Grief and Gravity

by Barlow Adams

The punctures from the needles left scars up Lucas’ right arm, shiny dots of stale pain set against the darkness of his skin like lights in the night sky. His mom called them his constellations, kissed her way through the galaxy while he slept, making the same wish on every star. 

She bought him the solar system for his next birthday. It came in a bag, heavy and rattling with the mass of a thousand tiny glow-in-the-dark stars. It took months, a little every night, but—with the help of a computer guide—they placed them in the proper spots. All of the heavens secured to the ceiling by the cosmic force of two-sided adhesive tape, replaced and rehung any time a comet crashed to the tan-colored, carpeted earth. 

His mom told Lucas about gas giants and dwarf stars, gave him books on what the moon was really made of (mostly iron, it turned out), and why cheese, while delicious, was not a good substance for a satellite. More, she taught him the names of the secret shapes and animals that inhabited the night sky, defenders that would protect him if he were scared, friends to talk to when he was lonely in the dark. 

They greeted Lucas when he looked out of his bedroom at night. Orion, the hunter, peered with him as he looked out his window into the backyard. Leo, the lion, roared his disapproval at the sallow, yellow cast of Lucas’ skin. The dragon, Draco, stood silently behind his mom as she sat in the rocking chair on the nights he got scared. Ursa Major, the great bear, folded her arms around him when he’d tremble, his space shuttle covers pulled tight to his chin. And Eridanus, the river, carried him to sleep, leaving his mother to kiss his scars and make her wishes. 

They spent half their waking hours watching his blood as it tumbled through the dialyzer, end over end, like a washing machine full of reds. Like magic, it drew the poison from him, pulled out the bad and pumped the good back into him. 

“The human body is amazing,” he told her. “The world is toxic, and we never realize it because our organs are so busy fighting for us. Phosphorus, potassium. Both poisonous in excess. Our kidneys just strip out the extra and send it away.” 

“You’re amazing,” she told him. 

“But not my kidneys.” 

“Even those.” 

“Maybe there’s a planet that’s not poisonous. One where we wouldn’t need kidneys.” 

“Maybe.” 

Bedbound, tied down by gravity and a mess of tubes and wires, he’d watch documentaries about astronauts. They got kidney stones. Most people didn’t know that. It was a real problem. But not for him. He’d be perfect for the job. 

Lucas wrote a letter to NASA, sent a resume, telling them about the kidney stone thing. In it he detailed the extent of his knowledge. He knew about cold welding, knew that Venus was the hottest planet even though most people thought it was Mercury. Even knew the skin on your feet peeled off in space. He wouldn’t mind. In fact, he thought it was cool. 

He told his mom that in space you could cry but your tears wouldn’t fall. That without an atmosphere the footprints from the Apollo mission would be on the moon for a hundred million years. 

“Imagine that,” he said one night lying in bed, swollen foot held up against the window, measured against the moon. “100 million years.” 

Lucas’ footprints vanished far sooner. His mom found one in the dirt on the kitchen floor. She didn’t sweep for weeks. One afternoon she accidentally turned on the overhead fan and it was gone, up into the atmosphere like any other dust. 

Two months after his death, a package arrived for Lucas from NASA. In it was an acceptance letter and an iron-on patch of the American flag. 

His mother sat for nights afterward in Lucas’ room—fallen stars littering the carpet around her—staring up into the thoughtless sky, free now of any shapes or figments of friends. Just lights, cold and distant, letters from long-dead gas giants arriving too late to warm her soul. 

She cursed those stars and the space between, the footprints on the moon that had the nerve to persist for eons. And when she cried her tears fell like rain.

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