“Where the hell is he?” Howie muttered, switching on the flashlight and shining it up at the road. There was no sign of Nick, nor anyone else.
Kevin moaned in response, his eyelids fluttering as Howie focused the flashlight’s beam on his pale face. He had been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last hour, despite Howie’s efforts to keep him awake. Howie had always heard you weren’t supposed to let someone with a head injury go to sleep, even though it would have been a welcomed relief for Kevin. He looked so miserable lying there with nothing but a wet blanket between his broken body and the cold, hard ground.
Howie had done his best to keep Kevin warm and dry, dismantling the stretcher and draping the bedsheet Nick had brought over the broom and mop handles to construct a crude lean-to. This had helped to block the wind, but it hadn’t kept out the cold. The temperature had dropped significantly since the sun had gone down, and Kevin couldn’t seem to stop shivering. His upper body trembled uncontrollably beneath the thin windbreaker he was wearing, while his lower half, clad in a pair of baggy cargo shorts, remained totally still. Howie supposed Kevin’s injury was preventing his paralyzed legs from responding properly to the cold, but he worried about his bare skin being exposed to the elements.
He had once heard the surprising statistic that more people died of hypothermia during the summer months than in the winter. Ill-prepared hikers were especially prone to it, due to the unpredictable weather conditions in the mountains and the drastic difference in temperature between the base and the summit. Howie shook his head regretfully as he looked down at himself, realizing he had made the same rookie mistake as most of those other inexperienced hikers. Dressed in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt himself, he was freezing. But at least he could keep himself warm by moving around. He was more concerned about Kevin, who couldn’t move a muscle below his waist. Howie wished he had another blanket with which to cover Kevin’s body, but all he could do was rub Kevin’s deadened legs with his hands and hope it helped to keep the blood flowing through them.
“Stay with me, bro,” he murmured, squeezing his knee. He didn’t know if Kevin could feel the pressure he was putting on it, so he patted his hand for good measure. “Nick’s gonna be back any minute with help. We just have to hang on until then.”
He was trying to stay positive for Kevin’s state of mind, but in his head, he pleaded for Nick to hurry. He wasn’t sure how much longer Kevin could hold on.
“How much further do you think it is?” asked the sheriff’s deputy, as he drove up the mountain road.
Brian squinted out the windows of the squad car, desperately searching for some indication of where they were. They had gone by Richard’s house, but beyond it, there were no obvious landmarks, only trees. He didn’t recognize anything in the dark.
“We have to be getting close,” he answered uncertainly, hoping they hadn’t already passed the place where he had wrecked the Range Rover. He wasn’t sure they would be able to see it from the road.
Deputy Smith slowed down. He leaned forward over the steering wheel, studying the pavement in front of them. “Look… skid marks,” he said suddenly, pointing out the windshield as he applied the brakes. “Do you think this is where you went off the road?”
Brian looked to his left, but it was impossible to see through the thick brush along the roadside. “Yeah, it could be. I’m not a hundred percent sure.”
Smith pulled over onto the narrow shoulder and put the car in park. “Wait here,” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt. “I’ll take a closer look.” He retrieved a large, high-powered flashlight from the trunk and walked across the road, shining it into the ditch. After a few seconds, he came running back to the car. “There’s a vehicle down there alright,” he said, as he reached for his radio. Brian’s heart leapt. He listened to the deputy describe their location to the dispatcher. “A couple more ambulances should be coming soon,” he told Brian. “I’m gonna go down there and check it out. You wait here.”
“Okay,” Brian agreed, knowing there was no use in arguing. As much as he wished he could check on AJ himself, the thought of dragging himself back down into the ditch was not an appealing one. He was beyond exhausted, and his scraped hands and knees hurt almost as much as his broken ankle. All he could do was close his eyes and pray that they hadn’t arrived too late.
“Hey…” Richard’s voice drifted up from the back seat. “You’re not gonna press charges, are you? It was an accident. I hope you know that.”
Brian opened his eyes and turned around to stare at him in disbelief. “You pointed a gun at my friend, pulled the trigger, and shot him in the chest.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Friend? I thought you said he was your brother.”
“He is my brother - and my best friend - and he could die because of you!” Brian cried, feeling his heart beat faster. “Accident or not, we have every right to press charges.”
Richard puffed out his chest. “Well, I have the right to defend myself against trespassers on my property, animal or otherwise. It’s called the second amendment!”
Brian shook his head. For a brief moment, he felt like he was back home, arguing with Leighanne again. “The second amendment gives you the right to bear arms, not to shoot innocent people on sight!” he shouted, his grief giving way to anger. “What you did wasn’t self-defense; it was manslaughter! If he dies, you’re facing a felony.”
“I got him help, didn’t I?” Richard retorted. “I did everything I could to save his life.”
“You did everything you could to save your own ass,” Brian muttered back. “Look, if you really want to help, you can shut the hell up and pray. That’s what I’m going to do.”
He turned around to face forward again, and to his relief, Richard fell silent. Whether he was actually praying or not, Brian did not know, nor did he care. He hoped his own prayers would carry more weight than the old man’s, anyway. He bowed his head and prayed hard for Nick… and for AJ… and for Kevin.
He was still immersed in silent prayer when he heard Richard speak again. “Hey… you awake up there? I think I heard an ambulance.”
Brian lifted his head hopefully. He heard it, too: a faint siren, growing steadily louder. “Thank you, Lord,” he murmured.
The deputy had left his lights flashing, so it was easy for the other first responders to find them. As promised, a pair of ambulances pulled up next to the police cruiser, and another two teams of paramedics climbed out. One team went down into the ditch to help AJ while the other stayed back to evaluate Brian.
“Where are you injured, sir?” a woman asked, shining a flashlight into the passenger seat.
“Mainly just my ankle,” Brian replied. “I think it may be broken.”
“But where’s all this blood coming from?” she added with more urgency, motioning to his chest.
Brian looked down at himself. The front of his white shirt, the wifebeater he had borrowed from AJ, was covered with blood. “It’s not mine,” he managed to say, though his throat had grown tight. “It’s Nick’s blood.”
She and her partner helped him out of the car and onto a stretcher. They put him in the back of an ambulance, where they removed the makeshift bandages from around his ankle to examine it. “You do have a lot of swelling and bruising,” said the female paramedic, as she gently poked and prodded his lower leg, “but I don’t feel any bones protruding. You have good foot pulses, which means your circulation hasn’t been compromised. All positive signs.”
Brian nodded, but at that moment, he didn’t care much about his ankle. His main concern was for his brothers.
After what felt like forever, but was probably only a few minutes, he looked out the open doors of the ambulance to see the other team of paramedics push a stretcher past. Brian caught a brief glimpse of AJ lying flat on it. His body was covered by a blanket, but his face was just visible above it. His eyes appeared to be closed, and there was an oxygen mask strapped over his mouth and nose. He wasn’t moving at all.
“Is he gonna be okay?” Brian called out, his voice quavering. But no one would answer him.
Another half hour had passed, and Howie’s own anxiety was at an all-time high. The longer he had to wait for help to arrive, the more he let his imagination run wild, filling his head with worst-case scenarios for why it was taking so long. What if Nick had been attacked by the bear he had encountered earlier? Or electrocuted by the downed power lines? Or kidnapped by crazy, backwoods cannibals?
The worst part was not knowing. Not knowing if Nick, AJ, and Brian were okay. Not knowing how much longer he and Kevin would have to wait out here in the cold. More than anything, Howie hated not knowing.
The one thing he did know was that Kevin’s condition was only going to get worse without medical treatment. His original injuries were serious enough, but being out in the elements instead of in a warm hospital bed was putting him at risk of life-threatening complications, like infection and hypothermia. If Nick didn’t come back with help soon, Howie would have to make a hard choice. He could leave Kevin alone while he went to look for help himself, or he could stay here and continue to keep watch over him until someone found them or Kevin finally succumbed.
A shiver went down Howie’s spine as he considered the possibility that Kevin might die here, on a cold, dark mountainside, three thousand miles from home. He couldn’t let that happen. But he also wasn’t sure he could prevent it. If Nick hadn’t managed to find a working phone by now, what made Howie think he would be able to?
Ultimately, Kevin’s fate was in God’s hands, and it was to his Heavenly Father that Howie turned for guidance. “Lord, help us,” he prayed, clasping his hands tightly together as he crouched next to Kevin. “I don’t know what to do. Please, show me the way.”
Beside him, he heard Kevin let out another agonized moan. He turned, hoping his older brother had some words of wisdom to offer, but Kevin’s eyes were closed. Howie couldn’t tell if he was asleep or unconscious. “Hold on, Kev,” he whispered, watching to see if Kevin would wake. When he didn’t, Howie crawled out from under the canopy of bedsheets, climbing to his feet with difficulty. His bones felt creaky, his body stiff and sore from sitting on the cold ground for so long. But he didn’t dare complain, nor did he take the ability to get up and walk for granted.
It was cooler outside the lean-to, but moving around made him warmer. It felt good to stretch his legs and get some fresh air. Howie didn’t go far, for it was too dark to see further than a few feet in front of him. A full moon would have helped, but the narrow crescent of a quarter moon in an overcast sky didn’t offer much light. Most of the stars were obscured from his view by clouds and branches, but here and there, Howie could see them twinkling high above the treetops. One was particularly bright. It was probably the North Star, but in that moment, it reminded him of the Star of Bethlehem. A lump rose in his throat as he realized it was shining right over the road that led to the little town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Was this the sign he had prayed for? Was the Lord telling him to leave Kevin and follow the road to find help?
A chilly breeze rattled the tree branches around him, but Howie stayed rooted to the spot, hesitating. He could hear a lone coyote howling in the distance. The mournful sound made his hair stand on end and his blood run cold. The thought of leaving Kevin here, defenseless, and continuing down the mountain road alone terrified him.
He took a deep breath and swallowed hard, trying to summon the strength and courage he needed to make such a decision. Instead, the words to a Christmas song from his childhood filled his head.
“Said the night wind to the little lamb… ‘Do you see what I see?’” he sang softly to himself, gazing up at the star overhead. “Way up in the sky, little lamb… Do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite… with a tail as big as a kite.”
The star flickered before his eyes as they filled with tears. This song had been a favorite in the Dorough household at Christmastime. He remembered his parents putting on the record and singing along, his mother’s sweet soprano voice ringing out over his father’s smooth baritone.
“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy.... ‘Do you hear what I hear?’” If he closed his eyes, he could almost hear his father’s voice accompanying him in harmony. (“Do you hear what I hear?”) “Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy… Do you hear what I hear?”
“Do you hear what I hear?”
Howie opened his eyes, realizing the ghostly echo he thought he’d been hearing inside his head was actually coming from under the lean-to. It was Kevin’s voice, softly singing along with him. Howie smiled through his tears and sang a little louder. “A song, a song, high above the tree, with a voice as big as the sea… with a voice as big as the sea.” If that was what it took to keep Kevin conscious and bring him a bit of comfort, he would sing all night.
But it seemed he wouldn’t have to. As the breeze whipped through tree branches, he became aware of another sound traveling through the thin air: the blessed sound of a siren.
“Howie?” he heard Kevin croak. “Why’d you stop?”
“Listen,” said Howie, his smile stretching further across his face as the sound grew louder. “Can you hear the siren, Kev? Help is almost here.”
The answer to his prayers came in the form of an ambulance, which pulled up onto the side of the road above them with its red and white lights flashing. Howie switched on his flashlight and waved it back and forth over his head like a flare until he saw a figure appear at the edge of the cliff, silhouetted by the flickering lights behind it. “There they are!” he heard an unfamiliar voice shout. “Down there!”
A crew of paramedics quickly descended on Kevin. Howie stood back out of the way and watched as they worked. “Is our other friend with you?” he asked at one point, wondering where Nick was.
One of the paramedics nodded. “He’s waiting in the ambulance,” she replied.
Remembering the fallen power lines, Howie assumed they had forced Nick to stay where it was safe and didn’t ask any further questions. The paramedics were preoccupied with taking care of Kevin, while simultaneously trying to figure out the best way to transport him to the hospital.
“We don’t have the kind of equipment or manpower we need to haul him safely up this steep of a hill,” the woman finally declared. “We’re gonna have to get a helicopter up here.”
Her partner agreed and went to place a call on his radio, while she continued to work on Kevin. She asked him all kinds of questions, keeping him awake and talking as she administered oxygen through a mask and pain medication through an IV.
Thank you, God, thought Howie, grateful for the paramedics’ presence. He felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders; the pressure was off him now. He had done his part to keep Kevin alive long enough for the first responders to arrive, and he was more than happy to let them take over. It was a huge relief to know Kevin was under the care of professionals and would be heading to the hospital soon. He had a long road to recovery in front of him, but at least he would be out of the woods soon, both figuratively and literally. The worst was almost over.
Howie watched as the paramedics prepared Kevin to be moved. They strapped him into what looked like an inflatable mattress, which, when the air was removed, molded to his body to prevent him from moving. Then they bundled him up with blankets to keep him warm while they waited.
Within half an hour, Howie heard the whir of a helicopter approaching. The wind seemed to pick up again as the aircraft appeared above their heads, its rapidly rotating blades blowing back the leaves on the trees beneath it.
“Where’s it gonna land?” he wondered out loud, looking around. There was no clear patch of level ground large enough for a helicopter to safely touch down.
“It’s not,” replied one of the paramedics. “Watch.”
By the bright light shining down from the bottom of the helicopter, Howie looked up to see the side door open and a man in a harness step out onto one of the landing skids. With a swooping sensation in his stomach, he realized the rescuer was going to be lowered to the ground to help haul Kevin back up to the helicopter as it hovered in midair. “Good thing you’re not afraid of heights like your cousin,” he muttered, knowing Kevin couldn’t hear him over the churring of the helicopter blades.
The man hanging out of the helicopter must have had nerves of steel. Howie felt nauseous for him as he watched him come down on a thick cable, spinning in circles as the air whirled around him, but when the man’s feet touched the ground, he didn’t even seem dizzy. He dusted himself off, unclipped his harness from the cable, and waved up at the helicopter. The empty cable was quickly brought back up, then lowered a second time with a long, stretcher-like basket, large enough to hold a man, hanging from it.
The ambulance crew helped the flight medic lift Kevin carefully into the metal basket. His immobilized body had been wrapped like a burrito in so many layers of blankets, Howie could barely see his face. But as the medics were bent over him, fastening the thick straps and double-checking the heavy-duty hooks and cables, Howie came up behind him and knelt down next to his head. “Hang in there, bro,” he said in Kevin’s ear, touching his forehead with his hand. “Stay strong. I love you.” He saw Kevin’s lips move, but couldn’t hear his reply over the roar of the helicopter rotors.
“I need you to back up, sir,” said the flight medic. “We’re going to lift him into the chopper now.”
Howie nodded and got to his feet. “Where are you taking him?”
“Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon,” replied the medic. “It’s New Hampshire’s only Level I trauma center.”
“How far is that from here?”
“Half an hour by air, about an hour by car.”
Howie wondered how he would get himself there without a vehicle. Hopefully the ambulance would take him and Nick into the town of Bethlehem, where they could finally call Brian to find out how AJ was doing and tell him what had happened to Kevin. Then they would rent a car and drive to the hospital in Lebanon. Maybe they’d run through a drive-thru to grab some food for the road, thought Howie, his stomach rumbling.
He stood and watched as Kevin was hoisted up into the helicopter. Once it had flown away, he followed the two paramedics back up to the road, feeling more hopeful than he had in the last few hours. His prayers had been answered. Kevin was hurt badly, but he was in good hands. He was finally going to the hospital, where, by the grace of God, the doctors would be able to heal him. Everything was going to be all right.
“You can ride in the cab with me,” said the ambulance driver, opening the passenger side door for him as his partner went around to the rear.
“Wait… can I see my friend first?” asked Howie. Now that help had arrived, he wanted Nick to know he wasn’t angry at him anymore.
“Sure.” The paramedic escorted him to the back of the ambulance. He could see someone sitting up on a stretcher inside, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, but at first, he didn’t recognize him. The man’s face was puffy and bruised, his greasy hair plastered to his scalp, and his clothes were covered in blood. Then, with a start, Howie realized it was not Nick, but Brian.
“Oh my god! Brian!” he exclaimed in disbelief, as he scrambled into the back of the ambulance. “What happened to you?!”
Brian let out a humorless laugh. “That’s a long story,” he said hoarsely. The corners of his cracked lips twitched into the ghost of a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, which appeared equally haunted, two pale blue slits peeking out from the swollen, blackened flesh around their sockets. He looked like he had been to Hell and back in the past day.
“Why don’t you just ride back here so you two can catch up?” the ambulance driver suggested. “There’s a seat right there. Make sure you buckle up; these mountain roads can get pretty rough.”
“Thanks,” said Howie, hastily strapping himself into the seat on one side as the driver shut the back doors. In the enclosed space, he could smell the musky stench of Brian’s sweat mixed with the metallic scent of blood, but after being around Kevin, it didn’t bother him. He had certainly smelled worse. “So… what happened?” he asked again.
As the ambulance headed toward Bethlehem, Brian took a deep breath and began to talk. He told Howie how he and AJ had gotten into an accident the night before on their way to the hospital and how they had spent the rest of that night and day trapped in the wrecked Range Rover, waiting for someone to come and rescue them. “I would have gone to get help sooner, but I couldn’t put any weight on my ankle,” he explained, gesturing to his right leg, which was propped up on the stretcher in front of him, immobilized by a bulky splint. “It’s broken, or at least sprained pretty bad.”
“Ouch,” said Howie, frowning. “So did Nick find you?”
Brian nodded. “When no one came, I finally crawled back to the road, and that’s where he eventually caught up with me.”
“Thank god.” Howie shook his head. “I’m sorry we didn’t come sooner. We had no idea where you were. When Nick and I woke up, the electricity was out, and everyone else was gone. We thought you guys had just gone to get supplies or something.” He felt guilty for not listening to Nick, who had realized something was wrong far sooner than Howie had. He’d thought Nick was worried over nothing, and they had wasted hours of precious time hanging out at the cabin, waiting for the other guys to come back, when they could have been looking for them. If they had gotten to Kevin, AJ, and Brian sooner, they could have spared them so much pain and misery.
“It’s not your fault,” muttered Brian. “If anything, it’s mine. I’m the one who insisted on driving down the mountain in the middle of a storm. I’m the one who crashed the car. I’m the one who-”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Howie interrupted him. “Blame the damn moose, if you need to blame someone. You were just trying to help AJ.”
“He would have been better off if we had just waited until morning like he wanted to,” said Brian bitterly.
“Ah, the old ‘wait and see’ approach - definitely sounds like AJ,” said Howie, smiling in spite of his worry. “You know how much he hates hospitals. He would have avoided going at all costs, even if it killed him.” His smile faded. “He’s gonna be okay though, right?”
Brian shrugged. “I dunno. The last I saw him, he didn’t look good. He had a high fever when I left him, and Nick said he was in pretty bad shape by the time he found him.” Brian’s voice broke, and Howie was startled to see tears sparkling in his blue eyes. “I only got a glimpse of him before they took him away in another ambulance.”
“He’ll be okay,” Howie said automatically. Besides wanting to comfort Brian, he couldn’t bring himself to consider the alternative. “People don’t die from appendicitis these days, do they? If that’s all it is, they’ll take out his appendix and give him some antibiotics, and he’ll be good as new.”
He spoke with confidence, but doubts were already creeping into the back of his mind. We don’t even know for sure that it’s appendicitis. What if it’s something worse? He could have internal bleeding or other serious injuries from the accident…
But his words brought a crooked smile to Brian’s face. “Funny… Nick said the same thing.” Then his face crumpled, as the tears began to flow.
Watching him, Howie frowned. Brian wasn’t a crier like his cousin; it took a lot to bring him to tears. Suddenly, he had a bad feeling, like there was something else Brian wasn’t telling him. “Where is Nick, anyway?” he asked, looking around, as if Nick had been hiding in the back of the ambulance the whole time and was going to pop out at him.
“On his way to the hospital,” Brian said hoarsely, seeming to confirm what Howie had assumed - that Nick was with AJ. But then, clearing his throat, he added, “Howie… he’s been shot.”
It took a second for Howie to comprehend what he had said. “Wait, what?!” he cried once he did. “What do you mean, ‘he’s been shot’?”
Brian took a shuddering breath, his chest hitching beneath the blood-stained wifebeater he wore. It suddenly occurred to Howie that all that blood might not be his own.
“Brian??” he asked urgently.
Brian opened his mouth to answer, but all that came out was a strangled cry. The paramedic riding in the back with them seemed concerned that he was having trouble breathing and offered him an oxygen mask, but Brian shook his head and pushed it out of the way. He continued to take rapid, shallow breaths, his whole body trembling as he struggled to regain his composure. Finally, he cleared his throat and croaked out, “When… when we got to a cabin… to call for help… the guy living there thought we were a bear. He… he shot at us with a hunting rifle. Hit Nick in the chest.”
“Oh my god!” gasped Howie, his heart plummeting. “How… how bad is it?”
Brian gave him a bleary look and shook his head. “Bad.” He didn’t have to elaborate. Howie could tell by the amount of blood covering his clothing that the bullet had done more than simply graze Nick’s body.
“But he’s alive?” he asked desperately.
“He was when the ambulance took him away,” Brian answered in a hushed voice. “I hope he still is.”
Howie slumped back in his seat, feeling deflated, as if all the air had leaked out of his lungs. He found it hard to breathe. It felt like he had woken from one nightmare to find himself living out another. Had he really thought the worst was over? Clearly, it had only just begun.