Nick woke up the morning after the sing and knew what he needed to do. It was as if his mind had been working on his problems all night as he slept, reaching a solution with sudden clarity just as the morning dawned.
He got out of bed, dressed, and walked to the barn, where Analiese was milking the cows. “Hey, can you take me into town again today to use the phone?” he asked her. “I’ve decided to go back. For real this time.”
Her blue eyes widened. “But what about the men who were waiting there the last time we went?”
The thought that Joey or D might still be skulking about the service station, waiting for him to surface, made Nick’s blood run cold. He had already considered this possibility, of course, but he put on a brave face for Analiese’s sake and said, “It was dark the last time we went. I doubt they’ll be sitting there in broad daylight. I mean, it’s not like they can keep watch there all day; it would look suspicious, and the last thing those dudes need is to attract attention. I think we’ll be safe if we go there during the day.”
“You’re safe here,” Analiese said. “Won’t you still be in danger if you go back to the English world?”
Nick sighed. “Yes, but… I don’t belong here. I thought I could get used to the change, and for awhile, I actually felt like I was starting to. But the way you and Lucas reacted last night at the sing, when you saw me drinking with Emeric and teaching everyone that song about the bottles of beer… well, it made me realize I’m probably doing more harm here than good. I’m sorry, Ana. I never meant to come here and corrupt you or cause any tension. And I don’t want to put you and your family in danger. I need to go back before those bad guys find me here.”
“But won’t they have an easier time finding you in Philadelphia?” Analiese asked, shaking her head.
He shrugged. “It’s a big city, and besides, the police should be able to keep me safe. They have programs for people like me, who have seen things they shouldn’t. Witness Protection. I’ll go into hiding if I have to, somewhere else, somewhere far from here.”
“You don’t have to go,” Analiese protested gently. “I may not have agreed with what you and Emeric were doing last night, but that doesn’t meant I want you to leave.”
“I know. And believe me, a part of me doesn’t want to leave either. I was actually starting to like it here,” Nick said, sucking in a deep breath. He could smell the cow manure, but strangely, it didn’t seem so bad anymore. “But I have to face my fears and do what’s right. I have to go back.” He looked at Analiese hopefully. “Will you take me to the phone?”
She, too, took a deep breath and then nodded. “Of course.”
After breakfast, Nick helped Analiese hitch up the buggy, and together, they headed off toward the small town of Paradise.
When they pulled up next to the phone booth, Nick waited in the buggy for a few minutes, watching the cars come and go. None of them seemed to be staying at the gas station for too long, so, feeling more confident that he wasn’t being watched, Nick finally climbed out of the back of the buggy.
He went into the phone booth, pulling the door shut behind him, and picked up the phone. After depositing the quarters Analiese had lent him, he dialed Brian’s number once again. This time, he vowed not to hang up before speaking.
The phone rang several times before Brian answered. “Hello?”
Nick’s mouth felt dry, and for a second, he could barely breathe, let alone speak.
“Who is this?” Brian demanded, sounding unusually angry. “Identify yourself now, or I’m hanging up.”
“No, don’t!” Nick gasped. “Frick… it’s me.”
He heard Brian’s sharp intake of breath, but after that, there was a long silence on the other end of the line. Just when Nick was starting to think Brian had hung up on him after all, his best friend whispered, “Nick?”
Nick swallowed hard. “Yeah.”
“Is it really you?” Brian asked hopefully.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Brian went quiet for another few seconds. Then, suddenly suspicious, he said, “How do I know this is really Nick and not someone trying to mess with me?”
Nick was starting to get annoyed. All he wanted was to go back to his brothers, and his best friend of them all didn’t believe it was him? “Dude, it’s me! It’s Frack!” he insisted. “You need me to prove it or something?”
“Yeah… yeah, if you’re the real Nick Carter, answer this: Who do I usually play as in Mario Kart?”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Duh… Donkey Kong. And I’m always Yoshi. That enough proof for you?”
Brian seemed to hesitate. Then he whispered his name again. “…Nick?”
Brian was breathing fast, practically panting over the phone. “We thought you were dead!” he gasped. “Everyone’s been looking for you for two weeks – in the city, in the country, in the river, everywhere! Where are you?”
“I’m at a gas station in this little town called Paradise. It’s out in Amish country, in Pennsylvania. Can you call someone to come pick me up?”
“Yes! Yes, of course! Stay there, okay? Don’t go anywhere. Someone will be there soon,” Brian promised, just before the phone ran out of money and they lost their connection. Nick hoped he’d provided enough information for someone to find him. Now he just had to wait.
He sat in the buggy with Analiese, the two of them talking quietly as his eyes scanned the horizon, watching for an approaching car that would carry him back to the English world to face the music. Almost an hour passed before he saw flashing lights in the distance. As the lights came closer, he realized a police car was racing down the road.
The squad car pulled into the station, stopping a few yards away from the phone booth. An officer got out. Nick wanted to jump down from the buggy and run to the safety of the police car, but he held back, wanting to be sure it was a real cop and not just someone posing as one before he revealed himself. He watched with bated breath as the officer went around to open one of the back doors, and then out stepped someone very familiar: Brian.
Nick hadn’t expected to see his best friend so soon, but even though a part of him was afraid to face Brian and answer for what he’d done, his friendly face was a welcome sight. “Brian?” Nick called, as he climbed out of the buggy.
Brian looked up, his features lighting up with first recognition and then relief. Then he ran straight at Nick, launching himself into Nick’s arms. Nick gasped in surprise as he stumbled back with the force of Brian’s fierce hug, but recovered quickly and wrapped his arms around his friend.
“Thank God,” Brian whispered, burying his face in Nick’s neck. “Thank God you’re okay.”
“What are you doing here?” Nick couldn’t help but ask. “I didn’t think you’d still be in Pennsylvania.”
“Of course we are. We couldn’t leave without finding you… especially not with Kevin still in the hospital.”
“Hospital?” Nick repeated blankly. As it dawned on him what Brian had said, his eyes widened. “Wait… Kevin’s alive??”
Brian frowned at him. “Haven’t you seen the news? Where the hell have you been, Nick?”
Nick shook his head, his mind reeling, still trying to process the realization that Kevin wasn’t dead after all. In the hospital, yes, but still alive. “It’s a long story,” he mumbled.
“Well, we wanna hear it,” said Brian, motioning to both himself and the police officer who had brought him there. “You need to tell us everything. What happened, Nick?”
Nick swallowed hard. “I will. Just wait one second, okay?”
He ran back to the buggy, where Analiese was waiting. “Your friend seemed glad to see you,” she said, smiling. “Are you going back now?”
Nick nodded. “Before I go, I want to thank you – for rescuing me that night, for hiding me in your grandfather house, and for giving me a place to stay these last couple weeks. I owe you and your family so much. Please thank them for me and tell them I’m sorry I had to leave so suddenly, okay?”
“I will. It was nice getting to know you, Nick. I… I wish you weren’t leaving,” she said softly, ducking her chin a little to hide the fact that she was blushing.
“Believe me, a part of me wishes I wasn’t either,” Nick said, surprised by his own admission. “But I just found out that my friend Kevin – the one I thought was dead – is still alive. So I have to go back.”
Analiese smiled. “I’m so glad to hear that. I hope that if you’re ever in this area again, you’ll perhaps come visit someday.”
Nick smiled back. “If your dad will let me, I’d love to.” He reached up, offering her his hand. “Thanks again,” he said. A handshake felt like an oddly formal way of saying goodbye, but he wasn’t sure what else would suffice. A kiss on the cheek or even a hug felt too forward for someone as reserved as Analiese.
“Goodbye,” she whispered, letting go of his hand. Then she took hold of the reigns, and as he turned away, he heard the clip-clop of hooves on the pavement as her horse started walking.
“You ready?” Brian asked, as Nick watched the horse and buggy turn around and head in the direction of the Albrecht farm. Nick nodded. As he climbed into the back of the squad car with Brian, Brian added, “You wanna tell me who that was and what you’re doing all the way out here?”
Nick took a deep breath, and as the police car pulled away, he started talking. He told Brian and the officer everything, starting with the fateful night he’d decided to take a walk along the riverfront and finishing with how he’d ended up hiding out in Amish country.
“I wanted to come back, even tried calling you a couple different times, but I was afraid,” he admitted.
“We thought that was you on the phone!” Brian exclaimed. “Why wouldn’t you say anything? What were you so afraid of?”
“I was afraid they would find me… but mostly I was just afraid of what you guys would think of me once you found out it was all my fault,” Nick said in a small voice, looking down into his lap.
Brian put his hand on Nick’s shoulder and squeezed hard. “It wasn’t your fault, Nick. You hear me? No one’s blaming you for what happened. The only ones at fault are the two assholes who did this, and so help me god, I hope they pay for what they’ve done. Now that you’re back, you can help the cops find them.”
Nick’s heart sank. “So they still haven’t been caught?” he asked, looking up.
Brian shook his head. “The police haven’t had much information to go on. Kevin can’t tell them anything; he’s been in a coma.”
Nick swallowed hard. “Do… do the doctors think he’s gonna wake up?”
“He’s started opening his eyes, but he’s in what they call a ‘vegetative state,’” Brian said bitterly. “He’s not ‘with it’ yet. They don’t know when or if he’ll regain consciousness.”
Shaking his head, Nick sighed. “I’m sorry…”
“Stop beating yourself up. It’s not your fault, Nick.”
“I… I know,” said Nick, but inside, he knew the truth. Kevin was in a coma because of him, and if his big brother never woke up, he would have to live with that guilt for the rest of his life.
The officer wanted to go directly to the police station to take Nick’s statement, but Brian insisted on going straight to the hospital so Nick could see Kevin first.
Once there, they were whisked up to the neurology floor, where Kevin had lain comatose for the past two weeks. A security guard stood outside the door of the step-down unit. The two Backstreet Boys had to be buzzed in.
Brian had tried to prepare Nick for what he would see when they entered Kevin’s room, but nothing could make seeing Kevin like that less shocking. Nick’s eyes filled with tears as he took in the sight of his empty green eyes and vacant expression, the swelling and bruising in his face, the white helmet protecting his damaged skull.
“Do you want some time alone with him?” asked Brian, and Nick nodded. Truthfully, he was afraid to be alone with Kevin, but he needed time to collect himself. Brian, seeming to understand, let himself out, saying, “I’ll be out in the hall if you need me, bro.”
His heart beating fast, Nick took a tentative step towards Kevin’s bed. “Kev?” he whispered, but there was no response.
Brian had warned him that Kevin would be unresponsive, but encouraged him to keep talking anyway. “We want to stimulate his brain to help him wake up and start recognizing familiar sights and sounds,” he’d explained.
So Nick started talking. “I’m sorry, bro… I’m so sorry for getting you involved in this mess,” he murmured as he stood by the side of the bed, staring down at Kevin’s almost unrecognizable face. “I never meant for anyone to get hurt, especially you. I love you, bro. I know we’ve had our differences over the years, but I hope you know how much I love you like a brother. You’ve always been there for me… and I guess now it’s my turn to be there for you.” He reached out and carefully picked Kevin’s hand up off the mattress, lacing Kevin’s long fingers through his and giving it a squeeze. As he did so, Nick looked hopefully at the heart monitor that was beeping steadily in the background behind Kevin’s bed, wondering if the sound of his voice would trigger some sort of internal reaction, but nothing happened. The monitor continued to beep slowly, as the wavy lines measuring Kevin’s heart rhythm rose and fell steadily across its screen.
Just then, the door to Kevin’s room suddenly swung open, causing Nick’s own heart to skip a beat as he nearly jumped out of his skin. He expected it to be Brian coming back, but instead, it was a man in dark blue scrubs, pushing a floor mop and bucket.
“Housekeeping,” the man announced. “Mind if I mop the floor?”
“No, go ahead,” Nick muttered, turning his attention back to Kevin. He was aware of the wheels on the bucket squeaking against the tiled floor as it was rolled into the room, and as he glanced down, he thought vaguely, Floor seems pretty clean to me. Wonder why he wants to mop now.
Then he heard a different sound beneath the beep of the heart monitor – a soft, but ominous, metallic click. He turned around, his heart rising into his throat, to see the man in scrubs pointing a gun at him. And, suddenly, he recognized the dark eyes glittering behind the gun and heard the voice that had haunted his nightmares say his name.
“Hiya, Nick,” sneered Joey. “Back from the dead, I see. You and your friend here got lucky the first time… but your luck’s about to run out.”
Before Nick could react, he heard the explosion of gunfire and felt white-hot pain rip through his chest. He tasted metal as warm blood bubbled up into his throat. He saw Joey turn the gun on Kevin and tried to shout “No!” but all that came out was a weak gurgle, as blood foamed from his lips. Unable to breathe, Nick collapsed to his knees as the second shot rang out.
He couldn’t see where it went in, but the bullet must have hit its target because, a second later, the steady beeping of the heart monitor stopped, replaced by a single, shrill whine as Kevin flatlined.
Joey bolted from the room. More gunshots followed. Gasping for breath, Nick dragged himself to the door, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Even before he reached the threshold, he saw legs lying motionless on the floor in the hallway just outside the room and recognized the sneakers as Brian’s. “Help!” he tried to scream, but he couldn’t make a sound. So hard to breathe…
The room around him seemed to be getting smaller, as the edges of his vision grew fuzzy, like a tunnel of darkness was closing in on him. He was drowning in his own blood. He fought to stay afloat, to stay conscious, but in a matter of seconds, the darkness swallowed him up, and Nick knew no more.
Author’s Note: APRIL FOOL! Better late than never, right? This is not the real ending I had planned for this story, but in all honesty, it might be the only ending you’ll ever get, unless writing this fake ending has reignited my inspiration for writing some real chapters on this story. That remains to be seen. In any case, thanks for reading it!