Short Story Month: 72 Hours
72 Hours is a short story by John Thacker, a Manchester-based writer and actor. John is passionate about how LGBTQ+ stories are represented, as a member of the community himself.
This story marks the start of our Short Story Month celebrations. At Bits Bobs & Books, we’re passionate about short fiction and the importance of this beautiful art form.
It shouldn’t be this busy. Elliot set his alarm for seven to arrive for opening; the less time he has to spend here the better. Online it says that the clinic is first come first serve and waiting times could often be up to four hours. He doesn’t want to wait that long, it may already be too late for them to help him.
It’s degrading. Standing on the street for the world to see, to judge. Every commuter that drives past, every jogger that eyes him up and down could be somebody he knows. He whips his hood up, silently praying it won’t be much longer until the doors open up.
The events of two nights prior have been playing over in his mind ever since. Each detail replayed, each word analysed, so that he can weigh up his probability of risk. Surely he can’t be the only guy this has ever happened to, these things must happen all the time. It would help if he knew more about the guy he slept with. All he knows is his name, Jack, that he does something in journalism, and that he was ultimately disappointing in bed. If he would’ve known the result would leave him standing outside a sexual health clinic at nearly eight in the morning, being judged by every single person that passes by, he may have reconsidered. But in his defence, he was only doing what single guys his age are supposed to do, how was he to know that the condom would break?
After it happened, Jack tried to reassure him that he gets tested regularly. But Elliot gets the feeling that he is well versed, a regular, to the hookup scene. It was like Jack just knew exactly what to do, the rules were already set for how their evening romp would go. Like a play that you’ve seen before but with a different cast member taking on the supporting role, the structure was in place. General chit chat that neither party is particularly interested in, then the offering of a drink, then the ‘Should we stream a movie?’ line that’s quickly followed by some cuddling and, before you know it, you’re both stripped off, panting and sweating, not thirty minutes after walking through this stranger’s door.
Elliot isn’t as well-versed in the expectations and risks of casual sex. In fact, this is the second guy that Elliot has ever been with. It’s only been six months since he broke up with his girlfriend of almost five years. He entered his adult life in a relationship, and now he feels as though he may have missed that stage where you learn how to navigate the world of sex and dating. Particularly now he wants to explore his attraction to men as well as women. It’s probably too soon for him to start seriously dating, but maybe he could have some fun, isn’t that what single people his age are supposed to do?
After a middle of the night panic and some anxious googling, Elliot found out that there is a medicine called PEP. Apparently this can help prevent someone becoming HIV positive after any suspected risks of infection from unprotected sex. This is all new to him. Surely if you just put on a condom then you’re covered, protected. Apparently not. They never mentioned any of this at school, nothing about men who have sex with men. He remembers just one supposed sex education workshop where his tutor gave out some condoms and then demonstrated wrapping one uncomfortably around a banana.
‘Oh crap’ were the words of realisation Jack muttered as he pulled out the condom. And there it was, clearly ripped, with nothing inside. They both laughed at first, before Elliot started to panic, started to scramble for what this meant, scrambling for what he should say and do and think. Jack clearly wasn’t any Romeo from his reaction. He could have cuddled him, told him it’s all going to be ok, that he’s not at risk. Instead, Jack said that Elliot should ‘probably leave now’ and then blocked him on the app they were chatting on. Clearly quite the catch.
The doors open at last, the herd swarms in. At the desk, he gets a raffle ticket number and a form, they’ll call his number when he’s up. It’s a three-page form which ends with a tick box requesting the purpose of his visit to the clinic. Most of the boxes are green, but the box that reads ‘I may have contracted HIV in the past 72 hours’ is in bold red. His heart begins to race. Maybe he should have come yesterday. He didn’t think. He just didn’t think. He thought that he was probably overreacting. But it’s ok, it’s still way within the 72-hour timeframe. It’s going to be ok.
Around the waiting room, he spots all sorts of characters. Mostly they look younger than him, likely first time away from home, hooking up at university house parties. But some are older, middle-aged even. Good to know that there’s still a sex life after your twenties.
‘Number twenty-five’ his number is demanded by the receptionist. A moment of dread heaves through his body before he stands and is shown the way down the hall to the male waiting area.
He didn’t realise that there would be a second waiting area. There are fewer waiting here, only two men who seem to have come together, and a boy who can’t be any older than eighteen who looks terrified. Eliot is surprised when he looks at his phone and it’s already been an hour since he was waiting in the queue outside, another hour since his risk.
Now, nearly two hours since he arrived, his name is called.
The room looks just like any regular doctor or nurse office. A desk, a bed with a curtain, two chairs in that horrible hospital blue. He can feel his heart pumping out of his chest as he sits down.
‘How can I help you today?’ the doctor asks. She has a warm smile and accent, she’s clearly from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Her tone feels easing and comforting. She has wild curly hair, and an image pops into Elliot’s head of Professor Sprout from the Harry Potter films. Now he can’t shake that image out of his head.
Where to start? Does he say that he thinks he’s at risk? Does he tell her all the personal details about what happened? She sits waiting patiently, eyes barely breaking from Elliot’s gaze.
‘It sounds a bit stupid. I mean, I might be overreacting. But, well, like, the other night I was with a guy. And you know, after the… it broke. And yeah.’
‘So you are worried that you are at risk of contracting HIV from this encounter?’ Elliot nods. ‘Was this encounter last night?’ Here it comes, she’s going to tell him that he should have come sooner, it’s too late.
She doesn’t. She tells him that he did the right thing coming here, and talks him through the treatment, ‘This isn’t contraception and isn’t always 100% effective,’ she warns him bluntly, ‘but this will lessen your chances of contracting infection if you have been at risk.’ It’s basically HIV treatment medicine that he has to take for a whole month, and it’s a combination of tablets he has to take in the morning and night. Some people have side effects, which worries him at first when a long list of symptoms is read out for him, but he is reassured the treatments have been improved over the last few years. It’s going to be ok.
An entire month, one whole month of taking medicine for just a few moments of pleasure which weren’t even as pleasurable as he was hoping for. The sex could’ve least been the explosion of passion that he had craved, was it worth it?
He’s given the option to take the medicine or not. He didn’t expect this, he thought it would be enforced. ‘The question is, do you trust this person?’ Jack did tell him he gets tested often. Maybe if he has casual sex regularly he knows his status, maybe it’s ok to leave it. But, then again, is ‘maybe’ a big enough chance to take for something that could be with him for a lifetime. After all, it was Elliot who had to ask Jack to put the condom on.
‘I don’t know,’ Elliot says. She doesn’t respond and sits back in her chair. ‘Is there any way you can check on the system if he has been checked here before? I think that would reassure me.’ She tells him she can look on the system but she can’t give him any of the information or influence his decision as it’s confidential, which seems pretty pointless to him, surely that’s an important element of this decision?
She nods blankly at the screen when Elliot tells her his name and the few details he has, he remembers his surname from his social media pages, before he was blocked. Then without saying a word about if Jack has been tested before, or when, she simply closes the screen, sits back in her chair, and looks back at Elliot, ‘So what would you like to do today?’
His mind races over the play of events. It’s impossible to say. How can he make this decision? He asks what she thinks he should do. ‘I can’t make this decision for you. It’s about how much you trust this man, but sometimes it’s better to protect yourself.’ She’s right. He doesn’t know anything really about this guy, and he could say anything.
He agrees to get the medicine. She gets the prescription ready, it’s like nothing he’s ever seen before. It’s not like the usual prescription, it’s a long A4 paper, and he’s told he has to go to the specific hospital pharmacy.
Before he leaves the room, she tells him that she is going to test him for HIV along with other STIs that he may have come into contact with from the encounter. A nurse comes in and takes some blood samples, swabs his mouth, and he has to leave a urine sample and take a swab from his behind in the toilet. He is relieved to hear the rumours of having a swab inside your penis aren’t true.
Whilst leaving, he thanks the doctor and she wishes him the best of luck, which feels like she’s rooting for him to get a good grade on an exam, not best of luck that he hasn’t contracted HIV.
There is a bit of a wait at the pharmacy, but it doesn’t take long for his name to be called out. He’s been called ahead of some who were already waiting when he arrived, maybe it’s because of the timeframe of the medicine? The pharmacist asks him to come into the side room to explain how the tablets work.
He sits in the car and takes his first dose of the medicine that he will be taking morning and night for the next twenty-eight days. He realises it’s been nearly four hours now since he first started waiting in the queue outside the clinic.
Before setting off, he opens his phone. Set on deleting the apps that had led him to the last gruelling four hours; the panic, and embarrassment of the entire ordeal. He hovers, about to click delete, when there’s a notification: ‘You have a message from Michael who is within 50m of your destination.’
The app opens, Michael is looking to meet, sending his location. ‘Cute pics. You seem close. Wanna come over to chill? Maybe have some fun?’ Elliot closes the app, takes off his seatbelt, and gets out of the car.