“You’re all clear.” The young physiotherapist smiled and gently patted my leg. “Just remember to take it easy.”
“That’s it?” I couldn’t stop the nerves from showing in my voice. “It’s only been a week...”
“Like I told you when we first met, you were incredibly lucky.” Lucy smiled as she picked up my chart. “It’s a miracle that you didn’t die, that you weren’t paralyzed ...”
“A miracle, huh?” I snorted. “Do you really believe in those?”
“All I know is that you somehow managed to walk away from a very serious accident with virtually no long-term repercussions. I don’t know how or why you were so lucky, so it seems pretty miraculous to me.”
“Just go with the miracle thing.” Brian laughed. “The big guy was clearly looking out for you. That’s not such a bad thought, is it?”
“I suppose not.” I conceded. “I’m just not into the whole miracle idea.”
“Call it whatever you want.” Lucy laughed. “Regardless of how you look at it, you’re okay to return to performing. You may just want to lay off of the intense dance routines for the next little while. If you need anything, or if you start to feel any pain, just give me a call. Even if you’re out of state, I can refer you to another physiotherapist.”
“We’ll have someone travelling with us.” I forced a smile; picturing Damien’s massive hands in relation to Lucy’s delicate, manicured fingers.
“Good.” Lucy gave my leg one final pat before handing me my discharge papers. “You have my number if you need me.” She turned to Brian as she began backing out of the room. “Bye, Brian.”
“Bye, Luce. Thanks again for taking such good care of him. I’ll take it from here.” Brian grinned.
“Luce?” I imitated Brian’s southern drawl once I was sure that Lucy was safely out of earshot. “Really?”
“What?” Brian defended himself. “You’re the reason that I had to spend so much time with her. I was just being polite.”
“Get my shit, Romeo.” I nodded towards the duffle bag that was lying next to the bed. “What would your wifey say?”
Brian frowned. “I was being polite is all.” He slung my duffle bag over his shoulder and positioned his hands on my wheelchair. “You ready for this?”
It was my turn to frown. “To leave the hospital; yes. To return to the stage; no.”
Brian was quiet as he wheeled me down the hallway towards the elevator. He waited until we were alone in the lift before he spoke again. “Do you think this is gonna work?”
The tremor in Brian’s voice was un-disguisable. I knew that he was referring to the FBI’s plan to capitalize on the fact that the person who was targeting us was following the events of Ashley’s story. Ashley had already admitted that Brian was next on the chopping block, and Agent Adams had informed us a few hours ago that she was finally ready to post the next chapter. If Nick and the FBI were right, and the un-sub continued to copy the events of Ashley’s story, then Brian’s life would be in jeopardy as soon as the chapter hit the Internet.
The elevator doors pinged open and I squinted my eyes against the brightness of the sun as Brian wheeled me through the double doors leading to the parking lot. Two beefy men that I didn’t recognize, but who were clearly there for our security, were standing next to a large SUV with blacked out windows; clearly subtlety wasn’t the FBI’s strong suit.
“Aje?” Brian pressed. “What do you think?”
“I think ...” I paused as I got to my feet and turned to face the man who quite possibly knew me better than anyone else in the world. “I think that I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’m not gonna get hurt.” Brian stared back at me, his lack of confidence visible in his eyes. “That’s the whole point of us continuing on ... so that no one else has to get hurt.”
“You don’t even believe what you’re saying. So, how can you possibly expect me to believe it?” I continued to search Brian’s face as I challenged his words; taking in the wrinkles, and the worry, and the stress. I felt like I was looking at a person that I barely recognized.
“It doesn’t matter if I get hurt. If that’s what it takes to keep everyone else safe, to make this all stop, then it will be worth it.”
Brian looked old. The thought slapped me in the face as I struggled to find the words to express just how badly I didn’t want anything to happen to him. It was the first time that the thought had ever entered my mind. For the first time in my life, I was seeing the real Brian; the one with crow’s feet and thinning hair. This was the Brian who was stressed and struggling to keep up the persona of having a perfect life. This was the Brian who so often came across as a self-righteous prick because he was scared of losing his voice, of losing everything in his life that really mattered to him. The thought was unnerving and I could feel myself starting to break down. I couldn’t lose him; we couldn’t lose him.
“The voices are five.” I whispered. “It’s not really us unless we all stay together.”
“AJ, if any one of us were to ...”
I help up my hand for Brian to stop. “We’re five. That’s how we started and that’s how we’re gonna finish.”
The ride back to the hotel was quiet. Brian and I spent the time looking out the windows, both of us not-so-discreetly wiping at our eyes and unsuccessfully trying to convince the other through our respective silence that we were okay with what was about to happen.
“They’re all waiting for you.” The larger of the two men, who had introduced himself as Stephen, informed us as we pulled into the hotel’s underground parking garage.
“I know.” Brian wiggled his phone for emphasis. “Nick just let me know that everyone’s in our room.”
The elevator ride was just as quiet as the drive over. All I wanted to do was have a cigarette and rant about the stupidity of the FBI’s plan. Instead, I clenched my hands into fists and allowed Brian to direct me down the hallway towards the room that he was sharing with Nick. I stole a quick glance at his face as he swiped his room card and pushed open the door; he was just as nervous as I was.
“You guys made good time.” Kevin spoke first as Brian and I entered the room.
“No traffic.” Brian announced. He sank down on the couch next to Nick, purposefully leaving enough space for me to sit on the other side of him.
Pretending not to notice the fact that Kevin was sitting alone on the larger sofa, I sat down in the space that Brian had left for me and looked quickly around the room. Agent Adams was thumbing through some papers, Howie and Kevin were fidgeting with their phones, Nick was picking at his sweatpants, and Ashley was tapping away at her laptop.
“Okay!” Agent Adams dropped the papers to his lap and clapped his hands loudly. He smiled broadly at Ashley before looking at the rest of us. “Are we ready to get started?”
“Sure.” Brian forced a smile at Ashley who looked like she wanted to throw up. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
“Remember that I can still make changes ...” Ashley trailed off as Agent Adams began to distribute what I assumed were printed copies of the upcoming chapter to the five of us. “Obviously, I haven’t posted it yet.”
“This is a load of fucking shit.”
I could hear Kevin swearing under his breath as I looked down at the pieces of paper in my hands. Unbeknownst to the others, I had read Ashley’s story in its’ entirety while in the hospital, so I was now fully caught up. The way in which she portrayed our relationships was uncanny and several times I had caught myself struggling to distinguish fact from fiction. There was no doubting the fact that the girl was talented, but I still found it strange that she would want to waste her talent writing about us. I wasn’t sure of her motivation, seeing as how she didn’t come across as crazy or overly infatuated with us. To the contrary, Ashley seemed unnoticeably average.
While I had devoured every single detail of the chapters that were already online, I was only hastily skimming the words that had just been placed in front of me. All I wanted to know was what was in store for Brian. I would concentrate on the details later.
“No.” I began shaking my head as I flipped to the third page and the word ‘stabbed’ practically jumped off the page. “I don’t like it.”
“How the hell are you on page three?” Nick’s eyes widened. “I’m only like halfway through the first page!”
“Well, reading isn’t exactly your forté, Nicky.” Howie chuckled. “But don’t worry, this isn’t a competition.”
“I’m being fucking serious!” I curled my fingers around the edges of the papers, creasing them in anger. “This is serious, Howie!”
Howie looked taken aback by my anger. “I was just trying to lighten the mood ...”
“I can change it!” Ashley jumped in, her voice shaking. “I can change it.”
“Damn right, you’re fucking going to change it.” My voice was rising. “This is ...”
“It’s fine.” Brian interrupted. He placed his hand lightly on my arm before giving Ashley a genuine smile. “It’s fine the way it is. It – It doesn’t seem too bad.”
“Doesn’t seem too bad?” I parroted, waving the papers in Brian’s face. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“I think AJ’s right.” Nick had finally flipped to page three and was now shaking his head right along with me. “Brian being stabbed is ... is ....”
“Is not going to happen.” Kevin threw his copy of the chapter onto the coffee table and rubbed roughly at his face. “I still think that this whole idea is a load of shit.”
“Mr. Richardson, I refuse to go over this with you again.” Agent Adams sighed. “The FBI thinks that this is a viable way to locate the un-sub ...”
“I know.” Kevin rolled his eyes. “I know.”
“Brian getting stabbed by some nutter lurking in the fan-pit is not a viable way to catch anyone.” I argued. “Can’t he just like slip and fall or something?”
“A little fall would be okay.” Nick nodded vigorously to back me up. “We don’t want Brian to get, like, seriously hurt.”
“Yeah, we wouldn’t want him to end up like me, or AJ, or Kevin.” Howie rolled his eyes at Nick. “That would be terrible.”
“It would be terrible!” Nick shot back. “You sound like you want Brian to get stabbed!”
“I’m just saying that I’m getting pretty tired of the five of us being held to different standards.” Howie retorted. “Brian should be willing to do what he has to do to help the rest of us. What’s good for Brian is not always what’s good for the rest of us.”
“Don’t be a dick!” Nick was on his feet, jabbing his finger at Howie’s face. “I know what you’re getting at and this situation has nothing to do with that one! You know that he’s working on his voice; you know that it’s not his fault. We all made the decision to give him the parts that we did. I was against it just as much as you were, in the beginning, but it’s different now.”
“Are you telling me that you’re over it, Nick?” Howie got to his feet and stared definitely up into the taller man’s face. “What did he say to make you forget? What did he say to get you back on your leash?”
“Don’t say shit like that.” Nick’s voice had gone from hard to shaky. “You have no right to say shit like that.”
“You know that it’s the truth.” Howie continued. “Why do you always try to pretend like it’s not?”
“We’re supposed to be a team.” Nick shook his head. “Why are you being like this?”
“A team?” It was Howie’s turn to shake his head. “You’re delusional.”
“I’m not the one telling Brian that he needs to be stabbed in order to even out some imaginary score!” Nick shouted. “You’re the one who’s fucking delusional, baby!”
“Even the score?” Howie’s laugh was maniacal. “A little flesh wound wouldn’t even begin to make up for ...”
“Enough!” Kevin roared so loudly that I flinched. “Both of you are going to sit the fuck down and shut up!”
“No, Kev, I’m not going to sit the fuck down and shut up!” Howie argued. “I won’t. Not this time.”
“Y’all clearly have some other issues going on.” Agent Adams stood up from his chair and gave us all a hard stare. “The chapter is fine the way it is.” He turned to Ashley who was frozen to the spot and staring up at Howie and Nick with her mouth slightly open. “You’re going to post it immediately. Let’s go.”
“Right.” Ashley snapped her mouth shut and hastily stood up, clutching her laptop to her chest. “Right. I’ll just – err – post it now then.”
Kevin waited until Ashley and Agent Adams had left the room before he repeated his command. “Both of you need to sit down so we can talk this out. Clearly, we all have a bigger fucking problem then the lunatic who’s after us.”