Olivia woke up the next morning with nothing on her schedule. Normally at this time, she’d be getting up and getting dressed. Then she’d apply her makeup, and brace herself for another day at Keegan’s. But that wasn’t going to happen. She was never going back to Keegan’s again.
But that didn’t stop her from laying there, wide awake and thinking that something was missing. But what was it? The lack of schedule? The lack of focus? The fact that she was thirty-four years old and now suddenly had no idea what she was going to do with the rest of her life?
Or maybe it was the cute winter jacket she’d left hanging in Keegan’s. Dammit, she was going to miss that jacket.
The idea that Charlie had quit in solidarity made her throat tight with guilt as she lay there, staring up at the beige ceiling of her bedroom. While she appreciated his loyalty more than she could express, no one should have to put themselves in a more challenging position just because she was fed up with the treatment she got.
She wondered what Hugh had done after she left. He probably didn’t quit. He needed the job as badly as she did. Apparently even more so, because she’d turned out to have a safety net when she jumped.
Olivia stretched one more time, relishing the release of tension, and sat up. She was alone in her room, which was becoming a rarity these days. Mia slept in here with her, but her little pile of blankets was scattered at the foot of the bed, so she had apparently gotten up without Olivia noticing. Hopefully, it was only a few minutes ago.
She glanced at her phone and a jolt of panic went through her. Or maybe it was a couple hours ago. She took a breath, letting the familiar fear fade into the background hum again. Mia was safe in the house. There were other adults here. But Olivia needed to get up and check, anyway.
She hurried out of bed, still wearing the tiny sleep shorts and old tank top she’d put on before falling asleep last night. The door was closed. Had something come in for Mia and slipped out with her? This was ridiculous, Olivia knew it, but she also knew her heart wasn’t going to settle until she saw her daughter in front of her.
Which she did, the second she opened the bedroom door. Mia and Noah were sitting on the couch, nestled under a wool blanket in the glow of the new Christmas tree. Noah held a book and was reading it out loud to her, the tiny board book practically swallowed in his large hands. Mia listened intently as she snuggled into his chest, one thumb in her mouth. Mid-sentence, Noah looked up at Olivia and smiled. “Good morning, princess,” he said. “I was wondering when you’d wake up.”
“Sorry,” Olivia said, trying to get her heart to slow back down. “I didn’t mean to oversleep. You didn’t have to take her.”
Noah glanced down at Mia, who was reaching for the book. “We’ve both been miserable, clearly,” he said with a laugh.
She couldn’t help laughing slightly too, her body relaxing from its bout of panic. Of course Mia wasn’t missing. She was right here, there were plenty of other adults in the house, and they locked the doors all the time.
“You can go back to sleep if you want,” Noah said as Mia waited impatiently for him to keep reading.
“No, I’m up,” Olivia replied. “I’m going to make some coffee. Want some?”
Olivia walked out to the kitchen and was barely done putting the water in the coffee maker when her phone rang, jolting her out of the half-awake daze she’d been working in. It was going to be frigging Bret, wasn’t it? And she was going to pick up, and he was going to yell at her. Then she’d take the job back and it would be like she never left at all.
She stood there, frozen with indecision. But then the decision was made for her when Noah came out of nowhere and grabbed the phone.
He glanced at her, eyebrows raised, as the person on the other end spoke. “Who’s asking?”
The caller answered and Noah covered the receiver. “It’s Hugh,” he whispered to Olivia. “Do you want..?”
This was inevitable, wasn’t it? She might as well get it over with. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I’ll talk to him.”
Noah nodded and went back to the phone. “Yeah, this is her house,” he said. “Hang on.”
He handed the phone to Olivia, then went back toward the living room, where a now indignant Mia was waiting in the doorway. With a trembling hand, Olivia lifted the phone to her ear.
Hugh sounded uncertain. He probably thought she was crazy, didn’t he? “Yeah,” she said, unable to think of anything else to say.
“Hi, it’s Hugh.”
No kidding. But it’d be rude to say that. “Oh, hi.”
He was silent for a second, and she waited to hear why he was calling. “Um, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Another awkward pause. “I have your jacket,” Hugh said. “You left it here when you…”
“When I quit because Bret was holding me to impossible standards and docking my pay?”
Hugh sounded genuinely shocked at this. “You didn’t hear him say that?” Olivia asked. “It was right as he was telling me that what happened on my nights off was my fault and I was being written up for it.”
“No, I missed that,” Hugh said. “Jesus, Olivia…”
“Why else would I just quit like that?” Olivia asked, aware that her voice was getting harder. “Yeah, he told me he was going to dock my pay based on the hours we were closed.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that,” Hugh said. “I thought that…”
He didn’t finish that thought and Olivia didn’t want him to. Of course he’d thought she quit because she was overreacting. Probably because of stress.
“Are you coming back?” Hugh asked.
“Bret’s been trying to get in touch with you. Are you going to come back?”
“Of course not,” Olivia said. “I told him I was done.”
“Charlie quit too,” Hugh said.
Another pause. “I’m leaving soon,” Hugh said.
Despite her anger, there was a pang in Olivia’s chest. “You are?”
“Yeah,” Hugh said. “My father’s not doing well and he wants to be back home in Pennsylvania when he passes.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She meant it and was glad that her voice had softened enough to reflect that. “Thanks,” Hugh said. “Um, I guess Bret’s going to need some help with Keegan’s when we’re all gone.”
“Well, he’s shit out of luck unless he starts treating his employees better,” Olivia retorted.
“So you’re really done, aren’t you?”
“I’m glad,” Hugh said, and he sounded happy, not pitying. “What are you going to do?”
“I have no idea,” Olivia admitted.
“I’m sure it’ll go great, no matter what it is,” Hugh said. “Listen, I really do have your coat. I can drop it off at your house when I get out of work.”
“Thank you,” Olivia said, forcing down the automatic offer to come get it herself. “I appreciate that.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Another silence. “I have to go,” Hugh said. “I’ll call you when I’m leaving.”
He hung up and Olivia put the phone back on the cradle. They’d had so much potential, but now all she could feel was a little sadness and a lot of relief at the fact he was leaving.
Despite the fact that she’d written the schedule last week, Olivia wasn’t quite sure what time Hugh was going to be out of work. It agitated her all day as she waited to hear from him. Part of her wanted to see him so badly, but another part of her wanted him to go to the fuck away. She was going to see him, she was going to start crying, and that would be the end of any remaining dignity she might have.
It was weird not being at work. Even on days when she was working the night shift, she always knew it was coming. She’d be at home, counting the hours until her shift began. Now it felt like she was supposed to be doing that, but there was nothing to count down to.
“What are you going to do from here?” Noah asked her around noon, as she was making Mia some lunch.
“No idea,” she admitted. “I’m still shocked I quit at all. Ask me again in a few days, but I need to find something.”
“We’ll make it work,” Noah said as he went into the fridge and pulled out a bottle of apple juice. “It’s fine.”
Considering he was working part-time at a Christmas tree lot and she had just left her only form of employment, she wasn’t sure how he could be so confident. But what was done was done. And she didn’t regret leaving.
“Hugh’s going to drop off my jacket on his way home from work,” she said.
“I know,” Noah said patiently. “You’ve told me three times.”
She laughed, but her face was hot. “Sorry.”
“No big deal. You’re nervous?”
“I feel like I blew it with him,” she said. “He thinks I snapped under pressure.”
“Yeah. That and…”
She tried to finish the sentence, but her throat was closing around her words. The possession. The possession, when something had taken over her body and mind. A wave of nausea turned her stomach cold and her hand trembled as she set down the knife she’d been using to spread strawberry jam on toast. Noah frowned at her, but she tried to smile.
“It’s fine,” she said. “He’s just bringing my coat.”
“You’re not the one who blew it,” Noah said. “He’s the jackass who didn’t listen to you.”
She laughed grimly. “Would you have believed it?” she asked.
She wanted to call him out, but he looked completely sincere as he looked at her. “Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Thanks,” she said, throat tight again. “I really liked him.”
“Do you think I’ll ever find someone?”
Noah raised his eyebrows. “Do I think someone as fun, sexy, and clever as you will ever find someone?” he confirmed.
She laughed and waved him off. “Stop it.”
“Yes, of course, I think you’ll find someone,” he said. “It’ll happen.”
He said it with such confidence that she almost believed him. He winked at her, then set the juice on the table and went to drag Mia away from her book for lunch.
Hugh called at five o’clock, after several excruciating hours of trying to pretend she didn’t care if he called or not. He said he’d be over in ten minutes, so Olivia spent five of those minutes trying to make herself look like someone who wasn’t concerned about what he thought of her. By this point, Noah had left for an AA meeting, promising he’d be back later tonight.
She was so focused on pretending she didn’t care that she jumped when the doorbell rang. Mia was napping, so Olivia smoothed back her hair one more time, went to the front door, and opened it.
Hugh was standing outside on the front step. Her coat looked small held against his large form and for a moment, Olivia wanted to just forget everything that had happened. She’d pull him inside and maybe they could try again.
But he didn’t believe her. He didn’t believe her about the possession, which was almost understandable. But he hadn’t even believed she had a good reason to quit Keegan’s. And that might have actually hurt more.
“Hi,” he said.
Hugh held out her coat and she took it, trying and failing to avoid brushing her hand on his as she did so. “Thanks,” she said, folding the coat over her arm.
“How are you?” Hugh asked.
It was an obvious lie, but if she let him in, she’d get hurt again. And as she watched his face, she could see the regret there.
“Listen,” Hugh started, moving uncomfortably. “I’m sorry about how things ended.”
Hugh hesitated at the fire she couldn’t keep out of her voice, but then he kept going. “I’m leaving soon,” he said. “I gave Bret two weeks’ notice, but we’re moving as soon as I’m done. Listen, I’m glad I met you, Olivia.”
She felt her resolve soften, just a little. He wasn’t a bad person. They just weren’t a good fit after all. “I’m glad I met you too,” she said.
Hugh smiled softly and she smiled back, her stomach twisting as she did. This was it. They weren’t going to keep in touch and they both knew it. Neither of them would even try. She considered it for a brief moment, considered blurting out something about Facebook and phone calls. But there was no point.
She felt ridiculous shaking hands, and it felt wrong not to do anything at all. She moved forward for a hug. Hugh seemed unsure at first, then wrapped his arms around her. His grip was warm, tight, and so familiar that she was almost surprised at how little she felt.
They were nothing, and she didn’t feel that same flame anymore at his touch. But she knew she was going to miss this.
A moment later, she was back in her apartment, coat still clutched in her hand.