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Four months later

Nick was the first to enter the Backstreet Boys’ weekly Zoom meeting. He was quickly joined by Kevin, Howie, and Brian. But one of their members was missing.

“Where the hell is AJ?” asked Kevin, after they had waited five minutes.

“He probably forgot.” Howie smiled and shook his head. “You know how bad his memory is these days.”

“Yeah, well, losing a bunch of brain cells will do that to ya,” said Brian. “I’ll text him.”

A few moments later, AJ’s face appeared on the screen. “Sorry, you guys,” he said with a sheepish grin, adjusting his glasses. “I got busy playing with the girls and lost track of time.”

“No problem,” Nick replied, knowing full well what that was like. He could hear Odin and Saoirse laughing as they raced up and down the hall outside the closed door of his home office. A part of him regretted missing out on their fun, but he had been looking forward to catching up with his bandmates. “How you doin’, bro?”

“Not bad,” said AJ, shrugging. “A little better every day.”

“You look good, Bone,” said Brian, and Nick nodded in agreement. AJ had lost a lot of weight while he was in the hospital, but now that he was finally back home, he had been working hard to build up his strength and muscle mass again. His gaunt face had begun to fill out, thanks to his wife’s efforts to fatten him up with her cooking, and his color had gone back to normal as his liver and kidney function continued to improve. With as close as he had come to death, it was a miracle he was even alive. Brian liked to give God all the credit for bringing AJ back from the brink, but Nick was also grateful for medical science. It had taken many prayers, powerful medications, multiple procedures, and almost two months in intensive care to get him to this point. None of them could have predicted a perforated appendix would cause so much trouble.

“Thanks. I’ve still got a long ways to go to get back to where I was before all this. My abs will never be the same,” AJ sighed, lifting his shirt to show them the long scar running down the center of his belly. “But at least I’m starting to feel like myself again.”

“One step at a time,” said Kevin with a tight smile. “That’s what they’re always telling me in P.T.”

“How was your physical therapy this week?” Howie wanted to know.

“Pretty good. They’ve got me swimming lengths of the pool now, and yesterday, I took two steps between the parallel bars.” Kevin’s lips stretched into a full-on grin, his face glowing with pride.

“What?! No way!” Nick exclaimed, leaping out of his seat in his excitement. “That’s awesome, dude! You’re gonna be back to dancing before you know it.”

Kevin shook his head. “Don’t get your hopes up. My arms did most of the work; my legs muscles are still pretty weak. I dunno if I’ll ever regain the strength and coordination I’d need for dancing. But if I can at least get around without this damn wheelchair, that would be enough for me.”

“And if you can’t, then we’ll just have to work it into our choreography,” Brian added cheerfully. “We already have a chair dance. Why not a wheelchair dance?”

They all laughed. “Hey, I think Glee did that once,” Howie pointed out.

Nick snorted. “Dude… you watched Glee?”

Howie gave his camera a look of annoyance. “Leigh liked it, okay? I bet you’d like it, too. They covered a lot of Journey songs.”

“Yeah, okay. Whatever you say, Howie,” Nick laughed.

“It’s actually not a bad idea,” Howie went on, ignoring him. “We’re all getting older. It would be good to practice our wheelchair dance moves now, so we’re ready to go when we really need them someday.”

“Yeah, when we’re singing songs from the nineties in our nineties,” said Nick, still snickering.

“I think we should bring back ‘Roll With It,’ from the red album,” Brian suggested. “Not only is it a perfect anthem for getting through 2020, but wouldn’t it be pretty badass to perform with a bunch of wheelchairs?”

“Roll with it! That’s what you gotta do...” Nick started singing. “Roll with it…” The others joined him in harmony, hardly missing a beat. “Roll with it...” Kevin pushed himself back from his desk and did a little spin in his wheelchair, which got them all laughing too hard to finish a round of the chorus.

“I’ll call Rich and Tone when we’re done here and tell them to start choreographing,” AJ joked.

“It may be too early to make a decision about this, but… do you think we’ll be able to go back on tour next summer?” Nick asked, trying not to sound too eager. He had taken it easy for the first two months after getting out of the hospital, giving himself time to heal both physically and mentally. But ever since his doctor had cleared him to begin working out again, he had been trying hard to get back into shape. He couldn’t wait to go back out on the road once it was safe and hoped the other guys would feel the same way.

“I think that’ll depend on where we are with the pandemic,” said Kevin. “But if we can, and you guys are willing to work around my disability, then I’m game.”

“Of course, Kevy Kev!” AJ replied, as the others quickly nodded. “Honestly, I dunno if I’m gonna be able to get through all that choreography either. Maybe you and I can just sing all the leads and let these three clowns be our backup dancers.”

Kevin laughed. “Works for me!”

“Dude, you should seriously do Dancing With the Stars,” Nick told AJ. “That’ll whip your butt right back into shape.”

“I was actually in talks to do it this fall, before all this shit happened,” said AJ with a sigh. “Guess it wasn’t meant to be. But maybe another year.”

Nick nodded. “I know the feeling. I couldn’t tell y’all before, but I was gonna be on this season of The Masked Singer. They had a costume picked out for me and everything, but I would have had to start filming in August, and I just wasn’t ready to start performing again at that point.”

“Really? That would have been awesome, bro,” said Howie, supportive as always. “My boys love that show! We watch it every week.”

“Well, keep watching, and maybe you’ll see me later, alligator,” Nick replied in what he thought was a cryptic way, smiling as he pictured the pimped-out pink crocodile costume that had been promised to him.

Kevin cleared his throat. “Hey, speaking of costumes… I loved your look on Halloween, cous.”

Oh god, here we go again, thought Nick with a groan. Leave it to Kevin to be the first to bring up politics. He still loved to give Brian a hard time about being a Republican, especially after Nick had been shot by a trigger-happy Trump supporter. The man who had mistaken him for a bear had been arrested on a felony charge of reckless conduct with a deadly weapon, fined four thousand dollars, and sentenced to two years in prison. Meanwhile, Nick just wanted to move on with his life. He should have known Kevin wouldn’t be able to ignore Brian’s wife and son dressing up like Ivanka and Donald Trump for Halloween the previous weekend.

“Hey, thanks!” said Brian, who had made a surprisingly good Joe Biden. “Think they’ll let me into the Oval Office?”

“Not if your cult leader has anything to say about it.” Kevin shook his head. “I swear, I have never seen a grown-ass man act like such a sore loser. Tell me something, Brian: Do you actually believe all this bullshit Trump’s been spewing about the election being rigged?”

“Leighanne does,” Brian admitted, looking slightly embarrassed. “But you wanna know a secret?”

“I do!” Nick blurted, leaning forward. He hoped Brian was going to change the subject before things got too uncomfortable in the Zoom call.

Grinning, Brian brought his face close to the camera on his computer. “Don’t tell my wife,” he whispered, “but I voted for Biden.”

The other boys burst out laughing. “You did not,” Kevin said skeptically, narrowing his eyes at the camera. “Did you?”

Brian nodded. “Swear to God, I did. First time I’ve ever voted for a Democrat. I dunno if it was what happened this summer that changed my mind, but I got in the voting booth, and I just couldn’t bring myself to mark Trump’s name on the ballot.”

Kevin raised his eyebrows. “Wow… well, at least some good came from all this. I’m glad you made your own decision, instead of letting Leighanne dictate everything you do in life.”

“Yeah, way to grow a pair, Rok!” AJ cheered, as Brian’s cheeks reddened. “Just watch… Georgia’s gonna go blue because of people like you. I’m proud of you, bro.”

“Personally, I’m just happy the election’s over,” said Howie. “Hopefully the country will be able to move forward once Biden is officially declared the winner.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure Trump will agree to a peaceful transfer of power and step down with no problem,” Kevin replied sarcastically. “He would never do anything crazy, like encourage his cult members to storm the capitol or stage a coup so he could try to steal the election.”

AJ chuckled, but Brian and Howie both looked as awkward as Nick felt. “Can we please talk about something else besides politics?” he asked before Kevin could antagonize his cousin any further.

“Please,” echoed Brian. “You pick the topic, Nick. Any topic.”

“Okay… um…” Nick looked around his office, searching for a conversation starter. A piece of paper taped to the wall above his desk caught his eye. It was a drawing Odin had done of a bear after hearing Nick’s stories from New Hampshire. Its red eyes reminded him of one of the Satan-worshipping woodland critters from a Christmas episode of South Park. “Christmas is coming soon!” Nick announced. “Let’s talk about Christmas!”

He knew he sounded like an overgrown kid, but he couldn’t wait for Christmas. Odin was finally old enough to look forward to Santa’s visit, and Saoirse would be able to open her own presents and play with her new toys this year. Nick was just happy to be home for the holidays. Since leaving the hospital, he had found himself appreciating every moment he was able to spend with his children even more than he would have before. He and Lauren were even thinking about trying to have another baby.

Brian laughed. “Yeah, can we talk about the fact that, once again, the Christmas album we’ve been promising our fans for the past few years won’t be coming out?”

“Hey, at least we tried,” said Howie with a shrug. “We won’t have to blame it on Backstreet Time this year. We’ve actually got a good excuse for not getting it done.”

AJ snorted. “Yeah… my appendix.”

“And a moose,” added Brian.

“And a power outage,” put in Kevin.

“And that goddamn black bear,” growled Nick.

“And…” Howie started to say, then trailed off with an awkward shrug. “Sorry, I got nothing.”

They all laughed at him. Howie actually looked a little left out.

“You know,” said Nick, as an idea formed in his head. “When we do get around to working on the Christmas album again, this could make a great parody of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’” He cleared his throat and started to sing, making the words up as he went. “On the first day in New Hampshire, here’s what happened to us: a case of appendicitis.”

He could always count on Brian to join in on the joke. “On the second day in New Hampshire, here’s what happened to us,” he added. “A moose in the road and a case of appendicitis.”

“Oh dear lord, don’t you two start this again,” Howie groaned. “I swear to God, if you keep going, I will hang up!”

Nick and Brian both burst out laughing. Nick was still trying to think of what could come next. He knew Howie wouldn’t really leave the meeting, no matter how much he threatened to.

“Aw… Frick and Frack,” Kevin said fondly, smiling at the screen.

“It sounds so crazy when you list it all together like that,” said AJ, blinking behind the thick frames of his glasses. “But you know what? It could have been worse. At least no one caught COVID.”

They all laughed that time.

“Let’s just chalk it up to the curse of 2020 and try to move on,” Kevin proposed. “As for the Christmas album... well, we can always try again next year.”

The End


Thanks, AJ, for posting this picture the day before I posted this chapter. Perfect timing!

Chapter End Notes:

Aww, look, it’s a happy ending after all! My apologies for messing with you in the last chapter. I was never really going to kill AJ, and I actually didn’t even decide to pretend to kill him until a chapter or two before I got to that part. I needed a way to facilitate a time jump to my planned ending of the Backstreet Zoom call several months later. I didn’t want to drag out the hospital drama because that was not the point of this story, but I also didn’t love the idea of hurriedly wrapping everything up with a shiny bow because that didn’t seem very realistic. Meanwhile, all you readers were so busy worrying about Nick and Kevin that no one was really talking about AJ. So I decided to give it my best attempt at a “Homeward Bound” ending, in which I tried to trick you into thinking he wasn’t going to make it, only for him to turn up okay in the end. I was hoping my track record for killing Backstreet Boys at the end of stories would work in my favor, but I don’t think many of you were fooled. But maybe that’s for the best.

Anyway, I want to thank everyone who read this story and left feedback along the way. This was a really fun one to write; I enjoyed capturing the craziness of 2020 with the kind of plot that would have seemed way too ridiculous to take place in any other year. I hope you enjoyed it, too! And hey, maybe one of these years we’ll actually get a Christmas album out of those Boys!