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We hadn’t been back in the waiting room long when another woman in a white coat came in to talk to us. This one was tiny and looked more like an actress playing a doctor on TV than the real life thing. With her big, blue eyes and long, blonde hair, she was almost too attractive to be an actual doctor. Dr. Barbie, I thought.

“Are you all with Mr. Richardson?” she asked, looking around the small waiting room. We nodded. “I’m Dr. Bone, his neurosurgeon.”

Maybe it was just because I was deliriously tired by that point, but the introduction of a surgeon named Bone made me snort with laughter. I’d sure like to bone her, I thought, making a mental note to tell AJ after she left. I knew he, at least, would appreciate the joke.

Dr. Bone’s icy blue eyes narrowed, and for a second, I was worried I had accidentally said that out loud. But they looked past me and landed on Brian’s face instead. “You’re his cousin, correct?”

“That’s right,” said Brian, rising out of his seat. I wondered if she had recognized us. She was in the right age range - early thirties, I estimated - to at least be familiar with our music, even if she wasn’t a fan.

“Kevin’s asking for you. Come with me, please.” Dr. Bone put her hand on Brian’s arm and steered him away from the rest of us without another word. We all exchanged anxious looks, wondering why Kevin wanted to talk to him again, apparently alone. It was a good thing his clingy wife had gone over to Kevin’s house to stay with Mason, though it would have made me laugh to see Leighanne give the surgeon the stink-eye as she watched a younger, hotter, more educated version of herself walk away with her husband.

“Did anyone else catch her name? Dr. Bone?” I said, trying to lighten the tension. “Damn, I wanna bone her.”

The other guys chuckled weakly at that, while Jenn rolled her eyes at me. It felt good to laugh and forget for just a second why we were there.

Brian was gone for a long time. As the minutes crawled by, I started to get worried again, wondering what was taking so long. Had something happened with Kevin?

When Brian finally came back, his eyes were red-rimmed again. “Kevin was having trouble breathing, so they had to put a tube down his throat,” he told the rest of us in a hushed voice. “He’s on a ventilator now.”

“What?!” I gasped, my heart skipping a beat. “But… he was fine when AJ and I were in there. I mean, not ‘fine,’ but he was talking like normal…”

“His oxygen level was too low,” Brian explained. “The doctor said some of the muscles that make his lungs expand have been paralyzed, so he can’t take very deep breaths. He was getting tired from the effort of trying to get enough air. The ventilator will do the work for him and give his body a chance to rest awhile.”

“So it’s just a temporary thing?” AJ asked. “They’ll take him off it when he gets better?”

Brian shrugged. “It’s too soon to tell. She said Kevin’s broken vertebrae are compressing his spinal cord, and they need to stabilize his neck to reduce the swelling. If they don’t, it could cause more damage. He might never be able to breathe on his own again.”

I sucked in a shaky breath, freaked out by the thought of Kevin having to spend the rest of his life relying on a machine to help him breathe. I didn’t want to imagine him looking like Christopher Reeve after his accident, strapped into a wheelchair with a tube sticking out of his neck. That couldn’t happen to Kevin. What kind of life would that be? Not one I would want; that was for sure.

“So how do they stabilize his neck?” Howie wondered. “Surgery?”

Brian nodded. “She said that’s the best option, but it’s risky because they’d have to go in through both the back and the front of his neck, near the larynx. If something slipped, and his vocal cords were severed…” He trailed off, letting the implications of what he was trying to tell us sink in.

“He’d never sing again,” I finished for him, my own voice sounding flat.

“He’d never speak again,” AJ added, shaking his head.

Brian sighed. “Yeah. Exactly.”

The four of us guys exchanged glances. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing: like all of us, Kevin’s voice was his life, his livelihood. Where would he be without it?

“What were the other options?” Howie wanted to know.

“She only mentioned one other option,” said Brian. “If they don't operate on his neck, they’ll have to put him in a metal halo to hold his head and neck steady until the fractures heal, which could take a few months.”

“So… like that dude in Office Space? With the ‘Jump to Conclusions’ mat?” I asked, picturing a metal contraption connected directly to the movie character’s skull like some kind of medieval torture device. AJ snorted. Jenn gave us both incredulous looks, like we were being insensitive or something. I wasn’t joking, though; I was just trying to understand. It was an honest question.

Brian gave a serious answer. “Yeah… I think so.”

“Damn…” I shook my head. “That would seriously suck ass.”

“I know,” said Brian, sighing.

“So… what are they going to do?” asked Howie.

“That’s just it - she wanted me to decide… as if I’m supposed to know what Kevin would want.” Brian shook his head. “I think it should be his decision, but she said that because he can’t speak or write, he can’t ask questions or give informed consent, so it has to come from one of us.”

We all looked at each other again. What would Kevin want? I thought he would want the option that offered his best chance of recovery, but if it meant risking his voice… I wasn’t sure. I was glad it was Brian being asked to make that choice instead of me - not that anyone would trust me, anyway.

“What did you tell her?” AJ asked him.

“To wait until his mom gets here. She should be the one making medical decisions for him, not me.”

No one could argue with Brian about that.

“Do you have an ETA for her?”

“She landed in Chicago almost an hour ago,” said Brian, showing us a text from his aunt. “I know she had a short layover there, so she’s probably boarding her second flight right about now. She should be here by one o’clock this afternoon.”

I checked the time on my own phone. It was only eight in the morning. I hadn’t slept since 2007. Just the thought of staying at the hospital for another five hours to wait for Ann was exhausting, but what else was I supposed to do? I had nowhere to go. Even if I did book a hotel room with a nice, big bed, I didn’t think I’d actually be able to sleep. So I stood up, deciding it would be best to keep myself moving. I wished I could sneak off to the bathroom and sniff a bump of coke to keep myself awake, but I settled for a legal stimulant instead: caffeine. “I’m gonna go find some coffee,” I said. “Anyone else want some?”

Howie and Q came with me. We found our way to a café a few floors down, where we bought coffee and breakfast sandwiches to take back to everyone upstairs. The six of us spent the next hour sipping coffee, picking at our food, and struggling to stay awake.

Once we were allowed back in to see Kevin, we took turns visiting for fifteen minutes at a time. It felt kind of pointless considering he was so drugged up, he didn’t seem to have any idea we were in the room, but at least it helped to pass the time.

I guess I must have dozed off at some point, because one minute I was playing on my phone in the waiting room, and the next thing I knew, Howie was poking me, whispering, “Wake up. Kristin’s parents are here.”

I sat up straight and looked around, my stomach lurching when I spotted Kristin’s mom Susan hugging Brian tightly. She had her head on his shoulder, and her face was streaked with tearstains. Her ex-husband John stood beside her, looking lost. “We just got off the phone with the funeral home,” I heard him say. “They’ll be coming to get Krissy soon. We wondered if Kevin wanted to see her before…” His voice faltered. “...before they take her body.”

Brian shook his head. “He’s heavily sedated right now, but I know he got to see her briefly in the emergency room.”

John’s shoulders slumped. “Ah, well... maybe it’s for the best. It was hard, seeing her that way. I’m glad Kevin got a chance to say goodbye.”

“We’re so sorry,” Howie said, gripping his hand. “Whatever you and Susan need, we’re here.”

I nodded awkwardly, not sure what else to say. I had only met Kristin’s family a handful of times - at Kevin’s wedding, of course, and backstage before concerts. While Kevin was still a Backstreet Boy, his in-laws would come to see him perform whenever a tour took us through Kansas. They would always be considered members of the extended Backstreet family, but I couldn’t say I knew them well. I wished I could escape the crowded waiting room, where the dark cloud of grief hung thick in the air. I tugged at the neck of my t-shirt, feeling claustrophobic.

“Thank you. We appreciate all of you being here,” Kristin’s dad replied, looking around the room.

“How’s Kevin doing?” her mom asked, as she wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “Can we see him?”

“Of course,” Brian replied. “I’ll take you to his room. Has anyone told you about his condition?”

Susan shook her head. “I talked to Ann on the phone earlier, but all she knew was that it was serious. How… how badly was he hurt?”

Brian took a deep breath before he began filling her in. I tried to tune him out, not wanting to have to hear it for the second time. It was too much. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I’m gonna get some air,” I mumbled to Howie and darted out of the room. I hurried down the hall to the elevators and took one down to the plaza level, where we had gone to get breakfast earlier. I bought another cup of coffee in the cafe and carried it with me to an outdoor courtyard. I walked a few laps around it, looking at the sculptures and landscaping as I sipped my coffee.

Finally, I got bored and went back inside, where I wandered around awhile longer, in no hurry to head straight back to the waiting room. I roamed the halls and studied the artwork on the walls, trying to distract myself from thinking about Kevin and Kristin. It didn’t work. My mind kept drifting up to the ICU, where Kevin lay unconscious on a life support machine. I couldn’t stop worrying about what was going to happen to him, so eventually, I turned around and took the elevator back up to the eighth floor.

When I got back to the waiting room, I was relieved to find that Kristin’s parents were gone. Brian said they were heading over to Kevin and Kristin’s house to see their grandson, which meant his and Howie’s wives would probably be coming back soon.

Jenn was also getting ready to leave. “I’m gonna go home and get some rest, and then I’ll work with Kim on writing a statement for you guys to release when you’re ready,” she told us, slinging her handbag over her shoulder. “You know - condolences for Kristin’s family, prayer requests for Kevin and his family, that kind of thing. Let me know if you think of any specific wording you want us to include. We’ll send you a draft to approve before anything goes out officially.”

My stomach dropped as I imagined how the rest of the world would react when they found out what had happened. The media would relish in the drama, but our fans would be devastated. I was glad we had a publicist to handle the press because I definitely wasn’t ready to make any kind of statement. I was still trying to process everything myself.

“Thanks, Jenn,” said Howie. She hugged each of us, then made her exit.

After that, it was just the four of us guys and Q. We all looked at each other, wondering what to do next. It was a helpless feeling, sitting around that waiting room like we were in some kind of limbo. We continued to rotate in and out of Kevin’s room, figuring the least we could do was keep him company. He wasn’t conscious, but the nurse said he could still hear us and that our presence would be comforting for him. I wasn’t convinced - she may have been feeding us that bullshit just to make us feel better - but I went along with it anyway.

Ann finally arrived around one-fifteen, looking exhausted and older than I remembered her, with dark circles under her eyes and deep lines in her forehead. Brian sat his aunt down and filled her in on what we’d found out about Kevin and Kristin, then held her as she cried. Once she had regained her composure, the hot neurosurgeon, Dr. Bone, came back in to talk to her. She took Ann and Brian to a private conference room to discuss Kevin’s condition, claiming her team only wanted to meet with family members.

Watching them walk out of the room together, Howie frowned. “Why wouldn’t she include the rest of us?” he wondered. “We’re all one big family!” It wasn’t like Howie to complain, but he could get cranky when he’d gone too long without sleep.

“I’m sure she could tell we aren’t all blood relatives,” said Q, looking down at his brown skin, which made the rest of us laugh.

“I know. I just want to be kept in the loop.” With a sigh, Howie slumped back in his chair and propped his head up on one hand. Ever since Kevin had left, Howie had stepped up to become the ‘big brother’ and unofficial leader of the group. But those were big shoes to fill, and this was the biggest crisis we had ever faced together. I could tell he felt frustrated, like he wasn’t doing enough to help. There just wasn’t much any of us could do at that moment.

“Hang in there, Howie,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Brian’ll catch us up when he comes back.”

Sure enough, Brian and Ann returned to the waiting room half an hour later with a plan of action in place. “We decided surgery is the best option,” Brian told us, sucking in a deep breath. “They’re gonna go in and do a…” He glanced over at his aunt. “What did they call it again?”

“A spinal decompression, internal fixation, and fusion,” said Ann uncertainly, squinting down at the notes she’d taken through a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose. “From what I understood, their plan is to first relieve the pressure on Kevin’s spinal cord by removing the bone fragments that are pushing on it. Then they’ll put in a rod and screws to repair the broken vertebrae and graft a piece of bone from his pelvis onto that part of his spine to fuse it together. This is supposed to help stabilize his neck until it heals.”

“That sounds... painful,” I muttered, shuddering. I could have done without the detailed description. “Will it fix his spinal cord? So he’s not paralyzed?”

“The doctor said there’s no way to reverse the nerve damage that’s already been done, but if they do the surgery soon, they can hopefully prevent any further damage from swelling,” said Brian. “That could mean the difference between Kevin being able to breathe on his own and use his arms or… not.”

“What about his legs?” AJ wondered. “Does she think he’ll be able to walk again?”

Brian and Ann looked at each other. “She didn’t sound too hopeful about that,” said Ann softly, her voice trembling.

“But she did say it’s too soon to tell for sure,” Brian added quickly. “We’ll have to wait a few days after surgery, until the swelling goes down, to know more.”

“When do they want to do the surgery?” asked Howie.

“Soon - like this afternoon,” answered Brian. “It works best if it’s done within twenty-four hours after the injury. We’re already past the twelve-hour mark, so the clock’s ticking.”

“She said the surgery can take six hours, so don’t feel like y’all have to stay the whole time,” said Ann with a sad smile. “I appreciate y’all being here to watch over my son, but you should go home and get some rest while you can. It’s been a long day.”

And night, I thought, relieved to hear her say we were off the hook for a while. I couldn’t wait to find somewhere to crash. A bed, a couch - I didn’t even care. I would sleep anywhere.

“I’m gonna stay here with Aunt Ann,” said Brian, hiding a yawn with his hand. “You guys go. I’ll keep you posted.”

We all exchanged uncertain glances. No one seemed to want to be the first one to walk out. Finally, AJ stood up and stretched. “You can stay at my place if you want, Nick,” he said, arching his back until it let out a satisfying crack. “You too, Q.”

“Sounds good, man,” said Q, who lived in Orlando when he wasn’t working. “Appreciate it.”

“That’d be great,” I agreed. “Thanks, bro.” I was just grateful not to have to get a hotel room at the last minute or go home with Howie and Leigh, who I’m sure were equally grateful not to have me around as a third wheel.

“We should say goodbye to Kev before we go,” AJ suggested.

Why? I wondered. He doesn’t even know we’re still here. But I didn’t dare say that out loud, especially in front of Kevin’s mom.

“Y’all go,” said Q, waving us off. “I’ll wait for you here.”

So I reluctantly followed AJ back to Kevin’s room. He didn’t look any different than the last time we had seen him. His eyes were still closed, his bruised face blank behind the blue hose connected to the breathing tube that was sticking out of his open mouth. His body was motionless except for the subtle but steady rise and fall of his bare chest as the ventilator forced air into his lungs. If it wasn’t for all the machines around his bed, he might have looked like he was sleeping peacefully - but I knew otherwise, and it freaked me out. I loved Kevin, but I hated being in there and having to see him like that.

“Hey, Kev,” I heard AJ say and saw him reach out and take Kevin’s right hand.

“He probably can’t even feel that,” I muttered. It was a stupid thing to say, but it slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it.

AJ glared at me across the bed. “So? He can still hear us. So let’s keep it positive - ‘kay, Prick?”

“Oh, yeah, real positive,” I replied, rolling my eyes. I looked back at Kevin’s face, watching it closely for any sign that he was actually aware of what we were saying, but his eyelids didn’t even flutter.

“Your mom’s here now,” said AJ, squeezing Kevin’s hand. “Brian’s gonna stay with her while the rest of us get out of here for a bit. But we’ll be back later, all right? So you hang in there, man. We’ll see you soon.”

“We love you, bro,” I added, not knowing what else to say. I wanted to touch him where he could actually feel it, like his face, but looking at the bruises and the bandage and the breathing tube made me afraid I would only hurt him more. So I kept my hands in my pockets and waited for AJ to say we could leave. He was a lot better at this than I was.

When we finally walked out of the hospital, the sun was high in the sky. Jenn had driven off in her rental car, so we took a cab to AJ’s house in Los Feliz. “Hey, can we stop at Target real quick?” I called up the driver a block from the hospital, spotting the familiar red bullseye up ahead. Turning to AJ, I added, “I just realized we left all our luggage in the trunk of Jenn’s car.”

“I’m sure she’ll bring it back to us tomorrow,” said AJ, unbothered. “Her bag was in there, too; she’s not gonna forget that.”

“I know, but I don’t have any other clothes or anything.”

He shrugged. “I got stuff you can borrow. Don’t worry about it.”

“You ain’t got any stuff that would fit me,” said Q from the front seat, turning around to grin at us. “I’m with Nick. Let’s stop and at least get us some toothbrushes and clean drawers.”

The cabbie pulled up in front of the Target and dropped us off at the curb. Q and I went in while AJ waited in the car. I grabbed a basket, and we booked it through the store, picking up t-shirts, boxer shorts, and toothbrushes. While Q was looking at a display of deodorant, I said, “Hey dude, I’m gonna go back and grab something I forgot. Meet me up front at the checkout?”

Q frowned, eyeing me suspiciously. “What’d you forget?”

“I’ll be right back. Grab me one of those too, would ya?” I hurried off, basket in hand, before he could ask any more questions.

It had occurred to me that the downside of staying with AJ over Howie was that he wouldn’t have any alcohol in the house. He had made a big deal out of being five years sober. I was proud of him, but personally, I was in desperate need of a drink. After all the coffee I’d had, it was the only way I was going to get some sleep, and I desperately needed that, too.

I made a beeline for the liquor aisle and grabbed a bottle of vodka. It wasn’t a top-shelf brand, but it would get the job done. I tucked it under the two t-shirts in my basket, hoping Q wouldn’t see it. Then I backtracked to the electronics section and found a charging cable for my iPhone to toss on top. “Had to have a way to charge my phone,” I told Q when I finally made it back to the front of the store, holding up the cable.

He raised his eyebrows. “Took you long enough. Now you have to share it.”

“Only if you’re nice,” I said, setting the basket down on the checkout counter. “Listen, I’ll get this stuff. Why don’t you go make sure AJ’s still outside and tell him we’re almost done?”

“What, you think he’s gonna get the cab to drive off and leave us? That’s the kinda shit you would do, not AJ.”

“Guilty as charged.” I forced a grin onto my face, wishing he would just go away. I wasn’t sure why I felt so weird about Q seeing me buy liquor. It wasn’t like I was doing anything illegal. I guess I just felt guilty bringing a bottle of vodka back to a recovering alcoholic’s house, where I would drown my sorrows and drink myself to sleep the way I did most days. I didn’t want the other guys finding out about that particular habit I had developed. As far as they knew, AJ was the one with the drinking problem, not me. I preferred it that way.

“Can I see your ID, sir?”

I looked up as the cashier slid the bottle across the scanner. Really? I thought, rolling my eyes at the guy, who couldn’t have been more than a few years younger than me. You gonna act like you don’t recognize me? I wouldn’t have gotten carded anywhere else, but I remembered we were in L.A., where the locals were fairly used to seeing people more famous than me. So I fished out my wallet and handed him my license without a word.

“Ah… so that’s what you forgot,” said Q, smirking at me.

I felt my face heat up. “Don’t tell AJ. It would only tempt him. I just needed something to help me relax.”

“You and me both, man,” he muttered, as the cashier put the bottle in a bag. “You and me both.”

When the cab dropped us off at AJ’s house, we all basically headed straight to bed. AJ had two guest bedrooms, so Q got one of them to himself, and I got the other. As soon as I shut the door, I stripped down to my boxers, turned back the covers on the bed, and collapsed into it. It felt good to finally lie down. The mattress was comfortable, but of course, I couldn’t sleep. I was past the point of exhaustion. My head was pounding, and so was my heart, probably from all the caffeine I’d had.

It didn’t take me long to get out the bottle of vodka and pour some into the water glass AJ had left out on the bathroom counter for me. I carried it back to bed with me and sat with my back pressed against the headboard, sipping from it as I played on my phone. The screen blurred before my eyes as they grew heavier and heavier. I must have finally passed out at some point because the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the dark to the sound of someone pounding on the bedroom door.

“Nick! Are you alive in there?” It was AJ.

“Yeah!” I croaked back. “Come on in.”

The door opened, and AJ walked in, turning on the light. “Dude… since when are you such a deep sleeper? I must’ve been out there knocking and calling your name for at least two minutes. I was worried you had died in here or something.”

I sat up slowly, blinking at him. “And it took you two minutes to decide to come in and see if I was dead or not?”

“Well, I didn’t wanna walk in on you naked or whatever if you weren’t dead.”

“Nothing you haven’t seen before,” I said with a shrug. “But for the record, I’m not naked.” I pulled back the covers to show him my boxer shorts.

“And you’re not dead either. That’s a relief.”

I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”

“Almost eight. Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah,” I said, yawning. “I slept like the dead.”

“Ha ha.” He picked up the empty glass I’d left on the bedside table and sniffed it. “Smells like you had some help with that.”

I rolled my eyes. “Q told you, huh?”

“Q told me nothing.” He slammed the glass back down on the table. “I know you, Nick. You may think you’re being sneaky, trying to hide things from the rest of us, and maybe it works with Rok and D, but I see right through your bullshit. I’ve been there, bro - I know all the tricks in the book.”

“Yeah, so don’t act all self-righteous, like you’re so much better than me,” I shot back. “I didn’t do anything wrong. So I had a few drinks before bed to help me sleep. Big fucking deal. Don’t tell me you didn’t want a drink, too, after the day we had.”

“Of course I did. Truth be told, I want a drink every damn day,” AJ admitted. “But I don’t let myself have one because I know one will turn into two, then three, and before I know it, I’ll be right back where I was before I went to rehab.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re an alcoholic,” I said, flopping back down on the pillows. “You can’t control your drinking. I can.”

“Yeah, you seem real in control right now,” he said sarcastically. “Remember the drugs I flushed down your toilet last night? Was that not a big deal either?”

I didn’t answer.

“What were you even doing? Ecstasy?”

“None of your fucking business.” I pulled the covers over myself and rolled over, putting my back to him.

“Are you kidding me?” He came around to the other side of the bed so he could look me in the eye. “We’re literally in business together, buddy, so it is my business, just like it was your business when my bullshit was affecting the group.”

“Well, mine’s not affecting the group,” I muttered, closing my eyes. I wished he would take the hint and go away. I just wanted to fall back to sleep and forget about this whole conversation.

“The fuck it’s not!” AJ exploded. “It’s been affecting the group for years! How many times did you get docked for being late to the studio because you were too fucking hungover to drag your ass out of bed? How many hours did we waste listening to you record your parts over and over because you’d been out partying all night, and your voice was too wrecked to sing them right? Your decisions do affect the group, Nick, and we’re all getting sick of you making such bad ones. Why do you think Kevin left?”

My eyes flew open. Immediately, I felt defensive. “Kevin left ‘cause he wanted to start a family!”

“No, Kevin left because he was tired of babysitting a twenty-five-year-old manchild,” AJ replied matter-of-factly. “He might have enjoyed his last tour with us more if it hadn’t been for you and your bullshit. And if he’d been with us in Vegas last night, he wouldn’t be in the hospital right now.”

My stomach lurched as I sat up suddenly, blinking at him in disbelief. “Are you saying it’s somehow my fault Kevin got hurt?”

AJ glared back at me. “No. I’m saying you need to grow the fuck up, stop doing dumb shit, and start taking some responsibility for your actions.” Then his expression softened. “I don’t wanna have to see you in a hospital bed next.”

I stared down at the bedspread. The sound of blood rushing behind my eardrums was almost deafening. I wanted to say something to defend myself, but I couldn’t come up with a decent excuse for my behavior. I didn’t think it was fair for AJ to blame me for Kevin quitting the Backstreet Boys; I wasn’t any more responsible for that than I was for his accident. But deep down, I knew he was right about one thing: My drinking and drug use had affected my work. And maybe it had affected the rest of the group more than I realized.

But that was then. It was a new year, and I had turned over a new leaf. I didn’t let my partying get in the way of doing my job anymore. In the last few months, I’d made much better decisions than I had before. I had cut the toxic people out of my life, lost weight, left L.A. Gradually, I was getting myself back on track. I was going to find a better balance and prove to the other guys that I wasn’t like AJ, that I could control my bad habits.

AJ cleared his throat. “Speaking of the hospital…” he started, as I slowly looked back up. “Brian called. Kevin’s out of surgery and in recovery.”

My heart lifted. “Really? So he’s all right?”

He shrugged. “Rok said the surgery went well and that he’s stable, whatever that means. He and Ann were getting ready to head back to his house for the night and let Kevin rest, but we can go see him again tomorrow.”

“How long do you think he’s gonna be in the hospital?” I wondered.

“No idea,” said AJ, shaking his head. “All I know is he’s got a long road of recovery ahead of him. He’s gonna need our support...” He let his last statement hang in the air, giving me a look that clearly said, Can we count on you to help?

“Of course,” I replied quickly. “Whatever we can do… I’m here for him.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, but he didn’t sound like he believed me. “Well… that’s all I really wanted to tell you. I guess I’ll let you get back to sleep now.”

Before I could say anything else, AJ turned abruptly and left, flicking the light switch on his way out so that I was blinded by darkness.