The Road to Bethlehem by RokofAges75
Summary:

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Backstreet Boys rent a remote mountain cabin where they can quarantine together and work on their long-anticipated Christmas album. But just days into their retreat, disaster strikes. When they find themselves in an increasingly dire situation, the five men fear they may not all make it out of the mountains alive.

Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: AJ, Brian, Group, Howie, Kevin, Nick
Genres: Drama
Warnings: None
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 22 Completed: Yes Word count: 68909 Read: 12144 Published: 10/12/20 Updated: 02/20/21
Story Notes:
Feedback is always appreciated! Since reviews have been disabled, feel free to email me at rokofages75@dreamers-sanctuary.com, tweet me @rokofages75, message me on the discussion boards (RokofAges75), or post in my updates thread (http://absolutechaos.net/fictalk/index.php/topic,764.0.html) if you have any thoughts to share. Thanks!



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

22. Chapter 22 by RokofAges75

Chapter 1 by RokofAges75
The cabin was Kevin’s idea.

“We keep talking and talking about doing this Christmas album, but we’re never gonna get anything done this way, with all of us in different places,” he had complained back in May, during one of the Backstreet Boys’ weekly Zoom calls. “These virtual meetings are fine for brainstorming, but we’re missing the magic that happens when we all get into the recording studio together. We can’t recreate that on Zoom.”

As Kevin ranted, Brian, AJ, Howie, and Nick all nodded in agreement. After two months of being quarantined in their respective homes as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage across the country, they were becoming more and more restless and eager to get back to work. But with the DNA tour postponed and the recording studios shut down, they could only work from home, which seemed almost impossible for a group that had always performed together.

“I wish we could just rent a little cabin in the mountains or something,” Kevin went on, “somewhere we could quarantine ourselves together, just the five of us, and really work on this album.”

To everyone’s surprise, Nick had been the first one on board. “Why can’t we?” was his response.

AJ, Howie, and Brian had all raised their eyebrows, considering the idea. “Well, for one, we’d be breaking the rules, wouldn’t we?” replied Howie. “We’re not supposed to be within six feet of people outside of our own household. It’d be pretty hard for five guys to stay socially distanced within the same small cabin - and can you imagine trying to record with a mask on?”

They had all laughed at the thought of that. “I dunno about y’all, but we’ve started seeing friends again in small groups. I played golf with a couple of guys the other day, and Baylee’s had some of his buddies over to swim,” Brian admitted with a shrug. “As long as we all got tested beforehand to make sure none of us have the virus, I don’t see any harm in it. But only if everyone feels comfortable, of course.”

“I’m in,” AJ immediately volunteered, holding up his hand. “You know I love being home with my girls, but I need to get out of this house.”

“Me too,” Nick agreed with a wide-eyed nod. “I’m goin’ stir-crazy over here. I love my kids, but I dunno how many more times I can watch that damn Sonic the Hedgehog movie before I snap and smash my head through the TV screen.”

They all laughed again. “Yeah, both my boys went through that phase of wanting to watch the same thing over and over again,” Kevin said knowingly. “They’ll grow out of it, and before you know it, you’ll miss those days.”

Brian and Howie both nodded in agreement, while AJ gave the camera a commiserating look, as if to tell Nick, I’m in the same boat, buddy.

“But going back to the cabin idea… Do you think RCA would want us taking that risk just to record an album?” Howie wondered.

“Are you kidding?” Brian snorted. “I think our record company would be more than happy to hear we were ready to get back to work. Anything to make money, right?”

“Sad, but true,” said Kevin. “So are you guys really serious about renting a cabin?”

Nick nodded. “I am. It’s killing me that we’re not on the road right now.” He raked his hand through the dark roots of his hair. “Don’t get me wrong - I’m grateful for this extra time I’ve had with my family, but I’ve been ready to get back to work for a while now. I can’t get anything done around here; Saoirse always wants to be held, and Odin always wants me to play with him. By the time they go to bed at night, I’m so tired from chasing them around all day, I’m not far behind them.”

“I hear you, bro,” AJ agreed. “I can’t tell you how many tea parties I’ve been to since the start of quarantine. It’s exhausting.”

Everyone laughed.

“Well, y’all know I’m a homebody, but I wouldn’t say no to getting back to work if everyone else was on board,” said Brian. “What about you, Howie?”

Howie had been the most hesitant about the idea, but in the end, he came back with, “If you guys are in, then so am I.”

They started making arrangements at once, looking into cabin rentals in various mountain ranges across the country. Kevin suggested the Sierra Nevada region of California, while AJ wanted to go to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Nick loved Tennessee, too, but was more inclined to rent a cabin in the Colorado Rockies to record a Christmas album. Brian preferred the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, not far from where he and Kevin had grown up. It was Howie - or, rather, his wife Leigh - who came up with the perfect place: a little town called Bethlehem in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “My wife took a vacation there with her family when she was a kid,” he told the others. “She says it’s beautiful and feels remote without actually being too far from modern conveniences, like Wi-Fi and recording equipment.”

No one could argue with working on a Christmas album in a place called Bethlehem, so they’d booked a luxury cabin in the mountains overlooking the village. The record company had helped arrange the delivery of recording equipment and larger instruments the Boys couldn’t easily bring on a plane themselves, like a keyboard and drum set, so the makeshift studio would be ready when they arrived.

Just as Brian had predicted, the record executives had hopped right on board with the project the moment they were promised new music, which meant more money in their pockets. And so, guitar cases on their backs and bags in hand, the five Backstreet Boys flew to Boston, where they planned to meet, rent a car, and ride the rest of the way to Bethlehem together.

As the only two still living in L.A., Kevin and AJ reserved a couple of first class seats in the same row for the long flight from LAX to Logan International. By the time they landed at the airport, Brian had already arrived from Atlanta. They found him waiting by baggage claim.

When he spotted them, Brian stood and started to approach them, automatically holding out his arms for a hug. Then he thought better of it and, after a moment’s hesitation, slowly lowered his hands to his sides.

Kevin gave his cousin a knowing smile before he remembered it couldn’t be seen beneath the mask he wore. Though he didn’t mind wearing a mask when required, he couldn’t wait to rip the pesky piece of cloth off in the car so he could feel fresh air on his face again. “Hey, cous,” he greeted Brian, who could tell by the twinkle in Kevin’s green eyes that he was grinning. “Long time no see.”

“Tell me about it,” replied Brian, shaking his head in disbelief. When they had said goodbye at the airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of the South American tour in March, they had naively still expected to be back together by May for the Australian leg. But it was already June, and the end of the pandemic that had forced them to postpone the rest of the tour was nowhere in sight. Most parts of the world had managed to slow the spread and flatten the curve, but the masks covering their mouths and noses were a constant reminder that the coronavirus remained a threat - especially in the United States, where cases were still on the rise.

“I don’t care, dude, I'm gonna give you a hug, damn it,” said AJ, throwing his arms around Brian. “Brothers gotta hug!”

Brian laughed at the Tommy Boy reference and patted AJ’s back in relief. Personally, he thought people had a tendency to overreact with their response to the pandemic, but he wasn’t sure the rest of the group felt the same way he did. They all leaned toward the liberal left side of things, while Brian remained a right-wing conversative, in spite of the crap he got from the others for his political beliefs.

“Besides,” AJ added, “we all got tested before we came, right? We’re clean.”

“True,” Brian agreed, grinning at AJ as they pulled apart. “It’s good to see ya, Bone.” The world was a weird place right now, but he didn’t want it to be. That was part of the reason he had agreed to Kevin’s cabin idea. Though he usually hated being away from his family, he was craving normalcy, and for him, traveling for work was normal. He regularly referred to a plane seat at his “office chair.” Besides, it would be good to get out of Georgia for a few weeks.

“You too, Rok,” replied AJ as he released him. Though they couldn’t have been more different in some respects, he and Brian shared a unique bond, a bond which had only been strengthened as the group dynamics had shifted over the years. In the early days of the Backstreet Boys, AJ had been closest to Howie, his first friend in the band, while Brian and Nick were the best of buddies. But as “Frick and Frack” had grown apart, Nick and Howie had gotten tight, and Brian and AJ had connected over the surprising number of things they had in common besides music - a similar sense of humor, a love of golf, and their growing sneaker collections, to name a few. “Hey, check out my new Jordans,” he said, lifting his foot to show off one of his “gym red” Air Jordan 14s, the latest release in the line of retro-inspired sneakers.

“Those are sweet, dude,” said Brian as he admired them.

Kevin cleared his throat. “Did y’all watch that Bulls documentary, The Last Dance?”

Brian looked up, raising his eyebrows. “Do you know me at all, cous? Of course I did.” His blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned beneath his mask.

“I caught some of it between episodes of Friends with the wife,” admitted AJ with a shrug. He had never been as big of a sports fan as Brian, Kevin, and Nick were.

“Hey, speaking of Jordan… here comes Pippen.”

AJ and Kevin followed Brian’s line of sight across the terminal until they noticed Nick loping toward them on his long legs, which were clad in his favorite camouflage shorts. He had both straps of his backpack slung over one shoulder, his guitar case on the other, and was dragging his suitcase behind him. “Need some help with that, bro?” Kevin offered, reaching out a hand to take one of his bags.

“Nah, I got it,” said Nick. He glanced at Kevin’s lack of luggage. “Where’s all your stuff? Airline didn’t lose it, did they?”

“I hope not.” Kevin tipped his head toward the empty baggage carousel. “AJ and I are still waiting on ours. We just landed a little while ago.”

Nick nodded. “Gotcha. Hey, it’s good to see you guys,” he added, greeting AJ and Brian.

“You too, bro,” replied Brian, giving him a playful punch in the shoulder. “How’s Vegas been?”

“Hot,” said Nick without missing a beat. He started to make a face, intending to stick out his tongue like a panting dog, before he remembered no one would be able to see it behind his mask. He hated wearing the damn thing, especially in the desert heat. “I dunno about y’all, but I’m lookin’ forward to some cool, fresh mountain air.”

“Amen,” agreed Kevin. “New Hampshire should be beautiful this time of year.”

“Yeah, as weird as it will be recording Christmas songs in the middle of summer, I’m glad we’re not going there in the winter. Too freaking cold,” said AJ with a shudder. “Can you imagine how much snow they must get there?”

“Especially in the mountains,” said Brian, making his blue eyes widen.

“Hey, you think there’ll still be any snow left on the mountaintops?” Nick wondered.

“I doubt it,” said Kevin. “The White Mountains aren’t anywhere near as tall as the Rockies. But I bet the weather will still be a lot cooler once we get up to the cabin.”

They all nodded. “We just need Howie to get his ass here already, and then we can get on the road,” said AJ, rubbing his hands together eagerly. “Anyone remember when he said his plane was supposed to land?”

“Soon,” said Nick, checking his watch.

“I already rented us an SUV,” said Brian, holding up a key ring, “so as soon as he’s ready, we can go.”

“Sounds good, dude,” said AJ, as the baggage carousel began to rotate. He and Kevin collected their suitcases and sat down with Brian and Nick. They didn’t have to wait long for Howie, who made his way over to them less than ten minutes later, his luggage already in hand.

“Let’s get outta here, guys,” said Brian after they’d all finished greeting Howie. He led the group to the parking garage and found the black Range Rover he had rented. Popping open the hatchback, he put his bags in the trunk first and slid behind the wheel while the others loaded their luggage.

“I call shotgun!” Nick shouted, scrambling into the front passenger seat before Kevin could claim it. He lowered his mask and gave the oldest member of the group a gloating smile as he stretched out his legs.

Kevin, Howie, and AJ were so relieved to be able to remove their own masks that none of them complained about being stuck in the back seat. Even with five people, there was plenty of room inside the full-size luxury SUV.

“You got the address of this place, Kev?” asked Brian. Kevin gave it to him, and he plugged it into the navigation system. “We’ll be there in two hours and twenty-eight minutes,” he announced to the others, as he pulled out of the parking space.

They were on their way.

***


Chapter 2 by RokofAges75
“I can’t wait till y’all see this place,” said Kevin eagerly, leaning forward to look out the window as Brian passed a large sign that said,

Welcome to
BETHLEHEM
est. December 25, 1799
3 miles to village


“I can’t wait to get out of this car,” added Howie, side-eyeing the back of Nick’s seat. AJ and Kevin laughed. Nick and Brian had driven them nuts singing the full dozen verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to help “get them into the spirit.” It would have been bad enough if they had actually known the lyrics, but they’d spent half the song arguing about what came next, “geese a-laying” or “maids a-milking,” and wondering what on earth the true love’s gift was on the twelfth day. “It’s ‘DRUMMERS DRUMMING!’” Howie had finally exploded, in a last-ditch effort to get them to finish the damn song already.

“Drummers drumming?” Brian repeated, frowning into the rearview mirror. “That doesn’t sound right.”

“Trust me, it’s right. My kids love that song almost as much as the two of you do; they torture me with it every December,” said Howie with a shudder. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Mr. Drummer Boy,” he added, nudging the back of Nick’s seat with his knee.

“Ooh, ‘The Little Drummer Boy’!” exclaimed Nick. “That’s a good one, too!” Howie couldn’t tell if he was being serious or just trying to annoy him more. He never knew with Nick these days. When he saw how Nick was with his wife and kids, Howie’s heart swelled with a sort of big-brotherly pride at the mature family man his friend had become. But put Nick in a situation like this, and he seemed to regress right back to his old role of the pesky little brother. Kicking the passenger seat as hard as he could in time to Nick’s “rum pa pa pums” only seemed to encourage him.

“Hey, look,” said Brian, pointing out another sign on the outskirts of the small town. “Bethlehem: Poetry Capital of New Hampshire. Pretty cool!”

Nick snorted. “Since when are you into poetry, Brian?”

“Uh, since I started writing songs?” Brian gave Nick an incredulous glance, his eyebrows raised. “You realize lyrics are just poems set to music, right?”

“Oh… right.” Nick’s ears reddened.

AJ snickered. “Dumbass. You’re a poet, and you don’t know it!”

The others joined him in laughing at Nick’s expense. Normally, Howie might have come to his defense, knowing what he had meant, but after his obnoxious caroling, Nick deserved to be ridiculed.

They drove slowly through town. There wasn’t much to it - along the quaint main street, they saw a library, a school, a few little shops and cafes, several churches, and a couple of bed and breakfasts. “Think there’s any room for us in the inn?” Brian joked, tipping his head toward one.

“I thought Kevin already booked us a cabin,” said Nick. Howie and AJ looked at each other, both wondering if he was acting like an idiot on purpose. Sometimes Nick liked to play up the whole “dumb blond” persona, but he had proven himself to be a lot more intelligent than people gave him credit for. Usually.

“I did,” replied Kevin flatly. “That was a Bible reference, Nick. You know, that book that tells the story that inspired the holiday we’re gonna be singing songs about? You might wanna read it sometime.”

The way he said this, with the air of a grown-up patiently explaining something to a toddler, got the rest of the group cracking up again.

“I’ve heard of the Bible, Kevin; I’m not a total heathen,” Nick retorted, triggering another round of laughter.

“Aww, c’mon, now, Nick knows some Bible characters. There’s Jesus… Frosty… Santa… Rudolph… The Grinch…” Howie ticked them off in his fingers, trying to make the same squinty-eyed face Nick made when he was thinking hard.

Nick laughed good-naturedly along with the others, but afterwards, Howie felt bad. They all knew Nick hadn’t necessarily had the same happy childhood the other four guys took for granted. Howie doubted Nick’s dad had read him the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke every Christmas Eve, like his own father had. He didn’t think Nick’s mother had gotten the kids all dressed up in nice, new clothes for mass on Christmas morning the way Mama D had done either. From what Nick had told them in the past, his parents usually spent the holidays getting drunk, while he and his siblings fought over their presents. It was no wonder he worked so hard to be a better father to his own children. At least he could make some happy new memories with them.

“Hey, there’s a grocery store up ahead,” said Brian. “Should we stop and pick up some food and supplies before we go to the cabin?”

Nick nodded. “Good idea.”

As Brian signaled and turned into the parking lot in front of the small supermarket, Kevin said, “Now I know we’ve all been trying our best to stay in shape, so let’s keep it mostly healthy and not just get a bunch of junk, okay?”

Howie looked around guiltily. Aside from swimming in his pool and walking on the beach with his wife, he hadn’t made much of an effort to stay in shape during the quarantine. Was he the only one? He knew AJ had been dieting and working out, and Brian had started some kind of thirty-day fitness challenge that he may or may not have finished. Kevin was always hiking or doing something outdoors with his kids. Poor Nick had the hardest time keeping weight off; he looked like he had packed on a few pounds since Howie had last seen him, but Howie knew Nick still tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t easy, especially with two young children to take care of.

“Remember, Nick’s eating gluten-free now, so try to find stuff he can have too,” Kevin went on. “And no alcohol.”

“No alcohol?” Howie repeated, raising his eyebrows. “Why not?”

“Because... we’re here to work, not party. I don’t think we should be drinking on the job. Some of us shouldn’t be drinking, period.” Kevin looked pointedly from Nick to AJ.

“I don’t mind if you guys drink,” said AJ with a shrug. “I’m not gonna give up six months of sobriety just because there’s booze in the house.” No one said it, but the fact that he had last fallen off the wagon just six months ago suggested otherwise. AJ’s twenty-year fight with alcoholism had turned out to be less a battle and more like an ongoing war.

Kevin clapped him on the shoulder. “We’re proud of you, bro. And because we’re proud of you, and we support you, we’re not gonna buy alcohol.”

As they climbed out of the SUV, Brian caught Howie’s eye and rolled his own behind Kevin’s back. Howie smiled and shook his head. Just as Nick had naturally regressed to his role as the annoying little brother, Kevin was back to being the big brother. He couldn’t help himself. Howie knew he only had AJ and Nick’s best interests at heart, though, so he didn’t push the alcohol issue. He did add plenty of junk food to the cart, partly to spite Kevin and partly because if they weren’t going to drink, they at least deserved some decent snacks to eat.

The back of the Range Rover was piled so high, Brian could barely see out the rear windshield as he pulled back onto the road. He followed the directions recited by the GPS, which took them out of town and onto a rural road that wound its way up the nearest mountainside. The road narrowed as they climbed, the mailboxes belonging to houses hidden behind the trees becoming fewer and farther between. “I sure wouldn’t wanna drive this route in the winter,” Brian said with a nervous laugh, gripping the wheel with both hands as he guided them around a particularly sharp curve.

Looking out his window, Howie swallowed hard when he saw how steep the dropoff was on the left side of the road. It looked like it went straight down the mountain. There was no shoulder or guardrail, nothing to keep a car from going over the edge and crashing into the trees and boulders below.

“You okay, cous?” Kevin asked, leaning forward.

Brian nodded. “It reminds me of the crazy road up to Cathedral Domain.”

Kevin smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?” He had been behind the wheel that day, during the filming of their documentary, when they had driven through the hills of backwoods Kentucky to get to the camp where he had grown up. Even after three decades, he had navigated the narrow, winding road with no problem, one hand on the wheel while the other waved around, pointing out places he remembered from his childhood. He had never been to the White Mountains before, but he already seemed right at home.

Howie, on the other hand, had started to wish they would have booked a beach cottage on a tropical island somewhere in the Caribbean instead. Why hadn’t he suggested that? They had written and recorded songs for Black & Blue in the Bahamas; it would have been fun to go back there, twenty years later. But it was too late for that now.

“Hey, look, Brian, it’s one of your kind,” said Kevin, pointing out his window as they drove past a ramshackle wooden house with a confederate flag hanging in the front window and a TRUMP 2020 sign prominently displayed in the overgrown yard.

“Shut up,” Brian retorted, shaking his head. Howie saw his hands clench even tighter around the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white.

“I didn’t realize they had Republicans in this part of the country,” said AJ, frowning. Howie couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. “Do they not know New Hampshire was in the Union, not the Confederacy?”

“Actually, I think New Hampshire is one of the more conservative states in this region,” replied Howie, who had spent more time in the Northeast than the rest of them. He had visited his in-laws in New Jersey at least twice a year for as long as he and Leigh had been together.

“Guys, can we please not talk politics?” Nick spoke up from the front seat, glancing over at Brian.

“Fine with me,” Howie agreed, grateful to him for saying it first. He hated when the other guys ganged up on Brian for his conservative beliefs. Never discuss politics or religion - that was what his father had taught him, a piece of advice he tried to abide by.

“Works for me too,” said AJ. “I’m sure we could all use a break from the political bullshit.”

“Bullshit is right,” muttered Kevin, rolling his eyes at the back of Brian’s seat.

Howie had a feeling he knew what Kevin was referring to. Brian’s wife Leighanne had been on a roll lately with the right-wing political posts she’d been sharing on her social media pages. It had caused a rift in the fanbase, with many fans accusing her of racism and transphobia, while others defended her right to free speech. So far, Brian had remained silent on the matter, which Howie felt was the best course of action for the time being. Poor Brian was between a rock and a hard place: if he spoke out against his wife, he would be in hot water at home, but if he backed her up, he would be called a bigot, too. Howie wished Leighanne would make her pages private or stop posting altogether, but he wasn’t about to bring it up with Brian. Like the others, he fell silent, ignoring the proverbial elephant in the Range Rover as they continued up the mountain road.

After the Trump dump, they didn’t see another house for several more miles. Just when Howie was beginning to wonder if they were lost, Brian made another turn onto a long, gravel lane, which led to the cabin Kevin had rented.

“Wow,” said Nick in awe, as the boys in the back seat leaned forward for a better look.

Howie had been picturing a quaint little log cabin, but this place looked more like a private mountain lodge. It was two stories tall with a steeply-pitched, A-frame roof and a wrap-around wooden deck, its rustic timber siding accented by a towering stone chimney. He let out the breath he had been holding and immediately felt better about their decision to come here.

“You done good, dude,” Brian told Kevin approvingly as he parked in the driveway. “This place is perfect.”

Kevin smiled. “Wait till you see the inside.”

They all scrambled out of the SUV, leaving their groceries and luggage in the trunk for the time being. Kevin retrieved a key to the cabin from a lockbox left on the porch, unlocked the front door, and led them in.

The interior was as beautiful and spacious as the exterior, with cathedral ceilings, gleaming hardwood floors, and a tasteful blend of shiplap and plaster on the walls. The back wall offered a breathtaking view through a set of picture windows, while one of the adjacent walls featured a handsome stone hearth. A flatscreen TV was mounted over the mantle, and a huge sectional sofa wrapped around a plush piece of carpet in front of the fireplace, along with a pair of cozy armchairs. The wide open floor plan connected the large living area with a modern kitchen and dining room, while a spiral staircase wound its way up to the second floor loft.

Beneath the loft lay a room that had been turned into their temporary recording studio. Rented audio equipment lined the walls, which had been hung with tapestries to help absorb sound. A large keyboard and drum set sat on an oriental rug in the middle of the room.

“Pretty impressive,” said AJ, looking around.

Kevin perched on the piano bench in front of the keyboard and played a few notes before giving a nod of approval. “It’ll be perfect for an acoustic album. No frills, nothing fancy, just a few instruments and our five voices.”

“That’s all we need,” Nick agreed.

Next to the makeshift studio was the master bedroom, which Kevin quickly claimed. Since he had been the one to book the cabin, the others let him have it.

“How many bedrooms are there?” Howie asked, as they trouped upstairs to take a look.

“Four, but since one’s being used as the recording studio, the rest of you will have to share,” said Kevin apologetically.

No one complained. They were used to sharing, having done so with hotel rooms, tour buses, and sometimes even beds during the early days on tour. It would be like old times. The sleeping arrangements were still better than the bunk beds Howie had been envisioning. At least each bedroom had its own bathroom, so they wouldn’t have to fight over showers.

Brian and AJ liked the large loft, which had two more beds, leaving Nick and Howie to take the last room.

“Where is the other bedroom?” Nick wondered when they went back downstairs, looking around in confusion. “I thought you said there were four.”

“Must be in the basement,” replied Kevin, reaching for the knob of a closed door off the kitchen, which Howie had assumed was some sort of pantry or storage closet. Instead, he opened it to reveal another set of stairs heading down.

Howie hadn’t realized the house even had a basement. He wasn’t happy about sleeping in it, until he followed Kevin downstairs and found himself in a beautifully finished walk-out basement that was a far cry from the dark, creepy cellar he had been imagining.

“Whoa, check it out!” cried Nick, pointing to a pool table. It sat in front of a pair of sliding glass doors, which opened to a large patio overlooking the mountainside. “We got us the party suite, D!”

“Sweet!” exclaimed Howie, running his hand across the smooth mahogany bar installed on one side of the room. He snuck a quick peek inside the mini fridge behind it, but it was empty. Suddenly, he regretted not buying any alcohol at the grocery store. He would have liked having a late-night drink with Nick at this little bar or out on the patio before they went to bed.

Their bedroom was located behind a door on the other side of the basement, along with a bathroom. It was sparsely furnished, but at least there were two separate beds.

Nick plopped down on one of them. “This place is freaking awesome!” he declared, bouncing on the springy mattress. “Great idea, Kev.”

“Yeah, this is gonna be fun,” added AJ with a grin, as Howie and Brian nodded in agreement.

“Glad you guys like it,” Kevin replied, looking pleased with himself. “We’re gonna do great things here. I can feel it.”

And on that first day, the others shared his optimism. They had a huge cabin all to themselves, plenty of food, all the equipment they needed, and no distractions except for the gorgeous scenery outside. Most of all, they had each other. As Kevin had said, there was a certain kind of magic created by the five of them singing together. Here, they could finally rekindle that magic.

***


Chapter 3 by RokofAges75
It wasn’t until they sat down in front of the fireplace for their first brainstorming meeting the next morning that the Boys realized something was missing.

“It doesn’t feel very Christmassy in here,” Nick remarked, frowning as he looked around the rustic living room. “Like it’s nice and all, but it needs some decorations. Let’s go get a Christmas tree!”

AJ laughed. “Where do you think we’re gonna find a Christmas tree in June?”

Nick’s frown deepened. He hadn’t considered that.

“In a town called Bethlehem? I bet there’s a store somewhere around here that sells Christmas stuff year-round,” said Brian, before Nick could suggest Amazon. “You know, for the tourists.”

As it turned out, he was right. A quick Google search revealed not only a Christmas store, but also a Christmas tree farm nearby. “Do you think they’d sell us a tree in the summertime?” Kevin wondered.

“It wouldn’t hurt to call and ask,” said Howie with a shrug. “I think AJ should do it.”

AJ raised his eyebrows. “Me? Why me?”

“Because... you’re good at getting what you want. You could charm the pants off anyone.”

“Not anyone,” argued AJ, shaking his head. “Only women.”

“Well, then let’s hope whoever answers the phone is a woman,” said Brian with a grin. “C’mon, Bone, give ‘em a call.”

AJ got lucky: the person who took his call at the tree farm was not only a woman, but a Backstreet Boys fan. “We don’t open to the public until November,” she told him apologetically, after he had explained what they were looking for and why, “but we do offer private tours. Why don’t you guys come out for one today, and I’ll try to hook you up with a tree.”

So they all piled back into the Range Rover and drove down the mountainside to the farm, which was located a few miles outside of Bethlehem. Turning off the main road, they followed the signs along a winding pathway - called, fittingly, Christmas Lane - until they found the parking lot.

The young woman AJ had talked to on the phone met them out front. “Hi, I’m Holly,” she introduced herself, stars glowing in her eyes as she greeted the five of them.

“Your name’s Holly, and you work at a Christmas tree farm?” said Brian, grinning. “How very festive.” He reached out automatically to shake her hand before he apparently remembered they were in the midst of a pandemic and withdrew his.

Holly rolled her eyes. “I know, right? My mom thought it was cute. My parents own this place - been in the family for five generations.”

“Wow,” said Kevin. “Well, thanks for letting us visit during the off-season.”

“You bet! It’s so nice to meet you all. I’m a big fan!” Holly replied, beaming. “Come with me; I’ll show you around.”

She led them on a walking tour of the farm, following a trail that took them past rolling fields, where they could see rows upon rows of growing evergreens and sugar maples. “We make maple syrup here, too,” Holly explained, as they trekked along the trail. “You can buy it in the gift shop.”

“That’d taste good on some gluten-free pancakes in the morning, huh, Nicky?” said Howie.

Nick smiled, proud of his newly-acquired pancake-making skills. “Hell yeah it would. We’ll have to pick some up on our way out.”

“How long are you guys gonna be in New Hampshire?” Holly wanted to know.

“We rented the cabin for a month,” replied Kevin. “Hopefully that’s enough time to get this Christmas album recorded.”

“I hope so! I wanna buy a copy for us to play in the gift shop.”

“That’d be great,” said AJ.

Holly took them into one of the tree fields, where an older man was working. He was kneeling next to one of the trees, carefully pruning it with a pair of long-handled shears. He looked up as they approached, squinting into the sunlight. “This is my dad, Barry,” Holly introduced him.

“Wait… Holly? Barry?” Brian laughed.

Holly held up her hand as if to stop him. “Don’t even start,” she said, shaking her head with a good-natured smile. “Dad, these are the Backstreet Boys - Brian, AJ, Nick, Howie, and Kevin. They’re here for the next month working on a Christmas album, and they want to buy a tree to make the cabin they’re staying in feel more festive. I told them we could work something out.” As he watched her bat her eyelashes at her father, Nick got the impression that this was a girl who was used to getting what she wanted.

Barry set down his pruning shears and straightened up, surveying them with a look of mild amusement on his face. “A Christmas tree in June, huh?”

“That’s right,” said Nick. “It was my idea. I know it sounds silly, but I thought it would help us get into the Christmas spirit. You think you could hook us up?”

The farmer seemed to consider his request for several seconds before he finally nodded. “I suppose we could. What kind of tree you looking for?”

Nick glanced uncertainly at the others. He knew nothing about the specific types of Christmas trees.

“We’re not picky. Whatever you’re looking to get rid of, we’ll take,” said Howie.

“These here are our oldest trees, the ones we’ll be harvesting come November,” Barry said, pointing down the neat row of evergreens. “I’ll let you take one early, as long as you’re willing to pay what it would cost at Christmastime.”

“Of course,” said Kevin quickly. “We’re not looking for a discount, just a favor.”

Barry nodded. “Then take a look and let Holly know which one you like best. We’ll bale it and load it onto your vehicle for you.”

“That would be great. Thanks so much,” said Howie, as the others nodded in gratitude. They walked through the aisle and looked at all the trees before picking out a big fir. Holly let her father know which one they wanted, and he agreed to get a couple of his farm hands to cut it down and bring it to their car.

“So, is this your first time here in Bethlehem?” Holly asked as they walked back to where Brian had parked.

“I think so, yeah,” replied Nick, looking to the others for confirmation. They had traveled to so many places, it was sometimes hard to remember where they had and hadn’t been. Geography wasn’t his strong suit to begin with, but he knew they had performed in New Hampshire before; he just wasn’t sure what city.

Brian was a lot better about remembering. “We played in Gilford a few years back - during the Unbreakable Tour, I think - but that’s probably nowhere near Bethlehem.”

“It’s about an hour south of here, so not too far. I was at that show,” said Holly, smiling.

“I wasn’t,” said Kevin, and they all laughed. It was weird to think about the six years they had spent without their fifth member. Although Nick, AJ, Brian, and Howie had continued on, putting out two more albums and performing three tours as a foursome, it had always felt like a part of them was missing. It wasn’t until Kevin rejoined the group that they had finally felt whole again.

“Glad to have you back, bro,” said Nick, throwing his arm around Kevin’s shoulders.

“Glad to be back, bro,” Kevin returned, slipping his arm around Nick’s waist. “It’s good to be together again - especially in such a pretty place.”

Holly grinned. “Bethlehem is beautiful all right,” she agreed. “Just be careful if you guys do any hiking in the mountains. They’re more dangerous than they look.”

“Really?” said Nick, his ears perking in interest. “How so?”

“Well, for starters, the White Mountains are the most rugged mountain range east of the Mississippi River. A lot of the trails are surprisingly tough to navigate, especially the higher up you get. We’re always hearing about inexperienced hikers getting injured or stuck and having to be rescued,” said Holly, rolling her eyes. “Then there’s Mount Washington, which has the highest peak in this region and the worst weather in the world. Seriously, the highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth was at the summit of Mount Washington. Not to mention the unpredictable storms and avalanches. People die there every year.”

“Damn,” said AJ, looking at her with wide eyes. “I didn’t realize. But you don’t have to worry about us straying too far off the beaten path - well, not me, anyway. If you’ve seen our documentary, you know the extent of my hiking skills, or lack thereof.”

Holly laughed. Nick did too, remembering how AJ had complained the whole way up to Cathedral Domain.

“Hey, at least I know my own limits,” AJ added, holding up his hands in defense. “Hiking… not my thing. I’d rather enjoy the mountain views from the comfort of an air-conditioned car.”

“Same here,” Howie admitted sheepishly, ducking as Kevin threw him a dirty look. Kevin loved the great outdoors and was probably dying to climb the mountain where, according to Holly, people had literally died.

“Well, if you want to drive, there is a toll road called Auto Road that will take you all the way to the top of Mount Washington. It actually just reopened. It closes every winter because of the ice and snow, but it was closed longer than usual this year because of COVID.”

“We’ll have to check that out,” said Brian, glancing at the others, who nodded in agreement.

“Just watch out for moose if you do,” Holly warned them with a smirk. “They like to wander out in the middle of the road, and as big as those guys are, you don’t wanna hit one with your car - trust me.”

Howie raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience?”

“I haven’t personally hit a moose, but I know people who have totaled their cars hitting one or trying to avoid hitting one,” she replied. “You just have to pay attention and go slow when you’re on those rural roads.”

There’s nothing but rural roads around here, thought Nick. But he was enjoying the change of pace and scenery. Plus, New Hampshire was a lot cooler than the hellscape that was Las Vegas in the summer. He would have to bring his family here for a vacation someday.

When the group got back to the front of the farm, Holly showed them the gift shop, where they bought a big jug of maple syrup. By the time they finished looking around, her father and his helpers had brought the tree to their SUV. They paid and took a picture with Holly while the workers tied the tree to the roof rack. “Thanks so much for stopping by,” she told them, as they got ready to leave.

“Hey, thanks for selling us a Christmas tree in the summer,” replied Nick with a grin.

Holly smiled back. “It was our pleasure. Come again, anytime! And good luck on that Christmas album. I can’t wait to hear it!”

Nick nodded, glancing up at the tightly-wrapped tree. “Hopefully this will give us the inspiration we need to make it happen.”

Before they headed back to the cabin, they stopped at the nearby Christmas store to buy lights and ornaments for the tree, along with a few other festive decorations. “What are we gonna do with all this stuff when we leave in a month?” Kevin asked the others, as he eyed their heaping cart.

“Donate it?” offered Howie with a shrug.

“Or auction it off for charity,” Nick suggested. “Christmas decorations handpicked by the Backstreet Boys? You know fans would bid on that.” He was remembering the days when his empty water bottles and used tissues would be listed on Ebay. The guys used to tease him, telling him the teenyboppers were trying to collect his DNA so they could clone him someday.

“Hey, look, ugly Christmas sweaters!” Brian pointed to a display on the wall ahead of them. “We should each get one and have a little photo shoot at the cabin. Instant album cover!”

They had fun picking out the gaudiest sweaters they could find. Several hundred dollars later, they drove back to the cabin to decorate. While the others carried in the tree and everything they’d bought to trim it with, Kevin collected wood from a pile he’d found behind the house, and Brian helped him build a roaring fire in the fireplace.

“A little to the left.” Howie stood back, watching Nick and AJ set up the Christmas tree in the corner. “No… too far. Take it back about an inch to the right. There you go… perfect!”

As they strung white lights on the tree, Kevin looked at Howie and Brian. “Remember that little tree we bought for the apartment back when we were living in Orlando?”

Brian laughed. “Oh yeah. It was my first time being away from home during the holiday season, and I wanted to decorate the apartment, so I dragged you two along with me to pick one out.”

Howie continued the story: “But we could only afford the crappiest tree on the lot. Talk about a Charlie Brown tree! I’m amazed that thing had any needles left by the time we got it back to the apartment.”

“Yeah, most of them ended up in the back of the Bleeding Banana.”

“The Bleeding Banana!” Nick started cackling, inserting himself into the conversation. “Now there’s a throwback! I used to think we were so cool, riding around in that thing.” He grinned at Brian, remembering the bright red and yellow pick-up truck he had driven down from Kentucky.

“Uh, we were cool, Nick,” replied Brian, grinning back.

AJ snorted. “Yeah, you two keep telling yourselves that.”

Nick ignored him. “Hey, you know what else we need in here?” he said, changing the subject. “Some Christmas music!”

“Well, put some on then,” replied Kevin, rising on his toes to wrap the string of lights around the top of the tree.

Nick pulled up Spotify on his phone, glad that at least the Wi-Fi worked. None of them had cell service this high up in the mountains, but they could still make calls and FaceTime with their families as long as they were connected to the cabin’s wireless internet. Nick didn’t know what he would have done otherwise; he didn’t think he could go four weeks without talking to his wife or seeing his kids’ faces. It had only been a day, and he already missed them like crazy.

He found a Christmas station and connected his phone to the Bluetooth speaker he had brought along, letting the music play in the background as the boys continued decorating. It added to the fun and festive ambience, but it also made Nick miss his family even more.

“This is Odin’s favorite Christmas song,” he said, smiling, when “Frosty the Snowman” came on. “He loves the ‘thumpity thump’ part.”

“Thumpity thump thump, thumpity thump thump, look at Frosty go,” Kevin started singing automatically. “Thumpity thump thump, thumpity thump thump, over the hills of snow!”

“Again, Daddy!” Nick could practically hear Odin cry. He pictured his four-year-old son clapping his hands, ready for another round of “Frosty.” The previous Christmas had been his favorite one as a father so far. Odin was finally old enough to look forward to Santa Claus coming, and Saoirse was so young, she was content just to lie on a blanket beneath the tree and look up at the lights. That would not be the case this year: she was already crawling and would be walking by December. They would have to hang the ornaments out of her reach or put a baby gate around the tree. But that didn’t bother Nick. After how hard he and Lauren had fought and prayed to have another child, he would do anything to protect his little princess.

“Saoirse would love this,” he remarked, a lump rising in his throat as he and the others stood back to admire the lights on the tree. “Last Christmas, all she wanted to do was lie in my arms and look at the lights while Lauren and Odin hung ornaments.”

“Aww…” Kevin threw his arm around Nick’s shoulders, hugging him to his side. “Have I told you lately how nice it is to see you like this? Nick Carter, family man. Who woulda thunk it?”

Nick smiled and shook his head, remembering how he used to vow he would never get married or have kids. “Not me! But it is nice. I never knew what I was missing,” he admitted. Before he met Lauren, he’d had a hard time understanding why the other guys were always in such a hurry to get home after gigs. Later, he realized it was because he’d never had anyone to go home to; his “family” was on the road. Now that he had a wife and kids of his own, he knew how hard it was to be away from them. He had become just like his bandmates, booking the first flight back home from wherever they had been working.

“I always knew Nick would grow up someday,” said Brian, grinning at him. Nick grinned back, glad to be on good terms with his former best friend again. For a while, he had worried there was an irreparable fracture in their relationship, a widening crack caused by their growing apart, their lives moving in two different directions. But Nick had turned his life around, and finally, it felt like he had caught up to Brian. Now that he was a husband and a father, too, he could relate to Brian in ways he had not been able to before. They still weren’t as inseparable as they had been as teenagers, but they would always be “Frick and Frack.”

“Hey, now that Nicky’s a big boy, maybe he can help us hang some ornaments without breaking them,” said Howie, winking as he handed Nick a box of shiny, gold and silver baubles.

“Sure thing, Howie. I’ll hang some from the high branches you can’t reach,” Nick retorted. The rest of the guys laughed - even Brian, who wasn’t any taller than Howie.

“Just make sure you spread them out, and don’t put two of the same color, shape, or size too close together,” Brian warned him. “My wife would want me to tell you that.”

Nick laughed, though he wasn’t completely sure Brian was joking. “Well, Leighanne would know, what with her hundreds of Christmas trees. None of us can compete with that level of expertise.”

They tried anyway, working together to trim the tree. They sang along to the Christmas carols, occasionally testing out harmonies and ad-libs they could use for the album. By the time they finished, they were all sweating from the warmth of the fire, but it finally felt like Christmas inside the cabin.

“Not too shabby for five guys trying to fake Christmas in June,” said Nick as he looked around the living room, admiring their handiwork. In addition to the lit tree in the corner, there was a large wreath hanging over the mantel and a length of garland winding its way up the banister and along the railing of the loft. The golden lights and greenery gave the place the festive feel it had been missing before.

“It looks great!” Howie agreed.

“Leighanne’ll love it,” said Brian, standing back to snap a few photos for his wife.

Kevin nodded. “Nice work, fellas. But let’s not lose sight of why we did all this in the first place. Tomorrow, the real work begins.”

***


Chapter 4 by RokofAges75
Nick was already up when Brian woke the next morning. It was the scent of coffee rising into the loft that roused him, and when he went downstairs, he found Nick in the kitchen, flipping pancakes. He was standing at the stove with his back to Brian, so Brian cleared his throat before he walked up behind him.

Nick turned around, smiling, to greet him. “Hey… good morning.”

“Morning,” Brian croaked back, wincing at how hoarse his voice sounded. It was always worse first thing in the morning. Once it warmed up, it would get better - but not by much. It would still crack and cut out on him without warning, leaving him sounding like he was coming down with a case of laryngitis. He cleared his throat again, hoping it would help. “You’re up early. It’s only-” He looked at the clock on the microwave. “-five-thirty on the West Coast.”

“Yeah, well, I’m used to waking up at five to take care of the kids,” said Nick with a shrug, turning back to tend to the griddle. “Lauren and I have a good system worked out. She gets up in the middle of the night to feed Saoirse, so I make breakfast in the morning and let her sleep in. Can you believe I’ve become a morning person?”

Brian chuckled. Sometimes he couldn’t believe the person Nick had become - devoted husband, doting father, functional adult. Kevin was right with what he had said the night before: it was nice to see him like that. Brian had struggled the most with watching Nick make a mess of his life throughout the early aughts, wanting to help him but not knowing how. Leighanne had encouraged Brian to distance himself from his former best friend for the sake of his budding Christian music career, which didn’t mesh with Nick’s lifestyle of sin and vice. Brian still felt guilty for not being there for him the way the others - mainly Howie - had. But he knew from dealing with AJ’s alcoholism that Nick had to want help before he would be willing to accept it. No one could fix his life for him; he had to straighten up on his own.

Thankfully, Nick had decided to do just that. Lauren had helped, of course, coming into his life at just the right time, when he was finally ready to turn it around. Brian had had his doubts about her at first, for Nick was known to have terrible taste in women, but Lauren was different. She brought out the best in Nick. In spite of the struggles they had faced - handling fame and jealous fans, overcoming substance abuse, dealing with Nick’s crazy family, and trying to start a family of their own - their marriage seemed as strong as ever. Maybe even stronger than Brian’s own marriage.

Though he refused to admit it to the other guys, things had been rocky in the Littrell household for the last month or so. Left with too much time on her hands, Leighanne had turned into a social media troll, making and sharing the sort of far-right posts that tended to trigger more liberal-minded people. In the past few weeks, she had managed to offend most of his fanbase with her opinions about politics, the pandemic, the protests, and people of color. Brian had been left to deal with the fallout: a barrage of messages from fans, begging him to make a statement, berating him for remaining silent. Though he disagreed with some of what his wife had been posting, he knew better than to publicly denounce her. He loved Leighanne too much to do that to her. He also knew that the media - desperate for gossip in the midst of the pandemic, always wanting to be the first to break the next big story or predict the next celebrity divorce - would pounce on them like a pack of hungry wolves at the first sign of weakness, and he didn’t want anyone speculating about the possible downfall of his marriage. But privately, he had asked her to stop posting.

In their twenty-three years together, Brian had given his wife everything she wanted without asking much for himself. His hard-earned money had built their beautiful mansion in her home state of Georgia, furnished it with decor that fit her affluent style, filled her closet with designer clothes and handbags, bought her fine jewelry and fancy cars, and provided her with a more-than-comfortable life full of luxury and privilege. He had always been the provider, but Leighanne wore the pants in the family. When he had requested, respectfully, that she refrain from posting anything else that could be seen as racist or right-wing propaganda, she had flat-out refused.

“The first amendment gives me freedom of speech, and no one’s going to take that right away from me - not your snowflake fans, not your self-righteous bandmates, and certainly not you, Brian,” she’d retorted. “It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, and I will not be censored or silenced, especially by my own husband!”

Since then, Brian had let the issue drop, but Leighanne had doubled down on expressing her first amendment rights just to spite him, taking it from Facebook to Twitter, where even more of his fans would see her posts. This had only made things worse. He barely logged in to his social media accounts these days, not wanting to see the hateful comments from hurt fans. When he got home, he and Leighanne were going to have a long talk. But until then, he was happy to be out of the house.

Listening to Nick talk about the relationship he and Lauren had, one with equal roles and mutual respect for one another, made Brian feel envious - and even more resentful toward Leighanne.

“You’re lucky,” he told Nick, “and so is she. Not every dad is willing to wake up at the crack of dawn and cook breakfast. Those look great, by the way.” He was impressed: the pancakes Nick had started transferring from the griddle to a platter were perfectly round and golden brown without being burnt. “You’re like a pro. Where’d you learn those pancake skills?”

Nick grinned. “Lots of practice, baby,” he said, as he slid the last pancake onto the platter. “How long we gonna let the other guys sleep in? These are gonna get cold if they don’t come eat soon.”

Brian shrugged. “Eh, they can always reheat ‘em. C’mon, let’s eat.”

Nick carried the platter over to the large dining room table, which was already set with plates, silverware, and condiments. Again, Brian marveled over his newfound maturity. He poured them both cups of coffee from the pot Nick had brewed, then sat down across from him.

“Remember, Kev and AJ are still on Pacific time too,” he added, as he piled pancakes onto his plate, “and you know those two aren’t morning people.”

Nick laughed. “Ah well… more for us,” he said, fixing a plate of his own. “These are gluten-free, by the way.”

“I figured.” Brian opened the bottle of maple syrup they’d bought at the tree farm the previous day and poured a liberal amount over his pancakes. “Mmm… amazing!” he proclaimed, as the first bite went down.

Nick looked up from smearing butter over his, practically glowing with pride. “Thanks!”

Brian had been talking more about the syrup than the pancakes, but Nick didn’t need to know that. His pancakes weren’t bad either, though they didn’t taste quite as good as Leighanne’s, which were full of delicious gluten. At the moment, Brian missed his wife’s cooking more than he missed his wife herself - a fact which worried him. But of course, he didn’t dare mention it to Nick.

They made small talk until they were joined by Howie, who ate two helpings of pancakes while they waited for AJ and Kevin to wake up. Finally, when all five of them had finished fueling their bodies with food and caffeine, they cleaned up the kitchen and got down to business.

“Let’s see that list of songs you made last night, D,” said Kevin as they gathered around the living room again.

Howie took out his phone and opened his notes from the night before: a collection of Christmas songs they’d considered covering for the album. Whenever one they liked had come up on the station they’d been listening to while they decorated, Howie had added it to his list so they wouldn’t forget. He read them the titles, and they stopped to talk about each one.

“What about ‘Silent Night’?”

“Yes,” Brian said automatically - it was one of his favorites. It reminded him of happier times with his family; he, Leighanne, and Baylee had recorded a beautiful rendition of it for their fans just before Christmas last year.

Nick made a face. “I dunno… like, it’s a nice song and all, but it’s so overdone. Everyone covers ‘Silent Night’ on their Christmas album.”

Brian nodded. “That’s because it’s a good song.”

“It’s also in the public domain,” Howie pointed out, “so we could cover it for free. That’s probably why so many artists do.”

“Good point,” said Kevin. “That’s something else we need to consider, too - whether or not we have to get permission and pay for the rights to record a song. But Nick, imagine ‘Silent Night’ sung a cappella in five-part harmony. We could do an amazing cover of it.”

Nick shrugged. “Yeah, I guess…” He sounded less than enthusiastic, but at least he didn’t argue about it. There was a time, not so long ago, when he would have fought until he was red in the face just to get his way.

“We’ll keep it on the short list,” said Howie. “Moving on… how about ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’? Personally, I think that one’s a must.”

“Really?” replied Brian, raising his eyebrows. “Why?”

“Well, just listen to the lyrics.” Howie sang a few bars: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight… Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more…” He paused, then added, “Don’t you think that’s the perfect message of hope for people to hear on a holiday album released during a pandemic?”

Brian hadn’t thought about it like that, but now he nodded. “When you put it that way, it is pretty perfect.” He wasn’t confident the world would be back to normal by Christmas, but he hoped his troubles at home would be behind him. At least the election would be over, and perhaps that would help.

Kevin, Nick, and AJ all agreed, so Howie moved “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the top of their list.

“Don’t forget ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’” Nick said as they neared the bottom.

Howie gave him a disgruntled look. “Absolutely not, Nick! No way!”

“We could record our own Corona-version,” Brian chimed in, grinning across the table at Nick. His mind racing, he made up some lyrics on the spot: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a package of two-ply T.P!”

Nick snickered. “No, no, it should be, My true love gave to me… a case of COVID-19! Then we could include the toilet paper later - like, Fiiiiiiive rolls of Charmin!

Without missing a beat, Brian continued: “Four Clorox wipes, three face masks, two latex gloves…”

“...and a case of COVID-19!” Nick joined him in harmony before they both burst out laughing.

“We can’t do that, fellas,” said Kevin, shaking his head. “People are dying from this. It’s not funny.”

Nick rolled his eyes. “No shit, Kevin; we’re not being serious. It was just a joke.”

“Well, no one else is laughing.”

Brian watched Nick scratch his nose with his middle finger, discreetly flipping Kevin off, but as he looked around at the others, he realized Kevin was right. Nobody else seemed amused by their antics. Even AJ, whom Brian had fully expected to join in on the fun, was being unusually quiet. Feeling defensive, he retorted, “Sorry - I guess we’re just not as ‘woke’ as you are.”

Kevin frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know…” The words spilled out of Brian’s mouth before he could stop them. “You’re always posting that P.C. crap.” He regretted them the second he saw Kevin raise his eyebrows.

“Really? ‘P.C. crap?’” His cousin’s eyes flashed as they fixed him with a piercing stare. “Your wife could sure use a lesson in political correctness.”

Feeling his face heat up, Brian heaved a sigh. He supposed it was only a matter of time before one of them brought up Leighanne’s posts, and he wasn’t surprised it was Kevin who had. “Please don’t go there. I don’t wanna talk about it, except to say I disagree with what she’s been posting.”

“Then why don’t you grow a pair of balls and say so publicly?” Kevin replied. “Haven’t you seen our fans debating about whether or not you’re a bigot, too?”

Brian bristled. “I’m not a bigot, and neither is Leighanne! She just-”

Kevin cut him off. “So you disagree with what she’s been posting, but you’re gonna defend her anyway?”

“She’s my wife,” he said with a helpless shrug, wishing Kevin would let the issue drop. He didn’t want to admit that he was worried his cousin might be right, that he was married to a bigot. It made him feel ashamed, not just of Leighanne, but of himself. “What would you do if it were Kristin?”

Kevin shook his head. “Honestly? I don’t know because I can’t imagine Kristin posting that kind of crap in the first place.”

“Can we please just move on?” Howie interjected, trying to keep the peace, as always. “How do you guys feel about ‘White Christmas’?”

“I bet that’s Leighanne’s favorite,” said Kevin, smirking at Brian.

Brian scowled. “Shut the fuck up,” he snapped, feeling his heart beating faster. “Don’t forget, she’s a member of your family too.”

“Only by marriage,” he heard Kevin mutter under his breath, making Brian’s blood boil even more. But beneath his anger, he felt a sense of betrayal. Because Kevin was his cousin and had married Kristin the same year he had married Leighanne, there had always been a sense of camaraderie between the two couples. Brian thought of Kristin as another sister-in-law, and he’d thought Kevin felt the same way about Leighanne. Apparently, he had been wrong.

Before Brian could think of a comeback, AJ abruptly stood up. “I’m cool with ‘White Christmas,’” he said, adjusting the hem of his t-shirt. “I gotta use the bathroom.”

“You okay, Bone?” asked Brian, frowning up at him. He was grateful for the interruption, but he was also slightly concerned about AJ, who had barely said a word the whole conversation.

“Yeah… my stomach’s just upset,” he admitted with a grimace.

“Nick probably poisoned those pancakes,” said Howie, flashing Nick a grin.

Nick rolled his eyes. “If I did, you’d already be shitting your pants, dumbass - you ate way more than he did!”

“I actually didn’t have any,” said AJ. “I’m doing that grain-free diet, remember?”

“Well, maybe that’s the problem,” replied Howie. “Grains are great!”

Brian forced a laugh. “Go take a dump,” he told AJ, waving him off. “I think we could all use a break.” Before anyone could argue with him, he got up from the couch and walked away.

Brian trudged back upstairs to the loft, where no one but AJ had any reason to be. He stretched out on his bed, folded his arms behind his head, and stared up at the slanted ceiling. He felt so conflicted, torn between the woman he loved and what felt like the rest of the world. He didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, but he also didn’t want to turn against his wife.

After a few minutes, he heard a toilet flush, and AJ came out of the bathroom, fumbling with the waistband of his shorts. “Feeling any better?” Brian asked him.

AJ shrugged. “Not really, but I’ll survive. I probably just ate too much crap last night. My stomach can’t handle that stuff anymore, especially after I’ve been trying to eat better.”

“Getting old sucks,” Brian agreed.

AJ snorted. “At least you still have the metabolism of a teenager. I’ve been busting my ass since we got back from South America, and I still have a dad bod,” he said, pulling up his shirt to reveal his slightly rounded belly. “Remember when I used to have a six pack? Now it just looks like I’ve been drinking too many six-packs.”

Brian laughed. “Don’t sell yourself short, dude. You look good. I can see a difference - you’ve got more muscle tone and definition than you did before.”

“You think?” asked AJ, staring down at himself.

Brian nodded. “Definitely.”

That seemed to cheer AJ up some. “Thanks, bro,” he said. Brian saw a smile tugging at the corner of his lips as he lowered his shirt.

“No problem,” replied Brian, smiling back. “Speaking of getting old, did I tell you Leighanne’s been trying to convince me to get Botox to get rid of all these wrinkles.” He put his index fingers at the outer corners of his eyes and pulled the skin taut, smoothing out the laugh lines there.

AJ made a face. “Don’t do it, Rok. That shit’s like a gateway to plastic surgery. You start down that path, and before you know it, your face’ll be frozen into an expression of permanent surprise.” He widened his eyes and raised his eyebrows high on his forehead, stretching his lips into a clownish, fake smile.

“Well, it did help with my voice,” said Brian, who had tried having the drug injected into his larynx treat his dysphonia. It did seem to have made a difference; his voice didn’t break as much as before. “But don’t worry. I’m not planning to put any in my face.”

“Good.” AJ grinned and extended his hand to him. “Ready to go rejoin the rest of the group?”

“I guess,” said Brian without enthusiasm. He took AJ’s hand and allowed him to haul him up from the bed. They headed back downstairs to find Howie sitting in the living room alone. “Where’d the other guys go?” he wondered, looking around.

“Nick and Kevin went into the studio to start working on an arrangement for ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’” Howie answered, pointing to the closed door beneath the loft’s balcony. Listening closely, Brian could hear strains of piano music and guitar chords coming from behind it. “The three of us are in charge of the vocals.”

Brian nodded, relieved to hear he and Kevin would be working in separate rooms for a while. He sat down with Howie and AJ, and they started listening to different covers of the song, singing along, adding their own harmonies and ad-libs so they could hear what sounded best. The lyrics flowed like water, rising and falling as they filled the room with sound, their voices echoing off the rafters overhead.

“Have yourself a merry little...” Howie sang the melody, his high voice ringing out as clear as a bell.

“Merry little Christmas,” Brian echoed him, his own voice cracking. He cringed at the sound.

“Let your heart be light,” Howie continued, as if he hadn’t noticed. AJ joined him in harmony on the next line, his lower voice adding a richness to the tone. “From now on our troubles will be out of sight.”

“Out of sight,” Brian sang hoarsely.

AJ took the lead on the second verse in his soulful tenor. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay.”

“So gay!” Brian ad-libbed without missing a beat, which made both AJ and Howie burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” a familiar voice called. They looked up to see Nick emerging from the makeshift studio, followed by Kevin.

Brian shook his head, avoiding eye contact with his cousin. “Nothing,” he said, afraid he would be labeled a homophobe next, just for making a harmless joke.

“You feelin’ any better, Bone?” Kevin asked, eyeing AJ with an expression of mild concern. When AJ nodded, he turned to Brian. “How ‘bout you, cous? We good?”

Brian hesitated for a few seconds before he nodded. “We’re fine,” he muttered, figuring he should have known better than to expect Kevin to apologize for calling his wife a bigot. He could have demanded it, but he decided it was better to let the issue drop. He didn’t want to cause any drama within the group, not when they would be stuck working in this cabin together for the next four weeks.

Kevin seemed to feel the same way. He didn’t bring up Leighanne again the rest of the day, and neither did Brian.

That evening, while AJ was FaceTiming with his family in the loft, Brian went outside to sit on the deck and watch the sun set. A storm was rolling in; the thick clouds looked like cotton candy, tinged pink on the bottom, blue on top. The breeze had picked up, and the air had cooled to the point that he wished he’d worn a sweatshirt. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in the wooden rocking chair, which creaked as he began to rock. He thought about calling Leighanne, even went as far as taking out his phone, only to put it back in his pocket.

The sun had just sunk beneath the horizon when he heard the storm door creak open and slam closed again. He looked up to see Howie coming toward him, carrying two cans of Coke in his hands. “I thought I saw you out here,” Howie said with a smile, handing him one.

“Thanks,” Brian said, smiling back.

“I wish it was a cold beer instead,” Howie admitted, as he cracked his open and sat down in the identical chair next to Brian’s. “But I guess we’re all working on our sobriety now.”

Brian rolled his eyes. “Kevin can be a real self-righteous dick sometimes, you know that?”

“I know.” Howie took a sip of his soda, then looked back at Brian. “You okay?”

He nodded, fumbling with the tab on his can. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

“How about you and Leighanne?”

Brian shrugged as he rocked back and forth. “Hopefully we’ll be fine…” He let the words linger for a few seconds before he added, “It’s just hard, ya know, feeling like I’m caught in the middle between her and the fans… her and my bros.”

“I know what you mean,” said Howie, giving him a sympathetic smile. And of all the guys in the group, he probably did understand the best. Howie didn’t like to talk about politics, preferring to keep his opinions to himself, but Brian knew that next to himself, Howie was probably the most conservative. His wife Leigh may have been more liberal, but if theirs was a house divided, they had not let it fall. Brian hoped he and Leighanne could be like the Doroughs.

“So whatcha doing out here?” Howie asked

“Just watching the sunset.” Brian tipped his head toward the fading light. “AJ’s upstairs talking to his girls. I wanted to give him some privacy.”

Howie nodded. “Nicky’s downstairs doing the same thing.”

Brian smiled and took a swig of his drink. “Who ever thought those two would turn into such family men, eh?”

“It’s a miracle,” Howie agreed, grinning back.

Thank you, God, thought Brian, glancing skyward. Despite the state of the world, he knew how blessed the five of them were to be together, still making music for a devoted fanbase after all these years. Not many groups like theirs lasted as long as they had. He wasn’t sure they would have if AJ and Nick were still drinking, doing drugs, and partying as much as they had back in the day. Brian was grateful they had both grown up and gotten their lives together.

A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. “Looks like it’s gonna rain, huh?” said Howie.

“Yeah, it does.” Brian didn’t mind; he loved thunderstorms, especially on warm summer nights. “Good sleeping weather.”

Howie swallowed a mouthful of soda. “Mm-hm…”

For almost an hour, they sat side by side like a couple of old men, rocking in their chairs, occasionally making small talk, but otherwise just watching the world fade around them. The sky turned black, and a light rain began to fall, but beneath the roof of the covered porch, they were both comfortable and dry.

Finally, when it became too dark to see more than a few feet in front of their faces and so chilly that Brian felt goosebumps on his arms, he said, “Well… I guess I’m gonna head in. AJ should be done by now.”

Next to him, Howie nodded. “Nick, too.”

They got up and went back inside, closing and locking the door behind them. After a day filled with music, the cabin felt strangely quiet. There was no one sitting in front of the Christmas tree, which twinkled festively in the corner. Kevin’s door was closed, and neither Nick, nor AJ was on the main level.

“I’d better go check on AJ, maybe give Leighanne a call,” said Brian, looking up at the dimly-lit loft. His stomach lurched when he thought about his wife and recalled Kevin’s words.

“White Christmas? I bet that’s Leighanne’s favorite song.”

“Haven’t you seen our fans debating about whether or not you’re a bigot, too?”

“Okay. Come on down to the man cave if you guys wanna play pool before you go to bed,” replied Howie before he headed for the basement.

“Thanks, man.” Brian trudged up to the loft, already dreading talking to Leighanne and having to listen to her complain about his fans being “haters.” “Yo, Bone, you off the phone?” he called as he climbed the stairs.

There was no response, and when he reached the top, he realized why. AJ was already in bed with the covers pulled all the way up to his chin. Beneath them, Brian could see the outline of his body curled into a tight ball, his knees tucked to his chest. Concerned, Brian tiptoed over to his bed to take a closer look. He stood beside it for a few seconds, watching and wondering if AJ was actually sleeping already or just faking it. His back was to Brian, but by the sound of his deep, steady breathing, he seemed to be sound asleep.

“Feel better, bro,” Brian whispered, frowning as he turned away. He pulled his phone out of his back pocket to check the time: it was only nine o’clock. Being a night owl, he wasn’t ready for bed yet himself. Maybe he would shoot some pool with Howie and Nick after all. Leighanne was probably expecting him to call, but she could wait. Perhaps it would even be better to let her stew for a while, instead of trying to pretend things between them were fine.

His mind made up, Brian left his phone plugged in by his bed and went back downstairs.

***


Chapter 5 by RokofAges75
AJ woke in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. The stomachache he’d been dealing with all day had worsened to the point where it felt like his whole belly was on fire. White-hot waves of pain radiated through his body, making him nauseous.

On the verge of vomiting, he stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, doubled over in pain and trying not to trip on anything in the dark. It was storming outside, and brilliant flashes of lightning filtered through the skylights in the ceiling, illuminating the loft for a split second at a time so he could see where he was going. He closed the bathroom door behind him before he turned on the light, not wanting to wake up Brian. He hoped the roar of thunder and rain hammering on the roof would drown out his retching noises as he dropped to his knees in front of the toilet.

Brian must have heard him anyway because the next thing he knew, his brother was standing behind him, rubbing his back as he bent over the toilet bowl and threw up into it. “You okay?” Brian asked gently when he was done.

AJ flushed the toilet and sank to the floor, holding his stomach. The back of his throat burned with the acidic taste of vomit, and the smell of it seemed to linger in the air. He absolutely hated getting sick. He had always been grossed out by bodily fluids, but being a dad had forced him to get past his aversion to snotty noses and poopy diapers. Puke was still the worst. He didn’t know how Brian could stand to be in the same room, but he appreciated his compassion. “Not really,” he admitted. “My stomach’s killing me. Sorry, dude; I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“You didn’t,” said Brian. “I’ve been lying awake, listening to the storm ever since I came back up here. I was hanging out with Nick and Howie in the basement earlier.” As he talked, he turned on the faucet and ran a clean washcloth under the cool water. He wrung it out, then handed it to AJ so he could wipe his mouth. “How long have you been barfing like that?”

AJ shook his head. “Just started now.”

“What do you think it could be?” Brian asked, watching him with a look of concern on his face.

“I dunno… maybe it is food poisoning. Or a stomach bug or something,” said AJ, setting the washcloth aside.

Brian frowned. “But wouldn’t the rest of us be sick, too? We’ve been sharing a house and eating the same stuff.”

AJ didn’t want to face the possibility it might be something worse, but Brian had a point. “Yeah, probably. Your stomach’s okay?”

“So far,” said Brian, knocking his knuckles against the wood-paneled wall. “Where exactly does yours hurt?”

It was hard to tell where the pain was radiating from, but AJ’s hand finally settled on the right side of his abdomen, just above waist-level. “Here,” he said.

“Well, since your actual stomach is on the other side of your body, it’s probably not that,” Brian pointed out. “It could be your appendix.”

AJ felt a flicker of fear. “Really? You think?” he asked, hoping Brian was wrong.

Brian shrugged. “That’s where it hurt when I had appendicitis as a kid. Kev’s was the same way.”

AJ remembered them rushing Kevin to a hospital in Germany to have his appendix removed during one of their first European tours. It had been scary at the time, especially being in a foreign country so far from home, but Kevin had come through the surgery with flying colors. Appendicitis wasn’t the worst thing in the world, AJ tried to reassure himself, if that was what it turned out to be.

“We better head to the hospital and get you checked out,” added Brian.

AJ swallowed hard as another wave of nausea rocked his stomach. “Right now?”

Brian nodded. “It wouldn’t be smart to wait. If it is your appendix, it could burst if you don’t get it taken care of right away. C’mon.” He extended his hand, and reluctantly, AJ took it, letting Brian pull him painfully to his feet.

“You sure we shouldn’t wait till morning?” he asked, as they walked out of the bathroom. Brian had turned on a lamp, so at least he could see where he was going this time. Rain was still beating steadily against the roof, interrupted every few seconds by a bright flash of lightning, followed by a loud boom of thunder. “It sounds pretty bad out there.”

Brian gave him a look, as if to say, Really? “I’ve driven in rain before, ya know.”

“I know, but-”

“We’ll be all right,” Brian assured him, already reaching for the red t-shirt he’d taken off before bed. “If the roads are bad, we’ll go slow. Now get dressed.”

AJ pulled on a pair of athletic shorts with a stretchy, elastic waist, a plain white wifebeater, and a black zip-front hoodie. It hurt too much to bend over to put on socks and sneakers, so he slid his bare feet into a pair of slide sandals instead.

Brian came over to his side of the room, wearing a wrinkled pair of khaki shorts with his red shirt. “You ready, bro?” he asked, resting his hand on AJ’s back. The warm weight of it was reassuring, and in spite of his pain, AJ felt a bit better. Growing up as an only child, he had always longed for a sibling. Joining a group with four other guys who had quickly become like brothers was the best thing to have ever happened to him. He appreciated their bond during the good times, but it meant the most to him during the bad times. It helped to know that, no matter what happened, Brian, Kevin, Howie, and Nick would always have his back.

“Not really, but I guess I don’t have much of a choice, huh?” He heaved a sigh as he slid his phone, wallet, and face mask into the pockets of his shorts. “Let’s go.”

Brian kept his hand on AJ’s back as they walked slowly down the staircase, AJ clinging tightly to the banister. He still felt woozy, but whether it was from pain or anxiety, he couldn’t tell. His heart was pounding inside his chest, and his skin was covered in cold sweat.

The main level of the cabin was dark and quiet, the Christmas lights shut off for the night. “Where is the nearest hospital, anyway?” AJ whispered, once they reached the bottom of the stairs.

Brian found the light switch for the living room and flipped on the overhead fixture. “No idea,” he said with a sheepish grin, taking his phone out of his back pocket. “I’m gonna Google it right now.”

While he was searching, AJ wandered into the kitchen with the idea of getting a glass of water to wash the bad taste out of his mouth.

“I wouldn’t drink anything if I were you,” Brian warned, as he reached for a glass from the cupboard. “Just in case you do end up needing surgery. You’re not supposed to have anything in your stomach when you go under anesthesia.”

AJ knew this, of course, but he hadn’t been thinking about that. As he closed the cupboard, his throat felt much drier than it had a second ago, as if merely being told he couldn’t have water had made him thirsty.

“Here we go.” Brian was looking at his phone again. “Looks like the closest hospital with an emergency room that’s open overnight is in Littleton, which is just past Bethlehem. Heh… Littleton.”

AJ frowned. “Why’s that funny? ‘Cause it sounds like Littrellton?”

Brian laughed. “No, ‘cause it sounds like ‘Little Town’... as in ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’? Whoever came up with the names of these places was pretty clever, don’t you think?”

“Sure, I guess,” said AJ with a shrug.

“Littrellton, though… I like that. Maybe more than Littrellville,” mused Brian, as he stuffed his phone back into his pocket. “Anyway, it’ll take us at least half an hour to get to the hospital, so we should probably head out.”

“Half an hour?” AJ repeated, raising his eyebrows. “Damn... Good thing I’m not having a heart attack, or I might be dead by the time we made it there.”

“No kidding. Better hope your appendix can hold out, buddy,” said Brian, patting him on the back again. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“Go where?”

AJ almost jumped when he heard a third voice behind him and immediately winced - the pain was agonizing. He turned to see Kevin coming out of his bedroom beneath the balcony, wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.

“What’s goin’ on?” Kevin asked groggily. “Where you guys going?”

Brian cleared his throat. “AJ’s sick. We think it might be appendicitis. I’m gonna take him to the hospital to get checked out.”

Kevin blinked, the fog clearing from his eyes as they widened. “Well, shit… Maybe I should take him.”

“Why?” asked Brian, frowning.

“I dunno, ‘cause I’ve been through it before?” said Kevin.

“So have I.”

“Yeah, but you were just a kid.”

“So?”

Kevin’s eyebrows furrowed as he glared back at his cousin. “It’s pouring out there.”

“So?” Brian said again.

“So maybe I should take him,” Kevin repeated.

“What, you don’t think I can drive in the rain either? Why y’all acting like I’m some terrible driver?” asked Brian with a derisive laugh, as he looked from Kevin to AJ. “I’m the best driver here! Besides, I didn’t add anyone else to the rental agreement ‘cause y’all weren’t with me, so I’m the only one who’s covered to drive the Range Rover.”

“Well, let me come along, at least,” Kevin insisted. “I’ll go throw some clothes on, and we can leave in five minutes.”

AJ and Brian looked at each other. They both knew this had nothing to do with Kevin’s firsthand experience of having appendicitis or driving mountain roads in a downpour. This was about Kevin’s need for control, his sense of obligation to be the big brother of the group and make sure the other guys were taken care of. He didn’t trust Brian to step into his role. AJ, on the other hand, would much rather be accompanied by Brian than Kevin. He loved them both, but Brian knew how to lighten the mood and make him laugh even when he was feeling bad, whereas Kevin would only freak him out more.

“Thanks, Kev, but you should just go back to bed,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t need the whole freaking group to go with me. I doubt they’d let you come in anyway ‘cause of COVID. Brian will probably have to wait in the car.”

“Good point,” said Brian. “Stay here and hold down the fort, Kevin. I’ll keep you posted.”

Kevin frowned, but didn’t protest any further. “Drive carefully,” he told his cousin. Then he turned to AJ. “Love you, bro. Hang in there.”

“Love you too, dude,” AJ replied gruffly, wishing Kevin wouldn’t say goodbye like he was seeing him for the last time. It scared him to think Kevin was envisioning some worst-case scenario in which he wouldn’t wake up from surgery. He swallowed hard, his stomach aching. “C’mon, Rok, let’s get this over with.”

He followed Brian out to the garage, where the Range Rover was parked, and climbed carefully into the passenger seat, trying not to bend or twist too much. If he sat perfectly still, the pain wasn’t as bad. He should have taken some Tylenol before leaving the cabin, he realized, as Brian started the engine. Then again, he didn’t know if he would have been able to swallow the pills without water. It was probably best to wait until he got to the hospital, where they would start an IV and give him something stronger for the pain.

“Buckle up,” said Brian when the seatbelt warning started dinging.

AJ didn’t want to buckle up, afraid the seatbelt would put too much pressure on his abdomen, but he grudgingly pulled it across his chest and fastened it. He tucked two fingers between the belt and his body, trying to keep it from touching his belly. With his other hand, he turned on the radio, hoping the music would help take his mind off the pain.

Brian couldn’t get a signal on the SUV’s built-in navigation system, so he pulled up the driving directions on his phone instead. “Here, hold this,” he said, handing the phone to AJ. “I won’t really need it until we’re on the road to Bethlehem, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to get a signal if I don’t do this now, while we still have Wi-Fi.”

“Good call.” As Brian put the SUV in reverse and backed out of the garage, AJ rested his head against the back of his seat and closed his eyes, listening to the crunch of gravel under the tires and the rain pelting the roof, while Taylor Swift played softly on the radio.

Brian made a three-point turn and pulled out onto the narrow lane that led to the main road. He drove slowly, but AJ felt every bump. “Sorry,” said Brian, hearing his sharp hiss of pain as they went over a particularly rough patch. “I can barely see where I’m going.”

AJ opened his eyes. The windshield wipers were whishing back and forth at full speed, but they couldn’t keep up with the rain, which appeared to be falling almost sideways as the wind rocked the SUV. Brian had turned on his brights, but the headlights barely cut through the torrential downpour. He drove hesitantly, unable to see more than a few feet in front of the hood.

“Maybe we should turn around and wait till morning, or at least until this lightens up,” AJ said. He felt guilty for making Brian go out in the middle of such a bad storm.

Brian shook his head. “We’ll be fine. We need to get you to the hospital now.”

“We could call an ambulance,” was AJ’s next suggestion.

“Are you kidding? That could take like an hour or more. It’ll be quicker just to keep going.”

AJ shrugged. “Whatever you say, bro. You’re the one behind the wheel.”

“We’ll be fine,” Brian said again, sounding as if he was trying to reassure himself as much as AJ. He turned onto the main road, which was at least paved, making it much less bumpy than the gravel lane. Still, he drove cautiously, especially going around the curves.

AJ lay back and tried to relax, though the thunder outside and the pain inside made it impossible. “Thanks for doing this, man,” he muttered. “Sorry to make you go out in the middle of the night in this weather.”

“No need to thank me,” said Brian. “I know you would do the same for me.”

Even as he nodded, AJ felt another stab of guilt because he hadn’t been there for Brian’s surgery. None of the guys had; they’d stayed in Florida and performed at the Magic Kingdom while Brian went to the Mayo Clinic to have his heart defect repaired. Despite his hatred of hospitals, AJ still felt bad about that. They should have cancelled the Disney Grad Nite gig and gone up to Rochester to be there for their brother. Thankfully, Brian’s surgery had gone well, but what if something had happened? They would have had to live with that regret for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about all the things that could have gone wrong with Brian’s surgery made AJ wonder if he should have woken up Howie and Nick to say goodbye before they left, just in case. An appendectomy was a pretty routine procedure, if that was what he needed, but he also knew there was a risk any time someone was put under anesthesia. What if he didn’t wake up? Would the other guys regret not getting the chance to see him one last time?

Stop it, AJ scolded himself. You’re just being morbid now - neurotic, like Kevin. But he couldn’t keep his mind from imagining the worst-case scenario. He wished he had called his wife Rochelle before they left the cabin to let her know what was going on. It was half past one in New Hampshire, but not yet eleven o’clock in California. She would probably still be up, watching Friends and enjoying a bit of peace and quiet after putting the girls to bed, but AJ couldn’t get a phone signal this far up in the mountains. He would try her once they got to the hospital. If she was already asleep, he could at least leave her a message and let her know how much he loved her. Just in case.

The rain let up a little as they rounded another curve. Lost in his own thoughts, AJ wasn’t paying any attention until he heard Brian gasp. He looked up as a flash of lightning illuminated the road in front of them and saw the hulking shape of a huge animal standing right in the middle. The beams of Brian’s headlights captured a colossal pair of antlers protruding from its head, revealing it to be a moose. But before AJ had time to marvel over it, he felt himself lurch forward, his seatbelt catching him painfully across his belly as Brian slammed on the brakes.

Had the road been dry, they might have had enough time to slow down, but instead, the tires slid on the rain-soaked pavement, the wet brakes squealing loudly. Brian swerved to the left and barely managed to avoid hitting the moose, but as he jerked the wheel back to the right, he must have overcorrected and lost control. The next thing AJ knew, the Range Rover was skidding right off the road. He saw a rush of trees and instinctively closed his eyes, bracing himself for the crash. He heard Brian cry out just before the crunch of metal and broken glass and felt his body fly forward into the seatbelt again as the car came to an abrupt stop.

***


Chapter 6 by RokofAges75
The crash seemed to happen suddenly and in slow motion at the same time. In the moment, it had all been a blur, a whirlwind of rain and leaves flying past his window, but when he looked back on it later, Brian could recall every detail. He remembered seeing the moose and moving his foot to the brake, feeling the tires lose traction when he pushed the pedal to the floor, sending the Range Rover skidding across the wet pavement. He remembered trying to turn the wheel and realizing he’d lost control, pumping the brakes in a panic as the SUV plunged off the side of the road, and praying his life wasn’t about to end. The wild ride down the mountainside felt like it lasted forever, yet it was over before he knew it.

For a few seconds after the vehicle had stopped moving, Brian sat stock still behind the wheel, frozen in a state of shock, the airbag slowly deflating in front of his face. Then, when he realized he was still alive, he called out to his passenger. “AJ?” As his lungs filled with dust and chemicals from the air bag, he began to cough. “You okay?” he choked.

At first, there was no answer. Brian’s heart felt like it was about to pound right out of his chest as he looked over at AJ, afraid at what he might find. The haze of dust made it even harder to see in the dark, but by the faint glow of the dashboard, he observed AJ sitting upright, holding his belly. “Yeah...” Brian heard his hoarse reply. He could tell by the sound of AJ’s voice that he was in pain, but at least he, too, was alive.

“Are you hurt anywhere?” Brian asked.

AJ groaned. “I hurt everywhere.” Brian saw him shift slightly in his seat. “I think I broke my wrist… and maybe dislocated a couple of fingers. They got caught under the seatbelt.” Fighting with the airbag, he held his right hand up in front of his face. Brian could only see its silhouette, but AJ’s wrist seemed to be hanging at an odd angle. He hissed in a sharp breath as he tried to bend and flex his fingers. “I can’t really move them. And my stomach hurts like a son of a bitch.”

“I bet.” Brian cringed as he imagined the seatbelt cutting into AJ’s already tender abdomen. He felt bad for insisting that he buckle up, but if he hadn’t, AJ might have been hurt a lot worse. “But you’re okay otherwise?”

“I guess so. What about you?”

The adrenaline coursing through Brian’s body had kept him from feeling anything at first, but gradually, he became aware of various aches and pains. His face hurt, and when he brought his hand up to feel it, his fingers came away warm and wet with blood. “My nose is bleeding,” he said, touching the tip of it gingerly.

“How bad?” AJ wanted to know. “Do you think it’s broken?”

“I dunno,” said Brian, as blood dripped down his chin. “I hope not.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and balled up the hem of his shirt, using it to mop up as much of the blood as he could. His nose felt tender, but he couldn’t tell if it had been broken by the force of the airbag deploying in his face. More troubling was the throbbing sensation radiating from his right ankle. “I think I did something to my foot,” he added. He tried to rotate the joint and flex his toes, but the slightest movement sent shockwaves of pain running straight up his leg.

“Damn. What are we gonna do now?”

Brian shook his head. “I dunno.” Relief turned to alarm, as he realized they had crashed in a remote area and may not be able to call for help right away. “Where’s my phone? I wonder if either of us have a signal.”

“Sorry, bro; it must have flown out of my hand. I can’t find it,” said AJ, looking around the front seat. “Here, I’ll try mine.” He unbuckled and reached across his body to pull the phone out of the pocket of his shorts. Brian saw him frown as he looked at the screen. “No bars.”

“Try dialing 911 anyway,” Brian suggested. “You never know. Aren’t cell phone providers legally obligated to transmit emergency calls, even if the phone’s not connected to their service? You might pick up a signal from a different company’s cell tower.”

“Worth a shot,” said AJ with a shrug. He pulled up the keypad and punched in the numbers, then put the phone to his ear. Brian held his breath, silently praying for a signal, but after a few seconds, AJ shook his head. “Nothing.”

Brian let out his breath in a low sigh. “Let’s find mine. Maybe it’ll work.”

AJ turned on his phone’s flashlight and used it to sweep the floor. “I see it,” he said after a moment. “Now if I could just… get it…” He grunted in pain as he bent over with difficulty, cradling his injured right hand close to his belly while he reached down to retrieve Brian’s phone with his left. Brian watched helplessly, wishing there was something he could do, but he didn’t think crawling across AJ’s lap would be any more comfortable for him. Finally, AJ straightened up, breathing hard. “Got it,” he gasped, handing Brian his phone.

“Thanks, Bone.” The screen was cracked, but Brian was relieved to see that the driving directions were still displayed behind it. At least his phone hadn’t been destroyed in the accident. But when he minimized the app and tried to make a call, he discovered that he was also without a signal. “Mine’s not working either,” he said with another sigh of disappointment. “Now what?”

AJ glanced at the steering wheel. “Will the engine start?”

Brian looked doubtfully at the button that started the Range Rover, which had stopped running. He didn’t remember turning off the ignition, but he thought some vehicles were programmed to shut off automatically when the airbags were deployed to prevent fires. It was worth a try. “We’ll find out,” he said. He took a deep breath and held it as he pushed the button.

Nothing happened.

“Is your foot on the brake?” AJ asked. “Sometimes you have to have your foot on the brake before it’ll work.”

Brian’s right foot was still resting lightly on the brake pedal, but it hurt too much to press down. He lowered it gingerly to the floor and used his left foot to apply the brakes as he pushed the start button again.

Still nothing.

“It’s dead,” said Brian, disappointed, but not surprised. Staring out the cracked windshield, he could see that they had hit the trunk of a large tree. The hood of the SUV was crumpled up like a piece of tin foil, and he was willing to bet the front end had been damaged beyond repair. “Guess I shoulda bought the insurance car rental companies are always trying to sell you, huh?”

AJ let out a humorless laugh. “Don’t worry about that now. It wouldn’t help us get out of here even if you had.”

“How are we gonna get out of here?” Brian was the first to ask the question that he assumed was on both of their minds.

“I guess we’ll have to walk,” AJ answered uncertainly.

Brian had been afraid of that. Looking out his rain-soaked window, he saw only the dark silhouettes of trees. No houses, no lights, no sign of civilization within his line of sight. He remembered how long the drive up the mountain had been and how far apart the houses had become the further they got from the town of Bethlehem. It might be miles to the next cabin. Normally, this would not be a big deal for two men in good shape, but he wasn’t even sure he could put weight on his right foot, let alone walk that far on it. And with as much pain as AJ was in, Brian didn’t see how he could get much farther before passing out.

“I think that’s a bad idea,” he replied, shaking his head. “It’s pitch black and pouring rain out there.” His point was emphasized by a sudden flash of lightning, followed by a low rumble of thunder. “We should probably wait a while.” He looked down at his phone, checking the time. “It’s almost two a.m. It’ll be light in a few hours, and hopefully the storm will be over by then.”

“Hm… I seem to remember saying the same thing back at the cabin,” AJ reminded him.

Brian felt a stab of guilt. Was AJ suggesting this was his fault? “Well, excuse me for wanting to get you to the emergency room before your appendix burst.”

“I’m not blaming you,” AJ said quickly. “I’m agreeing with you. We should wait till morning.”

But Brian didn’t feel good about this decision either. “Do you… do you think you can wait that long?” he asked hesitantly, worried about what would happen if AJ didn’t get to the hospital that night.

AJ shrugged. “I sure wish I’d taken some Tylenol before we left,” he confessed. “But I’ll live.”

“Maybe you should lie down. Try to get some sleep,” Brian suggested. “You can stretch out in the back seat.”

“Nah, bro, you should take the back seat so you can elevate your foot,” AJ insisted. “I’ll be fine up front. I can just lower my seat.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, already reaching across his body to push the buttons on his door panel with his left hand. Brian wasn’t sure they would work, but with a low hum, the back of AJ’s seat gradually began to recline. “It’s all good,” he added, lowering it as far as it would go. “Now get your ass back there and put your foot up.”

Brian had to admit, the throbbing in his ankle was getting worse. He could tell his foot had started to swell, for his shoe felt tight. “Thanks, Bone,” he said gratefully. Now how was he going to get into the back seat? He debated trying to climb between the two front seats to avoid going out in the rain, but ultimately decided to use the doors. Aside from not wanting to jostle AJ, he was curious to see what the damage looked like from the outside and anxious to find out if he could walk on his right leg.

It took him throwing his weight against his door to force it open, but he finally managed it, stepping out with his good foot. Then he lifted his right foot over the threshold and gingerly lowered it to the muddy ground. The moment he tried transferring the slightest bit of weight to it, excruciating pain shot up the length of his leg, causing his knee to buckle. Hissing in agony, he grabbed the car door to steady himself and hastily shifted his weight back to his left leg, raising his right foot off the ground. It was too dark to get a good look at the front end of the SUV, for the headlights had gone out. It was still raining hard; he was getting soaked. He gave up on assessing the damage and hopped on one foot back to the rear door. Thankfully, it opened easily, and he scrambled inside, taking care to keep his right foot from touching anything.

“You okay, Rok?” AJ called back to him.

“Not really,” replied Brian, breathing hard from the effort it had taken just to get into the back seat. “I think my ankle’s broken, or at least sprained pretty bad. I couldn’t put any weight on it.”

“Shit… I’m sorry, bro.”

“It’s not your fault,” muttered Brian, as he propped his right leg up on his left knee and loosened the shoelaces on his sneaker. He knew once he took it off, he might not be able to get it back on again, but he was worried it would cut off the circulation to his foot if he left it on any longer.

“Well, actually, it kind of is,” AJ said. “I’m the reason we went out in this storm, remember?”

“Yeah, well, I’m the one who crashed the car,” Brian countered bitterly. He wished he could go back in time and be more cautious… drive even more slowly than he had been.

“It was an accident. If anything, the fucking moose is to blame.”

Brian had almost forgotten about the moose he had swerved to avoid. “Yeah… blame the moose!”

“I wonder where it went,” said AJ, looking out his window as if expecting to see wandering in the dark woods. “We didn’t hit it, did we?”

“No. We must’ve scared it off. Good thing, or we’d probably be in worse shape than we are,” said Brian with a shudder. “That thing was huge! Can you imagine those antlers crashing through the windshield?”

“Yeah, no wonder that girl at the tree farm told us to watch out for them. She wasn’t kidding!”

“Wow… was that just yesterday?” So much had happened in the last hour alone that their trip to the Christmas tree farm felt like a lifetime ago.

“Technically, it was two days ago,” replied AJ, “but I guess you didn’t really go to sleep last night, did you?”

“Oh... right,” said Brian, remembering what time it was. He was tired, yet he didn’t see how he would be able to get any rest in the back seat of the Range Rover with his foot throbbing the way it was. He cringed as he carefully pried off his shoe and sock. Then he pulled up the flashlight on his phone and shone it over the lower half of his leg. Sure enough, his foot and ankle already looked swollen. He prodded his ankle gently, trying to feel for broken bones, but it was too puffy to tell if anything was out of place through the surface of his skin, and it hurt too badly for him to press any deeper.

He stretched his legs out across the back seat, wishing he had a pillow to prop up his bad ankle. But there was nothing in the rental car - no pillows or blankets, no food or water, no supplies of any kind. They were thoroughly unprepared for a survival situation.

That’s not what this is, Brian argued with himself, as he lay back and closed his eyes, trying to will his body to relax. We just have to wait until the sun’s up. Then either AJ will go get help, or someone else will come along and find us. Either way, we’ll be fine.

He wasn’t worried about himself. Even if both his ankle and his nose were broken, those weren’t life-threatening injuries. But in the back of his mind, he knew that if AJ’s appendix burst, it could cause a life-threatening infection if left untreated.

I won’t let that happen, he vowed. One way or another, I’ll make sure he gets to the hospital.

He just wasn’t sure how.

***


Chapter 7 by RokofAges75
AJ couldn’t sleep. He had made himself as comfortable as possible in the passenger seat, but he was still in excruciating pain. It radiated from the tips of his fingers through his injured wrist and up his arm, then down through his abdomen and into his knees. His entire body hurt, especially the right side. He had taken off his hoodie and wifebeater, turning the tank top into a makeshift brace by wrapping it tightly around his wrist and hand, but it hadn’t stopped the throbbing. Try as he might to take his mind off it by closing his eyes and using every meditation technique he knew, he couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything else but the pain.

It had been a little better when Brian was awake. At least then, AJ had had someone to talk to, someone to temporarily distract him from his agony. But as the storm passed, the downpour tapering to a light rainfall, Brian, too, had quieted down and drifted off to sleep. AJ could hear his slow, deep breathing coming from the back seat, beneath the patter of raindrops on the roof. He tried to focus on the steady, reassuring sound, letting it lull him into a more relaxed state. If he kept his eyes closed, he could almost pretend he was at home in his own bed, with his wife snoring softly beside him. He and Rochelle both loved to fall asleep listening to the rain.

After what felt like hours, it was finally starting to work. The worst of the pain had started to subside, or perhaps AJ had just gotten used to it. He could feel his limbs growing heavy, his body sinking into the padded seat, his thoughts becoming more and more muddled as his brain began to power down for the night.

And then he heard a distant howl.

He sat bolt upright, temporarily forgetting the pain in his belly. Ears pricked, he listened carefully, but all he could hear was the rain and Brian’s breathing. Had he imagined the howling? Perhaps he had fallen asleep after all and dreamed it.

He started to lie back down, holding his belly, when he heard it again: a long, high-pitched howl. Aawoooooooooooo! It chilled him to the bone. His skin broke out in goosebumps, the hair standing on end, as the blood beneath ran cold.

“Rok!” he hissed into the back seat. “Rok, wake up, bro!”

He heard Brian stir, the leather seat squeaking beneath his body. “What is it?” he asked sleepily.

“Listen,” AJ whispered and then fell silent. After a few seconds, he heard another howl. It sounded closer this time, which only heightened his anxiety. “Is that a fucking wolf?!”

“How would I know?” said Brian, sounding more annoyed at being woken up than scared.

“‘Cause… you’re from Kentucky.” AJ realized as he said it that he probably sounded stupid, but he had always considered both Kevin and Brian to be country boys, more knowledgeable about nature than him, Nick, or Howie, who had all grown up in fairly urban parts of Florida.

“So? I’m from the second-largest city in Kentucky, not some cabin in the woods,” Brian corrected him. “And anyway, Kentucky doesn’t have wolves.”

“Really?” AJ frowned. “Does New Hampshire?”

“How should I know?” Brian said again sharply. As if in response, a chorus of howls rose into the air around them, making AJ’s heart race.

“Oh my god… there’s a whole herd of them!” he gasped.

“Well, wolves do tend to travel in packs,” Brian replied matter-of-factly. “But I think those are probably coyotes, not wolves.”

“How can you tell?” AJ wondered, trying to remember the difference between the two. He thought wolves were bigger, but beyond that, he wasn’t sure. Southern California had coyotes, but he had never seen one himself. He had only heard the horrific stories about them killing people’s pets, which was one reason he preferred to have big dogs.

“Their calls sound too high-pitched to be wolves’. Wolves have a lower howl.”

“Well, look at that - you are an expert, Country Boy!” AJ tried to lighten the tension, but inside, he was still terrified. “Can coyotes kill people?”

Brian paused to consider this before answering, “They probably could, especially in a pack, but I don’t think they would unless it was in self-defense. And they definitely can’t open car doors, so I wouldn’t worry about them.” He sounded like he wanted to laugh, which made AJ feel a little better. If Brian thought he was just being paranoid, then he probably was.

Still, the sound of the wolves - or coyotes, or whatever they were - howling like that was unsettling. Even after they stopped, it took AJ a long time to fall back to sleep.

When he woke for the second time, he was relieved to find that it was light outside. He had no idea how long he had slept. It felt like early morning, before the sun had fully risen, but it may have just been hiding behind the clouds. He could still hear rain falling on the roof of the SUV, thought not nearly as hard as it had been before.

As he struggled into a sitting position, AJ realized his stomach felt a little better. There was still a dull ache deep down inside him, but the burning pain from the previous night had passed. Or perhaps it had just been masked by the fact that the rest of his body was stiff and sore.

Looking down at himself, he saw bruising across his bare chest and belly, where the seatbelt had held him back. Beneath the bottom hem of his shorts, his legs were bruised as well from hitting the dashboard. His right knee, which hurt the worst, looked swollen. He could still bend it, but barely; he wasn’t sure it would support his weight without buckling.

Unwrapping the wifebeater from around his right hand, he found that his index and middle finger were stiff and puffy, too. He couldn’t bend or flex either one without unbearable pain, and the inflamed skin around them was bruised purple. His wrist ached, though he couldn’t tell if any bones were broken. It felt better with pressure on it, so he rewrapped his top tightly around it to stabilize it as much as possible.

“AJ?” he heard Brian say from the back seat. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” he replied, not sure how else to answer. He wasn’t all right, not really, but at least he was alive. “How ‘bout you, bro?”

“Eh… I’ll live.” Brian sounded about as good as AJ felt. He tried to turn his body so he could look at him while they were talking, but the twisting motion hurt his abdomen too much. He had to lean back and roll awkwardly onto his left side to see into the back seat. When he finally got a good look at Brian’s face, he gasped out loud.

“Holy shit, Rok!”

Brian was barely recognizable. He was sporting two black eyes, and the bridge of his nose was swollen and bruised. His face was covered in dried blood from the many cuts and abrasions he had sustained during the crash. “That bad, huh?” he said, bringing his hands up to feel his face. AJ could see more bruises on the undersides of his arms. The airbag must have flung them up into his face when it exploded out of the steering wheel.

“Well, I wouldn’t call you ‘Cutest Backstreet Boy’ at the moment. You look like you got the crap beat out of you, dude.”

“Gee, thanks,” Brian replied dryly. “I do kinda feel like I lost in a boxing match or something.”

“I mean, technically, you did… if an airbag counts as your opponent. That thing musta got you good.”

He chuckled. “Better that than busting my head on the steering wheel. How’s your stomach?”

“Not as bad as last night,” said AJ. “Maybe it wasn’t appendicitis after all.”

“Or maybe your appendix already burst,” said Brian, giving him an anxious look. “How do you feel otherwise? Any fever or chills?”

AJ shook his head. “I’m fine, Dr. Littrell - a little achy and sore, same as you, but I’ll be all right. In fact,” he added, determined to prove it, “I’m ready to get the fuck out of here and go find us some help.”

“Really?” said Brian, raising his eyebrows. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

AJ shrugged. “One of us has to. Otherwise, what are we gonna do? We can’t wait here forever for someone to find us.” He didn’t feel sure of himself at all, but now that it was daylight, he knew he needed to do something to get them out of this predicament he had gotten them into. He wasn’t sure how far he could walk with a bum knee and a bellyache, but if he could at least get back up to the road, maybe he could flag down a passing car or a helpful hiker.

Brian frowned, but finally nodded. “All right. Here - take my shirt, at least.” He stripped off his bloodstained t-shirt and handed it to AJ.

“Thanks, bro, but it’s just gonna get wet,” said AJ, handing it back.

“Ah, I see how it is. You just wanna show off that newly-sculpted chest of yours,” Brian replied with a smirk.

AJ rolled his eyes as he reached across his body to grab the door handle with his left hand. But when he pulled it, nothing happened. He gave the door a nudge with his shoulder, but it didn’t open. He pushed harder, throwing his whole body weight against it, but the door still didn’t budge.

“I bet the frame’s bent,” said Brian from the back seat. “Mine stuck a bit too, but I got it open. You may have to go out that way.”

AJ had been afraid of that. Grunting, he hoisted himself slowly and painfully across the center console into the driver’s seat. He was already breathing hard by the time he pushed the door open and climbed out of the Range Rover. It didn’t matter that he was in the best shape of his life; his bruised, battered, middle-aged body protested every movement, his bad knee throbbing and threatening to buckle the moment he put weight on it.

Straightening up, he stood just outside the SUV for a few seconds, surveying the scene of the accident. They were in a deep ditch, a few hundred feet from the road. His eyes followed a pair of ruts in the muddy ground, mentally tracing the path the Range Rover had taken as it plunged down the mountainside. We’re lucky it landed upright, he realized, imagining how much worse their injuries might have been if the SUV had rolled. He turned around, taking in the sight of the front end smashed against the trunk of a large tree, the hood crushed like a tin can, the flattened tires sunk into the mud. He saw Brian sitting up in the back seat, watching him through the window with a worried look on his face, and forced himself to smile. As he gave Brian a thumbs-up, AJ thought, We’re lucky to be alive at all. Swallowing hard, he turned back toward the road. It looked like a long, steep climb to reach it.

He felt nauseous and light-headed, but fought the wooziness as he took a few tentative steps. Pain radiated through the right side of his body, but his knee seemed relatively stable, so he pushed through it and kept moving forward, his feet slipping in his wet slides as he staggered through the brush. He wasn’t wearing the right shoes for walking, let alone hiking. He wished he had boots and a raincoat; he was getting soaked from the misty drizzle. The storm must have come in with a cold front, for the temperature had dropped significantly overnight. But the bad weather was the least of his worries. Already, he could feel his legs having to work harder as the incline became steeper. The ache in his knee intensified the further he climbed. I should have borrowed Brian’s sneakers, he realized too late.

As he started to turn back, his left foot suddenly slid out from under him. Before he could regain his balance, his right knee buckled, and he felt himself falling forward. Instinctively, he reached out with both hands to brace himself, forgetting his broken wrist. The thin piece of fabric wrapped around it did little to cushion the blow as he went down hard, landing flat on his front. White-hot pain was already shooting up and down his right arm when a fresh burst of it exploded inside his belly. It was so intense, he wanted to scream, but the wind had been knocked right out of him. He could only lie there in agony, gasping for breath, and wait for the fire to stop burning.

“AJ? AJ?” Through the haze of pain, he became aware of Brian’s voice calling to him. “AJ, you okay?” The concern in his friend’s voice gave AJ the strength he needed to roll over and respond.

“Y-yeah!” But as he struggled to stand back up without putting weight on either his broken wrist or his bad knee, he realized he wasn’t okay. Not really. Pain was still radiating through the right side of his body, and his stomach felt like he had just performed a belly flop into a pool with no water. The pain was so severe, he felt nauseous and clammy. He had barely made it to his feet before he found himself bent over, throwing up into the bushes. With the way his stomach was hurting, he half-expected to see blood in his vomit, but it was clear beige in color and mostly liquid. He had hardly eaten anything the day before.

“AJ? Are you sure?” he heard Brian call.

“I’ll be fine!” he choked back, wiping his mouth with his left hand. But he knew he couldn’t climb any further, not like this. It was all he could do just to drag himself back to the Range Rover, where Brian was waiting.

“Damn, bro,” said Brian as AJ approached, breathing hard. “That looked like it hurt.” He had opened the back door and was hanging halfway out of it, as if he had been planning to hop to AJ’s aid. The thought was laughable: with his black eyes and bloodied face, Brian looked about as bad as AJ felt. Neither of them would have gotten very far.

“It did,” AJ said shortly. Looking down at himself, he realized he was covered in mud. He leaned against the outside of the SUV as he caught his breath, letting the rain slowly wash the mud away. “I don’t know if I can make it back up to the road,” he admitted to Brian. “At least not right now.”

Brian nodded. “You need to rest,” he replied. “I can’t walk on this ankle, but maybe I can crawl up on my hands and knees.”

AJ shook his head. “The ground’s too wet. You’ll just end up a muddy mess like me.”

He laughed. “Yeah, you look like that time we took a mud bath in the Dead Sea.”

“Well, let’s hope this mud has some magical healing powers, ‘cause I hurt all over,” AJ complained.

“Go lie down again,” Brian told him. “It’s early yet. Someone’s bound to come along and find us before too long.”

AJ nodded, wanting to believe Brian was right. He opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, too tired to climb back across to the passenger seat.

“Here,” said Brian, handing him his shirt again. This time, AJ accepted it gratefully and used it to wipe the mud off his face and body. “If nothing else,” Brian continued, as AJ caught his eye in the rearview mirror, “the other guys will come looking for us when they wake up and realized I haven’t called anyone with an update. You know Kev will be worried if he can’t get a hold of us.”

“That’s true,” said AJ, managing a smile as he thought of their oldest brother. “Dude, if Kevin acting like an overprotective parent is what gets us out of this, we’ll never be able to rip on him for it again.”

Brian grinned back. “No worries. We’ll just find something else to make fun of him for.”

There was no doubt in AJ’s mind that he was right about that.

***


Chapter 8 by RokofAges75
Kevin woke with the feeling that something was wrong. He sat bolt upright, his heart hammering inside his chest, fearing he had overslept and missed his flight. The panicky feeling faded into confusion when he found himself on the couch in the living room of the rented cabin and realized he was already in New Hampshire. The Christmas tree in the corner was dark, but dull gray daylight was streaming through the rain-soaked windows along the back wall of the cabin. That must have been what had woken him up. But why had he fallen asleep on the sofa in the first place?

That was when he remembered waking the night before to the sound of Brian and AJ fumbling their way down from the loft. Their conversation came back to him in a rush, and he reached quickly for his phone, expecting to find a voicemail from Brian. After sitting up for what felt like hours, anxiously awaiting an update on AJ, he must have dozed off and slept right through the phone ringing. But when he turned on its screen, Kevin was dismayed to see no notifications. No missed calls. No new text messages. Nothing at all.

Maybe it wasn’t appendicitis after all, he thought. Maybe it was nothing, and Brian already brought AJ back. That made more sense to him. It was probably just food poisoning or the stomach flu, and AJ was sleeping it off upstairs. He and Brian had to have been tired after being up half the night at the hospital. They must have snuck in and tiptoed up to the loft while Kevin was sound asleep on the couch, not wanting to wake him for a second time.

Kevin felt a bit better after reasoning this out in his mind, but he still wanted some reassurance that AJ was really all right. He winced as he rose from the couch. It was reasonably comfortable, but his back was stiff from sleeping on it all night, and he had a crick in his neck. I’m getting too old for this, he thought irritably, rubbing the side of his neck as he padded barefoot across the hardwood floor. He climbed the staircase that led to the loft, the steps creaking beneath his feet.

He expected to hear the sound of deep breathing as he got closer to the top, but the loft was eerily silent. When he reached it, he saw why. Both Brian’s and AJ’s beds were empty, the covers thrown back haphazardly. It didn’t look like they had returned since leaving in a rush last night. The realization filled Kevin with the same ominous feeling he’d woken up with: the feeling that something was wrong.

He frowned, his heart beating faster as he hurried back downstairs to try calling his cousin. But he couldn’t get a call to go through; his phone was without service. He’d never had a cell signal near the cabin - none of them did - but they had always been able to use Wi-Fi to call their families. It looked like the Wi-Fi wasn’t working either. No wonder he hadn’t heard from Brian.

Annoyed and worried, Kevin walked over to the basement door. He knocked once, then opened it and called down the dark staircase: “Nick? Howie? You up?”

There was no answer.

Heaving a sigh, Kevin flipped the light switch, but nothing happened. Had the bulb burnt out, he wondered, or was the power out? He turned back to try the lights in the kitchen, but they wouldn’t come on either. The storm must have knocked out the power, he realized with a sinking feeling. That meant the wireless router would be down, too. No electricity, no internet.

He looked around for a landline phone, hoping he would be able to make a call the old-fashioned way, but there was none to be found. He wasn’t sure there were even phone lines this far up in the mountains.

Now what? he wondered, leaning wearily against the kitchen counter. He thought about where the guys could be. AJ had probably been admitted to the hospital after all, but it was weird that Brian hadn’t come back by himself. Surely, the hospital wouldn’t have allowed him to stay there overnight, not with all the new rules and regulations put in place because of the pandemic.

Maybe he got a hotel room, Kevin thought. Yes, that would be it. Brian must have been too tired to drive back after dropping AJ off, so he decided to stay at a hotel for the night. He had probably booked a room at one of the bed and breakfasts they had driven by. He would likely come back later that morning, bragging about how much better luck he’d had than Mary and Joseph at finding room at an inn in the little town of Bethlehem, and they would all laugh at his dumb Bible joke.

It sounded believable enough. But still, Kevin couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad had happened. What if Brian hadn’t made it to a hotel? What if he’d had car trouble or made a wrong turn in the rainstorm? What if he was lost or stranded somewhere in the mountains without a phone signal?

What could I do if he was? Kevin wondered, feeling somewhat helpless. He had no phone signal himself, no vehicle to drive around and look for Brian’s rented Range Rover. The way he saw it, he had only two options: wait at the cabin until either Brian or the electricity came back, or go out on foot. He could hike down the mountainside until he was within range of a cell tower, then try to call his cousin. And if Brian didn’t answer, he could call for help.

The more Kevin thought about it, the more convinced he became that the latter option was his best course of action. He couldn’t keep pacing around the cabin, waiting and worrying, without driving himself crazy. He would feel better if he was actually doing something. Besides, if Brian was lost or stranded somewhere, he would want to find him sooner rather than later. He would only waste time hanging out at the cabin.

His mind made up, Kevin went into his bedroom to change clothes. He put on shorts and a t-shirt, a pair of thick socks, and his hiking boots. Hearing raindrops spatter against his window prompted him to pull on a thin windbreaker over his t-shirt. He thought of his wife and kids as he did. The boys had given him the jacket for Father’s Day just before he left. “We thought you could use it on your trip, Dad,” his older son Mason had explained. “It gets cold up in the mountains.”

“They also thought you could use a little more color in your wardrobe,” added his wife Kristin with a wink. The windbreaker was bright red and gold, emblazoned with the logo of the Kansas City Chiefs, her favorite football team, whom they’d watched win their first Superbowl in fifty years that winter. Of course, Kristin knew Kevin preferred a more neutral palette - his closet was filled with shades of gray, basic black, and Kentucky blue - but she had let the boys pick out something bright in her team’s high-contrast colors. No one will miss me walking down the side of the road, that’s for sure, he thought, smiling to himself.

He grabbed his backpack and took it into the kitchen, where he filled it with a few provisions: two bottles of water, a protein bar, and a small package of almonds. As he was poking through the cupboards, he came across two flashlights tucked inside a junk drawer. After checking to make sure they worked, he tossed one into his pack, just in case. An experienced hiker, Kevin knew the importance of being prepared.

He also knew it was unwise to hike alone without telling anyone where he was going. He still hadn’t heard a peep from the basement, so he used a pad of paper and pen from the same junk drawer to jot a note to Nick and Howie. Imagining the two of them waking up without power in the pitch black basement, he took both the note and the second flashlight downstairs. He could hear Howie’s soft snores coming from behind the closed bedroom door, but nothing from Nick. Wondering if the youngest Backstreet Boy was awake, Kevin knocked quietly on the door and waited.

There was no answer.

He turned the knob and opened the door, shining his flashlight into the dark room. As the beam of light swept across the two twin beds, Kevin saw Howie curled up in one, his mouth wide open. Nick was lying flat on his back in the other, hugging a pillow against his chest. Judging by the sound of his deep breathing, he was still fast asleep. Kevin couldn’t help but smile as he stood in the doorway, watching the pillow rise and fall with every breath. When he was asleep, Nick still looked like the little boy he’d been when Kevin had first met him. It was hard to believe he had turned forty that year - or that Kevin himself was almost fifty. Most days, he still felt like he was in his twenties. But then there were days like these, when he woke up with a stiffness in his bones that reminded him his body was double that.

Howie liked to sleep in, but Nick was normally a morning person. He must have needed the sleep. Being a dad to two small children was exhausting - Kevin could attest to that. Nick didn’t so much as stir as Kevin tiptoed over to his bedside table. They were all deep sleepers, having developed the ability to sleep through anything, anywhere, during their three decades of touring. Kevin didn’t bother trying to wake him; he just turned off the flashlight and left it lying on the table, his note tucked beneath it. Then he followed the faint light filtering in from the basement door back up the stairs.

He tried his phone one more time before he set out, but there was still no signal. With a sigh, Kevin slung his backpack over both shoulders and left the cabin, locking the door behind him.

As he set off down the gravel driveway, he wondered if he should go back and change into long pants. A light rain was falling, and the air was cool and wet. His legs were cold; he could already feel goosebumps rising on his bare skin. It’ll warm up, and so will I, he assured himself, making the decision to keep walking away from the cabin. Backtracking would only waste time, and he still had the nagging feeling that time was not on his side. He knew he wouldn’t be able to shake it until he heard Brian’s voice reassure him that all was well.

It took five minutes just to make it to the bottom of the driveway. There Kevin took out his phone and tried calling again, but there was still no signal. Not surprised, he put his phone back into his pocket and continued onto the road. He kept close to the narrow shoulder, worried a car would come whipping around one of the curves without warning, but there was no need - he walked for half an hour without seeing anyone. There were no vehicles, houses, or people in sight.

Under any other circumstances, Kevin would have relished the solitude and the remoteness of his surroundings. He loved the sights and sounds of nature, the pitter-patter of raindrops on the canopy of lush green leaves over his head, the crunch of rocks and twigs beneath his feet, and the faint hum of insects interrupted by the occasional birdcall. He loved the earthy smell of rain as he took a deep breath of fresh, mountain air. But he could not fully enjoy it when he was worried about Brian and AJ and anxious to get back within range of a cell tower.

Two miles down the winding road, he saw the reason for the power outage. A tree had fallen during last night’s storm, taking out the power lines. One of the wooden poles was lying across the road, pinned beneath the thick tree trunk, as if a giant were playing a game of pick-up sticks. No wonder Kevin hadn’t seen any cars. He kept his distance, not sure if the wires lying on the wet pavement were still live or not. Luckily, the rain must have prevented any sparks from igniting a fire, but he didn’t want to get electrocuted. He would have to walk around.

Beyond the narrow shoulder on both sides of the road, the mountainside sloped at a precipitous angle. There was a steep incline to his left, a sharp dropoff on the right. It made more sense for Kevin to keep descending rather than climb, so he kept to the right side of the road. As soon as he stepped off the shoulder, his boots sank into the sodden ground. He picked them carefully up out of the mud, one foot at a time, giving the fallen power lines a wide berth as he gradually made his way down the slope. He was glad he’d had the forethought to put on his hiking boots, grateful for the traction they provided on the wet, uneven surface.

No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than the ground beneath Kevin seemed to give way, causing his foot to slip out from under him. It happened so fast, yet the next few seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. Kevin’s arms pinwheeled wildly as he fought to find his footing, but before he could regain his balance, he began to fall. He cartwheeled sideways, his body tumbling helplessly down the mountainside. His hands grappled frantically for something to grab onto, anything to slow his fall, but they came up empty. Yet he felt the bump of every rock and branch he struck along the way.

Then his head hit something hard, triggering an explosion of sharp, blinding pain within his skull. The dizzying swirl of gray sky and green foliage faded to black, and he felt nothing more.

***


Chapter 9 by RokofAges75
After a couple hours of rest, AJ was ready to try reaching the road again - or, at least, that was what he had tried to convince his body to believe.

In reality, he was still incredibly stiff and sore and wasn’t sure he was capable of making such a steep climb. Worse yet, he felt feverish and weak, as if he were coming down with the flu. He didn’t mention this to Brian, not wanting his friend to worry about him any more than he already was, but he knew what it meant: his appendix had probably burst, just as Brian had warned him it would. The pain in his belly was different now. It wasn’t as bad as before, but it was more widespread - a dull, diffuse ache that was constantly with him, rather than the waves of sharp, shooting pain that had woken him in the night. He feared that if he didn’t try again now, he would miss his only window of opportunity.

“Yo, Rok,” he said, looking up into the rearview mirror so he could see Brian in the back seat.

“What?” Brian replied.

“Can I borrow your shoes, bro? I’m gonna try climbing back up to the road again.”

He saw the skepticism in Brian’s face as he watched him in the mirror. “You really think you can make it this time?”

AJ shrugged. “Not really... but since no one’s come to rescue us yet, I think I’ve got to.”

Brian shook his head. “You don’t have to. We can wait it out. The other guys have gotta be waking up right about now and wondering why they haven’t heard from us, why they can’t get a hold of us. When they get worried enough, they’ll either call the police or come looking for us themselves.”

“Yeah, but how long is that gonna take?” In his mind’s eye, AJ could see the window closing. Time, he knew, was not on his side.

“I dunno… I’d say a few hours at most.” Brian didn’t seem too concerned until he caught AJ’s eye in the mirror. “How ya feelin’?” he asked suddenly, frowning.

“Eh, I’m fine,” AJ lied, quickly looking away. “So can I have your shoes or what?”

“Sure. It’s not like I’m using them,” said Brian, tossing his sneakers into the front seat. “My foot’s so swollen, it won’t even fit.”

AJ admired the white Air Max 90s for a moment before he bent down to cram them onto his feet, knowing he was about to get them muddy. “I’m probably gonna mess these up, but when we get out of this, I’ll buy you a new pair,” he promised.

“I’m not worried about the shoes, bro,” said Brian. “I’m worried about you.”

“I’ll be fine,” AJ insisted with a confidence he didn’t feel.

“Maybe you should go the other direction - down the mountain. Might be easier.”

“Yeah, and I might get lost... or worse,” said AJ, shaking his head. A shudder ran down his spine as he remembered the howling coyotes, which he still wasn’t convinced weren’t really wolves. That was another reason he didn’t want to wander off through the woods alone. It was a much better idea to walk along the road, which he knew would lead him back to civilization.

“Good point,” Brian agreed. “Just be careful, okay?”

AJ nodded, then opened his door and slowly stepped out. He was already light-headed and in pain from bending over to put Brian’s shoes on, but the second he stood up, all the blood seemed to rush from his head, and for a moment, he worried he was going to faint. He reached out his left hand and held onto the door frame to steady himself as his vision went fuzzy, black tunnels closing in from the corners of his eyes until he couldn’t see. He could hear his own heartbeat hammering erratically against his eardrums. He felt hot, then cold all over.

“AJ?” he heard Brian call. His voice sound strangely distant and distorted, as if he were talking through a tin can telephone. “You all right?”

“Y-yeah,” he managed to say, though he felt far from all right. “I just need a minute.” And after a minute, his vision came back, and the pounding in his ears subsided as his heart rate returned to normal. He was still nauseous and covered in cold sweat, but he forced himself to take a shaky step forward. His legs felt like jello.

After a few steps, he could tell he wasn’t going to get much further. Everything hurt, from his wrist to his stomach to his knee, and he knew he didn’t have the strength or endurance to climb. If he kept trying, it was only going to get worse, and he wasn’t sure how much more pain he could withstand.

Finally accepting defeat, he turned around and trudged back to the Range Rover. “I can’t do it,” he admitted to Brian as he lowered himself into the front seat. He lay his head against the headrest and closed his eyes, waiting for the wooziness to pass.

“It’s okay,” Brian said. “I’m sure someone will find us soon. We should figure out a way to signal them.” They had already tried the horn, but it must have been damaged in the front-end collision. Instead of a loud honk, it let out a feeble bleat that was barely audible. “I was thinking maybe we could use the mirrors to catch the sunlight and reflect it back up to the road, sort of like a flare.”

AJ wasn’t sure that would work, but it was worth a try. Bolstered by Brian’s plan, he opened his eyes and sat back up to take a look at the two side mirrors. The one on the passenger side had been shattered in the crash, but the driver’s side mirror was intact. He tried to pry it out of its frame with his fingertips, but it wouldn’t budge. “I need something small and flat to wedge underneath it,” he told Brian. “Like a flathead screwdriver or a putty knife.”

They both searched the SUV, but, being a rental, there weren’t any random tools lying around inside it. Finally, Brian found an ice scraper tucked into the pocket on the back of the front seat and passed it up to AJ. “Will this work?”

“It might.” Using his right elbow to hold the mirror in place, AJ worked the blade of the scraper beneath the edge with his left hand. It took several tries, but he eventually managed to pry up the mirror without breaking it. He disconnected the wires attached to the back so he could pull it free from its casing.

“There you go, MacGuyver!” Brian cheered. “Now let’s see if we can use it as a signal.”

Leaning out the open door, AJ moved the mirror around, tilting it at different angles to try to catch one of the weak rays of sunlight filtering through the trees and rainclouds. On a bright, sunny day, Brian’s plan might have worked, but that morning, there simply wasn’t enough sun to reflect back up to the road. He finally gave up and got back behind the wheel, telling Brian, “We can try again later. Maybe the sun will come out this afternoon.”

Brian didn’t seem too discouraged. “The sun’ll come out… tomorrow,” he sang softly. “Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow… there’ll be sun!”

But privately, AJ worried he wouldn’t be able to hang on until tomorrow. The effort to take off the mirror had temporarily distracted him from his pain and nausea, but now that he was sitting still, he felt sick to his stomach again.

As Brian entertained himself, AJ’s thoughts turned to his daughters. Ava and Lyric both loved Annie. He wondered if they were awake yet and waiting for him to call. He had never gone a day without talking to his family, and now he found himself wishing, once again, that he had called his wife before he’d left the cabin. Knowing Rochelle, she would have sat up all night, nervously waiting for news, and when he didn’t call her back, when Brian didn’t call with an update either, she would be worried. She would have woken the other guys, would have realized something wasn’t right when she found out no one had heard from him or Brian. Surely, she would have sounded the alarm and called the police by now. But instead, she was probably sleeping peacefully, sprawled across the bed they shared, completely unaware that anything was wrong with her husband.

“I should have called Rochelle,” he said quietly.

Brian stopped singing. “I didn’t call Leighanne at all last night,” he admitted. “I was going to, but I ended up playing pool with Nick and Howie instead, and by the time I came back upstairs, it was late.” He paused, then added, “To tell you the truth, I could have called her, but I didn’t feel like it.”

AJ caught his eye in the rearview mirror. He was surprised to hear that, since Brian and Leighanne usually acted like they were attached at the hip. Brian regularly skipped out on after parties and other events to spend more time with his wife. AJ had half-expected Leighanne to try inviting herself along on their little mountain retreat, even though they had made it clear from the get-go that it was to be just the five guys and no family members. He’d assumed Brian would be on his phone the whole time, checking in with her, but now that he thought about it, Brian hadn’t been.

“Things have been tense at home lately,” Brian continued with a sigh. Watching him, AJ could see the sadness in his eyes and wondered why he hadn’t noticed it before.

“Because of all the drama online?” he asked, remembering how Brian had cursed at Kevin the day before when Kevin brought up Leighanne’s political beliefs.

Brian nodded. “That’s a big part of it, yeah.”

AJ shook his head. “The fans are always gonna find something to criticize, bro. You can’t let them bother you, and you definitely shouldn’t let them come between you and Leighanne.”

“I know… but it does bother me to be called a bigot because of what my wife’s been posting,” said Brian. “And it also bothers me that she won’t apologize or take down any of her posts. Believe me, we’ve argued about it more than once, but she’s only gotten worse instead of better. It’s like she’s actively trying to piss people off now - myself included.”

“Then maybe you should say something publicly,” AJ advised. “Post a statement and let the fans know how you feel. Let them know not all your beliefs align with hers.”

Brian sighed. “Maybe…”

But AJ could tell that, despite the divide between them, he still didn’t want to distance himself further from his wife. He understood: Brian wanted to protect the public image he and Leighanne had so carefully crafted, that of the perfect Southern, Christian couple. The Littrells had a reputation to uphold, and Brian didn’t want to ruin it. But if Leighanne kept running her mouth on social media, she was going to end up destroying it herself, no matter what Brian did.

Both men fell back into silence, which was broken only by the soft but steady drumming of raindrops on the roof of the battered Range Rover. “We should find a way to collect the rainwater,” said Brian after a few minutes. When AJ glanced at him in the mirror, he saw that Brian’s head was turned in the opposite direction. He seemed to be staring out the rear window, watching the rivulets of rain run down the slanted glass. “We haven’t had anything to drink in hours. I dunno about you, but I’m getting pretty parched.”

AJ swallowed hard. His throat was dry, too, but he didn’t feel thirsty anymore. He supposed he was beyond that point. “You said I shouldn’t eat or drink anything until I know if I need surgery,” he replied, remembering their conversation in the kitchen just before they’d left the cabin. Strangely, he wasn’t hungry either. His stomach hurt too much to eat even if they had any food in the car, which they didn’t.

“I don’t think that matters anymore now,” said Brian. “We both need to stay hydrated until we’re rescued. Do you see anything we could fill with rainwater? A container of any kind?”

AJ looked around and saw the top of a plastic bottle sticking up out of the cup holder at the base of the passenger door. “Yeah… hang on.” Grunting, he hoisted himself painfully back over the center console into the passenger seat, where he was able to reach the bottle. Pulling it out, he saw that it was a bottle of Vitaminwater, empty except for a small amount of orange liquid sloshing around the bottom. He held it up for Brian to see.

“Nick,” they both said in unison.

AJ smiled. “Here,” he said, passing the bottle back to Brian.

Brian held up his hand. “No, you should drink the rest. You could use the electrolytes more than me.”

AJ shook his head. “I’m not drinking Nick’s nasty backwash, dude. You can have it.”

“Suit yourself,” said Brian with a shrug. He took the bottle and twisted off the cap, draining the last few ounces of flavored water in one swallow. Then he opened his door and stood the bottle up outside the SUV so it would refill with rain. “Hopefully it’ll keep raining awhile,” he remarked, as he closed the door again. “Otherwise we’re gonna have to start saving our urine instead.”

“What?!” cried AJ, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “You’ve been watching too many damn survival shows. There’s no way in hell I would ever drink my own piss.”

“You say that now, but just wait. People in desperate situations will do anything to stay alive,” warned Brian.

AJ shook his head. “Not me. I’d rather die of dehydration than do that.”

Brian sighed. “Let’s just pray it doesn’t come to us having to make those kinds of decisions.”

It was AJ’s turn to be the optimist. “It won’t. The guys’ll call for help,” he replied firmly, watching the rain fall outside his window. “Someone will come find us soon.”

***


Chapter 10 by RokofAges75
When Kevin came to, the first thing he felt was excruciating pain. It radiated through his skull and along his spine in waves, but the epicenter seemed to be the small of his back. He could feel something hard digging into it. He tried to roll over, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. The slightest twisting motion made the pain escalate to the point that he almost passed out again.

He continued to lie on the cold, wet ground with his eyes closed for a few more seconds until he summoned enough strength to open them. When he did, he found himself looking up at a canopy of leaves. Here and there, he could see patches of cloudy, gray sky peeking out between the treetops. Raindrops were still falling from it, splashing onto his face. With shaking hands, he managed to reach up and wipe them away. At least his arms worked. But his legs… Something was wrong with his legs.

Lifting his head slightly, Kevin could see that he was lying at an awkward angle, his back arched against the pack that was still strapped over his shoulders. His legs were splayed across the leaf-strewn ground like those of a rag doll that had been carelessly dropped there, and when he tried to rearrange them into a more comfortable position, they remained just as limp and lifeless as one would expect a rag doll’s legs to be. He couldn’t move them. His first thought was that the bones must be broken, but there was no pain below his waist. In fact, there was no sensation at all except for a faint, pins-and-needles feeling, as if both his legs had fallen asleep.

Once his brain connected this lack of sensation below the waist with the intense pain above, he knew: he had broken his back in the fall.

The next thing he felt was pure horror, as it dawned on him just how dire his predicament had become. Here he was, alone in the wild and unable to walk, in desperate need of first aid and unable to call for help. Deep down, he knew that was the reality of the situation, yet there was part of him that was still in denial, wanting to believe it wasn’t really as bad as it seemed. Maybe he had descended far enough to be within range of a cell tower.

He reached around to his back pocket, where he kept his phone, but he was lying on it and couldn’t lift his his hips to gain access to it. His legs, which he might have used to help hoist his body off the ground, were useless. Any effort to sit up or turn over sent fresh shockwaves of pain shooting through his back. Finally, by digging his fingers into the muddy ground upon which he lay, he managed to burrow beneath his left butt cheek. He could feel the wet fabric of his shorts with his hand, but he couldn’t feel the pressure of his fingertips prodding the area around his back pocket. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought he was reaching into someone else’s pocket.

Slowly and painfully, he pulled the phone out and brought it up to his face. With a sinking feeling, he saw that its screen was shattered, a spiderweb of thin white cracks crossing its black surface. He fumbled with the buttons, trying to get it to turn on, but was finally forced to accept that his phone, like his body, was broken. Unlike his body, it had not survived the fall.

Now he knew without a doubt that he was doomed to lie there like a log until someone found him. “HELP!” he called out as loudly as he could. “HEEEEELLLP!” With any luck, another hiker would come close enough to hear his cries. But how long would that take?

Kevin didn’t want to face the possibility that he might be stuck this way for hours, days, maybe even for the rest of his life. But he had heard enough survival stories to know that a fast rescue was far from guaranteed. He had no idea how many feet he had fallen or how far he had landed from the road. Lying down, he couldn’t see it and felt so dizzy and disoriented, he didn’t even know what direction to look in. Would people driving or walking past be able to see him? Even with his bright red windbreaker on, he wasn’t sure.

He continued to cry for help until his voice was hoarse... but no one came. By then, his throat felt raw. He longed for a drink, but the act of trying to retrieve his water bottle from his backpack, which was pinned beneath him, seemed too big a task to attempt at that point. He was too tired and in too much pain. So he simply opened his mouth and let the rain fall into it, savoring each drop of moisture as it soothed the back of his dry throat.

When he’d drunk his fill, he closed his eyes and tried to block out the dark thoughts that had permeated his brain. He kept his ears on high alert, listening for the rustle of footsteps or the hum of an approaching vehicle, but eventually, his injuries and exhaustion dulled his senses, and he drifted back into unconsciousness.

***


Nick woke in his pitch-black basement bedroom without any sense of what time it was. This was a welcomed relief from his routine and responsibilities at home. Normally, his alarm went off well before dawn, giving him an hour or so of quiet time to work out or play video games before the kids woke up. Lately, he had been choosing the latter more often than not, preferring to sit and savor his morning coffee while he slaughtered monsters over sweating his ass off in his home gym - and he had the “dad bod” to show for it.

He rolled over in bed and reached blindly toward the bedside table to turn on the lamp. Instead, his hand hit something hard where there should have been empty air; the object tipped over and fell off the table, landing on the tiled floor with a heavy thud. “Fuck!” Nick swore under his breath, more startled than actually angry. He never saw the note from Kevin, which fluttered to the floor along with the flashlight and ended up facedown under his bed.

He fumbled around for the lamp and finally found it, but when he flipped its switch, nothing happened. He heard the hollow click of the lamp turning on, but there was no light. Damn bulb must have burnt out, he thought, just as Kevin had hours before.

Nick felt around for his phone, which he’d left lying on the table in front of the lamp, and turned on its screen, which provided enough light to at least see a few feet in front of him. He was shocked to find that it was almost eleven a.m. Even when he accounted for the fact that it was only eight o’clock back home, he realized he had slept in three hours later than he was used to. He hadn’t had the luxury of sleeping late since at least March, when they were in South America. It felt good to get a full night’s sleep.

After Brian and Howie had gone to bed the night before, Nick had stupidly stayed up until almost three in the morning talking to his wife and watching the storm rage outside the basement windows. He had fully expected to be woken up and dragged out of bed a few hours later, so he was surprised the other guys had let him sleep so long without coming down to pour cold water on him or blast loud music in his ear. After all, that was the sort of thing he would have done to any one of them.

Instead, he rolled out of bed feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. He padded over to the window, which was outlined by thin cracks of sunlight from the edges of the blackout curtains that covered it. He pulled back the heavy drapes to let in the light, brightening the bedroom. Looking out the window, he saw what a dreary day it was. The mountain tops were obscured by clouds of gray fog, and raindrops were trickling down the window glass. The other guys must have agreed that it was a good day to sleep in.

On the other side of the room, Howie’s bed was empty, the covers pulled up semi-neatly. Assuming he was the last one to awaken, Nick threw on some comfortable clothes and went upstairs, where he found Howie sitting alone at the kitchen island, eating a bowl of cereal.

“Morning,” mumbled Howie through a mouthful of Frosted Flakes. “Power’s out. Better help me finish this milk before it goes bad.”

Nick raised his eyebrows as he looked around, realizing for the first time that all the lights were off in the cabin. The large windows provided enough natural light that artificial ones weren’t needed during the day. “Well, that explains why my lamp wouldn’t turn on,” he replied, pouring himself a bowl of the gluten-free cereal he’d gotten at the grocery store in Bethlehem. It wasn’t his favorite kind - they had better brands back home - but it would do for now. “Where’s everybody else?” he asked Howie, as he got the milk out of the dark refrigerator and added a liberal amount to his bowl.

“No idea,” said Howie with a shrug. “I just got up like half an hour ago, and no one was here. The SUV’s not in the garage, so they must have gone somewhere.”

“Without telling us?” Nick frowned. That didn’t sound like something the other guys would do. He could see Kevin, the nature freak, going off on his own for a refreshing walk in the rain or something, but he couldn’t imagine AJ and Brian hopping into the Range Rover to drive somewhere together without inviting him and Howie along, or at least letting one of them know where they were going.

Howie shrugged again. “I guess they figured that’s what we get for staying up late and sleeping in.” He didn’t seem too concerned, so Nick supposed he shouldn’t be either. But it still didn’t sit right with him that the rest of the group had seemingly disappeared without warning when they had planned to spend another day working on the album together. They wouldn’t be able to record anything while the electricity was out, but they could still write and rehearse. It didn’t seem like a good enough excuse for three of the guys to ditch the other two.

“They probably just drove into town to buy some batteries and candles and stuff like that,” Howie added reassuringly, as if he had sensed how unsettled Nick felt. “Who knows how long it’ll take to get the power back on in a place like this.”

Nick nodded. That made more sense. They hadn’t thought to pick up batteries or any other emergency supplies besides food and water when they had gone to the grocery store before. Knowing Kevin, he had probably insisted on going early and getting prepared in case the electricity didn’t come back on before dark. “I bet Kev’s secretly loving this,” Nick snickered. “He’s probably hoping the power doesn’t come back so we can really rough it for a while.”

Howie rolled his eyes and grinned. “You’re probably right.”

They ate their breakfast, enjoying the peace and quiet of the otherwise empty cabin. Then they both went back downstairs to shower and get dressed, expecting the other Boys to be back by the time they were ready for the day. An hour passed, and then another, but Kevin, Brian, and AJ didn’t come back.

By late afternoon, even Howie had started to worry. “Where the hell are they?” he asked Nick for at least the fifteenth time. The power hadn’t come back either, and they were both bored out of their minds. They couldn’t make phone calls without Wi-Fi, couldn’t surf the web or watch TV or play video games. They had half-heartedly messed around in the studio for a while, Nick helping Howie brush up on his rusty guitar skills, but it was hard to focus when they were constantly wondering where the rest of the group was and when the other guys would return.

“I dunno, man,” replied Nick, shaking his head. The realization that they had no way of contacting each other or anyone in the outside world was a frightening one. Nick had never felt so isolated. He was happy to have Howie with him; he would have been freaking out if he had woken up to find himself all alone in the cabin. Still, it was hard not to worry about Brian, AJ, and Kevin. “What if something bad happened to them? Like an accident or something?”

The color drained from Howie’s face. Nick was sure they had both been thinking it, but it was the first time either of them had said it out loud.

“I… I dunno,” Howie stammered. “I mean, we’d have no way of knowing, would we? We can’t call anyone, and they wouldn’t have any way of reaching us either. What could we do?”

Nick’s mind raced. He hated the thought of the other Boys being hurt and in the hospital while he and Howie were stuck here, out of contact and completely clueless. He couldn’t stand not knowing what had happened to them. “We have to do something,” he decided. “We could walk down the mountain until we find somewhere with a working phone. Then we could call them - and if they don’t answer, call the police.”

“It could be a long walk,” Howie warned. “You saw how far apart the houses are way up here.”

“I don’t care.” Nick’s mind was made up. “I can’t keep sitting here just waiting and wondering. I’ll feel better if I’m moving.”

Howie’s forehead was creased with worry. “It’s gonna get dark in a few hours…”

“All the more reason to get going now,” Nick argued.

Howie sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’d rather do something than just sit here in the dark and do nothing.”

Nick nodded. “Better put on some good walking shoes. And grab a bottle of water.”

They left ten minutes later, less prepared than Kevin but better equipped than Brian and AJ, with the hope that they would reach their brothers and find out they had been worried over nothing.

If they’d known what had happened, they would have left much sooner.

***


Kevin’s first thought upon waking for the second time was that he must have had a bad dream. As he slowly emerged from the fog of confusion, he felt convinced he was safe in his bed at home. One of his dogs was nudging him awake, wanting to be fed. Kevin could hear his heavy panting and feel his warm breath and the weight of one of his huge paws on his shoulder. “Yeah, yeah... I know. I’m gettin’ up, Baloo,” he mumbled without opening his eyes. “Just gimme a minute here…” But when he finally managed to lift his heavy eyelids, he saw that his nightmare had only just begun.

In an instant, his mind snapped back to reality as it processed the images his eyes were relaying. He was far from the comforts of home, and the creature currently pawing at him with increased interest was definitely not his cuddly pitbull, Baloo. Kevin’s heart leapt into his throat when he realized he was face to face with a wild animal that looked more like his pup’s namesake from The Jungle Book: a large black bear.

The bear was sniffing at his backpack, which was still wedged beneath his upper body. Probably scavenging for food, thought Kevin, picturing the snacks he had packed that morning. His mind raced as he tried to remember what he’d been taught about bears: If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back.

While this was no grizzly bear, it was plenty big, and Kevin didn’t see how he could fight it off in his current condition. His instinct was to go against the rhyme and continue playing dead. But it quickly became clear that the bear wasn’t going to go away until it got what it came for, never mind how much damage it did in the process. Despite his best efforts to stay quiet, a strangled cry of pain escaped Kevin’s throat as the bear pushed his broken body to one side, determined to gain access to the pack underneath. He couldn’t just lie there and let the bear hurt him even worse; he had to fight back.

Raising his free hand, he took a blind swing. He felt it connect with something warm, furry, and immensely solid and heard the bear grunt as he backhanded it. “AHHH!” Kevin screamed as loudly as he could and waved his arm around wildly, hoping to scare the bear. “GO AWAY!” With a surge of adrenaline, he rolled back toward the bear in time to see it retreat in bewilderment. “Go on, get outta here!” he cried, taking another swipe at it. He prayed it wouldn’t be bold enough to strike back. His hands were no match for the sharp claws he could see at the end of the bear’s massive paws. If it decided to attack, there was no way he would be able to push it off of himself before it mauled him.

But to his relief, the bear surrendered, lumbering away into the woods from which it had come as Kevin continued to shout at it. Once it was gone, he lay his head back down on the ground and took deep, gasping breaths, trying to slow his galloping heart. Then the tears sprang into his eyes, hot and stinging, as it hit him how close he might have come to death… and how close he might come yet.

He still couldn’t move the lower half of his body, and as the musky scent of the bear dissipated, he became aware of another, even more pungent odor: the stench of urine and shit. He wrinkled his nose as the smell hit him, overwhelming his senses. At first he thought the bear or some other animal must have defecated nearby. Then, with dawning horror, he realized the stink was coming from him. He had lost control of his bladder and bowels, had soiled himself in his sleep. That was probably what had attracted the bear’s attention more than the small amount of sealed food inside his pack. The saddest part was that, had it not been for the smell, he wouldn’t even have been able to tell. He couldn’t feel anything below the waist.

Tears rolled down his cheeks as the seriousness of his situation fully sank in. So far, he had been focused on his own basic survival - fending off the bear, summoning help, staying alive until he was found and whisked away to a hospital. But now, for the first time, he allowed himself to imagine his future beyond the point of being rescued from this place. If he had sustained a spinal cord injury in the fall - and it certainly seemed like he had - then he was probably facing back surgery, followed by months of painful rehabilitation. Would he ever walk again? Be able to use the bathroom by himself? Or would he spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair, wearing a catheter bag or, worse, a diaper?

He didn’t want to think that far ahead. The ideas in his head were too terrifying to dwell on, so he forced them to the back of his mind and tried to think positive. It won’t be that bad, he told himself. Whatever damage has been done, the doctors will be able to fix it. It won’t be permanent. I just need to get out of here so I can start healing and get back on my feet.

But how? He couldn’t walk. He thought about trying to turn over onto his belly and using his upper body to drag himself across the ground, but the slightest movement sent shockwaves of pain shooting up his spine. There was no way he would be able to army crawl all the way back to the road. He would just have to keep calling for help and wait until someone came close enough to hear his voice.

He prayed they would be human.

***


Chapter 11 by RokofAges75
Howie and Nick had been walking for what felt like forever. In actuality, they had only made it a mile or so from the cabin, but somehow, it seemed much farther than that to Howie. He was struggling to keep up with Nick’s pace and regretting not putting more effort into staying in shape during the quarantine.

“Dude, slow down!” he finally shouted, as Nick got further and further ahead of him.

“Dude, keep up!” Nick called back over his shoulder. He kept walking briskly down the winding road, determined to find a phone as soon as possible. But they had yet to see another house or a car they could flag down.

“I’m trying, but… damn!” Howie complained, puffing as he quickened his own pace. “Your legs are longer than mine!

Nick laughed and finally stopped, allowing Howie to catch up. “It’s not my fault you’re a little Munchkin,” he joked, as Howie fell into step next to him.

It was funny because Howie actually had played a Munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz as a kid, but he didn’t feel much like laughing. “Still no signal?” he asked, noticing Nick slide his cell phone back into his pocket.

Nick shook his head. They had both been checking their phones every few minutes, hoping to see that they were back in service, but neither had any bars. They were still too far away from the nearest cell tower, wherever that was. Their best hope was to find a home with a landline phone. Howie knew they had to be getting close. He remembered passing several other cabins on the drive up the mountain, including the one with the Confederate flag and Trump sign out front that Kevin had teased Brian about. He hoped they were both okay.

Howie hadn’t been too worried at first, when he’d woken up to find the guys gone. He figured they had just run to get supplies, like he’d told Nick. It was when they didn’t come back that he had started to worry. He considered the possibility that they had gone sightseeing instead - maybe driven up the road the girl at the tree farm had talked about, the one that went all the way to the top of Mount Washington. That seemed like the sort of thing Kevin would want to do. But it wasn’t like him - or Brian or AJ - to go without waking Nick and Howie up to ask if they wanted to come along.

Wherever they were, they could have at least left a note, thought Howie, as he and Nick continued walking down the road they had last driven up two days earlier. At least they were heading downhill, which made it easier than hiking up the mountain would have been. But the road sloped steeply in some places, and its paved surface was still wet and slick from the recent rainfall. Howie found himself taking more tentative steps than he normally would have, afraid of slipping and tumbling down the mountain or turning an ankle in a deceptively deep pothole disguised as a mere puddle. He didn’t mention this to Nick, knowing his friend would just mock him for it.

But Nick seemed to be slowing down again himself, and when Howie looked up, he saw the reason why. The road ahead of them was blocked by what he initially thought was a fallen tree. But when they got closer, he realized it was a downed electrical pole. No wonder the power had been out so long.

“Damn,” said Nick as they approached it. “I guess that’s why the guys didn’t come back from wherever they went. They couldn’t get through.” He uncapped his water bottle and took a drink.

Howie frowned. “You don’t think it fell last night during the storm?”

Nick shrugged as he swallowed. “I guess that would make more sense, but then, where did the guys go? I mean, how the hell did they get down the mountain? There’s no way they would have gotten around this thing in the Range Rover.”

“Maybe they went a different way,” suggested Howie. “Up the road instead of down. We don’t know what’s in the other direction.”

“Or maybe they were abducted by aliens...” Nick mused, stroking his chin as he narrowed his eyes. Howie thought he was kidding, but couldn’t be sure. One never knew with Nick.

“Well, are we going around it or what?” Howie asked him, looking pointedly at the pole.

“I guess we’ll have to. We sure as hell ain’t touching those wires,” said Nick, tipping his head toward the power lines lying in the left lane of the road.

Howie agreed. As he followed Nick along the right shoulder, he heard a hoarse cry: “Help!”

Nick stopped abruptly, turned, and glanced back at Howie. “Did you just hear that?”

Howie nodded, his heartbeat quickening. “It sounds like it came from somewhere down there,” he replied, his eyes dropping to the ravine on the side of the road. It wasn’t really a ravine, though; the land sloped steeply down the mountainside and didn’t come back up again. Howie felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff. He could see the tops of some of the trees below. Through the thick foliage, he caught a glimpse of something that didn’t seem to belong, something bright red and yellow.

Wildflowers? He did a double take and quickly realized it wasn’t a patch of wildflowers, but a piece of clothing. And inside the clothing was a person, lying face-up at the base of the cliff.

“Kevin!” Nick cried out suddenly, pointing. “It’s Kevin!”

Howie’s racing heart leaped into his throat when the feeble voice responded. “Nick?” It was hardly recognizable as coming from Kevin.

“He sounds like he’s hurt,” Howie said in a hushed voice, looking back at Nick.

Deep creases had appeared in Nick’s forehead as he frowned, his eyes fixed upon Kevin. “YOU OKAY, KEV?” Nick called, cupping his hands around his mouth to help the sound carry.

After a few seconds, Kevin’s faint voice drifted back to them. “No… it’s bad…”

Howie felt a swooping sensation in his stomach as he stared down at Kevin’s strangely motionless form. “He must have fallen. What was he doing hiking out here alone?”

“Maybe he wasn’t alone. Maybe Brian and AJ already went to get help. C’mon, we gotta get down to him,” said Nick hurriedly, taking a step forward. “DON’T WORRY, KEV, WE’RE COMING!”

“Be careful!” Howie hissed, as Nick started climbing down the mountainside. “The last thing we need is for you to fall and get hurt, too. Lord knows I’d have a hell of a time hauling your lard ass out of here.”

Nick let out a humorless laugh. “Joke’s on you, Howie. See, I got plenty of built-in cushion, so I can do this.” Tucking his water bottle into the stretchy waistband of his shorts, he plopped down on the wet ground, planted his feet in front of him, and started scooting down the steep hill on his butt. “This is gonna hurt your scrawny ass!” he called back.

“Yeah, well, you’re gonna look like you shit yourself once you stand up!” Howie shouted after him. He didn’t want to get the back of his pants muddy, but he had to admit, Nick’s way looked a lot easier than trying to walk down without slipping and falling like Kevin apparently had. After a moment’s hesitation, he crammed his own water bottle into one of the side pockets on his cargo shorts and grudgingly lowered himself to the ground, following Nick’s lead. He felt like a fool, but at least he and Nick both made it safely to the bottom of the hill.

Nick was already crouched beside Kevin when Howie stood up, brushed himself off, and hurried over to his brother’s side. “What happened?” he gasped, dropping to his knees next to Kevin, who was lying in an awkward position on his back. He didn’t see any obvious injuries, aside from a few minor cuts and scrapes on Kevin’s arms, but his face was ashen, his eyes full of tears.

“I slipped… lost my footing… fell down from the road,” Kevin explained haltingly, his voice shaking as he confirmed what Howie had already suspected. “I think… I think I broke my back. It hurts so bad… but I can’t feel anything below that. I can’t move my legs.”

Howie’s heart sank like a rock into the depths of his stomach. He didn’t want to believe it, but then he noticed the bad smell emanating from Kevin’s body - the smell of human excrement. When he realized what that meant, Howie knew Kevin was probably right about the severity of his injury. He looked across Kevin at Nick, who was staring back at him, his blue eyes wide and horrified. Howie could read the unspoken question in them: What are we going to do now?

“Don’t worry, Kev,” he said softly, trying to keep his voice calm and reassuring for both their sakes. “We’re gonna get you to a hospital so they can take care of you. You’ll be okay.”

“Are your phones working?” Kevin asked hopefully. “Mine’s broken.”

Howie and Nick looked at each other again. He saw Nick pull his phone out and check it before shaking his head. “Still no signal,” he said in a low voice, as he slid the phone back into his pocket.

“We were going to walk down the road until we found a working phone,” Howie explained. “The electricity’s still out back at the cabin, and we didn’t know where anyone else was.”

Something flashed in Kevin’s eyes as they locked with Howie’s. “So you haven’t heard from Brian or AJ?” he asked sharply. “They’re not back yet?”

With another sinking feeling, Howie shook his head. “We thought they were with you.”

Kevin turned his head toward Nick. “Didn’t you see my note?”

Nick looked confused. “No… what note?”

“The note I left on the table right next to your bed,” said Kevin, sounding impatient. “Tucked under the flashlight?”

“Oh… well, I may have knocked the flashlight off the table when I woke up,” Nick admitted sheepishly. “But I never saw a note.”

Kevin sighed. “Brian took AJ to the emergency room late last night with what they thought was appendicitis. But he never came back, and I haven’t heard from either of them since.”

“What?!” both Howie and Nick gasped. “So you’re saying Brian and AJ are missing?” Howie added at the same time Nick asked accusingly, “Why didn’t you wake us up??”

Kevin’s eyes darted back and forth between them. “We didn’t see the point in waking you up in the middle of the night. There’s nothing you could have done; the hospital wouldn’t have let you go in with AJ anyway. Which is why it’s so weird that Brian didn’t come back…”

“So is that why you were out here by yourself?” Nick wanted to know. “You were looking for Brian?”

“Brian or a phone signal - whichever I found first.” Kevin sighed again, fresh tears filling his eyes. “But I didn’t get far enough to find either, and now I’ve made things even worse.”

“It’ll be okay,” Howie said again, touching his shoulder. “I’m sure they’re both fine, and you will be too, once we find a way to call for help and get you out of here.”

Kevin shook his head. “Please… don’t leave me.”

“We’re not going to,” Howie replied quickly, glancing at Nick, who nodded in agreement. “One of us will stay here with you while the other one keeps walking.”

“I don’t wanna stay here,” Kevin muttered, still shaking his head. “What if the bear comes back?”

Nick and Howie exchanged glances again. “Bear? What bear?”

Kevin closed his eyes and swallowed hard, seeming to steel himself. Watching him, Howie could tell how much pain he was in, and his heart broke for his older brother.

“When I woke up, there was a black bear trying to get into my backpack,” Kevin explained. After another pause, he added, “I think the smell attracted it.”

Howie wasn’t sure if he meant the smell of food or the smell of his own shit, but he didn’t ask. He also wondered whether Kevin had actually seen a bear, or if he had been hallucinating. Kevin sounded coherent enough, but the way he was slurring his words slightly made Howie suspect he might have hit his head at some point. Upon closer examination, he saw a thin crust of dried blood near Kevin’s hairline that seemed to confirm this suspicion.

“We need to get you to a hospital,” he said, giving Nick a significant look.

Nick nodded. “I’ll go,” he volunteered, getting up from the ground.

“Go where?” asked Kevin, looking up at him in confusion.

Nick shrugged. “Wherever I can find a phone or a signal… some way to call 911.”

“And Brian and AJ?”

He nodded again. “Them too. We’ll find ‘em, Kev. I’m sure they’re fine…”

Howie couldn’t bring himself to think about Brian and AJ right at that moment. It was too much. He pushed his worries about the two missing members of their group aside and tried to stay focused upon the one in front of him. Kevin needed him here. But after everything that had happened, he felt a strange lump in his throat when he saw Nick stand to leave. “You sure you’re okay going by yourself?” he asked, looking up at him.

“Better me than you,” said Nick with a shrug and a smirk. “I’ve got longer legs, remember?”

Howie smiled. “Well, be careful.”

“I will.” Nick bent down so Kevin could see his face better. “Hang in there, bro. I’ll get you some help as quick as I can,” he promised. Then he turned and walked away. Howie watched anxiously as he climbed back up the hillside. He practically had to crawl on his hands and knees, using tree trunks and boulders as footholds to brace himself because the ground was so soft, but he must have made it back to the road because he soon vanished from Howie’s view.

Howie turned back to Kevin, trying to block out the bad smell that surrounded him. “What can I do?” he asked helplessly, at a loss for how to keep Kevin comfortable until Nick came back with a team of rescuers. He knew he couldn’t move him, but Kevin looked so miserable lying on the ground, his body twisted, his legs tangled and limp like a couple of wet noodles.

“Just keep talking,” Kevin said quietly. “Take my mind off it.”

Of course, once he said that, Howie couldn’t think of anything to say. So he took Kevin’s hand and squeezed it hard. “I wish AJ were here,” he admitted after a few seconds. “He never shuts up.”

Kevin managed a thin smile. “I know. I hope he’s all right.”

Howie imagined AJ in the hospital, recovering from an emergency appendectomy. “He’s probably driving the nurses nuts right now.” That was what he hoped was happening, anyway. He couldn’t consider any other alternative.

***


Chapter 12 by RokofAges75
AJ was getting worse. Despite his attempts to hide how bad he felt, Brian could tell his condition was beginning to deteriorate. AJ had dozed most of the afternoon, occasionally moaning in his sleep. Every half hour or so, he would wake, check his phone for a signal, and, upon finding it still without service, drift back to sleep again.

Watching him from the back seat, Brian felt helpless. His broken ankle had ballooned to twice its usual size, his foot turning black and blue as angry bruises formed beneath his stretched skin. Although he had kept it elevated for most of the day, the swelling hadn’t gone down. His lower leg hurt even when he was holding it still, pulses of pain throbbing through his foot with every heartbeat. There was no way he would be able to put weight on it, let alone walk anywhere, but he was worried that if he didn’t do something soon, he and AJ would be doomed to spend another night in the wrecked Range Rover. Already, the light was starting to fade, the forest growing steadily darker and gloomier around them.

Brian’s hope was fading, too. He had spent the better part of the day praying for someone to come along and find them, but they hadn’t heard another car drive by or seen a single hiker. He hadn’t realized just how remote a location their cabin was in. They weren’t far from town, but the road to Bethlehem was clearly not well-traveled. He was beginning to think they would never be rescued.

Where are the boys? he wondered. It was one of the questions he had been asking himself all day. Weren’t Kevin, Nick, and Howie worried about him and AJ? Hadn’t they been wondering why he hadn’t called or come back to the cabin? Why hadn’t they called the police or come looking for them?

A part of him felt angry at the other guys, but in the back of his mind, there was another part of him that was just as worried about them as he imagined they must have been. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Brian feared something bad must have happened to prevent his brothers from sending out a search party. What other possible explanation was there?

Adding to his despair was the fact that he hadn’t eaten all day. His stomach rumbled with hunger as he realized it was dinnertime. Wistfully, he pictured Leighanne flitting around in the newly-remodeled kitchen of their home back in Georgia. He missed his wife’s cooking and wondered what she would be fixing for herself and Baylee that night. Perhaps a pizza, cooked to perfection in the pizza oven they’d had custom built into one corner. Just imagining it made his mouth water, and he felt even hungrier - and more homesick - than before.

He took his phone out of his pocket and turned it on so he could see the photo of Leighanne he kept on his home screen. Tracing his fingers across its cracked screen, he felt tears fill his eyes as he stared down at her face. When was the last time he’d told her he loved her? He regretted not calling her the night before.

He tried dialing her number now, but of course, the call wouldn’t go through. His phone was still out of service range. With a sigh, he shut it off and put it back in his pocket, feeling it would be important to conserve the battery in case he needed it at some point down the road.

At least the rain had stopped. But that meant that the meager supply of water Brian had managed to save would soon run out. He had drank most of it himself, for AJ flatly refused each time Brian offered him the bottle. He was surely dehydrated by now, which would only weaken him further.

Meanwhile, Brian had a full bladder. He lowered his feet to the floor, careful not to let the injured one touch down, and opened the door. He turned his body so that he was sitting sideways on the seat with both legs dangling out of the SUV and started to unzip the fly of his khaki shorts. That was when he remembered his earlier conversation with AJ about drinking urine. He hesitated, wondering if he should try to collect his instead of letting it seep into the ground, as he had been doing.

Leaning forward, Brian looked down at the water bottle he had embedded outside the back door, burying its bottom a few inches into the mud so it would remain upright to fill with rain. It was almost empty now, the waterline barely visible above the mud. He pulled it out for a better look and estimated there were only about four ounces left inside. Half a cup - that was all the water he and AJ had.

He took one tiny swallow himself, then stepped tentatively out of the SUV. Cold mud squished between his toes as his bare foot sank into the soft ground. Holding the bottle in his left hand, he clung to the back door with his right to keep his balance as he hopped painfully around it to reach the front of the Range Rover. He opened the driver’s side door with difficulty and, still balancing on one foot, poked his head inside. AJ was asleep in the passenger seat, his broken wrist cradled close to his bare chest. Below it, his belly looked bloated. Was that from appendicitis, Brian wondered, or had AJ suffered internal injuries in the accident? He could still see streaks of dried mud on AJ’s skin from his fall that morning and winced when he imagined how much pain AJ must be in.

“AJ,” he whispered.

AJ woke with a start. “Wha-?” he murmured groggily. His skin looked gray, and his greasy hair was plastered to his skull, giving him an almost skeletal appearance.

“Here… drink this,” said Brian, holding out the bottle of water.

“Mm-mm,” AJ moaned and shook his head, waving Brian away.

“C’mon, AJ, you’re dehydrated. You need to drink,” Brian insisted, climbing into the driver’s seat. He tilted the rim of the bottle against AJ’s dry, cracked lips. “Open up.”

AJ made a face, but reluctantly opened his mouth and allowed Brian to pour the rest of the rainwater down his throat. Despite Brian’s best efforts to pour slowly, he began to cough and sputter. He doubled over in pain, clutching his belly as it was racked by violent spasms. Then he vomited right onto the floor of the SUV. Brian could only watch with dismay as the precious water came back up again.

“Shit… sorry, Rok,” AJ said breathlessly as he slumped back in his seat. His whole body was trembling. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead, yet his face was still pale.

“It’s fine,” Brian lied. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I shouldn’t have forced it on you. I’m sorry.”

“You were just trying to help,” AJ muttered. His eyelids were already at half-mast again, as if he didn’t have the energy to hold them open.

Watching him with a growing sense of worry, Brian felt he hadn’t tried hard enough. He took the empty water bottle and turned away from AJ to refill it with the contents of his bladder. His urine was dark amber in color, another sign of dehydration. He screwed the cap back on the bottle and set it in the cup holder beside AJ. “Just in case,” he said.

AJ glanced at it and groaned. “Never gonna happen.”

“It’d be better than nothing if you desperately needed water.”

“I told you, I’d rather die than drink piss.”

Brian didn’t reply. AJ was still shivering in the seat beside him, but when Brian rested his hand on his shoulder, his bare skin felt surprisingly warm. Frowning, Brian moved his hand automatically to AJ’s forehead, like he always had with Baylee when he was sick as a little boy. He felt the heat radiating against his palm and realized AJ was running a fever. “Dude… you’re burning up!”

AJ just shrugged in response.

Brian stared at him in horror as he imagined the infection raging inside his body. He knew firsthand how fast a seemingly minor ailment could become life-threatening, having almost died from a staph infection when he was five. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer. He had to find help for AJ.

“Gimme my shoes back,” he told AJ. “I’m gonna get us outta here.”

AJ shook his head. “How? You can’t even walk.”

“I’ll hop. Hell, I’ll crawl if I have to,” said Brian. “We can’t wait any more. We need to get you to a hospital.”

“I don’t think I can bend over far enough to take them off,” said AJ, gesturing vaguely toward Brian’s sneakers.

“That’s okay. I’ll help you.” Brian leaned carefully over AJ’s lap, trying not to put pressure on his abdomen, and reached down to untie his shoes.

“Pretty compromising position there, Rok,” AJ managed to joke, as Brian’s head ended up practically between his legs. “What will people think?”

Brian let out a weak laugh as he loosened the laces. “There,” he said, slipping the sneakers off AJ’s feet. He chucked them into the back seat, where there was more room to move around. “Got anything I could use to wrap my ankle?” he asked, thinking he might be able to put some weight on it if he could stabilize it somehow.

“Yeah… you’re sitting on it.”

Shifting his weight, Brian reached under his butt and found the red t-shirt he had given AJ that morning. The front of it was more brown than red by now, crusted with dried blood and mud.

“You’d better take this, too,” AJ added, handing Brian his hoodie, which he had balled up beneath his head like a pillow. It was warm and damp with perspiration. “You might get cold out there without a shirt when the sun goes down.”

“I hope I won’t still be out there when the sun goes down,” said Brian with an involuntary shiver.

“Well, if not, you can wear this.” AJ winced as he unwrapped the white tank top from around his broken wrist and gave it to Brian as well.

“Are you sure? What about your wrist?”

AJ shrugged. “It’ll be all right as long as I hold it still. I’m not going anywhere.”

Brian didn’t argue. He tossed the clothing into the back with his shoes, then climbed carefully out of the front. Hopping on one foot, he gathered several thick sticks from around the base of the tree they’d hit, hoping he could use them to fashion a splint. He climbed into the back seat and stretched both legs out in front of him. He used his dirty red shirt to wipe the mud off his left foot, then ripped it into strips. He wrapped the makeshift bandages tightly around his right ankle, securing a stick between the layers of fabric on each side. Then he found his socks balled up on the floor and put them on, pulling the right one painfully over his swollen foot to provide an extra layer of protection. It was far from comfortable, but it would have to do for now. He couldn’t afford to waste any more time.

AJ had already drifted back to sleep by the time Brian finished and didn’t stir when he whispered his name. “Hang in there, bro,” Brian said, swallowing hard. “I’ll be back with help as soon as I can. I promise.”

He pulled AJ’s white tank top on over his head, tied the hoodie around his waist, and hoisted himself out of the SUV for what he hoped would be the last time. Every movement hurt; his body was sore from the accident and stiff from sleeping in the back seat.

When he tried to put even a small amount of weight on his right leg, his ankle twinged with pain so severe, he couldn’t stop himself from crying out. He clung to the car door to prevent himself from falling and stood there on one foot, his eyes watering, until the pain had faded enough for him to continue. It was clear he still couldn’t walk, despite his best efforts to stabilize his broken ankle, so he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled away.

The soft, wet ground was both a blessing and a curse. The mud provided some cushion to protect his bruised hands and knees, but it also made it much harder to climb up the hill to the road. For every two feet he managed to ascend, he slid back one, making his progress painstakingly slow. But he pushed onward and upward, refusing to turn back. AJ needs help, he kept reminding himself. AJ needs a hospital.

At last, he reached the shoulder of the road. Exhausted, he collapsed at the edge of the pavement and allowed himself to rest there. He was already panting from the exertion of pulling himself uphill. Lying flat on his back, he filled his lungs with huge gulps of the thin mountain air, his chest heaving as his heart hammered frantically against his ribs. He felt like a fish out of water, flopping helplessly on the ground. But after a few minutes, his heart rate slowed back down, and his breathing returned to normal.

Brian wanted nothing more than to lie there a little longer, but he knew he needed to keep going. AJ needs help, he thought again. AJ needs a hospital. It was fast becoming his mantra, his version of “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Picturing AJ’s pale face in his mind gave him the willpower he needed to flip over and force himself back up onto his hands and knees.

He continued to crawl along the roadside, praying a car would come soon.

***


Chapter 13 by RokofAges75
Nick didn’t know it, but he was only about a mile behind Brian and quickly catching up to him. He jogged down the curvy mountain road at a brisk pace, his heart pounding, his breath coming in short puffs. The air around him was cool and wet, a far cry from what he was used to these days. Though he had grown up in Florida, he had lived in Las Vegas long enough to have almost forgotten what it felt like to run in a place with humidity. Already, he had broken out in sweat, and the clammy perspiration clung to his skin, rather than immediately evaporate like it did back home. He felt sticky and gross, but he knew Kevin had to feel significantly worse. Like Brian, it was the thought of his brother in pain that propelled Nick forward, pushing him to keep up his pace.

It was the bear that brought him to an abrupt halt.

When he saw the hulking black creature emerge from the brush by the side of the road just a few yards in front of him, Nick stopped dead in his tracks. He stood there, frozen with fear, and stared at the bear.

The bear stared back.

Nick had never seen a bear in the wild before. His mind raced, trying to remember anything he’d ever been told about them. “Play dead” was all he could come up with. But did that really work, he wondered, or was it just an old wives’ tale, like eating chicken soup to cure a cold? It felt counterintuitive to lie down and let the bear come up to him, so instead, Nick took one step backward, then another.

The bear took two steps toward him.

“Holy shit,” he swore under his breath, as his stomach bottomed out. He staggered backward, but the bear kept moving forward. Nick fought the urge to turn around and run for his life, afraid this would only provoke the animal to chase him outright. He remained facing the bear and slowly walked backward, moving to the left shoulder of the road in hopes the creature wouldn’t cross it.

The bear followed him for five minutes or so. It stayed on its side of the road, but kept its eyes fixed upon him, matching him step for step as it stalked him. Nick could feel his heart racing inside his chest, but he tried to stay calm and focused. He watched the bear carefully, ready to react in case it came any closer. I’m taller than it is, he told himself. I could try to scare it away. His hand tightened around the neck of his water bottle, imagining himself hurling it at the bear.

But when the bear suddenly lunged at him, all thoughts of trying to intimidate it went out of his head. Nick stumbled back, tripped, and landed on his butt in the brush. The water bottle went rolling away as he unwittingly let go. He lost sight of the bear for a second, but could hear it huffing and snorting. Without hesitating, he scrambled up onto his hands and feet and frantically scooted backward up the mountainside, crab-walking like a little kid. His hope was that if he could gain the higher ground, he could somehow fend off the bear.

He felt his right hand hit something hard, and his fingers closed around a rock the size of a baseball. He picked it up off the ground and hurled it at the bear, aiming for a spot halfway between it and himself. His goal wasn’t to hurt the animal, only to scare it.

It worked. When the rock hit the paved surface of the road in front of it, the bear jumped backward, rearing onto its hind legs. Then it turned around and lolloped away on all fours, retreating back into the woods from where it had come.

Watching it, Nick was struck by how fast the heavy creature could run. If it had truly wanted to attack him, he wouldn’t have stood a chance.

His legs were still wobbly as he walked uphill, moving in the opposite direction of the bear, wanting to put as much distance between it and himself as possible. In the back of his mind, Nick knew he was going the wrong way, but at that particular moment, he didn’t care. He couldn’t help Kevin if he allowed himself to be mauled by a bear.

He knew now that Kevin hadn’t been hallucinating when he told them he’d seen a black bear. No wonder he was worried about it coming back. Nick had the same fear. He couldn’t imagine how scared Kevin must have been, lying helplessly on the ground, unable to move, as the animal approached him. He must have played dead, Nick decided. Whatever he had done, it had apparently worked, and if the bear did come back, he would at least have Howie to protect him. But the thought of little, peace-loving Howie fighting off a bear was almost laughable.

I can’t leave them out there alone, thought Nick as he trekked across the uneven terrain. Looking down, he saw the power lines lying across the road below him and realized he had backtracked all the way to the place where Kevin had fallen. He felt ashamed. He couldn’t bring himself to go back down there and tell Howie and Kevin he had failed to find help. But the fear of facing the bear again kept him from turning around and running toward town.

Nick knew he was wasting time, but he had to be getting close to the cabin by now. He and Howie hadn’t walked very far before finding the road blocked. He could go back and gather supplies - weapons with which to defend himself from the bear, and materials to build a stretcher so he and Howie could carry Kevin to safety. Then one of them could go call for an ambulance.

It wasn’t a great plan, but it was better than nothing. Determined, Nick made his way back down to the road, then broke into a run. It was harder running uphill, but he didn’t stop until he reached the front door of the cabin. Drenched with sweat, he doubled over, clutching at the stitch in his side as he gasped for air. He and Howie had left the cabin unlocked in case the other guys came back while they were gone. Kevin was the only one with a key. Once he’d caught his breath, Nick opened the door and went inside.

He gulped down a glass of water in the kitchen, then grabbed his backpack from the basement to fill with supplies. He found the flashlight Kevin had left him lying on the floor and tossed it in, then hurried back upstairs. He rummaged around in cupboards and drawers, looking for anything else that might be useful. He added a roll of duct tape, a pair of kitchen shears, and a large knife to his pack, along with another bottle of water and some extra-strength Tylenol. He even found a large red canister that looked like a small fire extinguisher at first, until he read the label and realized it was some kind of bear repellant. “Fuck yeah!” he exclaimed triumphantly, cramming it into one of the outside pockets.

Then he went into Kevin’s room and tore the top sheet and blanket off his bed. He wadded them up into a ball and stuffed them into his bag as well, thinking they could be used to fashion a crude stretcher. But he still needed something sturdy for the frame, two poles of some sort that would support Kevin’s weight.

In a small closet full of cleaning supplies, he found a wooden broom and floor mop that seemed perfect - lightweight, yet durable. He unscrewed the heads from the long handles, which he tucked under his arm when he left the cabin, his bulging pack strapped to his back.

These added burdens made it all but impossible for him to run like before. Besides, his legs felt like rubber. But with Kevin on his mind, Nick walked as quickly as he could, keeping an anxious eye out for bears all the while. To his relief, he saw the fallen electrical pole before he spotted any more wild animals.

“Yo, Howie! Kev!” he called as he made his way carefully down the hillside. It was starting to get dark, but he could still see Kevin’s bright red jacket at the bottom of the ravine. “I’m back!”

Howie looked up hopefully as Nick approached. “Did you call for help?” he asked. “Are the paramedics on their way?”

“Uh… no. Not yet,” Nick was forced to admit.

Howie’s face fell. “Why not? What happened?? Where the hell have you been this whole time?” His voice rose with each question, making Nick feel exponentially worse about his failure.

“Well, I felt like I was stuck in a bad reenactment of The Revenant,” he retorted. “I almost got attacked by a bear, dawg!”

“A bear-dog?” repeated Howie skeptically, raising his eyebrows.

“A bear, comma, dawg. D-A-W-G,” Nick clarified, exasperated.

“I told you I saw a bear,” said Kevin quietly. He was lying in the exact same position, looking every bit as uncomfortable as he had before.

Nick nodded. “I know, dude. I saw it, too. I almost shit my pants.” He regretted saying the last part, as the stench in the air reminded him that Kevin really had shit his pants. “Anyway, I had to backtrack a bit to get out of its path, so I ended up going back to the cabin and getting some supplies.” He dropped the two wooden poles and took off his backpack. “We’re gonna build a stretcher and get you out of here ourselves.”

He thought they would be pleased that he at least had a plan, that he’d come prepared, so it caught him by surprise when Howie reached up and grabbed the hem of his shirt, pulling him roughly aside. “Are you insane?!” he hissed. His voice was just loud enough for Nick to hear, but he may as well have been shouting. “He has a spinal cord injury! You can’t move someone with a spinal cord injury!”

It was exceedingly rare for Howie to sound so angry. Any sense of pride Nick felt in his own resourcefulness faded away instantaneously, as embarrassment rose up in its place.

“You kept us waiting here almost two hours, thinking you were going to call an ambulance, and instead, you come up with this?” Howie continued to berate him, a vein bulging in his forehead. “What the fuck, Nick?!”

Tears prickled in the corners of Nick’s eyes. “Fine!” he exploded, throwing up his hands in defeat. “I screwed up, okay? I’m sorry! But you weren’t there, dude; you don’t know how scary it was.” His voice trembled as he tried not to cry. Howie was a head shorter than him, but he had a way of making Nick feel small. “I couldn’t keep going that way... and I didn’t know else to do,” he tried to explain, offering an apologetic shrug. “I thought this would be better than nothing. I mean, someone would have to carry him out of here either way, right?”

“Yeah, someone who knows what the hell they’re doing! A team of people who’ve been trained in wilderness rescue.”

Howie was right, Nick realized with a sinking feeling. Any attempt to haul Kevin out on their own would probably just result in them hurting him more.

He had resigned himself to admitting defeat when he heard a weak voice drifting their way. “Howie, please…” They both turned to see Kevin watching them. “I think we should try Nick’s plan.”

Howie hesitated, then shook his head. “Kev, we can’t,” he replied, as he walked back to Kevin’s side. “If we try to move you, we might make it worse.”

“I don’t think it can get much worse than it already is,” said Kevin. Though he sounded surprisingly calm, there was a look of silent desperation in his eyes. “Please, y’all… I can’t stay here like this any longer.”

Nick exchanged an uncertain glance with Howie, who bit down on his bottom lip, looking torn. Nick understood. His head was telling him to listen to Howie, but in his heart, he wanted to help Kevin however he could.

“I know how to build a stretcher,” Kevin continued. “I learned at camp when I was a kid. I can talk you through it.”

Howie sighed. “It’s your call, Kev,” he said finally. “If you want us to try it, we’ll try it.”

Kevin’s reply was faint, but firm. “I want you to try it.”

Feeling vindicated, Nick unzipped his backpack and showed them both the supplies he’d brought, spreading them out on the ground and praying they would be enough. “I thought maybe we could cut the sheet into strips and tie them around the poles, kinda like a pool chair.” He was picturing the chaise lounge his father used to drink beer in out in the backyard when he was a kid, an aluminum frame interwoven with bands of brightly-colored, water-resistant fabric.

“It doesn’t need to be that complicated,” replied Kevin. “All we need is the poles and the blanket.” Patiently, he proceeded to explain how to build a simple stretcher by first spreading the blanket out flat on the ground and then folding it in thirds around the broomstick and mop handle.

Nick and Howie dutifully followed his directions, and when they were finished, they had something resembling a stretcher. But, looking down at it, Nick felt doubtful. “Won’t it just fall apart the minute we pick it up?” he asked, worried it was far too flimsy to support the weight of a full-grown man.

“As long as you hold it level, it won’t fall apart,” said Kevin, sounding far more confident than Nick felt. “My body weight will keep the blanket in place.”

But Nick was still skeptical. He pictured the blanket slipping from the poles as they were carrying Kevin, causing him to fall back to the ground and get hurt again. For a few minutes, he had felt hopeful that his plan would work, but now he was back to thinking Howie had been right all along. This was a bad idea.

Howie shook his head, looking equally uncertain. “It’s gonna be hard to hold it level going downhill.”

“Wait, downhill? Wouldn’t it be uphill?” asked Nick, nodding toward the road.

Howie raised his eyebrows. “Uphill? You don’t seriously think we’re gonna be able to carry Kevin back up to the road, do you? You could barely climb up there yourself!”

Nick felt his face heat up. “Well, I dunno… what’s your plan?” he fired back defensively. He hoped Howie wasn’t going to suggest carting Kevin through the dark woods, which were filled with bears and other wild animals. They would be safer on the road, where there was a higher chance of them running into another human.

“My plan was for one of us to go find a phone and call for help, dumbass!” Howie reminded him. “I don’t think we should be carrying Kevin anywhere!”

Nick fell silent. It was Kevin who broke it by saying, “C’mon, fellas, don’t fight. We don’t have time for that; it’s gettin’ dark already. Just try it, all right?”

“Nick first,” said Howie, motioning for Nick to lie down on the stretcher.

“Really?” said Nick with a derisive snort. “How you gonna lift me, Howie? I outweigh you by like thirty pounds.”

Howie gave him an annoyed look. “Just lie down, lardass.”

“I think we should at least add some duct tape first,” said Nick, reaching for the roll. He wrapped a length of duct tape around each end of the two poles to secure the edges of the blanket to the wood. Then he lay down face up on the stretcher and prayed it would be strong enough to hold him.

“Here goes nothing,” said Howie, sounding skeptical, as he stooped to grasp the poles near Nick’s head.

“Don’t drop me, dude,” Nick warned, as he felt his upper half being lifted off the ground. To his astonishment, the blanket stayed in place - the stretcher felt a lot sturdier than it looked. Howie held him at a forty-five degree angle for a few seconds, then slowly lowered him back to the ground. “How did it feel to you?” Nick asked him as he scrambled up from the stretcher.

Howie shrugged. “Okay, I guess. It’ll be easier with two of us, one at the head and one at the feet.” Like Nick, he seemed pleasantly surprised by the strength of the stretcher.

Nick looked at Kevin. “How are we gonna get him on it?” he asked in a low voice.

Howie thought for a moment. “We have to protect his spine. I don’t think we can lift him without bending his body. We’ll have to try rolling him instead. I’ve seen them do this on Grey’s Anatomy. If we do it right, we can keep his spine straight.”

“Dude, you watch Grey’s Anatomy?” Nick couldn’t help smirking as he gave Howie a sidelong glance.

Howie’s cheeks darkened. “Leigh likes it, okay?”

He snickered. “Yeah, okay. Whatever you say, Howie.”

“Will you just focus?” Howie snapped. “One of us needs to turn his upper half while the other one does the lower half at the same time. We can’t let him twist.”

“I call upper half,” Nick replied quickly.

Howie rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll get his legs and hips.”

They both crouched down at Kevin’s side, Howie on his left, Nick on his right, nearest the stretcher. “Okay, Kev, we’re gonna roll you onto your left side,” Howie explained. “Then Nick’s gonna slide the stretcher under you, and we’ll roll you back onto it. Does that sound like a plan?”

Kevin nodded. “Go for it,” he said with a grimace of pain.

“What about his backpack?” Nick asked, noticing it still wedged beneath Kevin’s upper body. “We should take it off him so we can lay him flat, right?”

“Yes… please,” Kevin begged. “It’s been digging into my back all day.”

Howie nodded. “Let’s just cut the straps. That’ll be easier than trying to get his arms out of them. Is that okay, Kev?”

Kevin gave another nod. “I don’t think I’m gonna be hiking again anytime soon,” he said quietly.

“You can’t think that way, Kevin,” Nick admonished him, as he used the kitchen shears he’d brought from the cabin to cut through the thick straps over Kevin’s shoulders. “The doctors are gonna fix you up and get you back on your feet. It may take a while, but once you’re fully recovered, you’ll be able to do whatever you want. You have to believe that. Positive thinkers get powerful results, remember? Some guy bought me a book about that once.” Swallowing the lump that had risen in his throat, he smiled down at Kevin, who had given him the self-help book he was referring to.

Kevin smiled sadly in return. “You may be right, Nick, but I also have to be realistic and accept the fact that I may never walk again.”

Nick shook his head, refusing to accept or even consider that possibility. He couldn’t imagine Kevin confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Howie cleared his throat. “You ready, Nick? We need to get going here.”

“Yeah. Let’s do it,” said Nick, grateful for the distraction. He put one hand on Kevin’s right shoulder and the other on his side, near the bottom of his rib cage. Reaching across Kevin’s body, Howie took hold of his right hip and thigh.

“Okay, on the count of three, we’re gonna roll him slowly toward me. Got it?” said Howie. Nick nodded. “One… two… three.” Nick began to push him up off the ground, as Howie tried to pull him over onto his side, but Kevin’s sharp hiss of pain made them both freeze. “What? What is it, Kev?” Howie asked worriedly.

“My back,” muttered Kevin through gritted teeth. “It’s killing me… but it’s okay; keep going.”

Howie gave Nick another uneasy look, but they both nodded, silently agreeing to continue. They rolled Kevin a little further, until Nick could slide the backpack out from under him and put the stretcher in its place. Kevin let out a another agonized gasp as they carefully lowered him onto it.

“Are you okay?” Nick asked anxiously, leaning over him. It was a dumb question, but he didn’t know what else to say.

Kevin was breathing hard, his eyes closed tight, his pale face contorted in pain. “Yeah,” he whispered, but when he finally opened his eyes again, they were full of tears.

“Here,” said Nick, rummaging through his own backpack for the bottle of Tylenol he’d brought. He twisted off the cap and shook two of the pills into his palm. “Take these.”

“He needs something stronger than Tylenol, Nick,” said Howie, shaking his head. “He should be in the hospital on a morphine drip.”

“No shit, Howie, but since this is all we have to give him now, it’s gotta be better than nothing, right?” Nick replied. “It should at least help take the edge off. C’mon, Kev, open up.”

Kevin opened his mouth, and Nick placed the tablets on his tongue. Then he tilted a bottle of water up to Kevin’s dry lips to wash them down with. Kevin swallowed with difficulty, spitting out some of the water as he started to cough, but the pills went down. Satisfied, Nick put both bottles back into his bag, zipped it shut, and slung it over his shoulders.

“The stretcher’s too short,” said Howie, frowning down at it. “His legs are gonna hang off the end.”

“So? We can still carry him on it.”

Howie shook his head. “It might put extra pressure on his back.”

“We could bend his knees to make his feet fit at the bottom,” Nick suggested.

“I don’t know if he’ll be able to keep his legs up like that. If they flop over, it might make him twist to one side,” Howie said uncertainly. “We need to keep his spine straight.”

Nick felt frustrated. His whole plan had become much more complicated than it had originally seemed in his head. “Okay, so let’s just try it like this and see. It might be fine.”

Howie sighed, but finally nodded. “All right, fine. We’ll try it this way.” He moved to the foot of the stretcher as Nick squatted near Kevin’s head.

“We’re gonna pick you up now, Kev,” Nick told him, then looked up at Howie. “Ready? On the count of three again: one… two… three.” Grasping the wooden poles, they slowly lifted the stretcher off the ground.

Kevin let out a strangled cry as the blanket sagged beneath his weight, causing his body to bend at the waist. “No, wait… put me back down!” he begged, as they hoisted him higher. “Please!”

Exchanging looks of horror, Nick and Howie quickly lowered him to the ground again, setting the stretcher down as gently as possible. “Sorry, Kev,” Howie apologized, looking stricken.

Kevin didn’t say anything, as tears streamed down his pale face. His upper body was trembling, while his lower half remained unnaturally still.

“We need to find something firm to put under him,” said Nick, looking around for something they could use as a backboard. Of course, there was nothing at all like that just lying around on the ground. He should have thought about that when he was back at the cabin; he could have searched the garage for a snow sled or even a piece of plywood.

“No, we need to find help,” Howie replied firmly.

Nick’s mind was still racing. “Maybe if we wait a while until the painkillers kick in, we could-”

“Nick!” Howie cried. “He needs an ambulance! Paramedics who have the right drugs and the right equipment and know what the hell they’re doing! We’re just gonna do more harm than good if we try to move him again.”

Nick looked down at Kevin. His eyes were squeezed shut again, his jaw clenched. His nostrils flared as he took noisy breaths in and out, trying to fight through the obvious pain he was in, a pain which Nick and Howie had only made worse. Nick didn’t want to put him through any more pain. “Okay,” he said with a nod and a sigh. “I’ll go get help.”

“How about I go get help, and you stay here with him?” Howie suggested, giving Nick a dubious look. Nick could tell he no longer trusted him to make good decisions.

“No, I wanna go,” Nick insisted. Really, he didn’t want to be left alone with Kevin. Not like this. He would rather keep running and risk coming across the bear again than have to sit here and watch Kevin suffer. “I won’t fuck up this time, I swear.”

Howie sighed. “Fine. But you better not come back again unless it’s in an ambulance.”

Nick nodded, determined to find help for Kevin or die trying. “You can count on me,” he said with a confidence he didn’t feel.

The trek back up to the road felt even more arduous the second time around, for the twilight was fading, and Nick’s limbs were tired. But he forced himself to keep climbing until he reached the top of the cliff from which Kevin had fallen. He kept one hand on the bottle of bear spray in the side pocket of his backpack and aimed his flashlight at the dark forest with the other, as he walked down the winding road to Bethlehem.

***


Chapter 14 by RokofAges75
Night fell quickly, and before Nick knew it, the sky was inky black. High above him, the moon was a mere sliver, mostly hidden behind the fast-moving clouds. Aside from the faint glow of a few stars filtering through the leaves of the tall trees that flanked the road, there was nothing but the beam of his flashlight to brighten his path.

He swept it back and forth, constantly panning across both sides of the road in front of him to prevent another animal from catching him by surprise. He kept his ears perked for the sound of approaching footsteps. More than once, he froze upon hearing the crack of a twig or the rustle of leaves, his hand ready to reach back and grab the bottle of bear spray, but nothing ever emerged from the forest. It’s just the wind, he told himself, feeling like a little kid again, afraid of monsters lurking in the dark.

The temperature had dropped as the breeze picked up. Dressed in nothing but a thin, gray t-shirt and basketball shorts, Nick shivered as his bare skin broke out in goosebumps. He wished he had thought to throw on a pair of long pants and a hoodie while he was back at the cabin. Then he pictured poor Kevin lying unprotected on the cold, damp ground, and he picked up his pace. Moving faster made him warmer as well.

As he jogged down the road, the beam of his flashlight bounced up and down. All of a sudden, he saw a glint of something red in his peripheral vision. He stopped running, his heart hammering in his chest, and turned to his right, pointing his flashlight toward the bushes by the side of the road. He pictured a pair of red eyes glowing between the branches, but if anything had been there before, it was gone now. He saw nothing but leaves.

He aimed his light at the ground, looking for footprints, but he didn’t see any sign of an animal. What he saw instead were two deep ruts in the mud. They looked like tire tracks. When he swept the light across the surface of the road, Nick realized there were matching skid marks on the pavement, as if a vehicle had lost control and run right off the road.

Heart pounding, he turned around and raised his flashlight over his head, shining it straight down into the ditch on the side of the road. His breath caught in his throat when the light reflected off something shiny and red at the bottom. As his eyes adjusted, he realized it was the taillight of a black SUV that was smashed up against the trunk of a tree. It was so far down from the road that Nick never would have noticed it in the dark, if not for his flashlight bouncing off the reflective surface.

He started toward it, following a trail of broken branches and flattened weeds the large vehicle had left in its wake as it crashed through the brush. As he got closer, he recognized it as a Range Rover. His heart came to a standstill as he suddenly realized what had happened to the rest of the group.

“BRIAN! AJ!” he screamed as he raced toward the Range Rover, imagining his brothers trapped inside, badly injured or possibly even dead. “God, please, no!” The interior was totally dark, but when Nick pressed his face against the front window, he saw a shadowy figure slumped in the passenger seat. It was impossible to tell who it was at first, until he shone his flashlight on the person’s face and recognized the features. “AJ!”

AJ’s eyes were closed, and he didn’t open them or move at all when Nick called his name and pounded on the glass with his palm. Fearing the worst, Nick pulled open the driver’s side door and slid inside. “AJ!” he shouted again, grabbing AJ by the shoulder and shaking him. AJ’s head lolled to one side, his chin drooping onto his bare chest. In the ghostly glow of Nick’s flashlight, it looked like he was dead.

“No… no…” Nick shook his head, telling himself it couldn’t be true - AJ was just unconscious; he couldn’t be dead. His skin was still warm to the touch. But it was hard to tell if he was breathing or not; Nick couldn’t hear anything but his own heavy panting. His hands were shaking, making it impossible to hold the flashlight still enough to see if AJ’s chest was rising. He finally pressed his palm flat against the left side of AJ’s chest and held it there until he felt the faint fluttering of a heartbeat.

His relief was short-lived, as he realized AJ’s heart was racing way too fast for someone who was at rest, his breathing so shallow Nick could barely feel his rib cage expand. Something was very wrong. And where was Brian?

Nick shone his light into the back seat, but it was empty. He turned back to AJ and patted the side of his face, lightly at first, then more violently. “AJ!” he shouted. “Wake up, AJ! Where’s Brian?”

AJ let out a low moan, but still didn’t open his eyes. Not sure what to do, Nick looked around again and found AJ’s phone sitting in the cupholder between the two front seats. He checked it for a signal, but like his own phone, it was still out of service range.

As he put AJ’s phone back, Nick’s eyes fell upon a bottle of Vitaminwater. It was only a quarter of the way full, but it would be better than plain water for replacing the electrolytes his body had lost while running. Impulsively, he twisted off the cap and took a big swig. As soon as it hit his tongue, he knew he had made a terrible mistake. The taste was bitter and strangely salty, nothing like the subtle orange flavor he had been expecting. As he spat it back out, gagging and sputtering, he realized he had just drank someone’s urine.

“Damn it, AJ!” he gasped, as he dropped the bottle in disgust. “What the fuck?!” At that moment, he was almost glad AJ was too out of it to witness what he’d done. He would never be able to live it down.

As Nick took his own water bottle out of his backpack and drank enough to wash the bad taste out of his mouth, he wondered what to do next. He didn’t want to leave AJ alone, but staying here with him wasn’t going to do any good. Clearly, the situation had gotten desperate if AJ and Brian had resorted to saving their urine. Brian must have gone for help, Nick realized. But had he found it? How long had it been since he’d left? The fact that AJ was still in the SUV suggested they hadn’t made it to the hospital the night before, which meant it had been almost a full day since the accident.

Where was Brian??

Nick had a bad feeling about his friend’s whereabouts. He had an even worse feeling about AJ’s condition, but he knew there was nothing he could do for him here. He had to find a working phone. Find help. Find Brian.

“Hang in there, bro,” he whispered, touching the side of AJ’s face again, softly this time. “I’ll be back.”

Then he climbed out of the Range Rover, closed the door, and scrambled back up to the road. He ran at full speed, racing down the mountain as fast as his legs could carry him. All thoughts of the bear had been cast aside, replaced by the fear that AJ could die if he didn’t call for help fast enough. And in the back of his mind, he couldn’t forget that Kevin was in bad shape, too. Howie was waiting for him. And Brian was still missing.

Nick put on a fresh burst of speed, his arms pumping back and forth as his feet pounded against the pavement. He panted for breath, his chest burning, his heart beating so frantically against his ribs, it felt ready to burst out of him like a caged bird taking flight. But still, he didn’t slow down until he came around a curve and saw a dark shape creeping along the side of the road ahead of him.

At first, he thought it was another animal, and he skidded to an abrupt stop, remembering the bear. His heart thumped in his ears as he raised his flashlight, shining it on the creature. That was when he realized it wasn’t an animal at all. It was human. It was…

“Brian?!”

Nick rushed to his friend’s side and gasped at what he saw. Brian was barely recognizable, his face bruised and swollen. Nick didn’t know if he could even see out of his two black eyes until he heard Brian croak, “Nick… thank God.” Then he collapsed to the ground.

Nick dropped down next to him and rolled him over onto his back, laying Brian’s head in his lap. “Bri? Come on, bro, stay with me,” he said worriedly, stroking his damp hair. Brian was drenched with sweat and breathing hard, his chest heaving beneath the wifebeater that clung to his body. He was clearly exhausted. By the look of him, he had been crawling on his hands and knees for quite a while - they were badly scraped and covered in dirt and blood, his skin worn away by the rough pavement. Tiny bits of rock were embedded in the torn, raw flesh. Nick took out his bottle of water and poured a little over Brian’s skinned hands and knees, trying to wash out his wounds.

Brian’s eyes fluttered as he came to, blinking up at Nick’s face in confusion. “Nick?” he said hoarsely.

“Hey, bro.” Nick smiled down at him in relief. “You blacked out for a second there. Are you okay?”

Brian shook his head. “AJ…”

“I know,” said Nick, his smile fading. “I found him in the car, maybe fifteen minutes ago. He’s not good. We need to get him some help.”

Brian nodded tiredly. “That’s what I was trying to do. But I busted my ankle in the accident... I can’t put weight on it.”

For the first time, Nick noticed his right foot wrapped in red fabric. “So you crawled this whole way?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. By his estimation, the Range Rover must have wrecked almost two miles up the road. It was quite an impressive feat for Brian to have dragged himself this far down the mountain.

Brian nodded again. Nick helped him sit up and handed him the bottle of water, watching him gulp down the last of it like he was dying of thirst. “Sorry,” said Brian breathlessly as he gave him back the empty bottle. “I hope you have more.”

Nick shook his head, wishing he had brought an extra one. “No… but we’ve gotta be getting close to the next cabin by now, don’t you think? Hopefully we can get a drink there.”

“I don’t know if I can make it,” said Brian, staring down the dark, winding road. “You go on and get help. I’ll wait here.”

“Yeah right, like I’d leave you lying on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere,” Nick replied, remembering the bear. “You’re coming with me. I’ll carry you if I have to.”

“Don’t be stupid. I’ll just slow you down.”

“Dude, I’m not leaving you here.” Nick was adamant. He had already been forced to leave both Kevin and AJ behind; he wasn’t about to leave Brian, too. “Come on, get up.” He grabbed Brian under the arms and helped him stand on his good foot. “Put your arm over my shoulders,” he said, as he positioned himself on Brian’s right side. He wrapped his own arm around Brian’s back, supporting some of his weight as he hopped along on his left leg. “There you go. I’ve got you.”

But Brian was too weak to make it more than a few feet this way. “I can’t,” he whispered, clinging to Nick as he wobbled on one leg. Nick could feel his whole body trembling and worried he was on the verge of collapsing again.

“Then I’ll carry you.” Nick sank into a squat. “Come on. Climb on my back.”

The faintest of smiles twitched at the corners of Brian’s cracked lips as he looked down at Nick in disbelief. “You gonna give me a piggyback ride, bro?”

“You bet,” said Nick, smiling back. “Saddle up, partner.”

“I’m gonna break your back,” Brian warned.

“No you won’t. You barely weigh more than my four-year-old.”

Brian snorted. “Whatever you say. I just hope you’ve got a good chiropractor, ‘cause you’re gonna need it after this.” Reluctantly, he hooked his right leg over Nick’s hip, wrapped his arms around Nick’s neck, and climbed up onto his back. He was heavier than Nick remembered, especially compared to Odin, but Nick tried not to show any signs of strain as he struggled to stand up. He rose slowly to his full height, holding onto Brian’s legs. “You okay?” Brian asked him.

“Yeah,” Nick grunted. “I’m good. Here… you hold the flashlight.” He handed it back, and Brian aimed it at road ahead as they continued along it, hoping to see the lights of another cabin around the next curve.

Carrying Brian on his back, Nick couldn’t keep running like he had before, but he was grateful for the company. “Where are the other guys?” Brian wanted to know, so Nick filled him in on everything that had happened since he’d gotten up that morning. Brian was horrified to hear of his cousin’s accident, but Nick found that talking about Kevin took his mind off his own fatigue and motivated him to move faster.

“So what happened to you and AJ?” he asked as he walked onward. “How’d you end up in the ditch?”

“We almost hit a moose!” Brian exclaimed. “That girl at the tree farm was right - it just wandered out into the middle of the road.”

Nick felt his eyes widen. “Damn, for real?”

“Yeah, it was huge! I slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve around it at the same time, but the road was wet, and I lost control.”

“Wow… you’re lucky you guys weren’t hurt worse,” said Nick, hitching Brian higher over his hips.

“That’s what we said. I just hope AJ’ll be okay…”

“He will be, once we get him to the hospital. He’ll have surgery, take some antibiotics, and be fine in a few days.” He had been trying to reassure Brian, but hearing himself say the words out loud made Nick feel a little better, too. He knew Brian put his faith in the hands of God, but Nick believed in the power of modern medicine to heal almost any affliction. “We just have to find a way to call an ambulance.”

He reached around Brian to retrieve his phone from his back pocket, hoping he had gotten them within range of a cell tower, but there were still no bars on its screen. He tried dialing 911 anyway, to no avail. “Still out of service,” he said with a sigh, stuffing the phone back in his pocket.

He felt Brian rooting around behind him, the flashlight bobbing up and down as he fished out his own phone. “My battery’s about dead,” Brian said after a few seconds, “and I don’t have a signal either.”

“We’ve gotta be getting close,” Nick said again. His back ached, his legs felt like two lead weights, and his feet were killing him, but the hope of seeing a house up ahead kept him plodding forward.

Silence fell between them as the fatigue set in again, both of them focused only on finding help for their friends. It was Brian who broke it by saying, “Y’know, it sounds weird to say, but this feels a little like the Christmas story.”

Nick frowned in confusion, wondering what part he was talking about. No one had shot their eye out with a Red Ryder BB gun or stuck their tongue to a flag pole. Maybe he was thinking of the kids running frantically to school and back, trying to avoid the bullies, just as Nick had been running up and down this road, trying to avoid the bear.

Thankfully, before he could respond, Brian continued, “I mean, here we are, traveling on foot, trying to get to Bethlehem…”

That was when Nick realized he was talking about the Christmas story in the Bible, not the movie called A Christmas Story. “Oh… right! So that would make you Mary, in your delicate condition.” He snickered as he boosted Brian higher on his back. “And I’d be Joseph.”

“Technically, I think you’d be the donkey,” joked Brian.

“Heeeeee-haw!” Nick brayed, throwing back his head. It felt good to laugh - and to forget, for just a moment, what they were doing there. But the moment didn’t last long, as he was quickly reminded of Kevin and AJ. He lowered his head and hurried onward.

He had only walked a few more paces when he heard a high-pitched howl. It sent shivers down his spine. He froze, his heart skipping a beat. “What the hell was that?”

“Coyote,” Brian said quietly. “AJ and I heard them last night, too.”

Of course it was a coyote. Nick should have known that; coyotes were native to the desert where he lived. On a quiet night, he could occasionally hear them howling outside the walls of his gated community. He had never felt frightened of them until now. But there were no walls to hide behind in these woods, no fences to protect him from the predatory wild animals that lurked among the trees.

“I shouldn’t have made that noise,” he said, looking around nervously. “Do coyotes eat donkeys?”

Brian chuckled. “I doubt it. Donkeys are bigger; I bet they could kick a coyote’s ass. Besides, you didn’t sound that much like an actual donkey, dude. Don’t worry about it.”

Still haunted by his encounter with the bear, Nick couldn’t help but worry. “I got a bottle of bear repellant in my backpack. Think it’ll work on coyotes, too?”

“No clue,” replied Brian. “Relax, Nick - I bet it’s not even close. Sound carries in the mountains. It could be miles away from us.”

Nick hoped Brian was right, but he remained on high alert as they continued on down the road.

Finally, by the faint glow of the flashlight, his eyes picked out the dark silhouette of a small dwelling tucked into the trees on the right side of the road. As he approached it, Nick saw the Trump sign in the front yard and realized it was the same hovel Kevin had teased Brian about on the drive up to the cabin. That seemed like a lifetime ago, though it had only been a few days.

“Thank God,” Brian breathed in his ear, and Nick agreed. He had never felt so happy to see the phrase “Make America Great Again!” For the first time, it represented hope and humanity, rather than hatred and horror. He hurried toward it.

The house itself was dark and quiet. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s home,” said Brian uncertainly, as Nick cut across the sloping lawn. He could feel dew soaking into the sides of his sneakers as they flattened the overgrown grass, wearing down a footpath.

“The power’s probably out, like it is back at our cabin,” he replied, picking his way through a thick patch of weeds. “Or maybe they went to bed. Let’s knock and pray someone answers.”

Brian aimed the flashlight at the sagging front porch, but a few feet from it, Nick tripped over something hidden in the tall grass. He heard a loud clatter as it caught him across both shins, causing him to stumble. The flashlight flew out of Brian’s hand as he was thrust forward; it hit the ground with a thump and immediately went out.

“Damn,” Nick swore, but managed to regain his balance.

“You okay?” Brian asked shakily.

“Yeah…” Nick bent down, rubbing his shins, and realized he had nearly fallen over some sort of fence made of empty beer cans hanging from a length of clothesline rope that had been staked into the ground. “What the hell?” he muttered, squinting at it in the dark.

Before he could find the flashlight to get a better look, the front door of the house burst open. “You best get the hell outta here if you know what’s good for you!” he heard a deep, angry voice shout. “Go on! Shoo!”

Straightening up, Nick opened his mouth to respond, but his words were drowned out by a loud blast. He saw a brief flash of light, felt a burning pain in his chest, and heard a hoarse scream come from Brian, as he fell backwards without knowing what had hit him.

***


Chapter 15 by RokofAges75
It happened in an instant. One second, Brian was on Nick’s back, and the next thing he knew, he was on the ground, pinned underneath him. At first, he wasn’t able to process what had happened, for the force of Nick’s full weight falling on top of him had knocked the wind out of him. He gasped for air as he struggled to get out from under his friend’s body, his right foot throbbing, his ears ringing.

Nick finally rolled off of him with a grunt, bringing Brian some relief. He lay on his back for several more seconds, clutching his broken ankle and trying to catch his breath, before he recovered enough to sit up. Looking around, he found Nick lying in the grass a few feet away from him. By the faint light of the crescent moon emerging from behind the clouds, he could see him holding the left side of his chest. His first thought was that Nick was having a heart attack. “Nick?” he asked, his own heart lodging in his throat. “You all right?”

Before Nick could answer, he heard another voice exclaim, “Oh my god!” Brian glanced up to see the silhouette of a heavyset man hurrying toward him, holding a lantern in one hand. “Oh my god!” the man cried again as he raised the lantern over his head, shining it on Nick and Brian. “I… I thought it was that damn bear back again! I didn’t know...”

Brian just gaped at him senselessly until he saw the gleam of metal in the man’s other hand and realized he was carrying a hunting rifle. That was when he finally understood: It wasn’t the strain of carrying him that had caused Nick to collapse. He had been shot.

Scrambling to his knees, Brian crawled frantically to Nick’s side. “Lemme see,” he said, pushing Nick’s hand out of the way. Under the light of the lantern, he looked down to see a dark circle spreading across the front of Nick’s t-shirt, staining the gray fabric black. He grabbed the bottom of the shirt and lifted it to reveal a small, round bullet hole on the left side of Nick’s chest. Blood was flowing freely from it. Brian froze, staring at it with dismay.

“I’ll call 911,” the man said, his voice shaking. He left the lantern with Nick and Brian as he turned and trotted back toward his house. “Better put pressure on that!” he shouted over his shoulder.

That snapped Brian out of his stupor. He hastily untied AJ’s hoodie from around his waist and held it tight against Nick’s wound. “Owww...” Nick moaned, twisting away from him. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Trying to stop the bleeding!”

“Bleeding?” Blinking in confusion, Nick held his hand up in front of his face and inspected it in the light. His palm was covered in bright red blood. “Fuck,” he swore under his breath, staring at it with morbid fascination. He looked just as stunned as Brian had felt a few moments earlier.

Brian took a deep breath. “You’ve been shot, Nick,” he told him, “but you’re gonna be okay. It’s not that bad.” He hated lying to his little brother, but at that moment, keeping him calm seemed more important than being honest.

“I wanna see,” said Nick curiously, lifting his head to look down at himself.

Brian shook his head, knowing the sight of blood spurting from the hole in his chest would only freak Nick out more. “No,” he said firmly, putting one hand on Nick’s forehead and forcing him back down until he was lying flat again. “Just lie still and let me put pressure on it. I know it hurts, but we have to stop the bleeding.”

The front door banged open again, and the shadowy figure of the man who had shot him appeared on the porch. His power must have been out, too, because the house behind him was still dark, but he was holding a lit candle in one hand and a corded phone receiver to his ear. “Is he breathing?” he hollered at Brian.

“Yes!” Brian called back.

“He awake?”

“Yes!”

He heard the man repeat this information and realized he must have reached an emergency dispatcher.

“It’s gonna be all right, Nick,” said Brian, turning back to his brother. But his relief was short-lived: Nick’s breathing had already become noticeably more labored, his nostrils flaring as he sucked in short, shallow gasps of air. “Help is on the way,” Brian tried to reassure him, wanting to hear the words aloud himself. “Just hang in there.”

But in the back of his mind, he remembered how far away they were from the nearest hospital, as AJ’s words from the night before came back to haunt him. “Half an hour? Damn... Good thing I’m not having a heart attack, or I might be dead by the time we made it there.” He knew that if Nick stopped breathing or bled out before the ambulance arrived, he wouldn’t make it off the mountain alive.

“It’s getting hard to breathe,” Nick admitted, his chest heaving beneath Brian’s hands each time he inhaled. “It hurts…”

“I know.” Brian glanced back at the house, hoping the man would hurry up. “He thought you were a bear,” he told Nick, shaking his head. “Can you believe that?”

A faint smile flickered across Nick’s face. “Actually... I can,” he said between ragged breaths. “I saw the bear, too. So did Kev.”

“For real?” said Brian, raising his eyebrows. He wasn’t really worried about bears, but he wanted to keep Nick talking for as long as he could.

“Yeah… wait till I tell Odin... I almost got eaten by a bear.” For a moment, Nick’s smile was back, but it quickly faded again as tears filled his eyes. “If I don’t make it… you have to tell him... and Saoirse... and Lauren... how much I love them.”

A lump rose in Brian’s throat as he looked down at his little brother. “You know I would, Nick,” he replied hoarsely, “but I won’t need to. You’re gonna tell them yourself.”

Nick nodded, sniffling. A solitary tear trickled down his cheek. As Brian reached out to wipe it away, he remembered being nineteen and trying to comfort fourteen-year-old Nick as he cried in the bathroom of their hotel room on one of the Backstreet Boys’ first tours. It had been Nick’s first time traveling without his mom or dad, and he was homesick. Unbeknownst to Nick, his parents had appointed Brian to be his temporary guardian, a responsibility the teenaged Brian had taken seriously. He had already become a best friend and big brother to the baby of their group, but on that tour, Brian took on the additional role of another father figure. Now Nick was the father, missing his son and daughter. Brian was determined to make sure he made it home to them.

He heard the front door of the cabin creak open and slam closed again, followed by the sound of fast-approaching footsteps. “Ambulance is on the way,” said the man who lived there, as he stepped into the lantern’s circle of light. Brian glanced up, getting a good look at him for the first time. He was old, in his late sixties at least, and overweight, with a bushy gray beard that hid his double chin. A stained white undershirt was stretched tight across his ample belly, which hung over the waistband of his plaid boxer shorts. His bare feet were wedged into a pair of worn, brown slippers. Judging by the way he was dressed, he must have been in bed when he’d heard the noise of Nick tripping over his beer can booby trap. The gunshot must have been a gut reaction, a terrible accident rather than a malicious attack.

“How long will it take?” asked Brian.

“Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.”

Imagining how much more blood Nick would lose in that amount of time, Brian shook his head. “He doesn’t have that long,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth, hoping Nick wouldn’t hear. “Do you have a car? Can you drive us down the mountain? Maybe we could meet the paramedics halfway.”

The man stroked his beard, seeming to consider his request for a few seconds before he finally answered. “I got a truck. Guess it’s the least I could do.”

You shot my little brother! Damn right it’s the least you can do! thought Brian angrily, but all he said was, “Thank you.”

The man nodded. “Gimme a minute.”

Move it! Brian wanted to yell as he watched him head back up to the house, but again, he said nothing, knowing he and Nick were at the man’s mercy. He didn’t have to help them, and if he decided not to, Nick would probably bleed to death before the paramedics made it all the way there. The man who had harmed him was now his only hope.

“Hang on, Nick,” Brian said softly, still holding AJ’s sweatshirt over the bullet hole. “We’re gonna get you to the hospital.”

He heard an engine roar to life and looked up to see a pair of headlights heading toward them. The man parked his rusty red pick-up truck a few feet away and jumped out, leaving the engine running as he lowered the tailgate. “He’s gonna have to go in the back!” he called to Brian. “I ain’t got enough room up front. Don’t want blood dripping all over the seats neither.”

“That’s fine,” Brian forced himself to reply, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. “I’ll ride in the back with him.” He looked down at Nick, wondering how they were going to get him into the truck. Brian couldn’t even put weight on his broken ankle, let alone carry Nick’s weight. He felt terrible about that, for Nick had carted him around on his back without complaint for close to a mile, and now, when Nick needed him, he was unable to return the favor. “Hey, Nick, we need to move you to the truck now. Do you think you can stand?”

“Y-yeah,” said Nick breathlessly.

Brian slid his hand under Nick’s back, supporting him as he sat up. “Hold this,” he said, taking Nick’s hand and placing it over the bunched-up hoodie that was covering his wound. “Keep pressure on it.”

Nick nodded. The color had drained from his face, leaving him looking worryingly pale.

Brian turned back to the old man. “You’re gonna have to help him the rest of the way. I was in an accident a ways back up the mountain and broke my ankle. I can’t walk on it.”

“Sure,” said the man with a shrug. “C’mon, son.” He grabbed Nick’s other hand and pulled him painfully to his feet. “Here, put your arm around my shoulders.” He wrapped his own arm around Nick’s waist as he walked him to the truck.

Halfway there, Nick’s knees suddenly buckled. “Nick!” gasped Brian, as Nick slumped forward in a dead faint. If not for the man holding him up, he would have collapsed to the ground, but the man tightened his grip and practically dragged him across the grass.

With difficulty, Brian stood on his left leg and hopped after them, scrambling into the bed of the truck to help hoist Nick’s limp body into it. He hooked his arms under Nick’s and around his back, hugging him tight to his chest as the man boosted his lower half up into the truck. By scooting backward, Brian was able to drag Nick far enough for his long legs to fit. The man handed him the lantern, then slammed the tailgate shut and climbed behind the wheel, while Brian sat with his back pressed against the cab and Nick’s head in his lap.

“Hold on,” he pleaded, stroking Nick’s sweaty hair with one hand while the other applied pressure to his wound. “Please, just hold on.”

***


Chapter 16 by RokofAges75
The truck peeled out of the gravel driveway and raced down the road to Bethlehem. Between the rumbling of the engine and the bumpiness of the ride, Brian couldn’t tell if Nick was breathing or not. He tried feeling his neck for a pulse, but had trouble finding one. Any vibration in his body seemed as likely to be caused by the bouncing of the truck bed as a heartbeat. Only by holding his hand under Nick’s nose until he felt a faint puff of warm air on his fingertips could Brian reassure himself that his friend was still alive.

He didn’t know if Nick could hear him, but he kept talking to him, just in case. “Stay with me, Frack,” he leaned forward to whisper in his ear. A lump rose in his throat when he found himself using a nickname he hadn’t heard in years. Frick and Frack… They had been thick as thieves back in the day. Even now, the mere thought of losing his best friend, his little brother, made Brian’s heart hurt.

Reaching back, he rapped his knuckles on the rear window until the old man slid it open. “Hey, do you have a cell phone that works up here?” Brian called into the cab. “We should let the 911 dispatcher know we’re coming.”

“Nope!” the truck’s driver replied proudly. “Never have, never will - especially not now with that 5G spreading the China virus around the world.”

Brian really did roll his eyes that time. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own phone, praying for a signal. Despite his earlier efforts to conserve his battery, it had dropped to ten percent, and he still had no bars. He tried dialing 911 anyway, but the call didn’t go through. “Do you know how much further we have to drive before I can get a cell signal?” he asked desperately.

“Not a clue,” said the man with a shrug. “I’m going just as fast as I can.”

Brian nodded. He knew what a risk the man was taking in flying down the dark, winding road in a pick-up truck, which probably wouldn’t fare much better than the Range Rover if another large animal crossed its path. But even so, he felt frustrated by their remote location. Nick’s life seemed to be slipping away before Brian’s eyes. He had already lost consciousness, and each passing second brought him closer to death, each precious heartbeat pumping more blood out of his body through the bullet hole in his chest. Despite Brian’s best efforts to staunch the flow, he could feel it soaking through AJ’s sweatshirt, warm and sticky on his palm. How much more blood could Nick afford to lose before his heart stopped beating?

“How’s he doing?” the man wanted to know.

He’s dying, Brian thought desperately, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. “Not good,” he said instead. “We need to get him to the hospital.”

“I’m working on it,” said the man, as he accelerated around a curve. Brian threw one hand out to brace himself, clinging tightly to Nick’s body with the other. “Name’s Richard, by the way,” the man called back to him. “What’s yours?”

“Brian,” he replied, turning to meet the man’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “And his name is Nick.”

Richard gave a brief nod. “So I heard. How do the two of you know each other?”

Brian couldn’t tell if he was interrogating him or just making conversation, trying to take his mind off what was happening to Nick. Assuming a man in Richard’s age range wouldn’t have recognized them as two of the Backstreet Boys, he kept his answer simple: “We’re brothers.”

“Ah, okay,” said Richard, sounding relieved. “For a minute there, I thought you might be a couple of fags.” He flashed a gap-toothed grin in the mirror.

Brian bristled at the slur, his heart beating faster as his face flushed with anger. So what if we were? he wanted to say, but he bit his tongue, telling himself to ignore it. It didn’t matter in the moment. All that mattered now was Nick.

Keeping one hand pressed firmly over Nick’s wound, he held his phone in the other, watching the battery power dwindle as he waited for bars to appear. It was dying, just like Nick. The red life force was rapidly draining from both of them, and there was nothing Brian could do to stop it.

Nothing except pray.

He began to pray in earnest, begging for strength for Nick and a signal for his phone. He prayed that the man’s truck would make it safely down the mountain and that the ambulance would reach them in time. He prayed for the paramedics who would face the daunting task of keeping Nick alive until they dropped him off at the hospital, and for the doctors and nurses who would take over then. He prayed for AJ and Kevin, who were still waiting to be rescued, and for Howie, who must have felt just as scared and helpless as he did.

One of his prayers was answered when he felt his phone vibrate in his hand. He looked down and saw a single bar on its screen. A weak signal was better than nothing. Brian prayed it would be enough. He dialed 911 again and put the phone to his ear, his heart racing as he listened to it ring.

“911. What’s your emergency?” a woman’s voice answered.

Brian felt his throat tighten and took a deep breath, hoping his voice wouldn’t betray him. “My friend’s been shot,” he said shakily. “The man who shot him called for an ambulance a few minutes ago, but I wanted to let y’all know we’re driving toward Bethlehem to meet it right now.”

“Okay, can you describe your location for me?”

Brian’s mind went blank. With a flood of panic, he realized he had no idea where they were. He didn’t remember the name of the road or even the mountain they were on, and there weren’t any obvious landmarks along their route - no street signs or stores to use as a point of reference. “I-I dunno… hang on.” He thrust his phone through the open window to the old man behind the wheel. “I’ve got 911 again. Tell them where we are.”

As Richard talked to the dispatcher, Brian turned his attention back to Nick. Lying between Brian’s legs, his body looked lifeless. “We’re almost to the ambulance,” he whispered, brushing Nick’s hair back off his forehead. His skin felt clammy and cool. “Stay with me, bro.”

To his amazement, Nick’s eyes fluttered open. “Brian?” he croaked.

“Yeah, buddy,” said Brian, smiling down at him with relief. “I’m right here. How ya feelin’?”

“Bad. I can’t breathe,” Nick complained, bringing his right hand to his chest. “It really hurts…” As he trailed off, Brian heard him take a huge, rasping breath, the air rattling around in his lungs. Then his chest hitched, his breath seeming to catch in his throat as he exhaled, and he began to cough uncontrollably.

Brian watched in horror as frothy pink phlegm foamed from his friend’s lips, flecks of it spraying him in the face. His heart skipped a beat when he realized Nick was coughing up blood. Worried he would choke on it, he grabbed Nick by the shoulders and turned him onto his left side. More blood gushed out of the bullet hole in his chest, as the sweatshirt Brian had been using as a bandage slipped off of it. Brian balled it up again and wedged it between Nick’s body and the bottom of the truck bed, trying to absorb as much of the blood as he could. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle. Nick’s face was getting grayer and grayer as he continued to cough and gag, a geyser of blood erupting out of his mouth.

“Breathe, Nick,” Brian urged him, gripping his shoulder as he held the hoodie tight to his chest. “Just breathe.” There was nothing else he could do but watch and wait, which was a very helpless feeling.

Finally, the coughing fit subsided. “You all right, buddy?” Brian asked in relief, as Nick’s body began to relax.

There was no answer.

“Nick?” Brian’s voice rose as he shook his shoulder, lightly at first, then a little rougher. Nick remained unresponsive. His head flopped around like a heavy rag doll’s as Brian pulled his limp upper body into his arms, cradling him like a child. “C’mon, Frack,” Brian begged, patting the sides of his pale face. “Please…” But Nick’s eyes remained closed, his mouth hanging open. He had lost consciousness again.

A cool breeze whipped through Brian’s curls as he bent down, putting his face close to Nick’s to listen for sounds of breathing. It brought with it an even more beautiful sound: the high-pitched wail of a siren.

Brian’s heart leapt as he straightened up and looked around. “You hear that, Richard?” he asked hoarsely, tears of relief filling his eyes.

“I do,” the truck’s driver confirmed. “It’s getting closer. Good thing, ‘cause I think your phone just died. We got cut off.” He handed Brian his phone, useless now.

“Please just hurry!” Brian urged him as he crammed the phone back into his pocket, still clutching Nick’s lifeless body. He couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. “He needs help now!”

Richard took the next curve too fast. Riding unrestrained in the back of the truck, Brian toppled over. A fresh burst of pain flared up from his broken ankle as he rolled onto his right side, but the rush of pure adrenaline pumping through his body kept him from feeling the full effect of it.

As he pulled himself back up, rearranging Nick in his arms, he saw flashing red and white lights reflecting through the trees. An ambulance was racing up the road toward them.

Richard turned on his hazard lights and pulled over, parking the truck on the side of the road as the ambulance approached. It slowed to a stop in front of them, and two paramedics jumped out. One of them went around to open the back door while the other ran ahead to the truck.

“This the gunshot victim?” she asked.

“Yes - help him, please!” Brian cried. “I think he stopped breathing!”

The woman climbed nimbly over the tailgate and took Nick from his arms. “You need to give us some space to work,” she warned him, as she lay Nick flat on the bottom of the truck bed. Brian scooted back into the corner and watched as she bent over Nick’s body to examine him.

The other paramedic hoisted himself into the truck. “What have we got?”

“White male in his late thirties with what looks like a single GSW to the left chest. I felt a faint pulse, but he’s in respiratory arrest,” replied the female paramedic. “He needs an airway.”

“Get a full set of vitals. I’ll bag him.” The male paramedic opened his medical kit and started taking out equipment. He tilted Nick’s head back and placed an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. Meanwhile, the woman worked around him, cutting off Nick’s blood-soaked t-shirt, covering his wound with a bandage, and attaching pads to his bare chest.

A police car pulled up behind the ambulance, and a man in a brown uniform stepped out. He approached Richard, who was pacing along the roadside, and started asking him questions. “I was just trying to defend myself!” Brian heard Richard exclaim at one point. “The two of them was trespassing on my property, and I thought it was that damn bear that’s been causing trouble ‘round these parts. The second amendment guarantees me the right to have a hunting rifle, so-”

Brian tuned the rest out, turning his attention back to Nick.

“He’s tachy at one-forty and hypotensive with a B.P. of eighty palp,” the female paramedic reported, as she pressed her fingers to the inside of Nick’s wrist.

“He’s lost a lot of blood. He’s in shock,” said her partner, squeezing the bag attached to the oxygen mask on Nick’s face. “We need to get his volume back up before we lose his pulse. Start a large-bore IV in each arm and run in two liters of normal saline.”

The woman knelt next to Nick and inserted an intravenous line into the crook of his elbow. “How’s his breathing?” she asked, as she hooked up an IV bag of clear fluid.

The male paramedic listened to Nick’s chest with a stethoscope as he pumped air into his lungs. “Good breath sounds on the right, but absent on the left,” he said. “Probably a tension pneumo.”

“He needs a needle thoracostomy,” his partner replied. “Let’s get him into the rig, where there’s better light.”

“Wait, what’s happening?” asked Brian, who had only understood about half of what he had heard.

“He has a collapsed lung, caused by a collection of air and blood leaking into his chest,” the female paramedic explained, as she and her partner put Nick onto a stretcher. “We need to do a procedure to relieve the pressure and reinflate his lung so he can breathe better. We’re also giving him fluids to replace the blood he’s lost.”

“Is he gonna make it?”

The medics exchanged glances, their expressions grim. “His condition is critical,” the man admitted to Brian, “but we’re gonna do the best we can to keep him alive until we get him to the hospital.”

Brian’s heart dropped. “Hang on, Nick,” he pleaded desperately, as they strapped Nick’s body to the stretcher. “Your family needs you. The group needs you. The world needs you. Stay with us, bro!” He wasn’t sure if Nick could still hear him, but he knew it might be the last time he got to talk to him. He wanted his words to be encouraging ones.

“Where are you taking him?” asked the police officer, approaching the paramedics.

The two of them looked at each other again. “He needs a Level I trauma center,” the woman said.

The man shook his head. “The nearest one’s over an hour away from here. He’ll never make it. Let’s take him to Littleton; they can at least stabilize him there and then airlift him to Lebanon if they need to.”

As they loaded the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, the officer turned to Brian. “I’m Deputy Smith with the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department. Can you step out of the truck, please, sir? I’d like to talk to you and take your statement now.”

“I would, but I can’t walk,” said Brian, shaking his head. “I hurt my ankle in a car accident.” His heart skipped a beat as he suddenly remembered AJ and Kevin. “There’s two more men further up the mountain who need help. One of them is really sick, and the other one’s hurt bad.”

“What happened?” asked the deputy, his brow creasing in confusion.

Brian hurriedly explained everything he could. He told him about almost hitting the moose in the road as he tried to rush AJ to the hospital in the middle of the night. He recounted how he had climbed up the hill on his hands and knees and crawled down the road until Nick came to his rescue. Then he relayed Nick’s story about Kevin’s fall. “We were just trying to find a phone to call for help, because neither of our phones would work,” he went on. “We were walking up to Richard’s house to knock on the door when Nick tripped over this fence thing he had rigged up in the yard. It made a loud racket, and the next thing I heard was the gun going off.”

“He claims it was an accident,” said Deputy Smith. “I’m going to take him into custody while we conduct our preliminary investigation.”

Brian nodded. He didn’t care what happened to Richard. He was more concerned about Nick, Kevin, and AJ.

“I’ll call for back-up and get a couple more ambulances up here. Sit tight.” The deputy went back to his police cruiser to place the call on his radio. Brian remained in the bed of Richard’s truck, watching as the male paramedic emerged from the back of the ambulance and climbed into the cab. He pulled forward, making a three-point turn in the middle of the road to head back down the mountain.

“Help is on the way,” said the sheriff’s deputy when he came back. “Would you like to ride up the mountain with me and show me where you friends are, or would you rather wait here for another ambulance?”

“I’ll go with you,” Brian replied quickly. The pain in his ankle was nothing compared to what Kevin and AJ must be going through. He had almost become accustomed to it by that point.

Deputy Smith helped him hobble to his police cruiser. As Brian climbed into the passenger seat, he realized Richard was already sitting in the back.

“Your brother gonna be okay?” he asked Brian through the metal barrier that separated the front seats from the back. He sounded subdued and remorseful.

A lump rose in Brian’s throat as he watched the ambulance race away down the winding road with its lights flashing and full siren wailing. He swallowed hard. “God, I hope so.”

***


Chapter 17 by RokofAges75
Howie was getting worried again. Another two hours had passed since Nick had gone to get help for the second time, and he still hadn’t returned. Night had fallen, rendering the woods around them pitch black. The flashlight Howie had found in Kevin’s pack offered the only relief from the otherwise impenetrable darkness, but Howie was afraid to leave it on for too long. If the batteries died, he would have no way of signaling the rescuers he hoped were on their way.

“Where the hell is he?” Howie muttered, switching on the flashlight and shining it up at the road. There was no sign of Nick, nor anyone else.

Kevin moaned in response, his eyelids fluttering as Howie focused the flashlight’s beam on his pale face. He had been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last hour, despite Howie’s efforts to keep him awake. Howie had always heard you weren’t supposed to let someone with a head injury go to sleep, even though it would have been a welcomed relief for Kevin. He looked so miserable lying there with nothing but a wet blanket between his broken body and the cold, hard ground.

Howie had done his best to keep Kevin warm and dry, dismantling the stretcher and draping the bedsheet Nick had brought over the broom and mop handles to construct a crude lean-to. This had helped to block the wind, but it hadn’t kept out the cold. The temperature had dropped significantly since the sun had gone down, and Kevin couldn’t seem to stop shivering. His upper body trembled uncontrollably beneath the thin windbreaker he was wearing, while his lower half, clad in a pair of baggy cargo shorts, remained totally still. Howie supposed Kevin’s injury was preventing his paralyzed legs from responding properly to the cold, but he worried about his bare skin being exposed to the elements.

He had once heard the surprising statistic that more people died of hypothermia during the summer months than in the winter. Ill-prepared hikers were especially prone to it, due to the unpredictable weather conditions in the mountains and the drastic difference in temperature between the base and the summit. Howie shook his head regretfully as he looked down at himself, realizing he had made the same rookie mistake as most of those other inexperienced hikers. Dressed in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt himself, he was freezing. But at least he could keep himself warm by moving around. He was more concerned about Kevin, who couldn’t move a muscle below his waist. Howie wished he had another blanket with which to cover Kevin’s body, but all he could do was rub Kevin’s deadened legs with his hands and hope it helped to keep the blood flowing through them.

“Stay with me, bro,” he murmured, squeezing his knee. He didn’t know if Kevin could feel the pressure he was putting on it, so he patted his hand for good measure. “Nick’s gonna be back any minute with help. We just have to hang on until then.”

He was trying to stay positive for Kevin’s state of mind, but in his head, he pleaded for Nick to hurry. He wasn’t sure how much longer Kevin could hold on.

***


“How much further do you think it is?” asked the sheriff’s deputy, as he drove up the mountain road.

Brian squinted out the windows of the squad car, desperately searching for some indication of where they were. They had gone by Richard’s house, but beyond it, there were no obvious landmarks, only trees. He didn’t recognize anything in the dark.

“We have to be getting close,” he answered uncertainly, hoping they hadn’t already passed the place where he had wrecked the Range Rover. He wasn’t sure they would be able to see it from the road.

Deputy Smith slowed down. He leaned forward over the steering wheel, studying the pavement in front of them. “Look… skid marks,” he said suddenly, pointing out the windshield as he applied the brakes. “Do you think this is where you went off the road?”

Brian looked to his left, but it was impossible to see through the thick brush along the roadside. “Yeah, it could be. I’m not a hundred percent sure.”

Smith pulled over onto the narrow shoulder and put the car in park. “Wait here,” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt. “I’ll take a closer look.” He retrieved a large, high-powered flashlight from the trunk and walked across the road, shining it into the ditch. After a few seconds, he came running back to the car. “There’s a vehicle down there alright,” he said, as he reached for his radio. Brian’s heart leapt. He listened to the deputy describe their location to the dispatcher. “A couple more ambulances should be coming soon,” he told Brian. “I’m gonna go down there and check it out. You wait here.”

“Okay,” Brian agreed, knowing there was no use in arguing. As much as he wished he could check on AJ himself, the thought of dragging himself back down into the ditch was not an appealing one. He was beyond exhausted, and his scraped hands and knees hurt almost as much as his broken ankle. All he could do was close his eyes and pray that they hadn’t arrived too late.

“Hey…” Richard’s voice drifted up from the back seat. “You’re not gonna press charges, are you? It was an accident. I hope you know that.”

Brian opened his eyes and turned around to stare at him in disbelief. “You pointed a gun at my friend, pulled the trigger, and shot him in the chest.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Friend? I thought you said he was your brother.”

“He is my brother - and my best friend - and he could die because of you!” Brian cried, feeling his heart beat faster. “Accident or not, we have every right to press charges.”

Richard puffed out his chest. “Well, I have the right to defend myself against trespassers on my property, animal or otherwise. It’s called the second amendment!”

Brian shook his head. For a brief moment, he felt like he was back home, arguing with Leighanne again. “The second amendment gives you the right to bear arms, not to shoot innocent people on sight!” he shouted, his grief giving way to anger. “What you did wasn’t self-defense; it was manslaughter! If he dies, you’re facing a felony.”

“I got him help, didn’t I?” Richard retorted. “I did everything I could to save his life.”

“You did everything you could to save your own ass,” Brian muttered back. “Look, if you really want to help, you can shut the hell up and pray. That’s what I’m going to do.”

He turned around to face forward again, and to his relief, Richard fell silent. Whether he was actually praying or not, Brian did not know, nor did he care. He hoped his own prayers would carry more weight than the old man’s, anyway. He bowed his head and prayed hard for Nick… and for AJ… and for Kevin.

He was still immersed in silent prayer when he heard Richard speak again. “Hey… you awake up there? I think I heard an ambulance.”

Brian lifted his head hopefully. He heard it, too: a faint siren, growing steadily louder. “Thank you, Lord,” he murmured.

The deputy had left his lights flashing, so it was easy for the other first responders to find them. As promised, a pair of ambulances pulled up next to the police cruiser, and another two teams of paramedics climbed out. One team went down into the ditch to help AJ while the other stayed back to evaluate Brian.

“Where are you injured, sir?” a woman asked, shining a flashlight into the passenger seat.

“Mainly just my ankle,” Brian replied. “I think it may be broken.”

“But where’s all this blood coming from?” she added with more urgency, motioning to his chest.

Brian looked down at himself. The front of his white shirt, the wifebeater he had borrowed from AJ, was covered with blood. “It’s not mine,” he managed to say, though his throat had grown tight. “It’s Nick’s blood.”

She and her partner helped him out of the car and onto a stretcher. They put him in the back of an ambulance, where they removed the makeshift bandages from around his ankle to examine it. “You do have a lot of swelling and bruising,” said the female paramedic, as she gently poked and prodded his lower leg, “but I don’t feel any bones protruding. You have good foot pulses, which means your circulation hasn’t been compromised. All positive signs.”

Brian nodded, but at that moment, he didn’t care much about his ankle. His main concern was for his brothers.

After what felt like forever, but was probably only a few minutes, he looked out the open doors of the ambulance to see the other team of paramedics push a stretcher past. Brian caught a brief glimpse of AJ lying flat on it. His body was covered by a blanket, but his face was just visible above it. His eyes appeared to be closed, and there was an oxygen mask strapped over his mouth and nose. He wasn’t moving at all.

“Is he gonna be okay?” Brian called out, his voice quavering. But no one would answer him.

***


Another half hour had passed, and Howie’s own anxiety was at an all-time high. The longer he had to wait for help to arrive, the more he let his imagination run wild, filling his head with worst-case scenarios for why it was taking so long. What if Nick had been attacked by the bear he had encountered earlier? Or electrocuted by the downed power lines? Or kidnapped by crazy, backwoods cannibals?

The worst part was not knowing. Not knowing if Nick, AJ, and Brian were okay. Not knowing how much longer he and Kevin would have to wait out here in the cold. More than anything, Howie hated not knowing.

The one thing he did know was that Kevin’s condition was only going to get worse without medical treatment. His original injuries were serious enough, but being out in the elements instead of in a warm hospital bed was putting him at risk of life-threatening complications, like infection and hypothermia. If Nick didn’t come back with help soon, Howie would have to make a hard choice. He could leave Kevin alone while he went to look for help himself, or he could stay here and continue to keep watch over him until someone found them or Kevin finally succumbed.

A shiver went down Howie’s spine as he considered the possibility that Kevin might die here, on a cold, dark mountainside, three thousand miles from home. He couldn’t let that happen. But he also wasn’t sure he could prevent it. If Nick hadn’t managed to find a working phone by now, what made Howie think he would be able to?

Ultimately, Kevin’s fate was in God’s hands, and it was to his Heavenly Father that Howie turned for guidance. “Lord, help us,” he prayed, clasping his hands tightly together as he crouched next to Kevin. “I don’t know what to do. Please, show me the way.”

Beside him, he heard Kevin let out another agonized moan. He turned, hoping his older brother had some words of wisdom to offer, but Kevin’s eyes were closed. Howie couldn’t tell if he was asleep or unconscious. “Hold on, Kev,” he whispered, watching to see if Kevin would wake. When he didn’t, Howie crawled out from under the canopy of bedsheets, climbing to his feet with difficulty. His bones felt creaky, his body stiff and sore from sitting on the cold ground for so long. But he didn’t dare complain, nor did he take the ability to get up and walk for granted.

It was cooler outside the lean-to, but moving around made him warmer. It felt good to stretch his legs and get some fresh air. Howie didn’t go far, for it was too dark to see further than a few feet in front of him. A full moon would have helped, but the narrow crescent of a quarter moon in an overcast sky didn’t offer much light. Most of the stars were obscured from his view by clouds and branches, but here and there, Howie could see them twinkling high above the treetops. One was particularly bright. It was probably the North Star, but in that moment, it reminded him of the Star of Bethlehem. A lump rose in his throat as he realized it was shining right over the road that led to the little town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Was this the sign he had prayed for? Was the Lord telling him to leave Kevin and follow the road to find help?

A chilly breeze rattled the tree branches around him, but Howie stayed rooted to the spot, hesitating. He could hear a lone coyote howling in the distance. The mournful sound made his hair stand on end and his blood run cold. The thought of leaving Kevin here, defenseless, and continuing down the mountain road alone terrified him.

He took a deep breath and swallowed hard, trying to summon the strength and courage he needed to make such a decision. Instead, the words to a Christmas song from his childhood filled his head.

“Said the night wind to the little lamb… ‘Do you see what I see?’” he sang softly to himself, gazing up at the star overhead. “Way up in the sky, little lamb… Do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite… with a tail as big as a kite.”

The star flickered before his eyes as they filled with tears. This song had been a favorite in the Dorough household at Christmastime. He remembered his parents putting on the record and singing along, his mother’s sweet soprano voice ringing out over his father’s smooth baritone.

“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy.... ‘Do you hear what I hear?’” If he closed his eyes, he could almost hear his father’s voice accompanying him in harmony. (“Do you hear what I hear?”) “Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy… Do you hear what I hear?”

“Do you hear what I hear?”

Howie opened his eyes, realizing the ghostly echo he thought he’d been hearing inside his head was actually coming from under the lean-to. It was Kevin’s voice, softly singing along with him. Howie smiled through his tears and sang a little louder. “A song, a song, high above the tree, with a voice as big as the sea… with a voice as big as the sea.” If that was what it took to keep Kevin conscious and bring him a bit of comfort, he would sing all night.

But it seemed he wouldn’t have to. As the breeze whipped through tree branches, he became aware of another sound traveling through the thin air: the blessed sound of a siren.

“Howie?” he heard Kevin croak. “Why’d you stop?”

“Listen,” said Howie, his smile stretching further across his face as the sound grew louder. “Can you hear the siren, Kev? Help is almost here.”

The answer to his prayers came in the form of an ambulance, which pulled up onto the side of the road above them with its red and white lights flashing. Howie switched on his flashlight and waved it back and forth over his head like a flare until he saw a figure appear at the edge of the cliff, silhouetted by the flickering lights behind it. “There they are!” he heard an unfamiliar voice shout. “Down there!”

A crew of paramedics quickly descended on Kevin. Howie stood back out of the way and watched as they worked. “Is our other friend with you?” he asked at one point, wondering where Nick was.

One of the paramedics nodded. “He’s waiting in the ambulance,” she replied.

Remembering the fallen power lines, Howie assumed they had forced Nick to stay where it was safe and didn’t ask any further questions. The paramedics were preoccupied with taking care of Kevin, while simultaneously trying to figure out the best way to transport him to the hospital.

“We don’t have the kind of equipment or manpower we need to haul him safely up this steep of a hill,” the woman finally declared. “We’re gonna have to get a helicopter up here.”

Her partner agreed and went to place a call on his radio, while she continued to work on Kevin. She asked him all kinds of questions, keeping him awake and talking as she administered oxygen through a mask and pain medication through an IV.

Thank you, God, thought Howie, grateful for the paramedics’ presence. He felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders; the pressure was off him now. He had done his part to keep Kevin alive long enough for the first responders to arrive, and he was more than happy to let them take over. It was a huge relief to know Kevin was under the care of professionals and would be heading to the hospital soon. He had a long road to recovery in front of him, but at least he would be out of the woods soon, both figuratively and literally. The worst was almost over.

Howie watched as the paramedics prepared Kevin to be moved. They strapped him into what looked like an inflatable mattress, which, when the air was removed, molded to his body to prevent him from moving. Then they bundled him up with blankets to keep him warm while they waited.

Within half an hour, Howie heard the whir of a helicopter approaching. The wind seemed to pick up again as the aircraft appeared above their heads, its rapidly rotating blades blowing back the leaves on the trees beneath it.

“Where’s it gonna land?” he wondered out loud, looking around. There was no clear patch of level ground large enough for a helicopter to safely touch down.

“It’s not,” replied one of the paramedics. “Watch.”

By the bright light shining down from the bottom of the helicopter, Howie looked up to see the side door open and a man in a harness step out onto one of the landing skids. With a swooping sensation in his stomach, he realized the rescuer was going to be lowered to the ground to help haul Kevin back up to the helicopter as it hovered in midair. “Good thing you’re not afraid of heights like your cousin,” he muttered, knowing Kevin couldn’t hear him over the churring of the helicopter blades.

The man hanging out of the helicopter must have had nerves of steel. Howie felt nauseous for him as he watched him come down on a thick cable, spinning in circles as the air whirled around him, but when the man’s feet touched the ground, he didn’t even seem dizzy. He dusted himself off, unclipped his harness from the cable, and waved up at the helicopter. The empty cable was quickly brought back up, then lowered a second time with a long, stretcher-like basket, large enough to hold a man, hanging from it.

The ambulance crew helped the flight medic lift Kevin carefully into the metal basket. His immobilized body had been wrapped like a burrito in so many layers of blankets, Howie could barely see his face. But as the medics were bent over him, fastening the thick straps and double-checking the heavy-duty hooks and cables, Howie came up behind him and knelt down next to his head. “Hang in there, bro,” he said in Kevin’s ear, touching his forehead with his hand. “Stay strong. I love you.” He saw Kevin’s lips move, but couldn’t hear his reply over the roar of the helicopter rotors.

“I need you to back up, sir,” said the flight medic. “We’re going to lift him into the chopper now.”

Howie nodded and got to his feet. “Where are you taking him?”

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon,” replied the medic. “It’s New Hampshire’s only Level I trauma center.”

“How far is that from here?”

“Half an hour by air, about an hour by car.”

Howie wondered how he would get himself there without a vehicle. Hopefully the ambulance would take him and Nick into the town of Bethlehem, where they could finally call Brian to find out how AJ was doing and tell him what had happened to Kevin. Then they would rent a car and drive to the hospital in Lebanon. Maybe they’d run through a drive-thru to grab some food for the road, thought Howie, his stomach rumbling.

He stood and watched as Kevin was hoisted up into the helicopter. Once it had flown away, he followed the two paramedics back up to the road, feeling more hopeful than he had in the last few hours. His prayers had been answered. Kevin was hurt badly, but he was in good hands. He was finally going to the hospital, where, by the grace of God, the doctors would be able to heal him. Everything was going to be all right.

“You can ride in the cab with me,” said the ambulance driver, opening the passenger side door for him as his partner went around to the rear.

“Wait… can I see my friend first?” asked Howie. Now that help had arrived, he wanted Nick to know he wasn’t angry at him anymore.

“Sure.” The paramedic escorted him to the back of the ambulance. He could see someone sitting up on a stretcher inside, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, but at first, he didn’t recognize him. The man’s face was puffy and bruised, his greasy hair plastered to his scalp, and his clothes were covered in blood. Then, with a start, Howie realized it was not Nick, but Brian.

“Oh my god! Brian!” he exclaimed in disbelief, as he scrambled into the back of the ambulance. “What happened to you?!”

Brian let out a humorless laugh. “That’s a long story,” he said hoarsely. The corners of his cracked lips twitched into the ghost of a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, which appeared equally haunted, two pale blue slits peeking out from the swollen, blackened flesh around their sockets. He looked like he had been to Hell and back in the past day.

“Why don’t you just ride back here so you two can catch up?” the ambulance driver suggested. “There’s a seat right there. Make sure you buckle up; these mountain roads can get pretty rough.”

“Thanks,” said Howie, hastily strapping himself into the seat on one side as the driver shut the back doors. In the enclosed space, he could smell the musky stench of Brian’s sweat mixed with the metallic scent of blood, but after being around Kevin, it didn’t bother him. He had certainly smelled worse. “So… what happened?” he asked again.

As the ambulance headed toward Bethlehem, Brian took a deep breath and began to talk. He told Howie how he and AJ had gotten into an accident the night before on their way to the hospital and how they had spent the rest of that night and day trapped in the wrecked Range Rover, waiting for someone to come and rescue them. “I would have gone to get help sooner, but I couldn’t put any weight on my ankle,” he explained, gesturing to his right leg, which was propped up on the stretcher in front of him, immobilized by a bulky splint. “It’s broken, or at least sprained pretty bad.”

“Ouch,” said Howie, frowning. “So did Nick find you?”

Brian nodded. “When no one came, I finally crawled back to the road, and that’s where he eventually caught up with me.”

“Thank god.” Howie shook his head. “I’m sorry we didn’t come sooner. We had no idea where you were. When Nick and I woke up, the electricity was out, and everyone else was gone. We thought you guys had just gone to get supplies or something.” He felt guilty for not listening to Nick, who had realized something was wrong far sooner than Howie had. He’d thought Nick was worried over nothing, and they had wasted hours of precious time hanging out at the cabin, waiting for the other guys to come back, when they could have been looking for them. If they had gotten to Kevin, AJ, and Brian sooner, they could have spared them so much pain and misery.

“It’s not your fault,” muttered Brian. “If anything, it’s mine. I’m the one who insisted on driving down the mountain in the middle of a storm. I’m the one who crashed the car. I’m the one who-”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Howie interrupted him. “Blame the damn moose, if you need to blame someone. You were just trying to help AJ.”

“He would have been better off if we had just waited until morning like he wanted to,” said Brian bitterly.

“Ah, the old ‘wait and see’ approach - definitely sounds like AJ,” said Howie, smiling in spite of his worry. “You know how much he hates hospitals. He would have avoided going at all costs, even if it killed him.” His smile faded. “He’s gonna be okay though, right?”

Brian shrugged. “I dunno. The last I saw him, he didn’t look good. He had a high fever when I left him, and Nick said he was in pretty bad shape by the time he found him.” Brian’s voice broke, and Howie was startled to see tears sparkling in his blue eyes. “I only got a glimpse of him before they took him away in another ambulance.”

“He’ll be okay,” Howie said automatically. Besides wanting to comfort Brian, he couldn’t bring himself to consider the alternative. “People don’t die from appendicitis these days, do they? If that’s all it is, they’ll take out his appendix and give him some antibiotics, and he’ll be good as new.”

He spoke with confidence, but doubts were already creeping into the back of his mind. We don’t even know for sure that it’s appendicitis. What if it’s something worse? He could have internal bleeding or other serious injuries from the accident…

But his words brought a crooked smile to Brian’s face. “Funny… Nick said the same thing.” Then his face crumpled, as the tears began to flow.

Watching him, Howie frowned. Brian wasn’t a crier like his cousin; it took a lot to bring him to tears. Suddenly, he had a bad feeling, like there was something else Brian wasn’t telling him. “Where is Nick, anyway?” he asked, looking around, as if Nick had been hiding in the back of the ambulance the whole time and was going to pop out at him.

“On his way to the hospital,” Brian said hoarsely, seeming to confirm what Howie had assumed - that Nick was with AJ. But then, clearing his throat, he added, “Howie… he’s been shot.”

It took a second for Howie to comprehend what he had said. “Wait, what?!” he cried once he did. “What do you mean, ‘he’s been shot’?”

Brian took a shuddering breath, his chest hitching beneath the blood-stained wifebeater he wore. It suddenly occurred to Howie that all that blood might not be his own.

“Brian??” he asked urgently.

Brian opened his mouth to answer, but all that came out was a strangled cry. The paramedic riding in the back with them seemed concerned that he was having trouble breathing and offered him an oxygen mask, but Brian shook his head and pushed it out of the way. He continued to take rapid, shallow breaths, his whole body trembling as he struggled to regain his composure. Finally, he cleared his throat and croaked out, “When… when we got to a cabin… to call for help… the guy living there thought we were a bear. He… he shot at us with a hunting rifle. Hit Nick in the chest.”

“Oh my god!” gasped Howie, his heart plummeting. “How… how bad is it?”

Brian gave him a bleary look and shook his head. “Bad.” He didn’t have to elaborate. Howie could tell by the amount of blood covering his clothing that the bullet had done more than simply graze Nick’s body.

“But he’s alive?” he asked desperately.

“He was when the ambulance took him away,” Brian answered in a hushed voice. “I hope he still is.”

Howie slumped back in his seat, feeling deflated, as if all the air had leaked out of his lungs. He found it hard to breathe. It felt like he had woken from one nightmare to find himself living out another. Had he really thought the worst was over? Clearly, it had only just begun.

***


Chapter 18 by RokofAges75
The ride to Littleton Regional Hospital took less than half an hour, but it seemed to last much longer. When the ambulance pulled up outside the emergency room entrance, Brian was taken inside immediately, while Howie was detained at the door.

“I’ll try to find out what’s going on with the other guys,” he told Brian before they parted ways. “You hang in there, bro.”

“Thanks, man.” Brian lay back on his stretcher, looking both worried and weary. As the hospital staff whisked him away, Howie turned to the triage nurse on duty. He wasn’t sure she would let him in, but after taking his temperature and asking him a series of questions to screen for COVID symptoms, the nurse handed him a cloth mask and directed him to a nearby waiting area. Howie bypassed the waiting room and instead walked down the deserted hallway to an information desk.

“Excuse me,” he said to the woman at the desk, who was leaned back in her chair, reading a book. “Two of my friends were brought here by ambulance a little while ago. Can you tell me where they are and what kind of condition they’re in?”

“What are their names?” asked the woman, barely looking up from her paperback.

“Alexander McLean and Nickolas Carter.” The receptionist finally glanced up at him. Howie saw her eyes widen above her mask when she did a double take, her face flushing red as recognition dawned. “That’s Nickolas with a K instead of an H,” he added.

She nodded. “I know who you are.”

“Then hopefully you can help me,” said Howie with a wink. He felt impatient, but he pasted a pleasant smile onto his face and forced himself to be polite. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” his father had always told him.

“Of course.” The receptionist set down her novel and sat up straighter, nervously adjusting her clothes. Her fingers flew across her keyboard as she entered the two names into her computer. “Mr. McLean is in surgery,” she said after a few seconds, studying the screen, “but I’m not seeing any record of Mr. Carter being admitted here.”

Howie’s heart skipped a beat. “No, I know he was brought here. Can you try looking him up again? Maybe they spelled his name wrong - try it with an H.” He held his breath as the woman started typing again.

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Nothing’s coming up. Could they have taken him to another hospital?”

Howie let out his breath. “Are there any other hospitals in Littleton?”

“No.”

“Well, then... no.” Brian had told Howie he’d heard the paramedics say they were taking Nick to Littleton. It was the nearest hospital, so it didn’t make sense for them to have dropped him off anywhere else. The only other explanation Howie could think of was that Nick had died en route, and that was why there was no record of him being admitted to the hospital. “Is there someone else I can talk to?” he asked desperately, refusing to dwell on this possibility until he had exhausted all others. “Someone in the emergency department?”

“Maybe. Let me make a quick call.” The woman picked up the phone and spoke softly to the person on the other end. A few minutes later, she hung up and told Howie, “Wait here. One of our emergency room doctors will be down to talk to you in a moment.”

“Did you find out anything?” Howie asked. He watched her face closely, but this time, it betrayed no emotion.

“The doctor will come talk to you soon,” she repeated. “You can wait right over there.” She pointed to a pair of empty chairs down the hall, and Howie understood that he had been dismissed.

“Thanks,” he said shortly and walked away. But he didn’t sit down. Instead, he paced in front of the two chairs, plagued by the fear that Nick was dead.

No…. God, please, no, he pleaded, but his frantic prayers were interrupted by the memory of his last words to his little brother: “You better not come back again unless it’s in an ambulance.” He never could have predicted Nick would need the ambulance himself. Now he regretted the angry way he had spoken to him as they argued over the stretcher. If Nick had died thinking Howie was disappointed in him, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.

Stricken with guilt, he finally sank into one of the chairs and leaned forward, letting his head fall into his hands.

“Sir?” Howie looked up, his heart lodging in his throat, as a woman in a white coat appeared in front of him. “Are you here for Mr. Carter?” she asked.

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“I’m Dr. Jackson. I took care of your friend when he was first brought in.” He noticed her use of the past tense and tried to brace himself for what she was about to tell him. “Are you aware of what happened to him?”

Howie swallowed hard. “I heard he was shot.”

She nodded. “Unfortunately, his injury was very serious. We did our best to stabilize him, but, being a small community hospital, we don’t have the capabilities to treat gunshot wounds of that severity here. So-”

“He died, didn’t he?” Howie interrupted her bluntly, wishing she would hurry up and get to the point. He was done being patient, done being polite. He just wanted answers.

The doctor blinked behind her glasses. “Well, I hope not. What I was about to say was that we had him flown by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon. It’s the only Level I trauma center in-”

“New Hampshire,” Howie finished for her, recognizing the name of the hospital as the same one Kevin was being taken to. He sagged with relief, as he realized what she was saying. “So he’s alive??”

“He was when he left here about half an hour ago,” she replied. “But I have to warn you, it was touch and go. His condition is critical.”

“So he could still die,” said Howie, his heart sinking.

“He’s in good hands at Dartmouth,” the doctor assured him. “Do you need directions or help getting there?”

Howie shook his head. “No, thanks,” he heard himself respond automatically, but after she had walked away, he realized he had no idea how he was going to get to the other hospital or even if he should go there, when Brian and AJ were both here. His heart was torn, and his head felt too foggy to think straight.

He stayed in the chair and took a few minutes to collect himself, until it became clear what he had to do. First he would find Brian and fill him in. Then he would call an Uber to take him to Lebanon. He would have to leave Brian here with AJ while he went to be near Nick and Kevin, who would have no one with them otherwise. As much as Howie hated to leave Brian and AJ behind, his other brothers were hurt worse, and he couldn’t bear the thought of them being in the hospital alone. He wanted - no, he needed - to be there. Just in case.

He returned to the emergency room, which was all but empty at this time of night. It didn’t take him long to find Brian’s exam room. Brian was lying on a bed in the middle with his eyes closed and his ankle elevated. There was an oxygen cannula in his nose, and a nurse was busy inserting an IV into his arm. They had removed his muddy, bloodstained clothing and given him a clean hospital gown to wear, but somehow, he looked even worse than he had in the ambulance.

Hesitating in the doorway, Howie cleared his throat. “Bri?” he called softly. “You awake?”

Brian opened his eyes. “Yeah,” he croaked, beckoning to him with his free hand, which was still covered in dirt and dried blood. “Come on in, bro.” He gave the nurse a sidelong glance. “He can, can’t he?”

She nodded. “As long as you don’t mind and he keeps his mask on. We allow one essential caregiver per patient.”

Brian grinned, looking a little more like himself. “You hear that, Howie? You’re my essential caregiver.”

Howie smiled back briefly behind his mask. “Not for long, buddy,” he said, as he came in and stood on the other side of Brian’s bed. “They flew Nick to Dartmouth - same hospital Kevin’s headed to. I think I should head there, too. Don’t you think? That way they won’t be alone?” He felt almost like a kid asking his father for permission, but he wanted Brian’s blessing before he left him.

To his relief, Brian nodded. “Yeah, of course you should go. I’ll hold down the fort here with AJ. He is here, isn’t he?”

“Yeah. The lady at the desk said he’s having surgery. She didn’t give me any other details.”

“What about Nick?” Brian wanted to know.

A lump rose in Howie’s throat, and he swallowed hard. “I talked to the doctor who treated him here. It doesn’t sound like he’s in too good of shape, but she said he’ll be better off at Dartmouth.”

“Well, it is an Ivy League school,” said Brian, his voice breaking. “They’ve probably got some of the smartest people in the country working there. Sounds like the best place for him and Kev to be right now. Give them both my love, and tell them I’ll be praying for them, alright?”

Howie could tell he was trying to stay positive, but his blue eyes were extra bright with tears. He nodded, his own eyes prickling at the corners. He wasn’t normally a crier either, but seeing Brian struggle to keep it together made it that much harder to do so himself. “I will,” he promised. “Do you need anything before I go?”

Brian thought for a second. “A charger? My phone’s dead. I’d like to call Leighanne when I can.”

“I can hook you up with one of those,” the nurse interjected, as she hung a bag of clear fluid on the IV stand next to his bed. “We have plenty of extra chargers onhand that have been donated to help keep patients connected during the pandemic.”

Brian smiled. “That’d be real nice. Thanks.” To Howie, he said, “I guess that’s it then. Hopefully I won’t be here long.”

“I’m sure you’ll be back on both feet in no time.” Howie leaned in to give him a gentle hug. “Thanks for going to get help. You may have saved your cousin’s life - and AJ’s too.”

“Nick saved us,” said Brian, shaking his head. “I never would have made it down the mountain if it wasn’t for him. He literally carried me the whole way on his back.” He let out a loud sniffle as the tears started to trickle down his cheeks, leaving tracks on his grimy, sweat-streaked skin. “He’s the real hero. I’m the one who got us into this mess.”

“And you’re the one who got us out of it,” Howie replied firmly. “It’s not your fault, Brian. No one’s blaming you for any of this.” But he knew Brian blamed himself, a feeling he fully understood. He still felt guilty for not going to look for the other guys sooner… and for letting Nick go to get help instead of going himself. If he had gone instead and made Nick stay with Kevin, things might have worked out differently. Or maybe he would be the one with the gunshot wound. The mere thought sent a shiver down his spine, and he straightened up, letting go of Brian. “I love you, bro. Tell AJ I love him, too.”

“Will do,” said Brian, trying to wipe his tears away with filthy fingers. “Love you, D. Drive safe.”

“Charge your phone when you can. I’ll call you when I know more,” said Howie, his heart breaking as he looked down at Brian. He had never seen him so weak and vulnerable. It was hard to walk away and leave him there alone, but he knew Nick and Kevin were worse off. They needed him more.

Hold on, guys, he thought, as he pulled his phone out of his pocket to find a ride. I’m on my way.

***


The trip to Lebanon was long and silent. Howie’s Uber driver gave up on trying to make conversation a few minutes in, when it became clear that his passenger wasn’t in the mood to talk. The fact that I requested a ride from one hospital to another an hour away in the middle of the night should have been your first clue, Sherlock, thought Howie, shaking his head at the poor college kid from the back seat.

He had debated whether he should call the guys’ families on his way, but decided not to. He didn’t think his young chauffeur had recognized his face or name, but he wasn’t going to risk the chance of the kid listening to his conversations and leaking the details to social media before he let the group’s management team know what had happened. Besides, there was no point in waking up the wives when he had next to no information to give them. He thought it would be better to wait until he got to the hospital and found out what was going on with Nick and Kevin. He wasn’t even sure the hospital would let him in.

“What entrance should I drop you off at?” his driver asked, as they approached the sprawling hospital campus, tucked in among the trees of a wooded area in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.

Having never been there before, Howie had no idea. “Um… how ‘bout the emergency room?” he replied, assuming it would be his only way in this late at night. Visiting hours would be long over by now, if the hospital was even allowing visitors.

“You got it.” The kid followed a series of red signs to the emergency room entrance. “This all right?” he asked, slowing to a stop in the circle drive outside the building.

“Yep. Thanks.”

“Hope everything’s okay,” the kid added awkwardly, as Howie reached for his door handle.

“Thanks,” Howie repeated through the lump that had risen in his throat. “Me too.”

He climbed out of the car and walked up to the glass doors without a backward glance. Just like in Littleton, there was a woman sitting at a kiosk just inside the doors to screen everyone who entered. Howie hurriedly explained who he was and what he was doing there, hoping she would let him through.

After taking his temperature and asking him a long list of questions, the woman looked up Nick and Kevin’s names on her computer. “Mr. Carter has been taken into surgery,” she said. “Mr. Richardson is still in the emergency department. Head straight down the hall and stop at the information desk on your right. Your mask must remain on at all times inside the hospital.”

“Of course,” said Howie with relief. “Thank you so much.”

He followed the woman’s directions and found the information desk, where he was asked to wait until one of the doctors was available to speak with him. Finally, a fresh-faced young man in a white coat came to talk to him. “Are you here for Kevin Richardson?” he asked Howie.

“Yes. How is he?”

“He’s resting comfortably right now. We’re keeping his pain well-controlled with medication while we wait for test results.”

“Can I see him?”

“Right this way.”

The doctor took him down another hallway and into a room, where Kevin lay flat on his back in bed. He was wearing a large neck brace that went from his chin to his chest. The rest of his body was covered with blankets. His eyes were closed, but they fluttered open when Howie cleared his throat.

“Howie D in da house… Howie doin’, dawg?” Kevin said, slurring his words as if he were drunk.

Howie couldn’t help but smile behind his mask. “I’m hanging in there, bro. How ‘bout you?”

“Same… same.” Kevin’s lips curved into a groggy, lopsided grin. “They gave me some good drugs.”

Howie chuckled. “I can tell. Did they take the edge off your pain?”

“Oh yeah… I don’t feel much anymore.”

“Good,” said Howie, hoping his numbness was only temporary. “The doctor said they were waiting for test results, and then I guess they’ll decide what to do.”

“Did anyone call Kristin?”

“Not yet. I was waiting to find out what was going on with you first. Do you want me to call her now?”

“What time is it?”

Howie checked his phone. “It’s almost two in the morning. Eleven p.m. Pacific time.”

Kevin frowned. “She’s prolly in bed by now. Don’t wake her... she needs her beauty sleep.”

“I can call her first thing in the morning,” Howie offered. “Hopefully we’ll know more by then.”

“Yeah… that’d be better,” Kevin said with a sigh. “There’s nothin’ she can do right now anyway. I don’t want her up all night worryin’ about me.” The heavy dose of painkillers seemed to have strengthened his Kentucky accent. Howie hadn’t heard it sound so thick in years.

He nodded. “Whatever you think.”

“Thanks, man.” Kevin’s eyelids were starting to droop. But just when Howie thought he had drifted off again, they suddenly opened wide. “Hey, where’s Nick?” he asked, looking around the room.

Howie’s stomach dropped. Kevin didn’t know what had happened to Nick, and he wasn’t sure now was the right time to tell him. He needed to rest and focus on his own recovery, not worry himself sick over Nick’s condition. Taking Kevin’s own advice when it came to Kristin, Howie decided not to tell him anything until he knew more. “They would only let one of us come in, so he went to get us a hotel room,” he lied, hoping Kevin was too loopy to notice.

“Oh. Well, tell him thanks… for calling for help.”

Howie swallowed hard. “I will.”

“Have you heard from Brian or AJ?”

“Yeah. They’re still in Littleton.” He left it at that. With any luck, Kevin wouldn’t even remember this conversation in the morning. His eyes were already closing again. “Hey, listen, man, I should probably let you get some rest. I’ll be back to check on you later, okay?”

“Oh… okay…”

“Love you, bro.” Howie bent and kissed Kevin’s forehead, then hurried out of the room before he lost his composure. Coward, he chided himself in the safety of the hall. He hated leaving Kevin like that almost as much as he hated lying to him about the other guys, but he saw no benefit in telling the truth when Kevin was in such a serious condition himself. Hopefully everyone will be doing better by morning, Howie thought as he wandered back down the hall.

A directory on the wall told him where the surgical wing was, so he found an elevator and took it up to the fourth floor. He checked in with the woman at an information desk outside the elevator, who showed him to a waiting room. “Someone will come update you when your friend is out of surgery,” she said, giving him a look of sympathy as she walked away.

Alone in the otherwise empty room, Howie sat down in an armchair. He looked at the clock on the wall. It was just after two a.m. He was tired, and the chair was surprisingly comfortable, but he couldn’t sleep without knowing Nick would be all right. He aimlessly flipped channels on the TV mounted in one corner, his eyes glazing as he tried to stay awake.

It was going to be a long night.

***


Chapter 19 by RokofAges75
Brian was finally drifting off to sleep near dawn, when he was woken by the sound of his cell phone ringing. He fumbled around groggily until he felt the phone on his bedside table and removed it from the borrowed charger. As he brought it closer to his face, he recognized Howie’s name flashing on the screen. Suddenly, the events of the last twenty-four hours came back to him in a confusing rush.

He quickly swiped right to answer the call. “Howie?” he croaked, his voice sounding even rougher than usual.

“Hey, Bri. I woke you up, didn’t I? I’m sorry.” Howie sounded as weary as Brian felt.

“That’s okay. You said you would call when you knew more.” Brian sat up in bed, his heart beating faster, and clutched the phone to his ear. “Have you heard anything?” He held his breath as he waited for Howie’s answer.

“Yeah. I’ve got good news, bro. Nicky’s out of surgery and in recovery.”

Brian let out his breath in a huge sigh of relief. “Really? Oh, thank God,” he replied, his heart lifting. “So he’s gonna be all right?”

“I hope so.” He heard Howie suck in a deep breath before he went on. “The surgeon said the bullet missed his heart by a few millimeters, but it still did a lot of damage to the tissue around it - tore some blood vessels, broke his rib, and punctured his lung. They repaired as much as they could, but he lost a lot of blood. His brain may have been deprived of oxygen.”

Brian’s heart sank back into the pit of his stomach as he remembered how bad Nick had looked the last time he saw him - unconscious, bleeding uncontrollably, not breathing on his own. He’d thought the ambulance had arrived just on time, but maybe it was too late.

“They’re gonna keep him in a medically-induced coma for the next few days to give his body a chance to rest and heal,” Howie continued. “Then they’ll gradually wean him off the sedatives and see how he responds.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Brian replied shakily, not sure what else to say. He was terrified, but he didn’t want to tell Howie that. They had to stay hopeful, for Nick’s sake. “Have you been able to see him?”

“Not yet. He’s still in recovery. Hopefully I will once they move him to the ICU.”

“How about Kevin?”

“He has a concussion, but thankfully no bleeding or swelling in his brain,” said Howie. “He’s having surgery on his back, but I saw him before they took him in. He was pretty loopy from the pain medication, but not hurting as bad.”

“Sorry I missed that,” said Brian, managing to smile at the mental image of Kevin high on narcotics. “Will the surgery help him walk again?”

“Hopefully. He fractured his first two lumbar vertebrae, and the MRI showed some bone fragments pressing on his spinal cord. The doctor said it looks like an incomplete injury, which means he could recover some feeling and function below the waist once the swelling goes down.”

“God, let’s hope so,” Brian said hoarsely and swallowed hard. Kevin had always been so active and athletic. He couldn’t imagine his cousin confined to a wheelchair.

“How’s AJ?” Howie asked.

Brian had been dreading having to answer that question. He took a deep breath, hardly trusting his voice to speak. “He… he’s real sick, Howie. We were right about the appendicitis. They took out his appendix last night, but it had already ruptured, probably the night before, and caused a pretty bad infection in his abdomen. The doctor called it something. Peri… peritonitis? They cleaned him out the best they could, but his blood pressure dropped so low during surgery, they had to hurry and get him off the table before he coded. The doctor said he’s septic.”

He heard Howie draw in a sharp breath himself. “That sounds bad…”

A lump rose in Brian’s throat as he looked across his hospital room. “It is.”

On the other side of the room, AJ lay motionless in his bed. His body looked lost within a maze of tubes and wires. A breathing tube protruded from his mouth, hooked up to a long hose that led to the ventilator beside his bed. Every few seconds, his chest would expand as the life support machine inflated his lungs with pure oxygen. There were IV lines in both his arms and the side of his neck, pumping him full of fluids and powerful antibiotics. More tubes snaked out from under the covers - catheters and drains to remove the excess fluid his body couldn’t get rid of on its own.

The sight and sounds of the equipment were a trigger for Brian, reminding him of the last time he himself had been hospitalized. It had been more than twenty-two years since his open heart surgery, but being in the same room as AJ took him right back to that scary time in his life. At least then, Brian had been on the road to recovery. AJ’s path seemed much less certain.

“But he’s gonna make it, right?” asked Howie, his voice rising in pitch. “I mean, he’s not…” He trailed off, seemingly unable to say the words. But Brian understood.

“It’s too early to tell. They’re giving him medications to fight the infection and keep his blood pressure up - the doctor said that’s key for preventing further damage to his other organs. We just have to wait and see how his body responds.”

Howie sighed. “In other words, all we can do is pray.”

Brian nodded, tears prickling in the corners of his eyes as he clutched the phone to his ear. “Right.”

“Well, I’ll be praying then.” There was a pause that followed; Howie seemed to be processing everything Brian had told him. Then he asked, “So what about you? How you holding up, man?”

“I’m all right,” replied Brian. “I broke the bottom of my fibula, but it looks like I won’t need surgery. They’ve just got it splinted for now, until the swelling does down some, and then they’ll put on a hard cast.”

“That’s good news. Are you still at the hospital?”

“Yeah. They admitted me overnight for observation and IV fluids.” Brian glanced down at the intravenous line in his arm. “Apparently I was pretty dehydrated.”

“No doubt.”

“But they’re letting me room with AJ for right now, even though I don’t really belong in intensive care. Perks of being in a small hospital, I guess.”

“You played the Backstreet card, didn’t you?” Even without seeing his face, Brian could tell Howie was smiling.

“Not really. I just told them we were quarantining together, so it made the most sense to put us in the same room.”

“Uh-huh. I’ll bet you batted your blue eyes, laid that Southern accent of yours on thick, and begged some gullible woman until you got exactly what you wanted,” Howie teased him.

Brian grinned. “What can I say, Howard? The ladies have always loved me. It’s my boy-next-door charm.”

Howie laughed. It was a strangely reassuring sound. Brian felt as if their whole world had been turned upside down in a single day, yet hearing Howie laugh like that gave him hope that it would soon right itself.

They just had to wait.

***


Howie was tired of waiting. First he had sat for hours in the woods with Kevin, waiting for an ambulance to come. Then he had sat for hours in the surgical waiting room, awaiting news on Nick. Now he sat next to Nick’s bed in the ICU while he waited for Kevin to come out of surgery.

Being unconscious, Nick wasn’t the best company, but Howie was still grateful for his presence. After almost thirty years of knowing him, he couldn’t imagine his life without Nick Carter in it. Yet the Nick on the bed looked nothing like the Nick he knew and loved.

Physically, he resembled Nick. But his face was pale gray, as if all the color had been sucked out of it. His blond hair, which he liked to keep perfectly coiffed on top of his head, hung lankly across his forehead. His blue eyes, usually sparkling with life, were closed. His body, always moving in some way, was motionless.

Howie had never seen Nick so still. He even fidgeted in his sleep, flailing his arms and legs as he thrashed around in bed. Having shared hotel rooms and tour buses with Nick, Howie felt bad for his wife Lauren. He had always worried she would wake up with bruises after being kicked or clobbered in the face while Nick was sleeping next to her, providing fodder for the trolls who were hellbent on proving Nick was an abuser of women.

But the Nick that lay before him now looked lifeless, a frozen ghost of his former self. There was only the subtle rise and fall of his chest to reassure Howie that he was, in fact, still alive. But even this was misleading, for it was merely the result of the ventilator forcing air into Nick’s lungs, rather than him breathing on his own.

Noticing Nick’s hand resting neatly at his side, Howie reached out and touched it. He was relieved to find that it was warm. “I’m right here, Nicky,” he said, taking Nick’s hand in his and holding it tightly. He could see dirt caked underneath Nick’s stubby fingernails. It bothered him that nobody had cleaned them.

Setting Nick’s hand carefully back down on the bed, Howie stood up and walked across the room to the counter, which housed a sink and a cabinet full of supplies. He rummaged around until he found a washcloth and a small basin, which he filled with warm, soapy water and brought back to Nick’s bedside. He sat down again and started washing Nick’s hands.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that, hon!” his nurse, Jasmine, exclaimed in surprise when she walked in and saw what Howie was doing. “A CNA will come by to bathe him soon.”

“It’s okay. I wanted to. His hands were filthy,” Howie explained, wiping away flecks of dirt and dried blood from the webbing between Nick’s fingers. “Don’t worry, I won’t mess with any of the medical equipment - and I’ll let the CNA wash the parts under his gown,” he added with a wink.

Jasmine grinned. “Fair enough.”

He watched as she went around to the other side of Nick’s bed. She fiddled with his equipment, checking the settings on the ventilator and IV pump. Then she put a stethoscope in her ears and pulled back Nick’s blanket, lowering the front of his hospital gown. Howie noticed a thick layer of gauze taped to the left side of Nick’s chest. A drainage tube was sticking out of the dressing. The sight of it made Howie’s stomach lurch, and he had to look away.

“How’s he doing?” he asked, concentrating on cleaning Nick’s nails with a cotton swab.

“His lungs sound clear,” Jasmine replied. When Howie looked back, she had pulled Nick’s blanket back up and was strapping a blood pressure cuff around his upper arm. She squeezed the bulb in her hand to pump it up and listened with her stethoscope as it slowly deflated. “Ninety-five over sixty.”

“Is that too low?” Howie asked anxiously. He remembered Brian saying something about keeping AJ’s blood pressure above a certain threshold and assumed this would be important for Nick, too.

“It’s on the low side, but still within the normal range,” the nurse reassured him. “All things considered, his numbers look good. He’s stable, which is what we want to see right now.”

That helped Howie relax a little. When Jasmine left, he laced his fingers through Nick’s and gave his freshly washed hand a squeeze. “Did you hear that, bro? You’re doing great. You’re gonna be just fine.”

He didn’t know if Nick could hear him, as heavily sedated as he was, but he kept talking to him anyway. It helped to pass the time, and he hoped it would also help Nick’s healing process.

“You’re stronger than you know, Nick. Stronger than I ever gave you credit for,” he said, a fresh wave of guilt washing over him as he remembered the way he had grabbed Nick by the shirt and shouted at him until he was on the verge of tears. “Brian told me what you did, how you carried him down the mountain. We might still be stuck up there if it weren’t for you. You saved us all.”

He gripped Nick’s hand tighter, regretting what he had said.

“I’m sorry for doubting you, Nick… for making you feel stupid. You did the best you could to help Kevin. He and AJ are still alive because of you and Brian. Not to get all sappy on you, bro, but... I’m proud of you.”

With his free hand, he patted the back of Nick’s, pressing it between his two. He watched Nick’s face, hoping for some small sign that Nick could hear him and comprehend his words. But there was nothing. Nick’s expression remained blank, but peaceful, which Howie felt was probably for the best. He didn’t want his brother to be in pain.

“I guess I’ll let you get some rest now, Nicky. Stay strong. I love you.”

He gave Nick’s hand one last squeeze before he let go. But he remained at Nick’s bedside, watching over him as he waited for an update on Kevin, his eyelids growing heavier and heavier as his exhaustion won over.

Eventually, he must have fallen asleep in his chair, slumped forward with his head on Nick’s bed. He woke with a start and sat up to see another bed being wheeled into the room. Blinking blearily, he realized it belonged to Kevin.

“Kev?”

“That you, Howie?” he heard Kevin croak, sounding as groggy as Howie felt.

Coming to his senses, Howie quickly scrambled up and pulled the curtain next to Nick’s bed closed. Kevin didn’t know about Nick yet, and catching sight of him lying comatose in a hospital bed wasn’t the way Howie wanted him to find out.

“You okay, Kev?” he asked, as the nurses helped him get settled on his side of the room. Howie had taken a leaf from Brian’s book and played the Backstreet card as well, persuading the ward manager to put Kevin in with Nick. (“Their wives both live on the West coast and won’t be able to get here right away, so I’m the only essential caregiver they’ve got. Besides, we’ve all been quarantining in the same cabin with the other Backstreet Boys while we work on our Christmas album…”) Needless to say, it had worked.

“The surgery went well,” said one of the nurses with a smile, parking an IV pole next to Kevin’s bed. She placed a small signalling device in his left hand. “Now, when the pain starts to come back, you just push this button, and the pump will deliver a bolus of pain medication,” she explained to him. “The machine has been programmed to only give you a set amount within a certain time frame, so it’s impossible to overdose, no matter how many times you push it. My advice is always to try to stay ahead of the pain. As soon as you feel it coming on, go ahead and push the button - it’s easier to keep it under control that way.”

Howie bit down on his bottom lip, feeling bad for Kevin. “How much pain are you in, Kev?” he asked quietly once the nurses left.

“None right now,” Kevin replied. He looked reasonably comfortable, lying on his back with pillows positioned strategically around his body to provide the proper amount of padding. “They got me floating so high on morphine, I don’t feel much of anything.”

“What about your legs?” Howie wondered aloud.

Kevin shook his head. “Still numb. But that could change, right?”

Howie heard the wistfulness in his voice and nodded. “Yeah, of course. The doctor said it can take up to seventy-two hours for the swelling to go down enough to tell how serious the injury is.”

“So we just have to wait.”

“Yep. We just have to wait.” Howie pulled his chair closer to Kevin’s bed and sat down again. With a backward glance at the curtain blocking Nick’s bed from view, he took a deep breath. “Hey, Kev, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Is it about AJ?” Kevin asked quietly.

Howie’s stomach dropped. Somehow, Kevin already seemed to know something was wrong. “Um… kind of, yeah. I wasn’t completely honest with you before. AJ is in the hospital in Littleton, but he didn’t make it there until last night. He and Brian had an accident on the way.”

He heard Kevin inhale sharply. “Is Brian-?”

“Brian’s fine,” he said quickly. “He has a broken ankle, but he said it’ll heal without surgery.”

“And AJ?”

Howie swallowed hard. “AJ wasn’t seriously hurt either, but his appendix burst. By the time he was brought to the hospital, it had turned into a pretty bad infection. Brian said he’s really sick.”

Kevin let out his breath in a low sigh. “I knew I should have gone with them…”

“It’s not your fault, Kev. It’s not Brian’s either. A freaking moose ran right out in front of him. You couldn’t have stopped that from happening.”

“No, but at least I would have been there to help. And I wouldn’t have fallen down a damn mountain and broken my back,” Kevin said bitterly.

“You don’t know that. You might have been hurt even worse,” replied Howie, glancing at the curtain again. “Nick found them when he went to get help, but… something bad happened.”

Kevin gave him a worried look. “God, what now? Is Nick okay?”

“He’s alive,” Howie said, “but he was shot. Brian said they stopped at that house with the Trump sign to call for help. The homeowner heard them and thought it was a bear.

“Fuckin’ Trumpsters,” Kevin groaned. “How bad is it?”

“The bullet hit him in the chest, but it missed his heart...” Howie explained the extent of Nick’s injuries the best he could. “...They’re keeping him sedated as long as he’s intubated to give his lungs a break and let his body start to heal. The doctor said they’ll try to bring him out of the coma in a couple days and see how he does.”

“Jesus,” Kevin hissed, raking a hand through his thick hair, as tears rose in his eyes. “Could this get any worse? I wish I had never suggested we come here.”

“It’s not your fault,” Howie repeated firmly. He had known Kevin would find a way to blame himself somehow. Even after all these years, he still felt like he was responsible for the rest of the guys, simply because he was the oldest in the group. “We all wanted to come here. What happened was an accident… a series of freak accidents, actually. I guess we fell victim to the curse of 2020. But it could be worse. It could be a lot worse. At least we’re all still alive. Look...”

He stood up and pulled back the curtain between the two beds so Kevin could see their youngest brother.

“I know Nicky looks bad right now, but he’s gonna get better. So will AJ, and so will you,” Howie said, locking eyes with Kevin. He spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel, knowing Kevin needed to hear something hopeful. As the only member of the group to make it off the mountain unscathed, Howie had to be the strong one now. “Everything’s gonna be okay eventually,” he added, wanting more than anything to believe his own words. “We just have to wait.”

***


Chapter 20 by RokofAges75
The next two days were some of the longest of Kevin’s life. He had been hospitalized before, but never completely bedridden. For someone who had always been active, it was torture to be laid up in a hospital bed, unable to move his lower half.

While his legs remained motionless, Kevin’s mind was constantly racing. He broke out in cold sweat whenever he imagined living the rest of his life this way. He would never be able to take a walk with his wife or play football with his sons again, never dance on stage with the Boys or perform in another Broadway show. The pragmatic part of him knew there were plenty of people in the world who had not only survived, but thrived after becoming paralyzed. But in Kevin’s mind, his life as he had known it was over. The longer he went without regaining any feeling in his legs, the further he sank into the depths of depression.

“It could have been a lot worse, you know,” Howie told him on the third day after his fall.

“Easy for you to say,” Kevin muttered, giving him a side-eyed glance. Sometimes he felt grateful to have Howie there to keep him company, but at other times, he found his positive outlook downright annoying. Howie didn’t know what it was like to be in his position. When visiting hours ended that evening, he would get up and walk out on his own two feet, leaving Kevin to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling until the white noise of Nick’s ventilator lulled him to sleep.

“At least you’re still alive - and conscious - and in control of your mental faculties,” Howie continued as if he hadn’t heard him, tipping his head toward Nick’s bed.

“Yeah… just not my bladder,” Kevin replied bitterly. His grief over the loss of his legs was accompanied by embarrassment about his new bathroom needs. He hated peeing into a bag and having to be helped by a nursing assistant to empty his bowels. Yet he recognized that Howie was right. He was still in better condition than Nick, who remained comatose.

During their morning rounds, Nick’s medical team had decided to lower his dose of sedatives. This was supposed to slowly bring him out of the coma, but so far, Kevin hadn’t noticed any difference. Nick was still unconscious. Kevin had listened to the team’s conversations with Lauren, who had been encouraged to stay back in Las Vegas because of the pandemic. He knew they were eager to assess Nick’s neurological condition, concerned his brain may have been damaged by a lack of oxygen. For as much as he and the other boys had always teased Nick about being a ‘dumb blond,’ it made Kevin feel sick to his stomach to think he might never be the same.

“If you wake up, Nicky, I’ll never make fun of you again,” he had overheard Howie saying as he sat next to Nick’s bed. “You can annoy me all you want with your obnoxious songs and stupid pranks, and I won’t say a word.”

“Careful there, D,” Kevin had warned him. “Don’t make promises you won’t wanna keep. Otherwise, I’m gonna hold you to it when he wakes up.”

When. Not if. Despite his pessimistic outlook on his own future, Kevin felt determined to stay positive for Nick and AJ’s sake. Even if he couldn’t kneel, he could still pray for the best possible outcome for both of his brothers.

But the news out of Littleton, where Brian was with AJ, was far from encouraging. “AJ’s liver and kidneys are shutting down,” his cousin had told him when they had talked earlier in the day. “The doctor called it ‘multiple organ dysfunction.’ They’re gonna start him on dialysis today, but there’s not much they can do for his liver. The doctor told Rochelle that if he doesn’t turn the corner in the next twenty-four hours, they may have some hard decisions to make.”

“What kind of decisions?” Kevin had asked, wondering if AJ’s condition was really as dire as Brian was leading him to believe.

“Like whether or not to keep him on life support.” Brian’s voice sounded strained, and Kevin could tell he was close to tears. “He could die, Kev.”

His cousin’s words continued to haunt him as the day wore on. Kevin couldn’t concentrate on anything else. He and Howie sat in silence, staring at the TV without really watching what was on it. It was hard to hear over the rhythmic hiss of Nick’s ventilator, yet neither of them reached for the remote to turn up the volume. They both blamed themselves for what had happened to Nick - Howie for letting him be the one to go get help, Kevin for being the one who had needed help in the first place. He knew Brian felt the same guilt.

When Kristin called, he kept their conversation short, answering her usual questions about how he was doing, but not contributing much else. He had asked her to stay home with the boys for the time being; it wasn’t safe to travel, and he didn’t want their kids to see him in his current condition. His wife had respected his wishes, but he could tell she was frustrated, being so far away from him. “I’ll be fine, babe,” he had assured her with a confidence he didn’t feel. “I don’t want you worryin’ about me. One way or the other… I’ll be fine.”

When lunch came, Kevin just picked at his food. He hadn’t felt hungry since his fall. Thinking of AJ took his appetite away. Looking over at Nick made him nauseous. He managed just two bites of tuna salad before he pushed his plate aside. “Put this out in the hall, would ya?” he begged Howie, slipping his mask back on over his mouth and nose. “The smell’s makin’ my stomach turn.”

Howie frowned when he saw Kevin’s barely-touched tray of food. “You really should try to eat some more, so you can keep your strength up.”

“What for? It’s not like I’m wasting a lot of energy lying in this damn bed.”

“You’re gonna need every bit of it to get back on your feet,” Howie replied in the same hopeful tone of voice he had been using for the past few days.

Kevin shook his head. “I’m not gonna be walking out of here, Howie,” he said flatly.

“You don’t know that. The doctor said we had to wait seventy-two hours before-”

“It’s been seventy-two hours,” Kevin snapped. “Can you see my feet moving?”

Howie’s head turned toward the foot of his bed. Beneath the blanket, his legs were still. “No.”

“Exactly.”

Kevin lay his head back against his pillow and closed his eyes, effectively ending the conversation. He was tired of talking. Tired of trying to wiggle his toes and feeling nothing. Tired of Howie’s attempts to make him feel better, which somehow managed to make him feel worse.

Even if AJ and Nick both recovered, Kevin knew the Backstreet Boys might never be the same because of him. How could he go back on tour if he wasn’t even able to walk, let alone dance? I won’t, he thought, the weight of this realization hitting him like a ton of bricks. I’d rather leave the group again than hold them back like that. Hopefully they would go on without him, as they had before.

Howie fell silent as these thoughts resounded through Kevin’s head. After a minute, Kevin heard him pick up his lunch tray and take it out to the hall. When Howie came back into the room, he sat down next to Nick’s bed. Kevin kept his eyes closed, pretending to sleep.

The door to his room slid open again a few minutes later. He held his breath as he listened to the footsteps on the tile floor, hoping they would head toward Nick’s bed instead of his own - but they grew louder rather than softer. A female voice cleared her throat. “Mr. Richardson?” Kevin recognized it as belonging to his neurosurgeon, Dr. Tracy, and opened his eyes to see her standing next to his bed with one of the nurses. “Sorry to disturb you,” the doctor said, looking down at him through the clear face shield she wore over her multi-layered masks, “but I need to do another neuro exam. Is that all right?”

Kevin nodded. He was tired of being poked and prodded, but he knew there was no point in telling her no.

“Have you pushed the button on your PCA pump in the past hour?”

“No.” He didn’t like the loopy way the pain medication made him feel. The pain in his back was preferable to the numbness below his waist.

“Perfect. It’s been a couple of days since your surgery, so the swelling around your spine should have gone down to the point where we can accurately assess the injury to your spinal cord. This will also give us a better idea of how much we can realistically hope for, in terms of your recovery.”

Kevin’s mouth went dry as he realized what she meant. The results of the examination would determine whether he would one day regain the use of his legs or remain a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

“Are you ready?” asked the surgeon.

“Yeah,” Kevin croaked. He wasn’t fully prepared to hear a prognosis that could drastically alter the course of his future, but he didn’t want to wait in purgatory any longer than he had to. Knowing he would never walk again would be devastating, but not knowing was worse.

The nurse pulled back his blankets to expose both his legs and began peeling off the compression hose the hospital staff had put on him to prevent blood clots from forming while he lay in bed. Watching her work, Kevin was struck by how weird and unsettling it was to see someone touching and lifting his legs, but not feel it. It looked like she was undressing a pair of dummy legs, even though he knew they belonged to him. He stared at his bare toes, trying with all his might to make them wiggle, but they still wouldn’t move. He might as well have been trying to levitate Howie’s chair with his mind.

Dr. Tracy drew the curtain around Kevin’s bed to give him more privacy. “Okay, Mr. Richardson, we’re going to have you lie down and close your eyes,” she said, as the nurse lowered the head of Kevin’s bed so he was lying flat. “First I’ll assess your sensory function by touching different parts of your body with a safety pin. I’ll use the rounded part of the pin for a light touch, which will feel like this.” She placed the dull end of a safety pin against his cheek. “I’ll also use the sharp part for a pinprick, which will feel like this.” This time, she poked his cheek with the pointed end. “I want you to tell me if you feel a light touch or a pinprick. Okay?”

“Okay.” Kevin closed his eyes as the doctor began her examination. She worked her way down the right side of his body first, beginning with his neck and shoulder. He felt every jab along his arm and torso, but when she dropped below his waist, the feeling went away.

At one point, he snuck a peek, raising his head off the pillow and opening his eyes into narrow slits. He was embarrassed to see that the doctor had pulled up his hospital gown to expose his naked bottom half and was prodding his inner thigh, a place where only his wife was supposed to touch him. The worst part was that, despite how sensitive he remembered that region of his body being, he couldn’t feel a thing. He quickly squeezed his eyes shut as they began to burn with unshed tears.

One wrong step, and his life was ruined. Not only would he never walk again, but he would never be able to make love to his wife the way he had before. More than anything, he wished he would wake up from this nightmare and open his eyes to find himself in his own bed next to Kristin. He wished he had never come to New Hampshire. He knew Nick’s and AJ’s wives were probably wishing the same thing. He hated himself for bringing his brothers here, for putting a plan in motion that had brought nothing but pain and misery to the Backstreet family.

But as Kevin lay there feeling sorry for himself, he suddenly felt something else: a feather-light tingling behind his right knee. His eyes flew open, and he lifted his head again to discover that Dr. Tracy had bent his leg and was poking the back of his knee with her pin.

“I felt that!” he gasped. “Light touch!”

The doctor raised her eyebrows. “Did it feel the same as on your face or different?”

“A little different,” Kevin admitted. “Maybe not as… I dunno... pronounced? But I definitely felt something.”

She nodded. “That’s a positive sign. It suggests your injury is incomplete, as I suspected. Some signals are still getting through the damaged part of your spinal cord.”

“Does that mean I’ll be able to walk again someday?” Kevin asked. He was afraid to get his hopes up, but he had to know if it was possible.

“It’s too soon to say that with any certainty,” said Dr. Tracy, “but this does improve your odds of recovering some function below the waist.”

While it wasn’t exactly the answer Kevin wanted to hear, it was enough for now. At least it left him with some hope.

Once the doctor had finished her exam and left, Howie pulled back the privacy curtain. “Couldn’t help but overhear the good news,” he said, his brown eyes twinkling. Kevin could tell he was grinning behind his mask. “Congratulations, bro.”

Kevin shook his head, suppressing his own smile. “Don’t get too excited. It may not mean much. I still can’t move any of my leg muscles, and I only have a little bit of feeling behind my knees.”

“Hey, it’s better than nothing. At least your injury is… ‘in-com-puh-lee-ete!’” Howie sang the last part in a near-perfect impression of Nick, scrunching up his face and squeezing his eyes shut in a pained, yet impassioned expression.

Kevin burst out laughing, but his heart lurched as he looked past Howie and saw Nick lying in the bed behind him. The realization that he might never hear Nick sing those notes again wiped the smile right off his face. But before he could reply, he saw Nick’s forehead wrinkle. Deep furrows appeared above his brow as he, too, seemed to frown. Then his eyelids began to flutter.

“Well, now you did it, D,” said Kevin, without taking his eyes off Nick. “Nick musta heard you making fun of him, and you know how he is - he can dish it out, but he can’t take it.”

Howie cocked his head to one side. “Huh?”

For a second, Kevin could hardly speak. A lump had risen in his throat, and happy tears had sprung into his eyes as he watched Nick’s slowly open. “Look,” he whispered.

Howie turned back toward Nick’s bed, and to Kevin’s relief, Nick’s blue eyes followed him. They were foggy with confusion, but as the fog lifted, Kevin saw a look of recognition reflected in their depths. There was no doubt in his mind that Nick not only knew who he and Howie were, but had heard their voices in the room and responded to them.

“Nicky!” Howie gasped when he realized Nick was awake. He was the only one who still got away with calling him by that name.

“You’re in a hospital, Nick,” Kevin called over to him, reading the questions written clearly across his face. “You’ve been in a coma for a couple days, but you’re gonna be all right now. We both are. You hear me?”

Nick blinked. Then, slowly, he raised his right hand off the bed, curved his fingers into a fist, and stuck his thumb straight up.

Howie grinned. Kevin nodded, reaching up to wipe away the tears that were wetting his mask. He couldn’t wait to call Brian.

***


Chapter 21 by RokofAges75
Brian was sitting in a recliner in the corner of AJ’s hospital room when he heard his phone ring. He shifted his weight to retrieve the phone from the pocket of the scrub pants he’d been given to replace the bloodstained khakis that had been cut off him in the emergency room. He had been living in the borrowed scrubs ever since he’d been discharged the previous day, wearing them as he went back and forth between the hospital and the hotel where he had rented a room for himself.

The rest of his clothes were back at the cabin, but Brian had been reluctant to return there without AJ or the other guys. Even if he had rented another car, he couldn’t drive with his right leg in a cast and was too nervous to try navigating the winding mountain roads with his left foot on the pedals. He could have requested a rideshare to take him there, but the cabin felt too far away from the hospital. If something happened to AJ in the two hours it would take Brian to travel there and back, he would never forgive himself for not being there. He had promised AJ’s wife he would stay and watch over him, and he intended to fulfill that promise.

He expected to see Rochelle’s name flashing on his phone, but it turned out to be a FaceTime call from Howie. He quickly swiped his finger across the bottom to answer it. “Hey, cous,” he said, not completely surprised to see Kevin’s face on the screen instead of Howie’s. Since Kevin’s phone was broken, Howie had been sharing his.

“Hey, B, how’s it goin’?” It was hard to read the expression behind his mask, but Kevin seemed slightly happier than Brian had heard him sound in the last couple of days.

On the contrary, Brian felt increasingly hopeless. “Eh… it’s goin’,” he replied glumly, glancing over at AJ. It was hard to get a good look at his friend’s face, for AJ’s bed was flanked by big pieces of medical equipment: a ventilator on one side, a dialysis machine on the other. He reminded Brian of an insect that had been wrapped up and preserved in the middle of a spider web of tubes, which wove their way over and under the white sheet that covered his body, pumping blood, fluids, and oxygen in and out of it. “They got AJ all hooked up for dialysis.” Brian flipped his phone around so Kevin could see him, too.

“Damn… he doesn’t look good,” he heard Kevin say in a low voice.

A lump rose in Brian’s throat. “I know.” AJ was barely recognizable. His face was pale yellow, the result of his failing liver, and puffy from a build-up of fluids. The drastic change in his appearance over the past few days was frightening.

“How’s he doing with it?”

“Hard to tell at this point,” said Brian with a shrug, turning the camera back toward his own face. “I mean, he’s been unconscious the whole time, so I haven’t noticed a difference. I don’t think we’ll see any dramatic improvement today. Dialysis isn’t a cure; it’s just another way to keep him alive until his kidneys start working right again.”

“And do they think that’s likely to happen?”

Brian thought back to the conversation he’d overheard that morning, as AJ’s medical team made their rounds and called Rochelle with a daily update on her husband’s condition. “The doctor told Ro it’s possible for his organs to recover, but only if they can get his body’s response to the infection under control.”

He didn’t elaborate, knowing it wouldn’t do Kevin any good to hear how bad things had gotten with AJ. His blood pressure was still dangerously low, despite the powerful drugs he was being given to bolster it, and his lungs were filling with fluid, putting undue stress on his heart. Rochelle, who had resisted the temptation to hop on a plane the first day due to her concerns about COVID, was now on her way to New Hampshire. She had booked the first flight she could find after getting off the phone with the hospital staff that morning. Brian hoped she would make it there before anything happened to AJ.

“Do you have any good news to give us?” Kevin asked, his brow knitted with worry.

Brian looked around the room, desperate to find something positive to report. His eyes fell upon the pine wreath hanging in the window, which offered a view of the ICU hallway. “This was delivered today,” he said, turning his phone toward the wreath. “It came with a ‘get well’ card from the Christmas tree farm we went to last week. I guess that girl Holly must have seen the news and assumed we were here.”

With the help of their publicist, he and Howie had crafted a carefully-worded statement to release to the media, letting the world know the Backstreet Boys had been involved in a serious accident in the White Mountains without revealing too many details. There had been an outpouring of support and concern from their fans and fellow musicians over the past few days. The world was praying with them. Brian believed in the power of prayer. It had brought him back from the brink of death as a child, and he hoped it would help AJ pull through as well.

Kevin chuckled. “That was nice of her. Did the staff think it was weird that we got a get-well Christmas wreath in the middle of summer?”

“Yeah, but I explained about the album and the tree and all that.” Brian couldn’t believe it had only been a week since he and the boys had arrived in Bethlehem. So much had happened in the last seven days, the memory of them singing Christmas songs as they decorated the cabin felt like it was from another lifetime. It filled him with longing as he looked at AJ, wishing he could go back to that moment and erase the mistakes that had led them to this one.

“So how about you?” he asked Kevin, his voice cracking as he tried not to cry. “Any good news?” Besides wanting to change the subject, he was wondering if Nick had woken up yet. When he had talked to Kevin earlier that day, Nick was being weaned from the drugs that had been used to sedate him. Surely, they should have started wearing off by now. He held his breath, waiting for Kevin’s answer.

“Actually, yeah. That’s why I called.” There was a glimmer of hope in Kevin’s green eyes. “The neurosurgeon was here earlier to examine me, and I found out I have a little bit of feeling in my legs.”

Brian let out his breath in a sigh of relief, feeling as if one weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Thank God. That’s great, man! You’re gonna be walking again in no time.”

“It’s not much,” said Kevin in a warning tone. “Just a sort of pins-and-needles sensation on the back of my knees. But it’s something. The doctor said it shows my spinal cord hasn’t been completely crushed - some signals are still getting through. That means I may be able to recover more feeling and function with the right rehabilitation. Kristin started looking into rehab centers closer to home for when I’m ready to get out of here.”

“Awesome. If anyone can do it, you can,” Brian told him. Kevin had always been an athlete and was in excellent shape for forty-eight. “You’ve got this, Kev.”

“Thanks, cous.” Brian could tell Kevin was smiling behind his mask. Their heated words over politics and Leighanne’s social media posts had long since been forgotten, and they were back on good terms. There were more important issues to focus on now. “Hey, there’s somebody else here who wants to talk to you. Can I put him on?”

“Of course,” said Brian, hoping he just meant Howie and not some hospital staff member who also happened to be a Backstreet Boys fan. He wasn’t in the mood for that.

“Hang on.”

Kevin handed the phone to Howie, who said, “Hey, man! Look who’s awake...”

Brian watched with anticipation as a dizzying whirl of floor and ceiling tiles flashed across his screen. Then, finally, Nick’s face came into focus. He was propped up in his hospital bed with several pillows tucked behind his head, and for the first time in nearly four days, his familiar blue eyes were open. They looked tired and bleary, the lids drooping like he was fighting the urge to fall back to sleep, but they quickly found the camera on Howie’s phone. “Hey, Frick,” he said, smiling into it.

Brian felt his own eyes fill with tears. “Hey, Frack,” he echoed, trying to blink them back before Nick noticed. “How ya feelin’, buddy?”

Nick didn’t miss a beat. “Like I got shot in the chest,” he said, totally deadpan.

Brian laughed, his heart feeling lighter than it had in the last few days. “God, it’s good to hear your voice again.”

Nick wrinkled his nose. “Even when it sounds like this?” His voice was hoarse and gravelly. Brian wondered how long it had been since they’d taken the breathing tube out of his throat, trading it for the thin nasal cannula Nick was now wearing.

“My voice sounds like that every day,” Brian reminded him. “Yours will be a lot better by tomorrow. Try sucking on ice chips to keep your throat moist until they let you drink liquids.”

“Dude… don’t say ‘moist.’” Nick made another disgusted face, sticking out his tongue. Brian could tell he was trying to play tough guy, cracking jokes to hide how much pain he was in.

“Hey, just offering you a piece of friendly advice,” he replied. “I’ve been there before, remember?”

“Yeah, but you’ve never been shot. I think I got you beat there, bro.”

“Fair enough,” Brian conceded, smiling. “So how are you really? Are they giving you plenty of pain meds?”

Nick nodded. “Yeah… I’m pretty sore, but I’ll be all right.” After a pause, he added, “Thanks for having my back out there, Bri. I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if it weren’t for you.”

Brian’s throat tightened as another lump rose into it. Swallowing hard, he replied, “Right back at ya, bro. I’d probably still be crawling by the side of the road if you hadn’t come along and carried me all the way to that cabin.”

“Speaking of that cabin…” said Nick, frowning as he brought Howie’s phone closer to his face. “I gotta ask you something, Brian. Serious question.”

“Ask away.”

He arched one eyebrow, fixing the phone’s camera with a penetrating stare. “You still gonna vote for Donald Trump after I almost got killed by one of his fuckin’ fanboys?”

Caught off-guard by the question, Brian felt his face heat up. He let out an awkward laugh, not sure whether Nick was actually being serious or if Kevin had put him up to asking it. But before he could come up with an answer, he heard a high-pitched alarm go off.

“What is that?” Nick asked, as Brian looked around for the source of it. His heart lurched when he saw a red light flashing on the monitor above AJ’s bed.

“Something’s wrong with AJ,” he blurted out, dropping his phone in his frantic scramble to get up from the recliner. He reached for his crutches, cursing his broken ankle as he balanced on his left leg. Tucking the crutches under his arms, he swung his casted right leg off the foot rest he had been using to elevate it and hobbled over to AJ’s bed.

One of the nurses beat him there, rushing into the room as the monitor continued its frenzied beeping. She looked up at the screen, then bent over AJ. “What’s wrong with him?” Brian demanded, but the nurse didn’t answer right away.

Another nurse soon joined her at AJ’s bedside. “What happened?” he asked.

“He dropped his pressure,” the first nurse replied. Her gloved fingers were wrapped around AJ’s left wrist, as the broken right one had been encased in a hard cast. “His pulse is weak and thready.”

The second nurse frowned as he studied the monitor. “He’s going into shock. I’m gonna call a code.” He picked up the phone on the wall and dialed quickly. “I’ve got a patient crashing in ICU five,” he said into the receiver.

A moment later, the call came over the intercom: “Code Blue, ICU Room Five. Code Blue, ICU Room Five.” When Brian heard that, his left knee buckled, and he had to lean on his crutches to keep from falling to the floor.

The room began to fill with people dressed in protective equipment: gowns, gloves, masks, and face shields. They surrounded AJ’s bed, preventing Brian from being able to see what was going on, though he tried his best to follow their hurried discussion. He heard an array of frightening phrases being thrown around: “septic shock,” “severely hypotensive,” and “bradying down.” It felt more like a movie than real life.

This can’t be happening, he thought, watching with mounting horror. How could appendicitis have caused all this?

At one point, the doctor who appeared to be in charge noticed Brian hanging in the background. “Are you part of the code team, or are you a patient here?” he asked, his eyes narrowing as they panned down Brian’s body, dressed in scrubs and supported by a pair of crutches.

“Neither. I’m… I’m his brother,” Brian replied breathlessly, hoping he wasn’t about to be kicked out of the room.

The doctor’s head bobbed in a brief nod. “Sir, your brother’s condition is deteriorating rapidly. Both his blood pressure and heart rate have plummeted, putting him on the brink of cardiac arrest. I need to know, do you want us to use heroic measures to try to resuscitate him when his heart stops?”

“What?” Brian stared at him in disbelief, wondering why he would even waste time asking such a question. “What do you mean?? Of course! I want you to do everything you can to save him!”

“Dr. Park, we need you!” one of the nurses called out. “The monitor’s showing sinus bradycardia, but I can’t feel a pulse anymore.”

“Must be pulseless electrical activity,” the doctor replied, his eyes darting up to the monitor. He glanced briefly back at Brian before returning his attention to AJ. “Start CPR.”

Brian’s stomach dropped. He felt like vomiting as he watched one of the nurses climb onto a footstool next to AJ’s bed and bend over his body. Through the narrow gap between two of the other team members, he could see her gloved hands pushing down hard and fast on AJ’s bare chest, the bed trembling beneath him with the force of her compressions. The terrifying scene seemed to waver and blur before Brian’s eyes as they filled with tears.

“Damn it, AJ, don’t you do this!” he cried, clinging to his crutches. “Think of your girls!” He pictured Rochelle sitting on a plane, unaware of what was happening to her husband… Ava and Lyric, anxiously waiting for their father to come home. “They’re counting on you!”

“He’s got a good radial pulse with compressions,” commented the nurse who was clutching AJ’s wrist. Brian felt encouraged by her remark. As long as her colleagues could keep the blood circulating through AJ’s body, there was still hope.

“C’mon, Bone,” he croaked, hoping AJ could hear his voice. “You’ve gotta fight! Fight for your family! Fight for your life!”

Maybe it was because of his own near-death experience, or maybe he had just seen too many movies, but Brian was expecting a miracle. Any minute now, the monitor would stop its wailing as AJ’s heart began to beat on its own again.

But the seconds ticked by without any response. A minute passed. Then another.

“We’re at the two-minute mark,” the male nurse announced. “Let’s pause for a pulse check.”

The woman performing CPR stopped pumping, while the nurse next to her pressed her fingers to the inside of AJ’s wrist once more. After a moment, she shook her head. “No pulse.”

“Still PEA,” said the doctor, studying the rhythm on the heart monitor. “Switch roles and resume compressions.”

The two female nurses traded places, one feeling for a pulse while the other pushed on AJ’s chest.

“Please,” Brian begged them, tears pouring down the sides of his face as his hope for a miracle began to fade. “Please bring him back. His wife’s on her way from California. You have to keep him alive until she gets here.”

No one acknowledged him. Brian wasn’t sure they had even heard him. The hospital room had become a beehive of activity. Busy healthcare workers buzzed around AJ’s bed, barking out orders and information as they monitored his vital signs, drew blood, and administered oxygen and medication through the many tubes attached to his body.

As Brian moved back out of their way, he became aware of Kevin’s frantic voice calling out from his phone. “Brian? Brian, what’s going on?”

Hands shaking, Brian hauled himself back to the recliner to his corner and bent down with difficulty to retrieve his phone from the floor. “I’m here, Kev,” he said quietly, holding the phone up in front of his face.

“What the hell is happening?” Kevin cried. Brian could see Howie standing behind the head of his bed, leaning in close to listen. “Is AJ okay?”

Brian swallowed hard and shook his head. “His heart stopped beating. They’re trying to get it going again, but… the doctor doesn’t seem too hopeful.” He turned back to look at the physician in charge, who was standing at the foot of the bed, his arms folded over the front of his sterile gown as he watched his staff carry out the heroic measures he had ordered. Brian couldn’t see his face behind his mask and shield, but based on his body language, he thought the man must be frowning. The truth hit him like a ton of bricks, taking his breath away. He could barely get the next two words out, but he fought through his dysphonia, feeling the need to prepare the others for what was about to happen. “He’s dying.”

Kevin and Howie both looked stunned. In the background, Brian could hear Nick’s hoarse voice cry out, “Don’t say that! Don’t you fucking say that! AJ’s not gonna die!”

But the body on the bed was already too far gone. “Asystole,” he heard the doctor declare a moment later, as the heart monitor flatlined.

Brian fell backwards into his chair, his wobbly knee finally giving out on him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, bowing his head. The tears continued to trickle down his cheeks and into his mask. “Sorry I didn’t get him here in time.”

“I’m sorry, too,” said Kevin, his face pale white above his mask. “We never should have come here in the first place.”

Again, Brian was struck with a sense of regret, wishing they had done things differently. But who could have imagined that making a Christmas album would wind up costing them so much?

***


Chapter 22 by RokofAges75

Four months later


Nick was the first to enter the Backstreet Boys’ weekly Zoom meeting. He was quickly joined by Kevin, Howie, and Brian. But one of their members was missing.

“Where the hell is AJ?” asked Kevin, after they had waited five minutes.

“He probably forgot.” Howie smiled and shook his head. “You know how bad his memory is these days.”

“Yeah, well, losing a bunch of brain cells will do that to ya,” said Brian. “I’ll text him.”

A few moments later, AJ’s face appeared on the screen. “Sorry, you guys,” he said with a sheepish grin, adjusting his glasses. “I got busy playing with the girls and lost track of time.”

“No problem,” Nick replied, knowing full well what that was like. He could hear Odin and Saoirse laughing as they raced up and down the hall outside the closed door of his home office. A part of him regretted missing out on their fun, but he had been looking forward to catching up with his bandmates. “How you doin’, bro?”

“Not bad,” said AJ, shrugging. “A little better every day.”

“You look good, Bone,” said Brian, and Nick nodded in agreement. AJ had lost a lot of weight while he was in the hospital, but now that he was finally back home, he had been working hard to build up his strength and muscle mass again. His gaunt face had begun to fill out, thanks to his wife’s efforts to fatten him up with her cooking, and his color had gone back to normal as his liver and kidney function continued to improve. With as close as he had come to death, it was a miracle he was even alive. Brian liked to give God all the credit for bringing AJ back from the brink, but Nick was also grateful for medical science. It had taken many prayers, powerful medications, multiple procedures, and almost two months in intensive care to get him to this point. None of them could have predicted a perforated appendix would cause so much trouble.

“Thanks. I’ve still got a long ways to go to get back to where I was before all this. My abs will never be the same,” AJ sighed, lifting his shirt to show them the long scar running down the center of his belly. “But at least I’m starting to feel like myself again.”

“One step at a time,” said Kevin with a tight smile. “That’s what they’re always telling me in P.T.”

“How was your physical therapy this week?” Howie wanted to know.

“Pretty good. They’ve got me swimming lengths of the pool now, and yesterday, I took two steps between the parallel bars.” Kevin’s lips stretched into a full-on grin, his face glowing with pride.

“What?! No way!” Nick exclaimed, leaping out of his seat in his excitement. “That’s awesome, dude! You’re gonna be back to dancing before you know it.”

Kevin shook his head. “Don’t get your hopes up. My arms did most of the work; my legs muscles are still pretty weak. I dunno if I’ll ever regain the strength and coordination I’d need for dancing. But if I can at least get around without this damn wheelchair, that would be enough for me.”

“And if you can’t, then we’ll just have to work it into our choreography,” Brian added cheerfully. “We already have a chair dance. Why not a wheelchair dance?”

They all laughed. “Hey, I think Glee did that once,” Howie pointed out.

Nick snorted. “Dude… you watched Glee?”

Howie gave his camera a look of annoyance. “Leigh liked it, okay? I bet you’d like it, too. They covered a lot of Journey songs.”

“Yeah, okay. Whatever you say, Howie,” Nick laughed.

“It’s actually not a bad idea,” Howie went on, ignoring him. “We’re all getting older. It would be good to practice our wheelchair dance moves now, so we’re ready to go when we really need them someday.”

“Yeah, when we’re singing songs from the nineties in our nineties,” said Nick, still snickering.

“I think we should bring back ‘Roll With It,’ from the red album,” Brian suggested. “Not only is it a perfect anthem for getting through 2020, but wouldn’t it be pretty badass to perform with a bunch of wheelchairs?”

“Roll with it! That’s what you gotta do...” Nick started singing. “Roll with it…” The others joined him in harmony, hardly missing a beat. “Roll with it...” Kevin pushed himself back from his desk and did a little spin in his wheelchair, which got them all laughing too hard to finish a round of the chorus.

“I’ll call Rich and Tone when we’re done here and tell them to start choreographing,” AJ joked.

“It may be too early to make a decision about this, but… do you think we’ll be able to go back on tour next summer?” Nick asked, trying not to sound too eager. He had taken it easy for the first two months after getting out of the hospital, giving himself time to heal both physically and mentally. But ever since his doctor had cleared him to begin working out again, he had been trying hard to get back into shape. He couldn’t wait to go back out on the road once it was safe and hoped the other guys would feel the same way.

“I think that’ll depend on where we are with the pandemic,” said Kevin. “But if we can, and you guys are willing to work around my disability, then I’m game.”

“Of course, Kevy Kev!” AJ replied, as the others quickly nodded. “Honestly, I dunno if I’m gonna be able to get through all that choreography either. Maybe you and I can just sing all the leads and let these three clowns be our backup dancers.”

Kevin laughed. “Works for me!”

“Dude, you should seriously do Dancing With the Stars,” Nick told AJ. “That’ll whip your butt right back into shape.”

“I was actually in talks to do it this fall, before all this shit happened,” said AJ with a sigh. “Guess it wasn’t meant to be. But maybe another year.”

Nick nodded. “I know the feeling. I couldn’t tell y’all before, but I was gonna be on this season of The Masked Singer. They had a costume picked out for me and everything, but I would have had to start filming in August, and I just wasn’t ready to start performing again at that point.”

“Really? That would have been awesome, bro,” said Howie, supportive as always. “My boys love that show! We watch it every week.”

“Well, keep watching, and maybe you’ll see me later, alligator,” Nick replied in what he thought was a cryptic way, smiling as he pictured the pimped-out pink crocodile costume that had been promised to him.

Kevin cleared his throat. “Hey, speaking of costumes… I loved your look on Halloween, cous.”

Oh god, here we go again, thought Nick with a groan. Leave it to Kevin to be the first to bring up politics. He still loved to give Brian a hard time about being a Republican, especially after Nick had been shot by a trigger-happy Trump supporter. The man who had mistaken him for a bear had been arrested on a felony charge of reckless conduct with a deadly weapon, fined four thousand dollars, and sentenced to two years in prison. Meanwhile, Nick just wanted to move on with his life. He should have known Kevin wouldn’t be able to ignore Brian’s wife and son dressing up like Ivanka and Donald Trump for Halloween the previous weekend.

“Hey, thanks!” said Brian, who had made a surprisingly good Joe Biden. “Think they’ll let me into the Oval Office?”

“Not if your cult leader has anything to say about it.” Kevin shook his head. “I swear, I have never seen a grown-ass man act like such a sore loser. Tell me something, Brian: Do you actually believe all this bullshit Trump’s been spewing about the election being rigged?”

“Leighanne does,” Brian admitted, looking slightly embarrassed. “But you wanna know a secret?”

“I do!” Nick blurted, leaning forward. He hoped Brian was going to change the subject before things got too uncomfortable in the Zoom call.

Grinning, Brian brought his face close to the camera on his computer. “Don’t tell my wife,” he whispered, “but I voted for Biden.”

The other boys burst out laughing. “You did not,” Kevin said skeptically, narrowing his eyes at the camera. “Did you?”

Brian nodded. “Swear to God, I did. First time I’ve ever voted for a Democrat. I dunno if it was what happened this summer that changed my mind, but I got in the voting booth, and I just couldn’t bring myself to mark Trump’s name on the ballot.”

Kevin raised his eyebrows. “Wow… well, at least some good came from all this. I’m glad you made your own decision, instead of letting Leighanne dictate everything you do in life.”

“Yeah, way to grow a pair, Rok!” AJ cheered, as Brian’s cheeks reddened. “Just watch… Georgia’s gonna go blue because of people like you. I’m proud of you, bro.”

“Personally, I’m just happy the election’s over,” said Howie. “Hopefully the country will be able to move forward once Biden is officially declared the winner.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure Trump will agree to a peaceful transfer of power and step down with no problem,” Kevin replied sarcastically. “He would never do anything crazy, like encourage his cult members to storm the capitol or stage a coup so he could try to steal the election.”

AJ chuckled, but Brian and Howie both looked as awkward as Nick felt. “Can we please talk about something else besides politics?” he asked before Kevin could antagonize his cousin any further.

“Please,” echoed Brian. “You pick the topic, Nick. Any topic.”

“Okay… um…” Nick looked around his office, searching for a conversation starter. A piece of paper taped to the wall above his desk caught his eye. It was a drawing Odin had done of a bear after hearing Nick’s stories from New Hampshire. Its red eyes reminded him of one of the Satan-worshipping woodland critters from a Christmas episode of South Park. “Christmas is coming soon!” Nick announced. “Let’s talk about Christmas!”

He knew he sounded like an overgrown kid, but he couldn’t wait for Christmas. Odin was finally old enough to look forward to Santa’s visit, and Saoirse would be able to open her own presents and play with her new toys this year. Nick was just happy to be home for the holidays. Since leaving the hospital, he had found himself appreciating every moment he was able to spend with his children even more than he would have before. He and Lauren were even thinking about trying to have another baby.

Brian laughed. “Yeah, can we talk about the fact that, once again, the Christmas album we’ve been promising our fans for the past few years won’t be coming out?”

“Hey, at least we tried,” said Howie with a shrug. “We won’t have to blame it on Backstreet Time this year. We’ve actually got a good excuse for not getting it done.”

AJ snorted. “Yeah… my appendix.”

“And a moose,” added Brian.

“And a power outage,” put in Kevin.

“And that goddamn black bear,” growled Nick.

“And…” Howie started to say, then trailed off with an awkward shrug. “Sorry, I got nothing.”

They all laughed at him. Howie actually looked a little left out.

“You know,” said Nick, as an idea formed in his head. “When we do get around to working on the Christmas album again, this could make a great parody of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’” He cleared his throat and started to sing, making the words up as he went. “On the first day in New Hampshire, here’s what happened to us: a case of appendicitis.”

He could always count on Brian to join in on the joke. “On the second day in New Hampshire, here’s what happened to us,” he added. “A moose in the road and a case of appendicitis.”

“Oh dear lord, don’t you two start this again,” Howie groaned. “I swear to God, if you keep going, I will hang up!”

Nick and Brian both burst out laughing. Nick was still trying to think of what could come next. He knew Howie wouldn’t really leave the meeting, no matter how much he threatened to.

“Aw… Frick and Frack,” Kevin said fondly, smiling at the screen.

“It sounds so crazy when you list it all together like that,” said AJ, blinking behind the thick frames of his glasses. “But you know what? It could have been worse. At least no one caught COVID.”

They all laughed that time.

“Let’s just chalk it up to the curse of 2020 and try to move on,” Kevin proposed. “As for the Christmas album... well, we can always try again next year.”

The End


 



Thanks, AJ, for posting this picture the day before I posted this chapter. Perfect timing!


End Notes:

Aww, look, it’s a happy ending after all! My apologies for messing with you in the last chapter. I was never really going to kill AJ, and I actually didn’t even decide to pretend to kill him until a chapter or two before I got to that part. I needed a way to facilitate a time jump to my planned ending of the Backstreet Zoom call several months later. I didn’t want to drag out the hospital drama because that was not the point of this story, but I also didn’t love the idea of hurriedly wrapping everything up with a shiny bow because that didn’t seem very realistic. Meanwhile, all you readers were so busy worrying about Nick and Kevin that no one was really talking about AJ. So I decided to give it my best attempt at a “Homeward Bound” ending, in which I tried to trick you into thinking he wasn’t going to make it, only for him to turn up okay in the end. I was hoping my track record for killing Backstreet Boys at the end of stories would work in my favor, but I don’t think many of you were fooled. But maybe that’s for the best.

Anyway, I want to thank everyone who read this story and left feedback along the way. This was a really fun one to write; I enjoyed capturing the craziness of 2020 with the kind of plot that would have seemed way too ridiculous to take place in any other year. I hope you enjoyed it, too! And hey, maybe one of these years we’ll actually get a Christmas album out of those Boys!

This story archived at http://absolutechaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=11577