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[new video from VoicePlay; A Tribute to Layne]

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“Such a talented musician. He was taken too early, and will be dearly missed.”

“Layne was one of my biggest inspirations. He was the reason why I started taking violin lessons, and one of my favourite memories was meeting him in person. Thank you, Layne, for your endless joy and passion.”

“I can’t believe he’s gone. This is such an overwhelming thing to wrap my head around, in my mind he always exists as this lively, enthusiastic, positive person filled to the brim with laughter and love. You are always with us in our hearts, Layne <3”

“He will live on in the music he created, and in all of us.”

-:-

“I’m afraid you only have six to twelve months left to live.”

It was like dropped a hundred feet into hypothermic water. The free fall was terrifying, too fast, the air ripping past like bullets. Then you hit the water and gasp, swallowing in the stinging water. It was like inhaling a sigh, the despair sinking and settling into the pits of your chest, knowing that there’s nothing you can do but curl up and drift away.

Layne wasn’t sure what he had expected. Maybe tears, maybe anger, maybe hysteria.

Instead, he felt nothing.

He heard the words, the single sentence that changed his entire life, and everything in his head went blank. Distantly, he knew that the doctor was still talking, but his head was fogged and that one sentence kept playing over and over in a loop.

“You only have six to twelve months left to live.”

The doctor was looking at him, pity in his eyes, but there was a stiffness to his features that made Layne think that he was just one of too many patients who were told the same thing.

“You’re going to die.”

-:-

Small cell lung cancer.

By the time it was detected and diagnosed, it had reached the extensive stage. What Layne had initially thought was just a lingering cold turned out to be a deadly disease.

He sat on the floor of his kitchen, a cold cup of coffee sitting next to him. Layne didn’t know what he was supposed to do, who he was supposed to tell.

His family first, of course. But then what? His friends? When? Which ones?

Geoff, Eli, Earl, Tony? God, how was he going to break it to them? And what would become of the group, their music?

Layne’s phone rang abruptly, boldly cutting through the stagnant air. He flinched, knocking over the coffee cup and spilling the drink across the white tiles.

He watched it spread over the floor.

What are you supposed to do after the world tells you that you’re going to die?

-:-

“Layne, are we good for another take?”

Layne turned to see Geoff looking at him expectantly. They were in the middle of a video shoot, but Layne’s mind was elsewhere.

Namely, on the infection in his lungs that would suffocate him within the year.

“Yeah… yeah. Go get Eli and we can run it again.” Shaking away the invasive thoughts, Layne tried to focus on the task at hand. As Geoff nodded and walked away to comply with his orders, Layne exhaled heavily. How long could he pretend that everything was okay?

A stabbing sensation in his chest forced him to double over in pain, coughing lightly. Someone’s hand was on his shoulder, steadying him.

“Layne?”

It was Earl. Layne looked up, evening out his breath as best he could as the pain subsided, though it was still difficult to get enough air.

He tried for a reassuring smile. “I’m okay, just choked.”

Earl raised an eyebrow, silently chastising Layne. He seemed to buy it though, as they made their way onto the set together without any further questioning. The rest of the guys were taking their spots, chatting easily.

Nausea rolled in Layne’s stomach, but he couldn’t tell if it was from the disease or from the guilt.

-:-

Needles piercing in his throat. Burrs stuck in his lungs. Copper in his mouth.

It took all of Layne’s energy to stumble across his apartment and collapse on his bed, gasping for breath and coughing hard enough to convulse his entire body.

-:-

They had to keep stopping the shoot because Layne couldn’t make it through an entire take without without either running out of breath or having a coughing fit.

Eventually, Geoff called for a break, seeing as there was no use in wasting time and camera memory. Tony had made Layne sit off to the side, and thrusted a bottle of water into his hands.

“You’re not okay.” It wasn’t a question. Tony knew, and he was daring Layne to lie through his teeth.

It almost worked. “I’m not-“

Tony quirked an eyebrow.

“Okay, it’s not a big deal, it’s just-” Another coughing fit. This one was bad enough that Layne had to physically force himself to breathe afterwards, shoulders shaking.

Another look from Tony.

“Fine. Can you get the guys? They need to hear this as well,” Layne resigned, voice hoarse. Tony’s face took on a concerned expression, but he did as he was told.

When Tony returned with the other three in tow, Layne sighed. What would they think? Was this the right time?

Was there even a right time?

“Layne?” Tony prompted. Layne looked up, not sure how to react to the four of his friends all staring at him in various stages of confusion.

“What’s going on?” Eli asked.

There was no simple answer to that question.

“I have cancer.” He didn’t sugarcoat it, didn’t put it gently. There was silence, all of them trying to absorb the new information.

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Geoff said quietly. Layne smiled weakly, and the utter sorrow in his eyes was all the answer they needed.

“I’m so sorry,” Eli whispered, urging the rest of the guys to mumble similar sentiments.

That was all they could really do, wasn’t it? Be sorry for him, because what else do you say when the person in front of you is dying?

Tony, who hadn’t said anything after the jarring disclosure, simply walked away. Layne put his head in his hands and sighed. Geoff sat down next to him, putting a gentle hand on his back. He could hear his friend trying to comfort him, but he knew it was all performance. This was all one big theatre production, and he was the lead role, destined to die.

He wanted to stay positive, keep it light, but it was hard to see the bright side when they all knew how it was going to end.

-:-

The stage was where they thrived. It was where they could rely on each other, trust each other without fail, knew the show inside and out.

Layne loved the stage. He hadn’t grown up as a performer like the rest of the guys, but they inexplicably belonged on the stage together, making live music in the limelight. There was no feeling that came close to the joy of singing with four of his best friends, the feeling that only grew stronger with each live show.

He hated that he might not have many shows left.

“Thirty minutes until show time!” Geoff announced, bursting into the green room. Everyone was resting before the performance, scattered around the room; Eli and Layne were sharing a couch, Earl was in a chair in the corner, and Tony was across the room on a table. Geoff chose to plop himself between Eli and Layne on the couch, throwing an arm around Eli’s shoulders.

Their pre-show antics were nothing new to Layne, but his attention kept getting distracted by how quiet Tony had been since they all had learned that Layne was sick. His friend had his head ducked down, earbuds in and engrossed in his phone, blatantly ignoring everything around him. Layne hoped this wouldn’t last long.

“Geoff, go bug Earl or something. You’re going to crush me,” Eli complained, squished against the arm of the couch in an uncomfortable position. “My arm is falling asleep.”

“What, you don’t want to cuddle?” Geoff joked, moving even closer. The two squabbled while Earl egged them on, and Layne watched them fondly.

It was moments like these that he treasured, that he knew he would miss the most.

-:-

He had been doing well in the weeks leading up to their performance. Breathing was easier, coughing was less abundant.

It was enough to convince the guys to let him sing with them at least one more time. Layne was positive that he was okay enough to make it through a couple hours of singing, taking his improved health in the past days as a sign that he could do it.

The rush of adrenaline was every bit as exhilarating as he remembered. It was pure happiness to look out on the crowd of people connected by their music, and seeing the looks on his friends’ faces in the middle of a song when they were entirely submerged by the harmonies.

But of course, all good things must come to an end.

They were midway through the first half of the show when Layne felt a sickeningly familiar twinge in his chest. The pain was bearable, so he tried to push past it, wanting to make it at least until the end of the song. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the bright eyes of Eli as he sang the lead solo, as lively as ever. All the guys were revelling in the music, and the last thing he wanted to do was disrupt what might be his last concert with them.

Layne kept going, breath hitching every so often when his body demanded more air, his beat getting more and more erratic. On the other end of the stage, he saw Tony looking him, worry evident on his face.

He almost made it. They were so close to finishing the song, less than a minute to go, when a particularly painful stab in his lungs forced him to stop.

The effect was immediate. Without the supporting beat, the song came to a halt within seconds, replaced by the sounds of Layne coughing weakly. He dropped his mic, causing cacophonous feedback, stumbling as he tried to get to the wing. Someone rushed over to help guide him, and he could hear Geoff apologizing to the confused audience.

Looking up, he caught sight of Tony, barking orders to Eli and Earl with his hand firmly grasping Layne’s shoulder. Between wheezing gasps, he watched his friend alternate between communicating with Geoff, who was still on stage, and tending to Layne. He couldn’t breathe, blood speckling his sleeves, but all he felt was guilt.

This disease was taking everything from him.

Even worse, it was taking everything from the people he loved as well.

Layne looked up at Tony from where he had half-sat half-collapsed onto the floor, holding back emotions he couldn’t release, not when he was backstage at their show, in a theatre full of people. Tony looked back, the sadness on his face shocking Layne for a moment.

“I’m sorry.”

-:-

It had been a while since the last time Layne had taken a day to just watch the world pass by.

He sat next to Tony, watching the waves fold into the sand hypnotically, the sky more blue than he had ever seen before. People milled about, going about their lives and enjoying the beautiful day.

The two of them were very out of place.

Tony was obviously upset, and Layne didn’t know how to make it better. There wasn’t really any way to make it better, but he wanted to. He wanted a lot of things. He wanted to not be sick anymore, he wanted to sing with his friends again, he wanted to tell Tony that everything would be okay and not have it be a lie.

So, he just watched the seagulls fly away in their flocks and try to appreciate what life he had left.

“This is so fucking unfair.”

Layne turned to Tony. His arms were crossed, and the brim of his cap nearly hid the anger in his eyes.

“Why you?” Tony looked so bitter, so lost.

It was such a simple question.

“I don’t know,” Layne said honestly. They had too many questions, and no answers. They were grasping at darkness, blindly reaching for something that wasn’t there.

The silence resumed, and Layne was content in not knowing. He thought that Tony was content in doing the same, but when he glanced back at his friend, he was festering in a cloud of tempering pain. Layne slouched back into the bench, feeling defeated. All he had hoped for was to make sure that Tony’s last memories with him would be good ones, but so far that wasn’t the case.

“Tony?” He asked, not wanting to waste the precious time they had together by being tentative. “Please don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Tony muttered darkly.

Layne sighed. “I know. I don’t know what you’re mad at, but I don’t want you to be mad at all.”

“What’s there not to be mad at?!” Tony exploded, slamming his fists into the decaying wood of the bench. “I’m mad that the world chose you, I’m mad that I can’t do anything, I’m mad that the earth will continue to spin like nothing’s the matter, I’m mad that everything feels fake and forced, I’m mad that I’m going to lose you.”

There were tears streaming down both of their faces, too many emotions to hide from. Tony’s eyes were flicking across Layne’s face, trying to read his expression in vain, shoulders heaving in sobs.

“I want you to live, that’s all I want, but that isn’t up to me. It’s up to fate, and all we can do is hope for fate to take pity on you, on us.” Tony paused just long enough to swipe his wrist along his face, wiping away tears that were quickly replaced. “And hope, hope doesn’t do anything. Hope isn’t going to save you.”

There were too many feelings rushing in and out of Layne, too fast for him to savour each one. A jumble of sadness and empathy and fear, culminating in a suffocating hand that gripped his heart and squeezed, wounding him more than the sickness ever could.

Layne saw the consternation behind all the anger in his friend, saw how beyond the front of strength and aggression there was a man who was hurting. They were extremely close, practically brothers, and one without the other was not a conceivable thought. Tony hiccuped, covering his mouth and looking away in humiliation.

“But if hoping is all we can do, then we might as well do it.” It was a weak argument, but Layne was desperately trying to find something to say that wasn’t depressing or defeatist.

Tony laughed humourlessly, letting himself cry freely. “It just makes us feel something. I think we have more than enough feelings right now.”

He was certainly right about that. The people around them were starting to stare at the two men sitting at the edge of the beach, wondering what sort of hell they were going through.

If only they knew.

-:-

The days meshed together in a flurry of treatments, pain, and anticipation.

What he was anticipating, he did not know.

When he was not curled in bed and coughing up blood and bile, or at the hospital, he was fighting away the fatigue and exhaustion to spend time with the people he loved. He didn’t want to die with regrets, so he tried to consider every day his last. He wanted to be satisfied with how he left, and he did his best to be satisfied with what he did each day, just in case he didn’t get another.

-:-

One day, when he was at Geoff’s house with the guys, he collapsed and began seizing. They brought him to the hospital immediately and stayed in the waiting room the entire time, terrified and agitated.

The tumours were spreading. He was getting worse.

Time was running out.

-:-

The doctors told him that they had to keep him at the hospital. They sent him to intensive care and rarely let him out of the bed, leaving him to a blank white room on most days.

He hated it. He felt like he was rotting away in a cage, doing nothing but waiting to die. He wanted to go out and explore the world while he still could, just one last time. Memories of spring and the ocean and music hit him sporadically, and he often found himself crying to his stiff pillow.

It was better when his friends visited. His family was trying to fly in to see him, but there were complications with the airline. Geoff, Eli, Earl, and Tony came in whenever they could, sometimes alone, sometimes with each other.

Tony visited the most. He seemed to understand that Layne really didn’t want to be alone, so if he had even a spare minute, he would come to the hospital and sit next to him. He would talk until the roughness of his voice matched that of Layne’s, or bring a movie to watch together, or simply take up residence against the bed and doze.

Layne didn’t care what they did, he only cared that Tony was giving up his own freedom to be there with him.

-:-

“Hey, Layne.”

The four men sat in a line of plastic folding chairs, next to the hospital bed containing their friend. Layne smiled, a genuine smile that reached his eyes, the kind of smile he always had ready because he was Layne, and he was so full of joy and kindness and goodness that it burst out of him from the seams.

Time was leaking away, spilling out from between their fingers and disappearing into fine smoke. It was an unspoken fact, evident by the shadows beneath Layne’s eyes, the rattle in his chest, and the gauntness of his physique. And yet, he was as lively as ever.

“Earl, Tony, Geoff, Earl,” he jubilantly greeted each of them, straining to even sit up. A long day of treatments and falling victim to the repercussions of the illness rendered him somewhat disoriented, but nothing could prevent him from being with some of the people he loved most dearly.

“How are you feeling?” Eli asked, more out of formality than anything. They all knew the answer, and it wasn’t a nice one.

“Terrible,” Layne admitted, “but nothing I can’t handle.”

Even on the brink of death, Layne was ever optimistic. Geoff choked back a sob mixed with a laugh, heart wrenching at the sight of his friend looking so frail and helpless. Helpless was exactly the right word; Geoff felt more helpless than he had ever felt in his life, knowing that there was nothing at all he could do that would change the outcome of the situation. He just had to go along, swept up in whatever life had to offer, and deal with the tragedy that turned out.

Because that’s what this was, right?

A tragedy.

“I really love you guys, you know that don’t you?” Layne said suddenly, cutting off the mild conversation.

Tony was stricken at the pensive expression Layne was showing.

“Don’t start saying things like that,” he begged, voice thick with emotion. “Don’t start acting like this is it, like this is the end.”

Huffing gently, Layne shook his head apologetically. “Sorry, sorry. I just want you to know. It’s all I can do, really. When there’s no one to talk to but myself, I look back on the carefree times. The good things.”

Earl’s head bowed, and Eli put a hand on his shoulder. Layne tilted his face towards them but couldn’t find it in himself to feel sorry for his friends. He was tired of feeling sorry, of feeling guilty, of feeling sad.

He saw death, saw it tapping politely at the door, saw it regard him with hesitant pity. Death, death was nothing sad. He wasn’t caged, there were no steel bars holding him down. No, his prison had been broken away, opened through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell.

Love still thrived, like plants bursting up between cracks in the concrete to reclaim their soil and their sky. He who doesn’t have that remains in death, but where sympathy springs up again, life springs up again.

Layne had love. Enormous, bountiful, surplus amounts of love.

“I’m proud of us,” he said softly. Everyone looked at him, not knowing what to say in response.

He steadily met their gazes, and for a moment he was his old self. “You are four of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, and I’m so lucky to have known you, let alone be friends with you.”

“No, Layne,” Tony interrupted. “It’s us, we’re the lucky ones.”

There was no room to argue. Layne just smiled and moved on. Rather than battling over semantics, Layne filled the atmosphere with more than a few laughs and tears. They recounted their first impressions of the others, their favourite memories, funny stories that popped into mind, things they accomplished that they never even considered possible within their lifetimes, the best parts of each other that they never found time to say before.

When Geoff recalled a particularly silly skit that they used to perform, and everyone was doubled over in mirth, Layne felt his chest become lighter than it had been in months.

“I miss performing.” He closed his eyes, hearing the laughter taper off as the mood shifted. “I’m sorry I can’t keep making music with you guys.”

“Layne…” Tony exhaled, unable to depend on his voice to make it through the next sentence without breaking down.

Eli took over, giving Tony a melancholic look before addressing Layne. “You will always be with us, with every single song we sing.”

-:-

They stayed all night.

It was unquestionable, they all knew that one night without sleep was a small sacrifice for more time with each other.

“Keep the group together. For my sake, if nothing else.”

Layne kept catching them off guard. It shouldn’t have been so unexpected, it was the topic that they had been dancing around for months, nobody willing to touch on the subject first. He was always the fearless one.

“I know that it won’t be easy, both you and the fans are going to need time,” Layne said, watching four expressions shift in unison.

“We’ve been singing with you since middle school,” Earl said quietly. “We can’t just find a new beatboxer that easily, and it’s going to be too different. We won’t be VoicePlay anymore.”

“It’s selfish of us to quit, though,” Geoff interjected, though he looked just as distressed about the idea as Earl was. “We have to keep the fans, keep Layne in mind. This isn’t just for us.”

“Besides, I’ll always be with you, like Eli said.” Always smiling, always Layne.

Earl smiled back, but not quite as brightly. “Yeah. You will.”

A burst of coughs wracked Layne suddenly, then left as fast as they came. His hands trembled lightly, but he took a deep breath and regained his composure with as much grace as he could muster. Tony handed him a glass of water, and both of them found a sense of deja vu to when they had first learned about Layne’s sickness.

As he drank, he heard Eli clear his throat. “Okay, no more talk about what the future might look like. That can be done later.”

“I love working on new video ideas with you guys,” Tony said suddenly. He looked around at them, shrinking away slightly when he saw them all looking right back.

“I love… meeting the fans after shows,” Eli offered slowly, catching on to what Tony was trying to say.

“I love having fun and goofing off on shoot days,” Earl added.

“I love travelling around with y’all,” Geoff grinned.

“I love performing on stage all together.”

“I love bursting into song at the most random times.”

“I love learning the choreography for a ridiculous video.”

“I love failing at the choreography for a ridiculous video over and over.”

 

“I love reading the comments on our videos.”

“I love exploring new places with you guys on our days off.”

They only stopped when a nurse tapped on the doorframe. She was about to say something when another nurse came up and whispered into her ear. The guys all waited expectantly, but she only dipped her head apologetically and closed the door gently.

In a blank white room that bent the rules of life and death, Layne took in the sight of his friends. If there was any memory he could take with him when he was gone, it would be the five of them. As long as they were with him, he was happy.

“I love you all.”

-:-

“This isn’t goodbye. We will meet again.”

-:-

They were allowed to see his body before they buried him.

The day after they had all visited, he drifted away in his sleep, the first true peace he had been given in months. Geoff, Eli, Earl, and Layne’s family had already gone in one-by-one to say their last goodbyes. Tony was the last to see him, but he couldn’t bring himself to even enter the room that the body was in.

He lingered just outside the door, fingers twitching and anxiously pulling at his sweater. The rest of the guys had stayed, watching him hover in agitation.

“Tony… You need to go in,” Eli said. His eyes were red and his face was tear-stained, and he shared a solemness that they all held in their hearts. Eli was doing what he could to hold himself together for Tony’s sake, but all of them were moments away from breaking down into each others’ arms.

There was an overwhelming urge to give in to the loneliness and just walk away. He could pretend that his friend’s corpse was not lying in the next room, try to run away from the crushing sorrow that was chaining his limbs. It would be so easy to ignore it and let it all rot away in the past, but he also knew that if he didn’t do it now, he would regret it for the rest of his life.

“I don’t want to,” Tony mumbled, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall. He could feel tears already slipping down his face, but he didn’t have the energy to wipe them away this time.

He felt Eli’s hand on his shoulder. “I know. None of us did. It’s painful to see him, but you have to if you want any sense of closure. You were there for him in life, now you need to be there for him in death.”

When Tony opened his eyes, all he saw was the pure grief within Eli, manifesting in his open crying. There was a standstill.

“Thank you, Eli.” With an appreciative nod, Tony turned and entered the room.

There was no dramatic bursting into hysterical sobs, there was no rush of relief from facing his fear. There was just the buzz of the fluorescent lights as they reflected off Layne’s pale skin, illuminating his body in a sickly off-white glow.

Frost crept between his fingers, and Tony felt the icy chains wrap around him once more. Slowly pacing towards the corpse lying on the table in the centre of the room, he thought that he might shatter at the sight of his friend, might crack apart from being forced to acknowledge that Layne was dead.

“What the hell am I supposed to do without you, Layne?”

-:-

Tony remembered the funeral in vivid detail.

Everyone always said that things would blur when sadness overtook the mind, but Tony discovered that all it did was sharpen everything until it was painful to even exist in reality. He stumbled through the funeral, every single person he talked to receiving the same tight-lipped half-smile and practiced phrase, then ran from the venue the first chance he got.

All he could do was try to cope.

-:-

“I miss you, Layne.”

They stood around his grave. The rock that was plunged into the soil, the soil that contained what was left of their friend.

Geoff sat down, and the other three followed suit, sitting in a semi-circle around the grave. The ground was freshly turned, the headstone clean. It felt like he had been gone for too long already.

It was almost cruel. Time had sped by when it was all they needed, and now it was taunting them with its lethargy.

-:-

“I didn’t know that you were the part of my life I couldn’t live without until you faded away and left us. I could say all the usual stuff, how your light will never go out and your spirit will never die, but it won’t change the fact that you’re dead.

“It’s… my mind won’t let me comprehend the fact that you’re actually gone. I think that if I were to fully think about how I will never get to see you, hear you, talk to you again, it would hurt so much more. Everyone keeps telling me to talk to somebody about this, but even accepting the fact that I’m not okay means that I’m accepting your death.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come here just to talk about myself. I hope that wherever you are, you’re happy. As happy as you were on earth, the way everyone remembers you being. The man we all looked up to, the one who had all the answers, the one with enough pure, fierce kindness in his soul to light up the world.

“I wish I could say more. I wish I could… I don’t know, bawl my eyes out, or be glad that you’re at rest, or angry with myself for not catching it sooner. For failing you. For not being able to do more than hope.

“Anyways. You really meant a lot to so many people. To me. People who have never even met you, they remember you and they love you.

“I’ll leave you alone soon, I promised the guys that I’d meet them tonight. We miss you, and I don’t think the feeling of emptiness is going to go away any time soon. This is the part of the tragedy that you don’t see I guess, the part after the curtains close and the audience leaves, but the heart insists on grieving.

“I’ll see you again, Layne. Thank you for the music.”

-:-

A young man kneels beside a headstone littered in flowers, candles, and letters. His eyes hold a pain that many have shared before him, but stings just as sharply each time. The small flames skim around the man, shedding a warm glow over the grave, sheltering it from the coldness of the night.

When his tears begin to threaten the sanctity of the candles, the man backs away from his friend. Gently, he places a violin and its bow, both polished and rosined until they gleamed, reflecting the golden firelight on the beautiful wooden surface of the body.

Life floods into the cemetery, an aura of contentment and peace billowing like a silk scarf around the grave.

Satisfied that his friend’s spirit was wrapped in love and warmth and happiness, the man turned and walked away into the distant night.