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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A Stranger Upstairs ©2018 is a short story from the Author Jasmine Clark. If you wish to use this story, please obtain the appropriate permission.
As I lay in bed, staring at the wooden ceiling, I can’t help but think of the old decor. The rustic windows, the floorboards weak from overuse. That smell of dust and dry air. I cling to the soft plushness of my comforter. My head burrows itself into the pillow as my feet bunch up the ends of the covers for warmth. It is particularly cloudy tonight, so there is little natural moon light. The room seems so dark and full of question. My mind races with the thought of what could be. I can barely see anything, so here I wait for sleep to come.
As I drift away to a solemn slumber, a noise stirs my body into consciousness. A bit annoyed, I soon delve into fear as I remember my entire family is on this floor, and not above. With my skin breaking into gooseflesh beneath the covers, I try to establish some reality. The house is old and at times, will create noise from the wood and worn out places.
I try to convince myself of this, and close my eyes to fall asleep. Then, I hear another sound, a breath. Try as I might to convince myself it is only my mind, I open my eyes to see a pair of dark ones staring back at me!
I scream, loud, until it screams too. It is my younger sister. She is covered in darkness, while begging me to let her stay. I sit up, and tell her to leave, but I must admit, I would like the company.
So here we are, one adult and almost adult sharing a bed. Tucked in close, so close that I feel her quivering flesh. I too must feel the same. I tell her to stop shaking, but she can’t.
She asks me if I can hear it. I ask her hear what? She tells me it is whispering. I don’t bother to ask what it is. I turn my body over and ball myself up like a small child. She still shakes, but soon my eyes become heavy, and I awake in a room bathed in sunlight.
It is daytime, finally. After getting dressed, and going down stairs, I see our maids, Hilda, and Beatrice. The cook, Rose, prepares a variety of egg omelets. I ask them if they’ve seen my sister. When I awoke, she wasn’t in bed with me. But they say they haven’t seen her since yesterday.
During breakfast, my parents eat while their eyes dig through their phones. It is a regular morning, silent and impersonal. I ask them if they’ve seen her. Who, they ask. My sister, I say. With their eyes firmly on their devices, they simply say, no.
She is seventeen, and has a habit of doing what she wants. But we are at a summer retreat in our grandparents home. I didn’t think she would be so eager to break free with all her friends being so far away. Yet, regardless of this, my parents do nothing, but make excuses. She is simply a brat doing rebellious teenage things, they say.
After eating, I go upstairs to see if she went back to her room. Why I didn’t think of this first is beyond me. Upon entering her room, I see nothing but a messy bed, and not much else. I don’t even smell her perfume, something she would put on before leaving, or anything out of place. I close the door and walk out to see an empty hallway. At one end, a window, from the right, a stairway leading down. To the left, a stairway leading up. On the other end of the hallway, a door.
I go towards the window and to the right downstairs. As I leave, I do so with the ache in my mind that something is not quite right…
The sun is particularly bright on this summer day. The heat is in the air, but so is the coolness of the wind; brushing up against my skin like a thin shawl. The feeling, even with the heat, brings my skin to a chill. The grounds surrounding the old house are still. The garden to the front, the lonesome pool to the back.
A mile or so away is the country club where all the rich or slightly rich families go to bask in each other’s wealth. Close to that is a retreat with cabins fit for snooty elites that come for the stories to tell and not the vacation itself. I guess I am apart of that group, but I don’t care for it or any of them. While the families talk by the poolside and play various games, I search for my sister.
Her presence is not there, but someone else catches my eye. A beauty, a picture of youth itself. Small frame and firm in all ways. Her hair thick and lips to match. We share a glance, and for a moment, I forget about my sister entirely. I go to walk to the young woman, but another rich guest stammers in my way. A friend of my father’s I assume, I never care to remember any of them. As he talks incessantly, I look around to see the beauty is not there. Damn!
After nodding and pretending with earnest that I am following the conversation, I am released. I decide to go back home and see if my sister has returned. Through the gate which takes me to the pool to the back of the house, I see someone at the edge. For a moment I catch the sun’s glare and mistake the figure for my sister. I go closer. To my surprise it is the young woman from the other pool. She is but a few feet away as I walk closer. Now we are inches apart, I crouch down to get a better look. Her face is a soft oval, eyes the color of bamboo in the sun. We share a smile, and like that I take her upstairs.
I don’t know her, but after two hours, I knew more about her body than I probably should. Together in bed I caress her skin, soft, lush, firm. After resting from the plateau we silently agree to go for round three, but a loud thump from the wall stirs my calm. Her eyes widen at the thought of someone else being in the house. Quickly I rush to put on my clothes and run next door to my sister’s room, the origin of the sound. The young woman following me like a shadow at mid day.
I enter my sister’s room and find her laying on the floor, her head bleeding from the top, eyes glazed over. The young woman screams, my mind empties as my hands frantically find their way over to my sister to cradle her limp body.
Hours later and we are at the hospital, my parents are there, hovering over my little sister like two wraiths ready to take her soul. They look so forlorn. I’ve never seen them so concerned. I walk up to the bed to hold her hand, but my parents push me away with their eyes as if this is all my fault. I leave and go to the waiting room. Holding my face in my hands, I ponder the reason for why she went missing in the first place.
Midway into the night I leave and go back home. Beside the pool is the familiar girl who I shared time with earlier. Her eyes are downcast, but yearning. I go in closer as she asks me if my sister is okay. If she were a few years younger, they could be friends. Seeing her silhouette with the night framing her gave me a chill. Or was it because I felt eyes on me from the house? I guess I was quiet for too long and she embraces me, our lips firmly pressed together, tongues like wriggling eels. So much passion for a stranger.
I could not shake the feeling of that chill, even as other places warmed. So I looked up to see if anyone was watching. There in the highest window, the attic I presume, nothing; but eyes were watching from that blackness glossed over in glass. She tries to turn my head for more, but I tell her I have to go home. She insists that she stay with me. I honestly don’t want to be alone, so I let her.
We pass the kitchen and up the stairs. Down the hall I see the door and it is slightly open. Odd. It is a junk room that I never visit, and the maids have no reason to clean. My heart feels like sand heated by intense fire. I go forward, but she pulls me back. She has a bad feeling, but my curiosity is too strong. I am at the door, but something inside me says don’t go inside. After a deep breath I go back to my room, my new lover in tow. Under the sheets we go for that round three. As I drift into sleep, I feel the eyes are on me, watching, waiting.
The midday sun illuminates the lids of my eyes, beckoning me from my dream. As my vision, partially distorted from sleep, clears, I see my young lover. Her mouth is slightly open, perched lips and scrunched nose. I turn to lay for a few more minutes. Now fully aware of my reality, I reach for my phone on my nightstand. No messages. I place the phone down and turn toward the sleeping beauty. Nudging her shoulder, she stirs from slumber. A bit disoriented she finally comes to and smiles. She reaches for my head, to kiss me I assume, but I push her away. I am in no mood for any more rounds.
We wash up, separately, and get dressed in silence. Like a used toy so once loved by a small child, I discard her without care. If the circumstances around my sister weren’t so dire, I’d keep her like a pet, having her tend to my needs and I to her’s. But, my sister is hurt. So with mutual understanding conveyed in silent stares, we part ways outside. She goes off to her rich family and friends, and I to the hospital.
At the hospital I see my sister. She is awake and eating pudding. Her face is full of disgust, but she has no choice. When she notices me, the face of disgust turns to happiness. I know she is grateful that I am here, to rescue her from the moodiness of our parents, but her glee is partially from the fact that I snuck in a brownie and latte from her favorite coffee chain. Removing the contents of the dreadful hospital food, I replace it with the savory treats. Clapping with joy she reaches over to me. As we embrace she whispers. Our parents return and aren’t exactly happy to see me or the contraband I brought. With the voice of her words still lingering on my ears, I don’t notice my father removing the food from the tray.
“Why can’t I have what I want!” my sister screams.
“You’re still recovering from your incident” my father pleads.
The fake concern in his voice was honestly more shocking than what my sister had said earlier and I was just too taken back from it all that I stood there stunned. Silence filled the room and for once I saw true concern on my mother’s face. Perhaps it was what my sister had said, or the oddness of my parents’ parental affection for my sister, that I felt so deeply disturbed. I left the room and didn’t look back. Even as my sister’s sweet laced voice cried out for me.
I was back at the resort and stood by the banquet hall. This was what I needed, a moment of silence away from them and away from that damned creepy house. As I was taking a moment, I saw my young lover. Was there something in my face that prompted the look of concern on her’s I wasn’t sure, but she came closer and held my hand.
Sitting side by side on the marble steps, I kept quiet. After all, she was just a fling. I didn’t exactly want to tell her about the random things happening to my family. Of all the rich, as I am sure her’s was too, my family was the richest. Well, wealthiest. Our fortune was like the Sun to everyone else’s Pluto. And although I didn’t want to involve her into my personal affairs, I needed help. If my sister was here I’d have her to listen to my concerns, but she wasn’t. So, in the end, I told my lover what happened. I left out what my sister said in the hospital.
I was relieved to know she understood, or a better word would be accepted. Together we went back to my grandparents’ home and to the junk room on the second floor. There we walked closer as I passed my sister’s room. From the door I could see it open a crack. Odd, I thought it was open from the previous day. Regardless, I continued to the junk room. Pressing my palm against the door knob, I wrapped my fingers around and squeezed. Behind me my young lover gulped as if her throat were dry and she mustered up all the moisture in her body to swallow. I too was trembling as the door opened. A waft of air pressed against my nose as a familiar smell entered my nostrils. My sister’s perfume!
Part four coming soon!
Author is Jasmine Clark. The work is fiction, and shall not be published, or sampled without the author’s permission.