by Riddhishrree Badhan
12th grader at Hillsborough High School, Hillsborough
English teacher: Melissa Blevins
Honorable mention award: $50
My alarm goes off at five in the morning. I blink slowly, eyelids burdened with slumber. Truth is, I don’t want to wake up. Especially not now. But I have to, so I do.
The day begins like all the other days. I brush. Shower. Finish a granola bar. Then, I slip on a new N-95, pinching the bridge of my nose to make sure the mask’s secure, and pull on a pair of tight latex gloves. Satisfied, I push open the front door and take a few ginger steps outside.
The streets are empty. I’m alone. A little laugh escapes my lips, the soft sound puncturing the silent air. Thank God everyone here hates mornings. I used to be the same, actually. I am the same. Still, waking up early is the price I have to pay for some privacy, so I’ll gladly empty my pockets.
I glance up at the sky, which seems to have been painted a murky blue. The few dark clouds that drift by are tinted with pale yellow from the rising sun. I walk, keeping track of time by watching the sky brighten. The border between light and dark is so sudden, so jarring.
Loud footsteps interrupt my thoughts. I startle, turning my head toward the noise. A man is walking on the sidewalk across from me, lagging a bit behind in pace. I don’t think I’ve seen him before—he must be new here. He catches me staring, and I look away, but not before I see the confusion scrawled all over his expression.
He’s not wearing a mask.
At work, I’m surrounded by a crowd of people who are nowhere near six feet apart. The concept of social distancing seems to have been forgotten entirely as colleagues excitedly chat each other up about new solutions and weekend plans. I maneuver through the throng, and as I do, people automatically get out of my way. As they usually do. It’s like I’m Moses parting the Red Sea.
I sit in my cubicle, comforted by the walls separating me from the other maskless faces. This is safe. I’m safe — from disease and from judgment.
Without warning, a coworker leans over the right wall of my cubicle, peering down at me.
“Hey! Did you get a chance to look at what I sent you last night?” Henry asks, smiling at me.
I instinctively shrink away, then nod.
“Yeah,” I whisper through my mask. “I’m almost done, just give me another day.”
“Okay,” he responds. I can’t quite decipher the look he gives me. It’s one of sadness, that much I’m sure of.
I swallow and shift my gaze back to my computer.
I’m preparing dinner when my phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s Hannah. Reluctantly, I pick up, already having some idea of what this conversation would be like.
“Hi! How are you?” Hannah says, opening the call with some pleasantries. Her face is a little blurry on the screen.
“Fine,” I reply, more focused on the stove than her.
“Anything exciting happen?” she asks, not taking the hint. I roll my eyes as I use a fork to stir my cooking noodles.
“Come on, Hannah,” I deadpan. “You know nothing exciting ever happens.”
Hannah’s enthusiasm dampens a little. I try not to feel guilty.
“Actually, that’s why I called,” Hannah continues. I tense, clutching the fork a little tighter. “Do you remember when we used to go to Rapid Rivers?” The water park? I clench my teeth. She can’t be serious. I refuse to answer her, resisting the urge to hang up right then and there.
“I know you’re not that into those sort of things anymore—”
Well, that’s a massive understatement.
“—but the gang and I are planning on spending an afternoon there, and it’d be nice if you could come.”
“I can’t,” I answer stiffly. “You know why I can’t.”
Hannah frowns. “Please, it’s only one day, and—”
“I don’t care!” I snap. “It’s too dangerous! I’m not going. I hope you all have fun.”
I disconnect the call before she can respond.
The noodles aren’t that appetizing now.
When I find that I’ve run out of ice cream and toilet paper, I come to the realization that I need to make a dreaded trip to the grocery store. I sigh, setting out my disinfectant wipes for later. Then, I put on my mask and gloves again, bringing a large recyclable bag with me into the car.
As I walk into the store, I’m painfully aware of the strange looks I receive. Some people just stare, perplexed. Others try to hide their amused smirks. A child tugs on their mother’s clothes, pointing at me, only to be quickly chastised. I tell myself to ignore everyone else, to breathe as little as possible, to get my things and leave as fast as I can.
I’m out of the store in fifteen minutes, my items packed neatly inside the bag I had brought with me. A box of granola bars. Three tubs of chocolate ice cream. Fifteen rolls of toilet paper. More instant noodle packets.
I start my car up and turn the radio on, listening to quiet music in blissful ignorance as the world whizzes past me. For a second, I can almost hear my sister laughing in the passenger seat, cracking a stupid joke about my old office crush or something else at my expense.
Natalie loves long rides in the car. At least, she used to.
My grip on the steering wheel loosens a bit as unwanted memories flood my head. I shake my head, willing them away, and try to focus on the road in front of me.
I see a long line of cars parked outside my neighbor’s house. They’re having a party. I sigh, remembering the last time the news had covered new cases. The number was high. So high.
I close the curtains.
I’m not sure how long I spend working. When I finally check the time, it’s near midnight. I put my laptop away and trudge upstairs. My gaze flickers to an empty bedroom next to mine. I force myself to look away.
As I climb into bed, I glance at a number written on a piece of paper near my lamp.
Call me whenever you need.
I don’t think I need to today.
It’s five in the morning again. I get ready for another day just like the last. When I go outside for my walk, I’m unpleasantly surprised to see the same man from yesterday. Maybe I need to change my time.
He approaches me. I step back, alarmed.
“Excuse me,” the stranger starts. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“We haven’t,” I confirm, keeping my distance. “I’m Amanda.”
“Well, Amanda, I hope you don’t find this rude. I’m a naturally curious person, and I can’t help but ask.…” the man trails off. I blink, waiting for him to continue.
“The pandemic ended two years ago,” he finally says. “Why are you still wearing all this?”
I meet his gaze, my own steely.
“I’m doing what I should have done two years ago.” I pause. “When I still had my sister.”
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