Falling in love with Morgan was easy. She had warm, kind eyes and rosy lips that broke into the perfect, crooked smile. Her laughter came straight from her belly, never forced or fake. When she sipped coffee, she held the mug with both hands and let the steam fog up her glasses, which must’ve been a size too big because they constantly lost their place on her nose. She liked to sing off-key while attempting to garden on Saturday mornings. Between the choruses, she would curse like a sailor on leave at the dead flowers. There was something fragile about her, delicate even, but there was also a fire raging beneath it all. I was scared a stiff wind might knock her over - not because I thought she would break, but because I thought, like an overturned candle, she would burn down everything in her path.
Loving Morgan was hard. She was stubborn. She would dig her heels in, and there wasn’t a force in Heaven or on Earth strong enough to make her budge. She had a cold shoulder that gave me frostbite. Her tunnel-vision made it impossible to reason with her once her mind was set on something, no matter how impossible or irrational. She was immature and reckless with her words. She was annoying - constantly poking fresh wounds to get a rise out of me. Years of mistreatment and abuse left her unable to receive love or affection without skepticism. Her depression never failed to rear its ugly head the moment we reached a good place. Worst of all, when it came, she didn’t fight back, so I had to pick up her pieces and put them back together - a thankless labor she never acknowledged or appreciated.
But, watching Morgan die was infinitely harder.
She moved into the house beside mine two years before the world fell apart. She was pretty, but she never caught my eye. I tried to ignore her most days. She was mercurial and noisy. She liked to yell into the phone at odd hours of the night, arguing with her boyfriend over this or that. Her friends were equally frustrating. They came over often, convening on her front porch to drink wine and laugh loudly enough for the whole neighborhood to hear. I resented her, but she seemed to like me, which made me dislike her even more - I didn’t want her attention.
Still, she was my neighbor, so we developed a relationship that settled a few steps lower than acquaintances. I tolerated her loudness and the amount of space she occupied. In turn, she stopped trying to force me into conversations about my weekend plans or the weather. We exchanged rehearsed pleasantries in passing and the occasional wave, but nothing more. She was the embarrassing exception to my otherwise peaceful routine.
I was a loner by choice. I didn’t make friends, because I didn’t need them. I enjoyed coming home to an empty house. I didn’t ask women on dates, and they certainly didn’t ask me. Despite the opinions of others, I didn’t see my life as “lonely” or “depressing” - I was happy. More importantly, I was selfish. My lackluster lifestyle afforded me plenty of time and money to indulge. I bought myself the latest electronics, I drove a nice car, I wore expensive clothes, and I never had to share. I was comfortable. So, when the world shifted, I was better prepared than most - I had already been living in welcome isolation.
When the virus started making headlines, it didn’t seem real. A few people had gotten sick in New York, but that was far away - too far away to be taken seriously. As more and more cases were reported, panic started to spread. People were buying out shelves in the grocery stores. Cities were asking businesses to close their doors. Ideas like “quarantine” and “martial law” became commonplace on the news. Still, none of this triggered a reaction in me. I knew I wasn’t invincible, but I thought I was safe. I was young and healthy. I washed my hands. I cleaned religiously. I wasn’t scared in the least.
At first, only the elderly died. Then, children started dying. Before long, the virus stopped discriminating - people of all ages were unable to recover. The suggestions became mandates: stay at home unless absolutely necessary, avoid close contact with others, wear a mask in public. Everything closed, save the hospitals, grocery stores, and pharmacies. When those measures didn’t suffice, things became stricter - penalties for leaving the house without an “essential” reason, roadblocks to discourage drivers from making unnecessary visits, curfews. Within six months, all travel, even trips to the grocery store, became nonexistent for most of the population. We were given an itemized sheet of groceries and other household needs to fill out once a week, and the selected items were delivered to our doorsteps. Doctors, nurses, police officers, and pharmacists were the only people allowed to leave. Only the sick were exceptions, and it was understood they wouldn’t return..
Morgan reached out to me first. She caught me staring.
In a house filled with my favorite things, I should have fared well. I should have had plenty of distractions. Instead, I crumbled - I noticed her. She was dancing through her living room with the curtains open, and I couldn’t look away. It was the closest I had been to human interaction in months. I refused to watch the news. I didn’t have anyone to call - most of my family was dead and had been since long before the virus appeared. The loneliness I had taken so much comfort in became overwhelming. Watching Morgan dance in her living room, separated by a few panes of glass and a small yard, was a lifeboat. She was a real person, a reminder of life outside my four walls.
She waved her hands to snap me out of my trance before grabbing a piece of paper and a marker.
“What are you staring at?” She pressed the message against the glass.
It shocked me. I scrambled to find my own tools before scribbling my reply.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare.”
“It’s okay. How are you holding up in there?” She smiled when she held it up, proud of herself.
“Not so good. But not too bad. How about you?”
“About the same.”
From there, the conversation flowed.
There was something intimate about scribbling messages to each other on scraps of paper and holding them up to the window. We talked about everything, desperate to form a connection in a world that had turned its back on the idea. We spent our days asking each other questions, and we both slept by the window, waiting on the other to wake up each morning. We talked about her family and my heartache. She told me about her depression and how it was coming back ten-fold. I confessed my suffocating loneliness. We didn’t leave a stone unturned.
“Tell me your biggest fear,” she wrote one morning after a particularly restless night.
“What scares you about them?”
“Everything.” I felt my hand shake as I wrote the word.
“I’m scared of them too,” she replied, staring a hole straight through me as I read.
“What happened to your boyfriend?” I was scared to ask, but I wanted to know - I needed to know. We had been talking for a little over a month, but she never mentioned him.
“We broke up before all this happened.”
“Do you miss him?”
“About as much as I miss morning traffic and reality TV.” She was laughing as she wrote her response, and I could hear it - muffled and full and genuine and contagious.
“Where are you going first when you can leave?” The question came a few weeks before it happened. She held it up to the window, and her eyes were puffy. She had been crying.
“To your house.” I didn’t even think twice about the response.
She started crying as her eyes read it over and over again.
I ran out of clean pieces of paper, so I had to get creative. I started writing to her on pages torn out from books or pieces of mail. She would always laugh at my makeshift means of communication. We had long since exchanged numbers, but we always went back to the window. The phone was only for special occasions. On Saturdays, I would call to listen to her sing as she tried to salvage what was left of her houseplants, and she called me when she couldn’t sleep at night - not to talk, just to have someone beside her.
“Why didn’t you talk to me before this?” She looked sad when she held it up. It was something she had wanted to ask for a while.
“I don’t know. Honestly.” It was a lie, and she knew it.
“Tell me the truth.” She slammed the paper against the window with a soft thud.
“Because you were annoying. And loud. And you scared me. So I pretended you didn’t exist.”
“Thank you,” was all she wrote before walking away.
I knew she was depressed - I could see it straddling her back - but she didn’t want to talk about it. Anytime I asked, she would change the subject. So, I just tried to be there. I knew it wasn’t enough. I knew sleeping by the window and passing love notes through the glass wouldn’t save her. I was armed with an arsenal of information specific to bringing her comfort - her favorite movies, her favorite flavor of ice-cream, the way she liked her back rubbed - but without the ability to put that knowledge to use, I was powerless. The sadness was winning. She wasn’t eating. I hadn’t seen a food box delivered to her house in weeks. The bags under her eyes grew heavier and darker. She was sick. Not sick enough to leave, not sick enough to be considered important - but just sick enough to fade away, right in front of me.
“Morgan. Promise me we’re going to see each other when this is all over.” The message was more for me than her, but I held it up anyway.
“I promise.” She was lying.
She called me the morning her brother died in a panic - he was yet another victim of the virus.
“He died doing his job. He was a police officer, and he caught it going door to door to deliver goddamn groceries.”
“I don’t know what to say, Morgan. I’m sorry. I… I’m just sorry.”
“This is bullshit. This is fucking bullshit.”
“I know it is. But -”
“No, no. I don’t accept that. You don’t know. You’ve designed this perfect little life, so you wouldn’t have to care about anyone but yourself. You don’t get it. You’re alone by choice. The people I love are being taken from me, and I can’t do anything about it because I can’t leave this fucking house. So don’t patronize me. You don’t know.”
She hung up the phone, and my heart sank. She was right. I didn’t know. I made sure I wouldn’t have to know.
A week before it happened, Morgan was the happiest I had seen her in a long time.
“Tell me again. Hold it up again.” She was excitedly tapping her window, pointing down at my floor.
“I love you.” I held up the message I had written to her a few days before. She couldn’t read it enough.
“I love you, too.” She drew the words on the window with her finger, mouthing them as she traced, and they left a backwards smudge.
We did love each other. There’s something romantic about tragedy. I wanted Morgan more than I had ever wanted another person, and we built our relationship with the scraps leftover from the day the sky fell. We were two puzzles, different in every way, but we still managed to find pieces that fit. The finished product was misunderstood, but that’s the definition of catharsis - a distorted, horrific picture forged in the dark and carried to the other side, beautiful only because of the circumstances that paved its existence.
“Do you ever think about… it?” She wrote the message in the middle of the night, just days before, and called me until I woke up to read it.
“No. Do you?” I knew the answer when I held up the question.
“All the time. Go back to sleep.”
During our Saturday morning call the day before it happened, she was almost euphoric.
“I’m just so happy you finally noticed me,” she said, her smile framing the words.
“I should have noticed you sooner,” I started, “I should have held you when I had the chance.”
“You’re a good man, you know that right? You know that you’re the best man I’ve ever met?”
“Well, from what you’ve told me, that’s not a hard thing to accomplish.”
“I need you to know that. I need you to believe it.”
“If you say it’s true, then I believe you, Morgan.”
“Do you think dying hurts?” Her tone changed when she asked - her voice went limp.
“I don’t think it matters because it’s not something we have to worry about for a long time.”
“My brother said dying felt like drowning. Like gasping for air with burning lungs. Do you think it’s like that for everyone?”
“I think your brother contracted a deadly virus. And I don’t think you have to worry about feeling that sort of pain.”
“Let’s go back to the window. I want to talk to you until I fall asleep. Try to find something better to write on this time,” she giggled as she hung up the phone.
We wrote and talked until my vision went blurry from the sleep caked on my eyelids. She pointed to the smudge on her window, the one proclaiming her love, as I blew her a kiss goodnight.
The next morning, I jumped up, expecting to beat her to the daylight, but she was already sitting by the window. Her cheeks and nose were red. Her eyes were dull, like scratched marbles. She hadn’t slept.
“Good morning.” She pressed the message to the glass without looking in my direction.
“Are you okay?” I wrote.
“I’m fine. How did you sleep?”
I called her. She looked at the ringing phone and back at me, letting it go to voicemail without breaking eye contact.
“Check your email.” She held the message to the window and retreated, letting it fall.
My computer was in the kitchen.
I knew what it was the moment I clicked on the message. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. She wrote about our love. She wrote about the sadness she couldn’t shake. She promised that spending the last six months reading messages from my window had kept her alive, but she was too tired to keep fighting. She told me I needed to keep going - to keep hanging onto hope. She made me promise not to forget her. I couldn't read fast enough. She ended with, “I understand if you can’t watch. But if you can, I want you there. I want you to see the moment I find peace.”
I raced back to the window, banging and shouting against the glass.
She walked into her living room and sat on the couch, turning to meet my frenzy with tear-filled eyes.
They were gunning people down for leaving their houses. It wasn’t protocol, but things had turned ugly. People were scared. I knew she wouldn’t unlock the door, and if they caught me outside trying to get in, they wouldn’t care about my excuses.
She reached under the coffee table and pulled something out of a little box and sat it in her lap.
I started calling her again.
She picked up her phone and turned it off.
I dialed 9-1-1. They promised to send someone right away.
It wouldn’t be fast enough.
I was a selfish person. Selfish people never want to die.
She picked it up.
Her hand was shaking, hard.
I ran to my door.
I was a selfish person, but I loved her.
I threw it open.
The fresh air tasted bitter in my mouth. Everything was too bright - it burned.
I was standing at her door before I realized I had even stepped outside.
I started banging and throwing myself against it. I looked around for something to break the lock.
A police car turned on its sirens as it rounded the corner - an urgent, choppy wail.
I begged her not to do it.
The ambulance had to be close.
The officer pulled up and stepped out. He demanded I back away from her door.
I didn’t turn to face him.
I told her I loved her. My knuckles were raw and bleeding from trying to punch through the wood.
There was a gunshot.
I sank against the door. It was over.
A second gunshot.
I didn’t even feel it.
I was discharged from the hospital a week later with my arm in a sling, a bottle of painkillers, and a permission slip to attend weekly physical therapy sessions for my shoulder.
I walked into my house and made a beeline for our window.
They had removed her body, but they hadn’t cleaned her house.
The smudge was still there.