The Big Gift

Past midnight, just as the planet Jupiter peeked from behind the willow tree outside her window, Cassie heard Freddy stirring in the room next to hers, shifting and sighing, unable to get back to sleep. This was Cassie’s cue, and she got out of bed and snuck downstairs to the dark kitchen. She prepared her big brother a bowl of corn flakes by the light of the moon, pouring just enough milk so that, when the cereal was gone, the milk would be nice and sweet.

She tiptoed carefully back up the stairs, the bowl big in her little hands, and found him sitting up in bed, the dim bedside lamp the only light in the room. Poor Freddy always looks so tired now, Cassie thought. His face was so pale compared with his black, black hair, but tonight it looked even paler, and his eyes were red-rimmed again, because he’d been crying. She had heard him earlier, when Mother had brought in the medicine.

She handed him the bowl before she climbed into bed next to him, and he slurped and crunched the cereal down without a spoon. “This is good,” he said. He had hardly eaten anything all day. “My stomach hurts,” was his usual excuse. No matter how much Mother threatened or begged, he ate hardly anything anymore, except the corn flakes Cassie brought him at night.

“You can start,” he said. He handed her the empty bowl, and she put it on the nightstand and picked up the book, the one she had selected from the bookshelf in the room down the hall. Grandma’s old room. The bookshelf there held dozens of books just like this one: Our Wonderful Solar System. She smoothed her hand over the book’s shiny cover in an affectionate way, the way Grandma used to before opening it up.

“What chapter are we on?” He asked the same question every night.

“We’re on the outer planets now,” she said, having finished the inner planets the night before. She opened up at the bookmark. “‘Jupiter and Its Many Moons.'”

The page had a big picture of Jupiter, banded in pale oranges and pinks and even purples, almost like an Easter egg, and beneath the picture, the caption: “The planet Jupiter is more than two times larger than all the other planets put together” — something Cassie and Freddy already knew. Freddy had read this same book aloud to Grandma during those long sad days before she died; had even set up the telescope in Grandma’s room, the same telescope Grandma used to set up in their tiny overgrown backyard, in the one corner not dominated by the old willow.

Cassie began to read. “‘The biggest wonder in our solar system, in terms of size, is the planet Jupiter. The Romans named this gas giant after the principal god of Roman …’ What’s that word again?” Cassie spelled the word out for Freddy, for his eyes were too weak to read in the dim light, even if he put on his big eyeglasses with the thick lenses.

“Mythology,” he said.

“‘… the principal god of Roman mythology.'”

Freddy interrupted. “Grandma said of all the wonders of the universe, the biggest is that we are here at all. That’s something to think about. Something to remember.”

The tone of his voice worried Cassie; she thought that he might start crying again. Some nights were like that, and no amount of reading could get him to stop.

She barreled onward. “‘Jupiter has 11 moons that we know of, but astronomers are certain many more orbit this gas giant. Its largest is Ganymede …'” She felt proud of herself for remembering how to pronounce the moon’s name, and pointed at the picture of it: a tiny black spot compared with the planet. But Freddy, although looking at the picture, could not be distracted from his train of thought.

“It’s like a big gift,” Freddy said.

“What is? Ganymede?”

“No. Being here. On earth.”

She sighed and attempted to start reading again. But he continued.

“A wonderful gift. But one we can’t keep forever. Like a balloon.”

His mention of a balloon caught her off guard. She’d had a balloon once. She and Freddy had ridden the trolley to Santa Monica Pier where he had bought her a red one, but it flew away when they went on the Ferris wheel. She frowned. “I hated losing my balloon.”

“Yes, but your balloon was lucky. Think about it, flying up to space like that.”

“No.” She shook her head and her eyes teared up as she remembered the balloon, and how it had sailed away without caring how much she loved it.

Freddy nudged her with his shoulder. “Yes, it was lucky. Really it was. It got to float all the way up to the sky. I bet it got to visit everything we see in Grandma’s books. The moon and the asteroids. Mars and Venus.”

“And boring old Mercury?” She didn’t like that idea, her poor balloon circling around a big stupid rock.

“Mercury, too. But that’s not all.”

His voice had become more storyteller-like, less sad, and she decided to stop fussing about the balloon and encourage him. “What else then? The sun?”

“Maybe the sun, but I bet the balloon didn’t want to get too close to that.”

She imagined the balloon with its silver string, wilting near the sun, and she began to feel sad again. “And Jupiter?” she asked quickly, to snap herself out of it.

“Of course Jupiter.”

“I’d like to visit Jupiter best of all.” She ran her fingertip over the picture in the book — the bands of orange, pink and purple.

“Wouldn’t you want to visit Saturn?”

“I suppose so,” she said. “But everyone loves Saturn ’cause of its rings. But I love Jupiter. It’s so big and gassy. Grandma was gassy. Maybe she’s on Jupiter. Could heaven be on Jupiter?”

“Maybe.”

“Mother says there’s no heaven.” Cassie felt embarrassed saying it aloud, like it was something they had agreed not to discuss.

“Mother doesn’t believe in anything. And she doesn’t know everything, either.” Freddy had never said this before, and for a moment Cassie was shocked to hear him say it. “No one knows for sure what happens … you know.”

“After you die.” She felt bad because she knew it made him feel bad, talking about dying. She patted his hand, feeling like the older sibling, not the younger. “I want to go to Jupiter someday,” she said. “Can you breathe on Jupiter?” The thought made her take a deep breath, which made her lungs feel funny and she gave a little cough.

“You don’t need to breathe when you go to Jupiter,” Freddy said.

“But if you could?”

“Well, I suppose the air would be sweet and rotten. Remember when the sewer line broke in the street?”

“That smelled bad.”

“But you’d get used to it,” he said.

Cassie’s little cough had agitated her lungs so that another little cough followed, and another.

Freddy sighed. “You should go back to bed. Mother will get up soon, to make her rounds. “

“Okay.”

She climbed out of bed and tucked him in like Grandma used to and kissed his forehead before tiptoeing back to her room. She lay down and looked out her window. Jupiter had moved just the tiniest bit so that it now sat atop the willow, like a Christmas star. But Jupiter was not a star at all, she knew that. The biggest planet in the solar system. The third brightest thing in the sky, after the moon and Venus, and she liked how Jupiter was so big and yet not a show-off.

She coughed again, this time harder and longer. She hated when the coughing started.

When Mother came in to give Cassie her medicine, Jupiter still sat atop the tree, but four hours later, when the coughing started up again and Mother came back, Jupiter was out of sight.

Cassie fell back asleep. Jupiter, meanwhile, continued through the cold, vast blackness of space as it journeyed around the sun. The weeks passed, and then the months, while Jupiter — stormy and turbulent; unaware of those passing weeks and months — continued on the path set out for it.

One night, the sun had only just set when Jupiter winked at Cassie through the window. But she didn’t notice.

Freddy did, and he told her how Jupiter shimmered in the pearl-like sky, his lips against her ear, his voice louder even than their mother’s. Louder even than the ventilator. Freddy’s voice, the only thing Cassie heard: “The light — when you see it, it’s Jupiter.” Over and over he said it until she did see the light, orange and pink and purple, just like Freddy said it would be, and someone up ahead called to her, and with her last great effort she tore off the mask and gulped in the sweet rotten air.

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Published in Waterhouse Review, 2013

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