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Wednesday Afternoon

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Something's going to happen today. All morning Rupert tries to remember what it is. Frustration makes him ill-tempered with the nurses, and finally, after lunch, the nicest one says, "I hope you're in a better mood when your friend arrives."

That's it. A visit from - "My friend."

The nurse pauses in trying to wrestle Rupert's bad right arm into his clean shirt and pats his cheek. "That's right, dear. Your special friend." She smiles prettily when she says it, as though they're sharing a secret. "We should mark the calendar for you, Wednesdays and Saturdays. That would help you remember."

"That would be k-kind," Rupert says, politely. In fact the calendar hangs too high on the wall, and he can't see it very well from his wheelchair.

The early part of the afternoon passes fitfully. Sometimes Rupert loses himself in the confusing television programs, where everything moves just a little too fast. But then he remembers, with a jolt, that his friend is coming, and his good foot starts to tap anxiously. Mrs. Michaels, who loves her programs, gets rather cross.

At last another nurse, a boy with a sweet smile and a name badge the says Kevin, wheels Rupert back to his room. "He'll be along any minute," he says as he runs a comb through Rupert's hair, then musses it again with his fingers. "Never late, that one. He's always eager to see you." Slyly, with a wink, he adds, "Lucky you. There now, you look very handsome."

Afternoon sunshine makes the room warm, golden, and Rupert's beginning to feel sleepy when a young man--well, young for here--appears at the door. This must be his friend.

To Rupert's surprise, the man kisses him on the mouth and holds his hand when he sits down. "Hey, Giles. Sorry I'm late. The traffic from London was horrible." His soft voice and slight American accent make him a little difficult for Rupert to understand. It's strange, too, being called by his surname, as though he's a soldier or a schoolboy. But the man says it so warmly that it's impossible to take offense.

As the man talks about traffic, he strokes Rupert's hands, the good one and the curled, useless one. It feels lovely, and Rupert wraps his working fingers around the man's square, handsome palm. In return he gets a smile, wide and happy. Such a smile. Rupert's starting to feel horribly embarrassed that he can't remember the man's name. They must be very good friends, too.

"How are you, Giles?" the young man asks. "Kevin said you haven't been eating much. Aren't you feeling well?"

It takes Rupert a little while to answer. The man's face is starting to seem familiar, and Rupert needs to have a good long look. "I'm fine," he says distractedly. "Just not hungry." Hungry is a hard word, and it takes effort to pass all those sounds through his lips.

The man makes an exaggerated scolding face that doesn't hide real worry. "Well, you've got to eat."

Something about his eyes, and the shape of his mouth, and the fall of his graying ginger hair . . . "You l-l-look l-like-." The name comes to him full of lightness and hope. "Like Oz."

The young man blinks, smiles with half his mouth the way Rupert sees himself smiling in the mirror, and says "Giles, I am Oz." His voice is terribly gentle, as though he's breaking bad news.

It's a ridiculous thing to say. Oz is just a boy. Still in school. That must be why he hasn't come round, because he can't slip away from school.

For a minute Rupert is angry at the outrageous lie, but the man seems so kind. He's still holding Rupert's hand, although he's looking fixedly out the window. "Of c-course," Rupert says at last. It's all some benign misunderstanding. Perhaps he's some relation of Oz's, a much older brother or cousin. Perhaps Oz sent him with a message, and so he's standing in for Oz.

The man turns away and rubs his sleeve fiercely over his eyes, then settles back. Now his smile is too bright, false. Rupert has hurt his feelings. To apologize, Rupert touches his cheek. The man jerks suddenly, as though the contact also hurts him, and makes a choked noise. But he takes Rupert's hand, kisses it, and his smile softens.

For a while the man talks about his life, which seems very busy. There's a book he's writing, and he's trying to grow tomatoes in pots, and he's got a lot of friends with unfamiliar names who all send Rupert their love. Rupert has a hard time sorting it all out, but he nods and puts in polite words here and there, and mostly listens to the man's voice. It's comforting, like the touch of his hands, and something about it does feel familiar.

When the man goes quiet, Rupert opens his eyes and smiles. "That's very nice," he says.

At first he thinks the man doesn't hear. He's looking down at their hands, and then he takes a deep breath and raises his eyes. Something's gone tight in his face, as though he's made all of bones and shadows. "Giles, I - There's - God, I can't -" The corners of his eyes look wet, and when Rupert tries to stroke his cheek again, he bites his lip and shivers. "Giles, I met somebody. He's nice. And smart, really smart. He's a lot like -" He's crying, poor fellow. Softly, as though he's ashamed. "I didn't mean it to happen. It won't change anything, I promise I'll still come to see you, I won't -" He half-falls out of the chair and lays his head in Rupert's lap, sobbing.

Rupert strokes his hair and shushes him, and it's not until a droplet falls from his chin that he realizes he's crying too. "It's all right," he answers the man's broken I'm sorrys. He can't bear to see this gentle, kind man cry. "It's all right, dear. It's not your fault."

Even after he stops crying, the man doesn't get up for a long time. At last he pulls the chair around and sits sideways with his head on Rupert's shoulder, his arm around Rupert's waist. Rupert kisses his soft, sweet-smelling hair and listens to him breathe. It's confusing, being so close, touching, but it's delightful as well. It makes him feel happy and warm, and the man seems soothed by it.

The room slowly darkens, and despite the growing ache in his back Rupert starts to doze. As always when he sleeps lightly, he has vivid dreams. These dreams are rich, joyous, and Oz is in them. They're on a beach, Oz building a sand city, and then they're driving along a dark road somewhere.

"Giles." Rupert wakes to find the man standing, blinking as though the amber light from the reading lamp hurts him. His eyes are red and his hair sticks out. "I've got to go," he says hoarsely. "I'll be back on Saturday. And I'll bring you some cake, the lemon cake that you like. Just don't tell the nurses."

"Do you have to g-g-g-go already?" The place on Rupert's shoulder where the man lay feels empty.

"It's a long drive."

"I mustn't k-keep you, then." To his horror, Rupert starts to cry. He's got to behave better than this, or the man won't want to come back. And it's been lovely having company. He takes a slow breath to pull himself together. "Wish Olivia luck," he says. She'll be taking her exams soon. The man looks blank for a moment, then nods. Perhaps he doesn't know Olivia very well. "And tell Oz that I love him."

The man crouches down and hugs him tightly, then kisses him. "I will."

He blows Rupert a kiss as he walks out the door.