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It was a week after Claire had died and I could still scarcely breathe, despite my efforts to get over her. I'd tried everything. But somehow even the things that had helped when others I'd loved died did nothing to touch the pain I felt over losing Claire. The color was drained away - like a world without her could never be cheerful. Even though we'd spent so many years apart, I'd never forgotten her, never fully let her escape from me. I'd spied on her, and experienced her in many facets. She'd been a part of me somehow.
Everything reminded me of her.
The sound of a number two pencil hitting the tile in the kitchenette of our hotel room had sent chills down my spine.
The smell of vanilla.
The sound of "And I Love Her" by the Beatles.
That was the song I was listening to, on constant repeat, on my iPod. With each beat, I could feel her hand in mine, feel her hips beneath my palm, see my face reflected in her eyes. I could smell her hair, sweet like cinnamon candy.
I'd been going through the motions, dancing and singing on stage, laughing and joking at interviews, eating. I'd taken scalding hot showers everyday, like the one I'd taken the day she'd died, trying to wash her away from me, but it didn't matter. The guys could still see through it.
If I wasn't careful, I would end up in trouble.
Of course, there was less than a year left before....
And the stress of that... well, it didn't help.
I was laying on the bed, my iPod on, my eyes closed, when AJ suddenly turned on the overhead light, and yanked my earbuds away.
"That's it. We're going out tonight."
We'd been sitting, catatonic, for quite some time. I looked up at him. "We are?" I asked.
"Yes," he declared. "You've been moping around here all week, and I don't know what your problem is really, but I think it might help if you get laid."
I laughed, "Some people think duct tape is the fix-all, but AJ McLean is here to tell you it's not tape, it's actually sex."
AJ yanked open his trunk, which sat by the door. "No seriously," he said, pulling out a pair of jeans and the RUN DMC tshirt he'd worn to every concert on the Unbreakable tour so far. "You're being freaky. You've hardly talked, except on stage, for the last week." He went into the bathroom, leaving the door opened, and I could hear him changing his clothes. "You need to at least get out. So - we're going out." He came back around the corner and stood at the foot of my bed. "Up," he chirped.
I stared up at him.
"I don't feel like it," I protested.
"Is this the face of someone who gives a fuck if you feel like it?" AJ asked, pointing at his chin. "UP."
I got up reluctantly. "Where are we going?" I asked.
"I dunno," he answered. "A club."
"Do they have clubs in New Hampshire?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Probably honky-tonk ones."
"And how are we getting there?" I asked.
"Will you stop analyzing the plan and just get dressed?" he pointed at the bathroom. "Go. I'll figure out the finer details."
Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road that ran along a lake the venue we were playing was on, walking in the dark. AJ was carrying a flashlight that was shaped like an alligator that we'd taken out of Baylee's box of toys on the bus.
"Now isn't this invigorating?" AJ asked.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Who died and made you the cheerleading captain?" I asked. "Where are we going anyway, Mr. Pep-Rally?"
"Well, I looked in the book at the hotel, and there's jackshit around here for clubs. Basically unless we want to like 40 miles down the highway there's nothing but trees and inns and maple sugar factories."
"Fun," I said. "So we're walking 40 miles? In the dark?"
"We have a flashlight."
"Mr. A-light-a-gator hardly counts as a flashlight," I said.
"Well, a fan invited me to her yacht party during the soundcheck," he confessed.
"So we're crashing a fan's party," I said, "Now there's a well thought out plan."
AJ was trying so hard to cheer me up that I almost felt bad still being depressed.
As we wound our way down the street, lined on one side by the lake, and the other by rows of hotels and cars and RV parks, we came to a small marina. AJ closed the alligator's mouth, cutting the pool of light it had been casting. Before us was a small pier that stretched about ten feet into the lake, and at the end of it was anchored a relatively small yacht - though it was the largest in the marina that I could see. It was strung with little Chinese lanterns and candles and music was playing loudly over the hum of conversation. A sea of people crowded the deck, and over their heads floated a mish-mash of red numbers.
"And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen," AJ said, gesturing toward the boat. "A par-tay."
"You do know that if we go any where near that party that we're both gonna get mobbed to death, right?" I asked.
AJ smirked, "Unless I'm mistaken, getting attacked by hot women was precisely the point." He wiggled his eyebrows, then marched resolutely towards the pier.
I sighed and followed him. He'd never handled being on boats very well - he was easily seasick - and all I could envision was having to get him out of the crowd before he hurled on a $9k oriental carpet or something.
AJ reached the yacht before I did, and called out, "Good evening lovely ladies!" The girls on the boat turned, saw who was talking, and promptly let out squeals and shouts of excitement as they helped him on board. He sauntered on and into the midst of them joyfully; it reminded me of one thing: You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.
"And look who's right behind me," AJ said gesturing toward me.
I waved stupidly, hating AJ more with every step I took toward the boat. Climbing on board behind him, I looked around me at the numbers, so packed and crowded that I could hardly distinguish one from another. This was the beauty that I gleaned from crowds precisely, though: they made it possible, if for merely a moment, for me to feel normal, to not know everyone's future, to ignore the numbers.
A bushy-haired teen that I remembered seeing at the soundcheck party earlier pushed her way towards us, separating the crowd like Moses with the Red Sea. She stood before us, her jaw dropped, eyes aglow. "I didn't think you'd come. I never dreamt you'd come."
AJ smiled, "What can I say?" he said, in his most charming voice, "New Hampshire is a boring-ass place."
Despite the negative incantations the sentence held, the fan took it with glee and squealed delightfully, snatching AJ's hand in her own.
It took quite awhile for the novelty of our presence on the boat to begin to wear down. After an hour or two, though, we were able to wind our way to a cushioned bench that ran along the starboard stern, where we sat, our feet crowded by girls that were rapid-firing compliments, questions, and giddy-stories at us. AJ was doing better at paying them attention than I was. My mind was still on Claire.
It was then that I felt eyes on me. Piercing me. Attempting to look into me.
I glanced around and for the slightest fraction of a second, my eyes met hers.
She was standing by the cabin with a small group of girls that were older than the ones fawning over us - closer to my own age. Well, presumed age. She was stunning, but that wasn't at all what attracted me to her. It was the numbers that hung over her head. Or, rather, the lack of them.
Above her head the night air hung; delightfully empty.
Chills went down my spine.
She'd turned away before I could register that our eyes had met.
I stared at her, or rather at the negative space above her, and felt my insides churn with a desire to find out more about her. Why, my mind raced, How?
I nudged AJ. "I'll be right back," I whispered.
AJ, who'd evidently seen me staring, said nothing, but smirked, in a knowing manner.
I stood and poked my way apologetically through the gaggle at our feet, excusing myself, and made my way across the boat toward this mysterious woman. As I approached, one of her friends nodded toward me, alerting her of my arrival. She turned, in a manner that was clearly intended to be brief, and gave me a careless once-over, from my sneakers up, her mojito clutched in her limp-wristed hand. When she reached my face, she did a double-take, the way people often do when they recognize me as a Backstreet Boy, and turned the rest of the way, gazing intently in a curious, yet confused manner.
Probably wondering what the hell I'm doing here, I thought. And who could blame her? A part of me had been wondering that very question all night.
I stepped up to her little posse. "Hey," I said lamely. I'd come over with the intention to get to know her, but I wasn't entirely sure how to go about it. I felt stupid and awkward in a way that I hadn't since I was 13. Any of the times I'd been 13.
"Hello," she said. Her voice was velvet.
"I couldn't help but notice you," I said.
"Of all the girls fawning over you, you notice me?" she scoffed. I frowned. "Do you have a complex, for seeking things that don't want you?" she chided.
"You seem -- different," I replied.
"Because I'm not swooning at your attention," she answered. Yet even as she threw sarcasm at me, even as she made fun of me, her eyes were reading me like a book, perusing my face, scanning me, questioning me.
"Maybe," I answered.
She took a sip of the cocktail. "Well?" she asked. "What do you want?" I noticed she had on chipped purple nail polish and found this endearing in a quirky way.
"I was hoping we could talk," I said.
She glanced at her friend, the one that had warned her of my approach. The girl nodded ever so slightly, widening her eyes in a way that plainly said 'duh'. She handed off her mojito to her. "Here. Watch the bar for me."
I followed her lead mutely, waiting for the numbers to show up, but they didn't. She led me across the boat and down onto the pier. We were standing there, surrounded by dark water. Basically we were alone. A couple girls had opted to go swimming, but they were splashing and making a ruckus down the end of the pier and therefore wouldn't be able to overhear us at all, too involved in their own fun to pay any attention, even to me.
"So?" she asked, leaning back-to the water against the rail of the pier. She stretched her arms out along the top rung of the railing, gnawing on the right side of her lower lip. "Nick... right?" she asked.
"Sorry. I'm not really a-- Backstreet Boys, is it? --fan," she said. "That's Abigail's department."
"Who's Abi--"
"My... sister." The pause was unintentional, but strong. "I'm sort of an undercover chaperone for this shindig," she waved at the yacht.
"It's nice to meet you, Abigail's.....sister." I inserted the pause in the same deliberate manner she had.
A breath escaped her that signified humor - it couldn't be called a scoff or a laugh, just an amused exhale - and she smiled on one side of her mouth, the other staying level. "Amie. I-E, not Y."
"Pretty," I said.
Her eyes fixed on me, searching me. I stared at the negative space above her head. We stood there like that for a moment. It would have been awkward with anyone else, but with Amie... well, silence was okay.
"Do you drink coffee?" she suddenly asked.
"Not really," I answered. She started to look a bit shut down, but then I added, "It's more like I mainline the stuff, really; inhale it with oxygen on the side, you know?"
The amused exhale escaped her again. It was kind of a sexy sound, actually.
"Well I've got some back at my RV," she said, "We could talk there."
"Okay," I agreed. I glanced back at the yacht. "You sure you're okay leaving your charge unattended?" I asked.
"They're fine. My friend's watching the bar. I'm sure Abby can refrain from blowing up the yacht for ten minutes. Anyways, they're all fixated on your buddy there. Tattoo-Jones, or whatever," she said.
"AJ," I supplied.
I didn't think twice. When she started walking away, I followed, staring at the delightfully empty air where the numbers should've been, feeling as though I were human... for the first time in an extremely long, long time.