“It doesn’t feel very Christmassy in here,” Nick remarked, frowning as he looked around the rustic living room. “Like it’s nice and all, but it needs some decorations. Let’s go get a Christmas tree!”
AJ laughed. “Where do you think we’re gonna find a Christmas tree in June?”
Nick’s frown deepened. He hadn’t considered that.
“In a town called Bethlehem? I bet there’s a store somewhere around here that sells Christmas stuff year-round,” said Brian, before Nick could suggest Amazon. “You know, for the tourists.”
As it turned out, he was right. A quick Google search revealed not only a Christmas store, but also a Christmas tree farm nearby. “Do you think they’d sell us a tree in the summertime?” Kevin wondered.
“It wouldn’t hurt to call and ask,” said Howie with a shrug. “I think AJ should do it.”
AJ raised his eyebrows. “Me? Why me?”
“Because... you’re good at getting what you want. You could charm the pants off anyone.”
“Not anyone,” argued AJ, shaking his head. “Only women.”
“Well, then let’s hope whoever answers the phone is a woman,” said Brian with a grin. “C’mon, Bone, give ‘em a call.”
AJ got lucky: the person who took his call at the tree farm was not only a woman, but a Backstreet Boys fan. “We don’t open to the public until November,” she told him apologetically, after he had explained what they were looking for and why, “but we do offer private tours. Why don’t you guys come out for one today, and I’ll try to hook you up with a tree.”
So they all piled back into the Range Rover and drove down the mountainside to the farm, which was located a few miles outside of Bethlehem. Turning off the main road, they followed the signs along a winding pathway - called, fittingly, Christmas Lane - until they found the parking lot.
The young woman AJ had talked to on the phone met them out front. “Hi, I’m Holly,” she introduced herself, stars glowing in her eyes as she greeted the five of them.
“Your name’s Holly, and you work at a Christmas tree farm?” said Brian, grinning. “How very festive.” He reached out automatically to shake her hand before he apparently remembered they were in the midst of a pandemic and withdrew his.
Holly rolled her eyes. “I know, right? My mom thought it was cute. My parents own this place - been in the family for five generations.”
“Wow,” said Kevin. “Well, thanks for letting us visit during the off-season.”
“You bet! It’s so nice to meet you all. I’m a big fan!” Holly replied, beaming. “Come with me; I’ll show you around.”
She led them on a walking tour of the farm, following a trail that took them past rolling fields, where they could see rows upon rows of growing evergreens and sugar maples. “We make maple syrup here, too,” Holly explained, as they trekked along the trail. “You can buy it in the gift shop.”
“That’d taste good on some gluten-free pancakes in the morning, huh, Nicky?” said Howie.
Nick smiled, proud of his newly-acquired pancake-making skills. “Hell yeah it would. We’ll have to pick some up on our way out.”
“How long are you guys gonna be in New Hampshire?” Holly wanted to know.
“We rented the cabin for a month,” replied Kevin. “Hopefully that’s enough time to get this Christmas album recorded.”
“I hope so! I wanna buy a copy for us to play in the gift shop.”
“That’d be great,” said AJ.
Holly took them into one of the tree fields, where an older man was working. He was kneeling next to one of the trees, carefully pruning it with a pair of long-handled shears. He looked up as they approached, squinting into the sunlight. “This is my dad, Barry,” Holly introduced him.
“Wait… Holly? Barry?” Brian laughed.
Holly held up her hand as if to stop him. “Don’t even start,” she said, shaking her head with a good-natured smile. “Dad, these are the Backstreet Boys - Brian, AJ, Nick, Howie, and Kevin. They’re here for the next month working on a Christmas album, and they want to buy a tree to make the cabin they’re staying in feel more festive. I told them we could work something out.” As he watched her bat her eyelashes at her father, Nick got the impression that this was a girl who was used to getting what she wanted.
Barry set down his pruning shears and straightened up, surveying them with a look of mild amusement on his face. “A Christmas tree in June, huh?”
“That’s right,” said Nick. “It was my idea. I know it sounds silly, but I thought it would help us get into the Christmas spirit. You think you could hook us up?”
The farmer seemed to consider his request for several seconds before he finally nodded. “I suppose we could. What kind of tree you looking for?”
Nick glanced uncertainly at the others. He knew nothing about the specific types of Christmas trees.
“We’re not picky. Whatever you’re looking to get rid of, we’ll take,” said Howie.
“These here are our oldest trees, the ones we’ll be harvesting come November,” Barry said, pointing down the neat row of evergreens. “I’ll let you take one early, as long as you’re willing to pay what it would cost at Christmastime.”
“Of course,” said Kevin quickly. “We’re not looking for a discount, just a favor.”
Barry nodded. “Then take a look and let Holly know which one you like best. We’ll bale it and load it onto your vehicle for you.”
“That would be great. Thanks so much,” said Howie, as the others nodded in gratitude. They walked through the aisle and looked at all the trees before picking out a big fir. Holly let her father know which one they wanted, and he agreed to get a couple of his farm hands to cut it down and bring it to their car.
“So, is this your first time here in Bethlehem?” Holly asked as they walked back to where Brian had parked.
“I think so, yeah,” replied Nick, looking to the others for confirmation. They had traveled to so many places, it was sometimes hard to remember where they had and hadn’t been. Geography wasn’t his strong suit to begin with, but he knew they had performed in New Hampshire before; he just wasn’t sure what city.
Brian was a lot better about remembering. “We played in Gilford a few years back - during the Unbreakable Tour, I think - but that’s probably nowhere near Bethlehem.”
“It’s about an hour south of here, so not too far. I was at that show,” said Holly, smiling.
“I wasn’t,” said Kevin, and they all laughed. It was weird to think about the six years they had spent without their fifth member. Although Nick, AJ, Brian, and Howie had continued on, putting out two more albums and performing three tours as a foursome, it had always felt like a part of them was missing. It wasn’t until Kevin rejoined the group that they had finally felt whole again.
“Glad to have you back, bro,” said Nick, throwing his arm around Kevin’s shoulders.
“Glad to be back, bro,” Kevin returned, slipping his arm around Nick’s waist. “It’s good to be together again - especially in such a pretty place.”
Holly grinned. “Bethlehem is beautiful all right,” she agreed. “Just be careful if you guys do any hiking in the mountains. They’re more dangerous than they look.”
“Really?” said Nick, his ears perking in interest. “How so?”
“Well, for starters, the White Mountains are the most rugged mountain range east of the Mississippi River. A lot of the trails are surprisingly tough to navigate, especially the higher up you get. We’re always hearing about inexperienced hikers getting injured or stuck and having to be rescued,” said Holly, rolling her eyes. “Then there’s Mount Washington, which has the highest peak in this region and the worst weather in the world. Seriously, the highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth was at the summit of Mount Washington. Not to mention the unpredictable storms and avalanches. People die there every year.”
“Damn,” said AJ, looking at her with wide eyes. “I didn’t realize. But you don’t have to worry about us straying too far off the beaten path - well, not me, anyway. If you’ve seen our documentary, you know the extent of my hiking skills, or lack thereof.”
Holly laughed. Nick did too, remembering how AJ had complained the whole way up to Cathedral Domain.
“Hey, at least I know my own limits,” AJ added, holding up his hands in defense. “Hiking… not my thing. I’d rather enjoy the mountain views from the comfort of an air-conditioned car.”
“Same here,” Howie admitted sheepishly, ducking as Kevin threw him a dirty look. Kevin loved the great outdoors and was probably dying to climb the mountain where, according to Holly, people had literally died.
“Well, if you want to drive, there is a toll road called Auto Road that will take you all the way to the top of Mount Washington. It actually just reopened. It closes every winter because of the ice and snow, but it was closed longer than usual this year because of COVID.”
“We’ll have to check that out,” said Brian, glancing at the others, who nodded in agreement.
“Just watch out for moose if you do,” Holly warned them with a smirk. “They like to wander out in the middle of the road, and as big as those guys are, you don’t wanna hit one with your car - trust me.”
Howie raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience?”
“I haven’t personally hit a moose, but I know people who have totaled their cars hitting one or trying to avoid hitting one,” she replied. “You just have to pay attention and go slow when you’re on those rural roads.”
There’s nothing but rural roads around here, thought Nick. But he was enjoying the change of pace and scenery. Plus, New Hampshire was a lot cooler than the hellscape that was Las Vegas in the summer. He would have to bring his family here for a vacation someday.
When the group got back to the front of the farm, Holly showed them the gift shop, where they bought a big jug of maple syrup. By the time they finished looking around, her father and his helpers had brought the tree to their SUV. They paid and took a picture with Holly while the workers tied the tree to the roof rack. “Thanks so much for stopping by,” she told them, as they got ready to leave.
“Hey, thanks for selling us a Christmas tree in the summer,” replied Nick with a grin.
Holly smiled back. “It was our pleasure. Come again, anytime! And good luck on that Christmas album. I can’t wait to hear it!”
Nick nodded, glancing up at the tightly-wrapped tree. “Hopefully this will give us the inspiration we need to make it happen.”
Before they headed back to the cabin, they stopped at the nearby Christmas store to buy lights and ornaments for the tree, along with a few other festive decorations. “What are we gonna do with all this stuff when we leave in a month?” Kevin asked the others, as he eyed their heaping cart.
“Donate it?” offered Howie with a shrug.
“Or auction it off for charity,” Nick suggested. “Christmas decorations handpicked by the Backstreet Boys? You know fans would bid on that.” He was remembering the days when his empty water bottles and used tissues would be listed on Ebay. The guys used to tease him, telling him the teenyboppers were trying to collect his DNA so they could clone him someday.
“Hey, look, ugly Christmas sweaters!” Brian pointed to a display on the wall ahead of them. “We should each get one and have a little photo shoot at the cabin. Instant album cover!”
They had fun picking out the gaudiest sweaters they could find. Several hundred dollars later, they drove back to the cabin to decorate. While the others carried in the tree and everything they’d bought to trim it with, Kevin collected wood from a pile he’d found behind the house, and Brian helped him build a roaring fire in the fireplace.
“A little to the left.” Howie stood back, watching Nick and AJ set up the Christmas tree in the corner. “No… too far. Take it back about an inch to the right. There you go… perfect!”
As they strung white lights on the tree, Kevin looked at Howie and Brian. “Remember that little tree we bought for the apartment back when we were living in Orlando?”
Brian laughed. “Oh yeah. It was my first time being away from home during the holiday season, and I wanted to decorate the apartment, so I dragged you two along with me to pick one out.”
Howie continued the story: “But we could only afford the crappiest tree on the lot. Talk about a Charlie Brown tree! I’m amazed that thing had any needles left by the time we got it back to the apartment.”
“Yeah, most of them ended up in the back of the Bleeding Banana.”
“The Bleeding Banana!” Nick started cackling, inserting himself into the conversation. “Now there’s a throwback! I used to think we were so cool, riding around in that thing.” He grinned at Brian, remembering the bright red and yellow pick-up truck he had driven down from Kentucky.
“Uh, we were cool, Nick,” replied Brian, grinning back.
AJ snorted. “Yeah, you two keep telling yourselves that.”
Nick ignored him. “Hey, you know what else we need in here?” he said, changing the subject. “Some Christmas music!”
“Well, put some on then,” replied Kevin, rising on his toes to wrap the string of lights around the top of the tree.
Nick pulled up Spotify on his phone, glad that at least the Wi-Fi worked. None of them had cell service this high up in the mountains, but they could still make calls and FaceTime with their families as long as they were connected to the cabin’s wireless internet. Nick didn’t know what he would have done otherwise; he didn’t think he could go four weeks without talking to his wife or seeing his kids’ faces. It had only been a day, and he already missed them like crazy.
He found a Christmas station and connected his phone to the Bluetooth speaker he had brought along, letting the music play in the background as the boys continued decorating. It added to the fun and festive ambience, but it also made Nick miss his family even more.
“This is Odin’s favorite Christmas song,” he said, smiling, when “Frosty the Snowman” came on. “He loves the ‘thumpity thump’ part.”
“Thumpity thump thump, thumpity thump thump, look at Frosty go,” Kevin started singing automatically. “Thumpity thump thump, thumpity thump thump, over the hills of snow!”
“Again, Daddy!” Nick could practically hear Odin cry. He pictured his four-year-old son clapping his hands, ready for another round of “Frosty.” The previous Christmas had been his favorite one as a father so far. Odin was finally old enough to look forward to Santa Claus coming, and Saoirse was so young, she was content just to lie on a blanket beneath the tree and look up at the lights. That would not be the case this year: she was already crawling and would be walking by December. They would have to hang the ornaments out of her reach or put a baby gate around the tree. But that didn’t bother Nick. After how hard he and Lauren had fought and prayed to have another child, he would do anything to protect his little princess.
“Saoirse would love this,” he remarked, a lump rising in his throat as he and the others stood back to admire the lights on the tree. “Last Christmas, all she wanted to do was lie in my arms and look at the lights while Lauren and Odin hung ornaments.”
“Aww…” Kevin threw his arm around Nick’s shoulders, hugging him to his side. “Have I told you lately how nice it is to see you like this? Nick Carter, family man. Who woulda thunk it?”
Nick smiled and shook his head, remembering how he used to vow he would never get married or have kids. “Not me! But it is nice. I never knew what I was missing,” he admitted. Before he met Lauren, he’d had a hard time understanding why the other guys were always in such a hurry to get home after gigs. Later, he realized it was because he’d never had anyone to go home to; his “family” was on the road. Now that he had a wife and kids of his own, he knew how hard it was to be away from them. He had become just like his bandmates, booking the first flight back home from wherever they had been working.
“I always knew Nick would grow up someday,” said Brian, grinning at him. Nick grinned back, glad to be on good terms with his former best friend again. For a while, he had worried there was an irreparable fracture in their relationship, a widening crack caused by their growing apart, their lives moving in two different directions. But Nick had turned his life around, and finally, it felt like he had caught up to Brian. Now that he was a husband and a father, too, he could relate to Brian in ways he had not been able to before. They still weren’t as inseparable as they had been as teenagers, but they would always be “Frick and Frack.”
“Hey, now that Nicky’s a big boy, maybe he can help us hang some ornaments without breaking them,” said Howie, winking as he handed Nick a box of shiny, gold and silver baubles.
“Sure thing, Howie. I’ll hang some from the high branches you can’t reach,” Nick retorted. The rest of the guys laughed - even Brian, who wasn’t any taller than Howie.
“Just make sure you spread them out, and don’t put two of the same color, shape, or size too close together,” Brian warned him. “My wife would want me to tell you that.”
Nick laughed, though he wasn’t completely sure Brian was joking. “Well, Leighanne would know, what with her hundreds of Christmas trees. None of us can compete with that level of expertise.”
They tried anyway, working together to trim the tree. They sang along to the Christmas carols, occasionally testing out harmonies and ad-libs they could use for the album. By the time they finished, they were all sweating from the warmth of the fire, but it finally felt like Christmas inside the cabin.
“Not too shabby for five guys trying to fake Christmas in June,” said Nick as he looked around the living room, admiring their handiwork. In addition to the lit tree in the corner, there was a large wreath hanging over the mantel and a length of garland winding its way up the banister and along the railing of the loft. The golden lights and greenery gave the place the festive feel it had been missing before.
“It looks great!” Howie agreed.
“Leighanne’ll love it,” said Brian, standing back to snap a few photos for his wife.
Kevin nodded. “Nice work, fellas. But let’s not lose sight of why we did all this in the first place. Tomorrow, the real work begins.”