The truck peeled out of the gravel driveway and raced down the road to Bethlehem. Between the rumbling of the engine and the bumpiness of the ride, Brian couldn’t tell if Nick was breathing or not. He tried feeling his neck for a pulse, but had trouble finding one. Any vibration in his body seemed as likely to be caused by the bouncing of the truck bed as a heartbeat. Only by holding his hand under Nick’s nose until he felt a faint puff of warm air on his fingertips could Brian reassure himself that his friend was still alive.
He didn’t know if Nick could hear him, but he kept talking to him, just in case. “Stay with me, Frack,” he leaned forward to whisper in his ear. A lump rose in his throat when he found himself using a nickname he hadn’t heard in years. Frick and Frack… They had been thick as thieves back in the day. Even now, the mere thought of losing his best friend, his little brother, made Brian’s heart hurt.
Reaching back, he rapped his knuckles on the rear window until the old man slid it open. “Hey, do you have a cell phone that works up here?” Brian called into the cab. “We should let the 911 dispatcher know we’re coming.”
“Nope!” the truck’s driver replied proudly. “Never have, never will - especially not now with that 5G spreading the China virus around the world.”
Brian really did roll his eyes that time. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own phone, praying for a signal. Despite his earlier efforts to conserve his battery, it had dropped to ten percent, and he still had no bars. He tried dialing 911 anyway, but the call didn’t go through. “Do you know how much further we have to drive before I can get a cell signal?” he asked desperately.
“Not a clue,” said the man with a shrug. “I’m going just as fast as I can.”
Brian nodded. He knew what a risk the man was taking in flying down the dark, winding road in a pick-up truck, which probably wouldn’t fare much better than the Range Rover if another large animal crossed its path. But even so, he felt frustrated by their remote location. Nick’s life seemed to be slipping away before Brian’s eyes. He had already lost consciousness, and each passing second brought him closer to death, each precious heartbeat pumping more blood out of his body through the bullet hole in his chest. Despite Brian’s best efforts to staunch the flow, he could feel it soaking through AJ’s sweatshirt, warm and sticky on his palm. How much more blood could Nick afford to lose before his heart stopped beating?
“How’s he doing?” the man wanted to know.He’s dying,
Brian thought desperately, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. “Not good,” he said instead. “We need to get him to the hospital.”
“I’m working on it,” said the man, as he accelerated around a curve. Brian threw one hand out to brace himself, clinging tightly to Nick’s body with the other. “Name’s Richard, by the way,” the man called back to him. “What’s yours?”
“Brian,” he replied, turning to meet the man’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “And his name is Nick.”
Richard gave a brief nod. “So I heard. How do the two of you know each other?”
Brian couldn’t tell if he was interrogating him or just making conversation, trying to take his mind off what was happening to Nick. Assuming a man in Richard’s age range wouldn’t have recognized them as two of the Backstreet Boys, he kept his answer simple: “We’re brothers.”
“Ah, okay,” said Richard, sounding relieved. “For a minute there, I thought you might be a couple of fags.” He flashed a gap-toothed grin in the mirror.
Brian bristled at the slur, his heart beating faster as his face flushed with anger. So what if we were?
he wanted to say, but he bit his tongue, telling himself to ignore it. It didn’t matter in the moment. All that mattered now was Nick.
Keeping one hand pressed firmly over Nick’s wound, he held his phone in the other, watching the battery power dwindle as he waited for bars to appear. It was dying, just like Nick. The red life force was rapidly draining from both of them, and there was nothing Brian could do to stop it.
Nothing except pray.
He began to pray in earnest, begging for strength for Nick and a signal for his phone. He prayed that the man’s truck would make it safely down the mountain and that the ambulance would reach them in time. He prayed for the paramedics who would face the daunting task of keeping Nick alive until they dropped him off at the hospital, and for the doctors and nurses who would take over then. He prayed for AJ and Kevin, who were still waiting to be rescued, and for Howie, who must have felt just as scared and helpless as he did.
One of his prayers was answered when he felt his phone vibrate in his hand. He looked down and saw a single bar on its screen. A weak signal was better than nothing. Brian prayed it would be enough. He dialed 911 again and put the phone to his ear, his heart racing as he listened to it ring.
“911. What’s your emergency?” a woman’s voice answered.
Brian felt his throat tighten and took a deep breath, hoping his voice wouldn’t betray him. “My friend’s been shot,” he said shakily. “The man who shot him called for an ambulance a few minutes ago, but I wanted to let y’all know we’re driving toward Bethlehem to meet it right now.”
“Okay, can you describe your location for me?”
Brian’s mind went blank. With a flood of panic, he realized he had no idea where they were. He didn’t remember the name of the road or even the mountain they were on, and there weren’t any obvious landmarks along their route - no street signs or stores to use as a point of reference. “I-I dunno… hang on.” He thrust his phone through the open window to the old man behind the wheel. “I’ve got 911 again. Tell them where we are.”
As Richard talked to the dispatcher, Brian turned his attention back to Nick. Lying between Brian’s legs, his body looked lifeless. “We’re almost to the ambulance,” he whispered, brushing Nick’s hair back off his forehead. His skin felt clammy and cool. “Stay with me, bro.”
To his amazement, Nick’s eyes fluttered open. “Brian?” he croaked.
“Yeah, buddy,” said Brian, smiling down at him with relief. “I’m right here. How ya feelin’?”
“Bad. I can’t breathe,” Nick complained, bringing his right hand to his chest. “It really hurts…” As he trailed off, Brian heard him take a huge, rasping breath, the air rattling around in his lungs. Then his chest hitched, his breath seeming to catch in his throat as he exhaled, and he began to cough uncontrollably.
Brian watched in horror as frothy pink phlegm foamed from his friend’s lips, flecks of it spraying him in the face. His heart skipped a beat when he realized Nick was coughing up blood. Worried he would choke on it, he grabbed Nick by the shoulders and turned him onto his left side. More blood gushed out of the bullet hole in his chest, as the sweatshirt Brian had been using as a bandage slipped off of it. Brian balled it up again and wedged it between Nick’s body and the bottom of the truck bed, trying to absorb as much of the blood as he could. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle. Nick’s face was getting grayer and grayer as he continued to cough and gag, a geyser of blood erupting out of his mouth.
“Breathe, Nick,” Brian urged him, gripping his shoulder as he held the hoodie tight to his chest. “Just breathe.” There was nothing else he could do but watch and wait, which was a very helpless feeling.
Finally, the coughing fit subsided. “You all right, buddy?” Brian asked in relief, as Nick’s body began to relax.
There was no answer.
“Nick?” Brian’s voice rose as he shook his shoulder, lightly at first, then a little rougher. Nick remained unresponsive. His head flopped around like a heavy rag doll’s as Brian pulled his limp upper body into his arms, cradling him like a child. “C’mon, Frack,” Brian begged, patting the sides of his pale face. “Please…” But Nick’s eyes remained closed, his mouth hanging open. He had lost consciousness again.
A cool breeze whipped through Brian’s curls as he bent down, putting his face close to Nick’s to listen for sounds of breathing. It brought with it an even more beautiful sound: the high-pitched wail of a siren.
Brian’s heart leapt as he straightened up and looked around. “You hear that, Richard?” he asked hoarsely, tears of relief filling his eyes.
“I do,” the truck’s driver confirmed. “It’s getting closer. Good thing, ‘cause I think your phone just died. We got cut off.” He handed Brian his phone, useless now.
“Please just hurry!” Brian urged him as he crammed the phone back into his pocket, still clutching Nick’s lifeless body. He couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. “He needs help now!”
Richard took the next curve too fast. Riding unrestrained in the back of the truck, Brian toppled over. A fresh burst of pain flared up from his broken ankle as he rolled onto his right side, but the rush of pure adrenaline pumping through his body kept him from feeling the full effect of it.
As he pulled himself back up, rearranging Nick in his arms, he saw flashing red and white lights reflecting through the trees. An ambulance was racing up the road toward them.
Richard turned on his hazard lights and pulled over, parking the truck on the side of the road as the ambulance approached. It slowed to a stop in front of them, and two paramedics jumped out. One of them went around to open the back door while the other ran ahead to the truck.
“This the gunshot victim?” she asked.
“Yes - help him, please!” Brian cried. “I think he stopped breathing!”
The woman climbed nimbly over the tailgate and took Nick from his arms. “You need to give us some space to work,” she warned him, as she lay Nick flat on the bottom of the truck bed. Brian scooted back into the corner and watched as she bent over Nick’s body to examine him.
The other paramedic hoisted himself into the truck. “What have we got?”
“White male in his late thirties with what looks like a single GSW to the left chest. I felt a faint pulse, but he’s in respiratory arrest,” replied the female paramedic. “He needs an airway.”
“Get a full set of vitals. I’ll bag him.” The male paramedic opened his medical kit and started taking out equipment. He tilted Nick’s head back and placed an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. Meanwhile, the woman worked around him, cutting off Nick’s blood-soaked t-shirt, covering his wound with a bandage, and attaching pads to his bare chest.
A police car pulled up behind the ambulance, and a man in a brown uniform stepped out. He approached Richard, who was pacing along the roadside, and started asking him questions. “I was just trying to defend myself!” Brian heard Richard exclaim at one point. “The two of them was trespassing on my property, and I thought it was that damn bear that’s been causing trouble ‘round these parts. The second amendment guarantees me the right to have a hunting rifle, so-”
Brian tuned the rest out, turning his attention back to Nick.
“He’s tachy at one-forty and hypotensive with a B.P. of eighty palp,” the female paramedic reported, as she pressed her fingers to the inside of Nick’s wrist.
“He’s lost a lot of blood. He’s in shock,” said her partner, squeezing the bag attached to the oxygen mask on Nick’s face. “We need to get his volume back up before we lose his pulse. Start a large-bore IV in each arm and run in two liters of normal saline.”
The woman knelt next to Nick and inserted an intravenous line into the crook of his elbow. “How’s his breathing?” she asked, as she hooked up an IV bag of clear fluid.
The male paramedic listened to Nick’s chest with a stethoscope as he pumped air into his lungs. “Good breath sounds on the right, but absent on the left,” he said. “Probably a tension pneumo.”
“He needs a needle thoracostomy,” his partner replied. “Let’s get him into the rig, where there’s better light.”
“Wait, what’s happening?” asked Brian, who had only understood about half of what he had heard.
“He has a collapsed lung, caused by a collection of air and blood leaking into his chest,” the female paramedic explained, as she and her partner put Nick onto a stretcher. “We need to do a procedure to relieve the pressure and reinflate his lung so he can breathe better. We’re also giving him fluids to replace the blood he’s lost.”
“Is he gonna make it?”
The medics exchanged glances, their expressions grim. “His condition is critical,” the man admitted to Brian, “but we’re gonna do the best we can to keep him alive until we get him to the hospital.”
Brian’s heart dropped. “Hang on, Nick,” he pleaded desperately, as they strapped Nick’s body to the stretcher. “Your family needs you. The group needs you. The world needs you. Stay with us, bro!” He wasn’t sure if Nick could still hear him, but he knew it might be the last time he got to talk to him. He wanted his words to be encouraging ones.
“Where are you taking him?” asked the police officer, approaching the paramedics.
The two of them looked at each other again. “He needs a Level I trauma center,” the woman said.
The man shook his head. “The nearest one’s over an hour away from here. He’ll never make it. Let’s take him to Littleton; they can at least stabilize him there and then airlift him to Lebanon if they need to.”
As they loaded the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, the officer turned to Brian. “I’m Deputy Smith with the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department. Can you step out of the truck, please, sir? I’d like to talk to you and take your statement now.”
“I would, but I can’t walk,” said Brian, shaking his head. “I hurt my ankle in a car accident.” His heart skipped a beat as he suddenly remembered AJ and Kevin. “There’s two more men further up the mountain who need help. One of them is really sick, and the other one’s hurt bad.”
“What happened?” asked the deputy, his brow creasing in confusion.
Brian hurriedly explained everything he could. He told him about almost hitting the moose in the road as he tried to rush AJ to the hospital in the middle of the night. He recounted how he had climbed up the hill on his hands and knees and crawled down the road until Nick came to his rescue. Then he relayed Nick’s story about Kevin’s fall. “We were just trying to find a phone to call for help, because neither of our phones would work,” he went on. “We were walking up to Richard’s house to knock on the door when Nick tripped over this fence thing he had rigged up in the yard. It made a loud racket, and the next thing I heard was the gun going off.”
“He claims it was an accident,” said Deputy Smith. “I’m going to take him into custody while we conduct our preliminary investigation.”
Brian nodded. He didn’t care what happened to Richard. He was more concerned about Nick, Kevin, and AJ.
“I’ll call for back-up and get a couple more ambulances up here. Sit tight.” The deputy went back to his police cruiser to place the call on his radio. Brian remained in the bed of Richard’s truck, watching as the male paramedic emerged from the back of the ambulance and climbed into the cab. He pulled forward, making a three-point turn in the middle of the road to head back down the mountain.
“Help is on the way,” said the sheriff’s deputy when he came back. “Would you like to ride up the mountain with me and show me where you friends are, or would you rather wait here for another ambulance?”
“I’ll go with you,” Brian replied quickly. The pain in his ankle was nothing compared to what Kevin and AJ must be going through. He had almost become accustomed to it by that point.
Deputy Smith helped him hobble to his police cruiser. As Brian climbed into the passenger seat, he realized Richard was already sitting in the back.
“Your brother gonna be okay?” he asked Brian through the metal barrier that separated the front seats from the back. He sounded subdued and remorseful.
A lump rose in Brian’s throat as he watched the ambulance race away down the winding road with its lights flashing and full siren wailing. He swallowed hard. “God, I hope so.”