“There’s nothing to worry about,” Hal promised. “They walk in and say ‘you’re negative’ before you can even sit down.”

He sips his lukewarm Sprite, trying to swallow down another wave of nerves.

The door marked “Staff Only” squeals open. A middle aged black woman reads “WX 4723” from her clipboard. She looks like the cafeteria lady who used to give him extra fish sticks every Friday.

He double checks his receipt, whispers “Bingo,” and rises.

He’d gotten the number last week when he and Hal came in for blood tests. His first, Hal’s third. Hal lived in San Francisco before moving home to Fayetteville and had learned a lot more about the “big bad world” than Tom had.

She gives him a warm yet practiced smile and motions him into the room. “Hi, I’m Betty.”

He musters a half nod and enters. “Tom.” So much for the anonymous clinic.

The room’s stark. Two plastic chairs, a laminated table, a phone, and a box of tissues. It smells like Pledge and smelling salts.

“How you doing?” Betty asks as she sits down and opens a folder.

“Uhm, you tell me.”


“So we have your results …”

Everything goes into slow motion.