My older sister Jane glared at me. “Let me tell you a story. It starts like this,” she said. “‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for the megalomaniac four-year-old whose irresponsible aunt fed her twelve candy canes before dropping her off.”
I grinned, hoping to lighten the mood. “I don’t think that’s how it goes.”
She shook her head, black hair brushing her shoulders. “It does in this hellish version.”
Behind her, Willow, the niece I was an irresponsible aunt to, roared in jolly incoherence. I slanted my eyes toward her and nearly choked. She’d somehow managed to strip naked in the three minutes since we’d walked through the door, the light brown skin with golden undertones she inherited from Jane now on full display.
What was it with kids her age being allergic to clothing?
Jane caught my expression and turned to follow my gaze. Together, we watched Willow grab the end of the garland that adorned the staircase and take off at a dead sprint. The festive decor pulled loose with surprising violence. Twine snapped. Twigs splintered in half and scattered small, stabby pieces of bark all over the living room carpet.
“Sweet Jesus, no,” Jane said.
Willow’s long black hair whirled out behind her as she raced toward us. The greenery she clutched in her tyrannical little fist left a mess of pine needles and winterberries in her wake that would be a pain in the ass to clean up.
I was never going to live this down.
As she neared, I caught a familiar tune through the madness and realized that she wasn’t actually incoherent, but scream-singing a badly butchered version of a holiday classic.
“Jangly balls! Jangly balls!”
Oh, God. Where had she even heard that?
Jane and I reached for her as she ran past, but she managed to evade us, twisting and ducking like a running back at the peak of their game. Sensing freedom, she dropped the garland and fled down the hallway, her singing replaced by a sinister cackle that was unsettling coming from a four-year-old.
I turned back to my sister. “In my defense, I didn’t know she could reach the jar I hid the candy canes in.”
Jane pointed at me and opened her mouth, but before she could launch into what I’m sure would have been an epic telling off, a distant thud came from the back of the house. It sounded like Willow had literally just bounced off a wall.
“I will get you back for this,” Jane told me before hurrying off to save her sugar-addled daughter from herself.
“I’m sorry!” I called after her.
She flipped me the bird and disappeared down the hallway.
I sighed. What a disaster. I loved spending time with Willow and was usually pretty good with her. Today had been an off day. One I’d pay for. Knowing Jane, it would take me weeks to convince her to let me babysit again.
A pocket door slid open in my periphery. Cropped blonde hair peeked out from it, followed, slowly, by the head of my brother in law.
“Hey, Dave,” I said.
He glanced around the room like he was searching for threats. The lights from the nearby Christmas tree sparkled in the reflection of his black-framed glasses. His gaze landed on me, expression flat. “Go now, Ella. While you still can.”
Another thud echoed through the house, followed by Jane’s raised voice. Dave gave me a meaningful look, slid his office door closed, and disappeared from sight.
I muffled my laughter as I made my escape. Jane wouldn’t thank me for it right now, and I didn’t want to get Dave in trouble too.
Outside, the winter wind had whipped the freshly fallen snow into a flurry. It spiraled into the spill of fluorescent white shining from the rear floodlights and coalesced into the arctic version of a dust devil. The direction of the breeze shifted, and the mini snow tornado split in two. For a brief moment, it was like I walked past a pair of enchanted winter sprites twining around each other at an Antarctician ball. I could almost hear Jack Frost playing the ice pipes in the distance as he urged them on.
A heartbeat later, the wind died down and they fell back to the ground, inanimate once more.
I smiled as my boots crunched over the freshly shoveled walkway. Evergreens crowded the driveway, their boughs weighed down by today’s snowfall. The steam from my breath hung in front of my face before drifting up and away. I tilted my head back to watch it dissipate. Above me, stars ripped through the velvety expanse of the night sky like a shotgun blast.
I loved winter. It was my favorite season. A time to gather, to hunker down with friends and family while storms raged outside. Afterward, everything was so clean and bright. Shiny and new. It was easy to ignore, if only for a little while, all the troubles of the world.
The sound of muted whining brought me back to myself. I’d left my truck idling in the driveway. Two dark blobs pressed against the driver’s side window. I moved closer, and the snouts those blobs were attached to came into focus. My rescue Huskies, Fred and Sam, stared at me from the other side of the glass.
I waved my arms at them. “Get your drooly noses off the window.”
Sam yipped in response, which taunted a bark out of Fred, which Sam had to answer. By the time I reached the vehicle, they were howling.
I wrenched open the door. “Would you two be quiet? You’re going to -”
A deep, keening bay rose to answer them from far too close.
I froze, the hair on the back of my neck standing on end.
Sam and Fred shared a panicked look before racing into the safety of the backseat, where they huddled down like a pair of rabbits in a thicket.
More howls joined the first, forming an unholy chorus. Low growls punched through the cacophony. A higher pitched yelp rang out like some sort of demonic soprano.
My skin prickled in goosebumps that had nothing to do with the cold. The surrounding woods were carpeted with deep snow, causing sound waves to diffract in a way that made it difficult to judge the distance of the noises. I couldn’t tell if the animals making them were a mile away or about to burst through the nearest tree line and rush at me in a seething frenzy of fur and teeth.
The howls broke off, a low, mournful note lingering in the air long after the others fell away.
“It’s just coy dogs,” I told Fred and Sam.
They didn’t look convinced.
I climbed into the truck and shut the door. My thick gloves made it impossible to do much else, so I yanked one off with my teeth, dug my phone out of my heavy jacket, and dialed Dave’s number.
“Yo,” he said by way of greeting.
“Did you hear that?”
“Your dogs? Or the wolves?”
I sucked in a breath. “They’re back?”
“The wolves that the US Fish and Wildlife Service insists we don’t have in Maine? Yeah, they’re back. A friend of mine said they were sighted ranging down from Canada about a week ago.”
“Be careful if you come outside. They sounded close.”
“Eh. Sounds are tricky this time of year.”
“Still,” I said, thinking of Willow.
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell Jane. We’ll be careful.”
I put the truck into reverse after we hung up and backed out of their long driveway. The clock on my dash read 6:15. It was a Friday night and I was a single twenty-three-year-old. If I lived anywhere else in the country, I could be getting ready to go out with friends or swiping right on dating apps. There were fewer options for fun in the northern reaches of Maine, and the thought of eating another dinner alone with my pets sounded a little too depressing right now.
I pulled out onto the road and hit the phone button on my steering wheel. “Call Jack Hundel.”
A gruff male voice came through the speakers after the third ring. “Y’ello there, Ella.”
One of the dogs let out a low woof from behind me.
“You got the boys with you?” Jack’s tone changed into the higher register with a slightly hysterical edge that all canine lovers seem to favor when speaking to their four-legged friends. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s the best boy? Is it you, Fred?” In response, Fred leapt into the front seat and started jump-prancing as he barked. “Or is it you, Sammy?” Sam, not to be upstaged, started howling again. Right behind my ear.
I ducked away from him. “Jack, cut it out. They’re not buckled in. If you rile them up any more, they’ll wreck the truck.”
He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Whatcha up to, kiddo?”
“I just dropped Willow off and was thinking of swinging by before I head home.”
“Sure, come on over. I got half a chicken in the oven and just cracked open a beer.”
“Homebrew?” I asked, thinking of the delicious dark ale I’d had the last time I dropped by.
“Any oatmeal stout left?”
“Two. I’ll save ‘em for ya.”
“Thanks, Jack. See you in a few,” I said before hanging up.
A four-way stop marked the end of Dave and Jane’s street. I paused there and put the truck into park, then ushered Fred into the backseat and buckled both of the dogs in. The roads were a little rough out by Jack’s, and I didn’t want to risk them getting hurt if I slid into a snowbank. They whined at the constraints at first, but settled down once we got closer to town and they had more to look at out of the windows.
The one set of lights in what passed as the downtown area were red when I reached them. Because of course they were. Three cars sat ahead of me waiting for them to turn green.
I eased to a stop at the end of the line. “Can you believe this traffic?”
Fred and Sam both yipped in response.
I reached into the plastic container in my cup holder and dug out a few treats for them as a reward. Yes, I had trained them to bark in response to that exact question. And yes, I still laughed every time. You have to find creative ways to keep yourself entertained in rural areas.
The light turned green. In just a few miles we were back in the woods, starting the long climb into the foothills. Jack’s place was on the opposite side of the valley as my sister’s. He lived close to the top of a hill about twelve feet shy of mountain status. The most direct road was so steep that I wouldn’t risk taking it in this weather. This soon after a snowfall, you had to begin the ascent going about sixty if you had any hope of keeping enough momentum going to get to the top.
I hadn’t been driving fast enough the last time I attempted it and the tires had lost their grip halfway up the hill. Thank God for the driveway I had just passed and my years of experience on ice-slicked roads. When the truck had started to slide, I’d yanked the transmission into reverse, slung my arm over the seat, and turned almost completely around to watch the driveway coming back toward me. Right as the tailgate reached it, I’d cranked the wheel and skated backward into it like a champ, and then put the truck into gear and carefully made my way back down the hill before taking the long way around.
To anyone watching, I would have looked like a demolition derby queen with nerves of steel, but the truth is I’d been terrified. My hands shook for nearly an hour after, and I’d stayed far away from that road in bad weather ever since.
Taking the back way added another ten minutes to the trip. I didn’t mind; I wasn’t in a rush. Plus, the views were nicer along this route, especially after a storm. Two-hundred-year-old stone fences marked the property lines of the houses. Here and there a merry spill of golden light shone through the forest, offering a brief glimpse of a log cabin or an A-frame in a clearing beyond.
I caught a glimpse of twinkling Christmas lights down a long driveway and had a brief flashback to a snowball fight I’d had there as a kid. The Masons owned it then. They’d sold the place to the Andrews when I was in middle school and moved to New Hampshire in search of better jobs.
That was a common theme in my area. People moved away to find jobs, or go to school, or to get away from the suffocating monotony of small-town life. Few ever returned, and our population was a dying one as a result.
The truck’s engine whined as I navigated switchback after switchback on the climb up. Soon even those brief glimpses of homesteads fell away. Pine trees replaced oaks as I neared the top of the hill, butting right against the road so that their branches crowded out the star-strewn sky and dropped clumps of snow on the roof of the cab.
The road opened up again when I crested the summit, and I slowed the truck to a near crawl to take in the dizzying view. Mountains loomed in the distance, their jagged outlines only visible because of the absence of stars. Resting far below them on the valley floor was the town. Its lights glimmered like the swirling mass of some small galaxy, the pinpricks of white that spread out from it the planets it had pulled into its orbit.
I brought my focus back to the road and shifted into four-wheel low to begin the descent. Jack’s was the first driveway on the right. There weren’t any streetlights here, so I looked for the red reflector on his mailbox.
The dogs got antsy when I turned off the road. We were at Jack’s, and that meant bear hugs and dog treats were about to happen. Fred pulled at his harness. Sam whined as he strained to look out the front window.
“I got it, I got it. Just hold on,” I told them. “And don’t even think about howling out here.”
God only knew what might answer if they did. This side of the valley bordered the wilderness. Like, no one lives beyond this point, you will die if you don’t know what you’re doing out there, wilderness.
Aroostook County, Maine is the largest east of the Mississippi, with over four million acres of mountains, trees, and waterways. Beyond the edge of these foothills, there was nothing but rugged, mostly impassable terrain dissected by roaring rivers and populated with coyotes, moose, fishers, bears – who were thankfully fast asleep in their dens – wolves, and probably, though the US Fish and Wildlife Service would deny it, mountain lions.
With the thought of wolves still plaguing me, I drove slowly, searching the tree line on either side of the truck for the tell-tale reflection of eyes. Jack’s driveway was unpaved, and thanks to my glacial pace, I gave him plenty of time to hear me coming.
It was no surprise to see him on the porch when I pulled up. He was in his mid-sixties, but still stood ramrod straight, with broad shoulders, salt and pepper hair, and perpetually sun-darkened skin from long days spent working his land. The few wrinkles he had were clustered around his eyes and mouth, a dead giveaway for how much he smiled.
He looked like an instafamous hipster grandpa. One that could out bench press men half his age. The women of our small town, many much younger than him, considered Jack to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the area. I knew him well enough to say that those women would forever be disappointed. Jack had loved his late wife in a way that would make any other relationship pale in comparison. She’d died the same year as my grandfather; the year Jack would tell you was easily the worst of his life.
When I was younger, I’d called him Uncle Jack, though he was more of a great uncle. Once removed. I think. His father had been married to my grandfather’s mother for a few years, so whatever that would make him. Ex-great uncle, maybe?
Their parents’ marriage hadn’t stuck it out, but even though they were over a decade apart in age, Jack and my grandfather’s brotherly relationship had endured the split. Jack had been a constant fixture in my life because of it. After my grandfather’s death, I spent a lot of time on this hill with him and his wife, Renee, who had already accepted the finality of her cancer diagnosis and had given up fighting it.
I practically moved in after she passed, Jack and I spending our days felling trees, clearing a swath of forest beyond his home for planting, coaxing tillable soil out of the rocky terrain, and basically working ourselves to the bone to keep from succumbing to grief. Now, three years later, I still came over at least once a week.
Jack yanked open the passenger door as I rolled to a stop. “Where are my boys?”
The dogs barked like mad, nearly deafening me in the enclosed space of the cab. I turned the truck off and freed them from their harnesses, and they shot out of the backseat to race circles around him.
“Nice to see you too, Jack!” I yelled over the racket.
He totally ignored me. “Do you want some…TREATS?”
The dogs fell over each other in their excitement.
I rolled my eyes and went around to the passenger side to join the fray. Jack and I were just pulling apart from a hug when a set of lights flashed through the trees, followed by the sound of tires crunching over gravel.
“That’ll be Ben,” Jack said. “New neighbor just down the hill. He bought the old Reynolds farmstead and is fixing it up. He’s from out west and doesn’t know anyone, so I figured I’d invite him over to meet you. You’re close in age. Maybe you can introduce him to the other youngins in town.”
I glanced toward the vehicle – a lifted Jeep – as it rolled to a stop and the lights cut out. “Sure. They could use some fresh meat. Gossip is running dry with everyone shut up from the storms.”
Jack snorted. “Well, go easy on him. Like I said, he’s new, and not used to small town life. I think you’ll like him, though. He’s artsy-fartsy like yourself.”
“Is he, now?”
To Jack, artsy-fartsy could mean a couple of things: Ben was either an artist or a craftsman, or identified as a liberal.
Jack reached down to ruffle Sam’s ears. “Why don’t you wait here and introduce yourself? I’ll go get these monsters a treat and try to calm them down so they don’t maul the poor bastard as soon as they see him.”
It was my turn to snort. “Good luck with that.”
He disappeared inside the house with the dogs while I readied myself to play the part of Ambassador to the Youngins. I even prepared a brief speech: “Hi, I’m Ella. Welcome to the middle of absolutely nowhere. Next town is forty minutes thataway. Good news! They have a Walmart there. Oh, and did I mention that I’m one of only fifteen people near your approximate age in this area? Hope you like us, otherwise you’re shit out of luck.”
The vehicle door opened, and my nice, witty speech went up in flames, because a very broad shadow stepped out from it. Not down from it, like any normal-sized human would from a jacked-upped four-by-four, out from it. Like the Jeep had to be lifted to reach a height more comfortable for the driver.
He shut the door and ambled into the halo of golden porchlight, and my brain short-circuited for a second. Because I knew who he was: Benjamin Kakoa. Benjamin freaking Kakoa. Walking up to me. In my once-removed (possibly?) great uncle’s driveway.
To be clear, I didn’t know him, know him. I just recognized his face. And his hair. From television. And print ads. And the packaging my running shoes came in. Because he was a famous person. A very famous person.
Two years ago, he’d starred in sports gear commercials and repped luxury watch brands and had even been plastered across magazine pages in shampoo ads. He’d been one of the biggest football stars in the country. And then his older brother, Zach Kakoa, also a football pro, had suffered a seizure while home visiting family in their native Hawaii. He’d been driving at the time. With his wife and son in the car. Tragically, all three had succumbed to their injuries.
Their deaths had shocked the sporting world, but that was nothing compared to what followed. During Zach’s autopsy, the coroner found significant scarring from past brain injuries, caused by his years of contact on the field. It was ruled that these traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) had been the cause of the seizure.
Ben had quit the US Football League (USFL) the day the findings were released. He was one of many young men who realized the money they were being paid wasn’t worth the true cost to themselves. But that wasn’t all Ben had done. He became a vocal advocate for better safety gear in football, tougher rules that would help protect the players, and higher fines for illegal, dangerous tackles.
Instead of appearing in commercials for luxury brands, he now starred in PSAs paid for by his parents, who were the beneficiaries of Zach’s life insurance policy. They had joined the fight alongside Ben, dedicating Zach’s money to furthering the scientific study of brain injuries.
What the hell was he doing in East Nowhere, Maine?
He strode closer, and my brain short-circuited for an entirely different reason this time, because, and I didn’t know how it was possible, he was somehow better looking in real life. I mean, he looked like a football player, sure – well over six feet tall, abnormally wide shoulders, long, heavily muscled arms and legs, an obscenely broad chest – but his face.
It was his face that landed him those advertising contracts. His father was of Hawaiian and Samoan descent and his mother was Swedish and Brazilian. He had light brown skin, pale green eyes, impeccable bone structure, arched brows, and a thick head of riotous curls that fell to his shoulders. In all the pictures and videos I’d seen him in, his face had been shaved clean. He wore a short, neatly trimmed beard now.
I needed to snap out of it and greet him, but the sight of him made me worry that if I opened my mouth, all that would come out of it was a lust-filled, “Hrrrrrrnnnnnn.” It had been way too long since I’d had sex, and I was starting to develop some troubling symptoms of my unintended abstinence.
No way in hell could I introduce him to anyone in town. First off, the last thing this place needed was to be invaded by a horde of paparazzi. Secondly, the women would murder each other over him.
Ben extended a hand toward me. “Hi. You’re Ella, right? Jack’s told me all about you.” His voice was also different from the videos: smoother, less stilted, maybe even a little deeper.
I put my hand in his. He had a firm grip, and though he was no doubt trying to be gentle, my knuckle joints still ground together. “I am,” I told him. “And you must be the artsy-fartsy Ben that Jack said I would get along with.”
He released my hand and glanced toward the house. “Artsy-fartsy, huh?”
“I’m guessing you don’t consider yourself an artist?”
“I’m getting pretty good at woodworking, does that count?” he asked. A smile spread over his full lips as he turned back to me.
I forgot my own name for a second, staring up at him.
Brain, I know this is hard right now, but I need you to please ignore how handsome this man is and just do your damn job and process the question he asked me.
Belatedly, it complied with my pleading.
“Hmm…it might,” I said. “Tell me, have you ever confessed a deep, undying love for Barack Obama when in Jack’s company?”
He frowned a little in response. “I don’t think so?”
“A deep, undying love for labor unions?”
His frown deepened. “Huh?”
“Told him you even once voted democrat?”
I tapped my chin with a gloved finger. “The mystery deepens.”
“Uh…” He seemed unsettled, not being in on the joke. I liked that. It put us on a more equal footing.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ben. I apologize in advance for my mongrel dogs. They lose their minds around new people.”
With that, I led him up the porch stairs and into the house.
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.