We met at dusk.
The haze had set in. The air was a thick yellow, a smog so dense and rigid every step felt strained and unnecessary. I was wearing an old white doctor’s mask around my nose and mouth, and had ear plugs in.
The ear plugs weren’t for the haze; they were for the screams. For the poor fools who had let themselves be caught in the haze without a mask. Or worse, those who were out of their luck and sleeping rough, who had to cover their mouths with flannels and old shirts. If you were asleep when the haze came in it didn’t give you any warning. No sound, no big entrance; just the yellow light as death came to the empty city yet again.
I needed to get out of the open. My mask was already beginning to grow damp with a fine yellow gel, and I only had minutes before I’d stop being able to breathe through it. Then I’d have to remove my shirt and try and wrap it around my mouth without breathing. If my mask gave out, I’d probably be done for.
I’d found shelter though. An old signal box, by an abandoned train line. The glass was unbroken and I could just see the clean, sweet air inside. It was so clear in there. There was even an old gasmask, with a filter. If I could just get in, I’d be able to breathe and escape again in morning, with new supplies for the road.
But there was a reason this place hadn’t been looted already. The windows were small, and a massive concrete pillar had fallen in front of the door.
Time had etched it away already. It only took me a few moments to separate it off to a single, heavy concrete chunk in front of the door. But it was still too much for me to lift, and the exertion had me breathing deeply, caking my mask in yellow liquid. Every breath was a laboured one, now.
Then I saw her. She was wrapped up in a wardrobe of old things. A flannel shirt around one arm, a set of old jeans around the other. An old wartime gasmask on her face, with two clean filters and a box of many more at her side. This woman was used to the haze; unfazed by it.
She saw me struggling with the heavy concrete before I saw her. The second she appeared; a dark form in the heavy yellow, I recoiled. This place teaches you not to be kind. Not to trust others. When you’re always a single unguarded breath from a painful end, you protect your resources closely, because most would rip them from you.
She approached me. I watched carefully from the other side of the concrete, wary of what she may do.
But she leaned down, bent her knees for support, and worked her fingers under the concrete block. The gas mask then tilted; she was looking at me, waiting for me to join her.
I did. I leaned down on my side of the block and lifted. It was heavy, extremely heavy, but with two of us, the block finally budged. Dust escaped and floated freely in the thick air as the age old block was finally moved; the door was no longer blocked.
I opened it and rushed inside. I held the door for her, letting small wisps of yellow in, but she did not enter. I closed the door, removed my mask and drank gratefully of the clean air, and looked out the window. I saw her; a black silhouette in the haze once more as she wandered away, until only the yellow air remained.