“Hi, Mom,” I said, my voice flat. It was hard to mask my annoyance at this point.
“Show me the girl,” my mother said. “That picture could have been taken with some rando eight months ago.”
“Seriously?” I asked, 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 was beginning to feel like one.
I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked over to see Ella’s eyebrows climbing up her forehead like they were almost surprised right off her face. Great, she hadn’t been here ten minutes and my mom was about to scare her off.
Or maybe I was. My temper was starting to show, and being around a large, strange, angry man wasn’t something a lot of women were comfortable with. For good reason.
I hit the mute button. “Sorry,” I told her. “My mom can kind of drive me crazy sometimes.”
She immediately seemed to relax. “Oh, I fully understand. Do you want me to go?”
It was sweet of her to offer. I was tempted to say yes, but then my mother might show up on my doorstep in the middle of the night if I didn’t give in to her demands.
I cringed. “Actually, do you mind if I show her that you’re here?”
Ella smiled in response. It only looked a little strained. “I don’t mind.”
“I’m sorry about this,” I told her. Again. I was beginning to sound like a broken record.
“It’s okay.” She pulled her fiery locks over one shoulder and composed herself. “Ready.”
I unmuted the phone and looked back at my mom. “If I do this, you’ll stop, right?”
I swiveled the camera toward Ella and then back to me again, trying to get this over with as quickly as possible.
Mom glared at me. “All I saw was a flash of orange. Was it the fire, or her hair?”
Ella pulled a few strands up and stared at them. “Orange?” she mouthed.
Well, this was a complete nightmare.
“Mom, you’re being ridiculous,” I said. And then, to Ella, “Your hair isn’t orange.”
My dad forced himself into the frame on my screen. “Just show us the girl, Ben. Your mother has her bags packed.”
It was only because Ella stood beside me that I managed to hold back my outraged response. Instead, I closed my eyes and counted to ten. When I opened them again, Ella’s face filled the small box in the corner of the screen, indicating that my parents could now see her. I must have turned my phone away without realizing it, and Ella, nice person that she was, had stepped up and decided to diffuse the situation.
She waved at them. “Hi. I’m here. Now. It wasn’t a picture of some rando from eight months ago.”
My parents got closer to their camera, their faces filling my screen.
Dad grinned ear to ear. “Oh, so she is real,” he said, obviously trying to lighten the mood.
“And she’s pretty. Isn’t she pretty, Hani?” Mom asked.
I snapped 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 reached out and covered my hands with her much smaller ones, and with a surprisingly firm grip, swiveled them so that the camera was once again facing her. Only then did she let me go. “You’re not embarrassing me. Ignore him,” she told my parents. “Now, what was that you were saying about how stunningly beautiful I am?”
She managed to surprise a laugh out of them.
“And you’ve got a good sense of humor too,” Mom said, smiling brighter than I’d seen in weeks. “No wonder your cards are so funny.”
Ella glanced up at me with a ridiculous, self-congratulatory grin on her face, managing to look like she was swaggering while standing completely still. “This is doing wonders for my ego.”
My parents, right on cue, laughed again.
After a second, my mother sobered. “How is he doing?” she asked Ella, as if I wasn’t right here.
Are you fucking kidding me, Mom? I wanted to shout. She trusted the word about my wellbeing from a stranger she just met via FaceTime more than my own assurances that I was fine?
I was so over this bullshit. And I didn’t even know how to deal with it anymore, or rationalize with her, for that matter. Maybe my therapist would. I made a mental note to call him later.
Ella snuck a look at me. I’m not sure what she saw on my face that made her chew on her lip. A second later, she looked down at the phone, back at me, and then held out her hand.
I gladly passed it to her.
She plastered on a huge grin and lifted the phone to her face. “He’s doing great!” she said. She was so upbeat about it that even I believed 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. And 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,” Dad said.
Mom was quiet, and as if Ella could sense that she wanted to press the subject, Ella changed it instead. “What’s the weather like there? Is it sunny? Is it warm?” she lowered her voice dramatically, pulling the phone in so close that all they must have seen were her eyes, full of imploring. “Please describe what warmth is like.” Her tone turned wistful. “I’ve forgotten.”
I heard another round of chuckling before Dad indulged her. “It’s in the mid-seventies, with a nice breeze off the water.”
Ella closed her eyes and made a pained face. “My jealousy. It burns. The high here is twenty today. And that’s a warm snap for this time of the year. Two weeks ago, it was minus fifteen.” She gazed deeply into the camera. “Please think of us kindly when you look upon the sun.”
My parents laughed at this. Again.
Across the room, Fred let out a small woof and clambered to his feet. Ella swiveled the phone around to face the dogs and spent the next several minutes introducing them to my parents. She even had Mom say a few commands to see if the dogs would obey them over FaceTime. They did.
Mom told me I should really think about getting a puppy now to keep me occupied when there weren’t any other humans around or housework to be done.
I made a non-committal sound in response. It was the best she was going to get from me right now. I was still pissed.
Then Ella was through the door and into the kitchen, showing my parents the final choices for the finishes before taking them on a tour of what I’d already done to the space.
I leaned a hip against the doorjamb, crossed my arms over my chest, and watched her continue to distract them, my shitty mood lifting just a little. It made me wish I’d agreed to let Jack introduce us sooner. Maybe I could have avoided all this drama with my mom.
When Ella had exhausted the kitchen talk, she moved on to other safe subjects, and a ten-minute conversation followed that I barely took part in. Soon she was saying goodbye and telling my mother that, no, she would never dream of letting me spend Christmas alone.
Her expression changed from ebullient cheer to apology the second she hung up. “I’m so sorry,” she said, handing my phone back to me. “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.”
“Ella it’s -”
“But your mom looked so worried, and I didn’t want you to be uncomfortable or 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 ever just shut the hell up and let other people talk when I feel awkward.” Her shoulders shrank as she deflated. “I’ll just go now.”
“It’s okay, Ella,” I told her.
She shook 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 snapped shut and she looked up at me in surprise.
“My mom has been having,” am I really saying this right now? Guess I must already trust her, “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,” she said, her voice small.
“When I left, she said she’d 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. For whatever reason, hearing it from you seemed to help her some. So really, thank you.”
“You’re welcome then?”
I nodded at her in reassurance.
She frowned. “And also, I’m sorry. That’s kind of a shitty position for you to be put in.”
“Thanks. It is.”
It was nice to hear someone else vocalize that. It made me feel less irrational for getting upset, like it was just a normal response to an overbearing parent and not an uncontrolled mood swing brought on by early-onset CTE.
Sam came over to me and pressed his wet nose into my palm. I looked down at him, grateful for the distraction, and started scratching the spot just behind his ears.
He closed his eyes and sighed in doggy bliss, leaning his full weight into my leg.
“Aaand, you’re now his new best friend,” Ella said.
I glanced at her. One side of her mouth was pulled up in a lopsided grin as she watched her dog zen out. My gaze rose from her mouth to trace the smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She really was pretty. It was obvious the first time we’d 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 was a little harder to ignore just how pretty.
“Want to see the rest of the house?” I asked her.
Her eyes lit up. “Of course.”
I took her through the first floor, explaining the work I’d done so far and what I had planned for each space once it was all finished. Right now, the house was pretty barren of décor, and it took some imagination to envision what I was describing. I brought my tablet with us, pulling up images of the furniture I planned to buy, the rugs I wanted to spread over some of the floors in the higher traffic areas, and so on.
Being an artist, Ella had no trouble keeping up. She looked back and forth from the tablet to the rooms around us as I talked, nodding along as if she could see the picture I was painting for her with my words.
Every now and then she offered input. Maybe place the chairs here, instead of there, in the sitting room, to maximize the view out of the rear windows, or add a large mirror to the windowless wall in the dining room to give the illusion that the space was bigger, while also bringing in more light from the reflection of the southern facing windows on the perpendicular wall. Every suggestion was insightful and logical, and I’d be an idiot not to implement all of them in the final design.
The dogs followed us through the house, attempting to sniff each new thing they came across. Ella called them to heel whenever she thought they were getting a little too nosy or rowdy, or to keep them from straying when we entered a room with gaps in the drywall. They instantly snapped to her side when she did. Despite the mania of our first two greetings, she had them pretty well trained. I remarked on it as we took the stairs down into the basement.
“Thank you,” she said 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 still let them act like actual dogs and have their fun with new people and places. Like when they met you. You 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 was 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 said.
We reached the bottom of the stairs, and I flicked on the light.
Ella stopped short. “Woah. It looks like a Planet Fitness threw up in your basement.”
And then she was off, disappearing between the large pieces of equipment and muttering to herself as she examined the more unfamiliar ones. I caught 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 echoed through the room.
I didn’t answer, because I was pretty sure she was talking more to herself than to me. Or maybe she was talking to the dogs. They followed right after her, and one of them gave her a little whuff in response, like he was taking part in the conversation.
She rounded the bench press, coming back into my sight, and paused at the free weights, her eyebrows rising as she stared at them. She glanced over at me and then back at them several times.
“I mean, can you even…?” she asked, stepping up to the heaviest dumbbell. She put both hands around the handlebar like she was thinking about testing it out, then cocked her head sideways and read the weight stamped into the metal. She let it go like it had stung her. “No. Nope. Nuh-uh. Not today, hernia.”
It was only when my cheek twinged that I realized I was wearing what must have been an impressively goofy grin. Funny what a little bit of human interaction could do to a guy that had been lacking it.
She stopped short at the pair of massive ropes coiled on the ground by the rear of the room. They were attached to the brick wall at one end.
“Heh,” she said, thumbing toward them, “What are these for? Tying up your victims?” Her tone was sarcastic, but before I could answer, she turned fully toward me, her expression morphing into what I hoped was faux panic. Her voice was dramatically shaky when she spoke again. “They’re not, are they?”
If I had known her better, I would have played along, maybe let loose a maniacal muah ha ha ha ha for good measure. But after the outburst of temper she’d already seen from me, I didn’t want to risk appearing even slightly menacing right now.
Instead I smiled in what I hoped was a totally non-threatening way and shook my head no.
She grinned in response, mischief replacing fear. “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 bubbled up out of me at the thought of Jack quick-footing it back and forth as these huge, two-inch-wide ropes flew over and under him. “They’re battling ropes,” I told her. “You take the ends, and with your arms you get them going in a sinuous motion. Like this.”
I picked them up, stepped back, and demonstrated their proper use. Ella had to grab the dogs to keep them from lunging. Right, probably should have warned her. The ropes must have looked like tug-of-war heaven to them.
I dropped them after a second to stop the dogs’ torment. Ella’s eyes were on the ropes instead of me, her cheeks nearly the same shade as her hair. I couldn’t tell if she was blushing, or if the effort of holding her dogs back had brought her color up.
She let them go and they immediately pounced, 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 asked, then held 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. We’re not really strangers now, are we? I mean, you’ve met my parents.” I grinned. “And one of your children already wants me to adopt them.”
“Traitor,” she said to Sam.
He dropped the rope and looked up at her, tongue lolling out of his mouth.
“The gym gear came in the containers I shipped my stuff in,” I said. “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.”
“What do you do when you have to deal with someone face-to-face?” she asked.
“I, uh…I wear a disguise.”
Mischief crept back into her expression. I was beginning to distrust the look. “What kind of disguise are we talking about here? 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 shook my head. “Nothing that fancy.”
She stared at me, eyebrows raised in question.
“Fine,” I said with a heavy sigh. “Let’s just say that I looked like a bad Sybill Trelawney cosplay.”
She frowned, her gaze roving over my face like she was trying to picture it. I could tell the second she did, because her mouth started to twitch. It was like the flood that broke the dam. Her lips parted and she let out a small little chuckle that quickly grew in volume and pitch until she was bent over at the waist, hands on her knees, all but scream-laughing at me.
“I’m not sure if I should be offended or embarrassed right now.”
“Oh, God. The mental image, Ben,” she said as she fought to straighten back up. “Because you’re all…” She flared her shoulders out as wide as they would go, flexed her arms, and made a face I’m sure I’d never made in my life. “And she’s all…” She tucked her chin down and under, widened her eyes like an owl, and stared up at me, lips aquiver.
Then she was laughing again, and I lost it too. I really had looked like a damn fool in that getup. By the time I calmed down, my ribs hurt. I couldn’t remember the last time someone got me laughing this hard. Suddenly, it hit me: Mom wasn’t entirely wrong. I was self-aware enough to admit that I’d been lonely as hell and just suppressing it. And I was probably more secluded than I should be out here.
Even with that awkward phone call from my parents, this morning had been nice. Needed. Sharing a cup of coffee with someone, playing with their animals, showing off my hard work, it was these little things that made the difference. Small human interactions that did wonders to stem the tide of loneliness and distract me away from my troubled thoughts.
I already got this to some extent with Jack when I visited him, but he was more reserved than Ella. Our conversations were more serious, with long, comfortable pauses where we were left alone with our own thoughts. It wasn’t like that with her. I couldn’t just fade out. Every second she’d been here, I’d been fully tuned in, wondering what she was going to do next.
Do you want to be my friend? I almost blurted.
Like this was preschool and it was that easy still. I wished it were. Over the past decade, all of my friends had come from the sport I played. My agent. My PR rep. My fellow players. 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 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 or their reputations.
It was a risk, making a friend who wasn’t tied to football in some way. But then again, maybe it would be worth the reward. To have someone in my life totally divorced from that world, to have a person I could talk to about literally every other subject on the planet, would be a welcome distraction, and would probably provide a much-needed mental break.
Ella hadn’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’d 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 showed just how much she respected my privacy.
Maybe it was time I started trusting my own judgement again.
“Hey, so,” I said, once the last of her laughter had 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 sobered. “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 apart 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.”
She waved 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 chill out, 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 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 was to tell her not to come over. Not because I didn’t want her here, but because I didn’t want to upend her life in any way. Then again, she was a grown ass woman, so if was telling me she wouldn’t mind stopping over, I should take her at her word. And act like a grown ass man and be honest in return.
“You’re not being too much,” I said. “If you’re up for it, please come over on Christmas.”
She brightened. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said, grinning down at her.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.