New Winslow S6E32
The sun was streaming through the kitchen windows as Olivia wrapped up the final touches on Mia’s birthday cake. Pink and white frosting shone on the top, with a carefully written message saying HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MIA, in swirling print. She was alone in the kitchen for the moment. Mia was off playing with the first present she’d received that day, a picture book Olivia had also loved as a child.
Mia was two years old. She was talking more clearly, she had opinions and expectations. And she was such a kid now that Olivia had to mourn the loss of babyness even as she was thrilled with every milestone Mia hit. Mia had chosen the colors for this party and now pink and green streamers hung from every surface in their kitchen and living room. Noah was about to come home with pizzas for the party and they were going to have a fun time.
She wasn’t going to think about ghosts. Or possession. Or Mia’s first birthday, when Noah had disappeared and hadn’t even acknowledged the day when he had finally turned up again, sullen and hungover. One of those was in the past while the other was not an issue for tonight or hopefully ever again.
The front door opened, and Olivia did her best not to jump. “Pizza!” Noah called in.
He was bundled up against the harsh cold still as he walked into the kitchen, carrying a stack of hot pizzas. Steam curled up from the top of the pile and she could smell the familiar spices of House of Pizza’s sauce as he set them down on the counter. “Sorry,” he said, glancing back at where he’d tracked a little of the packed snow from outside onto the tile. “I couldn’t get my boots off without dropping the pizzas. Give me a second.”
He grabbed the broom from where it leaned against the fridge, then went back toward the front door. As soon as he disappeared around the corner, Olivia heard him exclaim, “There she is! The birthday girl!”
Mia squealed and Olivia assumed Noah had just picked her up and swung her up high, the way he always did. She knew he was thinking about last year too, he was always thinking about it. He beat himself up so much that she didn’t feel right joining in, even for the few things she still hung onto.
She didn’t know where he’d been during Mia’s first birthday. She wasn’t sure he knew where he’d been. But he hadn’t been at the little party they’d had and Olivia had spent the entire time pretending that it didn’t bother her. Nobody bought it, of course, but she’d forced herself to be happy for Mia’s sake.
But maybe she didn’t have the right to be angry about that one. It wasn’t like Noah was Mia’s father. Technically, he’d had no obligation to be there.
As soon as she thought this, Olivia was horrified. She pushed away the idea quickly, like she was waving smoke away from the detector, as though Noah might hear her thoughts. He wasn’t Mia’s father, they all knew that. And he’d never tried to claim the title. But he’d been beside Olivia in the delivery room, holding up one of her legs while her mother stayed by her side, stroking her hair through the final moments of birth. He was as close as Mia had to a father and he didn’t have to be here. And she knew he regretted the time when he wasn’t.
Noah was back a second later, and she tried to make sure none of her thoughts showed up on her face. “I’ll go get some chips from the general store in a minute,” he said. “What’s the plan from here?”
“Um, cake’s done,” Olivia said. “Andrew is going to be home in a little bit and Cleo’s bringing Edie for the party tonight. My mom and Sammy will be here in a while. Mom’s bringing whatever elaborate playset she bought and you’re going to set it up.”
Noah laughed, popping open one of the Diet Cokes Olivia had set out on the counter. “I’ll get my toolkit ready,” he said. “Alright, I’m going to go get those chips, I’ll be back in a little while.”
He turned to leave, but she grabbed him by the arm of his heavy leather jacket and he turned back around. “What’s up?”
She couldn’t speak through the emotion bubbling up in her chest for a second. But then she cleared her throat.
“Get the good chips,” she said, instead of anything she was actually thinking.
Noah laughed. “Always.”
He hurried back out into the cold, leaving her alone in the kitchen.
The party went so smoothly that Olivia was afraid she’d missed something. Mom and Sammy arrived early, carrying an enormous package that Olivia let Mia open immediately. She screeched with delight as she pulled out a box containing a toy workbench, complete with tools.
“Noah!” she exclaimed, pointing a chubby finger toward the box. “It’s Noah!”
Noah laughed delightedly from the recliner, where he was sitting with his second Diet Coke of the afternoon. It had been that and coffee nonstop for weeks and Olivia wondered if he actually slept at night anymore. But she knew it was a substitute for the whiskey and she’d take that. Especially since it wasn’t like she had cut back her own caffeine consumption these days either.
Noah slid out of the chair and sat down beside Mia on the floor as she pointed out different parts of the tool bench on the box. Sammy, Olivia’s mother’s boyfriend, sat on her other side, his long beard shaking as he nodded his head in response to her excitement. Above them, Olivia caught her mother’s eye and smiled.
Andrew got home just as Mia was about to wander off and find some trouble to get into in Olivia’s room. She turned and hurried to the doorway as he was kicking off his boots, swinging her arms around his legs. Andrew nearly tumbled, but he caught himself and hugged her back. “Happy birthday, beautiful,” Olivia heard him murmur.
Andrew made his way around the room with his greetings, stopping to look at the workbench. Noah said something that Olivia didn’t catch, but Andrew laughed. Their hands brushed as Noah pointed to the box just as Andrew reached for the instruction manual. That small flutter of concern came back into Olivia’s chest, but it wasn’t her business right now. And she had other things to think about.
A few minutes after three, the door opened again and Cleo and Edie walked in. They both looked so stylish that Olivia was embarrassed by her worn jeans and men’s flannel. But Cleo came straight over to where Olivia was standing in the kitchen doorway and gave her a hug.
“Thank you for having us,” Edie said, following after.
“Thank you for coming,” Olivia said. “I know it’s out of the way for you.”
Edie shrugged. “I’ve wanted to come back,” they said. “We weren’t sure what she’d like, so we got her a gift card. I figured you’d have some ideas.”
They handed Olivia a thick envelope, which she took and set down on the coffee table next to the other gifts. “Can I get you anything to drink?” she asked Edie, moving into the kitchen. “I’ve got soda and little juice boxes, that’s about it. No beers or anything, but-”
Edie waved her off. “That’s fine,” they said. “I don’t drink. Soda sounds great.”
Shit, Olivia knew that, didn’t she? But Edie just smiled at her before she could start to stammer out an apology. “Or maybe a juice box,” they said with a laugh.
Relieved, Olivia laughed too. “I’ll warn you, they’re the tiny ones,” she said as they stepped into the kitchen. “Like, really tiny. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought them.”
A few hours later, Cleo actually kind of didn’t want to leave. The party was winding down, with the birthday girl having gone to bed about half an hour ago. She’d been helping Liv with cleanup in the kitchen as Noah took down the decorations in the living room and Andrew did a not-so-subtle check of what he said were various wards and protections around the house. Again, something she still couldn’t wrap her mind around. But she hadn’t been here when Olivia got possessed and Andrew had, so she was going to trust his judgment. Even if this was nothing like the Andrew she’d come here with a little over a year ago.
But right now it was comfortable in here. The Christmas tree was gone, but the lights were now strung up throughout the living room. She had a cup of tea on the counter as she tied trash bags for Liv to take out to the side of the house. Edie was smiling too, chatting with them as they washed the dishes Liv had said not to worry about.
But they were leaving in a few minutes, despite Cleo’s reluctance. Edie had rehearsal in the morning and Cleo was working a lunch shift in Boston.
“Alright,” Cleo said finally. “We really do have to go. Liv, thank you so much.”
She leaned down and gave Liv a tight hug. Then she let go and Edie did the same. “I’ll be back on Monday to stay with my mom,” Cleo said. “My dad’s there tonight and tomorrow, then I’m going to take over. So I’ll see you this week.”
“Stop by the Limerick if you want to,” Liv said. “I’ll be testing some new recipes in between everything else, so I’ll feed you.”
Cleo actually wanted to do that, didn’t she? She tried not to think too hard about it as she left the kitchen and went to say goodbye to the guys, who were both now finishing cleaning up the birthday girl’s gifts.
Finally, they got out of the house, leaving the warmth for the chill of February. As they got into the car, Edie looked over and smiled at Cleo. “What?” Cleo asked.
“You were really happy there,” Edie said. “It was nice.”
Their face was tinged pink and definitely not just from the cold. Cleo was sure hers was blushing too, but she tried to shrug it off. “They’re my friends,” she said. “I don’t know, despite everything it’s nice to see them.”
Edie nodded as they pulled out of Liv’s driveway. “It was fun,” they said. “Maybe we should have them over.”
Cleo was about to agree, but then shocked herself by realizing she’d forgotten Andrew was stuck. And judging by the way Edie’s face went from pink to bright red, they had just realized what they’d said.
“Maybe someday,” Cleo said, trying to smooth it over. “He’ll get out. They’re working on it now. He hasn’t told me much, but it’s intense. I don’t even want to talk about it while we’re in town.”
“Let’s get out of town and then you can tell me everything,” Edie said with a laugh.
They were quiet for a second, rolling through downtown and toward the main road that would bring them to the highway home. “I’ll be leaving early tomorrow,” Edie said. “We’re doing a morning rehearsal since I have work in the afternoon.”
“I’ll be gone until after dinner,” Cleo said, gazing out the window at the moon above the trees. “I’m going to be in Boston anyway, so I want to try to work as long as I can and see if I can get a good amount of money. Pay off the credit cards from Christmas.”
Edie laughed. “I’m waiting for my next paycheck,” they said. “My brothers have so many kids, I can’t believe how many gifts I actually-”
They were cut off as the car stopped short, a dull thud shivering its frame. Cleo felt everything inside of her drop as she realized where they were.
“No,” she said, her hands trembling as she clumsily undid her seatbelt. “No, not again. No, no, no.”
It was just like last time, except the moon was high overhead and Andrew wasn’t here. Instead, it was Edie getting out of the car with her, both of them moving on shaking legs toward the town line. Just like last time, Cleo walked easily through, but Edie put their hand up against an invisible boundary.
“Cleo?” they whispered, fearful eyes meeting hers.