The air was pretty crisp the next morning when the sun started to show signs of it’s presence, but the campers at Jackson Lake felt cold for a different reason. One by one they woke up and began breaking down camp, but they were walking on eggshells with every step they took. It was quite the opposite feel from last night’s campfire.
Everyone was feeling pretty crappy about Leighanne. They all felt pretty much the same way she did, but they were each falling apart for their own reasons. The only difference was that they’d all been able to pretend so far that they could hold it together. Leighanne was the only one that hadn’t emerged from her tent this morning and no one wanted to be the one to wake her, not after last night, so they all just went about their own business wondering who would be the next person to crack.
Leighanne was not the only one people were tiptoeing around though, Howie was obviously not quite himself either. He’d come back to camp long after Leighanne’s little display, though he heard it from a distance, and he’d stayed silent as the grave since he woke up. Nobody knew exactly what had transpired between the two last night, and they weren’t about to ask. The situation was quite fragile and whatever happened left it cracked, if not broken.
Howie didn’t mean to be so upset. He even had sympathy for Leighanne, he just didn’t know how to show it. But Leighanne didn’t seem to need, or even want his help and it hurt. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to deserve such an attitude. He had never been anything but nice and supportive to Leighanne and would never in a million years have backed away from the pregnancy had she told him about it.
Howie loved family, and he loved kids. He was always visiting his nieces and nephews and had longed for years now that he had a family of his own. He was excited by Baylee but was sure the kid hated him. He wanted to embrace him and get to know him and maybe one day earn the right to be called his father, but he wasn’t sure Baylee wanted it, and for some reason Leighanne seemed dead set against it.
And then there was Baylee. Baylee was an emotional wreck, wandering around a camp full of adults he’d only met the day before. He’d never felt more alone and that was an awful way to have to feel when you were as scared and confused as Baylee was. Leighanne was right, he was a very smart kid, and not just because he had a pretty high IQ. Baylee was smart the way that most kids raised by single parents were smart. He’d been placed with a little more responsibility on his shoulders than most kids his age and as a result was a little more mature and a little less naive than other eleven year olds.
Baylee knew that his mother and Howie had fought last night and he knew he was the reason for it. He also knew that everyone in camp knew the same thing and were looking at him just a little differently this morning. He just didn’t know who was on what side. Everyone was nervous. Baylee could always tell when adults were nervous. It was a talent he’d acquired since his mother spent the majority of her life a nervous wreck.
If it weren’t for AJ, Baylee would probably be about as stable as his mother right now. AJ seemed to be the only one that really took any special care for Baylee and even though it seemed like he was just worried because Baylee was a kid, Baylee still clung to his attention. AJ helped him pack up and get ready for the day’s hike without making it seem like he was stuck with an extra chore. He genuinely seemed to like the kid and Baylee was grateful for it.
Finally when all was packed up and everyone sat around the campfire having some breakfast, Nick looked over at Leighanne’s tent. “It’s getting a little late. We’re gonna have to wake her up.”
“I’ll do it.” Baylee sighed and then started to stand up. “She won’t kill me.”
AJ pulled him back down and poured some coffee into a tin cup. “You know what, that’s ok. I’ll do it.”
Everyone was surprised by the offer, but no one protested it and they watched and waited nervously as AJ approached Leighanne’s tent. AJ quietly unzipped the tent and poked his head inside. Leighanne was tucked deeply under her sleeping bag sleeping as if she’d spent the night drinking. Her purse had spilled during the night and AJ immediately noticed the bottle of anxiety pills lying next to it. With a sigh he pulled the covers off Leighanne’s head and wafted the coffee under her nose. He tapped her lightly and she awoke with a deep inhale. “Is that a Terraza blend?” She groaned heavily.
“The one and only. Did you know it now comes in convenient little single-serving packets?” AJ smiled.
Leighanne took the cup gratefully and looked around as she sipped. “What time is it?”
“It’s getting kind of late, everyone else is pretty much ready to head out. Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll help you get packed up.”
Leighanne nodded and offered AJ a weak smile as he turned to leave. “AJ? How’s Baylee?”
“Poor kid had to stick it out with me last night. He’s a trooper.”
AJ smiled warmly back and then kissed Leighanne’s forehead. “Have a better day today.” He suggested and then left her alone.
Once Leighanne was up and about they doused the fire and packed up the final touches, ready to make their big hike. They put on smiles as best they could, all more than happy to avoid everything that happened the night before. Then just as they were about to leave they heard the sound of an engine coming up the jeep trail. Not too many folks ever visited the North shore so they waited around curiously until the truck emerged from the trees.
Everyone watched with wide eyes as Brian took a deep breath, crossed himself and then slowly stepped from the car. He met six pairs of eyes and then cast his own to his feet. “I’d like to come.” He murmured, “If that’s alright.”
The tension in the air increased one hundred percent. Only Kristin, Howie and Baylee smiled, but AJ was just as relieved to see him there. Leighanne reached for the pack of cigarettes she’d given up on trying not to smoke and Nick balled his fists. “Are priests even allowed to camp?” He grumbled.
“Nick, please.” Kristin said reaching out for his arm, “I asked him to come.”
Kristin hugged Brian and helped him grab his gear from the back of the truck. “I’m glad you changed your mind.”
“It’s like you said, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t come. Kevin would have wanted it.”
“The hell he would have.” Nick grumbled as he stalked off up the trail.
AJ watched Nick for a moment and then looked at Brian who already couldn’t take his eyes off of Leighanne. He picked up his pack and followed after Nick, pulling the cigarette from Leighanne’s mouth with a smile as he passed. He took a long drag from it and then handed it back. “This should be an interesting trip.”
Leighanne watched AJ a moment remembering the tension she’s seen between him and Brian and couldn’t help but steal a glance at Brian. Their eyes met briefly and Leighanne quickly jumped in line after AJ. “Come on Baylee.” She said, snapping her son out of whatever trance he appeared to be in at the moment. “Hiking’s not as bad as you think it is.”
Baylee looked back at Brian one last time and then to Howie before obediently following his mother up the path. Howie instinctively followed the boy but stopped after a few steps and smiled at Brian and Kristin. “I’m glad you came too.” He confessed and then went on his way.
Kristin tightened a strap on Brian’s pack and then turned him around to face her. “Thank you.” She whispered again, even more sincerely this time.
Brian studied her smile and slowly formed one of his own. “How is it that you more than any of us, are holding it together so well?”
Kristin tried not to let her eyes water up as she laughed. “I’m barely hanging on by a string Bri. I know there’s more problems than friendships between us all now, but the truth is, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t all shown up. I can’t do this on my own.”
Brian wiped the moisture away from his own eyes. “Well then, I’m glad I came too.”
Two hours into their journey they reached the top of the hill that surrounded the lake and stopped to take a break. Nick pulled a bottle of water from his pack and laughed when AJ came huffing up behind him. “I never should have smoked all those cigarettes.” He gasped as Nick handed him the water.
“Is it just me, or did we used to get to this point in one hour, not two?”
“We’re not exactly eighteen anymore.” Leighanne groaned as she reached the top of the hill and threw her pack to the ground. “I really have to quit smoking.” She panted.
Nick shifted his eyes between AJ and Leighanne and just laughed at the pair of them. “City wusses.”
Baylee joined the group next and was very anxious to get his backpack off. “Mom?” he whined, “When is this hiking stuff supposed to get fun?”
“The exercise is good for you.” Howie laughed as he walked past the group to get a good look at the view. He looked down the backside of the mountain that they were supposed to get to the bottom of in order to reach the river and frowned. “I hope we go down hill a lot faster than we go up it.” He said looking at his watch, “Or else we’ll never make it to Mercy by dark.”
They all waited another moment to catch their breath and then started down the side of the mountain. About half way down, Nick and AJ both stopped when the sky went a few shades darker. They looked up behind them to see a dark cloud poke its ugly head over the hill. “Well where’d you come from, you sneaky little bastard.” AJ said, literally talking to the cloud.
“We’ve been getting the damn things all spring. Had a pretty wet winter this year actually, I’ll bet the river’s pretty high right now.”
“Yeah well we better not have a pretty wet hike or I’m gonna be pissed.”
No sooner did he say the words than a loud crack of thunder announced the sudden storm. Nick rolled his eyes at AJ as the rain began to fall. “Way to jinx it moron.”
Within seconds the rain was pouring, and the stinging companion the rain brought with it surprised everyone. “Hail!” Nick yelled back to the rest of the group but they didn’t need the announcement; they were already scattering to take shelter.
Nick and AJ ran to the nearest tree they could find and watched the others take cover a little further up the path. In the frenzy, everyone just sort of grabbed whoever’s hand they could and ran beneath the trees. Kristin grabbed Howie’s hand and pointed. “That one!”
Baylee was a little confused by the sudden commotion and Howie grabbed his hand pulling him beneath the large pine with him and Kristin. Leighanne, who had been lagging a ways behind the group for a while now, felt a hand tug her in the opposite direction and before she knew it, she and Brian were tucked safely beneath a tree yards away from the rest of the group. Leighanne squinted through the storm down the path at her son and started to make a run for it. “He’s fine.” Brian said pulling her back under the tree. “Howie’s got him. You can’t try to head down the hill in this and you know it.”
Leighanne looked down suddenly realizing that Brian’s hand was holding hers. Brian noticed at about the same time and dropped it with an apologetic look. Leighanne looked out at the storm wishing she could escape somehow, but the hail was nearly the size of golf balls so she leaned back against the tree in defeat.
Baylee leaned against the tree blinking widely at the violence around him. “What just happened?”
“It’s called a cloud burst.” Kristin explained.
Howie smiled when Baylee looked puzzled. “Basically it’s a really small cloud that packs a really big punch. Sometimes clouds build straight up instead of spreading out over more surface. Then they get really heavy really fast and suddenly burst with pretty much no warning. They move really fast and are extremely unpredictable.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“You don’t want to be caught out in the open in it, hail that size could do some damage, but we’ll be fine under this tree. We’re just gonna get pretty wet while we wait it out.”
“Could be five minutes, could be twenty. It really just depends. But we can’t head down the hill until the rain stops completely.”
Kristin and Howie exchanged amused looks. “Because if you do, you’ll get to the bottom a lot faster than you’d like.” Howie laughed.
“Just ask Nick.” Kristin giggled as well.
Baylee smiled at the thought of Nick tumbling down a muddy hill but stopped suddenly and looked curiously up at Howie. “How do you know about all this stuff?”
“From hanging out with Kevin mostly.” Howie said sharing a sad smile with Kristin. “He was kind of like Davey Crockett.”
“We used to call him McGuiver.” Kristin laughed.
“He would lead us on all kinds of crazy adventures. He’s actually the one that discovered the hot springs.”
“He discovered them?”
“Yup. In fact the seven of us are probably the only people who have ever been there.”
Kristin put her arm around the kid and smiled. “Really. That’s why it’s such a special place to us. In fact, you’re the first person we’ve ever even told about this place, so I know you must be special.”
Baylee rolled his eyes. “You’re only bringing me cause you have to.”
“That’s not true.” Howie replied sincerely, “We wanted you to come.”
“After all, you are one of us.”
Baylee looked up at the smile on Howie’s face and realized that he was actually talking to his father. The man standing in front of him, telling him that he wanted him there, was his honest to goodness dad. After eleven years he was no longer a mystery. The realization brought tears to Baylee’s face and the moment became slightly awkward for all present. None of them was sure what to say next and as they listened to the silence only one thought came to Howie’s mind. He smiled down at Baylee letting him know that he didn’t have to be embarrassed by the tears. “So, your mom tells me that your middle name is Duane.”
“Can you see everyone?” Nick asked AJ as he scanned the trees through the downpour.
“Kristin, Howie and Baylee are right over there, but I think Brian and Leighanne are up there somewhere. I can’t see them though.”
“Brian and Leigh ended up by themselves?” Nick scoffed, “I’ll bet that’s interesting.”
AJ looked Nick over curiously. “I doubt it’s as awkward as if you and Brian had gotten stuck together.”
Nick was a little startled by the insinuation even if it were completely accurate. “What’s up with that anyway?” AJ finally asked flat out.
“It’s kind of a long story.”
“Does it look like we’re going anywhere? Come on man, how’d you guys end up hating each other?”
“He’s a jerk-off, that’s how.”
“The Brian I remember isn’t capable of being a jerk-off.”
“He isn’t the Brian you remember.”
AJ looked out into the rain with pain in his heart. Brian had always been so sweet, and so good despite all the awful things he’d been through. AJ hated to think that he was responsible for tearing him down, but somehow he felt, deep in the pit of his stomach, that it very well could have been all his fault. “So what happened?”
“Well I guess it started back in high school when he started going to church more and then he became a damn priest. He left Mercy and when he came home all he ever did was bitch about all the things we were doing wrong with our lives. Like he couldn’t just be a friend anymore, he had to be our savior or something.”
“That sucks man.”
“That ain’t half of it.” Nick grumbled, becoming more and more bitter as the memories became fresh in his mind. “About six years ago Kev and Kristin were having trouble getting pregnant. They tried everything, but as it turns out Kevin just didn’t have it in him.”
“Really?” AJ replied, trying not to gasp, “Like nothing?”
“Completely sterile. It destroyed the guy, you know?”
“I can imagine. All he ever wanted was Kristin and a house full of babies.”
“Kristin tried to tell him over and over that it was ok, but nothing worked. He went into this self-destruct mode, thinking that he was like not a real man or something and that Kristin blamed him for it. He was just a mess.”
“But what does that have to do with Brian?”
“Well Brian was like a brother to him right? And he was always so proud of his saint of a cousin so even though Brian was never around anymore he was went to him for help. I could have told him that wasn’t such a good idea, but you know Kev. I guess he thought maybe if he got closer to God, he might get a miracle or something.”
“That sounds like Kevin.”
“Kevin drove all the way out to Missoula to Brian’s church so that he could tell him what was going on and ask him advice. I’m telling ya he was so desperate he was ready to convert or something. And instead of making the man feel better, Brian got mad. He actually had the nerve to tell Kevin that it was his fault. That maybe he was being punished for things he did. Like he deserved it! Do you believe that shit?”
“That’s messed up.”
“Kevin!” Nick screamed, “What the hell bad thing did Kevin ever do in his whole life?”
“If that’s true, I’d hate to think what I have coming.”
“Yeah, well it mess him up. He went out and got so wasted that he didn’t come home until three days later when Kris and I went out there and drove his ass back. He was never the same after that.” Nick sighed thinking about the dark truth behind Kevin’s accident. “Never.” He breathed.
“So how come when Brian looks at you he seems like he’s trying to shoot lasers at your head.”
“Oh that’s another thing!” Nick ranted, nearly becoming irate, “I went to talk to him when I came out for Kevin and he was so pissed at me he could barely speak. He said I betrayed him and that I destroyed his life.”
“What’d you do?”
“Hell if I know? I asked him that myself, but he just told me that I would eventually have to pay for my sins. He fucking disowned me. Litterally. He said that because of me he could never show his face in Mercy ever again. He said it was my fault that he could never go home and that he wanted me out of his life for good. I told him to go to hell and he said there wouldn’t be room for both of us and he was sure I would beat him there. Some holy man he is, telling his ex-best friend that he was going to hell. Can he even do that?”
Again guilt swept over AJ to an almost destructive level, and he could only shrug when Nick looked at him for a response. He knew Brian’s secret. He knew why he didn’t want to go home, and it had nothing to do with Nick. “Anyway,” Nick sighed, trying to calm himself, “He never came home again. Never spoke to any of us ever again. Not me, not Kevin, not the Richardson’s. They were the only family the guy had and nothing. Not one phone call in six years. Not until the day Kevin died. The bastard! He’d better be right about God being forgiving, because I sure as hell ain’t. ”
Nick finally stopped talking and realized that AJ looked pale. “You ok man?” he asked just as AJ leaned over and threw up.
“Dude?” Nick asked again.
“I’m fine man.” AJ waved him off, “I’m just not used to so much fresh air and exercise I guess.”
“Wuss.” Nick smirked.
It wasn’t the most sensitive response in the world, but AJ was grateful for it at the moment. It was not the outdoors that had caused AJ’s breakfast to come back up and if Nick had cared at all, he would have seen right through AJ. That was the last thing AJ wanted. It was one thing to feel responsible for happened between Brian and Leighanne all those years ago, but finding out that he was in fact responsible of ruining the lives of everyone that he cared for was too much. If anyone needed forgiveness, it wasn’t Brian.