Mia is going to Mars. She saw it once through a telescope. An ochre disc so far away she asked, “How far does the sky go?”
“You’re not looking at the sky, honey. That’s space, and it goes farther than forever,” was the camp counselor’s reply.
Somewhere along the last 20 years, she had forgotten that moment, but it came back when she read the article in the lawyer’s office about manning Mars. She tore out the article, folded it and put it in her pocket. As the lawyer slid a check across his lacquered desk, Mia gently pressed on her pocket to hear the page crinkle.
The donations had been generous. The majority would go to the victims’ families, but a small percentage had been set aside for her, the witness. She had gone with the intention of turning it down, but after reading the article, she couldn’t. Humanity needed her. The money would just about cover it. She’d be able to save up the rest by the time tickets were available. The article predicted another 15 years before civilians could answer the call to colonize.
When Mia got home, she read the Post-it notes stuck on her bedroom wall. You are here for a reason. You are on a divine path of greatness. You are worthy. She would help prevent her species from becoming extinct. The day would come when the human story on Earth would end, whether by disease or disaster or the steady rise of the tides. Dinosaur bones, ladybugs, laughter, grandmas and grandpas, embroidered aprons, snowfall on the Eastern Sierras. All of this would be gone along with anyone who remembered such things. That idea broke her heart. Someone would have to step up. So Mia would go.
It would be hard. She’d be one of the first. Her home would be under a dome and any time spent outside would be in a space suit. There would be work, lots of work, so that one day humans could huddle together under the two moons of Mars and look back at the Earth through a telescope. But it would be beautiful too. It would be better. She’d be a pioneer on the red frontier.
The things she once loved and the things she had once wanted started to wiggle their way back into her consciousness. She began a list of things to do before departure: peppermint ice cream, roller coasters, a week in San Francisco, another in Spain, maple syrup on cracked wheat waffles, concerts in the park and cats. Unsure whether there would be pets on Mars, she started with a cat.
She already knew which cat would be hers. Miss Kitty. Her profile on the shelter’s website showed a black-and-gray tabby with white paws curled into a tight ball of sleep. Beneath her photo read Looking for a big-hearted home.
The traffic was heavy as she drove to the shelter. It seemed harder each day to get where she wanted to go. There was a time after college when she drove the back roads of Kentucky on her move out West. She remembered exiting the freeway just after Ohio. The roads had felt like rivers as she floated past the swaying grass and wooden barns with rusted roofs. A live broadcast from the county fair had come through on the radio. She remembered listening to a fiddle contest as the sun set. She hadn’t been scared of getting lost, even when the roads twisted in the dark. Back then, it never seemed like a possibility.
Mia added “back roads” to her list before getting out of the car. When she got to Mars, she would see that her whole life was a river. She had been on course all along.
There was a room of cages stacked four high. It was quieter than she expected. Each cage had a card on the front with the cat’s name and finer points listed in ballpoint pen. Miss Kitty was on the upper right of the east wall. Her card read affectionate.
Mia leaned in and whispered, “Hello. It’s nice to meet you.”
Miss Kitty was asleep behind the small metal squares of her cage.
“I see you’ve made a friend,” the attendant said.
“I think she’s the one.”
“Great! Let me go get the paperwork started. I’ll let her out so you two can get acquainted.”
The attendant lifted the latch and set Miss Kitty gently on the floor. Miss Kitty stretched out her front legs and yawned. Mia knelt and scratched behind her ears. When Miss Kitty opened her eyes, one was golden with a pitch black pupil and the other was an empty socket. She rubbed the right side of her face against Mia’s leg then turned to rub the left side too. Mia took a step back.
Mia drove home with Shadow meowing in his carrier on the passenger seat. Deep meows of panic and powerlessness. She stuck her finger through an air hole in the box and scratched his head. Inside that head was a dandelion-sized brain that Mia hoped couldn’t understand what he had witnessed back at the shelter. That she had asked for Miss Kitty to be placed back in her cage. That Mia was as big a coward today as she was on the day the other people died.
They should be the ones still breathing. Cheryl Matthews had been a mother. Marcos Padilla, a father. His girls would come by the office after school sometimes. The youngest one had braces. Claudia Pittman brought everyone a tin of homemade fudge each Christmas. She bought the tins special. Never the same one twice. Andrew Corvero’s father had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was getting ready to move to Texas to help take care of him. Paul Kaur was so young. He could have been anything.
There had been a brief silence, then more shots, still so loud, but not as close. He had moved. He was somewhere else. It was then that Mia heard Cheryl calling for help. She wasn’t far. Maybe 10 feet away, lying next to the copier. But Mia stayed curled under her desk. She didn’t crawl over to comfort her or use her jacket to stop the bleeding. She didn’t tell her to hold on. She didn’t pray. Instead, she looked away and silently pleaded for her to be quiet.
Mia put her hand on the outside of her pocket and pushed just a little to hear the crinkle of the article. She imagined it in the future, faded and frail, and how gently she’d tuck it into her suitcase on the day she’d leave for Mars.
When they got home, Mia took the article out of her pocket and pinned it to the wall. She let Shadow out of his carrier. He smelled the carpet, the sofa, the table legs. He wandered into the bedroom and crawled under the dresser. Mia knelt down and told him not to be scared, that everything was going to be okay, that she would take care of him and love him. She held out her palm, but Shadow shrank away.
Jessica Shoemaker lives in Los Angeles, California. Her mother gave her a typewriter on her tenth birthday. It is the best present she has ever received. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Blue Skirt Productions, and Lunch Ticket. She was a 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow.
*Main image by Stefan O’Dougherty