Noah was sitting in the backyard, drinking a beer. It was freezing, but he’d been stacking firewood for an hour, and now it was done and ready to use. And he’d managed to rake up all the splinters from the packed down snow so that he and Liv wouldn’t have to worry about Mia swallowing one with the chunks of snow she ate every time she was outside.
He looked around the yard. It was small but neat. And opened onto a large forest, which had been one of the selling points for him when he’d bought the house. There were a few faded trails and further in, he’d found a worn stone wall. But beyond that, it felt wild. There were coyotes and bears in there, he’d seen both when he peered out his window in the middle of the night. Maybe other things too. There were rumors of mountain lions in the woods around the Quabbin Reservoir, and that was only a town over from here.
Noah knew enough to respect what forces he could understand in this world, like animals and the elements. And he also held a healthy respect for the forces he wasn’t quite as familiar with, like the curse or the idea of where his father might be now.
Bodily, he knew. Or, at least he knew where the ashes were, which counted. They were interred at the New Winslow town cemetery. Most people from the town were buried there. He wondered morbidly if it was because there was a chance the corpse might not be able to leave the town.
With that thought, Noah drained his beer, tossed the can in the recycling bin against the back of the house, and pulled another out of his cooler.
He popped it open and took a sip, appreciating the carbonation as it slid down his throat. Then he sighed and tilted his head back, gazing up into the cloudy sky.
Noah turned and saw Andrew standing in the middle of the yard. His tailored pea coat and hat made Noah suddenly very aware of his worn leather jacket and general store beanie. Not to mention the sweat smell he was probably emanating after stacking the firewood.
“Hey yourself,” he replied, tilting his face back toward the sky. He suddenly felt a little overheated and the cold wind was a balm.
“Mind if I join you?” Andrew asked.
“Sure,” Noah said, shrugging. “I don’t have any other beers though.”
Andrew sat down on the deck stairs next to him. “That’s fine,” he replied. “I’m not really recovered from last night anyway.”
“Mmm,” Noah replied, taking another sip.
They sat silently for a moment. “I like your house,” Andrew said finally.
Noah smiled, maybe the first genuine smile he’d actually directed at Andrew in years. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve been working hard to fix it up.”
“It shows,” Andrew said. He knew fuck all about home repairs, but suddenly wished he did so he could move the conversation further. “What else have you done?”
“A ton,” Noah replied. He pointed at the small stone wall that outlined the yard with his beer can. “See that wall? There was a shitty old picket fence there before. That one I had Charlie help me out with because he’s actually started training as a stonemason. But we did that, then I renovated Liv’s bathroom before she moved in so she could have a bathtub for Mia. There was only a shower stall before.”
His eyes were lit up in a way Andrew hadn’t seen since they were about twenty-five. He felt a familiar, unwelcome flutter in his stomach.
“What else? I cleared the basement up and divided it into a couple of storage rooms and a workshop. Fixed the stairs on all the entrances. Tore down some of the ugliest fucking wallpaper I’ve ever seen in my life. Tore up the definite ugliest linoleum I’ve ever seen from Liv’s kitchen. I’m going to do my place too, but I haven’t yet.”
Andrew thought back to the sparse apartment he’d seen that morning. It looked like Noah had moved in last week, not a year ago.
He took a long sip of his beer and Andrew tried not to watch the long, slim stretch of his neck.
“I’d rather Mia and Liv have an updated apartment first,” Noah continued after a moment. “We’re not on any sort of timeline, so I just make repairs as I get the time and money. Liv keeps offering to pay more rent.”
He laughed. “Not that there’s a chance in hell I’ll let her. But she keeps offering.”
Speaking of Olivia, Andrew heard the back door slam and heard her call hello. He turned and saw her walking across the yard in a massive hoodie.
“Mia’s down for a nap, so I figured I’d come out and say hi,” she said. “I forgot you were only working a few hours.”
“Yeah, my hardass boss scheduled me for inventory.”
Olivia rolled her eyes as she sat down on Andrew’s other side. “How did Mia like the tree?” Andrew asked.
“She’s fascinated,” Olivia replied. “I haven’t put the lights or decorations on yet, but she’s completely riveted. Thanks again for going with me to get it.”
Noah took a thoughtful sip of his beer, but said nothing. “No problem,” Andrew replied.
“I was just telling Andrew I overcharge you for rent,” Noah said. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. “He said I should take two hundred off.”
“That’s a load of shit,” she replied, poking him in the stomach. He flinched and laughed. “I’m adding two hundred dollars to my own rent now. Deal with it.”
Noah laughed again, then drained his beer and tossed the can into recycling. “See if I ever cash your rent check again.”
He stood up and dusted off his pants. “I’m going to go take a shower,” he said casually. “See you guys later?”
Shower. Fuck. “Y-yeah,” Andrew stammered.
“Yeah. Come down for dinner after,” Olivia told him.
He flashed her a grin and walked away into the house, letting the door slam behind him.