Tabitha was my only sister, and we shared a birthday, celebrated in the waning heat of urban Augusts, separated by the space of five years and a handful of hours. She turned ten as I turned five. I wondered how it must feel to be so old, so acquainted with the blueprint of the universe, to be able to recite the names of scattered suns from heart and count to a thousand without losing track. She wore a scarlet dress of satin pleats, and she twisted perfect bows into her braided hair. I spilled orange paint on my skirt, and my curls, when they caught in my lips, tasted of strawberry icing.
Mama bought us each construction sets. Tabitha’s was metal, a hundred shining beams held fast by bolts and cogs. She held the pieces up to our flickering bedroom light and scrutinized each like a gem, then sorted and assembled them. By early evening her structure arched above us, a black and steel tower of measured segments whose wide legs pressed symmetry and order into the tempest of shag carpeting beneath.
I leaned my head far back to see the spire at the top. The setting sun danced off its sharpest edges; the spire itself was a shard of silver fire. ‘‘What is it?’’ I asked, certain that it would soon pierce the ceiling and singe the sky.
‘‘It’s a rocketship,’’ she said. ‘‘So we can fly to Mars someday.’’
‘‘Together,’’ she said.
My own set was wooden, a bag of grooved blocks painted smooth with more colors than the city at night. They were cool in my hands, but warmed quickly, absorbing my delight. I nestled pegs into slots, arranged them into rows and towers, and over the hours the ruins of a Martian city rose from the floor. There was treasure below it, of course, far beneath the carpeting of our third-story apartment, locked in the time-worn concrete that bound our building to the soil, and above it were so many gilded stars, brighter than flickering neon, that my thoughts whirled, exhilarated, and I had to stop to breathe.
‘‘It’s a city,’’ I told her, when I’d finished. ‘‘A Martian city. Can we visit it?’’
Tabitha didn’t turn, but nodded as she twisted bolts into place.
I collected scraps from my third-grade classroom and from the storm-packed gutters and steel grates that lined the streets between our bus stop and home. Tabitha was thirteen. She hauled thick algebra textbooks and giggled with friends and never watched me closely, let me straggle far behind so long as it wasn’t too far. Bits of wood and cardboard, half-empty tins of paint, shreds of old t-shirts—these things slipped easily into my backpack, unseen.
Once, she caught me peeling a sheaf of paper from the sidewalk, and told me with narrowed eyes that it was soaked in germs that would devour my intestines and gnaw the flesh clean off my bones, so I left it. The regret was instant; the page gleamed with the painted shapes of green marble planets and comets with white tails like wild cats. The breeze swept it away, into towering forests of brick and glass. I tucked the images into the safest pockets of my memory.
My rocket came together slowly. I laid out a launchpad of upturned delivery crates and broken wooden planks, wove a superstructure out of the bent remains of wire hangers, secured cardboard paneling with duct tape and string. It rose tall out of the gravel that lined the alley behind our building, piecemeal by design and perfect for interplanetary travel. It was narrow at its peak and with time it sagged through the middle, settling at last into the shape of a turnip, wiry roots aimed at the heavens. It was magnificent.
I found a clutch of cinderblocks near a dumpster, painted them every color, and arranged them into a staircase to the doorway. I painted the walls inside in greens and golds with swirls of silver and white. I carved enormous portals, round like lost moons, to watch the stars fly by, and hung ribbons of pink and purple that would flutter as we ascended, unbound, toward glittering cities burrowed into the red dunes of Mars.
I finished it in the first days of June, just as school let out and my materials ran dry and the first gusts of summer heat blossomed from cracks in the asphalt. It leaned to the north, as if taking eager aim up the alleyway and over the city, toward the golden fringes of the horizon that tickled the mountaintops and formed the gateway to outer space. I invited Tabitha to see it.
‘‘It’s cute,’’ she said, ‘‘but not realistic. You know there’s no air up there, right? And it’s cold, very cold. You’d suffocate and freeze to death at the same time, if you tried to fly in that thing.’’ She patted my head and ruffled my hair. ‘‘You need life-support systems, spacesuits. You can’t just fly into space.’’ Her fingers snagged in my curls, and it stung.
I imagined my lungs swept free of life, my heart and breath throttled by ice colder than comet tails, and it launched trails of goosebumps up both my arms.
Life Support Systems
I was ten when I finished the suits. Air was easy enough—balloons were cheap, and I could fill them with my own patient breath. But leather was expensive, and it took all my extra time to mop and scrub and sweep together enough pocket change for a pile of scraps. I learned to thread needles by licking the snipped end and squinting one eye. A plastic bottle cap served as my thimble. I taught myself the sturdiest stitches—stab, loop, stab again, tie off with a flurry of knots to be certain nothing came loose—and I traded my own blood for the knowledge.
I tied the last stitch on my own suit first. It was a dress, because even the black sea of space couldn’t be that cold, and because I planned to wear my best shoes, polished pink with ribbons on my toes, when I descended into the Martian city, and I didn’t want them hidden beneath pants. I sewed a pantsuit for Tabitha, because she was fifteen and stylish and practical, and because she had grown so thin with age that I was certain the cold would nip at her ribs until it burrowed inside and turned her blood to ice.
I stitched on rows of beads, clear plastic ones Tabitha had handed off to me years before. Their faceted surfaces shimmered in daylight like stars. The leather itself was pale sienna, a shade indistinguishable from Martian sands. If we were unlucky and the Martians sent out armies, and not ambassadors, to greet us, we would blend into both the soil and the sky, and they would mistake us for shadows of the Milky Way reflecting off the endless dust.
I gave Tabitha her suit on a Thursday afternoon, while she studied chemistry. Her face tightened, and she nibbled her lip. ‘‘Thanks, sweetie. That’ll keep me warm. But you know, it’s really hard to get to Mars. You need lots of fuel, and a pretty big explosion. Not even whole countries can do that.’’
I asked her to try the suit on anyway, but she didn’t answer. I waited to ask again, hoping she’d finish her scribbles and calculations. She slid the tip of an orange highlighter across her sprawled notes. The pen was the color of chemical flame, a searing burst of neon gold. Her handwriting swirled through a series of arches and strange shapes, long flourishes of unintelligible symbols, ciphers and sketches years beyond my understanding. I settled cross-legged on her bed and watched her as the sun set. At last, she laid her pen in the spine of her textbook and left me alone in her room without a word.
I fell asleep in the folds of her bedspread, picking at the beads on her suit and dreaming of neon flames pushing me beyond the clouds.
Tabitha studied her way into the best colleges, metropolises of science and technology that courted her with scholarships and embossed invitations to prestigious banquets. The Fourth of July merged with her going-away party, and Mama resolved to celebrate both with a barbeque and enough fireworks to turn the heads of the moneymakers in the tall offices that lined the horizon.
The summer was hot, and the air quivered as it billowed skyward. The firework vendors opened at last, their white tents unfolding into colonies at the furthest boundaries of strip mall parking lots. Sunburned old men in threadbare football jerseys tended the cash registers, rivulets of sweat pooling at their collars.
These men dealt in fuel and fire. I handed them every penny in my possession, and they repaid me with dazzling cartons of flame. Mama nodded her thanks and carried the bags for me.
I told Tabitha my plans as she packed boxes of old books and forgotten diaries. She looked sour, and silenced me mid-sentence. ‘‘I’m going to have to tell Mama, you know. You could hurt yourself. You could end up dead.’’
‘‘I’m twelve. I can light fireworks without burning myself,’’ I told her.
She sighed and set her books aside. Her expression, bare of makeup and sagging with the weight of encroaching adulthood, was the most serious I’d seen. ‘‘Baby, you can’t go to Mars. I know you really want to, but you can’t just slap together some cardboard and fly away. You’re right, you’re twelve. By now you should know better.’’ She took my hands in hers. They felt like lumps of cold marble, despite the heat. ‘‘I’m worried about you. Promise me you won’t try to light any of those fireworks without my help.’’
I couldn’t answer, but I nodded.
She smiled, little more than a curl at the corner of her lip. ‘‘Thank you,’’ she said, and she sounded just like our mother. ‘‘We’ll take down that rocket before I leave. It’s not safe anymore, and you’re too big for it anyway.’’
That night, I pleaded with the cosmos to keep my launch a secret. I could hear the voices from the Martian city of jewels and glass, from inside the carved wooden cloisters that sprawled wide across crimson sands. They sang to me. Their lullabies had navigated the gaps between stars and planets, caught the tails of comets to reach me, to deliver an invitation to secret places more splendid than anything on this stoic, concrete world. I would follow the voices, and I would find them, even if it broke my heart to leave Tabitha behind.
After she went to sleep, I took her spacesuit out of my closet. Some of the beads had fallen off, and the leather, grown stiff, tugged at my careful stitches. I folded it as neatly as I could and tucked it in her moving boxes, beneath a cluster of her favorite books.
I rose with the dawn. The morning was still and cool and smelled like steaks and grilled corn. I could hear Tabitha’s sheets rustling through the thin apartment walls; she was still in bed.
I had long outgrown my best pink shoes, so I wiped the summer grime off my sneakers and hoped the Martians wouldn’t take offense. My body had grown new curves, and my leather dress fit snug; I held my breath and forced in my gut as I twisted myself into it. My stitches held tight, and the skirt fell into place.
The dress was warm in the rising July sun. If I had worn it past noon, the salt of my own sweat would have rubbed me raw. I was uncertain what the weather would be on Mars, but I expected the Martians engineered their own climate—that the winds would be cool and the air would be clear, like a fresh April day washed clean by rain.
Mama had stowed the fireworks, three bags stuffed full of them, on the highest shelf of the hall closet, behind Tabitha’s mud-caked soccer gear. I wasn’t supposed to know they were there. I pulled a chair from the dining room to reach them, and set them, silent but for the hushed crinkle of plastic, on the linoleum. The closet door shut with the barest click. I fished Mama’s lighter from the depths of her purse and made my way down the stairwell, to the alley. Feral cats skittered away, suspicious of my intentions.
I arranged the fireworks in the gravel and wilted grass beneath my gleaming rocket. They fit together like the blocks in my old construction set. I tried to give them some beauty, some structure, to lay them out in a pattern of courtyards and clustered towers. At the center I placed a pillar of deep violet. It was the size of my arm, long and wide and covered in giddy caricatures and inscrutable golden symbols that carried mystery and joy from a world away. I wedged a sparkler into the edge of my city of fire to serve as a fuse. It wavered in a gust of wind, then stood straight as a flagpole.
Sparks bit my thumb as I fumbled with Mama’s lighter. It took me seven tries. I let the flame flicker over the tip of the sparkler, and took a final glance up at Tabitha’s bedroom window. Some part of me still expected to see her there, ready and smiling, buttoned into her spacesuit of rawhide and jewels.
Her light was off. She was still asleep. I climbed the cinderblocks and crawled inside my rocket.
The fireworks sizzled, and my engine lurched. Outside the portals, ribbons shivered on gusts of heat. Shards of fire in a hundred colors erupted from below and spiraled outward, glinting like confetti, through aluminum fencing, toward the ends of the alley. I shouted my own countdown and felt a surge of unbearable heat in the soles of my feet as the violet pillar with its wide-eyed faces ignited. My dials and monitors chortled to life. Radiant screens of gold and blue tracked the pace of asteroids and satellites, and a streak of silver mapped my path to Mars.
The cinderblocks fell away, and I flew into the sunrise.
As the rocket lifted, I heard a shriek, more guttural than the piercing whistle of fireworks, more rich with emotion. Through the portals, I could see Tabitha, her chest swelling as she screamed with all the strength of seventeen years.
For a moment, I was certain she had come to stop me, to damp out my flames and shut down my rocket, to throw a rope into the sky and pull me back to the ground. I looked downward, prepared for her disapproval.
She was clutching her folded spacesuit to her chest. The jewels twinkled in the glare of my rocket’s engine.
Her lips moved once, then widened into a smile brighter than sunlight. I couldn’t tell what she was said—the engines were too loud, and I had pulled too far away—but I could see tears gleaming in her eyes. I’m certain they were fueled by raw wonder.
It’s been more than fifteen years since I saw my sister, but I’ve counted those days in Martian time, and here, the years move slowly. She’ll be turning forty-five soon, perhaps settled into her engineering career, perhaps loading computers full of code and teaching them magic.
Perhaps she builds rockets. I hope so. We are separated by the width of ten thousand Earths these days, offset by the whirl of asynchronous orbits, but we still share a birthday, and Mars is a world of celebrations.
Sarah Grey is an attorney, a mother, an art historian, a medievalist, an aggressive advocate for the disabled, and a militant vegetarian with an unquenchable lust for cheese. She was born on Bloomsday, but prefers her fiction short. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction. She lives with her family near Sacramento, CA.