“Hey, Jack,” I say, climbing down from the Jeep. “Thanks again for watching the puppies.”
“No problem. I’m sure they’ll be happy to spend some more time with their older cousins,” he answers, jogging down his front porch steps to greet me.
I hear a bark and turn to see Fred and Sam’s faces appearing and reappearing in one of the front windows as they jump up and down trying to sneak peeks outside.
“Is Ella here?” I ask, hope in my voice. Her truck isn’t in the driveway, but he could have picked her up or she could have been dropped off for some reason. It’s been over a month since she walked out my door, and while I’ve felt unsure of whether or not I’m ready to see her, the thought of her sitting in Jack’s living room right now makes me want to sprint past the man and rush inside.
Jack shakes his head. “She’s down in Boston for a few days, staying with Megan and Stacey.”
“Oh,” I say, disappointment swelling up to drown out that brief flash of hope. “How’s she doing?” My parents and I have visited Jack several times over the past few weeks, but aside from telling him about why Ella and I are taking a break, I haven’t brought her up.
“The truth?” Jack asks.
I nod, my stomach starting to sink at the pinched look on his face.
“I haven’t seen her this torn up since the year both her grandfather and Renee passed,” he answers.
I take a deep breath and hold it, counting to ten. I do this a lot lately, on Brian’s advice. We dropped my dosage back down last week, and feelings are becoming sharper again, at times, more painful. Hearing how upset Ella has been is sharp enough to cut. These ten seconds give me a chance to pause and adjust to whichever emotion I’m struggling with. Right now, it’s a mixture of pain, regret, and heartache.
“So, where are you off to?” Jack asks, sensing I need a subject change.
I latch onto it like a lifeline. “D.C. There’s a doctor at Georgetown that might have found a way to treat CTE. Or at least pause the degenerative process of it. Our foundation and a few other organizations are going to fund the next phase of trials, and I’m offering myself up as a guinea pig.”
He frowns. “It safe?”
“Pretty safe. The medications don’t interact negatively with the ones I’m already on, and they have pretty minimal side effects considering the fact that they’re drugs to treat leukemia.”
“Just be careful,” Jack says. “Renee ended up on the extreme reaction side to one of her cancer medications and we almost lost her before she even had a chance to fight.”
“I will, Jack,” I say.
He claps a hand on my shoulder. “I really hope it all works out for you, Ben. Good luck.”
“Thank you,” I tell him.
“You’ll be back, Friday?” he asks, releasing me.
“So will Ella,” he says, a small smile playing over his lips now.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I tell him, even though I’m not sure if I’m grateful for this knowledge or not. It makes me want to do something about it, and though today has definitely highlighted how much I want to see her, I have no idea if she’ll have me back. I have no idea if she can handle being with someone like me.
And that thought has been fucking killing me the past two weeks.
I turn away from Jack and open the rear door of the Jeep. Boots and Doodle are big enough now that they can jump down from it on their own. They’re growing so quickly, their personalities becoming more and more pronounced. For instance, Boots is trouble. His curiosity has him constantly getting into things he shouldn’t. And I’m beginning to suspect that Doodle has been egging him on somehow, because whenever I catch Boots in the act, his brother is always nearby, sitting innocently aside with a look on his little face that I swear resembles an “I didn’t do anything, Dad. Boots did it,” expression.
“Make sure your trash can is bungeed to something,” I warn Jack.
He laughs. “Boots still knocking yours over?”
“Every chance he gets. He doesn’t even eat anything out of it, just likes to see shit spilled all over the kitchen floor. It’s the damndest thing.”
“Might be doing it to get a rise out of you. Renee and I had this cat once that could open our laundry room door because it was one of those sliding ones. He’d get his little paw right under the joint where the hinge was and pull it open. Didn’t ever go in there, because the machines scared him, just popped it open and walked away. He could be dead asleep in the house, and if he heard Renee close it afterward, he’d jump up, and as soon as she was out of sight, the little asshole would open it right back up again.”
“A battle of wills with a cat,” I say, surprised into laughing.
“One that we lost every time,” Jack answers, grinning good naturedly back at me. “It’s good to see you laugh again. How you handling things?”
“Better now. Taking action is helping. I’ve been seeing a behavioral therapist, scheduling more tests, like this one in D.C., helping my parents with the foundation, speaking with my doctors about other treatments. It seems…more manageable now, if that makes sense.”
“It does,” he says, nodding.
Of course he’d understand, what with his history with Renee. I should have talked to him about all this sooner.
That thought keeps me occupied while we re-introduce the dogs. It’s like they were never apart. Fred and Sam immediately rush the puppies and give them a thorough sniff down, all four of them soon yipping and barking in greeting. Jack’s going to have a rowdy house the next few days if they keep this up.
Once they’ve said hello, the older dogs turn their attention to me, and it’s a shock to realize that I’ve missed them as much as I have. I drop to a knee when they rush me, letting them leap and sniff and try to jam their heads into my hands when I’m not fast enough to pet them the way they want.
“I missed you two,” I tell them. “You better have been taking care of your mom.” The last I add under my breath, so Jack can’t hear me.
I have to force myself up and away a few minutes later, feeling overwhelmed. I say a hasty goodbye to Jack and thank him again before climbing into the Jeep and heading back down to my place.
“How’s Jack?” Mom asks when I walk in.
“Good. Fred and Sam were there.”
“Ella?” she asks, face brightening, tone full of hope.
I shake my head, and her expression falls. “She’s in Boston, visiting her sister and her wife. He said she’ll be back Friday.”
“Same day as you,” Mom says with a pointed look.
They’re flying down to D.C. with me, but we’re parting ways afterward. They need to get home. Back to their lives. They’ve been away for over a month.
The past few days we’ve been arguing a lot. They want me to put this place up for sale and move back. I’ve been dragging my feet about making the decision. I’m not sure I’m ready for that. A return home feels like a return to the spotlight. Plus, a lot of the specialists I’ve been in contact with, and who have mostly agreed to treat me, are on the east coast. It’s way faster to fly from Maine to New York than it is from Hawaii.
And I have unfinished business here. I don’t think I can bring myself to leave until things are settled with Ella. One way or another.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
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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.