The Long Way

“The Long Way”

by William Campbell Powell

Day 1.

Distance travelled: 2 miles

Distance to go: 36,999,998 miles

 

My plan didn’t get off to a good start. I tried to catch the morning bus, but the driver wouldn’t let me on without a grown-up. So I walked. Then I got lost, but then I met Tommy James at the shops with his Mum. She asked how I was feeling. I didn’t feel like talking about it, so she asked if I’d had lunch yet. I said no, so she said I could come home with them and have lunch with Tommy. Mrs James made tuna sandwiches for us all. Then she rang my Mum and they agreed I could do a sleepover. We played football in the afternoon, then we had tea and played games on the Wii till bedtime. Tommy snores and keeps me awake. I didn’t cry at all today. Except just now.

To My Precious Son, knowing that I shall never hold you again.

Dear Joey,

I wrote the first draft of this letter many years ago. Along with the rest of the crew of the Ares 1 mission, your father had not long been declared “lost”. Matt always was such an optimist–at least to me–and never worried about the thousands of things that could go wrong. But one of those things did go wrong, and so suddenly that we had no inkling of what might have happened. For days I waited, along with the rest of the world, for them to get back in touch, until finally we knew that hope had gone.

Day 2.

Distance travelled: 6 miles

Distance to go: 36,999,992 miles

 

I made much better progress today. Mrs James made us boiled eggs with bread soldiers for breakfast. Tommy and I played more video games till lunchtime. Mrs James made us lunch – burger and chips. I thanked her and said I’d like to walk home, if that was alright with her. She rang Mum and I was worried she might say no, but she didn’t. I walked to the end of the street as if I was going home, just in case Mrs James was watching. But I turned left and left again, and kept walking.

I could see Mars in the sky when it got dark. Everyone calls it the Red Planet, but I think it’s more orange. I’ve seen it in a big telescope, and I saw some markings. I didn’t bring my telescope with me. I didn’t want anyone to be suspicious.

When I saw it, I could see I was off course, so I left the road. I had to crawl through a fence and onto a farm. I got a bit muddy. I walked a long way, and almost all the time in the right direction. After a while, Mars set so I thought I ought to stop, in case I didn’t go the right way. I found a barn to sleep in.

I’m really hungry, now. Tomorrow I’ll have to ask someone for food. I hope Mum’s alright. She cries a lot and tells me to be a brave boy. So I try not to cry. Inside I really want to cry, but maybe that’s just hunger.

Then when you disappeared it was more than I could bear. Perhaps it was my fault for not spending time with you, but I was a wreck, and I thought that spending time with Tommy would be better for you than watching me fall to pieces. Eileen – Mrs James – was devastated that she’d let you walk off, but I told her there was nothing she could have done, there was nothing to forgive. You always were a determined little boy, and you’d have found another way to go off on your quest.

Day 3.

Distance travelled: 8 miles

Distance to go: 36,999,984 miles

 

I dreamed about Daddy last night. He was on Mars. It wasn’t orange, like I thought it would be, but the ground did look a bit pink. He was walking around in his space suit, picking things up and putting them back down again. He looked strange, sort of worried, the way grown-ups do when they’re scared but pretending everything’s fine. I called out to him, but I don’t think he could hear me.

I met a man today. He had a grey beard and he didn’t smell very nice, but he had kind eyes and a nice voice. He was wearing a big coat that looked very warm. The sleeves were raggedy and the coat didn’t have a belt any more. The man had used some string to tie it round him. I thought that was a clever idea. He asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to Mars to find my Daddy. He asked me how far away it was, and I told him. He said it might take me a long while. I said I knew that. I said I was hungry. He said he’d get me some food at the next village.

When we sat down to eat the sandwiches, I said thank you. I said sorry, too, because I didn’t have any money to pay for the sandwiches. He said that was fine, because he hadn’t had to pay for them.

I didn’t know what else to say, so I asked him how long he’d been walking. He said he’d been walking for nearly twenty years. That sounded like an awfully long time, I said, and I asked where he was going. He said he didn’t know. I said why don’t you go home, because your mummy must be missing you. He looked as though he was going to say something, but he must have changed his mind.

When it was night, I saw that Mars was a bit far to the right and I said we needed to go more towards it. He said OK, one direction was as good as any other to him. That’s probably why he’s never got anywhere. I know that if I keep walking, always in the direction of Mars, I’ll get there. I’m a bit worried, though, in case I have to walk for twenty years. I might look like the man, and Daddy might not recognise me.

Your quest! I found your exercise book, the one where you’d written your calculations. I had no idea what you were working out at the time – I think the police saw it when they searched your room, but they were looking for paedophiles in your browser history, so it didn’t mean anything to them either. I kept it, as I have kept so many other memories of that time. If only we’d understood it, perhaps the police wouldn’t have wasted so much time searching the woods and sending those poor divers into Braby Quarry.

Day 4.

Distance travelled: 7 miles

Distance to go: 36,999,977 miles

 

I dreamed of Daddy again. He was still on Mars. He was searching for something. I called to him and said he should come home, because Mummy was crying. In the dream he came and sat next to me. He said that he didn’t think he could come home. I told him I knew that, and so I was coming to get him. He looked very upset, and I saw he was crying. Then he said he’d be alright, but I had to go to the police and get them to take me home to Mummy.

When I woke up I told the man about my dream. He said my Daddy was right. I said no, I couldn’t give up yet. He said, what will you do when you get to space? So I told him that wouldn’t be a problem. I just had to walk straight towards Mars when I could see it, and stop walking if I couldn’t see it. I’d get there.

The man looked worried then and said he needed to show me something. He got a stick and drew two circles in the dirt, one inside the other. He found a couple of stones and put one on each circle, and a bigger one in the middle. He said it was not-to-scale, but to imagine an ant on the middle stone trying to get to the outer stone by walking. I said I could find an ant, but he said no, pretend this piece of grit was an ant. So I made the grit walk a bit, and then he moved the stones in their circles. He said the planets did that, and they turned each day too. Then I moved the grit again, which he said was an ant. After a few turns, the grit was back where it started.

I’m worried my plan might not work.

Oh Joey, that fourth day was every mother’s worst nightmare. By then, the police had a ‘support officer’ with me continuously. She tried so hard, poor thing, but for all her training, she couldn’t hide the fear in her voice when she had to tell me you’d been seen with a ‘gentleman of the road’. That was the day I felt hope die within me.

Day 5.

Distance travelled: 6 miles

Distance to go: 37,000,000 miles

I’m home.

 

Last night Daddy told me I had to stop looking for him. I asked him why. He said, Joey, you got to be brave for what I’m going to tell you. Then said, Joey, by the time you get to Mars, I won’t be alive any more. I thought I might cry then, but in my dream I didn’t cry, because he was still talking to me. He kept telling me to be brave and to look after Mummy.

Then I asked him what he’d been looking for. He said he’d been looking for his body. He said, on Earth, there’s lots of people to tell you if you’re dead. But on Mars there’s no-one. He’d found the bodies of his friends and he’d let them know they were dead. They had all said thank you, and now they weren’t around anymore. But now there was no-one left to tell him.

Then he said, Joey, I can’t find my body, but I think I might be dead already. I don’t want to be dead, but I even more don’t want to die alone. If I’ve got to be dead, Joey, then this would be the least worst time, with you right here with me.

And then he said, Joey, you got to choose your own path, but if you want to carry on the dream of space, then maybe one day you can come to Mars in your own rocket. Maybe Mummy can give you a rose to lay on my breast.

But you don’t have to be an astronaut, Joey. You can be whatever you want.

I said I would. Then I looked at him, and he was sort of faded and I could see the hills behind him. There was one big hill with two littler hills, one on each side of him. I told him he was getting fainter and fainter. Before he faded right away I said, goodbye Daddy. He said, goodbye Joey. I think he kissed my brow, but it was so soft I’m not sure.

Then he was gone. In my dream I sat there for a while. I watched the hills and I could see a line of rocks on the big hill. It looked a bit like his eyebrow. It wasn’t his face, but I could see shapes that made me think of his face. It made me feel a bit sad, but then I thought it was like he hadn’t really gone away.

It was very quiet there. I think people who are sad should come to Mars. They wouldn’t be sad for long, because Mars is so big and empty. All the sadness just gets lost on Mars.

Mars is a peaceful place to sit. I would like to come back. One day.

When I woke up, I told the man I wasn’t going to go to Mars any more. Are you ready to go home, he asked. I said yes. He said he would help me to find a policeman, though he couldn’t stay to talk to the policeman. I asked him if he was ready to go to his home to his mummy. He said he thought he might be.

He said there was a village close by with a police station. We walked there together. In the village there was a lamp-post with my picture on it. It was my school photograph. There was a notice board outside the police station with the same picture. It said, have you seen this boy? I rang the doorbell. I heard footsteps coming towards the door. Then I remembered the man. I hadn’t said thank you yet, so I turned round. He wasn’t there anymore. He had gone, but I didn’t notice when. But I still said thank you, quietly. And I hope you find your mummy.

And then you came home. Unharmed. No matter how dark the night, there is always someone who will dare to shine a light for others. I am glad they never found that man who walked with you as a friend and who looked after you. The police always believe the worst of such people – they would not have been kind to him. I’ve always thought of him as just a lost soul who saw a chance to save someone else. Eileen was convinced he was an angel, sent by your father. Either way, since then I have always been a friend to his road-fellows.

I could never relax as I watched you grow up. I always worried that you would want to follow in Matt’s footsteps. After all, you were always his little astronaut. I only began to feel you were safe when, as you approached university age, I saw you drift away from astronomy. Botany, I reasoned, was safe, and a good career.

So why have I written – and down the years re-written – this letter? After all, you came back. I wrote because he – Matt, your father – never said a proper goodbye. Not to me. Not to you. It was his damned optimism. He didn’t believe he could die, darling fool that he was. So I began writing this letter to try to say all the things he should have said to you and never did. And now the doctors tell me I am going to have to say my own goodbyes, rather sooner than a mother might wish, so that this goodbye is from both of us.

With hindsight I can see that neither he nor I ever had the slightest chance of deflecting you – you always knew your own mind too well, hiding your intentions even from yourself, if necessary. Your choices have been good ones, in any case, and I am proud of all that you have done and will do. So my last goodbye is a blessing. Let your father know that I have forgiven him.

With all a mother’s love

Epilogue

Distance travelled: 40,000,000 miles

Distance to go: 0 miles

 

Ares 2 didn’t wait for a small boy to grow up. Nor did Ares 3. By the time I got to Mars there had been fifteen successful missions to the Red Planet and there was a small colony. They’d sent astronauts, but I was no Air Force hero. They’d sent geologists and chemists and explorers, but I wasn’t any of those things. Finally they needed someone to set up and tend the hectares of delicate mosses, genetically engineered to photosynthesise the oxygen we needed. That was when I knew it was right and it was time for me to go to Mars. It was never enough for me to go to Mars, simply to discover what had happened to my father, or even to succeed where he had failed.

In any case, the mystery had been solved years ago. Mars had been ringed by a steady stream of satellites, to survey the planet in detail from low orbit. From that data, Ares 4 had returned to the site of the failed Ares 1 mission, knowing what to expect. They’d found the wreckage, barely touched by the years, and the bodies, which they’d gathered up and buried with great reverence. Those pictures they’d sent back could have been tragic, but for the view of the hills in the background. One large hill. Two smaller hills, one on each side. An eyebrow of rocks. Shapes that made me remember his smile.

The crew of Ares 4 had been the first to choose to stay, to set up the first colony, right there – a fragile, closed eco-system, that was always a hairsbreadth from failure. Twenty or so years later I arrived having indeed chosen to tread my own long way to Mars, through an early interest in biology which led to university and a PhD in plant genetics. At university I wrote a paper on high-altitude mosses that caught the attention of a struggling biotech start-up, who offered me a job … and so on – a drunkard’s walk that with a surprising inevitability fetched up here, at Colony 1, committed to living out my life here, a specialist prepared to give up home forever to make a second home for mankind.

The hills are as I remember them. Even the little hummock where in my dream I sat all those years ago. Mars changes little from one year to the next, and the site of that tragedy is scarcely changed from what it must have looked like after the explosion. The official history records that my father’s body had been thrown some distance from the scene, and goes on to report that he must have died instantly.

Well, I will not argue with them how things were, for I have kept those dreams secret, deep within my heart. I could not bring a rose from Earth, but tucked within my luggage had been a cutting from my mother’s garden. I nurtured it back to life, terrified that it would die, forty million miles from any replacement.

This morning I cut a bloom and walked the hundred metres or so to the simple memorial to Ares 1. There I placed it upon my father’s grave; then I sat a while with my friends the hills, while the memory of my father’s kiss dewed my brow.

______________

William Campbell  Powell lives in a small Buckinghamshire village in England.  By night he writes YA and Speculative Fiction.  His debut novel, EXPIRATION DAY, was published by Tor Teen in 2014 and won the 2015 Hal Clement Award for better than half-decent science in a YA novel (the citation actually says “Excellence in Children’s Science Fiction Literature”–Ed.); Gabrielle de Cuir’s narration of the EXPIRATION DAY audiobook also won a 2016 AudioFile Magazine Earphones award.  By day Powell is a Software Development Manager; in the twilight he sings tenor, plays guitar, and rides a motorbike… but not all at the same time.

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