Steph was starting to worry about Alex.
Her girlfriend had cashed the check from SubTerra, heading down the bank and depositing the money in a new account. Then she’d spent the next several days not touching it, while trying to figure out what she wanted to do with it. The internal debate was eating away at her, painfully obvious to everyone.
She’s got way more self-control than me, Steph decided one night as she watched Alex stare at her phone in silence. I’d be on Amazon right now, buying whatever I felt like.
She’d kept her distance, though. It felt wrong to offer help or suggestions to her girlfriend, and Alex hadn’t asked.
One morning, about ten days after the check had been cashed, Steph woke up to see that Alex had already gotten out of bed. A quick check of the apartment revealed that her girlfriend was sitting at the kitchen table with a sweatshirt on, her shorts poking out from underneath it, scribbling in a notebook with a pencil.
Steph slid out from under the covers, padding up behind Alex in her t-shirt and underwear before slowly wrapping her arms around her girlfriend’s shoulders. “Good morning,” she whispered.
“Hey.” Alex reached up and squeezed one of the brunette’s arms.
“You left me by myself.”
“I didn’t want to wake you.”
Steph kissed the side of her neck. “I’d rather spend time with you than sleep in.”
“Sorry.” Alex sighed, setting the pencil down. “I kept getting distracted.”
“What are you writing?”
“A list of things I’m thinking about doing with the money SubTerra gave me.”
“Can I read it?”
Alex turned the notebook so she could see.
- pay rent to Ryan
- memorial for dad (and other miners)
- invest in whatever people invest in? (stocks? bonds? crypto?)
- charity maybe?
- fucking hell if i know
“Substantive,” Steph noted.
“Why’d you cross off house and apartment?”
Alex waved her hand dismissively. “I looked, all the houses around here are more than two hundred grand. And all the apartments are smaller than this one.”
“Well, I’m sure Ryan wouldn’t turn down some rent money, but he doesn’t really need it.” Steph let go of Alex, pulling up a chair and sitting next to her. “The memorial is a good idea, too. What would you want to invest in?”
“I have no idea.” Alex sighed, dropping her chin into her hand. “I know less than nothing about that sort of thing. I’d probably just be throwing the money away.”
“Could hire a professional.”
“Maybe. I… fuck, I just don’t know.”
Steph looked her up and down, before reaching out and taking her hand. “Babe, why are you so worked up about this?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been doing this all week. We can all see how it’s eating at you. Charlotte even asked me the other day if you were sick or something, because you barely spoke two words to her when she came into the Black Lantern for lunch.” Steph rubbed Alex’s knuckles with her thumb. “You’ve got time. It’s not like the money is going to disappear if you don’t spend it.”
“I know that.” Alex looked back at the notebook. “But… I feel like if I don’t do something meaningful with this money, it’ll be a waste. And I can’t come up with anything that feels good enough. The memorial for my dad and the other miners is the best I’ve got.”
Steph bit her lip, as she watched Alex stare at the notebook.
“… know what? I’m just gonna say it.” She took a breath. “You’re being ridiculous.”
Alex looked at her. “Huh?”
“You just got a life-changing windfall. Odds are you’ll never get any kind of check like that again. You need to stop worrying about making it count for something, and think about what you can do to make your life better. Because after all the shit you went through? Foster care, your dad leaving, and losing Gabe?” Steph paused. “You fucking deserve it.”
Her girlfriend listened silently, looking between Steph and the notebook. “It feels wrong,” she muttered. “I only got it because of what happened to Gabe and my dad.”
“I didn’t know your dad, babe. But I knew Gabe. He’d be the first one to say that life owes you something.”
“No. Definitely.” Steph reached out and flipped the notebook closed, pushing it away. “You need to stop worrying about making the money mean something and start trying to figure out what YOU want.”
Alex considered Steph’s words for several moments, before finally taking a slow breath. “I already have everything I want.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“I have a home now. A place that I can call my own, in a city where I actually feel like I belong.” She met Steph’s gaze, squeezing her hand. “And I have someone I love to share it with. I can’t think of anything else I need.”
Steph slowly smiled. “Okay, first? I’m sure you can come up with something good to do with that money for yourself.”
“I’ll try. What’s second?”
“Because I’m taking your romantic ass back to bed.”
What DO I want?
Alex sighed as she looked out the windows of the Black Lantern a few hours later, pondering the question.
I could get everything on my Amazon wish list. It’s only a couple hundred bucks, but I suppose it’s a start. And I’m sure I could find a few things to round it out.
Not two hundred grand worth. But still.
“Citizens of Haven Springs, you were just rocking out to Six-And-One from Garlic Starfish,” Steph’s voice sounded off above her. “They’re playing in Denver on the Saturday after this one, opening for the kick-off of The Disco Creature’s state-wide tour. Don’t miss them, or you’ll regret it!”
Ooh. Maybe I could get tickets? I know she loves them; she’d probably die to see them in-person.
“You look very pensive, my dear Alex.”
Alex looked back at the bar to see one of her favorite customers taking a seat. “Hey, Duckie,” she greeted him, standing upright. “Sorry, I was thinking about something.”
“Yes, you looked like you have quite the conundrum on your mind.” He reached into his pocket, withdrew a coin, and placed it on the bar in front of her. “Penny for your thoughts?”
She tilted her head. “I’ve never been given an actual penny for them before.”
“Then you have obviously never met a true gentleman.”
Alex smirked. “You want a drink?”
She retrieved his bottle of whiskey from the shelf behind her, pouring him a glass and setting it down in front of him. “I’m really stuck, Duckie.”
“I don’t know what else I want.”
He tilted his head. “In what context, exactly?”
“I mean… I have a home. I have a girlfriend. I have a job that I love. And I don’t really care that much about material stuff. I can’t think of anything else that I want.”
“Well, that sounds like the opposite of a problem, Alex.”
“I know.” she hesitated, unsure of how much she wanted to share. “But I have the opportunity to… get whatever else I want. And I honestly have no idea what that is.”
Duckie hummed, taking a generous sip of his drink. “Have you come into a windfall, Alex?”
“A substantial one, I assume?”
“I see.” He nodded slowly. “You know, for a brief time in my life, I was also quite wealthy.”
“Certainly. It was shortly after my uncle died; he had little family, and my parents had already passed, so his entire estate went to me. Almost seven figures, by the time it was all said and done.”
“Wow.” She paused. “Sorry for your loss.”
“Well, it was almost twenty years ago. But thank you anyway.”
“You said it was only for a brief time?”
Duckie took another drink. “Most of it was gone within a year.”
“What did you do with it?”
“Well, it was actually quite the puzzle for Tabs and I. We honestly didn’t know.” He shrugged. “We had already seen the world, between my Army service and her time in the Peace Corps, so we had little desire to travel. Neither of us were very material. We spent what we needed to on the loans for our house and car, but once that was finished, we still had a fair amount of money left over and no idea what to do with it.”
Alex leaned forward, her interest piqued. “What did you guys decide?”
“Ultimately, we decided to do what made us feel good about ourselves.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, Tabs had always wanted to learn how to sew, but there was never time or funds before. So she used the money to get some equipment, and an instructor to come over and teach her how to make her own clothes.”
“That’s cool. Where they good?”
“My, no. They were absolutely hideous.”
Alex immediately started snickering.
“But she enjoyed herself, and the progress she made,” Duckie added. “She kept at it for the rest of her life, but the nicest thing she ever put together was probably a blanket. And even then, we may be stretching the definition of ‘nice’.”
“What about you?”
“Oh, I threw myself headfirst into fishing. A decidedly more expensive hobby, but one I wanted to pursue when I retired, and one I still enjoy today.” He leaned back in his seat. “We found good things to do with the rest of it. Donated some, helped those who needed it. What little that remains is sitting in my savings account.”
Alex nodded. “So… you did what made you feel good about yourselves.”
“I’m not sure how much that helps me.” She looked down. “Like I said, I still have no idea what I want.”
Duckie hummed. “Why don’t you make yourself better?”
Alex glanced back up. “How do you mean?”
“What’s your passion?”
“Music,” she answered immediately.
“How can you pursue it?”
“I mean… I kind of already do.” She shrugged. “I play guitar, I listen to records… I’m happy with that.”
“Well, if you’re satisfied with your passion, then how about your future?” he gestured at her. “What did you want to do for a living?”
“I…” she hesitated. “This is gonna make me sound really short-sighted, but I never gave it a ton of thought. I’ve been focused on just surviving for so long that I never wondered what I really wanted to do.”
“Perhaps that’s what you should look into, then.”
“… maybe.” She stood back up, sighing. “I don’t know. I love this place, and I love working here. I never gave any thought to what else I’d want to do around town.”
“Not really. Ryan did suggest going to college.”
“I do hear that it’s all the rage these days.” Duckie lifted his glass, taking another drink. “Can I ask the source of your windfall? Or is it private?”
“I…” she squirmed. “… I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Because I don’t…” Alex struggled to find the words to convey how she felt. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I have it. I’m not sure how good I feel about it right now.”
“Very well.” He finished his drink. “May I have another, please?”
Charlotte walked into the bar just as Alex set Duckie’s second glass in front of him. “Morning,” she greeted as she hoisted herself into a stool beside the older man.
“Hey, Charlotte.” Alex set Duckie’s bottle aside. “Lunch?”
“Sure. Caesar’s Salad, please.”
Alex smirked. “You walked into the wrong bar for that. You know the only lettuce we have back there is for the burgers.”
“I know.” She smirked back. “But maybe if I order it enough, Ryan will add options to the menu that are actually good for you.”
“The scandal of the matter,” Duckie stated dramatically. “A bar and grill that stocked healthy food? Why, you may as well burn the whole town to the ground.”
“You hush,” Charlotte scolded him. “You could do with less burgers too, Duckie.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever been so insulted in my whole life.”
“How about a chicken sandwich?” Alex interjected. “It’s probably the healthiest thing on our menu, if we hold the mayo.”
“Fine,” Charlotte sighed. “We’ll do that and a Diet Coke.”
“Is that your new code word for light beer?”
Their banter was interrupted as the door to the bar opened, and a large man in uniform strolled in. Alex looked over with a smile. “Hey there, Sheriff Pike.”
“Hey, Alex.” He sat himself down next to Charlotte with a sigh. “What’s the lunch special today?”
“Why bother? I know you just want a burger.”
He smirked, rubbing his face. “Fuck. Yea, I do.”
“I’ll put your guys’ food in for you.” Alex looked him up and down. “You okay? You look exhausted.”
“I feel exhausted. I’ve been catching up paperwork all morning.” He dropped his hand. “I’d really love that burger as soon as I could get it. I have more waiting for me back at the station.”
She quickly put Charlotte’s and Pike’s orders into the terminal, sending it to the kitchen. “It’ll be fifteen minutes or so,” she informed them. “You want a beer?”
“If I wasn’t on-duty, I’d love one. I’ll just do a Coke.” He glanced around. “Is Ryan here, by chance?”
“No. He went to help Eleanor with something, and then he said he was gonna stop by the record store to pick up an order.” Alex smirked as she fixed his drink. “We’re updating the song selection in the jukebox.”
“Oh, we’re not doing the same songs for three years running anymore?” Charlotte asked excitedly.
“We are not. We’re bringing her current.” Alex looked back at Pike. “Why do you need Ryan? Is he in trouble?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Stuff for the park rangers comes through our office, and he’s got a package of some kind that’s been on my shelf for almost a week.”
“Ah. What is it?”
“Something in a box that’s about the size of a motorcycle helmet. I really have no idea.”
Alex hummed. “What kind of stuff does he usually get through your office? I’m curious.”
“Uh…” he looked up in thought. “Well, I know he gets kits to take water and soil samples every few months. Oh, and he got a fancy sensor last year, the kind that-”
The song playing over the radio cut out with a record scratch, interrupting him and drawing their attention. “Good afternoon, Haven Springs, and I am so glad to be here right now!”
“Wh- is that Ryan?” Charlotte asked incredulously.
“I regret to inform you all that your regular DJ has left her booth unattended,” he continued. “I did warn her against that spicy shrimp burrito, but far be it from me to tell KRCT’s radio personality what to do. So while she’s otherwise occupied, let’s change things up a little, shall we?”
“Oh, no,” Duckie sighed. “Don’t do it, son.”
“I don’t think enough people realize what kind of variety we’re lucky to have in Colorado when it comes to wildlife, so I hope you’ll let me educate you. We’re gonna start this off with the very best from The Sounds of Western Birds. Here’s a sampling from a local Blue Jay.”
They all looked up as soft tweets began playing through the speakers above them.
“Steph is… literally going to kill him,” Alex stated. “Like, until he is dead.”
“Yea, I don’t think he understands how hot of a fire he’s playing with,” Pike agreed.
“Are you gonna head over there and do something?” Charlotte asked him. “Before you have a homicide to deal with on top of your paperwork?”
“Well, it’s tricky. Steph has let him help with her store in the past, so he’s not trespassing, and taking over a radio station isn’t technically illegal.” Pike shrugged as he took a sip of his drink. “Besides, there’s another factor I have to consider.”
“I kinda want to see how this plays out.”
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Ryan’s voice cut in over the radio. “It really is one of my favorites. Did you know the Blue Jay is a symbol of hope, love, and renewal in many Native American legends?”
He was interrupted by a banging noise in the background. It sounded to Alex a lot like someone beating against a window.
“Oh, and I see we have a fan at the store, even if she does look a little rabid. Just for her, we’re gonna change our tune. Let’s listen to the sweet sounds of the New World Warbler, a yellow bird commonly seen around Haven Spring’s many hiking trails.”
Alex snorted as a different set of bird noises began playing. “Oh, jeez, he’s really poking the bear.”
Pike raised an eyebrow. “You calling your girlfriend a bear now?”
“Only as the situation warrants.”
“Maybe you should head over there, Alex,” Duckie suggested. “I suspect your dear Steph is in a very foul mood.”
“I have orders to watch the bar until he returns.” Alex shrugged. “Really, how bad can it be?”
“Citizens of Haven Springs, time for some random trivia,” Ryan announced. “According to the limited law enforcement training I received to become a park ranger, it takes about twelve-hundred inch-pounds of force to break down a door. Unfortunately, that means that if you’re a one-hundred-and-twenty-pound girl, the physics are not on your side, no matter how much of a running start you get-”
A solid THUD echoed through the speakers.
“Ooh, that one looked like it hurt. Let’s hope the sounds of a House Finch make her feel better.”
“Okay, this might get ugly,” Alex admitted. “It could be better for Ryan’s health if he doesn’t come out of that booth. He may have to live there now.”
Pike raised an eyebrow. “In a ten-by-fifteen-foot room with no food or toilet?”
“Hey, nobody forced him to go in there.”
“We have our first caller!” Ryan announced cheerfully. “You’re on the air with KRCT’s newest guest DJ!”
“RYAN!!” Steph yelled angrily. “If you don’t get out of my booth RIGHT NOW, I’m going to fucking KILL you!!”
“Woah there, friend, these are public airwaves, and we can’t have cursing over the radio. I’m afraid I’m going to have to end this call.”
“OPEN THE DOOR MOTHER FU-”
The call cut off abruptly, and the bird tweets resumed.
“He’s not wrong,” Pike allowed. “I think that I’m technically supposed to report her for something like that.”
“I dunno.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, I’m on my lunch break.”
Charlotte glanced at Alex. “Ten bucks says your boss comes back bleeding.”
Alex scoffed. “I’ll stake a twenty that he doesn’t come back at all.”
“Mm. I don’t know if I’d take that bet.”
“Let me tell you guys an interesting fact about the House Finch. Despite its coloring, it- oh, crap, she’s breeching the door!” Ryan suddenly yelled. “She got it open, she… wait, what’s tha- no, Steph, DON’T-”
The microphone cut out suddenly, leaving just the sounds of birds tweeting.
“Ah, shit.” Pike sighed.
“NOW are you going over there?” Charlotte asked pointedly.
“Don’t have a choice anymore.” He set down his drink and stood up. “This kind of crap always has to happen over lunch, he couldn’t have waited half an hour before doing something st-”
The bird noises quickly stopped and were replaced by the sounds of someone heaving for breath into the microphone, like they had just run a marathon. “Citizens of Haven Springs… we here at KRCT… deeply apologize for… the last five minutes of your lives,” Steph panted. “Our unwelcome guest DJ… has removed himself… from the booth.”
“Oh, good. He’s still alive.” Pike sat back down. “No extra paperwork for me.”
“Let’s resume your regularly scheduled broadcast with a public service announcement for small business owners; always keep a hammer and screwdriver around for unexpected repair jobs.” Steph paused. “Unrelated note, if any of you fine citizens know a reliable locksmith, please shoot me an email. Let’s get back to the music with Retrograde, by Jessie and the Fallout Girls.”
“I still cannot believe she threw her cat at me.”
Alex looked at Ryan crossly, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide in one hand and a cotton ball in the other as he sat on the chair front of her. “You broke into her DJ booth to play bird calls over the radio. You’re lucky she didn’t hit you with an anvil.”
Across the table from him, Steph scoffed as she held a bag full of ice on her shoulder. “Only because I didn’t have one immediately available,” she said dryly.
“You’re not on the high ground, babe.” Alex shot her a look. “Not after throwing Valkyrie like a hand grenade.”
“More like a shot put,” Ryan corrected. “It was- ow!”
“Toughen up,” Alex ordered as she dabbed one of the many scratches on his face with the cotton ball. “Dumbass.”
“Hey, you can’t talk to your boss like that.”
“I can when he’s a dumbass. What were you thinking?”
“That it was going to be really, really funny.”
Alex tried to keep a stern look on her face, but she couldn’t keep a corner of her mouth from twitching. “… it was pretty funny.”
“Wh- don’t take his side!” Steph said incredulously. “He locked me out of my booth to play bird calls over the radio!”
“I’m not taking his side. I’m just saying that him being a dumbass was funny.”
The bar’s front door opened beside them as Pike strolled in, a cardboard box under his arm. He gave Steph and Ryan amused looks. “I don’t have to arrest anyone, do I?”
“Yes. Him.” Steph pointed at the park ranger. “For criminal use of public airwaves. And indecency.”
“You know weaponizing an animal is a misdemeanor, right?”
She hesitated. “… never mind.”
“Yea, that’s what I thought.” He held out the cardboard box for the park ranger. “This is yours. Please take it off my hands.”
Ryan frowned as he accepted the package. “When did this come in?”
“About a week ago. I texted you, remember?”
“Ah. Right, this is…” he paused. “Oh, God damn it to hell.”
“What?” Alex asked.
“They’re trail cameras. For monitoring the wolves that are moving through here. I was supposed to set them up last week.” He dropped the box on the table before rubbing his face with both hands. “Shit, I cannot believe I forgot about it. I’m never gonna hear the end of it from my supervisor in Denver.”
Steph frowned as she lowered the ice pack. “Why? It’s only been a week.”
“It’s not the first time since I took over the bar that I missed a deadline. He told me the other day that he’s getting tired of having to remind me about this stuff.” He dropped his hands. “I might actually get written up for this.”
“Is the Black Lantern really taking up that much of your time?”
“Yes.” Ryan sighed heavily. “Between the bar and my park ranger duties, I don’t think I’ve had a day off in over a month. Fuck, I’m so tired of all this.”
Alex listened to him sympathetically, nodding along, when a thought struck her.
“This money could open new paths for you.”
“Think about what you can do to make your life better. Because after all the shit you went through? You fucking deserve it.”
“I love this place, and I love working here. I never gave any thought to what else I’d want to do around town.”
“We decided to do what made us feel good about ourselves.”
Alex took a deep breath as she sat down beside Steph. “You’re really tired of running the bar by yourself, right?”
“So very-” he stopped and looked at her. “By myself? What does that mean?”
“Um…” Alex hesitated as she played with her fingers. “Would you consider bringing in another owner for a cash investment?”