This week’s challenge was an interesting one. We had to choose a photo, from a selection of bizarre stock photos, and write a story inspired by it. The photo I chose from 50 Completely Unexplainable Stock Photos No One Will Ever Use was #29, a strange one of a woman wearing a gas mask giving a child, also wearing a gas mask, a sugar cookie. So with that, here’s my story.
“Here,” she said, handing him a fresh cookie from the street vendor, sealed in a small plastic case, impervious to the elements.
He took it and glared at her through the eye pieces of his mask. “Are you trying to taunt me?” he said. His voice had that strange muffled quality that the breathers gave you. They used to call them gas masks, when they didn’t know what was really going on, when they thought people were dying because of airborne disease. But now they called them breathers, to make them more friendly sounding, so people weren’t reminded of why they had to wear the uncomfortable contraptions every time they stepped outside. Everyone had breathers hung up at the entrances to their houses. It was the first thing you saw you went you went to visit a friend or family member after you walked through the airlock door – rows of breathers hung on pegs.
Adam took the cookie nonetheless, seeing that his glower didn’t work on her.
“I know we can’t eat them until we get back,” Eve said, her voice tinny. “But it’s been so long since I’ve had something like this. You know how rare sugar is.” She lifted the container to her nose and sniffed it, as if she could smell the sugar. She nodded thanks to the vendor, whose eyes were almost invisible in the tinted eye pieces of his own mask. He gave a curt nod back from behind the assortment of cookies in square plastic boxes.
“Come on, Adam,” Eve said, marching onwards, with a rattling hiss of her breather.
Three men walking together, talking in whispers walked past, and nodded to Eve. “Eve,” they said with a courteous nod. She followed suit. “Good day, Adam’s,” she said perfunctorily. She turned to the Adam she was with, and saw him standing talking to two Eve’s who had stopped to purchase cookies themselves.
She could tell they were Eve’s because of their regulation length long hair, that was identical to her own, pulled back into a tight pony tail . Plus, they wore different outfits from the Adams’, so that men and women could easily differentiate each other, besides the obvious physical differences, that was. She had the vivid purple jumpsuit that women wore, and the men wore a garish orange. Eve always thought it was so that they could be easily visible to the Government if there was ever another ‘incident’.
As if something or someone had been reading her thoughts, an alarm blared. The streets were busy, full of bright jumpsuits like life-sized flowers. Suddenly all Eve could see was blurs of purple and orange streaming past her, pushing, shoving.
She did the opposite. She froze. She could feel Adam, her Adam, tugging on her arm. His voice sounded far away, a side effect of the breathers. “Eve, come on!” he said, urgency seeping through with a airy hiss of the respirator. “We have to get inside! You know what’s going to happen!”
Eve had read about this. Had heard about it all her life. Everyone had. They grew up learning about it. But she never had thought it would happen again. She thought it had been contained. To a degree anyway.
Eve knew what the piercing sound of the alarm meant. It meant The Cleanse. Which meant if she didn’t get inside somewhere in the next five minutes, even her breather wouldn’t help keep her safe.
Adam tugged on her arm and then grabbed her mask in between his hands. “EVE!” he shouted. “We have to get inside! Can’t you see the atomisers are starting up?”
Vaguely Eve was aware of the holes that were opening up in the large paving squares beneath their feet. She could feel the ground vibrating as large slabs of stone slid aside, and what looked like giant guns started to rise up.
“Eve, we don’t have much longer!” Adam screamed, and instead of waiting for an answer, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her through the throngs of people who were rushing to get home, to safety. Businesses were already under lockdown, their airlock doors sealed tight against the normal dangers of the outside, but this time their inside doors were also locked shut, the screens on the side of the door that usually glowed green to indicate you could enter were now red.
The last, and only other, time that The Cleanse was enacted was when all of this first started. When humanity had screwed up, beyond the point of no return. It was not only the environment that had turned against people, but people themselves. Things had gone too far. The only option was to start from scratch with a select few people, chosen by lottery, to begin again and rebuild human civilization.
She could barely hear the sound of her boots pounding the ground over the noise of her breathing inside her mask, as she skirted the large gaps in the ground where the cleansing guns were calibrating.
Adam reached the door to his home punched in the code for the airlock door and pulled them inside. The door swished closed with the comforting sound of the seals. Adam pulled off his breather and took a couple deep, cleansing breaths.
Eve stared out the small circular window in the door. She watched as the guns fired. She couldn’t hear through the door, but she could imagine the world being filled with the hiss of the gas sprayed high into the air, up into the atmosphere, blanketing the entire planet. She watched the white mist as it rose like clouds. She watched it swirling, suffocating.
She jumped when the first bird fell, followed quickly by another. In a few minutes the ground outside was covered with small feathered bodies.
She wondered how many other birds, and animals would be littering the ground. How many people didn’t make it to safety.
She turned to Adam who watched the world end in silence. “Well, here we go again.”