“How was she?” Jane asks me, Willow clinging to her leg in greeting.
Exhausting, I almost blurt. Willow’s boundless energy is impressive, and after not having watched her for so long, I forgot just how much she tires me out. I don’t know how Jane does this, day in and day out.
“She was good,” I say. “We went sledding this morning before the snow hit, then had lunch, then made a snowman, and spent the afternoon playing dress up with the dogs.”
Poor boys. Fred is not a fan of being shoved into my old t-shirts or having fake pearls strung around his neck.
Jane grins. “Yeah, she’s going through a phase. Mom said she put a tutu on Corgnelius when she was watching her last week.”
This I have to see. “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
Jane pulls up her phone and shows me the evidence. Sir Corgnelius McFloofikins – his official title – fills the camera frame, a pink mass of tulle spreading out from his waist in all directions. He looks scandalized. So adorably over this bullshit.
“Can you send that to me? Megan and Stacey will lose their minds when they see it.”
“Sure. They really need to get an apartment that allows pets,” Jane says, her fingers flying over her phone.
“Agreed. And thanks,” I say after my phone dings with her incoming text. “Did you finish your article?”
She lifts her eyes from the screen to grin at me. “Yeah. Want to have a glass of wine to celebrate?”
“Sure!” I say, thrilled that we’re back on good terms. Jane can hold a grudge, and it’s taken her weeks to forgive me for the candy cane incident. I know her extended annoyance was driven by the stress of holidays and deadlines, and I’ve tried to be good about giving her some space, even though I missed her and Dave and Willow. Sometimes Jane and Megan are more alike than I think either of them are willing to admit. Maybe that’s why they still don’t get along that well.
We get Willow set up in the living room on the couch, her favorite show on the TV, with the dogs to keep her company, and retreat into the kitchen where we can still see her, but won’t have to hear every word of the obnoxiously catchy songs the cartoon characters sing.
“What’s the article about?” I ask Jane as she pours us each a glass of red.
“How the USFL is about to lose a lot of frigging money to the players that are suing them,” she answers, her back to me.
I nearly choke. “What?”
She turns around, glasses in hand. “You actually gave me the idea, so thanks for that.”
“Yeah, that conversation you had with Dad and Jacob at Christmas about CTE.”
Oh, shit. Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit. I grab a glass from her and take a big gulp of wine, trying to buy myself some time to think.
“Jesus, slow down. It’s not a shot,” Jane tells me.
I pull the glass away from my face. “Who’s publishing it?”
Please let it be some small news outlet.
“The New York Times.”
“That’s awesome, Jane! Congratulations!” I say with forced enthusiasm. “Cheers!” We clink glasses. I set mine down on the counter immediately afterward. “One sec, I think I left something in the truck.”
“What…Ella, your jacket!” she calls as I dash out of the side door.
I whip my phone from my pocket and immediately dial Ben. “Pick up, please pick up.” I have so much adrenaline going that I don’t even feel the cold.
He answers after the fifth ring. “Hey there.”
“My sister is writing an article about your lawsuit for the New York Times.”
Silence on his end.
“I didn’t tell her anything, Ben. I swear it.”
His response is immediate. “I believe you.”
I exhale, heavily. “She overheard me talking to my Dad and Jacob at Christmas about brain injuries and got inspired, so this is still totally my fault. I’m sorry. I had just met you and was curious about CTE and some of the studies I read. I needed someone to make sense of the medical jargon for me.”
“It’s okay, Ella. This isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known your curiosity would lead to this.”
“I know, but I still feel like it is. I haven’t seen the article yet, but I just need to warn you that it’s probably incredibly political.”
“Yeah, I figured. I read some of her articles after you told me what she does. She’s really talented.”
“What do you want me to do?”
He’s quiet for a minute. Then, “What’s her address?”
I stop dead, still a few feet from the truck. “You’re not…you’re not going to come over here, are you?”
“I’d like to. I’m sure she could use an anonymous inside source to bolster some of her research.”
“Ben, she’s a journalist. So is Dave. I don’t know what they’d do with the knowledge of you being hermitted up here.”
“You don’t trust them to keep it to themselves?”
“I don’t know. I want to say that I do, but the risk is…”
“The risk is mine to take. What’s her address?”
Holy shit. Okay, this is happening. I give it to him, then get off the phone.
“What the hell was that about?” Jane asks when I walk back in.
I stare at her, not entirely sure how to proceed.
“Ella, your face. You’re starting to worry me.”
I take a deep breath, then let it out. “I know one of the players involved in the lawsuit. He wants to come talk to you about your article.”
She almost drops her wine. “What?” she asks, dark eyes flashing wide. They almost immediately narrow. “Stan. It’s Stan, isn’t it?”
I nod. “Stan is really Benjamin Kakoa.”
“Holy shit.” She chugs her wine, sets the glass down on the counter, then rakes her hands back through her dark hair. “Who else knows?”
“No one. Well, Jack, but I don’t think he realizes who he is. Ben lives down the hill from him. I met him at Jack’s place just before Christmas, which is why I was talking to Dad and Jacob about CTE. Jane, you have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone. Not even the family. I swear to God, if you do, I’ll never fucking forgive you.” My tone is savage, the inner dragon rearing her head.
She turns to me, expression grim. “I would never do that.”
“I mean it, Jane.”
Her face darkens. “Jesus, I get it, Ella. What the hell is he even doing up here?”
“It’s not my place to say.”
“Is he about to come bitch me out over this? That dude is scary.”
“He is not scary,” I say, vehement. “He’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. And I think he actually wants to help you, be an anonymous source or something, but thanks so much for your assumptions.”
She closes her eyes for a second, bracing her hands on the island countertop. “I’m sorry. That was a crappy thing to say. This is just a lot to take in.”
“I get it. Maybe try to give him the benefit of the doubt from now on, though.”
She opens her eyes to look at me. “I will. I need to call my editor and get an extension.”
She picks up her phone and dials a number. “Max? Hi, it’s Jane. Yeah. I’m glad you like it. The thing is, I need you to hold off on doing anything with it. I know. I’m sorry. I may have an anonymous source with insider knowledge of the lawsuit. No. Max, no. Do you not understand the meaning of anonymous?”
Some of my dread eases hearing her be so firm with her editor. I pick up my own phone and text Ben.
She won’t say anything.
OK. On the way. Just dropped the puppies off at Jack’s.
I grin. Good luck getting them back from him.
He doesn’t respond, and I assume its because he’s driving. I set the phone down and look up to see Jane doing the same.
“This is surreal,” she says.
“Tell me about it. When you said you were writing the article, I almost had a heart attack.”
She laughs, the sound a little frayed at the edges. “No kidding. You looked like it.”
“I’m sorry for freaking you out. And for snapping,” I say.
She walks around the island to give me a hug, short enough that she can rest her head on my shoulder, like Mom. “It’s okay. I know how protective you can be.” We let go, and she grins up at me. “Remember the first time you met Dave?”
I smile in return. “Ah, the threats I made.”
Her expression flattens. “Payback is a bitch, Ella.”
Now I’m panicking for an entirely different reason than a moment ago. “Jane, don’t you dare! It’s not like that between me and Ben.”
“Oh? You didn’t just text him while I was on the phone?”
“I did. So what?”
“Sweetie, your face told me everything I need to know,” she says, patting me on the cheek hard enough for it to sting a little.
“Please don’t embarrass me,” I beg, stepping away.
Her grin becomes malicious. So this is where Willow gets it from. “I think I’ve made enough promises for one day, don’t you?”
She cackles in response.
I spend the next ten minutes trying to bargain with her. Right up until the dogs leap off the couch and start barking at the windows. Ben is here.
“Mommy, truck!” Willow says, helpfully.
I go outside to meet him, letting the dogs streak past me through the door.
“Hi, you two,” Ben says, leaping down from the Jeep to pet them.
He spends a long time crouched down at their level, letting them wriggle themselves close and leap all over him as they throw an OMG-I-missed-you-so-much-where-have-you-been party. Once they’ve calmed down some, they start frantically sniffing him.
“They must smell the puppies,” he says, standing.
Our gazes meet, and for a second, I forget why he’s here. He’s wearing dark jeans and a white, slightly v-neck t-shirt beneath his open flannel jacket. His hair is down and blowing a little in the breeze. My god, he’s gorgeous. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this initial shock I feel each time I see him. Suddenly, all I can think of is yesterday. Of the way he had looked at me. The feeling of his forehead pressed against mine. His large hand cupping my ass.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he responds, voice low, gaze roaming over me. He steps close, reaches his fingers up to brush a strand of hair from my face. “It’s nice to see you.”
I grin. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours since I left your place.”
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Shouldn’t have left,” he says, thumb sliding over my lips.
Oh my God.
A loud knock sounds from behind me. I whip my head around to see Jane through the upper window of the doorway, staring at us, her hands raised, backs of them together. She slowly pulls them apart, and its then that I realize how this might look. How close we’re standing.
“I am so sorry in advance for anything my sister is about to say,” I tell Ben.
“About the article, or…”
“Us. About us. She owes me from when I met Dave.”
Ben grins. “Us, huh?”
I flush and turn my back to him as I pace to the door. “Yup. Sorry!”
He chuckles as he follows me up the stairs.
The dogs race past me, back inside, nearly knocking over Willow as she races to meet the newcomer. “Be nice!” she yells at them. She’s one to talk.
I step in to make room for Ben in the doorway. His frame fills the entire thing, throwing a shadow over me.
Willow stops dead in her tracks, looking up, up, up at him. “You’re big,” she says, eyes wide.
“I am,” Ben replies, grinning down at her.
“I climb you now,” she declares, then charges at him and immediately starts to scramble up his leg.
Jane snorts from behind me. “Like aunt, like niece.”
I’m going to kill her.
Ben coughs to cover his laughter and leans down to help Willow up. She grabs onto his forearm and hauls herself up with surprising strength. Eventually, she settles on his back, legs around his waist, peering imperiously down at me and Jane from her perch. Ben has his hands hooked beneath her knees to keep her in place, which means she doesn’t have to hold on that well. She begins to prod at his shoulder, his back, his arm, as if testing his muscle tone.
“Can you throw people?” she asks him.
“What?” me and Jane chorus.
Ben just looks confused.
“I need a thrower,” Willow tells her mother.
Ben’s confusion morphs into startled surprise. Told you, I want to say. And he didn’t believe me when I said she’s already actively recruiting for her evil army.
“You do not need a thrower,” Jane tells her.
Willow sighs dramatically, resting her cheek on Ben’s shoulder. “Fine. He can be my paladin.”
“Your what?” I ask.
“Palanquin, did you mean?” Jane says.
“Yes,” Willow says.
“Where did she even hear that word?” I ask Jane.
“No idea. The kid is way too smart for her own good.”
Willow whips her head off of Ben’s shoulder and points over it toward the living room. “Onward!” she commands.
Ben does as his future leader tells him, dropping her off on the couch, where she settles back into her nest of blankets and hits unpause on the remote, filling the room with the Little Einsteins theme song.
“Hi, it’s nice to finally meet you,” Ben tells Jane when he returns, extending a hand toward her.
“Nice to meet you, too,” she says, her brows climbing as her hand completely disappears into his. “Want anything to drink? Coffee, tea, booze?”
“Water is fine,” he says, releasing her.
She flexes her fingers a little, as if testing the joints. Ah, yes, I remember his handshake well.
“Come on into the kitchen. We’ll talk in there, if that’s okay with you, Ben, so I can keep an eye on Her Supreme Highness.”
“That’s fine,” Ben says, chuckling.
Jane leads the way, and Ben and I follow, him shooting a glance back at Willow.
“You weren’t kidding,” he says.
“I never kid about diabolical masterminds,” I tell him.
“Diabolical,” Willow repeats from behind us, in a creepy little kid voice that makes it sound like she’s savoring this new word.
“That’s great. Please expand her vocabulary some more,” Jane deadpans.
Ten minutes later, the three of us are seated at the small kitchen table, papers spread out around us. Ben and I each have a copy of Jane’s article, that we just finished reading, and she has notepads and pens and medical journals cluttering up her side.
“This is really good, Jane,” Ben tells her, setting the article down.
My sister smiles a little shyly and doesn’t meet his eyes. “Thanks.”
Ha! It’s not just me he effects. Even happily married women are susceptible.
“What do you want me to contribute?” he asks.
“Honestly, whatever you’re willing to,” she answers, picking up a pen.
“Nothing about my personal life or my own experiences with TBI and CTE,” he says.
She nods, as if she assumed he’d say that. “Understood.” She does manage to meet his eyes then, her own full of sympathy. “I’m so sorry about your brother. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. If you want, I can remove mention of him from the article.”
I love my sister for this empathy. So much. Hopefully she’ll be able to impart some of it on her daughter.
Beneath the table, I reach out and take Ben’s hand. This is probably going to be difficult for him. He never talks about Zach, or at least he hasn’t with me, and now he might have to do so for all the world to read about. He threads his fingers through mine, thumb sliding over the back of my hand.
“Thank you, but that’s not necessary,” he tells Jane. “His death was one of the driving factors for so many of us quitting the league and filing this lawsuit, so he should be in it.”
“I still can’t understand why the league didn’t just settle,” Jane says, her eyebrows drawing down in anger. “Dragging this out in court is only going to make them look worse.”
Ben shrugs one massive shoulder. “They’re desperate at this point.”
“Can you expand upon that?” Jane asks, in full journo-mode now.
“I can. Honestly, I think the league must feel that if they win in court, the fans won’t think they’re responsible for what happened to Zach and the other players that have died because of TBI or CTE. Or the ones who are already experiencing what amounts to early onset dementia thanks to their years spent in the league. There are other factors driving them besides that. The USFL has lost a lot revenue to streaming services. The fans are fed up with the lack of logical punishment. One player can get suspended for three games for ranting about how our president is racist, while another suffers no consequences after pleading guilty to domestic abuse. The fans are also pissed about how they treated the players who took a knee during the anthem, and the bullshit ruling that came down afterward.”
“You mean the fine players will face if they continue to take a knee?” Jane asks.
Ben nods. “Yes. There’s another lawsuit about to be filed against that, by the way, and I think the players involved are backed by some heavy hitters like the ACLU and even a couple of team owners.”
“Really?” Jane’s pen scribbles furiously. “Do you have anyone I could contact about that?”
“Possibly,” Ben answers. “I’ll have to make some calls and find someone willing to talk about it.”
They spend the next hour in deep conversation about the lawsuit and the league’s cover up of early CTE research. How the player’s lawyers have even found evidence of coercion and intimidation to keep some of the studies from being published. Ben tells us about the possible paper trail that leads from the USFL to inflammatory, argumentative research papers that claimed there was zero connection between getting repeatedly tackled and TBI, as though by spreading “alternative facts” and misinformation, they might be able to sway public opinion. It’s a move right out of big tobacco’s playbook, from back it the days when they were trying to cast doubt on whether or not smoking led to cancer. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so enraging.
I let go of Ben’s hand at this point because I’m worried I might be squeezing it too hard. Then I stand and pace for a little while in the kitchen, fuming, my she-dragon so close to the surface that I feel like I could actually belch fire right now.
“You okay, Ella?” Ben asks.
“She’s fine,” Jane answers for me. “Momma bear mode has been activated.”
“More like rage-beast mode,” I mutter, so low they can’t make out the words.
Ben arches a brow at Jane in question.
“Oh, so she hasn’t felt the need to defend you yet?” Jane asks him. “Be grateful for that. She can get a bit scary.”
“I see that,” he says, turning to watch me pace. He doesn’t look frightened. He looks appreciative. I have to look away from him before my anger morphs into something else.
“Tell me more about this last injunction. The one that concerned the commissioner,” Jane says.
I hear footsteps and turn to see Willow walking over to me. She joins me in my pacing, mirroring me, crossing her little arms over her chest as she glares around at the room in general. “Who are we mad at?” she asks.
“The commissioner of the USFL,” I tell her, slowing down a little so she can keep up.
“Ben!” she shouts. “Go throw him!”
I stop, hands on my knees, laughing. Oh, God, I love this kid.
“What did I say about throwing people?” Jane calls. She glances at her watch. “Crap. It’s bed time.”
“I got it,” I tell her, taking Willow’s hand and leading her down the hall.
I need a break anyway. To go from Ben never talking about this to hearing how much he’s been hurt by it all is making me so angry I actually feel nauseous. Having to deal with all that toxicity on top of the threat of CTE and his grief for Zach seems cosmically unfair. No wonder he needed to hide out for a little while. No wonder he’s been absent from social media since Christmas.
The dogs “help” me with Willow, crowding into the bathroom with us while I watch her brush her teeth, hopping up on her bed when I get her tucked in. Sam, tired from running after her all day, cuddles in close to her on top of the covers, like he’s trying to keep her there so he doesn’t have to chase her any more. She throws a little arm around his neck and asks me to read her a bedtime story.
“Something diabolical,” she says.
I muffle my laughter and instead choose the most sugary-sweet one I can find on her bookshelf.
“Ugh, boring,” she says, halfway through.
I ignore her and keep reading, trying to make my tone as monotonous as possible. It does the trick. Soon, her eyes start to flutter shut and her breathing deepens. I read until I’m sure she’s fast asleep, then turn off the light and tell Sam to keep watch, leaving the door cracked behind me.
Fred follows me back out into the kitchen, where Jane and Ben are still deep in conversation. He pads over to Ben’s side and plops down next to him, head on Ben’s thigh. Ben immediately reaches down to pet him.
“Are you guys hungry at all?” I ask. “It’s nearly seven thirty.”
Jane looks up from her notes. “Dave will be home soon. You might want to duck out now, Ben.”
“I don’t mind staying to finish,” he says.
“Dave will keep his mouth shut about you, too,” Jane tells him. Her expression darkens. “If he wants to stay married.”
Ben just nods, grinning.
“I’m going to make Mom’s End of the Week Pasta then,” I tell my sister.
“Sounds good. There’s a loaf of sourdough somewhere over there if you want to make garlic bread, too” she says before turning back to Ben. “Tell me more about that first hearing.”
I get to work. Mom’s favorite pasta dish doesn’t have a set ingredient list, which makes it so adaptable. It’s called End of the Week Pasta because Mom always went grocery shopping on Saturdays. Friday night, whatever was left over in the fridge from the week before went into the sauce. I find half an onion, a green pepper, some kalmatta olives, kielbasa, garlic, and zucchini in the fridge. They get dumped on the island while I go in search of diced or crushed tomatoes and some tomato paste. I find a can of red kidney beans in the same cupboard and decide to add it to the mix.
I spend the next twenty minutes dicing, chopping, and straining, then set the water to boil in a large pot on the stove. Headlights flash over the windows a few minutes later. I shush Fred before he starts barking, worried that he’ll wake Willow.
Dave walks in not long after, looking exhausted from his twelve hours of travel to and from Portland. He drops his messenger bag just inside the door, starts to tug his coat off, and then turns to see Benjamin Kakoa sitting at the table with his wife.
“Whaaaaat,” he says, his eyes going wide.
“Dave, meet Ben,” I say, helpfully, from the kitchen. Oh, this is too good.
Ben unfurls from his chair to tower over my brother-in-law, who is the same height that I am. “Nice to meet you, Dave,” he rumbles.
“What is happening right now?” Dave asks, wrenching his arm from his coat sleeve to shake Ben’s proffered hand.
“Ella has been secretly dating a superstar,” Jane says, shooting me a grin.
I point the knife I’m holding at her. “Stoppit.”
“I’m up here taking a bit of a break,” Ben says in clarification as the men release each other.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, man. I’m a huge fan. The work you’ve been doing the past few years is amazing,” Dave tells him.
Ben grins. “Thank you.”
“He’s offered to be an inside source for the NYT article,” Jane tells her husband.
“What a fucking scoop,” Dave says, turning to hang up his coat and shuck his leather shoes off. “Anonymous, I’m guessing?”
“Yes,” Jane answers. “And if you tell anyone who my source is or that Ben is hiding up here, I will divorce you.”
“Okay then,” Dave says in a sing-song tone, eyes wide beneath his glasses. “Love you, too, Babe.” He leans down to give Jane a kiss on the cheek and then goes to change out of the business formal clothing he’s been trapped in all day.
Jane and Ben finish up while he’s gone, with Jane asking for Ben’s number in case she has any more questions or needs something clarified when she re-writes the article. He gives it to her and then rises from the table while she goes back to scribbling notes, coming over to join me by the stove.
“Hi,” he says.
I look up at him, thankful our backs are to Jane, because I know that the expression on my face as I meet his gaze would give her way too much ammunition. “Hi.”
“You doing okay?” he asks, his voice low so it won’t carry.
Me? Am I doing okay? It never ceases to amaze me how nice he is. I want to wring the commissioner’s neck with my bare hands.
“I’m okay,” I tell him. “You?”
He exhales heavily. “Okay, I think.”
“That was a lot,” I say.
His expression shifts into worry. “Too much?”
I move the wooden spoon to my left hand and wrap my right one around his elbow, careless now of what Jane might think. “No. Not too much. Never too much,” I tell him, squeezing.
He leans down toward me a little. “Come over tonight,” he whispers.
I freeze, my eyes searching his. “I thought you didn’t…”
He shakes his head. “It doesn’t have to be like that. Truthfully? This was almost too much for me. I could use some company after it all.”
“I’ll come over,” I tell him.
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.