Congratulations to the 2018 Stair Prize in Writing winner, 7th grader Lydia Cooper, for her short story on the theme "Mars and Magnolia". The Stair Prize, funded by the Ralph Stair Foundation and administered by the Friends of the Jan Platt Library, is awarded to a single middle school student in Hillsborough County.
Mars and Magnolia
by Lydia Cooper
John, commander of the spacecraft Magnolia, watched out of the window as the ground fell away beneath him. A girl poked her head into the compartment. “Commander, we’ve repaired the engines,” she said.
“Great job, Stella,” said John. “Tell Carter to check the spacesuits.”
“We’ve already looked. They’re in perfect condition,” she replied as she exited.
John spoke through his transmitter. “The engines had a slight problem, but Stella managed to fix them up. All her reading must have paid off,” he said. “Anyway, they probably malfunctioned when we left for the new planet.” Magnolia began to vibrate as they approached the outer edges of the atmosphere. John watched the fiery gases rush past the window for a few moments, then he stuck his head through the door. As usual, Stella was reading, while Carter was staring out the window.
“Hey, we’re almost through the atmosphere,” he said. “You’d better prepare for weightlessness.” Stella flashed him a thumbs up and returned to her book. Carter followed John back to the command room.
“This is so awesome!” he yelled.
“Keep it down,” said John. The vibrations stopped, and Carter floated up to the ceiling. John had strapped himself into his seat.
“We’ve left the atmosphere and we’re heading for Mars,” he reported. Carter somersaulted through the air and back into the other room. Stella was still reading, even though she was floating. Carter, who considered reading a waste of time, decided she was a hopeless case and returned to the window. A twinkling light shone in the black sky. Mars. Stella set her book down (it floated away) and she glided through the air to join Carter.
“There’s Mars,” he said, pointing. “It looks really close, doesn’t it?”
But a trip to Mars takes a long time. By the end of the third day in outer space, Carter was already complaining. “We’ll probably never get to Mars,” he prophesied. “Magnolia will break down and we’ll be lost forever!”
Stella rolled her eyes at his predictions of gloom. “Magnolia will be fine,” she said. “Oh, not again!” Her bookmark had floated out of her book.
“Did you know that Mars is red because of the iron it’s made of?” Stella said. “The iron rusts and turns red.” Carter wasn’t paying attention. She had been spouting information about Mars for the past half hour, and although it was undeniably interesting, Carter had grown tired of it.
“It would be neat to live on Mars.” he said.
“You can’t live on Mars!” Stella gasped, shocked. “It can’t sustain life! You’d have to build an artificial ecosystem and—”
“I still think it would be neat to live on Mars.”
Stella sighed. She decided Carter was a hopeless case.
After several long months of space travel, John finally told his two fellow astronauts to strap themselves in for landing, and Magnolia glided to a stop on the rocky surface of Mars. They descended the ladder and stood on the uneven ground of the Red Planet, staring in awe at their surroundings. Mars was a rusty wasteland of rocks and dust.
“This is amazing!” yelled Carter. “I totally want to live here!”
John picked up a stone. “It is amazing,” he agreed.
Carter skipped across the rocky ground. “Check out this mountain!” he shouted.
“That’s Olympus Mons,” said Stella knowledgeably. “It’s the largest volcano in our solar system at 15.5 miles high.”
“Wow, hope it erupts!” said Carter enthusiastically.
“I believe it’s inactive,” said Stella.
After hours of exploring the Red Planet, collecting samples, and taking notes, John signaled that it was finally time to leave. The three astronauts climbed back into Magnolia and watched the rapidly receding planet.
“The mission was a success.” John said through his transmitter.
Their return journey was as long as the first one, but finally John was able to report that they were drawing near to Earth. “We are now approaching the atmosphere,” he said, as Earth’s blue curve appeared before him. Is that smoke? he wondered, sniffing the air. John began preparing for landing as he watched Mars dwindling into a tiny dot behind Magnolia.
The door burst open and Carter appeared, looking terrified. “The engines are failing! If they break down, we won’t be able to re-enter the atmosphere, and we’ll be trapped in outer space forever!”
John leapt up as Stella dashed in. “One of the engines is on fire!” she cried. All three raced towards the back of the rocket but stopped short as blazing flames leapt up in their path. The flames crept slowly nearer.
“Maybe we can escape, if we’re able to land quickly,” said John, trying to sound calm.
“No!” shrieked Stella, not trying to sound calm at all. “Our heat shield isn’t working! The atmosphere is burning hot—if we enter it, Magnolia will explode!” John and Carter stared at her in horror.
“We’ve got to try it! The heat shield might be in better condition than you think,” said John.
“Okay,” said Stella nervously. “Try it.” John dashed back to the command room.
“The controls aren’t working!” he moaned. The three astronauts backed away as the fire spread, crackling as it consumed everything it touched. It licked the floor and walls, filling the rocket with heat.
“Kids, time for bed!” The cry rang through the air. In a moment, the three astronauts trapped in the flaming spaceship vanished, to be replaced by three children huddled on one of the branches of a large magnolia tree. John looked at his siblings and shrugged. They could play astronauts another day. “Come on,” he said. Stella and Carter hopped off the branch and ran towards their house, where their mom stood waiting on the back porch.
Behind them, the magnolia tree which had served as their spacecraft stood silhouetted in the twilight. High above, Mars twinkled in the sky.