Brian's mind wandered as he found himself being wheeled down another seemingly endless hallway. He could finally breathe again, which was saying alot considering his senses had failed during the xray procedure and he felt like he was beginning to suffocate. It was foolish, this he realized when it was all over and they were pulling him out of the machine, but it had felt all too real at the time and being confined in such a small space had allowed his imagination to run completely wild and out of control. He wanted out of that building and far away where he felt nothing could touch him or harm his well being. But right then he couldn't see himself arguing with being able to rest back in his hospital room.
The procedure had only lasted ten minutes. The technician had run several different scans, but didn't once say a word about what had come up. Brian wasn't so sure he wanted to know the details. It was hard enough knowing what Dr. Henrich had already told him. Why he needed further proof, Brian didn't understand. Isabella was still in the holding area when they had wheeled him out of the xray room. The girl was a whimpering mess and being attended to by a young woman applying a cold wash cloth to her forehead. It was then Brian noticed the lack of hair atop Isabella's head; the baseball cap she had previously been wearing was absent.
Now he sat in silence and preferred it that way. The nurse taking him back to his room had attempted small talk, but he never fueled it in return. Room after room they passed. Two floors up on the elevator seemed to move slowly until they were back on the floor Brian recognized from when they had headed down earlier. The emptiness of the hallway hosted a cool draft, sending trembles to the very depths of his bones. "Here we are, Mr. Littrell," the nurse announced and stopped them just short in front of a closed doorway. She stepped sideways, twisted the knob, and pressed the door open. Back into his prison cell he figured.
"Leigh?" Brian suddenly found himself gasping in surprise. There she was standing directly ahead. He didn't understand. It was only the previous night that he had been informed of his wife being contacted. She had never called back and yet there she was right in front of him, appearing more haggard then he had ever seen her look. "When did you get here? How did..?" he asked quietly as Leighanne moved slowly towards him. The next thing he knew, she was leaning down and wrapping her arms carefully around his neck and he felt himself melting in her embrace.
"I got here not even a minute after they took you for xrays," Leighanne answered as she pulled back slightly then pressed a light kiss against his lips. "I don't know how I managed to miss you on the way."
Brian felt a smile curling at the corners of his mouth. "But Mom said you would call back when you found out about flights. I didn't think you would make it here for days."
"I didn't think I would be able to either, but I was lucky to book a last minute flight and barely made it to the airport in time to board the plane. I tried calling your mom when I was on my way to the airport, but there was alot of empty zones and I never had the chance to place the call when I got there," Leighanne explained as she softly caressed the skin of his cheeks. She frowned towards his tassled hair and the bags under his eyes. His skin was such a pale tone it was almost frightening. "I was finally able to call during the two hour lay over in Denver. But you were sleeping and I didn't want you to be woken up."
"I'm just glad you are here," Brian whispered and allowed Leighanne to help him stand from the wheelchair. He grasped her hand tightly and stumbled towards the bed. The nurse, promising the doctor would be in soon, grasped the handles of the wheelchair and excused herself from the room. Brian stared at his wife as they sat slowly. "I missed you..."
"I missed you too," Leighanne replied, carefully situating him against the mattress. "How are you feeling?"
Brian let himself rest comfortably against the pillows, sighing as he reached to pull the layers of blankets over the lower half of his body. "As best as could be expected," he answered, although he found there wasn't much truth or conviction in his voice. He just didn't have the energy to voice just how horrible he was actually feeling at that moment. That and seeing two pairs of eyes in the room radiating concern was overwhelming and only made him feel that much worse. "Tired...but I'm feeling better..."
Leighanne frowned, moving her hand forward to smooth the matted dark blonde curls from her husband's forehead. "I don't understand," she mumbled as she studied the nearly hidden expression of anguish on his face. "When your mom called and said that you had suffered a heart attack and were in the hospital-" Leighanne paused briefly and looked back over her shoulder towards her mother-in-law who was speaking softly into her cellphone. "I don't understand how this happened and so suddenly-"
"I don't know. I-I was feeling sick for a couple of weeks, but I thought it was only something I had caught while I was taking care of Baylee when he was sick. The flu...I thought it was just the flu..."
"But your heart...how could nobody have caught that there was a problem?"
"I don't know," Brian repeated softly. "I didn't feel out of the ordinary...it was sudden."
"But you're gonna be ok now? We'll do whatever we have to do to fix this?" Leighanne asserted firmly, her eyes searching for an agreement in Brian's. But she saw no affirmation and squeezed his hand tightly once more. Her whole body trembled as she scooted closer to his side.
"That was your father," Jackie spoke up, rising from the chair across the room. She slipped the small sleek phone into her purse and moved towards the bed. "Him and Baylee are on their way. He also spoke to Kevin who should be by with Kristin sometime later this afternoon."
"You're overreacting, Howie!" a voicetrous shout wafted into the room from somewhere down the hallway. As the three in the room listened, they could hear two pairs of footsteps slapping against the tiled flooring, hurrying quickly in their direction.
"I am not overreacting!" came the reply, dripping in an anger full of emotional daggers. "You ruined my car!"
"It's just a tiny dent!"
"A tiny dent, AJ!? The whole front left corner is dented in! How can you call that a tiny dent?!"
"Shit man, who lit the fuse to your tampon?!"
"YOU! You ruined my car!"
"Like I said, you're overreacting!" AJ spat as he burst through the open doorway. He stopped short just a few feet into the room, causing Howie to slam into him square in the back. He looked at his shorter friend and glared, only to receive an even icier glare in return.
"Do I want to know what happened?" Brian questioned hesitantly, peering at the two pestered, seething friends.
"D's pms'ing," AJ answered nochalantly.
Howie pushed past AJ. "I'll have you know that I have a perfectly logical reason to be upset right now."
"Yeah, you forgot to take your midol this morning," AJ snickered.
"YOU RUINED MY CAR!"
"Boys..." Jackie warned.
"It was just a minor mishap-" AJ began, but Howie quickly cut him off.
Howie pointed accusingly. "It was not minor! AJ managed to dent the whole front left corner bumper of my new jag while pulling into the hospital parking lot!"
"That speed sign jumped in front of me," AJ shrugged.
"You shouldn't have been going twenty over the speed limit in the first place!"
"Cry me a river, D. I said I would pay to get it fixed. The world is not coming to end. Besides, lower your voice, yeah? Brian's trying to rest. You shouldn't be yelling. Oh yeah, by the way, hey B!" AJ rolled off the tip of his tongue cheerfully and stepped past the burning latino. "Leigh, you made it...we've been trying to get ahold of you."
"Bad weather limited communication...I had no idea anything was going on," Leighanne replied lightly, returning the hug AJ threw around her shoulders.
"Well, it's good you're back. B here was about to have a shit fit with you being gone," AJ rambled as he took a seat in one of the chairs at the bed's side. He contemplated Brian, unable to ignore the worn-down stature of his friend. "Don't you ever scare me again like you did the other day..."
"I'll keep that it mind..." Brian mumbled.
"Howie?" Jackie called out. "There's an open chair with your name on it if you'd like to take a seat? You don't have to stand there the whole time."
Howie continued to stand in place for a moment more, lips pursed tightly together as he watched silently. But as his demeanor slowly broke down, he sighed and shoved his hands into his pants pockets and walked over. However he remained standing. "How are you feeling, B?" he asked, frowning.
"I'm ok," Brian answered shortly. "I'm fine, really..."
"You don't realize how worried we've been."
"We're just glad to see you awake. For a while there, we thought we had lost-"
"Nah, can't get rid of me that quickly," Brian chuckled quietly with a small smile. He was hoping a small sliver of humor would ease the tension of the room, but it didn't happen. It was almost unbearable to see the sullen expressions on the faces of those surrounding him, especially when his own wife sat close to his side on the verge of tears. It sent a pang of undescribable guilt to his core, even when he was well aware that he wasn't in control of the situation. He just didn't want to be the center of reason for their sadness. "So the meetings with management yesterday?" he began after minutes had passed by and not a single word had been spoken. The silence made the air in the room almost suffocating.
"Naturally they are curious about what brought this on..." Howie started slowly, shooting a sidewards glance in AJ's direction. However AJ was refusing to meet his stare. "They asked a lot of questions...they weren't expecting anything like this to happen. None of us were."
"I'm sorry," Brian whispered.
"Why are you saying sorry?" AJ blurted in surprise as he looked up.
"I've really caused a mess with this, haven't I?"
"I wouldn't even say you've hardly caused a mess," AJ retorted. "Like Howie said, we weren't expecting this. You weren't expecting to have a heart attack and then find out-" AJ's voice fell short prematurely and he looked away again.
Brian winced; he wondered how long it would be before everyone became comfortable with voicing aloud the fact that he was going to die. Would he ever be able to? "Has it gone further then management?" he questioned hesitantly.
"What do you mean?" Howie asked, although he knew exactly what Brian was hinting towards.
Howie inhaled deeply. "No, as far as we are all aware, this hasn't leaked to the press yet. But management brought that possibility up. It's only a-"
"Matter of time before it does," Brian finished. "I know."
"Which we also discussed how we would handle that," AJ continued, rising from his chair and pacing several feet around the room. "If and when the press catches wind of you being here, management will set up a time and place for a press conference. Right now they want to keep it as tightly under wraps as possible."
Brian scoffed sarcastically. "I can just imagine the headlines now when the press finally finds out."
"But they haven't found out yet," Howie repeated. "So I don't think it's worth the stress of worrying over it until it actually happens. You most of all don't need to be worrying about that. Let us take care of it."
"You mean let you take care of damage control when the whole damn world finds out I'm dying?" Brian spat before he even realized the words were slipping from his lips.
"Brian..." Leighanne gasped. Brian's body quivered as he clenched his eyes shut, hiding from the awful stares he received.
"Don't say that," AJ reprimanded weakly as he froze from his pacing abruptly. His eyes narrowed almost dangerously, but behind his stern exterior, the tears were quickly rushing forward. "I'm not accepting that statement...neither should you."
"AJ...I-" Brian began, but AJ quickly interrupted him.
"Just...don't...say...it," AJ stressed each word.
Brian sunk further into the mattress and pillows, clearly taken aback from the conviction in the younger man's voice. His eyes jumped from one stare to the other; the sadness he saw was nearly sickening and all he could think of was he was to blame for it all. He was causing a tear, one that would become irrepairable and there was not a thing he could do to stop that tear from ripping further. He felt like an invalid with a time bomb on countdown, ready to explode at any given second. All he could do was just wonder when the explosion would happen. And when it did, what would he be left with? What would any of them be left with?
Ahead of them, Dr. Henrich stood motioning with his hand towards the xray sheet illuminated from the lightboard mounted against the wall. He spoke term after term, but his words sounded so foreign, Brian was having a hard time keeping up and registering in his brain all that was being said. He looked away from the doctor for a moment. To his left, his parents sat closely together, hands linked tightly for support. Unshed tears welled in his mother's eyes and she was visibly willing them not to fall. His father's expression was set in stone, unwaivering. Brian didn't know how to read it. To his right were the two people keeping him remotely sane at that moment. Baylee remained cradled in the warmth of his mother's arms, the same position he had been in from the moment he walked into the room to the time he ran over to Leighanne in a frenzy of tears. The little boy refused to part from his mother and Leighanne appeared to not want it any other way.
"This spot we can see right here," Dr. Henrich explained, pointing towards a darkened mass on the sheet, "Is the hole we saw during the surgery three days ago. As of right now, it is stable and I don't suspect it to increase within the next few days or really any time soon, but it's stability isn't permanent. That we were able to determine from the visible evidence of damage during the surgery. Now right here, slightly below the hole is a small line referred to as a tear in the lining of the heart. It could be a direct result of the hole or a defect caused from other reasons. As of now it doesn't pose a direct threat and it will continue to be monitored through out your treatment."
"I don't understand how this could have happened so suddenly," Leighanne spoke up as she looked down to hug Baylee closer, noticing the child had lulled himself into a light peaceful slumber. She reached to smoothe his soft curls. "How could this not have been caught sooner?"
"That is the most hopeful outcome," Dr. Henrich replied, switching the lightboard off and slipping the xray sheet in a protective envelope. "That isn't always what happens though. In your husband's case, I suspect the sudden occurence was caused by a viral infection. However, that would not cause the opening of the hole in his heart. That is something that has been happening over a period of time and without any symptoms...there would be no reason for anyone to suspect that something like this could or would happen."
"It just doesn't make sense," Leighanne stated, shaking her head in a vehement manner. "Dr. Henrich...my husband is a healthy active man. He had surgery years ago to fix this problem. Isn't fixing the problem supposed to mean that it won't come back years down the road?"
"At the time, that is what the evidence showed. But when it comes to nature, Mrs. Littrell, science and medicine can't always predict the future. It's never set in stone," Dr. Henrich answered in a soft tone.
"Then what did I do wrong?" Brian cut in, swallowing the lump that had lodged itself in his throat. He had remained quiet for too long and the desperation for answers ringing in Leighanne's voice was enough to eat away at his insides. He clenched a handful of the blankets in his fist to steady himself. "Did I cause this? Somewhere along the way did I do something that brought this all back?"
"No, Mr. Littrell. I don't believe so," Dr. Henrich disagreed. "That's what is tricky when it comes to birth defects. The fact that you were born with a hole in your heart to begin with already set you on a path of instability. Yes, science and medicine have advanced greatly over the years and there are procedures that can correct some defects, but others...there are just some defects that don't come with a permanent solution. There's no way of ever foretelling that, though. Only time."
"So I'm supposed to just sit around and wait to die?"
"I am not saying that. There are always options and like I said before, it's important we explore all the options that are available to us."
"No?" Leighanne repeated in a whisper of surprise as she turned her attention to look at her husband.
"We already have your husband on the national donor recipient list and I have discussed with him some options that are available-"
"And I told you no," Brian interrupted with a steady glare.
"I am not going to allow you to ship me off to some medical prison hours away where I'll be kept from my family!"
"Brian, son..." Harold called out, releasing his grip on Jackie's hand to rise and take a hesitant step towards the bed.
"No..." Brian muttered, shaking his head. "It's not acceptable."
"But if there is something, some place that could help you," Harold tried to reason with his son, but Brian would have none of it.
"I said no."
"You can't disregard it so quickly," Leighanne argued.
"I can, and I will. There are other ways to go about this," Brian snapped, but his tone wasn't nearly as strong as he had hoped to project it.
"Mr. Littrell, it's something you need to seriously consider and talk it over with your family. Whatever options we have we need to weigh heavily on what we are dealing with at hand here. You need to understand that," Dr. Henrich said.
"I think that's for me to decide," Brian replied pointedly.
Dr. Henrich paused, withholding a sigh of defeat. He knew continuing to argue at that point would be of no help, and he feared the stress in the room would elevate too high to be handled. "All I ask is that you and your family give it great thought. I don't recommend you gambling with the time that you have left." With his last words, Dr. Henrich gave a nod of apology and departed from the room.
"Brian..." Leighanne whispered.
"I don't want to talk about it, Leigh. Please..." Brian mumbled weakly, avoiding her stare.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Mommy..." Baylee whimpered quietly as he began to squirm within Leighanne's arms. His lips puckered into a saddened pout as his tiny fists clung to her simple light grey tshirt.
Leighanne stared down at the sparkling blue orbs of her son's eyes, fighting back the tears that were threatening to burst forth. "Oh sweetheart, what's wrong?" she soothed, offering as much of a smile as she could possibly muster. She watched as her child struggled into a upright position, rubbing tiredly at his face. His curls stuck out in every direction, giving him an all too uncanny resemblence to his father. It struck a sour chord in Leighanne's heart.
"Daddy gots a heart ache," Baylee answered, stiffling a yawn. "Gots sickies in his heart."
"You're right sweetheart," Leighanne nodded softly. "Lots of sickies."
"Doctor gonna make Daddy feel better."
"I sure hope so."
"'Cause no want Daddy sad no mo..." Baylee mustered and unlatched himself from his mother's arms. He carefully climbed from her lap to the bed and paused at his father's side, his bottom lip pouting outwards. Then without saying a word, he threw his arms around Brian's neck and rested his head on his father's shoulder. "Love you Daddy," he whispered moments later, unmoving an inch.
Brian felt himself taken aback from his child's innocence. Baylee had no idea; he was too young to understand. But it still didn't stop him from believing he could change the world and Brian couldn't bring himself to change his son's way of thinking and break his spirit down. Instead, he brought his arms up and wrapped them around Baylee's frame, holding him close. Even if Baylee couldn't change Brian's whole world, he was at least thankful for his son's capability to make him forget his troubles, if even for just a moment.