The house was empty.
Brian wandered through the halls of Nick’s house, feeling like he should’ve been led by a realtor, had it not been for the fragments of posters and tack holes left on the walls. A few crumbs left by a toaster on the counter in the kitchen showed signs of life, but nothing else seemed to. He stood in the doorframe of Nick’s bedroom and stared into the emptiness. Wandering down the hall, he opened the door to the studio Nick had been so proud of, and found nothing but the glass window separating the sound booth and the lobby, and a broken stool.
He sat down at the foot of the stairs and covered his face with his hands.
“Oh Nick,” he whispered, “What’d you do?”
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, and Brian reached for it, expecting Leighanne. It was a number he didn’t recognize. He was going to ignore it, and started to shove it back in his pocket, but something made him answer it anyway, at the last second.
“Hello?” he asked tentatively.
“Nick? What’s going on? Where are you?” Brian could hear his voice rising to a level of panic.
“Brian, I’m sorry,” Nick’s hoarse voice was sad.
“Where are you, Nick? I’ll come get you.”
“I’m sorry, Brian. I don’t want to be a burden to you guys anymore.”
“Good bye Brian.”
But the line went dead.
Brian stared at the phone. He quickly called the number back, but it rang and rang and rang without any answer. He hung up and tried again, and again. After an hour, Brian gave up.
He called AJ.
“Yo?” AJ’s voice was cracked, he sounded sick.
“You said he was fine,” Brian said in an accusatory tone, “You lied to me.”
AJ paused. “He is fine, he’s breathing isn’t he?”
“I ACTUALLY DON’T KNOW THAT ANYMORE!” Brian shouted, anger rising up out of the frustration and fear. “He doesn’t want to be a burden to us? What the hell is that about? A burden? He isn’t a burden! He’s my best friend!”
AJ was silent.
“We’ve got to find him. I don’t want to lose my best friend, AJ,” Brian said desperately.
“Join the fucking club,” AJ snapped and hung up.
Brian’s stomach turned. He hadn’t meant to upset AJ. He hadn't even thought.
He stood up, staggered through the house one last time, half hoping to find Nick hiding somewhere with all his stuff, laughing at the practical joke that Brian had fallen for… but there was nothing left anywhere… except one thing.
Sitting on the mantle in the living room, face down, was a picture frame. Brian reached for it, hesitated, the picked it up and turned it over. The glass was shattered, sending spiderwebs across the photograph it contained. Smiling out from behind it was a picture of the four of them from the tour they’d done two years ago for This Is Us. They’d been at a premiere of some sort, their arms around each other. Nick’s long arms had bridged around all three of the other guys. They were all grinning into the camera, leaning close to one another. Four brothers, four best friends, four happy guys who had no idea that the world as they knew it would be shattered, like the glass of the frame, before a year had passed.
Brian opened the back of the frame and pulled the photograph out. On the back of the picture, in Nick’s messy scrawling hand writing, were the words, Backstreet Forever, 1994-Eternity.
“Come home, Brian,” Leighanne said. “Please, come home. He’ll call you when he’s ready to be found. You know he will.”
It was two weeks later. Brian had been staying in a hotel and spending days searching for Nick all over Los Angeles. He’d called all of Nick’s friends, all his ex-girlfriends, everyone he could think of that Nick might be staying with. He’d driven in circles, looking for Nick’s car, for that unmistakable face, but he was no where to be found.
“He could be dead,” Brian said quietly, picking at a thread on the hem of his t-shirt. “What if he’s dead?”
Leighanne took a deep breath. “Then there’s nothing you can do anyway, Brian. If he’s out there, the LAPD will find him, you know they will, Brian…”
Yes, Brian had even filed a missing persons report.
“What if he’s waiting for me to find him?” Brian worried, “What if he thinks I’m not looking for him?”
Leighanne’s voice was gentle. “Brian… sometimes you have to let people go, and wait for them to come back.”
Brian closed his eyes, his breathing taking every effort his body could make.
“I know this is hard, it’s hard for me, too. Nick’s like a second son to us both, I know that. But that’s exactly it, Brian. He’s not our son. He’s a grown man. Nick will come back when he’s ready. He always has.”
Nick had run off once with a girl he’d sworn he loved. They’d disappeared for over a month after Brian had told him the girl was no good for him. The entire time Nick had been missing, Brian had diligently called his cell phone, emailed his inbox, and sat on Instant Messenger. He waited and he prayed and he waited some more. When Nick had finally returned, Brian had nearly collapsed with joy. “Don’t ever do that to me again,” Brian had admonished him.
But Nick had done it again.
“Brian, Baylee and I need you here,” Leighanne said, breaking into Brian’s thoughts. “Please come home.”
“Okay,” Brian whispered, defeated. His shoulders sank. “I’ll be home by morning.”