Kaniksu Falls • Tuesday
Nikki paused at the four-way stop, considering her options. The problem with taking a road trip to find oneself was that she wasn’t really lost and now she had arrived in Kaniksu Falls and was heartily sick of the company, but still no closer to any decisions. It was 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, which meant that her grandmother would be firmly ensconced at the bingo hall for at least another hour. A flash of headlights behind her indicated that she’d taken too much time even by polite Washington standards. She took a left and headed for the tavern sign she could see cycling through a pattern of lights that formed an arrow pointing at a dark building barely visible in the dusk of day and smoke haze from the nearest forest fire. She could get a drink and a burger and then go home to her grandmother, who was almost certain to have pie.
The bar was called the Kessel Run and it was decorated in a plethora of twelfth man football flags and kitschy alien crap.
She thought about calling Donny. Theoretically, he would also be in town somewhere. After their brief rendezvous in LA, she figured they had a lot of catching up to do. And she really did want to talk to him, but not on the phone. Phones were never secure these days. Nikki scanned the parking lot. There was only one car, a boring blue four-door. Nikki shook her head. She couldn’t understand why anyone would drive a car so devoid of personality. She couldn’t even tell what kind it was—Oldsmobile? Buick? It was the equivalent of the high-school wallflower, going out of its way to not be noticed. Volvos were like the AV club, full of weird boxy angles that no one understood, but were beloved by the in-crowd. Sports cars were the popular kids. SUV’s and trucks were the jocks. This car was so blah, Nikki wanted to key it just because it would be character building for the car.
“That car was me in high-school—totally forgettable.” Shaking her head again, she went inside. Nikki pushed aside a cardboard cutout of Harrison Ford, listing into the doorway, and sat down at the bar. Aside from a trio sitting in the back near the jukebox, she was the only one in the place.
“What can I get you?” asked the bartender, putting down the sports section and placing a menu in front of her.
Nikki considered ordering a glass of wine, but thought that she already stood out enough as it was. She glanced at the bar menu. It was heavy on the fried substances and beer. “Um … How about a gin and tonic and a,” She shifted a grease spot on the menu with her thumb, “Wookie burger? You know, as long as it’s ethically farmed Wookie.”
“Curly fries or wedges?” asked the bartender, ignoring her attempt at humor.
“Has to be wedges, doesn’t it? Wedge to Red Leader and all that?” The bartender stared at her blankly. “Curly fries are fine,” she said.
“Back in a second with your drink,” he said, tucking the pencil behind his ear and then ambled toward the kitchen. Nikki surveyed the bar in the reflection of the ornate Budweiser mirror behind the taps. Grimy would have been doing the place a kindness. Everything seemed slightly sticky, like the concept of occasionally washing the bar rag that washed everything else had never been properly explained to the employees. On the other hand, if the three patrons at the back of the bar were anything to be judged by, then this place was a fancy night out for most of the clientele. The first man wore a grubby John Deere hat without a trace of Ashton Kutcher irony, a scraggly goatee, and a pair of Carhartt’s so filthy the only clean space was behind the knees. Which she could see because he had one leg angled out from his chair and he was bouncing it with the kind of nervous energy usually seen on those with a severe caffeine addiction. The second man was clearly in his Sunday best of acid-wash black jeans and a blue button-up work shirt with a collar that must have been a hair too tight, because he kept tugging at it after every sip of his beer. How either of them had managed to scrape up an association with the girl who perched uncomfortably on the third chair, her arms crossed over a green cardigan and white blouse, was probably one of the mysteries of the universe. She looked to be in her early twenties, Hispanic, with thick, shoulder-length black hair, and big dark eyes that Nikki could tell had been crying recently. In Nikki’s opinion, she was far too pretty, too well-dressed, and too young to be with either of the men. The two men seemed to be arguing quietly, but the more they spoke, the further away the girl leaned and the more she seemed to hunch in on herself, as if trying to become invisible in her chair.
The bartender returned with Nikki’s drink. He set it down with the air of one doing his duty in the face of adversity. “It’s going to be wedges after all,” he said. “Those guys ordered the last of the curly fries.” He jerked his head at the occupied table, with an expression that said he’d take the fries back if he could.
“Wedges are fine,” she said, with a shrug.
The bartender shrugged back, as if to say that he couldn’t be bothered with people who didn’t understand the important things in life.
Her burger and wedges arrived a few moments later and both were surprisingly tasty. Fattening as hell, but not the greasy bomb of disgustingness that she was expecting. In fact, the burger was downright good, bordering on awesome. Perhaps cuisine was how the Kessel Run stayed in business. If that was the case, they should double the cook’s salary.
She was savoring the crisp snap of the pickle on her fifth bite of burger when it happened. The hairs on the back of her arms stood up as the discussion at the back table rose in acrimony. The volume didn’t go up, just the intensity of the whispering. Nikki shifted her eyes to the mirror and saw that the body language on the girl had moved from hunched to cowering.
“It’s not my fault,” said the girl, her voice wavering. She stood up to go, but Carhartt snaked out a hand and grabbed her by the upper arm.
“Let me go,” pleaded the girl, sounding on the verge of tears. “It’s not my fault.” She tugged ineffectually at his hand.
Nikki took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. She’d really been enjoying the burger. Reaching into her purse, she dropped some cash on the bar.
Back at the table, Carhartt forcefully shoved the girl back into her chair and stood up, towering over her.
“I just want to go home,” said the girl, tears sliding down her cheek.
“You’ll go when I’m damn good and ready for you to go,” snapped Carhartt.
Nikki stood up, blotted her mouth with the napkin, and turned to face the three at the table.
“Gentlemen, I think you should let the girl go.” She used a loud, calm voice, so there would be no mistaking her intentions. The bartender, coming out of the kitchen, froze in the doorway, his eyes flicking between the table and Nikki, his expression akin to a deer in the proverbial headlights.
“Nobody asked you what you think, bitch,” said the man in the button-up. Carhartt blinked at her.
“Let me rephrase that,” said Nikki. “You’re going to let the girl go.”
“Or what?” asked Carhartt smirking.
“That wasn’t an either or statement,” said Nikki. “That was a fact.”
“It’s OK,” said the girl, looking panicked. “It’s OK. I don’t want to start any trouble.” She licked her lips and stood up. “Everything’s fine, really.”
Carhartt released the girl’s arm and shoved her back into her chair. “This is none of your business,” he said, trying to loom over Nikki. “Go away.”
“I’m making it my business,” said Nikki. “Now I suggest you sit down while she and I leave.”
“Ain’t going to happen,” he said. “Go away.” And then he pushed her, a one-handed shove on the shoulder, meant to send her toward the door.
Instead, Nikki side-stepped, seized his arm, pivoted and, with a quick twist of the hips, flipped him over her back and onto the floor. He landed with a hard crack, but promptly tried to sit up. She dropped her body weight through her knee onto his head and then bounced back to her feet. His head made a double clunk as it smacked into her knee and into the floor a split second later. Button-up was rounding the table at this point, aiming to tackle her, but instead she spun and drove her fist into his gut. He doubled over, gaping like a fish, and she seized his head and drove her knee up into his face. He staggered back, blood streaming from his face, and collapsed into a table, which tipped over on top of him. The fight was over.
“Clyde,” said someone from the entrance of the bar, “you should probably call the sheriff.”
“Yeah,” said the bartender, his hand fumbling for the phone on the wall, his eyes still stuck on Nikki.
“It’s OK,” said Nikki to the girl who was still sitting where Carhartt had left her. “What’s your name?”
“Ylina,” said the girl.
“Hey, Merv,” said the bartender into the phone. “It’s Clyde over at the Kessel Run. Yeah, I’ve got a couple of drunks here who picked on the wrong girl. Can you send someone around to collect them?” He peered over the bar at unconscious Carhartt’s body. “No, no rush. It’s under control. I’ll put them on the porch for you. Thanks.” Clyde hung up and stared around the room at those who were still conscious. “Okay,” he said clapping his hands together and drawing out the word to multiple syllables. “The sheriff will be here shortly. In the meantime, can I interest any of you in another drink or dessert?”
“The sheriff?” squeaked Ylina.
“It’ll be fine,” said Nikki.
“No, it won’t!” Ylina edged around Button-Up’s legs and started to fumble in Carhartt’s pockets. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
“It will be fine,” said Nikki. “The sheriff will handle it.”
But Ylina shook her head, ignoring them, and pulled out a set of car keys.
“Ylina,” said Nikki. “Calm down. It’s going to be fine.”
“No, not fine,” said Ylina, backing toward the door as if Nikki might try and stop her. “The sheriff’s coming. Not fine!” Then she turned and sprinted out into the parking lot. A few moments later, the roar of a car engine could be heard, and tires on gravel as Ylina floored it.
“Some people got no gratitude,” said Clyde, picking up Carhartt’s legs. “Jackson, you want to give me a hand?”
“Nikki did it,” said the man by the door. “Make her lift them.”
Nikki looked up from Clyde to the man by the door and for the first time realized who it was. Jackson Tyrell, her ex-boyfriend. She felt her heart skip a beat and suddenly the juke box music seemed far away. This evening had definitely taken a turn and gone right off the rails.
“I only wanted a burger,” she said.
“It is a tasty burger,” agreed Jackson.