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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

Shelley no longer had HIV.

In her apartment, the shadows were winning the fight. I could not take my eyes off the bulb, the 20-watt bulb, the 20-pissing-against-the-tide-watt bulb.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

I glanced at her, then looked away. She had lost 30 pounds since I saw her last, almost four years ago, palatable compared to the small, dark lesions on her once unblemished skin: left shoulder, neck, right forearm -- wedding finger.

"You shouldn't have come."

Around her bony wrist she wore a silver cross and chain.

"I didn't invite you."

I thought of the unlocked door to her apartment and stood my ground.

"I should call the police."

I did not move.

My fingers were trembling, betraying my nerves, so I hid my hands in the pockets of my coat where the knife steel felt like ice against my knuckles.

"Leave, dammit."

I cleared my throat. "Not yet," I said. "Not until it's done."

"What do you want?"

"I'm collecting on a debt."

"Debt? What debt? I don't owe you anything."

"I didn't say you did."

"You don't have to," she said. "What is it you think I owe?"

"You're putting words in my mouth. You always did that."

"It is why you're here, though, isn't it?" She laughed bitterly. "Close the door on your way out."

"I'm not here for you," I said. "I want him. His address."


I waited until it reached her.

She laughed again. "You're kidding me. What are you gonna do?"

"I have to do something. It's been eating me up."

"It wasn't your business then and it isn't your business now," she said. "Besides, I forgave that poor bastard a long time ago."

She was lying. I pointed at her wrist. "What's with the cross?"

"This?" She held it up, turned it back and forth in the meagre light. "This is reassurance."

"Please," I said. "Give me his address."

"I don't have it," she replied. "We didn't exactly stay in touch." She laughed. Again, there was a tinge of bitterness. I wondered if any other kind escaped her lips these days. "If you'd come here a couple of months or even a year after," she continued, "then I'd have handed it over, no questions. Might have carried you there myself, piggy-back. But it doesn't matter now. Nothing matters."

Fat, hot tears welled in my eyes, so I turned to face the wall behind me. Hanging there was the last gift I'd ever bought her: a light-box waterfall, one of those vulgar optical illusions of perpetual motion. I'd always hated it. It reminded me of Niagara Falls, which I visited as a nine-year-old on vacation with my parents, when I stood for an hour watching and listening to what seemed like an ocean spilling over and down with an angry lion-roar, at once enthralled by its sheer unstoppable momentum and saddened by the realization that I was but an infinitesimal and powerless thing beside it; a twig in the slow-churning waters on the approach to that endless drop.

And here I was, teetering on the edge, about to go over.

Damnit, she was lying.

I scanned the room, looking for a personal address book.

I wiped my eyes then turned to her. "The address, Shelley. Yes or no."


I went a little crazy for a while, carrying out a wild search of her bedroom, upending her washing basket, scattering her clothes, yanking drawers and rifling through their contents, even pulling her favorite paperbacks from the shelves and thumbing through thousands of pages, hopeful of finding a paper slip with his contact details on it, of watching it drop to the carpeted floor.

Then, as I paused for breath, it occurred to me that I was merely venting my frustration on the room. I had failed to look in the most obvious place. Of course, it was obvious now.

While I would tuck a thing like Other Guy's address into a wallet compartment, Shelley would do the equivalent--

"Your purse. Where is it?"

Before she could answer I spotted it lying on the hi-fi stand in the corner, between the main unit and the left speaker: a faux-leather clutch purse.

What was that on top of the speaker? It looked like…

It didn't matter, not right now.

I found it. The book, with a holographic dolphin on its cover, fit snugly in the palm of my hand.

I turned back to Shelley.

She gave me a look. "Just promise me something, Joel," she said, tears slipping down her face and around a lesion on her cheek like a stream around a rock. "Come back here when it's done and show me the same mercy you show him."

The meaning of her words did not register with me until I was out of her apartment and descending through the squalor in the stairwell.