Brian had fallen asleep in the seat across from where Howie was sitting, and, the way his head kept lolling about, Howie was sure the guy would wake up with the worst crick in his neck. In the back, Nick was on the phone, though Howie wasn’t sure it was a phone call that Nick was particularly pleased to be taking. The way the youngest member of the band would raise his voice every so often and the content of the conversation had Howie certain that it was one of his needy siblings on the other end.
Meanwhile, AJ had sprawled out at the front of the bus and was currently listening to the latest version of his upcoming solo album, checking and re-checking it for quality. Besides that, AJ just liked hearing his songs and was proud as a new father over the record. Howie half-expected the man to get up and start handing out cigars to celebrate its release. Knowing AJ, it wouldn’t be completely unexpected either.
And that left Howie, sitting and staring out at the receding lights of the Strip. He wasn’t exactly the happiest Backstreet Boy these days—not the way he should’ve been. After all, the past year should’ve been one of the brightest in his life. He’d married the love of his life and had settled into married life really well. The tour had started up and been a big success (contrary to the American media’s belief). The Backstreet Boys, and his many side projects, were doing well. Where he should’ve been happy, Howie was anything but.
Had it only been a few weeks ago that he’d buried his father? Howie wondered. It seemed like forever ago that he’d been seated at Hoke’s bedside, terrified and saddened that his father would pass on any minute now. But then, at other times, it seemed like just yesterday that he’d sung his father’s favorite song at the memorial and wept copious tears over the casket.
No personal or professional accomplishments could diminish the grief that lingered heavily in his heart.
So, there he was, a world-renowned singer who should’ve been wallowing in his success, staring desolately over the Nevada landscape, grieving over his father. His heart wasn’t, and hadn’t been, in the mood to tour for the last several shows and, though he knew it wasn’t fair to the fans, he hadn’t been able to hide that fact.
Sighing heavily, he turned away from the window as the last lights of Vegas disappeared over the horizon and met AJ’s sympathetic gaze. The other band members knew exactly what was going on with Howie, and, as their eyes met, AJ smiled grimly before removing the ear buds and made his way to where Howie sat.
“Hey, man. Good show, huh?” AJ’s gravelly voice was quiet both in deference to Howie’s grief and because he didn’t want to wake Brian.
Howie shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. It’s always good to see the fans.”
AJ nodded, but he knew that Howie hadn’t gotten as much pleasure out of seeing those fans as he usually did. “I love doing shows in Vegas. There’s always an awesome vibe in the venue. You know?”
When they lapsed into silence, AJ wondered what he could say—if there was anything he could say—that would ease Howie’s pain. He had no idea what it was like to lose a father since his own had always been absent from his life, but he knew what it was like to lose a parent figure. His way to deal with that had been to turn to substance abuse, but Howie was made of sterner stuff.
Maybe, for tonight, the best course was to try to distract him, if even for a moment or two.
“So, how’s Leigh?”
“Baby,” Brian mumbled in his sleep across the aisle. “Love you.”
AJ and Howie looked at each other and, while he tried to stifle his snickers, AJ noticed the flicker of humor in Howie’s eyes. It lightened his heart a bit. “I meant, your wife,” he added after a moment.
Howie’s lips curved slightly, his eyes warming a bit. “Yeah, I know who you meant.”
“He’s obsessed with his wife; ignore him,” AJ replied good-naturedly. “Can’t stop thinking about her, even in his sleep.”
Shaking his head slightly, Howie rubbed a finger over his own wedding band. “My Leigh is okay. She’s busy with work and stuff. Mom’s staying with her for a couple weeks.”
“Leigh got Mama D to come out west?” AJ blinked, surprised. “That’s great! It’ll be good for her to be around people, right?”
“That’s what Leigh said.” Howie wasn’t quite so sure. If it was this hard for him, in spite of the fact that he was living with three other people, how hard must it be for his mother to handle her grief? He sighed. “Yeah, I think she’ll be okay.”
AJ reached over and patted Howie’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort. “Listen, Howie, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. We’ll all understand if you need more time off. I don’t think anyone will hold it against you, you know.”
“No, I’m fine. I will be fine,” he corrected when AJ opened his mouth to protest. “It’s just—I need some time, okay?”
“I know that. I do. Come on, Howie.” AJ shook his head. “Who else would know what it’s like to lose a parent?” He paused in thought. “Well, besides Kevin, that is. But he’s not here, so…yeah.”
Howie sighed and rubbed his hands over his face wearily. “I know you’re trying to help, AJ, and I appreciate that. I really, really do, but I just need to deal with this in my own way.”
AJ scrutinized his bandmate and friend closely for a few moments before nodding. “Okay. I understand, I do.” He checked his watch. “Maybe we should hit the sack, it’s getting late.” When Nick’s voice rose again before there was a crash followed by silence, he sighed. “Or, you hit the sack, and I’ll go see what’s going on with the kid.”
Howie shrugged vaguely and turned to stare back out the window. A few moments later, he heard the murmur of AJ’s voice followed by the louder tones of Nick’s. Across from him, Brian shifted slightly, and his head fell off his shoulder, jerking him half-awake. He mumbled to himself for a second, eyes half open, before he fell asleep again.
Slouching low in the seat, Howie tried to practice the meditative techniques that Leigh often used. There was nothing he wanted more than to slide into worry-free oblivion.
Five minutes later, he fell asleep to the low sounds of Nick and AJ’s voices.
Brian wasn’t sure what woke him out of a deep sleep. All he knew was that his neck was killing him, and he’d be surprised if he’d ever be able to have a fully functional neck again. Blinking several times, he squinted into the darkness of the inside of the bus, wondering why someone had turned all the lights off. Carefully, knowing his neck was fragile at the moment, he turned his head to look out the window.
The night sky was still brightly lit by the moon, and, in the distance, Brian could see the lights of a city, glowing against the inky black of the sky.
It took a few more moments before he realized that the bus wasn’t moving. Had the bus gotten a flat tire? he wondered to himself. Rotating his head from side to side to relieve the stiffness, he climbed out of his seat and took a step down the aisle towards the front of the bus. He was sure their bus driver, Larry, would know what was going on.
However, when he made it to the front, after nearly tripping over half a dozen things in the dark, he found the driver’s seat empty. The keys still dangled from the ignition, and Larry’s cell phone still sat in the same spot it always did. Brian decided that his spidey senses were definitely on the tingle now, and he was certain that there was something wrong.
That fear was confirmed when he realized that the bus was sitting in the middle of their side of the one-lane highway. How was it possible that Larry would just stop the bus right where it was?
He wouldn’t, Brian thought with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, he flipped it open to dial 9-1-1 before he got out of the bus and went to look for the missing bus driver. Instead of the call going through, his screen lit with the message that there was no signal and the phone was searching for it.
“Gosh, now I definitely feel like I’m in a horror movie,” he muttered to himself. “And you know what happens in horror movies when the dumb blonde goes outside where the killer’s lurking, right? She dies.” He pondered the idea of waking the other guys up—he could still hear AJ’s snores from the back, which meant he wasn’t alone on the bus—but decided against it, thinking Larry could’ve just decided to take a smoke break.
“Okay, Brian, be strong,” he whispered and reached for the lever to push open the door.
Outside, the air was cool, and a slight breeze ruffled his hair. Brian walked around towards the back of the bus. Halfway down, the hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he shivered. Someone was watching him, he thought and whirled around. There was no one behind him, but the feeling nagged him.
When he turned around the corner of the bus, he halted dead in his tracks. The urge to vomit hit him viciously, but he forced it back and fumbled for his phone to call for help though he knew nothing would help the poor bus driver.
Larry lay in the middle of the road, his head twisted in a complete one-eighty. Though his body lay on its belly, Larry’s head was facing Brian, and his horrified eyes stared at Brian as blood pooled around his body. The breeze started to blow the scent towards him, and Brian covered his mouth and turned to run back.
Leaping back onto the bus, he opened his mouth to yell and froze in place when a dark figure stepped into the aisle. A gun was aimed dead center at Brian’s chest.
“What-” he began but was cut off.
“I love when they’re awake,” a man’s voice growled out of the darkness behind him. The pleasure in his voice was hard to miss, and a fresh stab of fear flashed down Brian’s spine.
“Who are you?” he whispered in a trembling voice, his hand reaching for the cross that hung round his neck.
There was a low, menacing chuckle just before Brian felt a stunning flash of pain. As he took a free-fall into the wheeling darkness, the last words he heard were, “Your worst nightmare.”