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Epitaph 2: The Twins, ©2017 Karla Brandenburg

     Siobhan went through her PHM patients. Jared hadn’t done his check-in today. The app sent automatic reminders every night, but Jared usually did his early in the afternoon. Should she call to check on him? Emotional trauma sometimes set an accident victim’s recovery back, and she’d reminded him of his accident.

     His house was on Monroe Street, on her way home. She could stop by to check on him.

     But he didn’t want her to nurse him.

     She wouldn’t be able to concentrate until she was sure Jared hadn’t suffered a setback. Siobhan dug her phone out of her purse and called. When the call went to voicemail, her concern grew. What if something was wrong? He was all alone in that house, and he was barely out of rehab. She tried to make her voice sound nonchalant. “Just checking to make sure you’re okay,” she said. “Anything I can bring you, other than a chess board?”

She rolled her eyes at her pathetic message and hung up.

     What if he’d fallen and couldn’t reach his phone? Was the visiting nurse due to stop in today? Would they reschedule with the weather?

Siobhan stared at her phone for ten minutes, and when she didn’t get a call back, she packed up her desk. The parking deck had saved her car windows from a coating of ice, and within minutes, she was on her way to Jared’s.

     Tree branches encased in ice glittered in the waning sunlight. Salt crunched beneath her tires. A salt truck passed on the other side of the road, shooting tiny pellets against her windshield, which smeared when she turned on her wipers. Winter in northern Illinois. No, she hadn’t missed this. The traction light came on in her car a couple of times along the way, making her more nervous.

     She found the house and veered into the driveway, only then realizing she was grabbing the steering wheel as if it would fly away. The house was dark, not a good sign with the sun disappearing below the horizon. Siobhan got out of the car and slid her way up the sidewalk. As she reached for the front porch railing, her feet went out from under her. She landed on her butt. Hard.

     “You gonna sue me?” Jared drawled from the porch door, leaning on his crutches.

     Siobhan narrowed her eyes, pushed to her feet and took hold of the railing, mounting the stairs carefully. “You didn’t answer your phone.”

     He glanced over his shoulder. “It’s on the charger. I didn’t hear it ring.” He grinned. “You were worried about me?”

     She stepped into the porch, to safe ground. “Your lights aren’t on.”

     “The ice snapped the power line in the backyard.”

     “How long before they can fix it?”

     “I don’t know. Do they call you to tell you here?”

     “There’s a number you can call.” She rubbed her aching backside. “They give you an estimated return to service time.”

     “Would you like to come in and keep me warm?” He nodded to where she massaged her bruised butt. “I can do that for you.”

     Siobhan pushed past him, into the house. “You can’t stay here with no heat.”

     “I’m not about to go sliding on the ice with you.” Jared broke into a wide grin as he settled into his chair. “You sure are cute when you’re bossy. The way your nose turns up at the end like that, and your freckles all stand out. Sure would be a shame if you had leprosy and those freckles all kinda flaked off.”

     She laughed. His smile grew wider and something inside her pinched. Something warm and wonderful.  Something scary she’d kept buried all the years since she’d left home.

     Even with a bruise on his face and a scar on his brow, Jared Pierce was a handsome man. She’d been joking when she’d asked if he was tall, dark and handsome, but there he was, if somewhat battered around the edges.

     She stopped at the table beside his chair and picked up a tiny wooden castle, not more than three inches high. Another piece was the head of a horse, the details of the mane beautifully carved. A third piece looked to be a man wearing a crown. Automatically, she looked at the dining room table. The wooden blocks were lined up by size. “Did you make those?” she asked.

     “Yes, ma’am. I find whittling keeps my mind off the pain when I’m not sleeping.”

     She set the castle down and wrapped her arms around herself. Even in her coat, she was chilly, and Jared was in sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

     “How do you plan to keep warm?” she asked.

     “You could stay and cuddle with me,” he suggested.

     She laughed. “As nice as that might sound to you, it would likely be very painful.”

     He winced. “You sure know how to hurt a guy’s feelings.”

     A loud crack shook the house. Siobhan squeaked a startled cry and ducked.

     Jared shuffled to the kitchen. She followed, glancing over his shoulder when he opened the back door. The moon cast a glow that made the world look as if it was encased in glass. Power lines sagged across the lot line.

     “This ice is too heavy,” Siobhan said.

     The conjoined tree broke apart with another loud crack, a large branch sparking against the power lines. Siobhan gripped Jared’s arm with a gasp.

     The brooding look on Jared’s face rivaled his broadest smile for most handsome expression. What was it about this guy?

He tilted his head and pushed the door open. “Hey, kid. You okay?” he called out. “Where’s your coat? You wanna come inside and warm up?”

Siobhan squinted into the backyard. “Who are you talking to?”

     Jared pointed. “That little boy.” Lines of concern tightened around his eyes. He opened the door once more. “You okay, kid?”

     Siobhan leaned forward, trying to see the boy. “There’s no one out there. Close the door. You’ll lose what heat you have left.”

     Jared pointed. “He’s right…” And then his arm fell to his side. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

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