Light trickled through the foliage of the dense forest, falling onto a small patch of empty grass. The clearing was still several feet away from Audrey and she knew it was important that she reach it quickly. She drove herself forward but her attention often drifted and she would veer left or right until a glimpse of sunlight reflecting off of the permeating mist caught her attention once more.
“Mustn’t get distracted Audrey, you old looney,” she’d say to herself when she realized she was heading in the wrong direction. She clung to the thick trunks of trees, careful not to trip over the roots. The craggy bark felt wrong. Sometimes it felt cold like metal or smooth like finished wood.
There was a figure a short distance to her right. In the gloomy darkness she could only make out a vague silhouette, looming much too tall for her liking. She turned away from it, losing sight of the clearing once more.
She came upon a towering tree whose long, fat roots jutted up out of the ground. She hugged the tree tightly as she balanced on one of these protrusions. She wiggled her clumsy way from one root to the next.
“It’s lava! Can’t touch the lava!”she laughed to herself.
When she had wiggled and hopped almost all the way around the tree, she found her path blocked by a small child sitting in the dirt between two of the great roots. A little girl, with tears trickling down her freckled cheeks. Audrey crouched down and looked into her face. The girl was familiar. She had the same curly red hair, the same green eyes, the same apple cheeks that had once belonged to Audrey. This could have been Audrey’s grandchild if Audrey had ever had children.
“They said I can’t go to the fair because I pushed James into the lake,” the little girl told her.
“James deserved to go into that lake!” Audrey exclaimed, “He’s a rotten, empty-headed liar!”
“Ms. Gould calm down, now. Let’s have a seat, okay?” Audrey turned, frightened by the voice. Her mother stood behind her, staring with the “I love you but right now you’re in HUGE trouble” eyes that Audrey knew so well. James had told the teacher that Audrey cheated on her math test and she had gotten a dozen strikes with the ruler. She didn’t mean to push him in the lake really, but she was so angry. Mother made her angry too – always taking James’ side.
“No!” Audrey yelled. She stood up from where she had been sitting on the cold ground and ran away from her mother. Hobbled away. Her hip ached. She figured it was from when she fell out of the Andersen’s tree last week. That had been James’ fault too.
Beautiful sunlight lay before her. She laughed.
“Oh Audrey, you nut! You almost forgot, didn’t you?” She headed towards the clearing again.
There was the dark figure. Audrey started to turn around. Audrey! Audrey, don’t you dare turnaround. You need to get to that clearing. Remember? Get to the clearing and everything will be okay. You can rest then.
Audrey closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see the ominous figure. She held onto the trees – to the bed and the counter and the walls – and felt her way forward. She knew she had arrived because she could feel the warmth of the sun on her skin. She opened her eyes.
She was sitting on a couch – not particularly old but already worn and stained – and the sun shone into the room from a large window behind her. There was a TV and a fish tank on the wall opposite her. To her left was a doorway.
Leading to the dining room, Audrey recalled. She stood up. Her seventy-six year old legs and her three year old hip protested. She walked slowly through the dining room and into the hospital-like hallway where the residents had their bedrooms.
I don’t have much time, she thought. It’s just a clearing. You’re not out of the woods yet, you old bird. Don’t forget, you must get to room 165. 165, Audrey.
The change wasn’t sudden – she felt the darkness creep in from the corners of her eyes. She felt her mind slow, like clockwork underwater. Then she was back in the woods. Straight rows of trees on either side, each with a number on it. Some numbers were carved, others were on plaques nailed to the thick bark. Audrey didn’t like this place. It reminded her of the time she had to go to the hospital to get her tonsils out and she had gotten lost.
Audrey walked to one of the trees – number 161. There was a hospital bed behind it where a middle aged man was laying. One of his legs was missing and the stump was wrapped up with white bandages. Parts of the bandage were stained a rusty brown. Audrey’s eyes drifted to where his gown had drifted to the side, to pink flesh and the clear plastic tube slowly filling with urine, pooling into a bag on the side of the bed.
She stood there for a moment, mouth slightly agape. She stared in that way a child stares at something they know they shouldn’t be seeing.
“Ms. Gould, this isn’t your room honey. You want me to take you there? You can lay down for a bit,” Audrey turned to look at the nurse. The mist blurred her features but her voice was gentle and reassuring.
“I’m sorry,” Audrey said, “I didn’t mean to. I got lost. Can I have a popsicle? My throat is still sore.”
“I don’t think we have any right now, hon. But I’ll check with the kitchen after lunch.” The nurse took Audrey’s arm and led her away from the hospital bed to a different tree a short distance down the row.
The number hung on a stylish plaque with gold trim. It read 158. There were pictures tacked all over the tree. The Eiffel tower. The Coliseum. Big Ben. The Ganges River. The pyramids at Gaza. It was too dark to make out the faces in the pictures.
Audrey pointed towards the pictures excitedly. “Those are all the places I want to visit one day. And lots of others too!”
She wondered why the nurse seemed so sad.
Audrey rested on her bed for a while before the Cheshire showed up. He stood beside her, all shrouded in darkness except for his big grin. There were others like him, like the dark figure near the clearing, but the Cheshire she always recognized. He made her the most unsettled.
“Go away,” she told him. He tilted his head a little to the left and his grin widened. “Leave me alone!”
Audrey’s hands flew up to her neck. They itched and fiddled with the loose skin there. She felt more and more agitated. “I told you, don’t come back you cheating bastard!” His grin was beginning to droop at the edges. The frown was even worse than the grin; it made her feel guilty.
Audrey stood up and walked quickly away from her bed and the Cheshire. She found herself in the aisle of numbered trees once more.
165. You must get to room 165, Audrey!
Audrey looked around. There it was – a tree with 165 carved roughly into the bark. But just down the row she could see sunlight. A clearing.
Come on, old girl! Get to the clearing! Go, go, go!
Audrey turned away from the tree and headed for the light.
Audrey! It’s very important you remember 165. You must get there.
The clearing Audrey!
165. 165. 165. 165.
Audrey couldn’t decide. What should she do? Someone should tell her. Someone should help her. She looked around the woods but there was only darkness and mist and trees. She dropped to the ground and sobbed. Why was her head so mucky? Why couldn’t she focus? She smacked the side of her head to clear the cobwebs. When that didn’t work, she hit harder.
Suddenly, she felt a warm touch on her arm. It helped her up and guided her into the sunshine. Her mind quickened, her focus sharpened. In the light, she could make out the face of her gentle benefactor.
It was another resident. She was older than Audrey but seemed more lithe on her feet. She was plump in a healthy way and her hair was dyed an unconvincing shade of yellow. Her heavily lipsticked mouth smiled.
“Looked like you needed a hand, deary.”
“Thank you,” Audrey said as she sat on the worn-but-new sofa. The woman sat beside her. She tried to remember the woman’s name. Something with a D. Doris. Delores. Deirdre. “Dalia?”
“Mhm. And you’re Audrey. We played cards a couple weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Audrey winced. She prided herself on her social graces. ” I’m a little hazy right now.”
“Always happens for a while after you come out of the woods.”
Dalia smiled. “Wouldn’t be in here if you’d never been in there. Looks like you’ve made it to a clearing though. Never know how long those will last.”
That’s right, Audrey thought, I don’t know. I don’t have much time. She pushed all other questions out of her mind.
“Dalia, look, I need a favour. I don’t know how much time I have. I caught Mr. Hamin from room 165 in my room the other day. He took a necklace of mine – didn’t realize until it was already gone. I keep trying to tell the nurses but then I forget or I get lost or they say they can’t find it. It’s a locket, the kind with a picture. I think it will help me get out of the woods, or at least help me focus,” she waited for a moment,”Dalia?”
Dalia stared ahead, at the wall between television and aquarium. She hardly blinked.
Audrey didn’t waste a moment. She headed for 165. As the hallway began to darken she pushed her shaking legs harder and harder. It was in sight. If she could just reach it. Not far now. Not far.
The Cheshire stood in front of the door. His grin was as wide as ever, the rest of his face impenetrable. She felt that if she could just remember what that face looked like, he would listen to her. Maybe she could apologize. Maybe he’d help her find her way out of this place. Maybe he’d take her home.
“Ms. Gould – Audrey, honey – guess what I found? I know I said you would have to wait until after lunch but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
Audrey turned around. Her mother was standing in her yellow gingham dress, the one she only wore when they were going somewhere special. She was holding a bright pink popsicle.
Audrey’s face lit up, a smile lifting her wrinkled cheeks. “Popsicle!” she exclaimed.
“Come eat it in the kitchen honey, we don’t want it to drip all over the floor. Someone might slip.”
“Okay,” Audrey nodded. She took her mother’s arm and followed her into the mist.