Never was there a more stunned crowd than that of the people huddled around the spring. Entire minutes passed before anyone made a sound. Then, as usual, Nick was the first to break the very uncomfortable silence. “How long have you been…”
Nick’s voice trailed off, as he was still in so much disbelief he couldn’t manage to say the word. Howie studied his face and those of his friends and shrugged, keeping his hands below the water to hide the fact that they were trembling. “I’ve always been, I guess.” He said in a meek voice. “I just didn’t always want to believe it.”
“But…” Nick continued trying not to glance at Leighanne.
“I started to realize it in high school but still didn’t believe it. Then I got to Missoula and there was this guy that I really liked. I was so ashamed of it, that I just ignored it. I was also scared. I was sure that Brian would give me some lecture about fire and brimstone if he found out, and pretty sure Nick would think I had some kind of plague, so I pretended I was just like everyone else. I kept thinking I could change it somehow. I tried everything, even sleeping with a few women.”
Everyone followed Howie’s nervous glance to Leighanne who just stood there looking unwell. “But nothing helped.” He continued nervously, “It’s just who I am. Look, I’m still the same person, I’m just tired of hiding it from you, so, no more secrets.” Howie shrugged one more time. “I’m gay.”
No one knew quite what to say. Howie’d just dropped a major bomb and even though they couldn’t believe their friend was homosexual, they all knew exactly how he was feeling. All of them were tired of hiding. Kristin was first to make a move and slipped into the water to hug Howie tightly. She didn’t say the words, but Howie could feel it in her grip that his news didn’t change the way she felt about him and he took a huge breath of relief.
Kristin looked him in the eyes and he urged her to give in to what she was thinking. Kristin nodded and swallowed back the sick feeling in her stomach. “When I found out that Kevin was dead,” She began nervously, “After the initial shock wore off,” Kristin started to get emotional and Howie took her hands in his, letting her know he was there to support her. Kristin squeezed back tightly, took a deep breath and shut her eyes, “I felt relieved.”
Again, no one could believe what they were hearing and yet when they saw the hot tears stream down Kristin’s face, they felt nothing but concern for her. One by one everyone set down their gear and climbed into the spring, clothes and all, waiting for Kristin to explain herself. Kristin shrugged through her tears. “Kevin stopped being my husband years ago.” She whispered.
Nick took his place at her side and when he took one of her hands in his, she felt the strength to tell her story. “It turns out that Kevin and I couldn’t have kids. We tried everything but it just wasn’t meant to be. I accepted it, but Kevin never did. He got depressed, started drinking, stopped living his life.” Kristin gave Nick’s hand another squeeze. “The night he died I gave him divorce papers.”
Kristin tried to hold back her tears as she listened to the gasps of her friends. “I never stopped loving him, but I couldn’t stand to see him destroy himself any longer. I tried, I tried for years. I tried to get him help, I tried marriage counseling, but the more I tried the more he pushed me away. When I gave him the divorce papers he have me this look.”
Kristin broke down into sobs again and Nick pulled her into his arms. “I broke the only spirit he had left.” She sobbed.
“Kris, we talked about this, you didn’t have a choice.”
AJ watched Nick console the hysterical woman and felt bad for accusing them of having an affair when he realized how much Kristin was still struggling. “The truth is, it wasn’t an accident. Kevin stepped in front of that truck on purpose.”
“That’s a lie and you know it Kristin.” Nick assured her, “The sheriff was full of shit. Kevin wouldn’t do that!”
“He told me he was going to!” Kristin yelled through her tears and then broke down again. Once she had a tiny hint of control she said, “The last thing my husband said to me before he died was, ‘I’d rather die than live without you.’”
“That doesn’t mean he killed himself.” Leighanne whispered softly.
Kristin looked up squinting through her tears and shook her head defiantly. “I told him to go ahead then, because he’d basically been dead for years and I couldn’t live like that anymore. After that he took the papers from me, put his fist through the wall and walked out the door.”
Kristin finally got her emotions under control again and continued in a faint voice, sniffling every so often. “Of course I didn’t want this to happen, I loved Kevin, but you have no idea what it’s been like these last couple years. He tortured himself. He was in so much pain, all the time. Now he can finally be happy again. He can rest, wherever he is, and I can move on with my life.”
Everyone could see that Kristin was ashamed of her feelings, yet no one really blamed her. It was hard for all of them to imagine Kevin that way, but seeing how much both Kristin and Nick had been effected by him made it a little easier to understand her relief. Aside from Nick, Brian was the only other one in the group that had ever caught a glimpse of the Kevin Kristin talked about and the guilt from that experience drove Brian to speak up. “Don’t beat yourself up over it Kristin.” He said, “It’s perfectly normal to feel that way. You can’t blame yourself for wanting to be happy anymore than you can blame yourself for your husband’s death. If you want to blame anybody for Kevin, then blame me. I’m more responsible for the way he turned out than anyone and you know it.”
Everyone’s eyes now fell upon Brian. He met each one of their looks and then turned his gaze to the water. “There’s something you should know about me.” He sighed, “I made a lousy priest.”
Nick scoffed but quickly concealed his emotions when he received looks of death from just about everyone in the group. “No, it’s ok.” Brian said, “Nick’s right. I’m no holy man. That’s why I quit.”
Another round of surprised gasps and shocked looks swept the circle. “You what?” AJ breathed.
“You mean you’re not a priest anymore?” Baylee asked with a frown.
“Well, technically I haven’t been released yet. My Bishop told me I was just making a rash decision because of my cousin’s death and that I should take some time, but he’s wrong. It’s not about Kevin. My heart has never been in my calling and my emotions have always clouded my judgment. Kevin came to me for help, and being a man in my position I should have kept my personal feelings out of it. If I had helped him when he asked me to then we probably wouldn’t be here today. His death is on my shoulders.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself Brian.” Kristin tried to argue, but Brian wouldn’t have it.
“Whether I am or not, I can’t continue working for a man I lost faith in years ago.”
“You don’t mean that.” Baylee gasped.
“Son.” Brian replied with a sad smile, “I am not the man you should be looking up to. I want to believe, I really do. I joined the church hoping to find peace but all it did was take me away from the only people that ever brought me any. I’ve lost everything in my life and I have so much hatred in my heart that I couldn’t even forgive a man who was practically my brother and apologize until after he was dead. Does that sound like a man of God to you?”
“We all make mistakes Brian, but we’re all just doing the best we can.” AJ chimed in, terrified of starting an argument, but risking it because he desperately needed to clear his conscience. “Do you guys remember Penny Benjamin?” he asked addressing the group and not just Brian.
Everyone thought for a minute and then one by one began nodding their heads. “The hottie that worked in the Sheriff’s office?” Nick thought aloud finally making the connection. AJ nodded and Nick smirked. “She was notorious for being uncharted territory. Don’t tell me you got a piece of that.”
“Worse.” AJ admitted, “I’m the reason she got fired.”
AJ wasn’t surprised by all the confused looks and he dreaded the story he was about to tell, but if he was ever going to get forgiveness, then he had to start from the beginning. It was during the summer festival that last month I was in Mercy. I knew everyone in town would be there which meant Penny would be at the sheriff’s station alone, all night. Yeah, I went over there hoping to get lucky, what can I say, I was an ass. We were just talking at first and she seemed to think the idea of me becoming a writer was romantic so I recited some poetry and told her I would use her as a character in one of my books.”
Everyone smirked at the old Casanova, but AJ didn’t have the heart to laugh with them. “She said she wanted to be some kind of ace detective. I thought she was just going for a little kinky role playing so I played along and told her I would need a case for her to solve.”
“Spare us the details, will ya?” Leighanne said nodding her head to the eleven-year-old sitting next to her.
“We never got that far.” AJ shrugged. “She told me she had the perfect case and then just disappeared into the file room. She came back with a file two inches thick and I couldn’t help but be excited at the thought of seeing some honest to god crime files, so I read it.”
AJ got choked up as his mind wandered on the nightmare that was in that folder. “Penny said nothing interesting ever happened in Mercy, but there was one case file bad enough that it balanced out all the little stuff. She was right. It was an adoption file, but attached to it was the entire history of the boy who came to Mercy. Everything was there. Witness statements, child services reports, medical examinations, pictures, coroner reports, everything.”
At this point neither AJ nor Brian could lift their eyes to face each other, or anyone else. AJ didn’t see or even think about the fact that Brian was sitting right there because his brain had glazed over as it produced the painful memories. He’d witnessed the scene so often in his mind now that his mind was purely running on autopilot. “The things that man did to his son. Horrible, awful, unforgivable things. After years of abuse the boy finally came clean to his mother, but without proof the cops couldn’t help them. They tried to run, but he came after them. He came after the mother first, and in an attempt to save his mom’s life, the kid pulled a gun on his own father. He died on the scene, but it was still too late. The boy’s mother sustained such severe injuries that she died in the hospital later that night.”
AJ’s eyes glazed over, but no tears fell, his demeanor was almost robotic. Brian’s eyes were now clenched tightly shut and his body was starting to tremble. “I got half way through the file before I found out who the boy was.” AJ whispered. “I didn’t read the rest until months later. I was so angry at Penny for showing me that file. She’d obviously read it before and showed it to me as some sort of entertainment. She didn’t know who you were, and she didn’t know we were friends, but the thought of her showing it to anyone at all made me so mad. I didn’t want anyone else to see that, ever again, so I stole the file. Penny got fired a week later but she never did tell them what happened. I think she felt bad.”
Nick and Leighanne had known all along who AJ was talking about, but it wasn’t until that moment that Kristin and Howie caught up and having both read the book, they went pale from the revelation. Brian finally looked up and met AJ’s eyes with his own. The way AJ sounded so protective and the amount of anger he displayed over the situation all these years later confused Brian. “I never wanted to hurt you.” AJ said in a pleading voice. “After reading that file I realized why you were always,” AJ hesitated for a moment but there was curiosity in Brian’s eyes now. “Well, afraid of sex.” AJ stammered, “It made me sick. I gave you so much shit growing up about never having a girlfriend or never getting laid. And then that last time at the lake, when I gave you shit about being a virgin. God, everything that happened between you and Leighanne was my fault.”
“If you felt so bad, how could you ever write that book?” Leighanne asked.
AJ shrugged at her and then turned his attention back to Brian. “I left Mercy less than a month later and that was practically the only thing I could remember when I left. I always wanted to talk to you about it, and tell you how sorry I was for all the shit I gave you, but I couldn’t let you know that I knew so I just buried it. But it haunted me. I used to have nightmares about it, for years. I woke up one night with the images from those pictures so fresh in my mind it was as if I was the little boy in that room. I wanted it to stop, so I wrote it all down. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote until I’d written the entire book.”
AJ took a breath, needing another moment to collect himself and push back the forging emotions. “I never had any intention of letting anyone see it, but my laptop died. I was about to leave for the weekend for a book signing, so I left it with my boss to get it fixed and the guy that recovered the files from my hard drive gave him the disc. He’d read the manuscript before I got back. It took him months to convince me to publish it. He told me that it could help raise awareness and maybe prevent something like that from happening to someone else. I thought I was helping and I donated a lot of the profits to domestic abuse causes and battered women’s shelters, but no matter what I did, I always felt like shit that I gave in. Honest to God Brian, I thought I was helping. I never thought anyone would connect it to you and I never thought you would read it.”
Tears finally began to drip from AJ’s eyes and his plea was downright pathetic. “I’m so sorry Brian, for all of it. You have every right in the world to hate me, I deserve it, but I love you, and for what its worth, I wish everyday of my life that I could take it back. I would do anything to make it right.”
AJ took a giant breath when he was done. He didn’t know if Brian would forgive him and to an extent it didn’t matter, his secret was out in the open now and he’d apologized. That was all he could do, the rest was up to Brian. Of course he wanted to man to forgive him, but he would understand if he couldn’t. “All this time,” Brian whispered shakily, surprising everyone, “I thought Nick told you.”
“You what?” Nick growled.
Brian looked to his ex best fiend with big apologetic eyes. “There were things in that book that not even Kevin knew. You were the only person I ever told, what was I supposed to think?”
Nick didn’t want to get angry, not after everything that had just come out, but he was truly hurt. If there was one thing Nick prided himself on, one thing that he always got right, it was being a loyal friend. He’d been loyal to Kevin all those years no matter how much he didn’t want to be. He’d been loyal to Kristin at the same time, and he’d been loyal to Brian even after the man threw him out of his life with no explanation. “You were supposed to think that I meant it when I promised not to tell anyone. I didn’t even know about the damn book until yesterday. I would never do that to you, no matter how big a shit head you were.”
“I’m sorry.” Brian breathed. “All those things I said to you. I was so angry about that book and I thought that you had... And then Kevin showed up saying all sorts of things. I needed to take my anger out on someone. I never even asked you about it, I just decided to blame you for everything. I let my emotions get the better of me.”
Nick wanted to hate Brian but he couldn’t, not when he was guilty of doing the same thing. “We’ve all let emotions make our decisions for us.” He said with a heavy sigh. He looked around the circle knowing it was his turn to come clean. “Kevin came to me about six years ago after the adoption agency thing fell through. He said there was only one option left”
“Kevin wanted kids so badly, and he knew how much Kristin wanted them. He said the only other option was to let someone else father the baby, like artificial insemination. But he couldn’t stand the thought of his child being half Kristin and half some total stranger, so he asked me if I would do it. He said I was the only man he could even consider letting do this for him.”
Kristin watched Nick curiously and he sent a nervous glance her direction knowing she had no idea Kevin had thought about this and what was coming was worse, but he couldn’t stop now. “It shouldn’t have been a hard decision. Kevin was my best friend, and his happiness meant everything to me, but I let my emotions get in the way.” Nick cleared his throat trying to steady his nervous voice and then looked down so that he wouldn’t have to see the looks on his friends’ faces, especially Kristin. “I said no. I told him I was afraid it would be awkward, but I lied to him. I really said no because I was in love with his wife.”
Kristin covered her mouth to stifle her gasp. Nick heard her anyway, but couldn’t look at her. “I was jealous of Kevin and couldn’t give him what I wanted so badly. It would have killed me to pretend that our child wasn’t mine.”
There was complete silence for a moment and then Nick began to talk again. “Kevin told me he understood when I said I couldn’t do it, but that same day he drove out to Missoula to talk to Brian and didn’t come home until three days later when Kristin and I dragged him back. He was never the same person after that. If I hadn’t let my emotions get in the way Kevin would be alive right now and my two closest friends would be happy, but I was completely selfish.”
“It wasn’t fair of Kevin to ask you to do that.” Kristin said in a shaky voice. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“It feels like it.” Nick mumbled.
“Its human nature to look out for yourself Nick.” Leighanne said, “It’s not your fault Kevin’s dead. Just like it’s not Kristin’s fault and it’s not Brian’s fault. You were just trying to survive. We’re all just trying to survive, and sometimes people get hurt in the process.”
Leighanne sighed heavily and then looked around the circle. “I guess it’s my turn to come clean.” She said and then looked directly at AJ. “I’m sorry I got mad last night. You were right, I was being selfish.” Leighanne shrugged and then addressed the entire group. “I was a spoiled little rich girl, I’ve always been selfish. When I found out I was pregnant, I panicked. I did the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.”
Leighanne hesitated for a second and everyone braced themselves because they could tell by the look on her face that something was not right. “I told my parents that I was raped.”
“You what?” Howie gasped, suddenly turning a little green, “Leigh, you don’t think that I…”
“”Oh God no Howie!” Leighanne replied quickly, shaking her head. “Of course not. If anything, it was more me than you. I was just afraid of what my parents were going to say when they found out.”
The color started to return to Howie’s face and everyone present took a subconscious breath. “My parents are really old fashioned and I knew they were going to freak out, which they did, so I told them the only thing I could think of that would make them want to help me and not cut me off. I told them I was at a party and someone put something in my drink. I told them I didn’t know who had done it.”
“Do your parents still think that?” Howie asked.
Leighanne nodded shamefully. “I couldn’t tell them the truth. My father went to the school and tried to press all kinds of charges but there just wasn’t any proof of anything so instead he pulled me from the school.”
Leighanne looked at Howie, pleading with her eyes for understanding, “I didn’t want you to find out what was going on because I knew you would try to tell my father the truth and he would have crucified us both, so I ran away. My father of course found me within a week, but I told him I was scared to go back so he sent me to Georgia to live with my Aunt and Uncle while I had the baby. Everyone tried to get me to give the baby up,”
Leighanne looked at her bewildered son, with tears in her eyes. “But I couldn’t give you up baby, I love you too much.”
“How could you keep up a lie so big for so long?” Kristin whispered.
Leighanne shrugged looking once again to Howie. “I was selfish. I knew you would have done whatever you could to help, but you didn’t have any money you would have had to quit school and go to work full time. I also know that you would have tried to make things work between us and we both know that would have been a disaster. I tried to just to justify it by telling myself that you and Baylee both had better lives because of it, but really I was just scared to face my parents. I never thought about how I would be robbing you of your own son.” Leighanne got misty eyed and faced her son again. “I wasn’t a mom yet. I never thought about how much my son would need his father. I wanted to tell you about your daddy so many times, I just didn’t know how.”
Baylee wiped a few tears from his face and looked at all the people staring at him. His young mind was overwhelmed by all of the adult problems and he couldn’t stand to hear any more of it. “You people are all crazy.” He said in a shaking voice and then climbed out of the water.
Baylee headed slowly to the river and began to walk along the bank, stopping every now and then to throw a rock. Leighanne started to follow but Brian put a hand on her shoulder. “Let him go.”