When you’re told your whole life you’re nothing but a screw-up, it’s hard to erase that. It takes a long time for you to realize that even when bad things happen it’s not always your fault. But life happens. It’s good, it’s bad, and it happens. Sometimes there’s nothing you could’ve done to change that. But sometimes, there’s things you can do…and you should.
Despite Kevin’s obviously wrecked life Nick was still considering never having been in the Backstreet Boys. Mainly because while his life was worse, the other four would be better off. How could they not be? He’s still making their lives worse. Kevin at least left the group. He got away so if this choice created another universe at least that Kevin was happy. That was how Nick planned to justify it in any event. His having never joined changed the life of one of them but it couldn’t really do much for the others. And selfish as it was, Nick still wanted that life free from everything that’s made him want the escapes drugs and alcohol could promise him more than anything else. He didn’t care how that sounded.
He loved the fellas but, didn’t he deserve that?
Nick felt like a complete asshole for thinking so. Hell, maybe I did deserve my screwed up life.
With a glance around he immediately knew they weren’t in Los Angeles anymore. Far from. Instead they had landed in New York. He always loved visiting here. There was just something to the hustle and bustle in this city. It never slept and there always seemed to be something happening. For someone who thrived on distractions it was a pretty appealing place. Oddly enough he knew he would hate living here. Mainly because of his love of the water. That wouldn’t be satisfied in any sense of the word. It just felt too busy. Los Angeles could be like that but it was different.
With a glance upwards he saw the brightly lit sign displaying Sweeny Todd¸ and the words starring Alex McLean underneath. Nick blinked with surprise even knowing AJ’s passion for musicals back when they were kids. “AJ became an actor?”
“Alex did.” Grace corrected, materializing in a shimmer of light beside him. “Lou dubbed him AJ, remember? The group never lasted so he stayed Alex and went back to acting. Musicals, specifically. This way he got to do both things he loved. He’s pretty good, actually.”
Nick found himself singing, he couldn’t help it. He’d loved all sorts of music – old and new. It was something he and Kevin always had in common. “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, on Broadway… they say there’s always magic in the air…”
“Maybe there is.” She motioned to him. “Let’s get inside.”
“I get to see the show?”
She grinned at him. “Well, you get to see something.”
Rolling his eyes he followed her inside but instead of moving to take a seat like the rest of the people Grace was making a beeline for the backstage. Nick arched a brow but kept walking while looking around. “This isn’t off Broadway at all is it? I always thought AJ was a little jealous that Kevin had the guts to go off and audition for Chicago during our break.”
“Maybe he was. They both loved the stage. Your Kevin and this Alex. You’re right by the way, we’re here at Sweeny Todd’s revival and it’s the biggest show of the year.”
Nick paused for a moment, having heard about the movie version being filmed starring Johnny Depp and found himself laughing. “I can’t lie, that’s a really fitting freaking role for him.”
She raised a brow as she turned her head towards him. “It fit the man you knew. You don’t know this man.” They walked through people as they weren’t even there. Nick caught pieces of emotions as he did. It was a strange feeling. If he stayed dead, would he feel like this always? But why was he even curious if he wanted to start his life over and fix one mistake? “You have to remember that.”
Nick snorted. “I knew him way before we got famous, and before I knew him as Aje. I don’t think he could change that damn much. Come on.”
“Just like you thought AJ would never self-destruct thanks to his addictions?”
Truer words hadn’t been spoken but they still stung.
“Anyway, this run is shaping up to be more successful than his role in Phantom of the Opera.”
“I was wondering if he was in that. He freaking loves that play.”
When they reached his dressing room Nick hesitated before going through the door. He was afraid to. What if his life was as screwed up as Kevin’s? Or worse, what if it was better? He didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted something to nudge him in a direction. But would that help if he still felt like it was the wrong one? It was ironic really, this was a world in which he didn’t know the fellas the way he always had and yet he still wanted nothing more than to rely on them to help make a choice. Shaking his head he forced himself through the doorway.
Before him was a sight nearly unrecognizable. Alex James Mclean (as it said on the door) was nothing like the AJ he’d known. There wasn’t a single tattoo to be seen on his arms. His hair was a normal hair color though still receding. He was skinnier than Nick remembered too, but more toned. Did this AJ work out? He never would’ve thought he’d see the day. The most either one of them ever worked out was during their dance rehearsals. There were no piercings; in fact there was no facial hair. This man shaved and looked as normal as any other. It felt so bizarre. Nick expected something – because he was AJ, and they were in New York after all.
He was sitting in a chair with a big grin on his face. No sunglasses to hide his eyes that were always so expressive. A little girl was in his lip with curly brown hair and big brown eyes, sweet as could be. She couldn’t be any older than two at most as she waved her chubby arms and legs happily. He lifted her up and blew raspberries against her tummy. She giggled and squealed. Just from watching anyone could tell she felt completely safe in AJ’s arms. It was almost mind boggling for Nick. If there was anything he just couldn’t see quite yet for his friend, it was fatherhood. Sure with their fair share of groupies during the 90s either one of them could have some kids out of wedlock they didn’t know about, but this was different.
The AJ McLean he knew was completely terrified of fatherhood in any form.
Nick glanced to Grace and quirked an eyebrow at her. “This is what happened to AJ?”
She nodded, stepping forward and running a hand through the little girl’s curls. Amazingly, the child looked up as if she could see the pair. She grinned and laughed, waving at them. “Hi!”
AJ laughed at her. “What is it baby girl, you got a new invisible friend?”
She nodded and pointed at both Grace and Nick. AJ stared right at them before placing a kiss on her forehead. “You’ve got a crazy imagination.”
Nick blinked with surprise. “She can see us?”
“You’d be surprised. Kids can see more than adults. They have that ability for unquestionable faith, that and their innocence lets them see beyond what others can’t. She’s not even scared because she knows I’m here for protection. It’s a shame people can’t hold on to that their entire lives.” She paused. “Some can but they’re the ones dubbed as delusional or crazy if they share what they see with the world. Like if you decided to go back to your regular life and told someone? You know people would want to commit you.”
He nodded, rolling his eyes. “My mother wants me committed anyway. She wants my money.”
She sighed. “I know. I’ve been trying to guide your parents as best I can. But unfortunately not everyone can be reached. “
“Anyway…” She started again, eying him pointedly. “He’s not married yet, before you ask. He’s still afraid of commitment somewhat but not as bad.” Grace shrugged. “I think it might’ve been because Bob McLean never tried to contact his son again the way he did in your reality. In this one AJ never made it to that level of stardom. He’s huge on Broadway but that type of fame doesn’t get you on tabloids and on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”
Nick frowned, his brow furrowing. “So he’s happy. His life is actually better without me.”
The guardian grabbed Nick’s hand and pulled him over to the dressing table, the pair walked through an unknowing Alex to do so. As always flashes of his friend’s thoughts filtered through his head in an instant. Too quick for Nick to grasp any with a solid grip but the feelings left their remnants behind in his mind. He glanced over to her. “He doesn’t seem happy. I mean, well, he does to Ava…” It was weird how he suddenly knew the little girl’s name. “…and the world but…” Nick shook his head. “He’s, fuck it reminds me of how he was during Black and Blue.”
Grace motioned to a small array of pill bottles tucked in a small little pouch. Easy to miss by many, especially if their focus was on AJ himself. “Like I said, AJ has commitment issues but not in terms of fatherhood. He slept around. Sometimes you pay the price for those kinds of reckless choices.”
His eyes grew as wide as saucers. “You’re telling me that…”
“AJ has AIDS, yes.” Grace confirmed as she turned to see AJ set Ava down.
The little girl ran to her nanny now standing in the doorway, smiling and laughing without a care in the world. As soon as the door closed, her father sighed deeply and grabbed his glass of water. He took his medications before taking a deep breath and followed them out the door. Nick watched them go, filled with a weird sense of sadness and jealousy all wrapped into one. He was jealous of the way AJ had that unconditional love from his daughter. The success he had without the group was unexpected. But he hated that AJ had such a terrible disease that would one day ruin everything he had.
“That’s…so I destroy his life either damn way too.”
“No, it’s like with Kevin. These were their choices without having known you at all. This man doesn’t remember the twelve year old towhead he’d sometimes see at auditions back when he lived in Florida. He remembers his one and only attempt into music turning into a massive failure. It was what inspired his choice to dive back into musical theater and turned into a successful career. He slept with fans and agents alike. One gave him a daughter he loves more than anything.” She paused. “And that’s one choice he’s glad he’s made if only because it brought her into his life. See what I mean?”
“But what about her? I mean she-”
“Don’t worry, she’s not infected. He caught the disease after she was born. His biggest worry is what will happen to her after she’s gone. But he has a lot of blessings the AJ you know never had.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “But he’s going to die! Isn’t there anything you can do to help him? Help Kevin?”
“No.” Her form started to shimmer as she reached for his hand. “C’mon Nick.”
“Is every life we see fucked up beyond belief?”
She shook her head. “No. Next, we’re going to see Howie.”
“Alright.” He took her hand, purely on faith. Faith that somehow, someone would be able to confirm that leaving the life he’s always known would be the right decision. Because if it wasn’t, where would that leave him? He didn’t know. That thought alone was suddenly terrifying.