Distance by Natalie Teal McAllister
Per the arrangement, their indefinite work-from-home statuses, they are required to sign documents outlining their necessary functions, their necessary hours, their necessary communications. They agree to continuity. They agree to be the people they were in their offices. They must sign these pledges and upload them to the shared drive.
Amy skims the pledge from her kitchen table, where she is surrounded by bouquets of chickweed her children bring in. She signs the corner of her child’s unfinished worksheet, snaps a photo, uploads it to her laptop.
The image comes with predictive text: her computer’s guess at the content. Picture of an object, a clock, a bird. The loops are a maze ticking over and over, a heartbeat or the compression of a lung machine.
Spring is an explosion of pollen. Amy escapes the impossible stillness of her video meetings, shuts off video, presses mute mid-meeting and slips into the front yard. She traces her name, plus Doug’s, on the yellow-dusted hood of his car. The chickweed has grown feral in the sun, has taken hold in clusters. Weeds engulf whole corners of their yard. In normal times, Doug was a weed-and-feed guy, yet now there is more chickweed than fescue.
Across the street two mothers talk in their perfect-green lawns, their children tracing each other with chalk, chalk-hands touching chalk-hands. One mother says something and the other mother laughs and Amy feels the vibration of it suspended in the particles around her.
Amy’s children press their faces to the window such that they are pig-nosed, buck-teethed. She reaches into the mass of weeds and pulls, feels the satisfying crack as the earth exhales. The chalk-children blow bubbles which float over the lawn like a commercial. The mothers wave to her or they wave her away or they are dismissing her window children. The chickweed spreads over her feet, over her driveway, so fast she believes she is actually watching it grow. She rips forth another handful and the chickweed tugs against her, as if it might swallow her whole.
Amy takes calls among a scatter of unfinished worksheets, letters left untraced. Per the arrangement, she must show video. Her coworkers are curled over kitchen tables or tucked into spare bedrooms. They are side-lit, down-lit, half-shadowed. Before their meetings start they whisper, hands over hearts, about the rule breakers. People walking in groups. Shoppers without masks.
Her children are ninjas chasing each other in homesewn masks. Doug snatches them, unties their masks—all of this on video, all of this on record. He stands by while she finishes the call, the elastic ties trembling until he can say not them, not those memories. Doug pushes the masks into her hands but already her next video call is tapping at the screen behind her.
Chickweed raps at the windows, demands her attention. Amy turns off video. Her children trace the vines along the glass. The front door catches and when it gives, she feels the roots snap, the stems break. Chickweed has overtaken the house, the car, bicycles leaned against the garage. Her phone vibrates, again, again. The weeds climb to the roof while the mothers across the street hold their chalk-children to their chests. Amy plunges both hands into the weeds. With each handful there is a glance at her life underneath: here is her name traced next to Doug’s, there are the pressed faces of her children.
In the sunlight, she can almost breathe again. With each handful she is almost free.
Natalie Teal McAllister is a fiction writer based in Kansas City. Her short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, No Tokens, Columbia Journal, Pigeon Pages, Midwestern Gothic, Craft, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others, and her recent Cheap Pop micro is appears in the Best Microfiction 2020. Natalie spends her writing hours engulfed in several novels and assorted strange stories.