AJ’s thirtieth birthday was about a week after Kevin’s accident. After we left the hospital that evening, the four of us guys went out for dinner together. We had reserved a private room at the restaurant so we could talk and eat in peace, away from the prying eyes of paparazzi and fans.
None of us really felt like celebrating that night, not even AJ. The week was only halfway over, but it had already been another rough one. First there was the TMZ story, which our team had responded to by releasing another statement, thanking the fans for their prayers and confirming that, yes, Kevin had suffered a spinal cord injury. It didn’t go into any real detail about the extent of his injury; no one else needed to know his doctor had told him he would never walk again.
Then there was Kristin’s memorial service, which we’d been asked to sing at. I had never performed at a funeral before, and I hoped I would never have to do it again, especially not for someone I knew as well as I’d known Kristin. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when we finished singing “Never Gone.” We couldn’t have gotten through it if Kevin had been there with us. Seeing him cry in his hospital bed afterwards had been hard enough.
I was glad to get away from the hospital and go out with the other guys. Things had been tense between me and AJ, but I think we were all looking forward to having a nice meal that wasn’t hospital food or takeout and enjoying a few hours of normalcy.
Taking advantage of the fact that I was back on the West Coast, where I could get fresh seafood, I ordered sushi. It was good, but not nearly as good as the authentic sushi in Japan. “I can’t wait to get to Tokyo and eat some real sushi,” I said, swallowing a bite of my spicy tuna roll. “It just tastes better there, you know?”
Brian cleared his throat. “About that... I’ve been meaning to ask y’all: Do you think we should postpone the tour?”
I looked at him in surprise. “Why? ‘Cause of Kevin?”
“Yeah. I mean, I know he’s not in the group anymore, but he needs us right now. Doesn’t it feel weird to think about flying overseas for a tour when he’s stuck in the hospital?”
I felt a stab of guilt because I had really been looking forward to getting back on tour. “Yeah, but it’s not for another five weeks. Won’t he be out of the hospital by then?”
“He’ll be out of Cedars-Sinai, hopefully, but he still has months of inpatient rehab ahead of him,” said Brian.
“Where will he go for that?” Howie wanted to know.
“Not sure yet. Aunt Ann and I have been researching different rehab centers. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is supposed to be the best in the country, and it’s only a six-hour drive from Lexington. There’s also the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which is about the same distance. If he went there, she could just stay at my place. But I would want to be there for him, too - not on tour.”
“Well, what does Kevin want?” asked AJ.
Brian took a sip of his drink. “Kevin wants to stay in California,” he said, setting his glass down on the table. I could tell by his tone that this had been a point of contention in the private conversations he’d had with his cousin. “But his mom wants him closer to home - meaning Kentucky. He has more family there, more people to help take care of him when he gets out of the hospital.”
“And what will that entail? I mean, how much care are we talking about here?”
“I have no idea. I guess that depends on how rehab goes and how much function he gets back... which is why it’s so important that we find a good facility for him,” said Brian. “It’s gonna take time for him to get back on his feet.”
I wasn’t sure if Brian meant that literally, or if he was just being metaphorical. He still seemed to believe Kevin would miraculously learn to walk again someday, but I was starting to lose hope. I had been at the hospital every day; I had seen how hard it was just for him to sit up without getting so dizzy he had to lie down again. How did Brian expect him to get back on his feet when he couldn’t even get out of bed?
AJ cut a bite of his steak and chewed it thoughtfully. Swallowing, he said, “Now, Rok, you know I would do literally anything for Kevin, right? He saved my life by making me go to rehab, and I would gladly return the favor. If he needs help after he gets out of rehab, I’ll fuckin’ move in with him. If he needs me to feed him? Or wipe his ass? Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever I can to take care of him.”
I snorted. “Yeah right, AJ. You can’t even blow your own nose without getting grossed out, but you’re gonna wipe a grown man’s ass? You’re full of shit.”
“Shut the fuck up, Nick,” AJ snapped. “I would if he needed me to. You’re all my brothers, and I would do that for any of you - even you, Prick.”
I rolled my eyes because I knew there was no way AJ would ever wipe my butt. I used to purposely take a shit in the tour bus bathroom when he pissed me off just because I knew the smell alone would make him puke. He had the most sensitive gag reflex I had ever seen.
“But here’s what I’m really trying to get at. Just hear me out, okay?” AJ went on. “He’ll be at this rehab center at least through the first leg of our tour, right? So why not go ahead and fulfill our commitment while we know Kevin’s being taken care of, and then we can reassess the situation before he gets out? If we have to reschedule some of the spring and summer shows, I’m sure our fans will understand. But I don’t think Kevin would want us to cancel the whole tour just so we can sit around his hospital room and keep him company. He has plenty of people to do that - his mom, his older brothers, his other friends and relatives. We can still keep in touch. We can call him every day while we’re on the road. I just don’t see the point in canceling when-”
“I didn’t say cancel,” Brian interrupted, his eyes narrowing at AJ. “I said postpone.”
“I hate to say it, but I think AJ has a good point,” said Howie, turning to Brian. “From a business perspective, it would be a bad idea to postpone a bunch of shows. This is our first tour as a foursome; it’s an important opportunity to show the world we’re still going strong, that we really are ‘unbreakable.’ If we have to reschedule, it may send the wrong message. Not that our image or the bottom line is all that matters, but-”
“No, all that matters right now is Kevin,” Brian said firmly, fixing his glare on Howie instead. “I can’t believe you’re talking about the bottom line when our brother just lost his wife and the use of his arms and legs. Who cares about our fuckin’ image?”
I watched Howie and AJ’s eyes widen when Brian dropped the F-bomb. He rarely cursed, so we could tell he was really pissed.
“Of course, Kevin’s our main priority,” Howie replied quickly. “I’m just trying to play devil’s advocate here and think about what management would say.”
“Well, I don’t need you to play devil’s advocate, and I don’t care what management would say. I wanna know what you all think,” said Brian, looking around the table at each of us in turn. “This is a decision the four of us have to make for ourselves.”
“Well, are you gonna be democratic about it and go with the majority?” I asked him, as Howie reached for his drink, clearly uncomfortable with the conflict. “Or are you gonna keep arguing until you get your way?” I loved Brian, but he could be a real dick sometimes. He was as stubborn as a bulldog and didn’t back down easily when he felt strongly about something.
Brian’s nostrils flared. “No, I’ll go with the majority,” he insisted, spearing a piece of broccoli with his fork. “But since we’re being democratic here, I haven’t heard your opinion yet, Nick. What do you think we should do?”
I took a swig of my beer, stalling for time, but Brian kept staring at me until I finally answered. “Honestly, I think we should ask Kevin. But I have to agree with what AJ and Howie said - he’s not gonna want us to give up the tour for him, and it wouldn’t be good for the group to have to postpone our first tour without him. So as long as he gives us his blessing, I think we should stick to the tour schedule, at least for this first leg. The fans need this. We need this.”
I need this, I thought selfishly. I did better when we were out on the road than when I was bored at home with no routine and too much time on my hands. Touring provided me with the busy schedule and structure I needed to stay out of trouble.
Brian nodded. “Fair enough. We can ask Kevin when we visit tomorrow.”
“Great. Let’s table this discussion until then,” said AJ. “It’s my birthday, and I don’t want us to argue any more tonight.”
“Agreed,” said Howie, raising his glass in a toast to AJ. “Happy Dirty Thirty! Here’s to many more.”
“Welcome to the club, Bone,” added Brian with a grin. “Nick’s the only Backstreet Boy still in his twenties now.”
I smiled and nodded, picking up my pint glass as well. “Not for long. Two more years, and I’ll be old like the rest of y’all… but you’ll still be older,” I said, smirking at AJ. “Happy birthday, bro.”
“Thanks, buddy,” he replied, clinking his glass against mine. “I wish there was a better reason for us being together, but it’s nice to have you all here in town a week early. Love you guys.” He looked around the table at Howie and Brian before he locked eyes with me. AJ had never formally apologized for blaming me for Kevin leaving or throwing me under the bus about the TMZ story, but maybe this was his way of saying he was sorry.
I nodded, looking back at him as if to say, Apology accepted. All I actually said was, “Love you, too.”
Later that night, I was lying in bed, almost asleep, when I heard my phone ring. I hurried to silence it before it woke AJ up, wondering who would be calling me so late and what could be wrong. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Kevin’s name flashing on the phone screen.
“Hello?” I answered uncertainly, not expecting it to actually be Kevin. I was worried something had happened to him, and one of the nurses was calling to let us know.
It was a huge weight off my chest when I heard him say, “Hey, Nick. I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“No,” I replied quickly, sagging with relief as my heartbeat slowly returned to normal. “No, not at all; I was still awake.”
“I thought you might be. That’s why I tried you first.”
I felt confused. “I didn’t think it was really you. How did you call me without moving your fingers?”
“I used my tongue.”
“Really?” I was picturing him holding his phone between his teeth and trying to lick the touchscreen when I heard him laugh.
“Of course not, dipshit. I had my nurse Dee dial your number for me and put you on speakerphone. She said you’re her favorite Backstreet Boy, by the way.”
I heard a feminine giggle in the background. “Only because you’re not in the group anymore,” I told him. “Otherwise it would obviously be you.”
“Well, obviously,” said Kevin.
I smiled, clutching the phone closer to my ear. “I’m flattered either way. Thank you, Dee.”
“You’re welcome!” I heard a high-pitched voice call back.
“You should see her blushing right now,” said Kevin, snickering. “She can’t believe she’s really talking to Nick Carter.”
I rolled my eyes. I would never understand why some people put me on such a pedestal. I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention, but it was a little weird, the way grown women would fawn all over me and treat me like a god. I was just a normal guy, not worthy of that level of fan worship. “Is that why you called?”
“Nah, man. I called ‘cause I can’t sleep.”
“Oh. Well, you want me to sing you a lullaby or something?”
I heard his nurse laugh some more. “You can sing me a lullaby any time!” her voice rang out.
Kevin chuckled. “You don’t have to do that. Just talk to me… if you don’t mind, I mean.”
“I don’t mind,” I said automatically, as I lay back down in bed. “So what’s going on? Why can’t you sleep?”
“You try sleeping when people keep coming in and waking you up every couple hours,” he complained. “No offense, Dee - you know I appreciate everything you nurses do. It’s just… a lot. And this damn neck brace is not comfortable.”
“I bet,” I said sympathetically. I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep with something hard and bulky around my neck, let alone not being able to toss and turn to get comfortable. I felt bad for Kevin, but there was nothing I could do except keep him company over the phone. “Can’t they give you a sleeping pill or something?”
“Oh yeah, they did, but it makes me see shit that’s not really there.”
“What?” I laughed. “You mean like you’re having hallucinations?”
“Yeah. Like right now, there’s this raven perched on top of the IV pole next to my bed. It’s been there for the past two nights. I know it’s not really there, but I can still see it, clear as day.”
“Dude… that is fucked up,” I said, cracking up as I pictured Kevin high on sleeping pills, tripping balls in his hospital bed. “What’s it doing?”
“Nothing. It’s just sitting there, looking down at me. That’s all it ever does. It kinda freaks me out though.”
“Well, no shit.” Just hearing him describe it sent chills down my spine. A raven… wasn’t that some kind of death omen? Hospitals were scary enough without seeing creepy black birds hovering over you at night, but I wasn’t going to tell Kevin that. “Are you sure Dee didn’t bring a real raven into the room just to mess with your mind?”
“Dee wouldn’t do that.”
I was only kidding, but I realized I had probably made his paranoia worse. “I know. Just joking. I’m sure it’ll go away when your drugs wear off.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “It always does.”
I searched my brain for something to say that would take his mind off the bird that wasn’t really there. Then I remembered our conversation at dinner. “Hey, Kev, can I ask you something?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Well, the boys and I were talking, and Brian brought up the tour. You know, our first two shows are in Tokyo about a month from now, and we’re supposed to start rehearsing again next week. But Brian thinks we should reschedule.”
“Because of me?” Kevin asked quietly.
I heard him sigh again. “You don’t have to do that. A month from now, I’m gonna be in rehab. I’ll be busy with physical therapy… occupational therapy… psychotherapy… all the therapies. I won’t just be lying in bed all day like I am now. I appreciate y’all coming and keeping me company, but I don’t want you changing the tour on account of me.”
I nodded. “That’s what we thought you would say. But we didn’t wanna make any decisions without your blessing.”
“Well, you have my blessing,” he said firmly. “I’ll be fine here without you… and you’ll be fine without me.”
A lump rose in my throat as I imagined the four of us touring the world without him. Even before his accident, it had felt weird performing as a quartet. It was like we were missing a piece - and we were. The Backstreet Boys may have been “unbreakable,” but we would never be whole again without Kevin. I had always hoped he would come back to the group someday, but now that seemed impossible. The door we had left open for him was just a gaping hole.
Swallowing hard, I said, “I don’t know about that. It’s not the same without you.”
“Nothing’s the same,” said Kevin. I could hear the bitterness in his voice. “But that’s life. Shit happens, and you either have to adapt to it, or you die. I’m not gonna die, and neither is the group. Y’all go on with your tour, and don’t worry about me.”
“Do you miss it?” I asked. “Touring, I mean?”
He took a moment to answer. “Of course I miss it. I’d give just about anything to be able to get back onstage and perform again. But I wouldn’t trade the last year I had with my family. I was able to spend every day with Kristin during her pregnancy. I was by her side when she gave birth to Mason; I cut the cord myself. I was home to help her take care of him, and I got to watch him grow. I didn’t miss a single moment. I feel good about that… especially now that she’s gone. I’m so glad I got to spend that time at home with her and our son, just being a husband and a dad. I don’t have any regrets, Nick.”
There were tears rolling down my cheeks by the time he finished talking. Alone in the dark, I didn’t bother to wipe them away. “That’s… that’s good,” I forced myself to say, hoping he couldn’t hear the quiver in my voice. “I’m glad you don’t regret anything, I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, sounding as emotional as I felt. “And you’ll know what I mean someday, when you have a wife and kids of your own.”
“Ha… that’s never gonna happen.” After watching my own parents’ marriage dissolve and my dysfunctional family fall apart, I had vowed I would never get married or start a family myself. I didn’t know how to be a good husband or father. I could barely take care of myself, let alone someone else.
“Never say never, dawg. A little birdie told me that not too long ago.” I smiled when I realized Kevin was repeating what I had said to him earlier that week.
“True dat. Speaking of little birdies... is that raven still around?”
“Actually, no,” replied Kevin. “It’s gone.”
“Really? That’s good.”
“Yeah.” I heard him yawn. “Well, I guess I should try to get some sleep. I’ll let you go now. Thanks for listening.”
“Anytime,” I said, still feeling sorry for him. He sounded so sad and lonely. “I love you, bro.”
“I love you, too. Goodnight, Nick.”
“‘Night, Kev.” Knowing he couldn’t press the button to end the call on his phone, I went ahead and hung up first. I plugged my phone back into its charger and rolled over in bed. I buried my head in the pillow and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Kevin lying in his hospital bed, alone and scared, seeing monsters in the dark.
Reflecting back on our conversation, it felt like our roles had been reversed. For the first time in our fifteen-year relationship, he seemed more like the little kid I had been when he’d first met me. Meanwhile, I had become the reassuring older brother, telling him everything was going to be all right when, really, I knew nothing would ever be the same again.