Chapter 7


“Hello?”

Nick froze, mutely clutching the phone receiver to his ear, his heart beating fast, as the voice came again.  It sounded confused at first, then slightly annoyed.

“Hello?”

Say something! Nick urged himself, but he could only stand there, dumbly, as the voice grew more irritated.

“Listen, if you’re from the press, I don’t wanna talk to you.  No comment.”

Then, with a click, the line went dead.

Nick felt himself deflate, as the breath he’d been holding escaped through a sigh.

***

Brian flipped his cell phone shut and stuffed it back in his pocket.  When he glanced up again, AJ and Howie were both looking at him.

“No one there,” he said, before they could ask.

“Probably someone from the media.”  AJ said what Brian had been thinking.  “They’ve got the balls to call, but not to speak, huh?”

Brian offered a listless shrug in reply.

It was evening now, and they were back at the hospital where they’d spent the previous night.  After Kevin’s mother had arrived in the morning, they had gone back to the hotel to sleep, shower, and eat, returning late in the afternoon, not quite well-rested, but somewhat refreshed.  Kevin’s girlfriend, Kristin, had flown in from Florida and spent the day there with Ann.  Leighanne had ridden with her back to the hotel to get settled for the night, and the boys had decided that when Ann was done visiting, they would have her do the same, while they stayed the night again.

In the meantime, they visited Kevin in shifts, keeping a constant vigil at his bedside to ensure that if he woke up, he would not be alone.  His mother was with him now, in the ICU where he’d been transferred following his surgery.  She would visit for fifteen minutes, then swap with one or two of the guys.  Howie and AJ had been in before her, so it was Brian’s turn next.

He took out his phone again to check the time and played with it absently as they waited, no one talking much.  When the fifteen minutes were up, he rose from his seat and announced, “I’m goin’ in.”  No one even replied, as he slid his phone back into his pocket and walked out of the room.

Brian followed the now familiar path to the Neuro ICU, a large room with windows that looked out to the nurses station across the hall and ten beds that were divided only by curtains that could be drawn between them.  Kevin had a bed in the corner, furthest from the windows and door, furthest from prying eyes, though the hospital security was tight.  Except for special circumstances, only family was permitted to visit patients in the ICU, two at a time, and only during certain hours.  Kevin’s “VIP” status must have made him a special circumstance because his night nurse, Jennie, had allowed Brian, Howie, and AJ to visit all night.

Fame had its perks.

The medical staff was very professional, but Brian could tell that its younger members, at least, knew exactly who they were.  Nurse Jennie, who couldn’t have been much older than him, offered him a sympathetic smile as he passed the nurses station on his way into the room.  He nodded in return, then entered through the sliding door.

The ICU was a bright, artificial world of fluorescent lights, sterile stainless steel, and noisy medical equipment.  The regular beeping of heart monitors, the steady hiss of ventilators, and the strong smell of antiseptics invaded Brian’s senses, triggering a memory of waking up from his open-heart surgery the previous year.  His heart reacted, beginning to race with the surge of adrenaline that shot through his body.  His palms sweat, as he approached Kevin’s bed.

His Aunt Ann was still sitting at Kevin’s bedside, and she looked up as Brian approached.  Again, he was reminded of waking up from surgery to the sight of his grandmother’s – her mother’s – face.  Though years younger, Aunt Ann strongly resembled her then.  She seemed suddenly older, her face haggard and lined with worry.  Brian hadn’t seen her look so distressed since his Uncle Jerald had died.

He came to stand beside her chair, placing a consoling hand on her shoulder.  She offered a weak smile and brought her own hand up to rest on top of his.  “I know it’s time for me to go, huh?” she murmured, looking back at Kevin.  “I just hate to leave him…”

“You don’t have to leave right this minute,” said Brian.  “Stay as long as you need to.”

She patted his hand and nodded, her eyes never straying from Kevin’s face.  “You’re right, though.  I should go back to the hotel.  It’s not healthy to stay here round the clock.  I just hoped he would show some signs of waking up before I left,” she added, sounding both wistful and disappointed.

Brian followed her line of sight to the bed.  He’d had time to adjust to Kevin’s appearance, but that didn’t make it any easier to see his cousin – more like a second big brother to him these days – the way he was.  With his eyes closed, his face slack and expressionless, and his head wrapped in a turban of gauze that hid all of his dark hair and even his eyebrows, he didn’t look like Kevin.  He looked more like a wax figure, a shell, something that resembled Kevin but had none of his spirit inside.  The analogy disturbed Brian.

He looked at the monitors over Kevin’s bed.  One of them displayed his vital signs – heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen level, all things Brian had learned about during his own hospital stay.  The other was an EEG monitor, which showed rows of spiky lines that measured Kevin’s brain activity.  Brian wasn’t sure how high or how often the lines were supposed to peak; he only knew that as long as the lines weren’t flat, it showed Kevin’s brain was still functioning.

He was grateful for the spikes on the monitor, for without them, it was impossible to know if Kevin was really alive at all.  His heart was beating, and he was still breathing on his own, but otherwise, he seemed lifeless.

“He’s in a deep coma,” the nurse, Jennie, had explained earlier, as he’d watched her move around Kevin’s bed, checking different things and making notes on his chart.  “We use a scale called the Glasgow Coma Scale to measure his level of consciousness.  I have to check his eyes, his verbal response, and his movements, and he gets a score for each of those categories.  It adds up to a possible fifteen points, which is the best score.  You and I would score a fifteen.”

“So what’s his score?” Brian had asked warily.

She talked through the assessment as she did it.  “He doesn’t open his eyes when I call his name, so next I’ll try what we call ‘painful stimuli’ – it’s not designed to hurt him, just to get a reaction.”

Brian watched as she leaned over the bed and rubbed her fist vigorously on the center of Kevin’s chest, right over the breastbone.  His frown turned into an astonished smile when Kevin writhed on the bed, drawing his arms up to his chest, his hands clenched into tight fists, which curled together like a baby’s.  “Well, there’s a reaction!  He moved,” Brian said ecstatically.  It was the first time he’d seen Kevin do anything other than lie there all day.

Jennie nodded, marking something on her clipboard.  “That’s a three for motor.  But he still didn’t open his eyes, so I have to give him a one for that.”

Brian frowned again, watching Kevin’s face closely, hoping for his eyelids to flutter, hoping for her to be wrong.  But nothing happened.

“And he doesn’t speak or make any sounds, so he gets a one for verbal, too,” Jennie went on, jotting this down as well.  “That means he’s a one-one-three… a five altogether.”

“Out of fifteen?”  Brian’s heart sank.  He’d gotten his hopes up, but those plummeted, too.  “That doesn’t sound like a good score.  Only thirty-three percent.”

Jennie gave a grim nod.  “Anything below eight means he’s in a coma.  He’s in the middle of the severe range, but not at the very bottom.”

“His score will go up, won’t it?  As his brain heals?”

“We hope so.  It has a little already.”  She glanced down at her clipboard.  “His chart shows that when he was brought in last night, his GCS was only a three, so a five is an improvement.  At least he’s showing some motor function now.  Hopefully as the swelling in his brain goes down, he’ll improve in the other categories, too.”

But several hours later, Kevin still wasn’t opening his eyes or making any noise.  He wasn’t even moving.  Except for the steady rise and fall of his chest, he was still and silent.  It didn’t look like Ann was going to get her wish that night.  There was no reaction from him at all when she finally rose from her chair and leaned over his bed to kiss his cheek.

She straightened up, swiping at her eyes, and turned with a watery smile to Brian.  “Thank you for staying with him.  Call me if there’s any change, no matter what time it is.”

Brian nodded.  “I will, Aunt Ann.”

She gave him a hug, tears spilling onto his shoulder, and promised to return first thing in the morning.  Then she was gone, leaving Brian to sit in the chair next to Kevin’s bed.  “Hey, cous,” he muttered, and he reached for Kevin’s hand.  His fist was still tightly clenched, so Brian wrapped his own hand around it and rubbed the back of his knuckles.  Still, there was no response.

Brian sighed.  It was going to be another long night.

As he sat, listening to the steady blip of the heart monitor, his thoughts wandered to Nick.  As hard as it was to see Kevin in such bad shape, it was even harder not knowing what kind of shape Nick was in, not knowing where he was or even if he was still alive.  Volunteers from all over the region had joined the police in searching for him, as the story broke on the news.  Though he didn’t like being harassed by the press, Brian was grateful for the media attention the story was receiving.  People all over the world would be praying for them and looking for Nick, and he knew that the more prayers and pairs of eyes they had on their side, the better.

Still, it had been almost twenty-four hours since Nick had gone missing, and as far as he knew, the police had no clues and no leads to follow.  All they could do was keep searching and keep praying, as the time ticked by, the hours running out.  Brian racked his brain, as he had all night and day, trying to imagine who could have done this and where they might have taken Nick.  But he’d come up with no answers.  There were plenty of people who didn’t like the Backstreet Boys, but they had no real enemies he could name.  The police had asked about fans, if they’d had any problems with stalkers.  Though he knew it had happened before to other celebrities, Brian couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of one of their fans committing such horrific acts.  How would a fan have gotten to them, anyway?

That was one question he couldn’t stop asking himself.  How had they gotten in?  Whoever had attacked Kevin and Nick had done it from inside their hotel room.  They’d gotten access somehow, a fact that deeply unsettled Brian.  He knew the police were investigating; the hotel had still been crawling with them that morning, as they continued to question employees and comb the crime scene.  If they’d found out anything useful, they hadn’t told the guys.

Brian sighed, looking back at Kevin’s closed eyes.  He wonder if he’d gotten a good look at the person who had shot him.  “You need to wake up, Kev,” he murmured, gripping Kevin’s fist tighter.  “We need to find out who did this so we can find Nick.  He’s still missing.  Whoever did this to you did something with him, too, and if we don’t find him soon…”   He trailed off, not wanting to say the words aloud.  He watched the lines on Kevin’s monitors, hoping for any sign his cousin had heard and understood him.  But there was no change.  No change at all.

He let go of Kevin’s hand and sat back in his chair, bowing his head and clasping his hands to his chest to silently pray.  He prayed for Kevin, and he prayed for Nick.  He prayed that, by some miracle, Kevin would wake up, Nick would be found alive, their attacker would be caught, and everything would go back to normal.  He knew, deep down, that this was probably too much to hope for, but he prayed for it anyway.  Brian believed in miracles, and he believed in the power of prayer, so he prayed for miracles.

When he looked up, Howie was standing at the foot of Kevin’s bed.

“Hey,” Brian said in surprise, lowering his hands to his lap, his eyes moving instinctively toward the clock.  “Is my time up already?”

“Not quite.”  Howie shifted his weight awkwardly.  “I wanted to ask you something, though.”

“Yeah?”  Brian raised his eyebrows.  “What’s up?”

“That phone call… the one you and AJ thought was the press…” Howie started tentatively.

“Yeah?  What about it?”

“Well… I was just thinking…”  Howie paused, looking straight into Brian’s eyes.  “Do you think it could have been Nicky?”

***

Nick felt sick to his stomach as he trudged back to the buggy, where Analiese and Lukas waited for him.  They both stared down at him as he approached.

“That was quick,” said Analiese, with a tone of surprise.  “Didn’t you reach someone?”

He shook his head slowly.  “I couldn’t do it.”

“Couldn’t do it?”  She glanced at Lukas before looking back at Nick in confusion.  “Why not?”

“I…”  He sighed; how was he going to explain himself to them when he wasn’t even sure why he had panicked like that and hung up on Brian?  “I dunno.  It’s… complicated.  Too complicated to explain right now.”  He looked around, suddenly paranoid, all too aware that he was out in the open, in the dark.  Anyone could be lurking in the shadows, watching him.  “I’m sorry… can we just go back?” he pleaded, climbing up onto the buggy seat beside Analiese.

“Back… back to the farm?”

He heard the uncertainty in her voice and could tell she was uncomfortable with the idea of him staying another night.  “Please, can you just drive?  I’ll try to explain on the way.”

Lukas hesitated, but Analiese gave a nod, and he flicked the reins, starting the horse off on a slow plod back to the main road.  As the gas station grew further behind them, Analiese asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to try phoning someone else?”

Nick’s stomach was in knots.  “You don’t understand.  I made a mistake.  A whole bunch of mistakes, actually.  I was out when I wasn’t supposed to be, and I saw something I shouldn’t have, and I didn’t tell anyone.  I was afraid to get involved, and it got my friend killed.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, the guys that did it tried to kill me, too, and they think they succeeded.  I wasn’t supposed to make it out of that creek last night.  If I go back… if I go to the police… they’ll come after me again.”

His heart pounded with fear, as the reality of the situation sunk in.  “Me and the rest of my friends,” he added.  “My family and my girlfriend, too.”  Suddenly, he didn’t care that he and Mandy had split up; she was still living in the house they’d bought together in Florida, the address that was on his driver’s license.  “They have my wallet; they have my license, and they know where I live.  And I don’t know jack shit about them.”

A first name and a single initial… that was all he had to go on, besides the generic physical description he could give.  Young… muscular… maybe Latino or Italian.  Joey and D.  That was it.  That was all.

“Don’t you see?” he begged, when neither Analiese nor Lukas spoke.  “If they know I’m alive, I’ll be a target again.  And if they can’t get to me, they’ll go after the ones I love.  I can’t protect everyone.  I couldn’t even protect Kevin…”  He choked on the name, his throat closing up, as tears welled in his eyes.  “I can’t let that happen again.  I just… I need to lay low for awhile, until these guys are caught.  I can’t risk putting the rest of my family in danger.”

“But you’ll risk endangering Ana’s?”  At last, Lukas spoke.  His voice was as calm as ever, but there was no mistaking the anger in his tone.

“No!” Nick protested.  “’Course not; I’d never want that.  It’s just, no one knows I’m here.  No one even knows I’m alive, except for you two, and no one would ever look for me here.”  He started to rush on, not even sure what he was saying, but Analiese interrupted him.

“You’re right.  They would not,” she said quietly.

“Ana-” Lukas started.

“Lukas,” she silenced him.  “He’s in need of our charity.”

“He’s English!” Lukas snapped.  “We take care of our own before we look out for the Englischers.”  Slipping into another language, he added something else that Nick couldn’t understand – which, he figured, was exactly the point.

“Wir sind alle Gottes Kinder,” said Analiese firmly.  “We are all God’s children.”

She turned to Nick, resting her hand gently upon his forearm.  “We will offer you sanctuary.  You are welcome to stay, until you feel safe to leave.”

He nodded and thanked her, feeling gratitude and relief, but once they were back at the farm, once he was hidden away in the grandfather house once more, the reality of his situation started to sink in.  Looking around the tiny, bare bedroom in dismay, Nick muttered, “What have I gotten myself into now?”

***


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