The curfew was a red-orange that night, the sort of aborted color that hung in the air and left you wondering if they meant it to be red or was it in fact orange, and you worried because the difference meant an entire hour. The street was narrow, and even if I were caught, it would be worth it. There was no other way I could…
“Penny for your thoughts?” A stranger stepped in front of me. I jumped. He held out a penny, bright in the street lamp’s flickering light, between two grimy fingers. His face was hidden. The air was silent.
“A penny.” I forgot the red-orange. I took the coin from him, rubbed it between my own fingers. It was warm and lighter than I had imagined, smaller than it looked in the pictures, but real.
“What’s your name?” asked the stranger.
“Wilhelm.” I stared at the penny.
“Wilhelm, do you want my penny?”
I knew the price, but I did want it. How lucky I was.
So I let him have my thoughts in trade for my desire. I closed my eyes and let him through. I could feel him stumble around inside at first, uncertain, looking for all my thoughts, finding some and then others, sorting through them and collecting them. He grew comfortable and moved around more deliberately. I was thankful. It was always better if they knew what they were doing.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that he had collected them all in a small, glass jar. They popped about, flitting against the glass, the lid, and back against the glass. Like trapped fireflies, they were caught bits of my past. Pink at first, then a soft green as they grew used to their new, cold environment.
The stranger had not taken thoughts of her, though. I kept those from him, locked away in a box in the corner of my mind, hidden under the shrouds of frustration and desire. She was my first thought when I woke the next morning, when I looked into the mirror at the end of the room. I walked slowly toward it, approached the figure within it. I held out my hand and felt the cold, smooth surface. I did not recognize the person who stared back.
“Stranger,” I said in a whisper.
I looked down. In my hand, I still held the penny. I would have to break curfew again to see her. The only time those in quarantine were ever near, as they were shuffled past the wall of iron bars along Over Street.