Brian flushed away the recycled contents of his stomach as he heard the door to the men’s room open and was surprised by the sound of tiny sniffles he heard. He slowly emerged from his stall and joined the upset boy at the sink. The kid wiped his eyes, ashamed of his tears, and looked away from Brian.
Brian rinsed his mouth and splashed his face with cold water before addressing the boy in the room. He watched the boy curiously for a second, having already figured out the big mystery and tried to keep his head on straight. He looked at his outfit in the mirror and remembered that he was best at helping others in their time of need and he had a special place for troubled kids in his heart. “Would you like to talk about it son?” he asked.
Baylee was startled and shook his head in response to Brian’s question. “God can’t help you out unless you ask him too.” Brian pressed.
Tears filled Baylee’s eyes again and his little body filled with a rage that surprised even Brian. “There’s no such thing as God.”
For a moment Brian felt pain in his heart, but he smiled through it. “So sure are you?”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“You don’t need to see someone to know they exist.”
Baylee became quiet again. He knew Brian’s statement was true. He always knew he had a father out there somewhere. But now that he’d finally seen him face to face it felt like the dad he’d created in his mind didn’t exist anymore and all he was left with was the face of a stranger that looked terrified of him. “If there really is a God, then why doesn’t he help everyone?”
“Not everyone asks for help.”
Baylee had never been taught a thing about God. His mother always said religion was a waste of time, but as he looked up at the priest he found him strangely comforting. Brian could tell that something was troubling him, but he was scared to talk about it. “Do you need help son?”
Baylee looked at his feet and in a meek voice whispered, “I think my mom does but she would never ask for help. She hates God.”
Brian felt like the breath in his lungs had been stolen away as his heart broke all over again. Leighanne must have suffered a lot in life for her son to say something like that. And to say that she hated God made Brian feel even worse. He knew he must be the reason for her resentment and inwardly cursed himself for leading her astray.
Brian wanted to let the tears behind his eyes flow freely, but he knew he couldn’t do that in front of a boy that was confessing in a desperate attempt to find some peace. When Baylee finally looked up and met Brian’s eyes Brian said, “If your mom can’t ask, then maybe you should.”
Baylee looked at Brian with wide eyes. “It’s ok to ask God to help someone else.” Brian assured him.
“I don’t think my mom would like that too much.”
“She doesn’t have to know. What you pray for is between you and the Lord.”
“But I’m just a kid. I’ve never been to church. He won't listen to me.”
Brian stared for a moment, seeing the likeness the boy had to his mother, then lifted the tiny cross necklace over his head. He held it out to Baylee and with a smile said, “If you have faith, the Lord will always answer your prayers. No matter who you are.”
“Does he answer yours?”
A smile crept across Brian’s face as he pictured Leighanne staring up at him from the front row of the chapel. “He did today.”
Baylee looked down at the necklace in his hands and pondered Brian’s suggestion. After a moment’s thought he slipped the necklace over his head and tucked it beneath his shirt. Brian smiled at him and Baylee surprised him with a sincere hug. “Thank you Sir.” He whispered shyly.
Brian hugged him back tightly, secretly wishing that the boy could have been his. “God be with you son.”
Leighanne woke up to find herself lying on a couch in the church foyer feeling a little disoriented. She was relieved to see that Howie wasn’t standing there waiting for an explanation. AJ smiled down at her and said, “How are you feeling?”
AJ smirked as she looked around the room. “Relax, I told him you might need a few minutes. He went inside to hear the service.”
Leighanne gave him a hint of a guilty smile. “And Baylee?”
“Did they talk to each other?”
“They said hi, but I think they were both a little freaked out.”
Leighanne lied back down with a heavy heart but AJ pulled her back up. “Why don’t we get out of here? We’ll go for a drive or something and give you a chance to figure out what you want to say to him.”
Leighanne nodded her head and let AJ put his arms around her once more as they waited for Baylee to return from the bathroom. When he arrived, Leighanne was shocked to see who he was talking to as he rounded the corner.
Brian saw her and AJ sitting on the couch together and stopped dead in his tracks. Baylee saw his mother awake and shot her a smile that made AJ shudder because he looked so much like his dad. Baylee smiled up at Brian when he stopped walking and began dragging him toward his mom. “This is my mom,” he said pushing Brian in front of Leighanne and AJ. “Mom this is Father Littrell.”
“I know who he is Baylee.” Leighanne breathed.
All three adults forced awkward smiles for Baylee’s sake and when Baylee looked up at Brian expectantly Brian finally said, “Hi Leigh.”
“Are you guys friends too?” Baylee asked.
Brian smiled and started to nod until Leighanne said, “We were a long time ago.”
Baylee looked back and forth between his mother and Brian. He realized that there was tension between them and frowned when he saw how disappointed his new friend seemed. “Figures.” He snapped at his mother and then stormed away.
AJ and Brian watched Baylee walk out the door in surprise. He looked so upset suddenly that AJ and Brian both looked to Leighanne with questioning eyes. Leighanne laughed nervously and shrugged though her heart sank, “Hormones.” She said hopping they wouldn’t ask, “He does that all the time.”
That was the truth. Baylee wasn’t one of those kids that tried to sabotage all his mom’s dates. Or rather, he wouldn’t be if she ever had any. He wished all the time that his mother would find someone to make her happy. She was a good woman and she deserved it, but she always seemed to hate everyone and never let anyone get close. “He seems like a really good kid.” Brian said snapping everyone’s attention back to each other.
Things got very quiet all the sudden and AJ realized that he was as good as invisible at the moment. Brian nervously reached for the cross around his neck and then tugged at his collar when the necklace wasn’t there. “Leighanne, do you think maybe we can talk?”
“Brian.” Leighanne replied sweetly, forcing herself to be strong. “There’s nothing to talk about. It was years ago and we were kids. I’ll forgive and forget if you will.”
Leighanne’s body trembled on the inside as she smiled at him. She didn’t want to be nervous, but she couldn’t help it, and she hated the effect he had on her. She wanted to be angry with him, and she was, but she was also afraid that she would fall for him all over again if she gave him the chance to talk and she was not about to let him do that to her twice.
AJ saw right through Leighanne, but Brian was blinded by emotion. He was crushed thinking that she was completely over him and had been for years. He nodded even though he disagreed and felt there was so much to talk about. He had so much he wanted to say to her. There were so many things he’d spent the last decade thinking about and he swore that if he were ever given a second chance, he would set things right. As he stood there in front of her again all these years later he swore to keep that promise to himself, but now was clearly not the time, especially not with AJ standing there.
When Brian’s thoughts turned to AJ his eyes drifted his direction. AJ did everything he could to look Brian in the eyes but it was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do. His look showed how sorry he was but Brian didn’t really care. “Maybe you and I should talk instead.” AJ whispered, longing for the chance to explain himself.
Brian’s blood began to boil within him and he clenched his fingers into fists as he attempted to keep his voice low. “Why? Researching for a good sequel? I’m afraid I’m not nearly as entertaining now.”
AJ flinched as if Brian’s pain tortured his soul and Leighanne was surprised to see him fighting back tears as he watched Brian walk away from them. She waited for AJ to explain but he just looked at her after a minute and said, “You still want to get out of here?”
Leighanne nodded and the two of them quickly exited the church before they could run into any more drama. They grabbed Baylee and found themselves driving clear to the neighboring town over 20 miles away just to ensure a peaceful lunch where they wouldn’t run into anyone.
AJ and Leighanne laughed at one another when they both cringed as they tasted the coffee in front of them. “Not exactly a caramel macchiato is it?” AJ laughed.
“I would kill for a double espresso right now.” Leighanne agreed. “I guess Montana really is the state that Starbucks forgot.”
Leighanne started to light a cigarette until Baylee glared at her. “Alright, alright, you’re right, I’m sorry.” She said as she put what Baylee called the "cancer stick" back in its package.
She fished through her purse and cursed under her breath when the package of gum she pulled out turned out to be empty. AJ smirked and then pulled out a package of his own and slid it across the table. “Something else we have in common.”
Leighanne smiled and thanked him as she popped the nicotine-enhanced gum into her mouth. “So how’d they get you?” AJ teased.
“When I was studying for the Bar exam actually. A friend of mine said it was the only way she got through the stress.”
Leighanne laughed at the ridiculousness behind her reasoning. “Sounded like a good idea at the time, but I’ve been trying to quit the damn things ever since.”
“I hear ya there.”
“How long have you been trying to quit?” Baylee asked worried that his mother might never accomplish the task.
“I kicked the habit about eight years ago actually.” AJ said and then sighed. “Right about the time the court ordered me into AA.”
Leighanne was surprised by AJ’s candidness but was very grateful for it. She was glad not to be the one explaining herself. “I’m sorry AJ.” She said sympathetically.
“Na.” AJ shrugged as he stared into his cup of coffee. “I needed the help. You’re not the only one with a few skeletons in the closet ya know.”
“I guess not.” Leighanne replied, “You ready to come clean about whatever that was with Brian?”
“You ready to tell me how you ended up with a mini Howie?”
Leighanne stared into AJ’s eyes for a moment. She could see that he wanted to spill his secrets, but he wasn’t quite there yet so she figured it might help to let him get a little closer to her first. She smiled at her son and then released a long woeful sigh. “I’m afraid there’s not really much to tell. We were new to college and Nick dragged us to one of his frat parties. It wasn’t really our thing so we grabbed a couple of drinks and found someplace quiet. One thing led to another and well…”
“He wasn’t even your boyfriend?” Baylee asked sounding a little hurt.
“I loved your dad squirt.” She assured Baylee, “He was one of my best friends in the whole world but it just wasn’t like that for us.”
“So why’d you take off?” AJ asked, “You know Howie would have stuck by you.”
“Yeah,” Baylee chimed in, “And how come you never even told me his name until now?”
Leighanne smiled at them both and simply said, “That’s complicated.”
“Why?” Baylee demanded.
AJ felt Leighanne’s stress levels rise again and came to her rescue. “Wow! Is it really already three o’clock? We’d better get back or Nick and Kristin will leave without us.”
“Where are they going?”
AJ’s eyes glowed with a hint of excitement as he said, “Mercy.”
Leighanne blinked a couple of times. “What?” she gasped. “They’re really going to go to Mercy?”
“Aren’t they already there?” Baylee whined, unhappy that he seemed to be very out of the loop all the sudden.
“Not the town,” Leighanne answered, “The hot springs.”
“Hot springs?” Baylee asked suddenly becoming interested.
AJ nodded. “They’re taking Kevin’s ashes out there in the morning, but they’re headed up to the lake tonight just like we used to do every year.”
“I can’t believe it.” Leighanne breathed. “And you’re going to go with them?”
“So are you.”
Leighanne opened her mouth to say something, her head already beginning to shake from side to side. “Leigh.” AJ insisted, “It’s tradition.”
“Are Brian and Howie going?”
AJ shrugged and Leighanne sunk back in her seat. AJ pouted and insisted again. “You can’t let me go without you. Nick and Kristin are so tight now, I need a fellow outsider.”
“But if Brian’s going.”
“I seriously doubt that Father Littrell is going.”
“It would give him a chance to get to know his son a little. You know he deserves that.”
Leighanne stared at AJ, reluctant to say yes and AJ looked at Baylee. “How about it? You want to hang out with your dad for a couple days?”
Baylee nodded and then looked to his mother with pleading eyes. Her mind raced with old memories of making that trip every year and suddenly there was a smile on her face. “I really did love it there.” She finally conceded.
AJ nodded, “And it would be kind of nice to be all together again, for Kevin. You know how much he loved doing it.”
“Yeah.” Leighanne sighed, “He did. I guess it wouldn’t be right letting Nick and Kristin go by themselves.”
“At a girl.” AJ said pulling himself from the booth.
He held his hand out to Leighanne and pulled her to her feet wrapping a comforting arm around her. “We’ll all help you out with Howie.” He said, “It’ll be good for ya, you’ll see.”
AJ turned back to Baylee and smiled, “Come on squirt, we gotta go get you all geared up.”
“Backpack, sleeping bag, tent…”
Baylee stopped walking and frowned. “We’re going camping?”
AJ saw the look of disgust and laughed. “With dirt and rocks and bugs and everything.”