Short Story: Will Work For Air

Will Work For Air ©2019 is a short story from the Author Jasmine Clark. If you wish to use this story, please obtain the appropriate permission.

Breathe! Breathe! That’s what I thought that day when Marmite Man turned blue.  He got that name from his sneaky stash.  Food like that was preserved long before even his birth, so there was plenty to go around; but even that couldn’t keep him breathing when his mask failed.  We were all in the large open field near the old stadium; miles from home.  There was nothing any of us could do for him.  There he was, going from blue to purple.  It kind of looked like the night sky sometimes, when the sun would be all done setting down and the blossom pink with lavender and auburn would be long gone.  His chest kept moving up and down in a pattern, then erratic like a machine that lost control.  In minutes he was gone, still wearing his mask, unable to get relief.  Not even taking it off could have helped; it would have made his death quicker though.

We stood over him like that, me, Boulder Boy and Cliff.  I thought we should try to cover him, but even I knew how stupid that was, so I kept my mouth shut.  Boulder Boy was a year older than me but big as all hell; a tall boy with broad shoulders.  He suggested we keep it moving and head home quick before the flies and animals had time to catch the dead man’s scent.  Cliff agreed and I nodded to show my compliance.  We took the dirt road towards our home.  It was soft with dead land and crushed flowers.  Many traveled on it, so after a while it was like any paved street that used to litter the land all that time ago.  I took shallow breaths as my tank was starting to run low.  Boulder Boy caught my eye and then my mask.  I’d hate to think I too would end up like Marmite Man, suffocating like that, then to have my things taken away to be sold; my body rotting away without so much as a respectful goodbye from the ones I love.  It was a pretty shit way to go.  

The three of us could see the small shapes of what would be our homes.  The more we walked the bigger it became.   Thirty minutes later and we split ways; I went to my little slice of hell.  The housing blocks were like giant cubes with giant tanks on each section.  The tanks were like the ones we carry, but obviously bigger.  I went into my block which my family shared with two other families.  Miss Blitz and Mr. Heap would always greet me no matter what time of day I’d come back.  Here I was, just a girl of nine working hours at a time, and yet they always seemed to be here.  My Pa called them lazy bastards because they would sell their kid in another town for days at a time.  Most of the housing blocks were like this one, but a few were better off.  They had better filtration systems for their air and water.  Sometimes, they would have extra filters and tools they would give away, but for a price.  That had been Miss Blitz and Mr. Heap’s thirteen year old daughter.  

I went to my little corner of the large room I shared only with my parents and sister.  The common place such as the bath and kitchen were shared, but this large room was “private”.  I had a corner that was shielded by a dresser.  It was pretty stupid, but at the time it made me feel like I had my own space.  I took off my mask slowly as it peeled from my face.  Then I slowly disassembled my tank and cleaned the hose.  After scrubbing the mask and refilling the tank with air from our home, I let it rest on the floor next to my bedding.  I liked keeping it close, just in case.  A few months before, a housing block had a malfunction with their air filtration system.  Instead of getting air, they got carbon dioxide.  Mom was really afraid and had me and everyone else clean and refill our tanks as soon as we got home.  Better to always have air in the event we couldn’t be home no more, she would say.  

I took a brief rest and filled my lungs.  Filtered air was all I was used to, even for my parents and their parents.  In fact, no one had breathed pure air before, it didn’t exist, anymore.  A long while ago, not sure when, the air outside became toxic.  Some say when you breathe it your skin rips open and you bleed from your eyes.  Horse shit, Kimber would say.  He also lived in our housing block.  A funny man with a sour mouth always had something to say.  

“No one has ever breathed in the real air, not in a real long time, so they don’t know,” he would say.

I wondered a lot about the time before the poison air and the tanks.  I thought of how it must have been to run in fields.  What would it have been like to play in the rain without it burning you?  My mind raced with grand illusions and what ifs.  Carefree thoughts of a stupid child, Cliff would say.  He was fifteen and often teased me when I spoke of my thoughts.  There was a point when I used to care, but lately I didn’t.  He would get into verbal fights with Marmite Man over his crude mouth.  Marmite Man!  Poor guy, without a family and rotting out there.  

“Are you okay Astrid?” asked Mom.

I nodded solemnly, the image of Marmite Man still burned into my vision like when the lights go out all of a sudden and you still see the outlines of the furniture in its wake.  He didn’t have family, so there was no point in mentioning him.  An hour later it was dinner time.  We would all take turns making meals.  Even I had to cater food for a day out of the week.  Pretty stupid for us to take turns when Mr. and Miss Lazy Ass stayed home all day, sucking up the air, Kimber would grumble.  Tonight was my mom’s turn.  It was bland cabbage with bland turnips.  Keeping animals alive was, for the lack of better words, difficult.  So we grew our vegetables in a separate place with its own tank.  Water was hard to buy, so we relied mostly on canned food.  Even that was troublesome to have in stock.  Life, in short, was a struggle.  

At the large table, my family, Kimber, and the Lazy Asses sat and waited for their supper.  As mom put the soup slop in our bowls, the Lazy Asses’ daughter arrived home with a cart full of supplies.  No doubt her payment for her youthful services.  Her parents gleamed with excitement at the plethora of filters, water, cans of food, and hand me down clothes.  They never acknowledged their own child, not once.  Not that she was used to love and comfort.  She listlessly wavered herself to the table after removing her tank.  I didn’t blame her for not cleaning her tank before hand, or washing off that nasty scent she always had when she returned home.  Obviously she was tired and welcomed a hot meal.  Not that it was a worthwhile meal, in fact it was just utter tripe.  However, having it cold would just make it worse.  

“So you went to North Fairly right?” asked Kimber.

The Lazy Asses’ daughter nodded as she slurped the soup.  Even with her low energy and soft bags under her eyes, she was a beauty.  She had fluorescent blue greenish eyes, like every single other person here, but she had specks of red in them.  They were like floating red carp in a blue stream, like in one of those old books I used to love looking at as a toddler.  Her lips were wide and thin; her hair red like blood.  Freckles painted the areas around her nose and upper cheeks.  Shame to be so beautiful, only to be used for such ugliness my mother would say.  

“Astrid, how was work today?” she asked.

Out of all the people in our humble home, she liked to speak to me.  Sometimes, she would only speak to me.  I guess everyone else had their shitty qualities she didn’t like.  My parents, for example were always so judgmental, Kimber was an ass, and her parents simply saw her as a bartering tool for the things they needed.  

“It was rough,” I said.

She looked up at me and smiled.  Clearly nothing I faced out there would ever equal her hell.  Nevertheless, she entered a conversation with me while everyone else listened.  After dinner I went to my room to wash, but before I could, she entered.  Holding her stomach, she grabbed my arm and went into my corner.  Concealed by the dresser, she showed me a filter.  It was for my tank!  Filters should be taken out for a new one within a few months, but most times they are just cleaned and reused for years.  The issue is that they stop working and you die, like Marmite Man.  I couldn’t remember when I last had a new one, so this was a much needed surprise. 

“Thanks Clove,” I said.

She hugged me in return, I could smell the pungent odor of her “work” inflame my senses.  I liked her, but I really wished she washed before contaminating me with her scent.  Feeling accomplished, she stood up and walked to her quarters.  That night, before I washed, I put in my new filter and put my old one in my pack as emergency.  

In the morning, I ate a small breakfast of leftover slop from the other night, kissed my mom, sister, and pa, then went on to work.  Kimber went out too, as did Clove.  The sun was surprisingly hot, and the feel of the elements was stale.  A few dark clouds were far, so today would have to be quick.  No need to be caught in the rain; those who had were horribly scarred and their skin became a deformed melted mess.  I once had an almost encounter with the rain.  It was two years ago and I was not as observant as I am now.  I thought I could just keep working and that I could out walk the rain.  However, I narrowly escaped.  

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I felt the chill in the air; the signal for the rain.  Home was an entire mile off and tiny drops fell, burning the specks of vegetation that grew on the field.  Horror hit my body as my heart began thumping fast.  My breathing became deep as my sinuses were clear.  I wore a ton of clothes due to the winter weather, and even had on a scarf.  The bits of rain that fell were creating tiny holes in my attire.  The fear that my skin could be penetrated just as easily disturbed my core.  An overwhelming feeling of desperation took over as I ran home.  With my arm wrapped behind me to keep my tank steady, and my other arm covering my H2O tank in my front, I was barely able to keep my footing.  I nearly fell several times.  What’s worse than being burned alive in a rain storm; falling down and damaging your tank!  Bad enough to be melted over, but to suffocate at the same time would be most foul.  Yet, I managed to run that mile in four minutes.  As soon as I walked into my home, the sky gave way to its acidic chaos.  I promised myself I would never be so stupid again.  

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Today I would go to the next town to beg and do random odd jobs.  Kimber worked in a collection yard.  It was Clove’s day off, but she liked to keep me company when she could.  During our walk, I kept a mental image of various “safe spaces”; places that I would take cover in an emergency.  No matter how cautious you could be, life was always an unpredictable bitch just waiting to foil your plans.  Kimber was not always good with choosing his words, but he always had something insightful to say.  Clove and I finally arrived in a town called Silica.  I thought I’d start my day with some hard work, then spend an hour or two begging.  

It was funny watching the people go about their business.  Yes I was poor, but these people weren’t exactly that far above my status.  There were other places like North Fairly, Clove’s place of “work”, that were really well off.  In fact, I could do odd jobs and beg there for five times the pay.  Yet, I resisted the urge, especially knowing that’s where Clove went.  We walked around until we found Miller’s Shop.  He did some tinkering with old clocks and things.  Being old, he lacked the stamina to go from place to place to make his deliveries.  A long while ago, before gas was extinct, he probably would have used a car or truck.  That’s where kids like me came along.  

His shop was a spectacular place with shelves of old clocks and toys.  The ones made of metal were my favorite.  The amount of work each one needed was a joy to watch.  Sometimes, instead of doing my job, I would sneak back and observe him in his shop tinkering away.  He was a kind old man.  Always with a smile and never weird or pervy like some others.  Even when Clove accompanied me, he was like a grandfather.  Always giving out advice and finding ways to keep our tanks in the best condition.  Of all the odd jobs, this was my favorite one.  I guess it was also because he gave me free water and never let me go home without refilling my tank to the top.  On top of that, he would pay me with cans of food, food packages, and on rare occasions, fresh vegetables!  The good kind, not cabbage or turnips.  

I didn’t always work odd jobs for him.  He liked giving other kids like me a chance to work for him.  So I only did two days out of the week here.  The other times, I would do other jobs around the town for different people.  I might as well savor this moment.  Today he had eight deliveries to make.  Working in his shop, he kept busy while Clove and I stood and watched.  When he was done with one, I went and delivered.  Then I went back for the next.  It went on like this for a few hours.  By late afternoon, we all took a rest and ate finger sandwiches while our tanks had a rest.  He worked hard to have his own place all to himself.  Even by this town’s standards, he seemed to be rich; rich in water, air, and solitude.  

“Once a long time ago…” 

He would always start off a really long story like this.  I know for a fact that Kimber would be bored literally to death of these stories, but I always enjoyed them with a copious amount of glee.  He was a good story teller, meaning that sometimes the line between his real life experiences and fiction would blend so seamlessly that you eventually wouldn’t notice.  One of my favorite stories was of the wonderful city called Trompe l’oeil.  It was weeks off and far from even the furthest city.  You had to clear miles of endless fields.  The city was known for its brisk air and fresh water.  You had to have a special pass to get inside.  

A place like that had to be fake, Clove would whisper.  I believed it, all of the story.  The world was shit, but maybe not the whole world.  Rarely would anyone travel too far without stopping here and there.  If this place were really that far, it would make sense no one would ever go there.  To trek it meant losing all of your air before you were even close enough to see its buildings.  Wish I could travel that far, with a huge tank that could last weeks and not a day and a half.  Clove smiled, but I could tell underneath that long grin she didn’t believe.  

Sometimes I like to believe in things.  Some believed in special charms that gave you luck, while others believed in invisible beings that granted you wishes.  It would be great to live in a place where you could breathe actual air from the world and not through a mask.  To let the rain from the sky touch your skin.  It filled me with longing that I didn’t know I could have.  It had stayed with me the rest of my time in the shop until I noticed it was getting late.  The rain!  Clove and I would be caught if we didn’t get a move on now.  So back to our little slice of hell we went.

Remember how I said life was like an unpredictable bitch waiting to foil your plans, according to Kimber?  Well, here I was leaving at a decent time to avoid the rain, only to find my little slice of hell ruined.  Where there used to be housing blocks, were instead large chunks of space and fires.  I guess it took a few seconds for it to register from my eyes to my brain, because Clove had to nudge me pretty hard before I pushed her away.  In denial, I went over to where our housing block was, or used to be.  There were a few bodies, no doubt the ones huddled over were Clove’s parents.  Good riddance.  I couldn’t find my family anywhere.  Could they be someplace else?  I kept searching while those black pillows that hung over in the sky came closer.  Damn, they aren’t anywhere!  

I felt a tug at my arm.  The mask hid half her face, so all I could see were her eyes.  They were wide and going from side to side.  It looked kind of surreal, like they were controlled by something else.  I have to admit, I got kind of scared.  With my missing family still on my mind, I hadn’t noticed it was starting to rain.  Clove and I hid in a small corner that provided enough cover.  As it began to pour, we held on tight.  My heart hurt, it beat so much.  I’m pretty sure my full tank was damn near half empty with all the chunks of air I was gulping down.  My nose was running too, damn, now I had to breathe from my mouth.  It was hard, being stuck like that; I was relieved to be in good company.  I couldn’t imagine being in this position alone.  

A few hours went by, slow hellish hours, but it was finally clear.  Just in time for the night to come.  I had to find my family.  I had to find a place to stay before my tank became empty.  There weren’t any street lights, only the pale dim of light coming from the block homes.  The moon was there, but its light faded in and out from the passing clouds.   Naturally we went to the other blocks to find shelter.  We knocked and knocked, but no one answered.  Surly someone would help us, I mean we were all apart of the same community.  Clove walked around and tried to peak inside windows to catch a glimpse of our neighbors.  Through her mask I could hear the muffled sounds of a scream.  I ran over, pretty stupid of me, to see what had frightened her.  

On the floor, slumped over, was a man.  I couldn’t see much else, so we walked around some more.  In another housing block we saw other bodies in similar positions.  With no way to get inside, we had no choice but to stand there exposed to the elements.  I let a few minutes pass by until I realized the truth of the matter.  There must have been a toxic leak.  I mean, there weren’t any cracks or damages to the other blocks, only ours, but no one answered their door.  The explosion from our block could have been from a messed up filter or something.  Maybe all the blocks had the same issue.  Instead of an explosion, maybe theirs just released toxic air.  It was all I could come up with, especially since we didn’t know for sure.  

Morning came as the sun rose over the horizon.  It was still too early to see much, but enough to let me know we had been outside all night.  I checked my tank, it was teetering around half.  I could survive maybe another day, perhaps eighteen hours.  Getting to the next town would use up a quarter of air, but even that didn’t mean we would be able refill our tanks once we got there.  I was shivering, not from the cold, but from fear.  I never really thought of death.  I mean, I think of not having air or even breathing toxic air, but not of literal death.  That place or thing we all face one day.  But now I was starting to think of it.  I felt this odd urge to think of pleasant thoughts just to keep death from lurking in my mind.  

Clove noticed him first.  Kimber was just walking over with his bag of things.  He must have stayed over somewhere due to the rain.  When he came up to us he was very confused.  You could tell because his eyes were really large and one of his eyebrows was raised slightly higher than the other.  

“Why are you two out here?” he asked.

Clearly it was still dark enough because he didn’t notice the large open space where half our housing block should have been.  I wondered how he walked in the dark.  Maybe he memorized the road?  I didn’t have time to think of stupid things.  I told him about our block and the neighbors.  He walked up to the window and saw for himself, but he didn’t believe they were dead.  Each family had access to their own block, but not the others.  So we couldn’t really get inside.  

“Maybe they are asleep or something, or hiding from us because they don’t want to help,” he explained.

It was nonsense, but I think Kimber was pretty shaken about the whole ordeal.  Either way, we couldn’t stay and wait for them to leave for work.  Not that they would, because they were dead.  So Kimber, Clove, and me went to the next town.  On our way, we stayed quiet.  Talking meant using more air, and none of us had any to spare.  We finally arrived in Silica, our tanks were still half full.  The first and only place we went was Miller’s Shop.  Knocking on the door ferociously, we hoped he would come and rescue us from death.  I wondered what thing death would be if it were a thing.  Like a living thing.  Would it be a man or a bitch like life.  I think it could be a man, this large man to take you away.  Maybe invisible, so it could sneak up on you until it was ready.  A big scary invisible man!  I think that fits, because while I knocked on that door, I felt an overwhelming presence like a big scary man hovering over me waiting for my tank to run empty so I too could be taken.  

The door opened, but instead of seeing our dear old friend, it was a much younger man.  He eyed us with suspicion and curiosity.  We couldn’t see his mouth, he was wearing a mask, but from his eyes I could tell he was not expecting us.  The three of us began to speak, going from one person’s account to the next seamlessly as if we were a three part brain in sync with one another.  The man put up a hand to stop the heavy exposition.  

“Miller is dead,” he said.

His tone was abrupt like he was used to saying things like this all the time.  I kept going because my mind wouldn’t let me accept.  He then said it again, this time half yelling.  Just like that the door was closed, and our efforts for a refuge were lost.  I stood there, not really letting it sink in fully.  Clove peered up at Kimber, but he too was shell shock.  The morning was calm, as if the rain from last night didn’t happen.  We were on the street, nowhere to go or stay.  I checked my tank, thirteen more hours left.  That big scary invisible man named death would be on his way soon.  I clutched my chest.  My throat ached from thirst, so I held my breath as I removed my air hose to put in my water hose.  After a few sips, I reconnected the air hose and breathed deep.  How stupid!  I have to conserve air.  

“No! We aren’t going to die like this!  I’m going back.  I’m sure they’re still alive,” said Kimber.

Just like that, fear had made him stupid.  He was going back to that dead town, our town.  Everyone was dead, but he couldn’t see that, he wouldn’t see that.  Clove and me were left, so we searched our minds for a solution.  She suggested we go back.  I thought it was useless, but I tagged along.  Back at Miller’s Shop, we knocked on the door until that young man came.  While looking at us, Clove clasped her hands and begged him to let us inside.  After a long couple of minutes, he allowed us into the shop.  We quickly cleaned our masks and hose, then refilled our tanks.  All the while, the young man watched.   

We sat at the table afterwards and ate some of the food he set down for us.  I ate slow, while Clove devoured it all within a few bites.  She sure looked feral when she was desperate.  He kept his eyes on her, a bit too long.  I got that unnerving feeling and spoke up.

“What happened to the man that worked in this shop?” I asked.

“He’s dead.  He was old and he died,” he said.

“Can we stay?  We can work,” asked Clove.

“You can stay if you like,” he said.

A smile crept onto his face revealing yellowing teeth.  He was a young man, but that grin aged him terribly.  Clove looked down and exhaled deep and slow.  It took a few minutes to catch what was going on, but as soon as I figured it out, my jaw hung open.  

“We don’t have to stay,” I explained.

Clove looked at me and put her fingers to my lips.  She then took me to another room.  

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I don’t want you to sell yourself for this,” I said.

“Do you want to die out there?” she said.

“We can beg for air, I’ve done it before when we had that food shortage a year ago,” I said.

Truth was, when times got really hard, a few of us would beg in towns for a day or two.  Eventually we would resort to begging for air, and H2O.  It was not the best of circumstances, but it was what we did to survive.  I could do it again if I had no choice.  Anything was better than letting Clove do this for our basic needs.  She thought a long while on my suggestion.  I honestly wouldn’t stay if she agreed to it; I’d rather be alone than to be in the same place where she was being used.  When we emerged from the room, we put on our tanks and left.  The young man laughed and said we wouldn’t last.  Those words had stayed with me.

In the middle of the town, people worked and walked to the places they needed to go.  Clove thought that this town was too poor to beg for anything.  We decided to go to North Fairly.  It would take several hours.  There was a large area of land between the two.  The air was a bit dry, and my skin was grimy from not washing the day before.  My pits stank and my feet hurt.  Begging would require talking, a lot of talking.  Good thing we filled our H2O when we were at the shop.  Even though it was full, I didn’t take a single sip.  I would have been stupid to waste it, especially if we couldn’t replenish it from begging.  I stole peeks at Clove.  She looked forlorn; I wondered if she would have stayed just to survive if it weren’t for me.  What had made her go with me anyway?  

The midday sun was approaching; damn only a few hours had gone by.  We were close to North Fairly.  Even from a distance you could tell how nice and well to do it was from our town and Silica.  The buildings were small, but sturdy.  Once we reached the town, we headed to the market space.  It was a large area in the middle of the town where all the venders would sell their wares.  Rare things found from far away places would be sold.  I tried to find a good spot where the people would have no choice but to pass us.  Normally people would avoid me when I begged, so my earnings were normally minimal.  Here, I could maybe get more, if only I could find a good spot.  Of course, we weren’t the only ones begging.  Some other street kids were here too.  Holy shits!  I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I saw Boulder Boy and Cliff!  

By a dried up fountain, they stood holding out their boards with the writing ‘work 4 O2’.  I wondered why they weren’t dead like the rest.  They were equally shocked to see me and Clove; more so Clove because she hardly ever saw them due to her ‘work’.  I buried them with questions, which they gave up easily.  They were stuck in a torn down building because of the rain, and when they came back in the middle of the night, their housing block was full of gas.  Bolder Boy noticed first before he took off his mask.  His mom was slumped on the floor with the word ‘run’ sloppily scribbled in spilled sauce.  They investigated throughout their block to find anyone or anything to explain what happened.  There was nothing but dead bodies.  With nothing else they made their way to North Fairly to beg.  

Clove and me stayed close to them and begged too.  It was hard at first.  By late afternoon, when most were taking a break from their work, they littered the street.  More traffic meant more opportunities.  We were able to get some scraps of food, some ounces of water, and Clove managed to get some air from an overly kind man.  At night, we went to the old building outside of the town with the other vagrants to rest.  I woke up a few times, as I am a light sleeper, to some other homeless trying to steal my food.  The real desperate stole air and water.  Clove and me decided that first night to take turns sleeping and keeping watch.  

A week was gone and we adjusted to our new lives.  Depending on who had the last watch, that person was always tired.  Today, I had the last watch at night, so I was unbearibly sleepy when begging.  My mouth was dry and my tank was always below the mid length line.  Food was, sometimes there, but I saved it to make it last.  That meant, I would go an entire day without eating, just to have something for the next.  I hadn’t washed since we became homeless.  My pits stank as well as other parts.  Clove was worse off because she bled every month.  

Another week and we were able to find better spots to beg.  I tried a few tricks to really sell my desperation.  Once I took off my mask and held my breath while smiling, mouth closed of course.  It shocked a few passer byers, and of course they were really able to see my young face and sunken cheeks.  Even thought it was extremely dangerous and a second of sniffed air could end me, I did it anyway.  The outcome was worth it; I got a ton of food and even refilled my water tank more than half.  One time, this man was pushing a cart of air filled tanks and refilled my entire tank!  Clove saw and so naturally she took off her mask.  Yet, her face garnered a different response.  

The women were kind enough to fill up her tank, air and water both, but the men wanted something for their generosity.  When that happened, we left that area for a day or two.  It didn’t take long for Clove’s employer to find her begging on the street.  I never met him, and yes, my thoughts about what he looked like and how he acted were true when he made his way to our corner where we begged.  He was a tall and unnaturally gangly man.  His nose must have been long because his mask stretched out.  His bony fingers and large nails grabbed Clove’s shoulders.  She shivered beneath the weight of his touch.  I could of swore I saw a tear in her eyes.  Her fluorescent eyes looked at mine and I tried to tell her ‘no’ with mine, but she went with him anyway.  I was alone.

At the building where the homeless slept, I stayed up all night.  I could tell, even in the dark, the truly almost dead were waiting impatiently for me to close my eyes.  To let my guard down would mean death.  While awake, I imagined the last story the old man from Miller’s Shop told.  Trompe l’oeil!  I remembered all the things he said, the way it looked, and all the wonders it had behind its gates.  

Trompe l’oeil sat at the edges of a long vast patch of land.  It was beyond the junk yard, and over the rusty bridge.  The air became thicker and took the form of white clouds that sat close to the ground.  You knew you were close based on the few animals that scurried over your feet.  The outlines of the tall structures will be dark at first, then settle into a magnificent cityscape.  Within the city you can take off your mask, for the air here is clean and perfect.  The water is good too, and the people all laugh in harmonious cheer because their world is bearable.  Food is plentiful and delectable at every bite.  You could walk through the city without a care, without fear; let the rain embrace your skin with its cool touch.   For Trompe l’oeil is as good as it looks.

That night led into the morning.  My body was so weak, but the smell really hit me today of all days.  I couldn’t take it!  Honestly, who could live like this forever?  Begging for a day or two fine, but years?  Many that begged were much older, or younger, and it was clear the older ones weren’t exactly new to this life.  Their teeth were all rotted, and their skin, disgusting.  I needed a shower, no, a future.  So there I walked and went up to stores and apartment blocks to beg for a home.  I wasn’t trying to sell my body, just be a slave perhaps.  I needed a roof, clean water for my skin, and teeth.  You wouldn’t believe the stench of your breath behind a mask you always wore and never cleaned.  

For a few hours I knocked and knocked.  I wouldn’t stop until someone let me inside.  It was risky, but perhaps any pain could be worth it to have a small comfort.  After my right hand became sore, I used my left.  When that hurt too much, I used my right foot.  By the time I started using my left foot, a woman opened the door.  Finally, someone had heard and listened to my desperation.  She looked a bit worried, her eyes shifted from side to side, as if someone might see.  I was led inside where I took off my mask.  It hurt coming off, and my skin was so raw around the area where it dug into my face, that it felt tender just parting my lips.  

“Thank you” I managed to say aloud.  I’d rather not speak because it hurt so much, but I didn’t want to be turned away for any reason.

She was a frail thing, young, maybe a few years older than Clove, but not by much.  Pacing back and forth she looked hysterical, but I ignored it and waited for her to calm down.  

“You need food?  Water, air?” she said.

Her voice was raspy, like my sister’s.  She let me fill my tanks, and went into the wash room to clear out the nice towels.  Yes, I can take a shower!  While she busied herself with making a meal, I took my sweet time washing my skin.  Not because I was a spoiled dandy, but because my skin had layers of grime.  The certain parts that smelled the most were worse.  The tub was dark and caked over in what was on my skin.  My complexion went back to its pale and very blotchy and freckled appearance.  I then washed my hair.  Strands of red were littering the tub near my newly clean feet; slowly making their way towards the drain.  I quickly stopped them and gathered them in a small pile.  When I was done, the tub was filthy and a large mass of my hair sat on the top of the tub like a strange creature.  I looked around for something to dry myself with, then I realized that my clothes were gone!  

Just as I was about to dissolve into despair, she returned with a towel.  In the bedroom, she let me dress in a different outfit.  At first I thought it might be her’s.  There was a bed and dresser with bottles of lotions and brushes.  It was pretty clean and clutter free, unlike my the room that I shared with my family.  My mother’s things would be strewn about, her personal items hanging on the end of the door knob, or even the floor.  Left alone, I peaked into the drawers to see what the ‘rich’ wore underneath.  To my dismay there weren’t any women’s clothes anywhere!  How strange, not even the certain items my mother used when she bled.  Surely the woman in the other room was young enough to still bleed.  It all seemed odd and so I quickly got myself settled.  When I left the room I hit a mass of some sort; which after reorienting myself I realized it was a man!  

He was tall and brooding, but he wasn’t looking at me at all.  There by the wall, the woman stood, trying to somehow merge herself with it; knees buckling under her shivering weight.  I scanned the room for my tanks; they were nestled, seemingly undisturbed in the same spot I left them.  The three of us stood in our respective areas, like we were frozen there by an unknown source.  What seemed like hours, finally dissipated into what I could only recall as a blur.  While he riddled her with questions, she screamed; while I ran to my things and put on my tanks, I could hear thuds and grunts mixed with cries.  My attire, which she gave me were not exactly street life friendly, so while they were busy, I eyed a coat and scarf, her’s I presume, and left without looking back.   

I couldn’t be sure of what would have happened if I had stayed.  The very thought was alarming, yet, what could I do now.  Back on the streets I sat on a corner and reevaluated my life.  Kind of funny right, a small nine year old thinking about their brief existence and what it all meant?  From across the way I saw a few older beggars.  Their wrinkled skin and frail bodies wobbling as their emaciated arms stretched out.  That could be me, but I hoped for a different life.  I made my decision there, in that moment, I was going to go to Trompe l’oeil.  No way I could stay where I was, only to get a few years older to be treated like Clove.  To maybe turn into that poor thing I left with that scary man.  To become old and frail and inches from death.  Not me, not like that.  

I started my walk and kept going until I reached the edges of the town.  I took some time to think.  The man from Miller’s shop was so detailed in his story telling that I could possibly find this place.  I’d have to breathe slower and walk more to cut down the time it took to get there.  Just as I went forward, I saw a familiar face, Clove.  She sat on a corner with a few bags and her tanks.  I went over, even though I was upset she had left me in the first place.  Her eyes lingered down even when she saw me coming forward.  I didn’t expect a sorry, or even an explanation, I get why she left.  So there we sat side by side until I was ready to tell my plan.

As usual, she was sweet and if the mask wasn’t in the way, I would probably see her smiling with those thin lips.  I gave her a pat and stood to leave.  To my surprise I felt a tug on my sleeve.  She insisted she go to find the place.  I knew she didn’t believe, but maybe it didn’t matter.  Maybe she had the same thoughts I had about not living such a life on the street.  So we both went into the field and off towards the great Trompe l’oeil.  

  Hours into our trek I noticed how one of her bags seemed heavier than the rest.  Upon my curiosity, I asked what was in them.  She let me take a peak and there in one bag was food, canned of course.  The other was a large air tank.  I couldn’t believe it!  Maybe we both could reach this place.  During the walk, we eyed a few places from afar, like old buildings and worn out housing blocks.  I kept my gaze on the sky at times, just waiting for the bitch to let it pour.  One day came and went, we were surrounded by nothing but clear land, barren land.  By the second day, we were starved and thirsty.  For about an hour we took a rest.  We shared a can of soup and sipped some H2O from our tanks.  Since we began this journey, our tanks were almost depleted of air.  Clove filled both of our tanks with the air from the extra she had.  Her’s was bigger, so she gave herself less.  

“Do you really think we’ll make it?” I asked.

Clove looked down with sullen eyes, I could tell she wanted to say no.  It’s not possible to imagine a happy ending.  I wanted to believe, I had to believe.  After the hour was up, we left and picked up the pace.  We managed to clear another few miles when I saw a massive junk yard!  There are many in this world, but this one stood out.  Clove was oblivious to my glee so she had nothing to say.  We moved faster, until a few hours went by and the junk yard was far behind us.  Another hour went by and there, in front of me was the rusty bridge.  As I began to walk on it, Clove held me back.

“It’s very old, it might not hold up!” she warned.

I was not going to stop now, besides, in another full day, my tank would be empty and she would die shortly after.  We couldn’t stop now, we had to keep going.  I forced myself from her grasp and went along with caution.  I could feel the weight of my small body press down on the bridge as if it would give at any moment.  This frightened me, but I refused to look back.  Suddenly the weight I felt became heavier.  At first I thought it was a part of the bridge that was weaker until I saw Clove from the corner of my eye.  Her eyes were wide, wider than I had ever seen them, and her arms were out like a baby learning to walk for the first time.  

We continued this steady and attentive pace until we saw the end.  After we left, we both took shameful deep breaths.  As good as it felt to do so, we knew that our tanks were getting low.  I thought of the story and tried to think of what was next.  Clove became tired and wanted to rest, but I knew that if we did, hours would go by, bringing us closer to death.  I held her hand and we both went ahead without a break.  More hours went by as the air around us became like white clouds.  It was hard to see, but I was more than determined to keep going.  Everything the man at Miller’s shop said was coming to life.  

I expected to see animals and birds, things that just didn’t exist anymore.  I was so enamored with the wondrous city, that I hadn’t realized my tank was a few minutes shy of empty.  Far ahead was nothing more than more white clouds.  I heard nothing except the footsteps of my shoes and Clove’s.  She must have eyed my tank, because she stopped me.  I tried to get away, but she was strong, even with her emaciated arms.  She hooked up our tanks and gave me the rest of her air, all except fifteen minutes.  I had enough to keep going, maybe a half hour or more if I took shallow breaths.  She smiled with her eyes and I left.  

It was close, I could feel it, but then a thought arose.  What if I were wrong?  I would die alone, as would Clove.  She would be out in the open with no one to mourn her.  I thought of Marmite Man again, who I am sure was torn limb from limb; the rest of his parts liquified to nothing.  So I went back.  Clove had a few more minutes.  There she was, just sitting there with her head slumped.  The look in her eyes was that of confusion and love.  Tears streamed from her eyes and fell down on her mask.  I hooked up my tank to hers, giving us both exactly twenty minutes.  

I could have grieved at this end.  My young life ending in such a pitiful way, in the middle of a field, far from anyone who knew me.  Yet, I didn’t.  After all, I chose this end, rather than beg and live a life of dread and pain.  I would die next to the only other person in the whole world, other than my family, who loved me.  I was the only one who loved Clove.  She had no one from the time she was born.  To me, it was better this way, our stories ending with the two of us. 

As we sat there, eye to eye, I wanted to do something, I wanted to take off my mask.  I took the latches and disconnected them.  Pulling it off my face was painful, and as I did so I held my breath.  I then placed it next to me and looked at Clove.  Then, for the first time, I took a breath, outside.  I had all these feelings of what it might be like, to breathe air.  Would it hurt, would it burn from the inside, would my skin fall off?  Yet, I felt nothing.  No this didn’t mean I went all numb.  I felt the air pass through my nose and into my body.  I just didn’t feel anything bad.  It was clear, and fresher than any air I could breathe.  Maybe I was dying and didn’t know, but when Clove took off her mask and did the same, it was clear as the air we both inhaled.  

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I parted my mouth to smile.  How can this be?  How can the air be so clear here?  Were we both dying and having the same dream?  I stood as did Clove.  We walked hand in hand into the white clouds.  I wasn’t sure what we would see once we made it to the end.  Would Trompe l’oeil be there?  Were we able to breathe because of how close we were?  I couldn’t be certain, nor did I care.  

The End  

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