He was nervous as he directed the SUV into the familiar parking lot that housed the building where they had previously been recording several tracks for their new album. It had been almost two months since he had set foot within the expansive structure and almost two months since he had nearly lost his life, only to find out soon after that he would be losing it faster then he could have ever imagined. Brian hesitated in the driver's seat as the vehicle idled in the parking spot closest to the entrance that he could find.
They were awaiting him inside and yet he found himself unwilling to even want to get out of the vehicle. He replayed in his mind Kevin's phone call from the night before informing him of the meeting that had been set up to discuss the outcome of the album and possible further recordings. It had been solely decided by their management for the meeting to be held Kevin had assured him, but Brian knew better. They were all wondering what was going to happen with the work they had already produced and Brian's deteriorating future. He himself hated to even begin to think about it. He had wanted to tell Kevin to count him absent from the meeting; he wasn't so sure he was ready to face the decisions. But Kevin had dealt the guilt card before Brian had been able to tell him other wise. They had already skirted around the subject for too long as it was.
Brian hadn't seen the others since the day he returned home from the hospital, let alone talk to any of them other then the periodic phone call from his cousin. He didn't blame them though for wanting to stray away from him; he'd been less then friendly upon their welcoming. But there was no use in avoiding them any longer. He was still a big part of the equation, even if his part would be ending sooner then any of them would want to wish for.
Sighing, he killed the engine and withdrew the key from the ignition slot. The perfect balance of cool conditioned air died away and quickly was replaced with the humid heat from the outside. He reached to the passenger seat for the box of freshly baked donuts he had purchased on his way there and stepped from the SUV. Hesitating only a second more he began a slow tredge to the entrance.
Howie was on the very brink between sleep and consciousness when he felt a weightless object bounce effortlessly off the middle of his forehead. He forced his eyes open only to see AJ and Nick quickly turn their attention elsewhere. A typical pair of culprits of course, and Howie had learned over the years to disregard their looks of innocence as anything but innocent. AJ had mastered the art of keeping a straight face, while Nick on the other hand never had and probably never would, even if his life depended on it. So abandoning all ideas of trying to get any sleep, in fear of possibly being subjected to whatever pratical jokes the duo could concoct, Howie sat up in his seat and raised his arms above his head, stretching. He looked down, seeing his long forgotten cup of coffee already cooled. Nose scrunching, he reached for the styrofoam cup.
To his left AJ had just spoken something to Nick that resounded incoherently in Howie's ears. But Nick had obviously understood as he responded by nodding his head and snickering quietly. The two of them sat close, hunched over the wooden table where Nick was busying himself with a pencil and a sketch pad. Howie couldn't see what exactly was being drawn; some sort of cartoon sketches of all of them, he guessed...being it was Nick's expertise. But the close friends were finding an unusual amount of humor in Nick's drawings, leaving Howie's mind to wander. He sat there staring off into space. Thinking, thinking...
It was sad that he couldn't even remember the last time he had witnessed something as such unfolding before him. AJ and Nick had always been the unlikely pair of friends. They were polar opposites when it came to alot of areas, but like Howie had heard, opposites tend to attract. Even despite their differences, the two had always held a certain understanding and Howie attributed it to the fact that they were the closest in age. Even so, it seemed the relationship had faded over the years, just as it had with all of them in the group. But now they huddled together as they had done many times in the past, mischief brewing between them. It drew Howie back to reality, causing him to realize just how much they had really changed and how much they had actually grown apart over their quote-unquote period of "seperation" from one another. Things weren't like what they used to be. Howie had gotten used to that and it had taken him quite a while to accept the fact that things between them would never be the same again. But sitting back and observing old memories peeking through into the present let Howie know that there was still hope. Sometimes hope was all you could cling to and Howie was happy to have just that.
"No, no...his eyebrows need to be more like a...a bush," AJ explained glancing out of the corner of his eye to see Kevin perched at the opposite end of the table and carefully making sure the older man hadn't heard a word. Kevin seemed unphased by AJ's comment, clearly indepth in whatever conversation he was having over his cellphone while making a rather sad attempt to battle it out on some complex game on the handheld system Nick had brought in that morning. "Give me the pencil and I'll show you."
"Dude, you call those brows?!" Nick retorted with a cackle seconds later at AJ's futile attempt of adding to the sketch. He snatched the pencil back just as quickly as AJ had take` n it away, erasing the man's sloppy work. Nick cracked his knuckles out in front of him, shaking the stiffness out of his hands. "Back up and watch the master," he claimed, returning lead to paper. "How's about we add Howie in the background, wearing a tutu and waving pompoms?"
Howie spit dry air from his mouth, gaping at the blonde in disbelief. Nick looked up at him, grinning. AJ peeked from the other side, his expression mirroring Nick's. Howie shook his head, propping his feet onto the edge of the table. "If I wasn't so tired, I would reach over this dead tree and smack some sense into that empty head of yours. But since I'm feeling generous, I'll take pity over you. If I have to wear a tutu and wave pompoms, then you damn well better draw Kevin wearing a chicken costume with a shirt that reads 'I'm a Kentucky fried chicken and I'm proud of it!'."
It was Kevin's turn to sit back, eyes masking his own disbelief. In the short span of time, he had ended the phone call and had paused the game to tune into the conversation. "Howard, you should be ashamed!" he scolded. Holding a dramatic hand to his heart, he continued. "I...I am just...offended! I am offended! What do you take me for? Do I look like a chicken to you?!"
"Ooh, let me answer!" Nick laughed, raising his hand in the air.
"Drop dead you diseased alien," Kevin glared.
"Wow, who would have guessed that Kev could be funny," AJ snickered.
"That was so uncalled for..." Nick muttered, chewing on the end of the pencil and dismissing the comment. He looked up at Howie, reveling in the good fun of the moment. It relaxed him, passing the time like they used to. It brought back a whole dish of memories that Nick at one point feared were lost forever. His grin widened, knowing exactly how to press Kevin's buttons to the limit. "You've got yourself a deal, D. Should I draw him as original or extra crispy?"
"Originally extra crispy," a voice called out from the open doorway. Four sets of eyes stared in the direction of the source and noticed Brian tentatively entering the room with a flimsy white rectangular box within his grasp. Silence followed almost immediately and there was no ignoring the dense blanket of tension draping the room. Brian cleared his throat weakly and held up the box. "Someone order donuts?" he offered meekly. As if he had been on pause the whole time, Nick snapped to life and jumped from his seat, dropping the pencil in a hasty attempt to stand up quickly. He paid no attention to it as it rolled aimlessly off the edge of the table and stepped quickly to Brian's side, snatching the box of pastries from the shorter man's grasp before a reaction could be produced. Brian looked on blankly as Nick half walked/half jogged back around to his and AJ's side of the table. "Ok, so that wasn't exactly the grand entrance I had imagined, but I'll take what I can get..."
As Brian's voice faded away, a thick silence persued in its wake. It was like he was standing within the bathing wash of a spot light that had suddenly turned on above his head, an audience of four staring at him dumbfounded as if he had just produced the world's worst joke. The only difference, as disheartening as it was, they were all staring at him like he was a carrier of some form of the deathly bubonic plague. In all honesty at that moment he just wanted to turn around and walk right back out through the door so the weight of their awful stares wouldn't be pressing so heavily upon his conscious. It was as if they were afraid he would infect them all.
And then Howie rose from his chair and greeted Brian with a short embrace. He could see the tentativeness reflecting in his friend's eyes and the hint of anxiety that mirrored his emotions and absolutely detested the fact that it was even there in the first place. It was a rare sight to ever see Brian step into a room and not feel completely comfortable with the people he was around. In fact, the only real time he had ever witnessed such a characteristic coming from Brian's demeanor was when the man had flown from Kentucky to Florida for the audition that set his fate as one of the members of the Backstreet Boys. He had walked into the room as a young southern boy who knew nothing different outside of his family life. If it hadn't been for his cousin presenting him with the opportunity that would later change his life, Howie was sure Brian would still be the same shy southern boy that he had been before he left home. "Ignore him," Howie finally spoke, motioning back over his shoulder to the blonde who was now tearing the box open. "You know how he acts when he has a lack of food in his stomach."
Brian glanced in the same direction, but it wasn't Nick's lack of hospitality that bothered him so much. "Some things never change, huh?" Brian agreed quietly, returning his attention to the latino.
Howie rolled his eyes. "When it comes to that one, no, because all hope was lost for him the moment he entered this world," he replied, slamming back into his seat as Nick stared up at him shocked, mouth full of powdered donut. "Whoops, did I say that out loud?" Howie grinned.
"You have become terribly brutal in your old years Howard," Nick sputtered, his voice coming out slightly muffled from the mixture of saliva and pastry swirling around within his pink flapping lips. All the while he avoided any and all eye contact with Brian.
"Attractive," Howie retorted, rolling his eyes.
Nick shrugged. "The women love it."
"You're dreaming Carter," AJ snorted and shoved Nick's hands away from the box to retrieve his own pastry. He glanced up at Brian who still stood awkwardly feet away from the table. AJ offered a toothy grin and jumped up, carrying pastry and all over to Brian where he slapped the man on the back and pulled him in for a tight embrace, despite Brian's protests. "Welcome back, man. And thanks for the donuts!"
"Remind me not to wear a black shirt next time I bring y'all donuts," Brian replied oddly as he dusted the white powder from his shoulders and shirt sleeves.
"Uh...you can sit you know?" AJ called out after he and Howie had returned to their seats and found that Brian had remained standing.
Calming himself silently and staring at the floor as he walked, Brian moved slowly over to the table, sinking into the seat across from his blonde friend. Nick briefly looked up in mid bite, but the moment their gazes locked, he looked away painfully.
"Pass me the box Nick," Kevin said as he shoved his cellphone and the handheld game system to the side.
"Get your own old man," Nick replied.
"If you want to live to see tomorrow you will do as I say," Kevin returned and eyed his cousin with a humored smile. He received not even the slightest hint of humor in response though. "You alright?" he finally asked as he watched Brian carefully reposition how he sat and then rub his torso absentmindedly.
Brian looked to find that once again all eyes were on him. He attempted to grin sheepishly, but he realized it was a somewhat failed attempt. "Me? Yeah, I'm fine. Just tired," he answered, hoping that in some way they would buy his pathetic lie. It was no hidden fact that they could see right through him. Sad thing was, he could see right through them too.
"Leigh stay at home with Baylee?"
"For the time being. She has an appointment with the doctor later this morning."
"For the baby?"
"How far along is she?" Howie cut in.
"3...3 1/2 months maybe?" Brian answered quietly and shrugged.
"That's awesome B," AJ said. "Don't know if I said it yet, but congrats man."
Brian answered with a crooked smile but immediately diverted his attention away from their stares. He honestly didn't want to talk about it when he knew within time none of it would matter. Kevin seemed to pick up on his unwillingness and cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Maybe we should just get down to business?" he suggested, looking around at each individual for agreement. When he received their small nods, he pushed away from the table. "Great. Lets take a look at what we have recorded so far."
Kevin withheld a sigh of frustration as he tweaked several of the knobs on the small sound board they had been set up with that day, soft levels of a single track echoing against his eardrums from a pair of studio headphones. It had been management's idea to bring them all together to work informally without interruption and make some decisions when it came to their album. Kevin couldn't find it in himself to really put forth the honest effort though. It seemed none of them could and they had hardly suceeded in any sort of productfulness, let alone come to any agreements when it came to the tracks and all regards. There was a certain air of reluctance circulating through the air in the room, leaving everyone to disperse to their own areas and create the distance between each of them that only caused the tension to grow thicker.
He withdrew the headphones and dropped them carelessly on the table, ignoring the loud 'clank' that echoed. Leaning back in his chair, he brought a hand down over his face and exhaled deeply. "It's missing something..." Kevin mumbled to no one in particular.
"In the mix or the vocals?" AJ questioned, his tone scratchy as he pushed his body away from the wall where he had been leaning only a few feet from Kevin's left.
"Both. The mix is just...well, the tempo doesn't feel right," Kevin answered as he reached forward to withdraw the headphone plugs from the machine and prepared to replay the track for everyone in the room. "Nick's voice is flat in multiple areas where it shouldn't be flat. You and Howie seem to be trying to overpower one another in the harmony. My voice has cracked in more places then just one. And Brian..." Kevin looked over to where Brian was sitting across the room, hoping to grab his attention. "I don't think I can even hear Brian."
"The track is incomplete," Brian spoke sharply as he looked up to meet the steady stares of his bandmates. His blue eyes turned dangerously stormy as he sat up and rested his elbows on his knees. "Or did you guys already forget? I was at home taking care of Baylee when he was sick the day this was recorded."
"We didn't forget," Howie answered with a slight hesitation in his voice. He looked to AJ, Kevin, and Nick to see the question reflecting in their eyes as they all seemed to sit up straighter. "It's probably just one of the tracks we've spent the least amount of time on."
"We'll just rerecord it then?" AJ said, hoping the statement would be a quick solution to the obvious fire that was already brewing. Silence fell for a few drawn out moments and AJ almost thought he could hear the classic sound of crickets chirping somewhere in the background. It also didn't help that Brian's stare was steadily thickening and he wasn't buying the pathetic offer to fix their mistake.
"The track isn't our strongest and it certainly isn't up to par by no means. We could just trash the track and move onto the next. Certainly we can make do with the rest of the material we have," Kevin replied, but the moment he had let the words slip past his lips, he knew he had struck a very sour chord within his cousin. It was as if the atmosphere had changed from slightly oxygenated to absolutely suffocating and he could swear that Brian's heart had just shattered before their very eyes. "Brian-"
"What?" Brian whispered as he averted his gaze to the floor. "What do you have to say that is going to make me understand why you don't want me to continue the recordings?"
"It's not that we don't want you to continue recording for the album-"
"Then what is it?" Brian demanded, looking up with a deadly glare. "Don't bullshit with me, any of you. You all are obviously thinking the same thing, so just say it."
AJ wheezed a deep breath as he took a step back. "B, we're worried," he started.
"Worried?" Brian tried to clarify.
"About you. Brian, listen, we were talking before this meeting was called," Kevin continued, holding up a hand to silence whatever it was AJ was about to say. "With your condition, we're concerned what the stress of recording could possibly-"
"Could possibly do what?" Brian scuffed with a spit of air. He stared back at them all, his body trembling as his shoulders sank in a defeat he was trying to fight against succombing to.
"We don't think it would be healthy and would only put even more stress on your heart-"
"That's ludicrous, Kevin!" Brian burst, rising unsteadily from his seat.
"C'mon, B. Just calm down," AJ tried.
"You are trying to tell me you don't want me recording anymore and now you tell me to calm down?"
"You don't need to get worked up, Bri," Howie stated calmly. "We just don't think it would be good for your heart."
"Shut up, Howie!" Brian growled, his hands shaking considerably as he brought them up to his tassled locks of hair. "Who are you, any of you, to tell me what is good for me? You aren't in my position and yet you are trying to act like you know otherwise! If I am still perfectly capable of breathing and walking, then I can sing and record like the rest of you! Dammit! I may be dying, but I have news for all of you! I'm not dead yet!"
"And we want to keep it that way!" Nick shouted as he slammed the chair he was sitting in backwards and jumped to his feet. His chest heaved from the outburst and the sudden discovery of his voice. He had kept mostly silent the entire morning, his lack of words not surprising a single one, and now he looked ready to yell until he grew completely hoarse.
"Nick..." Kevin called out, slowly rising from his seat also.
"No!" Nick continued to shout. "You don't even realize how selfish you are, Brian!"
"Selfish?" Brian stuttered.
"You're in fucking denial!"
"You are out of line, Nick!"
"The Hell I am! We're trying to care for you but you are too fucking blind to see it! You are pushing us away!"
"I am not!"
"You are because you only care about the shit that is happening to you and not what it is doing to the rest of us!"
"Nick, stop!" AJ hissed.
"He needs to hear it!" Nick argued.
"You're going to far though!"
Brian stumbled backwards as the argument escalated. Pain surged in his chest as his heart hammered wildly and he struggled to catch his breath. He was unaware of the tears of anguish that had sprung to Nick's eyes or the way his whole body trembled as a sob burst forth. Slowly he began to back towards the door, ignoring Howie and Kevin's approach of concern, nor could he hear a single word they were saying to him. Then, without another thought, he bolted from the room.