Sometimes numbers helped. Four walls, three months, two love-struck hearts, and one ending you don’t want to miss.
Sometimes numbers helped.
There were four walls. One exit into the hallway. One light fixture overhead, too high up to ever change the bulb that had gone out six months earlier. Two table lamps. One floor lamp. Three weak circles of lamplight. One candle burning with three wicks. One strong scent of coffee in the air from two sources — her candle and her mug.
Three hundred seventy-two books — some sitting at attention on the shelves while others competed for space around the room. One laptop open and waiting. One cursor slowly blinking. One blank page.
One hundred fifty-seven days since sheltering in place had begun. Three hundred fifteen pages to write with only ninety-nine pages written — two hundred sixteen to go. Seventy thousand words waiting to be written. One cursor slowly blinking. One blank page waiting.
Sometimes numbers helped — but not today. Eve counts the objects in the room and tries to control her breathing. One handcrafted bowl of smooth white stones, sixteen she knows by touch. She puts one hand on her heart and counts its beats, but even the racing of her heart doesn’t stop her from picking up the tall mug of coffee and drinking it like water. Like salvation. Like the thing keeping her going.
She thinks, briefly, of putting on her mask and going outside for a walk around the neighborhood. But then she thinks about the line of cars crowding the driveways of her apartment block, about masked faces hurrying in opposite directions, about unmasked faces looking out of too-clean windows with hungry eyes. It had been safer to retreat into her garden before the neighbor’s cigarette smoke violated both social distancing and Eve’s sanctuary.
She returns her attention to the blinking cursor. She opens a new tab. These quick checks could take seven minutes — or they could fill the day. Eve goes to Twitter first and monitors all the bad news she missed while she'd been sleeping. Plenty of it. Another 2 a.m. toilet rant, a few pseudo-celebrities canceled for being terrible humans, a cute cat picture, a funny meme, and another shooting. No need to go any deeper.
On Facebook, Eve scrolls through posts that make her feel like she imagined both a global pandemic and a series of natural disasters that followed. She counts twenty-seven separate posts of un-masked friends eating in crowded restaurants or drinking in bars, all with big manic smiles. But eleven posts from those putting their lives back together remind her that it happened.
Grief, check. Comfort eating, check. Another new hobby for that one, no surprise. Photos of masked humans cleaning up the remains of storm-tossed homes, double-check. Less misery — and reality — on Instagram. She decides to spend her time there.
If you can’t see the cursor blinking, is it still there? She decides not to check.
Tap, tap, tap. Thunk!
On the other side of the door just outside the hallway, Eve hears a familiar and welcome sound. Steps running lightly up to the door. A package being left.
For nineteen days, there had been no happy sound of landing packages. There was just waiting. But the death toll from missing medications had sent the politicians back to work, masks muffling furious outcries but not hiding angry eyes. The death rate jumped at fourteen days. It took five days to bring back the post. More people died, but everyone was too busy hauling in their packages to notice. At least, that’s what it felt like.
“Thank you, Alma,” Eve calls through the closed door, waiting for the footsteps to retreat.
A pause. “Alma’s …” A clearing of the throat. “I’ve just started Alma’s route.”
Eve knows what the pause means.
She spied Alma once, through the curtains. Big, beautiful with braids woven through with gold. Her voice was like honey. Eve had wanted to know what she looked like. Alma had smile lines when she glanced back with a quick wave, but Eve wasn’t sure anyone had cause for smiling much these days. But she liked her bright clothes. They reminded her of a now smoke-clogged garden on better days. She decides she will grieve for her, later, even though she only knew her name.
“Thank you for telling me,” Eve tells the voice on the other side when she notices the footsteps have not yet retreated. She presses her hand against the door, lays her pale face against it. The silk from the pajamas she ordered rustles ever so slightly, but she’s straining to hear footsteps.
“I’m Henry,” he answers, and Eve pictures an older man in pressed trousers with an old-fashioned hat. Not a fedora exactly. She smiles as she pictures it.
“I’m Eve.” The silence doesn’t feel awkward, but she breaks it anyway. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Eve.”
She doesn’t go to the door to check and see what he looks like. For today, she will imagine him. Plus, as she reaches for the doorknob and hears the tap, tap, tap of footsteps lightly running back to the truck, the slam of a door, and the movement of the truck leaving her neighborhood, Eve remembers Alma. Best not to get too attached.
“Four packages,” Eve asserts through the door.
“How do you do that?” Henry asks on the other side. “How do you always know for sure?” She gets a lot of packages from all over. Tracking has long since become a thing of the past. It’s a valid question.
“One hundred eighty-three days,” she whispers, knowing he won’t hear her. That’s how long she’s been inside. She’s been talking to Henry through the door for twenty-six of them. He only has a few minutes to spare, as they’ve all started working extra time to cover the workers lost to the pandemic. With an average of nine minutes spent at her door, she’s only talked to him for two hundred thirty-four minutes, not that she’s counting.
“I’m magic. That’s why I always know,” she tells him, and if she’s flirting a little, who cares? It’s not like she can open the door and invite him in.
Not that she hasn’t thought about it for fourteen days. That’s when she finally decided to look outside when he was leaving. He was about her age and attractive from what she could see. Of course, he couldn’t see her and was just being friendly while he did his job, but there was little else to do but dream.
“I can believe that. So, what’s new for today?” Henry doesn’t check Twitter. He claims Eve is a better source of all the news without the stress. He steps closer to the door to listen, and Eve leans against her side of it.
“There was a cute dog video. I could send that to you.” She wondered if she had crossed a line when she gave him her phone number four days ago. He hadn’t used it.
“Please do. Go on,” he said. Eve was pleased. She immediately texted him the video and heard the smile in his voice. “Well, that’s good news at least. What else?”
“There was an early morning Twitter rant.”
“Nothing new. Next?”
“We’re canceling Lily Tomlin now.”
“We are absolutely NOT canceling Lily Tomlin. Besides, what did she do?”
“Well, it was an accident. It was her birthday, and some fandom mixed up that story with another story about harassment. Suddenly, the happy birthday messages got switched up with cancel culture.” Eve paused. “I think it’s sorted now, but it was strange.”
A pleasant pause.
“Do you think …” Henry began just as Eve was saying, “I was wondering …”
“Yes?” they both asked together. Eve decided to wait.
“Would you like to have dinner this weekend?”
Eve smiled against the door. “How? Everything is closed.”
“I could video call you. We could have dinner.”
Eve paused but only to take a deep breath. “I’d love that.”
When she heard him pull away, she opened the door. Four packages — but the one on top wasn’t something she ordered. She opened the slender box with a smile. Peonies. Her favorite.
One charged laptop. One plate of pasta, beautifully presented. One glass of wine. Three minutes to start. Two sips of wine. One big smile, Henry’s, filling the screen.
No small talk here. No awkward pauses. Eve took in each of his features, savored them like the wine she swirled in her glass. His hands, darker than hers, reaching for his glass of wine. His eyes, lighter than hers, glowing green in the light. His smile with its even teeth. His laugh ringing out.
Later, one dark screen. One quiet smile. One mostly empty wine bottle.
Candlelight on wine was a very good thing, she decided.
Two hundred seven days now. Fifty days of knowing Henry. Twice weekly dinner dates, except that one week there had been three — to celebrate his birthday. She’d baked two small cakes. She’d left him a cake and a package. He’d picked it up and left her two packages. They’d had dinner that night with cake and presents.
Today was his day off, and she was going outside. She selected her favorite mask, a beautiful one instead of a funny one this time. She put on a pair of leather boots that had gotten too little use this year. She looked herself over curiously rather than critically. One pair of leggings. One band t-shirt from a time when attending concerts happened. One brown leather jacket, fitted, that was appropriate given the season. Curls braided to one side.
Eve picked up a tube of lipstick and put it back down. He wouldn’t see her face anyway. Still, she put in a breath mint. Then changed her mind and put the lipstick on anyway, for herself. Covered it with a face mask. Opened the door.
Henry was waiting on the other side of the street. Such an odd name these days, Henry. He was named after his great-grandfather. She was named after her great-aunt. He waved, and she admired him in his jeans and boots with the rust-colored button-up shirt, sleeves rolled up. No jacket. Blue mask.
He crossed to her side of the street, his eyes asking if it was okay. She smiled and hoped he could tell it from her eyes. He held out earbuds in one gloved hand, and she took them. Her eyes followed the cord to the splitter in his phone, up to the earbuds in his ears.
“Shall we?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” she told him happily.
He pressed play, and the first song started playing. They would talk later, would spend an hour walking over the crisp crunch of late autumn leaves as they wound up and down the avenues of the historic district, but for now, it was enough to be together and to listen. His gloved hand occasionally brushed hers, and even though they didn’t link their fingers together, they both thought of it often.
Two-hundred seventeen days. So much of the year. She was putting up her Christmas tree later. With Henry. She wondered if you could fall in love with someone you’d only known for sixty days.
One cup of hot cocoa, cooling. Eleven marshmallows. Four Golden Girls grinning on the mug with Santa hats, a gift from Henry.
A different sound approaching. Clop, clop, clop. Not Henry’s light steps. A flicker of curtains, but Eve did not recognize this person. The ring of the doorbell and the sound of seven packages discarded at her door in a heap sent her into action.
She yanked open the door before the delivery person could climb back into her truck, earning her a fierce frown as she reached to put on her mask.
“Henry?” she asked, her voice strained even to her own ears.
“Sick,” the voice replied.
Eve clutched the door and felt the incessant drumming of her own heart, loud in her ears. Behind her, two stockings hung empty beside a bright tree. The delivery driver pulled away. Eve closed the door, forgetting her packages outside.
Five phone calls later, and Eve clutched an address in her hand like she might lose it, even though it was also on her phone. She found the house easily enough. It was a cottage on the corner of a street she'd never ventured down on her walks. Filled with resolve, she approached the door.
She knocked, but then rang the doorbell for good measure. Gently, she sat down the packages she was carrying. She stood quickly, readjusting her scarf and her mask, and then jogged back to her car where she sat with her window up, watching.
The door opened, and she saw Henry in his pajamas look around before noticing the packages. Before noticing her. He was not too sick to come to the door anyway. She hoped it was okay she was here. He lifted his hand to wave, but she was already pulling away.
At a small cottage on the corner of a street she’d never visited before, Henry walked inside and placed the packages on the table. Unpacking them slowly, he counted. Two Mason jars filled with soup. Chicken noodle. One hand-written card he would read later. One blanket, soft to the touch, and in his favorite color. One plate of homemade cookies, still warm. Three cinnamon sticks, tied together over one jar of honey. One package of wellness tea. And one soft smile on Henry’s flushed face.
It was snowing for the first time in ages. Eve stood in her garden, grateful that it was too cold and too early for the neighbor to fill up her garden with the stench of his smoke. She took in a deep breath and told herself that next Christmas would be different.
People would be well again. Masks could be taken off, and everyone would see the holiday cheer. Cars would leave driveways and go places and come home. Friends would fill rooms rather than phones with their chatter.
Going back inside, she pulled her favorite cardigan around her shoulders and breathed a sigh of relief that Henry’s sickness had been the regular kind. He was well again and had taken back his delivery route.
But there would be no delivery today. Still, they’d have a white Christmas, just like Bing Crosby was crooning on the record she’d put on. She almost didn’t hear the footsteps over the sound of his voice, but something made her stop and listen closely. She turned down the record player and walked slowly to the door.
“Eve? Can you open up the door?”
Should she? Could she?
She looked behind her at the mask that was lying there, beside her near-useless car keys and the glowing Christmas candle. Then she glanced back at the door, at her hand already reaching to turn the doorknob. The door seemed to open by magic, but she knew — she knew — it was her own hand that did it.
And there, on her doorstep, was Henry. Henry’s whole face without the mask, smiling but looking nervous, too. He stepped forward. Or she did. They did.
And with snow falling into their hair, Henry leaned toward Eve. Softly, their lips met in a touch that felt like a question asked, and answered.
There was no rush. She wasn’t counting seconds, so she didn’t notice when they turned into minutes. She didn’t notice her hands getting cold, didn’t even seem to notice when those hands reached for Henry’s shirt to pull him inside out of the snow that was already starting to melt as the sun rose higher in the winter sky.
Tap, tap, tap. Thunk!
Eve looked up from the screen and blinked slowly like a wise owl in a picture book. One, two, three packages. She looked at the bottom left of the screen. Three hundred eleven pages, exactly. She got up quickly and bounded to the door.
“Hello, Eve. That’s quite the pile of books you’ve got in.”
“That’s perfect. I’m nearly finished with the book, so I’ll have time to read.”
“I envy you that. I’ve picked up another shift. Just through the holidays.”
“It’s terrible how much you work!” Eve exclaimed.
“Pot calling the kettle. Don’t forget to eat lunch,” Henry said as the tap, tap, tap of his footsteps died away.
She looked back at her manuscript, the screen open and waiting, and then opened the door. She was distracted as she lifted the boxes. She’d have to change his name, of course. She’d call him Luke or James or Allan, something ordinary.
Sighing, she picked up the three packages and didn’t notice the small clutch of camellias tied with twine that had been waiting beside them.
The snow started to fall, but inside, Eve’s cocoa had gone cold with its eleven perfect marshmallows long since melted, and Henry drove to the next stop wondering if the camellias had, perhaps, been a mistake.