You can't see it in the air. It's not destroying the animals or the earth any faster than it has been. You can't smell it anymore. But the authorities can no longer deny that the pollution has spread beyond our reach or control. People's bodies have begun to change – not in newborn mutations, but in bodies that were born perfect and typical, and have been that way for years. Humans have begun to inhale pollution and exhale oxygen, creating cleaner air for those who are still lucky enough to be able to use it. Their bodies cannot deal with the filth they take in with every breath. In time, everyone whose lungs have altered to breathe the dirty air will develop a respiratory disease, the first symptom of which will be a simple cough that just won't go away. Millions have already died. Many more are infected. There is no way to ignore it.
September is a young woman. She was born in 2018, and in twenty-four years the only thing that has been remarkable in her life is that she has always been, if not completely happy, content. She grew up close with her family and few friends, and now lives on her own, in a cozy apartment in a small town, and everyone she knows lives close enough to visit regularly. She has a car, but usually rides a bicycle because she rarely goes far.
In 2042, there is finally something remarkable about September: she isn't sick. No one in her social or familial circles is yet infected either (the difference being that September is not going to be infected at any point. She will live to be unusually old for her time and die a natural death. But we'll return to that later). A few friends' family members, and family members' friends, have the cough, but none have quite succumbed to the disease.
September's livelihood lies in the small café she owns. She sells coffee, espresso, tea, various bottled beverages, and an enticing selection of pastries and sweets. There are only two tables in the shop, but that's all right. They're nearly always empty. These days, no one spends much time out of their houses. Most want to stay inside all day with their air filters, thinking that will keep them from getting sick. (It won't.) A lot of customers come in, order a coffee, and rush out again, the whole time attempting to suppress their coughing. All but one of her employees have quit, uncomfortable with the contact of so many infected people, but September smiles at all of her customers. Genuine smiles – she doesn't have a fake smile in her.
September rides her bicycle to work every day except Thursday, which was always her slowest day – the café is closed on Thursdays now. She loves how her hair blows back as she rides, and how the wind will sometimes blast her face. She passes people in their cars, nearly all of which are electric (it is illegal, only recently in effect, to drive cars that run on any form of oil). The windows are always up, and the people inside them cough, on average, twice every minute. September keeps smiling.
On a Tuesday, one of her regular customers enters, trying unsuccessfully to suppress his continuous cough. He looks forlornly at September standing behind the counter and says hoarsely, sighing, "Make it a strong one."
September nods, smiling, answers, "Sure." She prepares an individual drip coffee. While it brews, she asks the customer, "How are you today, George?"
"I was fired yesterday. My cough has become almost constant, and it was concerning my superiors. That means that no one wanted to work with me anymore. They said, 'If the cough goes away, we'll have something waiting for you. Just give us a call.' Of course, it won't go away. It never does. You get the cough, you're dead." Strained, rattling coughs punctuate his speech after every few words.
"Have you got any savings?" September asks George.
"Enough to last for a few months. It'll probably be enough to get me through my last breath, at this rate. I'm one of the lucky ones. Some of us sick ones are getting laid off, have no money saved up, and have to try to scrape by on unemployment, which gets worse and worse by the minute, with so many losing their jobs."
The cough becomes so disruptive in the workplace that no one who is known, or sometimes just suspected, to be infected can hold on to their job for more than a few weeks. Luckily for some, the mass firing of those who show clear signs of sickness leaves many openings for those who could not previously find work due to the insufficient job market. But then, once they start coughing, they too fall into the unemployment pool.
"Well, it's good that you have something anyway." September smiles so warmly that George's gray face regains a little color.
She is not oblivious, as many assume. She keeps up, peripherally, with the news on the steadily spreading sickness, and sometimes she feels melancholy when thinking of all those who have already died, and those who will soon follow. She suspects that, one day, someone close to her will join them, but until then, she does not feel affected. Her business does more than well enough to stay open. She does not mind being around infected people, as it is not contagious – air pollution is the only cause of the sickness. Customers come into her café and cough while they order, and while they pay, and wait, and September smiles and thanks them with the friendliest words they are likely to hear from any stranger.
She snaps the lid on George's coffee and slides it across the counter to him. He takes a sip of the searing black coffee immediately. "Would you like anything else?"
George peers into the display of food items. "I guess I'd like an apple Danish."
He takes it from her with the same hopeless, resigned expression that he will wear for the next few months. September wishes him a good day, and he grimaces and exits. He won't look for a new job. His cough never seems better or worse, but always remains constant. He never tries suppressants unless the cough keeps him awake at night. He will return to September's café several times every week, always ordering a strong coffee, until the day he dies. Otherwise, he rarely leaves his house.
September savors her bike rides home. Late afternoon light and breezes make her feel so perfectly alive. She spots spring flowers in purple, white, and red among the radiantly green leaves lining her street. "I'll have a marsala for dinner tonight," she thinks.
She draws all the curtains in her apartment back, and every room is flooded with light. She gets an excellent view of the sunset. The television goes on, allowing September to absorb some of the news while she goes about her business.
There's nothing interesting in the mail. Her email is mostly messages about ways to protect yourself from being infected, most of which are utterly false, the others no more than mildly effective. She deletes them without opening them.
She changes into comfortable, loose clothing, spends a little time with an entertaining book, and then begins cooking. She has just put two chicken breasts into the sauce when the telephone rings.
"September, it's your mother."
"Hi, mom. What's going on?"
There is a pause before the answer. "Your father has developed a cough."
"It's probably just a cold," September says, waving off the grave tone in her mother's voice. "Or allergies. He always had allergies."
"No, September. You don't understand." She sounds more serious than ever before. September sits down at her table. On the television, a young male anchor talks about the sickness, but September concentrates very hard on her phone call. It is a while before her mother speaks again. When she does, her voice is strained but calm. "He's been tested. The results came back today. He's infected."
September sees spots. A sudden dizziness makes her glad she is already sitting down. She cannot think or hear, and she can barely see. She focuses on breathing until she regains control. Her mother is saying, "Have you bought an air filter for your apartment yet? You need one. …September?"
She does not speak at first. There is no way she can carry on a conversation after this news. "I'll call you back, mom. I need some time to let this sink in."
"All right. Call back soon. I love you." Her mother hangs up before she can respond.
September puts the phone down on the table. She sits, staring, for a time. It has happened to her – she figured it would at some point. But it still doesn't feel real. A car's wheels screech outside. September starts, having been brought out of her thoughts.
The television seems louder than she remembered. The anchor, staring sympathetically out at his viewers, informs her, "…say that by September of this year, one quarter of the world's population will have died of Respiratory Pollution."