Aaron shuffled between the seats with determination, blissfully unaware of the chatter
onstage and the random fragments of music that kept echoing throughout the Ambassador Theater. Across the aisle, a kindly
old man was sweeping up debris from the previous evening. Normally, Aaron would've struck up a casual conversation while he
waited for Cal to finish constructively criticizing his girlfriend's opening night performance.
Not today, though.
Today, Aaron was on a mission.
He cast a furtive glance at the wrinkled ticket
stub he was clutching and exhaled slowly.
112. Yup, this is it.
Without preamble or concern, Aaron
fell into the seat in question and stared numbly ahead.
He was just slightly to the left of center stage, but he still
had an extraordinarily good view. He could see the beads of sweat on Trent's forehead and the crease in Cal's brow.
And, while neither man was making an effort to project, Aaron could hear bits of their onstage conversation about blocking.
Their words continued to bend and blur in his ears as his gaze moved slowly to the playbill he was clutching in his other
It had been a triumphant evening. Despite his nerves, Aaron knew he had pulled off a decent performance.
All of them had. Be it determination, focus, fear, or Cal's less-than-stellar pep talk, something had lit beneath the
cast the fire necessary for a fantastic opening night. Cal hadn't made a show of reading them the review in the entertainment
section of the New York Times, but he had left a stack of papers in the dressing room, and the critic had, surprisingly,
been nothing but complimentary--on both an emsemble and an individual level. Even Cal had chosen to pepper the morning's
long-winded delivery of constructive criticism with uncharacteristic praise.
Critics had spoken, and the verdict was
clear: Aaron Carter had officially made a successful transition to Broadway theater.
It had been a triumphant evening,
and it should've been the perfect evening, but a single message on the back of a playbill had sent Aaron careening downward.
Congratulations on a fantastic performance. You've grown into
quite a man.
He hadn't immediately recognized
the handwriting, but he knew the signature. Aaron's first real gig as a pop star had involved opening for his brother's band
in Europe, where the fans had been ridiculously enthusiastic. Having tagged along on that tour and those that followed, Aaron
had seen Kevin sign his name countless times. Of course, in accordance with Faulkner's observation, memory had believed before
knowing remembered. Aaron's memory had recognized Kevin's signature readily--and had volunteered the information by reminding
Aaron vividly of the last time he'd seen Kevin sign his name.
"Kevin, come on, man. What's going on?"
"I told you, kiddo. Your older brother needs you."
but...if he needed me that badly, why didn't he just call me himself?"
"Because," Kevin shrugged, scribbling his name
sloppily on the picture that had been thrust at him. "You know Nick. He's stubborn."
Aaron wrinkled his nose. "He's
been a lot more stubborn than usual lately."
That sparked Kevin's interest. "Yeah, he's been kinda distant,
"Just short," Aaron sighed. "I mean, I get it. You're touring. Touring makes everyone tired and sarcastic
Kevin nodded slowly. "Sometimes, yes."
"I just don't get why you wanted me to come so badly if
y'all are so busy."
Kevin gave one last wave to the hotel crowd and allowed himself to be wrangled into the hotel.
As soon as they were in the safety of the elevator, Kevin turned to Aaron with a painfully serious expression.
not that busy, Aaron."
"Sure you are," he shrugged. "It's a tour."
"It's a tour, but we're not that busy.
We're not busy enough for Nick to be snippy and sarcastic."
Aaron frowned gently. "Then why's he so tired?"
"He's not tired, Aaron. He's strung out."
The younger boy's eyes widened fearfully. "Strung out? Like...drugs?"
Kevin exhaled loudly and glanced to the upper right corner, where an ornate, old-fashioned dial was delineating the
elevator's progress in its ascent.
"Kevin! Is that why you... Is Nick doing drugs?"
out an arm to hug Aaron, but Aaron pulled away angrily.
"No. Answer me. I'm not a baby anymore."
heavily. "Aaron, he...Nick's been snorting cocaine."
Aaron immediately began a quiet, trembling chant of "no," but
Kevin gave no indication that he'd heard the younger man's distress.
"We think he might be addicted, but he refuses
to get help."
Aaron's eyes were wet, and the elevator was blurry, but in his head, the picture of Nick was
clear as day.
"I don't believe you," Aaron whispered harshly, clenching his fists at his sides. "You're lying."
I was," Kevin chuckled hollowly. "You'll see for yourself in a minute."
The realization dawned on Aaron immediately.
"He doesn't know I'm coming, does he?"
Kevin smiled sadly. "Aaron...please try to understand. We had no choice,
okay? You're the only one who can get through to him."
A loud thump jerked Aaron out of his
reverie, and he realized with a great degree of resignation that his fists were, once again, clenched tightly at his sides.
He wiggled his fingers for a moment and gripped the armrests instead, staring past the stage as he finally allowed his emotions
to get the best of him.
It wasn't fair.
His breath came in short spurts as his gaze returned to the
playbill that lay like a
leaden weight in his lap.
It's not fair.
At one point in his life, Aaron
had regarded Kevin almost as a father. He'd seen the older man as someone infinitely wise and patient, someone to whom old
age had been gracious. Because, as far as Aaron was concerned, Kevin was old...but he wasn't so old that the two of them couldn't
be friends. In fact, during the European tour, Aaron had felt like he and Kevin had been good friends. The role of older brother
would, of course, always belong to Nick, but Aaron had held a special place in his heart for his older brother's older brother.
Now, staring at the playbill on which Kevin had cowardly scrawled a message that was impersonal at best, Aaron
could only remember hating the older man.
"No. No, no, no. He's wrong, Nick! Tell me he's wrong, and
that's not what he said it was! Tell me it's powdered sugar, or flour, or... Tell me anything else, Nick!
anything else, and I'll believe you!" The boy's voice faded to a hushed whisper. "I'll believe you..."
opened his mouth, then closed it and glanced guiltily at the floor. "Aaron..."
"Don't, Nick. Don't...don't tell me
you're doing drugs."
When Nick dragged his gaze back up, his eyes were wet and red-rimmed. "Aaron," he choked out,
his voice little more than a whisper, "I'm so sorry."
That afternoon, in the hotel room, surrounded by white
powder and angry voices and the distant sound of innocence shattering, Aaron had hated Kevin with a fire he'd been surprised
Now, sitting in the seat where Kevin had sat the evening before, seeing the stage as Kevin had seen it--knowing
the whole while that, despite the experience, Kevin
hadn't had the balls to come forward--Aaron wondered if he hated Kevin
more now than he had at thirteen.
When Cara had whispered that a Backstreet Boy was present, Aaron had been shocked.
Horrified. He'd been paralyzed by the fear that another Boy's presence would shatter the delicate connection he'd forge to
build with his older brother. He'd been petrified that the presence of another Backstreet Boy would send Nick careening backwards
into the hell of drugs and drink and emptiness that had been his downfall before he'd come to New York.
He'd had time
to process, though. He'd had time to remember the gentle tremble in Nick's voice when he'd confessed that he wasn't sure his
brothers wanted him back. Nick was hurt by the way things had unfolded, but he was insecure to a greater degree. Nick had
felt betrayed and abandoned, but Aaron knew that his feelings were rooted in the fear that, somewhere along the way, the family
he'd chosen had stopped loving him enough to help him.
Seeing Kevin, having Kevin come forward and extend some kind
of goodwill...Aaron felt like that might have actually helped Nick.
Not that it matters. At the end of the
day, it's too important for Kevin to stay on his high fucking horse than it is for him to swallow his pride and mend fences.
new fury coursed through Aaron's veins as he examined the depths of Kevin's cowardice.
He couldn't even come say
hello to me. He had to write a fucking note. For God's sake, I used to call him a brother!
He bit his lip
and glared ferociously at the wrinkled ticket stub in his hand. He was just about to rip it into tiny shreds when a curious
bit of black text in the upper right-hand corner caught his eye.
feel the color draining from his face as his breath hitched in his throat.
"Hey, you okay?"
He was far to
stunned to meet Cara's concerned gaze.
"He sat here," he said finally, his voice sounding strangely unfamiliar, event to
his own ears. "He sat here all night. He saw the whole damn performance from start to finish--including that God-awful silence
when the curtain went down. I fucking grew up under his supervision, and he couldn't even come say hello." Aaron chuckled
hollowly and took a bitter swipe at the tears that were already threatening to spill over. "I just...I can't believe it. What
kind of person does that?"
Cara sucked in a sharp breath and laid a delicate hand on his shoulder.
manned up," she agreed quietly.
Aaron gave his head an incredulous shake. "I can't...I can't respect that, C. I can't
do it. I can't sit here quietly and pretend it's okay for him to pretend we don't exist. I don't fucking care if he's pissed
off at Nick. It's been six years, and, frankly, he lost the right to be angry when he refused to visit Nick in rehab."
eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Kevin refused to visit Nick in rehab?"
Aaron let loose with another ugly laugh. "There
are a lot of things Kevin refused to do for Nick."
"Dare I ask why?"
He snorted indignantly. "The 'why' doesn't
matter. He said he thought of Nick as family. Like you and Theresa, right? They were close. Kevin went around all the time
preaching about eternal bonds of friendship and unconditional love. I know the press made him out to be a father figure, but
it wasn't a lie. He prided himself on the role, once upon a time."
Cara placed her other hand on Aaron's shoulder
and squeezed gently. "He should've been there."
"There. He should've been there. Then," Aaron spat angrily. "Not here.
Not now. And if he was going to show up, he could've at least made an effort to act like something remotely resembling
a human being with feelings."
Cara didn't know what to say, so she settled for looping her arms around his neck and
hugging him tenderly from behind. For a moment, they were each lost in the silence of their thoughts.
"He got the
tickets from Cal," Aaron blurted finally.
Cara's sharp intake of breath was enough to indicate her surprise.
"Aaron...are you sure?"
"Positive," Aaron spat. He used his fingers to smooth the wrinkled ticket stub before
holding it up to the light so Cara could see. "They're director's comp tickets." He shook his head incredulously. "And you
know how Cal is, Cara. He doesn't fuck around with comp tickets. He would've sent these to Kevin. Personally."
swallowed uncertainly and loosened her hold on Aaron's neck. "And you feel betrayed," she continued knowingly.
her, Aaron nodded. "Yeah. But not by Cal. I'd be shocked as shit if Cal knew anything about the Backstreet break-up beyond
what I've told him. But Kevin..." Aaron shook his head again, searching in vain for the right words to describe the depths
of his dismay. "Kevin's a different story. Kevin knows exactly how he left things--with Nick and with me. So yeah,
I feel a little bit betrayed by Kevin."
In the silence that followed, Aaron emitted an ugly, bitter laugh.
crazy, though, right? I mean, why the hell should I feel betrayed by Kevin?This shit shouldn't surprise me. It's not like
he's never let us down before. It's just..."
He blinked. Once. Twice. It did nothing to stop the tears that suddenly
lurked behind his eyelashes.
"Dammit, Cara, he was the big brother. He was our big brother. On some level, I'm actually
touched that he came. But for him to see all two hours of the musical I've been busting my ass for and then leave with
nothing more than a congratulatory note on the back of his program..." He expelled a heated breath and ran a frustrated hand
through his hair. "It's chickenshit. He's a chickenshit. He just...he choked when it counted, and that just...that just fucking
Cara gave Aaron another gentle squeeze and heaved a careful sigh.
"Aaron," she began hesitantly, "I
get the feeling that we're not talking about last night anymore."
Two big, fat tears landed on her forearm with an
almost inaudible plop, and Cara had to bite her lip to keep from letting a few of her own tears escape.
trembled beneath her as he fought for composure.
"He was supposed to be there," he whispered finally. "He was the
big brother, C. He was supposed to be there. For Nick, for me…but he wasn't. At the end of the day, he just folds.
He builds himself up as this incredibly supportive figure, but when it counts, he doesn't dig his heels in like he should;
he runs. He balks." He shook his head with another bitter chuckle. "You know he couldn't even confront Nick about the cocaine?
He mentioned it once or twice, but he didn't have the balls to have a real knock-down, drag-out fight about it. He fought
AJ tooth and nail, but he wanted nothing to do with Nick. He called me in and told me it was MY job to make Nick stop snorting
crack." He paused for a derisive snort. "Like I actually had any control over the situation. Fuck, Cara, I was thirteen."
Cara inhaled sharply. "Oh, Aaron..."
"Last night would've been the perfect opportunity to fix things. I mean,
not that he
could've made up for lost time in the span of fifteen minutes, but...at least we'd know he wasn't running
anymore, you know? Nick's scared shitless, Cara. He's afraid he's lost them for good. And for Kevin to pull this shit when
Nick is trying so damn hard to mend fences...it's just inexcusable. It doesn't matter that Kevin doesn't know where Nick is.
He should. He should've called, or written, or...something. But he didn't. He just...didn't."
Cara's heart broke at
the childlike disappointment in Aaron's voice.
"None of them did."
Cara closed her eyes and tried in vain
to pull her boyfriend closer. "Aaron..."
"No, it's true! They didn't even...they should've tried harder! If they really did
look at Nick like a brother, then they should've tried every fucking thing they could think of! But they didn't. It was like
they didn't care enough. Like..." He paused to shake his head incredulously as his tongue tried to catch up to his racing
"Nick was drowning, Cara. You should've seen him that day. He was pissed off and shaking, and his eyes kept
darting around the room, and...he was like a caged animal. He had completely lost control of everything in his life, and he
was flipping shit, and...they were MAD at him. Like he was just a kid who kept fucking up, and not a man with real problems.
And they brought me in long enough to piss him off further, and then they abandoned him. I started crying, and then he started
crying, and then they just left us there, alone in the room together. Like, 'oh, good, Aaron's here, so we won't have to deal
with this shit anymore.'" The tears were coming faster now, hot and angry as Aaron struggled to breathe steadily. "Fuck. I
was just a kid. How was I better equipped to handle the situation? What could I possibly have known that they didn't? They
spent every fucking day with him, C; I saw him maybe once every three months. It was just...what was I supposed to do?"
Cara assured him in a fervent whisper. "You did everything you could."
"It wasn't enough," Aaron mumbled defeatedly.
"Nick kept using, and that girl died, and...it wasn't enough. At the end of the day, it was just Nick and I, and I couldn't
"Aaron," Cara began quietly, "what happened with Nick...it's not your fault. You said it yourself. You were
just a kid. You had no control over the situation."
"No one had any control over the situation," Aaron grumbled. "That
was the whole fucking problem. And they gave me control, and…and I blew it." He sucked in a breath and closed his
eyes against the blood rushing past his ears. When he spoke again, his voice was soft and tearstained.
"I felt guilty.
I felt like it was my fault. Every single day for the past six years, I've felt like it was my fault. It was my fault Nick
wouldn't go to rehab. It was my fault Nick couldn't stay in rehab. It was my fault he couldn't stay off the drugs when he
finally got out of rehab. It was...everything, Cara. I blamed myself for everything. And we're not great now, but we're getting
there. Nick's making an effort, and he's getting better, and...and we're building something. You and Theresa and I dug our
heels in, and now Nick is actually getting better, and...in retrospect, it seems like such a simple solution, you know? You
don't give up on the people you love."
"No," Cara agreed quietly as images of an unconscious Theresa flitted across
her subconscious. "You don't."
"I blamed myself," Aaron concluded softly. "I thought the whole thing was my fault.
But now...now I'm not so sure. Now I think maybe some of it was my fault, but...but where were they? Where were they when
he needed them? And why can't they man up? Why is Kevin still running away with his tail between his legs? Why can't he suck
it up and be there?"
Cara sighed morosely. "I don't know, A."
"Me neither," Aaron muttered darkly, "but I'm
going to find out."