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  • Jack So

Ad Astra

The door was locked.


Cal turned back around and wrung his hands. He'd gone from toasting beer like it was champagne to worrying a hole in the carpet.

"Where's my ID chip? I really need it."

"I don't know," I lied.

Piles of books have been displaced from their homes, bags tossed as high as the windowsill can hold. Hell knows Cal won't be the one to tidy them up.

"Won't you help me look?"

I've barely moved from the pullout couch for days. What makes him think-

"Steph, you know how much this means to me, I didn't actually think I'd pass, and I can't miss this opportunity."

I turn back to my handset.

Cal's breath leaves him in a dash. "I'm- I'm going to the regional office to look for my ID. I really hope they don't disqualify me now."

He reaches the door- and stops. Jiggles the knob like its parts are a row of milk teeth he's shaking loose. Curses, kicks it like a mule.

"Steph, I don't think it's jammed this time." He turns, my beautiful, trusting brother, and tomorrow's dull sky steals the purpose from his eyes.

We're plunged into a vacuum- it must be an omen.


I stretch- take in the crease between Cal's brows and the freckles dusting his nose, his dove-soft eyes I'll soon never feel on me- and pull out my eartennas.

"Steph." His voice cuts me gently. "Where's my ID?"

Each second another cut. Death by a thousand cuts. Cal's crossing the space between us I've so carelessly built.

Before he can make me look at him, I shoot to my feet.

"Why do you want it?"

"Because." He takes a breath, and I know his heart beats in sync with mine, half as fast. "Because I need it to board the Ixion. I-"

"You need it to seal yourself in a pod, get hurled into oblivion on a one-way trip and wake long after I'm dead!"

The words still don't feel real.

He recoils like a failed rocket launch.

"I had- I had no idea you thought of it that way. Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Because that'd be like diverting an asteroid with the puny, ancient crafts of Elon Musk.

"You could've told me sooner, I've been working towards intergalactic travel-"

"All your life. I know."

I'm shaking on my hinges.

"And you know that the great beyond is part of me. A locked door won't seal that away."

My voice pitches, a comet gone awry. "You could've at least asked me!"

He steps forward, reaches out.

"Hey, hey-"

I knock his arm aside.

"Don't touch me."

The outstretched warmth of Cal's wet eyes cradles my face. He's two steps away, yet I'm searching for a lone sunbeam from the surface of Pluto.

"I never really stopped to ask what you thought, did I?"

"Who was I to stop you?" And who am I now? A locked door? I almost laugh.

We look down at the shadows thrown over our feet, a reminder that sunlight travels 93 million miles to reach us, but may never truly hit home.

"Remember when you took me to the zoo and then lost me because you were too busy figuring out the aerodynamics of human-tailored penguins?" I say.

Cal's smile stretches like a rising tide. "Yeah... and you threw a tantrum because you couldn't ride a winged lion cub. And cried when you dropped your ice cream. Seriously... what were you thinking?"

I can't tell which part he's minding me for. "Oh, and remember when you fell off a chair replacing the curtains and still managed to break your leg?"

He laughs. "We had Splintment! It healed real quick."

"Well, remember when you busted your ass all summer to get it because you knew one of us would screw up sooner or later?"

"And remember when you'd leave hoverball early just to wait for my shift to end? I was pulling taffy the old-fashioned way, and you kept charming my boss into giving you free samples..."

Remember when we went to the playground not knowing it was the last time- remember when we grew up? And remember when no medicine would pull us out of our minds, when all we had was each other? Remember the pain we shared, how we’d both shoulder the other’s? The ache burns in my chest- memories, all that will remain.

"Yeah... I remember."

Lit by the sun's dying rays, Cal is the brightest thing in the room. He turns and gestures, and takes the light with him.

"The pantry's stocked- you won't have to grocery shop for a month."

He will always take the light with him.

"I know."

"I've prepaid the utilities for the next three, so all you gotta do is graduate."

Thank you.

"I know."

"I even fixed the heater. It's about to get cold, so pull the sweaters from under the bed and keep the windows closed. Don't forget to change your sheets and unclog your hair from the drain."

We stand in night, the planet's clock having passed us by. We stand, still in stalemate.

"Steph... the Ixion leaves tonight."

What else does he think the First Steps on Mars 50th Anniversary calendar on my wall is for?

I take a breath. "I know." My voice trembles, a star-sailor crossing constellations on a tightrope. "I'm sorry for ignoring you these past few days."

"Don't be. And I'm sorry for never really knowing how to raise you. Though, truth be told, I think I did a pretty good job."

Tears choke my eyes. "Cal-"

"Wait here." He disappears into the bedroom and returns, a dark streak gleaming in his cupped hands.

"I carved a meteor. From a meteor. You see one streak across the sky, and you'll know it's me."

I take it, run my fingertips across its trailing flame. Then, slowly, I reach into my pocket and take out the best gift Cal could receive from me- our rusty key, his ID chip, and my blessing.

"Thank you, Steph."

He looks at me, and we fall into each other's arms.

We settle into each other's nooks and crannies between each racking sob. What will it matter, the meteors, when the only wish I beg of them will never be answered? The fuse of time is down to ashes, and in hours I will watch on a screen as my brother is taken away, left to live only inside my head.

And I will grieve, and fade, and steel, as each second marks an event horizon, as we drink each other's thoughts and cry each other's tears.

All that matters is the brink, the now, our last embrace- my brother and I, on our knees, in the dark.



about the author:

Born in 2002, writer and poet Jack So is proud to call Hong Kong home. They hope to share with readers the blessing and curse of being human. Jack particularly enjoys reinterpreting and retelling lore and legend, and exploring the state of being on a journey.

Currently studying in Manchester, they also nurse a passion for acting. Given the chance, they will always take a moment to revel in the night sky.

You can find them on Instagram here.

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