Have you ever thought what the world might be like if the present-day vices of society are allowed to continue to run rampant? That is the subject of The Last To Fall, a look at the legacy we leave our children. Civilization as we know it has fallen and the United States has been broken into a series of dictatorships, each with its own army. Death and disease, poverty and starvation, walk hand in hand with greed and madness. Three teenagers seeking a safe haven are caught up in a commune’s battle for survival against the armed might of a power mad resident and his henchmen.
Anne K. Edwards enjoys writing in various genres and experimenting with new ideas for stories. She likes writing mystery novels, children’s stories about the misadventures of a dragon named Elvis and the little boy named Jeremy who outwits him. Anne also writes short stories about Death and the Detective that are published occasionally in an online mystery ezine. She’s editor of The Voice in the Dark ezine. Visit her website.
Jeanne Foster brushed a weary hand over her stinging eyes. It was impossible to see anything through the hanging mist that mixed with the smoke of burning buildings. What streetlights there were cast shapeless, bluish blobs of light. Buildings appeared as shapeless blackened ruins in the yellowed haze.
Worried, she studied Lester as he sagged against a grungy brick wall for support. It seemed hours since they’d started for the hospital, and their goal was no closer. He sank to the sidewalk coughing, a nerve-shattering sound in the predawn silence.
His thin body shuddered as he tried to draw the polluted air into his damaged lungs. “Jeanne, get help,” he gasped.
She felt a rising hopelessness. “But nothin’s open.”
“Get someone,” he begged as a new spasm seized him. His bloodshot hazel eyes pleaded with her. “Please.”
“I’ll try.” Unhappily, she moved away. The swirling yellow murk immediately engulfed his skinny body as he sprawled on the walk.
Turning her head in an effort to keep him in sight, she collided painfully with a public phone stand that loomed out of the mist. Rubbing her bruised shoulder, she shoved the lowered plastic privacy shield up into its groove and fumbled in the change slot seeking a stray coin. Nothing! The box was greasy and smelled of souring humanity. The line was dead. Just like all the others.
“Damn–” She set her jaw and fought against the pressing tears of frustration.
The choking stink of fire thickened. Her eyes watered as she blinked rapidly, squinting to see what lay ahead. She’d never traveled alone through northwest Washington, D.C. and had no idea where she was. Through an unexpected break in the fog, she spotted the blurry shape of a blue and white police vehicle moving slowly along the street. Running toward it, she shouted for help.
* * *
Officer Delon Stimm heard a girl yelling and swung his vehicle to the curb. He and his massive partner, John Kersey, got out. They kept their hands on their weapons, poised for trouble.
“What’s wrong?” Delon asked the slim, brown-haired girl who came out of the fog like a ghost.
“I need help. My friend’s sick,” she spoke in a voice shrill with urgency.
“Jojo?” He bent to look into her frightened brown eyes. It was the latest illegal drug to take over the younger generation.
“No! He can’t breathe.” She covered her face with her hands and began to cry.
“Where is he?” he asked with a sigh. The morning was to be a continuance of the night before–nothing was going right.
“About a block from here. That way.” Impatiently, she pointed, wiping away tears with the back of her hand. “Please hurry.”
The fog closed in again.
“Get in.” He held the door for her. These kids… He shook his head. They get garbaged up and then cry for help.
Was that what the crumbling society he served did to its children? So many walked the streets looking for something solid to believe in and found nothing. So they turned to jojo and each other. It did not bode well for the future of the country. What future there was, he thought.
He exchanged knowing glances with John. Kids had to learn the hard way. In the rear view mirror, he saw the girl huddle into herself, shivering as she searched the street for her friend.
They found him where she’d left him, a convulsed heap of long blond hair and old blue denims. One of his sandals had fallen off.
“Lester, they’ll take you to the hospital,” she told the boy, bending to touch his shoulder.
Delon could tell by the way Lester tried to push himself up, the police were the last people he wanted.
In spite of his protests, John and Delon carried him to the car. Skinny kid. Not any bigger than the girl. Wonder when he ate last. They placed him on the back seat, his head on the girl’s lap. “Looks like bad stuff to me,” Delon muttered.
“I told you, he’s not on anything,” she said fiercely through renewed tears. “It’s his lungs. He’s got emphysema or asthma.”
“Could be.” John Kersey started the car. “Could be. The air’s rotten. All that smoke… Don’t know why anyone would start fires now. My nose burns all the time from this polluted rot we call air.” He grunted as he turned the car around.
Delon nodded in agreement. As soon as the sun rose above the haze enveloping the city, the smoke would mix with heated humidity, making the air almost too thick to breathe. His sweat-soaked, light blue uniform shirt was already clinging to his spine against the plastic seat covers. Everything smelled of smoke. He shuddered involuntarily.
This wasn’t the first trip they’d made before daybreak to The Old University Hospital, nor would it be the last.
“The hospital isn’t going to like this,” he mumbled over the boy’s wheezing gasps. He hoped they didn’t run into any of the roving military groups searching for looters or streeters. He’d have to turn these children over to them.
John caught his meaning. “We’re becoming an ambulance service,” he said as he steered the car into the emergency entrance, passing the remains of the sign that bore the once-proud name of Georgetown University. Peering through the rounded swaths the wipers made on the windshield, he said, “Going to be an ugly day. Sun isn’t going to break through this muck.”
* * *
White-coated attendants wheeled out a squealing gurney to meet the cruiser. Jeanne waited impatiently as the dark-skinned officer opened the rear door so she could stretch her legs to get rid of the cramps caused by holding Lester’s head in the confined space.
Sniffing at the stale odor of heavy pine-scented cleanser used to cover hospital odors, she reluctantly followed them into a dim, green-walled corridor.
Officer Stimm drew her to a battered counter set to the left of the scratched glass doors.
Twisting a lock of her long brown hair, she watched sadly as the guerney carrying Lester’s twitching body disappeared through double steel doors on the right.
A round-faced clerk with green-tinted hair and discontented mouth handed Jeanne a sheaf of forms and a pen. “Are you a member of his family?” she queried, eying Jeanne suspiciously.
Jeanne shook her head.
“Where have you been living?” the officer asked, his teeth flashing white against his dark skin.
“Two thousand two Connecticut Avenue in Northwest,” she mumbled, twisting the hair over her left eye. The old hotel, once an uptown address, had long ago been condemned. It was home to dozens of young streeter couples like herself and Lester. She’d miss it, but without Lester, she didn’t belong.
“I see,” he said flatly. “One of those old places beyond DuPont Circle. Not a safe neighborhood for a girl.”
She didn’t answer.
“Do you know his family or where he’s from?” he prodded.
She shook her head, avoiding his kind brown eyes. His unspoken sympathy would only increase her need to cry. She had no idea who his people were so she focused on the forms, placing them on the counter. “I can’t fill these out.”
“They have to be filled in,” the clerk tapped her chewed pencil on the counter.
“I can’t. I don’t know if he’s allergic to things. I don’t know if he’s been sick before.” Jeanne’s temper edged into her tone.
“Does he have hospitalization?” The girl flashed Jeanne a quick look.
“He never told me,” Jeanne snapped. Most people didn’t have it.
“Does he have a bank account?” The clerk reddened, scrawling angry notations on a pink form.
“No. He’s unemployed.” Jeanne turned away.
The girl chewed her fleshy lower lip in silence. “I see,” she said after a pause and picked up the telephone. She toyed with a pulled thread in her blue knit top. Something red stained the shoulder.
“Will they take care of him?” Jeanne asked, pulling on her own clothes to straighten them. It had been so long since she’d fussed over her looks, she rarely thought about it. All she had was what she wore, jeans and a faded blue blouse.
“Yes. Now, can you answer a few questions about yourself?” the policeman asked in a kind voice. “Do you have a family?”
She shook her head again. No sense in getting her mom involved. She’d only say she didn’t know where she failed, her excuse for everything that happened in her life. Jeanne didn’t want any more of those horrible crying scenes with the well-remembered recriminations. The recollection of the hurt they caused each other nudged her conscience.
“Do you have anyone at all?” he persisted. He guided her to some chairs with patched red-cloth seats along the wall.
“No, nobody.” She took the one nearest the exit sign. The fabric was unraveling and it wobbled when she shifted her weight.
“How old are you?” He sat next to her, putting his hat on his lap.
“Twenty. I left home last spring after papa died.” Tears pressed in her throat. In some ways Lester had reminded her of her dad. Now he was gone again.
She straightened her shoulders and looked at the policeman. Knowing he would want proof of her age, she handed him a driver’s license she’d found on the street. The plastic coating had cracked and water had distorted the features in the picture, but it looked a little like her.
“This is expired.” He handed it back, his expression reflecting his belief the photo wasn’t her.
Jeanne shrugged. “Don’t have a car anyhow.” She shoved her hair back from her face with shaking fingers. She clamped her lips shut. The license said she was twenty, but she felt more like a hundred.
He studied her intently. “We’re just trying to help. You kids come here looking for God only knows what. I see it every day. You get hooked on jojo or sick like your friend.”
She remained silent. The police always knew all the answers.
The officer stood. “If you have a family, go home and make up. This way doesn’t work.” He peered down at her, adding, “Wait here. I have other questions for you, but I want to check on your friend.” He put on his black hat, pushing it back, and walked away.
Jeanne eavesdropped as he spoke to the nurse who chewed the end of a pencil. She wanted Lester to be all right, but doubted he would be. He’d been spitting up blood this time. Fear formed a knot in her chest.
“How is he? Good news might help me get the truth out of her.” He nodded toward Jeanne who read concern in his gaze.
The nurse took her pencil out of her mouth. “You know University takes no public cases now that our federal funding has been cut off. The new owners are very specific about accepting only paying patients. The boy was been sent directly to Cartersea in Northeast with a few others. He was on oxygen when they left.”
“Thanks.” Officer Stimm turned to John Kersey, who stood near the unplugged coffee machine. “I guess that’s better than nothing. We’d better get the signatures on these new service cards to show how we spent the last hour. I miss the old days when all we did was patrol through our shift. This new paperwork is a pain.” He sounded tired.
The waiting gave Jeanne the jitters. If I stick around, I’ll get sent to the juvenile center. And they’ll get word to Mom. She felt the tears pressing again. I don’t wanna go home. It’s always the same thing.
She’d lost count of the times she’d been returned only to run away again. The burden of guilt her mother shifted onto her for her troubles was too much to face any more. The thought of it impelled Jeanne to her feet as the two officers were distracted by the nurse inquiring about the identity of another patient they’d brought in earlier. Catlike, she moved to the door to make her escape. Lester didn’t need her now.
He’d probably never leave the hospital or, if he did live, they’d send him to one of those detainment camps where people without permanent addresses were held. She shuddered. Much as she didn’t want to go home, she didn’t want to wind up in one of the horrible camps she’d heard about. Even if the rumors or torture and death weren’t true, the people were still prisoners.
Sadly, Jeanne accepted that she’d never see Lester again. The best thing to do was get away from D.C.
She headed into the thickening mist where she felt secure from curious eyes, but as dawn broke, the smoky tendrils began to lift and thin. Another ugly day in an ugly city.
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