When Gerta Wahljak glanced across the waiting room
and saw Friedrich Schillinghaussen she felt a sudden
pressure in her chest, a ferocious pressure that made her
feel as though she had been stricken with another heart
attack. When she saw Schillinghaussen, she clutched the
arms of her chair, grasping them so tightly her knuckles
turned white. She drew back instinctively, recoiling from
him. Gerta Wahljak was seventy-eight years old, and when
the color drained from her face and her eyes widened, her
companion, a young woman named Amy Scott, glanced
at her and thought, for the briefest moment, that she was
on the verge of death. Amy Scott, a licensed practical
nurse who worked for the Wahljaks, reached out in alarm
and placed her hand on Gerta's forearm.
"Gerta?" Amy asked quietly. "Are you all right?"
Gerta did not respond. She sat stiffly, pushed back in
the chair, silent, stricken.
Amy moved out of her chair and crouched next to
Gerta, whispering to her with sudden urgency.
"Gerta? What is it?"
"To on," she said, speaking Polish. "Ten czlowiek."
This deepened Amy's concern, for Gerta reverted to her
native Polish rarely, and then only when extremely agitated.
Amy wheeled around and moved quickly across
the waiting area to the receptionist's desk.
"There's an emergency," Amy said, motioning toward
The receptionist, accustomed to such occurrences in
the cardiac gerontology unit, glanced over at Gerta, then
summoned a nurse. The half dozen other patients in the
waiting area watched as the nurse strode to Gerta and
began an examination.
Gerta was uncommunicative. She shook her head no
in answer to a number of diagnostic questions. All the
while, Amy noticed, Gerta's gaze was fixed on something
across the room. Amy glanced over and saw a man who
appeared to be in his late sixties, early seventies. He
watched the quiet drama unfold. He was a slim man and
strikingly handsome, in spite of his years, with deep-set
eyes and an aquiline nose. He possessed a full head of
hair, gone gray now, but it remained thick and was neatly
A nurse appeared and spoke to him. He nodded and
walked with her down the hallway. He moved slowly
and with a noticeable limp that favored his right leg. He
soon disappeared down a corridor where various cardiac
tests were conducted. Amy watched as Gerta's gaze remained
fixed on this man, following him until he was out
"Gerta? What is it?" Amy asked.
The nurse, having determined that Gerta was in no immediate
physical danger, stood back.
Gerta closed her eyes and shook her head in great
"What?" Amy asked.
Gerta shook her head no. She would not speak. She
was brought back in her mind to the makeshift wooden
structure at the edge of the place, just inside the auxiliary
gate to the left. She recalled it so clearly. She remembered
the dust when the drought had come in summer and the
ground had turned to a powder that blew in the slightest
breeze and covered everything--the jeeps and trucks and
staff cars, and the barracks, of course, and the wooden
structure in which she worked. The wind would blow in
from the east, from out of Poland somewhere, and whip
the dust up so that everything was covered, sullied.
Nothing stayed clean for long.
She thought of the photograph she had kept all these
years. When the photograph had been taken it had been
her responsibility to insure its distribution, and she had
performed her task well. And she had managed to secrete
away an extra copy for herself. The photo, in black and
white, showed ten men together in the officers' dining
area. She had accounted for nine of the ten men in the
photograph. She knew what had become of them--knew
who had died in the war, who had defected to the underground,
who had been placed on trial. She knew who
had served time in prison, who had since died of natural
causes, who had been executed. She knew the fate of all
except one: Friedrich Schillinghaussen.
Gerta suddenly noticed that Amy's face was only
inches from her own. She was calling out to Gerta but
Gerta had not heard. The nurse was there, as well, and
someone else, a young man in a white jacket. The others
moved aside for him, and he shined a light into her eyes.
She turned and looked away. The doctor examined her
further but found nothing. Suddenly, Gerta insisted upon
going home. Her appointment with the cardiologist
could be rescheduled. She had no energy for that now.
She wanted to get home where she felt safe, where she
could lock the door and draw the shades and keep the
Amy guided Gerta through the hospital lobby and out
to the parking garage. When finally they reached the car,
Amy, by now exasperated with the old woman's behavior,
turned to confront Gerta.
"What is it, Gerta?" she asked, her frustration obvious
in her tone.
"To on, ten czlowiek."
"It's him!" Gerta said. "It's him. The one from the picture.
The last one."
And with that, Gerta Wahljak broke down and sobbed.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Last Man by Charles Kenney. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.