Howie had a lot of time to think on the long drive up from Florida. He thought about everything from his childhood to his own two children, how slow drivers were more dangerous than fast ones, and why fountain soda tasted so much better than soda from a can… but mostly, he thought about Nick.
Nick Carter had been like the little brother he’d never had for over half of Howie’s life – and two-thirds of Nick’s. In the early days of the group, the six-and-a-half year age gap between them had seemed much more significant than it did now. Nick was still a prepubescent child when he’d joined the Backstreet Boys, whereas Howie was a grown man. What college student would want to hang out with a sixth-grader?
In those early days, Nick had annoyed Howie to no end, pranking and teasing him incessantly. You’d think Nick, as the youngest, would have been the one to get picked on the most, but he was usually the instigator instead. He may have been the baby of their group, but being the oldest of five in his dysfunctional family had probably prepared him to be an offensive player of practical jokes, rather than a defensive one. Or maybe it was because of Brian.
When Brian joined the group, he and Nick quickly became inseparable. They’d been like two peas in a pod, practically joined at the hip. Frick and Frack. Where Brian went, Nick followed, and in return, Brian always had Nick’s back. The two of them together were even worse than Nick was alone, and the fact that they were a united force made it nearly impossible to retaliate against either one of them for the stupid pranks they pulled. Once, Brian had talked Nick into taking a shit into a sock, which they’d then hidden inside a drum before one of their shows, stinking up the entire stage. Who else but those two would have even thought of something so disgusting, let alone actually done it? Howie knew he couldn’t compete, so he didn’t try.
But something had changed between Nick and Brian. Over the years, they’d grown apart. Brian settled down, got married, and became a family man, while Nick went wild, distancing himself from his own family and surrounding himself with an entourage of people who only seemed to care about partying. Nick went through a series of bad relationships, but for Brian, there was only one: his wife, Leighanne. She may have been the one to come between them in the first place, but Howie knew it was a lot more complicated than Nick being jealous of her relationship with Brian, especially now that he had finally found his own true love.
It was after Nick started dating Lauren that he and Howie had gotten closer. Nick had turned his life around and finally started acting like an adult instead of a rebellious teenager. Howie had embraced this new, more mature version of Nick, and in the last few years, the two of them had gotten to be genuinely good friends, both within and outside of the group. The fact that Nick had asked Howie – not Brian or any of the other Boys, just Howie – to be a groomsman in his wedding said it all.
But as Howie followed the signs to Atlanta, he felt a surge of guilt. Nick had also asked him to stay and attend the convention with him that weekend – and Howie had said no. It was just a few days before Halloween, and he wanted to be home with his family, helping Leigh decorate the house and put the finishing touches on the kids’ costumes. Only now did it occur to him that, depending on what kind of condition he found Nick in, he might miss taking his boys trick-or-treating anyway. But what really bothered him was the thought that, had he taken Nick up on his offer, he might have been able to prevent whatever had happened to him – either that, or he would have gotten hurt himself.
With a shudder, Howie put his foot on the gas pedal and pushed down hard, accelerating as he passed yet another slowpoke in his lane. He continued to drive well above the speed limit until he hit the rush hour traffic trying to get into Atlanta, and then his car slowed to a crawl. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, checking his phone every few minutes to see if there was a message from Lauren or Brian, even though no more calls had come through.
By the time he made it to the hospital, there was a text from Brian, who had beaten him there. I’m in a waiting room on the sixth floor, the text read. Text me when you get here, and I’ll meet you at the elevator.
Howie wished he would have said something about Nick, but maybe he didn’t know anything. I’m here, he messaged back before leaving his car in the parking deck. On my way in now.
True to his word, Brian was waiting outside the elevator when Howie stepped off it onto the sixth floor. He gave Howie a grim smile and a wordless hug.
“How is he?” Howie asked as he let go of Brian, almost afraid to hear his answer.
“I don’t know. He’s in surgery. That’s all the receptionist could tell me. She said to wait up here, and someone would come to talk to us once he’s out.”
Howie felt his heartbeat quicken. “Surgery? For what?”
Brian shook his head. “She wouldn’t say. Trust me, bro, I tried to press her for more information, but she said that’s all it showed when she looked him up on her computer.”
Howie frowned. “It must be really serious if he had to have surgery,” he said softly.
“Yeah,” said Brian, slinging his arm around Howie’s shoulders as they walked down the hall, “but we already knew it was serious, right? You said Lauren made it sound serious.”
Howie nodded. “Yeah.” He wondered if he should call her now or wait until he had more information. “Did you hear anything about Mike?” he asked, before making a decision.
“Mike?” Brian asked blankly. “Mike was with him?”
“Yeah… did I not mention that on the phone? Lauren said Mike was attacked, too.”
“Jesus, Howie! No, you didn’t mention that,” Brian snapped. “I didn’t even think to ask about Mike. My God… it must have been bad if Mike got hurt trying to protect him. And here I thought it was just some stupid bar brawl…”
Howie saw the look of guilt on Brian’s face and forgave him for his little outburst. They were both just worried about Nick, he knew – and now Mike, too. “Yeah… so who do we ask about Mike?”
Brian turned around, pointing to a reception area near the elevator. Howie had been so focused on Brian, he’d hardly noticed it. They walked back and gave the woman at the desk Mike’s name, which she typed into her computer. “Mr. Elgani had surgery early this morning,” she said after a few seconds, her eyes scanning the information on the screen in front of her. “He was just moved from recovery into a private room on the fifth floor, room 514.”
Howie’s heart pounded as fast as his footsteps as he and Brian took a flight of stairs down one floor. The situation seemed more and more serious with each passing each second. What on earth could have happened to make Nick and Mike both need surgery? he wondered, his mind racing along with his heart. Did they get shot? Stabbed?
They followed the numbered doors on the fifth floor to room 514, where they found Nick’s bodyguard, Mike Elgani, laid up in bed, his left leg elevated and immobilized by a thick layer of bandages. “Hey, fellas,” he said when he recognized them, his voice low and groggy. “Howie, what’chu doin’ all the way up here?”
“Just making sure you’re okay, man,” Howie replied, forcing a smile. Aside from his injured leg, Mike looked a hell of lot better than he’d been expecting – tired, but otherwise alright.
Mike shook his head. “Don’t you worry ‘bout me. It’s Nick that needs all y’all’s prayers now.”
Howie and Brian caught each other’s eye, exchanging grim glances before returning their attention to the man lying before them. “What happened, Mike?” Brian asked quietly, as Howie pulled a pair of chairs up alongside his bed so they could sit down. The sight of this seemingly indestructible member of their security team looking utterly defenseless in a hospital bed, with IV lines in his arm and white compression hose on his legs, had made Howie slightly queasy – though that also could have been because he’d had nothing but coffee since the night before. He sank into his chair, feeling nervous and shaky, as Mike started to tell his story.
“I failed him,” he began, closing his eyes. “First time in twelve years I’ve failed to protect a client.” When he opened his eyes again, they were full of tears. “I’m so sorry, y’all. It just happened so fast, and before I knew it, I was on the ground. There was nothing I could do to stop what happened next.”
“Wait,” said Brian, holding up his hand. “Back up and start from the beginning.”
Howie added gently, “No one’s told us much of anything about what happened last night, just that you and Nick were attacked outside of a bar. Do you remember how it started?”
Mike nodded, reaching up to wipe away his tears. “Me and Nick went for a drink after the convention at this place just a few blocks from our hotel. There were lots of people from the convention there, still in their cosplay. It got pretty crowded, and Nick started attracting a lot of attention, as he tends to do.” He paused to grin, as Howie and Brian both nodded knowingly. “Dude could barely finish his drink with all the people coming up to him, wanting selfies. He was in a good mood, so he played nice and let ‘em take pictures, even signed some autographs.”
Here Mike paused to take a deep breath before he continued, as if steeling himself for what was to come.
“So then this one dude shows up, dressed like the bad guy from The Walking Dead – Negan? – and he starts razzing on Nick, talking shit about his movie, telling him he didn’t belong at the con and to go back to his faggy boy band, bullshit like that. I tried to get him to back off, but he wouldn’t. For his part, Nick pretty much ignored him – didn’t talk back or nothin’ like that. But this drunk mothafucka keeps runnin’ his mouth, until the bartender tells us to take it outside. By that time, I can tell Nick’s had enough and is ready to leave anyway, so we get up and go. As we walk out, the Negan dude follows us, still spewing bullshit. I turn to tell him one more time to back off before Nick and I get the hell out of there, and I see him swing his stupid bat.”
Mike paused again, closing his eyes briefly. “I guess I forgot to mention, he’d been carrying this bat in his shoulder the whole time to look like the character he was dressed up as. His weapon’s a wooden bat wrapped in barbed wire. I just assumed it was a prop, made of plastic or something… ‘till he busted my kneecap with it.”
Brian and Howie both gasped out loud, their mouths dropping open in horror. Howie felt sick to his stomach now.
Mike opened his eyes again, allowing a few more tears to escape. “I woulda done anything I could to defend Nick, but I was down for the count. While I was trying to get back to my feet, he was already beating on Nick with that damn bat. Of course he fled the scene as soon as someone called the cops, but it didn’t take much to do some serious damage.”
Howie couldn’t bare to look at Brian this time. “H-how much damage?” he asked in a whisper.
The security guard shook his head. “I dunno, man. It didn’t look good. I’ve been askin’ about him, but all anyone’ll tell me is that he had to have emergency surgery.”
Brian nodded. “He’s still in surgery,” he said, his voice breaking. Howie wondered how long Nick had been there. From what everyone had said, it sounded bad… maybe even worse than he’d feared. What was he going to tell Lauren?
“I’m sorry, guys,” said Mike, still shaking his head with regret. “I swear, I tried to protect him…”
“We know you did,” Howie replied quickly, both of them assuring him that they didn’t blame him, that they knew he’d always done his best to keep Nick safe. Mike had worked with them for nearly ten years, and in that time, he’d become more than a bodyguard. He was a friend, a member of the Backstreet family. One of their own. Howie knew it wasn’t Mike’s fault.
But when he and Brian walked back upstairs, leaving Mike to talk to the cops who had shown up to take his statement, the bodyguard’s guilt became Howie’s, as the thought that had haunted him earlier returned: If only I had been there.
Brian had a lot of time to think as he sat in the surgical waiting room with Howie. Neither of them spoke much, but that was not unusual. Within the brotherhood of the Backstreet Boys, the two of them had never been all that tight – which, now that Brian thought about it, didn’t make much sense.
After all, he and Howie had a lot in common – probably more than he had in common with any of the others, except maybe his cousin Kevin. They were both family men, both married with sons. Heck, their wives even had the same name. They were both religious; the fact that Brian was Baptist and Howie Catholic didn’t matter. They were both the “babies” of their biological families, but big brothers in the Backstreet Boys. They were both tenors, and while they’d both grown up singing, they were the only two in the group who had planned for future careers outside of the music business. Howie had gone to community college and gotten his associate’s degree, while Brian had earned a scholarship to Bible college. But fate had stepped in and brought the two of them together to make music instead.
They hadn’t hit it off right away, not like Brian had with Nick and AJ. And maybe that was why: in some ways, they were too similar. Before Brian joined the Backstreet Boys, Howie had been the lead singer of the group. But once Brian entered the mix, that began to change. Solos that would have once been Howie’s started going to Brian instead – and Howie had resented him for it.
Of course, none of that had come out for years. At the time, Howie had been a team player. He’d let Brian have the spotlight and taken his place in the background without complaint. But behind the scenes, “Sweet D” had been bitter. Brian understood that better now that he ever could have then because, in a way, the tables had been turned. Now he was the one singing harmony, while Howie got solos that should have been Brian’s.
To Howie’s credit, he’d been nothing but supportive as Brian tried to get his voice back. But as Brian had struggled with the muscle tension dysphonia that made it difficult to even speak sometimes, let alone sing, there had to have been a small part of Howie that was secretly grateful for the opportunity it had given him to sing more leads. Brian didn’t blame him for that, but he understood the bitterness because he was still bitter about the whole situation himself.
He glanced over at Howie, who was bent over his phone, his thumbs flying over the keyboard as he typed out a message. He had been like that for awhile.
“Who ya textin’?” Brian asked curiously, wondering if he was talking to one of the other guys. He wasn’t sure if it was worth it to wake up Kevin and AJ now or wait until they knew more about Nick’s condition. It was still quite early on the West Coast, where they both lived.
“Lauren,” Howie replied. “She’s on a plane, headed here. Thank God for in-flight wifi, right?”
“Amen,” agreed Brian. “Thanks for filling her in, man.”
Howie shrugged. “I just wish there was more to tell. I didn’t wanna give her all the gory details…”
Brian swallowed hard, his throat feeling tight as he tried not to think about Nick being beaten by a man with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. But despite his best efforts, the mental image came, and it was every bit as horrific as the picture Mike had painted with his words when he’d told them what had happened.
“We should say a prayer,” Brian blurted, desperate to focus on something positive. Of course, he had already been praying in his head, but saying something out loud made it feel more official, and perhaps more likely to be heard.
Howie nodded. “Okay.” He set down his phone and offered Brian his hand. “You wanna say it? You’re better at this stuff than me.”
“Sure.” Brian clasped Howie’s clammy hand and closed his eyes. “Dear Lord, we ask that you watch over our brother Nick, that you guide the surgeons’ hands and help them to heal his wounds.” His voice wavered, but he kept talking. “We also ask you to be with our friend Mike as he recovers from his injury, and may your angels be on the wings of Lauren’s plane so she can get here safely. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.”
“Amen,” echoed Howie, letting go of his hand.
Brian felt a little better after the prayer, but he could not stop thinking about Nick. He tried to remember the good times, that fun first phase of their twenty-four-year friendship, when they’d been inseparable. Nick had been like the little brother he’d never had, and even though Brian was five years older, the age gap between them had never mattered much. But as they’d both grown up, they had grown apart. And instead of focusing on those happy days of Frick and Frack, Brian now found himself dwelling on all the ways he’d let Nick down.
Ten years ago, Brian might have been thinking about all the ways Nick had let him down instead. The list had been long back then, when Nick was at his worst, drinking heavily and doing drugs, showing up hours late at the recording studio, strung out and hungover. Brian hadn’t approved of his party-boy lifestyle, and he’d let Nick know it in no uncertain terms.
But Nick had turned his life around since then, become a completely different person, and still, Brian’s first thought upon hearing that his friend had been assaulted was, Leave it to Nick to get into a bar fight. Without knowing any of the details, he’d just assumed it was Nick’s fault, that Nick had gone and screwed up again, gotten himself into some serious trouble this time. The way Mike told it, Nick had done nothing wrong.
Brian hated himself for thinking the worst of him. And while Howie felt guilty for not being there, Brian felt guilty for not even knowing Nick was staying in Atlanta all weekend. He’d probably mentioned it at some point, but if he had, Brian hadn’t made it a point to remember. Here he’d been hosting a Halloween party less than an hour away from where Nick was being attacked. If only he had known. If he had, he could have invited Nick to his party, possibly prevented him from even being at that particular bar on that particular night.
But would he have? The sad fact of the matter was, Brian wasn’t sure that he would have. These days, he and Nick rarely hung out together when they weren’t working, and they didn’t have any mutual friends outside of the music business. Even if he had extended the invitation, he doubted Nick would have come.
Nick could have invited Brian to the convention that day, but didn’t. Brian didn’t blame him for that; when was the last time he’d gone out of his way to support one of Nick’s solo projects? Nick had practically begged him to be in his zombie movie, and Brian had said no. It was nothing against Nick; Brian had just never enjoyed acting as much as his bandmates did, and filming in Montana would have meant spending weeks away from his wife and son. Nick had said he understood, but Brian knew he was disappointed. And once the movie had premiered, there was a small part of Brian that had regretted his decision not to participate. He regretted that now more than ever.
I’m sorry, Frack, he thought, as he sat there silently next to Howie, still waiting. I wish I’d been there for you.