Charlie was exhausted. Two full-time jobs, various side gigs including the cab service he was currently doing, and a four-month-old baby at home. He wasn’t surprised, but all the advice in the world hadn’t prepared him for the bone-deep fatigue of parenthood.
He’d checked in with Rafaela earlier, when she’d been putting baby Eddie to bed. They’d been doing fine, so Charlie had just drank a Red Bull and tried to keep going a little longer.
Diapers were expensive.
He was currently pulled over outside of Keegan’s, which was already closed for the night. Charlie hadn’t been scheduled to work there, so he’d taken advantage and gone out to cruise for cab fares. Keegan’s had had a few, but come one in the morning, the place was silent. Once he’d dropped off his last Keegan’s fare, he’d crept down the dark Main Street, past Forest Charms and New Winslow House of Pizza, and back into the less populated area between there and Keegan’s.
Charlie honestly wasn’t expecting anything else from here on in. Once Keegan’s closed for the night, there was really nowhere else to pick anyone up. It was one of the perils of running a cab in a small, cursed town. But every so often, he’d get a call from an Uber or Lyft driver from the surrounding area with a fare heading to New Winslow. He’d meet them at the town line, they’d pay him a portion of the fare, and he’d get the person the rest of the way home. That way, those who knew and cared about the curse could avoid it.
But that wasn’t a particularly common thing. So instead he’d done his last sweep of the town and now it was time to go home and crawl into bed.
His phone buzzed just as he was pulling out of the Keegan’s parking lot. He picked it up, the appeal of one last fare beating out his fatigue. “Hello?”
“Hey, Charlie, it’s Matt.”
Matt was an Uber driver from nearby Ware and an old buddy of Charlie’s. He was also well aware of what happened in New Winslow, so he was one of those who regularly took advantage of the arrangement with Charlie.
“Matt, what’s up, my man?”
“Listen, are you still out?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, you caught me right before I was heading home.”
“Good, good. Hey, listen, man, I’ve got a fare coming to New Winslow from Ware. Mind meeting me at the usual spot?”
“Sure thing,” Charlie said, pulling a U-turn on the empty street.
“Warn you in advance, this one’s toasted,” Matt said. “Bartender had to set up the ride. But he paid in cash, so that’s good.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. Not that a drunk fare wasn’t familiar, but he didn’t want any trouble tonight. Hopefully he could just get whoever it was home and be done quickly.
“I’m like ten minutes out,” Matt said. “I’m heading up 122 now.”
“Heading over there too,” Charlie said.
“Thanks man, I appreciate this,” Matt said. “Worst case, I would have brought him home. But I’ve got Marlie now and you know how it is with kids. I wouldn’t want to leave Robin stranded if something happened.”
“I get it,” Charlie said. “It’s not a problem.”
“Alright, see you in ten,” Matt said, and hung up.
Charlie turned onto the dark, wooded road out of town and flipped on his high beams. It was a clear night and warm enough to have the windows down as he drove. He turned the radio up a little as he got away from the darkened houses and further into the forest. There was generally no radio or phone service a little further on, so he always kept a stack of CDs in his car.
His buddies in Worcester made fun of him for it, but it beat the silence. So now the pounding guitars of one of his favorite bands from high school kept him awake as he made his way past the town line.
The usual spot was a shoulder of the road about a hundred yards from the town line sign. Charlie passed by, spotted the sandy shoulder, and pulled over. He threw on his hazards and waited, trying not to doze off as he did so.
He jerked awake to Matt tapping on his window frame. Charlie jumped and Matt grinned in the light of the headlights. “Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty.”
Charlie laughed, shaking his head. “Shit, man, sorry.”
Matt shrugged. “I remember the baby phase,” he said. “I’m impressed you’re out at all.”
“Not like I can stop buying diapers,” Charlie said, rolling his neck as he opened the door and stepped out of the car.
“Here, give me a hand with this guy,” Matt said. “I’m not entirely sure he’s still conscious. Wouldn’t shut up when we were leaving Ware, but got real quiet about ten minutes ago.”
Charlie followed Matt back to his car and peered into the backseat as Matt opened the door. His heart sank as he recognized the lanky figure folded into the back.
“Fuck,” he muttered.
Matt glanced at him curiously. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Charlie said, eyes still on Noah, who was sitting in the backseat with his head back, eyes closed. “Yeah, he’s…a friend.”
Matt winced. “Everyone’s got their sloppy nights,” he said with false lightness.
How about their sloppy years? Charlie thought, but didn’t say out loud. Instead, he reached into the car and shook Noah’s shoulder. “Hey, chief.”
Noah’s eyes flew open and he jumped in the seat, then turned to face Charlie. In the dim lights, Charlie could see his face was flushed and his eyes were glassy.
“Charlie?” he muttered.
“Yeah, man,” Charlie said, trying to keep his voice gentle. “Come on, I’m bringing you home.”
He watched as Noah slowly processed the words and his surroundings, then pulled himself out of the car.
“Hey, thanks,” he said to Matt, who was standing beside them. He pulled out his wallet and began awkwardly fumbling it open. “How much do I owe you?”
Matt shook his head. “Man, you already paid, remember?”
Noah nodded, but still handed him a twenty dollar bill. When Matt went to say something, Noah shook his head and put his wallet clumsily back into his back pocket.
“Take it,” he said with a sad smile. “Take it.”
Matt pocketed the bill. “Thanks.”
He turned to Charlie. “Got it from here?” he asked.
Noah was already walking toward Charlie’s car. Charlie watched as he opened the passenger door, tried to climb in, and fell on his back. Before he could go over and help, Noah pushed himself up and tried again. This time he made it in, sitting in the seat and leaving the passenger side door swinging open.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he said.
Matt took the twenty back out and handed it to Charlie. “Here’s your cut,” he said. “Thanks a lot, man.”
He clapped Charlie on the shoulder, then got back in his car and started it up. Then he waited with the engine going as Charlie got back into his own car, closing his door, then reaching over Noah to close the other side.
Noah reeked of whiskey and sweat as Charlie drove them back into town. He sat in the seat with his seatbelt undone, tilting his face up into the breeze coming in the open window.
“Hey, Charlie,” he mumbled.
Charlie waited, but Noah didn’t say anything else. They drove in silence, passing by Keegan’s and heading into downtown.
“Hey, Noah, what’s your address?” Charlie said after a few minutes.
“Your home, man,” Charlie said. “What’s your address? It’s been a while since I’ve been to your place.”
“Uhhh…up here,” Noah murmured, closing his eyes and tilting his head back up into the breeze.
Charlie glanced at the trees surrounding them. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Unless you live in the woods.”
Noah chuckled weakly. “Nah.”
“What’s your address?”
Noah mumbled an address that sounded real enough to Charlie. The street was near enough to here, so he started making his way over.
He recognized Noah’s place as he pulled up, a small duplex just outside of the main part of town. The house was dark, but there was a car in the driveway.
He pulled up behind it and put his car in park. “We’re here, man,” he said.
Noah didn’t answer, he just kept looking out the window.
“I’m a real piece of shit, Charlie.”
Oh no. Charlie was not equipped to deal with this and he knew it. “Nah, you’re not,” he tried.
Noah turned and looked skeptically at him, but didn’t reply. Then he opened the passenger door. He sat for a second, letting the cool night air pour into the car. Then he fished his wallet out, opened it, and handed Charlie a twenty dollar bill.
“Noah, you already paid,” Charlie started, holding the money back out to him.
“I know,” Noah replied, not taking the money back.
“That’s nearly a hundred dollars total for a ride home from Ware,” Charlie continued, pushing the money into his hand. “Tell you what, if you still feel the need to pay a hundred dollars tomorrow morning, give it to me then.”
Noah laughed, but didn’t take the money. “You got a baby,” he said.
Charlie sighed. Noah turned away from his outstretched hand, stood up, and closed the door behind him, leaving the window open and leaning heavily on the frame.
Charlie unbuckled his seatbelt. “You need a hand inside?” he asked, already climbing out of the car.
Noah went to wave him off and fell, landing on his back again. Charlie ignored his protests and walked around the front of the car.
“Up,” he ordered, taking Noah’s hand and pulling him to his feet.
Noah didn’t argue, to Charlie’s surprise. Instead, the older man quietly followed, focusing intently on each step as they made their way up the short walk.
They stopped at the front door as Noah fumbled for his house key. “Fuck,” he mumbled softly.
“Bartender took my keys. My house key was on there.”
“You got a hidden spare?”
Noah shook his head, clutching the railing to keep from falling. “Andrew’s got it,” he said.
“Andrew’s staying with you?” Charlie asked. “Want me to call him?”
Noah shook his head more intensely this time. “No, no, don’t. He’s staying with Liv. Jesus, he hates me. He’ll hate me more if you call. I’ll sleep in my…”
He seemed to realize the truck wasn’t there and groaned. “Shed,” he finished.
Charlie raised an eyebrow. It was summer, so it wasn’t like Noah was going to freeze if he slept in the shed. But Charlie still didn’t feel right leaving him there.
He was saved from having to decide by the sound of a deadbolt sliding out of place behind the locked door. Seconds later, the door swung open and a bleary looking Andrew was standing there.
“Noah, what the hell?” he mumbled.
“Sorry bud,” Charlie said. “He’s my last fare of the night.”
“Forgot my key,” Noah said.
“When the bartender took your keys?” Andrew said. “I was sleeping right under that window, mate. You’re not sleeping in the bloody shed, get in here.”
He went to take Noah’s arm and Noah flinched, crashing backwards onto the steps. Andrew and Charlie both went to help him up, but he waved them off and got slowly to his feet. He then attempted to walk confidently into the house and instead slammed directly into Andrew.
Andrew caught Noah under his elbows and managed to keep them upright by sheer luck. Charlie watched as he straightened them up and waited for Noah to move.
Noah didn’t. Instead, he made direct, foggy eye contact with Andrew.
He smiled. “Hey.”
Then before Andrew could respond, Noah dropped to the ground, taking Andrew down with him. Andrew yelped in surprise and pain as his knees made contact with the steps.
“Shh,” Noah whispered loudly. “You’ll wake up Liv.”
Andrew rolled his eyes and stood up. He and Charlie pulled Noah to his feet. “I’ll get him inside,” Andrew said. “Thanks, Charlie.”
“Thanks.” Charlie said. “Hey Noah, drink some water before bed, chief.”
Noah gave him a salute and turned to walk into the house. This time he hit the door frame, but made it inside.
Andrew turned as Noah disappeared around the corner. “Thanks,” he said to Charlie.
Charlie nodded. “Tell Liv hi for me,” he said.
Charlie could tell from Andrew’s face that he was feeling that same blend of worry and anger that Charlie could feel simmering in his own gut. But Andrew didn’t say anything, and neither did he. So instead he turned and started walking toward his car.
He wanted to be home with his family.