WEAR YOUR MASK commands the massive neon billboard. I’ve only just stepped out of my bedroom, but the floor-to-ceiling windows of the penthouse make it impossible to escape the sign’s crimson cries for attention. Below the neon, a cartoon depiction of a dead schoolgirl twisted on the sidewalk drives the point home. Snared by its phantom hooks, I glide across the cold, austere floor—its polished marble saps the warmth from my bare feet.
Nose pressed against the wall of glass, I observe the soot-and-smog-obscured buildings of the city below. Haphazardly erected with little space between them, skyscrapers strain to break free of the blanket of smoke hoping to reach the fresh air above. Advertisements add splashes of color to the drab gray city. Their slogans, however, do little to add any cheer.
Perched atop a high-rise, only just visible through the thick miasma, is a faded poster of a Peace Officer. He looms three-stories tall in his long, brown trench coat and gloss-black rebreather sternly pointing a finger with a warning written above him in bold letters: Keep your opinions to yourself! Your business should stay your business. The billboard straight across from me depicts a housewife, dressed to the nines, posed next to a tall stack of Mountain Air mask filters. Remember, a fresh filter every day keeps death at bay!
Some of the red in her dress is peeking out from behind layers of soot and ash—the first time I saw her swirls in my mind. I must have been seven when we moved into the penthouse. It’s odd though. I can remember the boxes mounding up ready to be unpacked but everything before that is blank. Nothing of our first house. Rushing to these windows is the earliest thing I can recall—I was so excited to see the city from so high up. But instead of sweeping vistas I was greeted by the sight of cheery Miss Housewife, and her cavalier demeanor toward looming death—always a filter away—brought me to tears. Mother was horrified. She pleaded with me, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Her words were fought through strained breaths—her arms wrapped around me like a straitjacket.
I remember asking 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 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 Mother that day. And it hasn’t rested since.
I turn my gaze away from the window. The door to the spare bedroom is locked up tight concealing the towering stack of Mountain Air filters—youth-small—heaped inside the otherwise barren room. Every morning Mother grabs a filter from the mound and watches me while I swap it out for the barely used one I put on the day before. Our morning ritual a constant reminder of the horror on her face.
This wouldn’t bother me if she were protective in other areas of my life but apart from watching me change my filter, she seems to care little about what I do. Every time I confront her on her glaring inconsistencies, she says some crap like “Children should be free to live.” She always places an exaggeration on ‘live’ as if the word itself were magic and merely at its utterance, some fountain of opportunity will come shooting up out of the ground and whisk me away.
I am free I suppose, but it feels wrong every time I look out the window, turn on the television, or step outside my bedroom door. Everywhere I look, someone is telling me what to do—what to think. 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. The ritually-disciplined school 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 choice. Yet when I lock the penthouse door behind me, I enter a world of paralyzing freedom. I can’t wrap my head around it. There is only a thin pane of glass between them, but they might as well be separate planets. Trapped behind my mask, my daily routines, and the penthouse glass, I’ve been studying the city for a way out.
Having just noticed it, I shift my gaze 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. Mother and I had, in a one-time cosmic coincidence, agreed that the sound system was a waste of money. Father spent twenty-thousand Marks on the thing and technicians were in and out for a week while they ‘calibrated.’ But, to their credit, it has finally allowed me to observe the city in silence. Now I’m 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.
Mother’s sitting with her back to me, her attention firmly glued to the screen. Flashes of light explode 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 thunk of the deadbolt sliding out of the wall. Father is home late, again.
Turning away from the cityscape, I move across the polished floors to welcome him home. He’s been going in early and getting home late for months now. The strain of whatever he’s doing that we can’t discuss is clearly visible in the puce bags under 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.”
“That’s fine,” he says hanging his overcoat and mask on the hooks in the foyer.
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 starts digging into his food—the vibrant colors of the television now dance in his placid eyes too. Mother hardly looks away from the screen. 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 them. As 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 shows 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 gray 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 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, that while the investigation is underway, everyone should wear their masks—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 hands. 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 and look to my parents. Mother has bolted up in complete shock, Father sits unfazed; he’s still mechanically shoveling cold food into his mouth. Mother’s eyes narrow on him with a searing focus. Clearly, she doesn’t think everything is alright, with the news or Father. But it can’t be that bad if Father is still just sitting there. Can it? There is the briefest of moments of absolute stillness before Mother storms off toward the master bedroom.
“Carol,” Father’s eyes snap away from his fork. “Where are you going? You’ll miss the rest of the news.”
“I’m getting my mask, Allen.” His name oozes over 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 saboteurs out on the streets killing 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 like she’s stabbing him with an invisible knife.
“You’re taking this too far.” Father returns his attention to the clump of potato skewered on his fork. “It was one school, one incident. This is hardly the start of an uprising. Where are the fire-bombings? Murder sprees? Sit down, Carol—it was just an accident.”
She chews back obscenities. “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 tremble.
“But she isn’t, Carol, she’s right here.” Mother’s eyes dart over to me.
“Damn it, Evelyn! Put your mask on!”
Bolting up from the couch, Father scatters the remainder of his dinner across the floor. “Don’t yell at her. She can make up her own mind. I’m not going to wear one, and that’s final.”
Trapped between them, I’m paralyzed.
The veins in Mother’s neck swell, her face is flushed. Father clenches his fingers into fists. The television continues to blare and radiate its oversaturated rainbow. The tension between them swells piercing my skin like needles. I know what’s coming. Like the stillness before a downpour, a fight is brewing, and it’s going to be ugly. Normally I’m 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 from the couch, I run to my room as fast as my feet will take me. I slam the door 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. Anxiety courses up and down my spine. Grabbing up the pillows and blankets on my bed into a mass, I fall onto the mattress and mound them on top of my head. The screaming is muffled enough that it no longer stings my ears, but it’s 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. I press the pillows against my head as hard as I can keeping my eyes closed tight. I linger for what feels like hours before sleep takes me.