For a Breath of Fresh Air

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We buried Stefan under the oak tree in the far corner of the cemetary.

Everything felt so much easier once we got that over with, and we all stood in a little half circle, Maris and Anthoni and I, hands clutched tightly at our sides, staring at the mound of earth between two massive tree roots. The silence was so thick, you could breath it.

After a while, Anthoni slipped a small sheet of paper between my stiff fingers. "It's the names and numbers for our sources," he said, and brushed his hair away from his face. "They're still in the Sanitarium, if you ever need to see them...otherwise, they can bring the Myronia to you. They said you don't need to worry about the money anymore, it's all taken care of."

I tucked the paper away into my corset. "Thanks," I said, more coldly than I meant to. I didn't ask why Anthoni couldn't be my supplier any more, and when he took Maris's hand and they disappeared out through the maze of tombstones, I somehow knew that that was the last I'd ever see of them.

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About four days after Stefan's death, Maris's ebola virus somehow found its way into a glass bottle, smashed in the Laudanum Building Lobby. An all-out epidemic raged for weeks, but of course Maris and Anthoni weren't there to see it. They'd disappeared, along with the ebola antidote, long before the first headlines appeared in the Herald.

For months afterwards, everyone who walked the red brick sidewalk in front of the Laudanum building commented on how strongly the place smelled of the only things that could clear out Ebola: Erivot, and bleach.

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I finally got around to listening to one of Mr. Billard's sermons, sometime near the end of June. He must have seen me coming in through the small church door, because as soon as the gospel was over he stood up and told Maris's story to the congregation from the top. He fixed some moral into it, about making moves to find your place in God's creation and what not, and maybe I didn't agree with all his words, but I have to admit that it was a well spoken homily. And maybe, just maybe, I walked out of that tiny little country church with something in my heart that hadn't been there before.

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When the Department of Health finally declared it safe to go back into the Laudanum building, a few brave souls forced their way through the cut glass doors and, after acouple deep breaths of bleach, walked past the long marble fountain and pulled the dead flowers out of their pots. Then they came to one spot along the water, where a large planter held the most massive poppy anyone had ever seen. When they tried to pry it up, they found that the roots had grown down through the terra cotta, even the marble flooring itself. A strange blue powder was mixed in with the potting soil.

The science community went insane for weeks, trying to describe what had happened without resorting to theories. Finally, some brillant gentleman decided to have the common people call in to his radio talk show and say what they thought had happened. I considered doing it several times--"Hey, you know what blue powder on the poppy? It's called Myronia, and it makes people Immortal..."--but I never did.

You know why? Because it was good to see that, if nothing else, my actions on that fateful night got some people thinking again.

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I was in the cemetary one day towards the beginning of November, pulling up weeds from around Stefan's grave, when someone put their hand on my shoulder. I jumped and twirled around, fast as a dervish.

"What the..." I began, and the words froze on my tongue. The woman beside me was so familiar, with her pale white hands and thick, dark hair, but for the life of me I couldn't remember...oh. Yes. The sanitarium name tag around her neck helped.

"Hey!" I said, startled. "Didn't you give me a ride from somewhere?"

She shrugged. "Maybe. But aren't you Lamia M. Illmann?"

"Yes," I said. I straightened my clothing and smiled, trying to save some scrap of dignity. "Why?"

She grinned like I'd just announced the Second Coming. "I'm Lamia Illmann too!" she giggled, and grabbed my nettle-scratched hand in her perfect one. "Come on!"

I followed her through the cemetary, until I reached a part that was disturbingly familiar. Someone I knew must have been buried there, but that was impossible, the graves were all so new that most didn't have a date of death carved on them...

And then I realized: this was where my tombstone was. The one I'd bought on discount, during that month and a half I'd worked for a granite carvers. It was beautiful, black granite, with a small lazer portait of me in the upper corner beside my name.That must have been how the woman recognized me. A small winged maiden stood guard on the top of the stone, but whether she was Nike or an Angel, I never made comment. The woman beside me--Lamia, I guess her name was--pointed excitedly to the name on the stone and then to some scrap of newspaper she'd pulled out of her pants pocket.

"Is it still for sale?" she asked. "I mean, you never know when you need one..."

The tombstone! Of course, I'd put it up for sale sometime in May. But in all the excitement, I'd completely forgotten about it. What were the chances that there was another Lamia Illmann on this planet, much less in the cemetary beside me?

"Sorry," I said, in a vauge voice I hardly recognized as my own. "I may...I may be needing it after all."

"Oh," the other Lamia said, sounding disappointed. "Oh, well, I guess we all need one eventually. No one's immortal, right?"

"Right."

We both stood there, staring down at the stone, inhaling the rich smell of overturned earth.

"Well," Lamia said, shrugging her shoulders. "I guess I'd better get going. It was nice to meet you...what does the M. stand for?"

"Hm?"

"Your middle name?'

"Oh." I thought about it for a moment. Having not used my own middle name for several years, I could hardly remember how to say it. "Magdalen."

"As in, the harlot?" She sounded disgusted. "Mine's for Mary."

"As in, the harlot's first name?" It sounded cruel, but I loved the way the cynicism flowed so easily into my voice again. Damn, it had been a while.

"I prefer to think of it as the Virgin," Lamia sighed. "Well, goodbye."

She turned to walk away, and as she did, the most beautiful thing happened. A breeze blew past us, from the north, over by the oak tree, and as it did, the most wonderful scent filled my lungs. It wasn't tangy like bleach, or deep like incense, not the sweetness of poppy nor the bitterness of tears. It wasn't the electric, magnified feel of the air around Myronia, or the sheer concentrated power of the Laudanum Lobby. It was nothing, pure nothing, the way air should be, and in that moment, I knew what to do.

"Hey, Lamia!" I called. "Do you want to buy a house?"

She stared at me for a moment, eyebrows screwed in concentration. "Maybe..." she said. "Where is it?"

"Up the hill by the Sanitarium."

"Oh," she said, and shrugged. "No, thanks."

I watch her leave, weaving her way through the tombstones and empty graves, but my mind is already elsewhere. How will I go about selling the mansion? I'm not sure, but I'll find out something. I've got to start now.

Will I find something better? Maybe not. But when I leave that house, it's not going to be because I'm running away again. It will be because finally, finally I'm making that move Minister Billards talked so expertly about. I don't know what I'm going to find when I go, but I know this much: I don't want my last breath, whether it takes place in a year or in a century, to taste like bleach. I don't want to die, ever, but if I have to...

I don't want to die gasping for a breath of fresh air.

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For Sale: Mansion, beautiful black granite. Excellent condition--unused for decades but, given present circumstances, unable to be used by myself. Perfect for someone who loves the scent of fresh citrus. Call for location.

Amazing, what you can find in the classifieds, isn't it?

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Finis

Thank you for reading!

Bitter Irony