Right to Live
by Gordon Sun
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Danny Miller sulked in his small bedroom, staring sullenly at a dull yellow stain on the wall. As he often did whenever he was stuck indoors on a Saturday morning — which was always — Danny remembered what it was like in Las Vegas, where he and his mom lived before the accident. He was frustrated that even though Mom had promised that it was going to be all better after they moved, it wasn’t.
Danny and his mom did everything online: school, work, groceries and shopping. All of Danny’s friends were online, too. Not that it was weird going to class online; everyone did it nowadays. Danny was upset that his friends got to play outside all the time and share all the fun stuff they got to do, but he couldn’t.
And it wasn’t that Danny’s friends didn’t invite him. They did. But Mom wouldn’t let him go outside. Just once, Danny wanted to go out and play with his buddies. Just once would be okay.
It wasn’t fair.
Danny slid off the bed and trudged over to the soot-stained window, peering outside. Usually, it was difficult to see Glenn Park due to the thick, semi-permanent, grayish-brown haze that settled over the city almost year-round. Everything outside was covered in a layer of grime, which municipal workers in bulky white biohazard suits futilely attempted to clean. But haze or not, Danny knew his friends went outside whenever they could. You just needed the right protection. That’s what they all said.
But today was different. It was a clear day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. No weird-looking smoke, no funny-smelling rain, just nice, bright sunshine. Danny could see crowds of people roaming around the park, four square blocks of artificial grass and dirt paths dotted with desert willows and ferns, colorful plastic playground sets, workout equipment bolted underneath large umbrellas, and the occasional covered picnic bench.
Parents clustered in the shade of trees or hovered around the edges of the playground. Kids clambered over jungle gyms, spun on merry-go-rounds, soared on swings. Many of them didn’t even have gas masks on! Cracking the window open, he could hear the faint chatter of conversation and laughter.
Danny felt sad... and also a little angry.
Grabbing a worn-out teddy bear from a shelf, Danny left his room, padded down the hall, and entered the family room. It was small and cramped, with a mismatched faux-leather couch, fabric loveseat, lumpy recliner, and coffee table all vying for limited floor space. The discolored carpet was threadbare in spots. Danny’s mom, Sue, was standing in a torn white T-shirt and jeans shorts in the adjacent kitchen, sloshing eggs around in a pan. Danny stopped in the doorway, the bear trailing on the ground behind him.
“Hi, dear.” Sue Miller turned from her cooking and glanced at her son. “Are you hungry? I’m making breakfast.”
“No,” Danny murmured, moving to his mom’s side.
“What’s going on?” Sue wiped her forehead with a ratty dishrag.
“I wanna go outside.”
“Danny, you know you can’t do that. We’ve been over this.”
“Because it’s not safe. The air’s bad. The weather’s bad. That’s why you have school online, don’t you remember? That’s why I work from home. That’s why I paid a lot of money to get a... um, retrofitted apartment so the bad stuff won’t leak in.”
Danny pressed on. “But it’s sunny outside. See?”
Sue looked out the kitchen window, adjusting her ragged brown ponytail. “Oh, I hadn’t noticed. You’re right.” She blew a strand of hair out of her face and went back to her cooking.
“Now can I go outside?”
“Don’t you want to play on your computer? Or talk to your friends online? I’m sure they’re all waiting for you.” Sue went to the refrigerator, took out a gallon jug of milk, and poured glasses for herself and her son.
“No, they’re not. They’re outside.” Danny went back into the family room and sat down hard on the couch, tossing his bear onto the floor.
“How do you know?”
“I looked outside. Lots of people in the park.”
“Yeah? Were they all covered up?”
“No. A lot don’t have masks on.”
Sue pulled a bowl out of the cupboard, emptied a can of oily ham into it, and heated everything in the microwave. “Really,” she said finally.
“Now can I go outside?” Danny persisted.
“No, Danny,” Sue replied, shaking her head. “It doesn’t matter what they’re doing outside. You can’t go.”
“But why?” Danny became agitated.
“But you can talk to your friends—”
“No, I can’t! I can’t see anyone!” Danny shouted, tears starting to roll down his cheeks. “Because I’m sick!”
“You’re not sick, dear,” Sue said tensely. “It’s just dangerous.”
“But why? Why can’t I go outside?” Danny kicked away the teddy bear and wiped his eyes with a sleeve.
Sue took the bowl of ham out of the microwave and set it on the counter. “You just can’t. We’ve talked about this a million times.”
“Then why can’t Johnny visit?” Johnny was Danny’s homeroom pal and shared three classes.
Sue didn’t have a good answer to that. She turned her attention back to the pan, quickly shutting off the stovetop when the eggs started to burn.
“Why can’t Johnny visit?” Danny repeated, crossing his arms. “He’s playing outside. I saw him. He can’t be sick.”
“He’s with his family. Next time, okay?” Sue started spooning the eggs and ham onto plates.
“Always next time.”
“It’s time to eat,” Sue said firmly, changing the subject. “You need to behave, all right?”
Danny didn’t reply, but his lower lip started quivering and within moments, the tears were gushing harder than before. He stomped away, howling, his teddy bear forgotten on the living room floor. There was a ruckus down the hall as a door slammed and things were thrown around, broken up by the sound of wretched sobbing.
“Dammit!” Sue brought over plates of scrambled eggs and ham to the coffee table, setting them down with a bang next to the glasses of milk. She sat down moodily, picking at her food with a fork as her mind churned.
Sue told herself she was doing her best out here in Arizona. She knew she’d told Danny that things would improve when they moved here. There were just too many bad memories she had to leave behind. But it was so hard to find stable work with a bad back and no car.
Truth was, Sue counted herself lucky to get a telecommuting job, even if doing online sales support was boring as hell and had no growth opportunity or benefits. Living in the outskirts of Phoenix was still cheap. However, without a car or substantial savings, mobility was limited, and the light rail didn’t go far south of the city. Real career opportunities downtown were unreachable for Sue Miller.
Danny’s noisy wails continued to shake the walls. Sue was sure the crotchety old woman in the neighboring apartment was going to come banging on their door any moment, telling them to shut the hell up like she did every other week or so. Cursing again, Sue turned on their old flatscreen, settling on a local newscast. A weather segment popped up.
“Leave the filtration devices at home and get out your sunscreen, everybody,” the annoyingly upbeat weatherwoman chirped. “This weekend’s going to be absolutely gorgeous! Sunny, high of 98, 10% humidity, and most importantly, a DPI of just 1! Today’s the first time the Phoenix DPI has been this low in over three years! The National Weather Service is encouraging all citizens to enjoy the outdoors and stay hydrated—”
Sue muted the volume. “That good, huh?” She got up and peeked through the shutters of the family room window, immediately recognizing the large Hispanic family who lived on the ground floor right below her. They were trickling outside and toward the park, fluorescent-colored coolers and picnic baskets in tow. The youngest, a toddler, had a pink surgical mask on but, to Sue’s surprise, the rest were going sans protection, wearing just regular old beach clothes, sunglasses, and large straw hats.
Sue rubbed her forehead. She couldn’t afford any protective respiratory gear, which was yet another reason why she hadn’t let Danny outside since their one-way Greyhound trip out of Vegas two years ago. Nonetheless, it was her first weekend off in nearly three months, and she had to admit she wouldn’t mind being in the sunshine for a little bit right now.
Sue momentarily flashed back to the numerous arguments she’d had with her mother Nancy before they’d left town. She already knew what the old bat would say: some variation on, “Why can’t you be more like your younger sister?” spiced up with a few choice expletives. Ginny was a private in the Marines, the military picking up the entirety of her life’s tab as long as she faithfully kept going on missions in the South China Sea.
Sue always complained it wasn’t her fault that the autonomous Las Vegas city bus had slammed into her 11-year-old hybrid from behind. Ginny had a structured non-combat job, free lifetime healthcare, and a pension. Sue was lucky to only get a few herniated discs, a slight limp, and a small settlement.
“Oh, screw this,” Sue muttered under her breath. “I don’t need to relive this crap. What’s in the medicine cabinet?” Leaving her breakfast on the coffee table, she strode down the hall and into the bathroom. Danny had calmed down somewhat but was still sniffling loudly behind his closed bedroom door.
Sue switched on the light, gloomily inspecting her forehead creases and hollowed-out cheeks in the mirror. She pulled open the concealed cabinet behind it, took out an assortment of containers, and sorted them on the countertop. After a minute or so, Sue was able to find a few albuterol and fluticasone inhalers, and a single mostly-empty bottle of azithromycin. All had expired over a year ago. Underneath the sink, she located a huge “economy-sized” bottle of generic SPF 100 broad-spectrum sunscreen.
Sighing, Sue knocked on Danny’s door. “Danny? Are you there?” Danny responded with a pathetic whimper.
Sue entered the bedroom. Danny was sitting on his bed, back against the wall, his blanket wadded up in his lap. His face was flushed and his eyelids were puffy.
Sue sat down by her son, patting his shoulder. “I’m sorry I raised my voice at you,” Sue said.
Danny sniffed and rubbed his nose with a grimy hand, but otherwise said nothing.
“Look, I want to make it up to you. Okay?” Sue said, a little desperately. “Guess where we’re going today.”
Danny looked up. He held his breath, disbelieving.
“I’m taking you to the park.” Sue massaged her temples. “Just for a couple of hours, all right? But we’ve got a lot to do to get prepared first.”
Danny glanced up, then wordlessly wrapped his arms around his mom and clung tightly.
“Please, it’s fine.” Sue’s voice shook just a bit as she disentangled himself from her son’s grasp. “Let’s just eat breakfast, okay?”
* * *
The preparations were indeed extensive. Sue Miller scrounged around for a couple of weathered backpacks, frayed towels, and cheap plastic water bottles amongst piles of little-used odds and ends in her bedroom closet. Then they had to find suitable clothing to handle the now-blazing sun and decontaminate enough tap water for the day. After an hour or so, it was time for lunch.
Only after Danny took a couple breathing treatments from their old inhaler supply and lathered up a few layers of sunscreen were the Millers finally able to venture out to Glenn Park around 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon.
Other than a few wispy clouds, the sky was still bright blue and clear, but the air was hot and stagnant. While some fearless children continued to play on swings and seesaws, most of the parkgoers had retreated under shade wherever they could find it, pouring out cups of water or fruit punch from coolers or chugging from large insulated bottles.
Already well ahead of his mom, Danny made a beeline for a large trampoline bolted into a patch of asphalt and joined a few kids happily bouncing up and down.
After several minutes of soaking in sweat under a tree, Sue looked around. “Is there a pool around here?” Susan asked a uniformed man and woman standing nearby.
“Yes, ma’am,” the man replied. “Over there.” He pointed to a low-slung concrete building surrounded by a chain-link fence and packed with people.
“The community pool closes at 6:00 pm,” the woman added helpfully.
“Thanks,” Sue said. The couple nodded and went back to their conversation. “Well, the pool would be better than roasting in the sun,” Sue said to herself, opening her second water bottle, “but it looks crowded, and I don’t think Danny’s got any swim trunks.”
Sue looked up. Danny had joined her under the tree. “Water?” he asked.
“Here.” Sue gave him the open water bottle. Danny drank thirstily. “Danny, do you want to go to the pool?”
“Pool? There’s a pool?” Danny said excitedly. “Can we go? Now?” As soon as Sue pointed it out, Danny dropped the bottle and ran off excitedly, shouting at his mom to hurry up.
As Sue suspected, the community pool was indeed full of swimmers, sunbathers, and people-watchers of all ages. The Millers threaded their way through the noisy throng and settled on a miraculously unoccupied blue and white plastic pool chair. Danny quickly kicked off his sandals, shed his T-shirt, and cinching up his khaki shorts, immediately headed for a medium-sized wading pool nearby.
“Hold on, Danny,” Sue said, putting a hand on Danny’s shoulder. She took out the sunscreen, squirted a large blob out into her hand, and smeared it all over her son’s skin. The task done, Danny squirmed away. Dozens of grade-schoolers were already in the shallow pool, splashing water around and squealing in delight. Before long, Danny was wading around with them excitedly.
“Christ, it’s hot,” Sue murmured. She spotted a large electronic billboard at the other side of the pool with a clock, thermostat, and the Daily Pollution Index. It was a scorching 103 degrees.
Sue smeared more sunscreen over her face, arms, and legs, and tossed the bottle into her backpack. She put on an old wide-brimmed sun hat and settled in the pool chair, keeping her head underneath the partial shade of a nearby beach umbrella.
Sue quietly observed the swelling crowd of people around her, while Danny happily continued to play in the wading pool, ducking underwater and blowing bubbles. She eventually noticed that there was a fairly high number of people in uniform around. Sue assumed they were Air Force; incessant online and TV recruitment ads reminded her that there were at least three bases around the city.
Sue leaned back in the poolside chair, letting her mind wander. The military families around her reminded her once again of her overachieving sister, who was on her second tour. Or was it her third? She wasn’t sure. Sue rarely kept in touch with Ginny, who hardly talked about her service. And she hadn’t been on speaking terms with her mother since settling in Phoenix. But Sue could guess what the witch would say right now, probably something about how proud she was about Ginny protecting the country from a bunch of third-world commies and how Sue was too old to be sleazing it up poolside trying to pick up a man.
Sue suddenly startled awake. The sky was now a deep golden-red as the sun set, and a few lights had turned on around the pool. Danny was hovering over her, shadows extending across her face. “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?” Sue asked, blinking.
“I’m tired,” Danny said. “I wanna go home.”
“Home? Okay.” Sue sat up, blinking. “What time is it?”
“What? Holy...” Sue stopped herself. Around her, the crowd had nearly dissipated, those remaining packing up personal belongings. “Let’s get our stuff and leave.”
“I got it,” Danny said. He held out a backpack and a water bottle for his mom, the second bag already secured on Danny’s back.
“Oh, thanks,” Sue said, taking the bag and bottle from her son. “Did you have fun today?”
“Yeah.” Danny looked worn out but managed a smile. “Can we come back tomorrow?”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Gordon Sun