Cleo wasn’t entirely sure whose house the party was at. But she’d been here for hours already, and it was winding down. Now it was about midnight and she was pleasantly buzzed, sitting on the couch beside Andrew in a living room full of people. Some of them she knew, but some were total strangers.
“But that’s the thing,” she continued from where she’d been interrupted moments earlier. “You’re supposed to grow up hating your hometown, then move away and start craving that simplicity again. I mean, how many books, movies, and albums are there out there about exactly that?”
Her friend Miranda nodded from a chair on the other side of the haphazard circle. “I can see it,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love living in the city and wouldn’t ever want to leave. But there’s an appeal to the suburbs that I can definitely appreciate.”
The guy next to her nodded. “Or a small town in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I’ve never actually experienced that.”
Cleo laughed. “Andrew and I did,” she said. “I can tell you from experience you’d fucking hate it.”
Everyone laughed, and Andrew nodded. “Oh yeah,” he agreed. “Everyone loves the small-town dream until you’re stuck with one shitty pub and no WiFi. I’m good. I left the second I could, the rest of my family left too, and we’re all set with never going back.”
“Where are you guys from again?” asked Derek, a guy Andrew had met with some interest tonight.
“New Winslow,” Andrew replied. “Well, technically, I’m from the UK and moved to the US when I was fifteen. But Cleo was born there. It’s out by the Quabbin Reservoir, maybe an hour and a half, two hours’ drive from here.”
“Oh, that’s not bad!” Miranda said, taking a sip of her drink. “It must be nice that you can hop in the car and go visit any time. Do you go back often?”
“No,” Cleo admitted. “Actually, I haven’t been back in a few years.”
“Seriously?” Derek asked. “What about you, Andrew?”
“Same,” Andrew said. “But you have to understand, there’s a valid reason for it. Have any of you ever heard of the cursed town of the Quabbin-Swift River Valley?”
“Nooo…” Miranda’s friend said slowly. “Please do tell though.”
“So, basically, our town is cursed,” Cleo said, taking the last sip of her beer. “People get stuck there for no discernible reason and they can’t get out. Sometimes forever.”
Derek frowned. “I get not wanting to get stuck in your hometown,” he said. “But I’m sure not everybody feels the same way about it. Some people just like to stay where they started.”
Cleo shook her head. “No, when I say stuck, I mean stuck. Like Under the Dome level bullshit. People can’t go beyond the town line. And nobody knows why or how it happens. We just know it does. And we never know who it’ll hit or how long it’ll last for. There’s this one guy who owns a pizza shop there? He’s been trapped for twenty years. It’s wild.”
There was a long stretch of silence. Then Derek laughed.
“Hey,” he said, his tone slightly patronizing. “I mean, there’s no shame in wanting to move somewhere else or feeling trapped. We get it. You don’t have to make excuses to us.”
Cleo forced a laugh, feeling her stomach sink a little. “Yeah, true,” she said, then stood up. “Anyone need another drink?”
“Me,” Andrew said, also standing. “I’ll come with.”
They walked away from the group, now debating the merits of keeping connected with your hometown in loud voices. Once they reached the kitchen, Cleo closed the door behind them and sighed.
“I suppose that’s nothing new,” Andrew muttered.
“Nope,” Cleo replied. “Not sure why I fucking bother.”
She walked over to the fridge and pulled two beers from the six-pack she’d brought. After fishing around on the messy counter for a moment, she found a bottle opener, popped off the caps, and handed one to Andrew.
“Cheers,” he said, toasting her and taking a sip.
Cleo took a sip of hers and leaned against the sticky island countertop. “My mom’s moving, did I tell you that?”
Andrew shook his head. “No. I knew she was planning to, but not that she had actually gone through with it.”
“Yeah, she’s staying in New Winslow, but she’s selling the house and moving into the mobile park. Downsizing. I tried to get her to move closer to Boston, or at least out of New Winslow, but she refused.”
“I don’t know,” Andrew said. “Honestly, sometimes it seems like even people who aren’t actually cursed are still trapped, you know? Have you talked to Olivia lately?”
“Not in a few months,” Cleo replied. “She’s so busy with the baby.”
“Yeah,” Andrew agreed. “I’ve texted with her a little, but not much.”
“I did text Noah the other day, but never heard back,” Cleo said. “Have you talked to him at all?”
Andrew didn’t answer for a moment, just took a long swallow of his beer.
“No,” he finally said after a moment. “We don’t…talk at all.”
Cleo winced. “Right, sorry.”
Cheers of greeting on the other side of the door interrupted any response he was about to make. Then the kitchen door creaked open and Jenna, Cleo’s girlfriend, poked her head into the room.
“Hey babe!” she called as she walked in, leaving the door open behind her.
Cleo grinned at Jenna as she made her way across the kitchen. Jenna was short and blonde, a stark contrast to Cleo’s six-foot frame and long dark hair. Even after a year together, Cleo still felt butterflies in her stomach as Jenna came up beside her.
“Hey!” she said. “We’re just getting more drinks. Want one?”
Jenna pretended to think for a moment, scrunching her face up in mock concentration. “Hmm,” she said, running a gloved hand up Cleo’s bare arm. “I’ll take…a Blue Moon…and a you.”
She stood on her toes and gave Cleo a short, but intense kiss that turned her knees into water. Then she turned and, almost as an afterthought, said, “Hi Andrew.”’
Andrew held up his beer bottle in a mock salute. “Jenna.”
Jenna hooked an arm around Cleo’s waist. “I’m going to steal my girl for a sec if you don’t mind. I need a smoke.”
Andrew nodded. “See you two in a few.”
He walked out of the room and Jenna let go of Cleo. “Come out to the porch and keep me company,” she said, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her coat pocket. “And grab your jacket, it’s freezing.”
She started to walk out without looking to see if Cleo was behind her. Cleo snatched up her jacket from where she’d left it on a chair earlier and followed her outside.
Roman looked down at the crate of tomatoes on the table in front of him. He then looked back up at the delivery driver with a raised eyebrow. “Really?”
The driver, a younger guy with thinning hair and a scowl, looked at him. “What’s the problem, bro?” he asked.
“Well, first of all, I ordered twenty pounds.” Roman said. “The crate holds twenty pounds, but the actual number of tomatoes in there looks a little light, bro.”
The driver glanced at the crate between them with vague disinterest. “Looks fine to me,” he said.
“Well, yeah, why would you give a shit?” Roman snapped. “You’re not the one paying. And look at these, man. Look at them!”
He picked up a tomato and held it out. It was soft, almost squishy, in his hand. “This thing is almost rotten. Your bosses really expect me to serve these to my customers?”
“I dunno.” The driver shrugged. “Here, can you sign for it so I can go?”
“Not a fucking chance,” Roman said. “I’m not buying this. Take it back to your bosses and let them know exactly why.”
The driver let out a disbelieving huff. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, seriously,” Roman snapped. He dropped the tomato back in the bin, where it split open and oozed juice. “Take this shit back.”
The driver just looked at him and he shoved the wooden crate across the counter at him. “Do you think I’m joking?” Roman demanded. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a customer by the counter turning to look toward them. “Take this shit back out to your truck, get the fuck out of my shop, and let your bosses know if I ever get an order like this again, I’m pulling my business immediately. Got that?”
The driver suddenly looked more like a scared kid than a surly man. He nodded quickly, picking up the tomatoes and hurrying out the door. The bell jingled as he made his way out.
Roman let out a breath, winced at a flash of pain from where he’d fallen earlier, and looked toward the front. His wife and co-owner, Celine, was at the register, watching him. She raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged at her. She shook her head, clearly disappointed in him, and went back to what she’d been doing.
Roman looked down and noticed a tomato that had fallen out of the crate. He picked it up and hefted it in his hand. It was perfectly ripe and firm. He sighed and walked out back, still clutching the tomato.
It was close to midnight as Iris made her way back to the town line. Route 122 was silent except for the crunch of snow under her boots as she walked. The sky was clear and her flashlight was almost unnecessary in the light of the full moon.
It had been about fifteen hours since she’d tried to walk past the town line and been stuck. She’d gone to work, barely able to focus all day and then unable to sleep when she got home. Her original plan had been to go home, sleep, then try again first thing in the morning to see if the curse had lifted.
That seemed to be what generally happened to people. The curse would hit them for an hour. Or a day. Maybe a little longer in some cases. On rare occasions, it might be a few years. She knew of one woman that had happened to, a friendly British woman who had been traveling across Massachusetts with her family and had taken a wrong turn. They’d ended up living in town for something like seven years.
And then, of course, there was Roman, her fellow small business owner and town cautionary tale. Twenty years cursed with no sign of it lifting. And no one seemed to know what made him any different from anyone else it hit.
She was approaching the town line. Noticing the sign looming ahead, Iris braced herself. Was she also going to be stuck here for the rest of her life? Or was everything going to go back to normal in just a few minutes?
She took a deep breath as she approached the line. Then, with a wash of relief and a dash of disappointment, she walked right past it.
“That settles that, then,” she said out loud with a shaky laugh.
But what if it happened again? While she’d always known it was a possibility, she never considered the idea that she might actually be impacted. Which was silly, she knew. And a terribly short-sighted approach for the owner of the town’s only magic shop to take.
She’d need to do some research. She needed to know what caused the curse. And, more importantly, how she could stop it. If anybody in this town had the training and knowledge to do it, it was her. She should have started this years ago.
Iris turned back around and started walking toward home. She needed to get some sleep because she now had a new project on her hands