Club Apex was nearly empty when Cleo walked in, guitar in one hand, mini-amp in the other. Her footsteps across the scuffed wooden floor echoed throughout the room as she made her way over to the bored bartender.
“Hey, Cleo, right?” the woman said.
Cleo grinned. “Yeah, that’s me.”
The woman returned her smile. She was probably twenty years older than Cleo, with a lined face and dyed red hair. “I was here for your set last month. You’re fantastic, honey.”
Cleo could feel a flush creeping over her face. “Thanks.”
The woman handed her a few drink tickets. “These are yours. I’m gonna be out of here at ten, thank God. But come see Derrick for your cut of the door at the end of the night. He’s a good kid, honest. He’ll give you what you’re owed.”
Her voice lowered, even though there was nobody else in the room. “You’ll spot him immediately. Tall kid, kinda goofy.”
Before Cleo could respond, the bartender hefted up a tray of glasses. “I gotta go wash these before the crowds descend. Break a leg, hon.”
She walked out back, the door swinging shut behind her. Cleo stood alone at the bar.
She pulled out her phone and glanced at the time. Seven-ten. Doors opened at eight and the other bands had to be on their way. After two weeks in New Winslow, she was ready for some noise.
Andrew was working at Keegan’s tonight, she suddenly remembered. She tried to picture him behind the bar with his trim outfits and carefully styled hair. The idea was so ridiculous that she couldn’t even do it.
Her satisfaction at being home in Boston was rapidly becoming guilt. As much as he argued that it wasn’t her fault, she knew it was. She’d pushed Andrew into coming back to New Winslow and now he was stuck there and Cleo had managed to drive away like she didn’t have a care in the world.
She pulled her phone out to text him, then hesitated. What would she say? He was probably sick of her apologies. Plus the chances were good he wouldn’t get it right away anyway. There was probably no service at Keegan’s.
She slid her phone back in her pocket and tucked the drink tickets in beside it. If she was the first one here, she might as well go warm up and take a moment to get ready. Because once those doors opened, it was going to be chaos from start to finish.
Several hours later, the applause was still ringing in Cleo’s ears as she made her way back to the tiny green room behind the stage. She felt awake, invigorated, in a way she hadn’t since before Christmas. The feeling of being up on stage, the thrum of the amp rattling in her chest. The way that everything just fit together as she sang.
It felt so right, and this was only the beginning.
The third band of the night were in the green room and one of them raised a beer in salute. She grinned and waved, knowing that it was useless trying to talk over the sound of the second band tuning.
A hand on her waist made her jump, and she whirled around, heart pounding.
Jenna was there, hand lingering on Cleo’s hip and a mischievous smile on her face. “Missed you,” she mouthed, moving in for a kiss.
Her lips met Cleo’s with the lightest taste of cinnamon. The tension of last week melted away immediately as Cleo’s arms went around her, pulling her close in the doorway of the green room.
Jenna broke away and looked up at Cleo, smile back in place. “Miss me too?”
“God, yes,” Cleo replied, leaning in for another kiss.
A few minutes later, they were outside the club. Jenna lit a cigarette and they leaned against the patio railing as she smoked. The air of the neighborhood was sharp and filled with the sounds of trains rumbling past and New Year’s Eve parties in the apartment buildings around them.
“You were gone forever,” Jenna said, exhaling a plume of smoke toward the streetlight above them. “I know you needed to go, but God…”
“I know,” Cleo said, gazing out at the cars steadily making their way through Allston. “I didn’t think it’d be nearly that…that long.”
Jenna’s tone was disinterested, the question clearly being asked out of obligation. Cleo felt a twinge of irritation, then dismissed it. Andrew and Jenna didn’t like each other. There was no reason to expect anything beyond polite disinterest.
“He’s doing better,” she said vaguely.
Cleo had tried to broach the topic of New Winslow and the curse with Jenna once. Jenna had humored her, but very clearly didn’t believe a word of it. So Cleo had never tried again. When she’d called Jenna earlier in the week to let her know they were fine, she’d lied and said it had been a minor car accident. She hadn’t been injured, but Andrew had and wasn’t up for traveling yet.
Technically not a lie? She felt a little guilty, but Jenna had barely reacted beyond relief that Cleo was safe.
“Good,” Jenna said, taking a drag of her cigarette.
Cleo didn’t say anything, just continued to watch the cars. After two weeks back in New Winslow, Boston felt almost overwhelmingly huge and full of people. And life.
She loved it so much. She hadn’t thought she could love it more until she’d left. And now she was leaving again, but this time she was moving forward instead of backward.
Her thoughts were broken by Jenna’s hand on her arm. Cleo jumped, then turned to see Jenna’s smile.
“Come on, babe,” Jenna said. “Let’s head back in. You need a beer.”
Cleo smiled at her. “Just another minute,” she said, turning back to take in the scenes around them.
Jenna didn’t say anything, just stood quietly beside her and lit another cigarette. There were still two hours left of the year. Cleo was bone-tired, physically and emotionally. Her friends were all back in her tiny hometown, willingly and not. Something bad was definitely going on with her mother. And nobody here believed her when she told the truth about where she was from. She should be desperate and furious about everything right now.
But just for tonight, she could leave that behind for a little while. She was back where she belonged and that was the first step.