“Good morning, Roman.”
Roman was standing outside the general store, taking a sip of his coffee before he got in his truck. At least, that was his plan until Charles Baxter had stepped up beside him as he leaned against the side of the truck. And suddenly the icy wind felt just a little colder.
Roman nodded cautiously. “Morning.”
“How’s the family?”
Suppressing the urge to tell Baxter to never mention his children again, Roman nodded again. “Also good.”
What was this all about? Charles Baxter had said maybe ten words to Roman in the past twenty years. If anything, Roman was a walking reminder of the curse he tried so desperately (to Roman’s eternal irritation) to keep from being talked about in public.
Baxter looked around the nearly empty row of parking spaces in front of the general store. “Looks like snow,” he said.
Roman took another sip of coffee, waiting for Baxter to get to the point. But Baxter seemed not to be in any hurry. Instead, he seemed to be trying to avoid saying something as he scratched at his nose, then nodded again.
“Look,” Roman said finally. “Charles. I gotta get to work. So if there’s something you wanted to talk to me about, please just tell me.”
Baxter blinked at him, and it satisfied Roman to see he’d unnerved the older man. Good. If he had to deal with the curse with no help from the town, then Baxter could stand to be uncomfortable in his presence.
Roman raised an eyebrow and took another sip of his coffee as Baxter worried his scarf. Then he finally spoke. “Listen,” he said. “I don’t want to be spreading any rumors, but have you noticed anything odd about Iris Davies lately?”
It took everything in Roman’s power to avoid rolling his eyes. Really? This was Baxter’s big plan? Whisper rumors about Iris like they were fifteen? His own fifteen-year-old knew better than that. “Uh. No,” Roman said flatly. “Was there anything else?”
“Oh, no, no, I’m not trying to insinuate anything,” Baxter said, backing up as though Roman had offended him. “No, I just know that you and Iris are friends. And I couldn’t help but notice some odd behavior on her part.”
Roman sighed. “Listen,” he said. “I don’t know what this is about, but Iris is fine. So don’t worry about it.”
Like he was actually worried. Baxter looked like he might have something else to say, but he was interrupted by Gene Rodowicz walking past them toward the front door of the general store.
“Morning, Charles. Morning, Roman.”
Baxter’s reply was more of a grunt than a greeting, but Roman waved. “Hey, Gene, let me buy you a coffee,” he said. “I gotta talk to you about something anyway.”
Rodowicz looked like he didn’t buy it for a second, but also wasn’t about to say no. So instead, he slowed down and waited for Roman, who turned back to Baxter.
“Good to see you, Charles,” he said.
Then, without waiting for a reply, he followed Rodowicz into the shop.
“It’s Andrew, right?”
Andrew and Noah were walking out of the general store when a tall man with thinning gray hair and a posh coat came up to them. “Er, yeah?” Andrew said. “What can I do for you?”
The man ignored Noah completely, except to give him the briefest of disdainful looks that made Andrew instantly dislike him. He instead shook Andrew’s hand and gave him a wide smile. “I’m Charles Baxter, I’m the head of the town council here.”
“Oh, right. I remember you from high school.”
The man’s broad smile didn’t flicker once. “That’s right! I don’t believe I ever had the pleasure of having you in any of my classes though?”
“Which were those?” The man seemed friendly enough in person, but that didn’t mean Andrew was going to trust him even remotely.
“Ah. No, no, I took physics.”
“Well, I certainly taught this one.”
He seemed to have realized that the disdainful look wasn’t doing him any favors. So instead, he turned to Noah with a wide, false smile. “I remember this one in class all too well,” Baxter said with a jovial grin. “I imagine you’re using that biology education every day now, yeah?”
Was that a dig at…what exactly? Noah’s job? His addiction? Andrew honestly couldn’t tell what he was supposed to be mad about right now. Noah’s mouth was in a thin line, but he said nothing.
“Is there something I can do for you?” Andrew asked, hearing the polite tone fraying in his voice.
“Yes, actually. Is there somewhere we can talk alone for a moment?”
Andrew looked at Noah. “I’ll go start the car,” Noah said.
“I’ll be right there.”
Noah took the shopping bag from Andrew with his good hand, then started walking toward his truck. Baxter watched him go, then turned back to Andrew.
“Andrew,” he said. “Listen, I’m sorry for approaching you out of nowhere like this. But I’m very concerned. Iris Davies, is she alright?”
“Iris. I know you two are friends, so I wanted to check in. But she just seems so distant lately. The shop is closed at odd hours. And she came into the town hall recently and was downright skittish when I approached her.”
“No,” Andrew said slowly, shaking his head. “No, Iris is fine.”
“Are you sure?”
He didn’t trust Baxter any more than he had moments earlier, but it wasn’t like Iris had been open with him lately about what was going on at The Countess, or wherever she kept going. “Yes,” he said. “Yeah, I’m sure. Is there anything else I can do for you? I should really go-”
“I’m not trying to imply that she’s doing anything wrong,” Baxter said quickly. “I just worry, you know? It’s a small town. News gets around. And I know it isn’t the first time that Iris has acted erratically. I want to be sure she’s safe.”
“She’s fine,” Andrew said. “Now I really need to leave.”
“Of course, of course.”
Baxter didn’t say anything else. So Andrew just nodded and hurried after Noah.
“What was that about?” Noah asked as Andrew climbed into the driver’s side.
“He was asking about Iris,” Andrew said. “Saying that she’s been acting oddly.”
Andrew pulled out onto the main road and started back toward the house. He was quiet for a moment. “I suppose she has been,” he said as they turned away from the buildings downtown and onto a more wooded road. “She has all these things going on over in Petersham and she won’t tell me about them.”
“Maybe she just forgot,” Noah said, reaching for his coffee in the center console. “She’s like that sometimes.”
Andrew turned to look out the window at the trees sliding by them. Maybe she did just forget. But he couldn’t help the feeling in the pit of his stomach that maybe he was missing something.
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Olivia was in the backyard, walking toward her back door after bringing her trash bag out to the barrels. As she turned toward the sound of her name, she saw Noah walking toward her with his own bag. He was slightly off-balance as he held it in one hand.
“Oh, here,” she said, taking it out of his hand before he had a chance to argue.
She headed back toward the bins and he followed. “How are you feeling?” Olivia asked.
Noah shrugged. “Better,” he said. “I’m off the meds so it’s hurting some, but it’ll go away.”
“Can you get more?”
“I don’t want them.”
Something in his voice told her not to argue that one. So instead she just opened the barrel and tossed the small trash bag in. “Fair,” she said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“I need to talk to you.”
Was he nervous? “Of course,” she said. “Come on, let’s go sit in the kitchen.”
When they walked inside, she could hear music playing in the living room. She was pretty sure Andrew was in there with Mia, she’d been his little shadow since he and Noah got back from the general store earlier. But if Noah wanted more privacy, they could go somewhere else.
“This good?” she asked.
He nodded and they sat down at the kitchen table. “What’s going on?” she asked.
Noah hesitated. “I don’t think I can work at Keegan’s anymore,” he said.
She looked him over with his nylon sling. “Is it the wrist?” she asked. “I don’t mind if you take time off, obviously.”
His face was red and she could have kicked herself for not seeing the bigger picture. “It’s more than that, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want it to be,” he said. “You got me my job back when I didn’t deserve it. And I owe you so much. And the way I quit last time, I just…”
She squeezed his good hand. “I get it,” she said.
“I don’t want to leave you short-handed.”
If he hadn’t been so miserable, she would have made the obvious joke. “And I don’t want you having any more problems than you already do,” she said instead.
“It was easier when I could do the actual job,” Noah said. “But yesterday all I could do was watch the door. And nobody came in and fuck, Liv, I almost broke.”
How had she not noticed? Was she so caught up in the idea of things going back to normal that she’d failed to see him struggling?
“Are you okay for money?” she asked.
He nodded. “I picked up some seasonal work helping Charlie at the Christmas tree lot,” he said. “I can’t carry the trees obviously, but they needed someone for the register, sweeping, things like that. So that’ll carry me long enough to find something else.”
The idea of not working with Noah again hurt, but it felt more stable this time. “I’m really sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” she said. “Your health comes first. We’ll figure the rest out. It’s just a job.”
A job that she desperately needed to get out of. But of course she wasn’t going to say that to him.