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Chapter 9

AJ McLean had never been more miserable in his life. He had spent the last three days lying immobile in bed, listening to the beep of his monitors and the moans of his roommate.

“No… it’ll hurt…” he heard the familiar whine begin just before breakfast, as the doctors were finishing up their morning rounds.

“Aww, come on now, Nick,” said the medical student who was standing by the next bed, trying to convince its cranky occupant to let him change his bandage. “Have some faith in me here.” He flashed a good-natured grin as he pulled on a pair of gloves. “I’ll be gentle. I promise.”

Nick sighed. “Fine,” he huffed, throwing his head back against his pillow. Watching from the other side of the room, AJ rolled his eyes. Nick could be so dramatic sometimes.

As the two youngest members of the Backstreet Boys, AJ and Nick normally got along well. They had shared hotel beds and tour buses with no problem, but sharing a hospital room had tested AJ’s patience.

At first, he had been relieved to see Nick being rolled into his room after surgery. It was nice having someone he knew in the next bed - someone he trusted, someone he could talk to, someone who could keep him company as they both recuperated from their respective operations.

But as it turned out, Nick didn’t want to talk. “Just lemme sleep,” he would mumble when AJ tried to strike up a conversation, closing his eyes and pulling the covers up over his face to block out the light. AJ would be left to lie there and stare at the ceiling, unable to sleep.

While Nick spent most of the day napping, AJ hadn’t gotten more than a few hours of restless sleep since the accident. The rigid back brace they had put on him to protect his spine as it recovered was restrictive and uncomfortable. He couldn’t even roll over by himself, relying on a team of nurses to reposition his broken body every few hours to prevent pressure sores from forming. He found himself looking forward to their arrival, yet whenever they came to turn him, he felt a fresh wave of horror, wondering if he would spend the rest of his life like this, unable to move the lower half of his body. He hated feeling so helpless.

It was hardest at night, when visiting hours were over and the lights were out and the TV had been turned off, taking away everything he used to distract himself from his discomfort during the day. That was when the fear and depression really set in. He would lie awake for what felt like forever, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the ICU. He tried to block out the blips and drips and focus instead on the steady, reassuring sound of Nick’s deep breathing, hoping it would help lull him to sleep. He squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he would wake up to find himself back in his hotel room bed and realize it had all been a bad dream. But when he did finally drift off, he would have flashbacks of the accident and wake with his heart racing, only to discover that the nightmare was real. As a result, he was irritable and more prone to snapping at people... especially his equally bad-tempered roommate.

“Suck it up, Carter!” he called across the room. “It’ll just be like ripping off a really big Band-Aid.”

Nick whipped his head toward AJ, his blue eyes widening with horror. “Dude, that’s what I’m worried about!”

The med student, whose last name was also Carter, had turned to look at AJ, too. “You sure you don’t want that curtain closed?” he asked Nick uncertainly.

“Nah, it’s fine,” said Nick with a sigh. The privacy curtain between their beds was almost never closed; they both preferred it open. When the nurse had started to pull it across the middle of their room on the first night, Nick had protested, claiming he didn’t want to be alone. Privately, AJ agreed; the curtain made him feel claustrophobic, as if the walls of the windowless hospital room were closing in on him. If he couldn’t see outside, he at least liked to be able to look across and see Nick on the other side of the room. “Me and him go way back,” Nick added, waving his hand toward AJ. “We’re like brothers. We don’t have any secrets.”

That made AJ smile. In actuality, he and Nick had only known each other for three years, but they had spent so much of that time together that it felt like a lot longer. Nick was right: they were practically family by now.

“Okay,” said the older Carter with a shrug, returning his attention to the younger one. He loosened the ties holding the back of Nick’s hospital gown together and eased the front over his shoulders, pulling it down just far enough to expose the large gauze dressing taped down the length of his torso. “Close your eyes and take a deep breath,” the doctor-in-training told his patient, and when Nick complied, he carefully peeled back the edges of the bandage. “See? I knew you were tough,” he said, as he set the bloodstained gauze pad aside. “All us Carters are.” In his crisp white coat and neatly pressed khakis, this Carter didn’t look particularly tough, but at least he seemed nice.

Nick opened his eyes and cracked a smile. “You saying we’re related?”

The other Carter shrugged. “Well, Carter’s a pretty common name, but there could be some connection, right?” he replied, as he inspected Nick’s surgical incision.

“I doubt it,” said Nick flatly. “My dad was adopted, so I’m not really a Carter. Besides… I can’t see anyone in my family becoming a doctor.” He grimaced as he followed the med student’s line of sight to his bare belly. “Ugh… that is so gross.”

AJ knew better than to say it out loud, but privately, he agreed. With the curtain left open, he couldn’t help but watch with morbid curiosity as Carter carefully probed Nick’s abdomen. It wasn’t a pretty sight; the poor kid looked like he had been gutted. The incision running down the center of his stomach was red and raised, the skin still slightly swollen between the staples that had been used to put it back together. But Carter seemed pleased by its appearance.

“Actually, the wound looks like it’s healing well,” he said, gently touching the edges with his gloved finger. “We’ll be able to remove the staples in another week or so.”

“Will that hurt?” Nick wondered nervously.

“Nah, not too bad. It’ll feel better once they’re out,” Carter replied. “It’ll look a lot better, too. Once this is fully healed, you’ll have a pretty gnarly scar to show off.”

Nick made a face. “I’ll never be able to go shirtless again…”

AJ snorted. “You hardly went shirtless before!” He knew Nick had always been self-conscious around the other guys, who were all older, with more muscle definition and actual chest hair they had to shave. They looked like men without their shirts, while Nick still looked like a little boy.

“Hey, listen - chicks dig scars,” Carter said sagely.

“Yeah, right,” said Nick, rolling his eyes.

“No, really. It’s true!” insisted Carter, unwrapping a clean bandage to cover the incision. “I once dated a girl who dumped me for a guy with a cool scar.”

AJ shook his head skeptically. “You did not.”

Carter offered a sheepish shrug. “Well, that may not have been the actual reason she broke up with me, but…”

Both boys snickered, Nick wincing in pain. “Owww,” he whined. “Don’t make me laugh.”

The med student offered him a sympathetic smile. “Still pretty tender, huh?” Nick nodded. “You may be sore for a few more weeks, but you’ll be back to playing basketball before you know it,” Carter promised, as he put on the new bandage.

Looking away, Nick said nothing. AJ knew what he was probably thinking: basketball would be no fun without Brian around to shoot hoops with him. None of the other guys loved the sport the way Frick and Frack did.

Carter also noticed Nick’s sudden silence, though he didn’t seem to know its cause. “Are you really still in a lot of pain?” he asked again, as he carefully smoothed down the edges of the dressing. He kept his voice casual, yet he sounded slightly concerned. Nick just nodded. “From the incision itself or inside your belly?”

Nick shrugged. “I dunno... it just aches all over,” was his vague answer.

Though he cared about Nick, it was hard for AJ to feel too sympathetic toward him when he was whining as if his pain was the worst in the world. Recovering from major abdominal surgery couldn’t be much fun, but AJ thought the kid should show a bit of appreciation for the fact that he was still alive and able-bodied. Not all of them were: Lou was dead, Brian was comatose, Kevin was laid up with a broken leg, and AJ was paralyzed. At least Nick could feel something. Meanwhile, AJ was still numb below the waist, though the agonizing pangs he felt in his lower back more than made up for the lack of sensation in his legs. He hadn’t been able to see the incision from his own operation, but he imagined it looked like a length of angry, red railroad track running up his spine, radiating shockwaves of pain that could only be controlled by regular doses of morphine pumped directly into his veins.

Carter felt Nick’s abdomen in a few different places, gently poking his gloved fingers into the pale flesh. “The distension in your belly appears to have gone down since yesterday, which is a good sign,” he said. “Have you passed gas yet this morning?”

Nick’s face turned bright red. “Yes,” he muttered stiffly. He had been asked the same routine question every day since his surgery to ensure his repaired bowel was working normally again, but he still blushed each time he had to answer it.

AJ couldn’t resist the opportunity to embarrass his friend further. “I can vouch for that,” he chimed in with a grin. “He stunk up this whole place earlier. It smelled like shit.”

“Shut up,” Nick groaned, as the med student chuckled.

“You shut up,” AJ fired back. “Be glad you can still feel a fart coming on. I can’t tell if I’m about to crap my bed or not.”

Nick faked a laugh and looked away, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. AJ didn’t care. Being completely dependent on nurses to take care of his bathroom needs had forced him to get past his own embarrassment over bodily functions rather quickly. Nick hadn’t been cleared to start eating anything by mouth yet, but the first time he complained about having to get up to take a dump, AJ thought he just might lose it.

“Everything seems to be all right, but I’ll check with Dr. Benton and see if we can increase your dose of pain medication,” Carter promised, pulling Nick’s gown back up to his neck. “I’ll be back to check on you later.”

Not long after he left, an orderly arrived with AJ’s breakfast tray. Nick looked at it longingly while AJ clumsily fed himself cream of wheat, the head of his bed raised to a forty-five degree angle so he could be semi-upright. It wasn’t the most comfortable position from which to eat, and he would have much rather had a Quarter Pounder with cheese and fries from McDonald’s than this bland porridge, but he reminded himself that it could have been worse. At least he still had the use of his hands and was able to eat a real meal, unlike poor Nick, who was restricted to receiving a nutrient paste through a tube in his nose until his intestines had healed enough to handle solid food.

As AJ was finishing his breakfast, Nick’s nurse came in and told him it was time for him to get out of bed.

“No… it’ll hurt…” he started in with the whining again, sounding younger than his fifteen years.

“Now, Nick,” the nurse said in a warning tone. “You heard what Dr. Benton told you yesterday: We need to get you up and moving. Your muscles will start wasting away if you lie here too long without using them.”

AJ had listened to the two of them go back and forth about this for the past two days. First Nick had flatly refused to get out of bed and move to a recliner, complaining that his belly hurt too badly and he just wanted to sleep. After much wheedling and more morphine, the nurse had won that battle. Now, as she tried to get him to take a walk down the hall, Nick dug his heels in even further.

“But my stomach freaking hurts,” he protested, pulling his covers up higher. “I just had surgery, ya know.”

The nurse sighed. “I know. But your surgeon has examined you and doesn’t feel you need to be on strict bed rest. As long as you take it easy, there’s no reason why you can’t get up and walk around,” she said impatiently, while Nick continued to pout. “It’ll be good for you to get some exercise. Not only does it reduce your risk of developing blood clots, but it may even improve your bad mood.”

AJ snorted from the other side of the room. “He could sure use that.”

“Bite me,” he heard Nick mutter under his breath.

“Yeah? Stop bitching about getting out of bed, lazy ass!” AJ snapped back loudly, shoving his breakfast tray aside. In the back of his mind, he could hear Lou start to scold him (“Language!”), before he remembered that Lou was dead. The realization hit him like a sucker punch to the gut. “So your stomach hurts… well, boo-hoo! At least you’re alive! At least your legs still work! I’d give anything to be able to go for a walk right now.”

Angry tears had risen in his eyes, which put an abrupt end to Nick’s complaining. “Sorry, AJ,” he apologized sheepishly, his cheeks turning pink again. “Ya know, if I could trade places with you, I would.”

AJ sighed, wiping away the tears. “No, you wouldn’t.” He knew he sounded bitter, but he couldn’t help giving Nick a hard time. He was bitter, and Nick was acting like a spoiled brat. “And even if you would, you can’t,” he continued, “so quit being a damn baby and do what the doctors and nurses say. They just want what’s best for you.”

“I know,” Nick admitted, picking an invisible piece of fuzz off his blanket. He allowed the nurse to help him sit up on the side of his bed and then stand, as AJ watched with envy. He knew by the way Nick winced with each movement that he must legitimately be sore, but the pain was only a temporary problem. Despite his discomfort, the doctors all said Nick was doing well. In a few more days, he would be discharged, free to walk out of the hospital on his own two feet.

That wasn’t the case with AJ. He was facing weeks of rehabilitation, and the surgeon who had operated on his broken back had made it clear that he might never walk again.

“Your spinal cord wasn’t completely severed, but it was compressed by a couple of fractured vertebrae,” the doctor had explained, showing him a set of X-rays taken before and after his surgery. “You could recover some function below the waist, but you need to face the possibility that you may not. Right now, it’s too early to tell - we need to wait for the swelling in your spine to go down, which can take up to seventy-two hours. We’ll reassess your injury in a few days, and then we can discuss your prognosis.”

AJ hated the uncertainty of waiting and wondering if his paralysis was permanent or not. To pass the time, he had been trying to wiggle his toes whenever no one was watching. He never told his mother or Nick what he was doing, not wanting them to be disappointed when he failed. So far, he hadn’t managed to move a muscle below the waist, yet he sometimes felt a strange tingling in his otherwise lifeless legs. He had tried his best to describe the prickly sensation to his doctor, hoping it was a positive sign, only to be told it was just the result of the nerve pathways in his lower body being interrupted, similar to the sort of phantom pain experienced by amputees after the loss of a limb. AJ yearned to prove him wrong. He imagined himself surprising everyone one day by kicking off the covers and climbing out of bed all by himself. Nick would whoop and clap, his mother would cry tears of joy, and his doctor would watch in disbelief as AJ walked across the room. “See? I told you I could do it,” he would say before taking a bow.

But that was just a fantasy. In reality, he could do nothing but lie there there and watch Nick shuffle his feet slowly across the tile floor of their room, moving more like a frail old man than a fifteen-year-old boy. “Looking good, Kaos!” AJ told him nonetheless, feeling bad about his little outburst earlier.

Nick gave him an embarrassed sort of grin over his shoulder as he reached the doorway. The nurse stayed two steps behind him, ready to reach out and steady him if he should lose his balance, but AJ knew he would be fine. Nick was stronger than he gave himself credit for. Not many kids could have escaped from a completely submerged vehicle and swum to safety while slowly hemorrhaging from a tear in their intestines, as AJ had reminded him when Nick started beating himself up about not being able to rescue Brian.

“It’s my fault,” Nick had whispered, tears rolling down his cheeks, the only time he had really talked to AJ about the accident and its aftermath. “If I could’ve just gotten him out myself, he wouldn’t have been underwater so long, and maybe he’d be awake by now.”

“It’s not your fault, Nick,” AJ had reassured him. “You did the best you could. If you had stayed down there any longer, you might have drowned, too.” But he understood how helpless Nick felt.

Neither of them had been able to see Brian yet. He was in a different intensive care unit for adult patients, while AJ, despite being just three years younger, was stuck in the pediatric ward with Nick. Thankfully, they both had their mothers there to find out what was going on from the other boys’ families and fill them in. Nick’s mom and Howie’s parents had flown in from Florida, while Kevin’s mother had driven up from Kentucky with Brian’s mom and dad. Denise McLean had been meeting the other mothers every morning for coffee in the hospital cafeteria, which gave them a chance to commiserate and catch each other up on their sons’ conditions. Afterwards, AJ’s mom would come back to his room with an update on how the other boys were doing. He knew that Howie was recovering from his head injury and that Kevin’s broken leg was on the mend, too, but Brian remained in a coma. AJ wished he could visit him, but unlike Nick, no one was letting him get up. Lucky bastard, AJ thought, looking bitterly at Nick’s empty bed.

Nick came back after about ten minutes, looking tired and pale, but pleased with himself. The nurse helped him back into bed and asked both boys if they needed anything before she left to check on her other patients.

“How was it?” AJ asked after she had gone.

Nick shrugged. “Not that bad, actually,” he admitted. AJ couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or just saying what he thought he was supposed to say.

“Glad to hear it.” AJ wanted to be happy for his friend, and he was - but at the same time, he couldn’t help feeling jealous. He watched Nick close his eyes, clearly worn out from his brief workout, and waited for their mothers to come back from breakfast with news about the other boys.

When he heard a knock on the door a few minutes later, he called, “Come in!” As the door swung open wider, he looked up hopefully, expecting to see Denise or Jane. But the pretty, young black woman who walked in was someone he had never met before.

“Hi, I’m Jeanie Boulet,” she introduced herself. “I’m a physical therapist here at the hospital.” He saw her eyes drop from his face to his brace. “And you must be Alexander McLean. Do you go by Alex, or-?”

“AJ,” he said gruffly, glad his mom wasn’t back yet. She didn’t like his new nickname, but he thought AJ sounded a lot cooler than Alex.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, AJ,” said Jeanie with a warm smile. As she approached his bed, she automatically started to close the curtain behind her, but AJ stopped her.

“You can leave it open,” he said. “He’s my friend; I don’t care if he watches or whatever.” It only seemed fair, after he had seen Nick’s nasty incision that morning.

“Okay,” she agreed, letting it go. “I don’t know if your doctor told you I’d be dropping by today or not, but since it’s been a few days since your surgery, he wants you to get started on a physical therapy regimen.”

AJ perked up at that news. “Really? So are you here to help me walk again?”

Jeanie hesitated for just a second before she replied, “I’m here to help you regain as much function as possible. But first I need to examine you to get a baseline so I know where to begin. Once I have a better idea of the extent of your injury, we’ll be able to set some goals for what you can realistically expect to achieve during the rehabilitation process, and then I’ll design a program to help you get there.”

Despite her positive demeanor, he could tell by her carefully-worded answer that she didn’t want to get his hopes up. He nodded, disappointed but determined to give her a chance. He would do anything to walk again.

“One thing I definitely want to do is help you stay in shape while you’re recovering,” said Jeanie conversationally, as she picked up one of his legs and started peeling off the compression socks they had put to prevent blood clots from forming while he was confined to his bed. “I’ll come by at least once a day and work with you to maintain as much muscle tone and range of motion as you can, especially in your lower body. You’ll need it if you’re going to learn to walk again.”

She caught his eye, and he grinned. “Sounds great. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Jeanie smiled back. “That’s what I like to hear. I wish all my patients were as cooperative as you.”

“Ha! Hear that, Nick?” AJ smirked at his roommate, who flipped him the middle finger in return. Again, he felt a pang of sorrow inside as he imagined Lou lecturing Nick for making an obscene gesture. A part of him missed those lectures almost as much as he missed Lou’s pep talks.

Setting the pair of compression socks aside, Jeanie said, “I’m going to start by assessing your level of sensation. All you have to do is lie back and let me know what you feel when I touch different parts of your body.”

It turned out to be the same test Dr. Ross had performed on him in the emergency room the day of the accident. Jeanie lowered his bed so that he was lying flat, then had him close his eyes and tell her whether the touches he felt were sharp or dull. Just as before, he felt everything above the waist - the softness of the cotton swab stroking his skin, the sharp prick of the pin poking him - but beyond that, there was no sensation at all.

At least, not until he noticed a bit of light pressure on his left thigh. “I felt that!” he cried, his eyes flying open in surprise.

Jeanie raised her eyebrows. “What did it feel like? Sharp or dull?”

“Dull... I think.”

She showed him the pointy end of the safety pin. “I poked you with this, so it should have been sharp,” she said, “but at least you have some sensation in your leg. That’s better than it was before, when you were first brought in.” She seemed encouraged by these results, and AJ felt a renewed sense of hope.

“Does that mean I might get more feeling back?” he asked.

“You might. You might not. All we know for now is that some of the nerve pathways to your legs are still intact. One signal made it through, and more might follow as you continue to recover.”

It wasn’t much, but it was enough to improve AJ’s mood. By the end of his first physical therapy session, he felt much less miserable. He still couldn’t move his legs or wiggle his toes, but at least he had felt something below the waist. He couldn’t wait to tell his mom when she came back from the cafeteria.

Denise returned to the room around nine o’clock, accompanied by Nick’s mother Jane. As it turned out, they had good news of their own to share.

“Jackie said they’re going to try bringing Brian out of his coma today,” Denise told the two boys. “They’ll take him off the sedatives they’ve been giving him and see if he wakes up.”

“I wanna go see him,” Nick blurted, wincing as he sat up in bed. “Can I, Mom?”

Jane Carter was caught off-guard. “Well, I don’t know, Nick… I guess it depends on what the doctors and nurses say.”

“They’ve been saying I need to get out of bed and move around more,” Nick replied earnestly. “I went for a walk down the hall earlier, but I bet I could make it all the way to Brian’s room.”

AJ stared at him in astonishment. It was like someone had flipped a switch and lit a fire within Nick. The whiny little kid was gone, replaced by a fierce fifteen-year-old who was adamant about seeing his best friend. That was the Nick he knew.

“I wanna go, too,” he added. “I don’t care if it’s in a friggin’ wheelchair - anything to get out of this goddamn bed.”

“Language,” his mother warned, reminding him again of Lou. “We’ll ask your doctor and see what he thinks. If he’ll let you, I’m sure Brian’s family would love for you guys to be there with him.”

AJ and Nick exchanged glances, silently agreeing that they would do whatever it took to go together. Neither of them expressed the worry that was on both of their minds: that the Brian waiting for them might be a much different Brian from the one they had known before the accident. Still, he was their brother, and they wanted to be by his side when he woke up.

If he woke up.