“‘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,” my older sister, Jane, says as she stares at me, deadpan.
I shift uncomfortably beneath the weight of her glare. “I don’t think that’s how the poem goes.”
“It does in this hellish version,” she answers, dark eyes menacing in the glow from the fire.
Behind her, her daughter, Willow, the niece I’m an irresponsible aunt to, begins to roar in jolly incoherence. I slant my eyes toward her and nearly choke. The light brown skin with golden undertones that she inherited from Jane is on full display, because, somehow, in the three minutes since we walked through the front door, she’s managed to strip off all her clothes.
Jane catches my expression and turns to follow my gaze. Together, we watch in horror as Willow grabs the end of the garland adorning the staircase and takes off at a dead sprint. It pulls loose with surprising violence, twine snapping, twigs splintering as they scatter small, stabby pieces of bark throughout living room.
Willow’s black hair whirls out behind her in a breeze of her own making as she races toward us, the greenery she clutches in her tyrannical little fist leaving a trail of pine needles and winterberries in her wake. As she passes, I catch a familiar tune through the madness and realize that she’s not actually incoherent, but scream-singing a garbled, manic version of Jingle Bells.
I shift my focus back to my irate sister. “In my defense, I didn’t know she could reach the jar I hid the candy canes in.”
Jane points a finger at me and opens her mouth to respond, but before she can launch into what I’m sure would be an epic telling off, a distant thud echoes from where Willow disappeared down the hallway. It sounds like she literally just bounced off of a wall.
“I will get you back for this,” Jane tells me before hurrying off to save her sugar-addled daughter from herself.
“I’m sorry!” I call after her.
She either doesn’t hear me, or ignores me, because there’s no response.
I sigh after she rounds the corner of the hallway and disappears from sight. I love spending time with Willow, and I’m usually pretty good with her. Today was an off day. One I’ll pay for. Knowing Jane, it’ll take me weeks to convince her to let me babysit again. I guess I’ll have to make due with supervised visits until then, and try to be on my best, most adultish behavior.
Dave, my sister’s husband, leans around the corner of his open office door, making me jump. I didn’t even know he was home.
“Christ, you scared me,” I say, hand over my now racing heart.
The lights from the nearby Christmas tree turn his sandy hair amber and sparkle in the reflection of his black-framed glasses.
His voice is mock-hoarse when he speaks, his dry sense of humor ever apparent. “Go now. While you still can.”
Another thud echoes from a back room, followed by the sound of Jane’s raised voice. Dave, expression gaunt, slides his office door closed and disappears from sight.
I muffle my laughter as I make my escape. My sister won’t thank me for it right now, and I don’t want to get Dave in trouble too.
Outside, the winter wind whips the snow into a flurry that spirals and dances through the spill of fluorescent white shining down from the rear floodlights. The direction of the breeze shifts, and the mini snow tornado splits in two. For a brief moment, it’s as if I’m walking past a pair of enchanted winter sprites twining around each other at an Antarctician ball. I can almost hear Jack Frost playing the ice pipes in the distance as he urges them on. A heartbeat later, the wind dies down, and they fall back to the ground, inanimate once more.
I smile to myself as my boots crunch over the freshly shoveled path. Each time I exhale, the steam from my breath curls out and away, and then up, up, up. I tilt my head back to watch it dissipate, but am immediately distracted by the sight of the night sky, its velvety expanse of darkness shot through with a brilliant riot of starlight.
I love winter. It’s my favorite season. A time to gather, to hunker down with friends and family while storms rage outside. Afterward, everything is so clean and bright. Shiny and new. It’s easy to ignore, if only for a little while, all the troubles of the world.
A soft, muffled whining brings me back to myself. I glance toward my truck, which I’d left idling in the driveway. At first, all I can make out are two dark blobs pressed against the driver’s side window, but as I move closer, the snouts those blobs are attached to come into finer focus and I see my rescue Huskies giving me desperately relieved looks from the other side of the glass, as though they had feared that me being out of their sight for five solid minutes meant that I had left them forever.
“Sam, Fred, get your drooly noses off the window,” I whine back at them.
Sam yips in response, which taunts a bark out of Fred, which Sam has to answer. By the time I reach the vehicle, they have each other so worked up that they begin to full-on howl.
“Would you two be quiet,” I say, wrenching the door open. “You’re going to -”
Somewhere off in the distance, further up in the foothills of the mountains that ring this alpine valley, a chorus of howls rise up in answer, a deep, keening bay that sounds downright primeval lingering even after the rest have fallen silent.
I freeze, the hair on the back of my neck pricking in response. Sam and Fred share a panicked look before racing into the safety of the back seat, where they huddle down like a pair of rabbits in a thicket.
“It’s just coy dogs,” I tell them. And myself.
Still, that one, prolonged howl…
Once I’m safely ensconced in the truck with the doors locked – you know, on the off chance that wolves know how to lift handles – I yank off a glove with my teeth, dig my cell phone out of my jacket pocket, and dial Dave’s number.
“Yo,” he says by way of greeting.
“Hey, did you hear that?” I ask.
“Your dogs? Or the frigging wolves?”
I exhale heavily. “They’re back?”
“The wolves that the US Fish and Wildlife service insists we don’t have in Maine? Yeah, a ranger friend of mine said they were sighted headed down from Canada about a week ago.”
“Be careful if you come outside,” I tell him. “They sounded close.”
Dave seems nonplussed. “Eh. Sounds are tricky this time of year.”
He has a point. With the leaves gone from the deciduous trees and the snow clinging to the conifers, sound carries strangely on air so thin and empty.
“Still,” I say, thinking of Willow.
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell Jane. We’ll be careful,” Dave responds.
After we hang up, I put the truck into four-wheel and back out of their long driveway. The clock on my dash reads 6:15. I could go home and make myself some dinner, but it’s Friday night, and having dinner with my pets in my cabin, while cozy, sounds far too tame for a highly eligible twenty-three-year-old bachelorette like myself.
I pull out onto the road, put the truck in drive, and then hit the media button on my steering wheel and use the mobile command to dial.
A gruff male voice comes through the speakers after the third ring. “Y’ello there, Ella.”
The dogs immediately start barking in response.
“You got the boys with you?” he says. Then his tone changes 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 leaps into the front seat and starts jump-prancing as he barks, to show that yes, he is indeed the goodest boy to ever good.
“Or is it you, Sammy?” he asks.
Sam, not to be upstaged, starts howling again. Right behind my ear.
“Jack, cut it out,” I say, ducking away from Sam. “They’re not buckled in. If you rile them up anymore, they’ll wreck the truck.”
Jack clears his throat, sounding chagrined. “Sorry. Whatcha up to, kiddo?”
“Oh, just seeing if a handsome gentleman like yourself would like to have a drink or two.”
“Sure, come on over. Just cracked one open.”
“Homebrew?” I ask, thinking of the delicious dark beer I had the last time I dropped by.
“Got any of the oatmeal stout left?”
“Two. I’ll save ‘em for ya.”
“Thanks, Jack. See you in a few,” I say before hanging up.
There’s a four-way stop at the end of Dave and Jane’s street. I pause there and put the truck into park, then usher Fred back into the rear seat and buckle both of the dogs in. The roads are a little rough out by Jack’s, and I don’t want to risk them getting hurt if I end up sliding into a snowbank. They whine at the constraints at first, but then settle down once we get closer to town and they have more to look at out of the back windows.
The one set of lights in what passes as the downtown area are red when I reach them. Because of course they are. Three cars sit ahead of me waiting for them to turn green. I ease to a stop at the end of the line and meet Fred’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Can you believe this traffic?” I ask, over-emphasizing the last word.
He and Sam both yip, as if in total agreement. Yes, I did train them to do that in response to that exact question. And yes, I still laugh every time. You have to find creative ways to keep yourself entertained in an area this rural.
The lights change, and in just a few miles we’re back in the woods, starting the long climb up into the foothills. Jack’s place is on the opposite side of the valley as my sister’s. The hill he lives close to the top of is about twelve feet shy of being a mountain, and the most direct road is so steep that I won’t risk taking it in this weather. So soon after a snowfall, you have to begin the ascent going about sixty if you have any hope of keeping enough momentum going to get to the top.
The last time I attempted it, I hadn’t been driving fast enough 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 driving on ice-slicked roads. When the truck had started to slide backward, 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, then put the truck into drive and carefully made my way back down the hill before taking the long way around.
To anyone watching, I would have looked like a car derby queen with nerves of steel, but the truth is I was terrified. My hands shook for nearly an hour afterward, and I’ve stayed far away from that road in bad weather ever since.
Taking the back way adds another ten minutes to the trip, but I’m not in a rush. Plus, the views are prettier along this route, especially after a storm. The houses that perch on the sides of these hills are few and far between, but it’s easy to find their property lines thanks to the two-hundred-year-old stone fences that separate them.
Here and there a merry spill of golden light can be seen through the forest, marking a log cabin or an A-frame that stands in a clearing beyond. I catch a glimpse of twinkling Christmas lights down a long driveway and have a brief flashback to a snowball fight I had with the kids who lived there when I was younger: the Masons. Their parents sold the place to the Andrews a few years back and moved to New Hampshire in search of better jobs.
Next, I pass the driveway of Dan and Sara Hobbard. Followed by the Perkinson’s. I know the names on every mailbox without having to look at them. Each house triggers a memory: I played with their nieces and nephews as a child, or dated their son in high school, or smoked pot for the first time with their brother. For as many memories as I have of these people, they in turn have memories of me.
That’s life in a small town. Some chafe at the thought of knowing everyone and everyone knowing them in return. And their business. Younger people especially seem to struggle with it, which is why there are so few of us around. Most of my high school classmates packed up and left to get away from the gossip, or to go to college. Few returned, leaving the older generation behind to hold down the fort.
Our population is a dying one as a result.
The truck’s engine growls out through the night as I navigate switchback after switchback on the climb up. Soon, even those brief glimpses of homesteads fall away. Pine trees replace oaks as I near the top of the hill, butting right up against the road so that their boughs crowd out the star-strewn night sky and drop clumps of snow on the roof of the cab as I pass beneath them.
The road doesn’t open up again until I crest the summit. I slow the truck to a near crawl when I reach it so I can take in the dizzying view. Spread out below me is the entirety of the valley, cloaked in the darkness of night.
I experience a momentary wave of vertigo, where the sky and the earth seem to merge. Resting in the very center of the valley floor is the town, its distant lights twinkling like the swirling mass of some small galaxy, all of the pinpricks of white that spread out from it like the stars it has pulled into its orbit.
I blink my eyes, shake my head to clear it, and bring my focus back to the road in front of me as I shift into four-wheel low and begin the descent down the hill. Jack’s is the first driveway I come to, and as soon as I turn into it, the dogs get antsy. They’re smarter than most people give them credit for, and I reckon they know where we are, and therefore realize that when they get out of the truck, they’ll be greeted with bear hugs and dog treats.
“I got it, I got it. Just hold on,” I tell them as their whines rise in volume. “And don’t you even think about howling out here.”
God only knows what might answer if they do. This side of the valley borders the wilderness. Like, legit, no one lives beyond this point, you will die if you don’t know what you’re doing out here, wilderness.
Aroostook County, Maine is the largest east of the Mississippi, with over five million acres of mountains, trees, and waterways. Beyond the edge of these foothills, there’s nothing but rugged, mostly impassible terrain dissected by roaring rivers and populated with coyotes, moose, fishers, bears – who are thankfully fast asleep in their dens right now – wolves, and probably, though the US Fish and Wildlife services will deny it, mountain lions.
With the thought of wolves still plaguing me, I drive slowly, searching the tree line on either side of the truck for the tell-tale reflection of eyes. Times like this, I wish Jack’s driveway was shorter.
People in this area never speak about driveway length in terms of feet or meters or miles. They speak strictly in the measure of telephone poles. “I’m three telephone poles deep in the trees,” is a common saying. That’s because unless you live off the grid, you have to pay to get power to your house, and with poles costing $1500 a pop, most people are only willing to put three in the ground.
It’s a good number, we’ve found. It sets you far enough back from the road that no one can see your house during the day, you won’t hear anyone driving past, and lastly, but most importantly, because no one paves their driveways here, it gives you plenty of time to hear someone’s tires crunching toward you.
Jack’s house is five telephone poles deep, so it’s no surprise that by the time I finally reach the end of his driveway, he’s standing on the front porch waving a greeting. He’s in his mid-sixties, but still stands ramrod straight, with broad shoulders, thick, salt and pepper flaked hair, and perpetually sun-darkened skin from long days spent working his land. The few wrinkles he has are clustered around his eyes and mouth, a dead giveaway for how much he smiles.
He looks like some sort of instafamous hipster grandpa, one that can probably out bench press men half his age. The women of our small town, many notably younger than he is, consider him to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the area, but I know him well enough to safely say that those women will forever be disappointed. Jack loved his late wife in a way that would make any other relationship pale in comparison.
She died the same year as my grandfather. The year Jack will tell you was easily the worst of his life. Something we share in common.
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? I really should ask someone who knows about these things.
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 endured the split. Jack has 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 at the time had already accepted the finality of her cancer diagnosis and had given up fighting it. When she passed, I practically moved in, Jack and I spending our days felling trees, clearing a swath of forest beyond their 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 come over at least once a week.
Jack yanks open the passenger door just as I turn the truck off. “Where are my boys?”
The dogs, like always, go nuts in response. As soon as they’re free from their harnesses, they’re out of the door and racing circles around him.
“Yeah, nice to see you too, Jack!” I call over their barking.
“Do you want soooooome…TREATS?” he asks them, totally ignoring me.
I shut my door and go around to the passenger side to join the fray. Jack and I are just pulling apart from our hug of greeting when a set of lights flashes through the trees, followed by the sound of tires crunching on snow.
“That’ll be Ben,” Jack tells me. “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 turn toward the vehicle – a lifted Jeep – as it rolls 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 snorts in response. “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?” I ask, intrigued. To Jack, artsy-fartsy could mean one of a few things: Ben is either an artist or craftsman, is part of the LGBTQ+ community, or identifies as a liberal.
Beside me, Jack leans down and ruffles 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’s my turn to snort. “Good luck with that. They’ll probably try to attacklick him no matter what you do.”
Only the repeated promise of treats aids him in leading the dogs away from the enticing mystery of the unknown car. Once he disappears inside, I turn back toward the Jeep and ready myself to play the part of Ambassador to the Youngins, which will likely consist of a brief speech along the lines of, “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 opens, and my nice, witty speech evaporates, because out from the Jeep steps a very broad shadow. 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 up to reach a height more comfortable for the driver.
He ambles into the halo of golden porchlight, and my brain sort of short-circuits for a second. Because I know who he is: Benjamin Kakoa. Benjamin freaking Kakoa. Walking up to me. In my once-removed (possibly?) great uncle’s driveway.
To be clear, I don’t know him, know him, I just recognize his face. And his hair. From television. And print ads. And the packaging my running shoes came in. Because he is a famous person. A very famous person.
Two years ago, he had been starring in sports gear commercials and repping luxury watch brands and was even plastered across magazine pages in shampoo adds. He was one of the biggest football stars in the country. And then his older brother, Zach Kakoa, also a football pro, 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 entire sporting world, but that was nothing compared to what was to follow. 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 quit the US Football League (USFL) the day the report was 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 did. 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 stars in PSAs paid for by his parents, who were the beneficiaries of Zach’s life insurance policy. They joined the fight right alongside Ben, dedicating Zach’s money to furthering the scientific study of brain injuries and what could be done to protect against them.
What the hell is he doing in East Nowhere, Maine?
He strides closer to me, and my brain short-circuits for an entirely different reason this time, because, and I don’t even know how it’s possible, he’s somehow better looking in real life. I mean, he looks 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’s his face that landed him those advertisements. His father is of Hawaiian and Samoan descent, and his mother is Swedish and Brazilian. He’s basically the male equivalent of a super model: dark skin, pale green eyes, arched brows, and a thick head of riotous curls that he’s wearing pulled back in a bun. In all the pictures and videos I’ve seen him in, his face was clean shaven. He has a short, neatly trimmed beard now.
I need to snap out of it and greet him, but the sight of him has left me worried that if I open my mouth, all that will come out of it is a grotesquely lust-filled “Hrrrrrrnnnnnn.”
No way in hell am I introducing him to anyone in town. First off, the last thing this place needs is to be invaded by a horde of paparazzi. Secondly, the women would murder each other over him.
An inappropriate grin tugs at the corner of my mouth in response to this realization, because actually, that could be pretty entertaining to watch. In a macabre kind of way.
Don’t judge me, it gets really boring here in the winter.
“Hi,” Ben says as he reaches me. His voice is also different from the videos, smoother, less stilted, maybe even a little deeper. “You’re Ella, right? Jack’s told me all about you.” He extends a hand toward me in greeting.
I force my weird, likely bloodthirsty smile into what I hope is an expression of calm welcome from a normal human woman who has never cyber-stalked the individual she is about to shake hands with or just pictured an Amazonian-style fight to the death over him.
“I am,” I say. “And you must be the artsy-fartsy Ben that Jack said I would get along with.”
Our hands clasp, briefly, and I’m thankful for the padding of our gloves between his fingers and mine. He has a firm grip, and though he’s no doubt trying to be gentle, my knuckle joints still grind together.
“Artsy-fartsy, huh?” he says, stepping back after releasing my hand to glance toward the house. He arches an already naturally arched brow in question and I feel a momentary pang of jealousy. No matter how hard I try to contort my forehead muscles, my brows refuse to budge unless the other moves with them.
“I’m guessing you don’t consider yourself an artist?” I ask him.
“I’m learning woodworking, does that count?” he responds, a smile spreading over his full lips as he turns his attention back to me.
I forget my own name for a second, staring up at that smile.
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 complies with my pleading.
“Hmm…it might,” I say. “Tell me, have you ever confessed a deep, undying love for Barack Obama when in Jack’s company?”
He frowns a little in response. “I don’t think so?”
“A deep, undying love for labor unions?”
His frown deepens. “Huh?”
“Told him you even once voted democrat?”
I tap my chin with a gloved finger in exaggerated contemplation. “The mystery deepens.”
He seems slightly unsettled, not being in on the joke. I like that. It puts us on more equal footing.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ben,” I tell him. “I apologize in advance for my mongrel dogs. They lose their minds around new people.”
With that, I lead him up the porch stairs and into the house.
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.