In the back of the store there was a jumble of personal affects: a few coolers and thermoses filled up with now-cold soup, tangled lanyards with keys on them. The break room was little more than a corner cubicle, its walls made up of squat metal lockers. A woman leaned up against one of these and smoked her medicine.
From the front where the two sliding glass doors opened up to a vacuum sealed chamber came a small dribble of smog. Emma was annoyed- there wouldn’t be the smog if one thoughtless woman hadn’t lingered in the entry; half in and half out of the vacuum chamber, tripping every motion sensor while chatting on her Tech. Now Emma had to fire up the handheld sucking machine and go catch the bits of smoke from the air, until it materialized into a sort of sludgy silt she’d have to empty into the dumpster at the end of the night. All this, of course, in between every customer. Never mind that she looked ridiculous chasing whips of smoke and then dashing back behind the counter every third pace.
For instance, now- there was another one. And their impatience was implacable.
“I’ll be right up,” Emma said, shoving the Handheld down on the counter and appearing behind the register. The customer, of course, didn’t answer. Her eyes were cast down towards her Tech and she was frowning. They always frowned. What, exactly, did they have to frown about?
“Do you have a Platinum Card?” Emma asked in her practiced drawl.
“No thank you,” the customer said sourly, as if she had just had a salesman bust into her shower, shoving flyers in her face.
I didn’t ask if you wanted one, Emma thought. The counter registered the item’s weight and shape.
“I heard this one was nice,” she smiled dutifully. The canister was full of something Emma would never get to try herself.
“Is this working yet?” the customer asked, and she gestured with her Tech towards the terminal incredulously.
“Yes ma’am, you just have to wait for the chirp.”
“I have been,” the woman said. For the first time, her eyes rose to meet Emma’s straight-on. “I have to say, you people are getting ruder and ruder. If I had any time, I’d speak with your manager.” She snapped her Breather out of her purse and began fixing it on dismissively.
Emma pursed her lips. Big talk. What opulent event was she rushing off to tonight?
“Enjoy your evening,” Emma said, and she placed the item on the right conveyer to be sent to the woman’s home.
“Hmm,” the woman said, her mouth muffled by the Breather. She swished out of the store.
Emma exhaled a painful breath. She hadn’t even thought she’d lost control of her tone. If that woman was surveyed on her kitchen-table-Tech in the morning, it’d be another long week of extra training from Emma’s manager. “Training,” of course, being unpaid. She ran her hand through her hair compulsively.
“Damn it,” Emma shuddered. A strand of hair had pulled away from her scalp and now dangled from her fingertips. It shone blonde in the filtery light. Well, not blonde-blonde. Not the platinum, shining color some of her customers sported from their fancy heat-protect, smog-protect treatments. Emma could still remember being a true blonde like that. Her mother had called her “Toadstool” as a child.
Thinking about her mother made a hard lump rise up in Emma’s chest, so she busied herself with the Handheld yet again, chasing the leftover smoke bit by bit.
That was the way of her life: she got through it, bit by bit by bit.
The end of the night had brought no less than four customers crashing through the vacuum chamber three minutes before closing, but at long last, their items had been registered, their Techs read, the counters wiped and the carpet sprayed. Emma straightened the canisters of clean air in the Platinum section; letting her fingers linger on the glossy nature pictures that set each flavor apart from the other. On this one, a jagged mountain range in icy blue colors. On another, a wide-open field. There was one scene she recognized as belonging to a Russian island, but she could never remember its name.
Emma gathered her things and stood patiently at the door, waiting for her manager to lock the back bays first. In the reflection of the double doors’ glass, she studied the image of her face. Lines, etched in her forehead and all around her eyes. Rough, red patches which couldn’t be hidden by the company-provided cosmetics. The company liked to keep up appearances; as an upper-end provider of Breath; no one liked to buy pure air while looking straight in the face of smog poisoning. Not because it made them feel guilty, or empathetic. No. Focus groups had been conducted for the products, and the customers ticked all sorts of negative boxes when their salespeople had boils or burns.
Emma was lucky, in a way. She got to spend all day in a sealed chamber where the environment was largely regulated. She’d had friends from high school who got jobs in Foundation or Waste, and had to work outside for long hours in unwieldy suits. They looked to Emma like the stiff domed suits of America’s ancient space program. Of course, the suits weren’t necessary to be outside. And Emma questioned their effectiveness ever since Ned, an older cousin, had died on the job at an outdoor road-laying company. All one really needed to move comfortably through the outdoor world was a host of special creams (for exposed skin), and a Breather- the sleek metal mouth attachment which replaced all incoming air with pure, flavored Breath.
Emma’s breather was already a hand-me-down when she got it. The seal wasn’t perfect and every now and then she caught a lungful of smog. In the attachable canister usually reserved for Breath, Emma placed a sample of the air from her store. It was better than outdoor air, and free.
She took the Breather out of her bag now and held it loosely against her mouth, considering it. She hated the feel of the metal bit pushing past her lips. And the optional nose tubes; which her mother always insisted she use, sprung up from the curved piece like insect eyes. It was painful to wear- not customized to the curves of her mouth, or fitted with soft rubber gum pads. Sometimes Emma even thought she’d prefer its alternative- a short five year prognosis.
Emma held the Breather in place over her mouth; hovering it there, eyeing the effect in the mirror. In this version of her dress-up game, her face seemed gaunt and ugly. The Breather made her look like some sort of cyborg. And with the Breather dropped away from her face, Emma could see her eyes emerging bright from their sockets. She could focus on the rounded shape of her cheeks, or the delicate way her nose turned up on just the right sort of slope.
Behind the image of her nose came another nose, wavy and far away. Emma stared at the features of her face so closely that she didn’t notice the boy’s face through the glass until behind her eyes came a second pair of eyes, peering in from the outside.
“Ma’am?” he called through the doors.
Emma started and jolted away from her reflection guiltily. “Hello?”
“Hello, are you open? Well, I know you’re not open, but, could you help me?”
Her instant emotion was resentment. He had the smooth voice of an educated man and his clothes were tailored and clean. A rich boy. A typical rich boy, here after closing, asking for favors.
Well, Emma was off the clock now.
“No,” she said, trying to make the word as blunt as possible- a wall slammed in his face. She swiveled on her heel for dramatic effect and began to walk away.
“No?” He asked. “No one’s ever said no to me before.”
This made her pause. Her blood was starting to rise; from the bottoms of her tired feet (cashiers weren’t allowed to sit during their shift) to the core of her labored chest. This was a rich boy she could really rip into.
“While obviously you’re unaccustomed to not getting your way, let me explain something to you,” Emma began, laying her palms against the inner glass door vehemently.
“Wait, wait! I’m just kidding,” he smirked.
He smirked. Emma’s anger was far from dissipated.
“If you’re aware that we’re closed, sir, then I suggest you go home.”
“Please, wait,” he shrugged, raising his hands in a sort of surrender. Emma had more time to see his face now; a very handsome face. The kind of good skin money could buy. Typical.
“I’m sorry. It was an awful joke. I know that you’re busy in there—” he glanced towards the back, where her manager was taking an unusually long time to lock the product cases and the loading doors. Undoubtedly she had stopped to smoke more medicine, rubbing her sweaty palms against her legs, breathing deeply and expecting this little break to be on company time. “—I know that it’s the end of your night. But I’m desperate.”
The way he said the word desperate was somehow quiet and pronounced at the same time. Emma swallowed.
“What could you possibly be desperate for?”
He raised one suggestive eyebrow. “I could give you the list… tonight, it’s Levon.”
Emma wasn’t surprised in the slightest. The birth control chemical. The one they kept behind their counter and sold like hotcakes each day. He was an attractive boy; he probably had dalliances nearly every night. Why would it occur to him to be responsible?
“I’m sure someone like you could have thought to order some on the Belts.”
He shifted in place and looked down. “Ours is… broken, right now. They have maintenance coming in the morning. But the morning is too late. You know, you’re a pharmacist.”
She wasn’t a pharmacist, but she did know; she was a girl. Emma thought about his thin, beautiful girl, laid out at home on a settee, waiting. A girl who really was desperate. So she caved.
“Hold on,” she said, casting a glance around the store. Her manager wouldn’t mind the extra sale.
Emma reached up and flipped the lock back on the door, allowing the motion sensor to be triggered again. She stepped into the vacuum vestibule and reached up to do the same with the outer door.
Now they were nearly face to face. He wore a small smile as he stood with his hands in his pockets. Had there been no glass, this distance would be almost unnerving. Like the distance between two lovers who, after a fight, stand nose to nose breathing angrily- just before they kiss.
The switch was flipped and the door rushed open, and, there they were, exactly in that stance. Emma should have moved, but her heart was thudding strangely. It was the shock of the automated door— too quick.
“The air,” the boy pointed, and he was right. Tendrils of opaque fog were seeping into the chamber and filling the space between them. She coughed painfully, then realized- “Where’s your Breather?”
He shrugged, stepping around Emma so that the doors could swish shut in the spot he’d been standing. He took her hand. Emma let him. He guided her fingers to his nose where there was a bump the size of a lima bean. He traced with her finger a small raised line all the way from his nose to the back of his ear.
“What is that?” Emma asked.
“A type of oxygen cannula,” he replied. “Implanted. My whole family has one. The Breath is inserted into a well near my lungs,” he tapped there, “where the lungs are cleaned with each exhale. And somehow it’s self sufficient. Self-purifying.”
Freedom- Emma saw it for what it was. Not only was it discreet, and impervious to malfunction or leakage- but it protected the lungs. The very organ which was the most fragile; and the most lethal. The organ that killed her mother. The organ that was killing Emma now.
The birth control chemical was the furthest thing from Emma’s mind, but the boy forged ahead into the store and stood at the counter expectantly. She wanted to prolong her time with him. She felt like if she watched the flaring of his nostrils or the rising of his chest for long enough, she would glean a bit of information about what his implant was- and how she could attain it. This is what desperation was.
Her hands fumbled on the Levon, packaged tightly in a bright pink tin. The boy brought out a Platinum Card. “Can I use this?”
“Of course.” She scanned it. A name appeared in bright letters across the top: Fulton Abram. Abram, a name she might have heard before on the Tech-casts at home.
“Now I owe you a favor,” Fulton said as he took the tin in his hand. His eyes fixed on her sincerely, studying her.
“I did it for your girlfriend, not for you,” Emma said bravely.
Fulton widened his eyes. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend. This is for someone… in the family.”
Emma nodded silently, unsure of why he had specified.
From the back of the store ambled her manager, resting her hands in her pockets and with red rimmed eyes.
“Emma,” she said. The name in her mouth was like an accusation. “I thought we were closed. I tallied the registers.”
“I know, I’m sorry. This customer was still in the store. I… missed him.” She looked at Fulton’s face. He smiled the barest smile, like they shared the most delicious secret between them.
“We’ll have to add it to your training,” the manager said.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Fulton promised. He took in her name tag. “Emma. I’ll see you soon.”
And he left, without taking out any mask or metal, without a single skip in the smooth rise and fall of his pumping lungs. Emma watched his body working until he was fully out of sight.
Fulton kept his word. Their first date was expensive, the same as the outing after that. He treated her to delicate foods as he courted her and movies at the causeway. He seemed to think she was beautiful, despite her thinning hair and her damaged skin. He promised to deliver a pot of protective cream to her house. When it arrived on the Community Belt, it smelled like lavender and seemed to contain little flecks of shimmer.
When they first kissed, Emma thought to be careful of his implant. She traced its sub-dermal lines with reverence, pressing her lips faintly against his, until he took her hand and pressed it firmly on his chin, asking her to pull him closer, kiss him harder.
Fulton promised her she wouldn’t have to work at that lousy job anymore. And she didn’t— he took care of that. She became a hostess at a restaurant in the causeway closest to her home. It tipped well and the men who walked in were often respectful.
She began to wonder if she was in love.
It certainly felt like love— her days were all work, walking, eating three ice creams in one day, hearing stories, taking him in. She was always taking him in, a sponge— and her love was like a dust which she breathed irregardless of machinery. That feeling, love, she thought of as a light, a shimmering cloud of spores or particles. It felt different in her body than her dying lungs. It started somewhere near her ribcage and proceeded to fill her whole chest like a vessel. And then it collected, until it formed its own vortex, as in a wind tunnel, which gripped her heart and pulled it straight towards Fulton.
More importantly, he seemed to love her too. He made love to her on the small folding bed in her bedroom, always gentle. He could last longer than she could; the heaving would set in, and she’d have to catch her breath in a small ball on the bed. He often told her he wished he could give her his cannula.
As the months went by this dream became something like a promise. Emma felt Fulton’s ribcage with a fervid desire, feeling his body as she kissed him as if she could reach through the bones and extract the lungs he carried so thoughtlessly every day. She tried not to obsess about it. But her mother was in her mind— coughing.
Five months since she’d become Fulton’s lover, Emma began coughing too. More than usual. More than ever. Bad news.
The doctor Fulton had ordered to examine her was tight-lipped and dour. He told them, “the damage must stop compounding.”
But how could the damage stop compounding, when the whole world got worse each day, bit by bit by bit?
“I need the implant,” Emma told him. They were naked in her bed. She’d never gotten to see his home.
“I wish you could,” he responded.
Emma’s heart boiled and jumped. She felt jagged.
“Why can’t I? You said your whole family got them. I know they’re too much, too much for you or me to pay for on our own, but if we ask your parents— if we pool our resources—”
“What resources?” Fulton snapped. “You have nothing to pool.”
Emma shuddered. Tears began to run in rivulets down her cheeks.
“When we met, you promised you’d help me. You knew where I came from.”
Fulton nodded, rolling to guard his body from her on the bed. “My parents don’t have money anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
Emma felt like laughing. Poor. Poor was a joke to Fulton. Fulton didn’t know what that word meant.
“I love you,” she said. She meant it deeply. She meant it with the deep strong hope she’d had when her mother was in the death ward, and Emma bargained with her to hold on.
“I love you,” Fulton said softly, and Emma’s heart rose. This was the moment. He’d understand. He’d get over his guilt or shame at asking his parents for help, and he’d see the necessity of it all. They had to get Emma into surgery. They had to, or there would be no Emma left.
“So?” she said hopefully.
Fulton turned to stare at her.
“What do you mean? I love you, so? So what? I love you!”
“I love you too,” she encouraged. Her eyes were wide and manic. “I love you so much.
You were the answer I needed. You can finally save me, Fulton!”
He began to cry. She’d never seen him cry like this.
“I can’t. Emma, I want to, but I can’t. We haven’t been making money for months. They’re going to be pushed out of the neighborhood soon. There are signs on the doors.”
“That can’t happen. It can’t happen overnight. Your family is made of money.”
“Dad made a bad investment. They’re in denial, but Emma, I knew you’d understand! Out of all of the people in my life you’re the only one who wouldn’t hate me for this.”
But he was wrong. She did hate him. And her hate drew on the same strangling roots which had sought to cling to her mother, which had sought to cling to Fulton’s medicine. She felt acute loss in equal parts to her acute wanting.
She stood up from the bed and pulled a dress on. She attempted to stop shivering.
“I don’t understand why you’d do this,” Emma said. Her voice was low. The vessel in her chest that was made for him felt very, very empty.
“Emma?” Fulton looked up at her with big doe eyes. Lying eyes. They’d been feeding her promises for months. In fact, they’d given her false hope on that very first night— when he let her feel his life-giver, and then forced her fingers away.
“I love you,” Fulton said again. His chest was moving quickly. Well-oiled, ill used.
Emma shook her head and stared at the long bump where she knew her answer lived, somewhere tempting— just beneath his skin.