I can’t be the only one that feels like this is a very weird time.
I’m sure that there’s a better term to go with than ‘weird’, but if there is, it’s not coming to me. We’ve been locked down for over a year thanks to coronavirus. We’ve worn masks whenever we’ve stepped more than a few steps outside of our homes, and all of our human interactions, the real kind that doesn’t involve staring at computer screens, have come from an oh-so-intimate six feet away. This was our reality for so long that sometimes it felt like it was always going to be that way.
Now that we’re getting back to the way things were before the virus, or at least some reasonable facsimile of pre-Covid life, it feels weird, right? The masks were annoying, sure, but don’t you kind of miss them in a strange way? It’s like a child being told that a nice soft safety blanket is no longer required.
Dating is probably the most bizarre thing now. After sitting around in your home for a year eating nachos in your underwear and binging whatever cooking show happened to be streaming at the time, you’re suddenly back out in the real world in places you thought you’d never be allowed to return to. To add to the awkwardness, you’re sharing this experience with someone that you barely know.
This was the position that I found myself in as I sat on a bench in front of an Italian restaurant waiting for my date to arrive. More than once I caught myself bouncing my leg up and down nervously. I had never been good on dates even before the pandemic, and after more than a year I wasn’t just rusty. I was nearly hopeless.
A lot of what made me feel so inadequate was the conversation. No matter how hard you try otherwise, the discussion always seems to come back to the pandemic. How did you spend your time during it? Did anyone you know catch the virus? How strange does it feel being back out now?
You know what follows that line of conversation? Silence. Very awkward silence. It’s tough to recover after going down that path.
I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I barely registered my date’s arrival. We had never met in person before, having just communicated through texts and the dating app we had both used. On the app she had gone by the name LostLuv, but outside of the digital world her name was Jenna Borden.
She was a good deal shorter than I was, with the top of her dark hair coming up to the height of my shoulders. I felt like I was looming over her when I stood up to greet her. Her eyes were bright blue with flecks of purple throughout, a rather exotic look that I had never seen before. They peered up at me over the black facemask she was wearing.
There’s another thing that’s much more awkward now than it used to be. We’re so programmed now to avoid human contact that greeting one another normally is nearly a foreign concept. Not knowing what else to do, I raised my hand in a rather stupid wave. She returned the gesture, looking just as unsure about what to do as I was.
“I don’t know what to do,” Jenna admitted in a pleasant yet nervous voice. “I feel like I’ve just come out of a coma and I’m trying to figure out complicated calculus equations.”
I laughed. With two simple sentences she had broken the ice.
“Do you do that often?” I asked. “Emerge from comas with the express purpose of doing math?”
“Oh, all the time. I’ve done it three times today already. I hope you don’t mind the mask. I’m still a little paranoid, you know?”
I shook my head. “I completely understand. I’ve been fully vaccinated for almost two months now, and I still carry one in my pocket just in case. Is this restaurant okay? We can go somewhere else if you want, somewhere with outdoor dining.”
“No, it’s fine. I actually love this place. Why don’t we go inside and find a table?”
It turned out that I had been worried about nothing. Jenna was easy to talk to, and she seemed just as interested in avoiding certain subjects as I was. Our personalities were similar enough for us to enjoy each other’s company without being so close that we agreed on everything. I’ve always found that to be important, as it’s boring to be around someone that doesn’t have something new and different to contribute to the conversation.
She didn’t remove her mask during the course of the meal. At first I thought that she was just going to wear it until the food arrived. That was the common practice that many people followed, so that would have made sense.
When we got our drinks, however, she slid the straw up under the bottom of the mask and drank it that way. When she finished with a sip, she slipped the straw back out and placed the glass onto the table. I didn’t find that as strange as I once might have. She had already told me that she was still worried about the virus, after all. If anything it made me feel more self-conscious about not wearing my own mask.
She kept it on her face when the meal itself was served, and that struck me as odd. Most people would have at least pushed up the bottom of the mask to expose their mouths so that they could eat. Instead, she used one hand to pull the mask forward a bit, making just enough separation between it and her face to allow her fork access. It seemed like a cumbersome way to eat.
I didn’t say anything to her about it, of course. First of all it wasn’t any of my business, and secondly I didn’t want to make her feel as if I was judging her. It had been a while since I enjoyed a first date to this degree. I didn’t want to say or do anything to jeopardize it, especially over something like this.
We ended up forgoing dessert. Although she didn’t say anything about it, I could tell that she was starting to get a bit uncomfortable being in such an enclosed space. I paid the check despite her protests that she wanted to split it. I very much believe in equality, but there are certain things that were ingrained in me as a child by my father, and being the one to pay on a date is one of those things. I followed it up by applying another of those lessons and opening the door for her as we went back outside.
“So,” Jenna said as we stood on the sidewalk. “What now?”
“I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead,” I replied sheepishly. “We’re just a couple of blocks away from Pleasence Park. We could go for a walk there.”
“Going for a casual stroll on a first date? How very old school of you. I think it’s a fantastic idea.”
We chatted as we slowly walked through the small downtown Blackwood area. As we did so I kept finding myself glancing down at her. There was a definite attraction. I couldn’t quite tell if she was feeling the same thing, but I thought that she might be. This was going much better than I could have hoped.
As we reached the final intersection before coming to the park gates, Jenna sneezed. I turned towards her just in time to see an odd movement under her mask. It was like it had briefly pulled tighter against something, or that something had pushed against it from underneath. The movement was gone before I could even fully register what I had seen. I quickly shrugged it off. It had just been some trick of the light, or the soft breeze that was blowing through the streets had made it wrinkle and my eyes had misinterpreted things.
We crossed the street and entered Pleasence Park. At the front was a playground filled with kids running around like maniacs while their exasperated parents attempted to maintain some semblance of order. I smiled to myself.
“Do you like kids?” Jenna asked, noticing my expression.
“I do,” I answered. “You?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Well, I like them to a point.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“For the most part I love being around them. Playtime, meals, all of that. I love that stuff. I start to become less enthralled with them when it’s time for a temper tantrum or a diaper change.”
I laughed. “I can’t argue with that.”
“You know what I like more than children?”
“Going down a slide.” She pointed. “And there just so happens to be an open one right over there.”
I watched as she hurried over to the tall slide and started to climb up the steps. The pure joy she exuded was endearing. It was also something that I could understand and relate to. It wasn’t just a slide. It was a symbolic return to a simpler time.
I squinted slightly as I chided myself for sounding like a first year college student that just had his first Intro to Poetry class.
For a brief moment I considered going up the stairs after her. It had been at least a decade since I had been on a slide, and the urge to go down one again was strong. I was quite a bit larger than I had been then, however, and a quick look was all it took for me to see that I wasn’t going to fit on it. Instead, I walked around to the far side to meet her at the bottom.
As Jenna came down the slide towards me, I noticed the movement under her mask again. This time it wasn’t just a small section of her covered face. Odd ripples and waves ran across the entire area. Her feet touched the ground, and as she began to stand up I saw that there were four bumps, each triangular with the longest points near her mouth. They were moving in and out like they were pulsing.
By the time she was standing fully upright the lumps were gone and the facemask had returned to normal. She looked up at me with an odd expression.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
I couldn’t explain away what I had seen this time. There was no doubt in my mind that I had definitely seen something. Something that wasn’t natural.
I glanced over at the children playing. If there really was something wrong with Jenna, something dangerous, I couldn’t let on that I knew she wasn’t what she appeared to be. Not here, anyway. I couldn’t put the kids and their families at risk. I mustered up the best smile that I could.
“Yeah, absolutely,” I replied. “I’m just a bit sad that I’m too big to take a trip down the slide myself.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said with a tilt of her head. “You look like you’re the perfect size to me.”
She started walking towards one of the nearby trail makers. Pleasence Park was home to about a dozen hiking trails, each of which traveled through a different section of the dense woods. Not many people used them during this time of day. They were secluded and the perfect place to go when you wanted privacy.
I almost didn’t follow her. My first instinct was to bolt back towards downtown, but I looked back over at the playing children again. I couldn’t do anything that might put them in harm’s way. Reluctantly, I went after her and we entered the treeline.
Jenna reached out and took my hand. I smiled over at her, but all I could think about was how firm her grip was. It was like a vice, as if she was making sure that I couldn’t get away.
“This is okay, right?” she asked.
“What?” I said dully as I was pulled out of my thoughts.
“Me holding your hand. This is okay, right?”
“Oh, um, yeah, it’s fine.”
She was testing me. Or maybe she wasn’t, and instead she was luring me in. She must have realized that I was no longer at ease.
Now that I knew something was wrong, I began to notice small things that I hadn’t before. She kept sneaking looks at me as we walked, her eyes carefully inspecting me before turning back towards the trail. Her walk was also just slightly odd; her steps were light and didn’t make as much noise as they should on the leaves and twigs.
“Did you enjoy your lunch?” she asked, her eyes returning to my face.
“It was good,” I said. “How about yours?”
“Not bad. I prefer my meat a bit more raw than they prepared the beef tagliata, though.”
“It looked pretty red to me.”
“What can I say,” she replied with a laugh. “I like my meat bloody.”
Jenna turned her attention forward once again, and I noticed more movement under the mask. The firm triangular objects pressed tightly against the cloth for a few seconds before retracting back towards her face. My mind flashed to images I had seen of insect mandibles opening and closing.
I felt panic rising in me. I forced it down. Obviously I was in a dangerous situation, but the only way I was going to get through it was if I kept my wits about me.
We came to a narrow section of the trail. The brush was thick enough on both sides that it only allowed for us to walk through one at a time. I gave her a smile and motioned for her to go first. It was, after all, the gentlemanly thing to do. She released my hand and started through.
I let her get a few feet ahead of me before taking the knife out of my pocket. Slowly unfolding the blade from the handle, I followed her down the trail, expecting her to turn and attack me at any moment. This would be the perfect time. We were all alone, and because of the dense brush I wouldn’t be able to easily escape.
Somehow I knew that I was out of time and she was about to strike. It was now or never. Gritting my teeth, I lunged and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. Before she could even cry out in surprise the knife was cutting across her throat. I shoved her forward so that the blood wouldn’t get on me. She stumbled a few steps before collapsing face first to the ground.
Being careful not to touch the growing pool of blood on the dirt path, I rolled her over just in time to hear the final gurgling sounds come out of her severed larynx and see the light fade out of her purple-flecked eyes. I ignored all of that and grabbed the mask with my right hand. I ripped it off and stood back up.
Jenna’s face was completely normal. With the exception of a small scar on her bottom lip, the skin was unblemished and there was no sign of any sort of abnormality. It certainly wasn’t the face of a monster.
I sighed as I licked the blood off of the knife. There was no point in beating myself up over it. It was an easy error to make. I had made it several times over the past year, and I’d probably do it again at some point. Honest mistakes happened.
I grabbed the body by the feet and started pulling it off the side of the trail. It was best to get rid of it before some hiker came across it. Who knew how someone would react to seeing a dead body in the woods.
The pandemic made some people act a little crazy, after all.