The month of March flew by in a flurry of media requests. I granted just one interview on the subject of my HIV status and released a single statement, thanking my Backstreet brothers and our fans for their support and asking for privacy. I let my publicist handle the media storm that followed, while I hunkered down in my house and waited for it to blow over.
By April, the story was starting to die down, as bigger celebrities stole back the spotlight with their usual screw-ups and drama. Katy Perry and John Mayer had called it quits – again. Lindsay Lohan had agreed to go to rehab – again. Justin Bieber was behaving badly – again – and I couldn’t have been happier to be let off the hook.
April also marked the three-month point in my post-transplant recovery. My incision had fully healed, and I was free to resume my normal activities. The trouble was, nothing in my life was normal. “Normal activities” for me used to include playing with my boys and performing with the Boys, but now that I’d destroyed my personal relationships and put my professional aspirations on hold, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I spent most of my time sitting around my house like a hermit, lonely and bored, which wasn’t normal at all.
Then, one day in early April, Lauren called. I was surprised to see her name pop up on my phone, since I hadn’t spoken to her since leaving her home in February. “Hello?” I answered uncertainly, wondering what she would be calling me about. Of course, it was the only thing we had in common: Nick.
“Is Nick still staying with you?” she asked, after we got past the usual pleasantries.
I frowned, surprised to hear she had no idea where her former fiancé was. “No, he left, like, a month ago.
“Do you know where he went?”
I wasn’t sure if I should tell her or not. If Nick had wanted her to know where he was, wouldn’t he have told her himself?
“Please, Howie,” Lauren begged, sensing my hesitation. “If you know where he is, you need to tell me now. He won’t answer any of my calls or texts, and I’m worried about him.”
She sounded serious, and I wondered why she was so worried. “He’s in Tennessee,” I said, “but I haven’t talked to him in a while.” Now that I thought about it, that was weird. All of the other guys had reached out to me after my People article appeared online, but not Nick. I realized I hadn’t heard from him since the day he left L.A., when he’d texted to let me know his plane had landed safely in Nashville. “He said he needed to get away for a while, so he’s probably just enjoying some alone time,” I added, as much to reassure myself as Lauren.
“Well, he was supposed to come back for a checkup at the clinic today, but he didn’t show up,” said Lauren. “They called me when they couldn’t get a hold of him. I tried calling and texting, but like I said, he won’t answer me either. As far as I can tell, no one’s heard from him in weeks.” Her voice was starting to shake, and I could tell she was close to tears. “Howie, I think something’s wrong with him. What if he-?”
“Hey,” I said quickly, before she could start with the “what ifs.” “Don’t worry. He probably forgot all about flying back for his appointment. I’m sure he’s fine. I’ll try giving him a call right now, just in case. I’ll call you back in a few minutes, okay?”
“Okay,” she sniffled.
I hung up and immediately called Nick’s number. His phone went straight to voicemail, making me think it was either turned off or dead. At that point, I was starting to worry, too, but I tried not to panic. I sent him a text, saying, “Hey bro, just checking up on you. Hit me back as soon as you get this and let me know you’re ok.”
I made myself wait a few minutes to see if he’d text back, but when there was no response, I called Lauren back. “His phone’s going straight to voicemail,” I told her. “I texted him, but haven’t heard back.”
“That’s what happened every time I tried, too,” she said and then sighed. “That’s it. I’m calling the Franklin police.”
“Whoa, wait – don’t you think that’s a little extreme at this point?” I asked, imagining how embarrassed Nick would be if he opened his door to a bunch of cops who’d come over to check on him, not to mention the unwanted attention it would attract. That was exactly the kind of thing he was trying to avoid. “We don’t know if anything is wrong. He probably just has his phone shut off. Let’s give him a few hours, and if he hasn’t tried to contact one of us by tonight, then tomorrow I’ll fly to Tennessee and check on him myself.”
“And you don’t think that’s a little extreme?” asked Lauren incredulously.
It was true that I hadn’t given the idea any thought before I’d said it, but what else would I be doing? “I’ve got nothing else going on,” I said. “I want to make sure Nick’s all right as much as you do.”
“All right, fine,” she replied. “But if you go out there, I’m coming with you.”
“You don’t have to-” I started to say, but she stubbornly insisted.
“Yes, I do. I’m the only one who has a key to the house. You need me.”
There was nothing else I could say to that, except, “Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.”
But later that night, when we still hadn’t heard from Nick, Lauren and I found ourselves boarding a red-eye flight to Nashville. We barely slept on the plane, and by the time we landed, the sun was already rising in Tennessee.
We rented a car, and Lauren drove us to Nick’s house in Franklin. We were both quiet on the forty-minute ride. I kept trying to call Nick, even though it was not yet seven a.m., but his phone continued to go straight to voicemail. “He’s probably still asleep,” I said. I could tell Lauren wasn’t convinced. Neither was I.
When we pulled into Nick’s driveway, Lauren threw the car into park. I hopped out before she had even shut off the ignition. I thought the sounds of two slamming car doors might attract Nick’s attention, but there was no sign of him as we climbed the steps to the front porch. Lauren knocked loudly and rang the bell, but waited less than a minute before she went ahead and unlocked the door. “Nick?” she called, as we walked inside.
There was no answer. The whole house was silent and dark, not a single light left on overnight. I was starting to wonder if Nick was even there at all. Maybe he had flown on down to the Florida Keys, another one of his favorite places to hide out. That didn’t explain why he still wasn’t answering his phone, but it made me feel better about the musty way the house smelled, like the windows hadn’t been opened in months. The air was stale and stagnant, but it didn’t have the stench of decay one would expect when entering a house whose occupant had been dead for days, maybe weeks. And wasn’t that what we were both afraid of? Neither of us would come right out and say it, but I knew the worry was there in the back of both our minds as we walked through the house, calling his name.
Lauren went upstairs, while I stayed downstairs, circling through the kitchen. There were dirty dishes in the sink and empty liquor bottles in the trash. The bottles in particular gave me a bad feeling.
Then I heard Lauren scream.
“Howie! Up here!”
I ran up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. I hadn’t moved that fast in months. Winded and clutching my side, I rounded the corner and saw the door to Nick’s bedroom standing open. I held my breath as I walked inside, afraid of what I would find there.
Lauren was hovering over the bed, where Nick’s body lay. Her long curtain of hair was hiding his face, but I could tell he wasn’t moving. I exhaled and took another shaky breath before I asked, “Is he dead?”
“No, but he’s burning up!” As I came closer, I realized Lauren’s hand was on Nick’s forehead, which was covered with sweat. “Something’s wrong with him,” she said, running her hand down the side of his face. “Nick, sweetie, wake up.”
Watching the tender way she touched him and talked to him, I was overcome by a wave of envy, which I realized was ridiculous. With Nick so sick, it wasn’t the time to get jealous of his fiancée. Ex-fiancée, I reminded myself, though to look at Lauren, one would never know it. She obviously still loved him.
Nick’s eyelids fluttered, and he let out a faint groan, still only semi-conscious. “Should we call an ambulance?” I asked Lauren. She nodded, and I took my phone out of my pocket. My hand was shaking as I started to dial. 9… 1…
“No,” Nick suddenly moaned. His eyes finally opened all of the way. “No ambulance.”
I hesitated, my finger poised over the 1. Then I turned off the screen and came up alongside Lauren, leaning over the bed so he could see me. “Hey Nick, it’s Howie. Can you hear me, bro?” I asked.
He blinked a few times, struggling to focus on my face. Finally, he said, “Yeah… what are you doing here?”
“You wouldn’t call anyone back, so we came to check on you,” I said. “What’s wrong?” A startling thought came to me as I remembered the empty alcohol bottles. “Are you on something?”
“No… I’m sick,” he said, though he was slurring his words. “Just leave me alone and let me die.”
“Don’t say that!” Lauren snapped. “You are not dying. I don’t know what’s wrong, but we’re not leaving until we find out. You’re either gonna get up so we can take you to the doctor, or we’re calling an ambulance. What’s it gonna be?”
I admired her take-charge attitude. It was effective, too – Nick must have known she wasn’t messing around. “All right, all right,” he mumbled, struggling to sit up. Lauren slid her arm under his and helped him, her hand on his back. She held onto him as he swayed unsteadily on the edge of the bed. “God,” he groaned. “My head’s killing me.”
I still had the sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t just sick, but hungover. He stank, like he’d been sleeping in the same, unwashed clothes for weeks – and maybe he had. His t-shirt was soaked with sweat and had a stain down the front that may or may not have been vomit. “Well, your smell’s killing me,” I said, trying to keep the mood light. “You stink, dude. When was the last time you showered?”
“In that case… how about putting on some clean clothes before we go, huh?”
Nick just groaned again, but Lauren looked at me and nodded. I rummaged around in Nick’s dresser drawers until I found a pair of gray sweatpants and a clean t-shirt. I handed them to Lauren, who helped Nick pull his shirt up over his head. He was so weak, he just sat there and let her undress him like he was a child. The last time I’d seen him like that was the night of the cruise, when I was the one taking his clothes off. He had only been only drunk then, but something was definitely wrong with him this time.
Lauren and I helped him stand and step into his sweatpants. He was shaky on his feet, and I could feel the heat radiating from his feverish skin as I slung his arm around my shoulders to support some of his weight. Lauren took the other arm, and we walked him slowly down the stairs. He moved like an arthritic old man, wincing with every step.
“Nick, how long have you been like this?” Lauren asked, as she sat him down at the kitchen table and shoved some shoes onto his feet.
“I dunno,” Nick mumbled again, rubbing his temples. “A few days, maybe?”
Lauren gave his knee a gentle squeeze. “We’ve gotta find out what’s going on and get you feeling better. Come on… we’re going to the ER.”
Nick tried to protest, but in the end, he was too weak to resist. We wrangled his arms around our shoulders again, helped him out to the car, and headed for the hospital.