It had been a great night out with Nick and Howie. AJ had not been in a dancing for a while but he had felt strong tonight. They had been dancing all night. Nick and Howie had stuck to soft drinks as well. So it was pure from exhaustion that they decided to call it a day – night – at about 4 am.
Still laughing and joking they walked out of the door in the cool autumn evening. AJ felt good, flanked on either side by his two friends. Their car was parked around the back where it would not attract too much attention. When they walked around the corner, AJ looked straight into the barrel of a gun. Howie and Nick froze as well.
AJ did not immediately see the man behind the huge Colt .45, until he spoke:
‘You should not play around with little girls!’ the threatening voice on the other side of the gun boomed.
‘Hey, man. What are you talking about?’ AJ stammered.
‘I have seen your picture with these young girls. They are just kids, for Christ sake!’
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know. I saw you on the web with this 17 year old girl.’
‘She’s just a friend. Nothing more!’
‘You can’t fool me. It is men like you who spoil our children, ruin them and then just throw them away!’
‘OK, just calm down’ Howie tried to defuse the situation.
But the man would not move.
‘I need to stop you now!’
He started to pull the trigger. Just as the cock hit the fuse, Nick pushed the gun out of AJ’s face. The cracking noise from the exploding bullet, deafened AJ for a moment. Only to realize he had not been hit. He was still standing. Nick, in the meantime, had pushed the man on the floor and pinned him down.
‘Howie, call the police.’ Nick asked while struggling with the man.
As he got no reply, Nick looked over to AJ. AJ was the only one standing. Nicks eyes slowly went to the motionless body on the floor, a few meters away from them.
‘Howie?’ he whispered.
AJ turned to follow Nick’s gaze as he could not hear what he was saying.
Spread out on the ground, Howie did not move at all.
AJ rushed to him but did not dare touch. Blood was seeping from a wound in his head.
‘AJ, call an ambulance!’ Nick shouted. But AJ did not hear anything yet.
A crowd started to gather and the bouncer from the dancing helped Nick with the man.
‘An ambulance is on the way’ someone yelled.
Nick rushed over to Howie. Kneeling down he whispered:
‘Howie, please get up.’
But there was no movement. AJ just stood next to them, obviously in shock, unable to say anything, do anything.
It seemed to take ages before the ambulance finally arrived. The medical technicians quickly assessed the situation and got everyone in the ambulance, away from the crowd, the noise and the unavoidable camera’s clicking away in the background.
On route, the silence was deafening. AJ still could not hear a thing, blood running out of his ear. Nick kept on staring at Howie, who just lay there, not reacting to anything. Looking down at his hands, he noticed the blood. Where had that come from?
When they arrived, everything seemed to speed up. Doctors and nurses surrounded Howie, AJ was lead away for treatment, and Nick . . . . was left standing alone. He was not an emergency. A nurse seemed to notice and lead him to the emergency room where the doctors were treating Howie. From behind closed doors, Nick saw how Howie clothes were cut off, his vital signs checked. His head was wrapped in bandages to stop the bleeding. Suddenly there was frantic action. Howie’s body started convulsing heavily. Nick rushed into the room without even thinking about it.
‘What is happening? Why is he doing that? Do something!’ he nearly screamed.
‘Who are you?’ a doctor asked while giving his instructions to the nurses.
‘Nick, Nick Carter.’
‘Are you family?’
‘No, a friend. His family does not live here.’
‘OK, Mr. Carter. Please wait outside. I’ll be with you in a little while.’
Reluctantly Nick followed the nurse out again.
After what seemed like years, the doctor finally came out.
Nick just nodded, nervous. He did not want to be the one to hear any bad news, not on his own. Where was AJ anyway?
‘Mr. Carter, your friend has no other injuries, beside the head wound. He needs a scan to assess the extend of the damage. The bullet only graced his head but the side impact was strong enough to cause, what we believe to be a cranial bleed. That is what caused the convulsion you saw. If we are right, he needs to be operated on immediately to relieve the pressure. As soon as the OR is available, he will be moved up.’
It was so much information to take in.
‘Can I see him?’
‘Of course, come in and sit with him.’
Nick hesitated to go in, scared at what had happened. The nurse gave him a chair to sit on. Hesitantly he took Howie’s hand, just to make sure for himself it was still warm, that he was still alive.
It did not take long before they wheeled Howie out and up to the OR.
‘We’ll call you when he is in recovery. You may want to register him in. We have bagged up all his belongings.’
The nurse handed Nick a plastic bag. He took it and was left alone. Taking Howie’s wallet, he opened it to find his id and Medicaid information. But he first found the photo’s Howie always kept with him, photo’s of all 5 of them, of his family. Carefully Nick put them back.
Nick registered both Howie and AJ, got a private room in a quiet corner of the hospital and was now on his way to see AJ. He found him in the emergency room.
The nurse walked over to Nick.
‘Can you help us with your friend. He needs to calm down.’
As he walked in the room, AJ was shouting.
‘I don’t want any medication!’
His ear had stopped bleeding but he was very nervous, with a splitting headache.
‘Nick, tell them I don’t need anything.’
‘OK, AJ. Settle down.’
And to the nurse:
‘I have a room upstairs. Can I take him and let him rest there?’
‘You sure you can handle him?’
AJ furiously nodded his head.
‘He’ll be fine.’
‘OK, then. Mr. McLean, we’ll get you settled upstairs.’
Carefully AJ got in the wheelchair and Nick wheeled him to the elevator.
Once on their way up, AJ finally asked:
‘I don’t know. They have taken him to the OR.’
‘Why?’ panic coming through AJ’s voice.
‘He may have a cranial bleed. They needed to do something about it.’
Nick struggled to keep his emotions in check. His first priority was AJ.
Silence followed until the elevator reached their floor.
Nick got AJ to the room and settled on the large settee.
‘Now get some rest.’ Nick ordered.
As AJ laid down and closed his eyes, he held Nicks hand:
‘It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.’
Nick sat next to him on the floor, holding AJ’s hand, hearing him cry himself to sleep.
Standing in front of the window, Nick watched the sun come up gloriously, as it did every morning in this part of the world.
And Nick knew he had to make the calls. The others would be awake by now.
Slowly he walked out of the hospital.
Pulling the phone out of his pocket, he had no idea how to break this news. For once he wished speed dial wasn’t so speedy.
As he put the phone to his ear, a cheerful voice already answered:
‘Hey, this is Kev! Who’s looking for me?’
Taking a deep breath, Nick started:
‘Hello, speak up please, I can hardly hear you.’
‘It’s me, Kevin.’ Nick said a bit louder. He had not realized he had whispered.
‘Hey, Nicky. How you doing? How are Howie and AJ? You guys getting some work done without me? I tell you, coming home to Mum was a great idea. I’ve got so much inspiration.’ Kevin kept on talking.
‘Kevin….’ Nick tried to interrupt him.
‘And Brian is having a great time showing Baylee lots of things.’
‘Kevin ….’ Nick tried again. And this time Kevin seemed to notice something was at odds.
‘Nicky, you ok?’
‘No, I’m not. It’s Howie. He’s been shot.’
There was dead silence on the other end.
‘Can you come? Bring Brian as well.’
Finally Kevin found his voice again.
‘Nick, we’ll be there as soon as possible.’
‘Thanks. Call me when you land’
As Kevin put the phone down, Kristin walked into the room. She saw something was wrong.
‘Sweetheart, what’s the matter?’
Turning to her, Kevin had gone pale.
‘Howie’s been shot. I need to get there. I need to call Brian.’
‘You call him, I’ll get your things ready.’
He nodded. Before leaving him, Kris hugged her husband, knowing his turmoil inside, how he always worried about all of them.
Kevin had been the easiest call he had to do. His finger hovered over the speed dial to Hoke. Nicks hands started to tremble. He couldn’t do it. In stead he called PollyAnna.
‘PollyAnna, good morning.’
‘Nick. If you are looking for Howie, I think he is on your side of the country.’ She sounded a bit surprised.
‘Nick, are you ok?’
‘Polly, Howie’s been shot.’
He could hear her breath in deeply before answering.
‘The bullet only graced his head but they are worried about a cranial bleed. He’s in surgery now.’
‘No other injuries?’
‘No, nothing else.’
‘How are you doing.’
Typical Polly Anna, worrying about him as well.
‘I think you should all come over.’
‘We’ll be there as soon as possible. I’ll call you from the airport so you know when we’ll be landing. And Nick, it’ll be ok.’
‘I know.’ Nick said quietly. But he did not feel that confident.
Not long after Nick got back to the room, Howie was brought in.
His head was all wrapped up, tubes attached everywhere, cables keeping an eye on all his vital signs. He had been tubed and a machine was breathing for him. Once he was settle in his bed, Nick got a first good look at his friend.
His eyes were closed, and with a lot of imagination, he could pretend Howie was asleep and nothing else.
The doctor entered the room.
‘Mr. Carter. Can we talk?’
They walked out of the room.
‘We were right about the bleeding. We had to open his skull and stop it. While in surgery, your friend went into convulsions again. His brain has swollen up and we had to put him in an artificial coma. We won’t know the extend of the damage until we wake him up again. But that won’t be for a couple of days.’
‘Damage?’ Nick was confused.
‘Brain damage, Mr. Carter. We won’t know if and how much brain damage he may have.’
Nick had to lean against the wall.
‘But, I thought the bullet had not gone in?’
‘It hadn’t. But the impact, from that close by, was enormous.’
The doctor saw Nick’s distress but could do nothing about it.
‘Mr. Carter. You must stay hopeful. He is young and fit.’
And with those last words, the doctor left him.
Nick walked back into the room and saw Howie lying in the bed. He backed against the door, slowly slid down to the floor and cried.
Around noon, AJ woke up. Nick was sitting in a chair, staring out of the window. He noticed AJ getting up slowly and walking to the bed.
AJ looked up at Nick.
Nick saw the unspoken question.
‘It’s early yet. We don’t know how bad the damage is.’
Shaking his head, AJ sat next to Howie and cried. But that only increased his headache.
‘You need to take something for that headache, AJ.’
A nurse entered to check up on Howie.
‘Nurse, can you please get something for my friends headache?’
‘Sure, Mr. Carter.’
Now that AJ was awake, Nick needed to get out of the room for a moment.
‘Nick, did you call Kev?’
‘Yes, and Polly Anna.’
Nick left the building, switching on his phone. Hoke had left a message, as had Kevin.
‘Nick, Hoke. PollyAnna has called us. We will be on the afternoon flight. Can you please call with an update how our boy is doing? Thanks.’
‘Nick, Was AJ with you? I can’t reach him. We are boarding now and should be landing around 5. Markus is picking us up from the airport. Is there anything you need? Call me.’
Did he need something? Yes, Howie to get up from that bed unharmed.
He first returned Hoke’s call.
‘Sir, it’s Nick.’
‘Nick, thanks for calling. How is Howie? And don’t pussyfoot around it. I want the full picture.’
‘Howie was hit by a bullet on the side of the head. Although it did not penetrate, the impact caused a cranial bleed. They operated on him to stop the bleeding. He had some convulsions and his brain is swollen up so they have put him in an artificial coma for the time to allow the swelling to subside. He is now stable in his room.’
‘Thank you. And how are you doing, son.’
‘I don’t know, Sir.’
‘We’ll be there as soon as we can. Call us if there is any change.’
‘I will, Sir.’
Nick let the breath escape that he had been holding, trying to stay strong and confident on the phone. But he did not feel like that at all.
He called Kevin’s phone knowing it would be the voicemail.
‘Kev, AJ is here with me. Can you go round my place to pick up a change of clothes. And for AJ as well. I don’t want to leave the hospital for the moment. Thanks.’
Having made his calls, he was reluctant to walk back into the hospital. Perhaps if he stayed out here it never happened. Closing his eyes for a moment, he tried hard to ban from his mind the image of the gun pointed at AJ. Impossible to do, he slowly walked back into the building. Taking some tea back to the room, he rejoined AJ.
Giving him the tea, Nick asked.
‘No. I keep looking at him, expecting him to open his eyes. Nick, he looks so vulnerable.’
Nick looked at Howie.
‘I know. Did the nurse give you something?’
‘She did, thanks. Any news from the others?’
‘Kevin and Brian are flying now but it’ll be around 5 before they land. His parents are flying out this afternoon.’
‘I’ll keep an eye on him if you want to rest a bit.’ AJ suggested.
‘No, you take the settee and get your head sorted.’
Nick just nodded.
Soon AJ was asleep again. And Nick felt very alone. I had to have some contact. He moved the chair to the side of the bed and carefully took Howie’s hand in his. For the longest time he stared at his friend. The machine made him breath very regularly, the heart rate monitor showed all was normal there as well. But no movement from Howie at all. A photo sprung to mind of Howie and himself asleep on the couch. They had teased Howie about sleeping with his mouth open. He missed that now.
Somewhere during the afternoon, Nick must have fallen asleep. He was awoken by a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw it was Kevin and Brian. Reluctantly he let go of Howie’s hand, allowing Kevin to sit down. It was obvious he was shocked by the way Howie looked.
Quietly Nick left the room.
After a while Kevin joined him.
Nick did not dare look in Kevin’s eyes.
‘It’s my fault.’
Kevin was confused.
‘I thought a man shot Howie.’
‘He did. But I pushed the gun out of AJ’s face as it went off and I did not push far enough.’
Nick turned to the wall, hit it hard and started crying.
‘Nicky, it is not your fault. We could have lost AJ.’
Kevin pulled Nick around again and held him close, allowing him to cry, to give in to his feelings he had bottled up since this thing started.
Handing him a handkerchief, Nick seemed to calm down a little as he wiped the tears of his face.
‘Let’s go in.’
But as they opened the door, AJ walked out.
‘Kev, can I have a word.’
Nick walked into the room and Kevin stayed in the hall with AJ. And although Kevin desperately wanted to go in to be with Howie, he gave AJ the time he seemed to need to pull his thoughts together.
‘Please, don’t get mad. It’s all my fault.’
Kevin just lifted his eyebrows. Did he not just hear the same thing from Nick.
‘Wanna talk about it?’
‘The man was angry about the pictures with Kaci. Shit, Kevin, I was so scared. The gun was pointing right at me. If it hadn’t been for Nick it would have been the end of me. And now Howie . . . . ‘
AJ paced up and down the hall.
‘AJ, . . . .’
‘I did not mean Howie to get hurt! You have to believe me.’ He said pleading.
‘AJ, I do believe you. Nick feels it is his fault, you feel it is your fault. What you both need to know is that it is neither one’s fault. Sometimes there are crazy people out there who want to impose their values on everyone. It does not mean they are right. Please, AJ, Howie would be the first to say it was not your fault.’
Pulling AJ in a quick hug, they walked back into the room.
Nick had changed into some other clothes and now AJ did the same. And then they all settled down, waiting. They took turns at sitting next to Howie.
Later in the afternoon the nurse came by to check his vital signs. All was stable. Some other nurses passed by to wash Howie. And then a therapist passed by to do some exercises with Howie.
‘Why you doing that?’ Nick asked as he was watching her.
‘It is very important to keep his limbs going, to prevent blood clots forming in his arms and legs. So he will get daily massages and exercises.’
‘Can I help?’
The nurse was a bit surprised.
‘Sure. Let me show you how I move his leg and then you can do his other leg.’
Nick watched her intently and then did exactly the same to Howie’s other leg. The others had approached as well, looking what had to be done.
‘And now we’ll put him on his side as well.’
She showed them how to put Howie’s body and where to put some support, all the time making sure his head was safe and his breathing unimpaired.
‘Thanks.’ Nick said as the nurse left.
It was already late when the Dorough family arrived at the hospital.
Howie’s mum was very distressed seeing her youngest son like that. Nick and AJ stood back against the wall. Brian helped the family and Kevin went to Hoke. It all seemed very surreal to Nick. He had been so absorbed in his own world he had not seen Hoke come towards him.
‘Boys, can we go out for a moment.’
Nick knew they were in for trouble. They had not taken care of Howie and now Hoke was mad, he was sure.
Out in the hall, AJ and Nick stood quietly against the wall, staring at their feet or where ever as long as they did not have to face Hoke.
‘Look at me.’ Hoke said calmly.
Reluctantly Nick and AJ looked up.
‘Kevin told me a strange story. AJ, you blame yourself. Nick, you blame yourself. What you probably don’t know being in this hospital all day, is what has appeared in the news. We know what happened. And it is not your fault.’
‘But, Sir. If I had not been seen with Kaci. . . . .’
‘And if I had only pushed harder.’
‘If, if, if. Boys, believe me. It was not your fault.’
‘Thank you, Sir. But I think AJ and I will need a bit more time to convince ourselves of that.’
‘I understand. I just wanted to make sure you knew no one here blames you. No one. OK?’
Kevin and Brian came out of the room.
‘Nick, we’re taking you and AJ home for a while. Howie is stable. Hoke, we’ll be back in the morning. But call anytime there is a change.’
Shaking his hand, Hoke promised to do so.
‘But Kevin. I don’t want to go.’ Nick complained after Hoke had left them.
‘Nick, you need rest. I won’t argue with you. You are coming.’ Kevin raised his voice.
And Nick was tired.
The trip to Nicks place was quiet. Walking inside, he saw Howie’s jacket that he had not taken to the club in the end after all. Howie had been staying at Nick’s place.
Nick walked straight to it, picking it up and smelling the fabric. Dropping down on the settee, he started to cry uncontrollably. It had been such a long day. Brian signaled Kevin and AJ to leave them for a moment.
Sitting down next to his friend, Brian let Nick cry.
Kevin and AJ walked to the kitchen when Kevin poured himself a drink without really thinking about it. AJ looked at the glass and Kevin realized what he had done.
‘AJ, I’m sorry.’
He poured the drink in the sink immediately and took a small bottle of coke. Giving one to AJ, the sat at the table.
‘I sure could use one right about now.’
‘How is your head’
‘Kevin, please tell me the last 24 hours didn’t happen. I know how Nick feels. I dare not close my eyes. Each time I see the gun, I hear the loud bang. Kevin, you can not imagine how loud that was. One second Howie is standing next to me and then he is gone. I could not touch him.’
AJ was getting very distressed. Kevin did not know what to say.
‘I’m sorry we were not there as well. Perhaps it would not have happened if it had been the 5 of us.’
‘ I think that man was going to do what he nearly do, even with Markus there.’
Brian walked into the kitchen.
‘I’m putting Nick to bed, guys. He is very upset. So I’ll see you later. I’m staying with him until he is asleep.’
‘Ok, Bri. ‘
It was a long and restless night. By 7am, Nick was up and ready to go back to the hospital.
When they reached Howie’s room, no one was inside, not even Howie.
‘Kevin, he’s gone. Howie’s not here. Kevin, he can’t have . . .’
‘Nick, calm down. There must be a good explanation.’
Just then Howie was wheeled back into the room, followed by his mum and dad.
‘Nick, what’s the matter, baby.’ Howie’s mum asked.
‘I . . . . Howie was not here.’
Immediately she knew what must have happened.
‘Oh, no. I’m sorry, honey. They took another scan to see how the swelling was. Hoke and I went along. Pollyanna has gone to the hotel and is picking up John this morning.’
Nick visibly relaxed.
‘What’s the result?’ Kevin asked.
‘The doctor said his head is doing fine. They will be bringing him out of this coma during the day. Then they will be able to assess the damage.’
Each time Nick heard that word, he cringed.
The morning went slowly. When PollyAnna dropped off John, she took her parents to the hotel and came back. Quietly she sang to her brother as she did on stage with him.
During the afternoon, each took a turn at helping with the massage and the exercises.
At least it made them feel like they were doing something useful.
In the early evening, everyone was gathered in Howie’s room. The doctor came in to check on his patient.
After reviewing his chart, he did not look to pleased. He addressed himself to Howie’s parents.
‘Mr. and Mrs. Dorough, during the afternoon we have gradually brought your son of the medication that keeps him in the induced coma. The scan showed the swelling of the brain had gone down considerably.’
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’ Nick asked.
‘Yes and no. Howie did not wake up as we had expected.”
There was dead silence.
‘What do you mean?’ AJ hesitated.
‘I’m afraid Howie has slipped into a coma.’
The doctor let that sink in for a moment.
‘We can’t tell how long this will be for.’
Hoke helped his wife sit down. PollyAnna and John embraced. Nick, AJ, Kevin and Brian stayed quietly to the side.
‘So, Howie needs a bit more time to wake up.’ Nick whispered to Kevin.
‘He’ll be fine. I’m sure!’ he stressed.
But a week went by and Howie had not moved. His wound had healed and there was no medical reason to stay at the hospital.
His family had found a good nursing facility back home. Howie would get the best of care there until he woke up.
Nick watched the plane take off with his friend. He felt so alone, so responsible. A hand touched his shoulder. He knew it was Kevin trying to get his attention. After another moment he turned to face his friend.
‘Let’s go home’ Kevin said quietly.
Weeks went by. Nick made the newspapers often. AJ and Brian both called Kevin: ‘Talk to him!’ was all they said.
That evening Kevin found Nick in another club, drunk as usual, not good company to anyone.
Nick looked up from his drink only for a moment.
‘What do you want?’ he slurred his speech.
‘For starters, take you home.’
Nick pushed Kevin away. But he was too drunk to resist Kevin when he picked him up and carried him out of the club.
Nick was out cold during the drive home. Kevin opened the door but when he turned to get Nick, Nick was already walking in the house unaided, still wobbly on his legs but not as drunk as he had seemed only minutes ago.
Nick walked passed Kevin straight to the settee and sat down. Kevin followed.
Nicks eyes stared at something on the other couch: Howie’s jacket from that evening. Nick had not touched it since the evening he had come back here with the others.
Kevin saw the jacket as well and picked it up.
‘Why don’t you take it back to him?’
Nick shook his head.
‘I can’t’ he whispered.
‘He’s still not woken up.’
‘I talked to Hoke only last night. He is doing fine.’
‘That may well be, Kevin. But he is not awake.’
‘No, he is not. Go talk to him. We’ve all gone to see him, except you.’
Nick was quiet.
Kevin sat next to him and pulled him in a bear hug.
‘Thanks, Kev. Now go home. I’ll be fine.’
Kevin hesitated but knew he had to let go.
‘OK, you take care now.’
Kevin left the house quietly.
It took Nick another week to get on a plane and fly to Florida.
He recognized the nursing home immediately from the photo’s he had seen on the website. He may not have visited yet but he knew everything about this place thanks to the internet.
A nurse told him the room number. He hesitated going in. He was not prepared for what he saw.
Howie had lost a lot of weight. He had expected Howie to have a room of his home but there were 2 more patients in there.
Nick took a seat next to the bed, looking at his friend, not saying anything.
He was not sure how long he had been sitting there when the door was opened again. Pollyanna walked in with her mother.
‘Nick, so good to see you.’
‘He looks so pale.’
‘He does.’ Pollyanna said.
‘Why ….. ‘ Nick hesitated asking the questions.
‘What is the matter, dear?’ Howie’s mum asked.
‘I just expected Howie to have a room of his own.’
‘He normally does but with the Christmas only 2 weeks away, a lot of patients are brought in. No one wants them around while having their turkey. I wish we could bring Howie home with us but . . . .’
‘I could take him to my place and you can visit there!’ Nick looked at them hopeful.
‘Nick, Sweetie. It is a lot of work taking care of him.’
‘Mum, I know. I did his exercises in hospital. I could get a nurse in. Please, let me do this.’
Pollyanna and her Mum looked at Howie and then at each other.
‘We need to talk to Hoke but I feel OK with it, if you are sure.’
‘Yes, I’m very sure’
For the first time in a long time, Nick smiled again.
‘I’m going home now, get the house ready, get a nurse organized, do some shopping and then I’ll organize the transport.’
After a quick kiss, Nick nearly ran out of the building.
After a short drive, he reached his home. It had been closed for a long while but Nick threw open all the windows, took away all the cover sheets and while a fresh sea breeze flew through each room, he got on the phone.
He wanted to get Howie home as quickly as possible but he also needed everything to be perfect. So it would not be today, but tomorrow that he could transport Howie.
That evening Hoke passed by at the house.
‘Evening, sir. How are you ding?’ Nick felt good.
‘Son, are you sure you want to do this?’
‘Please come in.’ Nick lead Hoke to the living room.
Where before a dinner table and lots of chairs had been, now a professional bed was standing, turned towards to windows, looking out over the sea.
‘I have everything ready, sir. The nurse is coming in the morning and I have lots of food in and everything to take care of Howie. A specialist shop brought all the equipment. Yes, Sir. I’m sure of this.’
Hoke took in the room and what Nick was saying.
‘It would just be for the holiday season, until he can get his room back for himself. We would not want you to stop doing your work. Howie would not want that.’
‘I understand, sir.
Hoke saw Nick was sure he wanted to do this. He may not know exactly what was going to happen but Hoke was happy his son would be in the company of a friend. And his family could come and see Howie whenever they wanted.
The next day Howie was brought to Nicks house. The doctor and nurse came along to explain all the things that needed to be done. Twice a day the nurse would come over and make sure everything was going fine. Nick also got the doctors home phone number which he could call any time he needed help.
Nick was glad when everyone finally left and he had the chance to be alone with his friend. He felt a bit uncomfortable all of a sudden. Not sure if and what he should say.
‘I’ll just pretend you are listening to me and I’ll talk away. If you have enough of that, just let me know.’
Nick settle quickly into a routine. Three times a day he had to feed Howie through the tube that had been inserted. He had to make sure there was always fluids and that the drip was working fine. He did exercises with Howie to keep his muscles from degrading to much. And then of course there was the diaper. But then of course the nurse was there to help as well.
Nick felt good being able to help like this.
After about a week, he really wanted to take Howie for a swim. So when the nurse arrived, he immediately asked.
‘I guess there is no problem with that if you make sure to close off the feeding tube and reconnect the drip as soon as you get out of the pool.’
That first time, the nurse stayed to make sure everything went ok.
Nick changed Howie into some swimming trunks and then carefully closed off the feeding tube and disconnected the drip. Howie was so light Nick could lift him effortlessly.
Carefully he took Howie into the water. Letting his head rest on his shoulder, he walked around the swimming pool. He used an inflatable ring to make sure Howie stayed above water while he did his leg exercises. After 15 minutes they came out of the pool again.
The nurse helped Nick to make sure all tubes were ok again. From that day onward, they had a swim every day.
In the evenings, Nick left the doors to the seaside open so Howie could hear the noise of the water. And then he sat next to Howie, playing his Xbox or his guitar.
Every day Howie’s family passed by and that was the time Nick took for himself. He did not want to intrude on their time with Howie so he usually did some shopping or ran errands.
Christmas was approaching quickly now. It did depress Nick, knowing his friend would not really be there to celebrate. But he was determined to make the best of it.
It was about 5 in the afternoon on Christmas eve when the phone rang.
‘Nick, dear. Would you mind if we have Christmas dinner with you and Howie? ‘ It was Howie’s Mum.
‘We would do all the cooking at home and then bring it over to you. With the whole family. We just want to be there with him.’
‘I understand. Of course you can come. You know you are welcome any time!’
‘Well, and I guessed you would not be doing a lot of cooking for yourself.’
Nick chuckled. She was right there.
‘I look forward to your lovely dinner. Thanks!’
Slowly the sun was setting. Nick had bought a Christmas tree and he now decorated it while talking away.
‘We’ve been getting some good songs for the new album. As a matter of fact, Kevin wrote this beautiful song. Let me get the music from the office. He send me a copy of it the other day.’
Temporarily forgetting about the tree he walked to his office and got the music from his desk. Picking up his guitar, he sat down next to Howie and sang:
The things we did, the things we said
Keep coming back to me and make me smile again
You showed me how to face the truth
Everything that's good in me I owe to you
Though the distance that's between us
Now may seem to be too far
It will never separate us
Deep inside I know you are
Never gone, never far
In my heart is where you are
Always close, everyday
Every step along the way
Even though for now we've gotta say goodbye
I know you will be forever in my life (yeah)
No no no
I walk alone these empty streets
There is not a second you're not here with me
The love you gave, the grace you've shown
Will always give me strength and be my cornerstone
Somehow you found a way
To see the best I have in me
As long as time goes on
I swear to you that you will be
Never gone, never far
In my heart is where you are
Always close (always close)
Every step along the way
Even though for now we've gotta say goodbye
I know you will be forever in my life (in my life yeah)
Never gone from me
If there's one thing I believe (I believe)
I will see you somewhere down the road again
Never gone, never far
In my heart is where you are
Always close (always close)
Every step along the way
Even though for now we've gotta say goodbye (yeah yeah)
I know you will be forever in my life (in my life)
Never gone, never far
In my heart (in my heart is where) is where you are (you are)
Always close, everyday
Every step along the way
Never gone, never far
In my heart is where you are
Kevin had written the song for his dad but for Nick it was also a message to Howie.
Putting the guitar on the floor, Nick got up and walked to Howie.
‘If I could have one wish this Christmas, I would wish for you to wake up, dearest friend!’
Gently he put his arms around Howie and hugged him close while tears gently fell down. Howie’s eyes stirred when the tears hit his face. But Nick never noticed. By the time he laid Howie down again, there was no more movement.
‘Come on, Nick. Pull yourself together. That tree is not going to get decorated by itself.’
An hour later, a beautifully decorated tree was standing next to the fire place.
Making sure Howie was settled for the night, he made himself comfortable in the living room where he soon fell asleep on the settee.
It must have been around 3 when Nick was startled awake by something falling. Immediately his eyes went to Howie’s bed. It was empty!
‘Oh, no. I must have forgotten to put the night guards up. Darned, Nick’ he cursed himself for being so careless. Rushing to the side of the bed, he found Howie lying on the floor, not moving. Gently Nick picked up Howie and put him back in bed. Verifying that the drip was still in place and the feeding tube had not been damaged, Nick soon noticed that the guards had been up. That was strange. How did Howie roll off the bed?
Then Nick noticed the bright chocolate brown eyes looking at him. He took a step back, startled because Howie had been quiet all this time.
‘Howie?’ Nick whispered.
Howie did not react.
‘Oh God, did you hurt your head again?’
Nick rushed over to look over Howie’s head but found no wounds.
Slowly Howie’s hand went up to the side of his head, feeling where he had been hurt so many months ago.
‘Howie, can you hear me?’
Confused Howie looked at Nick.
‘Nick, why am I wearing a diaper?’
Nick nearly fell down laughing.
‘Welcome back, sleepy head!’
Nick grabbed Howie and hugged him for the longest time.
‘I have to call the doctor now!’ Nick realized.
He wanted to rush to the phone but Howie held his hand.
Howie was not sure but he somehow felt that was the right thing to say.
‘My pleasure!’ Nick beamed and danced over to the phone, dialing the doctors number.
‘Doc, you need to come. It’s Howie! I know it is the middle of the night but it can not wait!’
Nick returned to Howie’s side immediately.
‘Where am I?’ Howie asked silently.
‘What do you remember?’
Then Nick told him what had happened so long ago now. By the time he finished his story, the doctor arrived.
He was pleased to see Howie awake.
‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Dorough.’
‘Is it Christmas already?’ Even though Nick has told him, he had not made the link with the time of the year.
‘You will need to learn to eat again and take it easy for a while. You’ll feel tired still. Next week we can remove the feeding tube. Nick, make sure you still keep that clean until then. We don’t want any infections now.’
‘Not a problem. I’ll take care of him.’
‘I’ll disconnect the drip but we’ll leaved the syringe in your hand in case you don’t keep up the fluids enough. Well, Howie, you are a very lucky man.’
‘I’m starting to get that feeling to, doctor.’
Nick let the doctor out again after he had finished.
He walked back to his friend feeling exhausted. He sat down next to the bed and put his head down. Within minutes, Nick was asleep.
The sun was up. Nick startled awake and immediately looked at Howie. Had it been real or a dream. Howie had his eyes closed. Fear gripped Nick’s heart.
Carefully he caressed Howie’s face. That woke up Howie, opening his eyes, seeing the scared look on Nicks face.
Nick let out a sigh.
‘I thought it had been a dream. Man, I’m so glad it wasn’t.’
During the morning, Nick helped Howie with a shower. It was still difficult to stand upright. When Howie was all settled again out on the terrace, in the shade, Nick rushed to move the bed out of the dinning room area and started decorating the table.
Shortly after midday, Howie’s family arrived.
They were worried when they did not see Howie but a table again.
‘No, don’t worry. I’ve put him outside so I could get the table in. You put everything on the table and I’ll go and get him.
The family busied themselves in the kitchen and dining room to get everything set up.
Nick walked back into the room.
‘Mum, before I get Howie back, I want to give you a present.’
‘There is no need, dear. You know you are part of the family.’
‘Still…. You don’t have to do this. I’ll get the present but you better sit down. Sir, you too, please.’
Howie’s parents did not quiet understand. What was this present that they had to sit down.
‘You ready?’ Nick called.
‘Yes, dear. But what …..’
She did not get to finish her question as she saw her son walk into the room slowly, helped by Nick.
Hands clasped in front of her mouth she could not believe what she saw.
Hoke rushed up to his son and helped him walk into the room. Nick was happy to let Howie’s dad take over. Quietly he stepped back a bit, allowing the family get close to Howie again.
Howie sat down next to his mum who by now was crying openly. But these were tears of joy. She could not have wished for a better present. Looking over at Nick so whispered ‘Thank you’ before putting her arms around Howie.
The doorbell rang and Nick went to open the door.
There were Kevin, Brian and AJ as well with their families.
‘Nick, we guessed you would not be cooking so we flew in and brought some food along.’
‘Come on in!’
When they reached the living room, they saw the whole Dorough family there as well.
Stunned Kevin could not believe his own ears.
Carefully Howie got up from the settee to show them it was really him.
Kevin, AJ and Brian rushed over and hugged Howie.
This was turning out to be a fantastic Christmas!
Later that evening, the five of them sat together.
‘So, Kevin, tell me more about this song of yours. What was it again: Never Gone.’
‘You heard that?’ Nick asked shocked.
‘I could hear all of you. I just could not find you. Yet I did not feel lost as long as I could hear you all.’
Everyone was quiet.
‘Let’s make 2005 our year again and never forget what is important!’
Kevin put his hand in the middle.
‘To 2005.’ AJ put his hand on top of Kevins. Brian, Nick and Howie followed.
‘And to never be gone again!’ Howie finished.