October 1987

Ricky, Randy and Robert Ray stand alone on a Florida beach.

Ricky Ray, 10, convened the meeting in the small blue bedroom underneath a bare light bulb. It was the day after the beginning of school in Arcadia, Fl. Things were not going well for him and his siblings. "One girl said she could catch it by standing by me, by touching me, even by going fishing with me," recalls Ricky. At recess that day two boys had ganged up on him, one in front, one in back. Ricky couldn't punch back, mindful in a way no child should have to be of a court order: The Ray boys, hemophiliac carriers of the AIDS virus, could attend classes, but they must not engage in actions, such as fighting, that might contaminate other children.

"So I wanted to quit school," Ricky says. "We agreed that if one of us wanted to quit, we all would. We thought we'd go to California or somewhere." He called for a formal vote. Robert, nine, Randy, eight, and Candy, six (neither a carrier nor a hemophiliac), voted to leave. They told their parents--who persuaded them to give school one more chance. Wednesday went well. Thursday was better. "By Friday," remembers their father, Cliff, "they came home and were happy, really happy. They said, “We want to stay."

That was the day, August 28, that someone set fire to their house. The family was not at home. The fire burned hottest in the boys' room, below a poster reading, "Please hug me. I have AIDS. I can't make you sick."

Cliff and Louise Ray, both 29 and both unemployed, gave up. They moved their family out of Arcadia, a cattle and citrus town in West-Central Florida, to the Sarasota area, where they are renting a two-bedroom duplex a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. A fund of donations to them from all over the country now exceeds $50,000. They have testified before Congress and been defended by the President. The Rays have been disrupted and displaced--but upward, to the peculiar American limbo of victim -celebrity.

Arson ruined the Rays' house and their daughter's doll.

Candy Ray (top), although loyal to her brothers, seemed to enjoy the publicity. Ricky (lying face down) imagined that the fire was his fault.

The three boys are tanned and healthy-looking; they defy rather than define the image of the timid, sickly hemophiliac. Though they have AIDS antibodies in their blood--received from tainted infusions of the clotting factor that hemophiliacs require--they're free of AIDS symptoms and may resist the disease indefinitely. "My kids' sickness, if you want to call it that, isn't hurting them," Cliff says. He spits tobacco juice into a green plastic cup. "My young 'uns can fight off sickness. They can't fight off the other, the community rejection."

Louise Ray sighs. Even when upset, she has a way with words. Some adults, she says, have a thorn in their side from a childhood grief or guilt. "Well, my kids will carry around a cactus. You might take it away, but the wound is still there, and it'll always be painful."

Ricky sits quietly in the toy-strewn duplex. As the oldest boy, he has tried to think it all through. He knows he should never father children. "I'd like to have kids," he says in his sandpapery voice, "but you could give the AIDS virus to the girl, and she could die. So we'll just have to adopt."

Ricky is too proud to snuggle up to his mother, but not so Robert, the middle son. He's snuggling now, trying to squirm into the narrow crevice between Louise and the back of the beige couch. Robert is watchful and bookish. "If I could have three wishes," he says, "I'd wish, first, that we could go back to Arcadia. Everyone would come around us, and no one would pick on us, and no one would know about the antibodies. Second, I wish we could go to school like normal people. Third, I wish I could have any wish I want."

Last year, while he and his brothers were tutored at home (with public funds), Robert wished for a gymnastics class. He can backflip off the hood of his parents' white pickup, he walks on his hands, he cartwheels like a tumbleweed across the playgrounds of fast-food restaurants. "The hemophilia was never really a hindrance," Louise says. "They rode bikes, climbed trees. The only thing I prohibited them from doing was tackle football."

Randy, the youngest boy, has been the most disturbed by the events culminating in the fire, his parents say. He talks often about his toy monkey, which burned. "It had been restuffed, it lost its tail, but every time Randy went to the hospital, Mr. Monkey went too," says Louise. "When Randy went in a year ago to have intestinal polyps removed, it went into surgery with him." It was during the blood workups before the operation that the AIDS antibodies were discovered, changing the family's life forever.

In Arcadia, stigmatized now as the town without pity, the Ray parents are considered opportunists and child exploiters. But the story of three vibrant boys afflicted by both hemophilia and the AIDS virus was irresistible. Cliff and Louise, with their employment problems, did not hide from reporters when their sons were barred from school and church. After their plight was cited by the President last spring, benefactors began filling in some of the bare spots in the children's lives with new clothes and toys and trips for the family. The Rays went to Disney World, to Michigan to enroll the boys in a camp for hemophiliacs, twice to the Burt Reynolds theater in Jupiter, Fl. Inside their scruffy frame house, in a neighborhood of mobile homes and migrant laborers where roosters crow in mid-afternoon, signed pictures of movie stars were framed on the walls.

Today the family is even more dependent on strangers for food, clothes, housing. "We will be in transition for a while," Louise says. There is pain in her eyes as she talks about trying to reinvent family life and reinstall a daily routine. But first must come a permanent home, a new school and jobs. Louise last worked as a licensed practical nurse, Cliff as a fruit hauler. "I want to go out and buy me a semi," Cliff says. "Before, we always said, 'No, we can't, what if we fall flat on our face?'"

"We can't fall any flatter," says his wife. And little Candy has something to say: "Tell them," she pipes up, "tell them that my brothers can't make you sick."

Robert is the child who most wants Louise's hugs.