“I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast, but I remember every detail of our trip to Mars,” Abraham said, grinning, “That was a golden age in America.”
Children sat in a semi-circle around the old man, their wide eyes studying him.
“We hiked along the rim of Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system. I collected rock samples–” Abraham cupped his hand and shook it up and down. “I held a clump of rock in my hand, billions of years old. It looked like orange clay.”
The children listened in silence, as if any sound might break the magic of his storytelling. Abraham leaned forward and whispered, “Did you know that on Mars you weigh less than half of what you do here on Earth?”
A girl with pigtails blurted out, “Really?”
Abraham nodded. “And you don’t really walk, you sort of bounce across the surface.” He wiggled his fingers, moving his hand through the air as he spoke, “It’s a magical place.”
The pig-tailed girl gazed up at him, her chin resting in her palm. “And you know what else?” Abraham threw his arms in the air. “It’s cold! On Mars you need a suit to stay warm.”
The girl jumped up. “I want to go! Let’s go!”
Another child, smacking gum, scoffed. “Nobody goes there, stupid. He’s lying.”
Abraham smiled at the boy; he shook his fist like he was rolling dice, then fanned out his fingers–an old coin with an eagle on the face appeared in his hand. Some of the children gasped.
Abraham tapped his temple. “Imagination is like magic, with it we can go anywhere or do anything–”
“That’s just a dumb trick,” the gum-chewing boy said. “And you’re lying about Mars.”
The girl with pigtails squealed, “He is not!”
Luli Chang, distracted from her E-reader, strolled over. “What’s all the fuss about?” She put her hand on the back of Abraham’s wheelchair. “Are you telling tall tales again, Abe?”
“Of course not. It’s all true!”
Luli rubbed his shoulder. “Abe likes to tease,” she said to the children. “Everybody knows the Americans never went to Mars. Those landings were a mockup during the space race.”
The girl with pigtails cocked her head. “What’s a ‘mockup’?”
“It means they played a trick on everybody.”
The gum-chewing boy smirked. “See? I told you he was lying.”
“He is not!”
A cacophony of small voices filled the room. Abraham reclined, his face beaming.
Luli clapped her hands. “Hush!” She patted the air in a downward motion and whispered, “Abe appreciates your visits but others are sleeping in their rooms. We must remember to keep our voices low.” She glanced at her watch. “And it’s time to get back to school.”
The children groaned. They zipped into their cold-suits and a teacher’s aide began leading them outside. A shuttle waited near the door. The girl with pigtails smiled at Abraham as she shuffled by. He winked and flipped the coin into the air. Her eyes widened and she caught it, grinning.
After the children left Luli wheeled Abraham back to his room. Two beds with metal rails on the sides sat horizontal to a single square window. Diego, Abraham’s roommate, lay in the bed closest to the door, snoring.
Luli touched Diego’s arm and he turned his head toward her, his eyelids struggling to open.
“Hello, sexy,” he said, his voice raspy. “Want to give an old man a good time?”
“You couldn’t keep up with me, Honey.”
A boy in yellow scrubs pushed a food cart into the room.
“Lunchtime,” Luli said, removing two bowls and placing them in front of the old men. Abraham grimaced. He pulled a deck of cards out of his shirt and shuffled them.
“What’s wrong now, Abe?” Luli said, “Diego likes it.”
“I’m tired of rice mush.”
“This is barbecued pork flavor. I thought you liked that?”
“I ate enough baby food when I was an astronaut. Bring me a hotdog!”
Luli rolled her eyes. “Don’t be difficult, Honey. You can’t swallow solid food anymore.”
“Hell, I’d like a hotdog too!” Diego said. He rubbed his bald head with a wrinkled hand. “Doesn’t anybody remember real American food? I’m sick of noodles and rice!”
“Now ya got Diego riled up!” Luli said, “You two calm down and eat your lunch. When I get back I expect to see it gone.” She smoothed out a crease in her uniform and sashayed out.
Diego fidgeted with his teeth and they fell onto his tray. He mumbled something. Abraham glanced up over his cards. “What? I can’t understand you.”
Diego groped at the dentures and mashed them into his mouth. “I said I’d give up my eyesight for a pepperoni pizza!”
“That’s not a bargain, you’re half blind already!”They chuckled.
Abraham practiced a card trick while Diego ate.
Luli strolled in later.
“You didn’t finish your food,” she said to Abraham.
“You need the calories, Abe. You don’t want to be tube fed. Remember last time.”
Abraham grinned. “Want to see my latest trick?” He fanned out his cards. “Pick one.”
“Not another trick, Honey. The only magic I want to see is you making your food disappear.”
“They say a man’s appetite is the first to go,” Abraham said, tossing his cards down. “I wanted to talk to you about final arrangements—”
“Abe, I don’t have time–”
“I want to be buried. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just shove my carcass in the ground.”
Luli sighed. “You know we can’t do that.” She massaged his neck. “This talk isn’t good for you, you’ve got many years left.”
“I don’t want my body stuck in an oven,” Abraham continued, “My wife was buried the old fashioned way and so were all my relatives. We were Catholic.”
“There are too many people now. If we buried the dead there wouldn’t be room for the living.”
“Because of my service I was supposed to be interred in Arlington–”
“Fine, I’ll see what I can do,” Luli said. “Now don’t worry yourself about this anymore. Nurses’ orders.” Abraham forced a smile and scooped up his cards.
Luli turned her attention to Diego. He snored, his chin bobbing against his bib. Luli nudged him and he jerked awake.
“What?” he said glancing around, “Who’s there?”
Luli folded her arms. “Where did you get that?”
“Huh? Get what?”
Luli snatched a flag out of a vase on his nightstand. “This! The inspector is coming this week, do you want to get us all in trouble?”
“I earned my stripes in the war, I have the right to display Old Glory!”
“You lost the war,” she said, frowning. “Look, I’ll let you have it back after the inspection–”
“Tell them I need a new wheelchair,” Abraham said.
She cut her eyes at him. “Oh sure. They’ll get right on that. Right after they upgrade me to level-one housing.”
“When I was an astronaut–”
“‘When I was an astronaut’,” she mimicked.
Abraham lowered his eyes.
“You were never an astronaut, Abe,” she said, sighing. “The only mission you had to Mars was in your mind. We get tired of hearing about it.”
“If Abe wants to believe he went to Mars,” Diego whispered, “let him.”
Luli groaned. “You guys are going to get me in trouble.” She paced out of the room with the crumpled flag in her fist.
Abraham woke early the next day, put on his finest clothes, and scooted into his wheelchair. He then remembered it was Saturday. The children didn’t come on the weekends.
He rolled over to the insulated window and squinted into the morning sunshine. Spiked-green turf covered the ground with patches of imitation flowers along the wall. A pseudo-tree loomed just outside. Abraham remembered real trees. They used to be everywhere.
The sun bathed the plastic yard decorations in furnace-like heat, and the filter on the window gave everything a fuzzy orange glow. The color reminded him of Mars.
“But it wasn’t hot on Mars–” he stopped mid-sentence, realizing he spoke the thought out loud. He glanced back at Diego. His old friend continued to snore, his mouth agape.
Abraham gazed back outside. He studied the fake tree with its umbrella of green plastic leaves. His wife was buried under a tall leafy Oak. He had picked the spot out for her. A comfortable spot to sleep forever, he thought, under the shade of a tree–
A metallic clank echoed into the room, like a large valve shutting off.
Abraham swiveled his wheelchair and examined the ceiling; a string of yarn hung stagnant from the air duct. It usually fluttered like a banner in the simulated breeze.
The ding-ding-ding of an alarm sounded.
Diego twitched awake, gripping the sides of his bed. “What the hell–”
“The climate control went out again,” Abraham said.
“We’re gonna die!”
“We’ll be fine. They always get it fixed.”
Diego’s hands began to shake; his thumbs curled into his fists. “What if the power went out! What if–”
“Relax. You’ll hyperventilate.”
Diego tried to nod. His face contorted. “But it’s hot already,” he complained. “Every year it gets worse.”
The alarm went silent.
They heard shouts and the shuffling of staff running down the hall, their shoes making clippity-clop horse trots over the tile.
Luli stopped by their door, hesitated, and hustled off.
Abraham pulled off his shirt. It was soaked with sweat. He wiped his face with the back of his arm and noticed Diego struggling to get his pants off.
“Keep them on,” Abraham said, flashing a watered-down smile. “I’m overheated, do you want to make me vomit too?”
Diego ignored him and wiggled his pants down to his ankles. He leaned over and tried to lift his legs.
Luli scurried in. She wore a cold-suit and held two bottles of electrolyte-H2O.”Drink this,” she said as she handed them each one.
Diego tore off the cap and gulped down the liquid. Abraham sipped his.
“Bad luck today,” she said. “The power grid for the city overloaded and our backup generator has been rerouted to the greenhouses.” She clenched her jaw. “The idiots downtown didn’t bother warning us.”
“Cold-suits?” Abraham asked.
“Cutbacks. We don’t have enough for everybody,” she said. “We’re triaging what we have, the neediest patients getting them first.” She patted Diego’s arm. “You’re on the list.” She gazed back to Abraham. “I’m sorry, Abe. I’d give you mine if they’d let me.”
Abraham raised his hands and smiled. “I can hack it. I went through worse in basic training. We once spent two weeks in Death Valley–”
“Get in bed and don’t move around. Drink your water.” She hugged him. “I’ll be back to check on you. They said we’ll have power back soon, so don’t worry!”
Luli lifted Diego, sliding him into his wheelchair. “We need to get that suit on you.”
Diego brushed his hand over Abraham’s knee as Luli wheeled him by. “Good luck, buddy,” he said.
Waves of heat marched into the room like an invisible army. Abraham’s lungs burned with each inhale. He gazed out the window, trying to keep his mind focused. Would he ever see the kids again? He liked telling them about his trip. When he was gone nobody would be left alive who had been to Mars.
He closed his eyes and remembered the landing, the first steps on alien soil, and of course the planting of the flag. His head lolled against his shoulder and he travelled even farther back.
Flashes filled his mind like an old movie reel: of him playing football with his friends outside during summer vacation, when summer was still a good thing. And the beach. The cool breezes and cold ocean waves. He remembered picnics and ants and ice cream. He remembered—
He woke up. How long had he been out? Hours? It was hotter now and breathing took more effort. He licked his lips and felt cracks in them. His tongue felt dry and numb.
Where was Luli? He tried to call out but there was no sound. He felt his head nodding forward, his eyelids creeping shut, and he chomped on his lip. If he went to sleep again he wouldn’t wake up.
He fumbled for his water and drank. The precious liquid seemed to sweat out of him instantly. In this heat he knew he wouldn’t last long.
“But I won’t leave without a fight,” he whispered, his voice cracking, “Mars will protect me.”
He clutched the wheels on his chair, the rubber around them mostly worn to the metal, and rolled up against the closet door. Sweat dribbled into his eyes, stinging, and he wiped it away. He slid the closet door open and squinted into the darkness.
An old cow-leather bowling bag sat tucked into the corner, covered with an afghan his wife had knitted. The bag was a gift from her too, ages ago. Cows only existed in climate-controlled zoos now. The nurses who admitted him hadn’t realized the bag’s value, and they were too busy to look inside. What was inside was priceless.
He tried to push the chair into the closet but it wedged into the opening, the right wheel catching on the wall. He unfastened his safety belt and the latch caught on his colostomy bag; it ripped open, seeping foul-smelling liquid.
“Sorry, Luli,” he croaked.
He pushed himself up, his hands trembling and clutching the handles on the chair. His left arm wavered and he fell forward into the closet; there was a snap as he hit the floor and he felt a stab in his side. He rubbed his stomach, feeling ribs poking against the skin. The medic on Mars could patch that up.
The tile burned like ceramic fire. He held the wall, pulling his torso further in. His old muscles flexed and stretched with the effort. This would make a good geriatric obstacle course, he thought and smirked.
He pushed further in and felt another crack in his belly. Luli was right. He should have taken his calcium pills.
The bag sat in the corner, still out of reach.
He wormed toward it.
He wiggled in further; the cracked ribs bobbed with the effort and the pain shot through his spine and he almost lost consciousness. He lowered his head, allowing the blood to return. Too close to give up now.
He stretched his arm and wiggled his fingers. The bag was just a fingernail away.
He scooted in more, wedging his knee against the wall and using it as leverage; the effort caused one of the broken ribs to stab into his lung.
He groped for the bag, clutching the handle in his fist, and cradled it like a baby as he rolled into a sitting posture.
He stared down at the treasure, almost afraid to look inside and find it empty. The leather was cracked in places and worn near the handle from years of bowling. Those were good times. He smiled and unzipped it.
The black sheen of a visor reflected his haggard image. He studied it, remembering when the helmet had been issued to him, and then carefully maneuvered it out.
He traced his fingers over the material, recognizing every scratch and dent. The blue picture of the solar system, stamped on the side, was faded. With his forefinger he outlined the letters on the tip of the visor; they were worn from age and one letter was completely scratched off. It read, “ASA”.
He elevated the helmet, like a King lifting his crown, and fitted it over his head. The foam inside muffled the sounds of the world and the visor gave everything an orange tint.
He no longer felt the heat. The pain in his side vanished. He wasn’t thirsty. He closed his eyes and remembered better times. He remembered Mars.
The inspector, a short man with a pointed nose and calloused hands, folded his arms and frowned. He surveyed the room, the empty wheelchair, the brown liquid mess that seeped from the closet, and shook his head like a parent disapproving of a naughty child. He glanced up at the vent–a string fluttered in the cool air.
Luli stood behind him, her head lowered and her hands clasped together.
The man pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose. “Where is he?”
“Beg your pardon, I don’t know, sir. I am responsible. I should have checked on him–”
“He couldn’t have left the room on his own!” The inspector kneeled, glanced under the beds, then stood and straightened his uniform. “Check the closet. I’m not going near that mess.”
Luli scurried over to the wheelchair and pushed it away. She squeezed into the closet, pushing through the clothes and ducking inside. An empty helmet sat in the corner. She picked it up and carried it out.
“I found this,” she said, the helmet balanced in her hands. “It’s wet inside. I think he was wearing it. It looks like an astronaut’s helmet.”
The inspector waved his hand in dismissal. “A child’s costume.”
She tapped her fingers on the surface. “I don’t think so, Sir. None of us believed him, but he did say he went to Mars–”
“Nonsense! The senile babblings of an old man. The Americans never went to Mars.” His eyes narrowed and he snatched the helmet out of her hands. “Now get this mess cleaned up.”
The man smiled and his voice softened. “You’ve done a good job here, Luli. I am going to recommend you be assigned to level one housing.”
She lowered her eyes. “Thank you, sir.”
“We’ll search the building for the body, but you won’t mention this to anyone.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good!” He strode out, the helmet tucked under his arm.
Luli strolled over to Abraham’s bed and sat down. His deck of cards lay strewn across the blanket. She picked up the Queen of Spades, rotated it in her hand, and noticed dirt had gotten under her fingernails. She thought she had cleaned it all off. Good thing the inspector hadn’t noticed.
The sun began to rise, radiating like a giant ember; the rays filtered through the window and cast strips of carrot light on the wall. The tint reminded her of pictures she had seen of Mars.
She leaned back and imagined what it had been like for Abraham on the red planet. She remembered all the stories he had told, stories she would now tell the children. She also wondered if anyone would notice the mound in the yard under the tree.