Olivia was debating whether or not to bring Mia to the caroling tonight. On one hand, she’d been hopeful that this year would work out better, now that Mia was a little older. But on the other hand, the memories of last year were still too fresh. And she wasn’t sure if any of the others were going to want to come down and potentially relive all of that with her.
Mia was nearly two now. She could either walk or ride in her stroller. And she was old enough to enjoy the music and the lights. Maybe even a snack. But if things went badly again, then maybe that was a reflection on Olivia. And what if things went badly in the other direction? What if there was a spirit there who could see through the magic that was protecting her? And maybe they were strong enough to get past her barriers again. Or what if something went after Mia?
Olivia took a deep breath, trying to stop the panic spiral before it began. She was protected. Celine had helped her with some protections for Mia. She hadn’t seen a single ghost in three weeks, since the night she got possessed. And Celine knew what she was doing. Unlike-
Nope, she was doing it again. Olivia let out her breath. She didn’t have to go. Nobody would even notice if she didn’t go. There were nine hundred people in this town, so nobody was concerning themselves with her. Plus, there was still so much snow that maybe the common wouldn’t be in good shape for caroling anyway. She’d stay home and bake some muffins, make some cider, and relax. Andrew wasn’t going anywhere. Cleo was home with Edie. And Noah…
She should check in with Noah. Olivia set down her coffee and stood up. She hadn’t seen Noah all day, which wasn’t that unusual. They didn’t technically live together. But if the idea of Christmas Eve was bothering her so badly, she knew it had to be messing with him too. He probably wouldn’t want to actually talk about it, but maybe he would.
She glanced out quickly to see if his truck was in the driveway. He’d brought Cleo to her mom’s earlier, then gone to what Olivia assumed was an AA meeting. But he was home now. With a quick glance to confirm Mia was still napping, she slipped out the door and left it open behind her as she walked upstairs. Noah’s door was closed, and she knocked gently.
There was no answer. Weird. She couldn’t hear the shower running, but he was definitely home. She knocked again.
What if he was drinking? The thought came unbidden. No, he wasn’t. He literally just got home from AA. But despite everything, this felt too familiar. Feeling guilty, but unable to stop herself, she slowly turned the doorknob and opened the door a little way.
“Noah?” she called.
Still no answer. She was definitely overreacting, but she opened the door a little farther and stepped in. There was a pile of festively wrapped Christmas presents on his kitchen table and she knew at least five of them had to be for Mia. As she glanced into the living room, she saw no sign of him there either. “Noah, are you home?”
She heard a noise in his bedroom, and a second later, the door opened. He stumbled over, shirtless and blinking in the sudden light. “Liv?”
Oh shit. “Sorry!” she said, stepping back toward the door. “I didn’t mean to-”
“No, it’s fine,” he said. “I just got out of the shower. What’s up?”
Thank God. She’d been so sure that she’d interrupted him and Jude. “You’re alone?”
She could sink to the floor now. “What did you need?” Noah asked, still confused.
Now that she was up here, she wondered if maybe she’d made a mistake. “Nothing,” she said. “Sorry, I’ll let you finish getting dressed.”
“No, it’s fine. What’s going on?”
She owed it to him to be honest. “I just wanted to check and see how you were doing,” she said.
A long, awkward pause in which Olivia reconsidered all of her life choices. Then Noah gave her a small smile.
“I’m a mess,” he admitted with a laugh.
“Want some coffee?”
“I kind of want to just mope around my apartment for a little while, if you don’t mind,” he said. “I’m still jittery from the coffee at the meeting. But thanks.”
The dismissal stung a little, but she understood. “I’ll be downstairs,” she said. “If you need anything. Do you have plans tonight?”
He gestured toward the empty apartment, and she laughed slightly. “Me and Mia will be here,” she said. “I think I might just bake some things and turn on Christmas carols. You’re welcome to join.”
She knew he probably wouldn’t, but he nodded anyway. “Thanks,” he said.
She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. He smiled at her, but it was a little wavery. She didn’t like leaving him alone, but he’d made it clear it was what he wanted right now and she was going to trust him.
Three different types of quick bread later, Olivia thought she had the lemon loaf recipe down. She didn’t love the way the first one had come out. Far too sweet, not enough lemon. The second one had been too dry. And the third, as long as she got the icing right, that was the winner. That was the one they’d serve.
If the offer was accepted.
Another thing she’d been trying not to think about for the past several days. The seller had a couple more days to make a decision. According to Shannon, they had a decent shot at it. But that didn’t help Olivia stop thinking that something was going to go horribly wrong at any moment.
As she turned to get powdered sugar for the icing, Olivia glanced up at the back doorway. A line of intricate sigils were written up on the wooden frame, with a small coin lodged in there as well. She didn’t understand how any of it worked. But it did. And from what Andrew had told her about the night everything had happened, his own work had kept her from getting into the house and confirmed something was seriously wrong. He hadn’t said it like that, but she knew. And that same unpleasant squirm in her stomach returned as she thought about the possession.
It was so loud. Like static bypassing her ears and going directly into her brain. She’d been pushed aside like she was nothing, like her body wasn’t hers, like it was nothing. Like she was nothing.
Andrew’s voice in the living room doorway jerked her back to the present. She shook her head slightly. “Hi.”
“Thanks. I think I’ve got the recipe down. Help yourself.”
She didn’t want to be jittery and queasy. She wanted to be relaxing in her own kitchen with her good friend, enjoying Christmas.
He took a small slice of all three, then sat down at the table. “It’s incredible,” he said, “The number of people who wait until Christmas Eve to buy a gift, then decide they want something weird. We were swamped this morning.”
Icing. She was going to make icing. Milk, powdered sugar. Where the fuck was the powdered sugar? Did she have to go get some? She’d have to leave the house and then she’d be vulnerable again.
Andrew stood up and walked over to the back door as she looked through the cabinet, hands trembling. God dammit, why hadn’t she thought of this before? She needed to get this done, needed to have everything perfect because it wasn’t perfect and if she wasn’t perfect, she might let something in.
“It’s not in here,” she murmured, tossing the bag of tea bags onto the counter, followed by a half-full coffee container.
The coffee container popped open, spilling grounds all over the counter and floor. She’d get it after, her hands were shaking too hard to do anything but push things out of the way as she kept looking. It had to be in here, she couldn’t leave again. She’d have to put Mia in danger if she did.
A small container of flour. Three small spice containers that were too small to be what she was looking for. “It’s not in here,” she said again, sweeping a full bag of sugar out of the way, allowing it to fall to the floor.
The alarm in Andrew’s voice jerked her out of her trance. She looked up at him, realizing for the first time that there were tears on her face. How long had she been crying? She caught a glimpse of the mess she’d created before he was pulling her tightly against his chest, one hand pressed against her hair.
“It’s okay,” he whispered as she shook against him. “It’s over, it’s okay.”
“He’s going to come back.”
“He won’t,” Andrew said. “I promise.”
“He is,” she insisted, so sure of it. “I can’t keep Mia safe.”
“It’s only been three weeks,” he said. “Come on, sit down. Everything’s okay.”
She allowed him to steer her into the chair he’d been sitting in. Before she could tell him not to, he walked over to the corner of the room and got the broom and dustpan from where they were leaning against the wall. As he did, she saw him look up at the collection of sigils and the coin. He pulled the coin down, huffed a breath onto it, then shined it with the end of his sleeve before putting it back in place. Then he came back and silently swept up the mess she’d made.
“I can do that,” she said.
Andrew ignored her and kept sweeping. The whole mess went into the dustpan, then the trash bin without a word. Then he came back to the table and sat down next to her.
“You don’t need to be okay,” he said.
She wanted to say she was fine. But after what had just happened, she clearly wasn’t. “I don’t know what to do,” she said instead.
She wanted him to have a solution for her, to have a way to make her feel safe leaving the house again. To make the memories stop feeling so real. But she knew that was impossible. And far too much to ask.
“Have you talked to anybody?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Who can I talk to?” she asked. “I mean, I was possessed. They’re not going to believe me. I told Hugh and looked at how that went.”
“You know it isn’t your fault, right?”
“Of course,” she lied.
She knew it wasn’t. She hadn’t possessed herself. But she probably could have avoided it. And just thinking about it made her feel guilty and uneasy on top of everything else.