She wasn’t kidding about the dogs. As soon as I’m through the front door, they’re on me, leaping, prancing, sniffing, and whining in such an excited whir that for a second it seems like there are five of them instead of two. I barely have space to get my gloves and coat off.
Ella has to raise her voice to be heard over the racket. “Sam, Fred, meet Ben. Ben, I’d advise you not to let them actually touch you with their tongues. You’d understand why if you saw what else they’ve licked today.”
She gives a dramatic shudder to accent the warning, and I crack a smile as I squat down to their level and let them smell me to their hearts’ content. She’s kind of funny, I’m beginning to realize, in a weird sort of way.
Jack is nowhere to be seen, but from my past visits, it’s easy enough to guess where he is: stacking more logs on the fire. I made the mistake of telling him I’m originally from Hawaii, and now he worries I might freeze to death if the house falls below 80 degrees, regardless of the fact that I also told him I lived in the Midwest for a while before moving here, and have since grown used to the cold. He acted as if this was all brand-new information. Like he has no idea who I am.
I take advantage of his absence by surreptitiously sneaking glances at Ella as I try to pet her overly friendly dogs and also keep their plague tongues away from my face. She definitely knows who I am. It was obvious from the deer-in-headlights look she gave me in the driveway, though she recovered quick enough. Now I just need to see what she’ll do with this knowledge. If she’s ‘good people’, like Jack said, she’ll respect my privacy. But part of me, the part of me that’s grown hard and bitter and disillusioned with other humans, is waiting for her to whip out her cell phone and upload my face and location to Twitter for all the world to see, ruining the peace and quiet I’ve managed to find here.
She stops at the coat rack just inside the door and begins stripping off her snowsuit. She’s tallish, maybe 5’9”, or 5’10”, with the narrow hips and the long, solid legs of a distance runner, now on display thanks to the lilac-colored leggings she’s wearing beneath her snow pants. They have little white reindeer prancing across them in a horizontal pattern. She pulls off her coat to reveal an olive-green, long-sleeved running top. I’ve had just enough fashion lessons crammed down my throat over the past decade to recognize how spectacularly the outfit clashes. It looks like she got dressed in the dark.
She glances down and freezes at the sight of herself, frowning in obvious disbelief before the corner of her mouth begins to rise in what looks like horror. I guess at what she’s about to do a second before she does it, so my gaze is safely on her dogs again when she sneaks a peek at me as if to check if I’ve noticed her fashion faux paus.
I risk another glance a second later, and see her pull her shirt down a few inches to rest the hem of it against the fabric of her leggings to double check that, yes, those colors are truly heinous together. She lets it go with a huff, then raises a hand and yanks off her knitted hat. A rat’s nest of bright, nearly orange, sweat-damp hair tumbles loose. It clashes just as much with her top as her top does with her leggings.
She catches a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror, makes a choking sound, and begins to rake the mess into a ponytail. “Of all the frigging days,” she mutters.
I doubt she realizes she’s audible over the racket her dogs are still making, but my hearing is better than most. The whole debacle is kind of endearing to witness, and I hide my amusement by turning my attention back to the huskies, who have used my momentary distraction to press themselves closer, wiggling their butts so quickly that they almost blur. One of them manages to sneak a nose past my defenses and bury his face in my crotch, and I take that as my cue to stand back up, out of their reach.
“Beeeeeeer,” Ella mutters, turning to pace toward the fridge. Then, lower, under her breath, “Only beer can help me now.”
The light is better in here, and I catch my first good look at her face as she passes. Creamy complexion, strikingly pale blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles across her button nose. She’s pretty. Really pretty. Even with matted hair and cheeks still a little blotchy from the cold. And she moves like a runner, with the long, even, confident strides of a natural athlete.
I can’t help but stare when she opens the door of the fridge and mostly disappears behind it as she ducks down to inspect its contents. Mostly being the operative word. Because her festive butt is now the only part of her that’s visible.
“Any oatmeal stout left?” I ask to cover the awkwardness.
She makes a pained noise in response, and, without straightening up, hands me one over the top of the door.
I frown in confusion as I move to take it.
Jack rejoins us then, stopping beside me to clap a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t mind Ella. Her sense of humor takes a little while to get used to. She likes to say things out loud that are only funny if you were part of her conversation from twenty minutes before. Or a week ago.” He gives me a look and lowers his voice. “I miss a lot of the ones I think I’m supposed to get.”
“Ah, gotcha,” I say. Needing something to do to keep myself from looking at Ella’s reindeer-covered ass, I uncap my beer and take a healthy swig.
Jack leans in to mock-whisper, “She called on the way over and asked about the oatmeal stout. I told her I’d save the last two for her.”
Her pained groan suddenly makes sense.
“Oh, uh, sorry, Ella. I already took a sip,” I tell her.
She closes the fridge, beer in hand, and turns toward us, revealing the full glory of her outfit to Jack for the first time.
He splutters and takes a staggering step backward. “Jesus Christ! Were you suddenly struck colorblind?”
Her expression gives nothing away as she props a hand on her hip and stares him down. “I’ll have you know that this is the new style, Jack. Matchy-matchy is out. Clashy-clashy is in.”
He looks to me, as if for help, and I just shrug, openly grinning now, starting to both understand and appreciate her particular brand of humor. It’s the kind that relishes in making other people feel just slightly off kilter, stopping well short of being mean-spirited or turning them into the butt of her jokes.
Her gaze shifts to me and her expression becomes stoic. “It’s okay, Ben. I can willingly share the beer. Like any other super well-adjusted adult.”
Jack opens his mouth. I can tell by his expression that something smart assy is about to come out of it.
Apparently so can Ella. “Shut it,” she tells him.
He chuckles in response, and wisely decides to keep his unspoken comment to himself.
One of the dogs moves in then, to press against Ella’s leg and look up at her with large, inquisitive eyes. I glance over my shoulder for the other one and see it already sprawled out in front of the roaring fire.
“Come on, Fred,” she tells the one at her side, then makes her way into the living room, opening her beer as she goes.
We turn to follow her.
I like Jack’s place. It’s simple, straight forward. A lot like the man himself. The kitchen is small, but tidy, and with a center island that has barstools conveniently tucked beneath it, it also doubles as the dining room. The living room, a little larger, is dominated by a fireplace made of river rock instead of the traditional brick, with rustic, comfortable armchairs and a couch spread out around it. Down the hallway is a bedroom, a home office, and a bathroom. Upstairs are two more bedrooms, as sparsely decorated as the rest. I don’t even think the man owns a television.
My gaze strays back to Ella, following the swish of her fiery ponytail as she walks. I’ve only known her for a few minutes, and yet I’m already beginning to feel something for her. Sometimes, you meet people, and you just know that there’s potential there, be it for unforgettable, athletic sex, or intense, burning dislike and antagonization. And while Ella is attractive, my intuition is telling me I could be friends with her. Good friends. That undefinable thing, that ‘click’ is just…there.
I haven’t had a good friend outside of football-related circles in a while, and I feel a sharp pang in response to the realization. When I was a kid, I was able to hit it off with almost everyone I met. I was a good read of people. I was easy going, quick to trust, and even quicker to forgive. Now I’m not good with strangers. It’s the lack of trust. Or so I tell myself. Because that’s what I hope it is.
Deep down, I’m afraid it’s something else. I don’t doubt that I have some level of TBI, regardless of that ‘inconclusive’ MRI I had after Zach died. I’ve had concussions. I’ve run head and shoulder first into dudes my size or bigger for years, and had them hit me in return. Like he did. I just don’t know how extensive the damage is, because I haven’t subjected myself to the more in-depth tests needed to search for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Will I one day suffer a life-ending seizure, like he did? Or slip-slide my way into irrational, uncontrollable anger, paranoia, or violent outbursts, like some of the retired pros I’ve met and spoken with have? Or will I be one of the lucky asymptomatic few? There’s really no way to tell.
Ella sinks into the armchair on the far side of the room, and the dog trailing her, Fred, jumps up into her lap like a large puppy and proceeds to pace in circles as he tries to find the right spot to lay down in. As a consequence, he nails her in the side of her face with his tail at every turn.
She shoots up a hand to try and deflect it. “Fred. Come on, man.”
Eventually, the dog settles, plopping himself down beside her on the seat, with his paws over her lap. A heartbeat later, he sets his head down on them with a heavy sigh and closes his eyes.
She digs the fingers of her free hand into the thick fur on the back of his neck and gives it a ruffle. “I know, bud. Long day.”
Jack folds himself down onto the far side of the couch, and the other dog, Sam, scampers up from the fireplace and spreads out beside him, leaving me with the remaining oversized armchair. I hesitate before taking it, unsure if I’m going to stay. I did manage to pull my gloves and coat off when I walked through the door, no thanks to the dogs, but my boots, which take longer, are still firmly tied to my feet, in case I have to make a hasty getaway. Not that I really expect I’ll need to – Jack seems like a pretty good judge of character – but I’ve learned over the years that it’s better to be prepared to run than get caught out on Instagram by someone looking for their fifteen minutes of fame at your expense.
“You have Willow today?” Jack asks Ella.
“I did,” she tells him. “Jane and Dave spent today finishing up her Christmas shopping, and I had planned on having a low-key craft day with her in the house, but then she got into the candy canes, and I had to take her sledding to try and burn off the energy.”
Jack arches a brow. “It work?”
“God, no,” she says, shaking her head.
“Willow is your niece?” I ask her, trying to sift through the many names of her family members that Jack has mentioned in the months that I’ve known him.
“Yup. She’s the little feral girl in the far right picture on the mantle,” she answers, pointing.
I pace to the fireplace for a better look. In the photograph, a small girl with dark skin and almost as much hair as I have is running through a field of wildflowers. It looks like it was shot in late afternoon, with the sun slanting low, rendering the light that surrounds her a soft, hazy gold. It would be adorable if not for the slightly manic expression on her face. As if she’s sprinting toward the person holding the camera with the intention of taking them out.
“She looks like a handful,” I say.
Jack and Ella laugh in response.
“You have no idea,” Ella says.
Sounds like Micah, I think, burying the pain of that thought before it can overwhelm me.
More pictures are spread out along the mantle, and though I’ve been curious about them since I first met Jack, I haven’t had a good excuse to really look at them in full. I do so now, needing their distraction.
Next to Willow’s picture is one of Jack and his wife Renee, who I recognize from the much larger photo hanging just down the hall. Beside the picture of the couple is one of them and what must be their kids. Next to that is one of Jack and a man that looks about a decade older than him, their arms around each other’s shoulders. I take my time inspecting the rest, before my gaze finally settles on a large frame absolutely crammed full of people. A much more visually diverse group of people than I ever expected to see after moving to this part of Maine.
I look closer and pick out both Willow and Ella, then turn toward the latter, a question on my lips. Her eyes flash up to mine, her expression becoming a mask of innocence, as if I hadn’t just caught her checking me out.
I pretend not to notice. “Is this your family?”
She nods. “The two middle-aged white people on the left are my parents. The man beside them is my oldest brother Jacob, with his wife and sons. The woman beside them is my oldest sister Megan, with her wife, Stacey, on her right. The woman beside them is my sister Jane. Her husband Dave is the one holding Willow. Then there’s me, of course, and then my younger brother Charlie, and the baby in the family, Anabel.”
Jack’s landline rings then – another thing I don’t think he owns is a cell phone – and he pushes himself up from the couch, carefully, so as not to upset Sam, and goes to answer it. I overhear him say hello before he disappears down the hall, leaving me and Ella alone with the dogs again.
“Are you all adopted?” I ask. She’s the only white sibling in the picture, so she could be theirs, but I don’t think so. Her parents are both short, with dark hair. She looks nothing like either of them.
“Yeah. Our parents couldn’t have kids, and in the 80s and 90s it was pretty common to look outside the US to adopt. Jacob is from Somalia, Megan is from China, Jane is from India, Charlie is from Afghanistan, Anabel is from South Korea, and I’m from what’s now Montenegro.”
I turn toward her, thinking back to my world history classes as I try to place her age. Early twenties, I’m guessing, which could mean… “You weren’t adopted during the Bosnian war, were you?”
She nods. “I was.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I was a baby, though, so I don’t remember any of it. Thankfully.”
“And your birth parents?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know. I haven’t looked for them.”
“Are you going to?” The second the question is out, I regret it. I just met the woman, and here I am asking her some deeply personal shit. Surprisingly, she opens her mouth to respond, but I throw up my hands, staving her off. “Don’t feel like you have to answer that. I wasn’t trying to have this level of intense conversation right off the bat, and I hate it when people I don’t know pry into my life, so I’m really sorry.”
She waves me off. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. Our family is different than most, especially around here, so I understand being curious. And trust me, your questions are nothing compared to some of the other ones I’ve fielded over the years. Plus, I mean, it’s kind of fair play in this case, right? I probably know way more about you and your family and its history than I have a right to, so -” She falls silent for a second, then glances down the hallway. “Does Jack know who you are?”
I follow her gaze. Jack’s voice is distant, like he retreated into the bedroom. I doubt he can hear us, but I still lower my voice, just in case. “I don’t think so.”
She follows suit. “I thought he might not. He doesn’t own a TV, after all, and still gets all his news from the local paper, the sports section of which is pretty shit.” She grins then, her expression slightly mischievous. “Then again, the rogue shampoo ad might have snuck into it, and he does know who you are and is just trying to make you feel like a normal person.”
Her smile is infectious, and I find myself returning the grin when I answer. “That would be pretty decent of him.”
“Jack is a pretty decent human,” she says.
“Are you?” I want to press, but don’t.
Our gazes catch, and her expression shifts into a slight frown. “Do you…do you mind my asking what you’re doing here, of all places?”
Loaded question if ever there was one, though I doubt she realizes it.
I break eye contact with her to look down into my beer, and remain quiet for a few minutes as I decide what to tell her. She doesn’t try to pry any further, or take back her question like I did a moment ago, or even shift in her chair as if my prolonged silence makes her uncomfortable, just sits there and waits in quiet patience. I like her even more for it, and decide to tell her just a little bit of the truth instead of the million and one lies I had prepared for a situation like this.
I raise my head to look at her. “I needed to get away.”
“I get that,” she says, nodding. “And this is probably the most far flung place to get away to and still remain in the continental US.”
I smile then, because that’s pretty much how I decided to move here; pulled out a map and looked for the farthest place from home. And the press.
“I’m guessing you want to keep a low profile while you’re here?” she asks.
“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” she says, and I actually believe she will. Especially when she follows it up with, “I’d suggest getting comfortable being a hermit for the next few months, at least until the snow clears. If you plan to stay that long, that is. Up here we get a little gossip crazy in the winter, with so little else to distract us. It wouldn’t even take anyone recognizing you to set off a firestorm. As soon as a local busybody got a look at your profile and put handsome-man and new-in-town together, you’d be inundated. I can run errands for you if need be. Or interference,” she adds.
“Thanks,” I say, appreciative of the offer. “But I get most everything I need delivered, and, so far, I’ve lucked out with not having to sign for anything.”
“I’m guessing the address is listed under a different name or something?”
“I figured. And you gotta love delivery trucks with chains on their snow tires.” A small line forms between her brows, and she adds, as if to herself, “I really should get some of those.”
We fall silent at the sound of Jack’s voice, drawing closer. He says goodbye to the person on the other end of the line when he reaches the kitchen, then sets the phone down on the island before rejoining us.
“You two getting to know each other?” he asks, carefully retaking his seat around the prone form of Sam. The dog doesn’t so much as stir.
“Yup,” Ella says. “We were just about to start braiding each other’s hair before you interrupted us.”
“Good,” Jack says, motioning toward me with his beer. “You should go check out her cabin, Ben. Looks like something out of a magazine. She could have your whole house done up in your style within a week if you unleashed her on it.”
With her free hand, Ella indicates her wild hair and eye-melting outfit. “Yes, I’m quite stylish.”
I can’t help but chuckle at her self-deprecation. It was my own favorite brand of humor back when I used to be better with people.
“Just so you know, half of the rooms don’t even have sheetrock up in them yet,” I tell her.
Her eyes widen in response. “Oh, wow. I heard Mabel Reynolds was something of a hoarder before she passed away. Did you have to gut the place?”
I shake my head and push off from the fireplace to settle into the free chair, making my mind up to stay. “Not really. There was definitely a lot of stuff, but it was more like a lifetime of accumulation than mania-driven collecting. I’m surprised her kids didn’t want any of it. Some of the furniture is antique.”
“Nah,” Jack says. “Nancy’s house is already filled to the brim, like her mother’s was, and Dale is getting ready to retire soon and head down to Florida. Last time I talked to him, he said he was trying to downsize.”
“Still, I feel kind of guilty for keeping it,” I say.
“Well, feel better knowing that you probably covered the purchase of it when you overpaid for the house,” he tells me.
I throw my hands up in response. “Jack, it’s a five thousand square foot home on a hundred-acre lot. They were asking way too little for it.” Ninety thousand had seemed like an almost offensively low price to me, even with the amount of work it needed. I would have felt like a criminal if I’d paid that for it.
“Good lord, I didn’t realize it was so big inside,” Ella says.
I nod. “Seven bedrooms. Three sitting rooms. A library.”
Jack snorts. “And only one functioning toilet.”
“True, but I’m working on that,” I say.
“How far have you gotten with the reno?” Ella asks.
“Well, I had to have the foundation fixed before I could even move in, so that set fire to my original schedule,” I tell her.
“You should have seen the equipment they brought up the hill for that. Semis hauling massive steel beams, bucket loaders. A crane,” Jack chimes in.
She jerks around to look at him in surprise. “They got a crane up here?”
He nods. “Miraculously.”
“I hope to never have to do that again,” I say, rubbing a hand over my face. “Once that debacle was over, I had to get the barn squared away. That’s where I’m storing most of the renovation supplies, so I needed it to be temperature controlled. The basement is done, the kitchen is getting there, and the study is right behind it. I got all of the fireplaces cleaned and working before the first snowfall, so that’s good, too, and added a pellet stove in the basement to replace the ancient boiler. A lot of the electric had to be rerun to replace the old knob and tube wiring, and the plumber isn’t in for a few more days, hence the lack of drywall. Or more than one functioning toilet. While I’m waiting, I’ve been stripping the hardwood floors, which are in surprisingly good shape considering they’re a few hundred years old. Tomorrow, I start staining them.”
Ella looks stunned. “How long ago did you move in?”
“Three months,” I tell her.
“Damn, that’s -” she glances at Jack, and then seems to reconsider how to finish the sentence, likely because her original thought had something to do with who I am and how long I’ve already managed to hide out here. “That’s a really respectable amount of work to get done in that time,” she says instead.
“Thank you,” I say, holding her gaze so that she gets the deeper meaning behind the words. “My dad owns a contracting company back in Hawaii. I spent every summer until I moved off the island doing this stuff. It’s basically second nature at this point.”
“Hey, now,” Jack says. “Don’t sell yourself short. That’s still a helluva lotta work, even for someone who knows what they’re doing.” He turns his head toward Ella. “Ben’s got a great work ethic. Reminds me a lot of you, kiddo.”
“Jack said you’re an artist?” I ask, latching onto the chance to move the subject of conversation away from myself.
“More of a graphic designer at this point,” she says. “I’m the owner and sole employee of Ella Jones Paperie, which I sell through several outlets, including my own website.”
“I was wondering how an artist could make a living this far out in the boonies.” Too late I realize how that might come across as an insult. “No offense.”
“None taken. I have a thick skin. And this is legit the boonies. To answer the question, you have to get creative. And good at bookkeeping, and market research, and understanding state and federal tax law. When I first started, I was selling one-of-a-kind paintings and barely scraping by. Two years ago, I switched to prints, which did a little better, and then a little over a year ago I adjusted my products and my target audience, and now most of my revenue comes from greeting cards, calendars, and wedding invitations. I use soy ink and recycled, compostable paper that I source locally, so I’m a hit with the eco-friendly crowd.”
“You’d like her work,” Jack tells me. “Quaint, quirky little forest scenes filled with critters. Most of them are sweet, but some are pretty funny. My favorite card she did is this Christmas one from last year, with an adorable little squirrel dressed in a holiday sweater staring out of a picturesque winter woodland with the words ‘I swear to God, if you leave me alone for even a second at our family gathering this year, I will poison your fucking egg nog.’ spread out around him in flowery script.”
I picture it in my mind for a second before my laughter takes hold of me and I have to set my beer down and tip my head back. “That’s pretty good,” I tell her, wiping at my eyes once I’ve calmed down. “I bet you sold those by the boat-load.”
She looks away from me quickly, her cheeks coloring in some emotion I can’t yet quantify. “I did. Thanks,” she says into her beer, before taking a long gulp.
I sober, fixating on that flush, suddenly remembering what she said a few minutes ago and belatedly realizing that she called me handsome.
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.