Brian had been so deep in thought that he never heard Nick walk up behind him and the greeting startled him so badly he nearly ended up in the river. “Not much.” He muttered once he’d regained his composure, “But it’s not as easy without a proper pole.”
Nick looked down at the three good size trout lying at his feet. “Not much?” He repeated with wide eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever caught three fish at one time ever.”
“You never were much of a fisherman.” Brian said.
There was a hint of a smile on Brian’s face as he thought back on previous fishing adventures the two had shared. Nick saw the smile and in a strange way it made him nervous. He couldn’t even remember the last time he and Brian had a civil, much less a pleasant conversation. He was still torn by his feelings about the man and yet he didn’t want to ruin the moment.
“I’m sorry.” Brian finally muttered through the silence.
“Na, you’re right. I suck at fishing.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Nick knew that, he was just trying to lighten an uncomfortable situation. “Do you remember that day Kevin took us out to the pond on his property?”
Brian glanced curiously at Nick when he blatantly dodged the subject. Nick avoided looking at him directly and finally Brian chose to cut him some slack and drop it. He knew Nick well enough to know that coming to talk to him at all was hard enough, even if he was only talking about fishing. “How could I forget?” he finally replied, letting his smile return. “Not only was it the first time I met you and AJ, that was your first attempt at the sport. The pond was stocked and you still couldn’t catch anything. Though, I still don’t understand how you got to be ten years old without ever having gone fishing?”
“My dad wasn’t exactly a boy scout master.”
Brian’s smile faded a bit at the harshness of Nick’s tone. “Well I’m glad you waited.” He said in a smaller voice. “I was so scared to come here and meet Kevin’s friends. Kevin didn’t even know the truth about my parents. My aunt and uncle told him it was a car wreck. I was afraid you guys would ask me a bunch of questions, but you were so bad at fishing that you took all the attention away from me that day.” Brian’s eyes glazed over at the memory and suddenly the smile was back on his face. “You fell off the raft.” He laughed. “And you screamed like a little girl.”
“It was a stocked fish pond. The fish were everywhere. One swam up my shorts.”
Brian released a hearty laugh and Nick slugged his shoulder. “I didn’t scream like a girl.”
Both Brian and Nick laughed at the memory until they realized they were laughing together. “That was a good day.” Nick sighed.
“Yeah it was.”
They stood there quietly for a minute both watching the fishing line Brian dangled from his hands. “Let me see that.” Nick asked and Brian handed over the line.
Brian smirked a little as Nick attempted to drop the fly in just the right spot. They again focused on the fishing line and then Nick looked up at Brian with a boyish smile. “You wanna know a secret?”
Brian wasn’t sure he did, he’d heard enough secrets for one day, but the smile on Nick’s face wasn’t threatening so he shrugged. “I fell in the lake on purpose that day.”
“You did not.” Brian chuckled.
“I did.” Nick insisted, “Kevin told me how you almost didn’t come because you were scared, and you hadn’t said much all day so I figured if I looked really stupid then you wouldn’t be so nervous.”
There was silence again, but for the first time in a long time it wasn’t awkward. Nick focused his attention on fishing and Brian lost himself in thought. He was startled again when Nick called his name. “Brian?”
Nick stopped worrying about the fishing line in his hands and gave Brian a perplexed look. “Why did you tell me?”
Brian thought about it for a moment and then smiled. “Because you fell in the pond on purpose.”
“I’m serious. You said Kevin didn’t even know man, and he was your family. Why me?”
Brian shrugged, “Kevin was like a brother to me, but he never could have understood, his life was perfect. Not that what my dad did and what your dad did was the same, but you knew what it was like to be living with a secret.”
Nick nodded in understanding but suddenly didn’t feel quite so chatty. “I’m sorry I thought it was you that told AJ.” Brian said again. “I should have known you wouldn’t do that.”
“It’s like you said, who else could have?”
Nick shrugged, trying to be understanding. Deep down he wanted Brian’s friendship back but his feelings were too hurt to ask for it. He’d never asked to be abandoned the way he was and not knowing why Brian disowned him, was what fueled his hatred all these years. But now that Brian not only had a reason, but one that made damn good sense from his perspective, Nick just wanted to be able to wipe the slate clean and try to rebuild whatever there was left of their relationship.
Brian wasn’t much different. He too wanted to fix what went wrong between them, but wasn’t sure how. As he stood there thinking about the past, he realized that just an apology wasn’t going to magically going to solve their problems. Nick and Brian began to drift apart long before the night they stopped talking. There was more to their past than just AJ’s book, and Brian wasn’t going to be able to just ignore it like Nick. “You were the very best friend I ever had,” he said, “But then things got different when we were in high school. You started spending more time with Kevin and AJ.”
“You started getting into all that religion stuff.” Nick said, trying his best not to become defensive. “You made it pretty hard to hang out with you sometimes, but I never stopped being your friend, that was all you.”
“Kevin told me about what he asked you to do,” Brian suddenly blurted, “About fathering a baby.”
Nick was so surprised by Brian’s confession that he jerked around to face him and lost hold of the fishing line in his hand. “Shit.” He mumbled when his source of catching his dinner slipped from his fingers and vanished into the river. “What?”
“It hurt like hell that he chose you. Not that I would have been allowed to do that for him, but he didn’t even ask. I knew I wasn’t part of the group anymore, but if Kevin was asking you to do something like that, then that meant that you and him had the friendship that I used to have with you.”
“That wasn’t my fault.” Nick was now trying not to let his anger get the better of him. “You left Mercy and you never looked back. How could I stay friends with someone who I hardly ever saw and when I did, all I got was a lecture about my evil ways.”
“I know,” Brian admitted in a broken whisper, “I treated you like shit because I was jealous. It was wrong and I’m sorry.”
“Can priests say shit?”
Brian was annoyed that Nick was again trying to avoid the subject and tried not to crack a smile, but it was funny and he couldn’t resist smirking. “We’ve already established the fact that I’m a shitty priest.”
Nick’s anger subsided again and Brian suddenly got quiet. It was obvious he was becoming choked up and Nick started to fidget nervously. “I miss having good days with you.” Brian whispered, staring at his feet as he fought the urge to cry. “Do you think we’ll ever be friends again?”
Nick thought about it for a moment and then, all joking aside, asked, “Are you ready to stop being a self-righteous jackass?”
Brian studied Nick for a moment and then released a long heavy sigh as he slowly nodded his head. “No more lectures.” He promised, “Unless you ask for one.”
“In that case,” Nick replied, “Maybe we should go see if Howie had any more luck with dinner.”
Nick’s response was indirect, but it was good enough for Brian so he picked up his string of fish and followed Nick downstream.
Baylee had now been sitting on a rock next to the river for so long that he was losing feeling from the waist down. He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, and even though he was out of his mind with boredom, he still felt like it hadn’t been long enough. He was emotionally drained and wasn’t about to subject himself to any more drama than he had to at this point.
When his mother first told him they were coming here he was curious, and even a little bit excited, but now he just wanted to go home. Meeting his father had been a dream come true, but he’d always had a secret wish in his heart that one day his mother and father would get back together and he could have a normal family. Now he at least had a father, and he was grateful, but with Howie’s confession Baylee knew that his family would always be a little bit worse than just not normal, it would always be a little weird and it frightened him.
Then there was the subject of his mother. Baylee hoped that coming here and seeing all her old friends might help her, not turn her into a thousand buckets of crazy. He’d been worried about her for a long time, but after this trip it was more than that now, he was tired of her being unhappy and he was angry with her for doing it to herself.
But all those feelings and all that stress didn’t even begin to cover how he felt about the rest of the people that had come on this trip. He didn’t worry about them the way he did his mother, and now, father, but he couldn’t stop thinking about them. They were all very nice people and they meant well. Baylee could tell they all loved his mom and he was relieved to see it, but they were all just as messed up as she was. He couldn’t help but think that maybe that’s just what happens to everyone when they grow up and if that were the case he wanted to stay eleven forever.
Baylee stopped trying to make heads or tails of everything going on around him when he heard voices. A while back his father had come walking down the river towards him. He sent a smile that Baylee didn’t respond to, but he kept a safe distance and turned his attention to the river so Baylee didn’t mind his presence. In fact, deep down he was a little comforted by it. True, Baylee had stormed off and was glad for his space, but even though Howie was pretending to fish, Baylee could tell that he was trying to keep an eye on him without being too intrusive and it gave him a little sense of security.
Baylee’s serenity had been interrupted when Nick and Brian joined his father. They were just talking at first, but they soon started to laugh about something and Baylee was torn up inside when he heard it. He was shocked that anybody was laughing about anything, and he wanted to be happy about it because laughing was better than fighting, but instead it made him angry. How could they just do all those crazy things and say all that crazy stuff and then suddenly act as if nothing had ever happened?
Well Baylee didn’t feel that way and seeing them having a good time together made him realize just how much he wasn’t ready to face any of them so he pulled his stiff legs from the rock he’d been sitting on before they had a chance to approach him. After a good stretch, Baylee began walking further down the river where he could once again be alone. Howie watched him walk off and looked to his friends for advice. “Do you think I should go try to talk to him?”
Nick shook his head forcefully, but Brian watched the boy for a minute before shaking his as well. “Would you mind if I give it a try?” he asked.
Howie glanced back and forth between Brian and Baylee and then shrugged his defeat. Brian smiled reassuringly. “I’ll meet you guys back up at camp.” He said handing his fish to Nick. “If you want you can even try telling the others you caught these yourself.”
Nick’s face brightened at the suggestion but quickly turned to a pout when Howie laughed. “As if they’d ever believe it.” He said and then he and Nick parted ways with Brian.
Brian began to follow after Baylee and when he caught up to him Baylee surrendered his retreat and plopped back down to the ground. “What do you want?” He grumbled.
“Your making your dad sprout grey hairs.” Brian teased gently, while purposefully keeping a little space between him and the boy.
“If he’s so worried, why’d he send you?”
Brian was not intimidated by Baylee’s attitude and he kept the smile on his face as he answered the question. “I asked him if I could come.” He said, “I wanted to talk to you.”
Baylee turned his body slightly away from Brian and threw a rock into he river. “Well I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Even if it’s for me to say I’m sorry?”
Baylee glanced curiously up at Brian but quickly looked away again. “What are you sorry for?”
“Lots of things.” Brian said as he slowly moved closer to Baylee. “I’m sorry that you had to witness all that. Kids your age shouldn’t have to worry about grown up problems.”
Brian sat down next to Baylee and mimicked Baylee’s example of throwing rock in the river. “I’m also sorry that your mom’s having such a hard time, I think that’s mostly my fault.”
Baylee looked curiously at Brian, but Brian didn’t elaborate. “But mostly,” He said instead, “I’m sorry for what I said about not having faith anymore, because it isn’t true. I know there’s a God and I know he’s looking out for us.”
Baylee tried his best to stay angry and not talk to Brian, but he was too confused to ignore him. “Then how come you said that?”
“Nobody’s perfect.” Brian shrugged, “Not even a priest. I get frustrated because a lot of bad things have happened in my life, but then I remember that Jesus suffered a lot more than me.”
“Yeah, Jesus suffered more than anyone, more than you or I could even imagine, and he did it because he loves us. That’s how I know that things will be ok.”
“Things don’t look ok to me.” Baylee muttered as he tossed another stone.
“I know it doesn’t seem like it,” Brian said trying not to chuckle, “I think this trip is what you call a blessing in disguise.”
Baylee wanted to believe that so badly, he just didn’t see how it possibly could be. “Do you really think so?” He asked timidly.
Brian smiled as he nodded his head. “Well look at you for example, you’re going to walk away from this trip with a father.”
“Yeah, but he’s… different.”
“That’s not going to change the fact that he loves you, and your mom, very much. You’re very lucky to have him.”
Brian’s thoughts drifted on the subject of Leighanne and he let the conversation die as he looked out at the water. Baylee noticed the change and could no longer resist asking the question that had been on his mind since Howie told him about his mother’s old feelings. “Do you love my mom?”
Brian was stunned by the question but quickly plastered a smile on his face. “Of course I do.”
“I don’t mean like the way you love your friends, I mean like the other way.”
Redness crept into Brian’s cheeks when he found himself at an utter loss for words. He stared down at the boy who was waiting very patiently, knowing that the answer was well beyond his years. Brian had no idea how to make him understand the complexity of the situation so he gave the best answer he could think of. “Priests aren’t supposed to love people like that. We’re not allowed to have families.”
“But you said you’re not going to be a priest anymore.”
Brian was once again rendered speechless. He was busted too, and he knew it. Baylee was sharp and saw through the fašade right away. “I think you should tell her.” He said, “I think she really likes you.”
“Oh you do, do you?” Brian said as he took a deep breath in an attempt to keep his head on straight in front of the boy.
“Trust me.” Baylee said with a roll of his eyes, “My mom’s dated a lot of guys,”
Brian had to bite his tongue to keep from snickering, but he nearly bit right through it when Baylee finished that sentence. “But I’ve never seen her kiss someone like that before.”
Brian’s face turned deep purple and he laughed nervously as he stumbled over something to say. “It’s ok.” Baylee said, “But I think you should tell her, I think she needs to hear it.”
Brian finally calmed himself and the priestly smile returned to his face. He loved the innocence in Baylee’s thoughts and wished more than anything that the world really worked that way, but life isn’t that simple and he knew it. “I think she needs to hear it from you more.” He said. He glanced back to camp and then looked back at Baylee as if he were whispering a deep dark secret. “She thinks you hate her right now.”
Baylee looked back where the others were with a sad expression and Brian sighed as he rose to his feet. “Maybe it’s time we went back to camp, huh?”
Brian held out his hand to Baylee. Baylee thought for a moment and then allowed Brian to pull him to his feet. Brian started walking but stopped after a couple steps when Baylee didn’t follow. “Everything ok?”
“You go ahead, I’ll catch up.” Baylee said with a nod of his head and then looked around at his surroundings. He grinned at a brightly colored patch of wildflowers growing a few yards down the river. “Mom always says flowers can fix anything.”