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Chapter 1 – Claustrophobic

Drumming his fingers lightly on his knees, Howie listened to Brian and AJ arguing over the inclusion of a song. Kevin and himself had voted yes, Nick had voted no. His reason? Simply because he didn't sing on it. Normally complacent and easygoing, Howie was unable to hold back the vile thoughts. Egotistical asshole. He still fumed, though no one sitting in the studio office noticed. Kevin kept glancing his way, worry etching his face, but said nothing.

“The song is just too damn slow,” AJ argued against Brian, reaching to cut off the soundtrack Welcome to my Heart. He barely noticed Howie physically wince at the sharpness of AJ’s detest over the song. It wasn’t as if Howie hadn’t poured his entire heart and soul into that piece… No, he hadn’t spent hours agonizing over the beautiful lyrics and soft melodies… He had even sang the majority of lyrics, somewhat proud at how it sounded. For the first time, he enjoyed listening to his voice. He was proud to put his name as the creator of the song. That is, until his band members started to squabble.

"So that's another no, then," Nick said decisively, studiously scribbling on his paper. "The next one on the list has to go on." The tone of his voice made it obvious he expected to get his way. Typical. He sang lead, and--whoopee--he'd played guitar on the track. Would anyone even be able to hear Howie's voice on what little of the chorus he'd sang? Doubtful. Clearing his throat, he pulled his list closer, mentally checking off those of his that had, so far, been trashed.

Assholes, he thought again, this time directing the epithet towards all his band mates. Well, with the exception of Kevin. After all, they were practically in the same situation, only one of Kevin's songs had missed the axe of the others.

“I really liked doing Poster Girl. I think our fans will really enjoy that,” AJ volunteered suddenly as Nick already added his song to their new CD. And Howie had to bite down on his bottom lip to keep from releasing a sharp groan when a chorus of approvals sounded. After all, AJ and Nick sang lead on that song. Why wouldn’t it be immediately approved? Without even having to hear the song again!

"Well, that's a CD full," Brian announced then, cracking his knuckles as he looked down at the sheet. "And we have the list of maybes for b-sides and the like," he went on, despite the audible sigh from his cousin. "We excited?" he asked, glancing around the table.

"Overjoyed," Howie muttered, pushing his chair back. Enough of this shit, he decided, reaching for his jacket.

“What’s his problem?” Nick muttered loudly as Howie stormed out of the executive office.

“He’s just tired. We’ve all been working hard, Nick,” Kevin covered, immediately standing and grabbing his jacket. He knew better than to explain the subtleties to Nick, because Howie would be a good way to his house before Nick would even begin to comprehend the very beginning. So, excusing himself, Kevin raced down toward the parking lot, catching Howie just leaning on the side of the building, his hands folded over his face. Kevin had seen Howie start to decline as the weeks passed by and their first album after a long hiatus was becoming completed. The younger man had tried to hide the darkness, but Kevin knew better. “Hey, D, we were all planning on going out for something to eat. You interested?”

Howie's reply was not immediate. Pulling his hands away, he shook his head almost imperceptibly. "I'm really not in the mood tonight," he said after a moment, his eyes overcast. Looking away from his friend, he set his gaze on the stream of traffic on the highway in the distance. He had to get away. Soon. Suddenly he realized, with startling clarity, what people meant by call of the open road.

“You haven’t really been in the mood for awhile…” Kevin observed somewhat softly, moving to lean against the wall beside his friend. Howie was usually upbeat and so personable, but lately, he seemed to be failing miserably at life. No longer did he laugh at Nick’s stupidity or Brian’s silliness. He hardly even bothered going out to various clubs with AJ anymore, which he had loved to do. Kevin feared, somewhere along the process of becoming a popular singer, the Howie he had come to know and cherish had died.

"I have to get away. Now," Howie blurted, heaving his body from the wall. Kevin caught his arm gently, emerald eyes filled with concern. Shaking his hand off, Howie shook his head. He had hoped he would understand, had thought maybe he wasn't alone in this. "It's just the stress of the new album," he lied, his eyes returning to the highway. "It's been so long, and there's so much pressure that it does well."

Kevin nodded. He could accept that. "So, you getting away has nothing to do with the fact all our songs were sent to the trash in there?" he questioned carefully, twisting the band on his finger almost nervously.

Howie fumbled in the pocket of his expensive jacket for the keys to his car, knowing that he would be going home to pack immediately. He didn’t know where he was going, but what did it really matter? He had nothing holding him back. It would be three months till the album was released in June and who honestly needed him? He had no lover, no wife, no children, no anything. He was alone in the world. Utterly alone. Or at least he had thought so until Kevin reached to grab his arm again. Howie did everything to fend off the touch, not willing to be made guilty for his emotions toward the group. “And if it does?”

Sensing Howie's anger, Kevin released his arm, following him to the rented convertible in the parking lot. "Has it occurred to you that I may feel the same way?" His fingers went to twist the band again.

“You’ve never said anything.”

“Neither have you.”

“And what could I possibly say, Kevin?” Howie rebutted with an exasperated sigh. “I worked so damn hard on those songs! At least you had one accepted onto the album. I had none. I could disappear and no one would even blink twice.”

“Howie…”

"And no one appreciates a thing I do! I'm constantly overlooked. Forgotten. When there's a decision to be made, it's given to them. Their opinion matters more than mine. Why? Is it because I don't hump the stage and act like a sex-crazed teenager? Because I don't have blonde hair and blue eyes and make the girls scream? Or am I not wholesome and sweet enough? What's wrong with me that I'm so forgettable?" Howie's voice cracked, and he was ashamed to feel hot tears spill onto his cheeks.

“Damnit, Howie…” Kevin cursed softly, knowing this had all been building over the years that the group had been together. Howie may have had an extremely sweet disposition, but ignorance could only be tolerated for so long. Kevin knew the pain and sorrow of being overlooked, from the business aspect as well as from a romantic aspect. He had learned to toughen his hide to accept the cruelty. Just watch with baited breath, thanking God for the small opportunities that he did have. But he understood Howie’s misery and could only worry about how far the man would fall. “The industry--”

“Please don’t start on the industry,” Howie choked, tired of the excuses as he wiped the hot tears on his sleeves. “I’m leaving, okay? Three months. That’s all I’m asking for.”

"You shouldn't go alone." Kevin didn't realize he'd said his thoughts aloud until Howie turned to look at him.

"Who am I going to take? Nick? AJ? Not hardly. And Brian's head is too far up his wife's ass."

"What am I? Chopped liver?" A tiny smile hinted at Kevin's mouth, and Howie realized he hadn't seen his friend smile in a long while.

“I don’t know where I’m going.”

“We can figure that out tonight.”

“And leave by tomorrow?”

“Anything you want, Howie.”

“If you’re willing.”

“Yeah, I think we both deserve it.”

*~*~*


"I'm not going to be much fun," Howie said softly, looking out the first-class window of their plane. The clouds were dark around them and he sensed a storm brewing, but he didn’t really care. In fact, Howie figured the plane could go down in flames and he’d probably welcome the darkness. After all, he had been adamant about wasting no time in leaving Florida. Barely giving notice to their band mates, Kevin and Howie had packed their bags and settled onto the plane early the next morning. Their destination was somewhere in North Carolina. Kevin had planned their extended vacation, telling Howie very little. Not that he cared. He just wanted to escape the suffocation and the thoughts of death that haunted him daily.

"Neither am I," Kevin admitted, glancing down at the pale skin on his left hand, where, until earlier that day, his wedding band had been. He was still unsure why he took it off. But it felt right, doing that, and he didn't regret it. Kristin never wore hers anymore, why should he?

"Does Kristin know you're leaving?" Howie questioned, still oblivious to the largest sign of marital discourse represented on Kevin's bare left hand.

"I left a message with her new assistant," came Kevin's murmured reply. It was a fine thing, he mused, accepting a drink from the stewardess, when a man couldn't even speak to his wife on the phone.

Nodding distractedly, Howie gazed out at the dark clouds once more. Hopefully, North Carolina would be a hell of a lot better to him than Orlando had been in the past few months.
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