Never before was there such a sight to see in the small town of Mercy, as the pair of grown men huddled in a booth at a local breakfast joint looking like they had the world’s largest hangovers. The funny thing was, neither of them had a lick of alcohol the night before. Nick and AJ were both slumped low in their seats with dark shades shielding them from what little morning light managed to creep in through the windows.
For three nights now Nick only managed a few hours sleep while AJ was deprived of any at all. Since AJ’s return to Mercy it was like old times again for he and Nick. There was so much to catch up on and so many stories to tell that they spent every night camped out on the living room floor with scary movies and junk food as if they were 12 year olds having a sleepover. AJ was just the distraction Nick needed to keep his mind off of Kevin. And for AJ, Nick was especially good at avoiding Brian.
AJ loved being home again and seeing Nick was like a long overdue vacation, but AJ couldn’t shake the look he’d seen in Brian’s eyes days before. In those five minutes when he first saw him, AJ had become as big an emotional train wreck as he’d been twelve years ago. He spent the couple hours each night that Nick was sleeping, tossing and turning and reliving long forgotten nightmares.
Nick was dying of curiosity and tried several times to bring up the subject of Brian, but it was clear AJ was not ready to shed some light on the mystery. Whatever it was, AJ didn’t seem angry toward him. He didn’t really seem any kind of way actually. It was like he just got depressed and had this child-like fear. The topic seemed way too sensitive and although he wished AJ would open up to him, he figured it was best for now to just support his friend. He did everything he could to keep the two apart which worked out perfectly for him since he was more than happy with never seeing Brian again.
The only down side to the plan was that they only got to be with Kristin about half the time because she spent most of her time at home with Kevin’s parents and Brian was always there. Nick was a little disappointed about that and missed Kristin every time he had to leave her, but at the same time he couldn’t help but think it might be better that way since every time they were alone his thoughts floated into dangerous territory.
Tuesday morning came all too quickly for both men, but as soon as the sun poked it’s head above the horizon neither of them were able to keep their eyes shut, so they decided to head over to the café where they were meeting Kristin and get a jumpstart on the coffee. They were greeted by a perky young waitress who forced an awkward smile when she saw Nick. “Hey coach.” She said shyly, asking him with her eyes if he wanted coffee.
“Coach?” AJ replied, trying not to snicker.
The teen eyed AJ curiously and then smiled at the tattoo-covered man in the sleek leather jacket. She was surprised to see the gorgeous EMO rock-star looking stranger hanging out with her goofy cross-country coach. Nick saw the smile and was quite aware of the soon-to-be senior’s reputation at school. He smirked and coughed suggestively, earning her attention. “Good morning Gracie.” He greeted with a smirk letting her know he saw her looking.
The waitress blushed a little as she filled both AJ and Nick’s cups with coffee. “You been keeping fit in the off season?” Nick asked changing the subject.
“At least five miles a day. Sometimes I make it all the way out to the lake without slowing down.” The girl admitted proudly and then let her smile fade as she realized what stretch of road she usually ran. “I’m really sorry.”
The girl smiled awkwardly again and pulled out her notepad to take their orders. “It’s ok, we’re still waiting for one more person.”
The girl slipped her notepad back into her apron and before she walked away Nick stopped her. “You be careful on those runs OK?”
Nick’s concern was very real and the girl practically cried as she whispered a promise. Nick then dove right into his coffee, hoping it might calm his nerves as the waitress stepped over to the booth behind him. “Would you like a refill Ma’am?” she asked.
Nick smiled at the way his student sounded like she was all smiles again. “You can just keep ‘em coming.” A woman laughed, “Where’s a Starbucks when you need one huh? Can I smoke this in here?” The waitress nodded and the woman laughed again. “Thank God for small towns.”
Nick smirked at the stress in the woman’s voice until he heard a boy say, “Mom! You promised you were going to quit.” And then the comment didn’t seem quite so funny.
Nick wasn’t sure why he found himself eavesdropping on the conversation, but he was completely intrigued by it. Maybe it’s because strangers were uncommon in Mercy and this woman was obviously from out of town. Nick tried to subtly glance over his shoulder but he could only catch a glimpse of the boy. He was kind of cute and strangely familiar in a way, though Nick couldn’t place who he thought the kid looked like. He was pulled from his thoughts when he heard the woman sigh deeply. “I’m sorry Baylee.” She said, “Mommy’s just a little stressed out right now.”
Nick’s jaw dropped when he heard the kids’ response. “Is this about the guy who died? He wasn’t my dad, was he?”
AJ looked at Nick as if he was insane, but he couldn’t hear the conversation going on behind Nick’s head. Nick shushed him silently and waited for the woman to answer the question. “How did you get so smart?” she said sadly.
“You make me do my homework.”
Both Nick and Leighanne smirked at the response but then Leighanne released another sigh. “No.” she said. “He wasn’t your father.”
“Then he knew him right? That’s why you’ve never talked about this guy?”
“Yeah, he knew him. He was one of his best friends.”
Baylee’s face lit up with a hopeful expression. “Will he be here? Am I going to get to meet him?”
“Honey its not that easy.”
Nick heard a fork slam onto a plate and the hope in Baylee’s voice was replaced with anger. “He doesn’t know about me, does he?” The child demanded.
“I didn’t have a choice sweetie.” Leighanne replied, as she became a little choked up. “I was only 18. Your grandma and grandpa were very upset. I was scared and I ran away. After that I never knew how to tell him. I never knew how to tell any of them.”
Nick suddenly realized who the woman sitting behind him was, and he couldn’t take it any longer. He jumped up from his seat and whirled around finally seeing with his own eyes what his mind was telling him was impossible. “Leighanne?” He gasped feeling almost faint at the sight he was seeing.
Leighanne was equally as shocked and spilled her coffee in her lap. “Shit!” she hissed under her breath as she jumped up from the table, pulling the hot stain away from her skin.
When she looked up she found herself face to face with both AJ and Nick but neither of them were looking at her. They were both staring at the young boy with the most striking blue eyes shining though thick locks of dark curly hair. The rich olive complexion suddenly made the Puerto Rican traits of the boy clear as day and Nick no longer wondered why he looked familiar. “Oh my God.” AJ breathed, “No wonder you didn’t want to come.”
Nick’s mouth dropped again as he realized that AJ knew she was coming. “Mom?” Baylee questioned, but the three of them were rendered speechless and all just stood there helplessly staring at one another.
When the bell on the front door jingled Nick turned around and the next scene seemed to play out in slow motion. Kristin spotted Nick and AJ instantly but her stride slowed as she recognized the woman standing with them. Her eyes welled up long before she reached the group and without words, the two women fell into a tearful embrace. Nick and AJ both took a step back, overwhelmed by the spike in estrogen. As soon as she could, Kristin opened her eyes and noticed the boy in the booth. She pulled away from Leighanne and clasped her hand over her mouth as she joined the ranks of speechless adults. “Mom?” Baylee said again, “You’re freakin’ me out.”
Baylee’s voice broke through the barrier and Leighanne literally shook herself from her shock. She quickly wiped her tears and smiled at her son. “I’m sorry Honey.” She shrugged still a bit frazzled, “Guys? This is my son Baylee. Honey these are some friends of mine.”
Leighanne sat down in the booth next to her son and AJ, Nick and Kristin all three slid into the other side still unable to take their eyes off of the pair. Nick was the first to break the silence. “He looks just like him.”
“Does he know?” Kristin asked.
“No.” Leighanne, Baylee, AJ and Nick all chanted together and then silence filled the booth again.
AJ was the next to break up the silence, “Does Brian know about you and Howie?”
Leighanne gasped at the mention of Brian’s name. She’d been so worried about seeing Howie that she hadn’t even once thought of Brian. “I take it that’s a no also.” AJ said answering his own question.
Tears filled Leighanne’s eyes as she reached for her cigarette with a shaking hand. “I forgot about Brian. I can’t do it.” She whispered, “I can’t face them both. Not at the same time.”
“You won’t have to.” Kristin said. “Howie’s not here.”
All three of them became uncomfortable and Leighanne knew there was so much she’d missed out on. They all sat in silence a little longer and watched Leighanne take drag after drag of her cigarette as if her life depended on it. They all pitied her and were still just so shocked. Not a one of them had any idea that she and Howie had ever been together. He never breathed a word of it and yet here they were staring at the mini version of him. “Well it’s really good to see you again Leighanne.” Nick finally said, trying to act as normal as he possibly could. “Welcome back.”
“Brian’s giving the service this morning.” Kristin added, “You probably can’t avoid him. But we’ll be here for you, you know that.”
Kristin reached across the table and grabbed Leighanne’s hand. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“That makes two of us.” Leighanne said with a nervous laugh.
Finally everyone broke down and laughed and they all had breakfast together. They sat around the table catching up a little and yet skillfully dodging all the sensitive subjects until finally Baylee couldn’t stand it and spoke up. “Do you guys know my dad?”
AJ, Kristin and Nick all shifted in their seats and looked to Leighanne for some sort of guidance. Leighanne sighed and then shrugged as if to say go ahead so they all three slowly nodded. “Your father’s name is Howard Dorough.” Leighanne said heavily. “I’m so sorry I kept him a secret all this time.”
“Howard?” Baylee repeated only to have Nick correct him.
“We call him Howie.”
Baylee sat for a moment unsure exactly what to feel. This was a huge moment in his life. Finally after all these years he had a name. “Howie.” He repeated thoughtfully.
“It’s kind of a lame name.” AJ teased, “But he’s a really cool guy.”
“Plus he’s a multi-millionaire.” Nick added.
Baylee’s eyes grew wide with wonder. “He’s teasing you Baylee.” Leighanne laughed.
“Am not.” Nick insisted. “The guy has his own private jet. He’s probably on it right now.”
“Is he coming here?” Baylee asked hopefully.
“I hope so.” Nick sighed.
AJ and Leighanne exchanged looks and then AJ looked at Kristin. “Is that true? Is Howie loaded?”
Kristin shrugged a confirmation and laughed at the look on AJ’s face. “Ok Mr. Best-selling author.” She teased, “I’m sure you’re no stranger to green. Not like me and Nicky here.”
“Especially Nick.” AJ laughed, “A gym teacher? When you could have gone pro?”
Nick rolled his eyes; he’d been hearing this kind of torment for days now.
“So what does my dad do?” Baylee interrupted again. He was dying to find out everything he could about the man he’d dreamed of all his life.
“He owns a lot of stuff kid.” Nick laughed. “Rides his plane a lot. Orders people around.”
“Is he nice?” Baylee asked suddenly feeling nervous.
“You’re daddy’s the sweetest man in the world.” Kristin assured him.
“We used to call him Sweet D when we were kids.” AJ added.
Leighanne’s eyes became moist as she watched three of her oldest friends tell her son all about his father. She bore the burden alone for so long that she truly believed this day would never come and she knew how much it meant to Baylee.
Baylee soaked up all the information like a sponge and Leighanne was happy that he finally had something to hold on to, but she was terrified that he was only getting his hopes up. Her fears were heightened when Baylee silenced the group with a really difficult question. “If he comes, do you think he will be happy to see me?”
Their silence was enough to make Baylee’s good mood vanish. A tear rolled down Leighanne’s cheek when she couldn’t give him any sort of answer. After a minute Kristin smiled at the frightened boy. “He’ll be very surprised.” She answered truthfully, “But I’m sure he’ll love you.”
Baylee’s smile returned when Nick and AJ chimed in words of encouragement. Leighanne wiped her eyes and smiled, praying desperately in her heart that Kristin was right. On the bright side, facing him wasn’t going to be as hard as she thought it would be when her friends were all clearly behind her.
Feeling a sudden burst of confidence courtesy of her childhood friends, Leighanne decided that after she changed out of her coffee stained clothes, she was ready to see Brian again. She didn’t know if she was actually or just sick of the anticipation and wanting to get it over and done with. She told herself that it was years ago and surely a priest would be understanding. After all, she’d gotten over the heartbreak, so why wouldn’t he?
Kristin was happy to see her being so strong and she prayed that things went well because she knew Brian needed all the encouragement he could get right now. She was actually hopeful that Baylee might make things between them a little easier because Brian would see that she’d moved on.
Though happy to be reunited, the four of them were quite the depressing bunch as they entered the church where the funeral was being held. Nick pushed himself through the door clinging tightly to Kristin’s hand. Leighanne followed behind her keeping Baylee close, but she stopped short and started to turn around. Suddenly she wasn’t feeling so confidant, but Kristin grabbed her hand and tugged at the same time as AJ gave her a gentle nudge from behind.
With butterflies in their stomachs and tears in their eyes, they made their way to the front of the chapel where seats had been reserved for them. The town hadn’t changed much over the years and anyone of a certain age or older couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Nick, Kristin Leighanne and AJ could all feel the stares and the gasps from people when they saw the entire gang clinging to one another the way they did when they were kids. Seeing Kristin so devastated was bad enough, but to see the group together again after all these years mourning the loss of their fearless leader was like watching the people of Great Britain after the death of Princess Diana.
The atmosphere was somber and not much could be heard aside from the prelude music and sniffles. Kristin looked up at the large picture of Kevin that had been placed near the pulpit and the smile that stretched all the way into his eyes seemed to haunt her. The picture had been taken a few years back, before Kevin’s life secretly began to fall apart. Seeing it sitting up there as a representation of the man they were there to honor almost felt like a lie.
Kristin hated having to pretend that things were so great between them but she knew that’s what people wanted to hear. Nick felt her grip on his hand tighten and he looked down into her pain-filled eyes. He questioned her sudden remorse and she stared regretfully at the picture again. “It’s been years since I saw Kevin smile like that.”
Nick looked back at the picture and his stomach twisted into knots. He felt Kristin’s body start to shake beside him. “I loved him so much.” Kristin whispered as she began to cry. “How come I couldn’t make him happy?”
“How can you say that? You were the one thing in his life that made him happy.”
Nick’s words didn’t bring Kristin much comfort. Even though she knew he meant what he said she had a hard time believing it herself. She didn’t want to upset Nick because she knew how hard he was trying to take care of her, so she forced a smile and rested her head on his shoulder.
Leighanne felt Kristin lean over and looked up just in time to watch her pat Nick’s thigh. There was something about the way Nick slid his hand beneath Kristin’s and intertwined their fingers that made Leighanne do a double take. She watched them very curiously as Nick placed a kiss on the side of Kristin’s head and then leaned his against it.
Kristin and Nick were much closer to each other than any of the others, that was a given. They were grieving together and shared each other’s pain in a way no one else could understand, but Leighanne could see that there was more to it than that. She just didn’t know how much more. She continued to study them until she heard a voice that sent a chill throughout her entire body. It was matured now, but it was the same voice that once monopolized her dreams.
As Brian thanked everyone for coming and began the service with a scripture about death and moving on, Leighanne became flooded with old memories. She’d loved him so much that she thought her heart would never mend, but as time passed she was able to suppress those feelings and forget the very existence of the boy who broke her heart twelve years ago.
She braced herself for what she might feel and then looked up at him. He looked more handsome than she remembered with the same fierce blue eyes that used to hypnotize her, but she could tell that the last decade had put much wear and tear on his soul. As she stared at the dark suit and white collar her thoughts turned to that night.
Brian felt her gaze and the moment his eyes reached her his mind went blank and the words stopped flowing from his mouth. His heart jumped at the unexpected visitor and he couldn’t look away. “Mom,” Baylee whispered, “Why is that man staring at you?”
Leighanne didn’t notice Baylee tugging on her sleeve but he noticed the blood drain from her face. “Mom, are you ok?”
Leighanne finally broke eye contact with Brian and looked down at her son. “I’m fine sweetheart.” She whispered.
Once Leighanne looked away, Brian fought his panic and stumbled over a few words before finally continuing on. When he was finished the choir sang a song and Kevin’s father got up to say a few words. From the moment he sat down, Brian couldn’t take his eyes off of the love of his life. The feelings that came with seeing her again were so intense that he felt as if he were going to be sick. He quietly and quickly rose from his chair and slipped out a side door in search of a bathroom.
Nick, AJ and Kristin all watched him go until they heard sniffles and realized that Leighanne was crying. Kristin threw her arms around her distressed friend, but Leighanne’s chest felt as if it were closing in on her and her sniffles turned to sobs. She jumped up from her seat and ran down the isle looking for freedom and fresh air.
The group looked at each other and then AJ got up and calmly followed after her. He found her on the front steps of the church bawling hysterically. He sat down next to her and she threw herself into his chest soaking his jacket with her tears. “I spent so long forgetting him just to have it all come back to me in a split second. I shouldn’t have come AJ!”
“Shh.” AJ cooed, “It’ll be ok.”
After that AJ didn’t say anything else. He believed that sometimes crying was a good thing and Leighanne needed to let it all out. He rested his head against hers and closed his eyes. As he sat there with her a black town car with dark windows pulled up to the front steps. Howie jumped out of the backseat glancing at a watch hidden beneath the sleeve of his expensive suit and began to hurry up the steps. He was almost to the door when he whirled around. “AJ?”
AJ turned around and smiled when he saw who it was. “Howie! You made it!”
Leighanne shot straight up and Howie was shocked when he finally recognized her. “Oh my God I can’t believe you’re both here!”
Leighanne was stunned but AJ pulled her to her feet. He gave Howie a big hug and then pushed Leighanne into Howie’s arms. Howie squeezed her tightly forcing another round of sobs from her. He held on to her tightly but looked at AJ with concern. AJ mouthed the word Brian as he pointed at the church and Howie sighed. He pulled Leighanne back and forced her to look at him. “Forget him.” He said softly. “You’re back, that’s what matters. I can’t believe you’re back!”
Howie hugged her again still bewildered that he was talking to her. She began to gain control of herself until Baylee appeared looking for his mother. “Mom?”
She stiffened at the sound of his voice and threw her hand over her mouth. Howie was confused to see her turn white and followed her gaze. When he saw Baylee he froze. He and Baylee stared at each other equally wide-eyed until Leighanne’s knees buckled underneath her and she fell unconscious in Howie’s arms.