Guilty Roads by RokofAges75

It was the fall of 1999, and the Backstreet Boys were in the midst of their sold-out Into the Millennium tour, when Nick Carter went out for a late night walk on the town. His biggest worry was that he would run into fans, but instead, he crossed paths with real danger. What he witnessed that night would forever change his life, and the Backstreet Boys would never be the same.

Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Group, Nick
Genres: Angst, Drama, Suspense
Warnings: Death, Violence
Series: None
Chapters: 17 Completed: No Word count: 55840 Read: 27418 Published: 06/13/10 Updated: 04/02/17

1. Chapter 1 by RokofAges75

2. Chapter 2 by RokofAges75

3. Chapter 3 by RokofAges75

4. Chapter 4 by RokofAges75

5. Chapter 5 by RokofAges75

6. Chapter 6 by RokofAges75

7. Chapter 7 by RokofAges75

8. Chapter 8 by RokofAges75

9. Chapter 9 by RokofAges75

10. Chapter 10 by RokofAges75

11. Chapter 11 by RokofAges75

12. Chapter 12 by RokofAges75

13. Chapter 13 by RokofAges75

14. Chapter 14 by RokofAges75

15. Chapter 15 by RokofAges75

16. Chapter 16 by RokofAges75

17. Chapter 17 by RokofAges75

Chapter 1 by RokofAges75
Chapter 1

If Nick had known the impact his choices that night would have on the people closest to him, he would have just stayed at the hotel.

He should have just stayed at the hotel.  Kevin even said so.  “Just chill out here, Nick.  Play your video games,” the eldest Backstreet Boy suggested, on his way out the door.  “You know what a scene you’ll cause if you go out; just enjoy the peace and quiet for once.”

“Yeah right, ‘cause that’s what you’re off to do:  enjoy some ‘peace and quiet,’” Nick huffed sarcastically, rolling his eyes at Kevin’s designer outfit and artfully tousled hair.

Kevin shrugged.  He didn’t look too apologetic when he said, “Sorry, kid.  Brian’s not comin’ with us; you can hang out with him.”

“Yeah right,” Nick replied and rolled his eyes again.  He knew where Brian would spend the evening:  in his own hotel room with his girlfriend, Leighanne.  He was not about to be a third wheel to those two.

“Sorry,” Kevin said again.  This time, he sounded more sincere.  “Just a couple more years - then you’ll be old enough to come out with us.”

“Don’t remind me,” muttered Nick, to whom two years seemed an odyssey away.  He’d been spoiled over the summer, while touring in Europe, where he could enter any club or pub he wished and drink as much as he wanted.  Back home in the States, he was still a minor, stuck spending the evening by himself while the others went out partying on their night off.

“Don’t pout,” Kevin chided.  “We’ll do somethin’ tomorrow before the show.  Go see the Liberty Bell, maybe.  Sound good?”

“Sounds lame.  Who cares about a dumb, old bell with a big crack down the middle?”

Kevin smirked.  “Suit yourself.  See ya later.  Don’t get into trouble while we’re gone.”

“Okay, Dad,” Nick retorted, making a face at Kevin’s back as he left, closing the door to their hotel room behind him.  Nick slumped back on his bed, banging the back of his head against the wall, and silently fumed.

Kevin thought he was so cool, so grown-up, compared to the rest of the guys, especially Nick.  He took his “big brother” role in the group too seriously, treating Nick and AJ and even Brian like they were kids.  Well, they weren’t!  Brian acted like a goofball most of the time, but he was really just three years younger than his cousin.  And AJ was twenty-one, a legal adult in every sense of the word.  He, Nick, had only been thirteen when Kevin had joined the group, but he was four months shy of twenty now.  He had his high school diploma; he could vote and buy cigarettes; he’d just bought his family a house in California, and he’d toured the world as a Backstreet Boy.  He was hardly a child anymore.

Then again, maybe he was.  Like a child, he wanted things to go his way, and they just hadn’t lately.  This was supposed to be his year.  The Backstreet Boys were on top of the world, riding high on the success of their third album, Millennium.  They had achieved the global success they’d been chasing since their first taste of fame on those early tours in Germany, and it was undeniable that Nick was the fan favorite, both overseas and on home soil.  After spending the summer in Europe, he’d been looking forward to touring the States.  The first U.S. leg of the Into the Millennium Tour had sold out in a matter of minutes, but it hadn’t gotten off to a great start.  First there had been Hurricane Floyd, which had forced them to postpone the kick-off dates in Fort Lauderdale.  Then there was the fact that while Leighanne was on tour with them, Mandy wasn’t.  As a result, Brian was often preoccupied, and Nick was often lonely and bored.

Reaching over to the bedside table, he picked up his cell phone and started playing with it, scrolling through the names in his contacts.  He still had her number stored in his phone.  He hadn’t had the heart to delete it, even though they’d broken up a month ago.  Though he hated admitting it, he missed her.  Mandy hadn’t always treated him right, but she’d been fun to have around on tour.  Even Leighanne had been more tolerable when he’d a girlfriend of his own.  Brian was still whipped, but Nick was now alone.

For a second, he considered calling Mandy, then quickly nixed the idea, tossing his phone back onto the bedside table so he wouldn’t be tempted.  He rolled off the bed and went over to the TV, where he’d plugged in his new Sega Dreamcast, a gift to himself for the U.S. tour.  He turned the console on and picked up his controller, but he couldn’t focus on his Sonic game, not when he knew Kevin, AJ, and Howie were out on the town, having way more fun than he was.  Even Brian and Leighanne were probably having more fun than he was, though he didn’t want to think about what they might be doing in the room next door.

He paused his game, threw his controller down, and stood up.  He had to get out.

Ignoring Kevin’s warning that he would cause a scene, he crammed a baseball cap on his head, tucking the ends of his blonde hair up into it, and pulled on a plain, gray hoodie over his jeans and t-shirt.  He zipped the hoodie almost all the way and pulled the hood up over his cap.  He completed his disguise with a large pair of sunglasses that hid most of his face.  I look like the Unabomber, he thought, smirking at his reflection in the gilded mirror over the dresser.  He picked up his wallet from the dresser top, checked to make sure his room key card was tucked safely inside it, and stuffed it in his back pocket on his way out of the room.

He hurried past the block of rooms that management had reserved for them.  AJ and Howie were sharing the adjoining room, with Brian and Leighanne on the other side.  Their bodyguards had rooms on either end.  Nick figured most of them would be out with the guys, but at least one would have stayed behind, in case a mob of fans stormed the hotel.  They always tried to keep their accommodations a secret, but that didn’t stop the fans from finding them.  He pulled the brim of his cap down lower over his shades as he stopped in front of the elevator.

It came, mercifully empty, and Nick rode down to the ground level.  He passed quickly through the lobby, darting under the crystal chandelier and keeping close to the handsome, white-panelled walls.  He slipped out the front door and found himself on the crowded, cobbled sidewalk outside.  Lowering his head, he turned right and started walking, blending into the crowd.

He walked without any idea of where he was going, but soon he found himself in a sprawling park that reminded him of Central Park in Manhattan.  He meandered along the criss-crossing paths, his feet crunching in the autumn leaves, until he reached the other side.  The park was smaller than he’d anticipated.  He kept walking, passing downtown shops and sidewalk cafes, looking up at old, brick buildings and quaint, brownstone row houses.  His surroundings reminded him of the The Sixth Sense, which he’d seen on one of his last dates with Mandy.  He thought that movie had been set in Philadelphia.

He walked quite a few blocks, crossing busy intersections with the other pedestrians, and no one paid much notice to him.  With his hood and dark glasses, he supposed he looked like someone who didn’t want to be bothered.  Soon the buildings and traffic gave way to trees and grass, as he found himself in another park.  The car exhaust fumes and the delicious aroma of Italian food wafted away, and his nose picked up the fishy smell of water.  He was near a river.  He could see it up ahead, as he walked through the park.  He had no idea which river it was - in spite of three years of touring, geography had never been his strong suit - but he was drawn to it.  He had always loved water and boats.

The river was narrow and not particularly scenic, bordered by a freeway on one side and industrial-looking train tracks on both.  But beyond the park and past the tracks, there was a walking trail that ran along the riverfront, and Nick crossed the tracks to follow it.  The trail was nothing like the busy, bustling sidewalks; it was dark and quiet, almost deserted.  Though he was still in the heart of the city, he felt like he was outside it.  Up ahead, he saw the silhouettes of a few couples, out for a night stroll, but for the most part, he was alone.  And while he hadn’t liked being alone in his hotel room, he now relished in the solitude.  He was enjoying the peace and quiet, just as Kevin had said he should.  He just wasn’t doing it back at the hotel.

He had only wandered a short way up the trail when he approached an overpass, one of several bridges that spanned the narrow river.  He could see that the trail cut right under it, so he kept walking.  The trail was lit with small streetlamps at regular intervals, but beneath the bridge, it was dark.  As he grew closer, his eyes made out two figures moving around in the shadows, near the water’s edge.  He slowed his pace, lowering his sunglasses to watch them.  They weren’t approaching him, nor were they walking away in the same direction as him, and something about their movements made him stop.

Suddenly wary, he edged off the trail, out of the lamplight, and watched them from the shadows.  The cool night breeze carried their voices toward him, but the rumble of traffic on the overpass drowned out their words.  He crept closer, curious.  There was a certain thrill in the uncertainty of sneaking up on a pair of strangers, in doing the stalking, for once, instead of being stalked.  He knelt down in the dew-soaked grass, tucked his sunglasses into the pocket of his hoodie, and watched as the two men - he could tell that they were men by their physiques and the pitch of their voices - dragged something long and white and apparently heavy out from under the bridge.

Nick squinted, trying to figure out what it was they were rolling towards the water.  Whatever it was, it was long, as long as a man lying down, and had the lumpy look of something that was wrapped up in a white blanket or sheet.  It must have been soft, for it didn’t scrape against the pavement.  One of the men knelt down at one end of it, while the other disappeared into the shadows under the bridge again.  When he emerged, he was carrying something heavy.  It was much smaller than the white bundle, but Nick could tell by the way both his arms were hooked under it that it wasn’t light.  It did make a clunky, scraping sound when he set it down beside the other man, a sound that Nick recognized.  It was a large brick, a cinder block.

As the man sank down beside his companion and set to work, Nick realized what he was seeing.  His heart began to thump, hard and fast, in his chest, as he watched the man unwind a length of rope from the cinder block.  Beads of cold sweat burst onto his forehead and moistened his palms, as the man proceeded to tie the rope around one end of the lumpy white bundle.  Nick clapped his hand over his mouth to hold back a shout, as the man’s companion then hoisted the cinder block up and dropped it into the water.  He heard the heavy splash and watched helplessly as the rope attached to the block pulled the bundle off the embankment and into the river.  He jumped to his feet, swaying light-headedly, as the white shape sank beneath the surface the black water.

The shape of a body!  His mind screamed the words he dared not say aloud.  It was a body!  He had known it from the moment he’d seen the cinder block and rope next to that long, human-sized bundle, wrapped in white:  that he was watching, in silent horror, two men dispose of a dead body.

Murderers! the panic inside his head continued to cry out, though he made not a sound.  They’re murderers!

His fight or flight instinct willed him to run, to get help, to tell someone, but he stayed rooted to the spot in fear.  If he ran, they would hear his footsteps, the rustle of the grass, the pounding of his sneakers against the pavement.  They would see the movement as he weaved in and out of the circles of light from the streetlamps.  Though he wanted to put as much distance between himself and them as possible, he sunk further into the shadows instead.  He crouched low in the grass once more, his rubbery legs shaking beneath him, and held his breath, praying they would turn and go the other way.

They did.

He released his breath a little at a time, scarcely able to believe they were really running away, under the bridge, disappearing into the darkness once more.  He waited until he could no longer hear their heavy footsteps or the light murmurs of their voices, and then he rose up on legs that felt like Jell-O.  His entire body was shaking, from the inside out, and he staggered dizzily as he turned and started to walk in the direction he’d come.  He walked slowly at first, stopping and turning around a few times to make sure they were really gone.  Then he picked up his pace, a brisk walk turning into a jog, then a full-out sprint.  He crossed back onto the trail, into the light, as he ran for his life and didn’t look back.

He wanted to get off the trail, out of the open, but there was nowhere to go.  The trail ran parallel to the train tracks, and beyond those was a parking lot - all wide, open expanses.  Up ahead was another bridge, with cement steps spiraling up to the pedestrian walkways on either side of the overpass.  As Nick ran toward it, he became aware of running footsteps behind him.  His heart leapt into his throat, but he didn’t dare look over his shoulder, knowing it would only slow him down, knowing it would only terrify him more if he was sure it was them.  Please be a jogger, he begged hopelessly as he raced toward the bridge.  Please…

He was running out of breath, his heart threatening to explode from his chest, and he could hear the footsteps gaining on him, but still, he refused to slow down, refused to turn back.

They caught up to him at the bridge.

He knew in a second, with a sinking feeling of defeat, that those footsteps did not belong to a jogger when he heard them thundering up the stone stairs behind him.  In the next second, he felt a rough hand on his head, and a strong grip yanked his hood back.  The zipper of his hoodie dug into his throat, choking him, as he stumbled backwards into a rock-solid chest.  A muscular pair of arms closed around him and wrenched him back down the steps, dragging him beneath the dark underside of the bridge.

“Please!” Nick gasped hoarsely, struggling to catch his breath.  “Please, let me go!”

“You think we gonna hurt you or somethin’?” asked the man who was holding him, vice-like.  Nick could feel his rigid abdominal muscles vibrating as he let out a derisive laugh.  “Is that why you was runnin’?”

Nick thought quickly.  Were they just messing with him before they killed him, or were they really not sure he had seen them?  He decided to play along, to play dumb.  “Please, I’ll give you my wallet, you can have all my money, just don’t hurt me!” he begged.

The man laughed again.  “Yeah?  Let’s see what you got.  Check ‘im, Joey.”

The other man, who was smaller and more wiry, moved in and started patting down Nick’s pockets until he found his wallet.  The bigger man loosened his grip on Nick, as Joey reached in and pulled the wallet out of his back pocket.  “Dang, kid, you’s dealin’ or what?  Where’d you get a fat wad like this, huh?” he asked, holding up a fistful of bills.

“Lemme see that,” snapped the man holding Nick, letting go of him to snatch the cash out of Joey’s hand.

Act innocent, Nick coached himself, as he inched away.  “I-it’s my birthday money,” he stammered.  “But it’s yours now; take it.  Just let me go, please.  My… my mom’s expecting me home.”

The big man guffawed again, throwing his head back.  For the first time, Nick got a good look at his face.  He was younger than he’d expected, no older than thirty.  They were both young, with olive skin and dark hair and eyes, dressed in black wifebeaters that showed off their tattooed and muscular arms.

“You hear that, Joey?  His ma’s expectin’ ‘im home.  I’m afraid she’s gonna be disap- HEY!”  As the man’s taunting laughter turned into an angry shout, Nick scrabbled up the stone steps, using his long legs to his advantage as he took them two at a time.  He could hear their footsteps pounding behind him again, but as he neared the landing at the top of the steps, they seemed to fall back.  Gasping, he staggered onto the landing.

His knees were still weak and trembling, but Nick forced himself to keep running along the bridge.  The footpath was well lit with streetlights, and two lanes of traffic were speeding by in both directions.  If they attacked him here, they’d be doing it in plain sight.  Somehow, he knew they wouldn’t.

He kept looking over his shoulder as he stumbled along the path, making sure they weren’t chasing him again, but neither one of them had followed him onto the bridge.  His heart was still racing when he finally slowed to a walk, hoping to blend in when he made it off the bridge.  Soon the footpath became an ordinary sidewalk, and he was among people and buildings again.  He walked quickly and ducked through the first open door he saw.  It was a delicatessen, nearly empty at this hour.  He made a beeline for the back.

“Hey kid, those ain’t no public bathrooms - customers only!” shouted the woman behind the counter.  “You wanna pee, you gotta pay for somethin’ first.”

“No problem,” said Nick, surprised at how high-pitched and shaky his voice sounded.  He reached into his back pocket, only to remember that his wallet was gone.  His heart sank.  “Uh… never mind.  No money - sorry.”  Knowing he had no choice but to leave, he turned and slunk back out of the deli.

Back out on the sidewalk, he realized he had no idea where he was in relation to the hotel.  There were no familiar landmarks - neither of the parks he’d crossed through were in sight.  All he knew was that he needed to keep walking away from the river, so he did.  After a few blocks, he started recognizing the names of streets he had crossed on his way toward the river and realized he must be a few streets over from the one his hotel was on.  He took a zigzagging path back toward the hotel, walking up a block, then over a block, then up another block, then over another block, hoping he could shake off his attackers in case they were still tailing him from far behind.

At last, he emerged on the right street and spotted the hotel up ahead.  He broke into a jog and didn’t stop running until he was safely inside the lobby once more.  In the elevator, which arrived mercifully empty again, he leaned back against the mirrored wall and doubled over, gripping his quivery knees as he panted for breath.  When he straightened up again, he caught sight of his face in the opposite wall.  It was streaked with sweat, his cheeks flushed, his lips completely white.  He took off his hoodie and used it to wipe his face as the elevator lurched to a stop, trying to compose himself before he stepped out onto his floor.

It was only once he was standing in front of the locked door to his hotel room that he remembered his room key was in his wallet, which was in the hands of a murderer.


Chapter 2 by RokofAges75
Chapter 2

There was only one clerk at the front desk that night, and when Nick approached, she was sitting down, reading a magazine, completely oblivious to what was going on in the lobby around her.  Thankfully for both of them, it was deserted, but the two men he’d seen dumping the body could have walked in with guns, knives, or the sheet-wrapped dead body itself, and she probably wouldn’t have noticed.  This was not comforting to Nick.

Crossing his arms on the countertop, he leaned over and said, “Excuse me.”

He expected the girl to jump, but she calmly put her magazine down and stood up, arranging her face into a pleasant smile.  “How may I help you?”

“I lost my room key.  I was mugged,” said Nick.  It wasn’t far from the truth, but he couldn’t help but wish he had only been mugged.

The clerk’s heavily-sculpted eyebrows furrowed together as her brow creased in concern.  “Oh no, that’s terrible!” she sympathized.  She had a strong Philadelphia accent.  “Well, don’t you worry; I’ll get you another key.  What’s your room number?”

He told her, and within minutes, she was sliding a new room key across the counter to him.  “There you go.  You have a nice night, now.”


Nick rode the elevator back upstairs, grateful that at least he hadn’t been ambushed on any fans in the midst of this ordeal.  He used the new key to unlock the door to his room and let himself in, then quickly shut the door behind him and fastened the deadbolt.  Kevin would have a hell of a time getting in later, but Nick didn’t picture himself sleeping anytime soon; he’d be up to let Kevin in.

He sank down on his bed, wishing he’d followed Kevin’s advice and never left it.  Even though he’d caught his breath, his heart was still beating fast.  He wondered if he’d ever be able to relax enough for it to slow down to normal again.  He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, rigid, but eventually he removed his baseball cap and kicked off his shoes.  Drawing his knees to his chest, he sat back against the pillows and stared blankly at the TV.  He hadn’t turned it off before he’d left; his Sonic game was still paused on the screen, ready to be resumed.  I should’ve just kept playing it, he thought miserably.  What am I gonna do now?

That was the big question, wasn’t it?  What now?  What was he supposed to do in this situation?  He’d witnessed two thugs dumping a body.  The obvious answer was to call the police.  But what then?  Could he identify them?  He thought of how he’d describe them - two men, both in their late twenties, dark complexions, likely Italian or Latino, muscular and fit, tattooed…  He tried to remember specific tattoos on the arms of the man who had held him.  He couldn’t.  Would that description even help?  It seemed so generic; it could fit countless men in Philadelphia.  He had seen their faces, but it had been dark.  Would he even recognize them in a line-up?  And what good were faces without names?  The only name he had to go off of was “Joey.”

And yet, he did have a name.  And he had seen their faces.  And they knew he’d seen their faces.  They’d seen his, too.  They had his wallet, which meant not only did they have his room key, his cash and his credit cards, but his driver’s license, too.  His identification.  They knew more about him than he did them.  They knew his name, where he lived (where Mandy lived, anyway; he hadn’t gotten around to changing his address before he’d left for the tour), and where he was staying.  If they made the connection between the scared kid named Nickolas G. Carter and the famous pop star, Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, then they would be able to figure out where he was headed next.  He could report them to the police, but if his lousy eyewitness account wasn’t enough to implicate them, they could follow him for the rest of the tour, if they wanted to.


There were so many “ifs.”  What if they’d bought his act and believed that he’d mistaken them for muggers, that he hadn’t seen a thing?  After all, they had let him go on the bridge.  They hadn’t followed him back to the hotel, as far as he knew.  What if he just kept his silence?  The body would be found eventually, and that would be enough to start an investigation.  Surely, there would be some other piece of evidence that would lead back to the two men.  He wouldn’t have to be involved in it at all.

But he was involved.

Sighing, Nick got up from the bed and paced across the room, his mind racing as fast as his heart.  There was no finish line to his thoughts; they just kept circling back around to his dilemma of what to do:  involve the police and risk retaliation… or keep his silence and hope they would keep their distance.

In the end, he decided to sleep on it.  Maybe he’d wake up in the morning and find it had all been a nightmare.  Or, at least, he would have a clear head and be better equipped to deal with it then.  Reluctantly, he unbolted the door for Kevin and crawled into bed.  He turned the TV off and left the bedside lamp on, then curled into a ball beneath his covers and lay absolutely still, his ears straining for suspicious sounds in the silence.  His body was exhausted, but his mind was wide awake, still replaying the scene he had witnessed, still firing questions he couldn’t answer.

Every time he heard footsteps or voices in the hall, he sat bolt upright, his pulse pounding in his throat.  Every time the footsteps or voices faded away, he let out his breath in a sigh of relief and lay down again, until the next time.  Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore.  He jumped out of bed and pulled his jeans back on over his boxers.  Jamming his baseball cap on to hide his disheveled blonde hair, he took his room key back downstairs to the front desk, where the clerk was back to reading her magazine.

“Excuse me,” he said again.

The girl looked up.  “More problems with your room key?”

“No… actually, I was hoping you could move me to a new room.”

She arched one of her thin, black brows.  “In the middle of the night?  I can see if we’ve got one available, but can I ask what for?”

Nick shifted his weight.  “Well… I told you I got mugged, right?  The muggers still have my other key, and… I guess I’m just worried they’ll… they’ll come back and…”  He trailed off awkwardly, hoping she’d understand.

“Oh, I’m sure you don’t have to worry about that, hon,” said the clerk, waving one well-manicured hand.  “Our key cards don’t have the room numbers on ‘em, see?  For that just that reason - security and all.  Even if they came here lookin’ for you, they wouldn’t know what door it opened.  And why would they?  They got what they wanted when they took your wallet, right?”

Nick forced a weak smile.

“By the way, make sure you call and cancel all your credit cards; you don’t wanna be dealin’ with fraudulent charges and all that,” the clerk added wisely.

“Right,” agreed Nick, who had already decided to wait on that, too.  If the two men were stupid enough to use his credit cards, it would make them easier for the cops to trace.  “So… about the room…?”

“You still want a new one?  Well, alright… I’ll see what I can do…”  She moved to her computer and started clicking around.  “I get where you’re comin’ from,” she remarked, her eyes fixed on the screen.  “Peace of mind and all that.  Here we go.  There’s a room open on the floor below the one you were stayin’ on before.  That gonna work?”

“That’s fine,” said Nick gratefully.  He waited while she made the switch on her computer and gave him his new key card.

“You need help movin’ your luggage?” she asked.

“No.  I got it.  Thanks again…”  He paused to check her name badge.  “…Karissa.”

Karissa smiled.  “Fuhgeddaboudit,” she replied in her thickest accent, winking.

Nick took the elevator back upstairs and, within ten minutes, had moved all of his and Kevin’s stuff out of the old room and into the new one.  It looked much the same as the one on the floor above, but he reminded himself that there was no way the murderers would be able to get into this one with his key.

Kevin sounded annoyed when he called to tell him they’d switched rooms.  “In the middle of the night?  Why?” he demanded, sounding a lot like Karissa, the desk clerk.

“I saw a roach,” lied Nick, who had already invented his cover story.  He was not about to trouble Kevin with the truth tonight.  “It got under the bed, and I couldn’t find it.  It freaked me out.  I couldn’t sleep.”

“Nick…” growled Kevin, but he didn’t complain any further.  Nick knew he was enough of a neat freak that he couldn’t blame him for moving out of a roach-infested room.  He wouldn’t have slept there, either.

“I already moved your stuff.  You can stop at the front desk and get your key on your way in.  When do you think that’ll be, anyway?” added Nick, hoping the question didn’t sound too childish.  As much as Kevin bugged him, he knew he would feel better with his “big brother” in the room.  He wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep until Kevin was there.

“I dunno, Nick.  We’ll get back when we get back.  I gotta go now.  Goodnight - don’t let those bedbugs bite,” he added, before he hung up.

It was Kevin’s idea of a joke, but it wasn’t bedbugs - or roaches - Nick was worried about, as he curled up under the covers again and tried to sleep.


It took a long time, but eventually, sleep found Nick - and, more importantly, Joey and his pal did not.

When he woke the next morning, his memories of the previous night were too vivid to have just been a nightmare, so that hope was dashed.  On the other hand, he was still alive and safe in his bed, so at least one prayer had been answered.

Despite coming in late, Kevin was already up, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the news.  Just like an old man, thought Nick, sitting up.

“Mornin’, Kaos,” Kevin greeted him.  “Didn’t cause too much of that last night, did you?”


“Chaos, dummy.  You didn’t cause much chaos last night?”

Nick’s heart jumped the gun and started racing again, as he pictured himself scrambling up the steps to the bridge and zigzagging through the streets, trying to evade capture by two murderers.  “No,” he said.  Kevin stared at him for a moment, apparently awaiting some sort of punch line, but Nick was too tense and too tired to make jokes.  He avoided Kevin’s gaze, looking instead at the TV.  “Can you turn that up?”

Kevin raised his bushy eyebrows, but adjusted the volume with the remote.  “Since when do you care about the news?” he asked.

Nick shrugged.  “Since now.”

“Okay…”  Kevin took a sip of his coffee and returned his attention to the news, which was running sports highlights.

“The Phillies lost to the Chicago Cubs at home last night, 2-8.  Along with a Cubs win, star slugger Sammy Sosa scored his sixty-second homerun of the season with two outs in the top of the ninth, pulling him ahead of Mark McGwire, his rival in last year’s homerun race…”

Nick, normally a sports fanatic, tuned out the baseball report, wondering instead if there had been any mention of a missing person or a body found in the river.  They won’t find it yet, he told himself.  Not with that concrete block weighing it down.  Not if they don’t know where to look…

On the TV, the newscast had cut to a perky female news anchor, who smiled as she said, “And in entertainment news, teenage girls from the Delaware Valley and beyond are already lining up outside the First Union Center, where pop sensation The Backstreet Boys will perform their first of two sold-out shows tonight…”

“Would you look at that?” Kevin muttered with a smirk, shaking his head in disbelief as a camera panned down a line of fans sitting among blankets, sleeping bags, and tents, chanting, “Back-street Boys!  Back-street Boys!”  “I mean, did you ever think it would be like this?”

Nick forced a laugh.  “No, man.  No way.  That is crazy…”

“We’re sure lucky, though, ya know?”

“Yeah,” Nick echoed hollowly, managing to nod.  “Lucky…”


“You okay, Nick?” Kevin asked later.

Just as he’d promised, they were standing in front of the Liberty Bell, on their way to visit the nearby Independence Hall.  Despite what he’d told Kevin the night before, Nick usually enjoyed sightseeing like this.  History was his favorite subject, and it was interesting to see the places and objects from his history books in person.  They didn’t always have time to be tourists in the cities they traveled to, but playing consecutive nights in one place made it easier.

Even so, Nick dreaded two more nights in Philadelphia.  He couldn’t focus.  He was constantly looking around and over his shoulders, all too aware that he was standing out in the open and paranoid that the men from last night were somewhere near, watching him, waiting for an opportunity to silence him before he could speak.

Apparently, Kevin had noticed.

“Huh?  Yeah, I’m fine, why?” said Nick, perhaps too casually.

Kevin’s sharp, green eyes narrowed.  “You seem kinda… jittery.  More than usual, anyway.”  He offered a teasing smile, which Nick returned weakly.

“You know me… ADD…”

“Yeah, but you’re not bouncin’ off the walls.  You sure you feel okay?”

Drop it, Kevin, thought Nick.  “Dude, you wanna feel my forehead?  I told you, I’m fine!”  Hoping his angry tone was enough to ward Kevin off, Nick moved away to stand by AJ instead.  AJ wouldn’t give him the third degree, even if he did notice something was off.

Nick knew he had been quiet and strangely subdued that day.  He’d blamed his behavior on a bad night’s sleep, which was not a lie - he had slept poorly.  He wasn’t tired, though; on the contrary, he was almost too alert, his paranoid mind racing, as it had last night.

He still hadn’t decided what to do, and there had been no time to contact the police, even if he had wanted to.  The guys had been anxious to get out on the town before they had to be at the arena that afternoon for soundcheck.  Nick knew they would listen if he told them what had happened, but he didn’t want to involve them unless he had to.  It was better that they didn’t know.  It was mental torture, what he was going through, and he hated the idea of inflicting it on anyone else.

“Yo, you comin’, Kaos?”

Nick’s head snapped to.  He had spaced out, lost in his troubling thoughts again.  The others were heading slowly toward Independence Hall.  Only AJ had hung behind to make sure he was still with them.

“Yeah,” he said quickly, hurrying to catch up.  “I’m coming.”


There was a crowd waiting when they arrived at the First Union Center that afternoon.

Nick’s heart began to race again, as he peered out through the tinted glass of the van they’d piled into for the ride down to the venue.  Throngs of people lined both sides of the drive, pressing against the barricades that had been set up to preserve the path into the arena.  There were plenty of security guards patrolling about, but they were greatly outnumbered by the fans.  Nick’s eyes panned the crowd carefully, searching for dark men among the masses of screaming, shouting, crying, bouncing girls.  If the thugs from last night wanted to hunt him down, this would be the perfect opportunity.  Despite the security, they were out in the open and could easily be swallowed by the crowd.

“Well, this is gonna be fun,” said AJ, snickering.  He sounded sarcastic, but there was a gleeful smile on his face.  Despite the fact that he’d once had his foot run over by their van as a result of such fandemonium, he loved the thrill of fighting his way through a crowd of ladies, all screaming his name.

Nick, who’d had his clothing torn and his hair pulled out too many times, did not.  And on that day, with his paranoia skyrocketing, he especially dreaded it.  He wanted to smack Howie when he heard him ask, “Do we have time to sign some autographs?”

“You kidding, D?” he asked desperately, gesturing wildly out the window.  “Look at that!  You’re just asking to get maimed.”

“Not me, buddy,” chuckled Howie.  “You’re the Chosen One.”

Nick groaned.

“Five minutes,” their bodyguard, Marcus, called back from the front of the van.  “You can sign for five minutes, and then we’ll tell them you’ve gotta head inside.”

“And then they’ll all step back in their orderly, single-file line and politely let us through,” added Brian, with a sarcastic grin to match AJ’s.  “That seems fair.”

The others laughed.  Nick felt nauseous.

Growing impatient, the fans started to chant again.  “Back-street Boys!  Back-street Boys!”   As soon as the van doors opened, the cheer was lost in a swell of earsplitting screams.

Nick had to force himself out of the van behind AJ and Brian, who were already waving to the crowd.  He pasted a smile on his face, but his eyes continued to dart around, like an animal who sensed it was about to become prey.  His only comfort was that almost all of the fans who had gathered appeared to be female.  He noticed one man in their midst, but as he was overweight, balding, and wearing a Backstreet Boys t-shirt, Nick didn’t take him for much of a threat - not in that way, at least.

“Alright, people, the Boys have a few minutes for pictures and autographs, as long as you stay cool!” Marcus shouted above the frenzies shrieks.  “No pushing, no grabbing, and stand back!”

AJ, Brian, Howie, and Kevin walked over to the barricades, where the fans were reaching and clawing for them like a horde of hungry zombies.  Reluctantly, Nick followed.   They spread out among the crowd, Sharpies in hand, scribbling their names on CD jackets and posters, whatever was handed to them, and passing them back without even looking.  Fans screamed their names from all directions, begging them to come closer.  Cameras flashed in their faces; hands grabbed at them, pulling them in to pose for pictures.  Nick figured he’d have a blank, deer-in-headlights look in most of them, but he didn’t care.  He just wanted to get it all over with and retreat to the safety of the venue.

He was turned sideways, leaning over the barricade with his head close to a pretty girl who had slung her arm around his waist while her friend took a picture, when it happened:  he felt a hand grab him by the hood of his jacket and tug him backwards.  Expecting the impenetrable arms to clamp around him next, Nick cried out “NO!” and scrambled to get away.

“HEY!” he heard Marcus yell, as he flung himself forward, jerking his arms free of the jacket sleeves and stumbling out of his attacker’s grasp.  “I said no grabbing!”

Nick stopped, straightening up.  He turned and looked back, his heart sinking at what he saw.  The whole crowd was staring at him, their expressions confused, none more so than the teenage girl who stood holding his limp jacket in one hand, a look of dismay on her round, young face.

“I… I’m sorry,” he heard her stammer, her eyes darting uncertainly from Marcus to him.  “I just… I wanted to know if maybe I could get a picture?”

Nick wanted to sink through the ground.  Instead, he forced himself to walk back up to the barricade.  “Sorry,” he mumbled to the girl.  “You just caught me by surprise is all.  Here, you want a picture?”  He stretched his arm across the barrier and around her shoulders, leaning in while she held her camera at an arm’s length to snap the photo.

“Thanks,” she said shyly, when he released her.  “Um, here’s your jacket.”

“Keep it,” Nick muttered, as he turned away.  He went straight to Marcus.  “I’m done,” he said shortly.  “I’m headin’ in now.”

He could feel the eyes on his back as he made a beeline for the backstage door.


Chapter 3 by RokofAges75
Chapter 3

“Is he gonna come back, Mama?”

Standing in the midst of the mass of screaming Backstreet Boys fans, Gianna looked down at her seven-year-old daughter.  “I dunno, babe,” she said, craning her neck to watch Nick Carter disappear into the arena.  “I don’t think so.”

Luciana’s face crumpled, her bottom lip jutting out.  “You said we could get his autograph!”

“I said we’d try to get his autograph,” Gianna corrected.  When her daughter continued to pout, she added, “Look at all these people, babe.  They all want the same thing as you!  You think the Backstreet Boys have time to sign autographs for everyone here?”

“Yeah!  Why can’t they?  We’ve been waiting and waiting!” whined Luciana.

“Luci.  C’mon now.  If they stopped to sign an autograph for every girl here, they’d never have time to sing!  And that’s why you like ‘em so much, right?  ‘Cause of their music!”

Luci glared down at the pavement.

“And, alright, so Nick Carter’s pretty cute, ain’t he?” teased Gianna, hoping to coax a smile out of her.  Luci wouldn’t look up, but she could see the corners of her mouth start to twitch.  She grinned.  “As for me, I think I prefer the tall, dark, and handsome one… what’s his name again?”

Finally, Luci looked up, giggling.  “Kevin!”

“Kevin.  That’s right.”  She rose up on her toes, watching him greet some of the lucky fans who were up close to the barricades.  She wondered how early they’d gotten there to get such a prime spot.  If she’d had any idea…

“I can’t see,” Luci whined, stamping her foot.  “Pick me up, Mama?”

“Alright, alright… just for a minute, though, okay?  I’m sure they gotta go in soon and get ready for their concert.”

“Is that where Nick went?” asked Luci, as Gianna hoisted her up onto her hip.


“I wish we could go in and watch it…”

Gianna sighed.  “I told you, babe, I tried.  All the seats sold out in about five seconds.  And all the scalpers here are freakin’ insane if they think we’re gonna pay those prices for tickets.  I’m sorry, babe, we just can’t afford it.”

“Can’t you call Daddy?  He can give us the money!”

“Your daddy’s money ain’t all his to give, babe,” said Gianna, boosting her up higher on her hip.

“Just call him!  Please?” Luci begged.

“Alright, alright, hold your horses…”  Setting her daughter down, Gianna dug around in her purse for her cell phone.  “Yeah, Joey?” she spoke into the phone, when a man’s voice answered.  “Listen, we need a favor.  Luci and I are tryin’ to get in to see a concert tonight, this group she really likes, but the tickets are sold out.  You think you could cough up some cash so we could buy some seats off the scalpers?”

“Yeah, how much we talkin’?”  Joey sounded distracted; she could hear him fumbling around and voices murmuring in the background.  When she told him the price, he swore loudly.  “You kiddin’ me?  Fuck no, I ain’t payin’ that.”

“She really wants this, Joey…” Gianna started to plead, but she was quickly shot down.

“Lay off it, G, would ya?  I got more important things to worry about.”

“Yeah?  More important than your own kid, you mean?”

“Screw you, Gianna; you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.  I don’t have time to be dealin’ with this crap,” Joey hissed.  “I got problems, big ones.”

Gianna rolled her eyes.  Joey always had problems.  “Yeah, well, screw you, too,” she muttered back.  Then she asked, “You comin’ home tonight?”

“I don’t think so.  There’s somethin’ I gotta take care of.”

“I thought that’s what you said last night.  What, you didn’t take care of it?”

“Lay off it, G,” he said again.

“Fine,” Gianna snapped.  “Goodbye.”  She ended the call before he could have the last word.

Cramming the phone back into her purse, she looked down at Luci and offered an apologetic shrug.  “No can do, babe.  Your dad ain’t got the money either.  You’re gonna have to settle for watchin’ them on that tape of yours.”  She stood on tiptoe again to see over the heads in front of her.  The boyband’s bodyguards were starting to wrangle them toward the doors.  “C’mon, looks like they’re headin’ in now… let’s go home.”

Luci’s big, brown eyes welled with tears; Gianna could tell she was on the verge of a tantrum.  Quickly, she grabbed her daughter by the hand and dragged her out of the crowd.


“What’s up with you, Nick?”

Backstage in the arena, Nick cast Kevin a resentful look.  “Get off my back, Kevin.”

“I’m not on your back,” Kevin replied calmly.  “I’m just wonderin’ what’s goin’ on with you.  You’ve been actin’ weird all day.  Are you not feelin’ well?”

“I feel fine,” Nick snapped, though it couldn’t have been further from the truth.  He felt sick to his stomach, though he knew it had nothing to do with illness.  Kevin’s constant grilling made him feel worse.

The worst part was, he wanted to tell him what was really going on, what he’d seen and how much it was bothering him… but he’d already decided not to.  If he let the others in on his secret, he would just be subjecting them to the same paranoia that had plagued him all night and day.  It wouldn’t be fair to get them involved.  Better to deal with it on his own, until he decided whether or not to go to the cops.  The guys didn’t need to know a thing.

“Well, you’re not actin’ like it.  You’re moody, you were rude to the fans outside, and if I’m bein’ honest, you sucked at soundcheck.  If you’re not sick, then what’s your excuse?” Kevin asked, his tone sharpening.

“C’mon, Kev, give it a rest,” said Brian, coming to Nick’s defense.

Howie jumped in, too.  “Yeah, we all have off days.  Huh, Nicky?”

Nick nodded and looked away, avoiding Howie’s understanding smile.  “Yeah, it’s just one of those days, I guess,” he mumbled.  “I’ll pull it together for the show tonight.”

“We know, Frack,” said Brian, punching him in the arm.  “You always do.”

But by the end of the concert that night, Nick wasn’t sure he had proven Brian right.  Maybe the fans hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, but he knew the guys could tell he was off his game.  He’d performed as if on autopilot, singing his parts without the emotion he usually put into them, dancing the choreography without any sparkle.  He hadn’t made any mistakes, per se, thanks only to the fact that he had done this show fifty-some times before.  It was ingrained in his brain, at this point; he could perform it in his sleep.  But on that night, he’d done it without any thought or any heart, and he was sure it had showed.

The last song before the encore was “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” which was a likely choice to be their next single.  As he stood atop the raised platform in the center of the pentagonal stage in his lurid, pink suit, Nick was determined to do it justice.  The concert hadn’t gone well, by his usual standards, but it hadn’t gone as badly as he’d feared, either.  All night, he’d been on edge, expecting the two men to emerge from the crowd of twenty thousand that surrounded them.  He knew it was irrational; it was a sold-out show, and even if they had managed to get tickets, security was tight.  He felt some relief now that the concert was almost over, and he tried to put that into his performance.

It wasn’t hard to look solemn as he listened to the other guys sing their solos, adding his voice to the harmony of the chorus and second verse.

“Guilty roads to an endless love,” he sang, his voice blending with Kevin’s.  “There’s no control.  Are you with me now?  Your every wish will be done, they tell me…”  His voice rang out over the others, as they came in with the chorus.

“Show me the meaning of being lonely.  Is this the feeling I need to walk with?  Tell me why I can’t be there where you are.  There’s something missing in my heart…”

“There’s nowhere to run; I have no place to go,” sang Howie, while the others made their way down to the main stage.  “Surrender my heart, body, and soul…”

As he held his long, mournful note, Nick joined the others, singing, “How can it be you’re asking me to feel the things you never show?”  AJ’s powerful voice echoed through the arena, and they went into their choreography, a seductive dance that had each of them paired with one of their female dancers.

Before Nick knew it, they were back on the platform, and AJ was shouting, “Thank you, Philadelphia!  We love you!  Goodnight!”

The encore that followed was the longest they’d ever done, but at last, the stage was covered in silver confetti, the arena was ringing with screams and applause, and they were taking their final bows while the band finished playing “I Want It That Way.”

The show was over, and Nick had survived.  But as he sank beneath the stage with the other guys, he felt no relief.  He still had two more nights in Philadelphia, and tomorrow, they’d do it all over again.


“So, you guys goin’ out again tonight?”

Sandwiched between AJ and Brian for the ride from the venue back to the hotel, Nick tried to keep his tone casual as he asked the question.  Still, he sagged with relief when he heard Kevin’s answer.  “Nah… it’s gettin’ late, and we’ve got press tomorrow, remember?  It’s a good night to stay in.  Let’s just order some pizzas and kick it in the hotel.”

“That sounds good,” Nick replied eagerly.  “We can chill in our room… play some Sega or watch a movie or somethin’.”   Anything to distract me, he thought in desperation.  I can’t take another night like last night.

“Just not The Matrix again, okay?” begged Howie.

“You act like I’ve been watching it nonstop or something,” said Nick, who had watched the movie at least five times since it had come out on video a week ago.

“You have!”

“What, it’s a cool movie!” Nick insisted.

“Sorry Frack, I’m with Howie,” said Brian.  “Let’s watch something else this time.”

“Like what, a chick flick your woman will enjoy?  Man, she’s got you so whipped, Frick…”

“Whipped like cream.”  Brian grinned, refusing to be baited.

“Ew, don’t say ‘cream.’  I don’t wanna know what you and her do behind closed doors.”

AJ snorted.  “Apparently you think about it, though.  Get your mind out of the gutter, Carter.”

“Shut up, it’s not!”

They bickered all the way back to the hotel, where a small clump of fans were waiting outside the entrance.  “Great,” muttered Nick under his breath, as the group of girls started to squeal.

“Come on, there’s not that many of them.  Let’s just sign a few autographs, take a few pictures, and get upstairs before they call their friends,” said Kevin.

They got out of the van and were immediately surrounded.  Remembering how he had freaked out earlier, Nick tried to keep his cool, reminding himself that they were his fans, not his enemies.  He stayed long enough to sign their BSB memorabilia and pose for pictures, then excused himself into the lobby.  The others soon followed.

Their plans for the evening set, they rode upstairs on the elevator together, accompanied by their bodyguards.  When the elevator reached Nick and Kevin’s new floor, Kevin said, “Why don’t you guys go get settled and come down in twenty minutes or so?  I wanna call Kristin first.”

“Yeah, I wanna call Amanda, too,” said AJ.

“Sounds good,” agreed Howie and Brian, as Kevin and Nick stepped off onto their floor.  Marcus followed, walking them down the empty hallway to their room.

“You guys call upstairs if you need anything,” he said, before he left them.  “Let us know if you’re plannin’ on headin’ out again anytime soon.”

Nick turned away to hide the guilty look on his face, while Kevin replied, “Thanks, Marcus.  I think we’re just gonna lay low tonight; we should be fine.”

“Alright, cool.  Have a good one.”  Marcus bid them goodnight and disappeared into the nearby stairwell for the short jog up a floor.

Kevin turned to Nick, who was thinking of how the previous night might have turned out differently if he had just brought Marcus along.  “What, you couldn’t get your key out while we were talking?”

“Huh?  Oh - sorry.”  Nick fumbled in his pockets, looking for his new key card.

“Never mind, I got it,” grunted Kevin, retrieving his own first.  He swiped the card in the door.  Nick saw the light flash green and heard the lock click before Kevin reached for the door handle, tucking the key into his back pocket.  He opened the door, and Nick followed him in, letting the door shut behind them.

It happened in the instant Kevin turned on the light.

He flipped the switch, and as soon as light flooded the dark room, the two men appeared.  They were standing between the two beds, where they’d apparently been crouching out of sight, just waiting.  Nick’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of them, then began to thud with impending doom, as he recognized Joey and the man with the big arms who had grabbed him, the man who was aiming a gun right at them.

In front of Nick, Kevin had gone rigid.  His normally calm voice shook as he started to ask, “What are you-?”

He never got to finish the question.  As the words left his lips, the man with the gun raised a pillow in front of its barrel and pulled the trigger.


Chapter 4 by RokofAges75
Chapter 4

The effect was instant.  It wasn’t like The Matrix, where Nick could watch the trajectory of the bullet in slow motion.  He didn’t see the bullet at all.  One moment, Kevin was standing tensely with his back to Nick, and in the next split second, he was lying limp on the ground at Nick’s feet.

Nick stared down at the circular wound in Kevin’s forehead and the dark, red blood pooling beneath the back of his skull.  He looked up and saw feathers floating to the ground from the exploded pillow.  The effect was surreal, and suddenly, he did feel as if he were in slow motion.  He couldn’t react; it didn’t feel real.

And then he saw them coming around the bed, coming through the feathers, coming for him as they had last night, and he snapped back to reality and into action:  he bolted.  He turned, tripping over his own feet, and fled from the room.  He ran up the hall, his sneakers pounding heavily against the patterned carpet, and ducked into the same stairwell Marcus had taken just minutes earlier.

Perhaps it would have been smarter to head downstairs, but Nick ran up.  All he could think of was getting to the next floor, to the safety of one of the bodyguards’ rooms.  They would protect him, lock him in and call the police.  But running up the stairs was slower than running down, and just as they had the night before, the two men caught up to him.

Nick could hear them close behind, but didn’t turn around, staying just a few steps out of their reach.  But then he felt a hand close around his ankle, and his feet were jerked out from under him.  He fell hard, landing on his chest, clipping his chin on the edge of a step.  It started gushing blood, but Nick could hardly react:  the wind had been knocked right out of him.

They rolled him over onto his back, and the hard stairs dug into his spine.  Then they hauled him to his feet.  He swayed dizzily, his chin throbbing, his chest screaming out in pain, but the big man’s arms came around him again, holding him tight, holding him steady.  He felt the barrel of the gun press into the small of his back and heard the man’s voice in hiss in his ear:  “Don’t make a sound.”  Instinctively, Nick flinched away from his hot breath, but the man jerked him tighter, the gun jabbing him painfully.  “And don’t you fucking try to get away again, unless you want a bullet in your spine, you got that?”

Nick nodded, his eyes filling with hot, stinging tears.  For a moment, he couldn’t see, and he tripped blindly as they dragged him down the stairs.  “You better use those big feet of yours and walk, blondie, or we’ll make it so you’ll never walk again,” threatened Joey, as his companion tried to maneuver with Nick.  “Your choice.”

So Nick walked.  Somehow, despite the pain in his chest and the blood dripping down his face and distant knowledge that Kevin was dead, he walked down ten flights of stairs.  The gun in his back was enough of a motivator, constantly pressing him forward.  At every landing, he prayed someone would come into the stairwell, but no one did.  Why take the stairs when there was an elevator?  Their footsteps echoed hollowly in the empty stairwell, all the way down to the ground level.

Even then, Nick wondered, How do they expect to get me out of here without being noticed?  He thought of the group of fans out front, and his heart lifted a little.  But it plunged back into his aching chest when the two men did not take him through the lobby, but instead veered a different direction, to a back exit probably reserved for employees.  He found himself in a dark alley, where a getaway car was parked and waiting.

Joey opened the door to the back, and the man holding Nick thrust him in headfirst, kicking ruthlessly at his backside until he pulled his legs in, too.  As the door closed on him, Nick pulled himself up onto his shaking hands and knees.  He started to scramble across the back seat, irrationally thinking he could just crawl out the other side of the car and run, but before he could reach for the opposite door handle, the door flew open, and Joey’s leering face greeted him.

“What, you goin’ somewhere?” he asked, laughing cruelly.

“Move outta the way, Joey,” said the other man, knocking Joey aside.  “C’mere, Carter, I got a little somethin’ for ya.  Somethin’ to take the edge off, help you sleep.”

Before Nick could even process what he was about to do, he reached in and grabbed him by his shirt collar, jerking him forward.  Nick’s head hit the roof of the car, but that was nothing compared to the pain he was about to endure.  A second later, the man raised his gun and brought it crashing down on his skull.  The blow brought an instant of crushing, blinding pain, until Nick blacked out.


Fifteen minutes later, just as they’d planned, AJ, Howie, Brian, and Leighanne entered the stairwell and started down the flight of steps to the floor below.

It was Leighanne who noticed the blood.  “Oh!” she gasped, pointing down.

AJ, always a wuss when it came to body fluids, grimaced and looked away.  “Sick, dude.”

“That doesn’t look good,” murmured Howie, his eyes following the trail of blood from the small puddle Leighanne had pointed out to the drips of red that continued on down the stairs.

“Should we let someone know?” Leighanne asked.

“We can call the front desk when we get to Kev’s room,” Brian said.  “C’mon.”  He led the way to the landing below, where they exited onto a floor that looked identical to their own.

“What’s the room number again?” AJ wondered aloud, as they trouped down the hall.

“1114 - oh, right here!” said Brian, noticing the number on a door near the stairwell.  He knocked.  No answer.  He knocked again, tapping out the rhythm of “Shave and a Haircut” to let Kevin and Nick know it was them.  Still no answer.

AJ rolled his eyes.  “Dude, are you serious?  Lemme at it.”  Nudging Brian aside, he strode up to the door and pounded on it.  “Yo, open up!” he hollered.  When nothing happened, he turned to the others.  “They’re fucking with us.”

“Probably hoping we’ll get attacked by fans if they leave us waiting out here long enough,” added Howie.  “That sounds like Nick.”

“Yeah, but he’s got Kevin in on it, too?”  Brian was skeptical.  “That doesn’t sound like Kev.  You know he never goes for the practical jokes - not the stupid ones, anyway.”

Leighanne looked mildly concerned.  “Do you think something could be wrong?”

“With both of them?”  AJ shook his head.  “Nah, I told you, they’re just fucking with us, seeing how long we’ll stand out here.”

“Well, then let’s go down to the front desk and tell them we think something’s wrong, and maybe they’ll let us in,” Howie suggested in a low voice.  “See who’s laughing then.”

Agreeing, they took the elevator down to the lobby together and went up to the front desk.  The same, black-haired receptionist who had been working the night before was there again, and she smiled up at them in recognition as they approached.  “Hi, how may I help you?”

Howie did the talking.  “We need to get into our friends’ room - room 1114.  They’re in there, but they’re not answering the door, and we’re worried something might be wrong.”

The clerk arched a skeptical brow.  “You sure they’re not just messin’ with you or somethin’?”

Howie shook his head, making his eyes go wide and innocent.  “They wouldn’t do that.”

“But if they would,” Brian put in, his eyes twinkling mischievously, “wouldn’t you want to get them back, too?”  The clerk smiled, and confident that he’d successfully charmed her, he went on, “We just want a key to their room.  Can you please help us?”

“Alright… I know who you are; I guess I can bend the rules a little.  Lemme just grab the spare key.”  She disappeared behind the counter for a minute and reappeared looking perplexed.  “That’s weird,” she said, frowning.  “The spare’s not here.  Well, that’s okay; I’ll call someone from our housekeeping staff to let you in.  Just a second.”

She got on the phone, and they listened to her side of the conversation as she explained the situation.  When she hung up, she said, “Go on up, and she’ll meet you there in a minute.”

“Thanks for your help,” said Brian, before they turned and walked back to the elevator, completely forgetting to tell the clerk about the blood in the stairwell.  “We should have the maid pretend to be a rabid fan,” he told the others on the way up, grinning wickedly.  “That’ll make them wish they’d opened up when it was just us.”

AJ and Howie snickered.

As promised, the maid met them outside Kevin and Nick’s room.  She spoke to them in broken English, so Brian nixed his prank idea and settled for thanking her when she unlocked the door for them.  As she shuffled back up the hall, he reached for the doorknob and threw the door open with a bang, hoping to startle them.

But it was he who got the shock.

The light fixture in the entryway was still on, casting dim light over a horrific sight:  Kevin, lying flat on his back on the floor, his eyes closed, his skin ashen, his head soaked in a pool of blood.

Please let this be a joke, Brian’s mind pleaded, as he dropped to his knees beside his cousin’s body.  But as his eyes took in the bloody hole in Kevin’s forehead, he knew not even Nick could pull off such a realistic-looking prank.

“Oh God!” he heard AJ cry behind him, as the others came up onto the scene that had greeted Brian.

“I’ll call 911,” came Leighanne’s shaky voice, and he felt her maneuver around him to get to the phone.  “Is he breathing?” she called shrilly, as she dialed.  “They’re gonna wanna know if he’s breathing.”

Brian thought there was no way Kevin could still be alive, but when he looked more closely at his body, he saw it through tear-filled eyes:  the slight, but steady rise and fall of his chest.  “Yes!” he cried, his voice sounding strangled.  He leaned closer, bringing his face close to Kevin’s, so that he could hear the faint rattle of air being inhaled and exhaled and feel Kevin’s warm breath on his cheek.  “He’s breathing!”

In the background, he heard Leighanne’s voice speaking rapidly into the phone, and he felt a rush of relief.  Perhaps the scene wasn’t as bad as it looked.  Kevin was still alive, and help was on its way.  “Hold on, Kev,” he whispered, gripping his cousin’s shoulder.

His relief was short-lived.  It turned back to panic again, when Howie suddenly asked, “Where’s Nicky?”

Brian looked up.  AJ, who was pacing in the entryway, froze.  For a moment, they just stared at each other, thinking the worst but refusing to say it.  Then, all at once, they sprang into action.

“NICK!” they called, rushing off in different directions.  They tore the hotel room apart, searching every room and every corner.  “NICK!”  AJ ripped the sheets off the beds and lay down on his belly to search underneath.  “NICK!”  Howie raced into the bathroom and jerked back the shower curtain to check the tub.  “NICK!”  Brian left Kevin’s side, left the room completely, and ran up and down the halls, calling Nick’s name.

He circled the entire floor before venturing into the stairwell, and it was then that he remembered the blood.  With a sickening realization, he knew whose blood it was.


When Nick came to, the car was moving.  Lying across the backseat, he could feel the gentle bumping motion of the tires spinning over the pavement and hear the rumble of the engine.  He opened his eyes without sitting up, trying to survey his situation without letting them know he was awake.

If he tipped his head back, he could see sky flying by outside the window - upside down, of course.  It was still night; the sky was dark and spattered with stars.  We’ve left Philadelphia, he realized.  He’d never seen so many stars in a city.

The sounds of traffic were also absent.  He heard no car horns, no sirens, no rush of wind as a truck passed by in the opposite direction.  This further confirmed that they were now in a rural area.

He turned his head, peeking into the front seat.  He could only see Joey, sitting in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead.  That meant the other man must be driving.  Neither of them spoke.  He wondered if they had talked about him while he was unconscious.  He wondered if they had a plan.  Where were they taking him?  And what were they going to do with him when they got there?

He was suddenly aware of his own heart, pounding away in his chest.  Its beat was so frantic, he could feel it against his ribs and hear it in his ears.  Irrationally, he worried they would hear it, too.  He lay still, trying to calm it down, but neither of them turned around.

He began to wonder if there was any chance of him escaping from the backseat while the car was moving.  He wasn’t tied up; he could move his arms and legs.  His chest hurt when he tried to twist his torso; he suspected his ribs were bruised or even broken from when he’d fallen on the stairs.  His chin was sore too, and his head ached.  He cringed at the thought of running, imagining how much the bouncing sensation would hurt.  Even so, he inched his body backward across the seat, closer to the door behind his head.  Slowly, slowly, his arm reached upward, his fingers groping for the door handle.  They found it and latched on.

He hesitated, trying to think through what he would do when he got the door open.  He couldn’t exactly tuck and roll, not when he was positioned to slide out headfirst and upside down.  That was a head injury waiting to happen.  Maybe if he flipped onto his belly first…

Reluctantly, he let go of the door handle and tried to roll over, a little at a time, without making noise.  His ribs flared with pain, but he gritted his teeth and kept going.  He made it onto his side, but his arm was pinned under him.  With careful effort and some serious muscle control, he managed to free it.  Lying facedown, he stretched his hand up again, feeling his way blindly to the door handle.

Knowing if he hesitated again, he might never get his chance, Nick grabbed onto it and pulled.

Nothing happened.

The door handle made a hollow click as it snapped back into place, and though Nick made himself go limp against the seat again, he heard the ominous sound of Joey’s sarcastic snicker.  “Hey D, look who’s awake!” he announced, and Nick turned his head to see Joey looking back at him, his dark eyes glinting in the starlight.  “Thought you were gonna escape, huh?  Didn’t think about no kiddie locks, did yous?”

Nick’s heart sank.  The door wasn’t just locked; the child safety locks were activated.  Now he understood why they hadn’t bothered to tie him up.

“That’s okay, Joey,” said the man Joey had called “D.”  “I think we’re plenty far out of the way.  This looks like a good place to stop, don’t you think?”

Nick sat up and looked around.  They appeared to be in the middle of nowhere; out his windows, he saw dark expanses of field, broken here and there by clumps of trees.  He leaned forward, peering between the two front seats.  Through the windshield, he could see a stretch of narrow, two-lane road ahead of them.  It led to a building of some sort; he could just make out its silhouette, jutting up out of the darkness.  It looked like a barn.  But as they grew closer, bringing it into the glow of the headlights, he realized it was not a barn, but a covered bridge.  The road ran right through it, but D parked the car in the middle.  He cut the engine and the headlights, and he and Joey both climbed out.

It was sixty degrees outside, but sitting alone in the backseat, Nick started to shiver.  This was it, he realized.  Whatever they had planned, whatever they were going to do to him, it was going to happen now.

D opened the back door.  “Get out,” was all he said, and Nick obeyed.  He didn’t want to find out what would happen if he refused to get out of the car.  “Get down on your knees,” he commanded.  This time, Nick hesitated.  It didn’t matter.  D shoved him roughly in the small of the back, forcing him to fall forward.  Nick gasped in pain as the rough, wooden floor of the bridge skinned his knees through his jeans.

As he straightened, he felt D come up close behind him and heard his voice, silky yet sinister, in his ear.  “You was in the wrong place at the wrong time last night, that’s for sure.  I wish you hadn’t a been there.  You prolly don’t deserve to die.  But I can’t let you live either, you understand?  Not after you seen my face.  Not after you seen me kill your friend.”

Nick was shaking uncontrollably now.  Tears filled his eyes as he pictured Kevin’s body, the blood seeping from his head wound.  He was going to end up just like that, in the middle of this bridge, in the middle of freaking nowhere…

“Please,” he begged.  Even his voice quavered.  “I won’t say anything to the cops.  I’ll… I’ll say I never saw your faces.  I don’t know your real names or anything; they’ll never be able to trace it to you.  Please, just let me go… please…”

D uttered a humorless chuckle.  “What, a famous singer like you?  Yeah, I know who you are now, kid.  You think the cops are gonna buy that?  You think they’re gonna let that go?  Fuck no.  When they find your friend’s body, they’re gonna investigate.  They’re gonna ask questions.  You think we want you alive to give ‘em answers?”

“Please!” Nick’s voice rose pitifully.  “I swear!”

“Now ain’t the time for swearin’.  Now’s the time for prayin’.  You’re down on your knees, now bow your head and pray.”


“I said, NOW BOW YOUR HEAD AND PRAY!”  A large hand grabbed a fistful of Nick’s shaggy hair and forced his head down.  “Get ready to meet your maker…”

And before Nick could plead again, before he could cry out or try to get up, the pistol crashed down, once again, on the back of his bowed head.


Chapter 5 by RokofAges75
Chapter 5

Nick thought for sure that he was dead, and maybe his captors did, too, or maybe they just didn’t care.  If he wasn’t dead already, he would be soon.  When he regained consciousness, they were tying a cinder block to his feet.

He couldn’t see a thing; he was wrapped in a sheet, just as the body he’d seen them dumping had been.  Wonder if that guy was still alive, too, Nick thought, feeling a sick sense of déjà vu as he listened to them drag the heavy brick across the wooden bridge.  He lay perfectly still, letting them work.  There was no use trying to get away now; he was cocooned in the sheet, and if they realized he was still capable of running, they would surely correct their mistake.

But maybe it wasn’t a mistake.  Maybe they planned to torture him further by weighing down his unconscious body, so that he would come to underwater and slowly drown.  If that were the case, he’d rather go the way Kevin had.  He had never dreamed he would die in the water.  He’d always loved the water.

Just as he had the night before, he could smell the water as he came near it - carried, this time, by the two, murderous thugs.  Without his eyesight, his other senses seemed heightened.  He could hear it, too:  the gentle trickle of a creek, rather than a river.  With any luck, it wouldn’t be deep.

As they carted him to the edge of the water, he kept himself as limp as possible and thought about what to do.  There wasn’t much time.  With a collective heave, they swung him out over the creek and let him go.

Nick held his breath as he hit the water with a stinging splash.  He was immediately tugged down by the weight of the cinder block, and he felt himself freefall until he hit the soft bottom.  He waited a few seconds, long enough for them to turn away.  Then he began to work, twisting and writhing inside the sheet that swaddled him.

First, he managed to kick off his waterlogged shoes.  This allowed him to wrestle his feet through the loop of rope that kept him anchored to the cinder block.  He kicked off of the ground and flailed his body around like a fish, still fighting with the sheet.  The effort drained him of his precious remaining air supply, and his lungs began to scream for a fresh gulp of air.  His fingers scrabbled blindly to find the edges of the sheet, but his movements were growing clumsier by the second as he weakened.

At the last second, dizzy from lack of oxygen, the black edges of oblivion rapidly closing in on what little vision he had, Nick freed his upper body.  In one, powerful stroke, he propelled himself upward, his bound legs flapping frantically beneath him like a mermaid’s tail.  He broke through the surface of the water with a breathless gasp and sucked in a lungful of air, ignoring the protests of his battered ribs.

His timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  Hearing a rumble overhead, he looked up and saw that he was directly underneath the bridge.  The wood creaked as two pairs of tires rolled over it.  Staying low in the water as he swam to the far side of the creek, Nick peeked around the base of the bridge and watched as his captors’ car pulled away from the bridge and sped off, tires squealing on the pavement.

He waited, out of sight, until the taillights had faded into the darkness.  Then he waded through the shallows until he found a bit of bank onto which he could climb.  Limbs trembling with exhaustion, he struggled to pull himself out of the water and rolled gratefully onto the dry grass.  He collapsed onto his back, his injured chest heaving, his head spinning, and promptly passed out again.


It was raining the next morning when Gianna got up.

She went about her morning routine in her usual stupor, turning on the TV in the kitchen, starting a pot of coffee, and fixing breakfast for herself and Luci.  She woke up little by little, as the scent of fresh-brewed Folgers wafted through the apartment, and by the time she’d finished her first cup, she was dancing around the kitchen to the morning block of music videos on MTV.

“Can you pay my bills… can you pay my telephone bills… can you pay my automo’ bills... then maybe we can chill…” she sang along with her TV, sprinkling shredded cheese over a pan of scrambled eggs.  “I don’t think you do… sooo you and me are through…”

When the Destiny’s Child video ended, she checked the microwave clock; it was ten till seven, almost time to wake Luci up for school.  She couldn’t believe her daughter had been in second grade for a whole month.  How time flew… it didn’t seem so long ago that she’d been a scared teenager, still in school herself, wondering how the hell she was going to raise the kid she’d gotten knocked up with.  And now here she was, seven years later, doing a pretty damn decent job of it, all things considered…

Hell, she was even making her daughter breakfast, like a regular Martha-freakin’-Stewart.

Gianna smiled to herself as she dished the eggs onto two plates.  She was scraping the last bits of egg out of the pan when she heard the familiar intro to an MTV News brief on the TV behind her.  “Hi, I’m John Norris with MTV News.  Less than a month into the U.S. leg of their sold-out Into the Millennium Tour, The Backstreet Boys were rocked with tragedy late last night-”

At the mention of her daughter’s favorite group, Gianna spun around, the spatula falling from her hand with a clatter.

“-when an attack on the multi-platinum-selling boyband left one of its members in critical condition and another still missing.  The Boys had just finished the first of two consecutive concerts in Philadelphia when oldest member Kevin Richardson was found unconscious in his hotel room with a gunshot wound to the head.”

Gianna gaped at her TV, picturing the tall, dark-haired one she’d been admiring just yesterday, when she’d picked Luci up early from school and taken her down to First Union in hopes of meeting the group.  She hadn’t told Luci yet, but she’d been considering trying again that afternoon; she’d push her way to the front of those barricades if she had to, anything to get Luci a freakin’ autograph…

Guess I won’t be headin’ down there after all, she thought grimly, watching the rest of the report in disbelief.

“Richardson was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he’s said to be in critical condition.  No other details on the extent or treatment of his injuries are known at this time.  Richardson was sharing his hotel room with the group’s youngest member, Nick Carter, who went missing sometime before Richardson was discovered.”

“Aw crap, not the blonde one too,” Gianna muttered to herself, shaking her head at the image on the screen.  The face was the same one plastered all over her daughter’s walls.

Carter’s whereabouts are still unknown, and as of this morning, the Philadelphia police department has launched a full-scale search and investigation.  When asked of Carter’s status in the investigation, Police Commissioner John Timoney made it clear that, at this time, Nick Carter is not thought to be a suspect and is instead considered a possible victim of foul play.  A tips hotline has been set up; if you have any information regarding the attack on Kevin Richardson or the whereabouts of Nick Carter, call the number on your screen.  We at MTV News will keep you updated on this breaking news story as more details unfold.”


Jumping, Gianna quickly shut off the TV, as Luci came padding into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, her black hair in tangles.

“Is it time to get up now?” she asked in a sleepy voice.

“Just about, babe.  Perfect timing!”  Gianna forced a smile and a chipper tone into her voice.  “How about some breakfast?”

Luci nodded, sliding into her spot at the tiny kitchen table.  As Gianna set a plate of scrambled eggs down in front of her, she wondered how her daughter would react when she inevitably heard the news.


It had been the worst night of their lives.  Sitting in a private waiting room at the Philadelphia hospital where Kevin had been taken, Brian, AJ, and Howie were ready to drop.  None of them had slept all night.

Brian was running on coffee and adrenaline, but they weren’t the only things keeping him awake.  Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Kevin the way he’d found him, lying lifelessly in a puddle of his own blood, a bullet hole in his head.  Whenever he started to drift off, he thought of Nick, wherever he was, alone and scared, possibly hurt, if he was even still…

Don’t think it, he urged himself, sitting up straighter in his chair, alert once more.  Of course he’s still alive.  He’s alive, and they’ll find him.

The police detectives had been in and out all night, asking questions, taking their statements, updating them on the search for Nick and whoever had attacked him and Kevin.  They’d conducted a thorough sweep of the hotel and had found nothing; now their search had extended throughout the city of Philadelphia.

In between their visits, members of the hospital staff came to fill the three of them in on Kevin’s condition.  They had started out in the emergency department, where they’d waited around in shock while the emergency room doctors and nurses worked on Kevin.  Eventually, a doctor had come to talk to them, using phrases like “skull fracture,” “bleeding in the brain,” “bullet fragments,” and “intracranial pressure,” as he described Kevin’s injuries.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” the grim-faced doctor had said.  “He’s suffered a severe traumatic brain injury.  Ninety percent of people who suffer a gunshot to the head don’t survive it.  Kevin’s lucky to have even made it to the hospital.  The good news is that, although he’s unconscious, he’s been able to breathe on his own, and his blood pressure has remained steady.  Those are good signs; that means his brain stem, the part of the brain that controls vital functions, is intact.  But it’s not all good news.  The MRI and CT scan show significant damage to the two upper lobes of the brain.  There are signs of bleeding and swelling in the back of the brain, where the bullet hit the back of his skull.  Surgery is the only way to repair the damage, but there’s no guarantee Kevin will survive it.”

AJ had asked the question they’d all been thinking.  “Is there any chance of him surviving without it?”

“No,” the doctor replied.  “I just don’t want to give you false hope.  Even if he makes it through surgery, his chances of a meaningful recovery may be slim.”

“But there’s still a chance, right?”  Brian admired AJ for his defiant optimism.  “So you have to do the surgery.”

He and Howie had agreed, and when Kevin was whisked into brain surgery, they were led to a different part of the hospital, the surgical waiting area.  There they had waited, all night, into the morning.  It had been hours since the woman who’d introduced herself as Maggie, the surgical support nurse, had come to tell them the operation had started.  They’d had no word from her since.

“I’m sure this is normal,” Howie repeated from time to time.  “I mean, it’s brain surgery!  It’s got to be a pretty intricate procedure.”

“Yeah…” sighed AJ.  “I guess no news is good news, right?”

Brian wasn’t so sure.  He knew Howie and AJ were probably right, but that didn’t stop him from worrying that something had gone wrong, that the reason the nurse hadn’t come back to talk to them yet was because they were scrambling to save Kevin’s life.

They weren’t the only ones desperately waiting for updates.  Brian had made the hardest phone call of his life when he’d woken his Aunt Ann in the middle of the night to tell her what had happened to her son.  Now he wished he’d waited.  Like them, Kevin’s mother had sat up the rest of the night, helplessly waiting and worrying, until the airports in Kentucky opened in the morning, and then she had boarded the first flight she could get to Philadelphia.  Brian hoped he would have good news to give her by the time she arrived.

“Anyone want anything?”  Brian looked blearily at AJ, who had gotten up.  “Coffee… soda… shot of whiskey?”

Brian forced a humorless chuckle and shook his head.  “I’m okay,” he muttered.  He was anything but.

Howie also declined, but AJ said, “I’m just gonna walk down the hall.  I can’t take this sitting still.”

“More caffeine isn’t gonna help that,” Howie pointed out, but AJ ignored him and strode toward the door.  He nearly collided with a tall man in a pair of blue scrubs who walked in at the same moment.

“Oh, excuse me,” the man apologized, looking flustered.  “Are you Mr. Richardson’s friends?”

“Yeah,” said AJ, going to sit back down.  “How’s Kevin?”

Brian’s heart hammered in his chest as he stared up at the doctor, trying to read his expression.  The man had a good poker face, stoic and blank.  “I’m Dr. Whitby, the neurosurgeon,” he introduced himself.  He didn’t extend his hand.  “Kevin’s out of surgery and stable in recovery.  He’ll be monitored there for a few hours and then moved to the Neuro ICU.”

A chorus of relieved sighs went around the room, and Brian’s pulse slowed a tad.  It was certainly good news to hear, though he knew Kevin wasn’t out of the woods yet.  “How did the surgery go?” he asked.

“We were able to remove the bullet and most of the fragments, as well as a large hematoma - a clot - caused by the bleeding in his brain.  Our biggest concern at this stage is swelling.  The brain can be further damaged by too much intracranial pressure; as the brain swells, it gets squeezed against the skull.  To give it room to ‘breathe,’ so to say, we did a craniectomy - we removed a piece of skull that was fractured by the bullet.”

“Wait…”  AJ looked repulsed.  “You’re saying you left his freaking head open?!”  He was staring at the surgeon as if he were a raving lunatic.

For the first time, a hint of a smile cracked Dr. Whitby’s solemn expression, but just as quickly, he was back to business.  “It sounds extreme, I know, but it’s necessary to prevent further trauma to the brain.  Once Kevin heals, we’ll do another operation to close his skull.  For now, the opening’s covered by scalp, and we implanted a drain to remove access fluid.  He’ll be receiving IV antibiotics to prevent infection.”

Brian didn’t want to picture his cousin with a drainage pipe sticking out of a large hole in his head.  “When do you think he’ll wake up?” he asked, eager to move the conversation ahead.

“That’s impossible to know.  The effects of the anesthesia will begin wearing off soon, and we’ll be able to measure his level of consciousness then, but it’s likely he’ll remain comatose, at least for now,” said the doctor.  “When or if he’ll come out of the coma remains to be seen.  Unfortunately, it’s a ‘wait and see’ situation at this point.”

The three of them nodded, exchanging worried glances at the surgeon’s sobering words.  It was hard for any of them to imagine Kevin never waking up.  Just hours ago, he’d been singing and dancing with them onstage, in top physical shape, and now he lay recovering from brain surgery, in a coma.

This has to be a nightmare, thought Brian.  How could this have happened for real?

He wished he would wake up and find out it really had been a terrible dream.  But for him to wake up, he would have to have slept, and he knew he hadn’t done that.  Kevin was still in critical condition, Nick was still missing, and Brian was still wide awake with worry, wishing he could sleep.


Nick had slept for a long time.  He knew it when he awoke to birds singing and the sound of raindrops on the roof and window.

Opening his eyes, he found himself staring up at a wooden ceiling.  He sat up quickly, ignoring the pain in his ribs and his head as he looked around in confusion.  He was lying on a bed, in the center of a tiny room.  The floorboards were made of wood, and the walls were whitewashed and bare.  The only pieces of furniture, aside from the bed, were a small, plain dresser pushed up against one wall and a wooden rocking chair in the corner.  It was a far cry from his lavish hotel room, with its gleaming mahogany desk, large flatscreen TV, and gold-framed wall paintings.

Where the hell am I? he wondered.  How did I get here?

The last thing he remembered was pulling himself out of the creek, as the men who had abducted him were driving away.  Surely, if they had come back for him, he wouldn’t be here.  He wouldn’t even be alive.  But who, then, had brought him here, wherever he was?

He tried to get out of bed to investigate, but the movement made him dizzy and caused so much pain that he was forced to lie down again.  The single, soft pillow was a welcomed relief to the back of his head, where he’d been pistol-whipped twice.  As he lay there, the room seeming to spin around him, Nick thought back to the previous night.  It seemed distant and dreamlike to him now, but his aching body and strange surroundings were evidence enough that it had not been just a nightmare.  He really had been attacked in his hotel room, held at gunpoint and forced to get into a car driven by the two men who had beat him and then left him for dead, his body anchored at the bottom of a creek.

That also meant that Kevin was really dead.

Tears filled his eyes, and he rolled over on the bed, burying his face in the musty pillow.  His shoulders shook with the effort of stifling his sobs, as the flood of emotions shock had kept him from experiencing the night before began to pour out.

It was a delayed reaction, but no less intense.  He cried as he thought of his older brother, lying there on the floor of their hotel room, shot to death for no reason, other than that he, like Nick, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Nick knew the bullet had been intended for him, and if he had been first into the room, it would have hit its target.

Kevin was dead because of him.

The guilt was as strong as the grief, and he sobbed not only because his brother was dead, but because he had killed him.  He had killed him with his disobedience, killed him with his silence, killed him with the string of bad decisions that had led him to this tiny room.

He didn’t even care to know where he was anymore; he shouldn’t have been there, anyway.  He should have been in the creek, the bullet that had killed Kevin lodged in his own brain instead.  He wished he were dead; he didn’t think he could live while drowning in such guilt.

He gripped the edges of the pillowcase, which was damp with his tears, so distraught that he didn’t even notice the creak of the door opening, nor the scuff of footsteps over the hardwood floor, as someone came into the room.


Chapter 6 by RokofAges75
Chapter 6

He hadn’t heard the person enter, but in the midst of his meltdown, Nick became aware of a pair of eyes on his back.  Someone was watching him.  He stiffened, wiping his eyes on the pillowcase and sucking in a few deep breaths.  Then he rolled over.

Through the pain that radiated from his tender ribs, he saw her - a teenage girl, standing just inside the doorway.  She was oddly dressed, in a long-sleeved, blue dress and a white apron, and she wore a white sort of bonnet over her straw-colored hair, which was pulled back into a bun.  She carried a pitcher in one hand.  When she saw Nick looking at her, her cheeks flushed pink, and she said, “I’m sorry to disturb you.  I didn’t know you’d woken.  I was just bringing you some water, in case you wanted to wash when you woke up.”

“I… thank you,” Nick said, staring at her.  He had so many questions, he didn’t know which one to ask first.

“You’re welcome.”  The girl set the pitcher down on the dresser top, next to a matching basin.  “My name is Analiese.  And what is yours?”

He blinked, surprised that a girl her age would not have recognized him.  It wasn’t ego that gave him this perception, only experience.  These days, he couldn’t go anywhere without teenage girls following him around.  He found that he was grateful to be anonymous for once.  “Nick,” he told her.

“I’m glad to find you awake and speaking, Nick,” said Analiese.  “I worried when I couldn’t rouse you last night.”

He was about to ask her how he’d gotten to her house, or wherever he was, but as he watched her pour water from the pitcher into the basin, a crazy, startling thought struck him.  “I… I haven’t gone back in time or something, have I?”  It didn’t seem as foolish a question as it sounded; as he looked wildly around the room again, he realized that everything in it, including her, was old-fashioned.

“What??”  At first, she seemed taken aback, but then she started to laugh.

“I’m serious!  What year is it?” he demanded, sitting up again, despite the protests of his ribs.

“It is 1999.”

“Oh.”  Nick slumped back against the pillow, relieved and oddly disappointed at the same time.  “Well, you mind telling me where the heck I am, then?”

“I apologize.  Of course, this must all seem old-fashioned to you.  You’re English.”  Analiese smiled.  “I am Amish.  You’re on my family’s farm, outside of Paradise.”

“Paradise?” Nick repeated, glancing skeptically around again.  “Paradise, what?”

“Pennsylvania,” she said, as if this should have been obvious.  “Do you not live in these parts?”

He shook his head.  “I live in Florida.  I was… traveling, staying in Philadelphia.”

Her eyebrows lifted.  “We’re nearly a hundred miles west of Philadelphia.”

“Wow…”  He raked a hand through his hair.  It felt matted and greasy.

“May I ask what happened to you?” she asked timidly.  “How you came to be so far from where you were staying?”

“If I can ask you how I got here,” he replied.

“Of course.”  She swallowed.  “I came across you late last night, lying on the ground near Leaman’s Bridge.  You were unconscious.  I… I was hesitant to bring you here, but then I remembered the parable of the Good Samaritan, and I knew I could not pass you by.”

“Why didn’t you just call an ambulance or something?” Nick asked without thinking.

She flushed pink.  “I am sorry.  We have no telephone here.  There is one in the town we can use, if there’s a number you’d like me to call.  You’re right that I should have gone to town and called last night.  But I was afraid to.  I was already out well after dark, close to midnight, riding home in Lukas’s buggy.  Lukas is my…”  She trailed off, seemingly lost for words.

“Boyfriend?” Nick supplied.

Her cheeks reddened even more, but she gave a curt nod.  “I suppose so, yes.  My mother and father do not approve of my being with him so late.  I was in a hurry to get home.  Lukas helped me lift you into his buggy and carry you here.”

“Do your parents know I’m here?”

Analiese shook her head quickly.  “No.  They would not approve of my bringing a strange boy home, either, even for a charitable reason.”

“But…”  His eyes swept the room once more.  “Aren’t I in your house?  Won’t they find me here?”

“No,” she said again.  “This is the grossdaadi haus - grandfather house.  It’s on the back of our property, behind the house where my family lives.  My opa and oma lived here when they were alive, but it’s stood empty for long enough now that no one will come here.”

“Oh.”  Nick’s mind was spinning.  He was in the middle of nowhere, tucked away in a small room, in a little house where no one came, with no phone… "no lights, no motorcar, not a single luxury… like Robinson Crusoe, it’s as primitive as can be…"  He cracked a smile, singing in his head.  "We been spendin’ most our lives livin’ in an Amish paradise…"

He didn’t know much about the Amish, besides what he’d seen in movies - and Weird Al’s music video.  He did know they were deeply religious, so he had to assume he was in a safe place, surrounded by good people.  Still, he couldn’t help but think of a movie he’d seen once, Misery, about a famous writer who was held hostage and tortured by a crazy nurse who had saved him from a car wreck.  He could hear Kathy Bates saying, “I’m your number one fan…”  What if this girl wasn’t Amish at all, but a crazy fan who was feeding him an elaborate cover story to explain why he was lying in her house instead of a hospital?

He eyed Analiese warily.  “Well… I won’t be here long,” he said pointedly, watching for her reaction.  But she didn’t show any signs of wanting to prevent him from leaving.

“Of course,” she said, with an understanding smile.  “You’ll want to be examined by a doctor.  You must have taken quite a hard blow to the head.  Do you know what happened to you?”

Nick hesitated.  “I was… attacked.  The guys who did it left me for dead.”

Her eyes widened.  “But why??”

He shook his head.  “It’s a long story.  I didn’t do anything wrong; I just saw something I shouldn’t have, and they wanted me dead for it.  But they killed my friend instead.”  His voice choked on the last few words, and his eyes refilled with tears.  Ashamed, he turned his head away from her.

He heard Analiese’s faint gasp.  “I’m terribly sorry about the death of your friend,” she whispered.  “I will pray for his soul, and for you.”

“Thanks,” Nick muttered, though he knew prayers would do nothing for Kevin now.  It was the sort of gesture Brian would appreciate, though.

Brian…  His heart ached as he thought of his best friend and what he must be going through, dealing with the loss of his cousin.  Would he blame Nick if he knew why Kevin had been shot?

“I’ll leave you now,” Analiese said after a moment.  “I need to return to my chores, and I’m sure you’d like some privacy.  There’s soap and clean towels on the dresser, if you want to wash.  Some of my opa’s old clothes are still in the dresser drawers, if you’d prefer clean clothing.  I’ll come back to check on you later.”

She was gone before Nick looked back.  His eyes rested on the pile of neatly-folded towels sitting next to the washbasin.  He raised a hand to his face.  It felt sticky with grime and tears.  His split chin had scabbed over and was crusty with dried blood.  It would feel good to wash.

He struggled to get up from the bed, moving slowly for the sake of his tender ribs and throbbing head.  He staggered dizzily to the dresser and picked up a plain, white cloth from the stack of towels.  Dipping it into the basin of warm water, he ran it slowly over his face, savoring the soothing sensation as the layer of grime ran off with the water.  Spotting a bar of homemade soap, he lathered the washcloth up with that, too, and scrubbed.  Soon the white cloth was the color of rust, and the water was murky, swirling with blood and mud.  His face felt clean and smooth again, except for the cut on his chin.

He still felt dirty in the clothes he’d worn all night, which were stiff and stale-smelling from dried creek water, so he pulled off his shirt and used a fresh, soapy cloth to wipe under his arms.  Looking down at himself, he saw large bruises across his ribcage, where he’d fallen against the stairs.  He prodded them tenderly, wincing at the pain they caused.

Not wanting to put his smelly t-shirt back on, he remembered what Analiese had told him about her grandfather’s clothes.  He opened a dresser drawer and found several shirts, folded into a neat pile.  He pulled out the one on top and held it up.  It was plain white, made of a coarse material, and had long sleeves.  It looked big enough, so he put it on, rolling the sleeves up to his elbows.  He traded his baggy jeans for a pair of black, high-waisted pants he found in another drawer.  He felt uncomfortable in the old-fashioned clothing, but at least they were clean.  They felt and smelled better than his own.

As he wadded up his old clothes, something slipped from the pocket of his jeans and fell to the wooden floor with a heavy clunk.  He looked down to see his cell phone, the faceplate broken off.  He bent down and scooped the phone up, feeling sick with the realization that his captors really had had no intention of letting him live if they hadn’t bothered to take his phone.  The cell phone was turned off, its screen black and empty.  When he held down the power button to turn it on, nothing happened.  Frowning, he pried off the back to check the battery.  A trickle of water ran out, dripping onto the floor.  The phone was dead.  With a sigh, Nick crammed it into the pile of dirty clothes, which he set on the floor in the corner by the dresser.

In his borrowed clothing, Nick crossed the tiny room to the single window and peered out.  Outside, there was a garden, with neat rows of leafy, green plants.  A dirt path led to a large barn at the edge of the yard, and beyond the barn were rolling fields of farm crops for as far as his eyes could see.  Analiese hadn’t been lying about his whereabouts.

Suddenly eager to explore, he crept to the door of the bedroom and poked his head out.  He heard nothing and saw no one, so he stepped cautiously over the threshold.  He emerged into a sitting room with hard-backed, wooden chairs and end tables that held kerosene lamps, all arranged around a stone fireplace.  Off of the sitting room was a small kitchen, with a table and chairs, an old-fashioned ice box, and a wood-burning stove.  He was relieved to find a tiny bathroom, as well, with a clawfoot bathtub and running water in the sink.  He suddenly felt the urge to relieve himself, so he used the facilities before returning to the bedroom.

By then, Nick’s head was pounding again, so he stretched out across the quilt that covered the bed and closed his eyes.  He listened to the light rain fall outside the window, trying to focus on that and nothing else, and within minutes, he had fallen back to sleep.


He woke up when Analiese came back to check on him, bringing with her a tray of food.  Nick didn’t realize he was hungry until he smelled the homemade soup and fresh bread.  All of a sudden, his stomach panged hollowly, and he felt ravenous.

“Thank you,” he said, sitting up to take the tray.

“Do you feel well enough to eat at the table?” she asked.

“Oh - yeah, sure,” said Nick, easing himself off of the bed.  His ribs twinged painfully as he stood up.  “What time is it, anyway?” he asked, as he followed her into the kitchen he’d explored earlier and sat down at the table.

“Half past noon.  My dat and brothers just finished lunch and went back to the fields.  I managed to sneak some food for you as I was cleaning the kitchen.”

She set the tray down on the table in front of him, then perched on the edge of the chair across from him, watching him nervously.  Feeling rather like a zoo animal at feeding time, Nick sampled the soup.  “Oh my God… this tastes awesome,” he groaned, as the warm soup slid down the back of his dry throat.  He eagerly dipped his spoon into the bowl for more, slurping up another mouthful.  “Did you make this?”

“My mam,” Analiese replied.

“It’s really good.”  He tore a piece off a piece of bread and stuffed it into his mouth.  “So’s the bread,” he added thickly, swallowing.

Analiese offered a tentative smile.  “That I did make.”

“Wow, you’re good.  Cooking… that’s a real talent.  I’m no good at it, that’s for sure,” he said, managing a smile back.  “You should be proud.”

She blushed, lowering her eyes, and shook her head.  “No.  Pride is a sin.  Cooking is a skill every woman should know.”

Nick snorted.  “You’ve never met my mom.  Her idea of cooking is frozen pizza and Hamburger Helper.”

Analiese looked up again, her eyes filled with confusion.  “What?”

Finishing another bite of bread, he shook his head.  “Never mind.  Let’s just say, this is a lot better.”  He washed the food down with a swig of milk.  The milk tasted funny, and at first, he wondered if it had gone bad; then he realized it had probably come straight from the cow.

He asked, and Analiese nodded.  “We raise dairy cows,” she said.  “Our milk is always fresh.  We grow our own food or buy it from neighboring farms.”

“Wow,” said Nick, looking down at the vegetables swimming in his soup.  He thought they looked different than the kind one found in a can of Campbell’s, and they certainly tasted better.  His family had never even had a garden.  The only fresh vegetables he ate came from the veggie trays set up backstage at shows.  He was in a very different world.  “I don’t know much about the Amish,” he admitted after a minute, chasing a carrot with his spoon.  “What exactly do you guys believe?  I know you don’t, like, believe in electricity or driving cars or anything.”

“We believe in living simply and separately,” answered Analiese.  “The Bible teaches us not to ‘love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world - the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches - comes not from the Father but from the world.  And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.’  We do not value material possessions or luxuries.  We are plain people.  We live off the land and make our own goods.  We own only the bare essentials, for to live in excess would be sinful.”

Nick felt his face heat up, as he pictured his lavish hotel suite, his pimped-out tour bus, the sprawling California ranch he’d bought for his parents, and the oceanfront mansion he’d lived in with Mandy.  His life was filled with luxury and excess, and he’d never before felt ashamed of it.  Analiese’s tone was matter-of-fact, rather than judgmental, but he was sure she would be appalled to see where he lived.  “That must be hard,” he offered, unsure of what else to say.

“It is not so difficult.  We separate ourselves from the English, to avoid the temptations of your world.  When we do encounter such temptations, we’re reminded of the sacrifices we make for the Lord.”

Nick nodded, without really understanding.  He couldn’t fathom living the way she did, not just without luxuries, but without basic, modern conveniences and comforts.  His family had been poor when he was a child; he knew what it was like to go without, but not by choice.  Choosing such a lifestyle was a concept he couldn’t comprehend.

He finished his lunch and said again, “Thank you.  That was really good.”

Analiese smiled.  “You’re welcome.”  She promptly stood up and picked up the tray.  “I should get back to the house.  I didn’t intend to stay so long.”

“It’s okay,” Nick replied quickly.  “I liked talking to you.”

She blushed.  “I haven’t had many conversations with English boys.  I hope I didn’t bore you, going on so about our beliefs.”

“Not at all.  I asked, didn’t I?”  He grinned.

She smiled shyly back, tucking a stray lock of blonde hair into her white cap.  “Stay here until night falls,” she told him.  “Lukas will come after dark, once my parents are in bed, and we will take you to town in his buggy.  There is a telephone you can use there.”

Nick nodded.  “Good, ‘cause my cell phone died.”

“I’ll be back tonight,” she promised, and then she was gone.  Through the front window, he watched her walk swiftly across the yard to a large, white house, her long, blue skirt bustling around her legs.  She didn’t look back.

Sighing, he looked around the sparse sitting room.  “What am I supposed to do ‘til then?”


True to her word, Analiese returned after dark, accompanied by a wiry, black-haired boy a few years younger than Nick.  “This is Lukas,” she introduced him.  “And Lukas, this is Nick.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Lukas, extending his hand.  His manner was polite, yet somewhat stiff.

Nick shook hands with him and replied, “Nice to meet you, too.  Thanks for taking care of me last night.”

Lukas gave a single, solemn nod.  “We did only what the Lord would want us to do.”

“We should go now,” Analiese spoke up between them.  “It is late, and I’m sure Nick wants to get back to Philadelphia as soon as possible.”

Nick nodded in agreement, but as he followed them outside, his stomach began to churn with apprehension.  Lukas’s dark gray buggy was parked outside the main house.  The large chestnut pulling it pawed at the ground, while Lukas and Analiese clambered onto the front seat.  Nick climbed up after Analiese and squeezed onto the seat beside her, wedging her in between Lukas and him.

“Ya!”  Lukas gave the reins a flick, and the horse plodded up the dirt path that led to a country road.  Though the road was empty at this time of night, it seemed strange to Nick to be traveling along a paved road in a horse-drawn carriage.  He thought such things were reserved for trips around Central Park.

When they approached the same covered bridge the two men had stopped at the night before, Nick’s stomach churned faster.  He felt nauseous, remembering the pain and the fear of knowing he was about to die.  “This is where we found you,” said Lukas, and Nick nodded, his throat very dry.

“They left me for dead in the creek,” he managed to whisper.  “I pulled myself out.”

“You must have been blessed with the strength and courage to survive,” Analiese said, her arm brushing his.

Nick just shrugged in reply.  As the buggy rumbled across the bridge, he didn’t feel very courageous.  He was afraid.  He half-expected Joey and D to be waiting at the other end of the bridge, to jump out of the darkness and ambush the buggy.  Nothing like that happened, of course, but that didn’t stop Nick from looking around nervously, squinting through the shadows, for the rest of the trip.

He felt some relief when he saw the first lights of the town on the horizon, but even when Lukas had eased the horse and buggy to a stop near a pay phone at a gas station on the outside of town, Nick’s stomach felt twisted and tight.  He jumped down from the buggy and walked over to the phone, but as he picked up the receiver, he realized he still didn’t have his wallet.

“Um… I don’t have any quarters,” he said apologetically, turning to face the buggy again.  Analiese looked at Lukas, who conjured a handful of spare change from his pocket.  “Thanks,” Nick said gratefully and deposited the coins into the pay phone.  When he heard the dial tone, he punched in a number from memory and waited nervously for the call to go through.

At first, he could only hear the sound of his own shallow breathing in the receiver.

Then, a heart-wrenchingly familiar voice answered, “Hello?”


Chapter 7 by RokofAges75
Chapter 7


Nick froze, mutely clutching the phone receiver to his ear, his heart beating fast, as the voice came again.  It sounded confused at first, then slightly annoyed.


Say something! Nick urged himself, but he could only stand there, dumbly, as the voice grew more irritated.

“Listen, if you’re from the press, I don’t wanna talk to you.  No comment.”

Then, with a click, the line went dead.

Nick felt himself deflate, as the breath he’d been holding escaped through a sigh.


Brian flipped his cell phone shut and stuffed it back in his pocket.  When he glanced up again, AJ and Howie were both looking at him.

“No one there,” he said, before they could ask.

“Probably someone from the media.”  AJ said what Brian had been thinking.  “They’ve got the balls to call, but not to speak, huh?”

Brian offered a listless shrug in reply.

It was evening now, and they were back at the hospital where they’d spent the previous night.  After Kevin’s mother had arrived in the morning, they had gone back to the hotel to sleep, shower, and eat, returning late in the afternoon, not quite well-rested, but somewhat refreshed.  Kevin’s girlfriend, Kristin, had flown in from Florida and spent the day there with Ann.  Leighanne had ridden with her back to the hotel to get settled for the night, and the boys had decided that when Ann was done visiting, they would have her do the same, while they stayed the night again.

In the meantime, they visited Kevin in shifts, keeping a constant vigil at his bedside to ensure that if he woke up, he would not be alone.  His mother was with him now, in the ICU where he’d been transferred following his surgery.  She would visit for fifteen minutes, then swap with one or two of the guys.  Howie and AJ had been in before her, so it was Brian’s turn next.

He took out his phone again to check the time and played with it absently as they waited, no one talking much.  When the fifteen minutes were up, he rose from his seat and announced, “I’m goin’ in.”  No one even replied, as he slid his phone back into his pocket and walked out of the room.

Brian followed the now familiar path to the Neuro ICU, a large room with windows that looked out to the nurses station across the hall and ten beds that were divided only by curtains that could be drawn between them.  Kevin had a bed in the corner, furthest from the windows and door, furthest from prying eyes, though the hospital security was tight.  Except for special circumstances, only family was permitted to visit patients in the ICU, two at a time, and only during certain hours.  Kevin’s “VIP” status must have made him a special circumstance because his night nurse, Jennie, had allowed Brian, Howie, and AJ to visit all night.

Fame had its perks.

The medical staff was very professional, but Brian could tell that its younger members, at least, knew exactly who they were.  Nurse Jennie, who couldn’t have been much older than him, offered him a sympathetic smile as he passed the nurses station on his way into the room.  He nodded in return, then entered through the sliding door.

The ICU was a bright, artificial world of fluorescent lights, sterile stainless steel, and noisy medical equipment.  The regular beeping of heart monitors, the steady hiss of ventilators, and the strong smell of antiseptics invaded Brian’s senses, triggering a memory of waking up from his open-heart surgery the previous year.  His heart reacted, beginning to race with the surge of adrenaline that shot through his body.  His palms sweat, as he approached Kevin’s bed.

His Aunt Ann was still sitting at Kevin’s bedside, and she looked up as Brian approached.  Again, he was reminded of waking up from surgery to the sight of his grandmother’s - her mother’s - face.  Though years younger, Aunt Ann strongly resembled her then.  She seemed suddenly older, her face haggard and lined with worry.  Brian hadn’t seen her look so distressed since his Uncle Jerald had died.

He came to stand beside her chair, placing a consoling hand on her shoulder.  She offered a weak smile and brought her own hand up to rest on top of his.  “I know it’s time for me to go, huh?” she murmured, looking back at Kevin.  “I just hate to leave him…”

“You don’t have to leave right this minute,” said Brian.  “Stay as long as you need to.”

She patted his hand and nodded, her eyes never straying from Kevin’s face.  “You’re right, though.  I should go back to the hotel.  It’s not healthy to stay here round the clock.  I just hoped he would show some signs of waking up before I left,” she added, sounding both wistful and disappointed.

Brian followed her line of sight to the bed.  He’d had time to adjust to Kevin’s appearance, but that didn’t make it any easier to see his cousin - more like a second big brother to him these days - the way he was.  With his eyes closed, his face slack and expressionless, and his head wrapped in a turban of gauze that hid all of his dark hair and even his eyebrows, he didn’t look like Kevin.  He looked more like a wax figure, a shell, something that resembled Kevin but had none of his spirit inside.  The analogy disturbed Brian.

He looked at the monitors over Kevin’s bed.  One of them displayed his vital signs - heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen level, all things Brian had learned about during his own hospital stay.  The other was an EEG monitor, which showed rows of spiky lines that measured Kevin’s brain activity.  Brian wasn’t sure how high or how often the lines were supposed to peak; he only knew that as long as the lines weren’t flat, it showed Kevin’s brain was still functioning.

He was grateful for the spikes on the monitor, for without them, it was impossible to know if Kevin was really alive at all.  His heart was beating, and he was still breathing on his own, but otherwise, he seemed lifeless.

“He’s in a deep coma,” the nurse, Jennie, had explained earlier, as he’d watched her move around Kevin’s bed, checking different things and making notes on his chart.  “We use a scale called the Glasgow Coma Scale to measure his level of consciousness.  I have to check his eyes, his verbal response, and his movements, and he gets a score for each of those categories.  It adds up to a possible fifteen points, which is the best score.  You and I would score a fifteen.”

“So what’s his score?” Brian had asked warily.

She talked through the assessment as she did it.  “He doesn’t open his eyes when I call his name, so next I’ll try what we call ‘painful stimuli’ - it’s not designed to hurt him, just to get a reaction.”

Brian watched as she leaned over the bed and rubbed her fist vigorously on the center of Kevin’s chest, right over the breastbone.  His frown turned into an astonished smile when Kevin writhed on the bed, drawing his arms up to his chest, his hands clenched into tight fists, which curled together like a baby’s.  “Well, there’s a reaction!  He moved,” Brian said ecstatically.  It was the first time he’d seen Kevin do anything other than lie there all day.

Jennie nodded, marking something on her clipboard.  “That’s a three for motor.  But he still didn’t open his eyes, so I have to give him a one for that.”

Brian frowned again, watching Kevin’s face closely, hoping for his eyelids to flutter, hoping for her to be wrong.  But nothing happened.

“And he doesn’t speak or make any sounds, so he gets a one for verbal, too,” Jennie went on, jotting this down as well.  “That means he’s a one-one-three… a five altogether.”

“Out of fifteen?”  Brian’s heart sank.  He’d gotten his hopes up, but those plummeted, too.  “That doesn’t sound like a good score.  Only thirty-three percent.”

Jennie gave a grim nod.  “Anything below eight means he’s in a coma.  He’s in the middle of the severe range, but not at the very bottom.”

“His score will go up, won’t it?  As his brain heals?”

“We hope so.  It has a little already.”  She glanced down at her clipboard.  “His chart shows that when he was brought in last night, his GCS was only a three, so a five is an improvement.  At least he’s showing some motor function now.  Hopefully as the swelling in his brain goes down, he’ll improve in the other categories, too.”

But several hours later, Kevin still wasn’t opening his eyes or making any noise.  He wasn’t even moving.  Except for the steady rise and fall of his chest, he was still and silent.  It didn’t look like Ann was going to get her wish that night.  There was no reaction from him at all when she finally rose from her chair and leaned over his bed to kiss his cheek.

She straightened up, swiping at her eyes, and turned with a watery smile to Brian.  “Thank you for staying with him.  Call me if there’s any change, no matter what time it is.”

Brian nodded.  “I will, Aunt Ann.”

She gave him a hug, tears spilling onto his shoulder, and promised to return first thing in the morning.  Then she was gone, leaving Brian to sit in the chair next to Kevin’s bed.  “Hey, cous,” he muttered, and he reached for Kevin’s hand.  His fist was still tightly clenched, so Brian wrapped his own hand around it and rubbed the back of his knuckles.  Still, there was no response.

Brian sighed.  It was going to be another long night.

As he sat, listening to the steady blip of the heart monitor, his thoughts wandered to Nick.  As hard as it was to see Kevin in such bad shape, it was even harder not knowing what kind of shape Nick was in, not knowing where he was or even if he was still alive.  Volunteers from all over the region had joined the police in searching for him, as the story broke on the news.  Though he didn’t like being harassed by the press, Brian was grateful for the media attention the story was receiving.  People all over the world would be praying for them and looking for Nick, and he knew that the more prayers and pairs of eyes they had on their side, the better.

Still, it had been almost twenty-four hours since Nick had gone missing, and as far as he knew, the police had no clues and no leads to follow.  All they could do was keep searching and keep praying, as the time ticked by, the hours running out.  Brian racked his brain, as he had all night and day, trying to imagine who could have done this and where they might have taken Nick.  But he’d come up with no answers.  There were plenty of people who didn’t like the Backstreet Boys, but they had no real enemies he could name.  The police had asked about fans, if they’d had any problems with stalkers.  Though he knew it had happened before to other celebrities, Brian couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of one of their fans committing such horrific acts.  How would a fan have gotten to them, anyway?

That was one question he couldn’t stop asking himself.  How had they gotten in?  Whoever had attacked Kevin and Nick had done it from inside their hotel room.  They’d gotten access somehow, a fact that deeply unsettled Brian.  He knew the police were investigating; the hotel had still been crawling with them that morning, as they continued to question employees and comb the crime scene.  If they’d found out anything useful, they hadn’t told the guys.

Brian sighed, looking back at Kevin’s closed eyes.  He wonder if he’d gotten a good look at the person who had shot him.  “You need to wake up, Kev,” he murmured, gripping Kevin’s fist tighter.  “We need to find out who did this so we can find Nick.  He’s still missing.  Whoever did this to you did something with him, too, and if we don’t find him soon…”   He trailed off, not wanting to say the words aloud.  He watched the lines on Kevin’s monitors, hoping for any sign his cousin had heard and understood him.  But there was no change.  No change at all.

He let go of Kevin’s hand and sat back in his chair, bowing his head and clasping his hands to his chest to silently pray.  He prayed for Kevin, and he prayed for Nick.  He prayed that, by some miracle, Kevin would wake up, Nick would be found alive, their attacker would be caught, and everything would go back to normal.  He knew, deep down, that this was probably too much to hope for, but he prayed for it anyway.  Brian believed in miracles, and he believed in the power of prayer, so he prayed for miracles.

When he looked up, Howie was standing at the foot of Kevin’s bed.

“Hey,” Brian said in surprise, lowering his hands to his lap, his eyes moving instinctively toward the clock.  “Is my time up already?”

“Not quite.”  Howie shifted his weight awkwardly.  “I wanted to ask you something, though.”

“Yeah?”  Brian raised his eyebrows.  “What’s up?”

“That phone call… the one you and AJ thought was the press…” Howie started tentatively.

“Yeah?  What about it?”

“Well… I was just thinking…”  Howie paused, looking straight into Brian’s eyes.  “Do you think it could have been Nicky?”


Nick felt sick to his stomach as he trudged back to the buggy, where Analiese and Lukas waited for him.  They both stared down at him as he approached.

“That was quick,” said Analiese, with a tone of surprise.  “Didn’t you reach someone?”

He shook his head slowly.  “I couldn’t do it.”

“Couldn’t do it?”  She glanced at Lukas before looking back at Nick in confusion.  “Why not?”

“I…”  He sighed; how was he going to explain himself to them when he wasn’t even sure why he had panicked like that and hung up on Brian?  “I dunno.  It’s… complicated.  Too complicated to explain right now.”  He looked around, suddenly paranoid, all too aware that he was out in the open, in the dark.  Anyone could be lurking in the shadows, watching him.  “I’m sorry… can we just go back?” he pleaded, climbing up onto the buggy seat beside Analiese.

“Back… back to the farm?”

He heard the uncertainty in her voice and could tell she was uncomfortable with the idea of him staying another night.  “Please, can you just drive?  I’ll try to explain on the way.”

Lukas hesitated, but Analiese gave a nod, and he flicked the reins, starting the horse off on a slow plod back to the main road.  As the gas station grew further behind them, Analiese asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to try phoning someone else?”

Nick’s stomach was in knots.  “You don’t understand.  I made a mistake.  A whole bunch of mistakes, actually.  I was out when I wasn’t supposed to be, and I saw something I shouldn’t have, and I didn’t tell anyone.  I was afraid to get involved, and it got my friend killed.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, the guys that did it tried to kill me, too, and they think they succeeded.  I wasn’t supposed to make it out of that creek last night.  If I go back… if I go to the police… they’ll come after me again.”

His heart pounded with fear, as the reality of the situation sunk in.  “Me and the rest of my friends,” he added.  “My family and my girlfriend, too.”  Suddenly, he didn’t care that he and Mandy had split up; she was still living in the house they’d bought together in Florida, the address that was on his driver’s license.  “They have my wallet; they have my license, and they know where I live.  And I don’t know jack shit about them.”

A first name and a single initial… that was all he had to go on, besides the generic physical description he could give.  Young… muscular… maybe Latino or Italian.  Joey and D.  That was it.  That was all.

“Don’t you see?” he begged, when neither Analiese nor Lukas spoke.  “If they know I’m alive, I’ll be a target again.  And if they can’t get to me, they’ll go after the ones I love.  I can’t protect everyone.  I couldn’t even protect Kevin…”  He choked on the name, his throat closing up, as tears welled in his eyes.  “I can’t let that happen again.  I just… I need to lay low for awhile, until these guys are caught.  I can’t risk putting the rest of my family in danger.”

“But you’ll risk endangering Ana’s?”  At last, Lukas spoke.  His voice was as calm as ever, but there was no mistaking the anger in his tone.

“No!” Nick protested.  “’Course not; I’d never want that.  It’s just, no one knows I’m here.  No one even knows I’m alive, except for you two, and no one would ever look for me here.”  He started to rush on, not even sure what he was saying, but Analiese interrupted him.

“You’re right.  They would not,” she said quietly.

“Ana-” Lukas started.

“Lukas,” she silenced him.  “He’s in need of our charity.”

“He’s English!” Lukas snapped.  “We take care of our own before we look out for the Englischers.”  Slipping into another language, he added something else that Nick couldn’t understand - which, he figured, was exactly the point.

“Wir sind alle Gottes Kinder,” said Analiese firmly.  “We are all God’s children.”

She turned to Nick, resting her hand gently upon his forearm.  “We will offer you sanctuary.  You are welcome to stay, until you feel safe to leave.”

He nodded and thanked her, feeling gratitude and relief, but once they were back at the farm, once he was hidden away in the grandfather house once more, the reality of his situation started to sink in.  Looking around the tiny, bare bedroom in dismay, Nick muttered, “What have I gotten myself into now?”


Chapter 8 by RokofAges75
Chapter 8

Nick lay naked in bed, listening to the sounds of crickets and owls and wishing he could sleep.  But his mind was wide awake and hard at work, seesawing between dread and despair, regret and resolve.

He replayed his brief phone call to Brian over and over again in his head, wondering why he hadn’t said anything, wishing he had, and then willing himself to believe he’d made the right choice.  Joey and D thought he was dead, and as long as they thought that, as long as they believed their secret was safe, he and the people he loved would be safe, too.  They would have no reason to come after Nick’s family and friends if they thought the memory of what he’d seen that night had died with him.

But if they knew he was alive, it would be a different story.  And if Brian knew, if anyone else knew, they would know.  They would find out.  It would be impossible to cover it up, to hide the truth.  This wasn’t a movie; Nick couldn’t just fake his own death until the killers were caught.  He was simply too famous.  The story of his disappearance, of Kevin’s murder, was probably all over the news - not that he would know, since the Amish had no TVs, computers, or radios.  If he was found, there would be no containing it.  So he had to stay missing, to protect Brian and everyone else who cared about him too much.  He would not let anyone else die for him.

Still, the guilt made him squirm in his bed.  His stomach ached with it - guilt, not just over what he was doing to his family and friends, but over what he’d already done to Kevin.  They would tell him it wasn’t his fault, but he knew, deep down, that it was.  If they knew the whole story, if they knew he had witnessed the aftermath of a murder and not gone to the police, they would blame him.  Maybe they wouldn’t say it, but they would think it.  Stupid Nick, always saying the wrong thing, always getting himself into trouble, always fucking up somehow.  This time, it wasn’t something they’d be able to laugh about later.  This time, his stupidity had gotten Kevin killed.  He could hardly live with himself, knowing what he’d done, but the thought of everyone else knowing was more than he could bear.

He tossed and turned, sweating profusely beneath the thin sheet that twisted around him, until he heard a sound that made him freeze.

Footsteps on the wood floor.

Someone had broken into the grandfather house.

He sat up stiffly and silently, clutching the sheet to his chest, and strained his ears to listen.  It was very late, or very early, depending on which way you looked at it.  There was no clock in the room, but he guessed it was three or four in the morning, when the rest of the world was supposed to be asleep.

Traveling on the tour bus overnight, this was the hour when the highways were dark, hardly a car in sight.  When he was younger, in the early days of touring, Nick hated waking up in the middle of the night and being the only one awake.  He would lie in his dark bunk, wondering where the bus was.  Sometimes he’d get up and look out the window, but it unnerved him to realize they were in the middle of nowhere, no city lights on the horizon, no headlights or taillights in the distance.  The world was silent and dark, except for the rumble of the bus engine and the arc of its lights on the road in front of them.  Then he would start to wonder, what if?  What if the bus driver got sleepy and dozed off while he was driving?  What if they crashed or broke down, and no one came along to find them?  Sometimes he would sneak up to the front of the bus and talk to the driver - to keep him awake, Nick told himself, but if he was being honest, he needed the company more than the driver.

Now that he was older, Nick liked being awake in the middle of the night.  He liked the peaceful silence and solitude it offered.  He was no longer a lonely little boy, afraid of the dark.  But when he heard the footsteps growing nearer, his heart began to hammer against his ribs, so hard he thought the person on the other side of the door would be able to hear it.  His first, irrational, panicked thought was that it had to be Joey or D, back to finish him off.

But of course, it wasn’t.  It was only Analiese, her pale face illuminated by the flickering light of the lantern she held out in front of her, as she crept through the door, ghostly in her long, white nightgown.

“Hey,” said Nick from his bed, and she jumped, nearly dropping her lantern.  It wobbled in her hand, its flame dancing precariously for a few seconds, before she managed to steady it.

“You frightened me,” she gasped, her hand fumbling at the neck of her nightgown.  “I didn’t think you would be awake.”

“Sorry,” said Nick flatly.  “You scared me too.  What are you doing up so late?”  Then he thought, Maybe she always gets up this early to do her farm work.

“I awoke and couldn’t fall back asleep,” she admitted.  “I couldn’t stop thinking.  It was foolish of me, but I wanted to talk to you and thought I might come and see if you were awake.”

“It wasn’t foolish,” said Nick.  The old-fashioned word sounded weird coming out of his mouth.  “I’m awake, aren’t I?  I was having the same problem.  Too much thinking.”

In the dim light, he could just make out Analiese’s smile.  “I thought you might be.  You’ve been through quite a lot.”

He nodded.  “Sit down,” he offered, reaching out to pat a spot on the end of his bed.  As he did, the sheet slid down to his lap, and he saw Analiese’s eyes widen when she realized he was shirtless.  She quickly turned away and scurried over to the rocking chair in the corner instead.  Even once she’d sat down, she kept her eyes averted, and when she spoke again, she stammered, clearly flustered.

“I… I just wanted to discuss your… your situation…”

He couldn’t tell in the golden firelight, but he was sure she was blushing furiously.  He smirked briefly, wondering how she’d react if she knew he was naked below the waist, too.

“Sure,” he said.  “I wanted to talk about it, too.  I mean, I appreciate you letting me stay and all, but I don’t wanna put you out or anything…”  He’d spent the evening looking around the spare little room, his thoughts alternating between, How can I stay here? and How can I leave?  Now he wondered if Analiese was going to make up his mind for him and kick him out, even after offering him a place to stay.  He wouldn’t blame her; he knew he was putting her in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation just by being there.

“Yes… Lukas and I spoke about it before he left, and I’ve thought of it constantly since.”  Analiese paused to take a deep breath.  “I don’t think you can continue hiding here much longer,” she said, her voice shaking a little.

Nick was surprised at the way his heart sank.  It wasn’t that he wanted to stay; it was that staying had been the easy choice.  Nonetheless, he forced himself to nod.  “I understand.”

“Concealing you would be the same as lying, and if you were discovered here, my parents would know I had dishonored them with my dishonesty.  And eventually, you would be discovered; I don’t know how I could continue bringing you meals without being noticed.”

“Sure.”  Nick continued to nod, wanting to spare her the guilt he felt.  “That makes sense.”  There would be no hard feelings; she had done enough for him in the last day.  She owed him nothing; he was the one who owed her.

“I’ll leave in the morning,” he added, at the same time she said, “I have to tell my family about you.”

“What?” said Nick, and finally, she looked at him directly.

“I have to tell my family about you,” she repeated.  “It would be dishonest not to.”

He blinked in surprise.  “You mean, you’re not kicking me out?”

“Kicking you out?”  The phrase seemed foreign on her tongue.  “No.  I offered you sanctuary, and I stay true to my word.  But I feel - and Lukas agrees - it would be better not to keep it a secret from my family.”

Nick could understand that.  He knew now how dangerous keep a secret could be.  But he couldn’t help but wonder aloud, “What if your family wants nothing to do with me?  Like your boyfriend said… I’m ‘English.’”

“I’ve thought of a plan.  Lukas has agreed to it.  We will tell them you are an English pen pal of Lukas’s from the city, who has come to stay for a time.  Lukas’s parents are very mistrustful of English and stricter than mine; they would never allow you to stay with them.”

“But yours will?”

“I think I can convince them.  After all, our grandfather house stands empty, and we could use an extra field hand, in exchange for food and shelter.  You’re not opposed to farm work, are you?”

The mere words “farm work” made Nick shudder, but he swallowed his pride and answered, “No, of course I’d help out.”

“I’m sure my dat could use you.  Ever since my opa died, he’s had to hire help.  My brothers are both too young to be of much assistance, and my sisters and I are kept busy doing household chores and tending to the barn.  Lukas used to work our fields, but ever since his… well, now he’s needed more at home.  Dat would appreciate your help with the harvest.”

So there it was:  the offer was on the table.  Nick could stay, hidden away from the world and those who wanted him dead, in exchange for a little manual labor.  It would be a far cry from the kind of work he was used to, which never felt much like work at all, but in that moment, it still sounded less painful than going back to Philadelphia to face the music.

“Sounds good,” he heard himself tell Analiese.  “I’ll do it.”

She nodded.  “Then we’ll tell them in the morning.”

With that, she went back to the main house, leaving Nick alone with his thoughts.  He wasn’t sure how to feel about what he’d just agreed to.  His decision seemed like the coward’s choice, the easy way out.

He didn’t have a clue how just how hard it was going to be.


Morning came far too quickly for Nick.

It felt like he had just drifted to sleep when he was jostled awake.  For a second, he expected to find Brian bouncing on his mattress, and he kept his eyes determinedly shut, muttering, “Go away, Frick…”

“Wake up, Englischer,” was the reply.  That was all it took for Nick to snap to his senses and remember where he was.  He opened his eyes and looked up groggily from his pillow to find Analiese’s boyfriend, Lukas, standing at his bedside.  “You must get up now,” he said shortly.  “You’re supposed to have ridden over in my buggy.  Get dressed.”  He dropped a stack of neatly-folded clothes onto the bed.

Nick sat up and looked at the jeans and t-shirt in surprise.  “You have normal clothes?” he asked without thinking, glancing back up at Lukas.  He looked as Amish as ever, in his suspenders and wide-brimmed straw hat.

“English clothes,” Lukas corrected stiffly.  “You’re supposed to be my English pen pal, aren’t you?  It would look strange if you turned up dressed plain.  Folks might wonder if you were making fun of us.”

Nick nodded.  “Thanks,” he said, pulling the t-shirt over his head.

“Ana said your own clothing needed washing.”

“Yeah.  This is better.”  The t-shirt was a size too small, but it would do.  Nick wondered if it was Lukas’s or where he had gotten it on such short notice if it wasn’t, but he didn’t ask.  Lukas didn’t seem to want to stay and chat.

“I’ll wait outside,” he said and left the bedroom.

Nick finished dressing, squeezing himself into jeans that were straight-legged and too small in the waist.  Thankfully, whoever owned them was tall, so his ankles didn’t show.  Still, he felt almost as uncomfortable in these “English clothes” as he had in the Amish ones he’d worn yesterday.

He found Lukas in the sitting room.  “Let’s go,” said Lukas at once.  “If anyone asks, you came to know me through my brother, Nathaniel.  When they hear that, they won’t ask any more questions.”

Nick nodded, though he didn’t quite understand what that was supposed to mean.  He followed Lukas outside, where his buggy was parked, the horse pawing at the dirt path.  Nick was surprised to find that the sun was high in the sky; it wasn’t as early as it felt.  Lukas told him to climb into the buggy, and they rode up to the main house.

Analiese came out just as Lukas tugged on the reins to stop the horse.  “Lukas!” she cried cheerfully.  “What a nice surprise!”  Clearly, they were pretending this hadn’t all been planned.  “You’re here just in time for lunch.  Would you like to stay?  I’ll let Mam know.”  She ran back into the house before either of them could reply, but they heard her shouting, “Mam, Lukas is here!  He’s going to join us for the noon meal.”

Lukas climbed down from the buggy, and Nick followed suit.  When Analiese came back out, she was followed by an older woman, similarly dressed in a long, black dress and white apron, a bonnet covering her hair.  “Hello, Lukas,” she said, before her questioning eyes shifted to Nick.  “And who is your friend?”

“This is my pen pal, Nick, here for a visit,” Lukas replied, adding unnecessarily, “He’s English.”

Clearly, Analiese’s mother could already tell that.  She nodded warily, her lips pursed together, but then she smiled and said, “Welcome, Nick.  I’m Mathilda Albrecht.”  She extended her hand, and Nick shook it, smiling back.

Analiese came forward.  “I’m Analiese,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling at him.  “Pleased to meet you.”  She winked as she shook his hand.

“Come inside,” said Mathilda, leading them in.  “We’d be happy to have you join us for lunch.  I’ll set two more places.”

They followed her into a large kitchen, where a long, wooden table was set for the meal.  There were wooden benches on either side, long enough for a dozen people to sit, but there were only four place settings on the table.  Nick must have looked confused, because Analiese said, “The children take their lunch with them to school.”

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” he asked her, his eyes sweeping over the long benches again.

“Four,” she replied.  “Kirsten is thirteen, Miriam is nine, and Samuel is six.  They are all at school.  My youngest brother, Benjamin, is just a baby.”

Nick nodded.  “I’m the oldest of five, too.  Three younger sisters, one brother.”

Analiese smiled.  “Big families are nice, aren’t they?”

Nick thought his big family was crazy and dysfunctional, but that really wasn’t his siblings’ fault.  He smiled back and replied, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ring the dinner bell, Analiese,” said her mother, as she set two more plates out on the table.  Analiese brushed past her and went out to the front porch, where Nick had noticed a large bell hanging.  It was louder than he’d expected when he heard it ring.  “The men will be coming in shortly from the fields,” Mathilda explained.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before two men came stomping into the kitchen in their work boots, both dressed like Lukas.  They hung their hats on a couple of pegs on the wall and sat down with Lukas and Nick at the table.  Lukas repeated his introduction of Nick, and then Analiese chimed in, “Nick, this is my father, Joseph Albrecht.  And this is our field hand, Emeric Roth.”  She gestured to the younger of the two men, who looked about Nick’s age.  Emeric was big and muscular, deeply tanned from working in the sun.  He gave Nick an appraising look and tipped his head in a nod of greeting.

Joseph asked, “What brings you to our farm, Nick?”

Nick glanced at Lukas uncertainly before answering, “I, uh… I’ve been wanting to meet Lukas in person and experience the Amish culture.  I grew up in the city, so this is all new to me.”  It was a half-truth, anyway, and it sounded good, for having to wing it.

Lukas added, “Nick’s taking a semester off school and was hoping to stay with us and learn how to live plainly.  Unfortunately, my parents aren’t open to having an Englischer in our home.”

An awkward look was passed around the table.  A few seconds passed before anyone spoke, and it was Mathilda who broke the silence, as she started bringing dishes of food over to the table.  Analiese jumped up to help her, and in no time, the table was heaping with food.  It looked almost like Thanksgiving to Nick, who thought incredulously, This is lunch??

The dishes were passed, and everyone loaded up their plates.  Nick picked up his fork, eager to dig in, until he noticed that everyone around him had bowed their heads.  Oh, right, he thought, lowering his fork awkwardly.  These people are religious.  He had not grown up in the kind of family who prayed before meals, but he’d eaten enough dinners with Brian’s family to be used to this sort of thing.  He bowed his head and folded his hands under the table, but he was surprised when Joseph started saying the prayer… in German.  Nick didn’t understand a word, and he tried not to fidget as the prayer dragged on and on.  Finally, it was over, and he muttered a grateful “Amen.”

At first, there was only the scrape of forks against plates, the clink of glasses being set down on the table, but eventually, Joseph spoke up.  “You know, Nick, I’ve seen a lot of English folks aspire to simplify their lives by adopting some of our customs.  But there’s more to being Amish than dressing plainly and living without electricity.”

“Oh, I know,” Nick replied quickly.  “That’s not what I’m trying to do.  I’m just here to… learn.  Not convert or anything.”

Joseph nodded solemnly.

“Actually, Joseph, I wanted to speak with you about Nick,” said Lukas.  “I know you could use some extra help in the fields, and Nick is willing to work in exchange for a place to stay.  Might you be willing to take him on as a farm hand?”  For being Amish and not particularly fond of Nick, Lukas played his part well and lied convincingly.  For a second, even Nick started to think he had chosen to come, before he remembered the real circumstances that had brought him there.

Analiese added, “We do have the grossdaadi haus.  Nick could stay there.”

Joseph chewed thoughtfully and washed his bite down with a long swig of milk.  He took his time answering.  When he spoke, all he said was, “You’ll be up at five a.m.”

“O-okay,” stammered Nick, his heart speeding up.

“You’ll work until suppertime, with a break for the midday meal.”


“You’ll work hard, and do as I ask?”

“Just show me what to do.”

A thin smiled twitched at Joseph’s lips.  “Very well, then.  You may stay in the grandfather house and help with the harvest.  You’ll start tomorrow.”

Tomorrow’s Saturday, thought Nick, before he realized the Amish probably didn’t abide by the same sort of work week the English did, especially on a farm.  “Thank you, sir,” he said, forcing himself to smile back, as he resigned himself to the new life he’d just agreed to.  He still didn’t have a clue yet what he was getting himself into, but as he shoveled a forkful of potatoes into his mouth, he could at least attest to one thing.

The Amish made great food.


Chapter 9 by RokofAges75
Chapter 9

“Nick?  Nick.  Time to wake up, Nick.”

The vaguely familiar, female voice broke into Nick’s dreams, timidly murmuring his name.  It sounded distant and distorted, and he didn’t feel compelled to answer it right away, staying stubbornly asleep instead.  Only a light poke to his shoulder finally jolted him awake.

As his eyes flashed open, he realized three things:  first, he was still in bed in the Amish grandfather house because, second, Analiese was standing by his bed, holding up a kerosene lantern, and third, except for the soft glow of that lantern, the room around her was pitch black.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled groggily, wondering why on earth she had woken him in the middle of the night.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Analiese replied, sounding surprised by the question.  “I came to wake you for morning chores.  You told my dat you would help with the farm work.”

Nick blinked and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  “What time is it?”

“Five o’clock.”

“Ugh…” he groaned.  “You always get up this early?”

“Every day.”

“Are you serious?  It’s not even light out.”  The only times he got up before the crack of dawn were to catch an early flight or make a morning radio interview or TV appearance.  He couldn’t imagine choosing to wake up this early on a regular basis.

“It will be in a couple of hours,” replied Analiese, matter-of-factly.  “I’ll leave you to get dressed.  Meet me outside when you’re ready.”

It took all of Nick’s willpower not to roll over and go back to sleep once she walked out of the room.  She had lit a lamp for him before she left, and it was only the flickering light dancing across the walls and ceiling that forced him to keep his eyes open long enough to push the covers back and drag himself out of the bed.  He staggered around the room, clumsily dressing himself in another set of her grandfather’s old Amish clothes, sinking to the floor to lace up a pair of heavy, black work boots.  He dragged his feet as he clomped out of the house, feeling like a zombie without any caffeine to get his blood pumping.

Analiese was waiting for him on the front porch, fresh-faced and fully dressed in another long dress, apron, and white bonnet.  “There you are,” she said, smiling.

“Here I am,” he echoed without enthusiasm, dragging a hand through his disheveled hair.  “Got any coffee?”

“There will be coffee at breakfast.  But first, we have to do the milking.  Come along,” said Analiese, leading him off the porch.  Nick followed the bouncing light of her lantern, stumbling along a dirt path in the darkness, as they made their way into one of two, large barns.  The barn was dark, and until Analiese hung her lantern on a peg on the wall and his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Nick could see nothing inside it.  He was startled nearly out of his skin by a series of low, loud moos.

“Holy shit!” he gasped, without thinking.  When he heard Analiese’s sharp intake of breath, he quickly apologized.  “Sorry.  That scared me.”

She laughed uneasily.  “The cows?  They’re gentle.  They won’t hurt you.  They’re just eager to be fed and milked.”

“Milked,” Nick repeated dryly.  “Awesome.”

Analiese smiled.  “This way,” she said, leading him further into the barn.

They walked between two rows of pens, each containing a cow.  The cows were huge, bigger than Nick had expected them to be, and most of them were the black-and-white kind, straight out of a picture book.

Analiese lit a few more lamps, already hanging on the walls, until the whole interior of the large barn was bathed in soft light.  Then she fetched a couple of shovels that were propped against one wall and handed Nick one.  “What’s this for?” he asked, looking skeptically at the shovel.

She smiled mischievously.  “I’ll show you.”

He learned why a moment later, when she let herself into the nearest pen, gave its occupant a soft pat on the rump, and began shoveling what Nick’s nose quickly identified as cow manure into a ditch that ran along the barn floor.  He watched her in dismay.  “Ohh, no… no, no…” he muttered in protest, shaking his head.

“You get used to the smell,” Analiese said, without looking up from her work.  “It’s not so bad after awhile.”

Nick just stood there, his fingers curled limply around the handle of the shovel.  No way was he going to use it to scrape around cow shit.

“It will go faster if you help,” Analiese hinted.  “The sooner we finish this chore, the sooner we can feed them and get to the milking, and the sooner we can go up to the house for breakfast.  And coffee.”

Nick couldn’t think of breakfast with that horrible smell turning his stomach, but he was eager to get out of the barn, and he knew he couldn’t, in good conscience, just stand there and watch this girl shovel crap all by herself, so reluctantly, he opened the door to the next stall.  The cow inside lowed and shifted its formidable weight, and he shrank back warily.  “This thing’s not gonna kick me or anything, is it?”

She laughed.  “No.  Just be gentle with her.  Don’t spook her.  And watch the tail.”

“Why?” Nick asked, though he suspected he already knew.

She smirked.  “If she raises her tail, that’s your sign to back away, before you have more to shovel.”

Nick made a face.  “Great,” he said sarcastically.  “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied innocently and went back to her shoveling.  She had finished the first pen and moved across to one on the other side before he even raised his shovel.  “Shall we make it a race?” she called across the aisle.  When he looked over his shoulder at her, she grinned and added, “Try to shovel your whole side before I can finish mine.  You have a head start, since I cleaned the first stall for you.”

Nick knew there was no way he would beat her, but the mere challenge was enough motivation.  “You’re on,” he grinned back and forced himself to start scooping.  He held his breath for as long as he could, and when he ran out of air, he sucked more in through his mouth, instead of his nose.  It occurred to him that he was essentially swallowing tiny molecules of cow shit that way, but as long as he couldn’t smell it, it didn’t seem as bad.  The work was still unpleasant, and he didn’t think he’d ever get the smell out of his nostrils or off of his clothes, but after awhile, he started to realize it wasn’t much different from cleaning up dog shit, a chore he was very used to.  There was simply more to clean.

He moved from stall to stall, shoveling the piles of manure behind each cow into the ditch, checking over his shoulder periodically to see how far down the line Analiese had made it.  She finished her side before he did, of course, but not by much.  Her side was probably a lot cleaner than his was, though.

They met in the center aisle, both breathless and warm from all the shoveling.  “Now it’s time for the feeding,” Analiese said.  She led him into a small room off the back of the barn.  “This is the feed room,” she explained, lighting another lamp to brighten the inside.  Nick looked around.  There were bales of hay around the perimeter of the room and a large wheelbarrow positioned underneath a little, square door in the opposite wall.  Analiese walked up to the door and slid it open to reveal a chute filled with grain, which poured out into the wheelbarrow.  When the wheelbarrow was full, Analiese maneuvered it out of the feed room.  It must have been heavy, but she was stronger than she looked; she spilled not a single grain, as she expertly guided the wheelbarrow alongside a long, narrow trough that ran along the back of the cow pens and started scooping feed into it.  The cows lowed happily and stuck their faces through the slats of the pens to dig into the grain, as Analiese dispersed it among them.

“And now for the milking,” Analiese announced.  She showed him into another room - “the milking room,” she called it - where she gathered up some supplies, then took him back to the first cow pen.  “We have to strip and clean the udders before we can hook them up to the milk machine,” she said, lowing to a perch upon a little stool at the cow’s side.

“You use a machine?” asked Nick, who had been picturing her milking the cow the way he’d seen in the movies, by squeezing with her hands.

“Yes.  Almost everyone does, nowadays.  It’s much more efficient.  We use a generator to power them.”

He blinked.  “I thought you didn’t use electricity.”

“The generator runs on diesel.  It is not considered ‘fancy,’ but a necessity for our farming.  It allows us to produce more milk to sell.”

“Ah.”  It seemed almost hypocritical to Nick, but who was he to judge?  She hadn’t judged him for being different from her, for getting himself into trouble and getting his friend killed.

He felt his mind wander; it was the first time he’d thought of Kevin all morning.  It was still early, granted, but instead of it being the first thing he thought of when he woke up, he had managed to delay the flashback by keeping himself busy.  Maybe this whole hard work thing would be good for him, in more ways than one.

He forced himself to pay attention to what Analiese was doing, watching as she squeezed the cow’s udders between her thumb and forefinger.  A thin stream of milk squirted out.  “I’m just cleaning them out,” she explained.  “Now I’ll clean the outside.  This is iodine.”  She held up a bottle of dark liquid, with which she sprayed the udders, then wiped them with a paper towel.  “Now she’s ready to be hooked to the milking machine.”

With raised eyebrows, Nick watched her connect a metal, hose-like contraption to each of the cow’s udders.  She pressed a button on the machine, and Nick watched as a stream of milk flowed through the hoses, into a container.  “It takes ten or fifteen minutes.  Then we’ll pour this milk into the tank in the milk room and hook up the next cow.”

Nick eyed the two rows of cows.  “That’s gonna take forever…”

Analiese nodded.  “It’s a big job.  And we do it morning and night.  After dinner, we’ll come out and milk them again.”


She smiled.  “Would you like to try the next one?”

Nick blinked.  “Uh…”

“Come on.  It’s much more pleasant than shoveling manure.”

Her smile was so infectious that he found it impossible to say no.  He squatted down on the little stool she set beside the next cow, and she showed him where to squeeze the cow’s udders.  He hesitated; it felt wrong and almost perverse to fondle an animal that way, but he forced himself to put his fingers around one of the udders.  It was surprisingly hard, bulging, apparently, with milk.  He squeezed, and nothing happened.

“You have to squeeze harder,” said Analiese, and that put dirty thoughts into his head, but he forced them away and pinched harder.  Eventually, a white stream came, and that put more dirty thoughts into his head, as he realized what it reminded him of, and he suddenly wished AJ were there so he could say what he was thinking out loud.  He couldn’t with Analiese, though; it would only embarrass her and make him feel embarrassed, too.  So he stifled a snicker, as he moved on to the next udder.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” said Analiese in a tone of approval, as he finished and sprayed the udders with iodine, as he’d seen her do.  She gave him a paper towel to dry them and then showed him how to fit the hoses over the udders.  Within minutes, that cow, too, was pumping away.  And Nick agreed - weirdness aside, it was much more pleasant than the manure.  He had always liked animals, and the cows, although not very interactive, seemed as gentle as Analiese had claimed.  They were used to this, he figured, and maybe they even enjoyed it.  Maybe it felt good… like jacking off.

He stifled another snicker and wished again that AJ could see him now.


While Nick had been roused far too early for his liking that morning, AJ hadn’t yet been to bed.  Five a.m. found him sitting alone in his hotel room, a drink in his hand.  He’d practically cleaned out the mini-bar; this was the last of the hard liquor.

He had hoped the booze would lull him to sleep, or at least help him forget that Nick was missing and Kevin was in a coma.  But he was drunk as a skunk and still mostly conscious, and in the midst of his scattered and incoherent thoughts, the vision of Kevin lying there in a pool of his own blood popped up, and he saw the blood on the stairs, Nick’s blood, and he wondered vaguely, Where is Nick?  Is Nick alive?

And then he thought, No.  Nick’s dead.  Or he’s like Kevin.

And then he pictured Kevin again, lying so still in his hospital bed, and he pictured Nick, lying just as still in a casket - or in a ditch somewhere, or maybe a dumpster - and then the tears came, and he washed them away with another swig from his bottle of tequila, the last remaining bottle of hard liquor, which he hadn’t wanted to drink at first because he had no salt and no limes with which to chase it, but now it didn’t matter; he couldn’t taste it anyway.  He only felt the burn in the back of his throat, like the burn in his eyes from the stinging tears, and it continued on down his throat and into his gut like gasoline that he’d lit on fire.

He welcomed the burn, welcomed the pain, and wished that in doing so, he could take away the pain that Kevin and Nick might be feeling - if they were even still capable of feeling pain.

But he couldn’t.  He couldn’t do anything.  He was no good to anybody just sitting here; he was a wreck, a goddamn drunk, and while the others would be getting up in a few hours to go back to the hospital and wait for Kevin to wake up, he’d be passed out cold because he’d wasted the whole night getting wasted out of his mind.

“I sssuckin’ fffuck,” AJ muttered out loud, mixing and slurring the words together, and as a toast to this self-assessment, he downed the last shot of tequila from the little bottle.  It fell from his hand and rolled across the carpet as he slumped over in his armchair and finally blacked out.


Gianna woke that weekend to find her daughter already up and planted in front of the television.  Luci usually watched cartoons on Saturdays, but on that particular morning, she had tuned in to MTV instead.

“Whatcha doin’, babe?” Gianna asked as she came into the living room, noticing the MTV logo in the corner of the screen.  “You shouldn’t be watchin’ this on your own.”  She thought of all the shows on MTV that were inappropriate for a seven-year-old:  The Real World, Tom Green, Loveline…  “Let’s see what’s on Nickelodeon, huh?”

She reached over Luci’s shoulder for the remote, but Luci clutched it to her chest.  “No!” she howled.  “I wanna hear about the Backstreet Boys!”

Gianna sighed.  It hadn’t taken her long to hear the news about the attack on her favorite group.  One afternoon with the fourteen-year-old neighbor girl who babysat her after school, the one who had gotten Luci hooked on the Backstreet Boys in the first place, and Gianna had come home from work to find her daughter in tears.

“Alright,” she relented, “but just for a little bit, okay?  Once we hear something, we’ll put on some cartoons.”

“’Kay,” said Luci distantly, without tearing her eyes from the screen.  She seemed mesmerized by the Britney Spears music video that was playing, bobbing her head in time to the song.

Gianna wandered into the kitchen to start breakfast, knowing Joey would expect it when he got up.  Their relationship was a turbulent one, but they’d been together off and on since high school, and she knew him like the back of her hand - the parts of him he wanted her to know, anyway.  She knew he liked to sleep in and wake to a hot breakfast on weekends.  She knew he drank his coffee black.  She knew he loved her and Luci, even when he wasn’t around.

And the other stuff - like where he’d been the rest of the week, before he’d turned up last night - was none of her business.  Joey had made that clear.  With the sort of people he associated with, it was better not to get involved, safer not to know too much.  For Luci’s sake, Gianna had always turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.  She played ignorant, avoided asking too many questions, and went about her life as usual, while Joey slipped in and out of it.

The financial stability he’d given her and Luci made up for his unpredictability.  It was the only reason she put up with him, for she’d never be able to support Luci on a waitress’s wages.  As it was, her meager salary barely covered a month’s worth of groceries and babysitting fees.  But because Joey covered the bills and rent, she could put her tips in the jar on the counter and save them - or spend them - as she pleased.

Eyeing the jar as she spooned coffee grounds into a clean filter, she wished she had managed to save up enough to afford the Backstreet Boys concert tickets Luci had so wanted.  If she had known then it would be the last opportunity to see them perform, she’d have found a way.

She turned on the coffee pot, and as it started to bubble and sputter, she heard Luci shriek.  She hurried into the living room to find Luci on her knees, up close to the TV.  “Backstreet Boys, Mama!” she cried, glancing over her shoulder.

“Shh,” Gianna shushed her.  “Turn it back down; your dad’s still sleepin’.”

“Okay, but watch!” Luci insisted, as she lowered the volume a few notches.

Gianna’s eyes shifted to the TV.  It was another music video.  “Oh, this is their new one, ain’t it?” she said, watching a massive gold spaceship drift away from the camera to a medley of the boyband’s old hits.

“Yeah!”  Luci bounced excitedly.  “Backstreet Boys,” she read the title overlay that flashed on the screen.  “Larger Than Life.”

Smiling, Gianna sank down on the couch behind her.  “Wow, they pulled out all the stops on this one, huh?” she chuckled, watching the dancing robots and other special effects.

Luci didn’t answer, transfixed by the dance break which had them and a troupe of back-up dancers performing a routine on the spaceship.  She didn’t hear the bedroom door open or the footsteps that thumped up the short hallway, but Gianna did, and she whipped her head around just as Joey staggered around the corner.

“Can’t you two turn that crap down?  It’s friggin’ seven a.m.,” he grumbled, leaning groggily against the wall.

“Sorry,” Gianna replied quickly, “we’ll turn it down more.  Luce?”


“Didn’t you hear your dad?  Turn down the volume.”

“But it’s almost over…”

“Don’t talk back to your mother,” Joey interjected irritably.  “DOWN.  NOW.”   Reluctantly, Luci turned the volume down a few more notches.  “What is this crap you got on?  Star Wars the Musical or somethin’?” he asked, squinting at the TV.

Luci giggled.  “Noooo, Daddy, it’s the Backstreet Boys!”

“They’re the ones whose tickets you wouldn’t pay for, remember?” added Gianna, looking back at Joey.  She was surprised when he had no snappy retort.  There was an odd look on his face, as he stared at the screen.  He didn’t even seem to notice her frowning at him.

The video ended, and MTV News came on.  “Hi, I’m Serena Altschul, with MTV News Link,” said the anchor.  “In our top story, it’s been two days since the brutal attack on the Backstreet Boys in their Philadelphia hotel early Thursday morning, and the search for youngest member Nick Carter continues.”

Luci’s smile faded, her features sagging into a solemn look. 

“The Pennsylvania State Police report they have extended their search outside the city limits and are following several leads.  Meanwhile, Kevin Richardson is in reported ‘critical, but stable’ condition after sustaining a gunshot wound to the head.  Richardson underwent emergency brain surgery on Thursday and remains hospitalized in a coma.  A representative for the Backstreet Boys refused to comment on Richardson’s chances of recovery, but instead issued the following statement:  ‘We thank our fans around the world for their love and prayers during this difficult time.  At this time, we ask for privacy and prayers for Kevin’s recovery and Nick’s safe return.

As the statement appeared onscreen, Gianna snuck another glance at Joey.  He was reading the words through narrowed eyes, his jaw tightly clenched.  As she studied his body language, her heart sank, and a sick feeling washed over her, as she considered the disturbing possibility:  Did he have something to do with this?


Chapter 10 by RokofAges75
Chapter 10

The incessant knocking roused AJ from his drunken slumber.  Disoriented, he lifted his head and blearily looked around; it took a few seconds for the pieces to fall into place.  He wasn’t in bed, but in the same chair where he’d passed out a few hours earlier, in his hotel room in Philadelphia.  He and the Boys should have been on his way to the next city by now - somewhere in Ohio, he thought - but instead, they were stuck here, because Kevin was in the hospital, and Nick was… missing… and…

Someone was still knocking, loudly.  The pounding might as well have been coming from inside AJ’s head, rather than the door, but he mumbled, “Coming, coming…” and stumbled across the room to answer it.  He was not surprised to find Brian and Howie standing in the hall, looking annoyed.

“Sorry, did we wake you?” Brian asked sarcastically.

“We’re heading back to the hospital,” said Howie, a little more kindly.  Yet, as they studied AJ’s face, his dark eyes were filled with pity, more than understanding.  AJ knew he must have looked like a wreck.  He felt like a wreck.  “Are you coming with us, or…?”  He left the question hanging, waiting for AJ to say something.

AJ shifted his weight awkwardly in the door frame.  “Nah, go ahead without me,” he muttered finally, fixing his gaze on the floor.  “I didn’t sleep well… gonna try to catch a few more Zs… then I’ll meet up with you guys…”

“Gee, sorry to hear you didn’t sleep well,” said Brian, frowning at AJ.  “You’d think all the booze would make you sleep like a baby, but apparently not?”

AJ glared back at him, trying to mask his guilt.  He’d rarely heard Brian sound so sarcastic and snippy, not that he could blame him.  He knew he had fucked up last night; he knew he was letting them down now.  Still, he resented Brian for making him feel worse than he already did.

Before he could say something he’d later regret, Howie stepped in.  “I’m sure we’ve all had trouble sleeping the last few nights,” he said.  “I know I have.”

“Really, Howie?”  Brian rounded on him.  “You’ve had trouble sleeping?  Weird, ‘cause I’ve been sleepin’ like a rock.  I just drift right off and forget all about the fact that my cousin’s in a coma and my best friend’s gone missing.  I feel so well rested, ready to face another day of watching Kevin lie there like a vegetable…”  He glared at AJ again, his narrowed eyes looking like two slivers of ice, hard and cold.  “None of us have slept well in days, but you don’t see us drinking ourselves to sleep.”

“Lay off the self-righteous crap, Rok,” AJ muttered, rolling his eyes at him.  “Everyone grieves differently.”

“Grieves?” Brian repeated, his eyes flashing.  “Well, there’s the problem.  You need to pull your head out of your ass, stop ‘grieving,’ and start praying.  Nobody’s died.  Kevin’s still alive, and he needs us right now.  Nick needs us.”

“Nick’s DEAD.”

The words were out of AJ’s mouth before he could stop them.  He regretted them immediately, once he saw the stricken look cross Brian’s face, but there was no taking them back.  Figuring he might as well defend them, he added, “I know you don’t wanna hear that, but c’mon, let’s face reality here.  There’s been no sign of Nick for three days, except for the blood we found on the stairs.  When do you ever hear of a missing person found alive after three days?”

Brian looked as stunned as if he’d been slapped.  “How can you say that?  We have to believe he’s still alive.  We have to have faith and keep praying that they’ll find him.”  His voice sounded strangled and hoarse, no longer sarcastic, but his eyes blazed with his own belief in what he was saying.  Brian did have faith.

AJ nodded and looked away from his friend’s blazing eyes.  He wanted to believe what Brian did, but in his heart, he was almost sure that in a few days, or weeks, or months, they would find Nick’s remains, washed ashore, buried in a ditch, or wrapped up in someone’s basement.  He’d watched enough TV to know how these cases usually turned out.  There was no way whoever had shot Kevin in the head would let Nick live, and while Brian clung to his faith, AJ had accepted the cold, hard truth.  Nick was dead, and Kevin might as well be, too, for as grievously as he’d been wounded.  But he didn’t dare repeat this.  All he said instead was, “I hope you’re right.”

Brian continued to glare at him, looking somehow betrayed, until Howie said, “Well, we should get going.  We’ll see you later then?”  He looked pointedly at AJ, who nodded.

“Yeah.  Later.”

They turned and left, walking up the hall without looking back, and AJ, feeling ashamed at himself, retreated back into his room and bolted the door.  He slid into bed, burying his head under the covers, and tried to stop himself from thinking.  He was still a little drunk, and that helped; his brain felt fuzzy, and his head kept pounding, and it was easier than he’d expected to fall back to sleep.

It seemed like he had just shut his eyes when he woke to the sound of knocking again.  “Ugh, what now?” he groaned, squeezing the pillow around his head to muffle the sound.  It was no use; the knocking persisted, making his head pound again.  “I told you, later!” he shouted.  “Leave me alone!”

But the knocker didn’t leave, and so finally, AJ dragged himself out of bed and staggered to the door, ranting the whole way.  “Swear to god, if you guys are back to make me feel even shittier, you’re gonna get a taste of your own medicine,” he muttered under his breath.  He unbolted the door and wrenched it open.  “Seriously, what part of ‘leave me alone’ do you not under-”

He stopped suddenly, the word “stand” dying on his tongue as he found himself staring into the haggard face of Nick’s mother, Jane Carter.  “Jane!” he cried, his voice jumping an octave.  “Sorry, I thought you were… Come in!”

He quickly ushered her in, letting the door close behind her.  Jane stood stiffly just inside the hotel room, clutching her purse under her arm.  AJ felt self-conscious of the way the room looked - the shades drawn, the bedsheets hanging off the mattress, the empty liquor bottles scattered across the coffee table and floor.  “Sorry for the mess,” he apologized, as he scurried around, hurriedly opening the drapes, straightening the covers, and picking up the bottles.

“Don’t bother,” said Jane.  “I’m not staying.  I just came from the police station, and I have a reservation at a different hotel.”

“Oh,” said AJ, dropping the bottle he was holding into the wastebasket with a loud clink.  “What did the police… I mean, did they have any new… information?  Any leads?”

“Oh, they have leads.  Hundreds of tips have been coming in, they told me,” said Jane, pinching the bridge of her nose.  “They’re trying to decide which ones are worth following up on.  They think most are from delusional fans, wanting to believe they saw Nick, or desperate individuals seeking fame or attention or reward money.”  She sighed.  “They doubt many of them are actually reliable.”

AJ nodded.  “I’m sorry,” he offered.  “But it’s still early.  Something will come up.  They’ll track down the right lead eventually.  They’ll find him, Jane.  They have to.”  Hypocrite, he thought to himself, wondering why he was bothering to spout off all this bullshit he didn’t really believe, when he’d been so blunt with Brian earlier.  But how could he look Nick’s mother in the eye and tell her he thought her son was dead?

“I hope so,” Jane’s voice quavered, her eyes welling up with tears.  He could tell she’d done a fair amount of crying already; her face looked blotchy, and he could see black streaks where her mascara had run.

“Are Bob and the kids-?”

“Still in California.  I didn’t want them in the middle of all this, until I saw what the situation was like, myself.”  She shook her head, absently smoothing her dyed black hair.  “I talked to Howie.  He said you’d be here.”

AJ wondered she wanted with him.  “If there’s anything I can do, Jane…” he started automatically and was surprised when she nodded at once.

“Yes, there is.  I want to see the room where it happened.  Nick’s room.”

AJ swallowed hard.  “I’m pretty sure the police have it sealed off.  But… yeah… I can show you were it is.  It’s just down a floor…”

A couple of minutes later, he was leading Jane down the stairs.  The blood, thankfully, had been cleaned up.  He assumed the police had taken a sample of it first.  They exited the stairwell and walked down the hall.  AJ hadn’t been on this floor since Wednesday night, when the ambulance crew had whisked Kevin out on a stretcher.  The closer they got to the room where it had happened, the more he felt like throwing up.  Somehow, he remembered the room number - 1114 - but as it turned out, he didn’t need to.  A single length of yellow police tape stretched across the door frame told him they were in the right place.  He reached under the tape to try the doorknob, but of course, it was locked.  The room was now a crime scene.

He glanced over at Jane.  Her face was white, and she stood with her hand covering her mouth, as if she, too, felt like throwing up.  After a minute, she said shakily, “Why were he and Kevin staying a floor down from the rest of you?”

AJ frowned.  That was a good question.  He suddenly wondered the same thing.  It took a few seconds for him to remember the reason.  “They changed rooms.  Something about roaches.”  But as he said it aloud, it suddenly seemed like an odd excuse.  This was a five-star hotel; he’d been there four nights and hadn’t seen any bugs.  He wondered if there was some other reason behind the room change.  Could it have had anything to do with the attack?  They still didn’t know how the attacker had gotten in.  He knew the police had been questioning everyone who worked for the hotel.  Was one of them behind the whole thing?

He didn’t say anything to Jane, but he was glad she had booked a room in a different hotel.  When he went to the hospital later, he would suggest that he and the guys do the same.


Howie was sitting with Brian in the waiting room when AJ turned up at the hospital, looking hungover, but better than he had at the hotel that morning.  At least he appeared to have showered and no longer reeked of booze.  “Any change?” he asked the two of them.  Brian stared at the floor, apparently not quite ready to make his peace with AJ yet, but Howie shook his head.

“No.  The only good news is that they did a CT scan of his brain, and the swelling is going down,” he said, relaying the information Kevin’s doctor had given them earlier.  “But he hasn’t shown any signs of waking up from the coma.”

AJ sighed heavily and threw himself down into the open seat next to Howie.  “His mom’s in with him now?” he guessed.

“No, she and Kristin went down to the cafeteria for lunch.  A physical therapist came to exercise Kevin’s arms and legs - you know, so the muscles don’t start to atrophy,” said Howie, shifting awkwardly in his seat.  All morning, they’d witnessed medical personnel popping in and out of Kevin’s room.  Doctors made their rounds, medical students turned up to observe, and nurses came in at regular intervals to chart vitals, change IV bags, empty containers of fluid, and turn Kevin to prevent bedsores.  It disturbed Howie to see Kevin so helpless, reliant on other people to care for him and medical technology to keep him alive.

“How are Ann and Kristin holding up?” AJ wanted to know.

Howie shrugged.  The two women seemed to be leaning on one another, each helping the other hold it together, as they stood by the man they both loved.  “As well as you’d expect, I guess,” he told AJ.  “Did you know Nick’s mom’s in town?”

“Yeah.  She came by the hotel.  She wanted to see the room where it happened.”

“Did you show her?”

He shrugged.  “I took her down.  Not much to see; the room’s locked up.”

“Where is she now?” Howie asked, looking around, as if he’d missed her walking in with AJ.

“Back at her hotel, I guess.  She’d already been to the police station.”

“Oh.”  Howie frowned, put off by the fact that Jane hadn’t bothered to come check on Kevin.  Then again, he shouldn’t have been surprised; Jane Carter had always struck him as a woman who put her own interests ahead of anyone else’s.

“Speaking of hotels…” AJ said.  “I think we should move into a different one.”

“Why?” asked Howie.  The hotel they were staying in had been extremely accommodating, extending their reservations past the three nights they had originally planned to stay.

“Well… don’t you wonder about the security?  I mean, how did someone get into Nick and Kevin’s room?”

“They could have let him in,” Howie said doubtfully.  “We don’t know what happened.”

“Right.  But… I dunno, I just think we should stay somewhere else.”

“I’m with AJ,” Brian spoke for the first time since AJ had arrived.  Howie saw a look of understanding pass between the two of them.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll call Skip about changing the accommodations.”  He pulled out his cell phone to contact their tour manager, and several phone calls later, the new reservations had been made.

“How long do you think you’ll stay in Philadelphia?” Skip had wanted to know.  Howie didn’t miss his use of “you’ll” instead of “we’ll.”  He understood it to mean that everyone else on the tour - the band, the dancers, the crew - would be heading home soon.  Their next show was supposed to be Monday night in Columbus, Ohio, but unless a double miracle occurred in the next day, they wouldn’t be performing it.  The promoters couldn’t afford to keep everyone in Philadelphia indefinitely.  But Howie couldn’t think of leaving.

“As long as Kevin’s in the hospital,” he said firmly.  “And as long as it takes for them to find Nicky.”


The sun had barely set over the Albrechts’ farm when Nick staggered into the grandfather house, stripped out of his sweat-soaked clothing, and collapsed into bed.

It was only six-thirty, but after a full day’s work, he was exhausted.  His back ached from hours of cleaning out animal stalls, raking leaves in the yard, and picking crops in the fields, yet his belly was full from the supper Analiese’s mother had served.  He would sleep well tonight, he thought, as he slid between the sheets.  They felt soft and cool against his sore and sunburned body, and he sighed with relief as he lowered his head onto the pillow at last and closed his eyes.

But sleep didn’t come as quickly as he would have liked.  He lay awake, listening to the sounds of night falling outside his window and missing the rumble of the tour bus and the screaming of fans.  He heard the faint sounds of laughter drifting through the open windows of the farmhouse, as Analiese’s family finally settled down to relax, and he longed to hear the familiar voices of his own “family” - AJ’s gravelly rasp, Howie’s fast way of talking, Brian’s animated impressions, and most of all, Kevin’s low, slow drawl.  Nick thought of the life and the people he’d left behind, and a tear slipped out from under one of his heavy eyelids and trickled down his scorched, red cheek, wetting the plain white pillowcase.

He was too tired to feel ashamed over crying himself to sleep, but once he had, he slept well and didn’t wake until Analiese came to get him up for the morning milking.


Late that night, as Nick slept soundly in his new surroundings, as Brian, AJ, and Howie stayed in their new hotel, and as Kevin lay comatose in his hospital room, Gianna sat on the couch, wide awake, in her apartment.  The TV was on low; David Bowie was performing on Saturday Night Live, but Gianna tuned it out, her mind faraway with worry.

In one of the apartment’s two bedrooms, her daughter Luci was tucked into bed, a teddy bear under her arm and a teenybopper magazine pinup of Nick Carter on the wall above her head.  In the other, her boyfriend Joey was pacing, his phone to his ear.  Gianna couldn’t see him; the door was shut, but she could hear his footsteps shuffling behind it, his muffled words leaking through it.  Something had upset him.  He’d seemed edgy all day, ever since that morning.

Gianna waited until she heard him stop pacing, stop talking, and get off the phone before she turned off the TV and crept back to the bedroom.  Joey was already in bed.  “You awake?” she asked quietly, pretending she hadn’t heard him.

“Yeah.  C’mere,” he said, reaching for her.

“Gimme a sec.”  She undressed slowly, while he watched.  “You okay?” she asked, twirling her camisole around her index finger by the strap.  “You been actin’ kinda weird all day.  Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” he said, a little too quickly, a little too defensively.  “Why?”

She shrugged.  “Just checkin’.”  She tossed the cami into the laundry hamper and stepped out of her panties.  Slipping into bed, she pulled the sheets up around her nude body and snuggled in close to his.  “I wanted to ask you somethin’,” she whispered, trailing her hand across his bare chest, her finger toying with his nipple.

“What’s that?”

She kept her voice soft and seductive, not wanting to seem too suspicious, but merely curious.  “That news story we saw on MTV this morning… you know, about those Backstreet Boys Luci likes?  You don’t know anything about that, do you?”

He confirmed her worst suspicions when he suddenly jerked away from her, rolling right out of bed.  “Back off, Gianna,” he said, rounding on her, towering over her as he stood next to the bed.  He raised his finger at her, waving it threateningly.  “We been down this road before, and I’m warnin’ you for the last time… Stay out of it.  It ain’t none of your business what I know and what I don’t.  You don’t need to know none of it, got it?  Forget about it.”

She swallowed, determined to keep her voice steady.  “Got it,” she whispered, and left it at that, rolling away from him and closing her eyes.  She heard him pace around the room for a few more minutes, but finally, Joey got back into bed and settled down beside her.  His breathing slowly deepened, and after half an hour or so, she heard him start to snore.  Maybe he could push whatever had been bothering him out of his mind, just like that, but she couldn’t forget about it.  Like Nick hours before her, Gianna lay awake, thinking, wondering…

Just what did he know?  How involved was he?  And how involved did she dare become?


Chapter 11 by RokofAges75
Chapter 11

On Sunday morning, Nick was woken, once again, at the crack of dawn.  He fumbled through the morning milking with Analiese and then sat down to breakfast with her family, as he had the day before.  He ate slowly, savoring the hearty food, dreading another long day of work ahead, until Analiese looked over at him and said, “We have church today.  Will you be joining us, Nick?”

Nick swallowed.  He should have figured people as religious as these would devote Sunday to worship, rather than work.  Although it was tempting to go back to bed while they went on to church, he thought it would seem ungrateful not to accept her offer and accompany them, so he reluctantly nodded and said, “Sure… I mean, if that’s okay.”

Overhearing, Analiese’s father offered a rather stiff smile and replied, “Of course, you are welcome to worship with us.”

Nick hadn’t been raised in a religious family, but he had been to Catholic church with Howie and Baptist church with Brian before, so he thought he at least had some idea of what he was getting into.  But, as usual, he was wrong.  Amish church was completely different from any other he’d experienced.

For one thing, there was no actual church.  Nick, who had been expecting a building with a steeple on top and pews inside, looked over at Analiese in confusion when the buggy stopped instead outside a small, white house, almost identical to her own.  “This is church?” he asked, as her little sisters and brother clambered out after their parents.

“Church is held at a different house, every other Sunday,” Analiese explained, motioning for him to get out.  “This week, we will worship at the Yoders’.”  Nick climbed out of the buggy and turned around, offering his hand to help her, but Analiese ignored it and jumped neatly down to the ground.  They walked together across the yard, following the flock of Amish people into the house.

From the back, everyone looked identical, in their dark clothing and matching black bonnets and wide-brimmed hats.  AJ would hate this, Nick thought, smiling as he pictured his friend, who went out of his way to look different, with his variety of hats and sunglasses, crazy hair colors and tattoos.  The smile faded as he wondered when, or if, he’d see AJ again.  How could he face him, or any of the guys, after what he’d allowed to happen?

“The men and women sit separately for the service,” Analiese said as they entered the house, interrupting his thoughts.  “You’ll go with my father, into that room.  Lukas is helping put the horses in the barn, but he’ll join you when he’s finished.”  She pointed through a doorway, into a large room where all the furniture had been cleared away, replaced with rows of simple, backless wooden benches.  The men were clustered in small circles, mingling until it was time to sit down.  Nick hung back, feeling awkward about going in there alone, but when he turned to say something to Analiese, she was already gone.  He saw her entering the next room, where circles of women had gathered.  He wasn’t about to follow her in there, so he sucked in a deep breath and wandered in with the men instead.

He picked out Analiese’s father, Joseph, among all the other long-bearded, broad-shouldered men in the room and stood near him until it was time to sit down.  He started to follow him to one of the benches in the back, until Lukas appeared at his side and said, “The youth sit at the front.  This way.”  Nick didn’t want to sit up front, but he went with Lukas, who asked out of the blue, “How old are you, Nick?”

“Nineteen,” Nick replied, caught off-guard by the question.  “Why?”

“The youth sit in age order.  Most plain people join the church and are baptized at around age eighteen, but since you are not a member, I suppose you should just sit beside me.”  He pointed to a spot on one of the benches, and Nick sat down.  As Lukas sat down next to him, Nick recognized the guy sitting on his other side as Emeric, the Albrechts’ field hand.

“Hey,” he said, offering a half smile.  Emeric just nodded his head in greeting, but Nick could see him studying him out the corner of his eye, as the other boys filed in and sat down around them, preparing for the church service to begin.  He could feel the eyes open him as they craned their necks to goggle at the stranger in their midst.  Even though Nick was dressed Amish, having borrowed more of Analiese’s opa’s clothes, it must have been obvious he wasn’t one of them.  Maybe it was his dyed blonde hair that gave him away, or maybe it was his body language, the way he kept fidgeting on the bench, clearly uncomfortable.  Maybe it was just the fact that no one in this small, close-knit community had ever seen him before.  He was used to being stared at because he was famous, because he’d been recognized.  Being stared at because no one knew who he was was an altogether new experience for Nick.  He wished they wouldn’t stare at all.  He wished he could just blend in and be anonymous.

Things settled down once it was time for the church service to begin, and as everyone took their seats on the long, wooden benches, Nick saw thick books being passed around.  “What are those?” he asked Lukas in a whisper.  “Bibles?”

“The Ausbund,” answered Lukas in his odd accent.  “A hymnal of songs.”

Nick instantly felt more at ease.  Finally, something he knew about - singing.

“We can share,” Lukas offered when he received one of the large hymnals, opening it on his lap for Nick to see.

As quickly as it had come, the relaxed feeling went away, as Nick looked down at one of the hymns.  He was dismayed to find that there was no musical notation on its pages, only lyrics.  Lyrics written completely in German.  So much for singing, he thought, suppressing a sigh.

The hymn was the strangest song he’d ever heard.  Not that Nick was well-versed in religious music, but he knew his Christmas songs, and he even knew a few German songs, if he counted “99 Luftballoons” and Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and not even those were as strange as this one.  It had a melody that was slow and sad and not at all catchy.  The congregation sang it in unison, almost like a chant, with no harmony and no accompaniment.  Their voices seemed to drag on forever, plodding through stanza after stanza, each as unintelligible to Nick as the next.  The first song took a full fifteen minutes to sing; Nick timed it on the grandfather clock in the corner, thinking, Damn, this shit’s even longer than “Stairway to Heaven!”  And then they started a second song.

Shoot me now, thought Nick, as the singing dragged on and on, but that was only the beginning.  It set the tone for the rest of the service, which went on for three hours, according to the grandfather clock.  More than one person stood up to deliver a sermon, and while those were presented in the same, strange dialect of English that Analiese and Lukas used, the many Scripture readings were done in German.  Nick could count to three in German.  Beyond that, he only knew how to say four things - hallo (hello), wie geht’s (how’s it going?), danke schön (thank you very much), and Ich liebe dich (I love you).  Since the Scriptures didn’t seem to be limited to these four phrases, he quickly spaced out.

Looking around, while he waited for it to be over, Nick was glad to see that at least he wasn’t the only one having a tough time sitting still through the service.  The younger boys in front of him were as fidgety as he felt, and when he turned his head to sneak a peek toward the back, he could have sworn some of the older men had nodded off to sleep, under the guise of bowing their heads in prayer.  He smirked to himself, ducking his own head so no one would see.

Nick wasn’t someone who prayed regularly, but after he’d given up on trying to understand the Amish prayers and started tuning them out, he had his own private conversation with God in his head.  What am I doing here?  I mean, no offense, God, but I don’t belong here with these people.  I should be hanging out in my hotel room right now.  I should be gearing up to go onstage tonight.  But I guess I wouldn’t be, even if I were still in Philadelphia, because Kevin’s dead…

The hard reality hit him again like a wrecking ball straight to the gut.  It knocked the wind out of him, and for a scary few seconds, he felt like he couldn’t breathe.  The room was stifling, packed with people, but even if he’d dared to get up and go out for some fresh air, he didn’t see any way out without creating a scene.  He was stuck in the middle of the bench, sandwiched between Lukas and Emeric.  There was no escaping.  So he sucked in a shallow breath and let it out slowly, trying to keep his composure.

Why did you let that happen, God? Nick asked angrily, but he knew it wasn’t fair to blame God.  If it was anyone’s fault, it was his own, for being so naïve and stupid.  Why hadn’t he called the police as soon as he got back to the hotel that night, the night he’d seen them dump the body?  Why hadn’t he confided in Kevin when he kept asking what was wrong?  He hadn’t wanted to involve anyone else, but like it or not, Kevin had gotten involved, in the worst way imaginable.  If Nick had just been honest with him, Kevin might have been able to help him.  Kevin would have handled it a lot better than he had.  Kevin always knew what to do.  But Kevin had been killed, because Nick had done all the wrong things.

I’m so sorry, Kev, he thought, tears filling his eyes.  God, if he’s up there in Heaven with you, will you tell him I said that?  Tell him I’m sorry?  Tell him I never meant for him to get hurt?  He was my brother… almost like a dad to me.  I loved him… like family…

Nick wasn’t sure he really believed in Heaven, but if there was such a place, he knew Kevin had to be there.  Kevin was too good a person not to be.  He hoped there was, and that God could hear him and pass his message on.  He wondered if Kevin himself could be looking down on him right now, to see his tears and know how sorry he was.  Rather than comforting him, the idea made him slightly uncomfortable, Kevin watching his every move, knowing his every thought.  What would Kevin say if he could see him now?  What would he tell him to do?

He’d tell me to go home, Nick decided, or back to Philadelphia, anyway.  He’d tell me how much I was hurting people, hiding out here.

He squirmed guiltily on his seat, knowing he was right.  He had taken the path of least resistance, staying here with Analiese instead of going back to face his fears.  But it wasn’t so easy, being here, either.  His back ached from shoveling cow shit and sitting so long on this hard bench.  His ass had gone numb an hour ago, and his legs felt stiff and cramped, but there was no space to swing them or stretch them out.  His physical discomfort was nothing compared to the emotional anguish he was feeling inside, though.  Maybe this is my punishment, he thought.  Is that it, God?  Are you punishing me for being so stupid?

He didn’t know what to do.  If he went back, he’d be putting himself and others in danger, and he’d have to answer some tough questions and face the hard reality head-on.  He didn’t want to do any of that.  But he didn’t want to stay here, either.  Analiese and her family had been helpful and kind to him, but he could never be like them.  He didn’t see how he could get up before dawn each day to work on the farm, sit through three-hour church services every other Sunday, and survive without electricity.  He was just kidding himself, thinking this could be a solution to his problems.  It was only creating new problems in place of the ones he was avoiding.

Furtively wiping the tears from his eyes, he decided that when the church service was over, he would thank Analiese’s family for their hospitality… and tell them he was leaving.


Brian brushed away tears as he left the hospital chapel.  He knew it would be obvious he’d been crying, and that was okay, but he wanted to regain at least some measure of his composure before he went back upstairs to join the others in their ongoing vigil outside the Neuro ICU.

“You okay?” asked his bodyguard, Tom, who had been waiting outside the door for him.

Brian shrugged.  “Not really,” he admitted.  Although the swelling in Kevin’s brain had gone down, his cousin was still in a coma, and his best friend was still missing.  How could he possibly be okay?

Tom clamped a meaty hand down on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.  “I’m sorry, man.  I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Neither can I,” muttered Brian, shaking his head.  It felt like a nightmare, but three days had passed, and he hadn’t woken up.  He rubbed his eyes again; they were swollen and sticky with half-dried tears.

“Mr. Littrell?”

When he opened his eyes, Brian found himself looking up into the face of Police Sergeant Bruce Malcolm, who was heading up the investigation into Nick’s disappearance.  “Sergeant Malcolm,” he said in surprise.

“I was on my way upstairs to talk to you,” said the sergeant.

Brian eyed him curiously, wondering if he had any updates for them.  “We were just heading back up.”

“I’ll walk with you.”  He fell into step next to Brian, flanking him on the opposite side as Tom, and the three of them made their way back to the elevator.  Sergeant Malcolm didn’t say anything more until they were in the privacy of the elevator.  Then he turned to Brian and said, “I wanted to tell you, I was able to trace the phone number you got that strange call from on Thursday night.”

Brian nodded, remembering the silent caller he’d assumed to be paparazzi, until Howie had brought up the notion of it being Nick.  They’d mentioned it to the police, who had copied down the number from Brian’s cell phone log and promised to look into it.

“The call was placed from a pay phone at a gas station in Paradise, a small town out in Lancaster County, about sixty miles west of here.  I sent a couple of my officers out to investigate, but they weren’t able to find much.  They talked to the gas station attendants who were working that night, but no one remembered seeing anything, and they don’t have surveillance cameras - a lot of them rural, rinky-dinky places don’t.”

“Surveillance cameras,” Brian repeated, the phrase jogging a related question to the forefront of his mind.  “Did the hotel have cameras?”

Sergeant Malcolm nodded grimly.  “Yes, but we didn’t get anything useful off of them.  They only cover common areas - the main entrance, the lobby, the elevators, the pool.  Unfortunately, Nick - or whoever took Nick - knew enough not to go through any of those areas.  Based on the blood evidence we found on the stairs, we’re fairly certain he exited through the stairwell and out a back door.”

“Oh.”  Brian didn’t bother to hide his disappointment.

“Anyway,” the sergeant went on, as the elevator went up, “my guys tried to dust the pay phone for prints, but there were too many of ‘em to get anything conclusive.  You’d be surprised, but pay phones in those parts still get a lot of use - that’s Amish country, and they don’t have phones, see, so they use the public ones when they need to.”

“So there’s no way to know if it was Nick calling?”

Sergeant Malcolm shook his head.  “Honestly, I doubt it was Nick.  More likely, it was his abductor.”

Brian’s eyes widened.  “You think?”

The sergeant shrugged.  “Could have been.  Maybe he thought he’d try to get some ransom money out of you and chickened out at the last second, or maybe he just wanted to spook you.  In any case, it’s gonna be hard to track him, but if he called once, he might call again.  I doubt it’ll be from the same phone - he was probably just passing through - but just to make sure we’ve got all bases covered, I placed a plain-clothes officer on a stakeout near the gas station, in case he comes back.  I’d also like permission to put a tap on your cell phone, so we can monitor any other suspicious calls that come through.”

Brian nodded.  “Sure.  Do whatever you need to do.”  Then an unsettling thought occurred to him.  “But how did he get my number?”

“Would Nick have had your number on him?  Maybe stored in his cell phone?”

Brian’s heart sank.  They hadn’t found Nick’s phone in the hotel room.  “Yeah,” he said, his voice cracking.  “That must be how.”  As much as the thought of this psycho knowing his phone number disturbed him, it was even more disturbing to imagine him taking Nick’s phone from his lifeless body and using it to leech personal information from his contacts.

Sergeant Malcolm must have seen the look on Brian’s face, reflected in the elevator doors.  As they slid open, he patted Brian twice on the shoulder and said, “Don’t lose hope.  The pay phone might be a dead end, but my guys are still chasing lots of leads.  We’ll find him.”

Brian hadn’t lost hope.  He hoped the police sergeant was right, that Nick would be found.  Even more so, he hoped Nick would be found alive.


Chapter 12 by RokofAges75
Chapter 12

It was a relief to Nick to escape outside after the three-hour Amish church service.  The sun was high overhead in the clear blue sky, and although it was warm, a cool breeze rustled the leaves on the trees, which were already starting to change color for the fall.  It was a beautiful day in Paradise, and for a second, as he sucked in a breath of fresh air, sweet with the smell of cut grass and hay, Nick felt satisfied and grateful to be alive.

Then he remembered that Kevin was dead.

The vivid colors seemed to fade from the idyllic world around him, as his mood darkened again.  He plodded across the lawn after Lukas, his footsteps heavy with the burden of what he knew he must do.  He had to go back and face the music in the merciless world he’d left behind, a world in which people brutally murdered other people and dumped their bodies in polluted rivers to become fish food.  Even though he wasn’t cut out for Amish life, a part of him longed to stay in their world, where everything seemed so much simpler.

He found the Albrecht family milling around outside the house, mingling with the rest of the congregation.  “Can I talk to you?” he asked Analiese, pulling her aside.

Analiese blinked up at him in surprise.  “Of course,” she said in her high, sweet voice, walking away with him.  Once they were out of earshot of the others, she asked, “What did you think of our church?”

Nick looked down into her open, innocent face and hated to lie.  “It was… long.”  He figured that was close as he could come to honest without offending her.  “I didn’t understand a lot of it,” he admitted, shrugging his shoulders.

She nodded, smiling.  “I’m sure that made it seem especially long.  It feels like a long time to sit even for me, sometimes, and especially for the younger children.  But that is the way it is.  Perhaps it is also why we only go to church every other Sunday.”

That surprised him, considering how religious they were.  “What do you do on your Sundays off?” he wondered.

“On opposite Sundays, we visit with family and friends.  Sometimes we travel to other communities.  It’s an opportunity to see folks we don’t get to see often.”

He nodded.  “That’s cool.  Sounds nice.”

“It is,” she agreed, still smiling up at him.  “So what did you wish to talk to me about?”

Nick realized he’d been stalling.  “I did some thinking during church, and I decided I’ve gotta go back.”

“Back?  To Philadelphia?”  When Nick nodded, Analiese raised her eyebrows in concern.  “But I thought you said you’d be in danger there.  That the men who hurt you would come looking for you.”

Nick’s heart jumped into his throat, hammering hard.  He swallowed with difficulty.  “They might,” he answered slowly, “but this time, I’ll go to the police.  They’ll be able to give me some protection.”  Maybe they’ll put me in the Witness Protection Program, he thought, his mind running away with this possibility.  Maybe I’ll have to move to another state and change my name, my appearance, everything.  He wondered if that would even work.  Where could he go where no one would recognize him, even in disguise?  The reality was, the only place he’d been in the last year where no one knew him was… here.  Among the Amish, he was safely anonymous.  This realization made him automatically start rethinking his decision again.

He didn’t know what to do.  He looked to Analiese for answers, but she was in no position to give him advice.  “Of course,” she said with a nod.  “I’m sure they will do all they can to keep you safe.  But how will you get back to the city?  My dat would never let me go so far in our buggy.”

Nick couldn’t help but smile.  “Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to take me.  If you could just give me a ride to that pay phone again, I’ll call the police.  They can send someone out to get me.”

Analiese nodded again.  “I can do that.  If you’ll stay for the rest of the day, Lukas and I will take you to town this evening, after the Sunday night sing.”

“Sure, whatever, that works.  Thank you,” Nick added, not sure he’d ever adequately expressed his appreciation for her hospitality.  She was a total stranger, from a completely different culture, yet she’d taken him in, lied to her family to protect him, and he could never thank her enough for that.

“You’re welcome,” replied Analiese humbly.  Then, with a glance back at her family, she added, “Let’s walk back.  It’s time to get ready for the midday meal.”

He followed her back across the lawn, where her sisters and brother were waiting.  Most of the adults had gone back into the house.

“There’s not enough room to seat everyone at once,” Analiese explained, “so we eat in shifts, oldest to youngest.”

Back at the kids’ table, Nick thought, suppressing a smirk, when he finally sat down to eat lunch with Analiese and her younger siblings.  He was sandwiched in between nine-year-old Miriam and thirteen-year-old Kirsten on one of the wooden benches from church, which had been rearranged to look like long picnic tables.  Across from him, next to Analiese, sat six-year-old Samuel.  The little boy watched Nick intently as he ate, while the two younger girls shyly looked away whenever he turned his head toward one of them.  They were both like miniature versions of Analiese and the only two girls their age Nick had met who didn’t shriek in his presence.

No one spoke much, until Samuel broke the silence with a loud belch.  Everyone looked at him, and Nick started to laugh.  “Wow, that’s a big burp for such a little body!” he exclaimed.  Samuel just grinned, looking pleased with himself.  Nick expected someone to reprimand the little boy for being rude, or at least remind him to say “Excuse me,” but no one did.

Apparently sensing his confusion, Analiese smiled and explained, “A belch shows appreciation for a good meal.  It was good, right, Sam?”

Ja!” said Sam, patting his belly.

Nick grinned.  “Wish someone had told me sooner.  I can do that on command, you know.”  He winked at the little boy.

“On command?”  Sam crinkled his nose in confusion.

“I mean, I can make myself burp.”

His blue eyes lit up.  “Really??  Show me!”

“I need soda… something carbonated.”  Nick looked up and down the table, but the only drinks they seemed to be serving were coffee and water.

“There aren’t any soft drinks here,” said Analiese.  Then, her eyes sparkling just like Sam’s, she added in a whisper, “But there may be at the sing tonight.”


That evening, as the adults and younger children started to leave in their buggies, Nick was surprised to see a group of teenagers setting up a volleyball net in the yard.  He looked over at Analiese, eyebrows raised.  “Y’all play volleyball?”

She giggled.  “I don’t play well, myself, but ja, we do.  Would you like to play?  You can join Lukas’s team.”

“Yeah, sure.”  Nick preferred beach volleyball, but this was better than nothing.  It would help pass the time until they could take him into town.  He walked over to where two teams were assembling, joining the side Lukas was standing on.  “Mind if I play?”

“We need one more on our side!” a deep voice called.  Nick looked across the net.  It was Emeric who had shouted; he stood with his arms crossed, surveying Nick the same way he had during the church service.  “You any good, city boy?”

Sensing the challenge in his tone, Nick smirked back.  “Good enough.  Let’s just say you’d rather play with me than against me.”

Emeric grinned.  “Come on over then, English.”

Nick shrugged at Lukas.  “Guess I’m playing for the other side.”  Lukas didn’t seem to mind.  Nick ducked under the net and trotted over to Emeric, raising his hand for a high-five.  When Emeric slapped his hand, he felt accepted for the first time since he’d arrived in Paradise.  Maybe a little friendly competition was all he needed.

“Why don’t you serve first?” suggested Emeric, tossing him the ball.

Nick nodded, knowing this was his chance to prove himself.  He could feel the Amish eyes upon him as he took his place in the back right corner.  He sucked in a deep breath, tossed the ball into the air, and hit it as hard as he could with the heel of his hand, driving it up and over the net.  Lukas and an Amish girl both dove for it, nearly butting heads, but it dropped neatly between them and bounced off the grass.

“Nice shot, English!” Emeric exclaimed, nodding his approval.  “Point goes to us.  Serve again.”

Nick smiled, waiting for the ball to be rolled back to him.  Despite the ache in his shoulders from shoveling, it felt good to hit something.  He served the ball over the net again, and this time, the other side volleyed it back.

The game quickly intensified, as each side scrambled to save the ball.  Nick enjoyed the teamwork as much as he enjoyed the sense of exhilaration he felt, his heart pounding as he bumped, set, and spiked to score for his side.  Sports had always been a stress-reliever for him.  Whenever the rigors of life on the road got to be too much, he would grab a basketball - Brian always brought one on tour - and find a court where the two of them could shoot hoops.

Brian…  Just thinking the name made him feel sick to his stomach.  He could still hear his friend’s voice over the phone, sounding exhausted and annoyed.  He hated himself for putting Brian through such pain.  Because of Nick’s mistakes, he’d lost both his cousin and his best friend in one night.  Would he blame Nick if he knew the truth?  Nick knew that if anyone was capable of forgiveness, it was Brian, but he couldn’t imagine his best friend ever being able to look at him the same way again after he found out it was Nick who’d gotten Kevin killed.  Their friendship would be forever changed.  Everything would be changed.

This thought made Nick content to postpone the inevitable a little longer.  Unfortunately for him, it also distracted him from the game.  He didn’t see the volleyball flying toward his face until he heard Emeric shout “Head’s up!” and by then, it was too late to react.  The ball smacked him in the center of his forehead and bounced straight off.  Emeric bumped it to another Amish boy, who spiked it over the net, but the other team quickly called foul.

Analiese came running up to Nick.  “Are you alright?” she asked, her eyes wide with concern.

Behind her, he noticed Emeric watching him, a smirk on his face.  Embarrassed, he laughed and tried to play it off.  “I’m fine,” he replied loud enough for the others to hear, pointing to the healing scab on his chin.  “As you can see, I’m more than a little accident-prone.”

The Amish teenagers chuckled, exchanging uneasy glances.  It seemed no one wanted to ask how he’d gotten the array of cuts and contusions on his head.

“Well…”  Lukas seemed anxious to change the subject.  “Back to the game?”

They played until dusk.  Once it was too dark to see the ball, they took down the net and trouped back into the house, where the church benches had been cleared and a long table put in their place.  The girls sat on one side of the table, the boys on the other.  Once again, Nick found himself wedged in between Emeric and Lukas, who was sitting across from Analiese.

As Nick had surmised, the “sing,” as Analiese kept calling it, involved singing.  Now that all the old folks had gone home, he had hoped they’d be singing some better songs, more modern songs, songs in English, songs he knew.  But while the songs they sang sounded slightly more upbeat, they were still in German and, thus, completely foreign to him.  There was no sheet music with which to follow along; they all seemed to know the songs by heart.  He only recognized one tune - “Amazing Grace” - but since they weren’t singing it in English, he just hummed along.

The Amish teens took turns leading out the songs.  One would start by singing a few bars, and then the rest would join in.  After two hours of this, Nick couldn’t take it anymore.  He decided it was time for him to take a turn.  After yet another song had ended, but before the next could begin, he cleared his throat and started singing, “This is the song that never ends… oh, it goes on and on, my friends…”

Heads turned up and down the table as everyone looked at him in surprise.  He just smiled and kept singing.  “Some people… started singing it, not knowing what it was… and they’ll continue singing it forever just because this is the song that never ends…”

After a second round, some of them started to catch on.  Emeric was among the first to start singing, along with the blonde girl who sat across from him.  “…Oh, it goes on and on, my friends…”  Slowly, others followed their lead and joined in.  “Some people… started singing it, not knowing what it was… and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…”

They sang it three times before Lukas stood up.  “Genug!  Enough!” he shouted, glaring up and down the table before frowning at Nick.  “The Sunday night sing is for songs of worship, not songs of… frivolity.”

He seemed so flustered that Nick wanted to laugh, but he didn’t want to offend Lukas, who had helped him, so he bit the inside of his cheek and tried to keep a straight face as he said, “I’m sorry.  It’s just… I didn’t know any of your songs, so I thought I’d teach you one of mine.”  He shrugged, hoping he looked innocent enough.

“You’re forgiven,” said Lukas stiffly.  “I think this concludes the sing.”  Without another word, he slung his leg over the back of the bench and stalked out of the house.  Analiese quickly jumped up and followed him outside.

Nick looked at the girl across the table who had sung along with him.  “Wow… I honestly didn’t realize it was such a big deal,” he said.

She laughed, tossing her white-blonde hair over her shoulders.  “Well, some of us are a bit more conservative than others.  I enjoyed your song.”

“So did I,” said Emeric.  Grinning, he slapped Nick’s shoulder and said, “Some of us are going to light a bonfire behind the barn and hang out awhile longer.  You should stay, English.”

Nick smiled.  The offer was tempting, but he now knew where he belonged.  “Thanks, but I think I’d better head back with Lukas and Ana.”

Emeric shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”

Nick untangled his long legs from the bench seat and walked stiffly outside to find Analiese and Lukas.  They were standing apart from the others who had started to drift out.  Nick approached them awkwardly.  “Look, I’m really sorry if I caused a scene in there,” he apologized again.

“It’s alright, Nick,” Analiese reassured him.  “Some Amish just disapprove of anything English.”  She cast a sidelong glance at Lukas, who said nothing.  He suddenly seemed very interested in his boots.

“Well, all you have to do is take me back to town, and you can be rid of me,” said Nick to Lukas.  “Sound like a plan?”

Again, Analiese spoke for him.  “Yes,” she agreed, nodding.  “Let’s go.”

She took Lukas’s hand and pulled him toward his buggy.  Nick followed, feeling like a third wheel.  Just a little while longer, he told himself.  Then you’ll be out of this mess… and back in a much bigger one.  He sighed to himself as he climbed into the back of the buggy.  Sometimes, the thought of going back seemed even scarier than staying here.


Chapter 13 by RokofAges75
Chapter 13

It was late by the time the buggy rolled into the town of Paradise.  Nick didn’t have a watch, but he guessed it was around eleven.  The service station where they went to use the pay phone was still open, but empty, except for the single attendant standing behind the counter inside.  Nick could see his pick-up truck parked on the side of the building.

But there was another car parked at the edge of the lot, behind the air pump.  Free Air, a handwritten sign said.  Nick leaned forward as the buggy bounced toward the station, studying the car.  It was a dark sedan, long and low to the ground.  It wasn’t running, but he could see a shadowy figure sitting in the front seat, behind the wheel.  Although it was too dark to see his face, Nick could tell by the size and silhouette that it was a man.  His heart dropped into his stomach.  The sick feeling was strong enough to make him shout, “Stop!”

Startled, Analiese started to look back at him, but Nick quickly said, “Don’t turn around.  Don’t say anything.  Just face forward and listen.”  He sat as far back as he could, hunching down a little, so he wouldn’t be seen through the buggy’s back windows.  “You see that car in the parking lot?  There’s a guy inside.  I think he’s watching us.  He might be one of the guys who did this to me.”  He rubbed the back of his head, feeling the tender knot raised there by the barrel of a gun.  His paranoia escalated, like water rising over his head, and for a few seconds, he was overcome with panic, unable to breathe.  “Keep going,” he choked.  “Don’t stop.”

He saw Lukas, who was holding the reins, exchange looks with Analiese.

“Please,” he begged.

Without a word, Analiese placed her hand upon Lukas’s.  Lukas gave a short nod and flicked the reins, urging his horse onward.

Nick felt a sense of déjà vu as he rode the rollercoaster of emotions that followed another failed attempt at contacting someone back in Philadelphia.  Hope had turned to disappointment, nervousness to fear.  Yet in the midst of his anxiety, he also felt an odd sort of relief - not the relief he’d expected to feel after placing the call, but relief over an excuse not to make the call at all.  No weight had been lifted from his weary shoulders, but at least he’d been granted a reprieve.  He wouldn’t have to face his grief-stricken friends that night.

He waited until the buggy was a safe distance down the road to whisper, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Analiese murmured automatically, without turning around.

Lukas was less courteous when he asked, “What now?”

“I don’t know,” Nick admitted, dragging a hand through his hair.  “They’re watching for me.  They must be worried I’m still alive.”  His mind raced, wondering how they could know that.  “Maybe they went back to move my body and couldn’t find it,” he theorized.  “That creek wasn’t very deep.  They used a cinder block to anchor me down, so I couldn’t have drifted downstream.  If they went back to check, they’d know I got away.”

“Then you shouldn’t stay here,” said Lukas.  “If they’re looking for you in Paradise, it’s only a matter of time before they find you with us.”

“No, I have to!” Nick protested, feeling the panic flare up again.  He leaned forward.  “Please - you don’t understand.  If I go anywhere else, I’ll be recognized.  They’ll find me.  If I can just lay low at the farm for a little longer, they’ll assume I’m dead and stop looking for me.  Please.”

Lukas looked at Analiese again.  Nick could tell he disapproved, but the decision was hers to make.  “Of course, you may stay,” she said quietly, glancing into the back seat.  Her smile reassured him some.

He nodded.  “Thank you,” he said again, leaning back with a sigh, as Lukas circled around the block and guided the buggy back towards home.

Home?  It didn’t feel like home to Nick, but for now, it was the safest place he could think of to hide.


The man in the black sedan slurped soda through a straw as he watched the horse-drawn buggy trundle by.  The best part of sitting outside a gas station all day was easy access to all the junk food he could eat.  When he’d explained to the station attendant what he was doing there, the kid had invited him in for free refills whenever he wanted.

He let out a loud belch and loosened the button on his pants, afraid it might pop off.  His wife gave him plenty of crap already about the way he ate on the job; there was no telling what she’d say if he came home with a busted button for her to sew back on.  Then she’d know he’d been getting fast food with the guys instead of eating the measly little lunches she packed for him.  Well, sometimes he ate those, too, as a mid-morning snack.  But, seriously, how was anyone supposed to survive on carrots and lettuce?  Well, besides a rabbit.  He scowled and took another sip of his soda.

When he saw a car approaching from the east, he hastily put his cup back in the holder and hunched down a little in his seat.  Headlights splashed over him as the car turned into the station parking lot, but rather than stop at one of the pumps, it pulled up alongside him.  He sat up straight and rolled down his window.  The driver of the other car did the same, and he recognized Jim DeWitt, a fellow detective from his district.  “Evening,” he said, tipping his Phillies cap.

“Evening,” echoed DeWitt.  “Seen anything interesting out here?”

He laughed.  “Nothin’ but a whole bunch of Amish buggies.  Between you and me, I think Malcolm’s grasping at straws, sending us way out here on a stakeout.  But hey, speaking of straws-”  He picked up his cup and gave it a shake; it was mostly just slushy ice now.  “-you’d best get your butt in there and get yourself some sustenance before this place shuts down for the night.  I think the kid said they close at midnight.  If you play nice, he might even let you have a free drink, Officer Friendly.”

DeWitt laughed.  “Sounds good.  Thanks for the tip, Ax.”

Detective Dave Axelsson smiled and said, “You have a good night now, Jim.  Stay safe.”  He chuckled to himself as he rolled up the window and started the engine of his unmarked car.  Who was he kidding?  There was nothing dangerous in these parts, not unless you counted the odd cow that wandered into the road.  He flicked on his headlights as he pulled out of the parking lot.  Once on the road, he reached for his police radio to report back to the station.  “Yeah, this is Axelsson.  DeWitt just arrived to relieve me, so I’m heading home.  No new intell to report.”

He replaced his radio and sighed as he stared out the windshield at the stretch of two-lane road in front of him.  It was going to be a long drive back to Philadelphia.


Nick kept peeking out the small back window of the buggy on the way back to the farm, afraid the dark sedan was following them.  Only once did he see a glimmer of headlights on the horizon, and he held his breath until the vehicle - a white SUV, not a dark-colored car - passed them.  There were no other vehicles on the road that night.  People in Paradise seemed to roll up the pavement after dark, and it occurred to him what a risk Lukas and Ana must have taken to bring him into town so late.  Not only were the streets unsafe for an Amish buggy in the dark, but Nick doubted Ana’s parents would approve if they knew where she was.

“Hey, thanks again,” he said sincerely, leaning forward into the front seat.  “I hope you won’t get in trouble for being out so late.”

“As long as our parents think we’re still at the sing, it’s fine,” said Analiese.

“How late do you usually stay at those things?”

“Some stay past midnight, but Lukas and I don’t usually stay that long.”

“But your parents would be okay with it if you did?” Nick asked incredulously.  Midnight seemed like a late curfew for a teenage girl - not that he would know.  He’d never had a curfew, but her parents seemed a lot stricter than his own.

Analiese shrugged.  “Perhaps not ‘okay,’ but they won’t permit me from going.  I’m sixteen now, so I’m allowed to run around and court whomever I choose.”

Nick suppressed a smile.  She made herself sound rebellious, but he imagined her definition of “running around” was much different from the English one.  “That’s cool of them,” he said.

“They know I will follow the teachings of the Ordnung - the rules of our church,” she explained.

Nick supposed he would be expected to follow the same rules if he were going to stay.  Was he going to stay?  What other choice did he have?  It was too dangerous to go back, not only for him, but for his family and friends as well, and even for his Amish rescuers.  If he’d been spotted in the back of their buggy that night, the men who had killed Kevin would no doubt kill all of them, too.  They wouldn’t want to leave any witnesses.  Wasn’t that the whole reason they’d come after Nick in the first place?

As long as they were still out there, he would never truly be safe, but if he kept his head down and stayed hidden among the Amish, Nick reasoned, he might last long enough for them to either forget about him or get caught.  Once they were locked up, it would be safe for him to return.  There was no telling how long that would take, though.

Sitting in the back of the buggy, watching the endless farmland crawl by, Nick sighed to himself.  For the time being, he was stuck there.


Chapter 14 by RokofAges75
Chapter 14

One week.  It had been one whole week since the world had turned upside down, since Kevin had gotten shot and Nick had gone missing.

It felt like the longest week of AJ’s life, yet in some ways, it seemed like just yesterday that he had been sitting next to Nick on the ride back to the hotel after their show, talking about their plans for the rest of the night.  They had agreed to stay in and order pizza, he recalled.  Kevin’s idea.  They were supposed to do an early morning interview and another show the next night.  But their plans had changed the moment they’d opened the door to Kevin’s hotel room and found him lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood.  Everything had changed that night.

And yet, in the week since, almost nothing had changed.  Kevin was still comatose.  Nick was still missing.  Somehow, the world kept turning, but it was a much different world from the one AJ had known a week ago.  This strange new world into which he’d been thrown was a world lit by fluorescent lights and populated by people who wore shapeless scrubs and squeaky shoes.  It was a world of waiting room furniture and cafeteria food, a world of one-sided conversations and long periods of silence, interrupted by occasional updates from Kevin’s doctors and the police detectives who were trying to find Nick.

So far, they’d managed to keep Kevin alive, and Nick hadn’t turned up dead.  Brian and Howie believed these were good signs, reasons to be hopeful.  AJ felt differently.  In his mind, they were just delaying the inevitable, waiting around like this.  Kevin was never going to wake up, and even if he did, he’d probably never be the same.  Nick was never going to be found alive - if he had survived the attack, he would have come back by now, unless he was being held captive, in which case he was probably being subjected to the sort of cruelty AJ didn’t want to imagine.  They were probably both better off dead, though he knew better than to say so out loud.  Things were already tense enough between Brian and him.

AJ felt under scrutiny whenever he was in the same room as his holier-than-thou bandmate these days.  Brian would sit across from him, staring at his disheveled appearance with disgust, wrinkling his nose at the smell of alcohol on AJ’s breath, silently judging him for daring to grieve differently than he did.  So what if AJ felt more at home in his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey than he did in the hospital chapel?  Who was Brian to tell him he was wrong for drowning his sorrows in liquor instead of praying for a miracle that was never going to happen?  He would never tell Brian that, even if believed it to be true.

Howie was more understanding.  He’d accompanied a hungover AJ to the hospital for the night shift of their ongoing vigil, while Brian and Kevin’s mother went back to the hotel to sleep.  The two of them took turns sitting at Kevin’s bedside while the other one went for coffee or snacks or, in AJ’s case, a smoke.  Everyone had agreed that it was important Kevin not be alone when he woke up.  No one would admit that the chances of him waking up at all seemed to grow slimmer each day he remained in the coma.

“I’m gonna get another cup of coffee.  Want anything?”  In the midst of all the mechanical noises coming from the medical equipment and monitors that surrounded Kevin’s bed, Howie’s voice sounded refreshingly human.

Without looking up, AJ shook his head.  “I’m good.”

“I’ll be back, then.”  Howie walked out, leaving AJ alone with Kevin.  Not that Kevin provided much companionship.

“You’re not very good company tonight, dude,” AJ said aloud, kicking the leg of Kevin’s bed.  Everyone kept telling him to talk to Kevin, that coma patients could hear, and that it might even help him regain consciousness.  Looking at Kevin’s blank face, barely visible through the gauze bandages wrapped around his head and the oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose, AJ doubted he was aware of a thing.  But it was worth a shot, he supposed.  Maybe he could annoy Kevin into waking up.  “What’s up with you?  Usually you don’t know when to stop talking.  You just ramble on and on, telling the same old stories in the longest way possible.”  He smiled and then swallowed the lump that had risen in his throat.  “I actually kinda miss those long-ass stories, bro.  Wish you’d wake up and tell me one now.”

He watched Kevin closely for any sign that he’d heard him - the flutter of an eyelid, the twitch of a finger - but there was no response.  There was only the steady rise and fall of Kevin’s chest to show that he was alive at all, and even that felt fake, the result of oxygen being blown into his lungs by way of the mask.  It was hard seeing Kevin like that, a lifeless shell, being kept alive by medical equipment that assisted with every function of his body, from breathing to pissing.  AJ’s eyes dropped to the catheter bag hanging off the side of the bed, half full with dark urine.  The amber liquid looked a lot like the whiskey he’d been downing every morning when he got back to the hotel to help him drift off to sleep.  He shook his head in disgust.

“Ah, I’m no good at this,” he muttered.  “Now, if Nick were here… that kid could talk you out of a coma, no problem.”  He laughed to himself, laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes, and before he knew it, he was crying.  “Aw, man… now see what you made me do.”  He sniffed and rubbed his eyes, wiping away the tears and weariness.

When he’d finally regained enough of his composure to look at Kevin again, AJ nearly fell out of his chair.  At first, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him and rubbed them again furiously.  But when he looked again, he realized he wasn’t just seeing things.

Kevin’s eyes were open.


Nick rolled over in bed, rising up onto his elbow as he attempted to fluff his flat pillow.  The worn mattress groaned under his weight as he flopped back down with a sigh.  Nothing about living with the Amish was comfortable, not even their furniture.  He missed his own bed back home.  It had a king-size, Eurotop mattress, which Mandy had picked out and he’d paid for.  He closed his eyes, wishing he would wake up and find himself in Florida, this whole nightmare over and soon forgotten.  But when he opened his eyes, he was still in the grandfather house on the Albrecht family’s farm.

It surprised him, therefore, to see electric light spilling through the gap below his window shade.  Curious, he crawled out of bed and crept across the room, the wooden floorboards creaking beneath his feet.  He crouched at the window, carefully lifting a corner of the dark green shade so he could peek out.  A pair of headlights shone through the darkness.  He frowned, squinting while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness.  Amish buggies had battery-powered headlights for safety reasons, but behind these lights, he saw not the boxy frame of a buggy, but the streamlined silhouette of a sedan.  It was the first car he’d seen in the Amish community, and its appearance unnerved him, especially when he saw the doors on each side swing open and two men step out.

He couldn’t make out their faces, but when they walked in front of the lights, he could see their shapes.  One of them was big and beefy, the other one leaner but no less muscular.  They strode toward the grandfather house in tandem, their knuckles swinging at their sides.  Nick quickly backed away from the window, his thoughts racing.  It was them, Joey and D, come to finish the job.  Just as he’d feared, they must have gone back to the creek to check on his body and, finding it gone, traced him here somehow.  Maybe they had followed Lukas’s buggy back to the farm from the gas station the night of the sing.

There was no time to wonder and no way to escape.  All Nick could think to do was hide.  He hurtled over his bed and sank to the floor on the far side of it.  Then he dragged the bed frame toward him, leaving a gap of a few inches between it and the wall in which he could lie, his body pressed against the baseboard.  He reached up and pulled the bedspread down to hide himself, hoping it wouldn’t show from the other side.  Then he lay as still as he could, trying to keep himself from trembling.  His heart was pounding so hard in his throat, he thought they must be able to hear it.

He flinched at the sound of a wood-splintering crash and knew they’d kicked in the door of the grandfather house.  He held his breath, listening to their heavy feet clomp across the wooden floor.  They were coming closer.  He dreaded the moment when they would open the bedroom door.

A few seconds later, he heard the doorknob turn.  The door creaked open, but the feet hesitated in the doorway.  Cowering on the floor under his covers, Nick couldn’t see them, but imagined them standing there, slowly surveying the scene in front of them.  It would only be a matter of seconds before they came in and started searching the room.  He closed his eyes and used every ounce of his willpower to keep still, hoping they’d overlook him.

Then the mattress moved, as a meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“No!”  Jerking away, Nick took a blind swing and was surprised to feel his fist connect with the man’s face.


The gasp of surprise sounded almost… female?


He opened his eyes and found himself gazing up at Analiese, who was standing over him, rubbing the side of her face.  He looked down at his clenched hand and then back up at Analiese, slowly making the connection.  “Oh, shit!” he cried, without thinking to censor himself.  “Did I just hit you?”

“An accident, I’m sure,” she said shakily, looking down at him with wide eyes.  “Are you alright?”

Nick suddenly realized he was sprawled on the floor, the bedspread tangled around his legs.  Somehow, he’d managed to fall out of bed.  He must have been acting out his nightmare.  Releasing a breath, he nodded and slowly untwisted his legs from the bedspread, taking care to keep himself covered.  He was already embarrassed enough without letting Analiese see that he slept naked.  “I’m sorry,” he apologized.  “I must have been in the middle of a nightmare when you woke me.”

“It’s alright.  I’m sorry, too - for your nightmare and for waking you,” said Analiese sincerely.  “It’s just that it’s almost sunrise.”

Nick looked past her to the window.  She had rolled up the shade, and he could see the sky starting to lighten.  There was no car parked outside, just Emeric’s buggy.  He had imagined - or, rather, dreamed - the entire thing.  Feeling foolish, he shook his head.  “No, it’s fine.  You’re right; I should get up.”

“I’ll leave you to get dressed,” said Analiese.  He saw her eyes drop briefly to his bare chest before she averted them, a faint blush rising in her cheeks.  She turned quickly and walked away, but in the doorway, she paused.  “Also, I’ll make sure to bring you a clean nightshirt,” she added, then walked out without looking back.

Nick smirked and shook his head again, raking a hand through his disheveled hair.  He had slept hard, he could tell, but he felt just as exhausted as he’d been when he had gone to bed the night before.  It was difficult to fall asleep without TV or music to distract him from the disturbing thoughts that entered his mind whenever he had a chance to rest.  They now haunted his dreams, as well as his waking hours, and the only way he’d found to keep them at bay was to work hard during the day and make himself so tired that he would drop off to sleep quickly at night.

With that goal in mind, Nick dragged himself out of bed, put on his borrowed Amish clothes, and hurried outside to help Analiese’s father in the fields.


Brian arrived at the hospital bright and early, as he had every day that week.  Together, he and his Aunt Ann took the elevator to the sixth floor.  AJ was waiting for them when they stepped off.  Fearing the worst, Brian felt his heart skip a beat, but then he realized that, for the first time in a week, AJ was actually smiling.

“Guess what,” he greeted them.


AJ was grinning like the Cheshire cat.  “Kevin opened his eyes.”

“What?!” Ann gasped, at the same time Brian said, “No way!  When?”

“Late last night.”

“Why didn’t you call one of us?” Brian asked, frowning.

“I wanted to, but Howie said to wait, so you guys could get some sleep,” AJ explained.  “It’s not like he woke up completely; it was just for a few seconds.  But the nurse said it was a good sign and that his doctor would want to run some more tests this morning.”

Brian nodded, deciding not to hold it against Howie.  He had to focus on the positives.  This was the sort of news he had been praying for.  Now if they could just find Nick… he thought, as he and Aunt Ann followed AJ to the Neuro ICU.  The news on Nick wasn’t nearly as encouraging.  The police stakeout at the gas station where the mysterious phone call was made had produced no results, and Brian hadn’t received any strange calls since then.  At least they hadn’t found Nick’s body.  This was the thin thread of hope he clung to:  as long as Nick’s body didn’t turn up, he had to be alive out there somewhere.

When they entered Kevin’s cubicle, his eyes were closed.  Despite AJ’s warning, Brian had hoped to find him sitting up and talking, but Kevin looked no different than he had when Brian had left the previous night.  He was still lying there, the same way he had been for a week, tethered to his hospital bed by the tubes that carried fluids in and out of his body.  Brian tried not to let his disappointment show as he sat down on the opposite side of the bed as Ann.  “Good morning, cous!” he said, forcing himself to sound cheerful.  “Rise and shine!”  He reached for Kevin’s hand, trying to wedge his fingers into Kevin’s tightly clenched fist.  To his astonishment, Kevin writhed away, drawing his fists closer to his chest.  Brian pulled his hand back in surprise.

“Baby?”  Ann leaned forward, reaching for Kevin’s other hand.  She picked it up off the mattress and held it between her own two hands, rubbing his knuckles with her fingertips.  “C’mon, baby, wake up,” she coached him softly, and Brian waited with bated breath, his eyes trained on Kevin’s face, but there was no response this time.

He let out his breath slowly.  “Must’ve just been an involuntary reaction,” he said.  “You know, like a reflex.”

If Ann had heard him, she didn’t acknowledge it.  She was staring at Kevin’s hand, gently turning his wrist so she could study it from every angle.  “I can still remember how small his hands were when he was born,” she said out of the blue.  Brian wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or to herself.  “His hands were one of the first things I looked at after I got done admiring his sweet face.  I had to count each of his ten little fingers, with their tiny, pink fingernails.  Do you know how small a newborn baby’s fingernails are?”

Listening to his aunt, Brian felt a lump rise in his throat.  He smiled tightly and shook his head.

Ann smiled, too.  “Someday you will.  And you’ll never forget it.”  She stroked the back of Kevin’s hand some more.  “My baby boy’s got big man hands now.  My, how fast time flies by.”

Brian didn’t know what to say.  He looked down at his lap, then up at Kevin’s face.  Then he gasped.  “Aunt Ann!  Look!”

Kevin’s fist fell limply back to the mattress as Ann brought both hands up to her face.  “Oh, thank the Lord, it’s true!  His eyes are open!”

They both jumped up and stood over Kevin.  “Hey, Kev!” Brian said brightly, smiling down at him.  “Welcome back to the land of the living!”

When there was no response, Ann asked anxiously, “Kevin, honey, can you hear us?”

But Kevin showed no signs of understanding.  His eyes were open, but empty, his face a blank slate.  Brian had never seen his cousin look that way, completely expressionless.  It was a little creepy.  Kevin continued to stare straight ahead for a few seconds without focusing on either of their faces, and then his eyelids fluttered shut again.  Brian sank back into his chair, not bothering to mask his disappointment this time.

“Well,” Ann sighed, following suit.  “It’s a start, I suppose.  Let’s wait and see what the doctor has to say.”

They sat down with Dr. Whitby and the rest of Kevin’s neurology team later that morning to go over the results of his latest round of tests.

“It looks like Kevin is coming out of the coma,” Dr. Whitby began the meeting by saying, and Brian smiled with relief.  “The spontaneous eye opening and responses to certain stimuli are encouraging signs.  At this point, Kevin is in what we call a ‘vegetative state.’  He’s still unconscious, but - unlike a coma patient - able to be awoken.  However, his brain isn’t yet functioning on a cognitive level.”

At that, Brian’s heart sunk.  Please… please don’t say he’s going to be a vegetable, he prayed silently, clasping his hands together underneath the table.  He said nothing out loud, waiting for Dr. Whitby to finish.

“Our hope is that, from here on out, he’ll stay awake for longer periods of time and start to become aware of his surroundings.  I’d like to recommend that we start a sensory stimulation program with Kevin.  The goal of this type of therapy is to increase Kevin’s awareness by activating all five of his senses and encouraging him to respond to different stimuli in his environment.  It’s been shown to accelerate the recovery of some patients with traumatic brain injuries.”

Ann nodded.  “Do it.  Do anything that you think might help.”

She sounded encouraged, but Brian was feeling overwhelmed.  It was as if they’d just cleared another obstacle, only to find themselves staring down another long stretch of road.  The road to recovery.  He had been so busy praying for Kevin to live that he hadn’t bothered to think about what his cousin’s life would be like if he did survive.  In some ways, it seemed like Nick wasn’t the only one they were looking for.  Kevin, too, was still missing, lost somewhere inside his shattered skull, hiding behind a blank pair of green eyes.  Brian had to stop and wonder, would he ever be found?


Chapter 15 by RokofAges75
Chapter 15

Another week passed.  Nick threw himself into his work on the farm, wanting to stay busy and focused on anything but the problems he’d left behind in Philadelphia.  He found that the hard labor had gotten easier, as muscle memory kicked in.  Nick could feel his body getting stronger, better accustomed to spending his days working outside.  His back and shoulders no longer ached after hours of reaping crops, raking leaves, and shoveling manure.  His blistered palms had formed thick calluses, and his sunburned skin had turned into a ruddy tan.

After seeing his work ethic, Analiese’s father, Joseph, had slowly warmed up to his new farm hand.  His demeanor was friendlier and less intimidating.  At lunch on Friday, he even struck up a conversation with Nick.  “Nick, I want you to know that I appreciate your help with the harvest.  I do hope you’re getting the experience you sought during your stay with us.”

Swallowing a mouthful of soup, Nick nodded.  He hastily wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled.  “Yes, sir.  I’m learning a lot.”

“I’m glad.  When will you be returning to school?”

Nick glanced uncertainly at Analiese before answering.  He wasn’t sure if her father was wondering how soon he’d be gone or simply making conversation.  “Well… the next semester starts in January,” he replied and left it at that.

Joseph nodded.  “And what is it you’re studying?”

Nick picked up a piece of bread and took a bite, biding his time as he thought of what he should say.  There was really only one area he knew anything about:  “Music.”

“Ah.  Then I trust you’ll be attending the youth sing again on Sunday night?”

Inwardly, Nick groaned at the thought of sitting through another one of those “sings,” but he forced himself to smile and nod.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

While Analiese’s mother, Mathilda, came over to refill Joseph’s place, Emeric nudged Nick in the ribs.  “You should plan to stay after the sing this time,” he said in a low voice, leaning close to Nick’s ear.  “Trust me, English, I’ll make it worth your while.”

His curiosity piqued, Nick nodded again.  “Okay… count me in.”


“What’d you think of the movie, babe?”

Gianna paused to adjust the strap on her handbag, then hurried to catch up to Joey.  “Eh… it was alright, I guess,” she answered.  “Kinda weird.  Little too violent for my taste.”

“You kidding?”  Joey glanced over at her, then shook his head.  “That movie was friggin’ awesome!  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Gianna shrugged.  “It was different, alright.”

Joey snorted.  “It was better than that last chick flick you brought me to.  At least this one had some action.”

“Whatever, Joey.”

As they walked to the nearest subway station, they must have passed a dozen missing person posters for that kid Nick Carter, the Backstreet Boy.  Gianna paused to look at one on a light pole, drawn by the boy’s crooked smile in his picture, until Joey said, “Light’s green, let’s go!” and hurried her across the intersection.  There was yet another flyer inside the subway station, right next to the ticket kiosk.  Gianna studied it while Joey paid their fare.  Her eyes widened when she saw the words $50,000 REWARD at the top of the poster.  If you have any information, please call the Philadelphia Police Department, it said at the bottom, where a hotline number was printed.

“Here ya go, babe.”  Gianna nearly jumped when Joey came up behind her and handed her a subway token.

“Thanks,” she said and started walking toward the turnstile before her body language could betray her.  She went through first and looked overhead for signs leading to the orange line, which would get them closest to their apartment building.  They had left Luci with the neighbor girl while they went to dinner and a movie.  The night out had been Gianna’s idea.  “Something to take our minds off our troubles, eh, babe?” she’d said to Joey when she had suggested it.

“Only if I get to pick the movie,” was his reply, which was how they’d ended up in a crowded theater, watching a new release called Fight Club.  The movie had lasted longer than Gianna had expected, and she was anxious to get home to Luci.  It surprised her to hear Joey call, “Hey, babe, wait up!  How’s ‘bout we take the blue line instead?”

“The blue line?”  Gianna turned and waited for him to catch up.  “Won’t that take us toward the river?”

“Yeah.”  Joey grinned.  “I was thinkin’ we could take a nighttime stroll along the riverfront.  Whaddya say?”

Gianna raised her eyebrows.  Except for on Valentine’s Day, Joey rarely did anything that could be considered even remotely romantic.  She shrugged and said, “Okay.  Why not?”  They could afford to pay the babysitter for an extra hour.  She hooked her arm through Joey’s elbow, and he steered her toward the blue line platform instead.

They boarded the blue line train and got off at the 30th Street Station, the stop closest to the Schuylkill River.  From there, they made their way across the Market Street bridge and down the steps that led to the river trail below.

When Joey turned right onto the trail, Gianna assumed they were heading to the park, but they had only walked a couple of blocks when he suddenly stopped.

“What’s up, babe?” Gianna asked, as she watched him wander off the trail to the water’s edge.  There was a dock nearby, but the bridge stretching over their heads cast it in shadow.  She couldn’t tell what he was looking at.  “Joey?”  When he didn’t answer, she walked up to him.  “Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah, why?  Can’t a guy stop and smell the roses?”  He lifted his head and inhaled deeply through his nostrils.  Gianna wrinkled her nose.  All she smelled was dead fish.  “I mean, look at that,” added Joey, pointing down to the river.  “Ain’t it beautiful?”

Gianna cocked her head.  She supposed there was a certain beauty to the way the city lights sparkled off the surface of the Schuylkill, but she remembered how the water looked during the day:  dirty and gray, a polluted dumping ground for garbage and dead bodies.  She didn’t see the appeal… and then, suddenly, it all became clear.

She looked over at Joey and saw the way he was staring down at the water, studying its depths.  She saw the lines of worry on his face - the crow’s feet around his narrowed eyes, the creases in his furrowed brow, the tension in his clenched jaw.  She saw the wheels turning in his head, and she knew.

She knew, or could at least surmise, where Nick Carter was.


After sitting through another three-hour church service on Sunday morning, the last thing Nick felt like doing was staying for two more hours of monotonous singing that night.  But he had promised Analiese he would go to the youth sing, and Emeric had promised to make it worth his while.

Both the service and the sing were held at the Roth family’s home that week.  Nick was introduced to Emeric’s parents and three older brothers, each of whom had a wife and a house nearby.  Nick noticed that all three of the brothers had full, black beards, while Emeric was clean-shaven.  “So what’s the deal with the beards?” he asked Analiese after lunch.  “Do you have to grow one when you get to a certain age or something?”

“An Amish man stops shaving his beard once he marries or is baptized into the church.  It’s a status symbol, to show he is an adult member of the community,” Analiese explained.

“Oh, okay.”  Nick stroked his chin, glad he wouldn’t be expected to grow a beard of his own.  The mental image of himself sporting a bushy, blonde beard was laughable, considering he could barely grow more than peach fuzz.

No one at the sing that night had a beard.  Looking around the table, Nick realized these “youth sings” were meant to be social events for the teenagers in the community.  English kids threw parties and hung out at the mall; Amish kids sat around a table and sang songs in German.  It was weird, alright, but he supposed he shouldn’t judge.  He’d spent most of his youth singing, too.  He just wished he knew some of these songs.

While the Amish kids droned on and on, chanting lyrics he didn’t understand, Nick filled his mind with words he knew by heart, words he used to sing on stage every night.  He mentally went through the set list of the Backstreet Boys’ show, imagining each lyric projected on the bare wall in front of him like words on a karaoke monitor.

First came “Larger Than Life.”  He pictured the five of them floating down from the rafters on their surfboards, as the Star Wars theme played.  When they landed on the stage, their backup dancers would be waiting to release them from their harnesses, and Kevin would lead them in their salute to all sides of the stage.  A lump rose in Nick’s throat as he thought of Kevin, their fearless leader, falling to the floor in the hotel room, while feathers floated all around him.  He quickly forced his mind back to song lyrics.

“I may run and hide when you’re screaming my name…”

That was Brian’s part.  Just as clearly as he could hear Brian singing it, Nick could hear his confused voice on the phone, asking “Hello?” again and again.  Nick was the one who had run and hidden that time.  Guilt gnawed at his stomach, but he ignored it, focusing on the next line.  His line.

“But let me tell you now there are prices to fame…”

Kevin had paid the ultimate price.  But while fame may have brought him to Philadelphia, it wasn’t to blame for his death.  It was Nick’s recklessness that had cost Kevin his life.  Remembering made Nick feel like throwing up, so he closed his eyes and tried to block the memory from re-entering his brain.

“All of our time spent in flashes of light…”

He opened his eyes and looked around the cozy Amish kitchen, lit by kerosene lamps.  How different it was from his tour bus, which had just about all the comforts and modern conveniences of his home in Florida.  Life here was so much simpler than his life in the spotlight.  Physically, it may have been harder to live plainly, but mentally, it was much less stressful.  He realized he didn’t miss the screaming girls and the paparazzi snapping his picture.  He didn’t miss the long hours on the road or the greasy fast food meals he ate along the way.  All he missed were the people:  Brian, AJ, Howie, and most of all, Kevin.  None of the people sitting at that table could take their places.

Somehow, Nick made it through the rest of the sing by humming his own songs in his head and repressing memories of the night that had ruined the lives of everyone he loved.  When the singing stopped, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief.  Not only had the torture ended, but he was free to talk again.  He needed some normal conversation - even Amish conversation - to take his mind off what he’d spent the last two hours trying not to think about.

When Emeric’s mother appeared with bowls of snack mix to pass around the table, Emeric stood up.  “I’ll be out back, lighting the bonfire,” he said and walked out of the kitchen.  Nick noticed the way his mother’s eyes followed him, her mouth puckered with disapproval, but she didn’t try to stop him.  Suddenly, he poked his head back through the doorway.  “Hey, English, care to lend a hand?”

Nick was all too eager to stretch his stiff legs and leave the sing.  He scrambled over the back of the bench and followed Emeric outside.

“So, what do you think of our sings?” Emeric asked, as they trekked through the darkness.  He seemed to be taking Nick out to the barn, its hulking shape silhouetted against the starry sky.

Nick wasn’t overly concerned with offending Emeric.  “Eh… to be honest, they’re kind of boring for me, since I don’t know any of the songs - or understand any German.”  Nick laughed a little to show he was being a good sport about it.

Emeric chuckled, too.  “Yeah, they’re pretty lame, aren’t they?” he agreed, and Nick laughed some more, surprised by his use of English slang.  “They’re an Amish tradition,” Emeric added, “but I think the after party will be more to your liking.”

“After party?”

Emeric threw open the door to the barn and led Nick inside, lighting a kerosene lantern to brighten the interior.  At first glance, it looked like a normal barn to Nick, containing livestock, animal feed, and farm equipment, but that was before Emeric showed him into a small room in the back.  “This is where I keep my stash,” he said in a hushed voice, reaching for an old saddle blanket that was strewn over a bale of hay.  He whipped the blanket off of the hay and slid the bale a few inches to the left with the side of his foot, revealing a large, plastic drink cooler tucked behind it.  He flipped open the lid and grinned up at Nick, who leaned over to look inside.  Nick’s eyes widened when he saw that the cooler was filled with cans of not only soda, but beer as well.

“Dude, you guys drink?” he asked in disbelief.

Emeric gave him a look.  “Don’t tell me you’ve never had an alcoholic drink before.”

Nick snorted.  “Well, sure I have, but… you’re Amish!  I would’ve thought you, of all people, would-”

Emeric shook his head, still grinning.  “That’s what you’d think, but we’re allowed - well, sort of.  One word, my friend:  rumspringa!”

“What does that mean?”

“Literally, it means ‘running around.’  Starting at the age of sixteen, we’re allowed to run around, to do what we want and live as we please, to experience the outside world - the English world,” Emeric explained, his eyes gleaming.

Nick raised an eyebrows.  “Really?  How come?”

“Well, because becoming Amish is a choice, see.  When you choose to be baptized and become a member of the church, you’re committing to live plainly and forsake all fancy things.  But it’s not a sacrifice if you’ve never experienced those things - you won’t know what you’re missing.  Rumspringa allows us to make an informed decision about whether or not to be baptized and remain Amish.”

“Wow,” said Nick, shaking his head.  “No offense, but why would anyone choose to stay Amish after seeing what it’s like in the real world?  I mean, the English world.”

Emeric was still smiling.  “You’d be surprised,” he said with a shrug.  “Most of us do stay.  My brothers all got baptized after their rumspringa.  Besides, I thought that’s why you came, so you could live plainly.”

Sometimes Nick forgot that most people thought he’d come by choice.  “Well, yeah, but I don’t plan to stay here forever.  I just wanted a change, a chance to experience something different.”

“See?  That’s what rumspringa is for us, only in reverse.  In the end, we all go back to what we know, to the way we were raised.”

Nick supposed it made sense when he put it like that.

“So you guys sit out here and drink, and your parents are okay with that?”  Nick remembered the way Emeric’s mother had watched him in the kitchen.

“Well, they don’t know about the alcohol,” he admitted, “but even if they did, they wouldn’t say much.  Most folks try to look the other way during rumspringa.”

“Wow,” was all Nick could say for the second time.

Emeric laughed.  “Come on, help me get the fire going.”  He took Nick back outside and around the barn to the wood pile out back.  They worked together to collect firewood and arrange it in a suitable pile in the center of the yard; then Emeric struck a match and ignited it.

As they were kindling the fire, the other Amish kids came out of the house, bringing the wooden benches along with them.  They arranged the benches in a circle around the bonfire.  Some of the kids staked out spots to sit right away, while others stood mingling in the yard.  Nick noticed Analiese, Lukas, and two other teenagers hanging back from the rest of the group and wandered over to them.  He wondered if Analiese knew about Emeric’s secret stash of beer.

“Nice work with the fire,” said Analiese, smiling at Nick.

“Thanks.”  He smiled back.

“Nick, this is my friend Johanna Sweitzer.”  She introduced him to the girl standing next to her, then gestured at the other boy who was with them.  “And this is Micah Zook, a friend of Lukas’s.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nick told them both and noticed they were holding hands.  He had a feeling there was more than friendship between those two.  “Are you both staying for the bonfire?”

He saw Johanna and Micah exchange glances.  “Just for awhile,” Micah said.

“We’ll only stay awhile too,” said Analiese.  “Then we’ll ride back in Lukas’s buggy.”

From her body language, Nick suspected she did know about the beer and wanted no part of it, but she and the others followed him over to the fire anyway.  “Drinks are in the cooler,” Emeric was telling everyone.  “Enjoy!”

Analiese turned suddenly to Nick, her eyes shining in the firelight.  “If I get you a soft drink, will you show us your trick?”

For a second, Nick was confused.  “What trick?”

“You know… you said you can belch on command?”

“Oh!”  He laughed, remembering their conversation at lunch after the last church service.  “Yeah, sure.”

Analiese walked over to the cooler and returned with a can of Coke.  “Will this do?”

“Yep, perfect.”  He popped open the top and took a sip, then sucked in a few mouthfuls of air, letting it build up in his stomach.  Then he opened his mouth and let out a long burp.

Analiese and the other Amish kids giggled and clapped, as if this was the best party trick they’d ever seen.  “Do it again!” they urged him, and before he knew it, he’d become the life of the party.  “Do you know any other songs?” someone asked him.  “Like the one you sang at the last sing?”

Nick thought for a moment, trying to come up with another silly song he could teach them.  “Yeah,” he said suddenly.  “Hey, Emeric - bring me a beer, would ya?”

“You bet, English.”  Emeric must have thought he was cool because he made a beeline for the cooler to get Nick a beer.

“How do you get this stuff, anyway?” Nick wondered aloud, as he cracked open the can of Budweiser.  “You’re only, what, sixteen?”

“Seventeen.”  Emeric smirked.  “Let’s just say I have some older acquaintances in the English community.”  He looked past Nick to Lukas, who quickly averted his eyes.  Emeric cleared his throat.  “So… how does this new song of yours go?”

Nick smiled and raised his beer.  The crowd of kids quickly fell silent.  For just a second, he felt self-conscious, realizing they were all watching him, waiting to hear him sing.  Then he remembered that he made his living performing in front of people.  He took a swig of beer and then started to sing, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer… You take one down, pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall.  Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-eight bottles of beer…”

By the time he got to ninety-five, almost everyone was singing along.  Everyone except Analiese, who was looking at Lukas.  Nick could tell from the expression on his face that he disapproved of this song even more than he had hated the song that never ends.  He was not surprised when Lukas got up and stalked off into the darkness, nor when Analiese went running after him.  With a sigh, Nick set down his beer and left the others singing as he went to find them.

He caught up to them in the front yard.  “Hey guys, where you going?”

Lukas turned to glare at him.  “Home,” he snapped.  “Ana, you are coming with me in my buggy, aren’t you?”

Analiese hesitated a moment, then nodded.  She looked back at Nick.  “Are you riding home with us, or would you rather stay awhile longer?  I suppose I could come back for you in my father’s buggy…”

“In the dark?  By yourself?”  Lukas rounded on her.  “You’ll do no such thing.  He can come with us now, or he can walk.”

“It’s okay.  I’ll walk,” said Nick, shrugging.

“I can drive Nick back.”  Emeric appeared out of the darkness, walking casually toward them.  “I have to take Lisbet home later anyway.  You go on home, Lukas, if that’s how you’re going to be.”

Lukas took a step toward him.  “Liquor has no place at our sings, nor do vulgar English songs.”

Emeric shrugged.  “If you don’t like it, don’t come next time.  Won’t bother me any.”

Nick looked from Emeric to Lukas, waiting to see what they’d do next.  The tension between the two of them felt thick enough to cut with a knife.

It was Analiese who stepped between them, placing her hand on Lukas’s shoulder.  “Come, Lukas,” she said quietly.  “Let’s go home.”   She left her hand on his shoulder, steering him away from Emeric, and together, they walked toward the line of buggies parked in the front lawn.

“We were all wondering where you went, English!” said Emeric, slinging an arm around Nick’s shoulders.  “Come on back to the party.  We still had ninety bottles to go, at my last count.”

Nick laughed and let Emeric lead him back to the bonfire, but as he sat down and rejoined the singing (“Eighty-four bottles of beer on the wall, eighty-four bottles of beer…”), he couldn’t help but feel he had done something wrong.

Still, with a warm fire in front of him and a cool beer in his hand, he had to admit, this was the best night he’d spent in Amish country so far.  I could get used to this, he thought, watching the flames dance on their wooden pyre.  I could definitely get used to this.


Gianna had mulled it over all weekend, but by Monday morning, she still hadn’t made a decision about what to do with the information she had.

She was getting ready for work with The Today Show on in the background when she heard Katie Couric say, “It’s been almost three weeks since Nick Carter, the youngest member of the world-famous pop group The Backstreet Boys, went missing, following a violent attack in his Philadelphia hotel room that left his bandmate, Kevin Richardson, fighting for his life.”

She shouldn’t have been surprised; the story of Nick Carter’s disappearance was still headline news.  Even so, hearing his name caused her to stop in her tracks and turn her attention to the TV.

“Now his mother, Jane Carter, joins us to talk about the search to find her son,” continued Katie, and the camera zoomed out to show her sitting next to a woman with black hair.  “Jane, thanks for joining us this morning.”

“Thanks for having me, Katie.”  Nick Carter’s mother spoke in a monotone.  Her polite smile wavered, never reaching her eyes.  Gianna could see that this was a woman clearly struggling to hold herself together.

“I know it can’t be easy to talk about your son under these circumstances,” said Katie, giving Jane the sad eyes, her voice laced with artificially sweet sympathy, “but would you tell us what it’s been like for you these last few weeks, not knowing where Nick is, wondering what’s happened to him?”

“Honestly, it feels like I’ve been living in a nightmare.”  Jane shook her head, looking down at her lap.  “I wake up every morning and think, ‘This can’t be real.  This can’t be happening.’”  She sniffled, pausing to take a swipe at her right eye.  “It really is every mother’s worst nightmare, losing a child.  I just keep hoping and praying that we’ll find Nick alive.”

Gianna felt a twisting sensation in her gut, as if it were being wrung out to dry.  She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child.  What if it were Luci who had gone missing?

“Now, Kevin Richardson did survive the same attack - presumably the same attack, since it’s my understanding that he and Nick were sharing a hotel room at the time.  Is that correct?”

“That’s correct,” said Jane.

“Knowing how grievously Kevin was injured, does that dampen your hope of Nick being found alive after this many days?”

Jane shook her head.  “I’ll always have hope,” she said adamantly, blinking back tears.  “At this point, hope is all I have to hold onto.”

Katie nodded, giving the sad eyes again.  “Well, you’re certainly not alone in that.  Messages of hope have been pouring in from people all over the world, especially Backstreet Boys fans.  I don’t know if you saw them on your way in today or not, but there are quite a few fans gathered outside in the Plaza to show their support.  You have a lot of people praying along with you, Jane, and we at The Today Show want to extend our thoughts and prayers as well.”

“Thank you, Katie.”

“Before we wrap up, what would you like to say to our viewers, especially Nick’s fans who are watching?”

Jane turned to the camera, donning a tearful smile.  “I just want to say thank you, again, for all your prayers and positive thinking.  It helps knowing so many people are pulling for Nick and Kevin.”

“Besides praying, how can the public help in the search for Nick?”

Looking directly into the lens - directly into Gianna’s soul, it seemed - Jane Carter cleared her throat and said, “Someone out there knows something about what happened to my son.  I urge that person to come forward with information, to contact the police and share what they know.  All we need is that one missing piece of evidence to help the police connect the dots and lead us to Nick.  We just want to find him, no matter what.”

It was at that moment that Gianna made up her mind.  When the police hotline was splashed across the screen, she jotted it down on a scrap of paper, which she folded and put in the front pocket of her uniform.  After walking Luci to school like always, she stopped at a pay phone a few blocks from the café where she worked.

Looking around to make sure there was no one watching her, she stepped inside the booth and slid the door shut behind her.  She pulled the piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolded it with trembling fingers.  Then she picked up the phone, deposited her quarter and dime, and dialed the number on the paper.  A moment later, a pleasant voice answered, “This is the Philadelphia Police Department.  How can I help you?”

Gianna sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly before she spoke.  “Hi.  Um… I may have some information on the whereabouts of Nick Carter?”

“Okay, and your name, please?”

Gianna shook her head.  “I’d prefer to remain anonymous.  Thank you.”

“What is your information?”

“I… I think you need to look in the Schuylkill River,” Gianna said, her voice shaking.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

Then she hung up.


Chapter 16 by RokofAges75
Chapter 16

That Wednesday marked three weeks since the day Nick disappeared.  Howie, AJ, and Brian spent it at the hospital with Kevin.

Kevin had been moved out of intensive care and into a private room in the step-down unit, where he was still being monitored closely.  Now that he had begun to have what Dr. Whitby referred to as “sleep-wake cycles,” they were told to give up the twenty-four hour vigil they’d kept while Kevin was in his coma and only visit during the day.  “We don’t want to overstimulate Kevin,” the neurosurgeon emphasized.  “He still needs lots of rest so his brain can continue to recover.”

They took turns visiting one at a time, so that Kevin wouldn’t be overwhelmed by too many people in his room at once.  At the suggestion of one of his therapists, they brought things to stimulate his senses - bouquets of brightly-colored flowers, pictures of his family, samples of his favorite foods, a pair of flannel pajamas, a CD of his favorite songs.

On his way to the hospital that day, Howie had stopped at a record store and picked up a brand new copy of Millennium.  He’d felt silly buying his own album, especially when the store clerk looked up from the cover and asked, “Hey, isn’t that you?”  Once he’d explained what he needed it for, the clerk was sympathetic.  “Tell him to get well soon!” he called, as Howie walked out the door.

“Everyone’s wishing you a speedy recovery,” said Howie later, as he sat at Kevin’s bedside.  “Even random strangers on the street.  A guy at F.Y.E. said to tell you, ‘Get well soon.’  We’re all pulling for you, buddy.”  He reached out to squeeze Kevin’s shoulder, but as usual, Kevin’s only response was to groan and wriggle away.  Even though the nurses said these were good signs, that any response was better than nothing, it was clear that Kevin didn’t recognize Howie or AJ or Brian.  He wasn’t even aware of his own mother, though she, too, came every day to sit and talk to him.

Howie wondered if he would respond to the sound of his own voice, his music.  He took Millennium out of its shrink wrap and put the CD in the portable player they’d brought to the hospital.  Then he eased a pair of headphones over Kevin’s ears, turning them upside down and tucking the headband under his chin so it wouldn’t interfere with the helmet he’d been fitted with to protect his skull.  Turning on the CD player, he switched to the second track and pressed play.  Soon he could hear strains of “I Want It That Way” playing softly through the headphone speakers.

“Sound familiar?” he asked.  “This is us.  This is our song.  You even have a solo in this one; it’s coming up.  Listen…”

Kevin’s eyes were half-open, but there was no sign of life under their drooping lids.  It was like he was sleeping with his eyes open.  Howie wondered if, in the midst of these sleep-wake cycles, he was still capable of dreaming.

“Now I can see that we’re falling apart from the way that it used to be…”  It was hard to hear Kevin’s voice drifting out of the headphones and wonder if he would ever hear it live again.  “No matter the distance, I want you to know that deep down inside of me…”  Howie wanted to believe that Kevin was still there, deep down inside of himself, and that, little by little, the therapy would bring him back out, but he knew there were no guarantees.  Dr. Whitby had warned them that if there was no significant improvement in four weeks, Kevin would be classified as in a “persistent” vegetative state.  If it lasted more than a year, it would be considered permanent.

“Come on, bro,” Howie whispered, rubbing the back of Kevin’s hand.  “Come back to us.”

But there was no response.

“Show me the meaning of being lonely…”

Howie heard the song change and the sound of their five-part harmony fill the air.  He smiled.  “How about this one, Kev?  ‘Show Me the Meaning?’  We were talking about making this one our next single, remember?”  His smile faded when he realized they might never release another single, not without Nicky…

“…Life goes on, as it never ends.  Eyes of stone observe the trends.  They never say, forever gaze, if only…”  Howie leaned closer to Kevin, listening to the beautiful harmony his voice made when it blended with Nick’s.  “Guilty roads to an endless love.  There’s no control.  Are you with me now?”

“Listen, Kev.  Do you hear that?  That’s Nick singing.”  A lump had risen in Howie’s throat.  He swallowed hard.  “He’s missing, Kevin.  Nicky’s missing.  Whoever did this to you… did something to him, too.  We need you to wake up and tell us what happened that night so we can find him.  Okay, Kev?  Please… we need you.  Nick needs you.”

Despite an eight-year age difference that had made it hard for them to relate to each other at times, Howie knew how much Kevin cared about Nick.  He was like the little brother none of them had ever had.  If anything could get Kevin’s attention, it was knowing Nick needed him.

But still… there was nothing.


AJ arrived at the hospital around noon, the same time as Jane Carter.  He spotted her in the lobby and caught up with her at the elevator.  Clearing his throat, he said, “Hey, Jane.”

Startled, Nick’s mother spun around.  “AJ!  Hi!”

The elevator dinged.  The doors slid open, and they both stepped inside.  AJ pushed the button for the sixth floor.  As the doors closed, he looked over at Jane.  “How are you holding up?”

“Oh… you know… not well,” she admitted, in a voice that was higher than normal.

AJ reached out, as if to pat her on the shoulder, and then stopped halfway, letting his hand fall to his side.  “We saw you on The Today Show,” he said.  It was a half-truth; he hadn’t really watched her interview, but Brian and Howie had.  AJ had heard them talking about it afterward.  They’d questioned her motives for appearing on national television to discuss Nick’s disappearance, but AJ didn’t.  He knew if he had gone missing, his own mother would have done the same thing.  He couldn’t imagine that Jane would be seeking money or fame this time; all she wanted was her son.  Keeping Nick’s name in the news was smart.  Sooner or later, someone who knew something would see it and come forward.  “Did your interview generate any new leads?”

Jane cleared her throat.  “Actually, yes.  That’s why I came.  I just got done talking to the police.”  The elevator stopped on the sixth floor, and they stepped out.  “Are the other boys here?”

“Yeah, I assume so.  They weren’t at the hotel when I left, anyway.”  As usual, AJ had been the last to get up that morning.  By the time he’d dragged himself out of bed, Howie was long gone, his own bed neatly made.  He had knocked on the adjoining door that connected their room to the one Brian was sharing with his aunt, but no one had answered.  “So what’s up, Jane?  What did the police have to say?”

She shook her head.  “I’d rather wait until you’re all together.  Where are they?”

“Probably the waiting room.”  AJ’s heart pounded.  He knew the news couldn’t be good, or she wouldn’t look so grim, but he tried to keep himself from thinking the worst.  “We’ve been visiting Kevin in shifts, one at a time, so we don’t overstimulate him.  You heard he came out of the coma, right?”  This was another point of contention between Brian, Howie, and him.  They thought Jane should have come to visit Kevin by now, since she was staying in Philadelphia anyway, but even though AJ agreed, he couldn’t blame her for not coming.  Most days, he had to talk himself into going to the hospital.  It was just so hard, seeing Kevin that way.

“Yes, I was glad to hear that.  How’s he doing?”

“He’s…”  AJ trailed off, unsure of what to say.  “I dunno.  Not great, but he’s holding his own, I guess.  We’re hoping he’s gonna come around.”

“I’m sure he will,” Jane agreed, acting like she knew what she was talking about.  “These things take time.”

They’d reached the waiting room.  AJ looked inside and saw Brian and Howie sitting there.  “Any change?” he asked.  Howie shook his head, while Brian just stared at the floor.  AJ tilted his head toward Kevin’s room down the hall.  “Ann in with him?”

They both nodded.

“Look who I found in the lobby.”

Both Howie and Brian sat up straighter when Jane walked into the room.  “Hi, Jane,” said Howie.  “It’s good to see you here.  How are you doing?  Here, sit down.”  He motioned to an empty chair.

Jane perched stiffly on the edge of the chair.  “I’m… not well,” she said, somewhat dramatically.  “I just got out of a meeting with the police officer in charge of Nick’s case.”

“Detective Malcolm,” Brian said, and she nodded.

“Yes.  He said that more tips came in after my interview Monday morning - AJ said you saw it - and they’ve spent the last couple of days following up on the new leads.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?” blurted AJ.  “That means they’ve got somewhere else to look, right?”

Jane turned to him, her bottom lip trembling.  “They’re looking for him in the river!”

Upon hearing that, AJ felt his heart sink.

“Detective Malcolm told me they’re sending a dive team into the Schuylkill River today,” Jane elaborated.  “He said he didn’t want to alarm me, but they have ‘reason to believe’ they might find something there.”

The three boys exchanged glances.  No one would say it out loud, but they all knew what this news meant.  The police were no longer looking to find Nick alive.  They were searching for his body.


The call came two days later.

Howie was having lunch with AJ and Brian in the hospital cafeteria when his cell phone rang.  When he saw the name Jane Carter, his stomach dropped.  He almost didn’t want to answer, but he knew he had to.  He punched the talk button and put the phone to his ear.

“Hi, Jane,” he said, causing both Brian and AJ to look up.  AJ’s face was pale, and Brian’s eyes were filled with panic.  Howie knew that they had all jumped to the same grim conclusion about why Nick’s mother was calling.

“Howie…”  Her voice was a hoarse whisper.  He pressed the phone closer to his ear, straining to hear her next words.  “They found a body.”

It was all over CNN by the time they got back upstairs.  “If you’re just joining us, we’re live with breaking news,” said the woman on the waiting room TV.  “A body has been discovered at the bottom of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, where divers have been searching for missing pop star Nick Carter.”  A photo of Nick appeared on one side of the split screen.  Howie recognized the backdrop from the red carpet at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, where they’d performed and won the Moonman for Viewer’s Choice.  Nick was smiling broadly, blissfully unaware of the tragedy that would befall him three weeks later.  It was hard to believe he could be inside the body bag shown being wheeled away on a stretcher on the other side of the screen.  “At this time, we can’t confirm whether or not these are Carter’s remains.  The body was said to be badly decomposed and is being transported to the medical examiner’s office for identification and, presumably, an autopsy.”

“Turn it off.”  Howie glanced at AJ, whose face was white as a sheet, his lip curled with disgust.  “I can’t watch this shit.  It’s making me sick.”

Howie nodded.  He found the remote and changed the channel.  Some soap opera was on; he had no idea which one.  Two women were having a heated conversation in a hospital room, where a man lay comatose in the bed behind them, hooked up to a heart monitor and ventilator.  The scene was eerily familiar and equally sickening.  Shaking his head, Howie punched the power button on the remote.  The TV went off with a click, filling the room with the sound of silence.  It was almost suffocating.  Howie couldn’t blame AJ one bit when he suddenly said, “I need some air,” and bolted, his hand already reaching into his back pocket for a pack of cigarettes.

Brian was the next to leave.  “I’m gonna go down to the chapel for awhile,” he announced, and again, Howie wasn’t surprised.  Brian had been spending a lot of time in the hospital chapel since Kevin was admitted.  He didn’t extend the invitation for Howie to join him, so Howie assumed he wanted to be alone.

He watched Brian go, listening to the sound of his footsteps fading down the hall.  Then, sighing, he picked up the remote again and turned the TV back on.  No news was good news to some people, but Howie liked to stay informed.  If they had found Nicky, he wanted to know.  So he sat alone in the waiting room, watching CNN with his phone in his hand.


Brian was in the chapel when the word came.

He was sitting by himself in one of the pews, his head bowed in silent prayer, when he heard someone say his name.


He straightened up and looked over his shoulder to see Howie standing in the doorway.  To Brian’s surprise, he was smiling.  “Hey, I’m sorry to interrupt,” he started.

Brian shook his head.  “That’s okay.  What’s goin’ on?”

Howie held up his phone.  “I just heard back from Jane.  It wasn’t him.”

Brian sucked in a sharp breath and released it slowly, giving his brain time to process what Howie had said.  As his lungs deflated, his whole body seemed to sag with relief.  “They’re sure?” he asked.

Howie nodded.  “Dental records confirmed it.  It’s not Nicky.”

“Thank the Lord.”

Still smiling, Howie slid into the pew beside him.  Brian turned to him, and without another word, the two men hugged.  They held on to each other for a long time, during which Brian had time to think about what it would have been like if the news had been different, if the body had belonged to Nick.  Howie patted his back and released him slowly.  “You okay?” he asked Brian.

Brian smiled and nodded, not bothering to blink back the tears that had sprang to his eyes.  “Yeah, man, I’m good now.  Thanks.”

“Sure, man.”  Howie clapped him on the shoulder.  “You comin’ back upstairs?”

“Go ahead.  I’m gonna stay one more minute, and then I’ll be right behind you.”

“Okay,” Howie agreed.  He got up to leave, but Brian stopped him with a question that sprang suddenly to his mind.
“Hey, Howie?”

Howie turned around in the aisle.  “Yeah?”

“Did Jane… did she say… if they know who it was?”

Howie shook his head.  “No… I don’t think they’ve identified him yet.”


Howie shrugged, and when Brian didn’t say anything more, he walked out.

Brian waited until he was gone and then leaned back against the pew.  He placed his hand on his chest, where he could feel his heart thumping hard.  The last few hours had seemed just as long and the wait just as agonizing as the night Nick and Kevin were attacked, but once again, they’d been rewarded with good news.  He sighed again with relief and closed his eyes, sending a silent prayer of thanks to God.  But when he opened his eyes and looked up at the cross hanging over the altar at the front of the chapel, he couldn’t help but wonder if this was really the answer to his prayers or just a delay of the inevitable.


Gianna heard it on the Sunday evening news, as she was cooking dinner.

“In tonight’s top story, Backstreet Boys fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief.  The remains pulled from the Schuylkill River this past Friday were not those of missing boyband member Nick Carter, as Carter’s family, friends, and fans had feared.”

After a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure Joey wasn’t skulking around the kitchen, Gianna set down the wooden spoon she’d been using to stir the pot of sauce on the stove and leaned over to turn up the volume on the small TV mounted under the corner cupboard.

“Although an anonymous tip left through the hotline number for Carter’s case was what led police to start searching the river on Wednesday, the body they found has been identified as forty-two-year-old Alfonso Gianatti, of South Philadelphia.  Upon medical examination, which revealed the cause of death to be a gunshot wound to the head, Gianatti’s death was ruled a homicide.  It isn’t clear whether his murder has any connection to the Nick Carter case.  Philadelphia police are asking anyone with information on either Gianatti’s death or Carter’s disappearance to call the number on your screen.”

It was a different number from the one Gianna had dialed to call in the tip.  She frowned, feeling she’d done more damage than good.  Now the police had another homicide on their hands, and the Carter kid was still missing.

Maybe Joey didn’t kill him, Gianna thought, wondering if she had simply read the situation wrong.  Then she remembered the way Joey had watched that news report about Nick, with his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched, and she realized it was the same look she’d seen on his face by the river.  Her stomach clenched as she considered the disturbing likelihood:  Or maybe he killed them both.


Chapter 17 by RokofAges75
Chapter 17

Nick woke up the morning after the sing and knew what he needed to do. It was as if his mind had been working on his problems all night as he slept, reaching a solution with sudden clarity just as the morning dawned.

He got out of bed, dressed, and walked to the barn, where Analiese was milking the cows. “Hey, can you take me into town again today to use the phone?” he asked her. “I’ve decided to go back. For real this time.”

Her blue eyes widened. “But what about the men who were waiting there the last time we went?”

The thought that Joey or D might still be skulking about the service station, waiting for him to surface, made Nick’s blood run cold. He had already considered this possibility, of course, but he put on a brave face for Analiese’s sake and said, “It was dark the last time we went. I doubt they’ll be sitting there in broad daylight. I mean, it’s not like they can keep watch there all day; it would look suspicious, and the last thing those dudes need is to attract attention. I think we’ll be safe if we go there during the day.”

“You’re safe here,” Analiese said. “Won’t you still be in danger if you go back to the English world?”

Nick sighed. “Yes, but… I don’t belong here. I thought I could get used to the change, and for awhile, I actually felt like I was starting to. But the way you and Lucas reacted last night at the sing, when you saw me drinking with Emeric and teaching everyone that song about the bottles of beer… well, it made me realize I’m probably doing more harm here than good. I’m sorry, Ana. I never meant to come here and corrupt you or cause any tension. And I don’t want to put you and your family in danger. I need to go back before those bad guys find me here.”

“But won’t they have an easier time finding you in Philadelphia?” Analiese asked, shaking her head.

He shrugged. “It’s a big city, and besides, the police should be able to keep me safe. They have programs for people like me, who have seen things they shouldn’t. Witness Protection. I’ll go into hiding if I have to, somewhere else, somewhere far from here.”

“You don’t have to go,” Analiese protested gently. “I may not have agreed with what you and Emeric were doing last night, but that doesn’t meant I want you to leave.”

“I know. And believe me, a part of me doesn’t want to leave either. I was actually starting to like it here,” Nick said, sucking in a deep breath. He could smell the cow manure, but strangely, it didn’t seem so bad anymore. “But I have to face my fears and do what’s right. I have to go back.” He looked at Analiese hopefully. “Will you take me to the phone?”

She, too, took a deep breath and then nodded. “Of course.”


After breakfast, Nick helped Analiese hitch up the buggy, and together, they headed off toward the small town of Paradise.

When they pulled up next to the phone booth, Nick waited in the buggy for a few minutes, watching the cars come and go. None of them seemed to be staying at the gas station for too long, so, feeling more confident that he wasn’t being watched, Nick finally climbed out of the back of the buggy.

He went into the phone booth, pulling the door shut behind him, and picked up the phone. After depositing the quarters Analiese had lent him, he dialed Brian’s number once again. This time, he vowed not to hang up before speaking.

The phone rang several times before Brian answered. “Hello?”

Nick’s mouth felt dry, and for a second, he could barely breathe, let alone speak.

“Who is this?” Brian demanded, sounding unusually angry. “Identify yourself now, or I’m hanging up.”

“No, don’t!” Nick gasped. “Frick… it’s me.”

He heard Brian’s sharp intake of breath, but after that, there was a long silence on the other end of the line. Just when Nick was starting to think Brian had hung up on him after all, his best friend whispered, “Nick?”

Nick swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

“Is it really you?” Brian asked hopefully.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

Brian went quiet for another few seconds. Then, suddenly suspicious, he said, “How do I know this is really Nick and not someone trying to mess with me?”

Nick was starting to get annoyed. All he wanted was to go back to his brothers, and his best friend of them all didn’t believe it was him? “Dude, it’s me! It’s Frack!” he insisted. “You need me to prove it or something?”

“Yeah… yeah, if you’re the real Nick Carter, answer this: Who do I usually play as in Mario Kart?”

Nick rolled his eyes. “Duh… Donkey Kong. And I’m always Yoshi. That enough proof for you?”

Brian seemed to hesitate. Then he whispered his name again. “...Nick?”


Brian was breathing fast, practically panting over the phone. “We thought you were dead!” he gasped. “Everyone’s been looking for you for two weeks - in the city, in the country, in the river, everywhere! Where are you?”

“I’m at a gas station in this little town called Paradise. It’s out in Amish country, in Pennsylvania. Can you call someone to come pick me up?”

“Yes! Yes, of course! Stay there, okay? Don’t go anywhere. Someone will be there soon,” Brian promised, just before the phone ran out of money and they lost their connection. Nick hoped he’d provided enough information for someone to find him. Now he just had to wait.

He sat in the buggy with Analiese, the two of them talking quietly as his eyes scanned the horizon, watching for an approaching car that would carry him back to the English world to face the music. Almost an hour passed before he saw flashing lights in the distance. As the lights came closer, he realized a police car was racing down the road.

The squad car pulled into the station, stopping a few yards away from the phone booth. An officer got out. Nick wanted to jump down from the buggy and run to the safety of the police car, but he held back, wanting to be sure it was a real cop and not just someone posing as one before he revealed himself. He watched with bated breath as the officer went around to open one of the back doors, and then out stepped someone very familiar: Brian.

Nick hadn’t expected to see his best friend so soon, but even though a part of him was afraid to face Brian and answer for what he’d done, his friendly face was a welcome sight. “Brian?” Nick called, as he climbed out of the buggy.

Brian looked up, his features lighting up with first recognition and then relief. Then he ran straight at Nick, launching himself into Nick’s arms. Nick gasped in surprise as he stumbled back with the force of Brian’s fierce hug, but recovered quickly and wrapped his arms around his friend.

“Thank God,” Brian whispered, burying his face in Nick’s neck. “Thank God you’re okay.”

“What are you doing here?” Nick couldn’t help but ask. “I didn’t think you’d still be in Pennsylvania.”

“Of course we are. We couldn’t leave without finding you… especially not with Kevin still in the hospital.”

“Hospital?” Nick repeated blankly. As it dawned on him what Brian had said, his eyes widened. “Wait… Kevin’s alive??”
Brian frowned at him. “Haven’t you seen the news? Where the hell have you been, Nick?”

Nick shook his head, his mind reeling, still trying to process the realization that Kevin wasn’t dead after all. In the hospital, yes, but still alive. “It’s a long story,” he mumbled.

“Well, we wanna hear it,” said Brian, motioning to both himself and the police officer who had brought him there. “You need to tell us everything. What happened, Nick?”

Nick swallowed hard. “I will. Just wait one second, okay?”

He ran back to the buggy, where Analiese was waiting. “Your friend seemed glad to see you,” she said, smiling. “Are you going back now?”

Nick nodded. “Before I go, I want to thank you - for rescuing me that night, for hiding me in your grandfather house, and for giving me a place to stay these last couple weeks. I owe you and your family so much. Please thank them for me and tell them I’m sorry I had to leave so suddenly, okay?”

“I will. It was nice getting to know you, Nick. I… I wish you weren’t leaving,” she said softly, ducking her chin a little to hide the fact that she was blushing.

“Believe me, a part of me wishes I wasn’t either,” Nick said, surprised by his own admission. “But I just found out that my friend Kevin - the one I thought was dead - is still alive. So I have to go back.”

Analiese smiled. “I’m so glad to hear that. I hope that if you’re ever in this area again, you’ll perhaps come visit someday.”

Nick smiled back. “If your dad will let me, I’d love to.” He reached up, offering her his hand. “Thanks again,” he said. A handshake felt like an oddly formal way of saying goodbye, but he wasn’t sure what else would suffice. A kiss on the cheek or even a hug felt too forward for someone as reserved as Analiese.

“Goodbye,” she whispered, letting go of his hand. Then she took hold of the reigns, and as he turned away, he heard the clip-clop of hooves on the pavement as her horse started walking.

“You ready?” Brian asked, as Nick watched the horse and buggy turn around and head in the direction of the Albrecht farm. Nick nodded. As he climbed into the back of the squad car with Brian, Brian added, “You wanna tell me who that was and what you’re doing all the way out here?”

Nick took a deep breath, and as the police car pulled away, he started talking. He told Brian and the officer everything, starting with the fateful night he’d decided to take a walk along the riverfront and finishing with how he’d ended up hiding out in Amish country.

“I wanted to come back, even tried calling you a couple different times, but I was afraid,” he admitted.

“We thought that was you on the phone!” Brian exclaimed. “Why wouldn’t you say anything? What were you so afraid of?”
“I was afraid they would find me… but mostly I was just afraid of what you guys would think of me once you found out it was all my fault,” Nick said in a small voice, looking down into his lap.

Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder and squeezed hard. “It wasn’t your fault, Nick. You hear me? No one’s blaming you for what happened. The only ones at fault are the two assholes who did this, and so help me god, I hope they pay for what they’ve done. Now that you’re back, you can help the cops find them.”

Nick’s heart sank. “So they still haven’t been caught?” he asked, looking up.

Brian shook his head. “The police haven’t had much information to go on. Kevin can’t tell them anything; he’s been in a coma.”

Nick swallowed hard. “Do… do the doctors think he’s gonna wake up?”

“He’s started opening his eyes, but he’s in what they call a ‘vegetative state,’” Brian said bitterly. “He’s not ‘with it’ yet. They don’t know when or if he’ll regain consciousness.”

Shaking his head, Nick sighed. “I’m sorry…”

“Stop beating yourself up. It’s not your fault, Nick.”

“I… I know,” said Nick, but inside, he knew the truth. Kevin was in a coma because of him, and if his big brother never woke up, he would have to live with that guilt for the rest of his life.


The officer wanted to go directly to the police station to take Nick’s statement, but Brian insisted on going straight to the hospital so Nick could see Kevin first.

Once there, they were whisked up to the neurology floor, where Kevin had lain comatose for the past two weeks. A security guard stood outside the door of the step-down unit. The two Backstreet Boys had to be buzzed in.

Brian had tried to prepare Nick for what he would see when they entered Kevin’s room, but nothing could make seeing Kevin like that less shocking. Nick’s eyes filled with tears as he took in the sight of his empty green eyes and vacant expression, the swelling and bruising in his face, the white helmet protecting his damaged skull.

“Do you want some time alone with him?” asked Brian, and Nick nodded. Truthfully, he was afraid to be alone with Kevin, but he needed time to collect himself. Brian, seeming to understand, let himself out, saying, “I’ll be out in the hall if you need me, bro.”

His heart beating fast, Nick took a tentative step towards Kevin’s bed. “Kev?” he whispered, but there was no response.

Brian had warned him that Kevin would be unresponsive, but encouraged him to keep talking anyway. “We want to stimulate his brain to help him wake up and start recognizing familiar sights and sounds,” he’d explained.

So Nick started talking. “I’m sorry, bro… I’m so sorry for getting you involved in this mess,” he murmured as he stood by the side of the bed, staring down at Kevin’s almost unrecognizable face. “I never meant for anyone to get hurt, especially you. I love you, bro. I know we’ve had our differences over the years, but I hope you know how much I love you like a brother. You’ve always been there for me… and I guess now it’s my turn to be there for you.” He reached out and carefully picked Kevin’s hand up off the mattress, lacing Kevin’s long fingers through his and giving it a squeeze. As he did so, Nick looked hopefully at the heart monitor that was beeping steadily in the background behind Kevin’s bed, wondering if the sound of his voice would trigger some sort of internal reaction, but nothing happened. The monitor continued to beep slowly, as the wavy lines measuring Kevin’s heart rhythm rose and fell steadily across its screen.

Just then, the door to Kevin’s room suddenly swung open, causing Nick’s own heart to skip a beat as he nearly jumped out of his skin. He expected it to be Brian coming back, but instead, it was a man in dark blue scrubs, pushing a floor mop and bucket.

“Housekeeping,” the man announced. “Mind if I mop the floor?”

“No, go ahead,” Nick muttered, turning his attention back to Kevin. He was aware of the wheels on the bucket squeaking against the tiled floor as it was rolled into the room, and as he glanced down, he thought vaguely, Floor seems pretty clean to me. Wonder why he wants to mop now.

Then he heard a different sound beneath the beep of the heart monitor - a soft, but ominous, metallic click. He turned around, his heart rising into his throat, to see the man in scrubs pointing a gun at him. And, suddenly, he recognized the dark eyes glittering behind the gun and heard the voice that had haunted his nightmares say his name.

“Hiya, Nick,” sneered Joey. “Back from the dead, I see. You and your friend here got lucky the first time… but your luck’s about to run out.”

Before Nick could react, he heard the explosion of gunfire and felt white-hot pain rip through his chest. He tasted metal as warm blood bubbled up into his throat. He saw Joey turn the gun on Kevin and tried to shout “No!” but all that came out was a weak gurgle, as blood foamed from his lips. Unable to breathe, Nick collapsed to his knees as the second shot rang out.

He couldn’t see where it went in, but the bullet must have hit its target because, a second later, the steady beeping of the heart monitor stopped, replaced by a single, shrill whine as Kevin flatlined.

Joey bolted from the room. More gunshots followed. Gasping for breath, Nick dragged himself to the door, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Even before he reached the threshold, he saw legs lying motionless on the floor in the hallway just outside the room and recognized the sneakers as Brian’s. “Help!” he tried to scream, but he couldn’t make a sound. So hard to breathe...

The room around him seemed to be getting smaller, as the edges of his vision grew fuzzy, like a tunnel of darkness was closing in on him. He was drowning in his own blood. He fought to stay afloat, to stay conscious, but in a matter of seconds, the darkness swallowed him up, and Nick knew no more.

The End

End Notes:
APRIL FOOL! Better late than never, right? This is not the real ending I had planned for this story, but in all honesty, it might be the only ending you’ll ever get, unless writing this fake ending has reignited my inspiration for writing some real chapters on this story. That remains to be seen. In any case, thanks for reading it!
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