Cleo got home about two hours later, pulling into her parking spot just as the last traces of light were leaving the sky. It was cold, but the lights on the old porch were on, lighting the walkway up to the building. Before she walked into the house, she took a second to steel her nerves. Then she walked in, strode purposefully up the stairs, and opened the apartment door before she could lose her nerve.
“Can I talk to you?”
Edie was sitting in the living room watching some kind of gardening show on TV. They turned to her, eyebrows raised. “Yeah, of course. Merry Christmas.”
Cleo sat down next to them, conscious of the space between their bodies. “Listen,” she said, “You know that I’m in for the long haul, right?”
Edie looked at her, then reached over and turned off the TV, leaving them in familiar darkness. “Cleo,” they started.
“I mean it,” Cleo interrupted. “I’m with you. And I’m so sorry if I gave you any reason to doubt that. It’s just been… it’s been an adjustment, that’s all. And you know the past few weeks and the past few months have really made me consider what’s important in my life. And I think there’s a big part of me that’s always going to miss what I had before, but not because you weren’t there. Because it was before everything went to hell in New Winslow and it all seemed a lot clearer then. But I think that will shrink over time. And it’s worth missing that if it means that I get to be with you.”
Edie slid a hand over, and Cleo grasped it. Edie’s hand was cool and slender in hers. It felt like a lifeline. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with my- with my mom,” she continued. “And I know I have a responsibility to her. I’m not planning to leave any of that. Honestly, I’m not too sure where I’m going with this. But I wanted to make sure I told you I’m not leaving. And I’m sorry if I made you feel like maybe I wasn’t as invested in us as you are.”
Edie squeezed her hand. “I get it,” they said. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t being understanding about it. I know it’s not a distance thing, that was flippant of me to say. You’ve had so much happen this year and there’s been so many changes that it makes sense that you’re thinking of ways to get it back. But I get it. And I’m not saying never to move back out to Boston. It’s not like I’m passionately in love with Fitchburg or anything. It’s just convenient and cheap.”
Cleo laughed a little, feeling the knot in her stomach loosen just a little. “I think I want to stay here for a while,” she said. “I need to be with my mom. She’s going to need help and I owe her that.”
“What do you mean?”
“What, about owing her? She raised me. And I know how hard it was for her. But anything I needed, she was there, you know?”
“Oh, of course,” Edie said. “No, I’m not questioning that. But do you want to move closer to her? We could look for a place closer to town if that’s what you need.”
“Oh, fuck no.”
Edie let out a surprised laugh and Cleo found herself joining in. “No, I’m absolutely not moving to New Winslow,” she said. “I love Liv and Noah, but they’re insane. We’re only thirty minutes away from there and that’s perfect. I can go as often as I need to. She’s got a nurse checking in on her, my dad is apparently back for now, and her best friend has saved my life. I know I’m risking getting stuck, but I also know this is something that I have to do. I guess all I can really do is hope it doesn’t happen and have some contingencies in place if it does.”
“I’m sure you’re not the first person to make these plans,” Edie said. “Not with a town of a thousand people. Would you be comfortable if I came with you sometimes? I know you’ll need support, so I really want to go. And besides, I like your friends.”
Was she okay with that? It seemed like that final blending of worlds if Edie was now part of her reluctant New Winslow life. But if they were making this decision for themself, then maybe it was fine.
“You recognize the risk, right?” Cleo said. “I mean, I know a man who has been there for twenty years. I never met her, but there was a woman who was there for eighty years. Andrew’s been stuck for a year. His mom was there five. You’re risking spending your whole life there.”
Edie nodded. “I do,” they said. “I’m not being flippant, but it’s not like I have anyone to support on this side. Like, the only people who would be impacted by me getting stuck are Tyler and Ryan. We’d sort it out, but I’m not going to not be part of your life because of that risk.”
“I’ve used a drum machine on stage,” Cleo said, nodding. “It’ll be fine.”
She smirked, watching Edie’s face as what she said sank in. “Hey!” Edie snapped, wrenching their hand out of Cleo’s.
Cleo burst out laughing at their indignant look. A second later, Edie joined in. Tears were streaming down Cleo’s face as she tried to catch her breath. She knew the joke wasn’t that funny, but the relief that was absolutely flooding over her made everything that much bigger.
The idea of staying in New Winslow still loomed over her. But maybe this was always how this was going to go. If she and Andrew hadn’t come back last year, it wasn’t like her mother’s dementia wouldn’t have progressed. And Cleo knew she would always be responsible for her mother when that started happening.
Sure, in that reality, maybe Andrew wasn’t stuck. But she had no way of knowing that. All she knew was that here, in this reality, she knew what she had to do. And while there were nerves and pangs of fear and regret, there was also a comfort in knowing that her path was laid out, at least for now.