Red lights flash.
Under clear protective outerwear suits masks are lifted from necks or pulled from bags, purses, and briefcases. Wishing they could come up with outerwear that would protect against the phage surges—it’d be one less thing to worry about—he unclips his mask from his belt and pulls apart its lower half where the clear jellylike membrane is sticking to itself. He then tugs the security strap over his head and presses the damp-feeling mask to his face. While he enjoys the mask’s cooling effect, its smell of charred bread laced with burnt sweetener isn’t pleasant, not that his outerwear suit smells any better. Despite wearing the full-body suit daily to protect against the skin-burning rain, rain that routinely leaks through cracks in the subway system, he’s still very aware of the wet-metal scent the suit’s nanotechnology generates as it neutralizes acids and wicks water away.
Wondering if nanotechnology programming is to blame for the mask’s smell too, he adjusts the mask’s view-through shield, so it sits squarely over his eyes, and makes sure the mask’s red sealant edges are flush with his forehead, cheeks, and jaw.
The woman sitting across from him studies the mask on her lap. She looks up and asks him, yelling over the siren, “What’s the date today?”
He taps his mask, urging her to put hers on. She smiles, coughs, and repeats her question.
“November fifteenth,” he shouts, realizing as he says the date that it’s his grandmother’s birthday. She would have been well over one hundred if she were still alive.
Mumbling to herself, coughing, the woman digs through her oversized purse, where he glimpses high heels that match her yellow belt. While the outerwear material is flexible, it’s still puncture prone so heels are discouraged. On her feet now are dull black flats, a glaring contrast to the colorful shoes she brought to change into when she makes it to wherever it is she’s going.
The woman pulls a tube of lipstick from her purse. Steadying herself between coughs, she manages to apply a bright red coating on her lips. She puts her lipstick away, and he thinks to remind her of her mask again, but just as he thinks this, she shoves her mask into her purse too.
L’appel du vide.
It’s a call he also hears often now.
Although it’s clear she’s made a choice and the outerwear is pointless against phage surges, it still shocks him to see her unzip a seam of her suit and push the hood up and off her head. With the rain, suits are always worn in transit. She shimmies her shoulders through the suit’s opening too.
Her arms free, coughing, she says, “That’s better.”
People look away. He can’t hide as easily with her sitting directly across from him.
Straightening the collar of her blue dress, she smiles at him. Her chest swells as she sucks in a deep breath. She hesitates, then hurriedly reaches into her purse. He hopes that she’s changed her mind, but instead of her mask, she retrieves one of her heels. Coughing, she kicks off her flats and reaches down, under her outerwear, and slips on the shoe. As she pulls out her second heel, the convulsions start. She struggles to put on the shoe as her body quakes and shudders. Her jaw clenches and her eyes roll back. The bright yellow heel drops from her hand. Slumping forward, she falls to the ground, her blond hair spilling loose from a clip, her head landing inches from his feet.
The subway train, its metal wheels squealing as piercingly as the siren, rolls into the next station, where he and others step over the woman to exit while others step over her to board. If not at this stop, then maybe at the next, Sanitizers, the people who gather the fallen, will collect her for identification and incineration.
He passes underneath a speaker blaring the alarm. Wincing, thinking about investing in high-grade earplugs, he steps over another body. In their white uniforms, Sanitizers push their waste carts through the crowded station. The Sanitizers who, from the stories his grandmother used to tell, were called garbagemen when she was young wear blue squares on their chests, and their carts contain bins for rubbish. The Sanitizers who deal with the aftermath of phage surges wear a red cross on their chests, and their carts consist of a table that lowers and lifts to aid in the collection of the fallen. It takes special equipment and training to dispose of people versus other refuse.
A collapsed man, his head resting on his briefcase, is assessed by a red-cross-wearing Sanitizer. The Sanitizer, glancing around, slips his hand out of the base of his outerwear sleeve, unzips the fallen man’s outerwear, and reaches in to take the man’s ring.
Not wanting trouble, he looks the other way.
Displays on the white-tiled station walls pulse galactic spectacles—bursting stars, vibrant nebulae, tranquil planets—advertisements for spacecations to escape it all. One day, if I can save enough money, I might go, he thinks.
Wishes, more like. The trips are becoming increasingly expensive.
The siren and flashing red lights stop abruptly.
Green lights blink.
Daa. Doo. Ding.
The all-clear chime sounds.
He peels off his mask and hooks it back on his belt. Even though it’s harder to breathe with them on, not everyone removes their masks. Some wear their masks perpetually now, especially the elderly or infirmed whose fingers are clumsy. Some ridicule the constant mask wearers, telling them that it’s no way to live, but he understands their choice. Sometimes he thinks he should keep his mask on always too, not because he worries his fingers will fail but because at times that call, that impulse not to bother, is frighteningly seductive, like it was for that woman.
He passes displays now of smiling people who remind everyone to remain positive. “Know-how. Optimism. Gratitude. This is the way forward,” the smiling people say.
Before the subway exit, he pauses, like everyone else, to ready himself for the surface. First, to free his hands in case he needs to use them, he clips his briefcase to his belt on the opposite hip from his mask. He then checks the sleeves of his outerwear, making sure they’re ready to unfurl if he needs to put his arms through them.
“Walking tents,” his grandmother used to call the outerwear suits. While she found them frustrating to wear, he remembers that she appreciated the fabric’s stretchy and satiny feel. Wondering how old exactly she’d have been today, he checks the inner zippers of his suit. Everything’s in order.
Ready to ascend, he glances at the displays again. As the smiling faces say, he should focus on the positive, like being grateful for the satiny stretchiness of the outerwear, like his grandmother was, or for the outerwear suits themselves and the great minds of his grandmother’s generation who were able to create this nanotechnology fabric that can hold up against the elements, a material that, thankfully, is also cooling. Otherwise, the heat would be unbearable.
And there’s reason for optimism too. Great minds before solved problems. These suits and masks are proof of that. Great minds today could figure out, through know-how, how to address the phage surges more effectively.
Yes, there’s much to be positive about, he thinks as he emerges from the subway station into steaming, gray rain.
Another positive to be thankful for—today the rain is gray and not black or yellow. With black or yellow rain, he would need to buy a new suit in days. They aren’t cheap anymore.
Stop focusing on that, he tells himself. That isn’t positive.
Muted green lights pulse from buildings to assure everyone masks aren’t necessary now. Cars with their enlarged tires churn through the rainwater pooling in the avenue. Their horns, muffled by the heavy rain, bleat. Their always-on headlights barely prick the gray day.
As he fords through a puddle, he tells himself to also be grateful that the water hasn’t crested the elevated sidewalk curb yet. If the rain today stays below ten inches, the commute home will be reasonable. His subway line, with the failing pumps, is more susceptible to flooding than others.
A car cuts close to the curb, splashing water up to his waist. He smiles, feeling grateful for the makers of the outerwear again as the water rolls off him.
There are more fallen on the sidewalk than usual. The rate of phage surges seems to be increasing, he thinks as he steps around a slumped body. The warning siren and red lights are more frequent. They occur twice, sometimes three or four times a day now. At this rate, soon the choice may be masks always on or succumb to the call.
Not a helpful thought.
Across the street a man carries an oversized cutout heart shrouded in clear, shiny cellophane. The bright yellow of the enlarged heart is jarring in all the gray. What kind of gift is that? he wonders. It’s November so that eliminates a gift for Valentine’s Day, a holiday that some of the elderly still celebrate. His grandmother told him once that when she was little, the hearts they exchanged then as notes of love or admiration were a throbbing red. Now that the sun rarely makes an appearance here, yellow supplanted red in this city some time ago as the color of hopeful love.
The woman’s yellow belt and heels. She might have picked those accessories purposefully for today, he thinks as he crosses the street.
There are eight streets for him to cross in total before he makes it to his office building, where he will step through the ultraviolet sanitation blower, remove his outerwear, hang his gear in his locker, find an empty seat, and start calculating coverage. Insurers have never been more necessary with increasing risk everywhere. Rain damage. Fires from electrical shorts sparked by too frequent brownouts. Measuring risk. Weighing liability. His work is important, and he’s grateful for this too.
As he hurries along like everyone else on the avenue, he recalls his grandmother telling him that there was a time when many people worked from home. Now, with an unstable energy grid, only the center of this city and the transportation lines leading into it have constant power. Unless a person gets lucky with The Decadal housing lottery (the odds are not favorable) or has the money for housing in City Center (very few do), scheduled blackouts and surprise brownouts are their norm.
But dwelling on that isn’t positive. What is positive is that he has a job that is meaningful and allows him to sit in a cooled climasphere for nine hours a day. Jaxon, his brother, doesn’t have the same luxury, not that he seems to mind. As a Recycler, Jaxon must swap his outerwear for a more constrictive suit and wear a breathing tank when at work. Melting plastics and metals emit hazardous chemicals. Despite this danger, his brother seems to enjoy his work just as much as he enjoys being an Insurer.
Feeling grateful that he and his brother found occupations that align with their interests and what they can tolerate, he spots, on the opposite corner, a person in an astronaut uniform, the uniform that astronauts wore when they were heroes: bulky with an oversized helmet.
Everyone stares at this history-book figure. Matching what he examined in books, a NASA insignia and an equally archaic flag are emblazoned on the suit. He knows the suit was once bright white, based on the glossy pictures he’s seen, but now the suit’s dingy gray, and unlike the outerwear everyone else has on, the astronaut suit, with its bulging layering and the helmet’s radiation tinting, completely conceals its wearer. It won’t be long before this person is stopped by Securers and asked to comply with The All-Clear Security Directive.
When the light changes, remembering his grandmother speaking of how colorful this city used to be—because of the sun, but more so because of all the people doing and wearing all kinds of things—he crosses the street, wondering if this terrestrial-bound astronaut would have gotten a second look in the city of her youth.
Up ahead a woman marches with one arm in an outerwear sleeve so she can guide a little girl by the shoulder. Nudging the girl to keep up, the woman pushes through the crowd. The girl, her mask bouncing against her chest, glances back at a beggar sitting on a standpipe protruding from the Aguille building, a building that, with its glass walls spiraling up to the endless gray sky, refracts the little light it catches into thousands of rainbowlike sparks. The sparks, as if protesting the dreary rain, light up the block. He can’t resist studying the building when he passes this way. He can’t resist glancing at the scrawny beggar each morning either.
When the woman and the girl stop at the curb to wait for the walk signal, the girl looks back at the beggar again. He looks too. It’s hard to fight the tug of the eyes toward the grotesque.
The beggar’s outerwear has deteriorated to the point where there are wide holes in the clear fabric. Where there are holes, his skin is blistered or puckered in swirls of black and green. The mask hanging around his neck is also badly in need of replacement. Its sealant edges are frayed. The view-through shield is warped. It’s evident that his mask isn’t functioning as expected because he jerks sporadically and grinds his teeth—signs of neurological damage caused by minute exposure to the endotoxins released during phage surges. Anything more than a minute exposure would have been the death of him.
The dull blink of the building’s green lights makes the beggar’s already sickly complexion sallower. Twitching, his greasy silver hair plastered to his cheeks, the beggar holds a synthetic board with a message in erratic print that reads: Need money for mask repair. On his lap is an outdated Geoluphone, its cracked screen flashing: Ready to Receive Payment.
Like usual, as people pass by, they do not stop to donate. Just like he does every other morning, he keeps walking too.
He catches up to the woman and girl at the curb. More people have crowded around them. Everyone smiles at the girl. Her brown hair in pigtails, the girl, not noticing the eyes on her, continues to stare at the beggar. Looking down through the beads of rain on his suit and hers, he sees that the girl’s brown eyes are wide and her frown is severe. Startling him, he realizes that her stare isn’t one of gruesome curiosity, like what drives him to look at the beggar each morning, but rather it’s one of sympathy.
He doesn’t see that kind of look often now, not like when he was with his grandmother when he was young. She wore that look regularly with him. Complicated homework. Jaxon, a crafty strategist, beating him at games and leaving him sulking. Children sharing secrets with everyone but him. Whenever he was frustrated or upset, his grandmother’s warm eyes would glisten, and she’d tell him not to fret.
The walk signal flashes. The woman presses the girl forward. The girl, still looking back at the beggar, moves with reluctant, sloshing steps.
Seeing the girl’s concern for the beggar, remembering his grandmother’s compassion, especially on this day on what would have been her birthday, an unfamiliar heat sparks in his chest. The crowd pushes past him. Slipping his arm through a suit sleeve, he turns and goes back to the beggar, issues the voice command to activate his watch, and waves it over the beggar’s phone.
“Try again,” the beggar, excited, says through a grind of his teeth.
He does. Still nothing.
“Your suit,” the beggar says, his jaw jerking to the right.
He pushes his hand through the seal at the base of the sleeve and waves his wrist over the phone again. Rain splatters his skin. There’s a scalding burn. When a green checkmark appears on the phone, he yanks his hand back inside his protective covering.
“Thank you. Thank you,” the beggar says, his eye twitching.
He looks across the avenue, searching for the woman and girl, and spots them weaving their way through the crowd. The girl’s still staring in their direction, but she’s smiling now. Seeing her smile, the heat that started in his chest blazes throughout him, overpowering the burn on his hand from the rain.
“I built this building,” the beggar says, his shoulder spasming. “I was the architect.”
His lingering too long invited the rantings of this deranged man. He holds back a cringe and tries to smile kindly like his grandmother would have.
“No need for builders now. Just maintainers,” the beggar, his head shuddering to the side, continues. “Where’s the soul in that?”
He shrugs and walks away, but that doesn’t stop the beggar.
“We weren’t designed for it!” the beggar shouts after him. “To last. Not like how I designed this building. From foundation to copestone, this building—it’s not like us, I tell you. It will last!”
Deborah S. Prespare lives in Brooklyn, New York. She completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell College and received an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Menda City Review, Potomac Review, Red Rock Review, Soundings East, Third Wednesday, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and several other publications.
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