Men in pig masks snort moon off a marble table then strap on metallic suits with honeycomb wire wings, oxygen canisters tight on their backs, and fly upward and pull the screen-for-sky across the sky. They work in shifts. New sections of screen attached to the old, more wires, sky-pins, gravity-nails, star-ties. The pig mask known as Larry is the leader. The others follow him around the sky, tightening the screen in fluttering places and ironing out wrinkles with canister-guns of heated oxygen. Everyone in the city watches, necks craned back, visors on their helmets mirroring the new sky that is a television screen turned to white and the men in pig masks flying around like dark confetti against it.
Shellhouse isn’t watching. He’s fifty yards inside a tunnel. Mob of Mary’s, all members present, are outside the tunnel, waiting.
“How much longer,” says a member.
“Looks like they’re almost done with the sky.”
The only person who can survive without an oxygen helmet is Shellhouse. He has the special lungs. He moves like an infant trapped inside an adult’s skinny body. He stumbles in the dark of the tunnel, hands stretched to either side using the wall as guidance. Shellhouse is scared of the dark, and when he sees the hissing wall, he runs, bumping his head along the way.
The new artificial sky is tested: seafoam, fuchsia, horse’s mane, sunrise. Everyone on the iron hill moans and applauds as the men in pig masks descend.
“Where is he?”
All ten members in Mob of Mary’s are men who wear black, gold visors on their oxygen helmets. Nights are spent worshiping the imaginary connection of stars in the shapes of kangaroos, spiders, dogs, the seven squid known as The Cancer Clan. Sewn on their suits is their logo – a shirtless man wrapped in a beige robe sitting on a cloud chair calf-covered by kneeling women. Like everyone else, they crave unfiltered oxygen. Shellhouse is a blessing and willing to be paid cheap because there’s something wrong with his Moms. Mob of Mary’s smell like melted plastic. They are prone to suicides.
“Ten seconds before we’re noticed, maybe less.”
One member turns the dial on his wrist to maximum and inhales, his head tilted back. His gold visor fills with clouds. The artificial sky changes to real sky and city drones return to their posts.
Shellhouse clicks the feeder to reverse and collects the oxygen from the hissing wall that is a waterfall of white cloud, pure O. He drops the feeder and when he tries to pick it up he kicks it across the dirt floor, a light spinning. He stumbles and kicks it again. When he finally gets a handle on the feeder he checks the meter and it reads half-full. He returns to the hissing wall and runs the feeder until full. A mist surrounds him.
“We have to go, now.”
Mob of Mary’s walks quickly, nearly running, from the mouth of the tunnel. The city monitors will catch them out here. Swarms of people run from the iron hill flailing their arms, their helmets bobbing, everyone excited about the artificial sky. Children play battering ram with their helmet heads. Someone fires off a firework and they’re arrested. Men in pig masks carry the city flag – all black, white centered star with cyan border – through the city and dozens walk under, fingers stretched upward and grazing the silken fabric.
Stumbling, legs gangly and wide, flatfeet and all, here comes Shellhouse out of the tunnel carrying the feeder filled with illegal oxygen. Mob of Mary’s all turn and Shellhouse can’t see their faces through the gold visors, but they smile their evil toothless smiles and that he can feel, can sense.
A group of kneeling pig masks hold a rocket aimed backward at the sky. They shoot the rocket's exhaust into the sky. The flame melts the artificial sky into final place. Shellhouse looks up and says the stars will burn, didn’t anyone think about that? Mob of Mary’s grabs the canister of O and runs. When Shellhouse stops looking at the sky he looks down and notices seven gleaming silver coins in his palm and a triangle-shaped card saying they will need more soon, take care of your Moms why don’t you.
* * *
Oxygen by helmet. Oxygen by wire. Oxygen by mouth to mouth. There’s a private lake of oxygen that melts the polluted air above it into tendrils of tar. Shellhouse has stolen from the lake and brought clouds of oxygen by the armful to Moms, Sheila, Gogol the Destroyer of Floors, Mob of Mary’s, Grass Face, Fat Steve, anyone willing to pay or in desperate need. One day Shellhouse will have enough to buy Moms the oxygen coffin. He will parade her through town by steel dolly in the oxygen coffin in a sea of balloons.
Tonight Shellhouse leaves his house. Moms has been connected to the four feeders and is wearing the blue helmet. The walls in her room breathe and perspire oxygen. If Moms sleepwalks from the room, a blast of oxygen will explode from the floor at her door. If every oxygen protocol were to fail, the house would turn to pure oxygen and give Shellhouse enough time to run with her, fireman’s-carry-style, to the lake. She sleeps in her wheelchair, ear on shoulder.
Shellhouse walks through dark streets dusted with moon. The artificial sky is set on eggplant. He stands on the iron hill. The city is mostly dark with a few towering lamps that only illuminate city flags and concrete buildings of gray. He thinks about Mob of Mary’s, when they will ask for more and how he wants the cycle to stop. The smell of snow hangs from fake stars.
“It’s something else, huh,” says a short man also standing on the iron hill in a green helmet, visor black and mirrored. Shellhouse looks tired.
“What’s the point to it,” says Shellhouse. “Why does it exist?”
The short man in the green helmet pushes Shellhouse and the force is low and at Shellhouse’s hip.
“We need distraction and entertainment, that’s why. Not everyone can go around without a helmet sucking up the sick sky like you can, freak show.”
“I’m sorry,” says Shellhouse.
“I’m not sure.”
The short man is holding a screen in his palm. “Pick a color, any color.” He points the screen at the sky.
“You can change it?” says Shellhouse.
“I get ten clicks because I won the contest.”
Shellhouse thinks about Moms. He breathes and feels particles scratch his throat, enter his lungs. Some sections of air are poisonously thick and difficult to breathe in, even for Shellhouse – the man, the freak show, who doesn’t need a helmet. He refers to these sections of air as jelly cores. Be careful, he thinks, breathing near those mean jelly cores.
The short man pushes him in the hip again and Shellhouse says, "How about trying the color of the old sky when the sky looked the most beautiful?"
“Boring,” says the short man. “But okay, here you go.”
The sky clicks white and then blooms black with pinprick stars. It looks so real. Shellhouse smiles. Shellhouse lives his life by stealing oxygen and keeping Moms alive and there is nothing else for them but the cycle. Soon, he will bring her to the iron hill in the oxygen coffin and show her the sky and tell her it’s the real sky. When he runs from the iron hill Mob of Mary’s is waiting.
Shane Jones is the author of several books, most recently the novel Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin 2012). His next novel, Crystal Eaters, will be published next year by Two Dollar Radio. Shane lives in Albany, New York.
For more by Ruben Brulat, visit his website.