The Cost Of Life

A shout broke into Laura’s sleep and she opened heavy lidded eyes. Night had come again. Rain dripped from the neon sign on the take-out across the road. It took a few seconds for Laura to realise the water had soaked through her jacket. Over the last two nights the autumn cold had seeped into her bones, spreading up from the concrete wall she was slumped against.

Cars slid by on the wet tarmac: smooth black bullets in the darkness; soundless electric coffins, their passengers ignoring the rest of the world as they gave over their transport to the computer brains.

A couple walked by the alley, water running off the umbrella the woman held. The segments danced with images of cats chasing each other’s tails.

“Help,” Laura called out in a weak voice.

If the couple heard her they did not show it, continuing their conversation. It had been the same yesterday. Even at rush hour not a single person glanced her way.

Laura had almost given up hope. This time last week she would have done the same. No one even looked at beggars now. If you wanted to give money to the poor you did it via a charity web site. As for down and outs who looked ill, they were treated in the same way any sick stranger was: don’t get too close and don’t get involved.

A noise from further into the alley caught her attention. Laura turned her head, eyes full of fear seeking out a threat. Only dim light penetrated that far into the narrow space between the tall buildings. There was no sign of anyone: maybe dogs, or worse, rats. She tried to pull her legs closer to her body, but they refused to move. Two useless appendages stuck out in front of her. One foot, twisted inwards, leaned against the other, white sneakers now brown with scum the rain had kicked up from the ground.

Emotion washed over Laura as she looked at her lifeless limbs. Tears welled up, running unchecked down her cheeks, mixing with the rain as they fell from her chin. The two day old memory of the attack was still fresh.

The road had been empty as she had walked back from the bar. Unseen and unexpected a hand had reached around from behind and covered her mouth. She had felt the pressure of the injection. The attacker at her back had pulled her into the alley. A second person, a man, had stepped in front of her, taking her bag with ease. What little fight she had faded quickly as the cocktail of drugs took hold. The man checked her pockets then his companion propped Laura against the wall. In what might have been a caring gesture they stopped her falling and helping as she slid slowly down the wall. They even pulled her legs out so they were not folded under. Then they were gone. The whole thing had taken no more than thirty seconds.

The media said the drugs attackers used worn off within an hour. Laura’s mouth started to work first, a minute later she was able to turn her head, but everything from her neck down remained paralyzed. After a while she began to suspect the drug mix had been contaminated.

Hope saw her through the first few hours. She convinced herself a pedestrian would help. Tiredness finally caught up with her during the early hours, she had woken again as the city streets were coming back to life. Hours later Laura finally realised no one was going to help her.

Why would they, she looked like a vagrant and they never had medical insurance. You stopped to help one and you were stuck with them. No ER would take them when there was no one to pay for the drugs: there was no cash in healing the poor since the government had withdrawn its support. What few clinics were willing to do pro bono work were that swamped they only took those who could walk themselves in.

Laura had medical insurance. She spent nearly a third of her income making sure she was covered, and that was cheap in comparison to what friends paid. Her genes came from good stock. Sadly none of those who walked on by knew. She was just like any other beggar: poor and helpless. A burden on a society where the raucous cries of money drowned out the social conscience.

Hopefully one of her friends, or the office, had reported her missing. If the police were sweeping the streets this month they would pick her up.

Laura tipped back her head and tried to catch some of the rain in her mouth. It had an oily taste. The street was quiet once more. From the darkness of the alley she heard the rats moving.

—————

14 August 2009:
America is currently wrestling with the idea of state funded medical care. Sadly it is unlikely to take up the European model, instead creating a crippled version that helps very few.

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