I woke to the sound of the dogs whining. It was probably time for them to go out, but I was just so tired. And so warm. But not all that comfortable, I realized. There was a crick in my neck. The right side of my face felt like I was lying on a rack of pork ribs.
What the hell was this pillow made of, rocks? I punched it to try to smooth it out, and it moved in response, flinching away from me like it was alive.
I jerked upright, wide awake. A heavy blanket fell away to reveal the sight of Ben’s large body spread out beneath me. The flannel shirt he wore was rumpled. His feet hung a foot off the edge of his reclining seat. He cracked his eyes open and rubbed his ribs.
Ribs that I had just punched.
We must have fallen asleep watching A Christmas Story. The last thing I remembered was Ralphie and Randy being bullied by Grover Dill.
I looked up. The TV was off and the fire had burned down to ashes, but it was still dark outside. Fred and Sam pushed closer to me, sniffing and whining.
One second, boys. Emergency here.
The middle console with the folding table was back in the upright position, my butt having taken its place. Had I fallen asleep like this, or had my unconscious body inchwormed its way over here and draped itself half on top of Ben sometime during the night? I was pretty sure I’d remember this level of snuggling, but for the life of me, I couldn’t. I must have done it while sleeping.
My subconscious was a lustful, traitorous bitch.
“Good morning,” Ben said, voice low and gravelly.
I scooted away from him. “I just punched you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure I deserved it.”
“We fell asleep.”
He grinned. “You first.”
His grin gained a mocking edge. “Oh yeah. You woke the dogs up with it. I think they thought a bear was trying to break into the house. You quieted down once you decided I made a better pillow than the headrest, though.”
I threw off the blanket and leapt from the couch. My hamstring muscle cramped on landing and I almost toppled over sideways.
Ben sat up. “Are you okay?”
“The dogs! They have to go pee-poop.” I snapped my mouth closed, horrified that I’d let slip the stupid sing-song expression I used when I let them out – You guys have to go pee-poop? – and shambled my way toward the front door like an overripe zombie with rotleg.
“Ella Jones,” Ben said from behind me. “Are you embarrassed?”
“No!” I called over my shoulder as I fled.
His laughter followed me outside.
The dogs raced into the darkness. I shut the door behind me and walked from the spill of porchlight into the shadows at the edge of the deck. My palms hit the railing and I recoiled. It was freezing out, so cold that it felt like the wood had seared my skin. An image of Flick’s tongue stuck to that pole flashed through my mind.
I wrapped my arms around myself and stepped side to side in my thick woolen socks to minimize the danger of frostbite. I couldn’t go back in for my boots. Not yet. Maybe not ever. I’d seen a lot of car heist movies. Maybe I could hotwire the truck and peel out of there without ever having to see Ben again.
To answer his question: yes, I was embarrassed. I had been transmogrified from a human woman into a being made of humiliation and regret. So much for keeping my distance. So much for letting him decide things. He invited me over and I moved myself right in. Right on top of him, even.
The front door opened. I did my best to disappear into the darkness. I am night. You cannot see me, mortal.
Ben walked right up to me, deflecting my Jedi mind powers with an ease that made me fear he was a Sith Lord in disguise. He held out a heavy coat. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I took it and pulled it on. It was one of his and it absolutely swamped me. God, did it smell good. Like vetiver and sandalwood and frankincense.
“Ella, where are your boots?”
Who had night vision this good? What was he, a werewolf? “Uh…I must have left them inside.”
He went back in and grabbed them, and I awkwardly shoved my feet into them, cringing because my sore leg felt like it might snap in half mid-thigh.
“I’m sorry, Ella” he said.
I wanted to shout at him to stop saying my name. Hearing it on his lips made me want to rise up and steal it off of them with my own.
His tone was full of regret when he spoke again. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
He was too nice. I couldn’t do this. I was going to succumb beneath the weight of this crush. My gravestone would read: Beware! Kindness really does kill.
I took a deep, steadying breath. “You didn’t embarrass me. I embarrassed myself. I’m sorry I fell asleep. I didn’t plan to. And I’m sorry for, you know, the snoring. And the sleeping on you.” I cringed. “And the punching.”
My own night vision had adjusted enough that I saw him lean back against the railing. “I didn’t mind.” He looked down at me, white teeth flashing in the darkness. “Well, maybe I minded the punching a little.”
I didn’t respond. I was too busy having an epic internal battle. Did I cling to my shame, an emotion that was so rare for me that it almost felt alien? Or did I take this man at his word and believe that he wasn’t secretly annoyed that some strange woman had just couch-crashed in his super-secret bat cave?
“You want to stay for breakfast?” he asked. “It’s almost seven.”
Poof. All other thoughts disappeared in response to that declaration. That hadn’t been my eyes adjusting; it was the sun rising.
“In the morning?” I asked, voice shrill.
He frowned. “Yeah. Are you okay?”
“I stayed out all night and didn’t tell my sister.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t like making you lie for me.”
I shook my head. “I’ve decided not to lie. Turns out, I’m no good at it. I’m just going to tell her I was at a friend’s and fell asleep. If she gets pushy, I’ll go the “Where I was last night is none of your goddamn business” route. She always hated when Mom and Dad tried to police her whereabouts, and turnaround is fair play.”
“Then I’m sorry I put you in this position,” Ben said.
“You didn’t. I did. I made the choice to come over here, and to respect your privacy.”
“If it ever gets to the point that it bothers you, let me know. We can stop hanging out.”
“Does that mean you want to keep hanging out?” I asked, struggling to keep the unadulterated hope out of my tone.
“If you do,” he said, grinning. “It’s nice having a new friend.”
My heart swelled like the grinch after giving all the presents back. That was it. Put a fork in me. I was done. I’d passed the point of no return with this crush.
“I do,” I told him.
I heard a scrambling sound and turned to watch the dogs race back onto the porch. Sam barreled straight toward us and wedged his body between me and Ben’s legs, trembling slightly. You know it’s cold when Huskies shiver.
We cleaned them off and brought them back inside. They honed in on what remained of their rawhides while I went in search of my phone. I found it in the kitchen. The battery was almost dead. I unlocked the screen to see a text from Megan around midnight that read: Hope you just fell asleep at a friend’s and aren’t bleeding out on the side of the road somewhere. Not waiting up for you any longer.
Guess she hadn’t been that worried after all.
Hey, I texted her back. I did fall asleep at a friend’s. Just woke up. Sorry for not letting you know I’d be out all night. Be home in a bit.
She immediately texted back. Kind of nice to have the extended quiet last night. No offense. Glad you’re safe. Love you.
Love you too.
I set my phone down and looked up to see Ben’s back to me. His hair was wild from sleep. I had the strongest urge to reach out and tangle my fingers in it.
This was getting ridiculous.
I told myself, again, that he had come out here for peace and quiet, not to be the object of my lust. It helped clear the fog of hormones. The fog of sleep remained, and I was thrilled to see him pull a bag of coffee from an open cupboard and begin the motions of making a pot.
We had stayed up late playing cards and talking. And talking. And talking some more. About everything. From benign topics like where it was safe to trail run once the snow melted, to deeply serious discussions about race and politics like the one we’d had before starting cribbage.
We’d spoken like people who’d known each other for years and had moved past the fear of saying something that might lead to an argument or drive the other away. I’d never clicked with someone like this before, or so quickly, and I was starting to worry that this crush might quickly morph into something more if I wasn’t careful.
A sharp ringing jarred me from my thoughts: the sound of an incoming FaceTime call.
Ben scooped up his phone and answered it. “Hi, Mom.”
I caught a glimpse of her over his shoulder as he reached down to put the coffee bag away. She was as beautiful as the pictures. In her mid-fifties, she had dark hair, light golden skin with pink undertones, and pale green eyes that she had passed on to her son. Seeing them in another person’s face had taken me aback a little when we first spoke.
“Hi, Ben. I just want you to know that our lawyers are working together to –” Her eyes cut left. Our gazes met. I waved. “Is that Ella behind you?” she asked, her expression morphing into surprise.
Realization dawned on me. It wasn’t even seven in the morning and I was at his house. We both looked like we’d just woken up. Because we had.
Ben turned toward me in slow motion, his eyes wide, as if just now coming to the same conclusion that I had: this situation could be easily misconstrued.
Fuck, he mouthed.
Yes, that’s probably what she thinks, Ben.
“Why is Ella at your house at,” his mother paused, “six fifty-five in the morning?”
“She came over to drop off my Christmas present,” he answered, much better under pressure than I would be in his shoes.
“Hani, come say hi to Ella,” his mother called. There was something in her tone. She sounded a little smug.
“She still over there?” I heard his father say.
Sorry, Ben mouthed at me.
It’s fine, I mouthed back.
I hobbled over to him and then leaned against the cabinet so we were both in the camera frame. Looking back at us on the screen were his parents. It was easy to pick out the features he had inherited from them. His skin color was a mixture of both, several shades lighter than his father’s and darker than his mother’s. The shape of his eyes and their hue came from his mom. He got his wide nose and square jaw from his father. Eyebrows from Mom. Hair from Dad.
Hani’s eyes crinkled up at the corners as he smiled, just like Ben’s did. “He’s not holding you there against your will, is he?” he asked me.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I didn’t laugh, but said. I leaned closer to the phone and dropped my voice. “Send help.”
As I hoped, they lost it. God, these two were easy.
Ben assumed an exasperated expression. “Please don’t encourage her.”
His parents laughed even harder.
I looked up at him. Our eyes met and we grinned like co-conspirators.
His mother caught it. “I will gladly encourage anyone that can make you smile like that, Benny.”
Thanks to the screen in the corner of his phone, I got to watch a maniacal grin spread over my face in response. “Benny?”
“Don’t even think about it,” he told me.
My grin transformed into an expression of pure evil. It looked vaguely familiar. Right. Willow made this same face when something diabolical popped into her head. Now the troubling question: had I taught it to her, or had she taught it to me? I was a little worried it was the latter.
One day she would rule us all.
“Don’t tease him too much, Ella,” Ben’s mother said.
I raised my hand in an approximation of a salute. “Scouts honor.” The look on my face was a dead giveaway for how full of shit I was. I really needed to get better at mastering my expressions.
“We can talk about the lawyers later,” Hani said. “You two have fun with each other.” Just in case we missed the innuendo, he winked.
Ben quickly hung up.
“Well, they think we’re sleeping together,” he said, tossing his phone on the island and then turning away to check on the coffee.
I stared blindly at his back, mouth agape, unable to rid myself of the mental image that had popped into my mind in response to his words.
“Megan, can I talk to you?” I asked my sister several hours later.
Stacey had just gone to take a shower, much to my relief. I’d been waiting – impatiently – to talk to Megan alone since getting back from Ben’s, trying to do it in an organic way, so I didn’t offend Stacey. I didn’t care if Megan turned around and told her wife every word I was about to say, but part of this conversation might be awkward for Stacey to hear, and I didn’t want to subject her to that.
Megan muted the TV and turned toward me on the couch. “What’s up?”
I shot a look toward the bathroom and then scooted closer to her, lowering my voice. “You remember that roommate you had freshman year of college?”
She nodded. “Beth.”
“Were you in love with her?”
She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing me. “Yes.”
“But you two were really good friends.”
“How the hell did you manage that?”
I nodded. As much as she and I sometimes bickered, she was the only person in my life that I’d been able to have entirely frank conversations with. Stuff that I wouldn’t say to anyone else, and I doubted that she would either, maybe with the exception of Stacey. She was the one I talked to about losing my virginity. The one who threatened to kill the first boy who broke up with me.
“I managed it by fucking other people,” she told me.
Well, all right then. “Did that help?”
“You betcha. It helped me see that there were other fish in the sea. Queer women who I could have healthy relationships with, instead of an unhealthy one-sided obsession with the straightest woman to ever straight. Eventually, I was able to get over my romantic feelings for Beth and move on, without torching our friendship. We still keep in touch.”
“Damn it. That’s not really an option for me. There aren’t enough other people to sleep with up here. Well, ones that I would be interested in sleeping with, anyway. Because those that I would be, I already have.” All two of them.
Maybe I could lower my standards. My friend Jen said Nick Haskell had been pestering her about me a few weeks ago. So what if he was missing a few teeth?
“What’s going on?” Megan asked.
I sighed. “I have a massive crush on a friend that I think will only ever see me in a platonic way.”
“The mysterious Stan?”
I nodded. I didn’t bother telling her not to tell anyone else, because now that she knew how I really felt, she would never, ever do that.
“Well, shit,” she said. “Sorry for teasing you about him in front of everyone like a total asshole.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t know at the time.”
“Why do you think he doesn’t like you back?”
“Because he hasn’t so much as flirted with me or even looked at me with anything other than friendship. Also, he’s totally out of my league.”
She frowned. “Out of your league? Really? Since when do you have low self-esteem?”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. I guess I didn’t mean out of my league, I just meant that the world he comes from is so different than ours.”
The last woman he was associated with in the press was third in line for the throne of a European country. I had no idea if the rumors were true or not, but the point stood.
“What do you mean then?” Megan asked. “He from the south or something?”
“I can’t really get into it,” I told her. “Sorry.”
“Fine. Tell me some of his flaws.”
I sat there for a solid minute in silence.
Megan finally broke. “Seriously, Ella? The dude has nothing wrong with him?”
“No? At least nothing that I’ve seen so far?”
“Or are you just living that deep in crushville?”
“Okay, so say you break down and tell him how you feel. What do you think would happen?”
“I think he might want to stop hanging out. I don’t think he’s looking for anything other than friendship.”
“And how would that make you feel?”
“Like abject shit. The last thing I want to do is alienate him. He really seems like he needs a friend right now.”
“Good,” Megan said.
I stared at her. “Please elaborate on how abject shit is good.”
“Because that gives you something to focus on.”
“Yeah, so I’ve tried to focus on similar things when I’m around him, but every time I look at his face, I just -” I lowered my hands to either side of my hips and mimed my ovaries exploding.
Megan frowned. “What is that supposed to be?”
“All of the eggs getting released when I’m in his presence. He is the best-looking man I’ve seen in real life, by, like, a lot.”
“Is that the bias of your crush speaking?”
I shook my head. “Nope. If I showed a picture of him to anyone interested in men, they would try to lick the photograph.”
Megan stared at me. “Damn.”
“Welcome to my hell.”
She chewed on her lower lip for a second, the same way I did when I was deep in thought. Funny how alike we were in some ways, even though we weren’t related by blood. It lent credence to nurture over nature.
“I think you should hang out with him more,” she said.
“In a ploy to win him over with my stunning good looks and irresistible charm?”
She smiled. “There’s that self-esteem.”
She threw her hands up. “I am being serious. When I first met Stacey, it was a struggle to keep myself from mauling her in public.”
“Stacey is, admittedly, gorgeous, so I get it.”
“And I still think that, but the more we hung out, the less overwhelming being around her was.”
“Because you were mauling her in private?”
She grinned lasciviously. “Oh, I mauled her privates.”
“Gross,” I said, covering my ears for a second. “But not because gay. Because sister.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Think of it like music. You know how you do that annoying thing where when you hear a new song you really like, you play it on endless repeat for a week straight?”
“Yes,” I said, ignoring the jibe. Our rooms were right next to each other’s growing up. I could see now how that habit would be annoying.
“Why do you do that?” she asked.
“Because of what the music does to me. How the sounds sweep me off my feet and fill my head with images. Music to me is transportive. It makes me feel in color, if that makes any sense.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t, but that’s not the point. What happens if you listen to that song three months later? Do you still feel the same way you did that first week?”
I had to think about that for a minute. “No. Or if I do, it’s to a much lesser extent.”
“Maybe Stan is like music. The more you hang out with him, the less his physical beauty will overwhelm you. You’ll get used to it, like I did with Stacey. And in the interim, he might manifest a character flaw or two to distract you away from his seeming perfection.”
I stared at her. “That might actually work.”
She grinned. “Good.”
“But what if it doesn’t?”
Her expression fell. “Uh…call me and we can try to figure something else out?”
“Deal,” I told her.
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.