Two empty beer bottles were still standing on the stairwell when Eric got home from Milly’s house. He passed them without more than a mild look. His uncle was probably asleep, either in the easy chair in the living room or in his bedroom. That was the way Eric liked it. It always unnerved him to come home and see his uncle awake, mostly because he was always trying to get Eric to do something he hated, like take a bath or brush his teeth or turn his shirt around because the tag was in the front instead of in the back.
Eric didn’t see the point. Whenever he endured the sharp, needling sting of the water on his spine and the shivering nakedness afterward, it was only a few days before his uncle demanded that he do it all over again. Eric hid when this happened, sometimes, biding time in the downstairs closet or under his bed before Uncle Hugo inevitably found him. Sometimes Eric would fight him—scratching his arms with his overgrown fingernails, biting, kicking. When he was younger, this wouldn’t work, and Uncle Hugo would pick him up and bring him screaming and sobbing, spit slipping down his chin, into the tub anyway.
Now, Eric was too big to pick up. It was one of the few non-flying-related points of satisfaction in his life.
He made his way upstairs, arms fluttering at his sides. The night before, the wind had been damp, and the roofs had been slick. He’d almost slipped while trying to land on a chimney to rest. It scared him, caused his heart to jackhammer in his chest, but it was exciting, too. After he’d lost his footing, his jacket had billowed out, catching a gust of wind. He’d soared into the night sky so high he could almost touch the stars. The frigid air turned his nose wet and pink; condensation formed on his eyelashes when he soared high among the clouds and ran down his freezing cheeks when he glided low.
Eric longed to do that again. Just the thought made his breathing short. He started to run, bounding up the stairs towards the safety of his bedroom, hardly seeing anything else. He was just passing his uncle’s room when he tripped. The floor came up too suddenly, and suddenly he was lying sprawled out in the hallway. Pain shot through Eric’s cheek, aching dully in his legs; he lay there for a few moments, breathing hard, stunned.
Something moved in his uncle’s doorway, now in the vicinity of his ankles. “Eric?” came a bleary voice. “That you?”
Eric got to his feet slowly, blinking. He started shuffling towards his room again, nostrils flaring. “Woah, wait a minute, boy.” Eric felt a familiar hand land on his shoulder. “Wait.” Uncle Hugo’s voice was slightly slurred. His posture was hunched over in a way eerily similar to his nephew’s. He turned Eric around so that they were facing each other. Eric dropped his head, looking at the floor. When he attempted to turn away, his uncle just turned him back. “Are you alright?” Uncle Hugo bent down to look at his nephew’s face. When his finger touched his cheek, Eric jerked away. It stung. Tears sprung to his eyes.
“You’re alright,” Uncle Hugo murmured. “Just a little cut. Must’ve hurt yourself on the way down.” He shook his head, looking at his nephew with rheumy eyes. “I’m sorry, kid. I guess I missed the bed again, huh?”
Eric just looked at the floor, rocking on his heels. Frustration began to rise in his throat, thick and tangible as phlegm. His uncle was gripping him too tight, and his cheek burned with a faint pain. A clear spike of dread and anger shot through him as his uncle began maneuvering him back toward the stairs. Eric attempted to dig his shoes into the floor, refusing to move, but Uncle Hugo was bigger and stronger. Eric bared his teeth, frustration only mounting as his uncle forced him to march down the stairs and into the bathroom.
It took only a second for Eric to recoil from the wet cotton swab his uncle was attempting to wipe his cheek with. The sharp smell stung his nostrils, filling his head with memories of plastic sheets fitted over cots and the repetitive thock sound of a tennis ball against the wall. Eric jerked away, grabbing the bathroom doorknob and jiggling it desperately. He could barely hear what his uncle was trying to tell him as he grabbed his arms. “It’s okay, Eric, calm down...it’s just a little iodine to help the cut….”
Eric squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his cheek hard against the door, fear making his heart pound. The cotton dabbed at his cheek. Eric bared his teeth at the pain, making a noise deep in his throat.
“There,” said Uncle Hugo finally, releasing him. He rubbed the bridge of his long nose with the palm of his hand, dropping the cotton swab in the trash. “Isn’t that better.”
Eric’s face crumpled. It hurt. The cotton had only made the sting worse. He slumped to the ground, hand pressed against his cheek.
“Now, come on, Eric,” his uncle said. “It’s not that bad.” He took his nephew by the arm and raised him to his feet, almost gentle. “Let’s get something to eat, huh?”
They ate an early dinner in silence. Uncle Hugo bent over his serving of canned stew, pausing intermittently to take deep swallows from a fresh bottle of beer. Eric ate only a little. The lingering smell of the cotton swab made him too nauseous to eat. It reminded him of too many things.
“Not hungry?” his uncle asked gruffly, lowering the beer bottle from his mouth. Eric stared at the sliver of wet green vegetable hanging off his chin. “I don’t have to feed you, do I?”
Eric remembered being fed by the institute staff during his long stay there, the nurses slipping spoonfuls of rich medicinal syrup into his mouth in between regular meals of bite-sized pieces of breaded chicken and baby corn. The medicine made him sleepy, caused him to drop off into thick, drugged naps lasting from morning until night, waking with sticky eyelids and a dry mouth. As the days went by, the institute itself seemed to shrink to a cage of clinical white walls and tile floors. After a time, Eric began to wake from his sleeping spells in a fetal position, skin shivering with sweat. That wasn’t even accounting for the constant fending off of the parade of nurses and doctors all wanting to look at him. It didn’t help to fight. Once he scratched and screamed and kicked and bit, the straitjacket would come out.
Eric wanted to cry, remembering. Instead, he pushed a spoonful of stew between his lips, rocking to and fro in his seat.
The moment Eric finished eating, he went upstairs, leaving his uncle without ceremony. His uncle, deep into the bottle again, didn’t try talking to him again. Eric went to his windowsill, setting his shoes firmly on the shingles of the roof. He shifted his body this way and that, getting comfortable, and spread his arms. As he began to sway, a sense of calm dropped over him like a veil. His shoulders relaxed. Any thoughts of the institute drifted out of his mind. There was only the open sky, the clouds frothy as the cream Mrs. Sherman stirred into her coffee on cold mornings in the teachers’ lounge. A slight fall breeze ruffled his hair—maybe it would rain again tonight. Eric closed his eyes, hoping.
That evening, Eric found his way to the attic. Staying by the window, near the darkening sky, made him too excited about going for a real flight, but it was too early for that. He had to wait until everyone was asleep. Eric ran his hands over the dusty things that had been there forever: the snow globe whose base was lined with words he couldn’t read, the heavy patchwork quilt dappled with exotic elephants and birds and fruits, the chest full of his parents’ old clothes. There were boxes upon boxes of things sitting in the attic, growing mildewy and yellow as the years rolled on.
Eric looked into the narrow passage where the clutter was thickest, past the cobwebbed wooden vanity that stood opposite to the one window. He’d found a model airplane kit tucked away in there once. It had been years ago. His uncle, with clear eyes and sure hands, helped him put the airplane together in his uncle’s bedroom.
It was because he had fallen out of the window, Eric remembered. His fingers flicked the air in front of him, agitated. He sat in the alcove with his back pressed up against the wall, resting his head against the faded curls of wallpaper and rocking from side to side. He closed his eyes.
The green glass of the bottle was pretty, flashing in the sun. He drank, holding the bottle with two hands, until the room began to spin. The drink was acrid. It left a warm burning in his chest, but he liked it. He’d shambled around his uncle’s unmade bed, going to the nearest window he could find. He ached to see the blue sky. The alcohol made his body suffocatingly warm. He needed fresh air. Eric stumbled to the windowsill, sat down and spread his arms, swaying more clumsily due to the effects of the drink. Suddenly, he tipped too far out into the cool, wonderful air. Fear spiked his heart like a bolt of lightning.
Down he dropped out of the window of his uncle’s bedroom.
His reflexes were too slow. His arms shot out, but he could only manage a clumsy glide, spasming awkwardly in midair. He fell the rest of the way down.
In the present, surrounded by the darkness of the alcove, Eric moved his tongue around in his mouth, as if trying to taste the long-gone alcohol. In those first few weeks following the accident, his uncle had paid attention to him. He’d asked his nephew what he wanted to do during the day and didn’t leave him to eat stale slices of bread or chocolate for dinner. He never steered him places or picked him up, either. It was as if his uncle thought Eric would break if he handled him too roughly. As if he were made of glass.
The bed was made and there weren’t any beer bottles. His uncle guided Eric’s fingers, making him slide the balsa wood wings into its slots, hot glue blooming from the gun in his uncle’s other hand.
“Maybe I’ll get you a nice new one for Hanukkah,” his uncle suggested as he coated another slot in hot glue. He took Eric’s hand and eased another wooden piece into its proper place. Inwardly, Eric thrilled at the sight of the half-constructed airplane. It was all coming together. Soon, it'd be ready for takeoff. “Would you like that, Eric?”
Eric didn’t know what Hanukkah was.
That night, as his uncle tucked him into bed, he stroked his nephew’s forehead with his long-fingered hand. His light touch made Eric’s skin buzz uncomfortably. He shivered, grabbing his uncle’s hand and pushing it away.
Uncle Hugo withdrew with a sigh. Eric watched the light from his lamp reflect in his uncle’s wet eyes. “It’s a miracle,” he told him quietly. “A goddamn miracle you survived.” He rested his hand on Eric’s bed, squeezing a handful of his coverlet. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you, too.”
Eric sat on the floor in the alcove. The darkness seemed to press in on him, and not in a comforting way. He stared listlessly at the wall opposite him.
He’d never gotten another airplane kit. His uncle had gone back to drinking not long after he’d gotten the gauze off his arm.
Eric looked at the stuff surrounding him, baubles and furniture and broken chair legs. Maybe there could be another airplane kit hidden somewhere. He began searching, pawing through bundles of knick-knacks while crawling on his hands and knees.
Eventually, he found something.
It was tucked away in a corner with an old pair of Donald Duck pajamas and a porcelain cookie jar that was cracked down the middle. It wasn’t a model airplane kit—it was a thick dark book propped up against the side of a wardrobe. Eric took it in his arms and placed it on the dusty wooden floor. Maybe this book had pictures he could look at.
The book had words inscribed on it in big, curly script:
SARAH MATILDA NUSSBAUM, 1949-1964
The words winked golden, catching the light. Eric stroked the letters, tilting the book to watch them shine. Then, folding his legs beneath him, he opened the book.
Eric felt a wave of gratification to see that this book was full of pictures. First, there were pages of black-and-white photographs of an infant. Sometimes it was in a white nightie, or in a checkered dress, or in a sailor cap. As Eric flipped through, the photos of the baby gave way to pictures of a toddler with wispy white-blonde hair, her legs rigid in metal braces. Then—now the pictures were in faded color—a child on roller skates with her hair pinned back in barrettes, legs frail and crooked but free of braces. Another of the same little girl at a shop counter, peering over the rim of a chunky blue glass of milkshake. Her eyes were half-lidded and satisfied as her lips perched on a striped straw.
Eric studied the pictures closely. There was something familiar about the girl. As he paged through the photos, touching ones he especially liked with his fingers, she grew closer. It was as if every time he touched her photos, she touched his memory right back.
The girl grew taller and ganglier, her face longer, her hair darkening to a golden color. Suddenly, a name popped into Eric’s mind: Milly. His heart skipped a beat. He stared at her anew, squinting. His index finger tenderly stroked a photo of the girl in a pink party dress. Milly, Milly, Milly, his thoughts seemed to sing.
Then, he reached the last page of the book and froze. It was the last photograph of the album. The girl was only half-turned to the camera, her eyes glaring and sulky, crooked legs bent in an awkward way. It made Eric realize that the girl didn’t look much like Milly at all. No, the downturned mouth, the shape of her eyes….
Eric held his breath. He drew his finger down the last photo, tracing the outline of the girl’s face, mesmerized. He knew this face. He’d seen her when she was smiling and older, when her hair was even blonder. He’d seen her in a portrait he loved like the rooftops of the neighborhood, like the stars in the night sky.
Eric’s heart began to ache. He leaned so close to the photo that his eyelashes brushed its smooth surface. He stared at the picture of his mother for a long while, rocking gently back and forth. Something big and precious was turning over in his chest.
When he opened his eyes again, rain was hitting the windowpane. Eric swiveled his head to look at the source of the sound, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He then turned back to the photo album, still open to the final page. Carefully, he pried the last photo of his mother from its spot on the page. When he turned the unstuck photograph over, there was a cramped inscription written in smeary blue ink:
My little stoneface. Summer ‘64.
Eric’s eyes ran over the words, uncomprehending.
He held the photo close to his chest as he went over to the window, pressing his nose to the rainy pane.
Eric ran to his bedroom, attic dust settling in his hair. He paused upon hearing the television blaring from his bedroom, peering around the doorframe. His uncle was sleeping in his easy chair, bathed in the artificial blue glow of the television, clutching an empty bottle in his hand. He was snoring.
Upon entering his room, Eric walked over to his bed and slipped the photograph under his pillow. He was gentle, making sure that the weight of his pillow didn’t crease it. Then, he stepped up onto the rain-slicked windowsill, being careful not to slip. The wind ruffled his hair, sharp and damp and cold. He leaned forward, turning his face to the sky, blinking as cool droplets clung to his eyelashes and slipped down the bridge of his nose. The stars were hidden by fog, but Eric could still see them if he squinted.
He spread his arms wide, closed his eyes, and started to fly.