“Oh my God,” I whisper, my hand over my mouth as I stare down at my phone in horror.
Across its screen is splashed a series of photos of Ben and Hani in a hallway of the rehabilitation center in Boston where he had his testing done. In one, they’re hugging. In the next, Hani is crying. And then the final one shows him leading his son away as though he had to physically support him.
Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.
The story is from six o’clock last night. What time did I fall asleep to have missed this?
I read through the article in a blind panic, my eyes flying over the screen as I try to keep myself from fearing the worst. It becomes clear quite quickly that the writer doesn’t know anything. They’re only jumping to the same conclusions that I am from how upset Ben and his dad look.
I click on another link, and then another, until I come to the story that started it all. It was a smaller Boston news channel that first published the picture of Ben walking into the clinic that morning. No wonder I missed it. The piece is actually pretty neutral, citing his PR rep stating that Ben and his parents are just visiting the clinic in relation to the charity. They seem to be the only ones who took her word at face value. Every other article is filled with speculation.
Eventually I land on a video on YouTube from the biggest sports network in the country. Six large men in suits sit around a half moon table discussing Ben’s absence from the limelight, his appearance at the clinic, and how they don’t believe his PR rep. Not after the photos of him and his dad surfaced.
The panel is split between empathy and dislike. Clearly some of them side with the league against Ben and all the “trouble” he’s made for the sport. They erupt into argument toward the end and, God, it is so ugly.
I set my phone down before I break it.
Sam whimpers from beside me on the bed and scoots a little closer. I throw my arms around his neck and hug him.
I hate them. I hate them all. Even the ones on Ben’s side. Because they agreed to go on national television and have this debate about him while he’s trying to get help. How dare they do this to him? How can they treat a fellow player, hell, a fellow human like this when all he’s ever wanted was to make things safer for other people?
My phone rings from beside me, making me jump. I let go of Sam and scramble to pick it up, praying it’s Ben.
“Hi,” I say.
“Holy shit, Ella. I called you three times last night, where have you been?”
“I slept though it. Sorry, I was exhausted.”
“Did you see the news?”
“The story I wrote is being published tomorrow,” she says.
“What?” I yell, startling Sam so bad he almost falls off the bed. I reach out a hand to pet him in apology.
“I know,” Jane says. “And I can’t call the editor and ask him to postpone it again. He’ll know something, Ella. He’s a reporter, for Christsake.”
“Do you think it’s going to make this worse?”
“Yes. Because with Ben already in the spotlight, it’s just going to turn the media frenzy into a dogpile.”
“Shit. I don’t know whether or not I should warn him.”
“Does he have CTE?”
“I don’t know, Jane. Either way, this is the worst timing ever. I don’t want to make him more stressed than he already is. But would knowing this is coming ahead of time be better? Or is he so out of it that there’s a chance he might miss it completely?”
“I’m so sorry, Ella. I don’t know what to tell you to do here. It wasn’t supposed to be published until Thursday, but they want to jump on the bandwagon and put it out there while the story is so relevant to current headlines.”
I have to take several deep breaths before responding. “Sometimes I fucking hate the kind of people you work with.”
“Trust me, so do I. Again, I’m so sorry. Can I do anything else? Do you need anything?”
“I don’t think so…” I begin, then change my mind. “Actually, yes. Come help me get these open orders done. I’m closing down the shop for a while.”
I need to be ready in case Ben calls, as available to help him as humanly possible.
“I’ll be there in thirty,” she tells me.
As soon as we’re off the phone, I check my other messages. Nothing from Ben. I try not to panic.
Jane arrives just as the sun breaks over the mountains. Together, we get all of my orders printed, put together, carefully packaged, and into mailers. She runs them to the post office for me on her way home while I go through the long process of putting all my store fronts on vacation mode.
And then I wait for Ben to call.
One day passes. Nothing.
Day two, the media frenzy over Jane’s story hits. It’s so bad I have to delete my news apps. Ben still doesn’t call.
Three days pass. I apply distraction techniques to keep my mind occupied. I bundle up and take the dogs snowshoeing, careful not to overdo it this time. I read a study a while back about how two hours a day in nature can basically cure you of everything, and while I think that’s a bit inflated, it definitely helps me a little. Once I’m back inside, I get a fire going and focus on as much positivity as I can. I read articles about the young engineers solving the world’s problems. Kids still in high school who discovered plastic eating bacteria and how to clear the south of kudzu using helium.
Four days pass. Not even the articles or exercise help my mood.
I break down and call Jack.
“Is he home?” I ask, unable to hide the fact that I’ve been crying.
“He is, kiddo,” Jack answers, his tone soft. “But I only know because his dad came by to tell me when they got back from Boston yesterday. I still have the dogs, so I’m guessing they’re a little preoccupied.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“Hang in there, Ella. He’ll call when he’s ready,” he tells me.
“I’ll try. How did Hani seem?”
Jack is quiet for a while before answering. “Not good, kiddo.”
My panic becomes a living, breathing thing then. I can feel it sitting on my chest, crushing me beneath its weight. It whispers terrible things into my ears, giving voice to all of my greatest fears.
Five days pass without word from Ben.
I read and re-read every email Sophia sent me and apply all of the techniques she suggested to help me cope with the current emotional storm raging inside of me.
I can’t get off the couch. If not for the dogs, I’d completely lose it.
A whole week goes by.
Finally, I get a text message.
Ella, this is Hani. Are you able to come to Ben’s?
On my way, I text back.
I’m out the door in a flash.
I’ve been ready for this. Praying for this. There’s a week’s worth of clothes packed in my truck. Mom and Dad are letting Anabel come watch my place and the dogs for me while I’m gone. They told her no boys. I told her just don’t have sex in my bed.
I text her as the truck is warming up, and she says she’ll be right over. Just in case it takes her some time, I let the dogs out to go to the bathroom, and when they’re all cleaned up and back inside, I hug and kiss them both before telling them to be good for Auntie Anabel.
And then I’m off, locking the door and sprinting back to my truck. I force myself to drive slowly. It snowed again last night, and I’m so emotional and exhausted right now that I don’t trust myself on the slushy mess the roads have become. It takes me an eternity to get to Ben’s. I yank my keys out of the ignition as soon as I roll to a stop and then run up to the front door.
Ben’s father opens it, almost as tall as his son. His face is drawn, his clothes rumpled like he’s been wearing them for a few days.
“Hi,” I say, hugging him.
“Thank you for coming over,” he says, patting my back.
He’s speaking quietly, so I lower my voice when I respond. “You’re welcome. What do you need?”
“We’re running low on food,” he tells me.
We pull apart and move into the kitchen to make a list. I keep my million and one questions to myself. Because priorities.
“Ben and Klara are both sleeping,” he mentions at one point.
“Okay,” I say, because I have no idea what else to.
It’s the middle of the day. They’re both asleep. Not a good sign. Especially when added to the fact that now that we’re in better light, it looks like Hani hasn’t slept at all.
Deep breaths, I tell myself as I climb back into my truck. Don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe they’re just exhausted emotionally. Maybe they’re recovering from the buildup of stress leading to the tests. Maybe this is just how Ben and Klara manifest relief.
But I don’t really believe any of that. I’m just shoving the lies down my own throat to keep it together while I buy them milk and bread and eggs and all the other essentials.
I run into several people I know at the store. Because of course I do. One is a high school friend of mine back in town to visit her folks who wants to spend ten minutes in aisle seven catching up. Like, really, Karen? We couldn’t have done this shit over Facebook like everyone else?
I hightail it out of there afterward, flat out ignoring whoever it is that calls my name in the parking lot.
Hani helps me unload the groceries, his movements a little slow. I’m putting the bread in a cupboard when I see him pause out of the corner of my eye. He’s standing in front of the fridge, holding the milk, staring at a photo of Ben and Zach stuck to its door. He reaches out with shaking fingers and places his fee hand over it, using it to brace himself up as he bows his head, his shoulders shaking as he cries.
This is what full-blown grief looks like. All of my lies, all of my assurances that maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem completely evaporate at the sight of Ben’s father breaking down.
I step forward and place a hand on his shoulder, remaining quite but present. Letting him know that at least he’s not alone.
“I’m sorry,” he says as he straightens up, wiping at his face.
“There is absolutely no need to apologize to me,” I tell him.
“Thank you for coming,” he says.
“I can stay as long as you need. My schedule is clear.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“You wouldn’t be. Really. I’d rather be here doing something to help you than freaking out by myself at home.”
Hani’s face crumples again. “It’s bad, Ella,” he tells me.
“I…” Deep breaths. “I thought it might be.”
“Did he tell you about the tests?” he asks.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak now.
“They found tau tangles in his brain. Enough that they think it was complicating his depression and anxiety.”
I land with a thud on one of the kitchen barstools, my knees giving out.
“And…and maybe his memory,” Hani adds.
I lean forward, elbows on the island, hands over my mouth to keep from sobbing, eyes squeezed shut to keep the tears in.
“He and Klara…they’re not doing too well right now, as you can imagine.”
I take a shuddering breath in and push it down. All my grief, my rage, my fear. I sit up, scrub at my eyes and look up at him.
“Has Ben been talking to Brian?” I ask
Hani nods. “Every day. I make sure of it.” He pauses for a few heartbeats before continuing. “I took his phone from him when the Times published their story.”
“My sister is so sorry about that,” I tell him. “They pushed it up and she didn’t think she could delay it again without making people suspicious.”
“It’s not her fault. Ben doesn’t regret helping out. But…the other news organizations and people on social media have been…” He clenches his jaw, fists braced on the countertop as his face darkens with anger.
“I know,” I say. “I’ve been watching it all unfold, checking up on his Twitter mentions to stay aware of public opinion.”
“His publicist thinks its time to hire people to manage his accounts for him.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Hani nods, wiping a hand over his face. He looks utterly exhausted.
“Did you want to take a break for a while?” I ask him, trying to phrase it delicately. “I can hold down the fort, clean up, get some meals prepped and in the freezer.”
“Thank you, Ella,” he says, placing a large, heavy hand on my shoulder.
“You’re welcome,” I answer, raising my own to squeeze his fingers.
He releases me and moves toward the hallway like he’s asleep on his feet.
I wait until I hear the door close upstairs. And then I let go. The tears I’ve been holding at bay spring to my eyes and then slide down my cheeks. I fold my arms on the countertop and bury my face in them to muffle my sobs.
Ben. Oh, God, Ben.
I cry so hard I start to feel nauseous, something I haven’t done since I was a child.
Enough, I finally tell myself, forcing myself to my feet.
Tears still slip from my eyes, but I calm down to the point that I can work through them. First, I finish unloading the rest of the groceries. Then I see to the dishes in the sink, loading up the dishwasher and hitting run while the pots and pans dry on towels spread out over the counter. I sweep the entire first floor. Scrub the bathroom down. Take out the trash. Get the pellet stove going in the basement.
I work for three hours straight with not a sound from anyone else in the house.
Darkness starts to fall, and I return to the kitchen. I make a huge pot of chicken soup. While it cools, I get started on a more hearty beef stew. The meal prep serves as a good distraction. Chopping, dicing, straining, stirring, measuring, these things force my focus. As the broth for the stew simmers, I pour out the chicken soup into smaller glass tuperware jars, then snap the lids on and stack them in the freezer.
Hani ambles back into the kitchen just as the timer for the stew goes off.
“Smells good,” he says. “Can I help with anything?”
“Nope,” I tell him. “Did you want some?”
He tucks his large frame down onto one of the barstools, and I ladle him out a large bowl.
“When was the last time Ben and Klara ate?” I ask.
“Breakfast,” he answers in between spoonfuls. “I can take some up to Klara when I’m done.” He looks up at me then. “Do you want to take Ben his?”
Do I? Am I strong enough to hold myself together in front of him right now? Do I have to hold myself together in front of him right now?
“I do,” I force myself to answer.
Hani finishes his stew, and I hand him a second bowl to take to his wife. I ladle out another for Ben, and set it aside for a minute to pour the remaining contents of the pot into freezer containers and pop them in next to the chicken soup.
Then I gather my courage and head upstairs.
I pause outside his door, listening to hear if he’s awake. No sound comes from within, so I knock.
“Ben? It’s Ella. I come bearing beef stew,” I call.
“Come in,” he rumbles.
I take a deep breath and open the door.
The room is pitch black and smells kind of like a bear den. Musky, a little sour.
“Hang on,” he says, voice low and hoarse.
His nightstand light clicks on, illuminating his bedroom. Clothes litter the floor. His comforter is half off the bed. The sheets are rumpled around his waist as he sits up. He’s shirtless, his stomach a little concaved, his skin looking three shades lighter than the last time I saw him. There are dark circles under his eyes. His hair is a mane of tangled curls.
His eyes are bloodshot when they meet mine. “Ella,” he says.
My heart breaks at the sound of so much loss and grief packed so tightly into just a single word.
I shut the door behind me, set the soup on his dresser, and go to him.
He reaches out his arms and pulls me down onto the bed, hugging me tight to his chest.
“I’m sorry, Ben. I’m so fucking sorry,” I tell him, helpless to stop my tears.
He shakes beneath me, pulling me closer.
“Stay,” he says.
“Of course,” I tell him.
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.