The bartender takes a break from wiping down the sticky counter, draping his towel over his shoulder as he arches an eyebrow at Nick.
"You done with that?" he asks and Nick nods, sliding the glass across the bar. "Can I get you another?"
Nick nods again. Perhaps, if he doesn't speak, nobody will notice how far gone he really is and the drinks will keep on coming. Looking around the room in the moments before his drink arrives, he knows he's not the only one clinging to the edge of existence.
On the stool to his left sits Ray, a trucker from Oregon. Ray is passing through Las Vegas en route to Arizona with a load of timber and a head full of cocaine. He tells Nick the coke is the only constant in his life since his wife left him for her dentist. He spends his days driving back and forth across the western states and has a dealer in every town. He is jittery, his face twitching as he speaks, and Nick knows he should be nervous. One less drag on the fat joint he smoked before walking into the bar and perhaps he would be.
A dozen men with stories like Ray's lurk in the shadows of the bar, their eyes moving warily over each other. Half an hour ago they had crowded together, listening as Nick spoke of the betrayal he felt the day he lost her and the anger still coursing through his veins. When he finished they retreated to their dark corners, drawing parallels to their own stories and nursing dirty glasses of spirits.
Glancing around, he wonders if his new companions would've been so sympathetic to his story of suffering if any of them had a clue who he was. Would the number of girls ready and willing to try and make him forget the searing pain - like a knife twisting in his chest - somehow make his story less terrible? Would his bank balance be grounds for ejection from their exclusive club? Regardless of what they may think, cruel experience has taught him that money and women will not fix what lies bleeding and broken inside him. Neither will the whiskey or weed he’s developed such a taste for since she walked out of his life. Lately he finds himself leaning more heavily on the drugs and alcohol to take the sharp edge off his new reality - fucking nameless, faceless women one after the other, always searching for some piece of her within them. He wonders briefly if Ray is onto something with the coke - ‘it's the only way to escape,’ he said earlier. If Nick knows only one thing for sure, it's that he needs to escape.
Pushing back his stool, he gets unsteadily to his feet, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out his wallet. Flipping it open, he flicks through the wad of notes - nothing bigger than a twenty. If he wants to hit Ray up for some coke, he'll have to hit an ATM first. He stuffs his wallet back into his pocket and reaches instead for a pack of cigarettes lying on the bar. The two whiskeys lined up in front of Ray are assurance enough he won't be leaving anytime soon.
Nick is hunched forward, his clumsy fingers struggling with a lighter, when she walks in. She crosses the beer soaked carpet and pulls up a stool, lying her purse on the bar as she orders a JD and Coke. At the sound of her voice, he looks up. Even through tired, drunken eyes he can see she doesn't belong in a place like this. Her white blouse is buttoned almost to the top and tucked into a black skirt. She crosses her legs awkwardly under the bar, frowning as she tugs her skirt straight and Nick squints at her in the semi-darkness. Her appearance gives little away except that she should probably be anywhere but in this dive on the outskirts of Las Vegas. She is impeccably groomed, her hair pulled back from her face and knotted at the nape of her neck. Perfectly applied lipstick draws his eyes to her mouth and Nick passes his tongue inadvertently over his own chapped lips as he watches her.
Her drink is deposited on the counter, black liquid slopping out of the chipped glass.
“Five-fifty,” the bartender says gruffly and Nick watches as the woman reaches into her purse.
No wedding ring, he notices and something inside him stirs. She could be his escape tonight. He watches in silence as she hands over a ten dollar bill and waits for her change, her eyes moving over the bottles of liquor behind the bar. She is handed four dirty notes and two coins, stuffing them into her purse before folding her hands in her lap. She makes no move to pick up her drink and Nick takes a swill from his own glass, enjoying the warmth as the liquid trickles down his throat. Beside him, the woman has reached for her glass and is turning it slowly on the bar. Nick watches her for a moment before twisting on his stool to look at her. Caught by his elbow as he turns, his glass tips sideways, spilling whiskey and ice cubes onto the bar.
"Shit," he mutters as the woman pulls her glass and purse from the path of his drink. "Sorry."
She doesn't reply as she gets to her feet and moves to the next stool, distancing herself from both Nick and his mess.
"Shit," he mutters again, scanning the bar for a towel. Spying a pile of napkins beside the cash register, he leans over and takes a handful, scattering them over the brown liquid now creeping towards the edge of the counter. Ray looks up from his drink and laughs throatily as the napkins disintegrate.
"Not your night, is it?" he asks, slapping a stubby-fingered hand on Nick's shoulder. "Listen... If you want to... I'm going to draw up a couple of lines..."
Nick looks down at the wad of sodden paper in his hand and across to the woman, still silently staring at the bottles lined up against the wall.
"No thanks, Ray," he hears himself say, the words thick and muddled. "I think I'm good."
Ray shrugs and picks up his glass, moving towards a dark corner of the bar. Nick watches him leave, almost compelled to follow, but turning instead to the woman beside him.
She'd better be better than coke, a voice inside his head intones. She'd better be fucking magic.
His limbs feel heavy, weighed down by weed and whiskey, and he moves slowly and carefully onto the stool beside her.
"Listen, I'm sorry," he begins slowly, conscious of his slurred speech. "I didn't get any on your purse, did I?"
"No," she replies without looking at him. "It's fine."
Nick looks at her silently. Her eyes are glazed, moving slowly over the bartender's stock, though her drink remains untouched and she seems otherwise sober. He wonders if she is on something other than JD and Coke. Leaning on the bar, he holds out his hand.
Tearing her eyes away from the bottles of bourbon and vodka, she shakes his hand and their eyes meet briefly. A flash of something - recognition? - passes across her face and Nick swallows hard, not wanting this one to recognize him.
"Sarah," she replies.
"Sarah," Nick repeats carefully. "Nice to meet you."
Sarah smiles weakly and pulls her hand away, trying to be discreet as she wipes it on her skirt. Nick's stomach turns. He knows he looks bad, but he's ninety-four percent sure he's disease free. Sarah lifts her head and catches his eye.
"Whiskey," she says quietly. "From the spill."
Making a fist, Nick feels his fingers stick slightly and looks down at his hand, speckled with fragments of wet napkin. Ray was right - it is not his night.
"Sorry," he says again, wiping his hands on his trousers.
"It's fine," she repeats and turns her attention to her drink.
Nick watches her as she traces her finger absentmindedly around the rim of the glass. Her ice has all but melted.
"Are you going to drink it?" he asks and she looks up to arch an eyebrow at him.
Nick points at the glass, small fragments of ice bobbing in the dark liquid.
"It's getting warm, is all," he says. "You don't want a warm drink on a night like this."
As if feeling the thick Nevada air for the first time, Sarah lifts her hand to her neck, pressing her palm against her clammy skin. Nick squints as he watches her, wishing he hadn't indulged in quite so much pot. There is something familiar about her, something about the way she moves, sits, speaks. Something about the way she drags her finger in lazy circles around the glass. Something he can't put his finger on. She looks at him as she pushes her drink away and grips her purse.
"You don't have a mobile I could borrow, do you?" she asks. "I need to make a call."
Nick gets to his feet without speaking and pulls his phone from his pocket, not taking his eyes off her. Suddenly she looks panicked, her eyes darting from her drink to her purse and back again in the time it takes him to hand her the mobile. Something about the way she looks at her glass. The untouched whiskey, melted ice. Shaking his head to clear the cloud of whiskey and weed, he makes himself a silent promise to stop smoking. Or roll thinner joints, at least.
"You want some water?" he asks, sitting down again. "I want some water."
She nods, pulling a business card from her purse. Nick leans forward on the bar, lifting his hand, asking for Evian. The bartender laughs at him, reaches for two glasses and turns on the faucet. Nick looks at his watch before taking the drinks and turning back to look at her. She is dialing, getting to her feet, moving away. He watches as she crosses the bar and pushes the door open, disappearing into the desert night.