As soon as she entered the kitchen, still fumbling with her watch even as she clomped down the stairs, cursing herself for sleeping in when she had known for days she had an early meeting, Karen knew something was wrong.
“What’s up?” she asked her husband, sliding into a chair at the table, smiling at the sight of the full cereal bowl and toast set out ready for her. As usual he’d got up early to make her breakfast, knowing full well that she would be running late. She always was.
Turning away from the freezer, glass of orange in his hand, Mark let out a long sigh. A sure-fire sign he had Bad News to break.
“What?” Karen demanded, taking the drink from him. “Someone die?” Mark’s face was suddenly set in stone as he stared back at her, and Karen groaned inside; it had been meant as a joke, a flippant, throwaway remark, but clearly she had put her foot in it. “Who?” she asked quietly, dreading the answer.
Her heart sank. Mark’s father had been ill for some time. But he’d been improving recently, or at least not getting any worse, the spread of the cancer halted by –
“Not someone…” Mark replied slowly, considering his words carefully as he sat down opposite her, chair legs scraping on the floor, “…something…”
Her head still full of cobwebs from a night with too little sleep Karen struggled to make sense of what he was saying. “Some…thing?” she repeated dumbly. “Mark, you’re not – “
“It died,” Mark replied solemnly, his meaning clear without speaking its actual name, “Lara told me when I was getting the paper off the lawn.”
Karen let out her own deep sigh as she put down her spoon, her appetite suddenly swept away. Oh hell. “She’ll be gutted,” Karen said sadly, looking up at the ceiling, as if she possessed x-ray vision that allowed her to see the young girl sleeping in the room above them.
“I guess,” Mark agreed, half-heartedly. Karen glowered at him.
“You guess?” she repeated. “You guess? Mark, it will break her heart – “
“Why?” he asked, throwing up his hands. “I mean, come on, it’s not as if a person died, is it? She knew it wouldn’t live forever, they never do. One dies, you go get a new one, that’s how it works – “
“She loved it, Mark!” Karen shot back, a little too loudly, and she cringed as she realised she might have woken the girl sleeping upstairs. “She loved it,” Karen repeated, more quietly, “you know that. She’s ten years old, she’s grown up with it, it’s always been there for her…”
He sighed again. “I know – “
“Before she went to school, when she got back from school, before she went to bed,” Karen continued, mentally working through her daughter’s day, “she always spent time with it. You’ve heard her talk about it, you’ve been in her room, you know it was more than just a… a thing to her – “
“I know,” her husband conceded, nodding, “but she always knew this day would come, we all did – “
“Maybe,” Karen interrupted coldly, “but that doesn’t make it any easier, does it?”
An uneasy silence fell between them like a stage curtain coming down.
“You’ll have to tell her,” Karen said eventually, looking intently at the untouched and now unwanted contents of her cereal bowl.
Mark’s eyes widened in horror. “Me? Oh no, I’m not telling her – “
“You have to, you’re her father – “
Mark felt a cold cannonball of dread settling in his stomach. “And you’re her mother… you’re…” He struggled to find the right words. “You’re… the sensitive one,” he countered weakly, leaning across the table, “you keep telling me how I don’t understand how she feels about it but you do – “
“Oh, now that’s a good thing..?” Karen replied. “You always said I was as silly as she was for being attached to it – “
Mark shuffled in his seat uncomfortably. Busted. “I didn’t mean – “
“I’m not telling her,” Karen declared, adding, with not a little relief, “I can’t tell her, I’m late enough for work already.”
Mark was about to protest when the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs reached the kitchen. They glared at each other accusingly, each silently blaming the other for waking their sleeping daughter –
“What can’t you tell her?” asked the unkempt teenage boy who swept into the kitchen like a tousled-haired tornado. “Hey! You guys getting a divorce? About time!”
“No, we’re not getting a divorce, Cooper,” sighed Karen wearily. “You wish…” she added with a grin as their son, without even missing a step, reached over her head, grabbed a slice of toast from in front of her and started crunching it as he walked around the table.
“So what’s going on?” he asked, helping himself to her glass of juice as well. Karen didn’t care; she couldn’t face drinking it now anyway.
“We have some bad news to tell your sister,” Mark explained, “and we’re… discussing… who should do it – “
“Will she take it really badly?” Cooper asked, and Karen was touched by the unusual depth of concern in his voice. She nodded. “Then I’ll do it,” he offered brightly, “I don’t mind upsetting the little geek, any chance to make her cry – “
“Cooper!” his parents exclaimed simultaneously.
“Hey, if you two are too chicken to do it,” their son laughed, “don’t blame me for offering to bail you out – “
“We’re not… chicken,” Mark said, hurt, but Karen laughed humourlessly.
“Yes, we are, admit it,” she said to her husband. “It’s going to be horrible – “
“For pity’s sake, what’s happened?” Cooper demanded, his words muffled by the second slice of toast crammed into his mouth.
Karen took a deep breath. “It died.”
Cooper looked at her, puzzled. What died? What was she –
“So, that stupid pet of hers finally croaked, eh?” he grinned, wiping crumbs from his chin. “Oh boy, let me tell her! She’ll cry for sure!”
Normally Karen would have taken the bait, skipping DefCon2 and going straight to DefCon4 for a blazing argument, but this morning she didn’t have the strength – or time – to get into a fight with her son about his Neanderthal attitude towards his younger, more sensitive sister.
“Coop, please, just for once… for me… please, try and be a little sympathetic?” Karen pleaded, feeling even more weary now.
“But it was just a thing!” Cooper continued, “like you always said dad, right? They don’t have feelings, they’re just… you know… things…”
Mark quickly looked out of the window, pretending he hadn’t heard.
“It wasn’t just a thing to her, Coop,” Karen answered patiently, “that’s what’s important. Not what you, or any of us, think,” she added, looking pointedly at her husband who was staring intently at something in the garden. “It really is going to upset her, we have to be careful how we tell her, ok?” Cooper laughed dismissively, clearly finding the whole situation ridiculous. “Ok?” Karen repeated, more forcefully, her eyes boring into him like lasers.
Cooper let out a snort. “Whatever,” he said simply, “I’m out of here – but remember,” he added, his finger pointing at them both in turn, “I offered to do it for you and you said no.” And with that he was gone, through the kitchen door and heading for wherever his gang had decided to hang out for the last precious day of the school holidays.
The uncomfortable silence he left behind was deafening.
“We’ll do it together,” Mark decided, but Karen shook her head.
“No, no… you’re right… I’ll tell her; I do understand her – when it comes to things like this, anyway – “ she added, hurriedly, “better than you.”
Mark had to fight hard to hide his relief. “Well, if you’re sure,” he said, feigning disappointment, though he actually felt like punching the air and yelling “Yes!” to celebrate his escape. Karen silenced him with a don’t push it look, just as unwelcome sounds of movement came through the ceiling above them.
She was up.
Neither said a word. All they could do was listen to the soft sound of footsteps padding across the bedroom floor above their heads, moving out onto the landing and then, slowly, but surely, making their way down the stairs towards the kitchen. Eventually a mop of dark blonde curls appeared around the doorway, crowning the head of a barely-awake young girl who was yawning widely and rubbing her eyes as she stepped gingerly onto the cold tiled floor with her bare feet.
“Morning…” Cara said sleepily, looking tiny in her outsize t-shirt and beaming her huge smile at the couple seated at the kitchen table. Couple. One was missing. “Did Coop go out already?”
“Yes, he went to meet his friends,” Mark replied, nervously and a little too quickly. Karen shot him a Look across the table and he shrugged in a helpless, klutzy apology.
Cara made her way slowly over to them, yawning all the way. As she sat down in her chair – the one with alien stickers all over its back – she looked up at the rocket design clock on the wall beside the door and frowned. “Shouldn’t you be on your way to work by now, mum?” she said, puzzled. Cocking her head to one side she asked “Is everything ok?”
“Oh yes,” Karen replied brightly, also too quickly; she couldn’t help it. Opposite her, Mark smiled smugly, relieved he wasn’t the only klutz at the table. “Well, yes…” Karen continued, her voice breaking a little, “everything is fine, really, but…”
Cara looked at her mother with narrowed, wise-beyond-her-years eyes. “…but..?” she repeated.
“Your mother has something to tell you,” Mark announced, earning himself a painful and well-aimed under-the-table kick on the shins for his trouble.
“Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Cara asked, her gaze flicking nervously between the two of them, “I can tell – “
Karen took a deep breath. She was definitely going to be late for work now, there was no way around it. But this was more important.
“Yes, honey, something has happened,” she confirmed. “I have some very sad news for you,” she added, resting her hand on her daughter’s hand, at the same time throwing her husband an icicle-cold glare as she heard him sniff disapprovingly at her choice of words.
Cara seemed to stiffen in her chair, as if a wooden board had been slid down the back of her night shirt, immobilising her, and Karen realised, in a dreadful, sickening moment, that her daughter knew.
“It died, didn’t it?” Cara asked sadly.
“I’m sorry, honey, but yes, it died,” Karen confirmed, giving her daughter’s hand a consoling squeeze. The young girl’s beautiful blue eyes seemed to shimmer suddenly, to glisten, and Karen could only watch helplessly as a tear slid down her daughter’s smooth left cheek.
“I thought they’d saved it?” Cara asked, looking at them both again, in turn, hurt, betrayal even, in her eyes.
“Well… they thought they had,” her mother said softly, “but I guess it was just too tired to keep going, too much had been taken out of it – “
She stopped as she heard another snort of disapproval from her husband from across the table. “Mark,” she hissed under her breath, warningly.
Mark stared back at her defiantly. “Look, I’m sorry, but you’re doing her no favours anthropomorphosising it like this,” he said quietly and
coldly. “It wasn’t a person – “
“Maybe not,” his wife growled back, painfully aware that their daughter’s face was wet with tears now, both cheeks glistening, “but she was attached to it, it mattered to her – “
But Mark wasn’t having any of it. “I just think – “ he began, but was cut off by the sound of their daughter’s chair being pushed roughly back from the table as she fled from the kitchen, rushing upstairs back to the sanctuary of her room. Moments later he jumped at the sound of her bedroom door slamming shut. “Oh hell, I didn’t mean to – “
“Idiot,” Karen spat at him as he started to rise from the table. “No, stay there, I’ll go after her, you’ve done enough already.” She pushed back her own chair and made for the door. As she started up the stairs she heard Mark huffing and grumbling behind her, followed by the sound of a spoon being flung angrily across the room and into the sink where it landed with a clatter. Yeah, she thought, climbing the steps, that’s helpful…
Cara’s door was shut – as she had guessed from the sound of it slamming a few moments earlier – and she paused as she stood before it. There was no mistaking Cara’s room for anyone else’s; not just because her name was there, written in the now familiar pseudo-gothic Harry Potter font on a fake plastic Hogwarts plaque, but because the door was covered with dozens of small pictures, each one hand-painted. Here, a space-walking astronaut. There, a space shuttle. Between them – a stylised, garishly-coloured Saturn, rings wide open, a colourful hula hoop tossed over the planet by some unseen giant child…
Leaning forwards now, Karen could just make out the faint sounds of sobbing coming from behind the door. She knew she had to go in. But she couldn’t just barge in like Mark would have done.
“Cara, sweetheart?” she said, knocking lightly on the door. “Can I come in? I want to talk to you about… about what’s happened.”
Resting her forehead against the cold wood, Karen knocked again. “Cara?”
“You can come in,” Karen heard her daughter reply, and taking a deep breath she pushed the door open.
Cara was sitting forlornly on the side of the bed, facing the window, a book – the book, of course – open on the bed beside her. That was no surprise. What was a surprise, however, was that Cara’s computer, which Karen had expected to be switched on by now, with its screen displaying one picture after another of the object of her daughter’s misery, was still turned off.
But then again, in a room that was a richly and lovingly decorated shrine, a PC screen slideshow wasn’t really necessary.
Every wall of the bedroom was covered with pictures. Its picture. In some places, where the girl had eventually and inevitably run out of wall space, its pictures were two or even three deep, pinned on top of each other, their corners curled up and flapping gently in the breeze that wafted through the room from the open window. On the window’s white sill, in its centre, enjoying pride of place there like a chalice on an altar, was a model –
“I can’t believe she’s gone, mum,” Cara said quietly.
“I know, honey, I know,” Karen said soothingly, sitting down on the bed beside her daughter. The poor girl looked distraught, bereaved, as if a real, living person had died, not just a –
“I know she lived longer than everyone expected her to,” Cara continued, “and I knew she’d die one day, but not… not yet, you know?”
“I know,” Karen said, smiling, smoothing her daughter’s hair with her hand.
“I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye,” Cara sniffled, “when I got back from rehearsal last night I was just too tired, so I didn’t go and see,” she said quickly, looking over towards the computer, “I just got straight into bed – “
“It’s okay, you weren’t to know,” Karen said, “you can’t blame yourself.”
As she faced her daughter Karen caught a glimpse of a familiar shape standing in the open doorway.
How is she? Mark mouthed silently, nodding towards their daughter.
How do you think she is? Look at her! Karen mouthed back, eyes flashing with a combination of anger and disbelief.
Mark blushed and started towards them. No, no, stay there, Karen mouthed silently, shaking her head so slowly she hoped their daughter wouldn’t notice, but she did.
“Is she really gone daddy?” Cara asked, turning around, clearly looking for her father to step in and reassure her that no, it wasn’t true, it had all been a mistake, a horrible misunderstanding. Karen snarled pre-emptively at her husband, beaming him a telepathic message that she knew he couldn’t hear: don’t you dare… don’t you dare…
“I know you’re sad sweetheart,” Mark began, sitting down beside Cara on the bed and wrapping a protective and – he hoped – comforting arm around her, “and it’s okay to be sad when you lose something important to you, something you care about…”
Karen’s eyes widened with surprise. She had been expecting him to blunder in and say something… insensitive, stupid, crass. She certainly hadn’t been expecting that.
“I know you’re going to miss it,” Mark continued, “and you’re going to be upset for a while…”
Karen felt a pang of guilt then, looking at her husband consoling their daughter. Maybe she’d been too hard on him before. Maybe –
“…but hey, at least the other one’s still ok…!” Mark added cheerfully.
Karen froze with horror, unable to believe what she’d just heard.
And Cara recoiled from her father as if physically struck.
“But… I don’t care about the other one!” she sobbed. “Spirit was my favourite!”
And with that she turned away from her father and flung herself into her mother’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
Surrounded on all sides by countless photos, paintings, mission patches and models of the Mars Exploration Rover that had finally ceased functioning earlier that morning, after six long and fruitful years on the red planet, all Mark could do was retreat from the room, knowing that he would never understand how a small robot, trundling across the rock-strewn surface of a faraway planet, could have inspired such dedication and, yes, love in his daughter, and millions of other people across the world.
And wishing he could feel it, too.
Holding her daughter, looking around her cluttered bedroom, Karen appreciated for the first time just why the young girl had been so fascinated by the Mars rovers, and by Spirit in particular. For Cara’s generation, the Inbetween generation, the frustrated, shouting at the sky, born-too-late-for-Apollo, born-too-soon-for-a-Marsbase generation, the rovers weren’t just machines, they were surrogate astronauts. The rovers were substitute humans, trekking across the Red Planet, reporting home every day. They were the Space Age’s very own Lewis and Clark, out on the frontier, constantly striking out for the next horizon.
Cocooned inside her mother’s strong arms, Cara knew only that a friend she had had for six wonderful years – a friend she had spent time with every single day, had climbed high, alien mountains with, looked at weird rocks with and watched glorious sunsets with – was gone.
On a rocky plain, more than a hundred million kilometres away, the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit began to be buried by dust. Its solar panels would draw no more power. Its unblinking robot eyes would see no more meteorites, dust dunes or dawns. Its wheels would never turn again. If it was possible for a robot to feel weary, Spirit was. If it was possible for a robot to feel satisfaction, Spirit was satisfied, too. Its job was done. As the shrunken Sun set behind the Columbia Hills, and dust devils danced across its horizon, it was time for Spirit to rest.
Halfway around Mars, basking in the glow of the martian dawn, Opportunity woke from her slumber and stared at the range of undulating purple hills rising up out of the horizon ahead of her. After driving towards them for many months Opportunity could now see details on those hills – tantalising hints of geological layers on their flanks, avalanches and rockfalls at their bases, large boulders sitting on their summits. Another month’s driving and she would be there, finally, on the edge of Endeavour Crater. She had already driven into and out of craters, skirted the edges of dark dune fields and peered down at meteorites that had landed on Mars when Mankind, her makers, had yet to master fire. What new wonders waited for her up ahead?
There was only one way to find out.
With a whirring of gears and a hiss of dust falling off her back, Opportunity drove forwards.
© Stuart Atkinson 2009