Author: Shanna Yetman
Leila likes to lie within the algae when the air is thickest with smog—smoke, nitrogen oxide, and ozone particulates squeezing at her lungs, agitating her asthma. Today her chest is tight. The smog has sat on top of the city for days, building up as each car passes by, growing stronger with each puff of industry. The algae wash in and out.
Her throat is hoarse. Even so, she pulls down her N-95 mask. There’s no fresh whiff of air; it’s hot, and the world smells of coals and wildfires. Her nostrils widen and she puts her mask back on.
She gestures for her best friend Julian to catch up. “Come on, you punk!”
He scurries behind her in his old man bathrobe and pajamas. Even in this heat, his mom has swaddled him like a baby because he’s ill. Leila’s one of the lucky ones. Old bouts of pneumonia and fresh bouts of asthma scar her lungs. His lungs grow cancer.
“Hold up! You witch!” He pants. “Remember? I’m one of the unlucky ones.” He’s caught up with her and he wedges his finger right into her side. It’s a joke. These days, there’s no difference between the lucky and the unlucky.
They’ve both snuck out of their houses and headed for the lakefront. They’ve come to this beach though they’ve been told they shouldn’t. The lake is awash with chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus. She wants Julian to lie in the algae with her; she’s sure it will make him feel better, if only for a moment.
These are the days when the algal blooms are brightest and cover the largest part of the water. The smog hides the sunset, but there’s a beautiful bluish purple along the horizon, and both Leila and Julian stop to admire the colors before they continue.
The lime green tide laps at the sand, and she holds up the caution tape so Julian can duck under. They ignore the signs warning them that this lake is not safe. Her mother has told her about the bacteria in the water that will kill her, especially when the water is green or tinged a reddish-brown.
None of this is true, at least not for her, and she hopes not for Julian.
She looks back at him. He’s bald from his chemo, so he does look like an old man. But he’s also twelve, and prone to fits of absolute goofiness, and this is what she loves the most about him.
Now, he’s butt naked and runs past her, grabbing her hand at lightning speed.
“Let’s go for a swim, you freak!”
They both rip off their masks and run until their feet don’t touch the lake’s bottom anymore. The algae envelopes them, spreading its lime green body around theirs; treating them like a spindle and wrapping its gooeyness between their toes and their arms, blanketing them.
Then it happens. The tiniest of the algae attach to the inside of her nose and snake their way down to her lungs and heart. It is here, they will stay, and implant. As these tiny plants secure themselves to the inside of her body, her head stops aching; her lungs stop wheezing.
She looks over at Julian. His skin is turning the lime green of the tide. The algae will work its own kind of respiration, replenishing their bloodstreams with oxygen while Julian and Leila breathe in all those chemicals it so craves.
The two friends float on their backs. They breathe, reinvigorating their organs with precious oxygen. At last, their lungs are fulfilling their purpose.