“I found out a secret about you today,” I smile and tease.
The boy’s face drains of color. I’ve forgotten that I’m in a land where secrets are buried deep in the blood stained soil, where secrets are nightmarish memories to be escaped in the waking hours.
I feel my face redden at my thoughtless blunder. “It’s a good secret. I found out that your friend is a waiter at my favorite cafe in Gulu town. See?” I hold up my iPad. “He sent you a video.” I press play and the friend’s face comes to life.
He finds me again later that same day. “Alicia, I need to talk with you privately.”
“Okay.” I search his face, but I don’t recognize this expression. Fear? Shame? Worry? I can’t break the code. “Do you want to talk now?”
Tomorrow arrives and admittedly, I’ve forgotten about the private conversation we need to have. I speak with him every day, mostly in relative privacy, so his request hasn’t taken root in my memory. I see him and wave, greeting him in my laughable Acholi.
He does not greet me in return. “Can we talk now?” He doesn’t wait for my response. Instead he guides me by the elbow into an empty room where we sit side by side.
“I have to tell you a sad story about myself. I want you to be prepared.” He is serious.
I’ve heard lines like this my entire trip. The stories here are all sad and the stories always end with a request for money. The stories are often elaborations of the truth, hungry attempts to escape poverty via pity. I take a deep breath and formulate how exactly I’m going to say no this time. It is a jaded side of myself, one I need here and one I simultaneously loathe.
“When I was younger, there came a day when I was playing with a certain friend near a mango tree. That friend climbed the mango tree and fell out of it, breaking both of his arms.”
“There was blood everywhere and so I picked him up and carried him to get help.”
“That sounds like you.”
“I lost track of this certain friend until he called me sometime ago to tell me he is HIV positive and that I’d better get tested as well.”
“Are you HIV positive?”
His eyes are downcast and when he raises them, I know the answer before he says it. He swallows hard. “Yes. And I’m starting to have many pains and sicknesses.”
“I’m so sorry,” I put my hand on his back.
“I’ve known for some time now. I wanted you to know because I’ve not been doing well and you’re leaving soon and if I’m not,” he pauses, “if I’m not here when you return, I wanted you to know why.”
I don’t know what to say. Or do. Sorrow rises in a wave of heat from my stomach and it’s all I can do not to vomit. “You’re sure? I mean, you had a second test to confirm?”
He nods. “And a third.”
“What does your family think? Are they helping you get treatment?”
“They don’t know.”
“If I tell them, I’ll be excommunicated from my clan and won’t be able to go to school.”
I find myself wishing to God that he’s lying about the HIV and about his family. He’s not. “What are you going to do?”
“Live out the rest of my life.” He looks at his hands.
“Are you afraid?”
“Afraid of HIV? No, I already have it so fearing is of no use. I fear dying before I get to fulfill my dreams. Do you fear HIV?”
“Yes,” the word catches in my throat and I choke on the painful truth of it.
“Do you fear me?” He looks out a window.
“No.” It’s an easy answer. “No, I don’t, but I, too, fear you dying before you fulfill your dreams. I really want you to consider treatment.”
“Treatment is expensive and my test records were lost in a storm that took the roof off the hospital.”
“You need to get tested again.”
“I can’t pay for the test.”
“I’ve got that covered.”
“Will you go with me?” His voice is small, scared.
“And then what?” He clears his throat and blinks. I pretend not to notice the sheen in his eyes. He hopes I have a plan. I don’t.
“After we get the results, we’ll have to figure something out. I don’t really know what.” The truth feels paltry here, but I can’t make empty promises. We make arrangements to meet at the hospital Friday morning.
That day on the ride home, I cry and cry on the back of Denis’ boda. Denis is quiet and just lets me cry. I think of the boy and all the things I love about him. He is honest to a fault and loyal down through the marrow of his bones. The other day I watched him raise the flag and back away in reverence. I love this boy and the thought of HIV running rampant inside him is more than I can take. I catch a glimpse of myself in Denis’ rearview mirror. My tears have left trails through the dirt that bronzes my face.
I toss and turn Thursday night and can’t stomach breakfast Friday morning. I call Denis to come and get me and on the ride to the hospital I’m quiet. Denis knows the reason for my trip to the hospital and he tries to cure my sadness with lighthearted conversation. My responses are brief as I tamp down the urge to vomit. It is the feeling I get each time I grieve, and I am grieving with such weight for this nineteen year old boy.
My phone rings as the wind whips through my hair on the back of the boda. It’s the boy. He’s reached the hospital early and is waiting by the gate. He couldn’t sleep either. At the gate I shove a fistful of shillings in Denis’ hand and I meet this sweet kid at the gate.
We enter and I follow him up a flight of stairs. He’s wearing one fluorescent green sock and one fluorescent pink sock. With his black slacks and pressed blue button up school shirt, the socks are ridiculous and I stifle a giggle. The socks peek out over the tops of his shoes and I am reminded that he’s just a kid. He later explains that he got dressed in the dark before the sun was up and couldn’t see what socks he was putting on.
The hospital grounds are covered with patients who have laid out papyrus mats and their wash bins. They are a patchwork quilt across the grass, along every sidewalk and under every overhang. Their clothes hang from lines stretched across the grass, brightly colored garments snapping like prayer flags in the wind. There are no empty rooms for these patients.
I’ve never seen so much need before and as I follow the boy, I say a prayer for the people in this hospital and also a prayer of thanksgiving for my own health.
We wait for the doctor who has not yet arrived. We wait for hours. After the doctor arrives and performs an examination, we walk to a different part of the hospital for the HIV test. We wait again for hours. The waiting is excruciating.
The hospital walls are crumbling and rusted. The building itself looks as if it’s dying, succumbing to mold creeping up the sides and covered by the film of acrid red dirt that blocks light from entering the windows.
Everywhere there are babies, hundreds of babies, tied on the backs of their mothers. ALL of the babies are wailing. Ugandan babies never cry so the sound is unbearably upsetting.
We sit by the door of a room with a solitary word painted above the door frame. “Counseling”. I steel myself for counseling on treatment options for this boy to extend his life as long and as fully as possible.
The doctor arrives and we enter. After a brief conversation, the doctor pricks the boy’s finger and squeezes a drop of blood onto a test strip. We remain in the room, waiting to see the pink line that indicates HIV appear. We wait only minutes, but it feels like centuries. I don’t realize I’m holding my breath until the doctor says to the boy,”You’re HIV negative.”
The boy and I exhale, but neither of us speak.
“Are you sure?” My voice barely surpasses the lump bobbing in my throat. “I mean how sure are you?”
The doctor digs in the waste can and pulls out a test from yesterday. “See how this one has a pink line running through it? This person is unfortunately HIV positive. See how your test doesn’t have any lines running through it?” The doctor holds up both and the boy and I rise out of our seats to get a closer look.
The boy sputters, “But three times I was tested and they said I was positive. How can this be?”
“Did you remain in the room while they were getting the results or did you wait outside?” the doctor asks.
“They made me wait outside. Twice over there in that room,” the boy points to another building in the hospital, “And once at the hospital in my district.”
“I’m guessing they made a mistake.”
“Three times?” the boy and I speak in stereo.
“Usually we only administer a second test if the first is positive, but I’ll administer another one right here so you can see for yourself. This one is a little more expensive though.”
“I don’t care.” I grab the boy’s hand and shove it toward the doctor so he can sample another drop of blood. He pricks a different finger and squeezes a drop of blood onto the test.
We wait triple the recommended minutes, just in case. We don’t take our eyes off the test strip. We don’t even blink.
The test is negative.
The doctor shows us a positive test and the results are black and white.
The boy does not have HIV.
The boy and I spring out of our chairs and hug each other. We jump up and down and laugh and hug and tears of joy squirt from our eyes. We carry on like this for a lengthy period of time. The doctor smiles at us.
“Alicia, did you bring your camera? Take my snap with the doctor.” The boy stands and straightens the tie of his school uniform. He puts his arm around the doctor. They are both grinning from ear to ear in my camera lens.
“Doctor, I’m sorry to be so ignorant, but do you have a medical explanation as to why he’d test positive so many times and test clearly negative today?” I want to believe, but I don’t. I want to put my finger in nail holes. I hear myself thinking a familiar prayer. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
“My guess is that it was human error mixing up the test results. That’s why we now do this test right in front of the patient.” The doctor pauses, “Then again, miracles do happen.”
“I don’t care which it is! This is the greatest day in my life!” The boy hugs me and hugs the doctor again.
We still have to visit two other places in the hospital, one for a Hepatitis test (which turns out negative as well) and lastly to return to the first doctor for a final consultation and for some antibiotics for a couple of smaller issues. We leave the HIV counseling office and practically skip to the next building. I watch the pink and green socks flash from underneath his pant cuffs. I am smiling so hard that my face aches.
At the end of a very long day, the boy leaves the hospital with antibiotics. I leave with approximately forty-five fewer Vigilante of Kindness dollars and we both leave with the knowledge that the boy gets a shot at living a long and healthy life to pursue his dreams.
“This is because of you. You should hang onto this,” the boy shoves his HIV results paper into my hand.
“You need to keep it. I hand it back. You need to keep your medical records as proof of the tests they did today.”
“As proof that I am healthy,” he smiles.
“You should share this good news with your family.”
“I can’t,” he hangs his head.
It pains me that he couldn’t share the heavy burden of being infected with HIV, but it breaks my heart in a new way that he can’t share the lifting of that burden.
I pause for a moment, thinking about the secrets we keep, thinking about how when the boy returns to school, he won’t share this news with another soul.
We part ways at the hospital gate. He takes a boda back to school and I ride with Denis back to town. I stare back at the hospital sign, “La Cor Hospital”. I’m reminded that ‘cor’ means heart and my heart overflows.
A few days later, I’m saying my goodbyes at the school. I can’t find the boy anywhere. As I’m walking toward Denis to ride back to town, I see the boy running toward me. I run, too. We hug and I fight back tears.
“I was at home today. I’ve just returned and I thought I’d missed you,” he says catching his breath.
“I thought I was going to miss you, too. Why were you at home?”
“I told my parents.”
“They were happy for me,” he grins. “I don’t have the words to thank you. I just don’t have the words.”
“It’s okay. You can thank me by pursuing your dreams all through your long and healthy life.” I squeeze him tight.
“I will.” He hugs me one last time. “I promise,” he smiles and I know that the boy with the mismatched socks, the boy who is honest to a fault, the boy who revels in the majesty of the flag is going to spend the rest of his life doing just what he promised me.