Ed jerks the keys out of the ignition, slams the car door shut, and shoves his way into the grey brick building.
He’s too late. His daughter Molly already hangs from a rafter. Her limp 13-year-old body swings back and forth, raked by claws of harsh white light.
Then she begins her routine.
Molly stretches upward, twists, and flips upside down, slipping through the air with the certainty of a fish swimming through its familiar patch of ocean. Her long ponytail streams behind her like dark, wet seaweed.
Ed has no idea whether Molly is any better than the other girls. He only knows that he would never be able to challenge gravity the way she does. As Molly swings out from one set of rings and leaps forward through space to catch the next one, it is almost impossible to believe that she is not flying.
This must be what the ancient humans wanted when they dreamt of flight. Not the kind of thing Ed himself knows how to do, piloting the Cityhopper back and forth across the North Sea.
When all the lights come up and the judges huddle together to compare their scores, Ed spots Laura. As usual she sits apart from the other gymnasts’ mothers, studying them the way she sizes up the botanical specimens she gathers in the fields and woods and then arranges into still lives in her studio.
Laura has never been big on small talk, not even at her own dinner table. It’s always been Ed who gabbles away to Molly about his flights, about the silly people he sees in airports, about the stories he and Molly have been reading. Laura listens, sometimes smiles at them, but she never tells her own stories.
“She was great, wasn’t she?” Ed now says to his wife. “Tell her I’m sorry I can’t wait for the judges to make up their minds. Are you sure you don’t want to come with me to talk to this guy? I mean, whatever we decide about my pension, it’s going to affect you and Molly, not just me.”
“Go,” says Laura.
The consultant’s office is in a drab ’60s building, tucked away in a trash-strewn lane behind the High Street. It doesn’t inspire confidence. But Ed needs truly independent financial advice. One of the other gymnasts’ dad has a friend who has a friend who said those people at Ares Investments could help set up your retirement, if you were prepared to think out of the box.
The consultant doesn’t look like a lateral thinker, more like the headmistress of Ed’s primary school. She even has antique spectacles swinging on a metal chain around her neck. Her demeanour makes Ed feel he has done something very ill advised, like trying to flush some Play-Doh down the boys’ toilet.
“I’d like to keep working,” he mutters, “but I’m no longer certified for flying. They’ve offered me a package, but my daughter’s still young. I’d like to keep bringing in a reasonable income if I could. Maybe from some kind of investment, but I’d like to work, myself, if I could.”
(It took Ed quite a while to find a wife. Then it took Laura quite a while to decide she was willing to have a kid. Before they knew it, they both were over fifty. In Ed’s case closer to sixty.)
The consultant studies the screen in front of her. “So the cataract surgery wasn’t successful? You haven’t been re-certified as a pilot?”
“No. But my eyes aren’t that bad. And, you know, after so many years in the industry, I do have expertise.”
She smiles. “I can recommend an option where that kind of wisdom has market value. How flexible are you? Would you be willing to go abroad?”
“My daughter’s thirteen. It’s not the best time to change schools. But if it meant we’d have enough to help her with university – with whatever she wanted to do – well, we’d think about it.”
The consultant has put Ed’s whole life on some kind of spreadsheet. She clicks away, scowling at the screen. “You do have skills my clients look for. What about your wife? I see she’s an artist. Would her work keep her here?”
“Oh, hell, she’s a botanical artist. It shouldn’t be a problem.” Ed still finds it hard to believe that so much of their family income is generated by those paintings of poisonous flowers, like those scary savage blooms Georgia O’Keefe used to paint, only in miniature. “There are plants everywhere.”
The consultant’s impassive face breaks out into a broad grin. “Not quite everywhere. But if my clients have their way, they might make a thousand flowers bloom in quite a strange new place. Tell me, Mr Thornton, would you consider Mars?”
When Ed gets home, Molly is in her pyjamas, drying her hair with a rough purple towel. She shows him where she hurt her instep during the floor exercise. The blue bruise almost matches her velvet slippers. “But, still, I’m getting better. I almost tied for third.”
After Molly goes to bed, Ed tells Laura the details. She listens to his halting description, how they need wise old people like him and Laura, they could be in on the next great human adventure…
“You go if you want to go. Molly and I are staying here.”
“No, it’s not like that, it’s for couples. We’d be stakeholders, building a real community. They don’t want useless old men on their own.”
Laura turns out the bedside light and burrows her face in her pillow.
Thoughts of crimson Mars swirl around Ed’s brain all night. He drops off sometime after the birds have already begun to sing. He wakes to find his wife handing him a blue china mug of strong black tea.
“How much of an investment are they asking for up front?”
“Not much more than we’d put down on a mortgage for a retirement community. And they are going to train us for free, to help us cope out there.”
“What if we aren’t the kind of people they want? Would we get the money back?”
“I don’t know.”
Laura stands up and reaches for Ed’s empty mug. “Well, you need to find out. Look, I’ll go. I don’t want to be like my mother, hovering over Molly after she’s grown up and flying out of the nest on her own. Molly’s strong. She’ll be fine without us. I would have loved it if my mother had just let me go. But I’d like to see her into university before we take off.”
“What about your painting?”
“There are a thousand flowers in my head. I’ll paint the plants that might grow there in the greenhouses, underneath the surface.”
“Try some Triffids,” Ed advises, but Laura doesn’t laugh or even smile.
Molly does not like the idea of being given complete freedom to live her own life without any parents. “I’m not being a baby! If you wanted to go to Mars for a year, OK. I would try to cope. But you can’t just leave forever! What if I get picked for the Olympics one day and you’re not there to watch me?”
“It’s not possible to go for a year,” says Laura. “They’ve got the technology to get up there but not to get us back. It’s not like getting back from the moon. Mars has more gravity, it takes too much energy to get ships back off and headed to Earth again.”
“They’ll crack that problem really soon,” says Ed.
“I doubt it,” says Laura, who’s never shared Ed’s faith in engineering. “Molly, you don’t understand yet how you’re going to feel when you’re older. You already find us embarrassing. It will get worse. Trust me, you’ll want us to disappear from your life forever.”
“OK, fine!” shouts Molly. “Leave right now! Maybe if you go soon I’ll still be young enough for some nice family to adopt me! I’d like a dad who’s not old and blind! I’d like a mother who isn’t mean and crazy!” She grabs her gym bag and slams the kitchen door as she rushes out of the house.
“She’s not good enough for the Olympics anyway,” says Laura.
“I’m not leaving her down here on her own,” says Ed.
There is a way to bring your kids to Mars. It just requires a bigger down payment, a bigger stake in the colony. The Ares Company will pay off Ed and Laura’s mortgage here on Earth. But they must sign over the deed to their house. The whole family must make a full commitment to life on Mars.
“But what if we get sick, or have an accident, and can’t go?” asks Ed.
“We keep two thirds. After all, we’re investing quite a lot of time and money in your training. And we’ll give your daughter a splendid education.”
Ed and Laura tell Molly they’re not going to drag her away from everything on Earth, not if she wants to stay. But their options are closing down. There’s no way they’ll be able to help with university. Does Molly want to try out the idea gradually? The Company is setting up a summer camp.
“But what about gymnastics camp,” moans Molly.
“I checked,” said Ed. “They’re offering some gymnastics.”
And luckily Molly returns from the Ares Quest Summer Camp as happy as Ed has ever seen her, with new friends from all over Europe and even a Norwegian boyfriend. “I’m getting excited about Mars,” she confides to Ed.
She goes to camp again the following summer and somehow stays in love with Lars, who flies over from Bergen to take her to the prom. He stays on for the regional gymnastics meet.
“Molly is a wonder,” Lars says to Ed. “Look at her fly!”
Ed decides he likes Lars after all.
On balance, Ed is happy when Molly decides to do her Baccalaureate at the Ares Company boarding school in Brussels, though he certainly misses having her around the house. He’s even happier when she decides to study physics and geology. “There’s going to be so much to learn before we go to Mars.”
“Don’t you want to do P.E.?” asks Ed.
“It’s OK. I was never going to be world class at gymnastics. At least not on this world.”
With Molly away at boarding school, Ed and Laura spend much of their free time with the other pre-Martian families. They go on hikes with the other parents, or make nostalgic visits to museums and parks and theatres, savouring the treats of Earth.
They all know it’s going to be hard, that some of them are going to die young. They all pray their own kids will survive.
But most of the parents are childishly excited. It’s the teenagers who act as though it’s no big deal.
In lots of ways, the kids are already Martians.
Unlike the other parents, Laura is not excited. She drifts around the house with a puzzled expression on her face. “Why have they not put the house on the market?” she asks, flipping through the property adverts in the local paper. “They own the deed. Surely they don’t want to leave it empty for too long after we ship out. Prices are up. This would be a good time to sell.”
“Maybe they’ll rent it out,” says Ed, although he cannot see the fiscal sense in that. But if Ed understood money, he would have chosen a different profession and not ended up an unemployed, half-blind airline pilot at the age of 57. Still, he’s going to Mars!
But they’re not flying out as soon as they had thought.
It wasn’t Ed and Laura that they wanted.
“There might be places on the next flight out,” the counsellor tells them. “They do value your knowledge, Ed. And eventually they’ll need some art. But right now they need good strong bodies, flexible young minds. The kids have to go out first. They’re still young enough to become true Martians.”
“But originally we weren’t even going to take Molly!” protests Laura.
The counsellor’s smile is like a thin crack in a forbidding wall. “Face the facts, Laura. Ed is old, and you’re not that young yourself. There was no way they would have sent you out without your daughter. They’d had their eyes on her for a very long time.”
Ed does not know what to think, what to say, but Laura lurches up from her chair and paces around the office. “We invested our life savings! We’re stakeholders in the Company.”
The counsellor’s thin lips smile again. “You can live rent-free in that house for at least a year. And you would not have been able to pay for such a good education for Molly without the Company’s help. It’s your daughter who’s your stake in the future.”
Ed can barely follow her words. But he recognises the tone. The headmistress has taken her decision.
“Can we spend some time with her before we say goodbye?” he asks. He will not let himself choke up. That would surely be another mark against him. He will eat well, exercise, save up for an eye transplant? Surely they will get to go out on the next flight.
Laura says nothing. She has slipped back into her thick cocoon of silence.
On a humid July morning, six years after Ed first went for financial advice and a year after Laura left him, he has one of the best seats for the spectacle. He trains his free Company binoculars on the parade of space-suited teenagers as they file into the ship. The other parents point and laugh. Some begin to cry.
Ed wonders where Laura is and if she’s found a screen to watch on. Or if she’s even let herself know the date for the flight.
When the kids disappear from view, Company representatives escort the parents into an executive suite, where they can watch their children on closed-circuit monitors. The video cameras zoom in as the Martian teenagers tumble through zero gravity into the main body of the ship.
It is easy for Ed to spot Molly.
Of all the young Martians, she is the most graceful.
She is the one who looks as though she’s really flying.
Beautifully and sensitively written, Frances. I love the way you frame your story…a true work of art!
I totally agree with Joanna, Frances. This story flies HIGH!!
An absolutely gorgeous story, from the very beginning to the very end. Frances, you make the unreal so believable and so terribly sad.
(Or, at least, it’s unreal at this point.) You tie in so many themes here: a crumbling marriage, aging, adolescent conflict with parents, job suitability, space exploration, corporate control, the empty nest. Yet somehow you’re able to make the story weightless. It flies by like a brilliant meteor. Thank you.