And when the current did pick up - which it did several times, throwing the little raft up and down over rocks and bumps in the river - Amanda managed not to have another melt down by leaning back so that Nick's chest pressed against her, and she could almost smell him over the fresh air that filled her lungs. She'd never realized how comforting he was before, but now that she'd noticed she was craving his proximity.
They reached the gorge before two in the afternoon, and Pat helped them pull the rafts up onto the shore of the river and anchor them by tying them to some trees near by. They set up tents in a large clearing, and some guys built up a campfire in a pit, while Pat showed the three kids in the team some of the basics of boy scouting - things like how to tell which way was north by looking at the moss on trees, and how to start a fire using two sticks.
Because Nick was tall, the guys putting up the tents had quickly claimed him to assist them, and Amanda and Brian were left sitting on the river bank by the rafts. Amanda had taken off her sneakers and was standing knee-deep in the water, the sun reflecting off it as it rushed by.
"I don't know how you can even look at the water," Brian said. He'd been on the verge of throwing up during one of the especially turbulent currents and he'd made up his mind that this would be his first and only experience white water rafting.
Amanda laughed, "I wanna see the gorge," she explained. She squinted into the distance, but couldn't see anything. All she could hear was distant thundering. "I can hear the waterfall," she said.
"Makes you wanna get an old fashioned beer barrel, huh?" joked Brian.
Amanda waded back in to the shore and sat down next to Brian. He looked her over, and said, "So why do you think Nick's bugged by that guy?" he asked. Ben was skulking by a cluster of trees off to the side, not really doing anything except standing and watching everything else.
Amanda shrugged, "I dunno." She didn't wanna talk about him.
Brian watched Ben, and followed his gaze to Nick, who was battling with a tarp, trying to make it suspend over a tent. Brian squinted and frowned, deep in thought. "You know... the idea has crossed my mind that Ben could be the photog that's been following us around, but he isn't snapping pictures of Nick, he's just watching. Which is kind of creepier, actually."
"What else do you think Nick's got planned for us on this lovely vacation?" Amanda asked, trying to change the subject.
Brian laughed, "Who knows with Nick? This has been incredible. It's hard to believe there's anything left for him to have plotted."
"Right?" Amanda smiled. She looked in Nick's direction and felt a warm, fuzzy feeling crawl over her. "He's really special, Brian."
"I know," Brian answered. He looked Amanda over. "It's not every guy that would plan a big trip like this for his friend."
Amanda looked to Brian. Something about the tone... "Yeah," she said, "But it'd have to be a special friend for a guy to do something like that, too."
Brian's smile was sad. "Or one who was dying," he said.
The words were so not what Amanda had expected that she almost didn't comprehend them at first, almost agreed without realizing what he'd said. But then the words sunk into her head. Or one who was dying. She felt her heart screaming.
Brian looked at her, then looked away, down the river. He stood up and walked over to the edge, staring down in the direction of the gorge. Amanda stared at his back, at the shape of his legs sticking out of his shorts - which were kind of on the goofy side, especially with his water shoes, which he'd lined with socks. He was probably the only person in the world that would line water shoes with socks, she thought.
And he's dying.
The word was like ice water down the spine. It hurt. She felt breathless and dizzy.
She walked over to him, her knees felt like rubber. She stood there awkwardly beside him, trying to decide how to word what she was thinking. Finally, blunt just felt like it was the best answer. "You're not though, right?" she asked, feeling desperate.
Please say no, she begged him with all of her heart.
Brian turned to look at her.
You are. Amanda felt sick.
"No," she whispered, shaking her head. She felt cold.
"That's why we canceled the tour," Brian whispered.
Amanda backed away, closing her eyes, like that would make it stop. "No," she said, her voice cracking.
"That's why we're here," Brian said, "In this beautiful, beautiful place. Because I needed to know that there was something beautiful left. That it wasn't all medicine and treatments and hospital food and chemotherapy and heart monitors."
"Stop," she wasn't even sure there was an actual noise when she said it, her voice was that strangled in her throat. Tears seared the rims of her eyes. Her chest felt too small to contain itself. "But," she whispered, "It's not fair."
"Life is never fair," Brian answered simply.
"No, I mean any of it," she said, shaking her head. She caught a glimpse of Ben, who had spotted that she was crying, and was now watching her and Brian. She felt like throwing something at his face, screaming at him to go the fuck away, to leave Brian and Nick alone. If I'd had any idea, she thought, agonized. She looked up into Brian's face and gasped out, "Of all the people in the entire world, why the hell does it have to be you?" she asked.
Brian didn't respond, he didn't know how to. He just stared at her. He reached out to touch her shoulder, to try to comfort her, but she turned away. "Amanda," Brian whispered, "I shouldn't have told you this."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" she demanded.
"Why didn't Nick tell me?" she asked.
Brian glanced at Nick, who was laughing, carefree, and helping put together another tent. "Nick's barely let it into his own heart and mind, let alone to place it into another's."
"Can't they fix it, whatever is wrong?" she asked.
Brian looked down at her. "They... they wanted to try," he said, "But there was no guarantee," he said slowly, "Even on the chemo, most patients only extend life by six or seven months, statistically. But... when I left for the trip... it-" he pursed his lips together and took a deep breath, "It pushed me past the time for the - the treatment option. The window of opportunity is gone."
"Why would you do that?"
"I wanted to die living," Brian said, the words thick in his accent, "Not live dying."