The Barrel and its nightly crowd went about its business, all of it carefully ignoring the pale woman sitting at the bar. Paying no attention to the two empty glasses, the slightly chewed ends of the stirrers in the glasses, her "somewhere else" gaze, the half-empty glass she held to her lips without drinking, and the orange-cream colored wax lion with the malformed face that sat near her elbow. Nope, she might as well not even be there for all the notice she drew.
The mixed drink looked like muddy slime, but Jaye paid the drink's appearance little attention. The effect of the drink concerned her more. To be more specific, why she wasn't feeling any effects, especially after the first two.
Her blue eyes looked down to the lion. She sucked the rest of the contents from the glass without shifting her gaze. The alcohol level of the drink made no impression on her. She felt beyond sensation.
The lion's placid face did not acknowledge her. Why should it? Wax figures don't interact with the world.
Neither did Jaye. At least, she usually refrained from it, except to buy food or knock back drinks or deal with customers who wouldn't take avoidance for an answer at her job. But then, she wasn't made of wax. A person would expect Jaye to talk, move, or experience, in some way, the life she led.
A wax lion, however….
"I hate you," she said, still eying the little dent-faced creature.
"In the oven at 450 degrees. Five minutes. How would you like that? Huh?"
Like the Buddha, contented silence from the lion.
"Or maybe the highway? I could take bets on how long before you're flattened by a logging truck." A cold, sickening shiver ran through her. Jaye shook it off. "A bit of tit for tat, you little bastard? Huh?"
From the backroom of the bar stepped the only thing that could possibly distract Jaye from her one-sided conversation, and its name was Eric. Messy dark hair, a scruffy beard that Jaye secretly believed he kept trimmed at a perpetual three-day growth and a slender body that she felt compelled to touch, but refused to allow herself. He scanned the room, judging the crowd.
She liked how Eric always seemed to ponder, if even for a second, everything he did or said. A man who considered his actions and reactions. No, she thought, not consider them so much as make sure they are honest. He was everything she felt she couldn't be, for whatever reason.
And he was so goddamned cute.
A smile, half formed, came to her lips. She waited for him to focus on the bar.
"Push his buttons."
The smile froze. She looked down. The lion looked at her and grinned.
"Push his buttons."
"Push his buttons."
"Oh, god, just once can't you freaks let me have some time with him without it turning into a crisis? Huh? Once?"
The lion appeared to be chewing something for a moment before it looked back up and opened its mouth.
"Shut up," Jaye said, louder than she hoped.
"I haven't even said anything, and the lady is telling me to shut up."
Startled, she looked up and directly into the Eric's face. His gentle smile hovered in front of her.
Why did the smell of his breath make her hungry?
"No, I…not you. Uh, just sick of me going over my day. You know? 'Shut up.'" Then she punched herself in the upper arm to drive the point home.
He did not look completely convinced. Still, he smiled wider as he glanced down. "Must be a bad day. Most retail clerks don't knock back three Swamp Waters to unwind."
"Well, you know, inventory, the Mouth Breather sneaking up every few minutes, pissy tourists…and, uh, other things. Can I have another one of these? Please? You make them stronger than the back-up bartender." Jaye gave him her best grin.
In her head, she told him, "You won't believe what these little inanimate weasels made me do. I almost got smeared by a bus. Yes, a bus! All to save a windblown bird." No, she reasoned, that makes me sound like I didn't care about bird. Not that he would believe me about the talking menagerie. Oh God, do I sound crazy? Wait, what the hell was I talking about?
Eric set the drink in front of her, motioned for her to wait a moment and moved to the other end of the bar to take care of customers.
Jaye took a large gulp of her fresh drink, then looked at the wax lion. "Well, big mouth? Anything?"
No movement. She picked it up and shook it. "Come on, you never give up that easily." She held it a fraction of an inch from her face and mocked it, "Push his buttons. Push his buttons."
Suddenly, the room rolled, and Jaye grabbed the bar. Looking around, she noticed no one else seemed to be affected the gravitational flip-flop. Okay, the drinks are finally hitting home. Her head sank slowly into her hands, hoping that would keep her head from rolling away.
A glance down to the far end of the bar made it clear Eric had his hands full with a group of business women. They smiled and wiggled back and forth on their barstools as they watched him mix their drinks. Eric seemed to be enjoying the attention. But not as much as the women.
Jaye looked down at herself. She had on a flannel shirt, jeans (only on their third day of wear), sneakers and her damned Wonderfalls vest she had forgotten she to leave at work. Taking inventory of the women at the other end of the bar, she counted pairs of perfect pantyhose ending in shoes that cost more than her car, noted the crisp cut of their dresses, considered the artfulness of their still-perfect-after-a-day-at-work makeup.
A squeal drew her attention back to the herd of corporate women. A couple were leaning across the bar nattering at Eric. Their tone sounded playful, but the look spoke of desire.
Jaye felt her lips press into faint, straight lines and her eyelids narrowed.
A blonde with generous curves and a pixie haircut (without the decency to hide the dark roots) turned to look at Jaye. Taking note of the searing-laser beam stare of death being sent at her, the woman smiled, turned to Eric and motioned him to lean close. As he did, she moved closer to him, putting her hand on his upper arm, which she rubbed warmly and patted before settling back into her seat. The blonde turned back to Jaye and laughed.
Jaye picked up one of her empty glasses, hefted the weight. Decided against throwing it. Didn't want to put someone's eye out. The lion? Looking down, she saw it look up and shake its head.
"Why not? You can go home with whichever one I hit. Maybe one of them would like you to ruin her life." Looking back at the group as they crackled with laughter at something Eric said, Jaye added, "At least I could take one of them down quickly."
"Press his buttons."
"Shut the hell up." When she glanced back down, the little lion was jerking his head to the side. She followed his motion and her eyes came to rest on the dispenser nozzle used to add water, cola, seltzer and other general liquids to drinks.
"Press his buttons. Press his buttons."
Jaye grinned, picked up the wax lion and kissed its little muzzle. It shook its head and made small spitting sounds as she dropped it back onto the bar.
Grabbing the nozzle, she looked at the buttons until she found one that she figured was water. A quick shot into her empty glass to check pressure and liquid content, then she turned to the herd. The evil blonde had her hand on top of Eric's as she smiled up into his face.
That shout came from somewhere deep in Jaye's torso and vibrated through her entire body. She almost saw herself as some Amazon warrior ready to claim her prize. Well, she still had both breasts, and she was armed with little more than a fancy water hose. But she had the animal circus behind her on this one, as well as a couple too many stiff mixed drinks.
She WAS Xena, damn it.
Almost everyone in the bar turned to look at her. When the short-haired boyfriend tempter locked eyes with her, Jaye calculated the water stream's trajectory and fired. The blast diffused somewhat by the time it reached the end of the bar. Didn't matter. It hit dark-roots chick square in the face. The woman, seemingly in shock, sat in the downpour for a moment before shrieking. Like a Greek chorus, her friends picked up the shrill wail. Then it looked like the fluttering of a massive tropical bird, colors bouncing and weaving.
Jaye stood there still laughing when Eric practically slung her over his shoulder and sprinted for the bar's backroom. She could still hear the rumbling and squeaks of the women when Eric tossed her onto his simple bed.
"Sit here," he said. "And don't you dare move." He turned to leave, stopped and quickly spun back, kissing her before she knew what was happening. She didn't even get to prepare to enjoy it.
"And thank you." He smiled, his whole face showing his delight. Then he was gone.
Jaye thought her face would rip in half if she smiled any wider. She might be crazy. Apparently, Eric loved crazy. And that was more than fine with her.
From beside her, a throat cleared. She looked down to see the little lion. Eric must have snagged it as he scooped her up. He really is wonderful, she decided.
"I love you, you little wonderful freak. And to think I doubted you. Ha. 'Push his buttons.' Perfect."
The lion looked up at her.
"Strike a match."
The room suddenly twirled without Jaye's consent.