Take it anymore? Take what anymore? What could possibly mean? It didn’t sound like he was talking about me and my presence in his life. It had to be something more, something truly awful based on the tone of his voice.
“Ben, what happened?” I asked, trying to keep the judgment from my voice. “What made you leave?”
The sigh he released sounded as if it rattled his entire body. It was so strange coming from tough, strong yet happy-go-lucky Ben.
“We never talked about my family. I never even invited you over to my house when my dad was home,” Ben began. “Do you remember?”
Nodding, I said, “Yeah, I remember. I always thought it was a little strange, but I figured you’d talk about it when you were ready to.”
Ben’s face looked like it was screwed up in pain at the memories he’d just dived head-first into. “I think, if I’d stayed, I would have told you eventually. I wanted to back then, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It all hurt too much back then. It still does.” He was choking on his words as he spoke.
I looked over and saw Ben’s hands shaking so I took them in mine. My own heart may have been hurting, but it was clear that Ben was in agony. I let him take his time with his confession, not wanting to rush him.
A few minutes passed before he spoke again. “It was my dad,” he said. “I ran because of my dad. He, uh, he used to hit me. All the time. It started when I was just a kid, a slap here and there. But by the time I was a teenager, by the time we became friends, it was so much worse.”
I gasped. “Those bruises!” I exclaimed, thinking back to all the times I saw fading yellow bruises on Ben’s ribs and stomach and chest when we were able to have a few minutes alone. “You always said it was because you were clumsy, but I should have known better. I can’t believe I was so stupid!”
Ben looked up at me. “I didn’t want you to know better,” he said. “When I was with you, I just wanted to pretend everything was alright. When I was with you, everything was alright for a little while, but it never stayed that way when I got home. Especially when Dad was drinking. That’s when he was the worst.”
Giving his hands a reassuring squeeze, I asked, “So you left because of him?”
Nodding, Ben said, “I couldn’t say goodbye to you,” he said, an agonized expression on his face. “If I had, I never would have left. I was at my breaking point. I didn’t know what I was going to do and was terrified I’d end up killing him either in self defense or just to make it all stop. I’m not that kind of guy. Running was easier. Safer.”
I let out a long breath. “I understand,” I replied. And I did. If I’d been in Ben’s situation, I would have left too, ran away and never looked back. Ben’s reasons for leaving were understandable, but the fact that he had to do so was heartbreaking. I wished I could have done more for him back then. Maybe if I’d been more observational at seventeen, I could have saved him, gotten him out of his father’s house. I’m sure my parents would have let him live with us. They’d always liked Ben, or at least they did until he broke my heart.
I needed to snap myself out of my downward spiral. Berating my seventeen-year-old self wasn’t going to help. I was just a kid back then and didn’t have the wherewithal for protecting Ben, not really. Only the cops or family services or something would have been able to do that.
“Thank you for telling me now, Ben,” I said.
He gave me the barest of smiles and leaned his forehead towards me. I leaned forward too and rested my forehead on his. It was something we used to do as teenagers. Whenever one of us was upset, we’d bring our foreheads together and feel comforted, supported by the other.
We stayed like that for a minute or two before Ben pulled away. My mind was racing, filled with confusion as I tried to reconcile old Ben with new Ben, my old feelings with what I suspected were new ones.
I cleared my throat, trying to dislodge those particular thoughts. “So what happened after you left Las Vegas? How did you end up on the ranch?”
Ben looked back out at the lake. “Honestly, I got in my car and drove north until it crapped out on me a few towns south of here. I used my fake ID that said I was eighteen and got a job at an auto body shop. I worked there for about three years and learned a lot. I’d always been good with machines, so it just made sense. I think I was twenty when the shop went under. I needed a new job and saw an ad looking for ranch hands. I went in to interview and Hank hired me on the spot. This was before Break-Ridge had even opened yet. I’ve basically been here since the beginning and get to use my mechanical training here on the tractors and such. Honestly, that’s basically it. My life hasn’t been that exciting.”