"We can do this, Rubes," I said.
Ruby's skinny arms wrapped around me like a rope, cinching my chest. No, like a harness tightening as I stood on the angle of a high roof, knowing I could take a risk because I was contained in the grasp of something good and real and safe.
I kissed the top of my daughter's head. "Ready?"
Then the doorbell rang.
I was surprised to hear the sound. We rarely had visitors. It had to be my Grandma Pearl. Ophelia must have shoveled her driveway again, and she was excited to be out on the road and--
I opened the door and my battered, hole-ridden heart jumped.
This was not Grandma. Not by a long shot. It was my neighbor, Morgan Carter. She wore a mac jacket too thin for this weather with a wool hat pulled down over her dark hair. Her chest heaved as if she'd just run over here.
"Hi, Heath," she said, her breath puffing out of her pink lips in bursts.
I stared at those lips a moment too long. What the hell's the matter with me?
"Hi Morgan," I said.
Morgan and her husband Vince lived in the house next door, though next door wasn't quite accurate given there was a quarter of a mile of trees between our properties. I hadn't seen her this close in... I couldn't remember how long.
"You cut your hair."
Her cheeks went pink and she reached up as if to check if this was true. She dropped her hands again. "How are you doing?"
"Good," I said. "Fine." Which is it?
I was no good at talking to people these days. I couldn't remember the last time I'd spoken to Morgan. Even though she was my neighbor, we weren't much more than strangers who waved at each other as we passed on the dirt road. She and Vince had moved in sometime in that hazy period when Jeanne had first gotten sick. Four years ago, maybe.
Morgan seemed flustered. She unfolded her arms from around herself, and her jacket fell open. Under the insufficiently warm coat, she wore mud-splattered overalls, and under that, a tank top. There was something shocking about seeing so much bare skin in the middle of winter. Especially when that skin was creamy and flushed pink.
Something stirred inside of me. Seriously, what the hell?
Morgan was a married woman. I didn't think about women anymore, especially not married ones. I gave myself a mental slap.
"Is this a bad time?" she asked. Not at all. We were just about to unpack my dead wife's favorite Christmas ornaments and my daughter is--
I looked around. Nowhere to be seen. Probablyupstairs hiding.
Morgan pursed her lips for a moment as if deciding whether I was just being nice. Then she sighed. "Well, I'm sorry to disturb you, but do you know anything about electrical stuff? I've blown a fuse or something and it's kind of critical I get the power back up—I'm in the middle of something. I'm pretty sure it's an easy fix—I can handle most of the house stuff, but electrical, well, it scares me. Because of the, you know, electrocution part. I know you work in building stuff, and—well, I know you're a roofer and that doesn't have anything to do with electrical."
All of that had come out in a nervous-sounding ramble.
I had to twist my lips to keep from smiling.
Morgan pressed a palm to her forehead and pivoted on the step like she was going to leave. "I'm sorry. This is stupid. I should call an electrician."
"It's not stupid," I said. I felt the strongest urge to help calm her down. I hesitated. "Is Vince out?"
Morgan gave me a strange look. Then she glanced down at her shoes. She was wearing black sneakers. They were splattered with the same mud as was streaked on her clothes.
"Vince left last spring. It's just me over there now."
My stomach did a little dive. "I'm sorry. I had no idea."
Morgan put on a smile that looked falsely bright. "It doesn't matter."
Now that I thought about it, I couldn't recall the last time I'd seen Vince around. Not that I'd been remotely observant over the past few years.
"I'm happy to come take a look."
Morgan seemed to soften.
That thing in my stomach came back—a little jolt I couldn't place. I was happy I might be of use to someone again, that was all. It wasn't Morgan and her adorably awkward demeanor and sweet smile.
"Thank you," she said.
I stood there for another moment before I realized I'd been staring. "Come in—I'll get my coat. And Ruby."
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