Mia was fussy, on the verge of really crying. Olivia had tried everything she dared try: snacks, carrying, even a discrete diaper change behind a tree. But nothing was making her feel better.
She could feel a headache forming as Mia continued to fuss. Exhaustion settled heavily on her as she pushed the stroller. Why had she possibly thought this would be a good idea? The cold, the crowd, the late hour? How could this have worked? Was she such a bad mother that she didn’t realize this was a bad idea?
“Can I help?” Andrew asked.
Olivia shook her head. He’d already done everything she’d asked of him, including carrying the dirty diaper over to the common’s only trash can, which was located a little too close to the hot cocoa table.
“Just keep walking with me,” Olivia said. “Maybe the movement will settle her.”
They walked along the cobblestone path in the middle of the common. It was a bumpy ride, but Mia stopped crying and settled into whimpering. Maybe this would work out after all.
The front wheel hit a hole in the path and the stroller stopped short. The handle dug into Olivia’s stomach and Mia began to scream. Olivia pulled Mia out of the stroller and gripped her squirming body, but Mia just wailed even harder.
“I think we should bring her home,” Olivia said, trying to keep her voice from quivering. “This isn’t going to get any better. We’ll try again next year.”
“Yeah,” Andrew agreed. “Tell you what. You get her packed up and I’ll go let Noah and Cleo know. They can walk back to your place easily enough should they want to stick around.”
“Are you staying?” Olivia asked.
Andrew shook his head. “Nah, I’m all set,” he said. “Unless you want some time alone at your house, that is.”
Olivia thought for a second as Mia screamed. No, she didn’t want to be alone.
“If you want to come back with me, I’d really appreciate the company.”
Andrew smiled, and she felt a crashing relief. “Of course,” he said. “Let me go find Cleo and I’ll meet you at your car.”
Cleo figured it was a good idea to give Noah some space. Olivia and Andrew were both nowhere to be found, so she’d hung awkwardly around the back of the crowd, sipping her now-cooling cocoa and watching the concert.
But after a few songs, she was feeling uneasy. She started in the direction Noah had gone, dodging her way through the crowd and avoiding any conversation.
“Excuse me,” she said, slipping between a crowd of women she vaguely recognized. “Excuse me. Noah?”
After a moment, she caught sight of him near the back of the common, sitting on the edge of a massive stone flower pot they’d spent long summer days hanging out on as kids. His head was bowed, but she knew him immediately.
She edged out of the crowd and made her way over. “Are you okay?”
Noah sighed. “No…I’m not,” he said, his voice soft and slightly slurred. “I’m really fucking not.”
Olivia sat down next to him, the seat familiar despite the fact it had been at least ten years since they’d been on this common together. “Noah, hey…”
“I thought it would be easier this year,” Noah said, staring at the ground. “I thought if I just shoved through it wouldn’t be so hard without him. Like, I’ve done this before. This is my new normal. But I can’t do it, Cleo. I miss him so fucking much all the time. And I try not to because it won’t bring him back. But I swear to God, everywhere I look he’s there. He’s in his driveway. Or, like, his favorite shirt is in my laundry. Or I smell his aftershave at work, just for a second. And if he’s not there, there’s someone there reminding me that he’s dead. I know they mean well, but I can’t fucking deal with it! It’s like Merry Christmas, your dad is fucking dead. He wasted away while you couldn’t do shit about it and now he’s not coming back. Enjoy Christmas, they’ll be like this forever.”
Cleo touched his hand. She could see the tears gathering in his eyes. “Fuck, Cleo,” he said, turning to her. “I can’t do it. I just want my dad to come back.”
“I know,” Cleo whispered, feeling tears forming in her own eyes. “I know. Come here.”
She pulled him against her and he broke down, sobbing against the soft jacket she’d borrowed from Olivia. Cleo gripped him tightly, one hand against his dark hair, wishing she could do more. It had never even occurred to her that the reason for Noah’s moods might still be grief over his dad. She had just assumed that he’d been telling the truth when he said it had been long enough, that he was fine.
“Guys?” Andrew’s voice beside her was soft and uncertain. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“It’s okay, Andrew,” Cleo said. “It’s fine.”
“Oh, alright.” Andrew sounded hurt, and Cleo tried not to let that bother her. “Good. Er, Olivia has to bring Mia home and I’m going to go with her. Do you want to come?”
“Noah?” Cleo said.
Noah sat up straight and cleared his throat. “No, I don’t…I don’t want Mia to see me like this,” he said thickly. “I’ll walk home later.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Cleo said. “We’ll meet you there, Andrew. I’m going to walk Noah home and then I’ll come downstairs.”
Andrew nodded. “Sure, I’ll see you in a little while.”
He turned to leave. “Andrew,” Noah said suddenly.
Andrew turned around, and Cleo could swear she saw a spark of hope in his eyes. “Noah?” he said. “Are you alright?”
Noah set his unfocused gaze on Andrew. “You broke my fucking heart.”
Andrew made a choking noise, and Cleo sucked in a sharp breath. Noah hopped off the flowerpot and walked away.
“Andrew, he’s wasted,” Cleo said, squeezing Andrew’s hand while trying to keep an eye on Noah. “We’ll talk to him tomorrow, it’ll be okay.”
Andrew was staring at where Noah had been. “Yeah…” he said.
“I mean it,” Cleo insisted. She stooped down just slightly and kissed him on the cheek. Then she turned to run after Noah.
Despite being surrounded by people, Roman was alone. And he was perfectly fine with that. Celine and the kids were selling popcorn with the Girl Scouts and he stood off to the side, relaxing as he enjoyed the music. He’d never let anyone but Celine know exactly how much he loved Christmas carols. He hadn’t intended for Celine to know, but he was incapable of hiding anything from her.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of clean, cold air. An ideal Christmas Eve.
Roman groaned inwardly. “Hi, Iris.”
“Did you hear anymore about the hotel?” Iris asked. “I’m still looking but haven’t been able to find anything else.”
“That what?” Roman asked. “Oh, yeah. No.”
“Oh, okay,” Iris said. “No problem. Actually, I’m taking a different approach now anyway along with the hotel angle. I’m using a Ouija board to get in touch with whatever entity created the curse. I haven’t had much luck yet, but I’m trying. This is probably the best approach for me to use anyway, using my strengths and expertise to move forward. The curse is so fascinating, but so difficult to comprehend.”
“Iris, drop it.”
Iris stopped short, staring at Roman. “Excuse me?”
He looked at her. “Just drop it, okay? I’ve tried to be polite, but you won’t listen to me. This isn’t a game or some kind of, I don’t know, spiritual exploration. This is my life. And I’ve had to learn to accept that. But what I really don’t need is you coming in and dissecting it and constantly bringing it to the surface. This is too big. It’s not your hobby or project or whatever. And now you’re trying to summon spirits? Are you serious? You need to stop messing with things you don’t understand.”
Iris stared at him, her eyes narrowing as his words sank in. “Oh, I understand,” she said, her voice hard. “I understand just fine, Roman. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
She stalked off and Roman let out a long breath. His stomach churned and his heart was pounding. That had been too harsh. He was out of line, yet again. He just hoped that maybe Celine hadn’t seen it.
This time, the voice was soft. He turned and saw Minnie Jensen standing beside him. She wore a bright pink hat with a comically large puff on top and had clearly seen everything.
“Minnie, I-” Roman began helplessly.
She took his hand in her warm, pink-mittened one. “I know, son, I know. Let’s just enjoy the music.”