Laughter was the only sound ringing in his ears that was recognizable as he planted himself firmly upon the plush couch against the furthest wall. With a sigh of discomfort, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, willing the pounding pain in his head away and the palpitating of his heart in his chest to grow even. Seconds passed and still the pain weighing heavily on his body grew. For days he had felt his senses gradually begin to cloud over and he found himself unable to make sense of anything. While hardly sleeping at night, he was tired without any reserve of energy. His whole body ached to the point where he wanted to cry out in agony until finally he grew numb to all feelings. He felt like a walking zombie and still found himself unable to cry out for help. After all, it had started out as the simple repercussions of him caring for his son, Baylee, while the child had been ill with the flu. That had been nearly two weeks prior.
“You alright, B?”
Brian opened his eyes to find one of his closest friends hovering over him, frowning in concern. He tried to smile at Howie, to assure him nothing was wrong, but he knew the smile never appeared. The growing look in Howie’s eyes was enough to tell him that. Instead he barely nodded and focused his attention behind the man where his child was sitting at a small rectangular wooden table, deeply immersed in concentration as he showed a curious Nick his entire collection of Hot Wheels cars. Nick was cracking jokes amidst Baylee trying to quickly correct him, although the child failed at containing his own laughter. The pain stabbed at Brian’s ear drums, causing his head to pound harder. He brought both hands up to his face and rubbed tenderly at his temples.
“You sure you’re alright?” Howie prodded. He found himself unable to ignore the fact that nearly every inch of Brian’s body was shaking as if he were freezing. Even more unsettling was the fact that Howie found the temperature in the room to be almost too unbearably warm, so he couldn’t comprehend how Brian could be reacting this way, as if he were almost feverish.
“I’m just feeling a little under the weather,” Brian murmured in return.
"You look-" Howie began, but found himself quickly interrupted.
"Like shit," AJ chided lightly as he strolled into the room carrying several pizza boxes within his grasp. He paused briefly, taking in Brian's composure with his own concern, before walking over to the table and dropping the hot boxes directly on the middle of Baylee's car collection. He ignored Baylee's glare of disapproval and patted the child on the head before turning away. "What's your deal anyway?" he continued, removing his sunglasses. "You've been all emo and shit since you walked into the studio two hours ago. Missing the wifey much?"
Even rolling his eyes burned, but Brian managed the task anyway. He heaved a deep breath, fighting the urge to grasp at his chest from the sudden tightening sensation. He winced desparingly, hoping none in the room had caught notice of the sudden change. "Just not feeling up to par today...I think Bay's flu is finally starting to catch up with me," he answered, closing his eyes again and focusing on slow, steady breaths of air. He felt suffocated.
"You look a little more worse for wear then that," Howie noted.
"Lack of sleep and taking care of a child with a killer case of the flu really takes it's toll on a father. You'll understand what it's like when you have kids someday," Brian snapped roughly, but he sank lower in his seat when he noticed the dejected look etch across Howie's face. "I'm sorry, Howie...I didn't mean it like that."
Howie opened his mouth to answer, but Baylee sprinted over to break up the moment with an over exaggerated grin of excitement. He quickly shoved two metal cars into both of Howie's hands and slapped his father's knee playfully, pointing back over his shoulder. "Extra cheese pizza, Daddy! C'mon! It's lunch time! Time to eat! Eat! Eat! EAT!"
Brian grimaced and shyed away from Baylee's touch. "Go ahead, Bay," he whispered. "You go have some."
Baylee paused, still eying his father. He appeared to be considering the words his father had spoken, but the thought of such a delightful meal allowed him to discard any worries and he ran back to join Nick at the table, who was already tearing one of the boxes open and digging in.
"You must be ill if you're refusing pizza?" AJ questioned with a raised brow. "You and Nick always used to be the first ones to dig in."
"Just haven't been able to stomach much of anything the past couple of days," Brian wheezed and leaned forward quickly to rest his hands on his knees. He paled considerably in the face and felt his heart pound roughly against his ribcage. Pain soared through every inch of his body, making it almost unbearable to even be sitting up right. He struggled to draw a deep enough breath into his aching lungs.
"Honest to God, Brian...you look as if you are about to pass out," Howie mentioned, lowering himself to be eye level with his ailing friend. "Maybe it's time for you to take a break from being a super hero father for a while and slow down. You look as if you haven't slept in days and you just said you haven't eaten much of anything. You need to go home and rest before you do yourself over worse then you already are."
Brian weakly waved Howie's concern away with a quivering hand as he shook his head. "I can't. I have to watch after Baylee and besides, I delayed today's recording enough as it is because Baylee was sick two weeks ago. I can't do that to you guys again and Kev's due to arrive any minute-"
AJ crossed his arms over his chest and stepped forward, signifying his way of closing any room for arguments. He snorted with arrogance for show. "I hate to agree with D, man," he interrupted, "But your ass should be at home in bed. Kevin's a grown man and can adapt to your absence. We'll accomplish whatever we can today as far recording goes without you, and as soon you are feeling better, we'll pick it back up where you left off. We just can't have you dropping dead on us here. Unacceptable."
"You're a nut, you know that?" Brian mustered with a tiny smile and glanced upwards. "You're also terrible with words."
"I try," AJ shrugged.
"Just leave Baylee here and we will keep an eye on him. Besides, he'll be more entertained staying here then he would be stuck at home with you. It'll give you some time to yourself. As it is, he seems entertained enough just being around Nick over there."
Brian sighed and allowed his head to hang limply forward. He knew there was no arguing his case. In all truth he wished he was already home, buried somewhere deep beneath his heavy down comforter, floating along in some sleep induced unconsciousness. Unwillingly though, he leaned further forward and struggled to raise himself from the couch. He smiled briefly as Howie's hand shot out to keep him from falling forward. "Want one of us to take you home?" AJ offered.
"No need. I can make it just fine. You guys need to be here when Kev arrives."
"You sure Bay won't be any trouble?"
"We'll call if he accidently kills Nick or causes some sort of other terror around this place," Howie joked lightly. "I highly doubt a call home will be neccesary though. Just go."
Brian nodded absentmindedly. "Right... Just call me if anything comes up," he said, reaching for his light jacket. It was near ninety degrees outside and he still felt as if the temperature was about to drop below zero the moment he stepped out the door. He offered quiet goodbyes to both men and quickly departed from the room so as to not catch Baylee's attention as he was leaving. Leighanne had been away for near a month, working on a few acting projects that appeared very promising and the absence of his mother had left Baylee nervous when it came to being alone. It had resulted in a struggle almost every day when Brian tried to step out of the room. He hated not taking his child home with him now, but found himself relieved in the fact that he would get a few hours to himself and hopefully some good rest. He was starting to believe that he was falling apart.
Stepping out into the air conditioned hallway, Brian felt himself instantly begin to shiver and he paused to wrap his light jacket tightly around himself, although he knew it was a worthless attempt. The thin material of the jacket provided almost no warmth. Inhaling deeply, he focused his attention on walking along the white and grey tiled flooring as his equilibrium became off and it appeared his surroundings spun around him. He slowed the pace at which he was trying to walk, but the sudden change of movement made him all that more aware of the fact that with each new step he took, his steps became more sluggish. Brian attributed the feeling to exhaustion and pressed forward, fighting to ignore the fact that it seemed like he was treading through a thick river of mud and the hallway just kept getting longer.
"Leaving already, Mr. Littrell?"
Brian paused, fumbling an inch and slowly looked to his left, only to be met by a warm and friendly smile. It reminded him so much of the ones he would receive from his mother upon walking through the front door of his parents' house in Lexington. Instead, upon blinking rapidly for a second, he started to recognize through somewhat blurry vision the face of the receptionist. Without even realizing it, he had stepped out into the expansive entry way of the record building. "I-I'm sorry, Sandra?" he questioned in confusion, paying nonetheless any attention to the fact that he was suddenly very much out of breath.
"You're leaving already?" Sandra repeated with the same smile that everyone seemed to remember her by. However, Brian's demeanor faltered and he failed to answer, taking the woman in her mid-fourties aback with concern. She leaned forward to study Brian. "Mr. Littrell...are you ok?"
"Hmmm?" Brian answered, running a quivering hand through his tassled locks of dirty blonde hair. "Y-yeah...just not feeling so well. Heading home right now."
Sandra frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that, hon. Do go home and rest though before you run yourself ragged."
Brian attempted to smile but a sharp pain soared through his chest, followed by a most crushing weight that seemed to slam down on him immediately. He stumbled but fought to keep his composure as he tried to focus on the receptionist. "Can you do...me a favor and...let Kevin know when he gets...here tha-"
"Mr. Littrell?" Sandra called out to him, but her comforting voice sounded distant and faded. Brian opened his mouth to answer, only to be silenced as a another sharp pain soared and he instinctively reached up and grabbed at his chest, a small moan of agony escaping his lips. "Mr. Littrell, what's wrong?"
"I ca-...I can't bre-" Brian wheezed helplessly, his knees wobbling.
He heard another familiar voice call out to him from up ahead, but before he had the chance to look up, he found his legs giving out from under him and himself sinking towards the cold tiled floor. His body hit hard with a loud thud that echoed throughout the entire room. Two pairs of foot steps thundered across the floor and the sound ripped at Brian's ear drums. He struggled for enough air, but it was as if his lungs refused to expand and the pain in his chest intensified. The pressure weighed his body down. He couldn't move. The next he knew, a pair of hands had grabbed his shoulders and rolled him onto his back. Brian found his cousin's face staring down at him, panic-stricken. "K-Kev-" He gulped for more air but nothing entered his lungs.
"Call an ambulance, Sandra!" Kevin ordered, looking briefly over his shoulder at the receptionist before returning his attention to his cousin sprawled on the floor.
Brian writhed against the cold tile. "Kev, I-I ca-can't br-"
Kevin gripped Brian's hand, trying to keep his cousin's attention, but it seemed as if Brian could hardly focus on anything. "Just look at me, Bri!"
"I-it hurts, Kev..." Brian gasped, fighting against the intensifying force crushing down on his body. "It h-hurts...I can't br-breathe..."
"What hurts, Bri?"
"It h-hurts... Kev...please h-help m-me..."
"Help is on its way, cuz. Just hold on."
Brian failed at a chance to answer as an explosive wave of pain burst through him and the grip of his older cousin's hand grew numb against his own skin. All he could see were the bright neon lights of the ceiling as his eyes rolled back into his head and the last thing he heard was Kevin shouting his name as he fell into a deadly unconsciousness that swallowed his body whole.