From above, Miami looked as if it were blinking itself awake; the rising sun reflected against the city’s windows. Adri—in fuzzy extra-large pajama pants, her messy black hair pulled back in a rubber band—had pulled over on the shoulder of the Miami bridge. Her Theta had blown a circuit board and she needed to fix it. Now, she took in the view one last time: it wasn’t much, but she’d never see it again.
The sky lay low and gray over South Beach. The empty beachfront hotels lay dark, water halfway up their lowest windows. All along the waterfront, buildings stood stark and abandoned. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the ocean had crept into the city, making it look like a kingdom from an old fairy tale, like Atlantis disintegrating into myth. The morning’s mail drones were already buzzing above the waterlogged buildings below, swaying in the heavy winds but staying on course to deliver packages to anyone who was left: the ruggedly independent, the people with nowhere else to go.
Adri had been one of them until today; her entire life had been spent watching the city get swallowed by water. She wouldn’t miss it, but she had to take a deep breath as she turned back to the car. She gathered the papers and wrinkled sweatshirts that had fallen out when she’d stepped out onto the pavement and shoved them into the back. She carefully plucked a caterpillar off her windshield, sliding her fingers against it gently and moving it to the bridge rail. Then she started the car and set it to self-navigate. Her restless mind drifted to Kansas and what lay ahead. She opened her placement letter on the dash monitor and reread it.
Dear Ms. Ortiz,
We try to arrange home stays for our Colonists-in-Training as often as possible, to maintain a sense of normalcy at a deeply transitional time. We’re delighted to inform you that we’ve located a distant cousin of yours (a Lily Vega, maiden name Ortiz, age 107) within driving distance of the Center, who is willing to welcome you into her home during the next three months. Please make your way to this address and await instructions.
268 Jericho Road
Canaan, KS 67124
Adri hadn’t even known she’d had cousins, or any family, left alive. Her parents had been only children; she’d never known of anyone even remotely related to them.
She turned on the news, and when people honked at her to tell her Theta was trailing sparks (it often did) she casually gave them the finger. She leaned back in her seat to watch the sky through the big sunroof. She felt lighter the farther she got from the city.
The coast fell away, and with it, the flooded towns and cities. The ride was only twelve hours with the new interstate, and with a speed limit of a hundred and fifty, it flew by. Normally she would have taken the spare time to study, but all of her devices had been remotely disabled the day she’d received her acceptance letter. Colonists were supposed to spend their last three months focusing on what they learned at the Center in Wichita. Other than that, they were supposed to do as close to nothing as possible.
Only a week had passed since the message had flashed on her wristTab, releasing a spray of holographic balloons that spiraled up around her and away as her admission note flashed on the screen. It was a cheesy touch, but her heart had dropped to her feet anyway. It was the first time in her life she could remember crying. Everything she’d sacrificed and worked for since the sixth grade—the late nights studying, the relentless schedule of exercise, course work, and training—was going to pay off. Within months, she’d be one of the lucky few living on Mars.
The air turned colder the farther she rode. It was long past dark when she crossed the border into Kansas, and another hour before she exited the highway. Nearing Canaan, each turn seemed to take her farther and farther into the middle of nowhere, county roads unfurling darkly under a sky black as ink. The Theta began to make a loud, thumping sound. Around eleven, she switched the car to driver-navigate and steered it gingerly along. It was practically dead when she pulled up to the end of the driveway.
Adri gazed around; the place looked almost abandoned. There was a little white farmhouse with peeling siding and a small barn lot . . . leaning fences surrounding a large pasture, a bunkhouse (or was it a stable?) listing to one side. An ancient SUV sat in the driveway—one of the last of the great gas guzzlers.
Adri cut the power and blinked at a sign by the flowerbeds drying up for the winter. There were indications of life though: a series of purple plastic dragonflies lined the path to the front door and a tin angel with a watering can stood poised over a patch of daisies and weeds to her right. A little placard poking up by the path said: Come in, my flowers would like to meet you.
“Oh God,” she muttered.
She took a deep breath.
She turned her attention upward. The sky was closer here than it had been back home, or at least it felt that way. That’s where I’ll be, she thought. That’s where I’m going. In a way, she was already gone. That was what she needed to focus on.
She checked herself in the mirror. She looked like she’d just rolled out of bed, which was how she always looked. She brushed herself off and got out of the car, a few soda cans and empty wrappers trailing out with her feet.
A sign had been taped to the door, written in shaky handwriting.
Adri, I stayed up as late as I could, but I’m old! Your room is upstairs to the right. Can’t wait to meet you. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. ☺☺☺
Adri moved through the house in the dark, bumping into corners and staring around into the shadowy rooms before she made her way up the stairs. One room stood open and inviting: faded blue and smelling of mothballs. The lamps were all on, and a bright patchwork quilt lay across the bed, turned down at the corner. She looked around. There was something about the room that was off, unsettling. But she couldn’t say what.
There was no dresser so she moved back and forth across the room, flinging her pants and balled-up sweaters along the closet shelves. Lily had either neglected or forgotten to clean in the back, and the corners were covered in cobwebs that stuck to her fingers. Otherwise the shelves were empty except for an old crinkled shoe box. She opened it, finding a pile of photos and old postcards instead. Adri was notoriously nosy.
She moved closer to the bedside lamp and flipped through the contents. There were several photos of a woman she assumed must be Lily, some with a man who looked to be her husband, and some of her as a little girl. But most of the mementos were older, artifacts from before even her cousin would have been born: ancient ticket stubs from shows in the 1950s, an autograph from someone named Wayne Newton. One postcard was from New York City and very old—it showed a wide boulevard with people in hats and dresses strolling arm and arm, gazing into shop windows. It was postmarked May 7, 1920, and the writing was so faded it was close to illegible.
Arrived New York last night and making my way to you tomorrow. Galapagos in tow. Did you get my letters? Will you be waiting for me?
Will you love her as much as I do?
Adri did the quick mental math to calculate how many years had passed since 1920: a hundred and forty-five. She read it one more time, then put the box back where she’d found it.
Finally, with nothing else to do, she turned out her light and lay down. In the silence of the strange room, a feeling still nagged at her and kept her from sleeping. Maybe it was nerves about living with a stranger . . . and a stranger who was also— weirdly—family. She wondered what Lily would be like—and it made her think of her old roommate at the group house back in Miami, and something she’d said once.
“I really admire you, Adri,” she’d said. “But I have to say you’re not very likable.”
Adri hadn’t shown that it hurt her, but it had stayed in her mind. She didn’t know why she couldn’t keep from being too blunt, too standoffish and distant, a little mean. She’d stopped trying to change it years ago; she could never figure out how.
Growing up she’d watched other kids buddying up— everyone with their weird quirks and flaws getting along anyway somehow, forming some mysterious club she couldn’t penetrate. She’d think to herself, How do they do that? It was like executing an intricate dive.
Adri wasn’t a diver. If anything, she was a pickax, chipping away at each day. The next three months living with another stranger, even one who was related to her . . . she would chip away at too.
• • •
In sixth-grade astronomy, Adri had read about neutrinos for the first time. They were particles that traveled across space—from one end of the universe to the other, unstoppable and anchorless. They could pass through matter, right through planets and people and everything else. When kids talked after that, about what they wanted to be when they got older, the image of that textbook page always flashed through her mind.
Now she pictured the day she’d be the one launching off from Earth, unstoppable. She hoped the time between then and now would go fast. As she fell asleep, behind her eyelids she watched herself pinging across space.