Touch the Stars - A 3 Random Word story
This month's word were: Adventurous, Science, Love. Colin hasn't seen Simon since he left for college last year, and a lot has changed. Determined to cross everything off Simon's bucket list, he plans the week of a lifetime for the two of them to share. When life gets in the way of Colin's plans, he must find another way to fulfill Simon's dreams.
Simon snored in the passenger seat of Colin’s Chevy Silverado, his large gulping breaths sending rippled vibrations through the cab of the truck. It had been over a year since Colin heard Simon’s legendary rumbling nostrils, and he was shocked to find it a welcome sound. He glanced over at his younger brother, on the verge of graduating high school, his entire life stretched before him.
Stretched being the operative word.
Simon’s appearance had changed over the past year. He had cut his long, sandy blonde hair down to his scalp, exposing several dried patches of skin. His lips were an ashy pink, and the rosiness that used to spread across his cheeks had grown pale. It appeared as though he was perpetually thawing from an afternoon playing in the snow. Still, he somehow managed to look older, wiser. There were patches of hair growing around his jawline, and he spoke as if he had years of expertise in astronomy. It was Simon’s greatest love, and his brilliance in the field would take him right to NASA’s headquarters. If he got the chance to finish college, that was.
Colin cringed as the old blue Chevy hit a deep pothole, hoping that his blunder didn’t wake his brother. He held his breath as Simon’s head rolled from one side to the other, his eyes never bothering to open.
Though the roads were quiet this early in the morning, Colin’s mind was loud and eager. He stroked his scruffy beard as he reviewed the week he’d planned for the two of them in his head.
A few moments later, Colin eased his truck onto a long, gravel driveway that bumped along toward a yellowing cinderblock building. The echoes of barking dogs emanated through the walls of the building, rousing Simon from his deep sleep. He rubbed a crusty buildup away from his eyes and stared at the building, confusion apparent in the furrow of his brow. A few moments passed before realization set in. His head whipped toward his brother, meeting Colin’s bright green eyes.
“Colin, what are we doing at the ASPCA?” Simon’s voice rose an octave as he kneaded his hands together in anticipation.
Colin flashed a devilish grin as he shut off the engine and opened his door. “Why don’t we go in and find out?”
The sun had just risen over the lake across the street from the shelter, sending a glittery mirage of golden light dancing across the building’s large picture windows. The early morning dew was just barely visible on the Gerber Daisy pedals buried in the dirt along the staircase to the building. Had he been a photographer, they would have been the perfect specimen for an impromptu photo shoot.
Colin brushed his dark brown hair out of his face as he opened the front door and ushered Simon inside. A blend of wet dog and kitty litter assaulted their nostrils as they walked across the threshold. Faded green trim created a child-like frame for the animal-themed wallpaper that adorned every inch of the reception area. Pinned to the outdated walls were happy photos of families holding their newly adopted cats and dogs.
Sasha stood at the worn green reception desk, holding a large German Shepherd puppy in her arms. He yipped and barked at the sight of Colin and Simon, thrashing excitedly against Sasha’s chest. She set the puppy down and let him run toward Simon, who immediately dropped to the floor to play.
“His name is Thor,” Colin said, nodding toward the puppy. “And he’s yours.”
Simon’s jaw went slack, and his eyes flew to his brother. “You’re not serious,” he said, his voice cracked and his breathing becoming heavy and labored with excitement. His heart raced and a lump grew in his throat as he returned his attention to the lovable pup in front of him. “You’re not serious!” He stared at Thor, tears welling in his eyes as he pulled the young puppy into a breathless hug. Simon pressed his lips together, trying to keep his emotions in check as tears streamed down his face, a salty treat Thor was certain not to waste.
Colin stepped around his brother to kiss Sasha on the forehead. “Thank you for putting this together,” he whispered. Sasha nodded, wiping tears away from her eyes as she watched Simon rock the sweet puppy in his arms.
“It’s what we do,” she said, nestling her head into Colin’s neck. “I’m just glad the rescue could help find the perfect companion for Simon.”
“Me too, love,” Colin whispered to Sasha.
Simon released Thor from his grasp, wiping away the tears Thor missed as the playful puppy whipped his head back and forth to the beat of a new squeaker toy.
Colin cleared his throat, bringing Simon’s attention to him and Sasha. “Sasha, what was the word you used to describe Thor?”
“Adventurous!” She beamed.
“Hmm, you don’t say?” Colin laughed. “Well, what do you say we take this dog on a little adventure, then?”
“Adventure?” Simon asked. “You mean, this isn’t the surprise?”
“Did you think I got you up at the ass crack of dawn just for a puppy? No offense, Thor.” Colin glanced at Thor momentarily. “You haven’t been out of the house in weeks, and I haven’t seen you in almost a year. We have an adventure of a lifetime ahead of us. I just figured you’d enjoy the extra company.”
Simon took a deep breath as he set his hand on Thor’s blocky head. “What do you think, bud? You up for an adventure?”
Thor yipped and barked, jumping up and down as if he understood the meaning of the word.
Thor kept himself planted firmly in Simon’s lap, his head sticking out the window and tongue flapping in the wind as Colin drove the three of them to the entrance of The Pinnacle. The Appalachian Trail was at the top of Simon’s bucket list, just under ‘Get a German Shepherd.’ And while Simon couldn’t hike the whole thing as he once had hoped, Colin made sure he picked out one of the most beautiful stretches for them to enjoy.
Thor was the first one to jump out of the car, tail wagging a mile a minute as he took in the scents of nearby squirrels and rabbits.
“Well, at least one of you is excited,” Colin joked, pulling a few packs out of the back of the truck.
“This is a nine-mile hike round-trip, Colin,” Simon said, the sound of defeat rattling in his vocal cords. “I’m not sure I can do nine miles.”
“Okay, do you think you could do four and a half?”
“What do you mean? Four and a half will only take us to the Pinnacle, not back.” Simon’s brows furrowed again as he tried to work out his brother’s flawed math.
“Well, maybe I have a permit.” Colin kept his tone even. If there was anything Simon hated, it was handouts or special permissions.
“A permit? A permit for what?”
“Camping. At the Pinnacle. I thought it would be fun, especially with our adventurous new companion.”
Colin patted Thor on the head as he handed Simon the smaller of the two packs. He hoisted the larger pack on his back, the one with the tent and items needed for camping, and walked toward the trail entrance without another word. Thor followed Colin, tracking the scent of jerky wafting from Colin’s pack. Unsure whether to argue, Simon fell in line, following his brother up the trail.
The four-and-a-half-mile hike took every ounce of energy Simon’s body could muster. They took frequent stops to sit and drink water or have a quick snack. When Colin noticed Simon’s labored breathing, he paused to challenge Simon’s knowledge of the trails or check Thor’s paws. No one complained. Instead, they used their breaks to notice things that others missed in their hurry to reach the Pinnacle. A woodpecker’s nest protruding from an oak tree, the footprints of a fox, the stark white head of a bald eagle, perched on the tip of a tall pine tree. They tossed sticks for Thor, took photos of the unusual things they noticed, and discussed the likelihood that others were getting a similar experience.
The sun was just starting to dip below the tree line when they reached the Pinnacle. The warm red sun cast deep black shadows over the rolling green hills below. Thor stood in silent majesty, staring out over the edge of the Pinnacle, watching the birds swoop back and forth across the purple-red tapestry of the late evening sky.
They joked and laughed as the sun set quietly behind them, leaving them cloaked in a peaceful darkness. Colin set up a spotlight and made quick work of their tent, setting it up in a matter of minutes. Simon built a small fire, keeping it in line with the long list of rules scrawled across Colin’s camping permit.
“I know what you’re doing,” Simon said as Colin poured a few cans of soup into a travel pot to hang over the flames. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Have to and want to are two different things,” Colin replied. “You’ve had a bucket list since you were five years old. It’s important to you, and I won’t rest until everything on that list is crossed off.”
He took his seat next to Simon. Thor followed suit, laying his head on Simon’s stomach as the two brothers stared up into the star-speckled sky.
“I wonder if the me in other universes has a brother as annoyingly persistent as you,” Simon mused.
“By annoyingly persistent, do you mean perfectly tenacious?”
“Perfect is a bit of a stretch,” Simon laughed, the bounce of his stomach disturbing Thor’s nap. “But unconditionally loving isn’t off the table.”
Colin’s brain struggled to process Simon’s words. It wasn’t that the two boys didn’t love one another as much as they just never talked about it. It was unwritten. Perhaps even a bit uncomfortable. As the silence spread between them, Colin realized this was his moment to share the things that have gone unsaid for so long. He rolled onto his side to face his brother.
“Did you know there are more stars in space than there are grains of sand on earth?” Simon asked, effortlessly pulling astronomy trivia from his head to avoid the emotional discomfort of the moment.
“I did not know that.” Colin smiled, rolling back to stare up at the sky. “That seems like an awful lot of stars. That’s wild.”
“No, it’s science. And that’s not even the wildest thing,” Simon continued. “It’s believed that there are about 125 billion galaxies in our universe. Billions! It makes me wonder…”
“Makes you wonder what?” But Colin already knew the answer to his question. This particular piece of trivia he was familiar with, the one that convinced Simon that perhaps there was another galaxy – another Earth – where his existence didn’t come with so many complications.
“It just makes you wonder,” Simon whispered, his depleted energy finally dragging him toward sleep. A few seconds later, Colin could see Simon’s stomach rising and falling softly against the pressure of Thor’s head. Thor, on the other hand, was snoring like a grown man with a cold.
Careful not to wake either sleeping beauty, Colin tied Thor to a nearby tree, ate his portion of the soup, and put out the fire. He covered Simon with his blanket, leaving him to sleep beneath his favorite thing in the world: the stars.
Anxious for the next surprise, Colin fell into a restless sleep, waking before the sun peaked through the tears in the worn tent. A bit groggy and colder than he expected, he emerged from the tent to find Simon and Thor sharing a small portion of oatmeal.
“Good morning, brosef,” Colin teased. “You’re looking rested.”
“I actually feel rested,” Simon replied. “Last night was the first night in months I actually stayed asleep all night.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it, because today is a big day. It’s going to be absolutely epic.”
“Thank you, Colin,” Simon said, making direct eye contact with his brother. “For everything.”
Colin pulled his hands together, kneading them as he searched for the words he planned to say the night before.
“Of course,” Colin said. “I…”
“I’m going to take Thor for a quick walk down the trail,” Simon said, cutting Colin off yet again. “I’ll be back to help break everything down in a few.”
Colin nodded and returned his attention back to the morning cleanup process. He moved quickly to break down the tent and put out the morning’s fire. Their appointment at Princeton wasn’t until late that afternoon, but he knew they had a long hike back, and he worried about Simon’s ability to keep his energy until the appointment.
Colin warned Simon not to play too hard with Thor as they made their way back down the trail. He warned him that they were going down the hill too fast, that they should take their time, but Simon disagreed. He said he was full of energy. He felt like he could take on the day. Colin tried not to worry, but when Thor started to whine and stick closer to Simon’s side, he knew something wasn’t quite right.
“Hey Simon, can we slow down a minute?” Colin asked, feigning fatigue. “I just need a breather.”
Simon stopped, his arms dangling uselessly from his shoulders. Thor whined louder, nudging his nose against Simon’s thigh. Simon tried to turn around, tried to look at his brother one last time, but his feet didn’t agree with his brain.
Colin reacted on impulse, lunging forward to catch Simon before he hit the ground.
“HELP! Someone, please help!” Colin cried. He rocked his brother’s pale and clammy body. “Simon! Simon! Can you hear me? Simon! Wake up! SIMON!”
Congestive Heart Failure.
That’s what the doctor’s called it, anyway. Simon had suffered a minor heart attack caused by a sudden loss of blood pressure. Likely a side effect of the chemotherapy.
A healthy person might be able to walk out of the hospital the next day, but not Simon.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bridges, but your brother is very sick. The cancer has spread much faster than we anticipated,” the doctor explained. “He will need to stay here a few days. We can certainly talk about hospice options, but I’m not sure there will be enough time to…”
“Hospice?” Colin wove his fingers together and placed them on his head. “No, that can’t be right.”
He stepped toward the doctor, waving his finger in the doctor’s face. “You told Simon he had months left just last week,” Colin argued, realization setting in at the doctor’s words. “It’s only been days. How does that add up?”
“I understand that this is very difficult,” the doctor said. “But the science on these things is never exact.”
Colin crumbled to the ground, burying his face in his hands. His tears formed a steady stream down his cheeks as his body released all of the fear, frustration, and guilt he’d felt since his brother’s diagnosis.
“Please, this can’t be happening,” Colin pleaded with the doctor, hiccupping on his heavy breaths. “He got into Princeton’s astronomy program. We were going to meet with the department head this afternoon. They were going to present him with a scholarship.”
Colin tilted his head back until it knocked against the sterile brick walls.
“Please, doc. Tell me this isn’t happening to my brother. He’s so close…”
“I got in?” A weak voice wafted into the hallway, breaking the tension between Colin and the doctor.
“I’ll leave you to explain everything to your brother.”
Colin stood up, wiping the tears away from his face and taking a deep breath before he walked into Simon’s room.
“Hey, bud. How are you feeling?” Colin asked.
“Please, don’t pity me,” Simon wheezed as he patted Thor’s head. “You don’t have to pretend. I know it’s bad.”
“You don’t deserve this,” Colin whispered. He crouched down next to his brother and curled his fingers around his brother’s hand. He choked back his tears, forcing himself to say the words he couldn’t the night before. “You were always the liveliest of us. The one who could bring all of us to our knees with your knowledge of the universe. I never said it, but I spent most of my life in awe of you.” His breath came in heavy sobs, but he forced his voice to conquer the anguish threatening to swallow him whole. “I spent most of my life wishing to be just half the man you’ve become. You’re my best friend. I love you.”
Simon’s eyes were closed, but he smiled at his brother’s words. He tried to squeeze Colin’s hands, but his fingers felt weak and foreign, like they no longer belonged to him. Like pieces of him were beginning to depart the world he called home.
“I had a dream last night. At the Pinnacle,” Simon breathed. “In it, Thor turned into an angel.”
Colin reached down to pat Thor’s head. Even though he was only Simon’s for 24 hours, he had been every bit of an angel and more.
“He told me the secret,” Simon breathed heavily. “To the universe. Guess what?”
Colin could hear the slight change in Simon’s tone, the abbreviated excitement at the revelation he was about to share. “What?”
“There are other versions. Of this world,” Simon coughed, his breathing becoming more labored with each phrase. “Ones where I’m not sick. But this is the only one. That includes. A perfectly tenacious brother. An unconditionally. Loving brother. Just this one. I think that makes me. A pretty lucky version. Of Simon.”
~3 Years Later~
“Colin Bridges,” the Dean announced as Colin walked across the stage at his college graduation. He smiled up at his parents and Sasha sitting in the stands, a trusty Thor positioned between them. Though he didn’t get into Princeton’s astronomy program, Penn State’s was just as worthy. He accepted his diploma, the one that confirmed his double major in astronomy and astrophysics.
He walked off the stage and back to his seat, scooping up a tattered piece of paper with a long list scribbled down the left column. He drew a line through one of the only remaining items: Graduate with astronomy degree.
That left only one item on Simon’s bucket list: Touch the stars.