Noah walked into Keegan’s, feeling more hesitant about this than anything else he’d done since he came home from rehab. He was meeting with Olivia to discuss him coming back to work. She’d offered him a part-time position and he was honestly stunned that she would even consider it. But he was heading toward broke and had bills to pay in a place where few people were hiring, so it wasn’t like he had many options.
There was someone behind the bar that he’d spent so many years at. A large man with light hair was stocking glasses. He turned and grinned as Noah came in.
“Hey man, what can I get you?”
Noah froze, every cell in his body screaming. How the hell was he supposed to answer that? He wished desperately that he was just a normal person who could answer that question without an existential crisis.
He was rescued by the back door swinging and Olivia walking out. “Hey, Noah,” she said.
The big guy’s smile dropped. “Oh my God, man, I’m so sorry.”
Noah waved him off. “No, it’s fine, it’s fine.”
“Come on, let’s go sit and talk.” Olivia said.
They went over to a booth and sat down. It felt simultaneously familiar and completely foreign as Noah settled into the cheap vinyl seat.
“You told him?” Noah asked, nodding toward the bartender.
“No, I’m sorry. Bret…Bret mentioned it when he got hired, and he figured out who you were. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Noah said. “Not like it’s a secret. Whole town knows about it.”
Olivia grimaced, but didn’t disagree.
“Anyway, so you,” she said. “Bret agreed to let you come back to work. But there’re some stipulations.”
Of course there were.
“So you have to be out of here before closing,” Olivia said. “If he finds out you’re here after that, we’re both in trouble.”
Noah nodded, staring down at the table. “And you can’t handle any alcohol.”
He froze. God, why had he thought coming back here was a good idea? He was an alcoholic working at a bar. A bar that already smelled like beer and where he’d made terrible choice after terrible choice. What the fuck was he thinking?
“We need a bouncer,” Olivia continued. She clearly saw, but was trying to keep things normal. “Charlie’s cut his hours to focus on some of his other work. You’ve done it, you know the job and you’re good at it. Is that something you’d be interested in?”
Not at all, but it wasn’t like he had much choice. No one was hiring in the area and he couldn’t live off the remains of his savings for much longer.
“Yeah,” Noah said, hating how hoarse his voice sounded. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
Olivia reached across the table and gripped his hand. “It’s going to be okay,” she said.
“Sure, I know,” he said, still not looking up. “Thank you, Liv.”
He looked up and tried to smile. “I mean it,” he said. “Thank you. You’re really helping me and I appreciate it.”
“How are you doing?” she asked.
There were so many answers to that question that he couldn’t even answer it. But underneath the fear, regret, and shame, he had to acknowledge that he was alive. He was sitting across the table from Liv, who apparently still loved him and was willing to give him a second chance that he knew he didn’t deserve. So he had gratitude buried in there as well.
“Want some lunch?” Liv asked, saving him from answering.
“Um, sure,” Noah lied.
He didn’t feel like lunch at all, but he hadn’t eaten yet today. Liv looked at him for a second, then got up and headed into the back as Noah leaned his head back against the booth and closed his eyes. How was he back here? And how did it feel simultaneously like it had been twenty years and like the last year had never happened? Noah could stand up right now and immediately start taking inventory. But at the same time, it felt like somewhere he’d never been, something new and unsure.
The door opened and he lifted his head. Charlie was walking in, a baby in his arms. He spotted Noah, grinned, and came over.
“Hey, chief!” Charlie said.
All the images started coming back. The nights at work he’d been vaguely buzzed and aware of Charlie’s eyes on him. That one disastrous night Charlie had driven him home, the night he’d relapsed after all of three days sober. But Charlie didn’t look like he was as disgusted with Noah as Noah was. Instead, he was greeting him like he’d been on vacation or something.
“How are you doing?” Charlie asked.
“Good,” Noah said, kind of meaning it.
He gestured toward the baby. “He’s beautiful.”
Baby Eddy was chewing on his fingers as he gave Noah a spitty, gummy grin. “He looks like you,” Noah added.
“Poor kid,” Charlie said with a laugh. “Maybe he’ll get lucky and grow out of it. Here, you want to hold him?”
Suddenly Noah had an armful of child. Eddy settled in on Noah’s knee without a fuss, staring unblinkingly at Noah as he continued to chew his fingers. “Hey buddy,” Noah said softly, bouncing him slightly on instinct. “How are those fingers, hmm? Good stuff?”
Eddy gazed up at him. Then, without changing expression, he threw up all over Noah’s shirt. Charlie swore, swooping in to take the baby as Noah stood up, baby puke running down his t-shirt. “Shit, I’m so sorry, Noah!”
He started wiping Eddy’s face as Noah dabbed uselessly at the massive splotch of puke on his shirt. It was a pale green, standing out sharply against the white and red of his Red Sox t-shirt. Noah looked at it, then back up at Charlie’s horrified face.
“Strained peas?” he asked.
Then he started laughing, the sound coming from somewhere deep inside of him that he just couldn’t stop. He couldn’t catch his breath, he was laughing too hard as tears streamed down his face. But apparently it didn’t sound as psychotic as he thought it might because Charlie seemed more concerned about his shirt than anything else as he dug frantically through the diaper bag to find an old wash cloth he then handed to Noah.
“I’ll get the shirt cleaned, man, I’m so sorry.”
Noah waved him off, trying to catch his breath. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” he said. “Not like it’s the first time.”
He glanced down again, and again he was off, laughing as he wiped tears from his eyes with one hand and wiped green puke with the other.
Olivia was back now, and Hugh was on his way over from the bar. “What happened?” Olivia asked as she got back to the table.
“Baby puked,” Noah replied, barely getting a hold of himself.
Hugh looked like he was trying not to throw up himself. Olivia was clearly holding back laughter. “Get the shirt off,” she said. “I’ll throw it in to soak. Your new work shirt is over here anyway.”
He took off his shirt and acknowledged the wolf whistle from Liv with a wink as he rolled up his shirt and followed her out back. A moment later, as he pulled on his new work t-shirt, he realized he felt more normal than he had since coming home.