The rest of his clothes were back at the cabin, but Brian had been reluctant to return there without AJ or the other guys. Even if he had rented another car, he couldn’t drive with his right leg in a cast and was too nervous to try navigating the winding mountain roads with his left foot on the pedals. He could have requested a rideshare to take him there, but the cabin felt too far away from the hospital. If something happened to AJ in the two hours it would take Brian to travel there and back, he would never forgive himself for not being there. He had promised AJ’s wife he would stay and watch over him, and he intended to fulfill that promise.
He expected to see Rochelle’s name flashing on his phone, but it turned out to be a FaceTime call from Howie. He quickly swiped his finger across the bottom to answer it. “Hey, cous,” he said, not completely surprised to see Kevin’s face on the screen instead of Howie’s. Since Kevin’s phone was broken, Howie had been sharing his.
“Hey, B, how’s it goin’?” It was hard to read the expression behind his mask, but Kevin seemed slightly happier than Brian had heard him sound in the last couple of days.
On the contrary, Brian felt increasingly hopeless. “Eh… it’s goin’,” he replied glumly, glancing over at AJ. It was hard to get a good look at his friend’s face, for AJ’s bed was flanked by big pieces of medical equipment: a ventilator on one side, a dialysis machine on the other. He reminded Brian of an insect that had been wrapped up and preserved in the middle of a spider web of tubes, which wove their way over and under the white sheet that covered his body, pumping blood, fluids, and oxygen in and out of it. “They got AJ all hooked up for dialysis.” Brian flipped his phone around so Kevin could see him, too.
“Damn… he doesn’t look good,” he heard Kevin say in a low voice.
A lump rose in Brian’s throat. “I know.” AJ was barely recognizable. His face was pale yellow, the result of his failing liver, and puffy from a build-up of fluids. The drastic change in his appearance over the past few days was frightening.
“How’s he doing with it?”
“Hard to tell at this point,” said Brian with a shrug, turning the camera back toward his own face. “I mean, he’s been unconscious the whole time, so I haven’t noticed a difference. I don’t think we’ll see any dramatic improvement today. Dialysis isn’t a cure; it’s just another way to keep him alive until his kidneys start working right again.”
“And do they think that’s likely to happen?”
Brian thought back to the conversation he’d overheard that morning, as AJ’s medical team made their rounds and called Rochelle with a daily update on her husband’s condition. “The doctor told Ro it’s possible for his organs to recover, but only if they can get his body’s response to the infection under control.”
He didn’t elaborate, knowing it wouldn’t do Kevin any good to hear how bad things had gotten with AJ. His blood pressure was still dangerously low, despite the powerful drugs he was being given to bolster it, and his lungs were filling with fluid, putting undue stress on his heart. Rochelle, who had resisted the temptation to hop on a plane the first day due to her concerns about COVID, was now on her way to New Hampshire. She had booked the first flight she could find after getting off the phone with the hospital staff that morning. Brian hoped she would make it there before anything happened to AJ.
“Do you have any good news to give us?” Kevin asked, his brow knitted with worry.
Brian looked around the room, desperate to find something positive to report. His eyes fell upon the pine wreath hanging in the window, which offered a view of the ICU hallway. “This was delivered today,” he said, turning his phone toward the wreath. “It came with a ‘get well’ card from the Christmas tree farm we went to last week. I guess that girl Holly must have seen the news and assumed we were here.”
With the help of their publicist, he and Howie had crafted a carefully-worded statement to release to the media, letting the world know the Backstreet Boys had been involved in a serious accident in the White Mountains without revealing too many details. There had been an outpouring of support and concern from their fans and fellow musicians over the past few days. The world was praying with them. Brian believed in the power of prayer. It had brought him back from the brink of death as a child, and he hoped it would help AJ pull through as well.
Kevin chuckled. “That was nice of her. Did the staff think it was weird that we got a get-well Christmas wreath in the middle of summer?”
“Yeah, but I explained about the album and the tree and all that.” Brian couldn’t believe it had only been a week since he and the boys had arrived in Bethlehem. So much had happened in the last seven days, the memory of them singing Christmas songs as they decorated the cabin felt like it was from another lifetime. It filled him with longing as he looked at AJ, wishing he could go back to that moment and erase the mistakes that had led them to this one.
“So how about you?” he asked Kevin, his voice cracking as he tried not to cry. “Any good news?” Besides wanting to change the subject, he was wondering if Nick had woken up yet. When he had talked to Kevin earlier that day, Nick was being weaned from the drugs that had been used to sedate him. Surely, they should have started wearing off by now. He held his breath, waiting for Kevin’s answer.
“Actually, yeah. That’s why I called.” There was a glimmer of hope in Kevin’s green eyes. “The neurosurgeon was here earlier to examine me, and I found out I have a little bit of feeling in my legs.”
Brian let out his breath in a sigh of relief, feeling as if one weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Thank God. That’s great, man! You’re gonna be walking again in no time.”
“It’s not much,” said Kevin in a warning tone. “Just a sort of pins-and-needles sensation on the back of my knees. But it’s something. The doctor said it shows my spinal cord hasn’t been completely crushed - some signals are still getting through. That means I may be able to recover more feeling and function with the right rehabilitation. Kristin started looking into rehab centers closer to home for when I’m ready to get out of here.”
“Awesome. If anyone can do it, you can,” Brian told him. Kevin had always been an athlete and was in excellent shape for forty-eight. “You’ve got this, Kev.”
“Thanks, cous.” Brian could tell Kevin was smiling behind his mask. Their heated words over politics and Leighanne’s social media posts had long since been forgotten, and they were back on good terms. There were more important issues to focus on now. “Hey, there’s somebody else here who wants to talk to you. Can I put him on?”
“Of course,” said Brian, hoping he just meant Howie and not some hospital staff member who also happened to be a Backstreet Boys fan. He wasn’t in the mood for that.
Kevin handed the phone to Howie, who said, “Hey, man! Look who’s awake...”
Brian watched with anticipation as a dizzying whirl of floor and ceiling tiles flashed across his screen. Then, finally, Nick’s face came into focus. He was propped up in his hospital bed with several pillows tucked behind his head, and for the first time in nearly four days, his familiar blue eyes were open. They looked tired and bleary, the lids drooping like he was fighting the urge to fall back to sleep, but they quickly found the camera on Howie’s phone. “Hey, Frick,” he said, smiling into it.
Brian felt his own eyes fill with tears. “Hey, Frack,” he echoed, trying to blink them back before Nick noticed. “How ya feelin’, buddy?”
Nick didn’t miss a beat. “Like I got shot in the chest,” he said, totally deadpan.
Brian laughed, his heart feeling lighter than it had in the last few days. “God, it’s good to hear your voice again.”
Nick wrinkled his nose. “Even when it sounds like this?” His voice was hoarse and gravelly. Brian wondered how long it had been since they’d taken the breathing tube out of his throat, trading it for the thin nasal cannula Nick was now wearing.
“My voice sounds like that every day,” Brian reminded him. “Yours will be a lot better by tomorrow. Try sucking on ice chips to keep your throat moist until they let you drink liquids.”
“Dude… don’t say ‘moist.’” Nick made another disgusted face, sticking out his tongue. Brian could tell he was trying to play tough guy, cracking jokes to hide how much pain he was in.
“Hey, just offering you a piece of friendly advice,” he replied. “I’ve been there before, remember?”
“Yeah, but you’ve never been shot. I think I got you beat there, bro.”
“Fair enough,” Brian conceded, smiling. “So how are you really? Are they giving you plenty of pain meds?”
Nick nodded. “Yeah… I’m pretty sore, but I’ll be all right.” After a pause, he added, “Thanks for having my back out there, Bri. I probably wouldn’t be alive right now if it weren’t for you.”
Brian’s throat tightened as another lump rose into it. Swallowing hard, he replied, “Right back at ya, bro. I’d probably still be crawling by the side of the road if you hadn’t come along and carried me all the way to that cabin.”
“Speaking of that cabin…” said Nick, frowning as he brought Howie’s phone closer to his face. “I gotta ask you something, Brian. Serious question.”
He arched one eyebrow, fixing the phone’s camera with a penetrating stare. “You still gonna vote for Donald Trump after I almost got killed by one of his fuckin’ fanboys?”
Caught off-guard by the question, Brian felt his face heat up. He let out an awkward laugh, not sure whether Nick was actually being serious or if Kevin had put him up to asking it. But before he could come up with an answer, he heard a high-pitched alarm go off.
“What is that?” Nick asked, as Brian looked around for the source of it. His heart lurched when he saw a red light flashing on the monitor above AJ’s bed.
“Something’s wrong with AJ,” he blurted out, dropping his phone in his frantic scramble to get up from the recliner. He reached for his crutches, cursing his broken ankle as he balanced on his left leg. Tucking the crutches under his arms, he swung his casted right leg off the foot rest he had been using to elevate it and hobbled over to AJ’s bed.
One of the nurses beat him there, rushing into the room as the monitor continued its frenzied beeping. She looked up at the screen, then bent over AJ. “What’s wrong with him?” Brian demanded, but the nurse didn’t answer right away.
Another nurse soon joined her at AJ’s bedside. “What happened?” he asked.
“He dropped his pressure,” the first nurse replied. Her gloved fingers were wrapped around AJ’s left wrist, as the broken right one had been encased in a hard cast. “His pulse is weak and thready.”
The second nurse frowned as he studied the monitor. “He’s going into shock. I’m gonna call a code.” He picked up the phone on the wall and dialed quickly. “I’ve got a patient crashing in ICU five,” he said into the receiver.
A moment later, the call came over the intercom: “Code Blue, ICU Room Five. Code Blue, ICU Room Five.” When Brian heard that, his left knee buckled, and he had to lean on his crutches to keep from falling to the floor.
The room began to fill with people dressed in protective equipment: gowns, gloves, masks, and face shields. They surrounded AJ’s bed, preventing Brian from being able to see what was going on, though he tried his best to follow their hurried discussion. He heard an array of frightening phrases being thrown around: “septic shock,” “severely hypotensive,” and “bradying down.” It felt more like a movie than real life.
This can’t be happening, he thought, watching with mounting horror. How could appendicitis have caused all this?
At one point, the doctor who appeared to be in charge noticed Brian hanging in the background. “Are you part of the code team, or are you a patient here?” he asked, his eyes narrowing as they panned down Brian’s body, dressed in scrubs and supported by a pair of crutches.
“Neither. I’m… I’m his brother,” Brian replied breathlessly, hoping he wasn’t about to be kicked out of the room.
The doctor’s head bobbed in a brief nod. “Sir, your brother’s condition is deteriorating rapidly. Both his blood pressure and heart rate have plummeted, putting him on the brink of cardiac arrest. I need to know, do you want us to use heroic measures to try to resuscitate him when his heart stops?”
“What?” Brian stared at him in disbelief, wondering why he would even waste time asking such a question. “What do you mean?? Of course! I want you to do everything you can to save him!”
“Dr. Park, we need you!” one of the nurses called out. “The monitor’s showing sinus bradycardia, but I can’t feel a pulse anymore.”
“Must be pulseless electrical activity,” the doctor replied, his eyes darting up to the monitor. He glanced briefly back at Brian before returning his attention to AJ. “Start CPR.”
Brian’s stomach dropped. He felt like vomiting as he watched one of the nurses climb onto a footstool next to AJ’s bed and bend over his body. Through the narrow gap between two of the other team members, he could see her gloved hands pushing down hard and fast on AJ’s bare chest, the bed trembling beneath him with the force of her compressions. The terrifying scene seemed to waver and blur before Brian’s eyes as they filled with tears.
“Damn it, AJ, don’t you do this!” he cried, clinging to his crutches. “Think of your girls!” He pictured Rochelle sitting on a plane, unaware of what was happening to her husband… Ava and Lyric, anxiously waiting for their father to come home. “They’re counting on you!”
“He’s got a good radial pulse with compressions,” commented the nurse who was clutching AJ’s wrist. Brian felt encouraged by her remark. As long as her colleagues could keep the blood circulating through AJ’s body, there was still hope.
“C’mon, Bone,” he croaked, hoping AJ could hear his voice. “You’ve gotta fight! Fight for your family! Fight for your life!”
Maybe it was because of his own near-death experience, or maybe he had just seen too many movies, but Brian was expecting a miracle. Any minute now, the monitor would stop its wailing as AJ’s heart began to beat on its own again.
But the seconds ticked by without any response. A minute passed. Then another.
“We’re at the two-minute mark,” the male nurse announced. “Let’s pause for a pulse check.”
The woman performing CPR stopped pumping, while the nurse next to her pressed her fingers to the inside of AJ’s wrist once more. After a moment, she shook her head. “No pulse.”
“Still PEA,” said the doctor, studying the rhythm on the heart monitor. “Switch roles and resume compressions.”
The two female nurses traded places, one feeling for a pulse while the other pushed on AJ’s chest.
“Please,” Brian begged them, tears pouring down the sides of his face as his hope for a miracle began to fade. “Please bring him back. His wife’s on her way from California. You have to keep him alive until she gets here.”
No one acknowledged him. Brian wasn’t sure they had even heard him. The hospital room had become a beehive of activity. Busy healthcare workers buzzed around AJ’s bed, barking out orders and information as they monitored his vital signs, drew blood, and administered oxygen and medication through the many tubes attached to his body.
As Brian moved back out of their way, he became aware of Kevin’s frantic voice calling out from his phone. “Brian? Brian, what’s going on?”
Hands shaking, Brian hauled himself back to the recliner to his corner and bent down with difficulty to retrieve his phone from the floor. “I’m here, Kev,” he said quietly, holding the phone up in front of his face.
“What the hell is happening?” Kevin cried. Brian could see Howie standing behind the head of his bed, leaning in close to listen. “Is AJ okay?”
Brian swallowed hard and shook his head. “His heart stopped beating. They’re trying to get it going again, but… the doctor doesn’t seem too hopeful.” He turned back to look at the physician in charge, who was standing at the foot of the bed, his arms folded over the front of his sterile gown as he watched his staff carry out the heroic measures he had ordered. Brian couldn’t see his face behind his mask and shield, but based on his body language, he thought the man must be frowning. The truth hit him like a ton of bricks, taking his breath away. He could barely get the next two words out, but he fought through his dysphonia, feeling the need to prepare the others for what was about to happen. “He’s dying.”
Kevin and Howie both looked stunned. In the background, Brian could hear Nick’s hoarse voice cry out, “Don’t say that! Don’t you fucking say that! AJ’s not gonna die!”
But the body on the bed was already too far gone. “Asystole,” he heard the doctor declare a moment later, as the heart monitor flatlined.
Brian fell backwards into his chair, his wobbly knee finally giving out on him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, bowing his head. The tears continued to trickle down his cheeks and into his mask. “Sorry I didn’t get him here in time.”
“I’m sorry, too,” said Kevin, his face pale white above his mask. “We never should have come here in the first place.”
Again, Brian was struck with a sense of regret, wishing they had done things differently. But who could have imagined that making a Christmas album would wind up costing them so much?