Three hours later, Cleo was sitting in a busy downtown Starbucks. She sipped her coffee as the shop bustled around her. Students and tourists waited in a long, snaking line that then became a mass of bodies crowded around the bar. Something played on the ceiling speakers, an upbeat pop song she could barely hear over the surrounding conversation.
She shook her head as someone tried to sit in the other seat at her table, pointing to the cup sitting in front of it. The kid rolled his eyes but walked away.
Third one already. Where was he?
She finally saw a fashionable peacoat and a bright red hat moving through the crowd, then Andrew’s face as he waved to her and made his way over. He wiggled his fingers and smiled at a baby staring at him from a stroller as he passed. The baby giggled and he grinned as he got to the table.
“Sorry!” he said, pulling out the chair and sitting down. “The bus got stuck and someone was blocking the box. But here I am, awake before three pm on a Saturday, be proud of me! Wait…”
His eyes narrowed as he looked at the cup sitting in front of him.
“Venti white mocha, extra hot, soy, and whipped cream. Even though you-”
“-Think it’s fucking gross,” Cleo finished in unison with him.
“Why did you buy me a drink?” Andrew asked. Then he noticed the bag beside it. He peeked in, then glared at Cleo. “And an everything bagel. What did you do?”
“Nothing!” Cleo insisted.
“Bollocks,” Andrew said, taking out the bagel and the small pad of butter that came with it. “What’s going on?”
Cleo sighed. “Fine,” she said. Then very quickly, she spat out, “I’m going home for Christmas and I need you to come with me.”
Andrew paused, his bagel half buttered. Then he looked up at Cleo. “Come again?” he said, in a voice calm enough to show Cleo he’d heard every word.
Cleo took a deep breath. “I…I need you to come home with me. To New Winslow. For Christmas.”
Andrew set down the bagel and plastic knife. “You want me to go back to a literal cursed town,” he confirmed. “A town I hate more than any other place on the planet. Where I could easily get trapped for the rest of my life. Where my mother spent five years trapped. That is where you’re asking me to go?”
Cleo winced. “Just for a few days,” she argued meekly.
Andrew shook his head. “Not a fucking chance,” he said. “Was there anything else you wanted to ask me? Because otherwise I’m taking my revolting coffee and crawling back into bed.”
“Please!” Cleo begged loudly enough that a couple of people nearby glanced over at them. “I’ll owe you! Huge!”
“You already owe me!” Andrew pointed out.
“Please don’t make me go alone!”
“You won’t be alone.” Andrew took a sip of his drink. “Your mother is there. And, oh yeah, two of our best friends are still there. You’ll be fine.”
“But they don’t get it!” Cleo insisted. “It’s not like they’re trapped. They just choose not to leave!”
“Which is weird,” Andrew agreed. “But valid. So hang out with them.”
“It’ll be awkward!” Cleo said. “Olivia has a kid now!”
Andrew nodded sagely. “And we all know that popping out a kid changes you on a fundamental level.”
Cleo rolled her eyes. “No, I mean…it’s just awkward. And it’s not like you talk to them regularly, so don’t get all high and mighty. When was the last time you even spoke to Noah?”
Andrew dropped his gaze. “That’s not fair,” he said quietly.
Cleo sighed. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
“And yet, you still want me to go back,” Andrew said, shaking his head. “After talking about how much you don’t like it there.”
“Just for a few days,” Cleo repeated. “My mom is overwhelmed by the move and I need to go help her.”
“No,” Andrew said firmly. “Not a-”
“I’ll give you five thousand dollars.”
Andrew raised an eyebrow. “What?” he asked.
“I have a savings bond that hit five thousand dollars a few years ago,” Cleo elaborated. “If you go to New Winslow with me, I’ll cash it out and it’s yours.”
“I don’t need your money.”
“You do if you want to put in an offer on your apartment! Do you really think no one will be waiting to scoop it up the second it goes on the market? Go home with me for one week and I’ll cash out the bond and give you all the money. Then you’ll have twenty percent and he’ll have to consider you.”
Andrew was quiet for a moment, sipping his coffee and thinking. Finally, he sighed.
“Fine,” he said. “But if I get stuck, you are figuring out a way to get me the hell out of there.”
Cleo held out a hand, and he shook. “Deal!” she said. “Thank you, you won’t regret it!”
Andrew shook his head. “Bullshit,” he said, “I already regret it.”