He was watching Baylee get ready for his first boy-girl Halloween party at his friend Stephen's house. Baylee was dressing up as a pro soccer player for the Manchester United. He was in the process of trying to get his hair to sit the way he wanted it to, smothering it with gel. Brian wasn't supposed to be watching, but it was somewhat easy to lean back in the La-Z-Boy and have a clear shot into the open bathroom door. Baylee was frowning.
Brian wondered when it had happened. When had Baylee become a little grown up? It seemed like just yesterday that he'd been playing Curious George tapes and dancing to The Wiggles. It seemed like that morning when Brian had been frantically dealing with Baylee's pronouncement of undying love for Miley Cyrus - just as Miley decided to start showing more skin in all her music videos. And now... Now Baylee was crushing on some girl from school whose name was Sasha, who was in the grade above him, and he was excited to be on the soccer team at school because next year the coach said he could probably play on his high school team.
Leighanne lowered herself onto Brian's lap and snuggled against him, looking at their son. "He's grown up so fast," she murmured.
"Yeah he has," Brian answered.
"Do you ever regret that we didn't have another?" she asked.
Brian stared at his grown up boy, and imagined what it would be like in a couple years, when they'd sent Baylee off to college and the house was empty, and they were alone all the time.
"Yeah," he said. He paused, "Sometimes."
Leighanne rubbed his arms.
The phone rang and she pecked Brian's cheek and got up, heading for the phone to answer it. Leighanne had her back to Brian, removing her earring as she picked up the receiver. "Hello?" After a pause as the caller answered, she turned around, her eyes wide. "Oh my goodness, AJ, it's good to hear from you again," she said, staring at Brian, her face paling.
Brian leaped out of the chair. AJ hadn't called since a couple months after Nick had disappeared. It'd been at least two and a half years. Brian was hovering, inches from Leighanne. She turned her head and tilted the phone so they could both listen at the ear piece.
"I was calling to tell Brian something," AJ said. He sounded older. Brian's heart was pounding so hard. He'd been praying for the day that AJ would call, begging God to let him have at least one of his brothers. Leighanne looked up at Brian's eyes. "It's kind of important," AJ said.
"Okay," Leighanne said, "Here he is, AJ."
"Thanks," he said.
Leighanne relinquished the phone to Brian, covering the mouthpiece with her hand for a moment. "I'll bring Baylee to the party," she said quietly, "You talk to AJ."
"But you don't have a costume," Brian whispered. He'd been supposed to be chaperoning.
"I'll wear yours," she answered.
"Soccer coach?" Brian asked.
Leighanne shrugged. "How hard is it to blow a whistle?" She kissed his cheek. "Good luck." She ducked out of the living room, closing the door behind her.
Brian took a deep, shaking breath, then put the phone to his ear. "Hallo?" he said, as naturally as he could.
"Brian," AJ said. It was strange hearing AJ say Brian instead of B-Rok or B, but it was AJ's deep voice.
"AJ," Brian said, "Oh sweet Lord, it's wonderful to hear your voice. I've missed you, man, so much."
AJ was quiet a second. "I'm sorry I haven't called," he said finally, "I've been trying to make it work with Kara," he said, referencing his fiance, "We've been hitting a rough patch..." AJ paused, "That's not why I called though."
Brian lowered into a chair beside the phone table. "What's up, my friend?" he asked.
AJ took a deep breath. "Brian, I had a freaky thing happen today, and I'm not sure what to make of it, and I figured that of anyone in the world, you're the only one that's going to hear this and not judge me."
"Of course not," Brian said. "I'd never judge you, 'Jay, you know that."
"I was jogging this morning," he said, "And I... I saw..." AJ's voice was hesitant.
"What?" Brian asked, "What'd you see?"
"Who," AJ corrected. He paused. "I saw Nick."
Brian shifted in his seat, certain he'd heard AJ wrong. "You saw... what?"
"I saw Nick."
Brian closed his eyes. "AJ, I thought we agreed Nick was..." he paused, "Gone."
"I know," AJ said, "I know, that's why I think I'm fucking insane. But I swear to God, I saw him. I was running through this park, and he was sitting on a park bench, and he was staring at me, and our eyes met. He had facial hair, like more than I've ever seen on him before, and his hair - it looked like shit, like a kid cut it or something. He was dressed in these crappy, raggy clothes, but... Brian, I swear to God, it was fucking Nick."
Brian swallowed. Goose pimples were coating his arms like chicken skin. "What'd you do?" he asked.
"I... I kept running, because... well, at first I didn't believe it. Then I got around the corner and I almost collapsed, I couldn't breathe, and my head was like what the fuck, you know? So then I'm trying to catch my breath, and I realize I need to go back because I need to know it was him, and if it is him I needed to tell him I'm sorry for everything and fix it all, you know? So I go back and --"
"Oh Jesus," Brian murmured.
"-- and there wasn't anybody on the bench," AJ concluded. He paused. "At first, I convinced myself it was a ghost, I'll be honest... But Brian... I don't know."
Brian's palms were soaking and he wiped them on the knees of his jeans. "Wow," he whispered.
"Right?" AJ said.
Brian bent forward and rubbed the back of his head with his hand, rubbing the place where his neck and skull met, trying to stroke the stress away. "After all this time... I wonder where he's been... What he's been doing..."
AJ's voice was quiet, hesitant, "So you think it... it was him?" AJ asked, "Not... a ghost.. or a vision or whatever?"
"You know I never wanted to believe he was dead," Brian answered.
"I know," AJ said. "But if it's him... why hasn't he - he -"
"I don't know," Brian said. "I don't know."