In Aroostook County, you’re never unaware of the remoteness of the area. It’s more than just the lack of people and buildings. The winds that blow down from the alpine ridges carry a pervasive scent of snow and some indefinable mixture of water and pine and inhospitable wilderness. The bitter cold feels dangerous up here. You plan around it, aware of its killing power in a way you wouldn’t be in a more populated place. With no light pollution, the night sky seems closer, like you can reach up and touch the stars.
They’re still out in all their glory this early in the morning, dimmed a little by the alabaster light of the full moon sitting low and pregnant just over the tree line. I stare up at it for a minute after shutting the rear door of the Jeep. It’s easy to imagine, standing here in this land of rivers and mountains, how the local tribes might once have worshipped it in the same way that my own ancestors had. Maybe they even had their own version of Hina in the Moon.
The wind picks up, a blast of subzero air buffeting me, and I bring my eyes back down to earth and head toward the house. Boots and Doodle meet me just inside the door. I lean down and scoop a puppy up in each hand, then pull the door shut behind me with the toe of my boot and go to put them in the vehicle.
I started it thirty minutes ago, leaving it running while I loaded it up. In all that time the engine temperature gauge has barely moved off of its coldest reading. The air inside of it is still a little cold, so I settle the puppies on a little nest of blankets in the back seat so they can bed down while I lock up the house.
The wind pulls at my layers as I make the short trip back to the front door. It tugs at my hair with insistent fingers until several strands are loose and whipping around me. One hits me right across the eyeball and I have a sudden urge to cut it all off. But then I remember the feel of Ella fisting it in her hands while I went down on her and think better of it. She seems as attached to it as she is my beard. Plus, the thought of her using that grip to urge me on the next time I tongue-fuck her is pretty goddamn appealing.
The wind hits me in the face again as I turn back to the Jeep, wiping the small grin from my lips.
Jesus Christ, it’s cold.
It’ll be nice to get a little bit further south. The temperature in Boston today is supposed to reach a balmy thirty-nine degrees. Ella was jealous when I told her. It hasn’t gotten above freezing here in weeks. I almost asked her to come with me and experience it for herself, but didn’t. That would have been selfish. She has a life, a business. Who would watch the dogs on such short notice? She’d have to shut down all her shops. Work like a maniac overnight to get all her open orders out.
And me asking her also would have been unhealthy. Because the driving factor behind it was for her to be my emotional crutch. To lift me up with her positivity and inexhaustible enthusiasm. To act as a go between for me and my parents if shit gets awkward or tough. That’s not fair. To her, or my parents, or myself.
I climb into the jeep and cup my hands to blow some warm air into them before I can gather the courage to touch the steering wheel.
“You two seen my gloves?” I ask, turning in my seat to see Doodle helpfully chewing on the finger of one. “Gimme that, you little destructicon.”
It takes me several minutes to pry them away from him, mostly because I’m trying to be gentle and I don’t want to hurt his little teeth by pulling too hard.
I tug them on once they’re free and then glance at the rest of the stuff crowding the vehicle. Everything I might need for the trip is packed. My duffle bag full of clothes is in the way back, with more spare blankets and a two-way radio in case I break down somewhere without cell reception. In the passenger seat is a backpack loaded up with snacks and water for the trip. My phone has an entire day’s worth of podcasts downloaded onto it to keep me entertained during the long drive.
All that’s left to do is drop the dogs and a spare set of keys off at Jack’s. I have everything. I’m ready.
Well, as ready as I’ll ever be for what I’m about to put myself through.
Jack is waiting for me on the porch when I pull up. We get the puppies and all of their supplies inside before he offers me a cup of coffee for the road.
“No thanks,” I tell him. “Trying to cut back on caffeine.”
“You gonna bring your parents back up here after your little sight-seeing trip?” he asks.
I rub the back of my neck, feeling shitty for all the lies by omission I’ve told him over the past several months.
“Hey, so, I’m not going down there to sight-see,” I say.
He’s looking at me in a way that makes me feel like he wants to nod in a Well, no shit kind of way, and I wonder, for the hundredth time, whether or not he’s known who I am all along. Only one way to find out.
“I’m going to have some testing done,” I tell him.
His expression darkens. “Cancer?”
Shit, Renee. I should have known better than to be circumspect and make him jump to this conclusion.
“No. For signs of a brain injury.”
“Ah,” is all he says.
“I used to play football.”
“You don’t say.” He looks like he might be trying not to grin.
“Jesus, man, do you know who I am?” I blurt. Too late I realize the words make me sound a little arrogant.
Jack’s face breaks into a smile then, and he pats me on the shoulder. “Course I do,” he says. “You think I’m some hillbilly out of touch with the world?”
His smile gets wider as he looks up at me, a mischievous gleam in his eye that reminds me of Ella. “Everyone always forgets I have a laptop in the office and cable internet.”
“Well, damn, Jack. Why didn’t you say anything?” I ask.
He shrugs, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Figured you came up here to get away from all that. Thought you might just want someone to bullshit with.”
“I did. Thank you,” I say.
He nods. “No problem. Good luck with the tests. I can look after the house and hang on to the dogs as long as you need.”
I point at him. “Hey, now. I know you have puppy envy. Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing here.”
He puts his hands up in an innocent gesture I don’t believe for a second.
The Jeep is still idling in the driveway, so I don’t linger, saying a quick goodbye to him and my boys before bracing the chill of the morning once more.
I back out of his driveway, take the big hill down into town, and then begin the long journey south out of Maine. Mom and Dad’s flight should touch down in Logan at 3, so that’ll give me plenty of time to get down there. I’m leaving an hour earlier than necessary, but that’s because I’m factoring in stops and the odd chance that I hit traffic on the interstate.
The first hour goes by pretty quick, my thoughts preoccupied with all the things I still need to do today: the drive ahead, picking up my parents, checking into our hotel rooms, trying to find somewhere to grab dinner, and mostly, the conversation I need to have with them about my depression and anxiety. I focus hard on that, on planning out what I’ll say and trying to predict how they’ll react. Because its better than fixating on the reason we’re meeting in Boston in the first place.
My phone rings around eight, Ella’s name flashing over my screen. I pause the podcast I have on and pick it up.
“Good morning,” I say.
She answers with a loud yawn. “Hi, sorry. Good morning.”
“You just wake up?”
“God, no. I’ve been awake since four.”
Yikes, even earlier than me. “How come?”
“Just thinking about you. How are you feeling this morning?”
“Better than yesterday.”
After we had sex in her bathroom, we spent most of the rest of the afternoon on her sofa, wrapped around each other, not talking much, binge-watching TV and playing with the dogs to distract ourselves.
“That’s good,” she says.
“I think deciding to do this has relieved a lot of stress I hadn’t even been aware of.”
“I get that. Some of the worst anxiety I’ve ever had was when something big loomed on the horizon. Like when I decided to stop painting one offs and start selling stationary. Oh, God, sorry. I know it’s not nearly the same as what you’re going through, but I-”
“I know, Ella,” I say, softening my tone as I cut her off. Her voice had started to take on that slightly panicked edge it gets when she worries she’s said something offensive or offhand, and I’ve learned from experience its best to stop her before she starts in on herself too hard. “You’re just trying to relate. It’s understandable. I’d do the same thing if our roles were reversed.”
She exhales heavily. “You are so frigging sweet, do you know that?”
I grin. “Yeah, you might have mentioned that once or twice.”
“I mean it, Ben. You give me the adult, sexual version of cute aggression.”
“Is that even a thing?” I ask, my smile widening.
“Sexgression? No, that sounds predatory. Cuteousal?”
“Ella, I’m trying to drive here,” I say, laughing. “What the fuck is cuteousal?”
“Cute arousal. Duh.”
“Too bad you’re not here to show me just how cuteousal,” I tease.
Her tone turns low and sultry. “Oh, I’d show you, all right.”
An image of her pretty little mouth wrapped around my dick flashes through my mind. Aaaaaand now I’m driving with a semi. I check my speed and slow down some. It’d be really fucking awkward to get pulled over right now.
“Again, trying to drive here,” I say.
“Let the record show that you started it,” she answers.
We’re quiet for a few minutes, the silence between us stretching and becoming slightly uncomfortable in a way that its never been before.
“Ben?” she asks.
“I’m still here,” I tell her.
“I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
I let out a heavy breath. “Thank you.”
“I should have said it yesterday, but I kind of internalized a lot of it and turned slightly neurotic. You know, how I do.
“You’re saying it now, and that’s all that really matters,” I tell her.
“I hope everything goes okay tonight with your parents. Just remember all the tips Brian gave you for talking about it with them.”
“Thanks. I will. I even wrote them down in case I need some cues to keep me on track.”
“That’s smart. It can be so hard to focus in the heat of the moment.”
She pauses again, and I swear I can hear her mulling over what she wants to say next.
“So,” she says, “I was thinking that maybe I don’t call or text you for the next few days. I’m sure you’ll have a lot to process one way or the other and I don’t want to stress you out by making you feel like you need to get right back to me or dive into things you might not be ready to. Just…know that I’m here, whenever you want to talk or to hang out when you get home.”
“How are you this fucking considerate?” I ask her.
She laughs. “I could say the same thing to you, Ben. It’s part of why I…like you so much. You know, aside from your self-deprecation, cooking skills, and the fact that you look like the living amalgamation of every wet dream I’ve ever had.”
“You’re not so bad yourself,” I say, wondering what that pause was about.
“What? With this orange hair of mine?”
“My mother really needs to apologize for that one.”
“No way. I’m just kidding. She’s more than made up for it all the times she’s told me how incredibly wonderful I am in literally ever other aspect. Tell them I said hi?”
“I will,” I say. “What are you up to today?”
We talk for another half an hour, her telling me about the orders she needs to get to the post office and the graphic designs she wants to start on for a wildlife calendar series before filling me in on all the latest Jones Family Drama.
Megan and Stacey are thinking of switching apartments so they can get a puppy, and we both agree that it’s about damn time. Apparently her little sister has a new boyfriend. Ella tries to enlist my help with scaring the kid if he hurts Anabel at any point in the future. I’m pretty sure she’s joking, but I still tell her that I’m not going to be complicit in the harassment of a minor. She calls me a spoilsport. Her little brother, Charlie, hates one of his new professors, and from what she tells me, it sounds like for good reason. Jane’s article will be published soon and her editor at the NYT is apparently salivating over it. I make a mental note to warn my lawyer about it. He’ll either be pissed or super behind this. Either way, I can’t regret my decision to be her source. Jacob is getting ready to head back from Somalia soon, and Ella is helping her mom plan the welcome home party.
I’ve heard so much about these people over the past several weeks that I feel like I know them. I want to know them. I want to immerse myself in one of the loud, boisterous gatherings that Ella has talked about. I think about calling Ella back and inviting myself over for Jacob’s coming home, but think better of it. I shouldn’t make plans, not knowing what my mental state will be like by then. And that day should be about him. They don’t need me coming in and distracting away from everything he’s accomplished. Maybe down the road I can ask Ella to plan a big dinner party with her family so I can meet them in a more relaxed, natural way.
It’s then that I realize I’m beginning to think of us in the long term. I cut myself off, hard. I can’t go there right now. I can’t get those expectations up. First, I need to have these tests done. Then, I need to process the results. My own mental and physical health have to come first here.
I feel selfish for placing myself above everyone else, still, even after all the times that Brian has told me that I need to, that it’s okay to be my own number one. Part of why I’m even in this position is because I pretended to be okay for so long. Big tough men don’t get depressed. Big tough men don’t get sad. They don’t have anxiety. Especially not big tough famous men. Because public image is king.
God, I wish I could go back and shake my younger self sometimes.
I spend the rest of the ride listening to the episodes of Stuff You Missed in History Class that my publicist told me I would love. In between each, I make phone calls. I chat with my parents during their layover in Chicago, check on how the puppies are behaving for Jack, and then call Brian so he can help me get motivated for the hardest call I still have to make.
I dial the number as soon as I get off the phone with him. It’s that of a retired USFL player who’s a co-filer in the lawsuit against the league with me. He was one of the first subjects for the newer test I told Ella about, which showed him just how advanced his CTE might be. Already he’s showing signs. He has mood swings. He’s forgetful. The cluster headaches he gets have led to several stints in the hospital. He doesn’t drive anymore because he’s had two seizures already.
We chat for a few minutes about how things are going, the progress of the lawsuit, and how much of an asshole the commissioner of the league is. I’m stalling, really, replaying Brian’s words in my mind, building up my courage to tell him what I’m about to do. When I finally get to it, he reassures me that I’m doing the right thing. That if he hadn’t, he might be stages behind where he is in dealing with his CTE. He goes on to give me a really detailed rundown of what to expect from the test itself, as well as a lot of good advice for afterward.
I feel better when we hang up. Like I might actually be able to get through this without completely shutting down or reverting back to my darkest days of depression. It feels like still more weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and I’m glad I made the call.
I end up hitting traffic on Route 1 outside of Boston, just like Ella warned I might. Seriously, a two-lane road with traffic lights leading into the city? Who thought this through?
Because of the delay, I barely get to the airport in time. Mom calls me when they’re deplaning, and I pull up to the curb just as they’re stepping out of the terminal.
I don’t get out to help them. I’m too busy shoving snack wrappers into the backpack and trying to clear enough space for them in the Jeep. Plus, there’s a shitton of people here, and no way am I risking recognition before I have to.
Mom is wearing a floral scarf over her hair and huge sunglasses ala Jackie Kennedy, no doubt worried that she might be recognized too. It’s a legit possibility, she is the face of the charity. If anything, the getup makes her more conspicuous though.
She all but dives into the front seat, leaving dad to put their things in the way back.
“Nice disguise, Mom,” I tell her.
She lowers her glasses at me and says, “Bond, Klara Bond.”
I laugh as I hug her, glad to see this glimpse of her humor returning.
“I missed you so much, Benny,” she says, squeezing me hard.
“I missed you too, Mom.”
Dad folds his large frame into the back seat and reaches forward to clasp my shoulder. “Hi, Ben,” he says.
I let go of Mom to turn to him. “Hey, Dad.”
“We should go before someone sees you,” Mom says. “I can’t believe you didn’t put a hat on.”
Ah, yes. The mothering begins.
Grinning, I face forward and pull away from the pickup zone.
“Thanks for coming out on such short notice,” I tell them.
“Of course,” Dad says.
“Did you guys sleep on the planes at all?”
“A little,” he answers.
Mom makes a disgruntled sound. “He slept the entire flight from Hawaii to LA.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t?” I ask.
“No,” she says, her voice a little quiet. “The new meds I’m on give me insomnia.”
Well, that’s a revelation.
“What meds?” I ask.
I guess we’re jumping right into this then.
“My SSRI gave me pretty bad insomnia too when I first got on it,” I tell her.
I see her turn to look at me out of the corner of my eye. “You’re on antidepressants?”
“Yup, have been for a while. But can we pause this conversation until we get to the hotel? I need help navigating my way out of this maze,” I say, handing her my phone.
She pulls up the GPS and gets me to where we need to go. We’re quiet the rest of the ride, other than her instructions of “turn left here” or “there’s a merge up ahead and you need to be in the right lane”. You can tell how old this city is from all the twists and turns it takes us to get from the airport to the hotel I booked near the rehabilitation center we’re going to tomorrow. Nothing seems to run in a straight line here, and the roads are so narrow you can tell they’ve barely been widened since the days when horses and carriages were their main source of traffic.
“Well, we survived, and that’s all that matters,” Dad says cheerily when I park. There were a few close calls there. Boston drivers are fucking scary.
Mom gives him A Look. She’s not a fan of car related jokes, for obvious reasons.
“Sorry, you know what I meant,” he amends.
I pull on a hat when we get out, and stand in a darker corner of the lobby while they check us in. I booked the rooms under their names, just in case. It doesn’t matter. A bell hop spots me almost immediately, doing a double take as he walks toward the door and then beelining straight toward me.
“Hey, man,” he says, extending a hand. “I’m a huge fan.”
I plaster a smile on my face and shake his hand. “Thanks.”
“I follow you on Twitter,” he tells me.
I nod. This could go one of two ways. Which always causes me some small amount of stress as I wait for the other shoe to drop. Being so removed from recognition for so long makes me rusty at this, too, and I’m more nervous than normal – something I really don’t need right now. I should have stayed in the fucking Jeep.
“Thank you, for all the stuff you link,” the guy says, his Boston accent heavy. “We were gonna put our boys in the pee wee league, but after reading all of those articles, we put them in baseball instead.”
“You’re welcome, man,” I tell him.
He nods, and then looks around the lobby. “You park in the garage underneath the hotel?”
“In the back corner of it, there’s an elevator no one uses because its so damn far away from everything. Takes you right up to all the floors, though. If you’re trying to fly under the radar, you might want to stick to that from now on. It’s way down that hallway,” he says, pointing.
“Thanks. I will.”
“No problem, man. Keep up the good work,” he says, and then walks away.
“What was that about?” Dad asks, holding out a hotel key card as he rejoins me.
“Just giving me some advice on how to keep a lower profile,” I answer, taking it. “He told me the articles I linked on Twitter kept him and his partner from putting their boys into pee wee.”
“That’s amazing, Benny,” Mom says, joining us. “It makes me so happy whenever someone tells us we’ve made a difference.”
“It’s a pretty good feeling,” I tell her.
Together, we head toward that all but abandoned elevator. I keep my head down the whole way and try to make myself seem smaller, but I learned early on that a guy my size draws eyes no matter if he’s famous or not. Still, the few people we pass move along without comment, and I hope they didn’t recognize me or Mom.
Once we’re upstairs, we get settled into our rooms, Mom and Dad showering after their long day of travel while I unpack my stuff and look through the menus of the nearby restaurants.
I knock on their door a while later, and Dad opens it.
“So, about those meds,” I say to Mom as I settle in on their couch.
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.
Enjoy what you’re reading? Be sure to like this post and comment. I appreciate any and all feedback!