One week. It had been one whole week since the world had turned upside down, since Kevin had gotten shot and Nick had gone missing.
It felt like the longest week of AJ’s life, yet in some ways, it seemed like just yesterday that he had been sitting next to Nick on the ride back to the hotel after their show, talking about their plans for the rest of the night. They had agreed to stay in and order pizza, he recalled. Kevin’s idea. They were supposed to do an early morning interview and another show the next night. But their plans had changed the moment they’d opened the door to Kevin’s hotel room and found him lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood. Everything had changed that night.
And yet, in the week since, almost nothing had changed. Kevin was still comatose. Nick was still missing. Somehow, the world kept turning, but it was a much different world from the one AJ had known a week ago. This strange new world into which he’d been thrown was a world lit by fluorescent lights and populated by people who wore shapeless scrubs and squeaky shoes. It was a world of waiting room furniture and cafeteria food, a world of one-sided conversations and long periods of silence, interrupted by occasional updates from Kevin’s doctors and the police detectives who were trying to find Nick.
So far, they’d managed to keep Kevin alive, and Nick hadn’t turned up dead. Brian and Howie believed these were good signs, reasons to be hopeful. AJ felt differently. In his mind, they were just delaying the inevitable, waiting around like this. Kevin was never going to wake up, and even if he did, he’d probably never be the same. Nick was never going to be found alive – if he had survived the attack, he would have come back by now, unless he was being held captive, in which case he was probably being subjected to the sort of cruelty AJ didn’t want to imagine. They were probably both better off dead, though he knew better than to say so out loud. Things were already tense enough between Brian and him.
AJ felt under scrutiny whenever he was in the same room as his holier-than-thou bandmate these days. Brian would sit across from him, staring at his disheveled appearance with disgust, wrinkling his nose at the smell of alcohol on AJ’s breath, silently judging him for daring to grieve differently than he did. So what if AJ felt more at home in his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey than he did in the hospital chapel? Who was Brian to tell him he was wrong for drowning his sorrows in liquor instead of praying for a miracle that was never going to happen? He would never tell Brian that, even if believed it to be true.
Howie was more understanding. He’d accompanied a hungover AJ to the hospital for the night shift of their ongoing vigil, while Brian and Kevin’s mother went back to the hotel to sleep. The two of them took turns sitting at Kevin’s bedside while the other one went for coffee or snacks or, in AJ’s case, a smoke. Everyone had agreed that it was important Kevin not be alone when he woke up. No one would admit that the chances of him waking up at all seemed to grow slimmer each day he remained in the coma.
“I’m gonna get another cup of coffee. Want anything?” In the midst of all the mechanical noises coming from the medical equipment and monitors that surrounded Kevin’s bed, Howie’s voice sounded refreshingly human.
Without looking up, AJ shook his head. “I’m good.”
“I’ll be back, then.” Howie walked out, leaving AJ alone with Kevin. Not that Kevin provided much companionship.
“You’re not very good company tonight, dude,” AJ said aloud, kicking the leg of Kevin’s bed. Everyone kept telling him to talk to Kevin, that coma patients could hear, and that it might even help him regain consciousness. Looking at Kevin’s blank face, barely visible through the gauze bandages wrapped around his head and the oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose, AJ doubted he was aware of a thing. But it was worth a shot, he supposed. Maybe he could annoy Kevin into waking up. “What’s up with you? Usually you don’t know when to stop talking. You just ramble on and on, telling the same old stories in the longest way possible.” He smiled and then swallowed the lump that had risen in his throat. “I actually kinda miss those long-ass stories, bro. Wish you’d wake up and tell me one now.”
He watched Kevin closely for any sign that he’d heard him – the flutter of an eyelid, the twitch of a finger – but there was no response. There was only the steady rise and fall of Kevin’s chest to show that he was alive at all, and even that felt fake, the result of oxygen being blown into his lungs by way of the mask. It was hard seeing Kevin like that, a lifeless shell, being kept alive by medical equipment that assisted with every function of his body, from breathing to pissing. AJ’s eyes dropped to the catheter bag hanging off the side of the bed, half full with dark urine. The amber liquid looked a lot like the whiskey he’d been downing every morning when he got back to the hotel to help him drift off to sleep. He shook his head in disgust.
“Ah, I’m no good at this,” he muttered. “Now, if Nick were here… that kid could talk you out of a coma, no problem.” He laughed to himself, laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes, and before he knew it, he was crying. “Aw, man… now see what you made me do.” He sniffed and rubbed his eyes, wiping away the tears and weariness.
When he’d finally regained enough of his composure to look at Kevin again, AJ nearly fell out of his chair. At first, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him and rubbed them again furiously. But when he looked again, he realized he wasn’t just seeing things.
Kevin’s eyes were open.
Nick rolled over in bed, rising up onto his elbow as he attempted to fluff his flat pillow. The worn mattress groaned under his weight as he flopped back down with a sigh. Nothing about living with the Amish was comfortable, not even their furniture. He missed his own bed back home. It had a king-size, Eurotop mattress, which Mandy had picked out and he’d paid for. He closed his eyes, wishing he would wake up and find himself in Florida, this whole nightmare over and soon forgotten. But when he opened his eyes, he was still in the grandfather house on the Albrecht family’s farm.
It surprised him, therefore, to see electric light spilling through the gap below his window shade. Curious, he crawled out of bed and crept across the room, the wooden floorboards creaking beneath his feet. He crouched at the window, carefully lifting a corner of the dark green shade so he could peek out. A pair of headlights shone through the darkness. He frowned, squinting while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness. Amish buggies had battery-powered headlights for safety reasons, but behind these lights, he saw not the boxy frame of a buggy, but the streamlined silhouette of a sedan. It was the first car he’d seen in the Amish community, and its appearance unnerved him, especially when he saw the doors on each side swing open and two men step out.
He couldn’t make out their faces, but when they walked in front of the lights, he could see their shapes. One of them was big and beefy, the other one leaner but no less muscular. They strode toward the grandfather house in tandem, their knuckles swinging at their sides. Nick quickly backed away from the window, his thoughts racing. It was them, Joey and D, come to finish the job. Just as he’d feared, they must have gone back to the creek to check on his body and, finding it gone, traced him here somehow. Maybe they had followed Lukas’s buggy back to the farm from the gas station the night of the sing.
There was no time to wonder and no way to escape. All Nick could think to do was hide. He hurtled over his bed and sank to the floor on the far side of it. Then he dragged the bed frame toward him, leaving a gap of a few inches between it and the wall in which he could lie, his body pressed against the baseboard. He reached up and pulled the bedspread down to hide himself, hoping it wouldn’t show from the other side. Then he lay as still as he could, trying to keep himself from trembling. His heart was pounding so hard in his throat, he thought they must be able to hear it.
He flinched at the sound of a wood-splintering crash and knew they’d kicked in the door of the grandfather house. He held his breath, listening to their heavy feet clomp across the wooden floor. They were coming closer. He dreaded the moment when they would open the bedroom door.
A few seconds later, he heard the doorknob turn. The door creaked open, but the feet hesitated in the doorway. Cowering on the floor under his covers, Nick couldn’t see them, but imagined them standing there, slowly surveying the scene in front of them. It would only be a matter of seconds before they came in and started searching the room. He closed his eyes and used every ounce of his willpower to keep still, hoping they’d overlook him.
Then the mattress moved, as a meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder.
“No!” Jerking away, Nick took a blind swing and was surprised to feel his fist connect with the man’s face.
The gasp of surprise sounded almost… female?
He opened his eyes and found himself gazing up at Analiese, who was standing over him, rubbing the side of her face. He looked down at his clenched hand and then back up at Analiese, slowly making the connection. “Oh, shit!” he cried, without thinking to censor himself. “Did I just hit you?”
“An accident, I’m sure,” she said shakily, looking down at him with wide eyes. “Are you alright?”
Nick suddenly realized he was sprawled on the floor, the bedspread tangled around his legs. Somehow, he’d managed to fall out of bed. He must have been acting out his nightmare. Releasing a breath, he nodded and slowly untwisted his legs from the bedspread, taking care to keep himself covered. He was already embarrassed enough without letting Analiese see that he slept naked. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I must have been in the middle of a nightmare when you woke me.”
“It’s alright. I’m sorry, too – for your nightmare and for waking you,” said Analiese sincerely. “It’s just that it’s almost sunrise.”
Nick looked past her to the window. She had rolled up the shade, and he could see the sky starting to lighten. There was no car parked outside, just Emeric’s buggy. He had imagined – or, rather, dreamed – the entire thing. Feeling foolish, he shook his head. “No, it’s fine. You’re right; I should get up.”
“I’ll leave you to get dressed,” said Analiese. He saw her eyes drop briefly to his bare chest before she averted them, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. She turned quickly and walked away, but in the doorway, she paused. “Also, I’ll make sure to bring you a clean nightshirt,” she added, then walked out without looking back.
Nick smirked and shook his head again, raking a hand through his disheveled hair. He had slept hard, he could tell, but he felt just as exhausted as he’d been when he had gone to bed the night before. It was difficult to fall asleep without TV or music to distract him from the disturbing thoughts that entered his mind whenever he had a chance to rest. They now haunted his dreams, as well as his waking hours, and the only way he’d found to keep them at bay was to work hard during the day and make himself so tired that he would drop off to sleep quickly at night.
With that goal in mind, Nick dragged himself out of bed, put on his borrowed Amish clothes, and hurried outside to help Analiese’s father in the fields.
Brian arrived at the hospital bright and early, as he had every day that week. Together, he and his Aunt Ann took the elevator to the sixth floor. AJ was waiting for them when they stepped off. Fearing the worst, Brian felt his heart skip a beat, but then he realized that, for the first time in a week, AJ was actually smiling.
“Guess what,” he greeted them.
AJ was grinning like the Cheshire cat. “Kevin opened his eyes.”
“What?!” Ann gasped, at the same time Brian said, “No way! When?”
“Late last night.”
“Why didn’t you call one of us?” Brian asked, frowning.
“I wanted to, but Howie said to wait, so you guys could get some sleep,” AJ explained. “It’s not like he woke up completely; it was just for a few seconds. But the nurse said it was a good sign and that his doctor would want to run some more tests this morning.”
Brian nodded, deciding not to hold it against Howie. He had to focus on the positives. This was the sort of news he had been praying for. Now if they could just find Nick… he thought, as he and Aunt Ann followed AJ to the Neuro ICU. The news on Nick wasn’t nearly as encouraging. The police stakeout at the gas station where the mysterious phone call was made had produced no results, and Brian hadn’t received any strange calls since then. At least they hadn’t found Nick’s body. This was the thin thread of hope he clung to: as long as Nick’s body didn’t turn up, he had to be alive out there somewhere.
When they entered Kevin’s cubicle, his eyes were closed. Despite AJ’s warning, Brian had hoped to find him sitting up and talking, but Kevin looked no different than he had when Brian had left the previous night. He was still lying there, the same way he had been for a week, tethered to his hospital bed by the tubes that carried fluids in and out of his body. Brian tried not to let his disappointment show as he sat down on the opposite side of the bed as Ann. “Good morning, cous!” he said, forcing himself to sound cheerful. “Rise and shine!” He reached for Kevin’s hand, trying to wedge his fingers into Kevin’s tightly clenched fist. To his astonishment, Kevin writhed away, drawing his fists closer to his chest. Brian pulled his hand back in surprise.
“Baby?” Ann leaned forward, reaching for Kevin’s other hand. She picked it up off the mattress and held it between her own two hands, rubbing his knuckles with her fingertips. “C’mon, baby, wake up,” she coached him softly, and Brian waited with bated breath, his eyes trained on Kevin’s face, but there was no response this time.
He let out his breath slowly. “Must’ve just been an involuntary reaction,” he said. “You know, like a reflex.”
If Ann had heard him, she didn’t acknowledge it. She was staring at Kevin’s hand, gently turning his wrist so she could study it from every angle. “I can still remember how small his hands were when he was born,” she said out of the blue. Brian wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or to herself. “His hands were one of the first things I looked at after I got done admiring his sweet face. I had to count each of his ten little fingers, with their tiny, pink fingernails. Do you know how small a newborn baby’s fingernails are?”
Listening to his aunt, Brian felt a lump rise in his throat. He smiled tightly and shook his head.
Ann smiled, too. “Someday you will. And you’ll never forget it.” She stroked the back of Kevin’s hand some more. “My baby boy’s got big man hands now. My, how fast time flies by.”
Brian didn’t know what to say. He looked down at his lap, then up at Kevin’s face. Then he gasped. “Aunt Ann! Look!”
Kevin’s fist fell limply back to the mattress as Ann brought both hands up to her face. “Oh, thank the Lord, it’s true! His eyes are open!”
They both jumped up and stood over Kevin. “Hey, Kev!” Brian said brightly, smiling down at him. “Welcome back to the land of the living!”
When there was no response, Ann asked anxiously, “Kevin, honey, can you hear us?”
But Kevin showed no signs of understanding. His eyes were open, but empty, his face a blank slate. Brian had never seen his cousin look that way, completely expressionless. It was a little creepy. Kevin continued to stare straight ahead for a few seconds without focusing on either of their faces, and then his eyelids fluttered shut again. Brian sank back into his chair, not bothering to mask his disappointment this time.
“Well,” Ann sighed, following suit. “It’s a start, I suppose. Let’s wait and see what the doctor has to say.”
They sat down with Dr. Whitby and the rest of Kevin’s neurology team later that morning to go over the results of his latest round of tests.
“It looks like Kevin is coming out of the coma,” Dr. Whitby began the meeting by saying, and Brian smiled with relief. “The spontaneous eye opening and responses to certain stimuli are encouraging signs. At this point, Kevin is in what we call a ‘vegetative state.’ He’s still unconscious, but – unlike a coma patient – able to be awoken. However, his brain isn’t yet functioning on a cognitive level.”
At that, Brian’s heart sunk. Please… please don’t say he’s going to be a vegetable, he prayed silently, clasping his hands together underneath the table. He said nothing out loud, waiting for Dr. Whitby to finish.
“Our hope is that, from here on out, he’ll stay awake for longer periods of time and start to become aware of his surroundings. I’d like to recommend that we start a sensory stimulation program with Kevin. The goal of this type of therapy is to increase Kevin’s awareness by activating all five of his senses and encouraging him to respond to different stimuli in his environment. It’s been shown to accelerate the recovery of some patients with traumatic brain injuries.”
Ann nodded. “Do it. Do anything that you think might help.”
She sounded encouraged, but Brian was feeling overwhelmed. It was as if they’d just cleared another obstacle, only to find themselves staring down another long stretch of road. The road to recovery. He had been so busy praying for Kevin to live that he hadn’t bothered to think about what his cousin’s life would be like if he did survive. In some ways, it seemed like Nick wasn’t the only one they were looking for. Kevin, too, was still missing, lost somewhere inside his shattered skull, hiding behind a blank pair of green eyes. Brian had to stop and wonder, would he ever be found?