Roman had always loved to cook. So when the opportunity to buy New Winslow House of Pizza had come around, he and Celine had discussed it, looked over their finances, and decided to take the plunge. Now it was the primary pizza place in the small town and Roman was very proud of that fact.
Garlic sizzled on the cast iron skillet, olive oil sparking and spattering as it cooked. The smell, homey and so very familiar, wafted over to where Roman was prepping chicken breasts for the marinade. He and Olivia over at Keegan’s had been talking marinades the other day, and now he was inspired to try some new ones on the daily sandwich specials.
Across the kitchen, Celine was chopping vegetables and prepping the salads and sandwich fixings for the lunch rush. They’d discussed opening for breakfast a few times, but honestly, there was no point in competing with the bagel counter at the general store. And Roman loved this quiet time before they opened, cooking with the love of his life before the chaos started.
Celine dropped a pepper on the ground and swore loudly. Roman laughed, then hid so she wouldn’t see. If she thought he was laughing at her (which he was), he could expect a pepper to be lobbed in his direction shortly. By his professional, forty-two-year-old wife who co-owned this business and was well aware of the cost of peppers these days.
Fuck, he loved her so much.
The marinade was sitting next to him on the counter. A garlicky, citrus-based liquid with loads of hot spices. He’d tasted a little earlier and thought he might’ve damaged his tongue. So he knew it’d be a hit.
He thought of Iris suddenly and his good mood faded some. She was getting in over her head with this whole finding the source of the curse. He knew she was good at what she did, but she seemed to think it had never occurred to him to look for a solution. Of course it had, and of course he’d found nothing. And he wasn’t about to go meddle with even more magic, not after spending twenty years under a magical influence. He had a happy life, and there was no need to risk that. He just hoped that she would realize when too much was too much and back off.
He and Celine had looked into it seriously for several years. They’d done the research and called in everyone who might be able to help. Mediums, hypnotists, scholars of the supernatural. None of them had been able to give Roman a solid answer about why he was physically unable to step beyond the town border. Finally he’d decided enough was enough. He could adapt to his environment and embrace his life and try not to dwell on what might have been.
The timer went off and he walked over to the oven, opened it, and pulled out the rolls he’d been baking. Crisp and golden on top. Perfect.
He did his best not to think about the curse. He was very conscious of the fact that he was likely its longest-held captive. It was a bit of a joke to some people, like the kids who thought they were so funny calling in prank orders over the border. He’d been really depressed about it for a long time, drinking too much and smoking heavily. Celine sitting him down for some tough love had helped him clean up his act, and now he’d been sober for almost ten years. AA meetings weren’t the greatest option since it was a small town and he couldn’t exactly go a few towns over to save his anonymity. But the tiny group that met in the basement of the Congregational church was discreet, and Roman found himself still going sometimes when things were particularly stressful.
Smoking had been harder to kick and he’d ended up asking one hypnotist who’d come to help him with the curse if she offered help with that as well. She’d agreed, and now the idea of cigarettes had blended with some more esoteric ideas in his mind. So he just tried to avoid thinking about them altogether.
So now here he was, forty-two with a wife and three kids he loved more than anything in the world. He had a successful business, owned his own home, and made a fucking amazing penne alfredo. He was perfectly happy exactly where he was, no matter how Iris’s investigation went.
Even if his son was growing up and away from him. Even if he couldn’t be at hockey games with the other parents, or drive Jamie to practice after school.
And even if, in a few years, Jamie would be off to college somewhere else. And maybe he’d stay out there and start a life. A life Roman could never fully be a part of.
And even if he knew deep down that the anger that regularly simmered inside him stemmed from being trapped. And that anger was slowly driving a wedge between him and Celine, no matter how much they loved each other.
The chicken was now soaking in the marinade, Celine had moved over to the pizza station to start making a slice pie, and he could see a family in the parking lot making their way up to the front door.
There was no time to dwell on this right now. It was time to start the day.
Despite the sterile smell of antiseptic, Olivia always found Dr. Degas’ office comforting. She’d grown up coming here for everything from strep throat to pap smears and now her daughter was also a patient. Right now she sat with a mostly naked Mia in her lap as Dr. Degas typed a few final notes into her ancient laptop.
“Everything looks great, Olivia,” Dr. Degas said, looking up over her tortoiseshell glasses. “Looks like that cold she had has completely passed. You’re doing a great job.”
Olivia smiled, trying to hide the fatigue weighing her down after another late night. “Thanks,” she said.
“I did want to talk to you, though,” Dr. Degas said. She turned away from the computer, focusing her full attention on Olivia now. “That sheet you filled out in the waiting room, that was a postpartum depression screening. And some of your answers indicated that you might be at risk. Which concerns me.”
Olivia frowned at her, caught completely off guard. “What? She’s almost a year old. And I’m fi-”
“How are you doing, Olivia?” Dr. Degas interrupted, her eyes filled with concern.
Mia started squirming on Olivia’s lap. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just tired.”
Dr. Degas made a skeptical noise but didn’t argue with her. She just nodded. “Just remember, I’m your doctor too,” she said. “If you ever start to feel like maybe you need some help, I’m a phone call away.”
Before Olivia could respond, Mia burst into tears. She grabbed at Olivia’s sweater and twisted her body to escape Olivia’s grip.
“Someone’s ready for her nap,” Dr. Degas said, mercifully changing the subject away from Olivia. “Alright, let’s wrap up. You’re all set with your WIC benefits?”
Olivia nodded as she caught her grip on the eel-like child. “I am.”
“When’s your next appointment?”
“Thursday, over in Athol.”
“Great,” Dr. Degas said, typing that into her computer. “Now, I know you’ve avoided it up until now, but should you or Mia get hit with the curse, just call me. And don’t bother mentioning it to the receptionists. Gina and Sandy don’t like talking about it and they’ll make everything more complicated than it needs to be. So just call me directly. And I think that’s it! Take care of yourself and that beautiful little girl and I’ll see you in three months!”
Dr. Degas swept out of the room before Olivia could say thank you. Instead, she shoved the idea of postpartum anything out of her mind and tried to pin her child down long enough to dress her.
Mia was still fussy, but no longer wailing, as Olivia strapped her in her car seat a few minutes later. She was tightening the straps when her phone buzzed. It rang once, then stopped.
Weird, Olivia thought, giving the straps one last pull. She checked them over quickly, then hopped in the driver’s seat and pulled out her phone.
With a shot of pleasant surprise, she saw Cleo’s name on the display. She glanced back to make sure Mia was fine in the back seat, then quickly hit the call back button.
After a few rings, Cleo picked up. “Hello?” she said, her voice slightly distracted.
“Hi!” Olivia said, “It’s me! Sorry I missed you, I was getting Mia in her seat. What’s up?”
“Oh,” Cleo said. For someone who had just called her, she didn’t seem all that enthused about a conversation. Then Olivia remembered how the phone only rang once.
Her stomach sank. Maybe Cleo had just pocket dialed her or something.
“Yeah,” Cleo continued, “I just wanted to let you know I’ll be in town for Christmas. You know, if you’re around and want to get together at some point.”
“Definitely!” Olivia said. “I’d love to! When are you getting here?”
“Me and Andrew are taking the bus to Worcester on the twenty-second, then renting a car from there.”
“Oh no, you got rid of your car?”
Cleo laughed. “Yeah, I sold the Silver Lightning. I didn’t need it here and honestly, it’s not worth trying to park in the city.”
Olivia nodded, knowing full well that Cleo couldn’t see. “I never thought of that. It makes sense.”
There was a beat of silence. Olivia glanced in the rearview mirror. Mia was chewing on a plastic whale in the backseat.
“That’s so great that you guys will be here! It’s been so long!” she said, and immediately winced at how enthusiastic she sounded. Did she sound as pathetic as she felt?
“It has!” Cleo said, and it heartened Olivia to hear that she sounded happy too. “We should definitely go get a drink somewhere when I’m back.”
“Yeah!” Olivia agreed, then glanced back again to where her child had now thrown the whale to the floor and was chewing on her own foot. “Though it might be tough to get a sitter that close to Christmas. So maybe we can do drinks at my house if that ends up being a problem? You can meet Mia!”
Cleo’s voice had changed again, and Olivia’s heart sank. “Yeah, maybe we can do that.”
“Well, I have to go,” Olivia said, suddenly anxious to get off the phone. “But I can’t wait to see you! Let me know when you get here! Have you talked to Noah yet?”
“Not yet. I’ll call him. Or text or something.”
“I’ll be seeing him tonight,” Olivia said. “So I’ll let him know.”
“Great,” Cleo said with obvious relief.
“See you soon!”
“See you soon,” Cleo echoed, her enthusiasm sounding forced. She hung up.
Olivia set her phone down and sighed. “She couldn’t have been less interested,” she said to Mia. “Growing up sucks. Stay little as long as…oh, you’re asleep. Alright, let’s get you home.”