John Merton was breathing through his mouth. He found it easier that way, even though there was still some pain in his chest. Head tilted back, his fingers pinched the bridge of his nose. After suffering through this cold for over a week, he was getting fed up.
He had come to the park in the hope that the sun and fresh air might help. If anything, it seemed to make things worse. He sat on the bench, mouth open, eyes closed. His lungs ached and his breath came in ragged gasps. He felt the sun beat down on him, his bare arms and face tingling with the warmth.
Merton opened his eyes and found a young boy standing in front of him. The child was no more than six and was looking at him with the bold-faced curiosity of the innocent.
"Are you a wheezer?" the boy asked, a mixture of fear and fascination in his voice.
Merton started to answer, but was cut short by a sudden coughing fit. The boy jumped back, startled, but did not run away. Merton’s body heaved painfully with each harsh cough, his chest burning until he thought he would actually tear a hole in his lung.
With a tiny hand on Merton’s shoulder, the boy spoke with concern. "You okay, Mister? Want me to go get my mom? She can help."
Holding up a hand to stop the boy, Merton slowly regained control of his aching body. He sat back and smiled weakly at the lad. "What’s your name, son?"
"Johnny," answered the boy.
"Well, isn’t that something?" said Merton. "My name is John, too. It’s a good name. Wear it proudly, okay, Johnny?"
"Okay, Mister," replied the boy. With one eyebrow raised, he tilted his head slightly to the side. "So, um, are you a wheezer?"
"No," Merton chuckled gently. "No, I’m not a wheezer. I just have a chest cold, that’s all."
"Oh," Johnny said, with a touch of disappointment. "Well, I hope you get better."
"I’m sure I will, Johnny. No cold can -" Merton coughed a couple of times, then continued, "No cold can keep me down for long." He smiled. "You’d better get back to your mom, alright, Johnny? She might be worried."
"She’s right over there, but okay. I hope you get better," the boy said again.
Merton watched the child run across the grass to his mother. Carried on the wind, he heard the boy’s voice saying, "It’s okay, Mom, he’s not a wheezer. He’s just got a cold."
Merton smiled inwardly at the innocence of childhood until he heard the mother’s voice coldly reply, "Good." A chill crept over him that had nothing to with his current health. There were so many sides to the wheezer issue, but the predominant feelings tended to be fear, distrust and jealousy.
Merton had never given a lot of thought to the issue, feeling that as long as he wasn’t affected, there was no need to form an opinion. Now, apparently, just having a cold could result in one being mistaken for a wheezer. Perhaps it was time to form an opinion. He decided that once he felt a little better, he would review all the information he could find on wheezers and decide where he stood on the topic.
The internet, he knew, would only tell him part of the story, yielding more fear-based opinions and disinformation than empirical fact. He let his mind wander, mentally forming a list of the various other sources from which he could get more valid information; pamphlets, literature and so on. John Merton was nothing if not thorough. When he decided to research something, he left no stone unturned. And the issue of wheezers had a lot of stones for him to turn. Social agencies, special interest groups, churches, militant groups, conspiracy buffs. All had something to say about wheezers. Various government departments issued several, sometimes conflicting pamphlets. The medical field tended to be fairly consistent in their information, but it was mostly technical facts and analysis, the doctors preferring to avoid the thornier aspects of the topic.
So much to review, in order to be fully informed, but Merton felt he could ignore the issue no longer. In fact, he decided, he would head over to the community centre now and see what handouts they have. It would give him something to do while he suffered his cold.
An itch tickled the back of his throat as he stood. He started to cough, then felt a burning dagger of agony plunge through his chest. It seemed like he could feel the tissue of his lungs collapsing as his breath caught in his throat and would go no further. His vision blurred and he staggered a few feet before falling to the ground. The world around him exploded in a flurry of panic, then faded quickly to darkness. The skin of his face and arms seemed to be burning from the sun’s warmth, but paradoxically, he found that somehow comforting. Distantly, he heard the young boy, Johnny, yelling, "Mommy, quick, call 911!"
I hope she’s got a cell phone, he thought as he spiraled down into oblivion.