This story is by Tom Raven and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“We got the answers, 1-1-8 at your service!”
“Good evening,” said I in my 12-year-olds’ voice, a musical experiment went wrong.
“Hello! How may we serve you?”
Yeah, well… there’s a girl. Her name is Eve and she’s older than me. But that’s okay, because I’m taller anyways. So, won’t you, please, tell me does she like me too?
Wick saw me floating away, so he shook me by the shoulders. I cleared my throat.
“Umm… Are we… safe from SARS?”
Silence. The kind of silence which according to my soon-to-be-a-teenager experience usually signaled of two possible outcomes. One was an explosion of humiliating laughter, the other was the static sound of rhythmical beeping. But not this time. We were quite concerned about this Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a deadly virus coming from Asia. TV news did their job well on young kids.
“Hang on a minute, please.”
And hang on we did. We, the young asthmatics from the Silver Lake Sanatorium.
Usually a kid got stuck up there for three weeks. That was my third time, so I gained the boss-type title automatically. Well, vice-boss, to be precise. Wick was here for the fourth time, but we managed okay – he was the muscle, I was the brain. And, most importantly, Wick of all the kids there had a cell phone, which was a hell of a lot back then.
Besides me and Wick there were around 7 other young men in the room. The age varied as varied the styles of our pajamas. Mine was ocean blue with pinkish dots. Wick preferred a more masculine, bare-chested-Conan-the-Barbarian-style most of the time.
“There are no registered cases in Europe yet, so there is no need to worry, young man,” said the nice lady.
“Thanks!” I whispered in a hurry and passed the phone to Wick.
We heard steps approaching our room and from the sound of it we knew the steps. It was Mrs. Lada. She was big. She was strict. She was Russian. It took us 5 seconds to turn off the lamp, get back in our beds and hold our excited breaths. Mrs. Lada stood in the door aisle watching us with the all-seeing eyes of hers and to our relief they saw nothing. The Russian steps turned away and we exhaled. Outside, autumn winds played their tune and kept me thinking.
Oh, boy, how we danced. Her hands a little sweaty, cheeks blushed and body so close to mine.
“So, what did she say exactly?” little Archie asked in a whisper.
“Everything’s gonna be fine, Archie. No SARS near us.”
“Good.” said Archie with a relief.
He was the smallest, most tiny guy ever with a tendency for paranoid panic attacks. Each day he thought of a new way to scare us all shitless. This week of Little Archie’s horror tales presented SARS epidemy, killer step-dads, rotting baby-teeth, and Mrs. Lada, the child-eater. And every time it was me or Wick to convince him otherwise.
But the autumn winds carried on.
Little Archie had a heavy-case asthma, so most of the nights we spent listening to his lungs struggling for air. From the sound of it I wasn’t entirely sure whether Archie didn’t have SARS that night. I tried to fall asleep, but all I could hear was Archie’s lungs and all I could think about was Eve. And how we danced. And what a daredevil I was to sign up for the dancing practice just to get close to her.
I wonder what she’s dreaming of.
I woke up all sweaty in the dim, grey morning light.
It seemed everyone else was still asleep. I turned towards the door. A girl quite younger then me stood near the entrance. Her yellow pajamas shone like a sunrise over the fall of Silver Lake. She dropped a letter on the floor and ran off all giggling. I stared at the letter.
Nobody seemed to notice our early visitor. I sneaked for the letter and climbed back in my bed. The letter was a folded sheet with girly aroma to it. At first, I thought it was the scent of the purple ink which said the following:
The basement. 10 pm.
But then at the bottom of the letter I saw the odor’s true source – a perfect set of fiery red lips.
She lipstick-kissed the letter! For me!
That made me wanna go to the wherever-whenever anytime, for I knew the lips belonged to Eve.
“What have you got there?” Wick asked as if through a sleep.
I looked at his half-opened eyes and cast the letter into his face with excitement. I saw his eyelids rising in slow motion until he was wide awake and aware of the wonder he’s witnessing.
“Holy…” was as far as he got when Mrs. Lada came in.
“Wake up, you little rascals, rise and shine, they say!” roared the Russian woman. She tried to be nice sometimes, but mostly she was just a huge, loud and creepy old lady.
“No sleeping all day, malchiki, davai, davai! Will get a plenty of sleep when in graveyards!” her laughter filled our room with discomfort and garlic breath. Before she could say anything more traumatizing we got saved by nice Ms. Hillberry. Once again Mrs. Lada’s shift was over and we survived.
“Way to go, man!” Wick whispered as soon as Mrs. Lada had stomped away.
“Thanks!” I replied.
“Huh? What’s the way to go, guys?” moaned little Archie.
We turned to answer, but our tongues froze instead. Our tiny guy looked pale blue, eyes hollow, his body shaking.
“Archie, you okay?” I asked terrified by the looks of him. He looked like a trembling corpse. His pajamas a mix of orange, yellow, brown and green – the joyous version of autumn colors – now somehow reminded me of oldness.
“I’m fine, guys,” interrupted by sharp asthmatic cough, he continued “what’s the way to go?”
Wick and I met our eyes for a while.
“Neil here is going to have a date!” said Wick with a pride. Lowering his voice, he added “In the basement…” and blinked.
“Wow! Are you going to fall in love, Neil?” asked little Archie hyped, but weary, still shaking and eyes hollow.
I lingered to answer.
It’s SARS. Why? It’s SARS, dear God, and soon Archie’s gonna vomit his insides out like the Asian people on TV!
I shrug my shoulders.
“Mommy used to say it hurts.” he said.
“What hurts?” I snapped out of my trance.
“Falling in love,” his voice now only a murmur, interrupted by cough and wheeze, “it hurts, she said.”
No longer we needed to ask him whether he’s okay. Like under a spell I still gazed at what remained of little Archie while Wick had already called for help.
The rest happened in fast-forward. Mrs. Lada, Ms. Hillberry and what seemed to be all of Sanatorium staff raved our room. And after that there was silence.
I still remember that eerie emptiness of little Archie’s bed.
Nobody told us what happened to Archie, neither we asked. The sight of him resembling a corpse had made us speechless. We dressed, we ate our breakfast, we went to our classes, we did our routine procedures. Without a word of Archie.
I met Eve at the dance practice. She looked stunning. Always did. She stood in front of me and smelled of the letter.
Are you going to fall in love, Neil?
“Did you get it?” she whispered.
“Yes,” I said in my oh-so-wrong-sounding voice. It was even worse that day.
“Will you come?” she asked, sparkles glittering in her witchy green eyes.
Falling in love. It hurts.
I couldn’t speak.
“Is it Archie?” she felt my sorrow.
“Why, don’t you know?” she asked, smiling.
Know what, Eve? How exactly he died? How he suffered? What?
“Know what?” I asked with no expression.
“Boys…” she sighed.
She took me by the hand and we ran. I didn’t resist. The dance practice lady shouted from a distance. Life-less, like a ragdoll I flew behind Eve through the corridors of Silver Lake Sanatorium until we stopped at a solid wooden door. “Ward 03” was written above it. She knocked and a huge lady in all white opened the door. She looked like Mrs. Lada’s sister.
“What?” she asked with no accent.
“Can we see Archie?” asked Eve. I felt my pulse raise and cheeks glow.
“No. Maybe after a week. It’s flu season, kids, you better be careful,” she closed the door and left us alone in the corridor near Ward 03.
Boys…We didn’t ask…
All red and ashamed I looked at Eve and we laughed.
Next day we got a phone call from Ward 03. Somehow little Archie had got Wick’s number. He wanted to know how my date went. It didn’t hurt, I said.