Brian looked at me, a queasy look on his face. "Not again," he whispered.
The door of the bus slammed open and AJ practically face-planted on the cement beside it. "Fuck you Kevin," he yelled, his words running together like colors on a painter's pallet. "You're just a stupid, anal prick. You dunno... You dunno nothin' about me or about anything... stupid.. stupid prick." He stumbled, and hit the side of the bus with a loud thud.
I'd been watching AJ for months, slowly deteriorating before my eyes into the drugs and alcohol. It was consuming him, stealing him away from us. The worst of it had been in the last six months or so since his grandparents had died and his father had wrecked havoc again back in March, claiming to want to be part of AJ's life, but really only looking for money. AJ had spiraled rapidly since, like a plane with only one wing, unable to lift himself back out. I'd tried, I'd tried desperately to talk to him, and a couple times he'd even agreed himself that the drugs and alcohol was going to kill him. But he fell again, every time, unable to stop.
Kevin, who had followed AJ, came out onto the parking lot, too. "You can't even fucking walk a straight line, AJ!"
Brian stepped forward, "Kev, maybe right now isn't the best--"
Kevin's eyes were fire when he looked at Brian, and Brian hung back with me, instantly silenced.
"Fuck off Kevin," AJ slurred.
Kevin reached for AJ's shoulder and spun him around, slamming his back against the bus. Hands pressed against the bus, Kevin had AJ pinned to the metal. AJ's eyes stared, unfocused and blurry, beyond Kevin at some unknown point in the distance. "Where the fuck is my friend?" Kevin demanded, "Where the fuck is he in you, huh? Where are you hiding him?" Kevin's voice was thick with emotion.
"Kev..." I reached out a hand and touched Kevin's shoulder.
AJ's eyes were only slightly more focused as he stared right into Kevin's eyes.
"You -" Kevin's voice and shoulders shuddered with the pain of the sentence he was about to utter, "- are dead to me." Kevin shoved away from the bus, releasing AJ from the cage, and stormed back into the door.
AJ slid to the ground beside the bus, curling in on himself, a gut-wrenching, deep-from-within sort of noise reverberating from within his chest. He clutched himself and his forehead hit the cement roughly, drawing blood. He did it a second time before Brian and I had caught him by the shoulders.
"Where's Howie?" AJ asked thickly.
Brian and I exchanged glances. Howie had been the only one that had been able to get AJ to talk for months now. Since Howie had lost his sister, AJ had felt a connection to him, making him feel comfortable to talk about his grandparents' death. The forged relationship between the two was similar to mine with Brian. "Go get D," I told Brian, and he nodded, bolting for Howie's private bus.
"AJ, what'd you do?" I asked, sitting down beside him. He slumped into my lap, hiccuping and shaking, "Huh?"
"JD," he mumbled.
"You gotta stop this," I whispered.
"You can't keep bullying up Kevin and us, and dropping down like this everyday... The fans even are noticing now that something's up, dude. We can't keep up the charade forever. Eventually, they're gonna find out what's going on behind the scenes. Or worse."
AJ looked up at me, his forehead bleeding a little, with sand pebbles stuck to the skin and blood. He looked pathetic, and I was reminded of Daniel in the alley in '69. I pushed the dirt off his forehead carefully.
"You know, Nick, sometimes, I just want it all to end, just to get it the fuck over with. You know?"
"I know." Did I ever.
AJ nodded. "I'm glad someone understands."
I didn't let Howie trade rooms with me, even though he'd asked to. He thought he was doing AJ a favor by trading, but I alone knew what the night held and therefore I knew that only I could be the one to stop it from coming true.
AJ stayed in bed the rest of the night in the hotel room, the bedspread pulled up over his head, so that only his face peeked out. He stared blankly, nearly comatose, across the room, unseeing. I kept my eye on him, especially the time over his head, waiting for the moment it would start.
At quarter of eleven, AJ sat up. I looked over at him.
"What's up, 'J?" I asked.
"I gotta pee." He rolled off the bed, then stood there awkwardly between his bed and mine, looking at me. He didn't look pleading or sad or anything, just... curious, I guess, more than anything. He nodded, and turned, apparently satisfied with the pause to have been a goodbye, and walked toward the bathroom.
"You shouldn't do it," I called after him.
"You know what I mean," I said. "You shouldn't do it."
AJ looked at me, but his time didn't change at all. Not even waver. His face was long, downcast, void. He shook his head and disappeared into the bathroom.
I leaped to my feet and followed him, my heart pounding. I cannot let this happen, I thought to myself. I grabbed my cellphone off the dresser as I passed it, punched Kev's speed dial, and said "Get over here", as I followed AJ into the bathroom. I had already close the phone by the time I'd stepped through the bathroom door.
"What the fuck man?" he was sitting on the edge of the bath tub. I shoved him and he fell backwards into it, dropping the bottle of pills that he'd been holding onto the floor. They spilled, rolling every which way. He crashed into the back of the tub wall and growled angrily, flaring up. His time had increased by ten minutes.
"I'm not gonna let you fucking do this to yourself." I stomped on the pills, crushing them into the tile with the force of my foot.
"You fucking asshole," AJ shrieked, his voice shriller than I'd ever imagined it could be. "You and Kevin both, parading around like you're a couple of perfect fucking gods. Well sorry, Titan and Poseidon, but you're both full of shit. I don't give a shit what you think of me or what you think I should do. You cannot stop me from making my own choices."
I shouted the words I knew would piss him off because I knew if I could just get him to vent the anger, no matter how violently, that he would come out the other side, broken, and ready to give in. "Just because you're too much of a pussy to move on--"
He lunged for me, his hands aimed for my neck. I ducked him and he banged into the counter of the sink, his face flushed and panting. "I fucking hate you," he yelled looking into the mirror so that, to this day, I will never know if he was speaking to me or to his own reflection. He turned, swinging his fist with a velocity that could've killed. I ducked again, raising my hand to block his, and our hands collided. His fist flying, mine blocking, and the feeling of shattered bone filled my now-limp hand.
I doubled over, howling in pain.
AJ grabbed the toilet bowl brush and threw it into the bath tub's wall in anger, smashed two glasses standing on the counter by the sink, and then, in a waterfall of sound and glass, sent his angry fist right into the center of the mirror. As the glass shattered and cascaded down like sheets of rain, he slid to the floor too, sobbing.
"I didn't mean to do this," he cried.
I knew he didn't mean the mess, or at the moment, even my hand.
"I know," I said.
"I'm so lost," he gasped in a whisper.
"It's gonna be okay, AJ."