by Mary Ryan Karnes
Today is one of Luke’s last normal days. This is before he goes into the hospital and doesn’t leave, before the choir of pill bottles on the nightstand or the embarrassing end times when he is so weak his partner does nothing but kneel beside the bed and offer up blue popsicles the size of thumbs. Today he feels fortified. He looks in the mirror and looks like himself. Thin? Sure. Dark circles? Expected. But this is the best he’s been in weeks.
The apartment is bare; most of his things have found their way into boxes lining the den. He has sold the place, and his partner has already gotten a new one on Julia Street. “This will be our room,” Harold told him weeks ago when they stood together in the master bedroom, so large and prone to echo.
Solitude, Luke tells himself, is suffocating, so he takes a walk alone in the middle of the day. The duck pond is calling his name. He stuffs bread into his pockets and walks forward, always forward, piercing the air with his chin.
Then a miracle happens: he sees his dear sister and her accountant husband and their pearl of a son, the love of his life, his fat nephew with the patchy hair. Mother and father are swinging baby over puddles, laughing, all pointing at the same shrub. They do not see Luke walking toward them, trying his best to be cool about the electric love he feels for the family he hasn’t seen in months. He waves when they turn around and calls out to his sister, “Fancy meeting you here!”
She returns his bear-hug with ill-concealed timidity, gives a smile and asks softly how he’s been. “I feel strong,” he says. Then he pulls the bread from his pockets and crouches to meet his nephew’s gaze. “I came to feed the ducks. Do you want to help?”
The child throws his arms around Luke’s neck. Luke picks the boy up and goes in for the biggest forehead kiss, maybe ever, in all the goddamn cosmos.
“Put him down,” the accountant says. “I’m sorry, man, we just can’t run the risk that comes with contact.”
“Surely you understand,” says his sister. “It’s complicated. We’re afraid.”
“I’m sure,” Luke says.
Conversation flattens, then there is some bullshit about the nephew’s playdate across the park. “Blow your uncle a kiss,” says the man’s sister as the family leaves, waving as they step backwards like stop-motion figures in a Christmas special. Like this really, really wasn’t supposed to happen.
Luke turns away from them, then he spins right back around with sudden tenacity and says, “You know, your fear is a little outdated. Very eighties of you, Matthew. Very eighties.”
But they are already gone. Walking home, Luke repeats this: they are only afraid because they don’t understand. Like children themselves, they know no better. But quickly the mantra loses its power. Can’t run the risk? Can’t hug? Can’t kiss? Of course they can; they just won’t. Anyone in the world could hold him: the doctor, the homeless man over there scaring squirrels with a stick. Hell, even the grand oak trees could pick him up and suspend him in their branches if they really wanted to, covering him just-so with Spanish moss, feeling every inch of his perfectly good body.
At home, Luke settles into the couch, a boat in his emptier and emptier living room. Harold unlocks the door and joins him. Harold makes tea for Luke. Luke tells the story to Harold, the one from earlier that day. Night falls and their legs are tangled, arms thrown over one another like twins in the womb, just before birth. Silent they float for a few more days.
Mary Ryan Karnes is a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi and a Hattiesburg native. She studies English and hopes to one day teach contemporary literature in a university setting.