Nick's house was a flurry of activity as he and CJ stepped from the limo. He had dropped Lexie off at the campus after the flight and watched as she had headed up the stairs to her sorority house.
"Nick, I had no idea you were coming in so late." Cook said, picking up CJ as she ran to her.
"I know, I know, but it's the only way I can settle everything with the union tomorrow to get this show on the road." He said, kissing the older woman on the cheek like a dutiful son. "Mom here?"
"No, no. She left hours ago."
"Good, I've got to call Aaron and get this thing rolling." He said as they all stepped into the house.
Nick's tour started like it was supposed to and Lexie settled into to weeks of long days and nights to catch up. All of her professors where very supportive and gave her the extra time she needed to complete the quarter on time. When she dropped her pencil down on her last final before Spring Break, she thought she would cry. It was over, finally over. One more quarter and she was home for the summer.
It had been nearly two weeks since she had spoken to Nick last. She told him to hold off calling until her last final tonight. As she dredged across campus, she hoped he'd have enough sense to wait until morning. Well, luckily Nick did, but Tyler and John didn't.
They were having a party at the house for her and she got to join them via the phone. Her father downloaded pictures and sent them to her and she was able to see them as they ate her cake. She wouldn't be going home this Spring Break, just staying in and recovering. She had set up her schedule for next quarter and it wasn't much easier. One class acceptance depended on her grades this quarter and she was worried about that. It helped that Tyler thought she was utterly brilliant, but John thought she was still his dorky older sister. Her parents were leaving for Paris the following week and the boys were going to John's for the 9 days.
The phone rang early the next morning and Lexie was still in bed when she answered it.
"Hello?" she asked groggily.
"Lexie!" an excited little girl's voice yelled, "It's me, CJ! Oh, and Daddy!"
Lexie couldn't help but let out a croaking laugh.
"Hey, girlie, did we wake you?" Nick asked.
"Yes, but it's all right."
"Did we wake her, Daddy?" CJ asked.
"What? You've got two phones going?"
"Yeah! I'm in the living room and Daddy's in the bedroom. We're in cheeseland."
"Wisconsin." Nick helped her out.
"I thought I heard 'cheeseland'."
"You did." Nick laughed. Lexie laughed with him. "How was your last final?"
"Tough. Mom and Dad called last night. They had a finals party for me. Tyler and John got to eat all my cake." She said.
"Can I have some cake?" CJ asked.
"Yeah, have your daddy talk to my daddy and maybe they'll send us both some from Orlando." Lexie joked.
"Daddy? Will you call Uncle Howie and Aunt Leah?" CJ asked.
"No, honey, Lexie was joking."
"Oh." Was all they heard. Nick started laughing and then he asked, "So, how is your dad?"
"Great, he and mom are going to Paris next week."
"You going out there this week?"
"Why don't you come out here? I can meet you in Detroit; we'll be there Friday. You've never seen a show."
"No, I'm sorry guys, but I'm whipped. If I don't score high enough on last night's final I'll have to reorganize my class load for next quarter."
"Are you sure?" he asked, sounding disappointed.
"I'm sure." She laughed.
"Can't you come here?" CJ asked, both of them forgetting she was there.
"No, honey, Lexie's tired. She's working hard at school." Nick said.
"Can I go see Grandma now?" CJ asked, getting bored with them.
"Sure, hang up the. . ." Nick began, but the receiver went down with a crash. Lexie laughed at that.
"I guess she showed you. Is your mom on tour with you?"
"Just this weekend. She was missing CJ."
"I can understand that."
"I thought you weren't going to miss us."
"I said I'd hardly get the chance to miss you, I'll always miss her." Lexie laughed.
"I waited the allotted two weeks."
"And I thank you. Whenever I get on the phone with you it goes on for hours." she sighed.
"More like circles nowadays."
"I know, how much longer can we talk about the Backstreet Boys and how sad everything is?" She said.
"I didn't realized you felt that way."
"Oh, no Nick!" she said, sitting up. "I love talking to you. You have been the only person who has been honest with me when I ask you about back then. I was just thinking it might be time to make some kind of change."
"Talking to AJ."
"Are you sure?"
"No, that's why I'm still talking to you." She sighed. "You know he never returned my dad's call. Have you heard from him?"
"No, no one has."
"Would it sound trite if I said I was worried?"
"No, not at all. I'm worried, too, but I've got Brian calling and every so often, I call. I know Howie has called a couple more times, but no response." He said, "There isn't anything I can do about it right now."
"One of my sorority sisters said that a tabloid was saying that his wife is dead. That she killed herself." Lexie said.
"You can't believe those rags." Nick said angrily.
"You've seen them, too? I've never paid them much mind. I mean, with my Dad being famous and all. Not to mention my history."
"I've heard the rumors, but I just can't tell you what is true or not. God, I hope not." He sighed. "I didn't mean to snap your head off."
"Naw, it's okay. I'll give AJ a call, maybe he'll respond to me."
"You don't have to."
"I know, but I want to. Maybe I can do something to help." She said.
Lexie hung up the phone and then got up and showered. She took a walk in the morning, got a cup of coffee and a muffin, and walked back to the house. She responded to a few emails and then stared at the phone. She dialed his number, got his voice mail and hung up without leaving a message. She tried several more times, not leaving a message. She tried for two more days and then she finally left a message. One she had rehearsed in her head the entire time.
"AJ, this is Lexie. I. . . (deep breath) I didn't know if I should call or not. AJ? Everyone is worried about you. You haven't returned anyone's calls. Nick and Dad are both waiting for your call. Nick told me Brian has been leaving messages, too. AJ? I hope everything is all right. Please call someone."
She hung up. She should've called dad 'Howie' instead of Dad. Well, Howie was her dad and AJ knew that. It was too late when Lexie realized she didn't leave a number for him to call her, but she hoped he'd call Dad, Brian or Nick. He'd call them before her anyway.
AJ played the message repeatedly. "AJ, this is Lexie. . ." and it was like a beacon in the long night. He didn't deserve her concern. He didn't deserve anything that resembled kindness from her after what he had done. Should he call her back? She hadn't left a number. She didn't want to talk to him, just for him to call the guys. He looked up at the coffee table and half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's. He looked around the dark dingy hotel suite. That bottle wasn't making this any better.
The only piece of sunshine he had in his entire life was asleep across town at his mother's house in the care of a nanny. Now that Suzanne was gone, what was he going to do? He felt his stomach begin to churn.
Not again, he sighed.
The sounds in the bathroom of his own vomiting rang in his ears, the sights and smells overwhelmed him. What was he going to do? Where was he going to find help? He needed help and he realized that. He sat on the floor, barely having the strength to wipe himself off. The silence was deafening. He reached for the phone in the bathroom and dialed a familiar number. A warm and friendly voice answered from his past.
"Hello?" the man's voice laughed.
"Brian?" he croaked.
"AJ? Man, where the hell have you been? What the fuck is going on? Bro, talk to me."
"Help me, Brian. Please, please help me." He cried into the phone as he sat on the bathroom floor, unable to say much more.
Brian couldn't get to Orlando fast enough, so he called Howie. Howie was pounding on AJ's door within 20 minutes of AJ's call. The manager unlocked the door and AJ looked up from the bathroom floor. He was covered in his own vomit and blood. He looked up to see Howie standing in the doorway. It was like the present melted away and he was staring at a blurry vision.
"Howie? D? Is that you?" he asked.
"It's going to be all right AJ. It's all right. . ." He murmured to his friend.
Howie got a damp wash cloth and began to clean him up. He got AJ up, sitting on the edge the tub, and pulled AJ's sports coat and shirt off. AJ offered no resistance as Howie stood him up and stripped him down. Howie filled the tub and got a shivering AJ in it, scrubbed his hair and pulled all his earrings out. He handed AJ a loaded toothbrush and ordered him to brush. Howie wrapped him in a plush hotel robe and sat close by as AJ shaved his entire face clean, removing a years' old goatee. It took about 5 years off his face.
Howie sat AJ down in front of a full lunch that Leah had made in the suite's kitchen. He shoved the plate away, but Howie pushed it back.
"Eat it." Howie ordered.
"I can't, I can't eat. I'll just throw it up." AJ whined.
"Maybe if you took these more regularly, you'd be better off." Leah said, plopping some medication in front of him.
AJ took a swipe at them, accidentally backslapping her. Howie grabbed him by both arms and yanked him to his feet. "Don't you ever treat my wife like that!" Howie growled.
"I’m sorry, D. Leah, I'm sorry." He cried, crumbling to Howie's feet in tears.
Howie and Leah put AJ to bed after AJ's doctor gave him a sedative. Howie sent Leah home as he sat and waited for Brian. Brian arrived a few hours later from Kentucky, before AJ woke up.
"Howie, I'm so glad you could make it." Brian smiled as he carried his bags into the hotel suite.
"I'm glad you called me."
"How is he?"
"Sedated. He's in bad shape."
"I figured." Brian sighed, turning to face Howie.
"Did you call Nick? I got hold of Kev, he's on his way from London." Brian asked.
"No, I thought we should wait. He's in Wisconsin on tour. He'll be on the road for weeks, months still." Howie sighed.
"Its good to see you're doing so well." Brian nodded. "Leah and Nick kept us pretty up to date on your progress. Them and Kelly, your assistant at SDR."
"Yeah, thanks. I got treated early for the stroke. My left leg still gives me some trouble, but I'm fully recovered." He said, "Modern treatments are amazing these days. Years ago, something like this would've killed me. So, what did AJ say when he called you?" Howie asked.
"He just kept asking me to help him and crying."
"He had puked on himself. He was a mess." Howie said. "Do you know what's been going on? I know Suzanne had readmitted."
"No, the rumor is that she killed herself in the hospital. Where is Alex?" Brian asked.
"I have no idea. He's not here." Howie shrugged.
"How is Lexie? Is she fully recovered, too?"
"Yes. She's staying on campus for Spring Break. She had a huge catch up job since she got started late." Howie said.
"It's amazing what she did for little Alex." Brian said, getting to his feet, "Lord knows she doesn't owe us anything."
"Lexie is a better person than that."
"I know, that's what I mean. You did a great job, Howie."
"Leah and I did our best." Howie nodded.
Silence fell on them.
"What are we gonna do if his wife really is dead?" Brian asked.
"Get him through this. We're all brothers and its time we started acting like it." Howie said, surprising even himself with those words.
Maybe it was seeing AJ in this desperate state or seeing Brian here to be by his side that caused him to utter those words.
"My god, where has the time gone Howie?" Brian sighed heavily. "I've worked with you all this time and we couldn't be farther apart. . ." He paused and then looked Howie in the eye. "You're right. This has gone on long enough." Brian said. Howie slipped into Brian's outstretched arms and held on to him like he was a long lost brother. Tears filled both of their eyes. "I've missed you, D."
"I've missed you, too, B-rok." Howie laughed.
Howie was amazed as he listened to Brian begin to talk about his family how little he actually knew of the man Brian had become. Sure he knew about Brian's four girls, how two were shopping for a recording contract, one was too serious to even consider entertainment as a career decision and one was too silly to consider even working a day in her life. As Brian spoke of his youngest daughter, Fatima, and her wild ideas, Howie realized the wall he had built around Lexie had also been built around himself.
Brian began cleaning the suite, picking up Alex's baby clothes and folding them on the formal dinning room table. Howie laughed as he went into the kitchen to start some coffee and Brian told more stories of his little Fatima.
"Speaking of little girls, I hear Nick and Lexie are pretty good pals." Brian smiled as Howie brought him a cup of coffee.
"Yeah, they met outside Alex's room the night before the transplant. He kept visiting her. . . he has plans to bring us all back together." Howie said.
"Really?" Brian asked, surprised he hadn't heard that from Nick himself.
"I think it has a lot to do with him raising CJ on his own. I think he wants more family. We'll have her a couple weeks this summer." Howie said, adding one last baby sweater he had found in the kitchen to a pile on the formal dinning table.
"He said he spent nearly three weeks at your house."
"I know, I appreciated that, but my family was more than willing to help Lexie out with the boys. He told me CJ wanted to stay. She cried a bit when he told her they would be flying out to go back on tour. I had to promise to let her come visit this summer. I couldn't bear to hear her cry another second." Howie smiled.
Brian laughed, straightening papers on the coffee table.
"That little sprite has that power, let me tell you. I don't get to see her and Nick as often as I would like." He said.
He lifted the bottle of Jack and looked at some writing on paper beneath it. "Howie, look at this." He handed the papers to Howie. In AJ's handwriting was "Lexie" all over one piece of paper.
"What the hell is. . ." Howie began.
Brian and he stared at one another. Howie's gears were spinning in his head. He picked up AJ's cell phone, hit redial, and got his voice mail. He broke into it and listened to the last message:
"AJ, this is Lexie. I. . .(deep breath) I didn't know if I should call or not. AJ? Everyone is worried about you. You haven't returned anyone's calls. Nick and Dad are both waiting for your call. Nick told me Brian has been leaving messages, too. AJ? I hope everything is all right. Please call someone."
"Oh my god. . ."Howie gasped.
"What is it?"
"It was Lexie. She called him and left a message telling him to call one of us." Howie said, setting down the phone. He reached for his own phone and called her.
"Hi, this is Lexie. I ain't here; I'm off being brilliant. You know the drill, just leave your message after the beep."
"Lex, its Dad. Call me on my cell, okay? Thanks, honey." Howie hung up.
"How long do you think it will take for her to call you back?" Brian asked.
"I have no idea. . ." and his phone rang in his hand.
"Lex?" he answered.
"Hi, Dad. Quick huh? I just got back from the laundry. What's up?" she asked innocently.
"Hi, baby. Honey, I need to ask you something. Did you call AJ today?"
"Yes, I left a message earlier. I’m sorry, maybe I should've told you. Did he call you? Is he pissed off?" she asked.
"Why did you do that?" he asked.
"I. . . uh, Nick called this morning said no one has heard from him in months. I just thought I'd give it a try. . . he's pissed isn't he. God, I'm sorry Dad. I was just trying to help. I'm sorry."
"No, Hon, everything is just fine. He isn't pissed."
"No." he laughed. "I'm at AJ's right now, with Brian. Honey, AJ is sick. His doctor was here with him and I think there are a lot of really bad things going on right now." He said seriously.
"Oh, no. I. . . Nick was so worried. Has anyone called him?"
"No, not yet. Let's not yet, he's cancelled enough of this tour. Let's see how AJ is doing before we worry him."
"He's already worried. So am I." She said, the words out before she could stop them.
"Do you think you want to come out here?" Howie asked, unable to stop himself as well.
"I. . . do you think I should?" she asked. He knew she was asking his permission.
"I'm. . ." not sure, he thought. "I think it would be all right. There are some serious things happening here. . ."
"I know, Nick and I talked about it this morning. I'll book a flight today." She said, "Dad, are you sure this is all right?"
"Yes." He lied.
"I love you, Dad. You know that, right?" she said.
"Yes, I know that. I love you, too." He said quietly.
"Dad, I'm scared."
"Don't be, I’m here." He said.
I'm scared, Dad. She thought. You're there, but I don't think you can protect me from what I'm afraid might happen.