Cleo stomped the snow off her shoes and walked into Olivia’s apartment. Olivia had given her a key that morning and made it very clear that she didn’t need to knock or ring the doorbell when she got back from her mom’s. Both because she was always welcome in the apartment and because the doorbell would wake Mia up if she was napping.
Mia was awake, crawling around in a little fenced-off area of the living room. Olivia was sitting on the couch on her phone. The TV was on, playing some cartoon Cleo knew vaguely from the internet but couldn’t name.
“Hey,” she said as she walked in.
“Hi!” Olivia called.
It was about sunset and the room was dim. But then she noticed the tree in the corner. It was covered in lights but had no decorations.
“Looks good,” Cleo said, breathing in the fresh pine smell.
“Thanks,” Olivia replied. “Andrew helped me pick it out. And I’ve got some decorations in a box in my room that I need to bring out.”
“I can help you decorate if you want,” Cleo said, surprised by how easily the offer came out of her mouth.
“Great,” Olivia replied. “I’m making dinner in a little bit and Andrew and Noah are both coming back, so I thought it’d be nice to decorate and maybe do something Christmassy. I figure tonight can be more low key and cozy at home.”
Cozy at home. Cleo thought of her Boston apartment, warm and welcoming. Snow falling on the quiet streets outside. Her and Jenna curled up in bed, watching Netflix on her laptop. She suddenly felt a sharp desire to text Jenna.
No, she told herself. Leave it be. It’s not like she’s texted you at all. So leave it alone and maybe text her Merry Christmas or something. Chill out and enjoy the break.
Olivia frowned. “You okay?” she asked.
Cleo started shrugging off her coat. “Fine,” she said. “Just tired. My mom’s house is so much more work than I anticipated. I got the kitchen and living room organized tonight, but I still need to figure out where it’s all going. And I haven’t even touched the bedrooms or attic.”
“Did she not move yet?”
“Oh no, she did,” Cleo said. She hung her coat on the wall and sat down on the couch next to Olivia. “She got the last of what she wanted to keep today. So everything else is going in the trash or getting donated. I found a trash service that’ll pick things up, but I have to get it all out of the house. And so much of it is still in good shape and I can’t just throw it out. Noah offered his truck if I need it, so I’m going to talk to him tonight about bringing some stuff to a thrift shop in Worcester or something. Do you happen to know if he’s around?”
“Noah’s at home,” Olivia said, nodding toward her ceiling. “Andrew borrowed my car. He said it was to take a break or something, but I think he was trying to make sure he wasn’t stuck in town.”
Cleo winced. “We’re that obvious, huh?”
Olivia shrugged. “It’s a valid concern,” she said. “You guys did the sensible thing and got out of the cursed town. It makes sense that you’d want to keep it that way.”
Cleo wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. Olivia stood up. “I’m making some tea,” she said. “Want some?”
“What do you have?” Cleo asked.
Olivia frowned and thought for a second. “Um, English breakfast, Earl Grey, green, honey chamomile, and rosehip?”
“Oooh, I’ll have the rosehip,” Cleo said. She stood up and followed Olivia into the kitchen.
Olivia filled the kettle and set it on the stove. She turned the knob and it ticked for a few seconds as the pilot light lit.
“So now that the guys aren’t here, how is everything, honestly?” Olivia asked, rifling through the cabinet over the sink. She came back out with a package of Oreos and a small plate. Then she looked at the small plate, thought better of it, and put it away.
“Honestly, pretty good,” Cleo said. Olivia offered her the package and she took a couple of cookies. “I’m really excited about where my career’s going. And I’m seeing someone, did I tell you?”
“No!” Olivia replied in a voice that told Cleo she did know, but was trying to hide it.
She let it go. “Yeah, I’m seeing this woman, Jenna. You’d like her. She’s in grad school so, you know, wicked smart, really funny.”
“That’s great, Cleo,” Olivia said, and Cleo could tell she was being sincere.
“Yeah, it’s nothing serious since she’s finishing grad school and I’m going on tour. But I’m hopeful.”
They took the tea and cookies and headed back into the living room. Mia was under the Christmas tree, babbling as she gazed up at the lights.
“God, she’s so cute,” Cleo said.
Olivia beamed. “Thanks,” she said. “Isn’t she?”
She sat down on the couch, peeled the Oreos package open all the way, and patted the cushion next to her. Cleo sat down, sank into the couch, and tried not to think about how much she was enjoying being back in New Winslow.
Iris’s eyes flew open, the sounds of screams and the crackling flames still ringing in her ears, smoke still in her nose. For a moment, she could still see the flames as the sleep faded from her mind. Then, with one long breath, she grounded herself in her own room.
“Oh God,” she muttered, still shaking. “Oh God, oh God.”
With a trembling hand, she reached over and turned on her bedside light. Soft purple-tinted light spread over the room and she focused on the familiarity of her surroundings, trying to let go of the horrors of her dream.
It felt so real. But not in the way that her prophetic dreams often did. Like when she dreamed about the laundromat shutting down or that man causing trouble over at the bar. Instead, this had felt like an all-absorbing movie playing on her subconscious. There’d been a plot, characters, an entire story.
Which were all now fading rapidly from her mind. She glanced at the clock. Five am. Oh well, she’d been planning to get up soon anyway.
She sat up and moved to get off the bed. As she shifted, something slid off and landed on the floor with a gentle thud. It was the handwritten history she’d secretly borrowed from the historical society. And completely forgotten to return.
She stooped down and picked up the book, running her fingers over the delicate leather cover. If she was going to get in trouble for having it, she might as well spend some more time going through it to see if there was anything she’d missed.
Maybe something involving fire and a sobbing woman.