The Wild Luck Hut was a den of joyful horrors unlike anything he had ever seen, in the movies or in real life. It was part gambling den, part spa, part dance club, with an unusual mix of themes ranging from unicorn fantasy to biker chic. It was a classic case of an establishment with an identity crisis, and Gary couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
The lobby was shaped like a mouth, with sharp spiral horns coming down from the ceiling like a set of fangs. The door straight ahead was agape, curved at the top like the entrance to a cave. Above the door was a glowing lamp in the design of a uvula. To the sides were small anterooms leading off to other strange places. A bouncer sat on a trapeze rigging beside the door, ready to swoop in on the uninvited.
Nikki drifted away from Gary while he took in the sights. The crowd swallowed her within an instant and he was left alone, left staring at the physical representation of a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit. He took a few steps after her to avoid being separated, but it was of no use. She was engulfed and the pulsating crowd pushed him off to the left where he was spun around and tossed through a door and into an open area doused in sapphire light and reeking of steam and pheromones.
He blinked a few times and found himself drifting off, deeper to a place where the atmosphere transformed from a simple gray concrete ambience to a humid steam room bathed in a bluish light, guided by a maze of velvet ropes. An awful mix of perfume and chlorine ignited his allergies.
He sneezed. After the third sneeze, he wiped his nose with his sleeve. Then he looked up to see a sign on the wall beside him that said: WELCOME TO THE WILD LUCK HUT.
“Welcome, indeed,” he said.
Now what am I supposed to do? he thought. And where did Nikki go? To his right, he saw the organic crowd fluttering just outside the doorway, so he wasn’t getting back into the mouth. And he didn’t think that Nikki had come this way. But now he was stuck and had to move forward. The one thing he knew for certain was that he wouldn’t find Nikki by standing still. He continued left, into the maze of velvet ropes.
The “blue room” was a chill section of the club, where a diverse mix of visitors hung out by the side of a Jacuzzi. Even though the whirlpool was raging, no one was in it. A handful of couples lounged around the edges in full formalwear, sipping champagnes and chardonnays, but no one was getting wet. The room’s theme extended to a groovy-style poolside patio (even though there was no pool to speak of), where a visual odyssey of rainbow-colored liquid lights reflected off the surfaces of lounge chairs, patio tables, and magenta umbrellas. A soft presentation of downbeat chill music piped through several corner speakers, filling the room evenly. It was loud enough to engage the senses, but quiet enough to stay in the background.
Gary circled the Jacuzzi to get a better look at each guest’s face, trying to determine the difference between Nikki and the hot women who looked like Nikki. One of the unfortunate side effects of wandering into a classy club that attracted a beautiful woman like Nikki was that it attracted many beautiful women like Nikki, and picking her out of a crowd was not as easy here as it was when he’d seen her standing amid a group of passengers beside a damaged bus. But it still wasn’t impossible.
He counted at least a dozen people sitting along the edge of the Jacuzzi and double that lounging in the patio chairs. Most were engaged in conversation with their neighbors, and those neighbors were splitting topics with their opposite neighbors, and the whole thing resembled one continuous train of inconsistent discussions circling the bubbling pool at their feet. And none of the discussion points were of any real significance, it seemed. Most of the fancy guests just talked about themselves and how great they looked tonight.
When he dared to ask the nearest person, a dapper George Clooney look-alike, if he had seen a lovely girl matching Nikki’s description, he simply said that all the women here were lovely, so both probably and no. Gary decided this wasn’t the right room.
Getting out of the patio area was a challenge. The Jacuzzi had a misting effect that fogged the room, and Gary found it difficult to locate the door. Compounding the problem was the roped queue that wound like a pretzel and had two opposing ends. To get to the patio area, the guest had to navigate the line, and to get out he had to go back through. But the velvet ropes were inconsistent, and not all paths led to the patio or the door, and one wrong turn could take the guest to another room entirely. And, as Gary tried to find his way to the main exit, the mist confounded his sense of direction, and before he knew it, he found himself not back in the gray anteroom to the right, but in line for the adjacent room.
Through that wrong door, he found another gray room, this one a narrow hall where the emo kids hung out. They were dressed in gothic clothing, covered in eyeliner, and complaining a little about life’s cruelty and a lot about puppies. Beside them was a pizza bar decked out with all the best types—pepperoni, Margherita, white, and so on. Nikki wasn’t there, either.
When Gary asked them if they’d seen her come through, they simply stared at him.
“She’s about yay high,” he said, holding his flattened palm just above the bridge of his nose. “Dark hair, kinda like yours. Blue eyes, almost icy. Black, slightly checkered skirt. Dark gray blouse. Deep blue eye liner.”
He scanned each black-lipped pale face before him. Everyone had a blank stare.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “I’m a little surprised she’s not in here. She’d camouflage well among you. Except, her lips are hot pink. Yours are just gross.”
“We reject your compliment,” said the emo goth nearest to him.
Past the pizza bar was another door and through it was the “magenta room,” which, according to the electronica music thumping through the speakers, was the dance parlor. As was to be expected on an unpredictable evening, the floor was crowded with people from many backgrounds, ranging in ages from early adulthood to late middle age. Everyone was lost in the dance, and no one seemed aware of the other dancers nearby. It was as if all of the recluses in the city had suddenly snapped, gone out into public, and retreated back into themselves as they attempted to socialize through the power of dance. Some people were busy with their phones while they boogied. Some had brought a book with them.
Gary saw the exit at other end, but to get there he had to plunge right through the heart of the dancefloor. And that was no easy task. The 1000-megawatt speakers were piping hot with the siren sounds of a melodious sex vixen, and the happy introverts obeying her commands bounced around like ping pong balls to every rise and fall of her voice. Getting through to the other side was a bit like playing Frogger.
The other challenge, of course, was in searching the dance area for a sign of Nikki. Fortunately, the room was small. It had maybe fifty feet from one door to the other, with about thirty feet in width. Unfortunately, the room was packed tight, and to find her, Gary would have to look into the eyes of about a hundred other people. It was so claustrophobic that it would’ve been impossible for him to even hug the wall on his way around the room, much less position himself to see everyone he was sharing space with.
He tried anyway. He was there for Nikki, and he wanted to finish his date with her properly, even if it had been a wasted experience so far. But after fighting to look into the eyes of about twenty different dancers and fifteen of the same dancers two or three times in a row, none of which bothered to look at him back, he decided that he was going for the impossible. He still had at least eighty unfamiliar faces left to scan, and he just didn’t have the patience.
He kept fighting and pushing against the crowd, determined to reach the next room. Sometimes they’d push back, sometimes they’d just spin him around and throw him at another dancer, and the whole experience had left him jostled. But, against all odds, he found his way to the exit and danced right on through.
He was back in the pizza hall with the emo goth kids.
“What’s the point in dancing,” one of the goths asked him, “if we’re all just going to die one day?”
Gary didn’t answer him.
“Tell us,” said another, this one grabbing at him. “Tell us what’s so special about your precious dancing. Is it the music?”
Gary tried to break away. Another one got in his face.
“And why don’t you dance with your girlfriend?” asked another. “Is it because you don’t care? Do you think you’re too good for her?”
Gary felt haunted by a similar argument he had made to Nikki about her “working” boyfriend the day before when he didn’t show up at the crash site.
He decided it was time to leave.
“Where are you going?” demanded the emo kid at the end of the hall. He was blocking Gary’s way back into the magenta room. “Do you think running from your problems is the answer?”
An emo girl spat at him. The glob of saliva missed Gary’s cheek by mere inches.
“That’s what I think of you and your happiness,” she said.
Gary backed the other way. Then he ran for the blue room before anyone else could stand in his way or ask him a nihilistic question or spit in his face for being happy.
The blue room had multiplied in the few minutes he had been away. More people were crowding around the Jacuzzi, and like a black hole, he felt like they were drawing him in with them. He passed through the mist and the velvet ropes, searching for the other way out, but the disorienting nature of the room caused the queue to spit him out onto the patio, right into the crush of fancy debutantes hanging “poolside” with their glasses of champagne in hand.
“The best part about being rich,” said the George Clooney look-alike to his twenty or so companions, “is the money.”
All twenty in unison suddenly angled their faces at Gary. They must’ve collectively felt his presence.
“How about you, lad?” the man asked. “What do you like about being rich?”
Gary looked at how each of them were dressed. They were decked out in Italian suits and evening gowns—aspiring models or movie stars. The man before him was slick, dressed in a silver-gray three-piece, clean-shaven and head full of dark hair. Gary had no comparison between them and the jeans and T-shirt he wore. They looked back, giving him a once over. It seemed they had noticed the class disparity happening. Their curious faces were beginning to sag. Either the Botox was failing, or they were entering the early stages of disgust.
“Er, the money?” Gary said.
Suddenly, all the faces before him were once again refreshed. Many of them had a twinkle in their eyes as they laughed. The George Clooney look-alike smacked him with a sideways fist in the biceps. For a rich guy, he sure hit hard. Gary rubbed the impacted area once it began to smart.
“Elaine,” said the man. “What about you? What’s the best part about being rich?”
All eyes around the Jacuzzi refocused on a blond woman about five bodies to the first guy’s left. She was tall, painted in blue eye shadow, in an evening dress that came very high up her thighs and very low down her back, and bulged at her voluptuous chest. She was maybe about thirty. She looked down at her chest and smiled.
“The boobs, of course. Best money I’ve ever spent, and I’ve been divorced twice.”
The others laughed. Then they changed focus to the next person.
Gary tried to back away, but he felt a hand around his ankle.
“Hey, we’re just getting started,” said a shrill voice behind him.
He looked down to find a scrawny woman in her late twenties trying to pull him back toward the Jacuzzi.
“Nobody leaves the circle ‘til the ice is broken,” she said.
The intensity in her eyes suggested two things: she was in charge, and she was serious.
Gary shook his head.
“I have someone I’m looking for,” he said.
“We all have someone we’re looking for. Take your spot around the spa and join us.”
Gary shook his head. He had somewhere else to be. But he found no words to speak.
“We give everyone a chance to shine,” she said. “Please don’t disrespect the current speaker.”
The next person, a squat man with a thick mustache and black-rimmed glasses, was about to speak.
“I love my limousine,” he said. “My driver takes me everywhere.”
Gary tried to sneak out, but the scrawny woman grabbed his ankle again.
“Respect,” she said.
Finally, Gary found the words to speak.
“What are you guys?”
“Alcoholics Anonymous,” she said. “I am Tara G. What’s your name?”
Gary was staring at the glass of champagne in Tara G.’s hand. Then he swallowed hard and kicked her hand away with his other foot. The impact caused her to lurch sideways and pitch her drink headlong across the spa, but her body didn’t stop arcing away, and she ended up spilling sideways into the Jacuzzi.
Gary bolted out of there before any of the rich people could round up the energy to chase him.
He found himself back in the main hall facing the club’s entrance—a.k.a. the mouth—within less than a minute. Fortunately, the crush of party guests hogging the space had since gone elsewhere, so he could move around more freely.
In the section nearest the entrance to the right was the “green room,” which housed a smoky cloud hovering over a series of tables where old white men traded cards and puffed on cigars. A stoic bouncer stood guard at the entrance of the roped-off area surrounding the floor. He was stiff and beastly, standing stick straight with his legs spread at shoulder width and his arms folded over his barrel chest. Even though it was dark and murky in the club, he wore sunglasses to hide the menace in his eyes, or that one puppy dog feature—Gary couldn’t tell from here.
It was pretty obvious that Nikki wasn’t in here.
“Go fish,” said one of the old men to another.
Gary spotted a half door in back of the room cracked open and leading into some dark place. He edged past the bouncer, refusing eye contact, and made for it. When no one tried to stop him, he pulled the half door open to investigate. He found nothing but a broom closet and two emo goths making out inside.
He winced and closed the door tight. Then he peeked back in to make sure the girl wasn’t Nikki. It wasn’t, so he returned to the mouth, where he could check on the mysterious place beyond the uvula.
Just like a biological throat, the room beyond the cave-like entrance curved downward at a steep slope and descended into a basement lit only by torches. Past the basement was another hallway, this one more generously brightened by the pleasant luminance of opposing walls fit with illuminated aquariums. It was there that he realized he was running out of places to search.
At the end of the hall was a single door, pleated with leather, and guarded by a woman in a can-can uniform. She sat on a stool, and her ruffled dress did its job covering her legs, but a sign on the wall beside her promised all entering guests that she had the power to kick anyone right in the face if they were to act up, so they should behave if they knew what was good for them. Gary wasn’t certain if the warning was for those attempting to use the room beyond, or for those attempting to hit on her. He moved past her with his head down, just to be safe.
The room beyond the can-can bouncer, the “gold room,” had the dimming atmosphere of a café built for CEOs, politicians, and mobsters, with its recessive lighting, its juicy potted plants, its buxom beauty serving staff, and its low-volume jazz music (most likely at extreme odds with the blaring music piping out of the magenta room above). The visitors here were anything but “classy,” though. The majority of people dining in here tonight were scantily clad twenty-somethings who were interested only in beer and nachos.
Once again, Gary searched the faces of the people in the crowd, but he was getting tired of it. The whole club was a magnet for Nikki types stretched to the extreme, and examining each similar face caused his brain to swirl. Adding to the exhaustion was the obvious romantic leaning the gold room had over all the other rooms in the club, including the blue room, which Gary would’ve expected was the destination for romance if not for the rich alcoholics roosting at the Jacuzzi or the goth kids making out in the broom closet where the old men played cards. To check for sign of Nikki, he had to study the face and the clothing of each woman he saw, and each one was sharing a table with a man who did not seem happy that Gary was checking out his date.
At one point, a short bald guy jumped up from the booth and confronted Gary about his intrusive staring.
“Dude, what’s your problem?” he said.
Gary was looking past him and didn’t know what he was talking about, so he shrugged.
The short bald man cocked his head to the side and raised his hands like he wanted to start some trouble.
“Yeah? Your problem is that you’re staring at my girl a little too longingly.”
Gary blinked, then looked at the guy. He had actually been looking at another girl about three tables away.
“Er, which one’s yours?”
The man gestured sideways to the brunette sitting embarrassed beside him, clearly out of Gary’s line of vision. Then he poked Gary in the chest.
“You ain’t gonna sleep with her tonight, so quit your lusting, you piece of crap.”
He walked on before the guy could accuse him of making a pass at his girlfriend, who was now behind him.
Little did the short bald guy know, Gary did have a problem. But not with him, or his embarrassed girlfriend. No, the issue now was that he was beginning to fear he had lost Nikki. Even though she was a terrible first impression, after spending twenty minutes dealing with the nuts and freaks who dwelled in the bowels of the Wild Luck Hut, he realized that Nikki was a beautiful saint who needed a second chance, and he hoped among all hope that he could give her that second chance. He didn’t understand why she’d want to come here in the first place, but he remembered what she’d told him nonetheless. She came here to meet her boyfriend. That meant coming here was his idea. That meant he was the freak. And Gary couldn’t stand the idea of Nikki wasting her life on a freak. So, if she were still anywhere in the club, he would find her, and he would rescue her, and he would take her far away from this awful place, giving her the proper chance to date a man of normal character.
At the opposite end of the gold room, Gary found an opening adorned with black leather streamers. When he brushed the streamers aside and peeked through the doorway, he finally caught sight of Nikki. She was sitting in an egg-shaped chair, pixelating under a black and white checkered rotating light. The room was mostly monochrome, with the occasional splash of hot pink, and it was populated with a sparse mix of people who danced cobra-style in their chairs. The music was scored with a trance track, a continuous stream of instrumentals peppered with seductive feminine vocals uttering a version of “ooh” or “ahh” every eighth meter, and the swaying of the people in the room matched its progressive rhythm.
He entered the room, stepped over a pool noodle, and crossed the digitally enhanced floor with caution, weaving around the egg-shaped chairs until he found himself beside the lonely Nikki and her blank stare. Her eyes were open, but she was looking at nothing. He waved his hands in front of her. She didn’t react. He wondered if he should turn around and run as far away from this place as possible. But he didn’t. He just took her hand instead.
“What happened to your boyfriend?” he asked her.
She maintained her gaze upon nothing.
“Did he stand you up?”
“Whatever he did, he’s probably an idiot, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I’m sure you could do better.”
He wasn’t sure if he believed that, but he was trying to console her, and for her, that took a little faith.
“Want me to buy you a milkshake?” he asked. “To ease your pain a little?”
She looked up at him, but didn’t say anything.
“You like vanilla? Chocolate? Banana?”
“Wasabi,” she said.
“Say what now?”
“I like unique things.”
He tugged on her hand and lifted her out of the chair.
“Where are we going to find a place that sells wasabi flavored milkshakes?” he asked.
“I know a place.”
“Sounds awful. Let’s go find it.”
Gary sat in that plush stool across the table from her, mesmerized as he watched her sip the pistachio green milkshake. Every sip she took ended with her massaging her temples and squeezing her eyes shut, as if she were enduring a consistent stream of freeze headaches. He wondered why she would choose to punish herself so much. But he kept watching, fascinated by her masochism.
When she got halfway through the shake, she tilted her straw forward.
“Would you like a sip?” she asked.
Gary wasn’t sure how to answer that. On the one hand, he liked the idea of sharing a milkshake with this new, beautiful, unusual woman he’d found on the street, and nothing spelled “date” like sharing a milkshake. But on the other hand, it was wasabi flavored. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that drinking anything wasabi flavored took balls or insanity.
She passed the cup to him and he carefully pursed his lips around the straw’s tip. Nikki’s lips had been around it just a few seconds earlier, so in a way, taking this sip was a little like kissing her via remote. But the second phase, the slurping of the shake, made him fidget. Unfortunately, he was too deep in the process to chicken out now. He couldn’t look like a coward to her. He just had to get it over with. He slurped.
The initial flavor was like a hard mint, slightly bitter, but distinctively sharp. Then the nasal pain kicked in. He felt his sinuses catch fire in an instant. Then, just as quickly as it had zapped him, it went away. He hiccupped, passed the shake back, and then smiled at her.
“It’s…good,” he said.
“You don’t have to lie to me. It’s not.”
He shook his head.
“No, it’s a terrible idea for a milkshake flavor.”
He rubbed his temples. Then he reached for a napkin to wipe his mouth. Then he stared at her. She was staring back.
“You were testing me tonight, weren’t you?” he asked.
“What makes you think that?”
He leaned forward and looked her right in those icy blue eyes.
“No sane woman would date a guy who’d ask her to meet at the Wild Luck Hut. That place is a freak show, and I’d lose respect for you if your story was even remotely true.”
She smiled again.