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We Cannot Breathe Here
The world is ending, and I dyed my hair blue.
Iced Raspberry, the shade is called. Gone are the trends of 3099, those tacky orange bobs and transparent skirts: the New Year has dawned, and with it comes new styles and fashions and masks. The new mask designs were recently released by the health department: each mask now had a new knob to adjust the carbon dioxide filter, and slimmer tubes that could connect to lighter oxygen tanks. The inside of the gas mask has a tiny etched number that reads “4000.” The year is 4000, and the air is still not breathable.
The air was toxic long before I’d been born, so I don’t really remember what it was like. My grandparents remembered. They used to tell these wild stories, about how they could stand outside on real grass, drinking up the air in large, clean gulps. I hadn’t believed them, and neither had my brother. The air we know now is too choked up with carbon dioxide and searing acidity, like a fermented stew of toxins. One lungful and you’d be writhing on the floor, drinking up the factory waste, the kind that had killed off all the birds. Now, I may not remember the days of clean air, but I certainly remember the birds. Curved beaks, dainty brown wings, beady black eyes that could see you, really see you. Birds could escape into the air, see everything from a distance, flee from these cluttered streets. I used to think that maybe somehow, they could fly above everything: the carbon dioxide, the pesticides, the burning fumes, and fly ever higher, away from the misery of the earth. But I was wrong. They are gone now. The last one dropped straight out of the sky, into some scientist’s lap, like one last taunt, one final reminder of our failure to save them.
The last bird I ever saw was this common little brown one, the last species to survive. It didn’t have shining, colorful feathers or a beautiful song, but it endured. It survived until that very last night, when I saw it topple from the sky, end over end like a miniature bomb. I ran out to rescue it, to bring it home where the filters cleaned the air. But by the time I’d strapped on my mask and the handheld oxygen tank, it had already shriveled into an empty carcass, eroding into the hot, acidic night.
The other animals adapted. Not all of them, but enough of them. We humans aren't as lucky, but at least we are alive. And at least we aren’t all sprouting third eyes or something. We may not have lungs strong enough to process the sour, pungent air, and we certainly don't have skin tough enough to bear the slow burn of extreme heat. But we have science, however slowly it crawls, and we have our masks and home air filters and silver reflective suits, that keep us from frying in our own atmosphere. There is only one day of the year when we don’t have to wear the silver suits, one day of the year when it’s cool enough. It's an international holiday, when politicians emerge from their air-conditioned hiding holes, families venture out for the first time in months, and scientists weep silently in their labs.
It’s a day of hope. But hope will not come for a little while longer. It’s still August, the hottest month of the year, though all the months are pretty darn hot. My little brother is named after the month of August, though I’m not sure why. In the August of 2082, the first city went underwater, and so did everyone living in that city. I'm not sure why anybody would want to be reminded of that day, that first day of the end. But nonetheless, my brother is named August. Mom said it was a “reminder of our failures.” She made me promise, the day before she died from her faulty mask, that I had to protect August, and so I did.
You see, August is a Twosie, which is slang for a second child. People don’t like him much, say that he’s using up our government’s oxygen supply, that he’s a waste, somebody who exists only to eat up precious resources. As if we even have any left. Besides, they made “twosies” illegal right after August was born, so he’s still technically in the safe zone. Besides, we have more to worry about. Land is going underwater every day, and we still haven’t figured out how to build underwater cities yet. Go figure.
So only one kid per family. Fair enough. We wouldn’t want to become another China, anyway. People there had to live on top of each other, literally. Kids lived in pens like little goats, four square feet per person. Most were smothered to death before their tenth birthday. America isn’t quite there yet, but our buildings are still stacked like cake layers, so high that August says he dreams about “touching the sky.” And we’re only on level 75. There are 1200 levels in our building. We’re incredibly lucky to have so much space. 200 square feet is so much, compared to those Andersons, who live two floors below. They have 150 square feet and six kids. They’re part of the government foster child program, where illegal kids are raised and trained to join the military one day, or maybe forced to be one of those workers who collect dead bodies off the street. After all, not everyone can afford to buy a new mask every year. Gas masks can only last so long, and those who can’t afford new models end up on the streets. Dead, of course.
My brother interrupts my thoughts, thank god. “Hey, can we go now? We’re gonna be late!” August exclaims. I glance at my gas mask’s built-in clock. 7:15. “We’re not late…Besides, they’ll understand if we are. The monorail broke down yesterday, and we won’t get there in time anyway.”
August pouts, the way I did when I was younger, when I wanted mom to take me out to see movies on the jumbo-screen. But he perks up when I say, “Race you to the elevator!”
I clap my hands together, and our door slides open. We pound down the hallway, the walls paved with screens that list the date and time and temperature. Date: August 2, 4000. Time: 7:18. Temperature: 152 degrees. Fahrenheit. The elevator doors slide open, and a mechanical voice answers, metallic and ringing: “Good day.” I buckle August into the children’s seat, for kids ten and younger, and a belt automatically straps me to the wall. A red scanner passes a beam of light through the air. “RORA and AUGUST. Detected. Destination: Level 3.” I close my eyes for a second, preparing myself. The pod whisks us downwards at a speed that makes my eyeballs rattle, and I can hear August cheering. “WHEEEEEEEE!” His hair sticks straight up, like little blonde razors.
We make it there in time, after all. The monorail is fixed by a man who has metal implants in his wrists, with hands that could act as precise razors. Before long, we step through the metal doorway of the science lab, dressed in our silver suits, our oxygen tanks strapped to our backs like turtle shells. A scientist greets us, shakes our hands, invites us to remove our masks.
The laboratory is in disarray, an alleyway of metal knobs and flat computers, indecipherable numbers running across its screens like bolts of green electricity. “Don’t mind the mess,” the scientist murmurs, indicating a mess of glowing vials. “My colleague Jack has just prototyped a cure for…”
Hope unfolds in my chest, a painful, tumorous growth. “For what? Cancer? Aids?”
“The air?” My brother asks, eye wide.
“No! for male pattern baldness!” The scientist exclaims, punctuating with a stab of his laser pen. “Exciting developments.”
I sigh. It's going to be a long day.
August and I are led into an examination room. We are “product testers,” which is just a rather fancy term for people who put "potentially unstable" stuff on their skin for a couple hundred dollars, not nearly enough to pay rent. Not a bad job. But we can’t afford to buy school curriculum chips. Besides, I don’t have the brain space to download all four years of high school, anyway. I’m not very smart.
“Any rashes?” The doctor asks, regarding some odd-smelling pink skin serum.
“Any skin irritations?” The doctor asks.
“Any skin irregularities?” The doctor probes.
“No……Wait a second. Didn’t you just ask me that?”
“Irritations are different from irregularities, dear. Do pay attention.” She replies,clicking her pen shut with irritation.
I groan. This is going to be a long day. A long, long day.
By the time it is all over, the monorail is closed for the night. August and I walk home, triple-checking our gas masks first. Light evanesces, a sliver of its former burning beauty. We don’t have money to buy that clip-on flashlight feature. It's going to be a long night.
Suddenly, August pauses, his steps faltering. “It’s another one,” he whispers hoarsely. I crane my neck, squinting at a lurching figure a block away. It's a girl, her arms peeling, her face fleshy and pink, bubbling with heat blisters. She is barefoot, and I can just make out the thin rivulet of blood that trails behind her. “It’s all a lie! Science cannot not save us! We cannot not save us! We will all be dead. Tomorrow, today, next year...The air is foul, the birds are dead. We cannot be here. We cannot breathe here.”
For a second, I stumble, my breath shattering against the plexi-glass inside of my mask. Her voice is so clear, sharp, real. Not muffled, like ours. And then I see why. She isn’t wearing her mask. She convulses, three times, rasping and retching on her own words, blood running from her eyes, flesh visibly melting. I gag, look away, squeeze August’s hand and run. I don’t look back, but all I can hear is her, tattooed in my mind. “We cannot be here. We cannot breathe here.” I adjust my mask and straighten the sleeves of my suit, which suddenly feels as if it is suffocating me, pushing at my throat. But when I look around, there is nothing, nothing but my own whitened hand grasping my brother's.
We run with our heads down.