“I’ll be there in an hour,” Cleo said, looking under her bed for her sneakers.
“You don’t need to,” her mother argued. “It’s fine, I don’t need any help.”
“I know,” Cleo lied. “You already told me that. But I’m stopping by with some groceries and lunch, remember?”
“I can get my own groceries.”
Cleo pulled the phone away from her ear for a second and sighed. Then she put it back in place as she pulled the bright green sneakers out from under the blanket. “I know you can,” she said. “But we already agreed, remember? I bought the groceries while I was out earlier, so they’re already in my car.”
“Fine,” her mother said. “But you know I don’t need the help.”
She needed help. She needed so much help that just picking up a week’s worth of groceries for her felt like a drop in the bucket of all the help she needed. But saying that was the exact thing that would get Cleo a door locked in her face when she arrived in New Winslow.
“I’m going to head out,” Cleo said to her mother. “I’ll be there in an hour. Love you.”
There was a pause, and Cleo’s heart clenched. Then her mother said, “Love you too.”
Her voice was soft, almost unsure, or like she was talking in her sleep. But she hung up before Cleo could say anything about it.
A year ago she hadn’t hated New Winslow. She hadn’t loved it, but she hadn’t had the same burning mix of anger and fear toward the town that she felt now. She remembered even telling Noah that when he’d been getting in a few too many digs at them for coming back. She’d thought of it as any other boring town where she never felt fully welcome or fully at home. Nothing more and nothing less.
But then Andrew had gotten stuck. And that hour he’d been trapped had turned into eleven months. As Cleo glanced around her and Edie’s bedroom for anything she’d forgotten, she couldn’t help thinking that she might not get home tonight. Or ever. Because her mother refused to leave a cursed town and she refused to leave her mother without help. So Cleo was risking her own freedom to go drop off some lettuce and frozen dinners for her mother.
What the fuck kind of a world was this? If she thought too hard about it, she might go insane. But instead, she needed to focus on her mom. If she still refused to go to Dr. Degas or any other doctor for help, then Cleo couldn’t leave her alone. So all she could do was just hope that it wouldn’t get her.
And if it did, that it would let her go quickly.
It was freezing when she got out onto the porch, the wind sharp as it tore through her thin coat. Cleo’s warm coat was at Liv’s, she’d forgotten it there last time she spent the night. So Cleo darted over to her car and climbed inside. Her hands were still numb as she turned on the car and waited for the heat to start up, but it was an improvement from the wind. After giving the car a few minutes to warm up, she backed out of the driveway and onto the road.
They lived on a side road in Fitchburg, just off the main road past the small regional airport. Even though she’d spent months driving here to visit, it felt different to pull onto the quiet road now. A couple cars passed by as she waited to turn, but beyond that she was alone on the road.
She knew things got busier further down the road. Edie had told her that Fitchburg’s downtown was fairly urban. So that was nice? But she had been through downtown and it felt nothing like what she was used to. It was more like New Winslow’s downtown than any part of Boston, if she was being honest with herself. There were plenty of buildings, sure, but half of them were empty. Edie had a few restaurants that they liked in Fitchburg and the surrounding towns. They had several in mind for their birthday celebration tonight. And Cleo liked these places too, but it wasn’t the same.
There was none of the rumbling energy she was used to, that spark that was only found in the city. She hated how much she missed Boston. It felt immature and spoiled, but she couldn’t help it. She missed her old life, where she and Andrew slept late and then only got up before noon to get coffees and crawl back onto the couch with them.
But there was no way to tell Edie that without implying that she had been happier before she met Edie. And that wasn’t true. Cleo was so happy with them, it was the most right that anything had felt in her life in years. But everything else was changing too fast for her. She’d gone from living where she thought she’d stay forever to somewhere she’d never even considered. Andrew was back in New Winslow, something both of them had desperately wanted to avoid. That was why they’d left in the first place and why neither of them went back for almost a decade. They’d made their own normal and then she’d pulled them back in.
She wanted to go back to Boston, Cleo admitted to herself as she pulled onto the busy two-lane highway that led toward New Winslow. She wanted to incorporate Edie into that fantasy, but she wanted it back. She wanted to sell this stupid car and get her apartment back. She wanted to smell Boston Harbor when she got out of a gig late at night. She wanted to get drunk with Andrew in his cozy little Beacon Hill apartment and giggle over old movies until they fell asleep at sunrise.
She missed Andrew so badly. Even though she was likely going to see him in two hours when she picked up her coat from Liv’s, it wasn’t the same. She missed their life and how it had been.
And if her mom had just listened to Cleo and gotten the hell out of New Winslow at the same time as them, none of this would have happened.
The thought caught her off guard as she turned on the radio and Cleo immediately felt guilty. It wasn’t her mom’s fault that Cleo had insisted on coming back to help her move. But her mother had been driving her nuts lately and what was one more frustration with her?
The college radio station she’d been listening to last night as she finished her shift was still playing, some kind of a capella special. It brought another pang of nostalgia to Cleo as she remembered these same performances at Berklee. She’d never participated in any a cappella groups. Instead, her focus had been on songwriting and the music industry. But this memory also came with the pang that it was gone.
It was all gone. She was done having any sort of excitement or surprises in her life.
“Oh fuck off,” Cleo snapped out loud.
Where were these dramatic, depressing thoughts even coming from? She was happy. She had a beautiful home, an incredible partner, and her career was starting to take off. So why was she so miserable? Was it just that New Winslow hovered over all of her plans? Letting her know that they could vanish at any moment?
Jesus, she needed more sleep.
She wasn’t going to stay over tonight. Not that she ever stayed at her mom’s house, but she wasn’t going to stay at Liv’s. She was going to go to her mother’s, pick up her jacket, and book it back to Fitchburg to celebrate Edie’s birthday.
“Mom, I’m here!”
Lugging a gallon of milk and a tote bag of Lean Cuisines, Cleo opened the front door of her mother’s house and stepped inside. It was cold, almost as cold as it was outside and a sinking feeling began to settle in as Cleo noticed all the windows in the kitchen were wide open.
She set down the groceries, trying to stay calm. Maybe there had been smoke and the house was still airing out. It was fine, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Cleo peeked in the living room. No sign of her mother, but the windows were open here too. Maybe she’d just laid down after they talked. The bedroom door was closed on the other side of the hall, then she froze as she caught sight of the back door swinging wide open.
No, no, it wasn’t anything like that. Her mother didn’t wander off. Without knocking, Cleo shoved open the bedroom door. The air was heavy and stale inside and there was garbage on the floor. But no sign of her mom.
Running now, Cleo went to the back door and ran down the short staircase and out into the tiny yard. No sign of her mother back there, just a row of silent lots under the heavy gray clouds gathering in the sky.
“Mom!” Cleo yelled, hearing the panic in her voice.
She ran around the side of the house toward her car. Nothing there. Minnie Jensen’s dark home was still empty on the other side, faded flowers still sitting cheerfully in the barrel at the bottom of the stairs. There was nobody around on that side or on the other. In fact, she hadn’t seen anyone outside at all since she got here.
Of course not. The temperature was almost in the negatives and the sun was going down, making it even colder. Of course nobody was going to be outside.
Except her mother.
Cleo didn’t care if she was overreacting as she pulled out her phone and dialed the emergency line. It rang twice, then a sweet, perky voice answered.
“New Winslow Police Department, how can I help you?”
“My mom is missing,” Cleo said, the words tumbling out of her mouth as she continued to race down the small street, looking into yards as she passed. “She has memory issues, and I just went to her house and the door is wide open and she’s gone.”
“Okay,” the woman said, some of the positivity vanishing as she spoke. “We’re sending someone over now. Are you at the house? What is the address?”
She rattled off her mother’s address and heard the woman typing on the other end. “Okay, Ms. Rodriguez, I need you to go back to the house and wait there. An officer will be over to talk to you in a few minutes.”
“It’s getting dark.”
She didn’t know why she said that. She hadn’t even thought the words before they left her mouth. But it was getting dark.