I was pulling the ham out of the oven when my phone dinged with a text message. It was from Ella.
Updated ETA: 5:15. Jack’s grandkids don’t want to let me leave.
I set the sizzling pan on the stovetop, shook off an oven mitt, and leaned over to pick up my phone. Roger that. Dinner is just about ready. I hope you’re hungry.
FAMISHED. Amended updated ETA: three minutes. These little rugrats will just have to cry it out.
I grinned and set the phone down. Thoughts of her visit had kept me distracted for most of the afternoon. I’d had a lot to do in preparation. Sure, I could have thrown in a couple of frozen 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 left feeling more than a little homesick, so I’d decided to make a full-blown Christmas dinner with some of my favorite Hawaiian dishes.
As promised, just a few minutes later, car lights splashed across the front windows. I went to the door to greet her. The outside lights were on, shining like a halo around Ella’s truck. She swung her door open and all but fell out of it.
She leaned into the back for the dogs. I expected them to zoom around my yard again, but they dropped from the cab and stayed by her side. Maybe she didn’t want them running around in the dark. I swear I heard howling a few nights ago.
Together, they made their way toward the porch. The dogs dragged their paws. It looked like Ella was limping a little. Shit. They were exhausted. I should have expected this after all the holiday antics Ella had described. Now I felt like a selfish asshole for asking her to come over.
I’d put a couple of towels on the front mat for her to use on the dogs, and I leaned down and scooped them up before opening the door and stepping out onto the porch.
“Merry Christmas!” Ella said as she mounted the stairs. She looked ready to fall asleep standing, but her tone was so bright and cheerful that my regret eased a little. She sounded like she wanted to be here.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
The dogs picked up their pace and loped toward me. I squatted down to greet them, using their nearness to towel them off for her.
“Thanks for that,” she said.
“You’re welcome. You looked like you might be limping.”
She made an annoyed sound. “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.”
I finished with the dogs and stood. “There’s aspirin and water inside. And food.”
Her expression filled with longing. “Fooood?”
Now she looked like she might be drooling. “Beeeer?”
I laughed and let them in. Had to appreciate a woman with her priorities in order.
The dogs sniffed their way toward the sitting room, where I had a fire going and their makeshift beds already set up, a rawhide waiting for each of them. It worked out well the last time they’d stopped by, and if it ain’t broke.
Ella took off her winter jacket and boots to reveal a pair of black leggings and an oversized white cable-knit sweater that fell halfway to her knees, completely obscuring her athletic frame. Her hat followed, and she ran her fingers through her hair and dragged her long locks up into a messy bun. Small tendrils slipped free to frame her face. She brushed them back on reflex, and I had to fight a sudden urge to reach out and pull them free again.
“Long day?” I asked when I realized I was staring.
Her gaze met mine and she nodded, smiling like she wouldn’t change a thing about it.
“Thank you for stopping by,” I said.
“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 frowned. “Oh. I had an evening of death metal planned.”
“I didn’t know you were into Nickelback.”
I clutched at my stomach and gagged.
She looked at me with an innocent expression, but I could see the threat of laughter in the twitch of her lips and the gleam of her eyes.
I shook my head. The woman was incorrigible. “Come on. Food is this way.”
I led her toward the kitchen, where I’d 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 turned out that taro leaves were pretty hard to come by on short notice in Maine this time of year. The grocery delivery service I used didn’t even know what they were when I called earlier.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted,” Ella said, elbowing past me to grab herself a plate and begin spooning a hefty amount of stuffing onto it.
“By all means, help yourself.”
Her head whipped up, an apology written across her face.
“I’m just teasing, Ella.”
“My bad,” she said, going back to shoveling food onto her plate. “I’m so tired that I can’t understand tone anymore.”
I joined her in the buffet line, hefting my own plate. “This is poi,” I said, 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, and added a little sugar to cut back on some of the earthiness.”
“Oh, I love poi,” she said, 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 asked, pointing with the serving spoon.
I was taken aback for a second. “Uh…yeah.”
“Yasssss,” she said under her breath, pushing her potatoes aside to make enough room for two pieces of dessert.
If she ate all the food on her plate, I was going to be hella impressed. It had grown to linebacker-sized proportions.
We sat down at the folding table I had set up in the dining room and tucked into the feast, chewing in companionable silence, punctuated every now and then by her sounds of appreciation and compliments over the food. She absolutely demolished her dinner. There wasn’t a scrap left when she was done.
“You’re going to have to roll me out of here,” she said, leaning back.
I pushed back in my own chair. “I’d have to stand to do that, though.”
I ate too much trying to keep up with her. I’d have to tell my friend and ex-teammate Shaun that I had met a woman who could probably out eat him. Then again, maybe not. He might try to fly out here and challenge her, knowing his competitive streak.
She opened her mouth to say something, but her words were cut short by a loud, echoing burp in a deeper register than I thought she’d be capable of hitting.
Her eyes flashed wide and she clamped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Where did that even come from?” she whispered from behind it.
I laughed at her. I couldn’t help it. The look on her face was priceless.
She pulled her hand away and grinned at me, cheeks coloring.
“Surprise burps are the worst,” I said. I hoped she wasn’t that embarrassed. I had an ex-girlfriend break up with me once after she farted in front of me.
Ella’s gaze slid away from mine, back to the buffet. “I think it made room for another piece of haupia.”
Right. She had a huge family. They probably still had burping competitions. Judging by the sound she just made, she probably won them.
I thought she was kidding about the haupia at first, but then she heaved herself out of her chair, plate in hand, and ambled over toward the kitchen. I stood and followed her, carrying my own plate to the sink. No way did I have more room. I was actually a little scared what might happen if I burped right now.
“Then again, maybe not,” she said, gazing down at the delicacy, hand on her stomach, expression wistful. Her eyes rose to mine. “Can I take some with me?”
“Absolutely,” I told her. “Take the rest. My present to you.”
“Thank you. Oh! That reminds me. I brought you a present.” She joined me near the sink to set her plate in it. “I left it in the truck. Be right back.”
She turned and made her way toward the front door, her limp even more pronounced than it had been when she arrived. I followed after her, concerned. Hamstring injuries could have a lengthy recovery process if you let them get away from you. I knew from experience.
“Do you want me to go grab it for you?” I asked.
She dropped the boot she was trying to lift onto her foot and looked 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 dug her keys out of her jacket pocket and handed them over to me. I slipped on my boots, unlaced, and stepped out into the chill of the night.
The interior of her truck was riddled with the detritus of the day. Bags full of Christmas presents were stacked floor to ceiling on the front passenger side. With so many family members, it must take hours to unwrap together. No wonder they all stayed over. If they had started opening any later than nine a.m., they’d still be at it.
I snagged the gift-wrapped rectangular present from the middle seat and headed back. The front door was framed on either side by narrow floor-to-ceiling windows so you could see visitors when they arrived. Ella stood outlined in the right one, the interior light shining from behind her, throwing her figure in shadow. Her messy bun was bathed in a corona of red-gold.
My steps slowed. For a second, I let the imagery wash over me. I thought about what it would be like to come home to this. To be greeted by a beautiful woman. The sight was almost painful. Because I didn’t think I could do it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask someone to share my fate. I’d been out here for months trying to figure out where to go from here, how to move forward with my life, and I felt like my feet were stuck in the mud, preventing me from placing one foot in front of the other. Suddenly, it seemed like I hadn’t made any progress at all, despite my therapist’s assurances.
Ella was like a bright light in a sea of darkness. I was beginning to think of her as a friend. I hadn’t let myself progress past that yet, but I did so now. What if that friendship eventually changed? What if I allowed 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?
Could I really unload all of my baggage on someone like her? Smother her light with all of the dark shit I didn’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 or CTE I may or may not manifest turned my stomach.
She waved at me from the window, giving me a thumbs-up to say that I had grabbed the right box. I took a deep breath of frigid night air and started walking at a normal pace again.
This is ridiculous, I realized. I was just starting a friendship with her. I didn’t have to keep my eyes from lingering too long. I didn’t have to police my thoughts. I was still enjoying all the feelings of being around a new person that I liked. I was still experiencing the nerves, the anticipation of hanging out more and getting to know each other. And with Ella, that also meant a lot of time spent wondering what she was going to do next, and how hard it might make me laugh.
I needed to stop getting ahead of myself. Stop thinking of worst-case scenarios and instead take this one day at a time, just like my therapist had advised.
I stepped back inside, slipped off my boots and brought the package to my ear, shaking it. It made a small rattling sound, but felt like a solid board of wood.
“It’s cribbage,” she said.
I frowned at her. “Wha..hey. You’re not supposed to ruin the surprise.”
“Fine then. It’s a salmon.”
“A whole salmon?”
“No. Just a couple of fillets.” She glanced 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 caught and held, for one second, ten. We were very serious adults having a very serious discussion about Very Serious Things™. At what felt like the end of a solid minute, my control began to slip and my lips twitched. Or course I’d be the first one to break.
She gave me a blinding smile and took the present from me, heading into the living room where we’d left the dogs.
I kicked my boots off and followed her. The dogs didn’t so much as crack an eye open when we walked in.
“Wow, impressive level of dog exhaustion,” I said.
She frowned down 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 hurt themselves by pushing too hard.”
She handed the present back to me and moved to Fred – I knew it was him because of the little white splotch on the tip of one ear – and then leaned down to systematically inspect him, rubbing his shoulders, haunches, legs, and paws to check for any sore spots. She repeated the process with Sam. Both tolerated it fairly well, and conked right back out when she got to her feet, looking satisfied they were uninjured.
I went to the couch and pulled the hidden latch of the middle seat. The chairback folded forward to reveal a flat wooden surface with two cup holders built in.
“Is this big enough to hold the board?” I asked. “I figured you’d want to keep them in sight, and maybe sit in something more comfortable than a folding chair.”
“That’s perfect. If you want to open it, I can get it set up while you go grab those beers you mentioned earlier.”
“Deal,” I said.
The wrapping was some sort of thick kraft paper with little pine trees and snowflakes printed on it in black. I had a feeling she might have made it herself; it was too nice to be store-bought. I slipped a finger beneath the tape and pulled the paper free to reveal a lightly stained piece of wood with a lot of peg holes in it.
“What’s the little skunk mark for?” I asked, handing it over to her.
Her grin was a wicked thing. “Oh, you’ll see, Ben. You’ll see.”
The laughter that followed me out of the room was slightly concerning.
Because I was actually good at sharing, I grabbed two oatmeal stouts from the fridge and headed back in. She was sitting sideways on the far side of the couch, facing the drop-down table, her legs folded, Indian style. The board was horizontal in front of her, with two pairs of brightly colored pegs sticking out of holes that must have indicated the starting line. She held a pack of cards in her hands that blurred as she shuffled them at high speed in some intricate pattern I hadn’t seen before – and I’d been to Vegas a few times.
“We got a card shark here,” I said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you.” She paused in her shuffling to take the beer I handed her. “Holy shit. Are you sharing your oatmeal stout with me, Ben?”
“Yes. Like a well-adjusted adult.”
She snorted, then took a sip. “Oh, God. That’s so good.”
“Like, Jack could make a lot of money off of it good,” I said, folding myself down into the other 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 Sterling K. Brown?”
She nodded, 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, yes, sibling antics,” I said, thinking back to all the shit Zach and I had done 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 missed him.
“Jacob is hard to tease,” Ella said, 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 asked. Her family was fascinating to me. I couldn’t help but wonder at all the different dynamics in it.
“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 smooths 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 perfect teammates,” I said, reminded of how cohesive the last offensive line I played on was.
“Exactly. They’re relationship goals in that way,” she said. “Jane and Dave are both journalists. They met at UMF.”
“It’s 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. Annabel is still in high school, and Charlie is pursuing his bachelors in molecular biology and will probably go after his doctorate before he’s done.”
“Sounds like a smart kid.”
“He is smart, but its more that 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 displaced so many people, but they knew from the paperwork that she was working class and illiterate. It’s driven him to learn as much as humanly possible.”
“Makes sense,” I said. If he was in college, he couldn’t have been adopted that long before we started bombing his home country. “Does his experience finding her play a part in why you haven’t looked for your birth parents?”
She looked at me.
“Tell me to shut up if you don’t want to answer that,” I said.
She shook her head. “It’s fine. Like I said that first night, I get being curious. And yeah, it is, in part. Me, Charlie, and Jacob all come from war-torn countries. The agency Jacob was adopted from doesn’t even exist anymore, and the records have all disappeared. The resulting chaos of war makes it damn near impossible to find people. Charlie was lucky just to track down those few details about his mother. He doesn’t know anything about his father.”
She fell silent for a second, worrying her lower lip in a way that I was beginning to recognize meant that she was mulling something heavy over. “Honestly, I’m more worried about what I might find instead of what I might not.”
I took a sip of my beer. “What do you mean?”
“The Bosnian War was…ugly. Not that all wars aren’t.” She turned to look at the fire. “What if I find my parents only to learn that they were killed in the Albanian ethnic cleansing? Or worse, that they were the ones doing said cleansing?”
“Jesus.” I took another deep swig of my beer.
She looked back at me. “And while my skin has olive tones in it, I have bright red hair and blue eyes. That’s not a common set of genes from the area. There were outside forces supporting the war. Something like twelve to twenty thousand women were raped by the latest estimates. I’ve always worried I’m the product of one.”
I rubbed a hand over my face. “I am so sorry I brought all this up.”
“It’s okay,” she told me. “Talking about it is better than internalizing it, right? Sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“It doesn’t. I can handle heavy topics.”
She nodded. “I figured. I think it’s really good what you’re doing, by the way. How you bring attention to so many issues that we, as a society, really need to start talking about.”
She picked up the cards and shuffled, and I tensed a little, waiting for her to ask about my family. About Zach. It would only be fair after she just told me so much. Instead, she looked as though she was perfectly content to hold such a one-sided conversation. Like she wasn’t bursting with questions. It made me want to keep the conversation going, and maybe offer up a little information of my own.
“Have you been to Boston to visit your oldest sister much?” I asked her.
“Yup. I go a couple of times a year. Whenever I need a reminder of what civilization is like.”
“What do you think of the city?”
“A lot of cool history. Good food.” She shrugged. “But more problems than people realize.”
She started dealing out the cards. “For starters, it’s still one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. I’ll never forget the first time I stayed with Megan. She lives in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood. We were walking to dinner and she stopped me on the corner of her street to point out the bodega on it. The next block over is mostly white, and on the opposite corner, there’s a Whole Foods.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
She looked up. “No?”
I shook my head. “I heard more n-bombs lobbed at my teammates when we played in New England than anywhere else.”
She gave me a wide-eyed innocent look and batted her lashes several times for good measure. “But I thought racism only existed in the south.”
I let out a humorless laugh. “I went to college in Alabama. Trust me, the racism there is definitely loud and proud at times.”
Her faux innocence disappeared, replaced by a grim expression. “It’s probably just as bad up here. Everyday people may be quieter about it, but there’s an insidious, institutionalized aspect to it that makes me think it isn’t going away any time soon.”
I opened my mouth to respond but was cut off by the sound of my phone chiming from inside my pocket. “Sorry,” I said, fishing it out.
A slew of texts poured in from my lawyer, saying not to worry, that he and my PR rep were already on it.
On what? I texted back.
He sent me a link, and I spent a few minutes reading in frustrated silence. The USFL Commissioner was talking shit about our lawsuit against the league on Twitter.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
Thanks, Pete. Turning my phone off now, I texted.
I flicked it off and dropped it on the coffee table in front of the couch.
“Sorry about that,” I told Ella.
“No worries,” she said. “Everything okay? I can keep myself distracted if you need some time.”
I shook my head. “The commissioner of the league is being a prick.” No use hiding that. She could see for herself if she checked Twitter later.
She set the card deck on the cribbage board and cracked her knuckles, expression dark. “Want me to create an egg account and call him bad names?”
I grinned. “No need. My lawyer is already on it. We’re not supposed to talk about the lawsuit, so the commissioner might get his ass whooped in court over this.”
“Good. That man is such a jackass,” she said, picking the cards back up. “Okay, so, the first thing you should know about cribbage is that it’s eighty percent luck of the draw, ten percent desperation, and ten percent raw talent.”
I wanted to hug her for moving on so easily.
We played a few practice games, with her teaching me as we went. Cribbage was pretty straightforward. The only time I got stuck was trying to remember the point system. Fifteen two, four, six? The way they were counted was different than a lot of other games I’d played.
“So where’d you go to art school?” I asked as I shuffled the cards in between games.
“I did two years at the Rhode Island School of Design, but then I ended up coming home. My grandfather and Jack’s wife were both diagnosed with terminal cancer that year.”
I shook my head. “Fucking cancer. Too many of my family members have had it.”
“Mine too. Grandpa had lung cancer and he wasn’t even a smoker. Renee had breast cancer. It went into remission several years before, so we all thought she was clear. Then it came back. A lot of people think the numbers are getting better, that we’re making headway against the disease, and sure, we are with some forms of it. But not others.”
“What do you mean?”
“Take breast cancer. A lot of medical research and charities have changed the definition of “surviving” it,” she said, raising her hands to do air quotes. “So now, if you have breast cancer and you live cancer free for five years after diagnosis, you’re marked as a survivor.”
“But what if it comes back?” I asked.
“Exactly.” She lifted her beer and tipped it toward me before taking a sip. “Technically, Renee is a survivor. It came back in year six and she succumbed to it, but the big charity organizations still have her name on their lists as having beaten the disease.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Totally fucked up.” She set her beer down and picked up the cards as I dealt them. “So I didn’t finish school. The rest was mostly self-taught, though I have taken art classes up here.”
“You’re really talented.”
Her full lips lifted in a beaming smile. “Thanks.”
“Where do you get your inspiration for the more, uh, controversial ones?”
Her smile widened, eyes crinkling up at the corners. “The murder squirrel card was inspired by one of my friends. She said something similar to her sister in law a few years ago before Thanksgiving. Their family is divided down the middle, politically, and there are several loudmouths on each side that like to ruin gatherings by spewing their opinions all over everyone else. I think her exact words were “I will kill you if you don’t show up this year” and I took that and ran with it.”
“Well, you nailed it. I don’t think a greeting card has ever made me laugh that hard.”
Her expression turned serious. “Ben, if you and your parents don’t stop inflating my ego like this, I won’t be able to get my swollen head through doorways.”
“Too bad. You’re really good at what you do and I’m not going to stop telling you that.”
She looked back at her cards, cheeks coloring. “Thanks,” she said, voice soft.
Half an hour later, I found out what the skunk mark meant. If you lost to your opponent, like I just had, and your pegs didn’t pass that mark, they would jump up from their seat, nearly upending the board in their excitement, and proceed to perform an elaborate dance routine in your living room, 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 lifted their muzzles and howled in response to her painfully off-key singing, creating a chorus that made me want to cover my ears.
The display was the most ridiculous thing I’d seen a grown woman do in person. She looked like a demented scarecrow. Like some sort of marionette whose manipulator had gotten into a bad batch of moonshine. Topping it off was the triumphant, gleefully deranged expression on her face that I wished I could unsee.
“What the fuck is happening right now?” I asked, holding my ribs as I laughed.
“Ow,” she said. She fell back into her seat and clutched her hamstring. “I honestly don’t know. It’s this dance my dad used to do whenever he skunked us, and it somehow turned into another Jones family tradition. Even Jacob does it.”
I glanced sideways at her. “I hope you don’t expect me to.”
She levelled her gaze at me. “Of course not. You’d have to skunk me first, Ben.”
Was that a challenge?
I stared her down in response.
This time, she was the first to look away, wincing. “Owww. Totally worth it, but ow,” she said, stretching out her leg.
“I have a heating pad for that,” I told her.
“Bless your heart,” she said, and then cackled in a way that reminded me of when Jack said he missed half the jokes she made.
Looked like I’d be joining him.
I went to grab the heating pad from upstairs. Not wanting her to have to get up, I plugged it in when I returned, set it to medium, and handed it over.
She wrapped it around her thigh, eyes fluttering shut. She let out a low sigh and leaned way back in her seat, her head arched into the headrest, exposing the long line of her neck.
The sight sent my mind straight into the gutter. So much for not having to police my thoughts.
Copyright © 2019 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.