To Travel to the Stars
seven when they found out that the sun would eventually die. It’s not the kind of thing you ask about. Moreso, it’s
not the kind of thing you ask your father about. They found it out from the usual way—a speech. Kelly and Kimberly Cotton,
born two minutes apart, are apart by only inches now, the smooth blue carpet against their bare limbs, with an occasional
bumpy patch felt through their clothing to remind them that they’re on solid ground. Above are the stars, precise, planned
by their father’s careful design.
There is no need to ask Tristram Cotton about the sun when he’s controlling the heavens nine hours a day in the
Ptolemy Planetarium, so named for its presence in Alexandria, Virginia. The landmark is the only place where the legacy of
Thomas Jefferson lags behind ancient Ptolemy’s. Because of this, Kimberly thought Monticello was a dessert with whipped
topping up until she went to school. Kelly thought similarly, though she had the good sense to keep it to herself.
“Aquila, listed in Ptolemy’s forty-eight constellations, is the eagle who carried thunderbolts to Zeus
in Grecian mythology,” narrates Tristram. “Aquila sits to the right…”
While their father plans his presentations, and their favorite janitor Getty moves along the margins, the girls lay
on the floor and think fondly of the firmament.
“How’s the volume, Getty?” asks Tristram over the microphone.
“Good, chief,” assures Getty with a thumbs up.
“Did you find anything good yet, Getty?” calls over Kimberly, lifting her head.
“A wrapper with Whatchamacallit on it,” replies Getty. “Have they really run out of names for candy?”
Getty pats his stomach, and from a distance, his white hair resembles a snow cap. The girls giggle. They could always
entice a gem out of Getty.
“Kimberly, Kelly,” says Tristram. “Let Getty do his work.”
“Fine,” says Kimberly, flopping back down on the floor.
Ptolemy’s is where the stars go to sleep and reawaken by switch.
Planets become stars too, with pretty decorations, the ridges of Mars and the rings of Saturn, their orbs emblazoned under
the eaves of the dome. Ursa Minor remains the least intimidating bear ever. Andromeda melts into pinks and purples, her curves
cloaked by the colorful cosmos and bordered with blackness. They only have the planetarium and its treasures to themselves
on weekend afternoons. Underneath, their thoughts rarely run similarly, but when they do, it is to a single person.
Kelly turns to see her sister in the shadows, Kimberly’s cheeks looking like freckle-covered supernovas. The
brown spots go in no set direction and they seem to shift when Kimberly breathes. She’s often thought that her own freckles
resemble her mother’s, but Kelly’s not close enough to know. Her mother Lindy called her radiant once when Kelly,
wearing her azure nightgown, woke her up. They used azure for Kelly’s benefit, because she was born colorblind and it’s
the blue she saw the best. Kelly had to touch the fabric to recognize the ruffles and scooped neck of her sleepwear. Since
she couldn’t tell if she looked alright, she relied on her mother’s compliments.
Lindy would never hear of not buying Kelly different blue clothes, in shades Kelly couldn’t separate. She thought
all children deserved all colors. With Lindy gone, Kelly no longer parts her cyan curtains, uses the cornflower bone china
at Thanksgiving, or likes the word cerulean rolling off her tongue. She worries about car shopping already at the age of eleven,
despite all the reds and greens she will view correctly on the street. There would be a whole rainbow of automobiles. Who
is going to tell her what makes her look radiant on the road? Her advisor is as invisible as the air, with no color for her
to cling to.
“I know a kid with a puppy named Zeus,” whispers Kimberly.
“Hopefully, his dad didn’t try to eat him,” whispers Kelly. “Like how Zeus’ dad tried
to eat him?”
“That’s sick,” says Kimberly, turning away from her.
The running joke among Kimberly’s friends is that she didn’t need a brother to gross her out; she has Kelly.
Kimberly was left alone in most of her girly pursuits once they hit first grade. The last joint extracurricular activity they
tackled was ballet in Ms. Pritchett’s beginner’s class. While Kelly lobbed jellybeans into her mouth during jete
practice, Kimberly lengthened her legs and counted in her head. In the studio mirrors, she saw the other girls in a circle
doing the same, stretching as they moved toward the center where Ms. Pritchett was the red-haired sun to their pointy-toed
planets. It wasn’t the color of Ms. Pritchett’s hair that made her think of the sun, since Tristram had red hair
too; it was that Ms. Pritchett looked old enough to die at any second. Tristram called the exercise heliocentrism. Kelly called
it a waste of time. Kimberly called it dance. It was a way to connect without physically touching someone. She didn’t
think it was possible, not in a home with Lindy’s persistent forehead kisses, a host of handshakes between her father
and fellow scientists, and a swarm of hugs from visiting relatives.
But Kimberly remembers when the hugs stopped. Tristram wouldn’t give any hugs to his girls. The caterers served
small triangular sandwiches, crumbly brownies, and slices of cheese that Kimberly couldn’t swallow. Her aunts kept giving
the twins food as if the funeral had reawakened their appetite. Kimberly refused to go up with Kelly during the ceremony.
There was no chance that Lindy would reawake. She couldn’t talk to an urn, just like Tristram couldn’t talk to
the two of them. Hours later, she scurried by her father sleeping on the couch. He had red stubble on his raised chin. His
arms were stretching towards the urn seated on the glass table in the living room. Kimberly stalled for a moment and then
slipped away to the patio. The full moon hung far off, like a grooved spotlight. Her pink unitard was swathed with porch light,
anyway. She was six and tutu-less but that didn’t make the dancing any less. She saw the urn, grey with its graceful
curves, and tried to match its grace. Her mother never got the chance to watch her dance so she had to make it good. Kimberly
spun, kicked, leapt towards the light. The soles of her feet flew over the gold floor of the patio. Her heart thundered above
the tiles. She finished, holding her hand up to the sky, waiting to be embraced. The wind stroked the hairs on her fingers
and then fell still. Kimberly let her body fall to the ground, and hugged herself.
Kimberly releases a long sigh, nudging her sister’s shoe with hers.
“Do you remember any ballet steps?” says Kimberly.
arm under her head, Kelly blinks at the now moving, incredibly white Milky Way.
replies Kelly. “I don’t want to, but I do.”
you remember the exercise where…..,” starts Kimberly.
want to talk about it,” interrupts Kelly.
ever wants to talk,” whispers Kimberly. “You or Dad.”
don’t have to…at planetariums,” says Kelly.
Which is why I like it, thinks Kelly. This place is the only spot in the world where her father makes sense to her.
At home, he will read the backs of microwave dinners instead of asking how their days were, or park them in front of the TV
so he can review coordinates in the dimly lit den. With his telescope angled near his ear and a Copernicus poster next to
his computer, Tristram disappeared in a structured room as the uncontrollable universe whirred on outside on its own. Kelly
accepted it as typical after the first two years. So she decided to deal with the loss of Lindy in her own atypical way.
a collection of botany books in the living room next to Tristram’s mythology anthologies. With her papergirl money,
Kelly bought herbs, but only the ones with names she could pronounce—rosemary, sage, and saffron. Kimberly suggested
adding flowers since they hadn’t given Lindy any flowers during the funeral like most of their relatives. Kelly humored
her and was rewarded eight weeks later when they bloomed in the backyard, fireflies that were in flight landing on the curled
white carnations. Kelly stood with her watering can among the new bits of life. She loved the rolling curves of her roses,
the dip of the daffodils, and the lilacs continuing to sway in the lulls of spring. Every piece was changing.
Encouraged by these growing buds, she turned to the last book she had yet to open. The first page held a hedge maze.
She browsed through the sculpted bushes and the wily walls with wooden doors until she reached a page with ivy. Tucking her
feet under her lap, she stared at the ivy, suffocating shredded bark, dangling like thick, green nooses as people walked next
to them. Kelly shut the book speedily. Her lungs clenched inside her chest. She went inside, pressing her digital watch to
light her way past the perfectly segmented plants. She looked back at the garden, silently crying. It changed too, as if it
were a picture of a numb night.
“Cronus’ wife Rhea lied and hid her son Zeus away so he would escape death, substituting the baby with
a rock that Cronus swallowed whole,” narrates Tristram.
Kimberly touches her throat. Her pulse quakes between her painted fingernails and the top of her thumb. Lindy often
had to fake her way through hospital visits, seemingly whenever the girls came into her room. She pretended her diabetes pills
were vitamins and got away with it since there was always orange juice with them and the girls simply saw the juice as a second
source of vitamins. Her head scarf, full of sewn comets, became a “gift from an astronaut”. When the girls asked
what she did at the hospital every day, she curtailed the conversation and asked what they were learning about in kindergarten.
“I made a dove out of paper,” shared Kimberly one day.
“You did?” cried Lindy. “Can it fly?”
“I can’t fly it at school,” admitted Kimberly. “But maybe at home!”
“You girls should ask your father to make one, and the three of you can have a flying contest,” suggested
“He’ll give us a speech about air travel again,” groaned Kelly.
“He’s so scientrific,” agreed Kimberly, though incorrectly.
“Scientific,” said Lindy. “And that’s okay. Anyone who gets to travel to the stars as much
as possible can’t be all science.”
“But they’re fake stars,” said Kelly.
“When you guys were babies, you didn’t know the difference,” said Lindy. “Couldn’t you
“I have a big imagination,” said Kimberly with a nod.
“My imagination is bigger!” said Kelly.
Lindy chuckled, Kimberly watching her IV tube rustle against the crisp white sheets. She overheard a nurse yesterday
talking about her kidneys going. Kimberly had no idea if kidneys were necessary or if they could be replaced like fingernails.
Lindy said not to worry and they believed her.
“You guys will pretend I’m there, too, won’t you?” said Lindy.
“Or we’ll wait until you come home,” suggested Kimberly.
“Yes,” says Lindy, letting each girl hug her from the side. “Or you could wait.”
At five, Kimberly ate up every word like it was the truth, like Lindy would live as long as the Earth Five years since, she knows she was gullible for gobbling up a lie.
“Zeus’ daughter was Athena, goddess of wisdom and war,” continues Tristram. “According to a
myth, Perseus was placed in the stars by Athena after Perseus saved the princess Andromeda from a sea monster.”
her knees as the white lines of Perseus form their namesake on the left side of the dome. Her father’s namesake was
a knight, Tristram being a different take on the name Tristan. She refused to ask for the whole story, because she was afraid
she’d be disappointed. What if Tristan didn’t get to Isolde in time? What if he met a monster that he couldn’t
beat? The truth is that all of them were beaten by a foe only Lindy had to face, and she lost to her illness.
battles were miniscule in comparison, and she discovered that she had to change her armor one day. Passing pretzel stands
and wristwatch vendors, Kelly elected to charge the castle by herself. The castle held tons of clothes and one saleswoman
typing away at a calculator. It held peek-a-boo lingerie and granny panties, and most importantly, training bras. How can
you train body parts, she asked her friends. You’re preparing for bigger breasts, they told her. But she didn’t
want bigger breasts and she definitely didn’t want to train herself to accept them. Worse were the weird sizes, the
alphabet becoming in some strange way applicable, and the crazy-named collections, from the odd sounding Playtex to the intriguing
Wonderbra. Then, there was the all-important question. To stuff or not to stuff? Kelly
simply grabbed the first small, black bra she could find and draped it against the check-out counter.
behind the counter had stained teeth and wore a cowl sweater that seemed stuck to her neck. Two white hairs crept out of her
largely brown bun.
this looks too big for you,” said the saleswoman. “Did you try it on?”
this your first one?” asked the saleswoman.
said Kelly, her voice dropping.
smiled. Her green nametag, reading Alicia, shone under the fluorescent lights and Kelly hated that she noticed her imperfect
know who to bring,” whispered Kelly. “My sister doesn’t have anything to show yet, and plus she has dance
practice. My dad…well, I can’t talk to him.”
just the thing,” assured Alicia.
it be blue?” asked Kelly.
her to a changing stall and went to fetch her first fated bra. Kelly rammed her hands into her pockets and whistled the theme
from Star Wars, Lindy’s favorite movie and Tristram’s favorite movie to debate. She was thinking about the Ewoks
when Alicia returned and she was thankful the bra wasn’t furry or cutesy like them. Kelly removed her hands and took
me know if there are any problems,” said Alicia, winking at her and shutting the curtain.
the bra twice and sighed. This had to happen eventually, and well, she was the older twin. She tossed the shirt to the floor
and started to situate the bra over her frame. For some reason she couldn’t understand, she almost didn’t want
it to fit. She almost wanted there to be a problem and for someone else to be back there with her. Instead, the bra fit beautifully.
Her body was as cooperative as it could be.
to the counter and gave it to Alicia, who eyed her with curiosity. Did watching a girl come in alone make Alicia curious?
Kelly was also curious, if Alicia was a mom, if Alicia was judging Kelly’s mom for not being there. Kelly looked up
hopefully, ready to explain, ready to clear her mother from any perceived wrongdoing. Tears fell to the top of the counter
and it took Kelly awhile to realize that they were hers.
sorry you had to help me,” whispered Kelly.
honey,” said Alicia, walking around the counter and taking the girl in her arms.
against Alicia’s chest. She guiltily guessed if she would be as developed and became more ashamed for staring at another
woman’s breasts. She sighed deeply in the wet fabric, her quiet battle cry.
“The sea monster was defeated by Perseus when he pulled out the head of Medusa, which turned the sea creature
into stone,” says Tristram.
Kimberly hears the squeaking of the seats while Getty goes around and trashes the debris of day trips to Ptolemy’s.
The hunt is more interesting than her father’s speech to school children about how the gods landed in the sky. Blinks,
yawns, or even scratches of the nose were indicators of the kids’ boredom. Kimberly saw them without fail in the different
corners of the shadowy planetarium over the years. Once Saturn lost its luster and Neil Armstrong made his lunar landing,
kids were either nodding off or apathetic to the astronomical adjustments above their seats.
She outgrew one of the activities where she had the most fun. Every Friday in third grade, her favorite gym teacher
Mrs. Vane would retrieve an old parachute from the supply closet. It looked like a large, multicolored mushroom. But the color
wasn’t what she liked most. Twenty pairs of arms would lift, come down, and repeat the method to gain momentum so that
when they ran under, the parachute would fall onto them. Kimberly sat in its folds, crushed and content. The space was as
warm as she thought a womb might be. It was the warmest she’d ever felt.
One Friday, she was interrupted, by the head of her father. She instinctively glanced around for her group of friends,
crawling towards her under the cloth. Tristram appeared next to her instead.
“Come out,” said Tristram. “Kelly’s with me.”
Kimberly stared at the red, green, yellow, and blue sections of the parachute. The yellow part decorated half of her
forehead. Ms. Vane blew her whistle and the rest of the children removed themselves.
“I leave for Richmond in an hour, and the baby-sitter’s already there,” said Tristram.
“Why can’t we go with you?” asked Kimberly. “It’s the weekend.”
“This isn’t Ptolemy’s. I can’t have you two there while I’m talking to the Astronomical
Society,” insisted Tristram. “I can’t pretend you’re not there.”
“You do it at home,” said Kimberly, shrugging.
Tristram arched his eyebrows, lifted a piece of the parachute to show a peek of light, revealing Kelly’s red
sneakers. Her father bit his lip and ran a hand through his red hair.
“I’m not taking you anywhere when you say awful things like that,” said Tristram softly. “You
She didn’t. In fact, she kept her silence from the gym until they got home. Rather than see him off, which Kelly
dutifully did, Kimberly retreated to her room and shut the lights off. Somehow, on her ceiling, Lindy had contained celestial
glory. Dozens of glow-in-the-dark stars dotted the area, throwing citrus-colored rays onto her little limbs and her bow-covered
socks, which Lindy knitted three weeks before she died. The whole family helped with what Lindy called “the Cotton Sistine
Chapel”. Lindy directed where the stars should go, the three females teasing Tristram about being relieved of that responsibility.
Tristram laughed so hard that he almost toppled off the step ladder. Kimberly and Kelly took turns holding the ladder, supporting
their father as he made outer space in Kimberly’s tiny space. When they were done, Lindy doused the lights and started
a chain of “ooohs” and “aaahs”. Kimberly said “thank you” to Tristram and he playfully
tugged her white hoop earrings, which looked near neon under the new nighttime.
It was comforting being in the dark. She believed she spent two-thirds
of her life in it. She paraded around the planetarium, sure, but she was also in a position where she never fully saw her
father or her mother. Physically or emotionally present, one of them was always missing. She missed seeing them together.
Because of that, in that moment, she thought he was never coming back. She didn’t mean to hurt him if that was the last
time she saw him. Dragging her blanket to the living room, which Tristram made a habit of sleeping on since the funeral, Kimberly
went to bed on the couch and let her eyes droop shortly after they locked on Lindy’s urn. This time, she was the one
being awakened by Tristram’s tender ruffle of her hair, though she kept her eyes closed.
Tristram sniffled, tucking the blanket firmly around Kimberly’s torso.
“I don’t know how to raise you two alone,” whispered Tristram. “I’m sorry.”
Kimberly shut her eyelids so tightly her eyelashes started to hurt. The pressure next to her body left, signaling Tristram
exiting the room. Kimberly opened her eyes and saw two shiny flashes from his shoes before he disappeared.
Now, in the planetarium, she can barely make him out either, the white grainy beam from the projector blinding her
“Can you see Dad?” asks Kimberly.
“You’re the twin with the good eyes,” teases Kelly.
“Sometimes I see Mom, especially in here,” says Kimberly.
“Me too,” says Kelly.
The twins exchange smiles, linking hands. Both of their faces move towards their father. He is stacking paper and ready
to turn off the projector.
“Come on,” says Kimberly. “I have an idea.”
a pencil beside the projector-warmed paper, then takes off his glasses.
Getty,” calls over Tristram.
a Peep in here, and it’s not even Easter,” shares Getty.
as Kimberly and Kelly stand on either side of Tristram’s chair. Their father looks between them.
says Kimberly. “Is the sun really going to die?”
strokes the beginnings of a beard he’s growing and sighs.
answers Tristram. “But the good news is that we won’t be here. It’ll be alive for a long time.”
the projector gently while Kimberly rests a hand on Tristram’s shoulder. They both know that this is the best way to
get him to talk, to peel the layers and see what drifts. Maybe their mother is floating in those drifts, hovering in the silences
they shared, and now basking in the ebullient rays of this effort.
be in the stars,” says Kelly.
until he smiles.
we will,” says Tristram.
pieces of spare paper, Kimberly starts to fold, crafting similar wings, beaks, and full bodies until she’s made three
doves the size of meteoroids. She gives the other two to Tristram and Kelly.
this?” asks Tristram.
says Kelly. “Mom wanted us to have a flying contest before she died.”
don’t have to,” says Kimberly.
as Tristram stands and peers at the door.
make it quick,” says Tristram.
eagerly pull him to the center of Ptolemy’s, stars lining every edge of their private world. Paper doves sail in the
atmosphere, and not surprisingly, Tristram’s bird reaches the highest heights, but flutters to the floor right after
the girls’. After they touch ground, the girls find their shoulders touching the palms of their father’s hands.
The three of them stare at the now empty heavens with wonder.
Hayes received her MFA from the University of Maryland College Park. Her work has appeared inPrick of the Spindle, Prima Storia,Children,
Churches and Daddies,andBirmingham ArtsJournal.