Open Room
by jon bershad

It was frightening how easily Mary allowed herself to become disconnected; how quickly the bridges between she and the rest of the world crumbled and fell away until it was like they were never there to begin with.

Her growing isolation wasn’t really her fault - it’s not like she’d put the country on lockdown. But she hadn’t really done anything to stop it, either. For the first few months, she repeatedly promised herself that tomorrow would be the day she’d reach out to a friend or sign up for a virtual class or call her mom back. Eventually, she gave herself permission to stop thinking these lies.

To be clear, she wasn’t a hermit before the lockdown or anything. She had friends and coworkers and casual relationships that occasionally threatened to become something more. But, as the first virus had proven and every subsequent virus in the years that followed had backed up: quarantines weren’t a time for casual acquaintances. After the most recent lockdown a year and a half ago, she swore she’d get closer to people before the next inevitable virus hit. But, here she was, in a tiny apartment, with no one to talk to except a roommate she barely knew.

Colleen wasn’t a bad person. Not at all. In fact, for the first half a year after she’d moved in, Mary really liked her. Yes, that was mostly just because Colleen was quiet and didn’t mind that Mary kept to herself, but Colleen was also tidy and considerate. All in all, she was an ideal roommate. And, considering Mary had found her on a random app, that was downright lucky. Colleen wasn’t, however, an introvert like Mary and, in the first month of the lockdown, Mary could sense her roommate trying to open up their relationship. Colleen would yell from the living room that Mary should join her and her friends for a virtual Cocktail Hour or she’d ask Mary to come in and watch a movie. A couple times, Mary even acquiesced.

But, as Mary had learned years earlier, lockdowns gave her permission to fall into isolation. No one saw her. No one judged her. She could quietly cut everyone off and no one would even notice. Her anxieties would fade away until they were as silent as her phone not ringing. A part of Mary wanted to fight this. To have friends. To be “normal.” But that part of her was easily shouted down by the parts that wanted to protect her from the pain of other people. Lockdowns could be like a trap but they were also like a shield and Mary’s subconscious wasn’t about to let a chirpy, “people person” roommate ruin that.

One night, she heard Colleen talking to someone on the phone in her room. She missed most of the conversation, but heard enough through the walls to know it was about her. “She’s just so… shy,” Colleen had said, her voice filled with annoyance and pity.

For the next month, the two roommates never talked in person, only through occasional texts. Insecure about what she’d heard and feeling guilty about eavesdropping, Mary began timing her brief trips out of her bedroom to only happen when she was sure Colleen was in hers. After the first day or so, it became second nature and, soon, it was just normal.

Eventually, Colleen, like the rest of the world, stopped being a real person to Mary. She was just noises through a wall: a bed squeak, the bass of a song being played, a quick, frustrated yell when she spilled something. Mary grew to hate those noises. Not just because they were annoying reminders that she wasn’t actually alone, but also because they were guilty reminders of yet another relationship that Mary had allowed to die. Eventually Mary stopped responding to Colleen’s texts. Then she stopped reading them. Then they stopped coming.

Mary knew this was bad. She knew that she shouldn’t cut her roommate out or cut the world off. But what could she do? It was a pandemic, right? Yeah, she had bad social anxiety, but was that really so big a problem when a disease is killing tens of thousands of people weekly? So she just let time pass.

Days bled into nights bled into days bled into…

It was a late night work email that snapped Mary out of her funk. A coworker whose face she couldn’t remember even if she tried had jokingly sent her department a virtual anniversary card. It was one year since the lockdown began.

One year. A whole year. Had it really been that long? The previous lockdowns had been long, but this was something else. When was the last time Mary had actually talked to another person?

Finally, the part of Mary that still wanted to feel anything won over. She went in the hall and listened at Colleen’s door. As usual, she heard Colleen walking around the room, her feet padding across the carpeted floor. Mary steeled her nerve and knocked.

“Hey, Colleen. Did you see we’ve been here for a year?”

The sounds in the room went silent. Mary could sense her roommate standing there, separated from her by the thin door. They were both frozen.

“Maybe we can make drinks or something,” she ventured.

No response.

This was her fault. Colleen was mad at her and she had good reason to be. She’d tried to be friends but Mary had pushed her away just like she’d pushed away everyone else. She’d even stopped reading Colleen’s texts.

Mary pulled out her phone and opened them up. There were 23 unread messages from her roommate. Most were asking Mary if she was angry or upset. Eventually, those gave way to impersonal texts about bills. Finally, Mary got to the last one. It had been sent a while ago. It said that Colleen was moving out.

Mary’s blood went cold. At that moment, the door opened and Mary saw, for the first time, the person who’d been living in her roommate’s room for the past three months.

* * *

After the lockdown ended, it was a while before anyone realized anything had happened to Mary. Who’d be looking for her anyway? By the time anyone checked, the man who’d killed her was long gone.

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