LAS VEGAS — Stephanie Melanson had attended the Route 91 Harvest music festival every year since its inception, and this time she was determined to bring her mom along.
The tickets were a Mother's Day present, but Rosemarie Melanson kept trying to give them away — to her kids' friends, their boyfriends. Finally Stephanie, 26, put her foot down. Couldn't her generous mother just keep something nice for herself?
By the third night of the festival, Rosemarie was glad she had listened. With Stephanie, her younger daughter Paige and two of their friends, she pressed close to the stage, dancing until her back and feet were sore.
"This is so fun!!!" the 54-year-old texted her husband. She snatched off Stephanie's baseball cap and placed it backward on her own head. Her daughter laughed: "You trying to look cool?" They leaned in to snap a selfie. In the photo, taken at 10 p.m. on Oct. 1, mother and daughter are cheek to cheek with matching toothy grins.
Minutes later, the shooting began. Rosemarie collapsed, facedown.
A bullet, shot from across the street and 32 floors up, had hit her in the chest. It fractured inside her body, sending shrapnel into her lungs, stomach, liver and spleen. She began to bleed out, causing her kidneys to falter.
It would be 11 hours before Stephanie saw her mother again, in the intensive care unit at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. Rosemarie was alive — largely thanks to a retired firefighter who remained in the line of fire to tend to her wound — but still grievously hurt. A week later, she breathes through a ventilator and is so heavily sedated that she can do no more than flutter her eyelids as her family gathers around her hospital bed.
The bloody nightmare of the Las Vegas Strip massacre, which left 58 people dead, lasted for many excruciating minutes. But for the Melansons, and for other families of Las Vegas's most badly injured, the days since have been their own kind of "long bad dream," Stephanie said. The end is still weeks, maybe even months away.
Stephanie's younger sister, Paige, 25, doesn't remember hearing the first gunshots that night. She doesn't remember the sting of a bullet grazing her elbow. Someone just said she'd been shot, and when Paige looked at her body, she was covered in blood.
She dropped to the ground, crouching to avoid the rain of bullets. She turned her head to check on the rest of their group and saw her mother lying with her face in the grass.
She cried out, "Mom!"
Stephanie was crying, too, and, with trembling hands, she texted her father, Steve, about what had happened.
There is a shooting
Mom is hi
Stephanie, Paige and their friends were still kneeling over their mother when a man crawled toward them. He explained that he was a retired firefighter and helped the women turn Rosemarie onto her back to expose her thickly bleeding wound. Stephanie ripped off her sweater and handed it to the stranger, who pressed it into the hole in Rosemarie's chest.
Then he looked at the young women, and, screaming to make himself heard over the chaos of the crowd, urged them to run.
"You don't understand," Stephanie screamed back. "You don't understand my relationship with my mom. I can't live without her. I can't go on without her."
The gunfire started up again. "You have to go," the man insisted.
"Promise me you won't leave her."
He held her gaze. "I promise."
Stephanie put a hand to her mother's face. Rosemarie's skin was cold, her eyes glazed over.
"I thought for sure that was the last time I'd see her alive," Stephanie later recalled.
They fled. Paige was put in an ambulance to the hospital to get her wound examined. Stephanie and her father then met up and headed to police headquarters, where officials were listing off the injured and where they had been taken. Hours passed, and Rosemarie's name didn't come. Desperate, they went from hospital to hospital, showing people a cellphone photo. More than once, Stephanie had to excuse herself to vomit.
"I thought she was dead," Steve said.
They found her at the Sunrise ICU. It was past 9 a.m., the sun high in a flawlessly blue desert sky. Rosemarie's face was bruised and swollen, her abdomen still open from the first of two surgeries to repair her vital organs, and she had countless tubes coming out of her body.
"She looked bad. Terrible bad," he recalled. But he thought to his wife: "Okay. You survived. You're here."
Days later, the torturous not-knowing of those initial hours has given way to a dull, anxious ache. Rosemarie remains on life support and fragile. The doctors say her prognosis is good, that she's expected to make a full recovery. But when Steve asks when she'll get off the ventilator, they say they're not sure yet. When he asks when she'll come home, they say they're not sure yet.
Steve looks at his wife of 30 years and wants to lie down beside her, hold her in his arms and tell her how much he loves her. But the doctors tell him it's better if he doesn't touch her too much. Being agitated isn't good for her condition. He contents himself with a kiss on her forehead and a whisper in her ear.
For Stephanie, who used to chat with her mother every day, "it's hard to talk and not hear anything back." So sometimes she says nothing at all, just sits in the chilly, dimly lit hospital room and prays.
Stephanie hates walking down the hallways and glimpsing the heavily bandaged patients in the rooms beside her mom's. She can't bear to stay in the ICU's family room, where someone is always crying. As of Saturday, officials said 18 patients at Sunrise remained in critical condition.
"We're all going through the same thing," Stephanie said.
Late in the evening, when the hospital halls are close to empty and the nurses gently suggest that Rosemarie needs rest, the family heads home.
But nobody sleeps. The stitches around Paige's elbow wound are itchy and painful. When she does nod off, she wakes up from screaming from nightmares she can't remember.
Stephanie is alternately suffused with gratitude and wracked with guilt. She imagines what her mother felt Sunday, bleeding in the grass, alone. She cycles through the "what ifs": What if she hadn't pressed her mother to come that night? What if they'd stood farther from the stage? What if the firefighter hadn't been able to save her? And then the "whys": Why this concert? Why their family? Why did the gunman have to shoot anyone at all?
Steve spends nights watching the news, but the feverish debates about motive and mental health and gun control and the Second Amendment wash over him like waves past a breaker. None of these politicians' proposals seem like viable solutions, and a small, resigned part of him fears this problem will never be solved.
Mostly, he is too wrapped up in Rosemarie's recovery to care.
It will probably be weeks before Rosemarie can leave the hospital. Steve figures he has accumulated enough leave at his job as a graffiti technician for the city that he can stay home a few weeks at least. Then he'll use up his sick days. His insurance should cover the hospital bills, and for co-pays — well, there are all those fundraisers for victims. He'll see.
In the morning, they get up not because they are rested, but because day has arrived, and people are coming over.
The Melansons' place has always been a gathering spot — for one thing, it has a back yard with a pool, and for another, it had Rosemarie, who would feed you sausage and sauerkraut and force you to call her "mom."
Lately, their stucco house on a leafy cul-de-sac feels like a bus terminal and looks like the staging area for a school bake sale. All four Melanson children — Stephanie, Paige, 23-year-old Michael and 21-year-old Parker — are here, along with their boyfriends, a girlfriend and an assortment of relatives, all lounging on couches, leaning into one another. Six dogs belonging to various family members beg for food and head scratches, and a steady stream of visitors passes in and out of the front door, offering words of encouragement and long, tight hugs. Family-sized variety packs of chips, boxes of cookies and Tupperwares of casserole cover every available surface in the kitchen.
"I knew she was loved by a lot of people," Steve said. "But I don't think I knew how much."
Daily, they get reminders of their relative good fortune. On Tuesday, after giving an interview to a local TV station, Paige got a message over Instagram from a woman who said she knew the man who saved her mom. Within minutes, the family was videochatting with Don Matthews, a retired Los Angeles firefighter who remained with Rosemarie throughout the shooting, then carried her to an ambulance on a ripped up piece of fence.
"Every time the gunfire went off, I thought, 'Okay this is it, I'm just waiting for the bullet to hit me,' " Matthews said later. "But I'd made a promise." So he stayed.
Everyone on that call cried. They hung up after agreeing that Matthews would come back to Las Vegas for a reunion once Rosemarie was out of the ICU.
"That firefighter saved my wife's life, and my daughters', too, probably," Steve said.
The following day, Stephanie, her boyfriend and his sister were invited to a meet-and-greet with President Trump. After Stephanie shared her story from the shooting, the first lady strode over to give Stephanie a hug. But the comfort of being recognized faded during the photo op, when the clatter of camera shutters violently recalled Sunday night's gunfire.
Even considering these experiences, the days have become indistinguishable to her. "It's all one long day," she said. As the family watches for any sign of Rosemarie's improvement, it's difficult to feel lucky, until they think about the 58 families who have no hope.
En route to yet another hospital visit Friday, Steve points out the candles and flower bouquets laid out for victims on the side of the road. But Stephanie has her eyes on her phone — she found a new video from Sunday night on Facebook, and now she scans the grainy images with her head bent low and the screen close to her nose.
For long minutes, the only sound in the car is the scratchy screaming coming from Stephanie's phone.
"I just start watching them sometimes to see if I can see her," she explained. "To know what she went through."
But Rosemarie is not in the video. And the breathing tube in her throat prevents her from speaking, even if she weren't sedated. Stephanie can only wonder, and wait.
They pull into the parking lot, which is emptier than it had been.
"Okay?" Steve asked. "Let's go see mom."
They walk toward the entrance, and he reaches for his daughter's hand.