Authors: G.K. Lamb
By: G.K. Lamb
Copyright © 2015 by Hero House Publishing Inc.
Hero House Publishing
6060 Piedmont Row Drive South
Charlotte, NC 28287
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this book may be printed or reproduced in any manor without the permission of the publisher.
Text design by Sara Caitlyn Deal; Cover design by Zach Brown
Wear your mask.
The massive neon billboard commands me the moment I step out of my room. A picture of a dead school girl lying on the sidewalk drives the point home. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the high rise apartment make it impossible to escape the sign’s bright red cries for attention. I move to the glass like a moth to flame. My feet fall silently on the polished floors.
Nose pressed against one of the many large windows, I observe the soot and smog-obscured buildings of the city below. Haphazardly erected with little space between them, the buildings struggle to reach the clear air above them. It remains forever out of their reach. Billboards and posters add splashes of color to the drab grey city. Their slogans, however, do little to add any cheer.
Perched high atop a towering skyscraper is an old, faded poster of a Peace Officer in his long, brown trench coat and gloss-black rebreather sternly pointing a finger with the warning written above it in bold letters
: Keep your opinions to yourself! Your business should stay your business
. The billboard nearest me depicts a housewife, dressed to the nines, standing next to a high stack of
Remember, a fresh filter everyday keeps death at bay!
The ease with which this fictitious woman exists on the edge of death both intrigues and disturbs me.
Staring at the red in her dress peeking out from behind layers of soot and ash, I remember the time I first laid eyes on this billboard. I must have been seven when we moved into this apartment. I had rushed to this window, excited to see the city from so high up. The sight of cheery Miss Housewife, and her cavalier demeanor toward looming death, always a filter away, brought me to tears. My mother was horrified. She pleaded with me, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Her words fought through strained breaths.
I remember telling her, “What if we run out of filters? I don’t want to die; don’t let me die mommy.” The reaction on Mother’s face haunts me still. Her lips quivered as if on the verge of tears, her cheeks and ears were pulled back startled and alert. But mostly it was her eyes. Her eyes burned with ferocious determination. Something awoke inside my mother that day and it has never rested since.
I turn my gaze away from the window. The door to the spare bedroom stands closed, concealing the towering stack of
Mountain Air filters, youth-small
. Every morning Mother replaces my filter, and every morning I am reminded of the horror on her face. I don’t think this would bother me if my mother was protective in other areas of my life, but other than watching me change my filter every morning, she seems to care little about what I do. When I ask her why I have no rules she always responds with “Children should be free to
” She always places an exaggeration on “live” as if it were a magic word and merely at its utterance the world would open up before me and I would be free.
free, but it feels wrong every time I look out the window, turn on the television, or wander through the streets. Everywhere I look, someone is telling me what to do. 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. Coming home, I enter a world of paralyzing freedom. The ritually disciplined school my father insists will “take me places,” and the stifling silence of the streets under the vigilant eye of Peace Officers leave little room for deviation, for freedom. Trapped behind my mask, my daily rituals, and the penthouse glass, I’ve been studying the city for a way out.
Having just noticed it, I shift the focus of my gaze away from the posters and the looming, soot-covered buildings 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. I had thought it was a waste of money when Father spent several months’ wages to have technicians install the new sound system, but it has finally allowed me to observe the city in silence. Now I am only subjected to the television’s assault on my senses when I’m sitting in front of it—an occurrence becoming less and less frequent. I can see Mother’s face and the reflection of the exploding flashes of lights 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
of the dead bolt sliding out of the wall. Father is home late, again. Turning around, I move across the polished floors to welcome him home. He’s been working longer hours for months now and the strain is clearly visible in the dark rings around 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.”
Father disappears into the kitchen for a moment then returns with a plate of food straight from the refrigerator. Standing between the couch and the kitchen he passes me pausing only briefly to kiss my cheek. He smells of coffee and cigarettes. He plops onto the couch with a sigh. Mindlessly, he begins digging into his food, the vibrant colors of the television dance in his placid eyes. Mother hardly looks away from the television. 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 my parents. Once 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 family, but this is the only time, and the only place, we ever cross paths. The nightly news intro is playing video of broad aerial sweeps of the city with momentary cutaways to the deep blue flag of the Great Society. With a final flurry of trumpets the camera focuses on a simple steel desk. Behind the desk sits middle-aged Desmond Rourke. His grey 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 to speak 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 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, while the investigation is underway that everyone wear their mask 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 to others 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 hand. 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 to see my parents. Mother has bolted up in complete shock, Father sits unfazed, still mechanically shoveling cold food into his mouth. Mother’s eyes focus in on him with a laser focus. I fidget from the intensity. Clearly she doesn’t think everything is all right, with the news or Father. There is the briefest of moments of absolute stillness before Mother jumps up and begins running off toward the bedroom.
“Carol, where are you going? You’ll miss the rest of the news.”
“I’m getting my mask, Allen.” His name passes from her lips like poison. “How can you sit there? You heard what he 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, Carol, 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, Allen, there are people out there sabotaging things and trying to kill people.”
“They never said that. You’re reading too much into this.” Father remains focused on the screen and his fork, his tone growing more condescending with every word.
“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 Allen, just like before. I’m not going to let them steal my life Allen.” Every time she says his name it’s as if she is stabbing him with an invisible knife.
“You are taking this too far. It was one school, one incident. I hardly see this as the start of new fire-bombings or murder sprees.”
“What if it was Evelyn’s school? What if she was one of those twelve children lying in the morgue?” Mother’s eyes well with tears. Her hands trembling.
“But she isn’t, Carol, she’s right here.”
Mother’s eyes dart over to me.
“Damn it, Evelyn! Go to your room and put your mask on!”
Bolting up from the couch, Father scatters the remainder of his dinner across the floor. “Don’t yell at her. I think she can make up her own mind about whether or not she wants to wear it. I’m not going to wear one and that’s final.”
Trapped between them, I am paralyzed. I can’t pick a side.
The veins in Mother’s neck swell, her face is flushed. Father clenches his hands into fists. The television continues to blare and radiate its rainbow of oversaturated light. The tension between them feels like needles piercing my skin. I can sense it coming. Like the stillness before a downpour, an argument is brewing. It’s going to be ugly. Normally I am a buffer for this kind of event, but tonight’s fermenting conflict has roots deeper than what Rourke said. This isn’t my fight and I’m not about to be swept away in it.
Jumping up from the couch, I run to my room as fast as my feet will take me. As the door slams behind me, the screaming begins with a sudden burst of earsplitting noise, as if a bomb had detonated on the couch. Their raging voices amplify in the great emptiness of the living room and slam through the thin plaster wall between us. Their words are impossible to distinguish, but the anger is palpable. Shivers of nervous fear race up my spine at the ferocity of the conflict. Grabbing up the pillows and blankets from my bed, I fall onto the now-barren mattress and mound them on top of my head. The screaming is muffled enough that it no longer stings my ears, but it is still so loud that I have no choice but to listen. My clothes and the bedroom light are still on but I dare not move and risk hearing the full force of their fighting again. I press the pillows against my head as hard as I can, my eyes closed tight. I linger like that for what feels like hours before sleep takes me.
Waking up is awkward. The position I slept in has left a kink in my neck and the pressure from the pillows against my ears has left them feeling sore. My eyes are tired from being forced closed all night. Worst of all, unsettling dreams have left me feeling restless. I wish I could go back to that moment before Mother jumped from the couch and live there in that stillness. But it’s too late for that and at any moment Mother will come through the door with a new filter and pretend like nothing happened last night. I swipe the pillows and covers from my head with a single push. They drop softly to the floor. The light forces me to squint. Sitting up on the edge of the bed, I glance at the clock on the night stand. Seven forty-five in the morning. Like clockwork, Mother pushes open the door and steps into the room holding a filter in her hand. She’s wearing her mask, her eyes obscured behind its two reflective glass circles. Her breathing is rasping and rhythmic. Her arm extends holding the filter. She usually offers some form of greeting or asks me what I’d like for breakfast, but today all I get is the sound of her unnatural breaths. I grab my mask from behind the clock on the night stand and then take the new filter from her outstretched hand. With the speed and enthusiasm I give to all my tedious and repetitive tasks, I open the filter and twist it into place at the front of my mask. Mother turns slowly and exits the room, leaving the door wide open. There is no evidence for it other than the interaction we just had, but I can sense a shift within Mother taking place. Looking again at the clock I see I only have fifteen minutes before I have to leave for school. I’ll have to worry about Mother later.
Showered, changed, and still eating the haphazardly created piece of toast Mother laid out for me, I step out through the front door and into the hallway. I finish the toast while walking the length of the long hallway to the elevator. With my school bag on my back and mask in my hand, I press the small silver button to call the elevator. The elevator dings and the doors open. I step in quickly, tap the lobby button, and then lean against the back wall. It smells of lemon cleaner and coal. The descent is smooth and silent except for the faint whirring of pulleys and gears.
When the doors open the noise of hundreds of shuffling feet flood in. Throngs of people slowly shuffle through the long lines stretched out behind the building’s six airlocks. I step out of the elevator onto the dark polished floors and take my place among them in line. No one looks around; heads forward, eyes fixed on the floor, we all shuffle forward a single step at a time. Shuffle, shuffle.
My mask feels heavy in my hands. I twist it around and look into the two glass circles in the middle of the black rubber. It is such a plain thing with only a red strip around the edge of the soft grey filter to break up the solid black of the rubber. A serial number is stamped into the rubber just above the forehead
. I guess that serves to individualize them.
Looking into the mask it’s hard to imagine why Mother would willingly lock herself in one. My feet have been shuffling automatically and without realizing it I run into the man in front of me. He was fumbling with his mask and my minor bump knocks it from his gaunt gloved hands.
“Watch where you’re going girl, you could hurt someone.”
Taken aback, and forced to reenter the world outside my head, I can’t seem to find words.
“Are you even sorry?”
I continue to stare, forcing down my desire to snap back at him.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Damn right, you’re sorry.”
The man pulls on his mask. Even veiled in rubber, his displeasure is easily discernible.
His insult is nearly inaudible and sounds garbled through his mask.
He steps into the airlock and disappears behind hissing doors. My turn. Flipping the mask back around, I shake our awkward encounter from my head, look out through the eye holes and then plunge my face into the rubber mask. It’s loose so I tug tight on the four straps until it presses tightly over my face. I hold my hand over the air filter’s vent and blow out hard. All of my air rushes out under the edges, forming a seal on my face. In the instant before I pull my hand away from the vent I am empty. My lungs are drained and I’m trapped in an airtight prison. I move my hand away from the vent and draw in a deep breath. The air has the faint taste of charcoal and the pungent odor of rubber fills my nostrils. The airlock doors open with a hiss of escaping air. I step inside, the doors automatically close behind me. The tiny room hisses with changing pressures for a moment, then becomes eerily still. The airlock surrounds me with an oppressive silence and makes me conscious of being trapped in this room, caged within a cage.
The doors open and the soot-filled air of the city’s streets rushes in. Stepping out onto the sidewalk I scan back and forth, looking for the silver transport that will take me to school. The throngs of people weaving here and there make the search difficult but shining silver is hard to miss in a city of soot and ash, and its twinkling in the fragments of sunlight show me the way. Eyes fixed on my target, I walk in a straight line pushing and dodging the multitudes of equally self-engrossed people. The transport’s door stands open. Up the short few steps into the cabin sits the driver, a sickeningly thin woman who can only be a few years older than I am. Her long golden hair is braided into pigtails that she has flopped over her shoulders to dangle on her chest. My foot lands on the first step and she turns to look at me. The black ominous mask she is wearing seems out of place next to her pigtails. Avoiding her glance, I finish the climb and take my seat about halfway down on the driver’s side of the bus. I slide myself along the seat until I’m right up against the window.
The ride to school is long in the ceaseless traffic of the city. The streets were built long before automobiles and mechanical contraptions were thought of and it seems that in the time between no one decided to take a break from building and plan things out. The resulting city is one where everything new is precariously built on the crumbling bones of the old. Typical, though. Advertisements, television—the Caretakers always want you to have something new, something more. They’re always pressing more and more down the city’s exhausted throat with little thought of the ramifications. New filters flood the markets daily, masks of every size shape and dimension. Custom fit, premium: you name it, they’ll make it. But it’s always the same thing. It’s always the same masks, same filters, and same trench coats with just enough changes to make you want them. Mother always insists on having the newest mask, the newest filters, and I always indulge her. Twice a year or more she throws away all the filters in the spare bedroom to buy this month’s version of
Mountain Air filters, youth-small.
Somewhere there is a mountain of discarded things, still good, still working, but garbage nonetheless.
Coming out of my head, I look around to the other people on the bus. Neptus Memorial is a primary through secondary school so most of these kids are younger, but there are a few other older kids on the bus as well. Masks and trench coats make it difficult to tell who’s who on the bus. The masks further exacerbate the issue because it’s really hard to understand each other when talking. Isolated in the mask’s custody, we sit alone, stare out the window alone, and converse to ourselves. I shift my gaze back out the window to watch the blurs of people, cars, and propaganda posters pass me by.
The transport begins to slow and I see the familiar landmarks that signal to me that school is only moments away. I pull the straps of my mask again to ensure they’re tight. Looking around, the other kids are performing similar last minute checks as well. Some are even going so far as to reform their seals by momentarily depriving themselves of air. The transport glides smoothly to a stop. We wait for a moment as the bus sits idle with the doors closed. I clasp the strap of my school bag tightly and prepare to exit. The driver gives the signal by raising her arm out toward the door. It opens shortly thereafter. Starting with the first row, right to left, everyone stands then walks out into the aisle and then down to the exit; ordinary, uniformed, disciplined. I watch the people in front of me go. Watching the girl sitting one row up and opposite me, I wait my turn. When she goes I count a single breath then follow. Shuffling down the narrow walkway, I keep my eyes fixed on my feet. I step off the bus and join the line for the school’s airlocks.
Monitors stand along the edges of the line in brown uniforms under dark blue trench coats permanently stained black from ash. Their rebreathers are jet black like the ones the Peace Officers wear, only less threatening and ominous. My eyes haven’t moved from my feet and my legs have shuffled me forward out of reflex. The school frowns on disobedience and praises strict discipline above all other subjects a student is to learn while at school. I hate the school’s stifling rules, but the fear of repercussions and detention force me to bite my tongue and step in line. Approaching the door, I dare to glance over at one of the monitors standing by the airlocks. From her build I see it is clearly a woman, but the roughness of the soot-covered trench coat and harsh angles of the jet black rebreather make her appear like a hyper-masculine soldier from the posters littering the depressed area of downtown. Her head turns, and though it is impossible to tell, I am certain I feel her eyes piercing through me. Fear trembles throughout my body like a hot poison snaking through my spine. I look away, back at my feet. It’s too close to look around now. I hate this feeling of helplessness and isolation but what can I do? They are always there and always watching.
Ahead of the person’s feet in front of me is the silver lip of the airlock. They step in and disappear as the door revolves around them. I’m next. I take a gulp of carbonized air and hope the monitor won’t pull me aside to chew me out and give me a demerit for looking up at her. My feet shuffle forward and all that lies in front of me is the silver of the airlock door. I lift my foot and it starts its descent into the chamber when a hand falls on my shoulder. Frozen, I turn to look; it’s the hand of the woman I made eye contact with. Behind the veil of my mask I grimace in anticipation of her scolding.
“Do not take off your mask once you have stepped through the airlock. I repeat, do not take off your mask once you’ve stepped through the airlock. Do you understand? Nod your head to comply.”
It is a moment before I realize her words were not a reprimand but a warning. As quickly as I piece together her words I oblige her by nodding enthusiastically.
She removes her hand from my shoulder. I follow her advice without another thought and step into the airlock. The system depressurizes like normal and pumps in clean air. The airlocks aren’t broken so they must be taking precautions after yesterday’s incident. Before I can think of anything else, the door opens and I’m face to face with a towering male monitor. He leans down to my level, placing the glass eye slits of his mask in line with the circles of mine.
“Head down the hall toward the auditorium. Do not remove your mask. Repeat, do not remove your mask. Nod to comply.”
I understand the redundancy is for our protection but the constant reminder of my powerlessness sits heavily in my stomach. I cannot stop a look of frustration from forming on my face. Yet behind my mask, this mini rebellion is concealed. These masks are good for some things I suppose. I nod out of deeply ingrained habit and walk past him down the hall. The kid who entered before me must only be in his third or fourth year. I start walking quickly, following his form down the hallway. I remember being his age at this school, and there was always an omnipresent feeling of fear and doubt. I do not envy him, even as I approach the end of schooling in a few short months and I’ll be forced to go out into the world. Being that young and coming from an earlier life of cartoons and bliss into this kind of regimented asylum for “the chronically under-disciplined” was a shock I think I’m still reeling from. It almost took the curiosity and life out of me. Almost.
I watch the boy press open the auditorium’s double doors and enter. They swing closed behind him and for a moment I feel alone in the hallway. The thought of running away into the bathroom flashes in my mind. I could sit out the rest of the day in silence and avoid whatever awaits me in the auditorium.
I entertain the thought for a few rebellious moments before the burning press of all the eyes of the countless students behind me drive it from my mind. I put my hand on the door handle and push while anxiety swells in my chest. I enter the auditorium, but my eyes are on my feet and my mind is far from the school. I wish to break free from the confines of school and its day-to-day monotony, from the masks we all wear, and the ceaseless fear that grips us all. I desperately want to break free, but I don’t know where I’d even start. My ignorance and doubt feed my timidity and the rising tide of action fizzles away. I don’t know what is holding me back more, the Great Society for filling my every waking moment with trepidation or the fact that I allow it to permeate my thoughts?
Sensing the presence of the seats to my left, I pull out of my head and back into the auditorium. Looking up, I see the bleachers rapidly filling with students. Feeling the throng pushing at my back, I survey the seats and quickly find an empty one and press toward it. The steps up the bleachers strain under the weight of so many students and sway under foot. Ten rows up, I begin my shuffle to the sixth place down and the empty seat waiting for me. My small feet avoid other students with ease. No one looks up at me, their eyes are all fixed to their feet. I take my seat quickly without disturbing the students sitting around me. I’ve had enough of looking at my feet. It is all any of us ever do. Slowly, I lift my head and look around the auditorium. The bleachers take up the entire length of one wall. The two walls running perpendicular are plain except for the identical sets of double doors in their centers. At the base of the far wall is a stage made of polished, dark brown wood. The wall behind it is decorated with sports banners and trophies, but larger and set off by its own gilded frame in the center is the large deep blue flag of the Great Society. The field of the flag is a dark blue, almost black. In the center is the depiction of a man and a woman holding their hands together under the radiating light of a star that has at its center a piece of coal. The auditorium’s walls are the dark grey of concrete which makes all the flags and banners, but especially the flag of the Great Society, stand out clearly.