Lee studied the milky way from the rooftop, wondering if they would have Christmas on Mars. He always found sleep difficult on Christmas Eve, but this year it had nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with seeing the stars, like this, for the last time.
There was a scraping noise, and he turned to find his little sister approaching, arms outstretched as she picked her way across the cracked ceramic tiles. Mina sat next to him, and he curled his arm around her bony shoulder. In the distance, a hovercraft rose into the sky, circling upwards before it disappeared in a flash of light. Another group, gone.
‘I’m scared,’ she said.
‘Me too. But you know we can’t stay.’ Mina burrowed into his side, and he felt how thin she’d become.
‘There will be more to eat at the colony,’ he said, hoping it was true.
She turned to look at him with bright eyes. ‘Do you think they will have Christmas food on the ship? And a tree?’
He doubted it. They had been too busy evacuating people.
Mina noticed his hesitation, and her bottom lip trembled. Her gaze returned to the night sky, the ocean of black dotted with pinprick stars. A tear slid down her cheek, and her breathing became a soft wheeze.
Lee tensed at the sound. ‘Of course, there will be a tree,’ he said, rubbing her back. ‘Just you wait, tomorrow will be our most exciting Christmas yet.’
‘Yes, I promise.’ He waited as her breathing steadied. ‘Come on; we should get some sleep.’ She took his hand, and together they crept back across the roof to their bedroom window.
Lee lay next to her and waited until she was asleep, thinking about how he was going to keep his promise. Grabbing his bomber jacket and solar lantern, he climbed back out onto the roof and down the lattice covered in dead vines.
He missed the mix of colour that had once been his mother’s garden. It wasn’t something he had appreciated, not until the white parasites began to appear, smothering all growing things with thread-like vines and feeding on them with tiny sucker-like projections. Eventually, the host plant would die and the parasite with it, transformed into a macrame-like abomination. He couldn’t believe how quickly it had happened. In just six months, forests and crops had been destroyed, and food was scarce. The government still didn’t know the source.
The garden shed was at the back of the yard, most of the contents now traded or stolen. A few years ago, his mother had replaced their old plastic Christmas tree with a larger white version, much to Mina’s delight. But he couldn’t remember if it had been thrown out. Even if it were here, it could be a problem getting it onto the ship since everyone was capped at one bag and ten kilos. Still, he might be able to squeeze the top segment of the tree into his suitcase at the forfeit of his books. There was a deep ache in his chest at the thought, but he knew what happened when Mina got upset. She was only six— not old enough to understand— and they had run out of Ventolin.
The tree wasn’t there. If he was lucky, he might be able to scrounge together some odds and ends to make something for Mina.
Lee looked at his watch, forgetting the battery had stopped. The moon would have to do instead, its luminous glow shining down on the plantation in the distance. The sight of it made him stop. The pine trees had been the most resilient in the area. His science teacher wondered if it was the acidic pine needles and the sap, which was full of turpentine. But they never did find out; the patrolled fences went up around town, locking them in. But the guards were gone now, transferred into evacuation teams.
It only took a few seconds to decide, to imagine the look on everyone’s faces. If it worked out, Mina would be happy.
He pulled out his bike from its hiding spot under the house. Dusting off the seat and tying the solar lantern to the back, he pedalled down the road and through town. Five minutes later, the area perimeter fence appeared, now abandoned. A ute had rammed the structure a while ago, pushing part of it down so that he was able to wheel his bike over.
The pot-holed road turned into a dry track, heading towards a dense mass of trees. It didn’t take long to reach the old plantation, and he moved quickly, wheeling his bike through the forest, holding up the lantern while he searched. White ghost trees towered around him. He moved towards one, peering at the hundreds of long thread-like vines that had covered the pine, slowly killing it. The pine had resisted, spewing out sap which crusted as amber, forcing the white parasite to retreat. But in the end, it had won, leaving behind a mottled assemblage of white and yellow.
Lee went deeper into the plantation, determined to keep his promise. But the knot in his stomach slowly twisted. All the pines were dead, the endless white trees a dense maze blocking out the sight of the moon.
Time was running out. He turned around, ready to leave, but had lost his bearings. Each way looked the same. Spinning around, he peered into the gloom before choosing a direction and charging forward. In his panic, he tangled the bike in a fallen tree branch and lost his footing, tumbling sideways into a rocky ditch. He hit his head on something hard, and there was a flash of light.
When he came to, the orange glow of dawn was creeping into the forest. The smell of blood hit him before his fingers crept towards the gash on his forehead. Everything spun, but the scent of pine— fresh pine— pulled him back.
The pain was forgotten. There nestled within the shelter of the ditch was a pine sapling.
It was the most beautiful thing he had seen in a long time. And the aromatics of something living reminded him of every boyhood summer before the parasite. He reached out a shaking hand, not sure if it was real. His fingertips brushed against the miniature pine needles.
There was a sharp sting in his nose, and he blinked away the sudden moisture. The truth was he felt just as afraid as Mina. He didn’t want to give up his home and go to the red planet, all strange skies, and no green. But this sapling was proof they could come back; that Earth could be recovered.
In the distance, came the rumble of a hovercraft— the last one from this area, the last one to the main ship. The instructions had been simple: be on time, don’t exceed your baggage quota, do what you’re told, and you won’t get left behind. There would only be a narrow window of time while the crew screened and loaded everyone.
His hands trembled as he gently dug out the tree and placed it inside his jacket, trying not to bend a single frond. Scrambling out of the ditch, he found his bike intact. Now that the sun was up, he could navigate through the dead forest, weaving around the pines in the half-light. The soil from the sapling was dropping out the bottom of his jacket, chafing his legs as he pedalled faster. When he hit the track, he picked up speed. I’m going to make it, he thought, just as the front tyre blew out. It was a struggle to stay upright on the loose dirt.
Lee discarded the bike and started running down the track, hugging the tree close to his chest. All noise from the hovercraft had died away, drowned out by the blood rushing in his ears. He crested the pot-holed road, and there it was ahead; the ute crashed into the fence, and beyond that, the top of the giant gun-grey hovercraft. Shaped like a dome with wings, it was the stuff of every boys’ dreams until it came to take you away.
He tried to judge how much time had passed, but he was dizzy from lack of food and the cut on his head. When he reached the town square, his legs were as heavy as lead. The hovercraft’s hatch was closed, and the engines were firing up. ‘No!’ he screamed, using the last of his energy to sprint towards it, waving and shouting.
It continued to power up. Lee scooped down and threw a rock at the main deck of the ship. There was a loud thud, and the outside of the hovercraft rippled with shock waves.
The engines died, and outran his mother, her eyes streaming with tears. She hugged him then shook him by the shoulders. ‘Where were you?’ she cried.
Behind them, his father came running out, carrying Mina. His sister’s face was pale, and she was gasping for breath.
‘There’s Lee, there he is,’ his father was pleading. ‘See, everything’s alright.’
Lee ran to Mina’s side and touched her face. ‘It’s OK,’ he managed to say in between panting. ‘Look, Mina, I have something for you.’ He partly unzipped his jacket and showed her what was inside. Her eyes widened and locked onto the sapling.
The Area Captain charged out of the hovercraft, a vein bulging at the side of his forehead. ‘What the hell were you thinking? You knew the departure time—’ His eyes suddenly narrowed, and his hand touched the gun in his holster. ‘What’s that inside your bomber?’
Lee hung his head and pulled down the zip. He held out the pine sapling with both hands, cradling it like an egg. His mother’s mouth dropped open.
‘Is that … what I think it is?’ There was a slight tremor to the Area Captain’s voice. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir, but I wanted … I found it at the plantation.’
‘But that’s outside the safe zone!’
Mina dropped from her father’s grip and came towards the sapling, running her tiny hand across the foliage. ‘It needs a pot and decorations.’
‘You risked going to the plantation to get a Christmas tree?’ said the Area Captain, the vein bulging again. ‘Do you realise you’ve contaminated yourself and your family?’
Lee froze. He just wanted to keep Mina calm, but he hadn’t thought it through.
The Area Captain pulled out a silver probe from his utility belt and held it up. A green laser shone out, producing an arc that swept across Lee’s body and the sapling. After ten seconds, there was a loud beep and the laser shut off. The Area Captain examined the digital reading on the probe’s shaft. ‘There’s no trace of it,’ he said, the surprise catching in his voice. ‘I don’t believe it; you and the tree are clear.’ He turned to Lee’s parents. ‘He’s clear.’
Lee’s mother started crying again as she pulled him and Mina close.
The Area Captain watched them for a while then shook his head. ‘It was a reckless thing to do, kid, but geez you’ve got balls. We need people like you where we are going.’ A smile crept onto his face. ‘Bring it on board. They will want to examine a find like this, and besides,’ he said, looking at Mina and winking, ‘it wouldn’t be Christmas without a tree.’
Esme is a metallurgist and writer of speculative and contemporary fiction. She was selected to participate in the 2019 KSP 1st Edition Retreat, the 2020 Four Centres Emerging Writers Program, a 2020 KSP Fellowship and the 2021 ASA Award Mentorship Program for Writers and Illustrators. Her work has appeared in the Underground Writers Zine, on Spillwords and in the Night Parrot Press Three Can Keep a Secret anthology. When she is not reading and writing, she looks after her two children and garden in Perth, Western Australia.