Over a year had passed since Brian’s surgery, but the Backstreet Boys’ rigorous tour schedule had hardly changed at all. Night after night, they put on a two-hour show, dancing and sweating so much they actually lost weight on stage. They spent their days traveling from place to place, staying in a different hotel each night or simply sleeping on the tour bus. Life was almost exactly the same as it had been on the day when Kevin and Brian had seen the strange people in cloaks. Only the photographs on their official website really showed how much time had passed. A year ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large yellow penis wearing different-colored outfits – but Nick Carter had retooled his hairstyle, and now the photographs showed a large blonde boy performing on stage, on a rollercoaster at an amusement park, playing video games with AJ, making funny faces with Brian. People tended to forget that there were two other boys in the group, too.
Yet Kevin and Howie were still there, asleep at the moment, but not for long. Nick was awake, and he was up to no good.
“C’mon, Nick, don’t do that,” AJ moaned, as Nick removed the bowl of warm water from the microwave and carried it carefully to the back of the tour bus, where Kevin and Howie were sleeping across the aisle from one another in the bottom bunks.
“But I swear, it works!” Nick hissed, his blue eyes alight with mischief. “I’ve done it to my sisters’ friends at their sleepovers. You put their hand in warm water while they’re asleep, and they pee their bed!”
“Yeah, but if you make Howie and Kevin pee their beds in here, then the whole goddamn tour bus is gonna smell like their piss!”
Nick’s expression changed, his brow furrowing. That thought hadn’t occurred to him. Maybe AJ was right; maybe it was a bad idea. “Good point. Damn,” Nick sighed. Disappointed, he turned and stomped off to dump the water. The noise was enough to wake both Howie and Kevin, who scolded him for being so annoying.
When a defeated Nick finally slumped down on one of the couches at the front of the bus, AJ sat down next to him, scooting right up close to Nick so he could whisper in his ear, “I’m warning you now, Carter… You ever try that shit on me, and you’ll be sleeping in the bus bathroom from now until the end of tour.”
“I’m not gonna do anything to you,” said Nick. “Honestly…”
But AJ didn’t believe him. No one ever did. Nick’s reputation as the biggest practical joker in the band was well-earned. The problem was, he never seemed to be able to pull one over on AJ, to the point where he’d about given up hope of ever successfully pranking him.
One night, Nick had shaved off AJ’s artfully-sculpted, painstakingly-trimmed goatee while he was asleep. The next morning, however, he had gotten up to find AJ’s facial hair exactly as it had been before he’d shaved it off. He couldn’t explain how it had grown back so quickly.
Another time, he’d found AJ on the roof of the tour bus. Some fans had been chasing them as usual when, much to Nick’s surprise as everyone else’s, there was AJ sitting on top of the bus. Their bodyguards were furious, lecturing AJ about climbing tall vehicles. But AJ insisted all he’d tried to do was jump into the bus and that the wind must have caught him in mid-jump. It sounded unbelievable to Nick, but he couldn’t explain how AJ had gotten on top of the bus so quickly either.
Then again, AJ had always been sort of mysterious, and Nick supposed that was part of his appeal. He definitely played up his eccentric side with his stage persona, donning weird outfits and outlandish hairdos. His hair was always dyed some crazy color these days, and he was never without his sunglasses – he must have owned hundreds of pairs. Usually, he was the life of the party, totally at ease being the center of attention, but sometimes, he seemed to retreat into himself and simply disappear. They all relished their solitude, especially now when it was so rare, but for someone who acted so outgoing in front of the public eye, AJ was really a pretty private person. There was a great degree of depth to him, a dark side Nick didn’t fully understand, but if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that AJ had his share of secrets.
With Nick, nothing was a secret. He said whatever was on his mind, often without thinking first, and made his feelings known. And on that particular day, Nick was feeling bored. Now that his plans to prank Howie and Kevin had been foiled, he had to find something else to do. He challenged Brian to a video game, but when Brian beat him in the first round, Nick quickly lost interest. He put in a movie next, but that didn’t hold his attention either; he’d already watched every video he’d packed and was sick of them all. He tried writing a song, but just ended up doodling in his notebook.
The Backstreet Boys had only been touring Europe for two weeks, but to Nick, it felt a lot longer. He loved performing, but hated traveling. He hated packing, hated flying, hated being trapped on the tour bus for hours at a time. Most of all, he hated being away from home. It was weird not having any of his family on tour with him, but at nineteen, Nick no longer needed a chaperone, and his mother, who used to travel with him, was busy managing his brother’s career now, while his father stayed at home with his younger sisters. Aaron had opened for the Boys on their last tour, but he was doing his own thing now, recording his next album, preparing for a tour of his own. Nick found that he missed his little brother, now more than ever. There was always something to do when Aaron was around.
Meanwhile, the other guys seemed content to relax and watch the English countryside fly by outside their windows, as the tour bus took them from Birmingham to London, where they’d be performing the next two nights. They hadn’t always been as popular in the United Kingdom as in other European countries, but their newly-released album, Millennium, had been a soaring success all around the world, pushing them to new heights of fame. It seemed everyone now knew Nick’s name; he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. These days, wherever the Backstreet Boys went, a swarm of fans followed. Chaos ensued, and crazy things happened. And today was no exception.
Only that day, the strangest thing of all happened even before the Boys left their bus – while it was still moving, in fact. Nick was sitting by the window, his notebook in his lap, when he heard a tap-tap-tapping sound on the glass beside him. He glanced up and got the shock of his life when he saw an owl fluttering outside the window, fighting to keep up with the bus as it sped down the motorway. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, pointing excitedly. “Look, it’s an owl!”
Kevin, Howie, and Brian all jumped up to look; AJ alone seemed unimpressed, as he sidled up slowly behind them. “It’s carrying something,” he observed, and for the first time, Nick noticed the envelope clutched in the owl’s talons. A gust of wind blew into the bus as Nick carefully cracked open the window, afraid of scaring the creature away. But it continued to hover by the window, undeterred.
Nick had never seen an owl in the wild before, but he knew about animals and thought it incredibly strange that any bird would stay so close to a speeding bus full of people, especially a bird that he thought only came out at night. He wondered if the owl was sick or something. Can owls get rabies? he wondered. But before he could ask the question out loud, AJ stunned him into silence by shoving Nick aside, sticking his hand through the gap in the window, and snatching the envelope right out from under the owl’s claws.
“What is it?” Nick demanded, once he’d recovered from his shock, but AJ had the envelope clutched to his chest and seemed unwilling to show anyone.
“It’s mine,” he said shortly.
“Huh? How do you know??”
“It’s addressed to me, see?” AJ shoved the envelope under Nick’s nose, just long enough for him to see the address, so plain there could be no mistake:
Mr. A.J. McLean
The Top Bunk on the Left
Backstreet Boys Tour Bus
The envelope was made of yellowish parchment, and the address was written in emerald-green ink. There was no stamp, no postmark, and no return address.
“Who’s it from??” Nick wanted to know, but AJ whipped the letter out of sight before he could make a grab for it.
“Probably just a fan,” AJ said over his shoulder, as he walked off with the letter.
“What, a fan with a trained owl??” Nick called after him. AJ just ignored him, disappearing into his bunk and drawing the privacy curtain. Nick turned to the other three in disbelief. “What the hell?”
Brian, Kevin, and Howie looked just as bewildered. In hushed voices, they talked about what they’d just witnessed, not only the strangeness of an owl delivering mail to their bus in the middle of the day, but AJ’s even stranger reaction to it. When AJ reemerged from his bunk ten minutes later, they all stared at him, waiting for an explanation. But AJ offered none. In fact, he acted like nothing unusual had happened at all.
“So what did the letter say?” Nick finally asked, when no one else did.
“It said how awesome I am,” AJ replied, without missing a beat. “Told you it was fan mail.”
“It was not! You’re lying!” Nick accused.
AJ just shrugged.
“Okay, let us see it then!” challenged Nick, folding his arms across his chest.
“Yeah, Bone, let’s see it,” echoed Kevin, and the others nodded.
AJ shrugged again. “Fine. It’s in my bunk.”
Nick bolted back to the bunk, and sure enough, there was a piece of parchment, unfolded on the bed. He snatched it up and stared at it, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. It took only a second to read the one-line letter.
You are awesome.
“AJ, you asshole! You wrote that yourself! Where’s the real letter?” demanded Nick.
“That is the real letter,” AJ insisted, smiling. And indeed, it was made of the same parchment as the envelope, written in the same hand. But Nick wasn’t buying it. There was something AJ wasn’t telling them, but he had no idea how to get it out of him.
Howie had an idea: get AJ drunk. So that night in London, they hit the pubs. It was times like this that Nick loved being overseas, where he was old enough to go out with the guys and drink legally. He kept buying AJ shots, but no amount of alcohol could get AJ to talk.
Drunk and defeated, they headed back to their hotel in the wee hours of the morning. Brian and Nick shared a room with two full-size beds and a balcony overlooking the city. Brian dropped right off to sleep, but Nick stayed awake, sitting on the balcony, staring down at the lights of passing cars and wondering…