“Hi, Mom,” I say, my voice a little flatter than I intended. It’s hard to mask my annoyance at this point.
“Show me the girl,” my mother says, without preamble. “That picture could have been taken with some rando eight months ago.”
“Seriously, Mom?” I say, my tone snapping from flat to harsh. “I need to pose with a newspaper now to show you the date, like this is some sort of hostage situation?”
Hell, it’s beginning to feel like one.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and look over to see Ella’s eyebrows climbing up her forehead like they were almost surprised right off her face. Great, she’s not here for ten minutes and my mom’s about to scare her off.
Shit. Or maybe I am. My temper is starting to show, and being around a large, strange, angry man is not something a lot of women are comfortable with, for good reason.
I cover the phone’s mic. “Sorry,” I tell her, lowering my voice and softening my tone. “My mom can kind of drive me crazy sometimes.”
She immediately seems to relax. “Oh, I fully understand,” she says in a near whisper. “Do you want me to go?”
It’s sweet of her to offer. I’m tempted to say yes, but then my mother might show up on my doorstep in the middle of the night if I don’t give in to her demands.
“Actually, do you mind if I show her that you’re here?” I ask.
Ella grins. It only looks a little strained. “I don’t mind.”
“I’m sorry about this. I know this is really awkward.”
“It’s okay.” She pulls her fiery locks over one shoulder and composes herself. “Ready.”
I take my hand off the mic and look back at my mom. “If I do this, you’ll stop, right?”
Begrudgingly, she nods.
I swivel the camera toward Ella and then back to me again, trying to get this over with as quick as possible.
Mom glares at me. “All I saw was a flash of orange. Was it the fire, or her hair?”
My focus darts back to Ella. She’s inspecting a lock of her hair, frowning down at it.
“Orange?” I see her mouth.
Well, this is a complete nightmare.
“Mom, you’re being ridiculous,” I say. And then, to Ella, with my hand over the mic again, “Your hair isn’t orange.”
My dad forces himself into the frame on my screen. “Just show us the girl, Ben. Your mother has her bags packed.”
It’s only because Ella is standing beside me that I manage to hold back my outraged response. Instead, I close my eyes and count to ten. When I open them again, Ella’s face fills the small box in the corner of the screen, indicating that my parents can now see her. I must have turned my phone away a little without realizing it, and, nice person that she is, Ella stepped closer and decided to play along.
“Hi,” she says, with a little wave. “I’m here. Now. It wasn’t a picture of some rando from eight months ago.”
My parents get closer to their camera, their faces filling my screen.
“Oh, so she is real,” my dad says, smiling, obviously trying to lighten the mood.
“And she’s pretty. Isn’t she pretty, Hani?” my mom says.
I snap the phone back to me. “Mom, she is literally standing right next to me and can hear everything you’re saying. Please don’t embarrass her.”
“Ahem.” Ella reaches out and covers my hands with her own, much smaller ones, and with a surprisingly firm grip, swivels them so the camera faces her again. Only then does she let me go. “You’re not embarrassing me. Ignore him,” she tells my parents. “Now, what was that you were saying about how stunningly beautiful I am?”
She manages to surprise a laugh out of them.
“And you’ve got a good sense of humor, too,” my mom says, smiling brighter than I’ve seen in weeks. “No wonder your cards are so funny.”
Ella glances up at me with a ridiculous, self-congratulatory grin on her face, managing to look like she’s swaggering while standing completely still. “This is doing wonders for my ego.”
My parents, right on cue, laugh again.
After a second, my mother sobers. “How is he doing?” she asks, as if I’m not here.
Are you fucking kidding me, Mom? I want to demand. She trusts the word about my wellbeing from a stranger she just met via FaceTime more than she does that of her own son?
I’m starting to get pretty tired of this. And I don’t even know how to deal with it anymore, or rationalize with her, for that matter. Maybe my therapist will. I make a mental note to call him later today.
Ella sneaks a look up at me, and I’m not sure what she sees in my face that causes her to chew on her lip. A second later, she looks down at the phone, back up at me, and holds out her hand.
I gladly pass it to her.
She plasters on a huge grin and then lifts the phone to her face and responds to my mother’s completely inappropriate question with a cheerful, “He’s doing great!” She’s so upbeat about it that even I believe her. “He’s a hit with us locals, and my dogs already love him, which is saying something, because they are tough judges of character. This place looks absolutely amazing! He’s put in so much hard work, and it’s really paying off. The floors came out so nice, and the kitchen is going to look like one of those HGTV dream kitchens when he’s done with it. You guys must be so proud!”
“We really are,” my dad says.
Mom is quiet, and as if she can sense she wants to press the subject, Ella changes it instead. “What’s the weather like there? Is it sunny? Is it warm?” she lowers her voice dramatically, pulling the phone in so close that all they must see are wide open, pale blue eyes, full of imploring, “Please describe what warmth is like.” Her tone turns wistful. “I’ve forgotten.”
I hear another round of chuckling before my dad indulges her. “It’s in the mid-seventies, a nice breeze off the water.”
Ella closes her eyes and makes a pained face. “My jealousy. It burns,” she says. “It’s, like, twenty outside, max. And that’s a warm snap for this time of the year. Two weeks ago, it was minus fifteen.” She pauses for dramatic effect, before saying, “Please think of us kindly when you look upon the sun.”
My parents laugh at this. Again.
There’s a small woof in the background, and Ella spends the next several minutes introducing my parents to her dogs. She even has them say a few commands to see if the dogs will obey them over FaceTime. They do, everyone laughs again, and my mom tells me I should really think about getting a puppy now to keep me occupied when there aren’t any other humans around or housework to be done.
I make a non-committal sound in response. It’s the best she’s going to get from me right now. I’m still pissed.
Then Ella is through the door and into the kitchen, showing my parents the final choices for the finishes, which my mom fully approves of, and my dad goes proud papa over. I lean a hip against the doorjamb and watch her continue to expertly distract them, my shitty mood lifting just a little. It makes me wish I’d agreed to let Jack introduce us sooner. Maybe I could have avoided all this drama with my mom.
When Ella has exhausted the kitchen talk, she moves on to other safe subjects, and there’s a whole ten-minute conversation that I barely have to take part in. Soon she’s saying goodbye to them and telling my mother that, no, she would never dream of letting me spend Christmas alone.
Her expression changes from ebullient cheer to apology the second she hangs up. “I’m so sorry,” she says when she turns to me, handing back my phone. “I have no intention of forcing you to hang out on Christmas if you don’t want to, and I’m also really sorry for totally steamrolling that conversation and pushing myself right into it, but your mom looked so worried, and I didn’t want it to be awkward, or for you to be upset, because you looked like you were upset, you know, kind of mad, but also kind of sad, and maybe like you didn’t know how to react, not that I’m an accurate judge of your expressions, we just met, after all, but I mean, like, in a general way you looked like that, and so of course I did that thing I always do and completely took over everything and made it about myself, because I can’t just shut the hell up and let other people talk when I feel awkward, because my sister-in-law is absolutely right about me, and…and I’ll just go now,” she says, deflating.
I think that was the longest run-on sentence I’ve ever heard.
“It’s okay, Ella,” I tell her.
She shakes her head. “No, it’s not. I’m really sorry, Ben. I had no intention of doing that.”
“I’m actually grateful you did.”
Her mouth snaps shut as she looks up at me in surprise.
“My mom has been having…” am I really saying this to her right now? Guess I must already trust her a little after all, “trouble, dealing with me being so far away after my brother’s death. She’s worried that something might happen to me, like it did him, and she won’t be here in time.”
“Oh,” Ella says, her voice small.
“When I left, she said that she would respect my need for space, but hasn’t. At all. And it’s been coming between us. If you hadn’t taken over that call, we probably would have gotten into another argument. It’s like she can’t hear me tell her I’m okay. She doesn’t trust my word about my well-being, but for whatever reason, hearing it from you seemed to help her some. So really, thank you.”
“You’re welcome then?” she says, frowning up at me.
I nod at her in reassurance.
“And also, I’m sorry. That’s kind of a shitty position for you to be put in.”
“It is,” I say, exhaling heavily.
It’s nice to hear someone else vocalize that. It makes me feel less irrational for getting upset, like it’s just a normal response and not an uncontrolled mood swing brought on by early-onset CTE.
One of the dogs, Sam I think, chooses that moment to press his wet nose into my palm. I look down at him, grateful for the distraction, and start scratching the spot just behind his ears.
He closes his eyes and sighs in doggy bliss, leaning his full weight into my leg.
“Aaaand, you’re now his new best friend,” Ella says.
I glance at her. One side of her lips is pulled up in a lopsided grin as she watches her dog zen out. My gaze rises from her mouth to trace the smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks.
She really is pretty. It was obvious the first time we met, even though she was frazzled and still a little sweaty from sledding. Now, with the red blotches gone from her skin and her – definitely not orange – hair worn loose in long, cascading waves, it’s a little harder to ignore just how pretty.
“Want to see the rest of the house?” I ask.
“Of course,” she answers, grinning when our eyes meet. “I thought you’d never ask.”
I take her through the entire first floor, explaining the work I’ve done so far and what I have planned for each space once it’s all finished. Right now, the house is pretty barren of décor, and it takes some imagination to envision what I’m describing. I bring my tablet with us, pulling up images of the furniture I plan to buy, the rugs I want to spread over some of the floors in the higher traffic areas, and so on.
Being an artist, Ella’s imagination has no trouble keeping up. She looks back and forth from the tablet to the rooms around us as I talk, nodding along as if she can see the picture I’m painting for her with my words.
Every now and then she offers some input. Maybe place the chairs here, instead of there, in the sitting room, to maximize the view out of the rear windows, or to add a large mirror to the windowless wall in the dining room to give the illusion that the space is bigger, while also bringing in more light from the reflection of the southern facing windows on the perpendicular wall. Every suggestion is insightful and logical, and I’ll most likely implement all of them in the final design.
The dogs follow us through the house, attempting to sniff each new thing they come across. Ella calls them to heel whenever she thinks they’re getting a little too nosy or rowdy, or to keep them from straying too far when we enter a room with gaps in the drywall. They instantly snap to her side when she does. Despite the mania of our first two greetings, they’re really well trained, I realize, and remark on it as we take the stairs down into the basement.
“Thank you,” she says from in front of me. “Huskies are smart, but kind of like the cats of the dog world. Pleasing their humans isn’t super high up on their list like it is with most other breeds, so starting their training when they’re pretty young, like I did, is definitely recommended. And, I mean, I still like to let them act like actual dogs and have their fun with new people and places. Like when they met you. You kind of looked like you were in puppy heaven at Jack’s, so I let them go a little wild. Had you been a frail old lady, that interaction would have been very different.”
I can’t help but be impressed. The last dog my parents had couldn’t be trusted off a leash. Sure, she was a sweet little English lab, and would never have bitten anyone, but she still never listened, and with a different personality, that could have been dangerous.
“Maybe if I take my mom’s advice and get a puppy you can give me some pointers,” I say.
“Absolutely,” she answers without hesitation.
We reach the bottom of the stairs, and I flick on the light.
Ella stops short, and I almost bump into her back.
“Woah,” she says. “It looks like a Planet Fitness threw up in your basement.”
And then she’s off, disappearing between the large pieces of equipment and muttering to herself as she examines the more unfamiliar ones. I catch a flash of red hair over the top of the upside-down leg extension machine.
“I mean, what does this one even do?” her voice echoes through the room.
I don’t answer, because I’m pretty sure she’s talking more to herself than to me. Or maybe she’s talking to the dogs. They followed right after her, and one of them gives a little whuff in response, like he’s taking part in the conversation.
She rounds the bench press, coming back into my sight, and pauses at the free weights, her eyebrows rising as she stares down at them. She glances over at me and then back at them several times.
“I mean, can you even…?” she asks, stepping up to the heaviest dumbbell. She puts both hands around the handlebar as if she’s thinking about testing it out, then cocks her head sideways to read the weight number stamped into the metal. “Nope, nope, noooooope,” she says, letting go and moving quickly away. “Not today, hernia.”
It’s only when my cheek gives a little twinge do I realize I’ve had what must be an impressively goofy grin plastered to my face this whole time. Funny what a little bit of humor will do to a guy that’s been lacking it.
She stops short at the pair of massive ropes coiled on the ground by the rear of the room. They’re attached to the brick wall at one end, and she seems to find this highly amusing.
“Heh,” she says, thumbing toward them, “What are these for? Tying up your victims?” Her tone is sarcastic, but before I can even answer, she turns fully toward me, her expression morphing into what I’m pretty sure is faux panic. Her voice is dramatically shaky when she speaks again. “They’re not, are they?”
If I knew her better, I would play along. Maybe let loose a maniacal muah ha ha ha ha for good measure. But after the outburst of temper she’s already seen from me, I’m not comfortable with the thought of appearing even slightly menacing right now.
I just smile in what I hope is a totally non-threatening way and shake my head no.
She grins in response, mischief in her eyes. “Jump rope, then? Like, if you only have two people. One does the twirling, while the other jumps? I bet you and Jack have pulled off some badass double-dutch sessions with these.”
The laughter just bubbles up out of me, thinking of Jack quick-footing back and forth as these huge, two-inch-wide ropes fly over and under him.
“They’re battling ropes,” I tell her, stepping forward. “You take the ends, and with your arms you get them going in a sinuous motion. Like this.”
I pick them up, step back, and demonstrate their proper use. Ella has to grab the dogs to keep them from lunging at them. Right, probably should have warned her. This must seem like tug-of-war heaven to them.
I drop the ropes after a second to stop the poor boys’ torment, then straighten back up. Ella’s eyes are on the ropes instead of me, her cheeks now matching her hair. I can’t tell if she’s blushing, or if the effort of holding her dogs back has brought her color up.
She lets them go, and they immediately pounce, each of them trying to pick up their own rope. Must have been the strain, after all.
“How’d you even get all this stuff down here and installed without anyone recognizing you?” she asks, then holds up her hands. “Sorry, none of my damn business.”
“It’s fine, Ella. I said I don’t like it when strangers pry into my private life. That wasn’t exactly prying, just an innocent question. And we’re not really strangers now, are we? I mean, you’ve met my parents. And one of your children already wants me to adopt them.”
“Traitor,” she mutters at Sam.
He drops the rope and looks up at her, tongue lolling out of his mouth.
I give up on suppressing my amusement, letting the smile take over my face. She really is funny.
“The gym gear came in the containers I shipped my stuff in,” I tell her. “I was able to disassemble it and lug it down in pieces before setting it back up. And, like I told you the other night, I can get most everything else I need delivered. It’s lucky the local home improvement store offers truck drop off, or I’d be screwed. Still, I’ve had to get really good at taking precise measurements while I’m working, so I don’t under order supplies. When I do have to deal with someone face to face, like my plumber the other day, I, uh…I wear a disguise.”
The mischief is back in her expression. I’m beginning to distrust this look.
“What kind of disguise are we talking about here?” she asks, one eyebrow arching. “Costumes? Wigs? Just so you know, I’m imagining an entire closet of spy-grade, life-like silicone face masks. You know, like the ones from the Mission Impossible movies.”
I shake my head at her. “Nothing that fancy.”
She stares at me, both eyebrows up now, clearly waiting for more.
“Fine,” I say, with a heavy sigh. “Let’s just say that I looked like a bad Sybill Trelawney cosplay.”
She frowns at me for a few seconds, her gaze roving over my face like she’s trying to picture it. I can tell the second she does, because her lips start to twitch. It’s like the flood that broke the dam. A heartbeat later, she’s bent over at the waist, hands on her knees, all but scream-laughing at me.
At first, I don’t know if I should be offended or embarrassed, but then I start to laugh right along with her, because she looks ridiculous and obviously doesn’t care, and also her laugh is infectious as hell.
“Oh, God. The mental image, Ben,” she says as she fights to straighten back up, rubbing tears from her eyes. “Because you’re all,” she flares out her shoulders as wide as they’ll go, flexes her arms and makes a face I’m sure I’ve never made in my entire life, “and she’s all,” and then she tucks her chin down and under, widens her eyes like an owl, and stares up at me, lips aquiver.
Then she’s laughing again, and I lose it right along with her. I really did look like a damn fool in that getup.
By the time I start to calm down, my ribs hurt. I can’t remember the last time someone got me laughing this hard. Suddenly, it hits me: mom isn’t entirely wrong. I’m self-aware enough to admit that I’ve been lonely as hell, and just suppressing it. And I am probably more secluded than I should be out here.
Even with that awkward phone call from my parents, this morning has been nice. Almost needed. Sharing a cup of coffee with someone, playing with their animals, showing off my hard work, it’s these little things that make the difference. Small human interactions that do wonders to stem the tide of loneliness and distract me away from my troubled thoughts and deep-dive brain study research. I get it to some extent with Jack when I visit with him, but he’s more reserved than Ella. Our conversations are more serious, with long, comfortable pauses where we’re left alone with our own thoughts. It’s not like that with her. I can’t just fade out. Every second she’s been here, I’ve been fully tuned in, wondering what she’s going to do next.
Do you want to be my friend? I almost blurt.
Like this is pre-school and it’s that easy still. I wish it were. Most of the friends I’ve had in the past decade revolved around the sport I played. My fellow players. My agent. My PR rep. My personal trainer. People I was forced together with at first and then slowly developed relationships with throughout the course of our interactions. It was just easier that way than making friends outside of football circles. Those people got it. They understood the stress, the highs and the lows, the intensity. And they kept their mouths shut about it all, because blabbing to the media or online would cost them their jobs.
It’s a risk, making a friend who’s not tied to football in some way. But then again, maybe it will be worth the reward. To have someone in my life totally divorced from that world, to have a person I can talk to about literally every other subject on the planet, would be a welcome distraction, and probably provide a much-needed mental break.
Ella hasn’t once, during any of our – admittedly limited – interactions given me the vibe that she would ever blab on social media about me. The fact that she made up a fake name for me in front of her own sister, and then double checked my identity on the phone in case I was a catfish speaks volumes about her respecting my privacy.
Maybe it’s time I start to trust my own judgement again.
“Hey, so,” I say, once the last of her laughter has died down. “You said your family is in town. I’m sure Christmas and the following days will be hectic for you, but did you maybe want to swing by some time after, when it all dies down, and bring cribbage with you?”
She immediately sobers, worrying her lower lip like she did earlier during the FaceTime call. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay here on Christmas by yourself? My family spends Christmas Eve and Christmas morning together, but then we break up during the afternoon and go out visiting other people. It’s a tradition in the local area. I always pop in to visit Jack, and I could easily swing by here afterward.”
“I don’t want to impose,” I say.
She waves me off. “You really wouldn’t be. Megan doesn’t do the whole visiting thing. The stress of being around our entire clan for an extended period of time is too much for her. She usually goes back to my place to recharge, and I try to give her plenty of time to do so. But I don’t want to impose on you, either. Like I said earlier, I tend to just, like, push myself on people, and I really don’t want to do that to you. I know you said you came out here to get away.”
My first instinct is to tell her not to come over. Not because I don’t want her here, but because I really don’t want to upend her life in any way. Then again, she’s a grown ass woman, so if she tells me she wouldn’t mind stopping over, I should probably just believe her. And act like a grown ass man and be honest in return.
“You’re not being too much,” I tell her. “If you’re up for it, please come over on Christmas.”
She immediately brightens. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I say, grinning down at her.
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.