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I made it to the hospital around twelve-thirty. AJ met me outside the entrance to the ICU. I thought he was going to start giving me shit again about being late, but instead, he said, “Kevin’s doctor brought Brian and Ann back to talk to them first. Howie and I haven’t even been able to see him yet.”

I frowned. “That doesn’t sound good. Did something happen?”

He shrugged. “No idea. I guess we’ll find out.”

We went to the waiting room, where Howie was sitting with Leigh. Like AJ, they were both dressed up, so I assumed they had been to church as well. I felt like a bum in my sweatpants and beanie.

“Hey, Nicky,” said Howie, standing up to hug me. “How are you?”

“I’m all right,” I replied, wondering if AJ had told him about the night before. I assumed he already knew about the TMZ article, but he didn’t bring it up. Good ol’ Howie never gave me a hard time the way the other guys did, even when I deserved it. I sat down next to him, and we waited.

When Brian came back to the waiting room, he was alone. “Aunt Ann is still in with him,” he told us.

“Is Kevin okay?” I asked.

Brian caught my eye. I could see the disapproval written all over his face, but he didn’t mention my drunken blunder. “Well… I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said, sucking in a deep breath. “The good news is that they took out the breathing tube, so he can talk again.”

“That’s great news!” Howie exclaimed.

“Yeah… he’s a little hoarse, but it was nice to hear his voice. I know he’s happy about that. We’re supposed to encourage him to do his breathing exercises to help increase his lung capacity. Dr. Bone said he’s still at risk for complications like pneumonia or a collapsed lung, which could require him to be put back on the ventilator, but the fact that he’s able to breathe on his own again is a positive sign.”

AJ nodded, looking encouraged, but I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. “So then, what’s the negative?”

Brian sighed. “The bad news is… Kevin’s a quadriplegic. Dr. Bone thinks his paralysis is permanent. She said he might be able to use his arms again someday, but not his legs - nothing from the chest down.”

My heart plummeted into my stomach.

“So we all better keep praying for God to work one of His miracles,” Brian continued, locking eyes with each of us. “Otherwise, Kev could be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.”

As the others all nodded in agreement, I felt guilty for not going to church with them earlier. Even worse, my words from the previous night had come back to haunt me. I knew it wasn’t my fault Kevin was paralyzed, but I felt like I had jinxed him somehow by saying he was going to walk again. Now his doctor had told him the exact opposite.

“How did Kevin take the news?” Howie asked Brian.

“He seems pretty depressed about it, as you might imagine. He didn’t say too much - his mom and I did most of the talking.”

“I can’t imagine,” Howie said, shaking his head. “Poor Kevin…”

AJ cleared his throat. “He’s gonna need us now more than ever. I mean, how’s he gonna take care of his kid if he can’t even use his arms?”

“I guess he’ll have to hire a nanny… and a caregiver for himself. He won’t be able to live alone, at least not right away. Even after he gets out of rehab, he’s probably gonna need a lot of help.”

“Rehab?” I repeated, picturing the type of place where addicts went to get clean. AJ had done a couple of stints in rehab. I had almost checked myself in once, too, but changed my mind and completed an outpatient treatment program instead. A lot of good that did you, I scolded myself.

“A rehabilitation center,” said Brian. “That’s where he’ll go when he’s well enough to leave the hospital.”

“For how long?”

“Dr. Bone said probably a few months, but it’ll depend on the program they develop for him and what kind of progress he makes with it. I don’t know any other details yet.”

The room got quiet as we all took some time to process what Brian had told us. It was AJ who broke the silence by asking, “Can we go back and see him now?”

“Yeah, of course. Maybe y’all can cheer him up.”

AJ stood up first and motioned for me to follow him. “C’mon, Nick.”

Grudgingly, I got up, too. AJ was the last person I wanted to be around, but since Howie had his wife with him, we were stuck visiting Kevin together.

“Do you think Brian told him about the TMZ thing?” I asked as we walked into the ICU.

“I doubt it. Sounds like they had more important things to discuss.”

“Well, should I say something about it?”

AJ shrugged. “I dunno, Nick, whatever you wanna do.” He sounded defeated, as if all the fight had gone out of him. A part of me was glad he didn’t seem to want to argue with me anymore, but seeing him so down made me even more depressed myself. There was no chance the two of us were going to be able to cheer Kevin up.

But when we reached the doorway of Kevin’s room, AJ took a deep breath and pasted a bright smile onto his face. “Kevy Kev!” he called as we went inside.

“Hey, J,” Kevin croaked, or maybe he said “AJ” - his voice was so quiet, I couldn’t tell. He was lying on his left side, with pillows wedged behind his back, between his legs, and under his head and arms.

His mom had been sitting in a chair beside his bed, but she stood up when she saw us. “I’ll be just down the hall if you need anything,” she said to Kevin, bending over to kiss him on the forehead. “Have a nice visit with the boys now.”

Kevin’s mouth curved at the corners, not quite forming a full-on smile. “Thanks, Ma.”

Ann walked out, and AJ plopped into her seat. I pulled the second chair around from the other side of the bed and positioned it next to AJ’s so I could see Kevin’s face. Some of the color had come back into it since his accident. He still had tubes in his nose, but at least there wasn’t one sticking out of his mouth anymore. “Hey, bro,” I said, as I sat down. “You look good. Or… better, anyway.”

The ghost of a smile on his lips grew. “Thanks, little brother. No offense, but you look like shit.”

I laughed. “Sorry I didn’t dress up for you like everybody else. It was a late night last night… I may be a bit hungover.”

“No way. Nick Carter? Hungover? I can’t imagine,” said Kevin sarcastically, smirking at me. Even though he was making fun of me, I felt a little better. Maybe he wasn’t as depressed as Brian had made it sound. Or maybe he was just hiding it with humor, the same way AJ and I were.

“Yeah, you wanna know what this asshole here did last night?” said AJ, and my heart sank. Was he really going to start with the TMZ story right now? “He stumbles in at three in the morning, drunk as a skunk, and sets off the security system. I wake up to the alarm blaring and almost have a heart attack, thinking someone just broke into my house. So I grab the closest weapon, my katana-”

“Did you know AJ keeps a fucking samurai sword by his bed?” I interjected, as Kevin started to snicker.

“-and go look downstairs, and guess who I see punching random buttons on my keypad in a panic?”

“You didn’t tell him the code?”

“Of course I told him the code! He was too high to remember it!”

I glanced at Kevin, expecting him to give me the same look of disapproval his cousin had, but he just laughed. “It’s your birthdate, right?”

“1-9-78… duh! I shoulda let the cops come and bust his ass for breaking and entering.”

Even though I knew AJ was kidding, I felt my face flush. Kevin flashed me a quick smile. “It’s okay, Nick. If I could go out and get wasted with you right now, I would. God knows I need a drink.”

I smiled back with relief. “I could prolly smuggle some booze in this place.”

AJ rolled his eyes.

“You’d have to pour shots down my NG tube,” said Kevin, wrinkling his nose. “They won’t let me eat or drink anything yet.”

I made a face, imagining how uncomfortable that must be. In my mind, it was worse than getting water up my nose in the pool, which was pretty damn painful. “That sucks, dude. Are they at least still giving you some good drugs?”

“Not as good as before. I still don’t feel much, but I think that has more to do with my crushed spinal cord than the painkillers.” His smile had faded by that point, and I could hear the bitterness in his voice.

“Brian told us what the doctor said. I’m so sorry, bro.” AJ leaned forward, rubbing Kevin’s shoulder.

“I guess I picked a good time to quit the group, huh? I’m never gonna be able to dance again.”

It hurt my heart to hear him say that. Literally, my chest ached for him and all that he had lost.

“You don’t know that,” I said quickly. “It’s only been, what, five days since your accident? A lot can still happen. I mean, medical advances are being made all the time. I bet there’s a team of doctors and scientists working on a way to help people like you walk again as we speak.”

“People like me,” Kevin repeated, smirking again. “You can say the word ‘quadriplegic,’ Nick. That’s what I am.”

But I didn’t want to say the word. Calling him a quadriplegic would make it real, and I wasn’t ready to accept it yet.

“All I’m saying is, you shouldn’t give up hope. Never say never, dawg.”

“Yeah, Nick already told the whole world you were gonna walk again, so… no pressure,” said AJ out of the blue. I whipped my head toward him, wondering why he would suddenly let that slip when he had made it sound like it was up to me whether or not to tell Kevin about TMZ.

“What is this, Shit on Nick Day or something?” I cried, furious at AJ for betraying me like that.

Kevin frowned. “What are you talking about?”

AJ looked over at me. “You might as well tell him now, Nick.”

I flipped him off before I turned back to Kevin. Taking a deep breath, I started to explain. “So… there was this paparazzi guy harassing me on my way out of the club last night, and I wasn’t thinking straight and said something stupid, and he apparently caught it on video and sold it to TMZ. I’m sorry, bro.”

“What’d you say?”

I heaved a sigh. “Here… I’ll show you.” I could feel my face heating up as I fumbled with my phone, trying to pull up TMZ’s website. It wasn’t hard to find the video; it was right there on the first page. I pressed the play button and turned my phone around so Kevin could see the screen. I couldn’t look at him while he watched; I kept my eyes fixed firmly on a spot on the floor, cringing as I heard my drunk-ass self declare, “Kevin’s a badass. Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

The video ended, and Kevin didn’t say anything. When I finally dared to look up, I saw why: his eyes were full of tears. My heart dropped. I don’t know what kind of reaction I was expecting, but I definitely hadn’t thought it would make him cry. I was never drinking again. “Never say never, dawg,” my own words from before came back to haunt me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that promise, which made me feel even worse than before.

But then Kevin croaked, “Thanks, little brother.” His voice was so hoarse, it was kind of hard to tell, but he didn’t sound sarcastic.

I stared at him in confusion. “For what? Letting the whole world know you can’t walk?”

“For believing that I can. For calling me a badass.” He smiled through his tears. “I’ll take that kind of compliment any day, even if it’s not true.”

My heart lifted. “It is true,” I insisted. “I may have been trashed, but I meant every word I said. Even if you never take another step, you’ll always be a badass to me. And you are gonna get better… better than this, anyway.” I waved my hand over his motionless body, wishing I had the magic to make it work again myself. “Like I said… nothing can keep you down for long.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” said Kevin, “but I’m gonna do whatever I can to get back up again.”

That was when I knew, one way or another, Kevin was going to be okay.