Grey Hair, Red Foxes, and Blue Cookies
Phoenix watched the students in the recess yard scramble into the stucco building, the shrill sound of the bell announcing the first day of class. He rolled up his Signal Samurai comic and stuck it into his backpack, and held out a hand toward Larry, who was still poking for bugs in the brown grass.
His friend scrunched up his nose. “Man, why do we have to go to school now? It’s still cold out.”
Phoenix rolled his eyes, tired of explaining the new school schedule. “Because we just have to. It’s supposed to help us learn more.”
“But I already know all I need to!” Finally on his feet, Larry followed Phoenix into the building and down the fluorescent-lit hallway. “I can read, I can write, add, and subtract. What else is there to know?”
“But I’m still hung-over from New Year’s!”
That made Phoenix pause. “What? You had alcohol on New Year’s?”
“No, but it’s what my dad kept saying this morning. If he gets to be hung-over, then so do I!” Despite himself, Phoenix giggled as the two of them filed into their room.
Even if Larry could sometimes be a pain, he was glad to have his friend with him in the same class again. Only a dozen or so students milled about inside – which was fortunate, since the room was rather small. Their school had switched to a year-round calendar, and many parents had enrolled their children in other districts because of the change. Even though Phoenix enjoyed school, he was nervous about the new schedule. What would summer vacation be like if it was only a few weeks long?
Their teacher was balancing – rather precariously – on a stool on the other side of the room, stapling grinning cartoon animals to the wall. As he dropped off his backpack in the cubbyhole against the wall, Phoenix glanced at some of his classmates, recognizing a few: Suzanne, who had long dark hair that she always wore with butterfly clips; Cerise, the blonde girl who’d been in the same class with them since first grade; and Liam, who had a perpetual angry frown and a reputation for bullying. Phoenix was okay with the girls, but Liam frightened him. Most of the other kids he didn’t know.
He groaned inside when he realized most of the desks had already been claimed. The only ones left were those near the front of the classroom, and everyone knew those were for suck-ups. Seeing no other options, though, he piled into the empty chair behind a skinny boy in the first row who had strange grey hair.
Larry sprawled out on the desk next to him. “Hey, Nick!”
“Check out his hair!” Larry pointed at the back of the skinny boy’s head. “I thought only old people had grey hair.”
The boy sat up straighter, his shoulders going stiff.
“Larry!” Phoenix smacked his fist into his friend’s shoulder, though not hard enough to really hurt. He jerked his head toward the boy in front, who had frozen in place. When Larry didn’t respond, Phoenix mouthed the word ‘Sorry.’
Larry’s eyes went wide. “Oh! Um, hey.” He tapped the boy in front of them on the shoulder; when he got no response, he tapped harder and faster. “Hey! Uh, what’s your name?”
The boy squirmed away from Larry’s poking finger. “Leave me alone.” His voice sounded wobbly, as though he was trying hard not to be upset.
“Okay, sorry.” Larry shrugged, and leaned back in his seat.
Phoenix frowned and bit his lip. He really didn’t want to make someone hate him or Larry on the first day of school – it’d be a terrible way to start the year. He reached forward and lightly prodded the boy’s back.
“What?!” The boy spun around, voice suddenly high-pitched and angry, and fixed Phoenix with a furious expression. His long grey bangs framed his cheeks, and his face was a faint pink, mirroring the bow tie at his neck.
Most striking was his piercing stare, eyes as grey as his hair. Phoenix felt a jolt spear straight to his heart, blinking quickly as he met that gaze.
“Um, I just wanted to say hi. I’m Phoenix, and that’s Larry, and he’s kind of an idiot–”
“–and I think your hair’s neat.” He waited, twisting his fingers together nervously, but the boy just continued to glare at him. “So, um, what’s your name?”
“…Miles.” The boy turned back around and opened one of their textbooks, pointedly ignoring the two flustered kids behind him.
Phoenix exchanged a glance with Larry, who simply shrugged again. Phoenix leaned back in his seat and listened to the noises of students talking and laughing, letting his mind drift, idly wondering about the prickly new student in front of him.
The teacher, who had finally wrangled the last picture onto the wall, finally turned around to face her students. She tucked a loose strand of hair up into her trim bun. “Okay, settle down, it’s time to get started. My name is Ms. Selaney. Welcome to the fourth grade!”
Phoenix wondered what the new year had in store for him.
“All right, each group will present their report.” Ms. Selaney adjusted her glasses as she glanced at the team roster in front of her. “Team Exploding Blue Badger will go first.” She shook her head as she ushered the members to the front of the classroom, making a face at the violent name they’d selected.
Phoenix, Larry, and Suzanne snickered and stood in front of the workboard, eager to present their project. The first group had to be the best, right? Set the standard for everyone else? Phoenix puffed out his chest, ready to show everyone just how hard he and his friends had worked.
Larry unfurled their poster, which depicted a messy diagram of a badger fighting with a snake. Phoenix had wanted to draw a nicer picture, but Larry had won that argument by insisting his version was cooler. He’d done a lot of the written work instead, and took turns with Suzanne to read off their report about their assigned animal while Larry dramatically pointed out the relevant parts of his picture.
Phoenix watched the other students as Suzanne was speaking. Some of them stared blankly ahead, pretending to listen, but their thoughts were clearly elsewhere. A couple were paying attention – mostly Miles, the grey-haired boy – and one of the other girls kept making funny faces at Larry to make him snort.
Suzanne wrapped up her final part, and the class gave them polite applause. Phoenix and Larry clasped hands with her, and the three of them took a practiced bow.
Ms. Selaney tapped her pen against her clipboard and looked thoughtful.
“That was a good report, but I have some questions. First, you said that badgers are sometimes raised for their pelts. What are the pelts used for?”
Suzanne’s eyes grew wide. She didn’t have the information written down in front of her, and she froze. Larry looked away and waved at Cerise, not even paying attention to their teacher. Phoenix glanced between the two of them and realized he’d have to answer.
“Um…” He wracked his head, trying to remember what he’d read. “They’re used in clothing.” Animal pelts could always be used for clothes, right? He was pretty sure that was true.
“Mm-hmm, and what else?” Clearly, Ms. Selaney wasn’t settling on his bluff.
“Uh…” And suddenly, he remembered. “Shaving brushes!” He blurted out the answer, startling Suzanne, but their teacher gave him a small smile and nodded. He answered the rest of her questions well enough, especially considering that he got no help from his teammates. At last she allowed them to sit down and called on the next group.
“Great job, Nick!” Larry whispered, giving him a thumbs-up as the next team was getting ready.
“Thanks.” He grinned and gave his friend a high-five in return. He felt proud of himself for tackling all the questions. In fact, he thought their presentation had been the best one, just like he’d hoped.
Until the final group.
“Okay, it’s time for our last presentation. Team Fantastic Red Fox, you’re up.” Ms. Selaney brushed her hair out of her face and shifted her position on her stool. Miles and two of their other classmates moved to the front of the room.
As the three students were setting up, Larry tugged at Phoenix’s sleeve. “Nick, check out their poster!” On their board was a neat image of a fox that looked like it belonged in a magazine, surrounded by lots of arrows and explanations. Larry scoffed at it. “I bet one of them just traced it out of a book.”
Only one word could describe the last group’s report: professional. Miles took the lead, presenting their information in elaborate sentences. His other two group mates just stood awkwardly while Miles spoke, unable to add anything to his speech.
Phoenix paid close attention; their presentation was clearly better. Miles was a confident speaker, and a small pang of jealousy settled into the pit of his stomach.
But even more than that, Phoenix was captivated by how well Miles took charge of his group’s report. He wondered what it would be like to have that kind of attention focused on him.
Ms. Selaney looked up from her notes after the class applause settled down. “Excellent report, very thorough.” Miles smirked and straightened his clothes, clearly pleased. “You mentioned the fox was a symbol in a lot of folklore and mythology. Can you give me an example?”
Miles straightened. “Well–”
Ms. Selaney held up her hand and cut him off. “No, I want to hear from the other members of your group.”
Miles made a face and reluctantly turned toward his partners. They whispered loudly and quickly, arguing, until they finally settled on Aesop’s foxes as their answer. Ms. Selaney smiled and wrote down more notes. She wouldn’t let Miles answer any of her questions, which clearly distressed him. When they were dismissed the grey-haired boy sat down in a huff.
Phoenix leaned forward and tapped his shoulder. “Hey, good job.”
“Hmph.” Miles turned slightly to speak with Phoenix. “It would have been better if I had been allowed to answer the questions.”
Phoenix blinked, surprised that he was so bitter over just one part of the report. “Yeah, but everything else was excellent. You did great.” Miles gave him a wary look, as if judging how sincere his words were, and Phoenix gave him a toothy grin and nudged him on the forearm. “Come on, cheer up. It was great, and it’s over now.”
Miles started to frown, glancing down at where Phoenix had touched him, but then met his eyes and stopped. He didn’t smile, not quite, but he looked happier as he turned back toward the front.
“Hey Miles, want some of my cookie?”
The afternoon sun was shining brightly outside, without a cloud in the sky, while parents waited in line to pick up their children. In just a couple short weeks, Phoenix had gotten Miles to open up to him, bit by bit. He knew his father was a defense attorney, and that Miles tried as best as he could in school so that he could be a lawyer one day too.
And sometimes, because he worked so hard, Miles forgot to just be a kid.
Phoenix held out his hand. His enormous chocolate chip cookie nearly tumbled out of his palm, and blue icing slipped across his fingers. His mother had definitely gone overboard with her baking the night before.
Beside him, Miles shifted on the bench and made a suspicious face. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. I just can’t eat it all, and sharing is better than throwing it away, right?” Phoenix waggled the treat under Miles’s nose, trying to entice him.
Miles huffed and folded his arms across his chest. “Then why don’t you give it to Larry?”
“Weeeelllll,” Phoenix said in a sing-song voice, feeling his face heat up. “Larry’s chasing the girls around, and I don’t wanna bother him.” He drew in a deep breath. “A-And besides, I wanna share it with you.”
To his utter astonishment, Miles’s cheeks flushed pink. “Okay. If that’s what you want.”
Phoenix promptly broke the cookie in half, and gave one part to Miles. They ate in silence for a few moments, watching the trees and the birds and the kids disappearing one-by-one from the pick-up area.
With his last bite devoured, Phoenix turned on the bench. “Is your dad gonna pi– hahhhhh!” His question ended in a delighted splutter as he faced Miles.
“Wh-What is it?!” Miles frantically glanced down at himself, brushing his palms across the front of his clothing to wipe away any crumbs.
He pointed at Miles’s lips. “Your mouth! It’s all blue!”
Miles stared at him, expression blank, as though his mind had temporarily shut down. Then, in a high-pitched shriek: “What?!”
Phoenix burst out laughing, nearly doubling over. “It’s the icing! It’s all over your lips and teeth! I bet your tongue is blue too!” Seeing Miles, so straight-laced and serious, with his face all bright blue was the funniest thing he had ever seen in his life.
Miles’s eyes shot wide, and he reflexively pointed right back. “Your mouth is all blue too! S-Stop laughing!”
As he tried to get his giggles under control, Phoenix realized what had happened. This had happened the last time his mother made cookies with icing. He and Larry had ended up with green teeth for the rest of the day.
He drew in a deep breath, his sides aching from laughter, and tried to explain. “It’s the food coloring! My mom used too much.”
Miles ran his fingers over his mouth, examining them afterwards in case the the icing smudged off. It only smeared the coloring across his face even more.
There was something in the way Miles stared at his fingers, his posture stiff. Phoenix couldn’t really identify what it meant, but he knew that every time Miles did that, the other boy grew sad and quiet and withdrew into himself for a while.
Like he was supposed to do something important, and had failed.
On impulse, Phoenix leaned against his friend, letting their shoulders and arms come together. “Hey, it’s pretty funny, right?” When Miles remained still, staring at his shoes, he nudged his friend again. “I mean, I think it’s funny. Wait till your dad sees you!”
Immediately, Miles’s head snapped up, eyes still wide. “I–”
“Miles, are you ready to go?”
A man man wearing a light brown trench coat, glasses, and a cool old hat had stopped in front of their bench. He looked a little like Miles, and in a moment of snap realization, Phoenix knew that this was Mister Edgeworth, Miles’s father: his hero, his icon, the person he looked up to the most in the world, the person he worked so hard for. The person he wanted to be like when he grew up. The one he wanted to impress most.
And their faces were both covered in silly blue food coloring.
Miles automatically turned toward the figure, hands rising to cover his mouth a moment too late.
The man cocked his head to the side a bit. “Miles, what on earth is on your face?”
Ashamed, Miles lowered his hands, but ducked his head down instead.
Mister Edgeworth’s eyebrows shot up, almost to the top of his forehead. “Is that… blue?” He turned his gaze over to Phoenix, and as his eyes roamed over both their faces, his lips twitched up and a twinkle lit his eyes behind his wire frames.
In an instant, the image Miles had painted of his father, the serious, no-nonsense, mythic figure – that picture shattered. Oh no, his friend was dead wrong.
Phoenix proudly set his hands against his waist, sticking his chest out. “It’s food dye! My mom got the cookie icing wrong and now we’ll have blue lips for a while.”
“Is that so?” Mister Edgeworth knelt down, coming to eye-level with the two boys, facing them with a gentle smile. “What’s your name? Were you sharing cookies with my son?”
“Mm-hm. I’m Phoenix. My mom made the icing blue because it’s my favorite color.” Phoenix glanced at his friend, who had slowly lifted his head and was watching the two of them talk with a peculiar expression on his face. He grabbed Miles’s hand, tugging him closer. “But next time I’ll ask her to make icing in your favorite color, Miles.”
Miles stared at his father, and then slowly nodded at Phoenix. “Okay.”
“Well that’s a very kind offer, Mister Phoenix.” Miles’s father held out his palm, and Phoenix squeaked in delight at shaking hands like a real adult. “Though I think the blue suits you both quite well.”
At last, the trance that seemed to have taken over Miles was broken. “N-Nnnnghoh!” He shook his head, bangs shaking wildly while his father and Phoenix laughed. After a moment, Miles allowed a smile to creep across his mouth, his mouth opening and revealing even more blue dye.
Another round of laughter broke out, and this time, three voices joined in.
A few moments later, Mister Edgeworth rose to his feet. “I hope I see you again,” he said, nodding at Phoenix. “It’s nice to see Miles acting his age and having a little fun for once.”
“F-Father!” Miles spluttered. But instead of turning stiff, he simply turned toward Phoenix, and smiled.
No, that wasn’t a smile. That was a full-on grin, all teeth and brightness and joy, and Phoenix felt something warm bloom across his chest in response. Seeing Miles so… so happy, made him feel as light as a feather, as bubbly as a soda. He felt like he could conquer the world, all so he could make his friend smile at him like that again.
“Think of what color you want!” he blurted out, grinning like a mad-man.
Miles grabbed his father’s hand, and the two of them headed toward the school’s gate. Miles paused, and turned and waved back towards Phoenix. This far back, he could just make out his friend’s yell: “Red!”
The next batch of icing ended up staining their lips bright pink, but neither of them minded.