Two Lights in the Dark

*prompt from the Reedsy blog: Write a story that begins and ends with someone looking up at the stars.

He loved looking up at the stars.

She knew it was because he felt connected to them, because God had plucked two out of the sky when he gave her boy his eyes. It was the first thing she noticed when she held him in her arms, that shine that almost blinded her. When she brought him home, his father complained their boy didn’t blink enough, that his eyes would dry out, but she knew nothing could ever be wrong with her boy. He was a marvel, an inspiration.

He was her little dreamer, with his starry eyes. Every night, before bed, she’d hoist him onto her shoulders and they’d stare at the stars high above, and she’d tell him stories about them. How they were light years away, living their own lives in the galaxy, but would always find time to be there for her and her boy. She’d tell him that the stars were watching over him, and that they knew he was special. He would come each night with different questions about the stars, new names for all of them, and fresh ideas about how he could at last get to them. All she could do was listen and learn as much as she could, to always have answers to his questions, and a listening ear.

The stars were their special thing, but it didn’t stop them from doing everything together. She stood by his side as he grew to be a funny little boy, making everyone laugh with his antics, and wonder at his curiosity. He’d throw questions at anyone, always about the stars. And when they couldn’t answer, he’d shake his head, laugh loud, and answer the question himself. She would just stand aside and watch on as he impressed the world around him. 

His first day of school was her tragedy. Her entire life was taking care of her boy, day in, day out. Everything was about him. And then school came around and snatched him away, and she had to live without his eyes for eight hours a day. But when she saw him running across the playground to throw himself into her arms, the separation was worth it. And they would always have their starry nights, where he would sit on her shoulders and reach up to the stars, like all he wanted was to be among them. They’d share their favourite chocolate ice cream and grin up at the sky. 

And that was enough for her – to know that he still looked forward to being with his mother at the end of the day.

Well, life continued. With each day, and month, and year that passed, she kept a tight grip on her boy, keeping him close. If she had a kangaroo pouch, she’d never let him out. But alas, she didn’t, and a time came when he was out of the house more and more, so much that she barely saw him during the week. He’d return home at night, and she’d ask if he wished to see the stars, but he’d only yawn and say, ‘I’m real tired mum,’ and trudge off to bed, already half asleep, his sparkle diminished, a slouch developing in his shoulders.

She would sit outside, lying to herself that she wasn’t waiting for him, that she wasn’t expecting him to find his way to her side. But she was. That’s all she ever did. Wait for him.

And he grew more distant with every sunrise, and underneath every fresh blanket of stars. But she kept sitting outside, eating chocolate ice cream even when the rain was falling, imploring the stars to keep watching over her boy, to always bring him back to her. His father asked if she wanted company, but she shook her head.

The stars were for her and her boy.

When the doctor confirmed it was cancer, her boy was far away. Learning new things, making friends, seeing the stars in different cities. His father urged her to call their boy, saying this was more important than her pride. But it wasn’t about pride. She hadn’t spoken to him in a few days, but the thought of relaying such information over the phone was more painful than the tumour.

No. She refused. Instead, she sent him a picture of the stars, with a brief message.

We miss you.

And something amazing happened.

The next night, she sat outside, as she always did, breathing in the cool air, telling the stars how her day was, when a hand fell onto her shoulder. She whipped around, scared for all but a millisecond, because the shiniest eyes she’d ever known stared back at her.

‘Hi mum.’

She squeezed him hard enough to bruise, tears splashing onto his shirt, her heart heavy with all she’d been keeping inside.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I don’t know why, but your text made me feel like something was wrong.’

‘Oh.’

There was a pause where she wondered if he knew, or if she’d have to tell him. She didn’t want to tell him.

‘Dad told me.’ And tears welled in his beautiful eyes and, before long, they were a sobbing heap on the grass.

He stayed the night, most of which he spent outside with his mother. They spoke about a million things and reminisced on a million more. The stars watched them from above, twinkling as they always did, the one constant in their lives. He told her he’d taken time off from his studies, that she was always his best teacher anyway, and he stayed by her side for months after.

Each night, they’d sit outside, eating their chocolate ice cream, except for when she was at the hospital. Her room had no view of the stars. It was tragic. But the chocolate ice cream was still good. Until she couldn’t even eat that anymore.

Every day was a struggle. Her body was worn out, she was exhausted, and all her energy was depleted. She couldn’t even get out of bed. The chemo was tough. She didn’t want her boy to see her like that, too weak to speak, to even look up anymore.

It was nearing the end; she knew it. And she didn’t want to spend her last days in the hospital. She demanded to be sent home, and the doctors obliged. Her boy woke her up every morning, and every night, he’d wheel her out to stare up at the stars. And when she was too tired to do that, he’d tell her stories, and she’d look into his eyes instead.

For a while, things stayed constant – she, too ill to do anything, he, always there to help. They fell into a routine. He forgot about his studies and his new friends and everything waiting for him. His entire life was taking care of his mother, day in, day out. Everything was about her. At a check-up a month later, the doctors praised him for how well he’d taken care of her, said he’d extended her life, given her years, instead of only months.

Elation was all they felt. Mother and son hugged, and cheered, and decided to throw a spontaneous party to deliver the wonderful news to his father when he returned from work. He rummaged through the pantry for treats and sweets, moving to the freezer to find their chocolate ice creams. But there were none.

‘Mum,’ he called. She didn’t answer. His heart sank to the pit of his stomach. ‘Mum!’ he shouted, throat closing up. A muffled noise had him running to her bedroom. She was there with pins in her mouth and a floral-printed dress in her lap. Her eyes brightened when she looked up, and his breath whooshed out of him. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’

‘I figured, since it’s a party, I might as well get dressed up,’ she said. ‘But this darn dress has a hole in the side.’

He shook his head. ‘Do you need help?’

‘Of course not. I can sew a hole.’ When he looked at her, unconvinced, she added, “I can! Go away.’

‘All right, all right,’ he laughed. ‘I was going to the shop, anyway. We’re out of chocolate ice cream.’

She gasped. ‘Oh, can’t have a party without them!’

‘Do you want anything else?’

The birds outside the window sung a sweet song, shaking the branch of the nearest tree. His mother looked at them for a moment, then turned back to him with a smile. ‘All I ever want is your safe return.’

‘I’ll put it on the list,’ he grinned, coming over to plant a kiss on her cheek. ‘Be back in a few. Love you, mum.’

‘I love you too,’ she said, to the sound of his fading footsteps. ‘My boy.’

She fixed her dress and set it aside for when he returned so he could help her get ready for the party. And she waited. And waited. She wheeled herself around the house, becoming restless. Five minutes became ten minutes, and ten minutes became twenty. Something was wrong. She could feel it. Something was wrong.

She called her husband, who had no information for her, just a suggestion that maybe their boy had gone somewhere else after the shop. But he wouldn’t do that. Her boy wouldn’t leave her alone for so long. He said he’d be back in a few. It was now thirty minutes past. And she could still feel it. Something was wrong.

And she was right.

The paramedics said they did all they could. But that couldn’t be true. Because her boy was no longer with her. There had to be something more they could do. She begged and pleaded with them until her voice was hoarse and her husband had to pull her away. He held tight to her hand, hugged her close, but it was not enough. Her world had crumbled. Her boy was gone. Too soon. Because of the recklessness of a stranger. They’d found chocolate ice cream melting into the carpet in the car.

For months, she didn’t leave the house. Her body was in more pain now than it ever was through the chemo. There was no energy inside her or any desire to do anything. She was wasting away, and she didn’t care.

One night, she rolled herself out of the house, into the backyard, every part of her screaming in pain. Her arms were weak, there were tears falling down her cheeks at every hour of every day. When she rolled to a stop in the grass, the silence was deafening. There was no wind, and not a cricket chirping nearby. The world was still. She clutched the sides of her wheelchair, took a deep breath, and looked up.

It’d been months since she’d looked at the stars. Her husband had tried to get her outside, but she refused. It was too painful to even think about. But something called to her that night, drew her out, almost forced her to come outside. And as she looked up, she saw what it was.

There, in the centre of the night sky, were two of the brightest stars she’d ever seen. She and her boy stared at this night sky over a thousand times. But had never seen anything like that before. The two stars sparkled and twinkled, like they were waving at her. She smiled back, tears still flowing, slow breaths racking her body.

And with one last look at those sparkling stars, and one final breath, her soul soared high to join her boy in the stars. 

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