The Last Romantics - Tara Conklin

Year 2079

At first I believed the girl to be an apparition. A ghost. She rose from the crowd in the auditorium and walked to the microphone.

I remained very still. For the past ninety minutes, I had been seated onstage to discuss my body of work. As much as I dread large crowds, the event had been a success. The audience was respectful, intelligent, curious. I’d even made them laugh. That joke about the frog, of all things. We heard the sirens only once, a brief wail during which I paused my reading. We all waited, the thousand here in the auditorium and the thousands more watching via satellite and DTR. We waited, and then the sirens quieted, and I resumed with my poem.

Afterward the questions. So many questions! My first public event in twenty-five years—of course there would be questions, but I was not prepared for the intensity, the thoroughness with which these people had read my work. It still surprises me now, eighty years into this literary experiment, that my words might mean something to anyone other than myself.

I am 102 years old and a poet of some renown. My name is Fiona Skinner.

When the girl stepped forward, my attention was elsewhere. My energy low. I wondered what snack Henry had waiting for me backstage and hoped it was the candy with the peanut butter in the center, my favorite. My thoughts fixed on other comforts: the tall, soft bed in my house in the mountains; the river stocked with trout; the deep, cold well; the generator with its soothing hum. We never heard the sirens there, no, the nearest town was too far. It was a safe place, our house, a place beyond the reach of politics and rising oceans. At least that’s what I chose to believe. It’s possible to exist under any number of illusions, to believe so thoroughly in the presence of things you cannot see—safety, God, love—that you impose upon them physical shapes. A bed, a cross, a husband. But ideas willed into being are still ideas and just as fragile.

The girl at the microphone was an arresting sight: slender and tall, a dark bob cut short and sharp to her chin. She looked eighteen, perhaps twenty years old. Not a girl, then, nearly a woman.

The crowd was silent. She coughed into her hand. “Ms. Skinner,” she began. “My name is Luna.”

“Luna?” I said, and my voice caught, my breath stilled. For a moment I traveled back all those years to a different place and time. At last, I thought. Luna has returned.

“Yes. My mother named me after the last line of The Love Poem,” she said.

“Oh, of course.” I smiled. Henry had told me about this, the popularity of the name. The Love Poem had that effect on some readers. They wanted to keep a piece of it. And here was one of those babies, now grown, standing before me. Another Luna.

The girl’s face was half in shadow. I saw a mole high on her right cheek. About the size of a dime. A birthmark. A dark kiss.

“My mother always wanted to ask you about the name,” Luna continued. “She’d memorized the last pages at school. When my brother and I were little, she’d recite them at dinner if we were feeling down.” Her face became soft with the memory. “The Love Poem meant so much to her. I want to know, for my mother. Who was your inspiration? Who was Luna?”

The auditorium went still. Onstage the lights had become hot, but a cold spread through me, ice flooding my veins. I shivered. A sweat rose along my hairline. It was a question I’d always refused to answer publicly. And privately; even Henry didn’t know the truth. But of course I should have expected it tonight. Isn’t that why I’d agreed to speak one last time? Isn’t that why I was here? To finally tell this story.

An old regret lodged in my throat, blocking my voice. I coughed.

“Luna is the Spanish word for moon, of course,” I said. “In the poem itself, there are many metaphors, many symbols that mean different things. I wrote it seventy-five years ago, my dear. Your mother, you, anyone here”—I waved my palm at the audience—“you know what the poem means more than I do now.”

The Luna standing before me shook her head in frustration. A lock of hair fell into her eyes, and she pushed it away. “No. I mean the real woman. My mother always said there