Aside from being late May and a little cooler than they all remembered, the North Shore of Jackson Lake was pretty much the same as it had always been. The lake was just as calm, the stars were every bit as brilliant and much to everyone’s surprise the laughter resounding throughout the valley was just as boisterous as it had been all those years ago.
Somehow as everyone huddled around the campfire things were just like old times again. The stress everyone was under was temporarily forgotten as they relived old memories and forged new ones. They were two members short tonight with the absence of both Kevin and Brian but having Baylee seemed to fill a small part of that gap.
Baylee was quite the entertainment for the group as he really experienced the great outdoors for the first time. Over the years Nick and AJ had turned roasting marshmallows into an art form. They were having a blast trying to teach their technique to the newcomer, but every time Baylee stuck a mallow over the flames he set the thing a blaze. “You’d better figure that out soon or the marshmallows will be gone before you even get to the chocolate.” AJ teased.
The group tried to hold back their snickers as Baylee pulled the charcoaled goop from his roaster and grabbed another marshmallow. This time he just about had it. He smiled proudly at the evenly roasted sides but when he pulled his stick out of the fire the golden brown beauty fell into the dirt at his feet. He simply had no words to accompany his frustration but the sight of him made the entire group burst into fits of wild laughter. “You’re just like your mom kid.” Nick laughed as he handed Baylee a smore with one of the marshmallows he’d roasted, “She could never roast a good mallow either.”
“Yeah.” AJ laughed joining in on the torture as if they were still best friends in high school. “She was every bit the city slicker you are, except she was worse because she was a little prissy.”
“I was not prissy!”
Baylee held back a smirk until the entire group was once again lost in laughter. “You were prissy.” Kristin shrugged. “But we loved ya anyway.”
“Do you remember the first time we brought you with us out here?”
“Oh come on!” Leighanne protested but the group only continued to laugh and laugh at her.
AJ’s eyes lit up as he reached the back of his mind to pull out the memory. “The first time we took your mom camping we were kind of giving her a hard time.”
“Kind of?” Leighanne scoffed.
“Ok, we were giving the princess a lot of crap” AJ confessed with a laugh, “We were telling her all these stories about people being attacked by wild animals to get a rise out of her but she kept insisting she wasn’t scared.
“Which was a big fat lie!” Nick cut in.
“Wild animals?” Baylee repeated with wide eyes.
“Like mother like son.” Kristin laughed.
“We knew your mom was terrified.” AJ continued, “So we made a bet that she couldn’t sleep in her own tent all night long.”
“You slept out here by yourself?” Baylee smirked, “You can’t even go to bed at home without checking the alarm like five hundred times.”
“Traitor.” Leighanne muttered to her son when Nick and AJ laughed at her.
Baylee flashed his mom an innocent smile. “So did you last all night long?”
“I would have.”
Nick and AJ looked at one another and had to catch each other as they dramatically fell to the ground with laughter. Baylee watched them curiously until Howie finally spoke up. “She lasted twenty minutes longer that we thought she would.”
Baylee looked across the fire at the man who was supposedly his father, and he was surprised by his smile. Howie’d kept really quiet all night and pretty much avoided him and his mom since they showed up. Baylee was disappointed, but the guy looked so terrified that it was hard to be angry.
Baylee was excited by the eye contact and couldn’t help the hopeful smile he sent Howie’s direction. Howie starred nervously for a moment before pushing back his nerves and finishing the story. “About twenty minutes after the rest of us had all fallen asleep we hear this blood curdling scream and your mom started freaking out.”
“You should have seen her!” Nick said wiping tears from his eyes. “She was jumpin’ around and screaming and stuff.”
“Yeah.” AJ added as he held his aching stomach, “She was trying to get out of her tent but she ended up pulling the thing down on top of her.”
“There was a spider on me.” Leighanne defended herself pointlessly.
“Kevin was so worried that something was really wrong with her” AJ continued, “That he literally ripped her tent open with his bare hands and pulled her out. She spent the rest of the trip sleeping with one of us.”
“Never did find that alleged spider.”
“It was real!” Leighanne said in a half laugh half whine.
“Mm hmm.” Nick teased.
Leighanne playfully swat Nick and Baylee watched in amazement as his mom was hazed by her friends. She was laughing and smiling along with them and Baylee couldn’t help but think it was like watching a whole new person. He’d never seen his mom so relaxed and he really liked the transformation.
When the laughter died down Leighanne sighed. “Don’t you boys ever get tired of telling that story? It really wasn’t that funny.”
“Funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” AJ said winking at Baylee.
“It was really funny.” Kristin agreed. She looked around the fire and then released a long sigh of her own. “We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?” Heads bobbed up and down all round the campfire, “Thank you guys for coming with me to do this. Honestly I couldn’t imagine a better way to say goodbye. Kevin would have loved this.”
The laughter died, but the smiles didn’t disappear entirely. Nick put his arm tightly around Kristin and placed a peck on the side of her head. “I’m sure he would.”
“I’m sure he does.” Howie corrected. “I’m sure he’s up there somewhere watching us right now.”
“Yeah, he’s probably telling us all to go to bed.” Nick smirked.
Everyone smiled at the thought, but no one really laughed because they all suddenly realized that it wasn’t quite the same without him there. “Maybe we should.” Howie suggested. “We do have a long hike tomorrow and we’re not exactly eighteen anymore.”
No one could really argue with that so they doused the fire and all headed toward their tents. “Hey Leigh, who ya sleepin with this time? I’m pretty sure it’s my turn.” Nick called across the camp as a joke, but when he saw her face go pale he realized his blunder and felt like a world-class jerk.
Nick may have been talking about a certain spider incident, but Leighanne’s thoughts immediately turned to Brian, and everyone in camp knew it. Kristin walked past Nick, slugging his shoulder as she went. “Way to go Boner!”
“Oww!” Nick whined, but deep down he felt like he deserved it.
He wanted to apologize but somehow he knew Leighanne knew he didn’t mean it the way it sounded and he felt that talking about it might only make Leighanne feel worse so instead he smiled apologetically and wandered off to his tent. Howie watched Leighanne force a smile to Baylee and simply couldn’t let her go to sleep feeling that way so he turned to AJ and said, “I need to talk to Leighanne. You think you could…”
Howie motioned Baylee’s direction and AJ nodded. “I got your back dude.”
AJ moseyed over to Leighanne and Baylee and Leighanne cut him off before he could say anything. “I’m fine AJ. Really.”
“I know you are.” AJ replied, “I’m actually here to steal Baylee.”
Leighanne examined the devilish smile on AJ’s face and shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Aww come on. I have the master plan for Nick tonight, but I can’t pull it off on my own. I need a partner in crime.”
Baylee looked up at his mother, his eyes sparkling with anticipation. “Fine.” She said waving them off, “Just keep him safe.”
“Yes mom!” AJ said saluting sarcastically.
Once AJ and Baylee were out of sight, Howie took a deep breath and made his way across camp. “Leighanne?” He whispered nervously, “We need to talk.”
Leighanne’s heart began to race but she knew he was right. She looked around at all the tents full of curious ears and felt sick. “Why don’t we take a walk?” Howie suggested.
Leighanne looked out at the lake and then to the arm Howie was offering her. Slowly she wrapped her arm through his and let him lead her along the shore. Baylee saw them head off arm in arm and couldn’t take his eyes off of them. AJ followed his gaze and was also stopped by sheer curiosity. “Do you think they still like each other?” Baylee asked, secretly wishing his parents might find a way to make a complete family.
“I’m sure they still care about each other as friends.” AJ sighed, “I don’t know what she’s been through in the last twelve years, but as long as I’ve known her, your mother has only ever loved one man and I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s still feelings there. I don’t know if they’re good feelings, but there’s definitely feelings.”
“Do you mean Father Littrell?”
“He wasn’t a priest back then, he was one of us, and your mom was crazy about him.” AJ watched Howie and Leigh become smaller as they walked further down the lake. “Leigh and Howie happened after I moved away and to tell you the truth I still have no idea how that happened.”
Baylee frowned as he watched his parents together for the first time in his life. He wanted to have reason to hope, but AJ made perfect sense and he knew that some things just weren’t meant to be. AJ noticed his frown and couldn’t even begin to imagine what the confused kid must be feeling right now. Having had no father of his own, AJ felt like he might be the only person there who understood what Baylee was going through and he made it his duty to try and make him feel better. “Jut because they weren’t in love, doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other, or that they don’t love you. I’m sure Howie will make a great dad even if they never date.”
“I doubt that.” Baylee mumbled under his breath. “He won’t even talk to me.”
“Give the man some time.” AJ laughed, “You’re like what, 80 pounds? That’s a lot of weight to lay on someone all at once and Howie’s real shy. He’s terrified of us half the time and he’s known us all his whole life. Besides, if you haven’t noticed, the man hasn’t been able to take his eyes off of you since he showed up.”
“Really?” Baylee asked trying not to let his eyes give away his surprise.
“Really.” AJ said slumping his arm around Baylee. “Now come on, we have to catch ourselves a spider.”
Baylee stopped walking. “A spider?”
“A Daddy long legs to be precise. Big and scary but completely harmless.”
“Is Nick afraid of spiders too?”
AJ grinned like the devil. “Nope.”
Leighanne and Howie waited until they were, without question, beyond the hearing range of any humans before they had their long overdue conversation. “So, Baylee huh?” Howie said, daring to break the silence.
Howie looked at Leighanne with wide eyes. “You gave him my middle name?”
Leighanne shrugged, “Seemed appropriate.”
“Does he know?”
Leighanne shook her head shamefully. “But I bet he’d like to, if you ever wanted to make conversation. He’s very curious about you.”
“I can imagine. I think I’m equally as curious.”
“Of course I am.” Howie stopped walking and Leighanne was startled by the hurt behind his big brown eyes. “Curious, but terrified.”
Leighanne’s heart ached as both guilt and sorrow fought to take control of it. “You shouldn’t be.” She said trying to keep her voice steady. “He’s a great kid. Really sweet, just like his daddy. He’s got your smarts too. Too much for his own good sometimes.”
For a moment Howie’s heart filled with pride but his fear came right back when he wondered how he could feel that way toward someone he didn’t even know existed 24 hours before. The emotions he’d been feeling as he watched the boy tonight were more than overwhelming and he wasn’t sure how to sort them all out. He didn’t know what to say to him, much less how to act toward him. He was so nervous he’d barely said two words to anyone all night. “God Leighanne,” He finally gasped, “I don’t know how to be a father!”
Tears filled Leighanne’s eyes as she thought she was hearing the rejection that used to play out in her dreams. “I’m so sorry you had to find out like this,” She whispered, “I mean the timing is horrible. It’s not exactly how I pictured breaking the news to you.”
“Are you saying you actually planned on telling me about this someday?”
Leighanne opened her mouth to say something but she was unable to lie to him. “How could you do it Leigh?” Howie pleaded, “How could you keep this from me? Did you think I’d be upset, that I wouldn’t help you? Did you think I wouldn’t want to be a part of his life?” Howie’s eyes drifted back toward the campsite. “That boy over there is practically a teenager. He’s had to live his whole life without a dad. Thinking that the guy who knocked up his mamma didn’t love her enough to stick around.”
Leighanne could no longer hold back her emotions and her tears turned to sobs, but Howie was so overwhelmed that he just couldn’t stop. “How could you do that to him? How could you do that to us? I have a son! And I’ve missed the first eleven years of his life. I can’t get that time back, and I can’t just become a father overnight.”
“I’m not asking you to be. I don’t expect anything from you.”
“Obviously.” Howie murmured bitterly.
In all her life, Leighanne had never seen Howie upset. He was always so reserved and quiet that to have him not only upset, but confronting her was too much of a shock. It was her fault, it was entirely her fault and in her mind she deserved it, but she couldn’t stand there with him any longer. “I’m sorry.” She cried.
Howie stood there speechless as he watched Leighanne walk away from him. He wasn’t even sure what just happened, but he knew he wasn’t ready to head back to camp. He was hurt and angry and yet as he heard Leighanne’s cries he somehow felt like he was the bad guy. He needed some air before he could go back to camp so he plopped down on the ground right there on the water’s edge trying to make sense of the things running through his mind.
When Leighanne reached camp she was crying fiercely and didn’t bother to hide it. Baylee was waiting in AJ’s tent with him when she came up and when he saw how upset she was he jumped up. “Mom?”
“Not now Baylee!” She snapped and then disappeared into her tent.
Baylee and AJ glanced at one another with worried looks Baylee started to go to his mother but AJ shook his head. Baylee stood helplessly at the door to his mother’s tent for a moment until he finally heard the shrill scream he’d been waiting for. Suddenly as his mother jumped about and struggled to free herself from her tent, AJ’s brilliant plan didn’t seem quite so funny. It didn’t seem funny to AJ either and it was only funny to Nick until Leighanne shook herself free of the eight-legged creature and he saw how upset she was. She glared at him and then noticed the looks on both her son and AJ’s faces. “Damnit AJ!” she screamed as she fell to the ground.
She found her purse and with shaking hands brought a cigarette to her lips. Everyone watched the meltdown with a bit of shock and Kristin decided to be the brave one. “Leighanne?” she said placing a hand on her shoulder, “Are you alright?”
No one was prepared for the outburst that came next. “Why would I be alright? Do I look alright?” she screamed, “Are any of us fucking alright? No! I’m not alright! OK? There, I said it. I’m not fucking alright, so quit asking me if I am!”
Leighanne took a long drag off her cigarette before stomping it out and then disappeared into her tent. Baylee stood there ashamed of the tears that were falling down his cheeks. Everyone felt terrible for him and he didn’t know if that made him feel better or worse. “Come on Baylee,” AJ said walking up to him, “Why don’t you stay in my tent tonight.”