It’s my own fault, being here. Sitting on our balcony and looking over the railing into Ms. Axlam’s wrinkly face. And no, it doesn’t make me feel any better that it’s also this dammed virus’s fault as well as mine.
Her eyes are gold, almost yellow in this light. I have to drag my gaze away before she thinks I’m being rude. I look down at my guitar instead and strum a chord, then tweak the E string.
I’m sick to death of this lockdown. My bedroom, once a refuge away from my annoying sister, my nosy mother and my father who was always looking for new chores for me, seems more like a prison cell now. The vintage super hero posters pinned to the wall mock me with their outdoor panoramas. Spiderman, swinging free above the city in a sky so blue you could swim in it. Batman holding a criminal by the ankle above a gloomy alley full of dangers, but also dark freedom. Wonder Woman in a dense tropical jungle, with her perky breasts and impossibly skinny waist, tying up a lucky perp with her magical lasso. Lately, I’ve been ignoring her sexy red, white and blue uniform, and instead I brush my fingers across the green and yellow parrot who sits in the branches above. “Lucky bird. You can take off and fly wherever you want to while I’m stuck here climbing the walls. Stupid virus!”
At first the lockdown had seemed like a godsend. I’d been on the verge of failing science. Not because I didn’t know my stuff inside and out, but because sleeping-in had become an everyday habit, and Mr. Lawson’s class was first thing in the morning. And somehow finishing my homework just wasn’t worth the effort. But now, sleeping-in had gotten old faster than I thought possible. I’d give anything to be able to do that project now. Stupid Covid-19!
To top it off, Mom’s an emergency room doctor who can’t even come home. She’s living in the Marriot Hotel right now, the one in Motel Village just outside of the city limits. The whole family hasn’t seen her more than three times in the last eight weeks. And even then, it had been for less than ten minutes each time, her standing on the sidewalk, looking pale and exhausted, me, the big baby I’m starting to become, trying to hold back tears. And, for the first time in years, I’m wanting to hug her and be hugged back by her. I might be seventeen, but dammit, I want my mom!
While Mom’s been away doing her part, the rest of the family’s fallen into a routine. My little sister, Nellie has been making boxed mac and cheese and microwaved hotdogs on Mondays. On Tuesdays, Dad cooks something he calls Italian Stew. He might call it Italian, but the closest it ever comes to Italy is when the can sits next to the pasta in the pantry.
“The can’s just the base,” Dad tells us. “I add all the secret Italian spices. It’s a special recipe passed down to me by your Uncle Giovani.” Uncle Giovani is Dad’s old roommate from college, his real name’s John O’Rielly. So there’s that.
I’ve taken to creating new meals every Wednesday. Some days it takes hours of scouring YouTube to find something simple, yet delicious. Well, most recipes look good when the blogger makes it. I’m getting better at it though, at least yesterday everyone ate all of the seafood lasagna.
Then Nellie made some kind of comment about her piano lessons and I had to open my big mouth. “Taking online guitar classes is different, it’s not the same as real life. And I’m getting super rusty.” Dad jumped on that like a cobra waiting for Mowgli to let his guard down. So fast forward to tonight, and I’m sitting eight feet away from ancient Ms. Axlam, our weird next door neighbour. She’s skinnier than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Her long thin arms and legs are like a spider monkey’s. When she looks down at her own guitar her face is hidden by a curtain of grey-tinged frizzy hair.
“Sorry my Dad forced you into this,” I apologize. “He’s been super pushy since this horrible quarantine.”
She looks up and the sunlight glints off her yellow eyes. “I’m happy to help, Aiden,” she says, then strums a chord with those impossibly long fingers. She has a bit of an accent, it’s buried under almost perfect English, but there’s a slight burr beneath.
She shakes her head. “This is not a horrible lockdown, Aiden. What we are doing by staying inside, is helping to save lives. This life is easy.”
I’m about to protest, but she strums another chord and gets a faraway look in her eyes. “I was in a horrible lockdown once, many years ago when I was a small child. They shot my father in the street when he tried to sneak out for food. We had to leave him there because the soldiers were killing anyone caught outside. The next day his body had disappeared. Maybe dragged away by animals, we never found him.”
She plucks another chord and her words begin to mingle with the notes. “A year later, and in a faraway refugee camp, after my little sister died of starvation and fever, my mother walked into the river. I was left to fend for myself. Ten years old and made to do horrible things for a mouthful of porridge here, or a spoonful of maize there.”
Her fingers pick out a mournful melody. Her smile is sad and pain seems to be etched onto her face. Then suddenly, from her clever hands, the song becomes joyful. She looks up and the dying evening light makes her regal. Silver bracelets tinkle against her bony wrists as she plays a jaunty tune. “You have Italian stew and YouTube lasagna. Your mother is brave and strong, your little sister is alive and well fed, and your father doesn’t take no for an answer. So play me a G major, then you and I will rejoice and celebrate this quarantine.”
I swallow hard and with shaking hands pluck out a G major. Soon, under her excellent tutoring, I work out the kinks and we play long into the deepening night.
Balcony – Pixabay Creative Commons
Guitar on balcony – Wallpaper Flare