Short Story | Comedy | ~5800 words
Sarah dropped the mail on the counter as she came inside. Later, I glanced through it and it was all junk, just like the day before. No one really sends mail anymore, I guess. That made it even less surprising that there’s nothing addressed to me, not that I expected there to be.
Sarah sat all her grocery bags on the floor and carefully took out each item to rinse it before throwing the bags away and scrubbing her hands. She has a bag hanging on a cabinet door handle that used to be filled with plastic grocery bags just like these, but now it’s empty. Sarah does her best to recycle by using them all over the house in small trashcans and to clean up after Kuzco on walks, but because of the virus, it’s not recommended to hold onto anything that comes from the germ-filled grocery store right now, so she’s been throwing them out instead. The stores won’t let you bring in reusable bags right now either, so that you don’t bring in extra germs from home, I guess, and I can tell it kills her to throw away all that plastic. She always says something about it under her breath as she pushes the lever on the kitchen trashcan with her foot and eyes the crinkling wad of bags one last time before condemning them to the landfill.
The official quarantine started yesterday, which is when I more or less moved in, but we had all been pretty much keeping to ourselves before the formal mandate came anyway. As much as I would like to say I’m not scared, the idea of getting sick does nag at the back of my mind. I’m so thankful to be able to crash at Sarah’s, which is much bigger and nicer than anywhere I’ve ever stayed, honestly. Where I was at before was as crowded and as gross as a frat house, but way less fun. I was for sure going to get sick staying in that pigsty, so it’s nice that here it’s just me and Sarah and Kuzco, her Staffordshire terrier, who is the worst guard dog I’ve ever seen but whom I’ve otherwise grown quite fond of.
Sarah ran to the store today to stock up on some things, which the stay-at-home order allows as long as she wears a mask to curb the spread of germs, and I hung out here and held down the fort. No reason for both of us to venture out and get sick, I figure. She’s a runner, so that’s another time she leaves for a bit. This is also allowed as long as she doesn’t get within six feet of anyone, and the fresh air is undoubtedly good for her. I’m not a runner, though, so I stay home and let her have her out-of-house time to herself while I use the time alone inside to catch up on my hygiene—something that’s easy to let go unattended when you never need to go anywhere, I’m ashamed to say—and bonding with Kuzco. At first he was a little standoffish, but once I learned we both like baby carrots, I’ve taken to carrying a few in my shirt pocket. (I’m embarrassed to admit that lately I’ve taken to donning just my shirt and my tighty-whities every day.) Any time he looks at me a little sideways, I slip him a crunchy treat and we’re best friends again. I would be lying if I didn’t say I snacked on them throughout the day as well. In fact, we went through a bag so quickly that when Sarah was taking stock before heading to the store, she couldn’t believe they were gone already and even searched around the back of the fridge like surely just fallen behind something. I kept my and Kuzco’s tasty little secret between us.
Even though the stay-at-home order was looming for a while before it became official, I don’t think many people really knew how it was going to affect them. On one hand, it’s nice to hunker down here with Sarah and Kuzco and be quarantine buddies, but there’s not much to do while you sit around and wait. It hasn’t even been that many days, but the boredom and isolation is clearly getting to us. To deal with it on her end, Sarah puts on her favorite podcasts and blasts them from her phone while she cleans. Of course all the hosts can do anymore is talk about the virus—which countries had the highest death rates yesterday, where it’s newly spread, which governments have the harshest quarantine penalties, etc.—so we are constantly fed a deluge of updates and hot takes from a myriad of voices in any style that suits our mood. Medical shows give the facts and figures on the virus itself while political talking heads go over numbers and financial detriments to the economy. Meanwhile, even the comedians take somber breaks in between witty overviews of pop culture to remark on the ever-present weight of world events. They all make a point to mention how they’re working from home instead of in their studios due to the mandates that forced all non-life-sustaining businesses to shut down, and the poor quality of the recordings makes me inclined to believe them. I’m glad to be informed, but even when I try hard not to focus too much on what they’re saying, news of the virus feels like a cloud of smoke swirling around the room, and we breathe it in constantly until it chokes us.
I would never tell her what to do in her own house, but sometimes I wish Sarah would just turn her phone off completely. Then again, maybe the not knowing would be even worse.
I didn’t mean to do it. Well, I did, but I couldn’t help it. I let Kuzco out the back door. I don’t know what got into him. We’ve really been getting along great, but today, suddenly, he just started growling at me. I was back in the laundry room, which is a narrow little add-on behind the kitchen that has just enough room for a washer and dryer, one window, and the back door. I heard some weird grinding noise, I thought, and it scared the shit out of me. I turned around, not knowing what to expect, but there was Kuzco. At first I was relieved, but then I saw the snarl on his face and was scared all over again. The grinding wasn’t grinding at all, but rather a guttural sound that came from the back of the dog’s throat and was directed at me. I was on the far side of the room, cornered, essentially. Kuzco is usually very sweet, sure, but I was worried. I mean, he’s not my dog. And who knows? Maybe all this weird quarantine stuff was getting to him. Dogs feed on humans’ emotions, don’t they? And things have only been getting more tense around here.
Anyway, his growl was growing deeper and louder, and I didn’t know what to do.
Between me and him was the back door, and it occurred to me to just open it. I figured I’d make a run for it if he got more aggressive or maybe at the very least it would distract him. Either way, it was pretty much my only option.
I reached forward slowly, the dog’s growl intensifying with my every movement, more and more of his sharp teeth revealed with each of my tense, measured breaths, and when I finally managed to turn the lock and swing open the door, Kuzco let out a bark that echoed off the cinder-block walls and I felt deep in my chest. But then, thank God, the dog wanted to go outside more than it wanted to eat me, I guess, and Kuzco kept up his barking as he ran straight out the door.
Those few raucous barks at the end caused Sarah to come running anyway, the home security system beeped when I opened the door—it does this for doors but not for windows, so I find it useless, but it brings Sarah comfort, I guess—so not soon after, Sarah rounded the corner at a full sprint shouting the dog’s name.
When she saw the door was open, she called his name again, but this time she sounded scared. Worried for her dog and with only a moment’s pause, she bolted outside just like Kuzco had done. The sun streaming through the exit was blindingly bright compared to the dank laundry room, and I was still basically behind the door and in the shadows, so when Sarah ran through, she was so focused on the dog she didn’t even see me. I knew she’d be furious if she found out what I had done, but I also knew the dog would likely be fine. There wasn’t really any traffic nowadays anyway, with everyone mandated to stay home, so I didn’t think any harm would come to him. I left the door open in case Sarah ran out without her keys, which seemed likely, and silently wished her the best while also hoping she’d never find out how the dog got out in the first place.
Sarah hasn’t let Kuzco out of her sight. I was right that he survived his adventure outside just fine. I still feel guilty, but I also kind of blame the dog a bit. Why was he growling at me like that anyway?
Sarah has been so focused on him that I’m pretty much invisible, but to be honest that hasn’t really changed much since before this all started. Obviously, I didn’t say anything to her about being the reason the dog got out. It seems like her theories right now are that the door just blew open (unlikely, because it was locked), Kuzco figured out how to open it himself (unlikely because he’s sweet but has no real brains or instinct—he's about as useless as the security system), or someone opened it from the outside. Since she’s not talking to me directly, I gathered all of this by watching Sarah inspect the door, talk out loud to her dog (which I always find endearing, but in this case I also used as a way to gauge her mood about the incident without engaging with her myself), and then when she went to review the stream from her security cameras.
The cameras only record for a short bit when their motion detectors get tripped. There’s one aimed at each sides of the house, and they pick up everything from package deliveries to neighborhood cats prowling the property. Sarah doesn’t ever check the feed, so I often wonder why she even has the cameras, but I guess in times like these where something really seems off, she can go back and check.
Obviously to be used as a real security system, she should be checking the feeds at least every day. Maybe twice a day. Times are getting desperate. Shelves are getting empty. People aren’t allowed to go to work. People are going to start prowling. But she listens to the news and her podcasts. She knows. I’m not going to be the one to tell her.
Sarah had a work video conference today. Of course she didn’t tell me that, so while she was at her computer, professional blouse up top and cozy pajama bottoms down below, which I thought was incredibly cute, I unknowingly walked behind her and through the shot. I was pretty far back down the hall, but my heart jumped into my throat when I realized my no-pants, rumpled-hair, zombie-like appearance was likely caught on camera. I thought I might be far enough away no one noticed, but I couldn’t be so lucky. Someone asked her who I was. Great, her coworkers don’t know about me. She paused, looked around, asked them to clarify, denied I existed, the meeting went on. Fine.
It’s been raining for three days. We’re all three going stir crazy. Sarah hasn’t been able to go for a run and Kuzco hasn’t gotten enough exercise either. He hasn’t growled at me again like last time, but I’ve also been giving him a really wide berth and tossing him carrots any time I do have to venture close. I haven’t had a good bit of alone time for a shower and a satisfying, no-judgment raid of the fridge in so long. If I were religious, I’d be praying for sunshine. I don’t know if we’ll be able to take much more of these drowsy, gray, drizzly days. It makes the world outside feel that much smaller, like everything ends just outside our windows. I’m beginning to feel trapped. I mean, I guess technically I am trapped, but still.
More rain. Sarah was restless all night. I couldn’t sleep after sitting around and keeping to myself all day, so stayed up for a while and watched her sleep. I can tell this quarantine is getting to her. Kuzco growled when he opened his eyes and saw me standing at the foot of the bed watching, but that makes sense; we’re all a little on edge when we wake up in the middle of the night. He closed his eyes and rolled over as I made my way out of the room—like I said, worst guard dog ever—and I went downstairs so I could move around and not disturb them. A midnight snack called to me.
Finally, sun. Sarah went for a run with the dog. I hopped in the shower. Everything seemed back to normal. But when she came home later, she had a problem with where I left the shampoo. I always try to put everything back just how she likes it, but I guess I messed up. Such a small thing became an unnecessarily big deal. She did that thing women often do, where one thing bothers them and then they recount every little thing they’ve noticed you do for the last month or so that they don’t like. She wasn’t even talking to me, just talking aloud to herself, like I didn’t exist. Except I do exist, and my existence is fucking up her shampoo placement.
“Why is this here? I know I didn’t leave this here. This is just like when the cheese was left out the other night. But I know I didn’t leave it out. What the fuck?”
And on and on. I get it. She likes things a certain way, and when I don’t do things that certain way, it makes her feel crazy (and ask endless questions about my actions, which is pretty passive-aggressive, if you ask me). That’s obviously not my intention, but it’s hard to live in this house—admittedly her house—without making a dent in it somewhere. I use shampoo, I eat cheese. I do my best.
Sarah’s acting weird. I feel like maybe she’s losing it. She’s talking to herself—and to the dog—way more than normal. She hasn’t been going for her runs, even when the weather’s good, and she hardly takes the dog beyond the front yard. She’s been spending the quarantine cleaning a ton already, podcasts blasting, but this is something else. She’s opening every cabinet and every closet and taking every little thing out of every little nook and cranny. I can’t tell if she’s obsessively taking stock or trying to pass the time with something that feels productive or if she’s just trying to make a point that everything has its place and here are all the things and here are all their places. I’m trying my best to keep up and make sure I don’t make any more mistakes. I’d hate it if I was the reason this living arrangement didn’t work out. I don’t want people to be sick, especially now that the quarantine has been extended another two weeks, but I also selfishly kind of liked the idea that the experience would bring us together. I have a place to stay, a girl to share it with, and a dog that seems to like me (or at least tolerate me) most of the time.
But I’m worried about screwing it up, and, as the days go on, also a little worried that Sarah might also screw it up too. She is being weird. Suspicious. Frantic. She’s on the phone with her friends a lot. It’s always Facetime and video conferences. I get that they haven’t seen each other in person in weeks, but it makes it hard to give her space since I never know when I’ll embarrass her by walking through a shot. I don’t want a repeat of the business meeting. It’s also because I know no one she talks to knows about me, and I think that’s probably a good thing. It makes things a lot easier.
But the conversations she’s having are getting weird. I was right about her bad dreams. She’s recounting them to people, and I can see why she can’t keep still at night—they're terrifying. Someone watching her, lurking behind her, hiding around every corner. Honestly, I wonder if the terror in her nightmares is a personification of the virus itself, bearing down on the world outside. Sometimes it’s like we can feel it, looking in the windows, breathing on the glass, keeping an eye, waiting for us to let it in. Every day we’re stuck in here, the world starts to feel a little smaller, the virus a little closer.
Sarah hasn’t been going to the store anymore. She got her groceries delivered today. The delivery person set them on the front porch, knocked on the door, and left. I saw a note on top of the bags in the trash later that night explaining that they are only allowing no-contact deliveries in order to protect their workers and thanking us for our continued patronage. Sarah seems to be slipping. When the delivery person knocked, she nearly jumped out of her skin. She seems paranoid. I am trying to give her as much space as possible, but nothing seems to be helping. She has started checking the security camera feeds every day. At least she learned something useful about home security from all this, I suppose, but I hope it doesn’t have a negative effect on her overall. When she wasn’t checking the feeds, I guess that meant she felt secure and safe. I wish I had thought about it like that at the time. Now I feel guilty for thinking she should have been paying more attention. More attention means more stress. More attention means having a reason to worry.
There was another knock at the door today, but this one was unexpected. Sarah froze at the sound. Kuzco growled. The person knocked again. Sarah took long, deep breaths, calming herself as she walked to the door, keeping quiet in order not to be heard. She listened on the other side and waited. The person took a few steps and I think we both assumed they were leaving, but a third set of knocks made Sarah clap her hand over her mouth as she nearly let out a yelp of surprise. Kuzco started barking. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him bark full-out like that except for when I opened the laundry room door. The person didn’t seem to want to leave. I took advantage of the cacophony of barking to sneak upstairs and try and get a look at whoever was at the door by peeking through Sarah’s bedroom window.
“Who is it?” I heard Sarah call through the door as I took my position behind the curtains and watched through a slit in the blinds. It appeared to be a police officer. Even he was wearing a mask, the kind like you see doctors wear. I guess it makes sense to be protected if you have to be out and about right now, even if you are a police officer.
But was he really the police? Maybe her paranoia was rubbing off on me, but Sarah’s podcasts had talked about a rash of people pretending to be city officials or other trusted public servants trying to gain access to people’s homes or get personal information out of them that could be used for identity theft. Was that what this was? Would a police officer wear a doctor’s mask, even during a pandemic? This guy was alone, but didn’t officers knocking on doors usually come in twos? I watched silently upstairs, letting Sarah make the call herself. It’s her house, after all. If she wants to open the door, she can, but I’ll keep an eye on things myself too.
I couldn’t tell if the officer replied or not, because I couldn’t hear through the window and the mask obscured his mouth, but I assume he must have because I heard Sarah crack the door a bit. The security system beeped as she did so. I heard her tell Kuzco to calm down, and he did stop barking but continued to make an anxious whine. I could hear Sarah’s side of the conversation, but I couldn’t hear what the officer was saying at all, so I cracked the window quietly.
Not quietly enough, though, because the officer noticed. I was trying to remain undetected, mostly because I didn’t want to seem like a nosy creep, but also because I didn’t want to go downstairs and insert myself into the conversation. Plus I wasn’t dressed.
“Is someone else home?” I heard the officer ask. His eyes seemed to look right at me, but I counted on the glare of the late afternoon sun on the window to keep me hidden, and I guess it did, because when Sarah said “no,” the officer seemed to take her word for it and directed his attention back to her.
“How is the quarantine going here? Do you have everything you need?”
“Uh,” I heard Sarah pause before answering, still through the barely open door, “Yeah, I am doing fine. I got my groceries delivered yesterday.”
“So you’re staying in, then?”
“That’s good, Miss. Listen, is there a chance I can come inside and talk to you about some threats that there may be in regards to your neighborhood?”
Oh shit, maybe this is one of those scammers. I started to worry for Sarah’s safety. She was smart, though. I was sure she wouldn’t let him in.
“Threats?” Sarah asked.
“Yes. Have you noticed any suspicious behavior?”
“You mean like someone coming to my door unexpectedly and asking to come inside my house?”
Ha. There’s my girl.
The officer laughed. “I guess something like that, yes. You’ve got a good point. Here, let me show you my credentials.” The angle of the window obscured things some, but I could tell he pulled something out of his pocket and held it out. I couldn’t see what Sarah did, but he nodded his head and, instead of extending the item for her to take it, as he had apparently done initially, he instead held it up for her so she could read it through the crack in the door without having to touch it. His radio buzzed with an operator spouting off some numbers and an address, and he turned it down before he spoke again. “I’m interviewing everyone in the area about suspicious activity. The nearby correctional facility has reported a missing detainee.”
“Oh gosh, and you think he’s in my neighborhood?”
“Well, we don’t know where he is, but because of this neighborhood’s proximity to the facility, we thought it was a good idea to check in around here, both to see if we can get any information and to be sure everyone around here is safe and accounted for. Have you noticed anyone prowling around the last few weeks?”
“Few weeks?” Sarah replied. “He’s been out that long?”
“I’m afraid so, Miss. The force is spread a little thin right now what with the virus and all. We officers aren’t immune to it either, as you can imagine, but I volunteered to check in with everyone over in this area today to make sure and let you know to keep an eye out. I see you have a security system,” he said as he motioned to her doorbell camera, “so be sure and check your tapes too.”
“I’ve been looking at them every day lately. I have a lot of footage of feral cats and the mailman.”
“Well it’s good you’re checking. The, uh, unaccounted-for detainee is said to have gone missing just under a month back. The inmate uniforms at the facility are a blue shirt and pants. I know these systems tend to hold videos on their servers for about a month, so if you go back and see anything suspicious, please call, ok?” Then I saw the officer reach in his pocket and pull out a card. He held it out for a moment before Sarah I guess eventually decided a direct line to a police officer was worth whatever risk of germs that might come with it and took the card from him. He tipped his cap, told her to take care, and I heard her thank him and shut and lock the door.
No longer with anything to watch at the window, I went back into the spare room, where I had been spending most of my time lately to let Sarah have her space and tried to think about what I had heard. I really disliked that cop for stopping by. What help was this to go around and tell already scared people to be even more scared? Not to mention the fact that the police clearly aren’t even doing their job—so what, they want this neighborhood to do it for them? No one can go out, and now we’re supposed to feel unsafe in our homes too? And for what? No way a person who got out of a detention center is just wandering around outside for a month. Since everyone else is hunkered down inside, they’d stick out like a sore thumb just being out in the world like that. It was stupid, and yet I knew it was going to eat at Sarah and add to her already mounting paranoia.
I heard her come upstairs and wash her hands in her en-suite, probably washing off whatever might have gotten to her from touching the officer’s card. When she came out, I heard her mention a breeze and my heart sank as I realized I had left the window cracked. That’s essentially something not being in its place. I fucked up again. I heard Sarah slam the window shut, say “what the fuck” a few times, sounding a little more angry and a little more manic each time. Then she slammed her bedroom door and went back downstairs. I stayed out of her way.
Sarah slept downstairs last night, curled up on the couch with Kuzco. I sat at the top of the stairs and watched them sleep. It’s obvious this quarantine buddies arrangement is over. I knew it was too good to last, but I didn’t think it’d be over this quickly. The virus has put such a strain on us. If we had more freedom to get out and take our mind off things, to not let stress and paranoia creep in and sour everything, I bet things could have been good a lot longer. But here we are, her not even wanting to be upstairs with me. I’ve got nowhere else to go. The idea of leaving, of being around other people, exposed and almost certainly getting sick, is settling in my stomach and weighing me down like a stone. But I can’t see any other way.
What can I possibly do?
Sarah’s been banging around downstairs, cleaning out closets and whatnot I guess, all morning. She hasn’t been upstairs all day. I haven’t gone downstairs yet either.
When she finally settles down for lunch, I decide I can hazard a trip down without upsetting things too much. Kuzco sees me and doesn’t even raise his head, so at least I’m still somewhat in his good graces. I can’t stop thinking about that damned cop. I’m still not totally convinced he even really was a cop. Was he just trying to scare her? Plant a seed and then, if he stops back by, she’ll be freaked out enough to actually let him in? And then what? And so what even if he is a real cop? I’m still mad he came by and scared her like that. It’s clear she was already on the edge, and now she’s even more ready to break. She seems to jump at every little sound, so I keep my distance and try to be really quiet. I just want to check on her, but I don’t want to add to her stress in any way, so I watch from down the hall.
She hasn’t been listening to any podcasts today, and now that she’s sitting still, it’s totally silent. She’s on her computer, but I’m not really at a good angle to see what she’s doing. I’m nosy, though, so I slowly ease in a bit closer. I’m not right behind her—I don’t want to startle her, so I stay back—but I’m sort of just hovering there, like a real creeper, honestly, trying to see what she’s doing. Is she making herself crazy looking at virus statistics? Is she researching information about the escaped detainee the supposed cop told her about?
No. She’s checking her security footage. I see she’s scrolling through the automatically recorded events that were triggered by the motion sensors over the last few days. The front door camera is triggered the most, it looks like, by people walking by on the sidewalk out front. I see the police officer’s chest in a few of the stills she scrolls by. She clicks on one still a few rows down that seems suspicious, but when the video plays, it turns out it’s just the mailman putting something in the box. Sarah hasn’t checked the mail in days.
The side door camera gets triggered the second most. That’s the one that the neighborhood cats set off a lot because it covers one side of the house and the entire driveway. It’s hard to tell what made the recording trigger from the stills, though, so I watch her painstakingly click through every one, watching the grainy videos until she’s sure it’s just a cat passing through or herself leaving for a run or to walk the dog that’s set it off. I sort of get lost in the pattern of it. It’s almost soothing. I move in closer so we can watch them together. Click. Watch for a few seconds. Click. Watch for a few seconds. Click.
The fewest videos of all are from the back door. There’s only one every several days or so. Sarah never uses that door and it’s not the cats’ preferred walking path. I step closer until I’m just behind her, now just as invested as Sarah is in her investigation of every movement outside the house in the last few weeks. It’s honestly the most I’ve seen of outside in a while, since I’ve more or less been staying away from the windows. Just like with Sarah’s video calls, I’m not trying to advertise my presence here to anyone else, after all.
She scrolls and clicks, scrolls and clicks, each still accompanied by a video, generally of nothing. A large piece of trash rolling by, a lone cat, and once a raccoon. There’s the time I opened the door for Kuzco, and, while this camera’s angled so you can see the entire external laundry room wall, you can’t see anything in the video but the door swinging open and the dog making a run for it, Sarah not too far behind. She’d already seen that one, of course, so I was relieved she didn’t spend too much time on it. I still felt a twinge of guilt watching the dog take off outside, and especially when seeing the worry on her face as she bolted out after him.
I wonder how far back these recordings go. I’m familiar with these sort of systems, though not this one in particular, and I know Sarah can manually save stuff forever, but I'm not sure how long the ones she doesn’t choose to save stay on the server before the system automatically removes them to free up memory. Was the cop right that it’s about a month? My guess would be 30 days. Maybe we should look into it. That’s good information to know.
Only a few more stills left to click on, and no crazy, murderous escaped detainee to be seen so far. Thank goodness. Maybe this will put some of Sarah’s anxieties to rest. Maybe she’ll settle into herself and be more like the old Sarah. The slides-around-the-house-in-her-socks-after-sweeping Sarah. The podcast-blasting, go-for-a-run-every-sunny-day Sarah. The goes-upstairs-and-sleeps-in-her-own-bed Sarah. She seems to be relaxing already as she clicks on the last video still, clearly a click that comes from being thorough, not one born of suspicion, as there’s nothing to see on the thumbnail itself. She doesn’t seem to really even be watching the video. By the way I see the tension leave her shoulders, I can guess she’s already allowing herself to breathe easy. That cop was just needlessly frightening her. Everything is fine.
She sees it.
He’s right there, clear as day in the video. He’s got on a blue shirt and no pants. He looks like a freaking maniac. The footage is grainy, but you can just see the desperation in how he holds himself. He comes in the frame and looks around. He moves to the laundry room window. He’s wasting a lot of time toying with it, trying not to draw attention or make a ton of noise as he tries to jimmy it open. I wonder how long the recordings go before they cut out.
Surprisingly long, it turns out. Long enough to watch the man carefully slide his fingers all around the edges of the window, push here, then there, shimmy it, jam it, force it, and, finally, slide it up. He looks left and right, leans in and you can only assume checks to see if the coast is clear inside, and then lifts himself unceremoniously into the house, nearly losing his tighty-whities in the process. The window slides shut behind him.
My mouth is hanging open. Sarah has put her hand over her own mouth, too, at a loss even to speak. I can’t believe we both just saw that. When she swivels in her chair to reach for her phone and sees me there, right behind her, pantsless and in my blue shirt, we both scream.