I made Benjamin Kakoa laugh. Several times. Hard.
This bizarre reality kept me up late last night after I got home from Jack’s and was entirely to blame for why I was already awake at – I rolled over to look at my alarm clock. Oh, God, it was five o’clock in the morning. I’d gotten four hours of sleep. Today was going to be rough.
Sam, sensing I was conscious, snuggled closer to me. I knew it was him, even in the dark, because while Fred was my shadow during the day, Sam was my cuddlebug at night. I slipped an arm out of the covers, tossed it over him, and closed my eyes, willing myself to fall back asleep.
Sheep. Think of a herd of dumb, fluffy sheep jumping over a white picket fence. I counted, one, ten, eighty. The sheep started doing weird little side-kicks to keep my thoughts on them instead of drifting back to –
No! Don’t think of him. Watch these sheep. You’re getting very tired watching these acrobatic sheep, Ella. Very. Tired. Look, that one did a little back flip! Isn’t it adorable? Doesn’t it just make you sooo sleeepy?
No. Not even a little. Because I made Benjamin freaking Kakoa laugh. And frown. And roll his eyes. And, toward the end of the evening, I even got him to join me in teasing Jack.
It’s weird, meeting a celebrity. You have this whole persona built up in your head of who they are and how they’ll act. Take an ex-football star turned advocate. I’d assumed he’d be stoic, tough, with a dash of toxic masculinity added in to spice it up a bit. That had less to do with Ben’s public persona and more to do with the acceptance of violence that surrounded the sport of football, both on and off the field.
Watching him throw his head back and laugh at my murder-squirrel Christmas card kind of blew my mind. And made me feel like a complete asshole for making all those assumptions about him. I hadn’t been that embarrassed in years. The strength of my blush had made my face feel like it was on fire. Then he kept laughing, and, well, I was a red-blooded heterosexual woman, and holy shit that man was beautiful when he laughed. Especially since he did it so unselfconsciously. My raging embarrassment had been immediately eclipsed by raging hormones.
And now my cheeks are burning again thinking of him catching me with that look on my face when he finally stopped laughing. You know, that one. That, “Oh, yes, I will gladly climb you like a tree. Now please?” look that is utterly unmistakable.
I rolled onto my back and pressed the heels of my hands into my forehead. “Why, God, why?”
Fred jumped up on the bed, the mattress sagging beneath his added weight. His hot breath hit my face a second later.
I reached blindly toward him in the darkness and grabbed the fur of his neck to give it a little shake. “Lilac leggings, Fred. And an olive shirt. With this hair.”
That’ll teach me to never speed dress again.
Fred let out the low woof-yip that Huskies are famous for.
“No. Wrong response, boy. Forlorn howling is far more appropriate right now.”
He woof-yipped again.
“I have failed in your training.”
Sam shifted on my other side, then the mattress rose and I heard his paws padding over the hardwood. Fred pulled free from my hands to follow him out the door. I was awake, which to them meant it was time to go potty.
I gave up on sleep and turned the light on. It took me an excruciatingly long time to get out of bed. My body was like, “No. What are you doing? We were warm in there. Go back to that place,” and actively attempted to sabotage my upward momentum, while my brain was all, “BENJAMIN KAKOA JUST HAPPENED. ARISE, GODDAMN YOU!”
Eventually I managed to stumble downstairs, where the dogs waited by the front door. I cracked it open just enough for them to slip out. The draft that snuck in was damn near arctic, and the second Sam’s tail whipped past, I pushed it shut.
I complained about the dogs, but they were pretty well trained. My yard wasn’t fenced in. The fact that I could let them outside and trust them not to take off and also bark when they were ready to come back inside spoke volumes.
I staggered to the kitchen and made myself a strong pot of coffee, all the while thinking about Ben. Yes, I managed to make him laugh – three times. Yes, I managed to tease him into rolling his eyes – once. And then finally coaxed him into taunting Jack with me. But that had taken work. I wasn’t used to that. It usually only took me a few minutes to get people to relax enough around me that they were cackling with laughter and sharing their deepest, darkest secrets.
Mom said it was because there was something inherently trustworthy about my face. Dad said it was because of my self-deprecation. My brother Jacob’s wife, Sofia, said it was because I had a sociopath’s ability to read people, paired with a pathological need to be liked. She was a clinical psychologist, so obviously I ignored her and went with my parents’ explanations.
Because she was just joking.
Even with the hard work I put in last night, Ben had remained steadfastly guarded and quiet in between those small bursts of emotion, letting Jack and I do the bulk of the talking. Whenever the conversation had drifted back toward him, he’d managed to expertly steer it away from himself. I wasn’t sure if that was because he was worried I’d somehow slip-up and reveal his fame to Jack, or if he didn’t want to tell me anything because he thought I might race home to blog about it, or if that was just how all celebrities had to be in order to protect themselves.
Not that I could blame them. It must suck to spend your days hounded by paparazzi, unable to even go to the grocery store for yourself. Or make a new friend without fearing that they’re only using you to further themselves in some way. Then there’s the digital aspect of it, allowing both fans and detractors an outlet to comment on every single moment of a celebrity’s life, as it happens.
I read somewhere that it takes a hundred positive comments to overcome the emotional damage just a single negative one can wreak on your psyche. Honestly, I believed it. I had ten thousand followers on Instagram and got trolled at least once a week. For painting whimsical watercolors of chipmunks and racoons and moose. Like, seriously? The span of the moose’s antlers is somehow morally offensive to you?
And yet I’d found myself looking closer at my paintings afterward, inspecting the distance between those antlers and wondering if they really wereoff in some way that I just couldn’t see because I had created them.
That was nothing compared to what Ben had to put up with. He had well over two million followers – I checked before going to bed last night – and posted about controversial issues like taking a knee during the National Anthem, the societal repercussions of idolizing large, violent men while denigrating any male who shows vulnerability, and the class action lawsuit that he and a slew of other former players had recently filed against the USFL for downplaying the dangers of the sport to those who played it.
Some of the comments on his feed were so enraging that I almost hulk-smashed my tablet. The kind of vile, racist, bigoted vitriol spewed through the filter of anonymity that makes you lose what little faith you have left in humanity.
No wonder he’d been so guarded.
It made me that much more determined to get him to loosen up around me. If I ever saw him again. For once, it wasn’t because of some need of my own. It was because of him. Because it must be terrible to feel like you can never relax. To always be worried that some small detail about your life that you accidentally let slip might appear on a celebrity gossip site the next morning. The man deserved a break from it all.
The sound of barking pulled me from my thoughts. I went to the door and let the boys back in. They waited patiently just inside, on the tile floor of the entryway, so that I could towel off their feet and legs before they were allowed past.
“Good boys,” I told them, ruffling the fur between their ears.
I gave them each a treat from the jar of biscuits on the upper shelf of the coat rack, then left them to demolish them as I went in search of coffee.
My kitchen was small, like the rest of the cabin, but it didn’t feel cramped thanks to the bright white paint and open shelving. I eyed the shelf containing my mismatched collection of mugs and opted for the largest. I think it was supposed to be a soup bowl, but I’d never used it for that. Instead it served as my coffee version of “we’re going to need a bigger boat”.
I poured it nearly to the brim and groaned in pleasure when the first bitter taste touched my tongue.
Sweet nectar of life.
A snuffling noise came from the living room, followed by a low, playful growl. The dogs. Sometimes it felt like I was raising two toddlers. Any time I heard an unfamiliar sound, I rushed over to make sure they weren’t getting into trouble (they were usually getting into trouble). With so little sleep, my rush this morning was more like the shambling of a freshly turned zombie.
The first floor of my house was an open concept, with the kitchen leading into the space that served as my living room and home office. The ceiling vaulted at a dramatic angle, with a large bank of windows that made the room feel bigger than it was and rustic beams crisscrossing overhead.
I rounded the couch and found the source of the scuffle. The dogs were sprawled out on the rug near the fireplace, playing tug-of-war with each other over one of their favorite toys. That was one of the good things about having two of them; they could entertain themselves in the morning until my brain came online.
I set my coffee down on a side table and stepped over them. Up here, you had to plan your life around the weather. I kept enough firewood in the house to get me through a week without power, just in case a tree came down on a line from the weight of the snow.
I grabbed a few pieces of it and stacked it over the kindling already laid out in the fireplace. Five minutes later, there was a merry glow filling the room, the dogs had ended their game – Sam won – and I was spread out on the side of the couch that had the chaise lounge, sipping my coffee and searching through the internet.
Okay, cyber-stalking Ben again.
He was still active on social media, with three posts on Twitter from last night after I’d left Jack’s. They were retweets. One was from a study by Johns Hopkins on TBIs in the USFL, another was from The Concussion Foundation, and another was from the New York Times on something called CTE. I clicked on each link and spent the next forty minutes reading through the articles. Then I spent another God-knows-how-long clicking on still more links, falling fully down the rabbit hole of brain-related medical research.
It was light outside by the time I picked my head back up. I stared out at the sun glancing off the snowbanks, trying not to feel overwhelmed. This was a lot of information to unpack.
I had known about TBIs, but CTE was a new term for me. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It was a degenerative brain disorder associated with repeated head trauma. Like, from years of playing a contact sport like football. From what I could decipher from all of the medical jargon, your brain cells basically just started dying off.
The most troubling study showed that nearly all of the brains posthumously tested from former USFL players showed signs of CTE. The author cautioned that there was a bias in the tests, as CTE was suspected in many of the cases, but still. Ninety. Nine. Percent.
Another study examined a large number of ex-USFL players still living, using a combination of brain scanning technology and written and verbal exams. The results were…not great. The scans revealed that 40% had abnormal brain structures, 43% had damage to white matter in the brain – which, thanks to Google, I now knew connected nerve cells between the brain’s regions – and 30% had damage to the structures that neurons communicate through. The other tests showed 45% had difficulty with memory and learning. And it didn’t even get into the behavioral aspect of CTE.
Altogether, it was a devastating disease, one that couldn’t be properly diagnosed until an autopsy was performed. Among the symptoms associated with it were mood swings, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, problems with impulse control, and violent outbursts. Then there were headaches and seizures. The onset of symptoms could vary between just a few years after the trauma, to decades later. It would be like living with a ticking time bomb in your head.
Oh, God. Ben.
I immediately dove back into my phone and tried to find out if he was one of the living players that had been tested. No luck. They didn’t publish names. Next, I searched out interviews he’d given since Zach’s death. Again, they were a no-go. Eventually I stumbled across a video interview with his mother.
The journalist questioning her had asked if their family had concerns about Ben.
“Of course we do,” she answered. “He’s 28 years old. God forgive us, we put the boys in the pee-wee league when they were eight. That’s twenty years of brain trauma.”
“But at the time you had no knowledge of the increased risk of CTE in players that start before the age of twelve,” the interviewer said.
“We didn’t even know what CTE or TBIs were back then. You think that helps me sleep at night? You think that helps my dead son? You think that helps my still-living son deal with the thought that in five years, or ten, or twenty, he might start to lose himself to a degenerative brain disease that could have been prevented by more awareness, or stricter rules, or better protective equipment?”
I stopped the video, set my phone down, walked over to Fred and Sam – who were splayed out in front of the fire, and snuggled down between them, drawing them close with my arms.
“I love you both,” I told them. “So much.”
Sam licked my face, and for once I didn’t pull away.
Last week I sobbed after accidentally stepping on Fred’s paw hard enough to make him cry out. Part of it was because I had felt so bad for hurting him, while the other part was because I realized I could never be sure that he knew it was an accident and that I was so, so sorry for it.
The dogs were like my children, but I knew that there was a difference between them and actual children. I could only imagine how Ben’s parents felt. How Ben felt, every day, not knowing what the future held for him.
My face burned with embarrassment again. There I was last night, ogling his good looks and trying to get him to lighten up because of my own stupid need to feel liked.
I immediately abandoned my earlier plan to put him at ease around me and instead adopted the much better plan to leave him the hell alone. I also needed to talk to Jack. He had all but forced my number on the poor guy before we left last night, in case Ben wanted help with design choices. Maybe I could tell him that I just didn’t like Ben or want to hang out with him.
I suddenly wished I was a more practiced liar.
In the interim, if for some reason Ben did call, I was going to let him decide everything. I wasn’t going to invite myself over or him here. I was going to drop the full-blown charm offensive I went on last night and try my hardest to treat him like I would anyone else.
He said he’d come out here to get away. It was easy enough to guess from what. The media, the trolls. Maybe he needed space and time to deal with the death of his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. Or to come to terms with his own risk of CTE and what it might or might not mean for him.
I hoped he was able to. I tried to think about it from my own perspective, like if I had to deal with all of that. I had no idea how I would react, or how long it would take me to process through everything.
My phone rang from the couch. I let the dogs go and stood to get it. My sister Megan’s name flashed across the caller ID.
I swiped right to answer. “Hey, Megan.”
“Hi, Ella,” Stacey’s voice greeted me. I would have worried that something had happened to Megan if not for the fact that she and her wife were forever calling me on each other’s phones.
“Hey, Stace. What’s up?”
“We’re supposed to get a Nor’easter on the twenty third and want to get the hell out of Boston before it hits. Is it okay if we get there a day early?”
They were staying with me through Christmas, because with Anabel still in high school, Charlie home from college, and Jacob and his crew all crashing at my parents’, the house would be packed. Megan was enough of an introvert that crowding in with everyone else was a non-starter. Staying at Jane’s was out, too, because they’d never progressed past the antagonistic stage of their sisterhood. I was the perfect option. Megan and I had always been close, and because I was so good at reading people, I recognized when she needed to be left alone for a few hours.
I put Stacey on speaker and pulled up my phone’s calendar. “So, you’ll be here Friday?”
I looked down at my unswept floor just in time to watch a tumbleweed of dog hair roll by my feet, then glanced around at the rest of my house. I wouldn’t have called it a disaster zone, but…
“Friday’s great!” I said with forced cheer. “What time are you going to get here?”
“Meg, when do you want to leave Friday?” Stacey asked my sister.
“I don’t know. Noon?” was her muffled response.
“We should be there by six or seven,” Stacey said. “Depending on traffic. We’ll call you along the way and give you updates.”
“Okay, talk to you later.”
“Love you guys.”
“Love you too,” she said before hanging up.
Friday. That would still give me time to finish up printing all my open orders, get to the post office, deep clean my house, set up the spare bedroom, wrap my Christmas presents, and drive over to Walmart to stock up on all the tofu and vegetables I could find. Megan and Stacey were full-on vegan, and I wanted them to feel like they had plenty of options while staying with me.
Right, first I needed to make a list.
My stomach rumbled, as if to say, “No, first you need food, woman.”
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.