“I can’t believe you still have this truck!”
It was early in the morning, and Cleo and Noah were driving down the quiet rural roads of Central Massachusetts. They were on their way to Worcester with what Cleo hoped would be the only load of donations from her childhood home.
Noah shrugged and took a bite of his donut. “This thing is immortal, Cleo. You know that.”
“I’m never doubting it again.” Cleo shook her head and gazed out the window. “You were what, seventeen when you got this?”
“Sure was,” Noah said, affectionately patting the dashboard. “And I’m the second owner. At least.”
Cleo laughed again. She hadn’t expected the wave of nostalgia that had washed over her the second she’d climbed inside. The same worn seats, the crackling radio. The truck even smelled the same, like pine-scented air freshener and a hint of gasoline. If she closed her eyes, she could almost forget that sixteen years had passed.
“By the way,” she said, “thank you for coming with me. I didn’t realize when you offered your truck you were offering yourself to help too.”
“Not a problem,” Noah said, slowing down to turn onto a slightly busier road. “I know how it is, trying to clear out a whole house. At least I had my sister there.”
Cleo didn’t know what to say. This was the first time since she’d come back that Noah had even indirectly mentioned his dad’s death. She hadn’t wanted to ask, and Olivia had simply said he was doing fine with it.
Noah clearly noticed the awkward silence. “But yeah, it’s way easier with two. How much is left, anyway?”
“I spent all day there yesterday,” Cleo said, her shoulders aching at the memory. “I think all that’s really left for tomorrow is to clear the attic. Which thankfully isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. There’s been enough leaks over the years that it doesn’t seem like there’s much up there to salvage. Which is sad, I guess. But I’m trying to be as ruthless as possible.”
“I get that.”
Cleo was about to try to change the subject when her phone rang. She glanced at the screen, expecting her mom, and saw JENNA flashing there instead. Heart suddenly racing, she picked up.
“Hey, babe!” Jenna said. “What’s up?”
“Um, nothing,” Cleo replied. “Just heading to Worcester with a friend to drop off some donations from the house. You?”
“Just missed your voice,” Jenna said. “I was thinking of you when I woke up this morning.”
Cleo smiled, her chest suddenly filled with a warm glow. “I miss you too.”
Noah glanced over curiously but said nothing. “I’m heading home tonight,” Jenna said. “I’ve got a couple of things to finish in the lab first, but then I’m done for Christmas.”
“What time is your flight?” Cleo asked.
“Six-fifteen. And it’s a short one, so I’ll be at my parents’ house by eleven.”
“Text me and let me know you got there safe.”
Jenna laughed. “Cleo, chill. It’ll be fine.”
The warm glow faded a little. “Yeah,” Cleo replied, unable to think of something suitable.
“Sorry babe, I didn’t mean to…it’s just that’s a very girlfriend-ly thing to ask and I…”
“Yeah,” Cleo repeated, her voice flat. “We’re pulling in now, so I need to go. Bye.”
Jenna sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Whatever, Cleo. Talk to you later.”
Cleo hung up and Noah raised his eyebrows. “We’re still forty minutes from pulling in anywhere,” he said softly. “Got something you want to talk about?”
Cleo sighed, hating the tears she felt burning in her eyes. “That was Jenna,” she said. “My-this girl I’ve been seeing for a while. It’s…complicated.”
Noah didn’t say anything as he slowed down behind a station wagon. “She says she doesn’t want anything serious and I respect that, but she keeps sending mixed messages,” Cleo continued. “She calls to say she misses my voice, then laughs at me for asking her to text when her flight lands. She’s partially why I came back in the first place, you know. She was just chatting with my mom on the phone and I was so rattled that I blurted out that I’d come home to help. And I get it. She’s only twenty-seven, she doesn’t know what she’s doing after grad school. I really do get it. But I’m…I’m not sure I want to wait around for her anymore.”
There it was. She took a sharp breath, shocked that she’d actually said the words out loud. Then remembered who she was talking to.
“Sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. “You don’t need me dumping all this on you.”
Noah shrugged. “No, I get it,” he said. “It’s a shitty position to be in and sometimes you have to decide whether you’re going to get hurt now or later.”
Wow, it really was a morning for firsts. She’d never heard him come even close to talking about what had happened with Andrew. Andrew had only told her minimal details of what had happened and she’d never had the heart nor the opportunity to ask Noah for his side of the story.
“Did you…” Shit, now that she’d started, she didn’t know what she planned to ask.
“Whatever you’re about to ask, I’m over it,” Noah said, speeding up as the station wagon finally turned onto a side road. He wasn’t looking at Cleo, but his tone seemed genuine enough. “Yeah, it hurt when Andrew left. But it was fine. I got over it years ago.”
He picked up his coffee and took a sip, eyes still glued to the road. “Just don’t let her string you along too long. No matter how great she is, it’s just not worth it.”
Cleo nodded, then turned to gaze out the window.
Iris’s phone buzzed with another missed call. She ignored it as she lit another bundle of sage and set it next to a smoldering puck of frankincense in the corner of her shop.
This was ridiculous. She cleansed homes as part of her career. She was an expert in this, someone who was called into cases all over the state. So why the hell wasn’t anything working in her own space?
In the past twenty-four hours, the spirit that called itself Roland had wreaked havoc in her shop. It was a straightforward mischief. Inventory tossed on the ground, laughter and screams wafting over the sound system. Iris hadn’t even bothered trying to open the store today. Which stung because even though she didn’t get much Christmas traffic, the day before Christmas Eve was usually a good business day. She had considered trying anyway until Roland had knocked down an entire shelf of essential oils, shattering several and making it difficult to breathe in that part of the building.
And she hadn’t even made any progress in her investigation while using the ouija board. So now she was wasting even more time cleaning up that mess before she could continue.
That little hotel detail gnawed at Iris as she spent the afternoon attempting to banish Roland. None of the other town histories she’d read said anything about a hotel in town in the twenties. Or any at all. The only nearby hotel she had ever known was the sketchy bed and breakfast over in Petersham.
And yet, Evelyn Harbinger had mentioned the plans several times. Something about local businessmen buying the land before the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir was approved. But New Winslow wasn’t one of the towns disincorporated and flooded to create the reservoir, so Iris wasn’t sure exactly why the hotel appeared to never have been built.
It was a long shot, but it was the only dangling thread she could find that didn’t match up with the rest of the history books.
Her phone buzzed with a voicemail, so she set down the sage and went to check it. Sandra Forrest, the Greenfield client she had completely forgotten about.
“Hi Iris, it’s Sandra Forrest. Um, I’ve been trying to reach you for a few days now and you haven’t gotten back to me. I don’t mean to be pushy, but you promised me you’d be out here before Christmas and since it’s the afternoon before Christmas Eve and I haven’t heard a word from you, I have to assume that’s not happening. I found someone else to help me, so I won’t be needing your services. But I wish you had told me sooner if something came up. You came highly recommended and I have to say, I’m surprised at the lack of professionalism. I hope everything is okay.”
Iris swore. Her business relied so much on word of mouth that this would definitely have an impact. But on the bright side, this meant she didn’t have to worry about preparing for that case anymore.
She put down her phone and listened carefully to the space around her. The buzzing malice she’d felt all day had faded. It wasn’t gone completely, but it had dulled to a point where maybe she’d managed to push Roland outside of her protective wards. She stood still for another moment and when she was sure that the energy wasn’t about to change, she went back behind the register. Harbinger’s history was tucked under the counter and she might as well get back to it.
She opened the small book and gasped. The cover page was covered in indecipherable scrawls, like something an unattended toddler would draw. She flipped through and, with dawning horror, realized every single page looked like this.
She was so fucked when the Historical Society found out.