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I was still cold when I got back to the hotel later that evening. Being that close to time ending always made my spine turn to ice. The goosebumps were still smoothing themselves out, despite the hot August air, when I slid my key card into the hotel room door.
AJ was sitting on the sofa-bed, watching TV. A bowl of popcorn was balanced in the curve where his legs met his body. Pieces of it lay strewn about the bed, breaking and mashing into the cloth of the comforter and sheets. He was illuminated only by the blue-green glow from the TV and the red glow from time.
I stumbled by him, tripping over a pair of sneakers he'd left in the middle of the carpet. I needed time to process Claire's death before I dealt with AJ and the popcorn explosion.
"Hey, where the hell've you been?" he asked, dropping the remote onto his chest. "We were looking all over for you, and called your cell phone like twelve times." He sat up, adjusting the popcorn bowl so that it didn't tip over.
"I was busy," I answered, "I had some stuff to take care of. I'm sorry." I reached for the bathroom door handle.
"You okay dude? You sound weird."
I shrugged, "Yeah. I'm great."
AJ seemed to accept that. I knew Brian wouldn't have. That's why I'd opted to share rooms with AJ while we were in Chicago. I knew I'd need the privacy.
"Planet Earth is on the BBC," he muttered, "I know this is sort of your thing, I thought you might wanna watch it, too. It's actually pretty wicked," he said. He gestured toward the screen. "They were showing mating rituals on the savannah a minute ago," he grinned.
I forced a laugh, which came out more like I'd choked on spit. "Sweet," I said, throat pinched. "I'll be right out, I just gotta take a shower."
"Aiight, but if you miss the good stuff, don't say I didn't give ya a heads up."
Inside the bathroom, I faced myself in the mirror for the first time. My face was pale, and my eyes surrounded by red, swollen skin. I poked at it, leaving white dots where my fingers had applied pressure. I looked like shit. I was going to have to come up with an allergy or something to explain this away.
I stripped and threw a towel down across the floor before turning on the shower as hot as it could get. I wanted to boil my skin off, to scrape away the memories and the ache that penetrated me. When I stepped in the water pelted my back like fire. I bit my wrist to keep from yelling out in pain. Instinct told me to get the hell out of the shower, but desire to burn away the last few hours kept me rooted to the ground.
Once I'd scrubbed every surface of my body with soap, I turned the water off and stepped into the haze of the bathroom. The air tingled against my scorched skin. The tile was cold under my feet.
Feeling crazy, I laid down across the tile.
A knock came at the door.
"Yeah?" I called out.
"You hungry?" It was Brian.
"No," I answered honestly.
"You're gonna starve to death," he scolded.
"Order me food then," I said, "But I already ate."
Brian must've walked away because he didn't answer me.
After a few minutes I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror. Now every part of my body was scalded bright red, no longer my face alone. Perhaps by the time my skin had cooled enough to return to its normal temperature the emotion that made my face look like a red raccoon would fade and I'd look normal again.
By the time I'd dressed and stepped out into the hotel room, Brian had gotten AJ off the bed and was vacuuming the bits of broken popcorn from the sheets with a Dirt Devil.
"You emerged!" he said, his voice cheerful.
I mustered my courage, and fell into my part.
"Yeah I was all bleh from the city, you know," I said. I stepped around AJ's sneakers this time as I headed for the little kitchenette.
"So where were you all day?" he asked, curious.
"Exploring," I answered. I opened the cupboard and pulled out a styrofoam cup, which I stuck under the sink faucet and filled with water.
"You should use the water bottles in the fridge," Brian protested.
"I'm fine."
He shook his head, "Tap water is so bad for you..."
"I'm fine, Bri," I insisted. Like tap water would take me out, I felt like scoffing. I looked around and realized we were alone. "Where's AJ?"
I heard him struggling to fold up the sofa-bed in the other room. "AJ and Howie went to get the food," Brian answered. The Dirt Devil whirred to a stop. "We ordered you a steak and sweet potato fries from TGI Fridays, is that okay?"
I shrugged. "I'm really not hungry, so sure. Whatever."
"You're gonna disappear on us," he laughed.
"Not quite," I answered.
Brian came around the corner into the kitchenette and shoved the Dirt Devil under the sink before turning to look at me. "Good Lord, Nick, what happened? You try to live up to your life's ambition to become a lobster dinner?"
"Yeah, I think the water was too hot. It wasn't bad while I was in it," I said.
He eyed me. "You okay?"
"Course," I answered. When he didn't look convinced, I hastily added, "I didn't take my antidepressants today."
Brian frowned, "Why not? Nick, you know that makes you feel like crap. Not to mention it screws up the whole medicinal cycle."
I wasn't really even on antidepressants.
"I know," I muttered, "I just forgot. That's all." Instinctively, I reached to my wrist and flicked the rubber band that hung there against my skin.
"Sorry," he said, picking up on the rubber band thing. He turned and opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water for himself. "So what'd you explore today?"
"A couple parks," I said. Honestly, I had gone to several parks. After leaving Claire's bedside, I'd stumbled down the stairwell of the hospital (I don't trust elevators, after all I've seen of them they scare the bejesus out of me) and across the parking lot to a central square. I'd sat by a lagoon-looking pond in the center of it and hugged my knees for awhile, remembering Claire as I'd known her, before I'd broken her heart, before she'd married Greg Brunner, before she'd become sick, before she'd died.
"Anything good?" Brian asked. He twisted the cap off his water and spilled a little down his front.
I reached for the paper towels and handed him a couple sheets. "There were some ducks."
Brian laughed. "Ducks are always good. Hey, maybe tomorrow you and me could go play some ball before we take off. Did you see any courts?"
I hadn't. "Sure," I lied. I'd google it later. Even if I forgot, actually, it wouldn't be a shock. Everyone in the band thought I was horrible with directions. The truth is that half the time I just had never been where we were headed, or else the roads had been redone since I'd last travelled them.
Brian's smile was a little contagious and I tried to smile back.
"You're my best friend, Nick," Brian said. He probably thought he was indebted to cheer me up, or might even have been worried about me because of the lack of the nonexistent antidepressants. "I'm really thankful for you. I feel like we don't tell you that enough as a band at large."
"Thanks, Bri." A pang of guilt swept over me and I wished for a fleeting moment that I could tell Brian everything. But then I remembered the sad look in Claire's eyes when I had told her, and the burden that knowledge had placed on her, and I quickly gulped down my water.