The Star Kings by Elyana Ren
(Inspired by Edward Morris’s “The Star King” and Charles Dickens’s “The Cricket on the Hearth”)
“Someone’s phone is chirping,” EJ said, his voice tense.
“It’s mine, sorry!” I said, fumbling around my backpack for the phone. “I forgot I had an alarm set from over the weekend.”
“Here,” John said quietly, handing something to EJ.
It was his fidget, which he clicked rapidly until I found my phone and turned off the alarm. He let out a breath.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, knowing how much high pitched noises ramped up his anxiety.
“It’s fine,” he said, letting out another breath. “Just no more alarms, please.”
“It’s on silent now.” I set the phone on the table in front of me.
EJ scooted closer to John, still clicking the fidget.
“That’s a good pose,” Mae piped up beside me.
“Trying not to freak out?” EJ said, his voice a little lighter.
“She means us cuddling,” John said, his words muffled as he nuzzled into EJ.
“Should I avert mine eyes?” I said, raising my eyebrows.
“You might want to look away,” EJ said, kissing my brother gently.
John made a happy sound and I mimed puking. “I swear, it’s a good thing I’m romance-neutral or I wouldn’t be able to stand you two for more than five minutes.”
“B,” EJ said matter-of-factly, “if we weren’t so cuddly, we wouldn’t be voted Star Kings.”
“Technically, you’re not Star Kings yet,” Mae said, her pencil gliding smoothly across her notebook.
“Which is why we have you two,” John said brightly.
“Oh yeah, I can already see the headlines,” I said. “Local teen and boyfriend with autism crowned district’s first Star Kings thanks to the vision of sight challenged sister”
“Gag,” John said.
“Double gag,” replied EJ.
“Okay but seriously though,” John said, his voice excited, “I really think this could work. You know how the district is doing their Spread A Smile or whatever campaign?”
“Everyone can share a smile,” I parroted.
“People are being primed to be more sympathetic to marginalized people,” John continued. “Hello, look at us. Queer, autistic, Asian, aspiring blind film maker sister—”
“Token able cis-het friend who puts up with you,” Mae added.
“Exactly,” John said. “We’re like exhibit A on inclusivity and acceptance!”
“I’d rather be like exhibit Q in how people should just treat people with decency,” I said. “Like not troll their videos and say they are faking their blindness.”
John swore, “When did that happen?”
“The latest one was earlier this morning,” I sighed. “I blocked the comment, which wasn’t even a good one mind you, but it just sucked because it was someone from real life.”
“Who was it?” EJ asked, his voice full of concern.
“Who do we know that’s a real life troll?” Mae offered.
John swore again. “What did he say?”
I cleared my throat. “Username GTF0,” I recited. “‘B is not blind. She’s totally faking it. I go to school with her and she walks around classrooms without her stick.’”
“Are you okay?” EJ asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. “It just sucks that people don’t get it.”
“I know,” he said as he touched his fingers briefly to mine.
“This is why what we’re doing matters,” John said quietly. “When you make our video, people will see that we want the same things as them — love, respect, simple consideration. And you know, people will probably see it as inspiring, but I think they’ll also take away that we’re not so different. I mean, we are different from most of the people here, but.I guess the point is it’s okay.…”
“No, I get it,” I said, feeling my heartbeat pounding in my body. “I just…I don’t want to make a statement that people take the wrong way.”
“You can’t control what other people feel,” Mae said gently.
“I’m not trying to,” I said, forcing my voice past the tightness in my chest.
“I think,” she said after a beat, “the video should open on my hand sketching John and EJ in a candid pose and then that can dissolve into a live action sequence of the two of you doing random Star King-y things.”
“Such as?” John asked dubiously.
“I still have footage of you two organizing the toy drive,” I offered. “And I remember Mom took pictures of all of us at that interactive space instillation at the museum over the summer! We could use a couple of those.”
“New headline,” my brother said decisively. “EJ and John: from high school stargazers to first Star Kings.”
“Now that’s more like it,” I smiled.
“What inspired you to organize this drive?” My voice asked in my headphones.
“Too close to the mic, B,” I muttered aloud, hitting the keystroke that split the footage between my question and John’s response.
“Kids learn by playing, like that’s how they experience the world. But not every kid has toys and extra clothes that they can get dirty and go exploring in. So my boyfriend and our friends decided to make sure kids around here did.”
I hit the keystroke again and paused the clip, taking a screenshot of the editor on my laptop and texting it to myself. On my phone, I enabled the magnifying feature that let me pan around the screen and held the now-brightened rectangle right up to my eyes. Keeping my finger on the glass, I panned around in magnified detail to see where John’s face was in the frame; I could see the dark outline of his hair and the indistinct points on his face where his eyes, nose, and smiling mouth were. He was in the sweet spot in the frame I was told people’s eyes are drawn to.
“Hey B,” EJ said from out in the hall, “how’s everything looking so far?”
“Good I think,” I replied, dimming my phone screen again and pushing my palms against my eyes. “Sometimes I wish I were less of a perfectionist so I wouldn’t have to kill my eyes all the time,” I sighed, massaging my eyeballs with my fingertips.
EJ came to stand behind me. “Do you need to borrow mine?” He asked, resting a hand on my shoulder
I nodded. “I found a good clip of John but I have to make sure I have a good one of you.”
“If you hit play I can help.”
“It’s a little…well, a lot,” I said, indicating my headphones. “I can listen and find one and you can just visually check the frame if you want.”
“Works for me,” he said, releasing my shoulder with a gentle squeeze as I put my headphones back on.
I laughed aloud, moving one of the headphones away from my ear. “I literally just asked video you if you were in frame.”
“Did I say yes? Because you would hate the angle,” he replied.
“You said that I was still at John’s height and thank you for thinking you were taller, but, ‘come on, B, you should know me by now.’”
He laughed his open, EJ laugh. “Well, it did get you to fix it. And…there, now you got my good side.”
“Diva,” I muttered, listening to myself continuing the interview.
The rain was coming down hard and I lost myself in the intensity of it. I knew EJ was doing the same thing in my brother’s room. It was the spark that started our friendship On the first day of kindergarten. We were held inside during recess because of a massive downpour and all the children were trying to entertain themselves in our classroom as loudly as possible. I wedged myself into a corner by one of the slightly-open windows and absorbed the sound of the rain. And then someone came over and stood a few feet away.
“Hello?” I said, but at that time, I didn’t know how loud to make my voice speak.
“I can hear the rain,” this someone said, his voice too loud.
“Me too,” I replied, patting the space next to me. “You can sit here.”
“I want the window,” he said, not moving.
“I was here first,” I said, which always worked with my big brother.
“Please I want the window,” the someone said. “Please I want the window…I want the…”
“Okay,” I said, hearing in his voice a feeling I knew. I slid over a bit and patted the space between me and the wall.
“Hello I’m Edward Joseph,” he said as he sat down beside me, his words spoken out the window.
“I’m B,” I said.
“Buzz,” he giggled.
“No, B, the letter,” I said. “My name is Bertha but I like B.”
“B,” he repeated. “Bringing home a baby Bertha Bee.”
“No,” I started to giggle too.
“I want letters,” he announced, clapping his hands excitedly.
“For your name?” I asked.
“Bertha Bee, I am EJ. Please I want EJ.”
“EJ,” I repeated.
He laughed and clapped, and I laughed and clapped, and a loud rumble of thunder made everyone but us scream. We just kept laughing and clapping.
Later that day, John found the two of us sitting together in the cafeteria. I was eating the school pizza and my new friend was singing a theme song I knew.
“Are you dancing?” John asked.
“I am EJ,” he mumbled.
“You’re rocking on your chair,” John said, taking a big bite of his pizza.
“Yes,” EJ said.
“He does that when things are too loud,” I explained, remembering what our teacher told us about EJ. Just like she told the class that I needed to go very close up to things to see them.
“Are you going to eat?” My brother asked. “Wheres your lunch?”
“I go to school and then I will eat my macaroni at home.”
“I like macaroni,” John said, moving his tray to the other side of the table next to EJ. “Can I sit here so I don’t have to talk so loud?”
“B,” John said, the big brother back in his voice, “don’t forget you have to drink your milk.”
“I can’t open it,” I said. “Will you help me please?”
“Me!” EJ said loudly. “I want to help.”
“Here,” John said, sliding the carton across the table to him.
I didn’t know what had happened but my new friend was suddenly crying. John pushed his chair back and stood behind EJ the way he’d do for me whenever I was upset.
“Here,” John said again, softer that time. Their forms were so close I couldn’t tell them apart. “You hold the bottom and I’ll open the triangle part.”
“I can’t hear the rain,” EJ said with tears in his words.
“I can’t hear the rain inside either,” I said.
“Here, B,” EJ said, pushing the cool milk carton into my hand.
“Thank you,” I said to the shape of my brother and my new friend in front of me.
The room was charged with nervous energy. It hung in the air like lightning as I walked in, and I nearly walked out the way I came.
“Don’t you even think of bolting,” Mae said, suddenly on my left, her hand on my arm.
“That’s a lot of people,” I said, sinking into the rhythm of our steps as we walked along the side of the room.
“That’s a lot of votes for John and EJ,” she said. “Even the teachers look a little woo!”
“Good woo or bad woo?”
“I can’t tell.”
“Do you see GT senior?” I asked quietly.
After a moment she said, “Sadly yes. He’s across the room by the screen talking to the new middle school principal.”
“His spawn commented on the video,” I said, stopping to let a bunch of kids pass. “He made a new account because I blocked his old one.”
Mae made a disgusted sound. “Did you block this one?”
“Yeah. And reported it.”
“Good. Not good, he is here and looking at us.”
“Go go gadget guide human,” I said, the tightness in my body constricting more.
“B, you okay?” My brother’s voice said out of the crowd. And then his hand was on my arm where Mae’s had been.
“This is why I could never be a princess,” I said, trying to slow my heartbeat. “I can’t deal with trolls.”
“No trolls or snakes or toads or any manner of fowl beastie will ever get into our castle,” EJ said on my other side.
“All hail the Star Kings,” I replied.
Then it was suddenly time for the videos to play for the assembled crowd. And my heart forgot that it could beat normally, so I practically clung to a corner, Mae never leaving my side.
“Did they just dim the lights?” I asked.
“Yeah. The screen is basically at 2 o’clock from you. It’s Mia and Liam’s video first. Are you breathing?”
“B,” she said, now directly in front of me. “I’m here. We can leave if you need to. It’s okay.”
I shook my head, feeling the plaster on the wall supporting my skull.
Her hands took their spot on my shoulders and began pressing down and squeezing. She was talking to me in that gentle way of hers, but I couldn’t make sense of it and filter out the the noise of the video and the crowd and my breathing and my heart all at once. I felt the room flicker darker for a second, and then I was sitting on the carpet with Mae beside me, one of my hands in both of hers.
“Did I miss it?” I asked, my voice making its way up a long tunnel.
She squeezed, “Nope. You missed Mia and Liam and Sophie and Elijah. They’re taking a little break and then it’s EJ and John.”
I nodded, feeling along the wall for where I thought I propped my cane.
“It fell,” Mae said, placing it in my outstretched hand.
“Time to walk the red carpet,” I muttered, trying to keep my thoughts at bay. “Do you still see GT senior or junior?”
“They’re seated near the screen but not on the same side as our boys.”
“Right,” I said, extending my cane out in front of me, feeling the carpet gliding beneath the tip as I swept it from side to side.
“It gets narrow up ahead,” Mae said from slightly behind me. “Guide human?”
“Not yet,” I said. “Exhibit A in inclusivity and acceptance or something.”
“If you say so,” she replied, with a quick touch on the back of my arm to let me know she was there.
My cane found the opposite wall and I turned right, orienting myself to the knew direction of sound and lighting. “How much farther?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Hold up,” Mae said softly, her face coming close to mine. “Senior troll coming.”
“Hello, B,” said a voice that was just the right amount professional and condescending to make my blood run hot and cold at once.
I couldn’t speak, just dipped my head a fraction of an inch.
“I heard you made the video for the…kings,” he continued, his distaste so obvious it was almost laughable.
“She did,” Mae said. “We were inspired by your share a smile campaign.”
“Ah,” he said, as if he’d forgotten he’d been pressured into stepping into this century. “Well, people are very interested to see what you could have possibly achieved, B. And EJ, too. I’m surprised he’s here. It’s a bit..too much, I would think.”
“Not really,” EJ said from behind the troll. “I got to a point where I’m used to people looking at me and thinking what they will. This is at least making people see me and John and B and Mae on our terms.”
“Every goose thinks it’s a swan,” GT senior observed.
“Excuse me,” I burst out.
“Just quoting Dickens,” he said. “Now, I think your show is about to start. Good luck.”
The applause for the video took up all the space in my bones where the anger and the pain had lodged themselves. The video was unashamed and proud and my brother and his prince could not have shined brighter in my mind.
“You finally shook things up,” someone from another school congratulated us.
“It’s like you reminded people that stuff like this should bring joy, not contention,” someone else said.
“”B,” said a tentative voice I couldn’t place. “Thank you for making the video. And John and EJ,” the voice continued, growing stronger, “I’m voting for you. My brother would have been so happy to know that you’re running for the Star Crown. I wish…” The voice trailed off, and with a jolt, I knew whose voice it was.
“Addison,” I said, tears collecting behind my eyes. “Caleb is part of the reason I started doing videos. He told me that they could make people see that things can be better.”
“I wish he waited to see this,” Addison said, his head down.
“If we win,” John said, kneeling in front of him, “we will make sure people don’t forget Caleb. He shined so bright. He…he showed me it was okay to love who I love.”
“Thank you,” Addison said.
“The line is pretty much gone,” John said. “They all moved to the buffet.”
“Great,” I replied, taking the cardboard star from my pocket. “Save me a spot in the food line?”
“Yup,” he replied. “And the vote goes on the other side of the star, by the way.”
“I’m trailblazing,” I said, picking up the star.
“I don’t think it counts if they can’t read it over the design on the back,” EJ said, coming up to stand beside John.
“Technicalities,” I said, flipping the star over and uncapping the pen Mae gave me. “So, couple number three, correct?”
“Yup,” they said together.
I lined the tip of the pen up with where I thought the center of the star was. My brain was well exhausted from the excitement and emotions of the night, so I couldn’t rely on my brain translating what my eyes saw. I traced the curve of the number and felt it on my palm through the cardboard,.
“Done,” I said, capping the pen and holding it out for Mae.
“Perfect,” she said. “Also, I think your handwriting is neater than your brother’s.”
“I’ll take that,” I smiled. “Now, where does this star belong?”
“Turn slightly to your left,” she directed. “There. Straight ahead. You’re at the center isle between the tables.”
“More red carpet,” I said.
“It’s brown, actually. With geometric shapes on it.”
“I’m pretending it’s red,” I said as I walked through the isle.
I stopped when the tip of my cane found the table that held the giant papier-mache star. I traced my hand along its surface, it was covered with tiny glittery star cut-outs that clung to it like icicles. My brain shut out the noise from the room and the comments from the audience, good and bad, and focused on the cardboard star cradled on my upturned palm. It floated over the frozen landscape beneath my other hand and found its destination.
“Here’s to the first Star Kings,” I sent out to the universe.
And I let the star fall.