Cleo came out of the bathroom just as the smoke alarm started blaring directly above her. Thin, hazy smoke clung to the ceiling of her mother’s house, and she waved it away as best she could as she reached up to shut off the alarm.
Where was the smoke coming from? And how had it happened so quickly? She had only been in the bathroom for a couple minutes. Her mom had told her she was going to put supper on in a little while, there shouldn’t have been anything in the oven.
But there was, Cleo realized as she hurried down the hall toward the source of the smoke. Or at least there was something on the stove. The smoke was coming from a pot on the back burner, and now the kitchen smoke alarm was going off as well, screeching with no sign of turning off.
Where was her mother?
Cleo rushed into the small kitchen and shut off the stove, coughing in the acrid smoke. The alarm was still screeching, but she’d get to it in a second. “Mom?” she called again, lifting the pot from the hot burner.
It was empty. What the hell was going on? As she was opening the window to let out some of the smoke, she spotted her mom out the window. She was standing on the tiny front steps, staring out into the yard. Cleo hadn’t even heard the door open or her walking out.
This was bad.
Cleo pressed the button and the smoke alarm was finally silent. The pan was still smoking, but she wasn’t worried now that it was off of the hot burner. Now that the fire danger was gone, she hurried to the front door.
“Mom?” she called.
Her mother spun around and glared at Cleo. “What do you want?”
Cleo held up her hands. “Are you okay?” she asked. “There was an empty pot smoking on the stove. I turned it off for you.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” her mother snapped, storming past Cleo and back into the house. “I don’t know who you think you are, coming into a stranger’s house and messing with her things.”
Cleo’s blood turned to ice as her mom stalked off. “Mom…” she said slowly, resisting the urge to vomit right there in the kitchen. “It’s me, Cleo.”
“Obviously,” her mother muttered as she picked up the pot and started inspecting the burnt bottom. “Who else would be here irritating me all the time?”
The hour drive she’d taken at her mother’s request after working a nine-hour delivery shift flashed through Cleo’s head, but she kept her mouth shut. Starting a fight wasn’t going to help matters.
So instead, she followed her mother into the kitchen, trying not to cough on the lingering smoke.
“Do you seriously not get it? Are you that fucking dense?”
Noah knew he was hammered. He knew that he’d probably regret saying these things tomorrow, but it was like poison in his body and it had been eating at him the whole time Andrew had been in New Winslow. And now, after months of simmering, it felt good to just let it all out.
“You left,” he said with a laugh, watching the backyard spin around him. “Don’t you understand? You fucking…you and I…and then you left. You left. You barely even said anything to me before you did. Were you that ashamed? I mean, was I that bad, Andrew? Jesus Christ.”
Andrew was silent, his head bowed against the floodgates that had opened. Once again, Noah had been minding his own business in the backyard. Yes, he was drinking, but he was a shitty person and that was all he did now. He’d planned on just sitting out here, staring into the forest for a little while. But then Andrew had come outside and the words had just started tumbling out of Noah’s mouth before he could stop them.
And now Andrew’s silence just made him angrier.
“You…just…fuck you, Andrew,” Noah spat out. “I can’t believe you’re back. I never wanted to see you again and here you are. Just fucking strolling back in. I had a life, you know? It wasn’t fancy or exciting or whatever, but I loved it. And now here you are, right in the middle of it.”
He thought Andrew might be about to say something in his defense, but Noah didn’t hear it as he turned and puked off the stone wall.
Andrew was sorely tempted to leave Noah lying there on the wall. He was angry. Anyone would be after being attacked like that. And the shame was burning through him because, as trashed as Noah was, everything he’d said was right. Andrew had left. It had never occurred to him back then that Noah might take a simple hookup as seriously as he had. Noah hooked up with people constantly. It had been almost a running joke among them about which man or woman Noah was with that week. And Andrew couldn’t kid himself that there had been no feelings on his end. He cared deeply about Noah and always had. Putting his hand down Noah’s pants hadn’t exactly been a chore.
But he’d clearly underestimated Noah’s feelings for him back then. And the fact that Noah hadn’t had a different passion to weigh those feelings against in the same way that Andrew had. Maybe Andrew could have fallen in love with Noah. He’d come close, he knew. But he loved the idea of leaving New Winslow even more and it made the decision to leave Noah behind easy.
Noah wiped the side of his mouth and grimaced. “Just fuck off, will you?”
“At least let me help you inside,” Andrew said.
“Come on,” Andrew said, surprised at how soft his voice was despite the anger coursing through him. “I won’t stay. I’ll just walk you upstairs and then I’ll fuck off, I promise.”
“Go back to Boston,” Noah snapped.
“Can’t, remember?” Andrew said.
Noah shrugged. “Not my problem.”
He stood up suddenly and nearly lost his balance. Andrew’s arm shot out on its own to steady him and he was surprised Noah didn’t shake him off.
“Come on,” Andrew said.
Noah looked at him hazily, then started to walk toward the house. Since he hadn’t exactly refused this time, Andrew followed.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly as they reached the bottom of Noah’s stairs.
Noah paused and looked at him. Then, without a word, he staggered up the stairs. He didn’t look back once before he reached the door and went inside.
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Olivia thought she could hear Noah and Andrew talking outside, but her attention was pulled away by the shrill ringing of her phone. She set down the cake mix she was stirring, went over, and picked up the receiver.
Cleo sounded almost scared. Or maybe like she’d been crying.
“Cleo,” Olivia said. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Can I…can I come stay over your house tonight?”
“Of course,” Olivia said immediately. “Come on over, I’ll get some dinner going.”
“No, you don’t have to,” Cleo said. “I’m not hungry. We had a really bad night and I can’t stay at my mom’s, but I’m scared to leave town just yet.”
“You can absolutely stay here,” Olivia said. “Come over. I think you left some clothes here last time so you’re all set anyway.”
“I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”
Cleo arrived about fifteen minutes later, her backpack slung across one shoulder and her guitar case in one hand. By this point Andrew was also back inside. His conversation with Noah apparently hadn’t been a good one because he had only said about three words to Olivia since he’d walked in and was now silently cleaning the kitchen.
Cleo’s eyes were red as she walked into the apartment. “Come on,” Olivia said. “I’ve got the kettle on, let’s have some tea and relax for a little bit.”
Cleo nodded and followed her into the kitchen. Andrew turned as they walked in.
“Hi,” Cleo said.
He frowned. “Hi,” he said, setting down the cloth he was wiping the counter with. “Cleo, what’s wrong?”
“Just a bad night with my mom,” Cleo said as she sat down at the kitchen table, setting her things down on the floor beside her. “She’s so much worse than she was. And she knows it, but she won’t do anything about it. But tonight she forgot my name. It was the first time it’s ever happened. But she forgot my name, and she left the burners on twice and was livid when I shut them off. I’m scared to go home tonight, I don’t want to get back to Boston and find out that her house burned down.”
She nodded her thanks as Olivia handed her a mug of chamomile tea. “I’ll try to talk to her tomorrow,” she said. “But I think I’m going to try to get a shift in Worcester instead of driving back to Boston, just in case I need to be back here quickly. It was bad. She was just…gone, you know? It was like a light shut off.”
Andrew had apparently forgotten his own sour mood in the face of Cleo’s distress. “It’ll be alright,” he said, sitting down next to her. “You’re doing the right thing, looking out for her like this.”
Cleo nodded miserably, gazing down at the table. Olivia squeezed her shoulder. “You can share my bed tonight,” she said. “I think if you get a good night’s sleep, it’ll all seem a little more bearable in the morning, you know?”
She felt like a hypocrite saying those words, but it was always easier to give that advice than to take it whenever one of the others offered it to her. Thankfully, neither Cleo nor Andrew called her out on it. Instead, they all sat silently at the table for a little longer.