“How are you feeling?” Stacey asks as I’m packing my things.
“Better, thanks,” I tell her. I’ve been down in Boston with her and Megan for five days now, two longer than planned, because I kept making excuses not to go home.
This has been a nice trip. A needed trip. Between lugging all their earthly possessions halfway across the city, helping them deep clean their old apartment so they didn’t lose their deposit, picking out paint samples, reveling in the warm weather (how sad is it that 50 feels warm to me?), and eating out at eclectic restaurants for just about every meal, I’ve actually had a really good time.
It’s reminded me that life can go on after a terrible diagnosis. And it’s driven something home for me: I miss Ben. Constantly. Not just in an I miss having company kind of way. I miss the way his eyes crinkle up when he smiles. I miss the way he tilts his head sideways and says “Yeah?” when I compliment him. I miss the way we tease each other. I miss the way he flirts with me. I miss that non-stop feeling of butterflies when I’m around him. I miss the puppies. God, they must be so big now. Three times the size of the fuzzy little mutt we picked up for Megan and Stacey at the shelter yesterday.
As I’m zipping up my bag, that fuzzy little mutt, Stella, comes racing into the spare bedroom, tripping over the bra she’s carrying in her mouth, and dives beneath the bed.
“Get back here, you little asshole!” Megan yells, barreling into the room, but you can tell from her tone and her expression that she’s not even remotely angry that Stella for some reason keeps stealing articles of her clothing and hiding them all over the apartment.
“She’s adjusted pretty quickly,” I say to Stacey.
“Which one?” she asks, side-eyeing her wife as she disappears beneath the bed after the puppy.
I can’t help but grin as I swing my duffle over a shoulder.
“Thanks so much again for having me,” I say.
“You’re welcome any time. You know that,” Stacey tells me.
“Yeah,” Megan echoes, her voice a little muffled from beneath us.
Stacey makes a small coughing sound that sounds like a prompt.
“Uh…” Megan says. “I’m sorry again for calling you a coward.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “I needed to hear it.”
“You weren’t being a coward,” Stacey assures me, leaning in. “Anyone in your shoes would be struggling.”
“Thanks,” I say, my smile forced.
I haven’t really outright lied to them, more like skirted around details and said that Stan was recently diagnosed with a chronic illness that could potentially make a future with him incredibly difficult and painful and possibly even dangerous. Still, I don’t like the omissions. But what choice do I have? It would be pointless to tell them that Stan is Ben. And that what he has is CTE. That’s his information to choose who to disclose it to. I still feel slightly guilty for saying so much to Jane and even Sophia. Plus, why tell them the truth when I don’t even know if things will work out between us?
The fact that I’ve missed him so much that I’ve felt like a part of me has been ripped away tells me all I need to know. That I’ve been more miserable in the past month than I was after my grandfather and Renee died speaks volumes. I love Ben. And I know now, that no matter what, I’m willing to face whatever the future might bring with him. But does he feel the same?
“Have a safe ride home. Text when you get there so I don’t worry,” Stacey says several minutes later while I’m loading up my truck.
“I will. And thank you both again so much,” I tell them, hugging first Stacey, and then my sister.
Megan holds onto me a beat longer than I anticipated. “I really am sorry. You’re not a coward. That was a shitty thing to say,” she tells me. “I just love you so much, and believe in you so much, that I felt like I needed to do something drastic to snap you out of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you as down as when you got here, and honestly, it freaked me out. I didn’t handle it well.”
I squeeze her hard before letting go. “I get it. And I accept your apology. Love you too.”
“I hope things work out with you and Stan,” she says.
“Me too,” I tell her.
I say goodbye to them and then carefully pull out into traffic. Parallel parking this truck was a bitch, and I’m so happy there isn’t anyone parked in the space in front of me. It would have been like that scene from Austin Powers with the steam roller in the hallway.
The drive out of Boston takes all of my focus. I swear the MassDOT – Massachusetts Department of Transportation – must be run by some sort of sadist who gets their jollies off from the misery of commuters. Half of the streets I travel down are familiar, because over the years I’ve visited Megan enough to learn them. I know which ones are supposed to be two-way streets, but twice I come to intersections where that’s what I expect and am instead faced with “one way only” signs.
Which lead me straight to a brand-new toll. Imagine that.
“You win today, MassDot,” I grumble, merging onto the highway and heading toward the Tobin Bridge where I’ll be faced with yet another toll.
Traffic is heavy all the way out of Mass and well into New Hampshire. By the time I hit the Maine bridge on I-95, it starts to clear up a little, and then after I pass exit 75, I’m the only vehicle on the road.
I spend the rest of the long drive stuck in my own head. It’s been over a month. Is that enough time for Ben to feel like it will be healthy to let me back in? How do I even broach the subject without it seeming like I’m pushing him?
I end up doing that thing that I’m sure everyone does when they’re nervous. I rehearse the conversation in my head, coming at it from all angles, practicing what to say if he seems uncomfortable or uneasy or even standoffish. This takes up the entire last leg of the drive, because Ben just tends to bring out the neurotic side of me, apparently. I should really just accept it at this point.
The sun is just starting to set when I crest the hill leading to Jack’s, staining the sky an ugly, mottled puce that speaks of a storm rolling in.
“Hey there, kiddo,” he greets me as I get out of the truck.
“Hi, Jack,” I say, hugging him with one arm. “Thanks again for watching the boys.”
“You’re welcome. They’re pretty worn out.”
“Yeah, you have them out through the woods snowshoeing?” I ask as we break apart and he leads me up the porch.
“Nope. I had Boots and Doodle too, and those little gremlins have more energy than even yours do.”
I pause halfway up the stairs, feeling shell shocked. “Is Ben here?” I ask. Oh, God, am I ready to see him right now if he is?
Jack chuckles, and for once it feels like our roles are reversed and I’m out of the joke that he’s in on. “Nope. He picked ‘em up about an hour ago.”
“Oh,” I say, taking the rest of the stairs up. I want to ask so, so bad why he was watching them, but that suddenly feels intrusive. Which is so weird after Ben and I were so deeply into each other’s lives.
“He asked about you too,” Jack says, pushing the front door open.
“Yeah?” I try and fail to crush the hope rising in me.
“Yup,” Jack answers. “Seemed like he missed you.”
The hope becomes a living thing, and I’m thankful that it’s then my dogs catch sight of me. It keeps me from having to respond to him.
“Hi, you,” I say, dropping to my knees. “I missed you too. Why, hello, Fred. No, you may not lick me. I don’t care how long it has been.”
The dogs bark right in my face in their excitement, yip and roll over my knees, nearly knock me down when they ram into me. Sam tries to crawl into my lap, whine-howling in a way that makes me want to promise never to leave them again.
Dogs, man. They’ll break your frigging heart.
Eventually I get them calmed down enough to take them out and buckle them into the truck. I thank Jack again for watching them before we say goodbye.
“Maybe give him a call before you head home. Just a suggestion,” he says, hands up in an innocent gesture before he turns and heads back inside.
“I’ll think about it,” I yell back. Then I shut my door, turn the truck on, and put it into reverse. What would I even say to Ben right now? Which of the seven hundred and eighty six scenarios I thought of is the right one?
I make it to the end of the driveway before I shift into park and pull out my phone. Instead of calling, I text, because I have no idea if I can handle hearing him speak right now. I have a few voicemails from him saved on my phone that I’ve been listening to on repeat the past few weeks, and they always make me cry.
Hi, I say. Simple. So simple it doesn’t have to mean a goddamn thing.
Hi, he immediately responds. You home yet?
My pulse spikes, adrenaline flaring like I’m getting ready to run a race, not reply to a text. Not yet. Just picked up the dogs, I tell him.
Want to swing by? he asks.
Yes, I answer.
The butterflies in my stomach have shapeshifted into a herd of stampeding wildebeests that seem hell bent on trying to break free. I feel like I could laugh or cry or vomit. This went so much better than anything I rehearsed. In all my scenarios, I was the one to broach the subject of meeting, carefully, and without strings attached. That Ben immediately went to “come over” gives me so much hope to cling to that if this goes sideways, I’ll be beyond devastated. Wrecked to the point that I don’t know if I could ever come back fro –
“No,” I tell myself, shaking my head against such thoughts.
I can’t allow myself to think of worst-case scenario right now. I’m about to see him, face to face, for the first time in over a month. I need to focus on that. Take it one step at a time, just like Sophia has told me to.
I set the phone in the center console, swing my arm over the passenger seat, and turn around so I can back into the road.
I’m pulling into Ben’s what feels like heartbeats later. He’s on the porch waiting for me, a big, looming shadow because the sun has almost fully disappeared. As I park, he steps into the floodlights, and the sight is enough to still my heartbeat. He’s wearing jeans and a plaid button down. His hair is wild in the wind, and he pushes it back hastily as he takes the stairs down.
I get out of the vehicle and have the dogs unbuckled before he reaches us. They zoom straight for him and say hello.
“It’s only been an hour, you two,” he rumbles, leaning down. The sound of his deep, rich voice makes me want to sob.
When he stands up, our gazes immediately catch, a half smile still frozen on his face.
“Ella,” he says.
“Ben,” I answer.
And then I’m moving forward. I don’t even question this overwhelming need to hug him. There’s some invisible force, drawing us together. The look of open longing on his face makes it clear I won’t be rebuffed.
What I’m not expecting is for him to haul me completely off the ground. I have to hastily wrap my arms around his neck and hold on for dear life to keep from slipping.
“I fucking missed you,” he murmurs into the side of my neck.
“Are you…Ben, are you smelling me right now?” I ask, teasing him because if I don’t, I’ll break down sobbing instead.
“Yes,” he says, unabashed, shoving his nose into my neck and taking deep, panting breaths like he’s some sort of deranged werewolf, scenting his mate.
“Your beard!” I croak, struggling to pull away.
His response is to let loose a muffled “Muah ha ha ha ha!” with a disturbing edge as he sniffs his way lower, making that horrifically uncomfortable/hilarious tickling sensation so, so much worse.
He finally lets me down when I start scream-wheeze-laughing. And then, to my horror, when he releases me, it turns into just straight up crying.
“Shit, are you okay?” he asks, leaning down to look me in the eyes. Even in the darkness you can tell his are an almost inhuman white-green. His hair falls loose over his shoulders with the motion and I want to wrap my fingers in it and never let him go. God he’s beautiful. So fucking beautiful.
“I just really missed you too,” I tell him. And then it just. All. Pours. Out. “This has been the worst month of my life. Are you okay to have me back in yours yet? We don’t have to be anything romantic, if you can’t handle that. I can just be here to puppy sit and work on the reno and be your friend and maybe abuse all your detractors on Twitter.”
He takes me by the shoulders. “Ella.”
“And I know that sounds desperate, and maybe kind of pathetic, but I don’t really care. I just know that if you’re ready at all to have me back in any capacity, I would happily take that and I won’t even try to touch your butt or anything.”
He’s grinning now, shaking his head at me. “Ella,” he says, with a little more force.
“And before you question whether or not I’m really ready for this, you should know that I’ve been stuck at worst-case scenario for weeks, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about whether or not I can handle that and I can because…because I love you, Ben.”
Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, oh, fuck, oh, fuck. I just said that. Out loud. To a man who may not be in a place to hear it. Or in a place to be able to accept it or even return the emotion. What the hell have I done?
He opens his mouth to respond but I barrel over him. “You don’t have to say anything back to me. How you feel doesn’t matter.” I want to open a hole in the earth and bury myself alive in it. “Oh, Jesus, I mean, obviously how you feel matters, but I mean you don’t have to love me back. It won’t crush me if you don’t -”
And then his lips are on mine and hope begins to rise again like a phoenix within me, swelling with so much heat and ebullience that I feel like it might actually do me real damage if it’s allowed to grow any bigger.
I laugh-hiccup-sob against Ben’s lips, and he pulls back just enough to whisper, “I love you too. Please, come back to me.”
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.