WEAR YOUR MASK commands the massive neon billboard. I’ve only just stepped out of my bedroom, but the floor-to-ceiling windows of the penthouse make it impossible to escape the sign’s crimson cries for attention. Below the neon, a cartoon depiction of a dead schoolgirl twisted on the sidewalk drives the point home.
Snared by its phantom hooks, I glide across the polished marble floor. Warmth leaches out through my bare feet forcing a shiver.
I press my nose against the wall of glass and observe the soot-and-smog-obscured buildings of the city below. Haphazardly erected with little space between them, skyscrapers strain to break free of the blanket of smoke and reach the fresh air above. Advertisements add splashes of color to the drab gray city. Their slogans, however, do little to add any cheer.
Perched atop a high-rise, just visible through the thick miasma, is a faded poster of a Peace Officer. He looms three stories tall in his ankle-length brown trench coat and gloss-black rebreather sternly pointing a finger at me. Above him is a warning in huge bold letters: Keep your opinions to yourself! Your business should stay your business.
The billboard straight across from me depicts a housewife, dressed to the nines, posed next to a tall stack of Mountain Air mask filters. Remember, a filter a day keeps death at bay!
Her red dress is peeking out from underneath layers of soot and ash—the first time I saw her swirls in my mind. Most of my young memories are fragmented at best, but this one is just as visceral as the day it happened. I must have been seven when we moved into the penthouse. I remember the boxes stacked in the middle of the living room—I felt so small. I ran to the seamless wall of glass the instant I laid my eyes on it—the same spot where I’m standing now. Visions of sweeping vistas danced in my little head. But instead of an awe-inspiring view, I was greeted by the sight of cheery Miss Housewife and her cavalier demeanor toward looming death—always a filter away. My tears splashed on the black marble beneath me.
Mother was horrified. She pleaded with me, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Her words fought through strained breaths—her arms wrapped around me like a straitjacket.
I asked her through my sobs, “What if we run out of filters? I don’t want to die—don’t let me die, Mommy.” The expression on Mother’s face still haunts me. Her lips quivered—cheeks and ears pulled back, startled and alert. Her pallor waned as though a veil had been draped over her face. But mostly it was her eyes. Her eyes burned with ferocious determination. She held me so tight I can still feel the bruises.
Something awoke inside Mother that day and it hasn’t rested since.
It’s odd though. I can’t picture anything before that with any real clarity. I have a few misty visions. Watching cartoons on the living room carpet. The first time I slid onto the cold metal beds of the imprint cradles at school. Dad holding me in his arms when I was sick reassuring me that everything would be okay. But there’s nothing of our first house or much of anything else.
I massage the familiar pain in my temples. Every time I dive that far back into my memories, a loose wire starts sparking in my head. I can never stay down long—the pain doesn’t stop building until I get back up to the surface. Thankfully though, the headaches melt away as suddenly as they appear.
I turn my gaze away from the window. The door to the spare bedroom is locked up tight concealing the towering stack of Mountain Air filters—youth-small—heaped inside the otherwise barren room. Every morning Mother grabs a filter from the mound and then watches me while I swap it out for the barely used one she watched me put on the day before. Our morning ritual is a constant reminder of the horror on her face.
She wants to protect me—I get that—but it frustrates the hell out of me. Yes, she ensures that I change my mask’s filter, but she can’t bother herself to be involved in any other part of my life. She never asks about school, what music I’m listening to, nothing. Not even the serious stuff the parents on television are always talking to their teenagers about. “Are you thinking about your future? University entrance exams are no laughing matter. Have you considered a term of service?”
Every time I confront her on her glaring inconsistencies, she says some crap like “Children should be free to live.” She always places an exaggeration on ‘live’ as if the word itself were magic and merely at its utterance, some fountain of opportunity will come shooting up, out of the ground, and whisk me away.
I am free I suppose, but it feels wrong every time I look out the window, turn on the television, or step outside my bedroom door. Everywhere I look, someone is telling me what to do—what to think. Don’t do that, buy this, obey that, walk here, stand there. It’s overwhelming, suffocating, like the air you are not allowed to breathe.
Between the monitors at Neptus Memorial—the ritually-disciplined school that Father insists will ‘take me places’—and the ever-vigilant eyes of Peace Officers scanning the streets, there is no room for deviation—for choice. And yet, when I lock the penthouse door behind me, I enter a world of paralyzing freedom. I can’t mesh them together. There is only a thin pane of glass between them, but they might as well be separate planets.
Trapped behind my mask, my daily routines, and the penthouse glass, I’ve been studying the city for a way out.
Having just noticed it, I shift my gaze to the reflection of the television in the glass. Swirling forms in every color flash obnoxiously. The speakers are blaring but, thankfully, the cacophony can only be heard when you’re sitting on the couch. Mother and I had, in a one-time cosmic coincidence, agreed that the sound system was a waste of money. Father spent twenty-thousand Marks on the thing and technicians were in and out for a week while they ‘calibrated.’ But, to their credit, it has finally allowed me to observe the city in silence. Now I’m only subjected to the television’s assault when I'm sitting in front of it—an occurrence becoming less and less frequent.
Burrowed into the couch, Mother’s attention is firmly glued to the screen. Flashes of light explode in her eyes. She looks dazed. How can she sit there every day—for hours on end—and not grow weary of the relentlessness of it?
The silence is broken by the dull, metal thunk of the deadbolt sliding out of the wall. Father is home late. Again.
Turning away from the cityscape, I move across the polished floor to welcome him home. He’s been going in early and getting home late for months now. The strain of whatever he’s doing—that can never be discussed—is clearly visible in the puce bags under his eyes. Looking up at me from the doorway, he gives me a slight smile.
“Hi there, darling. Food in the fridge?”
“Yeah, but it’s probably frozen by now.”
“That’s fine,” he says, hanging his overcoat and mask on the hooks in the foyer.
Father disappears into the kitchen for a moment, then returns with a plate of food straight from the refrigerator. He passes me pausing briefly to kiss my cheek. He smells of coffee and cigarettes.
He plops onto the couch with a sigh. Mindlessly, he starts digging into his food. The vibrant colors of the television now dance in his placid eyes too. Mother hardly looks away from the screen. The gap between them is big enough for two of me in more ways than one.
I step in front of the couch and take my seat in the void between them. As I cross the invisible barrier that keeps the sound contained, my ears are bombarded by the opening fanfare of the Nightly News. This is hardly how I’d like to spend time with my parents, but this is the only time, and the only place, we cross paths anymore.
The intro shows broad aerial sweeps of the city with momentary cutaways to the flag of the Great Society—a man and woman embroidered in silver thread reach for a lump of coal against a field of cobalt blue. With a final flurry of trumpets, the camera focuses on a simple steel desk. Behind it sits middle-aged Desmond Rourke. His gray collarless suit is pressed and perfect, a stark contrast to his thinning hair. His face is smooth and plucked free of imperfections in a poor attempt to mask his age. Shuffling the notes in his hands, he begins in a slow, steady voice.
“Good evening everyone. Before we begin our program tonight, it pains me to inform you of a tragic loss. Twelve school-age children died today when their classroom’s air filters failed. We are unable to bring you any footage or photographs at this time, but I'm being told that the school’s maintenance staff is in the custody of Peace Officers pending the results of the ongoing investigation. Please do not be alarmed or hold your children back from school tomorrow. The situation is under control. We do advise, however, that while the investigation is underway, everyone should wear their masks—at all times—until the threat of further air filter incidents can be determined. This news grieves us all, but High Caretaker Domhnall has released a statement saying: ‘There is nothing to fear. Go about your daily business and demonstrate your grief through hard work and your continued dedication to each other and our Great Society.’ I for one intend to follow the High Caretaker’s advice.” Pausing for a moment, Rourke shuffles the papers in his hands. In a flash, his face snaps from morose to ecstatic, “Now, on to sports.”
Rourke’s words sit in my stomach like a rock. I tear my eyes away from the television and look to my parents. Mother has bolted up in complete shock, Father sits unfazed still mechanically shoveling cold food into his mouth. Mother’s eyes narrow on him with a searing focus. Clearly, she doesn’t think everything is all right, with the news or Father. But it can’t be that bad if he’s just sitting there. Can it?
There is a fleeting moment of absolute stillness before Mother storms off toward the master bedroom.
“Carol,” Father’s eyes snap away from his fork. “Where are you going? You’ll miss the rest of the news.”
“I'm getting my mask, Allen.” His name oozes over her lips like poison. “How can you sit there? You heard what Rourke said—we all need to be wearing our masks. That goes for you too, Evelyn. Go get your mask on.” A shiver runs down my spine when our eyes meet.
“Calm down, you don’t need to panic. He advised it, that’s all. The filters in this building are top-notch. We even have redundant systems here.”
“I don’t care if the redundant systems have redundant systems—there are subversives out there killing people.”
“They never said that.” Highlights of tonight’s Brawl Ball game pull his attention back to the screen. “You’re reading too much into this.”
“I'm not reading anything into it. They said they already had some men in custody and that they needed to do a more thorough investigation. Why would they tell us that unless they thought there was something sinister going on? It’s those damn subversives, just like before.”
“It was one school, one incident.” Father skewers a potato onto his fork. “This is hardly the start of an uprising. Where are the fire-bombings? Murder sprees? Sit down and watch the news with us—it was just an accident.”
Her cheeks quiver as she chews back rage. “I'm not letting them take anything else from me, not this time. I can’t.” Tears splash on her trembling hands.
“Are you serious right now?” The potatoes have lost their appeal. “You’re taking this too far, and you know it.”
She takes a step forward, ire burns away her tears. “What if it was Evelyn’s school? What if she was lying in the morgue?”
“But she isn’t, Carol, she’s right here.”
Mother’s eyes dart over to me.
“Damn it, Evelyn! Put your mask on!”
Father bolts up from the couch sending his dinner flying. The plate shatters showering the floor in jagged shards and lumps of cold potato. “Don’t yell at her. She can make up her own mind. I'm not going to wear one and that’s final.”
Embers smolder on my temples. The television continues to discharge its oversaturated rainbow. Their muscles tense and eyes narrow as they square up on either side of me itching for a fight. The hostility swelling between fills the air with needles. A brushbot appears from its concealed home in the baseboard and begins vacuuming up the mess.
Trapped between them, paralysis grips me.
I know it’s coming. Like the stillness before a downpour, a fight is brewing, and it’s going to be ugly. Normally I’m a buffer for this kind of thing, but tonight’s conflict has roots deeper than what Rourke said. What did she mean by losing something last time?
Fire ignites in my brain.
Searing silver flashes add a new layer of chaos to the already erupting room. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I slam my eyes shut and try to shake away the pain. It’s no use—silver lines continue to crisscross the pale red darkness behind my eyelids.
I spring from the couch. “Keep me out of this.”
I step over the brushbot and make for my room with long strides. My interruption stokes the tension pressing the remaining air out of the living room. Anxiety skitters down my back. I throw my bedroom door open and slam it shut.
The bubble bursts.
Accusations fly. Old wounds are torn open. Exchanges of familiar insults are peppered with new ones that have no doubt been brewing on their tongues for weeks.
The walls aren’t enough to silence them, and the headache is getting worse.
I could drown them out with music, blast something obnoxious, but that would only compound the problem. I need quiet. I need stillness. And nothing in this house will give me that.
The glow of advertisements streams through the window demanding my attention. University applications and internship pamphlets lie scattered across my desk demanding I decide my future right this instant. The open closet reveals rows of uniforms and trench coats demanding my compliance.
The headache swells into a migraine. Light and sound fuel the pressure cooker in my head—my eyes throb with each surging heartbeat.
Desperate, I dive into bed and mound the pillows and blankets over my head. The muffled darkness opens a relief valve on my temples. I pull the bedding in tighter pressing them down on my ears to drown out the fight still on the crescendo.
I linger for what feels like hours before sleep takes me.
Instructor Speer looms at the head of class veiled behind his rebreather. A projected video of the flag bathes him in flickering blue light that shimmers in his glass eye slits. Everyone is sitting with their heads forward, hands flat on their desks. The video’s reflection cuts their outlines against the black. I look down at my gloved hands through the glass circles of my mask.
I scan the room. I’m the only student wearing one.
My throat tightens—Speer is staring right at me. A flash of rebellion bursts then flickers away leaving me limp and powerless, quivering in my chair.
Something pricks my ankle.
The sting blisters and spreads over my foot. Now it’s chewing, stinging, biting at my legs. My classmates start to squirm trying to stem the blistering’s unrelenting march. The urge to scratch pushes out every thought in my brain but Speer’s lifeless eyes stay my hands.
It’s snaking up my stomach and onto my breasts. Buttons fly as students tear at their overcoats desperate to sink their fingernails into the prickling blisters. Someone thrashes out of their chair.
It’s consumed me now—only my face, safe behind the gas mask, remains untouched.
The wailing starts.
Students are clawing at their throats leaving behind streaks of red where their fingernails bit too deep. Hyperventilating through the shorts gasps the mask allows, I rush for the door.
Everyone that isn’t twitching on the ground is scrambling for the door too. I push a boy out of the way and get my hand on the handle but it’s too late—they are on me before I can think to turn it. Their collective weight spins me around and smashes me up against the wall. I’m ringed by ravenous, bloodshot eyes.
A dozen hands claw for the mask on my face. Hot blood pours down my neck.
I can’t hear myself scream over Speer’s guttural, crackling laughter.