“It’s been ten minutes.”
Jessie frowned, as she looked at Alex’s texts. Or at least Alex assumed she did behind her mask. “That’s concerning,” she agreed. “Did you call her?”
“Not yet. I don’t know if I should.” She set her phone down on the table between them, glancing at the door to the bar. “I’m a little worried, though. It doesn’t take this long to walk here from the flower store.”
“Maybe we should go check on her, then.”
“I can’t leave the bar. I have to answer the phone if someone calls in an order.”
Jessie winced. “Well, I’d do it, but I’m not supposed to be out and about. Shit, I’m not even supposed to be here. Pike’s already given me one warning.”
“Yea, driving from my apartment to go see Ryan.” She sighed. “Which is why he offered to let me keep more clothes at his place.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Moving stuff in already?”
“What do you mean, already? We’ve been dating for nine months.”
“… shit. You have.” Alex leaned back in her chair. “Man, this lockdown’s really screwed up my sense of time.”
“You guys gonna do it for real?”
“Maybe.” Jessie scratched at the back of her neck. “Don’t get me wrong, I love him, but… I mean, I’ve never lived with anyone before, not even my ex back in Wyoming. It’s a little nerve-racking to think about.”
Alex shrugged. “It wasn’t for me and Steph.”
“She was spending most of her time at my place anyway. Nothing really changed, except for the amount of stuff upstairs. How many nights are you and Ryan spending together?”
Jessie glanced up in thought. “Most of them,” she admitted. “Usually my place, since it’s closer, but his house is nicer and bigger.”
“Maybe that’s just the next step for you two, then.”
“I guess when you put it like that, there’s-”
The door beside them opened as Eleanor stepped inside, glancing around before finding Alex and locking eyes.
“Alex,” she breathed as she stepped over quickly. “Alex, I need your help.”
She sat up straight, noting the alarm and stress in Eleanor’s voice. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“I need you to hire Riley back.” Eleanor dropped into the chair beside Jessie, ignoring the blonde as she clasped her hands in front of Alex. “Please, Alex, please let her work for you again.”
A pained expression came over Alex’s face. “Eleanor, we don’t have the work to employ her right now. Or the funds. Not until they let us fully re-open again. I already told her, once we do-”
“No, Alex, please!” Eleanor reached into her pocket, fumbling as she withdrew a credit card and held it out with a shaky hand. “I’ll pay you to let her work here! Just give her the money I give you!”
“Wh- no!!” Alex exclaimed, shocked. “Eleanor, you guys need that money! I’m not taking it just so she can find a job!”
“She DID find a job, Alex! She’s digging in SubTerra’s mine!”
Jessie did a double take. “She’s what?!”
“They hired my granddaughter to work in their new mine shaft! She’s been coming home exhausted and filthy for three days!” Eleanor’s eyes betrayed her desperation as she looked at Alex. “I can’t let her work down there, Alex! People die down there! She’s- she’s only- I can’t just let her-”
Eleanor’s words began failing her as she started choking on her emotions.
“Hey. HEY.” Alex swung her chair around the table, immediately grabbing Eleanor’s arm with one hand and rubbing her back with the other. “Take a breath, Eleanor. Just breathe. Come on, just calm down.”
The older woman tried, clutching her chest with her free hand as she struggled for breath. Jessie quickly got up and ran behind the bar, coming back after a few minutes with a glass of water to set down in front of them.
Alex looked at her as Eleanor started drinking. “Did you know Riley was working for you?”
Jessie shook her head as she sat back down. “I mostly deal with Ted and the admin staff. The only miners I really interact with are the foreman and his deputy.”
“You can talk to them.” Eleanor put the glass down and looked at Jessie. “Talk to Ted. Please, Riley can’t work in the mine. You can’t let her.”
“I don’t have any say on the hiring or firing process, Eleanor. Technically, I don’t even work for Ted.”
Alex frowned. “Really?”
“No. My boss is a corporate engineer in Seattle. I’m one of a few people on the site Ted can’t actually fire.” Jessie looked back at Eleanor. “You don’t have to worry about Riley. The mine is not that dangerous.”
“People die down there!”
“Nobody has died at a SubTerra mine in years. And the last time it happened, it was due to a combination of the deceased’s drug abuse and negligence.” Jessie laid a comforting hand on Eleanor’s other arm. “SubTerra doesn’t meet industry safety standards, Eleanor, we set them. Ted is literally the most welfare-minded Ops Manager I’ve ever met. Hell, he’s fired people for being unsafe in the mine.”
“What about the uranium?” Eleanor exclaimed. “It’s radioactive!”
“The miners wear respirators while they work to protect them from the dust. And there are radiation safety measures all over the place.”
“And if the mine collapses? Like it did years ago?”
Jessie squeezed Eleanor’s arm. “I planned out the mine specifically to make sure it does not. And three senior engineers signed off on my work before they started blasting. It is not going to collapse.”
“Can’t she work with you in your office?”
She was already shaking her head. “There aren’t any openings in the admin office. And even if there were, I don’t have any control over who works there, Darryl does.”
“Eleanor.” Alex placed a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “Riley will be fine. Please calm down.”
“I’ve barely seen her since she started.” Eleanor dropped her gaze. “She leaves before seven, and doesn’t come home until almost eight at night. She eats, showers, and then goes right to sleep. I don’t want her doing that.”
Alex glanced at Jessie. “You guys work the miners that hard?”
“They work in ten-hour shifts.” She hesitated. “But new miners usually stay after to clean equipment or get more training. It’s rough work when you first get hired.”
“Hey, they’re paid well for it,” Jessie said defensively. “They start at twenty-two an hour. And it goes up to twenty-seven after the first eight weeks.”
“I still don’t want her working down there.” Eleanor looked back at Alex. “Please, is there any way you can hire her back?”
Alex sighed. “Nothing would make me happier, Eleanor. But we’ve had so few customers since the lockdown, we can barely pay the one cook we currently have in the back. Ryan and I only have a couple more months of funds left before we’re gonna have to dip into our own pockets to keep the Lantern open.”
“… yea.” Eleanor sagged her shoulders, wiping her face with one hand. “So do I.”
“I heard the government is going to free up some money for loans to small businesses,” Jessie offered. “Enough to keep them open.”
“Steph told us. We’ll apply for them if we have to.” Alex rubbed Eleanor’s back. “Hey. Riley can handle it. She’s one of the most headstrong women I’ve ever met. I’m sure she’ll get used to it, and it’s only until this lockdown ends.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“Yea, she’s here. Why?”
Alex scratched her neck as she held her phone to her ear. “She’s a friend of mine. I just found out she was working for you guys.”
“For about three days now,” Ted confirmed. “She’s on Team B, working in the shaft as we speak.”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Moving a little slow, but all new miners do in the beginning.”
“I didn’t even realize you guys hired women to dig.”
“Of course we do. SubTerra’s an equal opportunity employer. If you’re willing to swing a pickaxe, you can work for us.” He paused. “Though there aren’t many, and she is the only woman on her team.”
“Is that… okay?” Alex grimaced. “I know how miners are. I’ve heard how they talk around the bar. They say some pretty disparaging things about women.”
“Yea, I know they do.” He heaved a sigh. “Look, Alex, I’m not watching these guys twenty-four-seven. I’m not their mother. But I’m also not concerned. Most of them know there’s a time and place to act stupid, and the job site is not it. We have an HR staff member in the admin office, and if your friend reports anything untoward, she’ll have the offender by their balls.”
Alex smirked. “Nice to hear.”
“Look, tell Miss Lethe not to worry about it. And I’ll talk to the team lead, make sure he watches out for her. She’ll be fine.”
“Right.” She sighed. “Thanks, Ted.”
“No problem. Have a good one.”
Alex hung up, setting the phone down on the bar. “Told you so,” Jessie stated as she typed out a text on her own phone.
“I never said I doubted you.”
“Yet you called anyway.”
“Because I wanted validation before I went back to see Eleanor. Who are you texting?”
“One of the admin assistants is married to a guy on Team B. I’m asking her if she’ll have her husband keep an eye on Riley.” She finished and set the phone down. “For which you’ll buy him a beer next time he’s in here, by the way.”
“If we can get around to re-opening, sure.” Alex sighed as she glanced out the doors. “Man, I can’t wait for this crap to be over.”
Jessie hummed, taking a slow breath. “… were there any problems, when you and Steph moved in together?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, annoying habits that popped up? Or arguments about bills, or chores, stuff like that?”
“Not really.” Alex shrugged. “I mean, she’s kind of lazy about doing her laundry and the dishes. But that’s probably my biggest complaint, and I’m sure she’s got some about me, too.”
“What about finances? Because I’m pretty sure I make more than Ryan.”
“… I don’t know about that,” Alex admitted. “I don’t pay rent to live here, since I’m a part-owner. Steph and I just pay for the electricity and water that we use, and it’s not much. But I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to figure it out. Besides, if Ryan can afford to keep living in his dad’s house on his park ranger and bar owner salary, then it can’t be too bad.”
Jessie frowned. “That’s his dad’s house?”
“Did you not know that?”
“No. He told me it was his.”
“I mean, it is now,” Alex clarified. “But it was his dad’s, before he went to prison. He transferred ownership to Ryan.”
“Huh.” Jessie itched at her neck. “Maybe I will talk to Ryan then. I don’t hate the idea of living with him. And it is a really nice house.”
Alex hummed as she planted her elbows on the counter. “You know, you keep this up, people might start asking him when he’s gonna make an honest woman out of you.”
Jessie shot her a look. “You planning on making an honest woman out of Steph anytime soon?”
“… yea, let’s change the subject.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Alex: What the hell?! You started working for SubTerra and didn’t say anything?
Riley: … I didn’t want to make it a thing.
Riley: And how’d you find out?
Alex: Your grandmother came into the bar begging me to re-hire you.
Riley: Yea, she doesn’t like that I’m working here.
Alex: Are you okay?
Riley: I am now that I have work.
Alex: That wasn’t what I meant, and you know it.
Riley: Fine. This job sucks, big-time. But it pays the bills, they’re hiring, and it’s not that complicated.
Alex: And Eleanor?
Riley: Once more people are buying flowers, and the lockdown is over, then I’ll be first in line to quit. But for now, there’s only so much I can do.
Alex: What about school?
Riley: I’m taking a couple of semesters off. I don’t have time to do it with these shifts anyway.
Alex: Look, they think we might be able to re-open the bar soon. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but once we’re in full swing, you’ll be the first person we hire back.
Riley: Appreciate it.