By Riya Ranjan

I stood in my room, staring at the looking glass in front of me. The mask I had on today was beautiful, modeled after a stunning actress with rosy cheeks and long lashes. I ran my hands across the plastic, taking in how much effort had been put into designing such an intricate thing. The sound of my mother’s voice filled my ears and I rushed downstairs, realizing I would be late for school. I waved a quick goodbye at her before putting my mouthpiece in and racing out the door; breathing even the smallest amount of unfiltered air could be extremely harmful.

“Don’t forget to pick up our air canister!” she shouted at me as I left.

Today was the first Friday of the month, which was our neighborhood’s day to pick up fresh air. I made a mental note to myself to stop after school and pick up our load.

Renly’s was on the way to school, so I dropped by for breakfast. The whirring of the 3D printers as they printed croissants and sandwiches made the conversations in the cafe barely audible. Ever since the war started, almost all our fresh produce had been destroyed. Producing food with technology was the only way to avoid a famine.

I picked up my printed ham and cheese croissant and sat down at a table. The 8 a.m. news was just starting, and the blast reports were coming in. An anthrax bacteria had been dropped in the southern part of the plateau, followed by typhus in the northern cities and ricin toxins in the western region. I took a bite of my croissant. The attacks had been minimal this morning and would most likely continue through the afternoon.

My friend Raina walked over and plopped herself down next to me. “Heard that the war’s supposed to come to an end soon,” she said. “My father was talking about it this morning.”

Raina’s father was Council Member, who was in charge of all war proceedings of our country. He was one of the many who had created laws for masks and mouthpieces in an effort to minimize exposure to bacteria. Raina’s family was extremely rich.

I scoffed at her. “They said that a month ago, and the month before that, and the month before that. The war has been going on for years, and probably will until the day we die.”

Raina ignored me. “Could you imagine that? No war. No masks. No mouthpieces. We could touch our own skin, you know? Mr. Forrester was telling us yesterday that people used to be able to actually feel their skin. And see it too.”

I tried to imagine that. Feeling my own skin. We were taught in school about skin — I liked to think of it as a natural mask to cover my whole body. But none of us had ever seen it or felt it.

“Mr. Forrester’s a bad biology teacher and a fool,” I responded. “The reason we can’t feel our skin is because if we did, we would be dead.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a pessimist. When the war’s over, I’m never wearing a mask again.”

I finished my croissant and we both got up to start our walk to school. The sky was hazy, and we could barely see through clouds of smoke and dust.

Raina glanced down at her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. “We’d better cut through the plateau.”

“There was an attack there less than an hour ago. It’ll be crawling with bacterium.”

“We have masks, don’t we? We’ll be fine.”

We had almost crossed the plateau when we saw the girl. She was small but looked like a teenager; her face was covered in boils and burns, and her body was thin and weak. She was not wearing a mask and had a t-shirt on that barely covered her torso. She looked like she had been sick for weeks.

She ran toward us, waving her arms frantically as if to signal us toward her. Raina looked at me. “What’s wrong with her?” I couldn’t remove my eyes from the girl. “She doesn’t have any protection. We need to help her.”

We ran towards her and reached her right before she collapsed, falling into our arms.

Raina felt her forehead. “She has a fever. I don’t know how she’s not dead by now.”

“Please … help my family. We are dying,” the girl muttered.

I leaned down. “Where’s your family?”

She pointed across the plateau to a small hut made of mud. “Please help.”

We picked her up and, supporting her with our shoulders, started towards the hut. Inside, there was nothing but an empty room. A small boy and a woman, who I assumed were her brother and mother, sat on the ground, motionless. They both had the same scars the girl had all over her body. None of them had any protection.

“I’ll try to help your mother,” I said, shocked and scared.

These people … they were dying. I leaned down to listen to her mother’s heart before I felt a rock come crashing down on my skull.

———————————————————————————————————————

I sat up and rubbed my head. What had happened? I had been in the girl’s house and then … I felt around my face for my mask. It was gone. All I felt was a wrinkled and dry texture, like leather. Was it skin? I didn’t know.

I tried to call for help, but my throat felt dry and swollen. My mouthpiece was gone as well. I turned to my left and saw Raina lying next to me, motionless, her face and body stripped of all its protection, exposed to the diseases of the war. The girl and her family were gone.

I felt my body growing weaker and weaker each second. My eyes rolled back in my head, and my heart slowed with each breath I took. As my breaths began to cease, I remembered my beautiful mask. It was such an intricate, wonderful thing, created to protect from something so horrible and ugly. I would never see it again.

I closed my eyes and waited for the end.

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