Christmas Eve found Olivia, Cleo, Noah, Andrew, and Mia making their way to the town common for the annual Christmas caroling festivities. Olivia had been looking forward to this for weeks. It was Mia’s first Christmas, she adored music and lights, and an event like this was perfect for her. It started right around the time Mia normally went to bed, but she’d napped earlier and Olivia was feeling confident she’d be fine for a while.
She pushed Mia’s stroller onto the cobblestone path leading from the parking lot to the common. The space was decorated beautifully, with white lights strung among the trees and gazebo. The houses and businesses framing the common had also decorated with white lights, giving the whole area an angelic, peaceful look.
Most of the town seemed to be there. Right inside the entrance, Olivia spotted the Girl Scouts with their table full of popcorn bags and tanks of hot chocolate. The line was surprisingly short, so she led the others over.
A brass band played in the gazebo, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen catching her in the heart unexpectedly. She looked over and saw Cleo singing along, too softly to hear. On the other side was Noah, whose expression she couldn’t read. And behind them, she could hear Andrew.
“I will say I’ve missed the Christmas caroling since I’ve been gone,” he was saying. “I genuinely love it.”
“And not just as material to gather for your novel?” Cleo teased.
Olivia turned around. “You’re writing a novel?” she exclaimed, only somewhat surprised.
Andrew blushed hard enough that she could see it in the dim light. “Um, kind of? I’m still planning it.”
“What’s it about?”
He laughed. “Not a chance I’m telling.”
Olivia’s protest was interrupted by their turn to buy hot chocolate. She paid quickly, passed the drinks around, and set her own in the cupholder on Mia’s stroller.
“Not even a hint?” she asked as she fell into step beside Andrew, making their way up to where the brass band was now joined by a small choir. “A blurb?”
Noah watched them move a little further ahead of him, then carefully sneaked out his flask and poured some into his cocoa. The liquid rose precariously to the rim of the paper cup.
“The Girl Scouts didn’t make it strong enough for you?”
Cleo’s voice came from nowhere. Startled, Noah jumped and sloshed the burning hot drink onto his hand. He hissed in pain.
“Sorry,” Cleo said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Give me some of that?”
She took the flask, poured a little into her own drink, then handed it back. He tucked the mostly-full flask into his coat’s inner pocket.
“Don’t let Liv see that,” Noah said. “I know she’s trying to do the traditional Christmas thing for Mia and whiskey doesn’t exactly go with that. But I just…”
“Fair,” Cleo admitted, taking a sip of her drink. “Though I doubt she’d say no to some of this in her own drink.”
Cleo turned toward the gazebo. We Three Kings was now playing, the minor chords and deep brass harmonies giving her goosebumps.
A few weeks from now, she’d be the one performing. And it would be on stage to huge audiences. God, she still had so much to do for this tour. The other band hadn’t gotten back to her about the van option she’d sent them and she couldn’t really plan what to pack until she had confirmation that this would be the van they chose. She’d been checking her email every time she had service, but they still hadn’t responded and now she was getting nervous.
“Thinking about how glad you are to be back?” Noah asked, his voice cutting through her thoughts. “Back in the loving embrace of your cursed hometown?”
Cleo laughed, rolling her eyes. “I don’t actually hate New Winslow,” she said. “But I was actually thinking about how I still need to rent a van for-”
Cleo’s explanation was cut short by the approach of Tara Stevenson, an old friend of her mother’s.
“Cleo, is that you?” Tara exclaimed. “Your mom mentioned you were coming home to help her with the move! Oh my goodness, it’s been so long! How are you, sweetheart?”
She suddenly embraced Cleo, who felt herself engulfed in the scent of cinnamon and seventh grade. She awkwardly hugged Tara back.
“She told me all about your music career,” Tara said. “I always knew you’d make it big with that. Oh, I’m so happy for you!”
She let go of Cleo and turned to Noah with a sympathetic noise. “How are you doing, sweetie?” she asked, wrapping her arms around him. “I know the holidays can be so hard after you’ve lost someone.”
“I’m fine,” Noah said stiffly. “It’s been a little while, I’m fine. But thanks.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Tara said. “I’m glad you’re doing well. We all miss your father very much down at the general store. It’s not the same without his wisecracks when he came in for his dropped egg on a bagel before school.”
Noah laughed, but Cleo could tell it was extremely forced.
Tara let go of him and smiled at both of them. “I need to go join the choir, but it’s so nice to see both of you! Have fun tonight!”
She walked away, leaving Noah and Cleo standing alone as the crowd moved toward the music. Cleo watched as Noah took out his flask, unscrewed it, and took a swig.
“Noah, you alright?” she asked, knowing the answer and knowing what he’d actually say.
He replaced the flask in his pocket. “I’m fine,” he said, not meeting her eyes. “Excuse me, I just need to-”
He didn’t finish before he bolted, disappearing into the crowd.
Iris stared straight ahead at the choir, singing along softly and trying to ignore the pine cones hitting her in the head.
“Tidings of comfort and – ow! Comfort and- go away!”
A faint laugh on the breeze and a pine cone hitting her shoulder answered that request.
Iris turned around. Judith and Alicia Perez were standing there. Alicia was glaring but Judith gave her a small, nervous smile.
“Hi, Judith! Hi, Alicia!” Iris said, hoping her smile didn’t reflect her own nerves.
“Iris, I need to talk to you,” Judith said.
“Oh?” Iris said. “What about?”
“One of the books you were using the other day is missing. A handwritten town history. It’s little and one of a kind. Do you happen to know what happened to it?”
“What?” Iris said, widening her eyes in what she hoped was an innocent way. “No, I have no idea?”
“Are you sure?” Alicia demanded. “You’re sure it didn’t get mixed up with your own papers when you left?”
“No! I mean, I don’t think so.”
Alicia looked her dead in the eye and Iris didn’t need to be psychic to know that Alicia knew exactly what had happened and wasn’t afraid to confront her. “I would strongly suggest you look again,” Alicia said, her voice cold. “Those books are irreplaceable and something like this could impact Judith’s job. So maybe take a second look in your bag.”
“If you find it, you can just drop it off at the historical society,” Judith said. “No questions asked.”
“No, questions will, in fact, be asked.” Alicia corrected, not taking her eyes off Iris.
Judith sighed. “We just want the book back, Iris,” she said, looking from her wife to Iris. “That’s all. Just please take another look when you get home tonight. As a favor to me.”
“Yeah, I-I will,” Iris stammered. “I know it isn’t there but I’ll check.”
Alicia snorted, but Judith said, “Thanks, I appreciate it. Come on, Alicia, let’s go get some cocoa.”
With a final, disdainful look at Iris, Alicia turned and followed Judith away. Iris sighed, dread growing in her stomach.
Another pinecone connected with the back of her head.