“I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...”
There was something about the soulful sounds of holiday music that always stirred the warmth deep down in Brian's soul. Even the overly tuned, too cheery for their own good numbers had the same affect on him and he loved it. Too many a memory could he attribute to the songs of his childhood that carried over in traditions straight into adulthood and Brian's mother would tell him it was a part of who he was and he had a knack for deciphering the meaning of every song he listened to. Then again, that seemed to be the way it was when it came to Brian and music in general.
Leaning against the kitchen door frame, Brian allowed himself to drift mindfully to the sound of Bing Crosby's “White Christmas” as he observed his family gathered in the living room. Their joyful chatter all but registered in his ears while they busied themselves around the impressive Christmas tree Baylee had chosen that evening, ornaments, tinsel, and old fashioned candy canes scattered about as the tree slowly became decorated. Brian didn't really care much to listen to what they were saying though. He just wanted to watch, wanted to take it all in and commit it to memory for all that it was worth. He didn't want to miss a single moment and regret wasting the last chance he had to spend the holidays with his family because...
...Would it be like this once he was gone? Would his parents smile the way they were right now as they guided their grandson through the decorating process? Would Harry bounce around obnoxiously in an effort to keep his nephew adequately entertained? Would Baylee still believe in the holiday spirit? Would Leighanne be able to find it in herself to be happy once again with the tragedy of her husband's death behind her?
The disturbing thoughts made Brian sick to his stomach to even be thinking them, but just when he thought he could push them under the rug for the time being to allow his overworked mind a rest, he was unable to deny just how much those thoughts still festered at the corners of his psyche. And they haunted Brian. Truly haunted him in every way imaginable and made him realize even more that this was it. This was the last time he would be seeing this, experiencing this in all its holiday glory. Brian didn't want to forget any of it. But there was something Brian wanted even more...
He didn't want his family to forget him.
Brian's shoulders sagged a little and he released a heavy sighing breath through his nose as he balanced more of his weight against the door frame. Truth be told, he was exhausted at that moment, but he wasn't about to mention it. The trip to the tree farm had taken more out of Brian than he'd anticipated and afterward, it became very apparent, if only to him, that rough housing with Harry and forcing the physical exertion on his body had not been the best of ideas. His chest ached with a dull reminder of his hammering heart that had only settled not that long before and it had been Hell trying to catch his breath. Just a year prior, Brian wouldn't have even given such activities a second thought. It had always been part of his nature. Now, it was a near impossible feat that only threatened to cause him harm in the long run.
“Here, drink this and liven up. You're starting to look like a pathetic wallflower,” Harry's voice suddenly cut through into Brian's awareness and he found a glass being forced into his left hand.
Brian glanced down at the thick creamy liquid filling the glass before his eyes met Harry's and he began to silently question when his brother had broken away from the rest of the family and entered the kitchen. Had he really been that lost in his thinking, that his eyes had been open but unseeing? Shaking his head, Brian started to hand the glass back over to his brother. “I think I'll pass.”
Harry rolled his eyes and held his hands up. “Sorry, no take backs,” he quipped with a chuckle and then lightly nudged Brian in the ribs. “C'mon, little brother. Loosen up. It's Mom's egg nog with a little something special added, compliments of yours truly.”
Brian frowned, but he raised a brow all the same. “You spiked Mom's egg nog?”
This time Harry snorted. “You sound so surprised.”
Brian cringed slightly and looked down at the glass again. “I should expect no less from you.”
“See? You know me too well,” Harry answered. He draped an arm lazily over Brian's shoulders, awkwardly pulling him away from the kitchen door frame. His mannerisms were sloppy and Brian expected his brother had been indulging in the special brand of egg nog longer than any of them were aware of. “One little drink isn't gonna kill ya.”
“Yeah, well...” Brian allowed his voice to trail before he managed to say what he was really thinking. Sighing, he brought the rim of the glass up to his lips and swallowed a small sip. The creamy liquid burned as it slid down his throat and he winced immediately, licking at his lips. “Jesus, what did you put in this?”
Harry grinned at him expectantly as if he'd just made some grand gesture. “You're welcome,” he said, and just like that, his brother pulled away from him and danced his way back into the living room, just as Bing Crosby's voice bid farewell and faded from the stereo speakers.
Brian found himself alone once more, gripping the glass tightly in hand. Harry was right. It would do him good to loosen up a little and maybe even partake in the festivities. One little drink wouldn't hurt him, and besides, the longer he strayed from everyone else, the more they would begin to notice and more red flags would be raised. Then they would start to question if he was okay. They would pester him with their incessant worrying, more than they already were. They wouldn't listen to him when he told him he was okay, even if that was a bold faced lie. 'C'mon, Brian. Pull yourself together,' Brian thought and forced himself to take another sip of the spiked egg nog. 'Enjoy your time here. It's all you've got. No regrets.'
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas...”
As Frank Sinatra's rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” began to play, Brian nodded to himself and took a step into the living room, trying to keep his steps slow and casual as he stuck his hand into his pocket. Baylee's exuberant giggles were just as much music to Brian's ears as was the actual music playing through the stereo speakers and he couldn't help the grin that curled his lips as his son turned to look at him. The grin on the child's face matched his father's as he proudly held up an antique gold star that was to be placed on the top of the tree. Brian recognized the star immediately. For as long as he could remember, that star held tradition in the Littrell household when it came to Christmas time. There wasn't a single Christmas Brian could recall while growing up that he didn't see it atop their tree, Heck, it was probably older than Brian or Harry themselves. So it made sense that the tradition would once again carry over into the current year.
The tree was decorated magnificently from top to bottom with a gorgeous collection of red, gold, and silver ornaments. His mother had even pulled out the boxes of little personalized ornaments they'd collected over the years and it seemed the tree had been showered with tinsel while candy canes dangled sporadically from the tree branches. That last little bit was most likely Baylee's doing, but it made the tree theirs. And that in itself was special. Brian couldn't help but stand there in awe as he admired it.
Baylee bounced over to him, the curls on top of his head flopping with his excitement. “Daddy, look!” he exclaimed as he held up the gold star. “Papa says I get to put it on the top of the tree!”
Brian carefully knelt down to his son's level and gently brushed the tips of his fingers against the star's surface. “Be extra careful when you do,” he replied as his grin became lopsided. “It's pretty old, you know.”
“As old as you?!” Baylee exclaimed innocently.
Brian didn't know if he should chuckle or act offended, so he chuckled anyway and glanced in his brother's direction where Harry was standing at the stereo turning the music up. Their mother chided him to turn it down again and Brian leaned in closer to Baylee, his grin mischievous. “Probably older than me. Like...as old as your Uncle Harry, which is pretty dang old.”
“Yeah!” Baylee agreed with a firm nod. “He's old like the dinosaurs!”
“Nah, Papa is old like the dinosaurs,” Brian countered with a smirk, catching sight of his father glancing at him wearily. There was still that humored twinkle in his eyes though. “But, your Uncle Harry isn't too far off, to be honest.”
Harry snorted at Brian's comment and crossed his arms over his chest as he flopped onto the couch and stretched out his legs. Brian grinned at him before ruffling Baylee's hair and ushering him over to where Harold beckoned him. Baylee obliged willingly and giggled the moment his grandfather lifted him into the air, carefully gripping the gold star in his hands. It allowed Brian a moment to rise back to his feet, steadying his balance so he could continue observing the scene unfolding before him appreciatively.
Harold securely embraced Baylee around the waist as he lifted the child higher. “Okay, Bubba. Keep it steady. Put it right there on the tip,” he coached him.
Baylee's brows knit into a tight line of concentration. “Like this?” he asked as he extended his arm out.
“Just like that,” Harold nodded in approval. “Steady now. There you go.”
It took Baylee several attempts before he finally got the gold star secured to the top tip of the tree and when he was finished, he clapped his hands in his own bout of approval. “I like it! Daddy, look!”
Brian inhaled deeply at the sight, his smile warm, and he offered Baylee a thumbs up. “I see it, Bay. You did a good job.”
Leighanne wandered over to Brian a short time later and leaned affectionately against his side. “Baylee's so happy to be here,” she murmured as her hand absently rubbed her stomach, her posture relaxed.
Brian curled an arm around her waist to keep her held close. “It's been too long since we were last here. He misses them.”
“They miss him too.”
“I know...” Brian trailed thoughtfully, but his statement was more a reflection of troubled thoughts than anything else. He brought the glass of egg nog up to his lips for another sip and decided it was appealing to him more now than it had been before.
Leighanne shifted her gaze to him and studied him for a few wordless moments before she chose to speak up again. “I was thinking...”
“Hmmm?” Brian caught her gaze with his, her statement only semi-registering in his ears.
A quiet sigh left Leighanne's lips and she reached a hand up to brush a drop of egg nog away from the corner of Brian's mouth with the tip of her thumb. “I said I was thinking,” she repeated herself casually and let her arm drop back to her side. “That maybe we could, you know, consider staying here in Kentucky longer than just for Christmas.”
Brian continued looking at Leighanne for a long while, the creases at the corners of his eyes becoming more apparent. His wife's statement sounded simple on the surface, but Brian knew better. He could see it in her eyes and knew there was an ulterior motive behind it. Her voice alone was all telling, despite her effort to sound casual and surprisingly it irritated him. “Leigh...” he drawled in warning.
“Now, just hear me out for a second,” Leighanne replied with a threatening frown. “It would do Baylee good to see your parents more and we both know they want to see him just as much. Besides, it's been too long since you've spent quality time with them without having to worry about-”
“Worry about what, Leighanne?” Brian interrupted, turning to face her.
This time Leighanne was unable to keep her frown from surfacing. She bit at her bottom lip as her hand rested against her stomach. When she spoke again, her was voice quieter. “I'm just suggesting that it might be worth thinking about, all things considered. It wouldn't just do Baylee good. It would do you good too.”
Brian chuckled with an undertone of sarcasm. “It would do me good? What's that supposed to mean?”
“Brian, I'm just saying-”
“No, I get what you're saying and I don't need you saying it.”
Leighanne looked down at the floor briefly, the trouble passing over her eyes. “Brian.”
Brian's voice lowered when he noticed Jackie peering curiously in their direction, his tone harsh. “Listen, the last thing I need right now is another reminder. Can't you understand that? I'm trying to forget.”
Leighanne opened her mouth to respond, but Baylee rushed over to them and tugged impatiently on the hem of Brian's shirt. They looked down at him, the argument forgotten temporarily as he huffed and pointed back towards the tree. It became apparent that not only was Jackie watching them, but Harold and Harry had their attention focused on them as well and their stares were quickly becoming uncomfortable.
“Daddy, Papa says you has to light up the tree,” Baylee insisted with hopeful eyes beaming up at them.
“Is that so...” Brian murmured and stepped forward to set his glass on the coffee table. He was thankful for the interrupting distraction as he followed Baylee around to the back of the tree where the end of the string of lights lay limply on the floor. He could still feel the weight of everyone's stares bearing down on his back, the concern burning in all of them, but he ignored it. Every last bit of it. It was all he could do because Brian's reserve of strength was fragile enough as it was and the last thing he wanted was to crumple completely and openly on the outside like he had already done on the inside.
Crouching down to the floor, Brian took hold of the end of the string of lights and held it up for inspection before looking at Baylee. “Are you sure it's ready?” he questioned.
Baylee nodded proudly and grinned. “Yeah!”
Brian afforded a soft grin of his own and carefully inserted the prongs into the electrical outlet. The tree lit up immediately with a dazzling array of multicolored lights and as he stepped back around to the front of the tree and knelt beside Baylee, Brian felt the awed silence wash over him. It was a grand sight to see; Baylee had every right to be proud of his completed work.
“Do you like it, Daddy?” Baylee asked him.
“I love it, buddy,” Brian whispered and he tugged Baylee close for a tight embrace, swallowing thickly to keep his emotions in check. This was more than what he needed in that moment and he just needed to keep remembering it. There was no use feeding his energy into dreading the approaching future for the time being, no matter what Leighanne suggested. He needed to enjoy the time he had with his family and live it for all that it was worth.
His family just needed to trust him to be able to do it.
The house was finally quite and mostly dark, save for the lights still sparkling on the Christmas tree in the living room. The sounds of music had finally faded from the stereo speakers hours before and everyone, as far as Brian was aware, had long since retired to their respective rooms for the night. Jackie and Harold had been the first to bid good night and Leighanne soon followed. Harry and Baylee were camped out in the living room, per Baylee's request, and the last Brian checked, his brother and son had fallen asleep while watching a collection of recorded Christmas cartoons. In fact, it had been Brian who'd shut the TV off when he came downstairs a while before for a glass of water. It was a sight to see though, Harry and Baylee sprawled haphazardly on the couch together and lost to a wakened world.
Brian, on the other hand, couldn't sleep no matter how exhausted he was and how hard he tried to shut his mind off for a few hours and relax. The silence only made his thoughts seem louder and more pressing. He'd tossed and turned for the better part of the first few hours after joining Leighanne in bed in one of the guest rooms, and after laying on his back and staring blankly up at the ceiling for another hour more, Brian resigned to the fact that it appeared he wouldn't be sleeping any time soon. So, he'd carefully eased out of bed to keep from disturbing Leighanne, and he'd ventured downstairs to check on Baylee. It wasn't much of a distraction for the only one awake it the house hold, but it would have to do.
Sometime in the late evening hours it had begun to snow again. Brian realized this as he'd pulled the drapes back from the window in the guest room before leaving to go downstairs. It wasn't a heavy downpour, but a consistent flow of big fluffy flakes that added easily to the accumulation of their wintry landscape. Brian thought for a moment that it almost looked magical, like he was looking out into a world that was different from his own. Part of him wished that was the case. Either way, if it kept up like this all night, they'd have several more inches come morning.
Brian stood at the kitchen sink, one hand braced against the edge of the counter as he absently sipped water from a glass. It was straight from the tap and not very cold, but it was just another distraction. The darkness of the kitchen felt like it was closing in on him from all directions. He needed sleep and he needed it desperately. The flight and the rest of the day's events had really taken a toll on him. He just couldn't relax though. Even his head was beginning to throb again and his eyes burned. His medications were doing nothing for him and the loneliness of being the only one awake was pestering. Brian almost felt like he was suffocating.
Swallowing the rest of the water, Brian quietly set the glass in the sink and turned to leave the kitchen. It really was too late to be venturing out. The wisest thing for him to do would be to return to where he'd left Leighanne curled up in bed, but he needed the fresh air, despite the bitter cold outside. He needed a few moments where it didn't feel like the walls were closing in on him. A slow walk around the block couldn't hurt.
Brian reached the foyer a few moments later and shoved his feet into his boots, leaning over to quickly tie the laces. When he was finished, he stood straight again and grabbed his winter coat from where it hung on one of the hooks on the wall and thread his arms through the sleeves. The wool lined leather gloves Harold had lent him earlier in the evening dangled out of one of the pockets and Brian slid his hands into them after zipping and buttoning up his coat. Just a few moments out in the world. That's all Brian needed at that moment...
“You should put a hat on if you're going to go outside,” a soft voice spoke to him from the base of the stairs. Brian sheepishly turned as if he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and found Jackie standing there, the concern evident at the corners of her eyes. “It's awfully cold out tonight.”
“I...” Brian's voice trailed as he tried to muster a suitable answer. “I'm just going for a short walk around the block.”
“Well, you're not putting on your coat for nothing,” Jackie chided lightly as she stepped off the bottom stair and approached him. “I don't want you catching cold. Please, put a hat on.”
Brian tilted his head to the side in wonder, appreciating his mother's maternal instincts. “I'm a grown man and you still boss me around.”
“I'm still your mother no matter how old you are,” Jackie answered and reached to grab Harry's beanie hat from one of the hooks. She handed it to Brian. “Put this on.”
Not willing to argue, Brian put it on and pulled it down over his ears. “Some things never change.”
Jackie smiled softly. “Some things shouldn't change.”
They stared at each for a drawn out moment before Brian opened his mouth to speak again. “You know, I...could use the company if you don't mind bearing the cold for a short period of time?”
His mother considered the offer, but the nagging concern was still present in her eyes. “You look like you want to be alone right now.”
Brian had to fight the sigh wanting to bubble up his throat. “Maybe that's part of my problem. I've spent too much time lately wanting to be alone.”
Jackie nodded, relenting. “...Allow me a few moments to change into something warmer. I will be right back down.”
Brian watched his mother turn and move calmly back up the stairs until she disappeared from sight when she reached the top. He sagged back against the wall to wait for her to return and looked down at his glove covered hands. Maybe he didn't want to be alone after all and that really was part of his problem. It had been that way for a while now, ever since Brian's life started to crumble around him. He'd been pushing everyone away for too long and shutting them out when what he should have been doing was really letting them in. How could he though? It wasn't that easy. They just didn't understand and Brian couldn't expect them to.
It was his battle, not theirs...
Jackie returned to the foyer dressed in warmer clothing to find Brian lost in thought. He jumped when she gently placed her hand against his arm, then his expression softened with apology. “You shouldn't think so hard,” she said. “Sometimes it only makes it worse.”
Brian waited patiently as his mother bundled herself in her own winter coat, hat, and gloves and wrapped a knitted scarf around her neck. “Sometimes that's easier said than done.”
“Life is sometimes easier said than done, my dear,” Jackie replied and opened the front door.
“Ladies first,” Brian mumbled with a small smile, motioning with his hand.
Jackie stepped outside into the bitter cold. “Always the gentleman.”
Brian joined her, shutting the door behind himself. “My mama taught me right,” he chuckled and shoved his hands into his coat pockets as they set off down the porch steps and along the pathway to the side walk.
The flurry of snow was thicker than Brian originally estimated, but he was fascinated with it and found himself with his chin tilted upwards to stare at the speckled dark sky on more than one occasion. They walked slowly in silence for a bit and Brian decided that that was okay. Oddly enough, just knowing his mother was there walking beside him was comforting and he realized just how much he was actually needing this. It felt like peace and refuge at its finest and Brian welcomed it openly.
Gradually, Jackie inched closer to her son's side and looped her arm through his. “There is so much on your mind right now. You are going to drive yourself crazy.”
“I'm afraid I might have already...” Brian murmured in response, his eyes trained forward as they inched along the sidewalk.
“Because you refuse to talk.”
Jackie's rebuttal was a truth that Brian couldn't deny and he frowned, the expression deepening before he had a chance to shove it beneath the surface. And he could feel his mother's stare upon him, which only made it harder. His voice barely projected as a whisper. “I'm scared, Mama.”
“Tell me what it is you are so afraid of,” she gently coaxed.
Brian opened his mouth to answer, but at first he couldn't get his voice to emit again. How was he supposed to answer to that? Or rather, how could he possibly summarize every single fear that plagued him on a daily basis? The fear he recognized in his mother's eyes only made him feel worse too because he knew it should have never been placed there, least of all by her own son.
“If you cannot confide in me...can and do you confide in God?”
Brian snapped his eyes to the froze sidewalk almost bitterly, but his voice came out steady. “I'm not so sure God and I are on speaking terms at the moment.”
The surprise was evident on Jackie's face, had Brian actually been looking at his mother. “Brian Thomas, that doesn't sound like you at all,” she mustered quietly in response and her arm tightened around his. It was a protective gesture and it was familiar. Brian felt the ache of sadness well in the pit of his stomach just from the feel of it. “Where is your faith?”
Brian closed his eyes with a heavy sigh. “My faith...” The words left a sour taste on his tongue. “It feels like God has forsaken me.”
Jackie stopped them from walking any further and turned Brian to face her. She reached up and placed her glove covered hands against his cheeks which were red from the cold. “Oh, my son...” she murmured as she slowly shook her head from side to side, her eyes never leaving his. “You are mistaken. God has not forsaken you.”
Brian swallowed thickly, taken off guard by the rush of emotions that washed over him. His vision blurred momentarily and he barely managed a whispered response. “It feels like He has.”
The tip of Jackie's thumb caught a glistening tear as it slipped from Brian's eye and she brushed it away. It was clear she was struggling with emotions of her own, but she refused to let them surface for Brian's sake. It wasn't fair. He was putting his mother through this. What kind of son was he?
“God does not forsake His faithful,” Jackie said. Her voice was patient and kind and it reminded Brian very much of his childhood when she used to sit him down and explain things to him that he didn't understand, especially when it came to faith.
A shallow breath fluttered past Brian's lips and hung visibly in the air. “I need Him,” he spoke brokenly. “I have prayed and I have prayed. I have begged Him to listen to me and He never answers. Why won't He help me, Mama? Why is He doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this? I-”
“Stop,” Jackie interrupted him firmly and pressed an index finger against Brian's lips to quiet him. “You did nothing to deserve this. You musn't think like that. That is not how faith works.”
“Don't you get it though?” Brian swallowed thickly again. He berated himself on the inside for falling apart so completely in front of his mother, but he couldn't help himself. It hurt too much to try to stop it now. “I...I'm dying. Every day is getting harder. I'm not a fool. I know I don't have much time. And...and the doctors, they can't do anything for me. I need that transplant and I'm not gonna get one. Mama, I'm not gonna get one-”
Jackie swiftly pulled her son into her embrace, hugging him tightly to her. It was only once he couldn't see her face did she allow the tears brimming her own eyes to finally fall down her cheeks. “God has not given up on you. Don't give up on yourself.”
Brian's back quaked with his quiet sobs as he choked on a breath and clung to his mother like his life depended on it. “I'm hurting everyone. I'm ruining everything. You, Dad, my wife, my son, my unborn child. I'm hurting all of you. This is all my fault. And then I'll be forgotten.”
“No no no,” Jackie soothed, hugging him tighter if it were possible. “Forgotten? You are so loved by so many people, Brian. There are so many who care for you. You could never been forgotten.”
“What if you're wrong?”
Jackie pulled back from him and her hands once again cupped his cheeks. Brian fell into a silent awe when he caught sight of the tears falling steadily from his mother's eyes. It made him realize just how much her hurt mirrored his hurt and it tore him apart inside. “You have to stop doing this to yourself, Brian Thomas,” she spoke just above a whisper. “Carrying the weight of this burden on your own is only going to hurt you more. There's only so much you can do, only so much you can handle. You need to let the rest of us help you.”
“Find your faith...and you will realize God has been listening all along.”
They started to walk slowly again shortly after that and with no words needing said, they kept within the boundaries of their own silent thoughts. His mother was right though. Brian's faith had shattered a long time ago and now, he wasn't sure how to restore it. Even when they came upon his parents' house once again, he was no closer to finding the answer.
How could Brian not think that God had forsaken him?