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FICTION
Tanks
Sam Keeling

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Tessa woke up to the sounds of dying.

Beside her, her husband Paul writhed in the bed. His hands clutched at his throat, nails digging into the stubble on his neck. With each breath came a terrible wheeze, and within seconds there were coughs, raspy and phlegmy, each one like the body’s last attempt to expel a great evil.

Tessa noticed that his face was naked. His mask was dangling along the bedside, twitching with each convulsion. “Fuck,” she said, over and over. How had it fallen off? She moved towards him, but kept one hand over her own mask, snug on her face but liable to pop off with one swing of Paul’s arm. He jerked again, and the bedsheets constricted around Tessa’s ankle.

She reached over his body while keeping her head away and, after blindly groping, grasped the mask. Without hesitation, she placed it back over his head. Paul’s breathing slowed, and each muscle relaxed. She shushed him, gently. Both of their bodies were covered in a new layer of sweat. 

Less than a minute had passed. Any longer, and Tessa feared that he would have been lost. Poisoned by the air.

She leaned in close, her mask almost touching his ear. “Just breathe,” she said. Gently.

…..

When Christopher had first married Jen several years ago, he trained himself to give her a kiss each morning. He always woke before her, even on weekends. Every time, he would roll over and put his lips on her cheek, briefly but with tenderness. Sometimes, she rolled over to meet him, blinking sleep from her eyes. More often, she slept on, oblivious to his actions. Still, he never took a day off, unless work had him travelling. It was his way of declaring, silently, “This is my wife.” Words with weight.

Then, things changed. When the environmental science reports first spread through the office; when each Representative, including Christopher, made shaky speeches to their constituents declaring a public health emergency; when the tanks, branded with the Price Industries logo, first arrived on his doorstep; when he read the instructions for constant use that came with them, he thought that his life would be upended completely. Nothing, to him, would ever be the same.

He was wrong. To a certain extent. Three years later, he lived in the same home. Still with Jen. Still in the House of Representatives. Still thirty minutes to get to work each day, with traffic. Still ate, only now it was a two-hand job; remove the mask, insert food, put the mask back on. 

The biggest change came as a surprise to him. He noticed it every morning when, groggily, he rolled over. Jen, lying peacefully beside him. Leaning forward, still expecting, after all that time, a kiss, he instead felt his motion halted by the cold plastic of his mask pressing against her soft cheek.

…..

The next morning, Tessa prepared Paul’s breakfast. Processed slabs containing various vitamins and nutrients. Artificial flavorings could be purchased separately, but Tessa could not afford them, so they remained completely bland. 

At the table, Paul was covered in cold sweats. After Tessa resituated his mask the night before, he’d been up vomiting out the poison. Snot and spittle dribbled down his chin, pooling in the plastic of the mask. She helped clean him up.

Aside from the noises of cooking, the kitchen was quiet. There were many things on Tessa’s mind, but she knew that Paul was sick, tired, angry. Still, the matter was pressing.

“You’re missing it today,” she said.

Silence.

“Are you going to call them? To reschedule?”

“Not today.” Spoken with gruffness and finality.

Tessa did not wish to argue. How to dance around the eggshells? “This is important, Paul.”

“You think I wanted this to happen?” He said defensively, his voice hoarse.

Tessa sighed. “I never said that.” She paused. “I’ll call them. Tell them that you’re sick. Ask when they can interview you next.”  

She gathered his food onto a plate and set it in front of him, avoiding eye contact. “We need this,” she reiterated. 

Paul looked at the processed food on the plate. The overhead light reflected in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. 

“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.” 

But he did not seem convinced. When she got no response, she moved towards the front door and picked up the van’s keys. “I have to pick up the tanks. I’ll be back.” And she stepped out onto the sidewalk into the gray morning light.

…..

In his office, the phones never stopped ringing. His entire staff spent all day picking them up and hearing the voices on the other side. Calls that were important enough were redirected to Christopher, who sat at his desk nursing a migraine, sifting through paper after paper.

On the other side of the office, drowned out by the incessant ringing, was a group of several TVs, each tuned to a different news station. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC. Although he couldn’t hear them, Christopher knew what the talking heads were abuzz about: him.

“TOO CLOSE TO PREDICT NEXT WEEK’S BUDGET CUT VOTE,” read one headline. “UNDECIDED CONGRESSMEN BECOMES CENTER OF ATTENTION.” “HOW WILL DECREASED OXYGEN WELFARE AFFECT LIVES?” Occasionally, a photograph of his face floated alongside the pundits. REP. CHRISTOPHER BATEMAN.

Surely, this was why he was drowning in bells and tones. The interest groups on the other side of the phone were saying the same things: vote yes, or vote no. Christopher, they implored, must consider what it’s like to live on the edge, every breath mattering. 

Or, at least, he assumed that this is what they said. His staff would approach him, saying, “More people against the cut,” or, “more people for it.” It all became indistinct to him: two voices shouting each other into nothingness. 

Some people had sent in letters; angry, desperate, tear-stained. One featured a drawing of bodies strewn on the sidewalk, masks scattered on the ground, black and white except for green-colored veins. It was captioned: “We’re not scaremongering. This is really happening.” 

Christopher showed it to an assistant scurrying across the office. “Is it?”

His assistant paused, taken abruptly out of his zone. “What?”

Christopher pointed to the bodies. “Really happening?”

The assistant shrugged, gave Christopher a look that said “I don’t know. Shouldn’t you?” and then went back to answering hectic calls. 

…..

Before she drove to get the next week’s supply of tanks, Tessa always picked up Becca. Becca lived a few doors down and didn’t have a car, and since Tessa had enough room in the back of her van for the extra tanks, she let her tag along.

During the ride, they talked mainly about things they both already knew. Small talk without consequence. Events that didn’t need retold.

“How’s Paul doing?” asked Becca.

Tessa shrugged. “His mask fell off last night. But, he’s good. Hanging in there.”

Becca nodded. “And Danny?”

“Well…” Tessa sighed. “I got a call from his school the other day. They said they were concerned about his attendance.”

“Oh, shit. He’s been skipping?”

“Not as far as I know. He leaves the house every day.” She shook her head. “But I can never tell what he’s doing. Or thinking. He can be difficult.”

Becca chuckled. “I can imagine.” She held an invisible cigarette between her fingers, an old habit made impossible long ago. “Not Danny specifically. Just teenage boys in general.” She had no kids of her own, but her husband James and his ailing mother lived with her. 

Becca changed the subject. “You hear about the kid that died? Lawrence something-or-other?” 

“I think I did.”

“Some kind of shootout or mugging, I guess. Gunshot tore through his tank and emptied it out in a second. He pounded on the doors to nearby houses, but nobody let him in. Who wouldn’t lock their door, after gunshots? Died right in the street. Bullet didn’t even touch his skin.”

“Terrible,” said Tessa. Her automatic response, because it was never wrong.

“You’re telling me.” 

After this, they didn’t have much to say. The line at the oxygen center was not as long as normal. The trip was easy: Tessa opened the van’s trunk and put down the backseats. Uniformed workers checked their paperwork and gathered tanks. A week’s worth for six people. The workers were disgruntled and bored, loading and unloading tanks all day long. 

“Thank you so much,” said Becca once they’d driven home. Becca’s voice was always undercut with an air of constant desperation that Tessa had almost grown accustomed to.

“Of course, Becca,” said Tessa. “I want to help however I can.” 

“Well, you help me. You really do.” Becca hopped out of the car, and Tessa helped her unload tanks to her house. It was always nerve-wracking: her breathing grew faster and sharper than she enjoyed, so that she could almost feel the tank growing lighter on her back. 

“Need help getting your tanks in today?” asked Becca once Tessa hopped back in her van.

“Thanks, but Paul should be home,” said Tessa. “I’ll see you next week.” 

It was a goodbye lacking sentiment and packed with inevitability. 

…..

Another call came, this time at Christopher’s home. It was midnight, and he and Jen were both asleep. Jen, who slept lightly, awoke with a start, while Christopher slept on, oblivious. She grabbed the phone off the nightstand and answered “Hello?” with a slur. 

As expected, it was for Christopher. She gripped his shoulder and shook firmly enough to interrupt his slumber. His first sight was of a phone held in front of him, and he accepted it without hesitation.

“This is Christopher,” he greeted.

“Representative Bateman.” The voice on the other end was smooth, deep, authoritative. “Let me apologize: I don’t normally make calls this late. Actually, I don’t normally make calls at all.”

“Wait. Who is this?”

“Ah,” chuckled the voice on the other end. “How foolish of me. This is Jack Price speaking.”

The name splashed Christopher awake like a bucket of ice water. “Jack Price. The Jack Price.”

“Again, I’m not the one to make personal calls. But my assistants went home hours ago, and I’ve been at the office thinking. And it occurred to me: I need to meet with you.”

“Meet with me?” Christopher’s initial wave of surprise subsided. “About the vote.”

“Yes. And no. It’s about the big picture. The future of Price Industries.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Price, I’m a politician, not a potential investor.”

“Of course, Representative. But the future of Price Industries is, I think, the future of America.”

“How is that?”

Another chuckle. Not condescending, but cocksure. “I’ll need you face-to-face to explain that. Does tomorrow sound good?”

Christopher began to decline. “I’m sorry, but I have a lot on my plate—”

“I get it, I get it. It’s a very stressful time. But I think you’ll want to see this.” Price paused. “I’ll even arrange a ride for you. My treat. And I promise, no lobbying bullshit.”

He wanted to answer with a firm “no,” but how could he to a man like Jack Price? The man whose wallet fattened with every inhalation in America? So he simply mumbled,“Sounds good to me.”

“Excellent.” Christopher could hear Price’s grin through the phone. “You will be picked up at eleven sharp. I anxiously await our meeting.”

The call ended. Christopher handed the phone back to Jen. They never spoke about Christopher’s work. When he came home, tired and stressed, the last thing he wanted to do was converse on the same subjects again. If Jen had any thoughts about his job, she never aired them. The subject was taboo, and his title was like an elephant in the room. 

Neither of them said anything. With the name “Jack Price” hung in the air like a noxious gas, they both laid down and went back to sleep.

…..

Tessa had moved all of the tanks into the living room by the time Danny came home. It was three hours since school was supposed to let out. She was blind as to where he’d been, and hated it. 

Danny threw his bag on the floor and looked at the tanks. His hand rubbed where his mask met his cheek. It was chafing, red and irritated. 

“We got enough for the week,” greeted Tessa.

Danny huffed and walked into the kitchen. 

“How was school?” she called, following him. 

“It was fine.” He opened a cupboard, searching for snacks. “Where’s Dad?”

“In the bedroom. He got sick last night.”

“Oh.” Danny didn’t move towards the bedroom. He closed the cupboard and, empty-handed, returned to the living room. His eyes were trained on the tanks lining the wall. 

“What’d you talk about in class today?” 

He did not take his eyes of the tanks. “Did Dad get the job?”

“Well, he didn’t interview. He couldn’t go.”

“Oh.”

“But he’ll reschedule. I might have a job lined up, too.”

“Huh.”

“It’s tough. Everybody wants a job, but nobody’s giving them out. Not around here, at least. It’s hard to do hours of physical labor when you’ve only got a certain amount of tanks.”

“Yeah.”

Neither set of eyes had moved: Danny trained on the tanks, and Tessa burned a hole in the back of her son’s head, hoping to see what he was thinking. 

She was tired of skirting around the subject. “School is important, Danny. It holds your future. It’s your way to success.”

For the first time, he looked right at her. His gaze stunned her. “Is it enough?”

“What?”

He waved at the tanks.

“Of course. It’s the same amount we always get.”

“Yes. But is that enough?”

She didn’t know what to say. 

“I see people on TV. Joggers. They run every day and go through tanks like they’re fucking toilet paper. Whenever they run out? Oh, no problem. Just head to the store and pick up a few.”

“Danny.” Tessa stopped. “We don’t live like that.”

“No. We don’t. We count every breath and hope that we stay alive for a week. And they want to give us even less.”

Tessa was caught off-guard. “You’re right. We can only do so much. Work hard at school, try to get a nice job. It’s how you get to be like those runners.”

“If it’s that easy, then what are we still doing here?”

She wasn’t ready for these questions. “It’s the way things work, honey. You work hard, you help others, and soon you can buy all the tanks you want. You won’t have to worry again.”

A sound like a chuckle escaped Danny. “Help others.” He laughed a little harder. Her joke grew funnier still, and by the time he had walked past Tessa and into his room, there were tears in his eyes. 

…..

The limo that picked Christopher up was freshly washed and pure white. He got in the back to find that it was empty. The driver, pulled onto the street and drove without a word. 

Christopher knew that Price Industries had several locations around the globe, and that D.C. contained one of them. Still, he always thought of Jack Price being holed up in a shadowy board room in New York. Had he flown to D.C. just for this?

The interior of the Price Industries building matched the exterior; super-sleek, ultra-modern, and very expensive. All of the employees had beautiful shining tanks and delicately engraved masks. Christopher had a nice mask himself, for the sake of public image. Still, he marveled at the opulence surrounding him. 

He tried to conceal his amazement as he was led to Jack Price’s office by a secretary, but he must have been ineffective, because as he stepped in the room—the door making a hissing noise behind him—the first words from Price’s mouth were, “Impressive, isn’t it?”

Price—strong and charismatic despite his age—had a mask that looked to be pure gold, with a harness to match. Where most people carried their tanks around like a burden, his seemed to be a trophy and a fashion statement. His office was adorned with modernist furniture and a view to kill. It might have been more expensive to furnish than Christopher’s entire home. 

“I guess it pays to be the guy keeping America alive,” stated Christopher.

Price laughed, but did not refute it. “Please, make yourself comfortable.” 

Christopher sat down in front of the centerpiece desk. Price, on the other hand, remained standing. 

“We are both busy men, so I will keep this short.” Price leaned on his desk like a world leader on his podium. “The vote on the Oxygen Cut is right around the corner. If you had to vote on it today—right now—what would your decision be?”

“Um.” He was caught off guard. “I… I’m not sure.” 

Price sighed. “I don’t envy your position, Representative. It’s a tricky choice to make. And I’m not here to tell you how to do your job. I just want you to see my perspective on this.”

“I think I already get the picture. Less welfare means less tanks you have to send out, right? Which means lower manufacturing costs, and more money in the banks for Price Industries.”

Price raised his finger. “No, my friend. That’s only part of the picture.” He had the air of a casual conversationalist, but Christopher got the feeling that this was well-rehearsed. “I am a man who has always looked into the future. When the environment was going to hell around us, while other billionaires fumbled over the latest trends, I saw what needed to be done. I made tanks and masks for more than an hour-long scuba dive. I knew these would have to be recreational, light enough to carry, but long-lasting. The foresight of my company is the reason that we are here today. And that foresight continues to drive me.”

“This sounds a lot like a sales pitch.”

“Call it what you will. The tanks were a sales pitch, too. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t save us all.”

“Okay. So, what are you selling now?”

Under his mask, Price grinned. “What I always sell. The future.”

With that, he took off his mask and let it fall to the ground.

…..

Tessa fell asleep waiting for Danny to come home. In the hours she waited for him, she imagined all the things she might say: angry accusations, tearful pleas, somber words of wisdom. The conversations playing in her head served as a sort of lullaby, and before she knew it, it was nighttime, and a set of keys were rattling in the door.

It was long past his typical return time, but she took no notice of it. Instead, her eyes focused on what he had dragged in behind him. 

“Danny?”

It was a duffel bag, covered in dirt and grime. He was unable to lift it, so he moved it carefully along the ground. Even though it was quite large, it was overstuffed, its surface covered with awkward protrusions. 

Standing in the overhead light, Tessa could see that Danny was covered in sweat. There were bags under his eyes. “Danny,” she repeated, her tone almost accusatory. 

He looked at her, breathing heavily. “You’re welcome,” he said, and moved swiftly to his room.

Tessa tiptoed over to the bag. Its presence was heavy in the room. Her hand moved, delicately, towards the zipper, as if she were disarming a bomb. She didn’t know if she wanted to see what was inside, and yet, she moved the zipper along its designated path, her hand acting of its own accord.

Inside, there were tanks.

Too many for Tessa to count in that instant. Easily more than a few days’ worth. They were stacked indelicately, thrown in hastily. A few were dented, perhaps during the delivery to Tessa’s feet. 

Tessa flew to Danny’s door, which had been shut. She knocked with force. It remained closed. 

“Where did these come from?”

No answer. 

“Danny. Where the fuck did you get these?”

Silence.

“What do you think this is?” her voice was shaking, her body trembling. Her breathing accelerated like she was being chased. “You expect me to think that this is from… where? A job?”

Nothing.

“Did you steal these? Trade them on the market? For what? Who was with you? Did you hurt someone?”

She was interrogating the chipped paint on the door. 

“Whatever you’re doing, Tt’s not right. This is dangerous, Danny.” 

Suddenly, her bones felt so heavy that she almost fell to the ground. She felt lightheaded. The door in front of her remained silent. She dragged her feet back to her own bed, her mind drained. She slumped under the covers and fell into a burdened sleep. 

…..

Price took a deep breath through his nose and let it out through his mouth with a relieved sigh. “That,” he said, a half-grin stuck on his face, “feels nice.” 

Christopher trained his eyes on Price, waiting for the coughing to begin, the convulsions. But seconds ticked by, and Price stood straight as ever, the same grin on his face, watching Christopher for a reaction. Finally, he gestured to Christopher’s mask. “Care to join me?”

He reached up, but could not yet remove the mask. It had been an extension of his face for years. Moved only for a second or two at a time, for momentary actions. 

Price was explaining something. “The room is vacuum sealed. There’s a filtration system in the vents, shooting out pure air. It’s a costly process, filtering the room’s atmosphere. It’s been tricky to get right. But I promise you, it’s worth it.” He watched Christopher eagerly. “Please. Take it off.” 

Christopher hesitated for a second longer, then, with one swift and quick motion, ripped off the mask, keeping it clenched in one hand. He held his breath for one second, then let it out quickly. Inhale, exhale. The fresh air settled on his tongue. 

Suddenly, he was acutely aware of the tank resting on his back. An alien object, an intruder. He shrugged it off and stood up, walking around the room, feeling an exhilarating freedom.

“I’ve upgraded each of my offices,” said Price. “My cars. Hell, even my house. It’s even more expensive, but worth it. And do you know the best part?”

“What’s that?”

“We’re almost ready to go completely public. My vision for the world is that tanks will only be worn outdoors. A mobile necessity only. I want anyone to be able to walk into any building, anywhere, and walk free of these damn masks.”

Christopher didn’t want to say anything. He rubbed where the mask normally lined his cheeks.

“Some of my… wealthier friends have asked to have their houses upgraded. I’ve obliged. Sometimes for money, other times for favors.”

“Favors?”

“My vision won’t be easy to pull off. It will be expensive. It will take more air than we can currently handle, considering how many tanks we manufacture. Tanks and buildings simply cannot coexist. Not in their current forms.”

Christopher understood. “So you think that, if Congress passes this bill, you’ll make less tanks and spread”—he gestured around—“this.”

“I don’t think. I know.”  

Price leaned forward. “We need your support on this vote. You’ve seen this for a few minutes. So what? You won’t know its effects—the long-term ones, the ones that matter—until you live in an environment with no masks. It changes everything.”

Christopher did remember. It was fuzzy, like a far-off dream. But he remembered nonetheless.

“My life felt incomplete. Tainted. I don’t want people to live like this anymore.” Price moved around the desk and stood in front of Christopher. “Vote for me, and I will send some men to your house. It will be a quick installation. Free of charge.”

Christopher opened his mouth to argue, but was silenced. 

“Please, Representative. This isn’t some petty bribe. It’s an investment in the future. It’s the first step in a new world. What do you say?”

He extended his hand and held it, steady as a rock, waiting for Christopher to shake.

…..

Tessa woke up to an empty bed. 

Paul sat in the kitchen, clutching a glass of milk. His neck was craned to the living room, where the duffel bag still rested like a corpse. 

“Where’s Danny?” she asked him. It was the weekend. No school. Not that it should’ve mattered.

Paul shrugged. “No idea.” 

Tessa looked with him at the bag. “Do you see what he’s done?” 

He nodded. “That’s a lot of tanks.”

“What could he have done? We didn’t raise him to do this.”

“Well, no. But that’s a lot of tanks.”

“So what, Paul?”

“We’re about to be getting even less every week. Now, we have more. That’s what.”

“That won’t happen. Besides, this isn’t how we should get more. Not like this.”

“You’re right. I should be providing more. But I’m not.” He said this matter-of-factly, as if she had accused him of something and he was admitting guilt.

“That’s not what I meant.”

He looked more content. As if a void had been filled. “I can go out with him.”

Tessa was taken aback. “What?”

“Make sure he’s safe. Make sure he’s not hurting anybody. Keep the tanks coming in.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

Paul glanced at her and shrugged again. “Well, I don’t think we can stop him.”

“The hell we can’t.” 

Just then, the front door opened. Again, Danny was drenched in sweat. He wore shorts and an old athletic shirt. He was breathing heavily, carelessly, into his mask. 

Tessa straightened up. “Where were you?”

“I went for a run,” he panted. 

“Really?”

“Yeah.” He nonchalantly leaned over and picked up another tank from the bag. “Why not?”

Neither Tessa nor Paul said anything as their son walked past them, positively bouncing on his feet, clutching a tank that hadn’t belonged to them a day before. 

…..

On the day of the election, the air in the office was thick with weighted silence. Christopher waded through stares that tore through him like knives. He felt exhausted well before voting time.

Jen and his staff had asked him about his visit with Jack Price. “Oh, just typical lobbying,” he said, skirting around their inquisitive glances. “Nothing too extreme.” 

And yet, he hadn’t slept more than three hours in the nights leading to the vote. The image of Price’s hand hovering in front of him was burned in his retinas. Each time he blinked, it appeared with mounting clarity. 

Even now, just moments before the final vote, nobody knew what he would decide. News outlets didn’t bother making predictions. They just wondered what might happen if they went through with it.

Cold beads of sweat dripped down his face and streaked like a tear along his mask. 

.....

Eventually, the duffel bag was emptied. They had to live off what they were given.

The experts hadn’t been wrong: none of them had died yet. But they had come dangerously close to running out. On her first weekly restocking, Tessa had been running on fumes. Danny and Paul had been sitting at home, motionless, not daring to breathe. When she replaced her tanks, Tessa hadn’t even allowed herself a sigh of relief. 

The world outside was dead quiet. Tessa knew that every home probably looked like theirs; still, silent, filled with a tense unease disguised as tranquility. 

Becca told her about a man who developed a cold. He had coughed all night, taking deep, shaky inhalations. He had breezed through his family’s supply of tanks. They were found a day later, corpses cradling corpses. 

“They were together. They were ready for it,” muttered Becca. “That’s what counts, right?”

“Right,” said Tessa. She thought of Becca’s frail mother-in-law, and wanted to comfort her, assure her that things would work out. But she had always taught Danny not to lie, and vowed to live by her own teachings.

…..

Again, Christopher was surprised by how little his life had changed. 

He had considered not accepting the filtration system prototype, but Price insisted. “It isn’t a gift,” he assured Christopher. “Think of it as more data about the system’s effectiveness.”

The night after Price’s men installed the new door and filtration system had been blissful. Christopher’s face felt free. He noticed how a draft in the room brought clean air to his lungs, the breeze tickling his bare mouth. 

He woke up and, as usual, leaned towards Jen’s sleeping face. He moved in quickly, and was surprised to feel his lips collide with her cheek. The contact woke her up, but he didn’t move his lips, and she didn’t stop him. They remained in bed for a while. 

That aside, his routine remained consistent. Thirty minutes to work with traffic. All day, buzzing about the office. At home, he rarely discussed work, welcoming the judgment-free environment more than ever. When they sat on their couch, watching television, he traced his fingers along her back, running it over where the tank had sat for so long.

Jen seemed to have more difficulty adjusting. She purchased noise-cancelling headphones and an eye mask. When Christopher asked why, she said, “I keep waking up in the middle of the night. It’s too late to do anything about it.” 

If “too late” was referring to him, she never elaborated, and he never bothered to ask.

Sometimes, as he dressed and prepared to leave for work, Christopher got a bit too comfortable at home. Jen would have to stop him before he walked, naked-faced, into the world.

…..

There was a knock on the door.

Tessa opened it to find her, disheveled and teary-eyed.

“Becca?” 

“Hi.” 

Tessa’s heart skipped a beat. “What’s wrong?”

“Well. It’s James’s mom… you know how she is.”

“Is she alright?”

Becca grinned painfully. “She’s not really, um, what do you call it… lucid right now. She’s been up all night coughing. Raspy breaths and shit.” She bowed her head. “Her tanks are already gone for the week.”

“Oh God.” There were still four days before they could restock. “I’m sorry, Becca.”

Her eyes glanced around the living room. “How are you holding up?”

Tessa waved at the measly line of tanks. “As good as anybody else.”

Becca nodded, absent-mindedly. “I saw Danny the other week.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah.” Becca looked at the ground again, inhaled deeply, then straightened up. “Tessa, I need some tanks.”

“Becca. You can see right here. We can’t do that—”

“Don’t fuck with me,” she said, suddenly quivering with something like rage. “Don’t fucking lie to me.”

“I’m not! Look—”

“I saw him running. Running. For fun. Like it was nothing.”

Tessa stumbled on her words. “Becca. It’s not like that—”

“The fuck it isn’t. Where do you keep the rest of them?”

Now, Tessa felt tearful. “We don’t have any more. I swear.”

Becca looked at her again, angry this time. Tessa was overcome with the urge to shut the door and lock it, so she moved her hand up. Becca caught it in the corner of her eye and pushed forward, screaming. Her shoulder connected with the swinging door, blasting it open. 

Tessa reeled backwards from the force, and Becca took advantage. She swung her arm, and the outstretched palm connected with Tessa’s face. Mask off-kilter, she fell, connecting hard with the ground. 

She didn’t move as Becca ran to the tanks, grabbing as many as she could carry. She didn’t retaliate as her friend moved past her, slower this time, struggling with the tanks, muttering something that sounded like “I’m sorry.” And she didn’t move when the door shut, and she was left alone, in the quiet.

A sensation rose from her gut to her throat. Her eyes began to burn, and hot tears slid down her face. She felt her stomach begin to shake. Soon, her breathing would transform. Deep, racking, uncontrollable sobs. The kind that she refused to cry, for fear of wasting air.

But there was no stopping it. She cried it all out. Cried for each tank that had been taken from her home. Cried for her friend who must have been at home, locking the door behind her, trying to save a dying old woman with tanks that still might not be enough. 

She cried until she couldn’t any more. Then, she stood up, clumsily, and moved to Danny’s closed door. Without knocking, she entered.

Danny sat in his bed, eyes closed, legs crossed. He jumped at the creak of the door. “Mom,” he said angrily. Then, he saw her face, and quieted down.

“Those tanks. Wherever you got them.”

“Mom—”

She held up her hand. “I need you to go again.”

“What?”

“We need more tanks. Now.” She drew a long, heavy sigh. “And I’m going with you.”

…..

Christopher didn’t understand how he slept so peacefully. 

His days were plagued by news of riots, phone calls and death threats, demands of his resignation. Although it was a majority vote, there was particular emphasis placed on his decision.  Depending on which talking head was on the TV, he was either a pariah or the last reasonable man in politics. 

News vans followed Christopher home every night. Jen kept the blinds shut in every window so that the cameras couldn’t see them mask-less. The house was devoid of natural light, but it was worth it. 

Christopher arrived home after one particularly long day and fell into Jen’s arms on the couch. Their relationship felt reinvigorated. Even though they had been married for years, the ability to interact without masks made them feel young again. Their time together was exploratory, physical.

One night, as he collapsed in bed, Christopher pondered everything. The bill, Jack Price, his new home. The possibility that, thanks to his decision, millions of people might soon be living like this. Was the world on track to becoming a better place? At the very least, his was. He fell into a deep sleep, Jen laying, oblivious, by his side.

In the living room, streetlights could not penetrate the blinds. The faint hum of the ventilation system was the only noise. No outside sound made it through the sealed door. 

Then, something flew through the window with a crash. The object tumbled across the floor with shards of shattered glass skittering throughout the room. It came to rest in the center. Outside, there was the muffled sounds of shouting from tired journalists who witnessed the event.

A brick lay at rest on the hardwood floor. A note was rubber banded to it:

YOU HAVE KILLED US ALL. ARE YOU HAPPY?

The outside air made a whistling noise as it crept in through the hole. 

Jen, having barricaded herself from the outside world, heard nothing. And Christopher slept on, taking deep breaths, oblivious to the approaching sounds of dying.


Sam Keeling is studying Creative Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In addition to fiction, he writes reviews of film, television, and music.