The air was poison.
One tiny breath could cause your lungs to collapse, could cause blood to pour from your eyes, could end it all. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t considered it.
No one can leave a building without their gas masks. The long perturbing filter made mules out of people, the goggles morphed them into faceless insects. They became puppets of the government that used to fear them.
Buildings are now required to provide a sanitation entrance. In older buildings, buildings built before the collapse of the atmosphere and the burning of the ozone, the entrances have been boarded up and new ones installed. History destroyed because of our foolishness.
No one remembers what it was like, to walk out into the sun and feel the wind brush against your face. To walk into a building without standing in the sanitation rooms, without waiting for the ‘all clear’ to take your mask off. Blue sky is just something you dream about. The sky has always been brown.
The streets are packed with bodies pressed tightly together, heads down feet quickly scurrying about their business. The skeletons of cars stand abandoned about the streets. They all avoid them, they avoid everything they don’t understand.
It is said that here, in Yorkshire, a great earthquake shook about the streets causing the skyscrapers to sway, concrete to crack, and people to abandon their cars. People that would never come back. That was the day that they bombs dropped. The day the ozone burned.
We are supposed to forget. I’m not sure how that is possible. The evidence is all around us in our histories, in our books, in our poisoned air. Maybe someday there will come people that genuinely don’t care. I genuinely hope I’m not alive to see it happen.
I believe that is why we fall into routine.
Isn’t that the way of the human condition? If something gets too painful you find something that is safe, familiar? I choose to believe that is why I walk those same streets day after day. I believe that is why I go to my office day after day in a building that is still half crumbled from the earthquake. It’s a reason why I walk the same three blocks to the Italian deli every day on my lunch hour. Well, maybe there’s another reason.
It’s the best part of my day. If I was truly honest with myself I would admit that I might stare too long at the waitress behind the counter. I might admit that I thought she was different. She was not just another face in the crowd. She doesn’t stare at the ground and wish the whole world away.
Her name is Liz.
I don’t know her last name. Never had the courage to ask.
But she is not just another mask. Masks keep us safe, masks hide us from the poison all around us. But what happens when the mask becomes us? Liz is not like that. I can see the sparkle in her eyes as she smiles at her dull eyed costumers. I once felt the softness of her hand as she handed me a cup of coffee. Sometimes if I close my eyes I can still see the slight blush on her cheek as she felt the unintentional contact. I can see our eyes meeting for the briefest second, her sparkling eyes regarding my dull ones, and was entranced by her bright smile. It was our little secret. Our little rebellion. Then she was gone, off to give another dull-eyed man a sandwich.
Maybe that’s why I was quickly making my way to the deli today. Maybe I’m hoping to catch her eye and smile and see that sparkle tell our little secret. Maybe I just want to see her. The usual lunch crowd was shuffling about their business. Going about their routine. I had joined them only a few moments before the usual sting of the air started to brush against the exposed skin of my hands. I felt my palms start to sweat and the harsh glow of the beating sun glaring through my goggles. I shuffled onward.
The Deli was in the middle of Anderson Street. It’s ripped awning discolored with age because no one could take the time to replace it. The front of the shop was boarded. If people didn’t know any better they might have thought it was abandoned, but five feet over from the boards stood a glass cage that held two rooms. One room would be for the people coming out of the deli while the other would be for the people going it. The sanitation rooms. Only one person could go in at a time. It was like that everywhere now. Chivalry was dead.
No one was going into the deli by the time I walked to the door. I grasped the handle, feeling it’s sharp chill through the thin fabric of my gloves, and slipped into the little glass room. The door clicked shut behind me, the loud beeping started to sound. A red light started to flash. One. Two. Three. The showers clicked on, drenching me, soaking my clothes and fogging up my mask. The red light turned green and the water switched off. I could take my mask off.
I reached up and undid the straps. The mask fell away from my face and I held my breath almost out of impulse. The fear that decontamination might not work engrained into my mind. But it always did. I took my first breath of clean air without the mask. I felt my lungs expanding to my rib cage; I felt the steam softly kiss my cheeks. The driers hit me like a brick wall, making me stumble back a few steps until I was able to catch myself. I spread my arms and allowed the warm air to wrap around all of me. Within seconds I was dry and the deli doors were clicking open.
I gripped my mask with white knuckles as I pushed the door open. The cool air from the deli raced at me. It was almost like stepping out of a steaming shower, the shock of cold air meets your skin and makes you shiver no matter how warm the air in the room actually is, nothing can beat the kiss of steam against your skin. Almost nothing.
The deli was slightly uneven from the earthquake. Old yellowed pictures still hang on the walls from long forgotten days when people still smiled at each other, magical times. The polished tabletops shone in the dim light and the smell of fried meat and cold cuts swam through the air at me. My mouth watered as I eyed the glass counter that displayed the selection. “Just grab a seat,” came the call from the back of the kitchens, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I felt my heart skip a beat, Liz was coming.
I glanced around. No one was there. That wasn’t usual. This place was usually swarmed with patrons, this place had been here for years. Hell for all I know it could’ve been here for centuries. I started to slowly make my way to the counter, my heels clicking in the eerie silence. Suddenly the cold cuts didn’t seem as appetizing. “Sorry about that,” came a breathy remark from behind me.
I jumped and whipped around. There she was. Liz. With her sparkling eyes regarding me and her full lips smiling up at me. I didn’t realize I was taller then her.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, her eyebrow cocked a little in surprise, “It’s you. Should I get your usual?”
“Alright,” she turned on her heel and glided behind the counter as I slowly sank into one of the stools.
“Where is everyone,” I manage to ask as I watch her slice up the deli meats.
She glanced up at me, “They must have heard.”
“They’re shutting us down,” she said in a matter-of-fact fashion.
“Why,” I asked not taking my eyes off the falling meat as she sliced it quickly and evenly, “You are one of the last old style restaurants in the city…the last Italian place around.”
“Right,” Liz nodded, grabbing bread and cutting it for the toaster, “and that is why we have to go. It’s a reminder…”
“Right,” I cut in before she could finish.
Liz shoved the bread into the toaster and sharply turned to me, “who are you?”
Her eyes glared as she looked me up and down. It almost felt like I was being scanned…it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. “Who. Are. You?”
“Anthony. Uh… Tony.”
“Tony. Just Tony.”
She gave a curt nod, “And why are you here?”
I cocked an eyebrow, “To…have a sandwich.”
“Most people can read.”
I nodded, “Yeah. I can too, why?”
She pointed to the sanitation shower, “There is a sign on the door saying we are being shut down.”
I paused, I felt the heat rise to my cheeks as I finally understood her meaning. “I’m not him,” I said softly, “I’m not the one who’s going to shut you down. I don’t work for the government.”
“Who do you work for then?”
“The Mandlston Company,” I quickly fished out my ID and held it up.
“You sell,” she started with her eyes wide.
“Rubber,” I finished with a sorrowful nod.
“Would you stop finishing my sentences!”
“Sorry,” I murmured slipping my ID back into my pocket.
The toaster dinged but Liz didn’t move. She kept her eyes fixed on mine. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She fixed me to the spot and made me want to see her smile, if only one more time. “Why do you come here?”
“A lot of people came here.”
“Yes, but why did you come here?”
I shrugged, “I like cannoli’s.”
“You never ordered a cannoli.”
“I always meant to.”
She stared at me for a moment, then walked over to the cash register and disappeared under the counter for a few seconds. When she came back up she was holding two cannolis. The cream in the middle was fluffy and white, it had always looked inviting every time I peered at them through the glass but I could never bring myself to order one. I always just ate my sandwich and left. But now that she set one of the fried pastries before me I didn’t know what to do. I looked up at her and realized my mouth was hanging open. I clicked my jaw shut. “On the house,” she chuckled as she took a big bite of the one she held.
She moaned as the cream touched her tongue. I watched her lick it off her fingers as the shell broke apart with each passing bite. “I always love these things.”
I nodded, “I don’t know what it is about them.”
“I do,” she exclaimed, popping the rest of her cannoli in her mouth, “it’s the cream that coats your tongue with the sweet shell of a fried pastry around it. It’s not too sweet to be over whelming and not to bland to be disappointing. It’s just right.”
I laughed as I gently picked up my cannoli, “You’re probably right,” I took a gentle bite, carful to not let it break in my hand.
“I am right!” she laughed, “Oh, want some coffee?”
“A minute ago you thought I was going to close down your restaurant and now you are offering me everything you have.”
“Well your not shutting me down and you’re here. So I’ll repeat myself,” she turned back towards me with a playful smile on her face, “do you want some coffee?”
I smiled, “I’d love some.”
Liz set the kettle on the maker and pressed the button, “I hope you didn’t want that sandwich.”
“I think I just burned the bread,” She jumped over to the toaster and slammed the door open. A pillar of dark smoke rushed out mixing with the clean, cool air of the deli.
“I thought it beeped.”
She sighed, “It did, but it’s one of those really old fuckers that just say the bread’s done and doesn’t actually quit toasting.”
“Well that’s inconvenient,” I chuckled, “I’m good with just coffee.”
“Good!” She paused, stared at me for a second, “You’ve got…” she came over towards me and leaned across the counter. Her index finger flashed and gently brushed against the corner of my mouth, “cream. You don’t want to waste the best part!” She licked the cream off her finger and turned back to the coffee.
“I would argue the fried pastry is the best part,” I said, more breathless then I wanted to be.
“Liar,” she chuckled still with her back to me.
“Just because we share a difference in opinion doesn’t mean that I’m a liar.”
Liz turned back to me, “Who the hell are you?”
“I told you, I’m…”
“Tony,” she rolled her eyes, “yeah I got that. But who are you really?”
“Not from the government.”
“You said that.”
“I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
“Okay,” she mused, “why are you different?”
“Don’t lie,” she glared playfully, “I bet if I asked you to take me on this counter top you would.”
“Take you? You’re starting to talk like a …”
“I was going to say like a human,” her eyes widened in the slightest, “You have said ‘fuck’ and ‘hell’ in the last few minutes, words I haven’t heard anyone say since they were banned. Your eyes sparkle instead of dull, you actually smile, and to this day I’ve never seen you in a mask- though you probably would have to have one if you want to go outside-“
She slowly held up a hand, “Have you never been outside?”
I looked at her for a long moment. She was joking-- I hoped that she was joking. But there was genuine concern on her face. I realized my mouth had frozen open again, I clicked it shut. “You know,” I started slowly, “That it is suicide.”
“Only if you are out there for longer then two minutes. Any longer then that then it gets harder to breathe, but you can survive for a minute. Why do you think the showers are so effective?”
“How do you know-“
“How do you think I know?”
We stared at each other for many minutes until the only sound that filled the void between up was the whistling kettle. I cleared my throat, “Your kettle is boiling.”
She slowly poured the coffee through the strainer and handed me a cup. I caught her hand before she could pull away, “Why?”
She looked me in the eyes, some of the sparkle seemed to have gone out of them, “Because no one cares.”
She smiled, “And why do you care, Mr. Cannoli? Why should I listen to you?”
“Because of this,” She was about to say something. I could see it on her face but I ignored it, I made myself ignore it. I slid my hand behind her neck and gently pulled her towards me.
Our lips met.
I felt her stiffen. I felt the intake of breath as shock cycled through her brain. But then, slowly, I felt her relax. I felt her lean into me. I felt her tongue caressing my lower lip, begging, pleading me to let her in. We tasted each other for many long minutes. I felt her hand slip through my hair and draw closer to her. I felt her frustration as the counter held us apart. Then I felt the searing pain of hot water running down my leg.
I pulled back with a gasp. Glaring down at the spilled coffee that had started to run down my pant leg in painful drips. Liz peeked over the counter and chuckled, “Uh-oh,” She purred, “It seems like we will have to get you out of those right away…coffee can stain.”
She smiled, pulling me into another kiss before letting me go, “Come on,” she smiled, motioning me to the back room and disappearing behind the wall. I slid out of the stool, leaving the coffee mess, and quickly stepped behind the counter. I glanced out the glass doors of the sanitation station. None of the masked figures cared about what was happening in the deli that was about to be closed down for good. I quickly made my way into the kitchen.
The kitchen looked a lot like the rest of the restaurant. Old gas ovens lined one end of the room while the opposite held a sink and a dish rack. Next to the sink was a door that gave way to stairs, Liz stood in the doorway smiling over at me before she once again disappeared yet again. I followed.
I don’t know what drove me towards her. Maybe it was the same thing that drove me to the deli day after day; maybe it was the same thing that forced my mind to not see the sign in the window today. Whatever it was I soon found myself climbing Liz’s stairs. I soon found myself in a living room that looked a lot like my own, with the government issued furniture and the double paned windows to keep out the poison and thick drapes to keep out the rays of the beating sun. Off to one side stood a neatly kept bed and nightstand that only had a lamp and glass of water on it.
Liz stood by one of the windows, holding back a heavy drape and peeking out at the world. “My routine was broken,” she said softly, “Maybe that was why I didn’t know what to do today.”
“I’m sorry,” I stepped further into the room.
“My routine, Tony,” she said turning to me, “Everyone has a set routine and yesterday they told me that my staff had been reassigned and that my costumers were to be alerted and that my deli would be closed down. No one came in today but I couldn’t stop myself from getting up and putting on the coffee and starting the pasta- which, by the way, I ruined intentionally because who the hell cares anymore. But you…” she stopped and looked at me, “you didn’t get the memo.”
I shook my head, “I didn’t,” I said softly.
“What does that mean?”
“It means someone found out.”
She stared at me, I could see the fear outline her eyes at what I might say, “Found out what?”
“That I’m different.”
She smiled, “I was hoping you would say that.”
She stepped forward and slipped her hand through my hair, “I am too.”
She forced he down. Our lips met but it was nothing like it was down stairs. It was desperate. It was angry and sad, and resentful. It had nothing to do with us and yet it had everything to do with us. Our lips parted as we invited each other in. I was hardly in command of my hands as they fumbled with the buttons on her shirt. I couldn’t remember when my shirt had slipped off before her hands brushed my bare skin. I gasped as one of her hands gently traced my spine and found the top of my pants. They laced around, tickling my stomach as she found the clasp.
The need for her to be closer grew in the pit of my stomach. my fingers played with the smooth strands of her hair. Liz broke away from my lips and gently kissed along my jaw. Until she found my ear. She nibbled. The pain of longing forced itself against my pants urgently. My hands found a mind of their own as they explored. Sometimes they would tangle themselves again in her hair other times they would find the shape of her perfect breasts. Liz reached up and unclipped her bra, letting it fall away with a shrug.
Pressing into her I felt her. I felt the hardening of her nipples as her sensitive skin finally met cold air. I felt her sanitized skin brush against my callused hands. Again. Again. It felt like infinity for her to unlatched my pants. She tensed with the buckle, giggling at my impatient grunts. I lifted her chin until our mouths met and pick her up. She gasped but didn’t break away from my touch. Instead she wrapped her legs around my waist as I walked in the direction I assumed the bed was.
We fell on the mattress. A mess of twisted limbs and desperately tore at the fabric that dared separate us. It wasn’t clear who was more frantic. I heard Liz giggle as suddenly I was on my back with Liz above me smiling down. She slowly lowered herself down onto me with a gasp that escaped both of our lips. “Tony,” Liz gasped as she started to move her hips back and forth.
I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t force the words from my mouth. I moaned as her hips moved, and finally made my lips form the word, “yes?”
“Say my name,” she breathed as she bend down to lick my chest.
I felt her tongue glide over my skin. I felt the goosebumps form and my nipples harden as her tongue worked. I moaned, “Liz.”
Her hips seemed to increase in speed. Her need became as desperate as mine, he want, her moans, for those moments we were one. Our bodies responded to the slightest touch of the other, our lips locked in the eternal kiss of passion, of need. That’s how it felt as our hands explored, as our hips continued to thrust, as I whispered her name. “Liz…Liz…Liz.”
I flipped her onto the mattress. I stared down at her sparkling eyes and beautiful full lips forming that beautiful smile. She ran her fingers through my hair and pulled me down. Our lips met hungrily, parting to let each other in until she gasped. Her back arched with the exploding pleasure that lifted her breasts into the air. I lowered myself to them and gently licked her nipples. Those sparkling eyes rolled to the back of her head, her fingernails clawed into my back. I could feel them tearing at my skin as I raised my head and grabbed the headboard thrusting deeper and deeper. Her panted as her legs locked around my waist, needing me to continue, begging me not to stop.
Pleasure. Desire. Panting. Need. Touching. Lust. There are probably other words that would not come even close to what happened next. Both our backs arching with pleasure. Liz gripping me screaming my name in the dry silence. Thrusting. Wanting. Needing. It all became one. It all was the same. The groaning. The moaning. The whispering for more, the crying of names. I tried to catch my breath but my body wouldn’t let that little need be answered. We were one. We held one like we never wanted to be individuals again.
And then it was done. We laid in each other’s arms, panting. Still holding on. Still needing to know that there was someone else in the world that wasn’t afraid to be different. Liz looked up at me, her dark hair a mess from where I kept running my fingers through it, her cheeks were flush, and sweat was gleaming on her brow but still she smiled. “They are coming for us, you know.”
I nodded, I knew that before. I think I knew that from the moment I walked into the deli, I knew I wasn’t going to walk out.
“I think I want to go out on my own terms.”
I pulled away just slightly so I could look down at her, “What do you mean?”
She smiled brighter, “I think I want to die in the arms in the loving man that I found.”
“You just met me, Liz.”
She snuggling closer to me, “No, Mr. Cannoli, you’ve been coming in here for years. We only had today, but today was enough. Today you’re perfect.”
Our lips met again.
I don’t remember who pulled who into it but our lips met and parted for the other. Gently tasting each other, without the desperation of moments ago but the love of that moment. When we broke away I pulled her close and held her, “I would like to feel the sun on my face.”
I felt her smile, “I think we can manage that.”
We got up as one and crossed to the heavily draped window. Ignoring our discarded clothes that lay in a mess on the floor. We stood there silently for a moment, just living. Just being. I looked over at her, her tangled hair reaching the small of her back, her skin still gleaming, and her eyes sparkling over at me. I nodded, feeling a small smile start to play across my lips. Liz drew the curtain aside letting the intense rays of the sun leak into the room. The sun had sunk rather low, I realized I was late to work. I laughed and Liz looked back at me curious. I shook my head, “A stupid thought,” I muttered.
She smiled and reached for my hand, “I have those too,” she chuckled, “I opened this window years ago so it’ll slide open.”
“So we just…” I reached out and grabbed the window seal.
“Yes, it’s as simple as that,” Liz grabbed the other side.
“On three,” I muttered.
Liz nodded, gripping my hand tighter, “One.”
We forced the window open. Heat radiated from the outside. The yellow sky seemed browner without a mask on and the air didn’t seem all that different. I felt the suns rays on my skin as I closed my eyes and breathed the poison in. Liz held my hand tighter until I eventually pulled her close and waited for it to come. We waited for the inevitable. We waited for death.
My lungs didn’t burn. My eyes didn’t water. My mouth didn’t dry up. I opened my eyes and looked around. I felt fine. I looked down at Liz and she stared out the window with widened eyes. Her beautiful sparkling eyes which didn’t show a trace of blood. I felt her breath on my skin and didn’t feel a trace of pain or struggling.
Our eyes met. It had been more then two minutes.