Cleo was relieved to see that her mom’s new house was almost entirely unpacked and set up. There were still plenty of boxes stacked on the living room couch, but the furniture was arranged and the tiny kitchen was set up.
Her mom had seemed distracted when she got there that morning, like maybe she’d forgotten Cleo was coming. But there was a rotisserie chicken in the fridge, plus a handful of deli sides, and a chocolate pie. So she’d clearly remembered at some point in the past couple of days and also gone to the general store to pick up a few things. Though, based on the dryness of the chicken and the slightly gray tinge of the green bean casserole in its plastic dish, Cleo assumed it probably wasn’t yesterday.
“Thank you so much for dinner,” Cleo said as she stacked the empty dishes on the small table between them. The chicken sat in her stomach like a rock and she’d taken as few small bites of the pasta salad and casserole as possible.
“Absolutely!” her mother replied with a wide smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
Cleo smiled at her, trying not to take in the dark circles under her eyes. “I’m glad to be here.”
It wasn’t quite a lie, but wasn’t really the truth either. She was happy to see her mom. It had been too long, even if both of them were perfectly satisfied with their weekly phone calls. But Cleo couldn’t help worrying. Her mom seemed too spacey lately, too distracted. As far as Cleo knew, the electricity was still on over at the old house and the remaining bags and piles of trash were still where she left them. She’d taken a trip over there the day before and brought some out to the curb, but there were still bags all over the attic that she hadn’t gotten to and didn’t know if she would before her tour.
Cleo took a deep breath, then went back to clearing up. There was still a lot of food leftover in each of the containers.
“Want me to save these?” she asked, gesturing toward the sides in their plastic dishes.
Her mom frowned. “Yes, of course,” she said. “There’s plenty of leftovers for you.”
“I’m all set, Mom,” Cleo said.
“They’ll be here through the week then. Plenty for sandwiches.”
Cleo froze, the lid half on the stuffing. “Mom?” she said.
“I’m leaving tomorrow. You know that, right?”
“Of course I do,” her mom said defensively. “You’re meeting with Jenna. Is she coming back with you?”
“What? No, Mom, I’m going on tour.”
“I knew that,” her mom snapped.
“So you know I’m not coming back before then?”
Cleo continued snapping lids back onto containers. “Do you know what you’re planning to do with the rest of the bags?” she asked, trying to keep her voice casual.
“The bags?” her mom repeated.
“Over at the old house. There are some bags left that need to get out. I can go over today and do them if you need me to-”
“Of course I don’t,” her mom interrupted, standing up and grabbing the stack of plates. She walked over to the sink and dropped them in with a little too much force. “It’s taken care of.”
“And the electricity?”
“What about the electricity?”
“It’s still on,” Cleo continued. She knew she was pushing it, but this was too much. “Over at the house. Everything is still running and I can’t shut off the power since I’m not the homeowner.”
“Right, of course,” her mother muttered, clutching the side of the sink. “It’s fine.”
Cleo stacked a couple of containers and started toward the refrigerator. “Mom,” she said softly as she opened the door and slid the food inside. “I can help you if you need it.”
“I don’t need help!” Her mom pushed off of the sink and turned away from Cleo. She closed her eyes tightly. “I don’t need help,” she repeated, this time much softer.
Cleo put a hand on her shoulder and she flinched. “I’m sorry,” her mom said. “I’m just…I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Cleo said.
“I’m fine. You’ve done enough. You need to go on your tour. I’ll figure out the rest of the house.”
She turned to Cleo. “I’m tired. Can we call it a day?”
Cleo nodded, unsurprised. “Yeah, Mom,” she said. “That’s fine.”
Ten minutes later, Cleo was walking out to her car. The sharp, cold air and afternoon sunlight felt good, cutting through the haze of emotions. It was fine. She could afford to hire movers to get the remaining junk out of her mom’s house. She’d just put it on a credit card and pick up a few extra shifts when she got home to pay it off. As for the electricity, she’d figure that out too.
“Oh, hi Cleo.”
Cleo was jerked from her thoughts by a familiar rough voice. She looked up and saw Roman walking away from the mobile home next to her mom’s.
“Oh, hi Roman,” Cleo said, her stomach flipping slightly at the sight of him. “Um, I didn’t know you lived here.”
“I don’t,” Roman said. “I’m just visiting a friend.”
They stood in silence for a second. “Um, how’s Noah?” Roman asked.
“I don’t know,” Cleo admitted. “I left early this morning. I’ve been at my mom’s.”
She nodded toward the house behind her. “Ah, right,” Roman said.
“Thank you again,” Cleo said. “Um. For last night.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, nodding quickly and looking at everything but her. “Yeah, I’m glad I could help.”
She started moving toward her car. “I should get back, actually.”
“Of course,” Roman said, starting toward his own truck, which was parked ahead of her. “See you around. Oh, Merry Christmas.”
Cleo smiled. “Merry Christmas,” she said, then got in the rental car, slamming the door behind her.