Teens & Young Adult Drama Friendship

It was her protection. It was her fear. It was her screams, and it was her safety. It was sky blue, unyielding, and it hid her lower features.

The water still ran in the sink when Joelle looked up in the mirror. Her fingertips dripped soap. She was frozen, impossibly mid-moment. Her stomach dropped when she knew. Now? Why now? On her seventeenth birthday. On the anniversary. But it was indeed, for some inscrutable reason, now.

The first day of lockdown had been two years ago today. On March the twelfth, 2020, it was announced that the world was going to spin the wrong way round. On the thirteenth, its people said some kind of clueless goodbye to the old way. And on the fourteenth, Joelle had turned fifteen. That was the first day. 

It had been suddenly impossible to ignore the fear reaching to twist the Earth’s axis and its inhabitants’ hearts. But things weren’t so bad quite yet. Along with everyone else, Joelle thought she’d only be off school for two weeks extra, even though that alone seemed gargantuan. That afternoon, she had had Lucy, Jamie, and Pip over for cake. They had shot water guns at each other, even though they all knew they were too old for that, and truth or dare. Joelle had teased Jamie’s height and Pip had charmed them with her cheery premonitions. It had been so normal. A gorgeous night.

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

Joelle had never had a deeply close kind of friendship. It simply hadn’t been in the cards, and she’d been okay with that. These four girls, in particular, Joelle, Lucy, Jamie, and Pip, had only experienced half a rotation around the sun together; they hadn’t had the time or opportunity to be much of anything to one another. And that time or opportunity didn’t get along with isolation.

It had always seemed to Joelle like her friends didn’t understand the gravity of the spin. The other three girls had met up just about every week during lockdown. Every time, they would invite Joelle, and every time, Joelle would tell them, with stark conviction that they couldn’t understand, that that was not safe. They were going to get sick. Or they were going to get someone else sick. But they didn’t listen.

While Joelle had hidden behind her apartment walls, and then behind her dreadfully comforting mask, her friends had become real friends. And Joelle had not.

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

And so, as for many others, the time ensuing had been difficult. Joelle had lost contact with everybody who didn’t properly know her, which was to say, everybody. 

Except for her mother. Joelle and her mother had grown close in a way they had never been before. They had played board games and cried and watched movies and complained about online school and working from home. For a long time, Joelle had herself convinced that having her mother was enough. Sometimes, it had been. But Joelle was a teenager. And contrary to popular belief, they needed people just as much as anyone.

In time, the girls had stopped inviting Joelle, and Joelle had stopped talking to them. As many learned, interactions with real-life people were invaluable. Consequences included social anxiousness and the loss of any semblance of social skills. When you talked to no one, even sending a text was adrenaline-inducing. So she hadn’t. She had sat at home, and at school the following year, in a classroom that felt empty and a mask that felt safe, and waited for someone to invite her out of her hidey-hole.

But she felt ever so alone. When she passed someone she knew in the hallway, they didn’t wave. When she got to class in the morning, her teacher didn’t smile. When she left in the late morning last year, no one said goodbye. When she commented in an online school chat, no one responded. And when she was lonely, no one noticed.

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

Self-isolation, to the extent of totality, was not good for the spirit. It was, however, as everyone said, the only way to keep a grip on the ever-tremoring Earth. So that was what Joelle had done, but it hadn’t turned out to be as safe as one would have hoped.

In July 2021, Joelle and her mother had tested positive for COVID-19. It had been the most terrifying experience, and right when she had actually gotten to know her mother. Joelle had barely had a sore throat; her mother had lain in bed for nearly a fortnight. She had cranked the apartment windows shut and clicked the door locked. A depressed numbness filled Joelle. She spent her days bringing tea to her mother, puttering around the house, and wishing she had someone to talk to. Joelle shed a lot of horrified tears, as well.

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

The punchline was that Joelle and her mother had been safer than anyone they knew. There had been no recorded cases in their building or at Joelle’s school. They had not seen anyone in months. So how had they come into contact?

It had made no sense. And when something happens that makes no sense, you stop trusting the improbability of nonsensical things; you start expecting them.

So as anxious as Joelle had been before, she had been tenfold since. It didn’t matter that they were vaccinated, because it hadn’t mattered that her careless former friends had been safe and her family hadn’t. It didn’t matter that there was no reason for it. The virus didn’t seem to care.

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

The second punchline, the cruellest, was that Joelle and her mother had tested positive just four weeks before they were scheduled to be vaccinated. One year and four months, they had gotten by. But those four weeks had been hell.

Joelle’s mother had healed. Her coughs had lessened and her spirit had come back to life. But Joelle’s had not.

By late September, nearly everyone around had been vaccinated, and masks were not compulsory anywhere. New cases had been minimal and people had started to uncover their faces. They had started to hug their friends and visit their families. Everywhere you went, you witnessed tear-filled reunions.

But not for Joelle. She had had no one to miss, so there was no one to reunite with.

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

Today, only two-thirds of the faces Joelle passed in the school hallways were concealed. They had their reasons. The occasional passerby had worn them even before two years ago. A rare face in the crowd chose not to be vaccinated. Some people just liked the comfort. They were used to it.

Joelle had never gotten used to it. She hated masks. She hated covering her expression and she hated the deficiency of real air. She hated the apocalyptic feeling they had never stopped giving her as if the end of the world was standing behind her.

And yet, Joelle hadn’t been able to let it go. She’d clung to it for dear life. Faces weren’t meant to be naked anymore. It was a new world and a new her that she wasn’t sure she liked. She didn’t want to move on to the former, and she didn’t want to show others the latter. Joelle’s attempts to force herself ahead had been futile. But now…

The water ran. Soap dripped. And she stood and stared.

But just short of staring holes into the blue, she tore it off her face and stormed out of the washroom.

March 12, 2021 14:00

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Ishita Nigam
08:09 Mar 22, 2021

Great story, Susie! I loved the way you showed that Joelle was in a personal lockdown too, cut off from other humans. Possibly, permanently. I liked the fact that she was unsure of her fears, until one day, she knew exactly. And acted accordingly. It has been in our heads anyway, but your portrayal that the change might be permanent was great!


Susannah Webster
23:17 Mar 26, 2021

"Personal lockdown" is a great way of putting it! Thanks for that. And yeah, I kind of drew on the fear that it will be more difficult for us to move on than it will be for laws and numbers. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the feedback!


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