Nick turned around, smiling, to greet him. “Hey… good morning.”
“Morning,” Brian croaked back, wincing at how hoarse his voice sounded. It was always worse first thing in the morning. Once it warmed up, it would get better - but not by much. It would still crack and cut out on him without warning, leaving him sounding like he was coming down with a case of laryngitis. He cleared his throat again, hoping it would help. “You’re up early. It’s only-” He looked at the clock on the microwave. “-five-thirty on the West Coast.”
“Yeah, well, I’m used to waking up at five to take care of the kids,” said Nick with a shrug, turning back to tend to the griddle. “Lauren and I have a good system worked out. She gets up in the middle of the night to feed Saoirse, so I make breakfast in the morning and let her sleep in. Can you believe I’ve become a morning person?”
Brian chuckled. Sometimes he couldn’t believe the person Nick had become - devoted husband, doting father, functional adult. Kevin was right with what he had said the night before: it was nice to see him like that. Brian had struggled the most with watching Nick make a mess of his life throughout the early aughts, wanting to help him but not knowing how. Leighanne had encouraged Brian to distance himself from his former best friend for the sake of his budding Christian music career, which didn’t mesh with Nick’s lifestyle of sin and vice. Brian still felt guilty for not being there for him the way the others - mainly Howie - had. But he knew from dealing with AJ’s alcoholism that Nick had to want help before he would be willing to accept it. No one could fix his life for him; he had to straighten up on his own.
Thankfully, Nick had decided to do just that. Lauren had helped, of course, coming into his life at just the right time, when he was finally ready to turn it around. Brian had had his doubts about her at first, for Nick was known to have terrible taste in women, but Lauren was different. She brought out the best in Nick. In spite of the struggles they had faced - handling fame and jealous fans, overcoming substance abuse, dealing with Nick’s crazy family, and trying to start a family of their own - their marriage seemed as strong as ever. Maybe even stronger than Brian’s own marriage.
Though he refused to admit it to the other guys, things had been rocky in the Littrell household for the last month or so. Left with too much time on her hands, Leighanne had turned into a social media troll, making and sharing the sort of far-right posts that tended to trigger more liberal-minded people. In the past few weeks, she had managed to offend most of his fanbase with her opinions about politics, the pandemic, the protests, and people of color. Brian had been left to deal with the fallout: a barrage of messages from fans, begging him to make a statement, berating him for remaining silent. Though he disagreed with some of what his wife had been posting, he knew better than to publicly denounce her. He loved Leighanne too much to do that to her. He also knew that the media - desperate for gossip in the midst of the pandemic, always wanting to be the first to break the next big story or predict the next celebrity divorce - would pounce on them like a pack of hungry wolves at the first sign of weakness, and he didn’t want anyone speculating about the possible downfall of his marriage. But privately, he had asked her to stop posting.
In their twenty-three years together, Brian had given his wife everything she wanted without asking much for himself. His hard-earned money had built their beautiful mansion in her home state of Georgia, furnished it with decor that fit her affluent style, filled her closet with designer clothes and handbags, bought her fine jewelry and fancy cars, and provided her with a more-than-comfortable life full of luxury and privilege. He had always been the provider, but Leighanne wore the pants in the family. When he had requested, respectfully, that she refrain from posting anything else that could be seen as racist or right-wing propaganda, she had flat-out refused.
“The first amendment gives me freedom of speech, and no one’s going to take that right away from me - not your snowflake fans, not your self-righteous bandmates, and certainly not you, Brian,” she’d retorted. “It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, and I will not be censored or silenced, especially by my own husband!”
Since then, Brian had let the issue drop, but Leighanne had doubled down on expressing her first amendment rights just to spite him, taking it from Facebook to Twitter, where even more of his fans would see her posts. This had only made things worse. He barely logged in to his social media accounts these days, not wanting to see the hateful comments from hurt fans. When he got home, he and Leighanne were going to have a long talk. But until then, he was happy to be out of the house.
Listening to Nick talk about the relationship he and Lauren had, one with equal roles and mutual respect for one another, made Brian feel envious - and even more resentful toward Leighanne.
“You’re lucky,” he told Nick, “and so is she. Not every dad is willing to wake up at the crack of dawn and cook breakfast. Those look great, by the way.” He was impressed: the pancakes Nick had started transferring from the griddle to a platter were perfectly round and golden brown without being burnt. “You’re like a pro. Where’d you learn those pancake skills?”
Nick grinned. “Lots of practice, baby,” he said, as he slid the last pancake onto the platter. “How long we gonna let the other guys sleep in? These are gonna get cold if they don’t come eat soon.”
Brian shrugged. “Eh, they can always reheat ‘em. C’mon, let’s eat.”
Nick carried the platter over to the large dining room table, which was already set with plates, silverware, and condiments. Again, Brian marveled over his newfound maturity. He poured them both cups of coffee from the pot Nick had brewed, then sat down across from him.
“Remember, Kev and AJ are still on Pacific time too,” he added, as he piled pancakes onto his plate, “and you know those two aren’t morning people.”
Nick laughed. “Ah well… more for us,” he said, fixing a plate of his own. “These are gluten-free, by the way.”
“I figured.” Brian opened the bottle of maple syrup they’d bought at the tree farm the previous day and poured a liberal amount over his pancakes. “Mmm… amazing!” he proclaimed, as the first bite went down.
Nick looked up from smearing butter over his, practically glowing with pride. “Thanks!”
Brian had been talking more about the syrup than the pancakes, but Nick didn’t need to know that. His pancakes weren’t bad either, though they didn’t taste quite as good as Leighanne’s, which were full of delicious gluten. At the moment, Brian missed his wife’s cooking more than he missed his wife herself - a fact which worried him. But of course, he didn’t dare mention it to Nick.
They made small talk until they were joined by Howie, who ate two helpings of pancakes while they waited for AJ and Kevin to wake up. Finally, when all five of them had finished fueling their bodies with food and caffeine, they cleaned up the kitchen and got down to business.
“Let’s see that list of songs you made last night, D,” said Kevin as they gathered around the living room again.
Howie took out his phone and opened his notes from the night before: a collection of Christmas songs they’d considered covering for the album. Whenever one they liked had come up on the station they’d been listening to while they decorated, Howie had added it to his list so they wouldn’t forget. He read them the titles, and they stopped to talk about each one.
“What about ‘Silent Night’?”
“Yes,” Brian said automatically - it was one of his favorites. It reminded him of happier times with his family; he, Leighanne, and Baylee had recorded a beautiful rendition of it for their fans just before Christmas last year.
Nick made a face. “I dunno… like, it’s a nice song and all, but it’s so overdone. Everyone covers ‘Silent Night’ on their Christmas album.”
Brian nodded. “That’s because it’s a good song.”
“It’s also in the public domain,” Howie pointed out, “so we could cover it for free. That’s probably why so many artists do.”
“Good point,” said Kevin. “That’s something else we need to consider, too - whether or not we have to get permission and pay for the rights to record a song. But Nick, imagine ‘Silent Night’ sung a cappella in five-part harmony. We could do an amazing cover of it.”
Nick shrugged. “Yeah, I guess…” He sounded less than enthusiastic, but at least he didn’t argue about it. There was a time, not so long ago, when he would have fought until he was red in the face just to get his way.
“We’ll keep it on the short list,” said Howie. “Moving on… how about ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’? Personally, I think that one’s a must.”
“Really?” replied Brian, raising his eyebrows. “Why?”
“Well, just listen to the lyrics.” Howie sang a few bars: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight… Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more…” He paused, then added, “Don’t you think that’s the perfect message of hope for people to hear on a holiday album released during a pandemic?”
Brian hadn’t thought about it like that, but now he nodded. “When you put it that way, it is pretty perfect.” He wasn’t confident the world would be back to normal by Christmas, but he hoped his troubles at home would be behind him. At least the election would be over, and perhaps that would help.
Kevin, Nick, and AJ all agreed, so Howie moved “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the top of their list.
“Don’t forget ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’” Nick said as they neared the bottom.
Howie gave him a disgruntled look. “Absolutely not, Nick! No way!”
“We could record our own Corona-version,” Brian chimed in, grinning across the table at Nick. His mind racing, he made up some lyrics on the spot: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a package of two-ply T.P!”
Nick snickered. “No, no, it should be, My true love gave to me… a case of COVID-19! Then we could include the toilet paper later - like, Fiiiiiiive rolls of Charmin!”
Without missing a beat, Brian continued: “Four Clorox wipes, three face masks, two latex gloves…”
“...and a case of COVID-19!” Nick joined him in harmony before they both burst out laughing.
“We can’t do that, fellas,” said Kevin, shaking his head. “People are dying from this. It’s not funny.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “No shit, Kevin; we’re not being serious. It was just a joke.”
“Well, no one else is laughing.”
Brian watched Nick scratch his nose with his middle finger, discreetly flipping Kevin off, but as he looked around at the others, he realized Kevin was right. Nobody else seemed amused by their antics. Even AJ, whom Brian had fully expected to join in on the fun, was being unusually quiet. Feeling defensive, he retorted, “Sorry - I guess we’re just not as ‘woke’ as you are.”
Kevin frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know…” The words spilled out of Brian’s mouth before he could stop them. “You’re always posting that P.C. crap.” He regretted them the second he saw Kevin raise his eyebrows.
“Really? ‘P.C. crap?’” His cousin’s eyes flashed as they fixed him with a piercing stare. “Your wife could sure use a lesson in political correctness.”
Feeling his face heat up, Brian heaved a sigh. He supposed it was only a matter of time before one of them brought up Leighanne’s posts, and he wasn’t surprised it was Kevin who had. “Please don’t go there. I don’t wanna talk about it, except to say I disagree with what she’s been posting.”
“Then why don’t you grow a pair of balls and say so publicly?” Kevin replied. “Haven’t you seen our fans debating about whether or not you’re a bigot, too?”
Brian bristled. “I’m not a bigot, and neither is Leighanne! She just-”
Kevin cut him off. “So you disagree with what she’s been posting, but you’re gonna defend her anyway?”
“She’s my wife,” he said with a helpless shrug, wishing Kevin would let the issue drop. He didn’t want to admit that he was worried his cousin might be right, that he was married to a bigot. It made him feel ashamed, not just of Leighanne, but of himself. “What would you do if it were Kristin?”
Kevin shook his head. “Honestly? I don’t know because I can’t imagine Kristin posting that kind of crap in the first place.”
“Can we please just move on?” Howie interjected, trying to keep the peace, as always. “How do you guys feel about ‘White Christmas’?”
“I bet that’s Leighanne’s favorite,” said Kevin, smirking at Brian.
Brian scowled. “Shut the fuck up,” he snapped, feeling his heart beating faster. “Don’t forget, she’s a member of your family too.”
“Only by marriage,” he heard Kevin mutter under his breath, making Brian’s blood boil even more. But beneath his anger, he felt a sense of betrayal. Because Kevin was his cousin and had married Kristin the same year he had married Leighanne, there had always been a sense of camaraderie between the two couples. Brian thought of Kristin as another sister-in-law, and he’d thought Kevin felt the same way about Leighanne. Apparently, he had been wrong.
Before Brian could think of a comeback, AJ abruptly stood up. “I’m cool with ‘White Christmas,’” he said, adjusting the hem of his t-shirt. “I gotta use the bathroom.”
“You okay, Bone?” asked Brian, frowning up at him. He was grateful for the interruption, but he was also slightly concerned about AJ, who had barely said a word the whole conversation.
“Yeah… my stomach’s just upset,” he admitted with a grimace.
“Nick probably poisoned those pancakes,” said Howie, flashing Nick a grin.
Nick rolled his eyes. “If I did, you’d already be shitting your pants, dumbass - you ate way more than he did!”
“I actually didn’t have any,” said AJ. “I’m doing that grain-free diet, remember?”
“Well, maybe that’s the problem,” replied Howie. “Grains are great!”
Brian forced a laugh. “Go take a dump,” he told AJ, waving him off. “I think we could all use a break.” Before anyone could argue with him, he got up from the couch and walked away.
Brian trudged back upstairs to the loft, where no one but AJ had any reason to be. He stretched out on his bed, folded his arms behind his head, and stared up at the slanted ceiling. He felt so conflicted, torn between the woman he loved and what felt like the rest of the world. He didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, but he also didn’t want to turn against his wife.
After a few minutes, he heard a toilet flush, and AJ came out of the bathroom, fumbling with the waistband of his shorts. “Feeling any better?” Brian asked him.
AJ shrugged. “Not really, but I’ll survive. I probably just ate too much crap last night. My stomach can’t handle that stuff anymore, especially after I’ve been trying to eat better.”
“Getting old sucks,” Brian agreed.
AJ snorted. “At least you still have the metabolism of a teenager. I’ve been busting my ass since we got back from South America, and I still have a dad bod,” he said, pulling up his shirt to reveal his slightly rounded belly. “Remember when I used to have a six pack? Now it just looks like I’ve been drinking too many six-packs.”
Brian laughed. “Don’t sell yourself short, dude. You look good. I can see a difference - you’ve got more muscle tone and definition than you did before.”
“You think?” asked AJ, staring down at himself.
Brian nodded. “Definitely.”
That seemed to cheer AJ up some. “Thanks, bro,” he said. Brian saw a smile tugging at the corner of his lips as he lowered his shirt.
“No problem,” replied Brian, smiling back. “Speaking of getting old, did I tell you Leighanne’s been trying to convince me to get Botox to get rid of all these wrinkles.” He put his index fingers at the outer corners of his eyes and pulled the skin taut, smoothing out the laugh lines there.
AJ made a face. “Don’t do it, Rok. That shit’s like a gateway to plastic surgery. You start down that path, and before you know it, your face’ll be frozen into an expression of permanent surprise.” He widened his eyes and raised his eyebrows high on his forehead, stretching his lips into a clownish, fake smile.
“Well, it did help with my voice,” said Brian, who had tried having the drug injected into his larynx treat his dysphonia. It did seem to have made a difference; his voice didn’t break as much as before. “But don’t worry. I’m not planning to put any in my face.”
“Good.” AJ grinned and extended his hand to him. “Ready to go rejoin the rest of the group?”
“I guess,” said Brian without enthusiasm. He took AJ’s hand and allowed him to haul him up from the bed. They headed back downstairs to find Howie sitting in the living room alone. “Where’d the other guys go?” he wondered, looking around.
“Nick and Kevin went into the studio to start working on an arrangement for ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’” Howie answered, pointing to the closed door beneath the loft’s balcony. Listening closely, Brian could hear strains of piano music and guitar chords coming from behind it. “The three of us are in charge of the vocals.”
Brian nodded, relieved to hear he and Kevin would be working in separate rooms for a while. He sat down with Howie and AJ, and they started listening to different covers of the song, singing along, adding their own harmonies and ad-libs so they could hear what sounded best. The lyrics flowed like water, rising and falling as they filled the room with sound, their voices echoing off the rafters overhead.
“Have yourself a merry little...” Howie sang the melody, his high voice ringing out as clear as a bell.
“Merry little Christmas,” Brian echoed him, his own voice cracking. He cringed at the sound.
“Let your heart be light,” Howie continued, as if he hadn’t noticed. AJ joined him in harmony on the next line, his lower voice adding a richness to the tone. “From now on our troubles will be out of sight.”
“Out of sight,” Brian sang hoarsely.
AJ took the lead on the second verse in his soulful tenor. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay.”
“So gay!” Brian ad-libbed without missing a beat, which made both AJ and Howie burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” a familiar voice called. They looked up to see Nick emerging from the makeshift studio, followed by Kevin.
Brian shook his head, avoiding eye contact with his cousin. “Nothing,” he said, afraid he would be labeled a homophobe next, just for making a harmless joke.
“You feelin’ any better, Bone?” Kevin asked, eyeing AJ with an expression of mild concern. When AJ nodded, he turned to Brian. “How ‘bout you, cous? We good?”
Brian hesitated for a few seconds before he nodded. “We’re fine,” he muttered, figuring he should have known better than to expect Kevin to apologize for calling his wife a bigot. He could have demanded it, but he decided it was better to let the issue drop. He didn’t want to cause any drama within the group, not when they would be stuck working in this cabin together for the next four weeks.
Kevin seemed to feel the same way. He didn’t bring up Leighanne again the rest of the day, and neither did Brian.
That evening, while AJ was FaceTiming with his family in the loft, Brian went outside to sit on the deck and watch the sun set. A storm was rolling in; the thick clouds looked like cotton candy, tinged pink on the bottom, blue on top. The breeze had picked up, and the air had cooled to the point that he wished he’d worn a sweatshirt. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in the wooden rocking chair, which creaked as he began to rock. He thought about calling Leighanne, even went as far as taking out his phone, only to put it back in his pocket.
The sun had just sunk beneath the horizon when he heard the storm door creak open and slam closed again. He looked up to see Howie coming toward him, carrying two cans of Coke in his hands. “I thought I saw you out here,” Howie said with a smile, handing him one.
“Thanks,” Brian said, smiling back.
“I wish it was a cold beer instead,” Howie admitted, as he cracked his open and sat down in the identical chair next to Brian’s. “But I guess we’re all working on our sobriety now.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “Kevin can be a real self-righteous dick sometimes, you know that?”
“I know.” Howie took a sip of his soda, then looked back at Brian. “You okay?”
He nodded, fumbling with the tab on his can. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
“How about you and Leighanne?”
Brian shrugged as he rocked back and forth. “Hopefully we’ll be fine…” He let the words linger for a few seconds before he added, “It’s just hard, ya know, feeling like I’m caught in the middle between her and the fans… her and my bros.”
“I know what you mean,” said Howie, giving him a sympathetic smile. And of all the guys in the group, he probably did understand the best. Howie didn’t like to talk about politics, preferring to keep his opinions to himself, but Brian knew that next to himself, Howie was probably the most conservative. His wife Leigh may have been more liberal, but if theirs was a house divided, they had not let it fall. Brian hoped he and Leighanne could be like the Doroughs.
“So whatcha doing out here?” Howie asked
“Just watching the sunset.” Brian tipped his head toward the fading light. “AJ’s upstairs talking to his girls. I wanted to give him some privacy.”
Howie nodded. “Nicky’s downstairs doing the same thing.”
Brian smiled and took a swig of his drink. “Who ever thought those two would turn into such family men, eh?”
“It’s a miracle,” Howie agreed, grinning back.
Thank you, God, thought Brian, glancing skyward. Despite the state of the world, he knew how blessed the five of them were to be together, still making music for a devoted fanbase after all these years. Not many groups like theirs lasted as long as they had. He wasn’t sure they would have if AJ and Nick were still drinking, doing drugs, and partying as much as they had back in the day. Brian was grateful they had both grown up and gotten their lives together.
A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. “Looks like it’s gonna rain, huh?” said Howie.
“Yeah, it does.” Brian didn’t mind; he loved thunderstorms, especially on warm summer nights. “Good sleeping weather.”
Howie swallowed a mouthful of soda. “Mm-hm…”
For almost an hour, they sat side by side like a couple of old men, rocking in their chairs, occasionally making small talk, but otherwise just watching the world fade around them. The sky turned black, and a light rain began to fall, but beneath the roof of the covered porch, they were both comfortable and dry.
Finally, when it became too dark to see more than a few feet in front of their faces and so chilly that Brian felt goosebumps on his arms, he said, “Well… I guess I’m gonna head in. AJ should be done by now.”
Next to him, Howie nodded. “Nick, too.”
They got up and went back inside, closing and locking the door behind them. After a day filled with music, the cabin felt strangely quiet. There was no one sitting in front of the Christmas tree, which twinkled festively in the corner. Kevin’s door was closed, and neither Nick, nor AJ was on the main level.
“I’d better go check on AJ, maybe give Leighanne a call,” said Brian, looking up at the dimly-lit loft. His stomach lurched when he thought about his wife and recalled Kevin’s words.
“White Christmas? I bet that’s Leighanne’s favorite song.”
“Haven’t you seen our fans debating about whether or not you’re a bigot, too?”
“Okay. Come on down to the man cave if you guys wanna play pool before you go to bed,” replied Howie before he headed for the basement.
“Thanks, man.” Brian trudged up to the loft, already dreading talking to Leighanne and having to listen to her complain about his fans being “haters.” “Yo, Bone, you off the phone?” he called as he climbed the stairs.
There was no response, and when he reached the top, he realized why. AJ was already in bed with the covers pulled all the way up to his chin. Beneath them, Brian could see the outline of his body curled into a tight ball, his knees tucked to his chest. Concerned, Brian tiptoed over to his bed to take a closer look. He stood beside it for a few seconds, watching and wondering if AJ was actually sleeping already or just faking it. His back was to Brian, but by the sound of his deep, steady breathing, he seemed to be sound asleep.
“Feel better, bro,” Brian whispered, frowning as he turned away. He pulled his phone out of his back pocket to check the time: it was only nine o’clock. Being a night owl, he wasn’t ready for bed yet himself. Maybe he would shoot some pool with Howie and Nick after all. Leighanne was probably expecting him to call, but she could wait. Perhaps it would even be better to let her stew for a while, instead of trying to pretend things between them were fine.
His mind made up, Brian left his phone plugged in by his bed and went back downstairs.