Layla was sitting on a wooden chair on her balcony. She leaned her head on her hand and looked out into the city. One lonely star was sitting up in the sky and she looked up to it in wonder and let out a sigh.
The streets were all lit up, but nobody was out at this hour because of the new laws. An occasional black car would pass or the sound of a siren would fill the air but other than that all that could be heard was the muffling of the wind in her hair or the sound of her breath being exhaled.
The sound of a door opening startled her, she turned and looked down to find a tall man dressed in a white shirt and red pajama pants walk onto his fire escape. She was suddenly aware of the shirt and shorts she was wearing, glad for the table that was hiding her legs. He sat on the stairs and put his face in his hands. Soon he wiped his eyes and turned to the night sky with glistening cheeks.
“You okay?” She asked, her cheeks turning pink immediately.
The man’s head jerked up to the where she was, on the next balcony above his level.
“Not really,” he said and turned back away from her, to the lonely star between them.
“What’re you doing awake at this hour?” She asked, watching him as he took in the city at this solitary night.
“Just trying to escape everything, you know?” He let out a sigh and looked at a passing ambulance. “You think someone got it?”
“COVID, you mean? probably.”
“My dad got it,” he said and silence followed filling the air.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
“Yeah, well. My mom just called me to let me know he’s in the hospital. This wouldn’t have happened had they listened to me. I told them to let me get their necessities, but they told me not to worry myself.”
“At least they’re not like my brother. He’s having a party every month, he calls it the Maskerade with a K,” she said, making the man smile. “Everyone has to come in with gloves and a mask, but they’re literally standing shoulder to shoulder in the pictures so there’s no point.”
The man sighed, “that’s why people are dying.”
Another silence fell over them like a curtain that covered them from the noisy stream of cars that went by.
“Who are you by the way?” He asked.
“I’m Layla, you?”
“I’m Michael.” She smiled to him.
“I’d shake your hand, but… you know.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling as he looked to the star that was a little higher up in the sky now. “Thanks for the distraction. I needed it.”
The next night came and Michael was there first. He was sitting on the fire escape, the step behind him digging into his back as he read. After an hour he heard the door of the balcony over him open and Layla stepped out, walking to the railing and watching the same star from yesterday.
“Hey, there,” he said making her jump.
“You startled me,” she exclaimed as he laughed.
“Sorry about that.”
“What’re you reading?” She asked as she went to sit on the marble of her balcony, her legs dangling between the bars of the hand railing. She watched him past her shoulders as he closed the book and showed her the cover, his finger tucked inside, Crime and Punishment.
He dog-eared the page and placed the book beside him. He followed her lead and sat looking at the sky with her to his left.
“The city looks beautiful, doesn’t it?”
“The only thing I have left,” she whispered, her words going with the wind past him.
“So why do you come here nightly?” Michael asked.
“I’m just so lonely,” she said. “I moved to the city because I was sick of my family, but now I can’t enjoy any of it. Being here calms me down though.”
Michael was silent as he turned to her. He found her eyes glistening and shiny from the streetlights.
“Quarantine is either making people find themselves or find the cracks in themselves, and I found the latter, but I feel so guilty because I’m not dying or sick or even know someone who is. I’m just utterly alone,” she said, bringing her sleeve covered hand to wipe her eyes. “Sorry, I must seem so self indulgent.”
“No, I get it. Quarantine is killing me too,” he said. “You know they tested everyone my dad might’ve come in contact with and it turns out he affected twenty-seven people, all of them mild cases. It feels like a bomb has gone off and I’m hiding from the wreckage.”
A week went by and nightly Layla came to sit on the ledge of the balcony. She always felt a sting in her chest when she noticed Michael wasn’t there, but that night he was already sitting out, he held nothing in his hand and was already turned to the city and night sky, though his face was towards her.
There was a yellow hue lighting up the right side of his face, “sorry I haven’t been showing up.”
“You never promised you would,” she said as she took her seat on the balcony.
“I know, but you were feeling lonely and I still left you alone. So I’m sorry.”
Layla sighed, “it’s fine.” She rubbed her clammy hands on her jeans.
“It’s just that I got a call from my mom saying that my dad’s case has become critical.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, and cautiously add, “how’re you feeling?”
“Not great. I’m talking to him on Zoom and it hurts to hear him wheezing as he tells me what the nurses will be trying out on him,” he said. “He has asthma so I’m really scared, you know. He used to get winded just running up a flight of stairs and now he can’t even walk to the bathroom without feeling like he’s about to pass out. I have no idea what to do. My apartment is beginning to drive me insane. I’ve been playing endless hours of overwatch and throwing myself in work and I’m hating my life more and more.”
Layla watched him closely as he looked at the star barely over the buildings miles away from them. She noticed the lines under his eyes and his unkempt hair, she also noticed how he slouched over making him seem smaller than he does standing up, and how his hands were intertwined in his lap.
She looked down at her sleeves, beginning to pick at them as she tried to find the words to tell him that she couldn’t possibly understand what it must feel like but she’d be there for him any time, but she couldn’t find the words. So she eyed the streetlights below her, feeling like she was tipping over.
“I think I love you,” he said.
Michael was there every night and stayed three hours each time, even the one time Layla accidentally fell asleep and missed their nightly conversation.
She was slowly disintegrating at the seams, but each night she sat and listened to him share his worries and the progressively worsening state his father was getting. She felt guilty of her own feelings and guiltier when logical thinking didn’t help straighten her out.
She went out on the balcony to find Michael sitting on his fire escape. There were tears already in her eyes as she went to sit on the ledge.
“Hey,” he called out as he went up a step to somehow be closer to her.
“Hi,” she said, feeling calmer as she looked at his face.
“They invented this new thing to help critical cases and my dad is trying it out. I don’t really understand how it works but it’s helping him breathe better.”
“That’s good,” she said, unable to feel any true compassion.
“You know what I realized after we talked yesterday. I realized that I’ve been non-stop talking and I haven’t let you say anything. I’m sorry about that by the way. How’ve you been holding up?”
“Um good, I think,” she mumbled as she picked at a loose thread of her sweater.
“You think?” He asked. “Tell me something. What’s been helping you through all of this?”
“Well, it used to be online therapy,” she said as she squinted into the dark night. She watched as her vision blurred and the star turned into a line, like a scar in the sky. A tear slipped down her face.
“What about now?” He asked.
“There’s nothing now,” she said, accidentally pulling at the thread too strongly and watching a hole form on the sleeve.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there’s nothing,” she exclaimed. “Everything feels meaningless. Writing hasn’t been helping, going for walks is just depressing and no one understands. I feel like I’m truly going insane. Nothing can distract me from this feeling. I feel so unbelievably guilty because people are are dying and my only problem is I can’t get ahold of the chemicals in my head. I’m so sick of being in one place. Going outside used to make me forget myself but now all I do is marinate in these depressing thoughts. I don’t know how to be normal again, as if I ever was.”
“I get it, I want things to be normal again. I want to visit my friends and be fine,” he said, looking at her earnestly.
“No, you don’t get it. You can forget how you feel. When I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I feel this way. I cannot escape. It’s like I’m sinking in place.”
“You think I don’t get it? My dad might be dying and you think I don’t get it. He’s all I think about. I don’t distract myself, I numb myself out, at least not when I’m with you. When I come out here, I forget. I forget my life is on fire for a moment, or at least feel like I can hide from the heat of it. Don’t you?” A pained look was on his face as he tried to discern her. “Or am I just another weak attempt at that?”
She tried to say the words “I love you” but couldn’t. She felt them in her heart as she looked at him but the words didn’t come out.
Michael let out a sigh and stood up to end their conversation sooner than any night before. She tugged harder at the thread and let the hole in her sleeve grow.
Layla came every night for three weeks, but Michael was never there. Each passing day felt more and more impossible to live through.
She decided to try and explain how she felt so she went to her balcony with a bowl of walnuts and sat on the floor. She threw piece by piece at his sliding door but he never came out.
The next night she’d written him a letter and tapped it to a large eraser. She threw it onto his steps and didn’t bother to try and coax him out of his apartment.
She looked out at the night, a litter of stars filled the sky and she gazed at them as tears fell down her face. So this is it, she thought.
Just as she looked down at the streets, she heard a door open and turned to find an unkempt Michael stood there.
“I heard a thud,” he said.
She pointed at the letter beside him on the floor. “Please don’t read it. Not here at least.”
Michael chose to ignore what she said, torn between telling her he’s sorry and filling up the silence with anything else. She sighed.
“You weren’t meant to read it yet.”
“You were going to…” he said gesturing to the streets below.
He finally looked closely at her and saw her wet cheeks glisten from the streetlights.
“Look, I’m sorry for not being here these past few weeks. My dad died. We couldn’t host a funeral so I stayed at my mom’s house. I couldn’t leave her at this time.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, feeling embarrassed.
“Do you have any other plans tonight? Other than killing yourself, I mean.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she said. “But no I have nothing planned.”
“How about I cook us dinner and we have a date out here. The night looks beautiful, don’t you think?”
Layla looked out as she gulped, wiping away her tears and finally seeing the beauty in the clusters of stars.
“I’d like that actually.”
They spent the night eating fettuccini and wrapped up in blankets as they watched the stars. Michael watched as Layla fell asleep and admired the way her face was brightened by the light of the moon. He fell asleep on the hard steel steps of the fire escape, and when the morning had come, he woke up early and cooked breakfast for two.
This is a short story written for a writing contest during covid. It feels very nostalgic to me. Thank God we’re done with those times lol. Thank you so much for reading. Please let me know your thoughts. How did you like the story? Do you have any memories of quarantine? What sort of things did you do in quarantine?
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