Short Short Fiction

Social Distance

by Alicia Peterson

     I mean to ignore the call, but my screen is a watercolor blur, and my finger hits ‘Answer’ instead. I silently curse and wipe my eyes— not that anyone can see. “Hello?”

     “Alexandra? Hi, it’s Amanda! Patterson?”

     “Mandy?” I blink. I am transported from the sagging back steps of a century farmhouse to the bleachers of my high school gym. “Wow, it’s been a long time.”

     “Right? So much for, ‘Free at last! Keep in touch!’” She channels the Class of ’95; when the moment fades, we’re back in 2020. “With everything that’s going on, I just thought…I’d love to catch up.”

     “Sure.” I’m not sure. I consider faking a bad connection, but she might call back. And Mandy was a good friend. Once. I rise from the steps and begin to pace out the distance to the barn. Gnarled cottonwoods loom overhead, blocking the clear summer sky. A shrill red squirrel scolds me for trespassing.

     “I got your number from your mom,” Mandy explains. “She said you got married last year! Are you really a farmer now?”

     I tell her about Josh, his dream of growing a future in rich black earth, my whirlwind change from city girl to farmwife. The things I don’t tell her skitter and squirm in my gut. Not now—

     I enter the earthy closeness of the barn, blinking back the dark, and a dozen squawks of protest greet me. Thanks to a persistent hawk, the girls are locked inside today, safe but restless.

     “Are those voices? Who are you with?” Polite accusation tangles with longing in her question.

     “Just the chickens.” I scatter stale bread to distract them. “So, is L.A. everything we dreamed it would be?”

     She tells me about her screenplay, her boyfriend, their yoga retreat in January.

     “That was before, obviously. Now we just stay home and watch Netflix.”

     “Sounds familiar.”

     “How are you doing with everything?”

     Everything. I let a small thing escape, a safe thing. “It’s been hard, some days. I’m getting through it.” I leave the barn and continue pacing until I stop at the edge of the grove.

     “Well, farm life sounds amazing! So peaceful. I never get peace and quiet here, even now.”

     I watch the breeze play across the sunny fields beyond, rye and hay and sorghum swaying in place. From behind a mask of rolling green, my doctor whispers, Not your fault. Keep trying. Not your fault. Aside from the ghosts, I am alone. “It’s quiet, anyway.”

     The conversation falters; we’ve come to the edge of something. “I’ve missed you, Alexandra.”

     I’ve gone by Alex for years, but I don’t correct her. “Thanks for calling, Mandy!” My voice is bright and hard, like white marble, and the squirming thing inside me goes still.

     I hear a faint sigh. “People need to connect, right? This pandemic has been so isolating.”

     The distance hangs silent between us. I turn back toward the house. “Right,” I say. “The pandemic.”