My hand reaches for the mask that still conveniently lies on the counter right next to the door.
I soon change its route, my hand instead pushing the door open and I walk outside.
Taking a breath of fresh air without a layer of plastic filtering it is a feeling I never thought I needed to experience.
But it is the most wonderful feeling in the world.
I walk on the sidewalk, the cars rushing past me and pushing the smell of petrol and other unidentifiable things into my nose.
I only smile as though I know something everyone else doesn’t and pull up the strap of my bag.
Everyone around me says that I am too emotional all the time, that I spend so much time soaking it all in instead of living in the moment. I try to explain to them that living in the moment means savouring every feeling and every experience, but they just roll their eyes and ignore me.
But I don’t care what they think. This pandemic has forced me to think for myself, to finally understand who I really am without anyone to stop me.
I finally reach the gates of the school, and my heart thumps faster.
I haven’t been in this building for almost two years. I still remember every corridor and every room, every shadowed corner and every boy I had kissed standing in them.
Each corridor had a distinct smell, some smelling of tea, some of coffee, some of paper and some of urine.
I remember the worn-out bark of the tree, the peeling paint from the walls, the cracked step on the staircase, the feeling of grass and mud under my feet.
I only fear that all my memories are just blurred dreams, that I was over-exaggerating them to a point where I believed it was true.
People brush past me, bags hanging from their shoulders in a way that clearly reflected their weight. I try and snap out of my nostalgia, and step into the school ground.
Walking to the school building feels straight out of a movie, where everyone else is just doing their own thing and the protagonist is walking and turning in slow motion, a slow track playing in the background.
It is exactly how I remembered.
My knees almost buckle in relief, but I keep walking to my classroom, stopping to only say hello to friends in the hallway. I even manage to awkwardly run into exes.
I enter my classroom, and look around, as though I am a child again on their first day of school. The orange walls and the rickety desks, all of it washes over me pleasantly and leaves me feeling warm inside.
Putting down my bag, I sit down in the seat I have always sat at and wait for my friends to come.
I make conversation with people I rarely talked to before this whole situation while I wobble my leg up and down in anticipation of my friends.
This pandemic has increased the number of lines on my face and the number of scars in my heart.
Maybe I am worried that I will see more of the same in my friends’ faces.
That laughing Diane will have a tinge of sadness in her smile, that practical Eileen will cry into her pillow every night and that protective Naomi will protect herself more.
All of us had endured unimaginable loss as a result of this pandemic.
An ache spreads across my stomach when I think of my aunt. My loud-mouthed best friend who had fallen in and out of love more times than anyone I had ever known, who always had a joke or a kind word ready to tell me, who always had a bucket of chocolate ice cream in her freezer just for me.
Who lay there with white skin as the green line straightened and the beep became louder than the ringing in my ears.
My stream of thoughts is suddenly interrupted by the entrance of my friends, all of them sandwiched around Sylvia in a protective way.
I get up and go over to them.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
My friends look at me and then look back at Sylvia.
I put a hand on her shoulder and ask again.
She just shakes her head and moves to hug me, her small arms tightly bound around my body. I put my arms around her and rub her on the back, trying to comfort her.
“She lost her mother minutes before the wave hit,” Diane whispers into my ear, and I hold Sylvia tighter, and let her cry, even though we have never talked for more than a few seconds before.
Only a few days ago, an accident had happened in the same facility in Wuhan, releasing something else to the world. It was almost eerily similar to what had started all of this, but in this case, all the COVID cases had vanished around the world, as if by magic.
The virus had been eradicated.
I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like for this poor thing in my arms right now, to have known that if her mother had held on for a few more minutes, she would have held on forever.
My friends soon join our hug, all of our arms and bodies creating warmth and a haven of comfort for Sylvia, and for ourselves.
As the bell rings, we hesitantly break apart, and sit in our seats, wiping tears that hadn’t been there minutes ago, and wait for the teacher to arrive.
Ms Jaffer enters the class, her eyes bloodshot but her smile trying to hide it.
“It is wonderful to see all of you today, after so long. I know it will be a bit odd and unfamiliar, maybe a bit hard at first, to go on with your lives and forget what we have lost over the past few years, the experiences we never got to have and people we never got to see one last time. But instead, focus on the things this disaster has given us, the things it has taught us and the people with who our relationships are stronger because of it."
We had all lost family and friends, neighbours and strangers, but we hadn’t lost each other.
We were going to keep holding on.