Once Kristin was calm, all was pretty quiet around the fire. Nick took her for a walk to gather more firewood and blow off some steam while AJ made some hot coffee for the three people who had taken a swim. Leighanne found Baylee’s pack and then sat down with her son holding a fresh pair of dry clothes. “Come on kiddo, we’ve got to get you dry. She pulled Baylee’s shirt over his head and stared curiously at the small cross that hung around his neck. “What’s this?”
Baylee’s eyes grew wide almost as if he were afraid of his mother, and he drew back covering the cross with his hand. “Father Littrell gave it to me at the funeral.” He whispered shyly.
Howie, Brian and AJ stopped what they were doing and watched the two carefully. They knew as well as Baylee that Leighanne was not going to be too happy about that. Leighanne stared at the cross as if it were a ghost. She instantly recognized it as the cross that always hung around Brian’s neck when they were growing up. The one she’d run her fingers over the night they’d made love, and the one he’d confessed had been a gift from his mother. “Sweetheart you can’t keep this.”
“Leigh, it’s ok.” Brian tried to explain, but stopped when Leighanne glared at him.
She looked back at Baylee and the disappointment he showed nearly broke her heart. “I’m sorry honey,” She said, fighting back tears, “But you need to give it back.”
Baylee looked into his mother’s tearful eyes and his little body filled with anger. “No.” he said firmly, grasping the necklace in his hands. Leighanne was shocked, but Baylee didn’t stop there. “Just because you hate him doesn’t mean I have to. You hate everyone!” Baylee began to spill tears. “Father Littrell gave it to me for you. He said it might help if I prayed for you and I think he’s right.”
Leighanne’s gaze turned to Brian and he paled under her stare. No one moved a muscle until Nick and Kristin walked back into camp startling everyone. They broke Leighanne from her trance when they dropped a bundle of wood by the fire. Everyone looked at them briefly and then Leighanne made her way to Brian. “You had no right.” She said with so much anger that she couldn’t keep her voice steady.
Brian started to explain but Leighanne reached up with a trembling hand before he could get any words out and slapped him as hard as she could. She broke out into tears as a surprised Brian put a hand to his stinging cheek. Then, without warning, she pulled his lips to hers, desperately kissing him with the passion of twelve years of pent up feelings.
Everyone watched in utter shock. “Can she do that?” AJ asked, receiving a shrug from Howie.
Brian was more shocked than anyone and at first he was helpless to do anything. He couldn’t kiss her, but he couldn’t fight her either. She’d been his first, and his only, and for twelve years he’d dreamt of her. Slowly his hands made their way to her face and he kissed her back needing the connection as much as she did.
They pulled apart stunned and out of breath, and Leighanne began to freak out on the inside as she realized what she’d just done. Brian didn’t say a word and he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. “Thank you for saving my son’s life.” Leighanne finally gasped and then walked out of camp, avoiding the looks she was receiving from everyone as she went.
Everyone watched her go before turning back to Brian. It was obvious that he was an emotional wreck, but he said and did nothing. He simply met the looks of his friends with a blank stare and then sat down next to the fire, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sipping his coffee.
Nick was the one to finally break the silence, but he didn’t dare bring up what just happened. “It’s going to get dark.” He said looking the direction Leighanne had just walked off in, “She shouldn’t be alone.”
“I’ll go.” AJ offered.
Brian and Howie needed to stay close to the fire and Nick didn’t want to leave Kristin so he nodded to AJ agreeing that that was the best choice. “Don’t let her go too far. Kris and I will start pitching the tents.”
AJ nodded to Nick and then wandered off into the woods after Leighanne. She wasn’t hard to find though because the sound of her sobs were just about the only thing disturbing the wilderness at the moment. She was sitting against a tree with her face buried in her knees as she cried and the sight of her broke AJ’s heart.
Without saying a word, he sat down beside her. Leighanne pulled her head from her knees and fell into AJ’s arms. AJ held her tightly, but was at a complete loss for words so he just let her cry. He figured after that display back at camp, she probably needed to let it all out.
Baylee watched Brian stare distantly into the flames of the campfire. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the man since his mother had kissed him. There’d been less than a handful of men in her life and she’d never kissed any of them the way she’d kissed Brian.
Baylee found himself torn. He really liked Brian, but couldn’t help feeling angry with him and he wasn’t really sure why, but more than that, he was mad at his mom.
“How you feeling?” Howie asked startling the boy from his thoughts.
“Better I guess.” Baylee shrugged as Howie sat down next to him.
“Are you sure? You look upset.”
Baylee frowned and cast his eyes back to Brian. “My mom is a total psycho.”
Howie laughed, but felt bad for the kid at the same time. “Your mother’s not a psycho.” He said with a tiny giggle.
Baylee wiped at a tear that rolled down his cheek. “Yes she is,” he grumbled, still unable to take his eyes off of Brian.
Howie followed Baylee’s gaze and took a seat next to him. “That wasn’t your fault.” He said, taking a guess at Baylee’s thoughts, “And it wasn’t entirely hers either. Your mom and Brian have needed to get that out of the way for a long time.”
Howie sighed and tried his best to explain it in a way Baylee might understand. “Well, your mom used to love Brian very much.”
“Did he love her too?”
Howie glanced nervously at Brian but he didn’t seem to be listening to the conversation. He lowered his voice anyway and then smiled a little as he replied, “I think so.”
“Then why did he become a priest?”
“You’d have to ask him that.” Howie shrugged, “It surprised us all, but your mom loved him so much that it broke her heart. They had a big fight and after that, they never spoke to each other again.”
Baylee’s frown turned into a look of wonder and Howie put his arm around the boy. “It had to be pretty hard for your mom to come back, especially with me being here, so you should cut her some slack.”
Baylee couldn’t stay mad when Howie’s arm was around him; it felt too good to have it there. He looked up to see Howie smiling down at him, still in awe at the fact that this man was his real dad, and finally cracked a smile. “Ok, maybe she’s only a little psycho.”
Howie and Baylee laughed together but were interrupted by Nick. “Hey guys?” He said breaking Brian from his trance as well. The two exchanged awkward looks and then Nick cleared his throat. “The tents are all up.” He said, “Kristin’s gonna stay with me tonight and she’s not feeling so well so I think we’re just going to turn in.”
“Alright.” Howie nodded still feeling awful for losing Kevin’s ashes. “Is she going to be ok?”
“I think she just needs some rest.” Nick looked at Howie and sighed, knowing how much he was tearing himself apart over this, “She’s not really mad at you, you know.”
“I know.” Howie sighed, “Tell her I’m sorry for yelling at her anyway.”
“I will man.”
Nick disappeared into his tent and Howie couldn’t help his sigh. Baylee frowned when he saw how upset Howie was and wished there were some way he could make him feel better. “Thank you.” He whispered when he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“For what?” Howie asked pulling his attention back to his son.
“For jumping in the river after me.”
“I couldn’t just let you float away could I?” Howie laughed but then his smile turned serious. “I just found you, I’m not going to let you get away that easy.”
Brian watched Baylee grin and then throw himself into Howie’s arms. He figured the two could use some alone time and seeing them so happy made him sick to his stomach, so he quietly got up and went for a walk to clear his head.
It had now been nearly half an hour and though the sobbing stopped, Leighanne had yet to say a word. AJ hated to bother her, but the sun had almost set entirely. “It’s getting dark.” He whispered, “We should probably get back to camp.”
“Baylee’s right.” Leighanne replied, leaving a look of confusion on AJ’s face. “I do hate him. I hate him because I can’t hate him.”
“Do you still love him?”
“No.” Leighanne replied and then changed her mind, “I don’t know. That’s crazy right? I mean the man destroyed my life. Why do I still let him get to me?”
“He gets to you because you still care about him. Trust me, I know the feeling, but Leigh listen to yourself.” AJ took Leighanne’s hand in his and forced her to look into his eyes. “Brian didn’t destroy your life.” He said firmly, “You are a smart, strong, sexy, independent woman, with a great career and a beautiful son who clearly loves you. What more could you want?”
“I want to be free of Brian.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve never had a relationship last more than a couple weeks. I don’t hate everyone like Baylee thinks, but I am really good at making them hate me. I’m so scared that people are going to hurt me, that I shut them out before they can.”
“Well then maybe coming here was exactly what you needed. Maybe seeing Brian again will finally give you some closure.”
“Doubtful.” Leighanne scoffed as she reached for her pack of cigarettes. “I’m probably more screwed up now than ever.”
AJ watched Leighanne struggle with her lighter. “I don’t know about that.” He said taking the stick from her lips before she could get it lit. “You haven’t shut me out yet.”
Leighanne’s face softened and AJ met it with a smile. “Maybe coming this week wasn’t such a bad thing after all?”
AJ waited for Leighanne’s response, hoping he might finally get a smile from her, but he never expected her to kiss him. Leighanne couldn’t help herself. She felt so lousy and so confused and AJ made her feel better. AJ pulled back slightly, but Leighanne didn’t back off. “Leigh, what are you doing?”
“Kissing you.” Leighanne whispered as she continued to tug at his lips.
For once in his life AJ was truly speechless and all he could do was watch, shocked, as Leighanne climbed onto his lap. AJ took a deep breath, fighting to control the urges growing inside him. “Leighanne, I don’t think this is such a good-
“Then don’t think about it.” Leighanne said, now breathing very heavily. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m tired of thinking. Do you know how long it’s been for me?”
She kissed him again and for a moment he gave in to temptation, but only for a moment. His conscience took over and he gently pushed her back. “As much as I would love for this to happen, it can’t. It wouldn’t be right.”
AJ’s efforts didn’t come soon enough because Brian came wandering through the woods and stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of them. AJ looked up and nearly panicked when he saw him. “Brian!”
Brian immediately did an about face and headed quickly in the direction of camp. “Shit.” AJ hissed as he struggled to his feet. “Brian!”
AJ ran off to catch up to Brian and Leighanne followed quickly behind. “Brian wait.” AJ called when he saw him, “It’s not what you’re thinking. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Brian kept walking and AJ reached out to grab his arm. “Would you please just let me explain?”
Brian stopped walking and without warning swung as hard as he could, knocking AJ clean off his feet. “Brian!” Leighanne yelled as she rushed to AJ’s side but Brian didn’t look back.
“I’m sorry AJ, that wasn’t your fault.”
AJ glared at Leighanne as he wiped the blood from his nose. “AJ, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Leighanne pleaded desperately, “He had his chance ok? I don’t owe him anything!”
“He’s our friend, we owe him a little respect.” AJ snapped, more angry at the situation than anything.
“So what? I’m not allowed to have feelings for you because Brian can’t have me? He chose that life AJ, not me.”
“You don’t have feelings for me, I haven’t even talked to you in twelve years. You’re just upset and I’m not gonna let you use me to make him jealous.”
“You really think that’s what I was doing?”
“I don’t know Leighanne, you tell me. You don’t seem to be dealing with the situation all that well.”
“At least I’m dealing with it, damnit!”
“You call that dealing with it? Smoking like a chimney, crying every five minutes, screaming at everyone who looks at you wrong? Having sex isn’t going to make you feel any better, trust me.”
“Don’t you dare lecture me on how to face my problems. You’re walking around laughing and making jokes, and pretending everything’s fine, when you’ve got the biggest secret of all of us. I haven’t seen you try to make amends with Brian at all, and what you did was pretty shitty. Do you even feel guilty?”
“You have no idea how bad I feel. I wish to hell Brian would let me talk to him, but there is a time and a place for everything and we don’t need to have that conversation in front of everyone.”
“Is that really what’s going on? Or are you just ignoring it because you’re too damned afraid to say you’re sorry?”
“Listen to you Leighanne! You’re out of your damn mind right now, and I’ll tell you one thing, it’s scaring the hell out of your little boy. Your son just met his father. I’ve never met mine, so I can only imagine what that feels like, but I know it must be completely overwhelming for him and he hasn’t had his mother there to help him through it, so excuse me for trying to keep it together. And what about Kristin? She lost her husband. Kevin is dead! She’s been with him since the beginning of time, and now he’s never coming back. You were her best friend. Have you even once sat down with her and asked her how she’s holding up? I get that you’re having a bad week, we’re all having a bad week, but you’re just being selfish.”
AJ’s speech silenced Leighanne and tears streamed down her face. AJ felt bad when he saw the tears but he couldn’t take it back so he shrugged helplessly. It took Leighanne a minute to form the words because she was shaking so hard she could barely stand still, but when they finally came out, they were clear as day. “Fuck you AJ!”
Leighanne stormed off toward camp, humiliated and hurt, but more than anything she was scared. She was scared that everything he said was true, and she hated herself for it. AJ watched her go, feeling terrible about making her so upset. He wasn’t trying to hurt her, but he didn’t know any other way to help her anymore. He turned around and kicked the nearest tree as hard as he could and then took a seat leaning against it, needing some time to cool off.