It was Christmas Day and Cleo, her mother, and Mrs. Stevenson were all having supper together. Mrs. Stevenson had made an enormous dinner, going all out on the turkey and sides despite the fact it was only the three of them. So Cleo didn’t have the heart to show how excruciating it was to be sitting there right now. She wanted to be at home with Edie, far away from New Winslow and safe in the knowledge that she wouldn’t get trapped wherever she was. But she had a responsibility to be here. So she was going to stay.
Thankfully, Mrs. Stevenson’s turkey, at least partially made up for it. Especially after she considered the Christmas dinner her mother had put together last year, right as everything had gone to hell.
Her mother was silent as she ate small bites, pausing for a long time in between each one. Mrs. Stevenson tried to coax her to eat a little more, but every time she tried, Cleo’s mother would shake her head tightly as she looked down at her plate. Eventually, she’d pick up another minuscule fork full of turkey or green beans, and the entire cycle would begin again.
Cleo didn’t even try. She knew that if Mrs. Stevenson wasn’t getting results, then Cleo attempting to coax her mother into eating like a child would just result in both of them being thrown out.
Not that they could leave her alone, but she would certainly try.
This had been going on for about an hour when there was a knock at the door. Mrs. Stevenson and Cleo both jumped and looked at each other. Cleo wasn’t expecting anybody and based on the confused look on Mrs. Stevenson’s face, neither was she.
Her mother glanced at the door with a nod. “Oh, he’s here.”
“Who’s here, Mom?” Cleo asked.
Her mother didn’t answer and Cleo stood up to answer the doors as the knocking began again. It was fine, whoever it was. She’d handle it. And then they get back to their incredibly awkward Christmas dinner.
She opened the door, prepared to see a well-wisher from across the street, or maybe a religious group coming by with Christmas blessings. But the absolute last thing she expected to see was her father standing on the doorstep with his tidy suitcase in hand and neat peacoat button tightly against the cold. Cleo’s eyes widened as he looked at her with that small smile she always remembered.
“Hey Cleo,” he said
“Hi, Dad,” Cleo managed to get out.
“Who’s there?” Mrs. Stevenson called.
“Oh, it’s Carlos,” Cleo heard her mother say quietly.
Her dad glanced behind her at her mother and then looked at Cleo. “She didn’t tell you I was coming, did she?” he asked with that same small smile.
“No, she didn’t.”
Wait. Feeling foolish now, she thought about how her mother had mentioned her father just the day before. And apparently it hadn’t been her dementia. It had been a moment of clarity, and Cleo had completely missed it.
“Carlos,” Mrs. Stevenson said, standing up and coming to the door. “Carlos, what are you doing here?”
His answer was cut off as she wrapped him in a tight hug. It was the kind of hug that Cleo knew her father hated, just like her mother. Her father was just as intensely shy and introverted. As much as they genuinely cared for each other, neither was particularly fit to be in a relationship and both of them knew it. They were happier apart. So as Cleo had gotten older, they eventually decided that divorce was the best option, especially after her father had been offered a very well-paying job on the West Coast.
Cleo had never thought less of him for taking it, especially since he had taken care of them well and her mother had been happy. But the idea that he was here in New Winslow for the first time in years shocked her. It shocked her even more than the idea that she herself had been coming here regularly.
“Come in,” she said quickly, remembering that they were standing on the cold doorstep.
“Yeah, come in, sit down. We’re having dinner.” Mrs. Stevenson said. “How was your trip?”
“Long,” her dad replied, stomping the snow off his shoes and stepping inside. He kicked them off at the door and then slowly unbuttoned his coat. “Very long and too many people. I hate traveling. I don’t even remember the last time that I went on a plane.”
Cleo knew that there was one person in the world that he would take that flight for, and it was her mother. So she shouldn’t have been that shocked that he would come back, especially after she had contacted him asking him to help support her ongoing care. But the idea that not only would her dad come all the way back to New Winslow, but her mother would allow it, still had her speechless.
Her mother stood up and walked toward her father. He was tall while she was short, his neat clothes a stark contrast to the soft dress she was wearing. As Cleo expected, they didn’t embrace. Instead, Naomi put her hand in his and led him to the table. “I’m so happy you’re here,” she said.
Tears pricked Cleo’s eyes, and she knew she was nowhere near done processing what had just happened. But instead of standing here, staring, she went over to the counter, where Mrs. Stevenson was already piling food onto a plate.
“Did you know about this?” she asked, keeping her voice as low as possible.
“No,” Mrs. Stevenson replied. “But I’m not surprised. You didn’t think he’d come back?”
Cleo glanced over, where her parents were deep in conversation. Her mother looked, while tired, coherent. She’d told her dad everything that had happened, but she wondered if he really understood it yet. Mrs. Stevenson gently touched her shoulder.
“Go sit down,” she said. “I’ll bring this.”
Cleo awkwardly sat down at the table next to her father, who looked over at her and smiled. If it weren’t for the fact that they were in a completely new house, she’d been dealing with her mother’s declining health for months, and Mrs. Stevenson was here, it might as well be a normal family dinner when she was a teenager.
“How are you, Cleo?” her dad asked.
“Good. Um, working a lot. I’ve got a new album in the works.”
“She was on tour,” her mother said, the pride in her voice making Cleo emotional again.
“No kidding,” her dad said, giving her a quick pat on the back of her hand. “Good going. I knew you could do it.”
After the initial conversation, dinner was nearly silent. Cleo could tell Mrs. Stevenson was bursting to talk, but the other two were silent and Cleo knew she wasn’t going to try to start a conversation with them. Cleo ate her dinner and considered what to do next. Where would her father sleep? She could give him the couch and she’d take the floor.
“Cleo, sweetheart,” Mrs. Stevenson said. “I’m going to help your mother with her medication. Would you mind packing up the dirty dishes? Don’t clean them, I’m bringing them home in a little bit.”
She and Cleo’s mother disappeared into the tiny bedroom, leaving Cleo and her father alone in the kitchen. “You’ve been helping your mom,” her dad said, gathering up trash on the table.
“Yeah,” Cleo said. “I just… I couldn’t leave her on her own.”
“I’m really glad you called me, though.”
“You didn’t need to come,” Cleo said. “I swear, I wasn’t trying to make you come back.”
“I couldn’t not,” Her dad said, handing her the silverware, which she washed anyway. The hot water felt good on her hands, as did the mechanical movements of cleaning. “I’m going to stay for a while and help you. It’s not like there’s anything essential keeping me in California.”
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get stuck?”
Cleo laughed out loud, like a balloon of anxiety had just popped inside of her. “Every day,” she admitted.
“But you’re here anyway.”
Her dad shrugged with a knowing look, then picked up a towel and began to dry the clean dishes.
Ten minutes later, when Mrs. Stevenson was done lecturing them about doing the extra cleaning, she kicked Cleo out for the night. Cleo was surprised, but she wasn’t going to say no to the opportunity to see Edie before Christmas ended. Her car was still at Liv’s, so she took Noah up on his offer to pick her up.
He pulled up outside the house about ten minutes after she called and she hurried into the truck.
“So my dad is back,” she said as she closed the door on the passenger side.
“Yeah. I asked him if he could help pay for extra help and he just hopped on a plane and came back.”
“Wow. That’s great.”
Something was off with him. Cleo couldn’t quite see his face, but then withdrawn answers were a little too familiar. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“Fine,” Noah said. “I swear. It’s just…”
He didn’t say anything else, but she got it. And she wasn’t going to push.