Fantasy & Sci-Fi

The White Card

By Bob Hostetler

"I'm closed," he muttered under his breath, not looking toward the sound. He locked the empty cash register and grasped the bulging money bag tightly in his right hand. With the other hand he smoothed the oily black strand of hair over the bald crown of his head.

The rapping continued, louder and more insistent.

Greems felt the nervous sweat bead on his upper lip.

"This is stupid," he said, wiping the perspiration with a movement made automatic by habit. "It's over. I'm home free. Why am I shaking?"

The rapping rattled the glass in the door of Greems' pharmacy. He wrestled his will and eventually lost: he glanced toward the sound. His gaze was met by a pair of squinting eyes on the other side of the pane.

He held the gaze of the human beyond the glass only for a moment before tearing his eyes away and fastening them on his whitening knuckles on the counter.

"No," he argued. "Could be a cop."

The noise, which had halted when he looked at the man in the rain, resumed.

"No, " he repeated. "Don't be stupid. You're too close. Could be a health agent."

The rapping threatened to shatter the dirty glass in the door. Greems froze momentarily, then inhaled slowly and exhaled with a shudder. He squirreled the money bag way under the counter.

"I don't need this," he muttered, a nd shuffled to the door.

He turned the assortment of locks decorating the door like gold braid on a doorman's uniform. He jerked the door open, producing a narrow crack through which he spoke.

"Yeah" he said.

"I need a card," said the man as a bead of rain dropped from the end of his nose.

.Greems stared blankly at the man.

"I said I need a white card," the man said, his eyes blinking like the hazard lights of a car.

Greems broke his silent stare.

"Come back in the morning," he said. "And bring the validated test results with you."

He started to shut the door. The man slid his head into the opening.

"Come on, you know what I mean. I'm positive, man. I've got the virus. If I don't get a white card by morning, they'll cut me off. I can't get my check, I can't keep my room. They'll force me into one of those compulsory clinics."

Greems lowered his head onto his chest like a drunken soldier and stared at his shoes. Don't be stupid, he told himself. You've gotten away with it. Don't ruin it now. A thousand times you could have been caught, but you're finally walking away from it. Tomorrow you and Honey get on that plane and these years of fear and worry will have been worth it. Greems scrutinized the man. If he's a cop or a health agent, it's all over.

"You've got to help me." The man's voice tightened with urgency. His voice rose in pitch. "If you don't help me..." The words choked off in his throat.

Greems' stomach tightened with fear-mingled emotion. The man at the door stopped his frantic blinking and locked eyes with Greems.

"Give me a card. Please."

The balding pharmacist hesitated. Finally, he released his grip on the door, turned and walked back toward the counter. The man shouldered into the store, clicked the door shut gently and stood silently dripping in the semi-darkness.

Greems rolled his eyes toward the wall clock. Great. I'm gonna be late again. Honey's gonna kill me.

He poked a stubby hand under the counter and withdrew a large, nearly-white card. He patted his pockets absently and pulled out a short, greasy pencil that resembled one of his own fingers. He shuffled back to the stranger and extended the card and pencil.

"Fill it out. Hurry."

He circled the man and turned the locks on the door. He peered through the window, up and down the street. He retreated again to the counter and stood behind a gray boxlike structure. He looked at the clock again. There would be another fight with Honey tonight and he would certainly lose. He'd been promising for months that once he and his wife got out of this hellish place, things would be like they once were between them.

"There," he said, motioning to the stranger. "Stand right there. Now don't move."

Greems took several steps to his right, flipped a few switches and the fluorescent lights on the ceiling flickered.

"Quickly now. Ready?" A weak click and whir emerged from the gray box. "There. Give me the card."

The stranger returned the stiff form to Greems, who stepped over to the light switch on the wall and returned the room to semi-darkness.

This is it, now, Greems told himself. If he's going to arrest you, it's going to be when the money changes hands. He finished entering the information into the computer and separated the passport-style photograph from the coated paper while he waited for the card to print out. When it was assembled, he imprinted the card with his pharmacy stamp. He passed it to the shivering stranger.

Greems had been issuing the cards almost since they first came out, a government response to the AIDS outbreak. It seemed that as soon as a drug was approved to combat the epidemic, a new strain would break out, and researchers would have to start over. Meanwhile, each new virus seemed more deadly than the last and the government had established compulsory clinics in an attempt to quarantine the victims. People testing negative for the HIV virus were issued white cards. Without a white card, a person could not cash government checks or gain employment, and would eventually be forced into a clinic.

The man extracted a limp wallet from his pocket. "Don't worry. I know the rate."

Greems felt a sinking feeling in his belly. He watched the wallet come out of the man's pocket as if it were a pistol being drawn from a holster. You blew it, he though. All those years of taking chances and saving pennies to get out of this hellhole and you blow it because you couldn't turn one guy away at ten o'clock at night.

The stranger opened his wallet. Greems waited for a glimpse of the badge.

"Sorry," the stranger said. "I got it. Give me a minute." After a few fumbling moments, he pulled a handful of worn and crinkled currency from the folds of the wallet. He laid it on the counter.

Greems blinked at the money. The man still held the wallet, as if in readiness.

"That's the amount, right?"

Greems glanced at the man. "Yeah," he said. Without taking his eyes off the man, he gripped the bills tightly in his fist. He waited.

The two faced each other in the shadowy drug store.

"So," the man said. "Thanks. Thanks a lot."

Greems still held the money. No badge. The man was not going to arrest him.

As if waking from a dream, the pharmacist shuffled back to the door and turned the locks, one by one. He drew the door open, no wider than it was earlier, and waited for the man to pass through. The man started to edge through the narrow gap between the door and wall, stopping momentarily when his face passed within inches of the pharmacists.

"Thanks," the man repeated, and then he was gone.

Greems shoved the door shut behind the man, and threw the locks into place once more. His hand held the last lock for a moment. He swallows.

Turning from the door, he trod toward the counter, withdrew the money bag from the shelf, opened it and stuffed the crumpled bills into it. He paused, bag in hand, and stared into the empty, creaking store.

The stranger's face returned to his mind. The typewritten characters of the man's name seemed seared on his eyes, like the negative image of a bright object when the eyelids close.

It was that way, it seemed, with all of his bogus white card customers. The names and faces of the infected flashed before is eyes at all hours of the day and night. He couldn't seem to escape them. But now he would, finally. After tomorrow, no more seamy drug store, no more sweaty palms, no more dying victims coming to him for a black market bill-of-health. Tomorrow, he and Honey would leave the old life behind and start a life of comfort with his "nest egg" gained from profits, both legitimate and illegitimate.

He arrived home to a darkened house. Honey usually waited up for him.

I'm not that late, he reasoned as he tiptoed upstairs to the bedroom.

The moment he eased into the dark bedroom he sensed something was different. He crept to the bed and patted the covers gently.

The bed was made, Honey was not there.

He straightened abruptly. After a moment of confused hesitation, he reached to the lamp and switched it on. The surface of the bed was, indeed, smooth. A scribbled note was propped against his pillow.

He picked it up slowly and read with growing horror. The note, from his wife, explained that she had left him: "I still love you, in my own way, Howard. But I've fallen in love with a man who gives me everything I've ever dreamed of. We've loved each other for months, now. His name is Albert Potter, I wish you all the happiness I've found, I really do."

She signed the note, "Love, Honey."

Greems' hand shook as he reread the words. He felt the room sway. He sat down uneasily on the bed and closed his eyes. His heart turned to stone in his chest.

"Albert Potter." The note said. Albert Potter.

Greems couldn't bring himself to say the name aloud. It was too familiar. It flashed on the inside of his closed eyelids, in the characters of his pharmacy computer.