Cleo was actually somewhat surprised to see her mother’s car in the driveway as she pulled up to her childhood home. While they had discussed the fact that Cleo was going to be here today, she’d assumed their conversation last night was all the contact her mom was going to need for the next few days. But here she was.
Cleo wondered if she was planning to stay for the entire time. And if that was really a good idea. While she loved her mother very much, she knew that extended company made her anxious and irritable. And in her case, anything over half an hour was sometimes considered extended.
She turned off the rental car and got out, shivering in the sharp, cold air. The house looked exactly like it had for her entire life. Two stories of red brick, a small porch in the front, a crabapple tree looming over the yard. A cozy country home she’d been ready to leave by the age of fifteen.
The door was unlocked, so she stepped inside and kicked snow off her shoes. “Mom?” she called down the dim hallway.
“Living room!” her mother called back.
Cleo followed her voice back to the open living room and stopped short in the doorway, her next words evaporating as she took in the chaos around her. There were things stacked and scattered everywhere. In this room alone, she saw piles of everything from her elementary school projects to cocktail dresses with the tags still on. It was like all her mom’s belongings had been taken out to pack, then just thrown on the floor to be dealt with later.
Her mother sighed, sweeping a lock of long, silver hair behind her ear. “I know,” she said. “I just get started and I get so overwhelmed…but it’s just things, right? It won’t be a problem.”
Cleo pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes momentarily. “No, no, Mom, it’ll be fine.”
“Everything from the basement is up here. I just need to figure out what else to take with me and what to do with everything else. And then there’s the kitchen, the attic…”
The attic? “Mom,” Cleo began weakly. “…how long do you have again?”
“We’ve got the rest of the month and the whole month of January, remember?”
Cleo shook her head. “No, Mom, I’m only here for the week. That’s what we agreed on. I’m going on tour in January.”
Her mom laughed, but it seemed false. “Oh, right! Of course, sweetie, I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. A week is fine. Of course.”
Cleo surveyed the room while her mother wrung her hands beside her. Cleo could tell she was trying to stave off an anxiety attack.
“Mom,” she said, keeping her voice quiet and calm. “I promise, it isn’t a problem. How about you go through everything here and decide what you want to bring to your new house? While you’re doing that, I’ll go through the rest of the house and figure out what to do next.”
Her mother nodded and smiled shakily, then walked back into the living room. Cleo watched as she started picking through a pile of framed photos on the sofa. Then, satisfied that her mom was okay, she walked down the hallway and into the kitchen.
Sunlight streamed into the room and Cleo frowned, suddenly realizing what was wrong here. The house was warm. Her mother had said the electricity would be cut off before Cleo got back, yet the heat was going and the refrigerator was humming.
She almost called out to her mom to ask, then decided better of it. If her mom was already agitated with so much work left to do, Cleo was better off dealing with it herself later on. She took out her phone and made a note to call the electric company. Then she opened the fridge, gagged, and immediately slammed it shut again.
Okay, it was fine. She had offers of help and use of Noah’s truck. She could get this place emptied before she left. And then, once her mom was situated in her new home, maybe she’d be less spacey and forgetful.
Cleo swept her thick, black hair up into a high bun, grabbed a notebook from the pile of stationary on the kitchen table, and sat down to get organized.
Half an hour later, she was finished mapping out her plan. She’d walked around the house, assessed the amount of work to be done in each room, and found a trash hauling service. A lot of what was left in the house was only good for trash or recycling, but there were plenty of things still in good shape. She’d see what her mom left behind, then talk to Noah and find a time to get the rest of it to a thrift shop.
She had just started filling a trash bag with piles of junk mail when her mother appeared in the doorway. “I’m done,” she said quietly.
“Do you need any help with it?” Cleo asked.
Her mom shook her head. “I’m not taking much,” she said. “It’ll fit in my car. Are you all set if I leave?”
Cleo looked closely at her mom. She looked exhausted. “I’m fine, Mom,” she said, forcing a smile. “Go home. I’ll call you tonight.”
Her mom nodded and kissed her on the cheek. Then she slipped out of the house, leaving Cleo alone among the piles.
She glanced at her phone. Not even noon yet. She had plenty of time left to do this.
Minnie gazed longingly into the living room, where she could see that Family Feud had already started playing. She hated Family Feud. But unfortunately, she was trapped on the phone with her sister-in-law, Sophie, and unable to get off the call to change the show.
Or to escape this conversation.
“Sophie, you know I’d love to see their new house,” Minnie said patiently. “But you also know why I can’t go.”
“But isn’t it worth trying?” Sophie asked, her voice tinny and wheedling at the end of the line. “It’s not every day your only niece buys a house. We can ride up together.”
Minnie took a deep breath. Sophie was nice, she really was. But even after thirty-five years, she still didn’t understand that the New Winslow curse wasn’t something that Minnie could just shake off with enough willpower.
“No,” she said after a moment. “Thank you for the offer, but I’m done putting myself through that.”
Sophie started to protest, but Minnie interrupted. “I’m perfectly happy seeing the house over Skype,” she said. “And now, I’m sorry, but I do need to be going.”
She heard Sophie sigh, then say, “That’s fine. We’ll set up the system.”
“Thank you,” Minnie said, and meant it.
“Talk to you soon.”
Minnie hung up and slowly began walking back into the living room. Family Feud was on a commercial and now an ad for a car dealership in Athol was blaring. The fuzzy music in the background felt awfully out of place.
And it was out of place, Minnie realized, as the commercial changed to a jewelry store and the heavy bass continued. The floor of her house vibrated just a little and the music was getting closer.
“What on earth?”
Minnie walked to the front door. She opened the door and saw Roman Beckett from the pizza place climbing out of his truck as the music shut off. She frowned. “Roman?” she said. “What are you doing here? I didn’t order anything today.”
Roman smiled. “Oh no,” he said. “It’s my day off.”
“Oh?” Minnie said, now thoroughly confused as to why he was standing there with his bag anyway. “What on earth are you doing here?”
Roman shifted the red bag as he walked and she realized it was a toolkit, not his delivery bag. “Well, I wanted to fix your front porch steps before we get any more snow,” he said. “If that’s alright with you. I would have called, but I didn’t have your number on me.”
Minnie smiled. “Oh my, this is unexpected!” she said. “But yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you so much!”
Roman grinned and set down the toolkit. “Trust me, it’s not a problem,” he said. “I’m just going to grab a few more things out of my truck. I’ll come in and let you know when I’m done.”
“And then you’ll take some payment and some cookies for your little ones,” Minnie added.
Roman shook his head. “I’ll take the cookies, but I’m happy to do this for you. Head inside, it’s cold out. I’ll be in in a bit.”
Minnie opened her mouth to argue, but she could see it was no use. So instead she gave a soft laugh and walked back inside.