That Wednesday marked three weeks since the day Nick disappeared. Howie, AJ, and Brian spent it at the hospital with Kevin.
Kevin had been moved out of intensive care and into a private room in the step-down unit, where he was still being monitored closely. Now that he had begun to have what Dr. Whitby referred to as “sleep-wake cycles,” they were told to give up the twenty-four hour vigil they’d kept while Kevin was in his coma and only visit during the day. “We don’t want to overstimulate Kevin,” the neurosurgeon emphasized. “He still needs lots of rest so his brain can continue to recover.”
They took turns visiting one at a time, so that Kevin wouldn’t be overwhelmed by too many people in his room at once. At the suggestion of one of his therapists, they brought things to stimulate his senses – bouquets of brightly-colored flowers, pictures of his family, samples of his favorite foods, a pair of flannel pajamas, a CD of his favorite songs.
On his way to the hospital that day, Howie had stopped at a record store and picked up a brand new copy of Millennium. He’d felt silly buying his own album, especially when the store clerk looked up from the cover and asked, “Hey, isn’t that you?” Once he’d explained what he needed it for, the clerk was sympathetic. “Tell him to get well soon!” he called, as Howie walked out the door.
“Everyone’s wishing you a speedy recovery,” said Howie later, as he sat at Kevin’s bedside. “Even random strangers on the street. A guy at F.Y.E. said to tell you, ‘Get well soon.’ We’re all pulling for you, buddy.” He reached out to squeeze Kevin’s shoulder, but as usual, Kevin’s only response was to groan and wriggle away. Even though the nurses said these were good signs, that any response was better than nothing, it was clear that Kevin didn’t recognize Howie or AJ or Brian. He wasn’t even aware of his own mother, though she, too, came every day to sit and talk to him.
Howie wondered if he would respond to the sound of his own voice, his music. He took Millennium out of its shrink wrap and put the CD in the portable player they’d brought to the hospital. Then he eased a pair of headphones over Kevin’s ears, turning them upside down and tucking the headband under his chin so it wouldn’t interfere with the helmet he’d been fitted with to protect his skull. Turning on the CD player, he switched to the second track and pressed play. Soon he could hear strains of “I Want It That Way” playing softly through the headphone speakers.
“Sound familiar?” he asked. “This is us. This is our song. You even have a solo in this one; it’s coming up. Listen…”
Kevin’s eyes were half-open, but there was no sign of life under their drooping lids. It was like he was sleeping with his eyes open. Howie wondered if, in the midst of these sleep-wake cycles, he was still capable of dreaming.
“Now I can see that we’re falling apart from the way that it used to be…” It was hard to hear Kevin’s voice drifting out of the headphones and wonder if he would ever hear it live again. “No matter the distance, I want you to know that deep down inside of me…” Howie wanted to believe that Kevin was still there, deep down inside of himself, and that, little by little, the therapy would bring him back out, but he knew there were no guarantees. Dr. Whitby had warned them that if there was no significant improvement in four weeks, Kevin would be classified as in a “persistent” vegetative state. If it lasted more than a year, it would be considered permanent.
“Come on, bro,” Howie whispered, rubbing the back of Kevin’s hand. “Come back to us.”
But there was no response.
“Show me the meaning of being lonely…”
Howie heard the song change and the sound of their five-part harmony fill the air. He smiled. “How about this one, Kev? ‘Show Me the Meaning?’ We were talking about making this one our next single, remember?” His smile faded when he realized they might never release another single, not without Nicky…
“…Life goes on, as it never ends. Eyes of stone observe the trends. They never say, forever gaze, if only…” Howie leaned closer to Kevin, listening to the beautiful harmony his voice made when it blended with Nick’s. “Guilty roads to an endless love. There’s no control. Are you with me now?”
“Listen, Kev. Do you hear that? That’s Nick singing.” A lump had risen in Howie’s throat. He swallowed hard. “He’s missing, Kevin. Nicky’s missing. Whoever did this to you… did something to him, too. We need you to wake up and tell us what happened that night so we can find him. Okay, Kev? Please… we need you. Nick needs you.”
Despite an eight-year age difference that had made it hard for them to relate to each other at times, Howie knew how much Kevin cared about Nick. He was like the little brother none of them had ever had. If anything could get Kevin’s attention, it was knowing Nick needed him.
But still… there was nothing.
AJ arrived at the hospital around noon, the same time as Jane Carter. He spotted her in the lobby and caught up with her at the elevator. Clearing his throat, he said, “Hey, Jane.”
Startled, Nick’s mother spun around. “AJ! Hi!”
The elevator dinged. The doors slid open, and they both stepped inside. AJ pushed the button for the sixth floor. As the doors closed, he looked over at Jane. “How are you holding up?”
“Oh… you know… not well,” she admitted, in a voice that was higher than normal.
AJ reached out, as if to pat her on the shoulder, and then stopped halfway, letting his hand fall to his side. “We saw you on The Today Show,” he said. It was a half-truth; he hadn’t really watched her interview, but Brian and Howie had. AJ had heard them talking about it afterward. They’d questioned her motives for appearing on national television to discuss Nick’s disappearance, but AJ didn’t. He knew if he had gone missing, his own mother would have done the same thing. He couldn’t imagine that Jane would be seeking money or fame this time; all she wanted was her son. Keeping Nick’s name in the news was smart. Sooner or later, someone who knew something would see it and come forward. “Did your interview generate any new leads?”
Jane cleared her throat. “Actually, yes. That’s why I came. I just got done talking to the police.” The elevator stopped on the sixth floor, and they stepped out. “Are the other boys here?”
“Yeah, I assume so. They weren’t at the hotel when I left, anyway.” As usual, AJ had been the last to get up that morning. By the time he’d dragged himself out of bed, Howie was long gone, his own bed neatly made. He had knocked on the adjoining door that connected their room to the one Brian was sharing with his aunt, but no one had answered. “So what’s up, Jane? What did the police have to say?”
She shook her head. “I’d rather wait until you’re all together. Where are they?”
“Probably the waiting room.” AJ’s heart pounded. He knew the news couldn’t be good, or she wouldn’t look so grim, but he tried to keep himself from thinking the worst. “We’ve been visiting Kevin in shifts, one at a time, so we don’t overstimulate him. You heard he came out of the coma, right?” This was another point of contention between Brian, Howie, and him. They thought Jane should have come to visit Kevin by now, since she was staying in Philadelphia anyway, but even though AJ agreed, he couldn’t blame her for not coming. Most days, he had to talk himself into going to the hospital. It was just so hard, seeing Kevin that way.
“Yes, I was glad to hear that. How’s he doing?”
“He’s…” AJ trailed off, unsure of what to say. “I dunno. Not great, but he’s holding his own, I guess. We’re hoping he’s gonna come around.”
“I’m sure he will,” Jane agreed, acting like she knew what she was talking about. “These things take time.”
They’d reached the waiting room. AJ looked inside and saw Brian and Howie sitting there. “Any change?” he asked. Howie shook his head, while Brian just stared at the floor. AJ tilted his head toward Kevin’s room down the hall. “Ann in with him?”
They both nodded.
“Look who I found in the lobby.”
Both Howie and Brian sat up straighter when Jane walked into the room. “Hi, Jane,” said Howie. “It’s good to see you here. How are you doing? Here, sit down.” He motioned to an empty chair.
Jane perched stiffly on the edge of the chair. “I’m… not well,” she said, somewhat dramatically. “I just got out of a meeting with the police officer in charge of Nick’s case.”
“Detective Malcolm,” Brian said, and she nodded.
“Yes. He said that more tips came in after my interview Monday morning – AJ said you saw it – and they’ve spent the last couple of days following up on the new leads.”
“But that’s good, isn’t it?” blurted AJ. “That means they’ve got somewhere else to look, right?”
Jane turned to him, her bottom lip trembling. “They’re looking for him in the river!”
Upon hearing that, AJ felt his heart sink.
“Detective Malcolm told me they’re sending a dive team into the Schuylkill River today,” Jane elaborated. “He said he didn’t want to alarm me, but they have ‘reason to believe’ they might find something there.”
The three boys exchanged glances. No one would say it out loud, but they all knew what this news meant. The police were no longer looking to find Nick alive. They were searching for his body.
The call came two days later.
Howie was having lunch with AJ and Brian in the hospital cafeteria when his cell phone rang. When he saw the name Jane Carter, his stomach dropped. He almost didn’t want to answer, but he knew he had to. He punched the talk button and put the phone to his ear.
“Hi, Jane,” he said, causing both Brian and AJ to look up. AJ’s face was pale, and Brian’s eyes were filled with panic. Howie knew that they had all jumped to the same grim conclusion about why Nick’s mother was calling.
“Howie…” Her voice was a hoarse whisper. He pressed the phone closer to his ear, straining to hear her next words. “They found a body.”
It was all over CNN by the time they got back upstairs. “If you’re just joining us, we’re live with breaking news,” said the woman on the waiting room TV. “A body has been discovered at the bottom of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, where divers have been searching for missing pop star Nick Carter.” A photo of Nick appeared on one side of the split screen. Howie recognized the backdrop from the red carpet at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, where they’d performed and won the Moonman for Viewer’s Choice. Nick was smiling broadly, blissfully unaware of the tragedy that would befall him three weeks later. It was hard to believe he could be inside the body bag shown being wheeled away on a stretcher on the other side of the screen. “At this time, we can’t confirm whether or not these are Carter’s remains. The body was said to be badly decomposed and is being transported to the medical examiner’s office for identification and, presumably, an autopsy.”
“Turn it off.” Howie glanced at AJ, whose face was white as a sheet, his lip curled with disgust. “I can’t watch this shit. It’s making me sick.”
Howie nodded. He found the remote and changed the channel. Some soap opera was on; he had no idea which one. Two women were having a heated conversation in a hospital room, where a man lay comatose in the bed behind them, hooked up to a heart monitor and ventilator. The scene was eerily familiar and equally sickening. Shaking his head, Howie punched the power button on the remote. The TV went off with a click, filling the room with the sound of silence. It was almost suffocating. Howie couldn’t blame AJ one bit when he suddenly said, “I need some air,” and bolted, his hand already reaching into his back pocket for a pack of cigarettes.
Brian was the next to leave. “I’m gonna go down to the chapel for awhile,” he announced, and again, Howie wasn’t surprised. Brian had been spending a lot of time in the hospital chapel since Kevin was admitted. He didn’t extend the invitation for Howie to join him, so Howie assumed he wanted to be alone.
He watched Brian go, listening to the sound of his footsteps fading down the hall. Then, sighing, he picked up the remote again and turned the TV back on. No news was good news to some people, but Howie liked to stay informed. If they had found Nicky, he wanted to know. So he sat alone in the waiting room, watching CNN with his phone in his hand.
Brian was in the chapel when the word came.
He was sitting by himself in one of the pews, his head bowed in silent prayer, when he heard someone say his name.
He straightened up and looked over his shoulder to see Howie standing in the doorway. To Brian’s surprise, he was smiling. “Hey, I’m sorry to interrupt,” he started.
Brian shook his head. “That’s okay. What’s goin’ on?”
Howie held up his phone. “I just heard back from Jane. It wasn’t him.”
Brian sucked in a sharp breath and released it slowly, giving his brain time to process what Howie had said. As his lungs deflated, his whole body seemed to sag with relief. “They’re sure?” he asked.
Howie nodded. “Dental records confirmed it. It’s not Nicky.”
“Thank the Lord.”
Still smiling, Howie slid into the pew beside him. Brian turned to him, and without another word, the two men hugged. They held on to each other for a long time, during which Brian had time to think about what it would have been like if the news had been different, if the body had belonged to Nick. Howie patted his back and released him slowly. “You okay?” he asked Brian.
Brian smiled and nodded, not bothering to blink back the tears that had sprang to his eyes. “Yeah, man, I’m good now. Thanks.”
“Sure, man.” Howie clapped him on the shoulder. “You comin’ back upstairs?”
“Go ahead. I’m gonna stay one more minute, and then I’ll be right behind you.”
“Okay,” Howie agreed. He got up to leave, but Brian stopped him with a question that sprang suddenly to his mind.
Howie turned around in the aisle. “Yeah?”
“Did Jane… did she say… if they know who it was?”
Howie shook his head. “No… I don’t think they’ve identified him yet.”
Howie shrugged, and when Brian didn’t say anything more, he walked out.
Brian waited until he was gone and then leaned back against the pew. He placed his hand on his chest, where he could feel his heart thumping hard. The last few hours had seemed just as long and the wait just as agonizing as the night Nick and Kevin were attacked, but once again, they’d been rewarded with good news. He sighed again with relief and closed his eyes, sending a silent prayer of thanks to God. But when he opened his eyes and looked up at the cross hanging over the altar at the front of the chapel, he couldn’t help but wonder if this was really the answer to his prayers or just a delay of the inevitable.
Gianna heard it on the Sunday evening news, as she was cooking dinner.
“In tonight’s top story, Backstreet Boys fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief. The remains pulled from the Schuylkill River this past Friday were not those of missing boyband member Nick Carter, as Carter’s family, friends, and fans had feared.”
After a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure Joey wasn’t skulking around the kitchen, Gianna set down the wooden spoon she’d been using to stir the pot of sauce on the stove and leaned over to turn up the volume on the small TV mounted under the corner cupboard.
“Although an anonymous tip left through the hotline number for Carter’s case was what led police to start searching the river on Wednesday, the body they found has been identified as forty-two-year-old Alfonso Gianatti, of South Philadelphia. Upon medical examination, which revealed the cause of death to be a gunshot wound to the head, Gianatti’s death was ruled a homicide. It isn’t clear whether his murder has any connection to the Nick Carter case. Philadelphia police are asking anyone with information on either Gianatti’s death or Carter’s disappearance to call the number on your screen.”
It was a different number from the one Gianna had dialed to call in the tip. She frowned, feeling she’d done more damage than good. Now the police had another homicide on their hands, and the Carter kid was still missing.
Maybe Joey didn’t kill him, Gianna thought, wondering if she had simply read the situation wrong. Then she remembered the way Joey had watched that news report about Nick, with his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched, and she realized it was the same look she’d seen on his face by the river. Her stomach clenched as she considered the disturbing likelihood: Or maybe he killed them both.