The Morning Walk

We start our day walking alongside the whispering yellow grasses in the undeveloped lot. They put a cul-de-sac here, connecting it to our neighborhood, but got no further. Now the wild grass has dried and gone to seed, and the field is scattered with daisies, lupine, and clover.

River likes it here best. She trots ahead, her tail loose. She gets nervous in the neighborhood itself, especially in the afternoons, with the watching houses and kids on bikes and extra noise. Here, though, in the cool quiet, it would be easy to mistake her for a “normal” dog, one we’d raised from a puppy rather than adopting three years ago.

Three weeks after we got River, we tried walking her in a different portion of the neighborhood. A pair of dogs barking at her from behind their fence scared her so badly that she slipped her collar and ran off. Luckily, she ran straight home. After that, we got her a harness, and we never took her along that route again. She used to be scared of so many things: flags snapping in the wind, heavy rain, her own leash. She’d shake and her tail would tuck under – she’d even refuse the treats we tried to feed her to distract her.

She veers, sniffing – she wants to go into the grass. I keep her back, wary of ticks. I’ve never spotted any; usually it’s just ladybugs perched on the seed heads, preparing to start their day.

Three years on, River is doing a lot better. She still hates beaches and only tolerates car rides. She’s much more comfortable on walks, but is still rare to see her this relaxed. I let her leash out and her tail sways as she trots.

Someday they’ll actually finish building here, mowing down the grasses and cramming nine or ten houses in, and those houses will fill with new families and new kids and new fears to overcome – but until then, this is our morning walk.

I’ll Be All Right Tomorrow

Karya had been on Mars for two entire years, which called for a party. Someone pilfered vodka and some orange space drink from the employee dorm’s pantry; together, they made an acceptable cocktail. Karya sat apart, though, drinking slowly.

“That’s still your first, innit?” Col plopped down next to her.  “S’matter, too powdery?”

“It’s fine.” Karya fidgeted with the foam cup, slicing tally marks with her thumbnail. “They offered me a promotion today: executive assistant. I might take it.”

“Assistant to whom?”

“Does it matter? It means higher security clearance, access to more files – ”

“It means being stuck in the offices,” he interrupted, “away from the mines. How are you supposed to find him if you can’t get out there and look for him?”

“I’ve been out there! Two years in that godawful suit!”

“Us, too, remember?” His eyes flashed. “And we’re gettin’ no promotions.”

She rubbed her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Col produced a flask and splashed its contents into her cup, pressing a finger to his lips.

“That’ll help it. To your brother, eh?”

“To Marko.” She tapped her cup to his and downed its improved – and amplified – contents just as the dorm intercom whined.

“Karya Novak, please report to your supervisor.”

She stood, sighing. “At this hour?”

“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

Her heart raced as she navigated the deserted corridors towards the administrative wing. Surely their small party hadn’t caused any disruptions. Did they want her decision already?

What if they’d they caught Col or Maria or someone prying into her brother’s disappearance? What if she’d gotten her friends in trouble?

What if they’d caught Karya sneaking into the security archives, or observed how she spent every single Surface Day ignoring the rusty, blasted landscape, but taking photos of as many miners as possible, desperate to capture her brother’s face in the crowd?

She took several deep breaths. She didn’t even know for sure that anything bad had happened to Marko. For all she knew, he was just one of the thousands of miners serving out his lifelong contract deep in the claustrophobic Martian tunnels, and there were so many of them she simply hadn’t seen him yet.

Or, for all she knew, he was dead, or transferred to Europa, or –

The office door loomed before her. The security camera, recognizing her, whirred the door open. A young man sat in front of Mrs. Kim’s desk, his dark hair closely shaved, his prominent brow furrowed, his sad, dark eyes –

“Marko?” she gasped.

He stood, half-smiling, and opened his arms to her. One now ended at the elbow. “Hey, Karya.”

“How – oh God, Marko – ”

“Looks worse than it feels,” he assured her. “I got badly burned by gas a while back, so they moved me to engineering.”

“You always were good with electronics,” she cried into his jumpsuited shoulder. “You oaf, I’ve been looking for you for months!”

“I know. I didn’t want this to worry you more.”

She pulled back, her tears stilled. “You knew I was here?”

“Saw you at a couple Surface Days.”

“And you never said? Never contacted me?”

Mrs. Kim strode in, the door whirring shut behind her. “Sorry I’m late.” She stopped at the sight of Karya’s tear-striped face. “He told you already?”

“Told her what?”

Mrs. Kim sat down behind the desk. “My mistake. When was the last time either of you heard from your mother?”

Marko shifted uncomfortably.

“She messages me monthly,” Karya said, “when the channels are clear. Why?”

Mrs. Kim leaned forward. “Your father passed away a week ago. He had an aggressive cancer. Your mother never mentioned he was sick?”

“No,” Karya choked out. “When was he…”

“According to the statement from his doctor, he was diagnosed a little over a year and a half ago.”

Karya stared at her knees. She hadn’t had a claustrophobic attack in months, but this felt similarly horrible – her lungs constricting, her heart rampaging –

“Mom wouldn’t have wanted you to worry.” Marko’s voice intruded on her grief. “She knows how hard it is to get back to Earth.”

“She knows I was looking for you,” she spat. She stood, tears and the shitty cocktail and shock making her stagger. “And if you hadn’t been hiding from me –”

“You’re blaming me?”

Karya closed her eyes, counted, opened them. They were dry. “Maybe I am. Oh, and Mrs. Kim – I quit.”

She stalked from the office. The next Earth-bound shuttle left in seven rotations, and she needed to pack.

It’s Just A Compliment

I am walking with my friend back to her car after happy hour. It’s a nice evening, going dim as purple dusk falls, but the city streets are quiet.

The men are outside their bar, some smoking, some just standing around. There are five of them. I know what they’re waiting for and they confirm as we come into range. We’re the only other people on the sidewalk and though we don’t say anything to each other, we know what’s coming.

“Hi, ladies…”

It’s never just “hi.” It’s bait and hook in one, words tossed out indiscriminately to discomfit, to bother, to outright hurt.

Being smarter than the fish, we have options: fight back; instruct; keep walking, ignore; respond politely and hope that doesn’t bring their net down on us.

(Thank God it’s “us” tonight and not “me.”)

We keep walking, silent, resolute. We have swum this noxious creek before. What woman hasn’t?

“Fine, whatever – bitch.”

Regardless of whether you bite or not, the hook still stabs. There’s still the searing heat of shame and fury because no matter how you react, they win and you lose because the goal was never flirtation. The goal was pain and the power to inflict it.

Fight back? That only works in the movies.

Instruct? An invitation for further harassment.

Ignore? “Bitch” is one of the more salubrious designations they assign you, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you try to maintain your pace and look unruffled, all the while expecting angry footsteps, shouting, a grabbed arm.

Respond politely? Like hell.

Middle finger up over the shoulder as we stride away, a reversed salute, a pathetic dismissal that does nothing to change them or their behavior, does nothing to protect whoever else they might prey on that night.

It doesn’t even make me feel better.

Surface Day

It was Surface Day and Karya was staring at the Martian sky.

Once a month, when the conditions were good, everyone – miners and caff fillers, foremen and scientists – was allowed to spend time on the surface. Rovers transported groups to geological formations, astronomers gave seminars, and cameras were made available for people to document the day. If an employee’s photo was chosen for company marketing materials, they’d receive a nice bonus.

Karya took nearly 300 pictures each Surface Day, mostly of the red-suited miners themselves. She wasn’t motivated by the potential bonus (though of course it would be nice): she simply needed to record as many faces as she could whenever she had the chance.

When she wasn’t taking pictures, Karya stared at the sky, drinking in the openness and the shades of gray and gold. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but its beauty was in its expansiveness. It reminded Karya of the only time she’d gone swimming, when her family won a vacation to a tropical island. She was nine; Marko was twelve. It was the first time she’d ever left the station where she was born, the first time she saw the sky from below, and the first time she’d been able to fully submerge herself in water. Her dad didn’t want them swimming alone, but Karya went anyway, plunging into the clear depths until they were no longer clear, until her lungs ached, then stung.

She kicked until everything burned and the water turned clear again and she was out, bursting free, filling her small strained lungs with pure life, blinking at the sunshine and the clarity of sand grains and palms and the subtle variegation in that blue, blue sky.

Karya had been holding her recycled breath for weeks now, waiting for the day the lift went up instead of down. Now she could exhale and breathe in sunlight, and horizons, and mountains. It almost made her smile.

But they’d sounded the five minute warning, a piercing electronic tone delivered to her earpiece, and Karya still had pictures to take. She drew her eyes down, raised the camera to her faceplate, and shot.

Every photo taken was made available on the mine’s ‘net, so after each Surface Day, she used her free time to scan through hundreds and hundreds of photos, squinting through the miners’ face masks in hopes of finally seeing her brother.

Marko had left home at eighteen, but his record – a single incident of vandalism – condemned him to the life of a miner on any of a dozen ore-rich worlds. Karya counted it a blessing that he was still in the solar system – or had been, anyway. Since she’d lost contact with him a year and a half ago, she had no way of knowing he was even still on Mars. The mine didn’t bother with accurate record-keeping as long as the quotas were met, and if a miner or two or forty died in a superheated gas leak or a collapsed tunnel, there were hundreds more willing to take their place.

She had no evidence that Marko was dead, thankfully, but she had no evidence he was still alive, either. Thousands of photos across eight Surface Days had revealed nothing. She was running out of places to look

Karya turned her camera on Col and Maria, who were photographing their team with their own camera. Like her, they took many photos of the miners as part of their pledge to help her find Marko. They shared her suspicions of foul play, but she’d also bribed them with additional caff fills. The extra caffeine wasn’t physically harmful, but providing and accepting more than the allotted amount put all their jobs at risk. Col, who’d been assigned miner due to anarchist activity, had jumped at the opportunity to play whistle-blower, caffeinated or not. Maria and many of the others, having had friends who were suddenly “promoted” and never heard from again, wanted answers of their own, no matter how dangerous the questions were.

That had been three months ago. They’d found nothing, and between the secret caff refills and their risky investigation, Karya thought they were all lucky to still be employed, let alone not imprisoned.

The electronic tone signaling the end of Surface Day sounded. Maria elbowed her as they trudged towards the lifts.

“Any good shots?”

“Hope so. You?”

“We’ll see, huh?” They crowded into the lift. “Anyway, there’s always next month.”

Karya nodded and took one last photo of the hazy Martian sky.

Caff Girl

Karya clocked in five minutes before the start of twelfth rotation and caught the next lift down into the mines. It stopped two levels down at the substation, where she hopped into her pressure suit, loaded a caff tank onto her back, and checked the tunnel conditions. It was a good day – no gas leaks, volcanic activity, or equipment malfunctions – so she reboarded the lift and headed deeper down.

Even with the pressure suit on, Karya thought she could still feel her ears needing to pop. She opened and closed her jaw, but, as usual, nothing happened. When she started this job over a year ago, she needed anxiety meds, something that took her mind off the claustrophobic suit and the crushing depths and the ever-present threat of erupting volcanoes. Even going “home” to the employee dorms couldn’t soothe her – those were also underground, sheltered from the brutal Martian surface. Karya was born on a geostationary satellite complex positioned over the Atlantic, but somehow the vacuum of space and all its associated horrors never scared her as badly as this mining operation.

She needed this job, though, so she adjusted. It had been three months since she’d needed the meds. Most of the other caff girls who were hired along with Karya had been promoted or left, but Karya stayed.

The high-pitched whine of the speeding lift became a low hum, then disappeared. The lift doors opened and Karya emerged at the dim, sweltering bottom of the mine.

She’d seen old photographs in her Earth history textbooks depicting miners in the ancient coal mines. They were dressed in sturdy work clothes and heavy helmets, their exposed faces indistinguishable under thick dirt and coal dust. The miners of Mars were also difficult to tell apart thanks to their bulky, red-dusted protective suits. It had made finding Marko even harder than she’d expected.

The first group of miners shut off their laser picks as she approached. Karya felt a familiar surge of anticipation – maybe this time – but she recognized their faces as they turned towards her, all of them heaving audible sighs of relief while her own hopes trickled away.

“Frackin’ finally.”

She forced a smile onto her face. “Hey, Col.”

Col was a shift captain, one of several miners Karya knew by name. He looked overworked at only half past noon, and judging by the sheen of sweat under his helmet and the unintelligible grunt that accompanied his outthrust glove, it had been a long morning indeed. She clipped the caff dispenser spigot to the valve on his glove, pumping his afternoon dose of cool, refreshing caffeinated air into his suit.

“Better?” she asked while she refilled Maria.

Col raised one stubby finger while he inhaled slowly. He grinned and held out his wrist for more.

Karya hesitated. Giving a worker a second fill-up in the same shift was grounds for having her wages docked – if she was caught. The entire mine was watched by security cameras, but only some of the cameras were monitored some of the time. She suspected she was one of few who knew this, considering she’d found out by sneaking into the company archives to try to find proof her brother was here. On weeks when the budget was tight, the company simply shut off cameras, saving power but sacrificing safety and accountability. Whole days were missing from the archives. Some of those corresponded to low-earning weeks, but others occurred ominously close to what the company had labeled mass layoffs, promotions, or retirements.

Those, in turn, corresponded with periods of high volcanic activity below the mines.

Karya had last heard from her brother fifteen months ago, but they were lousy correspondents even when channels weren’t disrupted by outages, radiation, or hackers. Marko could have been missing for two months, or fifteen, or none, but until Karya found proof in the records, or came across him among the hordes of miners she refilled twice a day, she refused to leave Mars.

She turned back to Col. “You want caff refills?”

“Hell, yeah!”

“You want them on the regular?”

He glanced at the cameras. “You need help finding someone?”

“How did you know?”

“Nobody stays a caff girl for as long as you unless they’re looking for someone,” he said with such gentleness it nearly made her cry. “Who is it? Boyfriend? Sibling?”

She clipped on the spigot again. “Brother. Marko. Can you help me?”

He breathed deeply and grinned. “Let me do some digging.”

Cat On A Cool, Shingled Roof It’s Not Supposed To Be On

If we had air conditioning, I probably wouldn’t have had to drag my year-old cat in from off the roof Monday morning while balancing the detached window screen in the other hand and bowl of kibble against my hip.

We do not have air conditioning.

We have a box fan that gets wedged into the open window on hot nights, like Sunday night. It keeps the bedroom cool enough to sleep, which is our biggest priority.

Our cats – exactly one year old, physically if not behaviorally adult cats – have different priorities. They’re obsessed with finding a way under the drapes, onto the top of the fan, between the blinds and the screen so they can…sit there? Feel tall? Plot their escape? They must have their reasons, but all we know is their climbing is noisy and precarious.

Fortunately, they leave the fan alone during the night. As soon as the sun is up, though, either Rocket or Robot will inevitably try scrabbling up the fan and/or the curtains.

Usually, I remember to take down the fan and close the window first thing. That did not happen on Monday morning.

I was downstairs refilling my precious coffee when I heard the familiar sound of something heavy and plastic becoming detached from the bedroom window. I sighed, gathered my things, and went upstairs. I expected to find the fan fallen on the carpet and a fluffed-up cat crouched in the hallway, pretending nothing was wrong.

Instead I found the fan still upright, and Rocket sitting on top of it. He seemed to have popped one corner of the screen out of its frame – and he was very interested in getting out onto the roof.

I grabbed him and the still-whirring fan and chucked the former onto the bed and propped the latter against the wall.

And then the question occurred to me. I dreaded the answer before the thought was even fully formed: where’s Robot?

I looked back out the window.

She was crouched at the edge of the roof, eating something out of the gutter. (She likes to eat twigs. We have strange cats.)

I prioritized and acted with precision borne from pet-related crisis:

  1. Lock Rocket in the bathroom to keep him from joining Robot. (Deal with whatever he does to the bathroom later.)
  2. Turn off fan to avoid fire, sliced-off fingers, shredded drapes, etc.
  3. Put fan down. Need maximum dexterity.
  4. Regret not putting on proper bra in case I have to run outside to chase down Robot.

I reached through the gap and started tapping on the roof. “Robot!” I used my sweetest sing-song pleading, even though I’d have much preferred cussing her out. “Robot, please come back, don’t make me go on the roof. Heeeeere, kitty kitty!”

Her attention remained on the gutter. I tried not to think about what she might be eating – instead, it gave me an idea.

I sprinted into the hallway, dumped a handful of kibble into her bowl, and brought it to the window, levering the screen out with one hand and rattling the bowl with the other.

“Come here, kitty!” Rattle rattle rattle.

She looked back and, praise be unto the Lord, padded gracefully up the shingles. I propped the bowl up against my hip and seized her, hauling her back through the screen.

Midway through the process, the screen popped out of its frame.

I held onto it with my left hand, not daring to move it too much in case it made a noise and spooked her. The food bowl tipped, scattering kibble onto the windowsill and carpet. Robot let me drag her back into the house and launch her onto the bed, as far as I could safely throw her, while I figured out how to reattach the screen.

It didn’t cooperate, but Robot was happy to clean up the spilled kibble for me.

I left the screen in the bathroom for my husband to deal with. Rocket immediately returned to the windowsill, seeking the escape route his sister had taken advantage of.

Robot, unrepentant monster that she is, fell asleep on the floor.

If there’s an “old enough to know better” threshold for cats, I really hope they hit it soon. Summer is coming, and I do not want any more cats exploring the roof.

I do, however, want air conditioning.