Posted - 01/10/2007 : 09:02:04
| Short Story by By Tamara Wilhite
Rochelle fell in time to see the wall of poisonous vapors. It billowed forward, reaching ugly deadly tentacles for her. The acrid smell burned her throat, and - Rochelle sat upright, clutching her chest, gasping for breath. The oxygen monitor by her bed glowed a comforting green. Just a nightmare.
It was the same nightmare every night. She went outside to escape the nightmare. The beauty of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Safety in serenity was what they’d hoped for. But Jeremy had left her in the cabin. Jeremy was cautious this one time and didn’t take off without his family. And that decision had killed him.
The Pacific Rim project was intended to control earthquakes. Scientists would trigger little quakes along all the major faults to prevent the big quakes. Several minor faults in the Pacific Rim were released at once on one day. Mother Nature didn’t agree. Within hours, ten volcanoes had erupted, causing tsunamis and subsequent quakes far larger than the man made ones. The movement along the plates had unsettled every volcano that would have blown in the next century. The unexpected aftershocks damaged the control equipment. No longer a way to control the quakes. And no way to stop the eruptions. Every active volcano on the planet belched at least once, and the deadly fumes enveloped everything below four thousand feet before a day had passed. Lava started fires, which only added to the problem. Mudslides cut off routes which people at lower elevations could have reached safety.
Tibet was still habitable, though overwhelmed by refugees from India and China. The Rocky Mountains were high enough; mostly rural zones surrounded by parks prevented the starvation of Southeast Asia. Ski lodges in the Alps radioed in from time to time, echoing the same hungry story. Famine took more of the survivors. Many Andean cities emptied into the countryside, only to have the indigenous folk resort to human sacrifice to appease the gods and their followers’ appetites. Lack of fuel and power took many the next winters. No one knew how many were still alive, but it was a tiny fraction of the original 8.5 billion.
The major fear now was an updraft from lower elevations would carry up a cloud of deadly fumes from below. You couldn’t see or hear it coming, couldn’t smell it until it was too late. Oxygen monitors were a cruel joke; they just told someone that the fume levels were high enough to destroy their lungs. By the time a person got a gas mask on, the damage was done. Another exposure or two would be fatal.
Jeremy had wanted children. Rochelle had wanted them, eventually, but was reluctant to do so in this uncertain world. That so many of the survivors were rugged outdoorsmen who leered lustfully at her only shut her down further. She would have volunteered as a teacher or sitter if the chance arose. But it didn’t. Children had more lung surface area in proportion to their body size than adults. Thus, they were more vulnerable than adults. She hadn’t seen a child since the last winter and the rounds of lung infections.
Rochelle knew the Earth looked like Venus now. Her hand hovered over the gas mask by the door. She decided to go without it. She spotted the space station. The space station had been so damn close to self-sufficiency … if they had reached self-sufficiency, they could wait out this disaster. A couple hundred people who could do nothing but watch. Amateur radio operators cranked up generators and beamed signals up, but there had yet to be a signal back. All they had to do to preserve the species was to be able to wait it out. Like those left on Earth.
But for how long? They couldn’t migrate much higher. Food, at least here, was not as bad as it could have been. Hunters were the only reason people ate every day. Yet the scarcity of humanity ensured its longer-term survival. If more people had survived in the area, then the wild life would have declined to extinction under the increased hunting pressure as it had further south.
Rochelle had tried working with snares. She knew she didn’t have to. Men gave meat to her when she came into town. She knew why, too. It was the same reason why there were no children. Women had more lung surface area than men. Children died first, then sick and elderly adults, and then healthy women. Men survived the longest. Most people living out here were retirees or middle-aged couples that took up catering to the tourists as a second career. The fact that she was unattached only added to the attention. So she stayed out at the cabin, miles from town, as long as she could stand it. It only made the locals more attentive – the cabin gave her an attractive dower. Five bedrooms, two bathrooms. And a generator and an indoor water pump and septic system. Jeremy had had his doubts about arranging their “vacation” until Rochelle explained her doubts about the project and why this was a perfect place to wait it out. Jacob’s family had had survivalist roots, and they had come to fruit in the building of this place. Jeremy relented, called it a vacation because the government didn’t let anyone travel if they said they were evacuating, and then took her here before returning for his sister.
As an only child, Rochelle couldn’t understand Jeremy’s insistence that he HAD to get his sister up here, especially since his half brother was in the area. And the sister wouldn’t come without her husband. That idiot brother-in-law had delayed and complained and bellyached until it was too late. Rochelle would have either left the pair behind or dragged the sister here unwillingly. If it was possibly saving her life, so why not?
Even if Jeremy had been unable to fly and had tried to drive up, his gas mask only had canisters to last two weeks. She knew that hospitals with infectious disease units and military facilities could protect hundreds of people from the unbreathable air. If the dying didn’t break their way in and kill those who still had a chance.
After six months, she knew he wasn’t coming. So she went into town to see if anyone else was left. Verishay Point had been founded after the turn of the millennium. It had 5000 people in the winter tourist season, 1200 residents in the summer. About 1000 were there when she’d gone into town the first time. It was down to 600 now. And that included the few refugees from lower elevations before they all died. They suffered from chronic fatigue, malnutrition and dehydration. If you’re worried about breathing, you forgo eating if it risks the seal on your mask. Some had breathed that air in threshold amounts; not enough to kill them immediately, but enough to rob them of lung function. They could be cured with a lung transplant; but there were no hospitals.
The only doctor had been one of the few men Rochelle could talk to without being propositioned every other sentence. Eventually, seeing patient after patient die was too much for him. Rochelle found him dead in his office on what should have been a social visit. It was blamed on a combination of pills. Lucas had offered her his condolences.
It was ironic that her love’s brother Lucas was also town sheriff. He had the same sandy blonde hair as his younger brother. Unfortunately, he saw Rochelle as his inheritance. He let her keep the cabin only to keep it occupied.
She’d gone into town once a month to get supplies. If she missed a regular visit, Lucas came out on his methanol fueled truck to check up on her. It saved her the trip if not the haranguing.
Methanol fuel came from the brewery outside of town. She was down to one drum of the stuff. She needed to get more while there was more to get. If she stayed, Lucas would come. If he came, he might not leave for a long time. If she went, she might avoid him altogether. Maybe. She didn’t want to leave safety, despite the heavy pall of memories. But it was too far to safely walk.
She went out and got in the truck. The bar was populated with most of the able bodied. Beer was one thing there was no shortage of yet with the brewery still open. Credit cards were stapled to the wall, useless decoration now. Coins made of real metal were still accepted. Rochelle nodded to the bartender as she stepped in. The man smiled at her as he looked up from the coins he was counting. “What can I get you?”
“Directions to the restroom.”
The bar tender’s face fell in dismay. He then forced himself to a smile. “In the back, on the right.” The men’s restroom was still the men’s restroom. The women’s restroom had been turned into a men’s. Few women left, and even fewer came into bars.
As she was washing her hands, she heard a sound. Looking down, she could see a fiber optic cable being sneaked through. She grabbed the cable and yanked it forward. There was a sharp “whump”. She threw the door open. Three men scrambled back. She walked past the voyeurs without comment.
Her truck was untouched. Rochelle went down the street to the local bookstore. It was one place of female refuge in Verishay Point. Mrs. Verishay was the daughter in law of the environmentalist the point was named for. Mrs. Verishay never asked for Rochelle to pay for books. She had once joked that she had more business on the days Rochelle showed up than the rest of the month combined. Rochelle would often stay and talk to Mrs. Verishay for hours about the books she’d read. There had been little else to do after the disaster. Sometimes someone dropped off meat in payment. Mrs. Verishay didn’t starve.
The bookstore door was ajar today. She walked up to the door and opened it. She called out. No answer. Rochelle heard footsteps behind her. She turned to find Lucas standing there. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question.”
“I drop by the bookstore when in town. What are you doing here?”
“I thought looting might have begun.”
“Why on Earth would there be looting?”
“With Mrs. Verishay dead, there’s no reason not to, except my say so.”
“What did she die of?”
“Officially? Or unofficially?”
Rochelle felt loss. Mrs. Verishay had one of the few people here she had actually connected with. There was a slight twinge of fear. Children first, then women. “Can we talk about this in private?”
Spectators were starting to pay attention to them. Alpha male with the widow he’d been pursuing … fodder for the rumor mill, the only remaining source of entertainment. “Very well.” The jail cells were empty most days. There was little tolerance for criminals and even fewer resources to have them locked up. Lucas had presided over the executions. On better days, he locked up troublemakers who needed to cool off in a cell before release in the morning.
“Well, we’re in private.”
“Did she die of natural causes? Or was a lung failure?”
“You don’t need to worry about that. She was an old woman.”
“What is the real cause of death?”
“Mrs. Verishay did have lung degradation.”
“ Do you know what that means?”
“I can guess.”
“This means it isn’t really safe anymore.”
“You are free to move higher up.” As if she needed his
“Where? In case you haven’t noticed, there isn’t any civilization any higher up. What’s next? Living in caves, off berries and squirrels?”
“I think most people realize death is coming whether we like it or not. It is simply an issue of what we do until then and how we go.” Her almost brother in law shrugged as if suicides no longer mattered anymore.
Losing Jeremy had made her consider joining him. But she knew that he would have wanted at least one of them to live. As long as one of them was left, the memory of the other would still exist in the other’s mind. So she held on. This cavalier statement from a man she considered one of the more stable elements was shocking. What next? Mass suicides so no one went alone?
“I don’t think I’ll be coming into town anymore. Would it be all right for me to grab a few books from Mrs. Verishay’s store before leaving?”
Lucas seemed about to say no. He then gave her permission. He escorted her to the store. Rochelle grabbed five cases of books. Those she didn’t want to read could be used as fuel. “Where is she buried?”
“In the cemetery. You can’t miss it. It is the only grave with fresh flowers on it.” Rochelle held on to a little hope; other women still survived, because most men wouldn’t have bothered with flowers.
There were more than 20 fresh graves. Most had no markers. The fresh dirt underneath a double tombstone could identify a lucky few. At least their loved ones buried them. Most people got buried, no marker, no flowers, maybe a ceremony. Fortunately, this place had too few people to have mass graves.
Mrs. Verishay’s grave was the only one decorated. A few dandelions had been recently placed. Rochelle sat down. “I felt loss knowing you’re gone. I don’t know if that is significant. I hope it is enough. Because it is all I have to offer you.” It was time to go home.
Rochelle spent the next two months stocking up. She hiked out to gather. Juniper berries, pine nuts, wild greens and everything she could identify as edible was gathered. She had six months worth of supplies. But winter seemed close by. She needed more supplies. And she wasn’t willing to go to town to get free sides of venison. When she was done, Rochelle figured that she had a year’s worth of supplies. She double-checked the electrical system before turning on the freezer. Jacob’s thermoelectric generators worked beautifully.
Rochelle heard someone drive up one afternoon. She walked up to the peephole. It was Lucas. She opened the door. “I didn’t believe you when you said you weren’t coming back into town.” Rochelle said nothing. “I heard there was an incident in the bar. Is that why you aren’t coming back?” She remained silent. “I can make those idiots apologize, if that’s what you want.”
“It isn’t just the incident in the bar. It’s just not worth the risk.”
“So you’d live all alone out here?”
“Everyone knows where you live.”
“I can keep you safe.” Rochelle shrugged. “I didn’t know how much fuel you had. I wondered if you got yourself stranded …”
“I might have enough for one more trip.”
“I brought another 55 gallon drum. I also brought along a few sacks of barley. They’re distributing the last of the grain. I thought you’d want some.”
“Thank you.” Meat and fruit and fish … she’d be glad to have the variety.
“Where can I leave it?”
“The middle of the living room is fine. I’ll put it up later.”
Lucas looked at her as if she was crazy. Later? Why not now? Then he went back and began unloading. Rochelle estimated that he brought 200 pounds of barley. Lucas then went back out and brought in a large box. “Most of Mrs. Verishay’s stuff has been distributed. Most of the books are getting used as fire starters and kindling. I saved this box. I decided it was better that you had it. You’re the only person who still seems to read.”
“I appreciate the thought.”
“I brought some wild turkey with me. If you’re interested, that is.”
In that moment, he was like every other man in Verishay Point. Here’s meat. Trade you? You know what you can offer me … “Look, Luke, thank you for coming up here. But I don’t need the meat. I don’t need anything else. I appreciate you coming up here, but I don’t need you watching over me. Please. Leave.”
There was stunned silence. How could she turn down the alpha male? He couldn’t comprehend it. Rochelle closed the door and locked it behind him. He stood out on the porch for a long time, his back to the door. Was he waiting for her to change her mind? Was he deciding whether or not to turn around and pound on the door, demanding to be let in? Finally, he left her alone.
Winter came. And Luke didn’t. Rochelle reread her old books before starting on the last batch Lucas had left her. The snow piled up outside. It was a security blanket for her. Anyone who wanted to get to her had to cross the snow and dig their way down. By then, she’d have a shotgun aimed at them.
She was going through the habits of living even when life itself was being snuffed out. As long as one of us remembers, the other isn’t dead. She spent the days flipping through Jacob’s family’s albums. The grandfather who built this place to survive World War Four. Rochelle saw the faces of those five children – including Lucas and Jeremy - growing up and the grandfather and his wife growing older. He had been so adamant that they would come up here as a family when they had kids. Like he’d been raised. Like the family Lucas wanted her to provide him with.
The well started gurgling. Yet water still flowed. Rochelle went downstairs into the basement to check the pipes herself. An oily residue had formed on the pipes. The Teflon seals kept it from affecting the water supply itself. Rochelle went back upstairs, too exhausted to care.
She didn’t know how long she’d slept. She tried to sit up and fell back down. What was wrong with her? Rochelle rolled over in bed. There was a thick layer of yellowish gas on the floor. Rochelle stared at it, unbelieving. Was she dreaming? This wasn’t her normal nightmare …
Slow horror crept into her awareness. She was awake, if impaired. The pipes. The sludge on the pipes in the basement. She’d been pumping up liquefied sludge along with her water. The water flowed on the inside of the pipe, filtered by those World War 4 grade water filters. The gas particles escaped and solidified. With the cold humidity of a dying heater, it had settled into a fog in the basement. When she’d turned on the generator the night before, the chemical fog expanded as it warmed and came upstairs.
She could see the yellowish-brown haze. Why hadn’t she smelled it? She’d acclimated to it. Rochelle could feel a fluid in her chest. Death couldn’t be far away. She coughed it out, spitting up yellowish phlegm. She coughed up more of it. She could remember nightmarish images from her dreams. Eight billion plus people had died this way. Her lungs would be closing up any minute. She’d drown in her own fluids.
She was still breathing. She was coughing out yellow gunk. Rochelle forced herself up and out of bed. Her muscles ached. She had to get to the living room. The gas mask was there. She needed that gas mask. She crawled to the living room. She pulled herself upright to get the mask. Her hands fumbled with the connections. Finally, she had it on. While trying to adjust the filters, she passed out again.
Thirst brought her back. Rochelle sat up, parched. She could also feel the oily residue inside the mask. Putting it on hadn’t helped her at all because she hadn’t done it right. Rochelle forced herself up to the door. She opened it, hoping the fresh air would save her.
There was a similar haze outside. Either a long lasting updraft had brought the haze to this altitude or the world wide levels had finally reached here. Rochelle, frustrated, pulled off the gas mask. She got back out to the garage. She had to fumble to get the door to open against the yellow snow. She then got in the truck and started driving.
Verishay Point was wrapped in the yellow fog. Rochelle stopped the truck in front of the sheriff’s office and got out. Rochelle’s foot hit something on the way in. It was one of the town drunks. Dead. Rochelle leaned forward and realized he’d been dead for a while. Maybe days. She started looking for Lucas.
He was locked in one of his own cells. He was surrounded by bodies crumpled on the floor, their hands on the bars as if they were the prisoner. There was a gas mask over his face. He’d locked himself in the cell to keep others from taking away his air supply. His skin was still white, though a yellow residue was forming on it. His chest seemed to still be moving. But the rest of him wasn’t. If he was alive, he was still dying. She had to search for the emergency keys to the cell. It took forever.
She got the door open and pushed the dead out of the way. Then she pulled his limp body to the truck. She started driving up an old logging road. It also led to higher elevation. She didn’t check up on Lucas. All she could think was to get to higher ground. If he were dead, she’d strip the body and bury him. Her engine sputtered at the dwindling fuel.
Finally, the air cleared. It was getting colder, too. She parked in an old mill that had its doors wide open. It was a minimum of shelter, something with a roof and four walls. She pulled him inside and closed the door. The building was scant protection of bare sheet metal walls. But it was warmer than outside without the wind reaching them. Rochelle pushed Lucas onto the ancient couch. She then lay down beside him and fell asleep.
She woke up at an unfamiliar sound. It was Lucas, trying to get his facemask off. She began helping him. He began gasping for breath, wild eyed. He suddenly grabbed her shoulders and began shaking her. “Wake up!”
“I am awake.”
She repeated it until his litany changed. “Are you real? Are you really here?” As he shook her, Rochelle felt a deeper awakening. She’d been suffering from oxygen deprivation too, not really functioning. If she’d been unimpaired, she wouldn’t have gone into town looking for others. But the exposure hadn’t killed her. Had the levels just not reached fatal levels for her? But if it had killed everyone else, did that mean that what was fatal for her was a higher level than fatal for everyone else?
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Where are we?”
“The alarm sounded. I grabbed my air filtration mask and stuff. When other people started looking for masks, they realized there weren’t enough masks. Or filtration canisters for those with masks. And I had 4. I had to lock myself in a cell to keep from losing them. Oh, God!” Lucas began shaking. “I killed them. I let those people die because I wouldn’t give up -!”
“What kept you alive all that time would have meant a slower death for everyone, including yourself.”
“I thought of going and getting you after everyone else died. But I thought you would have already gone for higher ground. You would have moved on. But Kennedy … he killed people for their used filters. But he had a bad mask. He stood by that cell door for hours; it leaked and it was killing him. He was waiting for me to come out so he could get my good mask. He lived at least a day. By the time he died, I was too weak from thirst to get out.” Her eternity, at least, had been spent unconscious. “Thank you for coming back for me. If you hadn’t, I would have died in that cell.”
“I never left home for higher ground.”
She explained the water pump problem. No mask, at least not until it was otherwise too late. He stared at her with an expression of disbelief and horror. She should have died, but she hadn’t. “Where’s your mask now?”
“In the truck.”
Lucas turned her face side to side. “You’re not wheezing.”
“I was disoriented in the haze.”
“The levels were lethal. Everybody else from town is dead or fled.”
“The sensors said it was lethal all the way up to 7000 feet.”
It was her turn for hysteria. “You’re joking, right? That means we might be lethally exposed, because I don’t know what elevation it is.”
“I don’t have a sensor here, but we’d be dead if it was lethal.”
“I coughed up yellow residue back at the cabin. It was thick yellow gas there like it was in town. I had a mask on, but didn’t do it right because of the exposure. I was exposed. Lethally exposed. But I’m still alive. My breathing doesn’t mean you’re safe.”
His face went white. “How?”
“I don’t know.”
Her old flame’s words echoed: You’re one in a billion. He’d meant it as a soul mate, but it had a new meaning. Sometimes survival was merely having the right genes in the right combination; winning the genetic lottery. Maybe she wasn’t completely immune, but had somehow built up immunity. How didn’t matter now. What did matter was that she wasn’t alone.
“Do we need to get to higher ground?”
“Yes.” Lucas checked his gas mask before putting it back on. “My air filter is almost used up. We need to get up to at least 8000 feet.”
“I don’t want to live in a cave.”
“We don’t have to. There’s somewhere we can go.”
The ski lodge had been home for a hundred refugees at the start of the disaster. Violence, suicide, and disease had reduced the numbers. There were only a dozen people left. They accepted Lucas and Rochelle without question. No one had reached their location for nearly a year, and the high death rate had left them with plenty of food. The two survivors were welcomed with open arms.
Lucas required weeks to recover from the exposure. Their doctor – a former nursing student - checked out Rochelle. He gave her a clean bill of health. No sign of oxygen depravation. No sign of the residue in her lungs. They said her mask had worked perfectly. Rochelle never said anything otherwise, and Lucas was too drained to talk at all.
The next years were slow. The green house effect from the gasses was a godsend. The high elevations still had thin air, but it was no longer as cold. Plants started growing on the formerly snow-capped peaks. Surviving wildlife moved up and into the arms of the hunters.
Evan and Lizella were outside playing when an updraft came. Rhiannon, her two year old, was asleep on a blanket outside. There were no masks for the children, barely enough for the adults. The alarm sounded. Lucas hobbled outside, trying to cover the children’s faces with something, anything as Rochelle sought to carry them to shelter.
Evan and Rhiannon were fine. They showed no ill effects from their exposure. Lizella, however, had collapsed before Lucas could get to her. The doctor worked feverishly before she died. The doctor stared mutely at the other two children, trying to find out why they and their mother were fine. If the alarm had been false, Lizella would not have died. If it were true, there had to be an explanation for a woman and two children surviving. Rochelle had to tell them what had happened so long ago. Two of her three had inherited her good genes.
Eventually, her next children played out the genetic lottery. Half, like Lizella, did not carry her good genes. All survivors were all somewhat resistant now. Whatever happened, the few survivors now had survivor’s genes. The kids who survived would survive. And pass those unknown genes to their children.
Rochelle was staring at a globe. People still flourished in Tibet; enough of that region had been a high enough altitude that those who did not starve were safe. Civilization existed there. Here, there were only a few remnants. But the Tibetans were not being forced by nature to adapt. They would stay up high until the mists faded. The latest data from the space station, per their new radio that Rochelle had salvaged from the lowlands, said that would be generations from now. Tibetans still died from updrafts. The world would belong to those who were fit for it.
The volcanoes had finally stopped. But the chemicals released would take centuries to break down. Fungus and a few tolerant plants made up the bulk of the world. Animals were probably gone, except for these high reaches. And fish that were chemically adapt. But Rochelle would probably never see the ocean again. She was tolerant, but that tolerant. The ocean was at sea level, part of terra incognita. Perhaps Rhiannon’s grandchildren would see it.
If you have enjoyed Breathing Room, check out Mrs. Wilhite's book "Humanity’s Edge" at:
Posted - 04/22/2007 : 17:31:11
| If you enjoyed this short story, you may also enjoy "Natural Talent" and "Geronimo Reduex", two new Amazon.com shorts by Tamara Wilhite. Only $0.49 a piece.
Tamara Wilhite/Humanity's Edge