’s party again. For some reason, in all the tension, they had forgotten there was a large crowd of people in the party, some of whom were actually watching the game silently, drawn in by the tension and suspense that the game was brooding. They had also forgotten that music was playing in the background, which had faded back into existence as soon as Ace was declared the winner. They had also forgotten that the game was meant to be a friendly one but turned so serious because of everyone’s pride in winning. The cards were being reshuffled by Ace, but with every ruffle of the cards, the mental fatigue was beginning to show more and more on the other player’s faces. Seeing the strain and feeling some of it himself, Ace placed the cards down on the table, looking everyone in the eyes and breathed, “Wanna go and get a drink?” Half of the guys nodded, the others just got up and staggered out of the room to find the bar.

After ten to fifteen minutes had passed, the players came in at various times to see Ace already sitting at the table waiting for the next round. He had only taken five minutes to compose himself again and was now ready to go. Maybe it was the win he had just achieved or his leadership qualities shining through, but his recovery was quicker than everyone involved. As the players slowly crept up to the table, Ace started to deal the cards to each of the players, after proving that he wasn’t cheating to Michael and also allowing him to shuffle the cards himself, even though his attempts at doing so were pathetic, placing the cards with a wooden thud on the different parts of the table.

The next round would begin and the tension would undoubtedly rise again. Looking around the room, Michael could see that there was a funny light in Ace’s eyes,

“One of you is gonna die today”.

The sentence causes some of their hearts to stutter. Unsure of why he has said this, they look dumbfounded at him. Ace props his cards close to his face and looks at them as if he is still genuinely playing the game, but everyone knows that the game has changed drastically,

“Come on guys, who’s next to do something?”

Jay knew it was him but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word or even move. He had received a mental shock which he had not yet fully recovered from. As no one moved on the table, the tension grew to a level which surpassed the last round. Life could actually be on the line, no longer figuratively, but literally. No one wanted to play any more, they just wanted to find out what caused Ace to say such a brutal statement. Michael received a burst of dumb courage and began to stand up.

“I believe there must be some sort o-”

“Sit down!!! Leaving the table in the middle of the game would be rude.”

The volume of Ace’s shout reached the far corners of the party, causing everyone to stop and look around. Not entirely sure of where it came from, they began to continue with their party while those who knew remained confused. As Michael sat back down, with a thousand different thoughts running through his mind, with all his strength and dumb courage running out, he then started to try to piece together what could have caused these events to take place. Amongst the people at the table who were fearing for their lives, the calmest person wasn’t even Ace, whose emotions were beginning to show as his mind game grew more complex. In fact it was Face, whose bandana was fully up, covering his nose and forging a cold stare, which chilled everyone at the table. He was Ace’s right hand so maybe he thought he could not be talking about him, or it could simply be because this is not the first time he has been in a life or death situation. Face looks as if he has seen many things, done many things, become many things. He does not have that name simply because of the cold death stare that he could give to even make serial killers think twice, but because of the fact that he could become whatever the situation needed him to become. A puppet master who is the puppet itself, controlling every part of his body, his emotions flow as he deems fit, not acting based upon how he feels but determines how he should feel in that situation, and allows that emotion to surface in his character. The master of acting, he remains unchanged while the others contemplate their lives. Jay and two other players fold before Ace utters another word,

“One of you thought you was a big man. One of you thought you was bad, yeah? We’ll see who’s bad. Malika!” From across the room, a girl comes out of the corner. She’s in the same year as all of them and is Ace’s girlfriend, her beauty transcends time itself and even lightens the mood a little. As she glides across the room, some look at the ground while others are awed by her beauty and the situation that they are witnessing. A moment of total darkness contrasted by a being of total light. An angel in disguise, no one would argue with that statement. As Malika reaches the table, she lightly places her hand on Ace’s shoulder and replies, “Yes Tre- Yes Ace?”

“Was it one of these guys that hurt you?”

“Babe, I don’t want to talk about it.” Malika whispers,

“Don’t worry Malika, I’m gonna sort him out”

“Please don’t hurt hi-”

“I’ll see you at home yeah?”

“Ok then” Malika disappears from view and the light has faded away. Unsure of this whole situation, everyone remains seated with a puzzled look as to what is going to happen next. People are conjuring up questions with the answers locked away in the mind of someone else’s. With a few moments passing, Ace continues his interrogation,

“Now I know that one of you raped my girl. I just want to know who it is, and I will kill you as simple as that. You know that I have done it before and I can definitely do it again, I won’t get caught… I want whoever it is to speak now or the consequences, or should I say methods, will just get increasingly worse”.

Everyone begins to look at each other, some with hidden guilt painted on their faces, others with uncertainty and confusion painted across theirs. This moment feels like hours, days have passed and not a word has been uttered. The number of people who have been watching has increased, no one would dare to record the situation for fear of being placed on Ace’s imaginary hit-list. If Ace could kill for someone raping his girlfriend, what would he do to someone who had evidence of him preparing to murder someone? The silence begins to choke everyone in the room. Not a word has been said since the question has been asked, no one has the courage to look at Ace’s eyes, let alone utter an answer to his question. Ace remains calm since his outburst at Michael, who is now sweating more than usual remembering that he alone has already incurred the wrath of Ace by trying to stand up prematurely. Ace then places the cards on the table with a soft thud, no anger is being displayed but everyone can sense it like a rabbit close to its predator, who may know it’s near but doesn’t know where it will attack and isn’t physically able to get away from its attacker. The predator knows he has his prey at his mercy, it’s only a matter of time before his soft head is in his firm jaws.

“Some of you are my friends, some I only know from uni, acquaintances if you will. But I will treat you all in the same way. I will now ask you one by one, and if the culprit lies as well… Then you alone will be the reason why you all will suffer. So… What is your answer?”

Ace looks from one person to the next as he prefaces his question to every man with just a look. One by one a low and simple “No” is heard from around the table. Jay hesitates to give his reply and his no becomes a stuttering mess as he fails to recover himself. His butchering of a simple two letter answer causes Ace to even look back at him, analyse him thoroughly, then look at Michael, the last one to answer the question. Michael can taste salty liquid on his upper lip and can feel the water droplets dripping from his chin. He no longer cares about how he looks because he knows that everyone believes that he is guilty and will receive the punishment that Ace has prepared for the rapist who raped his girlfriend, Malika. Michael opens his mouth to clear his throat and begun his defence,

“It wasn’t like that”.

In one moment everyone’s attention shoots to him,

“I mean that I can explain”

If there was any doubt as to whether he was guilty or not, it is done away with by two simple and stupid sentences. Ace begins to rise as Michael begins to explain situations and scenarios that may have made sense in his mind, but lose all structural integrity as they leave his mouth. A university undergraduate becoming a common fool in the moment of adversity.

The gravity of the situation becomes clear as Ace walks across the table with an army knife, one made only to damage a person. As fear begins to explode around the room, a witness screams causing Ace’s focus to break and for the table to rise. In all the commotion the table continues to lift and performs a somersault in the air. Playing cards, chips, glasses, drinks, all merge into one galaxy of confetti as the world slows down. Michael has only one thought in his mind: run. He doesn’t question why someone else would flip the table as his hands are in the air pleading his innocence and he doesn’t think about the reasons as to why his friend Jay would be attempting to escape as well. He just knows that he wanted to get out of that situation and that was his opportunity, he slides out of his chair and darts through the crowd of people who have not even noticed him, but are focused on the fireworks created by the contents of the table. As Michael leaves the room following behind Jay, Face is on his feet and halfway across the room before the table even touches the floor in pursuit of the guilty party. The table then hits the floor, glasses come crashing on the ground like crystal asteroids crashing to earth. Liquid sprinkles everyone in the room, the cards and the chips are still raining down. Ace wipes his face and pulls up his hood,

“So you want to play that game? Ok, I’ll play that game”

Ace then exits the room in a slight jog with his weapon concealed in the abyss of his pockets.

Students spray onto the street as Michael and Jay bundle out of the building. There are no questions, no words to say, and no other thoughts other than run. And that is what the two do. Run into the night just like two mice under the glare of the predatory owl. Michael runs for his life in the night time breeze with his heart knocking against his chest in a cocktail of adrenaline, fear, and lethargy.

Ramel Calvin