The snow filled her flats, squishing around her toes so that she felt like her feet were encased in plastic bags of freezing water. She tried to run around the side of the building, but her legs sank into the deep powder. It nearly came to her knees, and the part of her brain that wasn’t reciting the signs of an opioid overdose registered the amount of snow with shock.
She kept going, ticking the signs off in her head. Not waking up or responding to my voice or touch. Is breathing slow, irregular, or has it stopped? Are the pupils very small? Lips blue? She felt her body shake from the cold. In this weather, her own lips were probably blue by now; how would she know if his were blue because of an overdose or the freezing cold? Snow wiggled under the tail of her shirt, slipped down the back of her pants. She kept moving, ignoring her labored progress and continuing to grasp for any remnants from the class she took. Slow heartbeat? Weak pulse? A chill ran down her spine that had nothing to do with the wet cardigan clinging to her skin. What if the guy wasn’t breathing? Was she supposed to administer rescue breathing first? A knot tightened in the pit of her stomach, and her brain was suddenly empty of everything she’d learned in that class. The branches of the pine tree hung down like blackout curtains, blocking her view of the man inside. One branch bowed beyond what Nora thought was possible for wood, its pine needles resting on snow that had already piled heavy across the green needles, gluing its weight to the ground.
Beyond the sodden branches, she could just make out his form, sprawled by the thick trunk, and her heart beat so fast it flattened her lungs. She was thrown back to the afternoon when she was nine and had taken the trash out like she did every Monday. It hadn’t been snowing, but it was so cold that her breath fogged the air, and she was so focused on that she didn’t notice Mario sprawled in the brown grass, the zombie from her nightmares. She’d screamed so loud the neighbor’s dog started howling. You saved his life, the paramedic told her later.
She pushed through the stiff limbs and found herself sheltered underneath the tree, shoving thoughts of Mario out of the way to make room for the box in her hand and the man on the ground. The snow was shallower in the protected space, and she was by his side in seconds, her mind spinning with instructions. Lay the person on their back. Remove device from the box and peel back the plastic. It had all seemed so easy in class, simple in a How to Stop an Opioid Overdose for Dummies kind of way. But it didn’t account for a once-in-a-decade snowstorm or fingers that had grown so cold she couldn’t grip the small plastic corner of the package. She squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head. Calm down, Nora! She was getting ahead of herself. Check him first. He lay at an odd angle, slumped low against the trunk. Her brother’s skin had been gray, his lips more black than blue, and she’d been sure he was dead. They said I would have died if you hadn’t found me, he’d croaked later from his hospital bed. I don’t know what I’d do without you, Peaches.
The man’s lips were blue; his eyes were closed, so she couldn’t see his pupils. She put two fingers to his wrist, but feeling his pulse beneath the frozen pads of her fingertips seemed an impossible task, so she laid her head against his chest, ignoring the moist stink that mixed with the wool fabric of his coat. His heart beat but it was slow—too slow, she thought—and his breathing sounded like a wave that never quite reached the shore.
“Nora?” She didn’t turn. Vlado’s voice was recognizable even in a moment like this, where Nora was so far out of her league she felt like a stranger to herself.
“I need help.” Her voice was hoarse.
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“Okay.” He was on the other side of the man’s prone form in seconds.
“I think this man has overdosed.” Her teeth chattered while she spoke, making her words come out in fits and starts. “We need to lay him all the way onto his back.”
Vlado did just that and Nora was grateful to not be alone anymore, even if it was with someone who knew less than she did about how to save someone from an overdose. The class had been helpful, but it had also been calm and relaxed, nothing like reality. In reality, it was the hard grass biting into her knees, the stink of a trash bag split open by her side, the screeching cries of her aunt, and the splashes of ambulance lights across her brother’s zombie face.
She fumbled with the package, the tiny edge of plastic slipping from between her wet fingers until she cried out with frustration. “Damn it!”
Vlado took the box, opened it, pulled out the device, and without a word, handed it back to her.
She fit it into her hand, thumb on the plunger, two fingers on either side of the nozzle that wobbled in the air with a shaking that skittered through her muscles. She didn’t want this man to die. Not when she could do something to save him. Why was he here, near death and alone? Did he have a wife who cried for him? A son? Did they scour the streets like she did, feel the futility of searching for one person in the widening hole inside their chests? She would not let him die, but she was terrified that she was too late.
She slid one hand under his neck to tilt his head up, inserted the nozzle into his left nostril until her fingers touched his nose; then she pushed the plunger.
“Help me get him on his side,” she said.
“The Night of Many Endings”
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She pulled on his shoulders while Vlado pushed against his back, and they quickly brought the man to his side, where she positioned his hands under his head. Nora watched his face, waiting for signs that the medicine had worked. It could happen quickly or it could take a few minutes—that part she remembered. Mario’s body had flopped like a fish when they compressed his chest over and over again. He wasn’t responding; he was already dead.
The man’s skin looked gray. She felt an ache in her jaw that she ignored as she waited, forgetting how cold she was, forgetting—
“Oh!” She pushed to her knees, soaking her pants on the wet ground. “We need to call 911.”
Vlado nodded, pulled his phone from his pocket, and punched in the numbers. “Yes, hello, this—”
Just then the man sat up, his eyes wide and red, skin pale but less gray than before, the blue tint disappearing from his lips. He slapped the phone from Vlado’s hand. It landed in the snow. “No, no hospitals. I’m fine, goddamnit, I’m fine.”
He pushed his body up until he wobbled on his knees, hands on the ground as if he might keel over. Nora’s arms shot out but hovered in the air, not quite touching the man but ready to brace him in case he started to fall. Vlado picked up his phone, looking to Nora as though waiting for her decision.
“Lewis, right? I believe you overdosed. I think you n-n-eed t-t—” She’d begun to shake violently, the adrenaline from before seeping out, leaving behind muscles frozen by the wind, skin so numb it lay on her like a wet blanket.
Lewis looked up at her, then swiveled his head, seemed to take in his surroundings: Vlado, the phone, the snow, his library card, and a rolled-up dollar bill on the ground beside a plastic bag. Moving slowly and clumsily, he grabbed the bill and the bag and stuffed them into his pockets, then sat back on his heels and rubbed his face roughly with one hand.
Nora stared at his pocket, surprised and slightly sickened to see him protect what nearly killed him. She blinked. “Sir, you need to get checked out by paramedics to make sure you’re okay. You could still overdose once this medication wears off. And w-w-we need to get you out of the c-c-cold.” Shivers racked her body and she wrapped her arms around her, tried to create warmth. A coat appeared around her shoulders, warm and too big, and she inhaled apples and some kind of woodsy manlike scent. She shuddered into it, grateful for the respite from the frigid air, and noticed Vlado, coatless and standing above her with his phone to his ear.
“She gave him something in his nose. Yes. He’s awake and he’s sitting up and talking. Okay, okay.”
The man struggled to push to his feet. “I said no hospital, damnit, no hospital.”
“What are they saying?” Nora asked Vlado.
Vlado pulled the phone from his ear. “They can’t get anyone to us for a while. Roads are closed, big accidents all over the place. They say to get him inside and to keep an eye on him.”
Lewis had risen to his feet but leaned heavily against the tree. Nora noticed his hands—thick with calluses, skin torn and hardened at the fingertips—and her chest hurt to think of the pain that must cause him.
“I have c-c-offee, t-t-ea, and hot chocolate inside,” she said past numb lips. She thought about the day last week when he came inside to use the bathroom. How he’d kept his eyes down, hardly ever meeting her gaze, like he didn’t exist if she didn’t see him, like he was invisible. “It’s r-r-really c-cold out here, Lewis. I could use something warm. H-how about you?”
His gaze seemed to take in her soaking-wet pants and flimsy shoes, but he still didn’t meet her eyes. A deep fatigue sliced wide lines down his cheeks, and behind that Nora thought she saw something give way.
From above them came a loud crack, followed by a whooshing sound, and a massive branch tumbled to the ground not far from where they had gathered under the tree. Nora could not believe her eyes.
Vlado grabbed her arm. “We need to get inside. It’s dangerous out here.”
She nodded, turned to Lewis. “Please, Lewis, come inside with us. Please?” She could hear a raw desperation in her voice. Desperate because she knew she couldn’t leave him out here to freeze to death, but she had no idea how she could force him inside without someone getting hurt. Already she was thinking of her brother. How she hadn’t seen him in years, heard from him only sporadically. Her hands curled into fists. She had to get Lewis inside. This time she tried to keep her tone light. “There’s coffee. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something warm right about now?”
Lewis turned from them, back rounded, and for a heart-pounding second, she thought he was going to leave, but then he stopped and seemed to change his mind. “Okay,” he said.
Nora breathed out, relief a temporary warmth. “Okay, Lewis. Good, good, let’s go, then, okay? I even promise not to give you a replacement library card.”
Vlado snorted and Nora saw the man’s shoulders go up and down once. A sigh? A laugh? It didn’t matter. All she cared about was getting him inside.
Vlado led the way and they trudged slowly out from under the tree and into the deeper snow, with the wind pushing wet flakes into her eyes and mouth, making it hard to see anything but white until they reached the library, and Nora walked inside to find that all hell had broken loose.
“Nora!” Marlene stood by Nora’s desk, her hand gripping Jasmine’s arm. “I told you this girl was up to no good.”
Nora wanted to get Lewis settled in, then sink into her chair, take off her sopping shoes, and drink a hot tea. She didn’t want to deal with Marlene. But the girl looked both angry and scared, and for a moment Nora saw herself kneeling on the grass—cheeks mottled by tears, her mouth twisted—and watching Mario leave on a stretcher. She gritted her teeth and, not for the first time today, wished for Charlie. He’d know how to talk to Marlene.
Nora approached them, her eyes on the older woman. There was a lingering chill in her voice when she spoke. “Take your hand off of her, Marlene. Now.”
Marlene looked at the girl and jerked back, releasing her and seeming almost surprised that she’d been holding on to her arm in the first place. “Oh, but she stole a book, Nora. It’s stuffed into her backpack.” Her body seemed to deflate, and she slumped forward, leaning heavily into Nora’s desk. “I knew she was up to no good, with her drugs and her phone and her hat on in the library.” She said it as though she considered the deeds equally wrong but with less fervor than before.
Nora sighed. A pounding had started behind her eyes.
The girl snorted and moved toward the door. “She’s crazy. I’m outta here.”
Just then the lights flickered on, then off before extinguishing, and at the same time, every cell phone in the room emitted a shrill alarm. Marlene jumped.
Vlado held up his phone. “It’s a weather warning. The storm is bad, roads are worse. It recommends that everyone should stay in place.”
Marlene had moved to the window and was peering outside. “I told you,” she said, sounding older, weaker than the force of nature Nora had come to know. “Just like the storm of ’03, only worse.”
The wind and snow battered the windows, and without the lights, shadows grew like mold into the corners of the old library. A memory of the storm from so long ago spread with the changing light. It rippled in the air around her, dancing with the panic, the fear that had become a familiar partner, that her brother was out there, alone and hurting, and there was nothing she could do to help.
“Miss Nora?” The timid note in Jasmine’s voice caused her to shake off the memory.
She smiled at the girl. “Yes?”
“My grandma wants to know if I can stay here until she can come get me?” Jasmine looked sideways at Marlene and her jaw tightened. “Not that I want to hang out anywhere near her, but my dad is out of town and I don’t want my grandma out in this. Her eyesight is real bad.”
Nora took stock of the people around her. Jasmine fidgeted with the string on her sweatshirt, pulling it down one side, then retracting it with the other. The girl didn’t look much older than fifteen and was probably as uncomfortable as a teenager gets around so many unfamiliar adults, especially with one of them accusing her of stealing and another filling the small entryway with a rather pungent smell. Lewis had slid to the floor, his back against the doorframe, exhaustion sloughing off him. He shifted with a grunt, squinted up at Nora. “Thought you said there’d be coffee.”
Vlado leaned against the wall by Lewis, arms crossed and watching Nora with a look on his face she didn’t quite understand. His brown hair was wet and tousled, and when their eyes met, his smile was warm.
By the window, Marlene seemed lost to her thoughts, her head tilted up as she watched the snow fall. “I shoveled for three days straight before I found my car,” she said. “Lost power for a week and had to melt snow for water.”
The last storm had been only the beginning. What had followed was a painful series of recoveries and relapses, hope and homelessness that took small pieces of Nora’s brother, then chunks, like a building crumbling over time. This storm was no different because Mario was somewhere alone and hurting and there was nothing Nora could do to help.
She glanced at Lewis, who worked his hands in and out of fists, as though the feeling was just now returning to them. The only difference with this storm was that she was here with people like Lewis and Marlene and Jasmine, and they needed somewhere safe. And that was something she could give them; that was something she could do.
“Miss Nora?” Jasmine looked out at her from under her ball cap.
Nora smiled, clapped her hands, and said, “Is there a better place to be stranded than a library?”
Melissa Payne is the bestselling, award-winning author of “The Secrets of Lost Stones,” “Memories in the Drift” and “The Night of Many Endings.” Her forthcoming novel is “A Light in the Forest.” Melissa lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly mutt and a very loud cat. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com or find her on Instagram @melissapayne_writes.