100 Years of Social Distancing
After two weeks of self-imposed quarantine in my small apartment, just my cat and me, I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to get outside. I needed to be around people. I knew how important it was to stay away from people if we wanted to slow the spread of the virus until a cure was found. But there’s only so much solitude I could take. I had to risk it.
When I walked out of my apartment building, there was no one about. Not a single person. No dogs or cats. I could hear birds singing and saw some squirrels run by, but no one I could have a conversation with. And before you ask, yes, I’ve had conversations with dogs and cats. Mostly one-sided conversations, but still conversations as far as I’m concerned. That day, I had to walk half a mile before I found anyone to talk to.
It was my local coffee shop where I first ran into someone. The sign on the window said “Closed” but the front door was open, and when I walked in, my favorite barista, Violet, was working. Two people sat at one of the tables in the back. Violet waved hello as soon as she saw me. Last time I saw her, she’d had long, multicolored hair, but now it was a short, blonde bob. “You’re open?” I asked. “Because the sign…” I gestured vaguely towards the window.
Violet shrugged. “These days?” she said. “It’s hard to tell. I’m still showing up to work, I’m still getting paid, and people are still coming in. Not many people, but…” she pointed to the table where the two people sat. “She comes kind of regularly,” Violet said, then scrunched her face up in thought. “Which would make it irregularly, I guess. Anyway, we’re still limited by the laws on gathering, so we can’t officially be open.” She shrugged again. “We just are what we are.”
She made me my usual iced mocha latte but refused payment. “You’re money’s no good here,” she said with a grin. “Literally, we can’t take credit and there’s nothing we can do with cash, so this is on the house.” How could I refuse that? I took the drink, walked to the back of the café, and sat at the table with the other people. A woman and a man sat opposite each other, a checkers board between them. The woman had very long, crow-black hair and wore a dark, flowing dress that almost looked like a robe. The man was dressed in a sharp, bright suit and fedora. She smiled at me as I sat down, while the man stared intently at the board, not even acknowledging my presence. Okay then. Why be friendly in a city that felt deserted, locked down by disease?
I might have been a bit bitter after being cooped up alone for so long.
“Hi,” I said to the woman, “my name’s–”
“I know,” she cut me off, but with a warm smile. “I’ve seen you here before, but you probably didn’t notice me.” I hadn’t, but it seemed rude to say that, so I gave her a smile and nodded without actually saying I did or didn’t know who she was. Her smile turned slightly tart, a penetrating glint in her eye. “I’m Zinzinnia Zee,” she told me, “and my opponent here is Hope.”
Hope? Maybe I’d misgendered her companion. Or maybe not. Gender or naming, neither were my business. “Hi, Hope.” I tried to think of something friendly to say, but awkwardly went for, “I’ve always liked that name.” Hope looked up at me, gave me a quizzical look, then turned their attention back to the board, saying nothing.
Zinzinnia chuckled. “You misunderstand. My opponent isn’t named Hope. My opponent is Hope. That is, my opponent is a dream of Hope.” My confusion must have been obvious because Zinzinnia gave me an amused, patronizing look and said, “Let me explain. Because of the virus, this city has shut down almost completely. This has caused the people here to lose hope. The worse things get, the less hope they have. I can’t bear this. Neither can you, I think.” I couldn’t help but nod. She continued, “As an accomplished sorceress–never mind humility, I am a very talented and knowledgeable sorceress, practiced in several magical traditions–and as an accomplished sorceress, I summoned this dream of Hope and bound it to play this game with me.”
“Okay,” I said, “but checkers? It’s a pretty simple game. Not too difficult.”
“Not too difficult to win,” she acknowledged with a nod. “You’re not wrong.”
“So why checkers?” I asked. “Chess is the classic game to play against anthropomorphic abstractions, isn’t it? Or there’s go, that’s very complex. Settlers of Catan is a good one, too.”
“But I don’t want a complex game,” she said. “I want something simpler.”
“Because,” Zinzinna said, “I don’t want to win, I want to lose. You see, if I win, I’ve defeated hope and hope will go away for good. But if I lose…”
“Then hope wins,” I finished. “Hope stays.”
“And,” she continued, “hope spreads throughout the city.”
“Like a virus,” I said. Zinzinnia nodded, a broad smile on her face.
I pondered this. She was right about the loss of hope. My friends considered me very optimistic, but over the past couple of weeks, I’d fallen into a lonely depression. The two weeks had come to feel like years and years of ever-crushing boredom. I had books to read, movies and TV shows to watch, people to chat with online, but the fear of the virus and the reality of quarantine was digging away at my optimism. My hope was crumbling. Like she’d said, I couldn’t bear it. It was why I’d left my apartment that day. I had hoped to find people to spend time with, even if it meant getting sick. But if I were honest with myself, I didn’t actually have much hope of meeting anyone. Finding Violet, this sorceress, and this…dream made manifest had been more of a relief than I’d even realized at first.
I tapped Hope lightly on the arm. Hope looked up at me. “I’m rooting for you,” I said. I threw a glance at Zinzinnia, then told Hope, “Kick her ass.”