By Isaac Marion






I am shopping at Safeway without any concerns beyond my grocery list, milk and cereal, pasta and fresh basil, when the air suddenly turns into poison gas. I don't know for sure that this has happened, but the voice of the man who tells me is full of conviction, and I am persuaded.

I am in the breakfast aisle looking for cereal that's fun but not too sugary when I receive the news. A man in his mid forties rushes around the corner of the aisle and approaches me directly. He is dressed as if on a lunch break from a nearby law firm, suit and tie, long overcoat. He stops in front of me, uncomfortably close, reaches out and puts his hands on my shoulders. His eyes are wide and earnest, staring intensely into mine. He opens his mouth and speaks, each word enunciated slow and clear, falling and locking into place with immense weight and undeniable gravity. He says:

"The air has turned into poison gas."

His voice is slightly pinched, and I realize he is holding his breath. He has used a portion of precious breath to relay this information to me. I halt my own breath in mid-inhale. He nods, and runs away.

I hold the air in my lungs, my heart suddenly pounding hard. I believe him. Despite the absurdity of the idea, something in the intensity of that moment convinces me. The air has turned into poison gas. I can't breathe. I can't risk the slightest sip of air. This could be the sudden bizarre slip of reality that kills me, if I'm too stubborn to believe it. Somehow I have always known something like this would happen.

I speed-walk toward the exit, eyes darting wildly. The sun is shining outside and a gentle breeze rustles the sidewalk trees, but the man didn't specify that it was just the air inside Safeway, it could be all the air. My lungs are starting to burn. I wish I had had time to take a full, deep breath before this happened.

I look around, panicked. I need to breathe. I rush to the snack aisle and grab a bag of tortilla chips. I pull open a small hole in the bag, put it to my lips and suck out all the excess air inside. The potent sting of nacho cheese floods my mouth and feels musty in my lungs.

My mind races. I need more air. Where can I find pure air in a grocery store? Pressurized canisters contain Co2, is that poisonous? I don't know. I don't have a choice. I run to the dairy section and grab a can of whip cream spray. I point the can downwards and push the nozzle, sucking in a deep breath of whatever kind of air is spraying out between spurts of whip cream. It spins through my brain, making me dizzy, but my lungs stop burning. I grab an armful of these cans and run out of the store.

Several years ago I worked for a home medical delivery company, and one of our primary duties was to supply oxygen tanks to old people sitting in their homes waiting to die. One of my former customers happens to live just a few blocks from Safeway. She is ancient, decrepit, and has a steady flow of assistants and relatives coming in and out of her house. Her door is never locked.

I decide that speed walking instead of running will save breath, and I rush down the street stiff-legged, eyes bulging, taking frequent sucks off the whip cream canisters. By the time I reach Mrs. Gerry's house my brain is swimming and I see black spots in front of me. I have to stop using the canisters or I will pass out. I drop the tanks and clutch my t-shirt to my nose. I don't want to do this, I am surrounded by death, creeping into my nostrils and mouth and eyelids, straining to get inside me, but I have no choice, my lungs are on fire. Jamming the shirt hard into my nostrils, I suck in the slightest puff of air through the cloth. A small whimper escapes my throat. My lungs spasm, screaming for more.

I burst into the house and go straight to the living room where I know she keeps her tanks. Mrs. Gerry is lying on the couch with a nasal cannula wrapped around her neck, breathing softly. She stares at me as I grab three large tanks. I turn to her and whisper with my last whiff of air and all my conviction, "The air has turned into poison gas."

Her eyes widen. She pinches her nostrils around the cannula.

The black spots flare up and I collapse against the side of Mrs. Gerry's couch. Writhing on the floor, I put the cannula in my mouth and open the tank valve. Cold, pure air rushes into my mouth like a refreshing beverage. I close my eyes and breathe deep. I know enough about these tanks to realize that a person with a normal respiratory system can't breathe pure oxygen for long. I need to take these tanks and get to a hospital, where they can put me on some kind of machine. The air, all air everywhere, has turned into poison gas. I need to get to a hospital, but my legs don't want to move. Little gnats and fat black moths continue to buzz and procreate in my vision. Sucking on the cannula, I close my eyes.















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