By Steven Huddleston
Beep…beep…beep. I heard it in my head like an alarm clock reminding me of what I already knew. It struck me in the chest when the same octave shot out of the speakers. I skipped to the next song. I hadn’t been home in years. I was tired and still had another three and a half hours of bugs pelting the windshield. As much as I wanted to pull over, I had to keep moving to avoid drowning. I would not complain.
None of us had felt a full night’s rest in months, so we figured it best to form a convoy and make the trip together. Dad was the first one out in his dark blue Forester. Sable, the family pooch, darted from window to window in his back seat between naps. He was followed by my estranged sister Dani, who did not remember the way. Thick clouds of white smoke seeped out of her cracked sunroof. She said weed was medicine and that it helped with stress. Mom, who was alone for the first time since Uncle Mike escorted her to the city, was third in line driving Cillian’s Jeep and wishing that her brother didn’t have to fly out just days before. I couldn’t help but stare at the fading orange ribbon stuck on her back window as I reared the pack with Rachel, who was grasping my right arm and reading a book. Daisy-Mae, our six-month-old basset hound was asleep in the back seat. She wasn’t much for darting.
“Get some rest,” I said.
“I’ll stay awake,” Rachel said as she flipped a page and replaced her hand on my arm.
“Driving out west is pretty boring.”
“I don’t mind keeping you company. Keeping you awake.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve got an eye on mom.”
“You need glasses,” she said. I had recently passed the vision test to acquire my updated driver’s license by mere politeness. I still don’t know if it was an O or a C, but the apple-bodied lady with the 60s bouffant bob calling out the lines let me slide. “I’ve got my eyes on you.”
“So, you don’t trust my driving?” She giggled and I did too, for a moment, before guilt ripped it away. I wondered if I would ever truly enjoy another moment. She flipped another page and began tracing her fingers gently on the nape of my neck.
Rachel had never been to my hometown. In fact, she had never met anyone in my family prior to that summer. She was in her junior year at university. Between that, her mystical duties on the bottom floor of her sorority house most nights of the week, and the mandatory “No. Boyfriends. Allowed.” frat parties on weekends, she didn’t have time to venture. The dark shadows under her eyes told me she was exhausted and yet, she still had a relentless need to hold me up. She was a soldier. She was the silver lining if such a thing could exist then. I would finally get that storybook moment when the guy brings the girl home: everyone is hugging, mom breaks out the embarrassing scrapbooks, and the smell of his favorite childhood meals fill him with comfort. Only, the hugs would be prolonged. They would come from a deeper place and be filled with pity. And the pictures, well, we would sort through them to pick the best ones for the slideshow at Cillian’s service. After all, we were rushing down the interstate to meet his body at the funeral home.
Room 7482 was bigger than the rest. It was part of a large addition to the oncology wing, but it was still crowded. The hospital gave it to Cillian when they realized his family wouldn’t leave. We couldn’t. My dad and Dani slept on a leaky blowup mattress in the back corner. Next to it was a blue daybed covered with blankets and bags of candies provided by Uncle Mike. Due to his diabetes and constant tracking of blood sugar, Uncle Mike was our first stop when our sweet teeth pulled us downstairs to the first-floor convenience store for Twizzlers or Jolly Ranchers. Rachel and I had another blowup mattress near the front of the room next to the sink. There were two blue chairs on either side of my brother’s bed. My mother placed them together on one side of him and rarely left. When she slept, if she did, it was in those chairs.
Machines took up the rest of the room. One supplied morphine to my brother at the push of a soft, plastic button that turned green every fifteen minutes. Toward the end, the wincing on his face told us when to push the button again. Another machine supplied him with antifungal medication constantly. Lumps formed above his brow to show it wasn’t working. There were more on the back of his head. Another machine monitored his oxygen levels and his heart rate through a series of little sensors that attached to his torso with sticky pads and made his comfort impossible. And since that wasn’t enough, he had a port surgically implanted into his chest for easier access to his blood, to better keep track of his immune system. With each of these machines came a piercing beep…beep…beep to signal the end of a dose, or to warn of imminent danger.
A strict around-the-clock schedule was implemented, so nurse traffic was constant. Some were nice. Some took their time before silencing the beeps. A respiratory specialist came twice a day to give Cillian breathing treatments. Whitecoats stopped by every morning to answer questions. Pastors came as well. Amid all of it, we sat as a family and made sure that at least one person was always tending to Cillian. Rachel and I often joined Dani in the parking garage to relieve stress, and though I especially appreciated the meal vouchers provided by the hospital after, cheeseburgers and taco salads got old quick. So, we started going elsewhere for food when checking up on Daisy-Mae who was staying with Rachel’s mom. It was nice to have a break from cold floors, hard seats, watered-down Nestle instant coffee, and the drone of twenty-four-hour fluorescent lighting, but something inside rushed me back every time.
“Hey buddy, I brought you some KFC!” I said, glad that he was awake. Mashed potatoes were his favorite.
“Look at that, Tate,” said our mother. She’d called him that for years. “Want some popcorn chicken?”
“Thanks, man. You didn’t have to.” He replied despite the unpalatability of anything he tried to force into his stomach. The doctors said the medicine has that effect on many
“Just figured you’d like a couple bites here and there, when you’re up to it.”
“You don’t have to stay here, you know. Go home and get some rest. Come back tomorrow.”
“I like being here.”
He smiled in response. I knew he wanted me there just like I knew he needed me to hold him the day the doctor told him the cancer came back.
“I love you.” I made it a point to tell him every day.
“I love you. I’d say I’m a close second, but you’re the best brother in the world.” I’ll never forget those words.
In the years he fought it, Cillian always said he had cancer, but the cancer didn’t have him. He didn’t want pity or anyone to inconvenience themselves to visit. He beat it into remission once, and he planned to do it again. Whether in a hospital room or out driving golf balls into the cornfield behind mom’s house, when asked how he was doing he always responded, “just livin’ the dream.”
His humility didn’t stop anyone from visiting near the end. Each person that came had their own truth as to how he earned their respect. The set-up crew from his time working backstage at the state fair concerts that would later place guitar picks and beer bottles around his headstone. His coworkers from the sporting goods store in our hometown that surrounded him for a photograph that he immediately forgot about as if it were the flash of the camera and not the infection in his brain that wiped his memory clean. His promiscuous girlfriend stopped by on a few occasions, but never stayed long. I witnessed my mother’s relentless love as she clenched her jaw and denied no one the chance to speak their peace.
When the doctors informed us of their inability to fight off the cancer and the fungal virus simultaneously without killing him themselves, he could no longer remember more than fifteen minutes into the past. Whitecoats came in each morning for two days after to tell him that he wouldn’t make it, and each morning he took it, wide-eyed and screaming “I don’t want to die,” as brand new and shocking information. I stopped them before they spoke on the third morning to explain their futility and that I was tired of hearing the message myself. They conceded. When they gave us a three-day window to his demise, he could no longer speak, and a machine breathed for him. The deep, violent thrusts of his chest made him look like a fish out of water.
“Oh, my God!” My mother shrieked in horror from across the room. She buried her face in the blankets of her baby as she wrapped her arms around him and she let out a cry bursting with anguish, a sound I have only heard once in my life. Though I had been expecting it, watching machines operate his lifeless body for days, ripped me from my blowup mattress. My phone fell and cracked on the hard floor. Two nurses rushed frantically into the room behind me. Dad and Rachel were stunned. I saw my mother’s tears as she jerked her body to look away. It was too much to handle, too much to take in. Uncle Mike immediately leaped to her aid.
I took my brother’s cold, left hand into mine and wrapped my right hand around the back of his head. I looked into the eyes that were the same color as mine, the eyes that our mother gave us, and hoped he was somewhere deep within looking back at me. This was last time I would ever speak to my brother.
“I love you,” and “don’t be afraid,” were the only words I could muster as he let out a final gasp.
The church was just as beautiful as I remembered it from Christmas midnight mass every year as a child. Its roof slanted from forty feet in the air all the way to the ground. Cillian and I always wondered if we could climb it, but we never risked the punishment. Orange ribbons were on the lapels of men’s jackets, tied into women’s hair, and woven with flowers and placed sporadically throughout. The poll bearers wore orange ties.
Everyone, young and old, from all over town attended. The closed casket was white and had three markers set beside it. By the end of the service, hundreds of memories, quotes, and goodbyes covered the casket. We wrote ours on the inside, our last words forever with him. Some people laughed while others cried. Some slipped in and out without saying a word. Grandpa was the only one to refuse attendance.
Dad and Dani finished the slideshow just before the funeral. Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” played in the background followed by Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” It was difficult to see Cillian’s entire life summed up in a few pictures, just twenty-one years. Pictures of him mooning the crowd were subtly placed throughout. He would have loved that. The pastor spoke gentle words that I greatly appreciated.
I felt defeated after the five-year battle. I stood as close to the frontline as the universe would let me just to lose my little brother. I felt guilty for moving to the city to get away from our father. I felt terrible for the time I accidentally dumped Cillian’s pizza on the floor. He cried, and I called him fat. Giving him my pizza and apologizing could not have been enough to make up for that. I felt cheated of the time we should have had. I didn’t know that I would lose him every time I denied his request to hang out. We were meant to carry on the annual family fishing trip in the mountains. He was meant to love, marry, and have children who grew up next to mine. A storm roared in my chest. I didn’t know how to wake up and continue living life the next day with nothing left to do for Cillian.
I let the water run cold, splashed it across my face, and I stared into the mirror. I took in a breath as big as the ones the machines forced into Cillian’s chest, and I remembered. I remembered the time I stormed into a crowd of his bullies to stop some twins from bothering him. I remembered teaching him how to drive, how he couldn’t climb over seven mph and somehow ended up in the oncoming lane. I remembered playing catch out in the backyard after he beat the cancer the first time. He’d been laid up for so long, his muscles deteriorating slowly, making walking difficult. I threw the ball a little further away from him each day over a summer until eventually he was sprinting from the house to the cornfield and back. I remembered all the times he called to ask if he could move in with me because dad was being a dick. “Of course,” I’d always replied, and I think he would have if he hadn’t gotten sick the second time. I remembered his face when I kissed his forehead in that hospital, how he said “really?” and made the room laugh.
Then I realized that I would see him again. Someday. I realized that he wouldn’t want me to waste another second of this life; in fact, he told me sometime before he left to get back to school. I realized that I was living for both of us.
The mid-west sky was bright pink and orange in the sunset. There was a slight breeze filled with the essence of daisies and dandelions. I could hear crickets on the sides of the bare road between the snores of Daisy-Mae in the back seat.
“Excited to sleep in our own bed?” Rachel asked as we headed east.
“Only three and half hours to go,” I replied.
“Then, it’s back to real life,” she said. “It’s going to be hectic, but I’m proud of you for applying for college and for agreeing to get your vision checked.” She flipped a page in her book and gently grasped my right arm.
“Time to start livin’ the dream.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student