Milly began folding clothes on Sunday at three. She’d thrown two loads in the wash on Saturday and then promptly forgotten about them while watching daytime TV with her mother. Now, Charlene was at the local library. She’d told Milly and Louis that she wanted to work in some “computer time” before Monday, kissed them goodbye, and left before Milly was done clearing the breakfast dishes.
Milly left the television on as she folded. It made the chore seem less lonely. Louis was out in the driveway, playing with his G.I. Joes, Max at his side. Before, when her dad was around, Milly liked being home while her family was away. It gave her a break from her mom and Louis, back when she took the time to nag and he wasn’t too moody to bug her. Now, it seemed the solitude she’d once enjoyed had turned to loneliness, the kind that crept into her heart like poison until someone came along and broke the spell.
The TV was showing a commercial for car insurance. Milly folded one of her mom’s turtlenecks and one of her own button-ups. Now it was an ad for vacuum cleaners. She folded three pairs of jeans and one pair of khakis—all of them hers—then, two T-shirts of Louis’s. An ad for New Coke. Milly knew all about New Coke, because they had a pack chilling in the fridge. The first few weeks of school, she drank a can while toughing out homework in her room after Louis and her mom were asleep; the caffeine and sugar kept her from falling asleep on her algebra.
The telephone rang, breaking Milly out of her idle thoughts. She rushed towards the kitchen, hoping it wasn’t a telemarketer. “Hey!” said a voice, a little loudly, when Milly picked up the receiver. “Milly? I mean, Mrs. Michaelson?”
“No, it’s me,” said Milly. She smiled. “Hi, Geneva.”
“Milly! Great! I was hoping you were home. I was wondering, are you busy? I know you’re usually doing chores, or hanging around with Eric—“
“No,” said Milly, fingering the phone’s cord and staring at a chip in the tile of the kitchen wall. “Eric’s at the dentist today.” She’d woken up first thing to see if she could work with him that day. When she’d knocked on his door, she’d been surprised to see Hugo Gibb promptly open it. Usually, the door was unlocked, and if it wasn’t, no one would answer—the knocking had been purely customary. Eric’s uncle was in his ratty wife-beater and jeans as always, but for the first time since Milly had first stumbled upon him on the staircase about month and a half ago, he looked sober. And smelled like he’d put on deodorant, something spicy and clean.
“Sorry, Milly. Can’t come over today. Eric’s going to see Dr. Veck,” he’d said immediately, avoiding her gaze and blinking in the early morning light. “Ten o’clock, on the dot.” He scratched his head, his tall frame bent to accommodate the doorway.
“But it’s only eight,” said Milly. She wondered if he was drunk after all.
Hugo looked discomfited. “Yeah, well. We get there early. It’s better for him that way. Eric doesn’t like having his teeth cleaned. The earlier we get there, the more time the dentist has to strap him down.”
Milly remembered how her cheeks began to burn when she heard him say that. “Did you try explaining to him why people were poking around in his mouth?” she asked. The words were strong and righteous in her head, but ended up sounding timid when they actually left her lips.
Uncle Hugo heaved a sigh, one that seemed to issue from deep in his chest. “If he does okay with the cleaning, it’s the putting in the fillings that drives him nuts. Doctors knock him out with laughing gas. Insurance covers it, but…” He stared moodily off into the distance for a moment, then remembered himself. “Well, best get to it,” he muttered, as if wanting to end the conversation as soon as possible. “Bye, Milly.” Uncle Hugo closed the door before she could say a word.
“The dentist? Hoo, boy.” Geneva’s wry tone brought Milly back to the present. “Your boyfriend’s gonna be doped up for the rest of the day, then.”
Milly’s face warmed. “Don’t call him that. You sound like the kids at Taft.”
“You’re practically glued to the hip. Kids are gonna talk.”
“I wish they wouldn’t.” Milly remembered walking down the hall with Eric before third period phys ed—how kids would turn and look at them. As if it was okay to gawk at Eric and her just because Eric didn’t seem to care, or even notice. More than that, she remembered Eric, as he sometimes did, slipping his hand—which was always slightly, pleasantly damp—into hers and squeezing hard. It was, she figured, more of a reflex than anything—Eric liked pressurized touch, she just happened to be there, et cetera—but, even though the squeeze hurt a bit, Milly couldn’t help but feel a little pleased.
She didn’t think Eric squeezed Mrs. Sherman’s hand that way.
“Anyway,” barreled on Geneva, “I called ‘cause I wanted to know if you’d like to go shopping tonight. You’ve been to the mall, right?”
“The mall?” Milly repeated. She was mystified. Geneva assumed she’d already been to something like the mall? When she spent her days stewing over a pot of overcooked spaghetti and wearing clothes that were nothing like the ones Taft High trendsetters Mona, Colette, and Erin wore? “Um, no, I haven’t been.”
“You’re crazy,” said Geneva, simply. “Jesus. You sure you’re not like Eric?”
Something soured in the pit of Milly’s stomach. “Ha, ha,” she said, with unconvincing dryness.
“The mall’s great. There’s an arcade, the food’s cheap, and the clothes are amazing.”
“I remember you telling me about it when I first moved in.”
“So why the hell haven’t you been? Come on, you have to come tonight! It’ll be fun, I promise.”
“Last time you said that, I got a huge hangover. And I was grounded for two weeks.” Milly didn’t mention that being grounded wasn’t much worse than her regular routine. The only change was that there was no TV.
Geneva paused. “I’m really sorry,” she admitted—sounding sincere, to Milly’s surprise. “Honestly, I didn’t mean to let you get that drunk. I lost track of time. It was a real amateur mistake, I’m usually more careful.”
Milly’s face grew warm. “It’s okay,” she said. “No big deal.”
“I mean, we should enjoy high school while we can, right?”
“So. Are you coming?”
Milly’s mind raced. She thought about the money she had stuffed in her wallet—only five or six dollars, possibly seven. She could ask her mom, but then turned away the idea. They were strapped for cash as it was without her asking for more. She had the last hundred dollar bill of her bat mitzvah money, saved for a special occasion….
“I’m here. I’ll go, but I might not buy anything.”
“Fine. We’ll share nachos at the food court, okay? My treat.”
Milly smiled. Sometimes Geneva got on her nerves, but she could be pretty generous, too.
The Huntsfield mall, Geneva informed her as Mrs. Goodman drove them in her blue Ford Escort, was built about five years ago. “Everyone was going crazy about it,” Geneva said, waving her hands for emphasis. “Before, there was only this big lot with weeds and stuff. I wasn’t allowed to go there on account of the junkies.”
“That’s right,” chirped Mrs. Goodman from the driver’s seat.
“But it’s all good now!” added Geneva, seeing Milly’s expression. “No more junkies.” She grinned. Milly smiled back.
Mrs. Goodman sped away, leaving the two girls standing on the curb in the early evening humidity. “Does your hair get frizzy in the heat?” Geneva asked, patting her dark brown ponytail conspicuously. “I wish I had curls like yours. Mom won't let me get anything done, but I've been thinking of getting mine feathered.”
“Yeah,” Milly admitted as they walked into the mall. The air conditioning was on full blast—the cool wind hit their faces as they entered. Geneva breathed a sigh of relief. “It can be a hassle, but I usually just put it in a ponytail and it’s fine.” She looked at the stores around her with cautious interest.
Geneva spied her looking. “Let’s go here first,” she said, grabbing Milly’s wrist and pulling her into a nearby clothing store. “They’ve got cute stuff.”
Milly mostly loitered around while Geneva searched expertly through the racks of hangers, pulling out a bunch of brightly colored tops and slinging them over her arm three at a time. She could hear the faint strains of a synthesizer piping in over the intercom. A pop song, one that played on the radio often. She listened idly, swaying back and forth, and thought of Eric. He crept into her thoughts frequently. She wondered if he was doing okay—the Gibbs’ beat-up old jalopy hadn’t returned by the time Mrs. Goodman had picked her up at six. Maybe he and Uncle Hugo had gone out shopping afterwards, gotten ice-cream or something—made a day of it. In the back of her mind, though, Milly couldn’t help but think of Eric strapped to a dentist’s chair, knocked out of his mind by novocain, too doped up to be scared.
“You okay?” Geneva asked, startling Milly out of her thoughts. “You look sad all of a sudden. You didn’t find anything?”
“Oh! Yeah, I’m fine.” Milly tucked a golden-brown curl behind her ear, self-conscious. “Just thinking.”
Geneva looked concerned. “Well, as long as you’re alright. Here, I’ll cheer you up. Try this on.” She held out a ruffled navy blue blouse, gingerly due to the weight of all the other tops she had in her arms. “I think it’s too small for me, but it’ll be perfect for you.”
“Oh, Geneva, I—” Milly looked at the top. It looked a little frilly for her taste. Then, she looked at Geneva. Her big eyes were pleading, and she’d pooched out her bottom lip.
“Okay,” Milly relented, smiling despite herself. It’d been awhile since anyone had wanted her to try on clothes with them. “But I don’t usually go for this sort of thing.”
“What, clothes?” Geneva weaved in and out of racks toward the changing rooms.
Milly tilted her head as she followed Geneva, trying to think of a better way to explain herself. “They're not super interesting, I guess.”
Geneva was unperturbed. “Okay, if you don’t like clothes, then what do you like? Music?”
Milly smiled. She was reminded of her father, who was the biggest music buff she knew. He could talk about Bruce Springsteen like some dads could talk about cars. He’d first introduced her to “Wuthering Heights” back when she was seven or eight. “I like Kate Bush.”
“Now we’re talking!” Geneva began to sing in an exaggerated vibrato. “And if I only could, I’d make a deal with God….” She stopped. “What else?” They’d arrived at the changing rooms. “Tell me after,” said Geneva, pushing the blue top into Milly’s arms.
Milly turned this way and that in the mirror. The blouse was too tight in the chest and stomach, flaring out awkwardly at the hem. The color was nice, she thought, but the frills were too much. It itched, too. She took it off. Geneva was chattering about some kid at St. Monica’s, voice drifting from the changing room next to her, but Milly had tuned her out once she realized she wasn’t going to wait for a proper response. Milly folded the blouse and put it on a nearby stool.
She remembered folding the laundry in front of the TV that afternoon, hearing Louis from outside, knowing her mother was hard at work. Standing in that changing room, hearing Geneva’s words but not responding, folding a blouse that didn’t fit properly, felt the same as doing laundry had. A vague, lonely feeling. Like something was off, but no one wanted to say.
Milly wanted to go home. She wanted to see Eric. Quietly, she exited the changing room and looked at the clock on the wall. It was only six-forty. “How was the blouse?” asked Geneva, voice ringing. The acoustics in the changing rooms were sharp.
“It wasn’t for me,” said Milly politely. “Thanks, though.” She sat down on the empty bench. There wasn’t a lot of people at the Huntsfield mall Sunday evenings. It made roaming the stores seem both thrilling and lonely.
Unwittingly, her thoughts turned to school. It was Sunday night. She still had math homework to do. Milly suppressed a sigh. She was already hovering at a C-minus in algebra after spending nights writing in her journal about Eric’s progress instead of doing her assignments. Milly, after putting away her untouched Algebra I textbook back into her black book bag, would always feel guilty. But, she reasoned, wasn’t Eric more important? Who could solve for X by combining like terms when there were important breakthroughs to make regarding his development? They were friends, after all. Didn’t Milly owe it to Eric to make him a priority?
Geneva came out from her changing room, breathless. “Okay, out of all the crap I tried on, only these fit.” She gestured to a fuzzy olive-green sweater, a pink peasant blouse, and a collared shirt patterned with pastel flowers. Milly nodded her approval. Geneva rolled her eyes. “Sometimes I’m a medium, sometimes...okay, usually...I’m a large. Still, every shirt’s sized different, it drives me crazy.”
“They’re cute,” Milly offered.
“Maybe I’ll let you borrow them. Just don’t stretch them out!” Geneva giggled at her own joke. After a minute, Milly did the same. Her sadness lifted, a great squatting bird taking off from its perch in her chest.
“What time does your mom want you home again?” Geneva asked, licking bright yellow nacho cheese from her index finger.
Milly swallowed before answering. “Eight.” She reached for another corn chip.
“Crap.” Geneva looked at her watch. “It’s seven-fifteen. Mom said she’d come at seven-thirty. I was hoping maybe I could ask to stay longer.”
“You don’t have homework to do?” Milly tried not to sound as doubtful as she felt. Geneva didn’t strike her as the egghead type.
“Oh, no,” she said, “I did it all on Friday.” She paused. “Well, I left the English to Saturday. That’s the subject I’m worse in. Why, do you?”
She didn’t sound judgemental at all in her inquiry, but Milly’s face grew warm regardless. “Well, I did it all,” she lied, “I just think it’s better to go over stuff twice.”
Geneva nodded knowingly. “You sound exactly like my friend Rani. She does the same thing, but that’s because her parents are super strict.” She ate another chip, chewed thoughtfully, then added, “They’re Indian, so they want her to succeed in America.”
Milly was looking at an ad plastered across the wall opposite their table. It starred a model with a blonde perm and bold dark eyeshadow. The model’s smile, as square and white as if she had a mouthful of Chiclets, made her think of Eric at the dentist again. She was itching to see him. Sometimes, with Geneva, she felt even lonelier than she did when she was actually alone. With Eric, sometimes that loneliness was sharper and sadder—but the security and warmth of being with him when he responded to her was that much greater, too.
“Thank you for driving, Mrs. Goodman,” said Milly as she stepped down from the Ford Escort and onto the Goodmans’ driveway. “And thanks, Geneva, for inviting me.”
“No problem,” Geneva said, eyes sparkling with the satisfaction of an evening well spent, her shopping bag sitting securely at her feet. “Next time, I’ll have to get you to actually buy something.”
Milly smiled briefly. “Sure.” She began her walk homeward down the sidewalk with one last wave. Almost instantly, she could hear Geneva and her mom begin a conversation as they left their car and stood in the driveway. It had a half-snippy, half-joking air that reverberated through the neighborhood, quiet and sleepy at almost nine p.m. Milly wondered if her own mother was asleep, or bent over her computer books.
Milly stopped upon reaching the Gibbs’ house. She saw the light glowing from Eric’s window. He was on his windowsill, arms spread, eyes fixed on some point beyond what she could see. Her heart lifted. He was alright.
“Hey, Mil,” said Louis when she entered the house. He was sitting at the kitchen table, gnawing on a piece of licorice. Milly shook her head upon seeing Max begging, eyes big and brown and sweet, with his head on Louis’s lap.
“Hey, kid. Where’s Mom?” Milly fished out her wallet from the back pocket of her jeans—any purses she’d previously owned had been untouched birthday presents from well-meaning aunts and her insistent bubbe—and put it on the table.
“In her room.” Louis began untwisting the remaining stick of licorice, studying it carefully. “Reading about computer junk.”
“Did you finish your homework?” Milly’s grades might be falling a bit, but at least she was unfailing in her good behavior. Louis couldn’t count on even that.
“Yeah, yeah.” Louis rolled his eyes. “You shoulda seen it, Mil. Eric and his crazy uncle came home while you were gone. He went nuclear.”
Milly’s stomach dropped. “Who?”
“Uncle Hugo. He was trying to get Eric into the house, I saw it from the driveway,” continued Louis offhandedly. “He was practically wrestling him. Uncle Hugo’s tall, but I guess Eric’s pretty strong. He was tearing across the street and holding his arms out like an airplane. Uncle Hugo was yelling like crazy, telling him to go home. But he didn’t want to go. Uncle Hugo finally caught him up by the armpits and took him inside. He was pissed.”
Milly crossed her arms across her chest. “That’s awful,” she said.
Louis shrugged. “That whole family’s got a screw loose.” He stuck the last piece of licorice into his mouth. “Mom wanted me to let you know she did the dishes.”
Milly lay on her bed, looking up at the ceiling. Dinky Patterson had left six green glow-in-the-dark stars gummed up there before he’d moved to Atlanta. They shone faintly in the dim light of her room. It was ten-thirty. Her parakeet was asleep, cage draped over with a yellow baby blanket Milly hadn't had the heart to get rid of in the move. She’d turned off the overhead light in favor of her desk lamp, which illuminated her red school binder, full of ominous homework assignments she knew she didn’t have the courage to crack at this hour, New Coke be damned.
Eric was gone from his room. He’d left before she’d gotten to her bedroom. His curtains were still undulating in the warm night breeze.
Milly closed her eyes. She was still in her clothes.