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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