“Let there be Martians,” the television read.
“Alex! Shit-paper!” dad called.
The hardest part about watching the broadcast, apart from watching it on his deaf neighbor’s television through a stolen telescope and reading the closed captions, was contrasting it with everything else. Through the telescope: Six astronauts on Mars, Humankind expanding its presence in the solar system, the concept of Cosmic Time. Behind him: the dog barking because it was hungry, his mother’s drugged and muttering stupor, his father yelling for someone to grab him some “shit paper” from the downstairs bathroom.
None of it seemed to belong to the same reality.
“By mutual agreement, to honor the solemnity of this event, the astronauts have stopped broadcasting audio to Sereno. They will be making daily speeches available at the website in the scrawl below. Now a word from the President…”
Al pulled away from the telescope. He’d already heard the speeches from the NASA chiefs and CEOs who had actually accomplished the mission. The ones who had worked out all the tricky parts, conquered the vacuum of space, and made a dream into a reality. Over the past few months, the pattern had repeated a thousand times. A person with a not good hair cut who was very bad at public speaking would mumble something profound in the matter of a few minutes, and then a politician with fantastic hair would show up to take credit and say nothing in as many words as possible.
“Alex! Goddamnit! Pull your head out of your ass and get me some shit-paper!”
What sort of animal were human beings, that one member of the species could walk on another world at the same moment that another could beg for toilet paper? And that neither of them, while doing so, could be thinking of the other? Al had wondered this sort of thing many times with no answers. The vision on the television only deepened the mystery.
“Just a minute!” he shouted.
“No, Alex, not just a minute! Now!”
Al took a minute anyway, to hide the telescope under his bed. As always, he felt a flush of guilt. He shouldn’t have stolen it, even though Mrs. Allmand had urged him to do so. She’d made a bunch of fuss about how the school district was selling off “unused” or “old” science supplies to make ends meet and said that if anything were to happen to the telescope that the inventory sheets were so old that no one would probably notice. Then she’d given Al a significant look and stepped out of the room. Still, it hadn’t been hers to give nor his to take. And yet… it brought the stars so much closer. How could he not have taken it?
When the telescope was well hidden, he ran back down the stairs.
“Here, dad.” Al extracted a roll of toilet paper from the closet just outside of the bathroom and held it through the crack in the door.
“Fucking finally,” dad said.
“Hey dad, when do you think we’ll get a television again? They’re going to be having daily updates on the Mars Colony and I have to do reports on it for school-”
“Hey, don’t start! I’m not the one who stole the fucking television and pawned it for drugs!” the last sentence was yelled at Al’s mother.
“Oh fuck off! Alejandro knows I didn’t steal the goddamn tv!” mom yelled back. She was still laying down on the couch, where she’d been for pretty much the last three days.
Al sighed and walked over to the dog. Better to let them fight it out. They had a habit of drawing him in, calling him both Alex and Alejandro, forcing him to pick a side. Until they were no longer yelling at each other but at him. Pepe, their old mutt, was digging his head into an empty food bag. Here was a problem that Al could fix. Everywhere, there were problems beyond his control. Dad had been kicked off disability again. Mom still had her food stamps, but you couldn’t buy dog food with food stamps. Yet, all the same, he knew how to fix this problem.
Somehow, that was comforting.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t steal the fucking television, Maria! Alex knows it too! Ronnie may have been the one to actually take it, but he did it for you-”
“I ain’t been fuckin’ Ronnie! I told you already! Alejandro understands the hell that I’m living in with you! But if I did cheat, it would only be because I can’t get it from your crippled ass!”
Before closing the door, Al announced:
“Hey, I’m going to go to the animal shelter and see if they’ll give us some dog food!”
But he mostly said that for himself.
Parents were supposed to want to know where you were going when you were only fifteen years old.
Pepe ate the dog food with relish, grumbling happily, right there in the alley outside the animal shelter. Al hadn’t had the heart to make him wait, hungry as he was. Besides, night was falling and he was held rapt by the place in the night sky where Mars would be visible if he didn’t live in a big city with too many lights. People were there, in that distant and invisible place. Six human beings on another world. Living and breathing, with a mission to change an entire planet. Six people who dared to imagine that they could make oceans and skies and life. That idea kept coming back to him, the bigness and smallness of humanity, intruding into all of his other thoughts.
What was the difference between the two?
His father was disabled. Human beings had traveled millions of miles through space and landed successfully on another world.
His mother was a junkie. Human beings had figured out how to draw breathable air from a poisonous atmosphere.
His dog was hungry all the time. Human beings were growing food on a world that had been dead for a billion years.
All of that meant something, he was sure. Something important and deep right down into the marrow of the universe about the difference between possible and impossible. He was equally sure he didn’t know what exactly that was. At least not yet.
Holding the dog food under one arm, he took Pepe by the leash and led him back toward the main street. The dog followed, tail wagging. It was hard to be resentful of the lights that had taken the stars from him when they made the street feel so safe and so warm. There was a library only a few blocks away, and there was a computer there and the librarian was kindly. She even proactively offered that Pepe was a “companion animal” and could therefore be allowed in the building.
Certain people got helpful like that when he wanted to learn about Mars. His astronomy teacher, Mrs. Allmand, had been one. The librarian was another. It felt a little bit like being a member of a gang, where you flashed a certain sign and people went out of their way to help you. Except the gang was nebulous, made of the subset of people who both loved science and thought that human beings should live on Mars. And they were everywhere, rich and poor, man and woman, young and old. Even dumb and smart. Either way, they helped him because they recognized him as one of their own.
He stayed in the library until close, scrolling through pages and pages of news reports. He read more about the MCT, the BFR, and a dozen other acronyms which were suddenly as sparkling as diamonds. The expanding factories in Hawthorne where the components for the new Martian city were being built. The Beam Ships that would be built in future generations. Pepe slept on his feet the whole while and in the dark of the night when Al finally arrived home no one called out to ask him where he had been.
And that meant something too.
He just couldn’t put his finger on it.
The pencil eraser pressed against the back of Al’s head right at the base of his skull. He ignored it. Acknowledging it would only lead to bigger problems. Or so experience had taught him, but…
“You like to have you skull fucked, Coconut?”
Ahead, the teacher was talking about Benjamin Franklin. Who, although an avowed whore-monger and a terrible father, had accomplished quite a bit in his long life. The discovery of electricity, grandfather of the Constitution, inventor of the term “Americans.” He’d even been against slavery before it was fashionable. Also, when Benjamin Franklin was quite young, he’d run away from home. That thought stuck in Al’s head so deep even the pencil eraser couldn’t touch it.
“Are you a faggot, Coconut? Is that why you like getting your skull fucked?”
Al had cried about the bullying in the past. When he was younger. Although, “younger” in this case meant a few months ago. He’d been beaten quite badly in the intervening time. Bad enough his parents had actually taken him to a hospital. Since then, he’d learned to ignore it. Except, somehow, since the Mars landing, he didn’t think of himself as being that young. There was that thought in his head again, of two worlds, separated by something ineffable. How to move from one to the other?
Al turned around.
What had before been a frightening bully was suddenly a boy of Al’s own age, who was about the same size as him, and who was still trying to poke his head with a pencil. The Aerospace engineers had figured out how to solve problems vastly more complex than this bully. The Astronauts had faced terrors far greater. What was he scared of exactly?
A sixteen year old whore-monger had run away from home and grown up to give shape to a nation. A single man from South Africa had also run away from home, and through sheer force of will set into motion a series of events culminating in the colonization of Mars. A teenage girl had once led the armies of France and been good enough to win. Was he going to just sit here and allow this to happen?
Al stood up.
“You gonna fight me, you faggot?”
Al did not raise his fists, did not give an insult, did not say anything at all. He simply reached down and dragged the other boy’s desk into the hallway, which given the angle of the drag and the fact that the desk was all of one piece, trapped the other boy inside. After dragging him out into the hallway, Al dumped him over to give himself the time necessary to go back into the class, close the door and lock it.
“Is there a problem, Al?” the teacher asked.
“Not anymore,” said Al. “Can you tell me more about what Benjamin Franklin did after he ran away from home?”
And Al leaned forward and listened.
From outside the door, muffled and low, he heard:
“You’re in trouble now, Coconut motherfucker!”
“I’ll write you a letter of recommendation anywhere you want to go.”
“Thanks, sir,” said Al.
Mr. Espejo gave Al a congratulatory pat on the shoulder as he leaned forward to inspect the weld. The pat was hard enough that Al was forced to brace himself to stop from falling over. Mr. Espejo was barely five and a half feet tall, but a life of brutal labor in the construction industry had also made him five and a half feet wide. All of it was muscle. And not the kind of muscle you got from going to the gym, which after all was acquired by simulating actual work, but from doing the real actual work that muscle had evolved to do in the first place.
“Where do you want go after you graduate? You only have a few years left, don’t you?”
“I’m a Freshman, but… I want to go to Mars,” Al blurted and then blushed.
To his great relief Mr. Espejo didn’t laugh.
“Well, it’s not impossible anymore. Not like that would have been impossible when I was a kid. Not sure a high school teacher’s letter of recommendation would get you there, though. But maybe some place close. I know guys working in aerospace. They need builders.”
Builder. The word entered his ear and wrapped around his brain like warm honey. It was like being called a superhero.
The weld Al had made wasn’t for anything useful, just two pieces of quarter inch plate stuck together at a right angle. They’d done a lot of them in class. Upside down, right side up, sideways at an angle. All so that the kids in the class could leave high school with something like a marketable skill. There’d been a big government program about it, led by some old reality television star. Remarkably, it had somehow materialized into existence despite being opposed by every major political party. It probably helped that the people in favor of the program were used to actually doing things, instead of talking about doing things.
“Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Espejo cleaned the weld with a slag hammer. In the teacher’s massive fist, the hammer looked like a child’s toy. Something you’d give to a little kid who wanted to feel grown up. Yet it revealed Al’s weld to be even, consistent and perfect.
“Would you mind if I saved this to show to the other kids?”
“I would be honored, sir.”
“I’ve talked to some of your other teachers, you can write your ticket anywhere. I know it’s boring as hell but welding would be a good way to pay your way through school. You can even write the letter of recommendation and I’ll sign it, sight unseen. You could be making thirty or forty bucks an hour right out of high school.”
With that, Mr. Espejo walked off to yell at a student whose weld looked like, in the gruff teacher’s words, a scattering of metallic bird shit. Mr. Espejo had retired at fifty after a lifetime in specialized construction and he taught for the joy of it. Rumors were that he was worth millions.
Again, disparate thoughts struck him.
He was a good welder and had high test scores. He wanted to be an astronaut.
Was that as impossible as it seemed?
“Hey Alejandro, you better make things right with Snake. He’s pissed at you for that shit you pulled in class today. He’s going to get all of his friends together after school to kick your ass. Worse even than last time, I heard.”
The person who whispered in his ear was Pablo, who up until a short time ago had been someone Al considered a friend. Until Pablo had decided to accuse Al of being on a “high horse” about Mars, whatever that meant. He’d also walked away from Al during the previous beating. After which, Al hadn’t really had many friends at all.
Looking at Pablo it was hard to tell if the words were meant to be a warning or a threat. Either way, Al decided he didn’t like it much. Didn’t like Snake trying to make him live in fear. Didn’t like the gleeful way his old friend looked at him, excited for whatever would happen.
“Tell Snake I fucked his mother,” Al said.
Pablo’s mouth dropped wide open. There was a general mumbling of “oh damn” from all the kids in earshot. A few chuckles.
“In the ass,” Al added, after a moment’s thought.
No one laughed at that. The room was as quiet as an execution chamber.
At approximately the same time Snake was waiting outside of Al’s last class with all of his friends to murder him, Al parked Snake’s car outside of his house. He’d watched a video on hot-wiring cars in the library during lunch, had smashed in Snake’s driver side window with the slag hammer in the student parking lot very shortly thereafter, and driven it home immediately after that. As it was the first time he’d ever driven a car, it also had more than a few dings.
Al wiped the back of his hand across his sweaty brow.
He was trembling.
He’d never been so terrified in his life.
Or felt so good.
“What the hell am I doing?” he asked no one.
The invisible place in the sky answered. There was only one path to move from one world to the next. And it was the same path no matter who you were. You had to decide on the right course, act, and hope to God that you weren’t just out of your fucking mind. And somehow, Al knew, if he didn’t act right now when that fire was burning inside of him so bright and so hot that he might never find the courage to act again.
He got out of the car, hastily got back in when he realized he’d forgotten to put it in park, and then went into his house. His mother and father were fighting. Of course.
“You bitch! I knew you fucked him! I knew it the whole time! Alex, is that you? You’ve got to help me! She’s gone nuts!” his father was on the living room floor, crawling. His back must be hurting again.
“Of course I fucked him! Of course I did! And I liked it. I loved it! I needed to feel good! And Alejandro understands I need to feel good, doesn’t he? Don’t you, Alejandro?” his mother had a lamp held over her head and she seemed willing to throw it.
“I’m leaving,” said Al.
No one seemed to hear.
“I’m going to Mars!” he yelled.
His mother threw the lamp. It shattered next to his father’s head. There was glass everywhere. Al looked at it from what seemed like a long way away, as he realized that they’d have to clean it up themselves this time. He wouldn’t be around to help any longer.
He walked to the stairs, grabbed Pepe’s leash and the dog food and walked back out the door. No one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care.
Pepe panted at him expectantly from the passenger seat.
“I’ve never driven on the freeway before,” said Al.
Pepe kept on panting.
Al gulped. Of course, he hadn’t driven anywhere at all when he’d first stolen the car. That hadn’t stopped him.
“Joan of Arc was my age when she led battles in the Hundred Years war,” he said to no one.
He turned the key in the ignition.
He had a letter from Mr. Espejo that he could weld and it said he was eighteen. That was all he’d need, at least for a while. That and enough people who believed in Mars as much as he did and he had a strong feeling there’d be a lot of those where he was heading. He’d figure out the rest and somehow, someway or another, he’d get there.
Several minutes in, he realized he had forgotten the telescope. But that was fine. He didn’t need it anymore.
He’d get to the invisible place in the sky.
He’d get to Mars.
But first, Hawthorne.