by Valerie Shu
He was down to 1 canister of oxygen.
He stands at the doorway of what had once been a Walmart, the pale orange dawn at his back.
All that was left of it was a dark, ruined shell. Somebody had ripped the automatic sliding doors off their tracks, letting the cracked glass serve as a nightmarish welcome mat for whatever straggler was desperate enough to enter.
At least he didn’t need to worry about running into other people anymore – everyone had been evacuated by the government in the last wave. Everyone but the unlucky ones like him, left to fight over what was left in the ghost town. Apparently, there was a biosphere north of there: a safe haven, protected from the toxic air. Away from this twisted wasteland where your life depended on the orange digits on your wrist and the canister of oxygen strapped to your back.
He didn’t know whether he wanted it to be BS more than he wanted it to be real. It seemed too good – and too unfair – to be true.
The only reason he’d survived two months after the last wave of evacs was because he’d been smart enough to buy the oxygen as soon as the government had started distributions. By the time people realized that money no longer mattered in this world – that nothing but oxygen did – half the town was dead and the other half was fighting tooth and nail for the last canisters.
But now, his luck had run out, and he was down to the last one.
Adjusting the thick rubber mask covering his face, he entered the store.
The first few aisles had been picked to shreds. Food, scrap metal, cans, paper littered the floor, trampled into the hard white tile. Overturned shopping carts laid motionless on the ground, wheels outstretched into empty air. Here and there he spotted a recognizable shape – a pair of socks still stapled in their packaging, a 12-pack of washable Crayola markers, a box of Kraft macaroni. Remnants of an old world where even resources as basic as air were taken for granted.
His foot came down on something in the debris, making him jump at the sound of metal skittering against concrete. Pausing, he nudged it over with the toe of his boot and bent to retrieve it. Even though the plastic screen in the front of it had been punctured and the band was mangled beyond repair, he recognized it instantly. Cold dread weighing down his fingers, he turned it around and read the dim amber number stamped on its front, dead and empty. 0:00:00. Almost on instinct, he checked the identical one on his wrist. 00:39:18.
Suddenly feeling sick, he turned the mangled piece of metal in his hand and threw it away from him as hard as he could, feeling his stomach turn as the crunch of glass and metal reached his ears. Its owner wouldn’t be needing it anymore.
He could still remember the monotone voice of the newscaster the day it was announced that the government would be rationing out oxygen.
For weeks, months, years before that, the news had been filled with increasingly alarming reports of toxic air and overpollution. It wasn’t like he hadn’t noticed the sky getting ashier and ashier, or the crowds of activists congregating on street corners, or religious freaks shoving bibles into his hands in front of Cracker Barrels.
But when the first waves of deaths began, the numbers became all too real, all too quickly.
Ironic, when now nothing felt real anymore. Not even the emptiness.
Sometimes, on clearer days when the sky wasn’t so suffocating, he could remember the feeling of his wife’s arm around his waist and the smell of fertilizer in the backyard and the click of car keys in his hand as he was greeted in the doorway by excited voices and the smell of warm food.
He tried not to think about them too much – letting yourself be haunted by ghosts was a dangerous habit in the new world.
Again, he checked the wristband on his arm plugged into the oxygen tank. The numbers stared back at him in the dim light. 0:18:09.
He was moving quickly now, glass crunching under his boots as he scanned store, knowing he wouldn’t find what he was looking for but looking anyway. He still wasn’t entirely convinced that desperately wandering through a Walmart was better than just lying down in some field and waiting for your oxygen to run out. A near-hysterical chuckle almost slipped out as the thought crossed his mind again. If his wrist hadn’t read 0:09:46, maybe the situation would’ve been funnier.
By the time he finally reached the back of the store, the numbers had reached 0:05:00. He was lightheaded now, the lack of oxygen rivaling only the cold liquid dread tapping at his skull.
There – against the wall. A crooked, ashen gray sign. Oxygen for Sale. He released a breath under his mask as he surveyed the racks that had once held canisters stacked in long rows. Now, all they had were bare metal ribs, like the bones of a whale carcass stripped of its flesh.
A gray glint of something caught his eye.
The digits on his wrist crawled down at a terrifyingly urgent pace. The roundness of those terrifying zeros seemed to flash under his eyelids.
Dropping to his knees, he crawled forward, fingers outstretched, groping for something. Anything. The floor is gritty under his palms.
And now he can hear his own voice swearing at him, yelling, desperate, knowing he’s too late, he’s two months, two years too late. And then he can see his outstretched hand running through a head of dark hair and hear a different voice, a lighter voice, a brighter voice and then see those damn digits unraveling down faster and faster, hooking themselves into his brain and the terror spreading through his entire body and –
He lunges forward and yanks a canister out from under the shelf, where it was jammed between the floor and the shelf. Dusty metal, cool to the touch.
Printed on it are seven, white, sans serif letters.
Numb, he stands, clutching it to his chest.
He makes his way back through the ruined aisles.
Past the dismantled checkout lines.
Over the broken glass, glinting against the weak morning light.
Every second, a miracle.
Every breath, a betrayal.
He slides the canister off his back. It rings out through the dark, empty store as it hits the ground. With a swift motion, he clicks the last canister of oxygen into place and plugs it into his wristband. The orange digits scramble to reset themselves behind the scratched screen.
A tremulous pause.
Smiling ruefully, he exits the store.
Above his head, the ruined sky is silent.