The mask swam elephantine and bug-eyed in the dark glass. After several years of passing the auto shop, whose empty windows were the only ones between the drilling fields and the motel left unboarded, Tommy still struggled to recognize the reflection as his own. He stopped absently to observe himself.
It was dawn. The sun pink as a freshly peeled blister behind its film of dust cast downtown into streaks of gray shadow and warbled rose. It accentuated the muffled slurp of the mask, the clouds of dirt rising from the shuffle of what feet were left in the city, the earth splintered by the heat and the long drought. The narrow and grimy windows set into once-white brick warped his image: his back bulged to an unnatural size while the plastic tubing of the mask stretched like the searching proboscis of a butterfly. His entire silhouette glowed with an aura. Down the broken sidewalks behind him drifted a procession of those who were like himself anonymous and headed in early morning stupor back to their living quarters. It was unsafe to loiter on the streets. But Tommy’s exhaustion and the strange fascination of the glass held him there.
Just before he tore himself away, the light snagged on something glittering like ice in the street behind his distorted reflection.
Tommy stiffened and turned slowly. There were only a few others returning from the fields with ration bags in hand. All masked, all unable to care about his actions.
He tried to act as though he’d simply decided on a whim to cross the street — Tommy had nearly lost the faculty of spontaneity and could not remember how it was performed, or how to seem nonchalant now he no longer had a face — and landed by design some twenty feet up from the Object. Of uncertain color but certainly a species of bottle, it contrasted sharply with the gray silt in which it was partially buried. Tommy’s heart began to beat faster. He tried to slow down without the appearance of slowing. His sweaty palms chafed against the plastic bags wrapped tightly round both hands.
As he drew level with the object, he feigned a stumble and dropped the bag from his right hand. Two bottles of water, a can of chickpeas, a box of replacement air filters and a small tube of toothpaste spilled and rolled in every direction. He bent and began collecting the items, staring directly down, keeping the Object just out of sight, burning a hole through the top of his head. Finally he risked a glance toward it. It was what he’d hoped. With a violent surge of adrenaline he scooped it up and dropped it in with the toothpaste. His fingers were shaking.
Tommy shut the door to Unit 108 and tested the lock several times before releasing the elastic strap and let the mask fall, dangling haphazardly from the bag tied round his rib cage. The scream of the filtration unit fitted into the window used to keep Tommy awake, but it didn’t bother him anymore. Just like the swollen, burning, angry throat and the ache in the southern tips of his lungs didn’t bother him like they did at first. The masks helped a little outdoors, navigating the perpetual dust of the air, and the filter screeched day and night, but sometimes he woke up sick to his intestines like he’d smoked a whole pack of cigarettes the night before. And now despite the obvious absurdity he worried the Object had disappeared, that like a fiery brand it might have melted through the plastic bag, rolled away and been lost forever. A quick paw-through reassured him: Baclofen Injection USP. 20,000 mcg per 20 mL. It was a miracle.
He looked up. Pilar was standing in the middle of their dining table, sweeping the ceiling.
A flicker of annoyance distracted Tommy momentarily. His wife’s bony, angular face was pulled into an expression of serious rumination, jaw clenched to reveal hard lines of bluish vein. She tried unsuccessfully to shake the dark hairs escaping from her headscarf out of her eyes.
“Ay, Pili, give it a rest already,” he groaned. “It’s too much. You don’t have to do so much.”
But she just shook her head harder and scrunched her mouth into the maddeningly stubborn expression he’d grown to understand was impossible to contradict. “What’s the point of staying alive just to live like pigs?” she replied. She’d made it her daily and Sisyphean task to purge the apartment of dust: dust that made it under the door, through the boarded windows or the infinitesimal cracks of walls, settling daintily on surfaces before the filter could catch them.
Tommy threw up his hands in disgust. “Okay, Pili, whatever you want. I guess you like this kind of thing, I don’t know.” He’d just let her break her back sweeping the broom into the oddest corners, wear out the rags she insisted on dampening with their precious water supply, sift through the flour jar with the fixation of a prospector. He sat on one of the folding chairs and picked up one of the tortillas she’d set out for them. As always he expelled a cloud of dust on the way down and grit his teeth against silt mixed in with the flour. All that for nothing, Pili, he thought with savage satisfaction, glaring at her feet still on the table and the dust raining on his head. He came home after spending the cool of the night drilling wells in the desperate search for water and this was what he could expect?
With a lurch of guilt he remembered at last the drug.
“Hey, listen, Pili,” he started, still chewing. He felt his voice shift low and rapid. “I found some today. I don’t know where it came from but it’s labeled and sealed and everything. Gabriel —”
Pilar shot him a warning look and pressed a thin finger to her lips. Tommy glanced at the sofa bed.
Their son lay still and silent among his pillows. For the first time that morning Tommy became aware of the scratchy music rising softly from Pilar’s disc player above the filter. One of her old movie soundtracks — the only music that could ever lull Gabriel into calm. “I’m laughing at clouds so dark up above, the sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love, let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place, come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face …” Gene Kelly’s old-school croon seemed to Tommy like communication from not only a bygone era but a different planet — when had been the last time he’d heard laughter or seen clouds, let alone storms or rain? When (and again the lurch of guilt made itself felt) the last time he’d been “ready for love”?
“He’s been listening on repeat all night,” Pilar whispered. “It’s his favorite.”
Tommy stood and looked down at Gabriel. He was awake — his bulbous gray eyes blinked slowly in his gray enlarged skull, features common to all children born within the past decade of asthma. The skin of his face resembled paper pulled taut over his skeleton, positioned above a small and emaciated body. Born too soon — too small — too silent — spasming almost since his first hour. Like an alien; Tommy remembered that had been his initial thought. But almost simultaneously he’d felt a constriction of the chest and a rush of nerves that he knew without rational decision had doomed him to devoted service for all eternity. This physical sensation had slowly replaced the careful reasoning and passionate emotion Tommy used to identify with love; sometimes he wondered if it weren’t a cheap substitution, but other times it seemed much stronger and better.
Whichever was the case, he felt it now and felt it bad. “Look in the bags, Pili,” he murmured without looking away.
He heard her jump to the floor with a grunt and the rustle of the plastic as she hunted through the rations. “Two waters, that’s good,” she muttered, “no flour, what are we gonna —” Pilar interrupted her own chatter with a sharp inhale. Tommy broke his concentration to meet her startled, almost frightened gaze. Between her fingers she turned the bottle of clear fluid. “Baclofen? But there hasn’t been — no one can get it — Lula told me that — not anywhere for months — but what if it’s not safe?”
“Hey, I don’t know, okay? There’s nothing else we can give him for seizures. I don’t want to watch him in pain if I don’t have to. It’s still sealed and everything, what do you want me to do, get rid of it?”
“By injection though — I just don’t think —”
Tommy grabbed her by the shoulders. “Think what? We don’t have time to think, Pili. If you stop to think you die. You choke to death or seize to death or starve or dry up like a dead lizard. We’re alone, do you understand that? All alone. Nobody else is gonna help us.” Suddenly he realized there were tears leaking from the corners of his wife’s eyes. Her shoulders heaved with suppressed sobs. He dropped his hands and took a step back.
Bang bang bang.
The room rattled. Dust overlooked in Pilar’s sweep or else accumulated since she’d set down the broom floated off of surfaces and tinged the room sepia. Gabriel began to cry.
“Tomás Correa, open up.”
“Pachecos,” he hissed. Pilar squeaked and thrust the drug into the front pocket of her soiled apron. The powerful knocking continued. The door shook on its hinges. Tommy lunged at the door, undid the locks, and yanked it open breathlessly.
Oscar Fucho strode into the room. A tall, muscular man with pockmarked face and grizzled buzz cut, it was easy to see why the guerillas had been drawn to him as moths to a flame. Tommy himself only dimly remembered that they had been close friends once. Another planet. Like “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“What a glorious feelin’, I’m happy again …”
For a while neither of them spoke. Tommy looked Oscar up and down from the crown of his head to his combat boots. Past his shoulder Tommy saw two thugs standing in menacing quiet, rifles held crosswise over their chests, fingers over the trigger held still with the stillness of charmed snakes. Their repurposed patrol cars sat in the lot, “OKLAHOMA CITY POLICE” still legible across the Crown Victorias’ battered and graffitied exteriors. Oscar looked at Tommy and seemed to sneer at, or perhaps pity, Tommy’s tattered and colorless denim. Pilar was quaking, glancing between the two of them with a hand over her mouth. Gabriel’s weak cry subsided to a whimper.
At last Oscar broke the silence. “You been mistreating her, huh?” he asked, indicating Pilar’s face streaked with tears.
“N—” Tommy started, but Pilar yelped “No!” with such force that even Oscar seemed taken aback. God bless it, woman, Tommy thought, you’ll give us away.
“Well, keep it that way, huh, Tommy?” Oscar stepped over to the table and sat down in Tommy’s chair. With unease Tommy watched him begin to poke through the bags as though listlessly.
“Hey, what do you want, Oscar?” Heat rose in Tommy’s throat. “I’ll do whatever it is. Just get out of here and leave my wife and son alone.”
Oscar left the table and joined Tommy, overlooking the couch. “How’s he doing, man,” he said. Tommy scowled.
“Fine. He’s fine.” With courage he felt inspired to add, “His seizures have been real bad since the shortages. He got withdrawals.”
“Everyone’s got palsy and no one’s got meds,” Oscar said meditatively, nodding, as if the two of them were still friends. As if cerebral palsy were a minor inconvenience like a hangover or bad weather.
“Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face …”
“Well, Tommy,” Oscar sighed, folding his hands behind his back. “Some of the guys told me you pick up something outside the old mechanic’s.”
Tommy’s heart turned sick and cold. So the pachecos — the guerillas had proudly adopted the once derisive epithet — were watching, had seen him the whole time — you could never be cautious enough.
“You didn’t report it to us? Why, Tommy? Come on. What’d you find.”
Oscar spoke quietly, almost soothingly. Tommy saw him for a moment as the best man at his long ago wedding. Then it was like his mind’s eye refocused and he saw him as a terrorist, the harbinger of torture and privation. He felt a sharp sting in his throat and began to cough.
“You don’t have to talk. Just hand it to me.”
Tommy’s mind raced. Maybe it was better just to hand it over. The Baclofen was the only way to soothe Gabriel, but amateur injections were dangerous. Maybe they couldn’t use it at all. And how long would it really last? Just a little more time, and all of it filled with pain and the sleepy dusty darkness and the solitude, the constant scream of the filters and the hazy sun always bloody pink and threatening. The curtains, always drawn. Not for the first time did Tommy wonder for an instant whether Gabriel were better off dead.
With a sudden motion Pilar flung something small and clear up from her apron pocket at Oscar’s face. Tommy lunged involuntarily, eyes bulging, to snatch it from the air, then checked himself and pulled back in surprise. “If you want it you can have it,” Pilar spat, the bitterness in her voice authentic.
But it was a half-filled water bottle, not the Baclofen.
Oscar caught it and turned it over in hands blackened by sun and grime. He raised an eyebrow and looked Pilar full in the face. She was ashen pale with rage and fear. Her lips quivered.
Oscar turned to Tommy coolly. Their eyes met in full knowledge. He’ll kill us or something, Tommy thought in terror, don’t hurt them you can’t I will kill you first I swear to God I —
“Thank you, Pilar.” Oscar did not break eye contact with Tommy. “Okay Tommy. Next time you turn it in as soon as you got it, got it?”
Tommy blinked and opened his mouth stupidly. Oscar grimaced — with sympathy? embarrassment? the closest approximation to a smile he had left? — and tossed the water lightly back to Pilar. He signaled to his thugs, who grumbled and lumbered back to the patrol car.
“Hey man,” Oscar said so quietly his lips barely parted. “You be good to them, alright? Stay low, huh? I don’t wanna see you again.”
Something very light rushed to the top of Tommy’s head. He thought he might pass out. Instead he laughed, high and hysterical. He laughed until he couldn’t see anymore. “Yeah,” he managed to choke out. “Yeah …”
Oscar jerked his head upward in a familiar nod. He slammed the door behind him and went back to his pachecos. Tommy watched him through the peephole, warped and microscopic, swing into the back seat. He heard the tires screech on the way out of the lot.
Instinctively Pilar went to him. They looked at each other. Then they looked at Gabriel.
“He’s okay,” she whispered. Tommy kissed her gently. She kissed him back. He moved to hold her from behind, burying his face into the gap between her jawline and collarbone and breathing her in. As if his embrace were enough to protect them — as if it meant anything more, or less, than her neurotic tidying.
“Tommy? You're wrong. We’re not alone.”
Tommy looked at their son and considered. It was true. It was true even though they were only three organic specks on a long-dead rock spinning with the reckless speed of despair. Three bodies hiding flickering warmth in the frozen expanses of empty space, dying yet still alive. The whole of the living universe resided within them — man, woman, and the life they’d managed against all odds, almost out of spite, to squeeze with fear and trembling from an unforgiving and hostile earth, alone together and never alone.
“I’m dancin’ and singin’ in the rain ... ”