Lubna’s mask beeped its battery warning. “Fuck, I forgot to charge.”
She hadn’t forgotten. When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV with no ulterior motives, Lubna drowned herself in red wine and passed out on Kulsoom’s sofa.
Now her head pounded, and she had only ten minutes of air to make the fifteen-minute walk home along her dead tree-lined street. Ideally she’d stop at a corner shop for a spare battery, but she couldn’t waste the time or the money. It was 6:57 a.m. and she should’ve been back by 7 a.m. to relieve her nanny, Brenda. She couldn’t afford to lose Brenda. But this was the fifth time she was late in relieving her and given she was also a week behind on paying her, Lubna couldn’t push it.
So she walked as fast as she could without running, which would have depleted her battery at a faster rate, leaving her heaving in polluted air. She wasn’t really sure what would happen. For a healthy thirty-something, the warnings went everywhere from sudden onset asthma to cardiac arrest. But recently Lubna had begun to push the limits of her mask’s battery, “forgetting” to charge it and “losing” her spare one around the house.
Wearing the mask was the only thing Abu ever shouted about when she was growing up. All his other rules—no drinking, no dating—were openly broken with nothing more than a sigh and head shake from him.
Now that he was gone, she wanted to break his one real rule, just once. But his authoritative snark lived on in her head, scolding her whenever her lungs craved the toxic air. After his funeral last year, Lubna tried to recall the sound of Abu’s softly accented voice. She replayed countless happy memories in her mind but could never hear him. Not until the day she considered leaving the house without her mask.
The warning indicator beeped nonstop now, as was legally required during the last few minutes of filtering. Had she paid for roadside assistance, a team would have already been on their way. But, as an adult, she considered it a waste of money that could be spent on her daughter, Archana. In any case, if she waited for assistance, she’d still be coming home to a nanny ready to quit.
She had thirty seconds of filtering left and five more minutes to walk. As she mentally prepared to take off the mask and make the walk home with short measured breaths, she heard Abu’s voice in her head.
“Pagal ho ghay, kya? You no longer need those lungs? Where did you get such a convenient mutation?”
“Abu, I’ll be fine, it’s just a few minutes,” she said out loud, with her last breath of fresh air. Time was up.
She left the mask on, letting the passive filters make the best of the situation. But after two minutes, the inside of the mask collected so much heat and dust that it felt worse than she imagined the open air would. Lubna unbuckled the mask and drew a short breath. She expected the smog to smell like melting plastic, but it was surprisingly fresh, like pine needles in the countryside spring. After drawing a second, deeper breath without issue, she exhaled a fit of sharp coughs. She stepped up her walking pace but tried to keep her breath steady. With less than four minutes from the house, she could see her block ahead.
“Aray, at least take off that fool’s cap,” Abu had once said, pointing at her bandana tied hair. “Everyone will know you’re a fool if they see you without a mask on, don’t worry.”
She held her tongue this time but rolled her watering eyes. Two minutes left. She contained the urge to cough, but her throat felt brittle, like the poorly glued vase she kicked in a teenage fit.
Abu stopped yelling that time. He stared at the shards of delicately painted green porcelain that now decorated their living room floor.
“That vase… I bought for your Ammi,” he said in a quiet, defeated tone before leaving the room.
She was there when he bought it, though only two-years old. But, as a brooding teenager, she had spent hours studying photos from their trip to Singapore. The images took root so deep they felt like memories. And so she remembered the smoothness of Ammi’s blue silk sari against her chubby toddler arms as they posed in front of their new vase.
Eventually she left the house that night, but not to meet her reckless maskless friends. She wandered the neighborhood until her battery warning pulsed and stopped to buy superglue before returning home. Abu was asleep in a pile on the floor next to the ceramic shards. Dried tears formed a veneer across his cheeks. She covered him with a blanket and spent the night piecing together the vase. The superglue looked terrible, but it did a better job holding together Ammi’s vase than chemo had held together Ammi. Lubna never again questioned mask rules as long as Abu lived.
When the last block came, she held her breath and broke into a run. She leapt up the blue steps to her front door. Her shaking hands dove into her pockets, fishing out her keys. She could feel the pieces coming apart in her throat as a cough swelled.
Lubna leaned on the door as she turned the key and fell into the house. Her lungs almost escaped with the air as her coughs erupted. She slammed the foyer airlock button and laid back against the coat closet. Coughs consumed her, purging the toxins. She knew she’d be fine, once she glued her pieces back together.
Sameem Siddiqui is a writer currently living in Berkeley, CA. He enjoys writing speculative fiction about migration, South Asian ancestry, Muslim heritage, gender, and family structure in near future societies. Some of Sameem’s favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler and Haruki Murakami. When he’s not writing, Sameem enjoys dancing with his toddler, watching 90’s Star Trek, and tinkering in the music industry. You can find him on Twitter @s_meems.