Mason sat outside the hospital beside his brother, Maximus, who was confined to his wheelchair. They stared ahead at a sunrise unlike any they’d ever seen. The sky was blooming with rich golds, soft reds, and radiant oranges. Even the clouds were a frosty pink. They had seen so many sunrises together. So many, but this one was different. Ordinary, and yet so extraordinary. The sky practically radiated hope, and it almost brought tears to their eyes.
Hope. The irony. Just that morning, they had lost all hope. The doctors had delivered the news to them only minutes prior. Maximus had but days to live. He’d been in a constant battle with cancer for four years, since he was fifteen. Hope was a foreign feeling to the two. Maximus looked over at his brother.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Max said quietly.
Mason said nothing, but nodded.
“Hey, don’t be so downcast. It’ll be alright.”
Mason looked at Max, incredulous. “Alright? Alright? It’s alright that you’re dying? It’s alright that I’m about to lose my big brother? Nothing is alright right now, you idiot.”
Max sighed. “Mason, you’re seventeen. You’ll be okay without me. Besides, you still have mom and dad. Don’t forget about Liam, too.”
There came no answer, and Max looked over to see what Mason was doing. What he saw made his heart ache. There were tears streaming down his younger brother’s face, and Mason was holding a hand over his mouth, trying to stop any sound from escaping his lips.
“Hey, don’t cry… I’ll always be here, if that’s of any comfort,” Max said, smiling sadly.
Mason sniffled. “I know. God, I’m a seventeen year old boy who still can’t keep himself from crying,” he said, laughing humorlessly.
Max chuckled. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna kill you for crying about how your brother has days to live.”
Mason looked away, and in the place of their exchange only seconds before, came a heavy silence.
“Sorry, I made everything depressing again, didn’t I?” Maximus said, laughing quietly.
“No kidding, Sherlock. You’re just a depressing person to be around in general,” Mason said, poking his older brother teasingly.
Maximus snorted. “Wow, so rude. Be respectful to your elders, you jerk.”
Mason said nothing, only tilted his head up in defiance.
Max was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Hey, you remember that thing we used to do as kids? Before we would go to sleep?”
“Uhh… beating each other up with pillows? You stealing all my stuffed toys and making me cry? You terrorizing your poor, dear, adorable brother in general?”
“No, you idiot. Although that was fun,” he grinned, “I mean when we would say ‘love you to the moon and back’ before we fell asleep.”
“Oh, that? God you’re so cheesy, ew,” Mason said, gagging.
“No, seriously though.”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember. Why?”
“No reason. I was just… thinking, I guess. I’ll miss you, dork. You know that?”
Mason’s eyes became glossy. “Yeah, I’ll miss you too, you big sentimental walrus.”
They looked towards the sky again, and realized that the sun had risen. The heavens had gone from hues of coral and rose to a light river of blue, accompanied by the occasional wispy cloud dancing across the great expanse of nothing.
Mason had always been fascinated by clouds. How they gently moved onward towards any place the wind wished for them to be, and how they had not a care in the world but to follow the day’s breeze. He inhaled deeply.
“I should probably get going. I’ll see you around?” Mason said.
“Not likely. That you’ll see me around, I mean. But yeah, see you later,” Maximus replied, grinning at his brother.
Mason smirked. “Alright. Later, my dear adopted big bro.”
“Bye- wait, what did you call me?!” Max called after him.
Mason laughed, and ran to his car. Once he was inside, he checked the time. 8:30 AM. He started the engine, and drove to Liam’s house, hoping his best friend was up to chat. He wasn’t feeling too giddy, and he figured Liam would know how to fix that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mason knocked quietly on Liam’s bedroom door, hoping he was awake. The dude slept late. Liam opened the door, yawning. His dark brown hair was a tangled mess, and he was still in the dark gray sweatpants he used as pajamas.
“Oh, hey M,” he said, his pale blue eyes heavy with sleep.
“Hey, Li,” Mason said quietly.
“You good?” Liam looked concerned.
“I’m good,” Mason replied, but he was a terrible liar, and his eyes filled with tears. He looked down, embarrassed.
“What’s wrong?” Liam questioned.
Mason wiped at his eyes. “They… the doctors gave Max days to live,” he said, his voice wobbly.
Liam’s eyes widened. “Oh… God, I’m so sorry M,” he said, wrapping his arms around his best friend. He and Mason were like brothers, and he knew how much Mason had to be hurting. He'd seen his interactions with Max. The two were unbelievably close, even though they fought like a cat and a dog.
“You, uh, wanna come in or something?” Liam said, scratching the back of his head.
The pair quietly entered Liam's room.
“So… you decided to come here, because?” Liam asked once they were seated on his bed, him at the head, and Mason at the foot.
“What, is it illegal to want to talk to your best friend?” Mason huffed.
“Woah there buddy, best friend? I’m your only friend.”
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”
Mason shook his head at Liam’s ridiculous nature, and sat back against the wall quietly. “It just feels so weird, you know? Max, I mean. Why does he have to die so soon? He’s not even twenty yet,” Mason said softly.
“Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes and it takes, but we keep living anyway,” Liam sang.
“Did you really just quote Hamilton while I’m talking about my dying brother?”
“Sorry. But really. Death isn’t kind. It doesn’t pretend to care, nor to distinguish. It takes people who are far too young, far too good. Death is a part of life, and even though that hurts, it’s not something we can do anything about. So we just gotta keep moving on past each roadblock, and be thankful for the time that we do have together. Nothing more you can do, really,” Liam said, fiddling with the hem of his sweatpants.
“Didn’t know I was friends with a poet.”
Liam chuckled, and ruffled Mason’s hair. “Well, now you do.”
They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes, until Mason spoke up again.
“I… Liam? If he dies, does that make me an only child?”
Liam looked over at his best friend. “Honestly? I... really have no idea.”
Mason nodded, staying quiet.
Liam piped up. “Hey, wanna play Mario Kart?”
And so, Liam and Mason spent the day playing Mario Kart, beating each other up, and feasting on Doritos. Mason went home that night content, and in no way expecting what was soon to come.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mason got a call at 7:00 in the morning from the hospital. It was Max. He wasn’t faring too well. He and his parents got dressed faster than they ever had before. By 7:10 they were in the car, and they were at the hospital by 7:30. Mr. and Mrs. Bluefield filled out all the forms and gave all the required information at the front desk, and soon they were allowed into Max’s hospital room. The doctors were right. He wasn’t doing well.
He opened his eyes and looked over when they came in. “Hey you guys,” he said, his lips curling into a slight smile.
“Hey, Maxxie,” Mom said, calling him by the nickname she’d given him when he was five.
Mason quietly stood in the corner of the room while his mother and father talked to Max, until his mother called his name.
“Mason, sweetheart, why don’t you and Max get in some brother time? I'll call Liam and tell him to head over.”
He nodded, not registering the meaning behind calling Liam over.
She and Mr. Bluefield walked out of the room.
Mason walked over to Max's hospital bed, and took Max's pale, cold hand in his own warm one.
“Look, I don’t have much time, Mason. But I want you to know that I love you, and that I wish I could stay with you longer,” he smiled sadly, “unfortunately, I cannot get my way this time, so please just listen up. I want you to continue doing well in school, and to work hard. For me. Don’t give up.”
“What? Max, what are you saying? What do you mean you wish you could stay longer?” Mason asked, confused.
Max squeezed his hand.
It took a few moments for the meaning of Max’s words to hit Mason.
“What? Max, no, you’re not going to die on me,” he said, eyes wide.
“I’m afraid you can’t decide that,” Max said quietly, chuckling.
“Max, please,” he begged, “you can’t leave me. You’re supposed to be here when I graduate. That’s this year! What do I do without you there?”
“I dunno you do what all the kids without siblings do?” Max grunted, his eyes laughing.
“Max you can’t die on me now, come on! Please, don’t leave me,” he choked out.
“Love you to the moon and back,” Max said, inhaling one last time.
“Max, I swear if those were your last words, I’ll find you wherever you are in heaven and hurt you for being such a cheesy bastard,” Mason said, his eyes filling with tears.
Max didn’t reply this time, but Mason could imagine him saying, "Bold of you to assume I'd be in heaven." Somehow, that made everything hurt all the more.
“Max, wake up… please… wake up…” Mason said, his voice raw.
Just then, the door slammed open, and Mason jumped at the sound. It was Liam.
“I came as soon as I heard, how is h-” Liam stopped as soon as he saw Mason’s tear streaked face, and Max’s still figure.
“Is he…?” Liam began.
“I… yeah. He’s gone,” Mason whispered, clutching the hand of what was once his older brother, still dripping with perspiration.
“Oh…” Liam said, shocked.
Liam came to sit beside Mason, and stared at Max’s still body for what seemed like an eternity. They sat in silence for what could have been seconds, and yet could have been a lifetime.
Mason broke that silence, saying, “Can we go?” He didn’t want to be in this room anymore. He didn’t want to be in this hospital room that smelled like bleach and hand sanitizer, and that held the vessel of what he used to call his brother, now deprived of all thought, feeling, and sensitivity. His brother was gone, and all that remained of him was a shell. He didn’t want to be near this shell any longer. It only reminded him of things he didn’t want to remember.
“Of course,” Liam replied, his eyes still glued on Maximus.
Slowly sitting up, they shuffled out of the room, and Mason couldn’t help but look back once more, to look upon his brother for the last time. His brother, only nineteen years of age, gone to who knows where. He smiled wistfully.
They walked out of the hospital in silence, and into Liam’s car. About five minutes into the drive, Liam turned on the radio in hopes of lightening the mood. Max’s favorite song came on.
All I am, is a man
I want the world, in my hands
I hate the beach, but I stand
In California, with my toes in the sand…
Hot tears streamed down Mason’s face, and Liam reached for the knob to change the channel. Mason grabbed his arm.
“Please… don’t,” he said, his voice breaking.
“Fine, but if you’re gonna cry all up in my car, use these,” Liam said, throwing a packet of tissues at Mason. It hit him in the face. Liam laughed at him quietly, and Mason smiled a bit.
Mason quickly wiped the smile off his face, feeling guilty. His brother had just died. Why was he smiling?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mason sat by the still waters of the lake, shivering in his hoodie. This had been where Maximus celebrated his fifteenth birthday, only a few weeks before the diagnosis. His breath became condensation in the air, and dissipated as the wind carried it away. Mason’s own personal cloud, following the path of the wind…
He sighed. “You really left me here, didn’t you?” he whispered.
The moon reflected off the lake, its image crooked and distorted by the water. He was brought back to Maximus’ birthday party, and could almost smell the jasmine flowers his mother had brought that day as centerpieces. Max had been so embarrassed about his mother bringing flowers to his fifteenth birthday.
He laughed wryly, and could feel his throat tightening. Tears threatened to pour out of his eyes.
“God I hate you, Maximus,” He mumbled, knowing full well that he was lying, but not caring enough to tell the truth. The truth was, he missed his brother. But thinking about that would only make things worse, and so he settled on resentment.
He stared at the moon’s reflection, and watched as it danced and glistened on the rippling water. It brought him back to that day, just yesterday, when he and his brother had watched the sun rise, and had their last conversation. Well, their last conversation that wasn’t riddled with grief.
His eyes swam with tears, and he balled his fists. We all expect to bury our parents one day, but never our brothers. Mason cried out with a pain so raw that the sky itself started crying with him. Small drops of rain fell, and within a few minutes, he was soaking. Soon, his screaming sobs subsided, and in its place came soft crying. He fell to his knees, aware for the first time that day that he no longer had a brother. That sudden realization took something out of him that he hadn't known he had left to give. He looked up to the sky, as though it could soothe him, but nothing could ease his pain, for it was far too great.
“I love you to the moon and back.”
There came no reply.