He saw everything at once: the morning sun pouring through the kitchen window and surrounding his mother’s face with a glowing halo that touched every little feeling and bold emotion he had ever known, highlighting her faded beauty as if she was an angel come to rescue him from the darkness that had once so enveloped him; her physiognomy perfectly aligned with the scrubbed stainless steel pot and pans and silver knives and forks that surrounded her on the beige stained wooden benches.
Inspired, James closed his eyes when he said, “I have been accepted into the last stage for the mission to Mars.”
There was a brief silence, before his mother replied, “Oh, that… When will you be back?” she said, seemingly in afterthought.
The disappointment would have been clear to all on James’ thirty-two-year-old face, that is, if there had been any other witnesses to it apart from his mother. He had imagined that the news would have been world-changing words for both of them, particularly for her. Usually, he called her, ‘Mom’, but ‘Mother’ was the title he used when he felt she had diminished him.
“Mother, if I’m selected for the final cut I won’t be coming back,” he said curtly. “It’s a one-way trip.”
“Better clean your room before you go then,” she said.
“I…,” he began to say.
“Properly this time,” she said with a nod.
He left the kitchen without another word. What she had said mattered not. He knew he was on the verge of greatness.
“Don’t forget to take your vitamins,” she called as he ventured out the front door.
“I don’t need vitamins,” he muttered to himself.
Outside the day was an Apocalypse of riches. Beyond the bright sun and blue expanse of Australian sky James knew was the darkness of space and somewhere at its outer perimeter, the planet Mars.
He had so far passed all of the space program tests, he knew that well. He had been an outstanding candidate for all of the stated criteria.
There was ‘Resiliency’, which he knew he had in spades. He could persevere with anything, could deal with the worst at his best; had an indomitable spirit that no one, not even his unthinking mother could break.
And there was ‘Adaptability’. He knew how to adapt to the changing world around him, it was what he had always done. He knew boundaries, was open and tolerant of all ideas, and he respected diversity in all of its forms.
Finally, there was ‘Curiosity’. He asked questions all of the time, and was not content to simply receive compliant answers unless they were the ones he could use to form an appreciative understanding of the matter at hand. So he was more than suited for an occupation as a traveller to a new world such as Mars, and he was not at all surprised, though still mildly flattered how the program had shown so much interest in his written application.
The Earth continued its spin all around and James all he could see was the same old troubles: war, poverty, environmental disasters; the odd genocide. Perhaps he wouldn’t miss this planet at all? When Mars became a thriving colony would it experience the same man-made strife as Earth? He hoped; thought not. If they sent the right people there, men and women of reason and logic and profound sensibilities, it could only flourish. He rang Pasha.
Pasha answered his mobile and said he was just about to catch the train back from a building site he was working on. He sounded unusually sober. James told him he would meet him at the local club and perhaps they could then go to a Turkish restaurant for a cheap meal. Pasha seemed keen.
“I better catch up with you before you become a Martian,” he said with a laugh in his voice.
They met at a local hotel instead. When Pasha’s large frame arrived he looked noticeably intoxicated.
“When are you going to Mars?”
“I’m waiting for the final notice.”
“What about the radiation on the surface?”
“They will take care of that—we’ll be living under cover.”
“You fail to see the gravity of your situation,” Pasha said with a laugh.
James ordered two beers from the bar but when he returned to the table where he had left Pasha, the big man was nowhere to be seen. Knowingly, he carried the beers into the adjoining casino. Pasha was there seated at a poker machine.
“Haven’t you had enough of this?” James asked wearily.
Pasha said nothing as he inserted fifty-dollar bills into the machine. He hit the buttons, playing a hundred dollars at a time. As the machine’s groaning noises indicated with each hit that he had lost, he deposited more fifty’s into the slot. James watched with despair.
“Christ… Look, Pasha, give me some of that money to hold for you, just a few hundred—I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”
Pasha ignored him and continued to feed the hungry slot.
“This is what you did last time. This happens over and over again,” James said in frustration. “Last time you were even drunker than you are now. You had a car then, and you drove home drunk. You’re completely out of control, just when I’m trying to do something positive with my life.”
Pasha continued to ignore him. James walked back into the bar. He sat at a table and began to quickly drink one of the glasses of beer he had bought. He counted seconds in his head, finished his beer and commenced drinking the other beer he had bought for Pasha.
At that moment, as if out of nowhere, Jan appeared at his table. She had dyed her hair red since James had last seen her.
“I thought you were going to ring me,” she said, “why haven’t you called me?”
“I couldn’t.” James took a gulp of beer. “I’m going away soon… for a long time. I thought it best I left you alone to do your own thing.”
“Where are you going?” she asked with a frown.
He took another gulp of beer.
“To another planet.”
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked angrily. “You ignore me, you won’t speak to me. It’s like I no longer exist! Don’t you love me anymore?”
To James, it sounded like a song. She shook her head, scowled at him and left the table and the bar.
“I do love you, Jan,” James said loudly, to no one in particular.
A member of the bar staff quickly approached him.
“You need to leave,” said the man.
“You’ve had enough to drink, James. You need to leave now. You can come back tomorrow, no worries,” the man said with a friendly smile.
James drank his remaining beer with one large gulp, rose to unsteady feet and walked out of the front door.
Outside, Pasha was there on the sidewalk.
“I’ve done all of my money,” he said, “I’m going home now.”
“I saw Jan,” James said.
“I don’t know.”
“Ha!” said Pasha. He put on the backpack he was carrying with a muscular arm and began to walk up the road. “There’s radiation on Mars!” he called back over his shoulder as he walked away, “you should go to The Moon instead.”
James considered he would also go home. As he strolled, he raised his head to carefully study the sky.
Up there was Mars, or was it Venus? It was very hard to tell. He thought he could see a shooting star, but then wondered if he was mistaken. He felt tired, and more than a little confused. His thoughts were racing incoherently. He found difficulty in placing them in any semblance of established order.
“Perhaps someone has poisoned me?” he thought aloud. “They don’t want me to go to Mars.”
Although the sun was no longer shining in the night sky tiny particles of light seemed to have been left behind. He prowled up the dark streets and dingy alleyways growling at the dank air like a wayward tom hunting a mate. Only a few hours before it had been morning and he was telling his mother some very important news. Now it was dark, although the night was almost a promise that the light would return.
He wondered about time travel. Clocks moved slower in space, but would it ever be possible to return to the past and change unwanted outcomes?
Without warning a small white sedan pulled up in the street beside him. He looked inside the car and saw that Pasha was driving. Jan was sitting silently in the backseat.
“Get in,” Pasha said, “I’ll give you a lift home.”
“Can I drive this time?” James asked.
Pasha released a sigh. “It doesn’t work that way,” he said, with a slow shake of his large head.
“Then I can’t,” James said. “It’s not possible, is it? You can’t go back in time, can you?” He walked on.
“On and on it goes,” he told himself, “where it stops nobody knows. There’s nothing left.” There was nothing left in the present. His only future here was in the past. “Jan, I do love you,” he said with as much feeling in his voice as he could muster, “but I’m going to Mars, and you can’t come with me…”
Arriving home, he found his mother had already retired for the night. He decided to do the same.
In his sleep, he dreamed of other planets in the solar system: Jupiter was enormous and imposing; Venus was full of fire and confrontation; Uranus was frozen. He considered it would be equally hard being a Martian. Jan didn’t want him to go to Mars, it was obvious. Pasha didn’t care what he did, neither did his mother.
He awoke with feelings of trepidation. Something seemed to be pulling at the skin on his face. He wondered if there would always be pain in darkness, and if the promise of the light of a new day could forever be there to sooth his fears.
Suddenly, sunshine poured through his small bedroom window. It was morning, because he could hear birds chirping. They were calling to each other, as if to discover which of them was still alive.
“Do I really want to go to Mars?” he asked himself. “I could marry Jan and we could have some kids.”
Just then, there was a soft knock on his bedroom door.
“James,” his mother called, “there is another letter from the space program. It arrived yesterday.” She pushed the envelope underneath his door.
James lay in bed and for a time considered. Quickly he rose and grabbed the letter, opened his door and headed for the kitchen still dressed in his pyjamas. There, he firmly handed the envelope to his mother.
“Mum,” he said in a whisper, “I’ve decided, whatever their decision, that I’m not going to Mars. I need to stay here for you, for Jan, and for Pasha.” There were tears in his eyes. He turned and walked back to his bedroom, leaving his perplexed mother holding the envelope in her hand.
After a time, she reluctantly ripped open the envelope to read the letter inside. After she had taken in its contents she released a deep sigh, sat down at the kitchen table, gathered up a pen and some paper and formed a reply on behalf of her son:
Dear Sir/Madam, I apologise for my son, James, continually contacting you. Sometimes he doesn’t take his medication. Please understand that he suffers from schizophrenia and has not been the same since he was a passenger in a car crash ten years ago that killed his girlfriend, Jan, and his best friend, Pasha. I hope you will not pursue the legal action you threaten. I am hoping that James will no longer contact you.