Dinner was very quiet that night. Nick and Amanda had come in after the rain stopped to find the entire Littrell family standing together in the kitchen still. They'd broken apart long enough only for Jackie to call Brian's brother, Harold, who drove over immediately to see Brian. When the ham was finished cooking, Jackie had half-heartedly put together potato salad and thrown some corn on the cob in to boil, but by the time dinner had arrived they were hardly hungry at all.
Brian was seated beside Jackie, who clung to him like he was about to evaporate before her eyes. She kept her arms wrapped around his frame, telling him to eat more green beans, that they were healthy for him, and pressing her face into his shoulder, muttering incoherent prayers under her breath. Brian's eyes were distant, his mind reeling deep in thought. His father kept patting his mom on the hand in a comforting manner.
Nick plucked a piece of straw out of Amanda's hair and silently laid it on the napkin beside her plate, not even that caused a smile to crack the gloominess of his countenance. He'd been worried about the stop in Lexington, about how Brian's parents would handle the news. He knew it would be the hardest stop on the whole trip - apart from the last stop, when he returned to Los Angeles, and left Brian with his wife and son. That, Nick had realized long ago, could very well be the last time he ever saw Brian alive.
Thinking of that moment made him ache. He grabbed Amanda's hand under the table and squeezed it, glad she was there. She looked at him with sad eyes. He was so thankful that Amanda was there, that she would be with him when they left Brian behind.
Brian had been right in the beginning when he said that Nick needed another person to share the experiences they were having on the road trip with him. You'll need someone to look back on this with, Brian had said, Once I'm gone, you'll need someone who was there. Having Amanda was like a blessing that Nick couldn't have imagined. She was rapidly becoming everything to him... he loved her so deeply that he sometimes thought his heart might explode with it.
Harold was the one that broke the silence after the food had all been eaten and they were sitting around the table, looking at each other awkwardly. "So, tell us about your road trip," he said.
Brian's eyes lit up, "Oh it's been amazing. Nick's done a wonderful job with planning it."
Nick reddened, "Nah..."
"No you have, Nick," Amanda piped up, "It's been unbelievable."
Harold smiled, "I saw on Pop Stuff you've been to the canyon and ballooning and rafting..." he shook his head, "That's amazing."
"We skydived, too," Brian announced, laughing heartily at their shocked expressions.
"You jumped out of a plane?!" cried Jackie, "In your condition? Oh g'Lord!" Amanda laughed, seeing where Brian had learned the expression.
Brian smiled, "It was great, ma! I got to see all of Nebraska under my feet!"
Harold's eyes were aglow, "What was the water rafting like?"
"Crazy!" Brian answered, "Harold, you'd love it. You and Kevin should go together sometime, you'd both love it. Seriously. When Mason's older..."
They talked for several more hours about the experiences they'd had. Harold was full of questions and Jackie and Harold Sr. responded appropriately to the stories, their eyes widening and Jackie gasping and laughing. They spent several uproarious moments listening to the stories about Nick with his 'mountain lion' and ripping up the police officer's tickets. "You should've heard it, ma," Brian was wheezing, "'About that.. can you come bail me out?' What a way to break the news!"
Nick cracked up, "It's better than what I did to poor Kevin the last time I got arrested..."
"What'd you do?" Amanda asked, having never heard the story.
Nick turned scarlet, sorry he'd mentioned it. Brian laughed, "He left a voice mail on his cell phone. 'Kevin I'm in jail and the cops yelled at me. Come get me, k'bye, thanks'."
"I was high," Nick whispered, laughing. "Which is why I was arrested..."
"Kevin still has it on his phone," Brian laughed, "He says he's never deleting it because it's blackmail."
Nick shrugged, "It won't get him much, everyone in the world has heard the story practically anyways," he laughed, winking at Amanda.
Eventually, though, it came time for the party to break up as the little hours started creeping up on them. Harold had to go home - his own wife and kids were waiting for him - and Brian went out to his car with him to say good-bye. They were gone for quite a while.
Nick and Amanda helped clear the dishes and food off the table, packing it up in Jackie's tupperware bowls and balancing it precariously in an extremely over-packed fridge. It was while they were loading the dish washer that Jackie came into the kitchen and pulled Nick aside.
"Now you listen here, Carter," she said, her chest puffed up and a determined look on her face, "Just because Brian's--" she paused, not wanting to say the word dying, "-- doesn't mean you can't come around here anymore. You got it?"
Nick smiled, "Thanks mum," he answered, smiling and planting a kiss on her pudgy little cheek. He hugged her.
"I mean it you," she said, spanking him gently, "I'm already losing one son, I don't need to lose any others." Jackie wrapped her arms around Nick's waist. "Please."
"I will visit, and call, all the time," he promised.
Harold stood by the car, staring down at his feet. "You know, I was always jealous of you," he said quietly. "Even when you were little and you were stuck up in St. Joseph's, but especially since you've been in the band and all..." Harold sighed.
Brian smiled, "I'm really lucky," he admitted, "But so are you."
Harold nodded, "I am." He paused, "You've been a great brother, Brian. A pain in the ass sometimes, but a great one."
Brian smirked, "I'll always be your pain in the ass, Harold."
"People live through this stuff all the time you know," he said carefully, not looking into Brian's eyes, but somewhere to the left of his face, into the distance. "They wake up one day cured or they just live with it. Don't give up, little bro, okay?"
Brian nodded, but he already knew that wasn't going to happen for him. "I won't give up," he told Harold. "And hey... even if I do leave, it's not like it's good bye forever, right?"
"Hell no," Harold smiled, his eyes finally connecting with Brian's, "I mean... Of course not. What an awkward thing to have said 'hell no' about." They both laughed. Then Harold shook his head, "Christ, Bri, if I had even a portion of your faith... I can't believe you're strong enough to stand here and talk about death so calmly. When the hell did you get to be so strong?"
"I've always been strong," Brian answered, smirking.
"Oh is that so?" Harold asked, "C'mon, let's go... right here... throw down the gloves..." he hulked into a tsumo wrestler stance. Brian cracked up - they'd wrestled so often as little boys on this very spot in the drive way it was incredible.
Brian waved him off, "eh.. I don't want to hurt you or anything."
"Fair," Harold smiled. "Well, I gotta get home."
Brian nodded, "So do I."
Harold's eyes suddenly filled with tears, and he quickly embraced his brother, "Don't you go dying before I can get down there to see you, okay? I want to see you again. Better. When I have more time."
"I'll do my best," Brian answered, hugging him back.
"Where are we going next?" Amanda asked Nick that night as they were sitting in the bedroom, drawing again.
Nick laughed, "Have I ever answered that question when you ask it?"