Oxygen

Adam and Lucy arrived at 9.30am to ensure a good spot at the front of the crowd. This was so exciting! Their first Canadia Day, in their first home together, in their new Village; somewhere where people actually knew each other, and made and grew things, and came together as a community. “The happiest, healthiest place in Canadia,” they’d heard it called.

Every resident of Lucerne was present. The street was filled with red and white balloons and flags. Red and white children chased each other through crowds, with silly spotted dogs running after them. It was a celebration of all that was good about this Village: happy children, uniformed and helmeted heroes, profitable, job-making businesses, lovers of cats, fish and, birds, First Nations singing and drumming, Seniors still rocking and rolling, the noble mayor-farmer and wise council, fifth-generation potato growers; those enthused by motorcycles and bicycles; and those who tinker with engines to make them roar like castrated dinosaurs.

Adam and Lucy cheered every float passing. They were confused however by the approach of an industrial fuel tank which caused the crowd to hush into reverential silence. Why had everybody gone quiet? Adam said, “They’re looking at us.”

“No they’re not,” said Lucy. “They’re looking at the fuel tank.”

“Well why are they looking?” Now people really were looking at them, as the only ones talking among the crowd of two-thousand. The sea of hush. They became self-conscious, looked at each other, and hushed too. As the tank drew closer, they saw that it was not borne on the back of a truck, but on the backs of people. A hundred of Lucerne’s residents carried it proudly.

Being new in town, they hadn’t heard the Story of Shirley. She was born to farmers in the Lucerne Valley, and her parents had both died in a horrific agricultural accident. Despite being “safe” in the house, noxious fumes affected her young lungs, which suffered irreversible damage and degeneration. They didn’t really fail, just fell apart gradually. She tried not to exert herself and stayed in the house as much as possible, but when she hit nineteen, like any young lady she wanted to get out. However her lungs couldn’t extract enough oxygen from the atmosphere and needed constant topping up, so she couldn’t go anywhere without an oxygen supply. A small water bottle sized container was adequate.

This proved to be an issue at the Lucerne Hotel, which had recently been fined for liquor licence infringements. The doorman had been instructed to be extra tough on customers. He said, “Sorry love, you can’t bring that in here.”

“Why not?” said Shirley.

“You can’t bring in bottles from outside. That’s the rules.”

“But it doesn’t have any liquid in it. It’s just oxygen.”

“Even if it doesn’t have any liquid, you can’t bring it in.” She could tell that the doorman was not being mean deliberately,  just following orders. “You could fill it with liquor and take it out.” He seemed relieved by his invented justification.

“Why would I do that?” Shirley said. “I could buy some from the bottle shop. It’s cheaper there. It even comes in its own handy bottle already.”

“Very funny,” said the doorman. “Ok, let’s just take a look at the bottle.” Shirley handed it over, and he twisted it open before she could stop him. He was surprised by its hiss, and peered inside and said, “Ok, you were right, it’s only air. I’ll let you take it in this time.”

Shirley teared up. It was impossible to enter now that her lifeline was gone. Her mother had taught her to not complain in life, and there was nobody alive to complain to. She returned home immediately.

Shirley’s lungs worsened and she needed more oxygen. A bar visit now was out of the question. She decided to visit the library, carrying a large Coke bottle sized oxygen container. But health and safety rules at municipal facilities forbade people to bring in unchecked containers. The security guard insisted that she open it up. Shirley cried at the hiss that once again forced her to go home.

Kind neighbours did her shopping, but sometimes she had to do it herself. As her lungs deteriorated, she wheeled around a bucket sized oxygen container. The grocery store guard repeated the all too familiar procedure. He said that Local Food Laws did not permit noxious gases near fresh produce. “But they sit in it for months in shipping containers,” she said. “This is just oxygen, you know, what we breathe.” He insisted on checking. She went home without food.

Eventually Shirley needed to push around a dustbin sized oxygen container. The coffee shop guard said its contents may ruin the roasting process. “But it’s oxygen,” she said. “Like the bubbles in froth.” But he needed to check this.

The Lucerne Hotel’s doorman found Shirley crying in the car park one day. She told him about her failing lungs and her need for ever-more oxygen. He sat with her for a while, and asked for her to accept his apology. The next week he went to visit her home. She now needed a twin bed sized oxygen container. He called six of his buddies and together they lifted it up and followed Shirley around town. Word got around quickly, and she was welcomed everywhere. New laws were passed. No smoking, no cell phones, and no electricity were to be live anywhere near her, as the risk of pressurized gas igniting was too great. The true measure of any society is how it treats its weakest members. Lucerne passed with honours. It became a quiet reflective town, where people listened to and helped others.

Adam and Lucy saw a weak, smiling girl walking before the industrial tank borne aloft by Lucerne’s citizens. When she raised her pathetic hand to wave, everybody began cheering. She seemed embarrassed, but also the proudest girl in the world.

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One Response to “Oxygen”

  1. Early in the day no stars for voting. Looked again later and they came up normally. Nicely written story.

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