Jace swept up the last of the broken glass, wrapped it in a newspaper — the Entertainment page, which never interested him — and tossed it into the trashcan.
Idiots, he thought, thinking of the college kids who frequented the bar. Last night their tavern brawl had started with one boy throwing his glass at another across the room and ended with three underage kids going to the hospital. That’s what they were, really, kids, even if they were legally adults. There had been so much mayhem with the ambulance that Jace hadn’t had a chance to clean up the bar until now. Jace hoped none of them had died, if only because that would make him liable.
Of course, he remembered, he wasn’t too far beyond being one of those kids himself. At least he liked to think so. He was only in graduate school, after all.
It was only two p.m. He settled down behind the counter with the headlines and the Sports pages, only to realize that half the continuations of the headline stories were on the back of the Entertainment page. He swore under his breath.
The door opened and a wash of cold light blinded Jace and made him squint. Another kid. He probably wasn’t even a college student. He didn’t look older than sixteen. Jace sighed inwardly.
“How can I help you?” he asked, standing up.
“Can I have a glass of water?” the boy asked.
Jace filled one and handed it to him wordlessly.
“Thank you,” the boy said. Jace nodded in acknowledgment.
Two-thirty, three, four, five, six o’clock. The boy was still there, still sipping from the glass as if it had to last him the rest of the month. Other customers came in. It was the usual crowd. Jace wondered why seemingly half the population of the college kids that invaded the town flocked to his bar. Maybe they thought that since he was close to their age he would let them pass. He was tired of the fake IDs and juvenile excuses — “I forgot it…here’s five dollars to forget about it…I’ll pay you double” — although in truth he could remember being as desperate to drink as them. Was it to be cool, to fit in, to get the so-called experience, or were they like him, drowning something? But he pushed that out of his mind.
And then it was nine o’clock, and they were already drunk. The ones who came pouring in at this hour had pre-gamed, but that didn’t stop them from ordering freely. If anything, Jace often reflected, it encouraged them.
Idiots, he thought again as a girl fell off a barstool. She clung to the boy, who had been sitting there the whole time, still sipping his water. He looked uncomfortable as she pulled herself up by his shirt and patted him on the head to thank him.
Midnight, and they started to leave. Jace exhaled a bit. The night was almost over.
At long last, it was two a.m. Not without some relief, Jace declared, “Closing time.” The last of the stragglers trudged out, a group of loud boys wearing matching fraternity t-shirts and a boy carrying a girl wearing high heels in his arms.
Jace disappeared into the back for a moment and emerged with a mop and a bucket of sudsy water to mop up the puke. He noticed the boy still sitting there, still sipping from the glass of water. It was half-full.
“Closing time,” Jace told the boy.
The boy was staring into his glass. In a barely audible voice, he said, “Can I stay here for the night?”
Oh, jeez, Jace thought. He felt sympathetic for the kid, he really did. But he couldn’t let a complete stranger stay overnight with a locked cash register and shelves of alcohol. He shook his head.
“Sorry,” he said, “but I can’t let you do that. We have rules.”
The boy nodded, as if he had been expecting that answer. In a sudden movement that startled Jace, he drained his glass. He stood up and shuffled out without looking at Jace. For a moment, Jace considered asking the boy if he could drive him to a motel, but stopped himself. Better not to get involved with those kids.
Two o’clock. Jace unlocked the doors and entered the dark bar, not bothering to flip the light switch. Enough light was streaming in from the windows. He carried a newspaper under his arm, bought for a dime from the red kiosk at the end of the street. He sat down to read it. The headline screamed something new about the healthcare bill. Jace ignored it and looked at the other stories. News about the college, something about the state government and there, to the bottom right, an article that whispered rather than screamed:
“BOY MURDERED LAST NIGHT, BODY FOUND THIS MORNING.”
Jace let his eyes stray to the photograph of the victim, knowing even before he looked at it that it was the boy he had thrown out last night. He was smiling in the picture.
The door opened and Jace threw the newspaper into the trashcan. He served them without really listening to what they said. He had other things on his mind.