When he broke the kiss, he held Amanda out at arm's length. "Wasn't that amazing?" he asked.
Amanda was still dizzy from the shock of it all - from the trauma of the argument with Brian, the surprise of his offered hand, the weightless flying sensation... "It was... insane..." she whispered. Her throat felt raw.
Nick bounded to where Brian was kneeling and tackled him, throwing himself onto Brian's back, toppling them both over on the grass, laughing. Nick dragged his hand across Brian's head, giving him a noogie, and cried, "You actually did it, Brian! You're the bee's knees, dawg!" Amanda walked slowly toward them, her lips clamped between her teeth. Nick looked up at her, a big goofy smile on his face, "C'mon, get in here," he demanded as he wrapped his arms around Brian, "Group hug on Brian!"
"I think you're flattening him enough for the both of us," she answered smiling sadly.
Brian smiled up at Amanda, "C'mmoooon dooooown, you're the next contestant on The Price is Right!"
Amanda couldn't help but laugh at Brian's silly voice, an inkling of a hope for mercy crawling into her chest. She knelt down beside the wriggling boys and Nick leaped across Brian's chest at her, tackling her down, too. The grass felt cool against her face. Nick crawled onto the other side of her, and the three of them laid there on their backs in their jumpsuits, staring up at the sky as it turned magenta and purple.
They didn't stay in Omaha another night. Brian was too excited to see his mom and dad in Kentucky. They loaded up the Hummer and were on their way before nine o'clock that night. Nick had made Amanda take the front seat for a change, and he'd sat in the center seat in the back, leaning forward to talk and be included in the conversation. Eventually, though, around 2:00 am, he finally nodded off and fell back against the pile of duffle bags beside him.
"He looks so damn innocent when he's asleep," Brian laughed, looking at Nick's reflection in the rearview mirror. Nick’s smiling face was balanced on his hands like a cherub. He rolled his eyes, "The ultimate in deceit." He glanced at Amanda, "Well. Sort of."
She sighed, "Can we talk about..." she glanced back at Nick, "...this?" she asked.
"Don't worry, he's out of it," Brian said.
"A bomb could go off," Amanda said with a smile, thinking of their conversation that morning.
"Just don't draw on his face," Brian smirked.
Amanda laughed, "He told me about Howie and the penis nose," she said.
"AJ's an evil thing," Brian laughed, nodding. After a moment his face became serious. "Look, I'm probably stupid for this, but... I'm going to trust you are telling the truth about changing, Amanda. I'm going to give you a second chance."
Amanda's eyes welled up with tears, "Brian..."
He held up his hand in the one-minute motion. "Me giving you a second chance is an entirely different thing than Nick giving you a second chance," he said. "Nick isn’t going to be as easy as I am. He’s been through a lot of shit with girls, and he’s not going to take this lightly. I can’t even promise you that he will forgive you. But I’m going to forgive you. As a Christian, it’s my duty to forgive you. The whole redemption thing is a big part of who I am and what I believe in, and if you’re saying you’ve changed, then I need to accept that, just like I’ve been accepted. But the thing is, Amanda, honestly, I can put my trust in you, and believe you when you promise me things, but I'm not going to be here to see that you live them out. I just have to take your word for it."
"You know, for a believer in God you're awful certain you're going to die," Amanda accused.
Brian half-laughed, "What does my believing in God got to do with whether I'm going to die or not?" he asked.
Amanda shrugged, "Don't you guys believe in like miracles and stuff?" she asked, "Doesn't God heal those who believe in him and put their trust in him?"
"Sometimes," Brian answered, "Not always. Not every time. He's healed me twice in my lifetime. I think I have a pretty good track record in the miracles department. I mean not only am I breathing right now, but I've got the best friend in the world in the back seat there. Plus, we jumped out of a plane today and didn't go splat." He laughed.
"Now there's a miracle," she quipped.
Brian smirked, then his expression turned serious. "I have accepted that I'm going to die," he said quietly, "It's not because I'm suicidal or that I don't want to live that I'm so certain, it's just that I'm confident in my faith enough to know that the pain I feel now will be gone and I'll be home." Brian's eyes grew a faraway, longing look, "And I can't wait to hear it."
"Hear what?" she asked.
Brian's face grew warmer as he imagined it. "'Welcome home, you,'" he answered.
"Like your song," she said quietly.
He nodded. "Yeah, like my song."
They rode quiet for a few minutes, Amanda contemplating the meaning of the song and the words that Brian had just said. They passed a large 18-wheeler and Amanda watched the tires spinning as they cut around it.
"I need you to tell him," Brian said suddenly, "Before we get to Marietta."
Amanda looked to Brian, "Why Marietta?" she asked.
"Because that's where I'm stopping," he said, "Nick doesn't know it yet, but I'm staying in Marietta. We were originally going to continue the road trip up the coast, but I’m staying with my wife and son. I want to die at home.”
Amanda swallowed the lump in her throat from what that statement implied. She nodded.
Brian glanced at her. “I need you to tell him before ya’ll leave me because I want to know that he knows, or I’ll tell him myself.” He paused. “Amanda, if you tell him you’re going to have a way better chance of him listening to you than if I tell him or if he finds out on his own. Don’t wait for him to Google you, like I did, okay?”
“I was going to tell him the other day,” Amanda said, “When you came in just before we went to the hospital, Nick and I were on the deck and the words were about to come out…”
Brian sighed. “You’ll know when the time is right to tell him. Just make it sooner, rather than later, okay? As far as I know we only have two more stops before Marietta, and I’d rather not have to tell him myself.”
“I’ll tell him Brian,” Amanda promised.
When Amanda fell asleep, too, her head leaning against the window, Brian continued driving, thinking about everything they’d talked about. He pulled into a rest stop to go to the bathroom a little north of Lexington. The toilets were disgusting, and he was glad he wasn’t a woman that would’ve had to sit down on them to pee. There wasn’t enough money in all the world to make that worth his time…
On his way out of the bathroom a little girl came careening around the corner, followed by her mother, who almost bowled Brian down. Brian stepped back, his back against the wall, as she ran past, and smiled at the little girl’s bouncing pigtails. The mom, who was probably only 16 or so, stopped short as the little girl started playing with a dangling receiver in the phone booth and took a double take at Brian.
“Oh my God, no way,” she said, “Are you Brian Littrell?”
Brian smiled, “Hallo.” He half-waved, and pointed at the little girl, “She’s adorable,” he said.
The mother smiled, “Thanks. Her name’s…” she paused, “Don’t laugh. Her name’s Brianna.” She blushed.
Brian laughed, “Aw. She’s adorable.”
“I’m Kayleigh,” the mom said, biting her lips. She stepped closer toward him. “I cannot believe this is happening to me right now. I’ve been a fan of you since… well, I think I was her size,” she pointed at Brianna and laughed.
Brian smiled again. “Aw, that’s sweet. Makes me feel really old, but it’s sweet,” he laughed.
Kayleigh smiled, “Yeah. God. I was so bummed when you guys cancelled the tour,” her smiled waned a little bit. “It was the first time I’d been able to get tickets. My fiancé gave them to me…” she held out her hand to show him a small diamond. “He’s so sweet. His name’s Ricky.” She pointed at Brianna, “She looks so much like him.”
“Congratulations,” Brian said, unsure what else to say.
Kayleigh blushed again. “Thanks,” she answered. “Are you all okay?” she asked, a worried look crossing her face.
“Yeah we’re okay,” Brian answered, “Nick’s out in the car.”
“You were always my favorite,” Kayleigh answered. She paused. “I’m glad you’re all okay. There’s a lot of really bad rumors going around why you cancelled the tour.” Brianna came back over and latched onto Kayleigh’s leg. “The fans were worried. Especially since you guys told us what happened with AJ back in ’01, we thought it must be really bad if you weren’t telling us.”
You’re too smart for your own good, Brian thought, I’m just trying to protect you guys and you’re too smart for your own good.
Brian forced a smile and held out an arm to Kayleigh. She grinned and quickly scurried to him, Brianna following, clutching her mother’s leg. Brian wrapped his arm around Kayleigh and gave her a squeeze. “Thanks,” he said warmly, “We really do appreciate every one of our fans. Without you guys…” he shook his head. “Finite,” he said in his best Italian accent - which wasn’t good at all, actually.
Kayleigh laughed as the hug broke apart. “You’re always the silly one,” she said. “Thank you.”
“It was great meeting you Kayleigh,” he bent down and held out a hand to the little girl, “And you Brianna.” Brianna reluctantly shook his hand. He stood back up, “Drive safe.”
Brian could feel Kayleigh watching him as he walked away, and heard her whisper to Brianna, “That’s the man that sings that song momma loves, you know the one that goes I want it that way…? That’s him.”
Brianna started singing.
Brian was still smiling when he climbed into the Hummer. Nick was half awake in the backseat. “What’re you smilin’ about dawg?” he mumbled, rolling over so he was on his back against the duffles instead of his face.
“I just ran into a fan, that’s all,” Brian said.