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** HOWIE **

“You legitimately still look like shit.”

I raised my eyes from the steaming mug of green tea and glared at Kevin. The fact that my eyes were watering uncontrollably made it difficult to focus on his face. “Thanks, tips.”

“You need to go back to bed.” Kevin continued to deliver his unwanted and glaringly obvious advice.

“No shit.” My throat felt like it was lined with thousands of tiny needles. There was no way that I was going to be hitting any of my high notes tonight.

“Did you see the way that the fans were avoiding you at sound-check?” Nick grinned “I think that I actually saw a few of them use Purel after they shook your hand.”

I turned my watery eyes towards Nick. “If the fans knew what was good for them, they would always use Purel after touching you.”

“Ouch!” AJ nodded at me in appreciation. “Nice one, D!”

Nick huffed. “Maybe you should go back to bed.”

“I can’t.” I coughed viciously, my voice practically giving out. “It’s too late to cancel the show.”

“We can run it as a foursome again.” Brian looked tentatively at the others. “It worked pretty well last night.”

I shook my head in defiance. “I’m fine.”

“Can you even sing?” Kevin’s eyebrows cinched together into one massive tuft of hair. “If you can prove to us that you can hit your notes, I won’t say anything more about you needing to rest.”

I opened my mouth and immediately closed it again before collapsing into a hysterical coughing fit. Tears were streaming down my face as I struggled to regain my composure.

“Drink this!” AJ shoved an open bottle of water into my hands and tilted it towards my face. “You’re not doing the show.”

I took a long drink of water and wiped at my chin. My eyes continued to run as I set the water on the table and took a series of stretched, deep breaths. “We’ll use a backing track. I’ll just mouth the words.”

The others exchanged guarded glances. All of us hated using a backing track; it gave the critics something to pick apart when they wrote their reviews. The last thing that we needed was another hoity-toity reporter claiming that the five of us couldn’t actually sing.

“We can cover your parts like we did last night.” The words were flowing out of Nick’s mouth seemingly before he could even make sense of them. “Brian, AJ, and I will trade off for your solos and you can just run the dance routines.”

“I dunno …” Kevin shook his head gently. “That’s probably not the best idea.”

“I can do it, Kev.” Brian insisted. “You guys are always so quick to count me out, but I can do it. My voice – my voice is fine.”

“It’s our second night in Pittsburgh.” The apprehension was evident in AJ’s voice. “I think that we should just shut it down. The crowd will understand.”

“Nick’s right.” I could barely get the words out. “You guys can sing my parts. I’ll just run the choreography.”

AJ looked to Kevin for support before turning to back to me. “D, you don’t look like you have enough strength to lift your head. How are you going to dance for more than two hours straight?”

“I can do it.” I guzzled my tea; wincing as the hot liquid connected with the rawness of my throat. “I have to. I can’t miss back-to-back shows at the same venue.”

“You don’t have to. We can pull the show right now.” Kevin looked at his watch. “We have five minutes before they start letting people in.”

I set my empty mug down on the table. “I’ll make it through.”

Forty-five minutes later, I was seriously regretting my decision to ‘tough it out’. The stage lights were so hot and so bright; too hot and too bright. Sweat was trickling down my face and stinging my already watery eyes. My clothes felt as if they were glued to my body. We were only halfway through the set; with the majority of our up-tempo routines left to go. At this rate, I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the end of the show.

I forced myself to walk over to the spot where the others had already gathered for the acoustic portion of the show. Nick was speaking to the crowd, and the platinum VIP holders were filling the stands behind us. My vision blurred as I groped frantically for my seat; finally managing to sit down roughly on the stool and pick up my guitar. The crowd looked like a colourful swirl of faceless blobs. The shrieks and squeals from the fans were ricocheting around in my head, seemingly bouncing off of the interior walls of my skull. I had definitely made the wrong decision when I had insisted that I would be able to perform. I desperately needed to lie down.

I could sense Nick eyeing me as I mindlessly began plucking at the opening cords of ‘10,000 Promises’. I couldn’t actually check to see if Nick was in fact watching me because I was afraid that I would pitch forward off of the stool if I even made so much as an attempt to turn my head. I couldn’t remember if I had ever before experienced such an intense wave of dizziness; not even when I had been falling down drunk had I felt like this.

We were in the middle of ‘Madeline’ now. Nick’s voice was swirling around me, filling the empty reaches of my skull and dulling the slow ache generated by the screaming crowd. I knew that my hands were moving, but I had no idea whether or not I was playing the right chords. I hadn’t even been aware of the fact that we had finished the first song.

The arena plunged into darkness at the end of ‘Quit Playing Games’ and I somehow managed to stagger to my feet. Nick’s hand was gripping my arm, pulling me towards the side of the stage. My younger friend was screaming something in my ear, but I couldn’t make sense of anything that he was saying. Nick’s voice sounded muffled; like he was trying to speak to me while underwater.

I simply nodded and plastered a smile on my face. “I’m fine!” The lie rolled off of my tongue with ease. The dizziness had miraculously passed.

“You can’t go back out there!” Nick was shaking me now, holding me roughly by the shoulders. “You look like you’re going to pass out!”

“I’m fine.” I insisted, accepting the bottle of water that somebody shoved into my hands and downing the entire thing. “We’re already halfway through the show.”

“Backstreet, thirty seconds!”

Nick was still peering at me in concern. “You can sit out ‘Larger Than Life’. You can come back on stage when we slow things down again.”

“Fifteen seconds!”

I shook my head. “I said that I’m fine. I can do the routine.”

Nick looked helpless. The rest of the guys were already hustling into position. The crowd was roaring on the other side of the curtain.

“Five seconds!”

Nick and I finally scrambled into our positions as the opening notes of ‘Larger Than Life’ filled the venue. I took a deep breath, trying to suck in as much oxygen as possible, and launched into the choreography with as much effort as I could muster. I felt as though I were on autopilot; my body was working without the help of my brain.

The dizziness was returning. I had no idea where I was on the stage, the music was thumping around me, and I could hear the other guys’ voices ringing in my earpiece. Brian was covering my part of the song; his voice reaching and hitting all of my high notes. Even in my near delirious state I could tell that Brian’s voice sounded strong, and my heart surged with pride. He was having a 'good night'.

My happiness was short lived as my body began to fail. My throat was burning, and my lungs felt as though they were shrinking in my chest. I couldn’t get enough air; I could hear myself gasping as I forced my body into a turn. I knew that I looked sluggish; I knew that I was off the beat. Worst of all, I didn’t care.

The faintness had returned worse than before and I realized, in horror, that I was unable to focus my vision. All I could make out were shapes, and colours, and flashes of light. I knew that my legs were giving out. I could sense myself starting to collapse, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I had a vague sense that my body was connecting with the floor; a dull feeling of pain was spreading through the left side of my body. I knew that I should be concerned about the pain, about the fact that I was lying on the ground, but none of that mattered to me; all I wanted to do was close my eyes and go to sleep.

“Howie! Holy shit, Howie!”

Nick’s voice sounded muffled and unbelievable far away, but I knew that he was directly in front of my face. A blonde blob was invading my field of blurry vision, competing for space with a bigger, darker blob. The lights were continuing to flash in my face and I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes, but it was as if my body wouldn’t respond to my instructions. My eyelids were heavy, painfully heavy, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t force myself to squeeze my eyes shut. It was as if I were paralyzed, as if my brain had completely shut down.