Howie Dorough had always been a deep sleeper, so it was no surprise that he didn’t hear the call.
His wife Leigh did, waking from her light slumber to the sound of her husband’s ringtone. She rolled over to look at the clock by their bed, and when she saw what time it was, her heart leaped into her throat. No one ever called with good news at one in the morning.
Her first thought was of her eighty-three-year-old mother-in-law. “Howie,” she whispered, shaking his shoulder. If something had happened to his mother, he would want to know right away.
“Hm?” Howie murmured, without opening his eyes.
“Your phone! Wake up and answer it.”
He startled awake, as he realized what she was saying. He could hear the phone ringing now. Rolling over, he reached for it, his fingers fumbling blindly over the bedside table for a few seconds before they finally closed around it. Who would be calling him in the middle of the night? he wondered, feeling the first twinge of worry. The more concerning question was, why were they calling?
He brought the phone close to his face, squinting blearily at the name showing on its screen. “It’s Lauren,” he said, feeling confused as he clumsily swiped to answer the call.
“Lauren Kitt? I mean, Carter?” asked Leigh, sounding equally confused.
Howie had already raised the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
“Howie! Thank god someone’s answering their phone.” He had never heard his friend’s wife sound so hysterical. Lauren Kitt Carter was usually cool, calm, and collected – a nice contrast to the chaotic energy that seemed to surround her husband, Nick.
“Lauren? What’s going on?” Howie asked, clutching the phone closer to his ear. He was wide awake now, his heart hammering rapidly against his ribcage. “Is it Nick?”
She responded to his questions with one of her own. “Are you still in Atlanta? Are any of you guys there?”
“No, we all left yesterday morning,” Howie said slowly, still trying to fight off the fog of sleep. “Except for… shit.” He knew for sure now who this had to be about. “What happened to Nick?”
“I just got a call from a hospital in Atlanta. He and Mike were assaulted outside a bar tonight.” Howie could tell Lauren had been crying. Her voice was shaking so badly, he was barely able to understand what she was saying. “I have no idea how Mike is, but the woman on the phone said Nick’s been hurt pretty bad and that I should try to get there as soon as possible. I’m looking at flights now, but there’s nothing available until morning. Even if I take the first one out, I won’t make it until tomorrow afternoon.”
Howie’s brain raced to put together the pieces of information. Even though the rest of the group had gone home after their show in Atlanta on Friday, he knew Nick had planned to be there all weekend to promote his movie, Dead 7, at a horror convention. Lauren had stayed in Las Vegas with their son Odin, who was only one-and-a-half, while Nick’s bodyguard Mike accompanied him. Now she was stuck clear across the country from Nick, who needed her.
“What happened?” Howie heard Leigh whisper. She had turned on a lamp and was sitting up in bed beside him, looking at him. Her dark eyes glinted in the dim light, wide with concern.
He shook his head, holding up his hand. Not now. “What can I do?” he asked Lauren.
She sniffled. “I’m just hoping someone else can get there before I can, to be there with him… just in case…” She trailed off.
Howie’s heart skipped a beat. “How bad are we talking here, Lauren? When you say they were ‘assaulted,’ what do-?”
“I don’t know any of the details,” Lauren interrupted. “The woman wouldn’t tell me much over the phone. She just said it’s serious. I tried texting them both, but neither of them are answering, which is scaring the shit out of me. You know how attached Nick is to his phone.”
Howie knew. “He’s probably just tied up with whatever they’re doing to treat him and can’t use it right now,” he replied, trying to be reasonable and reassure her at the same time. “Have you called Brian?” Their bandmate lived in Alpharetta, not far from Atlanta. Brian could be at the hospital in under an hour.
“Yeah, a few times, but he didn’t answer either.”
Hearing the desperation in her voice, Howie knew what he had to do. “I’ll head up there,” he said, getting out of bed. “It’s gonna take me a few hours, but I’ll get there as fast as I can, okay?”
“Really? You’d do that?”
“Don’t you know me any better than that by now? Besides Leigh, Nick’s my best friend,” said Howie, swallowing hard. “Of course I will.”
“Thank you so much, Howie,” Lauren replied with relief. “That means the world to me.”
“No problem.” Howie was already heading to his walk-in closet to pack an overnight bag. “What hospital is it?” he asked, pulling a couple of t-shirts off their hangers.
“Grady Memorial. Will you call me when you get there?”
“Of course.” He added an extra pair of pants to the small pile of clothes accumulating on the closet bench. “I’ll try to call Brian again too. Hopefully he can beat us both there.”
“Thank you, Howie,” she said again. “You’re the best.”
“I’ll talk to you soon,” Howie promised. “Hang in there. He’ll be okay. You know Nick; he just likes to cause trouble.”
Lauren laughed shakily. “God, I hope so.”
“What’s going on?” Howie heard Leigh ask, as soon as he hung up. He looked over his shoulder to see her standing in the doorway of the closet. “Nick’s in the hospital?”
He nodded, repeating what Lauren had told him as he stuffed his clothes into a duffel bag. “…and Brian’s not answering his phone, so I’ve gotta go up there.”
“To Atlanta? Again?” Leigh raised her eyebrows. “Howie, it’s one in the morning. How are you going to get a flight to Atlanta at this time of night?”
“I’m not. I’m gonna have to drive,” said Howie, pulling a few pairs of underwear out of a drawer to put in his bag.
“But that’s, like, a six or seven-hour drive from here!”
He nodded again, adding some socks on top. “If I leave now, I can make it there by eight a.m.”
She blinked. “You’re gonna drive all night?”
Howie smashed the pile of clothing down to make it fit, then zipped the bag shut. “I have to,” he said simply, hoisting it onto his shoulder. “Nicky needs me.”
Brian Littrell was a light sleeper, so it was surprising that he didn’t hear the call.
Then again, he’d left his phone in the kitchen while helping his wife Leighanne clean up from the Halloween party they’d thrown that evening at their mansion in Alpharetta, and afterwards, they’d gone to bed and crashed, both exhausted and intoxicated. Their bedroom was miles from the kitchen, so neither of them had heard a thing. Brian slept without interruption and didn’t wake until morning.
When he got up, he went downstairs to make coffee, leaving Leighanne still asleep in bed. If his own hangover was any indication, she was going to have a headache when she woke up. He started the coffee maker and took two mugs out of the cupboard. While he waited for the coffee to brew, he picked his phone up off the counter. It was only then that he saw the missed calls and messages.
Please call me back as soon as you see this, no matter what time. It’s important, read one of the texts from Nick’s wife, Lauren.
Howie’s were shorter, but eerily similar: Call me ASAP.
When Brian realized the two of them had been trying to get a hold of him all night, he felt sick to his stomach. Something was clearly wrong, and though neither of them had said what it was, he knew it had to have something to do with Nick. What now? he wondered, the nausea intensifying as he called Howie’s number.
Howie answered on the third ring. “Brian, where have you been?” His voice had a tinny, far-away quality that told Brian he was talking through the speakerphone.
“Sorry,” said Brian. “I left my phone downstairs last night and didn’t see your messages until I got up this morning. What’s goin’ on, man?” He cringed as his voice cracked; he had no control over when it would go out on him, and he hated the way it sounded when it did. Still, he croaked out a second question: “Is it Nick?”
“Yeah.” Howie sighed. “He’s in the hospital, in Atlanta. I guess he got attacked at a bar there last night after that convention he was doing.”
Brian rolled his eyes. Leave it to Nick to get into a bar fight. “Is he okay?”
“I don’t know. Lauren didn’t know many details when she called me last night, but it sounds like it’s serious. I’m on my way up there now.”
Brian frowned, his brain feeling foggy. “You’re coming back to Atlanta?” he asked, scratching the top of his head.
“Yeah,” replied Howie. “I should be there in about an hour; I just passed the exit for Forsyth.”
Brian blinked. “You’re driving?”
“I’ve been driving since one-thirty this morning.” There was a tone of annoyance on top of the exhaustion he heard in Howie’s voice. “It’s not like I could find a flight in the middle of the night on such short notice, and Lauren was freaking out ‘cause she’s so far away, and you weren’t answering your phone. So yeah… I’m driving.”
“I’m sorry,” Brian said again, feeling guilty for the missed phone messages. “I wish I’d known. I would’ve gone there…”
Would you have, really? a part of his brain wondered, remembering how good it had felt to curl up in bed next to Leighanne after last night’s party and thinking how hard it would have been to get up in the middle of the night and go to Atlanta.
“You can still go,” said Howie, before Brian could really consider the answer to his internal question. “Nicky’s gonna need our support, and so will Lauren when she gets there. Meet me at Grady Memorial in an hour?”
“Yeah, sure,” Brian agreed. “I’ll be there, man.”
When he hung up the phone, his head felt clearer. The call to action had gotten his adrenaline pumping, erasing the effects of his hangover. He put one of the ceramic mugs back into the cupboard and took down a tall travel mug instead, filling it with freshly-brewed coffee. He poured the rest of the pot into the second mug and carried it carefully upstairs to his bedroom, where Leighanne was just starting to stir.
“Morning, baby,” he said, setting the mug down beside her on the bedside table. “I brought you some coffee.”
“Mm…” Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply. “Bless your heart,” she murmured.
He hoped the gesture would make up for what he was about to tell her. Perching on the edge of the bed, he patted her leg through the covers. “Baby, I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta go. Something happened to Nick last night in Atlanta, and he’s in the hospital. I have to go make sure he’s okay.”
“What?” Leighanne asked, blinking at him in bleary-eyed confusion as she struggled to sit up. “You’re going to Atlanta? Now? But… what about church?”
Brian took a deep breath and let it out slowly. So many times before, he’d been forced to choose between his wife and Nick, his family and Nick, his faith and Nick. Nick never won. But this time, he had to put his friend first.
“You and Baylee will have to go without me this week,” he replied, as he stood up and headed to the closet to get dressed. “Nick needs me.”