New Year’s Eve and Andrew was still stuck in New Winslow. He should have expected it. None of his repeated escape attempts had succeeded, so now here he was at ten pm, bartending at Keegan’s like some bizarre fever dream.
Olivia hadn’t been exaggerating. This place was packed. He recognized a few faces, but for the most part, he was so busy that he barely looked up for more than a second at a time. He’d been here since six and was exhausted with at least three hours left to go.
“Hey, Andrew, go take a break,” Olivia said, appearing out of nowhere.
Her light brown hair was frizzing out of the messy bun she’d piled it into and in the overhead lights, he could see sweat beading on her forehead. “Noah will be over in a sec to take over your half of the bar.”
Andrew didn’t need to be told twice. He pulled off his apron and walked out from behind the bar, passing Noah in the crowd as he made his way toward fresh air. Noah nodded, but still didn’t make eye contact.
The parking lot was still loud, but not as loud as the bar had been back inside. Andrew slipped to the side of the building and leaned against the wall, sighing.
It had been a while since he’d worked at a food service gig. When he’d first moved to Boston, he’d done loads of them, mostly through catering services that would call him on demand. But he’d been working at a desk for so long now that he’d forgotten exactly how demanding this was.
He nudged an empty nip bottle with his foot. Shit, he should probably let Liv know this was out here, shouldn’t he? Not that she had any time to do anything about it right now.
“Hey chief, what’s – oh, good, it’s you.”
Andrew looked over and saw the bulky shadow of Charlie standing in the dim streetlamp glow. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “Yeah, just taking my break.”
“No worries, no worries,” Charlie said, glancing around. “Just taking a spin around the building to make sure nothing shady’s going on.”
“No funny business here.”
“I’ll take it,” Charlie said. “So you went to high school with Liv and Noah?”
“Which means you lived in town, what, twenty years ago?”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “How old do you think they are?”
Charlie shrugged. “No idea. I always figured Liv looks younger than she is, but Noah could be anywhere from twenty-seven to forty-two.”
“I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear that. He’s thirty-three. We all are.”
Charlie shrugged. “I suck with ages. I don’t even remember my own a lot of the time. Liv says it’ll get even worse once the baby arrives.”
“Oh? You’re having a baby?”
Charlie beamed. “Yep! My girlfriend is due in February.”
Andrew smiled, cheeks aching in the cold. “That’s fantastic,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Charlie replied. “I’m terrified, but I think it’ll be fine.”
“It will,” Andrew said. “You’re going to do great.”
He glanced at the time on his phone. “I should get back in.”
“Sounds good,” Charlie said. “I’m going to do a loop of the building. Do me a favor and ask Noah to take the door for a while?”
“Sure,” Andrew said.
He started to walk inside and was immediately hit with a wave of hot air, booze, and chaos. So different from the bars he went to at home. Usually, he would go to a quiet bar and have a cocktail, either alone or with a date. If he was somewhere loud and hot, it was usually to see Cleo play and then go straight home.
He suddenly missed Cleo so much it was like a blade in his gut.
Andrew made his way up to the bar and paused. Noah was smiling as he chatted with a man. The man was young, with blonde hair and a flannel shirt. Andrew vaguely recognized him, but wasn’t able to place him. High school, maybe? It wasn’t like this was a destination for families, so he wasn’t likely to be a newcomer.
Something fluttered uneasily in his chest as he watched Noah laugh at something the man said. The man smiled at him, all brilliant white teeth, and set a couple dollars on the bar. Noah slid them into his apron, said something Andrew couldn’t hear, and the man walked away.
Andrew started walking over and the man bumped into him, splashing beer on his shoes. “Oh shit, sorry, man,” he said.
Andrew waved him off. “It’s fine, mate,” he said. “Heading to the bar anyway.”
The man laughed, then disappeared into the crowd. Andrew turned and headed back up.
Noah was still broad smiles as he chatted with a couple sitting at the far end of the bar. He turned as Andrew came back behind the bar, tying his apron on.
“All set?” he asked Andrew.
“All set. Charlie says he’s taking a round of the building and asked you to cover the door.”
“On it,” Noah said, reaching back to untie his own apron.
As he passed, Andrew could see Noah’s smiling bartender facade fall. Up close, he looked a little pale.
“You okay?” Andrew asked quietly.
“Fine,” Noah said shortly, and left.
The time passed quickly for a while as Andrew fell into the rhythm of pouring drinks and making small talk. He had never been particularly good at small talk, but thankfully everyone seemed to have their own groups and really only needed a moment of chatting before leaving the bar.
A man stumbled up to the bar around eleven-thirty. “Another pitcher,” he barked, holding himself upright on the edge of the bar.
Andrew shook his head. “Sorry mate,” he said. “I’ve already told you you’re done for the night.”
This was true. The man had come up about fifteen minutes earlier, when Olivia had been out here checking in. She and Andrew had agreed that that was the last round for this customer. The man hadn’t acknowledged them when they told him and honestly, Andrew wasn’t surprised he was back up here.
“No,” the man spat. “Do I look like I’m fucking done, mate? Go get me a beer.”
“You’re cut off,” Andrew said. “We told you earlier that this was your last round. Do you want to square up?”
“No, I don’t want to square up,” the man said, leaning over the bar.
He was taller than Andrew and had at least fifty pounds on him. Andrew knew for sure he couldn’t take this guy in a fight, but hopefully, the booze would give him an advantage when the guy took an inevitable swing.
“You’re done,” Andrew said, keeping his voice low. “How about we just stay calm and settle this now? Here, let me get you a glass of water.”
He grabbed a glass and filled it with water, then held it out to the man. The man paused for a second, then slapped the glass out of Andrew’s hand. It fell to the floor, shattering.
“I TOLD YOU I’M NOT FUCKING DONE!” the man roared.
Noah appeared suddenly out of the crowd, clamping a hand down on the man’s shoulder. “Yeah, you are,” he said, his voice calm, but firm. “Come on, time to go.”
“Fuck you,” the man spat.
“Pete, let’s just leave now before you do anything you’ll regret.”
Pete turned to Noah, looking up with malice in his eyes. Then, before any of them could react, he took a swing.
Noah was on the floor before Andrew realized what was happening. He stood up, dabbing the side of his mouth with a finger, wiping off the small amount of blood that was there.
“Yeah, you’re done, asshole,” he said as Pete stood in front of him, looking at his fist like it had swung on its own accord. He gripped Pete’s shoulder and turned toward the door.
“So the fuck what if I’m drunk?” Pete demanded. “Not like I’m the only drunk here, huh, Kelly?”
Noah took a slow breath. Andrew wanted to reach across the bar and put a hand on his arm, but stayed where he was. “Let’s go,” Noah said softly.
Charlie was on his way over. Andrew could see the sea of people parting around him as he hurried to the bar. “Pete, you just fucked up bad,” he said, all traces of the goofy kid Andrew had seen in the parking lot gone. “Noah, you’re bleeding, go get cleaned up. I’ll take it from here.”
Charlie steered Pete away from the bar and Andrew was suddenly aware of the silence around them. “Noah, are you-”
Noah walked out back without a word, the kitchen door swinging behind him.
He came back about ten minutes later, but the cheerful bartender act was gone. Even if he’d been faking it earlier, there was no sign of it at all as the time neared midnight and the countdown began. Everyone faced the TV in the corner of the bar as the ball dropped in Times Square.
Olivia stood between Noah and Andrew at the bar. She’d been dealing with the aftermath of Pete’s actions, filling out incident reports and banning Pete from the premises. She asked Noah if he wanted to get the police involved, but he’d refused, saying he could handle it himself if he needed to. A dark bruise was already blooming on his right cheek and Andrew kept seeing him probe what must be a loose tooth with his tongue. But when he’d tried to ask, Noah had blatantly ignored him.
So now here they were, facing the New Year. Andrew didn’t normally go for the blank slate business, but maybe this year really would be okay. Maybe he’d get out soon and return to Boston. Maybe he’d get the flat and live there forever.
Maybe things would be fine.
Andrew felt Olivia’s hand slide into his. He glanced over and saw that she held Noah’s in her other hand. Once again, he missed Cleo deeply.
“ONE! HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
Keegan’s erupted in cheers, confetti and noisemakers filling the air. Andrew glanced over at his friends as they watched the festivities. Both just looked tired.
And he knew his face looked exactly the same.
“Happy New Year’s,” he whispered, his throat tight.
Olivia turned and hugged him. “Happy New Year’s,” she echoed.
He closed his eyes, squeezing her tightly. Then heard the sound of spitting, and Noah swore softly.
He let go of Olivia and they both looked over. Noah stood next to them, holding a tooth in the palm of his hand. He looked up, blood gathering at the corner of his mouth.
“Happy New Year.”