When the tour ended, I was going home to Tennessee. I’d decided that the day after the L.A. show, on the long bus ride to San Francisco. Howie and I had already booked our flights from Seattle to Orlando for the morning after our last show, but I was going to switch for a one-way ticket to Nashville instead. We were hardly speaking after our fight the night before, and I needed some space.
More than that, I needed time - time apart from him, time alone to sort out my feelings. So much had changed over the last year. I felt like I no longer knew who I was, what I wanted, or where I was going in life, and I needed to figure it all out. But the first thing I had to figure out was how to tell Howie I wasn’t going back to Florida with him.
Then he got sick, and everything changed again.
I should have noticed something was wrong, but I didn’t. The last few days of the tour, I tried to spend as little time with Howie as possible. When we were in a hotel room, we slept in separate beds, and when we were on the bus, I stayed in my bunk with the privacy curtains closed. It wasn’t even that I was still mad at him for manipulating Lauren and me as much as I just needed to be away from him.
The five of us guys always got to this point toward the end of a tour, when we were sick of each other and couldn’t wait to go home. There’s just something about spending so many weeks traveling together, sharing buses and hotels and dressing rooms, that does that to you. I’m a firm believer in the phrase “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” the idea that you need some time apart to appreciate the time you have together. It was true: the guys and I didn’t see much of each other when we weren’t working, but whenever it was time to go back on tour, we couldn’t wait to be together again.
But Howie and I hadn’t been apart since April, when he’d convinced me to come to Cape Canaveral with him. For six months, we had been living together, working together, and hanging out together. I wasn’t used to spending so much time with one person. When I was engaged to Lauren, we lived together, of course, but she didn’t always come out on the road with me, so we would sometimes go several weeks without seeing each other. It was hard, but it worked for us. It made us look forward to my time off and her trips to join me on tour that much more. With Howie, though, there was no separation, and all that “togetherness” was starting to take its toll on us.
That’s why it didn’t seem strange to me that Howie was distant and moody the last two days of the tour. I didn’t wonder why he was sleeping so much or saying so little. I just figured he felt the same way I did. It never occurred to me that he wasn’t feeling well, that he wasn’t just sick of me, but actually, physically sick.
I didn’t notice anything until our last show in Seattle. Even then, it took me almost the entire show to realize something was wrong. It wasn’t until our last set, as we stood backstage before the encore, that I heard Kevin ask Howie, “You okay, man?”
“I’ll make it,” was Howie’s answer, which I thought was weird. Then I looked over at him and saw how much he was sweating. That in itself wasn’t unusual; we all sweat buckets each show, but usually I was the worst offender, with beads of sweat pouring down my beet red face after just a few songs. Howie normally didn’t sweat that bad, but now he was sweating profusely after two sets with mostly slow songs and little to no dancing.
I didn’t have time to worry about what that meant. No sooner had the thought that something might be wrong crossed my mind than I heard the opening chords of “Everybody,” which was our cue to run up to the risers onstage.
Howie was on the opposite side of the stage for most of “Everybody,” so it was hard for me to see him, but during “Larger Than Life,” I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He seemed to be struggling to keep up with the dance moves, and I could hear the breathlessness in his voice as he sang.
When we went backstage after taking our final bows, everyone was high-fiving and congratulating each other on finishing another successful tour. I looked around for Howie, wanting to make sure he was okay, but he had already headed off to his dressing room. That was where I found him a few minutes later. He was doubled over, holding his side, and breathing so hard his shoulders were heaving.
“Howie?” I asked, putting my hand on his back. His black, sleeveless shirt was soaked with sweat. “Are you alright?”
Howie shook his head, and when he looked up, I was startled to see tears in his eyes. “No,” he whispered. “Nicky, I need you to take me to the nearest hospital. Now.”
The next half-hour seemed to happen in a blur. If this were a movie, everyone on film would have been out of focus and moving at super-fast speed. First I ran to get Kevin, who then called for the EMTs. They came backstage quickly and checked Howie’s vitals, and before I knew it, Howie was being loaded into the back of an ambulance.
“Go with him, Nick,” Kevin told me. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
So I rode with Howie to the hospital. I sat on a bench on one side of the ambulance, trying to stay out of the paramedics’ way as I watched them work on Howie. They had strapped an oxygen mask to his face, which seemed to help his breathing, but they said his blood pressure was low, likely from dehydration. I had to look away as they started an IV in his arm to give him some fluids. The whole time, I tried to reassure myself that Howie was going to be fine. The last time he’d been hospitalized, it had turned out to be nothing but a minor infection. But something about the way Howie had looked at me made me think the situation was more serious than that.
When we got to the emergency room, Howie was whisked inside and seen right away. I guess when you arrive by ambulance, you get to skip the waiting room. A nurse brought him straight back to an exam room, where she took his vitals again, swapped the oxygen mask for a smaller nasal cannula, and hooked him up to some monitoring equipment. Then she started asking him all kinds of questions about his medical history. Howie was having an easier time breathing by then, so I sat back and let him do the talking while the nurse scribbled notes on his chart.
I may have zoned out a little as he told her about his HIV, his liver transplant, and all the medications he was taking, but when he started listing the symptoms he’d been experiencing, I sat up straight and listened. Headaches, fatigue, stomach pain, swelling... How could I have not known about any of that?
As soon as the nurse left, I looked at Howie. “How long have you been feeling like this?”
Howie shrugged. “Just for the past few days.”
I stared at him, incredulous. “And you didn’t think you should say anything??”
Before Howie could answer, the nurse came back in, accompanied by a gray-haired man in navy blue scrubs, who introduced himself as Dr. Ross. “So, Mr. Dorough, I hear you were having some trouble breathing after your concert tonight?” the doctor asked.
Howie nodded. “I just couldn’t catch my breath. Too much dancing, I guess.” He tried to smile, but I could tell he was scared. “You can call me Howie, by the way.”
“From the Backstreet Boys, right?” Dr. Ross grinned. “I remember you guys from the nineties. Lots of patients who were fans back then. Lean forward for me, please.” He slipped his stethoscope into his ears as Howie sat up. “Deep breath.” He pressed the end of the stethoscope against Howie’s back and listened. “I’ve got twin daughters, but they’re more into One Direction these days. Deep breath again.”
Howie inhaled, then looked over at me and winked. I smiled, as the memory of us painting his spare bedroom entered my mind. I’d had so much fun with him that day.
“Okay, you can lie back again,” said Dr. Ross.
“How old are your daughters?” Howie asked politely, as the doctor slid his stethoscope down the front of Howie’s shirt to listen to his chest.
“Sixteen next month.” Dr. Ross made a face. “Scary, isn’t it? Another deep breath.”
Howie chuckled before inhaling again.
“Either of you got kids?” asked the doctor, looking from him to me.
I shook my head, but Howie said, “Two boys. Five and one.”
Dr. Ross smiled. “Enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up fast. One more deep breath for me.”
Howie smiled back sadly. “I know.” He took another breath and let it out slowly, almost like a sigh.
“Normal heart sounds, and lungs are clear,” Dr. Ross said to the nurse, who added his notes to Howie’s chart. “Well, Howie, everything sounds good so far. Let’s see what else is going on here. You said you’ve had some stomach pain?” he asked, pulling on a pair of latex gloves.
Howie nodded. “Bloating, too. I could barely button my pants the last two days.”
I frowned, leaning forward for a closer look as Dr. Ross lifted Howie’s shirt to expose his midsection. Howie had always had a flat stomach, sometimes even a six-pack, but suddenly, it looked more like the beginnings of a beer belly. How could I not have noticed that? I wondered. We’d been sharing a hotel room; we’d gotten dressed in front of each other. But I’d been so preoccupied lately, I hadn’t been paying attention. I suddenly felt really bad about that.
Dr. Ross had a frown on his face, too. “How long since your liver transplant?” he asked, as he pressed his fingers against Howie’s abdomen, feeling around in different places.
“It’ll be nine months tomorrow,” answered Howie.
“Did you have any episodes of rejection or other complications during your recovery?”
Howie winced as the doctor palpated a spot on his side, right over his surgical scar. “No,” he said.
Dr. Ross glanced over at the nurse. “Right upper quadrant tenderness,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth, then returned his attention to Howie. “Have you been taking all your medications as directed?” he asked, now listening with his stethoscope as he tapped on Howie’s stomach.
“Yes.” Howie hesitated, then added, “It’s my liver, isn’t it?”
Dr. Ross didn’t answer at first. He took the stethoscope out of his ears and pulled a small pen light out of his pocket. “Look here,” he said, shining the light into Howie’s eyes. When he lowered the light, he continued to look Howie straight in the eye. “We won’t know for sure if it’s your liver until we run some tests, but it looks that way, yeah. You’re a little jaundiced, and the bloating in your belly is from fluid build-up, which can be caused by liver failure. That also might be why you were short of breath earlier, from the fluid accumulation compressing your diaphragm. I’m amazed you were able to make it through a whole concert.”
“Barely,” said Howie with a sigh. “So what now?”
“Well, now I’m going to order some labs, a chest x-ray, and an abdominal scan so we can see what your liver’s looking like. Then I’ll come back and drain some of that fluid from your belly so we can make sure there’s no infection. Just sit tight for now, and someone should be in to collect the samples soon.”
After the doctor and nurse had left, Howie sighed again and looked over at me. “I’m sorry, Nick,” he said. “You don’t have to stay for all that. Go back to the hotel and get some sleep. I’ll call you in the morning when I know more.”
I blinked at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding? I’m not gonna leave you here by yourself. Besides, the guys are on their way; they’ll probably be here any minute.”
Howie groaned. “I hate having everyone see me like this.”
“Oh relax, your hair looks fine,” I said, rolling my eyes. But when I looked at him, knowing what I did now, I saw the signs of sickness I had somehow missed before, signs that were suddenly much more visible under the bright, fluorescent lights. Howie’s skin had a slight yellow tone that could have been mistaken for a golden tan. Even the whites of his eyes had taken on a faint yellow hue. He had pulled his shirt back down over his stomach, but it didn’t completely hide the small pooch of a belly that hadn’t been there just days before. Now I knew why he’d been on the verge of tears when he told me he needed to go to the hospital. Howie was in bad shape... and he knew it, too.
When Kevin, Brian, and AJ arrived, they all crowded around Howie’s bed and tried to keep him company as he waited. After a while, the nurse came back to collect blood and urine samples.
“This is some after party,” AJ said sarcastically, when Howie walked back from the bathroom wheeling his IV stand and carrying a cup of fresh pee for the nurse.
“We just need Nick to spin some records... ‘Shots! Shots! Shots! Sh-sh-shots! Shots! Shots!’” Brian chanted, as the nurse finished labeling the little containers filled with Howie’s bodily fluids.
She laughed and said, “I’m off to get these to the lab. Don’t party too hard without me.”
“We won’t,” said Howie, shaking his head at Brian. “You guys really don’t have to hang out with me all night. I know you all have early flights out of here tomorrow.”
Brian, Kevin, AJ, and I looked at each other. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing, but Kevin was the one who said it. “No one’s leaving town till we know what’s going on with you.”
As AJ and Brian nodded in agreement, Howie smiled. “I appreciate it, guys, but seriously, you don’t have to stay. Go home to your families.”
“You’re our family, too,” said AJ. “Hate to break it to ya, bro, but you’re stuck with us.”
Howie rolled his eyes, but I could tell he was touched.
Soon after that, someone came to take Howie to radiology for his scans. As soon as he was gone, Kevin turned to me and asked, “How long has he been feeling like this?”
“I dunno, a few days?” I answered.
Kevin frowned. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t know,” I admitted, ashamed that it was the truth. “We hadn’t really been talking much.”
“See? Trouble in paradise - I called it the other night,” said AJ, almost triumphantly. “So what happened? Howie’s not around. Spill.” He looked at me expectantly, as if waiting to hear some hot gossip.
I rolled my eyes. “You’re worse than the fucking paparazzi. Nothing happened.”
“Then why weren’t you talking?” Kevin wondered, still frowning.
Brian came to my defense. “Leave him alone, guys. Whatever’s going on, it’s between Nick and Howie. It’s none of our business.”
“Thank you, Brian,” I said, glaring at AJ. I wasn’t really mad at him, just annoyed that he was still acting like Howie’s and my whole relationship existed for his entertainment. It was almost like he didn’t believe it was for real. That would explain why he and Rochelle kept trying to bring Lauren back into the picture, anyway.
Between AJ’s antics and Brian asking if I was only with Howie because I had no other options, it seemed like none of the guys took us seriously. But maybe that was my fault. I had been so careful not to show any sign of affection toward Howie in front of them, afraid of making things awkward, that maybe they just couldn’t see it. I decided it was time for me to change that.
When Howie was wheeled back into the room, I leaned over the gurney and gave him a kiss on the lips. “How ya feelin’?” I asked, as I pulled away.
For a second, Howie just stared at me with wide eyes, stunned by what I had just done in front of the other guys. “Better now,” he said, as a smile spread across his face. “What was that for?”
I could feel the eyes on my back and the heat rising in my cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Sorry for ignoring you, for making you feel like you couldn’t confide in me. I had no idea you were sick.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Nick; it’s not your fault,” Howie muttered back. “And it’s not that I felt I couldn’t confide in you. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to deal with it until the tour was over.”
“Well, that was pretty damn stupid, D,” AJ blurted suddenly. I turned around, expecting to see Brian, Kevin, and him staring at me with raised eyebrows, but if that was their initial reaction, it had worn off by now. They seemed completely unfazed by the kiss. Then again, given the seriousness of the situation, I supposed they had more important things to think about. “You two dumbasses deserve each other,” AJ added, and then he winked at me, which I guess was his weird way of giving his approval.
Brian changed the subject. “Do you really think you’re rejecting the liver?” he asked, his voice catching in his throat.
Howie nodded grimly. “Yeah, I do. But I won’t know for sure until the test results come back.”
“When will that be?” Kevin wondered, his brow furrowed with concern.
“Probably not for a couple hours.” Howie glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s late, guys. You should really go back to the hotel and get some sleep. You can come back in the morning if you want to. I should know more then.”
Brian, Kevin, AJ, and I all looked at each other. “I’m not leaving,” I said, remembering how Howie had stayed by my bedside at the hospital in Tennessee, waiting for my fever to break. It didn’t matter if he’d done that to manipulate me or not; he was still my best friend, and I wasn’t going to walk out on him now. “You guys can go, though. I’ll text you if we hear anything.”
The guys exchanged glances, shrugging uncertainly. No one seemed to want to make a decision. Finally, Kevin smiled at me and said, “I think Howie’s in good hands. Why don’t we let him get some rest? C’mon, fellas.” He started walking toward the door. Hesitantly, AJ followed.
Brian grabbed Howie’s hand. “Hang in there, man,” he said, giving it a squeeze. Then he looked at me. “Call if you need anything, Nick.”
I nodded, and he and the others left. Alone with Howie, I settled into a hard chair for what was sure to be a long, sleepless night.