“Boom. Done,” I say, raising my hand and ceremoniously dropping the stain-soaked rag I’m holding like it’s a mic. It lands on the tarp beneath me with an uninspired splat.
Time to stand up and survey my work.
My lower back begins to twinge uncomfortably as I straighten from my crouch. I probably should have taken more breaks instead of spending the entire day doubled over like a pretzel, but I wanted these floors done so I can focus on getting the drywall up, and no one has ever described me as a patient person.
I dig my knuckles into the spasming muscle and examine my handiwork. Even to my biased eyes it looks good. It’s not every day you come across 16-inch-wide, 150-year-old planks in this good of a condition, and it took me an embarrassing amount of time to find the right stain for them. Too light and I was worried that they’d just blend into the room, unseen. Too dark, and I’d cover up all the good stuff. In the end, I opted for a medium-depth varnish that would coat the wood in a golden glow and sink deeper into the whorls and knots and other minute ‘imperfections’, bring all that gorgeous detail out, so no matter what furniture I put on top of it, my gaze will always be drawn back down to the flooring.
I take the final step out of the sitting room, and pace just across the hall to what is basically another sitting room but what I plan to use as the dining room. It’s where I started at five a.m. this morning, and the floors are well on their way to drying. The windows in here face south, and now that it’s later in the day, a ton of natural light is shining in.
I pull my cell phone out of my back pocket, ignore the Twitter notifications, and swipe left to pull up my camera. I try several different angles before I finally find the right shot. I’m not a big fan of filters, but I do make use of my phone’s photo editing tool to darken the image enough that I can really see all the detail in the grain. I attach the finished picture to a group text with my parents, then hit send.
I can already guess their responses. Dad will be effusively proud. Mom will absolutely love it. My eye for detail comes from her. Whenever dad was in a fix about paint choice or finishing touches, he’d ask Mom, and she’d always have the perfect solution.
My phone dings almost immediately.
I LOVE IT. I bet it looks even better in person. When can I come out to see it???
Mom. She’s starting to get pushy about visiting. Even though she promised she’d try to respect my wishes and give me the alone time I felt I needed when I left. I’ve never really been great at saying no to her, even less so since Zach died, and I’m torn between being annoyed and feeling guilty.
My fingers hover over the keyboard, unsure of how to respond. In the meantime, my phone begins to rapid fire chime.
Great job, Ben! It looks awesome. Perfect color to pull out all that character. Ignore your mother. Take your time.
Hani, don’t tell him to ignore me! Christmas is in three days. He shouldn’t spend it alone!
He asked for space, Klara, and we need to respect that.
Isolation isn’t good for humans.
Honey, the man has only been gone for a few months. It’s not like he’s lived in a shack on the Outer Hebrides for five years.
I read a study yesterday that said even a few months of hermit-like existence can be detrimental to mental health, and with the risk of CTE, Ben has to be more careful than most.
Gee, thanks, Mom.
Klara, Ben is still part of this text. Maybe we don’t talk about him like he isn’t here?
Oh, sorry, Ben! You know how I worry. Read the study.
She sends the link. It’s one I’ve already seen.
I sigh, then begin typing. I’ve read it. And I’m not a complete hermit. In case you’ve missed it, the three of us talk every day, and I still keep up with my friends back home, too. Please don’t worry about me so much. I’m doing okay. I’ve even made a few new friends out here.
The texts abruptly stop. I wait for Mom’s third degree, but it doesn’t come. Good. Hopefully I’ve put off the threat of a visit for another few weeks by mention of new friends, though “friends” is definitely an exaggeration. Jack doesn’t even really know who I am, and I just met Ella.
My phone begins to ring. Dad is FaceTiming me, which he never does alone. Looks like I didn’t escape anything after all.
I take another deep breath, then accept the call. My parents’ familiar faces fill the screen.
“Who are these friends?” my mother immediately asks, skipping right over ‘hello’. I can tell from the line between her brows and the intensity in her white-green eyes that she’s on the brink of going full-blown mama bear.
“Jack lives up the hill from me,” I say. “He’s in his mid-60s and has no idea who I am. It’s is kind of a nice change, actually.”
“He isn’t one of those hillbilly hayseed rednecks, is he?” she presses.
I think of Jack, his lack of a TV and a cellphone, the couple hundred pounds of meat in his basement freezers from animals he’s killed and butchered himself. I immediately decide against telling her any of this.
“No, Mom. He’s totally normal.”
“Is that it?” she presses, looking dubious. “I thought you said friends. As in plural.”
Dad’s hand comes into view, covering their camera so that my screen goes black. “Honey, stop pestering him so much. He’s smart. He’ll know to reach out if the loneliness starts to get to him.”
“One old man who is probably just as isolated as he is doesn’t sound like a healthy social life, Hani,” Mom says.
I need to put a stop to this, before I end up more annoyed than I already am. “Uh, Dad? Your hand is covering the camera, not the microphone. I can hear everything you’re saying.”
He takes his hand away, looking chagrined. “Oops. Sorry, Ben.”
Beside him, Mom’s expression is one of concern. She opens her mouth to likely begin berating or begging me, I don’t have the patience to find out which.
“There’s a woman, too,” I blurt, and immediately regret it.
My dad’s brows climb up his forehead. “Oh, really? She pretty?”
“Who cares if she’s pretty?” Mom says. “Is she one of those weirdo woodlanders? Or an instagroupie?”
I rub a hand over my face in exasperation. “Mom, where are you even getting these phrases? No. She’s totally normal.”
Well, kind of normal. I think of Ella’s wild outfit and special brand of humor and struggle to keep the smile from my face.
“He’s smiling. Hani, why is he smiling? Are you lying to your mother, Benjamin?”
Uh-oh. She went full Benjamin on me. “No, ma’am,” I answer.
“What’s her name, then?”
“What’s she do for a living?”
“She’s an artist. No, a graphic designer.” Crap. “Well, a bit of both, really.”
“Ah-ha!” she says, like she’s caught me out.
“No, Mom, I swear. She owns Ella Jones Paperie. You can look her up online.”
“You stay right there, buster!” she says, pointing a finger at me. “Don’t you dare hang up.”
She exits screen right, leaving me and dad alone.
“Soooo…how you been?” I ask him, rather awkwardly.
He leans in close to the phone, whispering, his dark eyes large, “Your mother is becoming a handful. I think I may un-retire.”
I nearly choke on my surprised laughter. I smother it a second later, when my mother smooshes herself back next to him. She has a tablet in one hand, the fingers of her other one flying over the screen.
“Oh, honey, look,” she says, pushing the tablet in front of my father.
“Well, that’s kind of charming. What a cute little fox,” he says.
I grin, feeling a mixture of vindication and relief. “Told you she was real, Mom. You guys should check out the birthday card with the moose on the cover.”
I might have gone a little overboard looking through Ella’s online listings after I left Jack’s the other night. I just had to see that squirrel and his death threats for myself. And then after I found it and laughed at it all over again, I fell down the rabbit hole of her tongue-in-cheek, and, okay, sometimes borderline offensive greeting cards.
I know they’ve found the one I asked them to search for when Dad starts laughing uproariously. He throws his head back just like I do when I find something really funny.
Mom is slower on the draw, still frowning at the screen. “Wait. I don’t get it. Is the moose swearing at the beaver?”
“Yes,” Dad and I chorus.
“But why does he have candles on his antlers? Oh, no. I get it. Oh, that is so wrong.” But then, looking for all the world like she doesn’t want to, she begins to grin. And then to chuckle. “This still doesn’t prove that you know her,” she says when her laughter subsides. “You could have seen something in the local newspaper about her, for all we know.”
My humor falls away. Exasperation takes its place. “Mom, when have I ever lied to you?”
Her expression darkens. “Seriously? You want to play that game with me, Mr. I-don’t-know-where-those-beer-cans-came-from?”
“I was sixteen!”
“The point stands.”
“Fine. I’ll send you a picture of us the next time we hang out.” Anything to get her to back off.
“When is that?” she asks.
“Tomorrow,” I blurt.
Why. Did. I. Say. That? Years of pressure on the playing field, and I faced it like the pro I was. A little harassment from my mother, and I cave like a house of cards. I really should know better, because I know her. She’s like a dog with a bone when she’s worried about a loved one. She will not let this go. If I don’t send her a picture tomorrow, she’ll likely freak out and get on an airplane.
She grins at me through the phone like a Cheshire cat. Like I’ve played right into her hand. “Okay. Talk to you tomorrow. Love you!”
“Love you,” I grumble back.
“Love you, too, Ben,” Dad says, then hangs up.
I immediately start texting him. Dad, please, you gotta help me out here. Mom’s stressing me out. I came here to unwind. I need this break. REALLY need it.
God, if only they knew how much.
I know, Ben, Dad answers. I’ll do what I can. Go easy on your mom, though. Me and you are all she has, and she’s terrified of losing either of us. Right now, to her, every day you’re away is a day something could happen to you without her being close enough to help. She’s struggling too.
Great. Well, now I feel like an asshole.
I stride into the kitchen and toss the phone on the unfinished island, choosing not to answer him. I’m mad, at myself and at them both, and nothing good ever comes from speaking from a place of anger. Better to let myself cool down before I respond. But seriously, I came out here for me. And now it’s somehow more about my mother’s mental health than my own.
She isn’t the one who has to live with CTE!
I brace my knuckles on the bare wood currently serving as my kitchen counter, bow my head, and count to ten, slowly, trying to regain some semblance of calm. That last thought isn’t entirely fair, or true. She’s already lost one son to CTE. Just because she isn’t the one with it, that doesn’t mean she won’t have to live with it. If I am diagnosed, she’ll have to watch me suffer from whatever symptoms manifest, all the while knowing that she and dad were the ones to put us in football at an early age.
I pick up my phone again. I’ll try to be more understanding, I type.
It’s the best I can manage right now.
Before Dad can respond, I flick the phone to silent and head upstairs. My bedroom is on the second floor, a big behemoth of a corner room, complete with an adjoining sitting room and an en suite bathroom that now, thanks to my plumber, has a functioning toilet and shower.
The day he showed up was awkward as hell. I’d donned another disguise, which consisted of an oversized, ill-fitting, padded sweater that masked my muscle and made it look more like lumpy bulk. A pair of dark contacts and huge, owlish glasses helped, too. And then there was the grand finale, my hair, which I attempted to comb smooth and pull back into a low, hippyish ponytail. I’d looked disturbingly like Professor Trelawney. And not the male version of her.
I’d been straight up Sybill.
If I’m being honest with myself, I probably went a little deep into my assumed identity, like an undercover cop that loses sight of where the line is. At one point, I might have even uttered, “Far out, man” in response to something the plumber said.
So, yeah, that happened. Maybe my isolation is getting to me a little more than I’m willing to admit. At least the plumber had been the only one to witness it. And he hadn’t recognized me either, judging by his muttered “weirdo” when he finally left.
As soon as I reach my bedroom, I tug off my shirt and chuck it into the hamper. The rest of my clothes soon follow, and I replace them with workout gear. The muscle in my back is still complaining, but I have some adrenaline left from my irritation that I need to get rid of, and for me, the best way to do that has always been to sweat it out in the gym. Lifting weights centers me, grounds me, burns off my excess cortisol – the stress hormone – and replaces it with the good vibes of endorphins – the human body’s version of morphine.
I’ve trimmed down since my football days, and it feels good. I no longer have to pack the bulk on in order to pad myself against getting hit by what amounts to a battering ram. Now I’m lighter, leaner. I’ve added more cardio into my routines, and I’m starting to realize that I really like to run. Once I hit the two-mile mark on my treadmill and that runner’s high kicks in, my mind just seems to fuzz out. It’s kind of like meditation. I definitely see how people can get addicted to distance races.
Maybe once the snow melts I can ask Jack or Ella if there are any secluded trails I can run on. Safe, secluded trails. I’d rather never come face to face with a bear, or a moose, for that matter. I saw one two months ago, walking through my back yard. It looked primeval, nothing like the whimsical, be-sweatered creature on Ella’s cards. This thing had been almost too big to be real. The pictures really don’t do them justice. Jack once told me his trucker friend had totaled a semi hitting one. I believe him.
All of my workout equipment is in the basement, one of the reasons it was the first part of the house to get finished off. I turn on the sound system in the corner and then hop on the treadmill, walking for five minutes to warm up and loosen the tightness in my limbs from spending most of the day in a full crouch. After that, I jog for another twenty to get my heartrate going. Then I spend the next hour in a circuit. Today is shoulders and biceps. I alternate from curls to shoulder presses to underhand pull ups and through about twenty other exercises, working one group of muscles and then the next, pausing every ten minutes or so to jog in place or do a series of jumping jacks to keep my pulse up.
I’m covered in sweat when I’m done, lungs heaving like I’ve run a marathon. Even though I’m exhausted, I feel better. Calmer. More able to understand where my parents are coming from and admit that Mom might be right about a couple of things.
The shower I take after my workout feels like a luxury. Reliable hot water had been pretty much a pipe dream – pun totally intended – before the plumber worked his magic.
I spend an obscene amount of time standing beneath the rainfall showerhead, letting the scalding water go to work on my sore muscles. Great decision, this showerhead. The brushed chrome finish of it accents the dark, midnight blue tiles I chose to line the stall with. I think I’ve managed to keep the room from feeling too dark by boxing off the shower in glass, using lighter, long, rectangular marble tiles for the flooring, and painting the walls in a cool off-white. Industrial lighting and a floating, double sink vanity made of reclaimed wood round the room out. All in all, it has a modern, neutral feel that I want to carry throughout the rest of the house.
Eventually I force myself from the steam and out into the cooler air beyond. I bundle up in sweats and a long-sleeved shirt, then head back downstairs in search of my phone.
Tacked to my fridge is Ella’s number. It was pretty awkward when Jack forced it on me, but I’m thankful for it now. It saves me the trouble of having to ask him for it and calling her up out of the blue. As it is, this is still going to be uncomfortable as hell.
I pull it off the fridge and dial.
She picks up on the third ring. “Mom, for the love of God, keep me and Megan out of this. I do not care what you caught Charlie looking at on his laptop. He’s nineteen. Boys that age are gross. Well, boys most any age are gross, but that’s beside the point. The point is, you should leave it alone. For all you know, it could have been for some biology class he’s taking.”
“Um…” I say.
There’s a long silence from the other end of the line, then, “This is not my mother. I see that now from the caller ID.”
I grin. And here I was thinking that this would only be awkward for me. “No. Definitely not your mother.”
“Sorry, who is this?” she asks.
“Ben,” I say, flat-out refusing to say my full name on the off chance that I’m on speaker and she’s not alone.
Paranoid? Sure, just a little. I’ll own that.
“Hi, Stan,” she says, loudly.
“No, Ben,” I tell her, matching her elevated tone. We must have a bad connection.
“Guys, it’s my friend Stan, I gotta take this,” she says, her voice a little muffled now.
Oh, she wasn’t alone after all. There’s another prolonged silence, then I hear what might be a door closing.
“Okay, sorry. My sister and her wife are crashing at my place,” she says. “Just to be clear, this is the Ben I met at Jack’s the other night?”
“No offense, but I’m gonna need you to tell me what we drank,” she presses.
“Jack’s homebrew. The last of the oatmeal stouts.”
“Right, sorry. Needed to make sure it wasn’t a reporter catfishing me or something.”
I’m a little caught off guard by her ingenuity, and the lengths she’d go to protect me. It takes me perhaps a beat too long to respond because of it. “No, I…that was smart. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome!” she says. “What can I do for you?”
“Actually, this is going to seem really weird, but I sort of have a huge favor to ask of you.”
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.