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.”
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.