Her lungs aren’t working. Not properly. It takes two dreams passing through her sleeping mind, one slipping into the other, for her body to tell her this is so. The first dream is of her talking to an old boyfriend who has creeks of sweat on his forearms. She tries to tell him she must ford his arms without getting her socks wet, but when she strives to talk, she hasn’t enough air in her lungs to convey her need. The second dream has her in the position of a human accordion. There are mobs of people to either side of her, pushing with one solid thrum into her and then pulling away. Her torso collapses in seams but no sound issues forth.
Aberdeen awakes and a moment of confusion gives way to the remembrance of asthma. Her lungs are locked. Her body is set on dying. Fucking bronchial sacs, she thinks, and reaches for her inhaler.
Instead of her familiar bedside table, her hand hits the top of a cardboard box sized for books and other heavy things. Her eyes are blurry and lazy and she uses her fingertips like a claw in a plush-toy machine to pluck her medicine from among the bookmarks, lip balms and discarded earrings missing their backings. She puts the L-shaped plastic in her mouth, catching a lock of her black hair between lip and inhaler, and depresses the metal canister. A bitter mist hits her soft palate and she gasps it into her lungs. She does this two more times. The parts of her intent on dying are thwarted. Her lungs go back to being life-supporting instead of life-ending. The wheeze escaping from her mouth and nose is quieted, vanquished.
She shakes the medicine in the container. The liquid inside is slight, a captured bit of chemical fog. Three hits left. Maybe five.
“Time for new medicine,” she says to the other side of the bed. Her husband isn’t there. She can hear him in the kitchen, swearing at the coffee pot.
She swings her legs out over the edge of the bed, the pits of her knees sweaty from sleep, her flesh aiming to stick to the floral-patterned sheets. She spots her slippers and slides them on. There are no rugs on the floor yet and once Aberdeen’s toes are cold, they are cold for the day. Once on the floor, the blood flows down to busy itself with her feet instead of her chest. She kneads just under her breasts with her knuckles and yawns.
Toothbrushing, showering, makeup. Put together, she brushes her hair into a tight ponytail. Sirens outside are clarion through the brick walls of the apartment building. She didn’t think of that before they moved in. The sounds of the city. But now they’re here, first night in the apartment after dropping off their things earlier in the week and heading to the woods for four days to unwind after the move. She already misses the black knots in white trunks and the smell of humus.
He’s still in the kitchen when she emerges fully clothed. The kitchen is bigger and kinder in the daylight, not so oppressive and cold like it was the previous night when they arrived home past ten, eager for showers and bed.
“I’m going to be proactive today,” she says to him. He’s not looking at her. He’s intent on making the coffee pot sit perfectly in its rimmed base.
“Hmm,” Hurt replies.
“It’s the cardboard boxes, I think. My asthma’s been terrible since we started the move. Much worse than usual. And I refuse to believe it’s the apartment. That would be too crushing. Nope, it’s the boxes.”
Hurt swings around and holds an empty mug limply from his index finger. Pouty lips. Aberdeen hates that he’s letting everything defeat him since the move. Days ago, before they headed out camping, it was a flat bike tire. Today it’s a kitchen appliance.
“Do you want me to do it?” she asks, already moving to take over.
He shifts to let her at the coffee maker, placing the ceramic mug on the counter between a box of spices yet unpacked and a potted basil plant yellow with too much watering.
“Did the pot change or did the base shrink?” Hurt asks. “I’ve been messing with it for ten minutes.”
“Neither,” she says, slipping the glass carafe into the base, “you’re just antsy to get it perfect. There. Have at it.”
Hurt looks at her with what Aberdeen translates as both admiration and annoyance. His brow is lifted, his eyes squinting. She thinks he’s mad about last night and the real reason they broke camp late in the evening and headed back to the city. She thinks he’s mad about where they’ve moved, that he hates the change. He hates that she can deal with a coffee pot. Adeptly deal.
Instead, all he says is “thank you” and digs to the bottom of a triple-layered plastic bag and produces a shiny, metallic sleeve of coffee beans.
Aberdeen turns to find a pair of shoes suitable for public viewing but Hurt stops her with a palm to her bony hip.
“You had an asthma attack?” he asks, then drops some of the beans into a grinder and turns it on. The noise prevents an answer from her until the beans are ground. She smiles at him, liking how he presses down on the power button with the gravity of nuclear deployment.
She nods and says, “Like I said, the cardboard boxes around here make it hard to breathe.”
He pours water into the top of the coffee maker. Hurt walks back and forth from the sink, flipping on the tap filter and filling his favorite mug eight times. He dumps it eight times. Aberdeen watches what he’s willing to do to not struggle with the pot anymore.
“You’re getting ready to leave. I could empty some boxes and get them outside. As long as you don’t mind me stringing stuff all over the floor.”
His words make her think of last night and she can’t help but attack.
“Last night you said you always wanted a clean home. Nothing to trip over. No walls to wash clean of marks. No pasta in the floor vents. I think you actually said that. ‘No pasta in the floor vents.’”
He lifts his mug up to his tongue and licks a drop of water from the rim. “This isn’t anything we need to talk about now, Aberdeen. Just go for your medicine and I’ll make a dent in this.”
Aberdeen moves to her husband and wraps her arms around his soft torso. His paunch is the product of his thirties and his ceased biking and his increased sedentary studying, but she likes the way his warm torso envelopes her small chest. He taps his cheek to beg a kiss. She pitches up on tiptoes and places one gently and releases him to find her shoes.
The kiss has made Hurt forget his caffeine and crave her instead. She feels him walk up behind her and put his chin on the top of her head. “Can’t you just call in the prescription and pick it up later? There’s plenty to get done here.”
She considers it but ducks her head away from him, dipping her ear to her shoulder. “I need the air, babe. And a walk to a new pharmacy sounds entertaining.” She kisses him again, this time on his dry bottom lip and walks out the front door. She thinks it’s good to leave him wanting.
It’s startling when she’s not greeted by fresh air. Unlike their previous residence, with its door that opened onto a dry, xeriscaped front yard, this door opens onto a landing that spins dizzily downward by way of a flight of stairs in the center of the building. Hurt and she are on the fifth floor, the uppermost reaches of the brick tenement building in a part of town she’d never been to until they were looking to save money and downsize.
Before she starts down the stairs, she reminds herself that she is young, only thirty-five. She is fit. She can climb up and down these stairs as long as they need to live here. She thinks about elevators being overrated, metal traps to lift you up only to drop you back down to earth. She thinks these things as her feet slip down the stairs one at a time.
At the bottom of the stairwell and in the echoing, cold foyer of the building, she notices that she hasn’t seen any other tenants. And there are the sirens again. Aberdeen can’t decipher if they are from ambulance, police car or fire truck. She checks her mailbox not expecting to find anything but checks it anyway. The change of address form hasn’t been filled out yet. She imagines whomever is living in her former house is cursing the junk mail as if it was sent from Aberdeen Childress instead of to her.
Pushing on the glass front door, she breathes in the air, ready for it to be cool and clean, but coughs instead. There is an acrid tang to the breeze; sharp and burning, it hits her lungs and they close slightly in response. She nearly turns around and heads back up the stairs, but she’s committed. She needs more medicine. She ventures out.
This has yet to become her neighborhood. Her neighborhood is miles away, across the city. This street is new and its foreignness is evident. The elm in front of the building isn’t a friend. While she walks, she eyes new pads of concrete, street signs with known symbols but individualized with their bent corners and tagged lettering, a brown Labrador tied to the base of a lamppost with a shattered light. She takes them all in, says her greetings and tries to form those bonds.
But the people are strange, she thinks. A man passes. He wears a long duster jacket and his hands are deep in the pockets, his fists either balled up or he’s carrying around apples, plums, the fruits of fall. He shakes his head. Aberdeen slows and notices there are tears on his face.
She walks and the man becomes normal in comparison to others. In a car similar to the one her mother drove to her secretarial job in the eighties, sits an elderly couple holding hands. At first, it is simple affection. Aberdeen tries not to stare, but her spirit is fortified by the intimacy of the people. That could be she and her husband in several decades. Full runs of years later, when their current fight would be forgotten.
She stares and the couple begins to grope at one another. There is desperation to the caresses, turning them from something gentle to something primal. The man pulls hard on the thin, white hair of the woman and she responds with a love bite to his ear. Aberdeen looks at the sidewalk and starts to move once again.
The sun is lower in the sky due to the season, leaving the northern hemisphere, dipping back to the Argentineans and Zambians and Kiwis. Aberdeen knows she will miss the light but she loves the warm russet colors of decaying leaves and the look of soil folding up, squeezing, and going fallow. She notices it in the small circles of dirt around the trees otherwise cloistered by concrete and city. She looks to the earth in distraction. She always looks to the things that grow in distraction and thinks of her bags of moss and packets of sand and boxes of seashells yet unpacked in her apartment, their promise as elements of terrariums not yet fulfilled.
Wandering towards her final destination, she finds herself in a pocket park close to the notion of a location of a drug store she has in mind. It could be a street over, she thinks. The acrid smell is still present in the air, yet from where she stands she can see no smoke. She is the only one in the park. A cloth bib lost from the neck of an infant lies near the foot of a bench. She takes a seat and pulls her corduroy coat tight around her stomach. Aberdeen nudges the bib with her red ballet flats and thinks of how annoying that must have been for the mother. Something paid for and then lost. Something meant to be dirty, then made clean will be dirty always. And missing.
Sirens again. Then gone. Still no people wander, like her, into the park. Aberdeen gets to her feet. She leaves the area of sycamore and oak, crunching the cap-less acorns on the ground when she goes. Most are on the pavement of a running trail. They will never find a grip in the ground.
As she walks, things become louder. Before she sees them, she can sense them. It is a biological program all humans have: to know when a mob is forming. It comes to her as a prick of sweat at the divots in her elbows. The hair at her neck becomes hackled. Wild dogs, she thinks. Boar, lions, frilled-necked lizards.
Then, there they are. People. Hundreds, maybe, not quite a thrumming multitude but numerous enough, all at the pharmacy for which she was searching. Aberdeen realizes she has missed something in her days away from media and her phone, some vital clue sent at a time she was unable to receive it, perhaps when her lungs were suffocating her or when she was fighting with Hurt under vivid starlight in the woods.
Something is very wrong.
There are no longer windows in the drug store. People are walking between the outside wall of the store front and the inside as if the lips of the windowsills were door thresholds. Some people, the younger ones, mainly the male ones, have things in their arms or slung about their torsos in bags. One man holds a package of toilet paper high over his head and runs down the street on the balls of his feet.
She should leave; she knows this. She should find out what is happening without putting herself in danger. But she is being called. It isn’t curiosity or the desire to see what is occurring inside. The pull comes from the energy of the mass itself. It sings to her genes which in turn tell her it is okay to become part of a pack. Come play, come see. And her feet move, with caution and timidity, but they move forward. Into it.
Aberdeen sticks to the wall of the city block, keeping her back to it as she creeps closer to the crowd. The feel of stout brick and the pressure of the building on her spine strengthen her resolve to be in the thick of things. She calls herself a lunatic and immediately her reptilian brain shouts out a boo!, turns down its thumb and moves her on. She brushes past those on the fringes of the crowd: pensioners, grade-schoolers, pregnant women. She passes them, moving them out of the way while her back is still held up by mortar and earth, moving deeper in, past the moderates and the meek.
She hears them talking, shouting.
“Don’t touch that, asshole. I put my hand on it first.”
“What am I to do, then? What am I supposed to do!?”
“Antacids. It’s not like I want everything. Please just a bottle. No? No?”
Then Aberdeen is around the corner. She doesn’t step inside the raised flooring just beyond the fractured window. The glass at her feet is nearly powder. So many have stepped on this, she thinks. Ground, like coffee beans. Using her fingers to grip at the wooden window frame, she pulls her body away from the brick and takes in the sight of three people red in the face and yelling at one another. She swallows and reaches for her phone to take a picture and realizes it’s at home with Hurt.
Under the feet of the looters are greeting cards covered in black shoe prints, crumpled into pleats and sticking to the floor. Pictures of flowers, and cakes, and dogs with balloons in their mouths face upwards to the throng of people inside the pharmacy. It’s as if they are watching the madness from a two-dimensional realm, where things like this just don’t happen.
The aisles of the store are overrun with plunderers. Everything is being gleaned. This includes the numbered lights over the checkout stands. No one appears to have a weapon, but Aberdeen reminds herself she can’t see through fabric. Or a pulsing, moving mass of people.
The mob is denser, louder at the back of the store. She thinks there must be a reason for this, the mass’s want and desperation exemplified via screaming and an occasional wolf whistle, clipped and loud, blown through the same lips, on repeat.
She steps inside. She watches a woman hit a man in the face with an umbrella when he touches a package of shower caps sitting on a shelf in front of them both. She reasons that if she doesn’t take anything, if she doesn’t pose a threat to the others, she will be okay. Don’t ever touch a strange dog’s toy, she says, over and over in her mind, while walking to the back of the store.
The epicenter is the pharmacy counter. What stops her cold isn’t the tight cluster of horrified and horrifying people, but the shelves. The shelves are completely bare. This is what everyone is after, she thinks. Here is what they want. All the other things, the Pringles, the dishes that hold the pennies at the counters, reams of paper, they’re an afterthought.
So why are the people still here? Why, she wonders, as a young man with glasses smashes his face against a wall until a short Latina pulls back on his arms, pulls him away, are they still here?
“Why are you all here?” she screams into the crowd.
They don’t answer. They are too busy losing whatever it is they each have to lose.
She feels a wetness on her elbow and looks down to see a smear of warm blood just above her joint but no scrape or cut on her skin. The sight of blood – specifically the sight of blood without a known source – pulls Aberdeen back into a place of rationality. She turns her head about, scanning the people around her, looking for the bleeding human. She sees no one that could have marked her.
“Jesus,” she says, and wipes her arm off on the sleeve of a man busy yelling obscenities to an empty counter space. She’s in self-preservation mode and worries she could be wiping AIDS virus off of her arm and on to someone else. This triggers a flow of sweat down the small of her back. It runs the length of her buttocks, down to her thighs.
Then she sees the blood. It’s on the hands of a woman who has pushed her way through the mob and has disappeared behind the wooden door linking the body of the store to the nook meant for pharmaceuticals. There must be a lock on the handle and if Aberdeen was closer, she figures she would hear the click of a bolt sliding home once the woman was inside.
Yet the counter is open, traversable. People aren’t hopping over it, like they must have been, to get at the medicine. It’s as if they are all using the counter as a barrier. They don’t want to cross. They just want to cluster, mob up, display their rage.
Aberdeen feels the remainder of the blood crusting on her arm and pulling at the light hairs on her bicep. She makes her way to the counter and tries to peer over it while dodging the erratic, jetting limbs of several people. There is nothing to see. The raised counter is too high, preventing a glimpse of what is happening on the floor or between the rows of shelves. Using the adrenaline inside her for something productive, she places her hands on the Formica and heaves her body up onto the ledge by straightening out her elbows. A hand grabs at her leg and she instinctively kicks out, using the bulk of whatever she made contact with to help get her knees up to her chest. Then she feels like a four-year-old again, with the elation of climbing onto the countertops of her childhood kitchen and scooting about to locate something sweet.
She drops to the floor on the other side of the counter and her red shoes end up in a miasma of cotton, blood and what could be urine, a waft of ammonia coming from the impact. Instantly she feels more secure having half of a wall between her and the other people. It is only now when she realizes the danger she is in, once she is somewhat removed from it. Though she stands in the spent trappings of trauma, they tell her of past events, not of any future detriment to her.
“Are you okay?” Aberdeen queries to the empty niche. She walks with one foot in front of the next like she’s treading a crack. She places her foot in front of each short shelving aisle before looking to see if anyone is there.
She finds the woman with the bloody hands in the third row and she is not alone. A man with a shock of white hair caked in drying blood lies prone on the floor, his arms held straight and close to his sides. The woman tucks a coat under the man’s knees. Her hands are shaking so violently bits of blood not yet coagulated are flinging off of her, dotting the white of the melamine shelves. Aberdeen steels herself by looking at the dots. They remind her of the cochineal beetles that get pulverized into red dye, to redden textiles and lips.
The woman uses her employee smock to dab at a large gash on the head of the pharmacist. It is doing little good; the vest’s rough, blue fabric is already soaked and dripping. The woman hasn’t removed the pens from a plastic pocket near the top of the vest. They clink against the rings she wears on every finger, fat bands of cheap Black Hills gold and garnets perched on sterling silver hearts.
“It’s not like I could leave like everyone else,” she says to Aberdeen. The woman with her nametag spelling out Vera looks up at Aberdeen and babbles more. “It’s not like this is part of my job. He’s new here. I don’t even know his last name. But I couldn’t leave him here to bleed.”
Aberdeen crouches down at the feet of the man and adds her pea coat to the pile under his legs. She recalls something about needing to raise a person’s legs above their head. But is that just when they’re in shock? Do you want all the blood racing up to a crack in a skull so it can burst forth more quickly? She can’t decide what to do so she leaves her coat there, aware of how much medical knowledge she lacks.
“You’ve probably saved this man’s life,” Aberdeen says. “Is he talking? Is he conscious?”
The man’s eyes are small slits, the tip of his chin tilted upwards to the buzzing fluorescents overhead.
“He stopped talking when he was hit the third time.”
“Ah” is the only response Aberdeen can get out of her mouth. The blood on the floor under the man swells in size, moving from salad plate, to Frisbee, to bathmat. It is viscous and more scarlet than the blood left in the Styrofoam trays under Hurt’s favorite T-bone cuts. Aberdeen knows this man will die if he is not already dead.
She shakes her hands out. They’re stiff and frozen and she doesn’t want to touch a dying man with icy fingertips. Straddling him so as not to bump into any wounds on his body, she bends down and touches a patch of cheek clear of blood.
She cranes her neck backwards to look at Vera. The woman has started humming something which Aberdeen doesn’t recognize.
“Is an ambulance coming? Did you call 911?”
“Yes,” Vera answers, twirling her rings about her knuckles, turning them rust-colored with blood. “But no one’s come. I bet this is everywhere in the city. In the whole country.”
Aberdeen wants to ask what she means by this but the man on the ground is her first priority. The lure of the group, the crowd has left her. Now there is a man at the edge of life in front of her. He is stepping out of it. He is going.
“Sir? We need to get you somewhere and get you help. Sir, can you hear me?”
A flip of his stubby lashes, nearly imperceptible, comes as a response.
Aberdeen squats down over him. She’s careful not to put any weight on his torso. She uses her thumb and index finger to open his eyelids. The whites of his eyes show, the pupil and iris lost somewhere behind the shelf of his brow.
Aberdeen looks to Vera once more, keeping her fingers on the man’s eyelids. “If we don’t move him out of here, he’s going to die.”
It issues forth then – a sigh of words – and a summation of what is happening finally crosses Aberdeen’s ears.
“We’ll all die,” he says, “without medicine.”
Aberdeen releases his eyelids then but they don’t close. They stay open, stay empty. The man is left possessed with eyes inoperable, globes of white and shocks of red webbing.
And somehow she knows that things won’t be coming together again anytime soon. Not the pharmacist’s eyelids, not the split in his head, not the city. While she was in the woods, the world changed.
Vera cries now, nods her head, makes the confirmation.