He waved me away. “I’ll pick you up in the morning. Not like the shuttles run out there. Just keep busy tonight, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Jojo said the same thing … to keep busy.”
“She’s told you. I’ve been through it. It’s probably the only reason I didn’t fire your foolish ass for stumbling out into an active fire zone. That, and you’re a damn good action photographer. Even better than Jojo.”
“Thanks again for the ride.”
Wick waved to me, and then backed out, braking just long enough to see me get into the apartment safe.
I locked the door behind me and flipped on the light, sighing at the sheer size of the task. The apartment wasn’t dirty, but I was about to unpack an undetermined year’s worth of belongings of both brothers. After changing into more comfortable clothes, I returned to the living room and opened the first box. I used every cabinet, shelf, dresser, and closet to put away clothes, photo albums, sports memorabilia, books, magazines, dishes, and cooking utensils in their proper place.
Once I cleared the last box from the living room, a pair of yellow gloves under the sink inspired me to clean the kitchen. Wick had told me to stay busy, and I was still two hours from bedtime. I wiped down the counters, scrubbed the sinks, and ran a load of dishes in the washer.
I opened the fridge, mentally prepared to see mold that would make an antibiotic lab envious, but all that was present on the pristine shelves was a six-pack of locally brewed beer.
I closed the door and sat on the floor with my back to the fridge, looking up. I had worked hard and felt lonely; there was no better excuse for a cold beer than that.
“Just go to bed, Ellie,” I said aloud. But I wasn’t tired.
I opened the fridge, and then closed it again, my fingers creating that comforting pop and fizz sound I loved so much. The living room looked like a real apartment, with actual decorations and lamps on the end tables at each end of the sofa and one beside the recliner. The dishwasher was still running with the last half of dishes and silverware, and there was a knife block and full salt and pepper shakers just out of the box on the counter.
I tilted my head back, and then licked the foam from my upper lip, smiling at the small victory while trying to ignore my utter failure.
I was sitting on the sofa with my feet propped on the coffee table, wiggling my toes in my knee-high fuzzy socks and wearing one of Tyler’s sweatshirts that was big enough to be a nightgown. I breathed in the smell of the pumpkin caramel latte candles I’d just lit, feeling comforted by the lines in the carpet from the vacuum and the gleam from the wood polish on the end tables.
It had taken me nearly two weeks to unpack each box and find a place for everything the twins owned. Tyler had been busy, home just long enough to see his things unpacked and get a hot shower before heading back to the barracks. After their belongings were put away, I cleaned every inch, and then used some of my savings to buy a few inexpensive finishing touches for the smaller tables, like the candles and antique firefighting books I’d found at Goodwill and had stacked flat next to the lamps the boys already had. Standing on one end table were vintage fire hose couplings from a New York firehouse that had been welded vertically on eBay for cheap and a hundred-year-old copper and brass fire extinguisher that I’d sat by the door.
A photo album from Taylor and Tyler’s childhood was sitting in my lap, opened to my favorite picture of Tyler and his mother. She was squatting next to him, surrounded by their baseball team, the Crushers. She was the coach, her right arm hooked around his middle, her left arm around Taylor with a wide, toothy smile. They looked happier than my family had ever been. I couldn’t imagine what her death had done to them.
I removed the picture from the album and walked across the room to the empty frame on the mantle that sat beneath the flat screen hanging on the back wall. I inserted the photo, careful to only touch the edges, and placed it next to one of the small lanterns with an antler base I’d found in a box in Taylor’s room. The metal flecks in the frame made it stand out, and I hoped it would make them smile like it did me.
I sat down on the sofa again with a mug of hot buttered rum and cider, leaning back and letting my muscles relax. Tyler’s absence had helped him focus on missing me instead of our last argument, and our nightly phone calls made it harder for me to deny that I missed him.
The changing leaves on the Aspen trees around Estes Park were beginning to show early signs that fall was upon us. Fire season was just weeks away from being over.
My phone was connected to Taylor’s Bluetooth speaker in the corner with Halsey’s album on loop, and I was waiting on Tyler’s call. He’d stayed in Colorado Springs during his first R&R because the fire still wasn’t contained. He’d said the night before that they were close to calling the ground crews, and I was hopeful that this R&R they could come home.
The lock shimmied, and the door opened, and I startled, then turned around to see Tyler standing in the doorway in shock.
“Honey, I’m … holy shit.” He leaned back, looking at the number on the door. “Am I in the right place?”
I stood, holding out my hands and letting them fall to my thighs. “Welcome home.”
Tyler looked at me for the longest time, a dozen emotions scrolling across his face.
He dropped his bag and took three long strides before wrapping his arms around me and planting a deep kiss on my mouth. He cupped my jaw, and then the kisses slowed, less passionate and more careful, giving me a few more pecks before pulling away.
He bit his bottom lip, tasted the cider on his lips, and looked down at the mug. “What is that? Rum?”
I smiled. “Just a little with my cider. It’s been a long day.”
“It’s been a long month. A really long month.” He took turns looking at both of my eyes, his warm brown irises bouncing back and forth while he thought of something adequate to say. He scanned my face, sliding his thumb along my bottom lip.
He shook his head. “What is that amazing smell?”
“Candles.” He breathed out a laugh. “In my apartment. Taylor is going to shit a wildcat.”
“I can get rid of them. I just thought—”
“They’re great. You didn’t have to do all this.”
He seemed like he was deciding something, and then his eyebrows pulled in. “I kept thinking on the mountain that I needed to focus on the job and stop thinking about you. That’s the wrong place to be preoccupied. For twenty-eight days, I’ve laid awake at night thinking about your lips, your hands, and the way your eyebrows raise when your bullshit detector goes off and you call me on it. I’ve missed you like crazy, Ellie. And then coming home to you…”
I offered a small smile, not knowing what else to say. “Do you want to see the rest?” I asked.
He chuckled and looked down, not bothered to be frustrated with my answer. When he looked up, his dimple dug into his cheek. “Yeah. Show me the rest.”
I took his hand and pulled him into the kitchen, showing him where the plates were stacked and which drawer was the silverware, and then we went down the hall, and I relished in his reactions with each room.
When we got to his, he intertwined his fingers on top of his head and sighed in awe. He didn’t have a bed frame, so I’d used some lattice boards sitting by the dumpster for headboards. I’d cleaned them up and painted them with leftover white paint from when the magazine was built.