Noah sat in his living room, sipping whiskey and listening to music. He’d worked the lunch shift at Keegan’s after doing some odd jobs for a couple of the ladies down at the general store this morning. Now he was sore, tired, and perfectly content to sit alone in his apartment.
The living room was sparsely furnished with only an old couch, an end table holding an ancient radio, a TV, and his dad’s old recliner. Right now he was sitting in the recliner and the sun was almost completely down, but he barely noticed.
His bedroom door creaked open and Gray Lady walked out. She strolled over to where Noah sat and jumped up, landing painfully and making herself comfortable in his lap.
“What have you been up to while I’ve been hard at work?” Noah asked, running a hand through the cat’s long gray fur. “Hmm? Lounging around while I bust my ass to keep you in cat food and pearls?”
Gray Lady started purring. He scratched behind her ears and took a sip of whiskey.
“Dad spoiled you rotten, you know that?” Noah said. “I wasn’t even allowed to move you off this recliner if you were asleep on it. You were the queen of his house. But we’re not in his house anymore, are we?”
He sighed and took another, longer sip. It burned and made his eyes water, but he ignored it.
“God, I miss him so much,” he told the purring cat. “I think it’s the change in seasons, you know? I always miss him most then. March of time and all that.”
Gray Lady stood up and kneaded at his lap for a moment, searching for a more comfortable position. Then, satisfied, she curled back up.
“You miss him too, don’t you?” Noah said. He drained his glass and set it on the table next to his recliner. “You were the only thing that made him happy some days, you know that? Near the end, when there was so much pain and me and Erin were powerless to stop it? Some days I’d search all over the house for your fluffy ass and set you down in bed with him. And you stayed. You would always stay. You were always there for him. So you know what?”
He poured himself another glass of whiskey from the bottle sitting next to him and toasted the cat with it.
“The fucking recliner is yours.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, the only sounds the radio and Gray Lady’s purrs. Then his phone rang, breaking the quiet.
He answered without looking. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Olivia said. “I’m making up some pasta if you want to come down for dinner in a few.”
Noah paused for a second, considering. He’d been planning a night of getting quietly drunk in his own apartment and was already well on his way. But Olivia was right downstairs and she made incredible pasta.
“That sounds great,” he said finally. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
“Great!” Olivia said. “See you then.”
Noah hung up, then stood. Gray Lady fell to the floor and walked away in a huff.
“Oh, don’t be like that!” Noah called after her. “Here, let me feed you before I go!”
He walked over to his cabinet, pulled out the cat food, and poured an unreasonable amount in her dish. She sniffed it, then began to eat with gusto. Forgiven, Noah tossed a couple mints in his mouth and headed downstairs.
The stairwell between their apartments was curved, with a couple of landings. Olivia had taken over the decorating for both landings, leaving a small table full of knick-knacks on each one. Between that and the beautiful stained glass windows, Noah felt guilty that he hadn’t managed to get the burned-out lightbulbs changed in over a month.
He approached Olivia’s front door, knocked, then walked in before she could answer. “Hey, Liv!” he called as he stepped into the living room.
“In the kitchen!” she called back.
He walked into the kitchen. Olivia was stirring something on the stove while Mia sat in her high chair nearby. She babbled happily to her cheerios.
“Hello, little one!” Noah exclaimed, dropping a kiss on the top of Mia’s head.
“I’m just about done,” Olivia said. “Go grab yourself a beer in the fridge if you want.”
“Thanks,” Noah said, opening the fridge door. “You want one?”
“Got one, thanks. Oh, and get the Parmesan cheese while you’re in there.”
Noah rummaged through the contents of the fridge and finally came away with a beer and the cheese. He set the cheese on the table, opened his beer, and leaned against the counter.
“Did you get the article I sent you?” Olivia asked, scooping spaghetti onto two plates.
“The one about Cleo?” Noah asked. “I saw it on Facebook earlier. The writer’s a jackass.”
“Tell me about it,” Olivia said. “Like, sorry she’s touring or whatever. Though I do wish she’d do a show out here. I miss her.”
“Where, at Keegan’s?” Noah asked sarcastically. “You want to get a live music license, complete that descent into death trap status?”
“Oh, shut up,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes as she handed him a plate of food. “Of course not. But I don’t know, Worcester or somewhere. I just want to see her play again.”
“But then she’d actually have to come home,” Noah said.
Olivia set down her own food, then turned back to the stove. “That’s not likely,” she said. “I don’t think she or Andrew have been home in…maybe five years?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Noah said. He took the small plate of pasta Olivia was carrying over. “Here, let me cut up Mia’s.”
“Thanks,” Olivia said. She picked up her beer off the counter and sat down across from him. “Have you talked to either of them lately?”
“Nope,” Noah replied. His voice sounded casual enough, but he knew he couldn’t keep that up for long. “Hey, can Mia have meatballs?”
Olivia shook her head as she took a bite of pasta. She chewed, swallowed, then said, “She can, but she won’t touch them. Pasta with butter is plenty to go with the formula. There might be some applesauce in there too if she’s still hungry after. WIC rolls over on Thursday so I’ll be going grocery shopping then.”
Noah frowned. “Liv, you know you can come to me if you’re tight on grocery money.”
Olivia nodded. “I do. And I appreciate it. But I really am fine, I promise. And don’t think I didn’t notice the fact that you ‘accidentally’ left those beers in my fridge the other night.”
Noah shook his head around a mouthful of food. “Nope, total accident. Sorry.”
“I’m sure,” Olivia said. Mia tossed her sippy cup on the floor, and Olivia leaned over to get it. “But really, we’re fine. And you do too much for us already, actually. I’m also well aware of what an average rent is in Central Massachusetts and how it compares to what you’re charging.”
“As landlord,” Noah began haughtily, “it is my prerogative to set rent at whatever I see fit.”
Olivia snorted. “Yeah, yeah. Eat your food.”
They ate quietly for a few minutes. Then Olivia sighed. “What’s up?” Noah asked through a mouthful of pasta.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Just thinking. It’s just – I wish I had something I was good at, you know? Like Cleo’s got music. I see her out there doing all this stuff and I just feel so…”
She trailed off. Noah frowned again and swallowed. “What do you mean? You’re good at a lot of things. You keep that under-funded shack of a bar running and you make amazing food like this!”
“Thanks,” Olivia said with a small laugh. “But like, I don’t know. Something cool. Artistic or something. I feel like I don’t really do anything except go to work and take care of Mia.”
“How was that painting class?” Noah asked.
Olivia shrugged. “Boring. Awkward. I don’t want to go back. I just feel like maybe it’s too late to start something new like that.”
“No way,” Noah said. “Look at you. You’re young, you’re hot, you’re perfectly capable of picking up a new skill if you want to.”
Olivia laughed and stole a roasted pepper off his plate. “Thanks,” she said. “I guess I just keep looking, huh?”
Noah shrugged. “Nothing’s going to change on its own so you might as well.”
The living room light was on and the TV was playing when Celine slipped in the front door a little after one in the morning. Roman was sitting on the couch, half paying attention to whatever old movie was playing.
“I thought I told you to get some sleep,” Celine said as she closed the door and locked it.
Roman looked over at her and shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep,” he said.
Celine slipped out of her coat and hung it up beside the door. She kicked off her shoes, then came over and sat down next to him.
“Cordy quit,” Roman said, not looking at her. “I talked to her after…after we talked. And she quit. I don’t blame her.”
“Yeah,” Celine said softly. “Yeah, she left shortly after you did.”
Roman groaned. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I left you short-handed on top of everything else.”
Celine shrugged. “Yeah, you did.”
“I can’t believe I lost it like that. I know I’m not always…the best at keeping myself in check. But God, I was horrible to her.”
Celine didn’t answer. Not that he’d been expecting her to disagree and tell him it was fine. But the silence hurt even more than the confirmation would have.
“When was the last time you tried?” Celine asked as she reached over and turned off the TV.
Roman considered playing clueless and asking her what she meant. Instead, he answered honestly. “Tuesday. I went to the town line on Tuesday. Nothing. Just like always. And all these people passed by, no problem. And they knew. I know they knew.”
Celine sighed and stood back up. “Let’s go to bed,” she said. “Things will look better in the morning.”
Roman nodded and stood up with her. “Yeah,” he said, knowing full well that things would be exactly the same.