Sea turned her head from the window and shifted uncomfortably on the vinyl salon chair, unsure of how to answer what should have been a simple question. The manicurist, who might have been a teenager, whisked the emery board across her thumbnail.
Launch time for Mission Red Planet 1 was in less than eighteen hours.
Was it a special occasion?
Last day on the planet, Sea thought, but did not say, because the exact hour one was going to leave the Earth forever was a precious and rare knowing. Not meant for sharing with strangers, or anyone, really. Perhaps her mother had felt something like this the day before the 8:00 am cesarean section that had delivered Sea. The certainty of an approaching singularity that would forever divide one’s life into Before and After. The birth of a child. The lift-off for a one-way trip to Mars.
“I just wanted nice hands,” Sea said. Her voice trailed off in the otherwise empty salon, lost in the sounds of skateboard wheels clattering along the sidewalk outside, water draining from the washing machine in the next room, her nails being ground to dust.
“Did you say something?” asked the manicurist. Sea’s ex-husband had asked her the same question many times.
Inches away on the other side of the window, three women in summer dresses passed by. Light voices and laughter trickled through the dusty glass. They were probably on their way to a late lunch, maybe to celebrate a birthday or an engagement. Would any of them, given the choice, trade places with Sea?
“Want to trade bikes?” her neighbour’s daughter, Amy, had asked her that morning on the sidewalk in front of her staff bungalow. The sun was already hot, and the weak breeze that was making the palm fronds rustle faintly above them did not reach the ground.
“Don’t you think mine’s a little big for you?”
“But last time you said purple was your favourite colour. Like my bike.” Amy pushed herself in a small circle in front of Sea.
I can’t believe you remember I said that—what was it—three weeks ago? “Maybe you could trade bikes with one of your friends.”
“Aren’t you my friend?”
I’m leaving forever tomorrow, Amy. “I meant one of your other friends. With a bike the same size as yours.” In a few months you’ll have forgotten me.
“Don’t have any other friends.” Amy’s lower lip jutted out and she kicked at the broken concrete under her pedal. The bike wobbled dangerously and Sea grabbed the handlebars to steady her.
I hope the next person to move in here has kids you can play with. Sea hadn’t seen any other children on their street since she’d arrived several weeks before.
Amy’s mother was nowhere in sight and the street was otherwise deserted. If she didn’t leave now, she would be late for her salon appointment. She hated to leave Amy alone, although she suspected that happened often.
“Where’s your mommy?” Sea had glimpsed her a few times in her driveway unloading groceries, but the two women had never spoken. Sea doubted they would even recognize each other if they were to cross paths in another part of the city.
“Where’s your Mommy?” Amy asked.
She died in a plane crash, but I don’t want to tell you that mommies die in plane crashes, because you’re only four. “She doesn’t live here,”
Amy shook her dark curls and pushed her front tire into Sea’s leg. “Why?”
“Amy, I have to go.”
As tired as she was of trying to answer Amy’s questions, there was a sweetness about them she would miss. She would probably never speak with a four-year-old again.
Reluctantly, she let go of Amy’s handlebars.
“Can I come with you?”
Before Sea could answer, Amy’s mother called and the girl scowled and pushed herself away from her house toward the end of the block. She looked back once, but not at Sea. No one ever looked back at Sea.
“Going somewhere? Or just treating yourself?” No pause in the filing.
Sea glanced at her watch. T minus 17:11:22.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
An antique Cadillac rumbled down the street outside. Sunlight reflected off a chrome mirror cover flashed across Sea’s eyes, and she winced.
“Let me close those blinds for you.”
No, please don’t. It’s the last time I’ll ever see these things.
Before she could get the words out, though, the manicurist tugged a cord and the blinds tumbled down, slapping the pane as they fell.
“You’re sure you don’t want polish?” She waved at the caddy of bottles on the shelf beside the manicure table.
Among the rows of bottles Sea recognized the pink pearl she’d worn for her high school graduation to match her prom dress and the ivory from her wedding day. The familiar shades were surrounded by dozens of colours she had never tried. And now never would.
She extended a hand toward the caddy and let a finger trace a few bottles.
She could get the polish, then take it off just before final check-in. But how would she ever choose a single colour to be her last? And who would notice it anyway? Amy? She might not even see Amy again.
“That ivory is really nice,” the manicurist said. “Goes with everything.”
Sea withdrew her hand and placed it back on the table. Under the manicurist’s bright lamp were the beginnings of age spots and lines she hadn’t noticed before.
“No, not today.” As though coming back next Friday were an option.
On her watch the seconds continued ticking down.
The manicurist smiled faintly. “I’ll get you to take that ring off now.”
Sea slid the serpentine wedding band from her right pinkie, a Victorian family treasure funneled down through a thinning bloodline to her own large-boned hand. The only possession she would take to Mars.
A weak ray of sunlight flickered through a gap in the blinds and across the ruby embedded in the snake’s crown. The ruby eye seemed to wink, and in that instant Sea imagined it was mocking her. Or perhaps conspiring with her. She could not decide which.
The moment passed, and the eye was just a ruby again.
Sea was a planner. Throughout the pre-launch period she had made lists of things to do in her last month, last week, last day. She had prioritized, crossed things off, added others. Categories, like “body”, “mind”, “spirit” served their organizing purposes, then gave way to others. “Friends and family” taken care of over the winter with a few courtesy emails which were answered with cool politeness or not at all. Any remaining connections too distant, too long ago. From before the flight carrying her parents to a trekking holiday in China disappeared over the North Pacific, from before her husband left because she was “too inside of herself”, whatever that was supposed to mean, from before the psychology postdocs that sent her travelling for months on end to polar research stations, prisons and biospheres to discover how humans find resilience and meaning in isolation.
From the time when she was C___, before she became c., and finally, Sea. Each incarnation less connected than the last. Somehow in the work, appointments, waking, sleeping, eating of daily life, she’d failed to notice, until it was over, her steady progression to invisibility, as deaths, divorce, and too-long absences shrank her already small circle to its own singularity.
Although pre-launch protocol was much laxer than a few decades earlier, there were tests and drills, and counselling sessions, and medical procedures to undergo, and she had been confined to Headquarters Zone for the final six weeks. It was a part of the world she had no prior connection to; perhaps that would make the final separation easier. No point in striking up any unnecessary conversations with potential new Earth friends now. No last-minute backcountry ski runs, or face-down naps in boreal forest.
Instead, this final day, her first completely free one since arriving in the Zone, began pleasantly enough with early morning yoga on the beach, swim in the ocean, breakfast of strong coffee, mango, and yogurt with sprinkle of cinnamon, followed by a last manicure.
A single day wasn’t so hard to fill.
Long after the voices, colours, textures were lost in her memory, the smells would remain. Salt water, tropical fruit, clay and lavender. Melted ice cream and hot asphalt. Wafts of grilling shrimp from backyard barbecues.
Headquarters would have supplied a chauffeured sedan and prepared “gourmet” picnic basket for the afternoon, but Sea chose instead to bike to the butterfly sanctuary. Lunch a peanut butter and banana sandwich in the ancient backpack she had shoved under airplane seats all over South America and Asia. It would be incinerated sometime tonight with the other last remains of her belongings.
You can still change your mind. Sea allowed herself one last lingering look at the caddy, then glanced at her watch. She stepped out into the sunlight, instinctively shutting her eyes against the sudden brightness. Behind them she saw once more the rows and rows of untried colours.
In the sanctuary she found a secluded frangipani grove with a weathered bench. Bolted to its centre was a plaque engraved with a dedication to a long-dead Mary who had loved that place. Her list was complete. This would be her final stop before reporting to Headquarters.
Sea lay back on the gray planks and raised a hand to shield her face from the harsh light that pierced the canopy. On any other day she might have closed her eyes and let herself sink into the safety and quiet of the grove, but not today, not in these final few hours when every moment was a last chance to absorb one more thing from the Earth. She ran her free hand along the grain of the wood and down the curve of a cast iron leg to the ground. Above her shapes of blue sky appeared and disappeared behind the silhouettes of frangipani leaves like pieces of an impossible, constantly changing puzzle. She brushed aside a thick layer of rotting leaves, then dipped a finger in the soil and placed it on her tongue, tasting fruit and metal.
Will this be enough to get me through the rest of my life?
In spite of all the completed tasks and crossed-off to-do list items, she felt desperately unprepared.
Two blue morphos circled above with wingbeats so slow they seemed to float rather than fly through the sweet air.
A small girl appeared in the entrance to the clearing. “Caught you!” she rasped and raised her hands toward the butterflies.
The morphos flashed azure metal then swooped over Sea’s head and up into the canopy.
“Amy? What are you doing here?”
“I followed them,” she whispered and pointed up.
A woman’s voice called through the forest. “Amy! Come back here! Amy!”
The girl stepped closer to Sea.
“Your mother is calling,” Sea said. “You should go.”
“I think there are more of them hiding,” the girl said gravely. “In your mouth. I’m going to take them out for you.”
She motioned for Sea to brush her hair aside and then waved her hands in front of her lips. Her dark eyes examined Sea’s face.
“It’s better,” she said. “Now you can talk.”
“Tomorrow I’m going to Mars.” Sea whispered.
Because they picked me, was Sea’s first thought.
And then: Because I’m alone, and no one knows me. Because it seems easier to start over with a new planet instead of trying to fix this one. Because there are so few of us going, and each of us will be needed, and we’ll have to care for one another.
Because no one can stay hidden in a new family of twenty.
“I don’t want to be invisible anymore,” Sea said. Did I really just say that out loud? And to Amy of all people? She covered her mouth with her hand for a moment, then lowered it. What she had spoken was the truth, after all, and who else could she have spoken it to?
She became conscious, for the first time, beneath the surface of all her plans and preparations, of a hope for friendships among her crew mates. Friendships that would someday allow them to share such thoughts with one another.
Even more, she felt that this could happen, that this must happen. Mere memories of the Earth would not be enough to sustain her for the rest of her life.
“I see you,” Amy whispered.
“I see you too.” She reached out and tucked a stray curl behind Amy’s ear.
“Shh, don’t tell anyone.” Amy glanced behind her. “Someday I’m going to Mars too. I’ll meet you there.”
The lightness of all the possibilities before her suddenly seemed enough to lift the weight of all the unspoken words she had hidden inside for so long. A soft wind stirred from the moist earth of the grove, scattering fallen frangipani leaves and something settled in Sea.
The shopgirl, who might have been one of Amelia’s younger sisters whisked the bonnet from the shelf onto the counter.
Last day in England, Amelia thought, but did not say, because the tears that might come should those words be allowed to escape her lips ought not to be seen by a stranger, or anyone, really. Not even James, her husband. Her brother Henry, maybe, if only he were not lost.
“Going somewhere? Or just time for something new, maybe?”
The girl was already wrapping the indigo silk and velvet in paper. Amelia had wanted to touch it first, but now it was too late.
“Yes,” Amelia said.
It was still morning, and there were no other errands. The trunks were already filled and stacked by the door of her parents’ house, where the expressman would collect them later tonight. Her mother would be spending the afternoon with Aunt Sue, not really an aunt, but a childhood friend of her mother’s. Her siblings were with Aunt Mary, who was a real aunt, her father’s youngest sister. James and her father had business to look after, important matters involving money and papers and signatures that they had discussed for weeks in low voices, sucking on their pipes while she and her mother stitched new, thicker quilts to keep them warm through the freezing prairie winter nights they had read about in the Mercury.
Once her father had called her husband Henry. Amelia had stifled a cry as her needle slipped and stabbed her thumb, and looking up, she saw her mother pull Leo, the baby, a little closer.
She had not planned for this, an afternoon all to herself. Had she thought ahead, she might have arranged a luncheon with a friend. It was just as well, she supposed. Farewells had been spoken, and another meeting might have been awkward.
Perhaps she could cross the Mersey for a walk in Sefton Park, where James had proposed to her, after speaking to Father, of course, last summer. Too far, it might make her late. A day could be so hard to fill.
Outside, there were well-dressed men standing in the doorway of a pub across the street. They were looking at her in a way that made her heartbeat quicken and the skin inside her corset damp. Uneasily, she stroked the small ruby that crowned the snake’s head of her wedding band.
I’m a lady. I’m married.
The ring was both fashionable and expensive, a generous gift from her husband. Though it was much admired by the other women in her family and small circle of friends, had James consulted her, Amelia might have requested a simpler band, perhaps with a modest floral pattern etched into the gold. In the evenings when the light from the gas lamps caught the ruby eye, it twinkled in a way that sometimes struck Amelia as wicked. Yet in this instant, the familiar stone under her thumb was strangely comforting.
The moment passed, and the ring was just a ring again.
Across the street one of the men said something, and his companions snickered.
“Those men aren’t nice,” said a small boy next to her. “They scare me.”
They scare me too.
“Did they do something to you?” she asked, but before the boy could answer a man in rumpled seaman’s gear had grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and began marching him away down the street. The boy glanced back once toward the men, but not at Amelia.
She lowered her head and walked away in the direction of the fabric shop down the street. One of the men shouted something behind her and the others laughed. She quickened her pace and wondered if James ever looked at women passersby that way, or called to them with those kinds of words. He never looked at her that way, or any way at all.
When she dared to raise her head again she had passed the fabric shop and was nearing a stone wall. She hesitated, unsure of whether to enter a narrow lane along the wall to her left, or turn back toward the millinery. The men might have disbanded or gone indoors by now, but she couldn’t be certain of that. Peering around the corner, she saw a young beech and a rose trellis a hundred or so yards distant, and just tall enough to be visible from this side of the wall. Perhaps there was a small garden where she could rest. She glanced back to make sure no one was behind her, then turned and walked alongside the wall until she reached a gate.
Inside was a small church of some foreign denomination, and a graveyard. She followed a gravel path to a bench set in a grove of recently trimmed rosebushes.
A large family headstone faced her, the mother and infant twins long dead, initials half-obscured by moss, the patriarch and one adult daughter with blank spaces next to their birth years, apparently still living. Or perhaps perished across the Atlantic, with none here to mark their endings.
Near the base in a smaller, hurried script: J. Beloved son and brother. Lost at sea.
“Like Henry,” she said aloud.
Except that Henry’s life was not recorded on any headstone.
“Not so long as he’s lost,” Father had growled the one time she heard Mother mention it. Though they all knew that Henry was swept off a deck in a storm off an island called Sulawesi, and would never be found, Father would not allow them to speak of it.
“Ma’am, how did you know my name?”
Amelia started. The voice came from behind the rosebushes. The boy she’d seen earlier stepped out in front of her. Dark curls under a grey cap, shirt and pants too big and several times mended, but clean.
“What are you doing here by yourself?” she asked.
“I’m hiding from a sea monster, ma’am,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
I’m hiding too.
“I just stopped to rest.”
I have nowhere else to go.
A man’s voice called from outside the wall. “Henry! Come back here! Henry!”
The boy stepped closer to Amelia.
“Your father is calling,” Amelia said. “You should go.”
“I think there’s something else hiding,” the boy said gravely. “Another sea monster. In your mouth. I’m going to take it out for you.”
He motioned for Amelia to brush her hair aside and then waved his fingers in front of her lips. His dark eyes examined her face.
“It’s gone,” he said. “Now you can talk.”
“I’m sailing for Canada tomorrow,” she said.
Amelia shifted uncomfortably on the stone bench, unsure of how to answer what should have been a simple question. Because Father says and James wants and Henry’s lost and we can’t wait for him to come home anymore or we’ll all be lost too, was her first thought.
And then: Because there are so many of us, and no one knows me, and I’m lonely.
Because next summer we’ll have our own home, and there won’t be the Club, or the office, or the chair next to Father’s where Henry used to sit, and then won’t James have to look at me and speak to me? And touch me?
Because no one can stay hidden in a family of two.
“I don’t want to be invisible anymore.” She covered her mouth with her hand. Had she really just said such a thing to this little boy? Yet she knew it was the truth, and there was no one else, now that her brother Henry was gone, to whom she could have spoken those words aloud. She let her hand fall back to her lap.
She realized, for the first time, how much she hoped to be able some day to share such thoughts with James, or if not him, then perhaps with new friends she had yet to meet on the other side of the ocean.
Even more, she felt that this could happen, that this must happen. Her brother’s memory, the confidences they had shared, would not be enough to sustain her for the rest of her life.
“I see you,” Henry whispered.
“And I see you.” She reached out and tucked a stray curl under his cap.
“Hush, don’t tell anyone.” Henry glanced behind him. “Someday I’m going to Canada too. I’m going to find you there.”
The light of all the possibilities before her suddenly seemed enough to lift the weight of all the unspoken words she had kept inside her since Henry had sailed away. A breeze slipped through the damp tombstones, lifting the moist tendrils on the back of her neck, and something settled in Amelia.