The door to his house seemed a mile away. With his head ringing in silence, the man walked with short, purposeful steps towards the entrance of his home. A route that he had taken every day over the past two years.
It will be alright, he thought to himself, the colleague who had tested positive didn’t work on his floor and it had been days since they had their last interaction. It will be okay, he repeated in his head, convincing himself that opening the door to his home was not the Pandora’s Box that his mind had conceived. The plastic polymer mask hugging his face was digging into the back of his ears as he felt his face flush with warm blood.
As he approached the end of his short walk, the door clicked open and swung inwards. She stood there; mask, face shield, and yellow rubber gloves. He felt his mouth curl upwards at the sight of his wife, pulling the mask straps further into his ears. She wordlessly beckoned him to expose his palms, releasing a flight of sanitizer sprayed through the bottle she held in her hands. He rubbed his hands together in a routine that recent events had etched into his muscle memory.
As they passed through the door, her a few steps ahead of him, he noticed the house looked different. She had spent time reorganizing and preparing for the next 14 days. 14 days of isolation. 14 days of quarantine.
The sun broke through the glass window, bathing the guest room in colour. He felt sleep tugging at his eyelids, pulling them down until he accepted it was a battle that he couldn’t win. 16 hours had passed since he had been made aware of possible contagion from his colleague and been sent home to isolate. 15 hours had passed since the company had sent out an e-mail informing its’ staff to stay safe, wash their hands, and expect the end-of-month salary deposit to be halved.
She had devised an ingenious system to deliver his food into the room, without them having to make physical contact. It had taken a 30-minute phone call followed by a hastily texted demonstration video, for him to grasp the basic concept of her device.
40 minutes later, the plates and dishes that had previously housed his lunch, were neatly washed and stacked ready for retrieval. He couldn’t help himself but stick a post-it note onto the tray with the word “Overkill” written in bold black letters. He knew it would annoy her, but he looked forward to the hour-long conversation he was going to have as she explained why it was not.
The power outage lasted 4 hours. Unfortunately, those were the four critical hours where the air support of a fan was imperative protection against the Sun’s vendetta. He had re-read the same page of a book three times without registering much context, finally giving up and diving face-first into the uninviting bed. A knock on the door announced the arrival of much-needed human interaction and set him upright.
“Here, do you want sugar in your lime juice or no?” she offered from the hall outside the room.
He thought for a moment before replying “Sugar is okay… right?”
“Okay if you want,” she replied with a hint of disapproval, immediately followed by “Can you please call the electricity board, the lady on the line is hard to talk to.”
He smiled and nodded at no one.
“Are you nodding? I can’t see if you are nodding.”
It rained on Tuesday. Conversations didn’t hold as much interest as the live test cricket on his makeshift home theatre system did.
“What exactly is in it?” he probed exasperatedly through the door.
“Give me a minute…”
The sound of rushed footsteps was followed by cluttering in the kitchen drawers. The steaming cup of green something that he clutched in his hand had started to give off an odour of beans cooked in battery acid. He unconvincingly hoped that this would be one of those instances where there was a disconnect between taste and smell. Like the durian that had been banned from consumption within their premises.
“Mint, black seed, ginger, honey, lime, fish oil, cinnamon, curry leaves, cloves…” she was back at the door, reading from the back of the packet the monstrosity in his cup had originated from.
“Are you sure there’s no WD-40 in this…it definitely smells like-”
“Please drink it,” she cut him off “Your mother sent it for you and I have to report back to her.”
“Have you had some?” he inquired, greeted by radio silence.
He shrugged to himself and gulped down the toxic sludge in a single breath. Emerging from the fumes in a fit of coughs, he could hear what sounded like faint laughter from the other side of the door.
He went through the points in his head again;
• He’s showing no symptoms;
• He barely interacted with patient zero in the few days before his detection;
• He wore a mask at work, at all times;
• The guest room was boring and he missed their bed;
• Neither of them were leaving the house anyway, they could isolate together;
•He was willing to bargain his freedom in return for consuming any noxious liquid of her choice on a daily basis;
•He misses her.
He took a deep breath as he clutched the door handle in his sweaty hands. The cold brass felt odd against his clammy skin. The door which had seemed to merge into a solid reinforced concrete section of the wall over the past 6 days, now felt lighter than a feather. He drew a second deep breath, closed his eyes, pushed his hand down, and pulled the door open. The hall seemed bigger than he remembered. The walls blinded him, as sunlight reflected off their bright white surface into the cavernous ether of freedom that was their living room. She poked her head around the kitchen door, eyes pitched open in shock and mouth agape. “Look honey,” he started “I have none of the symp- “ Before the words could leave his mouth, she had jumped onto him, embracing him in a monkey-like hug, arms clutching around his neck, legs wrapped around his back and head buried deep into his shoulder. He felt his mouth curl upwards as his hands wrapped her back.
The Winning Short Story – English Language