One advantage of living in a small town was that during the week, Iris could always get a table at the New Winslow General Store. On weekends, the deli counter was slammed and all the tables full, but today she was almost alone in the store. She had just picked up a new potential haunting case in Greenfield, and her notes were currently scattered across the table as she tried to piece together a plan.
The only other customers were Celine Beckett and her son, who were sitting a few tables away with a tarot spread between them. Iris was trying not to eavesdrop, but from the bits of conversation that floated over to her, she could tell Celine was teaching the teenage boy how to read tarot cards. This was so thoroughly charming that Iris had to resist the urge to go over there and talk to them about it.
Maybe she’d bring it up next time Celine came into the shop. She suddenly remembered Roman checking out tarot decks when he’d dropped off her order the other day. No wonder he’d been looking at them when he’d never shown any interest before.
Actually, he’d shown even less interest in the curse, which had surprised Iris. How could someone be so thoroughly disinterested in learning more about a force that affected their life so much?
Iris shook her head and picked her pen back up. Focus, she told herself. Paying work first, then research.
The bell rang over the door and she looked up as Noah Kelly walked in. Noah was tall and handsome and Iris had spent most of high school listening to her friends talk about how cute he was. Not that he’d ever had eyes for anyone but what’s-his-name with the British accent whose family had gotten stuck because of the curse.
And there she was again, back on the curse. With a huff, she forced herself back to her case notes. Old house, check. Tragic past, no check. History of paranormal activity, unknown. She turned back to her computer and attempted to log on to the general store’s sluggish public Wi-Fi.
As it attempted to connect, she watched Noah walk up to the counter with a basket of vegetables and a six-pack of beer. No one was behind the register, but she could hear Nancy Miller on the phone out back, loudly talking about her neighbor’s medical condition. Iris didn’t know Melinda, but she now knew more about the poor woman’s stomach problems than she’d ever wanted to.
Noah drummed his fingers on the counter, waiting for Nancy to look out so he could catch her attention. He looked around and made eye contact with Iris, who laughed a little awkwardly and shrugged. He rolled his eyes and smiled back.
“Nancy!” Celine called from the corner, barely looking up. “You have a customer!”
“Call you back in a few, Sal,” Iris heard Nancy say into the phone with a sigh. “Yeah…yeah, I know. Ugh, tell me about it.”
She walked out front. “Sorry,” she said to Noah, not sounding the least bit sorry.
Iris didn’t hear his response as her computer flashed a message that it could not connect with the WiFi.
Screw it. This was clearly a sign. She started shoving papers back into her binder. Obviously, she was meant to be working on breaking the curse right now. The Greenfield case could wait. She was going to the library to start researching.
Cleo’s apartment was blissfully dark. The blackout curtains blocked out most of the late-morning sun and even the fairy lights she normally had glowing in the corners of the room were off. The room was chilly, as drafty Dorchester apartments tended to be. But the circumstances were all ideal for staying in bed and refusing to greet the day.
If it wasn’t for the incessant ringing of her phone, that was. Cleo could feel herself being pulled reluctantly out of sleep by the all-to-familiar chimes. She knew it was her mother, and she knew she didn’t want to answer it. So she would plan to call back later, then never actually do so.
“Hello, Cleo’s phone.”
What the hell was Jenna doing? She should still be asleep too.
“Oh, hi, Mrs. Rodriguez! Yeah, this is Jenna. How are you? Oh, I’m good, thanks. Busy with grad school, but everything is good.”
Cleo groaned and held out her hand.
“Jenna, give me the frigging phone,” she grumbled, sitting up.
“Cleo’s right here,” Jenna continued saying into Cleo’s phone. “Yeah, she’s awake. She’s asking for the phone.” Jenna laughed. “Alright, talk to you soon!”
She handed Cleo the phone and whispered, “It’s your mom.”
Suppressing a sigh, Cleo put the phone to her ear. “Hi, Mom,” she said.
“Hi, sweetheart. Just calling to say hello.”
Cleo glanced at the clock on her wall. Nine o’clock. Okay, that wasn’t a totally unreasonable time to call. She didn’t really have a leg to stand on being irritated, did she?
“How is everything?” Cleo asked, rubbing her eyes with her free hand.
“Oh, fine,” her mom said. “Just getting ready to move. I’ve got the mobile home ready to go, but there’s just so much in the house. Forty years’ worth of stuff piled up in every room and I’ve barely made a dent.”
Cleo winced. “When do you need to be out?” she asked.
“Not for a few weeks, so I have a little time. I just know I can’t manage it all alone and I’m dreading the idea of hiring someone to take care of it.”
Cleo wasn’t at all surprised by this. Her mom was a loving parent, but preferred solitude to any amount of human companionship. Including her daughter. Ever since Cleo moved back to Boston, they’d both been satisfied with their weekly phone call making up the vast majority of their communication.
In most situations, Cleo didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about not seeing her mom. But this was different. This was her elderly mother trying to clear out her entire home on her own.
She took a deep breath, already regretting the words as she said them, but knowing she’d regret it more if she didn’t. “Mom, how about I come home for a few days and help you?”
“No,” her mother said quickly. “No, you’re too busy. And you’re leaving on tour.”
“I’ll come before then,” Cleo said. “Christmas. I’ll come over Christmas and we can spend Christmas Day together.”
“I don’t have anywhere for you to stay,” her mother said. “The house won’t have power and I don’t have room in my new place.”
“I’ll figure it out.” Cleo insisted.
Her mother paused, then sighed. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “I can’t really afford to have anyone come in anyway. Thank you.”
Cleo wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. “I’m going to go,” her mom continued before she could think of something. “I’ll talk to you this week. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Cleo hung up, set her phone down, and glared at Jenna, who was scrolling through something on her own phone. After a second, Jenna looked up. “What?”
“Really?” Cleo demanded.
Jenna’s eyes widened. “What did I do?”
“You answered my phone? You didn’t think maybe there was a reason I wasn’t picking up?”
“I thought you were sleeping!” Jenna protested. “And you seemed happy enough to talk to her. Did you really say you’d go back?”
“And why would you pick up my phone, anyway?” Cleo barrelled on like she hadn’t heard Jenna. “And talk to my mom like-like that!”
Jenna raised an eyebrow. “Like what?” she asked. “I was just chatting.”
“Exactly!” Cleo said, exasperated. “You were chatting. Like you do with your girlfriend’s mom! Not your ‘I don’t know, I’m not a fan of labels’ mom!”
Jenna sighed and put down her phone. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was a big deal. Your phone was ringing and I thought you’d want me to get it. So I did.”
Cleo sighed, resting her head against the backboard of the bed. “I just – you’re being so contradictory! You tell me you don’t want to commit to anything long-term, that you don’t want to plan for anything beyond grad school. But then you’re talking to my mom like you’re old friends. You can’t just do that! You can’t treat me like I’m temporary, then slip into my life like you’re here to stay!”
Jenna blushed a little. “I’m sorry, okay?” she said, fiddling with the edge of the blanket. “I’m sorry I answered your phone. I’m sorry I talked to your mom. And I’m sorry if I confused you about us. I really am. I just – I honestly don’t know what my plan is after graduation and it’s only six months away. I don’t think I’m staying in Boston and I don’t know for sure, so I can’t make any plans. So let’s…let’s just enjoy right now.”
Her voice dropped the vulnerability and became more teasing, playful. She ran a hand down Cleo’s bare arm. “Can’t we just enjoy what we have right now? Just…relax and focus on the present?”
Cleo wanted to roll her eyes, but also knew she was incapable of resisting when Jenna was in a playful mood. She smiled. “Come here,” she breathed, pulling the other woman down on top of her.
An hour later, Cleo and Jenna were lying peacefully in the tangled sheets. Cleo’s head lay on Jenna’s chest and she dozed as Jenna slept, feeling her chest rising and falling and the languid beat of her heart.
You’re going back to New Winslow, a voice taunted in her brain.
She opened her eyes and groaned.