It had been a little better when Brian was awake. At least then, AJ had had someone to talk to, someone to temporarily distract him from his agony. But as the storm passed, the downpour tapering to a light rainfall, Brian, too, had quieted down and drifted off to sleep. AJ could hear his slow, deep breathing coming from the back seat, beneath the patter of raindrops on the roof. He tried to focus on the steady, reassuring sound, letting it lull him into a more relaxed state. If he kept his eyes closed, he could almost pretend he was at home in his own bed, with his wife snoring softly beside him. He and Rochelle both loved to fall asleep listening to the rain.
After what felt like hours, it was finally starting to work. The worst of the pain had started to subside, or perhaps AJ had just gotten used to it. He could feel his limbs growing heavy, his body sinking into the padded seat, his thoughts becoming more and more muddled as his brain began to power down for the night.
And then he heard a distant howl.
He sat bolt upright, temporarily forgetting the pain in his belly. Ears pricked, he listened carefully, but all he could hear was the rain and Brian’s breathing. Had he imagined the howling? Perhaps he had fallen asleep after all and dreamed it.
He started to lie back down, holding his belly, when he heard it again: a long, high-pitched howl. Aawoooooooooooo! It chilled him to the bone. His skin broke out in goosebumps, the hair standing on end, as the blood beneath ran cold.
“Rok!” he hissed into the back seat. “Rok, wake up, bro!”
He heard Brian stir, the leather seat squeaking beneath his body. “What is it?” he asked sleepily.
“Listen,” AJ whispered and then fell silent. After a few seconds, he heard another howl. It sounded closer this time, which only heightened his anxiety. “Is that a fucking wolf?!”
“How would I know?” said Brian, sounding more annoyed at being woken up than scared.
“‘Cause… you’re from Kentucky.” AJ realized as he said it that he probably sounded stupid, but he had always considered both Kevin and Brian to be country boys, more knowledgeable about nature than him, Nick, or Howie, who had all grown up in fairly urban parts of Florida.
“So? I’m from the second-largest city in Kentucky, not some cabin in the woods,” Brian corrected him. “And anyway, Kentucky doesn’t have wolves.”
“Really?” AJ frowned. “Does New Hampshire?”
“How should I know?” Brian said again sharply. As if in response, a chorus of howls rose into the air around them, making AJ’s heart race.
“Oh my god… there’s a whole herd of them!” he gasped.
“Well, wolves do tend to travel in packs,” Brian replied matter-of-factly. “But I think those are probably coyotes, not wolves.”
“How can you tell?” AJ wondered, trying to remember the difference between the two. He thought wolves were bigger, but beyond that, he wasn’t sure. Southern California had coyotes, but he had never seen one himself. He had only heard the horrific stories about them killing people’s pets, which was one reason he preferred to have big dogs.
“Their calls sound too high-pitched to be wolves’. Wolves have a lower howl.”
“Well, look at that - you are an expert, Country Boy!” AJ tried to lighten the tension, but inside, he was still terrified. “Can coyotes kill people?”
Brian paused to consider this before answering, “They probably could, especially in a pack, but I don’t think they would unless it was in self-defense. And they definitely can’t open car doors, so I wouldn’t worry about them.” He sounded like he wanted to laugh, which made AJ feel a little better. If Brian thought he was just being paranoid, then he probably was.
Still, the sound of the wolves - or coyotes, or whatever they were - howling like that was unsettling. Even after they stopped, it took AJ a long time to fall back to sleep.
When he woke for the second time, he was relieved to find that it was light outside. He had no idea how long he had slept. It felt like early morning, before the sun had fully risen, but it may have just been hiding behind the clouds. He could still hear rain falling on the roof of the SUV, thought not nearly as hard as it had been before.
As he struggled into a sitting position, AJ realized his stomach felt a little better. There was still a dull ache deep down inside him, but the burning pain from the previous night had passed. Or perhaps it had just been masked by the fact that the rest of his body was stiff and sore.
Looking down at himself, he saw bruising across his bare chest and belly, where the seatbelt had held him back. Beneath the bottom hem of his shorts, his legs were bruised as well from hitting the dashboard. His right knee, which hurt the worst, looked swollen. He could still bend it, but barely; he wasn’t sure it would support his weight without buckling.
Unwrapping the wifebeater from around his right hand, he found that his index and middle finger were stiff and puffy, too. He couldn’t bend or flex either one without unbearable pain, and the inflamed skin around them was bruised purple. His wrist ached, though he couldn’t tell if any bones were broken. It felt better with pressure on it, so he rewrapped his top tightly around it to stabilize it as much as possible.
“AJ?” he heard Brian say from the back seat. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” he replied, not sure how else to answer. He wasn’t all right, not really, but at least he was alive. “How ‘bout you, bro?”
“Eh… I’ll live.” Brian sounded about as good as AJ felt. He tried to turn his body so he could look at him while they were talking, but the twisting motion hurt his abdomen too much. He had to lean back and roll awkwardly onto his left side to see into the back seat. When he finally got a good look at Brian’s face, he gasped out loud.
“Holy shit, Rok!”
Brian was barely recognizable. He was sporting two black eyes, and the bridge of his nose was swollen and bruised. His face was covered in dried blood from the many cuts and abrasions he had sustained during the crash. “That bad, huh?” he said, bringing his hands up to feel his face. AJ could see more bruises on the undersides of his arms. The airbag must have flung them up into his face when it exploded out of the steering wheel.
“Well, I wouldn’t call you ‘Cutest Backstreet Boy’ at the moment. You look like you got the crap beat out of you, dude.”
“Gee, thanks,” Brian replied dryly. “I do kinda feel like I lost in a boxing match or something.”
“I mean, technically, you did… if an airbag counts as your opponent. That thing musta got you good.”
He chuckled. “Better that than busting my head on the steering wheel. How’s your stomach?”
“Not as bad as last night,” said AJ. “Maybe it wasn’t appendicitis after all.”
“Or maybe your appendix already burst,” said Brian, giving him an anxious look. “How do you feel otherwise? Any fever or chills?”
AJ shook his head. “I’m fine, Dr. Littrell - a little achy and sore, same as you, but I’ll be all right. In fact,” he added, determined to prove it, “I’m ready to get the fuck out of here and go find us some help.”
“Really?” said Brian, raising his eyebrows. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”
AJ shrugged. “One of us has to. Otherwise, what are we gonna do? We can’t wait here forever for someone to find us.” He didn’t feel sure of himself at all, but now that it was daylight, he knew he needed to do something to get them out of this predicament he had gotten them into. He wasn’t sure how far he could walk with a bum knee and a bellyache, but if he could at least get back up to the road, maybe he could flag down a passing car or a helpful hiker.
Brian frowned, but finally nodded. “All right. Here - take my shirt, at least.” He stripped off his bloodstained t-shirt and handed it to AJ.
“Thanks, bro, but it’s just gonna get wet,” said AJ, handing it back.
“Ah, I see how it is. You just wanna show off that newly-sculpted chest of yours,” Brian replied with a smirk.
AJ rolled his eyes as he reached across his body to grab the door handle with his left hand. But when he pulled it, nothing happened. He gave the door a nudge with his shoulder, but it didn’t open. He pushed harder, throwing his whole body weight against it, but the door still didn’t budge.
“I bet the frame’s bent,” said Brian from the back seat. “Mine stuck a bit too, but I got it open. You may have to go out that way.”
AJ had been afraid of that. Grunting, he hoisted himself slowly and painfully across the center console into the driver’s seat. He was already breathing hard by the time he pushed the door open and climbed out of the Range Rover. It didn’t matter that he was in the best shape of his life; his bruised, battered, middle-aged body protested every movement, his bad knee throbbing and threatening to buckle the moment he put weight on it.
Straightening up, he stood just outside the SUV for a few seconds, surveying the scene of the accident. They were in a deep ditch, a few hundred feet from the road. His eyes followed a pair of ruts in the muddy ground, mentally tracing the path the Range Rover had taken as it plunged down the mountainside. We’re lucky it landed upright, he realized, imagining how much worse their injuries might have been if the SUV had rolled. He turned around, taking in the sight of the front end smashed against the trunk of a large tree, the hood crushed like a tin can, the flattened tires sunk into the mud. He saw Brian sitting up in the back seat, watching him through the window with a worried look on his face, and forced himself to smile. As he gave Brian a thumbs-up, AJ thought, We’re lucky to be alive at all. Swallowing hard, he turned back toward the road. It looked like a long, steep climb to reach it.
He felt nauseous and light-headed, but fought the wooziness as he took a few tentative steps. Pain radiated through the right side of his body, but his knee seemed relatively stable, so he pushed through it and kept moving forward, his feet slipping in his wet slides as he staggered through the brush. He wasn’t wearing the right shoes for walking, let alone hiking. He wished he had boots and a raincoat; he was getting soaked from the misty drizzle. The storm must have come in with a cold front, for the temperature had dropped significantly overnight. But the bad weather was the least of his worries. Already, he could feel his legs having to work harder as the incline became steeper. The ache in his knee intensified the further he climbed. I should have borrowed Brian’s sneakers, he realized too late.
As he started to turn back, his left foot suddenly slid out from under him. Before he could regain his balance, his right knee buckled, and he felt himself falling forward. Instinctively, he reached out with both hands to brace himself, forgetting his broken wrist. The thin piece of fabric wrapped around it did little to cushion the blow as he went down hard, landing flat on his front. White-hot pain was already shooting up and down his right arm when a fresh burst of it exploded inside his belly. It was so intense, he wanted to scream, but the wind had been knocked right out of him. He could only lie there in agony, gasping for breath, and wait for the fire to stop burning.
“AJ? AJ?” Through the haze of pain, he became aware of Brian’s voice calling to him. “AJ, you okay?” The concern in his friend’s voice gave AJ the strength he needed to roll over and respond.
“Y-yeah!” But as he struggled to stand back up without putting weight on either his broken wrist or his bad knee, he realized he wasn’t okay. Not really. Pain was still radiating through the right side of his body, and his stomach felt like he had just performed a belly flop into a pool with no water. The pain was so severe, he felt nauseous and clammy. He had barely made it to his feet before he found himself bent over, throwing up into the bushes. With the way his stomach was hurting, he half-expected to see blood in his vomit, but it was clear beige in color and mostly liquid. He had hardly eaten anything the day before.
“AJ? Are you sure?” he heard Brian call.
“I’ll be fine!” he choked back, wiping his mouth with his left hand. But he knew he couldn’t climb any further, not like this. It was all he could do just to drag himself back to the Range Rover, where Brian was waiting.
“Damn, bro,” said Brian as AJ approached, breathing hard. “That looked like it hurt.” He had opened the back door and was hanging halfway out of it, as if he had been planning to hop to AJ’s aid. The thought was laughable: with his black eyes and bloodied face, Brian looked about as bad as AJ felt. Neither of them would have gotten very far.
“It did,” AJ said shortly. Looking down at himself, he realized he was covered in mud. He leaned against the outside of the SUV as he caught his breath, letting the rain slowly wash the mud away. “I don’t know if I can make it back up to the road,” he admitted to Brian. “At least not right now.”
Brian nodded. “You need to rest,” he replied. “I can’t walk on this ankle, but maybe I can crawl up on my hands and knees.”
AJ shook his head. “The ground’s too wet. You’ll just end up a muddy mess like me.”
He laughed. “Yeah, you look like that time we took a mud bath in the Dead Sea.”
“Well, let’s hope this mud has some magical healing powers, ‘cause I hurt all over,” AJ complained.
“Go lie down again,” Brian told him. “It’s early yet. Someone’s bound to come along and find us before too long.”
AJ nodded, wanting to believe Brian was right. He opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, too tired to climb back across to the passenger seat.
“Here,” said Brian, handing him his shirt again. This time, AJ accepted it gratefully and used it to wipe the mud off his face and body. “If nothing else,” Brian continued, as AJ caught his eye in the rearview mirror, “the other guys will come looking for us when they wake up and realized I haven’t called anyone with an update. You know Kev will be worried if he can’t get a hold of us.”
“That’s true,” said AJ, managing a smile as he thought of their oldest brother. “Dude, if Kevin acting like an overprotective parent is what gets us out of this, we’ll never be able to rip on him for it again.”
Brian grinned back. “No worries. We’ll just find something else to make fun of him for.”
There was no doubt in AJ’s mind that he was right about that.