“Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, oh, wait, except for the megalomaniac four-year-old whose irresponsible aunt fed her six candy canes before dropping her off,” Jane, my older sister mutters as she stares at me, deadpan, her dark eyes menacing in the glow from the fire.
Behind her, her daughter, Willow, the niece I’m an irresponsible aunt to, is roaring in jolly incoherence, the medium brown skin with golden undertones that she inherited from Jane on full display, because, somehow, in the three minutes since we pulled into the driveway, she’s managed to strip off all her clothing and also tear half the holiday decorations free from the staircase.
Her black hair whirls out behind her in a breeze of her own making as she races by us, the garland she clutches in her tyrannical little fist trailing pine needles and winterberries over the carpet in her wake. What a frigging mess. 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 said candy canes in.”
Jane 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 one of the back rooms. It sounds like Willow literally just bounced off of a wall.
“I will get you back for this,” Jane promises, before hurrying off to save her sugar-addled daughter from herself.
I let out a deep sigh of regret. I love spending time with Willow, and I’m usually pretty good with her, but 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, chooses that moment to lean around the corner of his open office door. I hadn’t even realized he was home. The lights from the nearby Christmas tree turn his sandy hair amber and sparkle in the reflection of his thick-framed glasses.
His voice is mock-hoarse when he speaks, his dry sense of humor ever apparent. “Go now. While you still can.” And then, his expression gaunt, he slides the 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 that’s 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 moment 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 as it chases the breeze. I tilt my head back to watch it dissipate, but am immediately distracted away from it 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 focus and I see my two 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.
Dogs. They’ll break your frigging heart.
“Sam, Fred, get your drooly noses off the glass,” 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.
Sam and Fred immediately shut up, giving each other panicked looks 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, hopping in and shutting the door behind me. Still, that one, prolonged howl…
I pull off a glove with my teeth, dig my cell phone out of my jacket pocket, and then dial Dave’s number.
“Yo,” he says by way of greeting.
“Hey, did you hear that?” I ask.
“Your dogs? Or the frigging wolves?”
“So, they’re back?”
“The wolves that the US Fish and Wildlife service insists that 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. They sounded close.”
“Eh. Sounds are tricky this time of year.”
True. With the leaves gone from the deciduous trees and the snow clinging to the conifers, noises tend to carry 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 assures me.
After we hang up, I put the truck into four-wheel drive and back out of their long driveway. The clock on my dash reads 6:14. 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 typical, 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, as if to show that yes, he is indeed the goodest boy to ever good. “Or is it you, Sammy?” 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, and if you rile them up anymore, they’ll wreck the truck.”
He clears his throat. “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 we find 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. Three cars sit ahead of me waiting for them to turn green. I ease to a stop behind them and meet Fred’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Can you believe this traffic?” I ask, emphasizing the last word.
He and Sam both yip, as if in total agreement. And yes, I did teach them to do that in response to that exact question. And yes, I still laugh every time. You have to find 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.
This 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 sliding 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 when the tailgate reached it, I’d cranked the wheel around and slid backward into it like a champ, then put the truck into drive and carefully made my way back down the hill and took the long way around. To anyone watching, I would have looked like a derby queen with nerves of steel, but 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, and 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.
Ah, life in a small town. Some chafe at the thought of knowing everyone and everyone knowing them in return. And their business. Younger people like myself especially seem to struggle with it. Which is why there are so few of us around. Most of my 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.
My truck’s engine whines as it climbs even higher, navigating switchback after switchback as I weave my way upward. 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 my truck as I pass beneath them.
The road doesn’t open up again until I crest the summit. I slow my 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, sparkling lights looking like the swirling mass of some small galaxy from this far away, 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 begin to get antsy. They’re smarter than most people give them credit for, and I reckon they know where we are, and that when they get out of the truck they’ll be greeted with bear hugs and 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 filled with mountains, trees, and waterways. Beyond the edge of these foothills, there’s nothing but rugged, mostly impassible terrain filled with roaring rivers, coyotes, moose, 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.
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 by on the road, or anyone using the top of your drive as a u-turn, 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 it, 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, pepper gray hair, and sun-darkened skin from long days spent working his land. The few wrinkles he has are clustered about his eyes, a dead giveaway for how much he smiles. He looks like some sort of instafamous hipster grandpa, one that can probably out bench press you. 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.
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 Jack and my grandfather’s brotherly relationship had, and 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 Jack 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, though in planting season I’m here almost every day helping out.
Jack yanks open the passenger door before I even turn the engine 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 waaaaaant some…TREATS?” Jack asks them, totally ignoring me.
I shut my door and come around to the passenger side to join the fray. A set of lights flashes over us then, followed by the sound of tires crunching on snow. Jack straightens from where he’d been crouched down, taunting the dogs, to turn toward the coming vehicle.
“That’ll be Ben,” he tells me. “New neighbor just down the hill. 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 enough in age, and I thought you could 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 into art, is part of the LGBT+ community, or identifies as a liberal.
Beside me, Jack leans down and ruffles Sam’s ears. “Why don’t you wait and show him in and 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 tackle-lick him to death no matter what you do.”
He leads the dogs away from the enticing mystery of the unknown car with the promise of treats, and I 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 flies right out of my head, 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.
Then he ambles into the halo of 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?) grand uncle’s driveway.
What. The. Hell.
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 – get this – shampoo adds. 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. It had shocked the entire sporting world. But that was nothing compared to what was to follow. During Zach’s autopsy, the coroner had 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 report was released. He’d been one of many young men who realized the money they were being paid wasn’t worth the cost. But that wasn’t all Ben did. He became a vocal advocate for better safety gear in football, tougher rules that would better 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 inherited Zach’s life insurance. They had 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.
Again, what the hell is he doing here?
He steps fully into the porch light, 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, almost comically 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. So, yeah, 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 has pulled back in one of the few acceptable forms of a man bun. In all the pictures and videos I’ve seen him in, his face is clean shaven. He has a short, neatly trimmed beard now. And it makes him look even better.
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.
A totally inappropriate grin tugs at the corners of my lips in response to that realization. Because actually, come to think of it, that could be kind of 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 approaches me. His voice is also different from the videos: smoother, less stilted, and maybe even a little deeper. “You’re Ella, right? Jack’s told me all about you.” He extends his hand toward me in greeting.
I turn 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 probably 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.
“I’m guessing you don’t consider yourself an artist?”
“I’m learning woodworking, does that count?” he asks, a smile spreading over his full lips as he turns his attention back to me.
I forget my own name for a second, staring at that smile.
Brain, I know this is hard right now. But I need you to please ignore how freaking handsome this man is and just do your damn job and process the question he just asked me.
Belatedly, it complies with my pleading.
“Hmmm…it might,” I say. “Tell me, have you ever confessed a deep, undying love for Barack Obama when in Jack’s company?”
His brows draw down a little in response. “I don’t think so.”
“A deep, undying love for Cher?”
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.”
“Uh…” 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 apologize in advance for my mongrel dogs. They lose their minds around new people.”
With that, I lead him up the porch stairs and inside.
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.