On the day when she finally heard something, she came in the door after her shift, at six in the afternoon, and checked the Internet for news about Brian. She held her breath as she clicked on each of the sites she'd stored into her favorites list, and sighed in relief when none of them had anything about Brian on them.
Her cell phone rang from inside the pocket of her pink and white striped apron that she had to wear at work, and she pulled it out. She didn't recognize the number or the area code. "Hello?" she answered tentatively. She'd sent out a couple poems to some publishers in New York, she half hoped it might be one of them.
But it was better.
"Hallo, Amanda." His voice was weak, changed considerably, but it was definitely Brian.
"Brian!" she cried, her heart pounding in her chest, "Oh God, I've been so worried about you," she gushed, "How are you feeling?"
He answered by coughing raggedly. The sound was awful. She closed her eyes, trying to block out the implications of that sound. She'd heard it too many times when Piper was sick. "I'm okay," he said after he'd stopped coughing. Never the truth, she thought, shaking her head.
"You don't sound okay," she accused.
Brian chuckled, "You know me, hun," he said. He suddenly sounded sleepy. There was a pause, and she half wondered if he'd fallen asleep. "Amanda?"
"Yes Brian?" she asked.
"Can you come out here?"
"To Georgia?" She looked down at the apron, at the stupid plastic name tag with her name on it.
Brian's voice was soft. "I understand if you can't," he said, "But I really need to -" he paused, coughing again. Amanda, again, closed her eyes, barely able to bear the sound. "I really need to talk with you," he said.
"I'll come," she said. She wasn't sure how she was going to get a flight, she had like a hundred dollars to her name. But she'd get there if she had to sell her soul to do it. "I don't know where you live?" she asked.
"I'm at Grady Memorial Hospital," he answered.
The building was dauntingly huge. Amanda was reminded of the afternoon laying in the sunflowers with Nick, "So this is what it feels like to be an ant." She smiled at the sound of his voice echoing in her head. She missed that voice. She'd finally been able to hear the voice in her memories in tones that were not like the ones he'd last used on her. It had taken weeks. She'd been desperate enough to cling to even the anger he'd lashed upon her, but she was infinitely more comforted by sound bytes like this one about the ants.
"I'm here to see my friend," Amanda said when she got to the front desk, "He's in oncology, cluster D, room 26," she read the paper she'd scribbled the information down on.
"You're going to take the elevator up to the fifth floor, go across the catwalk, take the elevator down to the first floor, take a right off the elevator and follow the orange line on the floor. That'll be oncology. The receptionist there will tell you how to get to D-26."
Amanda muttered the directions to herself as she walked through the hospital. It looked more like a miniature city or a carpeted mall than a hospital. She passed a bunch of stores and a food court. She passed people that looked sick, people with casts and crutches and wheel chairs, people who looked elated, carrying newborn babies or wrapping their arms around ready-to-burst pregnant bellies.
Hospitals are strange, Amanda thought, They carry so much sadness, and yet offer so much hope.
She followed the orange line on the floor and found herself going through what felt like airport security. A sign demanded that all fruit, flowers, and other "foreign" substances of the like be left on a table before entering the doors. A pile of stuff lay on the table provided. Bouquets of wilting flowers, a banana that was turning brown in the air conditioning, a half eaten Snickers bar.
The receptionist looked up when Amanda entered, and immediately pointed at a machine affixed to the wall that dispensed Germ-X. After she'd liberally applied the antibacterial, the receptionist asked, "Who are you here to see?"
"Brian Littrell," Amanda answered, "He's in D-26."
The receptionist pointed to the left. "Follow the curve all the way to the back. The second pod on the left is D. Go ahead in there. 26 is the room on the right. Have you had a cold at all in the last 48 hours?" she asked.
"No," Amanda answered.
"Cough? Sinus infection? Sneezing?"
"No," Amanda replied, a little scared by the way the receptionist was running Gestapo on her.
She smiled comfortingly at Amanda, "I'm sorry. We have to ask. If you've been sick we have to make you wear a face mask." She held up a cotton mask with rubber straps that hooked onto the ears.
"It's okay," Amanda answered. She felt sick now. This was scary, intense stuff. If this is what it was like outside the room, what the hell was she about to see inside? She was terrified.
The walk to the pod wasn't long. She passed several open rooms and heard people coughing and moaning inside them. TV's played and tinny, disjointed laughter escaped from the rooms where people were watching sitcoms. It sounded unnatural - laughter. The pod was a closed-in, extra germ-free area. She sighed, not liking that Brian was buried this deep. It was like trying to crack into the CIA or something. A sign warned her to use Germ-X again, so she did, pumping a puddle of it into her palm before stepping inside the pod.
The door to room 26 was closed. Amanda inched toward it, and knocked.
"Come in," Brian called.
The room had a window that looked over a playground. Leighanne and Baylee were out in the playground and Amanda could see Baylee trying to run up a slide whlie Leighanne sat on a swing, sipping a juice box. Brian was laying in a position that told her he'd been watching them, but he shifted the moment she came in the door.
"Amanda," he said, a weak, but warm, smile spreading across his face. He'd lost a lot of weight, which was impressive considering how tiny he'd been to begin with, and his lips were chapped. She smiled back, even though it was hard to believe this sunken-eyed man was the same Brian she'd known. "Have a seat," he motioned to a plastic chair that was right next to him, and she sat down in it.
Honestly, a part of her had expected Nick to be there.
"How are you doing, Brian?" she asked, taking his hand.
He smiled, "Ehhh, been better," he laughed, his eyes twinkled for just a moment, and Amanda could see the old him flickering just beneath the surface. "You?"
"Been better, too," she said with a laugh. "I quit my job."
Brian nodded, "How did your father take that?" he asked.
"He told me not to call him when I got evicted," Amanda laughed, "And I won't. I'd rather --" she'd been about to say die but somehow the word seemed tacky, "--live on the streets than go back to ask him for help," she amended.
Brian smiled, "There's our spitfire girl. I'm proud of you for having the guts to leave. Besides," he said, "I'm sure there were a ton of papers fighting to pick you up the moment you left Pop Stuff. Which one picked you up?"
"Umm, Joey's Food Shack," she answered, "But I probably lost that job, too. I didn't exactly request the time off to come," she laughed.
Brian's eyes fogged with concern. "You haven't gotten a new paper job?" he asked.
"No," she answered, "I mean I still have my account on the Associated Press, that doesn't expire for awhile yet, but nobody's going to pick up something on beach bums at Santa Monica, you know?" she laughed, "I don't really have time - or energy - to research anything else just yet. I'm trying to save enough to pay my overdue rent." She smiled sadly.
Brian sighed. "Well, that's... sort of what I wanted to talk to you about," he said slowly.
"What? My crappy job at Joey's Food Shack?" she laughed.
"I need a favor, Amanda," he said, "And I don't know if you'll want to do it, but if you will... well, I'd really appreciate it. It would mean a lot to me." Brian's jaw flexed with nerves as he spoke. "It actually may help you out, too."
"What is it, Brian? Anything," she said.
Brian looked her right in the eyes, "I need you to write the story."