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     "How ya doin', Justin?" Johnny poked his head into my hotel room. It was a little under a month since I had made my, um, announcement to the world. I hadn't been shot yet, so I guess I knew I'd survive it, but I was having more doubts than ever about the decision I had made. I wasn't real keen on Johnny at that point either, so I played like everything was cool.
     "Fine," I answered simply. He smiled and shut the door again. He acted so calm, so cool, like everyone was ecstatic I had left the group. The reality of the situation, however, could be found in the thousands of fan letters I had laying next to me on the bed. I occasionally dove into these piles to see what our fans were saying, and I felt the need to do it now that everything had changed. What I found was eye-opening, to say the least.

Dear Justin,
     My name is Christy. I'm seven. I used to love you and *NSYNC and all your songs when you used to sing together. But now you left them, and it's not the same. I've heard them sing without you and I've heard your new song and I don't like either one nearly as much as I liked your old songs. It doesn't sound right you guys seperate. Why did you leave them? Were they mean to you? I don't understand why you broke up but I don't like it. Maybe you guys could say you're sorry and get back as a group. That would be good.
                                                                                  Christy McLaine

    I kinda sided with Christy on that one - the group did sound incomplete without me, and it was weird to hear myself alone. But her asking me why I left, if they were mean to me, that's what hurt. It made my reasons look trivial. I sighed and picked up another letter.

To Justin:
    I'm Ashley. I'm from Memphis like you and I'm 14. I used to be a huge *NSYNC fan. Seriously, I bought all the *NSYNC stuff I could, and went to all the shows you had around here. You were my favorite member of the band. But then it all changed when you left the group. At first I didn't believe it - I thought they were trying to make a Spice Girls-like joke. When I found out it was true, I couldn't let myself believe it. You guys were amazing role models and showed the way friendship really could be. You sounded magnificent together and were like five fingers on a hand, as JC used to say, all seperate but working together for the same things. What happened to that wonderful bond? I can't believe it just broke one day 'cause you guys were too close - anyone could see that. So what really happened? *NSYNC isn't complete without you, and you certainly aren't as a solo singer nearly what you were with the others. Anyone can see that neither you nor Chris, JC, Joey, and Lance are happy now, so what's the point? You could never hold up either of your careers much longer without each other. You gotta see that you have to either reunite, or call it quits. You can't keep going on like this, because it is not working for anyone. I just can't even be a fan of yours anymore after I see what you did to your friends. Sorry, but it's true.
                                Ashley Robinson

    I suddenly felt a little tear roll down my cheek, but quickly brushed it away. I'm not like that. That's just stupid, crying over what some fan thinks she knows about me and the guys. What does she know? She doesn't know what it was like. She doesn't know what it was like to be in my shoes with *NSYNC. Why should I even listen to her? Frustrated, I picked up one more letter.

Hey Justin,
    This is Kelli Davis. How are you doin'? I just wanted to write because of all the crap people are giving you about leaving *NSYNC like that. I wanted to say that I'm not mad, in fact, I'm glad that they're out of the picture. Now, everyone can just focus on you - your amazing voice, your cute face; no more of those guys around. I always said you should go solo, 'cause you're way better than any of them. I always said that I knew you'd leave one day, too. It was so obvious. The way you always acted like you were one step higher than them, always tried to put yourself in the spotlight. I'm surprised you lasted this long, or that they lasted this long, with the way you treated them. But you are that much better, so what does it matter?
    I'm so excited to hear more of your solo music. I was always an *NSYNC fan, just 'cause of you, but now I can happily say I'm a Justin Timberlake fan only. This is so awesome. Can't wait for your next single and your first album!!! Hope you and Brit are doing fine, and don't worry about JC, Chris, Joey, and Lance 'cause you never needed them, and I've heard their new stuff - they won't be any competition. Thanks, and good luck in your solo career!
                                                                             Lots of Love,
                                                                             Kelli Davis
                                                                             Justin Timberlake's #1 Fan!

    What I felt would best be described as a sharp pain that shot through my body like a rocket, starting in my toes and ending up at the top of my head. I couldn't believe what I was reading. This girl meant well, I know, and was attempting to compliment and reassure me, but all her letter did was totally destroy the little inkling of self-respect that was left in my body. Did I really treat them like that? Did I really have absolutely no idea that any of this was going on until now? The self-doubt was killing me.
    I could elaborate immensely here, telling you every little thought that went through my mind in the first few weeks of my solo career. I could present you with thousands of fan letters, most of them resembling either Casey's or Ashley's; a select few like Kelli's. I could describe the way my daily life played out nearly every day, most notably the pool of self-inflicted questions that I felt on the brink of drowning in. I could even discuss the way my personal relationships, with my family, friends, and coworkers, were disintegrating faster than you can say "Bye Bye Bye."
    I don't think you need to hear it all, though. It would get boring, not to mention mighty depressing. Just understand that this one decision literally turned my life upside down. I didn't know where I could go or who I could trust anymore, and all I wanted was to wake up from the dream and make everything normal again.
    The weirdest thing about all this is that I never once considered that I could go back to the group. Not once. It was like, I made that decision, I should pay the price. I shouldn't get any favors just because I had suddenly realized my colossal mistake. The biggest thing that ate me up was one nagging question. Would they even want me back?

*    *    *

    "My God," JC marvelled when he finally spoke again. "After all these . . . I mean, we thought you were dead or something. We had no idea. But why, why now? What took you so long?" There was a hint of hurt in his voice, and I could tell he was awestruck by the fact the he was actually speaking to me.
    "God, man, if it was up to my heart, I'd've been picking up the phone the day after I made that damn decision to tell you I wanted to be *NSYNC again. But I was sure you guys would turn me away, and I'd be lonlier than I already was."
    I hadn't intended for this to happen - I hoped I'd never have to recount my feelings from the past 25 years. I just couldn't keep my guard up any longer. Simply the fact that JC was giving me a chance was opening up in my mind the quarter-century of loneliness and despair I had experienced. I paused just then, unsure of whether I should continue. It was so new for me  to open up this much, I wasn't sure if I was still capable of expressing myself like I used to. I guess JC sensed my insecurity, becaused he gently nudged me into saying more.
    "Justin, c'mon, man, it's okay, let it out," he prodded. Suddenly, it was like a volcano had erupted inside of me and all my thoughts, all the facts I had desperately tried to bury for so long, came pouring out.
    I told JC of the way my family, though supportive to my face, had slowly drifted away until I had to be the very last person to hear that my mother had died when I was 28. I found out by opening up a newspaper one day and reading that she had developed a rare form of brain cancer that had claimed her life. I wasn't even invited to the funeral.
    I told him how my career had ended before it really began when I fired Johnny after about eight months. He sued, took a large share of money and all my contracts with him, and went to work with some other group. No one dared to touch me after that; they thought I couldn't be relied upon to hold up my end of a contract. They even told me I was too emotionally unstable to handle the rigors of the music buisness. I was washed up at the age of 21.
    Britney had been great to me through all of this. She was the one I could lean on - my shining star that stayed by me and never gave up, even after my mom died. She had a brilliant career that lasted until she was 32, when she wanted to settle down and have  a family. We had been together through everything until then, when I suddenly freaked out about the idea of having kids. I couldn't imagine having these little helpless beings depend on me to care for them when I could barely care for myself. I began to push Brit away, and we split less than a year later. Even after all that, she tried to stay in touch with me, so we could still be friends. I kept pushing, though, and she eventually gave up.
    I always loved her; heck, I love her even today. She was the most wonderful person I had ever met, but my foolish selfishness and pride had gotten the best of me. It was hard for me to say, to admit what an idiot I had been, but once I started talking, I couldn't stop.
    I even told JC about the utter and total emptiness I felt after Britney was gone. I had lost my family, my best friends, and the love of my life, all because of the greediness that had overwhelmed me when I was just 19 years old. When I stated it like that, it sounded as if my whole life had been a waste. I wouldn't go that far, but I would say I made some terrible decisions that cost me my happiness for many years. It was only very recently that I began to feel a sense of contentment with my life, and even now, I still felt like something was missing.
    When I had finally finished, more than an hour had passed and JC and I were both dead silent on either end of the line. I once again waited for him to speak.
    "Justin," he finally started in an uncharacteristic soft tone, "we never hated you. We never wished for anything like this to happen to you, and we were certainly never glad you were gone. Do you realize how many nights I spent lying awake for hours on end, wondering why you really left and praying you'd call and ask to come back? We were all devastated, but we never hated you.
    "It took me a long time to come to terms with life without *NSYNC, too, but I had many friends and family around to help me make the transition. I'm sorry you were alone for so long. You deserved so much better than what happened.
    "I don't know what else I can say now, except that I don't want to lose you again. I know we can't pretend this never happened, but we can start our friendship again; all of us can. I still stay in touch with everyone else, Chris especially, and they'd love to see you again. We can't forget the past, but we can start it all over for the future. How does that sound?"
    JC's words sounded like he got them from some sappy movie on the Romance channel, but that's how he always was. I could tell that everything he said come from his heart, and that he meant it all, too. The corners of my mouth slowly crept upward as a timy smile spread over my face. I should have made this call 25 years ago. I knew things could never be the same as they once were, but I had hope we could maybe all become friends once again. "Excellent," I responded. "And JC, thank you." The smile turned into a big, lopsided grin as JC and I began to make up for 25 years of silence.