Wait for Me in the Forest
Charlie stepped off the path and crouched on the slope leading down to the lake. She pulled her mask down so that it hung around her neck. For a long time she hadn’t worn one, but then one day she was in line for the supermarket and a guy who wasn’t wearing a mask coughed. Did you just cough, the woman behind him had asked. He said something about allergies and apologised, but then the big, beefy guy in front of him swung around and shouted, he did, he did it right on my shoulder. Someone else joined in, saying, were you raised in a barn, or something to that respect. You’ll kill us all, another voice added. Then they surrounded him. Between the bodies Charlie caught a glimpse of his expression, contorted with horror as sun-starved, masked faces descended upon him. No, no, no, he cried, cowering, as Charlie quietly skipped past the commotion to the front of the line. The security guard pretended not to see, twirling the spray bottle of disinfectant around his gloved finger like a pistol, whistling.
She looked out over the water and commenced waiting. She had gotten good at waiting. Everyone had. It was difficult at first. Before it was go go go, things never stopped. Go to work, get money, blow it all on drugs, stay up for thirty hours straight on the weekend, sleep on Sunday, get up Monday, do it all again. After, all there was to do was wait. Get up at 6 just to wait in line for groceries. Wait for a check from the government, watch it get smaller and smaller each month. Wait for the day when it stops coming. Wait for it all to end. May, they said at first, then June, then August, and now it was October first. Choose a pod of no more than ten people, they ordered. Stay in your pod. Wait for things to get better, said the Chancellor, things are going to get better. But they didn’t. They got worse and worse.
It was cold on the forest floor, but the reflection of the sun on the lake was enough to make Charlie squint and shelter her eyes. Months ago the water would have been alive and rippling as dogs sprung into it after balls and children splashed in the shallows. Now it was as still and smooth as glass. She started as she heard heavy footsteps approaching and dropped down onto her stomach. Over the edge of the embankment she saw two pairs of heavy black boots go by, a metallic clank accompanying each step. When they became distant, then inaudible, she began to breathe again.
“Hey—hey!” A hoarse whisper came from across the path. Charlie propped herself up on her elbows. A face appeared from the opposite ditch.
“Emily,” She gasped. “It’s so good to see you,”. Emily’s voice cracked.
“I brought you something,” Charlie produced a plastic bag from her backpack. She darted out into the centre of the path and dropped the bag then retreated to the embankment. Emily retrieved it.
“Oh, thank you!” she exclaimed. “He won’t wonder where you got it, will he?”
“I’ll tell him it’s from the neighbours. He’s too scared to leave the house now, anyway. He’ll never find out.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I’m going for a walk.”
“Is that allowed?”
“Out here, yes. For now.”
“You have so much freedom here,”
“I know,” A sad, guilty expression crossed Emily’s face, “I’m so lonely for you.”
Charlie reached out onto the path as far as she could. Emily reached back. Charlie inched her shoulders onto the path.
“Charlie, please—don’t come any closer,” Charlie stopped and rested her cheek on the ground. Tears muddied the dry earth. The pair lay like that, as close as they could, and the sun danced through the treetops.
“Time’s up,” said Emily, as the light began to dim, “will you be
“I think so. Will you?”
“I think so, too.”
They whispered I love you and stay healthy to one another, then pulled their masks over their mouths and started off in opposite directions down the path. Emily heard something, perhaps a boar, crashing through the undergrowth in the distance. She stamped her feet and called out to warn it of her presence. The crashing faded and she found herself trembling, plastic bag swishing at her side as she walked. She reached inside to pluck free a single, three-ply sheet of toilet paper and pressed its softness to her cheek.by Shav McKay