For Howie, the biggest relief came when the surgeon showed up to talk to them about Nick. Finally, he was about to get some answers to the questions that had been plaguing his mind ever since the call.
Brian, who had been about to get them each a fresh cup of coffee, froze in his tracks when the small woman in scrubs addressed them. “Excuse me, are you gentlemen here for Mr. Carter?”
“Yes,” he said quickly, sticking out his hand as Howie rose to his feet. “I’m Brian; this is Howie. We’re his friends.”
“I’m Dr. Rhee,” the doctor introduced herself, shaking first Brian’s hand and then Howie’s. “I was part of the surgical team that operated on Nick. He’s out of surgery now and in recovery.”
“Thank God,” Howie heard Brian whisper beside him. He nodded, silently echoing the same sentiments.
“How’s he doing?” he asked Dr. Rhee.
“The surgery went as well as could be expected,” she replied. “We’ll have to wait for him to stabilize and regain consciousness before we know more. He has a long road to recovery ahead of him. Has anyone talked to you about the extent of Nick’s injuries?”
As they both shook their heads, Howie felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Despite the good news that the surgery had gone well, the doctor didn’t sound too optimistic.
“Why don’t we sit down?” she offered, motioning to the empty chairs behind them. Wordlessly, Howie and Brian sat back down. The doctor pulled another chair over and sat facing them, so close their knees were almost touching.
“Nick was unconscious when he was brought in by ambulance, so I don’t know the full story, but from what the first responders told us, he was assaulted with a baseball bat that had been wrapped in barbed wire,” the doctor began, and they both nodded to show this was not new information – not that it was any less shocking to hear for the second time. “He suffered a fracture to the smaller bone in his forearm, which was most likely a defensive wound – he must have held up his arm to protect his face. An orthopedic surgeon set the bone while he was under anesthesia, and it should heal up fine.”
Howie nodded again, thinking a broken arm didn’t sound so bad. But the doctor wasn’t done.
“Unfortunately, at some point, Nick was also struck in the head,” she added, and he heard Brian gasp. The nausea he’d felt when Mike was telling them what had happened was back with a vengeance now; Howie clapped his hand across his mouth, afraid he was going to be sick. “The blow fractured his skull and caused some bleeding around his brain, as well as severe facial lacerations. We were able to stop the bleeding and repair Nick’s skull, but we won’t be able to access whether or not he suffered any neurological damage or long-term side effects until he regains consciousness.”
“But he will regain consciousness… right?” Brian asked. He sounded hopeful, yet Howie didn’t miss the moment’s pause, the slight hesitation that told him Brian was also wondering about the worse-case scenario.
Dr. Rhee pursed her lips. “As much as I’d like to tell you yes, I can’t say that with one hundred percent certainty,” she admitted. “Until the anesthesia wears off, it’s really too early to tell.”
Howie took a deep breath. “When you say he might have brain damage or other side effects… how bad are we talking here?”
“He was struck on the left side of his forehead, which caused a hematoma – a buildup of blood between his skull and the outer covering of his brain. This put pressure on his left frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls language, emotions, and analytical thinking. Although we were able to operate and relieve the pressure, you may see some changes to Nick’s personality and cognitive abilities as his brain recovers.”
Howie’s heart sank. The possibility that Nick would never be the same again was almost too much for him to process. But, sitting next to him, Brian couldn’t help but crack a joke.
“Well, Nick’s never been real good with words, so I doubt it’ll make much difference,” he said, chuckling.
“Brian!” cried Howie, his mouth dropping open in disbelief as he turned to stare at his bandmate, shocked that he would make such a tone-deaf comment at a time like this.
Brian’s face immediately reddened, and he looked sheepish. “Sorry,” he said, his shoulders hunching as he slouched in his seat. “That probably sounded insensitive. Just trying to lighten the mood.”
Howie just shook his head. Turning away from Brian before he snapped at him again in front of Dr. Rhee, he asked her, “When can we see him?”
“I’ll send someone to get you once he’s stable,” she promised.
As soon as she left, Brian started apologizing again. “I’m really sorry, Howie. That was a damn stupid thing to say. I shouldn’t have said it.”
Howie shrugged. “It was a bad joke… but I know it was just a joke,” he replied, forcing himself to forgive Brian for his blunder. He knew Brian hadn’t meant what he’d said. That was just his way of handling uncomfortable situations – by making bad jokes. “You did have a point, though – Nicky’s always been more ‘right-brained’.”
Brian smiled and took a swipe at his eyes. “Just as long as he can still sing,” he said softly.
Howie smiled back sadly. Even though a part of Brian must have secretly envied Nick’s vocals, he sounded sincere. Howie echoed the same sentiments before they fell back into an uneasy silence.
For Brian, the biggest relief came when a nurse arrived with the news they’d been waiting to hear: Nick was awake.
He and Howie followed her from the surgical waiting room to the Neuro-ICU, where the nurse said Nick would be spending the next few days under close observation.
“How’s he doing?” Brian heard Howie ask the nurse in a hushed voice. He saw the look of anxiety on his friend’s face and knew he was thinking back to their conversation with the surgeon. Howie wasn’t usually the worrier of the group – that was Kevin’s job – but this time, he seemed to be assuming the worst, that Nick would wake up as a drooling invalid. Don’t be so negative, D, thought Brian. He had to believe that Nick would be fine. He couldn’t bring himself to imagine the alternative.
The nurse smiled. “See for yourself,” she said, as she ushered them into the unit. Her response bolstered Brian’s belief in the best-case scenario. If Nick wasn’t doing well, she would have tried to prepare them first, wouldn’t she?
But when he and Howie reached the end of Nick’s bed, Brian’s heart jumped into his throat as he caught sight of his little brother. Nick was hooked up to a bunch of monitoring equipment, but he wasn’t bothered by all the tubes and wires. He had expected to see those, having spent some time in ICU himself after his heart surgery years ago. What he hadn’t expected was how Nick would look. Somehow, despite hearing both Mike and the doctor describe Nick’s injuries, it was only now that it hit Brian just how badly Nick had been hurt. His face was almost unrecognizable, the left side swollen and bruised. His head was wrapped in a thick layer of gauze bandages, reminding Brian absurdly of his mummy look from their music video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” His eyes were closed, the left one blackened and likely swollen shut. But when Brian cleared his throat nervously, Nick’s right eye fluttered open.
“Hey,” Brian said, his voice cracking hoarsely. He cleared his throat again, knowing it would do no good. He had little control over the way his voice came and went, and the stress of the situation was only going to make it worse. It didn’t help that his heart still felt like it was lodged in his throat, hammering against his larynx and making it hard to breathe, let alone speak.
“Hi, Nicky,” Howie added, his own voice sounding higher-pitched than usual. “It’s good to see you awake. How ya feelin’, bro?”
They both stared at Nick, waiting anxiously for him to speak, wondering if he would even be able to. Nick blinked once, twice, and a few, agonizing seconds passed before he finally responded: “Like I just got my brains bashed in, dude… What do you think?”
Brian sagged with relief, his heart returning to its proper place in his chest and beating normally again. Nick’s speech sounded slow and slightly slurred, but at least he was making sense – and both his memory and his sense of humor seemed to be intact. Thank you, Lord, thought Brian, sending a silent prayer of gratitude toward his heavenly Father.
Howie chuckled. “Solid point. Stupid question, I guess. I’m just glad you’re gonna be okay.”
Not trusting his voice at that moment, Brian just nodded in agreement.
Nick offered a crooked smile that looked more like a grimace. “Yeah… I guess I’m lucky. Not many people get Lucilled and live to tell the tale.” When Brian and Howie looked at each other in confusion, Nick made an impatient noise and added, “Seriously, when are you guys gonna start watching The Walking Dead?”
Brian smiled back at him. “Hey, maybe we’ll binge-watch it with you while you’re stuck here,” he suggested.
“You guys don’t have to stick around that long,” said Nick. “I know you’ve got other stuff going on, and I’m sure Lauren will come keep me company once I call her.”
“The hospital already called her, and she’s on her way,” Howie told him. “She should be here soon.”
“But we’re not going anywhere,” Brian said, frowning. He supposed he couldn’t blame Nick for assuming he wouldn’t want to stay. After all, when was the last time he’d gone out of his way to do anything for one of the other guys? He couldn’t remember, and the realization stung. It made him feel like a selfish piece of shit. Maybe this was supposed to be his wake-up call, a sign that he should find a better balance between his family and the group, and make spending time with the guys a priority again. “I’m sorry, Nick,” he added softly. “I should have been there for you.”
“Where, at the bar?” asked Nick, laughing, then grimacing again at the pain it must have caused him to do so. “I wouldn’t have expected you to be.”
“I know,” admitted Brian. “You wouldn’t expect me to be anywhere that’s outside my comfort zone or away from my family because I almost never am… but maybe I should be more often.” He swallowed hard, as emotion swelled in his throat. “I’m gonna try to be better at that,” he promised, his voice cracking again. “I’m gonna try to be a better friend.”
“So am I,” said Howie. Shaking his head, he added, “I’m sorry, too. I wish I hadn’t flown home so early. It wouldn’t have killed me to go to that convention with you.”
“Actually, it might have,” Nick replied, barely missing a beat, as he gestured to his bandaged head. They both laughed, and Brian found himself feeling grateful, once again, that Nick still had his sense of humor. “Seriously, I’m glad you guys weren’t there with me. I wouldn’t have wanted either of you to get hurt.”
“Well, for once, we’re glad you’re so hard-headed,” Brian said, and they all laughed again.
“Hey, how’s Mike?” Nick asked suddenly, as the laughter faded away. “Is he okay?”
“He had to have surgery on his knee, but he’s going to be fine,” said Howie. “We saw him earlier. Maybe you can convince someone to bring him up here for a visit later.”
“Thank god,” Nick whispered, closing his eye as he sighed with relief. “That was so fuckin’ scary. We could’ve both been killed.”
“But you weren’t,” Howie said firmly, and to Brian, it sounded as if he was trying to reassure himself as much as Nick. “Now you just need to focus on getting better so you can get out of here and back to that wife and baby of yours.”
Nick nodded slightly. A brief smile flickered across his face at the mention of his family, but there were tears in his eye.
Howie cleared his throat. “Speaking of which,” he added, checking his phone, “Lauren’s plane landed half an hour ago. She should be almost to the hospital by now. I’m gonna go down to the lobby to wait for her and walk her up here.”
Brian slid his own phone out of his pocket. “While you do that, I’m gonna give Kev and AJ a call and fill them in,” he said. It was late enough on the West Coast by now that he wouldn’t be waking either of them up. “We’ll be back in a few, okay, Frack? Try to get some rest.”
“Thanks,” Nick whispered, nodding again, as he let his eye slide shut once more.
Brian followed Howie out into the hallway. Before he could head toward the elevator, Brian pulled him into a tight hug. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, patting Howie’s back. “You’ve been a better friend to him than I have, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it, Bri,” Howie replied, squeezing him back. “Things change when you fall in love and start a family. Priorities shift. We both know how hard it can be to find the right balance. Even Nick knows that now. You were just the first to find out, and yeah, for a while, Nick resented you for it. But he doesn’t anymore.”
Do you? Brian wondered, but he didn’t ask. It didn’t matter. Their rivalry was in the past, and all that mattered now was Nick’s recovery. “Thanks. Love you, man,” Brian replied as he released Howie, realizing he probably didn’t say those words enough – not sincerely, anyway.
Howie smiled at him and offered his trademark cheesy wink. “Love you too, bro.”