Martha was not actually allowed to greet Matt when he returned. He was shuffled off with the other returnees to a detainment center for six months where he would be quarantined and allowed to decompress. Instead, she watched it on the news with Abby, a woman she’d come to think of as more of a comrade in arms than a friend. Abby found out after her husband left that she’d been pregnant. Now their son was five, and he was going to meet his father for the first time. They were sitting on Martha’s couch, watching as a suite of white vans left a squat gray building. Underneath the news anchor’s voice they could hear the static of hundreds of cameras clicking and flashing, trying to get a glimpse at the faces of the returned. The last space shuttle had left a year ago. The architects of the first colony on Mars were coming home.
“What do you think?” Abby said. She spoke to Martha but looked at Keenan, her son, who watched sing along YouTube videos on her iPad and was not paying attention to the television, to the cars carrying his father across the pavement of an Earth road for the first time in five years. Matt had done this on the ride from their wedding service to their reception. He’d asked her what she was thinking. He’d pulled her hand up to his chest. And she couldn’t remember. All she’d heard from the time she’d woken up to then was the blood thudding in her ears. All she’d felt was the swelling air in her chest, the tightness of her face as she smiled. She couldn’t think of any other time when she’d been so happy. But her happiness was always slow and self-conscious. She’d barely spoken to anyone that day, not her mother who’d helped her get ready, who pinned plastic baby’s breath into her hair, not to her maid of honor, a thin and pale friend from college. She’d whispered her vows, her hands trembled when they’d held his. She’d been so happy she’d felt herself condensing into a finer and finer point. This is the love of my life. She would be excited when he called, worried when he got on flights. Sometimes they would take trains or buses together into the city and he would hold her waist the whole time. When he’d been accepted to the space program she’d been the one who cried. She’d come out of herself then, faced him, watched him looking at her. This is the love.
“Honestly, nothing,” she’d said. “I’m not thinking about anything at all.”
Martha tried to imagine Matt, in a different car now some fifty miles away. She wondered if he’d caught a glimpse through a window of Earth, of the trees and wide plains. If it smelled any different to him. If he was excited to see her. “I don’t know what I think,” she said.
There was a lapse. Keenan’s iPad tittered. “It will be so weird,” Abby finally said, “seeing them again. We should get dinner or something, the four of us.” Abby wore her hair in dreadlocks, and had twisted the mass of them on top of her head. One near the nape of her neck had fallen out, and she snaked it absentmindedly around her finger.
Martha nodded. She sat in the absurdity of the notion; she had never met Lamont, Abby’s husband, and Abby had never met Matt. All the late-night phone calls and conversations, movie marathons, the times Abby had collapsed into Martha’s arms from missing Lamont and the times Abby had listened to Martha rail and vent and bang her fists against the walls of the universe, which had taken her husband so far from her, and they would sit down like they were normal people and have normal dinner. She nearly couldn’t see it.
Her phone vibrated. It was Matt’s mother, Darla. For some reason, she felt that Martha was the only person who really understood her pain and longing for Matt, which Martha found oedipal. She would Facetime while she cooked dinner, implore Martha to visit Destin. Martha’s own mother was dead now and her father all the way in California working on at a tech startup, so Darla, in an odd, patronizing way, felt that Martha was lonely and in need of companionship, which Martha loathed both because she did not like to be pitied and because Darla was right. Martha swiped the call away and opened her messages to text that she would call later, she was with Abby.
“We should,” she agreed. “Make them feel as normal as possible.” She tapped her phone’s corner absentmindedly on the arm of the couch. It continued to buzz and beep. Abby’s phone, left on the coffee table would ping at what felt like thirty second intervals. The vibrations buzzed into Martha’s calf muscle, stretched out across the dark wood surface. Matt would fill out paperwork and reports, be interviewed and videotaped and decontaminated, checked for cancerous cells and any new viruses, meet with therapists for PTSD, anxiety, depression, culture shock, any new possible trauma he could have endured spending five years away in what amounted to a prison on an empty desert surrounded by only fifty other people. And she and Abby would for the next six months get alerts on their phones from the app NASA had developed for the “First Families,” as the news had dubbed them. Her assigned concierge, a pleasant man named Chuck who had a degree in counseling, aeronautics, and social services, would check in with her and Abby both that afternoon and then three times a week every week. Martha opened her phone with her thumb, scrolled through the settings, and turned her notifications off.
That weekend, it was announced that Amy Follino, one of the women now living at the colony, a former math professor at the University of Texas A&M and current statistician, was pregnant. Martha was piling groceries into the trunk of her car when the sister of one of Matt’s crew texted. The night was cool, the parking lot empty, lit up by the cones of light emanating from up above industrial lightbulbs. Martha turned her face toward the white moon. She thought she could see Mars. She thought if she looked hard enough, she could see Amy Follino sleeping, the rise and fall of her chest, her invisible breath.
Her husband wasn’t the one who told Martha he would be going to Mars, but he did know about it before she did. Instead, she got a printed letter in a manila envelope inviting her and Matt to Washington. They booked flights and stayed in a Motel 6 near the airport. They were only two years married then. That Monday they met with a team of officials in a series of blue rooms. One woman was wearing a dark plum suit and she had dark plum lipstick on, and as she spoke Martha watched the corners of her mouth to see if the lipstick would smear or slide. They told her they were tapping a few highly skilled individuals. They said they were consulting with both the astronauts and their families. They said it this was possibly one of the most important advances of science in the history of mankind. They asked them to keep this all confidential.
Martha and Matt ate a late lunch on an outdoor patio later in the week. They did not speak to each other. Martha watched Matt chew lettuce and drink water and she tried to think very hard about the future, but found that even after three days of meetings and presentations, meet and greets with other potential mission members and their families, email and phone number exchanges, slides and graphs and charts showing her the next five years and the changes and the outcomes and the controls and the variables and the weather conditions and the video monitors and the live streams and the CGI renderings and the artist mock ups and the meal plan and the compensation and the contact information and the health insurance and the support groups for families back on earth and the decorations and the simulations and the model walk-through of the station, the future remained just as vague and slippery as it always had been.
“Did you know before we came?” she finally said.
Matt swallowed a bit of his salad before answering, a finger hovering over his lips. “I had an idea,” he said. “Robeson said something a few weeks ago.”
“Oh.” They lapsed into silence again.
“You’re not happy.”
It was his habit to name the emotion she was experiencing. And she didn’t mind this habit, except for moments especially like this, when she had been studying his face and profile for the last three days and trying to picture five years without it, five years of him walking and talking and living on a distant and unknowable planet, and trying to determine what it was she did feel, exactly. And she wanted to be alone, and she didn’t want to hear Matt try to guess what it was she was thinking, his plaintive voice noise over which she could not hear her own thoughts. She shrugged, leaning her jaw on her fist.
“I don’t know what I am.”
Matt put down his fork, leaned forward. “It’s still another three years before they’re finished pulling it all together here on Earth.” On Earth. Martha played with that phrase in her head. In ten, twenty, fifty years would she also say that to her friends, to her family? We’re thinking of spending the afternoon On Earth. You don’t get real organic beef On Earth anymore. We wanted to go, but Matt had to be On Earth.
“I guess that’s true.”
“And I know five years seems like a long time, and it is! But it’s not as long as you think. It will pass by. I’ll be back before you know it,” Matt said. He snapped his fingers to indicate, she supposed, how quickly five years would pass. “Martha, this isn’t just anything they’ve asked me to do. This is … this is the next step. This is it. What else are we doing to do in this life except go to Mars? We’ve done everything we can on Earth.” On Earth. She pushed a sigh through her nose.
They’d sent missions to Mars over the last thirty odd years; explorers, geographers, soil testers, potato farmers, doctors, engineers, physicists, astronauts. There were video game simulations now, and YouTube videos and conspiracy theories. A new horror movie series, a t-shirt line from a street style designer featuring acid washed photographs of famous Mars landscapes, documentary after documentary, new planned foods using crops grown exclusively on Mars for zero-wasters who didn’t want encourage Big Agro’s pollution of Earth’s waters. There were presidential debates and treaties between countries. The allocation and re-allocation of resources. But there hadn’t been a colony, not yet. This was the first one.
Matt would be part of the team building the space station, first, then receiving the inhabitants second; a small group of some three hundred people from all six continents, teachers and scientists and accountants and mothers and children and a governor who would stay, theoretically forever. Rumors were that NASA was optioning bids for an airline company to build commercial flight rocket ships for people who wanted to visit, or for those who wanted to come back to Earth for the holidays. Matt, though, would come back to stay, work in Florida, be part of the home base command center for the colony in case of a mutiny, attack, potential contact with other organic life forms. He would process reports of the progress made up there; the habitability, the potential introduction of oxygen, the building of a super city, the possibility of lakes and rivers and oceans that would stay liquid, that wouldn’t evaporate in the extreme heat of a planet so close to the sun. There were planned press junkets for the “loved ones left behind” on this, the building mission. A family therapist she could call. Detailed reports of her husband’s progress, pictures, video calls, conference calls. A theoretical cellular data plan she would be given so she could even text him across the billion trillion light years of space, if as they got a cell tower and a satellite working (a big if, but Verizon and Sprint were purportedly salivating; the first cell company in space!). She would never be alone, she would never have to worry about homesickness for her husband because she would be so flooded with updates and information and background and calls and news that it would be like he never actually left at all.
And she looked at Matt. His eager, excited eyes, the way his hand gripped his fork. She couldn’t deny him this chance, the real chance to actually go to the far away red planet and try to see what could be done there. One of the presentations had actually made her laugh. “The last step of human evolution on Earth,” a bespectacled man had said, laser pointer wobbling on the first bullet point, “is to leave it.”
There was a beat, and then the news exploded. There were plans for a parade, there was a presidential address, and an official statement from the office of Her Royal Majesty, the birthday would be a national holiday in at least ten developed countries. It would be the first actual Martian, possibly, since the impetus and evolution of the solar system.
CNN posted countdown on their website, National Geographic a computer simulation of a baby’s gestational development that you could click on and rotate to see what exactly the baby potentially looked like on that day. Martha had never been someone particularly interested in babies or the first colony, having spent so much time over the past five years absolutely inundated with information about that far away compound, but even she found herself occasionally popping open the link in a tab on her computer to see the swirling, lumpy, pixelated simulation of the distant Martian. She wondered about Amy Follino. She was a pretty, smiling redhead. In her interviews she seemed kind, knowledgeable, articulate. Big hearted. A conservative pundit began circulating photos and videos of her in college at bars, drink in hand, makeup too dark and shiny, leg hooked around a friend. Twitter bit down almost instantaneously. The baby itself inspired a slew of hashtags and think-pieces. Martha, who because of Matt’s status, had higher level clearance and access to video interviews of each member of the first colony, spent one evening, rocky road ice cream in hand, clicking through the interviews of Amy and the baby’s father, a former mechanical engineer with GE named Lawrence. She tried rolling their names around on her tongue. Amy Follino. Lawrence. She clicked onto Amy’s private Facebook page, found through a closed group some of the first colony had with the first families. She flipped through photo albums of Amy with her parents. Her mother, who did not seem active at all on social media, posted to her own page about the news, a happy message. Martha tabbed through photo after photo of Amy smiling, and thought, felt, that she would probably be a good mom.
“Let’s take a trip,” Darla said. She leaned down so her face could be seen in the video monitor; she was cooking pasta sauce in a pot too big to fit in the screen.
“Yeah. It’s been three months. I feel like I’m dying. I need to be distracted.” Darla’s hair was clipped in a twist at the back of her head to keep it out of the way, but a few loose strands frizzed out from the sides of her head.
“Where are you thinking?”
Darla, who had moved to stir her sauce, popped back into the screen. “Why don’t you talk to Abby and her little boy, huh?” she said. Martha lifted her eyebrows in surprise. “I have some money saved up, and I’ve always wanted to go to Barcelona. I’ve never seen any of Gaudi’s work,” Darla straightened and began measuring out a cup of pasta to cook. “We can get an Airbnb near the beach and go on tours and eat paella. And Abby needs a break.” Abby was of particular interest to the general public because of Keenan. She’d been fielding calls from daytime talk shows in New York and Los Angeles to come and bring him on the show, answer questions about how she felt introducing him to his father. “I don’t know what they want me to say,” she said when Martha asked her about it. “It feels like they just want me to come on and cry about how hard it’s been. It hasn’t really even been that hard. We’re compensated. I don’t work. You don’t work. I’m home all day with him. We’ve video chatted like every day.” She rolled her eyes. “Technically he’s been introduced to his father. So what the fuck?”
She said yes immediately to the trip.
They spent the last week of the summer in Spain, watching Abby force Keenan to keep his floaties on his arms in warm, ankle-deep water. Martha and Darla split bottles of wine over dinner, and at night Keenan would climb onto Darla’s lap and she would read him stories from the pile of books Abby brought with her while Abby slept. Chuck, ever diligent, updated them every morning on Matt and Lamont’s progress, when they could expect them to come home and be on Earth again. Martha mouthed the phrase to herself in the shower, watched soap suds slide down her arms and legs. On Earth. On Earth. On Earth.
A few weeks after they returned from Spain, she went on a run early in the morning. She went down a path near her neighborhood, not often used and breaking away into gravel. She was looking at nothing, feeling the air she sucked in through the gate of her teeth fill up her lungs, collapse, fill, and collapse. She felt a sudden, uneven pull in her hips, telling her to look up.
An enormous barn owl perched in a tree, and when it heard her sneakers thudding against the pavement, it swung its flat head around and stared unblinking at her. She went still, shoulders drawn up to her ears, waiting for it to lunge at her or fly away. For mere breaths, time seemed to briefly pause, to wait for the rendering of some animal violence.
The owl did nothing. It turned its head away from her, and she bolted, running until she could no longer see the owl or the tree it sat in.
Matt and Lamont’s return turned out to be the fall of that year, in a black SUV. Abby and Martha planned a welcome home party, with banners and balloons. They invited a few of the other first families, men and women who had come home, or those who were still waiting on their mothers, husbands, wives, sons, to receive their clearance. Martha couldn’t help it. After the years and the months of waiting, watching on TV, calling Matt, monitoring NASA’s web page and social media groups, and streaming videos of the construction of the station, when she saw Matt open his door and come around the side of the SUV, and she broke away from the welcome party and ran pell-mell down the lawn to him. He barely had time to catch her before she crashed into him, bringing him down to the earth, the soft and grassy earth, and she kissed him. She felt his arms around her waist. People were clapping and laughing up at the house, the driver of the car said, “Look out, Gorski!”
Martha pulled away from him and looked at him, took his face between her hands, and he did the same to her. He had a thin beard and more wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. His lips seemed thinner, his hair was a little gray, his skin dry. She didn’t know why, but she was surprised when she looked at his hands to see they were clean, and not covered in soft red clay. And that he was crying. He sat up and kissed her again, pulled her against his chest, buried his face in the nape of her neck. “I missed you, bird,” he said. He’d taken to calling her bird on their video calls. “There are no fucking birds on Mars,” he’d said. “It’s weird.” and so for a few months after she’d tried to send him photos of as many birds as she could see in a day.
Martha felt his face in her neck. She felt his bony shoulder blades and the knots of his spine. He smelled like nothing at all. She pulled away and studied his face. He was talking to her, he was telling her how happy he was to be home. She felt a small, uneven pull in her hip bones. She wanted to get up.
Lamont was squatting down up at the house, holding out a hand to Keenan, who glanced nervously at Abby. An older man had his phone out. Martha tried to remember his name. Kevin. Gavin. His son, a biologist, had just touched down, had not yet been cleared, was not yet home. Lamont called to Keenan and Keenan smiled, confused. The crowd laughed, and KevinGavin laughed too, and took photo after photo after photo.