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2010 Writer’s Competition Fiction Winner

2010 First Place Fiction Winner

          By Karen McHegg, Seattle 

Coming Home

              I am Peter Bristol, the longest living AIDS patient in Seattle. After twenty years of hearing that I don’t have long to live, I’m starting to believe it. My energy is gone, my skin hangs off me like one of those Shar Pei dogs, my mind spends its days in the past.  I went back to the Leschi rental yesterday to say goodbye after ten years of avoiding it. A young family just bought the place from Emory’s estate. When the taxi pulled up, I saw children and a dog playing on the deck and almost didn’t get out. So normal. So different from my memories of that house.

Don’t get me wrong; I spent ten happy years there with friends, lovers, neighbors, and the garden. I brought love and beauty to that house, which had seen nothing but lonely desperation for decades before me. Then Emory came home and threw me out. Tore out my garden. I never forgave him for coming back from England. Reclaiming his house.

I saved the daffodils, though. Snuck back one night and dug up hundreds of bulbs and planted them in my mother’s yard. Saved a bit of myself. Most of them bloomed the next spring; their descendents are still blooming.  And my life began again, in a series of lanai apartments, rental houses, and, finally the hospice where I am now.

I took a deep breath and got out of the taxi. “Hello, Peter,” they said. “The neighbors have told us all about you”. Invited me in. Showed me around, awkwardly, aware that I knew this house as well as they did if not better. The rooms were just the same, one leading to another. I stepped into my old bedroom. The radio was playing and spider webs danced in the corners. Took me right back to that morning: November 15, 1987.  I had to sit down and have a bit of a cry. In front of this nice, normal family. And I knew that what had started in this room twenty years earlier was finally over.

Why did that radio station always play the same song at 6:17 AM? Starting each day with Mr. Mister and his “Broken Wings” was the roughest part of 1987.  Yes, I could’ve changed my alarm clock to a station other than KPOP, but I was not about to relinquish the thrill of dialing 329-KPOP at precisely 6:20 each morning to see if I was the winner of the “Morning Chat-Off Challenge”.

I could out-talk anyone, even those morning DJs who make a living by stringing together words to entertain an invisible audience. But I was always caller number nine, or twelve. How come so many people were up in Seattle this early anyway? They certainly weren’t all like me, waking up early for the chance of being caller number ten. No one was like me.

In spite of the rain, I felt a rare bit of energy that morning and got out of bed for a cup of tea after making my call. Seventh caller. I pulled the kettle off the burner just as the whistle began—didn’t want to wake up my roommates after last night. I let my tea steep as I climbed up the hill out back to see how many spider webs I could count. My personal record was forty-seven, but that was on a sunny day.

I leaned my shoulder against the back door, gave a push against the rusty hinges, reminded myself to oil them soon. And to clean the gutter over the front door. And to fix that broken window in the living room. I promised Emory I’d maintain things while he was away, but I preferred working in the garden. And I hardly had the energy to get myself dressed. I’d subjected myself to a series of tests at the hospital a few days ago, trying to figure out what was wrong.

As I picked my way up the muddy hill, the sound of raindrops hitting the ivy set the pace of my inner guilt voice. Drip. Check work calendar for deadlines. Drip. Collect and pay rent. Drip. Call Robert and see if he has forgiven me –drip– for the spectacle I put on last night at Neighbors. Drip. I should have checked with him first–drip, drip, drip–before climbing into the go-go cage–drip, drip, drip–with his ex. The idea of tea outside lost its appeal.

The quiet that greeted me back inside the house soothed my mind. I crawled into bed with my wet clothes and counted backwards until sleep returned.

The sound of the phone ringing woke me. My first thought is that KPOP was calling me.

Of course, it wasn’t KPOP on the phone.  It was the clinic, calling with the results of my blood tests. The first of many similar calls, a solemn voice reciting numbers, statistics, pausing for my reaction. Every rainy morning since that one reminds me of the warfare that is taking place inside my body. At first, I told everyone I had that disease that the monkeys brought from Africa, it seemed so exotic. Then people started dying. But I kept right on talking.

I have outlived KPOP, which is now an easy-listening station. I have seen fashion shift from a horrible parody of the fifties, through grunge and back to squeaky clean. I have seen the image of AIDS shift just as radically.

While I sat on the floor in my old room and wept, I had expected the house to respond to me, to recognize me, to show me it missed me the way I miss it. The rooms were just the same, but the quiet was different. Now it is full of hope. Life is just beginning there; spiders build fresh webs in the ivy each morning. Daffodils bloom.

But not for me. My time to stop talking is here.


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