My Brother's Keeper by RokofAges75
Story Notes:
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1. Chapter 1 by RokofAges75

2. Chapter 2 by RokofAges75

3. Chapter 3 by RokofAges75

4. Chapter 4 by RokofAges75

5. Chapter 5 by RokofAges75

6. Chapter 6 by RokofAges75

7. Chapter 7 by RokofAges75

8. Chapter 8 by RokofAges75

9. Chapter 9 by RokofAges75

10. Chapter 10 by RokofAges75

11. Chapter 11 by RokofAges75

12. Chapter 12 by RokofAges75

13. Chapter 13 by RokofAges75

14. Chapter 14 by RokofAges75

15. Chapter 15 by RokofAges75

16. Chapter 16 by RokofAges75

17. Chapter 17 by RokofAges75

18. Chapter 18 by RokofAges75

19. Chapter 19 by RokofAges75

20. Chapter 20 by RokofAges75

21. Chapter 21 by RokofAges75

Chapter 1 by RokofAges75
Kevin

The last day of my life, as I knew it, also happened to be the last day of the year.

I guess everyone gets a little reflective on New Year’s Eve, and I was no exception. As I sat at the kitchen island, spooning pureed squash into my son Mason’s mouth, I thought about how much my life had changed over the past year. Exactly one year earlier, my wife Kristin and I had announced the news of our first pregnancy to our closest friends and family. She was barely finished with her first trimester then, and now our baby boy was almost six months old. I couldn’t believe it. Time seemed to be flying by even faster than it had before I’d become a father.

Before I’d become a father, I had been a Backstreet Boy. For thirteen years, I sang, danced, and toured the world with four guys who were like the little brothers I’d never had: Brian, Howie, AJ, and Nick. It had been a dream come true… until it wasn’t. When I realized I was no longer living the dream, but dreading the next tour, I knew my time with the group needed to come to an end. After six years of marriage, Kristin and I were ready to start a family, and I wanted to be the kind of father who was present and involved with his children, like my own dad had been, not an absent one who was always away for work. Eventually, I also wanted to pursue other opportunities in the entertainment business, but at my own pace, with no pressure from four other guys or our fans. I saw myself recording solo music, returning to the Broadway stage, maybe even acting in films someday. But for now, I was perfectly happy playing my dual role as husband and father. There were days when I missed being a Backstreet Boy, but on that particular evening, I was enjoying just being a family man instead.

“Here comes the plane!” I exclaimed, making Mason’s spoon zig and zag through the air before zooming into his mouth. Half of the squash foamed out the sides of his mouth as he slapped his chubby hands against the tray of his high chair, giggling with delight.

“Will you zip me up, hon?”

I looked up to see my wife Kristin standing in the doorway. She was wearing a long-sleeved, gold dress that stopped a few inches above her knees, showing off her long, dancer's legs. I let out a low whistle of admiration. “Sexy Mama,” I said.

Kristin smiled and blushed, ducking her head a little so that a lock of her long, blonde hair fell in front of her face. “You don’t think it’s too much?” she asked, resting her hand lightly on her cleavage, which was accented nicely by the dress’s plunging neckline.

I shook my head. “No way. If you got it, flaunt it, baby - and you definitely got it. No one would ever be able to tell you had a baby six months ago.”

She laughed. “Well, I’m only gonna have boobs this big for a few more months until Mason’s weaned, so I guess I might as well show ‘em off while I can, huh?”

“That’s right,” I agreed, grinning at her as I rose from my chair.

She turned around, holding up her hair so I could fasten her zipper. Once I’d caught a whiff of her perfume, I couldn’t resist brushing my lips against her back, planting a soft kiss between her shoulder blades before I pulled the pieces of shimmery fabric together. Goosebumps rose on her skin as I slowly zipped up the dress. It fit her like a glove.

“Thanks, babe,” she said, turning back around. “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to tonight.”

I was taking her out for New Year’s Eve - a fancy dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in L.A., followed by dancing and drinks with some friends at a club downtown. It was one of the first real dates we’d been on since Mason was born, and we were both excited to ring in the new year with some much-needed “Mommy/Daddy” time.

“Me too,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her waist. Looking into her brown eyes, I felt like the luckiest man alive. My wife was absolutely beautiful, both inside and out, and the life we’d created together was as perfect as life could possibly be. She and Mason meant the world to me.

Kristin put her arms around me, too, and we began to rock back and forth, at ease in each other’s embrace. “Someday...” I sang softly in her ear, rotating her slowly on the spot, “when I’m awfully low… and the world is cold… I will feel a glow just thinking of you… and the way you look tonight.”

Smiling, she slipped her hand into mine, and I moved my other hand to her back, as we danced around the kitchen. It was times like these that my training as a ballroom instructor and her years as a professional dancer paid off. Together, the two of us were a perfect match. “Yes, you’re lovely…” I went on, spinning her out and reeling her back in again, “with your smile so warm… and your cheeks so soft… There is nothing for me but to love you… and the way you look tonight.” I turned her under my arm, then tipped her backwards and kissed her long and deeply.

“Our son is watching,” she whispered against my lips.

I just laughed. “So what? Let him watch,” I said and kissed her again.

Just then, the intercom connected to our home security system buzzed, signaling that someone was waiting outside the front gate. “That’ll be the babysitter,” said Kristin, hurrying to answer it. We had hired Rachel, the daughter of a friend from the music business, to watch Mason that night. While Kristin let her in and went over his bedtime routine, I retreated back to our bedroom to get dressed for the evening. By the time I was done, Rachel had taken over feeding Mason the rest of his dinner, and Kristin was ready to go.

“We should be back by two at the latest,” she told Rachel, tucking her clutch under her arm as I put my wallet in my back pocket and picked up my car keys. “Call if you need anything.”

“Sure,” said Rachel, smiling. “You guys have a good time.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will,” I replied, winking at my wife. We both kissed Mason goodbye and left quickly, before either he or Kristin could get upset. Neither of us were used to leaving him, but I knew it would be harder on her than me.

Sure enough, as we climbed into my car, I saw Kristin swipe at her eyes. “Aww, honey,” I said, squeezing her leg. “He’ll be just fine, so don’t you worry now. It’s New Year’s Eve, and you and I are gonna have fun tonight.”

She nodded. “I know,” she said with a tearful smile. “I just feel bad leaving before he goes to bed. I’ve never not been there to rock him to sleep.”

“You’ll be there when he wakes up in the morning,” I replied, leaning over to kiss her forehead before I started the car. “Now, come on… let’s go ring in the new year.”

***


“Three… two… one… Happy New Year!” the crowd around us chanted, as the clock struck midnight on the West Coast. Kristin and I kissed, while confetti rained down on us. It was the perfect start to a new year.

“Here’s to 2008!” I toasted her, holding up my flute of champagne.

“Happy New Year, baby!” she shouted back, clinking her glass against mine. There was confetti caught in her hair. Looking down, I saw some stuck in her cleavage as well. She saw where I was looking and laughed as she glanced down at herself. “I can’t wait to take this dress off!” she announced, fishing a piece of confetti out from between her breasts and flicking it away.

“I can’t wait to take it off either,” I replied, waggling my eyebrows at her.

She gave me a seductive smile, raising hers. “You ready to go?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, if you are.”

She nodded. “Let’s go.” She drained her glass in one, long swallow, then set it down and slipped her hand into mine. We said goodbye to our friends as we wove our way toward the exit of the crowded club, squeezing through the throngs of partygoers.

It was a relief to get outside and feel fresh, cool air. I handed my valet ticket to the parking attendant and waited with Kristin on the curb for our car to be brought around. She leaned against me, her arm around my waist, slightly unsteady in her high heels. Other than a sip of champagne at midnight, I had stopped drinking over an hour ago, wanting to make sure I was in decent shape to drive us home. My head was clear when I took the keys from the valet and climbed behind the wheel.

I turned on the radio and tuned it to an R&B station - baby-making music, my wife called it - as we crawled through traffic. Keeping one hand on the wheel, I let my other hand drift over to Kristin’s leg. Her freshly-shaven skin felt as soft and smooth as silk. She put her hand on top of mine and held it there.

Once we were out of downtown L.A. and onto the freeway, the traffic thinned out so I could finally go the speed limit. “When we get home, I’m gonna kiss every inch of your body,” I told Kristin, taking the exit that would lead us there.

“Even my feet?” she asked, giggling. I always gave her a hard time about her big feet and long toes, which had taken all kinds of abuse during her dance career.

“Every inch,” I repeated, “from head to toe… so, yes, even your feet.”

“You sure about that?” she teased, taking off one of her heels and lifting her leg into the air. She propped her bare foot up on the dashboard and wiggled her toes, taunting me.

I rolled my eyes at her. “Real classy, Kristin,” I said, though I couldn’t help grinning. “Now put that thing down before-”

As Kristin took her foot off the dash, she suddenly gasped. My head was turned toward her, so I didn’t see what she had until it was too late. A pair of headlights was already upon us when I heard her scream, “Kevin, watch-!” Her last words were cut short by the ear-splitting sound of crunching metal and shattered glass, as my world imploded.

***


Chapter 2 by RokofAges75
Nick

There’s no better place to party on New Year’s Eve than Vegas, baby! I spent the last few hours of 2007 playing a gig with the Boys at Body English, this cool nightclub inside the Hard Rock Hotel, not far from The Strip.

It was one of the first times we’d performed a full set as a foursome, and even though it had been over a year since Kevin quit the band, his absence was felt. It was weird hearing Howie sing all his solos, and it just felt like something was missing from our sound, which wasn’t as rich without the lowest voice in our five-part - now four-part - harmony. But if the fans noticed, they didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was just the fact that it was New Year’s Eve and everyone was in a good mood, but they wouldn’t stop screaming for us, even after we left the stage. You’d have thought it was still 1998, not about to be 2008.

We finished our set before midnight so we could ring in the new year with the rest of the club. By one, all the other guys had gone back up to their rooms, but I was still having a damn good time downstairs. I’d lost count of how many drinks I’d had or how many different hot girls I’d danced with - not that it mattered much to me. The one who was hanging all over me at the moment was blonde, but a little older-looking than I liked. I was looking for a good excuse to get rid of her when I felt my phone vibrating in my back pocket.

I reached around, pulled it out, and glanced at the screen, surprised to see that the Boys had been blowing up my phone. Somehow, I had two missed calls - one from Brian, the other from Howie - and a text message from AJ. Nick, get your ass up here, it said. I frowned. Leave it to my “big brothers” to try and cut me off, like I was still some little kid with a curfew. Who were they to tell me what to do? I was a grown-ass man, and I did whatever I damn well pleased. If I wanted to stay out and party all night, I would. It was New Year’s Eve, for fuck’s sake.

Fuck u, im havin fun, I sent back, but kept my phone in my hand as I continued to half-ass dance with the blonde cougar who had her arms around me. I dared AJ to start giving me shit about my drinking - as if he hadn’t done way more than his fair share of it back in the day. Just because he was sober now didn’t mean he had the right to act all self-righteous about it. Hell, he was the one who’d introduced me to drugs and alcohol in the first place, so who was he to judge?

But the response I got from him a few seconds later wasn’t judgmental. It just sounded serious. Nick, NOW! 911!

My eyes narrowed as I stared at the message. I knew 911 meant an emergency, but what could be so urgent in the middle of the night? The new year had just begun; nothing that bad could have happened already, could it?

Whats wrong? I asked AJ, not ready to go running up to his room just yet. For all I knew, this was just a ploy to get me to leave the party.

“Are you going to pay any attention to me?” pouted the woman I was dancing with.

“Apparently not,” I said, shaking her off me as I saw my bodyguard Q approaching. I could tell by the look on his face that he was about to tell me it was time to leave; they must have been texting him, too.

Sure enough, Q leaned over and shouted into my ear, “Time to go, Nick. They need you upstairs, right now.”

The woman didn’t seem to be able to take a hint, so I added, “Sorry, but I gotta go see what the guys want,” and waved my phone in front of her face.

She frowned, the lines in her forehead making her look even older. “Whatever, asshole.”

“Happy new year to you, too… bitch,” I replied, muttering that last part under my breath as I walked away, accompanied by Q. Once we were outside the club and could hear each other without shouting over the music, I stopped and turned to him. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?”

“I dunno, man, but something must’ve happened. Howie said we’re driving back to L.A. tonight.”

“Oh, Howie said, huh? I didn’t realize Howie was the one making all the decisions around here,” I replied sarcastically. “Why the fuck would I wanna drive to L.A. anyway? I don’t even live there anymore.”

In an effort to better myself, I had sold my place in Los Angeles and bought a house in Franklin, Tennessee, far away from all the temptations that kept getting the best of me. I had flown into Vegas from Nashville and had no intention of going back to L.A. until I absolutely had to for work. Rehearsals for our upcoming Unbreakable tour didn’t start for another two weeks.

“I dunno, man,” Q repeated. “Let’s just go find out what’s up.”

He led me to the nearest elevator, and we went up to the floor where the Hard Rock had reserved us a block of rooms. Howie, Brian, and AJ were all waiting for us outside mine. When I saw the looks on their faces, my anger faded away, and I knew that whatever had happened, it was bad. Really bad.

“What’s going on?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

But no one would tell me anything out in the hallway. “Where’s your room key?” Howie demanded. Wordlessly, I fumbled with my wallet until I finally found the key card and stuck it into the slot on the door. The lock clicked open, and we all went inside. Normally, I could count on one of them to comment on the dirty clothes and empty food containers lying around everywhere, but nobody said a thing about my messy room.

As soon as the door slammed shut, Brian turned to me and said, “I got a call from my Aunt Ann - Kevin’s mom - a few minutes ago. Kevin and Kristin were involved in a bad car accident in L.A. tonight.”

My stomach dropped, and my heart started hammering hard against my ribcage. “How bad?” I whispered, my throat suddenly as dry as the desert outside.

Brian shook his head. I could tell by the redness around his eyes that he’d been crying, and I tried to brace myself for what I thought he was going to say next: that Kevin and his wife had been killed in the crash. But instead, Brian continued, “The hospital wouldn’t tell her much over the phone, just that it was serious and someone should get there as soon as possible. She can’t get a flight out of Kentucky until the airport opens in the morning, so I’m gonna rent a car and drive there tonight.”

“We’re all going,” Howie added, and AJ nodded. “You’ll come with us, won’t you?” They both gave me hard looks, as if daring me to say no.

“Yeah, of course,” I agreed without a second thought. Kevin was like my big brother, like all of them were. If he needed me - if they needed me - then I would be there.

“Jenn’s calling the car rental company right now. Can you be ready to leave in fifteen minutes?”

I looked around my messy room again, feeling overwhelmed. “Uh, yeah… sure.”

“I’ll help you pack,” AJ offered. “I already shoved all my shit back into my suitcase.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied. As the other guys returned to their own rooms to get ready to go, AJ and I picked up around mine. He grabbed every piece of clothing I’d left laying around and tossed it to me to put in my luggage.

“You need to invest in a laundry bag, dude,” he said, giving me a look of disgust as he lifted a pair of my dirty underwear with his thumb and forefinger, trying to touch as little of the fabric as possible. “Since when do you even wear undies? What happened to going commando?”

“Chafing. Chafing happened,” I said, ducking out of the way as he whipped them at my head.

Chuckling, AJ went into the bathroom.

“Wait!” I called, suddenly remembering what I’d left on the counter. “I’ll clean up in there!”

AJ didn’t say anything until he walked back out a few seconds later. “Too late, Prick,” he replied, holding up a plastic baggie in each of his hands. One contained a small amount of white powder; the other, an array of colorful pills. “I already found your stash.”

My heart sank as I heard the disappointment in his voice and saw the look of defeat on his face. I hung my head, ashamed, as he continued, “Damn it, Nick, I thought you quit this shit!”

“I did!” I cried. “It’s not like I do it all the time, just… you know, sometimes, when I’m out partying. It’s like how some people only smoke when they drink.” I hesitated. “You’re not gonna tell the other guys, are you? Please, AJ… What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?” I knew I sounded pathetic, but I didn’t care. As far as Brian and Howie knew, I had cleaned up my act over the past few months. They had enough to worry about without finding out I was still using. I didn’t want them to see what a mess I was.

AJ shook his head. “Now’s not the time for that.” At least we agreed on that much. “We’ll talk about it later.”

He flushed my drugs down the toilet while I finished packing my bag. Neither of us spoke again until we were out in the hall with the others. “Do you think Kev’s gonna be okay?” I asked him quietly, as we walked down the hallway, wheeling our luggage along with us.

“He better be,” was all AJ would say back.

***


Chapter 3 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I have no memory of the minutes immediately following the crash. I must have passed out at some point, but I couldn’t have been out for long. When I came to, I was still in the car. I could tell some time had passed, though; there were flashing lights and rescue workers all around me.

The first thing I remember saying was my wife’s name. “Kristin?” I asked, trying to turn my head toward her. That was when I realized I was wearing a neck brace, which was strapped on so tight, it made it impossible for me to move my head from side to side. Shockwaves of pain radiated up and down my spine, from the base of my skull to a spot between my shoulder blades, but I fought through it, focused on making sure Kristin was okay.

I tried to reach over to the passenger seat, wanting to know if she was still there, but my arm wouldn’t move. I thought it must be broken, but wondered why it didn’t hurt. That was the least of my worries at that moment, though; I was more concerned about my wife.

“Kristin? Kristin!” I kept calling her frantically, but there was no response. I couldn’t even tell if she was still in the car with me. Maybe they’d taken her out already, I told myself. The rescue workers must have known that, had I been conscious when they’d arrived, I would have told them to help her first, anyway.

“Sir, don’t try to move,” one of them said, when he realized I was awake. “We’re gonna get you out of here; just sit tight until then.”

I wished I could see what was going on. I could hear the mechanical rumble of an engine in the background and the creaking, scraping, crunching sounds of metal being bent and broken nearby. My heart began to race as I realized what was happening. My father had worked as a volunteer firefighter for a time when I was a kid, and I remembered seeing his squad do a demonstration with the Jaws of Life - still pretty new technology at that time. I knew the damage must have been bad if they were using it now to extract me from the car.

“Are you in any pain, sir?” asked a voice on my right - a paramedic, I assumed.

“My head and neck hurt,” I admitted, “but otherwise, no.” The brace made it hard to talk; my chin kept bumping against the top of it when I opened my mouth, and I felt like it was choking me. “Please, can you tell me where my wife is? Is she okay?”

“She’s in good hands,” replied the paramedic. “They’re working on her now. I want to make sure you’re okay. Can you tell me your name?”

“Kevin… Kevin Richardson,” I said, wondering if she would recognize it.

If she did, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Do you know where you are, Kevin?”

“In the car…” I tried to remember what street I’d been driving on. “...somewhere on La Cienega?”

“Very good. How about today’s date?”

I thought for a second. “It’s New Year’s Day… January first.”

“That’s right. Not the best way to ring in the new year, is it?” she said sympathetically. “Do you remember what happened?”

Whatever had happened, it had happened fast. All I remembered was the headlights suddenly appearing in my peripheral vision. “I… I don’t know. My wife and I were driving home, and this car came out of nowhere and hit us.” I could still hear Kristin’s in my head, though I heard nothing from her now. “My wife Kristin - is she gonna be okay?” I asked.

“The other team’s taking care of her,” the paramedic tried to reassure me. “Are you having any trouble breathing?”

“No, but... this brace is pretty tight. Can’t you take it off? Or at least loosen it a little?”

“Sorry, but no, sir. We need to stabilize your neck until they can assess your injuries at the hospital.”

“Okay.” I tried to keep myself calm, knowing it would do no good to panic, but it was hard not to when I felt so completely helpless. All I wanted was to see my wife and make sure she was okay, but I couldn’t even move.

Eventually, the firefighters finished taking the driver’s side door off, and the paramedics took over from there. They maneuvered me carefully onto a backboard and slid that onto a stretcher, strapping me down so that I was still immobilized. I couldn’t see anything but their serious-looking faces leaning over me and, beyond that, the black sky above. I felt a cool breeze on my face before they whisked me into the back of an ambulance, but below my neck… nothing. The rest of my body felt totally numb.

That was when the panic really started to set in. This is bad, I thought, listening to the sirens wail as we sped away. This is really bad.

The rest of the ambulance ride was a blur. I remember the paramedics asking me more questions as they poked and prodded. “Can you squeeze my hand, Kevin? Can you wiggle your toes?” I tried my best to follow their commands, but I couldn’t tell if my fingers and toes were cooperating. “Kevin, I’m going to start an IV in your arm,” one of them said at some point. “You may feel a little prick.” But I never felt a thing.

Before I knew it, I was being lifted out of the ambulance at Cedars-Sinai. I caught another glimpse of the night sky overhead, which was quickly replaced by speckled white ceiling tiles. I watched the tiles fly by as I was wheeled down a hallway and into a room with bright, fluorescent lights, where a team of people transferred me to a padded table. They tried to be as gentle as possible, but I felt a jolt of pain at the base of my neck whenever I was jostled.

“Mr. Richardson, my name is Dr. Chapman, and I’m going to be taking care of you tonight.” The voice belonged to a brunette woman whose face appeared in front of my eyes.

“You can call me Kevin,” I told her, as a couple of nurses began cutting off my clothes. Kristin bought me this shirt, I thought, watching one of them remove the shredded remnants of my black Gucci button-down. “Do you know if my wife was brought here too? Her name’s Kristin… Kristin Richardson.”

“I’m not sure, but one of us will check for you when we’re done here.” The doctor slipped a stethoscope into her ears. “Try not to talk right now.” I could feel some light pressure as she placed the round end of her stethoscope on my bare chest, but it wasn’t cold like I’d expected it to be. I couldn’t stand not being able to feel or move parts of my body, not knowing if my apparent paralysis would be permanent or not.

“I can barely feel that,” I blurted out, my throat tightening with fresh panic. “Please… is my neck broken? Am I gonna be paralyzed?”

Dr. Chapman had a poker face; it didn’t give away much. “Your symptoms suggest an injury to your spine, but we won’t know how serious it is until we run some tests. Try to relax and take a deep breath for me,” she replied, as she listened to my lungs. I wondered how she was able to hear anything over the sound of my heart hammering as hard as it seemed to be. I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears, fast and frantic. My thoughts were racing, too, but I tried to follow her directions and focus on my breathing. “Good,” the doctor said, sliding her stethoscope from one side of my chest to the other. “Another deep breath in… and out.”

Finding it difficult to inhale enough air to fill my lungs, I felt increasingly claustrophobic. The rigid collar around my neck seemed to be getting tighter, slowly strangling me by constricting my airway. “Can you please take this off me?” I begged. “It’s really uncomfortable.” I tried to reach toward it, but nothing happened. I couldn’t even feel my hands, let alone move them.

“Not yet; I need to finish examining you first.” She repositioned the stethoscope again, pressing one of her gloved hands against my stomach. I could see her touching me, but I couldn’t feel it. “Can you cough for me, please?”

I let out a weak cough.

“Oh, come on, you can do better than that.” She gave me a crooked grin. “Nice big cough now.”

I tried again, but it wasn’t much better. Lying flat on my back, I couldn’t summon the strength I needed to cough any harder.

“Are you experiencing any shortness of breath?”

“Yeah… a little bit,” I admitted.

Dr. Chapman frowned as she replaced the stethoscope around her neck. “There could be some swelling around your spinal cord that’s compressing the part that controls the muscles you use to breathe. We’ll have to keep a close eye on your breathing. If it gets worse, we may have to put you on a ventilator, which means you won’t be able to talk, at least temporarily. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” I whispered, terrified at the thought of them putting a tube down my throat.

“Is there anyone you want us to call, Kevin?” one of the nurses asked.

I thought quickly. They couldn’t call Kristin, not if she was already at the hospital. I didn’t have any other family in California, unless you counted the fellas, and if I remembered correctly, they were performing in Vegas for New Year’s Eve. “My mom,” I said finally. “Ann Richardson. Her number’s in my phone. She lives in Kentucky.”

“Okay, we can call your mom. Anyone else? Maybe someone close by?”

Mason’s face suddenly popped into my mind. “My son’s babysitter. Her name’s Rachel… Rachel Bauman. Someone needs to let her know what happened and tell her we won’t be home tonight, so she needs to stay with Mason until morning.” My voice shook as I imagined our six-month-old waking up and wondering where we were. We had never left him for longer than a few hours.

“Rachel Bauman,” the nurse repeated, writing the name in her notes. “And what’s the best number to reach Rachel at?”

“I dunno, my wife has her number. You’ll have to check with her - or you can call the landline.” I rattled off our home phone number for her to write down.

“Got it,” said the nurse, offering me a reassuring smile. “I’ll go give your mom and Rachel a call right now.”

“Thanks.” I closed my eyes to hide the tears that had welled in them, wishing Kristin were there with me. I wasn’t used to being in the hospital without her by my side. She had seen me through every major illness and accident I’d had in the fifteen years we’d been together: appendicitis… knee surgery… a dislocated shoulder… but nothing as bad as this. What if she’s hurt worse? I wondered, realizing she was probably just as afraid as I was and wishing I was with her, too. I sent up a silent prayer for God to give her strength and watch over her while we were apart.

Meanwhile, I could hear the medical staff talking to each other as they moved around my bed, attaching monitors, administering oxygen and medication, taking blood samples and X-rays… but I still couldn’t feel most of what they were doing to me. The doctor asked me all kinds of questions as she worked her way down my body, poking and prodding every part of it. Could I feel this? Could I move that?

“No,” I kept answering, getting more and more frustrated on top of my concern for Kristin. “I can’t.” The tears had started to trickle down my cheeks. I couldn’t even reach up to wipe them away, but at least I could feel them, wet and sticky on my skin.

“Okay, Kevin, we’re going to roll you onto your side now and get you off this spine board,” Dr. Chapman said, resting her hand on my right shoulder. Its warm weight was reassuring. Working together, she and her team of nurses carefully turned me until I was lying on my left side. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but at least I could see something besides the ceiling.

As the doctor examined my back side, I stared straight across the room. There was a pair of sliding doors that connected to the next room. They were closed, but I could see through the glass. There was a woman lying on the bed, a woman with blonde hair.

“Kristin!” I cried.

“Let us take care of you, Kevin. I promise, we’ll try to find out your wife’s condition as soon as we finish examining you,” said Dr. Chapman. She didn’t understand.

“No - the woman in the next room is my wife! Kristin!” I called out again. But there was no indication Kristin could hear me. She was lying flat on her back with her eyes closed, asleep or unconscious. Her room looked a lot less crowded than mine; I could only see one nurse near her bed, writing notes on a clipboard.

“I’ll go check on her,” offered one of the nurses who had been helping me. “Be right back.” She went next door and spoke briefly with the other nurse, who glanced up at me through the glass. I couldn’t read her expression.

When my nurse came back, she knelt down on the floor in front of me so I could see her face clearly. “Kevin, I need to talk to you about Kristin,” she said. I could tell by her tone that it wasn’t good news, but I still felt blindsided by her next words. “She was found unresponsive at the scene of the accident. The ambulance crew and our trauma team here at the hospital tried everything they could to resuscitate her, but her injuries were too severe. She died about twenty minutes ago. I’m so sorry.”

I stared at the nurse in disbelief for a few seconds, struggling to process what she had told me. Then my eyes shifted back to my wife, lying on the bed in the room behind her. From my vantage point, she still looked like she was sleeping. I didn’t see any blood or bruising, nothing to indicate she had been seriously injured. Kristin couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be.

“Would you like to see her?” the nurse asked sympathetically.

I tried to nod, but the tight neck brace made it impossible to move my head. “Yeah,” I managed to say, though my mouth had gone dry.

She went back into the other room and talked with the nurse who had been taking care of Kristin. Together, they wheeled my wife’s bed through the sliding doors and brought it alongside mine.

“Baby…” I whispered, taking in the sight of her with fresh tears in my eyes. Kristin’s pale white face was arranged in a blank, peaceful expression, but up close, I could tell she wasn’t just sleeping. There was a breathing tube protruding from her mouth and pink streaks near her hairline, where the nurse had apparently tried to wash off the blood. A plain white sheet had been pulled up over her body and tucked neatly beneath her chin. I wondered what other injuries it was hiding, but decided I didn’t want to know.

I wished I could reach out and touch her, press my palm to her cheek, run my fingers through her hair one last time. But my hands had been rendered useless. All I could do was lie there like a log and look at her, too choked up to even talk. The longer I looked, the more I began to realize that my life, as I had known it, was over. My wife was gone. My son would grow up without a mother. And I might never walk again.

In one terrifying moment, my world had been forever changed.

***


Chapter 4 by RokofAges75
Nick

We made it to L.A. around sunrise. From Sin City to the City of Angels, I thought as we merged onto the Santa Monica Freeway, which led to my old stomping grounds. The irony made me snort to myself; I’d been anything but angelic when I lived in Los Angeles.

AJ was snoring next to me in the back seat while our manager, Jenn, drove. Q was riding shotgun and struggling to stay awake; his head kept bobbing up and down as he nodded off, then woke with a jerk. It would have been funny if I wasn’t so worried about Kevin and Kristin. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all.

I’d tried texting Kevin’s phone a couple of times, but never got a response. Not a good sign. Even after he’d left the group, Kevin had always been good about keeping in touch - better than I was, anyway. Of all my friends, he was the one I could always count on to be there when I needed him. The fact that it had been five hours since we’d left Vegas and I still hadn’t heard from him was really freaking me out. So when I finally heard my phone buzz, my heart leaped in my chest.

I looked down at it and was disappointed to see it was just a text from Brian. He and his wife Leighanne were riding with the newlyweds, Howie and Leigh, in a different car - the couples car, I’d been calling it. Just making sure y’all know to go to Cedars-Sinai, his message said.

“Yo, Jenn, you know we’re going to Cedars-Sinai, right?” I asked.

“Yup. That’s where I’m heading,” Jenn replied.

We know, I texted Brian. Any updates?

Haven’t heard anything, he sent back. I sighed.

Beside me, AJ sat up straight and smacked his lips. “We there yet?” he muttered.

I looked over at him. He had dark circles under his eyes and drool crusted at the corners of his mouth. “Almost.”

We took the exit leading to La Cienega Boulevard. It wasn’t until later that I learned we drove right by the scene of the crash without realizing it, though it had pretty much been cleaned up by that point.

When we got to the hospital campus, Jenn handed over the keys to the valet to park the car while we went inside the main building. It took us a while to find the emergency department, but eventually, we met up with Brian, Howie, and their wives there.

“Have you heard anything yet?” I asked, wondering how long they’d been there.

Brian shook his head. “I asked the woman at the front desk, and she said to wait here and that someone would come to talk to us soon.”

“Well, did she at least say what kind of condition they’re in?”

He shook his head again. “She wouldn’t tell me anything.”

I sighed as I slumped into a seat beside Howie. AJ started pacing up and down the hallway, while Q stood guard, ready to stop anyone who tried to approach us. Luckily, the emergency room wasn’t crowded at that hour, and the few people who were hanging around seemed too preoccupied with their own problems to pay any attention to us.

We sat there for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few minutes. Finally, a heavyset woman in a white coat came over and asked, “Are you here for Mr. Richardson?”

“Yes,” said Brian, jumping up. Q moved out of the way as he stepped forward, sticking out his hand. “I’m his cousin, Brian.”

“I’ve known him all my life,” I added in my head. It was what Kevin always used to say when he talked about Brian. Since Brian was the only one who was actually related to Kevin, he’d become our unofficial spokesperson.

“I’m Dr. Chapman,” the woman introduced herself, as she shook Brian’s hand. “I’m the attending physician who treated Kevin when he was brought in. Why don’t we go somewhere more private to talk?”

No one spoke as she took us to a small room with a couch and some chairs in it. “Would you like to sit down?” she asked, motioning to the chairs. I felt sick to my stomach as I followed the others’ lead, squeezing myself onto the couch with Howie and Leigh. I didn’t have much experience with hospitals, but even I could tell the news wasn’t going to be good. Why else wouldn’t she just talk to us in the hallway and then take us straight to see Kevin?

AJ seemed to be thinking along the same lines as me. “Is Kevin dead?” he asked bluntly. All the air seemed to be sucked out of the room as everyone took a sharp breath, but then we were silent, watching the doctor and waiting for her to answer.

“No, Kevin is alive,” she said, and a collective sigh of relief echoed around the room, with all of us exhaling at the same time. I could tell there was going to a “but,” though, and it came in her next sentence. “But his condition is very serious. What do you know about the accident?”

Brian shook his head. “Not much. I talked to my aunt - his mom - and all she’d been told was that it was bad. She’s flying in from Kentucky; she should be here in a few hours. I’m representing the family until then.”

Dr. Chapman nodded. “From what I understand, Kevin’s car was T-boned by another vehicle on his side. He sustained a concussion and a serious spinal injury in the crash.”

“How serious?” Brian asked. “I take it we’re not just talking about whiplash or something, are we?”

“I wish that were the case,” she replied, “but I’m afraid it’s worse than that. The scans we took show that Kevin fractured several vertebrae in his neck, which caused damage to his spinal cord. We may not know the full extent of his injury for several days, due to the swelling, but from what I was able to assess while he was here in the ER, it doesn’t look promising. He had no sensation or motor function below the level of injury, which means he’ll probably be paralyzed from the chest down.”

The doctor paused there, giving us all time to process what she’d just said. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around it. Paralyzed? I tried picturing Kevin in a wheelchair, unable to move, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. Kevin was one of the strongest, most active people I knew; there was no way he could be paralyzed. No fucking way.

We all sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds, until Dr. Chapman said, “The good news is that there were no signs of internal bleeding or other life-threatening injuries. He’s not out of the woods yet, but once his spine is stabilized, he’ll at least be on the road to recovery.” She paused. “Do you have any questions?”

“Can we see him?” Howie asked quietly.

“Of course. He’s been admitted to the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit. I’ll have one of our social workers escort you there.”

“Wait… what about his wife, Kristin?” I had been so focused on Kevin, I’d almost forgotten that Kristin had been hurt, too. Leighanne’s question brought her back into the forefront of my mind. “We heard she was in the accident, too. Where is she?”

The doctor seemed to hesitate, taking an audible breath before she answered. “I didn’t personally treat Mrs. Richardson, but I was told her injuries were very severe. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive them. She died early this morning.”

I guess I sort of knew as soon as she started talking about Kristin in the past tense what she was going to say, but it was still a shock to hear the actual words. My heart sank into my stomach. I felt like I was going to throw up at any second.

Leighanne looked like she might throw up, too. She gasped out loud, clapping her hands over her mouth. Brian put his arm around her and pulled her to his side, but his eyes never left the doctor’s face. He stared at her, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Chapman added, almost automatically. It made me wonder how many times a day she had to deliver that kind of news. She didn’t even seem affected by it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Howie hug Leigh a little closer, too, while across the room, AJ’s head dropped into his hands. We had all known Kristin just about as long as we’d known Kevin. They’d dated off and on since the beginning of the Backstreet Boys, so she had always been around, just another part of the Backstreet family. I was sure we - the four of us guys, anyway - were all thinking about Kevin as much as Kristin, though. We may have lost a member of the family, but he had lost the love of his life. I had no idea what it was like to love a woman so much, you wanted to spend the rest of your life with her, but I knew Kevin felt that way about Kristin. I couldn’t imagine how devastated he had to be. That was what killed me the most.

“Does Kevin know?” Howie asked, wiping his eyes. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe Kevin didn’t even know his wife was dead yet.

The doctor nodded. “He knows. He was able to spend some time with her and say goodbye before they took him upstairs.

“What about Kristin’s family?” Brian wanted to know. “Has anyone called them?”

“Yes, I believe they’re on their way.”

Kristin was from Kansas, where her parents and siblings still lived. Like Kevin’s family in Kentucky, they were far away and wouldn’t be able to get to L.A. for at least a few more hours. Until then, it was just us.

Dr. Chapman brought in a social worker to answer any other questions we had and take us up to the eighth floor to see Kevin in the ICU. We could only visit two at a time, she told us, so we let Brian and Leighanne go in first.

“How is he?” we all wanted to know when they came back to the waiting room.

“As well as can be expected under the circumstances,” said Brian with a shrug. “He’s pretty doped up on pain meds, but he was awake and talking at least.”

That was slightly encouraging to hear, but in some ways, it would have been easier if Kevin were unconscious. I got that nervous, nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach again when I imagined trying to carry on a conversation with him. What would I even say? Sorry your wife’s dead? Sorry you’re paralyzed? I wondered what Brian had told him. He was a lot better at talking his way through an uncomfortable situation than I was. I always ended up putting my foot in my mouth and making a fool of myself. I’ve never been good with words - not that there were any words that would make Kevin feel better.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see Kevin in that condition, but after Howie and Leigh had taken their turn, AJ looked at me and said, “Come on, Nick, we’re up,” which left me no choice but to go with him.

A nurse buzzed us into the unit. As we walked past the patient cubicles, I couldn’t help but peek inside. Every person I saw lying in bed was surrounded by a lot of monitors and scary-looking equipment. But somehow, I still couldn’t imagine Kevin looking that way. The whole scene felt surreal, like it was part of a dream, a nightmare. It didn't feel real. How could Kevin be hurt badly enough to end up here? How could Kristin be dead?

I thought back to the last time I had seen them, at Howie’s wedding reception in Orlando a few weeks ago. We’d been seated at the same table, and Kevin and Kristin had brought the baby. I had expected Kevin to be this super neurotic helicopter parent, but he was totally chill, like he didn’t have a worry in the world. Fatherhood and family life seemed to suit him. He and Kristin had enjoyed themselves that night, handing off Mason to whoever offered to hold him while they went out on the dance floor together. Whether they were slow-dancing in each other’s arms or doing the Macarena along with everyone else, Kevin and Kristin had never looked happier or more in love. That was how I wanted to picture them: laughing and full of life… not like the people in this place. The thought of Kevin looking like one of them made me sick to my stomach.

The closer we got to his cubicle, the more nauseous I felt. My hands were sweating, and there was a fluttery feeling in my chest, as if my heart kept skipping beats. I took a deep breath right before I reached the doorway, then forced myself to follow AJ through it.

We found Kevin lying flat on his back in bed, his arms resting at his sides. There were pillows and rolled towels tucked around his body. I supposed this was to help keep him in a semi-comfortable position, since he couldn’t move on his own, although he didn’t look too comfortable to me. He had a huge brace around his neck that went all the way from his chin to his chest. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face, hooked up to a long hose that hung from the front like an elephant’s trunk. I could hear air hissing through it as his chest hitched in and out, a heart monitor beeping steadily in the background. I counted three different IV bags hanging on a stand beside his bed, all of them feeding into a line in his arm.

AJ walked around to one side of the bed, and I reluctantly went and stood on the other, where I could see Kevin’s face up close. It was so swollen, he hardly looked like himself. His skin was a weird, grayish color. There was a bandage covering his right temple, and I could see bruises forming on both sides of his face and body. His eyes were closed, which was actually a relief to me - at least he couldn’t see the look of shock on my face when I saw him for the first time.

AJ cleared his throat. “Kev?”

I held my breath as his eyes fluttered open. They were bloodshot and slightly unfocused at first, but when they found AJ’s face, a fog seemed to lift from in front of them. Behind the clear oxygen mask, Kevin’s lips curved into a faint smile. “Hey, brother,” he said softly, his voice muffled so much by the mask, I had to lean closer just to hear him. “Thanks for being here.” His eyes shifted from AJ to me. “How you doin’, Nick?”

I swallowed hard, my throat feeling as dry as the desert we had driven across to get there. “I’m okay. How are you?” Immediately, I felt like an idiot. What a dumb thing to say. See what I mean? Open mouth. Insert foot.

“Eh… I’m hangin’ in there,” he muttered. He was slurring his words slightly - whether that was from his head injury or whatever drugs they had him on, I wasn’t sure - but he sounded mostly coherent.

“We heard about Kristin,” said AJ before I could ask any other stupid questions. “I’m so sorry, man. I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling right now.”

“Not a whole lot from the neck down,” Kevin replied, so deadpan I couldn’t tell if he was trying to crack a joke or not. I looked away awkwardly, my eyes landing on his bare chest. If I grabbed his nipple and gave him a titty twister, would he really not feel it? I knew better than to actually do that, of course, but I couldn’t help wondering. I crammed my hands in my pockets, afraid I would accidentally bump one of the tubes or wires that were attached to his body if I tried to touch him at all.

“Damn, Kev…” AJ trailed off, shaking his head. For what had to be the first time in his life, he was at a loss for words.

“It’s my heart that hurts the most,” Kevin went on, his voice cracking. When I glanced at his face again, there were tears glistening in his eyes. “How am I gonna live without her? How am I gonna live like this?” He looked down at his body, lying limply on the bed. Only his eyes moved.

It killed me to see him that way, so helpless and somehow diminished. Kevin had always been someone I looked up to, both figuratively and literally. I was thirteen when he joined the Backstreet Boys; he had towered over me then, a twenty-one-year-old man making music with a prepubescent kid. Eventually I’d caught up to him in height, but I was still only half the man he was. He always seemed to have it together, while I was usually falling apart. But all of a sudden, the tides had turned, and I was the one looking down at him as he lay on the hospital bed in front of me, broken and weak. In that moment, I would have given anything to be able to take away his pain, even if it meant absorbing it myself.

“I wish I knew, bro,” I said, blinking back tears of my own. “But one thing I do know is that you’ll find a way. You will get through this somehow. You’re one of the strongest people I know, Kevin. You’re not gonna let anything keep you down for long.”

AJ nodded, shooting me an appreciative smile across Kevin’s bed. “Well said, Nick.”

“Thanks, brother,” Kevin whispered. His tears were starting to flow, dripping slowly down the sides of his face. Realizing he couldn’t reach up to wipe them away himself, I found a box of Kleenex on the counter on one side of the room and used a tissue to carefully blot the tears from the corners of his eyes.

I meant every word of what I said, but as I thought about all the other things Kevin wouldn’t be able to do for himself, I felt even more overwhelmed than I had before. It was almost a relief when a nurse came in and said, “I’m sorry, guys, but I’m going to have to ask you to step out for a while. The doctors are making their morning rounds and will want to examine him. You can come back in an hour or so.”

“Oh… okay.” I looked down at Kevin, a lump rising in my throat. “Love you, bro.”

“Love you both,” he mumbled back.

AJ rested a hand on his shoulder. “Keep hangin’ in there, Kevy Kev. We’ll see ya soon.”

I swallowed hard as we walked out to the hall. Though I didn’t want to admit it to AJ, I was secretly glad to get out of that room. I hated seeing Kevin that way. But I also felt bad about leaving him like that.

“He’s in good hands here,” said AJ, as we headed back to the waiting room. “This is one of the best hospitals in the whole country.”

I nodded. “I know.” But my bad feeling lingered long after we exited the ICU.

***


Chapter 5 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I spent the first few hours of 2008 floating in a drug-induced haze. I have only vague memories of being moved from the emergency room to the intensive care unit. When I think back, it’s mostly sights and sounds I remember: the bright lights on the ceiling, the soft whirring of the CT scanner, the loud buzzing and banging of the MRI machine, the constant beeping of the monitors around my hospital bed. But I couldn’t forget about Kristin.

I kept picturing her face in my mind, trying to replace my last image of her lying lifeless on a gurney with the way she had looked hours earlier, her brown eyes sparkling with laughter as she danced in her gold dress. It was hard to wrap my head around the realization that I would never see my wife again. The rational part of me understood that she was gone, but the emotional part was still trying to process everything that had happened since we had rung in the new year, kissing as the clock struck midnight. I wished I could go back to that moment and live in it forever, or at least change what had happened afterward.

But there was no going back and no moving forward. I felt frozen in time, trapped inside my broken body. Nurses bustled around my bed, monitoring my breathing and blood pressure, pumping me full of medication, and making it almost impossible for me to sleep. I could have used a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out the constant beeping of the heart monitor, the hiss of air flowing through the mask they’d put on my face to help me breathe better, and the hum of the blood pressure cuff inflating around my arm every few minutes. I was tired and had a pounding headache, but I couldn’t get comfortable lying flat on my back with the hard cervical collar around my neck.

I closed my eyes anyway and tried to pretend I was in my old bunk on the tour bus, listening to the engine rumble as the tires rolled over the road. The cool breeze I felt on my face would be coming from the window, which I always cracked open at night to let in some fresh air. The annoying blips and beeps were just Nick playing his video games across the aisle. Aided by the painkiller that was coursing through my veins, I let this little fantasy carry me away from the ICU and lull me to sleep.

Despite my discomfort, I must have dozed off at some point because when I opened my eyes again, I found my cousin Brian standing beside my bed. At first, I felt confused, thinking I really was on the tour bus. I quickly realized this couldn’t be true because I had quit the Backstreet Boys a year-and-a-half ago. That was when I remembered where I actually was and why. Reality was a rude awakening.

“Hey, cous,” I croaked, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t turn my head because of the rigid collar around my neck, which still felt like it was strangling me.

Brian had been frowning, but when he heard my voice, he quickly forced a smile onto his face. “Hey!” he replied brightly, coming closer to the head of the bed so I could see him better. “You’re awake!”

As my eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lighting, I noticed his wife Leighanne hanging on his arm. I could tell she had been crying. Her face was a blotchy mess, with black streaks under her eyes where her makeup had run. She was staring down at me, unable to hide her horrified expression. Feeling self-conscious, I looked away from her and focused instead on Brian’s face. “What are y’all doing here?”

“Your mom called me after she found out about the accident. I think she was hoping we’d be at our L.A. house and could come to the hospital right away,” he explained. “We were actually in Vegas last night, but we got here as fast as we could.”

“What time is it?” I wondered.

“A little after seven.”

“AM or PM?” I had no sense of how much time had passed, no way to tell if the sun was rising or setting. There weren’t any windows in my room, and I couldn’t see the clock on the wall. All I could see was the ceiling, which looked exactly the same as it had when I’d closed my eyes.

“Seven in the morning,” said Brian, stifling a yawn. “Sorry… it’s been a long night.”

“Yeah… for me, too,” I muttered, taking a swift but silent survey of my body. I was still numb from the neck down, unable to move a muscle in my arms or legs. The only physical pain I felt was a dull throbbing in my head, which started at the base of my skull and descended down into my neck and back up again.

The mental anguish was much worse, the loss of my wife weighing on me like an elephant left sitting on my chest. My heart ached as I imagined Mason waking up and wondering where his mother was. He would be crying in his crib, waiting for her to come and get him, completely unaware of the fact that Kristin was never coming home. I knew Rachel was taking good care of him, but I wished I could be there to comfort him myself. It crushed me to realize I might never be able to lift my son out of his crib or hold him in my arms again.

“Is Baylee here, too?” I asked, looking around for Brian’s little boy before I lost it thinking about mine.

Brian shook his head. “We left him with Leighanne’s folks in Georgia so we could have a little adult getaway in Vegas.”

I swallowed hard as I remembered how excited Kristin and I had been hours earlier, as we got ready to go out for our own kid-free night on the town. Now I wished we had just stayed home. “Sorry for ruining your fun,” I told Brian.

“Stop,” he said, frowning. “This isn’t your fault, Kev. I’m sorry. About Kristin… about all of this.” He made a sweeping gesture over my hospital bed. “God... I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”

“It’s awful,” added Leighanne, giving me a look of sympathy. “But we’re here for you. Whatever we can do to help… just let us know.”

“Thanks.” Still thinking of my son, I said, “It would be nice if someone could go over to my house and stay with Mason. The babysitter’s been there all night; she probably needs a break.”

Leighanne looked at Brian. “Leigh and I could do that.”

He nodded. “That’d be great, baby, thanks. I’ll stay and wait for Aunt Ann to get here.” To me, he added, “Your mom’s on her way. She should be here by this afternoon. Kristin’s folks are coming, too.”

“Good,” I replied, but inwardly, I was dreading having to face my in-laws. Would they blame me for what had happened to their daughter? After all, I was the one who had been driving. Was it my fault? The accident had happened so fast, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember many details, except that I had been drinking earlier in the evening. Had I given myself enough time to sober up before getting behind the wheel? Was I distracted? Could I have avoided the collision if I had reacted faster? The questions raced through my brain, but I didn’t have any answers. All I knew was that if it turned out my actions had gotten my wife killed, I would never be able to forgive myself.

Brian and Leighanne stayed for a few more minutes, then sent Howie and his wife Leigh in. I was touched to find out all four guys and even one of our longtime bodyguards, Q, had come. “Of course,” said Howie, brushing my gratitude aside after I thanked them for being there. “That’s what brothers are for. You would have done the same for any of us.”

I wanted to believe him, telling myself I would have dropped everything in a heartbeat if one of them was hurt, but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. It was different now that I was a parent. My priorities had changed. Yet a part of me still felt guilty for putting my own personal goals ahead of the group. Family came first - we had always agreed on that point - but my Backstreet brothers were family, too.

Nick and AJ were the next to come in. They both looked uncomfortable being there, especially Nick. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and I couldn’t tell if it was because he’d been crying or because he was high. You could never tell with Nick anymore, which was one of the reasons I had wanted out of the group. I loved my little brother, but I was tired of waiting for him to grow up and get his shit together.

They hadn’t been there long when one of the nurses kicked them out so the doctor could come in and examine me. “How’s your breathing?” she asked me after they left, leaning over to listen to my lungs with her stethoscope.

“I’m still a little short of breath,” I admitted, realizing that the heaviness in my chest may have been a symptom of more than metaphorical heartbreak. Lying flat on my back made it hard to take a deep breath.

She pursed her lips. “Your oxygen level is on the low side,” she said, looking up at the monitor behind my bed. “I’ll let the doctor know. He should be coming by any minute for morning rounds.”

“If you could just loosen this collar a little…” I tried again to reach up and touch my neck brace before I remembered I had no control over my hands. “It’s really tight.”

The nurse shook her head. “Sorry, I can’t - not until your spine has been stabilized.”

I didn’t know what she meant by that, but before I could ask, a group of people in white coats walked into the room. They gathered around my bed, staring down at me like I was some sort of specimen. “This is Kevin Richardson, a thirty-six-year-old male injured in a side-impact MVA early this morning,” one of the doctors said to the others. He looked even younger than Nick, barely old enough to be a real doctor.

What is this, Doogie Howser? I wondered, my mind wandering as he rambled on, rattling off a bunch of numbers and acronyms I didn’t really understand. It was like trying to watch TV in a foreign country; I could catch a few words here and there, but most of it went right over my head. The medical lingo must have made sense to the other doctors, though, because they nodded as they listened to his report on my condition.

None of them seemed to be paying much attention to me until a high-pitched dinging sound made them all look up at the monitor mounted behind my bed. “His sats are down to ninety-two,” said the nurse who had been taking care of me, as she silenced the alarm.

Another one of the doctors stepped forward, pushing her long, blonde hair behind her ears so she could put on her stethoscope. She frowned as she listened to my chest. “Diminished breath sounds bilaterally,” she murmured. “Call respiratory to bring in a vent. He needs to be intubated before he desaturates any further.”

As the nurse disappeared from my bedside, the three doctors continued their conversation. They threw around some pretty frightening phrases: respiratory dysfunction… paradoxical pattern of breathing... spinal shock… flaccid paralysis.

Even though I was lying right in front of them with my eyes open, clearly awake, they were talking about me like I wasn’t even there, like I was unconscious or incapable of hearing them. Frustrated and scared, I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but… what are you saying?” I asked, struggling to make my voice heard through the bulky oxygen mask.

The female doctor looked down at me and offered a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, Mr. Richardson, I should have introduced myself first. I’m Dr. Bone, senior neurosurgical resident. This is my attending, Dr. Pinkerton, and my intern, Dr. Poynter, whom I believe you’ve already met.”

I had been so out of it, I barely remembered the younger doctor being in my room before, but I didn’t bother to contradict her. All I said was, “You can call me Kevin.”

“Okay, Kevin. So here’s what’s happening: the muscles that help your lungs expand when you inhale have been paralyzed or weakened because of your spinal cord injury, which means you’re having to work a lot harder to breathe. Even with the pressurized air you’ve been getting through the BiPAP mask, the level of oxygen in your blood is too low. We need to put you on a ventilator now.”

“For how long?”

“That’s hard to say. Hopefully just for a few days, but it could be longer. If the swelling in your spinal cord continues, you might never be able to breathe well enough without mechanical ventilation, in which case we would do a tracheotomy so you could still talk and eat.”

What about sing? I wondered, but didn’t ask. What did it matter? I wasn’t a Backstreet Boy anymore, and my dreams of doing a solo album or being in another Broadway musical had died alongside my wife. The only thing I had left to live for now was Mason.

Mason.

As my son’s face appeared in my mind again, I felt overwhelmed with a sudden sense of panic and urgency. With Kristin gone, I was the only parent he had left, and here I was in the ICU, about to be put on a life support machine. What if something went wrong, and I didn’t survive? I had to make sure Mason would be all right.

“Can you wait just a few minutes?” I begged Dr. Bone. “I need to talk to my cousin while I still can.” I remembered the doctor in the emergency room telling me I wouldn’t be able to talk while I was intubated. It was important that I touch base with Brian before they put the tube down my throat. He was the only family I had there, and I knew I could count on him to take care of my son.

“Your cousin?”

“My cousin Brian. He’s probably out in the waiting room; he was just in here a little while ago. Can someone go find him for me? Please… I really need to talk to him first.”

Dr. Bone seemed to hesitate, staring up at the monitor, but finally nodded. “I’ll go get him.” She glanced at the other doctors. “Page me if he goes south,” I heard her mutter before she hurried off.

She walked back in a few minutes later with Brian. “You okay, cous?” he asked as he came up alongside my bed, looking concerned.

I didn’t bother to answer his question. My wife was dead, and my body wasn’t working right. How could he think I was okay? “Never mind me,” I said. “I need to make sure Mason’s okay.”

“Leighanne and Leigh are heading over to your house now. He’ll be fine,” Brian assured me.

“But if something happens to me… if I don’t get better… will you take care of him?” Tears welled in my eyes. It was getting harder to breathe, which also made it harder to talk. I tried anyway, wanting my wishes to be known. “I’ve thought about it, and... I’d want him to go with you. My mom’s getting older... she’s already raised three sons… I wouldn’t want to put that responsibility on her... or Kristin’s parents. My brothers are both settled… and-”

“Kev.” Brian held up his hand to stop me from speaking. “Of course, man. Of course I would take care of Mason if it came to that. But it won’t. You’re gonna be fine, okay?”

“Thanks. I know you and Leighanne would give him a good life... and Baylee would make a great big brother...” I trailed off, trying and failing to take a deep breath. Rather than making it easier for me to breathe, the mask suddenly felt like it was suffocating me.

Brian smiled. There were tears in his eyes, too. “Just like you’ve been to me these last fifteen years. I love you, Kev.”

“Love you, too, Rok,” I barely managed to reply before the alarm went off on my monitor again, dinging faster and more frantically than before.

“His sats are down to 89,” said the nurse.

“We can’t wait any longer. I’m going to have to ask you to step out now,” Dr. Bone said to Brian. “You can wait in the hall, and I’ll come talk to you in a few minutes.”

Brian nodded. “Hang in there, man,” he said, as he backed away. “And don’t you worry about Mason. We’re here for you both, whatever you need.”

“Thanks,” I whispered again, as Dr. Bone took Brian’s place at my bedside.

“Can I intubate?” I heard the younger doctor ask her, sounding eager.

She shook her head. “Not this time. Intubations can be tricky in patients with cervical spinal cord injuries. He’s also a singer, so we need to be extra careful not to cause any damage to his vocal cords.”

Up until that point, none of the doctors had given me any indication that they knew who I was, but now I realized Dr. Bone had recognized me - or maybe she had recognized Brian and the rest of the guys in the waiting room. In any case, her words made me feel a little better. At least one of them seemed to care more about me as a person than just another patient.

Leaning over me so I could see her face clearly, Dr. Bone looked me in the eye and explained, “We’re going to give you some medication to make you sleep while we put the tube down your throat. When you wake up, there will be a machine breathing for you. You won’t be able to speak. You’ll be sedated to help you relax until the tube can be removed. Don’t worry; we’re going to take good care of you, Kevin…”

Her voice seemed to fade away as my vision grew fuzzy. I tried to focus on the fluorescent light in the ceiling above me, but it also faded as I drifted toward darkness. When I closed my eyes, I could suddenly see my wife’s face again, and some of the fear I felt went away. My last conscious thought was of Kristin.

***


Chapter 6 by RokofAges75
Nick

We hadn’t been back in the waiting room long when another woman in a white coat came in to talk to us. This one was tiny and looked more like an actress playing a doctor on TV than the real life thing. With her big, blue eyes and long, blonde hair, she was almost too attractive to be an actual doctor. Dr. Barbie, I thought.

“Are you all with Mr. Richardson?” she asked, looking around the small waiting room. We nodded. “I’m Dr. Bone, his neurosurgeon.”

Maybe it was just because I was deliriously tired by that point, but the introduction of a surgeon named Bone made me snort with laughter. I’d sure like to bone her, I thought, making a mental note to tell AJ after she left. I knew he, at least, would appreciate the joke.

Dr. Bone’s icy blue eyes narrowed, and for a second, I was worried I had accidentally said that out loud. But they looked past me and landed on Brian’s face instead. “You’re his cousin, correct?”

“That’s right,” said Brian, rising out of his seat. I wondered if she had recognized us. She was in the right age range - early thirties, I estimated - to at least be familiar with our music, even if she wasn’t a fan.

“Kevin’s asking for you. Come with me, please.” Dr. Bone put her hand on Brian’s arm and steered him away from the rest of us without another word. We all exchanged anxious looks, wondering why Kevin wanted to talk to him again, apparently alone. It was a good thing his clingy wife had gone over to Kevin’s house to stay with Mason, though it would have made me laugh to see Leighanne give the surgeon the stink-eye as she watched a younger, hotter, more educated version of herself walk away with her husband.

“Did anyone else catch her name? Dr. Bone?” I said, trying to lighten the tension. “Damn, I wanna bone her.”

The other guys chuckled weakly at that, while Jenn rolled her eyes at me. It felt good to laugh and forget for just a second why we were there.

Brian was gone for a long time. As the minutes crawled by, I started to get worried again, wondering what was taking so long. Had something happened with Kevin?

When Brian finally came back, his eyes were red-rimmed again. “Kevin was having trouble breathing, so they had to put a tube down his throat,” he told the rest of us in a hushed voice. “He’s on a ventilator now.”

“What?!” I gasped, my heart skipping a beat. “But… he was fine when AJ and I were in there. I mean, not ‘fine,’ but he was talking like normal…”

“His oxygen level was too low,” Brian explained. “The doctor said some of the muscles that make his lungs expand have been paralyzed, so he can’t take very deep breaths. He was getting tired from the effort of trying to get enough air. The ventilator will do the work for him and give his body a chance to rest awhile.”

“So it’s just a temporary thing?” AJ asked. “They’ll take him off it when he gets better?”

Brian shrugged. “It’s too soon to tell. She said Kevin’s broken vertebrae are compressing his spinal cord, and they need to stabilize his neck to reduce the swelling. If they don’t, it could cause more damage. He might never be able to breathe on his own again.”

I sucked in a shaky breath, freaked out by the thought of Kevin having to spend the rest of his life relying on a machine to help him breathe. I didn’t want to imagine him looking like Christopher Reeve after his accident, strapped into a wheelchair with a tube sticking out of his neck. That couldn’t happen to Kevin. What kind of life would that be? Not one I would want; that was for sure.

“So how do they stabilize his neck?” Howie wondered. “Surgery?”

Brian nodded. “She said that’s the best option, but it’s risky because they’d have to go in through both the back and the front of his neck, near the larynx. If something slipped, and his vocal cords were severed…” He trailed off, letting the implications of what he was trying to tell us sink in.

“He’d never sing again,” I finished for him, my own voice sounding flat.

“He’d never speak again,” AJ added, shaking his head.

Brian sighed. “Yeah. Exactly.”

The four of us guys exchanged glances. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing: like all of us, Kevin’s voice was his life, his livelihood. Where would he be without it?

“What were the other options?” Howie wanted to know.

“She only mentioned one other option,” said Brian. “If they don't operate on his neck, they’ll have to put him in a metal halo to hold his head and neck steady until the fractures heal, which could take a few months.”

“So… like that dude in Office Space? With the ‘Jump to Conclusions’ mat?” I asked, picturing a metal contraption connected directly to the movie character’s skull like some kind of medieval torture device. AJ snorted. Jenn gave us both incredulous looks, like we were being insensitive or something. I wasn’t joking, though; I was just trying to understand. It was an honest question.

Brian gave a serious answer. “Yeah… I think so.”

“Damn…” I shook my head. “That would seriously suck ass.”

“I know,” said Brian, sighing.

“So… what are they going to do?” asked Howie.

“That’s just it - she wanted me to decide… as if I’m supposed to know what Kevin would want.” Brian shook his head. “I think it should be his decision, but she said that because he can’t speak or write, he can’t ask questions or give informed consent, so it has to come from one of us.”

We all looked at each other again. What would Kevin want? I thought he would want the option that offered his best chance of recovery, but if it meant risking his voice… I wasn’t sure. I was glad it was Brian being asked to make that choice instead of me - not that anyone would trust me, anyway.

“What did you tell her?” AJ asked him.

“To wait until his mom gets here. She should be the one making medical decisions for him, not me.”

No one could argue with Brian about that.

“Do you have an ETA for her?”

“She landed in Chicago almost an hour ago,” said Brian, showing us a text from his aunt. “I know she had a short layover there, so she’s probably boarding her second flight right about now. She should be here by one o’clock this afternoon.”

I checked the time on my own phone. It was only eight in the morning. I hadn’t slept since 2007. Just the thought of staying at the hospital for another five hours to wait for Ann was exhausting, but what else was I supposed to do? I had nowhere to go. Even if I did book a hotel room with a nice, big bed, I didn’t think I’d actually be able to sleep. So I stood up, deciding it would be best to keep myself moving. I wished I could sneak off to the bathroom and sniff a bump of coke to keep myself awake, but I settled for a legal stimulant instead: caffeine. “I’m gonna go find some coffee,” I said. “Anyone else want some?”

Howie and Q came with me. We found our way to a café a few floors down, where we bought coffee and breakfast sandwiches to take back to everyone upstairs. The six of us spent the next hour sipping coffee, picking at our food, and struggling to stay awake.

Once we were allowed back in to see Kevin, we took turns visiting for fifteen minutes at a time. It felt kind of pointless considering he was so drugged up, he didn’t seem to have any idea we were in the room, but at least it helped to pass the time.

I guess I must have dozed off at some point, because one minute I was playing on my phone in the waiting room, and the next thing I knew, Howie was poking me, whispering, “Wake up. Kristin’s parents are here.”

I sat up straight and looked around, my stomach lurching when I spotted Kristin’s mom Susan hugging Brian tightly. She had her head on his shoulder, and her face was streaked with tearstains. Her ex-husband John stood beside her, looking lost. “We just got off the phone with the funeral home,” I heard him say. “They’ll be coming to get Krissy soon. We wondered if Kevin wanted to see her before…” His voice faltered. “...before they take her body.”

Brian shook his head. “He’s heavily sedated right now, but I know he got to see her briefly in the emergency room.”

John’s shoulders slumped. “Ah, well... maybe it’s for the best. It was hard, seeing her that way. I’m glad Kevin got a chance to say goodbye.”

“We’re so sorry,” Howie said, gripping his hand. “Whatever you and Susan need, we’re here.”

I nodded awkwardly, not sure what else to say. I had only met Kristin’s family a handful of times - at Kevin’s wedding, of course, and backstage before concerts. While Kevin was still a Backstreet Boy, his in-laws would come to see him perform whenever a tour took us through Kansas. They would always be considered members of the extended Backstreet family, but I couldn’t say I knew them well. I wished I could escape the crowded waiting room, where the dark cloud of grief hung thick in the air. I tugged at the neck of my t-shirt, feeling claustrophobic.

“Thank you. We appreciate all of you being here,” Kristin’s dad replied, looking around the room.

“How’s Kevin doing?” her mom asked, as she wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “Can we see him?”

“Of course,” Brian replied. “I’ll take you to his room. Has anyone told you about his condition?”

Susan shook her head. “I talked to Ann on the phone earlier, but all she knew was that it was serious. How… how badly was he hurt?”

Brian took a deep breath before he began filling her in. I tried to tune him out, not wanting to have to hear it for the second time. It was too much. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I’m gonna get some air,” I mumbled to Howie and darted out of the room. I hurried down the hall to the elevators and took one down to the plaza level, where we had gone to get breakfast earlier. I bought another cup of coffee in the cafe and carried it with me to an outdoor courtyard. I walked a few laps around it, looking at the sculptures and landscaping as I sipped my coffee.

Finally, I got bored and went back inside, where I wandered around awhile longer, in no hurry to head straight back to the waiting room. I roamed the halls and studied the artwork on the walls, trying to distract myself from thinking about Kevin and Kristin. It didn’t work. My mind kept drifting up to the ICU, where Kevin lay unconscious on a life support machine. I couldn’t stop worrying about what was going to happen to him, so eventually, I turned around and took the elevator back up to the eighth floor.

When I got back to the waiting room, I was relieved to find that Kristin’s parents were gone. Brian said they were heading over to Kevin and Kristin’s house to see their grandson, which meant his and Howie’s wives would probably be coming back soon.

Jenn was also getting ready to leave. “I’m gonna go home and get some rest, and then I’ll work with Kim on writing a statement for you guys to release when you’re ready,” she told us, slinging her handbag over her shoulder. “You know - condolences for Kristin’s family, prayer requests for Kevin and his family, that kind of thing. Let me know if you think of any specific wording you want us to include. We’ll send you a draft to approve before anything goes out officially.”

My stomach dropped as I imagined how the rest of the world would react when they found out what had happened. The media would relish in the drama, but our fans would be devastated. I was glad we had a publicist to handle the press because I definitely wasn’t ready to make any kind of statement. I was still trying to process everything myself.

“Thanks, Jenn,” said Howie. She hugged each of us, then made her exit.

After that, it was just the four of us guys and Q. We all looked at each other, wondering what to do next. It was a helpless feeling, sitting around that waiting room like we were in some kind of limbo. We continued to rotate in and out of Kevin’s room, figuring the least we could do was keep him company. He wasn’t conscious, but the nurse said he could still hear us and that our presence would be comforting for him. I wasn’t convinced - she may have been feeding us that bullshit just to make us feel better - but I went along with it anyway.

Ann finally arrived around one-fifteen, looking exhausted and older than I remembered her, with dark circles under her eyes and deep lines in her forehead. Brian sat his aunt down and filled her in on what we’d found out about Kevin and Kristin, then held her as she cried. Once she had regained her composure, the hot neurosurgeon, Dr. Bone, came back in to talk to her. She took Ann and Brian to a private conference room to discuss Kevin’s condition, claiming her team only wanted to meet with family members.

Watching them walk out of the room together, Howie frowned. “Why wouldn’t she include the rest of us?” he wondered. “We’re all one big family!” It wasn’t like Howie to complain, but he could get cranky when he’d gone too long without sleep.

“I’m sure she could tell we aren’t all blood relatives,” said Q, looking down at his brown skin, which made the rest of us laugh.

“I know. I just want to be kept in the loop.” With a sigh, Howie slumped back in his chair and propped his head up on one hand. Ever since Kevin had left, Howie had stepped up to become the ‘big brother’ and unofficial leader of the group. But those were big shoes to fill, and this was the biggest crisis we had ever faced together. I could tell he felt frustrated, like he wasn’t doing enough to help. There just wasn’t much any of us could do at that moment.

“Hang in there, Howie,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Brian’ll catch us up when he comes back.”

Sure enough, Brian and Ann returned to the waiting room half an hour later with a plan of action in place. “We decided surgery is the best option,” Brian told us, sucking in a deep breath. “They’re gonna go in and do a…” He glanced over at his aunt. “What did they call it again?”

“A spinal decompression, internal fixation, and fusion,” said Ann uncertainly, squinting down at the notes she’d taken through a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose. “From what I understood, their plan is to first relieve the pressure on Kevin’s spinal cord by removing the bone fragments that are pushing on it. Then they’ll put in a rod and screws to repair the broken vertebrae and graft a piece of bone from his pelvis onto that part of his spine to fuse it together. This is supposed to help stabilize his neck until it heals.”

“That sounds... painful,” I muttered, shuddering. I could have done without the detailed description. “Will it fix his spinal cord? So he’s not paralyzed?”

“The doctor said there’s no way to reverse the nerve damage that’s already been done, but if they do the surgery soon, they can hopefully prevent any further damage from swelling,” said Brian. “That could mean the difference between Kevin being able to breathe on his own and use his arms or… not.”

“What about his legs?” AJ wondered. “Does she think he’ll be able to walk again?”

Brian and Ann looked at each other. “She didn’t sound too hopeful about that,” said Ann softly, her voice trembling.

“But she did say it’s too soon to tell for sure,” Brian added quickly. “We’ll have to wait a few days after surgery, until the swelling goes down, to know more.”

“When do they want to do the surgery?” asked Howie.

“Soon - like this afternoon,” answered Brian. “It works best if it’s done within twenty-four hours after the injury. We’re already past the twelve-hour mark, so the clock’s ticking.”

“She said the surgery can take six hours, so don’t feel like y’all have to stay the whole time,” said Ann with a sad smile. “I appreciate y’all being here to watch over my son, but you should go home and get some rest while you can. It’s been a long day.”

And night, I thought, relieved to hear her say we were off the hook for a while. I couldn’t wait to find somewhere to crash. A bed, a couch - I didn’t even care. I would sleep anywhere.

“I’m gonna stay here with Aunt Ann,” said Brian, hiding a yawn with his hand. “You guys go. I’ll keep you posted.”

We all exchanged uncertain glances. No one seemed to want to be the first one to walk out. Finally, AJ stood up and stretched. “You can stay at my place if you want, Nick,” he said, arching his back until it let out a satisfying crack. “You too, Q.”

“Sounds good, man,” said Q, who lived in Orlando when he wasn’t working. “Appreciate it.”

“That’d be great,” I agreed. “Thanks, bro.” I was just grateful not to have to get a hotel room at the last minute or go home with Howie and Leigh, who I’m sure were equally grateful not to have me around as a third wheel.

“We should say goodbye to Kev before we go,” AJ suggested.

Why? I wondered. He doesn’t even know we’re still here. But I didn’t dare say that out loud, especially in front of Kevin’s mom.

“Y’all go,” said Q, waving us off. “I’ll wait for you here.”

So I reluctantly followed AJ back to Kevin’s room. He didn’t look any different than the last time we had seen him. His eyes were still closed, his bruised face blank behind the blue hose connected to the breathing tube that was sticking out of his open mouth. His body was motionless except for the subtle but steady rise and fall of his bare chest as the ventilator forced air into his lungs. If it wasn’t for all the machines around his bed, he might have looked like he was sleeping peacefully - but I knew otherwise, and it freaked me out. I loved Kevin, but I hated being in there and having to see him like that.

“Hey, Kev,” I heard AJ say and saw him reach out and take Kevin’s right hand.

“He probably can’t even feel that,” I muttered. It was a stupid thing to say, but it slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it.

AJ glared at me across the bed. “So? He can still hear us. So let’s keep it positive - ‘kay, Prick?”

“Oh, yeah, real positive,” I replied, rolling my eyes. I looked back at Kevin’s face, watching it closely for any sign that he was actually aware of what we were saying, but his eyelids didn’t even flutter.

“Your mom’s here now,” said AJ, squeezing Kevin’s hand. “Brian’s gonna stay with her while the rest of us get out of here for a bit. But we’ll be back later, all right? So you hang in there, man. We’ll see you soon.”

“We love you, bro,” I added, not knowing what else to say. I wanted to touch him where he could actually feel it, like his face, but looking at the bruises and the bandage and the breathing tube made me afraid I would only hurt him more. So I kept my hands in my pockets and waited for AJ to say we could leave. He was a lot better at this than I was.

When we finally walked out of the hospital, the sun was high in the sky. Jenn had driven off in her rental car, so we took a cab to AJ’s house in Los Feliz. “Hey, can we stop at Target real quick?” I called up the driver a block from the hospital, spotting the familiar red bullseye up ahead. Turning to AJ, I added, “I just realized we left all our luggage in the trunk of Jenn’s car.”

“I’m sure she’ll bring it back to us tomorrow,” said AJ, unbothered. “Her bag was in there, too; she’s not gonna forget that.”

“I know, but I don’t have any other clothes or anything.”

He shrugged. “I got stuff you can borrow. Don’t worry about it.”

“You ain’t got any stuff that would fit me,” said Q from the front seat, turning around to grin at us. “I’m with Nick. Let’s stop and at least get us some toothbrushes and clean drawers.”

The cabbie pulled up in front of the Target and dropped us off at the curb. Q and I went in while AJ waited in the car. I grabbed a basket, and we booked it through the store, picking up t-shirts, boxer shorts, and toothbrushes. While Q was looking at a display of deodorant, I said, “Hey dude, I’m gonna go back and grab something I forgot. Meet me up front at the checkout?”

Q frowned, eyeing me suspiciously. “What’d you forget?”

“I’ll be right back. Grab me one of those too, would ya?” I hurried off, basket in hand, before he could ask any more questions.

It had occurred to me that the downside of staying with AJ over Howie was that he wouldn’t have any alcohol in the house. He had made a big deal out of being five years sober. I was proud of him, but personally, I was in desperate need of a drink. After all the coffee I’d had, it was the only way I was going to get some sleep, and I desperately needed that, too.

I made a beeline for the liquor aisle and grabbed a bottle of vodka. It wasn’t a top-shelf brand, but it would get the job done. I tucked it under the two t-shirts in my basket, hoping Q wouldn’t see it. Then I backtracked to the electronics section and found a charging cable for my iPhone to toss on top. “Had to have a way to charge my phone,” I told Q when I finally made it back to the front of the store, holding up the cable.

He raised his eyebrows. “Took you long enough. Now you have to share it.”

“Only if you’re nice,” I said, setting the basket down on the checkout counter. “Listen, I’ll get this stuff. Why don’t you go make sure AJ’s still outside and tell him we’re almost done?”

“What, you think he’s gonna get the cab to drive off and leave us? That’s the kinda shit you would do, not AJ.”

“Guilty as charged.” I forced a grin onto my face, wishing he would just go away. I wasn’t sure why I felt so weird about Q seeing me buy liquor. It wasn’t like I was doing anything illegal. I guess I just felt guilty bringing a bottle of vodka back to a recovering alcoholic’s house, where I would drown my sorrows and drink myself to sleep the way I did most days. I didn’t want the other guys finding out about that particular habit I had developed. As far as they knew, AJ was the one with the drinking problem, not me. I preferred it that way.

“Can I see your ID, sir?”

I looked up as the cashier slid the bottle across the scanner. Really? I thought, rolling my eyes at the guy, who couldn’t have been more than a few years younger than me. You gonna act like you don’t recognize me? I wouldn’t have gotten carded anywhere else, but I remembered we were in L.A., where the locals were fairly used to seeing people more famous than me. So I fished out my wallet and handed him my license without a word.

“Ah… so that’s what you forgot,” said Q, smirking at me.

I felt my face heat up. “Don’t tell AJ. It would only tempt him. I just needed something to help me relax.”

“You and me both, man,” he muttered, as the cashier put the bottle in a bag. “You and me both.”

When the cab dropped us off at AJ’s house, we all basically headed straight to bed. AJ had two guest bedrooms, so Q got one of them to himself, and I got the other. As soon as I shut the door, I stripped down to my boxers, turned back the covers on the bed, and collapsed into it. It felt good to finally lie down. The mattress was comfortable, but of course, I couldn’t sleep. I was past the point of exhaustion. My head was pounding, and so was my heart, probably from all the caffeine I’d had.

It didn’t take me long to get out the bottle of vodka and pour some into the water glass AJ had left out on the bathroom counter for me. I carried it back to bed with me and sat with my back pressed against the headboard, sipping from it as I played on my phone. The screen blurred before my eyes as they grew heavier and heavier. I must have finally passed out at some point because the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the dark to the sound of someone pounding on the bedroom door.

“Nick! Are you alive in there?” It was AJ.

“Yeah!” I croaked back. “Come on in.”

The door opened, and AJ walked in, turning on the light. “Dude… since when are you such a deep sleeper? I must’ve been out there knocking and calling your name for at least two minutes. I was worried you had died in here or something.”

I sat up slowly, blinking at him. “And it took you two minutes to decide to come in and see if I was dead or not?”

“Well, I didn’t wanna walk in on you naked or whatever if you weren’t dead.”

“Nothing you haven’t seen before,” I said with a shrug. “But for the record, I’m not naked.” I pulled back the covers to show him my boxer shorts.

“And you’re not dead either. That’s a relief.”

I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”

“Almost eight. Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah,” I said, yawning. “I slept like the dead.”

“Ha ha.” He picked up the empty glass I’d left on the bedside table and sniffed it. “Smells like you had some help with that.”

I rolled my eyes. “Q told you, huh?”

“Q told me nothing.” He slammed the glass back down on the table. “I know you, Nick. You may think you’re being sneaky, trying to hide things from the rest of us, and maybe it works with Rok and D, but I see right through your bullshit. I’ve been there, bro - I know all the tricks in the book.”

“Yeah, so don’t act all self-righteous, like you’re so much better than me,” I shot back. “I didn’t do anything wrong. So I had a few drinks before bed to help me sleep. Big fucking deal. Don’t tell me you didn’t want a drink, too, after the day we had.”

“Of course I did. Truth be told, I want a drink every damn day,” AJ admitted. “But I don’t let myself have one because I know one will turn into two, then three, and before I know it, I’ll be right back where I was before I went to rehab.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re an alcoholic,” I said, flopping back down on the pillows. “You can’t control your drinking. I can.”

“Yeah, you seem real in control right now,” he said sarcastically. “Remember the drugs I flushed down your toilet last night? Was that not a big deal either?”

I didn’t answer.

“What were you even doing? Ecstasy?”

“None of your fucking business.” I pulled the covers over myself and rolled over, putting my back to him.

“Are you kidding me?” He came around to the other side of the bed so he could look me in the eye. “We’re literally in business together, buddy, so it is my business, just like it was your business when my bullshit was affecting the group.”

“Well, mine’s not affecting the group,” I muttered, closing my eyes. I wished he would take the hint and go away. I just wanted to fall back to sleep and forget about this whole conversation.

“The fuck it’s not!” AJ exploded. “It’s been affecting the group for years! How many times did you get docked for being late to the studio because you were too fucking hungover to drag your ass out of bed? How many hours did we waste listening to you record your parts over and over because you’d been out partying all night, and your voice was too wrecked to sing them right? Your decisions do affect the group, Nick, and we’re all getting sick of you making such bad ones. Why do you think Kevin left?”

My eyes flew open. Immediately, I felt defensive. “Kevin left ‘cause he wanted to start a family!”

“No, Kevin left because he was tired of babysitting a twenty-five-year-old manchild,” AJ replied matter-of-factly. “He might have enjoyed his last tour with us more if it hadn’t been for you and your bullshit. And if he’d been with us in Vegas last night, he wouldn’t be in the hospital right now.”

My stomach lurched as I sat up suddenly, blinking at him in disbelief. “Are you saying it’s somehow my fault Kevin got hurt?”

AJ glared back at me. “No. I’m saying you need to grow the fuck up, stop doing dumb shit, and start taking some responsibility for your actions.” Then his expression softened. “I don’t wanna have to see you in a hospital bed next.”

I stared down at the bedspread. The sound of blood rushing behind my eardrums was almost deafening. I wanted to say something to defend myself, but I couldn’t come up with a decent excuse for my behavior. I didn’t think it was fair for AJ to blame me for Kevin quitting the Backstreet Boys; I wasn’t any more responsible for that than I was for his accident. But deep down, I knew he was right about one thing: My drinking and drug use had affected my work. And maybe it had affected the rest of the group more than I realized.

But that was then. It was a new year, and I had turned over a new leaf. I didn’t let my partying get in the way of doing my job anymore. In the last few months, I’d made much better decisions than I had before. I had cut the toxic people out of my life, lost weight, left L.A. Gradually, I was getting myself back on track. I was going to find a better balance and prove to the other guys that I wasn’t like AJ, that I could control my bad habits.

AJ cleared his throat. “Speaking of the hospital…” he started, as I slowly looked back up. “Brian called. Kevin’s out of surgery and in recovery.”

My heart lifted. “Really? So he’s all right?”

He shrugged. “Rok said the surgery went well and that he’s stable, whatever that means. He and Ann were getting ready to head back to his house for the night and let Kevin rest, but we can go see him again tomorrow.”

“How long do you think he’s gonna be in the hospital?” I wondered.

“No idea,” said AJ, shaking his head. “All I know is he’s got a long road of recovery ahead of him. He’s gonna need our support...” He let his last statement hang in the air, giving me a look that clearly said, Can we count on you to help?

“Of course,” I replied quickly. “Whatever we can do… I’m here for him.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, but he didn’t sound like he believed me. “Well… that’s all I really wanted to tell you. I guess I’ll let you get back to sleep now.”

Before I could say anything else, AJ turned abruptly and left, flicking the light switch on his way out so that I was blinded by darkness.

***


Chapter 7 by RokofAges75
Kevin

For the first few days, I was in a fog. I drifted in and out of consciousness, with no sense of time or place. The fog would lift for a few moments at a time, then descend on me again. I caught glimpses of familiar faces, but couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to focus on their features. I heard voices I recognized, but could hardly comprehend what they were saying. My thoughts were clouded by high doses of pain medication, steroids, and sedatives, which kept me in a state of calm confusion. I didn’t know what was real anymore.

I had vivid dreams of dancing with my wife. The ballroom was lit with bright lights, and Kristin looked beautiful in a long, white dress, like she’d worn at our wedding. I would spin her around and around in circles before dipping her backwards over my arm, and she would laugh and beam up at me, her brown eyes twinkling. Then, without warning, the music would stop, and the floor beneath my feet would give way, and I would fall down, down into a deep dark hole. I never felt my body hit the ground, but with a start, I would wake to find myself lying flat on my back, unable to breathe, as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I would look up and see the bright lights high above my head, but the face hovering over me didn’t belong to my wife. Where’s Kristin? I would wonder, but I couldn’t form the words to ask. Kristin’s dead, a voice in the back of my head would answer, but I didn’t believe it. Kristin couldn’t be dead. Before I could figure out the truth, the lights would fade as clouds of dense fog closed in on me again.

This kept recurring until the fog finally dissipated and didn’t come back. I woke with a clear head and found myself in a hospital bed, surrounded by machines that blipped and hissed. At first, I felt fearful, until I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey there, sleepyhead.” I tried to turn my head toward the sound, but there was still a brace around my neck that made it impossible to move. Shifting my eyes instead, I saw Brian sitting beside my bed. He scooted his chair closer and leaned forward so I could see him better. “Don’t try to talk,” he added, as I opened my mouth to say something back to him. “You still have a tube down your throat to help you breathe.”

That brought it all back to me: the accident, the ambulance ride, the emergency room, and the ICU. I remembered Brian telling me to hang in there just before the doctor put in the breathing tube, promising to take care of Mason. I remembered my other Backstreet brothers being there, too, and Nick wiping the tears from my face because I couldn’t raise my arms. I remembered saying goodbye to Kristin as she lay lifeless on a gurney parked right next to mine, and I knew then that it was true: my wife was dead. The realization brought fresh tears to my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Brian asked anxiously, apparently noticing the tears. “Are you in pain? Blink once for yes, twice for no.”

Was I in pain? What a loaded question that was. Physically, no. The breathing tube was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. My neck felt stiff, but most of my body was still numb. Mentally, though, I was in agony. All I wanted was to go home, hug my son, and kiss my wife, but I couldn’t do any of that. I would never be able to kiss Kristin again. And if my condition didn’t improve, I might never be able to give Mason another hug either. I had to get better for my baby boy.

“Kev?” Leaning over the railing on the side of my bed, Brian looked me in the eye. “Can you hear me?”

I blinked, then offered a shrug. It was such a subtle gesture, I didn’t give it a second thought, but Brian gasped.

“He moved his arms! Did you see that, Bone?”

AJ suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision. He was standing on the other side of the bed, smiling down at me. “I saw! Way to go, Kevy Kev. That was great!”

I felt absurdly like an infant lying in a crib. Was this what it was like for Mason whenever Kristin and I stood by the side of his crib and watched him, cooing over every cute little thing he did? He usually smiled up at us, burbling back in his baby talk, but it just made me self-conscious.

“This must mean the surgery worked! He’s getting some function back,” Brian said happily.

Surgery? I wondered, frowning. When did I have surgery?

Brian must have seen the look of confusion on my face because he explained, “They operated on your spine three days ago to fuse the broken vertebrae back together and relieve the pressure on your spinal cord. The surgery went well, but we’ve been waiting for you to wake up to see if it made any difference. You’ve been pretty out of it.”

“Thank god for good drugs, huh?” added AJ with a snicker.

Thank god, I agreed, mouthing the words around the breathing tube. I didn’t feel any different than I had before, but I was glad they had knocked me out for a while. A part of me wished they would put me back under so I wouldn’t have to feel the pain of losing Kristin again. I would rather dance with her in my dreams forever than wake up to the world without her.

“Can you feel this, cous?” Brian was asking me. “Can you squeeze my hand?”

I couldn’t feel anything, but I tried to make a fist, imagining my fingers curling around his, the muscles contracting. By the crestfallen expression on Brian’s face, I could tell nothing was happening.

“That’s okay. I’m sure it’ll come with time,” he said, flashing a quick smile.

I didn’t feel sure of anything. It was frustrating to wake up after half a week in the hospital and not know what was happening. I had so many questions, but no way to ask them. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t write or sign. I couldn’t even nod or shake my head. I could only communicate by blinking my eyes, making faces, and mouthing words. It’s a good thing I have such expressive eyebrows, because the guys weren’t very good lip-readers.

Thankfully, Brian, AJ, and the steady stream of visitors who followed them helped put together the pieces of the puzzle, painting a clearer picture of the past few days for me. I found out that my mom was staying with Brian, while Leighanne had flown back to Georgia to take care of Baylee. Kristin’s parents were living temporarily at our house while they handled her funeral arrangements. My in-laws were also taking care of Mason, with help from Howie and Leigh.

“We’re getting some good practice at being parents,” Howie said when he came in to see me. “Mason misses you, but he’s doing fine. Don’t worry about him. Just focus on getting back on your feet.”

I wanted to joke about being worried Howie would screw up my kid, but I couldn’t form the words. In reality, I wasn’t worried about that at all. Out of all the boys, Howie had always been the most responsible. Other than Brian, he was the only one I would want watching my six-month-old. Now if it had been Nick or AJ assigned to babysitting duty, then I really would have had a reason to worry. But I trusted Howie.

What I worried most about was how Mason and I were going to manage in the future, once I got out of the hospital and my friends and family went home. I was now a single father - a single father who couldn’t do a single thing for himself, let alone take care of a baby. No one would tell me whether my paralysis was permanent, and of course, I couldn’t ask.

In the ICU, I had a team of nurses tending to my every need. They came into my room around the clock, carefully turning my body every couple of hours to prevent pressure sores from forming, feeding me through a thin tube inserted into my nose that went straight into my stomach, suctioning the mucus out of my lungs so I could breathe better, emptying the catheter bag that collected my urine, bathing and changing me like I was a baby. I hadn’t been so helpless since I was Mason’s age. Hell, even my six-month-old could move around and communicate better than me. I was more like a baby doll, able to blink and wet itself, but not much else.

It was bad enough not being able to move, but not being able to talk was even worse. At one point, I had a terrible itch on the side of my nose; it was driving me nuts, but despite my best effort, I couldn’t bring my hand up to my face to scratch it. “Nose itches,” I tried mouthing to Nick and Howie, who were in my room at the time, but neither of them knew what I was saying.

Nick came the closest. “No stitches?” he guessed. “Nah, dawg, I don’t think they had to use any stitches for the cut on your head. Not sure about your neck; I dunno what it looks like under that brace you’re wearing. I bet you’ll have some cool scars though.”

I wrinkled my nose, my skin crawling.

Nick must have thought I was just making a face because he laughed and added, “Aw, c’mon, scars just make you look like more of a badass. But if you don’t like it, you can always cover it up with a sweet neck tattoo.”

I rolled my eyes at that.

“What, you don’t wanna look like AJ?” Howie joked, which got Nick going again as I suffered in silence.

Eventually, one of the nurses brought in a communication board, which had a series of frequently-used words and phrases with little pictures, as well as a pain scale with the numbers one to ten and an alphabet. The nurse would read through the words or letters in order, and I would blink when she got to the one I wanted. It was a painstakingly slow process, but it worked. At least now I had a reliable way to make my needs known.

The first message I spelled out using the letter board was, “Breathing tube out?” I assumed the nurse would understand this to mean that I wanted it out, or at least wanted to know when it could be taken out. To my relief, she nodded and said, “Dr. Bone will come by to talk to you when she gets out of the operating room.”

The blonde surgeon turned up later that day. I remembered meeting her briefly before she had put the breathing tube in. I hoped she was about to take it out. Instead, she told me I would have to be put through a series of breathing trials to prove I could breathe well enough on my own before I could be weaned off the ventilator, which would take at least two more days. If I didn't pass the test, I would probably need a tracheostomy. The thought of breathing through a tube hanging out of a hole in my neck terrified me. I was determined to do whatever it took to avoid that.

She brought in a respiratory therapist named Christopher, who explained that he would be turning down the pressure setting on the ventilator for a few minutes every other hour so he could monitor my ability to breathe without the machine pushing oxygen into my lungs. Then he would put me back on full ventilator support to let me rest until the next trial, gradually increasing the time I could remain off it until it was clear I didn’t need it anymore.

Throughout the rest of that day and the next, I worked with the respiratory therapist as my family and friends continued to rotate in and out of the room. They kept me company, carrying on mostly one-sided conversations. Howie told me cute stories about Mason. Brian showed me a video Leighanne and Baylee had made to send me their love. AJ talked about the TV shows he’d been watching that he thought I would like too, and Nick brought me a brand new iPod filled with my favorite music. They helped pass the time and take my mind off the pain and discomfort I felt. They dried the tears I couldn’t wipe away myself and scratched the itches I couldn’t reach. I appreciated them being there more than I could express, but I hoped they knew how much their visits meant to me.

It was a lot lonelier after visiting hours ended and they all left for the evening. I lay awake late into the night, trying to relax and let the ventilator breathe for me while I listened to the playlist Nick had made. It contained mostly upbeat music, an eclectic mix of everything from classic rock and old-school rap to modern pop hits. It felt weird not to be able to bob my head or tap my fingers and toes to the beat.

As “California Love” by 2Pac and Dr. Dre pounded against my eardrums, I closed my eyes and imagined myself driving up the coastline in my convertible with the top down and the radio turned all the way up, one hand on the wheel and the other on my wife’s bare thigh. Kristin would be riding next to me in the passenger seat, laughing as the ocean breeze blew back her long, blonde hair. That was the way I wanted to remember her - as the vibrant, beautiful woman I had loved for the last sixteen years, not the lifeless shell I’d said goodbye to in the emergency room.

Almost as if on cue, the rap song came to an end and was replaced by something softer and slower, a seventies folk song I recognized right away. “People smile and tell me I’m the lucky one… and we’ve only just begun. Think I’m gonna have a son.” Tears sprang to my eyes as I listened to the familiar lyrics. “He will be like she and me, as free as a dove… conceived in love. The sun is gonna shine above.” Nick must have known how much I liked “Danny’s Song.” I had grown up listening to it with my parents, who had played the record often when I was a kid. It still reminded me of my dad and the loving relationship he’d had with my mom, but it wasn’t until I was married and about to become a father myself that I fully understood why he had connected so deeply with that song. “And even though we ain’t got money… I’m so in love with you, honey, and everything will bring a chain of love.” These days, it made me think more of my own little family. I had sung this song to Kristin while she was pregnant with Mason, my head resting on her round belly so our baby could hear his daddy’s voice. “And in the morning when I rise, you bring a tear of joy to my eye and tell me everything… is gonna be all right.”

The tears spilled over as my heart ached for the life I’d had with Kristin, a life I was never going to get back. Nothing was going to be all right now that she was gone. I didn’t see how I would ever be able to move on without her. Hell, I couldn’t even move.

I lay there with tears trickling down the sides of my face for I don’t know how long before I finally cried myself to sleep, something I hadn’t done since my dad died. Once again, I dreamed of dancing with Kristin, until the nurses came in to turn me as they did every two hours. It was a rude awakening to be jolted out of a deep sleep and find my broken body being rolled over in bed by four hands that did not belong to my wife. As the nurses bustled around me, making sure my tubes were all still in place and tucking pillows beneath different parts of my body to keep it in the new position, I closed my eyes and willed my brain to take me back to my dream, where Kristin was alive and I was undamaged. I wished I could stay there forever and never wake up.

***


Chapter 8 by RokofAges75
Nick

The first week of 2008 was one of the worst in my life. I was supposed to have flown back to my new home in Franklin for two more weeks of relaxation until it was time to start our final rehearsals for the Unbreakable tour. Instead, I stayed in L.A. at AJ’s house and spent my time off hanging out at a hospital.

I’m sure I sound like an asshole for complaining when Kevin was the one stuck in the hospital. Don’t get me wrong - he definitely had it worse. All I’m saying is it was hard on me, too. It was hard on all of us.

By Saturday, I was desperately in need of a break. “Anyone wanna go out and do something tonight?” I asked the other guys as we waited for the elevator. Evening rounds were about to begin in the ICU, which was our cue to leave.

Everyone had a different excuse for why they couldn’t come out with me. “Nah, bro, I better not,” said AJ. “Too much temptation, you know?” He gave me a meaningful look, which I ignored. After what he’d said to me the other day, I didn’t really want to go out with him anyway. I wished Q was still around, but he had flown back to Florida for his son’s birthday.

“I think Leigh and I are gonna spend the night in,” added Howie, “but maybe next time.”

I turned around so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. This is why I’m never getting married, I thought. It makes you a lame old man.

Then I remembered that Brian’s wife had gone back home to be with Baylee. “What about you, Brian?” I said. “Wanna bach it up with me while the wifey’s away?” Leighanne never let Brian have fun with me anymore. She thought I was a bad influence. I thought the same thing about her.

Brian raised his eyebrows. “Maybe. What’d you have in mind?”

“I dunno, grab some dinner and drinks, maybe hit a few clubs?”

He hesitated. “You know that’s not really my scene, Nick. Now if you wanna come over to my place, you’re more than welcome. We could pick up a case of beer, order pizza, and just chill.”

I love pizza and beer as much as the next guy, but I wasn’t in the mood to hang out at anyone’s house. Besides, Kevin’s mom was staying at Brian’s, and while she was a lovely woman, I knew I wouldn’t have any fun with her around. She would only remind me of what had happened to Kevin, and I wanted to forget about that for just one night.

“Thanks, but that’s okay. I’ll just call my buddy Chris,” I said with a shrug. There was a time when Brian had been my best friend, but not anymore. I’d met my current best friend, Chris, in Florida a few years ago. He had moved to California after graduating college last year, and he was the only one from my Hollywood crowd I hadn’t cut out of my life. Chris wasn’t toxic like the others. He knew how to have fun, but he had a good head on his shoulders.

"Hey, man, how's it goin'?" Chris asked when he picked me up at the bottom of AJ’s driveway a couple hours later.

“Eh… it’s goin’,” I replied, as I climbed into his car.

“Sorry to hear about Kevin and Kristin. That’s rough.”

I sighed. “Yeah. It really sucks.” Through our publicist, we had released a statement about the Richardsons’ accident. We had kept the details of Kevin’s injury under wraps, announcing only that he had undergone surgery and was in serious condition. But when I’d called Chris to invite him out, I had told him the truth. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore tonight, though. I don’t even wanna think about it. Your job is to make me forget.”

Chris grinned. “You got it, my friend. Let’s go.” He revved his engine before shifting out of park and peeling off down the winding road out of AJ’s neighborhood.

He took me to my favorite restaurant, followed by one of my favorite clubs, places I had introduced him to when he’d first come out to L.A. We ate, drank, danced, and drank some more. The more I drank, the easier it was for me to push Kevin to the back of my mind and be in the moment, focusing only on the music and the beautiful women that filled the dance floor. By midnight, I was feeling much better.

I ran into one of my old dealers in the bathroom, which wasn’t really surprising, considering how many times I’d bought from him at this very club before. I hadn’t planned on doing anything except drinking that night, but nevertheless, I found myself popping a pastel blue pill on my way out of the bathroom. Yeah, you seem real in control right now, I could hear AJ’s snarky voice in my head. It occurred to me that maybe he was right; maybe I really couldn’t control myself. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I just wanted to have fun and forget.

I didn’t mention the molly to Chris. He liked to party and drink, but he didn’t do drugs. He stayed back at our table while I went out on the dance floor, bumping and grinding with a group of hot girls.

Within half an hour, I could feel the effects of the ecstasy kicking in. My senses were heightened. The music seemed to be coming from within my body; I could feel the vibration in every organ, my heart beating along with the bass drum as the synthesized chords echoed inside my head. The bright lights blurred before my eyes, making me dizzy as I danced, but they were so beautiful, I couldn’t stop looking. For the first time all week, I felt euphoric and totally at peace with the world. I wanted to stay in that place forever.

But last call came at one-thirty, and by two a.m., the club was closing. “C’mon, Nick. We gotta go now,” said Chris, guiding me toward the door.

“I don’t wanna go home,” I protested, as I stumbled out onto the pavement. “Let’s find a house party we can crash.”

Chris shook his head. “Not tonight, dude. I’m gonna drive you back to AJ’s place and-”

“Nick!” I looked up as a camera flashed in my face. “Hey, Nick, how you doing tonight?” Even as my eyes adjusted, I didn’t recognize the guy behind it. I realized he must be paparazzi. They normally didn’t give a shit about me these days, but with Kevin in the hospital, I guess I was interesting again because the guy kept bugging me and Chris as we waited for the valet to bring his car around. “How’s Kevin doing? Can you give us an update?”

“Kevin’s a badass,” I finally said, figuring it would get him off my back if I just answered his question. “Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

The guy’s eyes widened behind his camera. “Wait, does that mean he can’t walk right now?”

“No comment,” Chris said quickly, wrapping his arm around me and steering me away. “Stop talking, dude,” he muttered as he dragged me down the street. In the back of my mind, I realized I must have said something wrong, but I could hardly think straight.

Thankfully, Chris’s car pulled up to the curb before I could do any more damage. He practically shoved me into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. The paparazzo continued to take pictures as we drove away.

“Did I just fuck up?” I asked Chris.

“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “You just shouldn’t talk to paparazzi when you’re wasted.”

“Whatever,” I muttered, turning up the music so I could feel the beat pulsing inside me again.

Chris turned it back down. “Dude, it’s two in the morning. I don’t wanna get pulled over.”

“Well, can I at least roll down my window? I’m dying here.”

He gave me a weird look. “It’s like fifty degrees outside. But sure… suit yourself.”

I lowered the window and stuck my head out like a dog, wanting to feel the fresh, cool breeze on my flushed face. It was only January, but I was suddenly boiling.

The rest of the ride back to AJ’s was a blur. When Chris dropped me off at the bottom of the driveway, I somehow managed to let myself in the gate and stagger up to the house. But the moment I opened the front door, a high-pitched alarm began to sound. My heart leaped in my chest and started pounding like a bass drum again.

“Fuck,” I swore under my breath. I had forgotten about AJ’s home security system. I found the keypad that controlled it, but I couldn’t remember the code to turn off the alarm. In a panic, I fumbled with the buttons anyway, punching 1-2-3-4 and 0-0-0-0 as the alarm continued to wail in the background.

“Nick!” I turned to see AJ standing at the top of the stairs in nothing but his boxers. He was wielding a samurai sword. “What the fuck are you doing?!”

“I forgot the code!” I called up to him. “Can you turn it off?”

AJ stomped barefoot down the stairs, swinging the sword at his side. “It’s my birthday, dumbass,” he snapped, as he pressed the correct combination of digits. “1-9-7-8.”

The piercing sound stopped instantly, but I continued to stare at the keypad. “Hey… I just realized… your birthdate’s the same as your birth year. 1/9/78… 1978!”

“No shit.” He snickered. “Did that just blow your mind or something?”

“Kinda… yeah…”

Suddenly, I heard another high-pitched sound. At first I thought the alarm was going off again, but then I realized it was just AJ’s phone ringing. “That’ll be the security company,” he said, rolling his eyes at me as he ran to answer it. I could hear him talking to the caller from another room. “Hello? No, false alarm… everything’s fine…”

He came back into the foyer a minute later, still carrying the katana. “What’s with the sword?” I asked.

“Dude, you scared the shit out of me! I thought someone had broken in. This was the closest weapon I could find.”

I blinked. “You keep a samurai sword in your bedroom?”

He nodded proudly. “Sweet, isn’t it? I bought it in Japan and had it shipped back here.”

“It is pretty sweet,” I admitted, admiring the long, shiny blade. “Can I hold it?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you kidding? You can barely hold your own head up. And why are you so sweaty?”

I looked down at myself and shrugged. “I was dancing.”

He shook his head. “You’re drunk… and high. I hope you weren’t driving.”

“I don’t even have a car here. Chris drove.”

“And was he drinking, too?”

I didn’t answer.

AJ looked at me in disgust. “Kevin’s accident was caused by a drunk driver, you know. Kristin was killed by a fucking drunk driver.”

I frowned. “How do you know that?”

“Her parents told us, that first day at the hospital. You may not have been in the room. The woman who hit them had a blood alcohol level at least twice the legal limit. That bitch walked away from a fatal accident with nothing more than scrapes and bruises. Meanwhile, Kevin may never walk again.”

I shook my head, cringing at his words. “Don’t say that.”

“Truth hurts, huh? Maybe you’ll think twice next time you stagger out of the club at two in the morning.”

“Oh, like you’ve never done it, Mr. High and Mighty. You’re not perfect either, so you can spare me the lecture.”

“I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I just wish you would learn from my mistakes instead of repeating them. I don’t wanna see you go down the same dark path I did.”

I didn’t say anything.

“C’mere a minute.” He slung his arm around me and guided me into the kitchen, where he filled a glass with ice water. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Drink it all before you go to sleep. Just don’t wet the damn bed.”

“Okay, Dad.”

AJ rolled his eyes again. “Goodnight, Nick.” He stomped back upstairs, taking the katana with him.

I sat at the kitchen island and took a sip of water. I hadn’t realized how dehydrated I was until I felt the cool liquid swishing around in my dry mouth. I had never tasted anything so good. I downed the rest of the glass in a few gulps and let out a sigh. Leaving the empty glass on the counter, I headed up to bed.

My high was wearing off by then, and I felt sluggish and sad. Yet my heart was still hammering almost as hard and fast as it had on the dance floor. I could hear it thudding against my ear drums as I lay my head down on the pillow. The whole room seemed to be spinning around me. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, trying to ward off the dizziness and slow down my racing heart. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.

I woke to the sound of AJ banging on my door again. Before I could answer, he burst into the room. “You talked to fucking TMZ about Kevin?!” he yelled at me.

“Huh?” My head was pounding. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Oh, were you too wasted to remember what you said? Here, let me refresh your memory.” He thrust his smartphone into my face.

I blinked, my eyes struggling to focus on the headline of the page he had pulled up on his phone. Nick Carter on Kevin Richardson’s Condition -- “I know he’s gonna walk again.” My heart sank.

“They’re reporting that Kevin is paralyzed, and since they have a video of you saying that shit, our fans know it’s not just a rumor. They’re freaking out all over LiveDaily right now.”

I looked up at him, horrified. “There’s a video?”

“Of course there’s a video, Nick. The cameras are always fucking rolling. Scroll down.”

I took the phone from him and swiped my finger up to move further down the page until I found the video. I didn’t want to watch it, but I pressed the play button anyway. I saw myself staggering around on the sidewalk outside the club, slurring my words as I said, “Kevin’s a badass. Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

“Wait, does that mean he can’t walk right now?” I heard the paparazzo ask off-camera before Chris pulled me away. I hadn’t even realized he was recording me.

“I’m sorry,” I said to AJ, handing him back his phone. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I just wanted the guy to leave me alone.”

“So you say ‘no comment’ and walk away, Nick! Kevin’s medical condition is no one’s fucking business but his own. We agreed we would wait until he was well enough to make a statement of his own to release any more details to the media. We don’t even know if his paralysis is permanent or not, but now the whole world knows he can’t walk. This is not the way any of us wanted our fans to find out.”

I felt my face heating up. “I know. I said I’m sorry.”

“Well, I hope you’re sorry enough to learn from this and not let it happen again. Maybe if you weren’t so fucking wasted, you wouldn’t have messed up in the first place.”

I had no response to that. I knew he was right, but I wasn’t ready to start making promises I wouldn’t - or couldn’t - keep.

“Brian called,” AJ added after a pause.

My heart skipped a beat as I imagined how disappointed Brian would be when he saw the video. “Did you tell him about TMZ?”

“He’s the one who told me. Leighanne saw it first and called him.

I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Leighanne to follow all the celebrity gossip sites. “Is he pissed at me?”

“He’s not happy, but that wasn’t the main reason he called. He wanted to invite us to come to church with him and Kevin’s mom this morning.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t a big fan of church and dreaded the thought of facing Kevin’s family after what I’d done, but if sitting in a pew with them and praying for Kevin to get better would make up for my mistake, I was willing to do it. “What’d you say?”

“I told him we’d be there, but seeing as how I can still smell the alcohol on your breath, I don’t think you’re in any condition to be setting foot inside a church. So I’m gonna go, and you’re gonna stay here and get your shit together. Take a cold shower, drink some coffee, do whatever it takes to sober up. Then meet us at the hospital at noon.”

I nodded. “I will.”

When he left, I lay back down, but I couldn’t sleep. I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the bathroom to take a shower. As I stripped off my tank top, I realized AJ was right - I reeked of booze and sweat. I looked like a wreck, too. I hardly recognized my own reflection in the mirror. My greasy hair stuck out in all directions, and there were dark circles under my puffy eyes. My face was practically gray, like a ghost of my former self. I hated what I saw, hated myself for fucking up again.

I may have made myself feel better for a few hours, but ultimately, I had only made things worse.

***


Chapter 9 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I woke up in the morning feeling like I had hardly slept. Between the constant interruptions from the nursing staff and the discomfort caused by my breathing tube and neck brace, the last two nights had been restless. I was already missing the sedatives that had knocked me out for the first three.

It was a relief when Dr. Bone arrived for her morning rounds and, after examining me, announced that I was ready to be extubated. She had the respiratory therapist, Christopher, come in to remove my breathing tube. He replaced it with a nasal cannula, which was better because at least it allowed me to talk, although my voice was weak and hoarse.

“Your throat may be a little sore for the next few days, but it’ll get better with time,” he told me, as he listened to my lungs with his stethoscope. “The important thing is to take deep breaths. Because of your spinal cord injury, you’ve lost control of the intercostal muscles between your ribs, which help your chest expand when you inhale. Your lung capacity has been reduced to less than forty percent of what it should be, so you’ll want to keep your lungs clear and fill them with as much air as you can. If you were to develop any respiratory complications, like a collapsed lung or pneumonia, you’d probably have to be put back on the vent. I know you don’t want that.”

“Definitely not,” I whispered, feeling a flicker of fear.

“Yeah… the problem with that is, your abdominal muscles are also paralyzed, so you can’t cough effectively enough to clear the mucus from your lungs,” Christopher went on explaining. “What we have to do to help you out with that is called an assisted cough. There’s a couple ways we can do it. There’s a manual way, which involves someone else pushing down on your abdomen while you exhale to simulate a cough - I’ll teach you and your caregiver how to do that sometime before you’re discharged - but here in the ICU, we use a machine called the Cough Assist.”

My head was spinning. Caregiver? Cough Assist? This was all new information to me, and I felt overwhelmed as it dawned on me just how different my life was going to be, even after I left the hospital. I had been so focused on the past and present, I hadn’t thought that far ahead into the future. There was a part of me that had assumed I would regain the feeling and function in the rest of my body, that I would be able to walk out of here on my own two feet after a few weeks of rehabilitation. But now I wondered if I was being overly optimistic, hoping for something that was never going to happen. Would I be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life? Would I have to rely on other people to help take care of me? No one had told me what to expect one way or the other.

The anxiety must have shown in my face because Christopher suddenly put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “It’s basically just an oxygen mask attached to a machine that uses positive and negative pressure to make you take a deep breath and then suck the air and mucus out of your lungs, like a cough. Here, I’ll show you.”

It wasn’t the machine itself I was worried about, but I didn’t bother to correct him. I let him hook me up to the cough assist machine by placing a clear mask over my mouth and nose. When he turned the machine on, I felt air flowing forcefully through the mask. After a few seconds, I heard a loud whooshing sound, almost like a vacuum cleaner, and the sides of my face were sucked against the edges of the mask as the air was expelled from my lungs. It was a strange sensation, much different from normal coughing, but it must have worked because after a few rounds, I felt phlegm in the back of my throat. Christopher removed the mask and stuck a suctioning wand inside my mouth to get rid of it. The rattling sound it made reminded me of the dentist’s office, and I found myself wishing, for the first time in my life, that I was there instead. I would rather be anywhere but here.

“How does that feel?” he asked me, listening to my chest again afterwards. “Better?”

“A little bit, yeah.”

“Your lungs sound clear, and your oxygen level is right where we want it to be. All good signs. You’re doing great.” He smiled down at me as he draped the stethoscope around his neck. “I’m going to see some other patients now, but I’ll be back to check on you later. In the meantime, let your nurse know if you feel congested or short of breath, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks.”

After Christopher left, I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. My mouth felt as dry as the Sahara desert, and my throat burned. “Can I have some water?” I croaked to my nurse, Stephanie.

She gave me a sympathetic look and shook her head. “Sorry, but you’re NPO - nothing by mouth until you’re cleared to start eating and drinking again.”

“Can’t you just give me some ice chips?” I begged. “Just something to wet my mouth? I’m dying here.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Doctor’s orders,” said Stephanie. “Don’t worry - you’re getting fluids through your IV, so you’re not really dehydrated. It just feels that way because your throat’s irritated from the tube.”

That didn’t help. Frustrated, I closed my eyes again to block out the fluorescent light and pictured myself in a cool, dark cave. The faint blipping of my heart monitor became the sound of water dripping down from stalactites. I would have happily licked the water droplets off the cave walls just to feel moisture on my sandpaper tongue. I tried to work up some saliva instead, but my mouth was so dry, I couldn’t even spit.

I had barely closed my eyes when Dr. Bone breezed back in. Lying flat on my back, I couldn’t see the door, but I recognized the sound of her dress shoes clicking on the tiled floor. They were different from the rubbery squeak the nurses’ Crocs and sneakers made. “How are you doing, Kevin?” the doctor asked as she came up alongside my bed.

“I’m thirsty,” I answered immediately. “Can I please have some water?”

“Not yet,” Dr. Bone said apologetically. “We need to make sure you can swallow safely first. When you have surgery on your neck, everything gets shifted around to make room for the hardware that’s holding your spine together. Sometimes swallowing is difficult or feels different in the days afterward. And since you can’t cough very well to clear your airway, you’re at a higher risk of choking or aspiration if food or water were to go down the wrong pipe.”

“Well, how will you know if I can swallow safely if you won’t let me try?” I asked, annoyed. It was bad enough feeling like an infant, incapable of doing anything for myself, but now I was being treated like one, too. Don’t give the baby solid food for the first four months, or he might choke. All I wanted was a sip of water!

“I’ll have a speech pathologist come in to evaluate you sometime this week. Once you’re cleared to begin eating and drinking again, we’ll be able to take out your NG tube.”

I wasn’t happy with her answer, but no amount of arguing or complaining would change her mind.

“How are you doing otherwise?” Dr. Bone pressed, finally forcing me to move on.

I didn’t know how to answer that, so I decided to be direct. “You tell me, Doc. Do you think I’ll be able to use my arms and legs again, or am I gonna be like this for the rest of my life?”

She pursed her lips as she looked down at me. “That’s why I came back to talk to you. It’s been five days since your surgery, so the swelling in your spinal cord should have gone down. Now that you’re able to speak again, I’d like to do a more thorough neurological exam to assess the level and grade of your spinal cord injury. That will give me a better idea of what kind of recovery you can expect moving forward.”

I didn’t think it was possible for my mouth to feel any drier, but somehow, it did. With difficulty, I swallowed and said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Dr. Bone washed her hands and snapped on a pair of gloves. “For the first part of the assessment, I need to do a quick rectal exam.”

I immediately regretted agreeing so quickly. “Uh… what? Why?”

“To see if a certain reflex is present. After a severe spinal cord injury, there’s a period of complete paralysis below the level of injury. It’s called spinal shock. It can last anywhere from a day to several weeks, but typically it resolves in a few days. If you’re still in spinal shock, there’s no point in doing the full assessment now because the findings could be completely different once it resolves. But if it already has, this assessment will determine your prognosis.”

I sighed. “All right… do whatever you have to do, I guess.”

With the help of my nurse, she rolled me over onto my left side and removed my hospital gown. For the first time, I was thankful I couldn’t feel her touching me. She must have found what she was looking for, though, because after a few minutes she announced, “The reflex is present, so we can proceed with the full exam.”

I took that as a positive sign, although I couldn’t remember if it was really a good thing or not.

“While I have you in this position, I need to check for a couple of other things,” said Dr. Bone as she stood behind me. “First I’m going to insert my finger into your anus, and I want you to tell me when you feel any pressure.”

I felt my face flush, as all the old “Backdoor Boys” jokes I used to hear flooded back into my brain. Don’t be embarrassed, I tried to tell myself. It’s not a big deal. She’s just a doctor doing her job. But it was hard not to be. I braced myself for the physical discomfort I was anticipating, but I didn’t feel anything down there.

“Okay Kevin, now I want to see if you can clench your sphincter muscles, like you’re holding in a bowel movement.”

I bit my lip to hold back the burst of laughter that almost came out when I heard her say the word “sphincter.” Of course, I couldn’t help but picture myself and the boys wearing wigs and spandex on the set of our music video for “Just Want You to Know,” in which we had portrayed a fictional eighties hair band called “Sphynkter.” It was a good thing none of the other guys walked in at that moment. I could only imagine how much they would have been cracking up. We had always talked about dressing up like Sphynkter again for a show, but we hadn’t done it. Now we never would - or at least I wouldn’t. I supposed the other guys could always do it without me.

“Kevin?” Dr. Bone asked, bringing me back to the present. “Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” Straightening my face, I tried to follow her directions, but I didn’t know if I was doing it or not. I still couldn’t feel a thing.

“All right,” she finally said. “Let’s move on to the next part of the exam.”

I frowned. “How’d I do?”

“I’ll go over your results once we finish the full exam,” she replied, which led me to believe I had failed the first part.

They repositioned me so I was lying flat on my back again. Then Dr. Bone showed me a safety pin and said, “Next I need to assess your sensory level. I’m going to poke different parts of your body with one end of this pin, and I want you to tell me if you feel a light touch or a pinprick. The light touch will feel like this.” She stroked the side of my face with the rounded end of the pin. “The pinprick will feel like this.” She stuck my cheek with the pointed end, making me flinch. “Got it?”

“Got it,” I replied, grimacing.

She told me to close my eyes so I couldn’t see what she was doing. A few seconds later, I felt something smooth brush the skin behind my right ear. “Light touch,” I said. This was followed by a sharp poke in the same place. “Pinprick.”

“And does it feel the same as it did on your face?” Dr. Bone asked.

“Yeah.”

She worked her way down the right side of my body first, jabbing me just above the collarbone, on the shoulder, and near the inside of my elbow with both ends of the safety pin. I felt everything to that point, although the sensation seemed duller further down my arm. Below it, I felt nothing. She could have cut off the bottom half of my arm, and I wouldn’t have noticed. My forearm, hand, and fingers were completely numb.

When a few seconds went by without feeling another poke, I snuck a peek, wondering why she had stopped. Opening my eyes into narrow slits, I was stunned to see her stick a spot near my right nipple with the sharp end of the safety pin. It should have hurt, or at least made me flinch, but I felt no pain, not even the slightest bit of pressure. I opened my eyes wider and watched as her hand repeatedly raised and lowered the pin, stabbing me in a straight line along my torso like I was some kind of voo-doo doll. I still didn’t feel a thing.

“Doing okay, Kevin?” Dr. Bone called out as she continued down to my waist. I quickly closed my eyes again so she couldn’t see the tears that were welling up in them.

“Uh-huh,” I heard myself say, but it wasn’t true. I was far from okay.

When she was done testing the right side of my body, the doctor went around to the other side of the bed and repeated the same procedure on my left side. The results were no different: I was numb from the chest down.

“Now I’m going to ask you to try moving some of your muscles so I can assess your motor function,” she said next. “We’ll start with your arms and work our way down, okay? You can open your eyes for this part.”

“What’s the point?” I muttered, keeping my eyes shut. “I already know I can’t move my arms or legs. Trust me - I’ve tried. Many times.”

“Well, I want you to try again so I can document how much muscle strength and range of motion you have,” replied Dr. Bone. “We need to get a baseline now so we’ll know if you make any improvements down the road.”

Her explanation made sense, so I reluctantly opened my eyes and agreed to give it my best effort.

She picked up my right hand and held it by the wrist, where I could see it. “All right, Kevin, I want you to bend your elbow and bring your hand up to your nose.”

I sucked in a deep breath as I stared at my hand. I couldn’t feel the bottom half of my arm, but I attempted to bring it toward my face anyway, hoping maybe muscle memory would kick in and help me out. But my hand didn’t even twitch. “I can’t,” I whispered, letting out my breath in defeat.

“That’s all right,” Dr. Bone said reassuringly, resting her hand on my shoulder. “Let’s try it a different way.” She wrapped her hand around my upper arm, still supporting my wrist with her other hand. “Can you touch your nose now?”

I tried again, but still, nothing happened. “No… I can’t!” I cried in frustration, fresh tears filling my eyes. I took short, shuddering breaths as I tried to hold myself together. I didn’t want to break down in front of her, but inside, I was falling apart. I had never felt so weak.

“It’s okay, Kevin,” said Dr. Bone, her voice softer than before. “We can stop for now. I think I have enough information.”

What information? I wondered, as the tears rolled down my cheeks. Information that told her I would never walk again? Never play the piano? Or sign my name to a piece of paper? Or push my son on a swing?

When Brian and my mom arrived at the hospital, fresh from church and still dressed in their Sunday best, Dr. Bone sat them both down in my room and delivered her verdict.

“As you know, Kevin broke both his C5 and C6 cervical vertebrae in the accident last week,” she began, showing us a series of X-rays taken before and after my surgery. She pointed to the bones that were out of place in the first set of pictures, then ran her finger over the metal rod she had used to put them back together in the second set. Seeing the hardware that had been installed inside my neck reinforced to me just how serious my injury was. “We were able to repair the fractures with internal fixation and a spinal fusion, but we’ve been waiting for the swelling to go down to assess the severity of the damage to his spinal cord.”

I watched Brian’s face as the doctor spoke. There wasn’t a trace of his usual humor in it. He was frowning, his lips pressed together in a thin line, his forehead creased with an expression of deep concentration as he kept his eyes fixed on her. I could only think of a handful of times I had ever seen my cousin look so serious. I almost wished he would crack a joke, just to ease the tension in the room.

“I was able to do a more thorough neurological assessment this morning,” Dr. Bone continued, now turning her attention back to me. “It showed you have a complete injury, Kevin, which means your spinal cord was fully compressed at the C6 level. No messages can make it past that point. The damage from the swelling after your initial injury extends up to C4, affecting your arm muscles and weakening your diaphragm.”

I could hear my own heartbeat drumming like a timpani inside my head. The sound of blood rushing behind my ears was almost deafening, drowning out the doctor’s words. “So what does that mean exactly?” I asked, my own voice sounding distorted, like I was trying to talk underwater. “Will I ever walk again?” I held my breath as I waited for her answer.

She shook her head. “You’re a quadriplegic, Kevin,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. “With extensive rehabilitation, you may regain the use of your arms and wrists, but not your fingers and nothing below the waist. Until science discovers a way to reverse spinal cord injuries, you’ll be permanently paralyzed from the chest down. So, no… you will probably never walk again.”

As I let out my breath, I felt deflated, like all the wind had gone out of my sails, leaving me as I was: limp and useless.

“What other questions do you have?”

Once the initial shock had worn off, my mom and Brian both started asking Dr. Bone about rehabilitation centers and other treatment options, everything from physical therapy to stem cell research. I just lay there, only half-listening to what they were saying. Their words barely made sense to me. In that moment, all I could comprehend was that my life, as I’d known it, was over.

***

Chapter 10 by RokofAges75
Nick

I made it to the hospital around twelve-thirty. AJ met me outside the entrance to the ICU. I thought he was going to start giving me shit again about being late, but instead, he said, “Kevin’s doctor brought Brian and Ann back to talk to them first. Howie and I haven’t even been able to see him yet.”

I frowned. “That doesn’t sound good. Did something happen?”

He shrugged. “No idea. I guess we’ll find out.”

We went to the waiting room, where Howie was sitting with Leigh. Like AJ, they were both dressed up, so I assumed they had been to church as well. I felt like a bum in my sweatpants and beanie.

“Hey, Nicky,” said Howie, standing up to hug me. “How are you?”

“I’m all right,” I replied, wondering if AJ had told him about the night before. I assumed he already knew about the TMZ article, but he didn’t bring it up. Good ol’ Howie never gave me a hard time the way the other guys did, even when I deserved it. I sat down next to him, and we waited.

When Brian came back to the waiting room, he was alone. “Aunt Ann is still in with him,” he told us.

“Is Kevin okay?” I asked.

Brian caught my eye. I could see the disapproval written all over his face, but he didn’t mention my drunken blunder. “Well… I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said, sucking in a deep breath. “The good news is that they took out the breathing tube, so he can talk again.”

“That’s great news!” Howie exclaimed.

“Yeah… he’s a little hoarse, but it was nice to hear his voice. I know he’s happy about that. We’re supposed to encourage him to do his breathing exercises to help increase his lung capacity. Dr. Bone said he’s still at risk for complications like pneumonia or a collapsed lung, which could require him to be put back on the ventilator, but the fact that he’s able to breathe on his own again is a positive sign.”

AJ nodded, looking encouraged, but I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. “So then, what’s the negative?”

Brian sighed. “The bad news is… Kevin’s a quadriplegic. Dr. Bone thinks his paralysis is permanent. She said he might be able to use his arms again someday, but not his legs - nothing from the chest down.”

My heart plummeted into my stomach.

“So we all better keep praying for God to work one of His miracles,” Brian continued, locking eyes with each of us. “Otherwise, Kev could be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.”

As the others all nodded in agreement, I felt guilty for not going to church with them earlier. Even worse, my words from the previous night had come back to haunt me. I knew it wasn’t my fault Kevin was paralyzed, but I felt like I had jinxed him somehow by saying he was going to walk again. Now his doctor had told him the exact opposite.

“How did Kevin take the news?” Howie asked Brian.

“He seems pretty depressed about it, as you might imagine. He didn’t say too much - his mom and I did most of the talking.”

“I can’t imagine,” Howie said, shaking his head. “Poor Kevin…”

AJ cleared his throat. “He’s gonna need us now more than ever. I mean, how’s he gonna take care of his kid if he can’t even use his arms?”

“I guess he’ll have to hire a nanny… and a caregiver for himself. He won’t be able to live alone, at least not right away. Even after he gets out of rehab, he’s probably gonna need a lot of help.”

“Rehab?” I repeated, picturing the type of place where addicts went to get clean. AJ had done a couple of stints in rehab. I had almost checked myself in once, too, but changed my mind and completed an outpatient treatment program instead. A lot of good that did you, I scolded myself.

“A rehabilitation center,” said Brian. “That’s where he’ll go when he’s well enough to leave the hospital.”

“For how long?”

“Dr. Bone said probably a few months, but it’ll depend on the program they develop for him and what kind of progress he makes with it. I don’t know any other details yet.”

The room got quiet as we all took some time to process what Brian had told us. It was AJ who broke the silence by asking, “Can we go back and see him now?”

“Yeah, of course. Maybe y’all can cheer him up.”

AJ stood up first and motioned for me to follow him. “C’mon, Nick.”

Grudgingly, I got up, too. AJ was the last person I wanted to be around, but since Howie had his wife with him, we were stuck visiting Kevin together.

“Do you think Brian told him about the TMZ thing?” I asked as we walked into the ICU.

“I doubt it. Sounds like they had more important things to discuss.”

“Well, should I say something about it?”

AJ shrugged. “I dunno, Nick, whatever you wanna do.” He sounded defeated, as if all the fight had gone out of him. A part of me was glad he didn’t seem to want to argue with me anymore, but seeing him so down made me even more depressed myself. There was no chance the two of us were going to be able to cheer Kevin up.

But when we reached the doorway of Kevin’s room, AJ took a deep breath and pasted a bright smile onto his face. “Kevy Kev!” he called as we went inside.

“Hey, J,” Kevin croaked, or maybe he said “AJ” - his voice was so quiet, I couldn’t tell. He was lying on his left side, with pillows wedged behind his back, between his legs, and under his head and arms.

His mom had been sitting in a chair beside his bed, but she stood up when she saw us. “I’ll be just down the hall if you need anything,” she said to Kevin, bending over to kiss him on the forehead. “Have a nice visit with the boys now.”

Kevin’s mouth curved at the corners, not quite forming a full-on smile. “Thanks, Ma.”

Ann walked out, and AJ plopped into her seat. I pulled the second chair around from the other side of the bed and positioned it next to AJ’s so I could see Kevin’s face. Some of the color had come back into it since his accident. He still had tubes in his nose, but at least there wasn’t one sticking out of his mouth anymore. “Hey, bro,” I said, as I sat down. “You look good. Or… better, anyway.”

The ghost of a smile on his lips grew. “Thanks, little brother. No offense, but you look like shit.”

I laughed. “Sorry I didn’t dress up for you like everybody else. It was a late night last night… I may be a bit hungover.”

“No way. Nick Carter? Hungover? I can’t imagine,” said Kevin sarcastically, smirking at me. Even though he was making fun of me, I felt a little better. Maybe he wasn’t as depressed as Brian had made it sound. Or maybe he was just hiding it with humor, the same way AJ and I were.

“Yeah, you wanna know what this asshole here did last night?” said AJ, and my heart sank. Was he really going to start with the TMZ story right now? “He stumbles in at three in the morning, drunk as a skunk, and sets off the security system. I wake up to the alarm blaring and almost have a heart attack, thinking someone just broke into my house. So I grab the closest weapon, my katana-”

“Did you know AJ keeps a fucking samurai sword by his bed?” I interjected, as Kevin started to snicker.

“-and go look downstairs, and guess who I see punching random buttons on my keypad in a panic?”

“You didn’t tell him the code?”

“Of course I told him the code! He was too high to remember it!”

I glanced at Kevin, expecting him to give me the same look of disapproval his cousin had, but he just laughed. “It’s your birthdate, right?”

“1-9-78… duh! I shoulda let the cops come and bust his ass for breaking and entering.”

Even though I knew AJ was kidding, I felt my face flush. Kevin flashed me a quick smile. “It’s okay, Nick. If I could go out and get wasted with you right now, I would. God knows I need a drink.”

I smiled back with relief. “I could prolly smuggle some booze in this place.”

AJ rolled his eyes.

“You’d have to pour shots down my NG tube,” said Kevin, wrinkling his nose. “They won’t let me eat or drink anything yet.”

I made a face, imagining how uncomfortable that must be. In my mind, it was worse than getting water up my nose in the pool, which was pretty damn painful. “That sucks, dude. Are they at least still giving you some good drugs?”

“Not as good as before. I still don’t feel much, but I think that has more to do with my crushed spinal cord than the painkillers.” His smile had faded by that point, and I could hear the bitterness in his voice.

“Brian told us what the doctor said. I’m so sorry, bro.” AJ leaned forward, rubbing Kevin’s shoulder.

“I guess I picked a good time to quit the group, huh? I’m never gonna be able to dance again.”

It hurt my heart to hear him say that. Literally, my chest ached for him and all that he had lost.

“You don’t know that,” I said quickly. “It’s only been, what, five days since your accident? A lot can still happen. I mean, medical advances are being made all the time. I bet there’s a team of doctors and scientists working on a way to help people like you walk again as we speak.”

“People like me,” Kevin repeated, smirking again. “You can say the word ‘quadriplegic,’ Nick. That’s what I am.”

But I didn’t want to say the word. Calling him a quadriplegic would make it real, and I wasn’t ready to accept it yet.

“All I’m saying is, you shouldn’t give up hope. Never say never, dawg.”

“Yeah, Nick already told the whole world you were gonna walk again, so… no pressure,” said AJ out of the blue. I whipped my head toward him, wondering why he would suddenly let that slip when he had made it sound like it was up to me whether or not to tell Kevin about TMZ.

“What is this, Shit on Nick Day or something?” I cried, furious at AJ for betraying me like that.

Kevin frowned. “What are you talking about?”

AJ looked over at me. “You might as well tell him now, Nick.”

I flipped him off before I turned back to Kevin. Taking a deep breath, I started to explain. “So… there was this paparazzi guy harassing me on my way out of the club last night, and I wasn’t thinking straight and said something stupid, and he apparently caught it on video and sold it to TMZ. I’m sorry, bro.”

“What’d you say?”

I heaved a sigh. “Here… I’ll show you.” I could feel my face heating up as I fumbled with my phone, trying to pull up TMZ’s website. It wasn’t hard to find the video; it was right there on the first page. I pressed the play button and turned my phone around so Kevin could see the screen. I couldn’t look at him while he watched; I kept my eyes fixed firmly on a spot on the floor, cringing as I heard my drunk-ass self declare, “Kevin’s a badass. Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

The video ended, and Kevin didn’t say anything. When I finally dared to look up, I saw why: his eyes were full of tears. My heart dropped. I don’t know what kind of reaction I was expecting, but I definitely hadn’t thought it would make him cry. I was never drinking again. “Never say never, dawg,” my own words from before came back to haunt me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that promise, which made me feel even worse than before.

But then Kevin croaked, “Thanks, little brother.” His voice was so hoarse, it was kind of hard to tell, but he didn’t sound sarcastic.

I stared at him in confusion. “For what? Letting the whole world know you can’t walk?”

“For believing that I can. For calling me a badass.” He smiled through his tears. “I’ll take that kind of compliment any day, even if it’s not true.”

My heart lifted. “It is true,” I insisted. “I may have been trashed, but I meant every word I said. Even if you never take another step, you’ll always be a badass to me. And you are gonna get better… better than this, anyway.” I waved my hand over his motionless body, wishing I had the magic to make it work again myself. “Like I said… nothing can keep you down for long.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” said Kevin, “but I’m gonna do whatever I can to get back up again.”

That was when I knew, one way or another, Kevin was going to be okay.

***


Chapter 11 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I had told Nick I would do whatever I could to get back up, and I meant it. Knowing Mason needed me was all the motivation I needed. The problem was, I literally couldn’t do anything but lie in bed.

“When will I get my wheelchair?” I asked the physical therapist who had started coming in to help me stretch. This was supposed to keep my muscles from weakening or tightening too much.

“That will take a few weeks,” he answered, as he bent my arm at the elbow, then extended it straight out. “You’ll find out more at the rehab center. They’ll have to measure you and assess your abilities first to see what kind of chair will be the best fit for you.”

“Oh.” I was disappointed. While everyone else was still discussing whether or not I would ever walk again, I just wanted to be able to get out of bed. I was tired of lying down all the time. Tired of staring at the white ceiling and walls of my hospital room, which had started to seem more like a prison cell. Tired of feeling trapped.

The days had begun to blur again, one stretching into another. I kept track of time by the shift changes. When a new nurse came in to turn me, I knew it must be morning or night. The exact hour and minute didn’t matter much. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere, and the only thing I had to look forward to were visits from my family and friends.

Brian dutifully drove my mother to the hospital every morning and spent most of the day there with her, while Howie, AJ, and Nick dropped by on a daily basis. I appreciated them being there, but their presence was a painful reminder of my old life, the life I had given up and was never going to get back.

Kristin’s parents had also come to see me a couple of times. Their visits were the hardest of all. They were in the process of planning a private memorial service for Kristin and wanted my opinion. “We thought we would keep it small, just close family and friends for now,” her father told me with tears in his eyes. “We’d love to have a larger celebration of life for her sometime in the future, when you’re better and able to be a part of it.”

“That would be nice,” I agreed. I knew Kristin wouldn’t have wanted the kind of funeral where everyone wept over her open casket, but I felt guilty for not being there to say my final goodbyes to my wife. Then again, maybe I already had. Maybe our dance in my dreams was my way of honoring her memory.

I still had recurring dreams of her almost every night, but they were often interrupted by the nurses who had to turn me every two hours. This made it impossible for me to sleep more than a couple hours at a time. Just when I finally managed to fall asleep, I would wake to find my body being moved again. I felt like a pancake being flipped over to keep it from burning - or, in my case, from getting bedsores. After a few days of begging my doctor to give me something to help me sleep better, she finally agreed to prescribe a sleeping pill, which a nurse would place under my tongue to dissolve just before turning out the lights at night.

One night, a week after the accident, I woke to find two nurses standing next to my bed, getting ready to reposition me. I felt groggy and kept my eyes closed to block out the light as they carefully rolled me from my back onto my side. “How does that feel, Kevin? Are you comfortable?” one of them asked, after they had finished adjusting the placement of my pillows.

“Yeah… it’s fine,” I mumbled. I was never completely comfortable with the cervical collar around my neck, but there was nothing they could do about that. Dr. Bone had said I would have to wear it for at least eight weeks, until my spinal fusion finished healing.

“Okay. We’ll let you get back to sleep then. Do you need anything before we go?”

I opened my eyes briefly, glancing up at the nurse who had spoken. “Nah, I’m good, Dee. Thanks.” As she reached up to turn off the light over my bed, I caught sight of something behind her that made me gasp: a large, black bird perched on top of my IV pole.

Hearing my sharp intake of breath, Dee looked down at me with a concerned expression on her face. “What is it? Are you okay?”

“How did that bird get in here?”

“Bird?” She frowned, her look of concern becoming one of confusion. “What bird?”

Wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me, I blinked, but the bird didn’t disappear. “Behind you… on the IV pole. Don’t you see it?”

Dee turned around to look, but shook her head. “There’s no bird. It must just be a shadow. Try to go back to sleep.”

She shut off the light before she left, but I could still see the bird’s silhouette by the faint glow of the monitor above my bed. It wasn’t moving, but there was something vaguely threatening about the way it loomed over me as I lay there like a piece of carrion, paralyzed and vulnerable. I could feel its beady eyes fixed upon me, watching me in the dark, as if it were waiting to swoop down and start pecking at me. But it didn’t do anything.

It reminded me of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Raven,” which I had read and analyzed for an American literature class in high school. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…” I couldn’t remember the rest, except for the repeated line everyone knows: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” My teacher had told us the raven represented death and the narrator’s descent into madness after losing the love of his life, Lenore. Was my own grief making me lose my mind as well?

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I kept opening them to see if the bird was still there. At some point, I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew, the nurses were back to roll me over again, and the raven was gone.

I didn’t mention it the next morning when Dr. Bone came by, worried she would call in a shrink if she heard I was having hallucinations. I was already tired of my body being poked and prodded; I didn’t want my mind probed, too.

“Everything’s looking good, Kevin,” said the doctor once she’d finished examining me. “The surgical site seems to be healing well, and your vital signs are stable. You’re doing great.”

“I’m not doing anything,” I argued. “All I ‘do’ is lie here.”

“That can’t be true. You’ve obviously been doing your breathing exercises, or your lungs wouldn’t sound so clear,” she said, adjusting the stethoscope around her neck. “And according to Phil from P.T., you’re ‘cooperative’ and ‘pleasant to work with.’”

“Yeah, but I still can’t move anything on my own. I just lie there and let him stretch me.”

“Recovery takes time. Try to be patient.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I am. I just wish I could get out of here and go home. I have a six-month-old baby I haven’t been able to see in a week because they won’t let kids come in here to visit. I miss my son.” Tears welled in my eyes when I thought of Mason, who must be wondering where his mama and daddy were. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to see me the way I was now; I worried the tubes and monitors would scare him. But I wished I could see him. Kristin’s parents had been taking lots of pictures to show me, but it wasn’t the same. I had to get better so I could get back home to him.

Dr. Bone gave me a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry. You won’t be able to go home until you’ve finished the first phase of your rehabilitation, but I’ll see if I can pull some strings and set up a visit with your son.”

“That would be nice,” I said, blinking back my tears. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She gave me a moment to compose myself, then cleared her throat. “Since you’re doing so well, how would you like to try sitting up today?”

“Really?” For the first time that day, I felt hopeful. “Yeah… I would love that!”

She smiled. “I thought you might. I’ll let Phil know you’re ready so he can have you try it later this morning.”

I was glad she had given me something to look forward to, grateful for the distraction. I wasn’t expecting any of my family or friends to visit until afternoon because they would all be at Kristin’s memorial service, which was taking place that morning. It killed me not to be present for it.

I had begged Dr. Bone for permission to go. “Please, just put me in a wheelchair, and I’ll get one of the guys to push me around,” I’d pleaded with her the previous day. “Or, hell, I’ll go on a damn gurney if I have to.”

Of course, she had flat-out refused. “I’m sorry Kevin, but it’s just not possible. You’re still dependent on oxygen and intravenous medications. You’re not ready to leave the ICU yet, let alone the whole hospital. You’ll have to stay here at least another week or two, until you’re well enough to be transferred to a rehab facility.”

I was disappointed, but not surprised. I hadn’t really expected her to agree to my plan. Still, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just give me a wheelchair with a portable oxygen tank and an IV pole. I guess that shows how naïve I was at that point, how little I knew about my own condition.

I found out for myself why this wasn’t possible when I tried sitting upright for the first time since the accident. Sitting up in bed didn’t sound like a big deal to me, but it turned out to be a more complicated process than I ever could have imagined.

After I’d been fed and bathed, the physical therapist, Phil, came in. “Hi, Kevin! How are you feeling this morning?” he asked cheerfully. He was a short, middle-aged man with a shiny bald patch above his forehead where his brown hair had receded.

“Fine,” I replied automatically, although I felt far from it. Dr. Bone said I was “stable,” but physically, I felt like a disembodied head floating apart from the rest of my body. Only the pain in my neck reminded me that my head was still attached to my shoulders. Everything else was numb.

Emotionally, I was an unstable mess. My grief came and went in waves. There were moments when something would make me smile, and I’d think, I can’t wait to tell Kristin. Then I remembered she was gone. The realization hit me as hard as the car that had crashed into us, killing her and crippling me. The pain that followed was even worse. I was mourning the loss of my wife, as well as the loss of my independence. As I lay in bed, my face burning with embarrassment while a female nurse washed and wiped my naked body, I would find myself wishing I was dead, too. It would be so much easier for my soul to be in Heaven with Kristin, happy and whole, than stuck here in this Hell on Earth, imprisoned inside a body that no longer worked. I didn’t want to be a quadriplegic any more than I wanted to be a widower. But then I would think of Mason, who had already lost his mother, and my own mom, who had already lost her husband. The last thing I wanted to do was leave my son an orphan or cause my mom any more pain. So I put on a brave face and tried my best to be strong. There was nothing more important to me than my family. They were the driving force behind my desire to get better, and without even knowing it, they pushed me further down the path to recovery.

“No visitors today?” Phil looked around, as if expecting to see one of my friends or family members hiding in a corner. He was used to having an audience while he worked with me. Unlike some of the staff, he let them stay in the room during our therapy sessions and patiently explained what he was doing and why, which I know my mom appreciated. She was always asking questions, wanting to know more about my injury and rehabilitation.

“Not yet. They’re all at my wife’s memorial service. I’m sure they’ll stop by later.”

Phil’s smile quickly faded, as his face went red. “Oh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that was today.”

“It’s okay. I don’t really wanna talk about it. Let’s just get on with this.” I could feel tears threatening at the corners of my eyes, but I fought them back, not wanting to cry in front of him. If I let those tears fall, I wouldn’t be able to wipe them away. I was tired of feeling weak.

Phil seemed to understand. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “So our goal today is to get you into an upright position, but we’re going to go slowly to give your body time to adjust. Dr. Bone may have already explained this to you, but one thing we have to watch out for is a complication called postural hypotension, which is a sudden drop in blood pressure caused by a change in position, like getting up after lying down for a long time. Have you ever gotten dizzy after standing up too quickly?”

“I dunno… yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, that’s an example of the kind of hypotension I’m talking about. It can happen to anyone, but it’s more common in people with spinal cord injuries. That’s because you’ve lost control of the part of your nervous system that keeps your blood pressure stable. Quadriplegics tend to have low blood pressure anyway, so if you change positions too quickly, you’re likely to pass out.”

“Wow… I didn’t know that.” Every day I learned something new about the way my disabled body worked - or didn’t work. It would have been interesting if it wasn’t so damn depressing.

“Yeah - the more you know, right?” Phil grinned. “We definitely don’t want you fainting on us, so we’re going to sit you up very gradually. We’re also going to use an abdominal binder, which goes around your waist and compresses your abdomen, kind of like a girdle or corset.”

I raised my eyebrows as he held up a wide elastic band so I could see it. “A corset?” I repeated skeptically. It sounded uncomfortable, until I remembered I couldn’t feel the area around my waist anyway.

Phil chuckled. “I know - seems a little weird, right? But it works well for quads because it increases your abdominal pressure and prevents your blood pressure from dropping so drastically as you sit up. It also pushes up your diaphragm, which will make it easier to breathe when you’re sitting up. It’ll help with your balance, too. Remember, your abdominal muscles are paralyzed, so you have no core strength, nothing to keep you from flopping over if we were to sit you up right now. The binder will provide you with some support.”

“Okay,” I agreed. My nurse, Stephanie, removed my hospital gown, and she and Phil wrapped the binder around my waist. I couldn’t really see what they were doing or feel the binder at all, so it didn’t bother me.

When they were done, Phil said, “All right - now we’re going to raise the head of your bed a few degrees and see how well you tolerate it.” To Stephanie, he added, “Let’s get a set of baseline vitals before we go any further. We’ll need to keep a close eye on his blood pressure and breathing.”

Stephanie pushed a button on my monitor, and I heard rather than felt the blood pressure cuff inflate around my arm. “B.P. is ninety-nine over sixty,” she said a minute later, looking up at the monitor as she read off a series of numbers.

Phil had her raise the head of my bed a little at a time, slowly bringing me into a semi-upright position. They packed pillows around my body to keep it from falling to one side or the other. “How does that feel?” Phil asked.

After lying flat for so long, I felt light-headed at first, but I answered, “Fine,” figuring my body would adjust. I wasn’t used to being weak or fragile. As an athlete and a performer, I had always been physically fit. Up until a week ago, I was in perfect condition, and now I couldn’t even sit up on my own. I tried clenching my abs like I was doing a crunch to pull myself further forward. I could remember what that felt like, but I couldn’t feel it anymore. Phil was right - I had lost control of those muscles, too.

Leaning back against the head of the bed, I looked down at the rest of my body with a strange sense of detachment. Although I recognized my arms and legs, they didn’t feel connected to the rest of me. They might as well have been a pair of dummy legs, like in a magic trick. The magician could saw right through them, and I wouldn’t feel a thing.

There were white compression stockings on my feet that went all the way up to my knees, and both my calves were wrapped in some kind of padded brace. “What are those for?” I asked, with a pointed look at the braces. No one had mentioned my legs being injured in the crash - not that it mattered much, considering Dr. Bone had said I would never walk again anyway.

“Those are a special kind of compression device to prevent blood clots from forming. There’s a pump at the foot of your bed that inflates them with air every few seconds to squeeze your legs and push the blood through your veins. This keeps it from pooling in your legs while you’re lying still,” Stephanie explained. “It should also help you maintain a healthy blood pressure.”

“Oh.” My eyes moved to my left arm, where I could see an IV line taped to the inside of my elbow and a monitor clipped to the tip of my index finger. I couldn’t feel either one. They should have put that stuff on the right side, I thought. I’m left-handed. Then I realized it didn’t matter: I couldn’t move my left hand any more than I could move my right. I tried flexing my fingers, but they didn’t even twitch.

That was when I noticed my wedding band was missing. “Do you know where my wedding ring is?” I asked Stephanie.

“They may have had to remove it in the emergency room. If so, it was probably given to a family member with the rest of your personal belongings.”

I frowned, wondering if my mom had it. If so, she hadn’t mentioned it. Even though my wife was dead, I felt weird not wearing my wedding ring. My finger looked naked without it.

“Are you still feeling okay, Kevin?” Phil interjected. “You’ve lost some color in your face.”

“I’m a little dizzy,” I admitted, as the light-headedness intensified.

Phil looked concerned. “Let’s get another B.P.,” he said to Stephanie, who pushed the button on my monitor again.

“Sixty-eight over forty-five.”

He gave her a nod. “We’re gonna go ahead and lie you back now, Kevin, before your blood pressure drops any lower.”

“I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute,” I protested.

Phil shook his head. “Don’t try to fight it - you won’t win. This is your body’s way of telling you there’s not enough blood flowing to your brain. If you don’t listen to it and lie down now, you’ll faint.”

I didn’t want to believe him, but I knew he was right. Black spots had already appeared at the edges of my vision, like static on a screen. I closed my eyes as I felt the head of my bed start to lower back down. When I opened them, I was staring up at the ceiling again. I felt defeated.

But Phil seemed pleased. “That was a good first try,” he told me.

“I only made it a minute or two.”

“After lying down for a week, I wouldn’t have expected you to make it much longer than that. I’ve worked with a lot of patients with spinal cord injuries - you’re doing just as well as any of them,” he said with a reassuring smile. “We’ll let you rest for a few minutes, until your blood pressure comes back up, and then we can try it again. It just takes time and practice to build up your tolerance to being in an upright position.”

I appreciated his encouragement, but I still felt frustrated by what I considered to be a failure. How was I going to get out of bed if I could barely sit up without fainting? I hated having no control over my own body.

We kept at it, alternating between positions, and by that afternoon, I was able to be propped up at a forty-five degree angle for about ten minutes before my body told me it was time to lie flat again. I had just asked Stephanie to raise the head of my bed when I heard my mother’s voice ring out, “Knock knock!”

“Come on in!” I called back. As the bed went up, slowly pushing me into a sitting position, I saw her standing in the doorway. But she wasn’t alone. My eyes welled with tears when I spotted my son in her arms. “Mason! C’mere, baby boy!” I wished I could hold out my hands to him, but they lay still at my sides, propped up on a pair of pillows.

My mom smiled tearfully as she brought him over to me. “Your doctor called and left a message on my phone this morning, saying I could bring Mason for a visit today. Bless her heart. She must have known you needed this as much as he does.”

The tears spilled over, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t speak. I tried to nod, but the neck brace prevented it, so I just smiled back through my tears.

“See? Here he is,” my mom said to Mason. “Here’s Daddy!” She was wearing a simple gray dress, and Mason had on a little sweater vest and bow tie over his white button-down shirt and black pants, the same outfit he had worn to Howie’s wedding a month ago. Kristin had picked it out and taken hundreds of pictures of him in it. I hoped she was watching over him and smiling at how dapper he looked today.

Swallowing hard, I managed to find my voice and infuse it with as much joy as I could muster. “Hi, Mason!”

At first, my son just stared at me. There was a slight frown on his face, as if he didn’t fully recognize me. I must have looked different with the tubes coming out of my nose and the collar around my neck. Or maybe he was just overwhelmed. I hoped he hadn’t forgotten me.

I tried again. “It’s me, buddy. It’s Daddy.” And to my relief, this time he reached for me. It about broke my heart not to be able to reach back. “Can you put him on my lap?” I asked my mom.

She hesitated. “I don’t want him to hurt you or try to pull at your tubes…”

“Aw, he won’t hurt anything. Right, Steph?” I appealed to my nurse.

“Just keep a close eye on him,” Stephanie cautioned. “Your gown will hide most of it from him, but you don’t want him grabbing your NG tube - you would definitely feel that one.”

I didn’t doubt that, but it was a risk I was willing to take just to be able to hold my son again.

My mom carefully set Mason down on my lap. He could sit up on his own now - which was more than I could do, I realized, as I watched my mom remove her hand from behind his back. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad. I couldn’t feel his weight on my legs, nor could I move my arms well enough to hug him. In that moment, I felt more like a La-Z-Boy than a father. “Could you maybe pick up my arms… and put them around him?”

“Of course, honey.” My mom took my left hand and brought it behind Mason’s back. Then she reached for my right hand and held my palm against the back of his head, rubbing it gently over his blond hair. I remembered how that hair felt between my fingertips, so silky and fine. But I couldn’t really feel it anymore. The realization broke my heart, bringing fresh tears to my eyes.

My mom was crying, too. “It’s so good to see you sitting up again,” she said, smiling at me through her tears. “How does it feel?”

“Not bad,” I said, blinking back my own. “I get dizzy pretty easily, but it’s nice to be in a new position.”

“I bet.”

I turned my attention back to Mason. “How’s my boy? I missed you, buddy. Daddy missed you so much…”

But Mason was too busy looking around to respond. He turned toward me when I talked to him, then spotted the bundle of wires that were hooked up to my heart monitor sticking out the neck opening of my hospital gown. “No, no, Mason,” my mom warned, pulling his hand back as he went to reach for them. “Don’t touch.” She dug into the diaper bag she’d brought and found a toy to give him instead. The giraffe-shaped teether was enough to distract him for a few minutes while we talked.

“How did it go today?” I asked, watching as my son stuck the giraffe’s head in his mouth and started gumming away at it.

My mom gave me another sad smile. “It was a beautiful service,” she said. “The boys sang the song you wrote about Dad - ‘Never Gone.’”

“I know. I gave them my blessing.” Brian had come to me a few days earlier, wanting my permission to perform that song after Kristin’s parents had asked him and the guys to sing at her service. I could never have gotten through it without crying, but of course, it was more personal to me than it was to the others. I had written it for my late father. From now on, it would remind me of losing my wife as well.

“There were lots of tears,” my mom went on, “but also some smiles and even a few laughs. I wish you could have been there to hear the stories and memories of Kristin.”

My throat tightened painfully. “Me too.” As Mason shifted, I saw my left hand lying limply on the bed behind him, and my thoughts returned to my wedding band. “Hey Ma, do you know where my wedding ring is?”

She nodded. “I have it right here.” She reached down the neck of her dress and withdrew a long, gold chain. Dangling from the end were both Kristin’s and my wedding bands. “Sorry - I had to hide this from Mason so he wouldn’t pull on it as we were walking up here,” she added, as she took off the necklace to show me. “Susan still has Kristin’s engagement ring. She said you can have it back whenever you’re ready - she thought you might want to pass it on to Mason someday - but she wanted to wear it around her neck today. She gave me Kristin’s wedding band to wear with yours.”

“That’s real nice,” I replied, my voice thick with emotion. I remembered placing that ring on my wife’s finger like it was yesterday. In reality, it had been almost eight years since I had married her in a beautiful outdoor ceremony at Cathedral Domain, the church camp in rural Kentucky that my father had run when I was a kid. I had many fond memories of growing up there, and on our wedding day, I had looked forward to starting a family with Kristin and making memories of our own. I’d always assumed we would have several children and grow old together. I never could have imagined I would only get seven more years to spend with her.

My mom cleared her throat. “Would you like me to put your ring back on your finger?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, then hesitated. “How long did you wear your wedding rings after Dad died?”

She looked down at her bare left hand, bending and flexing her gnarled fingers as she pondered my question. “About a year,” she finally answered. “I decided to take them off on our first anniversary after his death.” She paused, then added, “But honey... there’s no time limit on grief. There’s no rulebook either. If you want to wear your ring, wear it, and if you don’t, then don’t.”

“It feels weird not wearing it,” I admitted. “Not that I can actually feel my fingers, but… my hand doesn’t look right without it.”

“Then I’ll put it back on for you.” She unfastened the clasp and slipped my ring off the chain. Then she picked up my left hand and straightened my fingers so she could slide it back onto the fourth one where it belonged. I couldn’t feel it, but it made me feel better inside to see my wedding band around my finger. In my heart, I was still married, even if my wife was in Heaven.

“Would you like to wear hers too?” my mom asked, as she closed the clasp on the chain. “I could put it around your neck.”

I considered this. “Will it fit over this stupid collar?”

“Well, let’s see here...” She put her hands on my shoulders and carefully pulled my upper body forward, just far enough so that she could loop the long chain over my head. Then she lowered me back against the bed and adjusted the necklace around my brace. “There. It fits perfectly.”

A hard lump rose in my throat as I looked down and saw Kristin’s ring resting on my chest, right over my heart. “Thanks, Ma,” I whispered. I was starting to get woozy again and knew I would need to lie back down again before long.

“You’re welcome, honey.” Her eyes glistened as she looked at me. “I wish you weren’t going through this. Any of it. The only thing worse than losing a spouse would be to lose a child,” she said, shaking her head. My eyes dropped to Mason, who was still sitting on my lap, happily gnawing his giraffe. “I can only imagine what Susan and John must be going through. I thank God every day for sparing your life.”

Hearing her gratitude made me feel guilty for my lack of it. I was angry at God for taking my wife and leaving me like this. The only thing I had to be thankful for was my son. At least he hadn’t been in the car with us that night. The fact that Mason was alive gave me a reason to go on living, too.

***


Chapter 12 by RokofAges75
Nick

AJ’s thirtieth birthday was about a week after Kevin’s accident. After we left the hospital that evening, the four of us guys went out for dinner together. We had reserved a private room at the restaurant so we could talk and eat in peace, away from the prying eyes of paparazzi and fans.

None of us really felt like celebrating that night, not even AJ. The week was only halfway over, but it had already been another rough one. First there was the TMZ story, which our team had responded to by releasing another statement, thanking the fans for their prayers and confirming that, yes, Kevin had suffered a spinal cord injury. It didn’t go into any real detail about the extent of his injury; no one else needed to know his doctor had told him he would never walk again.

Then there was Kristin’s memorial service, which we’d been asked to sing at. I had never performed at a funeral before, and I hoped I would never have to do it again, especially not for someone I knew as well as I’d known Kristin. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when we finished singing “Never Gone.” We couldn’t have gotten through it if Kevin had been there with us. Seeing him cry in his hospital bed afterwards had been hard enough.

I was glad to get away from the hospital and go out with the other guys. Things had been tense between me and AJ, but I think we were all looking forward to having a nice meal that wasn’t hospital food or takeout and enjoying a few hours of normalcy.

Taking advantage of the fact that I was back on the West Coast, where I could get fresh seafood, I ordered sushi. It was good, but not nearly as good as the authentic sushi in Japan. “I can’t wait to get to Tokyo and eat some real sushi,” I said, swallowing a bite of my spicy tuna roll. “It just tastes better there, you know?”

Brian cleared his throat. “About that... I’ve been meaning to ask y’all: Do you think we should postpone the tour?”

I looked at him in surprise. “Why? ‘Cause of Kevin?”

“Yeah. I mean, I know he’s not in the group anymore, but he needs us right now. Doesn’t it feel weird to think about flying overseas for a tour when he’s stuck in the hospital?”

I felt a stab of guilt because I had really been looking forward to getting back on tour. “Yeah, but it’s not for another five weeks. Won’t he be out of the hospital by then?”

“He’ll be out of Cedars-Sinai, hopefully, but he still has months of inpatient rehab ahead of him,” said Brian.

“Where will he go for that?” Howie wanted to know.

“Not sure yet. Aunt Ann and I have been researching different rehab centers. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is supposed to be the best in the country, and it’s only a six-hour drive from Lexington. There’s also the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which is about the same distance. If he went there, she could just stay at my place. But I would want to be there for him, too - not on tour.”

“Well, what does Kevin want?” asked AJ.

Brian took a sip of his drink. “Kevin wants to stay in California,” he said, setting his glass down on the table. I could tell by his tone that this had been a point of contention in the private conversations he’d had with his cousin. “But his mom wants him closer to home - meaning Kentucky. He has more family there, more people to help take care of him when he gets out of the hospital.”

“And what will that entail? I mean, how much care are we talking about here?”

“I have no idea. I guess that depends on how rehab goes and how much function he gets back... which is why it’s so important that we find a good facility for him,” said Brian. “It’s gonna take time for him to get back on his feet.”

I wasn’t sure if Brian meant that literally, or if he was just being metaphorical. He still seemed to believe Kevin would miraculously learn to walk again someday, but I was starting to lose hope. I had been at the hospital every day; I had seen how hard it was just for him to sit up without getting so dizzy he had to lie down again. How did Brian expect him to get back on his feet when he couldn’t even get out of bed?

AJ cut a bite of his steak and chewed it thoughtfully. Swallowing, he said, “Now, Rok, you know I would do literally anything for Kevin, right? He saved my life by making me go to rehab, and I would gladly return the favor. If he needs help after he gets out of rehab, I’ll fuckin’ move in with him. If he needs me to feed him? Or wipe his ass? Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever I can to take care of him.”

I snorted. “Yeah right, AJ. You can’t even blow your own nose without getting grossed out, but you’re gonna wipe a grown man’s ass? You’re full of shit.”

“Shut the fuck up, Nick,” AJ snapped. “I would if he needed me to. You’re all my brothers, and I would do that for any of you - even you, Prick.”

I rolled my eyes because I knew there was no way AJ would ever wipe my butt. I used to purposely take a shit in the tour bus bathroom when he pissed me off just because I knew the smell alone would make him puke. He had the most sensitive gag reflex I had ever seen.

“But here’s what I’m really trying to get at. Just hear me out, okay?” AJ went on. “He’ll be at this rehab center at least through the first leg of our tour, right? So why not go ahead and fulfill our commitment while we know Kevin’s being taken care of, and then we can reassess the situation before he gets out? If we have to reschedule some of the spring and summer shows, I’m sure our fans will understand. But I don’t think Kevin would want us to cancel the whole tour just so we can sit around his hospital room and keep him company. He has plenty of people to do that - his mom, his older brothers, his other friends and relatives. We can still keep in touch. We can call him every day while we’re on the road. I just don’t see the point in canceling when-”

“I didn’t say cancel,” Brian interrupted, his eyes narrowing at AJ. “I said postpone.”

“I hate to say it, but I think AJ has a good point,” said Howie, turning to Brian. “From a business perspective, it would be a bad idea to postpone a bunch of shows. This is our first tour as a foursome; it’s an important opportunity to show the world we’re still going strong, that we really are ‘unbreakable.’ If we have to reschedule, it may send the wrong message. Not that our image or the bottom line is all that matters, but-”

“No, all that matters right now is Kevin,” Brian said firmly, fixing his glare on Howie instead. “I can’t believe you’re talking about the bottom line when our brother just lost his wife and the use of his arms and legs. Who cares about our fuckin’ image?”

I watched Howie and AJ’s eyes widen when Brian dropped the F-bomb. He rarely cursed, so we could tell he was really pissed.

“Of course, Kevin’s our main priority,” Howie replied quickly. “I’m just trying to play devil’s advocate here and think about what management would say.”

“Well, I don’t need you to play devil’s advocate, and I don’t care what management would say. I wanna know what you all think,” said Brian, looking around the table at each of us in turn. “This is a decision the four of us have to make for ourselves.”

“Well, are you gonna be democratic about it and go with the majority?” I asked him, as Howie reached for his drink, clearly uncomfortable with the conflict. “Or are you gonna keep arguing until you get your way?” I loved Brian, but he could be a real dick sometimes. He was as stubborn as a bulldog and didn’t back down easily when he felt strongly about something.

Brian’s nostrils flared. “No, I’ll go with the majority,” he insisted, spearing a piece of broccoli with his fork. “But since we’re being democratic here, I haven’t heard your opinion yet, Nick. What do you think we should do?”

I took a swig of my beer, stalling for time, but Brian kept staring at me until I finally answered. “Honestly, I think we should ask Kevin. But I have to agree with what AJ and Howie said - he’s not gonna want us to give up the tour for him, and it wouldn’t be good for the group to have to postpone our first tour without him. So as long as he gives us his blessing, I think we should stick to the tour schedule, at least for this first leg. The fans need this. We need this.”

I need this, I thought selfishly. I did better when we were out on the road than when I was bored at home with no routine and too much time on my hands. Touring provided me with the busy schedule and structure I needed to stay out of trouble.

Brian nodded. “Fair enough. We can ask Kevin when we visit tomorrow.”

“Great. Let’s table this discussion until then,” said AJ. “It’s my birthday, and I don’t want us to argue any more tonight.”

“Agreed,” said Howie, raising his glass in a toast to AJ. “Happy Dirty Thirty! Here’s to many more.”

“Welcome to the club, Bone,” added Brian with a grin. “Nick’s the only Backstreet Boy still in his twenties now.”

I smiled and nodded, picking up my pint glass as well. “Not for long. Two more years, and I’ll be old like the rest of y’all… but you’ll still be older,” I said, smirking at AJ. “Happy birthday, bro.”

“Thanks, buddy,” he replied, clinking his glass against mine. “I wish there was a better reason for us being together, but it’s nice to have you all here in town a week early. Love you guys.” He looked around the table at Howie and Brian before he locked eyes with me. AJ had never formally apologized for blaming me for Kevin leaving or throwing me under the bus about the TMZ story, but maybe this was his way of saying he was sorry.

I nodded, looking back at him as if to say, Apology accepted. All I actually said was, “Love you, too.”

***


Later that night, I was lying in bed, almost asleep, when I heard my phone ring. I hurried to silence it before it woke AJ up, wondering who would be calling me so late and what could be wrong. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Kevin’s name flashing on the phone screen.

“Hello?” I answered uncertainly, not expecting it to actually be Kevin. I was worried something had happened to him, and one of the nurses was calling to let us know.

It was a huge weight off my chest when I heard him say, “Hey, Nick. I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“No,” I replied quickly, sagging with relief as my heartbeat slowly returned to normal. “No, not at all; I was still awake.”

“I thought you might be. That’s why I tried you first.”

I felt confused. “I didn’t think it was really you. How did you call me without moving your fingers?”

“I used my tongue.”

“Really?” I was picturing him holding his phone between his teeth and trying to lick the touchscreen when I heard him laugh.

“Of course not, dipshit. I had my nurse Dee dial your number for me and put you on speakerphone. She said you’re her favorite Backstreet Boy, by the way.”

I heard a feminine giggle in the background. “Only because you’re not in the group anymore,” I told him. “Otherwise it would obviously be you.”

“Well, obviously,” said Kevin.

I smiled, clutching the phone closer to my ear. “I’m flattered either way. Thank you, Dee.”

“You’re welcome!” I heard a high-pitched voice call back.

“You should see her blushing right now,” said Kevin, snickering. “She can’t believe she’s really talking to Nick Carter.”

I rolled my eyes. I would never understand why some people put me on such a pedestal. I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention, but it was a little weird, the way grown women would fawn all over me and treat me like a god. I was just a normal guy, not worthy of that level of fan worship. “Is that why you called?”

“Nah, man. I called ‘cause I can’t sleep.”

“Oh. Well, you want me to sing you a lullaby or something?”

I heard his nurse laugh some more. “You can sing me a lullaby any time!” her voice rang out.

Kevin chuckled. “You don’t have to do that. Just talk to me… if you don’t mind, I mean.”

“I don’t mind,” I said automatically, as I lay back down in bed. “So what’s going on? Why can’t you sleep?”

“You try sleeping when people keep coming in and waking you up every couple hours,” he complained. “No offense, Dee - you know I appreciate everything you nurses do. It’s just… a lot. And this damn neck brace is not comfortable.”

“I bet,” I said sympathetically. I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep with something hard and bulky around my neck, let alone not being able to toss and turn to get comfortable. I felt bad for Kevin, but there was nothing I could do except keep him company over the phone. “Can’t they give you a sleeping pill or something?”

“Oh yeah, they did, but it makes me see shit that’s not really there.”

“What?” I laughed. “You mean like you’re having hallucinations?”

“Yeah. Like right now, there’s this raven perched on top of the IV pole next to my bed. It’s been there for the past two nights. I know it’s not really there, but I can still see it, clear as day.”

“Dude… that is fucked up,” I said, cracking up as I pictured Kevin high on sleeping pills, tripping balls in his hospital bed. “What’s it doing?”

“Nothing. It’s just sitting there, looking down at me. That’s all it ever does. It kinda freaks me out though.”

“Well, no shit.” Just hearing him describe it sent chills down my spine. A raven… wasn’t that some kind of death omen? Hospitals were scary enough without seeing creepy black birds hovering over you at night, but I wasn’t going to tell Kevin that. “Are you sure Dee didn’t bring a real raven into the room just to mess with your mind?”

“Dee wouldn’t do that.”

I was only kidding, but I realized I had probably made his paranoia worse. “I know. Just joking. I’m sure it’ll go away when your drugs wear off.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “It always does.”

I searched my brain for something to say that would take his mind off the bird that wasn’t really there. Then I remembered our conversation at dinner. “Hey, Kev, can I ask you something?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“Well, the boys and I were talking, and Brian brought up the tour. You know, our first two shows are in Tokyo about a month from now, and we’re supposed to start rehearsing again next week. But Brian thinks we should reschedule.”

“Because of me?” Kevin asked quietly.

“Yeah.”

I heard him sigh again. “You don’t have to do that. A month from now, I’m gonna be in rehab. I’ll be busy with physical therapy… occupational therapy… psychotherapy… all the therapies. I won’t just be lying in bed all day like I am now. I appreciate y’all coming and keeping me company, but I don’t want you changing the tour on account of me.”

I nodded. “That’s what we thought you would say. But we didn’t wanna make any decisions without your blessing.”

“Well, you have my blessing,” he said firmly. “I’ll be fine here without you… and you’ll be fine without me.”

A lump rose in my throat as I imagined the four of us touring the world without him. Even before his accident, it had felt weird performing as a quartet. It was like we were missing a piece - and we were. The Backstreet Boys may have been “unbreakable,” but we would never be whole again without Kevin. I had always hoped he would come back to the group someday, but now that seemed impossible. The door we had left open for him was just a gaping hole.

Swallowing hard, I said, “I don’t know about that. It’s not the same without you.”

“Nothing’s the same,” said Kevin. I could hear the bitterness in his voice. “But that’s life. Shit happens, and you either have to adapt to it, or you die. I’m not gonna die, and neither is the group. Y’all go on with your tour, and don’t worry about me.”

“Do you miss it?” I asked. “Touring, I mean?”

He took a moment to answer. “Of course I miss it. I’d give just about anything to be able to get back onstage and perform again. But I wouldn’t trade the last year I had with my family. I was able to spend every day with Kristin during her pregnancy. I was by her side when she gave birth to Mason; I cut the cord myself. I was home to help her take care of him, and I got to watch him grow. I didn’t miss a single moment. I feel good about that… especially now that she’s gone. I’m so glad I got to spend that time at home with her and our son, just being a husband and a dad. I don’t have any regrets, Nick.”

There were tears rolling down my cheeks by the time he finished talking. Alone in the dark, I didn’t bother to wipe them away. “That’s… that’s good,” I forced myself to say, hoping he couldn’t hear the quiver in my voice. “I’m glad you don’t regret anything, I mean.”

“I know what you mean,” he said, sounding as emotional as I felt. “And you’ll know what I mean someday, when you have a wife and kids of your own.”

“Ha… that’s never gonna happen.” After watching my own parents’ marriage dissolve and my dysfunctional family fall apart, I had vowed I would never get married or start a family myself. I didn’t know how to be a good husband or father. I could barely take care of myself, let alone someone else.

“Never say never, dawg. A little birdie told me that not too long ago.” I smiled when I realized Kevin was repeating what I had said to him earlier that week.

“True dat. Speaking of little birdies... is that raven still around?”

“Actually, no,” replied Kevin. “It’s gone.”

“Really? That’s good.”

“Yeah.” I heard him yawn. “Well, I guess I should try to get some sleep. I’ll let you go now. Thanks for listening.”

“Anytime,” I said, still feeling sorry for him. He sounded so sad and lonely. “I love you, bro.”

“I love you, too. Goodnight, Nick.”

“‘Night, Kev.” Knowing he couldn’t press the button to end the call on his phone, I went ahead and hung up first. I plugged my phone back into its charger and rolled over in bed. I buried my head in the pillow and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Kevin lying in his hospital bed, alone and scared, seeing monsters in the dark.

Reflecting back on our conversation, it felt like our roles had been reversed. For the first time in our fifteen-year relationship, he seemed more like the little kid I had been when he’d first met me. Meanwhile, I had become the reassuring older brother, telling him everything was going to be all right when, really, I knew nothing would ever be the same again.

***


Chapter 13 by RokofAges75
Kevin

When I was a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, I found a baby bird that had broken its neck falling out of the nest. It couldn’t fly, couldn’t even flap its wings, but somehow, it was still alive. I remember its tiny beak opening and closing as its black eyes stared up at me, as if it were asking me to help it. In hindsight, it may have been begging me to put it out of its misery. But, being “tender-hearted,” as my mama always called me, I was determined to save the bird’s life.

I brought it inside, where my dad promptly told me it was pointless to try saving a bird with a broken neck. “I doubt it’ll live more than a few hours like this, but even if it does, it won’t be able to survive in the wild if it can’t fly or fend for itself. You wouldn’t be keeping it alive, son - you’d just be drawing out its death,” he explained in his pragmatic way. “The kinder thing to do would be to crush its skull and kill it instantly. I know that sounds cruel, but at least the poor creature wouldn’t be suffering anymore.”

Of course, I cried and vowed to take care of the bird, to nurse it back to health and teach it to fly. “And if it can’t, then I’ll keep it as a pet,” I told my parents. “It can live in a cage in my room.” They didn’t even bother to tell me no, knowing the bird wouldn’t make it through the night. All that day, I tended to it, squirting water into its beak with an eyedropper and digging for worms to try feeding it with. I even created a little neck brace for it with Band-aids and cotton balls. The bird was still alive when I went to bed that night, but when I woke up the next morning, I found it dead in the nest I’d built out of old washcloths inside a shoebox. I buried it in that same box and held a funeral for it, fashioning a cross out of two sticks tied together with twine for its tombstone. My dad was nice enough not to say, “I told you so,” and I was too stubborn to admit he had been right.

I wondered what he would say to me now, as I lay in a hospital bed as a thirty-six-year-old man, faced with the humiliation of letting my mom feed me. As I opened my mouth for her to spoon another bite of applesauce into it, I couldn’t help but feel like that baby bird, broken neck and all. Maybe it would have been kinder for someone to kill me and put me out of my misery. I would never let my mom hear me say that, especially not when she had put her whole life on hold to be here and take care of me. But I thought my dad would have understood. I knew how hard it had been for him to depend on other people in his final days, when he was too sick to get out of bed. The difference was, he was dying. I had to learn to live like this.

“Have you given any more thought to where you’d like to go for rehab?” my mom asked, as she wiped the corner of my mouth with a napkin. “I really think that place in Atlanta sounds perfect, and Brian said he and Leighanne would have no problem at all with me staying at their house while they’re on tour.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. What was the point of her asking my opinion when she had already made up her own mind on where she wanted me to go? “I told you, Ma, I don’t wanna go to Atlanta - or Chicago or Louisville or anywhere else,” I added before she could bring up one of the other hospitals she had researched. “I wanna stay in Southern California. Phil said there’s a couple of good, fully-accredited rehab facilities right here in Los Angeles County.”

“But are they nationally ranked for their success with treating spinal cord injuries?” she pressed. “Honey, you need to go wherever will give you the best chance of getting back your life, whether that’s across the country or halfway around the world. You deserve the best, and you can afford the best. You don’t have to settle for whatever hospital the insurance company will cover. You’ve got the means to go anywhere.”

I sighed. “It’s not about the money - although, since you brought it up, I don’t think it would be smart to spend thousands of dollars paying out of pocket for a place that’s not in my network. Sure, I have plenty of money now, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to make more of it. What happens when that money runs out?”

This was the same point Kristin’s dad had made to me the previous day, when he’d stopped by to discuss suing the girl who had hit us. After an investigation, the police had determined her to be at fault for the accident, and she had since been arrested and charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Just knowing it wasn’t my fault and that the woman responsible for killing my wife would be prosecuted was enough for me, but my father-in-law wanted to take it further by filing a civil suit. “It’s the only way to get some kind of financial compensation for Kristin’s death and your injuries,” he told me.

At first, I wanted nothing to do with it. “I don’t care about money,” I said. “I’m a millionaire; I don’t need any kind of financial compensation.”

“You say that now, but think about the future. Think about what this could do to your career, your source of income. Think about the medical bills that will be coming your way, not to mention the cost of the equipment you’ll need and renovations to make your house wheelchair-accessible. And most of all, you need to think about Mason and his future. You want to make sure you have enough money left in the bank to give him a good life and put him through college someday, right?”

It was a lot to think about, but in the end, I agreed to let him file the lawsuit on Kristin’s and my behalf. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with it, but it was the best decision for Mason, and it seemed to make her dad feel better.

My mom, on the other hand, didn’t want to talk about money. “You don’t need to worry about that right now,” she said, shaking her head. “You just focus on getting back on your feet, and let me handle the financial stuff.”

“You heard what Dr. Bone said: I’m never getting back on my feet. I’m probably never gonna perform again either.”

“Now don’t be so negative,” she scolded me. “You don’t know that.”

“I’m not being negative, Ma. I’m just being realistic. There’s a reason they didn’t make any more Superman movies with Christopher Reeve after his accident. No one wants to watch a superhero in a wheelchair, and they won’t wanna see a popstar in one either. It’s too damn depressing.”

“Oh, hush. Now you’re just feeling sorry for yourself. You have fans all around the world who love you no matter what and would pay good money to see you perform again, even if it is from a chair. You may not be able to dance anymore, but you can still make music.”

I snorted. “With what? I can’t play the piano or write lyrics. I’m not even sure I can still sing. Face it, Ma - my music career’s over. And since I don’t have a degree or any other marketable skills, I think it would be best for me to save my money until I figure out how I’m gonna support myself down the road,” I said, remembering my conversation with Kristin’s dad. “Don’t forget, I have Mason’s future to think about, too.”

“Mason will be just fine,” she insisted, dipping her spoon back into the applesauce container. “And so will you. You’re lucky to have a family who loves you and is here to support you however we can - physically, emotionally, and financially. We’ll make sure you’re both taken care of.” She brought another bite of applesauce to my mouth, but this time, I kept it closed.

“No, thanks,” I mumbled, barely moving my lips. “I’m finished.”

She gave me a long look. “Now you better eat more than that, or they’re going to put that feeding tube back in your nose. You need your strength to recover.”

“I’m not hungry.”

I could tell she was frustrated, but she didn’t try to force-feed me. “Well, I’ll leave this here awhile in case you get hungry again later,” she said, setting the half-eaten cup of applesauce down on the tray beside my bed.

After several days of working with a speech therapist to make sure I was still able to swallow correctly, it had been a relief to have my NG tube removed so I could finally eat and drink again. When the nurse filled a cup with water and brought the straw to my lips for the first time, you’d have thought I was sipping the nectar of the gods based on my reaction. Plain old room-temperature water had never felt or tasted so good going down my parched throat. A cup of chicken broth was like a full-course meal compared to the beige nutrient paste they had been shooting up my nose with a syringe. But the novelty wore off quickly when I realized that, without the use of my hands, I would have to be fed like a baby. At least Mason had recently learned to hold his own bottle. I couldn’t even do that much. It was embarrassing, having to be helped with the most mundane tasks.

My mom never seemed to mind, but I did. That was the main reason I wanted to stay on the West Coast for rehab. I knew if I went anywhere near Kentucky, I would be stuck there. The thought of moving back into my mother’s house as a grown man so she could take care of me was beyond humiliating. It was downright depressing. I loved my family, but I also loved my freedom. I had been on my own for over fifteen years, since I’d moved back to Florida after my dad’s death. I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, especially not my aging mother. She deserved to enjoy her golden years without the burden of caring for a disabled son or raising a grandchild. California had been my home for the past seven years, and it was the only home Mason had ever known. I was determined to rebuild our lives here.

“Are you sure I can’t get you anything else?” she asked. “How about a milkshake from the café? Wouldn’t that taste good?”

“Actually, I think I just wanna lie down for a while. I’m starting to get light-headed again.” This was a fib - my tolerance for sitting up had gotten a lot better over the last week or so, ever since I’d been moved out of the ICU and into a new room in the step-down unit - but I knew it would get her off my back about eating. “Can you please push the button to lower my bed?”

“Sure, hon. Here you go.” I heard the bed hum as the head slowly went back down. She made sure I was comfortable, repositioning the pillows around my body the way she had seen the nurses do. Then she sat down next to my bed and picked up her book to read while I closed my eyes and pretended to doze.

I felt bad for giving her a hard time. My mom had the patience of a saint, and I had put her through hell. I knew she only wanted what was best for me. The problem was, her ideas about what was best for me were different from mine.

I hadn’t been faking sleep for long when the respiratory therapist, Christopher, came in to give me a breathing treatment and clear my lungs with the cough assist machine. My lung capacity had improved to the point that I no longer needed to be on oxygen around the clock, but he continued to monitor me closely to make sure I didn’t develop pneumonia. “I can tell you’ve been doing your breathing exercises,” he told me, smiling, as he listened to my chest with his stethoscope. “Considering how recently you were injured, you’re doing amazingly well. All that singing and dancing you did before your accident must have kept your lungs in great shape.”

I forced myself to smile back, knowing he meant it as a compliment, but all I could focus on were the words “before your accident.” They were a sad reminder of what I had lost. I wasn’t going to be doing all that singing and dancing anymore - not with the Backstreet Boys, not with a Broadway ensemble, and not with my wife. That part of my life had passed. My success was no longer defined by awards or album sales, but by how many milliliters of air I could inhale or how many minutes I could sit up in bed.

Christopher was followed by Phil, who arrived for my afternoon physical therapy session. My mom stayed and watched as he stretched my arms and legs, asking him all kinds of questions about the rehab centers he had recommended in Southern California. I had to hand it to Phil - by the end of the session, he had her all but convinced that staying close to home was the right decision.

“You can take a tour of either facility,” he told her, “and I highly suggest you do. It’s always a good idea to see the inside of a place and talk to the people who work there. That’ll give you a better feel for what it’s actually like so you can make a more informed decision. I can have Kevin’s case manager call and set something up for you if you’d like.”

“Oh, yes, that would be wonderful!” my mom gushed. “Maybe I’ll get Brian to go with me and see what he thinks, too.”

“Just remember, Brian’s busy with rehearsals now,” I reminded her. “If he wants to go, great, but don’t bug him too much about it.”

“I won’t, but I’m sure he’ll want to go. He can’t wait for you to get back on your feet either.”

I caught Phil’s eye when I heard her use that phrase again: “Back on your feet.” It was only an expression, but it bothered me every time someone said it. It made me feel as if they were expecting me to walk again someday, and I would be letting them down if I didn’t.

Phil winked to show he understood. He and I both knew I was probably never going to get back on my feet by myself, but I wasn’t sure my mother or Brian or anyone else in my life had fully accepted that fact yet. The medical experts may have said it was impossible, but my family and friends were still praying for a miracle.

“I don’t know about getting back on your feet, but how about getting your feet back on the ground?” Phil asked me with a grin. “You’ve been doing so well with sitting upright, I bet you could sit on the side of the bed with some assistance. Wanna give it a try before I go?”

“Yeah… that’d be great,” I agreed, grinning back. I accepted every challenge he threw my way, even when it was painful, wanting to push myself to get stronger so I could regain as much function as possible.

“Sounds good. Let me grab a nurse to help out, and we’ll get started.” Phil left the room, but when he returned a few minutes later, he didn’t have a nurse with him. “Hey, look who I ran into in the hallway!” he announced, as Brian, AJ, Howie, and Nick followed him in.

“What were these dipshits doing hanging around a hospital?” I tried to play it cool, but I couldn’t hide my smile. Visits from my brothers were the best part of my day; they broke up the monotony of lying in bed. They were less frequent now that the boys had rehearsal every day, but at least all four of them were all allowed to be in my room on the step-down floor at the same time.

“Aw, Kevy, you know we just can’t keep ourselves away,” AJ shot back, batting his eyelashes at me.

“Yeah… Boner here has a medical fetish,” Brian joked.

Nick let out a loud laugh. “AJ may be into some kinky shit, but he’s the last person in the world to have a medical fetish.” He paused, then added, “That’s actually Howie.”

“It is not!” Howie squawked, smacking Nick in the shoulder.

“Well, you did say you wanted to be a doctor, dawg. I just assumed that meant you liked to, you know… ‘play doctor.’” He made air quotes with his fingers, grinning as Howie went red.

Nick’s face was flushed as well, and AJ’s t-shirt was soaked with sweat. They must have come straight from the rehearsal studio. “Damn, y’all stank!” I said, wrinkling my nose. “Didn’t bother to shower before you came to see me, huh?”

“Sorry, bro, we would’ve, but Brian told us your sense of smell was paralyzed, too,” Nick went on.

Brian’s mouth dropped open. “Dude! I did not. That doesn’t even make sense.”

The other guys were looking at Nick like he’d said something offensive. But I knew better than to be offended. He was trying too hard to be funny, but it was only because he was uncomfortable and maybe even a little nervous around me. I couldn’t hold it against him. Medical fetishists aside, no one really likes hospitals, and seeing a close friend in my condition would make anyone feel uncomfortable.

I decided to change the subject.

“Well, y’all turned up just in time for today’s main event. Phil’s gonna sit me up on the side of the bed.”

“Wow! That’s great, Kevin!” said Howie with an encouraging smile. Nick, Brian, and AJ all nodded, seeming genuinely excited for me. But I saw the way their expressions changed, their smiles fading to frowns, as they watched the physical therapist maneuver my dead weight.

It was a painstaking process. First Phil had to bend my knees so that my feet were planted flat against the bed, supporting my legs with his hand to keep them from flopping over. Then he folded my arms across my chest and carefully rolled me onto my left side. He slowly raised the head of the bed to prop me up a little, then placed his hands beneath my shoulder and behind my knees. I felt like a large baby being cradled in his arms as he swung my legs over the side of the bed and lifted me into a seated position.

It was the first time since my injury that I had sat up without the support of the bed behind my back and head, and I felt the difference immediately. Without my abdominal muscles, I had no core strength, no sense of balance or stability. I was wearing the girdle he had given me beneath my hospital gown, but it wasn’t enough. Phil still had to keep a firm hand on my shoulder to prevent me from flopping over as he lowered the bed so my feet could touch the floor. But I couldn’t feel any kind of surface beneath me - not the tiles under my feet, nor the mattress under my seat. I may as well have been floating several feet above the bed. It was a strange sensation.

“How does that feel, Kevin?” Phil asked me.

“Weird,” I admitted. My voice sounded as shaky and weak as my body felt. My neck hurt inside its brace, and my head felt heavy, yet light, like I could faint and fall over at any time. “I’m a little woozy,” I added, as the sense of vertigo worsened.

“That’s normal,” he assured me. “Your new body’s not used to sitting unsupported. You’ll need some balance training to teach it how to stay up.” He turned to the boys. “Can I get a couple of you to come stand on either side of him while I check his blood pressure?”

Brian and AJ both hurried over to help. “Just put your hand on his shoulder to hold him steady,” he instructed them. “There you go.”

“How you doin’, cous?” Brian asked, as he hung onto my arm.

I swallowed hard, fighting the urge to vomit applesauce all over his feet. “I’m okay.”

AJ smiled down at me. “You’re looking good, Kev.”

I made a face as I pictured myself the way I must have actually looked, hunched on the edge of the bed with my bare ass peeking out the open back of my printed hospital gown and my pale legs dangling uselessly in their long, white compression stockings. Pitiful.

I was self-conscious about the catheter tube taped to my thigh, which came out the bottom of my gown and connected to the pee bag hanging on the side of my bed. I kept waiting for one of the guys to crack some kind of joke about it, but none of them did. In a way, that made it worse.

Phil strapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm and inflated it. “Eighty-four over fifty,” he announced when he finished.

“Is that too low?” my mom asked anxiously. “Should he lie down again?”

“It’s not bad, considering his baseline.” Phil looked at me. “Are you still doing okay, Kevin, or do you need to lie down?”

My head was swimming, but I was determined to fight through the dizziness. “I’m okay,” I said again. I could feel everyone in the room watching me, which made me feel even more uncomfortable. I avoided their eyes, focusing instead on a wet spot on the front of Nick’s white t-shirt. “Looks like y’all got a good workout at rehearsal today,” I said. “How’d it go?”

Nick and Howie exchanged glances. “It was fine,” Howie replied with a shrug and left it at that.

“We worked on our opening set,” Nick elaborated. “We start with three uptempos in a row: ‘Larger Than Life,’ ‘Everyone,’ and a song off the new album, ‘Any Other Way.’ Lots of dancing.” He made a face, sticking out his tongue like a panting dog.

“Are you keeping the old choreography for ‘Larger Than Life’ or changing it up?” One half of me was just trying to make conversation to take their attention off me, but the other half was genuinely curious to hear how they were doing things without me.

“Keeping it.”

I felt a wistful smile spread across my face. It had been almost two years since I’d last performed that song, but I still could have hopped out of bed and done the full routine right there in my hospital room, had it not been for my ruined spinal cord. The muscle memory was there. I just couldn’t move any of the right muscles.

“But we’ve got a boxing theme for our intro, and we’re doing this dope mash-up with ‘Eye of the Tiger’...” Nick went on, describing the white robes they would be wearing and the kickboxing moves they had been working on.

Listening to him talk about the upcoming tour was harder for me than I thought it would be. Before my injury, I had felt at peace with my decision to leave the Backstreet Boys and spend more time with my family. Now I found myself wishing I could go back, knowing full well I couldn’t. The boys were my family, too, but the door they’d left open for me had been closed and locked forever. There was no coming back from this.

“...but man, I hate watching myself in the mirror. I look like a freaking giant compared to these three midgets,” Nick complained. “I miss having your height to balance me out.”

“I miss it, too,” I admitted. In another life, I would have been sweating alongside him as we danced for hours. But in this new life of mine, I could barely sit on the edge of the bed for five minutes without wanting to puke. I felt as weak and floppy as the poor baby bird I had tried and failed to rehabilitate. “I’d much rather be back on stage with y’all than stuck here. No offense, Phil.”

The physical therapist flashed me a sympathetic smile. “None taken, man. No one wants to be in the hospital.”

“Unless they have a medical fetish,” added Brian, bringing the conversation full circle.

Phil helped me lie back down in bed, which was a relief. As much as I wanted to get up, I found it a lot easier to breathe when I was flat on my back. It felt good to be grounded again, with my head resting on a pillow instead of floating in space.

The guys hung out for another hour, then headed home for the evening. My mom went with Brian, leaving me alone. A nursing assistant fed me my dinner. Not long afterwards, I took my evening meds, which included a blood thinner, a painkiller, and a sleeping pill, and watched TV until I fell asleep.

I woke up, as I always did, when the nurses came in to reposition me. As they rolled me onto my side, I saw the raven sitting on my bed rail. It was right beside me, so close I could have reached out and touched it if I’d had control of my hand. But neither nurse seemed to notice it, so I knew it wasn’t really there. “You’re not real,” I whispered, once they’d left and I was alone again. “Go away!”

The bird just stared at me with its beady, black eyes.

“Fine, whatever. Stay there if you want. I’m going back to sleep.” I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t get comfortable. My left arm was propped up too high on its pillow, making the bottom of my neck brace dig into my collarbone. If I could just lower my arm a little, I might be able to create more space between my chin and chest.

I shifted my shoulder, but that didn’t help - the rest of my arm remained motionless. What I really needed was my bicep, a muscle I had so far been unable to move. Concentrating hard, I tried to imagine my upper arm sliding backwards, further away from my chest.

At first, nothing happened. But then, I felt a faint twitch. My eyes flew open to see my hand shift on the pillow in front of me. The fingers weren’t moving, but my elbow was, dragging the bottom half of my arm with it. It took every ounce of energy I had left, but little by little, I was able to pull my arm into a more comfortable position.

“Yes!” I hissed under my breath, exhilarated by my own success. Moving my arm a few inches may have seemed like a small accomplishment, but it was huge for me. Dr. Bone had said I might get back the use of my arms, and here it was, the first sign of it happening. It filled me with a renewed sense of hope. I could only get better from here on out.

I wished there were someone else around to share my triumph with, but the only witness was a figment of my imagination. The raven was still watching me, its head cocked to one side with an expression of bright interest. It looked more cute than sinister now, and somehow, it had gotten significantly smaller. As it tilted back its head and trilled out a high-pitched call, I suddenly realized it wasn’t a raven at all, but a blackbird. A songbird.

Smiling, I sucked in a deep breath and sang back to it: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night… Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” My voice sounded soft and throaty. It didn’t have the rich tone I was used to hearing, but the notes were in tune. “All your life… you were only waiting for this moment to arrive.”

The blackbird ruffled its feathers as it turned its back to me. Then, suddenly, it took flight. I watched with envy as it soared over my head and disappeared into the dark night.

I never saw it again.

The next day, my nurse started weaning me off the sleeping pills so I wouldn’t become dependent on them before I was discharged to a rehabilitation center. I felt anxious without them, but at least the hallucinations stopped.

For the first time, I found myself looking forward to my transfer to another inpatient facility. My hospital room still felt like a prison cell, but rehab had come to represent freedom, for it was the place where I would get back my wings and learn to fly again.

***


Chapter 14 by RokofAges75
Nick

It felt good to get back into the rehearsal studio. Preparing for the tour gave me something to focus on besides Kevin and kept both my body and mind busy. By the end of each day, I was so tired, I had no trouble falling asleep. I didn’t even need to drink to help me relax.

While we were rehearsing, Kevin was rehabilitating. Toward the end of January, he was transferred to a rehab hospital called Rancho Colina to continue his recovery. We took turns visiting him in the evening, after our rehearsals had wrapped and his therapy sessions were done for the day.

My twenty-eighth birthday was on a Monday. It was AJ’s and my turn to visit Kevin, so right after rehearsal, we drove out to the rehab center. Rancho Colina lived up to its name; the sprawling, Spanish-style building sat on a large piece of land located at the base of a mountain. The campus had everything a person in Kevin’s situation could ask for: beautiful scenery, spacious rooms, specialized gyms for physical therapy and sports, a pool for aquatic therapy, even a stable for therapeutic horseback riding.

We all thought Kevin would thrive there, but the first time AJ and I went for a visit, we found him almost catatonic in bed. His new doctor at the center had weaned him off most of the medications he’d been given in the hospital, which included heavy-duty painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety drugs. As a result, Kevin was anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, and in pain. It was almost harder to see him that way than when he was unconscious in the ICU, so we kept our visit short. I hoped the second visit would go better, but I felt nervous as AJ and I walked down the hall to his room.

“Come on in!” I heard Kevin call when we knocked on the door. He sounded more energetic than he had the other day, but I still had no idea what to expect. I sucked in a deep breath, bracing myself as AJ opened the door. But it was like a night and day difference from before: We went in to find Kevin no longer lying in bed, but sitting up in a wheelchair. “Hey!” he exclaimed, all smiles when he saw us. “Happy birthday, Nick!”

“Hey, thanks!” I replied, pasting a smile onto my face to hide how I was really feeling. Part of me was genuinely happy to see Kevin out of bed for the first time since his accident, but there was also a part of me that was taken aback by the sight of him in a wheelchair. I had been trying to picture him that way ever since I’d first heard the words “spinal cord injury” come out of the doctor’s mouth, but actually seeing it hit me harder than I had expected it would.

In a way, it was worse than when he was laid out flat on his back in a hospital bed, hooked up to all those tubes and wires in the ICU. At least then, it had been possible for me to pretend this was all just temporary: Kevin was clearly hurt, but after healing in the hospital for a few weeks, he would be fine. Up until that point, I had clung to the hope of him proving his doctor wrong by walking again one day. Seeing him strapped into that wheelchair put an end to my denial. Dressed in a pair of baggy sweats instead of a hospital gown, with nothing but the brace around his neck to suggest he had been injured recently, Kevin didn’t look like a patient anymore. He looked like a disabled person. That was what finally forced me to accept the fact that his quadriplegia was permanent.

“You got a nice set of wheels there, Kev,” said AJ, giving him a nod of approval. “Looking good, dude!”

I admired AJ’s ability to find the right words for any situation. He was never awkward like me; he always seemed to know exactly what to say to put someone else at ease.

Kevin smiled. “Thanks. It’s just a loaner so I can get used to sitting in one. Eventually I’ll be fit for a power chair, but for now, I have to be pushed around.” He cleared his throat. “Actually, I was hoping y’all could take me out into the courtyard for a while. I’d love to get some fresh air.”

“Yeah, of course!” I chimed in, trying to sound as cheerful as AJ. “I mean, if it’s okay with the nurses here.”

“They won’t mind,” said Kevin. “We’re encouraged to move around as much as we can. I just can’t do much on my own yet. But watch…” Slowly, he brought both arms up, letting them hover about a foot above the armrests of his chair. His elbows were bent, so he looked like a bird flapping its wings.

AJ and I both gasped. “Kevin! Your arms! That’s awesome!” It wasn’t much, but it was the most we had seen him move since the accident.

Kevin grinned, obviously pleased with himself. “I can’t straighten them out - that would take my triceps, which I don’t have - but I’ve been working on strengthening my biceps in P.T.”

“You’re gonna have some serious guns when you get out of here,” I said, flexing my own arms.

Kevin sighed. “I hope so. I’m gonna need ‘em.” A shadow crossed briefly over his face before his expression brightened again. “But hey, speaking of guns… I’ve got a gift for you, Birthday Boy. It’s behind the chair over there.” He waved one arm vaguely toward the corner.

I went to retrieve it and found a tower of two big boxes sitting on the floor. They were wrapped in shiny, gold paper and tied together with ribbon. “Did you wrap this yourself?” I joked as I sat in the chair, setting the box down in front of me.

“Yeah - with my teeth,” he played along, flashing another grin. “Go ahead and open it.”

I was glad to see him in such a good mood. They must have put him back on the happy pills - painkillers or antidepressants or something. “Okay…” I slid off the ribbon and tore the paper off the top box. Taking off the lid, I pulled back layers of tissue paper to reveal a pair of red boxing gloves set inside a clear display case.

As I carefully lifted the case out of the box, I heard Kevin explain, “You’d said boxing helped you get back in shape last year, and you seemed so excited talking about your boxing intro for the tour the other day… I thought you’d appreciate these. They’re autographed by two of the greatest.”

Tilting the box to get a better look, I noticed a name scrawled in black marker across one of the gloves. I squinted at it, recognizing an M… an H… a D… a A. My eyes widened as I looked up at Kevin. “Muhammad Ali??” I asked in disbelief.

He smiled, his chin dipping onto his neck brace as he tried to nod. “He was from Kentucky too, you know. Louisville. My dad went to one of his fights there in the early sixties.”

“Wow… did this belong to your dad?”

I was starting to feel bad that he would pass on a family heirloom to me, when Kevin laughed. “No. I had my mom order it from Ebay.”

“Oh…” I laughed, too. “Who signed the other one?” I turned the display case around to look at the large, looping signature on the other glove. I couldn’t decipher it.

“George Foreman,” said Kevin. “They fought each other just once, in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Africa. Then they became friends.”

I nodded. Kevin never gave a gift without a long-winded story to accompany it. I’d never realized he knew so much about boxing. He had always been more of a football guy. “This is really cool,” I said, rotating the case again to take another look at Ali’s glove. “Thanks, dawg.”

“I hope they’ll remind you to stay in the ring and keep fighting, even when things get tough,” he said, giving me a meaningful look.

I nodded again, a lump rising in my throat. Leave it to Kevin to give me advice in the form of a boxing metaphor while he was sitting in a wheelchair with the fight of his life ahead of him. But he knew what a struggle the last few years had been for me, between my dysfunctional family, toxic friends, bad relationships, and hard-partying ways. For my twenty-first birthday, he had given me a self-help book called The Power of Positive Thinking. I hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but I brought it with me as I moved around from Florida to California to Tennessee. Years later, I finally took it down from the shelf and read it. I got a lot more out of it than I had expected to. It had helped me to make some positive changes, like losing weight and cutting the bad influences out of my life. I still had a lot of work to do on myself, but at least it was a start.

“Open the other one. There’s a bit of a theme here.”

“Okay…” I carefully set down the display case and picked up the other package. It was heavy, too. “You’re not gonna ask me to do a ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and off you or something, are you?” I blurted, glancing up at Kevin.

“Jesus, Nick,” AJ hissed, clapping his hand to his forehead. “Don’t say shit like that.”

I felt my face flush. “What? I was just kidding. But also, like, making sure there wasn’t some other hidden meaning behind the boxing theme,” I said, looking back at Kevin.

He frowned at me. “No, Nick, I would never ask you to help me kill myself. My son already lost his mother; the last thing I’d wanna do is leave him without a father, too.”

“I… I know,” I stammered, ashamed of myself. Why did I say such stupid things? “I wasn’t being serious. Sorry, bro - bad joke.”

“It’s all good,” said Kevin, his face relaxing into a smile. “Open your gift. I promise it’s not a gun to put in my mouth.”

That made me cringe, but I quickly focused on the present in my lap. Curious, I unwrapped it to find a glossy, red and white box with George Foreman’s face grinning at me from behind a picture of a countertop grill. “You got me a George Foreman grill?” I said, cracking up.

Kevin looked slightly embarrassed. “My mom got it for you. She loves hers and thought it would be a more practical gift for a single guy turning twenty-eight. This way, you can learn to cook and keep the pounds off. You don’t have one already, do you?”

I laughed. “Actually, no, I don’t. This is great. I love it. Tell your mom thanks for me.”

“I will. She’ll be thrilled.”

“Looks like Nick’s on dinner duty the rest of the week. No more takeout at the McLean house!” AJ announced.

“Fine, but you’re buying the meat. Can you cook ribeye steak with this thing?” I turned the box over to look at the pictures on the back.

“I dunno about ribeyes, but I could go for some ice cream,” said Kevin. “Whaddaya say, Birthday Boy? My treat?”

“You know I love me some ice cream - maybe a little too much,” I said, patting my belly. “But yeah… that sounds great. Where do we get ice cream around here?”

“There’s a cafeteria,” said Kevin. “It’s open to visitors, too.”

“Okay, let’s do it.” I set the grill down on top of the boxing gloves and stood up.

“I just need to let my nurse know where we’re going. Can one of you hit the call button on my bed there?”

“Sure thing,” said AJ, picking up a small remote and pressing the button. I wondered how Kevin was expected to use it to call for help when he had no control over his hands, but I held the question back, not wanting to say anything else that might offend him.

A few minutes later, a male nurse popped his head into the room. “What’s up, Kevin?” he asked as he walked in.

“Hey, Cole. Is it okay if I have my friends take me to the cafeteria? It’s my buddy Nick’s golden birthday. We’re gonna get some ice cream.”

I fought the urge to laugh. Kevin sounded like a kid asking his parents for permission to ride his bike to the ice cream place. It was funny at first, but then it just made me feel sorry for him. In a way, he was like a child, no longer able to take care of himself as most grown men could. Going to the hospital cafeteria for ice cream with his friends was probably the highlight of his day in this place.

“Sure. Let me just show your friends a couple things on your chair first.” The nurse, Cole, demonstrated taking off the brakes and putting them back on again to park Kevin’s wheelchair. Then he taught AJ and me how to tilt the chair back further in case Kevin got dizzy. “His blood pressure tends to drop when he’s been sitting up too long, so if he starts getting really pale or dizzy, he needs to be put in a reclining position,” he explained, adjusting the angle of the chair so Kevin was leaning back against his headrest. “Also, his seat belt needs to stay on at all times. Remember he doesn’t have the core strength to hold himself steady, so if you stop too fast or hit a bump, he could be thrown forward and fall out of the chair without the belt.”

I felt a flicker of fear as I looked from the strap buckled across Kevin’s lap over to AJ. I found him staring back at me, his eyebrows raised. Taking Kevin to the cafeteria hadn’t seemed like a big deal, but there was a lot more responsibility involved than either of us had realized.

“Do you think you’ll be going outside at all?” Cole asked.

“What’s the temperature like today?” Kevin wanted to know.

“It’s kinda chilly outside.” I checked the weather app on my phone. “It’s only fifty-five right now.”

“That’s not bad,” said Kevin. “Yeah, we may go out into the courtyard for a bit.” I could tell he was itching to get some fresh air.

“Okay, then you’ll want to bring a blanket.” Turning back to us, Cole explained, “People with spinal cord injuries lose the ability to regulate their body temperature below the level of injury, so they get hot or cold easily. Here…” He grabbed a fleece blanket off the foot of Kevin’s bed and draped it across his lap, tucking the ends in so it wouldn’t trail on the ground or get stuck in the spokes of his wheels. “That should help. Do you guys have any questions?”

“Uh… who do we call if he… um… if he needs help or anything?” I asked awkwardly. What I was really wondering was what we would do if Kevin’s blood pressure suddenly crashed or he fell out of his chair or developed hypothermia or any of the other things Cole was worried about. I was suddenly worried about all that, too. The last thing I wanted was for Kevin to get hurt worse under my watch.

“Just grab the nearest staff member, and they’ll call the rapid response team,” said Cole nonchalantly. “Do you want one of us to go with you?”

“No,” said Kevin quickly, before AJ or I could answer. “We’ll be fine, Cole. Thanks.”

“No problem. Enjoy your ice cream.”

“We will. Thanks.”

When the nurse left, AJ and I looked at each other again. I could see the uncertainty in his eyes; it mirrored the expression that must have been on my face, too. But I also knew how much this meant to Kevin. He had probably been looking forward to it all day. Clearing my throat, I said, “So… who’s pushing this thing, you or me?”

AJ snorted. “I’ve seen the way you drive. I’d better push. That okay with you, Kev?”

“I guess it’s gonna have to be, or I’m not going anywhere,” Kevin said with a crooked grin. “They’ve got me learning how to use a sip and puff chair - that’s the kind you control with your mouth, like a straw - but I’m not good enough at it yet to get around on my own. Some of the other guys around here have said if I get back some wrist function, I’ll be able to use a joystick, maybe even a manual chair someday.”

He sounded surprisingly upbeat and optimistic, but it made me sad to hear him talk about graduating to a manual wheelchair like that was his end goal, like he’d already given up on the hope of ever walking again. Maybe he had accepted his prognosis, but I was still struggling with it.

“All right… let’s go.” AJ got behind Kevin’s chair and pushed him across the room. I ran ahead to hold the door open, but I didn’t need to - being a rehab hospital, all the rooms were fully accessible. The door opened automatically with the press of a button on the wall and stayed open as AJ eased the wheelchair through the wide doorway.

I walked alongside them as we went down the hall, following Kevin’s directions. “You can go faster, you know,” he told AJ. “You’re driving this chair like a little old lady.”

I started laughing as AJ shook his head. “Hey now… you heard what the nurse said. I don’t wanna accidentally eject you out of this thing,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

“What’s the worst that could happen? I already broke my neck.”

“Good point.” AJ suddenly pulled back on the handlebars, popping a wheelie. I heard Kevin gasp as he was thrown backwards, but then he began to laugh.

“Dude!” I cried. My heart had leaped when I saw the wheelchair tip, thinking Kevin was going down. “Don’t do that! You about gave me a heart attack.” I pressed my hand to my chest, where I could feel it hammering like crazy.

“Me too,” Kevin admitted, but there was a big grin on his face.

AJ snickered. “Sorry. You okay, Kev?”

“Yeah, bro, I’m good. Y’all don’t have to treat me like glass. I’m not gonna break.”

We had fun with the wheelchair after that, weaving it back and forth as we raced down the deserted hallway, stopping whenever another patient or staff member came around a corner. It was hard to keep a straight face as they walked or wheeled past us. Once they were gone, AJ would pop another wheelie, and we’d go back to goofing around.

We finally found our way to the cafeteria, where there was an ice cream counter in one corner. I got a dish of vanilla with sprinkles, while AJ ordered a twist cone. “Make mine a milkshake, please,” Kevin told the woman behind the counter, who whipped up a chocolate shake in a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw for him.

Kevin couldn’t hold the cup himself, so I carried it over to a table, pulling back one of the chairs so we could park his wheelchair in front of it. Even then, he had a hard time leaning down far enough to reach the end of the bendy straw without his whole body flopping forward, so I held the cup for him, bringing it to his lips in between bites of my own ice cream.

I had watched him multitask this very same way at Howie’s wedding, where he had fed Mason a bottle with one hand while eating his own dinner with the other. At the time, it had only reinforced my own decision never to have children. I’m glad that isn’t me, I remember thinking with relief as I cut into my beef tenderloin, selfishly relishing my freedom. Less than two months later, I found myself dutifully feeding my big brother. I didn’t mind, but as I held the milkshake in front of his face for him to drink, I was secretly still thinking, I’m glad that isn’t me.

I could only imagine how hard it was for Kevin to be completely dependent on others to feed and care for him like he was a baby. I would have hated it. He must have hated it, too, but he never complained. He just kept thanking me and AJ for being there and helping him.

“Of course, bro,” I said, brushing his gratitude aside. “What are friends for?”

When we finished our ice cream, we went outside to a courtyard, where several other patients were hanging out with their families and friends. I saw other people in wheelchairs, people using walkers or crutches, people with missing limbs. Watching them out of the corner of my eye made me even more appreciative of the fact that I was only a visitor at this place.

We walked around for a few minutes, admiring the beautifully-landscaped flower beds and the bubbling fountain in the middle. Then we parked Kevin in a patch of sunlight near a bench where AJ and I could sit down. “You okay, Kev?” said AJ, as Kevin leaned his head back against the headrest of his chair and closed his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied without opening them. “The sun feels good.” He seemed to be savoring the feeling of fresh air and sunlight on his face.

“Are you warm enough?” I asked.

His smile melted into a frown. “I said I’m fine. Stop worrying.”

“Sorry. Just making sure.”

Kevin sighed. “No, I’m sorry,” he said, opening his eyes. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I just get so sick of being asked the same questions over and over again. How am I doing? How am I feeling? Am I okay? I don’t mean you guys - I’m talking about the doctors and nurses and therapists and assistants… It’s nonstop, all day long. I know they’re just doing their jobs and trying to take care of me, which I appreciate, but sometimes I just wish they’d leave me alone. But if they did, I’d be stuck lying in bed with nothing to do, and I don’t want that either. I guess I just want life to go back to normal. I wanna go home… and hug my son… and kiss my wife… but I know that’s not gonna happen. Even when I do get out of here, my life’s never gonna be the same again.”

He was staring straight ahead as he spoke, not really looking at either AJ or me, but somewhere between us. I saw tears in his eyes and felt my heart sink. Up until that point, he had seemed happy, and I was glad he was having a good day. But now I found myself wondering if he had just been forcing himself to be upbeat for my birthday.

“Let it out, dude,” I said, reaching out to rub his shoulder. It was one of the only places I knew he could feel, and I hoped the weight of my hand was reassuring in some way. “You can rant to us any time. We don’t mind - right, AJ?”

“Damn right,” AJ agreed. “You don’t have to hold back around us. Just don’t take it out on those poor nurses and other people who’ve been taking care of you. They’re only trying to help.”

“I know,” said Kevin, a single tear trickling down his cheek.

“We don’t blame you for being mad… or sad… or however you’re feeling right now,” I added softly, trying to be sensitive. “I would be, too. Hell, I am mad. This never should have happened to you - or Kristin. It’s not fair.”

Kevin sniffled. “I know.” He fell silent for a few seconds, and so did AJ and I, neither of us knew what else to say. I was running out of encouraging words. Thankfully, before it could get awkward, Kevin cleared his throat. “I met with a lawyer this morning - the one Kristin’s dad hired to sue the woman who hit us.”

“Oh… how’d that go?” asked AJ.

“Okay, I guess. I dunno... I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Like on one hand, of course I’m fucking mad. A part of me hates her for driving drunk and killing my wife. But I don’t think Kristin would want me to live with hate in my heart. She believed in love… and grace… and forgiveness.”

I shook my head. “How do you forgive someone for something like that?”

Kevin shrugged. “You have to have empathy. Try to put yourself in her shoes,” he said. “Did she do this on purpose? I doubt it. Is she a bad person? Probably not. She made a bad decision… a big mistake. But haven’t we all messed up before?”

He looked me in the eye, and I felt my face redden as I reflected on my own checkered history. I had definitely messed up before. Thankfully, my mistakes had resulted in a DUI rather than manslaughter. Under different circumstances, I may not have been so lucky. I could easily have killed or crippled someone with my car, too. The thought made me feel sick to my stomach, my ice cream churning around like it was still inside the soft serve machine.

“Her mistake left a man in a wheelchair and a little baby without his mother, and she’s gonna have to live with that for the rest of her life,” he went on bitterly. “I hope she feels bad about it. I hope she learns from it. But just because my life has been ruined doesn’t mean hers should be, too. I’m not out to bankrupt her, you know?”

Kevin was being much more compassionate than I would have been in his situation. But maybe it was because of me - and AJ - that he was even willing to consider forgiveness.

“You’re a good man, Kev,” said AJ, clapping his hand down on Kevin’s shoulder. “Mason’s sure lucky to have you as his dad.”

Kevin’s mouth stretched into a tight-lipped smile. “Thanks, J.” His eyes were red and watery, and his nose was running, making him look even more miserable. I wished I’d thought to bring a tissue.

“Maybe we should head back inside now,” I suggested. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” Kevin sighed. “I guess.”

“I get to drive this time,” I told AJ, slipping behind the wheelchair before he could beat me to it.

As I pushed Kevin back into the building, passing other patients with wheelchairs and walkers, I was reminded of the retirement home my parents ran when I was a kid. I used to spend a lot of time there, talking to the old people whose families didn’t visit often enough and performing in the little shows I put on for them. They would let me push their wheelchairs and play with their canes and eat as many pieces of hard candy as I wanted. It was fun, like having dozens of grandparents. I enjoyed it, but when each visit came to an end, I was secretly glad to leave. There was just something sad about the place - all the lonely people shuffling up and down the hallways, the smell of sickness lingering in the air.

The rehab hospital was like that, too. I told myself it wasn’t the same; Kevin was here to get his life back, not live out his last days. But at the end of our visit, I would feel the same way: secretly glad to leave.

When we got back to Kevin’s room, his nurse, Cole, came in with an assistant to hoist him out of his chair and back into bed. They used a special lift, which consisted of a big blue sling hanging from a mechanical arm that was meant to do the heavy lifting. “Doesn’t this remind you of the things they used to haul whales out of the water at SeaWorld?” Kevin asked us dryly, as they strapped him in.

AJ laughed. “You’re like Shamu.”

But I had been thinking about the harnesses we had used to fly over the crowd during the Millennium tour. Poor Kevin was a far cry from that high point in his career. I could see the humiliation burning in his face as the sling hoisted his limp body out of the wheelchair and lowered him onto the bed.

Cole made sure he was comfortable, propping him up with the usual assortment of pillows before he left. “We should probably go pretty soon, too,” I said, glancing out the window. The sun was going down, and Howie had made dinner reservations for a group of us to go out for my birthday.

“Oh yeah, I don’t wanna keep you,” said Kevin. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your birthday. Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Thanks for the gifts, bro,” I replied, gathering up the boxing gloves and grill. “I’ll let you know how the indoor grilling goes.”

“Yeah, you better hope he doesn’t start a fire with that thing and burn down my house,” added AJ, rolling his eyes as he held the door open for me.

“Ha-ha, real funny, AJ…”

It was hard to say goodbye to Kevin. But as I looked back and saw him lying motionless on the bed, I couldn’t help but think again, I’m glad that isn’t me.

***


Chapter 15 by RokofAges75
Kevin

My transition from the hospital to the rehab facility had been rough at first.

When my mom came back from touring Rancho Colina while I was still at Cedars-Sinai, she had made it sound like some sort of summer camp. “They have hydrotherapy pools and horseback riding and sports,” she’d gushed, describing all the different programs the rehab center offered. “And they treat hundreds of spinal cord injuries each year, so there will be plenty of other people like you there.”

All that was true, but rehab was definitely not like camp. I had been to camp. Hell, I’d spent eight years of my life living at camp. This was different. Rehab wasn’t recreational; it was hard work.

My days started around seven a.m., when I woke up and went through my morning routine. A nurse would come in to empty my catheter bag and help me with my “bowel program,” which was their polite way of talking about taking a crap. Since I could no longer feel when I had to go to the bathroom, I had to train my body to go at the same time every day to avoid accidents. This was the most embarrassing part of my daily routine, so I was glad to get it over with first thing in the morning.

Once I’d gone to the bathroom, the nurse would help me shower, another humiliating process which involved him or her hoisting my naked body onto a waterproof shower chair and hosing me down, shampooing my hair and washing my body while I sat there helplessly, unable to do much except hold up my arms when it was time to wipe underneath them. It made me feel less than human, like I was an animal.

After my shower, I was transferred back to my bed to get dressed for the day. Then I would eat breakfast before my first physical therapy session began at ten. My physical therapist was a woman named Charisma. She was younger than me, but what she may have lacked in experience, she made up for with her seemingly endless level of energy. “Come on, Kevin, you can do it,” she would encourage me, as she put me through a series of exercises meant to strengthen my muscles and improve my balance and range of motion. Even when I complained, she never stopped smiling.

Once P.T. wrapped, I would go back to my room to rest and eat lunch before my afternoon sessions began. After lunch, I had another hour of P.T., which usually took place in the pool - my favorite part of the program.

The first time Charisma put me in the water, I was fearful, afraid of not being able to keep my paralyzed body afloat. “It’s okay,” she had assured me, as she lowered me into the pool with the help of a hydraulic lift. “I’ve got you.”

Lying in the sling, I’d felt like Free Willy in reverse. I didn’t like the look of my body in my swim trunks anymore. The legs dangling limply out of the bottom didn’t even look like mine - they were pale and skinny from the muscle tone I’d lost lying in bed for the last month. My normally toned stomach had turned flabby, sticking out like a beer belly when I sat in a wheelchair. “It’s called ‘quad belly,’” my nurse Cole had told me the first time I made a comment about this as he was helping me in the shower. “It’s because you’ve lost muscle tone in your abs, which usually hold everything in. Don’t worry - it doesn’t mean you’ve gained weight.” But I still felt like a beached whale.

Once I was in the water, though, the feeling of heaviness and helplessness went away. In the water, I was weightless. Floating with the help of a life jacket and pool noodles, I felt almost normal again. The buoyancy made it easier to lift my arms. I was even able to stand with my feet touching the bottom of the pool as Charisma and her assistant held on to me. I still couldn’t feel my legs, but it didn’t matter as much in the water. I loved it and would have happily stayed in the pool all day if they had let me.

After my hydro therapy, I had an hour of occupational therapy, which was supposed to help me learn new ways of performing the tasks of daily living with my new body. I worked with a man named Ellis, who was from Indiana - not far from my old Kentucky home. We bonded over our shared love of the great outdoors, and he took me outside to work in the courtyard whenever we could.

On my very first day, Ellis had asked me what I wanted to get out of occupational therapy. “We need to set some functional goals for you,” he explained, “so I always ask my patients what outcomes they want to work toward while they’re here. You tell me what kinds of things you’d like to be able to do, and I’ll do my best to help you accomplish as many of those goals as possible in our time together.”

I had been taken aback by his approach, so different from the doctors who had told me what I wouldn’t be able to do after my injury. At first, I wasn’t sure what to say. Of course, I wanted to walk again, but that seemed like a lofty goal, considering Dr. Bone had said I would never regain the use of my legs. Once I thought about what really mattered most to me, my answer was simple. “I wanna be able to take care of my son,” I said. “Mason’s only six months old. His mama’s gone. He needs me now more than ever.”

I’d expected Ellis to start explaining why this wasn’t practical. After all, I couldn’t even take care of myself. How could I possibly take care of a baby? But he didn’t tell me anything like that. Instead, he gave me an encouraging smile and said, “I’ve worked with plenty of quadriplegic patients who are also parents of small children. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely doable. We’ll work on increasing your mobility, so you can chase him around in your chair when he starts walking.” I smiled sadly at the thought of watching my son take his first steps from a wheelchair, knowing I would never walk again. “I’ll also teach you some tricks to compensate for your lack of finger function and show you how to use adaptive equipment to help you with everyday tasks. They’ve got some pretty nifty gadgets out there nowadays.”

In the last few weeks, I had learned to feed myself with the help of a special brace that went around my wrist to hold utensils in my hand. It took me forever, and sometimes I still missed my mouth and made a mess, but it was better than being spoonfed by someone else.

I had also started using a power wheelchair to get around on my own. It wasn’t what I had expected: I had imagined myself racing around in something sleek and low to the ground, like in Murderball, but the chair I was borrowing from the rehab center was big and clunky, with a high back and head rest that made me look more handicapped than I wanted to admit I was. But the truth was, I couldn’t use my hands to push myself in a manual chair. I didn’t even have enough wrist function to operate a joystick yet. For now, my only option was a sip and puff chair, the kind I could control with my mouth. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it gave me more independence than I’d had before, which made me feel better about myself and the future for both Mason and me.

My last session of the day was usually some type of psychotherapy. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, I went to a spinal cord injury support group, where we sat in a circle in our wheelchairs and shared our feelings. On Mondays and Thursday afternoons, I met with Dr. Austin, the same psychologist who led the support group, for one-on-one counseling. These sessions were often the hardest ones. In group therapy, I could just sit and listen if I didn’t want to share, but when it was just me and Dr. Austin, I was expected to do most of the talking. I shed a lot of tears in front of him as he helped me work through the five stages of grief that accompanied the loss of my wife and the life I had known before the accident.

“It’s okay to be angry,” he assured me, as I finally let out the pent-up feelings I usually tried to hide behind the brave face I put on during other parts of my day. “Bitterness… resentment... they’re normal reactions to experiencing a loss or life-altering injury like you have. Embrace those emotions, and understand they’re a part of the process. You have to let yourself feel the pain before you can heal from it.”

I felt pain, all right - not just emotional pain, but physical pain as well. My first week at the rehab facility had been particularly hard because they’d weaned me off most of the pain and anxiety medications I had received in the hospital. I had stopped hallucinating at night, but my neck hurt even more than it had right after surgery. And if I’d thought being numb from the chest down would prevent me from feeling pain below my level of injury, I was wrong. I had developed a burning, pins-and-needles sensation in my legs, similar to the tingly feeling you get when your foot falls asleep.

At first, I had taken it as a positive sign, thinking it meant the nerve pathways to my legs had started to heal after all. But after examining me, Dr. Bayatmakou, my new spinal cord doctor, had dismissed this notion. “What you’re experiencing is called neuropathic pain. It’s caused by a miscommunication between your brain and the nerves that were damaged when you broke your neck,” he explained.

“You mean it’s not real? Like phantom limb pain or something?” I had met several amputees at the center and heard them talk about the strange sensations they sometimes felt in their missing limbs, as if those parts of their body were still present and painful.

“I’m not saying it’s not real,” the doctor replied quickly. “It’s commonly reported by patients with spinal cord injuries in the weeks following their injury. I can prescribe you something to curb it.”

The new medication took the edge off my pain, but it also made me dizzy and sleepy, which prevented me from being able to sit upright in bed or my wheelchair for longer periods of time. It took a week of playing around with different drugs and dosages for him to find one that worked for me without making me feel worse. The neuropathic pain still came and went in waves, always fooling me into wondering if my legs were finally waking up, but at least it was more manageable now.

Worse were the spasms that had developed in my arms and legs. I had been warned about spasticity in the “quad class” I went to on Wednesday afternoons, where I learned the ins and outs of my new body. “For the first six weeks or so after a spinal cord injury, you’ll be in a phase known as flaccid paralysis, where everything below your level of injury is limp and toneless,” said the instructor, a middle-aged man named Bob, who was a quadriplegic himself. “Around the six-week mark, many people start to develop spasticity - involuntary muscle movements in the paralyzed parts of their body. As your muscles stiffen, they’ll sometimes twitch or spasm.”

Sure enough, six weeks to the day after my accident, I saw my big toe twitch. I was lying in bed when the blanket moved over my left foot. I was excited at first, thinking, as I had with the neuropathic pain, that it meant I was getting some function back. But I still couldn’t feel any part of my body below my collarbones, nor could I wiggle my toe on command. When I told my nurse Cole what had happened, he confirmed that it was probably just a muscle spasm, dousing the flicker of hope I had felt.

Ellis, the occupational therapist, had a more optimistic take on it. “Spasticity can actually be useful,” he told me during our session that day. “When the muscles in your arms and legs are more rigid, you can use them to bear weight, which will help you with transfers. The muscle spasms also reduce your risk of blood clots and pressure sores by moving parts of your body you can’t control.”

I looked forward to the day when I could transfer myself from bed to my wheelchair or shower commode instead of having to be lifted like a large baby or small orca. But this would require the use of my wrists and hands. Unless I regained control over them, I would have to rely on other people and equipment to help hoist my weight around.

That same afternoon, the guys dropped by for a visit, as they usually did after rehearsal. We had gotten into a similar routine over the past few weeks - except while they spent their days singing and dancing, I was practicing my wheelchair moves and trying not to shit my pants. I had never missed being a Backstreet Boy more. But I also missed just being a normal, able-bodied person. There was so much I had taken for granted before I was paralyzed.

The guys were flying to Japan the next day for the first leg of their tour. Listening to them talk about having to go home and pack that night, I wondered what traveling would look like for me from now on. There was no way I would be able to pack my own luggage, pull it through an airport, or lift it off the baggage carousel. I wouldn’t be able to go down the narrow aisle of a plane in my large power chair either. And what if I wanted to go somewhere with Mason? How would I manage a stroller while I was in a wheelchair?

I won’t, I thought with a sinking feeling, realizing my days of traveling the world were over. The Backstreet Boys may have been unbreakable, but I was broken. Unfixable.

I tried not to feel too sorry for myself, wanting to make my brothers’ last visit before they left a good one. When Cole came in to take my dinner order, I looked around the room and said, “Actually, I was wondering if y’all might wanna have dinner with me in the cafeteria tonight. The food’s not too bad for a hospital.”

Howie was the first to agree. “Yeah, sure, man. We’re not picky,” he said with a shrug, as Brian, AJ, and Nick all nodded.

“Do you want me to transfer you back into your chair?” asked Cole. I had been resting in bed ever since I got back from my support group meeting, taking a break from being in my chair. Everyone around the rehab center constantly stressed the importance of changing positions often so I didn’t develop a pressure sore. So far, I had been lucky, thanks in large part to the dedicated therapists who helped me move during the day and the attentive nurses who turned me at night.

“Yeah, that’d be great - thanks,” I replied.

As Cole rolled the Hoyer lift over to hoist me out of bed, Nick cleared his throat. “Does he really need that?” he asked. “I mean, can’t a couple of us just pick him up and put him in the chair ourselves?”

I flashed Nick a grateful smile as Cole turned to look at him. He must have known how much I hated being strapped into that sling, raised off the bed and lowered into my chair like I was a piece of freight rather than a person.

Cole seemed to consider his offer for a few seconds before he finally nodded. “Yeah, okay. I can teach you how to do a two-person transfer. You wanna assist me?”

“Sure,” said Nick. “Just show me what to do.”

Cole talked him through how to help me sit up on the side of the bed. “Damn, dude, your legs are heavier than they look,” Nick grunted as he lifted them off the mattress, lowering my feet to the floor.

“That’s what dead weight feels like, I guess,” I said with a shrug, leaning forward against him as I fought to stay balanced. “Be careful… you don’t wanna strain your back right before the tour.”

“Eh, he’s young - he can take it,” said Howie, smiling as he stood back out of the way to watch.

“No, Kevin’s right. Make sure you lift from your legs, not your back,” Cole warned Nick, as he brought my wheelchair over and parked it right next to the bed. “Okay, now, stand in front of him and put your hands under his arms while I hold onto his waist from behind. On the count of three, we’re gonna pull him up into a standing position and pivot to put him over the chair. I’ll help guide him backwards into the seat, but you’re gonna have most of his weight. Think you can handle it?”

“Yeah, I’m fine - I’ve got you, bro,” Nick said, leaning down to look me in the eye. Despite the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing, I trusted him not to drop me. I draped my arms over his broad shoulders as he slid his hands under my armpits and around my back, hugging me tight to his chest. I could smell the sweat clinging to his t-shirt, but it didn’t bother me. When you share as many tour buses and dressing rooms as we had over the years, you get used to each other’s body odor.

“On my count,” said Cole. “Ready? One… two… three, lift!” Together, they hauled me to my feet. Of course, I couldn’t feel my legs or use them to support my weight, so I leaned heavily on Nick as, with Cole’s help, he wrangled me into the wheelchair. It wasn’t the smoothest transfer, but it was still better than being hoisted out of bed like a baby whale in the Hoyer lift.

Next Cole showed Nick how to position me correctly in the wheelchair, so I wouldn’t fall out or put too much pressure on the bony parts of my body. As Nick bent down to pick up my feet and place them on the foot rests, my left knee suddenly bounced up and down. “Whoa!” Nick let go of my leg and jumped back, looking down at it in disbelief. “Did you just see that?”

“What happened?” Howie asked, craning his neck to look around Nick in concern.

“His leg moved!” Nick looked back at me, his blue eyes wide. “Did you make it do that?”

“No,” I said quietly, remembering the way my toe had moved on its own that morning. “It was just a muscle spasm.” I watched Nick’s face fall as I explained what I had learned about spasticity in quad class.

“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Brian stepped closer, standing next to Nick and staring down at my legs. “Try to move it again. Some messages might be making it through. Maybe this means you’re getting back some function below the waist.”

It was like he hadn’t heard a word I had said. I knew how much my cousin wanted to see me walk again. No matter what anyone else said, he was still clinging to the hope that I would one day. Brian believed in miracles. Sitting by my hospital bed with a Bible in his lap, he had read me the verses about Jesus healing a crippled man. “If He can make that man get up and walk away, He can heal you, too,” he’d told me. “You just have to put your faith in Him and pray.”

I believed in God, but I wasn’t holding my breath waiting for Him to work a miracle. I had put my faith in the medical experts and therapists who promised to help me lead a full life from my wheelchair. Having Brian tell me to “try again,” as if I wasn’t putting in enough effort already, was frustrating. He hadn’t seen how many hours of hard work it had taken just for me to tolerate sitting up in my chair for more than twenty minutes at a time.

“I can’t control it,” I said, trying to be patient with him. “I can’t even feel my legs, let alone move them on my own. Watch… this is what happens when I try.” I concentrated on my left leg, trying with all my might to lift it just a little. But, of course, nothing happened. “See? It doesn’t work.”

I saw the disappointment in Brian’s eyes, although he tried his best to hide it. “Don’t give up,” he said. “You have to believe that, one of these days, you’re gonna walk again.”

I wondered what Dr. Austin would say if he could hear this conversation. With his help, I had begun to accept what had happened to me, but Brian still seemed to be stuck somewhere between the stages of denial and bargaining.

Cole cleared his throat from behind me. “Are you comfortable, Kevin?” he asked, as he came around the front to fasten my seat belt.

“Yeah… I’m fine,” I replied, grateful to him for changing the subject. “Thanks, Cole.” I glanced up at Nick. “Same to you, brother. You did good.”

Nick grinned. “It was no big deal. Better than the Shamu swing, right?”

“Definitely,” I agreed, giving the Hoyer lift a dirty look. “I hate that thing.”

Cole laughed. “Well, I’ve gotta get to the next room. Do you need anything else before I go?”

“Nah, I’m good. I’ve got great help here if I need it,” I said, smiling at Nick and the rest of the guys. As much as I hated having to rely on other people, I was learning to live with my new reality.

At least I could take myself to the cafeteria that time, controlling my wheelchair with a straw-like wand that went into my mouth. When I puffed into the straw, the chair moved forward. By sipping on it, I could stop or go backwards. A light sip would make it turn left, whereas a light puff would turn it to the right. I wasn’t the best at it yet, but I could maneuver well enough to get where I wanted to go within the wide hallways of the rehab hospital.

I led the way, showing off my new wheelchair-driving skills as the guys went with me to grab dinner. I waited for one of them to make a joke about me being like Timmy in South Park, but none of them did. All they could talk about was how cool the power chair was and how great it was that I could get around on my own. I was actually a little disappointed. I knew they meant well and were probably just trying to protect my feelings, but I didn’t want to be treated any differently. When AJ got his foot run over by our van on tour and needed a cane to get around, we made fun of him constantly. I guess it was easier to do that when we knew it was only a temporary condition. Sprained ankles would heal. Crushed spinal cords couldn’t. Even Brian, who wanted me to believe I would walk again, must have known deep down that my disability was permanent.

I tried not to let it bother me as we went through the a la carte line, picking out what we wanted to eat. AJ carried my tray and had me tell him what to put on it. I had to think about what would be easiest to eat by myself and what I would need help with. I didn’t want any of the guys to have to spend half of dinner cutting my food or holding it in front of my face for me to bite into because I couldn’t get it up to my mouth. I ultimately went with meatloaf, which I hoped would be soft enough to cut myself, and mashed potatoes, which were easy to scoop up with a spoon.

When we finally gathered around a table, I had Howie help me put on the wrist braces that allowed me to hold utensils in my otherwise useless hands. There was a fork attached to one, a spoon to the other, their handles both bent more than normal cutlery. They allowed me to awkwardly shovel food into my mouth by raising my arms and bending my elbows at the right angle to bring my hands up to my face. It was a slow, clumsy process. I was about as adept at using my new utensils as my seven-month-old son would have been and made as big of a mess, but it was worth it to be able to feed myself.

“So how much longer do you think you’ll be in here for?” AJ asked me, as I tried to cut my meatloaf with my fork. It was tougher than I had anticipated.

“I dunno yet,” I said, taking a break and setting my hand back down beside my dinner tray. “I’ve been asking around, and everyone has a different answer. Some of the people with spinal cord injuries are only here a couple weeks. Others stay for months. I talked to one guy who’s been here since he got hurt last summer.”

“Last summer?” said Nick, his eyes widening. “That’s, like… at least six months!”

“I know. My P.T. said people make the most improvement within the first six months and then it slows down, so I guess that makes sense. But I don’t plan to be here that long. I wanna get home to Mason as soon as I can.”

“But you also want to make the most progress you possibly can, right?” said Howie, giving me a sideways glance. “I’m sure your mom won’t mind staying out here longer to help out if it means you’ll be better off.”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t, but I hate to put that burden on her,” I replied. “She never complains, but I know how hard these last six weeks must have been for her. She loves being closer to me and Mason, but she hates being so far away from home. I know she still wishes I would have done my rehab in Kentucky.”

“Well, who’s gonna help you and Mason when you do get out of here?” asked AJ, as I raised my arm again to take another stab at my meatloaf. “I mean, no offense, man, but I don’t know how you’re gonna take care of a baby when you can barely take care of yourself right now. I guess I just assumed your mom was gonna move in with you - or that you’d go home with her.”

I sighed. “Yeah, well, all that’s still up in the air. We haven’t made any decisions yet.” Truth be told, I had been putting off having that conversation with my mom. As much as I loved her and appreciated all she had done for me and Mason, I didn’t want her moving in with me, and I definitely didn’t want to move back in with her. What thirty-six-year-old man would? I had always been independent, and I wanted to stay that way.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t even cut my own meatloaf. Without a word, Brian suddenly pulled my tray across the table toward him and started slicing it into bite-size pieces.

“Thanks,” I muttered, feeling my cheeks flush as he slid it back to me. I took a bite of meatloaf, then dug into my pile of mashed potatoes with more force than I meant to, accidentally flinging some at Nick, who was sitting next to me.

“Whoa, watch it there, dude,” he said, wiping flecks of potato off his face. “This must be what it was like to eat dinner with Edward Scissorhands.” Everyone laughed, including me, which eased the tension at the table.

“Sorry, bro. You try feeding yourself without being able to feel your hands.” I held up my arms and looked down at my fork and spoon attachments. “I might as well have prosthetics, like that guy - look. But don’t stare.” I shifted my eyes toward a double amputee sitting a few tables away, directing their attention to him as well. He was being spoon-fed his dinner by a woman sitting beside him, despite the pair of bulky prosthetic arms he was wearing. I watched them for a few seconds before I forced myself to look away, thinking, It could always be worse.

There were plenty of people in this place who were worse off than me. Soldiers who’d had both legs blown off by IEDs in Iraq, their bodies burned and mangled. Men and women with traumatic brain injuries who couldn’t even talk, let alone walk. Teenagers with trach tubes hanging out the front of their necks, which they had broken so high up, they could no longer breathe on their own. Whenever I felt sorry for myself, I would start listing all the ways it could be worse. At least my body still looked intact, even if it was broken beyond repair inside. At least my brain hadn’t been damaged; I could still think and speak. At least my lungs worked; I’d regained the ability to breathe on my own. At least I was alive.

“I was just kidding, dawg,” said Nick, clapping his hand down on my shoulder. “You’re doing great.”

When we finished our dinner, we went back to my room to hang out for a while before the boys had to head home and finish packing. It was weird to think the four of them would be flying overseas the next day for their first tour without me. I reminded myself that would have happened whether I had gotten hurt or not, for I had chosen to leave the group long before my accident. So why did I feel like I was the one being left behind?

“I’m gonna miss you guys,” I admitted, as they got ready to go. “It’s been nice having you all here. I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.” My voice caught in my throat. I cleared it quickly, hoping they wouldn’t notice me getting choked up. I didn’t want a drawn out, tearful goodbye.

“No problem, bro,” said Howie, putting his hand on my shoulder.

“We’re gonna miss you, too,” added AJ, as Nick and Brian nodded along next to him. I wasn’t sure which one of them had taken my departure from the group the hardest - my cousin, whom I’d brought into the group, or my little brothers, whom I’d always tried to look out for. Nick, in particular, had seemed pretty lost for the last few years, but I didn’t know if that had anything to do with my leaving.

“We got you something,” Nick said suddenly, picking up a box from the floor. I hadn’t noticed it before. “A little parting gift.” He started to hand it to me, then thought better of it and set it down on the tray beside my bed. “Um… do you want one of us to open it for you?”

“Yeah, sure. Y’all didn’t have to bring me anything,” I said, mystified by the large box. I watched as Nick lifted the lid and pulled back a layer of tissue paper. Underneath was a neatly folded garment made of shiny, white satin. I wasn’t sure what it was until Nick took it out of the box and held it up, shaking out the folds so that it hung at its full length. It took me a second to realize it was a boxing robe, white with blue trim. He turned it over so I could see my last name, Richardson, emblazoned across the back in blue letters. A lump rose in my throat as I realized it must match the robes Nick had talked about the boys wearing for their intro on the tour. I looked up at him with tears in my eyes, unable to speak.

Nick smiled, his own eyes looking extra bright. “It won’t be the same on that stage without you, but you’ll be with us in spirit, bro.”

“Once a Backstreet Boy, always a Backstreet Boy,” said AJ with a grin.

“We love you,” added Howie, bending down to hug me. I leaned forward slightly in my chair so he could get his arms behind my back, reaching up to wrap mine around him.

Brian followed suit, embracing me the best he could with the bulky neck brace and wheelchair in the way. “Keep working hard, and have faith,” he whispered close to my ear. “Miracles do happen.”

I forced myself to smile as he pulled back, wondering how disappointed he would be when he came back to find I still couldn’t walk. “Thanks, man,” I managed to say, as I settled back into my chair. Then I looked at the others, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “Thank you all. For everything.”

***

Chapter End Notes:

Author's Note

Chapter 16 by RokofAges75
Nick

A chorus of screams greeted me as I stepped out onto the stage. “Konnichiwa!” I called with a grin. Magnified by the microphone, my Japanese greeting echoed through the mostly empty stadium, earning me more cheers. I gazed down at the small group of fans - mostly female - that had gathered in the first few rows for our soundcheck party. They were all watching me with big smiles on their faces and stars in their eyes. I felt a rush of happiness bubble up inside me like a fizzy drink. It was good to be back.

Tokyo was one of my favorite cities in the world. I loved the food, the nightlife, the people, the culture. I was happy we were kicking off the tour there, playing the Tokyo Dome two nights in a row before we went on to Australia.

Most of all, I was just glad to get away. Touring had always been a form of escapism for me, but that was never more true than now. The past six weeks had been hard: hanging out at the hospital, watching Kevin struggle through his rehabilitation while he mourned the loss of his wife and his old way of life. As much as I hated to leave him like that, I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off my chest when we landed in Japan. I just wanted life to go back to normal - and for me, this was normal. Traveling. Performing. Entertaining.

At first, it felt normal. As AJ, Howie, Brian, and I went through our soundcheck, singing a few songs for the fans who had come to watch it, I was able to lose myself in the music and forget about Kevin for a little while. But I was brought right back to the rehab hospital when it came time for the Q&A. Of course, the first fan called on to ask us a question just wanted to know how Kevin was doing.

Thankfully, Brian took that one. “Kevin’s getting better every day,” he told the crowd, being vague but honest. “He appreciates all the love and support you’ve been sending his way.”

The fans smiled and nodded, applauding politely. Our fan club photographer, Justin, quickly moved on to the next question, but my mind wandered back to Kevin. I wondered what he was doing at that moment, halfway around the world. Probably sleeping, since it was the middle of the night in L.A. Or maybe he was lying awake, unable to sleep. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him.

It was weird not having him there with us. I wished he was sitting on the stool next to mine, telling some drawn-out story, talking super slow to make sure the foreign fans understood what he was saying. There were times when he drove me nuts with his long-winded speeches, his perfectionism, and his need for his control, but now I realized how much I had taken him for granted. Rehearsals weren’t the same without him. When Kevin was with us, we would run through songs over and over again until everything sounded just right. Now our soundcheck really was more like a party, a performance. In some ways, it was more relaxed and fun, but it also made me realize how much more disciplined we had been with Kevin around. He had brought out the best in us, and we would never be as great without him. As a foursome, the Backstreet Boys felt incomplete.

After the Q&A, we moved down to the floor for the meet and greet. The four of us stood behind a barricade as the fans slowly filed past us, shaking our hands and stopping to pose for a quick picture. A few of them were in wheelchairs. We always paid special attention to the fans with special needs, gathering in front of the barricade so we could get down to their level for the photo, but for the first time, I found myself wondering about the people sitting in those chairs. What were their stories? Had they been born with a disability, or did they become that way later in life, like Kevin? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I just tried to talk to them like I would any other fan. I assumed that was what Kevin would have wanted: to be treated normally.

His absence hit me hard that night during our opening number. As we were introduced one by one and stepped into the ring onstage to start “Larger Than Life,” I thought, There should be one more. He should be here. Remembering the tears in Kevin’s eyes when we’d given him the boxing robe with RICHARDSON on the back brought tears to my own eyes, but I blinked them back, bouncing in place to shake off my emotions as the music pounded.

Once I started singing and dancing, it was easier to focus on the lyrics and choreography and lose myself in my performance. I was fine when we were doing new tracks from the Unbreakable album, but every time I heard Howie’s voice sing Kevin’s part on one of our old singles, it brought his face back to the forefront of my mind.

It began with “I Want It That Way.” Even though I’d heard Howie sing Kevin’s line (“Now I can see that we’ve fallen apart... from the way that we used to be, ye-eah...”) a hundred times in rehearsal, it felt different in front of a crowd of forty thousand fans. I could see the faces in the first few rows turn toward each other, exchanging glances. Their expressions matched the way I felt inside: happy for Howie, but clearly missing Kevin.

“‘Cause I want it… that way…” After AJ finished the last line, we ran backstage for our first wardrobe change while Howie went out to sing his solo, “She’s Like the Sun.”

“He’s havin’ the time of his life out there,” said Brian, smiling, as we watched Howie perform from backstage.

I snickered. “He hasn’t gotten this many solos since you joined the group. Kevin leaving was the best thing to ever happen to Howie.” I knew Howie missed him, too, but Kevin’s departure had definitely worked out in his favor. He had double the number of parts he’d had before. Finally, Howie had a chance to shine, while Kevin was stuck in the shadows.

When the stage lights went dark at the end of Howie’s song, he hurried backstage for a quick change while the stagehands set up for the next song, “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely.” I loved the concept we had come up with for this one. The four of us sang it while sitting around a card table, drinking Hennessy and playing poker. It felt like a scene out of a movie and made for an intimate moment in the show. For a few minutes, I could imagine us tucked into the corner of a tiny bar, drowning our sorrows in liquor… or huddled together in a hospital waiting room, sipping coffee.

“Show me the meaning of being lonely. Is this the feeling I need to walk with?” As we sang the chorus, I couldn’t help but think of Kevin, widowed and alone. “Tell me why I can’t be there where you are. There’s something missing in my heart.”

I got emotional again as Howie started singing Kevin’s solo. “Life goes on… as it never ends. Eyes of stone… observe the trends. They never say… forever gaze, if only.”

“Guilty roads... to an endless love,” I joined him in harmony, hoping the audience wouldn’t hear the quiver in my voice. “There’s no control. Are you with me now? Your every wish… will be done, they tell me...”

That was the hardest part of the show for me. Once it was over, I was able to move past it and lose myself in my performance again. I didn’t think much more about Kevin until he called AJ after the show, as we were riding back to our hotel.

“Hey, Kev’s calling!” AJ announced, holding up his ringing phone. He answered it with an exuberant, “What’s up, Kevy Kev?!”

“Hey, brother,” Kevin’s voice crackled through the air, as AJ put him on speakerphone. If my math was right, it was only about seven-thirty in the morning in California, so he must have just woken up. “I’m just calling to see how your first show went. It’s over by now, right?”

“No, I’m on stage right now. There’s forty thousand fans listening in on this call,” AJ joked. “Everyone say hi to Kevin!”

I’m sure Kevin could tell by the lack of screaming that AJ was just kidding. He laughed and said, “Tell them I miss them very much.” It sounded like he was smiling, but I could also hear the sadness in his voice.

“I’ll tell ‘em tomorrow night. We’re actually all in the van heading back to the hotel.”

“Hey, Kev!” Brian called from the front seat. The rest of us followed suit, shouting various greetings at the same time.

“Hey, fellas!” Kevin replied. “So how was the first show?”

Howie was the first to answer. “It was great!”

“Yeah, Howie actually got to sing,” I added, snickering.

Howie grinned. “I did! Like I said... it was great!”

Kevin laughed again. “You’re welcome for that. I’m happy for you, D. You deserve a chance to show off those pipes of yours.”

“Thanks, man,” said Howie. “So what are you up to?”

“Trust me, you don’t wanna know,” said Kevin in a flat voice. I took that to mean he was in the middle of taking a dump or a bath or doing something else he didn’t want to talk about. I wasn’t sure how all that worked with his new body, and that was fine with me. I didn’t need to know all the details.

Howie tried a different approach. “Well, what’s on your agenda for the rest of your Saturday?”

“I dunno… Weekends are pretty boring around this place. I don’t get the same therapy sessions I go to on weekdays, so there’s not as much to do. I’ll probably just watch TV until Mom brings Mason by for a visit.”

I felt my performance high fading as I listened to Kevin talk. I don’t think he meant to sound like Eeyore, but he did, and it was depressing. It made me feel bad for being on tour while he was stuck in the rehab center. He wouldn’t have been here with us even if this hadn’t happened to him, I reminded myself. And he told me himself he didn’t want us to reschedule the tour. We’re not doing anything wrong.

“That’s great you’ll get to see Mason!” said Brian, his voice bright with enthusiasm. I could tell he was trying his best to be upbeat and cheerful. “Maybe you and your mom can take him to see the therapy horses. I bet he’d love that!”

“Yeah, he probably would.” Kevin seemed to perk up a little. “There’s also a wheelchair basketball game in one of the gyms we may go watch.”

“Even better! Wheelchair basketball - that actually sounds fun! I’d love to watch one of those with you when we get back.”

“We’ll see,” he said. “But look, I didn’t call to bring y’all down with my bullshit. I just wanted to congratulate you on kicking off the tour. Where’s the after party?”

We all exchanged glances and shrugs. No one had planned an official after party. There was no point. Brian wouldn’t have gone anyway; he had his family with him, which meant we barely saw him outside of the concert venue. AJ still had a hard time being around large groups of drunk people without succumbing to temptation, so he probably wouldn’t have wanted to party either. That left me and Howie and Leigh. They liked to have a good time, so I had assumed we, at least, would go out for a lowkey celebration. I looked at Howie, eyebrows raised, and he nodded.

“No after party,” he told Kevin, “but I think Nicky and I are gonna go have a few drinks. Anyone else is welcome to come, too, of course.” He looked around the van, but no one said anything.

“Good - you should go out. Life’s too short not to, you know?” said Kevin quietly. “I sure wish I could come. Drink one for me, will ya?”

Howie nodded, his mouth stretching into a sad, tight-lipped smile. “Will do, man. We wish you were here, too.”

“Thanks.” Kevin cleared his throat. “Well, I better let y’all go now. I’m glad to hear your first show went off without a hitch. Break a leg tomorrow night, too!”

“Thanks, bro,” said AJ. “It’s always good to hear from you. You hang in there, okay?”

“That’s about all I can do,” said Kevin bitterly. “Speaking of hanging… here comes the nurse to hoist my crippled ass out of bed with that damn Hoyer lift so he can hose me off in the shower like Shamu. So I really do have to go.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. It was kind of funny, hearing the way he compared his “crippled ass” to a killer whale out of water, but it was also really sad. I could only imagine how humiliating and dehumanizing it must be to have another man undress and wash you like you were an infant… or an animal. No wonder Kevin sounded so depressed. I wouldn’t want to live like that either.

“We love you, Kev!” I called lamely, knowing there was nothing I could say that would fix the situation or make him feel better. All any of us could do was be there for him… except we weren’t. We were on the other side of the world, living our old lives while he struggled to adapt to his new one.

“Love you too. I’ll talk to y’all soon.” We heard him whisper something to the nurse who must have overheard our whole conversation, and then there was nothing but dead air. As far as I knew, Kevin still couldn’t work the buttons on his phone with his paralyzed fingers, so he’d probably had the nurse place the call and hang up for him.

An awkward silence fell in the van after that. Kevin’s presence seemed to hover over our heads, heavy in the air. As AJ put his phone back in his pocket, Howie looked at me. “You still wanna go out with us tonight, don’t you?” he asked in a low voice, holding Leigh’s hand in his lap.

“Definitely,” I replied without missing a beat. I knew I would be the third wheel, but that didn’t matter. “I need a drink. And hey, we have to celebrate your promotion!”

“My promotion?” Howie looked confused.

“Yeah! Howie D… lead singer!”

He laughed. “Damn right. Let’s go have a drink!”

When we got back to the hotel, we returned to our rooms just long enough to change, and then Howie, Leigh, and I headed out with two of our bodyguards, Q and Josh, in tow. We went to one of our favorite clubs in Tokyo, where we drank and danced the rest of the night away. We raised glasses of sake in a toast to Kevin, then downed shots of whiskey and tequila to try to take our minds off him. For one night, we just wanted to have fun and forget.

***


Chapter 17 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I didn’t have a lot to look forward to in the rehab facility. The days blurred together, each one more or less the same as the one before it. By mid-February, I had settled into my new routine. I refused to think of it as my “new normal,” a phrase the therapists there used often, because none of it felt normal to me. But over the past few weeks, some of the strangeness had worn off, and I had become more accustomed to navigating the world in my new body.

The world inside the rehab hospital, anyway.

I couldn’t forget that there was still a much larger world outside the hospital, a world that wasn’t as accessible as the one within its walls. I worried about what it would be like when I finally went home. But that was also one of the few things I did have to look forward to: going home. It was the main goal I was working toward in my daily therapy sessions.

The other thing I looked forward to was seeing my son. My mom brought Mason by every afternoon. Their visits were the best part of my day, my reward for working hard in therapy.

When the weather was nice, we would take a “walk” outside. Ellis had shown me how to turn a velcro calf strap, which normally stretched across the space beneath the seat of my wheelchair to keep my legs from slipping off the footplates, into a makeshift baby harness so I could hold Mason on my lap without the risk of him falling. He loved going for rides in the power chair, especially when I made it spin in circles. He would laugh and squeal, flailing his little fists in the air as if to say, “Again! Again!” Sometimes I took him to the stables to see the therapy horses. Other times, we stayed in the courtyard and looked at the flowers and fountain.

On cold or rainy days, we would wander the halls instead, head to the cafeteria for some ice cream, or just hang out in my room. My mom brought in plenty of picture books so I could read to Mason, something Kristin and I had done every night since we brought him home from the hospital. She had to help me turn the pages, since neither Mason nor I had the dexterity to do it ourselves, but I did everything else, putting on different silly voices to hold his attention and make him laugh. For a few minutes, I felt almost normal again, just another dad reading to his son.

When Mason wasn’t in the mood to sit still for a story, he would help me with my exercises. He especially loved the large, inflatable ball I used to work on my arm strength and control. I would pick up the ball between my paralyzed fists, feeling a little like a circus seal with flippers instead of hands, and try to lift it over my head without dropping it. Then I would hurl it as far as I could for Mason to chase after. He had only been crawling for a couple of weeks, but he was already getting pretty good at it. “He’s almost faster than I am,” my mom laughed one afternoon, as we watched him scrabble across the room on his hands and knees. “I’ve had to childproof your whole house.”

“Thanks for doing that,” I said, feeling a stab of guilt as I thought about everything my mom had done for Mason and me. She hadn’t been home in seven weeks, not since she’d woken to her phone ringing in the middle of the night and frantically hopped on the first flight she could find out of Kentucky.

“Of course!” she replied, brushing my gratitude aside with a casual wave of her hand. “That’s what mothers are for.”

She always acted like it was no big deal, but I knew how hard it must be for her to take care of a seven-month-old baby on top of everything else she had been handling while I was in the hospital, especially at her age. But she never complained or made me feel like a burden. When I had brought up the idea of hiring a nanny, she wouldn’t hear of it.

“He’s my grandson!” she had exclaimed, seeming almost offended, as if I were suggesting she wasn’t capable of caring for Mason herself. “I’m happy to help out however I can. I wish the circumstances were different, of course, but it’s been nice getting to spend this time with him and watch him grow. Babies change so quickly in the first year.”

Don’t I know it, I thought sadly, thinking of how much Mason had changed in the last month alone and how much I was missing by not being home with him. I couldn’t wait to get out of rehab and back to my old life. But there was still a lot that had to happen before that was possible.

“Next you’ll have to Kevin-proof the whole house,” I told her, only half-joking. In quad class last week, we had learned about ways to make our homes wheelchair-accessible. It was going to take a fair amount of time, money, and work to bring my two-story house, built in 1936, up to code.

My mom gave me a look of confusion, seemingly caught off-guard by my comment. “What do you mean? You’re not planning to stay in your current house, are you?”

“Well, yeah…” I was equally confused by her weird reaction. “What else would I do?”

Her mouth hung open for a few seconds before she found the words she was searching for. “Well... I guess I just assumed you would come home to Kentucky and live with me, at least for a little while, until you’re back on your - until you’re more independent, I mean.” A faint blush rose in her cheeks as she seemed to realize, mid-sentence, she had said the wrong thing.

“You know what they say about people who assume,” I could practically hear my father’s voice recite. “They make an ASS of U and ME.” That was one of his favorite adages. I knew better than to repeat it in front of my mother, but clearly, it was time to have the conversation I had been putting off for a few weeks now.

I tried to break it to her gently. “I love you, Ma, but I wasn’t planning to go back to Kentucky. My home is here. Mason’s home is here.”

“But your brothers are helping renovate my house for you. We were going to surprise you with photos when the work is further along.”

I felt a lump rise in my throat as I looked at my mother, reading the disappointment written across her face. “Oh wow… that’ll be real nice when I come home for the holidays. Thank you. But it doesn’t change how I feel. I wanna stay here, in the house Kristin and I bought together. I just can’t bring myself to sell it, at least not right now. I have too many memories there, you know?”

My mom nodded. “I know…” Deep down, I knew she understood. She had been just as reluctant to move out of the last house she had lived in with my dad when I wanted to buy her a bigger, nicer place with the money I’d made from BSB. Leaving it must have felt like she was leaving a part of her heart behind - at least, that was how I felt about leaving the home Kristin and I had purchased as newlyweds. I knew one day, I would have to move on, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to get rid of the house… or her.

“We can make it work,” I went on. “I’ll have my case manager come by someday while you’re here to go over options with us. She said she can recommend contractors and medical supply companies to order what I’ll need.”

“But… does that mean you’re planning to live there alone? Or do you want me to move in with you permanently? Because I will,” she added quickly, “if that’s what you want.” But I could hear the hesitation in her voice. As much as she loved me and Mason, I knew my mom didn’t really want to live with us long-term. She also loved her home in Kentucky and hated California, or at least L.A. Seven weeks was the longest she had ever stayed out here, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was secretly counting down the days until she could go home again.

“Nah, you don’t need to do that. No offense, but I don’t want you to do that. Not that I don’t appreciate the offer… but I’m a grown man, Ma.”

“But who’s going to take care of you and Mason?” she pressed. “I’ve read up on this, Kevin, and I’ve talked to your doctor. It’s just not possible for people with your level of injury to be fully independent. You’re going to need someone to live with you or at least come over a couple times a day to help you. How else are you going to get dressed or go to the bathroom or-?”

“Do you really think I want my own mother helping me with that stuff?” I interrupted her, feeling my face heat up.

She looked hurt. “Why not? It’s not like I haven’t changed your diapers or bathed and dressed you before, Kevin. You don’t need to be embarrassed.”

If she thought that would make me feel less embarrassed, she was wrong. “I’m not a baby anymore, Ma. I don’t wanna be treated like one.” I glanced down at Mason, who was playing happily on the floor. “And no offense, but you’re not exactly as young as you were when you were doing all that stuff for me - and I’m a hell of a lot bigger and heavier now. There’s no way you would be able to lift me in and out of my chair.”

She frowned. “I’m a lot stronger than I look,” she insisted, flexing her arm to show off her muscles. “And if I can’t manage, we can always get one of those automatic lifts.” She looked at the hated Hoyer lift, which sat in the corner.

“Absolutely not,” I said flatly. “I’ll hire a caregiver. That’s what a lot of people my age do, even the ones who have partners at home.”

“So you’d rather be taken care of by a total stranger?”

I shrugged. “If I have to be. I don’t like either option, but you’re right - I’m not gonna be able to take care of myself and Mason, at least not now. Maybe it’ll be different down the road, when he’s older and can do more for himself, but I’m definitely gonna need help.”

She was silent for almost a minute before she spoke again. “Then let me help you,” she said quietly. “Hire a caregiver, I mean. I can type up an ad if you tell me what you want to say. I can also help screen candidates and sit in on interviews, if you don’t mind. It’s important that we find a good fit, someone you can trust and feel comfortable with.”

“Thanks, Ma. That would be great,” I replied, smiling at her. “I’ll ask around here, too. The nurses and therapists may know someone who’s looking for that kind of work.”

We spent the rest of her visit drafting a “help wanted” ad for an in-home caregiver, my mom working on my laptop while I played with Mason. When he got fussy, she scooped him up and gathered her things to go, promising we would finish the next day.

I felt better after she left, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had taken one more step towards home... figuratively speaking.

***


Later that night, as I was lying in bed, my cell phone rang. When no one else was around, it became a race to try to answer it myself before it went to voicemail. I usually lost that race, but it was something I had been working on in occupational therapy. The phone was lying facedown on the bed tray nearby. I reached for it, poking my paralyzed right hand through the wrist strap on the back of the special phone case Ellis had ordered for me, which allowed me to hold the phone without using my fingers. Sometimes it took me a couple of tries to thread my hand through it, but this time, I got it on the first attempt. I lifted my arm, bringing the phone with it, and awkwardly turned it until I could see the screen. A few weeks ago, this would have been impossible, but I was gradually regaining some range of motion in my wrists. This made it much easier to manipulate objects with my hands.

Seeing AJ’s name on the screen, I dragged my left thumb across the slider at the bottom. It was a clumsy way of using the touchscreen, but it worked surprisingly well most of the time. This time, I was able to answer the call before the ringtone stopped. “Hello? AJ?” I said hopefully, raising the phone closer to my head.

“Hey, Kev!” I heard AJ’s voice reply. “Am I calling at a bad time? You sound flustered.”

I laughed. “No, you’re fine! I just answered the phone all by myself before it went to voicemail… which is a major accomplishment for me.”

“Wow, that’s awesome, man! Good for you!” I smiled at the enthusiasm in his voice. AJ would never fully understand what it was like to struggle with such simple tasks, but I appreciated his encouragement.

“Thanks. Hang on a second while I put you on speaker.” I lowered the phone a little so I could bump the speaker button with my thumb. “Okay… can you hear me now?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Good. So what’s up, brother?” I asked, as I set the phone back down on my tray. “Where you at right now?”

“Brisbane, mate,” AJ answered in an Australian accent that sounded pretty spot-on to my American ears.

“Ah… how are things down und-ah?” I replied, doing my best Crocodile Dundee impression. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as AJ’s.

“So far so good,” said AJ, dropping the accent. “We’ve been here a couple days already. We have our first show tonight.”

“What time is it there?” I knew Brisbane was on the east coast of Australia, but I was trying to remember how many hours ahead of us they were. We had traveled to so many different time zones, it was hard to keep track.

“It’s almost two in the afternoon. We just got back from a little birthday lunch for Brian.”

“Oh wow, I forgot it’s already the twentieth there. Tell him happy birthday for me. I’ll call him after the show tonight - tomorrow morning for me.”

“Will do. I’m not calling too late, am I? Are you already in bed?”

“I am, but I’m just relaxing, watching some TV while I try to get sleepy. It’s not even nine yet here, but there’s not much else to do in the evening - and once they put me in bed, I’m stuck here the rest of the night.”

“Ah, yeah… that sucks,” said AJ. “You better be watching Big Brother! I hate that I’m missing the new season.”

“Uh… sorry, but no.” I glanced up at the small TV mounted to my ceiling, where a bunch of red-faced, overweight people were running on treadmills. “I’m watching The Biggest Loser.”

He laughed. “Is that supposed to make you feel better about yourself? Like, you may be paralyzed, but at least you’re not fat?”

“Hell, I’d rather be fat,” I replied without hesitation. “I could lose weight, if that were the case. But I can’t fix my spinal cord, no matter how hard I work. I guess it is motivating in a way, though, watching these people transform their bodies week by week. Maybe that’s why I’ve gotten into it lately.”

“Yeah, that’s true. I didn’t think about it that way. But if you ever get bored with it, give Big Brother a try!”

“Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, knowing I would probably never get around to watching the show. “So anyway, what are you up to?”

“Not much, just hanging out in my hotel room for a couple hours before it’s time to head to the venue.”

I could picture him lying across the king-sized bed with his phone in his hand. AJ had always been the best at keeping in touch. He called me every few days when he was bored, and we would catch up for a while. It made me miss touring, hearing him talk about their itinerary and all the beautiful cities they were traveling to while I was stuck in my bed, staring at the beige stucco wall outside my window. But it was always nice to hear from him and know someone on the other side of the world was thinking of me.

“I wish there was a way you could watch Big Brother online or something,” I said.

“No shit. That would be amazing! Maybe someday...” AJ sighed. “So how was your day?”

“Same as every other day in here,” I said. “Not bad, though. My mom brought Mason by this afternoon, and we had a nice visit. I broke the news that I’m not moving back to Kentucky with her.”

“Oh, wow... How’d she take that?”

“She wasn’t happy about it at first, but she came around. Maybe she realized how much better off she’ll be not having to take care of her crippled adult son and a baby grandson.”

“Aw, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, if it was what you wanted. That’s what family’s for. My mom would be the same way if it were me. But I understand you not wanting to move back in with your mom.”

“Yeah. Only now I have to hire a full-time caregiver for when I get out of here.”

“Full-time? Does that mean they’ll have to, like, live with you?”

“Most likely, unless I hire multiple people to take different shifts. I’m gonna need help twenty-four hours a day. I have to be turned over every couple hours at night so I don’t get bed sores, and I need someone there in case Mason wakes up in the night or there’s an emergency or something. I can’t get out of bed and into a wheelchair by myself... so if the house burned down, we’d both be toast.”

“Damn,” AJ swore softly. “I didn’t think about that, but yeah… you definitely need someone.”

“Yeah… a nurse-slash-nanny. Hopefully I can find someone who fits that bill. I’ve also gotta figure out what kind of compensation I’m going to offer them. I wanna pay well enough to attract qualified people who will want to stick around, but not so much that I attract the wrong kind of people - you know, people who are just in it for the money.”

“Yeah, you don’t wanna be taken advantage of…” AJ paused. After a second, he added, “Maybe I should just move in with you for a while - when we get back to the States, I mean. I wouldn’t mind helping out with Mason and whatever you need help with. I’d even work for free.”

I assumed he was just joking around at first, but as he went on, I realized he was actually serious. “For real? Why would you wanna do that?”

“You saved my life when you sent me to rehab, Kev,” he said quietly. “I owe you one.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” I mumbled back, embarrassed. “I don’t want you giving up your life just to return a favor.”

“That’s not the only reason,” he insisted. “You broke my door down that day in Boston because you loved me and were just trying to do what was best for me, right? Well, that’s why I’m offering this - because you’re my brother, which makes Mason my nephew, and I wanna do what’s best for both of you. Not that I’d be the best choice of caregiver, mind you. I don’t know anything about being a nurse - or a nanny - but I’m willing to learn.”

For a few seconds, I was speechless. I was touched by his offer, but then I started thinking about all that it would entail and realized AJ had no idea what he was actually volunteering to do. “I appreciate that, brother, but I don’t think you really wanna be my full-time caregiver. You’d have to get up every two hours at night to roll me over, and besides getting me in and out of bed, you’d also have to help me in the bathroom. I can’t take a shower or get dressed by myself. Hell, I can’t even take a shit by myself or empty my own catheter bag. I need help with all of that… and I know how you feel about bodily fluids.”

AJ laughed, but I could tell it was forced. He clearly hadn’t thought this through before he offered, and now he was probably regretting it. “Okay, yeah, you’re right,” he admitted, surprising me with his honesty. “That’s maybe a little more than I can handle. But I could still move in with you and help with some of that. Then you could just hire a part-time caregiver to help with… the other stuff.”

I opened my mouth to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but instead, I heard myself say, “That would be amazing, brother… if you’re serious, I mean.”

“Of course I’m serious,” AJ replied without hesitation. “I wanna do whatever I can to help. I’m sure the other guys would be willing to help out, too, but it makes the most sense for it to be me. I mean, Brian already has a kid to look after. Howie just got married. And Nick… Nick’s a hot mess. He can barely take care of himself, let alone someone else. But I’m-”

“What’s going on with Nick?” I interrupted him. “I thought he was doing better. He lost all that weight last year; he looks good…”

“Well, he’s not,” AJ said bluntly. “He’s gone right back to his old bullshit. He’s been going out with Howie and getting wasted almost every night. Then he wakes up the next day hungover and moody as hell. He always manages to pull himself together by the time we go onstage, but it’s getting old. Now I know why you guys were so annoyed with me when I was at my worst. I feel like I’m watching myself from seven years ago, and it scares the shit out of me. I can see him spiraling out of control, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

What AJ was describing was exactly how I had felt watching him in the midst of his own downward spiral: helpless. I felt even more helpless now. I hated to hear that Nick wasn’t doing as well as he pretended to be. He hadn’t been in a good place when I had left the group, but I really thought he had gotten his life back together over the past year. “Have you talked to him?” I asked.

“I’ve tried, but he doesn’t see the problem. Tough love hasn’t helped either. If I try to be direct, it only makes him more defensive.”

“Well, what about talking to Howie? It sounds like he’s part of the problem, partying with Nick every night.”

AJ sighed. “Howie’s philosophy is that Nick’s gonna do what Nick wants either way, and he’d rather Nick drink with him than do it alone on the bus or in some sketchy bar with strangers. At least this way, he can keep an eye on him.”

I frowned. “He sounds like the kind of parents who let their teenagers drink at home so they won’t get in trouble for driving drunk.”

“Yeah… exactly. His heart’s in the right place, but he’s enabling him. And he and Rok don’t even know the full extent of it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

“I found drugs in Nick’s hotel room the night of your accident,” AJ confessed. “Cocaine… and ecstasy. I never told the other two; Nick begged me not to, and with everything else that was going on, I didn’t wanna dump that on them, too. But yeah… when he claimed to have gotten clean last year, he was lying.”

I sighed. “Damn... What are we gonna do? Do we need to stage another intervention? Send him off to rehab?” My mind was racing. “I know there’s not much I can do from here, but if you want me to try talking to him, I will. I’ll do whatever it takes to help him.”

“See?” said AJ, his voice lifting as if he were smiling. “Now that’s the kind of brotherly love I’ve been talking about. We’re a family, Kev. We take care of each other.”

I realized he was right. The five of us had always been there for each other, through good times and bad. Our talent may have taken us to the top, but it was our camaraderie that had kept us together, even when we were at rock bottom. That relationship was the main reason we had lasted as long as we had. The Backstreet Boys were a brotherhood, and while I had walked away from the band, I would never turn my back on one of my brothers. They obviously felt the same way about me, or AJ wouldn’t have offered to move in with me.

“As far as Nick’s concerned,” AJ went on, “I don’t think you talking to him is gonna help. Like I said, I’ve already tried, and it didn’t do any good. He’s not gonna listen to anything that sounds like a lecture. And if we all go at him at once, he’s gonna feel like we’re ganging up on him, which will only make him more defensive.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“I dunno… I need to give it some more thought.” AJ sighed. “Sorry to dump this on you, dude - as if you don’t have enough other stuff to worry about.”

“I don’t mind. I wanna know what’s going on,” I insisted. “Please don’t leave me out of the loop.”

“I won’t,” he promised. “I’ll keep you posted. I should probably let you go now though. We’ll talk later, okay?”

I rolled my eyes. Everyone always said they should “let me go” when they wanted to get off the phone, as if I had somewhere important to be or something to do besides lie in bed. But all I said back was, “Yeah, I don’t wanna keep you either. Tell the other fellas hi for me.”

“Will do. Love you, bro.”

“Love you, too. Break a leg tonight!” I felt another lump in my throat as I imagined the four of them getting ready to go onstage. I missed performing so much.

“Thanks! ‘Night, Kev.”

“Bye, AJ.”

After he hung up, I looked at my phone, feeling lonelier than I had before he had called. But AJ had given me a lot to think about. I thought about his offer to move in with me when I got out of rehab and he got home from the tour. Despite my assurances that it wasn’t necessary, I had to admit it might be nice to have him in the house - not just another stranger who was being paid to take care of me, but a close friend who genuinely wanted to help. It would be good for Mason to get to know one of his uncles better, too.

I also thought about Nick. When AJ had told me he was still doing drugs and getting drunk every night, it felt like the weight that had been lifted off my shoulders was being lowered back down again, even heavier than before. And this time, there was nothing I could do to get out from under it. I wanted to call Nick and try to talk some sense into him, but I knew AJ was right: he wouldn’t react well to that. So I resisted the temptation.

Still, I had a hard time falling asleep that night. I lay awake for hours, with neuropathic pain making my legs prickle and the weight of worry pressing down on me from above.

***

Chapter 18 by RokofAges75
Nick

Time flies when you’re touring. February turned to March, and before I knew it, a whole month had passed since the start of the Unbreakable tour. After traveling through Asia and Australia, the Boys and I had finally made it back to North America to wrap up the first leg of the tour in Mexico. We played four shows there, the last of which was in Mexico City on St. Patrick’s Day.

We had the day before off to travel, but we made it to Mexico City early enough to give me and Howie plenty of time to go out and party. We both loved being in Mexico, where the weather was warm, the food was tasty, and the tequila was always flowing. We went out on the town and found a cantina where we could have dinner and drinks. Then we worked our way down the street, stopping in different upscale bars and clubs to drink and dance. We started with beer and margaritas, but by the end of the night, we were both downing shots of straight tequila.

For a little guy, Howie could hold his liquor. He was a fun drunk who loosened up and laughed more as the night wore on. I even talked him into getting on a mechanical bull in one bar, something he never would have done sober. He lasted longer than I thought he would, too, making it almost a full minute before it bucked him off.

I, on the other hand, was a sloppy drunk. By the end of the night, I could barely hold my head up anymore. I hardly remember the ride back to our hotel. Q had to practically carry me up to my room because my legs had lost the coordination to walk. He put his arm around me, supporting most of my weight as I staggered alongside him, and half-dragged me down the hall to my door. Thankfully, he had kept a copy of each of our room keys because I couldn’t find mine. He let me in and lowered me onto the bed. “You gonna be okay, man?” he asked, giving me a look of concern as I lay there with the room spinning around me.

“Yeah, I’m good, dawg. G’night,” I slurred, closing my eyes so I wouldn’t get dizzy. I heard the door click as Q left.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up to find myself lying on top of the covers, still fully clothed. I hadn’t even taken off my shoes. And I felt like total shit.

The first thought that hit me was, Oh my God, I’m dying. My heart was doing a dance routine in my chest. My lungs felt like someone was stomping the air out of them. My gut was swollen. I didn’t have the strength to get off the bed. When I tried, my head started spinning.

So I just lay there and stared up at the ceiling, trying to take deep breaths as I waited for my heart to calm down. Is this what Kevin feels like when he wakes up and can’t move? I wondered. That thought made me feel even worse. Back home, Kevin had been working so hard to be able to use his broken body again, and here I was, abusing my own perfectly adequate body until it barely worked. If he had seen me that way, he would have been so ashamed of me. I felt ashamed of myself, too.

I was also afraid. I felt sick - not just sick to my stomach, but sick like there was something seriously wrong with me. It’s probably alcohol poisoning, I thought, but the pain radiating through my chest made me worry I might be having a heart attack. I wondered if I should call someone. Maybe I needed to go to a hospital.

No, I told myself, imagining the media shitstorm that would ensue if I was seen being carted off to a Mexican hospital before a show. It wouldn’t matter if I died or not; management would kill me anyway. You’re not dying. I tried to reason with myself. You’re only twenty-eight. You’re too young to have a heart attack. It’s just heartburn from all the Mexican food and drinks you had last night. You’re hungover, that’s all. Now stop being such a hypochondriac and get up. Go drink some water, pop a couple aspirin and an antacid, make coffee, and take a cold shower. You’ll be fine.

I forced myself to get up from the bed. I felt shaky as I struggled to my feet; my legs were like jello. My heart was still hammering so hard, you’d have thought I just finished a show instead of waking up from a deep sleep. My stomach was churning queasily, and as it lurched, I realized I was about to throw up. I staggered into the bathroom and fell to my knees in front of the toilet just in time. I vomited twice, then sank back to the tile floor as the traces of last night’s tacos and tequila were flushed down the drain.

“I’m never drinking tequila again,” I moaned, my throat burning from the mixture of hard liquid and bile coming back up it.

I stayed slumped on the bathroom floor for a few more minutes, until I was sure I was finished. Then I pulled myself back to my feet, clinging to the counter for support, and went to find a bottle of water from the minibar. I washed out my mouth, then sat down on the side of the bed and sipped water until my stomach settled.

What time is it? I wondered, looking around the dark hotel room. I could see bright sunlight filtering through the cracks between the blackout curtains that were covering the windows. No one had come banging on my door yet, so it couldn’t be too late in the day. The digital clock on the bedside table caught my eye. According to its glowing red numbers, it was almost noon. I was surprised no one had woken me up.

I felt around for my phone on the table, where I usually left it, but it wasn’t connected to its charging cord. Panicked at the thought of losing it, I patted the pockets of the jeans I was still wearing from the night before. I felt a rush of relief when I found the phone tucked safely in my back pocket. I pulled it out and saw a series of texts from Howie.

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!

How ya feeling this morning? ;)

Text me when you wake up.

Nick? You ok?

Apparently he had been texting every half hour for the last two hours, growing steadily more worried when I didn’t respond. I’d been so out of it, I hadn’t heard my phone go off or felt it vibrating against my ass. But it was nice to know someone cared about me. I noticed neither Brian nor AJ had bothered to check on me.

I fired off a text back to Howie, letting him know I was alive, but before I could press send, the phone started to ring in my hand. Howie’s name was flashing on the screen. “Hey,” I answered it after the first ring. “Sorry, I just woke up and was about to text you back.”

“No worries,” said Howie, sounding relieved. “I hadn’t heard from you and just wanted to make sure you were okay. You were pretty wasted last night.”

“Yeah… don’t ever let me do tequila shots again.”

Howie laughed. “We’ll see.” Somehow, he sounded perfectly fine. “A few of us are gonna go grab some lunch. Wanna come?”

My stomach lurched again at the mere mention of food. “Uh, no, thanks. I think I’ll just order room service.”

“Okay… well, see you later then.”

The last thing I felt like doing was eating, so when I hung up with Howie, I plugged my phone into its charger and lay back down on the bed. I only meant to close my eyes for a second, but before I knew it, I was startled awake by a loud drumming sound. At first, I thought it was my heart again, and then I thought it was my head. But no… this time, the pounding was coming from my door.

“Coming!” I croaked, climbing down from the bed. I caught another glimpse of the clock and was shocked to see it was already two p.m. Somehow, I had slept another two hours.

I flung open the door to find AJ standing in the hallway. “Hey, there you are. You gonna hide out in here all day or what?”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Gee, I wonder why that was.” AJ pushed his way into my room without waiting to be invited. “It stinks in here!” he announced, waving his hand in front of his face. He walked straight to the window and jerked open the drapes, letting in a wall of bright sunlight.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, squinting. “Is it time to head to the venue?”

“In about an hour. You better grab a shower and get dressed. I wanted to talk to you, but it can wait.”

I wondered if he was going to give me another lecture about my drinking. He had already confronted me about it a couple of times, while Brian lurked in the background with his perfect little family, silently judging me. That was why I had been hanging out with Howie so much on this tour. Howie never judged or gave me a hard time. He just wanted to have fun.

“Okay, well… I guess I’ll be in the shower if you need me then.” I left AJ standing in the middle of my room and retreated into the bathroom, locking the door behind me so he couldn’t barge in there, too.

As I took off my shirt, I realized the stink he had complained about was coming from me. I could smell the stench of stale sweat, cigar smoke, and tequila clinging to my clothes. My breath couldn’t have smelled too great either. I gave myself a look of disgust in the mirror. My hair was greasy, and despite the extra sleep I’d gotten, there were still dark circles under my eyes.

If the fans could see me now, I thought, shaking my head. I looked nothing like the Nick Carter on our album covers, the heartthrob whose face filled the posters they hung on their walls. But in a few hours, I would paste on a smile as I shook hands and posed for pictures at the meet-and-greet, hiding the fact that I was hungover and had puked my guts out that morning. That night, I would go onstage and sing and dance as if I hadn’t woken up thinking I was dying.

I took a long, hot shower to wash the stink away. By the time I came back out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around my waist, AJ was gone. I changed into a striped t-shirt and a different pair of jeans, put on a dab of cologne, then dried and styled my hair. It helped; I looked - and smelled - a lot better than before.

I finished getting ready just in time to go downstairs, where a van was waiting to take us to the venue. “Hey buddy, how ya feeling?” Howie greeted me, looking all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You would never know he’d been out drinking into the wee hours of the morning with me.

“Fine,” I replied, refusing to admit I was still hungover. “How was your lunch?”

Delicioso!” He patted his belly. “I ate so much, I hope my stage clothes still fit.”

I turned my head so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. Howie was one of those people who could eat whatever he wanted without putting on weight. Meanwhile, I would gain five pounds if I so much as sniffed a slice of pizza. It wasn’t fair.

When we got to the venue, we hung out backstage until it was time for our soundcheck party. I chugged bottled water, wanting to wet my throat before I ran through my vocal warm-ups. My voice still sounded pretty rough at the soundcheck, but none of the fans in the audience seemed to mind. They screamed and clapped as we sang “Siberia,” “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon,” and “Everything But Mine.” The last song energized me enough to endure the line of fans waiting to get their photo with us afterwards.

By the time we finished the meet and greet, I was famished, so I filled a plate from the catered spread that had been set up for us in the green room and took it back to my dressing room to eat.

“Hey, Kaos!”

That was a nickname I hadn’t heard in a long time. I turned back in surprise to see AJ following me, carrying a plate of his own.

“Can we talk now?” he asked.

I shrugged. “As long as it doesn’t involve you lecturing me about what I put in my body.” I looked down at my heaping plate. “For your information, I haven’t eaten all day.”

AJ frowned. “Like I care what you eat? I’m not here to judge, Nick. I just need to ask you for a favor.”

“Oh.” I felt bad for being so defensive. “Well, what is it?”

“Come on - let’s sit down.” AJ held the door of my dressing room open and ushered me inside. I plopped down on the couch, putting my plate in my lap, and he planted himself on a chair across from me.

“So what did you want to ask?” I said, taking a bite out of a chicken wing.

“Okay, well, I told you I’m moving in with Kevin, right? Temporarily? To help him out?”

I nodded, my mouth full of chicken. AJ had made this announcement after talking to Kevin a few weeks ago. I didn’t know how it was going to work, considering our world tour went until the end of November, with no more than six weeks off between legs. There was no way Kevin would want to stay in the rehab hospital until Thanksgiving. Every time I talked to him, he sounded eager to go home. But there was no telling AJ that.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it some more,” he began, spearing a piece of lettuce with his fork, “and I dunno if I can do it alone. I mean, what if he fell out of his wheelchair? Would I be able to pick him up off the floor by myself? Not to mention needing to turn him over in bed every two hours at night and taking care of Mason on top of that. It’s just a lot. I feel like I’m about to become a single parent, and I think I need a partner.”

I had been wondering if this was AJ’s way of backing out, but right then I realized what he really wanted. Swallowing hard, I raised my eyebrows at him. “And you’re asking me?”

He nodded. “I don’t know who else to ask. Brian’s busy with his own family, and Howie’s a newlywed - it’s not fair to ask that of either of them. But you… you’re like me: single, childless. You could help Kevin, right?”

My mouth fell open as my mind raced, trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t. But all I could think about was the audacity of AJ assuming that just because I didn’t have a wife and kids, I should be the one to help him take care of Kevin. “I could…” I said slowly, “if I had any freaking clue what I was doing. But I don’t.”

“Neither do I,” AJ replied with a shrug, taking a bite of his salad. “It’s okay. Kev said there’s a caregiver class we can take at the rehab center.”

“When? We only have, what, two weeks off before we have to fly to Europe? And then South Africa? And then Canada? We’re hardly gonna be around to help Kevin.”

“We’ll make it work,” he said, just as he had when I’d pointed out the problem with his plan before. “Even if we can only stay with Kevin for a couple weeks at a time, at least that would give his mom a chance to go home and get a break. And maybe some of his other friends from L.A. will step up and help out while we’re on tour.”

“Technically, I don’t even live in L.A. anymore,” I reminded him. “I moved to Tennessee, remember?”

He nodded. “I know. But now I’m asking you to move into Kevin’s house - just for the time being - and help take care of your brother. He needs you, Nick. I need you.”

AJ made it sound like it was no big deal, but I thought he was asking an awful lot of me. I wasn’t ready to take on that kind of responsibility, and I told him so. “I dunno, dawg… like, of course I wanna help Kevin, but I don’t think I’m the right person to do this.”

“I think you’re the perfect person to do it,” said AJ, looking me in the eye. “At least think about it, will you?”

“I’ll think about it,” I promised, but I wasn’t really planning on agreeing to AJ’s stupid plan. I just wanted him to leave me alone.

We finished eating and went back to the green room to throw our plates away, passing Howie, who was pacing in the hallway outside his dressing room, his phone pressed to his ear. “Well, how long do you think he’s gonna be there?” I heard him ask. He paid no attention to AJ and me; I’m not sure he even noticed us.

“What’s up with Howie?” I asked Leigh, who was sitting in the green room with the Littrells.

She looked up at me, her big brown eyes filled with concern. “He got a call from his sister. From what I gathered, his dad’s in the hospital.”

My stomach dropped. “Damn… I hope he’s okay.”

I forgot all about Kevin as we waited for Howie to come back and fill us in. Finally, he got off the phone and walked back into the green room. “That was Pollyanna,” he said with a sigh. “They had to take Dad to the hospital. I guess he hasn’t been feeling well for a while, but today he woke up with a horrible headache that wouldn’t go away. Polly said he’s in a lot of pain. They’re gonna admit him and run some tests to find out why.”

“Sorry to hear that, D,” said AJ, frowning. “I hope they figure out what’s going on so he can get to feeling better.”

“We’ll be praying for him,” added Brian, as Leighanne nodded next to him.

“Keep us posted, man,” I said, patting Howie on the back. I knew how close he was to his family and how hard it must be for him to be out of the country while his dad was in the hospital. At least we just had this one last show to get through before we all headed home in the morning.

But getting through the show was easier said than done. I could usually shake a hangover by showtime, but not that night. I felt sluggish and out of shape from the moment I set foot on the stage. I tried to push through the fatigue and not let it affect my performance, but I was only going through the motions, relying on muscle memory to keep my feet moving during our dance routines. I constantly felt like I was half a beat behind the others, and I couldn’t seem to catch up. By the time we hit “Panic,” the halfway point in the show, I could barely catch my breath.

“I’ve made mistakes.  I’ve been an addict, a blind fanatic,” I sang, my voice falling flat as I flung my arms from side to side. “Don’t you know?  You’re not immune to the panic when somebody turns on you...” I normally loved this number because of its fast and fun choreography, but that night, I couldn’t wait for it to end. My mistakes had finally caught up to me, and it seemed I was no longer immune to the effects alcohol had on my body.

The other guys got a short break backstage during the next song, which was my solo, a medley of “I Got You” and “Blow Your Mind.” At least there was no dancing during this one, but I also couldn’t rely on the other guys’ vocals to carry me through. This time, it was all me.

“People tell me… you stay where you belong…” Standing with my back to the crowd as I sang the first line, I could feel beads of sweat dripping between my shoulder blades, my drenched t-shirt clinging to my damp skin. “But all my life I’ve tried… to prove them wrong…” I turned slowly on the spot to face the audience, uncomfortably aware of my fat, flushed face filling the giant screens on either side of the stage, my wet hair plastered to my forehead. I looked as disgusting as I felt.

I’m never drinking again, I thought, cringing at the sound of my own off-key voice in my in-ear monitors. I need to go back on a diet and get in shape.

But by the time I had taken my final bows and a shower backstage, I had changed my tune. “You’re coming out with us tonight, right, Nick?” Howie asked as we rode back to the hotel. I was surprised to hear him say that, considering his father was in the hospital. I didn’t think he would feel like partying that night.

I hesitated. “I dunno, dude... I probably shouldn’t. I think I drank too much last night.”

“Aww, come on - it’s the last show!” he protested. “And it’s St. Patrick’s Day! My Irish dad would be disappointed if we didn’t go out drinking on St. Patty’s Day. Do it for Papa D?”

I realized that Howie probably needed the distraction to keep himself from worrying about his dad. How could I say no to him? “Yeah, all right,” I finally agreed. “I’ll come out for a few.”

But of course, ‘a few’ turned into ‘a lot,’ and I woke up the next morning with another hangover and more regret. I couldn’t keep doing this to myself, or I really was going to end up drinking myself to death someday.

“How you doing this morning, Nicky?” asked Howie, as we piled into the van that would take us to the airport. As usual, he looked perfectly fine. I decided it must be the Irish genes he’d gotten from his dad’s side of the family that gave him such a high tolerance for alcohol.

“Meh,” I muttered in response. “How’s your dad doing? Have you heard anything?”

“Polly said the pain meds finally kicked in so he could sleep, but they don’t know anything yet,” he replied, pressing his lips together in a thin line. “Leigh and I are flying to Orlando instead of L.A.; I went ahead and changed our flight this morning. I may be overreacting, but I just wanna be there with him.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said, nodding, as if I knew what he was going through. I couldn’t really relate, though - my parents were younger and in good health, as far as I knew. It wasn’t like I talked to either of them often. We weren’t close the way the Doroughs were.

“Tell Kevin I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him,” Howie added apologetically. “I’ll call him from Florida.”

“Of course.”

We were originally all going to fly to L.A. first to visit Kevin for a few days before Brian and I headed back to the East Coast. I hadn’t been to my new house in Franklin since before New Year’s and was looking forward to finally going home. But as AJ squeezed into the seat beside me, I remembered the favor he had asked me for, and I felt a stab of guilt. Was I being selfish, wanting to go back to my big, empty house in Tennessee instead of staying in California to help take care of Kevin?

I am not my brother’s keeper, I thought adamantly. He’s not my responsibility.

But it continued to weigh on my conscience the whole way back to Los Angeles, making my heart feel as heavy as my luggage.

***


Chapter 19 by RokofAges75
Kevin

“So I hear you may be busting out of here soon,” said my occupational therapist, Ellis, during our session that day. We were working in my room, where he was teaching me how to transfer between my bed and wheelchair with assistance. I was determined not to have to use a Hoyer lift to get in and out of bed once I went home.

“You heard correctly,” I replied, as I rested on my back, breathing hard from the effort of hauling my heavy body out of my wheelchair and onto the bed. “I’m hoping sometime in the next week or so, if the house and everything is ready.”

It was mid-March, exactly eleven weeks since my accident and almost two months since I’d moved to the rehab center. My insurance plan would only cover eight weeks of inpatient rehab, so after that point, I would be paying out of my own pocket to stay there. I could afford it, of course, but in my mind, it didn’t make sense to drop a thousand dollars a day on a room at the rehab center when I could go home to my son and continue my therapy on an outpatient basis.

“Wow, that is soon!” Ellis exclaimed. “Have you got caregivers lined up to help you out at home?”

“Working on it. We’re interviewing a few people this afternoon.”

My mom had spent the last month making arrangements for my move home, overseeing the necessary renovations to my house, ordering a wheelchair-accessible van and the medical equipment I would need, and screening applicants for the caregiver position she had posted an ad for a few weeks ago.

“Well, good luck, man. I hope the interviews go well.”

“Thanks. Me too.” I was nervous to meet the potential caregivers my mom had found and hoped at least one of them would work out.

“You know, you really should consider going on one of the community reintegration outings this week,” Ellis suggested. “There’s a group doing dinner and a movie Friday night. What do you say?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied without hesitation. For weeks, he had been trying to convince me to go on one of the excursions offered by the rehab facility. Every weekend, they would load an accessible bus with people in wheelchairs and take the group out on the town somewhere. They went to restaurants and bars, movie theaters, bowling alleys, beaches, once even a Lakers game. These little field trips gave recovering patients the chance to get out of the hospital for a few hours and practice the skills they’d been working on in therapy in a real world setting before they were officially released back into the wild.

Physically, I was ready to participate. Emotionally, I wasn’t. The thought of being out in public, where someone was sure to recognize me, made me break out in cold sweat. I knew all it would take was for one person to tip off the paparazzi, and I would find myself surrounded by opportunistic sleazebags, clamoring for a picture of me in my wheelchair to sell to the tabloids and celebrity gossip sites. I didn’t want to attract that kind of attention, nor would I subject everyone else on the bus to it. It was better if I stayed behind.

“Well, all right - suit yourself,” said Ellis with a shrug. I could tell he was disappointed in me, but he let it drop. “You ready to try transferring back to your chair?”

I took a deep breath, summoning my strength. “Yep.” Even sitting up from a lying-down position took a ton of effort. Without control of my abdominal muscles, my core was so weak that I couldn’t just sit straight up the way I used to. First I had to roll over onto my side, which was a struggle in itself. Able-bodied people use their hips and legs to turn themselves over in bed, but since mine were paralyzed, I had to use my arms. Ellis had taught me a technique that involved swinging both arms across my body, using my shoulders to rock my upper body back and forth until I gained enough momentum to carry me all the way over onto my side. Once my upper body twisted enough, my hips and legs would eventually follow. Then I could prop myself up onto my elbow and use my forearms to slowly push myself into a sitting position. Sometimes it took me more than one try, but I was getting better at it with practice.

My legs began to twitch as I pushed them over the side of the bed, like they tended to do whenever I changed positions. The spasms had gotten more intense over the past month, but they never lasted long. I waited a few seconds for them to calm down before I slowly scooted to the edge of the bed, pushing off the heels of my hands and using my arms to haul myself across the mattress. This would have been impossible just a few weeks ago, but the stretching and strength training I had been doing with Charisma in P.T. had made a big difference in my ability to maneuver my new body around. Gradually, I was getting stronger and more flexible.

“Good,” said Ellis, as he positioned my wheelchair beside the bed. He had pushed one of the armrests straight up in the air so it wouldn’t get in my way. He wedged a wooden transfer board under my butt, which would make it easier for me to slide over to my wheelchair. “All right, now remember: one hand goes on the seat of your chair; the other one stays on the edge of your bed. On the count of three, you’re gonna use your arms to push off the bed, and I’ll guide you over to the chair. Are you ready?”

I sucked in another deep breath. “Yeah.”

“Okay, here we go.” Ellis held onto the transfer belt that was tied around my waist with both hands. “One… two… three.” As I pushed, he pulled me up and across the board to my wheelchair. “There you go… good work, man!” He bent down to lift my legs onto the footplates, then scooted me backwards so I was properly positioned in the chair. He carefully adjusted my clothes, making sure nothing was bunched up in the back before he buckled the seat belt around my waist and put the armrest back in place. “How does that feel?”

“Good… much better than being hoisted out of bed like Shamu.”

Ellis laughed. “We’ll keep working on it so you can show your caregiver how to assist you with a transfer. Eventually you may even be able to get yourself into bed at night. Most quadriplegics with your level of injury still need help getting up in the morning, when they’re more stiff.”

I took his words with a grain of salt. My level of injury had already changed since the first time it was assessed. In the ICU at Cedars-Sinai, Dr. Bone had originally diagnosed me as a C4 complete quadriplegic, but the last time my doctor at the rehab center had evaluated me, two months after my accident, he said I was a C5-6 because of the sensation and motor function I had regained in my arms and wrists. From talking to the other quadriplegics in my support group, I knew one little vertebra could make a big difference. Had my level of injury been any higher, I probably would have been dependent on a ventilator for the rest of my life, having lost control of my diaphragm and the ability to breathe on my own. Any lower, and I would still have working triceps and some finger function.

I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but in the back of my mind, I had considered the possibility that Dr. Bone’s prognosis was wrong. Maybe my injury wasn’t really complete. Maybe I could continue to recover and exceed the expectations she and everyone else had set for me. Walking again was the least of my concerns. I would be happy just to be able to get out of bed and go to the bathroom by myself. Take a shower and get dressed without help. Change my baby’s diaper. There were so many little things I had taken for granted before the accident. But I had already learned to do more than I thought was possible when I was lying flat on my back in the ICU, unable to move any part of my body below the neck. My life would never be the same, but maybe I could still have some semblance of normalcy once I went home.

“Good luck with the interviews,” Ellis told me again before he left at the end of our session. “I hope you find someone who will be a good fit.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied. “Me too.”

My mom arrived early that afternoon without Mason, whom she had left with a babysitter. I had decided to skip my support group meeting so we would have more time to meet with the caregiver candidates she had arranged interviews with. “I brought you something nice to wear,” she said, showing me the navy dress pants and pale blue button-down shirt she had dug out of my closet at home.

I eyed the clothes warily. “I hope they still fit.” I hadn’t worn anything but baggy sweats, oversized t-shirts, and athletic shorts since leaving the hospital. According to the wheelchair-accessible scale they rolled me onto once a week, I had lost weight, but I still felt fat whenever I looked down at my flabby quad belly without the abdominal binder I wore to help me breathe better when I was upright in my chair.

“They’ll be fine, hon,” my mom assured me. “Here, let me help you put them on.”

I wasn’t thrilled about having my mother change my clothes, but I knew better than to argue with her. As she bent down to take off my tennis shoes, I merely said, “You know, Ma, the nurses usually transfer me back to the bed before they put on my pants. It’s easier that way.”

“Well, that sounds like a lot more effort just to put a pair of pants on,” she replied, loosening the laces so she could slide the sneaker off my right foot. “We can make it work this way.”

I shrugged. “Whatever you say. I just don’t want you hurting yourself.”

She gave me a look. “You know I don’t like when you treat me like a little old lady. I’m a tough old broad,” she said, as she lifted my left leg from its footplate to tug off the other shoe. “I’ll be fine.”

“Well, how do you think I like you undressing me like I’m a toddler?” I fired back at her. I kept my tone playful, but I meant every word.

“Oh, Kevin…” She let out an exasperated sigh, but she didn’t say anything else. She must have understood how humiliating it was for me, as a thirty-six-year-old man, to have to be helped this way by my own mother. She eased the elastic waistband of my shorts down over my hips, but they wouldn’t go any further while I was sitting down. “Can you lift up your butt at all?”

“I can try.” I had been taught to do a couple of different weight shifts, which involved leaning from side to side or all the way forward to relieve the pressure on my sitting bones from being in a wheelchair all day. I leaned as far as I could to the left so she could remove the shorts from my right side first. Then we switched sides. “Watch the leg bag,” I warned, self-conscious about the catheter bag I wore strapped to one thigh to collect my urine.

“I know. Don’t worry,” she said, as she slid the shorts down over my knees.

That was the easy part. Putting on a pair of tailored dress pants was much more difficult.

“Can you lift yourself up a little more?” she asked, panting as she struggled to pull the fabric up far enough underneath me.

“No, I can’t, Ma; I’m paralyzed. This is why they usually put me back on the bed and roll me.”

She gave me another look.

“All right, fine,” I sighed. “Let me try leaning forward so you can pull them up from the back. If you loosen my binder, I’ll be able to lean further.”

She lifted my shirt and unfastened the abdominal binder. Without it, my upper body would flop facedown into my lap when I leaned too far forward. I didn’t have the core strength to pull myself back up, but that didn’t matter when my mom was right there. When I doubled over, she reached around me and managed to wrangle the pants into place. Then she pushed me back into an upright sitting position, fixed my binder, and fastened the button on the front of my pants.

“There!” She heaved a sigh of relief, pushing her hair back off her perspiring forehead. “Now for the shirt.”

Thankfully, shirts were much easier to get in and out of, especially since I had been cleared to take off my neck brace. The first time I had sat up in my wheelchair without it, I’d felt like a bobblehead - my head seemed so big and heavy, while my neck felt as weak and scrawny as a newborn baby’s. I trusted my doctor when he told me my spine had finished fusing together, but even with the extra hardware reinforcing it on the inside, I still had this irrational fear that my neck would somehow snap in half without the support of the rigid collar that had stabilized it for so long. It had taken me a few days to adjust to not wearing it. I felt much freer without it, but also more vulnerable.

My mom lifted my t-shirt over my head and arms, then slipped on the button-down one arm at a time. It felt uncomfortably constrictive compared to the loose-fitting cotton t-shirt. “Good thing I have my Spanx on,” I joked, as she pulled the two halves of the dress shirt together over my binder. I couldn’t button it myself, so she knelt down in front of my chair to do it for me, her arthritic fingers fumbling with the small buttons.

“I brought a tie if you wanna wear one,” she offered, as she neared the top, tucking the chain that held Kristin’s wedding ring under the crisp fabric so it rested close to my heart. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want me to button it all the way up or leave the collar open.”

“All the way,” I answered. It would hide the ugly scar on the front of my neck, where it looked like someone had tried to slash my throat. There was an even longer scar on the back of my neck, which resembled train tracks running down my spine. My mom had taken a picture to show me. It was a pretty nasty sight.

She buttoned my collar and tied a navy blue tie around my neck. “You look like a million bucks,” she said once she’d finished lacing my shoes, smiling as she stood back to inspect me.

“I feel more like fifty bucks… but thanks,” I said, forcing a smile back. It felt good to be wearing nice clothes for the first time since going out on New Year’s Eve, but it was also a little weird. I wasn’t the same person I had been the last time I’d put on an outfit like this. I would probably never be that person again. It felt like I was some kind of imposter who was just pretending to be a wealthy, well-dressed entertainer.

“Would you like to hold the interviews outside?” my mom asked. “It’s a beautiful day! Feels like spring!”

I laughed. “It always feels like spring in Southern California, Ma… at least until it’s summer. But sure, we can go out to the courtyard.”

She hesitated. “You won’t get too cold?”

“If I get cold, we can come back inside,” I replied, trying to be patient with her. I hated when she treated me like a baby, but I knew she only had my best interests at heart. She had done plenty of research on my injury; she knew my new body couldn’t regulate its temperature as well as the old one had. I didn’t shiver or sweat below my level of injury, so I got chilled or overheated easily, and it took me longer than normal to warm up or cool down.

“Maybe we should bring a blanket, just in case.”

I shook my head. “I don’t need one.” I usually wore one over my lap to keep my legs warm when I went outside on cooler days, but it made me look like an elderly man, all bundled up in my wheelchair. I didn’t want to be seen as an invalid, even though that’s what I was.

“Suit yourself,” she said with a shrug, slinging her totebag over her shoulder.

We went out to the courtyard and found a table in a far corner where we could conduct the interviews. My mom had scheduled five of them.

The first was a young man named Andrew. “But you can call me Andy,” he said with a grin. He was in his mid-twenties, stylishly dressed and impeccably groomed, with not a single hair out of place.

“Thanks for coming, Andy,” my mom said, as she escorted him over to a small table, where I sat in my wheelchair. “This is my son, Kevin.”

Andy’s eyes lit up when he looked at me. “Oh my god, I’m such a big fan!” he gushed, grabbing my right hand between his two and ringing it enthusiastically. “I literally own every Backstreet Boys album. It’s such a pleasure to meet you!”

I decided right then I would not be hiring Andy. Friendly as he was, I didn’t want a fan as my caregiver. It would be too weird. And while I have no problem with gay people, I have to admit that the thought of him looking at me with stars in his eyes while he washed my body in the shower or changed my catheter made me uncomfortable. It was the same reason I didn’t want a female caregiver.

“You can’t discriminate against women,” my mom had argued when I’d asked her to only contact male applicants.

“I’m not discriminating,” I insisted, feeling my face heat up. “But if I have to hire someone who’s gonna see me naked, I would prefer them to have the same parts as me. I’m being selective, that’s all.”

She gave me an exasperated look. “What does it matter if they have the same parts or not? You had mostly female nurses taking care of you in the hospital, and you didn’t complain about that.”

“I didn’t have a choice then. Now I do, so I’m gonna make the choice I’m most comfortable with. I mean, look at it this way, Ma: Wouldn’t you rather go to a female gynecologist?”

My mom bristled. “Maybe, but ‘being selective’ wasn’t always an option for me. Back when I was having babies, there were no female gynecologists in Lexington. You and both your brothers were delivered by a male doctor, and all the nurses were women. You’re lucky you even have a choice.”

“Yes, I am,” I agreed and left it at that.

Our next interview was with a man named Jian. He looked disheveled, with his shirt half untucked and his hair sticking up in the back. While Andy had been an open book, Jian was hard to read. He rarely smiled and gave mostly stilted, one-sentence answers in broken English. He seemed so nervous, his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I wasn’t sure if it was the language barrier making him anxious, or if he was just shy. Either way, the thought of being in a room with someone who could barely carry on a conversation with me during my two-hour morning routine made me cringe almost as much as trying to imagine him helping me with my bowel program while his hands were trembling that badly.

After the first two candidates, the third one, Greg, was like a breath of fresh air. He was in his late forties and exuded confidence, competence, and charisma, looking me in the eyes as he gave me a firm handshake. I couldn’t feel his hand gripping mine, but I could tell it was firm by the way he pumped my arm up and down. “It’s nice to meet you, Kevin,” he told me, but there was no mention of him liking my music or being a fan. I was more than fine with that.

My mom had typed up a list of specific questions to ask each candidate about their qualifications and caregiving experience, but I was more interested in getting to know them as people. “So, Greg, tell me about yourself,” I began, once he’d taken a seat at the table.

“Well, I’ve been a registered nurse for twenty-six years and worked in just about every type of setting you can imagine,” he said, flashing an easy smile. “I started out in an assisted living facility, then worked for a home healthcare company for a while before I got my last job in one of the surgical wards at UCLA Medical Center. That’s where I met my ex-wife, who was doing her residency. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out - we got divorced last year.” His smile faded. “Things got awkward at work, so I decided I needed a change. I’m hoping to find a new job that will give me more time to spend with my kids. I’ve got a ten-year-old son and a fourteen-year-old daughter. My ex-wife and I share custody, so I have them a few nights a week while she’s working and every other weekend.”

“I would probably only need help for a few hours in the morning with things like getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, showering, and getting dressed,” I explained. “My mom can do the rest, and I have a friend who may be moving in with me to help out, too. So you could come over after you get the kids off to school and be home well before school lets out.”

“Wow, that would be perfect,” said Greg, smiling again. “I’m planning to coach my son’s Little League team this summer, so it’d be nice to have my afternoons and evenings free.”

“That sounds fun.” A lump rose in my throat as I realized I would probably never be able to do that for Mason when he got older. Even playing catch in the yard would be difficult without control of my hands. I was going to miss out on so much. But I didn’t want to dwell on it at that moment. Clearing my throat, I said, “So you’re a sports fan?”

“Oh yeah. Big Dodgers fan here, but I love the Lakers, too. How about you? Are you into sports at all?”

“Absolutely. I’m more of a football guy, though. I played in high school.” I wanted him to know that I hadn’t always been this way, that I was an athlete, even though I didn’t look like one anymore. “We didn’t have any pro teams in Kentucky, where I grew up, so I followed college sports more. I still root for my Wildcats, but my wife, who was from Kansas, turned me into a Chiefs fan, too.” Grief swelled up inside me again when I heard myself talking about Kristin in the past tense. It was going to be hard to get through football season without her.

“Oh cool. They’re a young team, but give them a few years, and they’re gonna be good.”

“I hope so. Last season was rough,” I said, grimacing. My wife’s beloved Chiefs had ended their 2007 season with a nine-game losing streak, failing to make the playoffs. Maybe they would be better this year, I thought, with her cheering them on from Heaven. Kristin could convert anyone into a Kansas City fan, even God.

“So, Greg, it sounds like you have plenty of caregiving experience,” my mom interjected, trying to get the interview back on track. “Have you ever worked with patients with spinal cord injuries?” She ran through her list of questions, and Greg answered each one with ease. I was ready to hire him on the spot, but we still had two more candidates to see, so I thanked him for his time and told him I’d be in touch soon.

“He was great,” I said to my mom after Greg had gone. “Experienced… easy to talk to... I could get used to having him as a caregiver.”

“Good,” she said, smiling. “I agree, but let’s give the others a chance, too. You’ll probably need to hire more than one, unless you plan to make him work seven days a week.”

She was right, of course. It wasn’t practical to expect the same person to come over every single day. “Good point. So who’s next?”

My mom checked her list. “Sam Torres. He’s one of the med students who applied.”

“Oh, cool.” Bob, the instructor of my quad class at the rehab center, had said medical students made great caregivers because they were hard-working, reliable, eager to learn, and willing to do procedures that others might shy away from, like insert a suppository or change a catheter. I made sure my mom reached out to any male students who were interested in the position.

But the next person to walk across the courtyard was a young woman.

“Hi, I’m Sam,” she said, smiling as she wrapped her small, brown hand around mine.

I stared up at her, thrown off by her unexpected appearance. Besides being the wrong gender, she didn’t look anything like a med student to me. I had been picturing a nerdy sort of young man, but this girl was entirely something else. Her hair was dyed teal blue and cut into a trendy, asymmetrical style - chin-length on one side of her head, partially shaved on the other. Her round face was dominated by a pair of big glasses with thick, bright red frames. She was wearing a mustard-colored blouse with a pair of cropped black pants, purple suspenders, and leopard-print ballerina flats.

“Kevin,” I managed to choke out after a moment, when I realized I was being rude. Then, figuring I might as well be honest, I added, “Sorry… I wasn’t expecting you to be a woman.” I glanced over at my mom, who looked just as surprised. She didn’t see too many people who looked like Sam in rural Kentucky.

The blue-haired girl laughed, her brown eyes sparkling behind her glasses. “I get that a lot,” she said, sitting down across from me. “It’s the name. Sam’s short for Samantha, but my parents are the only ones who call me that.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Sam. Why don’t you start by telling me about yourself?” I had no intention of hiring her, but I went ahead with the interview anyway, not sure what else to do. I didn’t want to seem like I was discriminating.

“Okay, well, I was born and raised in Oceanside, near San Diego. I’m the youngest of four - three big brothers - and I’m really close with my family. Um… what else?” She paused, her eyes drifting toward the fountain as she thought. “Well, I love the water. I think I must have been a dolphin or something in a past life because I’m happiest when I’m at the beach. I love to swim and surf. I also love animals. When I was younger, I wanted to be a marine biologist or an animal trainer at SeaWorld, but I went into medicine instead.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“Well, when I was in middle school, my youngest brother broke his neck in a swimming accident and became paralyzed,” Sam said matter-of-factly. “Seeing how life-changing that was - not only for him, but for our whole family - made me more interested in neuroscience. I decided to become a doctor so I can help people like my brother.”

“So you’ve had experience working with people with spinal cord injuries?” my mom chimed in. I could tell by the way she was smiling that Sam had won her over with that story, in spite of the blue hair.

“Really just my brother, but yeah. He was a sophomore in high school when he had his accident. Our two older brothers had already moved one - one was in college, and the other was deployed overseas with the Navy - so I was the only one at home to help out with caregiving. My parents did most of it, but I learned a lot from watching them and helping my brother when they weren’t around. He was a C2 complete quad, so he was ventilator-dependent and paralyzed from the neck down.”

I noticed her use of the past tense when talking about her brother, but I didn’t point it out. I was picturing the poor people I’d seen being pushed around the rehab center with portable ventilators strapped to the backs of their wheelchairs and trach tubes hanging out of their throats. Seeing them made me grateful for the function I did have and reminded me that things could always be worse.

“Oh wow,” my mom said sympathetically. “That must have been so hard for him and the rest of your family.”

Sam nodded. “Definitely. But that’s why I applied for this position. I want to help make things easier for another family.” She smiled at me, and I forced myself to smile back. She was a sweet girl. I felt bad about not hiring her.

“Thanks so much for your time today, Sam,” I told her when we finished the interview. “Take care, and we’ll be in touch.”

Once she was out of earshot, my mom turned to me with raised eyebrows. “Well, that was a nice surprise. She was a delight! Won’t you reconsider hiring a woman?”

“I’m sure she’d be great, but no… I still want a male caregiver. Who’s the last candidate?”

My mom sighed and looked down at her list. “Erik O’Doyle. He’s the other med student.”

“Good. Why don’t you go see if he’s here?”

She got up from the table without another word and went into the lobby. When she came back, she was accompanied by a young man wearing a striped rugby shirt and a pair of wrinkled khakis. He was built like Nick, tall and broad-shouldered, but with red hair and freckles.

“Hey, what’s up?” he greeted me casually. “I’m Erik.” He reached out for a handshake, but when he saw my limp hand hanging from the end of my outstretched arm, the fingers loosely curled, he changed courses and gave me a fistbump instead.

“I’m Kevin,” I said, smiling up at him. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too, man.” Erik plopped down into an empty seat, and we got started with the interview.

“So, Erik, tell me about yourself.”

“Well, uh, I’m from Orange County. I grew up down the coast in Laguna Beach - and before you ask, yes, I did go to high school with Lauren Conrad.” I wasn’t going to ask, but I nodded anyway, pretending to be impressed. “My mom’s a plastic surgeon, and Dad’s a chiropractor, so I guess you could say medicine’s in my blood.” He grinned. “If you need any work done, by the way, I can hook you up.”

“What kind of doctor do you want to be?” I asked, ignoring his last comment.

“I wanna go into sports medicine, maybe become a team physician for the Chargers or something like that.”

“So you’re a football fan?” I felt relieved to find a connection with him, something I could relate to.

“Oh yeah, big time. I was a first-string quarterback in high school. I was hoping to play for USC, but I blew out my knee in a playoff game junior year. Luckily, I was able to play water polo as a senior, so I got in that way.”

“You went to USC?” I asked, impressed. The University of Southern California was one of the best colleges in the country.

Erik nodded. “Still do, as a matter of fact. I’m a senior there now.”

“Oh… sorry, I thought you were a med student.” I glanced at my mom, who shrugged.

“Technically pre-med,” he said, flashing another grin. “I’m graduating in a couple months and hoping to start med school in the fall.”

“Hoping?”

He let out an awkward laugh. “Well, I haven’t actually been accepted anywhere yet, but I’m working on it. Hopefully this job will look good on my application. I mean, it’s kind of healthcare-related, right?”

My mom and I exchanged dubious glances. “Do you have any caregiving experience?” she asked.

“Does taking care of drunk frat brothers count? ‘Cause I have a lot of experience with that.” More awkward laughter followed.

My mom wasn’t amused. “Have you ever worked with anyone with a spinal cord injury?” she clarified without cracking a smile.

“No, but I’m a fast learner.” His eyes darted from her to me. “I’m also really strong, so if you need someone to, like, lift you out of your chair and carry you around, I’m your man.”

“Well, the caregiving position would involve more than just transferring Kevin to and from his wheelchair,” my mom explained. “He needs help with everyday activities, like bathing, getting dressed, using the bathroom, and preparing meals. Would you be willing to assist him with those activities as well?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” Erik answered quickly. “Whatever he needs, I’m here for. Just show me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

He seemed eager enough to learn, but I could tell my mom was less than impressed. When the interview ended, she thanked him politely for coming and pointed him toward the exit. Then she turned to me and said, “He seemed clueless.”

I thought she was being a little hard on him. “He’s a college kid,” I said, shrugging. “He’s probably, what, twenty-one? Twenty-two? How many people that age have dealt with something like this?” I waved my arms, gesturing at myself. “He said he was a fast learner.”

“Well, he has a lot to learn,” she replied brusquely. “Whereas the young lady before him had firsthand experience caring for someone with a spinal cord injury. There would be much less of a learning curve if you hired her.”

I sighed. “I told you, I’m not hiring Sam. It’s nothing against her; I just wouldn’t be as comfortable with a woman. I’m gonna go with Greg and Erik.”

“Greg I agree with, but Erik?” She raised her eyebrows. “Honey, really? You heard him; he only wants this job to put on his med school application. Once he gets in, he’ll be out of here, and you’ll have to find someone else.”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but right now there is no one else I like better.”

“Let’s keep looking then,” my mom urged. “We can post the help-wanted ad other places and find more people to interview.”

“No,” I said flatly. “This is fine for now. I don’t want to keep interviewing people; I just want to hire someone so I can go home.” I didn’t mean to sound snippy, but I felt drained from the five interviews we had done. My head hurt, and I was hungry and cold from being outside so long. “Can we go back in now? I’m freezing.”

“Of course.” Her face softened as she looked at me with sympathy. “I’m sorry, sweetheart; I knew we should have brought a blanket for you. Why didn’t you say something earlier? We could have gone inside and finished in the cafeteria if you were getting chilly.”

“It’s fine,” I said shortly. “I’m fine.”

I bumped the power button on my wheelchair with my thumb to turn it back on. Then I rested my right hand in the U-shaped joystick handle, which held it in place so I could use my wrist to control the new chair I was using. I liked this one a lot better than the sip and puff chair I had controlled with my mouth. The joystick was more intuitive to use, similar to driving a car or playing an arcade game. It made getting around almost fun. I zipped across the pavement to the building and punched the button outside the accessible doors to make them open for me.

My mom must have sensed my annoyance because she followed me without another word, walking a few feet behind me all the way back to my room. “Well, I should probably get home to Mason,” she said once we made it there. “Unless you wanted to have dinner together in the cafeteria first?”

“No, that’s okay,” I replied. “I’d rather just eat in my room tonight. I’m really tired.” My head was pounding, and there were black spots floating before my eyes. I wondered if I had been sitting up in my wheelchair for too long. I pushed another button on the control panel to lower the back into a reclining position so I could lie down for a while.

“Okay. I’ll leave these applications here so you can call the people you want to hire.” She set a thick folder down on my bedside table with more force than necessary.

“That’s fine. Thanks, Ma.”

She looked down at me, frowning slightly. “Make sure you call their references, too, so you know you’re not letting some lunatic into your home.”

“I will.”

With a sigh of defeat, she said, “Do you want me to help you change back into some more comfortable clothes before I go?”

“Nah, that’s okay,” I said again, remembering what a struggle it had been before. “One of the nurses will come by to do that. You can go now.”

“Well, all right. I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She bent down to kiss my forehead, then pulled back, her frown deepening. “Why are you sweating? I thought you were cold.”

“Yeah, well, I’m warmer now that I’m inside,” I said with a shrug, wanting her to leave so I could close my eyes and rest.

But my mom wasn’t going anywhere. “Your cheeks are flushed. Are you running a fever?” She pressed her palm against my forehead, then the side of my face. Her hand felt like ice. “You feel warm to me.”

“That’s ‘cause your hands are freezing,” I complained.

She shook her head. “Something’s not right. I’m getting a nurse.” Before I could protest, she pressed my call button.

I thought she was overreacting, but when Cole came in a few minutes later, he took one look at me and reached for the thermometer that was mounted on the wall behind my bed. He pointed it at my forehead and frowned when it beeped. “Well, you don’t have a fever,” he said, putting the thermometer back and grabbing a blood pressure cuff instead. As he strapped it around my arm, he added, “You may be dysrelexic.”

I felt a flicker of fear. Autonomic dysreflexia was a complication I had learned about in my quad class, but had yet to experience. It was a paralyzed body’s response to pain or discomfort below the level of injury. Just because I couldn't feel anything from the chest down didn’t mean the nerves in the lower half of my body no longer worked. They just couldn’t send messages through the damaged part of my spinal cord to my brain. Instead, they would trigger my autonomic nervous system when something was amiss, making my blood pressure shoot up to dangerously high levels. “AD is a medical emergency,” Bob had warned us in class. “If you don’t find what’s causing the discomfort and do something about it, your blood pressure will keep climbing, which could cause you to have a stroke.” I suddenly realized I had developed the symptoms he had told us to watch for: a pounding headache, a flushed face, sweating, blurred version, and a feeling of anxiety.

Sure enough, Cole finished checking my blood pressure and immediately sprang into action. “Your pressure’s through the roof!” he exclaimed, as he tore the cuff off my arm and tossed it aside. “We need to sit you up straight to help it come down while we figure out what’s causing this.”

I realized I had made a mistake in reclining my chair. That must have made it worse. I pressed the button to bring myself back into an upright position. My head was swimming.

“What can I do?” I heard my mom ask, her voice high-pitched and panicky.

“Unbutton his pants and shirt, and take off his shoes and socks,” Cole instructed her. “It could just be that his clothes are too tight or twisted somewhere. I’m gonna call the rapid response team, just in case.”

Her fingers shook as they fumbled with the buttons on the outfit she had brought for me. At first, I felt more humiliated than frightened, but that changed when my room filled with people. My mom stepped back out of the way as they surrounded my wheelchair.

“We’re going to move you over to the bed now, Kevin, so we can examine you better,” Cole said. They didn’t bother using the Hoyer lift or helping me transfer myself back into bed this time; they just scooped me up out of my chair and lowered me onto the bed in one swift, coordinated movement. “We need to undress you to check for pressure sores,” he explained, as my limbs spasmed from the abrupt change in position. “Mrs. Richardson, if you could wait in the hall for a few minutes, I’ll come get you when we’re done.”

I could tell by the worried look on my mom’s face that she wasn’t comfortable leaving me like that, but she nodded anyway. “I’ll be right outside, honey,” she told me before she left the room.

As the team of nurses stripped off the rest of my clothes and removed the abdominal binder, my mind raced. Had I remembered to shift my weight every half hour like I was supposed to when I was sitting in my wheelchair? Could a pressure sore have formed in just a few hours while I was outside conducting interviews?

“I don’t see any redness or signs of skin breakdown,” I heard one of the nurses say, as they flipped me onto my stomach to examine my backside.

They rolled me back over and felt my legs up and down, checking for broken bones or other injuries that could be causing pain I couldn’t feel. Ellis was always warning me to watch where my legs were placed while I was in my wheelchair, telling me horror stories of quadriplegics who had broken their ankles by getting their feet wedged under their footplates or caught between one of their wheels and the wall. It seemed crazy to think I could break a bone without feeling it, but with no sensation below the belt, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

“Ah-ha!” Cole called out suddenly. “I see the problem. There’s a kink in his catheter line. Look…” He pointed something out to the others, then sat me back up so I could see for myself. Sure enough, the length of tubing that ran from the end of my urinary catheter to my leg bag had gotten twisted, preventing the urine from being able to flow through it. There was barely any in the bag, even though it hadn’t been emptied since before the interviews. “Your bladder’s full, that’s all.”

He untangled the tube, and the bag began to fill with dark yellow liquid. I watched with a mixture of disgust and fascination, amazed that something as simple as needing to pee could cause such a reaction.

“This is how quads who cath themselves know when they need to go to the bathroom,” he explained. “You should start to feel better in a few minutes.”

Sure enough, when he checked my blood pressure again five minutes later, it had come back down to its normal range. I’d stopped sweating by that point, my vision had cleared, and the pounding in my head had subsided. Cole emptied the catheter bag and helped me put on a comfortable pair of sweats before he brought my mom back in.

“Are you okay, honey?” she asked, smoothing my sweat-soaked hair back off my forehead as she fussed over me.

“I’m fine, Ma,” I said, and this time, I meant it. “I’m more embarrassed than anything else.”

“You don’t need to be embarrassed. These things happen. But this is exactly why I want you to have a caregiver with experience.” Her voice took on a firmer tone. “What if it had happened at home, and no one knew what to do?”

I shrugged. “We would have called 911. But I know what to do now, and I can teach whoever I hire to help me. It’ll be fine… trust me.”

My mom sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right,” she said finally. “I trust you.” She didn’t argue about it any further.

The next day, I called both Greg and Erik and offered them each a job. Greg agreed to come over on weekdays, leaving Erik to care for me on the weekends. They would start whenever I was released from the rehab facility, which I hoped would happen sometime in the next week.

I couldn’t wait to get home.

***


Chapter 20 by RokofAges75
Nick

It was good to get home - well, back on U.S. soil, anyway. L.A. wasn’t really my home anymore, but I had agreed to stay there with AJ for a few days to spend some time with Kevin before I flew back to my actual home in Franklin.

The morning after we got back from Mexico, AJ woke up bright and early to go to a caregiver class at the rehab hospital. He had tried to talk me into going with him, but I’d refused. “I just wanna relax and catch up on sleep,” I told him.

“Maybe if you didn’t drink so much, you wouldn’t be so tired all the time,” he retorted.

I rolled my eyes and ignored the dig, telling myself he didn’t really mean it. He was just mad because I hadn’t agreed to stick around longer and help him with Kevin. According to Brian, Kevin was planning to hire a paid caregiver or two to help him out at home, people who actually knew what they were doing. He didn’t need me.

While I was hanging out at AJ’s empty house, Howie called. I hadn’t heard from him since he’d texted us to let us know he and Q had made it safely back to Orlando the day before. He was planning on heading to the hospital to see his dad and probably just wanted to spend some time with his family, so I didn’t bother him, figuring he would update us on how his dad was doing when he felt like it. I was glad to see his name flashing on my phone, though.

“Hey, Howie!” I answered it. “What’s up, bro?”

“Hey, Nick.” When I heard his voice, my heart dropped into my stomach. He didn't sound like his usual happy-go-lucky self, and I knew something had to be wrong.

“How’s your dad?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to hear his answer.

Howie sighed. “Not good. They found a tumor in his brain - and another one in his lung. It looks like cancer.”

I sucked in a low breath through my teeth as my heart sank further. “Damn… I’m sorry, dude.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I settled for a follow-up question: “Do they know how bad it is?”

“The doctors won’t know for sure until they find out what kind it is. They’re doing a biopsy later today. But if it’s already in his brain and his lungs, then it’s probably spread to other places, too. That means it must be pretty bad.”

“Oh, man... I’m so sorry. Is… is there anything I can do?” It seemed like a stupid question, considering I was clear across the country, but it sounded like the right thing to say. I felt awkward, not knowing how to deal with a situation like this.

“You could talk to the other guys for me,” Howie replied. “I don’t know if I can make this call three more times today.” He sounded physically and emotionally drained, as if all the life had been sucked out of him.

“Of course,” I said quickly. “I’ll tell them tonight. We’re all taking Kevin out to dinner.”

“Aw, really? Like out out?”

“To a real restaurant, yeah. It’ll be his first time leaving the rehab center.”

“Wow, that’s awesome. I bet he’s looking forward to that.”

I laughed. “He has no idea. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

Brian had come up with this plan after talking to his aunt. Apparently, Ann was anxious about taking Kevin home in the new wheelchair-accessible van she had ordered for him and wanted to do a trial run before he was officially released. But Kevin was self-conscious about being seen in public and had refused to go on any of the bus trips offered by the rehab hospital, so she wasn’t sure how he would feel about going out in the van. It had been Brian’s idea to surprise him with a dinner reservation, which basically meant springing it on him at the last minute so he couldn’t back out of it.

“Good luck with that,” said Howie. “I hope it goes well.”

“Thanks. I hope you guys get some more answers soon. Maybe it won’t be as bad as it sounds.”

“Yeah... we’ll see.” He didn’t sound too hopeful.

“Hang in there, man,” I added, swallowing hard as my throat grew tight. “And, uh, tell Papa D we’re all pulling for him here.”

“I will. Thanks, Nicky. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Keep us posted.”

“Okay. I’ll talk to you soon.”

After we hung up, I stayed on AJ’s couch and stared at my phone for a long time. My body was still, but my heart was beating so fast, it felt like I had a butterfly fluttering inside my rib cage. My thoughts were racing even faster through my head. My mind felt like it was running in circles, going a million miles a minute, but getting nowhere. I felt so bad for Howie and his family, but there wasn’t much I could do to help from California. It was an anxious, frustrating feeling. I wanted a drink to dull my emotions and make everything slow down, but I fought the temptation, telling myself it would be better to wait and have a beer with dinner than drink alone while AJ was out of the house.

The rest of the afternoon dragged by, almost making me wish I’d gone to the caregiver class with AJ just so I would have something to do to take my mind off Howie’s dad. Finally, four o’clock came, and I decided to get dressed for dinner. We had agreed to meet at the rehab facility at five. I put on a button-down shirt and a pair of designer jeans and did my hair, running some gel through it with my fingers until it had the bedhead look I liked.

AJ had left me the keys to one of his cars so I could drive myself to the rehab center. When I arrived, he was already waiting in Kevin’s room, just watching TV with him. No one else was there yet.

“Hey, Kev!” I exclaimed as I entered the room, forcing a smile onto my face. I was genuinely happy to see him, but I also felt sad about Howie’s dad and wanted to hide it. I would tell the guys in due time, but it wouldn’t be fair to Kevin if those were the first words out of my mouth when we hadn’t seen each other in over a month. He deserved my full attention.

“Nick! You made it.” Kevin grinned back. “It’s good to see you, brother.” He held out his arms, and I gave him an awkward hug in his wheelchair. It was weird having to bend over to hug him; he had always been taller than me or at least the same height. But we made it work. I could tell by the way his arms tightened around me that he had gotten stronger since the last time I saw him.

“You too, bro.” As I straightened up and took a closer look at him, I realized he was no longer wearing his neck brace. He looked a lot better without it, less like a patient and more like his old self. His hair was getting long, and his neatly-trimmed goatee had grown into a full beard, but the rugged style suited him. “You look great!”

“Thanks,” he said, laughing a little, like he didn’t believe me. “How have you been?”

“Fine,” I lied, shrugging. Eager to change the subject before he asked me anything else, I looked at AJ. “How was your class?”

“It was… enlightening,” he said, after a long pause. “A lot of information… a little overwhelming… but I learned a lot!”

“And even after all that, he says he’s still willing to move in with me,” added Kevin, raising his eyebrows at AJ. “I think he’s crazy, but I guess we already knew that.”

I forced a laugh, but my insides squirmed with guilt. I wondered if AJ had told him he’d talked to me about moving in, too. If he had, Kevin didn’t mention it.

“Kev, let’s show him that thing I learned,” AJ said eagerly. “The quad cough.”

“The quad cough?” I repeated, glancing from AJ to Kevin.

Kevin’s cheeks had gone pink. “It’s an assisted cough. I can’t cough well enough to clear my lungs, so someone has to help me,” he explained.

I was still confused. “Help you how?”

“Like this,” said AJ, getting up from his seat. He stood in front of Kevin, facing him. “Are your brakes on?”

“Yeah, they go on automatically when I power off.”

“Okay.” AJ placed his hands on Kevin’s stomach, just below his rib cage. “Ready? One… two… three!” On three, he pushed hard, and Kevin coughed.

I cringed. “Doesn’t that hurt?” I was thinking about how it felt to get punched in the gut, which was almost what it looked like.

Kevin flashed a crooked smile. “Considering I can’t feel anything that far down... no, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Oh.” I let out an awkward laugh, feeling my face heat up. “Duh.”

Thankfully, Brian and his family arrived then, sparing me from further embarrassment. Ann had brought Mason along with Brian, Leighanne, and Baylee, so I moved to a corner of the crowded room while they greeted Kevin.

It was Baylee’s first time seeing Kevin since his accident. He seemed unsure at first, clinging to Leighanne’s legs while Kevin cuddled Mason in his lap. After a few minutes, he went up to the wheelchair and looked at Kevin. “Mommy said your legs don’t work anymore,” he told Kevin matter-of-factly.

“Baylee!” hissed Leighanne, looking mortified, but Kevin just laughed.

“She’s right. They don’t,” he replied. “That’s why I’m in this chair.”

Baylee looked at the power chair with interest, his eyes moving from the tires up to the joystick on the right armrest. “Do you drive it like a car?”

“Kind of like a car, yeah.”

“Can I try?”

“Baylee, no,” Leighanne moaned. “Uncle Kevin needs his chair. It’s not a toy.”

“I don’t care if he tries it,” said Kevin with a shrug. “Can someone take Mason?” Once his mom had scooped the baby out of his lap, he held out his arms to Baylee. “Here, kiddo - climb on up.”

“Be careful,” Leighanne warned, as her son scrambled up onto Kevin’s knees. Kevin wrapped one arm around him and turned on his wheelchair with the other. He showed Baylee how to use the controls and let him move the chair forwards and backwards. Baylee had a huge smile on his face the whole time his hand was on the joystick.

“Hey, Kev - how does it feel to be the coolest person in the room?” Brian joked, grinning at his cousin.

“Uh, hello!” AJ waved his hand in the air. “I’m over here, Rok.”

Brian chuckled. “Sorry, Boner, but it looks like you’ve been replaced. Nothing can beat Kevin’s sweet ride. It’s like a Power Wheels! Right, Bay?”

Baylee was too busy playing to respond.

Kevin’s mom cleared her throat. “Speaking of sweet rides…” She boosted Mason higher on her hip. “I brought the new van today. The boys thought it would be fun for us to go out to dinner tonight.”

Kevin looked up at her, raising his eyebrows. “Us?

“Yeah, we thought we could celebrate our homecomings - us from tour and you from rehab,” Brian chimed in, grinning. “You are still planning on going home soon, right?”

“That’s the plan, yeah...” Kevin said slowly, “...but I dunno about going out with y’all tonight.”

AJ and I exchanged glances. Neither of us were surprised by his reaction. Based on what Brian had told us, we had anticipated him saying no. Our job was to talk him into saying yes.

“Aw, c’mon, Kev,” AJ tried to convince him first. “You’re gonna have to leave the rehab center at some point to go home, right? Tonight’s the perfect night to get outta here for a few hours and test out that new van of yours.”

“Yeah, remember all the times you told me you wanted a drink or to have one for you?” I added. “Well, tonight you can finally come out with us and have one yourself! I’ll buy you as many as you want!”

Kevin smiled and shook his head. “I appreciate it, Nick, but I probably shouldn’t. Pissing myself in public is not my idea of fun.”

“I thought you had a bag to piss into.”

He blushed, clearly flustered by the conversation. “Well, I do, but it has to be emptied every few hours. If I drink too much, and it overflows…”

“So we’ll empty it before we go, and if it needs emptying again at the restaurant, then we’ll empty it again,” said AJ with a shrug. “I know how to do that now; it’s no big deal. I got you, bro.”

I looked at AJ in surprise. He was really taking this caregiver stuff seriously.

“I already made us reservations at a steakhouse just a few blocks from here,” Brian added, lifting Baylee off Kevin’s lap. “We have a private party room, and the manager said there’s a back door we can use, so you won’t have to go through the main dining room. No one but the wait staff will even see you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

By the way Kevin’s cheeks darkened, I could tell that was exactly what he was worried about. He didn’t want to be stared at in public. I didn’t blame him, but it seemed like something he was going to have to get over sooner or later.

“I dunno… I’m not dressed to go out to dinner,” he said, looking down at himself. He was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a baggy Kentucky Wildcats t-shirt. “Besides, I’d need to shave. My face is getting pretty scruffy.”

“I brought you another outfit,” his mom told him. She dug into Mason’s diaper bag and took out a folded pair of khakis and a polo shirt.

“And I can give you a shave,” added AJ. “Admit it - no one here knows more about manscaping than me.”

A smile crept across Kevin’s face, and I swear I saw tears sparkling in his eyes. He was clearly touched by our efforts. How could he turn us down?

“All right,” he finally agreed. “As long as we have enough time for me to get cleaned up first, I’ll go.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” Brian replied with a grin. “Our reservations aren’t for another hour.”

“I’ll help you get ready,” AJ offered. “It’ll be a good practice run for me, too.”

The rest of us waited in the hall while AJ helped Kevin change his clothes and shave and whatever else he needed to do. It took forever, but finally, they emerged from the room. Kevin was fully dressed, his goatee trimmed down to perfection.

Brian whistled. “Damn, cous, you clean up nice!”

“Yeah, except... what happened to your eyebrow?” I asked, faking a look of confusion.

I watched the blood drain from Kevin’s face as he reached up, trying to feel his forehead with his fists. I couldn’t help it; I started cracking up before he even realized I was messing with him.

“Damn it, Nick!” he cried, but he was laughing, too. “You had me going there for a minute, thinking this fool shaved off one of my eyebrows.” He flung his hand toward AJ.

“Dude, wouldn’t you have felt it if I’d shaved off your eyebrow? Your face isn’t paralyzed,” AJ pointed out. “Besides, those things are so freaking thick, they would have clogged the razor blades!”

“Ha-ha… real funny.”

Leighanne looked at her watch. “We should probably get going now. We don’t wanna be late.”

We went out to the parking lot, where Kevin’s mom had left the van. It was parked in one of the many handicapped spaces up front, and I saw a handicapped parking placard hanging from the rearview mirror. We all took a minute to admire it, oohing and aahing over the shiny black exterior and soft leather seats, as if Kevin had bought a luxury sports car instead of an accessible van. Ann showed us some of the cool features it had, including the side door that slid open automatically so a ramp could come down. Kevin was able to drive his wheelchair up the ramp, and Brian helped Ann buckle him in, using a series of built-in straps and seat belts to secure him and his chair to the floor of the van. There was even a row of seats in the back where Leighanne could ride with Baylee and Mason in their car seats, while Brian sat up front with his aunt.

I rode with AJ to the restaurant. “So how was your class really?” I asked him in a low voice, as we followed Kevin’s van up the road. I wondered if he was having any second thoughts after learning what taking care of a quadriplegic actually entailed. It would make me feel less guilty if I knew he was regretting his rash decision to move in with Kevin.

“I told you, it was a lot to take in, but it was good,” said AJ with a shrug. If he was worried he had gotten in over his head, he wasn’t going to admit it.

I watched him curiously as he concentrated on the road. “Did you really empty Kevin’s piss bag before we left?”

“Yup.” AJ glanced over at me. “It’s not as gross as it sounds. There’s a tube at the bottom of the bag; you just dangle it over the toilet seat, open the release valve, and drain it right into the toilet. I didn’t have to touch his dick or anything.”

I made a face. “Well, I hope you still washed your hands when you were done.”

He frowned. “I don’t remember if I did or not. Here, smell my hand and let me know, would ya?” He took his right hand off the wheel and shoved it into my face.

“Dude!” I turned my head, trying to squirm away as he wiped his hand all over me. “Don’t! That fucking sick!”

AJ snickered. “That’s rich, coming from a guy who doesn’t wash his own hands after going to the bathroom.”

“That’s different! That’s my own dick.”

“Yeah, well, how many times have you touched one of us after touching your own dick? So don’t even try to talk to me about hygiene, Mr. Human Petri Dish.”

“Stop messing around and watch the road!” I snapped, turning to face forward again. “You’re gonna ruin our whole night if you wreck your car.” As AJ started laughing at me again, I realized I sounded just like Kevin.

“For the record, I did wash my hands,” he said, wiggling his fingers as he finally returned his right hand to the wheel.

“Thank god.”

We rode in silence the rest of the way to the restaurant. When we pulled into a parking space, Brian was just getting out of the passenger seat of Kevin’s van. “I’m gonna go in to tell them we’re here and find out where this back door is,” he said, as we walked up to meet him. “Wait here a minute.”

The van was still running. I opened the side door and stuck my head in to talk to Kevin. “How you doing?” I asked him.

He grimaced. “All right… a little nervous, I guess.” He glanced out his window. “It’s nice to get away from the rehab center, but it feels weird, too. The real world is like a whole new world to me - familiar, but at the same time, totally different.” He looked back at me. “Does that make any sense?”

I nodded. “Yeah. That makes perfect sense.”

“The world hasn’t really changed, though,” he went on thoughtfully. “I’ve changed.”

“You’re still the same old Kevy Kev to us,” said AJ, coming up behind me and resting his hand on my shoulder. “How was your ride?”

“Kinda scary, to be honest,” Kevin admitted.

“Oh come on, your mom’s not that bad of a driver.”

“I heard that!” Ann called back from the front seat.

AJ chuckled. “I mean it! We followed you guys the whole way here. L.A traffic is crazy, but you handled it like a pro, Ann.”

“Better than AJ, anyway,” I added, giving him a disgruntled look. “I bet you kept both hands on the wheel and everything.”

Ann laughed, as AJ wiggled his nasty fingers in front of my nose again. “Thank you, boys.”

“My mom’s a great driver,” said Kevin. “I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant… well, it’s like you always used to tell me when I started driving, Ma: ‘It’s not you I worry about. It’s other people.’ Last time I was in a car… well, look at what happened to me.” He lifted his arms and gestured toward his wheelchair with hands that were curled into loose fists. “I held my breath at every intersection, afraid someone was gonna crash into us.”

“That’s normal,” Leighanne said softly from the back seat. “You suffered a terrible trauma. It’s only natural to feel nervous. The first time I flew after 9/11, I was terrified. I just kept thinking of that movie Final Destination, where Devon Sawa and his friends get hunted down by Death because they got off a plane before it crashed. I believe God saved my life by telling me to take a later flight, but what if fate had other plans for me?”

I turned my head so she wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. Leighanne liked to remind us about how she was supposed to be on one of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center. She always had to make it about her.

“Yeah… well, anyway, thanks for getting us here in one piece, Ma,” said Kevin, smiling at his mom’s reflection in the rearview mirror.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” She beamed back at him. “I’m just glad you agreed to go. It’s good to see you out and about again.”

Brian came back, walking briskly and wearing a big grin on his face. “They’re all ready for us,” he said, clapping his hands together. “You ready, cous?”

Kevin sucked in a shaky breath. “I guess so. Let’s go.”

Ann got out of the driver’s seat and came around to unbuckle Kevin. AJ climbed into the back so he could see what she was doing, while I hung back out of the way with Brian. Once Kevin had rolled down the ramp, Ann got Mason out of his carseat. Leighanne was the last to exit with Baylee.

“The hostess said to follow the sidewalk around to the back of the building,” Brian said, leading the way. The rest of us formed a protective circle around Kevin as he powered his chair over the pavement. Thankfully, we were far enough from Hollywood that there weren’t any paparazzi waiting out front. In fact, we didn’t see another person until we were behind the building, where another hostess was waiting for us by the back door.

“Welcome, Mr. Richardson,” she said, holding the door open for Kevin. “Right this way.” She took us down a short hallway, past a bustling kitchen, and into the private room Brian had reserved. A large, rectangular table stood in the middle. Kevin positioned himself at the head of it, where there weren’t any chairs, and the rest of us sat down on either side. Ann took the seat on his right and placed Mason’s high chair next to her. Brian sat down on Kevin’s left, with Baylee and Leighanne beside him, leaving AJ and me at the other end of the table.

“Thank you,” said Kevin, as the hostess set a menu in front of him. I watched him fumble with it, trying to turn the pages with his fists. Halfway down the table, his son was doing the same thing with a board book Ann had given him.

When the waiter came to take our drink orders, I ordered myself a beer, then pointed at Kevin and said, “Put whatever he orders on my tab - and if it doesn’t have alcohol, bring him something that does. He’s not driving tonight.”

The waiter looked down the table at Kevin and laughed. “You got it.”

He left and came back with a tray full of drinks, including a tall beer for Kevin. After he had taken our dinner orders and gone away again, Brian raised his glass and said, “I’d like to make a quick toast. To Kevin - I know how hard the past few months have been for you, but you’ve come a long way. We couldn’t be more proud of you, cous. The worst is behind you now, and I know you’re gonna keep moving forward, working hard, and making progress once you get out of rehab and go home. Here’s to better days ahead!”

“Hear, hear!” AJ echoed, tipping his water glass toward Brian. “Well said, Rok.”

“We love you, bro!” I called down the table to Kevin, who was looking teary-eyed again.

“Thank you all,” he said hoarsely, pausing to clear his throat. “It’s been a long, hard road, but I wouldn’t be where I am without your support. I love y’all more than words can express.”

“I’ll drink to that!” I was the first to bring my glass to my lips, but the others quickly followed suit. When we finished the toast, only Kevin was left with a full drink still sitting in front of him.

“I don’t think I can drink this without spilling it all over myself,” he said sheepishly, staring at the pilsner glass, which had been filled to the brim. “It’s too heavy for me to pick up.”

“We should have asked for an extra straw,” said his mom, frowning. “Here…” She took the straw out of her own water glass and stuck it in Kevin’s glass instead, but it sank down so low, he couldn’t lean forward far enough to get his lips around it. “Well, that’s not going to work, is it? I wonder if they have any longer straws… preferably the bendy kind.”

Kevin looked embarrassed. “Who drinks beer through a straw?” I heard him mutter.

Leighanne stood up from the table. “I’ll see what I can find,” she said, tugging her tiny dress down lower as she left the room. She came back a few minutes later with a longer, thicker straw. “Good thing they have milkshakes on the dessert menu! Will this one work?”

“Let’s see…” Ann put the new straw in Kevin’s glass. It stuck up a few inches from the top of the glass, giving Kevin just enough room to reach it from his chair. “Well, good enough for now. I’ll get you some of those reusable ones to bring with you next time.”

Kevin nodded and took a sip of his beer. “God, this tastes good,” he said, closing his eyes as he swallowed. “I haven’t had beer in, what, almost three months? Not since New Year’s Eve…” His smile faded. He shook his head and cleared his throat. “Anyway... thanks for making me come here tonight. It does feel good to get out, even if it’s a little different. I’m looking forward to a nice meal that’s not hospital food.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to some authentic American cuisine,” said AJ with a grin. “Meat and potatoes, baby!” Everyone laughed, knowing he was the least adventurous eater of the five of us.

“I just wish Howie was here with us.” Kevin looked around the table. “Has anyone heard from him today? Do y’all know how his dad’s doing?”

AJ and Brian both shook their heads. I bit down on my bottom lip, wondering if now was the time to tell them Howie’s news. I had been hoping to wait until after dinner, not wanting to ruin the meal, but how could I lie and hide the truth when Kevin was asking about it directly?

I cleared my throat. “Actually, he called me this afternoon.” The others looked over at me in surprise. “It’s… it’s not good news. They think Hoke has cancer.” I saw the wide-eyed expressions on their faces and knew they must be feeling the exact same way I’d felt earlier while I was on the phone with Howie. “They found tumors in his brain and lung,” I forced myself to continue. “They’re gonna run more tests to figure out what kind and how bad it is.”

“Oh my god…”

While everyone reacted with shock and sadness, I saw Kevin and his mom exchange glances at the other end of the table. They had been through this before, I realized, with Kevin’s own dad. He had died of colon cancer a couple years before Kevin joined the Backstreet Boys. For them, this must have felt like reliving an old nightmare.

“We’re not really gonna fly to Germany in two weeks, are we?” Brian said at one point, looking around the table at the rest of us. “I mean, with everything else that’s happened and now this… I really think we need to postpone the next leg of the tour and give Howie some more time at home with his family.”

I felt a flood of deja vu as I thought back to AJ’s birthday dinner, when we’d had a similar conversation about the first leg of the tour. Part of me thought Brian was being selfish, secretly wanting us to cancel so he could spend more time at home with his own family. He had always been a homebody, but even more so since Baylee was born. If you’d asked me a few years ago who I thought would be the first Backstreet Boy to leave the group, I would have said Brian, hands down. I never imagined Kevin would quit before him.

“I’m with you, Rok,” AJ replied, bringing me back to the present. “I know last time we talked about this, I wanted to go ahead with the tour… but I also said we should reassess when we got back from the first leg. Well, here we are. With Kevin ready to get out of rehab and now Howie having to deal with this, I think you’re right - we should reschedule our European dates.”

“What do you think, Nick?” asked Brian.

Everyone looked expectantly at me, waiting for me to weigh in. I felt uncomfortable because, of course, I didn’t want to cancel the tour. But I knew I couldn’t say that; it would only make me sound selfish and insensitive. So instead, I said, “I think we should talk to Howie before we make any decisions.”

AJ shook his head. “Normally, I would say you’re right, but this time I disagree. We all know Howie. He’s not gonna want us to rearrange dates just for him. If we ask him first, he’ll say he’s fine and that the show must go on, whether he means it or not. He doesn’t like losing money or letting people down: fans... management… us.”

“The fans will understand,” Brian interjected. “We understand. And if management doesn’t, they can fuck off. Pardon my French.” His face reddened as he looked around, as if suddenly remembering his aunt and five-year-old son were still in the room.

“Exactly,” said AJ, nodding. “So what I’m saying is, I think the three of us need to make the decision ourselves and present it to Howie as a united front. Then there’d be no reason for him to argue with us. Majority rules, right?”

Easy for you to say when you already have the majority, I thought. Even if I went against him and Brian, my opinion wouldn’t matter when there were only three of us deciding. But if we waited to ask Howie, we might be split down the middle. Because AJ was right about one thing: Howie wouldn’t want us to reschedule for him any more than Kevin had.

I looked down the table at Kevin, who was sitting silently in his wheelchair, watching this unfold without him. I wondered what he was thinking. I cleared my throat. “What would you do, Kev?”

He blinked, seeming surprised by the question. “It doesn’t matter what I would do,” he replied calmly. “I’m not in the group anymore.”

“We still respect your opinion,” said AJ. “Do you think we should reschedule?”

Kevin took his time answering. “I think… that if Howie’s dad really does have cancer,” he began, staring down at the table, “and it’s already spread to different parts of his body… then Howie should plan to spend as much time at home with him as he can. And if that means postponing the tour… then so be it.” When he looked up at us again, there were tears in his eyes. “I wish I would’ve had more time with my dad before he passed. If I had known how bad it was, I would have come home months sooner. I don’t want Howie to have any regrets.”

“He already feels guilty for not being there when his sister died,” added AJ. “We didn’t give him time off to deal with it then. I didn’t have time to grieve after my grandma died, either, and look at what happened to me. And you, Rok… you hardly had time to recover from your heart surgery before we went right back out on the road two months later. I was too young and naive to realize it at the time, but I know now how hard that must have been for you.”

Brian nodded, resting his hand on his chest. It was no secret he still resented our former managers for making him do that, after forcing him to postpone the operation in the first place.

“So let’s learn from the mistakes we made in the past and not repeat them,” AJ went on. “We’re at the point in our career where we can finally afford to put ourselves and our families first. Take time off when we need it. Like you said, our fans will understand, and they’ll be there waiting for us when we’re ready to get back out there. That’s all that really matters.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Deep down, I knew he was right. So I nodded and said, “I agree. I’m with you guys.”

“Great,” said Brian. “It’s decided then. We can talk to Howie tomorrow, then find time to meet with management later this week. They won’t be happy, but it is what it is. Nothing’s more important than family.” He glanced over at Kevin. “With that being said, I think we need to table this conversation for now. Tonight was supposed to be a celebration.”

No one felt much like celebrating after that, but thankfully, it wasn’t long before our food arrived. My mouth watered as I looked down at the big, juicy steak the water set in front of me. I picked up my knife and fork and cut into it right away. It was cooked to perfection, crispy on the edges and pink in the middle. As I put the first bite in my mouth, my eyes traveled to the other end of the table, where Kevin’s mom was busy cutting his entire steak up into small pieces. Across from her, Leighanne was doing the same thing with Baylee’s chicken.

Brian helped Kevin put on the special cuffs he used to hold his utensils, while Ann finished cutting up his food. I watched with curiosity as she hooked a stainless steel device onto the edge of his plate before she put it back in front of him. It looked like something you’d buy at a hardware store to hold pieces of pipe together, except it was bigger and only formed a semicircle instead of a full ring.

Ann must have noticed me staring. “It’s a plate guard,” she explained, smiling at me. “It helps keep Kevin’s food on his plate and makes it easier for him to pick it up. Show them how you do it, honey.”

Kevin looked embarrassed. His cheeks were bright pink as he pushed a bit of meat up against the side of the plate guard to hold it in place as he awkwardly tried to pierce it with his fork. I could tell it was hard for him to generate enough force to sink his fork through the thick streak. It was almost painful to watch.

“Want me to-?” Brian started to reach toward Kevin’s plate with his own fork, but Kevin shook his head and waved his hand away.

“No, thanks,” he said stiffly. “I can do it.”

He finally gave up on spearing the steak and settled for scooping it onto his fork instead. It took him two tries to get it up to his mouth; the first time, it fell off and landed in his lap. I had to look away as his mom reached down to retrieve it. My eyes landed on Mason, who was picking up Cheerios off the tray of his high chair and putting them in his mouth with more success.

I knew Kevin didn’t want anyone’s pity, but I still felt sorry for him. I had assumed he would be more independent after two months in the rehab center, but it was obvious that he still needed a lot of help, whether he wanted it or not. Besides not being able to walk, there were so many other simple, everyday things he couldn’t do by himself, like go to the bathroom, get dressed, or enjoy a meal. Watching him out of the corner of my eye as I chewed my steak, I realized how much I took for granted. It made me feel even guiltier for wanting to get back to my own life in Franklin while AJ gave up his freedom to move in with Kevin.

“You’re like me,” I heard his words echoing inside my head. “Single, childless. You could help Kevin, right? He needs you, Nick. I need you. You’re the perfect person to do it.” Was it really AJ’s voice I was hearing, or was it my own conscience?

The conversation died down as everyone concentrated on eating. The food was amazing, and by the time the waiter came back to clear our plates away, everyone had polished off their meals except Kevin. He was still working on his steak. Judging by the number of pieces left on his plate, he had only managed to eat about a third of it. “You can take this,” he told the waiter anyway. “I’m finished.”

“Would you like a box for that, sir?”

“No, thanks.”

Ann frowned. “Are you sure, hon? I can take it home tonight to put in the fridge and bring it up to you tomorrow for-”

“No, Ma, it’s fine,” Kevin interrupted her.

“Was yours not good?” Brian asked, once the waiter had taken his plate away. “‘Cause mine was great!”

“It was fine,” Kevin said again. I could tell by his tone that he was losing patience with his family. “It tasted good. It just wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to eat, and… I dunno, ever since my accident, I just haven’t had much of an appetite. I guess it’s because my body doesn't burn nearly as many calories as before, sitting in this damn chair all day. I don’t need to eat as much.”

“Wish I had that problem,” I blurted without thinking, patting my belly, which was straining against the waistband of my pants.

Kevin met my eyes. “No, you don’t,” he muttered, which made me feel terrible.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said apologetically, my face burning. “I-” Before I could finish explaining myself, I felt a burp bubble up from my stomach. As I let out a loud belch, everyone laughed. Even Kevin cracked a smile as he looked at Baylee, who was giggling hysterically. In spite of my embarrassment, I couldn’t help but grin, too. Guys who burp and fart are about the funniest thing in the world to five-year-old boys. “Excuse me,” I said, shrugging. At least it had eased the tension at the table.

“Good Lord, Nickolas!” cried Leighanne. “We can’t take you anywhere!” I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.

“Sorry,” I said, but I was looking at Kevin, not at her.

He nodded, catching my eye again. “No worries. We’re all human here.” He leaned forward to take a sip from the straw in his glass, which was still half full of beer - probably warm by now. As he did, he must have bumped the table, because the glass suddenly toppled over, the rest of the beer spilling into his lap.

“Oh dear!” Ann gasped, jumping up from the table. “Napkins… we need napkins!”

The waiter had already taken everything off the table, so AJ ran off to find some. He returned with a wad of paper towels from the bathroom, which he crammed between Kevin’s legs to soak up as much beer as possible.

“Great,” Kevin said sarcastically, looking down at himself. “Now it looks like I pissed my pants anyway.”

“Gosh… we can’t take you anywhere, either!” Leighanne winked at him, grinning. At least I could tell she was kidding that time.

Kevin smiled back weakly.

“You want another beer, bro?” I asked him.

He shook his head. “Nah… I’ve clearly had enough.”

I could tell he was ready to go, so we took our cue to pay the bill and leave.

“Thanks again for making me come out tonight,” Kevin said in the parking lot, before his mom loaded him into the van. “I hope I didn’t embarrass y’all too much.”

“No more than Nick did,” AJ joked, slinging his arm around me. “At least you still have some table manners.”

“I taught him well,” said Ann, smiling at her son. “Will we see you two at the rehab center tomorrow? The Cats are playing in the first round of the NCAA tournament tomorrow at 11:30! Kevin rearranged his whole therapy schedule so he can watch.”

I knew AJ couldn’t care less about college basketball, but he grinned right back and replied, “Wouldn’t miss it! See you tomorrow.”

We turned to walk back to AJ’s car.

“You okay, Nick?” AJ asked me, as we buckled out seat belts. “You were really quiet during dinner… other than that epic burp, I mean.”

I laughed. “Yeah… I was just thinking.”

“About Howie?”

“No… not the whole time, anyway.” My heartbeat accelerated as my mind began to race again. “Actually, I was thinking about Kevin… and what you asked me in Mexico.”

AJ looked over at me, one eyebrow raised. “About moving in with us?”

“Yeah…” I took a deep breath, and the words tumbled out. “I’ll do it. I’ll stay here and help out until we go back on tour.”

His other eyebrow went up. “Really? You will?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you’re not just saying that because you’ve been drinking?”

“No.” I’d only had two pints of beer at dinner; my head was clear. “I’m saying it because it’s the right thing to do.”

His face broke into a big grin. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that, bro. I’m sure Kevin will be happy, too. We’ll have fun with it. We’ll turn his place into the ultimate bachelor pad! We’ll be like Joey, Chandler, and Ross from Friends!”

I snorted. “More like Three Men and a Baby. And one of them’s in a wheelchair.”

He snickered. “Oh man… you’re right. This has all the makings of a great comedy.”

I laughed along with him, but deep down, all I could think was, What the hell did I just get myself into?

***


Chapter 21 by RokofAges75
Kevin

The first day of spring brought with it the first bit of really good news I’d gotten in almost three months. It couldn’t have come at a better time, considering my beloved Kentucky Wildcats had just been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, and Howie’s dad had just been diagnosed with cancer.

“I met with your team this morning,” said my case manager, Louisa, when she came to see me that afternoon. “They all agreed that you’re ready to go home. Dr. Bayatmakou cleared you medically for release, and Dr. Austin said it sounds like you’ll have plenty of emotional support.”

I nodded. “My mom’s planning to stay in town as long as I need her, and one - well, maybe two - of my friends are moving in with me to help out.”

Nick had sprung this news on me earlier that day, as we were watching the game. I was fine with him moving in, too, if that was something he really wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure if it had been his idea or if AJ had put him up to it. I wanted to talk to Nick about it sometime in private, when none of the other guys were around, and find out the truth.

“How wonderful!” gushed Louisa. “I also talked to your mother, and she said you have two part-time caregivers lined up to help with your morning routine?”

“That’s right.” Greg and Erik were on standby, just waiting to find out their start dates. I couldn’t wait to call them and tell them when I would be needing them.

“Terrific! She told me your home renovations should be finished by tomorrow, so we’ll set your discharge date for Saturday.”

It was Thursday. I only have to spend two more nights here, I thought happily. I couldn’t wait to sleep in my own bed, to kiss my baby boy goodnight and be there when he woke up in the morning. Better yet, I would be home for his first Easter on Sunday. I wondered if my mom had bought anything for an Easter basket yet and made a mental note to ask her.

Meanwhile, Louisa was still talking. “You’ll continue your rehab on an outpatient basis. Charisma and Ellis both have room in their schedule to see you a few times a week if you want to continue working with them here at Rancho Colina, or I can set you up with a home health agency that will send therapists to your home. Most insurance plans will pay for in-home physical or occupational therapy for a limited number of hours per week.”

“I don’t mind coming here,” I said, quickly deciding to stick with the same therapists who had gotten me to this point. I was already comfortable with Charisma and Ellis; it would be easier to keep working with them than gamble on someone new and unknown. Besides, the rehab center had more advanced equipment than I had at home. I would need it if I was going to continue making progress as an outpatient.

“Great! I’ll let them both know and have them reach out to set up a weekly schedule with you. Do you have any questions so far?”

“Yeah… What about my wheelchair? When will I get that?” I had been measured for my first custom power chair a couple of weeks earlier. Ellis had helped me order it, going through all the different options and giving his expert opinions on what would work best for me, so I could decide exactly what I wanted. The finished product cost almost as much as the van I had bought to haul it around, but it would be much lighter and better-looking than the behemoth I’d been stuck using for the last month or so. I had been looking forward to test-driving my new chair in the rehab center, where I was already comfortable getting around, before I took it home.

“Oh, not for at least a few more weeks. Custom wheelchairs can take months to come in,” Louisa said matter-of-factly. I blinked at her in disbelief. Maybe I should have just looked on Amazon. “In the meantime, you can bring this one home with you and borrow it until you have your own.”

“Wow… well, that’s good, considering I can’t exactly get around without it.” I was disappointed, but it didn’t matter. The most important thing was that I was finally going home. I felt like a fledgling bird, about to leave the nest for the first time. It was a little scary, but mostly exciting.

I called Nick the next morning. “Hey, wanna come watch a basketball game with me tonight?” I asked him.

He chuckled. “I thought you weren’t watching any more March Madness now that your Wildcats are done.”

“I’m not talking about the NCAA tournament.”

“Oh. NBA?”

“Nope. NWBA.” When he didn’t say anything, I added, “Wheelchair basketball, Nick.”

“Ohh! Duh! Yeah, sure, bro. What time?”

“Why don’t you be here by six-thirty? And don’t bring AJ, okay? Just come by yourself.”

He laughed. “Are you kidding? AJ was bored out of his freaking mind watching college ball with us yesterday. The last thing he’d wanna do is watch a bunch of crip-” He caught himself before he could finish the word, coughed, and blurted, “Well, anyway, that works for me. See you tonight!”

I just smiled and shook my head as he awkwardly hung up. It was funny because I’d heard a lot of the guys in rehab call themselves “crips.” It was almost like a club: If you had the misfortune of being initiated into our particular gang, you could use that term. If not, you couldn’t. It was only offensive when able-bodied outsiders said it. But I wasn’t offended; I knew Nick hadn’t meant anything bad by it. He was just being Nick.

I thought inviting him to a wheelchair basketball game would be a good way to break the ice and give us a chance to talk one-on-one. Nick had always loved basketball. I was hoping he would get into the game.

“Damn, these guys are good!” he exclaimed that evening, as we sat on the sidelines, watching the players race up and down the court in their chairs.

I glanced over at him. His eyebrows were raised high on his forehead, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I know,” I agreed. “And they’re amateurs. You should see the professional teams! I saw some videos on YouTube. Pretty impressive.”

“Yeah? I’ll have to look those up.” I wasn’t sure if he was really that interested, or if he was just humoring me, but I appreciated his enthusiasm either way. “Have you ever tried playing?” he asked me.

I chuckled. “No. I don’t have the hand function to be able to dribble a ball while wheeling myself around. You don’t see any power chairs out there, do you?”

“Oh… yeah, I guess not.”

“These are mostly paraplegics, so they still have full use of their arms.” I paused to watch as one of the players wrestled the ball away from his opponent and passed it to his teammate, who took off in the opposite direction, dribbling the ball down the court. He took a shot and sent the ball swishing through the net for two points. Despite his athletic ability, I probably would have pitied him before my accident, thinking what a shame it was for him to be confined to a wheelchair. Now I envied him.

“Oh,” Nick said again. “Well, is there a different version that quadriplegics can play?”

“No, but we do have quad rugby. They don’t let paraplegics play that; you have to have impairment in at least three limbs. Did you ever watch Murderball? The documentary? Or should I say ‘document-tary?’” I winked at him, making fun of the way he used to mispronounce the word.

Nick went red in the face. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?” he muttered, shaking his head. “No, I never saw Murderball, but I remember hearing about it.”

“Yeah, well, that was about quad rugby.”

“Rugby’s kinda like football, right? I bet you’d be good at that, since you played football in high school.”

I shrugged. “I dunno, maybe… I’d need to figure out how to use a manual chair first.” My eyes moved across the athletes on the court, observing their broad shoulders and muscular arms as they gripped the angled wheels of their chairs. “My occupational therapist said I might be able to eventually, once I build more upper body strength.”

Nick nodded. “Well, that sounds like a good goal to start working towards when you get home.”

“Yeah...” Seeing my opening, I smiled at him. “You know, Nick, I never would have gotten this far without the support of my friends and family. Thanks for being here for me these last few months.”

He blushed again. “It was no big deal,” he replied, looking down at his lap. “I didn’t do much; I wasn’t even here half the time.”

“But you did,” I insisted. “You were. Whether it was in person or on the phone, you were here for me, and I can’t tell you how much that’s meant to me. I may not have always shown it, especially on my bad days, but your visits and phone calls gave me something to look forward to and made me less lonely. So I thank you, brother.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” he said with a shrug. “I just did what anyone else would do.”

“Not just anyone. Not all of my friends have visited, and some of the ones who did only stopped by once or twice.” I pictured the wall of my room that was covered with get well cards. Only a fraction of the people who had signed those cards had actually called or come for a visit. “I’m not judging them,” I added quickly. “I know it’s not easy to see me this way. And that’s okay because, if I’m being honest, I don’t necessarily want everyone to see me this way. You and the fellas will always be welcome, of course. You’re family. But I don’t ever want you to feel obligated.”

It was taking me longer to get to the point than I had intended, but finally, I had arrived at what I was trying to say. I took a deep breath before I went on.

“I appreciate you offering to stay in L.A. and help me out around the house, but it’s a big responsibility to take on. I know you were trying to start a new life in Tennessee, and the last thing I’d wanna do is take that away from you. So if… if AJ talked you into this, or you start having second thoughts, it’s okay to back out. You’re not gonna hurt my feelings. Understood?”

Nick looked over at me, his forehead creasing as he frowned. “Where’s this coming from? AJ didn’t talk me into anything. I make my own decisions.” But I could tell by his defensive tone that this wasn’t entirely true. I remembered what AJ had told me about catching Nick with drugs and hoped he hadn’t somehow coerced him into helping me.

“Okay.” I kept my own voice mild, trying to calm him down before he flipped out on me. “I was just making sure. Like I said, I would hate for you to feel like you had to stay and help. I can hire more caregivers if I need them, and my mom’s made it more than clear that if it doesn’t work out for me in California, I can always come back home to Kentucky and move in with her.”

“But you don’t wanna do that,” Nick said, the furrows in his brow deepening.

“No. I don’t. But as the last few months have shown me, life doesn’t always work out the way I want it to.” A lump rose in my throat. I swallowed hard. “I’m willing to do whatever’s best for Mason and me. Right now that means staying in L.A., but that may change down the road. You may change your mind down the road, too… and if you do, it’s okay. I don’t want you to feel trapped here.”

“I won’t,” he replied quickly, “and I don’t. I’m here because I chose to be. I’m here for you, bro - as long as you want me to be.”

“I do,” I said, smiling at him. “Of course I do. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want. Mason will love having two of his uncles in the house.”

Nick smiled back. “I told AJ it’ll be like Three Men and a Baby.”

I laughed. “Yeah, I guess it will. So does that make me Ted Danson?”

“No way, dude! I’m obviously Ted. You’re Tom Selleck.”

“Magnum, P.I.?” I shrugged. “I’ll take it. So then AJ would be…” I trailed off, trying to remember who played the third man in that movie.

It came to me at the same time it did Nick: “Steve Guttenburg!” we said in unison, sharing a laugh before we turned our attention back to the game.

I still wasn’t sure Nick was being one hundred percent honest with me about his feelings, but I decided it didn’t matter. I had given him an out. If he didn’t want to take it, that was on him. Either way, I was going home the next day. All things considered, I couldn’t have been happier.

***


In the morning, Nick and AJ rode to the rehab center with my mom in my new van. They boxed up all the cards, flowers, and gifts that had accumulated in my room, while my mom filled a suitcase with my clothes and personal items. After one last check to make sure we’d packed everything, we headed for the exit, stopping to thank and say goodbye to every staff member we passed in the hallway. “Good luck, Kevin!” I heard people say over and over again.

When we finally made it out to the parking lot, they loaded up the van and strapped me and my chair into the back. But we didn’t go straight home. First we had to stop by the pharmacy. I waited in the van with Nick and AJ while my mom went in to pick up my prescriptions: pills to raise my blood pressure, muscle relaxants to reduce my spasms, painkillers to prevent neuropathic pain, and antidepressants to regulate my mood. I had never been on so many medications in my life.

I had thought going home after three months in the hospital would feel like returning from a really long tour, but it didn’t. It felt very different. As the accessible van crawled up the driveway and I caught my first glimpse of the house, a hard lump rose in my throat. The last time I had laid eyes on this place, I was backing out of the garage in my luxury car with Kristin by my side, looking gorgeous in her gold dress. When we went out that night to ring in the new year, I never could have imagined I would return without her - or that I would be in a wheelchair.

I noticed changes to the house immediately. The garage looked empty with both cars gone. Mine had been totaled in the accident, and Kristin’s dad had sold hers, knowing neither of us would need it anymore. My mom parked the van right in the middle, giving me plenty of room to go down the ramp to get out. Another ramp had been constructed right over the two steps that led into the house.

Our babysitter, Rachel, was waiting with Mason in the kitchen when I rolled inside. “Welcome home!” she cried, her voice higher-pitched than usual.

“Thanks,” I whispered, overwhelmed with a sudden flood of emotions as I remembered it was Rachel who had been there that night, Rachel who had stayed with Mason until the rest of my family arrived. I cleared my throat. “I can’t thank you enough for everything, Rachel. You’ve been a huge help.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” said Rachel, smiling awkwardly at me. “I’m happy to help out anytime. You know how much I love this little guy.” She turned her attention back to Mason, whom she was holding in her arms. Hitching him up higher on her hip, she cooed, “Look, Daddy’s finally home! Can you say hi to Daddy?”

Mason broke into a slobbery grin, which brought tears to my eyes. “Hi, buddy!” I said, holding out my arms to him. “Daddy has missed you so much!”

Rachel set Mason down on my lap, and my mom strapped him in with the makeshift harness Ellis had fashioned for him. He rode with me as she took me on a tour of the house, showing me all the renovations that had made it more accessible. The cabinets under the sink had been removed, giving me room to roll my wheelchair underneath so I could wash dishes or prepare food, and there was a small wooden table where the tall kitchen island had been. The doorways had been widened and the thresholds lowered to make it easier for me to go from room to room. The old-fashioned door knobs had been replaced with handles that I could push down to open doors myself, and the furniture had been rearranged to create wider pathways through each room.

As I rolled through the dining room, living room, and family room, I looked around with a lump still firmly lodged in my throat. Some parts of the house looked exactly the same as I’d left them, yet others were very different. I smiled at the “Welcome Home” banner that was stretched across one of the living room windows, but went right past the closed door to my home gym without opening it. I didn’t want to see the mirrored wall with the ballet barre I had installed so Kristin could keep dancing, or the workout equipment I would never be able to use again.

Behind me, Nick cleared his throat. “Aren’t you gonna go in there?”

“No.”

“Well… maybe you should.” Something in his voice made me wonder.

“Why, what did you do?”

“Go in and see.”

For a moment, I felt panic-stricken, worried they had taken down Kristin’s barre. But there was only one way to find out. I took a deep breath and held it as I pushed down on the handle and opened the door.

As it swung open, I let out my breath in a sigh of relief. The barre was still mounted to the wall of mirrors. Kristin’s treadmill and elliptical machine were also still there, along with my weight bench. But that wasn’t all.

In the corner, I noticed a new piece of equipment: a standing frame, like the one I’d used in rehab, which would give me the support to “stand” in an upright position and stretch my legs. A freestanding punching bag was positioned in front of it. And hanging on the wall adjacent to it were a pair of boxing gloves and the personalized tour robe the guys had given me.

“Wow… this is awesome,” I said, a lump rising in my throat as I looked at Nick and AJ. “Did you guys do this?”

They both nodded. “We thought you could use a new way to work out at home and, you know, get back on your feet,” said AJ, winking. He must have known how much I had come to hate that phrase, but in this case, it was okay because the standing frame would allow me to literally get back on my feet.

“Yeah, I dunno about you, but when I get upset, it helps me to hit something,” Nick added with a shrug. “Maybe it’ll help you, too. Plus, it’s a good arm workout. And the height of the bag is adjustable, so you can also hit it from your chair.”

“Thanks, guys. This is all so thoughtful of y’all. I…” I trailed off as I suddenly noticed the hand-painted sign on the wall above the boxing robe. My throat closed up completely. I couldn’t speak.

Written in big, bold letters was a quote: “Show ‘em what you’re made of.”

It was something my dad used to say to me before I went out on the field for football practice as a kid. There was no way Nick or AJ could have known that, though. As my vision blurred, I looked back at my mom. She was smiling, with tears in her eyes, too.

“I’m so proud of you for the strength and perseverance you’ve shown over the past few months,” she said, bending over to kiss the top of my head. “I know your dad’s proud of you, too. If he were here now, he would tell you to keep pushing yourself forward and never give up.”

I nodded, wiping my watering eyes with the backs of my balled hands. Tears trickled down my face, falling onto the top of Mason’s head. I wrapped my arms around my son, hugging him tight to my chest, and imagined my own father doing the same to me. I may not have been able to feel much, but I hadn’t forgotten the warmth of my dad’s hugs. It had been almost seventeen years, but in that moment, the pain of losing him felt as raw as the pain of losing Kristin. I missed them both so much.

It took me a minute to compose myself, but once I had, we continued on our tour. The coolest addition to the house was a narrow elevator, which had been installed near the staircase to take me up to the second floor. It was just big enough for one person to fit in with me and my wheelchair. My mom rode up with me the first time and followed me into the master suite.

The first thing I noticed was that my bed, the big, beautiful California king I’d slept in with Kristin, was gone. In its place was a glorified hospital bed, complete with rails on both sides. With a sinking feeling, I stopped my chair just inside the doorway and stared at it. “Where’s my bed?”

“Don’t worry - we didn’t get rid of it,” my mom replied quickly. “We just moved it into one of the guest rooms for the time being. Ellis said it would be better for you to have something smaller and more adjustable. This one can go up and down with the push of a button - watch!” She picked up a remote from the bedside table and demonstrated all the different ways the head, foot, or entire bed could be raised and lowered to various angles. “It’ll make transferring in and out of your chair so much easier! It also has a special pressure relief mattress to prevent bedsores.”

“And rails, just like a toddler bed. Couldn’t you at least have gotten me one that looks like a racecar?”

My mom sighed. “You can stop with the sarcasm. I’m sorry you don’t like the bed, but in this case, your health matters more to me than your happiness. Just think about how much a pressure sore or an injury from a fall could hold back your recovery.”

She was right, of course, even if I didn’t want to admit it. I felt bad for complaining, after all the time and effort she had put into getting the house ready for me. She couldn’t have known how much I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed or how disappointed I felt.

“I know,” I said with a sigh of my own. “I was just kidding. It’s fine.”

I turned away from her and went into the bathroom, afraid of what other surprises were in store. To my relief, Kristin’s beloved clawfoot soaking tub still stood in the corner by the window. It was nothing but a conversation piece now, since I could no longer get in and out of it, but I was glad they hadn’t gotten rid of it. What they had done was replace the vanity with one I could fit the front of my chair under to use the sink and convert the shower to the roll-in kind. Sitting outside it was a shower commode chair, which was waterproof and had a hole in the seat so it could go in the shower or over the toilet. It looked out of place in the otherwise old-fashioned, country-style bathroom, with its wooden beams and floorboards. Like the bed, it reminded me of the hospital. But more than that, it made me realize that even though I had left rehab, my life was never going to go back to normal. As much as I hated the phrase, this clinical-looking commode on wheels represented my “new normal.”

“How do you like the shower?” my mom asked, as she came up behind me.

“It’s nice,” I said, nodding. “Thank you for doing all this for me.”

“You’re welcome, honey.” She slid her arm around my shoulders and gave me a little squeeze. “I know it’s not exactly what you wanted, but I hope it will make things easier for you.”

None of this is what I wanted, I thought as I went back into the bedroom. I thought I would be happy to get home, but it wasn’t the same without my wife. There were reminders of her everywhere, from the ballet barre downstairs to the bathtub up here. Her face filled picture frames throughout the house. Her clothes were still hanging in the closet. I couldn’t help putting my face close to a pair of her jeans and inhaling. The denim still smelled faintly like her - fabric softener mixed with her favorite perfume and whatever pheromones had attracted me to her in the first place. It was a scent I associated with making love to her on freshly-washed sheets, and it made me miss her - and sex - more than ever.

“I wasn’t sure what you wanted to do with Kristin’s things,” my mom said apologetically when I came out of the closet. “Whenever you’re ready to go through them, I’d be happy to help.”

I swallowed hard. “Thanks, but I think I’ll just leave them there for now. I don’t know what I wanna do with them yet.”

“That’s perfectly fine. Take all the time you need.”

I rolled toward the glass door that led out to our private balcony, one of my favorite places in the whole house. When I heard her start to follow me, I stopped. “Can you take Mason downstairs, please?” I asked her. “I’d like to be alone for a few minutes.”

“Okay…” I heard the hesitation in her voice, but she must have sensed I was getting tired of her hovering over me. She unhooked Mason’s harness and scooped him off my lap. “Holler if you need anything.”

“I’ll be fine. Thanks, Ma.”

I fumbled with the door handle and finally managed to open it by myself so I could go out onto the balcony. One of the selling points of this particular house was its location, high in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the heart of Los Angeles. It had a spectacular view. On a clear day, you could see all the way to the ocean. Sure enough, there it was, sparkling in the distance.

Home sweet home, I thought, gazing wistfully toward the water.

It was a beautiful spring day in L.A., with a bright blue sky and temperatures in the low seventies. I tipped my head back and closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sunlight on my face and imagining it was Kristin’s radiant smile beaming down on me from somewhere above.

***




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