This story is inspired by true events experienced by the author.
It started with a slither, invading the skin.
If its journey was supposed to stop there, the snake ignored it, creeping through dermis and fat, tickling bone, making a home for itself like the opportunistic squatter it was.
Disbelief set in.
Dima pulled his hand out from under the passenger seat; the tiny crimson dot between his index and middle finger was like an obnoxious billboard to him. He didn't know how long he knelt on the back seat, staring at his hand.
How could this happen?
Numbly, he carefully wrapped his fingers around the offending intruder under the seat.
Dima swallowed, a hard lump dragging painfully up and then down.
How to rid of it?
He could toss it into the nearest dumpster, the one behind the rundown shack his boss called home-base for Gio's Taxi Service would do. But what if it claimed another victim? He couldn't allow its perverse intentions a chance to continue.
His darting eyes found the advertisement stickers on the divider between passenger and driver. The taxi was old, older than him, the advertisements seeing better days. One caught his eye, partially ripped as if someone had obsessively picked at it until they lost interest.
Needle Exchange Program: a social service that allows injecting drug users to obtain and dispose of hypodermic needles and associated paraphernalia at little to no cost. Please go to your nearest firehouse for needle disposal and ask about recovery today.
He'd have to fight the rush hour horde to get to the nearest firehouse. He picked up his water bottle, spilling the little bit of water left out, and dropped the needle into it.
Austere with its brick face, the firehouse loomed, making Dima feel small. He wanted to jerk the ignition, roar the taxi to life and speed out of there.
He wasn't stupid. He knew that disgusting stigma would follow him no matter what story he tried to sell.
He looked down; the water bottle holding the needle was nestled in the coffee-stained cup holder. Last week coffee had spilled everywhere, the aftermath of hitting that yawning hole on Gerrison Street.
He knew that pothole was there, but it still got him, crunching and slamming his suspension, no doubt bending the right wheel. Gio said he'd look for damage, that was a week ago.
Slowly, Dima looked back at that brick firehouse and then opened his door.
A breath in.
A breath out.
He stepped out of the yellow cab, dusty from road dirt, his makeshift sharps container in hand.
Feeling as if he were in a dream, he walked. He didn't remember walking up to the open garage.
There were two firemen on duty.
"This is for you." He said stupidly.
What else could he say? He wasn't a drug addict. He was a victim, a causality from the drug-idled whim of others.
The closest firefighter took the bottle, puzzled, glancing inside it.
That look. The look signaling the rising tide of questions Dima didn't want to be bothered.
Dima turned away quickly, praying he wouldn't be followed.
He slammed his driver's door, the barrier keeping him safe from prying questions.
He barely spared his mother a glance as he returned home, beelining to the shower. He had to wash the filth off. The snake hadn't left him yet.
He stood for eternity, the water as hot as he could stand raining on his forehead, peppering his face before ending its journey down the drain between his feet.
There was a sting.
Lifting his hand, Dima stared at the site of the invasion, just below his index finger. The spot that now had his stomach in knots.
He needed to get tested.
But the stares, the silent accusations, the judgment, it sickened him.
Donning comfortable clothes for the night, he dodged inquiries about his antisocial behavior. Worry of depression relapse was the last thing he heard before his bedroom door shut, walling off unwanted scrutiny.
Days turned to weeks. The snake stayed, gliding, no longer contained to his hands. It had broken free, infesting every fiber of his being. The dirt left behind was like mud, smeared, leaving a permanent stain.
Twice he found himself in his cab sitting outside urgent care, and twice he left, unable to stomach his new reality.
It boiled down to one thing; he didn't want to know.
What if the test was positive? How could he afford lifelong medications? His yearly income was just out of reach for government assistance, and Gio didn't offer health insurance.
"What is wrong?"
The living room was small and intimate. Growing up, it was a safe place during his and his sister's school years, where school progress was the most critical topic every evening. Dima glanced at the over-stuffed chair, empty and missing its occupant. No one had sat in it since Papa died.
The prompt was soft but firm, a gentle demand to not evade an answer.
"Nothing, mama, I'm just tired."
Her eyes narrowed like crescent moons; she knew he was lying.
The sharp prick slid into his skin, smooth like a knife splitting butter before his hand jerked back involuntarily, his brain instantly suspicious of the intruder.
He should have been more cautious.
Between their morning coffee and cigarettes, the older cabbies swapped horror stories. At their age and their experience, nothing fazed them.
Yet, one of them, a scruffy man with hair that looked like he rolled out of bed every morning, warned Dima; told him to wear gloves.
"I'm not talking that latex and thin food preparation spazzatura." He took a long drag from his ever-present cigarette. "Thick gloves. You never know what you'll find after a fare."
Louie's warning bounced around in Dima’s head, advice he ignored.
What could he tell his mother? Would he die young, like his father?
"I'm late for work." He didn't dare touch her, an act she noticed as he again skipped his good-bye hug.
He drove aimlessly, his fares blending. The bright blue sky soon dimmed and crept away as night took over.
Tires guided themselves as he arrived at Gio's Taxi Service before he knew it. Reaching for the ignition, he paused to turn up the radio volume.
Something about her voice was captivating, her tone confident and educated.
"AIDS and HIV affect people all around the world. You are not alone. Know there are people ready to help, encourage, and most of all, educate.
"HIV isn't spread by touching or kissing, but rather bodily fluids, the sharing of needles and through pregnancy. If you suspect you're HIV/AIDS positive, please don't wait to get tested. Please don't make the same mistake I did. My name is Stacy Fleming, and I am HIV-positive."
The ignition clicked off, the radio falling silent.
Please don't make the same mistake I did.
The knot in his stomach loosened slightly, Stacy's message contagiously inspirational.
She was right; he couldn't wait. He didn't want to know the answer, but there were a lot of things in life he never wanted a part of, and yet he pushed through.
He glanced at his watch. There was still time.
The waiting room was quiet; he might have bolted if there had been eyes.
Eyes studied you in settings like this, people wondering what your excuse was for being present. Was there something you had they were at risk of getting? They didn't want to admit they were just as guilty.
He swallowed as he made his way to the desk, his anxiety rearing its ugly head once more.
"Can I help you?" The receptionist smiled warmly, with no silent accusations or negative conclusions.
"Yes, I'd like to see a doctor."
After taking down his information, she waved a hand towards the waiting area.
"You can take a seat. We will call you in a moment."
The one patient waiting dropped her purse into the neighboring seat, a clear warning not to sit next to her.
Dima took a corner seat and staring at the tv playing a home and garden show.
Jerkily, he stood, following the nurse to a small triage room, too little in his opinion, as he tried to ignore his rising apprehension.
The snake was back, gliding up his legs and quickly constricting around his chest.
"What brings you in tonight?"
His mouth was dry, the room appearing oddly fake like the terrible pairing of an old analog video on an HDTV.
He blinked. "I'm a cabbie, and I was cleaning my car out when a needle stabbed me." His voice dropped off.
The triage nurse paused. "A needle, was it used?"
"Do you have this needle?"
"I got rid of it."
"You got rid of it?"
Dima could only nod.
"When did this happen?"
"Almost a month ago."
She nodded her head, an odd habit he was noticing every time she talked. It was distracting, but he welcomed it, it kept him grounded and from running out of the room.
As quickly as she came, the triage nurse was gone, promising the arrival of a physician shortly.
It was over before he knew it, a new hypodermic, this time uncontaminated. He watched emotionless as dark red flowed up the hub and into the syringe.
"We will give you a call when the results come back." The doctor said, capping the needle.
He might have nodded; he didn't remember.
Obsessively, he rubbed his fingers, feeling grit from the mud smearing in the wake of the snake. It had been almost four days since his visit to the urgent care facility, and there had been no call.
He went to the sink, pushing globs of liquid soap into his palm. He scrubbed his fingers, palms, and wrists until his skin was red.
Still, the grit remained.
The snake sighed in amusement as it weaved around the back of his neck and slipped down his shoulder, making its way back to his legs.
He jumped, never hearing his mother enter the kitchen.
"Phone call, Moya Lyubov."
He dried his hands, wishing he could procrastinate longer. With shaking fingers, he took the phone and disappeared into his room.
"Hi, this is Kay McGuire, the physician at the urgent care. You came in earlier this week for the HIV test."
He couldn't respond; his voice was frozen.
There was a smile in her voice. "I'm happy to let you know your test came back negative."
The snake froze mid loop around his femur, a sense of disbelief as the reality of the doctor's words sunk in.
Angry, the snake hissed and spat, its tight grip loosening as its presence twisted and dissolved.
Writhing, its long thin body dissolved into nothingness.
It left Dima as quickly as it had come.
For the first time in weeks, he felt clean again and breathed a sigh of relief, thanking her for the call.
His mother was waiting for him in the hallway.
“Who was it, moya lyubov?”
"It's nothing, mama." He pulled her into a hug. "It's nothing."
Moya lyubov: My Love
© 2021 Regin St Cyr