Nick thought for sure that he was dead, and maybe his captors did, too, or maybe they just didn’t care. If he wasn’t dead already, he would be soon. When he regained consciousness, they were tying a cinder block to his feet.
He couldn’t see a thing; he was wrapped in a sheet, just as the body he’d seen them dumping had been. Wonder if that guy was still alive, too, Nick thought, feeling a sick sense of déjà vu as he listened to them drag the heavy brick across the wooden bridge. He lay perfectly still, letting them work. There was no use trying to get away now; he was cocooned in the sheet, and if they realized he was still capable of running, they would surely correct their mistake.
But maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe they planned to torture him further by weighing down his unconscious body, so that he would come to underwater and slowly drown. If that were the case, he’d rather go the way Kevin had. He had never dreamed he would die in the water. He’d always loved the water.
Just as he had the night before, he could smell the water as he came near it – carried, this time, by the two, murderous thugs. Without his eyesight, his other senses seemed heightened. He could hear it, too: the gentle trickle of a creek, rather than a river. With any luck, it wouldn’t be deep.
As they carted him to the edge of the water, he kept himself as limp as possible and thought about what to do. There wasn’t much time. With a collective heave, they swung him out over the creek and let him go.
Nick held his breath as he hit the water with a stinging splash. He was immediately tugged down by the weight of the cinder block, and he felt himself freefall until he hit the soft bottom. He waited a few seconds, long enough for them to turn away. Then he began to work, twisting and writhing inside the sheet that swaddled him.
First, he managed to kick off his waterlogged shoes. This allowed him to wrestle his feet through the loop of rope that kept him anchored to the cinder block. He kicked off of the ground and flailed his body around like a fish, still fighting with the sheet. The effort drained him of his precious remaining air supply, and his lungs began to scream for a fresh gulp of air. His fingers scrabbled blindly to find the edges of the sheet, but his movements were growing clumsier by the second as he weakened.
At the last second, dizzy from lack of oxygen, the black edges of oblivion rapidly closing in on what little vision he had, Nick freed his upper body. In one, powerful stroke, he propelled himself upward, his bound legs flapping frantically beneath him like a mermaid’s tail. He broke through the surface of the water with a breathless gasp and sucked in a lungful of air, ignoring the protests of his battered ribs.
His timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Hearing a rumble overhead, he looked up and saw that he was directly underneath the bridge. The wood creaked as two pairs of tires rolled over it. Staying low in the water as he swam to the far side of the creek, Nick peeked around the base of the bridge and watched as his captors’ car pulled away from the bridge and sped off, tires squealing on the pavement.
He waited, out of sight, until the taillights had faded into the darkness. Then he waded through the shallows until he found a bit of bank onto which he could climb. Limbs trembling with exhaustion, he struggled to pull himself out of the water and rolled gratefully onto the dry grass. He collapsed onto his back, his injured chest heaving, his head spinning, and promptly passed out again.
It was raining the next morning when Gianna got up.
She went about her morning routine in her usual stupor, turning on the TV in the kitchen, starting a pot of coffee, and fixing breakfast for herself and Luci. She woke up little by little, as the scent of fresh-brewed Folgers wafted through the apartment, and by the time she’d finished her first cup, she was dancing around the kitchen to the morning block of music videos on MTV.
“Can you pay my bills… can you pay my telephone bills… can you pay my automo’ bills… then maybe we can chill…” she sang along with her TV, sprinkling shredded cheese over a pan of scrambled eggs. “I don’t think you do… sooo you and me are through…”
When the Destiny’s Child video ended, she checked the microwave clock; it was ten till seven, almost time to wake Luci up for school. She couldn’t believe her daughter had been in second grade for a whole month. How time flew… it didn’t seem so long ago that she’d been a scared teenager, still in school herself, wondering how the hell she was going to raise the kid she’d gotten knocked up with. And now here she was, seven years later, doing a pretty damn decent job of it, all things considered…
Hell, she was even making her daughter breakfast, like a regular Martha-freakin’-Stewart.
Gianna smiled to herself as she dished the eggs onto two plates. She was scraping the last bits of egg out of the pan when she heard the familiar intro to an MTV News brief on the TV behind her. “Hi, I’m John Norris with MTV News. Less than a month into the U.S. leg of their sold-out Into the Millennium Tour, The Backstreet Boys were rocked with tragedy late last night-”
At the mention of her daughter’s favorite group, Gianna spun around, the spatula falling from her hand with a clatter.
“-when an attack on the multi-platinum-selling boyband left one of its members in critical condition and another still missing. The Boys had just finished the first of two consecutive concerts in Philadelphia when oldest member Kevin Richardson was found unconscious in his hotel room with a gunshot wound to the head.”
Gianna gaped at her TV, picturing the tall, dark-haired one she’d been admiring just yesterday, when she’d picked Luci up early from school and taken her down to First Union in hopes of meeting the group. She hadn’t told Luci yet, but she’d been considering trying again that afternoon; she’d push her way to the front of those barricades if she had to, anything to get Luci a freakin’ autograph…
Guess I won’t be headin’ down there after all, she thought grimly, watching the rest of the report in disbelief.
“Richardson was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he’s said to be in critical condition. No other details on the extent or treatment of his injuries are known at this time. Richardson was sharing his hotel room with the group’s youngest member, Nick Carter, who went missing sometime before Richardson was discovered.”
“Aw crap, not the blonde one too,” Gianna muttered to herself, shaking her head at the image on the screen. The face was the same one plastered all over her daughter’s walls.
“Carter’s whereabouts are still unknown, and as of this morning, the Philadelphia police department has launched a full-scale search and investigation. When asked of Carter’s status in the investigation, Police Commissioner John Timoney made it clear that, at this time, Nick Carter is not thought to be a suspect and is instead considered a possible victim of foul play. A tips hotline has been set up; if you have any information regarding the attack on Kevin Richardson or the whereabouts of Nick Carter, call the number on your screen. We at MTV News will keep you updated on this breaking news story as more details unfold.”
Jumping, Gianna quickly shut off the TV, as Luci came padding into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, her black hair in tangles.
“Is it time to get up now?” she asked in a sleepy voice.
“Just about, babe. Perfect timing!” Gianna forced a smile and a chipper tone into her voice. “How about some breakfast?”
Luci nodded, sliding into her spot at the tiny kitchen table. As Gianna set a plate of scrambled eggs down in front of her, she wondered how her daughter would react when she inevitably heard the news.
It had been the worst night of their lives. Sitting in a private waiting room at the Philadelphia hospital where Kevin had been taken, Brian, AJ, and Howie were ready to drop. None of them had slept all night.
Brian was running on coffee and adrenaline, but they weren’t the only things keeping him awake. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Kevin the way he’d found him, lying lifelessly in a puddle of his own blood, a bullet hole in his head. Whenever he started to drift off, he thought of Nick, wherever he was, alone and scared, possibly hurt, if he was even still…
Don’t think it, he urged himself, sitting up straighter in his chair, alert once more. Of course he’s still alive. He’s alive, and they’ll find him.
The police detectives had been in and out all night, asking questions, taking their statements, updating them on the search for Nick and whoever had attacked him and Kevin. They’d conducted a thorough sweep of the hotel and had found nothing; now their search had extended throughout the city of Philadelphia.
In between their visits, members of the hospital staff came to fill the three of them in on Kevin’s condition. They had started out in the emergency department, where they’d waited around in shock while the emergency room doctors and nurses worked on Kevin. Eventually, a doctor had come to talk to them, using phrases like “skull fracture,” “bleeding in the brain,” “bullet fragments,” and “intracranial pressure,” as he described Kevin’s injuries.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” the grim-faced doctor had said. “He’s suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Ninety percent of people who suffer a gunshot to the head don’t survive it. Kevin’s lucky to have even made it to the hospital. The good news is that, although he’s unconscious, he’s been able to breathe on his own, and his blood pressure has remained steady. Those are good signs; that means his brain stem, the part of the brain that controls vital functions, is intact. But it’s not all good news. The MRI and CT scan show significant damage to the two upper lobes of the brain. There are signs of bleeding and swelling in the back of the brain, where the bullet hit the back of his skull. Surgery is the only way to repair the damage, but there’s no guarantee Kevin will survive it.”
AJ had asked the question they’d all been thinking. “Is there any chance of him surviving without it?”
“No,” the doctor replied. “I just don’t want to give you false hope. Even if he makes it through surgery, his chances of a meaningful recovery may be slim.”
“But there’s still a chance, right?” Brian admired AJ for his defiant optimism. “So you have to do the surgery.”
He and Howie had agreed, and when Kevin was whisked into brain surgery, they were led to a different part of the hospital, the surgical waiting area. There they had waited, all night, into the morning. It had been hours since the woman who’d introduced herself as Maggie, the surgical support nurse, had come to tell them the operation had started. They’d had no word from her since.
“I’m sure this is normal,” Howie repeated from time to time. “I mean, it’s brain surgery! It’s got to be a pretty intricate procedure.”
“Yeah…” sighed AJ. “I guess no news is good news, right?”
Brian wasn’t so sure. He knew Howie and AJ were probably right, but that didn’t stop him from worrying that something had gone wrong, that the reason the nurse hadn’t come back to talk to them yet was because they were scrambling to save Kevin’s life.
They weren’t the only ones desperately waiting for updates. Brian had made the hardest phone call of his life when he’d woken his Aunt Ann in the middle of the night to tell her what had happened to her son. Now he wished he’d waited. Like them, Kevin’s mother had sat up the rest of the night, helplessly waiting and worrying, until the airports in Kentucky opened in the morning, and then she had boarded the first flight she could get to Philadelphia. Brian hoped he would have good news to give her by the time she arrived.
“Anyone want anything?” Brian looked blearily at AJ, who had gotten up. “Coffee… soda… shot of whiskey?”
Brian forced a humorless chuckle and shook his head. “I’m okay,” he muttered. He was anything but.
Howie also declined, but AJ said, “I’m just gonna walk down the hall. I can’t take this sitting still.”
“More caffeine isn’t gonna help that,” Howie pointed out, but AJ ignored him and strode toward the door. He nearly collided with a tall man in a pair of blue scrubs who walked in at the same moment.
“Oh, excuse me,” the man apologized, looking flustered. “Are you Mr. Richardson’s friends?”
“Yeah,” said AJ, going to sit back down. “How’s Kevin?”
Brian’s heart hammered in his chest as he stared up at the doctor, trying to read his expression. The man had a good poker face, stoic and blank. “I’m Dr. Whitby, the neurosurgeon,” he introduced himself. He didn’t extend his hand. “Kevin’s out of surgery and stable in recovery. He’ll be monitored there for a few hours and then moved to the Neuro ICU.”
A chorus of relieved sighs went around the room, and Brian’s pulse slowed a tad. It was certainly good news to hear, though he knew Kevin wasn’t out of the woods yet. “How did the surgery go?” he asked.
“We were able to remove the bullet and most of the fragments, as well as a large hematoma – a clot – caused by the bleeding in his brain. Our biggest concern at this stage is swelling. The brain can be further damaged by too much intracranial pressure; as the brain swells, it gets squeezed against the skull. To give it room to ‘breathe,’ so to say, we did a craniectomy – we removed a piece of skull that was fractured by the bullet.”
“Wait…” AJ looked repulsed. “You’re saying you left his freaking head open?!” He was staring at the surgeon as if he were a raving lunatic.
For the first time, a hint of a smile cracked Dr. Whitby’s solemn expression, but just as quickly, he was back to business. “It sounds extreme, I know, but it’s necessary to prevent further trauma to the brain. Once Kevin heals, we’ll do another operation to close his skull. For now, the opening’s covered by scalp, and we implanted a drain to remove access fluid. He’ll be receiving IV antibiotics to prevent infection.”
Brian didn’t want to picture his cousin with a drainage pipe sticking out of a large hole in his head. “When do you think he’ll wake up?” he asked, eager to move the conversation ahead.
“That’s impossible to know. The effects of the anesthesia will begin wearing off soon, and we’ll be able to measure his level of consciousness then, but it’s likely he’ll remain comatose, at least for now,” said the doctor. “When or if he’ll come out of the coma remains to be seen. Unfortunately, it’s a ‘wait and see’ situation at this point.”
The three of them nodded, exchanging worried glances at the surgeon’s sobering words. It was hard for any of them to imagine Kevin never waking up. Just hours ago, he’d been singing and dancing with them onstage, in top physical shape, and now he lay recovering from brain surgery, in a coma.
This has to be a nightmare, thought Brian. How could this have happened for real?
He wished he would wake up and find out it really had been a terrible dream. But for him to wake up, he would have to have slept, and he knew he hadn’t done that. Kevin was still in critical condition, Nick was still missing, and Brian was still wide awake with worry, wishing he could sleep.
Nick had slept for a long time. He knew it when he awoke to birds singing and the sound of raindrops on the roof and window.
Opening his eyes, he found himself staring up at a wooden ceiling. He sat up quickly, ignoring the pain in his ribs and his head as he looked around in confusion. He was lying on a bed, in the center of a tiny room. The floorboards were made of wood, and the walls were whitewashed and bare. The only pieces of furniture, aside from the bed, were a small, plain dresser pushed up against one wall and a wooden rocking chair in the corner. It was a far cry from his lavish hotel room, with its gleaming mahogany desk, large flatscreen TV, and gold-framed wall paintings.
Where the hell am I? he wondered. How did I get here?
The last thing he remembered was pulling himself out of the creek, as the men who had abducted him were driving away. Surely, if they had come back for him, he wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t even be alive. But who, then, had brought him here, wherever he was?
He tried to get out of bed to investigate, but the movement made him dizzy and caused so much pain that he was forced to lie down again. The single, soft pillow was a welcomed relief to the back of his head, where he’d been pistol-whipped twice. As he lay there, the room seeming to spin around him, Nick thought back to the previous night. It seemed distant and dreamlike to him now, but his aching body and strange surroundings were evidence enough that it had not been just a nightmare. He really had been attacked in his hotel room, held at gunpoint and forced to get into a car driven by the two men who had beat him and then left him for dead, his body anchored at the bottom of a creek.
That also meant that Kevin was really dead.
Tears filled his eyes, and he rolled over on the bed, burying his face in the musty pillow. His shoulders shook with the effort of stifling his sobs, as the flood of emotions shock had kept him from experiencing the night before began to pour out.
It was a delayed reaction, but no less intense. He cried as he thought of his older brother, lying there on the floor of their hotel room, shot to death for no reason, other than that he, like Nick, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nick knew the bullet had been intended for him, and if he had been first into the room, it would have hit its target.
Kevin was dead because of him.
The guilt was as strong as the grief, and he sobbed not only because his brother was dead, but because he had killed him. He had killed him with his disobedience, killed him with his silence, killed him with the string of bad decisions that had led him to this tiny room.
He didn’t even care to know where he was anymore; he shouldn’t have been there, anyway. He should have been in the creek, the bullet that had killed Kevin lodged in his own brain instead. He wished he were dead; he didn’t think he could live while drowning in such guilt.
He gripped the edges of the pillowcase, which was damp with his tears, so distraught that he didn’t even notice the creak of the door opening, nor the scuff of footsteps over the hardwood floor, as someone came into the room.