This story is by Joya Williams and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I just want you to know that you’re not alone,” she said before I hung up. Seriously? Of course, I was alone. In a room with a bed and a window that looked out onto a park. It was empty today. A sign on the temporary gate told people to stay away. At first, no one listened, but then the police started coming around and some people were fined. That made them listen. It also made them angry and they fought the police. I watched it all from my bedroom window. I didn’t go outside unless I had to, and that was only for groceries. I should probably watch TV or read a book. But I had already read five books in the past month and I hated turning on the TV; it was always bad news.
I called my friend Cassie. “Hey, how’s it going?” I asked her.
“Not great. My grandmother is in that nursing home that was on the news. My mom’s really worried,” she said. I didn’t know what to say. Cassie really loved her grandmother and bad things seemed to be happening in nursing homes.
“Sorry,” I said, “I’ll let you go.”
I called my cousin Jennifer. “Hey, how’s it going?” I asked her.
“I’m exhausted. Did a double shift at the hospital. Only home for a few hours then I have to go back,” she replied.
“Wow, that sucks,” I said.
“Are you okay?” she asked me. I didn’t know how to explain how I felt. So I didn’t try.
“Yup, just checking in.”
I made one more call. “Hi mom, how’s it going?”
“Fine dear. How are you?” I can hear the TV in the background. It was always loud.
“I’m good. How’s dad?” I ask her.
“He’s the same.”
“Just checking in. Love you, bye,” I said.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” What could I say? I feel like I’m imploding? Screaming in silence? Unspoken words rumbled painfully in my mind?
“I’m fine mom,” I said and hung up.
It’s hot. My apartment has no A/C and the fan isn’t working. Maybe it feels like I do, and nothing is worth the effort. Sweat forms beads of moisture and drips down my back in a lazy line to the waistband of my shorts. I walk to my bedroom to find a tank top. The room feels like all the air has been sucked out of it. The window is open but provides no relief.
A young woman stands by the gate with the sign. She looks like she’s waiting for someone. I scan the area from my vantage point but see no one. She looks agitated. Maybe the person she’s meeting is running late. She checks her phone but doesn’t call anyone. Should she even be outside? My phone tells me it’s almost 8 o’clock. Even though it was still light outside and it was summer; things were closing early nowadays. It’s the law. She should probably be home and not standing around waiting for someone. She wore a plain white t-shirt, jeans, and dirty white Converse sneakers. She definitely wasn’t on a date dressed like that, I thought. Although, she wore a pretty scarf loosely around her neck.
I watched her check her phone again and look from left to right. I needed a distraction, but this was boring. Suddenly, there was movement coming from the street close to where the woman was waiting. Finally! But she didn’t look happy to see the man that approached her, instead, she looked upset. I felt a sudden urge to look away. I sensed that something wasn’t right. But I kept my eyes fixed on her. They seemed to be arguing, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. She started to walk away, but he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. As he did so, two other men left the shadow of the three-story parking lot and casually approached them. I felt my heart quicken and I wanted to yell at her. “Look out! Get away!” But the words remained unspoken as I stood frozen at my bedroom window, just watching. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe nothing bad was going to happen.
A loud bang scared me so bad, I tripped over the corner of my bed and ended up on the floor. For a minute I was disoriented. But there was another knock and I realized that someone was at my door. I ran to the living room and checked the peephole. The pizza guy.
“Just leave it at the door please,” I yelled through the closed door.
“No problem. Have a good night,” he said and gave me a thumbs-up with a gloved hand, smiling at the peep-hole. I listened until I heard his footsteps down the hall and then opened the door and picked up the pizza box. In the kitchen, I cleaned the box with a disinfectant wipe and then washed my hands. The news said that handwashing could save your life. Not sure why cleanliness had to be on the news before people listened, but whatever.
Suddenly remembering the woman outside, I ran back to my bedroom and looked out the window. She was gone and so were the three men. I wondered if she was okay. Did she know that guy? Who were the other two? Why did I care? My father says my imagination runs wild. So I told myself she was fine.
Until I saw a pretty scarf softly crumpled on the sidewalk.
The following day the voice on the other end of the phone told me exactly what she thought I needed to hear. “I just want you to know that you’re not alone.”
“But what if I am?” I said. I’m sure most people were grateful for the sentiment. But I was alone. Stuck in my apartment by myself. For how long, I had no idea. The blue walls felt like they would turn into huge waves and drown me in loneliness.
“You can call us anytime, day or night,” she said.
“But you can’t come over, can you?” I asked.
“Well, no but-” she started but I interrupted her.
“If I needed a hug you couldn’t hug me could you?”
“Do you need a hug?” she asked in a kind voice, “Why don’t we set up a virtual meeting?”
“No thank you,” I hung up. I looked out the bedroom window and thought about the woman that stood outside yesterday. Did she get home safely? Did she realize she’d lost her scarf? My eyes traveled to the corner of the room where the soft gauzy fabric sat in a clear plastic bag on the floor.
It was the first time I had ventured outside for anything other than groceries, but something compelled me to pick up that scarf. It was light and airy and smelled faintly of perfume. A noise coming from the parking garage made my heart thump in my ears until I felt dizzy. A woman walked cautiously in my direction. Our eyes met and we made room for each other on the sidewalk; she turned away slightly as if she was afraid I might cough or sneeze. Feeling vulnerable out there on my own, made me run back to the building.
I turned on the TV, hoping to find a movie I hadn’t already watched over the past two months. The voice of the anchor on channel 24 echoed in my room. “Thirty-four-year-old woman missing since yesterday evening.” Hazel brown eyes stared at me from the flat screen. Danielle Jason had not been heard from since 7 pm last night. My tongue stuck to the roof of my dry mouth as I stared at the pretty scarf on the screen. The same one that sat on the floor of my bedroom. I felt a chill in the middle of the heatwave. In the short time I had been away from the window last night, she had disappeared. Those men had taken her. At least I think they did. But I didn’t see them. I called Cassie.
“Are you sure it’s the same woman?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. Cassie was silent for a moment.
“Sometimes we see things when we have too much-”
“Time on our hands?” I finished for her, “I’m not crazy. I saw her.” But what if being stuck in this apartment for so long had gotten to me? The scarf in the bag on the floor was my only proof. My cousin Jennifer sounded skeptical too when I called her but told me to call the police. Maybe they wouldn’t believe me either.
I turned on the TV, hoping to hear some good news about Danielle Jason and save myself potential embarrassment. The words that streamed across the screen read: “Eye witness saw a woman holding the scarf Jason was wearing the day she disappeared…”
I should never have left my apartment.