He - a Short Story by Monica Wang.
A researcher has perhaps no difficulty choosing between her work and her relationship during a world crisis.
“Look at me,” Frederic asked her, just once. “Choose me.”
For a long time after, Lissi wished he had held back what ought to have stayed inside.
Helium has an atomic number of 2. It is the second most common element in the universe. Helium is an inert gas; it does not react with other elements.
Lissi skimmed past the bulk of the news. It was always helium, except for two small blurbs on full-body transplants for wounded veterans and the nth anniversary of the Clean War. War had erupted after the last great helium reserve was revealed as “no more than hot hair, and not enough of that to fill balloons,” as one of the last paid journalists wrote. This line, and the claim that she and Frederic belonged to the first generation to have grown up without helium balloons, stuck with Lissi.
Frederic followed hourly developments on the D-Benoit device from their small kitchen, and together they watched the Canadians push back their release date for the handheld quantum computer again and again, until the world discovered they had no more viable sources of helium. Several nations congratulated Canada while denouncing China for the helium scandal. Some men in the US gunned down Korean Americans in a mall. The war that followed was clean enough, as no one meant environmental impact.
Only much later did they speak of the deconstructed landscape, the soot-coloured sky, the unbreathable air one breathed. Look at Frederic. Listen to him breathe.
Lissi didn't choose research on what Frederic had, which to both of them came to represent Frederic himself. This guilt remained in the back of her mind, far behind work-related matters, so that whenever he spoke to her, she half-expected him to ask her to apply for another position, to choose him in some other way. She suspected he stayed silent so that he could one day say he never lost his dignity. How condescending that sounded even to herself.
Soon he couldn't have asked anything of her if he wanted to. His voice and flesh seemed to have dissolved into the air, little by little, when she wasn't looking. She missed his strong, beautiful body. She missed his smile—he had smiled like someone who knew the intrinsic worth of their pursuits, as Lissi did.
“Look. Here, look.”
“I told you, I don't see it.”
“Put your hand here, by my spine. Feel that? It wasn't there last night.”
“I didn't say I don't believe you. I just can't see anything.”
“Well, I definitely feel something.”
Frederic's coughing stained their sheets and the walls by their bed. She scrubbed at the grey marks in annoyance, felt guilty about feeling annoyed, repeated this each day. For much of her adult life she had tried to shut her mind off to guilt, a feeling that reminded her of her childhood, and had succeeded as with most things she attempted. With renewed vigour and composed silences she took over their household tasks, cared for Frederic at home, drove him to and from specialists. She turned down faint offers of help and worked more, not fewer, hours at the lab. Running algorithms calmed her like nothing else.
“It's extremely rare,” someone said.
For a moment Lissi thought the remark was about helium. “Yes?” She put on a semi-smile. At work she avoided smiling, although most of her colleagues were women. Old prejudices died slowly.
She remembered where she was. A busy lab, though not the one she should have been in, this time of day.
“...only a handful of cases. He's unlucky to have contracted it and to show symptoms this soon. We don't know enough about...”
The doctor's voice drifted in and out.
Helium has an atomic number of 2.
Frederic passed away.
Researchers developed a nearly cost-effective method to extract helium off-planet, and the new superpower nations signed deals to invest in it. Lissi appeared in the media and at events—under her birth name, after several people hinted not so kindly that “Lissi” didn't sound serious enough. Strangers sometimes recognised her. The speaking left her scant time to run numbers.
She developed the habit of muttering to herself. No one commented on it.
Helium has an atomic number of 2. It doesn't react with other elements. Helium is...
Lissi was almost certain she wouldn't have been able to stick needles in Frederic's skin, to study his fluids under glass, to let anyone cut into his flesh. Not that anyone had asked it of her, except in her dreams.
Colleagues and acquaintances told her to focus on the positive. Look how the world wasn't as bad as predicted by the grimmest experts! Look at the sun!
“Think of your kids. You'll still have kids eventually, right?” said a neighbour. “Think of what they'll get to do, what they'll have, even if they won't get to play with balloons.”
Lissi smiled, remembering the only balloon she had received as a child. She had done months of extra chores and later given up her school meal fees, when the adults found out how much she wanted it. The better kind of balloon, all crinkling silver foil. It wouldn't have lasted as long as the normal kind. She remembered how, in the end, rather than seen it wither or burst, she had let it float out of her hands and into the open blue sky.
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Photo courtesy of David Ballew.