I sat in the waiting room, all hunched over with my head in my hands, while they worked on Howie. It had been almost half an hour, but I was still shaking.
I’m sure Pollyanna could feel it as she sat next to me, rubbing my back in small circles. “It’ll be okay,” she whispered, and I wanted to believe her. I didn’t think people usually died from seizures themselves, and I was pretty sure that was what I had witnessed Howie having, but the knowledge still didn’t make me feel much better. I knew Howie was in bad shape, and I felt like I was to blame.
It didn’t help that AJ’s first reaction when I came back to the waiting room after all the commotion was, “What’d you say to him??”
I thought he was kidding, until I looked at his eyes flashing with anger and fear. “Nothing!” I sputtered. “I mean, not nothing. I told him I loved him like a brother and begged him to have the transplant. He said he would.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” whispered Howie’s mom, her hand over her heart.
I just hoped it wasn’t too late.
“You know this wasn’t your fault, right?” Polly said quietly, still rubbing my back like I was another one of her little brothers.
I nodded, but nothing could make me feel better until I knew Howie was okay - or, at least, that he wasn’t dead.
When the doctor came to talk to us, I sat up straight. On the other side of me, AJ did the same. “How is he?” he asked immediately.
The doctor hesitated, looking around the room. “Are you all his family?”
“Yes,” answered Polly, before AJ or I could say a thing. I shot her a grateful smile.
The doctor nodded. “Alright then. First of all, I want to let you know that Howie is in stable condition for now.”
Everyone seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief.
“He did suffer a seizure,” the doctor went on, “but we were able to stop it with medication. I believe his seizure was caused by a condition called hepatic encephalopathy, which happens when the toxins that would normally be filtered out by a functioning liver start to build up in the bloodstream. It can cause confusion, agitation, and altered states of consciousness. It’s also associated with cerebral edema, or swelling in the brain. I’d like to order some more tests: an EEG to measure Howie’s brain activity and a CT scan to look for signs of fluid accumulation. Since Howie is still unconscious, is his next of kin available to sign the consent forms?” He paused and looked around the room again.
I watched the Dorough family exchange glances. Howie’s wife would probably be considered his next of kin, but since Leigh wasn’t there, one of them would have to make the medical decisions. I was glad to be relieved of that responsibility, since I had barely absorbed what the doctor was saying.
“I’m his mother,” Mama D said softly. “I’ll sign whatever you need to help him.” Nodding, the doctor sat down next to her to go over the necessary paperwork. “What about the transplant?” she asked, when she’d finished signing the forms. “Do I need to sign something for that, too?”
The doctor cleared his throat uncomfortably. “When I last spoke to Howie this afternoon, he wasn’t sure whether a transplant was what he wanted. Has he changed his mind since then?”
“Yes,” AJ said quickly. “He said he would do the transplant - right, Nick?”
I nodded. “I was just with him, and that’s what he said.”
“Okay,” said the doctor. “Well, in that case, I will meet with the transplant team in the morning to discuss Howie’s case. We will still want to talk to Howie himself before making a final decision on whether or not he’ll be a suitable candidate for a transplant. There are a lot of factors to be considered.”
I frowned, wondering if my conversation with Howie would turn out to be for nothing. Even if he did want the transplant, it sounded like it was ultimately up to the doctors whether or not he would get one.
“God, I hate that guy!” AJ spat, as soon as the doctor walked out of the waiting room, after promising he would update Howie’s family once his test results were in. “Who does he think he is, threatening to withhold a new liver from Howie? What an asshole. And his bedside manner seriously sucks!”
“It’s in God’s hands,” Howie’s mother said with a sigh. “If it’s meant to be, it will happen, and if not... well, either way, we’ve done all we can do. Thank you, Nick, for talking to Howie, for helping to change his mind. At least now he has a chance.”
I nodded hollowly, afraid I hadn’t helped much.
“Maybe the two of you should head home for the night,” Mama D added. “It doesn’t look like Howie will be up for any more visitors this evening. You can come back in the morning, if you’d like.”
While she wasn’t exactly kicking us out, I could tell the Doroughs needed some time to be alone as a family. It didn’t bother me; in fact, it was a relief to walk out of that waiting room. I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back.
“I’m sorry,” said AJ, as we waited for the elevator at the end of the hall. “Sorry for assuming you said something to make Howie upset.”
“Gee, why would you assume that? I mean, when have I ever said something that upset Howie?” I asked sarcastically, thinking back to our confrontation at Q’s funeral.
AJ gave me a wry smile as the elevator doors slid open. “Hey, man, don’t dwell on it, okay?” he said, slapping my shoulder. “You did your job. You talked him into the transplant. Now we just have to hope that douchebag doctor of his lets it happen.”
I sighed, raking a hand through my hair as I studied my reflection in the shiny walls of the elevator. God, I looked exhausted. “It’d be so much easier if he were in the Backstreet Army,” I said, and, laughing, AJ agreed.
When I got home, Lauren had a seafood dinner waiting for me. I wasn’t hungry, but I knew she had worked hard on it, so I gave her a big hug and said, “You’re the best, babe! How’d I get so lucky to be marrying a woman who can cook like this, huh?”
As I kissed her cheek, it occurred to me that I didn’t deserve her, especially now. If I was lucky, then Lauren was the unlucky one who’d gotten stuck with me, even if she didn’t yet see it that way. Sometimes I wondered whether I should hold on tight to what I had or just let her go. Not like she would leave, anyway. She had been more supportive of me this last month than she ever had before. This meal, made with love and the healthy foods off her shopping list, said it all.
As we sat down across from each other at the dinner table, she asked, “So how’s Howie doing? Did you get him to agree to the transplant?”
“Yeah... but he’s in bad shape,” I said, shaking my head, and I filled her in on what the doctor had told us. She started on her supper while I talked, which gave me an excuse not to eat. I twirled my fork around and took a few bites, but while the food tasted fine, I had no appetite. We only picked at the oysters we’d bought earlier. Needless to say, neither of us were overly aroused.
Not long after dinner, I took my evening meds, and we went to bed. Lauren and I lay with our backs to each other on opposite sides of the bed and barely spoke after we turned off the lights. I’d told her I was tired, but even though it was the truth, I couldn’t sleep. I heard her roll onto her back and start snoring after about half an hour, but I lay awake like a brick on my side, unable to stop my mind from turning over everything that had happened in the last two days.
I’d spent the past month hating Howie for what he had done to me, but despite everything, I didn’t want him to die. Even though I’d given Kevin shit for saying so, it was true: Howie was like my brother. He was family. I’d been closer to him over the past two decades than I had my flesh-and-blood family - and in spite of our differences, I knew deep down that I would be devastated if any of my other siblings died. Losing Leslie had been bad enough, but one of the Boys? Howie, who had become my best friend in the group? I didn’t want to think about it, but I felt like I had to prepare myself for the very real possibility that he could be dead in a matter of days.
I slept badly and woke up with my alarm, still feeling like shit. I got up long enough to take my morning meds and then went back to bed, hoping to get at least another hour of sleep.
No such luck.
It seemed like I had just shut my eyes when I heard my phone ring. Groaning, I reached over to grab it off the bedside table, in case it was one of the guys calling. But it was only my manager, Lori. I ignored the call and rolled back over, not in the mood to talk business, but I should have known she would just try me again ten minutes later.
When the phone rang a second time, I decided it would be best to just take the call and get it over with. “It’s Nick,” I answered in a low voice.
“Sorry, did I wake you?” Lori asked brusquely. Before I could even decide whether to be polite or honest, she went on, “I waited as long as I could to call you. I’ve already been inundated with calls this morning - mostly media requests for quotes on Howie’s hospitalization. Anything you’d like to say on the subject?”
“Ugh,” I groaned. “We just released a statement yesterday. Isn’t that enough?”
Lori laughed. “Of course not. The world wants more information on what’s wrong with Howie, all the juicy details you left out of your statement.”
“Yeah. We did that intentionally.”
“I know,” Lori replied apologetically. “I just wanted to make sure there was nothing else you wanted to add.”
“No comment,” I said quickly. I realized we were going to need to release another statement at some point soon, but that wasn’t my call to make, and anyway, I was way too tired to come up with a tactful way of wording it.
“Okay. Onto the next order of business, then: the reality show. VH1’s been up my butt about the shooting schedule. They want to know when we’re starting, when we’re wrapping, where we’re going to be shooting, and so on. What do you want me to say?”
I sighed, running a hand through my disheveled hair. “I dunno, Lori. Everything’s up in the air right now. I think it’s pretty safe to say the European tour isn’t happening, and-”
“Well, what about the wedding?” she interrupted. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but you’re getting married in four months, and that’s what this show is supposed to be about. So if you’re still going to do this, you need to start shooting soon.”
“I don’t even know if there’s gonna be a wedding!” I blurted, before I could stop the words from coming out of my mouth. Then, hoping my fiancée hadn’t heard, I quickly added, “-reality show! I don’t even know if there’s gonna be a wedding reality show. I... I mean, there’s just a lot going on right now with Howie and whatnot, and I don’t want a bunch of cameras around.”
Lori was quiet for a few seconds. Then she said, “So... I should tell VH1 what, exactly? To wait and see?”
“I... uh, yeah, I guess so.”
I could tell she wasn’t completely satisfied with that answer, but she agreed to stall VH1 some more until Lauren and I decided what we wanted to do. In truth, I already knew we weren’t going to be shooting that reality show anytime soon, if ever. If I were being honest with Lori, I would have just told her that, but that would require an explanation I wasn’t ready to give.
Howie was just a convenient excuse for the real reason I was so reluctant to commit: my HIV, of course. I didn’t see how I could hide it from the cameras while I was popping pills twice a day and trying not to puke them back up again in between doses. I was also starting to question whether we should even have the wedding, knowing I was sick with an incurable illness that could infect my future wife if I wasn’t careful.
But Lori didn’t know that. Up until a few days ago, no one other than Lauren, Howie, and my doctor had known about my HIV diagnosis. The other guys knew now, but I wasn’t in any big hurry to tell my publicist or anyone else. Baby steps, I thought.
HIV had put my life on hold, and for now, it seemed best to put our plans for the show - and maybe even the wedding - on hold, too, at least until we knew how things were going to turn out with Howie. I wanted to tell Lauren that, but when it came to it, I just couldn’t do it.
“Hey, who called you?” she asked, coming into the bedroom a few minutes after I got off the phone. I searched her face for any sign that she’d heard what I had said about the wedding not happening, but she didn’t look upset, only curious and mildly concerned.
“Lori, just wanting to know when we’re gonna start shooting the reality show. I told her now wasn’t really a good time, with everything that’s going on with Howie. Sorry, I should have talked to you about it before I said anything, but... honestly, I’m just not sure about doing the show at all now.” I looked up at her, shaking my head. “I mean, how am I supposed to hide this big secret with a bunch of cameras in my face? I’m not ready to tell the whole freaking world I have HIV, you know?”
To my relief, Lauren gave me a sympathetic smile. “I know, sweetheart. It’s okay; you don’t have to. Honestly, I don’t care if we do the show at all. It was your idea, remember? It won’t break my heart if we have to bail.” She sat down on the bed next to me and rested her hand on top of mine. “We don’t have to prove our love by airing it on TV, you know. No matter what, I love you, and you love me, and as long as I get to marry you... I’m good either way.”
How could I say I was starting to have second thoughts when she was sitting there, smiling at me like that? I couldn’t. And when she said, “Hey, our Save the Date cards came in yesterday. Wanna help me address them? Maybe it’ll help take your mind off things,” I couldn’t say no to that either.
“Sure, babe - as long as you don’t mind my messy handwriting.”
“Oh, I expect perfect penmanship, Mister - no excuses!” Then she grabbed my hand and hauled me up from the bed, and we went into the kitchen, where the cards she’d ordered were already stacked on the table. I saw the date - April 12, 2014 - and my stomach did a somersault. In four months, we were supposed to be getting married. What had once made me so excited now made me feel sick.
Lauren must have seen the look on my face, because she said, “Hey, what’s wrong? You don’t like them?”
“Huh? Oh - no, the cards are great. Really cute,” I replied quickly. “I’m just... kinda... queasy.”
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry! Of course you are; you haven’t even had breakfast yet!” Lauren looked stricken. “Let me make you something first, and we’ll work on these later,” she said.
I watched her scurry around the kitchen, grabbing all the ingredients she needed to whip me up a healthy breakfast smoothie, and I thought again, I don’t deserve her. But I made sure I drank every drop of her smoothie anyway.
After we’d both eaten breakfast, we got started addressing the “Save the Date” cards. We were halfway through our guest list and my hand was starting to cramp up when I heard my phone go off again. I got up and ran back into the bedroom to check it, my heart leaping into my throat when I saw Brian’s name.
“Bri?” I answered, feeling my pulse pounding in my neck.
“Hey, buddy,” said Brian, but although he kept his voice light, I could tell he was about to say something serious. “So, you want the good news or the bad news first?”
“Good, I guess.” I was glad there was some good news to report.
“Okay, well, Kev and I went to the hospital this morning to visit Howie, and his family had just found out they’re gonna go ahead and put him on the transplant list. Status 1 - which basically means he’s first in line to get the next available liver. So that’s the good news.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, my heart rate starting to come down, “so what’s the bad?”
“Well, the bad news is that he’s been unconscious since late last night, and the doctors aren’t sure when or if he’s gonna wake up. They say he’s in a coma, from the swelling in his brain. They’re taking him into surgery soon to implant some kind of device in his head that’s supposed to monitor the pressure so they can try to keep it under control; if they can’t, it could cause brain damage.”
“Heh, that’s all we need, is for Howie to wake up all ‘dee dee dee!’” I made a politically incorrect imitation of a mentally challenged person, knowing I was being inappropriate, knowing Brian - my best friend before Howie and maybe my best friend again after him - needed me to lighten the mood as much as I expected the same out of him. He chuckled, but I could tell he wasn’t laughing on the inside. Both of us felt like crying.
“Hey, as long as he wakes up,” said Brian. “I’m sure AJ told you this yesterday, but the doctor said he doesn’t have a lot of time. If he doesn’t get a new liver in the next few days...” He trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished.
“So... yeah. I know you’re not big on the church stuff, but if you could say a prayer... Howie could really use some right about now.”
“Sure,” I replied quickly. “Of course I’ll pray. Is there... is there, um, anything Howie’s family needs? Anything else I can do?”
“I don’t think so,” said Brian. “At this point, it’s just a waiting game. We have to wait and hope for the best.”
I nodded. “Keep me posted, okay?” I said, clutching the phone tight up to my ear.
“I will. Hey, let me know if you wanna hang out. We could go to the hospital together, or we could do something else. Just... lemme know.”
“Will do,” I said, but all I wanted then was to be alone. When I got off the phone, I didn’t go back into the kitchen; instead, I went into my den and closed the door. I turned on the TV and started one of my video games, a violent one that involved shooting a lot of zombies. It was exactly the sort of mindless distraction I needed right then.
After a while, Lauren opened the door a crack and stuck her head in and asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I replied, blowing off a zombie’s face.
“Not fine, but still alive,” I said, which was more than I could say for the zombie - although zombies aren’t really alive anyway.
“Okay.” She closed the door again. I guess she could tell I needed some time alone.
I stayed in all that weekend, distracting myself with video games and avoiding human contact. The media requests were relentless, so I even shut off my phone, pretending I had a normal, nine-to-five job that didn’t require me to think about work on the weekends. If any of the guys needed to get in touch, they knew where to find me. They all had Lauren’s number, anyway.
I thought I might actually make it through the weekend without getting any more bad news, but on Sunday night, Lauren stuck her head through the den doorway again. “Nick?”
“Yeah?” I didn’t even bother to look up. My eyes were fixed on the TV screen, my thumbs pounding away at the Xbox controller.
Then I heard the tremor in her voice as she said, “I just got off the phone with Kevin.”
My heart skipped a beat. I paused my game. “Is Howie dead?” I asked, still staring at the frozen picture on the TV screen. I couldn’t look at my fiancée just yet; I didn’t want to see it written on her face.
“No... but he’s in bad shape,” said Lauren, and I let out my breath in a low sigh of relief. No shit he was in bad shape, but that wasn’t news to me. “He’s still in a coma, and his kidneys are shutting down. Kevin thinks it would be a good idea if we came to the hospital tonight...” She let the sentence hang in the air.
To say goodbye, I finished it in my head. Swallowing hard, I finally looked away from the TV. There were tears in Lauren’s eyes. She held out her arms, and without a word, I got up off the floor and walked straight into them.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, as she wrapped her arms around me, hugging me tightly. “I wish it were better news.”
“It’s okay,” I muttered back, even though it wasn’t. “I guess I knew it was coming.”
She held me for a few minutes, rubbing my back while I buried my face in her shoulder. I breathed slowly in and out, inhaling the scent of her warm skin. I wanted to cry with her, but the tears wouldn’t come. Strangely, my eyes were dry. I felt numb inside.
“You do want to go to the hospital, don’t you?” Lauren asked, and after a moment’s hesitation, I nodded. I didn’t want to - nobody wants to go say goodbye to a dying friend - but I knew the other guys needed me and that I would probably regret it someday if I didn’t.
It was time for me to let go - of the hurt... the hatred... and Howie.