Distance


by Elizabeth Conway

That morning, I stood outside and leaned against the sliding glass door, holding a piece of ice over my eye to bring down the swelling. Inside, my sister sat cross-legged with a Halloween sucker pinched between her lips. She waved at me through the glass-- last night's make-up, a cat, muddied by sleep.

"Here," Dad said. "Don't let it touch your skin." He took the ice from my hand and wrapped it in his scarf.

"Hold it steady," he said and I did as he raised a steel shovel and chipped away at the frozen layer that blanketed the patio behind the house. The gutter, torn away from the roof, funneled rain and snow into the middle of the patio. In the cold, it pooled and froze.

So we chipped. He stabbed at the ice with a shovel, while I used a pick--the handle sliding through my mittens, until finally, I lost my grasp completely and it caught me in the eye.

"Am I bleeding?" I asked. But I could already see the bright red soaking into the wool of the scarf when I pulled the ice away from my eye.

"A little." Dad stopped to look closer at the wound below my brow. For a moment I thought he was looking into my eyes and I smiled, politely.

It was early for ice. The night before Dad wore an oversized cowboy hat to walk my sister and me--a cat and a clown--from house to house, while Mom stayed behind to answer the door in a poodle skirt and ponytail knotted high on her head. Dad walked behind us, shining the flashlight to guide our path. Our shadows stretched and twisted across the road.

Back at the house, my sister and I dumped our pillowcases full of candy on our bedroom floor and sorted piles of Snickers and suckers and Skittles. My sister handed me a bag of Peanut M&M's.

"Here," she said. "You can have these." She swallowed one whole once.

It lingered suspended for hours, until finally, eventually, she couldn't feel it knotting in her throat with every swallow.

Outside our bedroom, at the end of the hallway, our mom undid the ponytail from her hair and Dad took off his cowboy hat and they said things like you're worthless and you're worthless too. My sister quietly shut the door while I finished her bag of M&M's.

"He leaves tomorrow," I said.

She nodded.

The last time Dad was gone for nine months. Nine months in a place I knew was dry and far and unfamiliar from the two-bedroom house whose patio pooled with water when it rained.

I picked up a candy wrapper off the floor and read a joke that was printed on the inside. "Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?" I said.

My sister looked at me and shrugged.

"Because he didn't have any guts." I tossed the wrapper aside and my sister paused for a moment, then laughed and laughed and laughed.

I stared at my reflection in the glass door. White paint still covered my face, patches smeared into foreign shadows on my cheeks and chin. My nose was a dull red and one cartoon purple eye brow arched into my hairline--the other, hidden, covered by ice wrapped in a wool scarf. My head ached. My eyes teared up and I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. A smudge of red paint stained the sleeve of my jacket. Behind my reflection, my mom appeared on the other side of the door. I refocused and looked at her face. She opened the sliding door and stepped out.

"What happened?" she asked.

Dad glanced at her over his shoulder then turned his back, talking into the frozen ground. "Just an accident." He gestured to the pick leaning, like me, next to the house.

Mom reached forward and gently touched my bruised eye. Then repeated the gentle fingertip-tap to her brow. Like it was familiar.

"She'll be okay," she said.

"You've been smoking," Dad said.

He was right. Mom smelled like cigarettes and toothpaste.

Mom crossed her arms and lengthened her neck. "A little," she said.

Behind her, the glass door slid open and my sister tiptoed out on the patio, carefully looking for a firm place to step. Her sucker was gone, but she chewed on its paper stick, relentlessly gnawing at it with her molars.

"Hey Mom," she said. "Do you know why the skeleton didn't cross the road? Because he was made of bones!" She pulled the sucker stick from her mouth and forced out a burst of laughter. It startled Mom and she let in an unexpected gasp of air that made her cough.

"It's guts," I said. "He didn't have guts."

"Oh right, guts. He didn't have guts. Get it?" she said and continued to bellow over with laughter.

Mom calmed her cough. She smiled and gave my sister a nudge back into the house saying it was too cold to be outside without a jacket.

"I get it," Dad said. "Good one." But my sister was already inside.

"Are you packed?" Mom asked my dad.

When Dad was gone, he would visit us through poor connections and pixilation on the computer. Always in uniform, always smiling, always asking about school and the weather and whether we were being helpful for Mom. And we would answer--school's good, weather's good, we're good--and we would smile, because we were. And Mom too, in her purple or yellow V-neck shirt, the one she said made her neck look long; tucking her carefully curled hair behind her ears. They'd say things like I miss you and I miss you too and celebrate two weeks without a cigarette when it was actually two days. But the little lies didn't matter thousands of miles from home.

"I'm packed," Dad said.

Mom nodded. She looked at me and adjusted the ice over my eye. "Hold it steady," she said. Then picked up the pick and jabbed it into the patio a few times, gave up and leaned it back against the house.

"It's only going to freeze again," she said and turned to follow my sister inside. "I don't know why you bother."

But Dad just shrugged and kept cracking the ice into large pieces, pushing them aside with his foot.

Maybe I saw her spit in a cup of coffee. Maybe I felt the wooden frame that held a picture of a dancing bear hit a shoulder as it fell from the bedroom wall when the door slammed shut. Maybe I heard a sister humming "Baa Baa Black Sheep" with her eyes closed, her lips pursed, her ears covered; nothing but that monotone melody again and again and again.

So I stood with a piece of ice over my eye, while my dad chipped away at the ground and my sister chewed on a paper stick and smoke from my mom's cigarettes rose from the bathroom window--the steady hazy stream swept into the distance by the breeze.


BIO: Elizabeth Conway has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. Her fiction was a finalist in Glimmer Train's Open Fiction Contest, Reed Magazine's John Steinbeck Award, and The Southeast Review's World's Best Short-Short Story Contest. Elizabeth currently works, writes and plays in Rochester, Minnesota.