In the morning, everyone was feeling a little bit better after getting some rest, but they were also feeling just a little bit worse as all of the previous days events finally caught up to them. Everyone was mad at someone, everyone was worried about someone, and everyone was hiding something from someone. Emotions were running particularly high as they broke down camp and prepared for the short hike they still had ahead of them. All of them just wanted to be there already.
Aside from Baylee everyone was secretly looking forward to reaching the springs. In their minds Mercy Springs was like this magical place from a faded dream that was somehow going to make all of their problems disappear. All of them knew that wasn’t really the case, that it was really just some pools of hot water, but in their hearts they hoped it would somehow be more, they way it had been when they were younger. The mood was somber and the air was thick. It would have been easier for everyone to just quietly go about their business and pretend the others weren’t there because everyone was just so tired of fighting, but the guilt was starting to get to them all.
Brian had been the last to actually fall asleep last night and he’d been the first to wake this morning, but despite his lack of sleep, he didn’t feel tired. He didn’t really feel anything at all. Brian was now beyond emotion and simply functioning on basic instinct, going through the motions that his brain told him were necessary to stay alive. When he’d first decided to come back, he’d said a prayer that he might be able to find some peace and make amends with the people he secretly longed were still in his life. His journey however, had proven to be more like the punishment he felt he deserved for past mistakes and he was beginning to lose faith that his wish would ever be granted.
As he started a fire, Nick and Kristin were the next to emerge from their slumber. They were both feeling a lot better after spending the night in each other’s arms. It had been completely innocent, but it was just the touch of comfort that they’d both needed to get a good night’s sleep. They were both anxious to get back to the bridge to see if they could fish Kristin’s pack, and essentially her husband, from the water.
They quickly packed up Nick’s gear and then stopped by the fire before heading back up the river and Nick startled Brian from a trance when he spoke to him. Nick was still mad at Brian, but ever since he’d learned what AJ had done to him, it was hard to have pure hatred for the man anymore. He remembered too clearly the night he had snuck over to Brian’s house after his father punched him in an argument. He was upset and he was scared and he knew that out of everyone, Brian would not make fun of him for crying.
When Nick told Brian what happened, Brian came clean about the things he’d experienced before coming to Mercy, God awful things that no child should have to endure. He knew that having those events put on display for the whole world to see must have been just as hard as actually living through them.
Nick was sure that Brian hated him and didn’t want his friendship, Brian had made that perfectly clear years ago, but as he watched Brian robotically tear down his tent, he knew how badly he needed a friend at the moment. He just didn’t know how to get past the wall that they’d put up between them. Kristin waited, watching curiously as Nick approached Brian slowly. “Hey.” He called gently.
Brian looked up, startled to see that Nick, of all people, was talking to him. He gave Nick a questioning look, but was more curious about the lack of hostility than what he had to say. Nick pointed to Kristin and said, “We’re going to go back and look for Kristin’s pack.”
Brian nodded and began fiddling with his tent again and then froze when he felt Nick place his hand on him. “You wanna come with us?”
Brian was so shocked by the offer that all he could do was stand there, staring at Nick’s hand on his shoulder. Nick pulled back and then shrugged in order to hide his nervousness, “It could be helpful to have the extra pair of hands in case we have to wade in.”
In his heart Brian wanted to cry, he was so filled with emotion, but on the outside he barely nodded and set down his gear. He knew it wasn’t much, and he knew that their healing process would probably take years, but this tiny gesture of human decency was the only sign he’d received in days that God was hearing his prayers and he was once again filled with hope.
Neither man said a word as Brian followed Nick across camp. Kristin hugged Brian tightly when they reached her and the three headed up the river. By the time they got back everyone else was awake and avoiding each other as much as possible. Everything came to a halt when they walked back into camp with a wet empty pack. They managed to get the bag out of the water, but its contents were long gone.
No one knew quite what to say and Kristin looked like she was barely holding it together so no one dared breath a word. Howie saw the empty bag and then made eye contact with Kristin. The look of heartbreak on her face and the guilt of knowing he’d caused it was too much for Howie to deal with. He quietly walked off where he could get a grip of himself in private. He wandered into the trees and finally leaned against one, burying his face in his hands.
He jumped sky high when he felt a hand on his back and when he turned around to see Kristin standing there he couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. The tears made Kristin feel even worse. Howie had been the strongest on this trip despite everything that had been thrown at him and Kristin hated that she was the one to finally break him. “Kris.” He stammered, “I don’t even know what to say.”
“I’m sorry.” Kristin whispered.
“Well of course I’m sorry. You know I’m sorry, it just doesn’t feel like nearly enough.”
“No Howie.” Kristin said trying to smile, “I meant I’m sorry. I’m sorry about last night.”
“I shouldn’t have lost my temper.” Howie argued.
“No, you were right. I know it wasn’t your fault.”
“I lost your husband’s ashes.”
“We were gonna leave them out here anyway.”
Howie stared at Kristin, confused at how she could be so calm about this now. Kristin finally produced a smile. “Coming out here was about more than just Kevin’s ashes.” She admitted, “It was about going back to Mercy. It was what Kevin wanted. It’s where he was going when he died. Kevin wouldn’t care where his final resting place ended up, he would just want us all to get along.”
Howie was surprised, but somehow knowing that made him feel a little better. He took a deep breath and then hugged Kristin again and they joined the others with smiles on their faces, helping to ease the tension a tiny bit.
Once everyone was packed up, Nick and Kristin led the way; eager to reach the spot they’d set out for. Brian followed behind them and Baylee was quick to catch up to him. He was still upset with Leighanne so she let him have his space and watched him from a distance as he fell into conversation with Brian. Howie walked up beside her and followed her gaze to the unusual pair. “How’s he doing?” Howie asked, breaking her stare.
“The kid’s clinging to a priest.” Leighanne smirked.
Howie smiled but couldn’t help himself from teasing his friend. “Must be genetic.”
Leighanne was surprised by the comment, but cracked a smile unable to deny it. “God I really did love him once.” She sighed.
“Did?” Howie asked cautiously, hoping the question wouldn’t upset her.
Leighanne looked at Howie and then back at the man walking in front of her. She thought long and hard before answering and then confidently nodded her head. “It was a lifetime ago.” She said, “Neither of us are the same people we were back then. I think I’m in love with the idea of him, but we can’t go back to the way things were.”
Howie gave an understanding nod and then Leighanne laughed softly to herself. “The man’s a damn priest anyway.” She smirked.
“Still, that doesn’t mean you don’t love him.”
Leighanne stopped kidding and sighed again. “A part of me will always love him.” She admitted, “But not in the way I used to, and being here, seeing him again, I think I finally get it. I think I understand him now. I know he didn’t mean to hurt me.”
“Well I’m glad for that. I don’t how many times I tried to tell you that.”
“You tried to tell me a lot that semester.”
“You should have listened.”
“Tell me about it.” Leighanne laughed, “Maybe I’d have my own jet and a vacation house in the keys by now.”
Howie and Leighanne laughed and then fell into casual conversation the rest of the way to the springs. AJ lagged behind them, bringing up the rear all by himself. While everyone else was finally starting to get a grip on their emotions, he was finally starting to lose control of his. He’d tried so hard to keep it together and now, watching everyone else relax and even laugh with each other made his grief multiply.
AJ stirred in his own guilt and at the same time became angry at everyone. They didn’t understand why he did it. They didn’t have the full story and it seemed that they’d rather just hate him than listen to his explanation. But more than just his own sins, AJ was upset that he’d fought with Leighanne. He was only trying to help her and it blew up in his face. He was only ever trying to help anyone, and no matter what he did, things only got worse.
AJ was done trying to help. He was done trying to be everyone’s friend and keep people calm. It was his turn to be angry, and all of that built up emotion was being displaced on two people in particular. AJ tossed and turned all night over the secret he’d learned about Kristin and Nick. They appeared to be so broken up over Kevin’s death and everyone had come on this trip to support them, and then they turned around and disgraced Kevin’s memory in the worst possible way. His thoughts stewed on this subject until the river widened and the trees opened up.
Everyone stopped at the base of the valley, staring out reverently as if they’d reached a promised land. The sky was a bright blue and the sun shone down on the valley brightening the colors of the early spring wildflowers while steam rose from the hot pools scattered throughout the valley. It was their own private heaven on Earth and they all just stood there taking it in as they relived countless old memories.
Everyone walked over to the largest pool of hot water where they used to gather on a yearly basis and stared down at it as if it were a mirage. “Damn, is that a sight for sore eyes.” AJ said as he stretched his arms out in front of him, cracking several joints in the process. “And sore arms… and legs and back. I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna climb in that thing and sit there until I shrivel up completely.”
“Sounds good to me.” Howie agreed.
“Not me.” Nick said. “First things first, I’m starving and I’m not eating backpack food tonight.”
“What are you gonna do?” Leighanne snickered, “Snare a rabbit with a rock and a stick?”
“Yeah right.” Nick laughed, “I’m not Kevin ya know.”
“You sure are trying to take his place though aren’t ya?” AJ spat, becoming angry at the mention of his deceased friend.
Everyone immediately cast their stares to AJ but AJ only looked back and forth between Nick and Kristin. "How can you guys stand there and pretend that you loved him?” He asked when he met their questioning looks. “I heard you talking last night! How could you betray him like that?”
“AJ!” Leighanne hissed, but he quickly turned and pointed a finger her direction.
“Don’t you dare Leighanne! As much as you’ve visited the loony bin this week, don’t think for one second you have the right to tell me to stop. We came on this damn trip this weekend to honor Kevin’s life and support his wife and best friend who are supposed to be grieving.” AJ turned his attention back to Nick and Kristin, “But instead, while the rest of us are hurting, they’re off by themselves planning out their new life together!”
“AJ wait.” Kristin whispered fearfully, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know enough.”
“You don’t know shit.” Nick said, beginning to lose his temper.
“I know I heard you badmouth Kevin, and then talk about the feelings you’ve had for each other for years.”
There was a tiny gasp from the people just listening to the conversation and tears of guilt began pouring down Kristin’s face. When Nick saw the tears his anger reached a dangerous level. “Why don’t you go write a book about it then?”
“Tell me something Nick, have you eve screwed your best friends’ wife?”
Nick and AJ were about to come to blows so Leighanne and Kristin both tried to intervene, and it quickly turned into one big argument with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else. Howie watched them all fight for a moment and then took off his pack and jumped into the spring in front of him, surprising everyone with a giant splash. When he surfaced he looked up at the puzzled group and said the last thing that any of them ever expected. “I’m gay.”
After the initial gasps of shock and the sound of jaws hitting the ground, silence swept through the whole valley. As he stared into the faces of the people he cared about most in the entire world, Howie broke out into a sweat, wondering if he’d just made the right decision. “If we can’t spread Kevin’s ashes, the least we can do is fulfill his favorite tradition.” He explained nervously. “That’s one thing, one secret, that I’ve never told anyone.”