by Michael Gold

She could breathe without an oxygen mask, so they tried to kill her.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E




The first things I see in the morning are my father’s useless legs.

“Merry, wake up. You have to go to work.”

My pillow is about eye-level with the seat of Dad’s wheelchair. He gasps the words, saying them slowly, one at a time, and pokes me gently in the shoulder. My eyes whip open. He’s wearing his high school sweat pants and new running shoes, for legs that can’t run. Either he’s wallowing in the past or the word “denial” comes to mind.

Dad’s knees are almost touching the single bed. They’re 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 isn’t working that well this morning. It’s probably another blockage. Sometimes mice crawl into the pipes from underground, looking for air. They get stuck a lot.

It’s about 4 a.m. I’m a teacher and we always have early hours. School starts at 8 o’clock. 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 don’t 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. I’m usually there by seven, to set up the training schedules for the six hours of classes I have every day.

I’m 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 wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

You’ve heard the rumors, I’m sure. Everybody was testing laser weapons in the upper atmosphere—us, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Russians, even the Taiwanese. Shooting down spy satellites and communications satellites was the newest arms race. Our government wasn’t talking and neither was anybody else. The lasers could have done it, made the hole. Or maybe it was something else. We’ll probably never really find out. That’s 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 everybody’s houses and apartments—the 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. That’s 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 won’t 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 she’s in her early 50s, she still sparkles at work. Mom has a personality built for business. I admire her, but I can’t 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 isn’t too bad for the Upper East Side, but it’s still the Upper East Side. Synthetic food costs have inflated seven percent this year alone. Our oxygen bill costs hundreds of dollars every month. That’s the big killer to our finances. Mom says we may have to move to Queens or Brooklyn, although that won’t 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. It’s not like I’m a looker. I’m short, for starters, about five foot two inches, and I travel with a 32-B sports bra. My shoulders are wide, and they’re not necessarily beautiful. Functional, yes, beautiful, no. My thighs are padded with muscle. I don’t need to brag. They’re big. The veins that travel through them work with deadly serious purpose.

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 shouldn’t confess something like that to you, but I’m being honest. I used to believe in honesty. It was hopeful.

Of course it’s possible men are staring simply because I’m a woman and I’m 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 they’re staring because I’m running, really running, without oxygen, in an atmosphere that’s 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 don’t care about what they’re thinking, though. I care about what they’re doing. They look at me. They make me uncomfortable.

Despite the occasional wandering man, most of the run is peaceful. I’ve 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 it’s just the road and me, I can feel the streets humming. My legs dance and leap with quiet joy. It’s the best time of the day.

When I heard the first gun shot that morning, I didn’t 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, I’m told, but I was too young to remember it.

I’m running down Second Avenue, toward our apartment building just a few blocks away. I’m in a good groove. My legs feel good. They want the work. Even though I’ve 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 don’t know what it is. Three feet away, a hole explodes in the steel gate of the newsstand on 61st and Second that’s supposed to open in 10 minutes. Metal shards plunge out at me. I don’t 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 bar’s awning. It’s only then I understand that someone is shooting at me.

My life is changed forever. Really.

It’s 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. It’s 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 can’t see much. There’s 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. It’s too dark. The man turns down 60th Street and walks west, away from me.

Second Avenue gets quiet again. I wonder if I can run across the street. My apartment building is so close. It’s next to the tram going to Roosevelt Island. I’m 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 it’s 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. It’s dangerous, there’s 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 me.

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 shouldn’t 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 that’s running well is my mind. I can’t believe this is happening.

I make it home. I’m so cold, but I’m 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.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” she says to me. I can hear clearly. She must have on one of the new oxygen units. They’re expensive.

“You think so? Really?” I start to laugh.

“You need help. I’ll knock on your door.” I notice the woman is wearing thick pajamas with hearts and doubled-up sweat socks on her feet. She’s 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, “Who’s 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. Mom’s short too, but strong. I’m lying on my side, the prostitute holding me around the waist. I can’t 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.

I’m too heavy for the prostitute to drag me into our family’s 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 don’t 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 metal door.

“Police, ma’am. 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, we’re in 242 East 60th. What’s that? The place is a real dump. They’ve got one small room and two convertible beds. There’s black linoleum on the kitchen floor. No, not everyone is rich in this neighborhood. I’m not impressed.”

“Thank you for coming so quickly, officer.” Even though I’m lying on the floor and my stomach feels like it’s been put through a blender, I know my mother is hurt by the officer’s remarks. But she’s 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 I’m 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. We’re hanging on to this tenement-type apartment by our fingernails. The whole world is losing population, we can’t 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 officers asks.

“I don’t know,” my mother says. “She crawled in the apartment like this from outside. She was running”

“My name’s Farinelli,” one of the officers says to me, lowering to the floor. The voice is a woman’s. I find it reassuring. “Where’s your oxygen mask?”

I’m gasping, trying to talk, but nothing is coming out but breathless little sobs.

“She says she doesn’t need one,” Mom says. I look up at her. She’s dressed smartly and primly for work. She’s got on a no-nonsense suit and she’d rather be on her way to the office than deal with the mess I’ve made. But I know she loves me and she’s got the worried look on her face, which makes me feel worse.

“That’s nuts,” Farinelli says. “It’s freezing out there, and the air is so thin. No wonder you’re 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 can’t hear me. “What?”

I rise up and speak to her ear. “I can run without a mask. This isn’t 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 don’t 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 asks.

“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 Queensboro Bridge.”

“Nelson, go out to Second and 61st and check out the metal grate on the newsstand. See if there’s a bullet hole there. Then look at the bar across the street.” Farinelli barks like a general. She didn’t request, she ordered.

“Aw, c’mon, you believe her?”

I look up at Nelson. He’s about 30 pounds overweight. His gut descends from his upper chest like a ski slope until it meets the cliff of his leather belt. He’s got baby fat around his jaw and apple-like cheeks. I don’t have much faith in Nelson.

He looks at Farinelli. “This is crazy. What makes you believe this chick? She’s got a ridiculous story.”

“Just do it! I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

“I don’t think this is the right procedure,” Nelson whines. “Why should I have to go alone? It’s freezing out there and even if it did happen, we’ll never find any evidence at all.”

I find his complaining very odd for a police officer, yet he’s backing his way out the door and putting on his oxygen mask. It’s only then I realize he was the one who was insulting our apartment when the team first came in.

When he leaves, I sit up, lean against the wall, and stick my head between my knees. Farinelli puts her arm around my shoulder. “It’s going to be OK. Everything’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 I’m worried maybe you imagined it.”

”I did not imagine it, Mom! Why would I make up such a crazy story?”

“I don’t know, I truly don’t. Maybe you want attention. Maybe you’re stressed out.”

“I am not stressed out!”

“I think you’re 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 I’ve been afraid of. I look at them both. I think.

“OK, OK. I’ll go back tomorrow. Just lay off me.”

Silence reigns.

Next day, I decide to do my run on the indoor track in the gym. The track is 220 yards around—it 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 aren’t that many schools left anyway, but of the schools that still exist, we’re among the elite in terms of gyms.

However, I have run on this track enough to know it too well. It just doesn’t 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 what’s 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 that’s 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. I’m in my own little world.

“Hey, Ms. Stone.”

A man’s 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. I’ve 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. I’m feeling tense.

Someone touches me on the shoulder.


Mrs. Jude recoils.

“Ms. Stone, I’m sorry.”

“Oh, God, Mrs. Jude, I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I’m 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, it’s 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. It’s part of the price the staff pays for working at one of the most exclusive schools in the city.

It’s 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. Jude’s 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 a fist.

“What’s got you so nervous, my dear?”

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 can’t be, Ms. Stone. Things like this just don’t happen at the Faire Leigh School. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Mrs. Jude.”

“Well, we’ll have to improve the security. I’ll 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 I’m not nervous, I’m ticked off. I have to be nice to this woman, who I don’t 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. Kristol’s first grade class. Then I have Mr. Mann’s fifth graders. Third period is Ms. McPartland’s fifth graders. Fourth period is Ms. Maresca. Fifth period I have lunch. Sixth period I have a planning period. Seventh period I’m taking a sixth grade class—Ms. O’Keefe.”

“Very nice, dear. Very nice. We have to keep them learning and training. They’ve missed you. Your skills are unique and the children need you, every day.”

I swallow some more of my stomach. “Yes, ma’am.”

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 Kristol’s class. They’re 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 that’s progressively thinner. The pressure chamber is the size of a classroom that can fit 25 children comfortably.

We start at 3,000 feet, which isn’t 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 can’t. 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 angles.

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 don’t understand what’s happened. These kids are wealthy and privileged. They don’t 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. They’re 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, he’d have gone to Mars. I laugh at his joke. I don’t scold. I’m well-paid for a teacher, because of my special skill. But Campbell’s 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. It’s easy enough to get fired.

I remind the kids that it’s a new world. We all have to adapt. It’s 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 I’m strange. “It’s four o’clock. Do you want to go running?”

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 I’m 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 can’t 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 wasn’t the greatest runner. In high school practice, he once ran a quarter-mile in 57 seconds. That’s good, but it’s 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 didn’t 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 friends.

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 Mom’s brother in Brooklyn. I was just a baby—maybe 16 months old. I was a tiny little thing, Mom said. The pictures say it too.

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 didn’t 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 dad agree.

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 brother’s back. The boy’s 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 didn’t react well to my dad’s 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 Dad’s 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 wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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.

That’s another thing he can’t shake with my mom. She never forgave him for that day on the subway, and she never will. But she’s got a soft heart and somewhere in there I think she can’t 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 couldn’t, shouldn’t, 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 oxygen mask.

“Hi,” I say weakly, embarrassed to have to say hello.

“Be careful,” the girl says to me.

The remark whips me around. I’m beginning to feel paranoid again. Anxiety showers over me.

“What’s your name?” I ask her.

“Brigid. Be careful.”

“OK, Brigid Be Careful,” I joke, trying to make everything light. “Why are you up at this hour?”

“Can’t 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, it’s the same thing. No guns and no shots when I run. I’m beginning to relax. The whole thing was some kind of bizarre freak event.

The following morning, I’m 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 Men’s Store. He looks at me, stares. The oxygen mask and pull-over hood he’s wearing for the cold make him look like an alien. I’m running toward him and I’m wondering if I should cross the street.

About five feet from him, I decide to pull into the street. He grabs at my arm. I’m stronger than that and I pull away. The man runs after me. I turn on the gas. It’s been a week or so since I ran this hard, but I’m 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 don’t 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. It’s the usual comic bit. Farinelli looks at the hole in my running outfit and the nick in my leg. She says they’ll investigate and then they leave. Nelson can’t help himself from smirking. I want to wipe his mouth clean with my fist.

I’m embarrassed. I’m angry. But I try to let it all go. I head for work. I’m minutes late. I hate that.

At the gym, I’m 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, my dear?”

I want to rip Skullface’s head off.

“Not much of a social life these days, ma’am.”

“You must get out a lot, with your skills, lovey.”

“What do you mean, Mrs. Jude?” This is the first time I’ve ever talked to her with something less than deference.

“You can walk around without an oxy mask, for heaven’s sake, girl. I must imagine there are lots of people interested in what you can offer.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be naïve with me, Merry. You’re a young girl. Of course you want to exercise your natural impulses, whether it’s with boy, girl, or beast.”

I’m not sure I hear that right. “I’m sorry?”

“Merry Stone. What a name. You’re exceedingly strange. If you were mine we’d work on that name first. Your parents must be ancient. Anyway, I digress. My dear love, you truly don’t get it?”

“No, I don’t.”

“My husband talks about you all the time. He’s terrified that you’re heterosexual. We’ve been hoping you’re 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 don’t have time to waste on this, dearie. You’d 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. It’s called “Ranch Chicken.” We don’t know what’s 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. He’s hunched over. He eats his food without looking up. The oxygen pipe is humming. We’re 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 doesn’t come home until late at night.”

“I don’t wonder about it. I know.”

“At least you’re honest.”

“That’s my problem.”

“It may be my problem too.”

After dinner I walk across the hall to Brigid’s apartment. I knock on the door.

Brigid asks who it is. I tell her. She opens her door a crack and whispers to me, “I’m 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 don’t want to think about anything too deep. I’d 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.

“Me, too.”

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. She’s wearing a long silk gown over a fleece shirt and leg warmers. It’s 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 calves.”

“No one has ever told me that one before. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I want to hire you.”

She doesn’t flinch. “Well, honey, I don’t think you can afford me.’

“I live with my parents and don’t pay for rent or food. I have the money.’

“I’ve 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. It’s not what I would have expected. There are half a dozen framed posters of Edward Hopper’s works. “Nighthawks’ is at the center of the room, above the bed.

Brigid notices. “I like clients to think they’re coming to me because they’re lonely. What’s 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 takes over.

“You want me to risk my life? Why should I do this? The world sucks, but I’m 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 didn’t want to stare too long at Brigid. “It’s a terrible thing. They have us by the neck. And they’re twisting.”

“And somewhere else, too. I hate them.”

Brigid looks at me, studies the floor for several minutes.

“This will cost you double my usual price.”

“It doesn’t matter to me.”

“That’s why it will cost you more.”

“You’re about my height and weight. Your chest is a little bigger than mine, but not by much.”

“Of course, I’m 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. You’re a strange girl.”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that today. I need you to do my run for me.”

“You are out of your mind.”


“I don’t think I can say yes to this. It deeply saddens me, because money is involved, sweetie. But I can’t do it.”

“I’ll triple your price. You can wear your new oxygen mask. It’s not easy to see in the dark. And I’ll be following you.”

“I don’t run well, sweetie. I don’t run at all.”

“I know, but you can fake it. You’re 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. You’re in good shape now, don’t 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 I’m 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 doesn’t remember if he’s 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 he’s taking a virtual vacation and only playing at being a rebel.

The secret the mining company is hiding is that there’s 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 the planet.

I know it’s 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. I’ve seen “Total Recall” at least 50 times. A lot of people still watch it. I don’t want to seem like a complete nerd, but I’m 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.


“Yes, pumpkin?”

“We’re being honest, right?”

He flips his hands in the air. He doesn’t know what’s coming and he doesn’t like it. “I guess.”

“I need your help so people stop shooting at me.”

Dad looks at me funny. “You’re serious?”


“What do you want me to do?”

* * *

As you have figured out, I’m not by nature a rebellious person. I’m 25 years old and I live with my parents, for heaven’s 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 we’ll 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 4 a.m.

“Why am I doing this?” she groans and mumbles. “I don’t get much sleep time. Now you’re waking me up and it feels like you’re stealing my dreams.”

I talk to her like a sister. “I’m paying you a lot of money. And you hate the oxygen company, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.”

We head outside. Brigid looks a little awkward in my running suit. She’s a bit bigger than me in certain areas. But I think she’s a reasonable facsimile.

I’m wearing one of my father’s 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 be noticed.

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 college’s main building, hangs over the entrance and street.

We’re 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. She’s exhausted. Her body says it all. She puts her hands on her knees and starts coughing.

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 he’s 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. It’s easy for the man to see me. There’s no one else on the street. The man lets me come to him. Brigid is lying on the cold ground and I’m afraid for her.

I’m in front of the guy in seconds. He’s wearing a black face protector. I’ll 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.

“You’re very brave. Brave, but foolish.’

I recognize the voice, though it’s somewhat muffled through the mask.

“Officer Farinelli?”

“We were just trying to scare you, Merry. Get you out of town. But you wouldn’t go. So that’s not an option anymore.”

The gun is steady in her hand. I flutter a little.

“I liked you. It’s a tragedy to shoot you.”

Something I can’t 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. Farinelli’s 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 officer’s oxygen mask. The officer looks stricken. Then Dad takes Farinelli’s gun from her right hand and points it at her face.

I straddle Farinelli’s chest and put the bar across her throat.

“This isn’t happening, this isn’t 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, right?

“Why are you doing this?” I yell at her.

Her mouth makes gurgling sounds. I let up with the bar a little.

“I’m paid to do this. I’m not hired to know.”

Brigid wakes up and shakes her head. She’s 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.

“How’d you know that, Dad?”

Dad, excited, speaks in quick gulps. “Checked her out on the Web. Broke into the police department’s Intranet. Found her employee files. After she came to the apartment. ”

I push the bar down further into Farinelli’s 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. They’re my most reliable partners.

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. I’m forever indebted to her. I didn’t ask where she was headed, so she’s 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 won’t find me, because I’m not sure where I’m going myself.

Mom will be angry about losing Dad and me, but she will survive. She’s as tough a person as I know. If she could work through her husband’s getting shot and paralyzed on the subway, she’ll figure out a way to keep moving.

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 Farinelli’s 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 so.

But something has to be done. A light needs to be shone into the engine of things. So that’s 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 it’s 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. It’s absolutely tacky beyond belief.

I don’t 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 it’s 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.





Copyright © 2007 Michael Gold

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Michael Gold: I live in Queens, NY, with my wife and 17-month old daughter. I have worked as a public relations writer for industrial and technology companies, a reporter for small-town newspapers, and a freelance writer. My last published piece was “Horror House Detective,” on Silverthought. I read too many comics. Major influences include Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Miller and Kilgore Trout.

--  O N L I N E  |  F O R U M  |  P R I N T --