The first things I see in the morning
are my fathers useless legs.
Merry, wake up. You have to go
My pillow is about eye-level with the
seat of Dads wheelchair. He gasps the words, saying them
slowly, one at a time, and pokes me gently in the shoulder.
My eyes whip open. Hes wearing his high school sweat pants
and new running shoes, for legs that cant run. Either
hes wallowing in the past or the word denial
comes to mind.
Dads knees are almost touching
the single bed. Theyre enormous. The muscles have shrunk,
but the skeletal outlines of the legs cut a long swath through
the thin air. The oxygen pipe to the apartment isnt working
that well this morning. Its probably another blockage.
Sometimes mice crawl into the pipes from underground, looking
for air. They get stuck a lot.
Its about 4 a.m. Im a teacher
and we always have early hours. School starts at 8 oclock.
I do my own work-out before going to school. After Dad wakes
me, I put on my running gear in the bathroom and stretch on
the carpet near the kitchen.
When I walk out to the hallway, I nod
hello to the prostitute who lives across the hall. She works
odd hours and seems to wander the halls of our building at any
given moment. I dont know her name.
My exercise is a 45-minute run through
the streets of the Upper East Side. I shower at home, eat a
synthetic breakfast, then walk a dozen blocks to school. Im
usually there by seven, to set up the training schedules for
the six hours of classes I have every day.
Im one of the few people who can
run these days without an oxygen mask. The hole in the sky was
an excellent thief. The air slipped out a little at a time,
in teaspoons. Nobody important noticed, until it was late in
the game. It probably wouldnt have mattered anyway.
Youve heard the rumors, Im
sure. Everybody was testing laser weapons in the upper atmosphereus,
the Iranians, the Chinese, the Russians, even the Taiwanese.
Shooting down spy satellites and communications satellites was
the newest arms race. Our government wasnt talking and
neither was anybody else. The lasers could have done it, made
the hole. Or maybe it was something else. Well probably
never really find out. Thats part of the human condition,
I guess, to want to know everything, but learning only a little
at a time. Except this time, our curiosity burned us badly.
The Standard News Network channel points
out that we should be thankful for the oxygen companies
efforts to pipe in air to everybodys houses and apartmentsthe
people that are still alive, that is. The newscasters
stories point out that producing oxygen is very costly and requires
constant upgrades to the oxygen companies factories and
equipment and pipelines. Thats why they have to raise
the prices all the time.
Sorry to be cynical, but I find this
explanation pretty lame. Most people grumble low about the high
prices and the corporate propaganda, but nobody makes a big
noise about it. We are all of us literal captives of the companies.
Our lives are in debt to them. And debt is a corrosive thing.
It can eat you.
The Standard News broadcasters also helpfully
tell us on a regular basis that the new thin air is great because
now we can burn as much carbon dioxide as we like in our factories
and cars and trucks. The burned carbon will all escape into
space and we wont have to worry about that nasty greenhouse
effect the scientists warned us about decades ago.
Dad reads the USA-Net web paper while
I run. Mom sleeps. She wakes at 7 a.m. to work for the Web company
where she and Dad met. Dad gets a small government pension,
and I make decent money at the school, but Mom is the real hustler
in the family. Even though shes in her early 50s, she
still sparkles at work. Mom has a personality built for business.
I admire her, but I cant understand how she does it. The
only thing I really grasp well is running.
So the family income is at a respectable
level. But our expenses are high and rising. The rent isnt
too bad for the Upper East Side, but its still the Upper
East Side. Synthetic food costs have inflated seven percent
this year alone. Our oxygen bill costs hundreds of dollars every
month. Thats the big killer to our finances. Mom says
we may have to move to Queens or Brooklyn, although that wont
help with our oxygen bill.
My feet plow through the streets. The
apartment towers look like tombs. The night sky is blacker now.
The air no longer cushions us from the real look of space. The
stars explode in chains across the blackness.
Occasionally a man wearing an oxygen
mask walks by me on the sidewalk. He usually gawks, leers at
my chest. Its not like Im a looker. Im short,
for starters, about five foot two inches, and I travel with
a 32-B sports bra. My shoulders are wide, and theyre not
necessarily beautiful. Functional, yes, beautiful, no. My thighs
are padded with muscle. I dont need to brag. Theyre
big. The veins that travel through them work with deadly serious
If the man stares at me for more than
a few seconds as I run by, I think about different ways to kill
him. I probably shouldnt confess something like that to
you, but Im being honest. I used to believe in honesty.
It was hopeful.
Of course its possible men are
staring simply because Im a woman and Im running
in this bone-rattling weather. My accessories are a padded running
suit to keep out the minus 30 degrees of cold enveloping the
city. My head is armored with an insulated rubber mask. I look
like one of those movie serial killers, I guess.
Or maybe theyre staring because
Im running, really running, without oxygen, in an atmosphere
thats a little thin. The air on the city streets is now
as substantial as the weather at the top of Everest. Every day
I have to function at 30,000 feet.
I dont care about what theyre
thinking, though. I care about what theyre doing. They
look at me. They make me uncomfortable.
Despite the occasional wandering man,
most of the run is peaceful. Ive learned to screen out
the greedy trucks honking, trying to push me off the road, the
garbage men yelling at each other in the deep Manhattan night,
the subway trains grinding underground. When its just
the road and me, I can feel the streets humming. My legs dance
and leap with quiet joy. Its the best time of the day.
When I heard the first gun shot that
morning, I didnt understand what was happening. As an
adult, I had never heard a gun go off before, except on television.
When I was a child, I heard a gun once, Im told, but I
was too young to remember it.
Im running down Second Avenue,
toward our apartment building just a few blocks away. Im
in a good groove. My legs feel good. They want the work. Even
though Ive been running for 40-some odd minutes, my legs
feel strong and they silently thank me for the pleasure of moving.
Then something goes wrong. I hear the
shot from down the street. It sounds like a whip cracking open
the dawn. I dont know what it is. Three feet away, a hole
explodes in the steel gate of the newsstand on 61st and Second
thats supposed to open in 10 minutes. Metal shards plunge
out at me. I dont think. I just run to the other side
of the avenue, by the Laundromat and the Atomic Bar on 60th.
I hear another shot. It shaves off a
piece of the bars awning. Its only then I understand
that someone is shooting at me.
My life is changed forever. Really.
Its the same feeling you might
get if someone stole your Social Security number, or if your
house burned down. Things are turned upside down. The way you
understand your life is challenged. Its terrifying.
I duck behind the corner where the bar
meets the street. The bar has a big glass window on both corners.
I try to look through the glass to see who is trying to shoot
me. I cant see much. Theres a man walking briskly
down Second Avenue, hands in pockets. He could be a man going
to work. Or he could have a gun. The sky has orange streaks
to the east over Queens. Much of the night still rules. Its
too dark. The man turns down 60th Street and walks west, away
Second Avenue gets quiet again. I wonder
if I can run across the street. My apartment building is so
close. Its next to the tram going to Roosevelt Island.
Im ready to run. I want to run. But if I move that way,
the shooter has a whole avenue to look at me.
An alternative is to run across the access
ramps to the Queensboro Bridge, then cross the Avenue several
blocks away, where it should be harder to see me.
The problem with this idea are the trucks.
The trucks take the access ramps at high speed. Even though
its early in the morning, there are always two to three
trucks rumbling over 59th Street, jumping off the ruts and potholes
and practically bouncing onto the access ramp. Its dangerous,
theres no light and the drivers may not even see a five
foot two inch runner trying to cross the road.
I start across the ramp. The shot comes
like pigeon waste, digging into pavement and flying off inches
from my left foot. A freight truck honks and rumbles toward
I peel off to the left and turn completely
around. I run down the road below the access ramp, the extension
of 59th Street. I wished I had thought of it before. The shooter
shouldnt be able to see me now.
I run around the old abandoned tennis
court bubble and down to 55th Street. I cross Second Avenue
there. Chest feels heavy, legs are as agile as one hundred year
old oak trees. The only thing thats running well is my
mind. I cant believe this is happening.
I make it home. Im so cold, but
Im sweating all over. Inside the stairway to our apartment,
I rip off my mask. The metal stairs feel like knives going into
my legs. I make it to the hallway, the old, stained carpet mocking
me with its age. Everything goes black. I fall on the carpet
and retch. I add to the things the carpet has seen.
Somebody touches my slack shoulder, turns
me over on the floor. My backside feels wet. Whoever turned
me over has laid me in my own vomit.
Everything is wrong. Tears cloud my eyes.
A woman wearing an oxygen unit around her nose and mouth is
holding me by the shoulders. Is she trying to kidnap me? I try
to hit her. But my arm is a piece of rubber. I hit a glancing
blow off her unit, where the mouth is supposed to be.
Its OK, its OK,
she says to me. I can hear clearly. She must have on one of
the new oxygen units. Theyre expensive.
You think so? Really? I start
You need help. Ill knock
on your door. I notice the woman is wearing thick pajamas
with hearts and doubled-up sweat socks on her feet. Shes
the prostitute who lives across the hall from us.
She drags me the few steps to our apartment,
2N. She lives in 2O. The prostitute raps hard on the door.
My mother shouts, Whos there?
I try to speak, but my throat is dry
and sore. The prostitute shouts back, Neighbor from across
the hall. Your daughter needs help.
My mom throws open the steel door from
our apartment. Moms short too, but strong. Im lying
on my side, the prostitute holding me around the waist. I cant
imagine what Mom thinks. Dad is sitting behind his computer
with his mouth open.
Oh my God. Merry! What happened?
I found her like this in the hall,
the prostitute says.
The thinner air in the hall hits my mother.
Her knees start to wobble. She gulps big and wide for oxygen.
Bring her in here, Mom rasps.
Im too heavy for the prostitute
to drag me into our familys hallway. I crawl through the
door. The prostitute lets me go, my hips brushing by her hands.
I lie on our wood floor, stare at the ceiling.
Thank you, thank you, I whisper
to the prostitute. I dont think she can hear though. Mom
has done the thanking already and closed the door.
* * *
I had to miss work. I hate calling in
sick. But nobody had ever tried to shoot me before. I was feeling
pretty shaky. Dad called the 51st Street precinct house and
two of your people came over.
The two officers knocked hard on our
Police, maam. You put in
a call? one of them sounds out through his mask.
My mother opened up. Before she could
say hello, one of the officers removed his oxygen mask and spoke
into his radio.
Hello, 51st Street? Yeah, were
in 242 East 60th. Whats that? The place is a real dump.
Theyve got one small room and two convertible beds. Theres
black linoleum on the kitchen floor. No, not everyone is rich
in this neighborhood. Im not impressed.
Thank you for coming so quickly,
officer. Even though Im lying on the floor and my
stomach feels like its been put through a blender, I know
my mother is hurt by the officers remarks. But shes
trying to be political and she needs help. My dad is quiet,
as usual. But since when do cops do appraisals of where people
live? This is what Im thinking as my body convulses with
the aftershock of terror.
We used to have a decent co-op, up on
90th Street, near the East River Park. I had my own bedroom.
Our kitchen was ceramic tile and the living room floor was parquet
wood. That was before we had to pay for oxygen. Now we rent.
Were hanging on to this tenement-type apartment by our
fingernails. The whole world is losing population, we cant
grow real food anymore, and people are starving, but the Upper
East Side is still a hot place to live.
My back muscles tighten up. The tendons
in my upper thighs try to merge with my hips. Panic is not a
pretty thing to feel. Grains from the eroding brick wall above
me showers the waxy wood floor and me in dust.
What happened? one of the
I dont know, my mother
says. She crawled in the apartment like this from outside.
She was running
My names Farinelli,
one of the officers says to me, lowering to the floor. The voice
is a womans. I find it reassuring. Wheres
your oxygen mask?
Im gasping, trying to talk, but
nothing is coming out but breathless little sobs.
She says she doesnt need
one, Mom says. I look up at her. Shes dressed smartly
and primly for work. Shes got on a no-nonsense suit and
shed rather be on her way to the office than deal with
the mess Ive made. But I know she loves me and shes
got the worried look on her face, which makes me feel worse.
Thats nuts, Farinelli
says. Its freezing out there, and the air is so
thin. No wonder youre sick.
Yeah! the other officer agrees.
This is too much for me. I force myself
to recover. I can run without a mask, I whisper.
Farinelli cant hear me. What?
I rise up and speak to her ear. I
can run without a mask. This isnt about a mask. Someone
tried to shoot me on Second Avenue. Exhausted, I sink
back into the wood.
My mother looks completely panicked now.
I dont how my mother could have possibly heard what I
said. She seems to have some kind of special Mom radar for danger.
My father, seeing my mother, gets on
the same face. This is getting better by the minute.
Where on Second Avenue? Farinelli
Around 61st, 60th Street,
I whisper to her. There were three shots. One hit the
metal screen on the newsstand, one went through the awning of
the Atomic Bar, one hit the pavement on the access road to the
Nelson, go out to Second and 61st
and check out the metal grate on the newsstand. See if theres
a bullet hole there. Then look at the bar across the street.
Farinelli barks like a general. She didnt request, she
Aw, cmon, you believe her?
I look up at Nelson. Hes about
30 pounds overweight. His gut descends from his upper chest
like a ski slope until it meets the cliff of his leather belt.
Hes got baby fat around his jaw and apple-like cheeks.
I dont have much faith in Nelson.
He looks at Farinelli. This is
crazy. What makes you believe this chick? Shes got a ridiculous
Just do it! Ill join you
in a few minutes.
I dont think this is the
right procedure, Nelson whines. Why should I have
to go alone? Its freezing out there and even if it did
happen, well never find any evidence at all.
I find his complaining very odd for a
police officer, yet hes backing his way out the door and
putting on his oxygen mask. Its only then I realize he
was the one who was insulting our apartment when the team first
When he leaves, I sit up, lean against
the wall, and stick my head between my knees. Farinelli puts
her arm around my shoulder. Its going to be OK.
Everythings going to be OK.
I want to believe her.
* * *
The cops told us the next day they found
no evidence of bullet holes in the metal gate on the newsstand
or the awning of the bar. They said they checked the access
road too and found nothing.
I am depressed. I stay in bed for three
days. My father looks at me, worried, but he doesnt have
the guts to say anything. My mother gives me steel-eyed glances
when she comes home. On the third day, she loses it.
Merry, I dont know what happened
back there on the street three days ago.
I try to stop her, fast.
Somebody tried to shoot me, Mom.
The police have no proof and Im
worried maybe you imagined it.
I did not imagine it, Mom! Why
would I make up such a crazy story?
I dont know, I truly dont.
Maybe you want attention. Maybe youre stressed out.
I am not stressed out!
I think youre stressed out.
Dad looks at me, worried. He puts his
chin in his hand and stares.
Whatever the case, Mom says,
you need to go back to work.
Your mom is right, honey.
This is the two-front war Ive been
afraid of. I look at them both. I think.
OK, OK. Ill go back tomorrow.
Just lay off me.
Next day, I decide to do my run on the
indoor track in the gym. The track is 220 yards aroundit
rides on the top floor of the gym. You can see the basketball
court down below. The track is functional, but boring. What
is there to look at? The scoreboard is there, the flags of championships
past hang from the wall and the baskets stand, quiet and unused.
Not many schools have a 220-yard track,
with state-of-the-art bounce-back rubber. I work for a wealthy
school. There arent that many schools left anyway, but
of the schools that still exist, were among the elite
in terms of gyms.
However, I have run on this track enough
to know it too well. It just doesnt compare to the thrill
of the streets. The concrete grid of the Upper East Side is
my oxygen. The streets are cold and unforgiving. They reflect
whats happened to nature, in extremis. I feel I must test
myself against them. When I finish a run on those streets, I
feel like a timber wolf thats stalked and caught a rabbit
in its teeth.
Right now, I feel like a robot as I tick
off the laps.
When I finish, I head to the locker.
The shower is warm and comforting. Im in my own little
Hey, Ms. Stone.
A mans voice pierces the steam.
How are you?
OK. Who are you?
A friend. Or not.
I turn off the water, grab a towel. When
I step out of the stall, no one is there.
Hello? Hello? I shout into
the empty locker room.
No one is there. Ive seen this
bad movie before.
I dress fast and walk into my office
in the gym.
I try to ignore what just happened. I
draw up the training schedules for the day. I have a little
bit of the cold sweats. Im feeling tense.
Someone touches me on the shoulder.
Mrs. Jude recoils.
Ms. Stone, Im sorry.
Oh, God, Mrs. Jude, Im sorry.
I didnt mean to frighten
Im just jumpy.
Mrs. Jude is one of the major donors
for our school. Her husband, Henry, runs the company that supplies
oxygen to the homes and businesses in Manhattan. He owns 15
percent of the company, a controlling interest. Naturally enough,
its called Ox, easy for people to remember.
The Judes contributions to the Faire Leigh School provide
part of their overall charity work. They get a lot of good press
because of the school.
Mrs. Jude likes to pop in at odd hours
to check on her investment. Its part of the price the
staff pays for working at one of the most exclusive schools
in the city.
Its 7:30 in the morning and Mrs.
Jude is wearing pearls (who wears pearls in an elementary school?).
The gray hair on her scalp sweeps back and up over her enormous
forehead like a Banzai Pipeline curl. The sides of her enormous
head are graced with two diamond earrings on either side. She
must have been pretty once, but now the bones in Mrs. Judes
face seem as if they are trying to break through her increasingly
stretched flesh. I have nicknamed her Skullface.
The outlines of her hips show through the long dress. I notice
her elbows, the retreating flesh, the hard bone curled into
Whats got you so nervous,
I am not so trusting that I confide in
donors and CEOs wives, of which Mrs. Jude is both. But
I am tense, so I spill it.
There was a man in the locker room
while I was showering.
Oh, that cant be, Ms. Stone.
Things like this just dont happen at the Faire Leigh School.
Are you sure?
Im sure, Mrs. Jude.
Well, well have to improve
the security. Ill ask Mrs. Norquist to look into it.
Mrs. Norquist is the principal for the
school. Mrs. Jude orders her around on a regular basis.
How are the training schedules
looking today? You have been absent for three days, right?
Now Im not nervous, Im ticked
off. I have to be nice to this woman, who I dont report
to. I have to talk about my job, which is really none of her
business. But I swallow the anger and show her the schedule.
First period, I have Mrs. Kristols
first grade class. Then I have Mr. Manns fifth graders.
Third period is Ms. McPartlands fifth graders. Fourth
period is Ms. Maresca. Fifth period I have lunch. Sixth period
I have a planning period. Seventh period Im taking a sixth
grade classMs. OKeefe.
Very nice, dear. Very nice. We
have to keep them learning and training. Theyve missed
you. Your skills are unique and the children need you, every
I swallow some more of my stomach. Yes,
And Skullface is off, padding out of
my office like she owns the place. Which she does, sort of.
First period I start with a warm-up for
Kristols class. Theyre so young, little babies.
I try to teach them breathing exercises inside the gym. Then
I take them to the pressure chamber, where they try to just
sit and breathe in air thats progressively thinner. The
pressure chamber is the size of a classroom that can fit 25
We start at 3,000 feet, which isnt
too bad. When they get acclimated to 3,000 feet, my assistant,
Ms. Lauren, turns the dials and we go to 5,000 feet. We try
to walk in that atmosphere.
As the kids adapt, I take them higher
and higher. The sixth graders are expected to be able to run
at 30,000 feet. A lot of them cant. A few of them can.
After walking to the atmosphere acclimation (also called the
AAs) exits to the school, I take them for short runs of about
a mile or two outside, wearing special gear to protect against
the sun, or the cold, depending on the time of day.
The kids can only go outside in the morning
and late afternoon. With a thinner atmosphere, the sun reveals
its vicious nature to us. The temperature can soar during the
day, up to 120 degrees. We all have to wear special clothing
and shields for our heads and eyes to walk outside. Dawn and
dusk are best for walking around, when the sun comes in at low
The younger kids have an easier time
adapting than the older children. Also, the first graders are
very innocent and they want to please me. They listen well.
The first grade boys are a little rambunctious, but I can usually
get them settled with a mean-looking stare.
The sixth graders are the absolute worst.
Their parents have told them about the joys of living in a relatively
rich oxygen environment, so they dont understand whats
happened. These kids are wealthy and privileged. They dont
like it that their oxygen was taken from them. They tell me
that their parents should have done something about it. They
should have created a big machine to keep the oxygen here. Theyre
also nasty about a lot of other things. They fight with each
other. They curse at me. They yell a lot, at me, their parents,
their teachers, their friends.
Most of them bitch and moan about having
to learn how to live in this low-oxygen world. Campbell Murdock
says if he wanted to live in this type of world, hed have
gone to Mars. I laugh at his joke. I dont scold. Im
well-paid for a teacher, because of my special skill. But Campbells
parents own half the Upper East Side. I have to be very careful,
with all of them. I try to be friendly with them, but firm.
Its easy enough to get fired.
I remind the kids that its a new
world. We all have to adapt. Its either that or lie in
bed for three days at a time.
* * *
A man in a black mask hovers over my
bed and unsheathes a knife blade the length of my foot.
Hey, Merry. Wake up.
Oh, God, Dad. You scared me.
Dad looks over my face like Im
strange. Its four oclock. Do you want to go
Without thinking, I go to our tiny bathroom.
The paint is peeling off the wall above the mirror. The finish
is coming off the porcelain tub. I wash my face with cold water.
I put on my running clothes and mask.
Dad scans the computer news and occasionally looks over to make
sure Im OK. I think about what will happen if I go outside
to run. My body starts to tense. I run through the likelihood
that someone really wants to kill me.
It cant be. The whole thing must
have been a one-time shot, a random shooting. These types of
things do happen. I think about how awful it is to run in the
school gym. I think about my father.
He wasnt the greatest runner. In
high school practice, he once ran a quarter-mile in 57 seconds.
Thats good, but its hardly great. Dad was fast at
220 yards and decent at 440 yards, but his performances were
very up and down. Sometimes Dad approached greatness, particularly
in practice. But often he finished seventh or eighth in the
race. He was not consistent. He didnt do well under pressure.
And he lost his spirit for running senior year, quitting the
spring track team to go to the beach on Long Island with his
The other big thing between us was how
he lost the use of his legs. Mom and Dad and me were coming
home one weekend day on the subway. We had been visiting Moms
brother in Brooklyn. I was just a babymaybe 16 months
old. I was a tiny little thing, Mom said. The pictures say it
It was a stifling summer day in August.
New York used to be famous for its summer humidity, before the
atmosphere fled. The subway cars were air-conditioned, but it
just didnt seem to have an effect. Everybody carried the
heat around inside them.
Dad was holding my stroller and standing
while Mom sat next to us. A young boy, about five or six years
old, sat across the aisle from us. He was traveling with his
older brother and his father, a guy in his 20s. The train was
still deep into Brooklyn. The young boy made fists out of his
hands and put on a mean old face. He pretended he was punching
me out. This is the one part of the story on which my mom and
My father did not used to be so quiet.
He was angry and he looked directly at the six-year old boy
and announced to the boy, and in effect, the entire subway car,
You are not going to make threatening gestures to my daughter.
The boy immediately got embarrassed and
hid his face behind his older brothers back. The boys
father started shouting.
He was making a gesture!
My father was not interested in this
argument. He was not trying to be a hero. All he saw was an
older boy threatening his daughter, his only child.
Yeah, a brutal, violent gesture!
He was making a fist.
The subway car had turned against my
father. He was the bad guy. He had made a public spectacle and
disturbed the other riders. The etiquette of taking the subway
is very specific. My father had violated the rules.
The other father didnt react well
to my dads anger at his son. He pulled a handgun from
a vinyl travel bag and shot my father in the stomach. The bullet
came to rest in Dads lower back, right at the belt line.
The newspaper headlines were ugly and
spectacular. You may remember the story. My father was paralyzed
from the waist down. The computer company paid his insurance
bills for three months, then asked him to leave and cut off
the health care coverage.
After that, Dad operated as a free-lance
computer consultant for many years, working out of the house.
The Web allows you to do stuff like that.
To compensate for the loss of his legs,
he did pull-ups half the day. A lot of people in chairs do that.
Dad used a detachable bar on a work-out unit that he had purchased
for the apartment. His shoulders and arms popped pretty good.
He was proud of them, but Mom and I knew he missed his legs.
Workwise, Dad hung on until his early
50s. His consulting business did well, which was fortunate for
us, because his health insurance bills were sky-high. Then he
started to lose interest in working. The new Web kids could
out-work him and out-hustle him.
He wouldnt talk much, but he withdrew
from us, from old friends, from acquaintances he had made through
his freelance business. When he did talk, he spoke about missing
his old high school days as a runner. Pretty soon Mom and I
didnt want to talk to him at all. He was a bore.
So Dad gave up on everything to collect
a small government pension. Without his business income, the
health insurance bills really started to bite.
Thats another thing he cant
shake with my mom. She never forgave him for that day on the
subway, and she never will. But shes got a soft heart
and somewhere in there I think she cant let him go. Maybe
she still sees the young athlete who, while not great, made
an earnest effort of things.
So Dad drilled into me his failures.
If I was going to run, I had to be dedicated. I had to be committed.
So I did what he demanded. If I backed out of running outside
this morning, he might lose his confidence in me. I hated his
faith. I wanted to tell him he couldnt, shouldnt,
live through me. He had to find his own damn life.
These were my thoughts as I stepped outside
our apartment to go running on the grid. Then I ran into the
prostitute who helped me days before.
Hi, she says through her
Hi, I say weakly, embarrassed
to have to say hello.
Be careful, the girl says
The remark whips me around. Im
beginning to feel paranoid again. Anxiety showers over me.
Whats your name? I
Brigid. Be careful.
OK, Brigid Be Careful, I
joke, trying to make everything light. Why are you up
at this hour?
Cant sleep, she says.
I understand that.
When I start to run I expect to hear
a rifle shot. But there is nothing. The streets feel frozen
solid. My legs feel like iron. Nobody tries to kill me.
The next two days, its the same
thing. No guns and no shots when I run. Im beginning to
relax. The whole thing was some kind of bizarre freak event.
The following morning, Im running
up Madison Avenue, past the closed upscale boutiques and clothing
stores around 72nd Street. A man is standing under the awning
of the Fox Mens Store. He looks at me, stares. The oxygen
mask and pull-over hood hes wearing for the cold make
him look like an alien. Im running toward him and Im
wondering if I should cross the street.
About five feet from him, I decide to
pull into the street. He grabs at my arm. Im stronger
than that and I pull away. The man runs after me. I turn on
the gas. Its been a week or so since I ran this hard,
but Im angry and scared and I just whoosh away, turning
right on 72nd and banging hard on the pavement.
I hear a shot and dive into the vestibule
of an apartment building. My leg feels cold and wet. The blood
trickles down onto my sneaker.
* * *
My parents dont believe I was shot.
They think I fell over a garbage can and cut myself.
Despite my parents disbelief, Dad
calls the 51st Street precinct house. Farinelli and Nelson come
over again. Its the usual comic bit. Farinelli looks at
the hole in my running outfit and the nick in my leg. She says
theyll investigate and then they leave. Nelson cant
help himself from smirking. I want to wipe his mouth clean with
Im embarrassed. Im angry.
But I try to let it all go. I head for work. Im minutes
late. I hate that.
At the gym, Im scrambling to get
into the office and work on the training schedules for the day.
I run into Mrs. Jude again.
Another late night with your girlfriends,
I want to rip Skullfaces head off.
Not much of a social life these
You must get out a lot, with your
What do you mean, Mrs. Jude?
This is the first time Ive ever talked to her with something
less than deference.
You can walk around without an
oxy mask, for heavens sake, girl. I must imagine there
are lots of people interested in what you can offer.
I dont understand what youre
Oh, come on, dont be naïve
with me, Merry. Youre a young girl. Of course you want
to exercise your natural impulses, whether its with boy,
girl, or beast.
Im not sure I hear that right.
Merry Stone. What a name. Youre
exceedingly strange. If you were mine wed work on that
name first. Your parents must be ancient. Anyway, I digress.
My dear love, you truly dont get it?
No, I dont.
My husband talks about you all
the time. Hes terrified that youre heterosexual.
Weve been hoping youre a lesbian. Of course, you
could be a Sapphist and still have a child
My brain is reeling.
What are you talking about?
Mrs. Jude dismisses me with a wave of
the hand as she bounces away on tennis-hardened knees.
I dont have time to waste
on this, dearie. Youd better figure it out fast.
At home that night, I have dinner with
my father. Mom is still at work. The enormous silence seems
like a force unto itself. We eat microwaved food. Its
called Ranch Chicken. We dont know whats
actually in it, but the box says it has 15 grams of protein.
I look at Dad. The bags under his eyes
make his skin look like it's melting. Hes hunched over.
He eats his food without looking up. The oxygen pipe is humming.
Were getting a good stream of air right now.
I try to start a conversation. What
are you thinking about?
His head is creased where the hair used
to sit. The wrinkles look carved in his face. He looks at me
for a few seconds and his eyes narrow.
You wonder why Mom doesnt
come home until late at night.
I dont wonder about it. I
At least youre honest.
Thats my problem.
It may be my problem too.
After dinner I walk across the hall to
Brigids apartment. I knock on the door.
Brigid asks who it is. I tell her. She
opens her door a crack and whispers to me, Im busy.
I have a client right now. Come back in ten minutes.
So, stupidly, I wait in the hallway.
Ten minutes is a long time when you have nothing to do. I dont
want to think about anything too deep. Id probably get
melancholy, like my dad.
About five minutes later a man in a suit
hurries out the door. The door flies closed behind him. The
client simultaneously pushes into the tiny slice of hallway
and tries to put on his oxygen mask. He accidentally bumps into
me. I can feel the extra insulation layers sewn into the suit
to ward off the cold.
Sorry, he says.
After he flees, I knock on the door.
On the other side I can hear the bolts come off. The door slides
open just enough for me to dance inside.
Brigid is walking away from me toward
a rocking chair. Shes wearing a long silk gown over a
fleece shirt and leg warmers. Its harder to look sexy
these days. Even Brigid has to make allowances for the colder
air. Her hair is a deep, deep black and she has blue eyes like
pools of ice.
She sits down, crosses her legs and swings
the top one nervously back and forth.
What can I do for you, sweetie?
You have good definition in your
No one has ever told me that one
before. Thank you.
Youre welcome. I want to
She doesnt flinch. Well,
honey, I dont think you can afford me.
I live with my parents and dont
pay for rent or food. I have the money.
Ive got an appointment in
ten minutes. So, you want to do it now? Or when? Do I need to
look in my date book?
I look around her room. Its not
what I would have expected. There are half a dozen framed posters
of Edward Hoppers works. Nighthawks is at
the center of the room, above the bed.
Brigid notices. I like clients
to think theyre coming to me because theyre lonely.
Whats your excuse?
Someone is trying to kill me and
I need your help.
She looks out the window, then looks
back at me. The street is beginning to frost as the naked night
You want me to risk my life? Why
should I do this? The world sucks, but Im not too interested
in leaving it just yet.
Many powerful people could be hurt.
The people who overcharge you for your oxygen, for instance.
Brigid shakes with anger. Do you
know they raised my rates by 12 percent last year? They said
I was running a small business, so I had to pay higher than
the residential rate!
I look at the floor. I didnt want
to stare too long at Brigid. Its a terrible thing.
They have us by the neck. And theyre twisting.
And somewhere else, too. I hate
Brigid looks at me, studies the floor
for several minutes.
This will cost you double my usual
It doesnt matter to me.
Thats why it will cost you
Youre about my height and
weight. Your chest is a little bigger than mine, but not by
Of course, Im better looking.
That goes without saying. But underneath
a hood and a running suit, no one will notice.
What are you getting at, sweetie?
You know how I run every morning?
Yes. Youre a strange girl.
Thats not the first time
Ive heard that today. I need you to do my run for me.
You are out of your mind.
I dont think I can say yes
to this. It deeply saddens me, because money is involved, sweetie.
But I cant do it.
Ill triple your price. You
can wear your new oxygen mask. Its not easy to see in
the dark. And Ill be following you.
I dont run well, sweetie.
I dont run at all.
I know, but you can fake it. Youre
good at faking things.
She looked at the shoulder of her silk
gown. True. Do you know I used to be in public relations?
I believe you.
This pays a lot better.
We shook hands on the deal.
You know, I can help increase your
market value. I could train you to run in the thin air. Your
body will be in better shape. Youre in good shape now,
dont get me wrong. But I can make you into an Amazon.
And men like that.
They certainly do. As long as you
submit to them in the end.
When this is all over, maybe we
can watch Total Recall together?
Brigid smiled. Sure. When Im
not busy with clients.
Total Recall is my favorite
movie. It was made about 70 years ago. It starred this guy who
was once the Governor of California and the Ambassador to Austria.
He shuttles back from the Earth to Mars and he doesnt
remember if hes a good guy or not, or even who he is.
These Mars colonists are fighting this evil mining corporation
which controls their air. Sound familiar? The rebel colonists
are hoping the amnesia guy is on their side, and the mining
company is trying to kill him, or neutralize him by making him
think hes taking a virtual vacation and only playing at
being a rebel.
The secret the mining company is hiding
is that theres this machine deep inside a cavern in Mars.
If you activate the machine, it will release massive amounts
of water vapor and somehow create a breathable atmosphere on
I know its a real oldie, but I
love the fantasy of a story where if you just pushed a button,
you could create an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Ive seen Total
Recall at least 50 times. A lot of people still watch
it. I dont want to seem like a complete nerd, but Im
a member of the Total Recall fan club. We discuss
all the details of the movie on the Web forums and chat rooms.
I went back to our apartment. Dad was
reading on the computer, as usual.
Were being honest, right?
He flips his hands in the air. He doesnt
know whats coming and he doesnt like it. I
I need your help so people stop
shooting at me.
Dad looks at me funny. Youre
What do you want me to do?
* * *
As you have figured out, Im not
by nature a rebellious person. Im 25 years old and I live
with my parents, for heavens sake. But for everybody there
comes a time when you either rebel or you die as a person. In
my case, it took someone trying to kill me, but well have
to continue the psychoanalysis another time.
The most rebellious thing I ever did
was hire Brigid.
This is how things turned out.
The next morning, I fit Brigid with my
running clothes and hood. She is not happy to be summoned at
Why am I doing this? she
groans and mumbles. I dont get much sleep time.
Now youre waking me up and it feels like youre stealing
I talk to her like a sister. Im
paying you a lot of money. And you hate the oxygen company,
We head outside. Brigid looks a little
awkward in my running suit. Shes a bit bigger than me
in certain areas. But I think shes a reasonable facsimile.
Im wearing one of my fathers
old trench coats, a thick mask and an oxygen mask over that,
slotted in the off position. The oxygen mask is
for show, so I can blend in, not seem so different, and not
She starts out on the route I gave her.
I follow behind, about 20 yards back, trying, like a bad detective,
to stay in the shadows. Brigid is running up the sidewalk on
Third Avenue in the high 60s, near the Hunter College subway
entrance. A huge rectangle of stone, part of the colleges
main building, hangs over the entrance and street.
Were about five minutes from our
apartment and Brigid is already heaving badly. Her legs wobble
and I can see she might go down any minute. I think about why
this was a bad idea.
Brigid pulls up. Shes exhausted.
Her body says it all. She puts her hands on her knees and starts
Up the steps from the subway a man in
a long winter coat, an insulated rubber mask and oxygen mask
walks briskly toward Brigid. I tense up. He arrives fast and
looks like hes about to say something to her. The man
hits Brigid on the back of the head with something hard and
she falls on the icy pavement. My idea is blowing up.
I start running toward them. Its
easy for the man to see me. Theres no one else on the
street. The man lets me come to him. Brigid is lying on the
cold ground and Im afraid for her.
Im in front of the guy in seconds.
Hes wearing a black face protector. Ill never get
over people wearing masks in public. It makes everybody look
like a terrorist or serial killer.
The man has a gun in his hand. He clicks
the safety off.
Youre very brave. Brave,
I recognize the voice, though its
somewhat muffled through the mask.
We were just trying to scare you,
Merry. Get you out of town. But you wouldnt go. So thats
not an option anymore.
The gun is steady in her hand. I flutter
I liked you. Its a tragedy
to shoot you.
Something I cant see hits Officer
Farinelli in the left knee, then the right knee. She yells,
loudly, which is not easy to do in thin air.
The officer staggers and hunches down.
There is a crack of a metal bar across her spine, tightly-spun
steel meeting bone, violently. Farinellis mouth describes
the shape of an oval. She wants to vocalize, but all the breath
has escaped her. Farinelli tumbles down, next to my friend Brigid.
My father throws down his pull-up bar
and half-leaps, half-falls out of his wheel chair on Farinelli
and rips off the officers oxygen mask. The officer looks
stricken. Then Dad takes Farinellis gun from her right
hand and points it at her face.
I straddle Farinellis chest and
put the bar across her throat.
This isnt happening, this
isnt happening, Farinelli gasps out, like a washed-up
opera singer trying to hit the right notes.
I keep the bar on her throat. My hands
are burning to crush her windpipe. I know, I know. Too honest,
Why are you doing this? I
yell at her.
Her mouth makes gurgling sounds. I let
up with the bar a little.
Im paid to do this. Im
not hired to know.
Brigid wakes up and shakes her head.
Shes possibly on another planet right now and trying to
get right with this world. Dad keeps the gun pointed at Farinelli.
He speaks up, finally.
Merry, sweetie, Officer Farinelli
has a second job.
Yeah, Dad? So what?
She does security for the Ox.
Farinelli spits out a high note.
Howd you know that, Dad?
Dad, excited, speaks in quick gulps.
Checked her out on the Web. Broke into the police departments
Intranet. Found her employee files. After she came to the apartment.
I push the bar down further into Farinellis
neck, pressing on the vocal cords.
* * *
The road is frozen. The sky is a deep
black. Stars paint themselves onto the canvas of the night.
My legs push me, even when I want to quit. Theyre my most
As for my other partners, I gave Brigid
her money and she quickly cleared out of town. She paid a very
high price for helping me. Im forever indebted to her.
I didnt ask where she was headed, so shes protected
from the Ox Corporation, as much as she can be.
Dad is sitting in our apartment, waiting
to be arrested. I think he is secretly delighted. At least this
is a martyrdom that Dad picked. He wants to sing the story to
anyone who will listen.
The next thing I say in all confidence,
Captain Hayden. You wont find me, because Im not
sure where Im going myself.
Mom will be angry about losing Dad and
me, but she will survive. Shes as tough a person as I
know. If she could work through her husbands getting shot
and paralyzed on the subway, shell figure out a way to
Mr. Jude, CEO and Chairman of the Ox
Company, got what he wanted. I have left town. But in the process
of achieving this goal, he may lose some important things.
When I let go of Officer Farinellis
throat and we took her to the hospital, she told me we would
never connect Mr. Jude to the tactics used to scare me. Perhaps
But something has to be done. A light
needs to be shone into the engine of things. So thats
why this letter is being published on the USA-Net this morning,
with the help of my father, for all to see. The Ox Company is
big and its certainly powerful. Consider this article
one small counter-attack against its effort to monopolize the
oxygen supply in the city.
Now I will address Mr. Jude directly.
Sir, if you are not responsible for these attacks on me, then
you have an obligation to find the people in your company who
are responsible. If you are involved in this, then God help
you. Because, sir, you will have turned into a moral monster.
Shame is something there is too little of these days. You, sir,
need to feel shame.
As for Mrs. Jude, you must stop wearing
pearls to the school. Its absolutely tacky beyond belief.
I dont know the destiny of my genes
yet, but the actions of the Ox Company have convinced me to
have at least thousands of children. They may not be biological
children. But they will be children of mine. Because wherever
I go, whether its the treeless mountains of New Hampshire,
the deserts of Florida, the frozen wastes of Iowa or the glacier
state of California, I will find survivors of this nightmare
and I will train them to live in our new atmosphere. Once they
find out that they can adapt to a low oxygen environment, you
and your competitors are really going to be in trouble.
And so I run on.