“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.