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The first week of 2008 was one of the worst in my life. I was supposed to have flown back to my new home in Franklin for two more weeks of relaxation until it was time to start our final rehearsals for the Unbreakable tour. Instead, I stayed in L.A. at AJ’s house and spent my time off hanging out at a hospital.

I’m sure I sound like an asshole for complaining when Kevin was the one stuck in the hospital. Don’t get me wrong - he definitely had it worse. All I’m saying is it was hard on me, too. It was hard on all of us.

By Saturday, I was desperately in need of a break. “Anyone wanna go out and do something tonight?” I asked the other guys as we waited for the elevator. Evening rounds were about to begin in the ICU, which was our cue to leave.

Everyone had a different excuse for why they couldn’t come out with me. “Nah, bro, I better not,” said AJ. “Too much temptation, you know?” He gave me a meaningful look, which I ignored. After what he’d said to me the other day, I didn’t really want to go out with him anyway. I wished Q was still around, but he had flown back to Florida for his son’s birthday.

“I think Leigh and I are gonna spend the night in,” added Howie, “but maybe next time.”

I turned around so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. This is why I’m never getting married, I thought. It makes you a lame old man.

Then I remembered that Brian’s wife had gone back home to be with Baylee. “What about you, Brian?” I said. “Wanna bach it up with me while the wifey’s away?” Leighanne never let Brian have fun with me anymore. She thought I was a bad influence. I thought the same thing about her.

Brian raised his eyebrows. “Maybe. What’d you have in mind?”

“I dunno, grab some dinner and drinks, maybe hit a few clubs?”

He hesitated. “You know that’s not really my scene, Nick. Now if you wanna come over to my place, you’re more than welcome. We could pick up a case of beer, order pizza, and just chill.”

I love pizza and beer as much as the next guy, but I wasn’t in the mood to hang out at anyone’s house. Besides, Kevin’s mom was staying at Brian’s, and while she was a lovely woman, I knew I wouldn’t have any fun with her around. She would only remind me of what had happened to Kevin, and I wanted to forget about that for just one night.

“Thanks, but that’s okay. I’ll just call my buddy Chris,” I said with a shrug. There was a time when Brian had been my best friend, but not anymore. I’d met my current best friend, Chris, in Florida a few years ago. He had moved to California after graduating college last year, and he was the only one from my Hollywood crowd I hadn’t cut out of my life. Chris wasn’t toxic like the others. He knew how to have fun, but he had a good head on his shoulders.

"Hey, man, how's it goin'?" Chris asked when he picked me up at the bottom of AJ’s driveway a couple hours later.

“Eh… it’s goin’,” I replied, as I climbed into his car.

“Sorry to hear about Kevin and Kristin. That’s rough.”

I sighed. “Yeah. It really sucks.” Through our publicist, we had released a statement about the Richardsons’ accident. We had kept the details of Kevin’s injury under wraps, announcing only that he had undergone surgery and was in serious condition. But when I’d called Chris to invite him out, I had told him the truth. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore tonight, though. I don’t even wanna think about it. Your job is to make me forget.”

Chris grinned. “You got it, my friend. Let’s go.” He revved his engine before shifting out of park and peeling off down the winding road out of AJ’s neighborhood.

He took me to my favorite restaurant, followed by one of my favorite clubs, places I had introduced him to when he’d first come out to L.A. We ate, drank, danced, and drank some more. The more I drank, the easier it was for me to push Kevin to the back of my mind and be in the moment, focusing only on the music and the beautiful women that filled the dance floor. By midnight, I was feeling much better.

I ran into one of my old dealers in the bathroom, which wasn’t really surprising, considering how many times I’d bought from him at this very club before. I hadn’t planned on doing anything except drinking that night, but nevertheless, I found myself popping a pastel blue pill on my way out of the bathroom. Yeah, you seem real in control right now, I could hear AJ’s snarky voice in my head. It occurred to me that maybe he was right; maybe I really couldn’t control myself. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I just wanted to have fun and forget.

I didn’t mention the molly to Chris. He liked to party and drink, but he didn’t do drugs. He stayed back at our table while I went out on the dance floor, bumping and grinding with a group of hot girls.

Within half an hour, I could feel the effects of the ecstasy kicking in. My senses were heightened. The music seemed to be coming from within my body; I could feel the vibration in every organ, my heart beating along with the bass drum as the synthesized chords echoed inside my head. The bright lights blurred before my eyes, making me dizzy as I danced, but they were so beautiful, I couldn’t stop looking. For the first time all week, I felt euphoric and totally at peace with the world. I wanted to stay in that place forever.

But last call came at one-thirty, and by two a.m., the club was closing. “C’mon, Nick. We gotta go now,” said Chris, guiding me toward the door.

“I don’t wanna go home,” I protested, as I stumbled out onto the pavement. “Let’s find a house party we can crash.”

Chris shook his head. “Not tonight, dude. I’m gonna drive you back to AJ’s place and-”

“Nick!” I looked up as a camera flashed in my face. “Hey, Nick, how you doing tonight?” Even as my eyes adjusted, I didn’t recognize the guy behind it. I realized he must be paparazzi. They normally didn’t give a shit about me these days, but with Kevin in the hospital, I guess I was interesting again because the guy kept bugging me and Chris as we waited for the valet to bring his car around. “How’s Kevin doing? Can you give us an update?”

“Kevin’s a badass,” I finally said, figuring it would get him off my back if I just answered his question. “Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

The guy’s eyes widened behind his camera. “Wait, does that mean he can’t walk right now?”

“No comment,” Chris said quickly, wrapping his arm around me and steering me away. “Stop talking, dude,” he muttered as he dragged me down the street. In the back of my mind, I realized I must have said something wrong, but I could hardly think straight.

Thankfully, Chris’s car pulled up to the curb before I could do any more damage. He practically shoved me into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. The paparazzo continued to take pictures as we drove away.

“Did I just fuck up?” I asked Chris.

“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “You just shouldn’t talk to paparazzi when you’re wasted.”

“Whatever,” I muttered, turning up the music so I could feel the beat pulsing inside me again.

Chris turned it back down. “Dude, it’s two in the morning. I don’t wanna get pulled over.”

“Well, can I at least roll down my window? I’m dying here.”

He gave me a weird look. “It’s like fifty degrees outside. But sure… suit yourself.”

I lowered the window and stuck my head out like a dog, wanting to feel the fresh, cool breeze on my flushed face. It was only January, but I was suddenly boiling.

The rest of the ride back to AJ’s was a blur. When Chris dropped me off at the bottom of the driveway, I somehow managed to let myself in the gate and stagger up to the house. But the moment I opened the front door, a high-pitched alarm began to sound. My heart leaped in my chest and started pounding like a bass drum again.

“Fuck,” I swore under my breath. I had forgotten about AJ’s home security system. I found the keypad that controlled it, but I couldn’t remember the code to turn off the alarm. In a panic, I fumbled with the buttons anyway, punching 1-2-3-4 and 0-0-0-0 as the alarm continued to wail in the background.

“Nick!” I turned to see AJ standing at the top of the stairs in nothing but his boxers. He was wielding a samurai sword. “What the fuck are you doing?!”

“I forgot the code!” I called up to him. “Can you turn it off?”

AJ stomped barefoot down the stairs, swinging the sword at his side. “It’s my birthday, dumbass,” he snapped, as he pressed the correct combination of digits. “1-9-7-8.”

The piercing sound stopped instantly, but I continued to stare at the keypad. “Hey… I just realized… your birthdate’s the same as your birth year. 1/9/78… 1978!”

“No shit.” He snickered. “Did that just blow your mind or something?”

“Kinda… yeah…”

Suddenly, I heard another high-pitched sound. At first I thought the alarm was going off again, but then I realized it was just AJ’s phone ringing. “That’ll be the security company,” he said, rolling his eyes at me as he ran to answer it. I could hear him talking to the caller from another room. “Hello? No, false alarm… everything’s fine…”

He came back into the foyer a minute later, still carrying the katana. “What’s with the sword?” I asked.

“Dude, you scared the shit out of me! I thought someone had broken in. This was the closest weapon I could find.”

I blinked. “You keep a samurai sword in your bedroom?”

He nodded proudly. “Sweet, isn’t it? I bought it in Japan and had it shipped back here.”

“It is pretty sweet,” I admitted, admiring the long, shiny blade. “Can I hold it?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you kidding? You can barely hold your own head up. And why are you so sweaty?”

I looked down at myself and shrugged. “I was dancing.”

He shook his head. “You’re drunk… and high. I hope you weren’t driving.”

“I don’t even have a car here. Chris drove.”

“And was he drinking, too?”

I didn’t answer.

AJ looked at me in disgust. “Kevin’s accident was caused by a drunk driver, you know. Kristin was killed by a fucking drunk driver.”

I frowned. “How do you know that?”

“Her parents told us, that first day at the hospital. You may not have been in the room. The woman who hit them had a blood alcohol level at least twice the legal limit. That bitch walked away from a fatal accident with nothing more than scrapes and bruises. Meanwhile, Kevin may never walk again.”

I shook my head, cringing at his words. “Don’t say that.”

“Truth hurts, huh? Maybe you’ll think twice next time you stagger out of the club at two in the morning.”

“Oh, like you’ve never done it, Mr. High and Mighty. You’re not perfect either, so you can spare me the lecture.”

“I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I just wish you would learn from my mistakes instead of repeating them. I don’t wanna see you go down the same dark path I did.”

I didn’t say anything.

“C’mere a minute.” He slung his arm around me and guided me into the kitchen, where he filled a glass with ice water. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Drink it all before you go to sleep. Just don’t wet the damn bed.”

“Okay, Dad.”

AJ rolled his eyes again. “Goodnight, Nick.” He stomped back upstairs, taking the katana with him.

I sat at the kitchen island and took a sip of water. I hadn’t realized how dehydrated I was until I felt the cool liquid swishing around in my dry mouth. I had never tasted anything so good. I downed the rest of the glass in a few gulps and let out a sigh. Leaving the empty glass on the counter, I headed up to bed.

My high was wearing off by then, and I felt sluggish and sad. Yet my heart was still hammering almost as hard and fast as it had on the dance floor. I could hear it thudding against my ear drums as I lay my head down on the pillow. The whole room seemed to be spinning around me. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, trying to ward off the dizziness and slow down my racing heart. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.

I woke to the sound of AJ banging on my door again. Before I could answer, he burst into the room. “You talked to fucking TMZ about Kevin?!” he yelled at me.

“Huh?” My head was pounding. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Oh, were you too wasted to remember what you said? Here, let me refresh your memory.” He thrust his smartphone into my face.

I blinked, my eyes struggling to focus on the headline of the page he had pulled up on his phone. Nick Carter on Kevin Richardson’s Condition -- “I know he’s gonna walk again.” My heart sank.

“They’re reporting that Kevin is paralyzed, and since they have a video of you saying that shit, our fans know it’s not just a rumor. They’re freaking out all over LiveDaily right now.”

I looked up at him, horrified. “There’s a video?”

“Of course there’s a video, Nick. The cameras are always fucking rolling. Scroll down.”

I took the phone from him and swiped my finger up to move further down the page until I found the video. I didn’t want to watch it, but I pressed the play button anyway. I saw myself staggering around on the sidewalk outside the club, slurring my words as I said, “Kevin’s a badass. Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

“Wait, does that mean he can’t walk right now?” I heard the paparazzo ask off-camera before Chris pulled me away. I hadn’t even realized he was recording me.

“I’m sorry,” I said to AJ, handing him back his phone. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I just wanted the guy to leave me alone.”

“So you say ‘no comment’ and walk away, Nick! Kevin’s medical condition is no one’s fucking business but his own. We agreed we would wait until he was well enough to make a statement of his own to release any more details to the media. We don’t even know if his paralysis is permanent or not, but now the whole world knows he can’t walk. This is not the way any of us wanted our fans to find out.”

I felt my face heating up. “I know. I said I’m sorry.”

“Well, I hope you’re sorry enough to learn from this and not let it happen again. Maybe if you weren’t so fucking wasted, you wouldn’t have messed up in the first place.”

I had no response to that. I knew he was right, but I wasn’t ready to start making promises I wouldn’t - or couldn’t - keep.

“Brian called,” AJ added after a pause.

My heart skipped a beat as I imagined how disappointed Brian would be when he saw the video. “Did you tell him about TMZ?”

“He’s the one who told me. Leighanne saw it first and called him.

I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Leighanne to follow all the celebrity gossip sites. “Is he pissed at me?”

“He’s not happy, but that wasn’t the main reason he called. He wanted to invite us to come to church with him and Kevin’s mom this morning.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t a big fan of church and dreaded the thought of facing Kevin’s family after what I’d done, but if sitting in a pew with them and praying for Kevin to get better would make up for my mistake, I was willing to do it. “What’d you say?”

“I told him we’d be there, but seeing as how I can still smell the alcohol on your breath, I don’t think you’re in any condition to be setting foot inside a church. So I’m gonna go, and you’re gonna stay here and get your shit together. Take a cold shower, drink some coffee, do whatever it takes to sober up. Then meet us at the hospital at noon.”

I nodded. “I will.”

When he left, I lay back down, but I couldn’t sleep. I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the bathroom to take a shower. As I stripped off my tank top, I realized AJ was right - I reeked of booze and sweat. I looked like a wreck, too. I hardly recognized my own reflection in the mirror. My greasy hair stuck out in all directions, and there were dark circles under my puffy eyes. My face was practically gray, like a ghost of my former self. I hated what I saw, hated myself for fucking up again.

I may have made myself feel better for a few hours, but ultimately, I had only made things worse.