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** HOWIE **

“Are you awake?”

I rolled over to face the other bed. I had been awake for hours, probably since the night before. Every time I closed my eyes, I was haunted by the vision of AJ plummeting to the ground in a heap of twisted metal. I didn’t think that I would ever be able to sleep again.

“Yeah, Kev, I’m awake.”

It felt weird to see Kevin in the other bed. That was supposed to be AJ’s bed. When we had first started out, AJ and I had always roomed together. So, when the decision had been made that we would have to start sharing rooms in order to increase our security there had never been any doubt in my mind that AJ and I would end up together. Even though AJ and Brian seemed to have developed an intense bond – a connection that the fans had dubbed ‘ARok’ – I had known that Nick would immediately claim Brian for himself and leave AJ for me. Some things never changed.

The fact that Kevin was now occupying AJ’s space in the room was disconcerting and comforting all at the same time. Comforting because I had been terrified to spend the night alone and disconcerting because I felt like I was betraying AJ by allowing Kevin to move in. As different as AJ and I were, the two of us had developed a sense of familiarity with each other that nobody but Brian had been able to rival. Without AJ, it was like a part of me was missing.

“We have to cancel tonight’s show.”

I resisted the urge to sigh. Why was it so hard for Kevin to say what he was really thinking? Why did he always have to hide his feelings behind the ‘business of Backstreet’?

“I know we do, Kev.”

“We have to hold some kind of press conference. At the very least, we have to make some sort of statement about AJ.”

“I know we do, Kev.”

“We have to convince Rochelle that it’s not a good idea for her to fly out here and see AJ.”

“I know we do, Kev.”

“We have to get up.”

This time I allowed myself to sigh. “I know we do, Kev.”

Forty-five minutes later, Kevin had disappeared to speak to Eddie about the logistics of organizing a press conference and cancelling our show at the last minute. In the same amount of time, I had managed to drag myself out of bed, shower, phone the hospital to get an update on AJ, and consume exactly two and a half extra large cups of coffee.

The remaining half of my third extra large coffee was burning my fingers as I waited for Nick or Brian to open the door to their room. I gingerly transferred the takeout cup to my other hand as I waited. I should have remembered to pick up one of those protective cardboard sleeves. The guy who had invented those things was a genius.

“G’mornin’.” Brian finally yanked open the door. He yawned widely and motioned for me to come into the room. “Did ya sleep at’ll?”

I took note of Brian’s voice as I stepped inside and deposited my cup on the nearest table. His accent was thicker than it had been last night. That meant that he had probably spent the whole night worrying as opposed to sleeping.

“Not really. Did you?”

I watched as Brian grabbed a t-shirt off of the back of the couch and pulled it over his head. He had been looking skinnier lately; almost too thin in my opinion. I wasn’t about to say anything, but I wondered how much of his weight loss had to do with Leighanne’s prodding and how much of it had to do with stress.

“Not really.” Brian shook his head as Nick emerged from the bathroom. “Where’s Kevin?”

“He went to talk to Eddie about cancelling tonight’s show and about setting up a press conference.” I lowered myself down onto the edge of the bed and rubbed at my overly tired eyes. “He said that he would meet us at the hospital.”

“Kevin went somewhere by himself?!” Nick looked positively panic stricken. “Why would he do that?!”

“Security is with him.” I pointed out; confused by Nick’s overwhelming sense of concern. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just …” Nick trailed off and looked at Brian who shook his head ever-so-slightly. “I’m just worried about AJ.”

I looked back and forth between Nick and Brian. The two of them were hiding something and, whatever the secret was, it was big. I had known them for too long. We had spent too much time together. I knew when something was amiss.

“What are you two not telling me?”

“We ain’t hidin’ not’in.” Brian drawled. His face flushed as he realized the extent of his own accent. “We’re just anxious to go and see AJ that’s all.”

“Guys, I really don’t have the patience for this.” I rubbed at my temples as I spoke. I could feel a massive headache beginning to set in. “If you two know something … hell, even if you think that you might know something then you need to say so.”

“We don’t know anything.” Nick exchanged another tell-tale look with Brian. His eyes were wild, refusing to settle on my face. “Right, Bri?”

Brian nodded vigorously. “Mmm hmm.”

Brian’s refusal to say actual words was making me even more anxious. He and I both knew that he would give himself away when he started talking like a backcountry moonshine brewer. Brian was, and always had been, a horrible liar. His voice always gave him away.

“This is not the time for any of us to be withholding …”

I was cut-off by the sound of my own phone ringing in my pocket. Scowling at the poor timing, I pulled the device out of my jeans and glared at the display. Rochelle’s smiling face stared back at me, and I let out a soft string of curses. Why hadn’t she called Brian? I didn’t want to be the one to handle this phone call.

“Howie?” Rochelle skipped all of the usual pleasantries. “I just tried to speak to AJ. Why does he sound like he’s drugged out of his mind?”

“Well, he’s on some pretty intense painkillers …”

“I asked to speak to his doctor and some bitch of a nurse informed me that Dr. Whatever-his-name-is doesn’t take phone calls! Can you believe that!?” Rochelle ploughed ahead. “I’ve tried calling Brian twice for an update, but his phone keeps going directly to voicemail. What the hell is going on over there? Have they figured out why AJ fell through the stage in the first place? Have they mentioned anything about his recovery? I’m looking into booking a flight as we speak …”

“NO!” I cut Rochelle off at her mention of the word ‘flight’. “I mean, I don’t think that you really need to come here.”

“I don’t need to come?” Rochelle repeated. “What does that mean? Are you trying to keep me away on purpose?”

Oh God, this was not going to end well. I squeezed my eyes shut as I desperately tried to think of an excuse. The FBI had been very clear about the fact that we were not supposed to involve our families in any way. So far, none of our wives and kids had been hurt, and the five of us desperately wanted to keep it that way. The less our wives knew about the situation the better.

“AJ was pretty adamant about you staying home.” I began to stumble through a response. “He doesn’t want you or Ava to see him lying in the hospital. We’re going to cancel the show tonight and then we’re already scheduled to have a three day break. He was hoping that you would be able to come out and visit him after he’s been released and isn’t on so many pain killers. He doesn’t want Ava to be scared of him.”

“Oh.” Rochelle’s voice softened marginally. “I’m under contract starting next week, so I won’t be able to come out for at least two weeks. Are you sure that he said that he doesn’t want me to come? He didn’t sound like he was capable of making any kind of informed decision when I tried to talk to him earlier.”

I said a silent prayer of relief. It looked like I had managed to buy us and the FBI some much needed time. “That’s definitely what he said.” I continued with the lie. “He’s really worried about Ava thinking that he looks like a monster.”

“Okay …”

Rochelle still sounded a bit sceptical, but I could tell that she was buying my excuse. Typical parent; all I had to do was mention the well-being of her kid and Rochelle was folding faster than Nick during a poker game.

“I’ll have AJ call you as soon as he’s not so heavily medicated.” I promised. “We’re just about to head over to the hospital now.”

“Fine.” Rochelle conceded. “But I expect someone to call me if anything changes in terms of AJ’s condition. I don’t like not being there …”

“We’ll keep you updated.” I opened my eyes and narrowed them at Brian. “I’ll even tell Brian to turn his phone on.”

Brian gave me a rather sheepish looking smile and pulled his phone out of his pocket. I could see his thumb moving over the power button. “Sorry.” He mouthed.

“I mean it, Howie.” Rochelle continued. “I expect a phone call the minute that you find out how and why AJ fell through that stage.”

“I promise, Ro.” I stopped glaring at Brian and returned my attention to AJ’s wife. “We’ll take good care of him.”

Upon arriving at the hospital, I was seriously regretting having answered my phone in the first place. AJ was still looped out of his mind on pain medication, Nick and Brian were still acting strangely, and Agent Adams had informed us that the stage had indeed been tampered with. I massaged my temples for the second time that day as I listened to Agent Adams yammer on about strategic cuts and loosened footings. None of the details mattered. The only thing that mattered was that AJ’s fall hadn’t been an accident; someone had wanted him to fall, someone had wanted him to die. Just like someone had wanted me to die.

“At this point, the five of you need to be under constant surveillance.” Agent Adams was still speaking. His bald head was glistening under the fluorescent lights of the hospital and sweat stains had already formed around the underarms of his dress shirt. He popped yet another Halls into his mouth and smacked his lips. “We now know for sure that we’re dealing with someone who is out to harm you. We can’t afford to take any more chances …” He paused as his phone rang.

I stopped massaging the sides of my head at the look on the plump man’s face. Despite the fact that he had already been perspiring, I could actually see him break out in a cold sweat.

“What do you mean that he’s missing?” Agent Adams’s sausage fingers tightened around his phone. “I don’t care whose fault you think it is! Someone better find Richardson before it’s too fucking late!”