The Burgundy Scarf

Hayden Gehr

Hayden Gehr

Winner of the First Prize in the Postgraduate Category of the 16th English Short Story Writing Competition

Day 6:

I wasn’t planning on keeping a quarantine diary. Doesn’t it sound so sad? Who would want to document the most dismal and uneventful two weeks of their life?

But here I am, on the sixth day, writing. And why? Because today wasn’t dismal, or uneventful. Today, I realized that the man from the plane is staying in the room next to mine.

What gave it away was the burgundy scarf. The hotel is designed so that the rooms on each floor protrude progressively further outwards, so when I threw open the curtains this morning, I could see through the window into my neighbor’s room. And there it was, hanging from a clothing rack. The scarf.

I was beguiled by the man from the second he slipped smoothly into his seat on the flight to Hong Kong. Or rather, I was beguiled by the scarf, and by extension, the man. The scarf was a dark, intoxicating red, like blood offered at a cult gathering. It made me shudder.

The scarf in the room was, without a doubt, the one that belonged to the man on the plane. But what would I do with this information? Eventually, I would see him through the window. But how could I get his attention? And if I did, what would I say to him?

I lay in bed, pondering these questions. Ultimately, I decided not to entertain the idea of talking to him. It might sound shallow, but I didn’t even know what he looked like. He wore a surgical mask and face shield on the plane, so even the upper part of his face was a virtual enigma. I knew nothing about him, and I wouldn’t talk to him. The thought alone was ridiculous.

But later, after another room service dinner, I heard something. A high-pitched humming sound, coming from outside the window. I pulled back the curtains and gasped. Hovering in front of me, a stranger abuzz in the night, was a drone.

I turned instinctively towards my neighbor’s window. The light was on, and the burgundy scarf was still hanging from the rack. But this time, the man was there, standing behind the scarf. His face and body were obscured from view, but it appeared that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He was holding the drone controller. I saw him raise his hand and wave at me.

Without thinking, I opened the window. The drone flew in and landed on my desk. A 25ml bottle of sake was taped securely to its side. Was this for me? Had he really noticed me on the plane? My heart galloped. I peeled off the tape and took the sake in my hands, and that’s when I saw the message scrawled on a small strip of paper, affixed to the center of the bottle:

“Escape with me. Tomorrow morning at seven. We won’t get caught. Trust me.”

I reread it again and again, but the words remained the same. Was he insane? As I processed the note, I realized I was being watched. The drone’s lens loomed before me. I felt naked. I had exposed my face to him, but his was still a mystery to me. As if sensing my discomfort, the drone hissed to life and disappeared out the window. By the time I thought to get up and look into the man’s room, his window was closed, and he and the drone were gone.

Now I’m in bed, my brain a beehive of cluttered thoughts. Why would he want to escape? Surely, he knew of the $25,000 HKD fine, the six months in jail. Was it all because of me? Is he so infatuated that he can’t possibly endure 9 more nights without me?

I won’t do it, of course. I came here to start a new job, a new life. It’s senseless to throw that all away for a man who wears a nice scarf. Plus, it’s my duty as a human to help combat the spread of the virus. Every time I watch a video of another entitled old man refusing to wear a mask, I’m furious. If I run away with this stranger, I’m no better than those lunatics. And oh yeah, it’s against the law. AGAINST THE LAW. I won’t do it, obviously. But when I think about running freely through the city with the man from the plane, our hands intertwined and his burgundy scarf flapping in the wind, I feel a rush course through my bones. A rush so powerful it frightens me.

Day 7:

I woke up at 8:30. The events of last night came roaring back, and I stumbled to the window. In the corner of the room next door, the burgundy scarf was missing. In its place was a staff member in a PPE suit spraying down the glass panes. Had he really done it? Had he decided to escape without me?

On tonight’s evening news: “A young American male escaped from mandatory quarantine at the Rutherford Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui this morning. Police are urging anyone with knowledge of his whereabouts to come forward immediately.”

He did it. Unbelievable. How the hell did he get past the reception desk? Did he somehow climb down from the seventh-floor room? Either way, he’s deranged. A man I want nothing to do with. What if he has COVID? It was an act of utter disregard for the public good. And also, this proves he never cared about me. He wanted a partner in crime, and I was the only available candidate.

But now, with the late-night traffic rumbling below me, I am struck by the thought that maybe he isn’t a selfish monster. Maybe he’s just terribly, crushingly lonely.

Day 8:

Evening news: “Authorities are still looking for a man who escaped from quarantine at a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui yesterday. At the moment, there are no leads regarding his current location.”

Today consisted of room service, watching tiny little pedestrians walk past outside, and more room service. But I feel good. I feel good because I was tested, and I made the right choice.

Day 9:

Nothing on the news. Everything visible outside the window is boring. I wish he had left the scarf.

Day 10:

He was handsome, I’m sure of it. I’ve spent the day in bed, sketching hypothetical faces on paper.

Day 11:

Why am I still writing these? It’s not like things are happening anymore. I drank half the sake. It’s pear flavored.

Day 12:

Evening news: “A man who escaped from hotel quarantine has now been at large in Hong Kong for five days. This morning, a Sai Kung resident reported seeing a man whose features matched police descriptions at a 7/11, but authorities have had no success tracking down the fugitive.”

Where is he sleeping? Has he found someone to protect him?

Day 13:

Around the clock, numbness. An unsettling thought: If he asked me to escape with him now, would I still refuse? My answer isn’t as clear as it should be.

Come on. Two more nights.

Day 14:

Finished the sake. I wish it was enough to get me drunk, so that I could think about him without feeling guilty. Weirdly, I forgive him. Beneath all my logic and reasoning and moralizing, there’s a deep void. And it’s rising up, choking me.

Evening news: “Earlier today, a scarf belonging to the man who escaped from quarantine at the Rutherford Hotel last week was discovered at a beach in Tuen Mun. Police were able to identify the fingerprints on the scarf as a match, but the search for the man himself goes on.”

Day 15:

It’s over. I’m in my new apartment. This morning I left the hotel and stepped outside. I thought it would be liberating, but instead I just felt like another one of those dot-sized pedestrians from outside the window.

I don’t know anyone in this city. I still haven’t seen another full human face. I have a day off before starting work, so tomorrow I think I’ll go for a walk, meander around amongst the masked masses, pretending that there’s still even a slim possibility that one of them might have a certain burgundy scarf wrapped tightly around their neck.

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