Out of breath
“I didn’t know if we were going to make it…”
I didn’t know if we were going to make it. Alice, my under-powered Honda Civic, strained against the steep incline and the high altitude. I wondered what I would do if we got stuck. I supposed I’d call the number on the roadside assistance card tucked into my wallet. My mother, for whom worry was a religion, bought me a 10-year membership the week she died. She said she hoped I’d one day grow into the kind of solid, responsible person who planned for contingencies. Alas, I never did.
I looked down at my cell phone and noted the red SOS in the upper right hand corner. No network service plus no GPS equals no roadside assistance, I thought. I should have been on edge or, at least, somewhat concerned. Instead, I was exhilarated. Some damaged part of me wanted to end up on the side of the road with nothing but a water jug and a duffle bag full of unwashed vintage clothes. I imagined standing on the sandy shoulder beside an ancient conifer, and getting into the first car that came along. Perhaps the driver would be a quiet, handsome man, the perfect blank screen for my most fantastical projections. I could follow him deep into the unknown, and away from my hopeless little life.
As I approached the top of the next hill, Alice shuddered and whined. I pulled over to let a truck roar by, and asked myself again why I was driving to Shelly’s isolated, mountaintop home. It was a rhetorical question, of course. I really had nowhere else to go. I lost my job three years ago, along with so many of my friends. We gradually fell out of touch as we scattered across the country to move into basements and guest houses, building our highly individuated cocoons of shame.
My mother’s diagnosis provided a face-saving pretext for moving back home. I became a full-time caregiver, knowledgeable in the administration of IV drugs, the draining of lymphatic fluid, the prevention of bed sores. My mother bore my caring as best she could. We had never been close, and I knew my presence at her bedside was more of a trial than a comfort. She inquired politely about chimerical job interviews, and talked about her own parents who had made it through the depression with a small, profitable gas station later bought by Shell. I gave her sanitized anecdotes from my last job that made me seem stronger and more ambitious than I was.
When my mother finally died, her lawyer and executor dolefully informed me that she had left the house to a charity dedicated to the welfare of cats. He solemnly handed me a notice to vacate within 30 days. I was left with four hundred dollars, Alice, my mother’s old clothes, and a paralyzing depression.
As I was explaining all this to Shelly in a slow, lugubrious voice, she cut me off. No matter how badly my life was going, she said, hers was even worse. She had just been diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer and needed someone to help her with chores, errands, and what she euphemistically called medical issues. She then told me about her enormous house with its servants quarters and guest rooms, implying that there would be a place for me somewhere in one or the other.
When I heard this, I was giddy with relief. The proposed visit with Shelly was an unlooked-for reprieve from my downward slide into homelessness. Yet it made me uneasy. My mother’s death had freed me from the tyranny of her long, slow dying and our strained attempts at relationship. Rushing to Shelly’s side felt like another, deeper retreat from life. I feared that if I stayed there for too long, I would spend the last months of my relative youth in the close, cloistered world of serious illness. And then there was Shelly herself, an uncertain connection to a distant past.
Despite our cheerful online chats, a silence of ten years loomed between us. Whether by coincidence or by design, her friend request appeared on the day my mother died. I couldn’t decide what to do with it, so I simply let it lie, dormant, in my inbox. A few days later, depressed yet eager to lose myself in distraction, I clicked accept, and delved into Shelly’s life with the enthusiasm of a hungry voyeur. I pored through every detail of her profile and examined every photo. The words and pictures seemed calculated to give the impression of a life marked by rare wealth and privilege, set in beautiful locales and populated by beautiful people. Her relationship status was, of course, married, although her husband was conspicuously missing from her posts and pictures. I wondered if her husband was a rich man with old fashioned views on privacy.
When we finally connected over the phone, Shelly confirmed that her husband was, indeed, wealthy and reclusive. In soft, confidential tones, she explained that she wasn’t allowed to reveal his identity to anyone who hadn’t signed a Nondisclosure Agreement. I made a few awkward, joking references to Mr. Big, and allowed the conversation to drift onto less freighted subjects. As we spoke, I noticed that Shelly’s voice seemed to echo like she was trapped at the bottom of a well. I felt a chilly foreboding. The woman on the phone was remote and cautiously friendly, nothing like the Shelly I’d known in college.
I cursed as Alice skittered around a curve and tried to remember if I should brake or accelerate through a skid. Shelly, the old Shelly, would have loved this narrow, twisted route. She would have taken each wild, hairpin turn with a giggle and a scream. Even as a freshman, Shelly had seemed larger than life, almost heroic. She was the bright one, the beautiful one. I was her dark, cautious foil. We spent our first two years of college urging each other into doomed love affairs and drinking through the pain of their excruciating endings. We swore blood oaths abjuring corporate jobs, marriage and convention. We knew nothing.
It was a beautiful dream until the day Shelly woke up in the arms of Tom, a tall, lanky finance major. When she came back to the dorm that afternoon, I could see she had changed. Her face was scrubbed clean of dark eyeliner and her cheeks were ruddy from a long, brisk walk across campus. Within days, she quit smoking and dyed her hair back to blonde. She went on a diet and dropped ten pounds in three weeks. She started joining things: a sorority, an acapella group, a tennis club. She got so good at tennis that she made the women’s varsity team her junior year, the same year that she and Tom got engaged.
Shelly and Tom broke up before graduation, but that didn’t matter. Shelly left college a gilded swan. She flew into life; I plodded.
The sky was getting dark when I saw the sign for the Last Chance Gas Station. It was, according to the loopy, cheerful script, the last gas station for the next 100 miles. I checked my fuel gauge and made a quick calculation. Opting against the adventure of waiting to be rescued in the dark, I pulled off the highway and onto a rough, cracked road. The gas station was, as advertised, exactly a mile from the exit. The prices were, as expected, extortionate. The pumps were old fashioned and did not accept credit cards. I frowned. I was used to pumping gas without the clumsiness of transactional social contact.
I got out of my car and tasted the crisp, thin air. It was fresh and clean, but unsatisfying. My lungs still ached for oxygen. I took a deep breath, and then another, until my normal, regular breathing jittered into a wheeze. I fished my inhaler out of my purse and brought it to my lips, gasping and sucking. I was thankful no one was there to watch. I hated the random vulnerability of my asthma attacks. Shelly had found them fascinating. She tried my inhaler once, when we were drunk. It made her feel warm and tingly all over. Then she tried on my glasses. “This must be what it’s like to be you,” she said, peeking out from behind the thick, black frames.
Once my breathing had settled into a regular rhythm, I approached the store. The lights were off, but a plastic sign said Come In, and the door creaked open when I pushed it. I entered slowly. No one was behind the counter. I rang the bell and waited. I thought I heard the faint sounds of someone shuffling across linoleum, but no one appeared. Bored, I wandered through the shelves, evaluating potential snack foods. I ran my finger along a dusty bag of potato chips, and passed over a box of Pop Tarts with an inexplicable blue stain.
I was reading the ingredients on a package of Twinkies when I heard a loud, hard thud. I gasped and covered my mouth. Another thing I’ve always hated about my asthma is that the medication in my inhaler makes me jumpy. I have to keep reminding myself that my heart and brain are reacting to elevated levels of epinephrine in my bloodstream, not to any real threat. My heart, still refusing to listen to reason, beat wildly as I walked slowly to the end of the aisle, half-expecting to see a monster. Instead, I saw an old man with a drawn, unhealthy-looking face.
“There you are,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
Just speaking those few words sent him into a coughing spell that culminated with the noisy expulsion of a large lump of green phlegm. My panic was gone, replaced with disgust.
“I’d like ten gallons of unleaded, please. I’m next to pump number one,” I said, trying not to breathe. Shelly always said I was squeamish about germs, but she didn’t know what it was like to suffer through a cold with asthma.
“Forty eight dollars. Cash.” He coughed twice into his hand. When he pulled it away, it was flecked with blood.
I placed my bills on the counter, carefully avoiding contact with its grimy surface. I was glad a bottle of Purell was waiting in my glove compartment.
“OK if I fill up now, sir?” I asked, backing away slowly and, I hoped, politely.
The old man closed his eyes for several beats longer than a regular blink, and his face contorted into a pained mask. I could hear the wet rasp of his breathing. Just as I was about ask if he was OK, he opened his eyes and gazed upon me, as if for the first time.
“Going up the hill? To the castle?” His voice cracked and warped, but remained steady.
“Yes.” Shelly had mentioned that some of the locals call her house the castle.
The old man looked at me intently. I began to feel nervous again.
“Don’t stay there.”
“They’ll take your air. Your cells will die from lack of oxygen. You’ll rot from the inside out. You’ll drown in corruption, and they’ll laugh. They’ll laugh!”
The old man would have said more, but the wet rasping in his chest quickly amplified into a convulsive, bone-shaking cough. Blobs of red and green mucus spattered onto the countertop. Something wet and warm landed on my cheek. I wiped it off and looked down at my hand. The glob was warm and red, flecked with black. I rubbed the mess onto my jeans and cursed myself. I was contaminated.
The old man’s coughing reached a crescendo. He brought up a tarry-looking blob and spat it onto the floor with a loud, agonizing groan. I looked up at his mouth, smeared with fresh blood. I wanted desperately to flee, but willed myself to remain still, remembering my mother.
“Can I help you?”
When the old man didn’t answer, I took one reluctant step towards the counter and then another.
“Is there anything I can do? Someone I can call?”
The old man’s eyes were open and fixed. I wondered if he’d had a stroke. I reached out to touch his shoulder when I heard a liquid, tearing sound. I felt warm, wet saliva mixed with blood ooze down my cheek. My throat began to tighten.
“Bitch!” he croaked. “You’re no better than I am.”
I tried to squeak out a question — why? — but the asthma was on me. I ran out of the store and back to my car, wheezing with every step. I opened the door and unlocked the glove compartment. I pulled out a handful of tissues and cleaned my face and hands. I threw the tissues on the ground and rubbed Purell on my face and over my hands until I could feel its astringent sting.
On the verge of passing out, I finally took a long, deep pull from my inhaler. As I did, the old man lurched out of the store wearing fresh bloodstains on his dingy, white shirt. Still holding the inhaler between my lips, I ran to the driver’s side and locked the car doors. I started Alice with a roar, and accelerated onto the road, praying I wouldn’t get a flat.
As I pulled back onto the highway, I realized that I’d left my money at the gas station and neglected to get gas. The fuel gauge was rapidly approaching Empty.
To be continued.
Hope you enjoyed Part 1! The ending will be online in a few days.