Alice woke on Monday convinced the world had exhausted its supply of change. There would be no thaw, no frantic spring robins, no redrawing of the world map. The week stretched out ahead of her in pre-made blocks. She would make the same Tetley's black tea and microwave the same bowl of oatmeal with water. The morning light would filter in, weak and half-steeped. She didn't believe these things; she knew them.
But when she got up, sunshine was dancing on the dirty kitchen floor.
She stepped outside. For three days, Toronto had been frozen solid. Now, she could hear water flowing. On the sidewalk, rivulets ran beneath a skin of ice.
She saw a flash of black, and then another. Tadpoles swam just below the ice, darting between her unbelieving feet.
Alice had stopped believing in the future before the city froze, before the pandemic broke time for everyone. Every weekday, she stared at the same screen and sent the same cynical g-chats to Alex, three chairs away.
Alice and Alex: even their names fit together. They were united in their misery, their love of 3pm Fuzzy Peaches breaks, the way their eyes met in meetings. When one of them had to stay late, they both stayed late. When one of them snuck outside to cry, the other was ready with a tissue and a cigarette.
Little wonder that commiseration over sangria led to a sticky, tentative kiss. Little wonder that they slept better in the same bed.
Then he started to change, and Alice stayed the same. He left for a job with a union, and she abandoned job applications halfway through. "There's more out here," he said. She didn't believe him.
They broke up two months after the offices closed. He didn't have to say it out loud. If he could choose only one person to weather the pandemic with, it couldn't be someone stuck in the same black hole he was trying to escape. He had to put his own mask on first.
Alice tried to treat it like an ordinary work day. She moved her laptop to her bedroom, away from the dancing light. She had seen too many false starts for hope to taste anything but sour. But the words on the screen darted away from her. At two, she gave up and went outside.
The sun was still shining. Beneath the ice, the tadpoles had grown tiny, flailing nubs.
With every breath, Alice tried to fill her body with sunshine. She tried to imagine that her lungs were buckets, or cellars. Someplace she could store something precious.
But she could only hold her breath for so long. She breathed out.
Alice left the company two months after Alex left her, and took a ghostwriting job for an aging actress. She buried herself in the candy-coated details of the woman's life — parties with trapeze artists, gowns embroidered like the milky way, cocktails with tangerine peels — and let her own life wither around her. Her voice grew rust. When she tried to speak, it came out as a croak.
"You can still go on dates," her friends told her. "We're doing everything else on Zoom now anyway."
But solitude was her most trustworthy companion. It kept her warm at night, a bedraggled and suffocating blanket. In her fortress of solitude, she couldn't hurt anybody, and nobody could hurt her.
At five, the sun was still shining. The days were getting an inch longer every day. She had been sitting outside for hours, unable to go back to her life inside.
She heard a splinter. Everywhere, the frogs were pushing their way free. They clambered out of the ice, into the thawing grass.
She sat on the stoop until the sun started to set. She tried to believe there were other people out there who felt as twisted and new as she did, and that someday, she might enjoy their company. Or that someday, solitude might taste like honey. She tried to believe there was a whole procession of her future selves up ahead, each a shape she couldn't see coming.
Tonight the frogs' lungs might turn to popsicles. Their hearts might explode. But for now, she could hear them croaking, calling out for lovers, telling the world they had survived the freeze. She held one hand up to the dying sun. The shadows draped webbing between her fingers. Made something beautiful from her solitary hand.
Pauline Holdsworth is a writer and public radio producer in Toronto, Canada. Her fiction has appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine and The Penn Review, and she attended the 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop.