Updated: Feb 27, 2021
Seagulls arced across the sky like tiny kites restrained on invisible strings. With haggard steps, a man with dark glasses and a red-tipped walking stick ambled along the sand below the circling birds. Up the slope, Tonia surveyed the nearly-empty coastline from her beach towel. Her roommates, Lexy and Paris, remained in her peripheral vision, but her gaze tracked the unknown walker’s each laborious step. His obscured face was turned down to his feet, and his shoulders sagged in a despondent slump. He was somehow familiar to Tonia, like a forgotten friend from her past, like a close family member she had never met. But the two women sitting next to her had each screamed and wept in the last hour, so she tried to keep her attention on them.
“I’ve never felt this way before - so lazy and anxious at the same time. If this virus doesn’t kill me, my nerves might.” Paris tossed bits of stale bread from her sandwich wrapper into the wind, like pennies into an expansive fountain of rippled sand. The looping birds dove toward them, crossing the path of the walking man with loud squawks.
“Take a deep breath, girl,” Tonia said as she pulled air into her own lungs.
“If I sit still I might explode.”
“Those birds are eating better than us,” Lexy said over the face mask cradling her chin. “And they don’t have to wear masks or stay away from people.” A dog-eared textbook lay open on her lap, even though the rest of the semester’s classes were online-only, and Paris chided her for continuing to study so diligently.
“They don’t have bills to pay, either.” Paris was pitching the bread even further out now, her strained face looking more and more like the grayish blue surf beyond.
“Take a sip of water, Paris. And why don’t you save some of that for later?” Tonia opened her bag to offer a water bottle to Paris, who remained transfixed on the frenetic flock of birds.
“You make it sound like we won’t survive the week,” Paris grunted.
“I don’t want to be a downer, but we still owe two months’ rent.” Tonia bit her lip. The cane-tapping man was now skipping and swaying, the birds pecking at his feet. She wanted to stand up and shout in his defense, but she couldn’t bring herself to.
“Don’t forget Tonia’s the only one working,” Lexy chided.
“I’ll be making money again soon, and more than before,” Paris shot back.
“It could be months before the theater opens again. That’s why I’m moving,” Lexy slammed her book shut and whimpered, hugging her knees to her chest.
The trio was silent. Tonia put her hand on Lexy’s shoulder. She felt a weight grip her stomach and sensed that Lexy might be carrying a heaviness similar to her own, perhaps even the same one that hung like a millstone on the strange-yet-familiar man down near the water.
Meanwhile, Paris stood up and lobbed the last of the bread scraps like a second-string pitcher, then she brushed off her hands and collapsed onto the blanket in a sorry heap.
“The jobs back home won’t be any better if it’s your health you’re worried about, Lexy. And besides, you said you’d never move back in with your parents. Did you ever...” Paris jolted at the sound of the screeching seagulls fighting over the remaining bread. The walker was now trudging through the minefield of half-pecked crumbs, audibly distraught.
“Stupid birds.” Paris drew back her arm and aimed the crumpled wrapper down the hill.
“Paris, hold it!” Tonia called.
“Yeah, shut up, will you?” Lexy chimed in. “You’re not making me feel any better.”
“Well excuse me, you’ve been complaining about your parents since the day I met you.”
“No, stop it, both of you! Don’t you see that man?” Tonia gestured at them. “I need to go help him.”
“He’s not wearing a mask,” Paris muttered.
“You’re not wearing yours either,” Lexy said.
“It’s ok. He’s outside, getting fresh air like us.” Tonia stood and walked toward the man, pulling her own mask on.
Every dozen steps or so, Tonia looked back to see Lexy and Paris trailing behind her. Ahead, the man seemed to sense their approach, and he extended his hands.
“Stay back!” he yelled in a voice that sent a shiver down Tonia’s spine. He pulled off his coat and waved it wildly until the beleaguered birds flew away at last.
“Are you ok?” Tonia offered as the man patted the sand at his feet for his fallen stick.
“Those birds were vicious. I didn’t want you to get hurt.” He was so pitiful on all fours, scouring the beach for his cane, his glasses askew.
“Let me get it for you.”
“No, I’ve got it, thank you. I’ve had some practice.” The man stood and slowly turned to look in her direction, flourishing his walking stick from side to side as he chuckled.
“I don’t mean to bother you, I just saw the birds and wanted to make sure you were alright.” Tonia took a step back and fidgeted.
“How thoughtful of you. They seemed to have it in for me.” The man adjusted his glasses and took a deep breath. He extended his hand again, this time in greeting, but then retracted it self-consciously. “Damned virus.”
Tonia laughed as sand swirled around their legs in the wind.
“My name is Todd. And you are?”
Tonia introduced herself and motioned for her roommates to join them. Instead they hung back, wearing wry grins while their masks dangled from their ears.
“My goodness, the wind is chilling. Would you like to borrow my jacket?” Todd asked with a smile. Tonia surveyed his demeanor in disbelief. Crumbs from Paris’ bread peppered his shoulders, his hair swooping and spiked in every direction from the nips of bird beaks.
“It’s ok, Todd,” Tonia said. “You have a nice day. Stay safe.”
“We’re going to get through this, Tonia,” Todd called as he continued, pit-pat, down the beach.