Moonlight reflected dimly off a picture that Evie had now been staring at thoughtfully for at least half an hour. She had stared at that photo hundreds of times for countless hours, but tonight, perhaps by the pale light of the moon, Evie noticed something she hadn’t seen before. It was a picture of their wedding day, a photo of them with their parents. Everyone was staring at the camera except for Jonah. It looked like he was staring at the camera, but upon closer inspection in this particular light, it was clear he wasn’t. His eyes weren’t watching the camera at all. He was watching her. How many times had she looked at this very picture and not noticed? All of a sudden the joy of their wedding and the years they spent together came rushing back. Even if just for a moment, it was enough to make everything they had suffered together worth it. She refused to accept his guilt, and staring at this photo of so many years ago strengthened her resolve. She would see him again.
It would be another sleepless night full of uncertainty, sorrow, and fear. The knocks on their door six months ago initiated by two officers of the state had forever turned her world upside down. The slamming of the iron knocker resonated in her mind until she could no longer take it. Some nights were better than others. Tonight was not one of those nights. While the children slept, Evie snuck out of bed and went downstairs to turn on the TV.
Expecting typical late night programming, Evie was grateful to find an interesting documentary on the Mars colonization effort. Jillian Jaspers’ determined and chunky little face was plastered on posters in every mall across America. She was the face of the Mars exploration and had inspired state and federal lotteries of willing (and desperate) families to get off Earth and travel to Mars.
In just ten short years, Jillian and her crew of early explorers had built a massive colony with the purpose of pursuing unique scientific research, all backed by companies exporting rare Earth minerals that were found in droves on the Red Planet. Gold, platinum, lithium, and copper were in abundance and instigated a colonization effort similar to the gold rush in California in the 1800s. The invention of quantum propulsion engines made the trip millions of dollars cheaper and thirty days shorter from the previous average of two hundred and ten days.
The documentary showed a lavish paradise of interconnected structures built under the Martian soil. Massive buildings were lined with the most expensive metals and decorated with the finest materials that could be mined. Hotels with vacation packages erupted overnight and commercials tugged at wealthy families who could afford the trip.
Like any colony, it wasn’t without its troubles. Merely a few years after colonization, a contingent of marines was dispatched to the planet to restore order after a dispute broke out between two mining companies. They established a prison system, and under a United Nations mandate, imposed martial law. The United States government decided to capitalize on the establishment, of course, and saw it as a perfect chance to drain out the worst criminals in the U.S. Other countries followed suit, and not before long, Earth’s worst convicts were sent to the first extraterrestrial penal colony. Although the documentary didn’t say it, to Evie, Mars became the perfect juxtaposition: families seeking a permanent future and the pursuit of riches on the Red Planet occupied one side; while the world’s worst convicts with no future occupied the world’s harshest prison on the other.
Evie couldn’t imagine leaving Earth willingly and permanently; in fact, it seemed like a death sentence regardless of which side you found yourself. Even with the early explorers of America, Evie found it hard to picture leaving a place as comfortable as this to get her name in the history books. Even if her town wasn’t quaint and comfortable, it was still her town; and more importantly, it had oxygen and water – something that she determined was as good a reason as any to never go to another planet. As the documentary ended, Evie found the soft glow of the TV relaxing. Finally, sleep won; but it never lasted long.
The pitter patter of tiny feet down the hallway ripped Evie out of her late night rest and pulled her back to the present. Evie stared down at the skillet of half cooked scrambled eggs. With one hand on the handle and the other wielding a spatula, she didn’t even care that her haphazard stirring was going to result in an unevenly cooked meal. She just wanted to get through one more lackluster breakfast and get the kids off to the store, where she would complete another week’s worth of shopping while struggling to maintain order as she pushed the cart down the aisle.
More often than not, she found herself desperately trying to focus on finishing just one more thing, anything, without interruption; which meant striving with every ounce of her patience to ignore the tantrum unfolding at her feet. It started with Nathan, whose request to be held immediately turned into shrieks and screams when he did not get his way. She was used to this. “Hold on just a second, Nathan”, she murmured tiredly into the eggs. But his shrieks didn’t subside and soon they were joined by Eden who suddenly fell out of her chair at the kitchen table, knocking a fresh glass of milk to the floor in the process. Refusing to be ignored, their eldest, Titus, chimed in “Mom! Mom! Mom! Eden spilled her milk again! Look mom! Look!”
Dropping the spatula into the hot skillet, she stormed out of the room and up the stairs, knocking Nathan to the floor not caring as she went. Slamming the bedroom door behind her, she rushed to the far side of the bed to get as far away as she could, fighting back the sobs of a desperate woman; desperate for a break, desperate for answers, desperate for the husband who was ripped from her without warning and who left a gaping hole in the heart of their home that couldn’t be filled with time or pleas to God or anything within Evie’s control. Then she heard Eden and Nathan, still crying, banging on the closed door with all of their might, needing her, demanding her, and ultimately sending her into the tears that she’d tried to fight back.
It wasn’t their fault. They were her children, and she loved them. But it was happening more and more. The pressures of single parenthood on top of the grief and weight of unanswered questions surrounding Jonah’s incarceration were wreaking havoc on her sanity. She sat down on the corner of her bed and placed her head in her hands as the sobs rolled out of her.
Eventually she stopped. The kids had quieted down and she heard the muffled sound of their giggles, happy again and playing together on the other side of the kitchen door. If only it were that simple for her. Tantrums and spilled milk were so easily fixed and forgotten compared to the weight she carried daily on her shoulders.
After staring blankly at a fray in the rug under her feet for what might have been a minute or an hour, her gaze was drawn to a large oil painting hanging on the wall on the opposite side of the room. It was her painting. For just a moment, her mind went back to its setting; the ornate, ivy covered red brick chapel that she and Jonah were married in. Painting hadn’t been something she’d had time for in years, but she couldn’t help but forget the world around her in this fleeting moment and admire her work. She looked at the clock on the face of the chapel’s steeple, which read 6pm; the time of their wedding ceremony. She’d painted it in painstaking detail, wanting to honor that sacred day and time. But as her eyes moved outward from that clock, the landscape around the chapel became hazier. Farther from the clock, the less defined her brushstrokes became. Soon, they only hinted at the lush greenery surrounding the church on that warm June evening. Then her eyes drifted down to a large black shadow she’d painted in the foreground. She’d added a faint outline of two figures in the center of that shadow; her and Jonah walking together, hand in hand, just as they had after the ceremony was finished.
Suddenly, she snapped out of her brief trance as reality came rushing back. How ironic that their shadowy outlines hidden in the midst of a dark hole on an otherwise bright and cheerful painting would be all that was left of their marriage. Maybe everyone was right. Maybe it was better for her to move on. Forget Jonah ever existed. Relegate him to a hazy shadow of her past and start over. There could be freedom in that.
But even that small, soothing hope of release was taken from her just as soon as it was given. The relative silence was broken by Titus as he called to her from the kitchen, “Mom! Something smells weird in here!”
Turning her head back to the direction of her children, she remembered two things. One, the eggs were still cooking along with the spatula she’d hastily thrown into the skillet. She could smell the burnt eggs and melting rubber from where she sat. Second, those were Jonah’s children in there. No matter how hard she might try to forget him, as if there was any chance she could truly bring herself to move on, his children would never let her forget. Their children. No, she could never stop fighting for Jonah.
With renewed resolve, she stood up, wiped her eyes, and walked back toward the kitchen, toward the charred mess on the stove and toward her beloved children who reminded her who she was, who Jonah was, and what she had to do next.