The night I saw the advertisement, Oliver was out and we were all up: Aunt Jody was scrubbing ancient remnants of my mother’s burnt molasses cookies from a tray we ought to have given up on years ago. Dad was sitting before the television, a comedy with a laugh track and lazy physical stunts beaming onto his motionless eyes. And I was on my computer picking up digital breadcrumbs to an unclear destination. I was doing my game, the one I do when Oliver might be dead: click on whatever I want, then click somewhere else from there. See how far I get when (if) Oliver comes home. The game was of neither skill nor chance, lacking in rules, no way to win or lose or even know if you’ve finished playing.
It was a banner ad across the top of an article about the Carnivore Diet, which I’d landed on after skimming a story on child Instagram influencers, linked from a listicle of fan theories about a show I’d never seen. What was the worst that could happen to my computer, from clicking on One Weird Trick for Losing Belly Fat or sponsored links by Taboola? If we got a call that Oliver was in jail or he’d OD’d again, would I care what might have infected my computer? Rootkits, worms, cookies, whatever. It was my only liberation, this clicking game.
Go to Mars, the banner ad said. Apply here to become a Martian.
The page showed a man’s face, halfway between giddy and diffident, his lips lifting asymmetrically to show only one tooth.
Terry Xiao, 54
“The people on this mission will live on in the history books, like all the great colonizers. I view the colonization of Mars to be a necessary next step for the preservation of the human race. Manifest destiny, man!”
Oliver came home before the cookie sheet was cleaned, before the credits rolled, and before I could read the fine print. He was sweating through his Green Lantern hoodie and scratching at his peach-fuzzed jawline. Dad held him head-to-chest, eyelids fluttering. Oliver and I both agreed that Dad’s hugs were cruder than our mother’s used to be, though less stifling. Dad held him and said it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay. Someone was and wasn’t chasing him, a cop or a dealer or the neighbor’s dog. Paranoia festers in tandem with the half-life of a high, becoming airborne and attaching parts of itself to the rest of us when the cycle begins again.
I went to my room alone and switched off the lamp, which made happy little popping sounds as its bulb cooled. The darkness sedated me.
“I just ache for that boy,” I heard Aunt Jody saying on the phone before she left out the back door. A long pause, then she laughed, her voice rebooting easily in safe mode. “You’re right. Alright I’ll be there in ten. Gotta stop at CVS before tomorrow.” Another pause, another laugh. “Moisturizer. You know how my skin gets on long flights.”
A gif of Aunt Jody massaging lavender-scented cream into her cheeks looped as I fell into a weightless sleep. I wished every moment could be like the ones when we know it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay.
Oliver was born the night of a meteor shower. I woke in the dark to cabinet doors banging closed, bags zipped and unzipped, wire hangers screaming against closet rods. I thought we were being robbed. Brilliant flashes of light pierced the curtains and I looked outside to see my mother waddling to the car, Dad stuffing a duffel bag into the backseat. His hair, longer and thicker then, fluttered in the early summer breeze. He seemed to dance into the driver’s seat, a sprightly tap to close each side door and a dexterous slither of seatbelt across chest.
Balls of flaming space dust smeared the night sky, more blue than black in the suburban light pollution, but neither one of them looked up. They left me there alone in my bed and drove away together. I didn’t know Aunt Jody had been summoned to take me home with her. I thought I was all alone, just me and a thousand shooting stars, boiling to a glow. Back then I thought space and Earth existed side by side, not one within the other, and I watched alone as spheres collided.
Aunt Jody let me try on her lipstick. We made hand pies and practiced British accents. Aunt Jody had a boyfriend named Sebastian who was a lawyer, and a bookshelf of self-help books organized like a rainbow. A gold tray on her bathroom sink displayed squeeze pump bottles and pots of pomade and cream, a fan of cotton swabs in a repurposed digestif glass. She cared about things like that, dry skin. Cuticles, split ends. Matching your couch and your credenza by design movement. We didn’t have a credenza.
Our house felt heavier with Oliver in it, every footstep echoing louder than it had before the sleeping baby. The smoke detector went off three times in one month after Oliver arrived, like the heavier air resisted circulation. Dad fanned the stove and blamed my mother for what seemed more like Oliver’s fault than my mother’s negligence.
Oliver’s crib looked like a cage, and I used to sit on the floor beside it as he slept, gripping the bars and watching the rise and fall of his tiny chest. I worried about all the bad things that could happen to him when he wasn’t safe in his bed.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” I would read to him a few years later, from the gilt-edged picture book our mother had read to me. “You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.” He’d outgrown the crib by then, but his little chest still rose and fell the same when he surrendered to sleep. I rested a tiny hand atop his tinier one, tentatively. “Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
* * *
Marinho Pereira, 77
“Exploring outer space as one unified human race, unencumbered by political borders, will bring humankind closer together.”
I played my game again a month after Oliver returned, while he twisted in his sheets.
“This is a good thing,” Dad told himself and me as Oliver moaned through the wall. I clicked a link without looking at it. “Oliver knows this is the first step.”
I pictured the toxins evaporating through my brother’s pores, like garlic cloves forced through a press, and wondered where they ended up when they left his body. The air was heavier yet, even without my mother’s breath converting its oxygen to carbon dioxide.
Become a Martian! I clicked again.
There were no applicant requirements: people of all ages, income levels, and nationalities, the website said, could become a Martian. It was cheaper to plan a one-way mission, the website explained, and cost was a major sticking point for privately-funded space exploration missions. A grid of investor logos decorated the website footer. And besides, it said, re-entry is the most dangerous part of any voyage. I read further, learning about the risks of burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, the atrophy of muscle and bone mass that would make reincorporating nearly impossible after spending time on Mars. You’ll be only a phone call away from loved ones on Earth!
The CEO of One-Way Mars was named Sebastian, like Aunt Jody’s old lawyer boyfriend, and he was charming and youthful in a way that suggested he was older than he looked. His hair was parted and gelled like a little boy’s, and his gait, as he traversed a TED Talk stage, agile and loose. He seemed to float before the audience, like he had already escaped Earth’s gravity.
“I almost feel sorry for people who are too afraid to take the plunge,” Sebastian van Gloos said. He held his arms aloft as the auditorium exploded in admiration. “You don’t even know what you’re missing.”
* * *
The first time Oliver got his stomach pumped, Dad and I had visited his bedside, offering a bouquet of green absorption-dyed carnations and a balloon with a smiley face replacing an o in “Get Well Soon.” When we asked the lady in the gift shop which floor we might find my brother, she seemed surprised at our choice of balloon. I gave her the middle finger inside my coat pocket. Dad probably looked to her like someone who would have agreed Oliver’s type didn’t deserve balloons. He was stoic, ascetic, clean-shaven, built like an upholstered ottoman. You’d think he’d have called Oliver a thug or a burnout and washed his hands of him. He’d never called my mother those things, at least not in front of us, but he had washed his hands of her.
I hadn’t spent much time in hospitals yet, but it felt natural to acquiesce to the building’s unspoken rule of reverence and sobriety. Oliver tried to smile, his face pinched like when he played his saxophone. I summoned Charlie Parker into the hospital room, the notes from a solo Oliver had once performed tying us in a bow. I used to beg him to play “Summertime” in the winter, and he’d always pretend like he wasn’t going to oblige: I’m not your little monkey, he’d say, before playing it anyway. He closed his eyes when he played, letting his fingers read the keys like braille. The song reminded us both that someday the livin’ would be easy again.
Dad whispered to Oliver and stroked his hand: “I couldn’t imagine if you weren’t still with us,” he said.
I contemplated the shared etymology of hospital and hospitable. The smell—cooked carrots uneaten under a silver dome, chemically-engineered lemon antiseptic, festering sores filtered through cinderblock walls—a harbinger of decay. For me it would become what other people called hope.
* * *
Chirag Padmanabhan, 28
“I could die at any moment. Crossing the street, slipping in the bathtub, snake bite. I could die up there, but I’m certain to die down here. And if I die on Mars, it will be nobly.”
It wasn’t the first time I experimented with expansions of death. When I deactivated my Facebook account I acknowledged that most of my friends weren’t actually in my life at all. I could no longer afford Netflix after I lost my job at the clinic, and those television characters were taken from me, too. I changed my phone number when Oliver ran away once and found I missed the familiar robo-call voices my former number had collected. I once Googled suicide just to see what would come up, played my regular click-roulette game, only to discover my long-favored method wasn’t even logistically feasible anymore because of the way catalytic converters were now being manufactured. My family also didn’t have a garage.
We had all watched the news coverage of the Columbia disaster years ago. Not the drama of an explosion, but a majestic white smoke trail following a piece of flaming detritus, cutting the sky like a line on a graph, a man-made meteor shower. The trickiest part of traveling to Mars, I learned, was not takeoff or landing, not engine failure or faulty O-ring seals, G-force or running out of food. It was a subtler impediment: the radiation given off by the sun. The necessary shielding made spacecrafts prohibitively heavy for the required fuel.
* * *
These days, I never felt lighter than when Oliver was locked away somewhere safe. Back when suspicion’s finger hovered over the pause button, I used to thirst for an answer. I’d ached for the knowledge that our suspicions were unfounded, that the answer could be that nothing was wrong with Oliver. But now the relief of concession anesthetized us: there was something wrong, but it could perhaps be fixed.
My favorite times were when he first went in and they locked his cell phone in a cubby. I had set my Oliver ringtone years ago to “Why Should I Worry,” from Oliver and Company, the cartoon for which I liked to believe he’d been named. But the opening notes had since sprouted fists that wrung my stomach like a sponge, so I began to leave my phone on vibrate. Now it happened no matter who was calling.
When Oliver was done detoxing, Dad drove him to an in-patient facility and I joyfully shoveled the driveway. That week we all attended a family session. All the other patients looked like Oliver, undernourished and pock-marked, disconcertingly comfortable in their socks and sweatpants, nursing fingernail-dented Styrofoam cups. Their stories of abuse and neglect, self-medication and impulse, rock bottoms and soaring heights, none of them were interesting. Oliver was wearing his “It’s not a wrong note, it’s jazz” t-shirt. He had made friends with everyone, even the ones who looked like moms. He called them Bud and D-Man and Crabby Jay, clapped them on the back and traded peanut M&Ms from a hallway vending machine. He seemed to have lost a pallor of irony I hadn’t known I’d miss.
The meeting leader hadn’t used in almost twelve years, like my mother, and he told us that life after sobriety was better even than life before addiction. I pictured my mother under the Arizona sun, living out a better life. “I almost feel sorry for people who haven’t been through the program,” he said, laughing a little in self-effacement as he acknowledged his audience of concerned parents and siblings and adult children. Most of us hadn’t unzipped our coats and couldn’t get comfortable in our metal folding chairs. I felt sorry for all of us, the whole room. The one-way trip made a lot of sense, when I thought about it in this light: you could never go back, only forward.
* * *
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been fascinated by
As we all know by now, climate change is
I just don’t want to do this anymore.
The One-Way Mars application was little more than a brief questionnaire and a video essay. Their questions seemed to solicit honesty in a way real life never did; it had never seemed decent to talk about my longing to take flight.
Within a few days, I received confirmation that my video had been received and my profile posted to the applicant pool webpage.
Leandra Appleton, 23
“Earth will soon become inhospitable to us all. For some of us, it already has.”
* * *
Sebastian van Gloos had been giving TED Talks for almost a decade, long before One-Way Mars filed to incorporate. His expertise had jumped from molecular biology to relational quantum mechanics to Italian futurist architecture to the forgotten merits of phrenology, before eventually settling on space travel.
“Reality is made of interactions, not things,” he said. This video was several years old, but the man seemed to be aging in reverse. His limbs were stiffer then, his feet heavier, giving the appearance of an inflatable tube man outside a used car lot, fighting to fly away. “A chair is here today, there tomorrow, way over there in ten years. It’s a thing.” He gestured at a folding chair to his left, balanced a leg regally like George Washington crossing the Delaware. “Where is a kiss tomorrow? Where is a hug, a handshake, a phone call, yesterday?”
* * *
I was invited for an in-person interview.
A woman in a sterile white lab coat shook my hand, took my vitals, and asked questions that I understood belonged to some sort of psychological index. True or false: Your level of anger is often inappropriate, intense, and difficult to control. Do you find it challenging to stay relaxed even when there is some pressure?
She had a maternal haircut and a friendly, fleshy face that pooled into a puddle of a neck, thin lips that receded into the canals of smile lines. Her voice sounded like Vicks VapoRub smells, cool and warm at the same time, remedial.
I thought of how Oliver might answer, and I responded disaccordingly.
I’d pictured the One-Way Mars offices like the inside of a spaceship, with airlock doors that hissed open at the crank of an industrial metal wheel, buttons flashing and beeping. But the interviewer sat across from me at a warm wood table, clacking pink fingernails against it as I gave my answers. Beneath her lab coat was a ribbed cardigan, unbuttoned to frame a thin gold locket. She offered me a basket of Mallo-Stars and told me, as if aware of my subverted expectations, that One-Way was renting the space from the company that manufactured these unnatural domes of sugar. I took one and, peeling the top layer back to reveal the caramel filling, told her I always wondered why they were called stars if they were shaped like spheres. She laughed, and I licked the caramel from my thumb, unaware that that had been my goal. “What is the deal with Mallo-Stars?” I said in my best Jerry Seinfeld voice. She laughed again.
“What makes you excited about living in space?” she asked.
I thought about that for a minute before answering. “I guess just all the space. You know? I’d like to feel smaller, I think. I want to be able to look at Earth from far away. I want to see all of it at once.”
She wrote this down.
“What do your family and friends say about you wanting to settle on Mars?”
“I don’t really have any,” I said. “Which is part of what makes me an ideal candidate.”
Later she asked me what I would be most worried about, on board the spacecraft.
“Nothing,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow like she’d known me my whole life and knew the particular rhythms of my fossilized heart.
“Maybe loneliness,” I said.
She told me I’d never be alone on Mars. “You know, one of the difficulties of this mission will actually be the close quarters. The living conditions will be rather cozy.”
I asked if there would be windows, and she said there probably would.
I told her I liked her nail polish, and that my mother used to paint my toenails while we watched TV together. “I guess I’ll miss TV,” I added.
Dad asked where I’d been, not looking up from the insurance forms he was filling out for Oliver’s most recent stay. I told him the store and he offered an approving murmur.
* * *
The cycle repeated.
Kicked out, arrested, excused, welcomed back. It worked at the same speed as the Earth’s orbit around the sun, starting over about once a year.
“I couldn’t sleep at night if something I did caused him to…if I made things even worse than I already have…” Dad believed tough love wasn’t the answer, not at this point.
Oliver would retch and sweat through nights, sleep until the winter sun smirked its daily farewell, mumble like his individual teeth and tongue and larynx were planks on a roller coaster track.
I didn’t want him on the streets either. But someone had to say it, and I was grateful that someone also had to rebut it, and that someone wasn’t me.
“Should I kick you out, too?” Dad asked. “Start charging you rent?”
I felt bad wishing Oliver would go away. Maybe Dad should have kicked me out. All I wanted was to leave. But there was nowhere to go. When I’d gone away to school I still heard that ringtone. No matter how far I traveled, his light pollution filled every dark corner. I could still receive his pain, and he could still receive a wire transfer. Everything could travel great distances these days, subatomic particles of fear and shame and love accelerated in invisible tubes. You’ll be only a phone call away from loved ones on Earth! The only power I held was in judging his worthiness of care, determining whether a loan would be repaid or squandered, telling him this was the last time, meaning it.
I hadn’t watched another meteor shower in 18 years, and part of me suspected outer space might just be an almighty green screen, a false tranquilizer for our claustrophobia.
* * *
Betje Visser, 59
“It’s short-sighted to assume aliens don’t exist. I can’t fathom a universe with no other life forms than those of Earth. If there aren’t any aliens out there, I’d like to become one myself. I’ve always felt a little alien to begin with.”
Could I have gotten along with these people? I’d never read a space opera or watched any Mars colonization films. I couldn’t tell you the formula for calculating a space craft’s trajectory and wouldn’t know how to take soil samples, or whatever it was people usually did in space.
I became obsessed with the logistics, limiting my clicking game to Mars-related research only. I copied formulas I found on the internet for calculating speed and momentum. It soon became a bit of a calming exercise, plugging numbers in for variables, performing the correct order of operations. Calculations grew more complicated on a rotating body, on an orbiting body, when the gravitational pull of more than one body needed to be escaped.
Ads spread to television, and Sebastian van Gloos moved from TED Talks to morning and late-night shows.
“A lot of people dream of something bigger and better. A lot of people dream of going beyond the orbits they were born into, stepping outside their tiny spheres of existence. I’m here to make those dreams come true.” Van Gloos had an unsettling way of looking right into the camera.
“Leandra, can you get the door?” Dad muted the television and wrenched his chair upright.
It was Aunt Jody.
“Oh, honey,” she said when she stepped inside. “I’m sorry about your brother.” The snow dusting her coat melted when it touched my shirt, leaving the wet imprint of a hug behind.
“It’s okay,” I said, offering her a cup of coffee. Her lipstick scabbed the wine glass she elected instead, the deep red temporarily staining her top teeth. “Maybe it’ll be good for him to learn some discipline, you know? At least we know they’re feeding him,” I added.
Oliver had been arrested, the circumstances of which were polluted by his disease. He’d been sleeping under a highway overpass for several nights, he said. A colony of junkies had set up tents there in recent months, some of them zipping sleeping bags cozily with relative strangers for warmth.
My shirt was still damp when Aunt Jody finished her wine, and I thought about where the hug would be tomorrow, where it was yesterday.
She unmuted the TV. “This guy’s nuts,” she said to Dad.
“If you think about the pilgrims who set off for the New World way back when, none of them were expecting a return trip, either,” Van Gloos said into the camera.
“When we come back, the CEO of One-Way Mars goes head-to-head with a top astrophysicist from Caltech,” the host said, a note of unveiled schadenfreude in his delivery. “Don’t go away.”
I went into Oliver’s bedroom and pushed a stack of sheet music aside so I could sit on the floor next to his bed. He’d painted the walls and ceiling black just after our mother left (“the black hole,” Dad called it), and I helped him dye an old wool blanket in the utility sink downstairs to an unsatisfactory gunmetal gray. The only thing that didn’t absorb whatever sunlight might skulk between the room-darkening curtains was his lampshade, a juvenile yellow thing I’d had as a baby, with anthropomorphic smiling suns like narcotized polka dots, passed down. The blanket had softened with age and darkened with grime. I brought it to my face and breathed in, cigarettes and night sweats.
A needle rolled to the floor from between the mattress and box spring. At first I froze, like this was a scene from a movie and I was meant to cry out, for the camera. But instead I just wrapped the thing in toilet paper and buried it under some tampon applicators in the bathroom wastebasket. Perhaps it was easier to take because he was locked up safe, or because Aunt Jody was here, smelling of lavender, or because Sebastian van Gloos was on the television, promising to take me away.
* * *
James Polanski, 37
“I still have Star Wars posters in my basement! And contrary to popular belief, a lot of Star Wars fans are also Star Trek fans; you don’t have to choose. That said, I’m better-versed in the former. My wife sent me the application link. She said she hoped I wouldn’t apply but that she wouldn’t try to stop me if I did.”
Dad had sent my mother a link to a rehab facility in Arizona twelve years ago. He did hope she would go, but I don’t think he hoped she’d stay. I never got to hear the truth from her because when we used to talk she only repeated the same three things as if she’d become string-operated under her sweat pants. This has nothing to do with you and I need to do what’s best for myself right now and I’ll be only a phone call away. The truth was we weighed her down, Oliver and I.
* * *
Throughout the debate, which Dad and Aunt Jody watched together in silence, van Gloos seemed to lose his buoyancy. The Caltech expert began his onslaught with a quiz.
“What’s the landed mass of your proposed life support system?”
“I don’t have that figure memorized.”
“How long is the communication delay between the two planets?”
“I’m not quite sure.”
“What is the escape velocity of Earth?”
“I can’t remember.”
“What is the escape velocity of Mars?”
“Give me a moment to grab my notes and I can rattle off any number you like, gentlemen.”
Aunt Jody picked at her cuticles while she watched, tearing the dead skin between clenched teeth and spitting it surreptitiously out the corner of her mouth. “I’ve always had an irrational fear of space travel,” she murmured. “As if I’d ever get to go anyway.”
The expert had moved on to debunking the One-Way Mars budget, pointing out that indefinite life support for the Martians would increase costs far beyond that of a round trip. “It’s a suicide mission.”
Aunt Jody stood and approached the bookshelf. She began removing books and stacking them onto the cushion next to me. “Someone needs to declutter this house, with your mother gone.” She said it gently, less an indictment of me and Dad and more of a selfless offer. “This, for instance, this can go.” She held up a children’s book and tossed it aside. She said she’d do the kitchen next—she purged when she was anxious, she said with a soft smile—because we both knew Dad was never going to use my mother’s old garlic press, her light-reflecting copper pots, the burr grinder with which she used to prepare vanilla pods for homemade ice cream.
By the end of Van Gloos’s interview, our bookshelf was arranged in rainbow order, too, and the Caltech expert had conjectured that a manned mission to Mars, given the technology currently available, would result in the crew’s death after only 68 days.
You Are my Sunshine topped the stack of children’s books to be dispensed with. I considered rescuing it, but its loss felt similar to the jettisoning of Facebook, Netflix, robo-calls. A fingernail digging half-moons into a Styrofoam cup or a scab, teeth at a cuticle, split ends riven and plucked.
When Aunt Jody worked moisturizer into her hands that night before she left, I noticed for the first time how fragile they looked, her skin clinging to her bones like a t-shirt in a pool.
* * *
I was back at the One-Way Mars office when Oliver got out, completing a spatial reasoning exam and another psych eval. Charlie Parker greeted me at the back door when I returned home, a doleful song I hadn’t heard in years. I stood outside Oliver’s bedroom door and closed my eyes, letting the notes issued from his saxophone prop me up.
He was newly motivated now, he said when I entered the room, setting the instrument aside. Starting over with a fresh slate. He talked fast about the jobs he was going to apply for, the meetings he’d attend, the exercise regimen he’d set a daily cell phone reminder for.
Listening to him was like eating chocolate with a cold, unable to access the bygone mechanisms of joy. I told him this, because our family had grown increasingly honest throughout his ordeal, and he said now I understood what it was like.
I told him I was happy for him, happy and hopeful in that chocolate way, the hope that smells like uneaten carrots on a tray, citrusy cleaning solution, ulcerating flesh. And I told him about One-Way Mars and confessed that I’d submitted an application.
He took my shoulder. “You can’t leave me,” he said. That pallor of irony was gone again. His eyes watered. “You can’t leave Dad.”
I shook my head. I wanted to tell him how the Martian year is 1.88 times a year on Earth, how even though it’s on a regular cycle its slowness still felt kinder. I wanted to beg him to hold out a little longer too, this time. “It’s not fair,” I said instead. “It’s not fair that you can escape and I can’t.”
“You think this is an escape? I’m a prisoner here.” He hugged himself. “You’ll be a prisoner, too, trapped on some spaceship with a bunch of strangers.”
* * *
One-Way Mars has decided not to advance your application to the next round.
Dad’s coffee mug trembled in his hand when he passed me the letter. The seal on the envelope had been faulty, or perhaps Dad had been meticulous in opening it himself.
“I’ve never felt so blind-sided before.” He stumbled over the words, like he was at first going with betrayed. His lips rolled inward and his nostrils flared. His eyelids fluttered.
I scanned the letter, feeling blind-sided and betrayed myself. My legs went stiff, like running through molasses in a dream.
Dad took my hand. “I couldn’t imagine if you weren’t still with us,” he whispered. His voice was crispy. When he hugged me, heavy like a seatbelt, I wondered what he might have done, had I made it to the final round; I imagined him coming to the launch with Oliver and Aunt Jody, waving goodbye like I was boarding the Titanic, clutching a helium-filled Get Well balloon.
* * *
Almost two years passed before Oliver relapsed again. It was the longest he’d gone, which felt simultaneously heart-breaking and hopeful. This time he’d pawned his saxophone.
Dad and I ordered a pizza after we returned from taking him in, and we watched TV together while we waited for it to arrive. I painted my toenails and he selected a channel, settling on the news.
Our bookshelf was still a rainbow of unopened books, though Aunt Jody had told me recently that the trend had died and we ought to arrange them in a different way. Sticking out of a yellow textbook were my escape velocity calculations, hash marks on dot grid paper. Careful not to nick my toenails, I reached for the book and paged through the calculations, now completely foreign to me. I remembered how the formula illustrated an asymptotic trajectory, a body in motion infinitely approaching zero without ever reaching it. In the same way, I wondered if Oliver might take two Mars years next time, a Jupiter year after that, a Saturn year. A year of sobriety on Uranus was an entire lifetime on Earth.
Dad went to greet the pizza man.
“Sebastian van Gloos, founder of One-Way Mars, a controversial privately-held space exploration organization, was indicted today on four counts of fraud.” I brought my gaze to the screen. “Earlier this week, we reported on a class-action lawsuit filed against One-Way Mars by several investors who claimed that his roadmap for establishing a civilian colony on the planet Mars had been pushed indefinitely forward multiple times, citing technological impediments and underfunding.”
“He kept saying, ‘We just need a bit more money, a bit more time,’ and I believed him,” a woman at a press conference said to an audience of flashbulbs. “But at this point some of us could be dead before his launch date comes around, and even then he might push it back again. There was really nothing stopping him from continuing to do this, forever.”
My mother had a year on Jupiter under her belt. I saw her asymptote careening off a grid into space, cutting the sky like a blinding piece of detritus. I tore a scrap of unused paper from my calculations, and I began to write to her.
* * *
Dad wanted to take Oliver bowling when he got out, so we went to a place illuminated by black lights and a disco ball. The alley’s back wall, behind the falling and resetting pins, had been painted red and textured to look like the surface of the moon.
“I love cosmic bowling,” Oliver said after scoring a strike, his teeth glowing in the dark. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or genuine. Colored lights flashed as an electronic dance song started, creating an optical illusion that made the lanes seem impossibly long. Sharp shadows followed the balls toward the cratered wall, disappearing into dark pits beyond glowing pins.
“Oliver, are you still a prisoner?” I asked.
His face glitched beneath the strobe light. “I don’t know,” he said. “I suppose when you’re running from yourself you’ll always be trapped. I’m trying to find something to run to.”
“Me, too,” I said, squinting as the red moon wall receded into blackness. Dad’s ball rolled on into infinity. I realized then that infinity was another kind of trap, escape velocity another algorithmic constraint. An asymptote was only ever an approximation.
I closed my eyes as the heavy bass built to a crescendo. Through my eyelids, I could still see the after-image of Oliver and Dad, the pulse of the flashing lights. Even escaping the Earth’s gravitational field wouldn’t exempt me from gravity altogether, I now understood; even Mars was in the same solar system. I thought about transcendence: Mom had repeated in her response letter what Oliver’s group leader said that time, that life now is better than before. It’s a transcendence, not an escape. I never wanted to leave you kids, she wrote, but I didn’t have any other choice. She wrote of a suffocating, blinding love, an energy from which we needed to be shielded, an anchor from which she needed to be released.
I imagined my chair away and floated toward the ceiling, changing the music. You make me happy when skies are gray.
Summertime and the livin’ is easy.
“There’s gotta be something better,” Oliver added as Dad sat down. I had missed the end of his turn. “Maybe it’s bowling.”
* * *
Oliver carried my duffel bag out to the car as Dad prepared to drive me to the airport. I’d packed a 1 oz. tube of moisturizer, a pair of polarized sunglasses, a sleep mask in case Mom’s guest room was too bright in the morning.
“We’ll miss you,” Oliver said as he hugged me goodbye in the driveway. He wasn’t coming with us to the airport because he had a job interview.
“Hope you’re not trying to leave us again,” Dad said, with a jovial raise of his brow.
I handed Oliver a copy of You Are My Sunshine, which I’d found and ordered online, clicking around. “Keep this in your bedroom,” I said. I told them I’d miss them, too, but that I’d be back soon.
Karisa Tell completed her MA in Creative Writing at UW-Milwaukee in 2019, where she also served as an assistant fiction editor for Cream City Review and was the 2019 recipient of the Sheila Roberts Fiction Award. She previously worked as an editor for Milwaukee Magazine and now lives and writes in Louisville. She is currently at work on a novel that explores similar terrain around the opioid epidemic. This is her first fiction publication.