Lexie hung up the phone, and didn't hesitate to call Nick next. She told him everything her father had and that she was making plans to fly to Orlando.
"Are you going to be all right?" he asked, his voice filled with concern.
"I think so."
"You're scared, I can tell." He said.
He can? She thought. "A little, but Dad will be there. I'm sure everything will be fine. Has Brian called you?"
"No, this is the first I've heard anything. I'll call the hotel tomorrow before we head out."
"I'll probably be staying at my parent's. . ."
"I'm worried about you."
"I'll be okay."
"I'll call your parent's house to check in with you. Be careful, okay honey?" he said. There was a long pause and he spoke again. "Lex? Are you sure you're okay with this? Do I need to call your Dad?"
"What am I suppose to do when I get there? Nick, AJ's never asked for my help. He hardly asks about me at all. Maybe I shouldn't be there. . ."
"Lex, I can't tell you what to do."
"But you think I should go. I mean. . .he is my father." She said quietly.
"Yes, but you guys are strangers." Nick said, wishing he could be there for her. He'd have to trust that Brian and Howie knew what they were doing. "No one can blame you for being a little uncomfortable about this."
"Uncomfortable?" she laughed dryly. "God, I just want to vomit!" Lexie heard Nick laugh at that.
"I wish I could be there for you, like when your Dad was sick." He said.
"Me, too." She agreed.
"Call me, let me know how you're doing."
"Promise." Lexie said.
Lexie barely slept when she got into Orlando at midnight. Her mom, her aunts and uncles tried to give her advice, but they didn't know what to say. Lord knows she didn't know what she was going to say or do, for that matter.
Howie and Brian had stayed at AJ's suite that night and Howie called her the next day. Leah had called him when she got in. Howie told her over the phone that he and Brian were able to find out that AJ's mom had Alex. AJ's mom had told them that Suzanne had died three weeks ago, after several suicide attempts in the hospital. She hadn't seen AJ much in those three weeks and had gotten completely out of touch with him in the last four days. Lexie and Howie made plans for her to go to the hotel later that day.
When Lexie arrived at the hotel, Kevin was there as well. He opened the door again for her like he had less than a year ago. She stood there, caught in his dark brooding stare.
"Uh, is my Dad here? Uh. . .Howie?" she asked.
"Yes, come in." he said, not uttering a smile. Howie came out of the bedroom and greeted her with a hug.
"Lexie? Do you remember Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell?" he asked. She shook their hands and mumbled some kind of greeting.
"Daddy, where is he?" she asked him.
"He's still asleep."
"Can I see him?" she asked.
"Yes, let's go." He said, taking her hand.
They went into his dark bedroom and she could barely see his form under the black sheets. Her mind seemed to leave her body as she walked away from Howie and took a seat at the edge of AJ's bed. Lexie saw him stir and he seemed to turn toward her.
"Amanda?" She heard him say as he reached for her. "Baby, I've missed you. Where have you been?"
"AJ?" she whispered.
"Baby, you've got every right to leave me again. . .I love you, I've always loved you." He moaned.
Howie heard Lexie choke on her sob. She took his out stretched hand and with trembling fingers, smoothed back his forehead.
"Don't leave me, Mandy, not this time. I need you, I can't live without you."
"I won't AJ, I promise." She choked.
"Kiss me? Please? Mandy, I don't feel very good. Where am I?" he asked.
"Sh, sh. Just close your eyes, I'm here for you." She whispered. She leaned over his body and brought her lips to his cheek. She could smell the sweat and the vomit. "Go to sleep AJ."
"Don't go, stay here with me." He whispered has he drifted off.
"I'll be here when you wake, I promise." She said, sitting on the edge of bed.
That's more of a promise than he had ever made her. Howie thought. Howie couldn't describe the emotions whirling about inside him as he saw her sit with him, comfort him. Howie knew that unlike her father, she would keep all of her promises to him.
No matter how much he pretended and forced others to pretend, AJ was her father and she was by his side. He felt himself shudder as she turned to him just like AJ had turned to her.
"Daddy?" she said, her voice cracking and giving away her emotions.
"Honey? I’m here." He left the doorway and knelt on the floor by the bed.
"What am I supposed to do?" she cried quietly.
"We'll wait here until he wakes up."
"He thinks I'm my mother."
"What is he gonna do when he wakes up?" she asked.
"I don't know." Howie said, unable to speak again.
He looked up and saw Brian and Kevin in the doorway watching them. He looked down at AJ's sleeping form and wondered himself what was going to happen. What was going to happen to all of them?
It was a little less than an hour later and Howie thought Lexie had fallen asleep in the chair across the room from AJ's bed. He realized she hadn't when AJ stirred and she jumped to her feet.
"Howie?" AJ groaned.
"AJ? You awake?" Howie asked. AJ reached up and rubbed his eyes.
"I think so. Howie? D? Is that you?"
"Yeah, AJ, it's me."
"God, what happened? D? Man, I had the strangest dream about Amanda. It was like she was here. . ." and AJ stopped in mid-sentence. Oh my god. . .he thought.It couldn't be. . .no, it's not! His brain just couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. In the darkened room, he thought he saw her again over Howie's shoulder.
Howie looked behind him, seeing Lexie.
"AJ, Lexie is here."
AJ just stared, trying to will his mind to work. She was the same height, the same size, the same dark hair and delicate silhouette. Amanda? His soul asked.
"Yes, AJ?" she asked in the same sweet voice AJ only heard in his dreams anymore.
"Why are you here? Howie? Why are you here? What happened?" he asked, still trying to understand through the fog.
"AJ, you were really sick. You still are. Don't you remember anything?" Howie asked. AJ laid back in the bed and was quiet as various events began to become clear.
"Oh my god, Suzanne!" he gasped.
He vomited again, suddenly on the bed. Howie and Lexie both scrambled to yank up his covers and contain the mess. Lexie hauled the bundle into the master bathroom tub and Howie got AJ out of bed. Lexie got on the phone and ordered clean sheets as Howie got AJ dressed into some sweat clothes.
Brian yanked a clean blanket off another bed in the guestroom and wrapped him in it. Howie kept him in the bathroom as housekeeping came and took the soiled linens away. It took both Howie and Brian to get AJ back in bed. Unable to watch anymore, Lexie escaped into the living room only to run into Kevin. They stood there in silence staring at one another and then the phone rang.
"Kevin! Lexie! Someone get that!" Howie hollered. Lexie turned on her heel, ran, and picked up the phone.
"Hello?" she gasped.
"Lex?" she heard.
"It's me, Nick."
"Oh my god, Nick." She cried, collapsing into an overstuffed chair.
"Baby, honey, stop crying. Lexie, what are doing at AJ's? Please, stop crying honey. Tell me what's wrong. Is AJ okay? Are you okay? Lex, is your dad there? Lexie, please stop crying." Nick pleaded, but she couldn't stop. She got up, stumbled blindly toward Kevin, and dropped the phone near his feet as she ran into the kitchen. Kevin picked up the phone and brought it to his ear.
"Kev? What the hell is going on over there?" Nick demanded. "Did AJ say something to her?"
"I don't know. Nick, listen to me, AJ is really bad this time."
"Is it his wife?"
"Yes, and he's physically sick. Howie and Brian are here with us. Lexie flew in yesterday. She's been sitting with him, but I don't know what he said."
"Put her back on the phone." Nick demanded.
"I don't know if she can talk yet. Look, I'll have her call you later."
"Please, Kev. Have Howie call me, too, okay?"
Howie came running out of the bedroom.
"Who was that?"
"She ran into the kitchen."
What is happening?!? Lexie's mind screamed. Lexie felt doors and windows slamming down all around her heart. Her entire life flashed before her eyes. Her birth, the boys, her mother's death, her life with the Doroughs and now. . .nothing.
Howie came into the kitchen, expecting to find her curled in a ball and crying her eyes out. He didn't expect to find her standing at the kitchen sink, staring into it.
She looked up at him with the strangest look on her face. She looked at him like she didn't recognize him. Everything he would expect to see on her face was gone. It was like she was suddenly a stranger. It looked as though Lexie was gone.
"Honey, are you okay? Did Nick say something to upset you? Is it AJ? Lexie? Do you need to go? Should I call your mother?" he asked.
"NO! Goddamn it!" she screamed with anger. "What was all that shit about my mother?! What the fuck was he doing 20 years ago?! What the hell were all of you doing 20 years ago!?"
Howie felt himself recoil from her anger. She had moved toward him, her face inches from his. She froze there staring at him. Her strange eyes seemed to be searching his face for something, then she just pushed past him and headed toward the living room.
"Lexie? AJ wants to see you." Brian said, seeing her come out of the kitchen.
"Well, that's just too damn bad. I'm leaving." She said, snatching up her purse.
"Lexie, I know you're angry, but. . ." Howie began, following her toward the door. She whirled on him again.
"You know nothing about me or how I’m feeling! You never have! I’m not playing this game with you people anymore! Find someone else's life to screw up!." She raged.
"Lexie, stop this right now! Where are you going?!" Howie demanded as she opened the front door and headed out.
"I'm leaving. You should recognize it, it'll look very similar to what he did to me 20 years ago!" she snapped.
"Lexie, that's enough! Get back in here!" Howie demanded again.
"NO!" She screamed, slamming the door just has he got to it. He yanked it open and ran after her down the hall. She ran past the elevators and headed down the stairs. They were on the top floor of the hotel and she was 26 years younger than he was. He would never catch her.
"She's just upset. She'll be okay." Brian said as Howie returned to the suite.
Howie stood there looking from Kevin to Brian. He prayed Brian was right, but he knew in his heart that she wasn't all right. Something terrible had just happened, just like he knew it would.
Suddenly, they heard a crash in the bedroom behind Brian. All three of them raced in to find AJ on the floor, crawling toward the bathroom. He had knocked over the nightstand and everything on it. Howie reached him first. Howie fell to his knees, rolled AJ on to his back, and into his arms.
"I’m sorry, D. This is all my fault." AJ cried out.
Howie instinctively drew AJ up into his arms, bent his head over him, and held him as he cried. Brian and Kevin put the table back on its legs and set about straightening the mess. When they had finished, Brian kneeled on the other side of AJ and laid his hand on Howie's head. Howie looked up with fresh tears streaming down his own face silently. Brian felt his throat tighten as tears threatened to consume him as he read the anguish on Howie's face.
It was a father's anguish for his daughter and a man's anguish for his friend.