Eric stood blinking in the light of the refrigerator. He’d just returned from his evening flight--his hair was still wet from the rain. He’d dried his face with the sleeve of his sweater. The light coming from the fridge was too bright against the darkness of the kitchen, causing him to squint and his mouth to twist. Before, when he was hungry late at night, he’d turn on the kitchen light before looking in the refrigerator, but that would make his uncle stomp down the stairs and make him go back to his bedroom. Sometimes, he even locked his door.
This happened a few times before Eric realized that, if he didn’t turn on the kitchen light, Uncle Hugo wouldn’t wake up. He reached for the bowl covered in plastic wrap in the back and closed the door. With the bowl clasped in both hands, he shuffled over to the cutlery drawer and got out a spoon. He crept upstairs on light feet up to the attic, pausing once in the hallway to yawn.
There were multicolored lights strung up around the walls of the attic, but their soft glow paled in comparison to the moonlight shining through the window. Eric settled down, arranging his legs in the shape of a “W,” and took the plastic wrap off the bowl. He ate the cottage cheese slowly, rocking back and forth as he brought the spoon up to his mouth. His mind drifted to the events of the day. Milly had wanted him to do things with his hands again. She’d moved her hands and looked at him intently and talked to him, urging him to follow her lead. Eric couldn’t understand why. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for him to move his hands. The more she tried to get him to do it, the more he didn’t want to.
Milly had gotten frustrated with him. Eric realized that, because her voice grew steadily heavy, like every word was a leaking balloon. He didn’t mind—it seemed like Milly was always concerned with something. She was always talking to him when they were together. Sometimes, Eric liked hearing her voice, hearing about her thoughts spoken out loud. It was soothing, like hearing the gentle repetition of rain on a windowpane. But Milly’s words never seemed to repeat; she spoke endlessly, almost stumbling over her words sometimes. She rarely looked at him while she talked, which was encouraging. It meant Eric could look at her without worry of extended eye contact—he could watch her lips move, her eyes dart and her eyelids quiver. He could watch Milly speak all day, even when she was mad about something, which was often. She got mad about things at school, things that were faraway and foreign to Eric—things like homework and the tall girl named Mona with brightly colored eyelids. When Milly talked about those things, Eric listened vaguely, finding pleasure at the rhythm of her words more than anything she actually said. He could work with his hands, folding paper into airplanes or eating lunch, with her voice continuing in the background. It was easy.
At school that day, in the yard with the dead grass that prickled the fabric of his corduroys, she’d talked about her mother a lot. “She wants me to participate more in school,” she explained in a hard tone, looking across the yard. Eric had followed her gaze at first, only to relent when it turned out she was just looking at the people by a building. She always did that. Eric didn’t know why. Those people weren’t doing anything interesting.
“I don’t know why ,” Milly continued. She had abandoned her bagged lunch and was pulling grass up by the handful. Eric watched her. He wondered if this was some sort of game she was playing. He wondered if he should do it, too—it looked sort of satisfying—but, after a bit of internal debate, he decided not to. He was still working on peeling his orange that came with his lunch.
“I mean, aren’t I doing enough? I’m doing everything at home. And it’s not like she’s telling Louis to do any after-school stuff.”
Eric gently picked the orange’s skin and pulled it back, anticipating the reveal of the pale, plump fruit beneath. The sensation of rolling the peel back with his fingernails and hearing the soft slithering noise that came with it made him shiver pleasantly. The repetition was satisfying—peel the orange, pluck the desired slice out from the others, plop it into his mouth, chew, swallow, and repeat. The orange itself was sweet and tangy, electrifying his taste buds in a way that wasn’t unpleasant. He liked oranges better than apples. When Milly discovered his preference, she’d trade the orange in her lunch for the apple in his every time. Eric appreciated this.
It was one of the benefits of having a friend—they were nice to you. They gave you their oranges.
In the attic, Eric finished his cottage cheese and carefully put the empty bowl on the floor. It was a leftover from his after-school snack, which itself was a leftover from the dinner his uncle had made for them the night before. The dinner was SpaghettiOs with slices of hot dog mixed in. Eric had insisted on the cottage cheese by pointing at the plastic container when his uncle had asked what else he’d like from the fridge. His uncle often asked him this sort of thing after he went grocery shopping and didn’t forget to bring home stuff that wasn’t beer. Eric liked this. He liked having choices, even if he couldn’t read what was on the labels.
The cottage cheese container had a smiling cow on it. Eric didn’t particularly like cows, but that label looked more interesting than the ones pasted on the other containers his uncle had on the counter placed before him. When his uncle popped off the plastic lid and spooned the stuff onto a plate—the SpaghettiOs were in a bowl nearby—Eric sniffed it, trying to remember if he’d had cottage cheese before.
“Eat up,” his uncle said, hovering over him. Eric wished he would move. He didn’t feel like being near him; he was tired from school and eager to start flying later that night. All he wanted to do was eat and go up to his bedroom, where he could pretend to fly at his windowsill and breathe in the cool damp air of the evening.
“Come on, Eric. You like cottage cheese, remember?”
Eric tried to concentrate. Had he tasted cottage cheese before, and—if he had—did he like it? He knew from prior experience that he couldn’t trust his uncle to know; he was often asleep or drunk, which made his memory worse than Eric’s. Plus, he lied. He said things like “you need to wear deodorant every day or you’ll smell,” or “I’ll see you in the morning,” after drinking a lot that night and sleeping in the next day.
The white, lumpy appearance of the cottage cheese reminded Eric of food at the institute. He began eating the SpaghettiOs instead. Those were familiar. The sauce always tasted sweet; the hot dog slices always tasted savory. He’d tentatively tried the cottage cheese only after coaxing from Uncle Hugo. He’d liked it. It reminded him of string cheese, which he liked to eat—it was satisfying to peel the cheese into thin, stringy pieces before putting them into his mouth.
Eric left the bowl and spoon on the floor and went to his nest of moth-eaten blankets in the corner of the attic. He slept there often; his bedroom was too open. In the attic, he could be close to his parents, close to their things. He could gaze at their portrait and rock and drift away, then fall asleep comfortably. When he was forced to sleep in his bedroom, it was a lot more difficult. When his uncle occasionally took the time to tuck him in, the covers hugged him too tight. His attic nest, however, was made up of blankets that could be piled on top of himself with reckless abandon. He could fall asleep breathing in the comforting, dusty smell of the wool, surrounded by soft fabric that felt good on his skin.
Eric woke to the sound of birds chirping. He climbed out of his nest and peered out the window. It was early morning; the sky was light gray, the clouds clustering, blotting out the rising sun. The window almost always got stuck, but Eric managed to crack it open with a little muscle—just enough so he could sniff the crisp morning air. He felt a rush of pleasure; the air was so sweet and cold. He could just imagine how nice it would be to fly at this time, to feel the chilly air tousle his hair.
“Eric!” a voice yelled from the floor below. He peered down the ladder leading to the second floor of the house. Down in the hallway stood Milly, dressed in a white button-down shirt, a green sweater, and her beige topcoat over jeans. She looked up at Eric. “What are you doing? Come down, it’s time for school.”
Eric came down. Milly clicked her tongue at his white shirt and pajama pants. “We’re going to be late,” she said, looking disapprovingly at the closed door to his uncle’s bedroom. “Louis is waiting outside. Come on, I’ll help you.”
Eric shook off her attempts to help him dress. It was different with Milly; she wasn’t like his uncle, and he could get dressed by himself, anyway. But, after she offered him a sweater and corduroy pants and he started to take his clothes off, Milly ushered him into the bathroom, blushing. So, he got dressed there instead. Milly waited outside, urging him to hurry the whole time. “Louis is going to think we got sucked into a black hole,” she said, her voice muffled through the door. Eric didn’t much care for Louis. He was always loud and could never seem to sit still. He figured it wouldn’t be too bad for him to wait a little.
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” said Milly from outside the door. Eric paused, considering. His uncle—when he was awake and alert, which wasn’t often—would help him brush his teeth in the morning, raking the toothbrush’s foamy bristles vigorously across his teeth. After, his cheeks hurt from the toothbrush scouring. When he spat multiple times in the sink to get rid of the sharp, acrid taste of the toothpaste, his spit was pinkish-red.
Eric left his toothbrush untouched in its cup.
They departed from their neighborhood in the cold chill of the morning, a spotty brown banana tucked into the pocket of Eric’s jacket. They didn’t bother to say goodbye to Uncle Hugo; when he and Milly cracked the door open and peered into his bedroom, he was passed out cold in his easy chair. Milly held Eric’s hand tightly the whole time they walked to school, forcing him to go faster than he really wanted. Louis was whining to his sister that, by the time they got to his school, the morning would be half over already.
“We’ll just have to deal with it,” said Milly, sounding weary.
“Oh, come on,” Louis whined. “Let’s just skip, play hooky. We could go get a real breakfast!” He pointed at a café across the street as they approached a crosswalk.
Milly punched the button, then turned to follow her brother’s index finger. Eric, standing a few feet away, peered into the sky. It was still gray, but the sun was beginning to break through the clouds. The morning traffic was lessening by now, but it wasn’t nearly as quiet as he would like it to be. He longed to be back in his attic or his bedroom, safe from the noisiness of downtown. He wanted to be where he could listen to the birds chirping and the mid-morning breeze rustling through the trees in peace. The noise of the cars passing by was loud enough for Eric to be irritated, but not enough for him to wish he had his earmuffs. His uncle gave him them to wear during the rare times they went out in busy places, like the mall.
“No,” Milly was saying to Louis. “We can’t.”
“Why not? Come on, I’m hungry!”
“You had Count Chocula!”
“I’m hungry again, and lunch isn’t till twelve!”
“We have to get to school, Louis. You know that.”
Eric gave a start as Milly grabbed his arm and pulled him along as they crossed the street. He tried to pull away, unsure as to why they were walking at such a brisk pace. “Come on, Eric, you gotta walk fast,” Milly said. Eric resisted; he didn’t like to be pulled. Why couldn’t he walk like he wanted to?
“But we’re gonna be late anyway,” Louis loudly pressed, already stepping onto the curb as Milly and Eric struggled their way over. Most of the other people on the crosswalk—including a few female joggers in bright neon and a man wearing a business suit—passed them without looking twice, but a woman walking her Labrador gave a curious glance to Eric’s stiff, slow manner of walking. Milly’s face turned red.
Eric remained stoic. He kept his pace, ignoring Milly. He would make it. He didn’t need her tugging at him all the time.
“I’ve told you,” Milly said to Eric as they stepped onto the sidewalk, sounding exasperated. She was still clutching his arm. “You need to walk fast ‘cause we’re on a crosswalk. The longer we take to cross, the less time we have to get to the sidewalk before the cars are allowed to go again. You don’t want to get run over, do you?”
Eric blinked, noncommittal. He was already moving forward. The faster they got to school, the faster the day would go by, and the faster he could get to fly—really fly, not just spread his arms out and pretend—later that night, when everyone was asleep.
Milly was hanging back, arguing with Louis. Eric considered going without her, but slowed his pace anyway. Milly was his friend. He couldn’t leave her behind.
“...any money, anyway,” she was saying. “Mom only gave me a couple dollars to get cold lunch.”
Louis swung his arms irritably at his sides. “This sucks,” he muttered. “Why can’t Mom get us lunch cards already?”
Eric felt Milly’s hand slip into his. Warmth ran through him like a river drenched in sunlight, so sudden and fizzy he stopped cold. “Mom keeps forgetting, I guess. You’ll have to remind—come on, Eric, walk with a purpose—you’ll have to remind her. But the cold lunch is cheaper. Remember, we had that talk when we first moved in?”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember.”
“Mom says the food quality’s crappy no matter what, anyway."
“Yeah, but at least pizza’s hot,” countered Louis wistfully.
“Yeah...you’re right,” admitted Milly. She sighed.
They walked for a little in silence. Then, Milly started to slow. When Eric looked at her face, he saw her brow was wrinkled. She looked deep in thought. Her mouth was set. When she finally stopped completely, she turned to Louis. “How much do you have, anyway?” she asked.
Eric looked ahead, then back at Milly. He wondered why they weren’t moving. They were usually at school by this time.
Louis’s eyes brightened. “Mom gave me a five, but that’s for the week,” he said as he dug a dollar bill out of his pocket. “Including my allowance for feeding and walking Max.”
“That isn’t much,” Milly replied grimly. She unbuttoned the flap of her messenger bag. “I’ve got a five, but I’ve also got some left over.”
“What’d you do, skip lunch?” Louis sounded incredulous.
“Mom gave me a little extra. I had to buy new pencils from the vending machine,” said Milly delicately, rifling through her bag on her shoulder. “Here it is.” She dropped Eric’s hand in service of counting her change, muttering the numbers under her breath as she calculated.
Eric shuffled his feet, bored. He stared up at the sky. The sunlight was beaming, now, the clouds scuttling by. A breeze still ruffled his hair, but it was getting warm. He shrugged off his jacket, hunching his shoulders awkwardly. It fell to the sidewalk. He wondered if he could come back and get it later, knowing that Milly would chide him for dropping it in the first place. It would be so much easier to do it his way, he thought, staring stonily into space.
“Why doesn’t Mom ever give me extra?” Louis complained.
“Because you’d blow it on candy bars or some other junk. Hey!” Milly swooped down and picked up Eric’s jacket. The banana, jogged by the movement, tumbled to the pavement.
Eric turned around and looked at it. He didn’t even like bananas.
This day was not going well.
“Are you hot or something? You don’t want to forget your jacket." She offered it to him. “Here. Put your arms out.”
He stiffly held out his arms. When Milly took her hands away, the jacket dropped to the pavement again.
Milly looked annoyed. “Come on, Eric. Cooperate with me. You gotta learn to carry your own crap.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know how,” suggested Louis, eyeing the various shops and outlets lining the street.
“Oh, he does,” Milly said. “He’s done it before. He’s just being lazy.” Eric avoided her disapproving gaze, mouth curving into a subtle frown. He didn't like being called "lazy," any more than he liked being called "stupid" by the kids at school. They thought they couldn't hear them, but he could. Those words stung, even when coming from Milly—especially coming from Milly.
Finally, she sighed and said, “Fine. I’ll carry it until we get to a breakfast place.” She made her voice gruff. “But I’ve got my eye on you, bub.” She pointed two fingers at her wide eyes, then steered them around to point at his own. After a pause, she grinned.
Eric blinked at her, almost insulted by her attempt to make amends. If she wanted him to copy her, he definitely wasn’t in the mood. He started to walk again. Louis and Milly followed him.
The spotty banana was left alone on the sidewalk.
It only furthered Eric’s irritation when he tried to go left at the end of the block, only for Milly and Louis to go right. “Come on, Eric, we’re going this way,” said Milly, offering him her hand. He didn’t take it. He trailed behind the two siblings, shoulders just a little more hunched than usual. He knew that this wasn’t the way to go to school. But why had Milly gotten him out of the attic if they weren’t going? Why was Louis with them?
Eric was stumped. All the signs that indicated a routine school day were there. So why was Milly doing things wrong?
“There!” Louis said suddenly, pointing down the street at an unassuming diner with a red awning. “After the shop with the green roof!”
“I guess it looks cheap,” Milly said as they moved closer, shading her eyes from the sunlight. “Hopefully it has air conditioning. Let’s get inside. C’mon, Eric.” She grabbed his hand. Eric breathed heavily through his nose, but allowed himself to be pulled along.
The revolving door making up the entrance to the restaurant made Eric stop immediately. The hairs on his arms stood up. The revolving door moved rapidly when Louis gave it a good hard push. Eric’s eyes tried to follow it, but it moved too fast.
“Let’s go in,” said Milly. Louis leaped into the space separating two doors, soon disappearing inside the diner. The more Milly urged him forward, the more nervous Eric became. He was expected to go through there, he realized, and began to feel pressure. No. He didn’t want to. Milly tried to tug him, but Eric jerked away. This was wrong. He could feel sweat, cold and slimy, on his brow. His heart began to race. His hands began to flap of their own accord.
Eric began to stiffly walk away without really feeling his legs move, heartbeat rapid in his ears. He heard Milly call his name, but he didn’t respond.
He walked around the corner and then stopped. He sat down on the sidewalk, covered his ears, and started to rock back and forth. He craned his head to look up at the sky and tried to think about airplanes, about flying, but the ominous black door still stuck in his mind’s eye. It was a little bit before he realized Milly was crouching next to him, gently trying to get him off the sidewalk.
“Please, Eric,” she pleaded quietly. “People are staring.”
Eric swallowed. His shoes felt rooted to the sidewalk. He turned his head to look at Louis’s dirty sneakers. The murmur of people around them became audible to his ears. After a few more minutes of coaxing, he slowly got to his feet and grabbed Milly’s hand. He wasn't mad at her anymore; all was forgiven. It took too much energy to hold grudges, Eric had learned over the years.
He wished he could tell Milly how he felt. He squeezed her hand tightly.
Milly patted his shoulder. “You’re okay,” she assured him. He looked into her eyes for a moment, wondering how much she understood. He felt a pang of sadness. “We’ll find another diner.”
Louis looked at his sister and shrugged. “Maybe we could go through the back door instead?” he suggested.
Once they snuck in the diner through the back door (unbeknownst to the hostess and few diners remaining after the breakfast rush), Eric made a beeline for a booth in a shady corner that was free of windows. The sunlight bouncing off the steel napkin holders made his eyes hurt and his teeth grind. In the shade, he relaxed his shoulders. Milly slid into the cushioned bench opposite him. Louis followed close behind.
The diner was mostly empty, Eric noted with relief. There was only one person to worry about: the waitress, who came up to them almost instantly. Eric stared at the table, refusing to look at her.
“And can I get a root beer float?” piped in Louis. He glanced at Milly, then back at the waitress. “Two root beer floats?”
“Three, actually,” added Milly, looking at Eric, who was still looking solidly at the table. When the waitress left, she leaned over the table a little. “Hey, don’t be scared. It’s just a diner,” she said, attempting and failing to meet Eric’s eyes. “It’s just like eating at your house. Except better.”
“Hasn’t he been at a restaurant before?” scoffed Louis.
“Hey, he can hear you,” scolded Milly. “And yes, he has. He just...gets overwhelmed.”
Eric looked around. The decor of the restaurant didn’t seem as bright, now. The sun had gone behind a cloud. He looked up from the table at last. The walls were checkered with red and white tiles, and there was a vase of small yellow flowers in the window.
The waitress came by again. Eric stared at the root beer float she placed before him. A sweet light brown foam bobbed above the glass rim. A red straw had been poked into it, spearing the island of white ice-cream below the foam’s surface.
“Thank you, I think we’ll need more time,” Milly said to the waitress, half-apologetic. The woman shrugged and placed her pen behind her ear before leaving again, notepad in hand.
Milly then tented her fingers before her, looking serious. "I'll call the school so they don't call Mom," she said. "I'll tell the secretary that we're sick, and I'll explain that I'm working with Mrs. Sherman—maybe that'll make her believe me. It'll make me seem more trustworthy, like a teacher's aid, maybe."
"Make sure to say that Mom's busy at work," piped in Louis, eyeing his root beer float.
"Of course!" She frowned. "I don't know the number for the elementary school," she admitted. "Maybe the secretary will connect me, or something. I'll be right back...I hope they have a phone here." She stood up and looked around, biting her lip. "Wish me luck, okay?" she asked.
"Good luck!" called Louis after his sister as she left the booth.
A few minutes passed. Louis took his spoon and dug a hole in his ice-cream. He was starting to layer the hole with root beer foam when he spied Eric looking at his work. “Here, you drink it like this,” he explained, mixing the ice-cream into the root beer and then slurping noisily through his straw. He then let out an exaggerated sigh of pleasure, rolling his eyes back in his head. “See?”
Eric tentatively took his spoon and dipped it into the float. He began to stir, watching the ice-cream, soda, and froth blend together. The glass swayed; Milly steadied it with her hand until he finished mixing. He put his lips on the straw and sipped. Eric’s eyes widened. The mixture was sweet and cold and bubbly. It flowed smoothly down his throat. It felt as good as chocolate, but different, all the same.
Milly came back, her cheeks pink and flushed. "I think it worked!" she said triumphantly. "I made sure to lay it on thick, how busy Mom is. And I talked a lot about my work with you—" She nodded at Eric, "—and how good my attendance record is, usually...aside from excused tardies."
"Great!" cried Louis between bites of ice-cream. "Didja call my school?"
"Yeah. Your secretary was a bit harder to convince, but when I told her about Mrs. Sherman and everything, she was a bit easier to handle." Milly grinned brightly at Eric as she slid back into the booth.
“I’m getting the chocolate chip pancakes,” said Louis almost immediately as he opened the menu. “Extra whipped cream.”
“I don’t know,” Milly said, flipping through the menu’s laminated pages. “The blueberry pancakes look good, but two orders of pancakes are kind of expensive. And I kind of wanted to get fries to share—they’d go good with the floats.”
She looked up at Eric, who was steadily drinking his float. He looked back. In the sea of unfamiliarity that was the diner, her blue-green eyes were almost a comfort..for a little while, anyway. Soon, he had to look away again. “Hey, Eric, what do you want to eat? They’ve got pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, yogurt, French toast…” Her eyes scanned the menu. “...and those are only the breakfast foods!”
“He can’t read?” exclaimed Louis, sounding almost offended.
“Shut up,” snapped Milly. “Let me finish. They’ve also got burgers—oh!” She nudged her brother’s shoulder. “Louis, they’ve got kosher hot dogs.”
“Why do you care?" he mumbled. He’d taken a napkin out of the napkin holder and was now shredding it into little pieces, legs bouncing under the table. "We don't even keep kosher."
Eric opened his own menu as Milly continued listing off foods. There were pictures beside some of the items. He leaned in closer to look. There were pictures of French toast drizzled in amber syrup and pancakes topped with soft clouds of whipped cream. What caught his eye, though, was the glossy photo picturing cottage cheese placed beside the centerpiece—a hamburger laden with lettuce and tomato.
Eric turned his menu around and pointed at the picture. Louis tapped Milly on the shoulder, her face still buried in the menu. She looked up at Eric. “You want a hamburger?” she asked.
Eric shook his head and pointed again, feeling a familiar sense of frustration. Milly narrowed her eyes at the picture. “Do you want...uh—”
Louis, sucking at the dregs of his glass through his straw, said, “Look at his finger. He’s pointing at the cottage cheese.”
“Oh.” Milly bit her bottom lip. “Um, maybe we can get that on the side, Eric. What do you want for a meal?”
Eric just blinked at her. He’d told her what he wanted. He didn’t want anything else.
“Maybe you can ask to get cottage cheese for him and fries for you,” said Louis.
“But those are two sides. I kind of wanted a meal,” pointed out Milly.
“Get three things, then. Four, including my pancakes.”
“What if we don’t have enough money for that? We still have to tip, you know.”
“Aw, we’ll be okay.” Louis began twirling his straw in his nearly empty glass. “I want a refill on my root beer float, too.”
Milly scowled. “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one with the money. Fine, then.” She turned her gaze to Eric. Her voice softened. “We’ll share, okay?” she told him. “Fries and cottage cheese.”
Once they ordered their food, Louis and Milly began talking. Eric was content to watch—at the way her lips quirked when she said something she thought would make her brother laugh, at the way she gnawed her bottom lip when she was thinking. Her eyes seemed to flicker between gray, blue, and green depending on where the light was shining. Her hair looked voluminous and curly, unburdened by a hair tie. Eric often fantasized about touching it, but the one time he had tried Milly had scolded him for it. “You can’t just touch someone’s hair without asking,” she’d said.
Soon enough, Milly noticed Eric’s staring. “What are you looking at?” she asked, grinning. She started winking her eyes sporadically and stuck out her tongue. Louis promptly choked on his second root beer float while trying not to laugh. Milly thumped him on the back. Eric felt his lips twitch.
The waitress eventually returned with their food, and the three dug in gratefully. When Eric turned his gaze from his small dish of cottage cheese to the window, he saw the clouds gathering in clusters. Again, the sun was obscured.
Milly saw him looking. She bit off the head of her French fry. “Guess it’s gonna be overcast again today, huh, Eric?” she said.
“He’s not gonna answer you, you know,” said Louis between a mouthful of pancake. Eric reached idly over and stole a fry from Milly’s basket while she turned to glare at her brother. He’d been sneaking them whenever she wasn’t looking—if she saw him try to take one, she’d scold him, most likely.
“Well,” Milly replied, pointedly returning her gaze to the boy across from her, “I think it’s going to get sunny again. Wait and see, Eric.”
Milly played with her hair when she was thinking, Eric noticed. He watched her twirl a curl around her index finger and rub it with the pad of her thumb as she stared at the bill the waitress had placed on their table as she passed. “C’mon, Mil, let’s go,” said Louis, throwing his head back against the booth’s backrest. “We’ve been here for hours.”
“Hold on.” Milly chewed her bottom lip and let go of her hair for a moment. “I’m trying to remember how to calculate the tip.” Again, the strand of golden-brown hair looped around her finger. It reminded Eric of his flying, a little. When he looked across at her, he thought Milly looked calm. Or was she? Other people, Eric had learned over the years, never showed exactly how they were feeling, to his frustration. Maybe Milly was tricking him. He squinted, trying to translate her furrowed brows, the set of her mouth, the look in her eyes, into some recognizable emotion.
“Look,” piped up Louis, “Eric wants to go, too. Just look at his face!”
Milly released her hair for the last time and scribbled something on the bill. “Okay, okay, I think I got it. I hope this is right.” She pushed the crumpled dollars and coins into the bill holder, then snapped it shut. “Let’s go.”
The air was crisper when they went out than when they went in. The breeze blew coldly against Eric’s cheeks. He looked at the sky as Milly took his hand, deaf to her pleas for him to walk a little faster. Eric figured he could go as slow or fast as he wanted—it’s not like they had to be anywhere.
“So,” said Louis, skipping a few steps ahead of Eric and Milly on the sidewalk, “What do we do now?”
Milly’s tone was wry. “What, I get no thanks for treating you to an early lunch?”
“Okay, thanks, whatever. But seriously.” He rounded back over to them, looking up at his sister with imploring eyes. “We’re not going to school, are we?”
Milly stopped on the sidewalk, which made Eric stop, too. He started a little when her hand slipped into his, warm and soft. She gave a sigh, then said to Louis hovering nearby, “I don’t know. I don’t really want to go, either. But I have to turn in this homework thing later. My grade’s low enough as it is.”
She squeezed Eric’s hand tight. He stiffened in recognition—he’d done that same thing the first time she came into the attic, when he’d shown her the portrait of his parents.
Milly was feeling sad.
“I can’t really blow it off,” she continued, grimacing. “Mom would kill me if I failed freshman algebra. Plus, with my other classes...oy.” She sighed.
Eric squeezed her hand in return. Her fingers were still slightly oily from the French fries.
“But...I want to go home,” admitted Milly quietly.
Louis perked up and clasped his hands in front of him. “Please, please,” he begged.
Not long after, Milly took Eric and her brother home. “Screw algebra,” she muttered while rummaging in one of the pockets in her messenger bag for her house key. Eric turned his head to look at the crow ruffle his feathers on a nearby lamppost and raised his arms. The old excitement was running through him again, sending energy through him like inner electricity.
“There wouldn’t be any point in me turning in that homework, anyway, I failed that last test and my grade’s sunk to a D,” Milly continued to grumble as she walked in the door. “Screw Mrs. Stevens. I don’t think I could see her today even if I went to my other class periods.” She skillfully avoided being crowded out of the doorway by Louis’s jabbing elbows as he bolted to greet Max. “She never grades on a curve, even though she said she would in the class syll—Eric?”
Eric was staring at the crow. It was just sitting there, pushing its black beak into its feathers. When it finally stirred its wings and took off into the cold, gray air, he followed it with his eyes, face upturned. He recognized the way the bird took off; it filled him with excitement to see it leave the ground, to wing through the sky. By the time it disappeared over the rooftops of the houses across the street, he could hear Milly urging him to come inside.
Milly’s house smelled different from his own. Eric paused to inhale as he shuffled over the threshold. He could detect the ever-present cent of the hardwood floor, and the mothbally old smell of the carpet in the living room. When he meandered into the kitchen, he could smell the sweet scent of lemon dish soap coming from the sink. Two bowls of light brown milk and floating cereal bits sat in there. There was a brown box on the kitchen table with a cartoon vampire on it.
“Yeah,” observed Milly, who’d followed him into the kitchen. “We had Count Chocula for breakfast. It’s Louis’s favorite.” Eric wandered over to the cereal box and peered inside.
Milly took his hand again, trying to catch his eye, but he refused to look at her. Why, he wondered, did everybody want him to look into their eyes all the time when they spoke to him?
“Hey,” she asked. “Look at me. C’mon, you can do it.”
Eric stared firmly at his sneakers instead. It didn’t seem fair that he had to work when Milly and Louis were skipping school, too.
After a pause, Milly relented and asked, “You want to come watch TV with me?”
Eric thought a minute, letting his gaze idle on his shoelaces. His uncle tied them for him sometimes on the days when he woke up on time for school, which was rarely. During the times when his uncle was sleeping or drunk or out buying things, Eric just slipped them off and on without disturbing the shoelace knots. It was easier that way. Sometimes, when his shoelaces came untied at school, Mrs. Sherman did them instead. She would always try to teach him to tie them himself, which was irritating. Eric didn’t see why he should learn. Also, his hands wouldn’t move the right way—they were stiff and slow, and the way she explained her actions were confusing.
Milly occasionally tied his shoes for him, too. She tried to teach him even more insistently than Mrs. Sherman. “See, you make a loop—that’s the bunny ear—and then the other one goes around it...then you pull it through,” Milly would explain as Eric watched her moving hands. “Now you try.”
When he would take up the shoelaces, he was always at a loss. What did she mean by talking about bunny ears? There wasn’t any bunny nearby—and he couldn’t remember any of the movements she just showed him. It always ended with Eric dropping the shoelaces, straightening up, and looking at Milly, hoping she would cave in and tie his shoes for him. She always did.
Eric’s mind was always itching to go back to the sky, to the airplanes and birds and butterflies he had on his bedroom wall. Those were things he liked, things he knew. But it seemed like Milly and Mrs. Sherman were always trying to get him to do difficult things that made no sense.
“Eric?” Milly prodded. Her penny loafers inched closer to his sneakers. He looked up, carefully angling his gaze just beyond her left cheekbone. “Do you want to watch TV?”
Eric dipped his spoon in his Count Chocula and stirred it in a slow circle, watching the cereal bob in the undulating sea of milk. He clutched the bowl tightly, like Milly instructed. He sat in a “W” position on the couch until she told him to scooch over. Then, he folded his legs beneath him; Milly rescued his bowl from his jostling. Together, they crunched Count Chocula while she flicked through television channels.
Eric had seen commercials for Count Chocula before. Television was a constant at the Gibb house, especially when he was young. There was even a small one in his uncle’s bedroom, so he could watch when he was drunk. Eric vividly remembered “W”-sitting on the floor, mere feet in front of the television in the living room, rocking from side to side and staring at the screen for hours, while his uncle drank upstairs. TV was Eric’s only respite from the solid, silent gloom of the house. With the television on, he could safely get lost in his own head; no one would bother him.
“They’re making a new Twilight Zone, did you know that?” Milly asked. She got off the couch and went into the kitchen with their empty bowls in hand. Eric heard the clink and scrape of ceramic bowls and the sound of water running. “It’s airing soon, on the twenty-seventh. I’m so excited. Dad used to tell me about the original all the time. It was airing when he was a kid, but now you can only catch it on New Year’s Eve on the ScyFy Network.”
She whistled a little tune, one Eric didn’t recognize, as she came back over to the couch. “They even got Harlan Ellison, I heard. And he hates TV!”
Milly flopped down on the couch with a sigh. Her hair fell over her shoulders in wild curls, a halo of frizz emanating off the top of her head. She looked over at Eric, her blue-green eyes shining. Sitcom laughter piped from the television.
“I’m so glad we skipped school,” she admitted, her cheeks flushed. She grabbed one of the throw pillows and squeezed it to her chest, then looked at her watch. “Can you believe it? If we were in school right now, we’d be passing a ball back and forth in phys ed, bored out of our minds.” She paused. “I don’t think I could take it, honestly. All of it’s just so...I don’t know...boring, I guess. And stressful. But it can never be just one or the other, you know? It always has to be some weird mix of both.”
Eric looked at her.
“Yeah,” said Milly, shooting him a small, tentative smile. “You get it.”
After a little while of staring at the television, she sat up suddenly. Eric heard it just as she did, and did the same. “Huh. Hear that?” she said. “It’s raining.”
The late morning bled into early afternoon. Outside was cold and damp, the streets slick with rain, but inside, Eric was dry. His body was cushioned by the soft couch, and Milly by his side. Her hand was warm in his. Her index finger gently rubbed his knuckles in soothing, repetitive strokes. The slackening of her hand made him glance over to see that her eyes were mostly closed. Her mouth was faintly ajar as she sank deeper into the couch. When she breathed, it was soft and slow and even. She was asleep.
Eric slowly lowered his head into the crook of her neck, not wanting to disturb her. He’d never been so close to someone before, not since his mother, way back when all he could remember was the warmth of her body and the disorienting lights of their house. When he lay so close to her, he didn’t feel overwhelmed. He didn’t itch when her knees pressed against his, or cringe at the sensation of her hair mingling with his own. It didn’t feel good, but it didn’t feel bad, either.
He wanted to be near her more than anyone he’d ever known. Milly could irritate him sometimes—her voice could occasionally grate in his ears in the school gymnasium, where voices bounced and echoed—she could be bossy and snippy and steer him places he didn’t want to go to for reasons she refused to explain—she wouldn’t leave him alone at school and was always trying to get his attention—but she was so nice to be around, too. She was pretty and gentle. She was interested in the things he liked, airplanes and birds and flying things. She didn’t try to push his hands down to his sides when he flapped, like some nurses at the institute did. She read to him and ate with him, spent time with him even though she didn’t have to. She didn’t shoo him from her windowsill like Dinky Patterson. She talked to him often, and he liked hearing her, even if he couldn’t always relate to what she was saying.
In the short time Eric had known her, Milly had become as constant and immovable a presence as Mrs. Sherman or the institute, but warmer than that. Bigger. She was someone he loved to see. She was someone who made him feel heard, even though he didn’t speak.
She was his friend. His best friend.
Eric relaxed and closed his eyes.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad to skip school after all.