“Sarah!” My mother managed to say through her coughing, though her words were muffled by the barrier. “Sarah I can’t breathe! Let me in!”
She banged on the walls but the glass is too thick, too strong. I wanted to let her in, to save her, to save my little brother and my father and my best friend and my dog who we had just adopted from the shelter a few weeks back. Tears ran down my face as I pleaded with the others inside to open the door just one last time to let my mother in. The others were far off and had no chance, but my mother was right there.
Though even then I knew my words were in vein. It was too dangerous to open the doors at that point, and even if there was still time, she wasn’t on the list. The others did me one kindness that day. They forced me to look away.
That was the beginning of The Choke, the event that ended it all. Air pollution rates started skyrocketing so fast that humanity couldn’t survive anymore, at least not without the chambers. Everyone I loved died that day, choked out by the very air they gasped in.
When I was younger I signed up for one of the chambers as a joke with my best friend. Some fancy organization released a statement saying they had 130 sustainable buildings around the world, and that in the case of an apocalypse, people could live in them. Sign up was free, and we thought it’d be funny to do it. We never predicted such an event would ever actually come to pass. Even though she was on the list, she didn’t make it here in time.
Now, five years later, I still remember The Choke like it was yesterday. We all do. I’ve made new friends, new family even, who understand what it feels like to lose everything.
“Hey Sarah, wanna grab some oxygen tank and go on a walk? I’m feeling kinda trapped in here and need to get out for the day.” Thea asks, a nervous smile crossing her face.
She’s hated doing anything alone ever since she got here. I don’t blame her, she was alone when it happened, and only 14 too. She drove here with absolutely no driving experience and burst through the doors last minute. Even though I’m only two years older than her, I’ve always seen her as this fragile little child.
“I’d love to go on a walk.” I say with an encouraging smile.
We head to the gear room to grab our oxygen tanks and face coverings. The air out there is still too polluted to allow for normal breathing, but we can go out so long as we have these. The leaders are still not so sure about the effects of the polluted air on skin, but allow us to go out once a week so long as we have long sleeves and gloves on. I appreciate that the walls of the chamber are glass, it allows me to feel less trapped, to see the outside world.
We go through each set of doors one by one, three sets in all, that lock behind us so that the bad air can’t get in. Once out, we walk through the once-beautiful world.
There is no grass or small wildlife, and only the remnants of trees remain. The Choke destroyed any and all signs of life. The chamber is lined with trees, but none like the tall oaks that used to make up great forests. We should have known, we could have prevented all of this. We kept building and building and calling it progress. Factories that spit out black fumes, big cars and trucks lining the streets, trash piles that were burned in mass, all in the name of technology progress. Those cars still line old streets, those factories still stand, and those trash piles have gone untouched in the old dumps, but no progress is being made. They stand, devoid of humanity.
“Do you think we’ll ever get to see birds again?” Thea asks.
“I don’t know, as far as we’re aware they’re all dead around here, but who knows what the other chambers have. Maybe someone signed up who really liked birds, and now they’re chamber is full of them because of it.”
“You mean like Talia and all her cats?”
“Yes, exactly like Talia and all her cats.” I let out a small laugh.
“It’s strange really, I never really cared about birds before. Sure, I saw them and might of thought they were pretty or something, but I never actually cared. It’s one of those little things that I just never noticed until they were gone. Now I may never see one again. The world was full of those little things.”
“Maybe it still is.”
“What? It so clearly isn’t! Look at all we’ve lost.”
“Well sure, maybe not those little things, but we can try to notice the little things that we have left, like these trips outside. I don’t know if they’re supposed to let us do them, so maybe the other chambers don’t get them.”
We begin heading back, ready to be in clean air again. This is not the world a younger version of me might have imagined myself in at 21 years old. Thea’s words run through my head alongside all those little things I never really cared about before. Crowds used to bother me, now there aren’t enough people to really find yourself in one big enough to be bothersome. School used to be a drag, now I would give anything to see my old classmates. Most, if not all of them are dead now.
Thea and I enter the first door, and are sprayed with air after it locks behind us, then the second, then the third. So much of what mattered, and didn’t matter, to a younger me is gone now. Why couldn’t we have done better?