He quickly swiped right to answer the call. “Howie?” he croaked, his voice sounding even rougher than usual.
“Hey, Bri. I woke you up, didn’t I? I’m sorry.” Howie sounded as weary as Brian felt.
“That’s okay. You said you would call when you knew more.” Brian sat up in bed, his heart beating faster, and clutched the phone to his ear. “Have you heard anything?” He held his breath as he waited for Howie’s answer.
“Yeah. I’ve got good news, bro. Nicky’s out of surgery and in recovery.”
Brian let out his breath in a huge sigh of relief. “Really? Oh, thank God,” he replied, his heart lifting. “So he’s gonna be all right?”
“I hope so.” He heard Howie suck in a deep breath before he went on. “The surgeon said the bullet missed his heart by a few millimeters, but it still did a lot of damage to the tissue around it - tore some blood vessels, broke his rib, and punctured his lung. They repaired as much as they could, but he lost a lot of blood. His brain may have been deprived of oxygen.”
Brian’s heart sank back into the pit of his stomach as he remembered how bad Nick had looked the last time he saw him - unconscious, bleeding uncontrollably, not breathing on his own. He’d thought the ambulance had arrived just on time, but maybe it was too late.
“They’re gonna keep him in a medically-induced coma for the next few days to give his body a chance to rest and heal,” Howie continued. “Then they’ll gradually wean him off the sedatives and see how he responds.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Brian replied shakily, not sure what else to say. He was terrified, but he didn’t want to tell Howie that. They had to stay hopeful, for Nick’s sake. “Have you been able to see him?”
“Not yet. He’s still in recovery. Hopefully I will once they move him to the ICU.”
“How about Kevin?”
“He has a concussion, but thankfully no bleeding or swelling in his brain,” said Howie. “He’s having surgery on his back, but I saw him before they took him in. He was pretty loopy from the pain medication, but not hurting as bad.”
“Sorry I missed that,” said Brian, managing to smile at the mental image of Kevin high on narcotics. “Will the surgery help him walk again?”
“Hopefully. He fractured his first two lumbar vertebrae, and the MRI showed some bone fragments pressing on his spinal cord. The doctor said it looks like an incomplete injury, which means he could recover some feeling and function below the waist once the swelling goes down.”
“God, let’s hope so,” Brian said hoarsely and swallowed hard. Kevin had always been so active and athletic. He couldn’t imagine his cousin confined to a wheelchair.
“How’s AJ?” Howie asked.
Brian had been dreading having to answer that question. He took a deep breath, hardly trusting his voice to speak. “He… he’s real sick, Howie. We were right about the appendicitis. They took out his appendix last night, but it had already ruptured, probably the night before, and caused a pretty bad infection in his abdomen. The doctor called it something. Peri… peritonitis? They cleaned him out the best they could, but his blood pressure dropped so low during surgery, they had to hurry and get him off the table before he coded. The doctor said he’s septic.”
He heard Howie draw in a sharp breath himself. “That sounds bad…”
A lump rose in Brian’s throat as he looked across his hospital room. “It is.”
On the other side of the room, AJ lay motionless in his bed. His body looked lost within a maze of tubes and wires. A breathing tube protruded from his mouth, hooked up to a long hose that led to the ventilator beside his bed. Every few seconds, his chest would expand as the life support machine inflated his lungs with pure oxygen. There were IV lines in both his arms and the side of his neck, pumping him full of fluids and powerful antibiotics. More tubes snaked out from under the covers - catheters and drains to remove the excess fluid his body couldn’t get rid of on its own.
The sight and sounds of the equipment were a trigger for Brian, reminding him of the last time he himself had been hospitalized. It had been more than twenty-two years since his open heart surgery, but being in the same room as AJ took him right back to that scary time in his life. At least then, Brian had been on the road to recovery. AJ’s path seemed much less certain.
“But he’s gonna make it, right?” asked Howie, his voice rising in pitch. “I mean, he’s not…” He trailed off, seemingly unable to say the words. But Brian understood.
“It’s too early to tell. They’re giving him medications to fight the infection and keep his blood pressure up - the doctor said that’s key for preventing further damage to his other organs. We just have to wait and see how his body responds.”
Howie sighed. “In other words, all we can do is pray.”
Brian nodded, tears prickling in the corners of his eyes as he clutched the phone to his ear. “Right.”
“Well, I’ll be praying then.” There was a pause that followed; Howie seemed to be processing everything Brian had told him. Then he asked, “So what about you? How you holding up, man?”
“I’m all right,” replied Brian. “I broke the bottom of my fibula, but it looks like I won’t need surgery. They’ve just got it splinted for now, until the swelling does down some, and then they’ll put on a hard cast.”
“That’s good news. Are you still at the hospital?”
“Yeah. They admitted me overnight for observation and IV fluids.” Brian glanced down at the intravenous line in his arm. “Apparently I was pretty dehydrated.”
“But they’re letting me room with AJ for right now, even though I don’t really belong in intensive care. Perks of being in a small hospital, I guess.”
“You played the Backstreet card, didn’t you?” Even without seeing his face, Brian could tell Howie was smiling.
“Not really. I just told them we were quarantining together, so it made the most sense to put us in the same room.”
“Uh-huh. I’ll bet you batted your blue eyes, laid that Southern accent of yours on thick, and begged some gullible woman until you got exactly what you wanted,” Howie teased him.
Brian grinned. “What can I say, Howard? The ladies have always loved me. It’s my boy-next-door charm.”
Howie laughed. It was a strangely reassuring sound. Brian felt as if their whole world had been turned upside down in a single day, yet hearing Howie laugh like that gave him hope that it would soon right itself.
They just had to wait.
Howie was tired of waiting. First he had sat for hours in the woods with Kevin, waiting for an ambulance to come. Then he had sat for hours in the surgical waiting room, awaiting news on Nick. Now he sat next to Nick’s bed in the ICU while he waited for Kevin to come out of surgery.
Being unconscious, Nick wasn’t the best company, but Howie was still grateful for his presence. After almost thirty years of knowing him, he couldn’t imagine his life without Nick Carter in it. Yet the Nick on the bed looked nothing like the Nick he knew and loved.
Physically, he resembled Nick. But his face was pale gray, as if all the color had been sucked out of it. His blond hair, which he liked to keep perfectly coiffed on top of his head, hung lankly across his forehead. His blue eyes, usually sparkling with life, were closed. His body, always moving in some way, was motionless.
Howie had never seen Nick so still. He even fidgeted in his sleep, flailing his arms and legs as he thrashed around in bed. Having shared hotel rooms and tour buses with Nick, Howie felt bad for his wife Lauren. He had always worried she would wake up with bruises after being kicked or clobbered in the face while Nick was sleeping next to her, providing fodder for the trolls who were hellbent on proving Nick was an abuser of women.
But the Nick that lay before him now looked lifeless, a frozen ghost of his former self. There was only the subtle rise and fall of his chest to reassure Howie that he was, in fact, still alive. But even this was misleading, for it was merely the result of the ventilator forcing air into Nick’s lungs, rather than him breathing on his own.
Noticing Nick’s hand resting neatly at his side, Howie reached out and touched it. He was relieved to find that it was warm. “I’m right here, Nicky,” he said, taking Nick’s hand in his and holding it tightly. He could see dirt caked underneath Nick’s stubby fingernails. It bothered him that nobody had cleaned them.
Setting Nick’s hand carefully back down on the bed, Howie stood up and walked across the room to the counter, which housed a sink and a cabinet full of supplies. He rummaged around until he found a washcloth and a small basin, which he filled with warm, soapy water and brought back to Nick’s bedside. He sat down again and started washing Nick’s hands.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that, hon!” his nurse, Jasmine, exclaimed in surprise when she walked in and saw what Howie was doing. “A CNA will come by to bathe him soon.”
“It’s okay. I wanted to. His hands were filthy,” Howie explained, wiping away flecks of dirt and dried blood from the webbing between Nick’s fingers. “Don’t worry, I won’t mess with any of the medical equipment - and I’ll let the CNA wash the parts under his gown,” he added with a wink.
Jasmine grinned. “Fair enough.”
He watched as she went around to the other side of Nick’s bed. She fiddled with his equipment, checking the settings on the ventilator and IV pump. Then she put a stethoscope in her ears and pulled back Nick’s blanket, lowering the front of his hospital gown. Howie noticed a thick layer of gauze taped to the left side of Nick’s chest. A drainage tube was sticking out of the dressing. The sight of it made Howie’s stomach lurch, and he had to look away.
“How’s he doing?” he asked, concentrating on cleaning Nick’s nails with a cotton swab.
“His lungs sound clear,” Jasmine replied. When Howie looked back, she had pulled Nick’s blanket back up and was strapping a blood pressure cuff around his upper arm. She squeezed the bulb in her hand to pump it up and listened with her stethoscope as it slowly deflated. “Ninety-five over sixty.”
“Is that too low?” Howie asked anxiously. He remembered Brian saying something about keeping AJ’s blood pressure above a certain threshold and assumed this would be important for Nick, too.
“It’s on the low side, but still within the normal range,” the nurse reassured him. “All things considered, his numbers look good. He’s stable, which is what we want to see right now.”
That helped Howie relax a little. When Jasmine left, he laced his fingers through Nick’s and gave his freshly washed hand a squeeze. “Did you hear that, bro? You’re doing great. You’re gonna be just fine.”
He didn’t know if Nick could hear him, as heavily sedated as he was, but he kept talking to him anyway. It helped to pass the time, and he hoped it would also help Nick’s healing process.
“You’re stronger than you know, Nick. Stronger than I ever gave you credit for,” he said, a fresh wave of guilt washing over him as he remembered the way he had grabbed Nick by the shirt and shouted at him until he was on the verge of tears. “Brian told me what you did, how you carried him down the mountain. We might still be stuck up there if it weren’t for you. You saved us all.”
He gripped Nick’s hand tighter, regretting what he had said.
“I’m sorry for doubting you, Nick… for making you feel stupid. You did the best you could to help Kevin. He and AJ are still alive because of you and Brian. Not to get all sappy on you, bro, but... I’m proud of you.”
With his free hand, he patted the back of Nick’s, pressing it between his two. He watched Nick’s face, hoping for some small sign that Nick could hear him and comprehend his words. But there was nothing. Nick’s expression remained blank, but peaceful, which Howie felt was probably for the best. He didn’t want his brother to be in pain.
“I guess I’ll let you get some rest now, Nicky. Stay strong. I love you.”
He gave Nick’s hand one last squeeze before he let go. But he remained at Nick’s bedside, watching over him as he waited for an update on Kevin, his eyelids growing heavier and heavier as his exhaustion won over.
Eventually, he must have fallen asleep in his chair, slumped forward with his head on Nick’s bed. He woke with a start and sat up to see another bed being wheeled into the room. Blinking blearily, he realized it belonged to Kevin.
“That you, Howie?” he heard Kevin croak, sounding as groggy as Howie felt.
Coming to his senses, Howie quickly scrambled up and pulled the curtain next to Nick’s bed closed. Kevin didn’t know about Nick yet, and catching sight of him lying comatose in a hospital bed wasn’t the way Howie wanted him to find out.
“You okay, Kev?” he asked, as the nurses helped him get settled on his side of the room. Howie had taken a leaf from Brian’s book and played the Backstreet card as well, persuading the ward manager to put Kevin in with Nick. (“Their wives both live on the West coast and won’t be able to get here right away, so I’m the only essential caregiver they’ve got. Besides, we’ve all been quarantining in the same cabin with the other Backstreet Boys while we work on our Christmas album…”) Needless to say, it had worked.
“The surgery went well,” said one of the nurses with a smile, parking an IV pole next to Kevin’s bed. She placed a small signalling device in his left hand. “Now, when the pain starts to come back, you just push this button, and the pump will deliver a bolus of pain medication,” she explained to him. “The machine has been programmed to only give you a set amount within a certain time frame, so it’s impossible to overdose, no matter how many times you push it. My advice is always to try to stay ahead of the pain. As soon as you feel it coming on, go ahead and push the button - it’s easier to keep it under control that way.”
Howie bit down on his bottom lip, feeling bad for Kevin. “How much pain are you in, Kev?” he asked quietly once the nurses left.
“None right now,” Kevin replied. He looked reasonably comfortable, lying on his back with pillows positioned strategically around his body to provide the proper amount of padding. “They got me floating so high on morphine, I don’t feel much of anything.”
“What about your legs?” Howie wondered aloud.
Kevin shook his head. “Still numb. But that could change, right?”
Howie heard the wistfulness in his voice and nodded. “Yeah, of course. The doctor said it can take up to seventy-two hours for the swelling to go down enough to tell how serious the injury is.”
“So we just have to wait.”
“Yep. We just have to wait.” Howie pulled his chair closer to Kevin’s bed and sat down again. With a backward glance at the curtain blocking Nick’s bed from view, he took a deep breath. “Hey, Kev, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Is it about AJ?” Kevin asked quietly.
Howie’s stomach dropped. Somehow, Kevin already seemed to know something was wrong. “Um… kind of, yeah. I wasn’t completely honest with you before. AJ is in the hospital in Littleton, but he didn’t make it there until last night. He and Brian had an accident on the way.”
He heard Kevin inhale sharply. “Is Brian-?”
“Brian’s fine,” he said quickly. “He has a broken ankle, but he said it’ll heal without surgery.”
Howie swallowed hard. “AJ wasn’t seriously hurt either, but his appendix burst. By the time he was brought to the hospital, it had turned into a pretty bad infection. Brian said he’s really sick.”
Kevin let out his breath in a low sigh. “I knew I should have gone with them…”
“It’s not your fault, Kev. It’s not Brian’s either. A freaking moose ran right out in front of him. You couldn’t have stopped that from happening.”
“No, but at least I would have been there to help. And I wouldn’t have fallen down a damn mountain and broken my back,” Kevin said bitterly.
“You don’t know that. You might have been hurt even worse,” replied Howie, glancing at the curtain again. “Nick found them when he went to get help, but… something bad happened.”
Kevin gave him a worried look. “God, what now? Is Nick okay?”
“He’s alive,” Howie said, “but he was shot. Brian said they stopped at that house with the Trump sign to call for help. The homeowner heard them and thought it was a bear.
“Fuckin’ Trumpsters,” Kevin groaned. “How bad is it?”
“The bullet hit him in the chest, but it missed his heart...” Howie explained the extent of Nick’s injuries the best he could. “...They’re keeping him sedated as long as he’s intubated to give his lungs a break and let his body start to heal. The doctor said they’ll try to bring him out of the coma in a couple days and see how he does.”
“Jesus,” Kevin hissed, raking a hand through his thick hair, as tears rose in his eyes. “Could this get any worse? I wish I had never suggested we come here.”
“It’s not your fault,” Howie repeated firmly. He had known Kevin would find a way to blame himself somehow. Even after all these years, he still felt like he was responsible for the rest of the guys, simply because he was the oldest in the group. “We all wanted to come here. What happened was an accident… a series of freak accidents, actually. I guess we fell victim to the curse of 2020. But it could be worse. It could be a lot worse. At least we’re all still alive. Look...”
He stood up and pulled back the curtain between the two beds so Kevin could see their youngest brother.
“I know Nicky looks bad right now, but he’s gonna get better. So will AJ, and so will you,” Howie said, locking eyes with Kevin. He spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel, knowing Kevin needed to hear something hopeful. As the only member of the group to make it off the mountain unscathed, Howie had to be the strong one now. “Everything’s gonna be okay eventually,” he added, wanting more than anything to believe his own words. “We just have to wait.”