“Boom. Done.” I raised my hand and dropped the stain-soaked rag I was holding like it was a mic. It landed on the tarp beneath me with an uninspired splat.
My lower back twinged as I straightened from a crouch. I probably should have taken more breaks instead of spending the entire day doubled over like a pretzel, but I wanted the floors done so I could focus on getting the drywall up, and no one had ever described me as a patient person.
I dug my knuckles into the spasming muscle and examined my handiwork. Even to my biased eyes it looked good. It wasn’t every day you came across 16-inch-wide, 150-year-old floorboards in that good of a condition, and it took me an embarrassing amount of time to find the right stain for them. Too light and I worried that they’d 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 coated the wood in a golden glow and sank into the whorls and knots and other minute “imperfections”, bringing all that gorgeous detail out.
I left the sitting room and crossed the hall to the dining room. This was where I’d started at five a.m., and the floors were well on their way to dry. The windows faced south, and now that it was later in the day, a ton of natural light shone in.
I pulled my cell phone out of my back pocket, ignored the Twitter notifications, and swiped left to pull up my camera. I took photos from several different angles before I finally found the best shot. I wasn’t a big fan of filters, but I made use of my phone’s photo editing tool to darken the image enough that I could really see all the detail in the grain. I attached the finished picture to a group text with my parents, then hit send.
I already knew how they’d respond. Dad would be effusively proud. Mom would absolutely love it. My eye for detail came from her. Whenever Dad was in a fix about paint choice or finishing touches, he’d ask Mom, and she always had the perfect solution.
My phone dinged with an incoming text.
I LOVE IT. I bet it looks even better in person. When can I come out to see it???
I sighed. Mom. She was starting to get pushy about visiting. Even though she’d promised me that she’d try to respect my wishes and give me the alone time I told her I needed when I left. I’d never been great at saying no to her, even less so since Zach died, and I was torn between being annoyed and feeling guilty.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard, unsure of how to respond. In the meantime, my phone began to rapid fire chime.
Great job, Ben! It looks awesome. Perfect color to bring 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 sent the link. It was one I’d already seen.
I started typing back. I’ve read it. And I’m not a complete hermit. In case you’ve missed it, the three of us talk almost every day, and I still keep up with my friends back home too. Please don’t worry about me. I’m doing okay. I’ve even made a few new friends out here.
The texts stopped. I waited for Mom’s third degree, but it didn’t come. Good. Hopefully I’d put off the threat of a visit for another few weeks by mention of new friends, though “friends” was definitely an exaggeration. Jack didn’t know who I really was, and I’d just met Ella.
My phone rang. Dad was FaceTiming me, which he never did alone. Looked like I didn’t escape anything after all.
I hit accept, and my parents’ familiar faces filled the screen.
Mom leaned in, eyes narrowing. “Who are these friends?” she asked, skipping right over hello.
“Jack lives up the hill from me,” I told her. “He’s in his mid-60s and has no idea who I am. It’s kind of a nice change, actually.”
“He isn’t one of those hillbilly rednecks, is he?”
I thought of Jack, his lack of a TV and a cellphone, the couple hundred pounds of meat in his basement freezers from animals he’d killed and butchered himself. I immediately decided against telling her any of this. “No, Mom. He’s totally normal.”
Her brows rose in question. “Is that it? I thought you said friends. As in plural.”
Dad’s hand came into view, covering their camera so that my screen went dark. “Honey, stop pestering him. 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 said.
I needed to put a stop to this, before I ended up more annoyed than I already was. “Uh, Dad? Your hand is covering the camera, not the microphone. I can hear everything you’re saying.”
He took it away, looking chagrined. “Oops. Sorry, Ben.”
Beside him, Mom’s expression was full of concern. She opened her mouth to likely begin berating or begging me, I didn’t have the patience to find out which.
“There’s a woman too,” I said, and immediately regretted it.
Dad’s brows climbed up his forehead. “Oh, really? She pretty?”
“Who cares if she’s pretty?” Mom said. “Is she one of those weirdo woodlanders? Or an instagroupie?”
I rubbed a hand over my face. “Mom, where are you even getting these phrases? No. She’s totally normal.”
Well, kind of normal. I thought of Ella’s wild outfit and special brand of humor.
“He’s smiling. Hani, why is he smiling? Are you lying to your mother, Benjamin?”
Uh-oh. She’d gone full Benjamin on me. “No, ma’am.”
“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 said, like she’d caught me in a lie.
“No, Mom, I swear. She owns Ella Jones Paperie. You can look her up online.”
She pointed a finger at me. “You stay right there!”
She exited screen right, leaving me and Dad alone.
“Soooo…how you been?” I asked him.
He leaned in close to the phone, whispering, his dark eyes large, “Your mother is becoming a handful. I think I may un-retire.”
I nearly choked on my surprised laughter. I smothered it a second later, when my mother crowded back in next to him. She had a tablet in one hand, the fingers of her other one flying over the screen.
“Oh, honey, look,” she said, pushing the tablet in front of my father.
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Well, that’s kind of charming. What a cute little fox.”
I smiled too, feeling both vindicated and relieved. “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 read through the rest of her tongue-in-cheek, and, okay, sometimes borderline offensive greeting cards.
I knew they’d found the one I asked them to search for when Dad threw his head back and barked a laugh.
Mom was 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 chorused.
“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 didn’t want to, she grinned. And then started to chuckle. “This still doesn’t prove that you know her,” she said when her laughter subsided. “You could have seen something in the local newspaper about her, for all we know.”
My amusement disappeared. Exasperation took its place. “Mom, when have I ever lied to you?”
Her expression darkened. “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 will that be?”
“Tomorrow,” I said.
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 caved like a house of cards. I really should have known better. She was like a dog with a bone when she worried about a loved one. She would not let this go. If I didn’t send her a picture tomorrow, she’d probably get on an airplane.
She grinned at me through the phone like a Cheshire cat. Like I’d played right into her hand. “Okay. Talk to you tomorrow. Love you!”
“Love you, Ben,” Dad said.
“Love you guys too,” I answered, tone clipped.
I started texting Dad the moment we hung up. 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 answered. I’ll do what I can. Go easy on your mom, though. We’re all she has left, 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. Now I felt like an asshole.
I strode into the kitchen and tossed my phone on the unfinished island. I was mad, at both myself and them. Nothing good ever comes from speaking from a place of anger. Better to cool down before responding. But seriously, I came out here for me. And now it was somehow more about my mother’s mental health than my own. She wasn’t the one who had to live with CTE!
I braced my knuckles on the plywood that served as my kitchen counter, bowed my head, and counted to ten, trying to regain some semblance of calm. That last thought wasn’t entirely fair, or true. Mom had already lost one son to CTE. If I was diagnosed, she’d have to watch me suffer from whatever symptoms manifested, all the while knowing that she and Dad were the ones to put us in football at an early age.
I picked up my phone. I’ll try to be more understanding, I told my father. It was the best I could manage.
Before Dad could respond, I flicked the phone to silent and went upstairs. My bedroom was 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, had a functioning toilet and shower.
The day he showed up had been 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. And then there was the grand finale, my hair, which I’d 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.
I might have gone a little too deep into my assumed identity, like an undercover cop that loses sight of where the line is. At one point, I even uttered, “Far out, man” in response to something the plumber said.
So, yeah, that happened. Maybe my isolation was getting to me a little more than I was 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.
I tugged off my shirt as I walked into my room and then chucked it into the hamper. The rest of my clothes followed. I replaced them with workout gear. The muscle in my back was still complaining, but I had some adrenaline left from my irritation that I needed to get rid of, and for me, the best way to do that had always been to sweat it out in the gym. Lifting weights centered me, grounded me, burned off my excess cortisol – the stress hormone – and replaced it with the good vibes of endorphins – the human body’s version of morphine.
I’d trimmed down since my football days, and it felt good. I no longer needed to pack the bulk on in order to pad myself against getting hit by what felt like a battering ram. Now I was lighter, leaner. I’d added more cardio and was surprised to find that I actually liked running. I used to hate sprints. And long distance? Man, forget about it. But it was different when you did it for yourself than when you were forced to by a mean-ass training coach with a bullhorn.
Now once I hit the two-mile mark on my treadmill and that runner’s high kicked in, my mind just sort of fuzzed out. It was a lot like meditation. I definitely understood how people got addicted to distance races.
Maybe once the snow melted I could ask Jack or Ella if there were any secluded trails I could run on. Safe, secluded trails. I’d like to avoid coming face to face with a bear, or a moose, for that matter. I saw one two months ago, walking through my backyard. 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.
All of my workout equipment was in the basement, one of the reasons it was the first part of the house to be finished. I turned on the sound system in the corner and then hopped on the treadmill, walking for five minutes to warm up and loosen the lingering tightness in my limbs from spending most of the day in a full crouch. After that I jogged for another twenty to get my heartrate going.
I spent the next hour in a circuit. It was shoulders and biceps day. I alternated from curls to presses to underhand pull ups and through about ten other exercises, working one group of muscles and then the next, pausing every six sets to jog in place or do a series of jumping jacks to keep my pulse up.
I was covered in sweat by the time I finished, lungs heaving like I’d run a marathon. I was exhausted, but I felt better. Calmer. Able to understand where my parents were coming from and admit that Mom might have been right about a couple of things.
The shower I took after my workout felt like a luxury. Reliable hot water had been a pipe dream – pun totally intended – before the plumber worked his magic. I spent 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 accented the midnight blue tiles I’d lined the stall with. I felt like I’d managed to keep the room from feeling too dark by boxing off the shower in glass, using large, sand-colored rectangular 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 rounded the room out. All in all, it had a modern, neutral feel that I wanted to carry throughout the rest of the house.
Eventually I forced myself from the steam of the shower stall and out into the cooler air beyond. I bundled up in sweats and a long-sleeved shirt, then headed back downstairs in search of my phone.
Ella’s number was taped to my fridge. Good thing I hadn’t put up a stink about taking it from Jack. It saved me the trouble of having to ask him for it and calling her up out of the blue.
I pulled it off the fridge and punched it into my phone.
Ella picked up on the very first ring. “Mom, for the love of God, keep me and Megan out of this. I don’t care what you caught Charlie looking at on his laptop. He’s nineteen. Boys that age are gross. Actually, 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.”
What the hell was she talking about? “Um…Ella?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and then, “This is not my mother. I see that now from the caller ID.”
I grinned. “No. Definitely not your mother.”
“Sorry, who is this?”
“Ben,” I said, flat-out refusing to say my full name on the off chance that I was on speaker and she wasn’t alone. Paranoid? Sure, just a little. I’ll own that.
“Hi, Stan,” she said, voice raised.
“No, Ben,” I told her, matching her elevated tone. We must have had a bad connection.
“Guys, it’s my friend Stan, I gotta take this,” she said, her voice a little muffled now.
She wasn’t alone after all.
There was another prolonged silence, and then what sounded like a door being closed.
“Okay, sorry. My sister and her wife are crashing at my place,” she said. “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.”
“Jack’s homebrew. You graciously shared the last of the oatmeal stouts with me,” I said.
“Right, sorry. Needed to make sure it wasn’t a reporter catfishing me or something.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but didn’t actually say anything. I was too caught off guard by her ingenuity and the lengths a woman I’d just met would go to protect my privacy.
“You still there?” she asked.
I snapped out of it. “Yeah, sorry. That was smart of you. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome!” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“Actually, this is going to seem really weird, but I have a huge favor to ask you.”
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.