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Chapter Three

The strangest thing to Amanda was the way Nick would disappear for days at a time without calling or emailing her at all. When she called his cell during those days, it usually went straight to his voicemail. Once, he had answered and the call had sounded tinny and hollow, like he was in a big auditorium or something, and there were a lot of voices talking in the background, like a rumble of thunder.

Whenever she saw him next, too, and asked him where he’d been, his answers were always elusive, adding to the mystery. “Band stuff,” or “just around, you know?” or “I was with the fellas, we had some stuff to do”, or “my phone battery died, sorry” or “bad reception”, “my phone didn’t ring” and once even, “I left it at home.”

The morning that really confused Amanda was the morning when he stood her up for one of their coffee dates. Nick had disappeared, but never on a day when they’d had a plan to meet up. Today, she’d sat in the coffee house for an hour, gone through four espressos, and then stood out on the curb long enough to go through three cigarettes before she called his cell.

“Hey it’s Nick, leave some lovin’.”

“I don’t wanna leave you lovin’ right now,” she grumbled into the phone, “You stood me up, asshole. Call me.”

Amanda had enough time before he returned the call to walk ten blocks back to her apartment, let herself in, make a salad, and seat herself at her desk to work. The computer was warming up when her cell phone vibed and the picture ID she’d set of Nick was smiling at her. She sighed, and answered with, “Well, let’s hear the excuse.”

“I’m sorry, babe,” he said. The background of his phone sounded like he was standing outside of an office in the hallway or something. She could hear phones ringing and general voices. She wondered where he was, but knew if she asked he’d never tell. “Something, uh, came up overnight. I was gonna call you, but-“ he let his voice trail off.

“But what?” Amanda prompted.

He hesitated, “Just – I couldn’t.”

“Oh.” She kept her voice level, but he could tell she was still upset, and probably wondering where he was. He looked around the room he was standing in. Kevin was pacing a few feet away, AJ was playing with the Boggle tiles, trying to make them spell dirty words.

“I owe you, I owe you big,” he promised, “This weekend, we’ll do something great, I promise. I’ll… I’ll…” he racked his brain for some great sweeping gesture he could do for her to make her cheer up. “I’ll walk all the way to Columbia, handpick you some coffee beans, walk home, cut them up in the kitchen and brew them just for you, to make up for today. How’s that?”

“You’re really going to walk to Columbia?” she asked, and he could hear the smile warming her voice, even if it was slightly it was a relief.

“Yes,” he answered, “Across the wild frontiers of Mexico.”

Amanda resisted the urge to either gag or snort at this, then said, “Actually, I’d rather if you rode on a donkey.”

“Oh a donkey!” Nick’s voice was suddenly enthusiastic. “Wait- AJ.. AJ, gimme that a sec.” She could hear paper rustling in the background.

“What?” she was confused.

“Sorry, I had to write that down,” he apologized.

Amanda raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t seriously going to walk to Columbia, or ride a donkey there – you do know that, right?” she joked.

He laughed, “’I’ll explain later.”

“Really? Or are you gonna be all ‘I don’t wanna talk about it’ later?” Amanda asked, mimicking Nick’s mumble almost perfectly.

Nick laughed again, “No, I’ll explain the donkey thing.” Kevin poked him in the shoulder and nodded down the hall. Nick glanced at what he was pointing out, then said, “Look, I gotta go, okay? I gotta move and I can’t be on the phone. I’ll talk to you later. Love ya.” He hung up before she could ask any more questions.

Amanda sighed when the phone went dead, then turned to her computer and got to work.

A few hours later, Nick and Kevin had left to go get some lunch downtown. They were seated at a secluded booth at a dive diner, waiting for their burgers and fries to come out. Nick was shredding their discarded straw wrappers, making them into little pieces of confetti that he piled in front of him on the table. Kevin was working on peeling the label off his bottle of Sam Adams.

After a moment, Kevin looked up at Nick and watched his hair moving as he ripped up the straw wrappers and pushed the little pieces around with his fingertip. “Nick, how are you doing with all of this, really?” he asked suddenly, scrutinizing his youngest band-mate.

Nick looked up into Kevin’s face and shrugged mutely, his finger still absently pushing the confetti piece around. Kevin’s continued gaze prompted him to finally answer, “I dunno. I guess I’m okay. I mean, I’m not great, but I’m alright. That’s probably as good as any of us are.”

“You know Nick, we’re all really proud of how you’re handling all this, especially Brian,” Kevin said, reaching over and squeezing Nick’s shoulder. “I mean, usually by now you’ve run off on us when this sort of thing comes up. It just shows us how much you’ve grown up since last time.”

Nick looked at Kevin’s shoulder. You’re going to be so pissed off when you find out, he thought sadly. But he forced a smile and nodded at Kevin.

“And we all appreciate that,” Kevin added firmly, “Really. We do. We may not always know how to tell you that, but we do appreciate it.”

“Kev?” Nick leaned away and Kevin retracted his arm. “What do you think’s gonna happen to the band? You know – after?”

Kevin frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Nick. But don’t worry about it now. There’s much more important things to worry about right now.”

Easy for you to say, you walked away from the band once, it won’t kill you to do it again. Being a Backstreet Boy isn’t your whole life anymore, the way it is mine… Nick thought bitterly. He looked down at his confetti, and was suddenly overwhelmed with regret for having torn the straw wrappers up. He was flooded with the desire to put them back together again, to weld them into one solid whole. Somewhere inside him he was aware that the things he was feeling had nothing to do with the paper. He sighed and watched the pieces float across the table toward Kevin, carried by his own wind.

“There’s something I gotta show you,” Nick was saying as he unlocked his apartment door a couple nights later. “I’m really excited about this thing I’ve been working on with Brian, and… well it’s the best thing that’s happened since we cancelled the tour,” he said. The door opened and he flipped on the light switch, illuminating the dining area-turned-pinball machine room. “C’mon.”

Nick took Amanda’s hand and led her to the hallway and to his bedroom. She was apprehensive, hoping he wouldn’t try to seduce her. Her mind raced with game plans to get out of having sex with him if it came to that. He opened the door, and ushered her inside.

Even without the lights turned on yet she could tell that some kind of miracle had taken place in the room since she’d last been there. The room was immaculate, right down to the bed was made. In fact, the only sign that Nick had been there at all was the laptop on the desk was glowing.

She migrated toward the window looking over the ocean and watched the waves roll.

Nick turned on the light. “Look.” He said, drawing her attention to the wall behind the door. She turned and gasped. Covering the wall, he had tacked up maps of the states, creating one large map of the country that took up the entire wall. Across it, he had stuck colored thumbtacks, which held up pamphlets depicting different activities. He’d drawn lines across the maps with a sharpie, marking routes and starring things and circling town names. The entire thing looked like an intricate network of planning.

“Wow,” she breathed, looking it over. “That’s… a lot of work.”

Nick nodded, standing beside her and looking it over himself. “Brian and I have been planning it for the last couple weeks,” he said.

Amanda looked at him. “When are you going?” she asked.

“As soon as Brian—“ Nick paused. “Is ready. In like two weeks,” he said.

“Wow,” she said.

Nick turned to her, “Do you wanna come with us?” he asked.

Amanda blinked in surprise, “What? Why would you want me to go?” she asked, confused, “Isn’t this like some male bonding ritual thing?”

“Brian doesn’t want us to go alone, he really wanted me to get Kevin to go, but…” Nick hesitated, “I think Kevin would wreck it worrying.”

“Why don’t you take Brian’s wife?” Amanda asked.

Nick’s hand fluttered to the map of Georgia. “We’re meeting her halfway through it at their house in Marietta, then we’re continuing up the coast here…” he dragged his hand along the line he’d drawn on the map.

Amanda felt her heart pounding in her chest. “I-“

“I understand if you can’t ‘cos of work or whatever, but if you can get the time off… I mean, it’s an all-expenses paid road trip across the country with two out of four – well, kinda five, I dunno what Kev is anymore – of the Backstreet Boy,” he laughed, beaming at her.

“I don’t really care about the BSB part of it, but it would be fun to get to know this Brian character you keep talking about, and to see everything with you. I just have to talk to my boss about it,” she said. But I’m sure Eric will be just fine with it.

Nick grinned.