As Cold As

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Elizabeth Whitehouse lives in a white house. She sees me, but I don't notice her—not until I pick up the straw broom with the blue handle and sweep away the dusting of snow my shovel has left behind. Then, out of my peripheral vision, I see the door whine open and a gray smudge emerge from the white house. She's blurry, everything is blurry—the house, the windows, the porch railing. But my hands aren't blurry. Or the broom. Or the ice under my feet.

     She walks slowly and carries a canvas tote bag. I don't watch her journey from the door, down the blanketed slope of lawn, and to the wooden bench parked at the edge of the pond. One minute she's hidden inside the white house, and the next minute she's taking a seat on the bench. She doesn't talk to me. I wonder if she knows my name. Or if I'm just 'the boy who shovels the ice rink.'

     I don't look up until I'm done sweeping. The broom goes into the closest snowbank, handle-first. Next to the shovel, face-first. I step off the frozen pond and wait beside the bench. Elizabeth reaches into her coat pocket and takes out two five dollar bills, folded in half. She hands them to me without looking up.

     "Thank you."

     As usual, that's all she says. Never smiling, just looking straight ahead at the cleared ice on the pond. Her eyes are the same color—like a cold ocean. I catch glimpses of her face when I know she won't notice. Pale skin. Thin eyelashes.

     "Yeah, sure. No problem." I say. "I guess I'll come back when it snows. If you want me to."

     "Yes. Thank you."

     Elizabeth never gets on the ice—never even ties up her skates—until I'm gone. She just sits there next to the canvas bag and looks out at the pond, as if deciding whether or not I did a ten dollar job. I tuck the money into my pocket and walk home, down the same road I took to get there.

     The sky looks like snow. I'll be back tomorrow, after school.

• • •

Smoke exhales from the stone chimney when I look up at the white house the next day. I'm in the driveway, where her dad's truck left tracks of churned up dirt from that morning. It's the only proof that she has a father. I've never seen him. Or his truck.

     I make the first set of footprints in the snow. It's stickier, today. Heavier. Hard to push around. A fifteen dollar job. But I do it for ten. I pull the shovel out of its mold in the bank, dropping it to the ice. Clearing a path to the other end of the rink. Most of it collects around the edges and falls away. I add to the opposite snow bank. I pull my hat farther down over my ears.

     Elizabeth's room is on the front corner of the house. She has two windows, one facing west and one facing north. I can tell it's her room because there's always a golden smudge of light playing at the glass panes. Sometimes there's a shadow, too. Her.

     I don't see the door open today. Instead Elizabeth just appears at the bench behind me, like a ghost—her small footprints in the snow being the only evidence that she isn't one. I'm at the other end of the rink, but I can make out her face. If I squint.

     "Sorry," I shrug slightly, letting the shovel smack the thick ice again, "it's not done yet."

     She doesn't look up. Or smile. She just stares at the snowbank in front of her. "I know."

     I wish I could tell what she's thinking. Her voice isn't something I can read. It's like she doesn't have any emotions at all—everything is just cold. Like the wind that combs through the wiry dead cherry trees surrounding the pond. Like the ice. I keep shoveling.

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