“Rarefied” by Brandon Lorimer

Artwork by Victoria Alex

The sky was hung with pink the day I sent everyone away. By six minutes past golden hour, every living being except for me had disappeared from the city. I dropped the tome onto my unwashed sheets as I walked towards the door of my balcony. Stepping out into the evening air, it was bliss. The closest thing to peace I ever heard. No kids shrieking, no smokers hacking, no dogs yapping, no lovers fighting. It had worked. And I had one week.

I clutched the cool metal of the railing and let it anchor me in the moment. The thing I’ve struggled most with my entire life is being part of it, not just letting the days fall through me. If there was ever a moment that deserved to breathe, it was this. Watching that sky pregnant with peach, I grinned to myself. That was new, that grin. Or maybe I do that constantly and have no idea. Probably not, though.

My hands looked scrawny and helpless on the railing, like I’d just emerged for the first time from a life behind barred doors. Which I guess I had. There was chipped black polish on my nails. They always chipped the day after painting them. Something about that look felt equal parts regal and trashy, and that felt fine. But I was always so worried about people seeing my nails like this. Looking at them wrapped around the weathered rail of the balcony though, it felt right. It felt me.

One week with no other living being in the city. I’d tell how I did it, but I barely know. My mind leading up to the week was a fog. I was feeling something. Then I had this book, this volume. Then I knew what to do, what I needed, how to do it. And then I did it. Now, breathing room beyond measure, and a chance to think. That’s all I wanted – to think. People take thinking for granted and having a place to do it. Maybe everyone else doesn’t need that. Maybe I’m just doing a really bad job at thinking and being a part of life. At least I’m good at making people disappear.

I wanted to hurry and get this venture started. I ran back inside, and grabbed my bag as well as a leather jacket that had been bought on a whim two years ago and never once worn in public. Pulling it on with the mad energy of a streaker in reverse, I clambered out my door full of giddy, ethereal, and hopeful excitement and immediately tripped on the stairs and started plummeting to my death.

Everything got slow, the way it gets only when you are teetering on the razor of life and disaster.

“At least nobody’s around to see this,” I thought with grave solemnity.

Except this was slower than chasing my soccer ball out in front of a speeding minivan or choking on a cruel chicken bone hidden in some vindaloo. It was slow enough that I got my wits back in time to open my eyes and see them filled with pink vapor. As soon as I had seen it, my eyes cleared, and I saw the sidewalk an inch away before I plopped down on it. I shook my head and scrambled around to see what had happened, and I met a pink cloud.

A pink cloud is not a normal thing to meet, so I stared for a moment. Part of me was thinking that this was a great opportunity to really be there for that moment, really take it in. The majority of me was thinking how fucked up this was and how I almost died falling down my steps like an idiot, and how there was a little pink cloud at the bottom of my steps. It looked picturesque, somewhere between a watercolour fluff and a cartoon set-piece, just bobbing gently above the sidewalk.

“Wow, um,” I started. “Thank you so much for that.”

The cloud bobbed in silence.

“Okay I had just wanted to say thank you in case you could talk but you’re just some cloud aren’t you?”

The cloud continued its bob.

“Right. Okay. Well, I’m going to go explore a bit. Um. I’m going to stop talking now.”

I gave a quick wave goodbye to the cotton candy cloud and an inward grimace at my own ineptitude, then slung my bag over my shoulder and walked as hurriedly as possible down the nearest alley. One week.

The alleys crisscrossed the world of my neighbourhood, flowing from every major street through every stretch of homes. I had always been terrified to move through them. To be fair, nobody made much use of them. But did anybody actually twist themselves up worrying about it? Probably not. I had disappeared a city of souls, why was my heart racing as I stepped through the worn wooden fences and untended hedges? I wondered for a moment if anybody had ever done what I did, had whatever specialness inside of them to make those things happen. I felt something when it happened, something familiar but unplaceable. Maybe other people had felt that before too. Could I ask people? Would they tell me? Or would I just seem insane?

My thoughts carried me along and I realized that I had wound up deep within the arteries of the side streets. In all of my pondering, I hadn’t noticed that I stopped walking. The trunk of a crooked oak was beside me. I let my gaze follow it up to see the old tree’s foliage dangling above me, but was soon taken aback. There was the little pink cloud, hanging just above my head, billowing innocently. My body tensed for a moment, then I closed my eyes and let the taut air out of me. I was in control here. I had one week.

“You don’t need to follow me, you know,” I called up to the bit of bizarre weather. “I’d actually prefer to be left alone. Just thinking some things out.”

The cloud just billowed there. It felt like it was mocking me with its stoicism. “Well, I’m just going to carry on. So please don’t follow me.” And I scampered off down a path.

I knew that nobody was around, but I couldn’t help but feel anxious. I checked over my shoulder and darted my eyes side to side as I passed each fire escape, each back door. There was this sense of dread looming in me. What was that cloud doing? Why was it here? Did I accidentally summon it? It saved my life, but now it felt like this nagging, cloying thought. The thought had this familiarity, this feeling of something at the back of my mind. Every now and then I would look back and catch a glimpse of its pink fluff and redirect my path. The positive was that I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting in my way, or hearing people nattering, or jumping out of the way of cars as they pulled out. There was a freedom, even in this chase. 

Eventually, I found myself clumsily trekking down a shrubby hill. It levelled out into a parking lot behind some abandoned brick building. I could tell from the path I had run that I was just behind the main drag of my area, but I couldn’t place what building this was. I started to circle around the side. It was nice to be looking at things from a different perspective, without the context of the buzzing world. Even a worn-down old spot like this had a freshness to it. The lens of this week. One week.

When I came out on the other side of the building, it hit me. I saw the big, dilapidated water tower rising up to bludgeon the sky. The pinks had gone blue; I hadn’t realized that night had fully set in. Now all that greeted me from above was a cantankerous thrusting wreck and the promise of darkness. I felt weird about the water tower, I always had. When I was a kid, I had these fantasies about climbing up one of those to do something spectacular. Not like I knew what I would actually do, but it would be spectacular. As I got older and looked at those water towers some more, I realized how worn down they were. My mind had fooled me into thinking they were these paragons of cleanliness and importance. But they were thumbs. And this water tower, which I could just barely see from my bedroom window, was the sorest of reminders. I had never looked at it like this before.

As I stared at the decaying tower, the familiar fluff of the pink cloud slowly floated into my vision. I blinked hard and frowned at it while it made its a scent towards the top railings of the water. Right below where it hovered, a chipped metal ladder stretched to the ground. My heart quickened at the thought, and I quickly shoved it down. Too crazy. Too unnecessary. Turning away from the cloud and the water tower, I started to make my way back along the ramshackle path I took here. I’d get some sleep and get an early jump on tomorrow, maybe figure things out a little easier with a rested brain. I took one last look over my shoulder and noticed that the cloud wasn’t following.

As soon as I got in the door, I slumped into bed. One week. I slept in late. Extremely late. I even went to bed early and I slept clean through noon. Maybe disappearing an entire city of people takes a lot out of you. The moment I realized how much of the day I had already exhausted, I threw myself back down into the waiting depths of my pillows in anguish. Why was I wasting my day like I always do? I had gone through all the trouble of this plan and I wasn’t even doing anything differently.

Tossing and turning, I fell in and out of sleep throughout the rest of the day. My mind kept wrapping around one thing: the water tower. By the time I had gotten sick of tussling with my sheets, it was dusk. One day, gone. I sighed as I pulled on my hoodie and schlepped myself out the door and down my near-deadly stairs. My brain knew where it wanted to go. I didn’t want to. But I was going.

When I arrived at the base of the water tower, I noticed that the pink cloud was in the exact same spot as last night.

“I didn’t see you today. Was wondering where you were,” I hollered up to the cloud. It floated there with what felt like indifference.

“You know, it’s probably dangerous to be up there. I mean I guess you’re a cloud but…Well, people shouldn’t just be up on water towers, so…”

I stared as the little pink cloud buoyed in the air. Despite being on edge in its presence, it truly was something beautiful. Maybe I was so high-strung about it because I didn’t understand it, or at least didn’t understand what it wanted with me.

Then the cloud began to descend, floating parallel to the ladder and stopping right at the base. I stared long and hard at those first few rungs. I hated this. I breathed in a huge gust of evening air and grasped the ladder. Why was I letting a cloud peer pressure me? Either way, I was doing it. I took another breath and made my way up. I got to the top platform and sat down with my back against the water tower, laughing and shaking from exhilaration, and then stopped when I realized all I did was climb a ladder. Peering out through the spaces around the hand railings, I could see the lights of the city giving false life to the empty streets. Then I looked up and behind me at the bare, barrel face of the water tower. It was like a grimace of construction compared to the white and yellow dots extending out below them. But I felt for it. The pink cloud orbited around my head, and I felt my mind drift.

Being up on the water tower had this weirdly familiar feeling. I started to have visions of a night at my old friend Emerson’s house, the woods that spread behind the property, and this clearing I would go out to with them. There was a rocky sort of canyon near a highway. I held Emerson’s ankles while they shook up a can of pink spray paint and tagged the stony edifice with a big “FUCK IT”, and we laughed maniacally for hours after. Emerson was always so cool. So sure of themselves. Full of angst and full of care. We drifted apart after high school, and I haven’t seen them since I moved away from my hometown. I wonder whatever happened to them?

I woke with a start in the cold breeze of the night. I looked at my phone – 1:30 A.M. How the hell did I fall asleep at the top of a water tower? I started to panic as I looked around, expecting something horrible before remembering that nobody else was there. Nobody else was anywhere for miles. That put my mind at ease for a second, but I decided that it’s better safe than sorry. I scurried back down the ladder and ran home. The pink cloud maintained its orbit around the tower.

Over the next few days, I fell off track. All of my time was spent in my apartment, either wrestling with my bed dressings, skimming unfocused through the tome, or staring at my reflection in the black of the TV screen. I had one week. Now I had five days. Four days. Three days. Why was I so scared to go out now? I kept thinking about the water tower, about the cloud, and most surprisingly about Emerson. Why were they on my mind? I wanted to use this time to clear my head a bit and get a handle on my pre-existing thoughts – whatever those were – not to add more mess to my mind. But there they were, smirking with pride.

There was always something about Emerson that made me feel jealous. I never knew exactly what, and I definitely never mentioned it to them. Right now I wish I had. I’ve always had trouble understanding just what I’m feeling, and I could use any answers I could get. I never really thought I had an issue talking about what’s on my mind, but I guess getting rid of every living thing to be in solitude with my thoughts is evidence enough.

On the sixth day, I was so annoyed at myself that the second I woke up I jumped out of bed and headed out the door to the empty city streets. I had to do something. I was desperate, upset, and felt like a failure. By golden hour tomorrow, everything was going back to normal and I didn’t feel any different, any better. I wasted almost the entire week. There had to be something I could do to salvage this solitude. Why couldn’t I just know what I want? What was wrong with me?

My flurry of worry tensed my entire body up and I had to stop and catch my breath. Huffing, I looked at the shop window beside me. It was a home improvement shop. And there in the window was a line of spray paint cans, lined up in a rainbow. And something in my mind just clicked. My eyes were glassy and transfixed on the can’s simple glossy beauty. My whole body felt like it was reaching out towards them. I saw the pink cloud floating in the reflection of the glass beside me.

Ten more minutes with no other living being in the city. I sat on my bed, grinning. I’d tell you how I did it, but I barely know. My mind throughout the week was a mess, but I started to feel this strength, this clarity, this simplicity, and I just acted. I took a can of pink from the store display. I left cash on the counter. Then I was up on the water tower. That big, ugly, hopeful thumb, waiting to be what I used to believe it was. Waiting to be itself. At first, I didn’t know what I was going to tag. But then Emerson’s smirk filled my mind, and my arm just started moving. It was vibrant. It was simple. I liked it. At the bottom of the ladder, I had looked up to take it all in. The pink cloud had been holding close to me the whole time. But at that moment, with a thought, it hovered no more.

And as I sat on the edge of my bed, I felt something like peace. At the very least, something nice. I squashed all feelings that said I wasted seven days of solitude. Never in my life would I have dreamed of doing what I had done, and there is no way I could have wasted it. I was proud of myself. I closed my eyes and turned my head towards the window as the golden hour washed over my eyelids, preparing for the return. I let out a good sigh, opened my eyes, and beamed at the big, pink Q beaming back at me from the water tower.

BRANDON LORIMER is a writer, musician, and actor from Halifax currently residing in Montréal. He began his writing career with his play Noun, a post-apocalyptic tale of two men surviving and loving in a bleak wasteland. Since then he has worked with multiple playwriting units, including Playwright Workshop Montréal’s Young Creators Unit. He enjoys absurdity, staring at the ocean, and drink too much Arizona.