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.