Eric knew what people thought of him. They weren’t subtle with their whispers or sneering. He knew they thought he was stupid, weird, different. They didn’t matter, though, and so neither did their opinions. Eric didn’t have any interest in trying to be like them. He didn’t care what they thought of him. Why should he?
Then Milly Michaelson moved in next door. Eric noticed that, too, but didn’t pay it any mind. The feeling of the breeze beneath his arms, that slight start of weightlessness when the wind blew strong, was so much more important than new faces. She and her family would be just like all the others, Eric was sure, and the thought of it didn’t bother him one bit. He wasn’t lonely, building a life that built up walls between himself and other people; he was free.
Society had so many rules, ridiculous, nonsense rules. Eric didn’t understand why everyone else seemed to think they were so important. He didn’t see why he should go to school every day, but Mrs. Sherman was nice and the people from the state would take him if he didn’t, so he went anyway. He sat in the back of the class and folded his paper airplanes. They wouldn’t let him sit on the windowsills so his feet could dangle, and he could feel the air against his face. If he couldn’t fly, at least the little airplanes could.
He hadn’t noticed Milly was in his class until she climbed the bleachers to sit with him during gym class. He liked sitting so high up, being able to look down on the rest of the students as they played. The height settled something inside of him. Milly spoke to him gently, which was nice, even when he didn’t respond to her. Most people didn’t have that kind of patience. Her voice, too, was soothing. Eric liked her voice.
He started paying more attention after that, though only a bit. Milly wasn’t like the others. She was kind and caring, even when she got frustrated. Eric decided he liked her fair, too. It was frizzy and puffed out around her head, almost like a cloud she carried around with her. She wasn’t free like a cloud, though, or like Eric. She was tied to those same rules that everyone else was. Eric could see how hard she tried to fit in. He didn’t understand why. Still, he enjoyed watching her, against all odds. He wouldn’t mind doing it more often.
He mimicked her, that day in the hallway, just to see what it might be like. It was the first time he’d ever considered that there could be something more to the dull lives the people around him seemed to live. He wanted to try it, even if just for a few minutes. He was curious. It was disappointing when Mrs. Sherman called Milly away and wouldn’t let Eric join them in the classroom. That was alright, though. Eric could wait – and he did, nose pressed up to the door so he could feel the way his breaths puffed out. It blew off the door and wafted back against his cheeks pleasantly, creating a breeze where none existed.
After that, Milly started spending more time with him, and that was nice, too. She seemed determined to get him to act like everyone else, which wasn’t so nice, so Eric chose to ignore that in favor of mimicking her instead. He had no interest in everyone else. They were boring, pointless. If he was going to be like someone, he’d rather be like Milly. The more time they spent together, the more her natural energy shone through. She always seemed to try to be so proper, which Eric didn’t at all understand. He liked it when she got frustrated. She would get these splotches of red high on her cheeks and let slip a little of that proper veneer.
Milly didn’t become anything more than a passing interest in Eric’s life until the day she tried to fold an airplane. She was horrible at it and clearly had no idea what she was doing, but she tried. She was trying to be like Eric, instead of the other way around. No one had ever tried to be like him before. It was the first time it occurred to Eric that perhaps he didn’t have to become like her. Perhaps, instead, she would want to become like him. Not all the way, of course. Eric knew he was something unique, but perhaps partway.
It was thrilling, after that, to see the activities Milly brought for them to do. He hadn’t realized that she’d been watching him as much as he’d been watching her. He hadn’t realized how much she saw. Flight was in everything they did now, and Eric reveled in it. There were books and movies and all sorts of things he’d never considered before. It was surprising, how the joy of flying could be captured even without doing it. It was fascinating. He’d never expected such a thing from people who lived such confined lives.
It was then that his view of Milly began shifting. He’d never felt the urge to connect with someone else quite the way he did with her. Perhaps that was people no one had ever paid him as much attention as she did. No one had ever taken such an interest in doing things that would appeal to him rather than things that would make him more like everyone else. Milly didn’t try to constrict or confine him. She let him be free, just showed him that there were things on the ground worth his attention, too.
“Come on, Eric! We’ve got to get there soon or we’ll be standing in line forever!”
Milly tugged at his arm, urging him faster, and Eric dutifully picked up his gate to follow after her. He didn’t know what she had planned for them, but he was sure he’d enjoy it. He enjoyed everything when Milly was with him. If nothing else, he could ignore whatever was going on to just watch her. Milly was more than interesting enough just being herself.
His sneakers clop, clop, clopped against the sidewalk with every step until they rounded the corner of the block and Milly finally slowed. She grinned back at him, even while panting for breath.
“Well? What do you think?”
She swept one hand out to indicate the building behind her, beaming with pride. Eric stared up at the building, trying to figure out what about it had made her so happy. It was a tall building, with a decorative exterior. Lights glinted in the dimming light of evening and black tile words stood out starkly against a large white block background. He knew the building well, though he’d never been there. The town’s theater was far too crowded and noisy a place for him to normally enjoy it.
He looked back at Milly, brow furrowed and frowning, doing his best to convey his confusion without words. Milly gave an amused huff of air and rolled her eyes, understanding him as always.
“Look,” she said, pointing at the black letters. “Look, Eric.”
Except she didn’t want him to look. She wanted him to read. Eric concentrated on the letters. His reading had improved since Milly’s change in subject matter, but it still wasn’t great. Most of the time, Eric couldn’t be bothered to put in the effort. He did now, though. It was difficult because there were an awful lot of words up there. He squinted hard, trying to make sense of them all.
His eyes lit up when the letters finally formed into a comprehensible word. He looked at Milly again, a smile tugging at the edges of his lips. She grinned back.
“That’s right. It’s been out for a few years now, but they’re running it again. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines! It came out in 1965, I think, so neither of us was even born yet. This will be the first time for us both.”
Satisfied that he understood the gravity of the activity, she began pulling him forward once again. They joined the ticket line and Eric stood by, just watching her as she continued to enthuse about the movie.
“It’s about the invention of flying or something. And there’s a race involved! The paper said it was a comedy.”
That was good. Milly always looked freest when she was laughing. She didn’t do it nearly enough – too serious, too proper all the time. The flying was a bonus, for sure, but Eric would wait until he saw it to judge. For now, he could enjoy the excitement in Milly’s voice at the prospect of sharing something new with him, something they could both enjoy.
Milly paid the $7 bill for their tickets and Eric shuffled after her through the doors and into the theater proper. More people were starting to show up now, and he could feel the crowd of people around them like a buzz just beneath his skin. He kept his head down, eyes on the floor, hunching his shoulders and squeezing his arms in tight against his body to avoid brushing up against anyone. It wasn’t as busy as it might be on a Friday or Saturday night, but it was more people than Eric wanted to be around. He would have been more than happy to head right into the theater and take their seats, but Milly had other ideas. She headed for the concessions stand instead.
“You can’t go to the movies and not get popcorn!”
Eric wouldn’t know, seeing as he’d never been to a movie before. He’d just have to take her word for it. That was alright, though. He took Milly’s work on a lot of things. She was more plugged into the world around them than he was. He waited patiently behind her in line, shuffling awkwardly whenever someone moved too close and hovering as she placed her order. His attention wandered, captured by the glinting lights and flashing colors of the décor until Milly started shoving things into his arms and he was brought back to the present. He stared down at the boxes of candy and the drink now in his grasp, not understanding.
“Don’t tell my mom we’re having this much sugar,” Milly warned with a serious expression before breaking into a smile and leading the way toward the theater with popcorn and her own drink in hand. “You’re getting the full experience tonight.”
Eric followed after her once again, standing quietly by as she handed over their tickets to be checked and then led the way to their seats. She was very methodical about choosing, walking up the stairs and checking the aisles and then trying different chairs before settling in one in the exact middle. A small smile tugged at Eric’s lips as he watched her. Her brain worked in such funny ways. He settled into the seat beside her, pleased to find that they were at the perfect height to see the screen comfortably. He copied Milly’s motion of putting her drink into the little, circular holder at the end of the seat’s armrest, pleased with her choice.
Milly got the bucket of popcorn situated on her lap and then reached for the candy Eric was holding.
“Alright, we’ve got M&Ms, Sour Patch Kids, and Sugar Babies,” she explained, ripping open the packages with undeniable glee. “I bet you haven’t had a lot of candy with your uncle, huh? Here, try one of these.”
She held one of the bags out in clear invitation and Eric hesitated only a moment before reaching in and pulling out a small, yellow, oval sphere with an ‘m’ stamped on it. He looked back at Milly, waiting for instructions.
“Go on,” she urged. “Eat it.”
She pulled out a few for herself and Eric waited for her to pop them in her mouth before eating his own. The surface was smooth and hard but broke open easily when he bit down, releasing an explosion of sweet chocolate. It reminded Eric of the chocolate bars Mrs. Sherman would give him on occasion.
“Good, right? Now this one.”
The second box she held out contained larger bits of brown candy and Eric ate it without needing to be instructed when Milly did so as well. This time, the chocolate flavor hit his tongue right away before he started chewing and hit the tacky caramel toffee. His eyes lit up with pleasure as he chewed, enjoying the new flavor and sensation. The caramel pulled at his teeth but softened the more he chewed. He’d never had anything quite like it. He reached for another one, but Milly pulled the box out of his reach.
“Not yet!” she scolded teasingly, already shuffling things around so the third box was presented to him. “You’ve still got one last thing to try.”
This time, Eric didn’t wait for Milly to try the goodie first before popping it into his mouth, wanting to get it over and done with so that he could get back to the caramel one. The moment the colorful gummy hit his tongue, his mouth puckered. His nose wrinkled at the sour flavor, like sucking on a lemon, and he spat the candy out onto the floor. Milly choked on a laugh as he turned an accusing look her way.
“Eric!” she cried, part horrified and part amused. “Why would you do that? You can’t just-“ but she didn’t expound on what he ‘couldn’t just’, instead, pulling out a tissue and passing the popcorn and candies to him so she could bend down and retrieve the spat out candy. “Okay, so you don’t like the Sour Patch Kids. That’s okay. More for me, then.”
She took the popcorn and candy back from him.
“So, I’ll leave those out, and… Tada!”
She upended the boxes of M&Ms and Sugarbabies into the popcorn bucket, shaking it gently so they would settle in.
“There! Now we can have our sweet and salty all together.”
She picked up a handful and shoved it in her mouth, grinning the whole time. When Eric didn’t immediately move to copy her, she shook the bucket at him. With her mouth stuffed so full she could hardly chew, Eric supposed that was her way of telling him to try it for himself. Dutifully, he reached into the bucket to grab as much as his hand could hold. The butter and salt smeared across his palm and pieces dropped and scattered as he lifted it to cram the handful into his mouth. Popcorn and candy rained down his cheeks as it overflowed and Milly’s eyes bugged as she watched him, clapping both hands over her mouth to keep from spraying her own mouthful across the two of them.
Eric chewed, enjoying the ways the flavors mixed and blended together. Milly managed to finish her mouthful first, however and burst out laughing as soon as she did.
“I can’t believe you did that!” she cried, continuing to laugh as the theater lights dimmed and an image flicked to life on the screen. “You don’t have to take so much at once!”
Eric turned his head to follow the beam of light back to the projector pointed out of a cutout in the rear wall. What he could make out of it in the darkened room looked like a larger version of the one Milly had at her house, the one she’d recently started to show him old film reels on. Eric wondered if they’d be able to take a look at it. He’d be curious to see if it worked the same way as Milly’s did, too.
“These are just the commercials,” Milly informed him as he turned back to look at the screen again. “They’ll run for a little bit before the movie starts, but they don’t really matter.”
That was certainly very true. None of them interested Eric overmuch. Not a single one of them had anything to do with flying. Instead, he kept an eye on Milly as she watched them. As she lifted her cup for a sip, he did the same. He recognized the burst of flavor and fizz immediately from the soda he’d had several times now at Milly’s house. That soda had been in a can, though. He set it aside in favor of returning to the popcorn and candy mixture, this time taking a slightly smaller amount before shoving it into his mouth.
“Much better!” Milly praised, popping a few of the sour candies that Eric hadn’t at all liked. “Oh, look! It’s starting!”
The lights dimmed further, the images on the screen brightening. Jaunty piano music swelled to fill the theater as the screen displayed a large, towering logo with the number twenty at the top and floodlights swooping back and forth – though, it was gone before Eric had the chance to read the rest of what the logo way. In its place was a man, quite hairy and with a club over one shoulder, staring up at the birds in the sky. As they watched, the man dropped his club and began moving his arms in imitation of the birds, a broad grin on his face.
“Ever since man started to think,” a deep voice spoke over the music, “he’s wanted to fly… but flying was strictly for the birds.”
Eric watched the screen with rapt attention every moment that the movie ran, not moving to stand even when the lights came back on and Milly did so. She nudged his ankle with her foot to get his attention since her hands were full of the half-eaten tub of popcorn and her soda.
“Come on, then. The movie’s over. They’re not going to play it again.”
Reluctantly, Eric stood to follow, glancing backward several times on the way out just to be sure. By the time they were out of the theater and his attention was back on Milly, she was grinning into the popcorn. Since they had thrown their drinks out inside, she had freed up one hand to continue her snacking.
“So, you liked it, then?”
Eric gave her a small smile, just enough to indicate his agreement. The movie had been wonderful. There had been so many different types of planes that the men had flown in for the race; it had been really exciting to see them all. In all honesty, he would have loved to be able to watch the movie again, but Milly had already said the theater wouldn’t be showing it but the once. Maybe they could find it somewhere else, though. Milly had gotten some of the film reels they’d watched before from the library.
“Good!” Milly continued, oblivious to the way Eric’s thoughts were running. “I hoped you would! I have to say, though, I wasn’t expecting it to be so romantic.”
Milly liked romantic things; Eric had noticed. He’d never had much of a reason to notice whether things were romantic or not, but Milly talked about it enough that he’d started to get the hang of what it all meant. For a long time, he’d struggled to understand why those things might be appealing. He could recognize a romantic gesture when he saw one on the television or heard about when in a book Milly was reading to him, but he didn’t know why anyone would care.
Looking at Milly’s smile now, as she continued to talk about the movie and which parts she’d liked best – as well as which parts she thought he probably liked best – Eric thought he might finally understand.
Romantic gestures were about connecting with the people you cared about. They were a way of showing how well you knew the person and how you would go out of your way to do something for them. It was an opportunity to see them smile or laugh, to watch the way their entire face lit up. Eric felt like he could watch Milly for hours. He had, in fact. It never got old. Perhaps that was what those other people were trying to do – give themselves an opportunity to watch.
Of course, Eric had never really thought of his feelings toward Milly as romantic before. He didn’t view the world from that context. Romance had never been a part of his life. He’d been too young when his parents had died for him to remember much of how they’d acted together, knowing about them mostly through the old photos in the attic, and his uncle had never had someone in his life. Eric hadn’t missed having that as an aspect of his life – hadn’t even noticed its absence – but now he couldn’t help but think about what it might be like to have it.
Would Milly trust him enough to take his hand and fly? He knew he was a project to her, but no one had ever gone to such lengths to connect with him before. Whatever Milly’s initial motivation, there was more between them than that now. He just wasn’t sure what it was. He didn’t know enough about how people – other people, normal people – interacted to be able to tell.
He didn’t feel about Milly the way he felt about his parents, with wistful nostalgia edged by pain and loss. He didn’t feel about her the way he felt about his uncle or Mrs. Sherman, accepting their attention when it was given but knowing it would drift away again. He certainly didn’t feel about her the same way he felt about everyone else. Eric’s feelings for Milly were far from indifference.
It was possible that she was a friend. Eric had never had a friend before, so, once again, he had nothing to compare it to, but he thought they did the things that friends might do. They didn’t act like siblings; Milly was far less patient with her little brother than she was with Eric. Friendship definitely seemed more likely than that, but how could Eric tell whether or not friendship gave way to romance? The people in the movies he and Milly watched always seemed so sure. Perhaps the fact that he wasn’t sure was a sign that there was no romance between them. Then again, the woman in the movie they’d just watched hadn’t been sure at first either. Maybe it was just something that needed time.
“Oh! Here, you’ve got to take this,” Milly said as they came to their houses. “My mom can’t see me come through the door with it for she’ll know in an instant how much sugar we had. I’m really glad you liked the movie, Eric. See you tomorrow!”
Eric waited on the lawn of his uncle’s house as Milly headed next door to her own, following her with his eyes until she was all the way inside. Then his gaze drifted upwards toward her bedroom window. She’d spend a while downstairs talking to her mom before heading up, he was sure. There would be time.
Eric sat on his windowsill, feet dangling and arms held out a bit from his sides to feel the breeze when Milly finally came upstairs. He noticed when the lights to her bedroom turned on but didn’t look away from the sky until she called to him.
“Eric! How did you even get this up here?” she asked incredulously, even known he wouldn’t give her a verbal response.
Slowly, he turned his head to look at her. The light from her room spilled out all around her, perfectly highlighting her frame and the popcorn bucket she’d just picked up from the sill. Instead of answering, Eric just gave a small smile in answer to the huge grin stretched across her face.