Chapter 42


Nick

I thought I could lay low in L.A. until the whole thing with Howie and me blew over, but that was not the case.

A few days after the photo of us appeared online, I went to Walgreens to pick up a refill of my medications.  I was just standing in line at the pharmacy counter, waiting my turn, when this random woman came up to me.

“Hey, you’re Nick Carter, aren’t you?” she asked.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to be recognized out in public, especially in L.A., where people are always on the lookout for celebrities.  I tried to avoid the touristy parts of town, but still, there are stargazers everywhere you go.

“Maybe,” I said, smirking at her.

Most days, I didn’t mind being approached by fans who were polite about it; as long as I wasn’t in a hurry, I’d sign an autograph or take a quick selfie with them.  But this girl was no fan, and she definitely wasn’t polite.

“Dude… is this true?”  She shoved something into my face.

Blinking in surprise, I realized it was a tabloid magazine – with my picture on the cover.  It was a paparazzi photo of me walking down some sidewalk with a look on my face that could pass for worried, when really I was probably just annoyed at the paparazzi taking pictures of me and squinting because the sun was in my eyes, and splashed across it was the headline, NICK CARTER HEALTH CRISIS! and under that, Backstreet Boy diagnosed as HIV-positive, given grim prognosis.

“Do you really have AIDS?”

“What?  No!”  I tried to laugh it off, like it was just another ridiculous rumor in a gossip rag, but even though it wasn’t entirely accurate, both the tabloid and the girl had come too close for comfort to the truth.  “Hang on, I’ve gotta take this,” I said suddenly, acting like I’d felt my phone vibrating in my pocket.  I turned away from the girl and stepped out of line as I pulled out my phone and pretended to answer it.  “Hello?”

“Hey, wait!” she called as I walked away, but I ignored her, high-tailing it out of the store and straight to my car.  I drove away in a hurry, deciding my meds would have to wait for another day.  I still had a few days’ worth of pills left, so it didn’t seem like a big deal.

I kept checking my rearview mirror on the way back to Howie’s house, paranoid about being followed by paparazzi.  It was like it was 1999 all over again, except this time, I didn’t want any of the attention.  As I drove, I realized I wouldn’t worry about such a thing if I were in Franklin or the Florida Keys, and I guess that was when I made my decision.

I couldn’t stay in L.A.

***

“I’m leaving!” I announced when I walked into Howie’s house, empty-handed.

“You and Lauren make up?” he called from the living room, where he was watching TV.

I went in and flopped down on his couch.  “No.  Much worse.  My face is on the cover of freaking Star magazine, which claims I only have months to live or some shit like that.  Some girl showed me a copy at Walgreens, when she came up and asked if I had AIDS.”

“What?!” Howie gasped, turning to give me his full attention.  “How can they get away with printing stuff like that without any proof?  Unless you think someone talked…”

“Who would tell them that?  There’s only a few people that even know, and they’re all people I trust:  my doctor, you, Brian, Kevin, AJ, the wives, and Lauren,” I said, ticking their names off on my fingers.  “That’s only ten people, and none of them would talk, let alone to a tabloid.”

“Are you sure Lauren didn’t-?” he started to ask, but I shook my head adamantly.

“She wouldn’t do that.  Come on, dude, you saw how she stood by me.  She was there for both of us.  She wouldn’t betray us like that.”

“Just saying.  ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’” said Howie, raising his eyebrows.  But then he shook his head, too.  “You’re right, though.  She wouldn’t do that.  It’s just the damn media doing what they always do:  taking a rumor and running with it.  Once I admit that I’m the one with HIV, they’ll leave you alone and go after me instead.”

I sighed.  “Well, I’m not gonna stick around this town and wait for them to find out I’m infected, too.”

“Where are you gonna go?” he asked.

I picked at a piece of fuzz on the couch.  “Probably Tennessee.  When are you gonna make your announcement?”

“I’ve got an exclusive interview set up with People magazine next week,” said Howie, and I nodded my approval.

“They were easy to work with when they interviewed me for that article and photo spread a few years ago.”  Talking to People about my struggle with substance abuse and my diagnosis of cardiomyopathy had been hard, but not as hard as admitting I’d fooled around with one of my bandmates on the Backstreet Boys cruise and gotten infected with HIV.  I just wasn’t ready to go there yet.

Howie smiled at me.  “That’s where I got the idea.  I remember reading that article.  They did a good job with it.”

“Well, good luck, man,” I said.  “You’re braver than me.”

He shook his head.  “It’s not about bravery.  It’s about atonement.”

***

Howie drove me to the airport the next day.

After deciding to go to Tennessee, I bought a ticket for the first flight to Nashville I could find.  I had a house in a quiet, gated community in the suburb of Franklin, and for the last few years, it had been like my sanctuary when I needed to get away from life in L.A.  I knew that was exactly what I needed then:  an escape.  From the publicity, from the paparazzi, from the fans, from the clinic, from Lauren, from Howie… honestly, I needed an escape from it all.

“Sorry for leaving you to deal with all of this by yourself,” I apologized to Howie, as he pulled up to the curb to drop me off.  I felt bad about ditching him, until I remembered that he had brought this all on himself.

“It’s all right.  I understand,” he said.  “You do what you need to do.”

“Thanks.”  I reached for my carry-on, and he popped his trunk so I could get the rest of my luggage.

“Have a safe flight,” he said, leaning across the front seat to give me a hug before I got out of his car.  “And take care of yourself, okay?”

“You too, man.  Talk to you later,” I said.  But soon after I got to Tennessee, I shut off my phone so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.

***


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