This story is by Nikhil Dutta and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I moaned in dismay as a sliver of sunlight poked my eyes. It had been such a good dream. I was soaring through the city as everyone pointed and gasped in awe: “By Golly, he can fly!” The girl who lived across from my balcony was outside, smiling up at me like she knew I could do it all along. I swept her off her feet and she giggled. I had never heard her laugh before, and it made me laugh too. Soon we were above the clouds, making a gentle beeline for the setting sun, her arms wrapped tight around my chest. Then she said, “Don’t you need a license to fly?” and just like, that the dream was over. The sun was now blaring in my face and consciousness swept over me like a zombie rising from its grave. My new apartment was a single room, furnished with a shredded couch (the previous owners’ cats had used it as a scratching post), a cheap TV, and a mattress that lay on the floor. The bed frame was leaning against the fridge, still in its box. The sink had dishes in it, leftover from the weekend. My keyboard sat in a corner, unplugged and untouched. It’s safe to say I’m not doing so well.
It started a few months ago, when an unknown disease spread from overseas to our town. It felt like a flu, but then you would suddenly stop breathing. The death toll climbed to the thousands within weeks. Our government eventually had the sense to close down all non-essential services, and cautioned us to stay indoors. As the infection spread, we were mandated to wear medical masks, and maintain a distance of six feet from each other at all times. They called it “Social Distancing.” The whole situation has really made me re-assess my value to society as a piano teacher. Sure, it’s nice to have us around, but when the chips are down, we all get benched without consolation. After a couple months of paying rent out of my savings, I was dangerously close to being completely bankrupt, so I got a job as a delivery driver. The only problem was my salary became a mere fraction of my former earnings, so I had to move. I lugged my suitcases from the twenty-seventh floor of an upscale building to a shabby motel in the part of town where dustballs form. A heat haze hovered over the parking lot, and the cicadas were screaming on the day I moved in. The sun started cooking my skin as I unloaded my minivan. I felt sweat soak my shirt as I heaved my heaviest suitcase up the staircase one step at a time. I had to pause for a moment to wipe a layer of it off my brow, panting hard in my medical mask. It was difficult enough to breathe in these things on in the first place, but mine was starting to smell like bad breath.
“Need some help?”
The voice came from across the parking lot. I squinted into the glare and saw a figure standing in the shade of the overhang. She was standing with her hands on her hips, her eyebrows lifted in bemusement. There was something drawn on her mask, but I couldn’t see what it was.
“No thanks, I can manage,” I called back, and the suitcase slipped from my sweaty grip, tumbling down the stairs and landing hard on the pavement. I closed my eyes and winced, choosing to remain where I stood for a few seconds. The girl took the hint and walked over. I tread downstairs, carefully avoiding her gaze. Soon we were standing at opposite ends of the suitcase, and I saw that there was a fire-breathing dinosaur drawn on her mask. It was a child’s drawing. She noticed me staring at it.
“My sister’s handiwork,” she said.
“I envy her talent,” I replied. “Does she live with you?”
“We moved in here together a few weeks ago,” she said. “Crazy times, right?”
“Tell me about it, the whole world is upside down,” I said.
She blinked and looked oddly tearful for a moment, but then the moment passed. She cleared her throat and shifted her attention to the suitcase on the floor.
“On three, ok?” she prompted.
“Thank you,” I said.
We hefted it together, making cursory eye contact as we waddled up the staircase and set it down gently by my door. She pointed out the door across from mine, telling me that it was her room.
“You should come over for dinner one of these days, it’s not like we have anything better to do,” she said.
“Alright, but only if we stay six feet apart,” I said.
A smile reached her eyes and they sparkled. We waved to each other as she crossed the lot to her room, and I realized I never even learned her name. That was three weeks ago, and I haven’t seen her since. The early May sunshine had given way to grey clouds that smothered the sky like a blanket of faded cotton. The cold sun cast a pale glow on the street. A breeze swept some leaves off the ground as I exited the apartment and walked to my minivan.
I turned the key and the engine coughed to life. The radio clicked on, already tuned to the jazz station, and a medley of notes cascaded from my minivan’s cheap speakers. I cracked a smile; I couldn’t help it. Music was my constant companion. It was my friend on the lonely road, a lover to confide in, the warmth in the dark. It invigorated me like a drug. Essential service, I thought to myself.
Toward the end of my shift, I received an order from a “Hannah F,” who instructed me to go to the grocery store and buy all the ingredients for an apple pie. I was happy to see that the recipe included nutmeg, my mother used to make it that way. After returning to my car, I looked at the delivery address and gaped: it was the motel where I lived. The apartment number was 209, the door the girl had pointed to. All of a sudden the car felt a little too warm for comfort. Then I swallowed hard and told myself that I have a job to do, dammit.
I arrived at the motel parking lot and waited in the car for a solid two minutes. The truth was that her simple kindness of helping me with my luggage had been branded in my memory. It was the last genuine social interaction I’d had with anyone since Social Distancing manifested. I could still see the sparkle in her eyes when she smiled at me. Why hadn’t I asked for her name?
“Stupid!” I said to myself, banging my head and fists on the steering wheel. The horn honked and a stray cat jumped three feet in the air before hissing and scuttling off. I sighed and turned the engine off. I really was being stupid.
I gathered the groceries from my trunk and marched up the stairs to her door. They had a welcome mat that said “Wipe Your Paws!” and I hesitated before knocking. I could hear two people inside, and one of them was crying. Long, mournful wails of sadness. Controlled, but unyielding. The misery of someone who must move on. The anguish of someone who can’t ever move on. It was a child’s voice.
I stood there, my hand raised to the door for a few more seconds. Then I knocked and the crying ceased immediately.
“It’s your apple pie, miss!” I called awkwardly.
There was whispering for a dozen seconds, and then the door opened a crack. I saw the eyes of the girl I had met, only now they were red and bloodshot with tears.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said thickly, and she opened the door a little wider. She wasn’t wearing her mask, and her face looked tired and sore. A small child was clutching her hand, peering at me from behind her leg. In the corner of the room was a picture of an older man and woman. The girl shared the man’s eyes, and the child the woman’s nose.
I handed the bags to her, not knowing what to say.
“Thanks,” she sniffled, making to close the door.
“Wait!” I exclaimed, and she paused. “Is everything alright?” I knew it was a stupid question before I asked it. Who in their right mind is alright these days? She blinked at me for several seconds. Then she started laughing. A hearty sound that echoed into the empty air. I started laughing too. We both stood there, laughing together as the world swirled and churned around us.