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Time flies when you’re touring. February turned to March, and before I knew it, a whole month had passed since the start of the Unbreakable tour. After traveling through Asia and Australia, the Boys and I had finally made it back to North America to wrap up the first leg of the tour in Mexico. We played four shows there, the last of which was in Mexico City on St. Patrick’s Day.

We had the day before off to travel, but we made it to Mexico City early enough to give me and Howie plenty of time to go out and party. We both loved being in Mexico, where the weather was warm, the food was tasty, and the tequila was always flowing. We went out on the town and found a cantina where we could have dinner and drinks. Then we worked our way down the street, stopping in different upscale bars and clubs to drink and dance. We started with beer and margaritas, but by the end of the night, we were both downing shots of straight tequila.

For a little guy, Howie could hold his liquor. He was a fun drunk who loosened up and laughed more as the night wore on. I even talked him into getting on a mechanical bull in one bar, something he never would have done sober. He lasted longer than I thought he would, too, making it almost a full minute before it bucked him off.

I, on the other hand, was a sloppy drunk. By the end of the night, I could barely hold my head up anymore. I hardly remember the ride back to our hotel. Q had to practically carry me up to my room because my legs had lost the coordination to walk. He put his arm around me, supporting most of my weight as I staggered alongside him, and half-dragged me down the hall to my door. Thankfully, he had kept a copy of each of our room keys because I couldn’t find mine. He let me in and lowered me onto the bed. “You gonna be okay, man?” he asked, giving me a look of concern as I lay there with the room spinning around me.

“Yeah, I’m good, dawg. G’night,” I slurred, closing my eyes so I wouldn’t get dizzy. I heard the door click as Q left.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up to find myself lying on top of the covers, still fully clothed. I hadn’t even taken off my shoes. And I felt like total shit.

The first thought that hit me was, Oh my God, I’m dying. My heart was doing a dance routine in my chest. My lungs felt like someone was stomping the air out of them. My gut was swollen. I didn’t have the strength to get off the bed. When I tried, my head started spinning.

So I just lay there and stared up at the ceiling, trying to take deep breaths as I waited for my heart to calm down. Is this what Kevin feels like when he wakes up and can’t move? I wondered. That thought made me feel even worse. Back home, Kevin had been working so hard to be able to use his broken body again, and here I was, abusing my own perfectly adequate body until it barely worked. If he had seen me that way, he would have been so ashamed of me. I felt ashamed of myself, too.

I was also afraid. I felt sick - not just sick to my stomach, but sick like there was something seriously wrong with me. It’s probably alcohol poisoning, I thought, but the pain radiating through my chest made me worry I might be having a heart attack. I wondered if I should call someone. Maybe I needed to go to a hospital.

No, I told myself, imagining the media shitstorm that would ensue if I was seen being carted off to a Mexican hospital before a show. It wouldn’t matter if I died or not; management would kill me anyway. You’re not dying. I tried to reason with myself. You’re only twenty-eight. You’re too young to have a heart attack. It’s just heartburn from all the Mexican food and drinks you had last night. You’re hungover, that’s all. Now stop being such a hypochondriac and get up. Go drink some water, pop a couple aspirin and an antacid, make coffee, and take a cold shower. You’ll be fine.

I forced myself to get up from the bed. I felt shaky as I struggled to my feet; my legs were like jello. My heart was still hammering so hard, you’d have thought I just finished a show instead of waking up from a deep sleep. My stomach was churning queasily, and as it lurched, I realized I was about to throw up. I staggered into the bathroom and fell to my knees in front of the toilet just in time. I vomited twice, then sank back to the tile floor as the traces of last night’s tacos and tequila were flushed down the drain.

“I’m never drinking tequila again,” I moaned, my throat burning from the mixture of hard liquid and bile coming back up it.

I stayed slumped on the bathroom floor for a few more minutes, until I was sure I was finished. Then I pulled myself back to my feet, clinging to the counter for support, and went to find a bottle of water from the minibar. I washed out my mouth, then sat down on the side of the bed and sipped water until my stomach settled.

What time is it? I wondered, looking around the dark hotel room. I could see bright sunlight filtering through the cracks between the blackout curtains that were covering the windows. No one had come banging on my door yet, so it couldn’t be too late in the day. The digital clock on the bedside table caught my eye. According to its glowing red numbers, it was almost noon. I was surprised no one had woken me up.

I felt around for my phone on the table, where I usually left it, but it wasn’t connected to its charging cord. Panicked at the thought of losing it, I patted the pockets of the jeans I was still wearing from the night before. I felt a rush of relief when I found the phone tucked safely in my back pocket. I pulled it out and saw a series of texts from Howie.

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!

How ya feeling this morning? ;)

Text me when you wake up.

Nick? You ok?

Apparently he had been texting every half hour for the last two hours, growing steadily more worried when I didn’t respond. I’d been so out of it, I hadn’t heard my phone go off or felt it vibrating against my ass. But it was nice to know someone cared about me. I noticed neither Brian nor AJ had bothered to check on me.

I fired off a text back to Howie, letting him know I was alive, but before I could press send, the phone started to ring in my hand. Howie’s name was flashing on the screen. “Hey,” I answered it after the first ring. “Sorry, I just woke up and was about to text you back.”

“No worries,” said Howie, sounding relieved. “I hadn’t heard from you and just wanted to make sure you were okay. You were pretty wasted last night.”

“Yeah… don’t ever let me do tequila shots again.”

Howie laughed. “We’ll see.” Somehow, he sounded perfectly fine. “A few of us are gonna go grab some lunch. Wanna come?”

My stomach lurched again at the mere mention of food. “Uh, no, thanks. I think I’ll just order room service.”

“Okay… well, see you later then.”

The last thing I felt like doing was eating, so when I hung up with Howie, I plugged my phone into its charger and lay back down on the bed. I only meant to close my eyes for a second, but before I knew it, I was startled awake by a loud drumming sound. At first, I thought it was my heart again, and then I thought it was my head. But no… this time, the pounding was coming from my door.

“Coming!” I croaked, climbing down from the bed. I caught another glimpse of the clock and was shocked to see it was already two p.m. Somehow, I had slept another two hours.

I flung open the door to find AJ standing in the hallway. “Hey, there you are. You gonna hide out in here all day or what?”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Gee, I wonder why that was.” AJ pushed his way into my room without waiting to be invited. “It stinks in here!” he announced, waving his hand in front of his face. He walked straight to the window and jerked open the drapes, letting in a wall of bright sunlight.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, squinting. “Is it time to head to the venue?”

“In about an hour. You better grab a shower and get dressed. I wanted to talk to you, but it can wait.”

I wondered if he was going to give me another lecture about my drinking. He had already confronted me about it a couple of times, while Brian lurked in the background with his perfect little family, silently judging me. That was why I had been hanging out with Howie so much on this tour. Howie never judged or gave me a hard time. He just wanted to have fun.

“Okay, well… I guess I’ll be in the shower if you need me then.” I left AJ standing in the middle of my room and retreated into the bathroom, locking the door behind me so he couldn’t barge in there, too.

As I took off my shirt, I realized the stink he had complained about was coming from me. I could smell the stench of stale sweat, cigar smoke, and tequila clinging to my clothes. My breath couldn’t have smelled too great either. I gave myself a look of disgust in the mirror. My hair was greasy, and despite the extra sleep I’d gotten, there were still dark circles under my eyes.

If the fans could see me now, I thought, shaking my head. I looked nothing like the Nick Carter on our album covers, the heartthrob whose face filled the posters they hung on their walls. But in a few hours, I would paste on a smile as I shook hands and posed for pictures at the meet-and-greet, hiding the fact that I was hungover and had puked my guts out that morning. That night, I would go onstage and sing and dance as if I hadn’t woken up thinking I was dying.

I took a long, hot shower to wash the stink away. By the time I came back out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around my waist, AJ was gone. I changed into a striped t-shirt and a different pair of jeans, put on a dab of cologne, then dried and styled my hair. It helped; I looked - and smelled - a lot better than before.

I finished getting ready just in time to go downstairs, where a van was waiting to take us to the venue. “Hey buddy, how ya feeling?” Howie greeted me, looking all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You would never know he’d been out drinking into the wee hours of the morning with me.

“Fine,” I replied, refusing to admit I was still hungover. “How was your lunch?”

Delicioso!” He patted his belly. “I ate so much, I hope my stage clothes still fit.”

I turned my head so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. Howie was one of those people who could eat whatever he wanted without putting on weight. Meanwhile, I would gain five pounds if I so much as sniffed a slice of pizza. It wasn’t fair.

When we got to the venue, we hung out backstage until it was time for our soundcheck party. I chugged bottled water, wanting to wet my throat before I ran through my vocal warm-ups. My voice still sounded pretty rough at the soundcheck, but none of the fans in the audience seemed to mind. They screamed and clapped as we sang “Siberia,” “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon,” and “Everything But Mine.” The last song energized me enough to endure the line of fans waiting to get their photo with us afterwards.

By the time we finished the meet and greet, I was famished, so I filled a plate from the catered spread that had been set up for us in the green room and took it back to my dressing room to eat.

“Hey, Kaos!”

That was a nickname I hadn’t heard in a long time. I turned back in surprise to see AJ following me, carrying a plate of his own.

“Can we talk now?” he asked.

I shrugged. “As long as it doesn’t involve you lecturing me about what I put in my body.” I looked down at my heaping plate. “For your information, I haven’t eaten all day.”

AJ frowned. “Like I care what you eat? I’m not here to judge, Nick. I just need to ask you for a favor.”

“Oh.” I felt bad for being so defensive. “Well, what is it?”

“Come on - let’s sit down.” AJ held the door of my dressing room open and ushered me inside. I plopped down on the couch, putting my plate in my lap, and he planted himself on a chair across from me.

“So what did you want to ask?” I said, taking a bite out of a chicken wing.

“Okay, well, I told you I’m moving in with Kevin, right? Temporarily? To help him out?”

I nodded, my mouth full of chicken. AJ had made this announcement after talking to Kevin a few weeks ago. I didn’t know how it was going to work, considering our world tour went until the end of November, with no more than six weeks off between legs. There was no way Kevin would want to stay in the rehab hospital until Thanksgiving. Every time I talked to him, he sounded eager to go home. But there was no telling AJ that.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it some more,” he began, spearing a piece of lettuce with his fork, “and I dunno if I can do it alone. I mean, what if he fell out of his wheelchair? Would I be able to pick him up off the floor by myself? Not to mention needing to turn him over in bed every two hours at night and taking care of Mason on top of that. It’s just a lot. I feel like I’m about to become a single parent, and I think I need a partner.”

I had been wondering if this was AJ’s way of backing out, but right then I realized what he really wanted. Swallowing hard, I raised my eyebrows at him. “And you’re asking me?”

He nodded. “I don’t know who else to ask. Brian’s busy with his own family, and Howie’s a newlywed - it’s not fair to ask that of either of them. But you… you’re like me: single, childless. You could help Kevin, right?”

My mouth fell open as my mind raced, trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t. But all I could think about was the audacity of AJ assuming that just because I didn’t have a wife and kids, I should be the one to help him take care of Kevin. “I could…” I said slowly, “if I had any freaking clue what I was doing. But I don’t.”

“Neither do I,” AJ replied with a shrug, taking a bite of his salad. “It’s okay. Kev said there’s a caregiver class we can take at the rehab center.”

“When? We only have, what, two weeks off before we have to fly to Europe? And then South Africa? And then Canada? We’re hardly gonna be around to help Kevin.”

“We’ll make it work,” he said, just as he had when I’d pointed out the problem with his plan before. “Even if we can only stay with Kevin for a couple weeks at a time, at least that would give his mom a chance to go home and get a break. And maybe some of his other friends from L.A. will step up and help out while we’re on tour.”

“Technically, I don’t even live in L.A. anymore,” I reminded him. “I moved to Tennessee, remember?”

He nodded. “I know. But now I’m asking you to move into Kevin’s house - just for the time being - and help take care of your brother. He needs you, Nick. I need you.”

AJ made it sound like it was no big deal, but I thought he was asking an awful lot of me. I wasn’t ready to take on that kind of responsibility, and I told him so. “I dunno, dawg… like, of course I wanna help Kevin, but I don’t think I’m the right person to do this.”

“I think you’re the perfect person to do it,” said AJ, looking me in the eye. “At least think about it, will you?”

“I’ll think about it,” I promised, but I wasn’t really planning on agreeing to AJ’s stupid plan. I just wanted him to leave me alone.

We finished eating and went back to the green room to throw our plates away, passing Howie, who was pacing in the hallway outside his dressing room, his phone pressed to his ear. “Well, how long do you think he’s gonna be there?” I heard him ask. He paid no attention to AJ and me; I’m not sure he even noticed us.

“What’s up with Howie?” I asked Leigh, who was sitting in the green room with the Littrells.

She looked up at me, her big brown eyes filled with concern. “He got a call from his sister. From what I gathered, his dad’s in the hospital.”

My stomach dropped. “Damn… I hope he’s okay.”

I forgot all about Kevin as we waited for Howie to come back and fill us in. Finally, he got off the phone and walked back into the green room. “That was Pollyanna,” he said with a sigh. “They had to take Dad to the hospital. I guess he hasn’t been feeling well for a while, but today he woke up with a horrible headache that wouldn’t go away. Polly said he’s in a lot of pain. They’re gonna admit him and run some tests to find out why.”

“Sorry to hear that, D,” said AJ, frowning. “I hope they figure out what’s going on so he can get to feeling better.”

“We’ll be praying for him,” added Brian, as Leighanne nodded next to him.

“Keep us posted, man,” I said, patting Howie on the back. I knew how close he was to his family and how hard it must be for him to be out of the country while his dad was in the hospital. At least we just had this one last show to get through before we all headed home in the morning.

But getting through the show was easier said than done. I could usually shake a hangover by showtime, but not that night. I felt sluggish and out of shape from the moment I set foot on the stage. I tried to push through the fatigue and not let it affect my performance, but I was only going through the motions, relying on muscle memory to keep my feet moving during our dance routines. I constantly felt like I was half a beat behind the others, and I couldn’t seem to catch up. By the time we hit “Panic,” the halfway point in the show, I could barely catch my breath.

“I’ve made mistakes.  I’ve been an addict, a blind fanatic,” I sang, my voice falling flat as I flung my arms from side to side. “Don’t you know?  You’re not immune to the panic when somebody turns on you...” I normally loved this number because of its fast and fun choreography, but that night, I couldn’t wait for it to end. My mistakes had finally caught up to me, and it seemed I was no longer immune to the effects alcohol had on my body.

The other guys got a short break backstage during the next song, which was my solo, a medley of “I Got You” and “Blow Your Mind.” At least there was no dancing during this one, but I also couldn’t rely on the other guys’ vocals to carry me through. This time, it was all me.

“People tell me… you stay where you belong…” Standing with my back to the crowd as I sang the first line, I could feel beads of sweat dripping between my shoulder blades, my drenched t-shirt clinging to my damp skin. “But all my life I’ve tried… to prove them wrong…” I turned slowly on the spot to face the audience, uncomfortably aware of my fat, flushed face filling the giant screens on either side of the stage, my wet hair plastered to my forehead. I looked as disgusting as I felt.

I’m never drinking again, I thought, cringing at the sound of my own off-key voice in my in-ear monitors. I need to go back on a diet and get in shape.

But by the time I had taken my final bows and a shower backstage, I had changed my tune. “You’re coming out with us tonight, right, Nick?” Howie asked as we rode back to the hotel. I was surprised to hear him say that, considering his father was in the hospital. I didn’t think he would feel like partying that night.

I hesitated. “I dunno, dude... I probably shouldn’t. I think I drank too much last night.”

“Aww, come on - it’s the last show!” he protested. “And it’s St. Patrick’s Day! My Irish dad would be disappointed if we didn’t go out drinking on St. Patty’s Day. Do it for Papa D?”

I realized that Howie probably needed the distraction to keep himself from worrying about his dad. How could I say no to him? “Yeah, all right,” I finally agreed. “I’ll come out for a few.”

But of course, ‘a few’ turned into ‘a lot,’ and I woke up the next morning with another hangover and more regret. I couldn’t keep doing this to myself, or I really was going to end up drinking myself to death someday.

“How you doing this morning, Nicky?” asked Howie, as we piled into the van that would take us to the airport. As usual, he looked perfectly fine. I decided it must be the Irish genes he’d gotten from his dad’s side of the family that gave him such a high tolerance for alcohol.

“Meh,” I muttered in response. “How’s your dad doing? Have you heard anything?”

“Polly said the pain meds finally kicked in so he could sleep, but they don’t know anything yet,” he replied, pressing his lips together in a thin line. “Leigh and I are flying to Orlando instead of L.A.; I went ahead and changed our flight this morning. I may be overreacting, but I just wanna be there with him.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said, nodding, as if I knew what he was going through. I couldn’t really relate, though - my parents were younger and in good health, as far as I knew. It wasn’t like I talked to either of them often. We weren’t close the way the Doroughs were.

“Tell Kevin I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him,” Howie added apologetically. “I’ll call him from Florida.”

“Of course.”

We were originally all going to fly to L.A. first to visit Kevin for a few days before Brian and I headed back to the East Coast. I hadn’t been to my new house in Franklin since before New Year’s and was looking forward to finally going home. But as AJ squeezed into the seat beside me, I remembered the favor he had asked me for, and I felt a stab of guilt. Was I being selfish, wanting to go back to my big, empty house in Tennessee instead of staying in California to help take care of Kevin?

I am not my brother’s keeper, I thought adamantly. He’s not my responsibility.

But it continued to weigh on my conscience the whole way back to Los Angeles, making my heart feel as heavy as my luggage.