Cast of Wonders 364: Remember to Breathe


Remember to Breathe

by Matt Dovey

Vikram watches with growing uncertainty as Isaac turns round and around, searching for a landmark in the heavy fog. Neon signs glow through it like stars, tinted green by the algae: it’s like a rainbow galaxy surrounds them, dotted with light. They may as well be floating in a nebula cloud for all they can see of San Francisco anyway.

Vik signs a question. Their face-masks muffle whispers, and they dare not raise their voices and alert any drones. They’re not stupid. Every SF kid knows sign language for fog running, and Vik has picked it up fast since moving here from Sacramento.

Do you know where you’re going? Vik exaggerates the signs so they’re obvious even through the plastic goggles and thick clothing covering every inch of their skin.

A booming voice answers before Isaac can, muffled and distorted by the fog so it has no direction but surrounds them like a command from God. A CURFEW IS IN EFFECT. ANYONE OUTDOORS WILL BE TAKEN INTO CUSTODY FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION. ELEVATED FOG LEVELS INCREASE THE RISK OF ALGAL LUNG INFECTION.

It’s foggy? No shit, signs Isaac. He spots the turning he needs and tugs at Vikram’s arm to show him the way. They run down some steps and around a corner, further along then corner, corner, then Isaac pulls them up short and peers out from the alley.

Vikram recognises Market Street, even in this weather. It’s guaranteed to be patrolled, and even though the police would just take them home (being outside in the fog’s not a crime and the curfew’s just for their safety, same as everything in Vikram’s life is about his safety and never about him) there’s no way Vik is explaining fog running to his parents. They still treat him as a kid, and he’s not ready for the levels of cringe in that conversation when they ask why he followed Isaac and his stupid plan.

Whatever Isaac’s plan is, anyway.

Everything is still, silent. No streetcars, no buses, no traffic. Certainly no pedestrians. Isaac and Vik may as well be alone in the world. Except–swirling red and blue, swimming out of the grey.

Drone.

Isaac turns back to him and signs. We need to get across the street, but… He gestures at the drone floating past. His movements are limp, defeated.

What were we out here for? signs Vik.

It was a surprise. Maybe another day. He turns to go back up the alley.

Vik grabs his arm. No, he signs with his other hand. He might not know why Isaac invited him to go fog running, but he knows why he agreed. He wanted to impress Isaac, and well, what better chance?

Vik looks out onto Market Street. The first drone has just passed, disappearing into the fog. He counts under his breath until the next one appears. He tries to remember what Market Street looks like, how wide it is.

They should just have time.

As the next drone sweeps past and fades to grey, he runs from the alley, pulling at Isaac’s arm. But he hadn’t told Isaac what he was going to do and so Isaac wasn’t ready, and Vik is jerked to a stop. He signs desperately and they set off, but too late, too slow.

The fog around them lights up red and blue as a police drone detects them. Shit!

They sprint into the alley across the street, the drone instructing them to REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE FOR YOUR SAFETY. They both know this routine, every SF kid does: stick to narrow alleys where it can’t go so fast. Take as many turns as you can so it has to stop and scan for where to follow. If they can get far enough ahead they can lose it.

Two corners, three, it’s still on them, four, six, nine. Then Vik stumbles, trips, scuffs across the floor. When he picks himself up, his fibrous face mask is torn and shredded.

Isaac stares at Vik in horror. To be outside without filtration… Isaac unzips his coat partway and grabs Vik’s head, pulling his face inside the lining. Vik feels the fleece, soft on his lips and cheeks, and the heat radiating off Isaac after the sprint.

They can’t risk the noise and movement of rifling through backpacks for a spare mask, not while the drone could still be on them, so Isaac shuffles them sideways until they’re over a steam vent, where the cascade of heat and moisture can disguise them from the drone’s sensors.

As scared as he is, Vik is enthralled. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else. They’re so close, closer than they’ve ever been. For the first time he can smell Isaac’s deodorant, strong and spicy, like his mother’s incense sticks but… sharper, in a way that sets all Vik’s nerves to tingling. He wonders if Isaac knows what this is doing to him. It feels like every part of their bodies is pressed together and suddenly he doesn’t care what they’re doing out here, it doesn’t matter, he only risked the fog to be with Isaac and impress Isaac and now he’s so close can you believe how close.

Vik is clenched tight with fear and excitement. Isaac leans his head down and whispers, as clearly as he can through the mask: “Remember to breathe.”

Vik’s heart thumps: adrenaline, anger, and something else too. Something new.

They can’t hear the drone nearby, but that’s little help. The drone’s microphones are far more sensitive than their ears. It’d hear them first. All they can do is wait.

As the minutes go by, Vik gets more worried about the fog. Being this close to Isaac is amazing, a dream, more than he’d ever hoped for… But he’s seen the safety videos of what algal bronchitis does to you, seen the pictures of blood-stained lips and withered noses, and he starts to panic. What does it matter if the drone catches them? At least he’ll not have to spend months on the ventilator as they wash the algae from his lungs. He tries to pull away but Isaac holds him close, stops him moving, and Vik can’t fight because being buried in Isaac’s coat is all the safety he’s got right now.

After what feels like forever, Isaac works his backpack off and swings it round (Vik stays close, head buried, trying not to hyperventilate in a panic) and gets a spare facemask out, passing it to Vik under his coat. They check each other over for rips in their clothes: the algae can’t get through skin, but it can live on it, and it only takes one touch to carry it to your lips.

Vik is furious. This is ridiculous! he signs. I might have algae in me right now! Running from the drones is bad enough, but whatever this is about I’m not risking my lungs for it.

Please, Vik, we’re nearly there! You got us this far!

No. I don’t care. That was too close, and I’m out. Vik dumps his own backpack on the ground and rifles through for his phone.

He paces, trying to load a map that’ll show him where he is and how to get back, but the dense fog is killing his data signal, all that water swallowing up the radio waves. He could get himself picked up by the cops and taken back home, but he’d rather sneak back in without having to explain anything. He’s holding the phone up high, stood on tip toes, when he hears a scuffling noise behind him, and turns to see Isaac grab his bag and run off into the fog.

It takes Vik a moment to realise what the hell is happening. Without thinking, he sets off in chase.

It’s hard to keep sight of Isaac in the fog. Isaac keeps looking back over his shoulder at him, which pushes Vik to redouble his efforts; but all the running and tension of the evening so far is catching up, and it’s tough to catch your breath through a mask, and maybe it’s harder to breathe because the algae is already in his lungs. Maybe it’s starting to eat away at his alveoli now, filling his lungs with warm liquid it can breed in. He slows down automatically, fear taking over, before reasoning kicks back in–but a few seconds off the pace is enough to lose Isaac in the fog completely.

Shit. Shit shit shit shit.

They’re through SoMa now, near the waterfront and in amongst the warehouses, and everything looks the same. His phone still has no signal for a map and he’s gotten completely turned about chasing Isaac. He has no idea which way Market Street is from here, or the Bay, or anything. He could be wandering for hours, lost all night until his parents wake up and find he’s not in bed and lose their shit completely.

What the hell was Isaac thinking? Not just snatching his bag, all of it! Fog running was fun round your neighbourhood, chasing through back alleys and behind dumpsters when the world was empty, the world was your own, but coming all the way out here? For what?

Vik should have known better. He could almost feel his father’s disappointment at this disobedience. What was the point? Isaac was probably just being friendly, and Vikram was reading too much into shared looks and glancing touches again. Isaac probably didn’t even think of Vik that way. No-one ever did.

Vik’s looking around, trying to work out where to go, when he spots a blinking light through the fog. Flash, flash, flash-flash. The pattern he and Isaac use if they get separated.

But he’s not the only one searching in the fog. The green tint around Vik is turning purple, and he’s almost too late in realising that it’s red and blue, merging.

He instinctively ducks against a warehouse, over another steam vent. The drone was coming up behind him, would have tagged him in another minute. He might be hidden now, but if it goes past him it’ll spot Isaac. The waterfront is too wide open to lose it like they did before: not enough alleys and side streets to lose it in a series of turns. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to lose the drone. Panic sets in. Fear. Nerves. Worry. He’s hyperventilating, his head getting light.

Remember to breathe. Isaac’s words. Vik forces himself to calm down, forces himself to think instead of panic.

A distraction. He needs a distraction. Think think think.

He pulls his phone out and quickly scrolls through to a video that Isaac recorded and messaged: him singing along to an old James Brown song in his bedroom, a can of deodorant for a microphone. He turns the volume up, places the phone on the ground, hits play and sprints.

He doesn’t look back. He has to hope the drone will be confused by the steam vent and the sound. If not, well, too late already.

Isaac suddenly looms out of the fog, and Vik nearly knocks him over.

We need to hide NOW, Vik signs.

Isaac nods, and without any explanation or hesitation swipes a card over the door he’s waited by. It slides open, and they bundle in.

Air cycles in the entrance airlock, blowing through a mist that stinks of bleach and then flushing with clean air, ruffling their clothes. They’re both restless with panic, trying to listen through the rush of air for the sound of the drone. The inner door opens and they both pile through, collapsing back against the door with relief, slouched out of sight.

Isaac takes his mask and goggles off, gesturing for Vik to copy.

Vik does. “How the hell did you get us in here?”

Isaac smiles. “I cloned a card earlier in the week. This is where I was bringing us.” He stands up and steps into the low light, spinning and gesturing wide with his arms. Row upon row of tomato vines, laden with fruit. “Hydroponics warehouse. GM crops, so legally they gotta seal the building and filter the air. No motion sensors once you’re through the door, ‘cos everything sways in the airflow anyway.”

Vik’s heart thumps with the implication of Isaac’s actions. He hears the talk at school, of how couples come to filtered places like this. You can’t go to parks or beaches or hide beneath bleachers since the fog came; they don’t pay to filter the air at school, and there’s no privacy at home where you don’t need the masks. So you gotta find somewhere different.

And Isaac found them somewhere different, and brought him here specially. And that means…

They look at each other, unmasked and alone for the first time. A month of shared glances and secret fleeting touches, smiles invisible beneath masks: and all of it, he knows now, meant what he’d hoped it meant.

It meant that Isaac felt the same.

Vik smiles awkwardly and steps close, puts his hands on Isaac’s hips. It’s the first time he’s ever seen Isaac’s smile for real, and not just a video on a screen. It’s amazing. It lights him up. It lights them both up.

Remember to breathe: a deep breath, a clean breath, a breath of anticipation.

A shared breath. So close. Can you believe how close?

For the first time, they kiss.

About the Author

Matt Dovey

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where he tripped in the fog as a teenager, fleeing a police drone after curfew. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental.

He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including not so long ago on this podcast, with episode 364, “Remember to Breathe”. He’s even an indentured servant I MEAN WILLING VOLUNTEER in the PodCastle slush mines, digging for the shiniest stories to present to the castle dragon in exchange for one more day of not being eaten.

You can keep up with the rest of it at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.

Find more by Matt Dovey

Elsewhere

About the Narrator

Russ Wilde

Russ Wilde is the DM of Prism Pals, a family-friendly all-LGBTQ+ D&D 5E podcast. He is a proud gay man and works to normalize queer content for all ages. In June 2019, Prism Pals ran Prism Pals Pride Week, a week of podcast episodes talking about Pride, interviewing other LGBTQ+ folx, and playing games! Follow @PrismPals on Twitter for more info.

Find more by Russ Wilde

Elsewhere