“This is unbelievable.” I muttered. The more I thought about what the officers had told us, the more I couldn’t believe it. How the hell did Leon manage to make all this work? There were so many unanswered questions and the unknowns of what had happened to Nick were nearly tearing everyone apart. It was only a few days ago that everyone was in a frenzy about Brian’s surgery and voice. Then, as soon as things started to calm down, tragedy strikes yet again.
“We’re going to have to go tell him, before someone else slips up,” Howie said quietly, breaking the heavy silence that had descended upon the room.
Kevin sighed deeply and nodded. “I’m not looking forward to this,” he said quietly. “I don’t know how he’s going to take the news. I’m afraid it will be too much for him.”
“What choice do we have, Kev? You know we don’t,” Howie reasoned.
Kevin shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, but you’re right. He needs to hear it from us. Let’s go.”
I wasn’t sure whether I should go or not. Again, I didn’t want to intrude on something so personal. As everyone started to file out of the room, I hesitated.
“Come on, darlin’. We’re in this together, right?” AJ gave me a wan smile.
I nodded uncertainly, but let him guide me out of the room. I.C.U. buzzed us in and Shari looked up as soon as she saw us. Her hopeful expression fell when she got a closer look at us. Between the red-rimmed eyes, tight jaws and hunched shoulders, it was pretty clear that we weren’t bringing good news. She walked around from behind the station to us.
“Anything?” She asked softly, looking at each of us in turn.
AJ shook his head and looked down. Shari reached out and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ll keep praying for him,” she promised.
Kevin nodded, appreciatively. “How’s Brian, does he…”
Shari shook her head. “He’s awake and I’m afraid he’s starting to suspect something’s wrong.”
Kevin closed his eyes briefly. “We just talked to a couple of the officers. They found one of the kids. They were approached by the same guy that’s been threatening us, Brian specifically.”
“You guys have been being threatened?!” Shari exclaimed, her eyes growing wide.
Kevin nodded again. “We’ve been trying to keep a tight lid on it, at least until we knew how to handle the situation. We boosted security, but we didn’t want to fuel the fire by letting anything get out. He specifically told AJ, Ellie and Brian that if the police were involved-“
Shari gasped. “That man!” She looked at AJ and I for confirmation.
AJ nodded. “It was Leon. He had a gun. I was afraid if you found out what was going on, he might have tried to use it.”
“The fire alarm, whoa, was that you guys?” Shari’s eyes grew wider.
“It was me,” AJ admitted sheepishly. “He made me leave to get Nick. I panicked, I didn’t know what to do.”
“And when I came back in, you guys were all so upset. I thought something was wrong, but…I should’ve pressed it. I’m so sorry, I feel like I should have done more.” Shari whispered as the memories came back to her.
Kevin shook his head emphatically. “There wasn’t anything you could have done. We didn’t want to put anyone at risk by involving them. After tightening security, I really thought that was going to be enough. I…I didn’t know it would progress this far. That he’d…” He stopped, forcing himself to take a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh honey, you don’t have anything to apologize for. You all have been through so much.” Shari assured him, as Kevin continued to struggle to maintain his composure.
“We were hoping they would find him. Brian’s going to take this so hard, being the closest one of us to him.” Howie said quietly, glancing down the hall to Brian’s room.
Shari nodded, understanding. “I’ll try to give you guys a little time to talk to Brian. Just let me know when you’re done cause rounds are coming up soon.”
“Thank you.” Howie smiled, gratefully.
With heavy hearts, we walked the short distance to Brian’s room. I think we were all dreading what kind of state we were going to find Brian in. Kevin went in first, followed by Howie, then me, with AJ shutting the door softly behind him. Brian barely noticed us, as he was engaged in a conversation on his cell.
“Really, sweetheart, I’m feeling a lot better. I don’t want you to feel like you have to…okay, okay. I’ll see you soon. I love you too, baby.” He smiled into his phone, looking happier than I’d seen him in days. He flipped his phone shut and finally looked up at us.
“Hey guys! That was Leigh, she’s catching the first flight she can. Isn’t that great?” He grinned, his eyes shining.
I glanced at the rest of the guys, my heart aching. We all sort of exchanged pained expressions, none of us wanting to ruin Brian’s sudden happiness. Probably the first real joy he’d experienced since before the surgery.
Unfortunately, Brian picked up on this immediately. “Um, what’s going on?”
None of us said a word, not wanting to be the one to hurt Brian with such painful news. How in the world do you tell a guy that’s recovering from heart surgery, facing the possibility that his voice may forever be gone, being threatened by a madman, all the while being separated from his fiancée that now on top of it all, that his best friend has been kidnapped?
“Guys? Tell me.” He begged, suddenly looking very small and vulnerable in the hospital bed. “Kevin? What is it?”
Kevin swallowed, hoping to dislodge the lump that had formed in his throat. Carefully he sat down on the edge of the bed, facing Brian.
Brian’s near-panicked eyes swept the room. “Where’s Nick?” As the realization started to sink in, he lifted a trembling hand to his mouth. “No.”
“Oh Brian, I don’t know how to tell you this,” Kevin started. He swallowed again. “Nick’s been kidnapped.”
Brian shook his head. “No…no!”
“The police are doing everything they can,” Kevin promised, his voice strained. He knew there was nothing he could say that would bring any comfort to his younger cousin.
“It was him, wasn’t it?” Brian whispered, the tears already starting to fall.
My heart ached so bad for Brian at that moment that I wouldn’t have been surprised if it’d stopped beating. It was almost physically painful. I could feel my own eyes well up with tears as I watched Brian fight to keep from falling apart.
Howie nodded in confirmation. “Leon set up a couple of kids to help distract the two security guards that were with him and Ellie.”
At the mention of my name, Brian looked at me. Those pain-filled eyes bore right into my soul and I had to look down. “I’m so sorry, Brian. I ran after Nick, I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t catch him.” I whispered, miserably.
“What happened?” Brian asked, still keeping his gaze on me.
For the umpteenth time that day, I re-told the story. Although, this time was definitely the most difficult and by the time I’d finished recounting everything, I was crying. Again.
I looked up to see Brian holding an arm out, beckoning me to him. Instinctively, I pulled back. My ever-present refusal to let anyone comfort me rooted me to my spot. But as my reluctant eyes met his, I realized something. Perhaps my need to be comforted was as strong as his need to comfort me. I couldn’t imagine the pain he was feeling, but in the short time I’d known him, I’d learned that we shared some of the same traits.
During some of the most difficult times in my life, times when I was inconsolable, the only thing that brought me any shred of comfort was being able to be there for someone else. To be able to comfort someone else eased my own pain just enough to make it bearable.
Maybe we could help each other.
A little awkward at first, I let myself relax in Brian’s arms. He held me tightly and I held him back, as tight as I dared. We both cried on each other’s shoulders, and a few moments later, I felt another hand on my back. I pulled back and found AJ, perched on the edge of the chair next to Brian’s bed. With one hand on my back and the other grasping Brian’s tightly, he held both our gazes.
“We’re going to get Nick back. Whatever it takes, we’re going to get him back,” he promised, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. “And that asshole is not going to hurt you. Either of you. I won’t let that happen. Okay? I won’t let it.”
“Thanks, man.” Brian whispered, pulling his younger brother into a tight hug.
I bit my lip, touched by the fierce sense of protectiveness and loyalty AJ had allowed himself to reveal. I knew AJ wasn’t one who usually showed his emotions, but there was no denying what he felt now. And strangely enough, his strong words made me feel a little better.
“Oh no! Leighanne’s coming! Here!” Brian exclaimed, suddenly.
“How did you finally get a hold of her?” Howie asked.
“I didn’t. She called me. She said that a guy had called her old hotel looking for her, saying it was an emergency. So the hotel called Leigh’s new one and passed along the message. I don’t understand, how would anyone have known where to call?
“Oh my God, that was Nick!” I exclaimed when Brian’s words clicked.
Kevin turned to me. “What do you mean? How do you know?”
“Remember when we left the waiting room cause we said we had something to do? We were calling hotels trying to find Leighanne.” I hesitated, glancing at Brian. “Brian seemed so discouraged after the whole voice thing so we wanted try to find Leigh for him. We wanted to tell you guys, but we didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, in case we didn’t have any luck. I mean, it was a pretty far-fetched idea.” I explained in a rush. I stopped when I noticed all four of them were staring at me.
“El, I don’t know what to say.” Brian whispered.
“Wow,” Howie added, softly.
“But what if coming here puts her in danger too?” I asked, worriedly.
“Let’s pray they catch Leon before that happens. When is she flying out here?” Kevin asked.
Brian looked troubled. “As soon as she can get a flight, but they’re having some pretty nasty weather. Tomorrow night at the soonest. Should I call her back and tell her not to come yet?”
Kevin shook his head. “You can’t tell her that without telling her why and you know that will just worry her further. She’ll just come anyway. When she gets here, we’ll just keep her in here with you. You’ve got constant security outside your door. No one’s getting in here that isn’t supposed to.”
Brian nodded, uncertainly.
Hours later we were all still in Brian’s room. Considering the circumstances, they looked past the two-visitor limit and let us stay. Of course, since Brian’s condition no longer warranted being in I.C.U., the nurses were a little more lenient on letting us all stay anyway. Everyone decided that it was safer for Brian to remain in the I.C.U. where he could be closely monitored and where it would be easier to protect him from Leon.
Nick had been missing for about sixteen hours by now. I’d stopped looking at the clock a while ago because all it was doing was torturing me. Time seemed to stand still, although I know it was still passing. And the more time passed, the heavier the toll it took on all of us. We prayed, we talked, Kevin made phone calls and talked to the police, but nothing happened. No leads. We were all exhausted, but none of us could sleep. Other than Brian of course. He probably fought sleep the hardest, but because of the pain medications he was on, sleep eventually won out. Unfortunately, not long after Brian would fall asleep, violent nightmares would assault him and he would jerk awake, drenched in sweat. Only once did I finally doze off, but I also woke up from my own nightmares. The last nightmare I had, Nick was there to wake me up and calm me down. Now I woke up into our real-life nightmare.
The night passed, probably one of the longest any of us had ever experienced. Every time someone would come into the room or one of the cell phones would ring, we’d all hold our breaths in anticipation. With each ruined hope, we grew more and more discouraged. As the morning turned into the afternoon and the 24-hour mark passed, we’d all pretty much stopped talking. I remembered reading somewhere that the first 24 hours were the most crucial. Part of me was afraid to keep hoping, but another part of me was even more afraid to give up. Almost like if we did, we’d lose Nick forever. I was lost in yet another prayer when a loud bang made me jump.
“I can’t take this anymore!” AJ suddenly exploded. I glanced at him in shock. No one had spoken for nearly two hours and the heavy atmosphere must have finally gotten to be too much. His fist hitting the wall was the noise I’d heard.
“AJ…” Howie said quietly.
“No! Dammit, it’s been 26 hours! Nick’s been gone for 26 hours! I can’t take sitting in this room any longer!” AJ yelled.
Kevin held his hands up. “AJ, settle down. This isn’t going to help anyone. We’ve already been through this. There’s nothing else we can do. If we were to go out and look for him, we’d only be adding to the risk.”
“Risk?! I don’t care. Let that sonofabitch find me. I’ll make him tell me what he did with Nick, dammit!” AJ raged.
I shifted my gaze to Brian. Up until this point, he’d been dozing in and out. Sure enough, now he was wide awake. He returned my look with a questioning one of his own. Kevin also noticed.
“Nice, you woke him up. You know he hasn’t been sleeping well.” Kevin remarked, perturbed.
“None of us have, Kevin.” Howie reminded softly.
“Yeah well the rest of us aren’t trying to recover from surgery either.” Kevin snapped back.
“Guys, please!” Brian pleaded. “Don’t do this!”
AJ looked like he was ready to fire something back at Kevin, but stopped cold when he saw the expression on Brian’s face. He sighed deeply and sank into one of the chairs. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I just don’t know if I can keep doing this. I feel like I’m at breaking point.”
“We all are, AJ.” Kevin commented gently, also calming down.
Just then, Kevin’s cell phone rang. Immediately he snatched it up and answered it. The rest of us watched him intently.
“Yes…you have?!…” Kevin’s eyebrows went up and his voice raised an octave in surprise. The rest of us glanced hopefully at each other. I grabbed Brian’s hand and held it tightly. He flashed me a quick grin and my hopes soared.
“Oh god…” Kevin whispered, his face ashen.
The smile fell from my face and my heart skipped a beat. Something was wrong. We all held our breaths as Kevin nodded somberly to whatever the caller was saying. A look of total anguish passed through his handsome features. “Okay…thank you.”
He took a deep breath as he faced us. “They found Nick.”