“We’ll be there soon.”
Rochelle said it for herself more than for the sick boy who lay curled on dirty towels in the shopping cart. She had heard the gang that took over the Regency Hotel had a clinic with a real doctor – or at least a boy who had been raised by doctors, which was the next best thing since the pandemic had wiped out the adults. Word on the street was that John Brody was smart and capable. Twelve year-old Rochelle had her doubts - there were a lot of rumors these days. But she was desperate.
She pushed the cart along the muddy street, past thin, hungry children hustling for a meal. On a corner, a teenager with painted face and a hard look in his eyes assessed her with a steely gaze Rochelle felt through her clothes like the unwelcome grope of a pedophile. She shuddered, gave the cart an extra push and hurried on.
When she arrived at the hotel, she found it under guard, but a tall black girl with a Glock at her hip listened to Rochelle’s frantic words with compassion in her eyes. “Our clinic isn’t free for people who aren’t in our gang,” she said. “Can you pay?”
Rochelle shook her head. The only currency these days was food, and she hadn’t eaten in two days.
“Well, maybe we can work something out.”
Rochelle was too weak from hunger to remove her brother from the cart unaided, so the guard helped, and together they took him upstairs to the ballroom, which had been turned into a clinic. A slight, brown-haired teenager in spectacles met them in the triage area and introduced himself as Dr Brody.
“This is Rochelle,” the guard said. “She says her brother has some kind of infection.”
The doctor instructed Rochelle to lay her brother on a mattress and proceeded to examine him. The wound on his leg had suppurated and gave off a foul odor. “You should’ve come earlier.”
“I’ve been rinsing out his wound every day and giving him antibiotics. At least that’s what I was told they were.”
“Whatever you were given, it didn’t work. He’s septicemic now.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it doesn’t look good.” He took off his glasses and wiped them on the tail of his dingy lab coat. “I’ll do what I can, but it’s hard to get the right meds. Don’t expect much.”
Rochelle’s heart gave a little lurch. “You mean he might die?”
She sank into a chair and watched while the teenage doctor worked on her brother’s wound. When he had done all he could, he carried the boy into the convalescent ward. “I’m not optimistic. But I’ll do everything I can think of.”
Rochelle was dizzy with gratitude. “I already told the guard I can’t pay, but I can help in other ways. I’ll clean your clinic. I’ll feed your patients and change their sheets, I’ll—”
The doctor shook his head. “Only group members are allowed to work and you'd have to be voted on. But I’ll vouch for you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What I mean is I could use a decent nurse. You kept your brother clean and took good care of his injury. It’s not your fault you didn’t have the right medicine to keep it from getting infected. If you want to join our gang, I’ll be your patron. That way you’ll get voted on right away.”
Rochelle hesitated. She had heard this hotel gang was well-organized and relatively peaceful, but did she want to give up her independence?
"Your brother's care will be free, and I'll teach you everything I know."
The doctor's eyes were kind and his words were wise. Without skills or a protector, she was nothing. Rochelle didn't much care what happened to her any more. The pandemic had taken everything that gave her life structure and meaning. But younger children like her brother needed hope. And help. “I’ll be your nurse,” she said. “Just tell me what I have to do.”