Zoe and the World Outside
Zoe steps outside into air that prickles like icy pins on her skin. She’s wearing her new mask, a purple one with a platypus bill on the front. In the summer, wearing a mask was miserable but now it warms her face just like a scarf.
She skips down the steps and immediately slips on a slash of black ice on the bottom step. She lands on her other foot, balanced like a ballerina while waving her arms around in a very un-ballerina-like way.
“I meant to do that!” she yells, in case anyone was watching. But really, she could have tumbled face first into a snowbank and she would not have cared. For the moment, she is free.
The sidewalk is only partially shoveled and she hops between the bare patches, looking out for ice. No Zoom meetings, no emails, no texts about missing homework. She does not even have her phone. She takes a deep breath, letting the biting air fill her lungs.
“If it isn’t Zoe-not-a-boy-ee,” she hears. It’s Mr. James, the old man that lives three houses down from hers. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. In warmer weather he spends all day on his porch, listening to the radio and chatting with anyone who walks by. Today he’s shoveling off his steps with a battered metal shovel that looks a hundred years old.
“Hey Mr. James-not-a—” Not much rhymes with James. When they first met, he had teasingly called her Zoe-the-boy-ee, chortling at her 5-year-old indignation. From then on, she was Zoe-not-a-boy-ee.
“Where you off to?” he asks, leaning on the shovel.
“Going to the store for eggs,” Zoe says. “Mom’s baking Christmas cookies and ran out. We’ll bring you some when they’re done.”
“That sounds real good,” Mr. James says. “You got time for a quarantine high-five?”
Zoe takes a few steps up the walk towards Mr. James’s house and holds out her gloved hand, palm out. Mr. James does the same until they are about a foot apart. Mr. James said that was when their bodies are just about six feet apart, just right for social distancing.
“Quarantine high-five!” Zoe shouts, then waves and darts away, slipping momentarily on a patch of snow at the end of the walk.
The Bader Avenue Market is just a block away, but Zoe takes a detour, down Cherry Street to Stratford Street where her friend Ashley lives. Ashley lives in a block of condos with its own playground in the back. It’s in a small park that Ashley calls the Pork since the kiddie slide in the playground is shaped like a pig. The playground has been closed off all year, but now it’s covered with snow anyway.
Ashley answers the door after two rings of the doorbell. She sees Zoe and ducks out of sight to get her own mask.
“Sorry, I was upstairs watching YouTube. What are you doing out?”
“Just going to the store for my mom,” Zoe says. “Want to come out for a bit?”
“I suppose,” Ashley says. Ashley has to be dragged into everything. “Nice duck mask. Is it new?”
“It’s a platypus!” Zoe says. “Now come on. I’ll meet you in the Pork.”
Ashley comes out five minutes later, adjusting her scarf and pulling on her gloves. Zoe waits for her to get within fifty feet and start looking around. That’s when Zoe jumps up from her hiding place behind a bench and throws a snowball right at Ashley’s face. It hits a car fifteen feet away: Zoe is a terrible shot with snowballs. Ashley gives a shout of outrage and dives behind a maple tree to make her own snowball.
Fifteen minutes later, they are hot and covered with snow, although most of that is from slipping and falling rather than getting hit by snowballs. Zoe can’t remember feeling this happy in a long time. She calls truce and they sit on opposite sides of one of the benches, after clearing off the snow.
“Hey, there’s Carter,” Ashley says, pointing to a boy walking along the path, towards his front door. “Let’s give him the one-two. I’ll be two.”
“Fine,” Zoe says. She knows Ashley has better aim with snowballs. She makes a hasty snowball and stands up.
“Hey Carter!” Zoe yells. The boy looks over and Zoe throws a snowball towards him but high in the air. That’s one.
Carter looks up, tracking the path of Zoe’s snowball, so he’s not watching for two, which is when Ashley drills a snowball straight at him. It misses him by a foot and smacks into the side of the condo. The girls collapse into laughter. Carter glowers at them and hurries for his door, but Zoe knows he likes the attention.
“I should get going,” she says. “My mom’s going to wonder where I went.”
“See you,” Ashley says. “I’ll FaceTime you tonight.” The girls wave, and Zoe hurries back to the street.
“I’m back!” Zoe yells as she steps into the front hall of her house. She strips off her mask and throws it in the basket.
“There you are!” her mother says, appearing in the doorway to the kitchen. “I thought you got abducted by aliens. Where are the eggs?”
For the space of three heartbeats, mother and daughter stare at each other as the realization sinks in. “I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” Zoe says, picking up her mask. “I swear.”