by Jennifer Stephan Kapral

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell

The red dust of Mars is under my nails as I claw at damp bed sheets, nightmares forcing me awake. Priscilla’s bright green bicycle is in flames. Michael’s wedding ring melts into a puddle of liquid gold.

I throw the sheets back, moving to the mock window. It’s set to home, the single Earth moon shining over my street. Our flowerbed is covered in weeds, grass creeping past HOA regulations. Priscilla’s bicycle rests abandoned on the porch; the training wheels are off, another milestone I missed.

Tomorrow we finish the solar panel construction, the most essential task of our mission. We start on the permanent domes next, domes that will eventually provide for life on the surface. One day, Mars will be a safe place for bicycles and wedding rings.

A knock at the door interrupts my thoughts. It’s Hank. He’s wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt soaked with sweat.

“Amanda, are you OK? I was just getting some exercise. I heard you moving around.”

I ignore the chill down my back and tell him I’m fine, shutting the door. It’s nothing, I tell myself.

A woman powders my face, sprays my hair. I smooth my skirt and push my shoulders back. After months of diving underwater in a 400-pound suit, lipstick feels entirely foreign, my mouth trembling as the woman applies another layer of natural mauve. I tell her I’d much rather be staring down the blackness of space than a room full of reporters. She laughs and sprays again, tells me not to worry. And just what would Mars do to my curls?

Lights flash. I smile, not too wide. The rest of the team answers questions about combat experience, flight operations. Hank, our team lead, speaks about his groundbreaking research on Martian geology, which allowed us to pinpoint key locations best suited for human settlement. Eyes turn to me, and I prepare to discuss my research projects at the South Pole, deep jumps into icy ocean.

“Dr. Yost, are you concerned about leaving your husband and your child for two years?”

I freeze my smile, all calm plastic. I list my credentials, highlighting decades of experience preparing me for this mission. Eyes drift. Not what they want to hear from the woman the media dubbed the “hot mom” going to Mars. I should have told the reporter to shove it to the Mars underground where his question could be contained far away from human civilization.

I should have, but I didn’t.

Priscilla screams in the bathtub when we can’t find the princess squirt toy. Michael struggles to keep his eyes open as he dumps out a basket of rubber duckies, and I splash lukewarm bathwater at Priscilla, trying unsuccessfully to distract her. Then I spot it, a sparkle of pink lodged under the sink. I crawl across the floor, wondering when we last mopped. The toy is in my hand, and I hold it up in victory. Priscilla claps, I laugh, and Michael offers me a tired look before leaving the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

Priscilla’s laugh erupts into a wail, one that does not abate, even after an hour of splashing and drying and playing and feeding. Michael says nothing to me the rest of the night, not until we are in bed and he whispers his fears to me, his tough exterior cracking. Months later, dark circles take over his eyes, the way the thin particles of Mars seep their way into my skin, changing my composition, our composition.

I think about Michael’s warm face after a day of work on the surface, the Martian atmosphere chilling my bones. Hank pours the team wine and asked to see recent pictures of my family.

“Your husband’s looking rough. Your daughter has your eyes.”

Beads of sweat drip down my forehead and land on the tip of my nose. Midnight is becoming a repeat of nightmares, both real and imagined.

Hank’s oily whispers echo in my ears. “No one would have to know.”

He approached me after pizza night, then after our ice cream social, then again after my daily mandatory treadmill workout. My repeated rejections only bolstered his determination. I emailed our superiors at Mission Control, a lump of stress forming in my chest as I hit send. They said they would speak with him.

The next weeks he kept his distance, only conversing with me on the surface, professional words across mushrooming domes. But heat grew beneath his eyes, their glow matching the orange tinge in the Mars atmosphere, the thin air unable to veil his piercing looks.

Now I hear him breathing outside my door. His exhalations penetrate into my quarters, my anxious veins. I could report him again. But would they do anything to the team lead eight months into our mission? And if they did act, our whole undertaking would be compromised.

I imagine Michael and Priscilla dodging camera flashes, the looks of frustration at Mission Control as the narrative of Mission to Mars becomes something else. Images will circulate all over social media, invented delusions that Priscilla will see. They will work their way into her brain, planting seeds of doubt about me, about her.

I swallow, embarrassed by my fear, my doubt, my paralysis.

A shuffling of feet. Hank moves down the hallway. I could run out and confront him. But it wouldn’t end it. People like him don’t stop.

I move to my window and change the view to the Mars surface. Phobos — fear — shines brightly, a kaleidoscope of changing color. Deimos — panic — runs across the sky, a muted dot. This is my view, the moons forever suspended in the sky, illuminating our solar panels and domes and reminding me of how far we haven’t come. I embrace the fear, the panic, the only way I can win.

I should say something, again. But I didn’t, and I won’t.

Jennifer Stephan Kapral writes poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. She was born in the shadows of steel mills in Western PA and studied creative non-fiction at the University of Pittsburgh. She currently resides in Houston, TX, spending time by the bayous with her husband, daughter, and two dogs.