Part 01

"Thanks for calling. And for the invitation, too. I mean, coming from you... considering everything that... well, you know."

"I know," AJ sighed. "But hell, this is Howie we're talking about. Not us, or what we... or the past."

"You're right."

"So you'll come?"

"Of course. Count me in."

"Perfect. Uh, Nick's in charge of details, so I guess he'll call you later with them. Being the conspiring little prankster that he is, he wants Howie to REALLY be surprised."

"Yeah. Okay. Sounds good. I guess I'll see you later then."

"Uh-huh. At the party. Take care."

"You too. Later, J."

"Later."

Hearing the soft 'click' signaling the end of the call, Sandra sighed deeply before hanging her own phone up. His voice on the other end was something she wasn't expecting to hear ever again, and yet... it had happened.

'All for Howie,' she reminded herself. 'It's just for Howie.'

Howie. Her best friend.

Well, they hadn't started out as that...

She was seven, he was twelve. She and her family had moved in next door to his family, and her older brother, Mario, and Howie had hit it off, and were soon the best of friends. Not one to be outdone, she'd tag along whenever possible, and soon Howie had branded her as an unlikable, spoiled brat, and she'd labeled him as a stuck up, cootie-infested jerk. Just like her brother.

Then the 'Backstreet Thing' began. She'd find him doing yardwork, taking out the garbage, anything, all while singing, humming along to old songs she thought only her parents listened to. That's when she'd also added 'weird' to the list of words she liked to associate him with.

A week after her fourteenth birthday, she'd been surprised, to say the least, when her brother had come home from Howie's, beaming, announcing to the world that Howie had signed a contract. Sandra had rolled her eyes and groaned when she'd learned of the type of music Howie had involved himself with. Always the rebel, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith and other choice rock artists adorned her music collection. She'd never been into the 'Pop' thing that they were now hoping would make Howie's career take off.

She'd met some of the group later that same week, when they'd celebrated at Howie's. Kevin had stricken her as somewhat of a nice person, and his Southern drawl was something she found endearing. His cousin had been the most hilarious person she'd met in her life. Brian and his endless jokes, sound effects and pranks had her hanging on his every word.

That night, when her mother had recruited her as part of the cleanup committee, she overheard Howie talking to Mario about the remaining two members.

Nick, hearing what she'd heard, was the youngest. She was older than him by almost a year, and she wondered why they let a little kid into the group. She chalked it up to the fact that if they didn't make it, his babyish cuteness would save them from completely bombing. Assuming he was cute, anyway.

Alex was 'a strangely artistic child, but he's cool,' according to Mr. Know-It-All-Howie. He was a little over a year older than she was. That had been all she'd learned about him.

Until she came face to face with the odd specimen three years later.

Donning a curly pink wig and using Pollyanna's round brush as a microphone. That's how she found him. That was her first impression. She should have turned and bolted right out of the Dorough's home that humid April afternoon, but instead she'd remained bolted to the ground, staring in pure horror at the spectacle in front of her.

She'd gone to retrieve her brother for dinner. She never bothered with knocking.

She should have knocked. Pounded on the door, anything to have prevented the sight before her.

"Oh, my LORD. Howie, is THIS what you travel and perform with?!"

"Ah, my toughest critic. I've missed you," Howie chuckled, ruffling her hair before giving her a warm hug. "You've grown. And, by golly, you're pretty now! Look at you!"

She'd begun to blush furiously under the gazes. Pollyanna had been smiling a bit too gleefully for her liking, her brother was on the verge of full blown laughter, and the frightening man in the pink wig was staring intently at her, not smiling, or laughing, just... watching her.

Meanwhile, Howie had been rambling on still.

"How old are you now? You must be... Polly, how old is she? She's around J's age, I'd say..."

"Eighteen next week," Pollyanna told him.

"Eighteen?! San, you're a grownup! Wow, time flies. Sweetie, I'm gonna have to start watching out for you around the guys now, huh?"

"No you're not," she said softly. "Mario does that. I don't need you doing it too."

Howie laughed. "I'll just watch out for you in general. How's that?"

She nodded slowly, and Howie then noticed she'd been keeping a watchful eye on his bandmate.

"In all the excitement, I forgot to introduce you two. J, this is Sandra. Mario's kid sister," he laughed when she shot him a glare. "Right. Sorry. No 'kid' in there. Anyway, San, this is AJ."

"Nice to meet you," AJ had said, sticking out his hand.

"Ditto," she replied, reaching out with her own hand and shaking his.

"You're very pretty," he told her, the richness of his voice making her close her eyes for an instant. Just an instant.

"You're hella weird."

"A match made in heaven," Polly laughed. "Oh, I can see the sparks flying already! Howard, look what you did!"

Everything after that had gone uphill.

For a while, anyway.

AJ had stopped by Howie's place a lot after that day, and she'd done her best to stay away. Only when it was imperative that she be there, that was when she went. Even then, she went through the back door and straight to Howie's mother, which was who she'd have to go to if her mother had sent her.

But he always found her.

One day, about two weeks after their initial meeting, he'd run into her as she was headed out the back door.

"Leaving so soon?"

"I have to get this to my mom," she announced, holding a small covered tray up for him to see. "So, if you'll excuse me..."

"Will you come back?" he asked suddenly. "I'd really like you to come back."

"I... don't know if I can," she told him, desperate to slide past him and get out the door.

"Will you try?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe?"

"My mom needs me to help her right now. I don't think I can."

"What if I asked her if I could steal you away for a few minutes?"

"Steal me away?" she'd asked, incredulously. Did he not know the meaning of 'no'?

"Would that be a bad thing?" he asked her, aware she was getting annoyed.

"Yes. It WOULD. If it were to happen, which it's NOT. Now MOVE."

She pushed past him and headed out the door. She was nearing the back door to her house when she realized he was following her.

"Do you mind?" she asked impatiently.

"Not at all," he grinned. She groaned and rolled her eyes.

"What's it gonna take for you to leave me alone?"

"Who said I was gonna leave you alone?"

"AJ, just leave. If I get yelled at for taking my time--"

"Then I'll take the blame."

The way he'd said it... in all seriousness... made her want to believe him. Moments later, when her mother had shouted at her for in fact taking her time, AJ stepped in and took the heat.

Mario had teased her about that the rest of the afternoon, and she'd been totally oblivious to his remarks.

She'd been thinking about HIM. Wondering when it had been that he found his way into her heart.

[Story Index | Part 02]