Your father said this to you when you were a child. You’ve forgotten many things, but you remember that. You’d befriended a stray calico, a ragged, skinny thing with a milky eye and gimpy foreleg. You’d fed it greasy breakfast scraps every morning one summer until it fattened, until the summer mornings gave way to September—and your quiet little corner of the world breathed first-frost—and everything withered, as it does, and the stray stopped coming. You’d sat on the gray wooden porch for a full week, with a half-plate of eggs or bacon; or a bowl of milk sweetened from sugared clusters of cereal; sat until the maples dropped their dead leaves, and the wind took them away, as it always does. You were dead, too, as withered as the world. Father shrugged.
We all disappear eventually.
And then he did. As we all do. As we all will.
• • •
Reif would like a cat, you’re sure. He’s at that age. Without a father, a cat is at least some companionship other than just you. And a cat is more dependable than a father. But with the rations and cost it isn’t feasible to own one. Those who had pets simply abandoned them. You can see the strays on the streets below if you raise the window blinds. They slink along like specters in a world the color of dry clay. Sometimes, if you glance up, you see a hard winter sun, like a tarnished nickel, in a putty sky.
Today you can hear the government-sanctioned delivery truck below. You lift the blind a few inches, peer down. It’s the refrigerated unit—the national grid has only been back up for a short time—so you may get some meat and cheese. Eggs if you’re lucky. Medicine if luckier. You see the workers unloading the palettes while the guards stand by, vigilant, their steely-black weapons up and ready.
You pull the blind halfway, let in some meagre alkaline light. An inky shape in the sky catches your attention, a bird, dark and silent, gliding and disappearing into the gray mist as we all do, as we all will.
Reif is at the small kitchen table, head slightly bent, fists propping his chin, brow furrowed, peering at a book. A history lesson today. His hair is unruly, uncut, barbed and wiry like his father’s. His father. Disappeared—like your father, like a lot of fathers—long before any of this. Before Reif, even. Sometimes, in a dark part of your mind, you think he never existed, that you made him up.
You tell Reif about the delivery. He closes his book, fits his mask snugly and goes to the door to wait, even though it’ll be some time before they reach your floor with the allotment. Delivery day is exciting, and he’s always eager to see what we might get. Perhaps there will be soda crackers, and peanut butter. His favorite.
You grab last week’s empty totes, then affix your mask and join Reif. Soon, you can hear the delivery persons moving down the hall, knocking on doors. Reif looks up, eyes round and bright like glassy marbles. Not like the long-ago milky-eyed stray. The government allowance means you can stay home. You don’t miss the office. You miss the people. If it weren’t for Reif, you’d be so very lonely. You try to hug him, but he ducks under your outstretched arms and sprints away.
A sudden knock and you jump. From habit, you peer through the peephole though it is occluded and long past any usefulness. A dim figure on the other side. You unbolt the chain, pull the door halfway open. An arm reaches in, snatches the empty totes and pushes in two full totes. Just two. It was supposed to be two totes per person. Another falsehood. You’ve sent the forms. You’ve followed up. Nothing. Perhaps next delivery.
Reif digs in the totes, pulls out the crackers, skips into the kitchen. He’s your one salvation—a small stone of hope rolling down a mountain, gaining momentum.
• • •
“Hello,” you say, in a voice unused to speaking.
“Hello,” you hear, and open the door a crack. It’s a woman.
“I’m across the hall,” says the woman, gesturing over her shoulder. No mask. Her expression inscrutable, eyes bright and round and greeny-copper like old pennies. There’s a noise coming from her apartment, something or someone moving about.
“Yes?” you say, tentative, looking through the crack.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says, “do you own a screwdriver? The one with the … I don’t know what it’s called. The X. Or the cross.”
A screwdriver? You think there’s one in the kitchen drawer, nestled under the spatulas and peelers and rolling pins. “Yes. I think so.”
The woman smiles, all good cheer, and clasps her hands in front of her. No gloves, either. “Could I borrow it? Please? We’re assembling things today.”
“Just a moment,” you say, and close the door. You turn to ask Reif to fetch the screwdriver, but he’s gone, so you retrieve it from the clutter of dingy cutlery and bring it to the woman. “Here,” you say, pushing it through the small space you’ve made between door and frame.
The woman smiles or grimaces, it’s hard to tell, and plucks the tool from your hand. Her fingers brush yours. “Thank you,” she says. “I must have misplaced ours during the move. I’ll return it.”
You nod, but realize she probably can’t tell, so you pull the door wider, lean forward. “Okay.” You nod again. “Okay.” And she turns and slips back into her apartment, and as the door opens there’s the brief sound of conversation, as if the television is on. And you briefly envy her.
In the kitchen you carefully wash and sanitize your hands. Reif enters and you tousle his wiry curls. His hair is getting long. It grows so fast. You both smile. He pulls the crackers and peanut butter from the cupboard and settles at the small table.
The dining room is dark, night leaking into the room like an oil spill. You sit, switch on the small lamp to chase away the darkness. The night will swallow you if you let it.
• • •
He’s on the screen now, interacting with the other students, in their virtual world. And it often feels unreal, like living a digital, spectral life, and you worry for him more. But when he’s done, after he’s eaten his lunch of crackers and broth at the small table, and he’s in his room completing his assigned work, or disappearing into a book, all is quiet, and it’s like he’s not even here.
Another knock at the door shakes you from your reverie. You glance up and Reif is gone, the screen black and dead. Disappeared.
A faint murmur from the hallway. “Hello?”
You move to the door, mask on, peer through the peephole, sigh, slide the door open on its chain, peek through the crack. It’s the same woman from yesterday. The neighbor. A small smile stitched on her face. You unbolt the chain. The door swings open, creaking on a rusty hinge. You inch forward, a foot on the threshold and it feels like a victory of sorts.
“I’m your neighbor,” she says, a pale hand gesturing, “from across the way.”
“I know.” More murmurs from her apartment, the door wedged partway open.
“I’m so sorry to be a bother,” she says.
Again, you think. A bother again.
“Do you have scissors?” she asks.
Of course, you think. Who doesn’t own scissors?
“Yes,” you say. “I do.”
An awkward shuffle of her feet, a pained expression. “Could I borrow them? I can’t find mine.” More shuffling. “I’m cutting hair. I’ll wash and return them as soon as I’m done. Promise.”
Briefly, remembering the screwdriver, you entertain the notion of telling her No. But you relent. “Sure,” you say, “I’ll get them.”
You turn from the door. Reif is unseen. It’s a wonder how he can disappear in such a small apartment. The scissors aren’t in the kitchen, so you move to the bathroom. Somewhere, a door creaks. Yours, you think. You should have closed it. You find the scissors in the medicine cabinet and return to the front door. Did it swing open more? You look past the woman. Is her door open more? A dark blur of shadow passes in the sliver of light.
“Here,” you say, handing over the scissors.
You quickly close the door, the unbolted chain swinging like a pendulum timepiece tick, tick. A swirl of gray in your head, a sudden fog. You close your eyes, lean back against the door.
Breathe. You’re so very tired. This world makes you tired. You stumble toward the bedroom, pull off your mask, fall into the still unmade sheets. Close your eyes. Breathe.
• • •
That strange halfway state, caught in the foggy veil of dreaming and the cusp of consciousness, almost aware that it’s only dream as you struggle to wake in the swirling gray aether, your heart an overwound timepiece, your mind whispering none of this is real, only dream, only trance; it’s not your mother moving down the hallway to your childhood bedroom, carrying a dead cat, to tell you that father is gone…
…none of this is real…
…outside your door now, cradling the limp cat in the crook of one arm, raising her free hand to the door to…
Knock knock! Knock!
You stir, blink your eyes open. Gray light spills into the room. You rub your eyes until they squeak. Just a dream, you think. A nightmare.
Knock knock! Knock knock!
The door. Someone is at the door.
You roll off the bed and pad to the front door. You’re still wearing yesterday’s clothes. You wonder what time it is. You’re disoriented. You wonder why the apartment is so quiet. You wonder…
Knock. “Are you there?”
You move to look through the peephole but remember it’s useless. You turn to grab your mask from the key-hook but it isn’t there, and you dimly recall shedding it in the bedroom. Reaching up you’re surprised to see the chain unbolted, hanging lifelessly. You blink but the world is still a grim pageant of grays.
Pulling open the door you see a strange woman standing in the hall. She’s holding her arms out, trying to hand you something. Her door is open, and a figure stands in the wedge of hazy light pouring from her apartment.
“Oh, dear,” the woman says. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m … tired.” You look down at the woman’s hands, at the screwdriver. The scissors.
“I washed them,” the woman says. Smiling, she looks back at the figure in her doorway. “He needed a cut. It was getting a bit wild. It grows so fast.”
You take a small step forward, one foot on the threshold, and peer around the woman at the boy, his curls freshly shorn, his eyes like marbles.
The woman pushes the implements into your hands. You grasp them to your chest.
“They grow up so fast,” says the woman. “Don’t they? Even in these strange times. Before you know it, he’ll be gone.”
“Yes,” you mumble. “Yes.” You take a step back.
“And if you need any help, just ask.” A plastic half-smile from the woman. “You can borrow him any time.”
“I will,” you say, closing and locking the door, and turning back to your small and quiet world.