By Daniel Seth Kislek
“Can I see the stars?”
I wake with a start to the cold, quiet interior of a hospital. A quick glance at the clock on the wall tells me that it's almost midnight. The book that I'd dozed off reading hours ago is laying on the floor in front of my chair. My neck has gone stiff, and I try to stretch away the pain before leaning down to retrieve the book. After picking it up I notice that my brother is watching me intently from his bed. He seems to be more alert than normal.
“What? Was I drooling?”
He smiles and something in my heart begins to hurt, it's not an expression I get to see on his face very often. Every joint in my body aches as I stand up and stretch. I notice that my brother is still watching every move that I make. I smile and walk over to the side of his bed to check him over.
“Are you feeling alright?” I ask.
I can still feel his eyes on me as I check several of the machines next to his bed. His readings are within the normal limits, but I can't shake the feeling that something isn't quite right. He doesn't seem too warm as I feel his forehead. The pulse at his wrist is weak from his medicine, but steady.
“There's nothing wrong with me.” He says without any sarcasm. “At least nothing beside the usual.”
I fix him with a knowing stare.
“I'm just waiting for you to answer my question.”
I try to remember what I heard when I woke up. I'd dismissed the words as something from a half forgotten dream. I remember his question now. My chest tightens up before I even think about giving him the usual answer.
“Maybe another night, when you're stronger.”
He looks down at his empty hands and the tightness in my chest grows.
“I haven't been this strong in months,” he argues, “and I probably won't ever feel this good again. Who even knows how much longer I'm going to be here? I could be gone tomorrow.”
“Don't say that. We are going to find a cure, or a treatment, but until we do, you have to stay strong.”
He sighs heavily and turns his head away from me on the pillow. I want to give him this small thing that he desires, but he can't be moved from his bed. The machines which stand like sentries by his bedside are the only things keeping him alive. Without their support his body would only survive for a few hours on its own, if even for that long.
“Why can't you just take me up onto the roof? I only want to see them once before I–”
“Stop.” I say, interrupting him as much for my sake as his own. “We've had this conversation before, and it never ends well.”
“I know, I know,” he replies, “but I've never seen them.”
I look at him for a long hard moment. He's half a dozen years younger than me, but he still looks more like my mother and father than I ever will. His words are true, as hard to believe as they may sound. He's been sick, essentially, since birth. Due to the severity of the disease, our parents were forced to move us into the city, closer to the hospitals that might be able to find a cure. It wasn't always quite as bad as it is now. He used to be able to go outside, at least for short periods of time. In the city however, with so much ambient light and smog, he could never see the stars. Even on the clearest and darkest of nights the only thing ever visible was the hazy silhouette of the thickly veiled moon.
“You know as well as I do that even if I took you up there...” I start.
“Yeah, yeah, I wouldn't be able to see anything because of the light pollution, I know. But it rained today, so at least most of the smog would be gone. I could at least see some of them.”
“Yes, it did rain today, and you probably could see a precious few stars, but the rain also made it cold outside, and damp. You would almost certainly catch a cold, or worse.”
He still isn't looking at me, and it's breaking my heart a little more with each passing second. I am more than a little tempted to grant his wish, to unplug him from his life support and take him to the roof. What he said about the rain is true; the earlier precipitation would have cleared out enough of the airborne pollution to make a good number of stars visible. Even through the permanent glow of light generated by the surrounding metropolis, he would still be able to see a few. There is something he is not taking into account, however, and that is disappointment. I know that if I take him up to the roof, and he is able to see only a handful of stars, and not the whole sky lit up like in his books and magazines, he will only be let down. Should he be able to survive such an adventure, he would want to go out again, and the first trip alone might be one too many.
“I will try to find you some more books and magazines about astronomy, okay?”
“They aren't the same,” he says softly. “You cannot make paper shine with the same light that pierces the infinite darkness to sparkle in the night sky.”
“Spoken like a true astronomer.” I reply in agreement, amazed at how much his suffering has aged his personality. In some ways, he is already more mature than I am, even though I'm almost seven years older. He faces his own mortality every day, and still manages to maintain enough strength to argue with me, along with enough positivity to hope that his dreams will be realized one day.
“Tell me about them again, the way you remember them.”
He reaches over slowly, and pushes the button on a small device that sits on the table next to his bed. A small black orb mounted in a bracket with a circular base comes to life. I walk over and dim the lights as an artificial star field appears on the ceiling and walls. Among the exaggerated constellations are completely randomized stars. There are also inappropriately placed and unrealistic looking nebulae. Several identical-looking comets go streaking across the walls and ceiling of the darkened room. My brother knows that this artificial star-scape is not an accurate representation of the true night sky. It does not change the fact that the projector is his most treasured possession. I bought it for him a few years ago, when the doctors told us he would never be able to leave his hospital room again. It was the same day we were told that he didn't have much time left. I let out a deep breath, and try not to think about the inevitable event that they placed sometime in the not too distant future.
“The best memory I have of the stars, that I can remember, happened before you were born.”
He's heard the story a thousand times, but he never gets tired of it, though I never really change the way I tell it.
“It was the night that Mom and Dad told me I was going to have a baby brother soon. I remember that night so vividly. I was happy, but confused. It had been raining all day, and well into the evening. After they went to bed, I sneaked outside and walked up to the hill beside the old house. When I got to the top, I looked up at the sky. The clouds had cleared from the center-most point in the storm, but they still circled the horizon on all sides. Lightning continued to strike in the surrounding clouds, but the sky above let in the most beautiful, clear view of the heavens I've ever seen. The full moon shone down through the darkness like a giant pearl, surrounded by stars that looked so bright that they could be fire-filled diamonds inside a crown formed by the milky way. I didn't know any of the constellations back then, so I tried to make one of my own. I tried to make one that would look like my new baby brother.”
A soft murmur from the bed lets me know that my brother has fallen asleep, most likely because of one of his many medicines. I move closer and lean over the bed to look at him closely. I carefully touch his forehead, just where his hair used to start. He sighs deeply and rolls over toward me, still asleep. I can see the hints of a smile at the corners of his lips, he must be dreaming of the stars. The smile fades as he starts to shiver; it's the medicine again. Luckily, the nurses in this hospital are kind enough to have left us some spare blankets. I grab one and quickly throw it over him. It takes some time for his shivering to stop, longer than usual, it seems. He's warm now, but his breath is coming in shallow gasps. I give his shoulder a quick squeeze just before I notice the first signs of an anxiety attack gripping my body. I walk outside the room to take a short break.
The sound of the door to his room closing is like a signal, allowing me to let my emotions out, if only for a moment. I lean back against the wall next to the door and let out a shuddering sigh. Pushing against my eyelids with my fingertips, I manage to stave off the tears. For a moment, it feels like it would be okay to go back inside the room. As soon as my fingers touch the door, I realize my mistake, my chest instantly tightens up to the point that I can barely breathe. The anxiety is still there.
A soft touch on my shoulder startles me, but also manages to help me regain control of my emotions. I turn around to see one of my brother's doctors, his favorite in fact. She has been working with my brother for so long, that she feels like a part of the family. She is somewhat older than myself, with a kind face and dark hair that has early strands of gray running through it. I suspect this is because she cares about each of her patients so much.
When she greets me, I can hear the strain in her voice. I can see the concern in her tired eyes. It's very late, and I find myself wondering why on earth she is still here at work. She should have gone hours ago. She informs me that some of my brother's test results came back in, close to the end of her shift. She'd pored over the results, over, and over again, completely losing track of time. It seems like she is avoiding saying something, and my worst fears are confirmed when she says that she wanted to talk to me, one on one.
Some people will tell you that when the news finally comes, it brings with it a relief. After battling the disease for so long, a sick person can finally find the release of death. Others will tell you that the information is nothing more than a heartache; that after maintaining hope during the hardest times, to at last have it dashed upon the inevitable is unbearable. Both of these strange and terrible emotions begin to wage a war inside my heart as the doctor tells me as gently as possible: “At best, he has several days left, but at worst–” her voice trails off to almost a whisper, this is painful for her too.
“Be prepared for the worst.”
“But, he's doing so well today, have you seen him?” I hear myself ask.
“This happens quite often. Dying people will regain lucidity, clarity, and energy one last time before 'it' happens. It's almost cruel in a way, because it gives you a false sense of hope.”
I can see the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Are you sure the results are correct?”
“The lab ran the tests in triplicate to make sure. There were no mistakes.”
I nod silently, as an icy numbness wraps its talons about my heart.
“If you wouldn't mind,” she asks, “I'd like to spend a little time with him, myself.”
“It's no problem, I think I'm going to go for a short walk.”
She smiles that sad smile that everyone gives you when they know that something devastating has just happened. As she wraps her arms around my shoulders, I feel hot tears run down across my cheeks, though it doesn't feel like I'm crying. I think I must be in shock. Despite knowing this day might come, I couldn't have ever prepared. I return the hug, and thank her for all of the work that she's done with my brother before she disappears into his room.
I half walk, half stumble my way to the elevators, and take one to the ground floor of the hospital. I am so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I accidentally take a wrong turn, toward the back of the building. I pass the room where they apparently keep the back-up generators. A large sign next to the door states that during a power failure, the emergency generators will automatically kick-in before any devices completely lose power. Next to this sign is a maintenance sign-in sheet. I glance over it, if only to distract me for a moment, though I really have no interest in the document.
A soft tinkling sound distracts me from my morbid thoughts. It seems to be coming from behind an exit door adjacent to the generator room. It sounds like the jingling tune of an ice cream truck. I push my way through the door, into the alley behind the hospital. The light, enticing melody is coming from just around the parking garage attached to the hospital. In my brain, I know that it's far too late for an ice cream truck to be making its rounds, but in my heart all I want to do is share a frozen treat with my brother. I make my way around the parking garage, only to come face to face with a small traveling carnival. I had completely forgotten this is the weekend that the group visits the hospital for a benefit every year. They must have postponed opening due to the rain earlier.
I meander through the various rides and games, watching families with their children. I recognize many of them as patients inside the hospital. The sight of their smiling faces lifts my spirits somewhat, but also makes me think of how I will never get the chance to share this with my brother. I recognize one little girl in particular, she was roommates with my brother for a long time, I got to know her parents really well. She made a miraculous recovery from a rare form of cancer. I walk over to say hello, and to talk with her parents. They all ask about my brother, and how he's doing. My heart breaks all over again, but I hold it together long enough to tell them he's doing good, for tonight at least. As I tell them it was good to see them, and that I should be getting back, the young girl tugs at my shirt.
“You should tell your brother about Sirius.” She says with a smile.
“The star? He probably knows more about it than myself. He wants to be an astronomer some day.”
“No, not the star, Sirius,” she replies. “The ferris wheel over there is called Sirius.”
She points out an ancient looking machine that seems to have faded into the darkness. Most of its lights seem to be burnt out, or turned off. An old gentleman waits beside the gate to take tickets, though it doesn't seem like many people want to ride it in its darkened state. I tell the young girl that I will go check it out before I go back inside.
“Ask the old man about the story, it's the best part!” She calls after me.
I discover that the aforementioned 'old man' is in fact truly ancient. He looks at me with tired eyes as I walk up. It seems that he has already dismissed me as some young person who has no interest in his ride. His eyes light up after I ask him about the history of the ferris wheel. He is all too eager to tell the tale.
“Do you know how this particular ferris wheel got it's name?”
I shake my head.
“It got the name Sirius, because when this beauty was lit up, it shone like the brightest star in the night sky, just like the actual star Sirius. It was so bright, it could light up an entire town.”
“It's a pity most of the bulbs are blown now. That would have been something to see.” I say.
The old man grunts a reply, as though offended. “Oh they aren't blown at all, in fact, almost all of them work.”
“Then why are they all off?”
“About ten years ago was the last time we had her completely fired up. It was right here in this parking lot, in fact. These bulbs aren't any of those new energy efficient things, these are classic old three hundred watt incandescents. All lit up, they drew too much current and all the lights in the city went dim. Hell, if we turned her on tonight, with the power grid as strained as it is, there would probably be a temporary blackout.”
His last sentence runs through my mind like quicksilver flames. I come to an agreement with him before running as fast as I can, back inside the hospital. When I arrive at my brother's room, his doctor is holding his hand. His breath is coming in quick gasps, and his eyes are staring blankly at the ceiling. She looks up at me, and I can tell she has been crying. I want to break down and do the same now, but I can't. I tell her my plan. She refuses at first, but then agrees to take care of any resulting formalities. She helps me disconnect him from his machines. His mechanical sentries throw a code, but as the nurses rush into the room, the doctor gently explains the situation. Thankfully, the nurses do not argue, and step aside from the door as I tuck the blankets underneath my brother.
His long struggle, almost over now, has taken such a toll on his body, he is light in my arms. I carry him through the door, down through the elevator, and outside. He doesn't shiver as I carry him out the back doors, into the chill night air. It takes me a bit longer, with him in my arms, to make it back to the ferris wheel. I try not to look at the old man as I pass, I can tell he is crying. I gently set my brother on one of the benches of the ride, careful to set his head softly against the headrest. The old man straps us in, and starts the wheel turning. He stops us as our seat reaches the highest point of the ride.
I hear the old man flip the switch down below. I reach into my brother's blankets to take his hand as the transformers audibly warm up inside the control box twenty feet below us. We are surrounded by a brilliant, blinding light, as though we sit atop a blazing shooting star. Several bulbs burst just before the combined drain of twenty thousand incandescent lights overload the power grid. I lean my head back, as the city goes black. The darkness will only last a minute at most, but the dark heavens above bloom to life with starfire, like a black orchid filled with crystalline dew drops. I hear a sharp gasp from the seat beside me, as I feel the small hand squeezing my own.