Baylee watched Brian curiously as he walked back to camp. He wasn’t sure what to think of the man exactly, but he was grateful that he’d come on this trip. Brian seemed to be the most estranged of the whole group yet Baylee found himself drawn to his faith. The faith that somehow everything would turn out ok was what Baylee needed more than anything right now.
The feelings his mother clearly had for the man were just an added bonus. It wasn’t that Baylee wanted them to necessarily get married or anything, but there was something real between them and even if it wasn’t meant to be, Baylee took comfort in the fact that it was possible for his mother to love. It gave him hope that someone, someday would be able to make her happy.
Baylee was pulled from his thoughts when he heard laughter erupt from the camp and while he finally went to collect the flowers he wanted for his mother, the laughter inspired more deep thought. Maybe Brian was right. Maybe this trip had been a blessing in disguise. They’d all suffered and maybe being forced into one another’s company was what they needed to get over it. Maybe now they could finally stop hurting one another.
The laugher stopped and Baylee glanced back to camp to see why things got quiet. He smiled when he saw everyone tackle Brian as he reached camp, immersing him in a giant group hug. They looked ridiculous, but they looked happy and it made Baylee want to be back in their presence.
He ran to a group of bright red flowers and began plucking the biggest brightest ones. He looked around and saw several different colors and began collecting an assortment and just when he thought he had enough, he noticed a small patch of purple ones just a little further down the river. Purple was his mom’s favorite color so he trudged downstream.
Once he reached the flowers he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. At the very edge of the valley where river narrowed again and the trees grew thick there was a large beaver dam that had caused the river to pool up. Upon closer look Baylee noticed what looked to be a women’s shirt caught within the piled tree branches and he immediately went to investigate.
Brian approached his old friends still feeling a tinge of uneasiness in his heart and when the laughter stopped upon his arrival, that tinge turned into major butterflies. It seemed everyone was becoming friends again but him. He swallowed back panic as they all stared at him funny, but when they tackled him to the ground throwing their arms around him, his doubt was replaced with tears of joy. Not wanting to be mocked for it, he quickly suppressed his emotions, but stood frozen, blindsided by the love he was receiving.
Kristin was the last to release him from her grip and the smile on her face looked a little sad, but there was still a twinkle in her eyes. “Brian.” She said firmly, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but we’ve all decided you need an intervention.”
Brian felt his heart jump inside his chest and all he could do was stand there, blinking a lot as he tried to figure out what was going on. Nick laughed and threw his arm around the shorter man just as he used to before things went wrong. “Bri, you’re a pain in the ass and a shitty priest, but it’s who you are and we think you should stay that way.”
“Would you stop that Nick?” Kristin giggled and then pushed Nick out of the way to hug Brian, “You’re not a bad priest.” She assured him. “We don’t want to see you give it up.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Brian stammered.
“Say you’ll at least think about it.” Leighanne replied quietly, “Your Bishop was right, you shouldn’t make such an important decision when you’re feeling so stressed out.”
Brian stared into Leighanne’s eyes and felt as if her words were crushing his heart. He never expected her to jump into his arms after hearing his news, but he’d hoped for it. Leighanne could read his thoughts, but she stayed strong and kept the smile on her face. “This was important to you once.” She said, “And it’s important to us now.”
“Yeah man.” AJ added, still very nervous to talk to Brian, “God handed you a bunch of shit and you turned around and devoted your life to the guy. I don’t know about the others, but I’ve always looked up to you for that.”
Brian looked at the heads of his friends all nodding along to AJ’s statement and was honestly shocked. He was so sure when he gave them the news all those years ago that they hated him for becoming a priest. “I always thought…” He began but wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to say. “But that’s what pushed you all away from me.”
“Look around Brian.” Howie said, “It wasn’t you becoming a priest that made us fall apart. We all pushed ourselves away from each other. “Don’t let us be your reason for giving up your faith.”
“Can I say something?”
Everyone jumped at the sound of the tiny voice behind them and they stepped aside to give Baylee the spotlight. Baylee stood there timidly with his hands behind his back and gulped as he faced six pairs of curious eyes. He glanced at everyone and then focused on one person in particular, Brian. “I don’t want you to quit either, I think you’re a really good priest.”
Everyone smiled, but it didn’t help Baylee feel any less nervous as he began to say everything on his mind. “You all told your secrets,” he said, “I know I’m not really part of your club or whatever it is, but its my turn.”
Everyone waited curiously to hear what the boy had to confess, none of them having the slightest clue what it could be. Leighanne looked at the fear in his eyes and braced herself for something heartbreaking or scary, but she couldn’t have been prepared for what he said. “I believe in God.” Baylee confessed. “I didn’t used to, but I do now.”
Nobody dared breathe a word because they didn’t want to scare Baylee. His statement was so unexpected and innocent that they all needed to hear his reasoning. Baylee looked at his mom and tried to fight back tears. “I was scared.” He said faintly, “You’re always so stressed out, you won’t stop smoking, and I know the medicine you hide in your purse is for depression. I saw the commercial on TV.”
Leighanne’s eyes glossed over and Baylee looked at his feet when he saw his mother start to cry. “When we came here you started acting so crazy and Father Littrell said that praying for you might help.” Baylee glanced nervously at Brian and then looked at his mom again. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I did it. I prayed for you.” Baylee cast his eyes around the group. “I prayed for all of you. You were all just so mad at each other so I asked God to help make you friends again. I thought it would help my mom if she didn’t have to be scared anymore.”
Suddenly it seemed that everyone was fighting back the tears and not just Leighanne, but Baylee couldn’t stop. “I didn’t think he was listening when you all started saying all that stuff, but maybe that was his way of helping you. You told all your secrets, so now nobody has to be scared anymore.”
The only sounds that could be heard now were the sounds of sniffles, as the faith of a small child humbled everyone in his presence. Baylee looked at Kristin and drew an airtight bag from behind his back. “Mrs. Richardson? I prayed for you especially and then I found this in the river, it was stuck in a beaver dam.”
No one could believe what they were seeing, and tears poured from Kristin’s eyes as she precariously accepted the ashes that had been washed down the river the day before. She set the urn down and then pulled Baylee tightly into her arms. “Thank you.” She cried but Baylee pulled himself out of her embrace.
“Don’t thank me, thank God.”
Baylee turned to Brian and then threw his arms around him. “Thank you for teaching me about him.”
Brian knelt down to hug the boy properly but had no words for what he was feeling. He felt proud for the first time in his life, like he’d finally done something right for a change. All those years wondering if he’d made the right decision felt worth it for the moment.
Baylee drew back and smiled at Brian as he wiped the moisture from his eyes. Brian smiled back and then lifted his eyes to see everyone staring at him with smiles on their tear stained faces. They all stood quietly for a moment and then Baylee ran into the waiting arms of his mother. Howie soon joined them and Kristin took that moment to hug Nick, still shocked by the miracle she’d just been granted.
That left Brian and AJ standing there awkwardly, watching everyone around them kiss and make up, and they both knew they needed to do the same. They looked at one another and AJ waited for some sort of response from Brian. He wanted desperately for Brian to forgive him, and held his breath as he watched Brian struggle with the decision.
Finally, Brian looked again at everyone standing around him. Everyone he ever loved was there with him and deep down he knew that included AJ. It wouldn’t be the same without him, so Brian finally mustered a weak smile and held out his hand.
AJ was so relieved at the gesture that he didn’t just shake Brian’s hand, but pulled him tightly into his arms, not worried the least bit about looking like a chick or something. He was just happy to have his friend back. Brian was surprised but hugged him back equally as hard, finally feeling a little peace from six years of emotional turmoil. The two didn’t exchange words, but none were needed. AJ found the forgiveness he needed and Brian found the understanding he longed for.
Everyone stopped their own warm greetings to witness the reunion and when Brian and AJ finally let go of one another they found themselves standing right in the middle of an awkward silence. Nick stepped up to the plate for old time’s sake and held up the fish that Howie and Brian had caught. “I may not know how to catch ‘em, but I know how to cook ‘em.” He said causing everyone to laugh.
Baylee wrinkled his nose at the dead fish. “You’re gonna eat those?”
“So are you, kid.” Nick laughed.
Everyone laughed at the look on Baylee’s face except Brian, his gazed was fixed on Baylee’s mother. Leighanne met his eyes briefly and then looked away nervously. A very wise AJ noticed the exchange and tore Baylee from his mother’s arms. “I think it’s time for you to gut your first fish.” He said, winking Brian’s direction as he separated mother from child.
“What do you mean by gut?”
AJ grinned like the devil and everyone laughed as they fell into their own activities. Brian watched Leighanne find a seat against a tree, laughing as she watched her friends teach her son the joys of fish guts. He knew now would be his only chance, but he still needed to work up the courage. He smiled to himself and then walked off in search of a handful of wildflowers.
Minutes later Brian crept around behind the tree Leighanne was sitting against and surprised her with a few colorful flowers. “Baylee said flowers can fix anything.” He said with a nervous smile.
Leighanne was startled, but the smile on her face as she accepted the homemade bouquet was enough to make Brian happy forever. She patted the ground beside her and Brian took a seat. “They’re beautiful, thank you.”
“They’re an apology.” Brian admitted, “I haven’t really made this week easy for you.”
“Yeah, same here.” Leighanne plucked one of the flowers from her hand and gave it back to Brian. “I’m sorry too.” Leighanne paused a moment, but then had to ask the question that was plaguing her. “Are you really going to quit?”
“I think so.” Brian sighed.
He smiled, but he stared down at the flower he now twirled in his fingers and his thoughts were a million miles away. “Is this about me?” Leighanne asked, snapping him from his daydream.
“Truthfully?” Brian asked, still focusing his attention on the flower in his hand. “Yes.”
Leighanne smiled sadly, and the sigh she released wasn’t exactly the sign Brian was hoping for. “Brian,” she whispered as she placed her hand on his leg.
Brian looked down at her hand and knew that she was trying to let him down easy. “You have to let go.” She said.
“I don’t want to.” Brian said firmly, “That night with you was the best night of my life. I want that life back.”
“But what about everything you believe in?”
“I’ll always have religion in my life, but I’m not cut out for this lifestyle. I chose it because I was a confused kid and it seemed safe, but it’s not really who I am. I want to be loved. I want a family. I want to be a husband and a father someday.”
“But it is who you are.” Leighanne pleaded, “Look at what you did for my son.”
Brian sat quietly for a moment, deep in thought. It was true that part of him would miss what he’d spent nearly half of his life doing, but his mind was made up. “Baylee’s a really good kid, and I didn’t do that. Being a priest isn’t all bad, but this is something I have to do.”
Leighanne gave him a sad look and he cast his eyes back to his lap. “You loved me once.” He whispered, “Is there no chance you could love me again?”
Leighanne forced her stinging eyes shut. “You’re not going to make this easy are you?”
“I’m sorry.” Brian shrugged helplessly, “I still love you.”
“You love the Leighanne from twelve years ago. I’m not that girl anymore.”
Brian dropped his flower and took Leighanne’s hand. “Then let me get to know Leighanne the woman. I’m sure I’ll love her just as much.”
Leighanne sighed heavily and when she looked at him she smiled and pulled one of his curls out of his face. “You were right about that night, it was beautiful. I’m sorry that I ever saw it as anything different. We had a perfect night and I’m glad I can finally see it for what it was, but we can’t go back to that. Not after all this time.”
Biran closed his eyes as he nodded his head and let out a deep breath of disappointment. “Ok.” He said, “At least now I know.”
“I’m sorry.” Leighanne sighed. “I love you Brian, I do, but not like I used to. I just can’t see this working out.”
Brian nodded understandingly, but wasn’t really in a talkative mood any more. Leighanne took his hand again and smiled as best she could. “I meant it when I said I would hate to see you quit, but if it’s really what will make you happy, then you should do it. I just don’t want you to do it because of me.”
Brian nodded again and smiled, but Leighanne knew he was hurting. She gently put her hand to his cheek and pressed her lips to his. As sweet as the kiss was, it hurt because Brian knew it was a goodbye kiss, but he cherished it all the same. When Leighanne pulled away there was a layer of moisture in her eyes, but her smile was one hundred percent sincere. “You are a wonderful man Brian. You’ll figure things out. And no matter what you decide, I’ll be there for you, as a friend.” Leighanne hesitated a moment. “That is, if you want me too, but I’ll understand if you don’t.”
Brian’s heart was broken, but things had still turned out better than he’d expected they would before he came back to Mercy. He never expected Leighanne to be here, much less that she would be able to forgive him and offer to stay in his life. It was at least a step in the right direction and it was more than he could have asked for so he accepted the offer graciously. “I’d like that.”
Leighanne stared at Brian for a moment as she tried to figure out if he really meant what he said. “So, we’re ok then?” she asked.
Brian’s smile was a small one, but it was real, so Leighanne relaxed and smiled as she leaned back against the tree. Brian leaned back with her and they sat in comfortable silence, watching the others have fun around camp.
The rest of the evening went by a lot like it did when they were younger. They cooked fish, played games, told stories, soaked in the relaxing springs getting to know each other all over again and most importantly, they enjoyed one another’s company.
It wasn’t quite like old times though. Things were different now, better. They were different. They’d all been through so much and now they’d finally learned to not take what they had together for granted, something Kevin had always known and tried to teach them so many times. They hated that it took his death to finally open their eyes, but were grateful that his legacy would never get left behind. He loved them all so much and would not have wanted things to turn out any differently. He wouldn’t want them mourning over his death, he would want them celebrating his life, so that’s what they did.
After dinner they all gathered in the spring one last time and instead of each taking a turn to confess something about themselves, they shared their fondest memories of Kevin. They sat for hours laughing and crying and creating a brand new memory as they talked about all the old ones. Once there were absolutely no more stories to tell they climbed out of the water and stood over it, sharing tears and smiles as Kristin scattered Kevin’s ashes over his most favorite place on Earth.
It was hard to say goodbye, but somehow even though he wasn’t there, they could feel his presence. The stars shone down on the peaceful valley and a warm breeze washed over them letting them know that he was there, taking his place new in the world as their guardian angel and in that moment they knew that somehow, everything would be ok.