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Approaching the waiting room, with Baylee’s hand, still, securely in mine, my knees felt weak and my heart was heavy. I could hear his soft sniffles, and it made my heart ache, even more. I wasn’t the only one that was dealing, with a devastating loss, but the thought of life, without Brian, still would not process, in my brain. Knowing that Baylee was, now, without a father, tore my insides, to shreds. I couldn’t even begin to describe the raw emotions that coursed through me, with every breath.

Seeing the door swing open, my heart jumped, into my throat. Every ounce, of me, hoped that it would be Brian. Closing my eyes, for a moment, I wished, with everything in me, that I would open them and find that this was a horrible dream. Brian was known for his practical jokes, and although it would be the cruelest joke, in history, I found myself praying that’s what this was…a cruel, mean, insensitive joke. I wouldn’t even be angry, with him, for pulling something so horrendous…if he would just walk up behind me and shout ‘BOO’.

“Hey guys.” Ashley spoke softly, as she stepped into the hallway, meeting us. Her eyes were bloodshot, but her tears had stopped. Any other time, my heart would skip a beat, when I saw her face…but for the first time, it sank. Sure, deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be Brian, but the hope was still there and I was still disappointed.

“Hi.” I sounded more like a frog, croaking, than I did a human being, speaking. My voice was more than hoarse, and I was barely, even, able to voice that one simple word. My eyes still stung, from all my tears, cried. The punding, in my head, only grew worse, with each passing moment.

“Baylee, honey,” Kneeling down, Ashley took his other hand, looking into his eyes. “How about we go get something, to eat…just you and me?” Her voice dripped with the love, and care, that I knew she had, for him. She adored him, as much as I did, and often spent days, with us, just goofing around. I couldn’t count the times that she came up, behind me, and distracted me, just, so Baylee could win, at Mario Cart. The three, of us, had a unique bond…Baylee was not just my little buddy, he was hers, too.

“Okay.” He nodded, sniffling, again. Letting go, of my hand, he hugged my waist. My hands rubbed over his shoulders, as I drew him close. Kneeling down, I held his face, in my hands, and locked my eyes, with his. My heart thumped, against my ribcage, and my breathing was short, as I saw the sorrow, in the young boy’s eyes.

“I’ll see you, in a little bit, ok, buddy? Make sure you eat good, for Ashie, okay?” I swallowed hard and blinked back tears, thinking about how he’d never hear those words, from his father, again. Brian always made sure that Baylee ate well…otherwise he didn’t get dessert or snacks, that night. It’s those little things that I know Baylee will miss, about his dad…all those little, seemingly, insignificant, things that he will have to grow up, without. Nothing will, ever, be the same for him, and I knew it hurt…badly.

“Okay, Uncle Nick. I’ll try.” His eyebrows scrunched, and I could see the pain, still lurking, in his eyes. Licking his lips, he nodded his head, showing me that he agreed to do his best. He has always been a good kid…obeyed authority…kept up with his school work and kept good grades…done his chores…and listened well…aside, of course, from typical moments, of misbehavior, that you expect, from a child.

“Aw, Bay.” I let out a ragged sigh, knowing what he was thinking. How could anyone eat, right now? News, like this, could take away a person’s appetite for days…even weeks. Baylee and I didn’t, even, have the chance, to have lunch, before getting that call…so neither of us had eaten since around 9:30, this morning. Both, of us, needed food, but I wasn’t even close, to wanting food. I couldn’t blame him, for not being hungry, either...the boy had just lost his father and found out that his mom was badly hurt. I really don’t think anyone would have an appetite, after finding that out. “I know you’re not feeling hungry…but…you have to eat. Just do your best and eat what you can, okay?”

“Okay, I will.” One corner of his mouth lifted, as he failed at trying, to smile. There wasn’t a single fiber, of my being, that didn’t ache, watching him walk away, with Ashley. My brain was on overdrive, trying to process and accept the day’s events, but it wasn’t happening. I still couldn’t bring myself, to believe it. Biting my bottom lip, I wiped my hands, on my jeans, before entering into the waiting room. The group looked up, at me, as I walked their way. It looked as if everyone had run out, of tears, no longer able to cry anymore.

“Nick…” Howie rose, to his feet, and embraced me, tightly. My back bent, forward, allowing my forehead to fall, on his shoulder. “I know you’re having a hard time, Nick, but we have to talk about Baylee.”

“They um…they aren’t sure if uh…if Leighanne’s gonna make it.” AJ stood up, resting a hand, on my shoulder. Straightening up, I looked into his eyes, not sure how if I could face the idea, of Leighanne leaving us, too. I didn’t always get along, with the woman, but…how could Baylee survive without either one, of his parents? Wasn’t it bad enough, that he had lost his father?

“She’s in the Intensive Care Unit.” Kristin looked up, from her chair, where she had her face buried in her husband’s shoulder. My eyes shifted, locking with hers, as she continued. “She’s in a coma. They…oh God…they have her on…” So I was wrong…not everyone was out of tears. Kristin broke down, covering her face, with her hands.

“…life…support.” AJ’s voice was deeper, and much raspier, than usual, as he finished Kristin’s sentence. Did I hear him right, though? Life support? Isn’t that like being dead, without actually being dead? I mean…it’s as close to death, as you can get, without actually being dead…right? So, she was only hanging on, by a thread…a tiny thread that would determine if she would stay with Baylee, or go with Brian.

“L…l…life…” I couldn’t even get my voice, to utter the words. A hand came up, covering my mouth, as I just became lost, staring into space. I felt like I was in a trance, as I wondered how, the hell, were we supposed to tell Baylee, that his mother might die, too. He’s only 8, for god’s sake! I couldn’t fathom what life would be like, for him, without either parent. How could anyone expect a child, to deal with that?

“Brian’s parents and Leighanne’s mom are supposed to be coming.” Howie’s voice caught my attention, again, snapping me out of my trance-like state. I ran my fingers through my hair, bringing my hand back, to rub my neck. “We need to decide…who Baylee will stay with, until his grandparents arrive. Anyone want to volunteer?”

Everyone looked around, at each other. Normally, I would jump on the chance, to have a ‘sleep over’ with my little buddy…we’ve done it countless times, but it was different, this time. I wasn’t sure if I could handle the emotional weight, it would take, to help Baylee.

“Nick is the obvious choice.” AJ spoke up, shrugging his shoulders, like everyone should have known. I could hear my heartbeat, in my ears, and my palms became clammy, again. Rubbing my hands, on my pant legs, I looked from him, to Howie, and then to each of the others.

“I know that I…I can’t…” Kevin surprised me, as he shook his head. Tears were nestled, in his eyes, and he looked worse than I did. I was more confused, than ever. He’s always thought he could raise Baylee, better than Brian…I had expected him to jump, at the opportunity, to prove it by taking Baylee into his care. Sure, it would probably only be a couple days, before his grandparents arrived, but they would still be emotionally draining.

“Nick will take him.” I looked at AJ, not sure why he is volunteering me. The fact that no one was objecting, surprised me…well…I guess Kevin was the only one that I, really, expected to say anything, against it. “He is the closest, to Baylee, and is able to connect with him better than the rest, of us. Baylee will need someone to confide in, and we all know that he’ll feel most comfortable doing that, with Nick.”

“I think AJ’s right.” Leigh stood up, putting an arm around Howie, while trying to give me a reassuring smile. It’s just too bad, that no kind of smile could reassure me, even a little.

“So, it’s settled, then.” Howie nodded, in agreement, just as Ashley and Baylee walked in. I was taken aback, when Baylee ran to me, and wrapped his arms around my waist. Needless to say, I rubbed his back, returning the comforting gesture. Taking in a harsh breath, I knelt, looking him in the eyes.

“I ate all of my chicken nuggets and half of my macaroni and cheese.” He gave me a crooked grin, shoving his hands, into his pockets. I wasn’t prepared, for the next sentence, nor was I prepared for the effect it would have, on me. “Ashie shared a piece of vanilla cake, with me…just like…dad used…to…do….it was his…favorite! It felt like he was…still…here…but he’s noooooooot!” Taking gasps, between breaths, tears suddenly sprung, to his eyes, and streamed down his cheeks, rapidly. I was frozen, for a moment, just looking at him, with a broken heart. My blood ran cold, seeing him break down, again.

“Oh Baylee…” I clutched him, to my chest, as his shoulders started to shake. Being 8 years old, he’s a pretty big boy, but I still lifted him up, into my arms. “Come on, buddy, let’s go.” Feeling his face bury into my shoulder, I hugged him close. Licking my lips, I looked at the rest of the group, before heading to the door, still carrying the shaking boy. Hearing a few good-byes, I knew that Ashley and AJ were following.

Shushing the devastated boy, I made my way, to the elevator. I sighed, not knowing how I was supposed to handle this. My own emotions were running wild, how could I, possible, console him, too? I had to be strong. I had to be there, for him, and help him through this. But, how was I supposed to do that?

The ride, to the hotel was painstaking, and long. Every time that I glanced back, at him, he was staring out the window, tears still threatening, to fall. Ashley sat quietly, in the passenger seat, fiddling with her fingers. I knew that she felt bad, about the cake…I’m sure she didn’t realize the significance that a simple piece, of vanilla cake, would have.

Ashley headed up, to our suite, once we entered the hotel. Baylee, and I, walked to the front desk, to get a key card, for their suite. As much as I hated the idea, we would have to go in, to get the things Baylee would need. My fingers visibly trembled, as the desk clerk handed me the card. I was no where near, emotionally, prepared, for this and I don’t think Baylee was, either.

“I don’t want to go in there!” Baylee was pleading, as we reached the door, to the suite. Both, of us, stood there, staring at the hard oak door. Reaching down, I grabbed his hand, in mine.

“We…we have to. It’s…” I took a long, deep breath, trying like hell, to calm my nerves. The lump that had settled, in my throat, was almost cutting off my oxygen. “It’s gonna be…okay. We can do this, Bay…you and me, buddy.” Slowly reaching up, my arm felt like rubber, as I tried to slide the card. The first attempt failed, as I couldn’t get my body, to do what I needed it to. Pursing my lips, and scrunching my eyes closed, I willed myself, to try again. Letting my eyes open, my hand lifted the card, again. The little green light flashed, gaining me access, to the suite.

Swinging the door open, I felt my knees start to buckle. My hand flew up, gripping the doorway, as I tried to steady myself. Baylee took a few steps, inside the room, before his knees gave way. Crumpling, to the floor, his body began to rake over, with loud sobs. Seeing him, I lost it. Sliding to the floor, I closed my eyes, trying to will myself, to stay strong. Not trusting my legs, I had to crawl over, to him.

“Shhhh.” I brushed a hand, over his curls, as I sat myself next to him. Gently, I pulled him onto my lap, cradling him, in my arms. His body shook, in time, with mine, as we sat on the carpet, rocking back, and forth. How was I supposed to comfort him, when I couldn’t control my own emotions?

“I…I…I WANT MY…DAAAAAAAAAAAD!” Baylee’s screams pierced through me, like a hot, double edged sword. I didn’t think I could feel any worse…that my heart could ache, any more…that my mind could be consumed by any more pain…but I was wrong.

“I know, BayBay…I know.” Every blood vessel, in my body, felt constricted, as I gasped for breath. My heartbeat pounded, in my ears, and that was the only sign I had, to tell me that my heart was even still beating.

“I want him…to…to be heeeeere!” This strong willed child…this silly boy that possessed his father’s humor…this youngster that was so fun loving, cheerful and sweet…was reduced to nothing more than a broken, pain filled pile, of emotions. I, as a grown man, was also reduced to the same state.

“Me too…me too.” My eyes stung, and my throat tightened, as my own tears forced their way, down my face. Our wills were broken, our hearts wounded, and our lives forever changed. Nothing could take this horrific pain away…nothing could sooth the hurt that tore us, from the insides, out…nothing could change fate and nothing could bring Brian back, to us.

Being surrounded by the very essence, of Brian, just made it seem so surreal. His sneakers lay only a few feet away…his cologne hung in the air…his jeans lay carelessly thrown, on the bed. We were surrounded by him, yet he was no where. I could, almost, hear his laughter, as I spotted a sole game system spread, on the floor. Memories flooded my mind, as pieces, of our past flashed, like movies, before my eyes. My eyes shifting, to the bedside table, I saw one of their wedding pictures and more tears flowed.

All the times we’ve shared…the memories we’ve made…the pranks we’ve pulled…they were all I had, now…he was gone…truly, undeniably, out of my life, forever. I would never be able to horse around, with him…to see his smile or hear his laugh…to play ball, or video games, with him again, and it pained me, more than I could ever describe. You never understand how much you love someone, until they aren’t there, anymore.

I had no words, to comfort Baylee, as I had no words, to comfort myself. All I could do, was hold him, and cry with him. Our bodies shaking and our hearts breaking…we just sat, clinging to each other. I couldn’t bear, to look around, so my eyes squeezed shut, as I continued to sob. Baylee’s hands clung, to my shirt, balling it up, in his fists, as his tears soaked the material. My hand ran over his curls, and then rubbed his back, as I clung to him, too.

We had to get through this…and we had to do it, together. I had to be there, for him, no matter how hard it got. He needed me, and I needed him. We would face this, together, no matter what. I vowed, to myself, at that very moment…right then, and there…that I would make sure I was there, for him, every step of the way.