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300 Days

by Jessica Jackson about a year ago in Short Story
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When the Oxygen Ran Out

You can’t put the fate of a burning building on the shoulders of one person, but you can save one person from the burning building.

It had been 300 days since the air ran out. The ones who fled to the purlieus were dying in droves, now. The ones who survived now only managed to do so through the help of oxygen tanks. Those fortunate to remain in the omphalos were crammed like dirty rats on a merchant ship, floating precariously in the middle of a pandemic and atmospheric wasteland. Then there were those like myself, forced into a limited understanding of science just to survive, building devices and contraptions to keep the inevitable at bay, thwarting death at every dusty turn.

“Life.” In my childhood, I heard stories of forests and fields spanning miles around, lavishing oxygen upon the atmosphere like a passionate lover while sunlight sparkled between each passing rainstorm. Creatures darted in-and-out of this blooming ecosystem, harmony in their routine biology. If I focused my imagination, I could almost tell you what grass smelled like. I would give anything to have such a memory. The only rain I knew was toxic and corroded the flesh. The only sun was harsh and caused the skin to bubble. And the only forest was a hydrocarbon haze which choked and poisoned the lungs.

Ella. I thought of her often, how in the darkest of times she had been able to find the spark of joy. While I was not blessed with the memories of greener pastures, her smile was just as vivid and refreshing. I had kept her locket, a small golden heart, now tarnished with age. Inside was a picture of us. “Two hearts of gold, one old soul.” That was us, although I often joked I had a tin heart.

It had been a year since her death, and the consequent passing of our unborn child. But death was all around us, as it had been for years. Greedy men had invited it in and allowed it to stay. We lived and breathed death. It was the way of our world. Still in spite of what I would call an astoundingly high level of preparedness for death, losing them was my greatest tragedy, even though from time-to-time I thought they had been spared from an even darker future.

Salvage was my trade. With fossil fuels depleted and combustion bordering on the scientifically impossible, repurposing machine parts had become a moderately lucrative industry. I lived in an airtight concrete bunker which was mostly self-sustaining, if a bit lonely. Electricity was heavily monitored by the beeves and a power outage could mean death for those unfortunate enough to not own generators. Every man had to pay to live. Like Ella, I had never believed in that “truth.”

There was no requirement in my industry to sell the scraps I found, so I would often build small generators for folks like myself who were just looking to survive. I had managed to construct 32 generators from my two years of salvage pile missions. Ella always said, “Some people don’t realize they just need an angel in their corner to find the strength to accomplish anything.” I wasn’t much of an angel, but I could attest that my efforts were appreciated and lives were saved. It’s tough to accomplish anything when it looks like there is nothing worth accomplishing.

300 Days. I tapped the locket in my shirt pocket as my rover cut across the gravel field. There was a small junkyard about 13 miles northwest of there. The beeves used to make sure these places were under surveillance, but they gave up 10 days into the oxygen depletion when everything went to hell. Quietly I sang along to my music, “If we meet on the streets someday and I don't know what to say, Look away…”

Ella loved 80’s ballads, and we were fortunate enough to have a boombox with a hefty collection of CDs. Music was largely obsolete and Ella would have told you it was as big of a problem as the energy crisis. I’d say that music was a big part of our survival, and made it a point to never sit in silence even after she had passed. The sound of the gravel under the tires seemed to rattle in rhythm with the music as I made my way across the expanse. I followed the dirt road that cut through what was referred to as the “Black Forest”; it was the graveyard-like remains of a large forest that had succumbed to a forest fire and never recovered.

All was quiet at the junkyard as I pulled in and donned my mask. I double-checked connections to my oxygen tank before I opened the hatch to go investigate. One developed significant core strength from carting around oxygen tanks all of the time, but it made the requirement no less cumbersome. At first glance, there seemed to be a lot of unusable scraps. It was unsurprising given that most people did not bother taking their refuse to these places. Most of the valuable items I seemed to find at yards and fills were dumped by the beeves. One time I found half of an Avantide 450 generator here. The unit was badly dented but most of the missing parts were common finds. The rebuild was now sitting and serving the Emerson family who lived about 10 miles west of me.

I began gathering what parts I discerned as useful; wires, tubes, housing, and any electric components I could find. Then I saw it, gleaming amidst the rubble. It was an old electric car, damaged but fully in-tact, trunk and all. Probably a Starstride. Even if the car was not salvageable, there were most certainly parts under the hood that would be usable. Eagerly, I pushed aside pieces of plastic and metal and managed to get the hood open. Everything was there. I could have whooped aloud for joy. It was a great find, but I would have to take it back to my bunker to assess its full usability. I fetched the rover and set up a tow. After one last look around, I felt I’d gathered enough for the trip.

The trip home was slow thanks to the extra weight but I suspected the haul would be worth the additional time and battery drain. I hit the button on my garage opener, and the door creaked open as I pulled in with my treasure. The ceiling LEDs winked on when they detected my motion. I unhitched my find to further investigate.

A detailed look at the engine parts revealed that almost everything was in-tact, serviceable, or replaceable. I would have to determine if it was better to rehab the vehicle and sell it as a refurb, or if the parts were more valuable on their own. The inner seating guts were in particularly rough shape, rotted out from rain exposure maybe. The general frame of the vehicle was good, not too rusty. Then I popped the trunk for one of the biggest surprises of my life.

Inside the truck was a small girl with dirty blonde hair, no older than 17 by my guess. She was wearing what I would describe as hospital scrubs, and she was either dead or asleep. Given the situation, she should have been dead. As I ruminated on the possibilities of what I ought to do with a body, simultaneously thankful that there was no real authority I would need to report to, she jolted awake and screamed, scrambling to the furthest corner of the trunk.

I backed away and held out my hands to insinuate no harm. There was a look of confusion in her blue eyes, a trace of abject terror curled into her trembling lip. She was quite dirty, as though she had crawled through the mud. I could not fathom how she was still alive, and had no idea how long she had been in that trunk. Had she been squatting in the car? Had she crawled in while someone was dumping it?

Awkwardly, I pointed at myself. “I’m Ed. I found this car in a junkyard. That’s what I do, I find junk to sell. What’s your name?”

She looked even more confused, and brushed a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. Maybe she was mute?

I pointed at myself again, jabbing my chest. “Ed. Ed. My name is Ed.”

“Ed,” she finally repeated in a small voice, clutching the inside of the trunk.

OK, at least I knew she could speak. I gestured towards her. “You. What’s your name?”

“You,” she repeated.

I tried to be patient and pointed to myself again, “I am Ed.” I looked around and pointed to the lights, “Light,” then to the car, “Car.” I gestured to her again.

She tapped her chest and then looked down, creasing her brow. “CS-12,” she finally said.

“CS-12,” I repeated, feeling my heart sink. That sounded an awful lot like a factory number.

“Pharmacom,” she added.

“The hospital up on the hill,” I muttered. Her eyes widened at the word ‘hospital’ and she tried to shrink even further in the trunk. I pointed to myself again. “Ed. Ed is a friend. Friend. I won’t hurt you.”

“Friend,” She seemed to sigh in relief.

I offered a hand. “Why don’t you come out of there and get cleaned up?”

With great hesitation, she finally took my hand and I helped her out of the trunk. I took her up the stairs to the living quarters, showed her the bathroom, the shower, and pulled out some clean clothes she could wear. It turned out she had a decent understanding of language, but a limited speech vocabulary. Once I had finished explaining where everything was, she paused and wrapped her arms around my torso.

“Thank,” she said, trembling with tears, “Thank.”

My heart melted. I thought about how hard Ella would have teased me for that. “Don’t mention it,” I mumbled, patting her shoulder. It had been a strange day. “I do have one question for you. How did you manage to survive without any oxygen?” I put my hands to my throat.

She furrowed her brow, “No need.”

“No need,” I said, “You don’t need oxygen?”

“No need,” she repeated, then pointed to her left shoulder where I saw a tattoo I had not seen earlier. The tattoo read “CS-12.”

“I see. OK. Go, get cleaned up,” I nodded towards the bathroom. “CS-12” offered a half-smile and went into the bathroom, shutting the door. I went to my desk, shaking my head. At that point, I noticed the red light was flashing on my radio unit indicating a missed transmission. I tuned in at a low volume.

“...missing since last Tuesday. Pharmacom is offering a one-million-dollar reward for the whereabouts of this patient, who is an important piece of their gene exploration program… a promising new lead in human genetics and oxygen deprival studies.”

So it was true. The girl, “CS-12” did not require oxygen to live. I thought about Ella, and what she would do if she were here. I thought about what I would do if CS-12 were my daughter. I thought about a lot of deep issues I hadn’t thought about before, like the ethics of the whole thing, the repercussions of harboring a fugitive, whether or not I believed tampering with genes was a good idea given how corrupt the human race had become. Mostly, I thought about whether or not CS-12 had ever been given a choice.

Ella once said, “Sometimes an act of heroism isn’t an act of heroism. You can’t put the fate of a burning building on the shoulders of one person, but you can save one person from the burning building.” At that moment, I felt CS-12 was the one person. The building would continue to burn and would do so perpetually. But CS-12 was just a girl. She needed to understand her significance and then, it would have to be her decision. That was her right.

Short Story

About the author

Jessica Jackson

Armed with her BA in English Literature and passion for gothic romance, Jessica Jackson is making her debut in the world of fiction. She is also an award-winning costume artist, lyricist, vocalist, and lover of all things dark and spooky.

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