“Ugh. I’m never going to figure this out.”
Alex stopped wiping down the bar top and looked up. “Figure out what?”
“All this stuff.” Ryan ran his hands through his hair as he sat across from her. He had a laptop computer in front of him, as well as a spiral notebook he’d been scribbling in. “I had no idea running the Black Lantern was so complicated. My dad made this look easy.”
“How bad can it be?”
“Well, I’ve got three different suppliers I have to pay invoices for, between the beer, liquor, and food.”
Alex frowned. “The beer and liquor don’t come from the same place?”
“Nope. One does the kegs, but the other gives us a better bulk price for the bottles.” Ryan dropped his hands. “And five employees I have to pay, the bank loan, and taxes on top of all that.”
“Oof.” Alex winced. “Sounds expensive.”
“It’s a lot. Every month.” He clicked a button on the laptop. “Though the sales figures for the past few months look like we make enough to cover it. There’s a pretty decent surplus in the bar’s main account, too.”
“Main account?” Alex tilted her head inquisitively. “How many accounts are there?”
“A few. I’ll give my dad credit; he was pretty organized.” He sighed, shaking his head at the laptop. “Can I have a beer, please?”
“Sure.” Alex left the rag, heading over to the taps and pouring a lager that she knew Ryan liked. It was placed in front of him within a minute. “Five-seventy-five.”
He looked up at her blankly.
“Hey man, the only person who drinks here for free is Duckie.”
“Please tell me that’s not actually true.”
Alex smirked. “It was only the once, during the LARP.”
“Given the hardiness of his liver, that doesn’t make me feel better.” Ryan sighed, retrieving his wallet to withdraw a five- and a one-dollar bill. “Here.”
“What, you’re not gonna tip?”
“Of course I’m gonna tip,” he muttered as he pulled out another couple of singles, dropping them in front of her. “Though I might need to talk to my employee, so she remembers who actually runs this place.”
“Thank you, Alex, for ensuring that everyone pays what they owe the bar and nobody uses their authority to steal from this establishment’s inventory,” she recited as she turned and ran the transaction through the register. “Furthermore, I appreciate your hard work and integrity during this transition period, easing my burden so I can focus on learning how to run this business. I believe a tripling of your hourly pay rate is in order.”
Ryan snorted in amusement. “You had me until the last sentence.”
“Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.” Alex finished and turned to scan the bar’s few patrons. “I’m gonna go wait on Eleanor and Riley.”
“You do that.”
She walked out from behind the bar, over to the table where Riley and Eleanor had just taken their seats. “Hey, guys.”
“Alex!” Eleanor’s face brightened. “So good to see you, dear! How are you?”
“I’m good.” Alex returned the smile. “How’s everything?”
“Very well, thank you.” Eleanor’s smile turned coy. “And I hear congratulations are in order.”
Alex slowly turned her gaze towards Riley. “Do you now,” she remarked dryly.
“Wh- hey, don’t look at me!” Riley protested. “Your girlfriend was the one who announced that she was staying for you to the whole town!”
“Ah.” Alex smirked back at Eleanor. “You figured out that I was ‘some chick’?”
“Well, I did see you give her that flower at the spring festival.” Eleanor leaned back in her seat. “My mind may be going, but it’s not gone yet.”
“Nana,” Riley said with a worried tone.
“Oh, it’s fine, honey. I may as well joke about it.”
Alex saw the twinge of purple aura appear around Riley, though it dissipated quickly. “Why don’t you guys tell me what brings you in?” Alex said quickly, as she retrieved a pen and notepad from her back pocket. “Lunch? Drinks?”
She paused, a smirk coming over her face as she looked at Eleanor. “Or were we finally ready to do those body shots?”
The older woman perked up with a smile. “Well, it’s never too early to do body shots, dear.”
“Uh, excuse me?!” Riley asked incredulously. “How about no?!”
“What?” Eleanor looked at her granddaughter, an amused expression on her face. “You don’t think your Nana knows how to do a body shot?”
“I don’t WANT to know if my Nana knows how to do a body shot!”
“Well don’t act so surprised! Your Nana’s not a prude!” Eleanor gave Alex a mischievous look. “You should’ve seen me in the seventies. Me and all the girls used to load up in Lizzy’s old Volkswagen and drive for miles to hit all the concerts. I still remember spending three days on the road to go see Led Zeppelin.”
Alex was taken aback. “Did you really?”
“God, yes, we had so much fun.” Eleanor looked off wistfully. “We drank lots of booze, smoked lots of pot, did a little coke, hooked up with cute boys who were open to threesomes…”
“NANA!!” Riley exclaimed, a horrified look on her face.
“Oh, I’m kidding, honey. I never did any coke.”
Alex burst out laughing as Riley dropped her head into her hands, emitting a long groan as she squeezed her eyes shut.
“Such fond memories.” Eleanor smiled at Alex. “Could I get a water, please? With lemon?”
“You absolutely can.” Alex was still chuckling as she scribbled in her notepad. “Riley?”
“Alcohol,” the younger brunette stated, her eyes still closed.
“What kind? And how much?”
“I don’t care. And enough to make me forget the last two minutes of my life.”
Alex was still snickering as she made her way back behind the bar, putting in the drink order before she started pouring. Ryan looked up and frowned as Alex set a small glass on the counter. “Who’s doing a shot at eleven-thirty?”
“Because she just found out her grandmother used to have drunken threesomes and wants to forget.”
“Ooh, that’s rough.” Ryan smirked. “Give her a second one on the house.”
“Aww, you’re so nice.”
“Hey, customer service is important.”
“Here you guys are.” Alex smiled as she set down two plates on the table. “One cheeseburger, and one chicken sandwich.”
“Thank you, dear,” Eleanor said as she took her plate.
“Of course. You two need anything else?”
Riley shook her head while taking a generous sip of her beer. “I think we’re good.”
“Still need help forgetting?”
“Yea, but if worse comes to worse, I’ll just go hit up Charlotte.”
Alex laughed as she left, doing a quick circle of the bar as she checked on the other patrons. She cleaned the last table, stacking the dishware and pocketing the tip money they’d left behind.
“You making any progress?” she asked Ryan as she returned from dropping off the dirty plates in the kitchen.
“Some. I feel a little less like an idiot.” The park ranger sighed. “Everything is on spreadsheets, though. I’m wondering if I should invest in one of those business-management programs to make things easier.”
“That sounds smart,” Alex agreed as she dusted off her hands, then retrieved her cleaning rag from below the counter. “Any money-making ideas yet?”
“Right now, I’m just focused on making sure I can keep this place in business.” Ryan lifted the laptop and notebook for her to clean underneath, then gently set them back down. “I’ll figure out how to make more money later.”
“Fair enough.” Alex kept moving down the bar, wiping as she went. “Have you-”
The door opening drew her attention, and she turned in time to see Steph walk in. As soon as the brunette caught sight of her behind the counter, her face lit up.
And even without adjusting her focus, Alex could see a golden aura around her.
I can’t believe I do that to her. Alex immediately smiled back. Fuck, I’m so lucky.
“Hey!” she greeted her girlfriend excitedly.
“Hey, babe!” Steph replied as she swaggered forward. “You like hearing your song on the radio?”
“Hell yea I did.” Alex leaned forward, resting both elbows on the bar. “Best way to wake up ever.”
“Well, that can’t be-”
Steph paused mid-sentence as she happened to glance around the bar, her gaze meeting Ryan’s. The aura around her girlfriend flashed quickly. It practically took Alex’s breath away as it shimmered over, changing from bright yellow to red.
“Hey, Steph,” Ryan greeted cautiously.
The brunette didn’t reply as she stalked up to the bar, sitting two seats over from the park ranger and folding her hands silently.
“… Steph?” Alex asked carefully. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” her girlfriend replied evenly. “Your bar could improve on its clientele, though.”
“Seriously?” Ryan said, exasperated.
The red aura around Steph brightened, though she didn’t turn her gaze from Alex as she set her jaw. “I’m ignoring you.”
“You’re doing a crappy job at it.”
“How’s your new boss?” Steph asked Alex pointedly, her fingers practically white as she clenched her hands. “Has he pulled the knife out of your back yet?”
“Come on.” Ryan stood from his chair. “I don’t know how many more times I can apologize.”
“I’m still ignoring you, dickhead.”
“Steph, I didn’t-”
“Didn’t what?!” Steph whipped her head around to glare at him. “Take a second and listen to someone before you started calling her a liar!?”
Alex didn’t get a chance to say anything as the red aura around Steph flashed again, hitting her like a punch in the gut. She gave a small gasp as she clutched her stomach.
Oh, no, not again…
“It was my dad, Steph! After all the good he did around here-”
“Yea, on the backs of the miners he got killed-”
“Nobody knew anything about that! What was I supposed to-”
“How about taking a second to pull your head out of your ass-”
Fuck, FUCK… Alex could feel her vision turning red as she squeezed her eyes shut, Steph and Ryan still arguing in front of her. She forced the anger down in her mind, trying desperately to remain calm.
“You can’t just come in and accuse someone without any proof-”
“We had proof from Diane’s flash drive, don’t even start with that shit-”
“My dad had nothing to do with what happened to Gabe-”
“Well, he sure as fuck profited from it-”
It wasn’t working. The pain hit Alex’s head like a sledgehammer, and she pressed both hands against her temples.
No, no, no…
“She was covered in blood from when your dad tried to kill her-”
“The least you could’ve done was hear her out-”
“Before you stabbed her in the back in front of-’
Silence, as the argument finally halted.
It took extraordinary effort for Alex to peel her eyes open. Both Ryan and Steph were looking at her. The park ranger looked worried, while her girlfriend had a horrified expression on her face.
“Fuck,” Steph breathed. “Alex. Alex, I am so-”
She reached out, her hand still covered in the red aura, and Alex couldn’t stop herself from recoiling. Steph immediately jerked her hand back.
Nobody spoke for several seconds, as Alex took deep breaths, one hand on the counter behind her to keep her from falling over.
“Alex?” Ryan finally asked. “Are you okay?”
She swallowed before answering. “… yea.”
“Are you sure?”
Alex winced as her head throbbed, though the red around her eyes did start to diminish. She noticed that Steph’s aura was quickly changing from red to purple, though it didn’t help with the pain she was feeling.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I…I need a few minutes.”
Ryan nodded as Alex stood upright on shaky legs. She slowly made her way around the bar, Steph’s eyes not leaving her. Alex took one quick look at her girlfriend before she went upstairs.