The phone call was less of a shock and more of a sudden void – an emptiness – or a complete loss of oxygen in the air. He couldn't bring air into his lungs. He just could not breathe. Frozen with pinpricks of chilling ideas slithering up his spine. Tremors. Aches and twists of nerves in his wasteland of a stomach.
“Frank? What's going on?”
His mouth hung open slightly, unable to form any response. The only answering sound was his phone slipping out of his trembling grasp and colliding with the floor of the bus.
“Frank, who's on the phone?”
He finally sucked in a shaking breathe, staring at Matt looking concernedly at him. No. No.
“Matt. Mattie. They...” he gasped out.
“They what? Who what?”
“J, she and the kids – fuck, I'm – I can't,” he choked, still trembling, and turned to steady himself on the counter, barely able to stay upright, his legs giving out.
“Frank, seriously, tell me what's going on?” Matt had raised his voice, clearly alarmed, which drew out Evan from the bunks. It was pretty early to be up while on tour – 10AM – and he was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he ventured out in his sweats.
“What's going on out here?”
“Frank got a call, but he hasn't told me what the hell is going on yet.”
Evan stepped closer and set his hand on Frank's shoulder, whose eyes were wide and afraid.
“Frank, what happened?”
“It was my mom. My mom called me. She's at the hospital right now,” he gasped quietly.
“Is she okay?”
“Yeah, she's...she's fine. It’s Jamia and the kids.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“They were...” He paused on a sob. “They got in an accident.”
“How bad is it?” Alex asked cautiously as he made his way out of the bunks.
Frank stayed quiet for a minute, pushing his face into his hands with his elbows digging uncomfortably into the kitchen counter as he let out a soft sob.
“Kids are okay,” he said as he dragged his hands down his face. “Jamia, though... Jamia's. She's. Jamia's in critical condition.”
More silence filled the bus.
“I'm calling my mom,” Evan told them on a shaky breathe, disappearing into the bunk area again.
“I'm telling Kevin to turn around. We're going home,” Alex said and walked towards the driver's compartment. Frank nodded and just tried to breathe.
Matt stood there for a moment before moving towards him. “C'mere, man,” he said and pulled Frank into a hug.
Frank clutched him tightly, on the verge of sobbing right onto his shoulder. Fuck. He hated being so emotional in front of everyone. He hated when he forced his shit on them. Sometimes, he didn't understand why they put up with him and his fucked up head. But right now, all he could focus was trying not to break down.
“How'd it happen?”
“Drunk driver. At nine-thirty in the fucking morning,” Frank choked.
“Jesus Christ. God, I'm so sorry, man.”
Frank didn't know what to say to that, so he just pulled away.
“I'm gonna go lay down.”
He pulled the curtain closed behind him when he made it to the bunks and then realized that he'd have to tell Dave, Miles, and Tim that they we're going home as well when he noticed Kayleigh was up. Fucking shit. She was lying in her bunk, staring up at the ceiling until she noticed Frank enter.
“Evan told me what happened. I'm so sor--”
“Please, I just...I need to be alone right now,” he said softly, turning away and pulling himself into his bunk.
“Oh. Yeah, I – I understand.” She went silent, grabbing a sweatshirt before walking out to the kitchen.
When he lied down under the blankets, he curled up into a fetal position and allowed himself to let the tears that had been welling up to escape. He didn't want to sob with the others' sleeping.
Evan's hushed voice seeped through the door to the junk room. Frank wished he could hear what he was saying, but at the same time, he didn't. Maybe he could pretend for a little while that he never had gotten that phone call, and this was just a normal day on tour. He focused on the soft snores around him and the sound of coffee brewing through the curtain and did just that.
“Should I tell him?” Frank suddenly heard clearly from Evan. That shook him out of the momentary facade. What kind of selfish prick was he for pretending everything was okay? But again, at the same time, he wanted to beg Evan to not tell him. But he wanted to hear more, too. He wanted someone to just keep talking about it because he couldn't get it out of his head.
He wanted to punch something. He wanted to scream and sob and curse whatever higher being there might be. He wanted to hold the love of his life in his arms and kiss her until he could finally breathe again.
Jamia's in critical condition, Frankie, his mother's voice echoed in his head. Miles' re-fractured his arm where it broke at Easter time. The girls are fine except for some bruises. But Jamia... She has serious head trauma. I'm so sorry, honey.
He's never felt like a shittier father or husband. They were suffering – Jamia was laying in a fucking hospital bed – and he was out on the road.
His girl, fuck, his wife, the love of his fucking life, and he wasn't there. He tried to trace back the last thing they said to each other, the last time her kissed her, the last time he saw her smile, the last time he made love to her. They were on the phone just last night after the show, and he had told her about this sandwich shop they found down the block from the venue and how it had the best fucking sandwich he's ever had in his life, and how Evan spilled his Coke on his pants and had to walk by the line of fans to get to the bus to change. How he met this one fan who made patches for everyone and said this one thing that's been resonating in his mind for hours.
She had told him how Lily got a perfect on her spelling test, and how Miles found a frog in the yard and named it Booger, which Lily and Cherry hated but Miles thought was the funniest thing ever. She told him how her and Shayna went to see this new band at the Loop Lounge and thought they were so fucking good; that they needed to see them together sometime when he was home.
He's never wanted to be home more in his life. Of course, there was guilt gnawing at the back of his mind because of what going home now meant. He had to cancel the rest of the shows for the tour, which meant letting the fans down. Fuck, he couldn't do anything without letting someone down. It felt like Australia all over again, except he was on the other end. But this was so much more painful. This fear and pain was blinding and deafening and overwhelming every single sense he had. His family was hurt, and that was more agonizing than anything else in the entire fucking world.
The last time he kissed her was after the show in Pittsburgh. That was weeks ago, but it was still a crystal clear moment in his head. As usual, he had disappeared backstage after the band left the stage, but that time, he wasn't alone. There was a dark, secluded hall off the main corridor that he and Jamia were hidden in where he held her tightly, craving her presence, knowing he wouldn't have this again for a while. This moment was a familiar one, and he knew how to make the most of it; how to make it all feel a little better.
He had his mouth traveling across the smooth, pale skin of her shoulder, continuing upwards to press open-mouthed kisses along the column of her throat. Her fingers were entwined with the long, dark strands of his hair, but there was no pulling or yanking. Just soft, comforting strokes over the nape of his neck. No urgency. This wasn't about desperation or sex, though he was half hard from the exhilaration of performing. He just wanted – needed – to show her how much he would miss her. Not that he really had to. She knew. She always got it.
After leaving a number of wet kisses on her jaw and cheek, he shifted towards her lips until they were met with his. They kissed leisurely for a while with just a hint of tongue, and it was perfect. It felt just as perfect as it had every single time their lips met for the past fifteen years. It felt like home; like all he ever needed.
She was the one who broke it, catching her breath and leaning her forehead against his before meeting his eyes. He couldn't help but have a fond grin spread across his lips. She stroked his cheek and sighed in response.
“We should probably go find everyone. You did agree to have a beer with Derek, y'know.”
“Mm. He'd understand if I canceled for this particular reason.” He stole another kiss. “Now I just wanna go home. Just tonight. Maybe I'd be able to make it.”
“Your next show is in Ohio. You wouldn't.”
“Shit. Yeah. You're right.”
“Always am. You'd think you'd have that figured out by now.”
“I have. Just had a temporary loss of common sense from how fuckin' much I wish I could just ride home with you.” He pulled her into a hug, burying his face into her neck.
“I know,” she replied, still brushing her fingers through his hair. “But you know that'll pass, too.”
He stayed quiet after that, just slowly stroking her back and breathing in the good-smelling shit she always puts in her hair to smooth it down. She was right about that, too. Of course she was. She fucking knew him.
“I love you. So fucking much.”
“I love you, too.”
* * *
“We'll be in Jersey in a half-hour,” someone called through the curtain. Frank didn't respond. It was evening, and he still hadn't risen from his bunk. His throat was hoarse and lips were cracked from not eating or drinking anything but the tea he had sipped when taking his medication that morning. The tears that continuously escaped onto his cheeks aided in the dehydration as well. One side of him wanted to disappear. The other side was shouting at him to stop being such a fucking pussy.
But he did neither; not because he consciously didn't want to do either, but because he's always been an indecisive fucker when it came to what and who he wanted to be. He didn't know what the right thing to do was and simultaneously felt helpless along with it.
This entire day has just been him and his thoughts, and yeah, he knew that combination was toxic, and Jamia would definitely tell him so, too, but he realized a few things. He realized that even when he got there, he wouldn't be able to do a goddamn thing.
He'd received another call from his mother about an hour earlier, and she had relayed what the doctors' had informed her. Jamia was in a coma. Jamia had brain damage. Jamia might not wake up.
Helpless, he thought as a sob threatened to erupt in his throat.
His mother's words made his chest pound and ache excruciatingly.
“Frankie, it'll be okay. We'll figure it out. The doctors' know what they're doing. She's gonna be okay,” she had reassured him over and over. He had agreed with her halfheartedly just to get her to stop. Did he really believe it? No. His soul was eternally pessimistic and therefore conjured up all kinds of morbid possibilities that ended in endless pain and heartache.
He'd also realized that he'd been with J so long that he didn't know how to live a life without her presence alive beside him or alive in his heart. If it ever got to that point. Which, fuck, he didn't want to even consider.
He was weighing whether to call his mom again or not, just out of a compulsive nature to see if anything has changed, when Evan pulled the curtain away and entered the dark domain he was being absorbed in. Only dim light filtered in through any open windows from how long they had been driving.
“Hey, man. I brought you a beer.”
Frank rolled over to face him. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Alright.” He set it down and leaned back against the bunk behind him as he clutched his own. “How about water?”
“No, seriously, I'm fine.”
“No, seriously, you need to get something in your stomach.”
“I've got pills and tea in my stomach. I'll probably barf up anything else.”
“What'd you take?” Evan suddenly moved towards him concernedly, searching for stray opioids, probably.
“Relax. Just the usual this morning.”
“What the fuck; that was hours ago. I'm getting you some fucking Scooby Snacks.”
Frank didn't argue when Evan came back with a baggie of Scooby Snacks and a water bottle. He couldn't say no.
Evan lingered with his arms crossed against his chest as Frank crunched tediously on the cookies, and Frank couldn't help but feel strangely like he was a vulnerable little kid being monitored by his parent. The vulnerable part wasn't far off.
“J's tough, you know,” Evan said after a while. “She'll pull through.”
“No shit, she's tough. She fucking knows everything. And she's not afraid to kick my ass.”
“I'm not afraid to kick your ass.” Evan raised his eyebrow.
“Shut up.” Frank grinned minutely at him which was easily returned.
“But I want you to listen to me. The kids'll be okay and so will she.”
Frank went silent again and brought the water bottle to his lips, quenching his dry throat.
“Don't do that.” Evan took a swig of beer.
“Don't do what?”
“Get all quiet when you're being a pessimistic little shit. Stop it.”
“My mom called earlier.”
“I heard you talking.”
“I'm guessing you already know.”
“The...the brain damage. The coma.”
“Yeah,” Evan said as he looked down. “I do.”
“And you're still that hopeful?”
“Gotta keep the faith, right?”
“Faith isn't going to help me explain what's going on to the kids,” Frank bit back in a muted tone.
“But it'll keep you from becoming bedridden and mute while your family is trying to get through this.”
“If you came in here to lecture me on how much of a pussy I am, then I don't need your damn company.”
“I'm not lecturing you. I'm reminding you of how you get if you don't fight it. You withdraw. You don't tell us what the fuck is going on in your head. And that's dangerous.”
Frank lay back and refused to meet Evan's eyes. He wasn't wrong, but Frank had too much pride to admit that. All the Nestors were perceptive as hell, and he was sure it would be the death of him. More so his dignity.
He's never been the kind of person to effectively cope with painful emotions, let alone talk about them to others. Sure, he can dispense the essence of his soul through his work, but that requires some deciphering on the consumer's part. He's a straight-to-the-point kind of guy a lot of the time, but when it comes to inner conflicts, it's just not that simple.
Sometimes that quality was to blame for the destruction occurring within him. And over the thirty five years he's experienced, he's found that the best remedy is creation. Not even just music, though; Miles, Cherry, and Lily were the most spectacular creations he's ever been able to call his, and he didn't even feel justified to take much credit. Jamia was really the one who did the most work, and of course, she did fucking amazing. They made these three little people together – the best people in his entire world.
Jamia's given him all of the best parts, best moments, and the best life he could've had.
Jamia's in critical condition.
“Frank?” Evan broke him away from his thoughts.
“I know. But what else am I supposed to do right now other than wait?”
“Wait with us. We gotta be there for each other. We have your back, man. You know that.”
Frank hesitated, running a hand through his hair after sitting up.
“Alright,” he agreed quietly and slid off his bunk.
The bus felt much emptier with one less band inhabiting it. Everyone from Dave Hause and the Mermaid had been dropped off at an airport nearby, insisting they should get home and let Frank to his family as soon as possible. Everyone aided with their gear of course, and thankful goodbyes were exchanged. Dave has always been a great friend to him – inspired him and made him laugh. Always listened and put in a witty word or two while he drank his tea while everyone else had their beer. Frank respected him and his art. And his sobriety. He's seen firsthand how difficult it is to overcome alcoholism.
Frank hugged them all good-bye outside of the security checkpoint. There was a stark silence among the group who were all usually full of chatter and giggles.
“I'll be thinking of you, man,” Dave said as he embraced him. Frank only nodded jerkily in response. He didn't trust himself to speak.
A while later, Frank stepped off the van and started toward the entrance of Hackensack hospital, Evan at his side.