Running Out of Air - Shannon Hudgens

That afternoon, Jack Finn slipped into the dark corner of a nicer bar than he had ever taken his wife to and watched a Martian suffocate on the NASA live stream. He did not know the astronaut, William Saddleston, would run out of air and die at that hour through an accident of timing that would find his Portable Martian Surface Suit fully depleted of oxygen before he could return to the habitat, but once Jack ordered a bourbon and started watching, he had a difficult time pulling himself away.


At the polished counter of the bar, a woman laughed at something her companion had said, drawing Jack’s attention from the TV screen. A pencil skirt and short cherry-colored coat neatly tucked her body into an alluring figure that Jack supposed he could not blame a man for being interested in. Following up on whatever he had said, the man at the counter put a hand on the woman’s knee and leaned in to whisper a codicil in her ear that made her red lips part in a smile.


Jack flushed and turned back to the stream coming from thirty-six million miles away, where Saddleston, who would later be called the First Martian when an independent governing body was formed there three decades later, wheezed and pleaded into his helmet cam for help. The screen was filled with the output of two different cameras at any given moment. Sometimes his face cam played alongside his helmet cam, and the viewers could see all that was happening in front of—and to—the astronaut. At other times, one screen would come off and another would come on, like a map cam or a habitat cam, or one of the cams of the other astronauts trying to rescue him. Whoever oversaw the cameras had a flair for the dramatic and not a shred of humanity.


The woman at the counter caught Jack’s attention again, this time with her leg. She uncrossed and hooked it around the stool of her companion’s bar stool. Her shoes were some expensive high heel Jack could not remember the brand of off the top of his head. Something Italian. Jack watched as the woman slid her hands along the man’s wool slacks, the red shine of painted fingernails disappearing as she moved up into his jacket. She buried her face in the crook of his neck.


Jack thrust his hand from the shadows of his corner table and waved the bartender over, ordered another bottom-shelf bourbon on the rocks, and let his gaze rove back and forth between the Martian dying in front of his eyes and the conspicuously intimate couple at the counter. The astronaut had fallen to the ground and was slowly changing color as he tried to find air that did not exist while the woman at the counter arched and leaned back so the man might run his lips down the nape of her neck. Jack was sure he heard her moan just a little. It was a sound so different from the ragged breathing of the astronaut coming through the TV that their juxtaposition made Jack’s spine quiver, but even as he watched both scenes unfold before him, he began to feel as though he were both William Saddleston and the man at the counter. He felt the air of the bar grow thin and metal-cold so that he could not breath, even as he smelled the Estée Lauder Beautiful infused in the woman’s silk blouse.


Jack tried to take a drink of his bourbon and choked, slamming the tumbler to the table with a crack. The woman at the bar peered into his dark corner, while the man looked at his drink and the jeweled bottles of liquor across the counter. Jack stared at them from the shadows, unable to breathe, as they gathered their briefcases, paid their bill, and left, the woman first and the man a studied number of seconds later.


After they were gone, Jack finally coughed air into his lungs and glanced back to the TV screen. The vital sign monitor showed a flat, red line that marked the end of William Saddleston’s life.


Jack walked up to the barstools where the couple had been sitting. A copper rail gleamed along the edge of the bar, holding back the suicidal drinks meandering along the counter, buoyed by condensation sweating down the sides of the glass. The woman’s drink meandered more than the man’s did. Jack sat in the man’s seat and put his glass next to a glass of nearly empty scotch. He hoped to see his tumbler of cheap bourbon glide like magic across the counter but helped it along when magic and the science of fluid dynamics proved unobliging.


He was still nudging the glass when the bartender came to clean the drinks and collect the tab. Grabbing the TV remote control the bartender said, "You done watching the space guy?"


"Yeah," Jack said. “Change the station.”


“You know, someone told me Mars is so far away that transmission took almost half an hour to get back here to Earth. That Saddleston guy was probably dead before you even walked into the bar.”


Jack’s face changed color as he stretched a corner of his mouth in a way not much like a smile. He paid his bill then and left the bar that was nicer than any he had ever taken his wife to.

Shannon Hudgens is a literature teacher currently surrounded by the rice fields, mountains, and green rivers of the South Korean countryside, where she has lived and worked for the last four years. Her life is simple, being devoted to simple things like photography, reading, and dreaming about what could be.

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