Gracie Stevens sat down on her bed with a sigh. Her limbs trembled with fatigue and even with a shawl around her shoulders, she shivered. Gracie picked up her pencil and opened her diary, but her hand shook too much to write legibly. She forced back tears.
Drawing in a shuddering breath, Gracie moved to the stiff wooden chair that sat in front of her desk. A heavy typewriter rested on the top of the varnished mahogany and she positioned her fingers on top of it without thinking. Her fingers fell into the rhythm of typing so naturally due to her extensive work experience typing up messages for the war effort. Slowly, her hands calmed and the shaking diminished enough for her to write what needed to be said.
October 22nd, 1918
Dear Mother and Father,
Firstly, I must apologize for leaving you like this. It may not be clear to you now, but it is clear to me that this is what I had to do. I will seal this letter with all of my savings, please give it as I instruct. I suppose I should explain what I’m on about. If I laid it out for you, I’m afraid you would misunderstand; you might think of me as reckless and foolish, which, perhaps, I was. I’ll do my best to help you see why I have done what I did.
It began in early October. I was walking home from work, fingers tired and sore from typing all day when a man walking in front of me collapsed. A crowd surrounded him instantly, blocking off my view. I did manage to stand on the tips of my toes and look over their shoulders.
His skin was completely blue. He sputtered for a minute or two while bystanders tried helplessly to assist him, but in the end, he died. I backed away cautiously. I’d never seen a man die before... it was terrifying. Heart racing, I ran all the way home. I know that people die in the war - it would be impossible to miss - but something about seeing the life leave someone’s body right in front of me made it more... real. I can’t imagine how the soldiers who see death day after day can still wake up each morning and face it so bravely.
But I am drifting from the topic. I am sorry to say that this was not the last death that I witnessed. What they called the “Spanish flu” spread quickly amongst my town; I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I dearly hope that you have not been affected by it. Anybody in contact with the infected people were advised not to leave their houses, and the healthy were told not to go near them. Doctors came to check in on them, but soon... Well, it’s sad to say, but we have no more doctors here.
Slowly, my co-workers began disappearing. No one ever mentioned their absence, but it wasn’t hard to guess where they’d gone. I was very careful. I washed my hands so often that they became chapped. I worked in an isolated room, which wasn’t hard to find with the small amount of people remaining. For a while, my efforts worked.
That was until this morning. I woke up in a cold sweat and at once knew with a paralyzing certainty what had happened. I was infected. I had my share of tears, but they did nothing but make my spirits sink. I wiped them away and gathered my courage.
While I was still strong, I dressed and went out, but not to work this time. Instead, I went to the local hospital where they were running terribly short on help. After the doctors had passed, the nurses did their best, but they couldn’t handle the gross overflow of people. Slowly, they became sick too.
The hospital has been known for some time now as a death sentence. Simply walking through those doors sealed your fate. The volunteers to help care for the sick, to feed the ill, even to go in and dispose of the bodies, were few and far between. No one wanted to give up their lives in order to help people already destined to die.
I drew in a breath and headed that way.
“Gracie!” Laura, my old friend from down the street, called, trotting up behind me.
“Stay away!” I warned her. “I think I’m sick.”
She stopped in her tracks. “You- you can’t be!”
“I am, Laura,” I said gently. “It’s not very bad yet, but...”
“Then you might still recover!” she said hopefully. “People have beaten the disease, Gracie! You’re twenty four, healthy and strong. You can survive this!”
“Do you know how many other healthy and strong young adults have died from this?” I countered. “Hundreds. Thousands. It’s over, Laura. I’m sorry.”
Laura’s eyes watered as she frowned. “Well, at least don’t stay up and about. Go home, get some rest, say a prayer. Don’t give up hope so soon.”
I simply smiled at her sadly and nodded towards the hospital. Laura’s eyes widened.
“No, Gracie, you can’t-”
“But there’ll be no chance of recover-”
“There already isn’t a chance!” I interrupted. “Can’t you see?” I wanted to close the fifteen foot gap between myself and my friend and embrace her, but I didn’t want her to get sick as well. “I might as well help out as best as I can. Nobody healthy will, but...” I shrugged. “I might be able to make them a bit more comfortable.”
Laura’s shoulders shook with quiet sobs. “Please, Gracie. Please don’t.”
I smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Laura. Keep your family safe. For me, okay?”
“Okay,” she managed, wiping away tears. “I’ll try.”
“Goodbye, my friend. I love you.”
“Love you too,” Laura returned with a watery smile. “Goodbye.”
I turned and walked away without a backwards glance. This was not the time to be changing my mind. I had made my decision. Those last few steps were the worst. My feet felt like lead, my arms felt wrapped in chains as I pushed open the door to the hospital. I felt like I was throwing my life away, which I was, yet somehow the thought didn’t bother me quite as much as I expected. After all, the soldiers over in the war felt that way every day and they still fought to protect us. If they could face down the enemy with such courage, why couldn’t I face down a disease? It took just as many lives. Here, we were fighting our own war at home. And I was a soldier now.
I won’t detail what I saw inside the hospital. If you knew... Well, just allow me to say that nobody should ever have to endure that. I did what I could to make people comfortable as they... Well, there’s no use in putting it lightly now. I did what I could to make people comfortable as they died. And many did. The sick didn’t even flinch when one of their number dropped; they had grown so used to it that it didn’t faze them.
It is a sad day when sensitivity to such things is lost.
Suffice to say, I came home feeling much worse than I left, both emotionally and physically. To be brutally honest, I doubt very much that I will make it until morning. Therefore, I will leave you with this.
I love you so very much. You mean the world to me and I thank you most sincerely for everything you have done for me. I’m sorry that I can’t call, but every time I try to speak I am attacked by a coughing fit. I do hope the war is going to be over soon, and from what I hear things are going well. Please stay safe and don’t let my death tarnish your joy of victory. This time has been hard on us all and you deserve a celebration.
Give Carl and Matthew my regards. They are the best brothers I could ask for. I still hold the hope that when Carl gets older, he will be the one to discover cures for these terrible diseases. Hopefully his brilliance will save others from following in my footsteps.
As for the money enclosed, please split it amongst the family, taking an equal portion out and giving it to those recovering from the war or disease. I’m sure you know widows in mourning, children without parents, the despairing families of the lost... give it to them however you see fit. I trust you will bring at least a little happiness to their lives.
Goodbye, Mother and Father. If it is any comfort, know that I am not scared to go. I would rather die this way a hundred times than be the victim of some senseless crime with no meaning. At least I got to help people before I go.
Gracie folded the letter and slid it in the envelope with her money. She addressed it to her parents and set in in the center of her desk to be found when they came to clear out her apartment. Staggering back to her bed, Gracie curled up on her side and closed her eyes.
Gathering her courage, she waited to die.