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Laura Edwards tiptoed across the wooden floor to her brothers' room. If Eddie wasn't awake, she didn't want to disturb him, but Mama had sent her to check on him. He'd had the sniffles and a headache for a couple of days now, probably catching a summer cold, Laura had decided. Nothing like when Eddie had developed rheumatic fever a few years ago, when he was eight and Laura was seven. With a high temperature, achy joints, a skin rash, and constant nosebleeds, he'd been miserable. For months, he'd had to stay in bed-and ended up missing so many days of school he'd had to repeat second grade, putting him in Laura's class from then on.
Yesterday, Mama wondered if Eddie was having another bout of the fever, which doctors had said could flare up at any time. But Laura didn't think so. He didn't have a rash or anything, and his nose looked fine to her. Knowing Eddie, he'd use just about any excuse to get out of making beds and cleaning the hotel rooms. When she'd peeked in at lunchtime, Eddie had been asleep. Unless his headache had gotten a whole lot worse, she expected him to have made a miraculous recovery and be up and playing, now that the last bed had been changed and the final room swept.
Fully dressed, her brother lay in the lower bunk bed with his eyes wide open, but he didn't sit up when she walked into the bedroom.
"Hey, Eddie, we finished the last room. You can get up now."
"I can't," he said in a terrified voice. "I've been trying to, but my legs don't work right." He lifted his head a little but didn't raise his shoulders off the bed.
"What do you mean?" Laura sat on the edge of the bunk. "You want me to pull you up?" She reached for his hands and was alarmed at how hot his skin felt. "You've got a fever." That surprised her. She'd gotten it in her mind that he'd milked his summer cold for all that it was worth. Maybe the rheumatic fever has come back after all, Laura thought.
"Look," he said. Eddie lifted his arm as if it pained him and pointed to his legs. Laura could see his legs tremble through his pant legs.
But that's not right. Rheumatic fever wouldn't make his legs shake. The next thing Laura thought of was the absolute worst thing in the world. Polio. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. Every summer, Mama warned them to stay out of the heat of the day and away from the water. Wasn't that how kids got polio? But Laura hadn't heard of any cases this summer, and just a few days ago, she and Eddie had gone to the wharf to watch a troopship leave Puget Sound. They'd stood in the afternoon heat right by the water, that deadly combination.
"Get Mama," Eddie said. His voice still sounded terrified.
Laura bolted out of the room, nearly tripping over the cat. A sense of urgency propelled her through the living room and out the apartment door to the lobby. Mama was sitting at the desk in the office, talking on the telephone. Laura ran to the office window.
"Come quick!" she said breathlessly.
Mama held up one finger and continued talking.
"Eddie's real sick," Laura gasped.
Mama looked up, concern filling her features. "Excuse me," she said into the receiver. "Laura," she said carefully, "does his skin look funny? Is his nose bleeding?"
"No ... but he can't move his legs."
Mama dropped the phone, then picked it up again. "Emergency!" she said toward the receiver and didn't even say good-bye before slamming it down. She dashed out through the office door and ran down the hall. Laura followed right behind her.
"Eddie!" Mama slowed down when she got inside the apartment and walked quickly to the boys' room. "Eddie!"
She leaned down on the bed and touched his face with the back of her hand. "You're burning up. Can you squeeze my hand?"
Tremors shook his arms. Laura watched the muscle spasms and saw her mother's face turn white.
"Mama?" Eddie said. "What's happening to me?" Panic colored his voice.
"Laura, ask Maude to pull her car around, and find Gary," Mama said.
Laura raced to the hallway again, pounded on Maude's door, and then ran to the back door. Fifteen-year-old Gary had been in the alley behind the hotel after lunch, and he was still there, talking to some other high school boys.
"Gary! Come quick! Something bad is wrong with Eddie." Laura didn't wait for her brother. She left the screen door standing open and ran back down the hall. Maude stood in the doorway of her apartment.
"Eddie's real sick. He can't move his legs," Laura said to Maude. "Mama needs your car."
Maude Bowers had been living in one of the apartments for some time now, and the Edwardses had grown to love her. Her car was actually her son's car. He'd left it with her when he went to war.
Maude grabbed her car keys off the key hook by her door.
"How long has he been sick?" she asked as they scurried down the hall.
"He hasn't felt well for a couple of days, but when he wanted to stay in bed this morning, I ... I thought he was just ducking his chores."
The back screen door slammed shut, and heavy footsteps thundered down the hall. Laura held the apartment door open for Maude and waited a moment for Gary.
Mama stepped into the living room. Her face was still unnaturally white, and she held on to the couch. "Laura, call the doctor and tell him we're on the way to the hospital," she said in a hushed voice. "The number's in the office. Maude, can you drive us? Gary, you'll have to carry Eddie. He can't walk." A sob choked her voice. "He was all right this morning, except for a headache. No signs of rheumatic fever. He didn't mention his legs hurting. It just seemed like a summer cold, nothing more.... How could this happen so fast?" Mama shook her head, gained control, and held up her hand as Maude moved toward her. "I'm all right. Let's take care of Eddie. Laura, can you manage the office? Can you handle that? The girls will be back sometime soon."
Laura sprang into action and raced to the lobby. The office door was still standing open. She went inside the small room and located the doctor's number on the important numbers sheet that Mama kept beside the telephone.
In a trembling voice, Laura told the nurse about Eddie. She was just hanging up the phone when Maude flew by the office, her car keys held out in front of her as if doing that would cut a few seconds off her task of bringing the car around. She hadn't been out the front door but a moment when Mama and Gary walked around the corner of the hallway.
Between them, they carried Eddie. He was wrapped in a blanket even though the July sun had raised the temperature to at least eighty degrees. Laura focused on his eyes, which were enormous. They were wide, not with pain so much as with bewilderment. What was happening to him? Laura knew he was worried. She and Eddie were so close in age-only a year apart-and spent so much time together that she often knew what he was going to say before he said it. And she almost always knew how he'd react to things.
Laura stepped out of the office. She stared at him, and he stared at her, and an invisible cord stretched between them.
"You'll be all right," she said in an unnaturally loud voice. "I know you will."
He didn't nod, which was their usual signal to each other. Maybe he couldn't nod. Maybe the fever had drained him of his strength.
The little group made their way toward the top of the stairs. Outside, a horn honked. Laura glanced down to the street and made sure it was Maude's car. She raced down the stairs, held the front door open, and then darted ahead of them to the car and opened the passenger door. Mama slid into the front seat and held Eddie on her lap. He looked odd half-sitting, half-lying on her. He was eleven and almost as tall as Mama. Gary shut the door and hurried around to the driver's side. Maude scrunched up and pulled the back of her seat forward so Gary could slide into the back. The door slammed, and they were off.
Laura watched until they disappeared out of sight. Then she turned and climbed the stairs to the second-floor lobby. She took her place in the office. There really wasn't much to do, which was good. Her breath still came in gasps from all that running, and her heart was heavy with worry. "Dear God, don't let it be poli-" She couldn't say the dreaded word aloud for fear that it would make it real. "Please let him be all right."
She should call Dad, or was Mama doing that? They rarely called the Boeing airplane plant, and Laura didn't want to be the one to tell Dad anyway. What about her sisters?
Corrine was at the clinic, rolling bandages to send to the war. Margie was at work at the Boeing plant. She could call Ginny, who, at seventeen, had gone over to a friend's house after they'd finished the hotel work. Laura looked for the number, but she couldn't find it and discarded that idea.
Okay, she was here, and she could handle this. It wasn't the actual sitting behind the desk that bothered her. Fear for Eddie clutched at her mind and at her heart. She glanced at the clock on the desk and turned on the radio, which was usually kept on for the war news. Mama must have turned it off earlier when she'd answered the telephone. Bing Crosby was singing "I'll Be Seeing You."
The downstairs door opened, and footsteps ascended the stairs. They had a full house, and no one was checking out today, so if it was a stranger, all she had to do was tell the person that there was no room available.
"You in charge today, young lady?" the mailman asked.
"For a while," Laura said.
He handed her a bundle of letters, then turned and made his way down the stairs.
Ten-year-old Laura had never sorted mail before, but she knew she could do it. The boxes were numbers, and most of them had names on them. With the housing shortage in Seattle, the Edwardses had more permanent renters than those who came in for only a few days. Apartment boxes were on the top row, then the hotel rooms. That was one of the improvements that Dad had installed once they had bought and taken over the hotel. Dad liked organizing things. That's what made him so good as an engineer. He liked details.
Dad enjoyed his job at Boeing and earned a good salary, but after Eddie's bout with rheumatic fever, the family had struggled to pay off the doctor's bills. With Eddie's complete recovery, the Edwardses bought and moved into the Seattle hotel less than a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Although Laura didn't really like doing all her hotel chores, she did like living in the city. And most of the hotel residents were now like family. Family ... What is happening with Eddie? Laura wondered.
The little clock on the desk ticked, but there was no news from the hospital. Laura half-expected her mother to call. Or maybe there was no time. Maybe ... No, she wouldn't think the worst. Think positive. Think positive. She prayed for Eddie's recovery. She begged God to make him be all right.
Laura poked the thin letters into the boxes and had to force herself to keep working once she discovered a letter from her brother Bruce in the pile. She quickly finished putting up the mail and then pulled scissors from the desk drawer. With the sharp edge, she unsealed the letter. The paper was so thin, she didn't dare risk tearing it, for Bruce would have written over every inch.
Her oldest brother was a pretty good war correspondent. This time the letter was whole. There were no words that had been cut out. He hadn't written anything the censors would remove with their razor-sharp instruments. Laura had seen censors at work on the newsreel at the movies. Troop movements were too important to have leaked in case letters fell into enemy hands. The letters the family got from Bruce were written weeks, even months, earlier. Sometimes they would receive more than one letter a day. Sometimes they wouldn't get anything from him for several weeks.
She searched the top of the letter and found what she was looking for-June 16. He had written the letter after the D-Day invasion! The family had been waiting and waiting for news. After Laura had seen newsreel footage of the Normandy assault, she had understood the danger soldiers had faced. But if Bruce had been part of D-Day, he'd made it through alive and well!
She celebrated that news in her heart and listened to the clock on the desk ticktock, ticktock.
Mr. Arnold from apartment 15 stood at the office window, and Laura was glad she could hand him a letter. His grandson had been headed for England when he left, but now Mr. Arnold figured he was in Italy or France.
Mr. Arnold lovingly fingered the thin letter. "So Dale wrote his old grandpa." He gave a pleased smile and shuffled back to his room. The next time she saw him, he'd tell her everything Dale had written. He always did.
Laura read and reread Bruce's letter. He was doing fine but was looking forward to a home-cooked meal when the war was over. He was tired of the rations the army gave him. And he was tired of walking in mud.
Where is Bruce? Laura wondered. She wanted her brother home again and safe. She glanced at the clock. Not quite an hour had passed since Eddie had been taken away. What was the doctor doing to him now? She wanted Eddie home and safe, too. She wished she hadn't accused him of trying to get out of cleaning the rooms. Eddie had never liked the hotel chores.
Mr. Clauson wheeled down the hall in his wheelchair and collected his mail, causing a small stampede down the halls. Once the mail came in, word traveled fast through the building. Mama had once commented on how glad she was when she could hand mail over to the residents instead of telling them there was nothing for them.
"You'll probably get news tomorrow," Laura told disappointed residents. She imagined Mama had told them that before. And she knew how they felt. She wanted news of Eddie right now.
Why didn't Mama call? Would the doctors have put Eddie in an iron lung? No, that was the worst. Surely he could breathe on his own. She would think the best. For the hundredth time since Eddie had been carried to the car, she sent a prayer heavenward.
The clock on the desk went ticktock, ticktock.
A man with an old plaid suitcase climbed the stairs and asked for a room, and Laura suggested another hotel down the street. She listened to a special radio program on the V-1 flying bombs that Germany had launched on England. No roar of planes overhead had warned the people that bombs were coming. The first bomb had made a buzzing sound and then exploded, flattening two hundred homes at one time.
Would the Japanese launch the V-1 bomb on Seattle? Fear tightened its grip on Laura's heart. She took deep breaths and watched the minute hand slowly move on the face of the clock.
Another hour passed. Finally she heard Ginny's voice drift up the stairs. Corrine was with her, and it was clear from their footsteps that they were slowly making their way up to the lobby.
Laura wanted to shout at them to hurry, but what for? There was nothing they could do but wait for news. She watched the stairs until their heads appeared. They didn't resemble each other at all. Corrine was blond like Mama, and Ginny had curly dark hair like Dad and Laura. And Eddie.
Laura had remained calm while time had crawled by all afternoon. But now with her sisters there to give her support, she felt a great sob rise up from her heart to her throat.
"Eddie!" The name was barely recognizable as she said it through tears.
"Laura! Where's Mama?"
Both girls spoke at once, and Laura's tears rolled down her cheeks. When she could talk, she told them Eddie's symptoms.
Corrine gasped. "Poli-"
"Don't say it!" Laura interrupted. "It can't be. We were only at the wharf the day the troops went out, and he didn't play in the water." That was what Mama constantly warned them about: "Stay out of the afternoon sun, and don't get in the water." Laura knew that warning by heart. But Eddie couldn't have the dreaded disease because even though the day had been warm, the sky had been overcast that afternoon. It had rained before they got back to the hotel.
The girls took turns standing at the window, sitting on the desk, and sitting in the lone chair behind the desk. They stared at the phone while the clock continued to ticktock.
When Laura didn't think she could stand it anymore, the downstairs door opened, and she heard familiar voices.
The girls rushed out of the office to the stairs. Below were Maude, Mama, and Gary. No Eddie.
They didn't say a word until they reached the lobby.
Her voice full of weariness edged with fear, Mama said, "It's polio."
Excerpted from Laura's Victory by Veda Boyd Jones Copyright © 2006 by Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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