Old Man Winter

Blue Plate Special has creepy characters similar to Old Man Winter.

“DEATH ANGEL.”

The headline jumped at me from the newspaper, bringing back memories of my first winter as a respiratory therapist ten years ago. I saw myself on nationwide television, rushing to the phone to answer a page. My father got wind of the investigation, and he urged me to move south. Miami needs therapists, he’d said. He’d moved there after my mother suffered a fatal heart attack. Died while waiting for an ambulance that couldn’t navigate the streets during a blizzard. Sometimes I imagine her ghost patrolling Pennsylvania’s highways.

Still, I didn’t want to go to Miami. I was bewitched, a captive audience of Old Man Winter and the Death Angel that haunted Brandeis hospital.

Philadelphia’s residents called the blizzards and snow drifts Old Man Winter.

From December through March, he victimized the elderly and sick with howling winds and sub-zero temperatures. The Death Angel went after elderly and sick people, but no one has figured out why.

That year, Philadelphia endured a winter that rivaled those of Canada and Maine. It snowed so hard that the ice-cold wind erupted forty-inch drifts. Patients filled the emergency room, chased there by the demons of emphysema, heart failure, and pneumonia. The biting frost chilled to the bone, and people’s resistance to disease dropped with the temperatures. Ice sheeted on parked cars and homes. People struggled to work, their cars crawling like ants on unplowed streets.

At night, the snow’s gauzy curtain shielded the inky sky. Icicles poked downward from roof ledges like fingers, and the flakes came thick and fast. The unwary driver would leave his home confident that his four-wheel could handle the storm. Instead, he’d crash into a telephone pole, listening to his whistling breath, and gagging on the smell of smoke billowing from his hood. The lucky drivers found a plow truck to smooth the way. The luckiest ones had no compelling reason to leave their homes.

Patient admissions flooded Brandeis’ floors. After running out of patient rooms, the nurses set up makeshift beds in the hallways.

Around midnight, an ICU nurse checking vital signs screamed for a crash cart, dropping her clipboard on the lap of the dead woman still tethered to her respirator. The patient’s face was cherry red and her cardiac monitor registered a flat line. A glance at her respirator gave the reason why. Someone had jerry-rigged a carbon monoxide tank to the gas inlet for that room. The code team spent an hour trying to jump-start her idle heart. The patient’s family huddled in the waiting room, weeping into their handkerchiefs.

When I received shift report the next afternoon, everyone talked about the incident. Who would do this? Misguided relatives? Enemies? Staff?

“Certainly not her family. They made her a full code.”

“Enemies? Don’t think so. She denied having any enemies.”

“It had to be one of the staff. Who else?”

Everyone knew Gloria Harper. A sixty-five-year-old frequent flyer at Brandeis, she’d suffered from angina and end-stage emphysema. Her five children spared no expense with flowers and other gifts, but the nurses couldn’t stand her. Her doctor prescribed breathing treatments every four hours, and she watched the clock to make sure she got them on time. Old Man Winter raged outside, and on the afternoon of March 5, everyone concluded that Harper had made a staff person angry enough to kill.

Police officers questioned all the nurses and therapists assigned to Harper’s care. After report, I headed to Surgical Trauma to dole out breathing treatments. On my way there, officer stopped me and asked to see my employee ID badge. Bad timing. I’d lost it the other day and Human Resources hadn’t yet issued me a new one.

“Where do you get carbon monoxide?” the officer asked cunningly.

“I wouldn’t know because I don’t use it.” I looked at him. “Is this about Harper?”

“Why do you ask?”

My treatment rounds ran an hour late.

Old Man Winter blasted Philadelphia with more snow. Two coworkers called, saying that they’d gotten stuck and couldn’t make it to work. The fear in the voices said that the Death Angel spooked them. The wind howled in long, mournful notes and I felt each note shudder up my spine.

During dinner break, Mark, a coworker, burst into the lounge. “They caught the creep,” he said. “I overheard Lisa talking with an officer.”

“So who killed Harper?” I stared at my pizza and fries.

“Crumb Cake. That doesn’t surprise me. The guy’s nuts.”

I leaned back, drawing in my breath. Our boss Lisa had caught Bill Crumty, known to everyone as Crumb Cake, falsifying Harper’s records. Harper had complained about him more than once, so he had a motive.

“That’s low, even for Crumb Cake,” I said.

Mark paged the other therapists to spread his news. I returned to my pizza and fries, decided that I’d lost my appetite, and tossed the leftovers in the trash.

The next day, the newspapers posted a photo of Crumb Cake. In it, oily blond hair fell into his sad, brown eyes. The s-shaped scar on his left cheek made him look sinister. He hadn’t confessed, but the police found compelling evidence. During mornings when Harper’s wheezing got nasty, she complained that she’d missed her night treatments. Crumb Cake lied and said he’d given them; even concocted phony breath sounds and vital signs. I knew this because most of his “data” conflicted with Harper’s other reports. Our boss Lisa fined him a two-week suspension.

The police found the paperwork detailing Crumb Cake’s suspension in his locker. Someone had drawn a skull over the letterhead and taped under it a picture of Gloria Harper. It showed her walking with a cane; a portable oxygen device hung from her left shoulder. Her eyes squinted and she appeared short of breath. So the evidence pointed toward Crumb Cake.

It snowed again that night, adding another blanket to the white-capped houses and sidewalks. After my shift, I went for a walk. My head ached and I relished the fresh smell of the brisk wind slapping my cheeks. The ice-crusted trees glittered like a queen’s ransom of diamonds. I thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful. It occurred to me that such icy conditions had hastened my mother’s death, but then the thought vanished like a fluttering bat. Footfalls slushed around me, and I saw shadows of people entering and leaving the hospital. I kept moving, leaving deep footprints that soon filled with snow.

By two a.m., I was covered in white. The snow stopped and the street lights threw distorted shadows on the sidewalks. Which one of these shadows belonged to the Death Angel? I couldn’t tell because the darkness hid their faces.

****

The phone’s harsh ringing startled me at seven the next morning. It was Mark. I demanded to know why he’d called so early.

“Someone else checked out,” Mark said in a trembling voice. “They had to let Crumb Cake walk.”

I rubbed the dry cotton that had replaced my tongue across my cracked lips. “Why?”

“Crumb Cake was sitting in jail,” he said. “He couldn’t have done it.”

“Did what?” I rubbed my eyes. If only he’d let me sleep another hour.

“The Death Angel killed again last night. The victim’s eyes are missing.”

****

Brandeis was known as a community hospital. Back then, patients and staff treated each other like family. The respiratory therapists had a nodding acquaintance with all their lung-diseased patients.

Everyone called Emily Warrell by her first name. She’d spent a month in ICU, fighting the granddaddy of emphysema flares. Winning the war, too, judging by her speedy wean from the ventilator. Her son owned a bakery and he treated the staff to chocolate chip cookies and other goodies. Emily worked hard at physical therapy, determined to celebrate the forthcoming Easter with her family.

Emily hadn’t survived. She’d never celebrate any future holidays.

I proceeded to my assigned floor, greeting people I knew. I smiled a plastic grin while analyzing their emotional weather they way they analyzed mine. Emily had come to Brandeis, trusting the staff to put her back together. Instead, some monster disguised as a caregiver had taken her life. According to the autopsy, Emily was dead when the killer gouged her eyes. Her blood tests showed lethal levels of morphine. Other than the mutilations, the technicians found no signs of a struggle. The killer left no clues. I looked at my coworkers, trying to see the guilt behind them, but my eyes saw nothing.

The police patrolled the floors on the snowy nights of March sixth, seventh, and eighth, and pulled staff aside for summary questioning. Lisa organized a buddy system where two therapists would countersign each document. A foolhardy intern was overheard making slurs about older patients. The police hauled him to their barracks and grilled him for three hours.

The panic which ensued caused a false alarm on the ninth. A nurse found her patient unconscious with a cherry-red complexion. Without bothering to check a pulse, she called a “code blue.” While the doctors burst into his room, the corpse sat up and stared wide-eyed at the crash cart. Two student nurses screamed and bolted from the room. The corpse was a middle-aged man with a leaky mitral valve. I don’t recall what made his skin so red, only that his condition caused fainting spells. The upshot was, he underwent a mitral valve reconstruction and made a full recovery.

The storms continued, varying the theme with sleet and freezing rain. My coworkers picked fights over the slightest offenses. Looking at the same faces each night bred suspicions and rumors. Some people claimed to overhear two well-known cardiologists plotting and whispering by the basement morgue. Others said that the Mob had ordered hits on both patients. Maybe the Mob had used these women to get to certain enemies. Maybe I didn’t want to know the truth. The bone-chilling nightmares which haunted my sleep and left me bathing in sweat discouraged further speculation.

The press used Brandeis as the lead character in their consumer-beware articles. A Philadelphia newsman christened the killer Death Angel after the notorious physician, Harold Shipman, who drugged over 200 patients. Because both women had terminal diseases, the name stuck.

On the tenth, it snowed another six inches, and Vine Street, the main road leading to BrandeisHospital, became a parking lot filled with wrecked cars. An eighteen-wheeler jack-knifed on the ice, blocking traffic. The police pulled their men from the floors to handle the accidents.

Night came, with worsening drifts, blotting out the shape of the buildings one by one. It was a small storm compared to the previous ones, yet frightening. Everyone believed that the Death Angel was a man. If the snow acted as his accomplice, and she were female, then theirs was an unholy union breeding war and bloodshed. The Brandeis patients became their prisoners. While drinking my coffee, I gazed out the window at the courtyard lights and wondered when the killing would stop. Mark entered the lounge, laid his sandwich and Coke on the table, and joined me.

“Old Man Winter is running out of steam,” he said.

“What makes you say that?” I asked, still watching the lights.

“Because it’s March. In like a lion and out like a lamb.”

“You sound like my grandmother,” I told him.

He took a seat and unwrapped his sandwich. “Sometimes Old Man Winter sleeps and you hardly notice him. But when he erupts, you wonder when the snow will end. He usually gets his last wallop in around this time. Did you know that my dad got his coronary from shoveling snow?”

“No, I didn’t.” I rubbed my arms. “Shoveling snow can cause heart attacks, but coming to Brandeis for treatment is pure suicide.”

“You’ve got that right.” Mark smiled and took a swig of his soda. “I don’t trust anyone here.” His smile faded. “Sometimes I even wonder about myself. Want to go to Poppy’s for a few drinks after we finish?”

“I’d rather sleep. The ER nearly slaughtered me tonight.”

For a long time after he left, I could only look out the window. Even after I returned to my floor, part of me remained outside, walking in the streets where something dark and brutal had taken charge.

That night, Sally Mayes bought it. Eighty-year-old with end stage heart failure. Despite Lisa’s so-called buddy system, the Death Angel killed again without leaving clues. The distractions of the storm aided him and Mayes was found dead with a pillow over her face. Both of her eyes missing. Two words were written in blood on the wall above her bed—no rumor this time: FOOLED YOU, DIDN’T I?

By now, the shouting matches and backbiting had gotten so ugly that Lisa called a meeting, insisting on an attitude adjustment. It didn’t happen. Everyone knew Sally Mayes. Alzheimer’s had made her a prisoner of her own mind. Sometimes she’d converse with nonexistent people. Her family expected her to die soon, but not like this. How could this creep get to her? Did she see what was coming? I wonder.

The next day, the police arrested an ICU nurse named Kevin Fenimore. He’d had a prior history of two felonies, and more important, he had no alibi or recall of the past “lethal” nights. They charged him, jailed him, and then set him free after the night of Old Man Winter’s last coup, when Anna Schultz was found slaughtered in bed.

Anna had caught a bad pneumonia while visiting Philadelphia. According to her chart, she had no living relatives. She was seventy-five. Why someone her age would travel in such foul weather I can’t imagine. But the cough, fever, and breathlessness had fallen her, and she slipped into Brandeis as easily as the Death Angel himself. Why Brandeis, given its track record? Maybe she suffered from loneliness, a need as secret and unfathomable as her killer’s. Maybe she was hurting so badly that she sought comfort in the cold night, the drifting snow, and Death himself.

****

That was March twelve and the snow had stopped. The weatherman predicted sunshine and temperatures in the forties. Chunks of melting snow were sliding off the rooftops, but the warming trend failed to thaw the ice between my coworkers. Conversations seldom went beyond “hi” and “bye.” No one went to Poppy’s or anywhere else after work.

I took my father’s advice about moving to Miami. According to the papers, the hospitals there were begging for respiratory therapists. Mark and I promised to keep in touch; otherwise, no one offered any lingering goodbyes when I left Brandeis.

Temperatures continued to rise as I moved south. On the way, I listened to the radio detailing the power failures, smash-ups, and other casualties of Old Man Winter. My own mother died because the snow had robbed her access to medical treatment. What made me think I’d enjoy working in a climate that had caused such grief?

They called this season Old Man Winter and that’s a lie, given his capacity for destruction. The Death Angel left with the snow, and by April, people were putting in requests for summer vacations. By June, no one mentioned the Death Angel, though I suspect that some people still lay awake at night, trying to make sense of the madness.

During my first year at Miami, I met Carolyn at the hospital where I worked. We married a year later. Two years after that, we had twin girls, soft-spoken children with my features and her hair. Last summer, the Miami hospitals downsized, so Carolyn and I moved to Philadelphia to find new jobs.

Then today’s department meeting.

Why didn’t this surprise me? I saw it coming last night, when a storm dumped eight inches of snow on the streets. The drifts sent liquid chills through my veins. I knew Old Man Winter had struck again when I skidded on the ice and had to turn up my heat. Even my high beams afforded a limited view through the snow-clouded darkness.

According to my boss, an elderly woman was killed at Brandeis, the hospital across town. The autopsy revealed toxic morphine levels and her head was missing.

Carolyn asked me where I’d gone last night. I couldn’t remember, so I told her that I’d worked overtime. It had to be true. I remember driving to work and skidding on the ice, but nothing more. I would have given anything to fill in the blank pages. Instead, I thought about Mom and the way she’d turned blue while waiting for an ambulance that never arrived. Then I got to thinking about the suitcase stashed in my car, and wondering why the thought of opening it would turn my knees to water.

As I write this, I can hear my wife weeping. She didn’t buy the overtime story. She thinks I spent the night with another woman.

Dear God, I’m afraid she’s right.

The End

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