The incessant knocking roused AJ from his drunken slumber. Disoriented, he lifted his head and blearily looked around; it took a few seconds for the pieces to fall into place. He wasn’t in bed, but in the same chair where he’d passed out a few hours earlier, in his hotel room in Philadelphia. He and the Boys should have been on his way to the next city by now – somewhere in Ohio, he thought – but instead, they were stuck here, because Kevin was in the hospital, and Nick was… missing… and…
Someone was still knocking, loudly. The pounding might as well have been coming from inside AJ’s head, rather than the door, but he mumbled, “Coming, coming…” and stumbled across the room to answer it. He was not surprised to find Brian and Howie standing in the hall, looking annoyed.
“Sorry, did we wake you?” Brian asked sarcastically.
“We’re heading back to the hospital,” said Howie, a little more kindly. Yet, as they studied AJ’s face, his dark eyes were filled with pity, more than understanding. AJ knew he must have looked like a wreck. He felt like a wreck. “Are you coming with us, or…?” He left the question hanging, waiting for AJ to say something.
AJ shifted his weight awkwardly in the door frame. “Nah, go ahead without me,” he muttered finally, fixing his gaze on the floor. “I didn’t sleep well… gonna try to catch a few more Zs… then I’ll meet up with you guys…”
“Gee, sorry to hear you didn’t sleep well,” said Brian, frowning at AJ. “You’d think all the booze would make you sleep like a baby, but apparently not?”
AJ glared back at him, trying to mask his guilt. He’d rarely heard Brian sound so sarcastic and snippy, not that he could blame him. He knew he had fucked up last night; he knew he was letting them down now. Still, he resented Brian for making him feel worse than he already did.
Before he could say something he’d later regret, Howie stepped in. “I’m sure we’ve all had trouble sleeping the last few nights,” he said. “I know I have.”
“Really, Howie?” Brian rounded on him. “You’ve had trouble sleeping? Weird, ‘cause I’ve been sleepin’ like a rock. I just drift right off and forget all about the fact that my cousin’s in a coma and my best friend’s gone missing. I feel so well rested, ready to face another day of watching Kevin lie there like a vegetable…” He glared at AJ again, his narrowed eyes looking like two slivers of ice, hard and cold. “None of us have slept well in days, but you don’t see us drinking ourselves to sleep.”
“Lay off the self-righteous crap, Rok,” AJ muttered, rolling his eyes at him. “Everyone grieves differently.”
“Grieves?” Brian repeated, his eyes flashing. “Well, there’s the problem. You need to pull your head out of your ass, stop ‘grieving,’ and start praying. Nobody’s died. Kevin’s still alive, and he needs us right now. Nick needs us.”
The words were out of AJ’s mouth before he could stop them. He regretted them immediately, once he saw the stricken look cross Brian’s face, but there was no taking them back. Figuring he might as well defend them, he added, “I know you don’t wanna hear that, but c’mon, let’s face reality here. There’s been no sign of Nick for three days, except for the blood we found on the stairs. When do you ever hear of a missing person found alive after three days?”
Brian looked as stunned as if he’d been slapped. “How can you say that? We have to believe he’s still alive. We have to have faith and keep praying that they’ll find him.” His voice sounded strangled and hoarse, no longer sarcastic, but his eyes blazed with his own belief in what he was saying. Brian did have faith.
AJ nodded and looked away from his friend’s blazing eyes. He wanted to believe what Brian did, but in his heart, he was almost sure that in a few days, or weeks, or months, they would find Nick’s remains, washed ashore, buried in a ditch, or wrapped up in someone’s basement. He’d watched enough TV to know how these cases usually turned out. There was no way whoever had shot Kevin in the head would let Nick live, and while Brian clung to his faith, AJ had accepted the cold, hard truth. Nick was dead, and Kevin might as well be, too, for as grievously as he’d been wounded. But he didn’t dare repeat this. All he said instead was, “I hope you’re right.”
Brian continued to glare at him, looking somehow betrayed, until Howie said, “Well, we should get going. We’ll see you later then?” He looked pointedly at AJ, who nodded.
They turned and left, walking up the hall without looking back, and AJ, feeling ashamed at himself, retreated back into his room and bolted the door. He slid into bed, burying his head under the covers, and tried to stop himself from thinking. He was still a little drunk, and that helped; his brain felt fuzzy, and his head kept pounding, and it was easier than he’d expected to fall back to sleep.
It seemed like he had just shut his eyes when he woke to the sound of knocking again. “Ugh, what now?” he groaned, squeezing the pillow around his head to muffle the sound. It was no use; the knocking persisted, making his head pound again. “I told you, later!” he shouted. “Leave me alone!”
But the knocker didn’t leave, and so finally, AJ dragged himself out of bed and staggered to the door, ranting the whole way. “Swear to god, if you guys are back to make me feel even shittier, you’re gonna get a taste of your own medicine,” he muttered under his breath. He unbolted the door and wrenched it open. “Seriously, what part of ‘leave me alone’ do you not under-”
He stopped suddenly, the word “stand” dying on his tongue as he found himself staring into the haggard face of Nick’s mother, Jane Carter. “Jane!” he cried, his voice jumping an octave. “Sorry, I thought you were… Come in!”
He quickly ushered her in, letting the door close behind her. Jane stood stiffly just inside the hotel room, clutching her purse under her arm. AJ felt self-conscious of the way the room looked – the shades drawn, the bedsheets hanging off the mattress, the empty liquor bottles scattered across the coffee table and floor. “Sorry for the mess,” he apologized, as he scurried around, hurriedly opening the drapes, straightening the covers, and picking up the bottles.
“Don’t bother,” said Jane. “I’m not staying. I just came from the police station, and I have a reservation at a different hotel.”
“Oh,” said AJ, dropping the bottle he was holding into the wastebasket with a loud clink. “What did the police… I mean, did they have any new… information? Any leads?”
“Oh, they have leads. Hundreds of tips have been coming in, they told me,” said Jane, pinching the bridge of her nose. “They’re trying to decide which ones are worth following up on. They think most are from delusional fans, wanting to believe they saw Nick, or desperate individuals seeking fame or attention or reward money.” She sighed. “They doubt many of them are actually reliable.”
AJ nodded. “I’m sorry,” he offered. “But it’s still early. Something will come up. They’ll track down the right lead eventually. They’ll find him, Jane. They have to.” Hypocrite, he thought to himself, wondering why he was bothering to spout off all this bullshit he didn’t really believe, when he’d been so blunt with Brian earlier. But how could he look Nick’s mother in the eye and tell her he thought her son was dead?
“I hope so,” Jane’s voice quavered, her eyes welling up with tears. He could tell she’d done a fair amount of crying already; her face looked blotchy, and he could see black streaks where her mascara had run.
“Are Bob and the kids-?”
“Still in California. I didn’t want them in the middle of all this, until I saw what the situation was like, myself.” She shook her head, absently smoothing her dyed black hair. “I talked to Howie. He said you’d be here.”
AJ wondered she wanted with him. “If there’s anything I can do, Jane…” he started automatically and was surprised when she nodded at once.
“Yes, there is. I want to see the room where it happened. Nick’s room.”
AJ swallowed hard. “I’m pretty sure the police have it sealed off. But… yeah… I can show you were it is. It’s just down a floor…”
A couple of minutes later, he was leading Jane down the stairs. The blood, thankfully, had been cleaned up. He assumed the police had taken a sample of it first. They exited the stairwell and walked down the hall. AJ hadn’t been on this floor since Wednesday night, when the ambulance crew had whisked Kevin out on a stretcher. The closer they got to the room where it had happened, the more he felt like throwing up. Somehow, he remembered the room number – 1114 – but as it turned out, he didn’t need to. A single length of yellow police tape stretched across the door frame told him they were in the right place. He reached under the tape to try the doorknob, but of course, it was locked. The room was now a crime scene.
He glanced over at Jane. Her face was white, and she stood with her hand covering her mouth, as if she, too, felt like throwing up. After a minute, she said shakily, “Why were he and Kevin staying a floor down from the rest of you?”
AJ frowned. That was a good question. He suddenly wondered the same thing. It took a few seconds for him to remember the reason. “They changed rooms. Something about roaches.” But as he said it aloud, it suddenly seemed like an odd excuse. This was a five-star hotel; he’d been there four nights and hadn’t seen any bugs. He wondered if there was some other reason behind the room change. Could it have had anything to do with the attack? They still didn’t know how the attacker had gotten in. He knew the police had been questioning everyone who worked for the hotel. Was one of them behind the whole thing?
He didn’t say anything to Jane, but he was glad she had booked a room in a different hotel. When he went to the hospital later, he would suggest that he and the guys do the same.
Howie was sitting with Brian in the waiting room when AJ turned up at the hospital, looking hungover, but better than he had at the hotel that morning. At least he appeared to have showered and no longer reeked of booze. “Any change?” he asked the two of them. Brian stared at the floor, apparently not quite ready to make his peace with AJ yet, but Howie shook his head.
“No. The only good news is that they did a CT scan of his brain, and the swelling is going down,” he said, relaying the information Kevin’s doctor had given them earlier. “But he hasn’t shown any signs of waking up from the coma.”
AJ sighed heavily and threw himself down into the open seat next to Howie. “His mom’s in with him now?” he guessed.
“No, she and Kristin went down to the cafeteria for lunch. A physical therapist came to exercise Kevin’s arms and legs – you know, so the muscles don’t start to atrophy,” said Howie, shifting awkwardly in his seat. All morning, they’d witnessed medical personnel popping in and out of Kevin’s room. Doctors made their rounds, medical students turned up to observe, and nurses came in at regular intervals to chart vitals, change IV bags, empty containers of fluid, and turn Kevin to prevent bedsores. It disturbed Howie to see Kevin so helpless, reliant on other people to care for him and medical technology to keep him alive.
“How are Ann and Kristin holding up?” AJ wanted to know.
Howie shrugged. The two women seemed to be leaning on one another, each helping the other hold it together, as they stood by the man they both loved. “As well as you’d expect, I guess,” he told AJ. “Did you know Nick’s mom’s in town?”
“Yeah. She came by the hotel. She wanted to see the room where it happened.”
“Did you show her?”
He shrugged. “I took her down. Not much to see; the room’s locked up.”
“Where is she now?” Howie asked, looking around, as if he’d missed her walking in with AJ.
“Back at her hotel, I guess. She’d already been to the police station.”
“Oh.” Howie frowned, put off by the fact that Jane hadn’t bothered to come check on Kevin. Then again, he shouldn’t have been surprised; Jane Carter had always struck him as a woman who put her own interests ahead of anyone else’s.
“Speaking of hotels…” AJ said. “I think we should move into a different one.”
“Why?” asked Howie. The hotel they were staying in had been extremely accommodating, extending their reservations past the three nights they had originally planned to stay.
“Well… don’t you wonder about the security? I mean, how did someone get into Nick and Kevin’s room?”
“They could have let him in,” Howie said doubtfully. “We don’t know what happened.”
“Right. But… I dunno, I just think we should stay somewhere else.”
“I’m with AJ,” Brian spoke for the first time since AJ had arrived. Howie saw a look of understanding pass between the two of them.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll call Skip about changing the accommodations.” He pulled out his cell phone to contact their tour manager, and several phone calls later, the new reservations had been made.
“How long do you think you’ll stay in Philadelphia?” Skip had wanted to know. Howie didn’t miss his use of “you’ll” instead of “we’ll.” He understood it to mean that everyone else on the tour – the band, the dancers, the crew – would be heading home soon. Their next show was supposed to be Monday night in Columbus, Ohio, but unless a double miracle occurred in the next day, they wouldn’t be performing it. The promoters couldn’t afford to keep everyone in Philadelphia indefinitely. But Howie couldn’t think of leaving.
“As long as Kevin’s in the hospital,” he said firmly. “And as long as it takes for them to find Nicky.”
The sun had barely set over the Albrechts’ farm when Nick staggered into the grandfather house, stripped out of his sweat-soaked clothing, and collapsed into bed.
It was only six-thirty, but after a full day’s work, he was exhausted. His back ached from hours of cleaning out animal stalls, raking leaves in the yard, and picking crops in the fields, yet his belly was full from the supper Analiese’s mother had served. He would sleep well tonight, he thought, as he slid between the sheets. They felt soft and cool against his sore and sunburned body, and he sighed with relief as he lowered his head onto the pillow at last and closed his eyes.
But sleep didn’t come as quickly as he would have liked. He lay awake, listening to the sounds of night falling outside his window and missing the rumble of the tour bus and the screaming of fans. He heard the faint sounds of laughter drifting through the open windows of the farmhouse, as Analiese’s family finally settled down to relax, and he longed to hear the familiar voices of his own “family” – AJ’s gravelly rasp, Howie’s fast way of talking, Brian’s animated impressions, and most of all, Kevin’s low, slow drawl. Nick thought of the life and the people he’d left behind, and a tear slipped out from under one of his heavy eyelids and trickled down his scorched, red cheek, wetting the plain white pillowcase.
He was too tired to feel ashamed over crying himself to sleep, but once he had, he slept well and didn’t wake until Analiese came to get him up for the morning milking.
Late that night, as Nick slept soundly in his new surroundings, as Brian, AJ, and Howie stayed in their new hotel, and as Kevin lay comatose in his hospital room, Gianna sat on the couch, wide awake, in her apartment. The TV was on low; David Bowie was performing on Saturday Night Live, but Gianna tuned it out, her mind faraway with worry.
In one of the apartment’s two bedrooms, her daughter Luci was tucked into bed, a teddy bear under her arm and a teenybopper magazine pinup of Nick Carter on the wall above her head. In the other, her boyfriend Joey was pacing, his phone to his ear. Gianna couldn’t see him; the door was shut, but she could hear his footsteps shuffling behind it, his muffled words leaking through it. Something had upset him. He’d seemed edgy all day, ever since that morning.
Gianna waited until she heard him stop pacing, stop talking, and get off the phone before she turned off the TV and crept back to the bedroom. Joey was already in bed. “You awake?” she asked quietly, pretending she hadn’t heard him.
“Yeah. C’mere,” he said, reaching for her.
“Gimme a sec.” She undressed slowly, while he watched. “You okay?” she asked, twirling her camisole around her index finger by the strap. “You been actin’ kinda weird all day. Everything alright?”
“Yeah,” he said, a little too quickly, a little too defensively. “Why?”
She shrugged. “Just checkin’.” She tossed the cami into the laundry hamper and stepped out of her panties. Slipping into bed, she pulled the sheets up around her nude body and snuggled in close to his. “I wanted to ask you somethin’,” she whispered, trailing her hand across his bare chest, her finger toying with his nipple.
She kept her voice soft and seductive, not wanting to seem too suspicious, but merely curious. “That news story we saw on MTV this morning… you know, about those Backstreet Boys Luci likes? You don’t know anything about that, do you?”
He confirmed her worst suspicions when he suddenly jerked away from her, rolling right out of bed. “Back off, Gianna,” he said, rounding on her, towering over her as he stood next to the bed. He raised his finger at her, waving it threateningly. “We been down this road before, and I’m warnin’ you for the last time… Stay out of it. It ain’t none of your business what I know and what I don’t. You don’t need to know none of it, got it? Forget about it.”
She swallowed, determined to keep her voice steady. “Got it,” she whispered, and left it at that, rolling away from him and closing her eyes. She heard him pace around the room for a few more minutes, but finally, Joey got back into bed and settled down beside her. His breathing slowly deepened, and after half an hour or so, she heard him start to snore. Maybe he could push whatever had been bothering him out of his mind, just like that, but she couldn’t forget about it. Like Nick hours before her, Gianna lay awake, thinking, wondering…
Just what did he know? How involved was he? And how involved did she dare become?