The day we became certain of the end, Galen threw everyone a party in the iron lung. We each brought beer and a standard deck of cards, the former swiped from parents’ stashes and the latter from wherever we could find. Completeness was no object, his invite had assured; with enough cards, enough of us, the game could last practically forever. We arrived early in the evening and filed through the airlock one-by-one, pausing to time each entry with its breath. I’d never been inside before; none of us had, only seen the backdrop through grainy webcam feed. As I stepped across the threshold, I felt it snag my diaphragm, the room squeezing air into my lungs. “Let it out,” Galen shouted from the other side, and I exhaled with the walls, locked together with cold metal in surrender. Once inside the thing itself, we sat ourselves in a circle on the carpet. The room seemed smaller on the inside, no sign of the pipes and valves that lined the outer walls like an echidna’s hollow spines. No windows either, just a sign above the door that read: under normal operation, standard pressure carries no risk to healthy bodies. We matched breaths like a choir, the room our shared conductor, and Galen gathered up the cards, shuffled them into one anarchic mass, and then dealt each of us a pile. “We’re playing War,” he said. Absent the distortion of a video call, his voice sounded higher, like a child’s, and I realized that his larynx may have never fully grown. “Standard rules, except, when you run out of cards, the house will deal you more.” I straightened my deck; a few others did the same. But with every breath the walls around us took, the pile trembled back into disarray. “I’ll start,” he said, and flipped a nine of spades. Next came a four of hearts, a joker, then a faded baseball card. “Sorry,” Milo said. “Those were all I had.” “It’s fine.” Galen smiled. “We’ll match by team, not player.” I took a swig of beer, mistimed it with an inhale, and the acid set my trachea ablaze. Rhythm lost, near-breathless, I scrambled for the door. “Just take a minute!” Galen shouted. “We’ll keep your spot!” I wheezed something in reply, then stumbled through the airlock, falling to my knees on hard-packed dirt outside. In the trees, cicadas buzzed; distant tongues of smoke grazed the twilit sky, and the humidity had withered with the evening. As I sucked in breath after rattling breath, I imagined myself a wildfire—breathing without pause, churning oxygen and kindling into ash. Within the lung they cheered, a battle won, and I rolled onto my back to face the cosmos. It was nice here in the valley, where the smoke had not yet fallen. Could be for a while yet. Not long enough for Galen, not forever. But maybe long enough for me to learn to breathe again.
Chris Lombardo is a writer from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. He lives in Chicago, where he is currently pursuing an MFA in Northwestern’s Litowitz Program. His fiction can be found in EPOCH Magazine and Ovunque Siamo. He can be found on Twitter, so long as it exists, at @canonicalchris, and on his website: sunsetoverithaca.com