My Brother's Keeper by RokofAges75
Summary:

As the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2008, Kevin Richardson felt like he had it all: a wonderful wife, a beautiful baby boy, and a newfound freedom to do whatever he wanted to provide for his family. Not like his former bandmate, Nick Carter, who could barely take care of himself, let alone someone else. But when a tragic accident changes Kevin’s life forever, Nick is forced to step up and start caring for his friend. Will he rise to the occasion, or will Nick crumble under the pressure of trying to support Kevin and straighten out his own life at the same time?

Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Kevin, Nick
Genres: Angst, Drama
Warnings: Death
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 12 Completed: No Word count: 39683 Read: 735 Published: 04/03/21 Updated: 06/12/21
Story Notes:
Feedback is always appreciated! Since reviews have been disabled, feel free to email me at rokofages75@dreamers-sanctuary.com, tweet me @rokofages75, message me on the discussion boards (RokofAges75), or post in my updates thread (http://absolutechaos.net/fictalk/index.php/topic,764.0.html) if you have any thoughts to share. Thanks!



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

Chapter 1 by RokofAges75

Kevin


The last day of my life, as I knew it, also happened to be the last day of the year.

I guess everyone gets a little reflective on New Year’s Eve, and I was no exception. As I sat at the kitchen island, spooning pureed squash into my son Mason’s mouth, I thought about how much my life had changed over the past year. Exactly one year earlier, my wife Kristin and I had announced the news of our first pregnancy to our closest friends and family. She was barely finished with her first trimester then, and now our baby boy was almost six months old. I couldn’t believe it. Time seemed to be flying by even faster than it had before I’d become a father.

Before I’d become a father, I had been a Backstreet Boy. For thirteen years, I sang, danced, and toured the world with four guys who were like the little brothers I’d never had: Brian, Howie, AJ, and Nick. It had been a dream come true… until it wasn’t. When I realized I was no longer living the dream, but dreading the next tour, I knew my time with the group needed to come to an end. After six years of marriage, Kristin and I were ready to start a family, and I wanted to be the kind of father who was present and involved with his children, like my own dad had been, not an absent one who was always away for work. Eventually, I also wanted to pursue other opportunities in the entertainment business, but at my own pace, with no pressure from four other guys or our fans. I saw myself recording solo music, returning to the Broadway stage, maybe even acting in films someday. But for now, I was perfectly happy playing my dual role as husband and father. There were days when I missed being a Backstreet Boy, but on that particular evening, I was enjoying just being a family man instead.

“Here comes the plane!” I exclaimed, making Mason’s spoon zig and zag through the air before zooming into his mouth. Half of the squash foamed out the sides of his mouth as he slapped his chubby hands against the tray of his high chair, giggling with delight.

“Will you zip me up, hon?”

I looked up to see my wife Kristin standing in the doorway. She was wearing a long-sleeved, gold dress that stopped a few inches above her knees, showing off her long, dancer's legs. I let out a low whistle of admiration. “Sexy Mama,” I said.

Kristin smiled and blushed, ducking her head a little so that a lock of her long, blonde hair fell in front of her face. “You don’t think it’s too much?” she asked, resting her hand lightly on her cleavage, which was accented nicely by the dress’s plunging neckline.

I shook my head. “No way. If you got it, flaunt it, baby - and you definitely got it. No one would ever be able to tell you had a baby six months ago.”

She laughed. “Well, I’m only gonna have boobs this big for a few more months until Mason’s weaned, so I guess I might as well show ‘em off while I can, huh?”

“That’s right,” I agreed, grinning at her as I rose from my chair.

She turned around, holding up her hair so I could fasten her zipper. Once I’d caught a whiff of her perfume, I couldn’t resist brushing my lips against her back, planting a soft kiss between her shoulder blades before I pulled the pieces of shimmery fabric together. Goosebumps rose on her skin as I slowly zipped up the dress. It fit her like a glove.

“Thanks, babe,” she said, turning back around. “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to tonight.”

I was taking her out for New Year’s Eve - a fancy dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in L.A., followed by dancing and drinks with some friends at a club downtown. It was one of the first real dates we’d been on since Mason was born, and we were both excited to ring in the new year with some much-needed “Mommy/Daddy” time.

“Me too,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her waist. Looking into her brown eyes, I felt like the luckiest man alive. My wife was absolutely beautiful, both inside and out, and the life we’d created together was as perfect as life could possibly be. She and Mason meant the world to me.

Kristin put her arms around me, too, and we began to rock back and forth, at ease in each other’s embrace. “Someday...” I sang softly in her ear, rotating her slowly on the spot, “when I’m awfully low… and the world is cold… I will feel a glow just thinking of you… and the way you look tonight.”

Smiling, she slipped her hand into mine, and I moved my other hand to her back, as we danced around the kitchen. It was times like these that my training as a ballroom instructor and her years as a professional dancer paid off. Together, the two of us were a perfect match. “Yes, you’re lovely…” I went on, spinning her out and reeling her back in again, “with your smile so warm… and your cheeks so soft… There is nothing for me but to love you… and the way you look tonight.” I turned her under my arm, then tipped her backwards and kissed her long and deeply.

“Our son is watching,” she whispered against my lips.

I just laughed. “So what? Let him watch,” I said and kissed her again.

Just then, the intercom connected to our home security system buzzed, signaling that someone was waiting outside the front gate. “That’ll be the babysitter,” said Kristin, hurrying to answer it. We had hired Rachel, the daughter of a friend from the music business, to watch Mason that night. While Kristin let her in and went over his bedtime routine, I retreated back to our bedroom to get dressed for the evening. By the time I was done, Rachel had taken over feeding Mason the rest of his dinner, and Kristin was ready to go.

“We should be back by two at the latest,” she told Rachel, tucking her clutch under her arm as I put my wallet in my back pocket and picked up my car keys. “Call if you need anything.”

“Sure,” said Rachel, smiling. “You guys have a good time.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will,” I replied, winking at my wife. We both kissed Mason goodbye and left quickly, before either he or Kristin could get upset. Neither of us were used to leaving him, but I knew it would be harder on her than me.

Sure enough, as we climbed into my car, I saw Kristin swipe at her eyes. “Aww, honey,” I said, squeezing her leg. “He’ll be just fine, so don’t you worry now. It’s New Year’s Eve, and you and I are gonna have fun tonight.”

She nodded. “I know,” she said with a tearful smile. “I just feel bad leaving before he goes to bed. I’ve never not been there to rock him to sleep.”

“You’ll be there when he wakes up in the morning,” I replied, leaning over to kiss her forehead before I started the car. “Now, come on… let’s go ring in the new year.”

***


“Three… two… one… Happy New Year!” the crowd around us chanted, as the clock struck midnight on the West Coast. Kristin and I kissed, while confetti rained down on us. It was the perfect start to a new year.

“Here’s to 2008!” I toasted her, holding up my flute of champagne.

“Happy New Year, baby!” she shouted back, clinking her glass against mine. There was confetti caught in her hair. Looking down, I saw some stuck in her cleavage as well. She saw where I was looking and laughed as she glanced down at herself. “I can’t wait to take this dress off!” she announced, fishing a piece of confetti out from between her breasts and flicking it away.

“I can’t wait to take it off either,” I replied, waggling my eyebrows at her.

She gave me a seductive smile, raising hers. “You ready to go?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, if you are.”

She nodded. “Let’s go.” She drained her glass in one, long swallow, then set it down and slipped her hand into mine. We said goodbye to our friends as we wove our way toward the exit of the crowded club, squeezing through the throngs of partygoers.

It was a relief to get outside and feel fresh, cool air. I handed my valet ticket to the parking attendant and waited with Kristin on the curb for our car to be brought around. She leaned against me, her arm around my waist, slightly unsteady in her high heels. Other than a sip of champagne at midnight, I had stopped drinking over an hour ago, wanting to make sure I was in decent shape to drive us home. My head was clear when I took the keys from the valet and climbed behind the wheel.

I turned on the radio and tuned it to an R&B station - baby-making music, my wife called it - as we crawled through traffic. Keeping one hand on the wheel, I let my other hand drift over to Kristin’s leg. Her freshly-shaven skin felt as soft and smooth as silk. She put her hand on top of mine and held it there.

Once we were out of downtown L.A. and onto the freeway, the traffic thinned out so I could finally go the speed limit. “When we get home, I’m gonna kiss every inch of your body,” I told Kristin, taking the exit that would lead us there.

“Even my feet?” she asked, giggling. I always gave her a hard time about her big feet and long toes, which had taken all kinds of abuse during her dance career.

“Every inch,” I repeated, “from head to toe… so, yes, even your feet.”

“You sure about that?” she teased, taking off one of her heels and lifting her leg into the air. She propped her bare foot up on the dashboard and wiggled her toes, taunting me.

I rolled my eyes at her. “Real classy, Kristin,” I said, though I couldn’t help grinning. “Now put that thing down before-”

As Kristin took her foot off the dash, she suddenly gasped. My head was turned toward her, so I didn’t see what she had until it was too late. A pair of headlights was already upon us when I heard her scream, “Kevin, watch-!” Her last words were cut short by the ear-splitting sound of crunching metal and shattered glass, as my world imploded.

***


Chapter 2 by RokofAges75
Nick

There’s no better place to party on New Year’s Eve than Vegas, baby! I spent the last few hours of 2007 playing a gig with the Boys at Body English, this cool nightclub inside the Hard Rock Hotel, not far from The Strip.

It was one of the first times we’d performed a full set as a foursome, and even though it had been over a year since Kevin quit the band, his absence was felt. It was weird hearing Howie sing all his solos, and it just felt like something was missing from our sound, which wasn’t as rich without the lowest voice in our five-part - now four-part - harmony. But if the fans noticed, they didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was just the fact that it was New Year’s Eve and everyone was in a good mood, but they wouldn’t stop screaming for us, even after we left the stage. You’d have thought it was still 1998, not about to be 2008.

We finished our set before midnight so we could ring in the new year with the rest of the club. By one, all the other guys had gone back up to their rooms, but I was still having a damn good time downstairs. I’d lost count of how many drinks I’d had or how many different hot girls I’d danced with - not that it mattered much to me. The one who was hanging all over me at the moment was blonde, but a little older-looking than I liked. I was looking for a good excuse to get rid of her when I felt my phone vibrating in my back pocket.

I reached around, pulled it out, and glanced at the screen, surprised to see that the Boys had been blowing up my phone. Somehow, I had two missed calls - one from Brian, the other from Howie - and a text message from AJ. Nick, get your ass up here, it said. I frowned. Leave it to my “big brothers” to try and cut me off, like I was still some little kid with a curfew. Who were they to tell me what to do? I was a grown-ass man, and I did whatever I damn well pleased. If I wanted to stay out and party all night, I would. It was New Year’s Eve, for fuck’s sake.

Fuck u, im havin fun, I sent back, but kept my phone in my hand as I continued to half-ass dance with the blonde cougar who had her arms around me. I dared AJ to start giving me shit about my drinking - as if he hadn’t done way more than his fair share of it back in the day. Just because he was sober now didn’t mean he had the right to act all self-righteous about it. Hell, he was the one who’d introduced me to drugs and alcohol in the first place, so who was he to judge?

But the response I got from him a few seconds later wasn’t judgmental. It just sounded serious. Nick, NOW! 911!

My eyes narrowed as I stared at the message. I knew 911 meant an emergency, but what could be so urgent in the middle of the night? The new year had just begun; nothing that bad could have happened already, could it?

Whats wrong? I asked AJ, not ready to go running up to his room just yet. For all I knew, this was just a ploy to get me to leave the party.

“Are you going to pay any attention to me?” pouted the woman I was dancing with.

“Apparently not,” I said, shaking her off me as I saw my bodyguard Q approaching. I could tell by the look on his face that he was about to tell me it was time to leave; they must have been texting him, too.

Sure enough, Q leaned over and shouted into my ear, “Time to go, Nick. They need you upstairs, right now.”

The woman didn’t seem to be able to take a hint, so I added, “Sorry, but I gotta go see what the guys want,” and waved my phone in front of her face.

She frowned, the lines in her forehead making her look even older. “Whatever, asshole.”

“Happy new year to you, too… bitch,” I replied, muttering that last part under my breath as I walked away, accompanied by Q. Once we were outside the club and could hear each other without shouting over the music, I stopped and turned to him. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?”

“I dunno, man, but something must’ve happened. Howie said we’re driving back to L.A. tonight.”

“Oh, Howie said, huh? I didn’t realize Howie was the one making all the decisions around here,” I replied sarcastically. “Why the fuck would I wanna drive to L.A. anyway? I don’t even live there anymore.”

In an effort to better myself, I had sold my place in Los Angeles and bought a house in Franklin, Tennessee, far away from all the temptations that kept getting the best of me. I had flown into Vegas from Nashville and had no intention of going back to L.A. until I absolutely had to for work. Rehearsals for our upcoming Unbreakable tour didn’t start for another two weeks.

“I dunno, man,” Q repeated. “Let’s just go find out what’s up.”

He led me to the nearest elevator, and we went up to the floor where the Hard Rock had reserved us a block of rooms. Howie, Brian, and AJ were all waiting for us outside mine. When I saw the looks on their faces, my anger faded away, and I knew that whatever had happened, it was bad. Really bad.

“What’s going on?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

But no one would tell me anything out in the hallway. “Where’s your room key?” Howie demanded. Wordlessly, I fumbled with my wallet until I finally found the key card and stuck it into the slot on the door. The lock clicked open, and we all went inside. Normally, I could count on one of them to comment on the dirty clothes and empty food containers lying around everywhere, but nobody said a thing about my messy room.

As soon as the door slammed shut, Brian turned to me and said, “I got a call from my Aunt Ann - Kevin’s mom - a few minutes ago. Kevin and Kristin were involved in a bad car accident in L.A. tonight.”

My stomach dropped, and my heart started hammering hard against my ribcage. “How bad?” I whispered, my throat suddenly as dry as the desert outside.

Brian shook his head. I could tell by the redness around his eyes that he’d been crying, and I tried to brace myself for what I thought he was going to say next: that Kevin and his wife had been killed in the crash. But instead, Brian continued, “The hospital wouldn’t tell her much over the phone, just that it was serious and someone should get there as soon as possible. She can’t get a flight out of Kentucky until the airport opens in the morning, so I’m gonna rent a car and drive there tonight.”

“We’re all going,” Howie added, and AJ nodded. “You’ll come with us, won’t you?” They both gave me hard looks, as if daring me to say no.

“Yeah, of course,” I agreed without a second thought. Kevin was like my big brother, like all of them were. If he needed me - if they needed me - then I would be there.

“Jenn’s calling the car rental company right now. Can you be ready to leave in fifteen minutes?”

I looked around my messy room again, feeling overwhelmed. “Uh, yeah… sure.”

“I’ll help you pack,” AJ offered. “I already shoved all my shit back into my suitcase.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied. As the other guys returned to their own rooms to get ready to go, AJ and I picked up around mine. He grabbed every piece of clothing I’d left laying around and tossed it to me to put in my luggage.

“You need to invest in a laundry bag, dude,” he said, giving me a look of disgust as he lifted a pair of my dirty underwear with his thumb and forefinger, trying to touch as little of the fabric as possible. “Since when do you even wear undies? What happened to going commando?”

“Chafing. Chafing happened,” I said, ducking out of the way as he whipped them at my head.

Chuckling, AJ went into the bathroom.

“Wait!” I called, suddenly remembering what I’d left on the counter. “I’ll clean up in there!”

AJ didn’t say anything until he walked back out a few seconds later. “Too late, Prick,” he replied, holding up a plastic baggie in each of his hands. One contained a small amount of white powder; the other, an array of colorful pills. “I already found your stash.”

My heart sank as I heard the disappointment in his voice and saw the look of defeat on his face. I hung my head, ashamed, as he continued, “Damn it, Nick, I thought you quit this shit!”

“I did!” I cried. “It’s not like I do it all the time, just… you know, sometimes, when I’m out partying. It’s like how some people only smoke when they drink.” I hesitated. “You’re not gonna tell the other guys, are you? Please, AJ… What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?” I knew I sounded pathetic, but I didn’t care. As far as Brian and Howie knew, I had cleaned up my act over the past few months. They had enough to worry about without finding out I was still using. I didn’t want them to see what a mess I was.

AJ shook his head. “Now’s not the time for that.” At least we agreed on that much. “We’ll talk about it later.”

He flushed my drugs down the toilet while I finished packing my bag. Neither of us spoke again until we were out in the hall with the others. “Do you think Kev’s gonna be okay?” I asked him quietly, as we walked down the hallway, wheeling our luggage along with us.

“He better be,” was all AJ would say back.

***


Chapter 3 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I have no memory of the minutes immediately following the crash. I must have passed out at some point, but I couldn’t have been out for long. When I came to, I was still in the car. I could tell some time had passed, though; there were flashing lights and rescue workers all around me.

The first thing I remember saying was my wife’s name. “Kristin?” I asked, trying to turn my head toward her. That was when I realized I was wearing a neck brace, which was strapped on so tight, it made it impossible for me to move my head from side to side. Shockwaves of pain radiated up and down my spine, from the base of my skull to a spot between my shoulder blades, but I fought through it, focused on making sure Kristin was okay.

I tried to reach over to the passenger seat, wanting to know if she was still there, but my arm wouldn’t move. I thought it must be broken, but wondered why it didn’t hurt. That was the least of my worries at that moment, though; I was more concerned about my wife.

“Kristin? Kristin!” I kept calling her frantically, but there was no response. I couldn’t even tell if she was still in the car with me. Maybe they’d taken her out already, I told myself. The rescue workers must have known that, had I been conscious when they’d arrived, I would have told them to help her first, anyway.

“Sir, don’t try to move,” one of them said, when he realized I was awake. “We’re gonna get you out of here; just sit tight until then.”

I wished I could see what was going on. I could hear the mechanical rumble of an engine in the background and the creaking, scraping, crunching sounds of metal being bent and broken nearby. My heart began to race as I realized what was happening. My father had worked as a volunteer firefighter for a time when I was a kid, and I remembered seeing his squad do a demonstration with the Jaws of Life - still pretty new technology at that time. I knew the damage must have been bad if they were using it now to extract me from the car.

“Are you in any pain, sir?” asked a voice on my right - a paramedic, I assumed.

“My head and neck hurt,” I admitted, “but otherwise, no.” The brace made it hard to talk; my chin kept bumping against the top of it when I opened my mouth, and I felt like it was choking me. “Please, can you tell me where my wife is? Is she okay?”

“She’s in good hands,” replied the paramedic. “They’re working on her now. I want to make sure you’re okay. Can you tell me your name?”

“Kevin… Kevin Richardson,” I said, wondering if she would recognize it.

If she did, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Do you know where you are, Kevin?”

“In the car…” I tried to remember what street I’d been driving on. “...somewhere on La Cienega?”

“Very good. How about today’s date?”

I thought for a second. “It’s New Year’s Day… January first.”

“That’s right. Not the best way to ring in the new year, is it?” she said sympathetically. “Do you remember what happened?”

Whatever had happened, it had happened fast. All I remembered was the headlights suddenly appearing in my peripheral vision. “I… I don’t know. My wife and I were driving home, and this car came out of nowhere and hit us.” I could still hear Kristin’s in my head, though I heard nothing from her now. “My wife Kristin - is she gonna be okay?” I asked.

“The other team’s taking care of her,” the paramedic tried to reassure me. “Are you having any trouble breathing?”

“No, but... this brace is pretty tight. Can’t you take it off? Or at least loosen it a little?”

“Sorry, but no, sir. We need to stabilize your neck until they can assess your injuries at the hospital.”

“Okay.” I tried to keep myself calm, knowing it would do no good to panic, but it was hard not to when I felt so completely helpless. All I wanted was to see my wife and make sure she was okay, but I couldn’t even move.

Eventually, the firefighters finished taking the driver’s side door off, and the paramedics took over from there. They maneuvered me carefully onto a backboard and slid that onto a stretcher, strapping me down so that I was still immobilized. I couldn’t see anything but their serious-looking faces leaning over me and, beyond that, the black sky above. I felt a cool breeze on my face before they whisked me into the back of an ambulance, but below my neck… nothing. The rest of my body felt totally numb.

That was when the panic really started to set in. This is bad, I thought, listening to the sirens wail as we sped away. This is really bad.

The rest of the ambulance ride was a blur. I remember the paramedics asking me more questions as they poked and prodded. “Can you squeeze my hand, Kevin? Can you wiggle your toes?” I tried my best to follow their commands, but I couldn’t tell if my fingers and toes were cooperating. “Kevin, I’m going to start an IV in your arm,” one of them said at some point. “You may feel a little prick.” But I never felt a thing.

Before I knew it, I was being lifted out of the ambulance at Cedars-Sinai. I caught another glimpse of the night sky overhead, which was quickly replaced by speckled white ceiling tiles. I watched the tiles fly by as I was wheeled down a hallway and into a room with bright, fluorescent lights, where a team of people transferred me to a padded table. They tried to be as gentle as possible, but I felt a jolt of pain at the base of my neck whenever I was jostled.

“Mr. Richardson, my name is Dr. Chapman, and I’m going to be taking care of you tonight.” The voice belonged to a brunette woman whose face appeared in front of my eyes.

“You can call me Kevin,” I told her, as a couple of nurses began cutting off my clothes. Kristin bought me this shirt, I thought, watching one of them remove the shredded remnants of my black Gucci button-down. “Do you know if my wife was brought here too? Her name’s Kristin… Kristin Richardson.”

“I’m not sure, but one of us will check for you when we’re done here.” The doctor slipped a stethoscope into her ears. “Try not to talk right now.” I could feel some light pressure as she placed the round end of her stethoscope on my bare chest, but it wasn’t cold like I’d expected it to be. I couldn’t stand not being able to feel or move parts of my body, not knowing if my apparent paralysis would be permanent or not.

“I can barely feel that,” I blurted out, my throat tightening with fresh panic. “Please… is my neck broken? Am I gonna be paralyzed?”

Dr. Chapman had a poker face; it didn’t give away much. “Your symptoms suggest an injury to your spine, but we won’t know how serious it is until we run some tests. Try to relax and take a deep breath for me,” she replied, as she listened to my lungs. I wondered how she was able to hear anything over the sound of my heart hammering as hard as it seemed to be. I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears, fast and frantic. My thoughts were racing, too, but I tried to follow her directions and focus on my breathing. “Good,” the doctor said, sliding her stethoscope from one side of my chest to the other. “Another deep breath in… and out.”

Finding it difficult to inhale enough air to fill my lungs, I felt increasingly claustrophobic. The rigid collar around my neck seemed to be getting tighter, slowly strangling me by constricting my airway. “Can you please take this off me?” I begged. “It’s really uncomfortable.” I tried to reach toward it, but nothing happened. I couldn’t even feel my hands, let alone move them.

“Not yet; I need to finish examining you first.” She repositioned the stethoscope again, pressing one of her gloved hands against my stomach. I could see her touching me, but I couldn’t feel it. “Can you cough for me, please?”

I let out a weak cough.

“Oh, come on, you can do better than that.” She gave me a crooked grin. “Nice big cough now.”

I tried again, but it wasn’t much better. Lying flat on my back, I couldn’t summon the strength I needed to cough any harder.

“Are you experiencing any shortness of breath?”

“Yeah… a little bit,” I admitted.

Dr. Chapman frowned as she replaced the stethoscope around her neck. “There could be some swelling around your spinal cord that’s compressing the part that controls the muscles you use to breathe. We’ll have to keep a close eye on your breathing. If it gets worse, we may have to put you on a ventilator, which means you won’t be able to talk, at least temporarily. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” I whispered, terrified at the thought of them putting a tube down my throat.

“Is there anyone you want us to call, Kevin?” one of the nurses asked.

I thought quickly. They couldn’t call Kristin, not if she was already at the hospital. I didn’t have any other family in California, unless you counted the fellas, and if I remembered correctly, they were performing in Vegas for New Year’s Eve. “My mom,” I said finally. “Ann Richardson. Her number’s in my phone. She lives in Kentucky.”

“Okay, we can call your mom. Anyone else? Maybe someone close by?”

Mason’s face suddenly popped into my mind. “My son’s babysitter. Her name’s Rachel… Rachel Bauman. Someone needs to let her know what happened and tell her we won’t be home tonight, so she needs to stay with Mason until morning.” My voice shook as I imagined our six-month-old waking up and wondering where we were. We had never left him for longer than a few hours.

“Rachel Bauman,” the nurse repeated, writing the name in her notes. “And what’s the best number to reach Rachel at?”

“I dunno, my wife has her number. You’ll have to check with her - or you can call the landline.” I rattled off our home phone number for her to write down.

“Got it,” said the nurse, offering me a reassuring smile. “I’ll go give your mom and Rachel a call right now.”

“Thanks.” I closed my eyes to hide the tears that had welled in them, wishing Kristin were there with me. I wasn’t used to being in the hospital without her by my side. She had seen me through every major illness and accident I’d had in the fifteen years we’d been together: appendicitis… knee surgery… a dislocated shoulder… but nothing as bad as this. What if she’s hurt worse? I wondered, realizing she was probably just as afraid as I was and wishing I was with her, too. I sent up a silent prayer for God to give her strength and watch over her while we were apart.

Meanwhile, I could hear the medical staff talking to each other as they moved around my bed, attaching monitors, administering oxygen and medication, taking blood samples and X-rays… but I still couldn’t feel most of what they were doing to me. The doctor asked me all kinds of questions as she worked her way down my body, poking and prodding every part of it. Could I feel this? Could I move that?

“No,” I kept answering, getting more and more frustrated on top of my concern for Kristin. “I can’t.” The tears had started to trickle down my cheeks. I couldn’t even reach up to wipe them away, but at least I could feel them, wet and sticky on my skin.

“Okay, Kevin, we’re going to roll you onto your side now and get you off this spine board,” Dr. Chapman said, resting her hand on my right shoulder. Its warm weight was reassuring. Working together, she and her team of nurses carefully turned me until I was lying on my left side. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but at least I could see something besides the ceiling.

As the doctor examined my back side, I stared straight across the room. There was a pair of sliding doors that connected to the next room. They were closed, but I could see through the glass. There was a woman lying on the bed, a woman with blonde hair.

“Kristin!” I cried.

“Let us take care of you, Kevin. I promise, we’ll try to find out your wife’s condition as soon as we finish examining you,” said Dr. Chapman. She didn’t understand.

“No - the woman in the next room is my wife! Kristin!” I called out again. But there was no indication Kristin could hear me. She was lying flat on her back with her eyes closed, asleep or unconscious. Her room looked a lot less crowded than mine; I could only see one nurse near her bed, writing notes on a clipboard.

“I’ll go check on her,” offered one of the nurses who had been helping me. “Be right back.” She went next door and spoke briefly with the other nurse, who glanced up at me through the glass. I couldn’t read her expression.

When my nurse came back, she knelt down on the floor in front of me so I could see her face clearly. “Kevin, I need to talk to you about Kristin,” she said. I could tell by her tone that it wasn’t good news, but I still felt blindsided by her next words. “She was found unresponsive at the scene of the accident. The ambulance crew and our trauma team here at the hospital tried everything they could to resuscitate her, but her injuries were too severe. She died about twenty minutes ago. I’m so sorry.”

I stared at the nurse in disbelief for a few seconds, struggling to process what she had told me. Then my eyes shifted back to my wife, lying on the bed in the room behind her. From my vantage point, she still looked like she was sleeping. I didn’t see any blood or bruising, nothing to indicate she had been seriously injured. Kristin couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be.

“Would you like to see her?” the nurse asked sympathetically.

I tried to nod, but the tight neck brace made it impossible to move my head. “Yeah,” I managed to say, though my mouth had gone dry.

She went back into the other room and talked with the nurse who had been taking care of Kristin. Together, they wheeled my wife’s bed through the sliding doors and brought it alongside mine.

“Baby…” I whispered, taking in the sight of her with fresh tears in my eyes. Kristin’s pale white face was arranged in a blank, peaceful expression, but up close, I could tell she wasn’t just sleeping. There was a breathing tube protruding from her mouth and pink streaks near her hairline, where the nurse had apparently tried to wash off the blood. A plain white sheet had been pulled up over her body and tucked neatly beneath her chin. I wondered what other injuries it was hiding, but decided I didn’t want to know.

I wished I could reach out and touch her, press my palm to her cheek, run my fingers through her hair one last time. But my hands had been rendered useless. All I could do was lie there like a log and look at her, too choked up to even talk. The longer I looked, the more I began to realize that my life, as I had known it, was over. My wife was gone. My son would grow up without a mother. And I might never walk again.

In one terrifying moment, my world had been forever changed.

***


Chapter 4 by RokofAges75
Nick

We made it to L.A. around sunrise. From Sin City to the City of Angels, I thought as we merged onto the Santa Monica Freeway, which led to my old stomping grounds. The irony made me snort to myself; I’d been anything but angelic when I lived in Los Angeles.

AJ was snoring next to me in the back seat while our manager, Jenn, drove. Q was riding shotgun and struggling to stay awake; his head kept bobbing up and down as he nodded off, then woke with a jerk. It would have been funny if I wasn’t so worried about Kevin and Kristin. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all.

I’d tried texting Kevin’s phone a couple of times, but never got a response. Not a good sign. Even after he’d left the group, Kevin had always been good about keeping in touch - better than I was, anyway. Of all my friends, he was the one I could always count on to be there when I needed him. The fact that it had been five hours since we’d left Vegas and I still hadn’t heard from him was really freaking me out. So when I finally heard my phone buzz, my heart leaped in my chest.

I looked down at it and was disappointed to see it was just a text from Brian. He and his wife Leighanne were riding with the newlyweds, Howie and Leigh, in a different car - the couples car, I’d been calling it. Just making sure y’all know to go to Cedars-Sinai, his message said.

“Yo, Jenn, you know we’re going to Cedars-Sinai, right?” I asked.

“Yup. That’s where I’m heading,” Jenn replied.

We know, I texted Brian. Any updates?

Haven’t heard anything, he sent back. I sighed.

Beside me, AJ sat up straight and smacked his lips. “We there yet?” he muttered.

I looked over at him. He had dark circles under his eyes and drool crusted at the corners of his mouth. “Almost.”

We took the exit leading to La Cienega Boulevard. It wasn’t until later that I learned we drove right by the scene of the crash without realizing it, though it had pretty much been cleaned up by that point.

When we got to the hospital campus, Jenn handed over the keys to the valet to park the car while we went inside the main building. It took us a while to find the emergency department, but eventually, we met up with Brian, Howie, and their wives there.

“Have you heard anything yet?” I asked, wondering how long they’d been there.

Brian shook his head. “I asked the woman at the front desk, and she said to wait here and that someone would come to talk to us soon.”

“Well, did she at least say what kind of condition they’re in?”

He shook his head again. “She wouldn’t tell me anything.”

I sighed as I slumped into a seat beside Howie. AJ started pacing up and down the hallway, while Q stood guard, ready to stop anyone who tried to approach us. Luckily, the emergency room wasn’t crowded at that hour, and the few people who were hanging around seemed too preoccupied with their own problems to pay any attention to us.

We sat there for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few minutes. Finally, a heavyset woman in a white coat came over and asked, “Are you here for Mr. Richardson?”

“Yes,” said Brian, jumping up. Q moved out of the way as he stepped forward, sticking out his hand. “I’m his cousin, Brian.”

“I’ve known him all my life,” I added in my head. It was what Kevin always used to say when he talked about Brian. Since Brian was the only one who was actually related to Kevin, he’d become our unofficial spokesperson.

“I’m Dr. Chapman,” the woman introduced herself, as she shook Brian’s hand. “I’m the attending physician who treated Kevin when he was brought in. Why don’t we go somewhere more private to talk?”

No one spoke as she took us to a small room with a couch and some chairs in it. “Would you like to sit down?” she asked, motioning to the chairs. I felt sick to my stomach as I followed the others’ lead, squeezing myself onto the couch with Howie and Leigh. I didn’t have much experience with hospitals, but even I could tell the news wasn’t going to be good. Why else wouldn’t she just talk to us in the hallway and then take us straight to see Kevin?

AJ seemed to be thinking along the same lines as me. “Is Kevin dead?” he asked bluntly. All the air seemed to be sucked out of the room as everyone took a sharp breath, but then we were silent, watching the doctor and waiting for her to answer.

“No, Kevin is alive,” she said, and a collective sigh of relief echoed around the room, with all of us exhaling at the same time. I could tell there was going to a “but,” though, and it came in her next sentence. “But his condition is very serious. What do you know about the accident?”

Brian shook his head. “Not much. I talked to my aunt - his mom - and all she’d been told was that it was bad. She’s flying in from Kentucky; she should be here in a few hours. I’m representing the family until then.”

Dr. Chapman nodded. “From what I understand, Kevin’s car was T-boned by another vehicle on his side. He sustained a concussion and a serious spinal injury in the crash.”

“How serious?” Brian asked. “I take it we’re not just talking about whiplash or something, are we?”

“I wish that were the case,” she replied, “but I’m afraid it’s worse than that. The scans we took show that Kevin fractured several vertebrae in his neck, which caused damage to his spinal cord. We may not know the full extent of his injury for several days, due to the swelling, but from what I was able to assess while he was here in the ER, it doesn’t look promising. He had no sensation or motor function below the level of injury, which means he’ll probably be paralyzed from the chest down.”

The doctor paused there, giving us all time to process what she’d just said. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around it. Paralyzed? I tried picturing Kevin in a wheelchair, unable to move, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. Kevin was one of the strongest, most active people I knew; there was no way he could be paralyzed. No fucking way.

We all sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds, until Dr. Chapman said, “The good news is that there were no signs of internal bleeding or other life-threatening injuries. He’s not out of the woods yet, but once his spine is stabilized, he’ll at least be on the road to recovery.” She paused. “Do you have any questions?”

“Can we see him?” Howie asked quietly.

“Of course. He’s been admitted to the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit. I’ll have one of our social workers escort you there.”

“Wait… what about his wife, Kristin?” I had been so focused on Kevin, I’d almost forgotten that Kristin had been hurt, too. Leighanne’s question brought her back into the forefront of my mind. “We heard she was in the accident, too. Where is she?”

The doctor seemed to hesitate, taking an audible breath before she answered. “I didn’t personally treat Mrs. Richardson, but I was told her injuries were very severe. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive them. She died early this morning.”

I guess I sort of knew as soon as she started talking about Kristin in the past tense what she was going to say, but it was still a shock to hear the actual words. My heart sank into my stomach. I felt like I was going to throw up at any second.

Leighanne looked like she might throw up, too. She gasped out loud, clapping her hands over her mouth. Brian put his arm around her and pulled her to his side, but his eyes never left the doctor’s face. He stared at her, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Chapman added, almost automatically. It made me wonder how many times a day she had to deliver that kind of news. She didn’t even seem affected by it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Howie hug Leigh a little closer, too, while across the room, AJ’s head dropped into his hands. We had all known Kristin just about as long as we’d known Kevin. They’d dated off and on since the beginning of the Backstreet Boys, so she had always been around, just another part of the Backstreet family. I was sure we - the four of us guys, anyway - were all thinking about Kevin as much as Kristin, though. We may have lost a member of the family, but he had lost the love of his life. I had no idea what it was like to love a woman so much, you wanted to spend the rest of your life with her, but I knew Kevin felt that way about Kristin. I couldn’t imagine how devastated he had to be. That was what killed me the most.

“Does Kevin know?” Howie asked, wiping his eyes. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe Kevin didn’t even know his wife was dead yet.

The doctor nodded. “He knows. He was able to spend some time with her and say goodbye before they took him upstairs.

“What about Kristin’s family?” Brian wanted to know. “Has anyone called them?”

“Yes, I believe they’re on their way.”

Kristin was from Kansas, where her parents and siblings still lived. Like Kevin’s family in Kentucky, they were far away and wouldn’t be able to get to L.A. for at least a few more hours. Until then, it was just us.

Dr. Chapman brought in a social worker to answer any other questions we had and take us up to the eighth floor to see Kevin in the ICU. We could only visit two at a time, she told us, so we let Brian and Leighanne go in first.

“How is he?” we all wanted to know when they came back to the waiting room.

“As well as can be expected under the circumstances,” said Brian with a shrug. “He’s pretty doped up on pain meds, but he was awake and talking at least.”

That was slightly encouraging to hear, but in some ways, it would have been easier if Kevin were unconscious. I got that nervous, nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach again when I imagined trying to carry on a conversation with him. What would I even say? Sorry your wife’s dead? Sorry you’re paralyzed? I wondered what Brian had told him. He was a lot better at talking his way through an uncomfortable situation than I was. I always ended up putting my foot in my mouth and making a fool of myself. I’ve never been good with words - not that there were any words that would make Kevin feel better.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see Kevin in that condition, but after Howie and Leigh had taken their turn, AJ looked at me and said, “Come on, Nick, we’re up,” which left me no choice but to go with him.

A nurse buzzed us into the unit. As we walked past the patient cubicles, I couldn’t help but peek inside. Every person I saw lying in bed was surrounded by a lot of monitors and scary-looking equipment. But somehow, I still couldn’t imagine Kevin looking that way. The whole scene felt surreal, like it was part of a dream, a nightmare. It didn't feel real. How could Kevin be hurt badly enough to end up here? How could Kristin be dead?

I thought back to the last time I had seen them, at Howie’s wedding reception in Orlando a few weeks ago. We’d been seated at the same table, and Kevin and Kristin had brought the baby. I had expected Kevin to be this super neurotic helicopter parent, but he was totally chill, like he didn’t have a worry in the world. Fatherhood and family life seemed to suit him. He and Kristin had enjoyed themselves that night, handing off Mason to whoever offered to hold him while they went out on the dance floor together. Whether they were slow-dancing in each other’s arms or doing the Macarena along with everyone else, Kevin and Kristin had never looked happier or more in love. That was how I wanted to picture them: laughing and full of life… not like the people in this place. The thought of Kevin looking like one of them made me sick to my stomach.

The closer we got to his cubicle, the more nauseous I felt. My hands were sweating, and there was a fluttery feeling in my chest, as if my heart kept skipping beats. I took a deep breath right before I reached the doorway, then forced myself to follow AJ through it.

We found Kevin lying flat on his back in bed, his arms resting at his sides. There were pillows and rolled towels tucked around his body. I supposed this was to help keep him in a semi-comfortable position, since he couldn’t move on his own, although he didn’t look too comfortable to me. He had a huge brace around his neck that went all the way from his chin to his chest. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face, hooked up to a long hose that hung from the front like an elephant’s trunk. I could hear air hissing through it as his chest hitched in and out, a heart monitor beeping steadily in the background. I counted three different IV bags hanging on a stand beside his bed, all of them feeding into a line in his arm.

AJ walked around to one side of the bed, and I reluctantly went and stood on the other, where I could see Kevin’s face up close. It was so swollen, he hardly looked like himself. His skin was a weird, grayish color. There was a bandage covering his right temple, and I could see bruises forming on both sides of his face and body. His eyes were closed, which was actually a relief to me - at least he couldn’t see the look of shock on my face when I saw him for the first time.

AJ cleared his throat. “Kev?”

I held my breath as his eyes fluttered open. They were bloodshot and slightly unfocused at first, but when they found AJ’s face, a fog seemed to lift from in front of them. Behind the clear oxygen mask, Kevin’s lips curved into a faint smile. “Hey, brother,” he said softly, his voice muffled so much by the mask, I had to lean closer just to hear him. “Thanks for being here.” His eyes shifted from AJ to me. “How you doin’, Nick?”

I swallowed hard, my throat feeling as dry as the desert we had driven across to get there. “I’m okay. How are you?” Immediately, I felt like an idiot. What a dumb thing to say. See what I mean? Open mouth. Insert foot.

“Eh… I’m hangin’ in there,” he muttered. He was slurring his words slightly - whether that was from his head injury or whatever drugs they had him on, I wasn’t sure - but he sounded mostly coherent.

“We heard about Kristin,” said AJ before I could ask any other stupid questions. “I’m so sorry, man. I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling right now.”

“Not a whole lot from the neck down,” Kevin replied, so deadpan I couldn’t tell if he was trying to crack a joke or not. I looked away awkwardly, my eyes landing on his bare chest. If I grabbed his nipple and gave him a titty twister, would he really not feel it? I knew better than to actually do that, of course, but I couldn’t help wondering. I crammed my hands in my pockets, afraid I would accidentally bump one of the tubes or wires that were attached to his body if I tried to touch him at all.

“Damn, Kev…” AJ trailed off, shaking his head. For what had to be the first time in his life, he was at a loss for words.

“It’s my heart that hurts the most,” Kevin went on, his voice cracking. When I glanced at his face again, there were tears glistening in his eyes. “How am I gonna live without her? How am I gonna live like this?” He looked down at his body, lying limply on the bed. Only his eyes moved.

It killed me to see him that way, so helpless and somehow diminished. Kevin had always been someone I looked up to, both figuratively and literally. I was thirteen when he joined the Backstreet Boys; he had towered over me then, a twenty-one-year-old man making music with a prepubescent kid. Eventually I’d caught up to him in height, but I was still only half the man he was. He always seemed to have it together, while I was usually falling apart. But all of a sudden, the tides had turned, and I was the one looking down at him as he lay on the hospital bed in front of me, broken and weak. In that moment, I would have given anything to be able to take away his pain, even if it meant absorbing it myself.

“I wish I knew, bro,” I said, blinking back tears of my own. “But one thing I do know is that you’ll find a way. You will get through this somehow. You’re one of the strongest people I know, Kevin. You’re not gonna let anything keep you down for long.”

AJ nodded, shooting me an appreciative smile across Kevin’s bed. “Well said, Nick.”

“Thanks, brother,” Kevin whispered. His tears were starting to flow, dripping slowly down the sides of his face. Realizing he couldn’t reach up to wipe them away himself, I found a box of Kleenex on the counter on one side of the room and used a tissue to carefully blot the tears from the corners of his eyes.

I meant every word of what I said, but as I thought about all the other things Kevin wouldn’t be able to do for himself, I felt even more overwhelmed than I had before. It was almost a relief when a nurse came in and said, “I’m sorry, guys, but I’m going to have to ask you to step out for a while. The doctors are making their morning rounds and will want to examine him. You can come back in an hour or so.”

“Oh… okay.” I looked down at Kevin, a lump rising in my throat. “Love you, bro.”

“Love you both,” he mumbled back.

AJ rested a hand on his shoulder. “Keep hangin’ in there, Kevy Kev. We’ll see ya soon.”

I swallowed hard as we walked out to the hall. Though I didn’t want to admit it to AJ, I was secretly glad to get out of that room. I hated seeing Kevin that way. But I also felt bad about leaving him like that.

“He’s in good hands here,” said AJ, as we headed back to the waiting room. “This is one of the best hospitals in the whole country.”

I nodded. “I know.” But my bad feeling lingered long after we exited the ICU.

***


Chapter 5 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I spent the first few hours of 2008 floating in a drug-induced haze. I have only vague memories of being moved from the emergency room to the intensive care unit. When I think back, it’s mostly sights and sounds I remember: the bright lights on the ceiling, the soft whirring of the CT scanner, the loud buzzing and banging of the MRI machine, the constant beeping of the monitors around my hospital bed. But I couldn’t forget about Kristin.

I kept picturing her face in my mind, trying to replace my last image of her lying lifeless on a gurney with the way she had looked hours earlier, her brown eyes sparkling with laughter as she danced in her gold dress. It was hard to wrap my head around the realization that I would never see my wife again. The rational part of me understood that she was gone, but the emotional part was still trying to process everything that had happened since we had rung in the new year, kissing as the clock struck midnight. I wished I could go back to that moment and live in it forever, or at least change what had happened afterward.

But there was no going back and no moving forward. I felt frozen in time, trapped inside my broken body. Nurses bustled around my bed, monitoring my breathing and blood pressure, pumping me full of medication, and making it almost impossible for me to sleep. I could have used a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out the constant beeping of the heart monitor, the hiss of air flowing through the mask they’d put on my face to help me breathe better, and the hum of the blood pressure cuff inflating around my arm every few minutes. I was tired and had a pounding headache, but I couldn’t get comfortable lying flat on my back with the hard cervical collar around my neck.

I closed my eyes anyway and tried to pretend I was in my old bunk on the tour bus, listening to the engine rumble as the tires rolled over the road. The cool breeze I felt on my face would be coming from the window, which I always cracked open at night to let in some fresh air. The annoying blips and beeps were just Nick playing his video games across the aisle. Aided by the painkiller that was coursing through my veins, I let this little fantasy carry me away from the ICU and lull me to sleep.

Despite my discomfort, I must have dozed off at some point because when I opened my eyes again, I found my cousin Brian standing beside my bed. At first, I felt confused, thinking I really was on the tour bus. I quickly realized this couldn’t be true because I had quit the Backstreet Boys a year-and-a-half ago. That was when I remembered where I actually was and why. Reality was a rude awakening.

“Hey, cous,” I croaked, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t turn my head because of the rigid collar around my neck, which still felt like it was strangling me.

Brian had been frowning, but when he heard my voice, he quickly forced a smile onto his face. “Hey!” he replied brightly, coming closer to the head of the bed so I could see him better. “You’re awake!”

As my eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lighting, I noticed his wife Leighanne hanging on his arm. I could tell she had been crying. Her face was a blotchy mess, with black streaks under her eyes where her makeup had run. She was staring down at me, unable to hide her horrified expression. Feeling self-conscious, I looked away from her and focused instead on Brian’s face. “What are y’all doing here?”

“Your mom called me after she found out about the accident. I think she was hoping we’d be at our L.A. house and could come to the hospital right away,” he explained. “We were actually in Vegas last night, but we got here as fast as we could.”

“What time is it?” I wondered.

“A little after seven.”

“AM or PM?” I had no sense of how much time had passed, no way to tell if the sun was rising or setting. There weren’t any windows in my room, and I couldn’t see the clock on the wall. All I could see was the ceiling, which looked exactly the same as it had when I’d closed my eyes.

“Seven in the morning,” said Brian, stifling a yawn. “Sorry… it’s been a long night.”

“Yeah… for me, too,” I muttered, taking a swift but silent survey of my body. I was still numb from the neck down, unable to move a muscle in my arms or legs. The only physical pain I felt was a dull throbbing in my head, which started at the base of my skull and descended down into my neck and back up again.

The mental anguish was much worse, the loss of my wife weighing on me like an elephant left sitting on my chest. My heart ached as I imagined Mason waking up and wondering where his mother was. He would be crying in his crib, waiting for her to come and get him, completely unaware of the fact that Kristin was never coming home. I knew Rachel was taking good care of him, but I wished I could be there to comfort him myself. It crushed me to realize I might never be able to lift my son out of his crib or hold him in my arms again.

“Is Baylee here, too?” I asked, looking around for Brian’s little boy before I lost it thinking about mine.

Brian shook his head. “We left him with Leighanne’s folks in Georgia so we could have a little adult getaway in Vegas.”

I swallowed hard as I remembered how excited Kristin and I had been hours earlier, as we got ready to go out for our own kid-free night on the town. Now I wished we had just stayed home. “Sorry for ruining your fun,” I told Brian.

“Stop,” he said, frowning. “This isn’t your fault, Kev. I’m sorry. About Kristin… about all of this.” He made a sweeping gesture over my hospital bed. “God... I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”

“It’s awful,” added Leighanne, giving me a look of sympathy. “But we’re here for you. Whatever we can do to help… just let us know.”

“Thanks.” Still thinking of my son, I said, “It would be nice if someone could go over to my house and stay with Mason. The babysitter’s been there all night; she probably needs a break.”

Leighanne looked at Brian. “Leigh and I could do that.”

He nodded. “That’d be great, baby, thanks. I’ll stay and wait for Aunt Ann to get here.” To me, he added, “Your mom’s on her way. She should be here by this afternoon. Kristin’s folks are coming, too.”

“Good,” I replied, but inwardly, I was dreading having to face my in-laws. Would they blame me for what had happened to their daughter? After all, I was the one who had been driving. Was it my fault? The accident had happened so fast, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember many details, except that I had been drinking earlier in the evening. Had I given myself enough time to sober up before getting behind the wheel? Was I distracted? Could I have avoided the collision if I had reacted faster? The questions raced through my brain, but I didn’t have any answers. All I knew was that if it turned out my actions had gotten my wife killed, I would never be able to forgive myself.

Brian and Leighanne stayed for a few more minutes, then sent Howie and his wife Leigh in. I was touched to find out all four guys and even one of our longtime bodyguards, Q, had come. “Of course,” said Howie, brushing my gratitude aside after I thanked them for being there. “That’s what brothers are for. You would have done the same for any of us.”

I wanted to believe him, telling myself I would have dropped everything in a heartbeat if one of them was hurt, but in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. It was different now that I was a parent. My priorities had changed. Yet a part of me still felt guilty for putting my own personal goals ahead of the group. Family came first - we had always agreed on that point - but my Backstreet brothers were family, too.

Nick and AJ were the next to come in. They both looked uncomfortable being there, especially Nick. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and I couldn’t tell if it was because he’d been crying or because he was high. You could never tell with Nick anymore, which was one of the reasons I had wanted out of the group. I loved my little brother, but I was tired of waiting for him to grow up and get his shit together.

They hadn’t been there long when one of the nurses kicked them out so the doctor could come in and examine me. “How’s your breathing?” she asked me after they left, leaning over to listen to my lungs with her stethoscope.

“I’m still a little short of breath,” I admitted, realizing that the heaviness in my chest may have been a symptom of more than metaphorical heartbreak. Lying flat on my back made it hard to take a deep breath.

She pursed her lips. “Your oxygen level is on the low side,” she said, looking up at the monitor behind my bed. “I’ll let the doctor know. He should be coming by any minute for morning rounds.”

“If you could just loosen this collar a little…” I tried again to reach up and touch my neck brace before I remembered I had no control over my hands. “It’s really tight.”

The nurse shook her head. “Sorry, I can’t - not until your spine has been stabilized.”

I didn’t know what she meant by that, but before I could ask, a group of people in white coats walked into the room. They gathered around my bed, staring down at me like I was some sort of specimen. “This is Kevin Richardson, a thirty-six-year-old male injured in a side-impact MVA early this morning,” one of the doctors said to the others. He looked even younger than Nick, barely old enough to be a real doctor.

What is this, Doogie Howser? I wondered, my mind wandering as he rambled on, rattling off a bunch of numbers and acronyms I didn’t really understand. It was like trying to watch TV in a foreign country; I could catch a few words here and there, but most of it went right over my head. The medical lingo must have made sense to the other doctors, though, because they nodded as they listened to his report on my condition.

None of them seemed to be paying much attention to me until a high-pitched dinging sound made them all look up at the monitor mounted behind my bed. “His sats are down to ninety-two,” said the nurse who had been taking care of me, as she silenced the alarm.

Another one of the doctors stepped forward, pushing her long, blonde hair behind her ears so she could put on her stethoscope. She frowned as she listened to my chest. “Diminished breath sounds bilaterally,” she murmured. “Call respiratory to bring in a vent. He needs to be intubated before he desaturates any further.”

As the nurse disappeared from my bedside, the three doctors continued their conversation. They threw around some pretty frightening phrases: respiratory dysfunction… paradoxical pattern of breathing... spinal shock… flaccid paralysis.

Even though I was lying right in front of them with my eyes open, clearly awake, they were talking about me like I wasn’t even there, like I was unconscious or incapable of hearing them. Frustrated and scared, I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but… what are you saying?” I asked, struggling to make my voice heard through the bulky oxygen mask.

The female doctor looked down at me and offered a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, Mr. Richardson, I should have introduced myself first. I’m Dr. Bone, senior neurosurgical resident. This is my attending, Dr. Pinkerton, and my intern, Dr. Poynter, whom I believe you’ve already met.”

I had been so out of it, I barely remembered the younger doctor being in my room before, but I didn’t bother to contradict her. All I said was, “You can call me Kevin.”

“Okay, Kevin. So here’s what’s happening: the muscles that help your lungs expand when you inhale have been paralyzed or weakened because of your spinal cord injury, which means you’re having to work a lot harder to breathe. Even with the pressurized air you’ve been getting through the BiPAP mask, the level of oxygen in your blood is too low. We need to put you on a ventilator now.”

“For how long?”

“That’s hard to say. Hopefully just for a few days, but it could be longer. If the swelling in your spinal cord continues, you might never be able to breathe well enough without mechanical ventilation, in which case we would do a tracheotomy so you could still talk and eat.”

What about sing? I wondered, but didn’t ask. What did it matter? I wasn’t a Backstreet Boy anymore, and my dreams of doing a solo album or being in another Broadway musical had died alongside my wife. The only thing I had left to live for now was Mason.

Mason.

As my son’s face appeared in my mind again, I felt overwhelmed with a sudden sense of panic and urgency. With Kristin gone, I was the only parent he had left, and here I was in the ICU, about to be put on a life support machine. What if something went wrong, and I didn’t survive? I had to make sure Mason would be all right.

“Can you wait just a few minutes?” I begged Dr. Bone. “I need to talk to my cousin while I still can.” I remembered the doctor in the emergency room telling me I wouldn’t be able to talk while I was intubated. It was important that I touch base with Brian before they put the tube down my throat. He was the only family I had there, and I knew I could count on him to take care of my son.

“Your cousin?”

“My cousin Brian. He’s probably out in the waiting room; he was just in here a little while ago. Can someone go find him for me? Please… I really need to talk to him first.”

Dr. Bone seemed to hesitate, staring up at the monitor, but finally nodded. “I’ll go get him.” She glanced at the other doctors. “Page me if he goes south,” I heard her mutter before she hurried off.

She walked back in a few minutes later with Brian. “You okay, cous?” he asked as he came up alongside my bed, looking concerned.

I didn’t bother to answer his question. My wife was dead, and my body wasn’t working right. How could he think I was okay? “Never mind me,” I said. “I need to make sure Mason’s okay.”

“Leighanne and Leigh are heading over to your house now. He’ll be fine,” Brian assured me.

“But if something happens to me… if I don’t get better… will you take care of him?” Tears welled in my eyes. It was getting harder to breathe, which also made it harder to talk. I tried anyway, wanting my wishes to be known. “I’ve thought about it, and... I’d want him to go with you. My mom’s getting older... she’s already raised three sons… I wouldn’t want to put that responsibility on her... or Kristin’s parents. My brothers are both settled… and-”

“Kev.” Brian held up his hand to stop me from speaking. “Of course, man. Of course I would take care of Mason if it came to that. But it won’t. You’re gonna be fine, okay?”

“Thanks. I know you and Leighanne would give him a good life... and Baylee would make a great big brother...” I trailed off, trying and failing to take a deep breath. Rather than making it easier for me to breathe, the mask suddenly felt like it was suffocating me.

Brian smiled. There were tears in his eyes, too. “Just like you’ve been to me these last fifteen years. I love you, Kev.”

“Love you, too, Rok,” I barely managed to reply before the alarm went off on my monitor again, dinging faster and more frantically than before.

“His sats are down to 89,” said the nurse.

“We can’t wait any longer. I’m going to have to ask you to step out now,” Dr. Bone said to Brian. “You can wait in the hall, and I’ll come talk to you in a few minutes.”

Brian nodded. “Hang in there, man,” he said, as he backed away. “And don’t you worry about Mason. We’re here for you both, whatever you need.”

“Thanks,” I whispered again, as Dr. Bone took Brian’s place at my bedside.

“Can I intubate?” I heard the younger doctor ask her, sounding eager.

She shook her head. “Not this time. Intubations can be tricky in patients with cervical spinal cord injuries. He’s also a singer, so we need to be extra careful not to cause any damage to his vocal cords.”

Up until that point, none of the doctors had given me any indication that they knew who I was, but now I realized Dr. Bone had recognized me - or maybe she had recognized Brian and the rest of the guys in the waiting room. In any case, her words made me feel a little better. At least one of them seemed to care more about me as a person than just another patient.

Leaning over me so I could see her face clearly, Dr. Bone looked me in the eye and explained, “We’re going to give you some medication to make you sleep while we put the tube down your throat. When you wake up, there will be a machine breathing for you. You won’t be able to speak. You’ll be sedated to help you relax until the tube can be removed. Don’t worry; we’re going to take good care of you, Kevin…”

Her voice seemed to fade away as my vision grew fuzzy. I tried to focus on the fluorescent light in the ceiling above me, but it also faded as I drifted toward darkness. When I closed my eyes, I could suddenly see my wife’s face again, and some of the fear I felt went away. My last conscious thought was of Kristin.

***


Chapter 6 by RokofAges75
Nick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian sighed. “Yeah. Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” said Brian, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

No one could argue with Brian about that.

“Do you have an ETA for her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I see your ID, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” I croaked back. “Come on in.”

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

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

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

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

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

I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”

“Almost eight. Did you sleep well?”

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

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

I rolled my eyes. “Q told you, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t answer.

“What were you even doing? Ecstasy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***


Chapter 7 by RokofAges75
Kevin

For the first few days, I was in a fog. I drifted in and out of consciousness, with no sense of time or place. The fog would lift for a few moments at a time, then descend on me again. I caught glimpses of familiar faces, but couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to focus on their features. I heard voices I recognized, but could hardly comprehend what they were saying. My thoughts were clouded by high doses of pain medication, steroids, and sedatives, which kept me in a state of calm confusion. I didn’t know what was real anymore.

I had vivid dreams of dancing with my wife. The ballroom was lit with bright lights, and Kristin looked beautiful in a long, white dress, like she’d worn at our wedding. I would spin her around and around in circles before dipping her backwards over my arm, and she would laugh and beam up at me, her brown eyes twinkling. Then, without warning, the music would stop, and the floor beneath my feet would give way, and I would fall down, down into a deep dark hole. I never felt my body hit the ground, but with a start, I would wake to find myself lying flat on my back, unable to breathe, as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I would look up and see the bright lights high above my head, but the face hovering over me didn’t belong to my wife. Where’s Kristin? I would wonder, but I couldn’t form the words to ask. Kristin’s dead, a voice in the back of my head would answer, but I didn’t believe it. Kristin couldn’t be dead. Before I could figure out the truth, the lights would fade as clouds of dense fog closed in on me again.

This kept recurring until the fog finally dissipated and didn’t come back. I woke with a clear head and found myself in a hospital bed, surrounded by machines that blipped and hissed. At first, I felt fearful, until I heard a familiar voice say, “Hey there, sleepyhead.” I tried to turn my head toward the sound, but there was still a brace around my neck that made it impossible to move. Shifting my eyes instead, I saw Brian sitting beside my bed. He scooted his chair closer and leaned forward so I could see him better. “Don’t try to talk,” he added, as I opened my mouth to say something back to him. “You still have a tube down your throat to help you breathe.”

That brought it all back to me: the accident, the ambulance ride, the emergency room, and the ICU. I remembered Brian telling me to hang in there just before the doctor put in the breathing tube, promising to take care of Mason. I remembered my other Backstreet brothers being there, too, and Nick wiping the tears from my face because I couldn’t raise my arms. I remembered saying goodbye to Kristin as she lay lifeless on a gurney parked right next to mine, and I knew then that it was true: my wife was dead. The realization brought fresh tears to my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Brian asked anxiously, apparently noticing the tears. “Are you in pain? Blink once for yes, twice for no.”

Was I in pain? What a loaded question that was. Physically, no. The breathing tube was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. My neck felt stiff, but most of my body was still numb. Mentally, though, I was in agony. All I wanted was to go home, hug my son, and kiss my wife, but I couldn’t do any of that. I would never be able to kiss Kristin again. And if my condition didn’t improve, I might never be able to give Mason another hug either. I had to get better for my baby boy.

“Kev?” Leaning over the railing on the side of my bed, Brian looked me in the eye. “Can you hear me?”

I blinked, then offered a shrug. It was such a subtle gesture, I didn’t give it a second thought, but Brian gasped.

“He moved his arms! Did you see that, Bone?”

AJ suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision. He was standing on the other side of the bed, smiling down at me. “I saw! Way to go, Kevy Kev. That was great!”

I felt absurdly like an infant lying in a crib. Was this what it was like for Mason whenever Kristin and I stood by the side of his crib and watched him, cooing over every cute little thing he did? He usually smiled up at us, burbling back in his baby talk, but it just made me self-conscious.

“This must mean the surgery worked! He’s getting some function back,” Brian said happily.

Surgery? I wondered, frowning. When did I have surgery?

Brian must have seen the look of confusion on my face because he explained, “They operated on your spine three days ago to fuse the broken vertebrae back together and relieve the pressure on your spinal cord. The surgery went well, but we’ve been waiting for you to wake up to see if it made any difference. You’ve been pretty out of it.”

“Thank god for good drugs, huh?” added AJ with a snicker.

Thank god, I agreed, mouthing the words around the breathing tube. I didn’t feel any different than I had before, but I was glad they had knocked me out for a while. A part of me wished they would put me back under so I wouldn’t have to feel the pain of losing Kristin again. I would rather dance with her in my dreams forever than wake up to the world without her.

“Can you feel this, cous?” Brian was asking me. “Can you squeeze my hand?”

I couldn’t feel anything, but I tried to make a fist, imagining my fingers curling around his, the muscles contracting. By the crestfallen expression on Brian’s face, I could tell nothing was happening.

“That’s okay. I’m sure it’ll come with time,” he said, flashing a quick smile.

I didn’t feel sure of anything. It was frustrating to wake up after half a week in the hospital and not know what was happening. I had so many questions, but no way to ask them. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t write or sign. I couldn’t even nod or shake my head. I could only communicate by blinking my eyes, making faces, and mouthing words. It’s a good thing I have such expressive eyebrows, because the guys weren’t very good lip-readers.

Thankfully, Brian, AJ, and the steady stream of visitors who followed them helped put together the pieces of the puzzle, painting a clearer picture of the past few days for me. I found out that my mom was staying with Brian, while Leighanne had flown back to Georgia to take care of Baylee. Kristin’s parents were living temporarily at our house while they handled her funeral arrangements. My in-laws were also taking care of Mason, with help from Howie and Leigh.

“We’re getting some good practice at being parents,” Howie said when he came in to see me. “Mason misses you, but he’s doing fine. Don’t worry about him. Just focus on getting back on your feet.”

I wanted to joke about being worried Howie would screw up my kid, but I couldn’t form the words. In reality, I wasn’t worried about that at all. Out of all the boys, Howie had always been the most responsible. Other than Brian, he was the only one I would want watching my six-month-old. Now if it had been Nick or AJ assigned to babysitting duty, then I really would have had a reason to worry. But I trusted Howie.

What I worried most about was how Mason and I were going to manage in the future, once I got out of the hospital and my friends and family went home. I was now a single father - a single father who couldn’t do a single thing for himself, let alone take care of a baby. No one would tell me whether my paralysis was permanent, and of course, I couldn’t ask.

In the ICU, I had a team of nurses tending to my every need. They came into my room around the clock, carefully turning my body every couple of hours to prevent pressure sores from forming, feeding me through a thin tube inserted into my nose that went straight into my stomach, suctioning the mucus out of my lungs so I could breathe better, emptying the catheter bag that collected my urine, bathing and changing me like I was a baby. I hadn’t been so helpless since I was Mason’s age. Hell, even my six-month-old could move around and communicate better than me. I was more like a baby doll, able to blink and wet itself, but not much else.

It was bad enough not being able to move, but not being able to talk was even worse. At one point, I had a terrible itch on the side of my nose; it was driving me nuts, but despite my best effort, I couldn’t bring my hand up to my face to scratch it. “Nose itches,” I tried mouthing to Nick and Howie, who were in my room at the time, but neither of them knew what I was saying.

Nick came the closest. “No stitches?” he guessed. “Nah, dawg, I don’t think they had to use any stitches for the cut on your head. Not sure about your neck; I dunno what it looks like under that brace you’re wearing. I bet you’ll have some cool scars though.”

I wrinkled my nose, my skin crawling.

Nick must have thought I was just making a face because he laughed and added, “Aw, c’mon, scars just make you look like more of a badass. But if you don’t like it, you can always cover it up with a sweet neck tattoo.”

I rolled my eyes at that.

“What, you don’t wanna look like AJ?” Howie joked, which got Nick going again as I suffered in silence.

Eventually, one of the nurses brought in a communication board, which had a series of frequently-used words and phrases with little pictures, as well as a pain scale with the numbers one to ten and an alphabet. The nurse would read through the words or letters in order, and I would blink when she got to the one I wanted. It was a painstakingly slow process, but it worked. At least now I had a reliable way to make my needs known.

The first message I spelled out using the letter board was, “Breathing tube out?” I assumed the nurse would understand this to mean that I wanted it out, or at least wanted to know when it could be taken out. To my relief, she nodded and said, “Dr. Bone will come by to talk to you when she gets out of the operating room.”

The blonde surgeon turned up later that day. I remembered meeting her briefly before she had put the breathing tube in. I hoped she was about to take it out. Instead, she told me I would have to be put through a series of breathing trials to prove I could breathe well enough on my own before I could be weaned off the ventilator, which would take at least two more days. If I didn't pass the test, I would probably need a tracheostomy. The thought of breathing through a tube hanging out of a hole in my neck terrified me. I was determined to do whatever it took to avoid that.

She brought in a respiratory therapist named Christopher, who explained that he would be turning down the pressure setting on the ventilator for a few minutes every other hour so he could monitor my ability to breathe without the machine pushing oxygen into my lungs. Then he would put me back on full ventilator support to let me rest until the next trial, gradually increasing the time I could remain off it until it was clear I didn’t need it anymore.

Throughout the rest of that day and the next, I worked with the respiratory therapist as my family and friends continued to rotate in and out of the room. They kept me company, carrying on mostly one-sided conversations. Howie told me cute stories about Mason. Brian showed me a video Leighanne and Baylee had made to send me their love. AJ talked about the TV shows he’d been watching that he thought I would like too, and Nick brought me a brand new iPod filled with my favorite music. They helped pass the time and take my mind off the pain and discomfort I felt. They dried the tears I couldn’t wipe away myself and scratched the itches I couldn’t reach. I appreciated them being there more than I could express, but I hoped they knew how much their visits meant to me.

It was a lot lonelier after visiting hours ended and they all left for the evening. I lay awake late into the night, trying to relax and let the ventilator breathe for me while I listened to the playlist Nick had made. It contained mostly upbeat music, an eclectic mix of everything from classic rock and old-school rap to modern pop hits. It felt weird not to be able to bob my head or tap my fingers and toes to the beat.

As “California Love” by 2Pac and Dr. Dre pounded against my eardrums, I closed my eyes and imagined myself driving up the coastline in my convertible with the top down and the radio turned all the way up, one hand on the wheel and the other on my wife’s bare thigh. Kristin would be riding next to me in the passenger seat, laughing as the ocean breeze blew back her long, blonde hair. That was the way I wanted to remember her - as the vibrant, beautiful woman I had loved for the last sixteen years, not the lifeless shell I’d said goodbye to in the emergency room.

Almost as if on cue, the rap song came to an end and was replaced by something softer and slower, a seventies folk song I recognized right away. “People smile and tell me I’m the lucky one… and we’ve only just begun. Think I’m gonna have a son.” Tears sprang to my eyes as I listened to the familiar lyrics. “He will be like she and me, as free as a dove… conceived in love. The sun is gonna shine above.” Nick must have known how much I liked “Danny’s Song.” I had grown up listening to it with my parents, who had played the record often when I was a kid. It still reminded me of my dad and the loving relationship he’d had with my mom, but it wasn’t until I was married and about to become a father myself that I fully understood why he had connected so deeply with that song. “And even though we ain’t got money… I’m so in love with you, honey, and everything will bring a chain of love.” These days, it made me think more of my own little family. I had sung this song to Kristin while she was pregnant with Mason, my head resting on her round belly so our baby could hear his daddy’s voice. “And in the morning when I rise, you bring a tear of joy to my eye and tell me everything… is gonna be all right.”

The tears spilled over as my heart ached for the life I’d had with Kristin, a life I was never going to get back. Nothing was going to be all right now that she was gone. I didn’t see how I would ever be able to move on without her. Hell, I couldn’t even move.

I lay there with tears trickling down the sides of my face for I don’t know how long before I finally cried myself to sleep, something I hadn’t done since my dad died. Once again, I dreamed of dancing with Kristin, until the nurses came in to turn me as they did every two hours. It was a rude awakening to be jolted out of a deep sleep and find my broken body being rolled over in bed by four hands that did not belong to my wife. As the nurses bustled around me, making sure my tubes were all still in place and tucking pillows beneath different parts of my body to keep it in the new position, I closed my eyes and willed my brain to take me back to my dream, where Kristin was alive and I was undamaged. I wished I could stay there forever and never wake up.

***


Chapter 8 by RokofAges75
Nick

The first week of 2008 was one of the worst in my life. I was supposed to have flown back to my new home in Franklin for two more weeks of relaxation until it was time to start our final rehearsals for the Unbreakable tour. Instead, I stayed in L.A. at AJ’s house and spent my time off hanging out at a hospital.

I’m sure I sound like an asshole for complaining when Kevin was the one stuck in the hospital. Don’t get me wrong - he definitely had it worse. All I’m saying is it was hard on me, too. It was hard on all of us.

By Saturday, I was desperately in need of a break. “Anyone wanna go out and do something tonight?” I asked the other guys as we waited for the elevator. Evening rounds were about to begin in the ICU, which was our cue to leave.

Everyone had a different excuse for why they couldn’t come out with me. “Nah, bro, I better not,” said AJ. “Too much temptation, you know?” He gave me a meaningful look, which I ignored. After what he’d said to me the other day, I didn’t really want to go out with him anyway. I wished Q was still around, but he had flown back to Florida for his son’s birthday.

“I think Leigh and I are gonna spend the night in,” added Howie, “but maybe next time.”

I turned around so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes. This is why I’m never getting married, I thought. It makes you a lame old man.

Then I remembered that Brian’s wife had gone back home to be with Baylee. “What about you, Brian?” I said. “Wanna bach it up with me while the wifey’s away?” Leighanne never let Brian have fun with me anymore. She thought I was a bad influence. I thought the same thing about her.

Brian raised his eyebrows. “Maybe. What’d you have in mind?”

“I dunno, grab some dinner and drinks, maybe hit a few clubs?”

He hesitated. “You know that’s not really my scene, Nick. Now if you wanna come over to my place, you’re more than welcome. We could pick up a case of beer, order pizza, and just chill.”

I love pizza and beer as much as the next guy, but I wasn’t in the mood to hang out at anyone’s house. Besides, Kevin’s mom was staying at Brian’s, and while she was a lovely woman, I knew I wouldn’t have any fun with her around. She would only remind me of what had happened to Kevin, and I wanted to forget about that for just one night.

“Thanks, but that’s okay. I’ll just call my buddy Chris,” I said with a shrug. There was a time when Brian had been my best friend, but not anymore. I’d met my current best friend, Chris, in Florida a few years ago. He had moved to California after graduating college last year, and he was the only one from my Hollywood crowd I hadn’t cut out of my life. Chris wasn’t toxic like the others. He knew how to have fun, but he had a good head on his shoulders.

"Hey, man, how's it goin'?" Chris asked when he picked me up at the bottom of AJ’s driveway a couple hours later.

“Eh… it’s goin’,” I replied, as I climbed into his car.

“Sorry to hear about Kevin and Kristin. That’s rough.”

I sighed. “Yeah. It really sucks.” Through our publicist, we had released a statement about the Richardsons’ accident. We had kept the details of Kevin’s injury under wraps, announcing only that he had undergone surgery and was in serious condition. But when I’d called Chris to invite him out, I had told him the truth. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore tonight, though. I don’t even wanna think about it. Your job is to make me forget.”

Chris grinned. “You got it, my friend. Let’s go.” He revved his engine before shifting out of park and peeling off down the winding road out of AJ’s neighborhood.

He took me to my favorite restaurant, followed by one of my favorite clubs, places I had introduced him to when he’d first come out to L.A. We ate, drank, danced, and drank some more. The more I drank, the easier it was for me to push Kevin to the back of my mind and be in the moment, focusing only on the music and the beautiful women that filled the dance floor. By midnight, I was feeling much better.

I ran into one of my old dealers in the bathroom, which wasn’t really surprising, considering how many times I’d bought from him at this very club before. I hadn’t planned on doing anything except drinking that night, but nevertheless, I found myself popping a pastel blue pill on my way out of the bathroom. Yeah, you seem real in control right now, I could hear AJ’s snarky voice in my head. It occurred to me that maybe he was right; maybe I really couldn’t control myself. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I just wanted to have fun and forget.

I didn’t mention the molly to Chris. He liked to party and drink, but he didn’t do drugs. He stayed back at our table while I went out on the dance floor, bumping and grinding with a group of hot girls.

Within half an hour, I could feel the effects of the ecstasy kicking in. My senses were heightened. The music seemed to be coming from within my body; I could feel the vibration in every organ, my heart beating along with the bass drum as the synthesized chords echoed inside my head. The bright lights blurred before my eyes, making me dizzy as I danced, but they were so beautiful, I couldn’t stop looking. For the first time all week, I felt euphoric and totally at peace with the world. I wanted to stay in that place forever.

But last call came at one-thirty, and by two a.m., the club was closing. “C’mon, Nick. We gotta go now,” said Chris, guiding me toward the door.

“I don’t wanna go home,” I protested, as I stumbled out onto the pavement. “Let’s find a house party we can crash.”

Chris shook his head. “Not tonight, dude. I’m gonna drive you back to AJ’s place and-”

“Nick!” I looked up as a camera flashed in my face. “Hey, Nick, how you doing tonight?” Even as my eyes adjusted, I didn’t recognize the guy behind it. I realized he must be paparazzi. They normally didn’t give a shit about me these days, but with Kevin in the hospital, I guess I was interesting again because the guy kept bugging me and Chris as we waited for the valet to bring his car around. “How’s Kevin doing? Can you give us an update?”

“Kevin’s a badass,” I finally said, figuring it would get him off my back if I just answered his question. “Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

The guy’s eyes widened behind his camera. “Wait, does that mean he can’t walk right now?”

“No comment,” Chris said quickly, wrapping his arm around me and steering me away. “Stop talking, dude,” he muttered as he dragged me down the street. In the back of my mind, I realized I must have said something wrong, but I could hardly think straight.

Thankfully, Chris’s car pulled up to the curb before I could do any more damage. He practically shoved me into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. The paparazzo continued to take pictures as we drove away.

“Did I just fuck up?” I asked Chris.

“Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “You just shouldn’t talk to paparazzi when you’re wasted.”

“Whatever,” I muttered, turning up the music so I could feel the beat pulsing inside me again.

Chris turned it back down. “Dude, it’s two in the morning. I don’t wanna get pulled over.”

“Well, can I at least roll down my window? I’m dying here.”

He gave me a weird look. “It’s like fifty degrees outside. But sure… suit yourself.”

I lowered the window and stuck my head out like a dog, wanting to feel the fresh, cool breeze on my flushed face. It was only January, but I was suddenly boiling.

The rest of the ride back to AJ’s was a blur. When Chris dropped me off at the bottom of the driveway, I somehow managed to let myself in the gate and stagger up to the house. But the moment I opened the front door, a high-pitched alarm began to sound. My heart leaped in my chest and started pounding like a bass drum again.

“Fuck,” I swore under my breath. I had forgotten about AJ’s home security system. I found the keypad that controlled it, but I couldn’t remember the code to turn off the alarm. In a panic, I fumbled with the buttons anyway, punching 1-2-3-4 and 0-0-0-0 as the alarm continued to wail in the background.

“Nick!” I turned to see AJ standing at the top of the stairs in nothing but his boxers. He was wielding a samurai sword. “What the fuck are you doing?!”

“I forgot the code!” I called up to him. “Can you turn it off?”

AJ stomped barefoot down the stairs, swinging the sword at his side. “It’s my birthday, dumbass,” he snapped, as he pressed the correct combination of digits. “1-9-7-8.”

The piercing sound stopped instantly, but I continued to stare at the keypad. “Hey… I just realized… your birthdate’s the same as your birth year. 1/9/78… 1978!”

“No shit.” He snickered. “Did that just blow your mind or something?”

“Kinda… yeah…”

Suddenly, I heard another high-pitched sound. At first I thought the alarm was going off again, but then I realized it was just AJ’s phone ringing. “That’ll be the security company,” he said, rolling his eyes at me as he ran to answer it. I could hear him talking to the caller from another room. “Hello? No, false alarm… everything’s fine…”

He came back into the foyer a minute later, still carrying the katana. “What’s with the sword?” I asked.

“Dude, you scared the shit out of me! I thought someone had broken in. This was the closest weapon I could find.”

I blinked. “You keep a samurai sword in your bedroom?”

He nodded proudly. “Sweet, isn’t it? I bought it in Japan and had it shipped back here.”

“It is pretty sweet,” I admitted, admiring the long, shiny blade. “Can I hold it?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you kidding? You can barely hold your own head up. And why are you so sweaty?”

I looked down at myself and shrugged. “I was dancing.”

He shook his head. “You’re drunk… and high. I hope you weren’t driving.”

“I don’t even have a car here. Chris drove.”

“And was he drinking, too?”

I didn’t answer.

AJ looked at me in disgust. “Kevin’s accident was caused by a drunk driver, you know. Kristin was killed by a fucking drunk driver.”

I frowned. “How do you know that?”

“Her parents told us, that first day at the hospital. You may not have been in the room. The woman who hit them had a blood alcohol level at least twice the legal limit. That bitch walked away from a fatal accident with nothing more than scrapes and bruises. Meanwhile, Kevin may never walk again.”

I shook my head, cringing at his words. “Don’t say that.”

“Truth hurts, huh? Maybe you’ll think twice next time you stagger out of the club at two in the morning.”

“Oh, like you’ve never done it, Mr. High and Mighty. You’re not perfect either, so you can spare me the lecture.”

“I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I just wish you would learn from my mistakes instead of repeating them. I don’t wanna see you go down the same dark path I did.”

I didn’t say anything.

“C’mere a minute.” He slung his arm around me and guided me into the kitchen, where he filled a glass with ice water. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Drink it all before you go to sleep. Just don’t wet the damn bed.”

“Okay, Dad.”

AJ rolled his eyes again. “Goodnight, Nick.” He stomped back upstairs, taking the katana with him.

I sat at the kitchen island and took a sip of water. I hadn’t realized how dehydrated I was until I felt the cool liquid swishing around in my dry mouth. I had never tasted anything so good. I downed the rest of the glass in a few gulps and let out a sigh. Leaving the empty glass on the counter, I headed up to bed.

My high was wearing off by then, and I felt sluggish and sad. Yet my heart was still hammering almost as hard and fast as it had on the dance floor. I could hear it thudding against my ear drums as I lay my head down on the pillow. The whole room seemed to be spinning around me. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, trying to ward off the dizziness and slow down my racing heart. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.

I woke to the sound of AJ banging on my door again. Before I could answer, he burst into the room. “You talked to fucking TMZ about Kevin?!” he yelled at me.

“Huh?” My head was pounding. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Oh, were you too wasted to remember what you said? Here, let me refresh your memory.” He thrust his smartphone into my face.

I blinked, my eyes struggling to focus on the headline of the page he had pulled up on his phone. Nick Carter on Kevin Richardson’s Condition -- “I know he’s gonna walk again.” My heart sank.

“They’re reporting that Kevin is paralyzed, and since they have a video of you saying that shit, our fans know it’s not just a rumor. They’re freaking out all over LiveDaily right now.”

I looked up at him, horrified. “There’s a video?”

“Of course there’s a video, Nick. The cameras are always fucking rolling. Scroll down.”

I took the phone from him and swiped my finger up to move further down the page until I found the video. I didn’t want to watch it, but I pressed the play button anyway. I saw myself staggering around on the sidewalk outside the club, slurring my words as I said, “Kevin’s a badass. Nothin’ can keep him down for long. I know he’s gonna walk again.”

“Wait, does that mean he can’t walk right now?” I heard the paparazzo ask off-camera before Chris pulled me away. I hadn’t even realized he was recording me.

“I’m sorry,” I said to AJ, handing him back his phone. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I just wanted the guy to leave me alone.”

“So you say ‘no comment’ and walk away, Nick! Kevin’s medical condition is no one’s fucking business but his own. We agreed we would wait until he was well enough to make a statement of his own to release any more details to the media. We don’t even know if his paralysis is permanent or not, but now the whole world knows he can’t walk. This is not the way any of us wanted our fans to find out.”

I felt my face heating up. “I know. I said I’m sorry.”

“Well, I hope you’re sorry enough to learn from this and not let it happen again. Maybe if you weren’t so fucking wasted, you wouldn’t have messed up in the first place.”

I had no response to that. I knew he was right, but I wasn’t ready to start making promises I wouldn’t - or couldn’t - keep.

“Brian called,” AJ added after a pause.

My heart skipped a beat as I imagined how disappointed Brian would be when he saw the video. “Did you tell him about TMZ?”

“He’s the one who told me. Leighanne saw it first and called him.

I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Leighanne to follow all the celebrity gossip sites. “Is he pissed at me?”

“He’s not happy, but that wasn’t the main reason he called. He wanted to invite us to come to church with him and Kevin’s mom this morning.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t a big fan of church and dreaded the thought of facing Kevin’s family after what I’d done, but if sitting in a pew with them and praying for Kevin to get better would make up for my mistake, I was willing to do it. “What’d you say?”

“I told him we’d be there, but seeing as how I can still smell the alcohol on your breath, I don’t think you’re in any condition to be setting foot inside a church. So I’m gonna go, and you’re gonna stay here and get your shit together. Take a cold shower, drink some coffee, do whatever it takes to sober up. Then meet us at the hospital at noon.”

I nodded. “I will.”

When he left, I lay back down, but I couldn’t sleep. I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the bathroom to take a shower. As I stripped off my tank top, I realized AJ was right - I reeked of booze and sweat. I looked like a wreck, too. I hardly recognized my own reflection in the mirror. My greasy hair stuck out in all directions, and there were dark circles under my puffy eyes. My face was practically gray, like a ghost of my former self. I hated what I saw, hated myself for fucking up again.

I may have made myself feel better for a few hours, but ultimately, I had only made things worse.

***


Chapter 9 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I woke up in the morning feeling like I had hardly slept. Between the constant interruptions from the nursing staff and the discomfort caused by my breathing tube and neck brace, the last two nights had been restless. I was already missing the sedatives that had knocked me out for the first three.

It was a relief when Dr. Bone arrived for her morning rounds and, after examining me, announced that I was ready to be extubated. She had the respiratory therapist, Christopher, come in to remove my breathing tube. He replaced it with a nasal cannula, which was better because at least it allowed me to talk, although my voice was weak and hoarse.

“Your throat may be a little sore for the next few days, but it’ll get better with time,” he told me, as he listened to my lungs with his stethoscope. “The important thing is to take deep breaths. Because of your spinal cord injury, you’ve lost control of the intercostal muscles between your ribs, which help your chest expand when you inhale. Your lung capacity has been reduced to less than forty percent of what it should be, so you’ll want to keep your lungs clear and fill them with as much air as you can. If you were to develop any respiratory complications, like a collapsed lung or pneumonia, you’d probably have to be put back on the vent. I know you don’t want that.”

“Definitely not,” I whispered, feeling a flicker of fear.

“Yeah… the problem with that is, your abdominal muscles are also paralyzed, so you can’t cough effectively enough to clear the mucus from your lungs,” Christopher went on explaining. “What we have to do to help you out with that is called an assisted cough. There’s a couple ways we can do it. There’s a manual way, which involves someone else pushing down on your abdomen while you exhale to simulate a cough - I’ll teach you and your caregiver how to do that sometime before you’re discharged - but here in the ICU, we use a machine called the Cough Assist.”

My head was spinning. Caregiver? Cough Assist? This was all new information to me, and I felt overwhelmed as it dawned on me just how different my life was going to be, even after I left the hospital. I had been so focused on the past and present, I hadn’t thought that far ahead into the future. There was a part of me that had assumed I would regain the feeling and function in the rest of my body, that I would be able to walk out of here on my own two feet after a few weeks of rehabilitation. But now I wondered if I was being overly optimistic, hoping for something that was never going to happen. Would I be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life? Would I have to rely on other people to help take care of me? No one had told me what to expect one way or the other.

The anxiety must have shown in my face because Christopher suddenly put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “It’s basically just an oxygen mask attached to a machine that uses positive and negative pressure to make you take a deep breath and then suck the air and mucus out of your lungs, like a cough. Here, I’ll show you.”

It wasn’t the machine itself I was worried about, but I didn’t bother to correct him. I let him hook me up to the cough assist machine by placing a clear mask over my mouth and nose. When he turned the machine on, I felt air flowing forcefully through the mask. After a few seconds, I heard a loud whooshing sound, almost like a vacuum cleaner, and the sides of my face were sucked against the edges of the mask as the air was expelled from my lungs. It was a strange sensation, much different from normal coughing, but it must have worked because after a few rounds, I felt phlegm in the back of my throat. Christopher removed the mask and stuck a suctioning wand inside my mouth to get rid of it. The rattling sound it made reminded me of the dentist’s office, and I found myself wishing, for the first time in my life, that I was there instead. I would rather be anywhere but here.

“How does that feel?” he asked me, listening to my chest again afterwards. “Better?”

“A little bit, yeah.”

“Your lungs sound clear, and your oxygen level is right where we want it to be. All good signs. You’re doing great.” He smiled down at me as he draped the stethoscope around his neck. “I’m going to see some other patients now, but I’ll be back to check on you later. In the meantime, let your nurse know if you feel congested or short of breath, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks.”

After Christopher left, I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. My mouth felt as dry as the Sahara desert, and my throat burned. “Can I have some water?” I croaked to my nurse, Stephanie.

She gave me a sympathetic look and shook her head. “Sorry, but you’re NPO - nothing by mouth until you’re cleared to start eating and drinking again.”

“Can’t you just give me some ice chips?” I begged. “Just something to wet my mouth? I’m dying here.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Doctor’s orders,” said Stephanie. “Don’t worry - you’re getting fluids through your IV, so you’re not really dehydrated. It just feels that way because your throat’s irritated from the tube.”

That didn’t help. Frustrated, I closed my eyes again to block out the fluorescent light and pictured myself in a cool, dark cave. The faint blipping of my heart monitor became the sound of water dripping down from stalactites. I would have happily licked the water droplets off the cave walls just to feel moisture on my sandpaper tongue. I tried to work up some saliva instead, but my mouth was so dry, I couldn’t even spit.

I had barely closed my eyes when Dr. Bone breezed back in. Lying flat on my back, I couldn’t see the door, but I recognized the sound of her dress shoes clicking on the tiled floor. They were different from the rubbery squeak the nurses’ Crocs and sneakers made. “How are you doing, Kevin?” the doctor asked as she came up alongside my bed.

“I’m thirsty,” I answered immediately. “Can I please have some water?”

“Not yet,” Dr. Bone said apologetically. “We need to make sure you can swallow safely first. When you have surgery on your neck, everything gets shifted around to make room for the hardware that’s holding your spine together. Sometimes swallowing is difficult or feels different in the days afterward. And since you can’t cough very well to clear your airway, you’re at a higher risk of choking or aspiration if food or water were to go down the wrong pipe.”

“Well, how will you know if I can swallow safely if you won’t let me try?” I asked, annoyed. It was bad enough feeling like an infant, incapable of doing anything for myself, but now I was being treated like one, too. Don’t give the baby solid food for the first four months, or he might choke. All I wanted was a sip of water!

“I’ll have a speech pathologist come in to evaluate you sometime this week. Once you’re cleared to begin eating and drinking again, we’ll be able to take out your NG tube.”

I wasn’t happy with her answer, but no amount of arguing or complaining would change her mind.

“How are you doing otherwise?” Dr. Bone pressed, finally forcing me to move on.

I didn’t know how to answer that, so I decided to be direct. “You tell me, Doc. Do you think I’ll be able to use my arms and legs again, or am I gonna be like this for the rest of my life?”

She pursed her lips as she looked down at me. “That’s why I came back to talk to you. It’s been five days since your surgery, so the swelling in your spinal cord should have gone down. Now that you’re able to speak again, I’d like to do a more thorough neurological exam to assess the level and grade of your spinal cord injury. That will give me a better idea of what kind of recovery you can expect moving forward.”

I didn’t think it was possible for my mouth to feel any drier, but somehow, it did. With difficulty, I swallowed and said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Dr. Bone washed her hands and snapped on a pair of gloves. “For the first part of the assessment, I need to do a quick rectal exam.”

I immediately regretted agreeing so quickly. “Uh… what? Why?”

“To see if a certain reflex is present. After a severe spinal cord injury, there’s a period of complete paralysis below the level of injury. It’s called spinal shock. It can last anywhere from a day to several weeks, but typically it resolves in a few days. If you’re still in spinal shock, there’s no point in doing the full assessment now because the findings could be completely different once it resolves. But if it already has, this assessment will determine your prognosis.”

I sighed. “All right… do whatever you have to do, I guess.”

With the help of my nurse, she rolled me over onto my left side and removed my hospital gown. For the first time, I was thankful I couldn’t feel her touching me. She must have found what she was looking for, though, because after a few minutes she announced, “The reflex is present, so we can proceed with the full exam.”

I took that as a positive sign, although I couldn’t remember if it was really a good thing or not.

“While I have you in this position, I need to check for a couple of other things,” said Dr. Bone as she stood behind me. “First I’m going to insert my finger into your anus, and I want you to tell me when you feel any pressure.”

I felt my face flush, as all the old “Backdoor Boys” jokes I used to hear flooded back into my brain. Don’t be embarrassed, I tried to tell myself. It’s not a big deal. She’s just a doctor doing her job. But it was hard not to be. I braced myself for the physical discomfort I was anticipating, but I didn’t feel anything down there.

“Okay Kevin, now I want to see if you can clench your sphincter muscles, like you’re holding in a bowel movement.”

I bit my lip to hold back the burst of laughter that almost came out when I heard her say the word “sphincter.” Of course, I couldn’t help but picture myself and the boys wearing wigs and spandex on the set of our music video for “Just Want You to Know,” in which we had portrayed a fictional eighties hair hand called “Sphynkter.” It was a good thing none of the other guys walked in at that moment. I could only imagine how much they would have been cracking up. We had always talked about dressing up like Sphynkter again for a show, but we hadn’t done it. Now we never would - or at least I wouldn’t. I supposed the other guys could always do it without me.

“Kevin?” Dr. Bone asked, bringing me back to the present. “Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” Straightening my face, I tried to follow her directions, but I didn’t know if I was doing it or not. I still couldn’t feel a thing.

“All right,” she finally said. “Let’s move on to the next part of the exam.”

I frowned. “How’d I do?”

“I’ll go over your results once we finish the full exam,” she replied, which led me to believe I had failed the first part.

They repositioned me so I was lying flat on my back again. Then Dr. Bone showed me a safety pin and said, “Next I need to assess your sensory level. I’m going to poke different parts of your body with one end of this pin, and I want you to tell me if you feel a light touch or a pinprick. The light touch will feel like this.” She stroked the side of my face with the rounded end of the pin. “The pinprick will feel like this.” She stuck my cheek with the pointed end, making me flinch. “Got it?”

“Got it,” I replied, grimacing.

She told me to close my eyes so I couldn’t see what she was doing. A few seconds later, I felt something smooth brush the skin behind my right ear. “Light touch,” I said. This was followed by a sharp poke in the same place. “Pinprick.”

“And does it feel the same as it did on your face?” Dr. Bone asked.

“Yeah.”

She worked her way down the right side of my body first, jabbing me just above the collarbone, on the shoulder, and near the inside of my elbow with both ends of the safety pin. I felt everything to that point, although the sensation seemed duller further down my arm. Below it, I felt nothing. She could have cut off the bottom half of my arm, and I wouldn’t have noticed. My forearm, hand, and fingers were completely numb.

When a few seconds went by without feeling another poke, I snuck a peek, wondering why she had stopped. Opening my eyes into narrow slits, I was stunned to see her stick a spot near my right nipple with the sharp end of the safety pin. It should have hurt, or at least made me flinch, but I felt no pain, not even the slightest bit of pressure. I opened my eyes wider and watched as her hand repeatedly raised and lowered the pin, stabbing me in a straight line along my torso like I was some kind of voo-doo doll. I still didn’t feel a thing.

“Doing okay, Kevin?” Dr. Bone called out as she continued down to my waist. I quickly closed my eyes again so she couldn’t see the tears that were welling up in them.

“Uh-huh,” I heard myself say, but it wasn’t true. I was far from okay.

When she was done testing the right side of my body, the doctor went around to the other side of the bed and repeated the same procedure on my left side. The results were no different: I was numb from the chest down.

“Now I’m going to ask you to try moving some of your muscles so I can assess your motor function,” she said next. “We’ll start with your arms and work our way down, okay? You can open your eyes for this part.”

“What’s the point?” I muttered, keeping my eyes shut. “I already know I can’t move my arms or legs. Trust me - I’ve tried. Many times.”

“Well, I want you to try again so I can document how much muscle strength and range of motion you have,” replied Dr. Bone. “We need to get a baseline now so we’ll know if you make any improvements down the road.”

Her explanation made sense, so I reluctantly opened my eyes and agreed to give it my best effort.

She picked up my right hand and held it by the wrist, where I could see it. “All right, Kevin, I want you to bend your elbow and bring your hand up to your nose.”

I sucked in a deep breath as I stared at my hand. I couldn’t feel the bottom half of my arm, but I attempted to bring it toward my face anyway, hoping maybe muscle memory would kick in and help me out. But my hand didn’t even twitch. “I can’t,” I whispered, letting out my breath in defeat.

“That’s all right,” Dr. Bone said reassuringly, resting her hand on my shoulder. “Let’s try it a different way.” She wrapped her hand around my upper arm, still supporting my wrist with her other hand. “Can you touch your nose now?”

I tried again, but still, nothing happened. “No… I can’t!” I cried in frustration, fresh tears filling my eyes. I took short, shuddering breaths as I tried to hold myself together. I didn’t want to break down in front of her, but inside, I was falling apart. I had never felt so weak.

“It’s okay, Kevin,” said Dr. Bone, her voice softer than before. “We can stop for now. I think I have enough information.”

What information? I wondered, as the tears rolled down my cheeks. Information that told her I would never walk again? Never play the piano? Or sign my name to a piece of paper? Or push my son on a swing?

When Brian and my mom arrived at the hospital, fresh from church and still dressed in their Sunday best, Dr. Bone sat them both down in my room and delivered her verdict.

“As you know, Kevin broke both his C5 and C6 cervical vertebrae in the accident last week,” she began, showing us a series of X-rays taken before and after my surgery. She pointed to the bones that were out of place in the first set of pictures, then ran her finger over the metal rod she had used to put them back together in the second set. Seeing the hardware that had been installed inside my neck reinforced to me just how serious my injury was. “We were able to repair the fractures with internal fixation and a spinal fusion, but we’ve been waiting for the swelling to go down to assess the severity of the damage to his spinal cord.”

I watched Brian’s face as the doctor spoke. There wasn’t a trace of his usual humor in it. He was frowning, his lips pressed together in a thin line, his forehead creased with an expression of deep concentration as he kept his eyes fixed on her. I could only think of a handful of times I had ever seen my cousin look so serious. I almost wished he would crack a joke, just to ease the tension in the room.

“I was able to do a more thorough neurological assessment this morning,” Dr. Bone continued, now turning her attention back to me. “It showed you have a complete injury, Kevin, which means your spinal cord was fully compressed at the C6 level. No messages can make it past that point. The damage from the swelling after your initial injury extends up to C4, affecting your arm muscles and weakening your diaphragm.”

I could hear my own heartbeat drumming like a timpani inside my head. The sound of blood rushing behind my ears was almost deafening, drowning out the doctor’s words. “So what does that mean exactly?” I asked, my own voice sounding distorted, like I was trying to talk underwater. “Will I ever walk again?” I held my breath as I waited for her answer.

She shook her head. “You’re a quadriplegic, Kevin,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. “With extensive rehabilitation, you may regain the use of your arms and wrists, but not your fingers and nothing below the waist. Until science discovers a way to reverse spinal cord injuries, you’ll be permanently paralyzed from the chest down. So, no… you will probably never walk again.”

As I let out my breath, I felt deflated, like all the wind had gone out of my sails, leaving me as I was: limp and useless.

“What other questions do you have?”

Once the initial shock had worn off, my mom and Brian both started asking Dr. Bone about rehabilitation centers and other treatment options, everything from physical therapy to stem cell research. I just lay there, only half-listening to what they were saying. Their words barely made sense to me. In that moment, all I could comprehend was that my life, as I’d known it, was over.

***

Chapter 10 by RokofAges75
Nick

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.

***


Chapter 11 by RokofAges75
Kevin

I had told Nick I would do whatever I could to get back up, and I meant it. Knowing Mason needed me was all the motivation I needed. The problem was, I literally couldn’t do anything but lie in bed.

“When will I get my wheelchair?” I asked the physical therapist who had started coming in to help me stretch. This was supposed to keep my muscles from weakening or tightening too much.

“That will take a few weeks,” he answered, as he bent my arm at the elbow, then extended it straight out. “You’ll find out more at the rehab center. They’ll have to measure you and assess your abilities first to see what kind of chair will be the best fit for you.”

“Oh.” I was disappointed. While everyone else was still discussing whether or not I would ever walk again, I just wanted to be able to get out of bed. I was tired of lying down all the time. Tired of staring at the white ceiling and walls of my hospital room, which had started to seem more like a prison cell. Tired of feeling trapped.

The days had begun to blur again, one stretching into another. I kept track of time by the shift changes. When a new nurse came in to turn me, I knew it must be morning or night. The exact hour and minute didn’t matter much. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere, and the only thing I had to look forward to were visits from my family and friends.

Brian dutifully drove my mother to the hospital every morning and spent most of the day there with her, while Howie, AJ, and Nick dropped by on a daily basis. I appreciated them being there, but their presence was a painful reminder of my old life, the life I had given up and was never going to get back.

Kristin’s parents had also come to see me a couple of times. Their visits were the hardest of all. They were in the process of planning a private memorial service for Kristin and wanted my opinion. “We thought we would keep it small, just close family and friends for now,” her father told me with tears in his eyes. “We’d love to have a larger celebration of life for her sometime in the future, when you’re better and able to be a part of it.”

“That would be nice,” I agreed. I knew Kristin wouldn’t have wanted the kind of funeral where everyone wept over her open casket, but I felt guilty for not being there to say my final goodbyes to my wife. Then again, maybe I already had. Maybe our dance in my dreams was my way of honoring her memory.

I still had recurring dreams of her almost every night, but they were often interrupted by the nurses who had to turn me every two hours. This made it impossible for me to sleep more than a couple hours at a time. Just when I finally managed to fall asleep, I would wake to find my body being moved again. I felt like a pancake being flipped over to keep it from burning - or, in my case, from getting bedsores. After a few days of begging my doctor to give me something to help me sleep better, she finally agreed to prescribe a sleeping pill, which a nurse would place under my tongue to dissolve just before turning out the lights at night.

One night, a week after the accident, I woke to find two nurses standing next to my bed, getting ready to reposition me. I felt groggy and kept my eyes closed to block out the light as they carefully rolled me from my back onto my side. “How does that feel, Kevin? Are you comfortable?” one of them asked, after they had finished adjusting the placement of my pillows.

“Yeah… it’s fine,” I mumbled. I was never completely comfortable with the cervical collar around my neck, but there was nothing they could do about that. Dr. Bone had said I would have to wear it for at least eight weeks, until my spinal fusion finished healing.

“Okay. We’ll let you get back to sleep then. Do you need anything before we go?”

I opened my eyes briefly, glancing up at the nurse who had spoken. “Nah, I’m good, Dee. Thanks.” As she reached up to turn off the light over my bed, I caught sight of something behind her that made me gasp: a large, black bird perched on top of my IV pole.

Hearing my sharp intake of breath, Dee looked down at me with a concerned expression on her face. “What is it? Are you okay?”

“How did that bird get in here?”

“Bird?” She frowned, her look of concern becoming one of confusion. “What bird?”

Wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me, I blinked, but the bird didn’t disappear. “Behind you… on the IV pole. Don’t you see it?”

Dee turned around to look, but shook her head. “There’s no bird. It must just be a shadow. Try to go back to sleep.”

She shut off the light before she left, but I could still see the bird’s silhouette by the faint glow of the monitor above my bed. It wasn’t moving, but there was something vaguely threatening about the way it loomed over me as I lay there like a piece of carrion, paralyzed and vulnerable. I could feel its beady eyes fixed upon me, watching me in the dark, as if it were waiting to swoop down and start pecking at me. But it didn’t do anything.

It reminded me of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Raven,” which I had read and analyzed for an American literature class in high school. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…” I couldn’t remember the rest, except for the repeated line everyone knows: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” My teacher had told us the raven represented death and the narrator’s descent into madness after losing the love of his life, Lenore. Was my own grief making me lose my mind as well?

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I kept opening them to see if the bird was still there. At some point, I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew, the nurses were back to roll me over again, and the raven was gone.

I didn’t mention it the next morning when Dr. Bone came by, worried she would call in a shrink if she heard I was having hallucinations. I was already tired of my body being poked and prodded; I didn’t want my mind probed, too.

“Everything’s looking good, Kevin,” said the doctor once she’d finished examining me. “The surgical site seems to be healing well, and your vital signs are stable. You’re doing great.”

“I’m not doing anything,” I argued. “All I ‘do’ is lie here.”

“That can’t be true. You’ve obviously been doing your breathing exercises, or your lungs wouldn’t sound so clear,” she said, adjusting the stethoscope around her neck. “And according to Phil from P.T., you’re ‘cooperative’ and ‘pleasant to work with.’”

“Yeah, but I still can’t move anything on my own. I just lie there and let him stretch me.”

“Recovery takes time. Try to be patient.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I am. I just wish I could get out of here and go home. I have a six-month-old baby I haven’t been able to see in a week because they won’t let kids come in here to visit. I miss my son.” Tears welled in my eyes when I thought of Mason, who must be wondering where his mama and daddy were. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to see me the way I was now; I worried the tubes and monitors would scare him. But I wished I could see him. Kristin’s parents had been taking lots of pictures to show me, but it wasn’t the same. I had to get better so I could get back home to him.

Dr. Bone gave me a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry. You won’t be able to go home until you’ve finished the first phase of your rehabilitation, but I’ll see if I can pull some strings and set up a visit with your son.”

“That would be nice,” I said, blinking back my tears. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She gave me a moment to compose myself, then cleared her throat. “Since you’re doing so well, how would you like to try sitting up today?”

“Really?” For the first time that day, I felt hopeful. “Yeah… I would love that!”

She smiled. “I thought you might. I’ll let Phil know you’re ready so he can have you try it later this morning.”

I was glad she had given me something to look forward to, grateful for the distraction. I wasn’t expecting any of my family or friends to visit until afternoon because they would all be at Kristin’s memorial service, which was taking place that morning. It killed me not to be present for it.

I had begged Dr. Bone for permission to go. “Please, just put me in a wheelchair, and I’ll get one of the guys to push me around,” I’d pleaded with her the previous day. “Or, hell, I’ll go on a damn gurney if I have to.”

Of course, she had flat-out refused. “I’m sorry Kevin, but it’s just not possible. You’re still dependent on oxygen and intravenous medications. You’re not ready to leave the ICU yet, let alone the whole hospital. You’ll have to stay here at least another week or two, until you’re well enough to be transferred to a rehab facility.”

I was disappointed, but not surprised. I hadn’t really expected her to agree to my plan. Still, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just give me a wheelchair with a portable oxygen tank and an IV pole. I guess that shows how naïve I was at that point, how little I knew about my own condition.

I found out for myself why this wasn’t possible when I tried sitting upright for the first time since the accident. Sitting up in bed didn’t sound like a big deal to me, but it turned out to be a more complicated process than I ever could have imagined.

After I’d been fed and bathed, the physical therapist, Phil, came in. “Hi, Kevin! How are you feeling this morning?” he asked cheerfully. He was a short, middle-aged man with a shiny bald patch above his forehead where his brown hair had receded.

“Fine,” I replied automatically, although I felt far from it. Dr. Bone said I was “stable,” but physically, I felt like a disembodied head floating apart from the rest of my body. Only the pain in my neck reminded me that my head was still attached to my shoulders. Everything else was numb.

Emotionally, I was an unstable mess. My grief came and went in waves. There were moments when something would make me smile, and I’d think, I can’t wait to tell Kristin. Then I remembered she was gone. The realization hit me as hard as the car that had crashed into us, killing her and crippling me. The pain that followed was even worse. I was mourning the loss of my wife, as well as the loss of my independence. As I lay in bed, my face burning with embarrassment while a female nurse washed and wiped my naked body, I would find myself wishing I was dead, too. It would be so much easier for my soul to be in Heaven with Kristin, happy and whole, than stuck here in this Hell on Earth, imprisoned inside a body that no longer worked. I didn’t want to be a quadriplegic any more than I wanted to be a widower. But then I would think of Mason, who had already lost his mother, and my own mom, who had already lost her husband. The last thing I wanted to do was leave my son an orphan or cause my mom any more pain. So I put on a brave face and tried my best to be strong. There was nothing more important to me than my family. They were the driving force behind my desire to get better, and without even knowing it, they pushed me further down the path to recovery.

“No visitors today?” Phil looked around, as if expecting to see one of my friends or family members hiding in a corner. He was used to having an audience while he worked with me. Unlike some of the staff, he let them stay in the room during our therapy sessions and patiently explained what he was doing and why, which I know my mom appreciated. She was always asking questions, wanting to know more about my injury and rehabilitation.

“Not yet. They’re all at my wife’s memorial service. I’m sure they’ll stop by later.”

Phil’s smile quickly faded, as his face went red. “Oh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that was today.”

“It’s okay. I don’t really wanna talk about it. Let’s just get on with this.” I could feel tears threatening at the corners of my eyes, but I fought them back, not wanting to cry in front of him. If I let those tears fall, I wouldn’t be able to wipe them away. I was tired of feeling weak.

Phil seemed to understand. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “So our goal today is to get you into an upright position, but we’re going to go slowly to give your body time to adjust. Dr. Bone may have already explained this to you, but one thing we have to watch out for is a complication called postural hypotension, which is a sudden drop in blood pressure caused by a change in position, like getting up after lying down for a long time. Have you ever gotten dizzy after standing up too quickly?”

“I dunno… yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, that’s an example of the kind of hypotension I’m talking about. It can happen to anyone, but it’s more common in people with spinal cord injuries. That’s because you’ve lost control of the part of your nervous system that keeps your blood pressure stable. Quadriplegics tend to have low blood pressure anyway, so if you change positions too quickly, you’re likely to pass out.”

“Wow… I didn’t know that.” Every day I learned something new about the way my disabled body worked - or didn’t work. It would have been interesting if it wasn’t so damn depressing.

“Yeah - the more you know, right?” Phil grinned. “We definitely don’t want you fainting on us, so we’re going to sit you up very gradually. We’re also going to use an abdominal binder, which goes around your waist and compresses your abdomen, kind of like a girdle or corset.”

I raised my eyebrows as he held up a wide elastic band so I could see it. “A corset?” I repeated skeptically. It sounded uncomfortable, until I remembered I couldn’t feel the area around my waist anyway.

Phil chuckled. “I know - seems a little weird, right? But it works well for quads because it increases your abdominal pressure and prevents your blood pressure from dropping so drastically as you sit up. It also pushes up your diaphragm, which will make it easier to breathe when you’re sitting up. It’ll help with your balance, too. Remember, your abdominal muscles are paralyzed, so you have no core strength, nothing to keep you from flopping over if we were to sit you up right now. The binder will provide you with some support.”

“Okay,” I agreed. My nurse, Stephanie, removed my hospital gown, and she and Phil wrapped the binder around my waist. I couldn’t really see what they were doing or feel the binder at all, so it didn’t bother me.

When they were done, Phil said, “All right - now we’re going to raise the head of your bed a few degrees and see how well you tolerate it.” To Stephanie, he added, “Let’s get a set of baseline vitals before we go any further. We’ll need to keep a close eye on his blood pressure and breathing.”

Stephanie pushed a button on my monitor, and I heard rather than felt the blood pressure cuff inflate around my arm. “B.P. is ninety-nine over sixty,” she said a minute later, looking up at the monitor as she read off a series of numbers.

Phil had her raise the head of my bed a little at a time, slowly bringing me into a semi-upright position. They packed pillows around my body to keep it from falling to one side or the other. “How does that feel?” Phil asked.

After lying flat for so long, I felt light-headed at first, but I answered, “Fine,” figuring my body would adjust. I wasn’t used to being weak or fragile. As an athlete and a performer, I had always been physically fit. Up until a week ago, I was in perfect condition, and now I couldn’t even sit up on my own. I tried clenching my abs like I was doing a crunch to pull myself further forward. I could remember what that felt like, but I couldn’t feel it anymore. Phil was right - I had lost control of those muscles, too.

Leaning back against the head of the bed, I looked down at the rest of my body with a strange sense of detachment. Although I recognized my arms and legs, they didn’t feel connected to the rest of me. They might as well have been a pair of dummy legs, like in a magic trick. The magician could saw right through them, and I wouldn’t feel a thing.

There were white compression stockings on my feet that went all the way up to my knees, and both my calves were wrapped in some kind of padded brace. “What are those for?” I asked, with a pointed look at the braces. No one had mentioned my legs being injured in the crash - not that it mattered much, considering Dr. Bone had said I would never walk again anyway.

“Those are a special kind of compression device to prevent blood clots from forming. There’s a pump at the foot of your bed that inflates them with air every few seconds to squeeze your legs and push the blood through your veins. This keeps it from pooling in your legs while you’re lying still,” Stephanie explained. “It should also help you maintain a healthy blood pressure.”

“Oh.” My eyes moved to my left arm, where I could see an IV line taped to the inside of my elbow and a monitor clipped to the tip of my index finger. I couldn’t feel either one. They should have put that stuff on the right side, I thought. I’m left-handed. Then I realized it didn’t matter: I couldn’t move my left hand any more than I could move my right. I tried flexing my fingers, but they didn’t even twitch.

That was when I noticed my wedding band was missing. “Do you know where my wedding ring is?” I asked Stephanie.

“They may have had to remove it in the emergency room. If so, it was probably given to a family member with the rest of your personal belongings.”

I frowned, wondering if my mom had it. If so, she hadn’t mentioned it. Even though my wife was dead, I felt weird not wearing my wedding ring. My finger looked naked without it.

“Are you still feeling okay, Kevin?” Phil interjected. “You’ve lost some color in your face.”

“I’m a little dizzy,” I admitted, as the light-headedness intensified.

Phil looked concerned. “Let’s get another B.P.,” he said to Stephanie, who pushed the button on my monitor again.

“Sixty-eight over forty-five.”

He gave her a nod. “We’re gonna go ahead and lie you back now, Kevin, before your blood pressure drops any lower.”

“I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute,” I protested.

Phil shook his head. “Don’t try to fight it - you won’t win. This is your body’s way of telling you there’s not enough blood flowing to your brain. If you don’t listen to it and lie down now, you’ll faint.”

I didn’t want to believe him, but I knew he was right. Black spots had already appeared at the edges of my vision, like static on a screen. I closed my eyes as I felt the head of my bed start to lower back down. When I opened them, I was staring up at the ceiling again. I felt defeated.

But Phil seemed pleased. “That was a good first try,” he told me.

“I only made it a minute or two.”

“After lying down for a week, I wouldn’t have expected you to make it much longer than that. I’ve worked with a lot of patients with spinal cord injuries - you’re doing just as well as any of them,” he said with a reassuring smile. “We’ll let you rest for a few minutes, until your blood pressure comes back up, and then we can try it again. It just takes time and practice to build up your tolerance to being in an upright position.”

I appreciated his encouragement, but I still felt frustrated by what I considered to be a failure. How was I going to get out of bed if I could barely sit up without fainting? I hated having no control over my own body.

We kept at it, alternating between positions, and by that afternoon, I was able to be propped up at a forty-five degree angle for about ten minutes before my body told me it was time to lie flat again. I had just asked Stephanie to raise the head of my bed when I heard my mother’s voice ring out, “Knock knock!”

“Come on in!” I called back. As the bed went up, slowly pushing me into a sitting position, I saw her standing in the doorway. But she wasn’t alone. My eyes welled with tears when I spotted my son in her arms. “Mason! C’mere, baby boy!” I wished I could hold out my hands to him, but they lay still at my sides, propped up on a pair of pillows.

My mom smiled tearfully as she brought him over to me. “Your doctor called and left a message on my phone this morning, saying I could bring Mason for a visit today. Bless her heart. She must have known you needed this as much as he does.”

The tears spilled over, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t speak. I tried to nod, but the neck brace prevented it, so I just smiled back through my tears.

“See? Here he is,” my mom said to Mason. “Here’s Daddy!” She was wearing a simple gray dress, and Mason had on a little sweater vest and bow tie over his white button-down shirt and black pants, the same outfit he had worn to Howie’s wedding a month ago. Kristin had picked it out and taken hundreds of pictures of him in it. I hoped she was watching over him and smiling at how dapper he looked today.

Swallowing hard, I managed to find my voice and infuse it with as much joy as I could muster. “Hi, Mason!”

At first, my son just stared at me. There was a slight frown on his face, as if he didn’t fully recognize me. I must have looked different with the tubes coming out of my nose and the collar around my neck. Or maybe he was just overwhelmed. I hoped he hadn’t forgotten me.

I tried again. “It’s me, buddy. It’s Daddy.” And to my relief, this time he reached for me. It about broke my heart not to be able to reach back. “Can you put him on my lap?” I asked my mom.

She hesitated. “I don’t want him to hurt you or try to pull at your tubes…”

“Aw, he won’t hurt anything. Right, Steph?” I appealed to my nurse.

“Just keep a close eye on him,” Stephanie cautioned. “Your gown will hide most of it from him, but you don’t want him grabbing your NG tube - you would definitely feel that one.”

I didn’t doubt that, but it was a risk I was willing to take just to be able to hold my son again.

My mom carefully set Mason down on my lap. He could sit up on his own now - which was more than I could do, I realized, as I watched my mom remove her hand from behind his back. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad. I couldn’t feel his weight on my legs, nor could I move my arms well enough to hug him. In that moment, I felt more like a La-Z-Boy than a father. “Could you maybe pick up my arms… and put them around him?”

“Of course, honey.” My mom took my left hand and brought it behind Mason’s back. Then she reached for my right hand and held my palm against the back of his head, rubbing it gently over his blond hair. I remembered how that hair felt between my fingertips, so silky and fine. But I couldn’t really feel it anymore. The realization broke my heart, bringing fresh tears to my eyes.

My mom was crying, too. “It’s so good to see you sitting up again,” she said, smiling at me through her tears. “How does it feel?”

“Not bad,” I said, blinking back my own. “I get dizzy pretty easily, but it’s nice to be in a new position.”

“I bet.”

I turned my attention back to Mason. “How’s my boy? I missed you, buddy. Daddy missed you so much…”

But Mason was too busy looking around to respond. He turned toward me when I talked to him, then spotted the bundle of wires that were hooked up to my heart monitor sticking out the neck opening of my hospital gown. “No, no, Mason,” my mom warned, pulling his hand back as he went to reach for them. “Don’t touch.” She dug into the diaper bag she’d brought and found a toy to give him instead. The giraffe-shaped teether was enough to distract him for a few minutes while we talked.

“How did it go today?” I asked, watching as my son stuck the giraffe’s head in his mouth and started gumming away at it.

My mom gave me another sad smile. “It was a beautiful service,” she said. “The boys sang the song you wrote about Dad - ‘Never Gone.’”

“I know. I gave them my blessing.” Brian had come to me a few days earlier, wanting my permission to perform that song after Kristin’s parents had asked him and the guys to sing at her service. I could never have gotten through it without crying, but of course, it was more personal to me than it was to the others. I had written it for my late father. From now on, it would remind me of losing my wife as well.

“There were lots of tears,” my mom went on, “but also some smiles and even a few laughs. I wish you could have been there to hear the stories and memories of Kristin.”

My throat tightened painfully. “Me too.” As Mason shifted, I saw my left hand lying limply on the bed behind him, and my thoughts returned to my wedding band. “Hey Ma, do you know where my wedding ring is?”

She nodded. “I have it right here.” She reached down the neck of her dress and withdrew a long, gold chain. Dangling from the end were both Kristin’s and my wedding bands. “Sorry - I had to hide this from Mason so he wouldn’t pull on it as we were walking up here,” she added, as she took off the necklace to show me. “Susan still has Kristin’s engagement ring. She said you can have it back whenever you’re ready - she thought you might want to pass it on to Mason someday - but she wanted to wear it around her neck today. She gave me Kristin’s wedding band to wear with yours.”

“That’s real nice,” I replied, my voice thick with emotion. I remembered placing that ring on my wife’s finger like it was yesterday. In reality, it had been almost eight years since I had married her in a beautiful outdoor ceremony at Cathedral Domain, the church camp in rural Kentucky that my father had run when I was a kid. I had many fond memories of growing up there, and on our wedding day, I had looked forward to starting a family with Kristin and making memories of our own. I’d always assumed we would have several children and grow old together. I never could have imagined I would only get seven more years to spend with her.

My mom cleared her throat. “Would you like me to put your ring back on your finger?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, then hesitated. “How long did you wear your wedding rings after Dad died?”

She looked down at her bare left hand, bending and flexing her gnarled fingers as she pondered my question. “About a year,” she finally answered. “I decided to take them off on our first anniversary after his death.” She paused, then added, “But honey... there’s no time limit on grief. There’s no rulebook either. If you want to wear your ring, wear it, and if you don’t, then don’t.”

“It feels weird not wearing it,” I admitted. “Not that I can actually feel my fingers, but… my hand doesn’t look right without it.”

“Then I’ll put it back on for you.” She unfastened the clasp and slipped my ring off the chain. Then she picked up my left hand and straightened my fingers so she could slide it back onto the fourth one where it belonged. I couldn’t feel it, but it made me feel better inside to see my wedding band around my finger. In my heart, I was still married, even if my wife was in Heaven.

“Would you like to wear hers too?” my mom asked, as she closed the clasp on the chain. “I could put it around your neck.”

I considered this. “Will it fit over this stupid collar?”

“Well, let’s see here...” She put her hands on my shoulders and carefully pulled my upper body forward, just far enough so that she could loop the long chain over my head. Then she lowered me back against the bed and adjusted the necklace around my brace. “There. It fits perfectly.”

A hard lump rose in my throat as I looked down and saw Kristin’s ring resting on my chest, right over my heart. “Thanks, Ma,” I whispered. I was starting to get woozy again and knew I would need to lie back down again before long.

“You’re welcome, honey.” Her eyes glistened as she looked at me. “I wish you weren’t going through this. Any of it. The only thing worse than losing a spouse would be to lose a child,” she said, shaking her head. My eyes dropped to Mason, who was still sitting on my lap, happily gnawing his giraffe. “I can only imagine what Susan and John must be going through. I thank God every day for sparing your life.”

Hearing her gratitude made me feel guilty for my lack of it. I was angry at God for taking my wife and leaving me like this. The only thing I had to be thankful for was my son. At least he hadn’t been in the car with us that night. The fact that Mason was alive gave me a reason to go on living, too.

***


Chapter 12 by RokofAges75
Nick

AJ’s thirtieth birthday was about a week after Kevin’s accident. After we left the hospital that evening, the four of us guys went out for dinner together. We had reserved a private room at the restaurant so we could talk and eat in peace, away from the prying eyes of paparazzi and fans.

None of us really felt like celebrating that night, not even AJ. The week was only halfway over, but it had already been another rough one. First there was the TMZ story, which our team had responded to by releasing another statement, thanking the fans for their prayers and confirming that, yes, Kevin had suffered a spinal cord injury. It didn’t go into any real detail about the extent of his injury; no one else needed to know his doctor had told him he would never walk again.

Then there was Kristin’s memorial service, which we’d been asked to sing at. I had never performed at a funeral before, and I hoped I would never have to do it again, especially not for someone I knew as well as I’d known Kristin. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when we finished singing “Never Gone.” We couldn’t have gotten through it if Kevin had been there with us. Seeing him cry in his hospital bed afterwards had been hard enough.

I was glad to get away from the hospital and go out with the other guys. Things had been tense between me and AJ, but I think we were all looking forward to having a nice meal that wasn’t hospital food or takeout and enjoying a few hours of normalcy.

Taking advantage of the fact that I was back on the West Coast, where I could get fresh seafood, I ordered sushi. It was good, but not nearly as good as the authentic sushi in Japan. “I can’t wait to get to Tokyo and eat some real sushi,” I said, swallowing a bite of my spicy tuna roll. “It just tastes better there, you know?”

Brian cleared his throat. “About that... I’ve been meaning to ask y’all: Do you think we should postpone the tour?”

I looked at him in surprise. “Why? ‘Cause of Kevin?”

“Yeah. I mean, I know he’s not in the group anymore, but he needs us right now. Doesn’t it feel weird to think about flying overseas for a tour when he’s stuck in the hospital?”

I felt a stab of guilt because I had really been looking forward to getting back on tour. “Yeah, but it’s not for another five weeks. Won’t he be out of the hospital by then?”

“He’ll be out of Cedars-Sinai, hopefully, but he still has months of inpatient rehab ahead of him,” said Brian.

“Where will he go for that?” Howie wanted to know.

“Not sure yet. Aunt Ann and I have been researching different rehab centers. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is supposed to be the best in the country, and it’s only a six-hour drive from Lexington. There’s also the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which is about the same distance. If he went there, she could just stay at my place. But I would want to be there for him, too - not on tour.”

“Well, what does Kevin want?” asked AJ.

Brian took a sip of his drink. “Kevin wants to stay in California,” he said, setting his glass down on the table. I could tell by his tone that this had been a point of contention in the private conversations he’d had with his cousin. “But his mom wants him closer to home - meaning Kentucky. He has more family there, more people to help take care of him when he gets out of the hospital.”

“And what will that entail? I mean, how much care are we talking about here?”

“I have no idea. I guess that depends on how rehab goes and how much function he gets back... which is why it’s so important that we find a good facility for him,” said Brian. “It’s gonna take time for him to get back on his feet.”

I wasn’t sure if Brian meant that literally, or if he was just being metaphorical. He still seemed to believe Kevin would miraculously learn to walk again someday, but I was starting to lose hope. I had been at the hospital every day; I had seen how hard it was just for him to sit up without getting so dizzy he had to lie down again. How did Brian expect him to get back on his feet when he couldn’t even get out of bed?

AJ cut a bite of his steak and chewed it thoughtfully. Swallowing, he said, “Now, Rok, you know I would do literally anything for Kevin, right? He saved my life by making me go to rehab, and I would gladly return the favor. If he needs help after he gets out of rehab, I’ll fuckin’ move in with him. If he needs me to feed him? Or wipe his ass? Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever I can to take care of him.”

I snorted. “Yeah right, AJ. You can’t even blow your own nose without getting grossed out, but you’re gonna wipe a grown man’s ass? You’re full of shit.”

“Shut the fuck up, Nick,” AJ snapped. “I would if he needed me to. You’re all my brothers, and I would do that for any of you - even you, Prick.”

I rolled my eyes because I knew there was no way AJ would ever wipe my butt. I used to purposely take a shit in the tour bus bathroom when he pissed me off just because I knew the smell alone would make him puke. He had the most sensitive gag reflex I had ever seen.

“But here’s what I’m really trying to get at. Just hear me out, okay?” AJ went on. “He’ll be at this rehab center at least through the first leg of our tour, right? So why not go ahead and fulfill our commitment while we know Kevin’s being taken care of, and then we can reassess the situation before he gets out? If we have to reschedule some of the spring and summer shows, I’m sure our fans will understand. But I don’t think Kevin would want us to cancel the whole tour just so we can sit around his hospital room and keep him company. He has plenty of people to do that - his mom, his older brothers, his other friends and relatives. We can still keep in touch. We can call him every day while we’re on the road. I just don’t see the point in canceling when-”

“I didn’t say cancel,” Brian interrupted, his eyes narrowing at AJ. “I said postpone.”

“I hate to say it, but I think AJ has a good point,” said Howie, turning to Brian. “From a business perspective, it would be a bad idea to postpone a bunch of shows. This is our first tour as a foursome; it’s an important opportunity to show the world we’re still going strong, that we really are ‘unbreakable.’ If we have to reschedule, it may send the wrong message. Not that our image or the bottom line is all that matters, but-”

“No, all that matters right now is Kevin,” Brian said firmly, fixing his glare on Howie instead. “I can’t believe you’re talking about the bottom line when our brother just lost his wife and the use of his arms and legs. Who cares about our fuckin’ image?”

I watched Howie and AJ’s eyes widen when Brian dropped the F-bomb. He rarely cursed, so we could tell he was really pissed.

“Of course, Kevin’s our main priority,” Howie replied quickly. “I’m just trying to play devil’s advocate here and think about what management would say.”

“Well, I don’t need you to play devil’s advocate, and I don’t care what management would say. I wanna know what you all think,” said Brian, looking around the table at each of us in turn. “This is a decision the four of us have to make for ourselves.”

“Well, are you gonna be democratic about it and go with the majority?” I asked him, as Howie reached for his drink, clearly uncomfortable with the conflict. “Or are you gonna keep arguing until you get your way?” I loved Brian, but he could be a real dick sometimes. He was as stubborn as a bulldog and didn’t back down easily when he felt strongly about something.

Brian’s nostrils flared. “No, I’ll go with the majority,” he insisted, spearing a piece of broccoli with his fork. “But since we’re being democratic here, I haven’t heard your opinion yet, Nick. What do you think we should do?”

I took a swig of my beer, stalling for time, but Brian kept staring at me until I finally answered. “Honestly, I think we should ask Kevin. But I have to agree with what AJ and Howie said - he’s not gonna want us to give up the tour for him, and it wouldn’t be good for the group to have to postpone our first tour without him. So as long as he gives us his blessing, I think we should stick to the tour schedule, at least for this first leg. The fans need this. We need this.”

I need this, I thought selfishly. I did better when we were out on the road than when I was bored at home with no routine and too much time on my hands. Touring provided me with the busy schedule and structure I needed to stay out of trouble.

Brian nodded. “Fair enough. We can ask Kevin when we visit tomorrow.”

“Great. Let’s table this discussion until then,” said AJ. “It’s my birthday, and I don’t want us to argue any more tonight.”

“Agreed,” said Howie, raising his glass in a toast to AJ. “Happy Dirty Thirty! Here’s to many more.”

“Welcome to the club, Bone,” added Brian with a grin. “Nick’s the only Backstreet Boy still in his twenties now.”

I smiled and nodded, picking up my pint glass as well. “Not for long. Two more years, and I’ll be old like the rest of y’all… but you’ll still be older,” I said, smirking at AJ. “Happy birthday, bro.”

“Thanks, buddy,” he replied, clinking his glass against mine. “I wish there was a better reason for us being together, but it’s nice to have you all here in town a week early. Love you guys.” He looked around the table at Howie and Brian before he locked eyes with me. AJ had never formally apologized for blaming me for Kevin leaving or throwing me under the bus about the TMZ story, but maybe this was his way of saying he was sorry.

I nodded, looking back at him as if to say, Apology accepted. All I actually said was, “Love you, too.”

***


Later that night, I was lying in bed, almost asleep, when I heard my phone ring. I hurried to silence it before it woke AJ up, wondering who would be calling me so late and what could be wrong. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Kevin’s name flashing on the phone screen.

“Hello?” I answered uncertainly, not expecting it to actually be Kevin. I was worried something had happened to him, and one of the nurses was calling to let us know.

It was a huge weight off my chest when I heard him say, “Hey, Nick. I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“No,” I replied quickly, sagging with relief as my heartbeat slowly returned to normal. “No, not at all; I was still awake.”

“I thought you might be. That’s why I tried you first.”

I felt confused. “I didn’t think it was really you. How did you call me without moving your fingers?”

“I used my tongue.”

“Really?” I was picturing him holding his phone between his teeth and trying to lick the touchscreen when I heard him laugh.

“Of course not, dipshit. I had my nurse Dee dial your number for me and put you on speakerphone. She said you’re her favorite Backstreet Boy, by the way.”

I heard a feminine giggle in the background. “Only because you’re not in the group anymore,” I told him. “Otherwise it would obviously be you.”

“Well, obviously,” said Kevin.

I smiled, clutching the phone closer to my ear. “I’m flattered either way. Thank you, Dee.”

“You’re welcome!” I heard a high-pitched voice call back.

“You should see her blushing right now,” said Kevin, snickering. “She can’t believe she’s really talking to Nick Carter.”

I rolled my eyes. I would never understand why some people put me on such a pedestal. I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention, but it was a little weird, the way grown women would fawn all over me and treat me like a god. I was just a normal guy, not worthy of that level of fan worship. “Is that why you called?”

“Nah, man. I called ‘cause I can’t sleep.”

“Oh. Well, you want me to sing you a lullaby or something?”

I heard his nurse laugh some more. “You can sing me a lullaby any time!” her voice rang out.

Kevin chuckled. “You don’t have to do that. Just talk to me… if you don’t mind, I mean.”

“I don’t mind,” I said automatically, as I lay back down in bed. “So what’s going on? Why can’t you sleep?”

“You try sleeping when people keep coming in and waking you up every couple hours,” he complained. “No offense, Dee - you know I appreciate everything you nurses do. It’s just… a lot. And this damn neck brace is not comfortable.”

“I bet,” I said sympathetically. I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep with something hard and bulky around my neck, let alone not being able to toss and turn to get comfortable. I felt bad for Kevin, but there was nothing I could do except keep him company over the phone. “Can’t they give you a sleeping pill or something?”

“Oh yeah, they did, but it makes me see shit that’s not really there.”

“What?” I laughed. “You mean like you’re having hallucinations?”

“Yeah. Like right now, there’s this raven perched on top of the IV pole next to my bed. It’s been there for the past two nights. I know it’s not really there, but I can still see it, clear as day.”

“Dude… that is fucked up,” I said, cracking up as I pictured Kevin high on sleeping pills, tripping balls in his hospital bed. “What’s it doing?”

“Nothing. It’s just sitting there, looking down at me. That’s all it ever does. It kinda freaks me out though.”

“Well, no shit.” Just hearing him describe it sent chills down my spine. A raven… wasn’t that some kind of death omen? Hospitals were scary enough without seeing creepy black birds hovering over you at night, but I wasn’t going to tell Kevin that. “Are you sure Dee didn’t bring a real raven into the room just to mess with your mind?”

“Dee wouldn’t do that.”

I was only kidding, but I realized I had probably made his paranoia worse. “I know. Just joking. I’m sure it’ll go away when your drugs wear off.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “It always does.”

I searched my brain for something to say that would take his mind off the bird that wasn’t really there. Then I remembered our conversation at dinner. “Hey, Kev, can I ask you something?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“Well, the boys and I were talking, and Brian brought up the tour. You know, our first two shows are in Tokyo about a month from now, and we’re supposed to start rehearsing again next week. But Brian thinks we should reschedule.”

“Because of me?” Kevin asked quietly.

“Yeah.”

I heard him sigh again. “You don’t have to do that. A month from now, I’m gonna be in rehab. I’ll be busy with physical therapy… occupational therapy… psychotherapy… all the therapies. I won’t just be lying in bed all day like I am now. I appreciate y’all coming and keeping me company, but I don’t want you changing the tour on account of me.”

I nodded. “That’s what we thought you would say. But we didn’t wanna make any decisions without your blessing.”

“Well, you have my blessing,” he said firmly. “I’ll be fine here without you… and you’ll be fine without me.”

A lump rose in my throat as I imagined the four of us touring the world without him. Even before his accident, it had felt weird performing as a quartet. It was like we were missing a piece - and we were. The Backstreet Boys may have been “unbreakable,” but we would never be whole again without Kevin. I had always hoped he would come back to the group someday, but now that seemed impossible. The door we had left open for him was just a gaping hole.

Swallowing hard, I said, “I don’t know about that. It’s not the same without you.”

“Nothing’s the same,” said Kevin. I could hear the bitterness in his voice. “But that’s life. Shit happens, and you either have to adapt to it, or you die. I’m not gonna die, and neither is the group. Y’all go on with your tour, and don’t worry about me.”

“Do you miss it?” I asked. “Touring, I mean?”

He took a moment to answer. “Of course I miss it. I’d give just about anything to be able to get back onstage and perform again. But I wouldn’t trade the last year I had with my family. I was able to spend every day with Kristin during her pregnancy. I was by her side when she gave birth to Mason; I cut the cord myself. I was home to help her take care of him, and I got to watch him grow. I didn’t miss a single moment. I feel good about that… especially now that she’s gone. I’m so glad I got to spend that time at home with her and our son, just being a husband and a dad. I don’t have any regrets, Nick.”

There were tears rolling down my cheeks by the time he finished talking. Alone in the dark, I didn’t bother to wipe them away. “That’s… that’s good,” I forced myself to say, hoping he couldn’t hear the quiver in my voice. “I’m glad you don’t regret anything, I mean.”

“I know what you mean,” he said, sounding as emotional as I felt. “And you’ll know what I mean someday, when you have a wife and kids of your own.”

“Ha… that’s never gonna happen.” After watching my own parents’ marriage dissolve and my dysfunctional family fall apart, I had vowed I would never get married or start a family myself. I didn’t know how to be a good husband or father. I could barely take care of myself, let alone someone else.

“Never say never, dawg. A little birdie told me that not too long ago.” I smiled when I realized Kevin was repeating what I had said to him earlier that week.

“True dat. Speaking of little birdies... is that raven still around?”

“Actually, no,” replied Kevin. “It’s gone.”

“Really? That’s good.”

“Yeah.” I heard him yawn. “Well, I guess I should try to get some sleep. I’ll let you go now. Thanks for listening.”

“Anytime,” I said, still feeling sorry for him. He sounded so sad and lonely. “I love you, bro.”

“I love you, too. Goodnight, Nick.”

“‘Night, Kev.” Knowing he couldn’t press the button to end the call on his phone, I went ahead and hung up first. I plugged my phone back into its charger and rolled over in bed. I buried my head in the pillow and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Kevin lying in his hospital bed, alone and scared, seeing monsters in the dark.

Reflecting back on our conversation, it felt like our roles had been reversed. For the first time in our fifteen-year relationship, he seemed more like the little kid I had been when he’d first met me. Meanwhile, I had become the reassuring older brother, telling him everything was going to be all right when, really, I knew nothing would ever be the same again.

***


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