by Fiona Murphy


He was wheeled in on May the sixth, 1987. 

It was one of those rare sunny days in Chicago and the sunlight streaming in through the windows caught on the metal frame of his wheelchair and glinted around the room, the flash of light travelling along the walls of the ward. It briefly flashed across her face, across those dark eyes that had followed his every movement from the second the door handle had begun to turn.

She watched wordlessly as they lifted and lowered all five foot ten of him onto the bed next to her, attaching drips and needles and other useless instruments that would make no difference. She watched his head loll against their arms and watched his arms flop uselessly by his sides. She took in that boy with eyes that seemed to swallow the universe while he stared blankly as if the universe was swallowing him.

The doctors tried to speak to him, but he just stared listlessly at the ceiling, scanning the tiles as if they were speaking to him, but making very little sense. He had those faded eyes that everyone who entered that ward seemed to have. 

When they realised he wasn’t hearing what they were trying to tell him, or perhaps they simply realised he didn’t care, the doctors – who looked more like exterminators in their masks and gowns - left and along with them, the stench of fear and disgust. They stank of it every time they entered the ward, with their strained smiles and careful no contact.

This was a death row ward of walking corpses. 

Well, lying down corpses. 

It might have been a few minutes, or it could have been a couple of hours before she spoke to him. Time passed strangely in that little ward. Sometimes it ran too fast as you watched scabs and harsh red patches rise to the surface of your skin and felt your breath coming in painful gasps. Other times it moved at a glacial pace, when you could feel your ribs slowly protruding from your torso as your body slowly tore itself apart from the inside out.

“Final stages?” she said.

He didn’t reply, and she slowly and carefully, carefully, propped herself up on one spindly elbow. 

Final stages?” she repeated, a certain hardness in both her tone and expression this time.

Her eyes – so dark, pupil and iris blended – widened a little when carefully, carefully, he rolled on his side and faced away from her.

 His eyes widened a little when he took in the Chicago skyline visible from the top floor of the centre. Their dead, slate colour flashed for half a second, the colour of Lake Michigan that teased and prodded at the Chicago shoreline. For half a second he wasn’t there. For half a second he was on that shore. He was safe. He was wild. He was spinning out of control and falling in the best way and everything was aquamarine and light and sun and there was salt and sand on their lips. 

And then he wasn’t.

He swallowed hard against the painful tightness in his throat and closed his eyes to the view. 

She swallowed hard against the sudden flush of embarrassment that flooded her cheeks and eyes. It was one thing for doctors to be distant and uncomfortable. It was a whole other thing for someone who was the same to be acting so high and mighty, like he wasn’t just as diseased as the rest of them in this living morgue. Besides, they only had so long to live. One might as well be kind with what time they had left. Getting on God’s good side was a priority when one only had mere weeks. Or days.

She wasn’t off put by this first rejection – that simply wasn’t in her nature. She merely bided her time, if anything, more intensely curious than before about the boy- man. It was as hard to tell age as it was to pass time in that little ward. Faces were lined with pain and disease as often as it was with age, spindly, painful thinness robbing beauty and youth.

Time continued to pass in spurts of light and dark, liquid-slow dreamy passages of pain and ticking seconds of uncertainty. Two other victims succumbed and two beds emptied in the ward, leaving just the two of them. There was no big affair, no fuss. They went in the night, simply starved or gave up. They were whisked away, quickly and quietly. 

The boy awoke the morning after, his face draining of the little colour that had remained when he saw the two pristine beds, sheets immaculate and ready, like they had never happened.

“You’ll have the ward all to yourself soon.” Her voice came from beside him and he couldn’t help but let his eyes flicker to her. She was so out of place, just like the cheerful sunlight streaming in, onto his watered down, dying eyes. Too vibrant and alive in the space that lay outside time.

“Toxoplasmosis.” She smiled, and one could barely detect the slight wobble of her lip. “No symptoms. No warning. Just one day – plop!” She mimed fainting against her pillow. “Seizure. Hospital. Congrats, you have AIDS and you’ll be dead within a month.” She stared up at the ceiling, unaware, or simply not caring about the pale boy – man – next to her. He said nothing, watching her and she offered no further words, seeming to forget for a moment where she was. 

Her smile faded into something that was not quite wonder, but almost anticipation, as she stared up at the ceiling that had provided hours of entertainment in its speckled surface. So many shapes to be found, patterns to be discovered. Someone else would lie in her bed soon and find the duck hidden between the two splotches. Or the bent over man in the corner. And someone else after them. And after them.

“A month?”

She didn’t look at him, hitching her smile back up. “Less now. I’m on borrowed time. Any day.”

She glanced at the door. “They’re waiting on me. Like vultures. Hovering, hoping to have another bed free.”

Her bony hands lifted to fiddle with her straw-like frizzy curls. “Any day now.” She repeated absently. “Back with Jesus and Crystal.”

He nodded. She waited.

The seconds passed a little more certainly, the clock on the wall ticking more confidently, finding a beat for now, in the little time lapse.

He took a shuddering breath, as if he were about to be sick, but then words poured forth instead.

“I – When I got it… I couldn’t even look at my father. Kept telling myself I was imagining it.” 

“And your mother?”


They both stared at the ceiling. Her finding a new picture – a tall lady and a little boy next to her. Him just discovering the bent over man in the corner.

“By the time I got the guts to go get checked out by myself…”

Her hands stilled in her hair, the only sign she was paying any attention as his story was cut off by a viscous hacking cough that lasted too long before he recovered himself.

“They found Kaposi’s sarcoma. Exactly like my mother. No cure, no hope and no time.” He didn’t laugh bitterly as most were wont to do. It wasn’t a time for sarcasm.

He found the little boy in the speckles above her bed. He didn’t see the woman she saw – not at the right angle for it. Time lurched a little then, as ward attendant came to the door, her eyes downcast over her mask as she fiddled once more with drips and needles, before hurrying out.

They promptly resumed their ceiling search, both determinedly ignoring the sound of the sink running for too long outside the door, the sound of hands being scrubbed too vigorously.

“That’s all much more tragic and dramatic than mine.” She spotted a bird in the speckles by the door. “Estranged, heartbroken father, ironically dead mother…I was just a waster with used syringes and bad luck.”

“No family?” He said, more so to get away from the subject of causes than anything.

She snorted. “Does anyone with AIDS have family?”

He couldn’t deny the truth of the statement, and there didn’t seem to be much else to say, so carefully, carefully, they both returned to silence because talking was engagement and engagement was attachment and attachment was hoping and AIDS was AIDS and it was 1987.