Cleo was nervous as she stepped on stage. She was the opener, she wasn’t who these people were here to see. They were here for The Blossom Step and for some of them, she was in the way of them seeing their favorite band.
She stepped out to scattered applause. The club lights were so bright that she couldn’t see anything, but a few minutes ago it had looked like the place was about half full. Granted, it was a Thursday night and the temperature in Buffalo was in the negatives. So people probably weren’t really feeling like leaving their houses to go see some band they’d never heard of. This was probably the more hardcore fan set.
As the applause died down, Cleo sat down on the stool she’d brought up there a few minutes earlier. She took a deep breath, then began playing the soft opening chords of one of her newer songs.
As soon as her fingers started moving across the familiar chords, Cleo felt herself relax. This was what she was here to do. This is what she’d been doing for years. And the music was what mattered right now. She was good, she could give them what they wanted.
She forced a little extra confidence into her voice as she began to sing, hoping that by faking it she’d end up feeling it for real. And it worked. She sang into the crappy mic, her voice soft but strong as she built up to the refrain.
She hadn’t written this song with anyone in mind, but as she sang, she thought of Jenna again. Still no text, and she still wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She forced herself to push the thought away, and it was immediately replaced with Andrew. Again, she pushed it aside. Later. All of those were for later.
She was exactly where she needed to be right now, doing exactly what she needed to do.
Celine had barely sat down on the couch with her book when Roman appeared in the living room doorway.
“Take a walk with me?”
She looked up at him. He stood over her, hands in his pockets, shoulders slouched. Was he nervous?
“Are you okay?” Celine asked, setting the book aside and standing up.
“Yeah,” Roman replied, but Celine didn’t believe it for a second.
“Alright,” Celine said. “Yeah. I’ll get the babies dressed?”
“No, Jamie said he’ll watch them,” Roman said. “I asked him a minute ago. I just want some time with you.”
Celine smiled softly. She still had absolutely no idea what was going on right now, but she wasn’t about to say no to some alone time with her husband.
She pulled on her coat and got her shoes. Roman said nothing as she tied them on and followed him out the door.
“Did you have somewhere in mind?” she asked.
Roman shrugged. “Not really,” he said, a forced casual tone in his voice making Celine instantly suspicious. “I just want to get out and walk.”
They passed through the yard in silence. Thick clouds were gathering over the trees and Celine could feel the coming snow in the air. She wrapped her scarf around her neck and slid a gloved hand into Roman’s pocket along with his own.
“How are you?” Roman asked her after a few minutes.
“I’m good,” Celine replied. “What about you? Is everything okay?”
Roman didn’t answer right away and Celine waited quietly for him to say something. Ever since he and Jamie had come home from Mrs. Jensen’s house the other day, he’d been squirrelly. And now she worried that if she said the wrong thing, he’d retreat again.
“You know I trust you, right?” Roman said finally.
Celine frowned. This was certainly not what she’d expected to hear. “Of course,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been married for fifteen years and share a business. I’d hope you trusted me.”
Roman nodded, not looking at her.
“Roman, what’s this about?” Celine asked finally.
He sighed. “I just…I don’t want you to think I don’t trust you. Because I don’t talk about the…”
He trailed off and she waited for him to finish. “The curse,” he said finally.
“I know that,” Celine said. “Honey, I’ve always known that. What makes you think I don’t?”
“Jamie asked me why I don’t talk to you about it,” Roman said, his boot crunching a small mound of snow as he walked beside her. “And when I realized that he had noticed that, it made me think of how obvious it must be to you. And I just…I hate it, you know? I hate this curse and I’ve been able to work my life around it for so long. And I’m starting to think that maybe it’s time to actually face it.”
Celine squeezed his hand, gripping it within his pocket as though he might try to wrench his hand away and leave.
“I’m still mad at Iris,” Roman continued, continuing to walk. “She was hounding me for weeks and it was so frustrating and so embarrassing to have it thrown in my face like that. Like this thing that completely controls my life was an exciting research project.”
The first flakes of snow were falling now. They were on one of the back roads that led out of New Winslow and Roman showed no sign of slowing down. Celine looked over at him. He was walking deliberately and calmly toward the white sign in the distance.
They’d been here before, many times, trying every ridiculous way they could to get him out of this town and out into the rest of the world. But that had been nearly a decade ago. While she knew he still tried it regularly, he did it alone now.
“I want to get out,” Roman said, still looking straight ahead. “I want to be there for Jamie. For Aidan and Abby. I want to stay part of their lives when they grow up and move away. But I’m scared.”
The sign was about twenty feet away now. Celine knew he had to know what he was doing. Rather than say anything, she decided to trust him and see where this was going.
“I almost destroyed everything last time I tried,’ Roman continued. “And that was before we had three kids. That’s the only thing that’s keeping me from going out there right now and finding an answer no matter what it costs. Because if it’s going to hurt you and the kids, it isn’t worth it.”
Another beat of silence as they walked. Celine wasn’t sure if he was expecting her to say anything. She squeezed his hand again and smiled.
They were at the sign now. Roman stepped up to the line, pressing his hand against a barrier that was only physical to him. He sighed.
“I have no idea what to do,” he admitted. “Sorry to drag you out here just to tell you that.”
Celine stepped up next to him, half of her body moving swiftly through space he couldn’t penetrate as she turned and faced him. “I’ll be here,” she promised. “Whatever you decide to do, we’ll do it together.”
Roman looked away from the town line and faced her, relief etched into his face. Then he smiled and for a second, she could see the twenty-five-year-old man she’d first fallen in love with.
She smiled as she gazed down at her little boy sleeping soundly in his bed. The lamp beside him glowed peacefully, tossing familiar shadows throughout the room.
At ten years old, he’d be furious if she were to call him sweet. He wasn’t sweet, babies were sweet. But here, with his long lashes and soft breaths, he was her baby again.
She ran a hand through his curls and laid a gentle kiss on his forehead. He smiled in his sleep and she turned off the lamp and slipped out of the room, her heart so full of love that she thought it might just burst.
She walked through the hallway of the old house, pointedly ignoring the piled envelopes on the hallway table as she passed. Instead, she stepped out into the warm evening air of the front porch and gazed out into the silent forest.
This was home. She could feel it in every part of her being. This was home, and this was where she would always belong.
Iris woke with tears in her eyes and vague recollections of comforting shadows.