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The A Word

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Ray looks after Zed. He’s good like that.

“She alright?” John asks, looking up at Ray from his seat on the old, plush armchair.

“Sleeping like a child,” Ray replies, “I gave her two valiums and a mug of hot milk -- poor luv.”

John flicks the ash from his cigarette into the ashtray in front of him, careful not to spill any on the white lace tablecloth. “What about you mate? Why the boarded windows? You got trouble?”

John sees the way Ray tenses, then stiffly maneuvers himself into the armchair opposite. It’s an ordeal for the man and worry latches onto John’s cigarette; he inhales it greedily.

“Yes, dear boy. I have” Ray grunts out through clenched teeth as he catches his breath, “Someone’s been spreading rumours that I’ve got AIDS. Now nobody comes to the shop--the window’s been broken and I keep getting these awful phone calls.”

John pushes the butt of his cigarette into the ashtray and perches himself on the edge of the armchair. He swallows nervously as the worry - slick and serpentine like tar - works its way into his gut, “These rumours, mate -- they true?”

Ray’s eyes fall to a stain on his antique carpet; anything to keep him from looking at the other. A trembling hand holds his forehead in shame,“Yes, John. I’m very much afraid they are.”

John is quiet, holding his breath with his eyes closed like he was a child who had stumbled upon knowledge beyond their years. The urge to be sick clenches its thin, spindly fingers around his throat and dries the saliva from his mouth. In one fluid motion he stands and walks the two paces to Ray. He rests his hand on Ray’s blue dressing gown, which had started to fall from his thinning frame. John chews on the inside of his cheek until he draws blood as punishment for not noticing sooner.

“I’m sorry,” John breathes. Nausea cuts the rest of his words off in his throat - did he have any more to say?

Ray leans back into his chair, “I’m not scared of death… just the parts in between now and then. The sickness.”

In his mind, John can see it: the pills, the hospital trips which become more frequent, the morphine, the nurses who sneer. It was not what his friend deserved. Sores that ate at his skin, a cruel cancer, fluid-filled lungs that can only sustain a failing mind and poisoned body for so long.

“Whatever happens, mate. I’ll be there.”

Ray scoffs and reaches up to take John’s hand. He’s warm, but too warm - a fever. “No, you won’t, dear boy. You’ll be out saving the world from the fiends of Hell. And that’s okay.”

He wants to object, to say that he’ll be at the hospital each day, and clean the bed sheets filled with pus, blood, and piss before that. But he can’t because Ray is right. The bastard is fucking right and John hates himself for it.

Defeated, he tosses himself down into the opposite armchair, “Anythin’ I can do?”

“Stay with me until dawn,” Ray says, threading weak fingers through his hair. The sleeve of his dressing gown falls down to his elbow and purple-black lesions manifest themselves in front of John’s eyes. He averts them to look at his own wrists; scars and burns hidden beneath a cotton shirt and cheap suit jacket.

“In a way… I suppose it's for the best that my crush on you never developed into anything.”

John smirks to himself, though the gravity of the situation hasn’t left him, “You’re too devoted to your Sergeant, Ray.”

Ray hums in agreement, a surprised smile on his face, “I’ll see him again. I know that. You’ve told me before that homosexuality is not a one-way ticket to Hell. I know my Bill is waiting for me.”

The silence that follows is not cold, rather, a kind of contentment consumes the older man and he closes his eyes with a soft smile on his cracked lips.

In that moment, John can see a future full of hope. Full of acceptance, cures, research, development, and prevention. He sees the death toll ease, the fear ease, and a community regrow as it has done every time before. He rubs his temples and blames Ray’s goddamn golden personality for giving him such optimism.

He sits ‘til dawn slides its gray fingers beneath the curtain.