Carol looked around the small apartment and sighed. At least she wouldn’t have the expense of daycare here in Wichita Falls. Although her parents insisted they had room at the house for two more, she needed her own place. Besides, with the bad economy, her brother and his wife were already living there with their two children. Tomorrow she would return to her first job at the bank, just as though she hadn’t finished her degree in business. John was gone. Tommy mattered, not her pride. She was lucky to have this job.
She watched her small son scoot his truck around the legs of the old chair and heard him sneeze. Since they had unpacked their few belongings into the furnished apartment, Tommy had done nothing but sneeze. Last night she had lain awake worrying, and decided this ancient carpet and its years of dust had to go.
Determined, she swung Tommy up and marched down the hall and stairs to the main floor and the landlady’s apartment. When the door opened to her loud knock, Carol stepped back. Instead of the chatty red-haired woman, a tall, sandy-haired man smiled down at them.
Tommy squirmed in her arms. “Daddy.”
The man laughed and held out his arms and Carol was surprised when Tommy leaned from her arms toward the stranger. Blushing, she pulled him tightly against her, circling his back, relieved when his arms tightened around her neck. “I’m sorry; John was overseas this last year. Tommy only saw him when we talked over the computer. He was blond too.”
“It’s all right; I’m used to my sister’s three. I just got out myself. Where was he stationed, Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“John was in Afghanistan.”
Bill didn’t need to ask any more questions, his mother hadn’t stopped talking about the attractive widow and son who’d moved in upstairs. Now he stood, quietly studying them.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I was looking for the landlady. Tommy keeps sneezing and I wanted permission to take up the carpet.”
“Mom’s out buying groceries. I’ll ask and get back to you.”
Tommy started to whine as they walked back up the steps and Carol kissed his forehead, relieved it wasn’t warm. Allergies they could cope with, but a cold would make it hard to leave him with his grandmother.
Once back in the apartment, she walked over to the framed picture of John, her, and a three month old Tommy. “See, this was your Daddy. That man wasn’t Daddy. He’s just the landlady’s son. Okay?”
Tommy nodded and squirmed to get down. He was back, busily playing trucks when the doorbell rang. Moving the pot of soup onto a back-eye, Carol hurried to open it. When the big man grinned down at Tommy, Carol was glad when her son moved behind her legs saying, “Not Daddy.”
“That’s right, I’m Bill Connors the handyman. Would you like to help me take up this carpet, big guy?”
“Close enough, you have any tools?”
Tommy turned and ran to his bedroom.
“So, your mother said we could take it up? I’m not sure what’s underneath.”
“Hardwood, it’s probably stained and a little warped. She wanted to take it out before but couldn’t afford to refinish the floors. Now I’m back home, I’m sort of the handyman for the apartments until I can find a more permanent job.”
Tommy ran back, his plastic yellow hard-hat bouncing on his head, a big red hammer in his hand.
“I can keep him in the kitchen, if that will make it easier.”
“No, just give me a hand with the couch. We’ll take up half, then switch things back. With handy helpers like Tommy and Pat here, we should get done in no time.”
Carol laughed for the first time in weeks. How could you fault a man who knew the name of a cartoon hammer?
When she had soup in bowls, she came back to the door and watched as Bill crab-walked along cutting carpet, holding a ring-less hand behind him to keep Tommy away from the carpet knife. She smiled as she watched Tommy carefully push the claw end of his plastic hammer underneath the cut edge of carpet. Two large rolls already stood along the back of the room.
“Hey, are you handymen ready for a break and some lunch?”
Tommy turned around so quickly he sat down on the dusty floor. “Hungry work.”
Bill and Carol grinned at each other as she dusted off the seat of her handyman. Minutes later, Bill held Tommy over the sink to wash his hands too.
“Is he pretty excited about Christmas?” Bill asked as he swung Tommy over the back of the chair and held him while she buckled his booster seat.
“I haven’t thought about it. The move and all,” she said, staring at the little boy who was too focused on dropping little oyster crackers in his bowl to listen. John hadn’t been able to be home last year, and she had told him not to feel bad. Tommy was just a baby. But, if John had made it home, he had big plans. His favorite holiday was Christmas.
She realized Bill was watching at her, and she brushed at her eye and cleared her throat. “Tommy and I are going shopping for a Christmas tree later. My mother offered me her old artificial tree, but in a new place and all, I’d like a real evergreen one.”
Bill laughed. “My cousin has a tree lot. I already promised Mom I’d get one for her when I finish here.”
“Won’t your wife or girlfriend want to go with you?”
“Don’t have either. My girl married someone else while I was overseas, and I haven’t felt like going through it all again.” His eyes said what he didn’t finish.
She had felt the same. It was wonderful to fall in love, but the pain of losing them. She sighed.
He turned from Carol to the little boy slurping soup from the table where it had slipped from his spoon. Carol started fussing and grabbed for a towel. He waited until she undid the buckles holding the boy seated before asking.
“What about it Tommy? Do you have a saw to help me cut the tree?”
As Tommy jumped down to run and find his plastic tool, she laughed too. When he came running back, Bill told him not yet, they had to finish their soup and their first job.
Something inside turned over. Bill lifted the child and carried him back to his seat, she stood to buckle him in again and their hands touched. Smiling, she suddenly thought coming home to live was a good move after all.