"How to Use Narcan" by Bonnie E. Carlson
Jessa sits in the noisy yellow school bus, her eight-year-old brother Gabe at her side on the cracked brown vinyl seat. They jounce their way to the library over potholed roads in the hilly, barren, southern Ohio countryside. The older boys in back punch and poke at each other while they argue about some girl. Other kids sing and dance in their seats to music blaring from somebody’s phone on speaker, arms waving in the air to the hip-hop beat.
Jessa pulls her wavy chestnut hair back in a scrunchy. “Have you got your homework in your backpack?”
“'Course,” Gabe says. He smiles at his older sister’s pale, open face and upturned nose and takes off his gloves.
Jessa ruffles the messy, dark-brown curls that tumble out below his knitted hat, grateful the bus stops at the public library each day after school. Small for his age and thin, Gabe’s ADHD makes school a challenge. The tranquility and order of the library help. Getting back home afterward to the mobile home park where they live is another story though. If they can’t find a ride, the mile and a half walk after dark will be dicey on rural roads with no sidewalks.
At the library, a bunch of kids, mostly teenagers, tumble off in heavy winter coats, laden with backpacks and other gear. Jessa and Gabe enter their haven, greeted by the library’s clean, open spaces and the enticing smell of books. Passing the displays of used books and donations for sale, Jessa tries to imagine owning so many books you can give them away because you don’t want them anymore. People speak in hushed tones. Jessa craves the quiet of the library after the chaos at school and the uncertainty of what they’ll find at home. This is the only place sane enough for them to focus on homework.
Walking in, Jessa noticed the county public health van in the parking lot. A librarian is scheduled to present with a county drug prevention educator on how to administer Narcan to reverse a drug overdose. A bunch of kids have showed up. Jessa and her pals on the town Youth Council insisted the school should have these sessions, but their stupid, head-in-the-sands school board nixed the idea.
Last month, the Youth Council appeared before the school board the night this issue was on their agenda. Some moron had argued it wasn’t “appropriate content” for kids. That it would be too “traumatic.” Right. They were in total denial about how many parents were addicted. Jessa had prepared a speech but ended up going off-script after she heard their ridiculous arguments. “If you think administering Narcan is traumatic, what do you think it’s like to come home and find one of your relatives lying on the floor ’cause they’re not breathing, a needle sticking out of their arm?”
That shut them up, but after she left, those idiots still voted no.
The county resorted to other locations that allowed them to conduct their seminars, even a McDonald's that had found customers OD'ed on the floor of their restrooms. The library, too, had found evidence of drug use on-site, and they knew patrons often used their Wi-Fi to seek out drug treatment sites. That’s why the presentation is here today.
Jessa wants Gabe to attend even though he’s only in third grade and the idea scares him. But not as much as seeing one of their parents on the floor after an overdose would.
The kids file into a conference room with a large table, now so packed they need to haul in extra chairs. Four large, flat, boxes sit in the center of the table, and the aroma of pizza fills the room. The drug prevention lady, Susan Marshall, is already there with the children’s librarian, Emily Harrison.
“Hi, Miss Harrison,” Gabe says, flashing a shy smile at the pretty young woman he’s spent so much time with at the library. He adores the red-haired librarian who brims with enthusiasm about books. Sometimes Jessa thinks of the library as his home away from home. Both have spent lots of Saturdays here reading and using computers and free Wi-Fi. With no money for books—hell, sometimes they have trouble paying rent on time or run out of food stamps before the end of the month—the only chances to read are at school and here.
Ms. Harrison pushes her glasses up on her head. "Hi, Gabe. Good to see you here this afternoon. Hey, Jessa, how’s it going?”
“Okay, I guess. Things at home are about the same. No worse than usual. I wasn’t sure Gabe was old enough to learn how to use Narcan, but I decided it wouldn’t hurt.”
Ms. Harrison nods her chin-length red hair swishing.
“Before we get started today,” says Susan, the tall, heavy-set health educator, “I thought maybe some of you would be hungry.”
The kids laugh. It’s four-thirty, and lunch for most had been before noon. They’re starved.
“So, help yourselves to pizza, grab a water, and we’ll get started after you’re done.”
“Eat as much as you can,” Jessa whispers to Gabe. “Who knows what’s at home for dinner.”
Fifteen minutes later, Susan asks if they know what addiction is. Several hands shoot up. She calls on a sandy-haired boy who looks about ten. “It’s when people do too many drugs and can’t stop.”
“That’s right,” Susan says. “And what happens when they take way too much—”
“They can overdose,” interrupts a teenage girl with curly hair and freckles. “Like my mom last Christmas.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. Is she okay?”
The girl shrugs. “She went to the hospital afterward and now she’s home.”
“How many of the rest of you know someone who’s addicted or using drugs?” asks Susan.
Gabe and Jessa raise their hands. In fact, every hand in the room shoots up. No one bothers to look around first to see how many other kids raise their hands. Jessa shakes her head in disgust.
She hates this rinky-dink town.
Susan takes a deep breath. “Wow. There’s so many of you. I’m sorry you’ve all had this experience. So, Ms. Harrison and I are here today to tell you about something called Narcan. It’s a nasal spray, a medication that comes in a little injector that can be used to reverse a drug overdose, which unfortunately can kill someone.”
Heads nods, kids already familiar with Narcan.
Ms. Harrison clears the pizza boxes away while Susan takes out several small blue canvas bags with white lettering. She unzips one and pours out its contents, some funny looking white plastic things with a point at the end.
“Today you’re going to learn how to use Narcan,” Ms. Harrison says, “so if you’re ever in a situation where you’re with someone who overdoses on drugs and stops breathing, you can give it to them and maybe save their life.”
Every kid now has their eyes focused on Susan, watching with rapt attention, the room silent.
Jessa has already been trained in how to use Narcan, months ago with the other kids on the Youth Council. Gabe needs to know, too. She avoids leaving him at home by himself with Mom or his dad, Billy, but sometimes she has stuff to do, like a volleyball game, and can’t take him with her.
“If someone looks like they’re not breathing, you think they might have overdosed and you can’t wake them up,” Ms. Harrison said, “Narcan could save their life.”
Susan holds up a white plastic device. “It works kind of like a squirt gun,” she says. “You put the device in either side of the person’s nose and squeeze it. Here’s how it works.
“First, gently pull their head back. Then, holding the device with your thumb on the bottom and your first and middle fingers on the tabs on either side of the nozzle, insert the nozzle into one side of their nose until your fingers are against the bottom of their nose.” She demonstrates.
“Then press the plunger all the way and spray the whole dose of Narcan into one nostril. You only have to do one side. They should revive and start to breathe pretty quickly.”
Jessa looks down at Gabe, the smallest kid there. He looks scared. She takes his sweaty hand and whispers, “You okay?”
He nods solemnly.
She looks around the room at the faces of the other kids. Some look confused, their eyebrows furrowed.
“Can I have a volunteer to pretend they’ve overdosed?” Susan asks. “We won’t use any actual Narcan while we practice,” she reassures the group.
Jessa raises her hand.
Susan shows how to open the cellophane packaging and, holding Jessa’s head back, pushes the pointed end of the empty device into one nostril, and presses the plunger. “It’s that easy.”
Then it’s time to pass out the empty Narcan devices and give the kids a chance to practice on each other. “I want each of you to try pushing the plunger, so you know what it feels like to squirt the spray even though we won’t be using actual medicine today.”
Jessa likes that she calls it “medicine.”
The kids pair up and practice on each other. There’s some giggling among the younger kids. “I know this feels weird and uncomfortable,” Susan says, “and hopefully you’ll never have to do this. But since all of you know someone who’s used drugs, you might need to do this at some point, to get someone you love to start breathing again.”
The nervous laughter stops, and they spend five minutes practicing on one another.
“After you do this,” Ms. Harrison asks, “who knows what to do next?”
A bunch of hands go up. She calls on a blond-haired boy from Jessa’s ninth-grade class.
“You need to call 9-1-1 right away.”
“Exactly right. Because Narcan doesn't last forever,” Ms. Harrison says. “The person needs to go the emergency room quickly in case they stop breathing again. And so someone can talk to them about getting help so they don’t keep using drugs. And by the way, if you forget how to use the Narcan, YouTube has the instructions.”
That won’t help us, Jessa thinks, with no Wi-Fi at home.
“So, how are you feeling about this right now?” Susan asks.
Not one kid speaks.
“Is anyone worried you might not be able to do this right, to squirt the Narcan into somebody’s nose if they’re not breathing?”
A few nervous nods.
“I know, it’s pretty scary. So, another thing you can do is just dial 9-1-1 directly. On your cellphone, if you have one or your house phone. Tell them what’s happened, that you’re with someone who’s taken drugs and stopped breathing and have some Narcan. They’ll be able to walk you through it.”
Somber looks all around.
“You can do this, kids, you can,” Ms. Harrison says. “But I hope you never have to.”
Susan passes out the blue bags containing two Narcan-filled devices, one for every kid. They put them away into their already heavy backpacks.
The presentation ends and kids file out of the conference room. When she and Gabe are the only ones left, Jessa approaches Ms. Harrison. “If Gabe and I stay until closing, is there any chance you could drop us off at the end of our street on your way home?”
“Sure, Jessa. I’m going straight home tonight so that won’t be a problem. Meet me at my desk at eight and we’ll walk out together.”
Jessa flashes her a relieved smile. “Thanks a million. Come on, Gabe, let’s go do our homework.”
Ms. Harrison drives Jessa and Gabe home in her familiar old silver Nissan. It smells like her dog, Wags, that she’s talked about on previous rides home.
“Just drop us off at the end of our road,” Jessa says. “It’s only a short walk from there.”
“At night?” Ms. Harrison asks. She looks concerned “I’d be happy to take you right to your door.”
“That’s okay,” Jessa insists.
Ten minutes later, Ms. Harrison drops off Jessa and Gabe at the corner of Stabley Road and Route 67. On the short walk to the trailer, Gabe asks, "How come you didn't let her drop us out front?"
“’Cause I didn’t want Mom and Billy asking any questions or giving us a hard time.”
Shivering against the cold, they don’t speak again until they arrive at the shabby blue trailer home they rent at the Shady Grove Mobile Home Park. She can smell somebody’s trash before the get to their door.
Their old beat-up Chevy isn’t in front of the trailer. Nobody’s home.
Gabe pulls off his hat and gloves. Jessa opens the rickety storm door, holds it with her foot, and unlocks the metal door. It sticks so she has to kick it to get it open. Once inside she turns on the lights and a troop of huge black roaches tap dances across the linoleum floor, skittering to safety.
Gabe yelps. “I can hear their little feet!”
Jessa puts her arm around him. “It’s okay, buddy.” She wouldn’t have believed anything could be worse than the Section 8 housing they got booted from ’cause of her mom’s drug use. Then they moved here.
She tosses her backpack on the gray Formica kitchen table, the top peeling back from the rotting particle board, and plops down in the battered old upholstered chair she’d rescued from the neighbor’s trash pile. A stale stink rises off a glass ashtray on the table overflowing with cigarette butts. Her mom and stepdad sleep on a pullout couch they never bother to put away, so the living room’s always a crowded mess.
Gabe shuffles down the hallway from the living room to the bedroom in back and tosses his school stuff on the dresser before returning to the living room. “Where Momma and Daddy?”
“I have no idea. Do you need a shower tonight?”
“Nope, took one last night. Remember?” He sits at the table.
“Oh, that’s right. My turn tonight.”
“Is there any ice cream?”
“Doubtful, but I’ll look.” She’s grateful they got to eat pizza earlier at the presentation. In the kitchen, she opens the freezer where a thick coat of frost covers the walls. No way Mom’s going to defrost it. A couple of frozen pizzas and store-brand frozen dinners are its only occupants.
“Why don’t you brush your teeth and get into your PJs. We can see what’s on TV, or I’ll read another chapter of Harry Potter.”
“But I really wanted ice cream . . .”
“I know, bud. Maybe the next time we go food shopping. Want some cereal and milk, instead?” If there is any.
He shakes his head and disappears into the bathroom. He comes out and slips into the trailer’s only bedroom to change into his PJs. “Let’s see what’s on TV.”
They sit cross-legged on the sofa bed and Jessa turns on the TV. She flips through the channels—just four, they can’t afford cable—but there’s nothing that grabs Gabe’s attention.
“How ’bout we read another chapter of Harry Potter?” They retire to the tiny bedroom and climb into Jessa’s bottom bunk where she opens Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. When Gabe falls asleep, she carefully tucks him into his top bunk.
Back in the living room, she empties the smelly ashtray into the overflowing trash bag, fills the kitchen sink with soapy water, and drops it in. It joins the breakfast dishes Mom hadn’t bothered to wash after Jessa and Gabe left for school. She scrubs at bowls still encrusted with cereal and glasses sticky with juice. No wonder we have roaches, Jessa thinks. She’ll have to remind the landlord to call the exterminator again.
She hears them before they open the trailer door, their noisy old Malibu pulling into the dirt driveway. “Dammit!” a neighbor yells. “If you wake me up again, I’m gonna complain to the landlord. I gotta work tomorrow, unlike you scummy junkies!”
“I do work!” Billy hollers back. “Fuck you.”
Mom and Billy burst in the door, fighting again, tension crackling around them like static electricity. “Where am I gonna come up with three hundred bucks to replace the damned muffler?” Billy asks. He’s short, no taller than Jessa, and wiry. Wears his black hair long and messy and has a scraggly beard ’cause he’s too lazy to shave. Tats cover his arms. The dagger on his neck, just under his ear is the one Jessa hates most.
If they get kicked out of this place, Jessa has no idea where they’d go. Too scary to think about. Billy works off-books at a gas station convenience store, part-time, paid in cash. Usually, he pays the $259 trailer rent first thing. Her mom . . . well, Desiree’s such a friggin’ mess no one will hire her now, even off-books. Her only household contributions are Medicaid and SNAP—food stamps—which only covers actual food, not things like toilet paper, toothpaste, and dish soap. Sometimes Billy swipes toothpaste from the convenience store. Embarrassed to admit it, Jessa often sneaks TP into her backpack from school or the library, telling herself it won’t be missed.
She can’t wait until she’s sixteen next year and can get a job that pays more than babysitting.
Billy and her mom continue their argument without so much as a hello. Jessa thinks about moving out of their orbit, in case punches begin to fly. When that happens . . . well, she and Gabe need to take cover or get out. Billy usually doesn’t hit Gabe, mainly because Jessa warned him that if he does, she’ll call the cops.
Desiree throws off her jacket, grabs a cigarette, and lights it. “When you looked at that stupid skank with those goo-goo eyes—”
“I can look at a girl any way I want to! Especially when you look like shit. You need to clean yourself up. Crystal was one thing. When you graduated to smack . . . Well, now you really look like total crap.”
“Look who’s talking, dickhead.”
Okay, now they’re on a roll. Sure enough, Billy raises his hand to hit her.
Desiree scoots out the way and yells, “Don’t you ever raise your hand to me again. I’ll be outta here with these kids faster than—”
“All right, all right. Chill.” He puts his arm around her and tries to kiss her, but she turns her head away.
Desiree’s favorite thing, after getting high, is pouring gasoline onto a fire, mouthing off at Billy and getting her licks in when he’s already pissed at her for something. Once they get all boozed up or are coming down from something and all itchy and twitchy, fur flies.
Her once-pretty mother looks like crap. Dark bags under her gray eyes, her faced pallid, skin all ashy. She’s skinny now from the meth, her mousy brown hair dull and tangled. Even the green dragon tat adorning one shoulder is faded. Jessa’s seen photos of her mom back when she still looked good when she and Billy first got together before drugs and booze ravaged them both. Billy was gorgeous in those days, looked like a rock musician with his long wavy dark hair, sparkling white teeth, and huge smile. Gabe looked just like him.
Billy returns to the car, carries in two plastic bags, and tosses them on the kitchen table. He pulls out two six-packs and stashes them in the almost-empty fridge. Grabbing his cigarettes, he cracks open a beer and lights up a smoke.
“Where’s the milk?” Jessa demands.
“Uh . . .”
“Shit, you forgot! Dammit, Billy. Gabe’s gonna have to—”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
One of his favorite expressions. She hates it.
He opens the fridge. “There’s still some milk left. I’ll pick up more tomorrow.”
Her mother stands and watches the interchange, swaying, glassy-eyed. Wasted on something.
By this time, Jessa can see Billy’s got a good buzz going too, the best time to hit him up for rent money. “Yo, Billy. Rent’s due next week. I need at least a hundred bucks.”
“Don’t get paid until tomorrow.”
“I know you get paid on Thursdays. That’s today,” she persists. “Let’s see what you got. Plus, I gotta do laundry this weekend, that’s at least ten bucks.”
He stares at her, his soft brown eyes glazed over, pupils huge. Yep, definitely high on something. He has a soft spot for her even though she’s not his daughter. She isn’t averse to flirtation.
“Come on, you handsome dude. You know your wallet’s flush.” She flutters her big green eyes and flashes a huge smile. “If we’re late again with the rent, we’ll be out on our asses.”
She usually has to ask him a few times during the month and then hide whatever cash he coughs up deep in her bureau drawer, so her mom won’t find it and blow it on drugs.
He stands, wobbly, and stares at her some more. Finally, he pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and turns away from her, hiding how much he has and hands her a bunch of twenties.
She counts six. She’ll add five to what she already has squirreled away for rent and use the rest for laundry and whatever. “Plus, remember the electric’s due next week. Bill’s right there,” she says, pointing to an envelope on the kitchen table. She knows the company won’t turn it off, but she’s pretty sure he doesn’t know that.
“God, you’re such a nag. All right, so next week I’ll stop by and pay the electric bill.”
There’s no way he’ll remember though. Jessa knows she’ll have to bug him again, piss him off. She frowns and lets out an exaggerated sigh. How come I always have to remember? she wonders.
Spring has finally arrived. Mrs. Mayfield’s crocuses and daffodils are up, and it stays light until after dinner. Mrs. M—that’s what Jessa and Gabe always call her, never her first name,
Thelma—has lived in the trailer next door since before they moved to Shady Grove. She actually owns her trailer, keeps it up real nice. She adores Gabe and never minds watching him, maybe because she’s helped to care for him since he was born. When Jessa was six, Desiree brought him home from the intensive care unit. Her mom was in no kind of shape to care for him, coming off of drugs and all. So, Mrs. M stepped in.
Despite the problems he was born with, Gabe is an awesome kid. Sure, he’s a little shrimp and gets picked on by the other kids. Sometimes he’s all over the place and has trouble focusing. But Mrs. M doesn’t care about that. Her boys are grown and gone, her husband lost to lung cancer. She’s been in love with that kid since she rocked him to sleep and fed him bottles. Now, she loves spoiling Gabe.
One April afternoon, there’s a knock on her door. When she opens it, Gabe is standing there. “Gabriel. What a nice surprise. Come on in.”
Mrs. M is not much taller than Gabe and chubby, with short, straight, almost-white hair, glasses, and rosy cheeks. Today she wears one of her husband’s baggy old T-shirts and stretchy black pants that bag at the knees. Gabe always brings a big smile to her round face.
Gabe stands in her doorway. “I came home on the bus by myself. And no one’s home.”
“Where is everybody?”
“Jessa’s at track practice. Daddy’s at work. Mom was s’posed to be home. When I tried the door, it was locked. Good thing I still had my key in my backpack.”
Mrs. M stands and listens, hands on her waist. No eight-year-old should come home to an empty house, she thinks.
“Boy, your house is so neat,” Gabe observes. Unlike his messy trailer, Mrs. M’s is neat as a pin. No piles of stuff covering every surface, no dirty dishes in the sink, no fold-out couch covered with wadded up sheets and blankets, pillows tossed willy-nilly. She likes things tidy and put away.
“Have a seat, young man. How about a snack? Some chocolate milk? Or let’s see, what else do I have that you might like? Or how about some Doritos and salsa?”
Mrs. Mayfield always talks like that, one question after another, leaving no time to answer the first or even the second one before another one shoots out.
Gabe looks like he’s thinking about it. “Will you be mad if I say both chips and salsa and chocolate milk?”
A high-pitched sound comes from the back of the trailer.
“What’s that noise?” Gabe asks.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I guess it’s been a while since you visited. Jinx had four kittens. One of the neighborhood toms knocked her up.”
“What’s a neighborhood tom? Can I see them?”
She ignores his first question. “Come on back with me.” They walk to the back bedroom, and she points to a cardboard box in the corner. Inside, surrounded by a soft old towel, Jinx, a black and white tabby, lies on her side. Four nursing kittens nuzzle her. Two are gray and white, one is all black, and one is striped like Jinx. All four are fluffy and have milky blue eyes.
Gabe kneels down. “Oh my God,” he squeals. “They’re so cute. Can I touch them?”
“How about we wait a few minutes until they’re done nursing. Let’s go finish your snack first and they should be done by then.”
Gabe sits at the kitchen table and eats a small bowl of Doritos, scooping up salsa with each bite, washing it all down with chocolate milk.
“My goodness, you must have been hungry,” Mrs. M. says when he’s finished.
“Can we go back and see the kittens now?”
In the bedroom, Gabe plops down on the floor next to the box. Only the black one is finished nursing. Mrs. M. picks it up. “Hold out both hands,” she instructs.
He holds his hands together, and Mrs. M places the black fluffball in them. He sits cross-legged and looks up at Mrs. M. “What’s it doing? What’s that sound? I can feel it in my hands.”
“It’s purring. He’s got a full tummy. I think he likes you.”
The kitten is so tiny Gabe can hold it in one hand. He pets it with the other, looking up at Mrs. M, grinning. “I’ve never held a kitten before. It’s so fun. He’s soft, light as a feather. What’s his name?”
“I haven’t named them yet. Maybe you can help me do that. Then I have to find homes for them, which might be hard—”
“Can I have one?”
A loud roaring sound comes from outside. “That must be your daddy. Sounds like he still hasn’t fixed that muffler. You probably should head over there and let him know you’re home.”
“I know you want to stay and play with the kittens, but you can come back if you want. Plus, the kittens will be around for a while. They’re only three weeks old and can’t be adopted until they’re eight weeks. Just let your daddy know you’re home.”
Gabe sighs and trudges home. Once inside, he finds his dad staggering out of the kitchen, unsteady on his feet, having trouble standing up.
“Hi, Dad,” Gabe says. “Are you okay?” It wasn’t unusual to see his dad come home drunk, but this is the worst he’d ever seen. He really wishes Jessa was here, or Mom.
Billy ignores him and collapses on the unmade sofa bed.
“Mrs. M’s got some kittens, Daddy. They’re only three weeks old. So cute. I really want one. Mrs. M said they can be adopted in a few weeks. Can I have one? Please?”
His father doesn’t respond. Has he fallen asleep?
Gabe goes over to the bed and looks at Billy. “Dad?” He shakes him. Gabe’s heart speeds up. “Dad,” he says again, louder. “Daddy, wake up!”
But Billy just lies there.
He climbs up on the bed and puts his ear over Billy’s mouth. His heart is pounding so hard in his ears he can’t tell if his dad is breathing. He puts his hand just above Billy’s mouth, but he’s not sure if air is coming out of his father’s blue lips.
No, no, no, he thinks. This can’t be happening. Is he overdosing? Oh, where is Mom? Where’s Jessa? What should he do? He knows where the blue bag is with the Narcan, in the dresser in the back. Jessa shows it to him every week, so he’ll remember. But what if he uses it and Dad isn’t having an overdose? What then?
He decides to go next door and get Mrs. M. She’ll know what to do. He runs out the front door and over to her trailer. Doesn’t even knock on the door, just bursts in, a panicked look on his face, heart racing, shaking all over.
“Gabriel, what’s wrong?”
“I think Dad’s overdosed. I think I need to use the Narcan!”
She looks confused. “Wait, wait, slow down. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What makes you think he OD’ed? You have Narcan?”
"He was walking all funny. Could hardly stand up. Then he fell down on the bed. He wouldn't answer me when I talked to him. I shook him and he didn't move. I can't tell if he's breathing. Please, please, Mrs. M. I need you to come over with me. Right now!"
“Okay, okay. Let’s go.”
They hurry over to Gabe’s trailer. Billy still lies on the bed.
“Billy,” Mrs. M shouts.
She shakes him and when he doesn’t wake up, she listens for breath sounds. Nothing.
“Gabe, I think you’re right. He may have OD’ed. Where’s the Narcan? Do you know how to use it?”
“Jessa made me learn, at the library—”
“Okay, then get it. Hurry!”
Gabe runs to the bedroom, opens the dresser, rummages through the clothes, and pulls out the blue nylon bag. He unzips it, takes out one package of Narcan, and rips off the packaging. He takes it back to the living room and shows it to Mrs. M.
As she studies it Gabe says, voice shaking, “I don’t want my daddy to die. I’m so scared. I don’t know if I can do it. Where’s Mom? Where’s Jessa?” Tears fill his eyes.
Mrs. M puts her arm around Gabe and looks directly into his eyes. “Honey, I’m scared too, but it won’t help to panic. Take a few deep breaths, like this.” She demonstrates.
He takes a breath, then another and another. His lips tremble. “Is my daddy gonna die?”
“I sure hope not. Okay, so what did they tell you about what to do with this?”
“Put the point into one side of his nose, all the way, and push this thing”—he points to the plunger—“all the way in. I’m not sure I can do it.”
“Sure, you can. That doesn’t sound hard. Or I can do it if you can’t—”
“Oh, I almost forgot. You’re supposed to hold his head back.”
“Okay, let’s do it together. I’ll hold his head back and you put the Narcan thing in his nose. Can you do that? I’ll watch you.”
Gabe nods. Mrs. M holds Billy’s head back. Gabe inserts the Narcan tip all the way and pushes the plunger completely.
At first, nothing happens. “Why isn’t he waking up?” Gabe moans.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. M. says. “Did they say how long it takes to work?”
“I don’t remember.” Gabe starts to sob. Mrs. M sits down with him in the comfy chair, takes him into her arms, and rocks him. “We need to call 9-1-1 right away,” says Mrs. M.
Gabe pulls away from her hug. “Yeah, that’s what they said to do.”
Mrs. M grabs her phone. As she’s explaining their emergency Billy wakes up, sits, takes a breath, and looks around.
“Yes, he just woke up,” she says. “Um hmm, I think he’s breathing again.” She talks a few minutes longer and says, “The EMTs should be here in a few minutes.”
Gabe jumps onto the bed and throws his arms around Billy.
“What happened?” Billy asks, shaking his head. Sweat pours off his face. “I don’t feel so good.”
"As Mrs. M says, “You overdosed." Billy lurches up, grabs his stomach, runs to the kitchen sink, and throws up. The sour stench of vomit fills the small space.
He returns to the sofa bed and lays down.
Gabe’s eyebrows furrow. “Daddy, did you take drugs?”
“I did, buddy. Bad idea. My boss fired me today and your mom—”
Before he can finish, the EMTs arrive and rush in the door, two big burly guys.
The instant Billy sees them, he stands and holds his hands up in a stop motion. “No way. No way I’m going with you guys.”
The bearded one says, “Sir, we understand you’ve overdosed and been give a single dose of Narcan.” He looks at Mrs. M, who nods.
“So what? I’m not getting into that ambulance.” The beardless EMT goes to take his arm, and Billy shoves the guy away. “Get your fucking hands off me. I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
“Sir, you may need a second dose—”
"Daddy, please, you need to go to the hospital," says Gabe, who’s been watching from the bed. He gets down and throws his arms around Billy. “I love you, Daddy. I don’t want you to die.” He’s sobbing now. “Please, Daddy, please,” he begs.
“All right, buddy,” Billy says. But then he starts to overdose again, gasps for breath, and falls back on the bed.
“Daddy!” Gabe yells.
The bearded EMT rushes over and puts his ear down to Billy’s mouth. “We’re losing him.” The other guy hands him another dose of Narcan and he administers it. Thirty seconds later Billy inhales a deep breath and sits up.
“See, Daddy, I told you.”
“You overdosed again. Daddy—” Gabe is shaking and crying, clinging to Billy.
“Okay, bud, relax. Let go. I’m gonna go the hospital.”
The EMTs get Billy on the gurney to take to the hospital. As they wheel him out the door, the bearded one says, “You’re a brave kid. Good thing you had the Narcan. You probably saved your dad’s life. We need to get him to the hospital in case he stops breathing again.”
No sign of Jessa or Gabe’s mom yet. A painful silence fills the trailer.
“What should we do now, Mrs. M?”
“I . . . I don’t know, Gabe. I wish we could find your mom. You don’t have a phone here, right?”
He nods. “Only Mom and Dad have phones.”
“Do you know your mom’s number?”
He recites it and Mrs. M calls. No answer, so she leaves a message. “Desiree, this is Thelma from next door. I’m here with Gabe and there’s been an emergency with Billy. They’ve taken him to the hospital. Please call me back as soon as you get this—” It cuts her off.
She sighs, a worried expression on her face. “Well, we might as well go back to my place, but we need to keep an eye out for your mom and Jessa.”
“Can we go see the kittens again?”
“Good idea.” So, they walk next door to Mrs. M’s trailer, and Gabe gets to hold all four kittens and pet Jinx, who is licking her kittens clean.
An hour later, Jessa takes the late bus from school and arrives home to the trailer, which is empty. Just as she’s about to go next door, a beat-up red pickup pulls up and screeches to a halt.
Her mom gets out and rushes in. Jessa has never seen her such a mess. Her eyes are red-rimmed, her face gaunt. She is sobbing so hard she’s hard to understand, not making sense.
“He didn’t make it. They said they—”
“Who didn’t make it?” Jessa asks. “What are you talking about?”
After a quick knock on the door Mrs. M strides in. “We heard you pull in. Have you heard?” Gabe follows her in, face splotchy, eyes red and teary. He rushes over to his mother and throws his arms around her. “They took Daddy to the hospital, Momma.”
Desiree groans. “I just got back from there. They said they gave him two more doses of Narcan, but they couldn’t save him. We lost Billy!”
“I still don’t understand what’s going on,” Jessa says. “What happened to Billy?”
“He took fentanyl! I shoulda known that asshole dealer couldn’t be trusted. Billy got fired today and just couldn’t deal. Begged me to get him something so he could numb out for a while. I called a guy I know—”
“Wait,” Jessa says. “You gave Billy fentanyl? Gabe’s father?”
“Not me, that guy, the dealer, I wasn’t even there. I didn’t know he was gonna give him fentanyl. No way Billy could handle something that strong.”
“When’s Daddy coming home?” Gabe asks his mother.
“He’s not, sweetheart. He didn’t make it. He’s . . .” She chokes up and starts to sob again. “I . . . I . . . I guess he’s in heaven.”
Gabe’s eyes widen. He looks from his mother to his sister, and finally up at Mrs. M. “Daddy’s not coming home?”
Desiree doesn’t say a word, her head bowed, trembling.
Jessa stands there, paralyzed, thoughts and feelings pounding her brain, her body on fire, her fists clenched. She turns to Mrs. M. “Maybe you should take Gabe back to your place. I’ll be over in a few minutes. I need to talk to Mom.”
As Mrs. M scoots Gabe out the door with her, Jessa grabs her mother by the shoulders and shakes her. “Look at me!”
Desiree looks up, her eyes vacant, her skinny arms hanging at her sides.
"Fuck, you're high again." Jessa's eyes flash. "Let me get this straight, Mom. Billy got fired and asked you for drugs and you called your scumbag dealer who gave him fentanyl? Billy, who doesn’t use heroin or pain pills like you? You let some asshole give him fentanyl?” She wants to scream, to hit, to slam her mother’s head against the wall.
Desiree nods, unsteady on her feet, head down again.
Jessa stares sat her mother. “What happened to Billy . . . even the guilty don’t deserve that, much less the innocent. This is gonna destroy Gabe. He adored his daddy—”
Desiree pulls away. Her eyes catch fire. “It wasn’t my fault! I didn’t ask him to take drugs . . . and I didn’t ask Blackie to give him fentanyl. I thought—”
“You thought what? That’s your problem, Mom. You don’t think.”
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do without him. I loved that guy so much.”
“Well, right now you’re gonna go next door and comfort your son, who just lost the father he worshipped.”
Desiree starts to sob again, swaying back and forth. “I can’t, I just can’t. I’m too . . .”
“Don’t tell me you can’t. You have to. Can’t you for once put aside your own selfishness and try to help that little boy you’ve already put through so much? To comfort your son, who tried to save his dad’s life and never even got a chance to say goodbye?”
Desiree turns, stomps out of the trailer, and gets into the pickup that’s been waiting in the driveway.
Well, that is Jessa’s answer.
She listens to the noisy truck peel away. She knows where her mother is going—as if she isn’t high enough already—and hates her mother for it.
Standing there, feeling more helpless than she’s ever felt, Jessa knows what she needs to do, to try to make up for a pathetic mother who’s too strung out to even save herself. At that moment she understands in her gut the need to be numb. She takes a deep breath, then another, and starts her walk next door, to try to explain to a sweet kid who deserved better, who did everything he could to save his dad, what happened to him, and why his mother isn’t there to hold him.
Bonnie E. Carlson lives and writes amidst the saguaros and chollas in the Sonoran Desert. Her stories have appeared in magazines such as The Broadkill Review, Across the Margin, Fewer Than 500, and The Normal School. Her novel Radical Acceptance was published in January and her short story collection, No Strangers to Pain, will come out in November.