by Steve Carr

On the sofa, Nick has his left arm around Jim’s shoulders. They’re sitting very close, but there’s a small amount of space between them. Their eyes are on the television, each lost in the passing images of a football game. The television is muted. They’ve said nothing for a while.

Jim raises his head and looks at his watch that has a black leather band. ‘I need to go.’

‘We didn’t actually cuddle and you haven’t used all of your scheduled time,’ Nick says.

Jim slowly stands, stretches. ‘That’s okay.’

Nick stands also. ‘I hope I didn’t do anything to make you uncomfortable.’

‘No it was fine. As I told you over the phone, I’ve never cuddled with another man,’ Jim says.

‘Do you want to schedule a second session?’ Nick asks.

‘I’ll think about it and call you if I do,’ Jim replies.

They go to the door and Nick opens it. ‘We didn’t really talk. I’m sure you must have questions.’ Nick says. ‘The first session is always awkward.’

‘It wasn’t awkward. Just different.’

Jim goes out the door and then Nick slowly closes it. He goes to the window and opens the drapes. There’s no moon, but the sky is pimpled with stars.  

*

Flakes of fish food sink in the aquarium water, chased and nibbled on by the angel fish. The largest among them, with orange and white stripes, is Nick’s favorite, although it’s done nothing different than the others to gain his affection. When there’s a knock on the front door he goes to the door, opens it.

‘I’m glad you came back,’ he says.

‘I thought maybe I should give it another chance,’ Jim says. ‘Maybe it would help if we talked a little,’ he says.

‘Sure,’ Nick says.

The two men sit on the sofa.

How long have you been doing this?’ Jim asks.

‘Only three months,’ Nick says. ‘I started Cuddle Inc. right after I moved into this bungalow. It’s a harmless way to make a little extra money while providing a service.’

‘How many clients do you have?’

‘You’re my only one currently. I was cuddling with an elderly woman who has cancer and a cop who suffers from lots of job stress, but both abruptly stopped making appointments.’

After minutes when neither of them say anything, Jim says, ‘I just need a little no-strings attached kindness.’

Nick scoots over and puts his arm around Jim and pulls him close to him. ‘We all need a little kindness.’

Jim rests his head on Nick’s shoulder.

They’re quiet, listening to each other breath, intermittently tightening their hugs.

‘Besides the money, what do you get out of doing this?’ Jim asks.

‘It’s all about you, your needs, not mine,’ Nick says.

‘Would you mind if I take off my shoes?’

‘Not at all,’ Nick says. ‘I’ll do the same.’

The two men remove their shoes, and then return to cuddling.

‘When I was little my mom used to hold me just like this,’ Jim says. ‘She would tell me poems and stories that were in this old book, The Bumper Book. I wish I could remember even one of them.’

Nick hugs Jim close against his chest. ‘It’s the memory of the moments that’s important.’

‘What about your moments that you remember?’

Nick looks at his watch and says, ‘Time’s up.’

The fan has acquired a new sound, a slight squeak, as the blades turn. Left on, the television is silent but it bathes the room in blue light.

At the door, Nick shifts nervously from one foot to the other and then abruptly and clumsily hugs Jim. ‘I’d be all alone if it weren’t for you,’ he says.

‘Where are your family and friends?’ Jim asks, startled, alarmed.

Nick tightens his hold on Jim, his fingers dig deep into Jim’s back. ‘Dead and gone.’ He begins to sob uncontrollably.  

Jim forcefully detaches himself from Nick’s embrace. He takes out his wallet and throws a fifty dollar bill at Nick. As he goes out the door he says, angrily, ‘I thought this was about me.’

As Nick closes the door he wipes the tears from his face with the back of his hand. He goes to the aquarium, bends down, and sees his favorite fish is floating belly up in the gurgling water.

Steve Carr has had over 230 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions.

His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/.
His Twitter is @carrsteven960.