They had moved to sit together on the floor near the stairwell, now. Both of them felt unsettled, and they were seeking some sort of comfort in this moment, though neither of them were ready to make anything of it.
Alex broke the silence: “Wait, don’t you know a patient on Floor Seven? Marigold? Did you talk to her about it?”
“I just… couldn’t.”
“But she advocates for you all the time, I thought,” he said, confused.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone because I thought I was being punished,” they said sharply, and then pulled their head up to their knees. “Least of all her. I don’t want her to know I’m bad.”
Alex flinched. This fear of cosmological quarantine was actually a feeling he understood intimately, as he had also come to the conclusion within the first week of isolation, and the years that had pulled him further and further into his room had only cemented that feeling deep inside his heart. But was he ready to actually say that to another person? To feel an actual connection, over a shared experience, while not blackout drunk at a Christmas party?
He didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. Josie was rapidly deteriorating from their usual unsettling porcelain doll self into some sort of wet sad large-dog-thing.
‘My choices after it are my responsibility,’ he thought, though he didn’t really know what ‘it’ was here or where that phrase came from, but he settled for reaching out to put his arm around Josie’s shoulder. Josie immediately turned to push their face into his chest and cry, and he felt his usual wave of empathy-nausea surging up. This time, instead of pushing it down and trying to put on a good face, he let himself feel horribly sick and afraid. “I know how you feel.”
Their moment was interrupted by a just-slightly-too-loud tone. It was something like an angelic bell, or maybe some sort of electronic mail notification.
They both pulled away from their awkward embrace and looked towards the stairs, where the noise had come from. Above the stairs was floating neon text:
“ALEXANDER, YOU MAY NOW PASS TO LEVEL EIGHT.”
They looked at each other, and then back down into the darkness.
Against all odds, he swallowed – no, accepted – his fears and went down the stairs.
As he descended into the unknown, Alex was having so many thoughts at once from so many different parts of his brain, he felt like his head was going to explode. But the loudest voice in his mind, as simultaneously juvenile and perverted as it was, was ‘Oh boy! I wonder what Josie’s room looks like!’