CW: terminal sickness.

Paul was on day 458 of his countdown. He weighed fifty-eight kg, down from a lean ninety-three kilograms. He was likewise 58 years old and counting. His doctor predicted it, and Paul felt old, ill, and wasted, his body no longer his own, and tomorrow would be 1999, another brand new year with nothing to look forward to.

He’d asked Matt what Silence equals Death meant for years. He’d be the first to acknowledge he was a simpleton, the one whose IQ corresponded to his shoe size – a recurring gag at the warehouse. Matt grinned broadly and explained that it meant that if you didn’t speak up, more people would perish. But it was in the past. Now it was just an issue with no solution; Paul was dying alone.

His hot body sagged on the Lay-Z-Boy, the weight of his head dragging his chin to his sternum. A pile of Christmas mail spilled to the floor as arms flailed for the TV control. The screen shone, crowds yelled and jumped up and down, but his brain couldn’t grasp the scene: having fun, wet pouring snow, Times Square lights bragging that New York never sleeps, especially on New Year’s Eve. Back in some recess of his consciousness, he knew someone was on their way to assist him up, clean him up, and set him up for another day of battle. As the ball landed, his eyelids closed with slumber.

“Mr. Hilsen, sir, Mr. Hilsen.” Let us help you get up.”

He was softly woken by a pleasant voice, the voice of a home care worker. It took him a long time to concentrate his eyes. Cherie had arrived. Yes, of course she’d come; she was compensated for her time – it was her job.

“Oh, you showed up! Where is Matt? I’m terribly lonely. Isn’t it a new year? Is Matt coming? “Will you join us in celebrating?” But Paul’s final remarks were weak, simply matching his mind and body. Under his armpits, he felt an upward pressure.

“Come on, Mr. Hilsen, let’s get you up there.” “Can you walk a little on your own, or do I need to grab your walker?”

“And Matt, he can also assist me.”

“Yes, Mr. Hilsen. Yes, yes, yes.” Matt isn’t here; he left, remember? Come on, let’s get you ready for the day. Mr. Hilsen, it’s a new year.”

Cherie was powerful, forceful, and courageous. She helped Paul get up and sit on the bench of his walker before wheeling him into the bath. She kept a firm grip on his leg as she switched between hot and cold water.

“All right, Mr. Hilsen, let’s set you on the pot and then have a bath.”

The steam brushed against Paul’s dry, cracked skin. Matt smiled through the fog in his eyes. Bridgeport and Matt were enjoying a thermos of bitter black coffee on a foggy day at the beach. When Paul pulled crushed sugar crystals from his coat pocket, they chuckled.

“Is there no plastic bag?” Matt’s eyes were always glistening and crinkling. “Paul, please turn around. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

And suddenly Matt was down on one knee, proposing with a coffee thermos in one hand and a gold ring in the other, and Paul felt Matt’s hand cover his eyes to close them.

“Mr. Hilsen! Mr. Hilsen!” “I’m going to shampoo your hair.”

Paul felt a gentle touch on his face and realized, in some dark, melancholy nook of his mind, that it wasn’t Matt’s. His skin was cooled before being forcefully massaged dry.

“All right, now get up!” What should we do on the first of the year? I propose that we go for a stroll. “Does it sound good, Mr. Hilsen?”

His body was being manipulated. He heard the inquiry but could only see little sick cells with bleeding mouths and an insatiable appetite devouring up his spine, limbs, and into his brain. He could feel them crawling so strongly that he reached for his head and yanked at his thin hair.

“Come on, Mr. Hilsen, your hair is looking great and fresh.” Let’s wrap this up. Can you put your shirt on? Wonderful.”

It wasn’t fantastic. Paul recalled Matt’s smile gradually becoming to a scowl as Paul’s sores and illness became their way of life. Matt then gave up as Paul sobbed like a kid. Matt had also sobbed, shouting, ‘Love can’t solve every issue.’ He’d exited their apartment, dejected.

What’s the issue? Paul was on his deathbed. What’s the issue? Paul had had a good time when he was younger. What’s the issue? Paul had no concept of implications, guilt, or even immunodeficiency. There was no answer to the situation. Paul was ill, and he was now alone. His fingers had bunched on the top of his pen as he scribbled tight block letters to apologize, to say, even in sickness, I love you Matt.

“Mr. Hilsen! Mr. Hilsen!” Concentrate. Straighten your arm, that will make things easier for both of us!”

The park was alive and well on a crisp New Year’s Day. Children chased pigeons across the snowdrifts. A wrinkled and grey old lady sat with rotting bread. Her metal walker drew in tight like a rusted shield against her swarm of little, brown birds flying around in anticipation. Paul pushed his walker hard, his feet plodding behind it. He was walking, he was upright, birds were chirping, and he was not going to die that day.

They had to be adolescents racing around, blowing noisemakers, laughing hysterically, yelling New Year’s kisses, then collapsing and rolling on each other. Paul couldn’t recall ever being so young. But there was a nice lad who played the trumpet. In the band room, Paul had kissed him and felt such tremendous sparks. He used to be youthful and carefree. Then high school counselors remarked, ‘given your grades and interests,’ and slid a brochure for a vocational program across the desk. His trumpet player had gone to college on a music scholarship far away. Then a large portion of Paul’s life was devoured, until the day he met Matt.

He turned to Cherie. “I’d like to go for a walk around the pond.”

Cherie accompanied him the entire journey, speaking about the birds and her growing grandkids in another city. Paul’s mind began to snap through memories as soon as he saw the water, and there was Matt, bent by the pond, feeding the ducks, a picnic blanket spread, a thermos ready. Paul had come to a halt to observe the stranger, and then his gaze was drawn to Matt’s, and it was love at first sight.

“Hold on to the handles, Mr. Hilsen. Don’t let go since you almost fell there. Take a deep breath. We’ll proceed to that bench. “Look who’s feeding the ducks!”

Ducks with high-flying wings. No, Matt burst out laughing. Seagulls! They’d taken the train and then the ferry to The Pines, where even the dogs wore brilliant nail varnish. Yes, they had danced and whooped with their comrades.

Paul attempted to clear his mind and focus just on the lake and the real ducks, but he was fatigued. A pair walked by, their hands deep in each other’s back pockets. As they smooched, Paul gave a faint smile as their beards tangled. He’d once had a profound love like that. Matt had gone down an aisle, not a genuine wedding aisle, but a celebration of their love, and their parents had sat ecstatically watching their joy. All of their party guests confirmed that they were a contemporary, homosexual couple.

His intellect struggled and grabbed for words at the same time. Those who arrived, terminally ill – alone – made Paul’s tears well up.

“Are you feeling sad, Mr. Hilsen?” You should know that we’re all here together. I’m alone as well, my children have left, my spouse has died, and I take blood pressure medication. Life continues on, and New Year’s Day comes and goes.”

“I thought I spotted Matt by the ducks,” I said. It was difficult to speak or think. It reminded him of those swarming cells, their victory in sight.

“Sit on the walker-bench here, and lift your feet a little. Mr. Hilsen, I’ll push you. “Let’s get you back home.”

Going back through the park was just as sluggish. The continual flow of skateboarders and rollerbladers posed a threat to the asphalt routes. Cherie clutched the next utility pole to gather her breath after pushing Paul across a freezing field of grass. As he looked up, Paul’s neck twitched.

“Wait, what’s that?” That bright pink triangle. Matt once explained it to me.”

“Oh, Mr. Hilsen, that’s an old flier,” a public message said. We still don’t have a decent solution for this problem, you know, silence = death.” Cherie’s voice faded, as did whatever was left unsaid. “Mr. Hilsen, let’s get you home.”

As his visiting assistance arranged his flat, Paul napped on the couch. Cherie was there as he slowly awoke, clutching some mail.

“Hello, Mr. Hilsen. You’re awake, and you’ve got a stack of unread mail. “Should we go through them together?”

Cherie’s fingers jolted halfway through the stack when she noticed the Christmas Card envelope, the addressee’s name, and the return/address unknown stamp. Paul gazed, his reading glasses falling low on his nose. With a firm stroke, he crossed out his own awkward grade school penmanship and Matt’s last address.

“I need to lie down, Cheri.”