I collect gas masks as a hobby. I'm not sure how it started, but I find their bare, dehumanizing, militaristic aesthetic interesting. This collection has inspired a few stories of mine, and this is one of them. Thanks for reading.
Little Shane lived in a scentless world. Every morning, Shane would wake up in his five-foot square room, bleary eyed and drowsy, enjoying a nice stretch and a bit of a yawn, before dropping down his bare feet onto the icy concrete floor, hopping gingerly over to his closet for a fresh set of clothing and a new air filter. This part of his daily ritual entailed steadying his mask with one hand while unscrewing his used up filter from the night before and throwing it in the “empties” bin with the other, after which he would have to grab a fresh filter from the rack and jam it onto his mask, screwing it in just right; all while holding his breath. In truth it was a trying experience, and although little Shane had done this every morning, lunchtime, and evening, for as long as he could remember, the whole ritual still brought with it a twinge of urgent panic. What if he fumbled the green canister before he could screw it into place? What if he jammed it too tightly and couldn't get it unstuck again? Conversely, what if it was too loose? What if he couldn't hold his breath long enough to finish the job? The likelihood of human error to befuddle the situation was alarmingly high, as far as Shane was concerned.
Breakfast could be equally as hair-raising. It was a simple enough procedure: Take rubber hose; screw in to side nozzle on face mask; screw opposite end into daily rationed liquid-meal supplement packet; start sucking. But what if it went wrong? This whole parade of screwing and unscrewing tubes and canisters to his face in a toxic environment was almost too much for young Shane.
This morning, however, things went without a hitch, much as they always did. Not even early morning's unpleasant chill to the toes bothered the boy, for just after he sat up in his bed, and just before he dropped down to the burnished concrete, he had a peek out the window. It was snowing. Flakes of twinkling black ash were floating down like tiny feathers from the clouded skies, and children were already waddling their way through the dusty drifts like fat penguins in their overstuffed hazard suits and rubbery masks. Shane rushed through his morning routines, not even sparing himself the time to acknowledge that tiny nip of panic the filter ritual regularly brought upon him. He had to get outside before the ash shower stopped.
He flung himself into his bulbous, suffocating suit in record time, griped and groaned at his parents as they made him go through every single one of the dozen safety checks, rushed to the airlock door, and... waited. The airlock was always particularly successful in delaying Shane from reaching the outside world. There was no way anyone could affect the speed at which livable air could be sucked into the rest of the house as the breeze of corrosive ether from the outside filled the lock, and that bothered little Shane to no end. In any case, after suffering through this last trial, the boy found himself outside.
It was a striking sight. Before him lay a small, circular clearing, where the children were allowed to frolic and cavort to their hearts' content. Behind this rose a small hill, dotted with black-trunked, barren cherry trees, which obstructed the view to the rest of the world. The sky behind this hill was a stunning smear of pink-red, fading upwards to gray and almost black as it went. All the ground around him, and all the trees, were weighted down and buried under a deep, velvety black blanket of powdery ash. But, of course, none of this concerned little Shane.
Shane dove into the play. There was a handful of children out there that morning, and despite any grade-school feuds that may have concerned them on other days, the boys and girls came together in shared joy, rolling and tumbling through the field, experiencing a kind of happiness peculiar to the very young. It was snowing. There were clumsily built ashmen dotting the enclosed landscape next to barely-visible ash angels embossed in shadowy relief, little grimy boys chasing petite prissy girls around the field armed with mittenfuls of twinkling dust, toddlers crawling trench networks through the deepening drifts, and in the middle of it all stood Shane, enjoying life.
As all good things inevitably do, however, the morning's playtime had to come to a close. The ashfall had ceased, and with it the aura of goodwill. The bickering had begun, and following that, the pushing. Playful tosses of glittering ash had given way to more ill-tempered hurls, and the mood had been broken. Soon, the parents of all concerned called out through the loudspeaker: time to come inside. With a chorus of well-practiced moans, the pack of children morosely turned in. Huddled around the outside filter cabinet, the time had come to go through the changing ritual again.
Shane, perhaps more than any of the others present, was loathe to change his filter amongst the hustle and bustle of a horde of disgruntled children. Nevertheless, he pried himself in between the older members of his group, reaching out with a thickly insulated arm to clutch a fresh canister. He went through the motions, steadying the mask, bringing the new filter up to his face... Damn it. He forgot to unscrew the old one. With childlike stubbornness, young Shane determined to unscrew the old canister with the new one still in hand, and was wildly unsuccessful. He fumbled. His brand new, shiny, fresh filter plunged into the soft black powder, disappearing instantly.
Planning his movements carefully so as not to embarrass himself in front of his peers, Shane played it cool. He waited for the group to wander off, and when he was certain they were all looking the opposite direction, darted down to grab at it in the murky blackness, bashing his head into the corner of the metal cabinet. He fell backwards, dazed, but uninjured. Regaining his composure, he looked about. A streak of spidery lightning ran its course down his field of vision. His mask's eyepiece had cracked. He reached up with a clumsy mitten-entombed hand, and the glass fell away, letting in a gush of impure, caustic vapor.
For the first time in his life, little Shane was accosted by the unfiltered, raw breath of the world. For the first time in his life, Shane experienced scent. It was at once dizzying and hypnotizing. He rose to his feet, drawn by this alluring new sensation racking his mind and body: the smell of the smoke, of the trees on the hillside, the smell of ozone and decay, of dead grass and rotting flowers preserved under a cake of fine ash, and more. The seductive pull of smell begged him onwards, away from his home, eyes closed, blissfully unaware of the calls from his peers. The toxic cloud of the earth burned his lungs and dulled his senses, but he had to go on. Little Shane was enslaved to the world of scent.
His nose led him onwards, up the hill, past the trees and beyond, past the hillside, past fences, past the skeletons of poison-baked trees, onward further following the bitter stink of shattered ruins and rusting cars as they slowly flaked away in the acidic atmosphere, on and on until Shane's labored breathing cracked his lungs and poison flowed through his veins, thickening his blood, rendering his limbs listless and dead. Little Shane dropped to his knees, unable to move any farther, and at last opened his eyes. Before him lay a deep and mossy forest, stained crimson with radiation, soft and dripping with dewy, furtive smells, and as little Shane fell, and as he slowly drew in his last, shuddering breath, all he could think was what a wonderful world it was, what a beautiful world, to breathe in.