That was when he remembered waking the night before to the sound of Brian and AJ fumbling their way down from the loft. Their conversation came back to him in a rush, and he reached quickly for his phone, expecting to find a voicemail from Brian. After sitting up for what felt like hours, anxiously awaiting an update on AJ, he must have dozed off and slept right through the phone ringing. But when he turned on its screen, Kevin was dismayed to see no notifications. No missed calls. No new text messages. Nothing at all.
Maybe it wasn’t appendicitis after all, he thought. Maybe it was nothing, and Brian already brought AJ back. That made more sense to him. It was probably just food poisoning or the stomach flu, and AJ was sleeping it off upstairs. He and Brian had to have been tired after being up half the night at the hospital. They must have snuck in and tiptoed up to the loft while Kevin was sound asleep on the couch, not wanting to wake him for a second time.
Kevin felt a bit better after reasoning this out in his mind, but he still wanted some reassurance that AJ was really all right. He winced as he rose from the couch. It was reasonably comfortable, but his back was stiff from sleeping on it all night, and he had a crick in his neck. I’m getting too old for this, he thought irritably, rubbing the side of his neck as he padded barefoot across the hardwood floor. He climbed the staircase that led to the loft, the steps creaking beneath his feet.
He expected to hear the sound of deep breathing as he got closer to the top, but the loft was eerily silent. When he reached it, he saw why. Both Brian’s and AJ’s beds were empty, the covers thrown back haphazardly. It didn’t look like they had returned since leaving in a rush last night. The realization filled Kevin with the same ominous feeling he’d woken up with: the feeling that something was wrong.
He frowned, his heart beating faster as he hurried back downstairs to try calling his cousin. But he couldn’t get a call to go through; his phone was without service. He’d never had a cell signal near the cabin - none of them did - but they had always been able to use Wi-Fi to call their families. It looked like the Wi-Fi wasn’t working either. No wonder he hadn’t heard from Brian.
Annoyed and worried, Kevin walked over to the basement door. He knocked once, then opened it and called down the dark staircase: “Nick? Howie? You up?”
There was no answer.
Heaving a sigh, Kevin flipped the light switch, but nothing happened. Had the bulb burnt out, he wondered, or was the power out? He turned back to try the lights in the kitchen, but they wouldn’t come on either. The storm must have knocked out the power, he realized with a sinking feeling. That meant the wireless router would be down, too. No electricity, no internet.
He looked around for a landline phone, hoping he would be able to make a call the old-fashioned way, but there was none to be found. He wasn’t sure there were even phone lines this far up in the mountains.
Now what? he wondered, leaning wearily against the kitchen counter. He thought about where the guys could be. AJ had probably been admitted to the hospital after all, but it was weird that Brian hadn’t come back by himself. Surely, the hospital wouldn’t have allowed him to stay there overnight, not with all the new rules and regulations put in place because of the pandemic.
Maybe he got a hotel room, Kevin thought. Yes, that would be it. Brian must have been too tired to drive back after dropping AJ off, so he decided to stay at a hotel for the night. He had probably booked a room at one of the bed and breakfasts they had driven by. He would likely come back later that morning, bragging about how much better luck he’d had than Mary and Joseph at finding room at an inn in the little town of Bethlehem, and they would all laugh at his dumb Bible joke.
It sounded believable enough. But still, Kevin couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad had happened. What if Brian hadn’t made it to a hotel? What if he’d had car trouble or made a wrong turn in the rainstorm? What if he was lost or stranded somewhere in the mountains without a phone signal?
What could I do if he was? Kevin wondered, feeling somewhat helpless. He had no phone signal himself, no vehicle to drive around and look for Brian’s rented Range Rover. The way he saw it, he had only two options: wait at the cabin until either Brian or the electricity came back, or go out on foot. He could hike down the mountainside until he was within range of a cell tower, then try to call his cousin. And if Brian didn’t answer, he could call for help.
The more Kevin thought about it, the more convinced he became that the latter option was his best course of action. He couldn’t keep pacing around the cabin, waiting and worrying, without driving himself crazy. He would feel better if he was actually doing something. Besides, if Brian was lost or stranded somewhere, he would want to find him sooner rather than later. He would only waste time hanging out at the cabin.
His mind made up, Kevin went into his bedroom to change clothes. He put on shorts and a t-shirt, a pair of thick socks, and his hiking boots. Hearing raindrops spatter against his window prompted him to pull on a thin windbreaker over his t-shirt. He thought of his wife and kids as he did. The boys had given him the jacket for Father’s Day just before he left. “We thought you could use it on your trip, Dad,” his older son Mason had explained. “It gets cold up in the mountains.”
“They also thought you could use a little more color in your wardrobe,” added his wife Kristin with a wink. The windbreaker was bright red and gold, emblazoned with the logo of the Kansas City Chiefs, her favorite football team, whom they’d watched win their first Superbowl in fifty years that winter. Of course, Kristin knew Kevin preferred a more neutral palette - his closet was filled with shades of gray, basic black, and Kentucky blue - but she had let the boys pick out something bright in her team’s high-contrast colors. No one will miss me walking down the side of the road, that’s for sure, he thought, smiling to himself.
He grabbed his backpack and took it into the kitchen, where he filled it with a few provisions: two bottles of water, a protein bar, and a small package of almonds. As he was poking through the cupboards, he came across two flashlights tucked inside a junk drawer. After checking to make sure they worked, he tossed one into his pack, just in case. An experienced hiker, Kevin knew the importance of being prepared.
He also knew it was unwise to hike alone without telling anyone where he was going. He still hadn’t heard a peep from the basement, so he used a pad of paper and pen from the same junk drawer to jot a note to Nick and Howie. Imagining the two of them waking up without power in the pitch black basement, he took both the note and the second flashlight downstairs. He could hear Howie’s soft snores coming from behind the closed bedroom door, but nothing from Nick. Wondering if the youngest Backstreet Boy was awake, Kevin knocked quietly on the door and waited.
There was no answer.
He turned the knob and opened the door, shining his flashlight into the dark room. As the beam of light swept across the two twin beds, Kevin saw Howie curled up in one, his mouth wide open. Nick was lying flat on his back in the other, hugging a pillow against his chest. Judging by the sound of his deep breathing, he was still fast asleep. Kevin couldn’t help but smile as he stood in the doorway, watching the pillow rise and fall with every breath. When he was asleep, Nick still looked like the little boy he’d been when Kevin had first met him. It was hard to believe he had turned forty that year - or that Kevin himself was almost fifty. Most days, he still felt like he was in his twenties. But then there were days like these, when he woke up with a stiffness in his bones that reminded him his body was double that.
Howie liked to sleep in, but Nick was normally a morning person. He must have needed the sleep. Being a dad to two small children was exhausting - Kevin could attest to that. Nick didn’t so much as stir as Kevin tiptoed over to his bedside table. They were all deep sleepers, having developed the ability to sleep through anything, anywhere, during their three decades of touring. Kevin didn’t bother trying to wake him; he just turned off the flashlight and left it lying on the table, his note tucked beneath it. Then he followed the faint light filtering in from the basement door back up the stairs.
He tried his phone one more time before he set out, but there was still no signal. With a sigh, Kevin slung his backpack over both shoulders and left the cabin, locking the door behind him.
As he set off down the gravel driveway, he wondered if he should go back and change into long pants. A light rain was falling, and the air was cool and wet. His legs were cold; he could already feel goosebumps rising on his bare skin. It’ll warm up, and so will I, he assured himself, making the decision to keep walking away from the cabin. Backtracking would only waste time, and he still had the nagging feeling that time was not on his side. He knew he wouldn’t be able to shake it until he heard Brian’s voice reassure him that all was well.
It took five minutes just to make it to the bottom of the driveway. There Kevin took out his phone and tried calling again, but there was still no signal. Not surprised, he put his phone back into his pocket and continued onto the road. He kept close to the narrow shoulder, worried a car would come whipping around one of the curves without warning, but there was no need - he walked for half an hour without seeing anyone. There were no vehicles, houses, or people in sight.
Under any other circumstances, Kevin would have relished the solitude and the remoteness of his surroundings. He loved the sights and sounds of nature, the pitter-patter of raindrops on the canopy of lush green leaves over his head, the crunch of rocks and twigs beneath his feet, and the faint hum of insects interrupted by the occasional birdcall. He loved the earthy smell of rain as he took a deep breath of fresh, mountain air. But he could not fully enjoy it when he was worried about Brian and AJ and anxious to get back within range of a cell tower.
Two miles down the winding road, he saw the reason for the power outage. A tree had fallen during last night’s storm, taking out the power lines. One of the wooden poles was lying across the road, pinned beneath the thick tree trunk, as if a giant were playing a game of pick-up sticks. No wonder Kevin hadn’t seen any cars. He kept his distance, not sure if the wires lying on the wet pavement were still live or not. Luckily, the rain must have prevented any sparks from igniting a fire, but he didn’t want to get electrocuted. He would have to walk around.
Beyond the narrow shoulder on both sides of the road, the mountainside sloped at a precipitous angle. There was a steep incline to his left, a sharp dropoff on the right. It made more sense for Kevin to keep descending rather than climb, so he kept to the right side of the road. As soon as he stepped off the shoulder, his boots sank into the sodden ground. He picked them carefully up out of the mud, one foot at a time, giving the fallen power lines a wide berth as he gradually made his way down the slope. He was glad he’d had the forethought to put on his hiking boots, grateful for the traction they provided on the wet, uneven surface.
No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than the ground beneath Kevin seemed to give way, causing his foot to slip out from under him. It happened so fast, yet the next few seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. Kevin’s arms pinwheeled wildly as he fought to find his footing, but before he could regain his balance, he began to fall. He cartwheeled sideways, his body tumbling helplessly down the mountainside. His hands grappled frantically for something to grab onto, anything to slow his fall, but they came up empty. Yet he felt the bump of every rock and branch he struck along the way.
Then his head hit something hard, triggering an explosion of sharp, blinding pain within his skull. The dizzying swirl of gray sky and green foliage faded to black, and he felt nothing more.