Summer Shorts: Brain Smog

Not for the faint of lung – flash fiction by Matthew Ryan Sadowski


The throng transudes from the burning bus like a popped pimple. Gray fumes fill the cabin. Smoke and air – you can hardly tell the difference anymore. Bleary eyes on the exit, you squirm wildly through the crush of coughing commuters, and thrust yourself from the vehicle. Breathe in, breathe out.

You don’t stick around for the aftermath. Twenty minutes till work, and you can’t afford to clock in late again. Your recurrent tardiness is building a case against your original claims of punctuality. You hock a loogie – saliva greyer and grittier than usual. Here you are – another laowai unaccustomed to the great Beijing shroud. Another dime-a-dozen ESL teacher at a clusterfuck company. And today of all days, you leave my respirator at home. You can see it now: a N95 mask with dual exhalation valves sitting idle on your nightstand next to a bowl of incinerated hash you smoked the night before, two empty bottles of baijiu, and a stack of prostitute cards – while your lungs are left to contend with the an AQI rocketing past 500.

The imperceptible sun softly smolders like a phosphene, a trick of the eye. A flurry of catkins floats like cirrus clouds. Sometimes the smog fills your head, and you see smoky faces materialise in the murk and passersby blink in and out of existence.


So what, they fired you. You’re an American in China, goddammit, you’ll find a job tomorrow. Right after Montezuma’s revenge is done wreaking havoc on your gut. Right after you find a way to refill your antidepressants you quit cold turkey one month ago. And where is your respirator anyways China Daily reports Chinese factories are adding some new, controversial chemical additive to coal. Forecasted record high AQI levels. Sharp increase in respiratory-related hospitalisations. Is it safe to leave the apartment? Hell’s bells.

You grab your backpack and disappear into the gloom. AQI: 600. You thought the index capped at 500? Wrong again, laowai. Breathe in, breathe out. Try not to choke. Dip into a convenience store and scour the isles. Not one dust mask in sight. Wumart, Carrefour, 7-11 – out of stock.

Can you feel it? The motes in your mind coalesce, shadow the neurons in dusk. Particulate matter cloaks the synaptic corridors of your brain, fine as Gobi dust, and the vacuous space inside burns blank as a Microsoft word doc, with the cursor blinking blinking blinking in front of an absent typist.

A horn bleats, reverberates through your empty skull. Ni hao! Wake up, laowai. An auto rickshaw has nearly flattened you. Its headlights illuminate the PM particles, and the atmospheric opacity increases to ninety percent. AQI: 700. Smog, blindness, what’s the difference?

Do you hear the cars crashing? Do you see people walking into walls, the cloudy vacancy in their eyes? The coughs of red mist?

Did you forget where you are? Who you are? Snap out of it. Aren’t you late for work?


The sky immolates, collapses like an ashed cigarette, boldly proclaims No More. It’s goddamned Pompeii in Beijing, and the streets are ripe with victims to claim. No volcanoes here, merely industrial smokestacks wheezing effluvium into the air. AQI: 800, 900, 1,000 … what does it matter? A storm of cinders, cyclones of detritus, whirl and lash the populace.

You stand in some hutong, your mind a dust storm of opaque inactivity. With every inhalation, your bronchial tubes burn molten-red as tungsten filaments. Below the disintegrating sky, Beijingers surround you with their fugue state stares. The insides of your lungs grow damp with blood. A flock of finches asphyxiate in the air, and the people soon follow.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Matt Sadowski is a writer living and working in Beijing

This story was an entry for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition