As I was setting the tents up and dad was wrestling with equipment, I looked around. The place was quiet. Peaceful. People were milling around, talking with each other. All of them were smiling. As I panned the place, a few people nodded at me and I felt obliged to nod back, ever so slightly.
A warm gentle breeze wafted through the clearing, and on it, I could smell food. We’d set up camp behind the building, next to a big cypress, a few hundred feet away from the loading docks in the rear center of the hospital. Most of the other people chose to set up on this side, too. There were R.V.’s and those convertible truck things.
That’s when I met Rodney. As I was tying down the rainfly on the tent, he walked up to me. Rodney looked about my age, a few inches shorter than my 5’10”. He was wearing some jeans and a Dredg shirt. He didn’t say anything at first, just caught the side I was struggling with and helped me secure it.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
The guy offered his hand and said, “I’m Rodney.”
His grip was firm. “Kenny,” I introduced myself. I pointed to my dad, “That’s my dad, Corey.”
“Are you here for family, too?” Rodney asked, but we both knew the answer. He kind of detracted that question and asked me how long we were staying for.
“Just tonight,” Dad replied, he was busy hooking up the stove and lanterns.
“Oh,” Rodney said. He asked me, “You’re not staying for the festivities?”
Rodney moved with me to the truck and we formed a line, tossing pillows, sleeping bags and backpacks into the tent.
“Nope,” I told him, “Just here to take my little brother home. Thanks.”
“No problemo,” Rodney replied.
“We need to go check in now,” Dad told me.
I looked at Rodney, who grinned back at me. “It was nice meeting you,” I told him. We shook hands and I followed my dad over to the hospital.
The woman sitting behind the front desk was nice enough, issuing us a parking pass along with our visitor’s badges. I looked around. The door on the right of the reception desk led into a large hall, which was being decorated for the night ahead.
On the other side of the lobby was a large curving staircase that led to the second floor, an arrow and the word “CAFETERIA” painted on the wall. A few steps past that and we were standing in a large promenade with a skylight. This place looked massive. There were three sets of doors in the wall of the promenade, one of which was a set of double-doors I assumed led into a service-way.
The elevators were in the middle of the promenade. It was encased in a glass shaft. The doors were glass, but the top and bottom of the elevators were made of shiny steel. There were nine buttons in the elevator: B-2 through 7; there was a slot for a keycard next to floor seven with a label that said “INFECTIOUS DISEASES, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.”
This is cool, I thought. My dad mentioned it, too. I watched the floors drop away from us, enjoying standing. We got off on the fourth floor, where Clive would be waiting in the East Wing. Before I went in, though, I looked up at the seventh floor. It was sealed off with glass.
“Whoa…” I said to myself.
“C’mon,” Dad said; and I followed.
When we walked into the doors, I could smell the sterility. The room was filled with the mellow echo of the EKG machines. The nurse said my brother was still hooked up because they wanted to gather more data. This was a research hospital after all. Clive was watching some reruns of Family Guy as we walked in.
“Dad!” Clive exclaimed. He almost jumped out of his bed.
Dad gave Clive a big ‘ole hug and then it was my turn.
“Hey little man,” I greeted him.
He looked better. There was more color to his skin. His eyes were shining. He even looked like he gained more weight. I was impressed. He gave me a monster hug.
“Wow!” I said, “What are they feeding you here?!”
Clive giggled and told me they had a kitchen that cooked real food for his floor. Lucky sod, I thought ruefully, we’re dining on Hungry Man meals and he’s dining out osso bucco.
We pulled up chairs and chatted about life in the hospital. We hadn’t seen him for three-months. It’s not like we didn’t want to go see him. It was just the damn journey we’d have to take, there were no motels close by and . . . . Well, we’re here now, I thought.
My brother told us about how the reporters had crammed into the room, trying to get the best shot for the evening news. He said the injection felt funny, like a million butterflies were swimming in his veins. The tingling sensation spread through his body and became barely tolerable.
At first he thought something was wrong, but one of the nurses (he pointed at her)—the hot one—calmed him down. The “Governator” even shook his hand before leaving. That’s when he went on about meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a god in his eyes ever since watching Terminator. Frankly, I was jealous. So was dad.
When the nurse came around to hand out water, Dad asked her when they would let Clive go.
“We still have to watch him for another month or so,” The woman said. “But tonight, everyone healthy enough will be able to leave and visit with their families. We planned the whole weekend for it.”
The nurse adjusted the leads and automatic pressure cuffs attached to Clive. “You guys are really lucky, you know.” She said.
Clive just beamed; the lucky one.
On our way back down, in the elevator of the seven-story complex, I reflected on what it would mean to have him home again, healthy. Ever since Clive was born, the house seemed like a funeral parlor. We both assumed that he was going to die soon, at any moment. And any time he didn’t wake up quick enough, or seemed too tired to do anything, I thought… It was just a matter of time.
Out of the elevators, everyone was bustling. There were workers decking the halls for the banquet. And suits running around, telling them what to do. The receptionists (three of them crammed in where I figured one usually worked) were busy taking and making calls; the lobby was full of their voices. We walked out the double doors and made our way down the wheelchair ramp. My dad gave my shoulder a firm grip.
“It’s about time he got out of the hospital,” Dad said, referring to my brother, “To be honest; I didn’t think he was ever going to leave.”
I was very excited that Clive would be able to come home soon, and I’d be able to show him all the tricks I’d learned on my board since he went away, almost three months ago.
“Me too,” I told him.
“Do you think he’ll like his room?” Dad asked.
We’d stocked it with all the video game systems, a PS3, all the Xbox 360 games we knew he’d love. I’d been keeping the controllers warm for him. “Zombie” just came out with their thirteenth and (maybe) final game for one of the story lines they made. The new game was awesome.
Clive was as much into Zombie as I was, although he’d wake me up in the middle of the night because he had scary dreams about turning into one. But I wasn’t as easily scared. Sometimes he wouldn’t be able to wake me up, and he’d run into Dad’s room, screaming. Dad yelled at me after those times. He told me to hide the games where Clive wouldn’t find them. But who was I to deprive my little brother of his favorite past-time? He asked me about the newest one when Dad went to go hit on the nurse.
Watching Dad sit there with Clive and me; seeing him smiling, the hopeful shimmer in his eyes. Man, it felt like we got the magic back.
At six, we were all summoned to the banquet. There were hors devours all over the place, held by waiters with white towels on their arms. An eight-piece ensemble was playing classic jazz and waltzes in a knave, next to the main stage. The stage was a slightly raised platform at the end of the room. A few old ladies were dancing in the middle of the large hall.
In front of the stage, there was a table of honor set up. Our governor was already seated close to the head, the rest of his table was murmuring to itself, and watching the press with wary eyes. Directly in front of them were the Drug Corp. International and donors tables. Both groups sat and glared at each other through the small space between them.
The ceilings were vaulted, large circular depressions that held skylights. From the outside, it had looked like a normal room. But inside, it looked like we were in Rome. Large panels were devoted to events like the construction and opening of the hospital. The entrance wall was filled with donor plaques.
Dad and Clive went to find our seats while I walked around the room, staring at the moldings along the vaulted ceilings. There was a story, about some god of medicine, I think. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it didn’t look dedicated to a saint because the man was holding a snake, and that would not have gone over well in a Catholic establishment. Over the stage, etched into the arches, was something in Greek or Latin that I couldn’t read.
“Would you like a drink?” I heard from behind me.
I turned around and was faced with the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She was holding a tray with some martinis, glasses of champagne and some other drink with a cherry I’ve never seen before. She had long brown hair that rested on the neck of her blouse, totally showing off the fact that she had big, nice boobs. Her face was pretty, I mean, gorgeous, and I had to cough to clear my throat as I looked into her soft brown eyes. She returned my gaze with a Mona Lisa smile, the edges of her lips curling at the ends. …I couldn’t speak.
I was going to tell her I was only 18, but she was already holding a flute. So I took it. Sweet, I thought.
“Thanks,” I said, trying to keep my cool.
She gave me a smile that just rocked my world. She didn’t say anything. She just smiled and turned and walked away and I watched her. Of course I watched her! I didn’t even know her name. But then she turned and gave me a grin. I caught you, it seemed to say. I gave her my best grin and pranced off to find dad.
“Dad,” I called trying my best to hide the flute on my side, “I’m going out for a fag!”
Dad looked up from the menu and nodded. Clive jumped from his seat and followed me.
As soon as I got out, I lit up and took a deep hit. I’d been waiting for that cigarette ever since I arrived.
I barely noticed as Clive zipped past me and took a lap around the parking area. In fact, I didn’t notice until he came trotting back my way. Considering that, the last time I saw him, he could barely hold his head up, this was a really good improvement.
“Aren’t you supposed to be resting?” I asked him.
“Whatever,” Clive said, stretching, “It feels good to get out of that hospital bed.”
When I gave him the look, he added, “No, really! It’s strange, I feel a hundred and ten percent!”
“So when’d you get the shot?” I asked.
“I dunno,” He said, “After lunch, a while before you guys got here.”
I hit my cigarette and looked for a building, a plane. But I saw nothing. The air was filled with the smell of earth, and the sound of crickets.
“What’s that?” Clive meant my flute.
I took sip. It tasted kind of tart.
“I think it’s champagne,” I told him.
“Oh,” He said, looking a little interested.
But I didn’t offer him any. He jumped up and down a little, then; maybe just to get his land legs back. Then he stopped and looked me dead in the eyes for a few seconds. It was peculiar; I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He held the gaze so long that I was beginning to get creeped out. But then he broke into a grin and gave me a bear hug.
“I’m glad I’m coming home,” He said.
I hugged him back, “Me too, little man.”
After we finished having our guy moment and walked back into the entrance, the hot waitress lady offered me more champagne.
“I haven’t finished my first one.” I told her.
She gave me the same smile from earlier and said, “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“You’re dangerous, lady.” I grinned at her.
I finished my first one and took the second, then got her number discreetly while Clive went to get hors devours. All around me were the family and friends of other children affected with AIDS mingling with Dr. Robertson and, I guessed, the pharmaceutical executives, or other interested parties. As we sat at the table, I couldn’t get over how healthy Clive looked. It had been so long since I’d seen him healthy.
I won’t go into all the details about lesions and the subtle downward spin he’d gone into shortly before being hospitalized. But, this was the best I had ever seen him. It brought a tear to my eye to know that he would be my normal little brother now. There would be no more blood tests, no more worrying about his t-cells dropping. And we wouldn’t have to fight with him to take those disgusting pills.
I know I keep saying that. But it was over. All of it was over and he would be normal now. It was like the end of a nightmare, where you wake up to your reassuring blankets.; satisfied that everything was okay, after all.
After everyone had been wheeled in, all the family seated, Dr. Robertson came out to full applause. He was holding a large flute of champagne and his cheeks were rosy.
“Dr. Robertson looks drunk!” Clive exclaimed.
I shushed him.
Dad cleared his throat, he was working on his third or fourth flute, “There’s nothing wrong with celebrating, Clive. You can have some champagne, too, if you want.”
Clive declined; and we listened to Dr. Robertson begin his speech. He told us we were a part of history. He told us that, finally, the horrible disease that had taken so many would die on that night.
After a life of searching for the cure, he found it, one night, when he was tinkering with his stem cells. It was serendipity. He couldn’t believe it worked. He tried it on sample after sample, on rats, guinea pigs; he even tried it on monkeys—but that’s just between us.
He even took healthy feline stem cells and used them to create a cure for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Tonight, the pain was over. Thanks to his creation, and the government subsidies and pharmaceutical companies’ vows to keep it cheap. Applause.
Then there were the photo ops. The pharmaceutical executives gave him the giant check. All the patients gathered outside for a group photo, and then went back inside, where there was cake and dancing.
When Clive and I decided to leave, I met up with Rodney. We shot the shit as Clive and, his brother, Avery ran around in the field.
“So where are you from, anyway,” I asked.
“Santa Cruz,” He told me, “A couple blocks away from the boardwalk. You?”
Rodney seemed surprised to learn that there was an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay; even more that I lived on it.
“That must be pretty cool, though,” He said. “You could row your ass to San Francisco. …Is there any surfing out there?”
“Not inside the bay,” I told him, “But, yeah, at Stinson Beach and Ocean Beach. The riptides are kinda gnarly, though. Santa Cruz is way more desirable.”
It was getting dark when some dude in a black shirt and khaki cargos came running up to us. His hair was shaggy, kinda surfer style. I wondered if he was another brother or something, though they didn’t look related.
I tried not to watch as they talked lowly between each other. The guy in the black shirt gave me a sideways look. I was started to feel left out when Rodney let out a laugh and pulled the dude around by his shoulder.
“This guy’s cool,” He told Black Shirt, holding him. “His name is Kenny.”
Black Shirt turned to me.
“Sup, Dude?” We pounded fists, “I’m Trent.”
He pulled a blunt out of his ear. It was fat, and I could smell the weed from where I was standing.
“Whoa!” I asked, “Is that medicinal?”
“Yeah, man!” Trent replied, “My mom gets it for her back. Do you smoke?”
“Yeah!” I replied enthusiastically.
“Do you want to come to our tent and smoke?” Trent asked.
“Your mom’s tent?” I asked, dumbly.
“No,” Trent said, gesturing to him and Trent, “Ours.”
It was about at that time that Clive, Avery and Trent’s brother, Sam came over to us, sweaty and breathing heavily. Sam looked like a smaller copy of Trent. It was kinda cute.
Clive wanted to come with us, but I didn’t think he should. Someone had already come out and made the announcement that it would soon be time for all the patients to come back. Even so, I wanted him to; so I asked Dad (leaving the last bit out.) Dad told me to keep him close. Clive knew about smoking pot, but he didn’t partake, and I usually didn’t pressure him to do it. This was not an exception. Clive liked to watch, though. We ended up smoking five bowls of weed before I eventually tapped out. And I swear Clive even got a contact high.
Rodney, Avery and Trent followed us back to our big three-room dome tent. I flopped down on my sleeping bag, in the left room, I couldn’t help it. Clive came and flopped down against me. The other guys hit the dirt, too.
It seemed like everyone there had pot, and everyone was sharing. It seemed like we’d met half the camp around Trent and Rodney’s tent.
“I’m stoned,” I said.
“Me too,” Trent said.
When I looked over, Avery was closest to us, watching me and Clive. Trent and Rodney were behind him, legs intertwined, resting against each other. I put my arm around Avery and he snuggled closer.
We listened to the sounds of music and the celebration around us and looked up through the clear rainfly, into the stars. It felt good. And I felt happy that my little brother was next to me, almost ready to come home.
My brother suddenly rolled over.
“What are you going to do once you’re better?” Clive asked Avery.
“I’m going to go back home and eat all the food I want to eat. I’m gonna hang out with my dog and watch all the shows I missed, and hang out with my friends again. Yeah,” Avery said.
I saw Rodney’s head pop up from under Trent’s shoulder.
“What are you going to do?” Rodney asked Clive.
“I don’t know…” Clive said. “Get a tan. Learn how to kick-flip. Go camping.”
Rodney lit up another blunt and we passed the time talking about sports and video games. The “Governator” came up again.
“You lucky bastards,” Rodney teased.
I said, “If I’d have known, I would have sent you some movies and posters for him to sign.”
Clive made a face at me. I made one back.
We were halfway through the second of Rodney’s blunts when I noticed Clive grimacing and holding his stomach. In my arms, he felt tense. It couldn’t have been after eight.
“What’s wrong, Clive?” I asked him
”My stomach hurts.” He said.
I thought maybe we worked him too hard, with the running around and stuff. So I told him, “Maybe we should get you back to your bed.”
“No!” He shrieked, “I don’t want to go!”
Rodney started putting his shoes on.
“C’mon, Avery,” He said to his brother, “We might as well go, too.”
“I don’t want to go.” Avery told him.
“You have to. Do you want to get sick again?” Rodney asked.
“No,” Avery replied.
“Then it’s settled,” I turned to Clive, “Let’s go before you get sick, too, Clive.”
A flash lit up the sky, followed soon by an earth-rattling boom.
“Yep,” Rodney said, “Let’s go. It’s raining.”
When we walked into the front doors, the lobby was bustling with activity. Not just the regular clean-up after a banquet, something was going on. A nurse—the hot one—ran up to us.
“Is Avery sick?” She asked Rodney.
“No,” He told her, “But Kenny’s brother has a stomach ache.”
She grabbed Clive by the arm and said, “C’mon, we’d better go. We’ve been seeing a few people sick already.”
As we went into the elevator, I asked, “What’s wrong?”
The laboratories on the floor just below Clive’s were busy. I mean, busy! As we passed, we could see people in clean suits huddling over a microscope. It looked like they were arguing with each other. But I could only go off their body language.
“It’s probably something in the food, a minor case of food poisoning. Most of the patients have been getting sick and, with such delicate immune systems, we want to be sure that they’re up to fighting off a tummy ache.” She said the last words to the boys.
The AIDS wing was crowded with people holding files and rifling through storage bins. I heard someone yelling about not having the right size catheter. Many of the curtains were pulled around the beds, but we could hear sobbing, and alarms. Dr. Robertson was there.
“You need to go and let us do our work!” I heard one of the nurses yell.
“Dr. Robertson!” I called.
He turned around quickly. Dr. Robertson looked frazzled.
“Kenny!” He said. “Is Clive sick, too?”
“Yeah,” I told him.
Dr. Robertson called the hot nurse over and told her something quietly.
Rodney and Avery were trying to catch glimpses of what was going on behind the curtains. But I was overwhelmed. They took Clive to a hospital bed and had him strip down and get into a new hospital gown.
I watched the doctor running the wing like a triage. As we passed him, I heard Dr. Robertson telling the RN Clive was the last one, to put people up in recovery, which was in the basement. It hardly seemed comprehendible while I watch Clive get hooked up to a Pulse Ox and EKG leads.
I moved to a whole new level of numb as they drew his blood. This isn’t happening, I thought. We just got him back. This is a mistake. But it was. Two beds over, I could hear a woman howling. I could barely hear her over the alarms and yelling of the doctors.
“What’s going on?” Rodney asked.
When I looked over at them I could see they were as panicked as I was. Though my panic was inside, it was a knot winding itself up in the middle of my chest. I wanted to do something to help. But I couldn’t. I watched helpless as the woman adjusted a pressure cup on Clive’s arm.
“It’s very delicate,” The male nurse who tested Clive’s eyes said. He was writing in Clive’s clipboard, “The cure doesn’t work on everyone. And we didn’t exactly plan on people getting food poisoning the same day they took a cure for an immune disorder.”
“I think I need to puke!” Clive exclaimed.
The nurse pulled out a bedpan just in time. We watched as he filled the first, entire bedpan, retching loudly. It was disgusting. His vomit was bright orange and green; and nothing in it reminded me of the chicken and vegetables we’d had for dinner. I reached behind Clive and rubbed his back as he gasped and heaved and readied himself for the second one. He was sweating. His skin felt cold and clammy under his damp shirt.
“What’s wrong with him?” Avery asked.
“I don’t know.” I gasped.
“Don’t worry,” The hot nurse said soothingly, “We’re going to find out soon.”
Clive started hacking up big black/red chunks of . . . it looked like jello. He started crying. I could see the blood beginning to run out of his mouth. The doctor told us that we would have to leave, immediately; and that Avery would have to stay.
Avery didn’t want to, but—once the nurse had steered us away from Clive’s bed—she told him he could stay in the cancer ward, just to see if he got sick. I was on the verge of flipping out.
But we couldn’t say much because we were shocked. Rodney cried a little as they took his brother away. I did, too; but because I just lost mine. And probably for good.
I replayed the scene in my mind as Rodney and I rode the elevator down.
“Do you think the same thing is happening to everybody else?” Rodney asked.
“I don’t know,” I could still hear the alarms in my head, see the chunks.
“Do you think it’s food poisoning?” Rodney asked.
“I don’t know.” I felt sick to my stomach, too. But it wasn’t because of the food.
We said goodbye at my Dad’s tent. Dad was all smiles and rosy cheeks. I felt cold and desperate. When I told him what happened, his smile sank. Dad lamented the unfairness. How hard he worked to make the money to put Clive in the hospital.
When he found out other kids had gotten sick, too, he wanted to sue. But neither one of us knew how bad the problem really was. We wouldn’t know until the morning.
That night, I could barely sleep. The sound of crying kept me awake. I could hear the women from the hospital, still bawling. I couldn’t forget the sound of the woman’s voice if I tried. Except it wasn’t just her, it seemed like everyone was mourning.
During the night, it only got louder. More and more voices would join the others. More people were getting sick. Soon, the entire camp sounded like a war zone. When I finally fell asleep, I didn’t sleep for long.
It was still dark when I woke up. The tent was open and the cold wind was blowing in. It was quiet. Dad wasn’t in his sleeping bag. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, pulled on my boots, and stepped outside. I looked at the hospital and my eyes stung at the sight. The flood lights all around the hospital were on, shedding piercing white, halogen light across the grounds. The cold was stinging my face.
I could smell coffee.
“Do you want a cup?” Dad was standing over the camp stove. He had heavy bags under his eyes. When I turned around, he gave me a weak smile. I knew he was worrying about Clive.
“I’m gonna go check on him, Dad.” I told him.
Then Dad said something that hit me so hard I saw stars.
He said, “I think Clive’s dead, Kenny.”
“No he’s not!” I shouted. “The doctors took care of him. I saw!”
But I was really scared that he was right. It was a creeping feeling that gripped me deep inside.
“Son,” Dad said, “I know you don’t want to think about it. But we have to.”
I didn’t answer him; and he didn’t push me. He gave me a cup of coffee and we sat in the chairs in silence. Looking up at the hospital, I could see people running around on the fourth floor—probably still working like crazy.
“Do you think they’ll let me visit him now?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Dad said.
I wanted to see my brother. “Can I call them?”
Dad handed the cell phone to me, but it didn’t get any service. I felt a hot wind rise up in my chest and a let out a long sigh. I lit up a cigarette, handed the phone back to him and settled into my seat.
“What happened?” He asked.
“No signal.” I told him.
“Oh,” Dad took another slurp of his coffee and nodded at the hospital, “They’re probably still in there.”
I sat there and fought myself over going in to see Clive. The lights were on. The most they would do would is tell me to leave. But I wouldn’t want to go all the way up there for nothing. No, I wouldn’t ask, I would just barge in and demand to know what was happening to my brother.
I’m going, I told myself. I’m going right now.