Greenhithe, the year 2123
You and I were walking along the pier that afternoon, when we passed by something that hadn’t been there before.
It was a bronze statue of a naval officer like yourself. He was bent at the shoulders, clutching his crotch in both hands, with his heels turned out, pigeon-toed. He gritted his teeth and his eyes protruded in anguish.
The pedestal under his feet bore the following inscription:
“Oh, the burning!
Oh, the fatigue!
Why me, oh lord? Why me?”
I tottered and grabbed your sleeve: “Stop.” I pointed at the statue. “What…the hell…is that?”
You burst out laughing. You couldn’t help it; even I could tell that the look on my face was priceless.
“I’m sorry,” you said, mid-guffaw. “What are you looking at?”
“That statue!” I continued to point. “What is it? And the inscription! What does it mean?”
Your smile evaporated.
“Oh,” you said. And you looked away, bit your lip and rubbed the back of your neck, your eyebrows drawn comically together in that precious way I’ve come to love.
“It looks to me,” you said, “like a dig at APD casualties.”
Agent of Protracted Dread.
Now I saw it.
When you spoke next, emotion had your throat in an iron grip.
“I suppose I can’t keep this from you any longer,” you said. “You see, twelve of the crew contracted APD last year.” You took a rasping breath: “Myself included.”
And my heart did a jig in my stomach. One hand went to my mouth, the other to my head: “Oh my god.” I must have looked damn silly, but what can you expect?
“Yeah. We were so stupid,” you said with a roll of the eyes. “I don’t know what got into us. None of it should have happened. ”
“What did happen?”
You blushed noticeably then and swallowed before speaking. “At one point…me and the others, we…we were on shore leave, and there was this little place down by the docks—”
I sighed ungraciously—“Ohhh lord”—and shook my head in disbelief. “Ah boyo, you didn’t.”
And you ducked your head and hugged your ribs. I could tell tears were close. You gulped them down, but I heard ‘em, all right.
“I knew you’d hate me for it. I wanted to hold off telling you so I could savor our friendship for as long as possible.” You turned your face away to glare over one shoulder, as if chastising the guardian angel that was clinging to your back. “But I was going to tell you eventually.”
“Now, now,” I soothed. “I didn’t mean that at all.”
I really didn’t.
“This isn’t the dark secret you think it is.”
It really isn’t.
“Come on now, sailors have been going to prostitutes since time immemorial. It’s not like you hurt anyone, right?”
I’ll never forget your smile of relief.
And I told you that you have a heart of gold, right there, just before you turned away again to cough into your elbow. You said your throat was starting to hurt like sin, and pulled a plastic bottle out of your pocket and shook two pills into your hand.
I gave you one of my water bottles.
Then a cloud passed over your face and you said tremulously, “This doesn’t…change anything, does it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not afraid to come near me? Things can carry on as they did before? You know I can’t make you sick…”
Whatever did you take me for?
I took both your hands in mine and pressed them to my mouth.
The light of late afternoon was beginning to fade at that point, and you said you had better get going.
By way of goodbye, I extended a hand to your shoulder, and trailed my fingers from your jaw down the slope of your neck. Your head c***ed obediently, making room for my chin.
It was after you’d gone that I let the tears come.
They slithered up from the pit of my chest like snakes, burned my eyes, and nibbled their way down my cheeks. And there was no stopping them. I kept a tissue to my nose and mouth, all the way back through the lights and music of the streets.
But I’m telling you right now that it wasn’t disappointment or betrayal that I was feeling.
I’ve always felt protective of you, and now, more than ever. I don’t trust anyone else to treat you right. You’re vulnerable in a new and strange way, in a strange, callous world…and I’ll be there with the injection that’ll take you out of it, when the time comes.