“What the fuck happened?” AJ’s voice boomed throughout the arena, his curses amplified by his headset.
AJ and Brian had been on the other side of the stage when Howie had collapsed. If it hadn’t been for the gasps and shrieks of horror from the crowd, the two of them probably wouldn’t even have noticed that anything was wrong.
“I told him that he was too sick to perform. I told him!” I raged, dropping to my knees and peering into Howie’s unresponsive face. “Where the fuck is the medical staff?”
Howie’s eyes were open but unfocused. He was staring directly into my face, but I knew that he couldn’t really see me. His pupils were dilated and the whites of his eyes were ringed with red. His face had taken on an eerily hallow, empty quality. It was almost as if his mind had vacated his body; like I was staring down into an empty shell.
“He fell! He just collapsed!” Nick’s voice was shaky with panic; his fear filling the arena as he screamed into his microphone.
“Howie!” Brian had now dropped down next to me on the stage. “What’s wrong with him? Why is he just staring into space like that? Kevin, what the fuck is the matter with him?!”
The audience let out a series of short, surprised gasps at Brian’s use of profanity, and I dared a quick glance behind me. The venue lights had come on giving everyone in the audience a clear view of what we were doing on stage. I could make out the faces of some of the women in the first few rows and they were all projecting nearly identical expressions; a mixture of shock, fear, and intense concern.
“Microphones off!” Eddie came sprinting out of the wings in a waft of cologne. “You should all have your headsets off! What the fuck is the matter with you? Do you really think it’s a good idea for you all to be dropping f-bombs at top volume?!”
As soon as the words were out of Eddie’s mouth, I ripped my headset off of my head and tossed it to the floor. The other guys quickly followed my lead; ignoring the bangs and squeals that reverberated through the silence that had descended upon the arena as their microphones connected with the stage.
In my haste to see if Howie was okay, I hadn’t even thought about removing my headset. Of course, Eddie was right; broadcasting our feelings to the crowd wasn’t going to make things better. Still, at that moment, I didn’t care about the fans listening to us curse. All I cared about was Howie.
I returned my attention to Howie’s face. He appeared to be getting paler by the minute, but his eyes were still open. The vacant expression on his face was quickly becoming too much for me to handle. He seemed to be paralyzed; his face frozen into the expression that he had been sporting when he had hit the floor.
“Move back, please!”
The medical team arrived on the stage at the exact moment that Eddie began to address the crowd. I could hear him telling the fans that they had to start making their way out of the building as I shuffled out of the way of the paramedics, dragging Brian along with me. My cousin looked at me in uncertainty, curling his icy fingers around my upper arm as the two of us slid over next to AJ.
“We can’t just leave him!” Brian’s voice was strained with panic. “We have to go with him to the hospital! What if he’s dead, Kev? What if he’s dead!?”
“We will go with him to the hospital.” I was failing miserably to keep the panic out of my own voice. “We have to let the paramedics do their job.”
“This is bad, this is bad, this is so bad.” Nick was pacing nervously back and forth; his fingers tangled in his hair. “I told him to sit out Larger Than Life. I told him to wait until we slowed things back down. Why didn’t he just fucking listen to me?”
The paramedics had cut open Howie’s shirt and were busy checking his vitals. The two men were hurling medical jargon back and forth at such a rapid rate that it was making my head spin. I had absolutely no clue what they were saying, but their faces said it all; Howie was not in good shape.
“Is he on any medication?” One of the paramedics yelled in our direction as he helped his partner manoeuvre Howie onto a backboard.
“He’s been sick.” AJ spoke before the rest of us even had a chance to open our mouths. “He might have been taking Tylenol, but nothing by prescription.”
“What about an illegal substance ... marijuana, cocaine, heroin … ?” The paramedic tried again as another member of our medical team arrived on the stage with a stretcher.
“No.” I shook my head. “Not Howie – he never – just no.”
“We’re taking him to Emergency.” The same paramedic informed us as Howie was loaded onto the stretcher. “One of you can ride with him if you want.”
The four of us looked at each other. It was clear that we all wanted to go, but I gently nodded at Nick. As much as it was killing me not to simply declare that I would be the one to go, I knew that Howie would want Nick to be there if he happened to wake up during the ride to the hospital.
“You go, Nick. We’ll meet you guys there as soon as we can.”
Nick’s mouth fell open; partially from fear and partially from surprise. He looked to AJ and Brian first, who both nodded in encouragement, before turning to me. “You guys promise that you’ll meet me there?”
I nodded and motioned for Nick to hurry up and follow the paramedics who were already in the process of wheeling Howie off of the stage. “You go. We’ll be right behind you.”
“Okay …” Nick gave the rest of us one last fleeting glance before hurrying off to follow Howie and his entourage of medical staff.
“We need to find a car.” I hauled myself to my feet and began turning blindly in a circle.
My eyes settled on Eddie who was still standing at the edge of the stage, pleading with the crowd to begin exiting the building. I had been so preoccupied with Howie that I hadn’t even realized that the fans were still packed into the venue. The crowd was still staring at us in horrified silence; nobody had moved.
“Do you still have access to your rental car?” I hurried over to Eddie and interrupted his useless pleading. “If you do, I need the keys.”
“Here.” Eddie reached into his pocket and shoved a set of keys into my hand. He placed his other hand over the top of his microphone and nodded his head in the direction of the crowd. “Any thoughts as to how I’m supposed to get them all to leave?”
Once again, I looked out at all of the panicked, tear streaked faces in the audience. Our fans were stubborn and determined to say the least. I had absolutely no idea what to tell them about Howie, nor did I have any thoughts as to how to encourage them all to go home.
“You’re on your own.” I patted Eddie roughly on the shoulder and began backing away towards Brian and AJ who were now waiting off to the side of the stage, just out of view of the crowd. “I gotta go. I’ll call you as soon as I have any news on Howie’s condition.”
Eddie nodded; his face giving away his anxiety. “Tell Howie that the whole crew is thinking about him.”
I gave Eddie one last forced smile before turning around and jogging back towards AJ and Brian. As much as it pained me to do so, I ignored the screams from the crowd and the pleas for information. I had no information to give, nor did I have time to spare.
“Let’s go!” I jingled the keys for emphasis and motioned for Brian and AJ to follow me as I hurried down the steps that butted up against the side of the stage. “We promised Nick that we would be right behind him.”
The drive to the hospital was overly long and silent. In reality, the trip probably took less than fifteen minutes, but it seemed much longer as I pushed the gas and flew through as many yellow lights as possible. Neither Brian nor AJ said anything during the entire drive. Brian simply stared out of the passenger window and AJ chain-smoked in the backseat; blowing puffs of smoke out of the open window and tossing his butts onto the street. I was so worried about Howie that I didn’t even bother to tell him off for polluting the world with his nasty habit.
The three of us tumbled into the Emergency Room in a rush of pent up energy. Everyone in the waiting room turned to stare at us as we hurried towards the check-in desk; simultaneously taking in our performance attire and our worried expressions. I knew that we probably looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care.
“We’re looking for Howard Dorough.” I informed the bored looking nurse behind the desk. “He was brought in by an ambulance a little while ago.”
“And you are?” The nurse raised her eyebrows and took a long pull from the massive Double Gulp soda that was taking up the majority of her small desk.
“Kevin.” I hurried. “Kevin Richardson.”
“Uh-huh.” The nurse continued to look thoroughly unimpressed. “Y’all are gonna have to take a seat.”
I started, my mouth falling open in the process. Had this woman really just told me to take a seat? Didn’t she see that this was an emergency? We were in the Emergency Room for Christ’s sake!
“I don’t think that you understand!” AJ pushed his way in front of me and glared down at the sullen hospital employee. “We need to see our friend. He just collapsed in the middle of our show! You have to tell us where he is. We’re the Backstreet Boys for fuck’s sake!”
The heavy-set nurse raised her other eyebrow. “The Backstreet-who-in-the-what-now? Listen, honey, I don’t care if you’re Justin freakin’ Timberlake. I can’t tell you where your friend is; it’s hospital policy. So, you’re gonna have to sit your boney butt down and wait, just like everyone else.”
“Justin – Justin Timberlake?!” AJ was on the verge of losing it. “Do I look like I want to be fucking Justin Timberlake?!”
The nurse took another long sip of her soda. “I don’t really know what to make of you boys at the moment. You come tearin’ in here lookin’ like y’all just stepped out of a Michael Jackson video and start makin’ demands? If y’all don’t wanna take a seat then I’m gonna have to call security.”
“We’ll sit.” Brian stepped in front of AJ and shot him a look that clearly told him that he needed to be quiet. “There’s no need to call security.”
“Well, okay then.” The woman rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to her computer. “At least one of y’all has a brain.”
“Sit?!” I grabbed Brian’s arm and pulled him roughly away from the desk. “I don’t want to sit and wait! I want to find Howie!”
“Screaming at the nurse is not going to …” Brian cut himself off mid-sentence; his eyes landing on something behind my back.
“Brian!” Nick’s tear-soaked voice rang out through the waiting room. “AJ! Kev!”
I whipped around to face Nick, forgetting that I was still holding onto Brian’s arm and practically pulling him over in the process. Nick looked ragged. His hair was sticking up at awkward angles and tears were streaming down his face. Needless to say, now he was the one who was causing a scene.
“How – How – Howie is …” Nick hiccupped through his tears. “They said that he’s been – that he’s been poisoned!”