I’m pulling the ham out of the oven when my phone dings with a text notification. It’s from Ella.
Updated ETA: 5:15. Jack’s grandkids don’t want to let me leave.
I set the sizzling pan on the stovetop, shake off an oven mit, and lean over to pick up my phone.
Roger that. Dinner is just about ready. I hope you’re hungry.
FAMISHED. Updated ETA: three minutes. These little rugrats will just have to cry it out.
I grin and set the phone down. Thoughts of her visit kept me distracted for most of the day. I had a lot to do in preparation. Sure, I could have just thrown in a couple of pizzas and called it a night, but after all her talk of visiting with family, and opening presents with my parents via FaceTime this morning, I was feeling more than a little homesick. So I decided to make a full-blown Christmas dinner with some of my favorite Hawaiian dishes.
As promised, just a few minutes later, car lights splash across the front windows. I pad toward the door to greet her. The outside lights are on, illuminating Ella’s truck when she cuts the engine off. She swings her door open and all but falls out of it.
Next, she lets the dogs out. I’m expecting them to zoom around my yard again, but they just drop from the cab and stay right by her side. Maybe she doesn’t want them running around in the dark. I swear I heard howling a few nights ago.
Together, they make their way toward the porch stairs. The dogs are dragging their paws, and it looks like Ella might be limping. Shit. They’re exhausted. I should have expected that they would be after all the holiday antics Ella described. Now I feel like a selfish asshole for asking her to come over.
Earlier, I dumped a couple of ratty towels on the front mat for her to use on the dogs. I lean down and scoop them up before opening the door and stepping out onto the porch. No sense in putting on my jacket. The kitchen is warm from the oven, and I could use a cool down right now.
“Merry Christmas!” Ella says as she slowly mounts the stairs. She looks like she could fall asleep standing, but her tone is so bright and cheerful that my earlier regret eases a little. She sounds like she wants to be here.
“Merry Christmas,” I respond.
The dogs pick up their pace a little as they lope toward me. I squat down to greet them, using their nearness to towel them off for her.
“Thanks for that,” she says.
“You’re welcome. You looked like you might be limping a little, and I thought to save your legs.”
She makes a sound of annoyance. “Oh, I’m limping. I pulled my hamstring snowshoeing after I left here the other day, spent yesterday building snowmen and not drinking enough water, and then today running around, so really, I brought this on myself.”
Finished with the dogs, I stand. “There’s aspirin and water inside. And food.”
Her expression fills with longing. “Foooood?”
Now she looks like she may be drooling a little. “Beeeeer?”
I laugh and let them in. Got to appreciate a woman with her priorities in order.
The dogs immediately sniff their way toward the sitting room, where I have a fire going and their makeshift beds already set up, a rawhide waiting for each of them. It worked out well last time they stopped by, and if it ain’t broke.
Ella takes off her winter jacket and boots to reveal a pair of black leggings and an oversized white cable-knit sweater that falls halfway to her knees, completely obscuring her athletic frame. Her hat follows, and she runs her fingers through her hair and drags her long locks up into a messy bun. Small tendrils slip free and cascade down to frame her face, and she brushes them back on reflex.
“Long day?” I ask when I realize I’m staring.
Her gaze meets my own, and she nods, smiling like she wouldn’t change a thing about it.
“Thank you for stopping by.”
“Thank you for having me. Megan looked like she wanted to verbally punch us all in the face when she left Mom and Dad’s, so I’m more than happy to give her extra alone time. And as much of an extrovert as I am, I’m beginning to understand why she needs it. There were a lot of people at Christmas this year. This’ll be a nice, quiet way to end the day.”
I frown down at her in mock-disappointment. “Oh. I had an evening of death metal planned.”
“I didn’t know you were into Nickelback,” she says, blue eyes full of innocence.
I make a gagging sound, and she grins like the Cheshire cat.
“Come on. Food’s this way,” I say.
I lead her toward the kitchen, where I’ve spread out a small buffet of caramelized ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, sliced pineapple, green bean amandine, sweet onions, cranberry sauce, poi, and for dessert, haupia – all of my favorite comfort foods. Well, minus the laulau, which I couldn’t make, because it turns out that taro leaves are pretty hard to come by on short notice in Maine this time of year.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted,” Ella says, stumbling past me to grab herself a plate and begin spooning a hefty amount of stuffing onto it.
“By all means, help yourself.”
Her head whips up, an apology written across her face.
I hold up my hands to stave it off. “I’m just teasing, Ella.”
“My bad,” she says, going back to shoveling food onto her plate. “I’m so tired that I can’t understand tone anymore.”
I join her in the buffet line, hefting my own plate. “This is poi,” I say, pointing to the bowl filled with purple. “People tend to either love it or hate it. I made two-finger poi because consistency can sometimes be an issue, too, and added a little sugar to cut back some of the earthiness.”
“Oh, I love poi,” she says, dropping a healthy dollop onto her plate. “I had it when we visited the islands when I was in high school. Is that haupia?” she asks, pointing with the serving spoon.
I’m taken aback for a second. “Uh…yeah.”
“Yasssss,” she says under her breath, pushing her potatoes aside to make enough room for two pieces of dessert.
If she eats all the food on her plate, I’m going to be so impressed. It’s grown to linebacker-sized proportions.
We sit down at the folding table I have set up in the dining room and tuck in to the feast, chewing in companionable silence, punctuated every now and then by her sounds of appreciation and compliments over the food. She absolutely demolishes her dinner. There isn’t a scrap left when she’s done. I’m hella impressed.
“You’re going to have to roll me out of here,” she says, leaning back.
“I’d have to stand to do that, though,” I say, pushing back in my own chair.
I ate too much trying to keep up with her. I’ll have to tell my friend and ex-teammate Shaun that I met a woman who can probably out eat him. Then again, maybe not. He might try to fly out here and challenge her, knowing his competitive streak.
She opens her mouth and starts to say something, but it’s cut short by a loud, echoing burp in a deeper register than I thought she’d be capable of hitting. Her eyes flash wide as she clamps a hand over her mouth.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Where did that even come from?” she whispers from behind it.
I nearly fall sideways out of my chair laughing.
She pulls her hand away and grins at me, her cheeks coloring a little.
“Surprise burps are the worst,” I say, commiserating. I hope she’s not that embarrassed. I had an ex-girlfriend break up with me once after she farted in front of me.
Ella’s gaze slides away from mine, back to the buffet. “I think it made room for another piece of haupia.”
Right. She’s got a huge family. They probably still have burping competitions. Judging by the sound she just made, she probably wins them.
I think she’s kidding about the haupia at first, but then she heaves herself out of her chair, plate in hand, and ambles over toward the kitchen. I stand and follow her, carrying my own plate to the sink. No way do I have more room. I’m actually a little scared what might happen if I burp right now.
“Then again, maybe not,” she says, gazing down at the delicacy, hand on her stomach, expression wistful. Her eyes rise to mine. “Can I take some with me?”
“Absolutely,” I tell her. “Take the rest. My present to you.”
“Thank you. Oh! That reminds me. I brought you a present,” she says, joining me near the sink to set her plate in it. “I left it in the truck. Be right back.”
She turns and makes her way slowly down the hall, her limp even more pronounced than it was when she arrived. I follow after her, more than a little concerned. Hamstring injuries can have a lengthy recovery process.
Watching her try to lift her leg into her boot is painful.
“Do you want me to go grab it for you?” I ask.
She drops the boot and looks at me with a mixture of pain and relief. “Yes. Thank you. It should be the long narrow package in the middle front seat.”
She digs her keys out of her jacket pocket and hands them over, and I slip on my boots, unlaced, and head out into the chill of the night.
The interior of her truck is riddled with the detritus of the day. Bags full of what must be her Christmas presents are stacked floor to ceiling on the front passenger side. With all those family members, it’s got to take them hours and hours to unwrap together. No wonder they all stay over. If they started opening any later than nine a.m., they’d still be at it.
I snag the gift-wrapped rectangular present from the middle seat and head back in. The front door is framed on either side by narrow floor-to-ceiling windows so you can see visitors when they arrive. Ella stands outlined in the right one, the interior light shining from behind her, throwing her figure in shadow. Her messy bun is bathed in a corona of red-gold, making it look like a halo from where I stand.
My steps slow. For a second, I let the imagery wash over me. I think about what it would be like to come home to this. To be greeted by a beautiful woman waiting for me at the front door. The sight is almost painful. Because I don’t think I can do it. I can’t bring myself to ask someone to share my fate. I’ve sat out here for months trying to figure out where to go from here, how I move forward with my life, and I feel like my feet are stuck in the mud, preventing me from placing one foot in front of the other. Suddenly, it seems like I haven’t made any progress at all, despite my therapist’s assurances.
Ella is a bright light in a sea of darkness. I’m beginning to think of her as a friend. I haven’t let myself get past that. I do now. What if that friendship eventually changed? What if I allowed myself to let my gaze linger on her? To be drawn into the infectious joy of her laughter? To stop teasing her and start flirting with her? What if we slept together? Started a relationship? Can I really unload everything on someone like her? Smother her light with all of the dark shit I don’t tell anyone but my therapist? Anything less wouldn’t be fair. Wouldn’t be a real relationship. But the thought of crushing that infectious joy beneath whatever symptoms of TBI I may or may not manifest turns my stomach.
She waves at me from the window, giving me a thumbs-up to say that I grabbed the right box. I take a deep breath in and start walking at a normal pace again. It whooshes out of me in gust of steam.
I’m getting way ahead of myself, I realize. For now, I’m just beginning to have a friendship with her. I don’t have to keep my eyes from lingering too long. I haven’t had to police my thoughts. I’m still enjoying all the feelings of being around a new person that I like. I’m still feeling the nerves, the anticipation of hanging out more and getting to know each other. And with Ella, that also means a lot of time spent wondering what she’s going to do next, and how hard its going to make me laugh.
I step back inside, slip off my boots and raise the package to my ear, shaking. It makes a small rattling sound, but feels like a solid board of wood.
“It’s cribbage,” she says.
“Wha..hey. You’re not supposed to ruin the surprise.”
“Fine, then. It’s a salmon.”
I stare down at her. “A whole salmon?”
“No. Just a couple of fillets.” She glances at the present. “That were pounded into a perfect rectangle and then frozen. Which is why it’s cold. And doesn’t smell. Open it quick, before it defrosts.”
Our gazes catch and hold, for one second, ten. We are very serious adults having a very serious discussion about Very Serious Things™. At what feels like the end of minute one of our staring contest, my lips twitch, and of course I’m the first one to break. Her brilliant smile flashes across her face not long after mine, and it makes me feel like I’m less out of practice at this than I first thought.
I kick my boots off and head toward the room where the dogs are passed out, Ella right on my heels. Their rawhides are barely touched. They don’t so much as crack their eyes open or perk their ears when we walk in.
“Wow, impressive level of dog exhaustion,” I say. I’m hoping to continue our banter, but she frowns as she looks at them.
“I think I might have let them play too much the last few days. Huskies are a working breed, and they’ve been known to injure themselves by pushing too hard.”
She moves to the one I think is Fred – with the little white splotch on the tip of one ear – and then leans down and systematically begins inspecting him, rubbing down his shoulders, haunches, legs, and paws to check for any sore spots. She repeats this with Sam. Both tolerate it fairly well, and conk right back out when she gets to her feet, looking satisfied they’re unhurt.
I pace over to the couch and pull at the hidden latch of the middle seat. The chairback folds forward to reveal a flat wooden surface with two cup holders built in.
“Is this big enough to hold the board?” I ask. “I figured you’d want to keep them in sight, and maybe sit in something more comfortable than a folding chair.”
“That’s perfect,” she says. “If you want to unwrap it, I can get it set up while you go grab those beers you mentioned earlier.”
“Deal,” I say, tugging at the wrapping. It’s some sort of thick kraft paper with little pine trees and snowflakes printed on it in black. I have a feeling she might have made it herself; it’s too nice to be store-bought. The wrapping comes free to reveal a lightly stained piece of wood with a lot of peg holes in it.
“Interesting. What’s this little skunk mark for?” I ask, before handing it over to her.
“Oh, you’ll see, Ben. You’ll see.”
The laughter that follows me out of the room is slightly concerning.
Because I am actually good at sharing, I grab two oatmeal stouts from the fridge and head back over. She’s sitting sideways on the far side of the couch, facing the drop-down table, her legs folded, Indian style. The board is horizontal in front of her, with two pairs of brightly colored pegs sticking out of the holes that must indicate the starting line. A pack of cards is held in her hands, blurring as she shuffles at high speed in some intricate pattern I haven’t seen before, and I’ve been to Vegas a few times.
“We got a card shark here,” I say.
“Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you.” She pauses in her shuffling to take the beer I hand her, her eyes going wide. “Holy shit. Are you sharing your oatmeal stout with me, Ben?”
“Yes. Like a super well-adjusted adult.”
She snorts, then takes a sip. “Oh, God. That’s so good.”
“Like, Jack could make a lot of money off of it good,” I say, folding myself down into the other couch seat.
“Right? He’d never hand over his recipe, though. Dad and Jacob tinker around a little with homebrew, and they’ve been trying to get their hands on it for years.”
“Jacob is your oldest brother? The one who looks kind of like Stirling K. Brown?”
She nods, taking another sip. “Yes. And when he realized it, he changed his glasses frames to match the ones Brown wears on This Is Us, though he vehemently denies it every time I try to bring it up.”
“Ah, sibling antics,” I say, thinking back to all the shit Zach and I did to each other as kids. Okay, and as adults. Kind of hard to get over your rivalry when you’re both professional athletes in the same sport.
Fuck, I miss him.
“Jacob is so hard to tease,” Ella continues, pulling me from thoughts of my brother. “He’s too serious by half sometimes. Typical oldest child. He and Dad are both doctors. He started as some fancy surgeon in Boston, but as Dad’s gotten older, and Jacob started a family, he had the urge to move home and take over Dad’s family practice when he retires.”
“What do your other siblings do?” I ask, unable to hide my curiosity.
“Megan is the deputy director of a non-profit in Boston that works with LGBTQ+ teens and adolescents. Her wife, Stacey, is a social worker. They met when Stacey brought one of the children she was working with into the center. Theirs is a very symbiotic relationship. Stacey balances out all of Megan’s rougher edges, where Megan is there to lift up Stacey and stick up for her when Stacey is too quiet or reserved to do it herself. And they both understand the highs and lows of each other’s jobs.”
“They sound like the perfect teammates,” I say, reminded of how cohesive the last offensive line I played on was.
“Exactly! They’re relationship goals in that way. Okay, so Jane and Dave are both journalists. They met at UMF, a college about halfway down Maine. Dave writes for the political section of the Maine Journal, and Jane freelances. She’s been published in a few national press outlets this past year, mostly for taking a unique line on current events.
“Charlie is pursuing his masters in molecular biology and will probably go after his doctorate before he’s done. He just…loves school. In a way that not many people do. He’s one of the few of us that has found his birth mother. Or record of her, at least. She came from Herat, a city in northwestern Afghanistan. The adoption agency there wasn’t able to locate her, likely because the war has displaced so many people, but they knew from the paperwork that she was working class, and illiterate. It’s kind of driven him to learn as much as humanly possible.”
“Makes sense,” I say.
If he’s in school for his masters, he couldn’t have been adopted that long before we started bombing his home country. I wonder if his experience trying to find his birth parents is part of why Ella hasn’t looked for hers. It would make sense; both come from war-torn countries. The resulting chaos must make it damn near impossible to find people.
“And then there’s Anabel,” Ella says. “She’s still in high school, and is just the sweetest kid, but so smart, and so talented. She gives me hope for the future.”
“Thank God for that. The way things have been going lately…”
“No kidding, right? Hopefully we can fix the mess we’re all going to inherit.”
It grows quiet as she shuffles, and I tense a little, waiting for her to ask about my family. It would only be fair after she just told me so much. Instead, she looks as though she’s perfectly content to hold such a one-sided conversation. Like she’s not bursting with questions. It makes me want to offer up the information on my own. I don’t. I’m still not great with talking about what happened to Zach, Molly, and Micah, and I don’t want to kill her good mood with talk of death and grief.
My phone chimes from my pocket, and I fish it out, grateful for the distraction. My relief evaporates when I read the text. It’s from my lawyer, saying not to worry, he and my PR rep are already on it.
On what? I text back, my stomach sinking.
He sends me a link, and I spend a few minutes reading in frustrated silence. The USFL Commissioner is talking shit about our lawsuit against the league on Twitter.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
Thanks, Pete. Turning my phone off now, I tell him.
I flick it off and drop it on the coffee table in front of the couch.
“Sorry about that,” I tell Ella.
“No worries,” she says. “Everything okay? I can keep myself distracted if you need to call someone.”
“The USFL Commissioner is being a prick,” I tell her. No use hiding that. She could just see for herself if she checks Twitter later and looks at the timestamps from his Tweets.
In response, her expression morphs into one I’ve never seen her wear before. For a second, she looks downright fearsome. She sets the cards down and cracks her knuckles. “You want me to create an egg account and call him bad names?”
I laugh, not entirely sure if she’s teasing or not. “No need. My lawyer is already on it. We’re not supposed to talk about the lawsuit, so he might get his ass whooped in court over this.”
“Good. That man is such a jackass,” she says, picking the cards back up. “Okay, so, the first thing you should know about cribbage is that it’s eighty percent luck of the deal, ten percent desperation, and ten percent raw talent.”
She starts dealing out the cards. I could hug her for moving on so easily.
Half an hour later, I find out what the skunk mark means. If you lose to your opponent, like I just did, and your pegs don’t pass that mark, they will jump up from their seat, nearly upending the board in their excitement, and proceed to perform an elaborate chicken dance-like routine, their arms akimbo as they hop back and forth while singing, “Iiiiiiiiit’s skunkarooney time, it’s skunarooney time, with Uncle Frankenstein, it’s skunkarooney time!”
Behind her, the dogs lift their muzzles and howl in response to her painfully off-key singing voice, creating a chorus that makes my ears want to bleed.
This display is, by far, the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen a grown woman do in person. She looks like a demented scarecrow. Like some sort of marionette whose manipulator got into a bad batch of moonshine. Topping it off is the triumphant, gleefully deranged expression on her face that I wish I could unsee.
“What the fuck is that?” I ask, holding my ribs as I laugh.
“Ow,” she says, falling back into her seat sideways, clutching her hamstring. “I honestly don’t know. It’s this dance my dad used to do whenever he skunked us, and it’s sort of turned into another Jones family tradition. Even Jacob does it.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to,” I say, wiping tears from my eyes.
She sobers. “Of course not. You’d have to skunk me first, Ben.”
Was that a challenge?
I stare her down in response.
This time, she’s the first to look away, wincing.
“Owwww. Totally worth it, but ow,” she says, trying to stretch out her leg.
“I have a heating pad for that,” I tell her.
“Bless your heart,” she says, and then cackles in a way that reminds me of when Jack said he misses half the jokes she makes. Looks like I’ll be joining him.
I rise and go to grab the heating pad from upstairs. Not wanting her to have to get up, I plug it in for her when I return, set it to medium, and hand it over.
She wraps it around her thigh, and her eyelids immediately flutter shut in obvious bliss. A second later, she leans way back in her seat, her head arched into the headrest, exposing the long line of her neck, and moans in a way that sends my mind straight into the fucking gutter.
So much for not having to police my thoughts.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.