“Thanks.” Allen sat up and looked at me with tear-stained eyes. “I’m glad you came by today. I was seriously thinking about doing it.” He rested his head on my shoulder and let out a sigh.
A car slowed down and someone lowered the backseat passenger window. Suddenly, we were splattered with a soda. “Fags!” Someone shouted out the window as the car sped away.
“Story of my life,” Allen remarked sadly as he began wiping the drink from his shirt.
“You said it,” I responded as I brushed my shirt off. “At least it wasn’t shit.”
Allen looked at me, and then a slight grin appeared on his face. “Yeah, at least it wasn’t shit.” He stood and stared into my face.
“I have to go.” He turned and started walking along the side of the bridge.
I ran to catch up with him. “You have a habit of just walking away, don’t you?”
“It’s easier that way,” he responded without slowing his pace. I stopped and watched as he continued to walk. After a few feet he began to slow down, and then I watched as he fell to the ground.
“Are you all right?” I knelt down beside him. He was gasping for air, and his color had paled considerably.
“Yeah,” he gasped. “Leave me alone. I’ll be okay in a couple of minutes.”
“No.” I sat down beside him. “I’m not going anywhere.” He continued to gasp. I felt helpless beside him. I didn’t know if there was anything I could do for him.
“You want me to call 9-1-1?”
“I said give me a minute,” he replied impatiently as he reached into his pocket, took out a small pill and swallowed it. After a few minutes, he began to breathe more regularly. He started to get up, but he fell back into me.
“Help me up,” he said. I got to my feet and tried to pull him up by his hand, but he was too weak. I reached down, took him by his thin waist and raised him to his feet. He rested his body against mine and tried to catch his breath. I could feel his ribs through his shirt. It felt like he hadn’t eaten in days.
“Where do you live?” I asked. “I’ll help you home.” I thought he’d resist, but he motioned for us to cross the bridge. I had to hold him up as we made our way to his place.
We walked about six blocks, passing the coffee shop. He led me to a storefront building and motioned that he lived above it. I had to almost carry him up the stairs to his apartment. I reached into his pocket, took out his key and opened the door.
He directed me to a double bed in the corner of the small room. He collapsed onto it and gasped for air. I walked over to the sink and got him a glass of water. By the time I returned, he was asleep. I sat down beside him for a minute and watched his chest rising and falling. His breathing was extremely labored, and I was afraid he was going to die.
I removed his shoes, and then I pulled a thin blanket over his body. He looked briefly at me and smiled slightly before closing his eyes. After a few minutes, his breathing became more regular. I got up and looked around the room.
It appeared to be a one room apartment, and it was sparsely furnished. Besides the bed he was on, there was a small couch against the opposite wall. There was a small kitchenette with a table and two chairs. A television was sitting on a dresser against the other wall.
The room was clean, despite the soiled carpet and stained walls. I couldn’t imagine how someone could live like this, but then I thought that it was better than what I had. I walked over to a door and opened it. Inside was the bathroom with a small closet, which contained a few jeans and shirts. Again, it appeared clean in spite of the shabby conditions of the walls.
I walked back over to the bed to make sure that Allen was all right. His breathing was shallow, like someone in a deep sleep. He appeared exhausted. His gaunt face was pale and colorless. It was obvious that he was extremely sick.
I stood, and then again looked around the room. I didn’t know if I should stay to make sure that he would be safe, or if I should leave. I began to wonder if he’d be upset when he awoke and still found me in his apartment.
However, I was too tired to make the journey back to Sullivan Lake. Even though Allen was thin, it still exhausted me to carry him back to his apartment. I looked over at the beige couch, and then decided I would rest a little while before leaving. There was another blanket hanging over the back; so I lay down, pulled it over me and fell asleep.
I was awakened later when I heard Allen crying out in his sleep. He was thrashing around and shouting softly. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he seemed extremely disturbed. I walked over and sat down beside him.
His eyes flew open, and he had a wild expression on his face. He curled himself into a ball and started sobbing.
“It’s Joey,” I whispered as I took his body and pulled him over to me. He threw his arms around me and continued to cry.
After a minute, he settled down and fell back to sleep. I pulled the blanket aside, climbed in beside him and pulled him into my body. He held my arm tightly as his body relaxed into mine. Soon we were both asleep.
The room was dark when I awoke. I was at first disoriented, but soon realized where I was. I quietly got out of bed without awaking Allen, and made my way to the bathroom. It had been hours since I had last relieved myself.
When I returned, Allen was sitting up. His legs were hanging over the side of the bed and he seemed confused.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I helped you home,” I responded. “Don’t you remember?” He stared thoughtfully at me a moment before responding.
“Yeah, I remember.” He arose and made his way to the bathroom. He closed the door and I could here him pissing. It appeared his bladder was as full as mine. After a minute, he reappeared and walked over to the couch and sat down beside me.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No problem,” I replied He looked over at me and smiled slightly.
He got up and turned on the television. He returned to the sofa and sat down beside me. We were sitting quietly when I heard a key turning in the door. It opened and Star walked in. She stopped suddenly when she saw me sitting beside Allen.
“What are you doing here, Joey?” I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone so surprised before. She stood looking back and forth between me and Allen.
“He helped me home,” Allen said softly. It was obvious he was still weak from the afternoon ordeal.
“Are you all right?” She walked over and knelt down in front of him and felt his forehead. “You’re burning up.” I looked over and for the first time I could see that he was perspiring profusely. In the dim room, I hadn’t noticed it before.
She went into the bathroom and returned with a towel. She wiped his face, head and neck. “You can do the rest,” she said as she handed him the towel.
“Did he take his temperature?” She looked at me.
“I don’t think so,” I responded. From the way he was perspiring, he must have been running a high fever. She went back into the bathroom and returned with a thermometer. She put it in Allen’s mouth, and then again felt his forehead.
“Is he all right?” I was becoming concerned by the worried look on Star’s face.
“He was in the hospital with pneumonia,” she informed me. “They gave him some medication. He must not be taking it.” She knelt down and gave Allen a motherly look. He hung his head.
“He never takes his medication,” she added.
She removed the thermometer from his mouth. “102 degrees.”
“That’s pretty high,” I said.
“Yes it is,” she remarked worriedly. “Joey, go in the bathroom and see if you can find a bottle of Mepron.”
I went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. There must have been eight or nine bottles of pills. I had never heard of any of them. I read the labels: Crixivan, Norvir and Invirase. Finally, I found the bottle labeled Mepron.
I returned and handed the bottle to Star. She poured a dose into the cap and handed it to Allen. He refused to take it at first, but he finally relented.
“Help me get him to bed,” she said. We carefully lifted him to his feet and led him to the other side of the room. Before putting him in bed, Star began to undress him. I was amazed at how thin his body was. I could literally count his ribs. When she removed his pants, his legs were barely thicker than my arms. Once undressed, she placed him on the bed and covered him with the blanket.
“Go get the one on the couch,” she pointed across the room. When I returned, she was sitting on the side of the bed and running her hand gently across his head. He had his eyes closed, and he appeared to have fallen asleep.
“Is he going to be all right?” I asked worriedly.
“He will if he’ll take his medication,” she whispered. “He refuses to take it.” I looked down and looked at the frail figure lying on the bed. Tears welled up in my eyes. I walked over to the couch, sat down and idly looked at the television.
A few minutes later, Star got up and came over and sat down beside me. She looked so tired. I reached over and took her hand and held it. We sat quietly for several minutes without speaking.
Finally, I got up the courage to ask her what had been on my mind all afternoon. “Is he dying?” She looked over at me with tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said softly. “He may be.”
My heart sunk. I looked over at the bed. Allen’s thin body was hardly visible under the blankets. “What’s wrong with him?” I wasn’t sure I was prepared to hear the answer.
“He has AIDS.”
Star squeezed my hand tightly, and she started to cry. I sat numbly with her words echoing in my head, “He has AIDS.” How could someone so young be dying from such a disease?
Suddenly, she started sobbing. I put my arm around her and held her as we both cried. I couldn’t understand why someone I hardly knew was having such an effect on me. We had only known each other for a short time, but somehow I felt like I had known him all my life.
Star got up, walked across the room and sat beside Allen. She put her hand to his forehead and then ran her hand along his body. He stirred slightly, but he didn’t wake up.
She walked back over and sat down.
“His temperature seems to have broken,” she said. “I wish he’d take his pills, but he refuses.”
“Why?” I looked at her and saw a sad expression.
“I don’t think he wants to live anymore.” Again, she burst into tears. I held her while she cried softly.
I could understand what he was experiencing. I guess that is what had brought us together. When we first met, he wanted to die. And today, he had come to the bridge to end his life. He had even asked me what it was like to experience death. Depression swept over me, but this time I refused to run from it. Star needed me, and Allen needed me. This time I wouldn’t run.
As if reading my mind, Star leaned into me and rested her head on my shoulder. I took her hand and squeezed it. We must have remained that way for about ten minutes before moving.
Finally, she looked into my eyes. “Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you. Ticker said you haven’t been home in days.”
“Home,” I laughed. “I don’t have a home.”
“Where have you been?”
“Around.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I’d been sleeping at the lake for the past few days.
“Why haven’t you been in school?”
She studied me for a minute before resting her head once again on my shoulder. I was waiting for a lecture, but she didn’t say anything. I guess she had enough problems worrying about Allen to get involved in mine too.
“Are you hungry?” She got up and walked over to the small kitchen. I watched as she rummaged around inside a cupboard. Finally, she stood back and waved a box of Cheerios. “Ta da!” She walked over to the refrigerator and peered inside. She then turned to me and frowned. “No milk.”
I took off my shoe to see how much money I had left. $43. “I’ll go get a pizza.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she insisted. “There must be something around here to eat.”
“What kind of pizza does Allen like?” I looked at his still sleeping body.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said sadly. “He won’t eat anyway.”
“Yeah. That will do, I guess.”
I left and walked out onto the street. I looked back to memorize which building Allen lived in. Underneath his apartment was a store called Schultz Dry Cleaning.
I walked several blocks before I found a pizza place. The sign on the window announced it had the “Best Pizza in the South. Hand tossed.” I stood outside and watched as the young man busily prepared pizzas. It was entertaining to watch him toss the dough into the air as it formed a perfect crust. A couple of times he looked out the window and smiled at me.
I ordered two large pepperonis and a giant bag of potato chips. I didn’t know about Star and Allen, but I was famished. I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. It cost almost half of what I had, but I didn’t care.
When I arrived back at Allen’s apartment, he was sitting beside Star on the couch. He didn’t look as pale as he had earlier, and it appeared his fever had broken.
Star got up, walked into the kitchen area and took three plates from the cupboard. I placed a large slice on each plate and a handful of chips. I handed a plate to Star. She walked over and sat down at the small dinette table. I then walked over to Allen and handed him a plate.
“I’m not hungry,” he insisted as he pushed the plate away.
“Yes, you are,” I said defiantly, taking a seat beside him. I placed the plate in his lap and then began eating my pizza. “I just didn’t spend all this money on this pizza for you not to eat.”
He looked angrily at me. He sat for several minutes holding the plate in his lap. He then tore off a small piece and gingerly ate it. Soon, he had eaten the entire slice. I walked over to the kitchen, placed two more pieces on my plate and returned. Without saying anything, I put another slice on his plate. As before, he sat several minutes, refusing to eat. But soon, he started picking at the pizza. Several minutes later it was gone. He handed me the plate, indicating he didn’t want anything more.
“You’re a miracle worker,” whispered Star when I walked back to the kitchen. “That’s the most I’ve seen him eat in weeks.”
“I‘m not a miracle worker,” I whispered back. “I’m just more stubborn.”
“Too stubborn,” she replied worriedly.
We cleaned up while Allen quietly watched television. Occasionally, I saw him watching us out of the corner of his eyes. He appeared to be feeling much better than he had earlier. Eating something had definitely helped.
When we were finished, Star grabbed my hand and led me to the door. “Let’s go for a walk.” She turned to Allen. “We’ll be back in a few minutes.” He nodded and then returned to watching his show.
She held my hand as we walked down the sidewalk. She led me to Allen’s coffee shop. She motioned for me to go take a booth in the back while she stood in line. A minute later, she returned with two coffees.
“I didn’t know how you like yours,” she said as she placed some sugar and cream in front of me. I took a packet of each and added it to my cup. She drank hers black. She sat and stared into my face for a minute before speaking.
“Now tell me where you’ve been the past few days. You’ve had me and Ticker worried sick.”
“I told you, around,” I replied defensively. I looked down into my cup.
“That’s not an answer,” she said angrily. I looked up and saw her insistent stare. I sat for a minute before answering. Star was a good friend, and I knew she cared about me. It wasn’t fair to treat her so rudely. Besides, after watching the way she cared about Allen, I knew I could trust her.
“I had to get away for a few days,” I finally said. “I’ve got a place I go when things get too rough.” Again, she studied me for a minute.
“I told you, I quit.” I watched as her worried face became red with anger.
“Bullshit,” she replied. “You’re too smart to throw your life away like that.”
“Don’t mother me,” I responded angrily. “You’ve got no idea what my fucking life is like.”
“How can I know when you won’t let me in?” She stood and started walking out. I trailed behind her as she headed back to Allen’s apartment. Just as we arrived, I walked up and took her hand.
“Please, Star,” I said apologetically. “I don’t want to hurt you. Everything I touch turns to shit.” Tears appeared in my eyes. I dropped her hand and turned to walk away. She put her hand on my arm and stopped me.
“Don’t walk away, Joey.” Tears were now flowing down her face. She threw her arms around me and cried. I held her tightly as we both wept.
“I don’t know what to do,” I cried. “I never know what to do.”
“Then let me help you.”
I nodded. It was then that I realized that I had to trust someone. My life had spiraled so far out of control that I knew that I couldn’t save it by myself. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live the life I’d been living the past five years. After Uncle Mike, I had completely closed my myself from anyone and everything. I had to trust someone. I trusted Star.
She held me tightly as we continued to cry outside Shultz Dry Cleaning. Several people stopped and asked if anything was wrong. Star grabbed my hand and led me back up to Allen’s apartment.
He looked worriedly at us when we entered the small apartment with tear-stained faces.
“She’s done it again,” he remarked. “Mother Star.” We started laughing.
She reached in her bag, took out her cell phone and handed it to me. “What?”
“I think you owe someone a call.”
I took the phone, walked into the small bathroom and closed the door. I dialed the number and waited. “Where are you Mother Fucker?” Ticker shouted into the phone.
“Nice to talk to you too,” I laughed.
“I’m serious here, Joey!” he shouted. “I’m going to kick your sorry ass the next time I see you. Where are you?”
“I’m okay,” I assured him. “I’m with Star.”
“Put her on the phone,” he insisted. “I don’t want to talk to your fucking ass, you Asshole.” His words were filled with so much emotion that I could tell he was probably crying. I took the phone to Star and handed it to her. She disappeared into the bathroom as I took a seat beside Allen.
He asked worriedly, “More shit?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “But this time it is good shit.” It felt good to know that Ticker wasn’t mad at me. His angry words only reinforced how much he still cared for me.
Star returned and handed me the phone. “But you love me,” I laughed as I closed the phone. A few seconds later the phone rang. I opened it.
“Fucker,” laughed Ticker. “You know I do.” I was smiling as he hung up.
I looked at the time on Star’s phone. It was after nine. “I have to go,” I announced.
A worried look appeared on Star’s face. “Where are you going? You know you can always go back to Ticker’s house.”
“I know,” I said. “Maybe I will, but not tonight.” I knew I couldn’t just show back up at Ticker’s house as if nothing had happened. I was pretty sure his mother was still upset with me. Besides, Ticker hadn’t asked me to return.
“Where are you staying now?” I didn’t want to tell her that I was sleeping on the banks of a lake, layering my clothes so that I could stay warm.
“It’s okay,” I replied. “Really.”
“Why don’t you stay here with Allen tonight?” I looked at the stunned look on his face.
“I can’t do that,” I replied as I opened the door.
“Yes you can,” Allen said weakly. “I’d like you to stay.” A relieved look came over Star’s face. She walked over, bent down, and gave Allen a hug. I heard her say, “Thank you,” very softly.
She walked back over and pulled me back into the room. “There, that’s settled.” She sounded like a mother hen. She opened her phone and looked at the time. “I do have to go, but you boys have fun.” She bent down and kissed Allen on the forehead. She then walked over and pulled me into a tight embrace.
“And you, Mister,” she stepped back. “I’ll see you in school tomorrow.”
“I don’t know, Star,” I replied hesitantly. “I’m not sure I want to go back.”
“Nonsense,” she responded. “I need you to help me with English Literature. We had a test yesterday, and I failed it. It was on that Wadsworth guy.”
I started laughing. “You mean Wordsworth?”
“Wadsworth, Wordsworth, Whatever.” She got a stern look on her face. “I’ll be by at seven, and we’ll walk to school. Be ready.”
“I don’t have any clean clothes.” I was trying desperately to find an excuse to not return to school.
“I’ll bring some of Barry’s old clothes,” she replied quickly. “He has so many he won’t miss anything.”
Allen started laughing from the couch. “It looks like you’re going back to school. I’ve known Star all her life. She’s not going to take no for an answer.”
I let out a sigh. I knew when I was defeated. “Fine, I’ll be ready.” Star smiled, and then kissed me again on the cheek.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said as she left the apartment.
I turned and noticed Allen staring at me. “Just because I’m spending the night, doesn’t mean you can take advantage of me.” He started chuckling.
“You wish,” he laughed. I walked over and sat down beside him.
“Thanks for letting me crash here tonight,” I said appreciatively.
“No problem,” he replied. He leaned into my body and rested his head on my shoulder.
Within a few minutes, he was asleep.