The alarm rang, and the twins dashed toward the veranda. As they stepped outside, the chilly night air on Mars brushed against their flushed cheeks. Between high-pitched giggles, they muttered their “excuse me”s and gently shoved each other to reach the brand-new telescope.
“Ow! You little cheat!” Sayaka grabbed Hikaru’s arm and half-heartedly pulled her.
“I beat you to it, Sayaka!” Hikaru yelped. “Get in line and wait your turn!” The girls panted. Clouds of white breath puffed from their mouths.
With one eye glued to the eyepiece, Hikaru crouched on the deck. She held her breath as she peered into the lens. Still a gray dot in the distance, a space station orbited overhead. Further beyond, a bright blue-white sphere loomed. Quite the contrast to a badly terraformed Mars.
“See that, Sayaka? It’s Earth.” Hikaru’s voice bounced with excitement.
“Hey, it’s my turn, sis!” Sayaka whined in mock anger, gently elbowing her sister.
The sisters fought for their turns to gaze through the telescope. Kaori came in a couple of times, once to bring her daughters sweaters and later to leave a tray of milk and chocolate chip cookies.
“Here, girls. Eat these and have fun.” Kaori kissed the girls on the cheek and stroked their hair. “Good night. See you two in the morning.”
“Good night, Mom.” They grabbed a handful of cookies, stuffed them in their pockets, and returned to the telescope.
When they were little girls, their grandmother told them about her home planet Earth.
“Where is it, Grandma Taeko?” a young Sayaka asked with a tilt of her head.
Taeko’s eyes disappeared into a grin.
“Is it far? When can we go?” Hikaru asked, pulling Taeko’s sleeve. Taeko grabbed a picture book from the shelf and opened a page with a picture of a blue sphere.
“Why is it so blue?” Sayaka wondered aloud. Much of Mars remained desert despite decades of terraforming effort. It was an eccentric billionaire’s brilliant idea. Many thought it was quirky at best, reckless at worst. Disowned by his parents, Grandpa Jiro joined the expedition, and later saved up money to send for his wife. Kaori was among the first babies born on the haphazardly colonized red planet.
“How come we have no sea like that, Grandma?” Hikaru asked almost simultaneously. Their city consisted of transparent biodomes containing an artificial atmosphere mimicking Earth’s. The largest pool of water was the swimming pool at the girls’ school.
As they flipped the pages, their eyes sparkled with interest. Colorful images transported them to different worlds. The sun gleamed off the crystal blue water. Colors danced on the emerald waves. Fish jumped above the surface, and the sunlight caught on their silver scales.
While the girls grew up, grown-ups and children alike showered them with silly twin-related questions. Sayaka couldn’t speak for her sister, but she hated to be mistaken for Hikaru. That always ruined her day. Or her entire week. More than anything else, she hated the cliché of finishing each other’s sentences.
While Sayaka played alone in the schoolyard, chasing her own shadow, Kumiko came up to her. “Sayaka, tell your big sister I need my Harry back,” she said. Harry was her stuffed animal. A misshaped monkey, to be exact.
“Excuse me?” Sayaka snapped. “Why don’t you tell her that yourself? And she’s not my big sister. For your information, I was born first.”
“Gee, Sayaka. Calm down, will you? You’re her sister!” Kumiko whined and pouted. “Can’t you just communicate with her via telepathy?”
Sayaka hit the girl in the face, and Kumiko burst into tears and ran away. Sayaka immediately felt sorry. Her mother always told her to be patient.
“At least she didn’t mistake me for my sister,” Sayaka mumbled and went back to her solitary hopscotch.
Years passed. Mars needed a constant supply of engineers to advance its terraforming efforts. Yet Earth stopped sending them when the eccentric billionaire got bored with his pet project. Now the newly established University of Mars educated local youth through a mix of in-person classes and online learning courtesy of Earth. When the girls turned eighteen, they entered the university.
A gentle spring breeze tickled Sayaka’s bare arms as she stood in her graduation gown among her classmates on the podium. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. She looked back, and Hikaru smiled at her. Sayaka nodded and smiled back as Hikaru gently squeezed her girlfriend Natsuki’s hand. In the distance, Sayaka spotted Kaori among the attendees. Applause and whistling broke out and then ebbed away. Sayaka stepped forward as her name was called. She received her diploma as Dr. Nakane mumbled her congratulations and gave her a hug.
After the ceremony, the twins ran toward their mother.
“I’m so proud of you two.” Tears of joy welled up in Kaori’s eyes as they formed a three-way hug. “I got you two a graduation present. A trip to Earth!”
The girls’ faces lit up. “Thanks, Mom. We love you!”
Afterward, Kaori drove the girls to a restaurant bar downtown. A clamor filled the hot indoor air. The three squeezed through a crowd hovering around the salad bar and sat at a table by the window. Outside, office workers on lunch breaks scurried by. Ten minutes later, Natsuki and her father Hiroshi joined them.
“Hope we didn’t keep you waiting too long,” Hiroshi said. “The traffic is terrible at this hour.”
“No, not at all,” Kaori said with a smile. “We’re drinking iced tea.”
After the meal, the girls went to the restroom.
“Sayaka, promise me you won’t get upset,” Hikaru said when they washed their hands in front of the restroom mirror.
“Gee. How am I supposed to promise when I have no idea what you’re going to say!” Sayaka stared at Hikaru’s reflection. Her twin. Her soulmate at birth.
“I can’t go with you, Sayaka. Natsuki and I have accepted job offers at Terraforming Mars Inc. We’re adults now.” Hikaru seemed to exclude Sayaka from her post-college plans. “They want us to start next week.” Hikaru met Natsuki in high school, and their mutual interest in synthetic biology brought them close. In their first year of college, they both chose to major in the same subject, taking classes together and growing closer. More interested in literature, Sayaka was the official third wheel. Her English degree was useless on Mars.
“I’m happy for you, sis. I really am. But we’ve done everything together,” Sayaka protested. “Well, almost everything.”
“I know, but this shouldn’t stop you. Go, Sayaka,” Hikaru said. “You have less responsibility. Besides, it’s been your dream to visit Earth.” The sisters hugged and broke apart.
On the spaceship, Sayaka kept pretty much to herself. It was a cargo ship with hardly any passengers, mostly roguish men who gave her lewd stares. The prospect of being cooped up in her small cabin for eight long months was daunting even for her. Good thing her tablet was loaded with eBooks. Still, Sayaka was glad when she at last reached her destination. As the spaceship descended, her window yielded a new yet familiar view of meadows, hills, and valleys.
“Is this your first visit to Earth?” a uniformed officer asked as she flipped through the crisp pages of Sayaka’s newly issued passport.
“Yes,” Sayaka nodded.
She scanned Sayaka’s immunization record in the embedded chip, handed her passport back to her, and gestured for her to proceed. “Welcome to Earth.”
After she left the stuffy airport, Sayaka checked into a seaside youth hostel. Before unpacking, she decided to take a stroll. A sea breeze caressed Sayaka’s cheek as she walked along the beach. She greeted the occasional visitors crossing her path.
A young man threw his frisbee in the air, and his dog ran after the disk as it whipped through the balmy afternoon air. He turned, and his gaze locked with Sayaka’s.
“I’ve never seen you around here,” the young man said. “Are you here on vacation?” His smile disarmed her instantly.
“I’m from Mars,” Sayaka said.
“You don’t say. You’re the first Martian girl I’ve met. How do you like it here so far?”
“It’s nice,” Sayaka answered.
“I’m Kenta,” the young man said, extending his hand. “And this is Sora. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Sayaka.” She shook his hand. “Is Sora a boy?”
“Yes, he is. Are you a dog person? Or a cat person?”
“I don’t know. We don’t have any pets back home.”
The fragrance of salt wafted in the air. She dipped her feet into the frothy edge. Sand coated her wet feet.
“You seem like a nice girl, Sayaka. I’d like to get to know you,” Kenta said. “Tell me something about yourself.”
I’m a twin. That was the first thing that came to her. Yet, she pushed it out of her mind. She bit her lower lip as if to control her emotions. Was it possible she resented her sister in some way? Her beloved Hikaru? “I’ve been always close to my sister,” she said instead. “But I think I’m ready to strike out on my own.”
“I know what you mean, Sayaka. While growing up, I was always compared to my brother, Hiroshi. Dad still compares us. Hiroshi studied accounting in college. I went to art school. Dad says I won’t be able to escape the life of a starving artist. Hiroshi’s Dad’s favorite.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Not anymore.” Kenta shook his head. Sora followed close behind him.
“I grew up.” Cloaked in the sun, Kenta looked radiant. “I’m happy with my life. I don’t need to imitate my brother.” He smiled.
“Maybe that’s what I need, Kenta. Growing up.”
When Kenta walked her to her hostel, it was twilight. They exchanged phone numbers and hugs before they said goodnight. Through her window, Sayaka gazed at the sea as the sinking sun touched the horizon.
Three months later, Sayaka modeled for Kenta in his studio. Sketches, photos, and half-done paintings lay scattered on the floor. Sora walked in and lay down under her feet.
“Look how pretty you are, Sayaka.” Kenta showed her a convincing likeness, a tenderly rendered face with warm eyes and an animated mouth. For some reason, the portrait didn’t remind her of Hikaru. It was Sayaka, not her sister.
“Is that really me?” Sora wiggled his ears, but remained in his spot.
Afterward, they dined by candlelight in a small restaurant. She reached across the table and curled the ends of his hair with her finger.
“I like your hair like this. When I met you, it wasn’t long enough to do this.”
“I know. I’m superstitious. When I meet a girl I really like, I grow my hair. Until I manage to catch her eye, that is.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re going to cut it now!”
“Well, I have to. Like I said, I’m superstitious.”
“Kenta, you’re silly.”
They both laughed.
Earth was what Sayaka had imagined, and more. When her internship at a small press turned into a permanent position, she and Kenta went back to the restaurant of their first date to mark the occasion.
Later that night, Sayaka went online to video chat with her sister. “Hey, sis. Guess what? I got a full-time job! My degree is worth something, after all.”
“Way to go, Sayaka! I’m so proud of you,” Hikaru beamed. “But you won’t be back for my wedding?” While Sayaka’s spaceship slowly crawled toward Earth, her sister had become engaged to Natsuki. With millions of miles between the sisters, their relationship was no longer the same.
“I’m afraid not,” Sayaka sighed. “I wish I had two separate bodies. But I’m starting a new job. Like you, I must act like a responsible adult.”
Sayaka missed her sister’s wedding and vice-versa. But they played each other’s video messages in front of their respective guests. A few years later, she gave birth to her son, Shogo. He was almost identical to Kenta in his old photos.
Over the years, Sayaka found a mixture of joy and sorrow in stargazing. Like sibling rivalry, hope was a mixed bag of emotions. One evening, she put on a sweater and stepped out on the veranda. The stars shone like diamond specks. Hope glistened in her eyes before turning into sorrow. She fought back tears as she sensed someone joining her.
“Mom, what are you looking at?” Shogo’s voice came from behind her.
“The stars, sweetie.”
“Obviously. That’s not what I’m asking. Do you miss your home?”
“Yes, I do.” Sayaka swallowed her words. “I miss my . . . never mind. Don’t be silly. My home is here.” Sayaka brushed Shogo’s hair and kissed him on the forehead. He’d grown inches in the last year. Soon he’d be taller than his mother.
Shooting stars dashed across the sky like tears.
BIO: Toshiya Kamei is a fiction writer whose short stories have appeared in venues such as New World Writing, Trembling With Fear, and Utopia Science Fiction.