“Nick? Nick. Time to wake up, Nick.”
The vaguely familiar, female voice broke into Nick’s dreams, timidly murmuring his name. It sounded distant and distorted, and he didn’t feel compelled to answer it right away, staying stubbornly asleep instead. Only a light poke to his shoulder finally jolted him awake.
As his eyes flashed open, he realized three things: first, he was still in bed in the Amish grandfather house because, second, Analiese was standing by his bed, holding up a kerosene lantern, and third, except for the soft glow of that lantern, the room around her was pitch black.
“What’s wrong?” he mumbled groggily, wondering why on earth she had woken him in the middle of the night.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Analiese replied, sounding surprised by the question. “I came to wake you for morning chores. You told my dat you would help with the farm work.”
Nick blinked and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Ugh…” he groaned. “You always get up this early?”
“Are you serious? It’s not even light out.” The only times he got up before the crack of dawn were to catch an early flight or make a morning radio interview or TV appearance. He couldn’t imagine choosing to wake up this early on a regular basis.
“It will be in a couple of hours,” replied Analiese, matter-of-factly. “I’ll leave you to get dressed. Meet me outside when you’re ready.”
It took all of Nick’s willpower not to roll over and go back to sleep once she walked out of the room. She had lit a lamp for him before she left, and it was only the flickering light dancing across the walls and ceiling that forced him to keep his eyes open long enough to push the covers back and drag himself out of the bed. He staggered around the room, clumsily dressing himself in another set of her grandfather’s old Amish clothes, sinking to the floor to lace up a pair of heavy, black work boots. He dragged his feet as he clomped out of the house, feeling like a zombie without any caffeine to get his blood pumping.
Analiese was waiting for him on the front porch, fresh-faced and fully dressed in another long dress, apron, and white bonnet. “There you are,” she said, smiling.
“Here I am,” he echoed without enthusiasm, dragging a hand through his disheveled hair. “Got any coffee?”
“There will be coffee at breakfast. But first, we have to do the milking. Come along,” said Analiese, leading him off the porch. Nick followed the bouncing light of her lantern, stumbling along a dirt path in the darkness, as they made their way into one of two, large barns. The barn was dark, and until Analiese hung her lantern on a peg on the wall and his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Nick could see nothing inside it. He was startled nearly out of his skin by a series of low, loud moos.
“Holy shit!” he gasped, without thinking. When he heard Analiese’s sharp intake of breath, he quickly apologized. “Sorry. That scared me.”
She laughed uneasily. “The cows? They’re gentle. They won’t hurt you. They’re just eager to be fed and milked.”
“Milked,” Nick repeated dryly. “Awesome.”
Analiese smiled. “This way,” she said, leading him further into the barn.
They walked between two rows of pens, each containing a cow. The cows were huge, bigger than Nick had expected them to be, and most of them were the black-and-white kind, straight out of a picture book.
Analiese lit a few more lamps, already hanging on the walls, until the whole interior of the large barn was bathed in soft light. Then she fetched a couple of shovels that were propped against one wall and handed Nick one. “What’s this for?” he asked, looking skeptically at the shovel.
She smiled mischievously. “I’ll show you.”
He learned why a moment later, when she let herself into the nearest pen, gave its occupant a soft pat on the rump, and began shoveling what Nick’s nose quickly identified as cow manure into a ditch that ran along the barn floor. He watched her in dismay. “Ohh, no… no, no…” he muttered in protest, shaking his head.
“You get used to the smell,” Analiese said, without looking up from her work. “It’s not so bad after awhile.”
Nick just stood there, his fingers curled limply around the handle of the shovel. No way was he going to use it to scrape around cow shit.
“It will go faster if you help,” Analiese hinted. “The sooner we finish this chore, the sooner we can feed them and get to the milking, and the sooner we can go up to the house for breakfast. And coffee.”
Nick couldn’t think of breakfast with that horrible smell turning his stomach, but he was eager to get out of the barn, and he knew he couldn’t, in good conscience, just stand there and watch this girl shovel crap all by herself, so reluctantly, he opened the door to the next stall. The cow inside lowed and shifted its formidable weight, and he shrank back warily. “This thing’s not gonna kick me or anything, is it?”
She laughed. “No. Just be gentle with her. Don’t spook her. And watch the tail.”
“Why?” Nick asked, though he suspected he already knew.
She smirked. “If she raises her tail, that’s your sign to back away, before you have more to shovel.”
Nick made a face. “Great,” he said sarcastically. “Thanks for the tip.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied innocently and went back to her shoveling. She had finished the first pen and moved across to one on the other side before he even raised his shovel. “Shall we make it a race?” she called across the aisle. When he looked over his shoulder at her, she grinned and added, “Try to shovel your whole side before I can finish mine. You have a head start, since I cleaned the first stall for you.”
Nick knew there was no way he would beat her, but the mere challenge was enough motivation. “You’re on,” he grinned back and forced himself to start scooping. He held his breath for as long as he could, and when he ran out of air, he sucked more in through his mouth, instead of his nose. It occurred to him that he was essentially swallowing tiny molecules of cow shit that way, but as long as he couldn’t smell it, it didn’t seem as bad. The work was still unpleasant, and he didn’t think he’d ever get the smell out of his nostrils or off of his clothes, but after awhile, he started to realize it wasn’t much different from cleaning up dog shit, a chore he was very used to. There was simply more to clean.
He moved from stall to stall, shoveling the piles of manure behind each cow into the ditch, checking over his shoulder periodically to see how far down the line Analiese had made it. She finished her side before he did, of course, but not by much. Her side was probably a lot cleaner than his was, though.
They met in the center aisle, both breathless and warm from all the shoveling. “Now it’s time for the feeding,” Analiese said. She led him into a small room off the back of the barn. “This is the feed room,” she explained, lighting another lamp to brighten the inside. Nick looked around. There were bales of hay around the perimeter of the room and a large wheelbarrow positioned underneath a little, square door in the opposite wall. Analiese walked up to the door and slid it open to reveal a chute filled with grain, which poured out into the wheelbarrow. When the wheelbarrow was full, Analiese maneuvered it out of the feed room. It must have been heavy, but she was stronger than she looked; she spilled not a single grain, as she expertly guided the wheelbarrow alongside a long, narrow trough that ran along the back of the cow pens and started scooping feed into it. The cows lowed happily and stuck their faces through the slats of the pens to dig into the grain, as Analiese dispersed it among them.
“And now for the milking,” Analiese announced. She showed him into another room – “the milking room,” she called it – where she gathered up some supplies, then took him back to the first cow pen. “We have to strip and clean the udders before we can hook them up to the milk machine,” she said, lowing to a perch upon a little stool at the cow’s side.
“You use a machine?” asked Nick, who had been picturing her milking the cow the way he’d seen in the movies, by squeezing with her hands.
“Yes. Almost everyone does, nowadays. It’s much more efficient. We use a generator to power them.”
He blinked. “I thought you didn’t use electricity.”
“The generator runs on diesel. It is not considered ‘fancy,’ but a necessity for our farming. It allows us to produce more milk to sell.”
“Ah.” It seemed almost hypocritical to Nick, but who was he to judge? She hadn’t judged him for being different from her, for getting himself into trouble and getting his friend killed.
He felt his mind wander; it was the first time he’d thought of Kevin all morning. It was still early, granted, but instead of it being the first thing he thought of when he woke up, he had managed to delay the flashback by keeping himself busy. Maybe this whole hard work thing would be good for him, in more ways than one.
He forced himself to pay attention to what Analiese was doing, watching as she squeezed the cow’s udders between her thumb and forefinger. A thin stream of milk squirted out. “I’m just cleaning them out,” she explained. “Now I’ll clean the outside. This is iodine.” She held up a bottle of dark liquid, with which she sprayed the udders, then wiped them with a paper towel. “Now she’s ready to be hooked to the milking machine.”
With raised eyebrows, Nick watched her connect a metal, hose-like contraption to each of the cow’s udders. She pressed a button on the machine, and Nick watched as a stream of milk flowed through the hoses, into a container. “It takes ten or fifteen minutes. Then we’ll pour this milk into the tank in the milk room and hook up the next cow.”
Nick eyed the two rows of cows. “That’s gonna take forever…”
Analiese nodded. “It’s a big job. And we do it morning and night. After dinner, we’ll come out and milk them again.”
She smiled. “Would you like to try the next one?”
Nick blinked. “Uh…”
“Come on. It’s much more pleasant than shoveling manure.”
Her smile was so infectious that he found it impossible to say no. He squatted down on the little stool she set beside the next cow, and she showed him where to squeeze the cow’s udders. He hesitated; it felt wrong and almost perverse to fondle an animal that way, but he forced himself to put his fingers around one of the udders. It was surprisingly hard, bulging, apparently, with milk. He squeezed, and nothing happened.
“You have to squeeze harder,” said Analiese, and that put dirty thoughts into his head, but he forced them away and pinched harder. Eventually, a white stream came, and that put more dirty thoughts into his head, as he realized what it reminded him of, and he suddenly wished AJ were there so he could say what he was thinking out loud. He couldn’t with Analiese, though; it would only embarrass her and make him feel embarrassed, too. So he stifled a snicker, as he moved on to the next udder.
“You’re getting the hang of it,” said Analiese in a tone of approval, as he finished and sprayed the udders with iodine, as he’d seen her do. She gave him a paper towel to dry them and then showed him how to fit the hoses over the udders. Within minutes, that cow, too, was pumping away. And Nick agreed – weirdness aside, it was much more pleasant than the manure. He had always liked animals, and the cows, although not very interactive, seemed as gentle as Analiese had claimed. They were used to this, he figured, and maybe they even enjoyed it. Maybe it felt good… like jacking off.
He stifled another snicker and wished again that AJ could see him now.
While Nick had been roused far too early for his liking that morning, AJ hadn’t yet been to bed. Five a.m. found him sitting alone in his hotel room, a drink in his hand. He’d practically cleaned out the mini-bar; this was the last of the hard liquor.
He had hoped the booze would lull him to sleep, or at least help him forget that Nick was missing and Kevin was in a coma. But he was drunk as a skunk and still mostly conscious, and in the midst of his scattered and incoherent thoughts, the vision of Kevin lying there in a pool of his own blood popped up, and he saw the blood on the stairs, Nick’s blood, and he wondered vaguely, Where is Nick? Is Nick alive?
And then he thought, No. Nick’s dead. Or he’s like Kevin.
And then he pictured Kevin again, lying so still in his hospital bed, and he pictured Nick, lying just as still in a casket – or in a ditch somewhere, or maybe a dumpster – and then the tears came, and he washed them away with another swig from his bottle of tequila, the last remaining bottle of hard liquor, which he hadn’t wanted to drink at first because he had no salt and no limes with which to chase it, but now it didn’t matter; he couldn’t taste it anyway. He only felt the burn in the back of his throat, like the burn in his eyes from the stinging tears, and it continued on down his throat and into his gut like gasoline that he’d lit on fire.
He welcomed the burn, welcomed the pain, and wished that in doing so, he could take away the pain that Kevin and Nick might be feeling – if they were even still capable of feeling pain.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything. He was no good to anybody just sitting here; he was a wreck, a goddamn drunk, and while the others would be getting up in a few hours to go back to the hospital and wait for Kevin to wake up, he’d be passed out cold because he’d wasted the whole night getting wasted out of his mind.
“I sssuckin’ fffuck,” AJ muttered out loud, mixing and slurring the words together, and as a toast to this self-assessment, he downed the last shot of tequila from the little bottle. It fell from his hand and rolled across the carpet as he slumped over in his armchair and finally blacked out.
Gianna woke that weekend to find her daughter already up and planted in front of the television. Luci usually watched cartoons on Saturdays, but on that particular morning, she had tuned in to MTV instead.
“Whatcha doin’, babe?” Gianna asked as she came into the living room, noticing the MTV logo in the corner of the screen. “You shouldn’t be watchin’ this on your own.” She thought of all the shows on MTV that were inappropriate for a seven-year-old: The Real World, Tom Green, Loveline… “Let’s see what’s on Nickelodeon, huh?”
She reached over Luci’s shoulder for the remote, but Luci clutched it to her chest. “No!” she howled. “I wanna hear about the Backstreet Boys!”
Gianna sighed. It hadn’t taken her long to hear the news about the attack on her favorite group. One afternoon with the fourteen-year-old neighbor girl who babysat her after school, the one who had gotten Luci hooked on the Backstreet Boys in the first place, and Gianna had come home from work to find her daughter in tears.
“Alright,” she relented, “but just for a little bit, okay? Once we hear something, we’ll put on some cartoons.”
“’Kay,” said Luci distantly, without tearing her eyes from the screen. She seemed mesmerized by the Britney Spears music video that was playing, bobbing her head in time to the song.
Gianna wandered into the kitchen to start breakfast, knowing Joey would expect it when he got up. Their relationship was a turbulent one, but they’d been together off and on since high school, and she knew him like the back of her hand – the parts of him he wanted her to know, anyway. She knew he liked to sleep in and wake to a hot breakfast on weekends. She knew he drank his coffee black. She knew he loved her and Luci, even when he wasn’t around.
And the other stuff – like where he’d been the rest of the week, before he’d turned up last night – was none of her business. Joey had made that clear. With the sort of people he associated with, it was better not to get involved, safer not to know too much. For Luci’s sake, Gianna had always turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. She played ignorant, avoided asking too many questions, and went about her life as usual, while Joey slipped in and out of it.
The financial stability he’d given her and Luci made up for his unpredictability. It was the only reason she put up with him, for she’d never be able to support Luci on a waitress’s wages. As it was, her meager salary barely covered a month’s worth of groceries and babysitting fees. But because Joey covered the bills and rent, she could put her tips in the jar on the counter and save them – or spend them – as she pleased.
Eyeing the jar as she spooned coffee grounds into a clean filter, she wished she had managed to save up enough to afford the Backstreet Boys concert tickets Luci had so wanted. If she had known then it would be the last opportunity to see them perform, she’d have found a way.
She turned on the coffee pot, and as it started to bubble and sputter, she heard Luci shriek. She hurried into the living room to find Luci on her knees, up close to the TV. “Backstreet Boys, Mama!” she cried, glancing over her shoulder.
“Shh,” Gianna shushed her. “Turn it back down; your dad’s still sleepin’.”
“Okay, but watch!” Luci insisted, as she lowered the volume a few notches.
Gianna’s eyes shifted to the TV. It was another music video. “Oh, this is their new one, ain’t it?” she said, watching a massive gold spaceship drift away from the camera to a medley of the boyband’s old hits.
“Yeah!” Luci bounced excitedly. “Backstreet Boys,” she read the title overlay that flashed on the screen. “Larger Than Life.”
Smiling, Gianna sank down on the couch behind her. “Wow, they pulled out all the stops on this one, huh?” she chuckled, watching the dancing robots and other special effects.
Luci didn’t answer, transfixed by the dance break which had them and a troupe of back-up dancers performing a routine on the spaceship. She didn’t hear the bedroom door open or the footsteps that thumped up the short hallway, but Gianna did, and she whipped her head around just as Joey staggered around the corner.
“Can’t you two turn that crap down? It’s friggin’ seven a.m.,” he grumbled, leaning groggily against the wall.
“Sorry,” Gianna replied quickly, “we’ll turn it down more. Luce?”
“Didn’t you hear your dad? Turn down the volume.”
“But it’s almost over…”
“Don’t talk back to your mother,” Joey interjected irritably. “DOWN. NOW.” Reluctantly, Luci turned the volume down a few more notches. “What is this crap you got on? Star Wars the Musical or somethin’?” he asked, squinting at the TV.
Luci giggled. “Noooo, Daddy, it’s the Backstreet Boys!”
“They’re the ones whose tickets you wouldn’t pay for, remember?” added Gianna, looking back at Joey. She was surprised when he had no snappy retort. There was an odd look on his face, as he stared at the screen. He didn’t even seem to notice her frowning at him.
The video ended, and MTV News came on. “Hi, I’m Serena Altschul, with MTV News Link,” said the anchor. “In our top story, it’s been two days since the brutal attack on the Backstreet Boys in their Philadelphia hotel early Thursday morning, and the search for youngest member Nick Carter continues.”
Luci’s smile faded, her features sagging into a solemn look.
“The Pennsylvania State Police report they have extended their search outside the city limits and are following several leads. Meanwhile, Kevin Richardson is in reported ‘critical, but stable’ condition after sustaining a gunshot wound to the head. Richardson underwent emergency brain surgery on Thursday and remains hospitalized in a coma. A representative for the Backstreet Boys refused to comment on Richardson’s chances of recovery, but instead issued the following statement: ‘We thank our fans around the world for their love and prayers during this difficult time. At this time, we ask for privacy and prayers for Kevin’s recovery and Nick’s safe return.’”
As the statement appeared onscreen, Gianna snuck another glance at Joey. He was reading the words through narrowed eyes, his jaw tightly clenched. As she studied his body language, her heart sank, and a sick feeling washed over her, as she considered the disturbing possibility: Did he have something to do with this?