TWO DAYS later the scene was repeated in reverse. A Tahoe and a pickup filled with furniture and boxes parked in front of the house. A total of four men got out and walked through the bright autumn leaves littering the lawn to the side of the house, out of my line of sight.
I should introduce myself. Find out who exactly was moving in and give him the spare key.
That’s what I told myself, but I knew I wouldn’t do it. Not until I was forced to.
I heard laughter downstairs, then piano notes. Not a real song like Regina had played. Not the practiced music of a pianist, but the inexpert jangle of random tones as somebody tested the instrument. I pictured one of the men leaning against Regina’s piano, hitting the keys, laughing with his friends at his own lack of skill.
“Don’t quit your day job!” one of them said.
The house I lived in had been built as a split-level in the seventies, but had been broken up into two separate apartments. Mine consisted of what had once been the main floor, which meant my door opened onto the front porch. The lower apartment was reached via a stairway at the side of the house. The setup was unusual in that the house was built on a hill and had a walk-out basement, making the downstairs living space far more tolerable than most basement apartments. I listened to the men below as they wandered through the apartment, looking in closets and kitchen cabinets, opening the sliding glass door to look at our shared backyard. Most times, their words were indistinguishable, but their laughter carried clearly through the vents. It had been a long time since I’d shared that kind of easy laughter with anybody.
For the first time, I regretted having an apartment below me.
Luckily the torture didn’t last long. Soon enough, the laughter stopped and the moving began. I watched for a few minutes through my window. Like before, two of the men were clearly a couple. They were happy and stupidly in love, one of them tall and thin and dark, the other shorter and strawberry blond. I immediately hated them for their easy, open affection. I hoped they weren’t the ones moving in.
I turned my attention to the other two. Neither was as big as The Hero, although one of them in particular was obviously well acquainted with the gym. His arms bulged under the short sleeves of his shirt. Dark blond hair and laughing eyes. I couldn’t decide if he and the fourth man, whose arms were covered with tattoos, were lovers or not. Friends certainly, but if they were more, they at least didn’t glow with the bright, electric giddiness of the other two.
Four able-bodied men. Not a missing limb among them.
I didn’t even think about offering to help.
Instead, I went to my computer and worked. After all, I had bills to pay. My mother had insisted that I learn to type one-handed, using home row as my base, keeping my index finger on the F and my pinky on the J. She’d demanded I master the ability, insisting it was a skill I’d need. I resented my mother for a lot of things, but in this, I was glad I’d done as instructed. I could type one-handed as well as many people could with two, and missing my left hand didn’t diminish my ability to use a mouse. I put on my headphones and lost the afternoon to work, designing newsletters and brochures for a local marketing company. I didn’t necessarily love my job, but I was good at it, and it allowed me the luxury of working from home. My music drowned out the sound of the men bumping down the outside steps with boxes and furniture.
It wasn’t until long after I’d quit working for the day that the knock came—not from the front door where one might expect it, but from the sliding glass door in the dining room, which meant whoever was knocking must have come through the shared backyard and up the stairs to my elevated patio. I rounded the corner from my hallway and saw the blond with the big arms waving at me through the glass.
Too late to pretend I wasn’t home.
I slid the door aside, painfully aware of the fact that I couldn’t hide the left half of my body from his view. “Yes?”
“Hey!” he said, holding his right hand out to me. “I’m Nick Reynolds. I just moved in downstairs. I thought I should introduce myself since we’re neighbors now.”
He was cute. That was the first thought that came into my mind. Really goddamn cute, like the clichéd boy-next-door but with attitude. The smart-assed altar boy. The kid who always made wisecracks in class, yet managed to charm the teachers into not caring. The kind of guy every girl wanted to date. The kind of guy who radiated confidence.
The kind of guy I’d never be.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. His hand was still out in front of him, and I realized with a start that I’d been staring stupidly at him since I’d opened the door. I reached out and let him shake my hand. He was taller than me, but not by much, with a firm grip.
“Owen Meade,” I managed to say.
“Owen.” His smile grew bigger. “Listen, I wondered if you’d like to come down and meet the girls. It’s a mess down there ’cause I haven’t had a chance to unpack anything, and there are boxes everywhere and no place to sit except the floor, but you’ll have to meet them eventually, and probably sooner’s better than later since we’ll be sharing a backyard, don’t you think?”
I suddenly wished I’d paid a bit more attention when he was moving in. Girls had moved in with him? Not just one either. Girls, plural. Either he was the luckiest SOB in town, or he was a single father. “Girls?”
“Yeah. Well, two girls, technically. One boy.”
“Unless you’re allergic to dogs or something.”
His smile disappeared and was replaced by sudden concern. “You’re not, are you? Allergic, I mean? Or scared of them? ’Cause they’re great dogs, really. Although Bonny will get into your trash every chance she gets, so you’ll want to keep it in the garage. Do you keep it in the garage? Not on the back porch, right?” He looked around the porch, which did not in fact contain any garbage. “Good. That’s good. Other than that, I promise they won’t cause you a bit of trouble. And don’t worry about the yard either. I’ll keep it clean, so you don’t have to worry about landmines or anything.”
“Landmines?” It was a stupid word to latch on to, but he was talking so fast, and I wasn’t used to talking to people in person. Email was more my speed.
He laughed as if I’d made a joke. “Right. So how about it?”
I blinked at him, trying to figure out what he’d asked me. Several questions, and now I wasn’t sure which one to answer.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling like a fool. “What exactly are you asking me?”
He smiled at me, and I began to blush for no good reason. To my surprise, he blushed too. “I’m talking really fast, aren’t I?”
I laughed, feeling relieved it wasn’t just me. “Kind of, yeah.”
“I do that sometimes. Especially when I’m tired.” He reached up to touch his hair, a gesture that spoke more of nervous habit than vanity. “Anyway. The real question is, do you want to come down and meet the dogs? Maybe hang out and have a beer?”
Hang out and have a beer. Such a simple concept, and yet it caused my heart to swell.
“I’d love to,” I said, and I was surprised at how much I meant it.