The blue-black dusk had come on by the time I got off the trolley and started down the street. It was cold, and there was the clammy feel of moisture in the air, as if rain was hovering over us. Dried leaves fell from the trees, rattling across the yards and into the gutter, as the wind swept them up. I was in a hurry to reach home. It had been a long day, and I’d wanted to tell my sister about the parade. That was why I didn’t pay attention to the handful of men gathered on the lawn at mid-block.
The streetcar clanged in the distance, its metal wheels screeching on the metal tracks, so at first, I did not hear the murmuring. I tightened my coat around me. The first raindrops fell. After the overheated car, all of us pressed together, I was suddenly chilled. I hoped Helen had already gotten home. Perhaps she had started supper. The three of us could eat in front of the fire.
Then I saw him—the man lying on the ground, and I stopped. He might have been drunk. Bootleg whiskey could kill an iron dog. Although there was no national law on prohibition, Colorado had passed one in 1916, two years ago. Bootleggers were in full swing in North Denver and in the old mining towns in the mountains. Or maybe the man had been hurt in a motor car accident. Perhaps the kid down the block, who raced his auto at twenty miles an hour, had finally hit someone. We’d said that sooner or later, he’d do just that. I didn’t see his Model T, however. Perhaps it had been a hit-and-run.
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“What happened?” I asked, pushing between two bystanders. “Is he hurt? My sister’s a nurse. We live just down the street. I’ll get her.”
I stepped forward for a better look, but a man beside me held out his arm to keep me away. Then he removed it quickly, as if he shouldn’t have touched me, and stepped back. “Better watch out,” he said. I glanced at him, taking in the expensive gray suit, the kind we advertised at Neusteter’s, the specialty store where I worked, as having “snap and style.” I couldn’t help but notice such things.
The street lamp came on then, and I could see the man on the ground a little more clearly. A soldier. His brown jacket was buttoned up to his neck, and his puttees were polished so that they gleamed in the faint light. His brown cap lay nearby, as if it had come off when he fell. Then I looked closer, at his face. Blood seeped out of his eyes and mouth, and he twisted in agony.
“Won’t somebody help him?” I asked and started to kneel down.
That was when the man grabbed my arm. “Watch out, lady. He’s got the Spanish Flu.”
The Spanish Influenza. Of course. That was why nobody would come to his aid. They wouldn’t even touch him. I held out my hand, but then I pulled it back. I wouldn’t touch him either. I couldn’t. I didn’t dare. What if I brought the flu home to Helen and Dorothy?
I had read the newspaper stories, pointing out the irony that this was 1918, the war was almost over, but soldiers who had survived it were dying of the influenza. They brought it back from Europe with them, and now everybody was afraid of getting it. I’d heard Helen’s stories about it, too. For a month, she’d warned me every morning to be careful, told me to stay away from crowds, to take my lunch to work so that I didn’t have to eat in a restaurant. We’d stopped going to the moving pictures, to the department stores, even to church, although that was no sacrifice, because we rarely attended church anyway. Maud, our tenant, had died of the flu, and we’d taken in her daughter, Dorothy. There’d even been talk about cancelling the Victory Bond Parade today. But it had been held, and I’d gone out onto the street to watch it, mingling with the crowd, heedless of Helen’s warnings.
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It came to me now that I could be that person on the ground, my arms and legs thrashing, my face dark blue. With the rest of the crowd, I stood silently, fascinated as well as repelled, as I watched the soldier stop jerking. He twitched a little and was still.
“He’s dead,” someone said.
I shivered. I was disgusted with myself for doing nothing. I should have knelt beside him, taken his hand. He should have died with a human touch. What if he had been Peter, my fiancé, who was fighting in France? If he were dying, I’d want someone to hold his hand for his last moments. But I was as frightened of catching the flu as everyone else. I shuddered and stepped back, wondering if I’d been too close. Maybe someone in that handful of people staring at the body already had the flu, and one of us would be dead by morning.
“We should call an ambulance,” one of the bystanders muttered.
“There aren’t any to spare,” the man beside me said. “Besides, they don’t send them for the dead.”
“We can’t just leave him there.” I was surprised that I’d spoken up.
“Oh, they have the death wagons that go around every day. Or the Army will come for him,” the well-dressed man said. “I have a phone. I’ll ring Central when I get home. He shouldn’t lie there too long. Dogs’ll come around. Maybe kids.” He tugged at his soft felt hat, pulling it lower on his forehead.
With a last look at the dead soldier, the men hurried off, shuffling through the brown leaves, thinking how they’d announce, “You won’t believe what I saw today,” embroidering the story a little to make it better. They’d make themselves look a little better, too, say they were about to help until they thought they might carry the sickness home. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d have helped him,’” they’d say, shifting the blame to their wives.
I was the last to leave. Helen had seen dozens of dead people, but except for Maud, this was my first—my first outside of a funeral home anyway, and there, the dead had been prettied up until they looked like giant wax dolls instead of real people robbed of life. I didn’t know the man lying on the ground in front of me. At least, I didn’t think so. It was hard to tell with the blood and his dark face. Had he been walking to his girl’s home or running to catch the streetcar? Maybe he lived in that house and had gone outdoors to die. Did he have a wife or a family who’d thought he was safe when he came home from the war? Maybe he’d promised to read a story to his daughter or play marbles with his son that evening. They would wonder where he was, as they waited at the table, dinner getting cold. If they had a phone, they’d call to see if there had been an accident. At the backs of their minds, there’d be a tiny worry that it might be the flu. But no. He’d survived the guns and disease and trenches of the Western Front. He wouldn’t die of a little flu.
I thought how awful to pass on as he had, outside in the cold, strangers gawking. I’d always thought of myself dying in bed when I was very old, my hair, my nightdress both white against the white linens and the white iron bars of the hospital bed, surrounded by people who loved me, weeping. And me peaceful, assuring everyone I wasn’t afraid but was ready for what lay ahead. That is to say, I hadn’t thought much about dying, but now it came to me. I could be lying there on that lawn, ugly, fouled, sending out the stench of death. People walking by with their handkerchiefs over their noses, staring at me with disgust. Dying wasn’t my sanitized version. Helen knew that, I was sure. She’d never talked about death to me, but then, she’d always protected me, had tried to keep ugliness from me.
I took out my own handkerchief and held it over my nose, but I knew it wouldn’t protect me. People wore masks, although the government didn’t encourage it. Too much emphasis on the flu was bad for morale, President Wilson thought. After all, the war was still on, and people had to keep up their spirits. For a time, you saw the masks everywhere. They didn’t really protect you from the flu, however. Nurses like Helen wore them, but they still came down with the influenza.
I would tell Helen about the dead soldier when I got home. Maybe I’d telephone the police, too, just in case the man who’d stood next to me forgot. We had a phone, because Helen needed to stay in touch with the hospital. I could do that one little thing. It would make me feel better.
I was still holding the handkerchief over my nose when I reached home. By then, the sky was black, and the street was lit by front porch lights. I walked through fallen leaves that were wet from the rain. I picked up the evening paper, then pushed the front door open with my foot, surprised that it was not quite closed. Dorothy was fearful, and we always checked the windows and doors. Helen was like that, too. I was the one who was careless. The light on our porch was off, and when I went through the door, I switched it on. The living room was dark, too, and I thought that was odd, because Helen didn’t like the dark. In fact, she slept with a light on. She and Dorothy must have been busy in the kitchen and had not paid attention to the failing light.
Dorothy had lived in our basement with her parents, Ronald and Maud Streeter. A few months earlier, Ron had gone out and never come back. We were glad, because he frightened us. So did the people he brought to the house. We thought they might be bootleggers from North Denver or even Leadville, a silver-mining town where they made a potent whiskey called Sugar Moon. Maud and Dorothy had been frightened of Ron, too, because he hit them. Or at least that was what I concluded from Maud’s black eye. I’d noticed bruises on her arms, too. Dorothy didn’t have bruises, at least not ones I could see but it was clear she didn’t like her father. I’d seen her hide behind the bushes once when Ron emerged from the basement. Other times, she would creep up the stairs when her father was yelling at Maud, and huddle on our front porch. Once, I went outside for the evening paper and found Dorothy asleep on the porch swing. She could have been there for hours.
Maud didn’t tell me what happened to Ron, only that he was gone. And I was glad, because Maud and Dorothy were happier in the weeks after he left. So were Helen and I.
Then Maud died of the flu, and there’d been no one to claim Dorothy. We could have advertised in the paper for her father, but Dorothy begged us not to. Besides, Helen insisted that we didn’t want him coming back. With all the children being orphaned by the flu, the city wouldn’t care. Dorothy was just one more child who wouldn’t have to be placed in an orphan home. She was ten. She wanted to stay with us, and Helen had said we had to take her, that she was one of Peter’s little souls. We would decide later what was best for her, but for now anyway, she would be our sister.
“I’m home,” I called. “I’ve had quite a day.”
No one answered.
“Hello,” I called, and I turned on a lamp in the living room. I stepped backwards and almost tripped over a pillow that lay on the floor. When I looked around the room, I saw that a chair was overturned and another lamp was lying broken on the floor. “Helen?” I called.
I should have been frightened, but my mind was still on the dead soldier. Still… “Dorothy? Where are you?” I called.
I heard a sound in the kitchen. And then Helen’s voice, high-pitched and almost strangled, called, “Lutie, we’re in here.”
I moved quickly to the kitchen. In the dark, I made out two figures, Helen and Dorothy. “What’s going on? Turn on the—.”
“No,” Helen replied quickly. “Don’t.”
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I stared at Helen, who knelt on the floor, frozen, an icepick in her hand. Beside her lay Mr. Streeter, and I knew he was dead.
That was the beginning of my long nightmare. A man lay dead on a lawn down the street, another on our kitchen floor. In the dark days that followed, when death never seemed to leave us, I would learn that Helen had protected me from the world’s evil. Until that day, I had taken my happy life for granted. But, now, I had come face to face with the randomness of death. I had always been safe. Helen had kept me safe, but in the days to come, I would know real fear—fear not just for me but for Helen and Dorothy, who I would come to love as if she truly were my sister.
I came to know the power of love, and I learned that love lasts forever. Before that dreadful day, I had been a girl who loved gaiety and good times, dancing and nights on the town. I had given little thought to the sorrows of others. I think I knew the minute I saw Mr. Streeter lying on the linoleum floor of our kitchen that nothing would ever be the same.
Sandra Dallas, a former Denver bureau chief for Business Week magazine, is the author of 18 novels, five middle-grade novels, and 10 nonfiction books. A member of the Colorado Authors Hall of Fame, she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2023 Colorado Book Award for “Little Souls.”