An hour later, they were back in Olivia’s living room. Olivia and Cleo sat on one couch while Andrew sat on the smaller couch across from them. In theory, Noah was sitting in the recliner beside Olivia. But he was now telling a story with such drunken enthusiasm that he barely even touched the seat as the others looked on in amusement.
“And then,” Noah said, sitting down on the edge of the recliner, “This guy has the motherfucking audacity to ask for his drinks to be comped!”
Cleo choked on the sip of beer she’d just taken. “No way!”
“Yes!” Noah exclaimed. “He comes up to me and he goes,” Here, his voice dropped into a growly, unflattering impression of the customer, his already thick accent now cartoonish. “‘Hey, listen, kid. I know we had our differences before. But between us men, let’s make a deal. See, it’s my lady’s birthday today and it sure would mean a lot to me and her if you would just give us these drinks. And maybe another round or two.’”
“What did you say?” Andrew asked, rapt despite himself.
Noah turned and looked him dead in the eye for the first time that night. “What could I say?” he said with a grin. “I told him to eat shit. Him and his girlfriend. They’re going to run me like a dog all night, they can pay for the privilege.”
Olivia laughed. “And this is where I had to get involved.”
Noah took a swig of his beer. “Yeah, she’s over there minding her own business, cooking orders or something. And this guy, he just fucking lunges over the bar at me. Like, grabby little bat claws reaching for my collar. He’s gonna choke me for his girlfriend’s birthday instead.”
“And I hear the commotion and realize there’s a situation out there that I really don’t want to deal with,” Olivia picked up. “I go out there in time to see Charlie – you guys remember Charlie Gulbenkian?”
“About twenty-three?” Noah added. “Built like a brick shithouse? Works just about every job in this town?”
Cleo shook her head. “No, I don’t remember him.”
Noah waved a hand dismissively. “Makes sense. He would’ve been in, like, middle school when you two left.”
Andrew and Cleo exchanged a look, but didn’t say anything.
“Well,” Olivia continued. “I get out there in time to see Charlie literally throw this guy off of Noah and onto the floor. The girlfriend is screaming and the guy seems to think he actually has a shot at fighting Charlie. He’s swinging from the floor-”
“Fucking humping the air, trying to get up,” Noah said, sliding down to the rug and demonstrating with exaggerated hip thrusts up into the air. “It was amazing.”
“And Charlie pulls him to his feet, gets face level with him, and says, bro, you don’t want to do this. How about you pay your tab and leave?”
“And he does!” Noah yelled, pulling himself upright on the edge of the coffee table. “You should have seen him, he almost pissed himself. He tosses his credit card at me and I give him the slip to sign. And Charlie gets real close and says to him, he says, make sure you leave a good tip too. And then leave and pray the town lets you go.”
Cleo shuddered. “That’s terrifying.”
Noah shrugged. “Yeah, but it got me a fifty percent tip, so…”
Andrew was shaking his head. “Wow…” he said. “That’s…wow.”
“Yeah,” Noah said. He stood back up and wobbled a little on his feet. “I’m going to get another drink. Anyone need anything from the kitchen?”
“I’m good,” Cleo said.
Andrew shook his head, trying his best not to look up at Noah’s flushed face. “Still working on mine.”
“Same,” Olivia said. “Mia’s not going to care if I’m hungover in the morning.”
Noah walked out into the kitchen, disappearing around the corner.
“So Liv,” Cleo began, the room suddenly feeling much quieter. “When did you start running Keegan’s?”
Olivia thought for a second, taking a sip of her mostly empty beer. “Five years ago?” she said finally. “Yeah, about five years now. Then Noah was looking for a job so I brought him on as a bartender. It’s nice having him there. Not that we don’t see each other constantly outside of work anyway.”
“Yeah,” Cleo said, “I mean, his dad’s place is what, a mile from here? So that’s not bad at all.”
“True, but he sold that after his dad passed.”
Noah swung around the corner of the kitchen doorway and walked back into the room. He sat in the recliner and cracked open his beer.
“So, what’s new with you guys?” he asked, looking at Cleo and Andrew, then taking a sip of his drink. “How’s life in the big city? Is it all it’s cracked up to be?”
Was he intentionally being antagonistic? Or was he just drunk? Cleo and Andrew exchanged another look, but Andrew couldn’t quite read Cleo’s expression.
“It’s good?” Cleo said after a second. “I’m going on tour next month, so it’s been a lot of prep work for that.”
Noah grinned a wide, sincere grin that didn’t match the bitter tone of his previous words. “Oh yeah! Oh, by the way, ignore that douchebag blog guy. You aren’t selling out, you’re just outgrowing him and his bullshit.”
Andrew saw tears suddenly shining in Cleo’s eyes. “Thank you, Noah,” she said softly.
Noah turned to Andrew now. “How about you, Andrew? How’s city life treating you? Is it transformative? Does it fulfill you? Doing sales?”
Andrew winced. No doubt about the venom in those words.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Yeah, no complaints.”
Noah nodded. “Good,” he said. “It’s always good to find where you belong.”
There was now a palpable tension in the room. Andrew was honestly only surprised that it hadn’t arrived sooner.
“So, Cleo,” Olivia said, breaking the silence. “Where’s your tour going?”
“Mostly east coast,” Cleo said. “New York, Nashville, New Orleans, and a few other stops. It’s my biggest tour by far so I’m really excited. And nervous.”
Noah leaned over and pressed a hand slightly too heavily into her knee. “You’re going to do great,” he said with a smile. “You’re going to blow them the fuck away.”
Cleo met his eyes and smiled. “Thank you,” she said, a warmth spreading through her chest. “That means a lot. But what about you? What have you been up to?”
Noah straightened up and took another drink. He shrugged. “Same old same old, you know? Bartending, driving the snowplow if it ever snows again, home repairs. Banging every hot guy that passes through town. Same old small, boring life.”
Olivia laughed. “You’ve been dating and didn’t tell me?” she said with an affected hurt that told the others this was clearly a regular discussion.
Noah laughed affectionately. “Oh yeah, making my way through the Swift River Valley. And you know what, my love?”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “What?”
Noah dropped his voice to a stage whisper. “I have seen many, many people checking you out at work. And not just that lovely lady from tonight.”
Cleo leaned in conspiratorially. “Oh yeah?” she said in the same stage whisper. “A lovely lady?”
“Many, many, huh?” Olivia asked, her voice indulgent.
“So. Many,” Noah said. He lightly slapped Olivia’s knee. “Get yourself some! It’s not me they’re leaving those tips for, I know that much.”
“You, um, you get a lot of dates bartending?” Andrew asked awkwardly, taking a sip of his own beer.
“Oh yeah,” Noah replied with a wicked glint in his eyes. “Nothing but blowjobs around here.”
Andrew choked and Olivia rolled her eyes. “Jesus Christ, Noah,” she muttered.
“What? He asked.”
Noah stood up, knocking over a couple of empty beer cans. “On that note,” he said. “I’m going to head home. See you guys tomorrow?”
He pulled a key fob out of his pocket and Andrew narrowed his eyes. “Where do you live?” he asked. “Do you need a ride?”
Noah shook his head with a grin. “I’m right upstairs,” he said, swaying slightly. “I’m all set on that ride. Liv, kiss that baby girl goodnight for me.”
He stumbled out the front door and they were quiet for a moment as his uneven footsteps moved heavily upstairs.
“He’s so full of shit,” Olivia said. “I haven’t seen him go on a date in two years, that fucking asshole.”
“I didn’t realize you guys were neighbors!” Cleo said. “That’s great!”
“It really is,” Olivia replied. “He helps me out a lot and I think it helps him to know we’re right downstairs. His sister moved away right after their dad passed and I know it was a lot for him all at once.”
Andrew cleared his throat hesitantly. “How is he doing with that?”
Olivia shrugged with a small smile. “He’s good. Wouldn’t tell me otherwise of course, but he seems to be mostly okay by now.”
There was another short silence. Andrew could hear footsteps upstairs that abruptly ended somewhere above his head.
“You guys must be wiped!” Olivia said suddenly. “Um, I’ve got the couch and my bed. I can take the daybed in Mia’s room.”
“We’re not kicking you out of your bed!” Cleo exclaimed.
“No way,” Andrew agreed. “I’ll take the daybed if you think it wouldn’t scare Mia. Cleo snores, it’ll wake her up.”
“Fuck you,” Cleo said. “Go sleep in the car.”
Twenty minutes later, Andrew was lying on the daybed in the darkened nursery, listening to the sounds of baby Mia breathing. The room was cozy and warm, a night light casting a soft pink light in the corner.
But it wasn’t home. And as cozy as it was, and as much as he enjoyed spending the night with his friends, he knew he was at risk the whole time he was in New Winslow.