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AJ woke in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. The stomachache he’d been dealing with all day had worsened to the point where it felt like his whole belly was on fire. White-hot waves of pain radiated through his body, making him nauseous.

On the verge of vomiting, he stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, doubled over in pain and trying not to trip on anything in the dark. It was storming outside, and brilliant flashes of lightning filtered through the skylights in the ceiling, illuminating the loft for a split second at a time so he could see where he was going. He closed the bathroom door behind him before he turned on the light, not wanting to wake up Brian. He hoped the roar of thunder and rain hammering on the roof would drown out his retching noises as he dropped to his knees in front of the toilet.

Brian must have heard him anyway because the next thing he knew, his brother was standing behind him, rubbing his back as he bent over the toilet bowl and threw up into it. “You okay?” Brian asked gently when he was done.

AJ flushed the toilet and sank to the floor, holding his stomach. The back of his throat burned with the acidic taste of vomit, and the smell of it seemed to linger in the air. He absolutely hated getting sick. He had always been grossed out by bodily fluids, but being a dad had forced him to get past his aversion to snotty noses and poopy diapers. Puke was still the worst. He didn’t know how Brian could stand to be in the same room, but he appreciated his compassion. “Not really,” he admitted. “My stomach’s killing me. Sorry, dude; I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“You didn’t,” said Brian. “I’ve been lying awake, listening to the storm ever since I came back up here. I was hanging out with Nick and Howie in the basement earlier.” As he talked, he turned on the faucet and ran a clean washcloth under the cool water. He wrung it out, then handed it to AJ so he could wipe his mouth. “How long have you been barfing like that?”

AJ shook his head. “Just started now.”

“What do you think it could be?” Brian asked, watching him with a look of concern on his face.

“I dunno… maybe it is food poisoning. Or a stomach bug or something,” said AJ, setting the washcloth aside.

Brian frowned. “But wouldn’t the rest of us be sick, too? We’ve been sharing a house and eating the same stuff.”

AJ didn’t want to face the possibility it might be something worse, but Brian had a point. “Yeah, probably. Your stomach’s okay?”

“So far,” said Brian, knocking his knuckles against the wood-paneled wall. “Where exactly does yours hurt?”

It was hard to tell where the pain was radiating from, but AJ’s hand finally settled on the right side of his abdomen, just above waist-level. “Here,” he said.

“Well, since your actual stomach is on the other side of your body, it’s probably not that,” Brian pointed out. “It could be your appendix.”

AJ felt a flicker of fear. “Really? You think?” he asked, hoping Brian was wrong.

Brian shrugged. “That’s where it hurt when I had appendicitis as a kid. Kev’s was the same way.”

AJ remembered them rushing Kevin to a hospital in Germany to have his appendix removed during one of their first European tours. It had been scary at the time, especially being in a foreign country so far from home, but Kevin had come through the surgery with flying colors. Appendicitis wasn’t the worst thing in the world, AJ tried to reassure himself, if that was what it turned out to be.

“We better head to the hospital and get you checked out,” added Brian.

AJ swallowed hard as another wave of nausea rocked his stomach. “Right now?”

Brian nodded. “It wouldn’t be smart to wait. If it is your appendix, it could burst if you don’t get it taken care of right away. C’mon.” He extended his hand, and reluctantly, AJ took it, letting Brian pull him painfully to his feet.

“You sure we shouldn’t wait till morning?” he asked, as they walked out of the bathroom. Brian had turned on a lamp, so at least he could see where he was going this time. Rain was still beating steadily against the roof, interrupted every few seconds by a bright flash of lightning, followed by a loud boom of thunder. “It sounds pretty bad out there.”

Brian gave him a look, as if to say, Really? “I’ve driven in rain before, ya know.”

“I know, but-”

“We’ll be all right,” Brian assured him, already reaching for the red t-shirt he’d taken off before bed. “If the roads are bad, we’ll go slow. Now get dressed.”

AJ pulled on a pair of athletic shorts with a stretchy, elastic waist, a plain white wifebeater, and a black zip-front hoodie. It hurt too much to bend over to put on socks and sneakers, so he slid his bare feet into a pair of slide sandals instead.

Brian came over to his side of the room, wearing a wrinkled pair of khaki shorts with his red shirt. “You ready, bro?” he asked, resting his hand on AJ’s back. The warm weight of it was reassuring, and in spite of his pain, AJ felt a bit better. Growing up as an only child, he had always longed for a sibling. Joining a group with four other guys who had quickly become like brothers was the best thing to have ever happened to him. He appreciated their bond during the good times, but it meant the most to him during the bad times. It helped to know that, no matter what happened, Brian, Kevin, Howie, and Nick would always have his back.

“Not really, but I guess I don’t have much of a choice, huh?” He heaved a sigh as he slid his phone, wallet, and face mask into the pockets of his shorts. “Let’s go.”

Brian kept his hand on AJ’s back as they walked slowly down the staircase, AJ clinging tightly to the banister. He still felt woozy, but whether it was from pain or anxiety, he couldn’t tell. His heart was pounding inside his chest, and his skin was covered in cold sweat.

The main level of the cabin was dark and quiet, the Christmas lights shut off for the night. “Where is the nearest hospital, anyway?” AJ whispered, once they reached the bottom of the stairs.

Brian found the light switch for the living room and flipped on the overhead fixture. “No idea,” he said with a sheepish grin, taking his phone out of his back pocket. “I’m gonna Google it right now.”

While he was searching, AJ wandered into the kitchen with the idea of getting a glass of water to wash the bad taste out of his mouth.

“I wouldn’t drink anything if I were you,” Brian warned, as he reached for a glass from the cupboard. “Just in case you do end up needing surgery. You’re not supposed to have anything in your stomach when you go under anesthesia.”

AJ knew this, of course, but he hadn’t been thinking about that. As he closed the cupboard, his throat felt much drier than it had a second ago, as if merely being told he couldn’t have water had made him thirsty.

“Here we go.” Brian was looking at his phone again. “Looks like the closest hospital with an emergency room that’s open overnight is in Littleton, which is just past Bethlehem. Heh… Littleton.”

AJ frowned. “Why’s that funny? ‘Cause it sounds like Littrellton?”

Brian laughed. “No, ‘cause it sounds like ‘Little Town’... as in ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’? Whoever came up with the names of these places was pretty clever, don’t you think?”

“Sure, I guess,” said AJ with a shrug.

“Littrellton, though… I like that. Maybe more than Littrellville,” mused Brian, as he stuffed his phone back into his pocket. “Anyway, it’ll take us at least half an hour to get to the hospital, so we should probably head out.”

“Half an hour?” AJ repeated, raising his eyebrows. “Damn... Good thing I’m not having a heart attack, or I might be dead by the time we made it there.”

“No kidding. Better hope your appendix can hold out, buddy,” said Brian, patting him on the back again. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“Go where?”

AJ almost jumped when he heard a third voice behind him and immediately winced - the pain was agonizing. He turned to see Kevin coming out of his bedroom beneath the balcony, wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.

“What’s goin’ on?” Kevin asked groggily. “Where you guys going?”

Brian cleared his throat. “AJ’s sick. We think it might be appendicitis. I’m gonna take him to the hospital to get checked out.”

Kevin blinked, the fog clearing from his eyes as they widened. “Well, shit… Maybe I should take him.”

“Why?” asked Brian, frowning.

“I dunno, ‘cause I’ve been through it before?” said Kevin.

“So have I.”

“Yeah, but you were just a kid.”


Kevin’s eyebrows furrowed as he glared back at his cousin. “It’s pouring out there.”

“So?” Brian said again.

“So maybe I should take him,” Kevin repeated.

“What, you don’t think I can drive in the rain either? Why y’all acting like I’m some terrible driver?” asked Brian with a derisive laugh, as he looked from Kevin to AJ. “I’m the best driver here! Besides, I didn’t add anyone else to the rental agreement ‘cause y’all weren’t with me, so I’m the only one who’s covered to drive the Range Rover.”

“Well, let me come along, at least,” Kevin insisted. “I’ll go throw some clothes on, and we can leave in five minutes.”

AJ and Brian looked at each other. They both knew this had nothing to do with Kevin’s firsthand experience of having appendicitis or driving mountain roads in a downpour. This was about Kevin’s need for control, his sense of obligation to be the big brother of the group and make sure the other guys were taken care of. He didn’t trust Brian to step into his role. AJ, on the other hand, would much rather be accompanied by Brian than Kevin. He loved them both, but Brian knew how to lighten the mood and make him laugh even when he was feeling bad, whereas Kevin would only freak him out more.

“Thanks, Kev, but you should just go back to bed,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t need the whole freaking group to go with me. I doubt they’d let you come in anyway ‘cause of COVID. Brian will probably have to wait in the car.”

“Good point,” said Brian. “Stay here and hold down the fort, Kevin. I’ll keep you posted.”

Kevin frowned, but didn’t protest any further. “Drive carefully,” he told his cousin. Then he turned to AJ. “Love you, bro. Hang in there.”

“Love you too, dude,” AJ replied gruffly, wishing Kevin wouldn’t say goodbye like he was seeing him for the last time. It scared him to think Kevin was envisioning some worst-case scenario in which he wouldn’t wake up from surgery. He swallowed hard, his stomach aching. “C’mon, Rok, let’s get this over with.”

He followed Brian out to the garage, where the Range Rover was parked, and climbed carefully into the passenger seat, trying not to bend or twist too much. If he sat perfectly still, the pain wasn’t as bad. He should have taken some Tylenol before leaving the cabin, he realized, as Brian started the engine. Then again, he didn’t know if he would have been able to swallow the pills without water. It was probably best to wait until he got to the hospital, where they would start an IV and give him something stronger for the pain.

“Buckle up,” said Brian when the seatbelt warning started dinging.

AJ didn’t want to buckle up, afraid the seatbelt would put too much pressure on his abdomen, but he grudgingly pulled it across his chest and fastened it. He tucked two fingers between the belt and his body, trying to keep it from touching his belly. With his other hand, he turned on the radio, hoping the music would help take his mind off the pain.

Brian couldn’t get a signal on the SUV’s built-in navigation system, so he pulled up the driving directions on his phone instead. “Here, hold this,” he said, handing the phone to AJ. “I won’t really need it until we’re on the road to Bethlehem, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to get a signal if I don’t do this now, while we still have Wi-Fi.”

“Good call.” As Brian put the SUV in reverse and backed out of the garage, AJ rested his head against the back of his seat and closed his eyes, listening to the crunch of gravel under the tires and the rain pelting the roof, while Taylor Swift played softly on the radio.

Brian made a three-point turn and pulled out onto the narrow lane that led to the main road. He drove slowly, but AJ felt every bump. “Sorry,” said Brian, hearing his sharp hiss of pain as they went over a particularly rough patch. “I can barely see where I’m going.”

AJ opened his eyes. The windshield wipers were whishing back and forth at full speed, but they couldn’t keep up with the rain, which appeared to be falling almost sideways as the wind rocked the SUV. Brian had turned on his brights, but the headlights barely cut through the torrential downpour. He drove hesitantly, unable to see more than a few feet in front of the hood.

“Maybe we should turn around and wait till morning, or at least until this lightens up,” AJ said. He felt guilty for making Brian go out in the middle of such a bad storm.

Brian shook his head. “We’ll be fine. We need to get you to the hospital now.”

“We could call an ambulance,” was AJ’s next suggestion.

“Are you kidding? That could take like an hour or more. It’ll be quicker just to keep going.”

AJ shrugged. “Whatever you say, bro. You’re the one behind the wheel.”

“We’ll be fine,” Brian said again, sounding as if he was trying to reassure himself as much as AJ. He turned onto the main road, which was at least paved, making it much less bumpy than the gravel lane. Still, he drove cautiously, especially going around the curves.

AJ lay back and tried to relax, though the thunder outside and the pain inside made it impossible. “Thanks for doing this, man,” he muttered. “Sorry to make you go out in the middle of the night in this weather.”

“No need to thank me,” said Brian. “I know you would do the same for me.”

Even as he nodded, AJ felt another stab of guilt because he hadn’t been there for Brian’s surgery. None of the guys had; they’d stayed in Florida and performed at the Magic Kingdom while Brian went to the Mayo Clinic to have his heart defect repaired. Despite his hatred of hospitals, AJ still felt bad about that. They should have cancelled the Disney Grad Nite gig and gone up to Rochester to be there for their brother. Thankfully, Brian’s surgery had gone well, but what if something had happened? They would have had to live with that regret for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about all the things that could have gone wrong with Brian’s surgery made AJ wonder if he should have woken up Howie and Nick to say goodbye before they left, just in case. An appendectomy was a pretty routine procedure, if that was what he needed, but he also knew there was a risk any time someone was put under anesthesia. What if he didn’t wake up? Would the other guys regret not getting the chance to see him one last time?

Stop it, AJ scolded himself. You’re just being morbid now - neurotic, like Kevin. But he couldn’t keep his mind from imagining the worst-case scenario. He wished he had called his wife Rochelle before they left the cabin to let her know what was going on. It was half past one in New Hampshire, but not yet eleven o’clock in California. She would probably still be up, watching Friends and enjoying a bit of peace and quiet after putting the girls to bed, but AJ couldn’t get a phone signal this far up in the mountains. He would try her once they got to the hospital. If she was already asleep, he could at least leave her a message and let her know how much he loved her. Just in case.

The rain let up a little as they rounded another curve. Lost in his own thoughts, AJ wasn’t paying any attention until he heard Brian gasp. He looked up as a flash of lightning illuminated the road in front of them and saw the hulking shape of a huge animal standing right in the middle. The beams of Brian’s headlights captured a colossal pair of antlers protruding from its head, revealing it to be a moose. But before AJ had time to marvel over it, he felt himself lurch forward, his seatbelt catching him painfully across his belly as Brian slammed on the brakes.

Had the road been dry, they might have had enough time to slow down, but instead, the tires slid on the rain-soaked pavement, the wet brakes squealing loudly. Brian swerved to the left and barely managed to avoid hitting the moose, but as he jerked the wheel back to the right, he must have overcorrected and lost control. The next thing AJ knew, the Range Rover was skidding right off the road. He saw a rush of trees and instinctively closed his eyes, bracing himself for the crash. He heard Brian cry out just before the crunch of metal and broken glass and felt his body fly forward into the seatbelt again as the car came to an abrupt stop.