As usual he was quiet coming through the door, setting down his briefcase while the hydraulics fizzed to a close behind him. Crossing the hall, he removed his coat and placed it on the stand. His mask followed, grey and chunky, signaling a little puff of release as he pulled it from his face and set it down. The brown hat he always wore was last, settling peacefully on a peg above his mask, which proclaimed in large and precise lettering: OxyCorp.
He turned towards the kitchen and had almost gone through when he became distracted by the tiny monitor just to the left of the door. He bent over, peering deep into the sheer black face, squinting in the brightly lit hallway. He gave the green digits an affirmed tap, like a stopwatch, then gave the screen another glance.
A set of long, pretty fingers curled in front of the monitor. The fingernails were painted blue, like a nursery. “The levels are fine, Tom. You don’t have to check them every time you come home,” Alice said, her kind, pink face smiling from around the door. He gave an apologetic smile and followed her into the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, they were sat around their little table, both clutching mugs of coffee.
“It’s been sixteen days, hasn’t it?” Tom said as though the thought had only just occurred to him, and when his wife nodded he continued, “Perhaps it’s time we order another refill.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, we’re fine.” When she noticed her husband’s unconvinced expression, she added, “You know there are some families who live off one air delivery a month, Tom.”
The thought nearly made him splutter his coffee. “Oh yeah? Like who?”
Alice took a sip, “The Mendels. And their house is bigger than ours.”
He was quiet for a moment and then, realising he had no reply, took his empty mug to the sink.
One delivery a month, he thought bitterly. If I could afford it, I’d have a fresh refill every week. Or even every day…It dries up so quickly, flutters away like dragonflies when you turn your back…
The kitchen window looked on to the cul de sac and from there, he watched the goings-on outside. Of course there were none, with the exception of a lone mailman, with his heavy oxygen tank on his back and the federal issue air mask. The sky was a nice colour though; like that pinkish wine Alice liked.
“Lowrie’s running out, Tom,” she piped up.
He turned his head but didn’t move from the sink, “What? Who says?”
“Sandra Allan. She used to go twice a week to do his laundry but she had to quit because the air was getting so thin.” She paused and put a hand to her chestnut hair, “he’s below 20, Tom.”
A tinge of hopelessness spread his features and he sat down next to her. “He’s always forgetful. He’ll pay soon.”
“I don’t think he can anymore. I mean, when was the last time he made any money, Tom?”
“He’s got all the cash his family left him,” Tom replied.
“He had all that cash. You know how air bills pile up and,” her hand reached for his, “I think he’s just done. He’s stopped paying.”
Stopped paying, Tom thought, stopped paying. The words made his chest feel hollow. Because when you stop paying, they stop bringing it. The air just gets disappeared faster than you’d think possible.
And for a while you think you’ll be fine; that you’ll ride it out till just a little more money comes in. But that air just keeps getting thinner…thinner until your throat is always dry and and your lungs are full of chalk dust. And with every breath the searing burn of it is nothing against the thought that’s another breath gone and a shiny dollar with it. Those green digits just keep on ticking by in the inevitable track to zero.
Then eventually the sheer lack of it tricked your mind into thinking you could go outside; that there was more out there. But it just wasn’t true. All the air in the world kept in silver tankers, piped into houses. Sold by the gallon. Just another bill for those who had it, but for those who didn’t it was the shiniest red apple, kept high up in the tree where the have-nots couldn’t waste its adoring breath. And in the end all it came down to was that final choice: drown in your own house, or out in the street, scratching the lawn with fingernails turned too purple. Yes, he had been there. He had been without…
“I think I should go see him.” Tom said, rising from the table.
“Yeah,” she nodded, comforted, “and take your checkbook.”
Upon leaving the house, Tom’s mask and hat had reaffirmed their positions as he meandered down to the curb. His coat however was left behind as a warm early evening had settled in the air, as the blurred sun gave its parting shots.
Lowrie’s house was old, large and found in a quiet spot just up the road from theirs and he walked quickly, along the way remarking upon a fresh pothole in the street, the Arman’s blossoming air tank of crisp red roses and, once more, the pleasant sky up above; though now it had changed slightly. More yellowish, like the inside of an apple, left to sour.
He was trying to remember how long it had been since he had last visited when he arrived at the frontstep of Lowrie’s house. It had not changed; the wide porch that had been painted and repainted until the noughts of the wood had vanished entirely, the tall windows that seemed to beg for a baseball to come careering through. And the little gothic spindle that adorned the roof like a christmas decoration. Yes, there was something of a haunted look about Lowrie’s place and this was only worsened by the cancerous spread of age. The confident balustrades and columns now seemed only worn and sagging. And with every gust of wind, an old man’s whistle let loose from the creaking shutters.
Tom knocked on the door and listened as the noise echoed around the house. For a minute, he waited, taking calculated breaths inside his mask (it runs out, it always does…) then finally, in frustration, stepped closer to the panel by the door. There was a flurry of movement as his fingers tapped away a combination on the keypad.
‘So much for courtesy,’ he thought as the door hummed open. He stepped inside the chamber and let it close behind him. As he waited, he pulled the ox mask from his face and practiced a caring, yet concerned smile. The second door slip open.
It came upon him like a wave. Where there was once air came an acrid light-headed swoon that scraped his tonsils and made water come to his eyes. He caught himself against the wall as he stepped inside, his legs bending like green branches beneath him. The breath in his throat felt like hot and cramped and though he tried to resist, Tom felt the consciousness lifting from him like a plastic bag in the wind. He didn’t need to check the monitor to know the levels were low; far too low.
They’re always too low…
He was reaching down for his mask when he saw him, sat in the far corner of the room in a brown armchair. At the first the sight seemed too pitiful to Tom to be real but there he was; unmistakable in his plaid shirt and brown loafers. His fragile pink arms were splayed out across either side of the chair and above, his head lolled uncomfortably back on his shoulders. The mouth was ever so slightly open. Lowrie’s sparkling white hair curled like wool from his dusty eyes which were bordered by a frame of wrinkles and excess skin.
And silence kept the room. Like an unwelcome guest, it sat so smugly in the room, cutting a line between the man in the hat and the one who needed him. Then,
“Thomas.” The word, so dry and broken, did not come from his mouth. It seemed to be everywhere; the creases in his shirt, the stench of flowers in the room. Tom forgot his mask and rushed to the older man’s side.
‘What are you doing here, Lowr? This is dangerous.” He was kneeling, holding Lowrie’s thin hand in his.
“It’s good to see you, boy. I’ve missed you,” he croaked once more, “ Now, get up off the floor and have a look out the window.” The hazel eyes drifted in their sockets and met with Tom’s. His head didn’t move.
“It’s good to see you too, old timer. But we’ve got to leave,” he patted his flaccid arm, “Now.”
Lowrie stayed utterly still, except for his baggy eyelids which blinked patiently. “Come over here first and have a look out this window with me.”
Tom ignored him and rose to his feet, pulling on the old man’s shoulder, beckoning him to stand up.
“It’s why I bought this house, Thomas. Did I ever tell you that?”
The younger man gave another useless tug at the Lowries’ side. But he wasn’t paying attention; just a dead weight.
“The sky; that’s why I bought it. I loved the sky and I still do, boy. Right to this day I watch it from this window, because from here there’s nothing plain sky. You see, it’s never the same one day after another, always changing, switching places; dancing before your very eyes. And as hard as you try, you’d be hard pressed to find a fella smart enough to tell you what it really is; not all the atoms and whatnot but actually answer your question; plain english, that’s all. It’s the kind of thing that’d make a smart man sound slow.” There was a long, rasping noise as he drew a tiny breath from the thin air. His lips were parched and cracking.
“And whenever you hear the weather report, they only talk about the rain and the snow and all that; no one ever mentions what colour the sky will be. It’s just too unpredictable.”
His words went on and on, his creaking throat ignoring the thinning air.
“But when you watch the sky as long as I do, you get to knowing how it works. There’s a whole encyclopedia of skies, Thomas, and I know most of them. There’s grey sky, black sky, clear sky, rocky sky, swirling sky…”
Tom put another hand on Lowrie’s crinkled shirt and pulled. No response.
“…colourful skies, ones that seem to flow like a river and others as thick and tough as old black marble…”
Another short breath, another attempt at awakening the old man. Desperation.
“…and then you have morning glory and shepherd’s delight and shepherd’s warning…”
Tom’s hands were shaking and the air was squeezing the back of his throat. His head felt ready to keel over.
“…but my favourite type of sky was always in the evening, just between sunset and all that time preceding. The time where the sun swells up and it and the sky are indistinguishable from eachother, It’s so beautiful…but it only lasts a little while. It goes so quickly.”
“Lowrie!” Tom’s shout rung out through the empty house and Lowrie stopped speaking. Once more there was silence and they were both still, Tom breathing heavily from the exertion of his outburst.
“I’m not going with you,” the old man said. His wrinkled features were still firmly facing the window.
Tom heard the words but ignored them. The blood was pounding like footsteps in his ears and when he spoke again, “We have to leave now, Lowrie.”, it came in a choked whisper.
Just as the younger man had, Lowried repeated himself,
“I’m not coming with you.”
His lungs ached and a hot wave of desperation overcame him and he rushed to window, ignoring the feeling that his legs were burning. “Look! There’s an air truck just along the street. I can bring it over here, Lowr. I’ve got cash.”
“I don’t want any air,” His words were short and hollow and made the coarse hair of Tom’s arms stand upright. Lowrie’s head had still not moved.
“I am old now,” he continued, “Thomas, I am old now and I don’t want any more.”
It seemed like once more there would be silence but then, for the second time, Tom exclaimed, “But why? You’re being crazy!”
The words were left to settle then Lowrie croaked, “I’m not crazy. In fact, I think I may be at the height of sanity. Nowadays, at least. For the last sixteen days, I have been living like this; in what you would call madness. But it’s not, Thomas. I can see the sky from here. I’m old now and I’ve made a decision.
“Along time ago, you were in this same position and I helped you. I want you to help me now;” there was a rasping pause, “let me be.”
Tom’s brain panged from the lack of oxygen and his mind slipped back to the last time he had felt that way. All those years ago, just a young man; no cares, no cash, no air. He had been so close, so terrifyingly close, when a man older than him, a rich man, had saved him from his situation. Lowrie’s checkbook had saved his life once upon a time. A checkbook so similar to the one now clutched sweatily in Tom’s fist. He moved back towards the old man, collapsing painfully to his knees as fresh tears sprouted from his eyes, breaking loose and falling majestically to the hardwood.
“Lowrie…you’re going to drown in here.” His breath spluttered and crackled. More tears came. All of a sudden, the old man’s head finally moved, craning close to Tom’s cheek and whispered,
“Don’t worry, boy…I’m not staying in here.”
And then he leaned forward, moving his tired old body like a great oak uprooting itself from the earth. His legs churned forwards, followed his arms and torso, all emitting their own sigh of disagreement. Despite the effort, his breaths came calmly and soon arrived somewhat unsteadily to his feet. His legs carried him forward, like a man walking on stilts, across the cluttered room.
Tom was stunned, calling after him, “No! Stop!” but then quickly resolving to follow. As he arrived at the entrance, Lowrie was stood next to the airlock brandishing a steel kitchen knife in his veiny right hand. For a moment, Tom had not faintest idea what his old friend was doing. Then Lowrie motioned to his mask which was hanging by the door and said, “I’d put that on.”
Tom complied and watched with horror through his eyepieces as the old man took the knife to the seam of the air lock with an assured slice. The seal succumbed to the point of the knife and Lowrie dragged it slowly and with total calm. The rubber piping peeled apart in front of them and there was a great sigh of atmosphere. Then nothing. A look of joy lightened his crumpled face and Lowrie pushed through the useless air lock. Tom rushed behind and could only look on as he staggered out, unmasked, into the airless twilight. Lowrie continued down, down, down until the fabric of his brown loafers touched the pavement. He stood perfectly still, hands at his sides and looked up, a serene smile sliced across his features. Tom leveled at his side, placing a hand on his shoulder.
It was nearly sunset but the sun had swelled; grown suddenly ripe with vivacity and colour in its waning minutes and ballooning to monopolize any little corner of sky. The two men, one masked; one not, stood side by side for a long time. Lowrie gave a single gutteral sigh as the sun spread out another another inch or two. His breaths were long and thin, his pale and pinkish lips dragging on the air like a cigarette. ‘A losing battle.’ Tom thought as he heard them, keeping his hand firmly on the shaky shoulder but staring firmly at the horizon.
Do you remember what they used to call this time, Thomas?” his hazels eyes were bloodshot, his tongue doing somersaults for even the smallest breath, “the magic hour. That’s what they used to call it…”
His voice trailed off, cracking like a teenage boy’s while his lungs pounded against his ribs in protest. Green digits counting down. Not long.
“It still is,” said Tom but neither man turned around. Beside him, he listened as Lowrie’s breaths came shorter, shorter, thinner, thinner until there was the tiniest sigh of exhaust and he slumped to the pavement. Tom’s hand was left hanging suspended and he brought it back to him. Wrung his fingers together. He did not turn, not yet, but simply kept his eyes forward, looking to the hills. Behind him, a breathless wind ran through his fingers, ruffled the limp white hair on the pavement then was carried off to the horizon, where the sky was sweet and thin.
A short ‘what if’ story influenced by Ray Bradbury