The jukebox blared over the sound of the crowd in Keegan’s Pub, announcing the unofficial start to another weekend. The first chords of some nineties country song – in rotation since it was a chart-topper – blasted out into the small, crowded bar and blended with the sounds of clattering dishes and rowdy conversation.
It was just another work night for Noah. For the past few hours, he’d been behind the bar, chatting with regulars, pouring beers and mixing the occasional cocktail. The controlled chaos of the bar kept him going, boosting his energy as he dashed back and forth between tasks.
“Hey, what can I get you folks tonight?” he asked as a young couple made their way up to the bar.
“Sam seasonal, please,” the woman responded.
“What do you got on tap?” the man asked.
Noah scanned the taps. “Uh, Sam, Sam Octoberfest, Bud, Bud Light, Guinness…and that’s it.”
The man let out an unimpressed huff. “No craft beer?”
Noah shook his head. “Not on draft. In bottle, we’ve got-”
The man cut him off. “Fine. I’ll just get an Octoberfest.”
Without a word, Noah turned to the taps and poured the drinks. He brought them back over to the couple and set them down on the heavy wooden bar.
“Tell your boss to get better beers on tap,” the man said, picking up his mug and taking a long sip. “No one wants to drink from the bottle.”
“Sure thing,” Noah replied, sure that his sarcasm was about to go right over this man’s head.
It did. The man nodded in satisfaction, took another long sip of his beer, and turned to leave.
“You gonna open a tab?”
With a dramatic sigh, the man turned back around and tossed a credit card on the bar. Then he and his date were gone.
There was nobody waiting for drinks for the first time all evening. Noah took a breath, stretched a little, and ran a hand through his short, dark hair. It was heading toward midnight and the atmosphere inside Keegan’s was still rowdy and celebratory. Last call was coming shortly and he knew things would die down after that.
He looked over at the end of the bar. Iris Davies was standing there. She was a little younger than Noah, maybe thirty years old. Tall, blonde, and willowy, she was New Winslow’s resident psychic and magic shop owner. He didn’t see her in here often, but knew her from around town.
“Iris!” Noah called, making his way over to her. “Got any messages for me tonight?”
“From your dad?” Iris replied, her voice soft and sad. She looked up at Noah. “No, but I’m always available to schedule a séance or try to contact him.”
Noah’s stomach filled with ice. “Jesus,” he said in a strangled voice. “Iris, I meant like lotto numbers.”
Iris blushed. “Oh! I’m sorry,” she said. “When you said ‘messages’ I just assumed that you meant…”
“No, no, it’s fine. I should’ve…it’s fine. Can I get you a drink?”
Iris shook her head. “I’m all set, thanks. But I wanted to tell you to be careful of that man over by the jukebox. He’s going to start some trouble.”
Noah looked over and saw the man she was talking about. Tall, stocky, dressed to impress. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ll let Olivia know.”
“Thanks!” Iris said, “I’m not sure what it’ll be, but I saw him with a broken pool cue in my vision, then recognized him as soon as I walked in.” She gave him a slightly distracted smile. “Well, bye!”
Iris disappeared into the crowd, leaving Noah blinking after her. His stomach still felt numb at the mention of his dad. It’d been two years, but still felt like-
He grabbed a bottle of whiskey, poured a shot, and tossed it back before finishing the thought. It burned down his throat, melted the ice, and he immediately felt steadier.
He glanced around the crowded room for Olivia, his boss and best friend of twenty-five years. After a moment, he caught sight of her light brown hair across the room as she dropped off some food at a packed table of locals. She laughed at some joke one of them made, then turned to walk away. With a quick wave, he caught her attention and beckoned her over to the bar.
“Hey!” she called, making her way through the crowd. “What’s up?”
“Iris stopped by,” Noah said, wiping a few crumbs off the surface of the bar. “She said our buddy by the jukebox is going to start some shit.”
Olivia glanced over and grimaced. “I could have told you that without psychic powers,” she said. “But thanks. I’ll let Charlie know so he can keep an eye out. How’s the night going?”
Noah shrugged. “Oh, you know. Just another small town Friday night here in beautiful New Winslow.”
Olivia laughed. “So rowdy locals and clueless travelers?”
Olivia surveyed the crowd with a fond, but tired, look on her face. “Alright, I’m going to go talk to Charlie. Let me know if you start getting swamped over here.”
“Will do,” Noah said. “I’ve got it pretty much under control for now, but I’ll be sure to – Hey, what can I get you folks tonight?”
Olivia ducked through the crowd, returning friendly waves from regulars as she walked over to where Charlie was standing. A tall, beefy guy in his early twenties, he worked nights as the bouncer on top of an array of other jobs.
“Boss,” Charlie said as she approached. “What’s shakin’?”
“Keep an eye on our buddy over there.”
Olivia nodded toward the well-dressed guy now near the door. “I’ve got it from a good source that he’ll be giving us some trouble tonight.”
Charlie followed her gaze. “Who am I to argue with Iris?” he said. “No worries, boss. Looks like he’s heading out for a butt so I’ll follow.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Charlie shrugged. “Just doing my job,” he said. “Oh, by the way, I saw your little girl out with your mom over at Roman’s yesterday. I couldn’t believe how big she’s gotten. How old is she?”
Olivia smiled at the thought of her daughter. “She’s ten months now.”
“Coming up on a year,” Charlie said with a low whistle. “Unbelievable. Rafaela isn’t due for another three months and I still can’t imagine what it’ll be like to be a dad.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Olivia said. “Honestly, I still don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. But you’ll figure it out. You and Rafaela are smart. And you’re going to be a great dad.”
“I hope you’re right.” Charlie beamed and for a moment he looked so young it broke her heart.
She was about to tell him she’d check in later when the sounds of a heated argument made their way over to where she and Charlie stood. They both turned and started making their way toward the commotion.
“Look, I’m not saying you cheated,” a guy she didn’t know was saying in what was obviously supposed to be a placating manner. He’d set his cue down and was holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
“Bullshit you’re not!” Pool Cue yelled. As she watched, he stormed back over and slammed the cue onto the edge of the pool table, snapping the cue in half. The top half flew across the table and he aimed the jagged remains at the other player as Charlie pushed through the crowd now forming around them.
“Hey!” Olivia yelled over. “Knock that shit off!”
“Stay out of it, b-”
The word wasn’t out of his mouth before Charlie had a massive hand on Pool Cue’s shoulder. “Time to go, chief,” Charlie said, steering the man toward the door.
The man flinched, and for a moment, she thought he might try to fight Charlie. Then he glared at the other player, who was standing by the table, legs visibly trembling. He jabbed a finger at him.
“This ain’t over,” he sneered, then allowed Charlie to steer him toward the door.
By the time they closed up a little while later, the bar was mostly empty. Noah wanted nothing more than to go home and fall into his bed, but he had to close out Octoberfest’s tab before he could do that.
“I gotta tell you, this place has so much potential,” Octoberfest slurred, staggering slightly as he made his way up to the bar to sign his receipt. “Sure, it’s out of the way, but you guys got an opportunity here. You gotta lean into that hole in the wall, rustic charm thing. Get the fireplace going, go farm-to-table. And for the love of Christ, get some better beers. Massachusetts is crawling with microbreweries, take advantage of that! I know I’d come back to New Winslow for something like that. But for now…man, if I wanted an Octoberfest, I’d go to a town that at least had some traffic lights!”
“Nice thing to say after you drank five of those Octoberfests,” his companion said, swaying slightly beside him.
“He knows what I mean,” Octoberfest said, tossing Noah a wide, drunk smile. “Just a little friendly business advice! Give people a reason to stay, you know? Give them a reason to remember the name!”
Noah laughed a little, picking up the signed receipt. “You know,” he said, “People don’t exactly need a reason to stay in New Winslow.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You aren’t trying to get me with that whole ‘curse’ bullshit, right? I know all about that shit, man. I’m from Leominster, I’m local. I don’t know why you guys still play that game, but it’s a little sad.”
Before Noah could respond, his companion interrupted. “Do you think an Uber would come out this far? We took one from Concord, but I’m not sure the best way to go on from here.”
“You can certainly try,” Noah said, grateful for the change in conversation. “Though our WiFi is terrible and I know a lot of people have trouble getting service here. Otherwise, we do have a local cab service I can call for you.”
“That would be great!” the woman exclaimed at the same time the man said, “No, we can take care of it, thanks.”
They began arguing and Noah stepped away to the old phone hanging at the far end of the bar. He dialed quickly and waited.
“Hey boss,” Charlie greeted him, clearly still in the parking lot.
“Charlie!” Noah said, his eye on the arguing couple a few feet away. “Glad you have service. Got your first fare of the night.”
“Perfect,” Charlie said. “Let me just finish tossing out your pool cue guy. He’s being stubborn”
His voice faded a little as he spoke away from the phone receiver. “Look, pal, I’ve been threatened with worse so how about you put that down, I’ll put the cost of a new pool cue on your tab, and we can calmly finish the night. Otherwise, you’re going to leave me no choice but to shove that cue in your ear.”
He came back on the line. “Tell your folks five minutes,” he told Noah.
“Thanks, man,” Noah said.
“You got it, boss.”
Noah started to hang up as he heard Charlie say, “That’s your choice, huh? Well, okay…”
He turned back, where only the woman was standing now. “Your ride will be here in five,” he said.
She smiled. “Thanks so much,” she said. “We’re headed over to Greenfield and we just decided to take a break along the way. We thought we were closer than we are, but then realized we’re still an hour from my uncle’s house.”
“Not a problem,” Noah replied. “That happens in this area. Things are far wider spread than they seem, especially since there aren’t as many highways as other parts of the state. But don’t worry, Charlie will take care of you.”
“Well, you’ve been great,” the woman said. “And this bar is great just as it is. Don’t let Jeremy tell you anything different.” Her voice lowered. “He doesn’t know what he’s fucking talking about.”
Across the room, Jeremy was eyeing the jukebox. “You could get a DJ in here too!” he called over. “Trash this jukebox! Shove some tables out of the way! Get a dance night going. Give people a reason to come to New Wayland!”
The woman rolled her eyes, but her smile was affectionate. “He’s got dreams of owning a bar,” she told Noah. “It’s kind of cute when he’s not being a douche.”
He smiled back at her, then failed to stop a yawn from escaping. The woman laughed. “We’ll let you lock up,” she said. “Come on, Jer! Let’s go wait for the cab outside!”
Jeremy hurried over to meet her by the door. “Remember what I said, man!” he called over to Noah. “Have your boss call me!”
They walked out and the door closed behind them. After a quick glance around to make sure everyone was out, Noah walked over and locked the door. As he was heading back to the bar, Olivia came out of the office.
“Hey, give me five minutes to finish up the paperwork and we can walk home together,” she said.
Noah nodded, sliding back behind the bar. “Sounds good. My last two just left.”
“Charlie’s gone, right?”
“Yeah, he’s got a fare heading up to Greenfield.”
“That kid’s got the right idea, setting up a cab service,” Olivia said. “No Uber’s going to want to come here.”
She picked up a stray napkin and tossed it in the trash. “Alright, I’ll be back in a few!”
It was more like fifteen minutes later that they locked up and walked out into the bitter midnight air. Noah adjusted his scarf while Olivia pulled her coat tightly around herself. She prayed that Mia would be asleep when she got home. Mia had been teething on and off lately, so there had been a few nights where Olivia got home to her mom desperately trying to rock the wailing baby back to sleep. But now the exhaustion had settled into her bones along with the cold, and she knew she just couldn’t handle that tonight.
“By the way,” Noah said, breaking into her thoughts. “Check the windows in your apartment for leaks when you get a chance. I’m sealing mine up next weekend. So I’ll do yours at the same time.”
“Thanks,” Olivia said. “It’s definitely drafty, especially in my room and the living room, with those big windows. The stained glass one in the staircase between our units seems like it’s got some leaks too.”
Noah nodded. “Mmhmm. I’m trying to find out if there’s a special way to deal with stained glass. If you think of any other repairs you need, let me know too.”
Olivia laughed fondly. “Look at you, Mr. Landlord,” she teased.
Noah held up his hands. “Look, if I’m renting half my duplex to my best friend and her kid, I’m going to make sure they’re cared for.”
Their conversation was broken by the sound of an old Camry rumbling into the parking lot. Muffled arguing leaked out of the backseat and Noah heard a familiar, drunken voice yell, “There’s no fucking way it’s real!”
The driver’s window rolled down and Charlie poked his head out. “Hey guys,” he said, “We’ve got a problem.”