The Expedition wins summer writing contest

Thank you to all of our creative readers who took the time to submit entries to our summer writing contest, and to author Cordelia Strube for contributing the opening line.

The choice was a difficult one, but Nadine Arzumanian’s entry was chosen as the winner. Nadine will receive a $50 credit at The Great Escape Bookstore on Kingston Road.

Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell University
The sun rises over the Gusev crater on Mars. Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell University

The Expedition, by Nadine Arzumanian

I don’t know what compelled me to bring it up, the wine, the darkening sky, the sailboats bobbing in the choppy water, but as soon as the words were out, I knew I’d crossed the Rubicon.

Hector was staring at me, beer bottle in hand, pre-sip, his elbow resting on the arm of the green patio chair. “You did what?” he asked.

“I applied. They accepted. I’m going to Mars.”

I could hear his breath wheezing forcefully out of his nose. He never did like my decisions, always critical of his little sister.  Abandoning the sip, Hector put the bottle down on the table. “You are going to Mars.” He shook his head repeating the statement, eyes unblinking, his quiet demeanor unsurprisingly void of any drama.

“Yep.”

The waiter came by interrupting the silence between us, clearing our plates and asking if we wanted anything more.  Hector ordered another Stella Artois while I guzzled the rest of the cheap wine down handing my empty glass to the waiter.

“And what, is NASA taking you?” Hector leaned his heavy frame closer to me, his elbows resting on the table as his beer breath hung between us.

“Actually they’re called ‘Expedition Mars.’ Privately funded. They said I was the perfect candidate.”

“You know if you go, you’re not coming back, right?”

“Yep. I know. It’s a one-way ticket.”

I watched as my brother digested the news. It was typical of him, this thoughtfulness, annoying but unavoidable.  As I waited for his inevitable barrage of comments, I turned to look out at the sailboats again. There were three of them, further out now, seemingly huddled together, their sails almost horizontal in their struggle against the wind.

The patio was emptying, people anticipating the pending storm as the waiter approached, uncapping the beer bottle for Hector and handing me another glass of wine. My brother dismissed his offer to move us inside.

“Opie, you know you’re going to die up there, right?”

“Eventually, yes Hector. I know. We all die sometime. Might as well do it in style, no?”  I grinned but immediately regretted it as he furled his eyebrows at me.

“No, actually. That sounds dumb. And selfish.”

“Selfish and dumb, eh? Maybe to you, but not to me. And not to the other 12,246 other people that applied. You know that only 25 people were selected?”

“Yeah, 25 of the dumbest, most naive people they could find.”

Thunder crashed above us, making my heart pound. My shoulders hunched inwards against the cold as I gripped the now half-empty wine glass, mist encasing me in a layer of moisture. I put my cell phone in my pocket.

“Have you told Mom? She is going to be pissed.”

“No, not yet. You’re the first to know. She is next on my list.”

“All that tuition money she gave you, wasted.”

“Chill Hector, maybe my theology degree will come in handy up there, in the heavens.”

He scoffed. “Ha, ha. Who’s going to take care of Rufus? Have you thought about that?”

“Hector, those are just details. It takes seven years to train, so I’ll be around for a while to sort everything out. Rufus will be taken care of.”

“Freaking Mars.” He said as he turned out to face the water.  The boats were upright again, moving, having made it almost all the way to Ward’s Island.

I looked at his profile, the defined wrinkles from age and worry and constant disapproval of my life’s choices etched permanently in his forehead. I guzzled the rest of the wine down again, flushing away the memories of his welcome yet unwelcome opinions over the years.

“Hector, I’m going to be 33 next month. And guess what? I’m still not the bride or the journalist or the entrepreneur that you all wanted me to be. And you know what? It kind of sucks not living up to everyone’s expectations.”

He said nothing, so I plowed on. “It may take you some time, but this isn’t all bad, okay? You’re kind of missing the point actually. Imagine the headline: ‘Ophelia X; Colonist. Expedition Mars.’ Doesn’t that sound cool?”

Hector slammed the bottle on the table. “How does this headline sound, Lieutenant Uhura: ‘Twenty-five dead as Mars shuttle explodes on take-off?’ “

“Don’t be such an a–hole, Hector.”

“An a–hole? Because I am freaking out about this Mars trip? God! It sounds so ridiculous when I say that out loud.” The chair scraped the ground as he pushed his body back.

“I don’t need to listen to this.”

‘Oh yes, you do,” he snapped. “Are you looking for adventure, Opie? Why don’t you just go skydiving? Or go ‘find yourself’ in Italy. There are a million things you can do instead of being a character in a science fiction story.” He pressed on. “So yeah. I guess I’m an a–hole if that means I’m looking out for you.”

By now we were the last of the hardcore drinkers out on the patio. The rain was pelting down by now, loudly smacking drops all over, soaking though the paper tablecloth. The waiter was moving fast to empty and stack the tables around us.

Hector obviously wasn’t going to be happy for me. At least not today. “Hector, I know you’ll come around for me eventually. You always do.” I reached to pat his hand, but he snatched it away and stood up.

“Hey everyone!” he yelled to the empty patio, “my little sister is going to Mars!” Putting his hood up over his head and leaving the bar, he walked briskly down the pier through the rain, yelling back, “send me a postcard, would you, sis?”

I ran for cover inside, settling the bill with the waiter. As he processed my Visa card, I looked out again at the boats, their sails holding up strongly against the wind now, moving, moving past the island’s edge, completely out of sight.


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