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** AJ **

“I really don’t think that we should do the show tonight.”

“Give it a rest, Nick.” I couldn’t help but give the blonde a look of annoyance as I bent my back into a deep stretch. My lower back felt as though it was on fire, and it was all Nick’s fault. If he hadn’t shoved me into the floor during our little scuffle a few days ago than I wouldn’t be walking around feeling like an eighty year old man. “What’s gotten into you? You’ve been acting weird all day.”

“I haven’t been acting weird.”

“A few minutes ago you suggested that we should remove all of our up-tempo numbers from the set list and perform a completely acoustic show.” I raised my eyebrows. “You don’t see anything weird with that statement?”

“I just thought that it might be a nice change.” Nick shrugged. “I was thinking about Howie’s recovery. Besides, you clearly look like you could use a night of sitting down.”

“I’m fine!” I shot back. “You’re the one who currently needs medical attention.”

“Are you suggesting that there’s something mentally wrong with me?” Nick’s eyes narrowed. “I was just trying to be a good friend.”

I opened my mouth, but ended up closing it again within a matter of seconds. There was no reasoning with Nick when he got himself into one of these moods. There was definitely something wrong; it was written all over his face, but he was clearly not about to give me any hints as to what was bothering him. I had never seen him be so adamant about cancelling a show, and I had no idea why he was being so insistent. We had already performed one show since Howie’s ‘incident’, and it had gone relatively well given the circumstances and the quality of his voice. If anything, Nick should have been feeling more confident about the whole situation.

I, for one, was starting to feel a bit more relaxed. It had been several days since the attack on Howie and there had been no additional signs of foul play. We were walking around in a bubble of security, and the FBI had brought in a team of investigators who had enough high-tech equipment to convince even a blind monkey that they knew what they were doing. All in all, I didn’t think that we could ask for much more than we had already been given.

“There’s still enough time to cancel. They haven’t even let anyone in yet.”

“We’ve already gone through sound-check.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Nick was clearly just feeling overwhelmed. “It’s way too late to cancel the show. Besides, Howie’s fine. I’m fine.”

“I just have a bad feeling …” Nick cut himself off as Brian entered the room; his phone glued to his ear.

“How am I supposed to know where the box of parsley printed fabric is?” Brian paused and made a big show out of pointing an imaginary gun to his head as he practically threw himself onto the couch. “Sorry, I don’t know where the box of paisley printed fabric is.” Brian paused again and pulled the trigger on his imaginary gun. “Yes, I’m aware that parsley is an herb and not a flower pattern.”

I snorted so hard that it sent a tremor through my entire body, and I immediately pressed my hands into my lower back to help manage the spasm. I was getting old. Laughing at my friend’s misfortune should not be enough to double me over in pain.

Brian shot me a concerned look as he lowered his hand from his hand. He looked as though he were about to ask me a question, but something that Leighanne said must have trumped my look of discomfort.

“No, I’m not going to fly to Georgia to help you look for it!” Brian looked as though he wanted to shoot his hands through the phone and strangle his wife. “I told you that I’m not coming home during the break because we have promotional stuff to do.”

I snorted again, only less violently this time. Agent Adams and his team had given us explicit instructions not to tell our family members about the attack on Howie and the subsequent investigation. Everyone was concerned about the media getting wind of the story and blowing it out of proportion. In order to comply with the FBI’s request, we had all gone along with the food poisoning cover story and had manufactured an excuse about needing to stay on the road in order to do promotional work during our upcoming three day break. It was a straightforward, simple, and believable lie that all of our wives had accepted. Well, that all of our wives with the exception of Leighanne had accepted.

“You know ... promotional stuff, like marketing meetings and ... stuff.” Brian was becoming more flustered by the second. “I don’t know for what exactly.”

Nick and I exchanged a knowing glance. It was time for Brian to get off the phone and fast. If he continued to dig himself into a hole, there was a pretty good chance that he would never get himself out of it.

“Brian!” I yelled. “You should be dressed already. What the hell are you doing?!”

“Brian!” Nick joined in, making sure to make his voice extra high and whiney. “Have you seen my tie? You know the one that I need right? With the stripes …”

Brian shot us both a look of gratitude and mouthed ‘thank you’ before turning his attention back to the phone. “Honey, listen, the guys are looking for me. I gotta go.”

“Bri, Kevin is seriously gonna shit a brick if you’re not ready to go!” I added the last line for good measure as Brian continued to issue a series of hurried goodbyes into the phone.

“Why am I going to shit a brick?” Kevin strolled into the room just as Brian disconnected the call.

“No reason.” I slung my arm around Howie’s shoulders as he stepped out from behind Kevin’s tall frame. “Nick and I were just creating a little bit of a diversion for Brian.”

“Do I want to know?” Howie eyed me suspiciously. “Or is it better if I just don’t ask any questions?”

“Do you know the difference between parsley and paisley?” Brian muttered.

“Yes …” Howie issued his response after a moment’s hesitation. He now looked thoroughly confused.

“Then it’s better if you don’t ask any more questions.” Brian hauled himself off of the couch and looked around at the four of us. “Are we getting ready for the show, or what?”

“About the show …” Nick started, but I immediately cut him off.

“We’re doing the show, Nick. Dancing and all.”

“What?” Howie nudged me in the ribs. “What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t we do the show?”

“No more questions, D.” I gave Howie’s shoulders a final squeeze. “It really is better if you don’t ask.”

Halfway through the show, I was seriously beginning to regret not agreeing to Nick’s suggestion of putting on an entirely acoustic performance. My back was on fire; the flames shooting out in all directions, tightening my muscles and sending spasms of pain up into my shoulders. I had barely been able to straighten back up after bending down to touch hands with the girls in the front row. To make matters worse, we were about to launch into a string of up-tempo songs; ‘We’ve Got It Goin’ On’ was next.

“Are you okay?” Howie gulped down a full bottle of water and mopped his face with a towel as we hurried backstage. “You look like the hunchback of Notre Dame.”

I shot Howie a look that I hoped made it seem as though I thought that he was overreacting. “I’m fine. I just tweaked my back.”

“We don’t have to do the choreography.” Nick jumped in. He had clearly heard Howie’s comment, and he was now staring at me with wide, panic stricken eyes. “We don’t have to get on the risers. We can just jump around or, you know, do whatever.”

“Risers in five seconds!” A member of our stage crew barked as he hustled past the three of us. “You guys don’t have time to stand around!”

“For fuck’s sake, Nick …” I forced myself to stand up straight as I pushed past Nick and Howie and planted my feet firmly on the ladder that would take me up to the top of the raised platform at the back of the stage. “… just drop it!”

I climbed the rungs two at a time, ignoring the dull ache in my lower back, and scrambled into position just as the opening notes of the song began to play. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Nick and Howie sliding hastily into their respective positions. I could feel Nick’s gaze burning into the side of my face as the lights went up and we launched into the first few steps of the routine. I still had no idea what had gotten into the blonde’s head, but his behaviour was starting to freak me out.

Focused on Nick’s unnerving stare, I didn’t even notice the fact that the platform was shaking more than usual. It wasn’t until I heard the crack that I knew that something was wrong. Of course, by that time, it was too late. The metal scaffolding gave way beneath my feet and before I could really process what was happening, I was falling; hurtling downwards in a mess of tubing and metal pieces.

The whole fall probably lasted about thirty seconds, but it felt much longer. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. I felt like a dead bug as I hit the ground; landing flat on my back and bouncing off of the stage floor with my arms and legs in the air. I let out a rush of air as the force of the impact rocked my body. There was nothing that I could do to protect myself as pieces of the stage rained down on top of me, pelting me in the legs, chest, and face before bouncing away haphazardly in all directions.

Once the metal stopped raining from the sky, I was surrounded by total chaos. Every single member of our stage crew converged on me at the exact same moment. Men were flinging debris in every direction and screaming at each other while making wild hand gestures. I knew that people were screaming my name, but I didn’t have the breath or the energy to respond. My body felt numb. I was pretty sure that there should be pain, excruciating pain, but I felt nothing.

“AJ!” Howie’s face appeared before my eyes. He let out a long stream of heavily accented Spanish and screamed my name again. “AJ!”

I knew that I should say something in order to get the frantic Latino out of my face, but I just couldn’t get my voice to cooperate. I opened my mouth and gasped for air. I tasted blood.

“Don’t move him! Don’t move him!” Kevin’s voice drifted through the commotion. He was outside of my field of vision, but I could tell by the way that he was shouting that he was desperately trying to take control of the situation. “Will someone please support his neck to make sure that he doesn’t move it?! Does everyone want him to be fucking paralyzed?! Where are the paramedics?!”

Paralyzed? Why had Kevin used that word? Now I was really panicking. Why couldn’t I speak? Why couldn’t I force my body to move? Why didn’t I feel any pain? The terrifying thoughts began to rush through my mind as a pair of arms suddenly pressed against the sides of my face. Brian’s face leaned down into mine as he got into position, his elbows resting securely on the floor.

“You’re a’right.” Brian’s accent was thick and heavy. “I’m just doin’ this so Kev’ll stop yellin’.”

Even though Brian’s country-bumpkin accent gave away his nerves, his words seemed to have a calming impact on my entire body. The warmth of his skin radiated through my cheeks, and I could slowly start to feel my body working its way out of its shocked state. The pain began to invade my senses and I let out a low groan. It had been better when I couldn’t feel anything at all.