Never Walk AloneWillow Rose
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
Gerry & The Pacemakers, 1963
“The streets are completely empty. It’s eerie.”
Candice looked out the window. She pulled the curtain aside with a finger.
“No cars, no one walking on the pavement. There isn’t even a siren sounding in all of Miami.”
Candice sniffled into the phone. Bryan hadn’t said anything for quite a while, and she wondered if he was all right. She lifted her gaze and found his from the building next to hers. He was standing in his window, looking back at her, waving casually. She placed a hand on the glass with a deep sigh.
If only she could feel his touch.
“Did you do something to your hair?” he asked.
She blushed and ran her fingers through it. She had done something different this morning. Usually, she’d keep it in a ponytail, as she had for the entire two weeks she had been in isolation in her small condo. Just like she had barely cared to shower. Why would she? She was a single woman living in Miami. She wasn’t going to see anyone for a very long time. Not since they blocked off the streets and told them all to stay inside.
So far, no one knew how long this was going to last—indefinitely sounded so scary. She couldn’t help wondering if she would ever be able to leave the condo again. And that had given her many panic attacks in the beginning. She could feel her heart rate go up just from thinking about it, and she could sit in her living room just staring at the door, wondering if she’d ever get to open it again. Of course, she would, she kept telling herself. They were, after all, allowed to go to the grocery store and shop, even though they only let five people in at a time, to make sure they didn’t get too close to each other. Candice had only gone out twice since they were put on lockdown. In the beginning, she had watched the news constantly, but that just made her even more scared, so now she didn’t even open social media anymore. She read lots of books and watched Netflix until she wanted to throw up. She did yoga in her living room and looked out the window at the empty street below while wondering how things had gone so wrong. The theories were many if you asked people online.
Was it nature trying to take the planet back? Was it God’s punishment on the human race for living the sinful lives they did? That’s what her friend, Loretta, seemed to believe. She was annoying, but she was also the only friend who called her every now and then. It happened more frequently now, and there was no escaping that call no matter how much she wanted to. Candice couldn’t really tell her that she was too busy. Busy doing what? She’d only ask. No one was busy these days, not since everything had come to a sudden stop. Life as they knew it had come to a halt.
“Yes, I straightened it and left it down,” Candice said into the phone, touching her hair again. “Do you like it?”
Bryan smiled behind his window in the building across from hers. He had such kind eyes.
“I love it. It looks amazing.”
“Did you shave?” she asked with a grin.
“Why, yes, I did. I wanted to look good for you today. I know it’s silly, but right now, your calls are the highlight of my day.”
He laughed after saying it, but it didn’t sound happy. She knew how he felt. It was the same emotion that went through her. Just two weeks ago, they had lived normal lives, and they hadn’t even known that each other existed. They had each been so busy with their own lives, careers, and friends that they had never even looked out the window and seen one another.
After three days in isolation, their eyes had met all of a sudden. He had waved cautiously, and she had waved back, happy to see another human being. This continued for a few more days, till one day he held up a sign with a phone number written on it. She had grabbed her phone, then called him, and now they met this way every day. They had never met face to face; they had never held hands or kissed. Yet Candice felt like she was falling in love with him, and she sensed that he felt the same. Maybe it was just the situation, but she had never felt like this before. They could talk for hours on end. Sometimes, they’d listen to music together. He had an old-fashioned record player, and he’d play her a song, and then they’d listen and talk about it afterward. Yesterday, he had even recited a poem for her, one he had written himself, just for her, he said. Today, he had told her how he couldn’t wait to take her out once this was all over. Candice could hardly wait either. She liked Bryan more than any of the men she had dated on Tinder, and there were a lot of those. There was something so pure and simple about their relationship if you could call it that. It was just easy, and as people were realizing in their solitude what was really important in life, she was wondering if she had prioritized things wrong as well. Candice had been shooting up the career ladder all her adult life, and she had barely allowed herself any time for love.
A casual date here and there had often ended in just as casual sex where she told the guy to leave once it was done. She hated it if they asked to sleep over and kicked them out as soon as daylight came knocking. No breakfast, no kiss goodbye. She had liked her solitude; being alone kept her mind clear and focused. Now, she’d do anything to break that silence and get rid of the deep loneliness gnawing at her. Sometimes, she wanted to scream, or just run out into the street, hugging anyone she might meet. She had no idea how badly loneliness hurt the body, how terribly you could miss something as simple as a hug. How the body almost craved physical contact after a few weeks in solitude.
Candice felt a tear escape her eye and wiped it away. Bryan couldn’t see it from where he was standing, but she had a feeling he shed a tear every now and then as well. It was wearing on everyone being cooped up like this.
“So, what are you having for dinner tonight?” he asked.
“I made a vegan casserole,” she sniffled, pressing back the sad thoughts. They weren’t doing her any good.
She glanced toward the stove. Candice had been cooking like crazy ever since the lockdown started. Just to have something to do to keep her sanity. Before this, she never cooked. She didn’t have the time or energy for it once she got home late at night from work, and would usually order in. But now, it was the most important task of the day. Every day, a new recipe, trying to eat healthily and just having something sensible to do. In the beginning, she had found herself going to the store just for a gallon of milk or a chocolate bar, just in the desire to be able to get out. But since then, they had put restrictions on how many times a week you were allowed to leave your house, and for a single woman like her, it was down to once a week. To stop the virus from spreading, they kept saying. To flatten the curve, to prevent people from overwhelming the hospitals. It all made sense, and Candice understood the reasons, but still. It was hard to keep the optimism going.
“Ah, I wish I could taste it. I bet it is awesome,” Bryan said.
“I wish I could have you over. We could eat and share a glass of wine.”
“That would be awesome.”
A silence broke out between them as they both remembered what it was like, how life used to be. Back to a time—two weeks ago—when you could actually invite people over for dinner or go out to a nice restaurant and eat together.
“What are you having tonight?”
“Just leftover chicken from yesterday. I made a salad to go with it, though. Trying to stay healthy.”
“Don’t forget to take your vitamins too,” she said, sounding a little too much like a mother warning her child. “Even though they don’t know if it helps, it can’t harm boosting the immune system.”
“I’m not scar
ed of this virus,” he said. “It’s nothing but a bad cold, right?”
Candice swallowed. She didn’t want to talk about this with him or anyone. But she felt she needed to warn him.
“It’s not, no.”
“But that’s what they say on TV. It’s not that bad. It’s a flu-like disease that affects children and young adults the worst. That’s why we need to stay inside because we need to protect the kids. But for most people, it’s like the common cold.”
It’s not true. It’s way worse than that. They don’t know what they’re up against yet.
She wanted to say that, but she couldn’t.
“Just stay inside,” she said instead. “And wear gloves and a mask if you go to the store. Please.”
He cleared his throat in the phone. “Of course. I’m not dumb.”
Oh, no, I made him mad.
“I didn’t say that; sorry, Bryan. It’s just…well, this virus terrifies me to the core.”
“I know. Lots of people are scared,” he said. “But I think they’re exaggerating. We’ll be fine. Just wait and see.”
Candice felt her eyes grow moist. She stifled the tears, then nodded and looked at Bryan, wondering if she’d ever get to meet him. How could life be so cruel that once she finally found someone she might love, once she finally got her priorities right and realized what was really important, the world was about to run out of time?
Bryan Harper put the phone down as Candice hung up, promising she’d call him later so they could watch the Netflix show The Tiger King together. He didn’t care much for that particular show, but it seemed to be all everyone was talking about, so he had given it a chance, watching it every night with her. Candice didn’t like it either, she said, but it gave them something to talk about and a sort of common ground. They could laugh at the characters together, at how ridiculous they were, and he kind of liked that. Candice was a smart woman, he had realized. She was well educated; you could tell by the way she talked. She hadn’t told him what she did for a living before all this started, but he got a feeling it was something that needed an awful lot of education. Bryan was a teacher and did online school with his sixth-grade students every day. He was lucky, he guessed since he didn’t risk losing his job. Many of his friends had been fired right when the entire country shut down at once, and they knew more were to come. Many had just taken pay cuts so far, but since they didn’t know how long this was going to last, more would lose their jobs sooner rather than later. The world was a mess, he felt, but he still kept a sense of optimism and told himself life would go back to normal at some point. Of course, it would. Or at least some kind of normal, a new normal, maybe. He didn’t share his friends’ and colleagues’ pessimism when looking at the future. At least not anymore. Because now, he really had something to look forward to. He’d get to see Candice in real life and hold her in his arms, and he couldn’t wait for that. They’d be able to go on a real date, and what a story they’d have to tell their grandchildren one day. Being on lockdown had made Bryan realize he was lonely and that he never wanted to walk through life alone again after this. He just prayed she’d still like him when she met him face to face. He didn’t know if it was just the loneliness making her attracted to him because there was no one else right at this moment. That’s not how he felt about her. He thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he couldn’t believe they had been living so close for years and didn’t even know each other. How had they never seen one another through the windows?
Bryan looked after her as she disappeared from her position, and he imagined her going to the kitchen, finishing her casserole. He couldn’t see her when she was in her kitchen, but as soon as she was back in the living room, he would look at her again. He hadn’t told her this, but he looked at her a lot. He couldn’t help himself and hoped she wouldn’t think he was a creep. It was just because he missed her so much as soon as they hung up. He would sit in his living room and watch her over there as she went about her day, especially when she did her yoga every morning. He enjoyed that a lot. Did that make him a pervert? He hoped not.
His cat, Lora, jumped up in the windowsill and meowed. He petted her back gently. “I am not forgetting about you, Lora. You’ll always be my favorite girl. How about we grab something to eat too, huh? I see Candice is sitting down and having her dinner now.”
He sighed as he watched her sit down at her dining room table and dig in. How he wished he could sit there with her and enjoy something as simple as a meal. He wondered if she was a loud chewer or if she was one of those quiet women afraid of making a noise—how he would give his right arm to know this or even just to be able to touch her skin. How did she feel? Was she soft? He was certain she was. Candice was the type who took good care of herself.
Bryan walked to the fridge and pulled out the chicken from the night before, then microwaved it and pulled out a bag of salad, then put some dressing on and placed it on the plate. He wished he liked to cook the way Candice seemed to enjoy it. Then he could come up with some more interesting dishes than chicken three nights in a row, followed by spaghetti and meatballs for yet another three days. They were the only two dishes he knew how to cook.
Bryan sat down and glanced at Candice, who was chewing while scrolling on her phone, probably going through work emails or maybe watching the news, even though she had told him she had stopped since it made her so depressed. All those awful images from the filled-up hospitals in Miami scared him as well, even though he pretended they didn’t. Miami was the epicenter, they said. It was here it had all started. But after a week, it had spread to the rest of the country, and soon after, the rest of the world too. They had closed Miami down and then the rest of the state of Florida, but it was too late. The world was closing down a few days later. All planes were grounded, schools shut down, and soon there was a stay at home order from the president. It all went by so fast; Bryan hadn’t even been able to visit his mother at the nursing home outside of Miami. His sister lived across town, too, and had two young children. He just prayed they weren’t hit. Jane had called a few hours earlier and said that her youngest, Fiona, had come down with a fever and for him to pray that it was something else and not the virus.
Bryan lifted his beer and saluted Candice when he realized she was looking at him as well. She smiled and raised her glass of wine. They pretended to be clinking glasses when suddenly, she was interrupted. She looked at him, then at the door before she put the glass down. She glanced toward him, a puzzled look on her face.
“What’s going on?” he said out into the living room, signaling to her that he didn’t understand, reaching his arms in the air.
She shrugged, but then looked toward the door again before she got up.
Bryan wrinkled his forehead in concern. Was someone at her door? How was that even possible these days? Who went outside? Who knocked on someone’s door?
He got up, too, and followed her every move as she walked toward her front door. Bryan hurried to the window and watched as she grabbed the lock and turned it. A sense of alarm rushed through him.
“Wait a minute,” he said as if she could hear him. “Ask who it is first. Use the chain. Keep the chain on, Candice.”
Bryan held his breath. He could tell she was looking through the peephole and talking through the door, doing exactly what he had said. Now, she opened the door, keeping the chain on.
“Good girl,” he mumbled. “Playing it safe in these strange times is smart.”
The door came ajar, and he could tell she was speaking to the person on the other side.
Probably just a neighbor wanting to borrow eggs or milk or something like that.
Bryan bit the side of his cheek as he watched her speak, and then she closed the door, and his shoulders came down, thinking it was over. The person had left. Candice couldn’t get infected this way. She had stayed behind the door. She would be fine.
It was nothing.
He breathed in relie
f when the door suddenly was pushed in with a violent force, slamming Candice back against the wall. Stunned at this, Bryan watched as a man stepped inside and, with a quick movement, closed the door behind him. Candice had fallen, and he could tell by her open mouth that she was screaming.
ONE WEEK LATER
For a long time, there was nothing but a rhythmic buzz from the ventilator next to her. It was so quiet in the room that, at first, Reese believed she had, in fact, died. Right when she shot her eyes open, that’s what she thought. She blinked her eyes rapidly as she scanned room 228.
But then someone showed up. It was hard to tell if it was a woman or a man till she came up close, and Reese could see the eyes inside the hazmat suit. The eyes revealed that the woman inside was smiling by the way they grew narrow and fine lines emerged at the sides.
“Am I in Hell?” Reese asked.
The nurse laughed quietly inside her suit, but then grew serious. “You’re alive. But hell is probably a close description to the state of things right now. Let me go get the doctor.”
She came back a short while later with the doctor, who was also wearing a yellow hazmat suit.
“How are you feeling?” the doctor asked and looked at the monitors.
“I…I don’t know. Where am I?”
The doctor sighed deeply when an alarm went off from somewhere else. His eyes met those of the nurse.
“I’ll fill her in,” she said. “You go.”
The doctor took off, almost sprinting down the hallway. Seeing this made Reese worry.
“Where…where is he going?”
“Another patient just went into cardiac arrest, I’m afraid. It’s the seventh today.”
Reese’s eyes grew wide when hearing this.