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It was good to get home - well, back on U.S. soil, anyway. L.A. wasn’t really my home anymore, but I had agreed to stay there with AJ for a few days to spend some time with Kevin before I flew back to my actual home in Franklin.

The morning after we got back from Mexico, AJ woke up bright and early to go to a caregiver class at the rehab hospital. He had tried to talk me into going with him, but I’d refused. “I just wanna relax and catch up on sleep,” I told him.

“Maybe if you didn’t drink so much, you wouldn’t be so tired all the time,” he retorted.

I rolled my eyes and ignored the dig, telling myself he didn’t really mean it. He was just mad because I hadn’t agreed to stick around longer and help him with Kevin. According to Brian, Kevin was planning to hire a paid caregiver or two to help him out at home, people who actually knew what they were doing. He didn’t need me.

While I was hanging out at AJ’s empty house, Howie called. I hadn’t heard from him since he’d texted us to let us know he and Q had made it safely back to Orlando the day before. He was planning on heading to the hospital to see his dad and probably just wanted to spend some time with his family, so I didn’t bother him, figuring he would update us on how his dad was doing when he felt like it. I was glad to see his name flashing on my phone, though.

“Hey, Howie!” I answered it. “What’s up, bro?”

“Hey, Nick.” When I heard his voice, my heart dropped into my stomach. He didn't sound like his usual happy-go-lucky self, and I knew something had to be wrong.

“How’s your dad?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to hear his answer.

Howie sighed. “Not good. They found a tumor in his brain - and another one in his lung. It looks like cancer.”

I sucked in a low breath through my teeth as my heart sank further. “Damn… I’m sorry, dude.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I settled for a follow-up question: “Do they know how bad it is?”

“The doctors won’t know for sure until they find out what kind it is. They’re doing a biopsy later today. But if it’s already in his brain and his lungs, then it’s probably spread to other places, too. That means it must be pretty bad.”

“Oh, man... I’m so sorry. Is… is there anything I can do?” It seemed like a stupid question, considering I was clear across the country, but it sounded like the right thing to say. I felt awkward, not knowing how to deal with a situation like this.

“You could talk to the other guys for me,” Howie replied. “I don’t know if I can make this call three more times today.” He sounded physically and emotionally drained, as if all the life had been sucked out of him.

“Of course,” I said quickly. “I’ll tell them tonight. We’re all taking Kevin out to dinner.”

“Aw, really? Like out out?”

“To a real restaurant, yeah. It’ll be his first time leaving the rehab center.”

“Wow, that’s awesome. I bet he’s looking forward to that.”

I laughed. “He has no idea. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

Brian had come up with this plan after talking to his aunt. Apparently, Ann was anxious about taking Kevin home in the new wheelchair-accessible van she had ordered for him and wanted to do a trial run before he was officially released. But Kevin was self-conscious about being seen in public and had refused to go on any of the bus trips offered by the rehab hospital, so she wasn’t sure how he would feel about going out in the van. It had been Brian’s idea to surprise him with a dinner reservation, which basically meant springing it on him at the last minute so he couldn’t back out of it.

“Good luck with that,” said Howie. “I hope it goes well.”

“Thanks. I hope you guys get some more answers soon. Maybe it won’t be as bad as it sounds.”

“Yeah... we’ll see.” He didn’t sound too hopeful.

“Hang in there, man,” I added, swallowing hard as my throat grew tight. “And, uh, tell Papa D we’re all pulling for him here.”

“I will. Thanks, Nicky. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Keep us posted.”

“Okay. I’ll talk to you soon.”

After we hung up, I stayed on AJ’s couch and stared at my phone for a long time. My body was still, but my heart was beating so fast, it felt like I had a butterfly fluttering inside my rib cage. My thoughts were racing even faster through my head. My mind felt like it was running in circles, going a million miles a minute, but getting nowhere. I felt so bad for Howie and his family, but there wasn’t much I could do to help from California. It was an anxious, frustrating feeling. I wanted a drink to dull my emotions and make everything slow down, but I fought the temptation, telling myself it would be better to wait and have a beer with dinner than drink alone while AJ was out of the house.

The rest of the afternoon dragged by, almost making me wish I’d gone to the caregiver class with AJ just so I would have something to do to take my mind off Howie’s dad. Finally, four o’clock came, and I decided to get dressed for dinner. We had agreed to meet at the rehab facility at five. I put on a button-down shirt and a pair of designer jeans and did my hair, running some gel through it with my fingers until it had the bedhead look I liked.

AJ had left me the keys to one of his cars so I could drive myself to the rehab center. When I arrived, he was already waiting in Kevin’s room, just watching TV with him. No one else was there yet.

“Hey, Kev!” I exclaimed as I entered the room, forcing a smile onto my face. I was genuinely happy to see him, but I also felt sad about Howie’s dad and wanted to hide it. I would tell the guys in due time, but it wouldn’t be fair to Kevin if those were the first words out of my mouth when we hadn’t seen each other in over a month. He deserved my full attention.

“Nick! You made it.” Kevin grinned back. “It’s good to see you, brother.” He held out his arms, and I gave him an awkward hug in his wheelchair. It was weird having to bend over to hug him; he had always been taller than me or at least the same height. But we made it work. I could tell by the way his arms tightened around me that he had gotten stronger since the last time I saw him.

“You too, bro.” As I straightened up and took a closer look at him, I realized he was no longer wearing his neck brace. He looked a lot better without it, less like a patient and more like his old self. His hair was getting long, and his neatly-trimmed goatee had grown into a full beard, but the rugged style suited him. “You look great!”

“Thanks,” he said, laughing a little, like he didn’t believe me. “How have you been?”

“Fine,” I lied, shrugging. Eager to change the subject before he asked me anything else, I looked at AJ. “How was your class?”

“It was… enlightening,” he said, after a long pause. “A lot of information… a little overwhelming… but I learned a lot!”

“And even after all that, he says he’s still willing to move in with me,” added Kevin, raising his eyebrows at AJ. “I think he’s crazy, but I guess we already knew that.”

I forced a laugh, but my insides squirmed with guilt. I wondered if AJ had told him he’d talked to me about moving in, too. If he had, Kevin didn’t mention it.

“Kev, let’s show him that thing I learned,” AJ said eagerly. “The quad cough.”

“The quad cough?” I repeated, glancing from AJ to Kevin.

Kevin’s cheeks had gone pink. “It’s an assisted cough. I can’t cough well enough to clear my lungs, so someone has to help me,” he explained.

I was still confused. “Help you how?”

“Like this,” said AJ, getting up from his seat. He stood in front of Kevin, facing him. “Are your brakes on?”

“Yeah, they go on automatically when I power off.”

“Okay.” AJ placed his hands on Kevin’s stomach, just below his rib cage. “Ready? One… two… three!” On three, he pushed hard, and Kevin coughed.

I cringed. “Doesn’t that hurt?” I was thinking about how it felt to get punched in the gut, which was almost what it looked like.

Kevin flashed a crooked smile. “Considering I can’t feel anything that far down... no, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Oh.” I let out an awkward laugh, feeling my face heat up. “Duh.”

Thankfully, Brian and his family arrived then, sparing me from further embarrassment. Ann had brought Mason along with Brian, Leighanne, and Baylee, so I moved to a corner of the crowded room while they greeted Kevin.

It was Baylee’s first time seeing Kevin since his accident. He seemed unsure at first, clinging to Leighanne’s legs while Kevin cuddled Mason in his lap. After a few minutes, he went up to the wheelchair and looked at Kevin. “Mommy said your legs don’t work anymore,” he told Kevin matter-of-factly.

“Baylee!” hissed Leighanne, looking mortified, but Kevin just laughed.

“She’s right. They don’t,” he replied. “That’s why I’m in this chair.”

Baylee looked at the power chair with interest, his eyes moving from the tires up to the joystick on the right armrest. “Do you drive it like a car?”

“Kind of like a car, yeah.”

“Can I try?”

“Baylee, no,” Leighanne moaned. “Uncle Kevin needs his chair. It’s not a toy.”

“I don’t care if he tries it,” said Kevin with a shrug. “Can someone take Mason?” Once his mom had scooped the baby out of his lap, he held out his arms to Baylee. “Here, kiddo - climb on up.”

“Be careful,” Leighanne warned, as her son scrambled up onto Kevin’s knees. Kevin wrapped one arm around him and turned on his wheelchair with the other. He showed Baylee how to use the controls and let him move the chair forwards and backwards. Baylee had a huge smile on his face the whole time his hand was on the joystick.

“Hey, Kev - how does it feel to be the coolest person in the room?” Brian joked, grinning at his cousin.

“Uh, hello!” AJ waved his hand in the air. “I’m over here, Rok.”

Brian chuckled. “Sorry, Boner, but it looks like you’ve been replaced. Nothing can beat Kevin’s sweet ride. It’s like a Power Wheels! Right, Bay?”

Baylee was too busy playing to respond.

Kevin’s mom cleared her throat. “Speaking of sweet rides…” She boosted Mason higher on her hip. “I brought the new van today. The boys thought it would be fun for us to go out to dinner tonight.”

Kevin looked up at her, raising his eyebrows. “Us?

“Yeah, we thought we could celebrate our homecomings - us from tour and you from rehab,” Brian chimed in, grinning. “You are still planning on going home soon, right?”

“That’s the plan, yeah...” Kevin said slowly, “...but I dunno about going out with y’all tonight.”

AJ and I exchanged glances. Neither of us were surprised by his reaction. Based on what Brian had told us, we had anticipated him saying no. Our job was to talk him into saying yes.

“Aw, c’mon, Kev,” AJ tried to convince him first. “You’re gonna have to leave the rehab center at some point to go home, right? Tonight’s the perfect night to get outta here for a few hours and test out that new van of yours.”

“Yeah, remember all the times you told me you wanted a drink or to have one for you?” I added. “Well, tonight you can finally come out with us and have one yourself! I’ll buy you as many as you want!”

Kevin smiled and shook his head. “I appreciate it, Nick, but I probably shouldn’t. Pissing myself in public is not my idea of fun.”

“I thought you had a bag to piss into.”

He blushed, clearly flustered by the conversation. “Well, I do, but it has to be emptied every few hours. If I drink too much, and it overflows…”

“So we’ll empty it before we go, and if it needs emptying again at the restaurant, then we’ll empty it again,” said AJ with a shrug. “I know how to do that now; it’s no big deal. I got you, bro.”

I looked at AJ in surprise. He was really taking this caregiver stuff seriously.

“I already made us reservations at a steakhouse just a few blocks from here,” Brian added, lifting Baylee off Kevin’s lap. “We have a private party room, and the manager said there’s a back door we can use, so you won’t have to go through the main dining room. No one but the wait staff will even see you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

By the way Kevin’s cheeks darkened, I could tell that was exactly what he was worried about. He didn’t want to be stared at in public. I didn’t blame him, but it seemed like something he was going to have to get over sooner or later.

“I dunno… I’m not dressed to go out to dinner,” he said, looking down at himself. He was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a baggy Kentucky Wildcats t-shirt. “Besides, I’d need to shave. My face is getting pretty scruffy.”

“I brought you another outfit,” his mom told him. She dug into Mason’s diaper bag and took out a folded pair of khakis and a polo shirt.

“And I can give you a shave,” added AJ. “Admit it - no one here knows more about manscaping than me.”

A smile crept across Kevin’s face, and I swear I saw tears sparkling in his eyes. He was clearly touched by our efforts. How could he turn us down?

“All right,” he finally agreed. “As long as we have enough time for me to get cleaned up first, I’ll go.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” Brian replied with a grin. “Our reservations aren’t for another hour.”

“I’ll help you get ready,” AJ offered. “It’ll be a good practice run for me, too.”

The rest of us waited in the hall while AJ helped Kevin change his clothes and shave and whatever else he needed to do. It took forever, but finally, they emerged from the room. Kevin was fully dressed, his goatee trimmed down to perfection.

Brian whistled. “Damn, cous, you clean up nice!”

“Yeah, except... what happened to your eyebrow?” I asked, faking a look of confusion.

I watched the blood drain from Kevin’s face as he reached up, trying to feel his forehead with his fists. I couldn’t help it; I started cracking up before he even realized I was messing with him.

“Damn it, Nick!” he cried, but he was laughing, too. “You had me going there for a minute, thinking this fool shaved off one of my eyebrows.” He flung his hand toward AJ.

“Dude, wouldn’t you have felt it if I’d shaved off your eyebrow? Your face isn’t paralyzed,” AJ pointed out. “Besides, those things are so freaking thick, they would have clogged the razor blades!”

“Ha-ha… real funny.”

Leighanne looked at her watch. “We should probably get going now. We don’t wanna be late.”

We went out to the parking lot, where Kevin’s mom had left the van. It was parked in one of the many handicapped spaces up front, and I saw a handicapped parking placard hanging from the rearview mirror. We all took a minute to admire it, oohing and aahing over the shiny black exterior and soft leather seats, as if Kevin had bought a luxury sports car instead of an accessible van. Ann showed us some of the cool features it had, including the side door that slid open automatically so a ramp could come down. Kevin was able to drive his wheelchair up the ramp, and Brian helped Ann buckle him in, using a series of built-in straps and seat belts to secure him and his chair to the floor of the van. There was even a row of seats in the back where Leighanne could ride with Baylee and Mason in their car seats, while Brian sat up front with his aunt.

I rode with AJ to the restaurant. “So how was your class really?” I asked him in a low voice, as we followed Kevin’s van up the road. I wondered if he was having any second thoughts after learning what taking care of a quadriplegic actually entailed. It would make me feel less guilty if I knew he was regretting his rash decision to move in with Kevin.

“I told you, it was a lot to take in, but it was good,” said AJ with a shrug. If he was worried he had gotten in over his head, he wasn’t going to admit it.

I watched him curiously as he concentrated on the road. “Did you really empty Kevin’s piss bag before we left?”

“Yup.” AJ glanced over at me. “It’s not as gross as it sounds. There’s a tube at the bottom of the bag; you just dangle it over the toilet seat, open the release valve, and drain it right into the toilet. I didn’t have to touch his dick or anything.”

I made a face. “Well, I hope you still washed your hands when you were done.”

He frowned. “I don’t remember if I did or not. Here, smell my hand and let me know, would ya?” He took his right hand off the wheel and shoved it into my face.

“Dude!” I turned my head, trying to squirm away as he wiped his hand all over me. “Don’t! That fucking sick!”

AJ snickered. “That’s rich, coming from a guy who doesn’t wash his own hands after going to the bathroom.”

“That’s different! That’s my own dick.”

“Yeah, well, how many times have you touched one of us after touching your own dick? So don’t even try to talk to me about hygiene, Mr. Human Petri Dish.”

“Stop messing around and watch the road!” I snapped, turning to face forward again. “You’re gonna ruin our whole night if you wreck your car.” As AJ started laughing at me again, I realized I sounded just like Kevin.

“For the record, I did wash my hands,” he said, wiggling his fingers as he finally returned his right hand to the wheel.

“Thank god.”

We rode in silence the rest of the way to the restaurant. When we pulled into a parking space, Brian was just getting out of the passenger seat of Kevin’s van. “I’m gonna go in to tell them we’re here and find out where this back door is,” he said, as we walked up to meet him. “Wait here a minute.”

The van was still running. I opened the side door and stuck my head in to talk to Kevin. “How you doing?” I asked him.

He grimaced. “All right… a little nervous, I guess.” He glanced out his window. “It’s nice to get away from the rehab center, but it feels weird, too. The real world is like a whole new world to me - familiar, but at the same time, totally different.” He looked back at me. “Does that make any sense?”

I nodded. “Yeah. That makes perfect sense.”

“The world hasn’t really changed, though,” he went on thoughtfully. “I’ve changed.”

“You’re still the same old Kevy Kev to us,” said AJ, coming up behind me and resting his hand on my shoulder. “How was your ride?”

“Kinda scary, to be honest,” Kevin admitted.

“Oh come on, your mom’s not that bad of a driver.”

“I heard that!” Ann called back from the front seat.

AJ chuckled. “I mean it! We followed you guys the whole way here. L.A traffic is crazy, but you handled it like a pro, Ann.”

“Better than AJ, anyway,” I added, giving him a disgruntled look. “I bet you kept both hands on the wheel and everything.”

Ann laughed, as AJ wiggled his nasty fingers in front of my nose again. “Thank you, boys.”

“My mom’s a great driver,” said Kevin. “I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant… well, it’s like you always used to tell me when I started driving, Ma: ‘It’s not you I worry about. It’s other people.’ Last time I was in a car… well, look at what happened to me.” He lifted his arms and gestured toward his wheelchair with hands that were curled into loose fists. “I held my breath at every intersection, afraid someone was gonna crash into us.”

“That’s normal,” Leighanne said softly from the back seat. “You suffered a terrible trauma. It’s only natural to feel nervous. The first time I flew after 9/11, I was terrified. I just kept thinking of that movie Final Destination, where Devon Sawa and his friends get hunted down by Death because they got off a plane before it crashed. I believe God saved my life by telling me to take a later flight, but what if fate had other plans for me?”

I turned my head so she wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. Leighanne liked to remind us about how she was supposed to be on one of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center. She always had to make it about her.

“Yeah… well, anyway, thanks for getting us here in one piece, Ma,” said Kevin, smiling at his mom’s reflection in the rearview mirror.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” She beamed back at him. “I’m just glad you agreed to go. It’s good to see you out and about again.”

Brian came back, walking briskly and wearing a big grin on his face. “They’re all ready for us,” he said, clapping his hands together. “You ready, cous?”

Kevin sucked in a shaky breath. “I guess so. Let’s go.”

Ann got out of the driver’s seat and came around to unbuckle Kevin. AJ climbed into the back so he could see what she was doing, while I hung back out of the way with Brian. Once Kevin had rolled down the ramp, Ann got Mason out of his carseat. Leighanne was the last to exit with Baylee.

“The hostess said to follow the sidewalk around to the back of the building,” Brian said, leading the way. The rest of us formed a protective circle around Kevin as he powered his chair over the pavement. Thankfully, we were far enough from Hollywood that there weren’t any paparazzi waiting out front. In fact, we didn’t see another person until we were behind the building, where another hostess was waiting for us by the back door.

“Welcome, Mr. Richardson,” she said, holding the door open for Kevin. “Right this way.” She took us down a short hallway, past a bustling kitchen, and into the private room Brian had reserved. A large, rectangular table stood in the middle. Kevin positioned himself at the head of it, where there weren’t any chairs, and the rest of us sat down on either side. Ann took the seat on his right and placed Mason’s high chair next to her. Brian sat down on Kevin’s left, with Baylee and Leighanne beside him, leaving AJ and me at the other end of the table.

“Thank you,” said Kevin, as the hostess set a menu in front of him. I watched him fumble with it, trying to turn the pages with his fists. Halfway down the table, his son was doing the same thing with a board book Ann had given him.

When the waiter came to take our drink orders, I ordered myself a beer, then pointed at Kevin and said, “Put whatever he orders on my tab - and if it doesn’t have alcohol, bring him something that does. He’s not driving tonight.”

The waiter looked down the table at Kevin and laughed. “You got it.”

He left and came back with a tray full of drinks, including a tall beer for Kevin. After he had taken our dinner orders and gone away again, Brian raised his glass and said, “I’d like to make a quick toast. To Kevin - I know how hard the past few months have been for you, but you’ve come a long way. We couldn’t be more proud of you, cous. The worst is behind you now, and I know you’re gonna keep moving forward, working hard, and making progress once you get out of rehab and go home. Here’s to better days ahead!”

“Hear, hear!” AJ echoed, tipping his water glass toward Brian. “Well said, Rok.”

“We love you, bro!” I called down the table to Kevin, who was looking teary-eyed again.

“Thank you all,” he said hoarsely, pausing to clear his throat. “It’s been a long, hard road, but I wouldn’t be where I am without your support. I love y’all more than words can express.”

“I’ll drink to that!” I was the first to bring my glass to my lips, but the others quickly followed suit. When we finished the toast, only Kevin was left with a full drink still sitting in front of him.

“I don’t think I can drink this without spilling it all over myself,” he said sheepishly, staring at the pilsner glass, which had been filled to the brim. “It’s too heavy for me to pick up.”

“We should have asked for an extra straw,” said his mom, frowning. “Here…” She took the straw out of her own water glass and stuck it in Kevin’s glass instead, but it sank down so low, he couldn’t lean forward far enough to get his lips around it. “Well, that’s not going to work, is it? I wonder if they have any longer straws… preferably the bendy kind.”

Kevin looked embarrassed. “Who drinks beer through a straw?” I heard him mutter.

Leighanne stood up from the table. “I’ll see what I can find,” she said, tugging her tiny dress down lower as she left the room. She came back a few minutes later with a longer, thicker straw. “Good thing they have milkshakes on the dessert menu! Will this one work?”

“Let’s see…” Ann put the new straw in Kevin’s glass. It stuck up a few inches from the top of the glass, giving Kevin just enough room to reach it from his chair. “Well, good enough for now. I’ll get you some of those reusable ones to bring with you next time.”

Kevin nodded and took a sip of his beer. “God, this tastes good,” he said, closing his eyes as he swallowed. “I haven’t had beer in, what, almost three months? Not since New Year’s Eve…” His smile faded. He shook his head and cleared his throat. “Anyway... thanks for making me come here tonight. It does feel good to get out, even if it’s a little different. I’m looking forward to a nice meal that’s not hospital food.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to some authentic American cuisine,” said AJ with a grin. “Meat and potatoes, baby!” Everyone laughed, knowing he was the least adventurous eater of the five of us.

“I just wish Howie was here with us.” Kevin looked around the table. “Has anyone heard from him today? Do y’all know how his dad’s doing?”

AJ and Brian both shook their heads. I bit down on my bottom lip, wondering if now was the time to tell them Howie’s news. I had been hoping to wait until after dinner, not wanting to ruin the meal, but how could I lie and hide the truth when Kevin was asking about it directly?

I cleared my throat. “Actually, he called me this afternoon.” The others looked over at me in surprise. “It’s… it’s not good news. They think Hoke has cancer.” I saw the wide-eyed expressions on their faces and knew they must be feeling the exact same way I’d felt earlier while I was on the phone with Howie. “They found tumors in his brain and lung,” I forced myself to continue. “They’re gonna run more tests to figure out what kind and how bad it is.”

“Oh my god…”

While everyone reacted with shock and sadness, I saw Kevin and his mom exchange glances at the other end of the table. They had been through this before, I realized, with Kevin’s own dad. He had died of colon cancer a couple years before Kevin joined the Backstreet Boys. For them, this must have felt like reliving an old nightmare.

“We’re not really gonna fly to Germany in two weeks, are we?” Brian said at one point, looking around the table at the rest of us. “I mean, with everything else that’s happened and now this… I really think we need to postpone the next leg of the tour and give Howie some more time at home with his family.”

I felt a flood of deja vu as I thought back to AJ’s birthday dinner, when we’d had a similar conversation about the first leg of the tour. Part of me thought Brian was being selfish, secretly wanting us to cancel so he could spend more time at home with his own family. He had always been a homebody, but even more so since Baylee was born. If you’d asked me a few years ago who I thought would be the first Backstreet Boy to leave the group, I would have said Brian, hands down. I never imagined Kevin would quit before him.

“I’m with you, Rok,” AJ replied, bringing me back to the present. “I know last time we talked about this, I wanted to go ahead with the tour… but I also said we should reassess when we got back from the first leg. Well, here we are. With Kevin ready to get out of rehab and now Howie having to deal with this, I think you’re right - we should reschedule our European dates.”

“What do you think, Nick?” asked Brian.

Everyone looked expectantly at me, waiting for me to weigh in. I felt uncomfortable because, of course, I didn’t want to cancel the tour. But I knew I couldn’t say that; it would only make me sound selfish and insensitive. So instead, I said, “I think we should talk to Howie before we make any decisions.”

AJ shook his head. “Normally, I would say you’re right, but this time I disagree. We all know Howie. He’s not gonna want us to rearrange dates just for him. If we ask him first, he’ll say he’s fine and that the show must go on, whether he means it or not. He doesn’t like losing money or letting people down: fans... management… us.”

“The fans will understand,” Brian interjected. “We understand. And if management doesn’t, they can fuck off. Pardon my French.” His face reddened as he looked around, as if suddenly remembering his aunt and five-year-old son were still in the room.

“Exactly,” said AJ, nodding. “So what I’m saying is, I think the three of us need to make the decision ourselves and present it to Howie as a united front. Then there’d be no reason for him to argue with us. Majority rules, right?”

Easy for you to say when you already have the majority, I thought. Even if I went against him and Brian, my opinion wouldn’t matter when there were only three of us deciding. But if we waited to ask Howie, we might be split down the middle. Because AJ was right about one thing: Howie wouldn’t want us to reschedule for him any more than Kevin had.

I looked down the table at Kevin, who was sitting silently in his wheelchair, watching this unfold without him. I wondered what he was thinking. I cleared my throat. “What would you do, Kev?”

He blinked, seeming surprised by the question. “It doesn’t matter what I would do,” he replied calmly. “I’m not in the group anymore.”

“We still respect your opinion,” said AJ. “Do you think we should reschedule?”

Kevin took his time answering. “I think… that if Howie’s dad really does have cancer,” he began, staring down at the table, “and it’s already spread to different parts of his body… then Howie should plan to spend as much time at home with him as he can. And if that means postponing the tour… then so be it.” When he looked up at us again, there were tears in his eyes. “I wish I would’ve had more time with my dad before he passed. If I had known how bad it was, I would have come home months sooner. I don’t want Howie to have any regrets.”

“He already feels guilty for not being there when his sister died,” added AJ. “We didn’t give him time off to deal with it then. I didn’t have time to grieve after my grandma died, either, and look at what happened to me. And you, Rok… you hardly had time to recover from your heart surgery before we went right back out on the road two months later. I was too young and naive to realize it at the time, but I know now how hard that must have been for you.”

Brian nodded, resting his hand on his chest. It was no secret he still resented our former managers for making him do that, after forcing him to postpone the operation in the first place.

“So let’s learn from the mistakes we made in the past and not repeat them,” AJ went on. “We’re at the point in our career where we can finally afford to put ourselves and our families first. Take time off when we need it. Like you said, our fans will understand, and they’ll be there waiting for us when we’re ready to get back out there. That’s all that really matters.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Deep down, I knew he was right. So I nodded and said, “I agree. I’m with you guys.”

“Great,” said Brian. “It’s decided then. We can talk to Howie tomorrow, then find time to meet with management later this week. They won’t be happy, but it is what it is. Nothing’s more important than family.” He glanced over at Kevin. “With that being said, I think we need to table this conversation for now. Tonight was supposed to be a celebration.”

No one felt much like celebrating after that, but thankfully, it wasn’t long before our food arrived. My mouth watered as I looked down at the big, juicy steak the water set in front of me. I picked up my knife and fork and cut into it right away. It was cooked to perfection, crispy on the edges and pink in the middle. As I put the first bite in my mouth, my eyes traveled to the other end of the table, where Kevin’s mom was busy cutting his entire steak up into small pieces. Across from her, Leighanne was doing the same thing with Baylee’s chicken.

Brian helped Kevin put on the special cuffs he used to hold his utensils, while Ann finished cutting up his food. I watched with curiosity as she hooked a stainless steel device onto the edge of his plate before she put it back in front of him. It looked like something you’d buy at a hardware store to hold pieces of pipe together, except it was bigger and only formed a semicircle instead of a full ring.

Ann must have noticed me staring. “It’s a plate guard,” she explained, smiling at me. “It helps keep Kevin’s food on his plate and makes it easier for him to pick it up. Show them how you do it, honey.”

Kevin looked embarrassed. His cheeks were bright pink as he pushed a bit of meat up against the side of the plate guard to hold it in place as he awkwardly tried to pierce it with his fork. I could tell it was hard for him to generate enough force to sink his fork through the thick streak. It was almost painful to watch.

“Want me to-?” Brian started to reach toward Kevin’s plate with his own fork, but Kevin shook his head and waved his hand away.

“No, thanks,” he said stiffly. “I can do it.”

He finally gave up on spearing the steak and settled for scooping it onto his fork instead. It took him two tries to get it up to his mouth; the first time, it fell off and landed in his lap. I had to look away as his mom reached down to retrieve it. My eyes landed on Mason, who was picking up Cheerios off the tray of his high chair and putting them in his mouth with more success.

I knew Kevin didn’t want anyone’s pity, but I still felt sorry for him. I had assumed he would be more independent after two months in the rehab center, but it was obvious that he still needed a lot of help, whether he wanted it or not. Besides not being able to walk, there were so many other simple, everyday things he couldn’t do by himself, like go to the bathroom, get dressed, or enjoy a meal. Watching him out of the corner of my eye as I chewed my steak, I realized how much I took for granted. It made me feel even guiltier for wanting to get back to my own life in Franklin while AJ gave up his freedom to move in with Kevin.

“You’re like me,” I heard his words echoing inside my head. “Single, childless. You could help Kevin, right? He needs you, Nick. I need you. You’re the perfect person to do it.” Was it really AJ’s voice I was hearing, or was it my own conscience?

The conversation died down as everyone concentrated on eating. The food was amazing, and by the time the waiter came back to clear our plates away, everyone had polished off their meals except Kevin. He was still working on his steak. Judging by the number of pieces left on his plate, he had only managed to eat about a third of it. “You can take this,” he told the waiter anyway. “I’m finished.”

“Would you like a box for that, sir?”

“No, thanks.”

Ann frowned. “Are you sure, hon? I can take it home tonight to put in the fridge and bring it up to you tomorrow for-”

“No, Ma, it’s fine,” Kevin interrupted her.

“Was yours not good?” Brian asked, once the waiter had taken his plate away. “‘Cause mine was great!”

“It was fine,” Kevin said again. I could tell by his tone that he was losing patience with his family. “It tasted good. It just wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to eat, and… I dunno, ever since my accident, I just haven’t had much of an appetite. I guess it’s because my body doesn't burn nearly as many calories as before, sitting in this damn chair all day. I don’t need to eat as much.”

“Wish I had that problem,” I blurted without thinking, patting my belly, which was straining against the waistband of my pants.

Kevin met my eyes. “No, you don’t,” he muttered, which made me feel terrible.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said apologetically, my face burning. “I-” Before I could finish explaining myself, I felt a burp bubble up from my stomach. As I let out a loud belch, everyone laughed. Even Kevin cracked a smile as he looked at Baylee, who was giggling hysterically. In spite of my embarrassment, I couldn’t help but grin, too. Guys who burp and fart are about the funniest thing in the world to five-year-old boys. “Excuse me,” I said, shrugging. At least it had eased the tension at the table.

“Good Lord, Nickolas!” cried Leighanne. “We can’t take you anywhere!” I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.

“Sorry,” I said, but I was looking at Kevin, not at her.

He nodded, catching my eye again. “No worries. We’re all human here.” He leaned forward to take a sip from the straw in his glass, which was still half full of beer - probably warm by now. As he did, he must have bumped the table, because the glass suddenly toppled over, the rest of the beer spilling into his lap.

“Oh dear!” Ann gasped, jumping up from the table. “Napkins… we need napkins!”

The waiter had already taken everything off the table, so AJ ran off to find some. He returned with a wad of paper towels from the bathroom, which he crammed between Kevin’s legs to soak up as much beer as possible.

“Great,” Kevin said sarcastically, looking down at himself. “Now it looks like I pissed my pants anyway.”

“Gosh… we can’t take you anywhere, either!” Leighanne winked at him, grinning. At least I could tell she was kidding that time.

Kevin smiled back weakly.

“You want another beer, bro?” I asked him.

He shook his head. “Nah… I’ve clearly had enough.”

I could tell he was ready to go, so we took our cue to pay the bill and leave.

“Thanks again for making me come out tonight,” Kevin said in the parking lot, before his mom loaded him into the van. “I hope I didn’t embarrass y’all too much.”

“No more than Nick did,” AJ joked, slinging his arm around me. “At least you still have some table manners.”

“I taught him well,” said Ann, smiling at her son. “Will we see you two at the rehab center tomorrow? The Cats are playing in the first round of the NCAA tournament tomorrow at 11:30! Kevin rearranged his whole therapy schedule so he can watch.”

I knew AJ couldn’t care less about college basketball, but he grinned right back and replied, “Wouldn’t miss it! See you tomorrow.”

We turned to walk back to AJ’s car.

“You okay, Nick?” AJ asked me, as we buckled out seat belts. “You were really quiet during dinner… other than that epic burp, I mean.”

I laughed. “Yeah… I was just thinking.”

“About Howie?”

“No… not the whole time, anyway.” My heartbeat accelerated as my mind began to race again. “Actually, I was thinking about Kevin… and what you asked me in Mexico.”

AJ looked over at me, one eyebrow raised. “About moving in with us?”

“Yeah…” I took a deep breath, and the words tumbled out. “I’ll do it. I’ll stay here and help out until we go back on tour.”

His other eyebrow went up. “Really? You will?”


“And you’re not just saying that because you’ve been drinking?”

“No.” I’d only had two pints of beer at dinner; my head was clear. “I’m saying it because it’s the right thing to do.”

His face broke into a big grin. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that, bro. I’m sure Kevin will be happy, too. We’ll have fun with it. We’ll turn his place into the ultimate bachelor pad! We’ll be like Joey, Chandler, and Ross from Friends!”

I snorted. “More like Three Men and a Baby. And one of them’s in a wheelchair.”

He snickered. “Oh man… you’re right. This has all the makings of a great comedy.”

I laughed along with him, but deep down, all I could think was, What the hell did I just get myself into?