Chapter 3 by Julia Malone
Tara checked her phone, wondering where Nadia was. She’d been listening to Rob and Adi drone on for a while. As much as she enjoyed these calls with her friends, something about their daily catch-ups made her realize how desperately bleak their lives had become in lockdown. That was the stark reality of their situation. Everyone knew it.
“How am I supposed to get a job in isolation,” Rob said in answer to Adi’s query. “Not everyone can be working on the budvirus.”
“Budlyt-19… Lots of people are working from home. Online companies or whatever must be hiring. Monopolize on all of this, you know?” Adi said.
Rob shrugged. Blond hair fell into his face as he turned back to the television where he was playing yet another Street Fight game against his brother. Adi bent over his book again.
Tara sighed, looking back at her phone. Twenty minutes and Nadia still hadn’t joined them. She’d sent five unanswered texts. Five. Nadia, conscientious and organized, would never ignore her messages.
Tara’s hand hovered over her emails once more. Tapping the side of her phone with a thumb, she thought. The anonymous email had been bothering her all day. She tore her eyes away from the bright screen and looked back at the tiny squares of her friends.
“Where’s Nadia?” Tara asked.
Rob and Adi, both absorbed in their respective hobbies, ignored her.
Adi must know.
Adi started. He looked back at her, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his crooked nose. It was the one flaw in his model-like appearance and yet, Tara mused, it somehow made him even more appealing.
“Sorry?” he said.
“Oh.” He fixed his glasses again, taking the time to run a hand through his curly hair. “She’s busy…with work.”
“Work?” Tara’s brow creased. “Is she performing on a live-stream? I’ll check it out.” She reached for her phone. Maybe Nadia would be joining the masses of artists trending on the social waves.
“No.” Adi scratched his chin. “Not work. She’s talking to her parents.”
“They call every morning at eight. That was ages ago.”
Was Adi acting odd? Elusive?
“Is something wrong?”
Adi’s eyes shuttered. Even on the screen, she could see the shift in his demeanor. Tara attempted to speak again but Adi rose, cutting her off.
“I’ll go get her.”
He sauntered away. Tara heard the slam of his apartment door and was left staring at the leather couch.
“Is he acting strange?” Tara asked Rob.
Rob grunted, pressing several buttons on his controller before looking at her.
“Dunno,” he shrugged. “Adi’s busy.” Rob unpaused his game and she heard the revving of an engine as Adi’s apartment door slammed again. His screen was covered by the bulk of two figures as they squeezed onto the couch.
Nadia now sat to Adi’s left. Coils of curly brown hair fell messily across her shoulders. Was she paler today? It was difficult to tell with the harsh lighting.
“Nadia,” Tara said, “what took you so long?”
Tara waited for an answer, a beat more than was normal, she thought. Nadia stared blankly at the screen and then, as Adi gently touched her elbow, she blinked.
“I was speaking with my mom,” she said, voice clipped. “She called again.”
Rob looked up and Tara could see from the slight frown on his face that he too had heard something off in her voice.
“You okay?” Tara asked.
Nadia blinked, rapidly. “Yes.”
“Look, guys,” Adi interrupted, “we better go. Nadia left the oven on.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “We don’t want to burn down the complex.” Adi smiled.
“Yes…” Nadia said. “Oh dear. I did.” Her voice was slow. Dreamlike.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” Adi said. He waved.
Adi ended his video. Tara stared solely at Rob now.
That was all wrong, she thought.
Tara bit her lip, looking down at her phone. Nadia’s pale skin. Her glassy eyes. Tara thought back to the video attachment she’d received that afternoon. An anonymous message had been sent to her, signed off simply by A Follower. She’d passed it off as a hoax, hadn’t really paid attention. But now…
Her phone buzzed. Tara’s eyes widened. A Follower had sent another message. She clicked on the attachment. Nadia stared back at her. Only it wasn’t Nadia.
“What the-” Tara spoke aloud, realizing it only a moment later when Rob’s head shot up from his game.
Could she share this with him? Because this was something she couldn’t handle on her own. If it was true. But Rob was close with Adi and Adi was definitely acting odd. Tara thought. She looked back at Rob who was watching her expectantly, the most interested he’d appeared in days.
“Nothing,” Tara said. “I’ve got to go.”
She shut off her video, fingers trembling. Clutching her phone in one hand, she put on a jacket, grabbed her car keys, and locked the door behind her.