August 14, 2008
By Claire Sislo, Eagle River, WI

The room was dark, a lady in crimson playing a rotten guitar. The mismatched notes sounded like a distant hum. I wasn't sure what I was doing here, what I was supposed to be doing. The air of the shop smelled like coffee. Appropriate.

The counter was scratched from years of transactions. I nodded towards the clerk, and she set out a chipped cup filled with thick, black coffee. It was a puddle of mud, barely liquid. I forced the drink down my throat, and turned towards the only window, a tiny thick green glass, on the opposite wall. He was sitting underneath the dim light there, staring bullets at his dirty mug.

I slid in the booth opposite him, he didn't acknowledge my presence. "Hi." I said.

"Don't drink the water." He whispered. He looked up at me, eyes gray, face pale.

"Thanks for that." I said, pointing at the coffee, and he nodded. "Listen, I'm glad you asked me to have coffee with you."

"Mom would have made me anyway. I thought that now would be the best time to listen to her." He said quietly, forcing a smile.

"River." I touched his face. His cheek was damp with sweat, and I could feel the bone not far underneath the flesh.

He shook my hand away. "I'm fine."

"River, are you okay?" I asked, touching his forhead. His skin was cold, pale.

"The best I have ever been." The muscles around his mouth twitched, as if he were too weak to smile. "I'm dying."

My hand fell away. I stared into my coffee, unable to see my reflection in the thick black. "Oh."

"It's not something I intended," He said, "You know that I would never just leave you after Mom died."

My eyes struggled to meet his. The black of his eyes were twinkling, the most life I had seen in him. "What is it?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I have AIDS." He said calmly, voice smooth, unbroken.

It was then that I noticed the pasty skin, the blue veins beneath. The thin face, the bony hands. The small lesion above his left eyebrow. The way his neck twitched underneath the weight of his skull. His smell of death.

"There is nothing you could have done to prevent this Sis." He continued, watching my face, "I got it when Mom gave birth to me. I was born with HIV, and it progressed."

"How long ago did you find out?" I choked.

"When Mom started to die." He answered. "If I would have told her at anytime that her sickness was my sickness, she would have died right then and there. I waited for you to get here."

A rush of guilt flooded my system. I had been gone from home for years now, leaving behind the small poor family for my own life. River never blamed me, but he chose to stay with Mom. And now I found out that the family I had left behind years ago, they were leaving me.

His cold hand covered mine. His bones on my skin. I choked back a sob, and tried to keep the tears balancing on my eyelid.

River smiled at me. "Sis, you are the most brave person I have ever known."

"River," I argued, "You are dying, not me."

A weak laugh. "Yes, but I am lucky enough to leave the pain behind when I die. You live with it. And I know that God made the right choice, because I know that I wouldn't be able to even think of handling it."

I shook. My brain was frozen, not a thought passing by. River stood and slid into the seat beside me, his skinny body bumping against my own. His bones hung around my shoulder. He sat there with me, in that silence.

"When?" I asked quietly.

"I'm leaving tomorrow." He answered.

"Leaving?" I asked.

He raised a bony finger and pointed up. Then he laughed. "Well, hopefully I will make it up there."

I swallowed too much air. "How-"

He turned to me, his cold, dead face inches from mine, and he smiled. A smile that wasn't something he forced to make me feel better. It was a River smile, a window to his real emotion. "Sis, when you are dying, you just know. I mean, it sounds stupid, but the doctors say I can live for at least a few more months. But they are wrong. I can feel it."

I frowned at him. "Maybe you are wrong."

He laughed, a weak cough. "No, no. I'm sure."

I looked into his eyes frantically. "River, I won't have anybody, I will be all alone, all alone in this country of millions of people. I will be the only one."

He slid out of the booth, and stood up. I grabbed hold of him, hugging him tightly as he stroked my hair. I felt like I was going to break every bone in his body, while mine turned to mush. I could hear his heart pounding in his chest, and for a moment, I thought he was just as afraid as I was. I cried into his shoulder, letting the tears soak into his sweater. He set his jaw against my forehead, hushing me, telling me it was going to be all right. He said everything that everyone else would say, given the same situation.

"Don't leave me, River." I cried.

"I'm not leaving you Sis." He said, wiping away my tears with a finger. "I promise. And I love you."

I held him for what seemed to be forever. But every moment has it's end. A few days after our moment together, I saw River again, but he didn't see me. I held him in my hands, unafraid, as I threw his ashes in the little garden in front of the coffee shop where we spent our last day together. My heart froze, when I realized how lucky I was. Not because of the fact that my Mom, and my brother passed away, but because of the fact that I was blessed enough to have had the most wonderful, beautiful, loving people in my life. No death could take that away from me.

In fact, death taught me how to live with such appreciation.

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