Short story: Inhale

A short story I read for a Humanities class at my college. It’s based on a story I wrote in 11th grade and decided to revisit and tweak up a bit. I hope you enjoy

Inhale

Buffalo, NY. 2045.
He believed in the Mask.
He had believed in it and yet he had perished from it. The Mask just fit a little too tightly. It’d been pressing up against his Adam’s apple all those hours in the office…I can’t say why it finally killed him at that moment, but he was hunched over his desk, as always, and I heard it…he was being throttled. I had forgotten the sound, like slow crushing of walnuts, because, well, we all believed in the Mask, and the Mask had never let us down. Our delicate eyes were blocked from the Sun by the Mask, our fragile ears were protected from noise pollution by the Mask, our noses guarded from every heinous odor of the outside world by the Mask…and yet, the Mask decided that this kid couldn’t stay.
It was the first workplace accident in ten years.
And yet, every day remained the same after that. A mere freak accident that involved a little wrinkle that the government would iron out in due time. We couldn’t mourn because we knew that would just be a distraction. The only difference I noticed after his passing was that every day for every person carried a faster pace. I wake up just a minute earlier now. It used to be 7:00. It is now 6:59.
There goes my alarm now. My pod opens. We’ve been using oxygenated pods that stimulate sleep since Operation Quarantine was issued by the government ten years ago. As the iron door slides open, so do my eyelids. I see nothing but whiteness. These kinds of rooms were called Emergency Rooms when my parents were children, but now they serve as your everyday bedroom. I lift myself out of the pod. The floor is frigid to the soles of my feet. I shuffle across it to the table at the end of my room. A screen spread against the wall by the table is on the WNY Medical News Channel, as it always is. “Third pandemic this year in China,” the headline below the talking head reads, as if reporting the daily market watch. After the Virus report, a man in the Mask appears and I know right away that it is Governor Rustonvelt. He gives the same message every day. “As long as we are clean, progressive, and in control every hour of every day, we will live to see a stronger New York.”
Every day I watch the WNY Medical News Channel on channel 39. I also eat the same cereal with the same spoon and the same bowl. Naturally I put this back into my dish washer for the next day. By instinct I also wipe down the top of my table until it regains its reflective shine. Three-hundred-and-twenty-five circles with the rag or it isn’t clean. I wipe down my television set after I am finished watching the news. Then I go to my closet and put on my jumpsuit, which shines like onyx in the blinding white room. Everything is clean and nothing does not shine.
Time for work. My shoes lie against the wall of my closet, polished, and perfectly in line. I slip them on and leave my closet. A kiosk on the wall next to my closet is waiting to be opened, and I must open it, lest I choke on the air outside and die. I punch in the code on the number pad next to it. The door opens. I pull it out. I pull it over my head and suddenly the eyes given to me by that which-was-once-called-God are replaced by large protruding orbs. My mouth is now a tube, sealed by a ventilating cap. It is my Gas Mask. I believe in it. By it I shall live. Without it, I shall die.
I walk to the Station. Each apartment is situated so that it takes no more than 200 steps to get to the Station. Today it takes 199. The line is not too long. I walk inside. I find a seat. I sit. We must sit ten feet apart. No more, no less. The closer we sit, the more likely we are to touch. Touching is absolutely unacceptable in a public setting. There is this one girl who usually sits across from me on the bus. I can tell her out from the rest of the crowd because of the wave of gold that spills out from the sides of her mask. Some days when I feel like it I wonder just a little bit what every face looks like other than my own.
Masks. Nothing but Masks. Masks everywhere. Did we always have all these Masks? To my right is a fat Mask who has his head crooked back and fumes seem to be leaving his respirator. Must be snoring. This is what it is like to live, how glorious!
The city we are rushing through has come a long way from its days as a jungle of scaffolding and graffiti covered brick. Buffalo is the #1 manufacturer of the Mask. In fact, my job is to make the Mask so that everybody might be saved by its great power. I work with the greatest of fellow worker bees. We sit down at computers and conceive designs of the Mask and sometimes commission sales to other countries. It is a lovely job and I am glad to do my part. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever tire of seeing the Mask.
We have arrived at the bay where I get off. A towering building that evokes ivory casts a black veil of a shadow over Buffalo. A revolving door brings me to a wide open atrium of white speckled in with black. I look down at my timepiece. It is 9:04. I used to get here at 9:05. I walk past the same receptionist, down the same hall, towards the same cafeteria, past the same men sitting and discussing the same kind of logistics. Nobody greets me, but this comes as no surprise. The Mask isn’t very friendly. You can’t really see what people are thinking because of it, so you don’t know if they’re being sarcastic or serious or warm or cold. In fact, we actually avoid showing any emotion at all. Idle chatter is still commonplace, tedious and banal.
“Did you hear about that intern?” a low, dispassionate voice belonging to a muscular Mask ahead of me mutters. “He choked on his own Mask…”
“He wasn’t used to the kind of Masks we use in the state of New York,” a short, chubby female Mask says ten feet ahead of him, not even turning around. “We’re working on a new design to avoid reoccurrence.”
“I hear there’s a new pathogen circulating across Upstate. It came from Binghamton,” the muscle says as if this had anything to do with previous conversation.
“WNYHealth has over 300 dedicated physicians who will be able to keep this city safe and eventually contain this pathogen,” Chubby pitches. “New York will be safe once again.”
It’s time I get some lunch. The line is very expansive because we have to be separated by ten feet. There are only seven of us at the moment, so the wait isn’t too long. When I arrive at a window, a very tall and skinny Mask is serving me.
“Order, ” she says.
“Coffee,” I say. First word of the day. “Black.”
She hands me a black thermos and a lid-shaped device with a tube protruding from it. I screw this onto the end of my mask’s nozzle. This is how I am able to drink. Pretty neat, eh? I was on the committee that came up with this design. I sit down at the nearest table. I should be thinking about the latest design proposal to avoid future accidents, but I am thinking about sea cucumbers, and what it must be like to live and breathe underwater. To not have the need to simply feel.
God, or whoever you are, or whatever you are, if you really are there, please make me a sea cucumber.
I stop thinking about sea cucumbers. Something is wrong. Horribly wrong. A crowd gathers. They are a lot closer together than they should be…they seem to be circling around somebody.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” It is the first time I have heard somebody yell and curse in a long time. And it is absolutely beautiful. I walk toward the mob.
In the eye of the crowd encircling him is a man. A man in a jumpsuit like me, and all around kosher, except for one little detail.
He has abandoned the Mask.
He is looking at me. His eyes are wide open, jubilant turquoise. He is smiling, indulging in his moment of infamy.
“Breathe, my friend,” he says. “Just breathe.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to act. “What are you doing?” I say, still muffled behind this Thing.
“Breathe, my friend,” he iterates. “Let it go.”
He raises himself and butts his way through the crowd. The people spread out to let him through without touching them. He walks up to me. He puts a bare hand on my shoulder. Bedlam, madness, entropy take over as the crowd disperses across the shining floor.
“He has touched him!” a high ranking Mask yells.
“Somebody do s-something!” A Mask with a stutter yells. I notice these Masks trip, stammer, cough, stub their toes and curse, sob, and hit inanimate objects in fury. And one by one, they all become human.
The man’s hand is still on my shoulder. “Hello, mister” he says. “I just wanted to say to you that it is alright. It will be OK. Just breathe.” He is telling me something with his stares. My hesitation has been worn down thin. I take off the mask. I rip off the mask. I see this room through eyes that I have not used outside of my home in ten years. He leans in, his breath like the smell of earth, and he whispers something in my ear and I feel elated. Two brief, simple words. I long to go outside and say them to the first Mask, the first human, I see.
“Go,” he commands.
I run down the white halls, stained in red at one area because somebody has succumbed to a bloody nose. I run past the receptionist, who is staring at the empty ceiling because she is not empty inside, but has been a jilted lover all her life. And I run past the revolving door, covered in finger prints because sometimes the fabric in our jumpsuits rips and the skin underneath is exposed.
I am outside now. Each breath is a song and the sky is now the shade of blue that it should be. The sun kisses my face. I look ahead and see that girl, still confined by her mask, but still letting the waves of gold dance in the wind. I run up to her and embrace her. She pulls her mask off and asks me if it is safe to breathe.
“Yes,” I say, and stare. I shed a tear. I am looking into the face of innocence. But I must share the words with her.
“Are you alright, sir?” She says, her jade green irises peering at my naked soul.
“I am.”