This story is by Kathi Jenkins and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Raif couldn’t stop himself from looking out the window of his calculus classroom, even though it depressed him. Once an unpopulated prairieland, now he saw claustrophobic urban sprawl—bustling sidewalks, intimidating high-rises, and crowded streets—thanks to climate change making much of the earth uninhabitable.
His teacher droned on, desperately trying to make any of her students take her seriously. Raif couldn’t bring himself to worry about his math grade when there was no future for him on this planet.
Scientists were predicting that the planet would be Unsuitable for Humans, UH for short, soon. A few companies had colonized Mars, but the government’s entry portal for the public closed a few years ago. These days you either had to be uber rich or uber lucky. Raif was neither.
Suni saw Raif’s sulking and knew he was overthinking again. She had become an expert on reading his body language during the past two years, as one of her favorite pastimes had become watching him. Suni sent him a telepathic message. “Whatever is wrong, just remember: we’ll always have each other. Our love will cheer you up.”
Her comment offered little comfort. He found her naïveté dumbfounding. How could she think of our future? We need a miracle to live past 30 years old.
The telltale ding dong ding tones rang from the school’s speakers.
“Registration for the Mars Mission Lottery opens today. Four lucky students will get to live on Mars, thanks to our generous sponsor, Project Colonization.”
Raif glanced at Suni, thrilled at the chance for a real future. She was doodling with an old-fashioned wooden pencil. Why was she infatuated with the last century? It was as if she chose to ignore the present time. She didn’t get how desperate things were, but then again, her dad wasn’t an climate economist like Raif’s.
“Five years, ten tops, then it’s 100% UH. Mark my words,” Raif’s dad would say to anyone who’d listen.
Raif sent Suni a reply. “If you say so. Should we sign up for Mars?”
The cringe on her face as she received the message told him everything he needed to know. Her optimism and blind romanticism are what drew Raif to her in the beginning. Now those things made Raif sad for her.
Raif told Suni he’d go save a seat at the lunch pod. Instead, he bee-lined for the Mars Mission Lottery table and entered both of their names. He justified it by telling himself they’d never win anyway, so there’s no harm in trying, right?
Their pod, six seats all in a flower-petal arrangement to optimize social interactions, filled quickly. The entire room buzzed with talk of the Mars Lottery.
“It’s the best thing that can happen to us. We’ll never get a chance to go to college on Earth,” a friend said.
“I would go if I could take my family,” a second friend said.
“I’d go in a heartbeat,” Raif said simply.
Suni practically screamed, “What? This is a new rocket company, and they have sketchy success rates. Plus, the whole thing is so elitist. Our government will figure out how to allow mass entry soon enough.” She shook her head. When she continued, her voice was timid. “Do you want to leave me?”
“Of course not. I just want to be logical.” He ran his hand through his mussy hair. “I don’t know how realistic it is to hope we can figure things out since it’s been bad for so long with no action.”
Suni was stunned, eyes wide and mouth agape. “You have no hope?” She asked.
He looked at Suni and said, “Oh, I do. I hope we can live together forever. On Mars.” Raif shrugged and stood to leave.
Three weeks passed and still the lottery was all the school was talking about. The pair avoided the topic because they’d be wasting time worrying over what might never happen. Raif was dying holding his secret from Suni. His palms sweat every time he thought about it.
The day of the announcement, the clock hands seemed as if they were moving through peanut butter. Raif agonized over what they’d do if they won. He had to go to Mars and this was his only chance. But he couldn’t imagine leaving Suni behind, especially to a life of ruin.
Finally, as the clock struck 3:00, the principal’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker. “And now, without further ado, here are the Mars Mission Lottery winners. Ruby Spencer, Suni Franco, Mario Faretti, and Raif Lewiston. Please come to the office for details.”
Raif’s hands began to shake with adrenaline. This was everything he’d been dreaming of for years. His stomach wrenched when he considered what Suni would say. As soon as class was dismissed, he ran to their lockers.
Her red eyes and tear-stained face broke Raif’s heart. He offered her a hug but she looked like she was going to punch him. “How dare you!” She screamed.
“Hey, babe, take a deep breath.” Raif grabbed her hands, trying to comfort her. They took a few breaths together with their hands clutched between.
When Suni appeared calm, Raif said, “Ok. I entered your name. But I only did it because I couldn’t imagine leaving without you.” He looked at her with puppy dog eyes, but she wasn’t falling for it.
“Against my wishes?” She screamed. “I’m going to tell them to draw another name.” Her posture was rigid with determination.
“Woah, wait. This is an incredible opportunity—”
“It’s not! It’s running from a problem. It’s giving up on life as we know it!”
Raif took a step back. “I hear you. Let’s go home, talk to our parents, sleep on it.”
“I guess I could try…”
“Look, my parents are hoping I win the lottery. I want you to go with me so we can have a long, happy, life together. I want five kids and a little Martian dog.” He smiled, trying to lighten the mood. “But I understand it’s different for you and I will respect your wishes.” Raif said.
Suni dropped her hands, nodded, and left.
Raif went home and obsessively read colonizer’s blogs to learn what life was like in Mars. He found lists of allowable belongings and imagined what he’d pack when he was finally allowed to go. Then he realized that if he had to go without Suni, it wouldn’t be what he was dreaming of. He had to convince her that the Mars Mission was the only way to live happily ever after.
Across town, Suni was sitting around her family’s dining table, discussing her options with her parents. They were hesitant to let their only child go to Mars, but also reluctant to stifle her life with their wishes.
An aggressive knock at the door interrupted them. Suni ran to the door and let Raif inside. He deliberately walked to the table and asked if he could sit down.
He got himself settled and took a deep breath. “I am sorry to barge into your family time. But I had to. See, I came here to beg you to let Suni come to Mars with me.”
Suni gasped and blushed. Raif was banking on Suni’s romantic side taking over, but judging by the look on her parent’s faces, he had an uphill battle ahead of him.
“I see,” her dad said.
“Sir, my father predicts that we’ll all need another planet to call home very soon. Suni and I were granted an opportunity to have a life together. We can create a home for you to join us as soon as we can. If she doesn’t go, what will be left for her here? This is our only chance at a future!” Raif couldn’t hide his desperation.
Suni’s eyes filled with tears. Raif hoped they were from love and joy, not fear and sadness.
“You’ll have to let us talk about this in private. You understand,” her dad said.
“Of course. I’ll leave. It’s fine. I just needed you to know this is life or death and I want to have a future with Suni,” Raif said.
He left his seat and went to the door. Suni’s mom’s mouth was open in disbelief, but the expression on her dad’s face was more pondering. Raif thought he might have made his case.
The next morning, Suni found him at their usual meeting spot. He ran to her, dying to know what her answer would be. “Let’s go to Mars together!” She squealed with joy.
“Really? You mean it?”
“Yes! Your pleading really helped. My dad sees the logic and my mom wants me to be happy. So, I’m ready to go to the office and commit to the trip!”
Raif grabbed her hand and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ve never been so happy in my life.”
They walked to the school office together with newfound hope.