Alli closed the door gently behind her and switched a small lamp
on, letting the dim light spill across the floor. She tossed her purse against the couch and walked doggedly into the tiny
kitchen, reaching into the refrigerator for an apple. She grabbed a glass from the dishwasher and filled it with water, then
pulled a bottle of Tylenol out of the cabinet overhead and proceeded to swallow two of the pills without a second thought
to it in hopes that she could eventually ease the pounding in her head. She'd have to save the ache in her heart for another
She had spent the past week at the hospital, spending quality time at her father's bedside, competing for his
attention and failing miserably. She had learned many things in the past week, the first of which being that a new woman was
always more exciting than a faithful woman. She had always been her father's little girl, and she resented the thought that
anyone could so easily replace her, but Holly was doing a fine job of making her feel nonexistent. The tension in the room
was enough to drive anyone insane, but Alli's father didn't seem to notice that there was any underlying hostility between
the two women. He continued to chat with them both as though the three were one happy family, and it pained Alli that he couldn't
see the distress it was causing both herself and Holly. She had spent the entire week faking smiles and pretending to be cheerful,
and the effort of being falsely happy had finally taken its toll on her. She wanted her father back.
At this point,
however, she was just exhausted, and she wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and fall asleep for a week.
looked around the small apartment with newfound appreciation as she took a bite out of the apple. She had spent the previous
week in the hospital, staying through the night until she knew that her father was well on his way to a full recovery. The
doctor had announced that afternoon that John Lacey was progressing quite well, and as long as he stayed in bed and followed
the nurses' orders, he would be free to go within another week. The news was good news for the obvious reason that her father
would get better, but it had also given Alli an excuse to go home. She had moved out of the house to go to college, and had
acquired the small apartment upon her return to Tampa. She had reveled in the newfound independence until given the opportunity
to go on tour with Nick, and she was glad to be back in the one place that felt like her own. It felt like a long time since
she had truly belonged somewhere.
She cast a bitter glance at one of the pictures on the wall. Lord knows I don't
belong with Nick...
The one benefit to Holly's sudden appearance in her father's life was that she hadn't had
much of a chance to think about Nick and the other Boys. She had finally gotten hold of Amanda, and the two had chatted for
a bit, but it wasn't the same with the distance between them. She wouldn't deny that she missed her Backstreet family--partially
because the girls were some of the only women that she could really relate to--but she was too preoccupied with her father's
sudden change in character to think too much on the subject.
Finally, she became aware of the beeping noise and the
blinking red light on her answering machine. With a heavy sigh, she padded over to the machine and pressed her mailbox button,
hoping against hope that she might receive a few pleasant messages. She took another bite out of her apple, patiently waiting
for the messages to begin.
"First message: Hey, Al, it's Manda. Listen, I haven't talked to you but once since
you left, and I was just wondering what the hell was up. I hope your dad's doing better, and hopefully that Holly chick has
finally decided that, since you're the daughter, you deserve some quality time ALONE with your dad. Anyway, just so you know...Al,
we're really worried about Nick. He's not doing so well without you here. He's been out drinking every night, and Kevin's
started threatening to lock him in his room if he doesn't clean up his act. He looks fine onstage, but...well, maybe you should
consider coming back after this whole mess in Tampa blows over. Besides, we miss you, girl! I've got to go to the show, just
wanted to check in. Give me a call back, you know the number. See ya!"
Alli rolled her eyes, but she couldn't stifle
her smile at the sound of Amanda's voice. She missed her girlfriends much more than she'd originally thought, and she was
glad to know that they were still thinking of her. Amanda's usually blunt attitude was a breath of normalcy in her warped
world, and she reveled in the feeling for the few moments before the next message. The talk of Nick disturbed her more than
she cared to admit, but she decided to discard any thoughts of him. She didn't want to send him into the pits of depression,
but she didn't matter in his life. If anything, her absence was just an excuse to party more often, and she had no doubt that
Kevin would eventually set him straight. She had to smile at that. Kev usually has that ramrod effect on people...
message: Alli-alli-fo-falli-me-mi-mo-malli...uh, nevermind, Amanda's giving me weird looks now... Listen, babe, it's
AJ. I was just wondering what's going on down there, 'cause Panda won't tell me anything and I haven't heard from you. Girl,
you're neglecting me...that's not like you. Is everything okay? How'd your dad's surgery go? Give us a call, okay? Nick may
be an asshole, but the rest of us really do miss you. I think Nick does too. See, he gets really drunk, and then he...what
Howie? Oh, okay. Al, we've got to get onstage, but leave me a message on my cell so I know that you haven't been eaten by
wild alligators or something, and I'll call you back ASAP. Love ya, babe."
Had she not been so exhausted, Alli would
have burst out laughing at a message that was so characteristic of AJ. The little song at the beginning didn't surprise her
in the least; AJ was known for his ability--or inability--to sing everything, everywhere. She could even see the look on Amanda's
face that had resulted, and she shook her head in amusement at the thought. She'd be lying if she denied that AJ's unfinished
sentence about Nick's drunken habits had left her insanely curious, but his comment about alligators had quickly washed away
the curiosity. The playful affection in his raspy voice left her feeling strangely empty, and she felt tears welling up in
her eyes when she realized how badly she needed one of AJ's famous hugs. Of course, as wonderful as AJ's hugs were, she couldn't
help but think that Nick's tended to be better, and then the tears were flowing heavily, because she knew that getting a hug
from Nick was no longer a possibility.
God, does it really have to hurt this much?
She jumped in surprise
when a third message snapped her out of her reverie.
"Next message: Um, Alli? You probably don't remember
me, seeing as high school was about four years ago, but it's David Rastrelli. I live in Orlando now, and I have a friend here
who gave me your number the other day. She said you're living in Tampa now, and she also said that you wouldn't mind going
out for coffee, so I figured I'd give you a call. It'd be great to hear from you! I heard you were still hanging out with
Carter, so you'll have to tell me how he's doing. I heard about your father's accident...I'm really sorry, Al. Listen, why
don't you give me a call? We'll get together sometime. I really miss hearing from you."
Alli almost dropped her apple
in surprise. David Rastrelli? As in ex-boyfriend David Rastrelli? But why the hell would ex-boyfriend David be calling
me now, of all times? I haven't even spoke to the guy for four years...
Alli flinched when the realization came.
She knew automatically that the only "friend" in Orlando that could have given David her number was Amanda. She also knew
that Amanda was dead set on her finding someone other than Nick to depend on for friendship and happiness. Of course, she
also knew that David wasn't the type who would call if he really hadn't wanted to see her. She had dated David during her
junior and senior years in high school, and Nick had been happy to hang out with them whenever he was in town. David had been
one of the first guys to interest Alli romantically, and she couldn't help smiling at the thought of him. If nothing else,
it would be nice to see how well he'd aged over the past four years. He had always been relatively good-looking, and he was
sweeter than Nick where personality was concerned. Had they not graduated, she had the strange suspicion that they might still
be dating. And maybe then I wouldn't be quite so worried where Carter is concerned...
She frowned at the phone, hoping that there would be another
message to avoid any more deep thoughts on the subject of men. To her delight, the machine beeped again.
message: Alli? Hey, it's Leigh (pause) and Jessi. We were calling to check up on you. Amanda said that your father got
out of surgery okay, which is absolutely wonderful. I really hope that things are going well over there, and so does Jessi.
We were wondering if you could give us a call back sometime. Al, please don't avoid the whole camp just because Nick is an
asshole...we miss you. Well, we've got to get going pretty soon, but please call, day or night. Bri doesn't mind if you wake
us up, just let us know how you're doing. Jessi says that Howie wants to talk to you also. Well, I guess I'll talk to you
later. Hang in there, honey."
Alli felt herself smiling through her confused and tired tears at Leighanne's soft twang.
After getting over the fact that the innocent Leighanne had called Nick an "asshole", she couldn't help but appreciate Leighanne's
honesty and friendship. She found her thoughts drifting to her Backstreet family as another message echoed throughout the
"Next message: Al, hey, it's your favorite worrywart. Where are you, hon? The other girls
said that they called and you haven't called them back. Listen, sweetie, Kev and I are going to be up for awhile tonight,
so if you want to call and update us, please do. We both really miss hearing from you, and we're all praying for your father.
If you don't have time yet, or if you aren't comfortable calling just yet, then don't worry about it, but please pick up the
phone and drop us a line whenever you get the chance. We're always here if you need us, Al, so please don't forget that."
smiled in amusement at the thought that they were all so serious about trying to comfort her. She felt much better after having
heard their messages, and she was thrilled that they weren't going to write her off just because she wasn't physically present
in their lives. Kristin, however, had always been the mothering type, and Alli was warmed by the thought that anyone could
be so concerned about her, despite the fact that she had run out on her friends so quickly. She was about to pick up the phone
and call Kristin when the machine beeped again.
"Next message: Hey, Alli, it's David again. Sorry to bother
you, but I'm a retard--stop nodding your head--and I forgot to leave you my number so you could call me back. I was wondering
why you hadn't called yet. (laughs) Anyway, I'm going to be in Tampa this week on business, so feel free to come and drag
me to lunch and out to see the sights. I wouldn't mind a little escape from the amazing world of internship, so maybe you
could hurry? My cell number is 1-817-994-3549. I'm waiting..." Beep!
"End of messages."
At the monotone voice of
the answering machine, Alli felt her heart drop to her stomach and rolled her eyes at the feeling. She knew it shouldn't bother
her, but it did.
Nick hadn't called. Of course, it's not like he had a reason to call. It's not like I actually
thought he was going to call. It's not like I was dumb enough to think that he could care enough to call...
sighed heavily when she realized that she really wished that he had. However, she forced the thought to the back of her mind
and tried to remind herself that she was moving on. As long as he was going to act without thinking, she didn't need him.
After all, David had thought enough of her to call. She sighed at the thought of her ex-boyfriend and stared at the phone
To call or not to call...
With a deep breath, Alli set her mouth in a firm line and picked
up the phone. She glanced at the paper on which she'd written her friend's number, and quickly dialed the digits. The phone
rang twice before he picked up, and she smiled to herself.
"Hey, David? Sorry to call so late. Listen, it's Alli. I
got your message..."
* * *
"Has she called you yet?"
Leighanne looked up in alarm, but
recovered quickly when she saw Kristin and Kevin sliding into the booth. She shook her head slowly and sadly.
she hasn't. I keep hoping that she hasn't gotten home to check her messages yet, and she isn't really avoiding us. She doesn't
seem the type that would do that. After all, she did try to call Manda..." The woman trailed off and looked hopefully at Kristin.
"Has she called you yet?"
Kristin looked sadly at Kevin before shaking her head. "No. I left a pretty heavy message
on her machine, but I haven't tried calling her cell because I don't want to bug her."
Amanda looked up from her martini
with a sigh. "I'm beginning to think that we're going to have to bug her. In a week, I've talked to her once. That's
not like her at all."
AJ shook his head. "No, it's really not. I even tried singing to her machine."
his eyes and laughed. "Well, that answers the question then. No wonder she isn't calling us back. She probably thinks we're
all on crack..."
Amanda grinned. "Nah, just AJ."
AJ turned to his girlfriend in surprise. "Baby! I resemble
Brian shook his head in amusement at their playful banter, but his brow was still creased with worry.
"You don't think something bad happened, do you?"
Amanda shook her head. "No, she'd call. I think she's just overly
stressed and probably trying to avoid any type of confrontation. After all, she had quite a big one with Blondie over there..."
glared spitefully at Nick's head. The younger man was staring out over the dance floor, very obviously looking for the evening's
conquest. He hadn't gone one night without a woman for the entire week that Alli had been gone, and the behavior was starting
to worry the other members of the Backstreet family. "Well, I can't blame her for not wanting to talk to him, but she ought
to at least let us know that she's okay."
Jessi rolled her eyes at the edge in Kristin's voice and laid a hand on the
older woman's arm to sustain her. "Guys, she probably hasn't even gone home yet. You know how worried she was. Give her a
little while to get settled at the apartment, and then she'll call and give us a massive update."
Howie cast a worried
glance in his girlfriend's direction. "I really hope you're right."
Jessi nodded firmly. "I am. You're welcome to leave
her messages, but don't get mad at her. She definitely doesn't need that right now. She needs your support."
looked up from his third glass of Jack with a confused frown. "Um, not to be rude or anything, but who the hell are you guys
Leighanne's eyes widened in honest surprise. "You don't know?"
Nick was in the process of glaring
at her when Amanda swatted him lightly. He turned to the other woman in surprise. She was still furious with him, but he was
too sullen to care anymore. Her eyes were shooting daggers when he locked gazes with her.
"Alli, you dipshit. She's
not returning our calls."
Kristin looked imploringly at him. "You know, come to think of it, Nick, it probably wouldn't
hurt for you to call her. Her father went through a pretty rough accident, and it wouldn't kill you to show a little concern.
Didn't you say that he was like a second father to you?"
Nick rolled his eyes. "Kris, leave it, okay?"
growled, ignoring AJ's hand on her thigh. "Listen, Nick, you owe it to Alli to at least call her dad and make sure he's okay.
Kris is right, it wouldn't kill you to show a little concern. And, hell, while you're at it, maybe you could apologize to
Alli for being a complete and total ASSHOLE..."
Nick fixed a stern glare on the older brunette. "Amanda, I don't owe
Alli anything." He opened his mouth again to say something, but closed it and shook his head as though he knew that it wouldn't
do any good to argue. "I'm going out on the floor. I'll see you all later."
True to his word, he slid out of the booth
and onto the dance floor, finding a leggy blonde to grind against while "What's Your Fantasy?" by Ludacris blared in the background.
The others watched his retreating back until he began dancing, at which point they turned to look at each other.
going to kill himself if he keeps acting like this," Kevin said finally, breaking the silence. AJ nodded his agreement.
he is. I'm just wondering if he's going to kill Alli first."