My three-room apartment isn’t spacious. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of spacious. Whatever the word that defines that is, because I know there is one, I need reminding. My memory isn’t good right now. It’s a side effect of the meds on bad days. But the apartment, the cozy apartment I live in, is not comfortable. I never bothered spending money to move out. No one thought I would live long enough; why waste the credit? And a few years later after the last near death experience, I am still limping through my uncomfortable three room home. It’s never the right temperature overall. The floors are hardwood and uncovered. Even though socks and slippers are virtually useless on their cold, smooth surface, I can’t cover the rooms. If I used rugs, the cane I always use, and the wheeler I’ve been forced to rely on occasionally, would catch and snag and trip me. I know for a fact I would fall. I did the first time my meds made me too weak to lift my damn cane, when the floor still had some of its old and worn teal carpeting protecting it. I fell, and I hit that floor harder than I ever did in high school gym classes. Because I was too groggy to adjust my body and fall safely, I cracked my head open on the floor that wasn’t covered by rug. I caught some rare infection that’s impossible to pronounce that day. I should have died. Lord knows, I should have gone home right then. I would have welcomed it. I no longer felt invincible by then. By then, I had realized my mortality in the most horrifying of ways. I had become a full adult who had gone through Hell in several months. I’m not even thirty. I’m barely twenty-six years old. I’m still here, waiting for death. Presently, I am staring out of one of my deep magenta comfy chairs, past the metal magazine stand and trash can, to the bookshelf beside the TV. I tried to stand a minute ago to reach for it. Too damn weak today. My hands threatened to slide right off of the cane and brace I sometimes have to wrap around it for a better grasp. It’s useless today. If I wasn’t so scared, if I had some of my young rebellion still, maybe I’d deliberately try to stand and hurt my head again, or maybe I’d even take the letter opener…cut myself…even if I didn’t bleed out, I’d certainly get sick again. I could hope the Lord would take me home this time and not blame me for the suicide…ha. Yeah right. The single door to the small apartment opens as my little sister walks in. I can’t even smile at her today when she looks at me past her short blonde curls. I feel sorry that I can’t smile through the fog of cranky attitude I’ve had all morning. I have to be sorry. For me to not smile at the most caring member of my family, my beautiful sister, dressed in her summer polka dot dress and red buckle-topped shoes? Taking time to visit her ugly brother before going off to a lunch date? “Eric,” she sighs as she sees me in my pathetic state. I can see in her eyes she doesn’t want to say a word about how terrible I look. She doesn’t need to. “Should I stay?”, ask asks. “Do you need anything?” She’s supposed to be on a lunch date…why do I always have to be in someone’s way and life? “No way, sis. Don’t cancel your plans over me.” She eyes me from the door, shaking her head in disbelief. “But…could you get the album for me?” She drops her black purse onto the magazine stand. “Do you think you should see it right now? Can you deal with what’ll happen?” “Dammit, I don’t care if I can or not, I will. I need to see them today, Summer, I need to see those old faces so badly…” She watches me sadly as my eyes twitch and water over. Bless her, for not saying anything about how I would be OK, cry it out, and let it go. She knows better. “Fine, Eric…” Her shoes clap against the floors in slow rhythm as she reaches for the blue booklet that looks borderline brand-new. I never take it off of that shelf, so it hasn’t been able to wear itself down. There’s a slight gathering of dust on its top, but not much, since the apartment was cleaned about a week ago. My sister is the one who cares for the apartment, somehow, between her work hours and her boyfriend and her girl friends. It means I don’t have to pay anyone. It’s because I can’t pay anyone. How much I’ve burdened her! She deserves so much better, the saint that she is. “Here…” Summer perches on the left arm of the oversized, covered chair as she lowers the book to my lap. My metal cane rests against the right arm of the chair, finally out of my weakening hands. I truly am a pathetic creature today… Summer reaches her slender, smooth and tan hands down to grasp the bound cover of the book in my lap. There is a crinkling noise as the cover pulls away from the material that makes up the photo album inside. The first page is of my dark-haired, sturdily built father, holding me a few days after I was born. Below it is the photo of my mother leaving the hospital with me, just a few pounds overweight from the pregnancy still, but with a lively gleam in her pale eyes and hair that made up for any imperfections. Her full lips were pressed against my forehead. “They want to visit soon, you know,” Summer told me, in case I had forgotten in one of my depressed states. “They haven’t visited you in a month, and they feel bad about it. They wanted to make dinner Saturday night. In two nights, I mean. It’s Thursday.” I nod as I weakly poke at the page. I don’t have any intention of admitting I had let time slide by without realizing it had been one month since I saw them. I hate realizing to myself just how rarely I know what day of the week it ever is. I don’t particularly care anymore, not enough to keep track of time. It’s all the same Hell to me. Summer’s hand reaches and lifts the page for me. The process continues for several minutes as I look over the old photos of the old house. It looks so perfect – not too large, not too small. It was painted white, with a beautiful emerald carpet of grass in the front and backyard and a garden the entire four person family worked on, growing flowers and vegetables every year. Two floors plus a basement contained all of the space we ever needed. I have to chuckle for the first time in two weeks as I see one of my mother’s photos of me as an eleven year old with the hose, and Summer, little seven year old Summer, dashing away from me. The hose was coiled around my wrists and aimed at her back. I always had my own way of showing her I loved her. When she angrily tried yelling at me over the torrent of water I had directed at her red face, I said didn’t want her to have heatstroke. My parents laughed before ordering me to leave her alone. I had felt so bad when she started crying…I had dropped the green, muddy hose from my wrist, jumped to her side in a flash, and given her a hug. When I stepped back I had said, “Look, sis, I’m as wet as you are now.” She had laughed at me, in a little voice that I had adored in her, though I never said so to anyone. Then she had ducked past me, grabbed the hose, turned it on, and chased me inside. I heard that little laugh after I shut the door and for once, didn’t have any desire to hear it again. The photos in my album following the house show my old friends, people who have lost contact with me over the years, whether accidental or intentional. I don’t look at Summer’s photos nearly as long; most of the friends in hers are still in her life. Lucky saint. The photos jump around my high school days. And after about seven pages, fourteen photos total, I reach my graduation date, eight years ago. There I am, in the photo on our football field with turf that was in desperate need of renewing. The class looks like crap, it really does. I’d thought the same thing then when I had to walk on it for graduation. In the photos we’re all on the field in our school colors, white and gold. I find myself among the mess, shaking my old teacher’s hand, smiling, holding the wonderful diploma we all had wanted all year. My hair is a shimmering dirty blonde, my eyes dark but lively all the same. My skin is tan. It isn’t very obvious, but my body is definitely toned under the robe. Those were the days I could care for myself. Next photo. Summer smiles at the memory we see together. The white hats are flying into the air at last. I never got mine back, I remember. I had marked mine with a pin with my initials, a gift from an uncle, and yet it was picked up by a classmate and never returned. Maybe I should have seen it as a bad omen at the time? I don’t know. And there’s the photo my parents took when they met us on the beat-up field. There I was after graduation, holding the slim, perfect girl in my arms. Blue eyes, straight brown hair hanging over her gown, her arms around me, her own graduation cap clasped in her hands behind my back. There she is, my girlfriend from back then, my dream girl. Melanie. Summer rests a hand on my shoulder. It quivers. I’m quivering; I’m making her quiver with me as my shaking becomes almost violent. The tears begin to flow again. But I don’t utter a sound. The sobs never come. It isn’t worth the energy to make noise to match the tears. “I was…so stupid…Oh, God…” “Eric…” Summer can’t do anything. She knows she can’t. After all, what I’m living through, she never could comprehend. She hadn’t been there, after all, when I had dropped by a friend’s house that night after Melanie and I ate a picnic dinner at her house. The stars had been so beautiful that night. I remember, I told her some cheesy pick-up line about how if I could, I would reach to the sky, pluck out the stars, and sprinkle the glowing highlights into my girlfriend’s hair to match her smile and eyes. She had blushed and flicked at my nose with a finger, saying she liked a rough and ragged Eric a bit more. That I know. She had liked how I walked the danger line without ever really crossing it, how I always cared for her and took care without spoiling our good fun. When she went inside to sleep, I had planned to go home. I hadn’t really wanted to go to a party that night. I had wanted to be the perfect man for Melanie, and not risk any future problems. I had wanted to marry her after we had headed off for our college days. From there we would live our lives to the golden years, and we would make them a dazzling time still, living the dream then as we did then. Stupid, stupid, stupid. That’s how I would describe my last second decision. More reckless and stupid than anything else I had tried. I went to a friend’s house, for kicks. Sure, his parents weren’t there, but the guy was responsible, always had been. How bad would he allow things to be? Well, I had arrived to find half of my class crammed into the neighborhood’s fanciest house where my friend lived. No furniture was open for use inside its luxurious, hand-polished and washed walls. In fact, some of the bedrooms, particularly the ones designed to appear comfortably exotic, were full of people indulged in other pleasures after the day. I remember feeling a bit disgusted at the sight. Yeah, I did some controversial things, I had gone as far as smoking pot for a month before I decided it wasn’t for me, but my ideas ended at sex. It wasn’t the church that controlled me. I had Melanie, I had promised to wait for Melanie. I may have been young, but I had always kept promises. Should have left, should have left, of course I should have left…god dammit. I took a swig of beer instead, a last moment of young teen rebellion before the years of college work would supposedly take their toll on me. And then somehow I got talked into a swig of Vodka before I would “head back to my sack”. I’m pretty sure I said exactly that when the two shot glasses got shoved at me. Well, of course I never got home. I had more Vodka, though I never had anything as powerful as it. I danced, or I think I did, in some jerky, drunken fashion, to hard music I never heard properly through the haze. And I had danced with one of the girls, someone I probably hated at school but didn’t particularly dislike under the influence. Had I screamed at myself, this is dumb? Don’t know. But we danced off of that home fashioned dance floor to a bedroom. Guess what we did in there? I know what I did. I broke a promise. I woke up the next day in the house, where about a fourth of the party members were still, and hung-over. No parents were home yet; after all, they’d left for business just after graduation and had inadvertently allowed the chaos that had followed. My brain racked for memory and information. Nothing, outside of flashes of the previous twelve hours, remained. I remembered the climax of the night, but almost nothing else. With a headache and a sore body, I raced home in my car, and I was able to slip the car into the driveway and myself to the table before anyone else woke up. When my mother came down, I told her I had just woken up from a restless night’s sleep. My mother said I looked ill and should go to bed. I pretended to oblige her request, avoiding Summer as she left her room. I didn’t want any of my guilt to appear to the person who would recognize it immediately. In my old room, with its band posters and cluttered desk and overflowing trash can, I began panicking, and trying to recall the night. Then I began to try to plan out what to say and not say to Melanie if no one blabbed, or if she heard I went to the party…surely, I argued at the time, we were all so drunk, no one would ever be able to remember me going to a room with a girl from class that wasn’t my girlfriend? No one did remember, and as the stress died away, I began to settle back into my routine. I felt normal, and healthy, aside from a brief cold. I attributed it to the stress of the moment. Melanie and I went through our college years together at a local college, living at home with our parents and siblings as well as us. I forgot the party night, quickly, and gratefully. We graduated, and I proposed to Melanie. Of course she said yes, my beautiful, oblivious angel. We scheduled the wedding for eight months from then, giving us time to work, to plan, to buy an apartment together - and also allowing her to visit her gynecologist for birth control. She went through without a hitch, without a single health problem to be found, of course. When she came home from the office, she smiled and told me about how the woman had reminded her to tell her partner if he had once had any other sexual contact, to be tested for diseases before sleeping with his fiancé. “I laughed out loud at the thought,” she told me. “I had to explain it to the nurse, she thought I was insane for a moment.” I chuckled with her, and inside, I felt my organs sinking to my feet. I almost wished they would; it would be easier to go to the hospital with some impossible organ failure than admitting I cheated, that her honest man had broken the most important promise he had made to her. I went to an anonymous clinic for testing the next day, telling Melanie I was staying in the office a bit late that afternoon. I told the nurses in the clinic about the experience from four years previous. I added I had no symptoms, but I wanted to be sure, that I wanted to give the best care to my fiancé. I think I saw exchanges of glances when I mentioned no symptoms. I’m not sure, though. I mean, doctors aren’t supposed to react, are they? Well, they took an oral swab after a brief genital exam to be safe. They frowned at the test results. They’d said they would need to run a few more tests to further analyze the sample, and they would call me when the results came back. So, for the next two weeks, I planned my wedding with my future wife, all the while silently thinking, what did I do? What was visible to the doctors, but not to me? I’d gotten my own education, what hadn’t I learned about, what had I missed over the years? The clinic called my parent’s place when they weren’t around, thank God. They asked me to come to their office. I said I was busy that day. But they insisted I come, immediately. It was incredibly important I make time for them. I drove to the clinic on what I told my family was another “late work day”. There, the doctor sat me down in one of those cramped little rooms with posters about the human body and how to care for it plastered all over the dulling white walls. I didn’t read any of them. I hadn’t as a kid, and I doubted they would do me any good now. There was a chill in the room. The doctor sat me down on a wooden chair, while he settled on a tall, creaky stool. “Eric, your tests came back HIV positive.” At this present time, Summer is watching me cry as I relive that single moment, that one moment where I began to process in the shock of what I was carrying. I had thought, how? This little virus, the destructive virus people were beginning to understand and fear, how could I have it? I still don’t recall much about the visit. I only remember wandering home in a daze, thinking about that one night, that one party gone bad that I had always tried to bury in my past…I didn’t want to think about what the old man in his office had said to me, about how my tests showed a rapidly progressing HIV virus that would surely kill me within four years. I not only had a feared virus, I had a devastating strain of it. I remember crying on the way home. Back then, I never cried. It wasn’t the manly thing to do. I remember how I actually went to a hotel and avoided contact with my family, other than calling to tell them I was all right and not to report me as a missing person. I spent three days in my own private Hell away from the world, sitting in the room, staring at the chipping ceiling from the bed comforter. I would occasionally watch TV, when I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t accept the thoughts of what I had inside of me any longer. I wanted to die. But I still had a bit of teen immortality in my blood. I still wanted to believe there was a chance they were wrong. When I went home, it took another two months to completely accept what was wrong and what had happened. I confessed to my parents about the visit, and what had happened, and how I had acquired the virus I had inside of me. It took yet another month after the first two to tell Melanie about what had happened. The wedding plans were abandoned before even two weeks passed after my confession. She moved out of our old town within the month, and never once looked back at me in any form. No calls, no letters. Not directly to me. Occasionally she called my sister, who she had always adored. Summer said once in a while she asked about me. But she has never desired to speak to me again. It only took one more year after the wedding was canceled for me to develop full blown AIDs. My T-cell count dropped well below 200 that year, labeling me as an AIDs victim instead of an HIV carrier. My T-cell count has never recovered. In the three years since then, I’ve nearly died twenty-one times from pneumonia and infection. An average of seven times a year. Each time I have come closer and closer to death. Each time, the pain has increased more and more and has given way to calm, floating sensations later and later. But each time I have waken, the white light I saw was the reflection off of the hospital walls, blinding my weary sight, paining me between my curses as I asked why God hadn’t taken me home that time. How many times would I pay for the single mistake of a teenager on top of the world? Summer closes the book in my lap as I lean back, still crying without sobs. There’s a glimmer in her eyes as she pretends to be strong for me. She always feels as if it’s her job now. I wish I could convince her it’s not. I don’t need to be strong any more. I don’t want to fight. I turn away from her to look at the window. My faint reflection stares back. My hair is not only grayed out, but it’s thin, and brittle – at least, the patches that haven’t fallen out. My skin, once tan, has paled out. There’s a hint of arching cheekbone underneath the skin, underneath what once had been fleshed out muscle and baby fat… I look zombie thin. I look like the Grim Reaper’s prime target. “You can leave now, Summer…” I choke, chew, and spit the words out in an attempt of convincing her to leave me. She doesn’t. She sits with me, still on the arm of the chair, one leg on the floor supporting her. And though I want to fight her away, I cannot. Instead, I surrender, and twitch my hand away from my leg to the arm of the chair. She takes it gently, reminding me of Melanie. God, Melanie…thank God she never touched me in that way, thank God I never contaminated her…for once, the innocent did not suffer… Summer lifts her hand from mine, leaving my pale fingers exposed. She stands to take the book to the shelf, and as she places it in its niche, hesitates. “Your hands felt cold today…do you feel all right?” She’s kidding, right? No. Of course I don’t feel all right. I never do. I always feel terrible, and in the end she always takes me to the emergency room to stabilize me. I should tell her I don’t want to go to the hospital for anything anymore. I just want to die and not feel the pain, or the guilt, any longer. I have dealt with my sin, my idiotic actions, much too long. I open my mouth to speak my mind, and see Summer walking towards me as I weakly cough. I fall backwards against the chair, and sigh as she shakes my hand. Her own hand rushes to my forehead, and she gasps. And I burning up, or am I chilling her skin to its bone? I can’t tell. And I only mouth two words at her: Forgive me… And I close my eyes, and for the twenty-second time in my life, give in to what I feel I deserve.