The end of the green line
At the end of the green line, Sonia swooped Mae into her arms and carried her out of the train.
Strollers were too sleek, expensive, and took up too much space on the train. Leave those for the couples from the northern suburbs, with spacious yards and gardens. She used a back sling, like the one her grandmother used to carry her through the wheat fields. She chuckled to herself – some kind of people we are Urbanites who desire to return to something that felt pastoral. Who are we kidding? The strap pushed too hard against her collarbone. Yet a part of her preferred to carry her baby from here to there, always knowing where she was, never letting the weight of Mae leave her, as if she was still a part of her womb.
“Mama!” Mae said, chubby fingers reaching for her mother’s dangling earrings.
“No!” Sonia scolded, craning her neck away from the baby. She held her right hand up to block the baby but in doing so, knocked Mae’s pink face mask to the ground. Mae started to laugh.
“Don’t smile!” Sonia commanded, slipping the loops of her facemask back around her baby’s ears. “The smog might get in.”
I have to protect that smile. Yet she hadn’t see it in weeks. Actually, she hadn’t let Mae out of the house in over a month, since the Great Fog. And when they were in the house, Sonia still demanded that Mae keep the mask on. No faith that air purifiers, 20 yen piece of shit. Maybe her father took the mask off when he stayed with her. She shuddered at the thought of it. She shuddered to think about it. How he chose the raise the child was no business of hers, but if she could take control on how to raise Mae on her time, she would.
I have to make up for the mistakes of my past. The mask that led Mae to get the tumor in the first place. She never wondered why did I choose to move to this dreadful city? Or why did I choose to marry that man, but rather Why did I choose to even breathe in this air at all? That she could have controlled.
Five years ago, when she was in college, most doctors did not think the masks did much good.
They might have blocked 20% of particulates, like small ones that came from motorbike exhaust or small cars. Why bother? she thought, and her friends agreed. After coming from the countryside to one of the biggest cities in the nation at one of the most exciting times of the century, why cover up shiny red lipstick and straight white veneers with a piece of foam? How else would he have been attracted to me? she wondered.
Yet the research started to catch up with the realities, and the robotics department had developed the NH-720 mask model. It was a monster of a mask, with a long tube sticking out like a hungry anteater and making a small hissing sound. News sites reported hundreds of young children having nightmares about being snatched by mask-wearers. Unlike previous models, this one was guaranteed to protect the user from 99% of particulates in the air and its ergonomic design gave the user instant air almost as clean and pure as an oxygen tank. At first, the frightening design drew no customers, but when the WHO announced near deathly levels of smog about the descend on the city, able to kill elderly citizens and children alike in a mere instant, the device flew off the shelves. The panic saved the city billions in lung cancer and other medical care costs. How else were the citizenry going to listen? Those who used it loved it. “It’s like I’m walking in a cloud!” she remembered from an old man in a commercial, although she wasn’t so sure what a “cloud” was or what it was supposed to feel like. “It’s like the feeling you get after having sex,” her friend once told her.
The NH-720 faded in popularity with the youth, but those sensitive citizens didn’t mind, and would rather risk public scrutiny for wearing something ugly than risk their own lives.
She felt the worst when he wore it in public. On their walk back from school she remembered hearing her friends whispering – “How could she stand to be seen with that mole rat…” Although in public, they all pretended to love him and his endless sense of humor. Most of all, she missed the way he used to lean down and kiss the tip of her nose at the street corner when they wear waiting for the light to turn green.
She looked up at him, under the streetlight and raindrops.
“Why did you wear it?” she asked him. Longing brown eyes staring back.
“For her,” he’d say, holding Sonia’s belly with his warm hand. “For her future.”
They were unmarried but hopeful that a hasty elopement would throw off their relatives when the child arrived only eight months later. Two lovers, crazy mad an anxious for love, they booked tickets to a small island in the east and even bought each other platinum Peruvian rings at a foreign goods dealer. But the night before the flight she lost it, and she lost him too. A whole college romance gone in one night when he woke up and saw the blood stained sheets. He blamed her, she felt. She came back from the bathroom and saw the NH-720 laying in indentation the mattress with a note saying “Use it.”
She didn’t leave the room for five days. Her friends brought her fresh fruit from the vendor across the street.
“It happens,” the tried to tell her. They’d all lost a child in one way or another by now – by their own choice, or by accident.
“It’s not uncommon.”
“He wasn’t one to stick around anyway.”
Even after all of that, she never questioned the quality of the air. The skies of the city began to clear up the year after she graduated. The Crystal Revolution (or so they called it) brought purity to the city when a man found that simply holding a vacuum cleaner to the sky would suck out bricks of pollution, that could then be recycled to build houses for low-income villagers who were rapidly moving to the city’s outskirts. Along with that, small changes in regulatory committees reduced emission by 50%. That year, she began to fall in love again, time with a high-society real estate mogul, who wasn’t afraid to explore their deep passions under the red moonlight on the streets. She promised to herself she’d never loose him, and five months later they wed.
Many considered rain on a wedding day an auspicious sign, but the toxic muck that began to fall out of the sky could only be considered disastrous. Whatever so-called “Crystal Revolution” that government touted for half of a year, was eroding slowly as Natural Helio sources were being tapped from the sky, relating a slow leak of Biotoxin into the air stream. The plan was quickly abandoned in favor of previous coal burning. But this time the government didn’t let anyone know, for fear of violent uprisings. The burning would be such a shock to the cities skies that climate experts were bribed to call this hazy weather not smog but “The Great Fog.”
Not everyone bought it, of course, but not everyone really seemed to care. Those who had lived through the smog-filled says could sustain another. After all, the economy had been much better. “At least we had jobs,” popular editorials would say. The wheels of the factories began to turn, with more fury than ever before, and the so-called “revolution” was forgotten in a fortnight.
Thankfully, Sonia didn’t need to work with her husband profits coming in, but she found herself bored as a childless housewife and set out to work part-time at a clothing boutique on the riverside plaza, earning her a tiny commission to freshen up her own closest. All the tight-fitting jeans would go by the wayside when she found out she was pregnant again. Her husband never knew about the first loss, but he didn’t need to. After all, it already felt like a lifetime ago, and she had moved on.
Despite the government admitting very little about the environmental changes, pregnant women still fell into the “sensitive” category and were advised to wear masks. The N-720 had a newer model, the WPX-515, which didn’t come with a long protruding nozzle, but even that was only worn by the elderly and disabled, occasionally by friends of hers when they came down with a particularly bad cough that they’d attribute to accidentally smoking too much pot at a particularly devious dance party. She would slip on her cover daily, only to take it off and stuff it in her pocket after work when she went to pick up a street-side snack. Her proclivity for red lipstick had waned, and the mask did make it easier to breathe, but she had never adopted the habit of slipping it over. With her increased appetite from the pregnancy, she found herself stuffing her mask in her purse pocket more and more.
When Mae was born, the doctor told her she had a benign tumor and had to be taken away immediately for surgery. Sonia had never imagined she’d feel such an immensity of loss again in her life. Her husband had been called away by a business emergency only days before, but quickly rushed back to the hospital. He found her too tired to weep and she collapsed in his arms.
She would have held him forever in that moment. The doctors brought the baby girl back three days later, a now seemingly healthy child who had to take a daily dose of medication in the foot to assure no new growth would appear during her infancy. Sonia almost got pleasure giving her baby the shot, hearing her cry reminder her how the little girl fought so hard. “This is so you can live,” Sonya would whisper in her ear. There was no way she would let another one leave this world on her own accord.
But another man? Perhaps. For it was only five weeks after Mae came home, that Sonia found a pair of red lacy stockings rolled up in her husband’s laundry. She certainly couldn’t fit into anything that small of a size. And there was no room in her life for him either. It was time she cut away anything she couldn’t make love her.
Divorce papers were filed, although he still wanted partial custody over the girl. Fair enough, she’d thought, yet she’d still spend sleepless night anytime Mae was out of her arms, so eventually she begged him for more supervision hours. He conceded but took away his portion of the child support along with it. Mae’s schooling would be paid for, but Sonia would have to work.
She started a job receptionist at an accounting firm, giving her normal hours and childcare during the day. Most days she felt like nothing more than an invisible pillar of sand at the office, flipping through lifeless days in front of a computer screen. When there was a lull in the paperwork, she’d search for things she’d always wanted to know about – clouds, scuba diving, the Third World War, the possibility of Alien life – until nagging client would interrupt her daydream flow.
On a particularly slow day, she found herself typing
Causes, symptoms, the endless pages, and scrolling. She’d even carry the search into the subway on her phone when she’d pick Mae up from daycare, and into the house at night while cooking dinner. For the next few days, she read. And when she couldn’t find what she needed (the government censored at least 80% of image content) she’d order virtual private network software that would allow her access to sites from London and Taipei. Mae, now a healthy child at home, was fine. But still, Sonia couldn’t help but wonder. “Why twice? Why me? Why did the doctors never say anything?” How unusual how her friends had said “This happens all time” and “We’ve lost one too.” What about the mothers on the street? The ones she walked by with blind, longing eyes?
“It’s not just me, is it?”
Her investigation grew deeper. She started at the childcare lobby when she went to pick up Mae after work, just casually asking another mother how her baby was, recording their long conversations on her phone, typing up notes in when she got home. Long days became sleepless nights, interviewing mothers in hospital waiting rooms and pulling out bibs at the laundromat. She had never felt so exhausted yet energized by anything in her life. The desire to know, the desire to want more. The whole time, Mae by her side, wrapped in a small bundle on her back. Protected by a mask.
She simmered down, and spent the month of sitting in the house, never leaving, and finishing her book. “The foreign press will be all over this.” This world deserves to know. “So this is how they decide to solve our population problem? More bricks in the air for better houses in the East?” She told her boss she would telework but as the days went on perhaps there was less and less for her to do and before she knew it he had put her on part-time. It didn’t matter much since she had enough saved up to feed the two of them and didn’t have to pay for Mae’s daycare. Finances were the least of her concerns right now. After all, she was sure money would pour in from foreign investors interested in her data and she’d be set for life, if not granted asylum in another place for at least two years while the commotion settled down.
She sat down and began her first email to the Guardian:
“Five years ago, I dare not ask what the smell in the air was – but now I know. And that smell, is the desire for a massive death. The desire for money.”
A loud knock at the door awoke Sonia from her stupor as her stack of notebooks fell from her lap to the floor. Who the hell could be visiting me? She lost contact with friends, lovers, and family. Her heart stuttered. She clutched her chest to look around for Mae, who had crawled away to the corner and was kicking at the baby mobile on the floor.
She opened the door. Longing brown eyes, with an emptiness inside.
No longer did he have the boyish charm of her college days, the scrawny legs and the wide grin and playful gait. Last she heard from her old classmates, he had entered the military and achieved some high ranking position. Now, standing in her doorway, towering over her with the eyes of a man who had touched death.
She breathed in to speak, interrupted by the sound of heavy boots pounding on the cement stairways. Eight other men in blue uniforms and black masks slipped into the doorway. He pulled on his masks on and ready to give them an order.
“What is the meaning of this?” Sonia stammered as she reached down to pick up Mae and cradle her into her chest.
“You’re under arrest.”
“Divergence from state priorities.”
He slipped Mae out of her hands with gentle and tender touch, despite the aggressive tone of his voice.
“You’ve been missing work. Your boss knows why.”
Sonia felt her entirely become limp, wanting to curl up like a fetus on the floor.
“She’ll be safe with me,” he said, as he placed the baby girl into a large yellow backpack and turned down the stairwell.
She crumbled to the floor, sobbing and holding herself; in as much pain as if she was missing a limb. The remaining officers took hold of her wrists and ankles and zip-tied them together.
After all of this, all I have researched, all that I have come to know about the plight of a mother on the city streets, what will become of me?
And at once, they picked her up and threw her over the balcony, into the density of the smog-filled night.
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