“It’ll be all right, you know,” your friend Al says, smoking a cigarette on a park bench and flicking ash on his shoes. Ash, burning, burnt orange dirt streaked across her knees and face and hands and—
“No, it won’t,” you say, hunching in your overcoat, nose running down your top lip.
“Now you’re just being defeatist.”
“Now, now, NASA boys don’t talk like that.”
Yes they goddamn do, you think, and pull the coat over your head.
You go to Mars when you’re thirty-three, pass your training sims and psychological evaluations with colors that fly so fast they are a smear on the tarmac as the shuttle takes off. Jamie is at the helm, Mark and Tara and Katy, sweet Katy, in the seats around you. When the shuttle breaks Earth’s orbit, you unbuckle your seatbelt and move to a window, watching the blue-green swirl of home being pushed into the black. The brown specks of land and the disappearing polar ice caps are swallowed by the stars and the shuttle’s engine burn. Jamie sets a course, and you eat re-hydrated Mac-N-Cheese, sleep strapped in your bunk as you pass the International Space Station (refitted and revamped in 2066), and try to play Old Maid but the cards keep floating away.
And in between bathing and checking the fuel cells, you sneak kisses on the side of Katy’s mouth. You brush her hair from her cheeks and make wishes on her shed eyelashes. You wind your arms around her waist when she drifts too high, laughing with her when she almost bumps her head on the ceiling.
And then you see Mars out the window after three weeks, hanging in the sky like a blood drop.
Everything goes to hell, after that.
There’s press when you get back, but you don’t say anything. There’s a debriefing, but you don’t say anything there, either. There’s a funeral and a wake and Mark’s hand on your arm and vomiting in the begonias outside Katy’s mother’s house, curling on the lawn and getting leaves in your hair. You’re put on sick leave at work, talk to a therapist every Tuesday, and every Sunday Al takes you to the diner round the corner from your apartment for runny eggs and waffles and a walk in the park afterwards.
He is consistently unamused.
“You need to pull yourself together,” he says. “I have better things to do with my weekend.”
“No you don’t,” you say, because both of Al’s parents are dead and he hasn’t got a girlfriend or even a goldfish, and was laid off last week. “I don’t know which one of us is worse.”
“It’s what I’m here for.”
You frown and refuse to loan him three dollars for cigarettes, but Al keeps buying you breakfast.
Your therapist—Dr. Weller with the stylish glasses and the interesting mole on her chin that you can’t stop staring at—recommends exercise and fresh air, and you slip on your coat and walk around the block in the November cold. You leave the coat undone, feel it buffeting against your hands as the wind whips. You go without a scarf or gloves or a sweater, feel the chill settle hard and heavy in the hollow of your chest. You get a cold and start keeping tissues in your pockets, and one day—three months, six days—you reach in and feel sand rubbing against your fingers between the folds of facial tissue. It gets under your nails as you drag your hand out, rocks scraping against your palm. In your hand are pockmarked stones the size of dove’s hearts, brown and dusted with dirt the colour of embers. You shove both hands in your pockets and find more stones, more dirt and dust and your hands shake so hard it all tumbles to the sidewalk.
You throw up in a stranger’s begonias.
It gets worse from there: you find stones in your cereal bowl and grains of sand in the seams of your jeans. Carrot-coloured dirt cakes your sneakers, the inside of your fridge smells like recycled space shuttle air, and last—worst—of all, your shirts and skin and soap all smell like her. And she’d never been to your apartment.
“I think I’m having some kind of psychotic episode,” you tell Dr. Weller after you eat cornflakes with a side of Mars for breakfast.
“And what makes you think that?” she asks, mole stretching as she speaks; it kind of looks like New Jersey.
“I—” you rub your nose and look at your lap, because it suddenly occurs to you that if you tell her about finding bits of another planet in your apartment, she’ll have you strapped in a straightjacket and so doped up you’ll think you’re still sitting in her office, when really you’re drooling in a padded room. You think maybe it’s better to keep it to yourself, to fold it up and put it away and only take it out when you’re alone. “Nothing. Just a joke,” you say.
Dr. Weller ups your sessions anyway.
On Christmas Eve, Katy stands in the corner of your bedroom, soaking wet with mud streaked across her legs and arms. She has a sad smile, and her damp-dark hair clings to her neck and curls in the depression of her throat. Your bathroom towel drops from your limp fingers and you stare at her, trace the lines of her face; her cold blue lips and white skin two shades away from grey. She’s so clear, and then you blink and she’s not, and then you blink again and step towards her and—
Instead of giblets inside your turkey the next morning, you find two red stones.
Eventually, you stop seeing Dr. Weller. You improve, or is that “improve”, because sometimes you see Katy behind your eyelids before you wake, weak dawn light shining through papery skin. Sometimes you still find dust between the sheets in the linen closet. But you don’t tell anyone, and eventually—two years, six months, eight days—you are on a shuttle again, the second trip to find water on Mars.
The minute you leave the planet, you hear a humming in your head; off key and low and almost forgettable, but in the quiet of the shuttle’s night you hear it clearly. And it gets louder, the smaller Earth becomes, the larger Mars appears in front of them, growing and swelling like a boil. It’s almost physical, a tingling at the base of your skull by the time you arrive, and disembark, and walk through suit-given gravity.
When you’re alone in your helmet, it surprises you (although it shouldn’t) how much you hate it here; how you want to set a bomb off on the planet’s surface, destroy it, hurt it, break it. Because Katy fell into a crater that may have-may not have had water in it, stumbling and falling and scrambling at the ledge with glove-thick fingers while you struggled to get to her, and failed. And it’s not fair. There’s probably not any water here anyway. Never has been.
“We need you to come back,” Jamie crackles over the intercom. “There’s a storm coming in.”
You switch off the intercom, staggering in wind that’s almost as loud as the humming in your head, and when your legs ache, you fall to your knees. Rusty dirt stains your white suit, coats your fingertips, and you don’t know where you are. You’re not where she is. Jamie didn’t land in the same place.
Katy. “I’m lost,” you say, and unlock your helmet.
Kate Fathers is currently the Monthly Book Review Columnist for Starburst Magazine, and a contributor of eco-oriented articles for the parenting website Mindful Mum. Her work has appeared in various publications for the University of Windsor and the University of Glasgow.