by Dana Vickerson
If Mama doesn’t get up soon, we’re going to miss our chance to get off Mars.
Mama is a human, but I call her “Mama” because she says I am her baby kitty and her special boy. She is sleeping, but I am hungry.
It’s a delicate art, waking up your human. If you’re too eager, they’ll likely get cross with you, and while Mama is a sweet and kind soul, I do not like to see her cross. If you are too gentle, though, your human is likely to continue their blissful sleep while you sit on the floor with a rumble in your belly.
So, like most mornings, I start today by walking back and forth across my human’s pillow. This is less startling than just going right for patting her face. The soft rhythm of my paws around her head signals to Mama that it’s time to start the process of bringing her consciousness to the here and now, where my kibble lives.
She gently pushes me off her head, which disappoints me, but she scratches between my ears, which I love. I lay beside her head purring, showing her that I appreciate the scratches and she can take her time.
She rolls over to lay her head near my furry belly and continues to scratch me, now under my chin, which I also love. I purr for what feels like an eternity.
I gently pat her on the face a few times.
Mama rolls away from me. This usually doesn’t happen. My Mama loves me and is eager to provide me with the proper nutrients I need. Mama has just been more sleepy than normal lately.
I survey the room for anything that might help aid the process. Mama has gotten wise to me, and instead of leaving glasses of water by her bed, she’s taken to closed top water bottles. They make a fantastic sound going off the nightstand, but they don’t make a mess, so Mama usually ignores it.
I spy the empty space next to Mama and decide it’s the perfect place to stage the next part of my plan: looking so adorable Mama cannot resist me. Bringing in the big guns, as humans like to say.
I flop over to Daddy’s side. He is my other human.
Daddy’s side is empty, so there’s plenty of space for me to perform. I start by meowing loudly. This alerts Mama that she should pay attention and I’m about to do something adorable.
She rolls back over to me and opens her eyes. They are very red and puffy. This concerns me. Surely she has slept too much and now very much needs to get out of bed. It’s not only my hunger that will benefit from getting her up, but Mama’s own sake as well. I meow at her to let her know that she has done a good job rolling over and is now in for a treat.
I flop onto my back and show her my full belly, which is white and very fluffy because of my long hair. Most of my coloring is black, which goes very well with my bright green eyes, I must say, but my belly and paws are white. Mama says it looks like I walked in paint. I do not know what “paint” is, but it always pleases her when she says it so it must be something good.
I stretch my legs out as far as I can, arching my back and poking my belly out. Mama smiles. She smiles! I have not seen Mama do that in days. This makes me very happy.
Mama reaches her long, lovely fingers out and begins to scratch my belly. This almost makes me forget I’m hungry. I love belly scratches. Mama knows just where to go, too, scratching in that glorious space where my front legs meet my chest.
I purr so loudly that Mama says, “That’s my good boy, Pho.”
I watch Mama as she smiles. Any minute now she’s going to throw off the covers and exclaim, “Who’s hungry!” Then she will not only give me kibble but the gooey yummy fishy food that comes in the little silver packets. She does not give me those every day, so on the days I get those I know I am a very, very good boy.
Mama’s eyes drift over to the empty pillow and her smile fades. She stops rubbing me and rolls back over, pulling the covers up tightly around her head. Drat.
I roll over and curl up on Daddy’s empty pillow, thinking over my next steps. The belly rubs generally have the effect of getting Mama up, but today it would seem that I need to get creative. Drastic, maybe.
My tummy rumbles.
Daddy’s pillow still smells of him. There is the scent of sweat and an underlying bad smell. Something my nose does not like. Mama seems to like it though. She fell asleep hugging Daddy’s pillow last night. I can smell her on it, too. Salty and sweet. Perhaps she misses Daddy? I know I do. He gave the best chin scritchies.
I have an idea. I walk over the giant duvet lump that is Mama and step gingerly over to her end table, where she keeps her impenetrable water bottle, as well as a stack of books — a fact Daddy used to make fun of her for, when everything in their lives was what he called “digital” — and a photo of her and Daddy.
I like this photo, not just because I am in it and I am a beautiful and handsome boy. Daddy is holding me in one hand, lifting me up to Mama’s delight. I am not much more than a ball of black fluff with bright green eyes, but they love me. This picture was taken back on Phobos, the moon for which I am named, where we lived for many years. Mama and Daddy were happier there, I think. We were around more people, and there were more cats. I am the only cat here on the surface, I think. Mama and Daddy were not supposed to bring me to the outpost, but they said they weren’t going down to the dusty, rusty surface of Mars without their baby. I did not like the descent. It was scary and made me feel very sick, but Daddy cradled me in his suit and whispered to me the whole time.
I look over at Mama, and her eyes are closed. She seems to have fallen back asleep, even though I know the bright sun has been up for a long time. I need to get her up, because the room smells faintly of sick humans and sweat, and Mama does not seem to want to groom herself. I groom myself often, because I’m a very pretty boy.
The room smelled worse before Daddy left, like something on the verge of death. I did not like to come into the dark room where Daddy was.
I arch my back and rub it along the picture, which is what Mama calls an antique because it is made of metal and glass, not a slick screen like everything else in our outpost. It feels good to rub the picture frame with my back. Maybe Mama will see me rubbing it and look at the picture and remember I am her cute and good boy and will feed me.
The picture frame moves as I rub it, then it falls off the nightstand and onto the floor. My ears hear the crack of the glass and the sharp intake of Mama’s breath as her eyes pop open. They are red and dull and very angry.
“Pho!” she says as she sits up, her hair disheveled and dirty.
The anger washes down her face and all that’s left is sadness when she looks at the picture frame face down on the floor. I jump down to sniff it, and she lifts it.
Mama begins to cry, and I know I have not been a good boy, though now she is sitting up and she will feed me.
She stands up and walks toward the door to the living area, and I go ahead of her. I turn to look, though, and she closes the door.
I meow at Mama, hoping she will come out and feed me, but she doesn’t.
I sit and look at the door, and I can hear Mama crying.
I am sad.
I am hungry.
I lay on the floor in contemplation.
Sick of moping, I head into the kitchen of our living quarters and sniff my bowl. There is no kibble left, but it smells like food and that makes my tummy grumble louder. Mama keeps the food in a cabinet, but all of the cabinets are metal and impossible for me to open. Back on Phobos, we had a little robot in the kitchen who would feed me. I liked the little robot. His name was Kiko.
We could not bring Kiko to the outpost because Mama and Daddy said we had to pack light and that Mars would have everything we needed, but when we got here they were sad to find that the outpost was dirty and the tech was outdated. There was no Kiko.
I hop on the counter and sniff around, hoping Mama has left something out that I can eat, but the shiny metal counters are clean. I have not seen Mama eat in a few days, so there are not even food items on the ground I can sniff.
There are several orange bottles on the counter that hold very small things Mama calls “pills.” These are for Daddy. He started taking them after we got to Mars. Mama and Daddy talked many nights about how Mars was making him sick and that they should go home. This was exciting to me, because I do not like the outpost and I very much liked our home on Phobos, though I did not want to get back on the big, loud ship. I would do it, though, if it meant we could go home.
Mama sat with me by the windowsill a lot when Daddy was sick. She told me to watch for a ship that would take us home and make him better. She said they were coming any day.
I bat at the pill bottles, knocking a few off the counter, hoping the sound will wake up Mama. I wait, but she does not come.
The sun streams through the large window in the kitchen, and I hop over to the deep window sill to warm myself. The sun is very bright down here, and I like to lay in the warmth and look out, though there is not much to see.
Everything is red and dusty, and I’m not allowed to go outside. I would like to go outside, but Mama says I cannot. From my window, I can see the long metal walkway we went through when we landed. It took us from where the big, loud ship landed to our outpost.
There is a ship there now. It is not currently loud. It is very quiet. It showed up right after Daddy left, and a few humans in big, puffy suits and fish bowls on their heads came out and tried to come into the outpost, but Mama yelled at them and did not open the door. They called back to her that she needed to let them in and come with them. There was something called a dust storm approaching, and it was dangerous.
I do not like dust. It gets in my fur. There is a lot of dust in our outpost, because it is very old.
After the puffy people went back to their ship, Mama told me that she didn’t care about the dust storm, that she and I would be fine, and that we couldn’t leave Daddy. This confused me, because I could not find Daddy.
She got into bed after that and has not left.
The kitchen in the outpost is not very big, so I jump onto the cabinets to get up high. I like being up high. It helps me think. I need to get back into the bedroom.
There is one way, but I have only done it once and I got very dirty and I did not like it. I rub my back on the dusty metal grate in the wall above the cabinets. It flops open with a clang, and I wait to see if Mama will come at the sound alone.
Inside the grate is a metal hallway that snakes through the outpost, which I do not like to go in because it is so dirty. Some of the dust is red, and it turns my fur a rusty color that I do not like, and it tastes bad when I clean myself.
I am a brave boy. I go into the metal hallway.
The metal moves underneath my paws, and I do not like it, but I keep going. There are many ways to go, but I can smell Mama and the Daddy smell, so I follow it. I stop at the grate above their room. I can see Mama, who is in bed holding the picture frame.
I walk over the grate, hoping it will take me down to Mama, but nothing happens. I stand on the grate and again nothing. Frustrated, I flop down hard.
The grate flips open and I fall onto the bed, onto Mama, who yelps loudly as dust dances down around the room. The dust is pretty, even though it tastes bad and is dirty.
“Pho! What are you doing?”
I meow at Mama, who is looking around at the mess. Now she will get up and feed me and clean the dust and maybe we will get on the big ship and go home.
I meow again, but instead of getting up, Mama just lays back on her pillow and looks up at the open grate in the ceiling.
Mama is not getting up.
I want to go lay on Mama, but I am very dirty, so I hop off the bed onto the metal shelf with all the buttons that make all the things in the room work. Sometimes I like to walk on the buttons and see if I can open the big black things over the windows and see outside. I do not want to do that today, though, because Mama will be mad.
I sit down to clean myself.
Mama is still staring at the ceiling.
I lift my leg to get to a particularly fluffy piece of dirt, and as I do I roll over on several buttons that make fun sounds as I press them. I flop onto my back and roll around, feeling the chunky keys massage my spine. I like the buttons.
I am startled when I hear Daddy’s voice. The big screen in the wall has turned on, and there is Daddy. Mama must be startled, too, because she’s sitting up, staring at Daddy.
I meow at Daddy and jump on the bed.
“Hi Darling,” Daddy is saying. “I know you’re probably in pretty bad shape right about now. I know I would be if I’d just lost you.”
Mama starts crying. I curl up in her lap, and she lays a still hand on my back. She does not care that I am still dirty. I purr loudly to comfort her.
“I know it will probably be awhile before you open these vids, but I wanted to make them for you so you’d have something of me after I’m gone. First, Rhea, let me just say how much I love you. You too, Pho. I’m sure you’re around there somewhere.”
Mama scratches behind my ear at the mention of my name, and when she looks down, it’s like she’s finally seeing me.
Daddy keeps talking on the vid. His eyes are dark and sunken, and he looks very sick, but he’s smiling very wide.
“It’s too late for me to return to Phobos. We both know that. But you should go, my love. Take Pho and go home when the ship comes. I know you, and I know you’re probably sitting there shaking your head and thinking ‘Oh, that Dane, he’s so fantastic, and I can never live a day without him.’” Daddy cracks a wide smile, and Mama laughs. “But seriously, you need to go. The comps have mapped the storm, and the outpost won’t survive it. You won’t survive it. Pho won’t survive it. I won’t be there for you guys, but I need you to be there for each other.”
Mama squeezes me and I purr louder.
“So, Rhea, when the ship comes, I need you to get on it. I’m sorry I can’t go with you, but I’m dust in the burn shoot. You can still make it out. Please. For me. I love you, babe. Take care of Pho.”
The vid goes black, but there are more. Mama and I sit quietly as she pulls up each one. Some are him talking to us again, things we should do before we leave, things he wants us to do back on Phobos. Some are old vids of the three of us. These make Mama sad but also very happy.
After the last vid, Mama looks down at me.
“Ready for breakfast?”
I hop down off the bed and go stand at the closed door to the living quarters. Mama finally gets out of bed, avoiding the pieces of glass from the broken picture frame.
Her movements are stiff as she crosses the room, but she opens the door and follows me to the kitchen, where we eat breakfast and pack for our journey home.
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