Okay, this was getting ridiculous.
He clearly remembered going to bed last night. AFTER his birthday party. Yet here he was again. Waking up in the same way, to the same visual and auditory clues. And to a calendar that clearly stated that today was August 22.
Now, if it had been a paper calendar he could understand it. But it was a top-of-the-line electronic personal organizer. And it just couldn’t be broken yet.
Could it have just been a vivid dream? He’d had those before. Ones where you wake up and feel like you spent the whole night working rather than sleeping. But he only got those in the middle of a really long and busy tour. He hadn’t had one on the last tour: the Boys had finally gotten to a place in their career where THEY could make some decisions about how many concerts they did. No more doing two concerts in one day and then on to the next city to do it again and again and again. Compared to some of their previous tours the last one had been a cakewalk.
But it didn’t feel like a dream. It felt real. Really real.
He looked at his face in the mirror. “What have you been smoking, Howie?” he asked the familiar visage. “And when the hell did you smoke it, ‘cos I don’t remember doing something like that at all.”
Then again, it was his birthday. Maybe this was a sign of aging… Forget about wrinkles, gray hair and a drooping body: the real killer was thinking that you’d been through it all already.
The phone rang and he reached to answer it.
He’d known it would be. He stood there, looking at himself in the mirror, trying to figure out if he was going nuts, listening to AJ sing his rendition of a birthday song. Then, once the caterwauling had stopped, said, “get some new material,” and hung up.
He was too young to be going crazy, wasn’t he?
The phone rang again. He thought quickly to the list of people who were going to call him this morning (according to what he was sure had happened the day before). So he picked up and the receiver and answered it with a “Hi, Brian.”
“I’m not B-rok, and why the hell did you hang up on me?” an angry voice asked.
Okay, this was a deviation from what he expected. Maybe there was hope!
“Sorry, Bone. Just had a very weird dream, I think. Its kind of spooking me.”
“Well, they say at your age the brain goes fast,” AJ joked.
“Look at it this way: all your hair could have fallen out.”
Howie inspected his head surreptiously. Nope, hairline was at the same spot it had been the day before (or whenever he’d checked it last).
“Or you could have shrunk, you know, where it counts.”
Nope, quick pajama bottom check shows that everything is A-Ok.
“Or you could have turned into Nick.”
“Ouch! Things will never get that bad,” Howie chuckled.
He could hear AJ grinning even through the phone. “Yeah, that’s what I always tell myself when I’m having a bad day. At least I’m not Nick.”
“Really? And what colour is your hair today?”
AJ snorted. “Lay off, man. Its not blond ‘cos I want to be Nick. Its blond ‘cos that was the mood I was in when I coloured it.”
“Omigod! So you must have totally been in a surfer-dude, white trash, Eminem-head mood then. Totally.” Howie gave his best Valley-girl impression.
Howie laughed. A good deep, hard, belly laugh. “Thanks bro, I needed that.”
“Yeah, well you always get grouchy on your b’day. So I’ll see you later?”
He hung up in a much better mood. It was going to be okay. Whatever weird notions he’d had when he woke up… they were obviously not real. He was not living this day over. It had just been a dream. He chuckled at himself for believing something like that. Wasn’t that some sort of bad Bill Murray movie or something? Not something that was going to happen to him.
He reached over to the phone as it rang again.
“Hey, D. How’s the birthday boy?” Brian’s voice came through loud and clear.
As he talked to Brian he started a list of who was going to call, and in what order. Just to see if he really was losing it. And for the most part it had been right. A change here and there. Not enough to totally put his mind at ease, but enough that he felt he wasn’t totally losing control.
Well, whatever was happening it was time to take charge. First things first: he couldn’t change his appointment at the gym, but he could alter his way of getting there. That should throw off any of the strange twists of fate that were screwing with his day.
He still got the waves from fans (and a few flashes) on his new route to the gym. How did they always seem to know where he was? Did they have radar or something? A homing device on his car? Maybe he should check… Okay, Dorough, that is one step too far into the world of paranoia.
The gym was busy, but to his mind seemed a little less so than he had expected. Where was the guy on the adductor machine? And wasn’t that lady supposed to be on the Stairmaster and not on the rowing machine?
He hopped in the shower after his workout, sweaty though strangely sated. It was birthday jitters. Lord knows he had enough reasons to abhor his birthday. It had not been a good day for him in the past. So this year he’d just let it get to him a little much. That was all.
He moved under the spray of the shower, letting the water glide over him, caressing every taut muscle in his chest, and run over the ripples of his stomach. He’d needed that workout. Just to get his head back on straight.
His hand closed over the bar of soap and he scrubbed the sweat off of him vigorously. “You know,’ he said, addressing the soap, “if I was to suddenly drop you I’d feel a little weirded out. But that is not going to happen, so I’m okay with it.”
The soap didn’t answer.
He grinned at his own thoughts, and then went to replace the soap in the dish. But it started to slip out of his hand. He tried to catch it. Honest he did. He almost had it a few times. But no: it fell to the floor of the shower stall with a thud.
He just stared at it.
This was getting ridiculous.
He leaned over quickly to pick it up, and as his long fingers started to grasp it, the door to the shower stall suddenly shook as someone tried to pull the door open. He gave a distraught squawk and jumped back.
“Sorry man, didn’t know it was taken,” was the response from the other side of the door, and he heard the man walk down to the stall on the other side, open the door and turn on the faucet.
Howie tried to still the rapid beating of his heart. He took a deep breath, then glanced down at the bar on the floor. “On that note, I think its time to go.” He retreated from the stall, leaving the traitorous soap where it lay.
He climbed into his car and sat behind the steering wheel, his hands shaking a little. “So things are a little weird. So you are feeling some very major déjà vu. That’s it. That is all that is happening. Now start the car and let’s get home and get changed and go to the party,” he said, giving himself a pep talk.
He drove slowly out of the parking lot, looking cautiously both ways before moving onto the street. “There’s supposed to be a woman on a bike,” he mumbled to himself. Nope. No woman on a bike. No one on a bike at all. He gave a sigh of relief. Things were going to be okay.
The drive home was slower than usual, because he had gone out of his way to avoid any bicyclist he saw. One can never be too careful.
It wasn’t until he was almost home that he started to speed up. And that is when, as he was turning into his condo, he almost knocked over a woman on a pair of rollerblades.
“Are you okay?” he asked worriedly as he jumped out of the car. She was sitting on the ground, swearing up a storm.
“Yeah, I always like being knocked on my ass when I’m blading. What’s the matter with you? Roads not big enough? You have to take over even the little space on the side?” she asked sarcastically.
“Sorry. Really I am. I just…”
“I know, I know. Didn’t see me. Well, try and keep your eyes open.” She tried to get up, but her feet kept rolling out from underneath her and her wrist guards didn’t provide her with much traction.
“Look, can I…?” He stepped forward, coming round to help her up. Only that didn’t work either. He ended up on the ground in a pile with her.
“I don’t think this is working,” she said sardonically. Then turned to look at him. He could see recognition spread across her face. “You’re…”
“Yeah, I know. Howie D of the Backstreet Boys. Let’s try this standing up thing again.” He pulled himself up, then braced one of her feet against his. Her other leg tried to roll out again, but he held her steady.
”Much better,” he said with a smile as he looked up at her. She started to slip, and grabbed onto him again.
“Easy for you to say.” She gingerly sat down again on the curb, then unbuckled her blades. “Sorry I barked at you. I’m a little new on these. I have the going forward, and the slowing down and the upright stops and starts down okay. I just haven’t perfected the falling.”
He chuckled. “Having my car swerve close to you probably didn’t help.”
“Not really,” she agreed as she unsnapped her helmet, shook out her hair and turned back to him.
Finally he got a good look at her face. “You!” he accused angrily.
“You’re the one who’s doing this to me. It’s not fun anymore, so just damn well stop it!”
“Doing what to you? What is your problem? You almost hit me, remember?”
“Yeah, and I’d really like to know how you set that up,” he said angrily.
She pulled some sandals from her backpack, and put them as she tied her blades together. “Listen, Howie, I don’t know what the hell you are talking about. I was just blading along, minding my own business, and you drove that big purple hunk of junk in front of me. And as you might notice, I’m the one with the cuts and bruises, so NO, I didn’t try and throw myself in front of your damn car.”
She got up quickly and started to walk away.
“And I suppose you aren’t going to tell me that your name is Helen, and that you wish me a happy birthday?” he asked snidely.
“Yes, my name is Helen. But you knew that already. We’ve met before. And as for your birthday, well I wish you the kind of birthday you deserve.” She continued to walk away.
He looked after her curiously. “We’ve met?”
“Duh!” was the angrily shouted rejoinder.
“Wait!” He rushed after her. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve just been having a really strange day. We’ve met before?”
“In Detroit when you were on tour last year. Goodbye, birthday brat.”
“Please! Wait! I’m really sorry I yelled at you. Like I said: I’m having a weird day. And, I dunno, its like you were in a dream I had last night or something. It was just too much, you know?”
“I’m too much?” she replied with a raised eyebrow. “Who’s the jerk who almost killed me then yelled at me?”
“Jerk. Guilty as charged,” he smiled. “I just… I don’t know how to explain it. Bizarre things seem to be happening to me today and I just reacted. Please, accept my apology.”
“Look, my condo’s just upstairs. Come up. We’ll clean up those cuts, get come bandages on them. I’ll prove that I am not always the schmuck I’ve been acting like.”
She laughed. It was a nice sound. “I suppose I can trust you. If you’re mean again, I can always key your car.” The look of horror on his face was highly satisfying.
“What is it that people have against my car? I like my car,” he mumbled as he moved it into a spot then joined her at the elevators.
It didn’t take long to wash the dirt off and put some ointment on Helen’s scrapes. By the time they were finished they were getting along like old friends, and Howie was telling her about the “dream” he had been having all day.
“So you just keep knocking me down day after day?” she asked with a disbelieving look. “I have definitely got to stay away from you.”
He laughed. “Yeah well, it does sort of look like my usual birthday-from-hell is affecting you as well as me. In fact,” he looked at her curiously. “Want to go to a party?”
Her eyes went wide. “Your birthday party?” She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t belong.”
“Hey, by my calculation I have nearly killed you three days in a row.” He chuckled, “three of the same days in a row. I think that makes you entitled.”
“I…umm. I have nothing to wear.” She smirked. “How ‘girlie’ is that?”
“No problem. I can drive you to your place. Get changed and were good to go.”
“Free food. Free drinks. Wild and free Backstreet Boys…” he said temptingly.
“With an invitation like that, how can I refuse?”
They arrived to hoots and hollers from his friends. They had agreed not to tell the full story of how they came to be there together: who would believe it anyway? Helen chatted amiably with Howie’s family, hitting it off in particular with Papa D. Mama D chuckled at her attempts at rudimentary Spanish, but after a little while were chatting away in what could best be describe as Spanglish
After the parents had headed out, AJ and Nick brought out their “party favor.” A stripper. Howie glanced at Helen, afraid she’d be embarrassed by it, but she just ignored it, continuing her conversation with Nick.
Come to think of it, she’d spent a lot of time talking to Nick. Why was that? She’d given him her rundown on her likes and dislikes of the five men, and Nick hadn’t come very high on the list. And he was usually a very shy man. So why was he talking animatedly with Helen?
After the dancer had shown her stuff, he ambled over to where Nick and Helen were sitting.
“Okay, but I don’t get it. If you are all supposed to have superpowers and go around saving humanity, when are you supposed to have time to do the other stuff? The singing and the touring and so on? I mean, it has to be believable.”
“It’s a comic, Helen. It doesn’t have to be believable.”
“Am I interrupting?”
The two looked up. “Hey D. Nope, just trying to convince her that the Backstreet Project has staying power.”
“And I say it doesn’t because it depends on two things. First, your appeal as a group, which, frankly, could go on forever or it could die tomorrow. But second, the strip has to be believable. And you aren’t doing that.”
Nick’s brow furrowed as he was about to answer her.
“Well, I vote for the appeal as a group going on forever. You are right about the believability, though. Still, I agree with Nick. It is just a comic strip.”
Nick snorted. “Its not JUST a strip. It’s… Oh to hell with it. I need another drink. You two okay?” Both Helen and Howie shook their heads and Nick ambled away.
“So is this version of your birthday going better?”
Helen smiled. “Good. I haven’t wished you Happy Birthday yet. So Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks,” he glanced over at Nick as he return through the crowd. “Looks like Nick is getting most of the benefits, though.”
The smile leaked from Helen’s face. “I’ll let that go because you’ve been having a bad day. But I suggest that next time someone wishes you a happy birthday, you at least be gracious about it.” She got up and intercepted Nick.
“I didn’t mean…”
It was well into the early morning when he finally got to bed. His party was over. And he was very, very drunk. He’s been fine for most of the evening. But when he saw Nick and Helen leave together… He was still sober enough to realize that Nick came back a short while later – he had just been driving Helen home – but by then the damage was done. He scrambled into his bed, alone, and gave into the demands for sleep that his body was sending him.