“Terraforming Mars” by Emmett Knowlton

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.

Her eyeliner was running and her eyes were puffy and red. Her left hand shook as she went to the board and tried to uncap the dry-erase marker. Or re-cap. Had she left it, the marker? Had it been that sudden? It dawned on me later that maybe Dr. Stern had known someone, too. A sibling or husband or wife or a child. Or her dad. Statistically it was certainly possible, a grief counselor told me sometime later. Ours was one of the towns they wrote about, one of the ones so greatly affected.

Out the window I saw the cars and I saw the sky, brilliant and blue, clouds wispy like poached eggs in water. My eyes were in and out of focus and I was fantasizing now about saving Savannah Freed from the two Bulgarian assassins who in my mind were trying to kidnap her by dressing up as cameramen for a commercial shoot at her house. She had the best house in town and they used to shoot Cheerios commercials in her living room.

Savannah had this little gap between her teeth and blonde hair that turned faintly reddish when the sun came in through the windows in the late afternoon periods, and even though we were in seventh grade she sucked her thumb. I loved that about her. 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. As my hands quivered, clammy on her little comma hips, slowly she inched her way closer to me so the rest of our bodies were almost touching. I even for flashes felt glad about it all. She was always extremely apologetic about what had happened and I believed that was why a couple weeks later she asked me to hold her glasses, started talking to me at recess. For when she started IMing me on weeknights, hiii, for when around Christmastime she agreed to make out with me in someone’s basement laundry room and even, after a few minutes, let me cup her boob. Before or after my hand was cupped—my other hand sweating in the pocket of my khakis, fiddling with the cap of my chapstick—she said, I’m really so sorry about your dad, and although Dad was the last thing I wanted to talk about as I finally and more or less simultaneously reached first and second base, at that moment I remember I felt almost happy about what had happened.

We both had braces. Luckily she’d had a serious boyfriend from Scarsdale at summer camp a few months earlier and he’d also had braces and so in the laundry room she knew how to not get the wires caught, how to make sure the sparks didn’t fly.

“Even though,” I said, “The sparks are definitely flying.”

She sort of laughed.

“You know you don’t have to just touch that one.”

“Thanks,” I said, and as I went to switch hands she looked at me again with her sad eyes and said, “Sebastian, I’m really so sorry.”

That night, and a lot of nights before I fell asleep, I would find myself crying, quietly but intensely, shaking beneath my sheets or with the sheets balled at the foot of the bed. And I laid there, curled sideways, my head tilted and looking up at the glow-in-the-dark stars that Dad had stuck on the ceiling when I was way younger, crying until I wore myself out and fell asleep. I think Mom probably heard me even though I tried to stay silent because sometimes when I was crying the floorboards outside my bedroom door would creak.

In Earth Science that September morning Dr. Stern had pulled it together. She apologized, said she was just tired, said we should think of ourselves not as scientists but terraformers. Terra means earth. My eyes focused and unfocused. Out the window the cars continued coming into the lot but by now some mothers had started returning from inside, hurrying their children to the cars and speeding off. Five desks over and two rows up from me Savannah had started drawing on the spine of her trapper-keeper. She doodled in that way where you make two sets of three little vertical lines just above each other, and then connect them diagonally so they form the letter S. She was drawing with one of those pens that had four different colors in one and she made each of her diagonal lines a different color. I thought it looked a little like a sideways infinity sign.

* * *

We were called to the lobby one by one. Pack up your stuff, sweetheart. Your mom is here to get you. No you’re not in trouble. Don’t worry about your homework. Everything is fine. Just get your things. And quickly please.

When Dr. Stern called my name, I felt a rush of excitement. I was one of the lucky ones that got to go home so early.

I stopped at my locker to get my soccer cleats, and a few lockers away I saw Conrad Allegash rummaging for something at his. He was on his knees, tearing his locker apart, and I noticed his mother standing over him in a bathrobe. We were the only ones in the hallway, the three of us. She turned and saw me and I remember that although her face was already white it managed to change without changing. To whiten. Probably right then I knew. Mrs. Allegash looked at me, and even though I sometimes struggled with parental eye contact or so Mom said, I remember meeting Mrs. Allegash’s eyes. I remember knowing to meet them. Her look lasted longer than the half-second it probably really was, and I think probably right then on some level I knew. Our fathers worked together, together they did something with distressed debt on the 101st floor of the north tower. I think one had recruited the other in Conrad’s backyard on the paddle tennis court. It had heated floors so that in the winter the snow would melt before they played. Sometimes in high school, when I was back from boarding school, Conrad and I would sit on the floor of the court and get high or not even get around to getting high.

At his locker Conrad found his inhaler, and without saying anything they left. I remember his mom looking back at me again.

In the front lobby I saw Mom in clogs and sunglasses. I saw the keys still in her hand. The CVS ExtraCare Card. The needlepoint keychain with that little pink starfish. Which in retrospect felt so unlike her, my mother from South Jersey who had opened a bookstore in town and fancied herself a bohemian, who complained about the carpool line although she was always first, complained to me about suburbia, about what she called the monotony of tennis groups and dinner parties—here was my mother with a pastel needlepoint keychain that matched the belts and bathing suits of so many of my friends and friends’ dads. Had Dad bought it for her?

Probably I knew right then.

The plane hit below Dad’s floor. Three weeks earlier, at the end of the summer, Mom and I had driven into the city on a Thursday to pick him up on our way to his parents’ house in Sagaponack. My ears popped in the elevator on the way up to his office and I remember I loved that they had popped because I loved that Dad worked so high up. We went to Windows of the World for lunch and I had shrimp cocktail.

* * *

At home Mom alternately paced and stood very still, leaning over the island in the kitchen. I stood not far from her. Over her shoulder, I could see into the living room, where the news on the TV screen was reflecting backwards off the window in a loop. I don’t know if the TV was on mute. Maybe it was all the way up and I just couldn’t hear it. At some point I realized that it didn’t matter. That it wouldn’t change what was happening twelve miles away.

Mom always made a big deal about not having a TV in the kitchen, even though Dad sometimes wanted one of those little ones for the corner of the counter, for next to the toaster oven. I wondered as Mom and I stood there if she wished she’d bought one. Out the window I saw the driver’s seat door of her black Volvo SUV open in the driveway. The car was always perfectly clean, spotlessly manicured. Like a true bohemian she always paid for the most expensive wash, and I wondered if she had been waiting at the carwash as the backseat mats were being vacuumed when she learned what was happening. I asked her if she wanted me to go close the door—I couldn’t handle being in the kitchen and also I wanted to be helpful in some way—and she said no.

When the phone rang Mom didn’t wait for two rings like we always did. She fumbled for the cordless landline and I don’t know how long she stayed on the phone or what she said but I saw her face crumpled, crumpling, and I saw her hand the phone to me. She couldn’t look at me as she did this, and later I realized she had done so grudgingly, that by handing the phone to me she was conceding that everything that was happening was actually happening to us, too.

Dad had this raspy voice I liked to imitate until a gym teacher yelled at me one time to clear my throat and stop talking like Marlon Brando. I didn’t know who that was. Over the summers Dad and I liked to stay up every night watching the Mets, and in the mornings after I came down the back stairs into the kitchen he’d tell me between mouthfuls of granola what had happened after I’d fallen asleep. He liked to watch on mute and listen to the radio broadcasters from a portable radio Mom and I had bought for him for Father’s Day from RadioShack and that he also used while shaving. There was a tiny delay in the action between when we heard the game on the radio and when we saw it play out on TV, and whenever something really important would happen, a homerun or a strikeout or a double-play, in that moment, that blip, I remember believing Dad and I had some sort of superpower, as though the two of us were able to know the future before even the players we saw on screen.

“What’s the point of having such a giant TV if you two don’t even listen to the volume?” Mom would ask sometimes during the games, clearing our bowls of raspberry sorbet.

“She’ll never get it,” Dad would say to me, laughing.

Most nights I would wake up in my bed after falling asleep to commercials for local ambulance chasers, around the seventh inning stretch. The year before, the Mets had somehow reached the World Series and were playing the Yankees. We hated the Yankees. I remember believing that if I could just stay awake through the end of a single game they might turn things around. But I always would fall asleep and the Mets would lose and in the morning Dad would tell me about how spectacularly they’d lost.

I remember asking him how a loss could be spectacular, since I knew spectacular was a positive adjective. He laughed and looked at Mom and looked back at me and said I still had a lot to learn about being a Mets fan.

When Mom handed the phone to me, I wondered if her face was crumpling or crumbling.

“Sebastian? Sebastian are you there?”

I heard my grandfather’s voice on the other line.

“Sebastian, can you hear me?”

I didn’t hear Dad’s voice that day. I have no recollection of what our last conversation was. But still I told people, invented to others different versions of a phone call that everyone expected me to have had as soon as they’d learned what had happened. The sort of conversation where he said my name, told me—well, what? It hardly mattered. You could make it up as you went and still give people exactly what they were hoping for. “Sebastian, man,” I’d say he said. “Sea Bass.” That was a good one. People loved Sea Bass. You could really see eyes go wide and hands go instinctively to mouths when they heard that one even though the only person who had ever called me Sea Bass was a camp counselor who wore a camo baseball hat with Greek fraternity letters on it. “I’m going to run. I’m going to run, Sebastian, I’m running.” People really wanted the running, almost more than they wanted the I love you or the take care of your mother. And this—this phone call that never really happened, it followed me. I found it in every article that came out, in every novel, in every movie, that well-meaning people gently recommended I read, I watch, but only in time, only when I was ready. Ready for what, I wanted to ask. I made the phone call my own. Sometimes he was screaming, I told a girl at a party one summer that I had to take the receiver from my ear, I could quite literally hear the flames. She looked at me and said her stepmother was into equine therapy. Other times I said he spoke softly, practically whispering. In college I told a girl with bangs and stick-and-poke tattoos up her forearms that it was completely quiet on the other end of the line when Dad told me to take care of my mom and, I don’t know, be the man of the house now. She asked if I wanted any of her pot and that night slept in my bed with all her clothes on. The truth was that when I was in high school, up late by myself in my dorm room and incapable of sleeping or writing about Homer or Salinger or whomever, I did the math on the whole thing. I watched all sorts of news reports and documentaries, devoured online forums and message boards and self-published manifestos written by obvious lunatics that I resented even as I read compulsively onward. I read the entire internet, every batshit conspiracy and abstruse truth commission until everything sounded equally unbelievable and essentially all the same. I timed it all out. The plane hitting the north tower. Where it hit and where Dad was. Which side of the floor he sat on, what he would have been doing at that very moment, on that very day. Where Mom was and where I was. I sat in my room on my computer, felt my eyes come in and out of focus, and probably he died while Dr. Stern passed out worksheets.

On the phone in the kitchen my grandfather spoke and I couldn’t hear him. I saw the open car door in the driveway and my initials stitched into my blue L.L. Bean backpack on the kitchen table. I heard my grandfather’s voice again. I have no idea what he said. I could only see Mom, saw myself seeing Mom. She sat against the stove on the wood floor. Knees bent to chest. Hands in her hair. She wasn’t crying and I wondered when she would. I wondered if I began to cry right there in the kitchen if it would make her more or less likely to cry herself. I didn’t know which outcome I wanted.

I handed the phone back to Mom and looked at the floor. She had kicked off her clogs, one of which had toppled onto its side. Eventually the phone began to beep, off the hook.

* * *

Mom hated empty surfaces. The coffee table in our living room was always stacked neatly with books, a small stack of poetry here, a small stack of new fiction there. The coffee table always had flowers on it, too, in one of the many ceramic vases I had probably painted in art class or at a birthday party. Petals from peonies were always falling onto the stacks of books or falling between the stacks and threatening to stain the table’s dark and purplish wood. Eventually, and usually pretty quickly, she would see they’d fallen and wipe them away with a brown paper towel.

Whenever Dad got home early enough for the three of us to have dinner together Mom would light loads of little candles, there’d be this little archipelago of votives in the middle of the table and Dad and I liked to poke our fingers into the wax and rap our fingertips against the wood, one finger after the other. The rap of my fingertips, waxy on the wood. The summer before I started seventh grade I remember Dad started talking to me a lot about his boarding school days, what he would call his formative years, and Mom would always roll her eyes, tell him to be quiet, and stop that with the wax. Or Dad would lick the tips of his thumb and forefinger and pinch out the flames of the bigger candles, then nod in my direction for me to do the same. I was always afraid and would bring my fingers right to the top of the flame and at the very last second jolt my hand away like I was teasing a dog with a treat. “Come on!” Dad would say, until finally I’d do it. The thrill of the flame against my skin, pricking my fingers. The low sizzle of the flame going out all at once. The spindly shapes the smoke as it rose and disappeared into the air. Mom looking at Dad and laughing, shaking her head. “Must you?”

There were dozens of framed pictures on top of the island and on the kitchen counter, in front of books in all the bookshelves and atop stacks of books in the living room. Infinite little knickknacks, too. A nativity box from Peru, little Russian dolls, cowboy figurines from our ski trips to Jackson Hole, sea glass from the Jersey shore. Around Easter all these little different ceramic bunnies. I never knew where this bric-a-brac came from, was never entirely aware of Mom collecting it, much less packing or unpacking it. It would merely materialize out of nowhere one day, perfectly on schedule for whichever holiday was approaching. In the kitchen hung this massive chalkboard, where everything was held up by magnets and overlapped on top of each other. Glossy magazine ads, old curly-edged polaroids from when Mom and Dad had met in college in Ohio, from when Dad first visited Mom in a madras blazer in Atlantic City and passed out drunk at her father’s bar. Cut-out New Yorker cartoons and 36 Hours In Wherever blurbs and faded pink Observer headlines. “Why Must Mom And Dad Be So Unruly?” Magnetic poetry. Sprinkle sparkle / Chocolate Cake. Little yellow and pink stars, half-moons she liked to draw, always shaded in that way with the side of the chalk. A girl from college who broke up with me for a squash player said once that Mom’s decorating style was organized clutter. But that was years later. It took a long time before Mom got herself back to that. For awhile there weren’t any holiday decorations or new couplets of magnetic poetry. And there definitely weren’t any flowers. Flowers I think reminded her of the memorial service. I don’t want to talk about the memorial service.

* * *

That Thanksgiving we went to Sagaponack. Dad’s parents had this big house tucked behind even bigger hedges, and in the backyard there was a grass tennis court next to a pool with no diving board. Inside practically all the furniture was white. In the living room there were all these sets of law encyclopedias, and dusty family portraits of ancestors my grandfather would try to talk to me about, as if I cared. The couches were never especially comfortable and didn’t even seem to be made for sitting. When we went in the summers, for two weeks every August, we always stayed in the little cottage down on the edge of the property, which was legitimately falling apart and sometimes had water bugs in the bathroom sink, but that Mom always preferred anyway. That Thanksgiving we stayed upstairs.

My grandmother was actually Dad’s stepmom. She wore bright red lipstick that matched her hair, and she liked to talk about how much she hated a great American novelist she had dated a really long time ago. She and my grandfather had been out to our house a lot that fall and even then she’d always greet me in the doorway with a kiss on both cheeks, and I’d always linger awkwardly after the first one, propping open the door with my foot, unsure if we were doing it the European way. When we arrived for Thanksgiving she came outside and gave me a hug.

I played a lot of Snood by myself on Dad’s laptop and a lot of backgammon with my grandfather. I could never remember how to set up the pieces and I heard in the way he sighed that this annoyed him, despite everything. Sometimes he would tell me crude jokes. I remember asking him what a dildo was.

“I should have taken you to Europe,” Mom said one night before I went to bed. “Jesus. Not Europe. Maybe Maine. We should have taken a road trip.”

The house was quiet in that way where you could sense everyone’s presence, like everyone was listening to everyone else’s every movement. Coming up or down the stairs, turning on the faucet, opening the fridge.

On Thanksgiving Day a feast materialized for the four of us. A turkey and, inexplicably, a ham. I have no idea who cooked it, but I stuffed myself even if nobody else would. I was starting to grow a lot and could eat shocking amounts of food. Later, after Mom had started cooking again, she told me she appreciated the comfort of not having to change how much food she cooked because I could eat enough food for two. I didn’t know whether or not to feel guilty about that.

After we finished dessert that afternoon we wound up at the beach. I don’t know how we got there but I remember we took off our shoes by the dunes and walked for a while. It must have been warm because why would we have taken our shoes and socks off in November? I wore a crewneck sweatshirt of Dad’s that I guess he had left in the house out there. There were holes in the sleeves and it smelled like him. I do not know what he smelled like except for himself. The sky was gray and aside from a few old men with fishing rods and the occasional wet lab we were pretty much by ourselves. After walking for a bit we stopped and stood looking at the ocean, which was quiet and dark and seemed endless. Mom stood directly behind me and rubbed the sides of my arms sort of hard, and she didn’t stop even after I told her I wasn’t cold.

* * *

We know that the surface temperature on Mars varies between -143 and -27 degrees Celsius at its equator. Dr. Stern told us when we got back from Thanksgiving break that we would have to hand in our reports before Christmas. Colorful charts and diagrams would go a long way as far as our grades were concerned. Mars has no liquid water and a very thin atmosphere made mostly of carbon dioxide. One year lasts 687 days.

Most of the other guys in class wanted their settlements to look like villages from Star Wars, spider-webbed colonies resembling Tatooine. Others were concerned with setting up a jail and a military before anything else. Dr. Stern said dejectedly one day that this was neither an architecture course nor a political philosophy seminar and please instead let’s talk about greenhouse gasses and working to get the crops to grow.

“Why can’t we just make volcanoes explode,” Teddy Amato muttered.

Charlotte MacLeod in the front of the classroom had started dabbling in something called raw-foodism and announced that it was irresponsible for us to even consider terraforming Mars without also considering the ethical repercussions of doing so.

“Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”

“Yeah and plus like what about the money?” Natalie Hanson asked. “My dad says we shouldn’t be pumping billions of dollars into NASA when the world is literally falling apart and terrorists are just like walking onto planes and—” she looked at me and didn’t finish her sentence. “Anyway Dad says Paul Wolfowitz is right and that it’s really important we give more money to the military.”

Conrad Allegash had basically stopped coming to school. I heard a rumor that his mom was moving him and his younger sister to Minnesota or maybe just homeschooling them now, but whatever the reason, it sucked for me. Every day I felt everyone’s eyes sneaking sideways in my direction, like they were waiting for me to do something they could remember for the rest of their lives. Mostly I just kept my head down, coloring on the front of my composition notebook with a highlighter. I liked to fill in the white shapes in clusters so that parts of the notebook’s cover were yellow, like when you’re on an airplane at night and you can’t sleep and all you can see are the little constellations of light way down below you.

I hated sitting near the window in Dr. Stern’s class. I wanted to move my seat closer to the door, or into the back corner of the last row so that people wouldn’t be able to look at me so incessantly, and so easily. I tried avoiding looking out the window, but trying hard to avoid it only made it impossible to avoid. Whenever a car came into the parking lot I’d get all nervous, feel sweat sticking in the creases of my hands. But Savannah, who was now my girlfriend, had made this big thing about changing seats with someone so she could be nearer to me by the window, and mostly I didn’t want to mess with that.

* * *

I remember his tassel loafers and his tennis serve. I remember he kept coins in a silver bowl on his dresser and that when it was full we would go to the supermarket two towns over because it had one of those coin machines, and after we poured in the coins and handed the receipt to the cashier he would give me the cash. I do not remember him ever cooking, but I remember the clink of the knife on the inside of the one glass he always used to make salad dressing. I remember the reporters knocking on the door, and the mayor, and the sweaty state senator that was later indicted for embezzlement, and I remember not realizing how many different ways the other moms in the town could make a lasagna. For a while Mom stopped cooking, and then started cooking like crazy, psychotically sous-viding and unsuccessfully starting souffles and more than once setting off the smoke detector in the kitchen in this apron I’d never seen her wear. I realized that I had asked her accidentally one afternoon not what was for dinner but where in town we were ordering from. I was just sick of sushi.

A few weeks before Christmas a small urn showed up on the island in the kitchen when I came home from school. It was snowing softly outside, big wet flakes that seemed to be sticking. At school there’d been talk about a possible snow day, our teachers had given us the homework for the next few days just in case, but for the first time ever I was praying for no snow. School seemed better than sitting around in the house just the two of us. We did that enough as it was.

I threw my coat and backpack on the kitchen table and looked over toward the island.

“What is that?” I asked, nodding my head toward the urn.

Mom stood with her back leaned against the sink so that she was facing into the kitchen. Since getting back from Thanksgiving she had been crying a lot more or at least a lot more openly, not hiding like usual behind her prescription sunglasses in the kitchen. I saw there were tears pooling in the corners of her eyes.

She shook her head and didn’t say anything. I was confused.

“It’s nothing,” she said finally. “It’s just rubble.”

I didn’t know what she meant until all at once I did, and suddenly I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach and throat simultaneously and didn’t know how to make words with my mouth or breath or do those two things at the same time. I tried focusing on blinking and looking at Mom. She was gripping the sink so hard I could see the veins on the backs of her hands.

“It’s just rubble,” she said again, and kept repeating that word. Her sunglasses were in her hair, which was in a ponytail but also kind of wasn’t. She shook her head softly, and was looking down at the ground but seemed really far away. It was like she was in a daze. The bags beneath her eyes were dark like little beige brushstrokes.

I decided to go outside and put salt down on the sidewalk in front of our house until eventually I couldn’t feel my hands.

* * *

When Christmas rolled around we didn’t even get a tree. Mom asked if I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon or to England to watch professional soccer or down the shore to be with her family, but I understood in the way she asked this that really she wanted to stay at home just the two of us and not have to talk to anyone or be on the receiving end of any more sympathy. Or that’s how I felt, anyway. It was exhausting and you always had to tell people thanks, even though nobody had anything original to say.

The issue was I loved Christmas. Unwrapping all our ornaments from the balled-up clusters of newspaper we kept in an old cardboard box that I always carried down from the attic. Standing on the ladder I’d bring in from the garage in order to place the shabby straw angel at the very top of the tree. Our tree was the only one I’ve ever seen that in addition to the lights and ornaments also had these long garlands made of popcorn and cranberries weaved all through the branches. This was my favorite part, the three of us stringing together the popcorn and cranberry with sewing needles, listening to Good King Wenceslas as we tried not to prick our fingertips.

“Maybe we get one of those dumb little Charlie Brown ones,” Mom said in the car on the way to school one morning. This seemed so obviously sad that it might also be funny, and that afternoon we bought one from CVS.

On Christmas Eve we had cinnamon toast crunch and sparkling cider for dinner. She gave me a Dell laptop but hadn’t bothered to wrap it, which was fine, and that night we decided to sleep next to each other in the two twin beds of the third-floor guest room.

* * *

New Year’s Eve was really bad.

* * *

A few weekends after winter break I took Savannah’s shirt off for the first time and fumbled to unclasp her bra as I lay beneath her on her four-poster bed. Light lazed through the curtains and into her bedroom in a way that I could see dust particles in the air between us, next to the skin of her bare chest. I tried sucking on her nipple and she laughed and said it tickled and I thought I was going to come in my pants but thought really hard about Dad and then I didn’t.

One day at lunch I announced in the cafeteria that I could get Savannah to send me pictures of her boobs if I wanted because of what had happened to my dad. I remember my friends sort of laughing, looking into their laps, reading their Snapple facts. That night I went home and cried as hard as I’d ever cried, waiting and hoping the floorboards would creak, but Mom was mostly sleeping or not sleeping on the couch in the TV room downstairs. And even though I thought I was crying really unbearably hard I guess she didn’t hear me.

Savannah broke up with me in the middle of the spring. She did it over IM and moved her seat to the front of the classroom, next to Charlotte MacLeod. I guess she’d gotten sick of feeling sorry for me. Plus she was going back to camp that summer, and I assumed the guy from Scarsdale had probably by now gotten his braces off.

Right after school got out Mom and I went to Maine. In the car as we drove north we listened to the audiobook of My Father’s Dragon, even though I told her I was definitely too old for that. But then we both wound up crying a lot and had to pull over to get rest-stop ice cream sandwiches somewhere in Massachusetts. My takeaway from Maine was that I didn’t like lobster, not even lobster rolls, and thought it was dumb that we’d gone someplace by the ocean when the ocean was way too cold for swimming. Mom loved it, though. She woke up really early and went walking through the woods behind our bed and breakfast, and when she got back and woke me she’d say things about how the trees had something magical in them and the air felt freer. I thought this was really cheesy but didn’t tell her that. All the unfamiliar birds made Mom happy, too. She said they looked similar to the birds in our backyard but she knew they were a little bit different, and she liked not knowing their names.

In August we went to Atlantic City to be with Mom’s family. Her parents weren’t alive but her two brothers still lived down there with their wives and children, who were my cousins. I wasn’t that close with them. Mostly I went to the beach by myself, devoured chicken cheesesteak subs and read John Irving novels. When I went in the water I couldn’t get any good at bodysurfing.

At night Mom’s brothers would get drunk on canned beer in the living room of the house we were renting near the boardwalk and cry.

“How the fuck did this happen,” my uncle John would shout as foam spilled onto his fingers. “I mean how the fuck did we let this happen?”

Mom shaking her head softly on the couch next to them.

“Fuck those towelheads,” my uncle Joe yelled. He was always the angriest. “Those haji fucks. We better turn that whole place into a parking lot.”

I knew Mom hated this stuff and I began to understand better why she’d wanted to go all the way to Ohio for college when none of her brothers had even considered applying to college. But as I watched her, sitting on the couch drinking or not really drinking her white wine as my uncles got totally shitfaced and said more and more vile things, words that I had never even heard people say in real life, I wondered if she appreciated that someone was saying this stuff out loud. I wondered if on some level she agreed with them. Because I guess part of me did. And so how couldn’t she?

Whenever my uncles got really drunk and really started screaming at the TV I’d leave the house and walk along the boardwalk. Sometimes my cousins came with me. They were in high school and smoked cigarettes when their parents weren’t around. We usually wandered toward the big neon lights of the casinos in the distance, mostly in silence. I was too afraid to try any of their cigarettes and they didn’t really pressure me, but one night I tried some Popov vodka from a plastic water bottle. It tasted like nail polish remover and I coughed so much afterward that I thought I would be sick, but then I was fine and took another one, and a third. Soon I felt loose and a little like I was floating. As we walked my eyes bobbed in and out of focus. I could hear the waves crashing near me in the darkness. The lights of the casinos floated in the distance, shining like buoys in the fog.

* * *

We drove home on Labor Day. I was starting eighth grade in a week. It was dark by the time we got back to the house and I remember as we walked up the driveway from the car toward the back door we could hear the cracking and sizzling of fireworks that were probably being set off around town by people I knew from school. They weren’t very loud but made me jump anyway, like I was a scared dog during a thunderstorm.

In the kitchen Mom checked the mail, standing over the island with her sunglasses still on so that she could read. I stood next to her. It wasn’t like I was looking for anything in the mail, I just sort of wound up there. She leafed through catalogues and bills, the skin on her hands tan and coarse. The lights weren’t on anywhere else in the house and our bags were still by the door, and when I told her I wanted to go to boarding school she went immediately upstairs.

* * *

At night I dream I am on Mars. I am on Mars and he is there with me. On Mars there is a volcano the size of Arizona and so much less gravity than on Earth that I can jump three times as high. It is cold, between -143 and -27 degrees Celsius, and there is no oxygen and no liquid water and he is there with me and none of that bothers us. We’re in normal clothes, t-shirts and sneakers and he has grey and brown stubble like it’s a Sunday. We wander down deep canyons and across endless deserts and over enormous hills of boulders that seem to roll on and on like waves across the burnt red horizon. On Mars it is quiet. It is completely quiet and the absence of all sound feels less like a void than a release. We don’t say anything, he doesn’t speak to me and I don’t speak to him but he is there with me and sometimes we pass through dust storms so severe that I am lifted into the air and whirled for miles or days or years. One year on Mars lasts 687 days. I see him through my eyes and I see us from the third person and because this is a dream this is somehow the same.

Emmett Knowlton grew up in Montclair, New Jersey and graduated from Amherst College. He lives in New York City, where he works as a journalist.


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