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 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.”