By Lucy Zhang
The first room to the left on the second floor was my brother’s room. Four pieces of tape held a poster of NGC 2024, the star-forming region—ribbons of cloud and smoke, specks of light that penetrated greys and blacks which, instead of obscured, conjured an inexplicable hope to where stars glimmered, mysticism to where they did not. Constellation Orion hung on the door and we had a piece of the sky in our house. The inside of his room remained unremarkable during the day—white walls surrounding a full-sized bed, an IKEA desk, and a collapsible chair taken from the basement. But at night when the lights were off, the blinds drawn, phones on do-not-disturb mode, stars emerged: circular pieces of glow-in-the-dark stickers positioned one after another, wall to wall, stretched constellation after constellation. My brother didn’t care for spatial accuracy; he’d cram the whole sky into his room if he could.
“I’m hoping to research quantum foundations. Which is basically quantum mechanics and is really weird, and maybe that means we don’t understand it perfectly. So I want to help understand it better,” he told me when I was nine and he was thirteen. He tried to explain his research interests to me several times and I eventually learned to stop asking “What does that mean?” and instead say “Cool.”
When it was his twelfth birthday, my brother received a telescope—not the kiddy telescopes but the over one-thousand-dollar type that astronomers use. That night, we sat outside on the deck, both of us in thin cotton pajamas weathering the chilly April air, and he pointed out every single star and astrophysical body he could find to me. Every time he located something new, he’d hold the telescope positioned towards the star, and then he’d crouch down to my height to readjust the view as I walked up to the eyepiece. I didn’t know what I was seeing, but I remember feeling small against a world so big, and how my brother seemed to have transcended the telescope, swept up with the world.
On Fridays, when neither of us had school work due the next day, we’d stay up for hours after my parents went to sleep, lying side by side on his bed. One summer night, when the house had already cooled and we could close the window without fear of melting, I found myself tuning out my brother’s descriptions of the same constellations glowing from the room ceiling. I tilted my head to the right to face him, watching his eyes dart from one sticker-formed star to another, his mouth movement stretching and loosening the skin over his cheekbones, his words coming out more loudly than he likely realized. My eyelids dropped before flickering back open—I knew he didn’t like it when I fell asleep. But then my eyes fell shut again and I, now only aware of the soft cotton comforter and subtle heat of a body next to me, heard but no longer listened. Maybe if I had listened, I would have been able to wake up the instant I noticed when the stream of words about Cancer, the constellation under which he was born, had halted.
When I first felt his hand, I thought he had misplaced it. But then it traveled: his large hand and his fingers and their calloused distal interphalangeal joints from gripping pencils too hard, down my ribcage, following the steep dip from bone to stomach–a swamp of smooth skin—then back up at the edge of my hip bone, the last sharp edge before the soft flesh of my thigh. Wandering. Then a finger slid between my thighs, as though unaware how to approach this new territory—with a childish hesitance. A curiosity. Eyes still shut, I turned onto my side, facing him, maintaining my slow breath. I fidgeted my head on the pillow, curled a hand close to my chest, and remained still. Sleeping. His hand shot away from me the instant I moved to adjust my sleep position. The next day he acted as though nothing had happened. I did the same.
I was thirteen and he was seventeen.
“Mail me my telescope” was the last thing my brother told me. Or more accurately, the message came as a phone vibration against my thigh and a push notification that I swiped away from the screen and marked as read.
Before he left for college, I had asked him: “Do you want your telescope?”
“No, I’ll be too busy to use it,” he told me. “You can have it so you don’t forget about me.” We laughed—although I wasn’t certain what was funny. Then he left with one suitcase and a backpack and no telescope, and I headed back to my room—the first room to the right on the second floor with an entrance blocked by a bare door.
I didn’t mail him his telescope. He didn’t have a telescope, after all, it was mine: my telescope standing in his room, peaking at the window as though to beckon someone to draw the curtains apart so it could lift open its eyelids and see the world.
I thought it was silly that my brother died in a car crash, of all things. The other driver was drunk, and there’s no match between a BMW X6 and a Honda Fit. The police said it was hard to tell who was in the car at first, the body blanketed by a steering wheel, blood, and darkness. He was returning to the university from Death Valley that night, they said after finding his phone’s GPS attempting to navigate a corpse back to next morning’s midterm. I was fourteen back then, and I pulled an all-nighter, staring up at the ceiling of glowing stickers that supposedly represented big exploding balls of gas. They looked more like holes puncturing the wall to me, and on the other side a hidden light source—nothing I needed a telescope to see, but when I closed my eyes, I refused to sleep.
Lucy Zhang is a software engineer and holds a B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science. She watches anime, writes poetry and fiction (when patient enough), and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/.
Photo Credit: ©Maximusdn / Adobe Stock