by Martin Maenza
Ricky Greene was walking down the hallway of the fifth floor of St. Mary’s Medical Center, one of San Francisco’s finest hospitals. Having just finished visiting a friend, the brown-haired man known in costume only as Blindside was heading for the elevator when he heard a voice calling behind him.
“Ricky? Ricky Greene?”
The well-built man turned around and was surprised to see who was calling his name. “Alex?” he said, registering the face. It was a little different than he recalled — thinner. Yes, in fact, the young black man in the white hospital gown sitting in the wheelchair did look generally thinner. “Alex Rose, is that you?”
The black man smiled. “You know it!” Ricky rushed over; Alex spread out his arms and hugged the man, patting him on the back a couple of times. “Good to see you. Good to see you.” Ricky started to move away. “Whoa. Watch the I.V.”
“Right,” Ricky replied as he stepped away.
“What brings you here?” Alex asked.
“Oh,” Ricky said, trying to focus on the conversation and a little less on the change of appearance in his friend. “I was visiting someone I know. Came in for a little nose job.”
“Required or cosmetic?”
“Oh, cosmetic, definitely. This guy is very concerned about his looks. Said as soon as he could afford one, he’d do it, and he did. How about you? Why you here, Alex? I hope everything’s OK.”
Alex raised his hand and wiped his mouth with the back of it. “Say, why not give a brother a hand and help me wheel back to my room,” the patient replied. “I’ll fill you in.”
“OK,” said Ricky. He moved behind the chair, grabbed the two handles, and started to push. “Which way?”
“It’s 535,” Alex replied. “That way.” He pointed down the hall and to the left. Ricky started to wheel the chair. It was quiet for a few seconds.
Alex then cocked his head back and said, “You know, Ricky, you’re looking good. Been working out or something?”
“Yeah, yeah, I have,” he replied.
“I take it you’re still in San Francisco?”
“Yeah, I’ve been working here for a while now. Spent some time down the coast before that, but I’m back. I love this town.”
“Me, too,” Alex said. They arrived at the room. It was a private one. “Put the chair over near the bed. I can then get up from there and slide in.”
“I can help if you want,” Ricky offered.
“No, I can do it,” Alex said. And indeed, he did. In a few moments, he was back resting comfortably in the bed. “Can you move the I.V. bag back to the stand? It just hooks up there.”
“Sure,” Ricky said, glancing at the bag of fluids as he moved it over to the other hook. The names of the chemicals weren’t anything he recognized. “What is this stuff?”
“Its sort of a cocktail,” Alex said. “Kind of experimental.”
“Experimental? What’s going on with you?”
Alex’s sunny attitude clouded slightly. “Ricky, I’m HIV positive.”
“Sssomeone’sss got jungle fever,” hissed Copperhead from one of the bar stools of the recreation room.
“Hey!” Trident protested. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I meant them, sssporky,” the serpentine villain hissed, cocking his large masked head toward the nearby couch.
“Yeah,” said Throttle, the thin man dressed in purple with the high-cut blonde hair. “The former ape-man and the Amazon queen. Don’t they just make a lovely couple?”
Over on the couch, a well-built blonde woman dressed in a leopard skin-patterned unitard was leaning all over a dark-skinned man in blue and yellow. With her left hand, she was stroking his curly locks, and her right hand was snaking its way through an opening in his shirt.
Power Fist tried his best to ignore Giganta’s amorous advances. He knew the woman was a bit troubled, though Star Sapphire would not give him all the details when they went to break her out of jail a few nights back. Still, he was getting a little tired of all her affection, wherever it stemmed from. “Come on, now, girl,” he said. “Tryin’ to watch the game, here.”
Giganta frowned at the television, but then turned back and continued her nuzzling. Her hand right then left the chest area and plunged lower.
“Sweet Arbor!” Power Fist exclaimed, bolting up right. “Girl, what’cha do that for?”
Giganta started to make kissing sounds toward him.
At the bar, Throttle added, “Bet they’ll start throwin’ down for some wild monkey love any minute now!” The guys all busted out in laughter.
Power Fist glared at them.
Giganta reached out to him, but he kept his distance.
“Ah, don’t listen to them, Luke,” the diminutive Gizmo said, sitting nearby. “They’re just jealous, is all.”
“Right,” Power Fist said, turning toward the television. “Jealous.” He noticed Gizmo had the remote and was switching channels. “Hey, the game!”
“Commercial, big guy,” the dwarf replied. “Want to see what the DOW is at. Got some investments I still watch.” The channels flicked by. Gizmo stopped at the news channel, but it wasn’t the financial report that was on.
“Hey, guys, look!” Trident called out.
The villains gathered about the television, listening intently at what the report had to say.
“Boss!” an excited voice boomed in a deep bass. “Boss! Boss!“
Sighing, the Mirror Master put down the latest edition of The Daily Mirror, which he had been reading. “What is it, Fist?” he said as the black man burst into his office.
“Have you heard? Superman’s in the hospital!” Power Fist cried, racing into the room.
Mirror Master cocked an eyebrow at his excited associate. “The hospital? Superman?“
“Well, at one of the STAR Labs,” Power Fist amended. “But he’s pretty much helpless!“
“And you’re telling me this because…?” Mirror Master prompted.
The villain in a bright blue shirt and yellow pants blinked at his leader. “Because? Because? Superman’s the man, Boss. Numero uno, the big one! Think of what’ll happen to the guys who finally manage take him out of the picture! We could own Metropolis for doing that, man! Sweet Arbor Day, this whole mother-lovin’ country!“
Mirror Master sighed. “And you don’t think Superman’s friends are going to be guarding him? The Justice League — maybe you’ve heard of them?”
Power Fist paused and looked down at his feet. “Hadn’t thought of them,” he said, scratching the back of his head.
“Somehow, I figured that,” Mirror Master said. “I’ve had my fill of fighting the League, thank you so much. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some plans to reflect upon. You know, thinking. Try it sometime, why don’t you, just for the novelty.”
Power Fist, having thoroughly been dressed down by the organization’s leader, left the room.
Mirror Master returned to his paper to read the latest exploits of Andy Capp. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice League of America: Sick Leave.]
Ricky was silent, letting Alex’s words sink in. HIV: Human Immuno-deficiency Virus — it was the first stage that led to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Sadness came to Ricky’s eyes. “You mean, you’ve got AIDS?”
Alex wiped his mouth. “No, not yet,” he said. “Though I am well into the first stage of HIV. I went through the flu-like symptoms — fevers, chills, night sweats, and rashes. I really didn’t think much of it at first. But when it didn’t go away, my doctor felt I should get tested.”
Ricky was stunned for a moment. He felt a little uneasy, so he moved to the chair near the end of the bed and sat down. “Wow,” he eventually said.
“Yeah, wow,” Alex repeated.
Ricky blinked. “Hey, man, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Alex nodded slightly. “I know. Believe me, I’ve seen all kinds of reactions these last few weeks. Family, friends, doctors, nurses, you name it. I kind of just don’t worry about it. Save my strength, you know?”
“Sure,” Ricky said. “You’ll need your strength. You can fight it. You always were a fighter.”
Alex smiled. “Good old, Ricky. Always one of my biggest supporters. I appreciate that.” It was quiet for another minute. The black man saw that his old friend was struggling with something in his head. Finally, he said, “Ricky, something on your mind?”
“I never could keep quiet around you for long,” Ricky said, and swallowed. “OK, so how far along are you? And what’s that stuff they’re giving you, the experimental stuff?”
“The tests the doctors ran recently confirmed the worst,” Alex said sadly. “I’ve developed some harmful infections. The doctors said the HIV antibodies developed in about three months or so.”
“Wow,” Ricky said wide-eyed. “It happened that fast?”
“Not necessarily,” Alex said. “The doctors really have no way of knowing how long I’ve been carrying before the symptoms started to show. They say sometimes it can go five or six years. They’re not really sure yet. The research is still ongoing, and they’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
“Five or six years?” Ricky asked, his face going slightly pale.
“Yeah,” Alex said. He saw his friend drop his head. “Ricky?”
“Have you been tested recently?”
“No, no…” Ricky stammered. “I’ve been with one partner exclusively for nearly three years. You remember Chad Collins? Blonde hair, very fun to be around.”
“I’m sure he’s wonderful,” Alex said. “I’m happy you have someone in your life that means that much to you. But…” He leaned forward a bit. “Ricky, I care for you a lot, man. I always did. If you haven’t been tested recently, do it. You owe it to yourself and Chad.”
“O… OK,” Ricky said nervously.
Alex wore a determined look on his face. “Ricky, you’ve got to promise me. Swear it!”
“OK! OK! I’ll get tested,” Ricky blurted out.
Alex leaned back against the angled mattress. The exchange had taken a bit out of him. “Man, thanks. I couldn’t live with myself if anyone else I cared about…” His voice trailed off.
Just then, a nurse entered the room. She was in her late twenties with curly blonde hair. “Mr. Rose, how we doing here?” She went over to the I.V. and checked the progress.
“Hanging in there, Tammy,” Alex said.
Ricky rose from his seat. “I’ll leave you to this,” he started to say.
“I’ll be done in a moment,” Nurse Tammy said.
“No, that’s OK,” Ricky said, hurriedly making his way toward the door. “I’ve got to be going, anyway. I’ll be seeing you, Alex, OK?”
“OK, Ricky, don’t…” Alex started to reply. But the brown-haired man was out the door. “…be a stranger.” Alex let out a sigh. It had been so long since Ricky Greene had walked out of his life the first time that he wondered if he’d ever see the dear man again. That same old feeling was coming back again, just as it had four years ago. All he could do now was hope that Ricky had heeded his warning.