The “M” in FOMO stands for Mars
By Laura Pamenter
I roll over in my cot and look out my oval window to the dusty red horizon. My bedsheets are rough on my bare arms, as they’re made from scratchy canvas, locally grown on our cotton-field where I earn my barely liveable salary.
“Be a part of the new world!” they said. “Be the future!”
This doesn’t feel like the future; creaky wooden beds, cloth tunics, and charred fish with mashed potatoes three times a day. But everything must be locally grown and farmed here as part of the new sustainability model.
“It's how we create civilization,” they said. “Starting from the ground up.”
I reach under my bed to grab a small wooden box, painted with the initials of all my best friends from back home. I lift the bronze latch and dig through the collection of farewell cards with my name in bold, sparkly letters, and I sift through the trinkets; things that mattered at home; my smartwatch, an e-cigarette, an empty tube of mascara. These are all useless now, retired objects from my past, reminding me of the simple life when I could pop to a Sephora when my makeup supply ran out, or to a convenience store when I needed a new cig cartridge. But the most useless item is what I snatch up and cradle like a long-lost child…my smartphone.
Its battery is just above eight percent now. I had been powering it off since we got here and had managed to keep it from dying for the past two weeks; an impressive feat if you ask anyone. But despite my commitment to sustaining its life, its power bar had continued to drain away into yellow, then red.
I hold it to my chest and sigh. I don’t see why it would be so difficult to have an outlet in my room. We have electricity, for lighting—though it flickers frequently and goes out anytime there is a mild sandstorm. They said there would only be necessities for the first few months and apparently that only includes food, hygiene, shelter, clothing, and emotional support.
I scoff at that last one; the only emotional support I need is to laugh at a few VidLog videos or scroll through Grammable to see what my friends are doing. How was Tiffany’s twenty-sixth birthday? Did Miranda have her baby yet? What does my little sister look like now, is she as tall as me?
But instead, all I get is rejection when I open any of those apps now. Even my puzzle game won’t open properly—it's behind on its updates and won’t move past the buffering page. My music won’t play either, as I had nothing saved. I had always relied on streaming through Lisenly. Just think of all the new songs. Think of the new artists. If Ali Fox has released a new album without me, I think I might just cry.
The only thing I can do is glance through my photos—the ones that are downloaded as the cloud seems to have evaporated out here—and reminisce of a time before the four walls of my tiny room were all I owned. I count my friends in the photos to remind myself that they exist, somewhere, out there, thriving without me. If only I could latch onto some cosmic force for even a second, some intergalactic network where I could access my old life. Just enough to refresh my Grammable feed, just enough to not feel so alone.
“The future isn’t vegan quite yet,” I text my sister. The message bubble pops up on the screen but the blue bar at the top stops before completing its journey. I type it again. And again. Sending it over and over until I can feel a tear toying with the edge of my eye-line, threatening to spill over.
I text my friends. Of course, the messages never deliver. But I like to pretend they do. I like to pretend I have someone to talk to, even if it appears they are ghosting me. But as time crawls forward, one lousy meal and one bag of cotton at a time, the harder it is to pretend.
I could write a letter, I decide. Just like they did in the olden days during the first world war, maybe even the second—I’m pretty sure by the third they had at least advanced to email, but I was never too good at history. But a letter would require paper, and a pen; things I hadn’t used in a very, very long time. The future isn’t environmental, clearly.
I decide to pull on my walnut brown tunic and tie it off at the waist with a suede belt. Then I slip on my issued pair of grey slippers, the ones everyone wears around the compound. They look ridiculously tame next to my work shoes—thick, white anti-gravity boots. Then I store my belongings back under my twin bed and leave my room, tightly shutting the heavy wooden door behind me.
The mail centre is only about a five-minute walk from my room, down the long corridor of carpeted floors and story-high windows which look onto the flat, red planet. These windows are reinforced about a thousand times so that no matter how many drunken lunatics stumble into them after a long night at the bar, there won’t be a breach in our oxygen system.
The mailroom is marked by a hanging sign of a paper airplane that swings above my head, as if in flight. A large square of plywood flooring and beamed ceilings make up the room, which is lined with a series of cubicles for letter writing, and a long desk where a man with curled brown hair leans onto his elbows, watching me. I blush as I feel his eyes, dark brown like black coffee, survey me, touching every inch of my sack outfit. I mindlessly tug at my frock and smooth my blonde ringlets behind my ears, suddenly wary of how ridiculous these outfits are.
“I didn’t expect to see anyone around this time,” the man says, looking down at his empty wrist. He frowns as his cheeks go red, then looks back up at me. “It's funny…” he chuckles. “I still find myself emulating old behaviours; checking my watch, reaching for my phone, tapping the side of my head for my spectral glasses.”
“I know what you mean.” I smile. Then I hold up my wrist, waving my old silver watch at him. “My smart watch died a week ago… but this is my great-grandmothers. My mother found some batteries for it in some old collector shop and replaced them before I left. It can’t do much, but it does tell time.” He laughs.
“You’re funny,” he says. “How long since the start of your placement?”
“Two weeks tomorrow,” I say. “Cottonfields.”
“Mm, fun. I’ve got you beat though; three months.” My eyes widen.
“One for training, two workings. Mail was an urgent matter. People need connection.”
“Tell me about it,” I mutter. “I’m down to the last digits on my phone battery. I don’t see why I can’t have access to an outlet anywhere.” I know the limited electricity is to blame, but it is easier to complain than to understand.
“I don’t know, I don’t mind it. It's nice to have a break from all that.”
“Social media, surveillance, knowing where everyone is and what they’re doing at all times. It was a little much sometimes, don’t you think?” I shrug.
“I guess,” I say. Pfft, clearly someone had no followers. “How does this letter thing work, anyway?” he smirks, and it rubs me the wrong way, like a one-star massage parlour. I hate the way he enjoys my ignorance.
“Paper and pens are in the cubicle, write it, sign it, then come talk to me. I’ll need your ID and personnel number, and the name and address of who you would like to send it to.”
“How long will it take?”
“The letters won’t go out until the next trip back to Earth…” he turns his head to a yellow calendar hanging on the corkboard behind him. “…Won’t be until April.” I frown.
“Yes. It’ll be faster on the returning end though, if your recipient gets back to you quickly, anyway. There are frequent shipments coming up here.”
I sigh and thank him, then walk to the cubicle closest to the desk and scooch in. There’s a large stack of cardstock paper and black and blue ballpoint pens on the left, and a tray of different colour envelopes on the right. I grab one of each and stare down at the empty page, unsure after all this time what to say; there is so much that I’ve missed, but now that I look at the white sheet, all I can think about is what I’ve experienced the past two weeks.
Dear Mom, I begin. The words fall out quickly now, like when I used to catch up with my friends once returning from camp at the end of the summer. It was different back then, as they had received frequent text updates, but there always were some things that needed to be said face-to-face, free of the permanence of technology.
I ask about my favourite celebrities; Ali Fox, BENTO$, Marina Elevado, and inquire about any new ones. I tell her about the meal plans and the horrid clothes here, and my job in the fields, picking cotton, sweating in my skin-tight spacesuit, oxygen mask, and anti-gravity boots. I can feel my heart get tight as I tell her about my non-existent friends and all the people I’ve met; my supervisor, the cafeteria lady, and, I suppose, the mailman. Part of me wants to scrunch it up and toss it away. It's too sad, pathetic. But part of me hopes she’ll sense the loneliness in my words, the weakness in the way I cross my T’s and the lack of hearts above my I’s. Maybe then she’ll demand my presence home and I’ll “begrudgingly” comply, resign, pack up my singular bag of belongings and board the next trip home.
I sign my name and swallow my pride like a large fish oil vitamin, then drop my sealed letter at the desk.
“Delilah Danes, 557803,” I say. The mailman punches in my information to a computer that looks like something from the documentaries we saw in school about early 2000’s technology. “Hellen Danes, 67 Crescent Avenue, Brimstone Ontario.”
“Your mother?” he asks. I nod. “She must miss you.”
I nod, too afraid to open my mouth and croak out a non-descript sentence, or worse, a full-on sob.
“James, by the way. My name is James Feilding.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“I know.” He smirks—he likes to do that. Something about me must entertain him. “But you look like you could use a friend.” I roll my eyes.
“I have friends.” Somewhere, far away.
“My bad,” he says. “So, I guess you wouldn’t want to meet mine then, over lunch?”
I consider this for a moment. I’d rather be with my own friends, but since that’s not an option I suppose spending a couple hours with him is better than laying back down on my itchy bed until my next shift starts.
“Alright.” I give a tight smile.
“Great. My shift is done in five.”
After we spend five minutes making conversation about the sour pudding at the dessert bar (there is no weather out here to fill the small talk with), James locks up the room behind him, where shelves of letters are stored confidentially, awaiting their long journey back to our native planet. He shoves the keys into his uniform pocket—a tunic over grey linen pants—and nods towards the exit.
I follow him down the long, carpeted corridor, passing other rooms which have become familiar; the bathrooms, the garbage room, one of the entertainment lounges, an indoor pool, and a fitness center. At the end of the hall on the left, there is a large barn door with an iron chicken sign swinging above. The door opens to a wide indoor farmhouse with pigs and chickens and goats and a couple cows. It’s the smallest of the farm rooms, but it provides breakfast, lunch, and dinner for this section of the compound.
On the left is my favourite (no, not the kitchen). There’s a small green door with no sign. But inside is a gigantic greenhouse with three-story windows and a peaked glass ceiling. There’s an abundance of vibrant green foliage crawling out of every crevice and wrapping its spindly vines around the extravagant fountain in the middle, which spews water like fireworks.
At the end of the hall is the cafeteria, the largest room in our section. There are rows upon rows of blue tables with yellow benches in the vast, white-walled area, neatly lined up in perfect, boring symmetry. In the middle, there is a circular room, the kitchen, with a wrap-around counter of buffet-style food open three times a day, and four times—for a midnight snack—on the weekends.
“Hey, guys!” James calls out to a table of two. The cafeteria is relatively empty as most people take their lunch break in the outdoor cafeteria with their co-workers—people here are still amazed by the red dirt beyond glass the shields. I would rather look through the glass of my smartphone, however.
“James! Who’s your friend?” a bouncy-voiced redhead asks. She has curly hair like mine and freckles scattered across her pale cheeks.
“This is Delilah,” he says, “Cotton-fields.”
“Cotton?” the other one asks; a male with dark skin and a pearly white grin. “I’m in wheat! We’re practically neighbours.” He chuckles. “My name’s Gin, by the way.” He extends a fist and I awkwardly bump it.
“And I’m Talia,” says the redhead, giving a shy wave. Then she pats the yellow bench beside her, and I scooch in, sitting across from James and his luscious brown waves and curious eyes.
After the tension subsides, everything clicks into place like a missing puzzle piece. The gang asks me about home, and I spare no detail, telling them of my mother and all my friends, my old dog Pluto and how I graduated from a top university for agriculture. I tell them how my favourite teacher Dr. Grant presented me with the opportunity to come to populate the new world after I graduated top of their class. He helped me write my application on what I would do for Mars, and what it could do for me. I loved Earth and missed everyone dearly, but there was something so suffocating about the sky-high towers blocking off every view of the oceans, and how there was a solution to every problem with a snap of your fingers. I was scared, but I was ready for change.
Talia and Gin had similar experiences; Professors recommended them for their roles, Talia for horticulture and Gin for agriculture and food production. James, however, sought it out. He had dreamed of being an astronaut when he was younger, desperate to get some space from an overcrowded, overpopulated world where everyone was so invested in the online realm.
I don’t understand James’ resentment of the internet at first, but as the weeks tick by, I start to see what he means. There is something so different about the way he looks at me in the eyes and how he says my name versus types it.
A month passes and Talia convinces me to join dodgeball intramurals and we play against her cousin Alice and her girlfriend. I start to enjoy it so much, that I find myself racing through work to finish my cotton quota to get home and exchange my uniform for my shorts and jersey.
After about two months of batting eyelashes and subtle hints, James finally asks me out to dinner and a movie at our quadrants one restaurant and theatre—we have roast beef because I am tired of fish, and we watch a screening of a film from the olden days about a bunch of dinosaurs coming back to life.
Even Gin and I work up a repertoire of inside jokes about our jobs out in the fields. We laugh and poke fun at our supervisors every time they sing their little rhymes about how “wheat, wheat is good to eat,” and “If you don’t pick the cotton rows, what will we wear for our clothes?”
By the time I clock out of work on the first day of May, I have forgotten all about my letter home.
“Delilah,” James calls. He runs down the hall towards me, as I fumble for my room key, clutching a handful of letters in his hand. He kisses me first, then hands the stack to me. “Letters, for you,” he says, “I have to get back to work, but I wanted you to have them. Immediately.” Then he kisses me once more and runs away.
Instantly I tear open the envelopes, one at a time, and devour the words my friends and family have sent me. There’s news on all my favourite celebrities, and updates on their lives. But what strikes me the most is the tone of sadness in their words, as if they are writing to a sick relative. We hope you’re happy. You can always come home. We wish you the best.
I put down the letter and smile, then realize I need to write back, immediately. Because while I no longer care for updates on such pointless things, I need them to know that I am happy, and I am no longer alone. In fact, I’ve never felt so connected.
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I really enjoyed reading this story. Like Tommie said, you have a confident writing style. My only critique is a bit of a nitpick, but I think some of the worldbuilding details could have been thought out better. For example, you mention that WWIII happened, long enough ago in the past that Delilah doesn't know if paper letters were still the primary mode of long-distance communication then, but people still use "smartphones," that have apps which are clear analogs for things we have today, and talk like any modern day 20-something. I th...
This was nice :)
Oh Laura! This story warms my heart so much. I really saw it like a montage in a movie! My favorite line was: Pfft, clearly someone had no followers. You did an excellent job creating this story. Thank you for writing this piece and congratulations on getting shortlisted.
Yay, I'm so excited to see your story shortlisted! It was one of my favorites this week - and I see that it's your first submission. Congratulations - I do hope to see more of your writing in the future.
Congrats on the shortlist! I saw it on your profile and had to say something :)
Was it shortlisted?! I’m new to this so I don’t even know where to see that! 😂 But thank you!
Well, I saw it on your profile, but I don’t know if you’ll be able to see it until the results of the contest come out!
I see it now! I got an email :) thank you again!
I love this story! Your writing flows so smoothly, your voice is clear, and Delilah has a nice and well-paced arc. I can’t believe this is your first submission—I would guess you’ve been at these short stories forever. Well-deserved shortlist! —Tommie Michele
Thank you so much for the kind feedback! 😊 I’ll definitely be submitting more stories going forward!