Christmas with the Carters.
Because Brian knew it would probably be the last Christmas Nick had outside of an adult care center, he had inevitably decided on what he dubbed mentally as a Carter Christmas. He didn’t go back to Kentucky, didn’t invite his own family back out here, and amazingly enough, they understood. Instead, Brian invited the Richardsons, the McLeans, the Doroughs, and then the entire Carter clan to his home.
It was a time to let bygones be bygones, and celebrate what blessings they had together. He believed for whatever reasons, fate had brought five men together. By doing so, it intertwined their families without a choice. If for no other reason, than to be there for Nick, they needed to just unite for one last “normal” holiday.
Leighanne was the official chef of the day, and had freed Brian of any responsibility to help. Instead, she called Kristin and Leigh, and the three of them had set to work on preparing the dinner. To keep things civil, the Carters were supposed to all arrive later. He hoped he thought of everything. Nick didn’t need this to turn out badly. Even if he didn’t remember it, Brian wanted a good day for all of them to hold on to.
Last week, he’d been spending all his time walking through centers that Nick could transfer to. Nothing felt right. Nothing felt like this should be it. But he knew everyone was right when they continued to tell him he needed to be looking into it. Nick’s sleeping problems had been increasing, another sign of the progression of the disease.
Kristin stood there behind him, at the sliding door. He had been sitting out on the porch, just looking out into the backyard. It was easy to get wistful, and he’d even been warned by Kevin that if Brian kept shutting everyone out, he’d find a way to get him to see a therapist. The word “depression” was getting tossed around a lot anymore. He wasn’t depressed. He was simply trying to cope the best way he knew how.
“Hey.” He turned towards her, smiling at his cousin-in-law. She always felt like a sister, in the same way Kevin had always been more than simply his cousin.
“We need you inside.”
“No, see Jane arrived and Nick saw her…”
“WHY IS SHE HERE?!” He could hear Nick screaming.
He ran inside, making a hard decision instantly. He grabbed at Nick, who was beat red, looking livid at the sight of Jane Carter. She was standing there, her face stricken with hurt and betrayal. Angel stood just behind her, in tears at the sight of her brother this way.
“What is she doing here Brian?!”
“She’s just here to visit, it’s Christmas…remember?”
“She’s here to force me back home; she wants me to be her damn ATM again! I won’t do it anymore mom!”
A memory flashed through his head, back to when they were just kids. Nick had had enough. It was the first time he’d stood up against his family. It wasn’t going to be the last, of course. Since he was seventeen, his family had threatened to force him back home by declaring him a runaway. Nick had agreed to send money till he was eighteen, in return for freedom. He’d ended up staying at Brian’s place in Tampa about a month later anyway, not liking the emptiness that came with living alone.
“Nick, honey, that’s not it.”
Brian shook his head at her, trying to get her to be quiet. “Nick…” He turned his best friend toward him, trying to calm him down but clueless as to how. “Buddy, you’re not seventeen anymore. You haven’t been an ATM for them in a long time…okay?”
“No! It’s not okay! Get her the fuck out of my house!”
“Dad…what’s going on?” Baylee asked, with Mason, Lily, James, and Lenni in tow behind him.
“Baylee, go to your room. Now.”
“I said NOW Baylee!”
Nick frowned. “Who’s he? Brian, what the hell is going on around here?!”
Immediately he saw the looks of the kids when Nick didn’t recognize any of them. Baylee himself looked wounded as he led the kids back down the hall. He wanted to go after them, to explain. Kevin was the one who went after them to do so, along with AJ and Howie. Brian however, was left to handle Nick. Part of him was angry. He wanted Nick, this problem, gone from his life. He wanted things back to the way they used to be, and the irrational part of himself blamed Nick. Right then, for just a moment, he wished Nick was already dead.
The guilt that followed instantly was overwhelming.
“Brian?” Nick asked again.
He sighed as he led Nick out into the backyard, shooting Jane another apologetic look as he did. He spoke soothing words to his friend, explaining what he could. This wasn’t his fault. No one was to blame. It was just the burdens that God had set upon him to handle it. But could he? The two sat down on the swing chair. He wrapped his arm around Nick as his friend slowly calmed down. He did his best to hold it together, trying his best to remain strong.
Brian just wasn’t sure if he could be anymore.
Nick was sleeping back in his room a few hours later. Understandably, Angel, BJ, Leslie, and their families took Jane out for dinner on their own. They felt it was for the best. Brian had tried to explain how it wasn’t her fault; Nick just didn’t remember how they reconciled. Instead he thought he was seventeen, fresh from a European tour, and buying his own place to get away from his parents. And while they remembered the incident as well, they were still hurt and angry at Nick for his actions.
Part of him understood. This couldn’t continue. He could feel his heart shatter into jagged pieces that tore at him inside just at the thought. He didn’t want to give his best friend up. But in the end, he knew it was time. All the signs pointed in that direction. He wanted more time. He wanted to somehow help Nick get better, even though the thought itself was completely irrational. Now, he accepted it was time to put Nick in the hands of those trained to handle it.
As much as it killed him to do so.
Kevin looked at Brian. “It’s time. You know what…”
“…Home to put him in? Yeah, there’s this nice one with a great view of the beach. They have a few caretakers who specialize in Alzheimer’s. They haven’t had someone so young before, but they seemed like they could handle it.”
“We can each visit him on a different day of a week, maybe one all together. That way he doesn’t feel like he was abandoned in there.”
AJ punched the nearby wall, wincing at the impact. The four of them were outside in Brian’s backyard again, watching the sun set as they tried to plan their youngest brother’s future. He didn’t look at any of them, and Brian didn’t blame him.
“This fucking sucks. I hate this shit.”
“This isn’t easy for anyone.” Howie said, sitting in the porch swing. “We know how unfair it is, but we can’t change it.”
“Nick knew this was coming. We all did.”
“That’s why he did his best to prepare for it.”
They all remained silent for some time, each lost in their own set of thoughts. Then, Brian smiled, inexplicably. He thought back to younger years, back to what had started them on this very road. There were so many things they had dealt with along the way. He wouldn’t change a thing. All of it added up to the men they were today, even this. They needed the good times and the bad. He started laughing as he reminisced, which caused the others to look at him oddly. Howie frowned.
“Brian, are you okay?”
He nodded, wiping the tears away. For the first time in awhile, these were tears of laughter, rather than pain. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just…do you remember when he got mad at AJ for busting his Gameboy…?”
“Oh yeah…he was annoying the hell out of me with that damn thing!”
“So Nick…and I still can’t figure out how…cause AJ never told us…”
“I’m taking that shit to the grave man…”
Kevin started laughing. “That’s right; he super glued your hands to the bathroom stall door at some restaurant in Germany.”
Howie cracked up as well. “And we almost forgot him; we would have had Lou not gone in to use the restroom. He was unzipping his pants. AJ screamed to get his attention…”
“That image fucking scarred me for life.”
“Oh! I’ve got another, do you remember, back in 1999, when we accidentally forgot Nick at that road stop!”
“Yeah, and I looked out my window, and there’s Nick chasing after the busses screaming.”
“I stuck my head out the window just to laugh at his dumbass. That shit was hilarious. He was running for his life, throwing shit at the busses. He was screaming all… ‘Hey! That’s okay! Just forget me! I’m only NICK FUCKING CARTER!’ and then he’d throw something again and yell, ‘AJ you asshole! Tell them to fucking stop!’ Too damn funny.” AJ said between his laugher.
Kevin’s eyes narrowed. “You two didn’t tell us for an hour after he left.”
Howie shrugged, smirking. “I liked the quiet. You gotta remember, Nick was nineteen. I loved him, but he got on my nerves! I couldn’t get sleep with him around. I wanted a catnap before I told you we forgot him.”
The group burst into laughter again. Brian enjoyed the moment. A realization hit him. Nick may not remember them, but they would remember him. The way he would always be filled with laughter. The loyalty he had for those who cared about him, how protective he got with those he loved. Or how he always tried so hard at everything he did, no matter what others said. The passion that he lived his life with was one of a kind. They’d remember the life he lived and they way he enjoyed every moment of it.
And despite everything, that was enough.