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We made it to L.A. around sunrise. From Sin City to the City of Angels, I thought as we merged onto the Santa Monica Freeway, which led to my old stomping grounds. The irony made me snort to myself; I’d been anything but angelic when I lived in Los Angeles.

AJ was snoring next to me in the back seat while our manager, Jenn, drove. Q was riding shotgun and struggling to stay awake; his head kept bobbing up and down as he nodded off, then woke with a jerk. It would have been funny if I wasn’t so worried about Kevin and Kristin. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all.

I’d tried texting Kevin’s phone a couple of times, but never got a response. Not a good sign. Even after he’d left the group, Kevin had always been good about keeping in touch - better than I was, anyway. Of all my friends, he was the one I could always count on to be there when I needed him. The fact that it had been five hours since we’d left Vegas and I still hadn’t heard from him was really freaking me out. So when I finally heard my phone buzz, my heart leaped in my chest.

I looked down at it and was disappointed to see it was just a text from Brian. He and his wife Leighanne were riding with the newlyweds, Howie and Leigh, in a different car - the couples car, I’d been calling it. Just making sure y’all know to go to Cedars-Sinai, his message said.

“Yo, Jenn, you know we’re going to Cedars-Sinai, right?” I asked.

“Yup. That’s where I’m heading,” Jenn replied.

We know, I texted Brian. Any updates?

Haven’t heard anything, he sent back. I sighed.

Beside me, AJ sat up straight and smacked his lips. “We there yet?” he muttered.

I looked over at him. He had dark circles under his eyes and drool crusted at the corners of his mouth. “Almost.”

We took the exit leading to La Cienega Boulevard. It wasn’t until later that I learned we drove right by the scene of the crash without realizing it, though it had pretty much been cleaned up by that point.

When we got to the hospital campus, Jenn handed over the keys to the valet to park the car while we went inside the main building. It took us a while to find the emergency department, but eventually, we met up with Brian, Howie, and their wives there.

“Have you heard anything yet?” I asked, wondering how long they’d been there.

Brian shook his head. “I asked the woman at the front desk, and she said to wait here and that someone would come to talk to us soon.”

“Well, did she at least say what kind of condition they’re in?”

He shook his head again. “She wouldn’t tell me anything.”

I sighed as I slumped into a seat beside Howie. AJ started pacing up and down the hallway, while Q stood guard, ready to stop anyone who tried to approach us. Luckily, the emergency room wasn’t crowded at that hour, and the few people who were hanging around seemed too preoccupied with their own problems to pay any attention to us.

We sat there for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few minutes. Finally, a heavyset woman in a white coat came over and asked, “Are you here for Mr. Richardson?”

“Yes,” said Brian, jumping up. Q moved out of the way as he stepped forward, sticking out his hand. “I’m his cousin, Brian.”

“I’ve known him all my life,” I added in my head. It was what Kevin always used to say when he talked about Brian. Since Brian was the only one who was actually related to Kevin, he’d become our unofficial spokesperson.

“I’m Dr. Chapman,” the woman introduced herself, as she shook Brian’s hand. “I’m the attending physician who treated Kevin when he was brought in. Why don’t we go somewhere more private to talk?”

No one spoke as she took us to a small room with a couch and some chairs in it. “Would you like to sit down?” she asked, motioning to the chairs. I felt sick to my stomach as I followed the others’ lead, squeezing myself onto the couch with Howie and Leigh. I didn’t have much experience with hospitals, but even I could tell the news wasn’t going to be good. Why else wouldn’t she just talk to us in the hallway and then take us straight to see Kevin?

AJ seemed to be thinking along the same lines as me. “Is Kevin dead?” he asked bluntly. All the air seemed to be sucked out of the room as everyone took a sharp breath, but then we were silent, watching the doctor and waiting for her to answer.

“No, Kevin is alive,” she said, and a collective sigh of relief echoed around the room, with all of us exhaling at the same time. I could tell there was going to a “but,” though, and it came in her next sentence. “But his condition is very serious. What do you know about the accident?”

Brian shook his head. “Not much. I talked to my aunt - his mom - and all she’d been told was that it was bad. She’s flying in from Kentucky; she should be here in a few hours. I’m representing the family until then.”

Dr. Chapman nodded. “From what I understand, Kevin’s car was T-boned by another vehicle on his side. He sustained a concussion and a serious spinal injury in the crash.”

“How serious?” Brian asked. “I take it we’re not just talking about whiplash or something, are we?”

“I wish that were the case,” she replied, “but I’m afraid it’s worse than that. The scans we took show that Kevin fractured several vertebrae in his neck, which caused damage to his spinal cord. We may not know the full extent of his injury for several days, due to the swelling, but from what I was able to assess while he was here in the ER, it doesn’t look promising. He had no sensation or motor function below the level of injury, which means he’ll probably be paralyzed from the chest down.”

The doctor paused there, giving us all time to process what she’d just said. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around it. Paralyzed? I tried picturing Kevin in a wheelchair, unable to move, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. Kevin was one of the strongest, most active people I knew; there was no way he could be paralyzed. No fucking way.

We all sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds, until Dr. Chapman said, “The good news is that there were no signs of internal bleeding or other life-threatening injuries. He’s not out of the woods yet, but once his spine is stabilized, he’ll at least be on the road to recovery.” She paused. “Do you have any questions?”

“Can we see him?” Howie asked quietly.

“Of course. He’s been admitted to the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit. I’ll have one of our social workers escort you there.”

“Wait… what about his wife, Kristin?” I had been so focused on Kevin, I’d almost forgotten that Kristin had been hurt, too. Leighanne’s question brought her back into the forefront of my mind. “We heard she was in the accident, too. Where is she?”

The doctor seemed to hesitate, taking an audible breath before she answered. “I didn’t personally treat Mrs. Richardson, but I was told her injuries were very severe. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive them. She died early this morning.”

I guess I sort of knew as soon as she started talking about Kristin in the past tense what she was going to say, but it was still a shock to hear the actual words. My heart sank into my stomach. I felt like I was going to throw up at any second.

Leighanne looked like she might throw up, too. She gasped out loud, clapping her hands over her mouth. Brian put his arm around her and pulled her to his side, but his eyes never left the doctor’s face. He stared at her, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Chapman added, almost automatically. It made me wonder how many times a day she had to deliver that kind of news. She didn’t even seem affected by it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Howie hug Leigh a little closer, too, while across the room, AJ’s head dropped into his hands. We had all known Kristin just about as long as we’d known Kevin. They’d dated off and on since the beginning of the Backstreet Boys, so she had always been around, just another part of the Backstreet family. I was sure we - the four of us guys, anyway - were all thinking about Kevin as much as Kristin, though. We may have lost a member of the family, but he had lost the love of his life. I had no idea what it was like to love a woman so much, you wanted to spend the rest of your life with her, but I knew Kevin felt that way about Kristin. I couldn’t imagine how devastated he had to be. That was what killed me the most.

“Does Kevin know?” Howie asked, wiping his eyes. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe Kevin didn’t even know his wife was dead yet.

The doctor nodded. “He knows. He was able to spend some time with her and say goodbye before they took him upstairs.

“What about Kristin’s family?” Brian wanted to know. “Has anyone called them?”

“Yes, I believe they’re on their way.”

Kristin was from Kansas, where her parents and siblings still lived. Like Kevin’s family in Kentucky, they were far away and wouldn’t be able to get to L.A. for at least a few more hours. Until then, it was just us.

Dr. Chapman brought in a social worker to answer any other questions we had and take us up to the eighth floor to see Kevin in the ICU. We could only visit two at a time, she told us, so we let Brian and Leighanne go in first.

“How is he?” we all wanted to know when they came back to the waiting room.

“As well as can be expected under the circumstances,” said Brian with a shrug. “He’s pretty doped up on pain meds, but he was awake and talking at least.”

That was slightly encouraging to hear, but in some ways, it would have been easier if Kevin were unconscious. I got that nervous, nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach again when I imagined trying to carry on a conversation with him. What would I even say? Sorry your wife’s dead? Sorry you’re paralyzed? I wondered what Brian had told him. He was a lot better at talking his way through an uncomfortable situation than I was. I always ended up putting my foot in my mouth and making a fool of myself. I’ve never been good with words - not that there were any words that would make Kevin feel better.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see Kevin in that condition, but after Howie and Leigh had taken their turn, AJ looked at me and said, “Come on, Nick, we’re up,” which left me no choice but to go with him.

A nurse buzzed us into the unit. As we walked past the patient cubicles, I couldn’t help but peek inside. Every person I saw lying in bed was surrounded by a lot of monitors and scary-looking equipment. But somehow, I still couldn’t imagine Kevin looking that way. The whole scene felt surreal, like it was part of a dream, a nightmare. It didn't feel real. How could Kevin be hurt badly enough to end up here? How could Kristin be dead?

I thought back to the last time I had seen them, at Howie’s wedding reception in Orlando a few weeks ago. We’d been seated at the same table, and Kevin and Kristin had brought the baby. I had expected Kevin to be this super neurotic helicopter parent, but he was totally chill, like he didn’t have a worry in the world. Fatherhood and family life seemed to suit him. He and Kristin had enjoyed themselves that night, handing off Mason to whoever offered to hold him while they went out on the dance floor together. Whether they were slow-dancing in each other’s arms or doing the Macarena along with everyone else, Kevin and Kristin had never looked happier or more in love. That was how I wanted to picture them: laughing and full of life… not like the people in this place. The thought of Kevin looking like one of them made me sick to my stomach.

The closer we got to his cubicle, the more nauseous I felt. My hands were sweating, and there was a fluttery feeling in my chest, as if my heart kept skipping beats. I took a deep breath right before I reached the doorway, then forced myself to follow AJ through it.

We found Kevin lying flat on his back in bed, his arms resting at his sides. There were pillows and rolled towels tucked around his body. I supposed this was to help keep him in a semi-comfortable position, since he couldn’t move on his own, although he didn’t look too comfortable to me. He had a huge brace around his neck that went all the way from his chin to his chest. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face, hooked up to a long hose that hung from the front like an elephant’s trunk. I could hear air hissing through it as his chest hitched in and out, a heart monitor beeping steadily in the background. I counted three different IV bags hanging on a stand beside his bed, all of them feeding into a line in his arm.

AJ walked around to one side of the bed, and I reluctantly went and stood on the other, where I could see Kevin’s face up close. It was so swollen, he hardly looked like himself. His skin was a weird, grayish color. There was a bandage covering his right temple, and I could see bruises forming on both sides of his face and body. His eyes were closed, which was actually a relief to me - at least he couldn’t see the look of shock on my face when I saw him for the first time.

AJ cleared his throat. “Kev?”

I held my breath as his eyes fluttered open. They were bloodshot and slightly unfocused at first, but when they found AJ’s face, a fog seemed to lift from in front of them. Behind the clear oxygen mask, Kevin’s lips curved into a faint smile. “Hey, brother,” he said softly, his voice muffled so much by the mask, I had to lean closer just to hear him. “Thanks for being here.” His eyes shifted from AJ to me. “How you doin’, Nick?”

I swallowed hard, my throat feeling as dry as the desert we had driven across to get there. “I’m okay. How are you?” Immediately, I felt like an idiot. What a dumb thing to say. See what I mean? Open mouth. Insert foot.

“Eh… I’m hangin’ in there,” he muttered. He was slurring his words slightly - whether that was from his head injury or whatever drugs they had him on, I wasn’t sure - but he sounded mostly coherent.

“We heard about Kristin,” said AJ before I could ask any other stupid questions. “I’m so sorry, man. I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling right now.”

“Not a whole lot from the neck down,” Kevin replied, so deadpan I couldn’t tell if he was trying to crack a joke or not. I looked away awkwardly, my eyes landing on his bare chest. If I grabbed his nipple and gave him a titty twister, would he really not feel it? I knew better than to actually do that, of course, but I couldn’t help wondering. I crammed my hands in my pockets, afraid I would accidentally bump one of the tubes or wires that were attached to his body if I tried to touch him at all.

“Damn, Kev…” AJ trailed off, shaking his head. For what had to be the first time in his life, he was at a loss for words.

“It’s my heart that hurts the most,” Kevin went on, his voice cracking. When I glanced at his face again, there were tears glistening in his eyes. “How am I gonna live without her? How am I gonna live like this?” He looked down at his body, lying limply on the bed. Only his eyes moved.

It killed me to see him that way, so helpless and somehow diminished. Kevin had always been someone I looked up to, both figuratively and literally. I was thirteen when he joined the Backstreet Boys; he had towered over me then, a twenty-one-year-old man making music with a prepubescent kid. Eventually I’d caught up to him in height, but I was still only half the man he was. He always seemed to have it together, while I was usually falling apart. But all of a sudden, the tides had turned, and I was the one looking down at him as he lay on the hospital bed in front of me, broken and weak. In that moment, I would have given anything to be able to take away his pain, even if it meant absorbing it myself.

“I wish I knew, bro,” I said, blinking back tears of my own. “But one thing I do know is that you’ll find a way. You will get through this somehow. You’re one of the strongest people I know, Kevin. You’re not gonna let anything keep you down for long.”

AJ nodded, shooting me an appreciative smile across Kevin’s bed. “Well said, Nick.”

“Thanks, brother,” Kevin whispered. His tears were starting to flow, dripping slowly down the sides of his face. Realizing he couldn’t reach up to wipe them away himself, I found a box of Kleenex on the counter on one side of the room and used a tissue to carefully blot the tears from the corners of his eyes.

I meant every word of what I said, but as I thought about all the other things Kevin wouldn’t be able to do for himself, I felt even more overwhelmed than I had before. It was almost a relief when a nurse came in and said, “I’m sorry, guys, but I’m going to have to ask you to step out for a while. The doctors are making their morning rounds and will want to examine him. You can come back in an hour or so.”

“Oh… okay.” I looked down at Kevin, a lump rising in my throat. “Love you, bro.”

“Love you both,” he mumbled back.

AJ rested a hand on his shoulder. “Keep hangin’ in there, Kevy Kev. We’ll see ya soon.”

I swallowed hard as we walked out to the hall. Though I didn’t want to admit it to AJ, I was secretly glad to get out of that room. I hated seeing Kevin that way. But I also felt bad about leaving him like that.

“He’s in good hands here,” said AJ, as we headed back to the waiting room. “This is one of the best hospitals in the whole country.”

I nodded. “I know.” But my bad feeling lingered long after we exited the ICU.