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     I thought this would be a lot easier. Just picking up the phone, pressing seven little buttons, no problem, right? Wrong. I never expected it to be this hard for me to make a telephone call. But I guess this isn't a real normal call, either. I haven't dialed these numbers in 25 years. What's been stopping me? Probably fear, mostly. I've never been one for surprises or anything unexpected.
     Even if I did reach him, what on earth would I say? I mean seriously, what do you say to someone you used to see 24/7, but you haven't talked to them for over a quarter century? "Hey, man, what have you been up to for the past 25 years?" I would be sitting there speechless, and he'd think it was a prank call or something. Yeah, I definitely can't make this call.
     Totally confused yet? Join the club. It's hard for me to even comprehend how the situation got to this. But here I am, and I can't get it out of my head. All I can do is replay those days in my mind over and over and over . . . I can't believe it happened. I guess all I can do is start from the beginning once again.

*     *     *

     "We love you Orlando! Thanks for coming!"
     "Y'all drive safe now!"
     "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, we're *NSYNC!"
     I ran off the stage, drenched in sweat, with the other four guys and into our dressing room. We all plopped down onto the black leather couch and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
     "Whew, am I glad that is over," Lance finally broke the quiet.
     "You should be, man, you had a hard time out there," Joey agreed, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
     "ME? You're the one who fell off the stage! At least I stayed on my feet," Lance taunted, a little offended by his friend's lack of sympathy.
     "Oh yeah? Well at least I didn't start singing the chorus of 'Bye Bye Bye' during 'It's Gonna Be Me'. You can't even keep your songs straight," Joey shot back.
     "Y'all, cool it," Chris broke in, "we don't need to be fighting like that. Besides, I think we all know that JC takes the cake for his interesting little rendition of 'puppet falling' when he accidentally pulled the emergency chord of his harness and went careening to the floor during the opening." The four other guys started laughing hysterically when Chris reminded them of this, and JC's look was of total resentment.
     "It really hurt falling on my ass like that, ya know," JC muttered, to the delight of the rest of the group. "But Joey, Lance, and I only slipped up once, dude. You, on the other hand, were dancing to all kinds of beats - except ours. What was up? Chris, you couldn't keep a rhythm going if it killed you." *NSYNC's oldest member glared at his bandmate, but didn't say a word. Instead, it was me, the baby of the group, that broke the silence.
     "I guess I was the only one who didn't screw us up, huh?" I joked, trying to lighten the mood.
     "Yup, 'cause you're perfect, aren't you, Justin?" JC shot back, obviously taking my tease seriously.
     "Yeah, you're just too good for us," Joey agreed with a smirk. Just then our manager, Johnny Wright, stepped in the door. He took one look at us, so tired we were piled one on top of each other on the couch, and put his head in his hands. We knew he was angry, and we waited for him to address us, but he stayed silent for a long time before he finally spoke.
     "I bet y'all are real tired," he began. We could tell by his tone he was not even close to happy. "And you should be tired. Messing up a show like y'all did takes more energy than doing it right! I hope there aren't too many disappointed fans out there tonight. After all, the fans want to see you dance, not fall down all the time like you're magnetized to the floor." He glanced at JC and Joey, who quickly looked away. "They also want to see you sing 'Bye Bye Bye', but not during 'It's Gonna Be Me'!" Lance pretended to be playing with his shirt's zipper to avoid our manager's icy stare. "And most of all, they want to see *NSYNC stay in synch, not one of its members jumping around like a chicken with its head cut off!" Chris glared back at Johnny, daring him to say more.
     "I hope you're happy with yourselves," he continued. "You know, Justin here is the only one out of five of you who can keep things straight, and he's still a teenager. Maybe the rest of y'all should take some tips from him, 'cause that type of performance will not happen again." With that, he turned and walked back out of our room shaking his head.
     "Whoa, somebody got up on the wrong side of the tour bus," Joey commented.
     "I don't know what was up tonight. I guess we just have to concentrate a lot more," JC decided, ever the optimist, while getting up to change into his street clothes.
     "We've done it right so many times, why was today harder?" Lance wondered aloud.
     I glanced at Chris. He was in the exact position Johnny had left him in, glaring into space as if he could still see our manager's face. If there was one thing about Chris that scared me, it was how serious he was after getting yelled at or taking criticism. It killed him to hear anyone speak like that to him, so he didn't take it well at all. "Chris," I prodded him quietly, "Man, let it go. It's okay, don't let him get to you. He was just frustrated."
     Slowly, Chris turned his head and looked at me. He blinked a few times, like he was shaking himself out of a trance, then softly answered me. "Where does he get off talking to us like that?" JC, Joey, and Lance heard Chris talking and quickly turned to watch his expressions intently. Their stares probably weren't helping, but I had to admit, it was really weird seeing our professional comic of a friend take anything so seriously.
     "You okay, dude?" JC asked, looking concerned.
     "I just don't see where he gets off yelling at us for making some stupid mistakes when he isn't the one doing this nonstop, two-hour live show every single night! What does he know?!" Chris blurted, a lot more animated than he had been a moment before.
     "Gotta let it go, Chris," Joey responded. "It doesn't mean anything."
     "I can't just let it go!" Chris yelled. "Johnny always says stuff that 'doesn't mean anything'. But it does! I'm so sick of it! If he doesn't like what we're doing, I'll tell him where to go."
     No one answered Chris this time. We were all too stunned. I had no clue it bothered my best friend so much to be yelled at by Johnny. I took it like he was just trying to keep us together, and reminding us to still take our job seriously even though it is fun.
     "I can't take him anymore, y'all," Chris interrupted my thoughts.
     "What are we gonna do, fire him?" Lance blurted. "We already got rid of our old record company, and I think we've been through enough lawsuits these past few months. Let it go! It's not worth it."
     "I can't just let him walk all over me," Chris responded. "Look, lemme just talk to him tomorrow, and I'll just tell him what is pissing me off. I won't do anything stupid. Promise." The rest of us glanced at each other, not sure if we should even give Chris the opportunity to mess things up with our manager.
     "You better not," JC murmured. "We've got enough to deal with around here."
     Chris smiled. "C'mon. Have y'all ever known me to lose my cool?"
     "God help us," I joked. I laughed along with the other guys, but inside I knew that neither Chris nor Johnny had the kind of demeanor that would make this easy for any of us. I voiced a silent prayer that everything would be okay. As it turned out, we wouldn't hear about the incident from Chris for quite a while.

*     *     *

      I sighed and sat down on my leather sofa, turning on my 48" TV to see if I could find something to take my mind away, anywhere but where it was. I finally found one of my old favorite shows, "Where Are They Now?" on VH1. Instead of the endless saga of Madonna's 30-year career, however, I was cursed with a special boy-band edition.
     "So, it was essentially you and your cousin Kevin Richardson's marriages that broke up the group?" The host was asking Brian Littrell, one of five members of the Backstreet Boys, a boy band that we competed with heavily for fans during the late 90's. He looked about 60 years old, which caught me by surprise until I realized that number wasn't so far off from the truth.
     "Yes, after the success of 'Millennium', we all branched out to our own projects and only recorded one more album, not nearly the longevity that we had all hoped for," Brian answered. "It did give us a chance to raise our families and have semi-normal adult lives, however. That was a sacrifice I, and the other group members, were willing to make. It wasn't a big ugly breakup or anything."
     "Next up on 'Where Are They Now? - Boy Bands'," the narrator announced, "The story of how one pop group said 'Bye Bye Bye' to their music careers because of a startling decision from one of the group's most important members."
     I quickly grabbed the remote and hit the "power" button as fast as I could. Like I needed to be reminded of that. My first reaction to shows or articles like these was always anger, like, "What right do they have to tell our story when they didn't even know what happened?" But then I remember back, and I remember why it's such a big topic so many years later. I see once again all the outraged fans, all the dumbfounded music company execs, and especially all of the ravenous tabloids, who showed no mercy in their search to find out what happened to *NSYNC. And I still can't let myself see the truth.

*     *     *

     "Justin, can I talk to you for a second?" our manager poked his head in my hotel doorway. It was the night after our really messed up concert, so I wasn't quite sure what he'd say.
     "Sure, Johnny, what's up?" I asked, motioning for him to sit on one of the chairs in my room.
     "Are you guys all okay? Like, about what happened last night?" he began, looking scared as to what I might say.
     "Yeah, pretty much. I know Chris was freakin' 'cause he hated what you said, but I'm hopin' he'll get over it. He doesn't hold grudges, usually," I answered.
     "I was going to go talk to him, too, because I could tell he was mad. I don't want to be y'all's parent or anything, but I don't like it when you forget that this is a job, and you have to take it at least semi-seriously," he explained.
     "You don't have to remind me of that, man," I told him, "I've always remembered."
     "So, besides Chris, everyone's cool, right?" Johnny asked again, to my utter annoyance. He didn't get it at all.
     "Look, Johnny, what you said wasn't exactly nice, but none of us are sensitive enough to dwell on it. Even Chris, while he gets mad in the heat of the moment, isn't gonna care tomorrow what you say to him today. No offense, but your words don't have that much of an effect on us."
     "Yes, I understand, I just don't want to be a big bully of a manager that y'all hate."
     "You couldn't be if you tried, man," I laughed. "So was that the only reason you came in here? 'Cause I still have to do my hair. It takes time and total concentration to put my bandanna in perfectly."
     Johnny rolled his eyes. "Actually, there was one other thing I wanted to ask you about," he paused, looking at me with a real serious expression on his face. "How do you feel when the other guys make so many stupid mistakes like they did last night?"
     "I just laugh, I mean, who cares? It was still a good show. I make tons of stupid mistakes on stage, too," I replied, totally clueless as to what he was getting at.
     "You don't mess up like they do, though," Johnny informed me. "It kills me that you're just 19 and you are the most professional one here. You goof off and have fun, but you also keep your composure when it matters. Justin, you are one of two lead singers, and you're totally the face of *NSYNC; the most popular and most recognizable member. You make this group."
     I was dumbfounded. Why was he telling me all this? I had never thought of any of it like that; we're a group. We're like the Five Musketeers, all for one and one for all. What, did he want to make my head the size of Mount Rushmore? All I could think of for a response was an ultra-intelligent, "Huh?"
     "Man, don't you see? You are being held back by staying in this group. I bet you've never even thought of a solo career, right? Well, you should. It would be all you. Your songs, your fans, your music. None of these other idiots just along for the ride. Do you realize how many girls would die to see Justin Timberlake as a hot solo artist?"
     "Look," I finally interrupted him, "I am just one of five parts of *NSYNC. We are a group, and we are going to stay together for as long as people listen to our music. I can't believe you want me to go solo! It's so you can manage me and make even more money, isn't it? You are unbelievable. I think it's time for you to head on out."
     "Fine, it's your choice, Justin," Johnny replied, as he got up to leave. "I just don't think you realize your true potential." With that, he slammed the door.
     I couldn't believe what had just happened. I knew he was all about the money, but it still really disturbed me. I decided not to tell the other guys, though I'm honestly not sure why. I guess I was scared that I'd create more tension in our already way-stressed group. And at that point, I didn't think anything would even come out of that short and fairly harmless conversation.

*     *     *

     I hate Johnny Wright. No, scratch that, "hate" is too soft a word for my feelings. I despise him. That man cared about me about as much as he cared about a rock in the bottom of his shoe. All he wanted was money. Cash. Dough. Dollars. Mula. Whatever you call it, he was in love with it. And he used me, an unsuspecting, trusting, venerable 19-year-old boy, to fulfill his dreams of being a multi-millionaire.
     Now, of course, as a 44-year-old man, I can look back and see exactly what my manager wanted. I can see his plan perfectly, see how he planned to use me. And I thought I could see it then, too. Problem was, no matter how "mature" I was for my age, I was still a teenager. I started to think about what he said. I started to see some truth in it. And worst of all, I eventually started to believe it.
     After all, I remember thinking, I am the most popular member. And I do sing lead an awful lot. And I have won a lot of "hottest guy" awards. (For instance, I had been a staple in the winners circle for the "Choice Hottie" award at the Teen Choice Awards for the past three years.) Plus, Joey had said that I was too good for them. Maybe going solo was something I should consider after all.
     See? See how my 19-year-old brain worked? I was totally gullible. I believed almost anything anybody told me.
     So, had that been the end of all the "solo talk" I probably would have forgotten about it. After all, I did love being in it with the other guys. But it was obviously still in my head, and, as it happened, one simple joke would lead to the biggest mistake of my life.

*     *     *

     "So, what do you guys do when you're not with the group?" talk show host Rosie O'Donnell asked. We were making an appearance on her show, one of hundreds of these kinds of programs that we tape every year.
     "I love to sleep!" JC exclaimed. "But I don't get to do my hobby very often, thank you!" he added, to much high-pitched screaming and laughing from the girls in the audience.
     "And the rest of you?" Rosie prompted.
     "I play basketball," I answered simply. It was true, I played my favorite sport every spare minute.
     "No kidding!" Joey agreed. "Every time we get a five minute break, instead of falling dead on the floor like the rest of us, he takes off to the nearest hoop so he can get, like, two shots in."
     "So you're just a basketball fanatic," Rosie commented, turning to me.
     "Yep," I confirmed. I wasn't about to elaborate, because I wasn't in the mood to answer the same questions that people had been asking us for over four years. Sometimes I could stand it, but not today. I was tired, cranky, and didn't feel my best.
     "Well, the last time the Backstreet Boys were here," Rosie began, to the utter delight of the crowd, "they formed an interesting hypothesis that I wanted to run by you. They told me that in every group, there was someone that you could really do without. Like, your success wouldn't be any less without that member. In BSB, they seemed to agree it was Nick. Any speculation about *NSYNC?"
     I was so out of it, I barely noticed the others exchange conspiratorial glances. So, when they yelled "Justin!" in unison, I almost jumped out of my chair. It took me a second to realize what they had said about me. Then I heard the crowd booing and smiled. I knew it was a big joke the second I actually thought about it, because not having me in the group would be like, well, not having Nick in BSB. It was terribly funny to even consider.
     "I mean, what good is Justin anyway?" Chris was saying.
     "Yeah, anyone could put a curly haired wig on and be just as good of a 'Justin' as Justin is," JC agreed.
     "Look, I'm Curly!" Chris yelled. He jumped up, and, with his super high-pitched voice, tried to growl "It's gonna be me!" like I did in our most recent number one single. It sounded so bad that the other three were in hysterics, falling out of their chairs and rolling around on the stage.
     It was pretty funny, Chris trying to be me, but it also made me wonder if I was just a big joke to them. I started to really think about what Johnny had said to me just a few weeks prior. I also began to wonder if the guys even appreciated my contributions to our group. It certainly didn't seem like it from what they were saying about me.
     Of course, on one hand, I knew it was a joke. I really did. But on the other hand, part of me wanted to show them what they'd miss if I was gone. Going solo was beginning to sound very tempting. I made up my mind to talk to Johnny as soon as possible and find out his "plan" for me.

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