The County General ER was a beehive of activity as usual. Doctors, nurses, and support staff buzzed through the halls, rolling patients on gurneys and pushing supply carts.
“Clear!” Carol Hathaway could hear someone shout from Trauma 2 as she walked by. She paused, watching through the doorway as John Carter leaned over his coding patient with a pair of defibrillator paddles in hand. He pressed them to the woman’s chest and delivered a shock.
“Back in sinus,” said Mark Greene, as the rhythm on the monitor changed. “Nice save, Dr. Carter.”
Carol smiled. Carter had come a long way in the three years since she had met him. After completing medical school, he had returned to County as a surgical intern, only to discover that surgery wasn’t his calling after all. He had since switched his residency program to emergency medicine instead. They were happy to have him working full-time in the ER, where his warm and caring bedside manner was an asset. Carter and his team seemed to have everything under control, so Carol continued on to the admit desk to call in the doctor’s orders for her own patient.
There had been a time, the previous year, when she’d resented taking orders from residents who were years younger than her and half as experienced. For a while, she had considered going to med school herself; she had enrolled in prerequisite classes at a local college and even passed the entrance exam with flying colors. But in the end, she had decided against becoming a doctor - she liked being a nurse best. She wasn’t playing paramedic as often these days, not since she had ended her relationship with Shep. And thanks to her help negotiating a new nursing contract, the ER nurses were no longer being floated to other floors. Carol had never been happier working in the emergency room. It was where she belonged.
Of course, her newfound happiness may have also had something to do with the recent developments in her love life...
She set down her chart on the desk, but before she could pick up the phone, she felt someone come up behind her. She turned to find Doug Ross standing there with a big, boyish grin on his face, his brown eyes twinkling. “Hey there, Carol. How’s your day going?” he asked casually, as he continued to smirk at her.
“Hi, Doug. My day’s going fine, thanks. How about yours?” she replied, raising her eyebrows at him. If he kept looking at her that way, it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the staff to realize they had rekindled their relationship. She was surprised they hadn’t figured it out already. Surely, the people who’d been working with them for a while had seen the way their friendship had blossomed over the past year, becoming less platonic and more flirtatious before finally culminating in a kiss on her front porch the previous spring.
Doug wasn’t the one who wanted to keep their romance a secret, but he had agreed to be discreet for her benefit. He understood why she still had her doubts about dating him again. He had hurt her before, and it had taken a long time for her broken heart to heal. She still didn’t fully trust him. But after a string of failures and personal setbacks - her suicide attempt, her broken engagement, her split from Shep - Carol was finally ready to move forward instead of looking back. This time, she was determined to make it work with Doug. As she looked into his deep brown eyes, she realized she had never really stopped loving him, which may have been the root of all her problems before.
“Hey, Carol… Dr. Ross,” she heard the desk clerk, Jerry, calling to them.
“What’s up, Jerry?” said Doug.
“Do you remember those guys from the singing group we treated here a couple years ago?” asked Jerry. “They were in that bad accident?”
“I remember,” Carol replied, thinking back to that cold September morning on the bridge. She hadn’t expected all five members of the band to make it, especially after their van had fallen into the river with two of the boys still trapped inside. The fact that they had survived - one after being clinically dead for over an hour - was nothing short of miraculous. She didn’t think she would ever forget those guys.
Jerry reached into a cardboard box that was sitting on the desk and took out a CD. “Check it out,” he said, handing it to her.
Carol held up the CD for Doug to see, too. The cover featured five young men in coordinating black and beige outfits standing beneath the words backstreet boys. She recognized them right away. “Wow! They really did release an album, huh?”
“Well, whaddya know?” Doug replied, raising his eyebrows. “That’s pretty cool. Where’d you get this, Jerry?”
“It came in the mail today. They sent us like a dozen copies!” said Jerry, tipping the box to show them the stacks of CDs inside. “And that’s not all. There was a card with a bundle of concert tickets, too! Apparently they’re doing a show here in Chicago in a couple weeks and wanted to invite everyone who worked on them.” He gave Carol a greeting card, which included a handwritten note.
To the incredible staff at County General Hospital,
Thank you for taking such great care of us after our car accident two years ago. We wouldn’t be here today without you! To show our appreciation, we want to invite you and your families to our show in Chicago on September 27th. See enclosed tickets and backstage passes. We hope to see you there so we can thank you again in person!
The Backstreet Boys
Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, AJ McLean, Brian Littrell, and Nick Carter
“That’s sweet,” said Carol, smiling. She glanced up at Doug. “Do you wanna go?”
He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
“Then it’s a date.” She winked at him, and he grinned back, doing the little giggle she loved as he walked around the desk.
“Why don’t we pop that sucker in the boombox, Jerry?” Doug suggested. “I wanna hear what I’m getting myself into.”
“You got it, Dr. Ross.” Jerry peeled the plastic off one of the CDs and put it in the player he kept at the desk. He pressed play, and the rich sound of five-part harmony filled the hall.
“Everybody, groove to the music. Everybody jam…”
The crowd went wild as the stage lights came up and the five boys launched into their choreography, a complex series of spins, kicks, and jumps. Watching them dance in perfect synchronization, it was almost impossible to imagine that, only two years earlier, they had been lying in hospital beds.
“We-e-e’ve been waiting so long, just can’t hold it back no more…” Brian Littrell began the first verse, stepping forward to sing. He knew how lucky he was just to be alive, let alone still able to perform. For the first few weeks after the accident, he had been plagued by short-term memory loss and confusion. The severe concussion he had sustained in the crash had only been compounded by the oxygen deprivation he had suffered during his near-drowning. But as his brain recovered, Brian had gradually begun to feel like himself again. “Cree-ee-ee-pin’ up and down now; it’s time for me to let it go.” Some days it was still difficult to remember song lyrics and dance moves, but under the circumstances, he was doing remarkably well.
“If you really wanna see what we can do for you,” sang AJ McLean, as he swaggered to the center of the stage. The recovery process had lasted a lot longer for him, but after months of painful rehabilitation, he had finally taken his first steps since the accident. Through rigorous physical therapy, he had regained the ability to walk, run, and even dance. He didn’t take a single step for granted. “Send the crazy wildin’ static… Sing it!”
“Jam on ‘cause Backstreet’s got it,” all five boys chorused. “C’mon now, everybody! We’ve got it goin’ on for years…" Kevin Richardson rocked back and forth from his right leg to his left as if it had never been broken. Besides the scar on his shin and the rod running through the center of his bone, his right leg was back to normal. Next to him, Nick Carter flailed his long arms and legs like a muppet, his blond hair flopping around as his lanky body moved with even more energy than the other guys. Now seventeen, he was as tall as Kevin and still growing, judging by the size of his appetite. A head shorter than them, Howie Dorough had given up hoping for another growth spurt of his own. After all they had gone through, he was just happy to be alive. “Jam on ‘cause Backstreet’s got it. C’mon now, everybody! We’ve got it goin’ on for years…”
Watching from the back of the standing-room-only crowd, Carol couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t her favorite kind of music, but she had to admit, the Backstreet Boys knew how to put on a good show.
She looked to her left, where Doug was standing, and saw a smile on his face, too. She reached for his hand in the dark and felt his fingers lace through hers. He glanced over at her and gave her a wink.
Next to him, Mark seemed oblivious to their interaction. The bright stage lights reflected in his glasses as he watched the stage, his mouth hanging slightly open. His eight-year-old daughter, Rachel, wore an identical expression as she sat on his shoulders, the only way she had been able to see over the sea of heads in front of her.
Standing on Mark’s other side, Susan Lewis looked like she was enjoying herself. She swayed with the music, bobbing her head along to the beat. Carol was glad to see her having a good time. She was the one who had convinced Mark to invite Susan to come for a visit that weekend. Things had been awkward between the two of them ever since Susan had switched her residency program the previous fall and moved to Phoenix to be closer to her sister and niece. It was the first time she had been back in Chicago since.
Besides Mark, the person who seemed most excited to see Susan was Carter. He kept looking over at her with a big, goofy grin on his face as he grooved somewhat awkwardly alongside her. Carol gave Doug a nudge and a subtle nod toward them. He took a look, then turned back to her so they could laugh together.
Onstage, the Backstreet Boys chanted, “We’ve got it goin’ on!” one last time before they took a bow. A chorus of high-pitched screams rose to the rafters of the theater as the five charismatic performers joined hands and raised their arms high over their heads. Listening to the way the teenage girls in the audience were going crazy over them, Carol could tell they were about to become the next big thing in pop music.
After the show, she and the others used their passes to go backstage. A security guard escorted them to the green room, where the five boys were waiting. It was Nick who recognized her first. “Carol!” he exclaimed, his face brightening as he jumped up from the couch to greet her. “I’m so glad you could come!”
She smiled, tucking her curly hair behind her ears. “Hi, Nick. It’s good to see you guys. Thanks for inviting us.”
“Looking good, fellas,” said Doug, shaking first Nick’s hand and then AJ’s. He nodded at the others. “You guys put on a hell of a show.”
“Thanks, Dr. Ross,” replied AJ, who had risen to his feet as well. “I’m just glad to be dancing again.”
Carter shook his head. “I don’t know how you all sing and dance like that at the same time. My branch of the Carter family can barely dance at all - two left feet,” he added, flashing Nick a grin.
“Well, then you two must be related because Nicky here has two left feet, too,” joked Howie, elbowing Nick playfully in the ribs. “Good to see you, Dr. Greene.” He reached out to shake Mark’s hand, then dropped his eyes to Rachel, who was hanging on to her dad’s other hand. “And who’s your lovely date?”
“Meet your newest fan - my daughter, Rachel,” Mark introduced her. Rachel beamed, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. In spite of her shyness, she was clearly smitten with the Backstreet Boys.
“Nice to meet you, Rachel,” Howie replied, shaking her hand as well.
Kevin cleared his throat. “Brian, I wanna introduce you to Dr. Susan Lewis,” he said, putting his arm around his cousin and pulling him in closer. When he smiled at Susan, his green eyes were swimming with tears. “Dr. Lewis is the reason you’re still here with us. She’s the one who brought you back.”
Susan returned his smile awkwardly, as Brian swallowed hard, his adam’s apple bobbing visibly in his throat. “I don’t know what to say…” he started hoarsely, “except… thank you. I’d give you a hug if I wasn’t drenched with sweat.”
“I don’t mind. Trust me, I’ve been covered in worse,” said Susan in her usual dry way.
She wasn’t much of a hugger, but she opened her arms and allowed him to wrap his around her.
“Y’all may have saved my life in more ways than one,” Brian added when he finally pulled back, his blue eyes looking extra bright. “They told me it was one of the ER doctors who diagnosed me with an enlarged heart. Turns out, the hole in my heart I’d had since I was born had gotten worse and was leaking blood. I had open heart surgery last spring to fix it.” He tugged down the neck of his sweat-soaked tank top to show them the scar in the center of his chest. “If it hadn’t been for you, I may have gone another year or two without knowing about it.”
“We can all thank Carol for that,” said Mark, tipping his head toward her. “If I remember correctly, she was the one who heard a heart murmur and thought we should check it out.”
“No kidding?” Doug turned to her and grinned. “Well done, Dr. Hathaway.”
Carol rolled her eyes at the nickname. As a nurse, she wasn’t used to receiving credit for saving lives, nor was she comfortable with the accolades. But she had to admit, it was a good feeling to know she had made a difference. “I’m just glad you’re all right now,” she replied, smiling at Brian.
They spent a few more minutes together, talking, taking photos, and autographing Rachel’s copy of their album. Then it was time to go. “Take care of yourselves,” Carol told the guys before they left the green room.
“We will,” said Kevin. “No offense, but I hope we never end up in your ER again.”
“None taken. Trust us - we hope you don’t either,” said Doug.
After that, they went their separate ways. Mark, Rachel, and Susan headed toward the parking deck, while Carol, Doug, and Carter walked to the “L” station. Meanwhile, the five Backstreet Boys piled back onto their tour bus for the ride to their next tour stop: Royal Oak, Michigan.
After their recent success overseas, the boys were enjoying slightly better accommodations on the road these days. Their managers made sure they were well taken care of. It helped that they had more money to spend, not just because of their album and ticket sales, but because of their recently renegotiated contract.
After Lou’s death, they had discovered that their creator had not just been the “sixth Backstreet Boy” in spirit, but on paper as well. As it turned out, “Big Poppa” had been taking far more than his share of their profits, getting paid as a full member of the group in addition to his manager’s and producer’s salary. Had he been around to witness their rise in popularity, he would have made millions off the Backstreet Boys, while they barely got by with five figures. They had mourned him a lot less since learning the truth, but it had made them much more business-savvy.
“Good show tonight, guys,” Howie said to the others, as they sat around the common area at the front of their bus, not yet ready to retire to their bunks in the back.
“Thanks, D. I can’t believe we only have three more to go,” said Brian, stifling a yawn. They had been touring for the better part of the year, mostly in Europe, but the American leg of the tour had just eight scheduled shows, lasting a total of ten days. Their U.S. debut album had only been out for a month, so most people in their home country didn’t know who the Backstreet Boys were yet. But judging by the sound of the small but enthusiastic crowds they had played to, that was starting to change. Their future had never looked brighter, and with a new lease on life, they looked forward to what was to come.
“Hey, look out your window, Nick,” Kevin said suddenly. “There’s Lake Michigan.”
Nick leaned against the left side of the bus and squinted through the tinted window. It was a clear night, so he could see everything this time: the bright lights of Navy Pier reflecting in the water, the big ferris wheel slowly turning round and round. He wished they could stop there and enjoy the fresh breeze coming off the lake. He missed being out on the water in his boat.
“We must be close to where it happened then... right?” AJ’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
Before any of them could answer, they felt the bus tires rumbling over the bridge and looked out to see water on both sides. Nick held his breath, remembering what it had felt like to freefall off the side of that bridge into the river below. For a few seconds, no one spoke. Only once they had made it safely across the bridge did Nick release his breath in a long sigh of relief.
“Y’all okay?” Brian asked, looking around at the other boys uncertainly. He was the only one with no memory of the accident or its aftermath, which he thought was probably a blessing.
Kevin had been rubbing his right shin, his fingers tracing the slightly raised scar running down it. But when Brian spoke, he suddenly let go and looked up at his cousin. “Yeah,” he replied quietly, the tension releasing from his shoulders as he relaxed back against his seat and smiled. “We are now.”
The sky was still dark when their bus reached the next city, but that didn’t matter to the five boys dreaming inside their bunks. Before they knew it, the sun would rise again.