"Where is he in that one?" Adam pointed to a photo on the right side of the photo album.
"You were at the beach," Kris replied, careful to emphasize the first word.
"The beach?" Adam repeated, testing out the word for himself. "What was he doing there?"
"You were probably sunbathing, maybe swimming." Kris leaned in close to study the picture Adam had asked about. "In that photo it looks like you and Neil are messing around with a Frisbee. Look, you guys are making your mom laugh."
At the mention of herself, Leila carried the bowl of whatever she was mixing to stand behind Kris and Adam, looking over their heads at the photos they were looking at. "Oh, that was a trip we took to Virginia Beach to visit some of Eber's relatives. Adam was seventeen, Neil was thirteen. It was a great trip. Just about the last one we took as a whole family." She smiled wistfully at the memory.
Adam looked up at his mother, then down again at the photos. Finally, he shifted his gaze to Kris. "Can we go to the beach?"
Kris immediately traded a look with Leila. He could instantly tell that the idea was completely horrifying to her.
"Why?" Kris asked Adam in a neutral tone. Not since the accident had Adam made this kind of request.
"It looks like fun," Adam replied, smiling. "They're all laughing and playing." He pointed back at the photos to reinforce his statement.
"They are," Kris agreed.
"Can we go?" Adam repeated his query.
Kris looked back up at Leila. She still looked a little distressed by the idea. Turning back to Adam, he said, "I have an idea. Why don't you go draw a picture of what you think the beach would be like while your mom and I talk about it?"
Adam nodded amiably, always happy to be given the excuse to draw. He pushed his chair away from the kitchen table and headed for the living room, where his paper and basket of coloring tools resided.
Once Adam was safely out of earshot, Kris swiveled in his seat to face Leila. "What are you thinking?"
Leila walked over to the kitchen island and set down her mixing bowl. Kris rose to stand across from her. She sighed heavily. "I just don't know if it's a good idea."
"Why?" Kris asked carefully.
Leila sighed again. "There's just so much that could go wrong. It's such a big place. There are so many people there."
Kris completely understood her concerns. "I know, but I still think we should go. This is the first time he's made a request like this."
"I know," Leila reluctantly agreed.
"I'd love to take him," Kris went on to offer. "I can run interference and make sure nothing happens."
He could tell by the look on her face that she wasn't yet convinced, so he went on. "He's here or he's at the rehab center. He needs to be allowed to go to other places again. It won't be like last time, at the store."
Leila nodded, resigned. "You're right. Okay. I'm not thrilled with the idea, but let's try it anyhow."
Kris grinned. "We can go tomorrow. The weather's supposed to be perfect. I'll spend some time today prepping him. Does that work?"
She nodded. "That's fine." Tilting her head in the direction of the living room, she said, "Go tell him. He'll be so excited."
Kris walked around to her side of the island and squeezed her shoulder. "It's going to be okay. We'll have fun. He'll have a good time."
Leila smiled softly. "I hope so."
* * *
Adam was kneeling in his usual spot in the living room, paper on the coffee table, crayons, markers, and colored pencils strewn all over the table.
Kris kneeled down beside Adam and pointed to the picture Adam was diligently working on.
Adam had clearly been paying attention when they had been looking at the photos. He had drawn a pretty good representation of the ocean and the sand. There were several people in the picture throwing a ball around.
"Who's that?" Kris asked, pointing to the figures on the paper.
"You, me, and Neil," Adam answered.
Kris smiled. "What's that we're doing?"
"Throwing a ball." This was an activity they did a lot, so it made sense that Adam would choose it for his art.
"Looks like fun."
"Can we go, Kris?" Adam asked, his tone hopeful. "I promise I'll be good."
The feeling of settling stones in his stomach was not unfamiliar. "Oh, honey, I know," Kris quickly assured him. "You're always good."
Adam beamed at the praise.
"Your mom and I talked," Kris explained, "and we think the beach is a great idea. I thought we could go tomorrow."
"Yay!" Adam clapped his hands together.
"First, though," Kris cautioned, "we need to talk about what it's going to be like and come up with some ground rules. Okay?"
"Okay," Adam agreed readily.
"Okay. The beach that's closest and most fun is Santa Monica. But because it's the most fun, that means there will be a lot of people there."
Instantly, there was worry written all over Adam's face. "Will they be mean?"
It hurt Kris's heart very nearly physically that Adam had to ask such a thing. He asked his own question. "How do you think they might be mean?"
Adam shrugged, but a moment later explained, "Like the people at the store."
Kris sighed, remembering exactly the people Adam was talking about. It had, again, been Kris offering to take Adam out, this time to the grocery store to pick up a few things Leila needed. He had reasoned that it would foster some of the independent life skills Adam was supposed to be practicing. It had been the first time Adam had been out anywhere in public other than the hospital or rehabilitation center. It was also the last time.
At the store, there had been a group of teenage boys who had easily recognized both Adam and Adam's condition, and they'd mercilessly taunted Adam until Kris had decided to abandon their shopping cart and hustle Adam out of the store. This incident had stuck fast in Adam's memory, making him much more wary about encountering strangers.
"Those people were mean," Kris agreed. "And I can't promise there won't be mean people at the beach. But I'll be there with you the whole time. I'm going to do my very best to make sure nothing bad happens to you. Okay?"
"Promise?" Adam checked.
Kris nodded firmly. "I promise."
"Good. Now, because there will be a lot of people there, it will be important for us to keep track of each other. So you'll need to stay with me, all right?"
Adam nodded vigorously. Kris wasn't actually too worried about this, but better safe than sorry.
"Excellent. Do you remember what to do if we do get separated?"
Adam nodded again. "I stay where I am until you come and find me."
"Good," Kris praised. "And what if a long time passes, and I don't come?"
"I find a police officer and ask for help." They'd gone over these instructions before that terrible trip to the store, and Kris was pleased the memory of them remained, too.
"I have just one other rule you will need to remember," Kris told him solemnly.
Adam's face scrunched in confusion. Clearly, he thought he'd remembered everything.
Kris smiled. "It's the most important thing of all."
"What?" Adam did not smile, and Kris felt a momentary twinge of guilt for making Adam worry he'd forgotten something.
"You have to have a good time," Kris revealed.
Now Adam smiled, completely melting Kris's guilt away.
"Okay, now we have the rules squared away, we need to decide what we have to take with us," Kris said.
"A ball," was Adam's first suggestion. "Like in the picture."
"Great idea!" Kris reached across the table to grab a piece of paper and a pencil. "Why don't we make a list?" He put the paper and pencil in front of Adam.
Adam immediately pushed the tools toward Kris. "You write."
Kris shook his head. "Nope. This trip was your idea. You have to make the list."
Adam scowled, but when Kris resolutely refused to touch the writing implements, he picked up the pencil and painstakingly wrote "ball" on the top of the paper.
"Excellent!" Kris told him. "What else do we need?"
Adam paused to think. "Sunscreen."
Leila often insisted on sunscreen if they were going to spend any length of time outdoors, so it made sense that Adam would think of it.
"Good call," Kris said. "It's definitely supposed to be sunny tomorrow." Kris helpfully spelled "sunscreen" out for Adam to add to the list.
"Anything else?" Kris prompted.
"Water?" Adam suggested. "To drink?"
Kris nodded and pointed to the spot below the word "sunscreen" and helped Adam spell "water."
They added a few more things to the list--towels, sunglasses, hats, money--before Kris declared the list complete.
"Now what should we plan to wear?" Kris asked. "Should I bring my heavy jacket, my wool hat, a scarf, and gloves?"
Adam giggled. It was one of Kris's favorite sounds in all the world, and he smiled back at Adam before schooling his features back into a questioning look. "What are you laughing at?"
"You can't wear gloves to the beach," Adam told him, his tone poised perfectly between serious and mocking.
"Why?" Kris wondered aloud. "I like my gloves. They're red."
"It's too hot at the beach for gloves."
Kris mock frowned. "It is? How do you know?"
"In the pictures they're wearing shorts and small shirts," Adam explained sagely.
"Short-sleeved shirts," Kris corrected gently. "And you're absolutely right. It's too hot at the beach for gloves." Let anyone try to say Adam's observational skills were diminished! He'd paid close attention to the details in the photos they'd been looking at. "So, what should we wear? Should we wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts like you and Neil were in the pictures?"
"And boots!" Kris exclaimed. "We'll need to wear boots, right?"
Adam giggled again, then replied, "No. Sandals!"
Kris tapped himself on the forehead. "Right! Sandals! What was I thinking?"
Just then, Leila appeared in the room. "Hey, guys! Trip all planned?"
"Yep," Adam responded. "I made a list." He held it up proudly for her to see.
"Excellent." She smiled warmly. "We'll make sure you have everything on it before you leave in the morning. Right now, though, I have another job for you."
Adam wrinkled his forehead, Kris was amused to note. He suspected this reaction was born from the knowledge that about half the jobs Leila gave Adam to do were fun, the other half not-so-fun.
Leila grinned. "You'll like this job, Ad. I made some chocolate chip cookies, and I thought you and Kris might like to test them for me."
Adam immediately stood. "Okay," he agreed. He reached for Kris's hand to pull him up and into the kitchen. They had work to do.
* * *
Kris arrived back at the Lamberts' at nine-thirty the next morning. Leila met him at the door with a relieved smile.
"Thank God you're here! He's been up since six and ready since about six-thirty."
Kris grinned. "I guess I should have come earlier."
"We just need to work a little on his sense of time. He must've asked me every ten minutes when you would be here," Leila told him. "C'mon back. He's in the kitchen working on another artistic masterpiece."
Kris amiably followed her to the kitchen. Just as she'd advertised, her son was hunched over a piece of paper, yellow crayon in hand.
"Hey, Adam!" she called. "Look who's here."
Adam turned around, immediately grinning widely. "Kris!"
Hey, Adam. I hear you're all ready to go," Kris commented with a smile of his own.
Adam nodded. "Mama and I checked the list three times."
Kris traded a look with Leila, who offered a weary smile and a confirming nod, though she held up four fingers, which Kris assumed meant it had actually been a quadruple check.
"Awesome. And it looks like you remembered to dress in shorts and a t-shirt," Kris noted.
"Yep!" Adam wore a pair of dark blue shorts and a light blue t-shirt with an abstract design on it. Kris guessed Leila might have had a hand in picking something nice and non-descript, something that wouldn't draw unwanted attention. Kris had actually done the same, outfitting himself in khaki shorts and a plain white t-shirt.
Leila indicated a red cloth bag sitting on the counter. "Everything on the list is in the bag."
"Then I guess we're ready to go," Kris observed. "Unless you need to finish that picture now." He addressed this last quasi-inquiry to Adam.
Adam shook his head. "I can do it later. Can we go now?"
Kris grinned and nodded.
After rising from his seat at the table, Adam gave Leila a hug. "Bye, Mama." It was still so odd to hear Adam refer to his mother this way. He had always called her "Mom." Since the accident, however, she had been "Mama." The reigning theory was that he'd picked it up from Kris, who always referred to Leila as "your mama" when talking to Adam. Kris didn't think Leila minded. What mattered was that he was there to call her something.
Leila hugged him back tightly. "Have a good time, sweetie."
"I will," he assured her, letting her go.
"Can you grab the bag, Adam?" Kris requested, and Adam easily threw the bag over his shoulder. "All set?"
Adam nodded, and Kris led the way out to the car. He had Adam toss the bag in the back next to the blue one Kris had packed, then they got in the front.
Once seatbelts were secure, they were on their way.
The drive over was very pleasant. Adam loved being in the car and was very animated when pointing things he saw out to Kris. He particularly enjoyed spotting people out walking with their pets and also commenting on the particularly crazy or particularly awesome clothes some people wore. Some things, Kris opined, must just be deeply ingrained.
Kris parked the car in a lot not too far from the entrance to the pier. They grabbed their bags and started in the direction of the beach. They'd only moved a few steps before Kris remembered to get Adam to put on his sunglasses and hat. Kris similarly bedecked himself, then they got back under way.
The walk to the beach only took about ten minutes. Adam wanted to go in the water right away, but Kris found a good spot for their bags and shoes first, setting them in a spot not too near any other beach-goers.
"Now, Kris?" Adam had hastily toed off his sandals. "Now can we go in the water?"
"Do you want to leave your hat and sunglasses on?"
Adam thought about it a moment, then pulled his baseball cap and shades off, tossing them on top of their pile of towels. "Now?"
Kris grinned. "Now."
Adam broke into a run for the water, stopping short when he got to the edge. Kris ran behind him, nearly crashing into him.
"What is it, Adam?"
"It's really cold." Adam was clearly surprised.
"Yep. But if we stand here a minute or two, we'll get used to it."
Adam stood stock still as he waited for the water to feel less cold. Kris couldn't help but laugh.
After a moment, Adam smiled. "You're right. It does feel warmer."
"Be careful, though. It will feel cold to the parts of your body not in the water right now."
Adam tested this theory by moving further out into the water. He immediately wrapped his arms around his middle.
Kris grinned. "Told you."
They walked out into the water together until they were about waist deep. Kris watched Adam's face the whole time. Partly to make sure he was okay, but mostly because the look on Adam's face was one of pure wonder.
Before the accident, Adam had absolutely known how to have fun and take advantage of every joy life had to offer. The accident had stolen many things from him, but that ability to treat new, fun experiences like treasures had not been, and those moments always showed on his face.
Adam stopped walking when the water hit his belly button.
"You okay there, bud?" Kris checked.
Adam nodded, but a little fear had set in his features, clouding them.
"The water is very high."
"Deep," Kris corrected automatically. "It's fine. You're okay."
"Can we go back a little?"
"Sure. Come on." Kris immediately turned around and walked back to where the water was just thigh deep. As Adam followed, his face relaxed.
Kris gave him a moment more to calm down, then he did what he'd been dying to do ever since they'd entered the water. He splashed Adam.
It was just a little, but it did startle Adam. When he realized it hadn't hurt him, he grinned and Kris splashed him again.
After a third splash, Adam got with the program and splashed Kris back. They continued on in this fashion until they were both completely drenched.
"Why don't we go dry off, then throw the ball around a little?" Kris proposed.
Adam nodded and happily followed Kris out of the water and back to their things. They each grabbed a towel and dried themselves off before Kris pulled one of the balls Adam had packed from its bag.
There was plenty of space right in front of their haphazard pile of belongings to toss the ball back and forth for a while. It was one of the smaller balls they used for therapy--one of the ones Adam usually complained vociferously about--but he was slowly getting better at catching it, only having to run after the ball a few times.
Soon, though, Adam grew tired of playing catch, and Kris decided they should pack everything up, drop it all back in the car, then walk around the pier.
Adam readily agreed, particularly fascinated by the Ferris wheel that dominated the area.
It was a short walk back to the car, and they left everything but their hats and sunglasses there after reapplying some sunscreen. They were both too fair to go without.
Leisurely, they strolled back towards the beach, bypassing it this time to make for the pier.
The pier was full of things to look at and listen to. Somewhere in the vicinity, someone was playing the steel drums, and somewhere further away, someone was playing an acoustic guitar. Kris couldn't quite make out the tune.
All along the boardwalk were food stalls, souvenir stands, and games. It smelled of hot dogs, fried dough, and popcorn.
Adam wanted to look at everything, so they just wandered from storefront to storefront, soaking up the atmosphere. Eventually, they got to one end of the pier where, if they looked over the railing, it was easy to watch the people fishing at another part of the boardwalk and the people frolicking on the beach below.
"You thirsty?" Kris asked Adam.
Adam nodded distractedly, his attention focused on a group of kids throwing a Frisbee around below where they stood. They also had a dog with them who occasionally caught the Frisbee. Adam grinned and pointed out the golden retriever. "Look, Kris! He looks like Spike." Spike was a treasured stuffed animal given to Adam by Allison.
Kris grinned back. "I see. You're right. He does look like Spike." He looked over to their left. "Hey, there's a place selling drinks right over here. Shall we get some? We can get lunch in a little while, too."
"I want to watch the dog more," Adam protested, his tone just short of a whine.
Kris gauged how far it was from where they stood to the drink stand he'd spied. He figured it was close enough he could leave Adam there to watch the dog while he fetched drinks. "Okay, you can keep watching the dog. I'll get drinks. What do you want?"
"One lemonade it is," Kris said, heading for the drink stand, keeping Adam in his sights as he walked away.
The line at the drink stand was five people deep. Not too bad. He kept glancing back at where Adam stood to check that he was okay. He was completely captivated by the kids with the Spike-like dog.
Kris was two people away from the front of the line when a familiar voice to his right said, "Kris Allen, as I live and breathe."
Kris glanced in the opposite direction of where Adam was, smiling as he recognized the voice's owner. "Gabriel Heller!" He offered the other man a hug. "How are you, man?"
"Pretty good," Gabriel answered with a wide grin. "You?"
Kris nodded. "Not too bad. How long has it been?"
"At least a year. Closer to two, now I think about it, you dog." He playfully punched Kris's upper arm.
Gabriel was a fellow singer-songwriter Kris had worked with when he'd been writing for his last album. Gabriel had been up and coming at that time and had begun work on his own album shortly after Kris had completed his.
"I've had your CD on rotation on my iPod for weeks," Kris told him. "It's amazing."
Gabriel grinned. "Thanks. Yours turned out great, too. Seems to be doing well, yes?"
Kris shrugged modestly. "The record company wants to release a third single, so I guess it is."
"Ooh," Gabriel enthused. "Which song are you going to release?"
"There are a couple of contenders. As a matter of fact, I think 'Enough For Now' may make the cut." That was the song he and Gabriel had worked hardest on to make just right. "A decision should come in this week."
"Seriously? That would be stupendous!" Gabriel's grin grew even wider.
Kris nodded. "And if 'Enough' is the next single, maybe you'll come be in the video? Cale could use some company. Dueling guitars?"
"Sounds good to me."
"What about you? Your first single hit the top ten, didn't it?"
"Yep. Single Number Two comes out next month, 'Jewel.'"
"That's a terrific song. Good choice," Kris complimented.
Gabriel's gaze shifted from Kris's face to somewhere behind Kris. "What's going on over there?"
Kris swiveled his head. And suddenly, it was like the world fell into slow motion.
He couldn't see Adam anymore. In the spot where Adam had been watching the dog there was, instead, a small group of people all clearly gathered around something. He couldn't hear anything above the sound of his own heartbeat and the cacophony of voices emanating from the small crowd.
He was running before he was aware his body was moving. Vaguely, he heard Gabriel questioning, "Kris?" behind him. He didn't even turn to see if Gabriel would follow.
As he got closer to the growing-by-the-second crowd, Kris began to be able to hear what was being said.
"This guy used to think he was so badass," was the first thing he heard, spoken by a young male voice.
"Now the big fag is also a big retard," another young male voice taunted.
"Leave him alone!" This voice clearly belonged to a young female.
"Shut up, bitch!" one of the young men shouted back. "He's so big and badass, I'm sure he can defend himself."
It took Kris a moment to find a spot in the expanding crowd where he could force his way in, but once he did, he elbowed his way through the throng without too much care for any injury he might be causing.
"Can you talk, retard?" Kris heard the muffled question as he crashed through the crowd. "I don't think he can talk." The young man sniggered.
At last, Kris broke through the ring of people at the front of the herd. What he found both enraged him and broke his heart.
Adam had curled himself into a ball as best he could with his six-foot-one-inch frame. His side was pasted to the wooden fence there to keep people from falling to the beach, and his face was buried in his knees. When Kris bent down to gently touch Adam's shoulder, he could hear Adam mumbling something to himself even as he pulled away from Kris's touch. As Kris focused his attention solely on Adam, blocking out the sounds behind him, he could hear that Adam was saying Kris's name over and over and over.
Kris fought the urge to turn around and beat each of the young men harassing Adam to a bloody pulp. He may have been short, but he was plenty angry. Instead, he forced himself to continue to focus on the only person who really mattered.
"Adam? Adam, honey, it's me." This time, he tried placing his hand gingerly on one of Adam's knees.
Adam immediately pulled his knee away, clearly not hearing Kris yet. Kris persisted, softly placing his hand on Adam's knee once more. "Adam. Adam, it's me. It's Kris." He spoke firmly and loudly, and this time Adam didn't pull away. He lifted his head just enough for him to be able to peek to check Kris out.
"Hey there, bud," Kris said. "You ready to get out of here?"
Almost imperceptibly, Adam nodded.
"Okay. Can you get up for me?"
Adam shook his head. "I don't want to."
Kris stifled a sigh, and in as even a tone as he could asked, "Why not?"
"They're going to hurt me," Adam whispered.
"No, they're not," Kris insisted. Turning his head, he glared at the young men who had the audacity to still be standing there, snickering. Pointedly, he repeated, "No, they're not. They're not going to say a thing. Because if they do, I will call the police." The snickering stopped.
"Promise?" Adam continued to speak in a whisper.
At those words, Adam let Kris help him up. Kris intentionally kept his body between Adam and his tormentors.
As Adam got himself upright, Kris heard a familiar voice yell, "Okay, folks, nothing more to see here. Back off! Now!" Gabriel had apparently followed him. Kris sent a silent thanks to God.
It took a few seconds, but the crowd, including the boys who had started it all, began to clear.
One girl stayed behind, addressing Kris. "Will he be okay?"
"Probably," Kris answered, sparing her a quick glance. She was young, not yet out of her teens, if he guessed right.
"It's my fault," she went on, her voice hitching. "I recognized him."
Kris didn't really have the time or energy to deal with her guilt on top of his own, but he did say, "I know you didn't mean any harm." Then he turned his attention back to Adam.
Adam stood stock still, looking straight down at the ground. Kris put one hand on each of Adam's shoulders and turned him so they were face to face. He waited a moment, then another, and then was finally rewarded for his patience when Adam looked up at him. Kris smiled. "They're gone, Adam. You're fine."
The tears at the corners of Adam's eyes nearly did Kris in, but he pulled in a deep breath and repeated, "You're fine. You're okay, Adam."
Kris felt a hand on his own shoulder. He turned his head a little to find a concerned Gabriel standing by. "What can I do, Kris?"
"I want to go home," Adam said softly. "Kris, can we go home?"
"Yes," Kris replied. "Of course we can."
"Where's your car, Kris?" Gabriel asked. "Mine is in a lot just around the corner."
"Mine is a few blocks away."
"I can drive you to yours."
"That would be awesome," Kris said gratefully.
Gabriel pointed to the right. "It's just this way."
Kris nodded. "Ready, Adam?"
"We're going home?" The hope in Adam's voice was palpable.
"We're going home," Kris confirmed.
Gabriel started walking in the direction he had pointed.
Kris dropped his hands from Adam's shoulders, but immediately took one of Adam's hands in his own. "Gabriel's going to take us to the car, okay?"
Adam nodded and let Kris lead him down the boardwalk, through an alley, and down a small side street to the lot which held Gabriel's car.
After Gabriel unlocked the door, Kris hustled Adam into the back seat, then made to let go of Adam's hand to get into the front seat. Adam held tight to Kris's hand, however. Kris apologized to Gabriel for making him act as a chauffeur, but explained that he should probably stay close to Adam until he was calmer. Gabriel simply nodded and wasted no time starting the car while Kris settled into the back seat next to Adam.
Even as Kris directed Gabriel to where his car was located, he kept most of his attention on Adam.
Adam was sitting with his eyes shut, one hand still gripping Kris's, the other clenched in a fist in his lap. He was murmuring something under his breath, and when Kris leaned in close, he was able to catch what he was saying. "Going home, going home, going home."
The words tore at Kris's heart. He could not even imagine what kind of damage the events of the day had done to Adam. And though the boys on the boardwalk had been the instigators, no one was more responsible than Kris. Kris had done this. He would never forgive himself.
When they got to Kris's car, it took Kris a couple moments to convince Adam to get out of Gabriel's car. When Adam was at last settled in the passenger seat of Kris's car, Kris thanked Gabriel profusely for his help.
Gabriel shook his head. "It was no problem. I wish there was more I could do."
Kris glanced back over his shoulder to where Adam sat rigidly in the car, eyes shut tight. "Me, too."
"I hope he'll be okay," Gabriel went on to say. "Give me a call and let me know how he's doing."
Kris nodded. "I will." He slapped the bottom of Gabriel's open window. "Thanks again."
When Kris slid in under the wheel, Adam opened his eyes and asked in a plaintive tone, "Are we going home now, Kris? I want to go home."
Kris started the car. "Yes, Adam. We're going home."
Adam nodded. "Okay."
The ride back to the Lamberts' was silent. Kris tried a couple times to engage Adam in conversation, asking him about some of the things they had seen and done at the beach before things had gone so terribly wrong, but Adam was having none of it. He just sat unmoving in his seat, eyes closed again, continuing to mumble under his breath.
When they finally pulled into the drive, Kris said, "Adam, we're home."
Adam slowly opened his eyes, almost as if he was unsure of the veracity of Kris's statement. As recognition set in, he hastily unbuckled himself so he could race from the car to the front door. Kris followed as quickly as he could, arriving at the front door at the same time as Leila did.
Upon seeing his mother, Adam threw himself into her arms and immediately began to sob.
Instinctively, Leila pulled her eldest son close, rubbing her hand up and down his back soothingly, all the while trying to meet Kris's gaze, silently asking what had happened.
Kris didn't even know where to start. He was still sorting through his choices--all unpleasant--when Neil appeared in the foyer. Great, Kris thought. Like he wasn't willing to kick his own ass over this.
"What the hell's going on?" Neil asked, his tone already hostile.
"Uh," Kris began hesitantly. "Things did not go exactly as planned at the beach."
Neil looked from his brother sobbing in their mother's arms back to Kris and said, "By which you mean what, exactly?"
Before Kris had a chance to try to explain, Adam recovered himself enough to begin to share his version of the events. In between hitching sobs and deep breaths, he declared, "The people at the beach were mean."
"Mean, baby?" Leila questioned. "How were they mean?"
Kris didn't know if he'd ever heard pure terror like that which he heard in Adam's voice when he pulled away from Leila to answer. "They trapped me by a wall. They called me names. They said I was stupid and couldn't talk. They called me a fag and a retard. One of them kicked me."
Kris had not known that part, and his shock left him unable to add anything just yet.
Leila was rendered speechless by Adam's account. Wordlessly, she pulled him back into her arms to offer another comforting hug.
Neil moved a little closer to his brother to probe for more information. "Adam, where was Kris when this was happening?"
"Gone." The word felt like a nail being driven into a coffin. Kris's, to be exact.
Neil instantly turned on Kris. "Gone? What does he mean you were gone?"
"I was watching the dog, and Kris left," Adam supplied, trying, Kris knew, to help.
Kris hauled in a deep breath. He'd known this was not going to go well. He just hadn't envisioned it getting this bad this fast.
"You left him?" Leila asked incredulously.
Kris's voice returned to him, though it was rough. He explained, "I was going to get us some drinks. Adam was watching this dog and didn't want to stop. The drink stand wasn't far away, so I let him stay where he was while I went to get the drinks. I ran into this guy I know. We started talking, and next thing I knew, Adam was surrounded by this crowd. It all happened so fast." And it all sounded so lame, so horrible. Kris couldn't imagine how bad this must sound to Leila and Neil.
Adam must have suffered some kind of flashback because all of a sudden, he pulled his mother tighter and began crying again in earnest.
Kris reached a hand out to pat Adam's back. "I am so sorry, Adam."
"Get out," Neil said in a tone so low and calm it very nearly belied how angry he was. Nearly. Kris could see the fury in his eyes.
"I'm sorry?" Kris asked, not quite understanding, even as obvious as Neil's anger was.
"You need to go," Neil elaborated. "Because if you don't, I will not be held accountable for what I do to you."
"Neil, I didn't mean--"
"I don't care what you did or didn't mean to do. You left him alone, and he was assaulted. Now get out. Go home."
"Can I at least…?" Kris gestured helplessly toward a still slightly hysterical Adam.
"No. You've done quite enough," Neil assured him, the sarcasm not at all thinly veiled. "We'll handle things from here."
Kris sighed. There was nothing else he could do, no way he could make things right. Glancing back once again at Adam, he caught Leila's gaze. "I am truly sorry," he told her.
She nodded absently, her attention completely focused on Adam.
With all avenues closed to him save one, Kris turned and, as ordered, left the house.
* * *
Kris called every day. He could tell Leila wanted to forgive him, but each time he called, Neil either answered or, more often than not, took the phone from his mother. Then in no uncertain terms, he told Kris he was not welcome at the Lamberts' for a while. Each phone call was like a tear in Kris's heart.
It was just as well he was promoting a CD and not trying to record one. As it was, his agent and publicist were both pissed at him for suddenly being late for each and every meeting and each and every promotional interview they scheduled for him. He would be getting nothing done if he were trying to write or record.
Sleep was elusive. He spent the better part of each night reviewing the horrible events on the boardwalk over and over, imagining how he could have kept Adam from being attacked, imagining how it had felt for Adam to be attacked.
So went by a week. During the days, he dragged himself to meetings and interviews, pretending to care about his new single. Each night, he relived one of the worst days of his entire life--one he wholeheartedly wished he could erase.
He had moved from his bed to his living room to flip through channels on the television, hoping to find something that would put him to sleep. It had been seven days since the ill-fated trip to the beach. He was exhausted and needed desperately to get a decent amount of sleep instead of the snatches he'd been getting.
He located an action movie he'd seen millions of times and lay down on the couch, closing his eyes to try to focus on the dialogue and the explosions, praying they would lull him to sleep.
The sound of a phone ringing woke him from the much-needed rest he'd managed to start getting. He assumed it was the television and blindly reached for the remote to turn down the volume so he could, hopefully, return to sleep. The phone, however, did not get any quieter. He realized that it was actually his cell phone ringing. He sighed and grabbed it from the coffee table, squinting at the display. Neil Lambert calling. At 3:24 am.
Kris could not hit the answer button fast enough.
"'lo?" He cleared his throat and tried again. "Hello?"
"Kris! Thank God you answered."
"Neil? It's three a.m. What's going on?"
"How quickly do you think you can get over here?"
Kris shot straight up on the couch, already mentally trying to locate his keys. "What's wrong?"
"Adam's freaking out. I can't get through to him. He needs you," Neil explained succinctly.
"I'll be there as quickly as I can," Kris assured him, hanging up and running for his bedroom.
He found the pair of jeans and the t-shirt he'd worn the day before and threw them on. Shoving his wallet and keys in his pockets, he made a run for his car.
Kris made it across town to the Lamberts' in record time, fortunately not getting pulled over by the police in the process.
Leila answered the door milliseconds after he knocked. "Thank God!" she said.
"What happened?" Kris asked hastily.
Leila sighed. "He's been having nightmares every night. Up until now he's let Neil or me calm him down, but tonight, I think it's you or nothing. He's not responding to us at all."
"Where is he?"
"In his room. Neil's up there with him."
Kris took the steps two at a time and ran to the doorway of Adam's room.
Adam was hunched in the corner of the room, his hands over his ears, shaking his head violently. He was repeating the word "no" over and over as Neil tried to approach him.
"Adam, buddy, it's me," Neil was saying, his voice low and soothing.
There was zero change in Adam's demeanor. He continued to shake his head while murmuring, "No, no, no."
"Neil?" Kris said by way of announcing his presence.
Neil snapped his head around. "Oh, thank God."
Kris's gaze moved to Adam, then back to Neil. "So. Nightmare?"
Neil nodded. "He won't let me near him."
"Can I try?"
"Please." Neil slowly backed away from where he was standing to allow Kris to take his place.
Kris moved slowly, trying his best not to startle Adam.
"Adam?" Kris pitched his voice low and soft, just like Neil had been doing. "Adam, it's me, Kris."
Adam stopped the litany of "no"s he'd been saying ever since Kris entered the room. He didn't move, though, maintaining his defensive position.
Kris took it as progress, though, and inched a little closer. Gingerly, he reached out a hand, placing it on Adam's knee. "Adam?"
In a small voice, Adam said, "Kris, they're everywhere. They're so mean."
"The people at the beach."
"Adam, honey, you aren't at the beach. You're at home. You're safe."
"But I could hear them," Adam insisted, still speaking softly. "They were saying mean things about me."
"It was just a nightmare, Adam," Kris told him, gripping Adam's knee tightly since Adam had not pulled away from him, trying to ground him in reality. "You're in your room. There's no one here but you, me, and Neil. Open your eyes."
It took him a moment, but Adam slowly, hesitantly, opened his eyes, gaze instantly focusing on Kris's face.
Kris smiled. "Hey there."
Adam turned his head to take in the scene, looking over at the door, up at Neil, who had moved back in a little as Adam had calmed, then back at Kris.
"I'm at home," Adam stated.
Kris nodded. "You are."
Adam looked back up at Neil. "Hi, Neil."
"Hi, buddy," Neil returned, sighing with relief.
"Is it late?" Adam asked, shifting his gaze toward the window.
"It is," Kris answered. "Think you could get back to sleep?"
Adam shook his head. "I don't want to be by myself."
"Well, how about if I stay with you until you fall asleep?" Kris offered.
"Okay," Adam agreed.
Kris looked up at Neil.
"You got this?" Neil asked.
"I'll just go tell Mom everything's okay, then."
Kris nodded before returning his attention to Adam. "Ready to get up, Adam?"
Adam pushed himself up off the floor, then allowed Kris to guide him back to his bed. Kris straightened out the bedcovers from where they had been twisted during Adam's nightmare, then he urged Adam back under them. When Adam was settled, Kris sat down on the edge of the bed next to Adam's right elbow.
"Tell me a story from Before."
Inwardly, Kris sighed. This was not the first time Adam had requested to hear about something that had happened in the time before his accident. Not close to the first time. It was never easy to do. It didn't matter how much time had passed, remembering what had been and now was gone was still painful.
"It's late, Adam," Kris tried to deflect the request. "You need to get back to sleep."
"Please, Kris?" Adam entreated, his blue eyes glinting, puppy-like, in the moonlight pouring through the window over the bed. "Just one story?"
This time, Kris sighed aloud. "Okay. Just one story. Then you have to go back to sleep."
Adam nodded. "I promise."
"Okay." Kris took a moment to pause and think of a good anecdote to share. It did not take long for several memories to come to the fore. He picked the first one that made him smile. "We were living in the Idol mansion. It was early on. I can't remember who had just left, but Scotty was still there.
"It was after we were all supposed to be in bed with the lights off. If I remember right, we were going to be picking songs the next day. But you couldn't sleep. You were all wired from the results show."
As he spoke, Kris reached out to run a calming hand through Adam's hair. Silently, Adam turned over and offered his back to Kris. Kris took the hint and began to rub gentle circles in between Adam's shoulder blades.
"So. You decided you needed a late night snack, and you talked me into going down to the kitchen with you."
"I like ice cream," Adam commented softly.
Kris smiled. "That's exactly what you looked for when we got down to the kitchen. You wanted French Silk."
"Exactly. And there was some in the freezer. You got that out, but then decided that wasn't enough. You started pulling all kinds of things out of the freezer, the fridge, even the cupboards. Such a hog!"
"You were so loud that you woke everyone up, and they came to the kitchen to see what the racket was."
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Leila peeking into the room. He smiled and nodded to her that everything was all right. She smiled back before walking in the direction of her room. Kris went back to telling his tale. "Turned out they were all hungry, too, and we all had a feast. Ice cream, cookies, chips. You name it, we got it out. Someone even got out everything you needed to make these huge sandwiches.
"At some point, someone found the Cheez Whiz. I don't remember who. Whoever it was, though, started spraying it at everyone. May have been Matt. Seems like something he would do," Kris mused to himself.
Shaking his head with a fond grin, he continued his tale. "It was you, though, who pulled out the whipped cream. It wasn't long before that was all over everyone, too.
"Then it became a free-for-all. Food flying everywhere. Grapes, popcorn, Cheetos, chocolate chips. You name it. By the time we were done, that kitchen looked like a bomb had exploded in it."
"All messy," Adam murmured sleepily.
"Beyond messy," Kris countered. "Even we were a mess, covered with all kinds of food."
"Time for a shower."
"That's exactly what we all said, all at the exact same time. There was a race for the bathrooms. You, with your freakishly long legs, easily beat me to our bathroom."
"Who cleaned the kitchen?"
"No one," Kris answered. "We just left it all messy."
"Someone's going to get in trouble."
"Lots," Kris confirmed. "We all took showers and went to bed. The next morning, it wasn't an alarm clock that woke us. It was the two women who came to clean the house screaming at us to come downstairs that instant.
"We all went downstairs, still in our pajamas, and we all got yelled at for the mess we'd made."
"Did you have to clean it up?"
"We sure did. Every last spot."
Kris was still rubbing gentle circles on Adam's back. "Okay, buddy, think you could sleep?"
"Mmm," was all that came from Adam.
Kris leaned over, brushed the hair from Adam's temple and laid a soft kiss on his forehead. "Night, Adam."
"Night, Kris," Adam mumbled.
Kris pulled the comforter up to Adam's chin, then slipped from the room and headed downstairs.
Neil was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.
"I'll leave now," Kris assured him. "He's about to be asleep."
"No. Wait," Neil urged.
Kris obediently stopped, turning to look at Neil with raised eyebrows.
"I owe you an apology," Neil told him.
Kris stared at him, surprised.
"I should never have asked you to stay away."
"I understand, though," Kris stated. "What I did at the beach was unforgiveable."
"I'm not thrilled it happened," Neil confirmed. "But it wasn't unforgiveable. Adam doesn't blame you. All he remembers is that those guys attacked him. As far as he's concerned, all you did was save him."
"He shouldn't have been alone. That's my fault."
"It's not like you did it on purpose. I may have overreacted," Neil allowed.
"I wouldn't hurt him for anything," Kris returned. "I love him."
Neil smiled. "The feeling's most definitely mutual. He's asked about you every day and wondered why you haven't been around."
"What did you tell him, that the dick who left him alone at the beach wasn't welcome anymore?"
Neil's smile morphed into a smirk. "Something like that. I may not have used the word 'dick.' Except in my head."
"And he bought that?"
"I gave him no choice, but he keeps hounding me to apologize. So, here I am, apologizing."
Kris smiled softly. "Thanks, Neil. That means a lot." He glanced down at his watch. "Wow. It's almost a quarter to five."
Neil sighed. "Yeah. Sorry to keep you out so late."
"No problem. I'm glad I could help."
"Look, Mom's gone back to bed, and I'm exhausted. You must be, too. Would you like to just crash on the couch? I know Adam would love it if you were here in the morning."
Kris contemplated the offer for only a second. He was beyond exhausted. The cumulative effect of stress and not enough sleep were definitely catching up to him. He doubted his ability to drive home safely. "Sure," he responded.
"Great! The one in the family room is the comfiest. You know where it is."
Kris nodded. "I do."
"Make yourself at home. Yell if you need anything, but otherwise, see you in a few hours."
As Neil headed back toward the kitchen, Kris made his way to the other side of the house and the family room.
Once there, he kicked off his shoes, pulled the blanket off the back of the sofa and laid down. He was out like a light in less than a minute.
* * *
Kris awoke to the feeling of being watched. No, stared at.
He stretched his arms up over his head and slowly opened his eyes. He was greeted with the sight of Adam sitting patiently on the coffee table. Staring at him. He grinned when Kris opened his eyes.
Kris grinned back.
"Are you awake, Kris?" Adam asked carefully. "Mama said I couldn't bother you until you were awake."
Kris suppressed a laugh, sat up, and answered, "I'm awake, Adam. Good morning."
"Good morning," Adam returned brightly.
"How are you feeling this morning?"
"I'm okay. I had a bad dream last night," he told Kris seriously.
"Thank you for making it go away."
As if Kris hadn't caused it to begin with. But, apparently, Neil was right about Adam not blaming him. "It was my pleasure, Adam."
"Did you really have to clean up a food fight at that house?"
"Yes. We did. Every bit of food from every nook and cranny. It took us a really long time. We were all late for our rehearsal. Or was it a photo shoot? In any case, all of us, so late."
Adam giggled. "It sounds like fun. The food fight. Not the cleaning part."
Kris smiled, picturing Adam all covered with Cheez Whiz and chocolate syrup. "It was."
"Do you have to work today?" Adam inquired, changing the subject abruptly.
Kris did a quick mental check of his schedule. He had a couple of radio things, but they were in the afternoon. He might even be able to cancel them, if he called Jenna right away. "Not this morning," was the response he gave Adam. "Why?"
"I missed you. You didn't come for a whole week," Adam explained in an accusatory tone. "I counted it out on the calendar."
"I'm sorry, Adam. I felt really bad about what happened at the beach, and I was worried you might not want to see me." That was as close to the truth as Kris was comfortable getting. No matter what Neil said he told Adam, he was only protecting his brother.
"I always want to see you, Kris," Adam assured him guilelessly. "You didn't leave me on purpose. You wouldn't ever hurt me."
"Not in ten million years," Kris agreed.
Adam beamed. "Can you stay for breakfast?"
"I'd love to."
"How about after? Can we do something after?"
"What would you like to do?"
Adam shrugged, though he was quick to say, "Not the beach."
"Okay, not the beach."
Adam paused for thought, then said, "What about the zoo? Mama and I read a book about animals at the zoo. I like the giraffes."
Kris smiled widely. It felt as if balance had been restored.
"Kris?" Adam sounded worried, as if Kris's non-verbal response wasn't quite good enough. "Is that a good idea?"
"It's a great idea, Adam!" Kris enthused. "Why don't you go ask your mom and Neil if they want to go to the zoo?" He was pretty sure they would say yes, since Adam was once again initiating the idea of leaving the house. As long as they were invited, too, of course.
"Okay." Adam got up and raced to the back of the house.
Kris pulled his cell phone from his pocket and pressed speed dial number five. When his publicist picked up, he said, "Hey there, Jenna. Kris here. Can you cancel and reschedule those radio things this afternoon?"
"I have a zoo to visit."
"A zoo. Adam," he added.
"Okay, then. Cancelling. I'll text you with the new times."
He ended the call, then headed back in the same direction Adam had gone just moments before.
As he entered the kitchen he found three happy Lamberts standing around the island, already using a laptop to look up the Los Angeles Zoo.
Coming up behind Adam, Kris put his hands up on Adam's shoulders. "So, I vote for the Reptile House first. Who's with me?"
Adam was the first one to respond. "Me."
End (15 April 2012)