I wake up and I’m gasping for breath, I glance at the oxygen reader in the room, it’s dipped dangerously low, I hastily grab for my personal canister – it’s empty. I’m frantic now and I shouldn’t be, because hyperventilating means I’m using up more air than I should. I have to meditate like they teach us in school but the nightmare I had is still keeping the adrenaline coursing through my veins and my heart is pumping double time which means I am breathing in too much air. I close my eyes and try to reduce the breaths I’m taking. It takes me a few minutes but I finally do.
My eyes are on the dial which reads twenty percent as I go and shower and prepare for school. I’m annoyed at myself; this is the fourth night in a row. We can’t afford to keep buying more air.
At breakfast everyone is upset as Dad tells us he has been put on reduced hours at work. Mum has tears in her eyes but squeezes his hand and assures him that they will increase his hours again soon.
“Stupid machines taking over all our jobs!” My brother says angrily stabbing at his meal, like everything we eat it comes in a can, made by a machine, produced in a lab.
“I want none of that anti machine talk at this table.” Mum says sternly.
I sit there feeling even worse not sure that I can tell them my personal canister is empty.
“Did you sleep better today?” Mum asks me.
I look up feeling guilty and shake my head.
“My canister is also empty,” I admit quietly.
“It’s alright, use one of mine, I start work late, I’ll use an old canister.” Dad says giving me a smile.
I nod fighting the tears and go into his room to grab a canister, it’s almost empty but it should last me through the day.
“Well Grandma is coming around today, and she always brings a few high quality canisters,” Mum says when I walk back into the kitchen.
I smile, I haven’t had actual fresh air in several months, everything in the city is recycled air – very few places still have fresh air, the air they pump out at school is borderline unbreathable – borderline so we still have to breathe it in.
I check my canister in at reception when I get to school, I feel embarrassed as the receptionist checks it in as an industrial tank but I don’t care or at least that’s what I tell myself as I remove my mask and walk into lesson. The air at institutions and most public places is thrice recycled but our school it is recycled four times, you can recycle air six times before you through it away – although anything past five is basically hazardous.
I suffer through my lessons – all they ever teach is how to build machine and how to repair machines, that’s all we are taught, all else is pointless, only if you are really clever can you actually design machines, my brother is one of the elite, he will get to design machines when he graduates this year, but me, I’m scheduled to be a repairer and even that I hate. I would rather paint – which isn’t even a real job, just a hobby, I could always paint the machines. I laugh and get a few looks as we all queue to get our personal canisters back. I put my canister on my own personal hover board along with my backpack as I make my way home.
My Grandma who I haven’t seen in a few years greets me at the door – she hates the city because of the air, and we usually travel to her, but since mum lost her job a few years back we can’t afford to travel anymore.
My eyes as always stray to the oxygen monitor it’s full of once recycled air, my jaw almost lands on the floor.
I look at Grandma and she beams at me – I almost knock her over when I hug her.
I breathe deeply and the air even smells delicious the feeling is different it’s almost too much for my lungs to manage – I’ve only ever had twice recycled air and that was an experience I can’t even imagine what fresh air must be like because this is amazing.
I breathe deeply for a few minutes before mum gives me a look and I default back to my shallow breathing that we are all trained on doing at school only rich people are allowed to breathe deeply.
Grandma stays for a week and it gives Mum the opportunity to try and go out to try and look for odd jobs – Grandma helps me with my homework and she tells me that when she was fifteen the town they lived in people didn’t walk around with canisters, I can hardly believe her – of course I’ve heard rumours but the idea of walking outside and just breathing air terrifies me – it’s so murky out there I can imagine my lungs giving out after taking only a few breaths. I tell Grandma and she laughs and tells me she used to sit on fields and just watch the sky without a canister of air – she could breathe the air outside – the pollution wasn’t that bad then.
I look out the window; at the heavy smog in the air that looks noxious and wonder what life would be like if we all didn’t have to carry around canisters of oxygen just so that we could breathe.
A woman thinks she might be living next door to her grandson.
Cecelia glanced at the time it was almost time for Theo to come home, Theo, short for Theodore, short for Theodore Asante, she didn’t know if he had a middle name. All she knew was that he had the same slightly uplifted brown eyes of her daughter. The daughter who the police had urged her to be declared officially dead when she’d gone missing almost three decades ago.
She glanced out the window as Theo parked on the street and got out of his new car, a hybrid of some kind, she had heard one of her neighbours commenting on it, said he worked for the UN, was very environmental, all Cecelia knew was that from the first moment she had seen him his smile had triggered a memory and even though her friends told her she was being stupid, she couldn’t let it go, his eyes, those were her daughter’s eyes.
She had wanted to go over there so many times, invite him to the neighbourhood, apologise for the one and only time she had seen him, and had been tongue tied. He had been part of their neighbourhood for almost three months and she had been waiting for an opportunity, today finally she had one, a package had been delivered and she had all but rugby tackled the delivery man, who had looked like he was debating whether to drop the parcel off to Father John or Imam Yousef who were always the natural choices for undeliverable items.
Now she waited patiently as Theo walked into his house, then back out again several minutes later, his gaze on his cellular device. He knocked and Cecelia went to the door after a few moments, making sure the smell of cookies was prevalent throughout the house; her daughter had loved chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, always dark chocolate never milk.
She opened the door and her voice deserted her, as Theo glanced at her, an exact copy of her daughters beautiful brown eyes.
“Mrs Vandervu?” Theo said waving a hand in front of her face a small smile on his lips
“Please call me Cecelia, and do come in Theodore,” she said finally finding her voice.
“Sure,” he walked in and looked around, “this place smells delicious,” he said his gaze going to the cookies she had strategically placed on the counter, the part that could be seen from the front room.
“Please help yourself!” Cecelia said delighted. “Chocolate chip oatmeal,”
He walked past his package and made a beeline for them.
“Delicious,” he said as he ate one and reached for another.
“My favourite is actually blueberry like my mum; my dad loves chocolate, not dark though,”
“Does your mum like dark?” Cecelia said eagerly.
Theo shrugged; he was very tall, well built, most likely from his father.
“Did you paint these?” He asked looking at the water colours hanging on the walls.
“Yes, my daughter and I used to love to paint together,”
“My dad is into art, my mum prefers her books,”
Cecelia nodded and noticing that he had finished his cookies and was eyeing his parcel rushed to ask him more questions.
“Does your mum like spaghetti with garlic sauce and sprinkles of cheese?”
Theo raised an eyebrow but answered anyway, “No she can’t actually eat cheese, lactose intolerant.”
“What about watching movies on mute and guessing what the actors say?”
“My mum would hate something like that!” Theo said laughing.
Cecelia was undeterred and kept firing questions at him but the more she asked the less she wanted to know. Finally she ran out of questions.
“Thank you for humouring me Theodore,” Cecelia said unable to keep back the tears that had sprang to her eyes.
“Erm, you welcome Mrs Va – I mean Cecelia,” He said slowly, “look I can come by and help out with something’s if you want, I mainly work at home anyway.”
“No, that’s fine, take care now,” she said attempting to usher him out.
He hesitated at the door, his eyes so like her daughters, similar, but not the same, blinked slowly before he nodded and left.
Cecelia burst into tears, the pain of losing her daughter overwhelming her, it felt like the first time she had found out Monroe had gone missing whiles kayaking, the grief more than she could bear. She spent the next few days in bed, her head pounding, her eyes watering every time she saw Theodore.
Her friends came around to cheer her up, but it didn’t work, and she told them that they had been right; she shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up.
Almost a week later a knock came at her door.
“Cecelia? Mrs Vandervu? It’s me Theo please open up, I really need your help,” he said slowly.
Cecelia stood there wiping her eyes before setting her shoulders back, this young man may not be her daughter’s child but he was a good man, and if he needed her help she would help him. She opened the door.
“Please come in, is there anything I can help you with?” She said softly.
“Those chocolate cookies, my girlfriend loves them, do you think you could show me how to make them, I have some ingredients,” he said gesturing to his backpack.
Cecelia smiled, “of course, follow me.”
Despite his eyes still triggering painful memories every time he looked at her in a certain way, she spent the rest of the evening with Theo, he was kind, just the kind of man her daughter would have raised.
She had just taken the cookies out of the oven when his phone rang, he was using the toilet and she glanced down at the screen.
She almost dropped the cookies – an image of her daughter, of Monroe, older, but still the same stared up at her, she touched the screen with shaking fingers. Tears in her eyes.
The phone stopped ringing just as Theo came back; Cecelia had the phone in her hands.
“Mrs Vandervu?” He said hesitantly.
“My…my daughter,” she wordlessly went into her bedroom and took the last picture she had taken of Monroe, she showed him a picture of Monroe and he jumped.
“That’s, that looks like…” his hands went to her eyes.
“It is your mum, my daughter,” Cecelia said.
“You’re my grandmother?” Theo asked his voice breaking.
Words failing her again, Cecelia nodded and embraced him.
The words are hurled at me and despite clasping my hands into fists and staring straight ahead, a few tears slip past my control and trail down my burning face. I hate myself more than anything in this moment, more than her and definitely more than him, who looks at me smirking form the side-lines.
“Are you listening to me you spoilt useless brat?!” She screams getting right up in my face, her breath toxic with alcohol, “you think crying is going to soften me huh?”
She pauses and I can’t believe my body has the audacity to indulge her as more tears trickle down, my mind is clouding from the breath I don’t want to stop holding but I’ll do anything to stop the tears.
She slaps me hard across the face.
“Next time you answer me!” she says grabbing my face: she looks at it, contempt written in every line of her still youthful face. I hate that she is pretty, that she is stared at when we leave the house together, that she is the youngest mother at my school; that some of the teachers openly lust after her and the guys in my stare at her with wide eyes. She loves it and she flaunts it.
I stare at her defiant and she steps even closer.
“No wonder your dad left me,” she whispers, “sick and tired of taking care of you, if I could do it over, I’d abort you in an instant.” She clicks her fingers in front of me as she releases her claw like grip of my chin.
It’s an insult I’ve heard before, but as she steps back her face slyly victorious she knows that it’s hit its mark. She turns and walks back to her boyfriend her face so altered that even he does a double-take, but he still follows her upstairs.
I am rooted to the spot, angry beyond my own comprehension. I fist my hands even tighter, I want to hurt myself, I fist my hands tighter still but my freshly cut nails only leave faint imprints. The thought is enough to jar me from that insidious path I’ve taken more than a year to shake.
“Leave the environment,” I whisper to myself, that’s what my school councillor advised me and I listen, because even though the feeling of hurting myself is still a beating pulse in my chest I don’t want to end up like Tiffney, I shake my head at the image.
I walk out of the house, it’s surprisingly warm outside, the sun not yet set, it’s actually a beautiful day, I walk briskly to the end of our road, then I pick up the pace as I walk a little further, a glance back and I can still see the house. What if I just take off, what if I just run. Better yet what if I don’t come back.
The thought causes me to actually smile and as I wipe at my face a kind of madness sets over me as I begin to run.
I’m running and it feels so good.
I run for a good long while, slowing down, almost stopping before I speed up again, my thoughts always galvanizing me forwards.
It’s late now, the sun has well and truly set, she’ll not worry, she never worries but she’ll wonder.
“I hate her!” I say vehemently and it feels good to say it out loud to own the feeling.
I’m always tip toeing around her and her latest squeeze, because she lets me eat her food and sleep under her house. I’m on guard all the time, more than that I’m fearful, especially after the incident, I almost believed she cared that time she punched the guy who was trying it on with me. I remember her rushing to me to see if I was okay, hugging me tightly and turning to threaten the guy, I’ll never forget that look of fury on her face as she protected me, I was only ten but still that memory of that day was crystal clear.
I’m crying again. I hate myself but the tears keep coming and I’m gasping for breath because I want my mummy, I’m pathetic and stupid and idiotic and weak. I keep up a stream of insults until the tears run dry because I know I have to go back.
The walk back home is much longer and I pause a few times trying to think of radical ways I can leave home forever, but I can’t. I know how hard it is out there being a runaway, and my situation isn’t half as bad as others I’ve heard of, I just have to make it four more years, then I’m off to Uni, then I’m gone for good.
I keep up the stream of positive images like my councillor tells me to do, but it all falls short when I see the house. I don’t have a curfew because she doesn’t care to set me one but still I know it’s late; past eleven at night.
I walk in – they are both cuddling on the coach, but she jumps up when she sees me and follows me to my room.
“Didn’t have the balls to go through with running away?” She sneers.
I sit on my bed and glance up at her, my exhaustion is weighing down on me and I show no surprise.
“Answer me!” She says angrily.
I nod suddenly I’m bone weary and just want to sleep.
She glares at me her face suspicious; she’s moving her weight from one foot to the other. I glance at her questioningly.
“Well next time –”
“Don’t worry there won’t be a next time. Three years, then you won’t ever have to see me again.” I want to say it firmly and confidently but it comes out strangely detached and she flinches.
She hesitates before she says; “go and wash those dishes in the sink!”
I nod slowly and I can see that my indifference is getting to her.
My councillor always tells me not to react and I don’t I just stand there and take her abuse but this is something different – I’m acting like I don’t care because I really don’t.
I open the door and standing there looking directly at me is Hershel, from my class, the quiet kid at the back who doesn’t really like to make eye contact with anyone.
I wonder if is he is lost and I’m about to close the door when he speaks.
“Good evening Riley, may I come in?” His voice is very deep for a twelve year old, most people make fun of him for it, or they used to, I haven’t actually heard him speak for almost half a year.
His voice startles me and I almost close the door anyway, except I don’t, but I can’t just invite him in either, he could be crazy, it’s always the quiet ones, that’s a saying for a reason.
I debate for a moment as he just stares at the ground, he has got really curly hair, it’s dark brown at the roots and almost blonde at the tips, he even has blonde highlights. It’s quite feminine hair, I never realised, maybe it’s the voice that threw me.
“Come in, but don’t touch anything,” I caution, before leading him up to my bedroom, Hershel is quiet, too quiet, I don’t even hear his footsteps behind me, freaky.
I sit on my desk and he just stands, eyes on the floor.
“I have something to tell you,” he says quietly.
I wait for him to continue.
“Go on,” I say.
I wait some more.
“Tell me,” I command.
“I remember that when Miss Brent died you spoke at the assembly, my dog has just died can you please do the same?” He asks.
I am speechless, not only do I not know Hershel, I didn’t even know he had a dog, certainly I didn’t know the dog well enough to write him an epitaph.
I want to refuse but I don’t because I like to think I am a good person which is how I ended up standing in front of a grave on Saturday morning, speaking about a dog I never even met before.
Hershel is quiet, but I can tell he is sad.
When I finish he just stares at the grave, then he walks away, I follow him, into his mansion, because he is rich, like famous person rich, given a tour of his house, that rich.
We walk into wealth and he just stands there at the threshold, during the tour I saw a gaming room, I want to go there but Hershel is silent.
Then the maid comes up to us with a lovely bouquet of flowers that would fill up my whole house, she tries to give them to Hershel but he is just staring at the floor again.
I take them and thank her, before reading the note out loud.
“We will send a replacement, love Mum and Dad,” the words are out of my mouth before I even realise what I am saying, I re-read it appalled, and I carefully put the note down.
“You may go now,” Hershel says looking at me directly.
“You can come with me, my mum is not a chef, but she’s making spaghetti and meat balls, I don’t have a pet but I have a little sister, she’s almost two and she’s basically an animal,” I say tucking a braid behind my ear as I take my bike out of the shed.
“You do not have to be nice to me because –”
“Because you lost your pet and your parents are mean, yeah I do, come on it will make me feel better.” I say grabbing his forearm and dragging him along, it’s awkward with my bike, and I scratch my leg but I don’t let go.
“You do not have to drag me, if it will make you feel better then I will come.” He says going into the shed to take out his own bicycle.
I laugh, “Was that an actual joke? I thought you didn’t even know what it was.”
Hershel smiles as both get on our bikes and ride back to my house.
You are a customer lying face down on the floor during a bank robbery. Describe the robbery from this vantage point.
The cold marble was making my ear numb and the fixed position I had to hold my body in was giving me a cramp and yet I felt oddly calm, strangely euphoric. I held my body still as one of the three armed men walked past me, his boots brand spanking new, size nine, dark brown laces. I looked up carefully, he was probably my height, 5’10, slim, a mask over his face, but not his ears, pale a little red at the tips. I quickly looked at the other three guards. Their ears exposing their race to me.
My mind pinged as I looked at all three of them again; they had been eating at the café across the road for almost a month. I had spoken to one of them a few times. I could help the police when they interviewed me later. The police who had burst open my door a few nights ago because they had gotten an address wrong, terrified my student who I was tutoring who had been thrown against the floor, a gun to his cheek, as the police had torn my apartment inside out, searching for someone who was never there, before I, who they had put into handcuffs, had been able to explain to them, that 4a the apartment they were looking for was across the street, I was 4a1. A common mistake, one that could have been easily rectified if they had listened from the beginning.
I could anonymously help the bank. The same bank that had refused to grant me a loan to start my tutoring business, a business that had been taking off before the police had put a gun to one of my students, making all the parents rightfully stop bring their children to my house.
Abruptly I was furious and my mind again presented me with a plan to profit from my present situation.
I stood up, clutching my chest. The armed robbers came up to me immediately.
“Take me to the toilet, I will help you,” I said clearly whiles portraying someone in distress to the other thirty seven hostages.
They looked at each other and one of them raised his gun.
“Eggs benedict, hash brown, two sausages, baked beans, three brown toasts.” I said quickly meeting the eyes of the man who had raised the gun, before continuing with the theatrics again.
I was immediately walked to the toilet.
I quickly told them about my plan.
“Where the hell did you learn how to crack safes,” pink ears said, “you talk weird as well, are you like rain man or something.”
“I’m a tutor, one of the children will only learn if I allow him to crack a safe after every sessions, he taught me.” I said indirectly answering his question.
They were silent for a moment.
“Do we have a deal?” I asked to sped things along.
“Hell yeah!” The third man said sticking his head through the door.