“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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.