Jean's words hit Evan with the disorienting force of a bullet. Did she say she was about to die?
Evan’s chest tightened, and tears sprang to the corners of his eyes as his hands quivered in his lap. He felt a surge of volcanic heat rise up his throat, a wave of raw panic and pain. His pain. All the abuse came back in a flood of memory, and he wasn’t sure he could hold everything in any longer.
“I—” Evan’s vocal chords ground to a halt, his eyes welled, and he buried his face in his gloves. “My mother,” he sobbed, “was an al—alcoholic who would insult me a—and beat me, from the time I c—came home from school, to when my father got home fr—from work. My dad and I left her years ag—ago, but I was never the same. She hated me, and I thought no one would ever be capable of—of liking me, and I just started to h—hide. She’s the reason for—for everything!”
Evan took a deep breath before continuing and exposing his face again. He didn’t even want to know how pathetic he looked; he had a pretty good idea of that, already. “I moved out after graduation, I work from home, I exercise at home, and I shop online. I—I only leave the house for skiing during the winter, and it almost kills me every time jus—just to get to this run here. I pack a sandwich into my jacket so—so I don’t have to go inside the lodge, and or—order anything.”
Jean’s mitted hand reached out to Evan, but her arm lacked the strength to extend fully, and it fell back in the snow.
Evan found himself looking at her bloodied glove longingly, as if he wanted the physical contact. But did he? It had been so long since he’d been touched. He felt his stomach churn and writhe inside of him, his heart was a touch lighter. It no longer felt caught in his throat, but slowly sliding back down his esophagus, into its rightful place beneath his left breast.
“This must be the bravest day of your life,” replied Jean, and Evan returned his gaze to her face. Her smile once again wrinkled her sagging face, despite the sound of her wet, shallow breathing.
“Your very survival is a miracle,” she said faintly. “And you, being here, for me? Inexplicable.”
Evan smiled, too; it had been so long since he had felt respected, cared about, by someone other than his morbid, depressed father. This was a woman, reaching out to him, encouraging him. No other woman, of any age, had ever called him a miracle.
Jean’s face drooped a little, weariness stretching the lines of her face. Her breaths grew slower and shallower; like a fish out of water, she was slowly wasting away.
Evan opened his mouth to say something, but a scowl of pain erupted on her face, and she clutched her abdomen. She groaned, her torso twisting in the snow.
In an instant, Evan was right next to her, hovering. “Jean! Are you okay?”
“The pain—is too much to ignore,” she replied with difficulty, her breaths harsh and ragged. Her pupils were contracting, her lips trembling, and for the first time, Evan saw fear in her.
“How old—are you, Evan?”
Jean seemed to consider his answer for a second, despite the pain. “Then I’ll give you—my daughter’s number. She’s nineteen, and her name—is Melody. When this is over, I need you to find a phone and call her. My husband’s—out of town, so she’s the one I want you to tell.”
Evan looked Jean up and down, and felt a new kind of worry gripping hold of his body. “No,” he breathed. “You’ll be alright.”
Jean’s next breath was hardly audible, let alone visible. “Evan, remember this: seven, eight, four—eight, zero, two—four, one, seven, one. Please—call her.”
“Okay,” said Evan, his voice growing surprisingly loud, “but shouldn’t I at least try to get help? You still have time!”
Jean winced, clutching her stomach. “No, I don’t.” Then, she was seized by a particularly violent fit of pain, for she yelped, forcing her upper body into a sitting position with her arms. But that didn’t help. She gasped, and her eyes bulged. Jean’s next breath sounded more like a growl, and she sank back down into the snow; her lungs had been punctured. She tried for several seconds to breathe, but had limited success.
“Evan. I’m sorry I called you—a recluse,” she uttered amidst desperate, hollow breaths.
Evan shook his head. “But I am a recluse.” As he said it, he thought he heard the sound of a motor in the distance. He looked around, but he didn’t see anything.
“No. Not anymore. You did—the most excruciating thing you—could have ever done: talking. And you did it—for a total—stranger—just because she needed you to.”
Evan heard the sound getting closer, and he looked down the hill. A snowmobile was making its way up the steep slope of Courage. Evan waved his arms in the air, and the patroller steered towards them. Help had finally come.
“Evan,” Jean whispered.
“Jean,” said Evan, “it’s going to be alright.”
Her weary eyes remained unchanged. “That makes you—a man,” she said with agonizing slowness. Had she even heard what he said?
If she had, it didn’t matter; her lungs would support her no longer. Her breathing stopped, her lips turned a sickly shade of blue, and terror took hold of her. She clawed at the snow with her gloves, her dead lungs driving her to desperation.
“Jean!” Evan cried, taking off her glove and grabbing onto her hand, holding it tight. It was painfully cold.
The snowmobile driver, wearing a reflective jacket, rushed off his mount and knelt down on the other side of Jean, immediately beginning mouth-to-mouth on her, while Evan sat, paralyzed, in the snow.
Her body shook as her heart continued to fail, and a final tear spilled down her temple. The snowmobiler folded his hands over her chest, and pressed downwards, but it was no use.
“Jean!” Evan shrieked. “No!”
Jean fixed her eyes on him, but she could do no more than that. Only mere seconds later, her pupils dilated, her grip subsided, and her body went limp. She was gone.
Carrying Jean’s body and placing it on the stretcher was one of the hardest things Evan had ever had to do. He couldn’t remember what the patroller had said to him afterwards, and he couldn’t watch as the man took her body away. All he could do was fall to his knees in the snow. Even after his tears had frozen to his face, it took a long time to bring himself to descend the rest of Courage and ride the double chairlift back to the summit.
By the time he was on his way down to the lodge, he could barely keep his legs skiing straight. He had never watched someone die in front of him. He had never told anyone that much about himself, not even his therapist. He had never helped a total stranger like he had today.
But had he helped Jean? Another skier had dug her out of the snow, and the patroller had been the one to perform CPR on her when she was dying. All Evan did was talk to her.
And that, he reminded himself, was all she had wanted him to do. Evan remembered Jean, and everything about her, all at once. He remembered her hands, morbidly cold, her coughs, bloody and vile, and the lifeless, alien veil over her eyes the last time he looked into them. It made him shudder. He forced himself to recall the vibrancy those emerald eyes had before, the grateful smile she fought to keep on her face, and her most powerful words to him: “This must be the bravest day of your life.”
Some minutes later, Evan dragged himself into the warm, candle-lit lodge and searched around for a payphone, which he found in a corner of the dining area. Evan inserted a quarter with fumbling fingers and dialed the number of Jean’s daughter: seven, eight, four—eight, zero, two—four, one, seven, one. As the phone rang, Evan’s heart thumped habitually, but this time, he paid no attention to it. He had to do this, for Jean.
“Hey, this is Melody,” answered a sweet voice.
“Hello,” Evan said into the telephone. “I, uh, I’m sorry to bother you like this, but there’s something I need to tell you. It’s about your muh—mother.”
“Okay… and who are you?”
“Oh, right,” he replied. “My name is Evan. Evan Lowe.”