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After a couple hours of rest, AJ was ready to try reaching the road again - or, at least, that was what he had tried to convince his body to believe.

In reality, he was still incredibly stiff and sore and wasn’t sure he was capable of making such a steep climb. Worse yet, he felt feverish and weak, as if he were coming down with the flu. He didn’t mention this to Brian, not wanting his friend to worry about him any more than he already was, but he knew what it meant: his appendix had probably burst, just as Brian had warned him it would. The pain in his belly was different now. It wasn’t as bad as before, but it was more widespread - a dull, diffuse ache that was constantly with him, rather than the waves of sharp, shooting pain that had woken him in the night. He feared that if he didn’t try again now, he would miss his only window of opportunity.

“Yo, Rok,” he said, looking up into the rearview mirror so he could see Brian in the back seat.

“What?” Brian replied.

“Can I borrow your shoes, bro? I’m gonna try climbing back up to the road again.”

He saw the skepticism in Brian’s face as he watched him in the mirror. “You really think you can make it this time?”

AJ shrugged. “Not really... but since no one’s come to rescue us yet, I think I’ve got to.”

Brian shook his head. “You don’t have to. We can wait it out. The other guys have gotta be waking up right about now and wondering why they haven’t heard from us, why they can’t get a hold of us. When they get worried enough, they’ll either call the police or come looking for us themselves.”

“Yeah, but how long is that gonna take?” In his mind’s eye, AJ could see the window closing. Time, he knew, was not on his side.

“I dunno… I’d say a few hours at most.” Brian didn’t seem too concerned until he caught AJ’s eye in the mirror. “How ya feelin’?” he asked suddenly, frowning.

“Eh, I’m fine,” AJ lied, quickly looking away. “So can I have your shoes or what?”

“Sure. It’s not like I’m using them,” said Brian, tossing his sneakers into the front seat. “My foot’s so swollen, it won’t even fit.”

AJ admired the white Air Max 90s for a moment before he bent down to cram them onto his feet, knowing he was about to get them muddy. “I’m probably gonna mess these up, but when we get out of this, I’ll buy you a new pair,” he promised.

“I’m not worried about the shoes, bro,” said Brian. “I’m worried about you.”

“I’ll be fine,” AJ insisted with a confidence he didn’t feel.

“Maybe you should go the other direction - down the mountain. Might be easier.”

“Yeah, and I might get lost... or worse,” said AJ, shaking his head. A shudder ran down his spine as he remembered the howling coyotes, which he still wasn’t convinced weren’t really wolves. That was another reason he didn’t want to wander off through the woods alone. It was a much better idea to walk along the road, which he knew would lead him back to civilization.

“Good point,” Brian agreed. “Just be careful, okay?”

AJ nodded, then opened his door and slowly stepped out. He was already light-headed and in pain from bending over to put Brian’s shoes on, but the second he stood up, all the blood seemed to rush from his head, and for a moment, he worried he was going to faint. He reached out his left hand and held onto the door frame to steady himself as his vision went fuzzy, black tunnels closing in from the corners of his eyes until he couldn’t see. He could hear his own heartbeat hammering erratically against his eardrums. He felt hot, then cold all over.

“AJ?” he heard Brian call. His voice sound strangely distant and distorted, as if he were talking through a tin can telephone. “You all right?”

“Y-yeah,” he managed to say, though he felt far from all right. “I just need a minute.” And after a minute, his vision came back, and the pounding in his ears subsided as his heart rate returned to normal. He was still nauseous and covered in cold sweat, but he forced himself to take a shaky step forward. His legs felt like jello.

After a few steps, he could tell he wasn’t going to get much further. Everything hurt, from his wrist to his stomach to his knee, and he knew he didn’t have the strength or endurance to climb. If he kept trying, it was only going to get worse, and he wasn’t sure how much more pain he could withstand.

Finally accepting defeat, he turned around and trudged back to the Range Rover. “I can’t do it,” he admitted to Brian as he lowered himself into the front seat. He lay his head against the headrest and closed his eyes, waiting for the wooziness to pass.

“It’s okay,” Brian said. “I’m sure someone will find us soon. We should figure out a way to signal them.” They had already tried the horn, but it must have been damaged in the front-end collision. Instead of a loud honk, it let out a feeble bleat that was barely audible. “I was thinking maybe we could use the mirrors to catch the sunlight and reflect it back up to the road, sort of like a flare.”

AJ wasn’t sure that would work, but it was worth a try. Bolstered by Brian’s plan, he opened his eyes and sat back up to take a look at the two side mirrors. The one on the passenger side had been shattered in the crash, but the driver’s side mirror was intact. He tried to pry it out of its frame with his fingertips, but it wouldn’t budge. “I need something small and flat to wedge underneath it,” he told Brian. “Like a flathead screwdriver or a putty knife.”

They both searched the SUV, but, being a rental, there weren’t any random tools lying around inside it. Finally, Brian found an ice scraper tucked into the pocket on the back of the front seat and passed it up to AJ. “Will this work?”

“It might.” Using his right elbow to hold the mirror in place, AJ worked the blade of the scraper beneath the edge with his left hand. It took several tries, but he eventually managed to pry up the mirror without breaking it. He disconnected the wires attached to the back so he could pull it free from its casing.

“There you go, MacGuyver!” Brian cheered. “Now let’s see if we can use it as a signal.”

Leaning out the open door, AJ moved the mirror around, tilting it at different angles to try to catch one of the weak rays of sunlight filtering through the trees and rainclouds. On a bright, sunny day, Brian’s plan might have worked, but that morning, there simply wasn’t enough sun to reflect back up to the road. He finally gave up and got back behind the wheel, telling Brian, “We can try again later. Maybe the sun will come out this afternoon.”

Brian didn’t seem too discouraged. “The sun’ll come out… tomorrow,” he sang softly. “Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow… there’ll be sun!”

But privately, AJ worried he wouldn’t be able to hang on until tomorrow. The effort to take off the mirror had temporarily distracted him from his pain and nausea, but now that he was sitting still, he felt sick to his stomach again.

As Brian entertained himself, AJ’s thoughts turned to his daughters. Ava and Lyric both loved Annie. He wondered if they were awake yet and waiting for him to call. He had never gone a day without talking to his family, and now he found himself wishing, once again, that he had called his wife before he’d left the cabin. Knowing Rochelle, she would have sat up all night, nervously waiting for news, and when he didn’t call her back, when Brian didn’t call with an update either, she would be worried. She would have woken the other guys, would have realized something wasn’t right when she found out no one had heard from him or Brian. Surely, she would have sounded the alarm and called the police by now. But instead, she was probably sleeping peacefully, sprawled across the bed they shared, completely unaware that anything was wrong with her husband.

“I should have called Rochelle,” he said quietly.

Brian stopped singing. “I didn’t call Leighanne at all last night,” he admitted. “I was going to, but I ended up playing pool with Nick and Howie instead, and by the time I came back upstairs, it was late.” He paused, then added, “To tell you the truth, I could have called her, but I didn’t feel like it.”

AJ caught his eye in the rearview mirror. He was surprised to hear that, since Brian and Leighanne usually acted like they were attached at the hip. Brian regularly skipped out on after parties and other events to spend more time with his wife. AJ had half-expected Leighanne to try inviting herself along on their little mountain retreat, even though they had made it clear from the get-go that it was to be just the five guys and no family members. He’d assumed Brian would be on his phone the whole time, checking in with her, but now that he thought about it, Brian hadn’t been.

“Things have been tense at home lately,” Brian continued with a sigh. Watching him, AJ could see the sadness in his eyes and wondered why he hadn’t noticed it before.

“Because of all the drama online?” he asked, remembering how Brian had cursed at Kevin the day before when Kevin brought up Leighanne’s political beliefs.

Brian nodded. “That’s a big part of it, yeah.”

AJ shook his head. “The fans are always gonna find something to criticize, bro. You can’t let them bother you, and you definitely shouldn’t let them come between you and Leighanne.”

“I know… but it does bother me to be called a bigot because of what my wife’s been posting,” said Brian. “And it also bothers me that she won’t apologize or take down any of her posts. Believe me, we’ve argued about it more than once, but she’s only gotten worse instead of better. It’s like she’s actively trying to piss people off now - myself included.”

“Then maybe you should say something publicly,” AJ advised. “Post a statement and let the fans know how you feel. Let them know not all your beliefs align with hers.”

Brian sighed. “Maybe…”

But AJ could tell that, despite the divide between them, he still didn’t want to distance himself further from his wife. He understood: Brian wanted to protect the public image he and Leighanne had so carefully crafted, that of the perfect Southern, Christian couple. The Littrells had a reputation to uphold, and Brian didn’t want to ruin it. But if Leighanne kept running her mouth on social media, she was going to end up destroying it herself, no matter what Brian did.

Both men fell back into silence, which was broken only by the soft but steady drumming of raindrops on the roof of the battered Range Rover. “We should find a way to collect the rainwater,” said Brian after a few minutes. When AJ glanced at him in the mirror, he saw that Brian’s head was turned in the opposite direction. He seemed to be staring out the rear window, watching the rivulets of rain run down the slanted glass. “We haven’t had anything to drink in hours. I dunno about you, but I’m getting pretty parched.”

AJ swallowed hard. His throat was dry, too, but he didn’t feel thirsty anymore. He supposed he was beyond that point. “You said I shouldn’t eat or drink anything until I know if I need surgery,” he replied, remembering their conversation in the kitchen just before they’d left the cabin. Strangely, he wasn’t hungry either. His stomach hurt too much to eat even if they had any food in the car, which they didn’t.

“I don’t think that matters anymore now,” said Brian. “We both need to stay hydrated until we’re rescued. Do you see anything we could fill with rainwater? A container of any kind?”

AJ looked around and saw the top of a plastic bottle sticking up out of the cup holder at the base of the passenger door. “Yeah… hang on.” Grunting, he hoisted himself painfully back over the center console into the passenger seat, where he was able to reach the bottle. Pulling it out, he saw that it was a bottle of Vitaminwater, empty except for a small amount of orange liquid sloshing around the bottom. He held it up for Brian to see.

“Nick,” they both said in unison.

AJ smiled. “Here,” he said, passing the bottle back to Brian.

Brian held up his hand. “No, you should drink the rest. You could use the electrolytes more than me.”

AJ shook his head. “I’m not drinking Nick’s nasty backwash, dude. You can have it.”

“Suit yourself,” said Brian with a shrug. He took the bottle and twisted off the cap, draining the last few ounces of flavored water in one swallow. Then he opened his door and stood the bottle up outside the SUV so it would refill with rain. “Hopefully it’ll keep raining awhile,” he remarked, as he closed the door again. “Otherwise we’re gonna have to start saving our urine instead.”

“What?!” cried AJ, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “You’ve been watching too many damn survival shows. There’s no way in hell I would ever drink my own piss.”

“You say that now, but just wait. People in desperate situations will do anything to stay alive,” warned Brian.

AJ shook his head. “Not me. I’d rather die of dehydration than do that.”

Brian sighed. “Let’s just pray it doesn’t come to us having to make those kinds of decisions.”

It was AJ’s turn to be the optimist. “It won’t. The guys’ll call for help,” he replied firmly, watching the rain fall outside his window. “Someone will come find us soon.”