A few hours later, Cleo was sitting on the recliner in Olivia’s living room, watching with rapt attention as Olivia told the story of how she’d quit Keegan’s that day. She seemed to have shaken off the anxiety that had been evident when Cleo got there and Cleo suspected that the second glass of wine Andrew had handed her about ten minutes ago had something to do with it. But Liv seemed happy, most of the tension she’d been carrying around since Cleo came back to town gone now as she explained the way she’d walked out.
“I just…I never planned to do it like that,” Liv said, running a finger over the rim of her glass. “But he did it in front of everyone. Like, Cleo, there was a guy there. There was a customer there and Bret was screaming at me because the jerk he sent over to close the bar decided to close early. He questioned my professionalism! Like I wasn’t the one keeping Keegan’s open. I haven’t gone on vacation in years and he’s questioning my professionalism when I know he just got back from Florida.”
Cleo laughed and took a sip of her own wine. Noah was still out and Andrew had gone to the general store moments earlier, so it was just the two of them. Mia had found her way into Andrew’s bedroom and was now sitting on the floor just inside the open door, chewing on one of her board books as she looked out at Olivia and Cleo.
“I’m just done,” Olivia said, pushing her long, brown hair back behind her ears. “If he thinks I’m coming back…”
“God, don’t go back,” Cleo groaned, pushing lightly on Olivia’s knee. “Don’t even think it. You can do something else.”
“But what?” Olivia asked, her light mood getting a little heavier as she glanced over and blew a kiss to Mia. “There’s not much else available about here and I’m relying on my mom and Andrew for free babysitting. So I can’t take advantage of that.”
She took another sip of her wine, narrowing her eyes at Cleo before she could even open her mouth. “And don’t you dare say just leave New Winslow.”
Cleo laughed, her face getting warm. “I know you,” Olivia continued with a good-natured scowl, pointing a finger in her direction. “That’s your solution to everything.”
She wanted to argue, but she had been about to suggest getting out of this terrible town. So instead, Cleo just shrugged and smiled.
“What about what you do?” Olivia said. “Food delivery. Is it worth it?”
“Depends,” Cleo said. “It’s fine for me for now, but I don’t think it’s a great idea in the long term. These apps can dick you around however they want to.”
“True,” Olivia said. “But still, maybe I’ll look into it.”
She drained her glass and glanced up at the clock. “Noah should be on his way home soon,” she said. “I know he would never say not to drink around him, but I don’t want to just be sitting here with a glass of wine when he gets out of AA, you know? If I can make staying sober any easier for him, I will.”
She didn’t look drunk, just a little looser than she had when Cleo got there. A little less of that deer in the headlights look. Cleo knew that Liv was going to spend the rest of the evening swinging wildly between regretting her decision to leave and being almost giddy at it. Because that was what she had done after every major decision, impulsive or not, since they were twelve. As long as she didn’t equally-impulsively try to go back to Keegan’s, she’d be fine.
And if she did try to, between the three of them they could probably hold her down long enough for her to come to her senses.
Cleo blinked, suddenly aware she’d been staring at Liv. She smiled, then finished her own glass of wine.
“Don’t go back,” she said. “I mean it. We’ll figure it out, but please don’t go back.”
Olivia’s smile faded, just a little, and her eyes darted toward Mia, who had torn a page off of her book and was now peeling the heavy cardboard apart. Then she looked back at Cleo and let out a heavy sigh.
“Fine,” she said, laughing. “God, fine. I promise I won’t go back.”
Later that night, Olivia was standing out on the back porch. She hadn’t told anybody she was coming out here, but Mia was playing in the living room and Cleo and Andrew were still in there, so it was safe. Now she just needed a few minutes in the brisk night air to process what she’d done.
She quit her job. And not just quit, but walked out on in the middle of her shift. The rage at Bret bloomed again, but with it was that deep worry that she’d irrevocably fucked up. That was her paycheck. If she didn’t have that, she couldn’t feed Mia. Or pay her bills. And what was her mom going to say? She babysat for free and Olivia was just going to quit her job?
But despite the worry and the guilt that she reasonably knew wasn’t called for, she knew it was the right choice. If she’d just nodded and accepted her punishment, she’d never leave that job. She knew it so certainly that it might as well have happened in another timeline.
Something moved in the woods beyond the stone wall that marked the property line. It was too dark to see it clearly, but Olivia knew it was there. It didn’t move like an animal, but it was far too smooth for a human. A chill went down her spine as it disappeared.
Nothing could get in. The property was protected. And even if she could see ghosts, they couldn’t do anything to her as long as she had the necklace on.
Her fingers reached up to brush the small amulet around her neck. It was safe. The house was protected, she didn’t need to worry. Now if her body could understand that too, things would be great. But instead, she was standing here trembling from beyond just the cold.
Noah’s voice behind her made Olivia jump and drop the amulet. She turned around and saw him standing in the doorway, hands buried in his sweatshirt pocket and hunched slightly in the cold.
“Yeah,” Olivia said, turning back to the woods, where she couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “Fine.”
He slid the door shut and walked over to where she was standing at the top of the small set of stairs. “I saw something in the woods,” she said.
Noah peered out at the darkness. “Like what?” he asked, reaching for the baseball bat he kept tucked to the side of her deck.
“A ghost, I think,” she said. “I don’t know. It didn’t get in or see me.”
“Celine said he’s gone.”
“Of course he’s gone,” Noah said, but he sounded uneasy.
“Did I tell you about that conversation? She said he either moved on or he’ll reincarnate. Imagine reincarnating as someone completely different?”
“Creeps me out,” Noah admitted with a laugh, his breath foggy in the cold.
She laughed too, watching the steam curl up from her own mouth. “Part of me is like, that’s the easy way out. I want him to pay. But I know that’s impossible.”
“From what I heard, Celine made it hurt,” Noah said.
She didn’t remember much about what Celine had done. She knew he’d fought, her throat had hurt from the screaming. But it was like she’d slowly pulled his fingers away from Olivia’s being until he’d slipped away. Her stomach hurt and she swallowed down the urge to scream, just like she’d been doing every day.
“I wonder who he was,” she said, mostly to break herself out of that cycle.
“I want to know, but I don’t. He’s gone, at least. I mean, if what Celine says about reincarnation is true, he’s literally gone. Like, he’s an entirely different person now. A baby who had nothing to do with him…”
She trailed off before any of the words she was thinking could get out. Taking her? Violating her? She had no idea how to describe what had happened, even if she wanted to.
“Sorry,” she said after a second. “You literally just told me that it creeps you out and I’m here dwelling on it.”
Noah shrugged. “It’s your right,” he said softly. “You’re allowed to be angry at him. Besides, plenty of things creep me out. It’s just the implications of reincarnation, that’s all.”
She thought he might have more to say, but they stood there for a few minutes. It wasn’t exactly an easy silence, but Olivia figured it was as close as she was going to get for a while. “I should get Mia ready for bed,” she said after a moment.
“Want me to do it?” Noah asked.
“I’m all set,” she said. “It’s cold anyway.”
She went back inside, and he followed. The kitchen was warm and bright, but she couldn’t shake the movement she’d seen outside.