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Short story: For the happy times

Thales was reluctant to meet his friends that night but he ventured out anyway. They met at the usual bar. Drinking didn’t appeal much to him lately. He was close to 30 and his career as a management consultant had not yet taken off. He felt like he was stuck, not moving forward nor backward.

They pour him a shot of stale whiskey. He doesn’t even understand why people drink whiskey in shots, or whiskey at all. But he downs it to please his friends. “For the happy days” they toast. He missed him. It’s the only person he has ever missed. It was 3 years since he was gone, his memory was fading away, but gatherings like this always always reminded of him. He had his demons but nobody thought they would drag him all the way to death.

The news came suddenly. Wong shared his phone screen with the group.

“What in the motherfucking fuck? Check this out. 

“All venues have to shut down at 11pm”. 

“What, why”? 

“A virus”. 

“Apparently some people in Singapore died” 

“Is it similar to the corona?” 

“Naah, this one’s worse”. 

“This fucker seeps in through your nostrils and kills you almost instantly. Like people are dying on their way to the hospital”.  

“Uuu scary”, David breaks in. “Let´s have a shot”. 

The early closing time is for the better, Thales thought. At least I’ll have a clean good sleep before my meeting tomorrow. It would be huge if he got that account. He really needs a win right now. Things aren’t adding up. He has been fighting with his girlfriend for the past weeks. Now she texted him she ‘s stuck in an airport in France. Some flights were cancelled.

A group of bargoers hugged, beers raised. “It’s the End of the World as We Know it” is playing. His friends join and they all sing along. Thales prefers to remain at the table. Judy sits along with him. “I just read in the news someone died on the coast. This is all so sudden. Like, these things always have a buffer time. “This one seems odd. Everything is happening so fast” 

After 11 pm his friends moved to Judy´s apartment for another drink. Thales did not join. As he walked back home, he felt a strange spasm. He wanted to run back to his friend’s house and tell them everything. Every thought he had. But he couldn’t. He had to stick to his plan. Go home and prepare for the meeting. He hurried into the damp September night. He had walked through that same street countless times before. But this time, he felt very uneasy

He arrived at the meeting 10 minutes early, as usual. He ran over the numbers twice in the morning. There was nothing that could go wrong this time. But it did. 

“Sorry to keep you waiting Thales, but we will have to postpone our meeting. This whole virus thing is getting out of hand. A complete 30-day lockdown was just announced. I am running to buy some food. My wife´s driving me nuts. They are giving everyone a few hours to stock on food. You should go too” 

“This doesn’t make sense”, Thales thought. This virus just came out and now there is full lockdown?. Everyone in the office building was running out in a frenzy–as if a cynical enemy announced that they would bomb it. Thales had to join them. He had no choice. He hurried to a supermarket. He had never rationed food before so he just bought whatever the others were buying. 

The first week was awful. Thales felt like his soul wanted to crawl through the door gap. He had left his laptop´s charger in the office, so he couldn’t get any work done. His girlfriend was still not answering. This made him furious. He wanted to break out, find her, and shout at her. But fuck, he couldn’t. Her complete lack of interest drove him over the edge. He slammed his phone into the TV breaking both in a single act.  It was the angriest he had been since his best friend committed suicide.

An instant pang of remorse hit him in the chest. “Fuck!”  He plunged for his phone like a starving street dog at a hot burger patty, but it was of no use, the phone was dead. He plummeted to the ground. He would be stuck in the apartment for at least 20 more days completely uncommunicated. The situation broke him down. Everything that could ever go wrong in his life crept up to him, like death in a cancer ward. He laid on the stinking carpet and fell asleep.  

He woke up at dawn. His ribs in deep pain. He could barely breathe. “Damn, this carpet smells” he thought as he lifted himself up–which almost took 5 minutes. Then the strangest realization hit him. He hadn’t cleaned the apartment in months. He decided to clean it now. What else could he do?

As he powered through his task time flew by. He even felt hungry for the first time in days. By midday, the floors, kitchen, and bathroom were done. Then came his final challenge. The big brown cupboard that stood towering over the living room. It belonged to his landlord. He opened it for the first time. 

Inside, the entire life of the man lay in front of him. Memoirs, letters, notes, books. He had been in the army. Crossed Africa on a motorcycle. Had a mistress in Lisbon. And an estranged daughter he missed more than anything. He was an accomplished diplomat, historian, and author. Fascinating, Thales thought, If he had lived like that. 

He felt he knew this man better than himself. He even forgot to dust off the books. He began reading them instead. The cupboard became his only connection to the outer world.  He spent hours reading. He read about WWII and the Jews.  And happier things as well. Nature, love, friendship, and human accomplishment despite insurmountable odds. He couldn’t keep away from the cupboard.

As the pile of read books grew he felt compelled to write. He wrote for hours. Pouring on paper all the things he wanted to say but held back. It all finally came out. He also felt an urge–for the first time in years–to train his body. He never followed an exercise routine so he did the first thing he could think of. He threw himself to the ground and did pushups, 20, 30,50,100. The next day he did more.

Over the next few days, his restlessness lingered. The days became shorter. For Thales, it was no longer a lockdown, he had found sanctuary in his apartment. He built a shrine, a place so holy only he could visit it. He prayed to made-up gods and savored the boundless realm of his mind. The world seemed to be ending, but his journey into self had just begun. He discovered why he had been wrapped in so much angst all these years. As the days went by, he developed a very unique kind of insanity, his own kind, not borrowed from anyone else. 

But on day 19 he felt a sudden panic. He remembered the outer world. He ran into the hallway. He viciously knocked on Julia’s door. “Will you keep it down?” she told him as she opened the door. “My father is trying to get some sleep. He is very sick.” 

He explained that he just wants news. “You didn’t know? The lockdown is extended for 30 more days. We need to ration as best as possible”. But soon they forgot about the pandemic. They stood in her doorway like kids, separated from each other by a long school summer break. They spoke for 10, 20, minutes, who knows. They had to. They were breaking the unbearableness of the isolation. He felt a certain comfort looking into her sad but beautiful eyes. Boom. The building’s front door flung open. They heard menacing steps. 

Everything happened very fast. 3 or 4 men appeared in the hallway. They had green bodysuits, guns and gas masks. They were brash. 

“You are to fully remain inside and never open your door again until the lockdown is complete. If you disobey you will be put into custody. Understood?” 

“Yes”. 

That night, Thales tried to sleep but the incessant coughing didn’t let him. The coughs of a dying man can be far more terrifying than men with guns he thought. Eventually, the coughing stopped. Deep at night, he heard the menacing footsteps again. And Julia’s sobbing. Her father had died, they came to take him away. Amidst her uncontrollable sobbing, he could just knock on the wall as a sign of support.  

She knocked back. They communicated clumsily through the wall for what seemed like a few minutes. Her knocks became stronger until she fractured the wall. His despair became anger as he viciously punched through the wall shattering to bits. They hugged in the strongest embrace they ever had. 

From then on they stayed mostly together. They cooked the little food that was left and talked. They had all but forgotten about the pandemic. Even though they both felt increasingly sick. They flipped the news on. But it was useless. The networks were only showing footage from a few days before. Deaths, conspiracies, chaos. On social media, men that had previously been proud of their godlessness were citing god. The superpowers were forming some type of coalition to “combat” the disease. It seemed almost impossible that the lockdown would last just 30 more days. 

He turned on social media. People were hungry, tired, bored, scared. There was talk of dead pets and trees. Not a single other topic existed. Strangest of all. He didn’t find any official communications. It’s as if the government disappeared. A crazy idea occurred to him. What if the government did disappear? What then? He tried to imagine it. A world run by communes, maybe tribes. Widespread collaboration or total annihilation? He went to sleep on that thought. 

It happened early in the morning. Thales was still asleep. Julia broke the news. The TV stations were down. A few hours later social media was wiped out. You just couldn’t refresh the feed anymore. A few days after all communications were cut people started leaving their homes. One by one they surrendered– the uncertainty was driving them insane. Even death seemed like a more desirable outcome. They exited their homes, apartments, mansions, slums, hamlets.

It was weeks before all the city’s inhabitants ventured into the outside world.  Rumors spread of these exits. They were called the “escapists”. They roamed the streets confused and hungry. They were seeping with guilt and strange odors. The city had never seen such grotesque creatures crawling its surface before. The air had a foul smell and was covered by a yellowish mist. If your great grandfather would be alive today he would tell you it resembled a mustard gas attack he experienced during WWI. 

There they were, after months of no human contact, and they couldn’t even talk to one another. Even breathing was painful. The putrid smell burned their nose channels. They desperately ran, trying to reach the homes of their loved ones. To see if they were still there. Still alive. But the burn in their noses was relentless. They had forgotten addresses they had known before by heart. Tires were screeching, car windows shattering.

Julia had to leave as well. She had a relative at the other end of the city she needed to see. Their goodbye was casual. She said she would come back the same day, but they both knew it was unlikely. She had tears in her eyes. She ran as fast as she could. But the burn was too strong. And she was too weak. Her legs were shaking, her stomach missing the comfort of warm food. She felt guilty for venturing out, of not being able to find her relatives home. She collapsed in a nearby park. The last person that saw her alive was Thales.  

Soon they all started perishing. All the figurines, who were once human. Who once fussed about having to stay locked up at home for 2 weeks, who once sang merrily in the bar. Some reached their destination, just to find the same fate for their loved ones. They had only ventured out to discover the worst sights imaginable. 

Thales, who until the lockdown had led an unremarkable life, became the last survivor on earth. He stayed in his apartment forever. 

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