We are thrilled to share with you the honorable mention from our 2019 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, and the first New Voices selection for 2020, “Terraforming Mars” by Emmett Knowlton. This heartbreaking story follows seventh grader Sebastian and his trauma in the wake of a national tragedy. Knowlton’s prose is tender and honest and sure to be remembered in “Terraforming Mars.” Read on below:
In the months that followed, when school dances in the cafeteria and the occasional bat mitzvah were what we had to look forward to, and Mom would always insist I go, even when I didn’t want to and I knew she didn’t want to be alone in the house, it was Savannah who asked me to slow dance, and though I always suspected she did so out of pity I didn’t even care.
The cars came flooding into the parking lot around ten, a long shining line that coursed past the tennis courts and stretched all the way to our middle school’s east entrance. It was only the second week of the school year, only Tuesday, and I was in Earth Science doing that thing with my eyes where they floated in and out of focus when out the window I saw them, one fancy car after the next, a flotilla of station wagons and luxury SUVs.
A worksheet landed on my desk. Dr. Stern, who was maybe a lesbian and maybe hot, widened her eyes at me in that way that told me to pay attention. Then she went back to introducing our new unit.
“Imagine you are a scientist for NASA and you are tasked with colonizing Mars so that it is sustainable for human life,” she said.
“What happened to Earth?” Allison Corrigan loudly wondered.
“Please do not call out,” Dr. Stern replied. “Now imagine. You are the top government scientist and you need to determine how to make Mars livable. For the next few months we will work to answer this question.”
I thought about mustering the courage to raise my hand and ask why we were learning about Mars in a class called Earth Science, knowing this was the sort of seventh grade humor that would kill if I were ever brave enough to actually be a dick. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t. Instead my eyes went back to focusing and unfocusing out the window, and suddenly I was dreaming of saving the world for the girl I sat near, Savannah Freed. I could half hear Dr. Stern talking about setting up simple and sustainable agricultural systems now, and making sure we carefully considered atmospheric characteristics, and like an armada the cars continued pouring in, queuing beneath our middle school’s prefab porte-cochere like it was already time for afternoon pick-up.
And then I saw the moms. Saw them come rushing inside, their cars double-parked, flashers still flashing, keys possibly still in ignitions, ignited. Saw them walking purposefully, some jogging even toward the green double-doors, pale-faced or red faced in their exercise skorts, in their tennis whites, in their big prescription or non-prescription sunglasses.
“Wait so did zombies come?” Max Revsen asked, two rows over from me. “Or was it a nuclear war?”
Dr. Stern was at the board now.
“Will we find aliens?”
“Are we going to war with the aliens?”
You could sense the class teetering on raucousness, our ideas for why we might need to colonize Mars far more thrilling to us than any of the lame scientific methodologies Dr. Stern was asking us to consider.
“Oh my god you guys, are aliens hot?”
“You do know they’re called martians,” Charlotte MacLeod, distractingly tall in the front row, practically spat as she snapped her very long neck back at the rest of us. She’d been the first person in our grade to go through puberty and to become a vegan.
“And wait so like how are we getting there?”
Then Dr. Stern left the classroom. She had something called Crohn’s disease, a gross and hilarious fact we only knew about because someone’s older brother in eighth grade had been in Dr. Stern’s class last year and she had told his mom about her condition during parent-teacher conferences. But she was gone for longer than usual, and right as someone said, “Wow, Stern must have really had to shit,” she walked back into the classroom and when we saw her face, we got quiet.