The sun had set, and twilight was starting to fade. Darkness was rolling in, and with it came the fog. It was chilly, damp, and brr. However, after nearly two weeks of quarantine, it felt amazing. More than that, it felt like I could literally and metaphorically breathe again. I was finally free to get outside and take in the cool air as deeply as my recently infect lungs would let me.
Oh, what a glorious feeling, and I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to walk on and on until I hit Australia or Walmart because I needed snacks. After everything I’ve been dealing with over the last few weeks? I deserved snacks. Yummy, over-processed treats that contain zero nutritional value.
Practically speaking, walking to the other side of the planet or to the nearest chain value store wasn’t going to happen. My lungs haven’t fully recovered from the virus that shall not be named, and I don’t have the strength for a lengthy journey.
I should say that I’m not contagious, not anymore. I’m well past the super spreader phase, and I’m allowed to rejoin society.
I have to refrain from coughing too loudly, or people will shoot dirty looks like lasers. Given the state of our collective mental health, I wouldn’t be surprised if an angry mob magically appeared with pitchforks and rotting tomatoes. Unclean! No, it’s not what you think. Ouch. Stop that. I’m not a plague rat, not anymore, I swear.
Thankfully, there’s a dollar store near me that’s a short ten minute walk. Easy as easy can be. And yes, I know the dollar store is a chain value thingy, but let’s not argue over semantics. Besides, it’s not the juicy part of this story.
I put on real clothes for the first time in too long. I slipped my feet into comfy sandals, and no, I didn’t care that it was almost zero degrees out there. I’ll take comfort over just about anything else. That doesn’t apply to the mask I put on next. It’s required, and it serves a purpose so, I begrudgingly complied.
The second I exited the building, I pulled that blasted thing down and drank in the fresh air. It was all the superlatives combined with room for more. I was free. Free! Cough, sputter, wheeze, and phew. No one came at me with tools or rotting produce.
It took a little longer to walk to the store than it should, and my lungs complained bitterly. It’s incredible how quickly our bodies and stamina can deteriorate. A couple weeks of sickness and this trek knocked the wind out of me. Granted, I had a viral lung infection so, that’s a factor, but whew, I’m glad I shortened my ambitions.
By the time I got there, I was a little tired and out of breath. I also felt happy for the first time in a while. Getting outside, seeing people, and being a part of the world again? It’s hard to believe that this socially awkward/inept person would be happy about something like this, but here we are.
I ran into my parents, and we had a short chat. They offered to wait and drive me home, but I didn’t want the adventure to end. Sure, I was already tired and wheezy. I certainly wasn’t the picture of health so, their concern was warranted. I should’ve taken them up on the offer, but I’d be fine. It was a short walk back, and I wasn’t in a hurry.
What could go wrong? Ah, the infamous last words before regret seeps in.
I should’ve listened to them because my walk home turned out to be a bit more treacherous than I expected. If this was a tv show, I would say something like, “Coming up after the break…” And you’d grumble, I hate cliffhangers. Why do they have to draw things out? Screw dramatic effect. Grr, curse, and shake a fist.
Yeah, I hate it when someone’s telling a story and take a bathroom break when it’s getting good. The nerve of those people. You’re making me wait? Now? Seriously? Arg.
Where was I?
Do you have a voice in your head that tells you something’s wrong? You look around, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary. All of your senses scan your surroundings and come back clean. There’s nothing to worry about, but that voice won’t shut up. It’s telling you to be careful, look out, pay attention.
Something isn’t right.
It’s easy to dismiss the voice as nothing more than anxiety or an overactive imagination. As a CIS female, being overly cautious is a way of life. When we’re kids, we’re taught to pay attention to our surroundings. As we get older, we’re told to carry our keys between our fingers just in case. After a while, it becomes second nature. So much so that it becomes, in a strange way, easier to ignore that voice. How often does it turn out to be right?
Which is what I told myself as I opened the door to leave the store. I paid for my snacks, shoved them in my bag, and was about to head out. That voice in my head screamed, looked out! Something’s not right. Don’t go anywhere. Call your parents.
I shook my head and adjusted my mask. Stop it, I told myself, there’s nothing wrong. No one was being creepy or inappropriate. There was still enough light in the sky to see where I was going. I told myself that the voice in my head was overreacting. The lack of stimuli and the isolation had made me a bit paranoid. The bright fluorescent lights and seeing people for the first time in weeks was wigging me out.
It’s fine. I’m okay. I’m safe. Take a deep breath and walk out that door.
So that’s what I did. I left the store and started to walk home. The store sits on a site that’s scheduled for demolition. Most of the property is fenced off. The way back to my place runs along the fence, over a narrow bridge, and past a forested area. The walkway doesn’t have any lighting, and the shadows are thick.
Can you picture it? It’s a short walk to the locked gate that leads to my apartment complex. It’s usually safe, but that night it could’ve been a trap if I didn’t listen to the voice in my head.
I start the journey home, the discomfort growing louder, and I gripped my keys tightly between my fingers. I thought I was being paranoid, but it didn’t hurt to slow things down. I stopped walking and turned back to the store. I thought about calling my dad to come and get me. It was a tug of war between independence, the urge to walk to Australia, and the screaming voice in my head.
I’d just taken a breath and one step towards the fence when a car screeched up next to me. If the voice in my head was screaming before? Now, it started throwing a fit and using a megaphone to do it. The way the car approached was fast and eager so, I stepped back and reached for my phone.
The man behind the wheel rolled down his window and took his mask off. Odd, usually people roll down the window and put the mask on. I took half a step back. He smiled at me, and by all appearances, he seemed harmless. Isn’t that what everyone says in those crime documentaries? There was something about him that made me take another step back.
He asked me if I could help him, and I shrugged. It depends, I said, what do you need?
Do you have a smoke? He replied, and I shook my head. He smiled again and asked if I wanted one. Okay, that’s weird. You asked me for a cigarette, and now you’re offering me one? No, and I took a small step back.
He lowered his voice to a whisper and asked me for directions. Again, his actions were out of the norm. The further away I stepped, the softer he spoke. I got the feeling like he was trying to draw me closer so, I took another small step away.
I gave him directions. It was simple enough. He asked for the one attraction in the area, and all he had to do was follow the signs. Except, it was almost six pm, and it was probably closed. My suspicion grew, and I took another step back.
He tilted his head to the side, smiled, and patted the seat next to him. Why don’t you get in and help me find it? He said with all the charm he could muster but it came across as something else.
My no came out with a loud laugh. I’m not getting in a strangers car. Are you out of your mind? It’s the first thing kids are taught. Don’t get into a car with someone you don’t know.
He was a little taken aback and asked me again, but I laughed and told him he’d be fine on his own. He looked disappointed as he reversed behind some dumpsters. At first, I thought he was doing a u-turn, but he just sat there. I couldn’t see him, but there was only one way out of the parking lot.
I stared at my way home, and the voice screamed at me again. Stay here or go back to the store. Damn it, I just wanted my snacks. My shoulders dropped, and I slowly started to walk back to the store, but I didn’t get far.
He slowly inched his car forward and leaned over his steering wheel. I looked him dead in the eyes, his smile was gone, and his glare was steely. Not today, jackass. I have snacks to enjoy and a puppy to cuddle. I pulled out my phone, stretched out my arms, and yelled loudly, What do you want from me?
People stopped and stared at me, then at him. Panic flashed across his face, and his foot slammed on the gas. His tires squealed, his backend fishtailed, and he hauled ass out of the parking lot.
With a sigh of relief, I waved at the spectators and checked in with the voice in my head. Is there anything else I need to know? No? Can we go home now? Great, I’ve earned these snacks now.
At the time, I was annoyed at this man’s audacity and angry that we can’t go out for snacks without harassment, threats, or stalking. I wasn’t afraid in the moment, but an uneasy feeling settled in later that night, and it persisted for a few days. If I hadn’t listened to that voice in my head? If I’d ignored it and walked down the dark, isolated path?
I’m trying not to picture the possible outcomes because then I’d never get a decent night’s sleep. It is, however, a good reminder that I need to trust myself and that voice in my head. If something feels wrong? It’s wrong. There’s no such thing as overreacting when it comes to personal safety.