Milly spent the last days of November in her room. She didn’t want to hear the stupid reporters outside, didn’t want to hear her mother hollering at them to go away. She didn’t want to see Eric’s uncle Hugo being swarmed as he went out for groceries. She had seen too much of all that—enough to make her stomach hurt—and it had only been a week since Eric left.
She kept her window closed in the daytime, not caring if it got stuffy. She often sat on her sill, looked out to see the lonely curtains wafting in Eric’s window, and drew. She drew in the same notebook that had captured all her dialogues to herself about Eric’s progress, about the highs and lows of their time together. She drew in the empty space below her entries—mostly birds with spread wings and bright dewdrop eyes. She took care with the flight feathers, especially, making them long and curved and graceful.
Milly kept her pencil on her paper and her notebook on her drawn-up knees, focusing on nothing else but the drawing. She didn’t allow the crisp fall breeze tugging at her shirt and hair to distract her, nor the sad emptiness of Eric’s bedroom across the way. Once she looked, and that was it—no more glances at his window. No more indulging her heart, which felt more like a waterlogged ball of tissue, heavy and wet, than it ever had.
For the month following Eric’s flight into the bright blue sky, Milly’s mother allowed her to take time off school. Milly suspected that she had talked with Dr. Granata before they left the hospital. That would explain her mom’s recent behavior—she gently accepted the fact that Milly hadn’t vacuumed, made dinner, or done anything useful since the day of the fair. She couldn’t even cry. The tears wouldn’t come, just like at her father’s funeral, just like when sitting shiva for him.
The days off from school stretched on endlessly. Milly spent most of her time lying on the couch with her face buried in a pillow, keeping her eyes half-open to feign interest in the daytime soaps she flicked through. Eric’s journal was always kept close—it was the only thing she had of him, aside from the ring nestled on her finger.
Most of the time, when Charlene got home from work, she picked up something on the way. Most of the time, it was burgers or Chinese. One night, though, she came home and woke her daughter from her nap with a stroke of her hair and a kiss on her brow. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” she said with a gentle smile.
Milly didn’t allow herself to hope it had anything to do with Eric returning.
She was right. The surprise was the matzo ball bobbing in a bowl of golden chicken broth and minced vegetables.
“The matzo balls were from scratch,” her mother proclaimed proudly. “With everything going on lately...well. I figured you might want some comfort food. Good comfort food, not just burgers and fries, I mean.” Milly brought the spoon to her lips, feeling her mother’s anxious eyes on her.
She swallowed the chicken soup. The warm, savory taste stirred up memories of childhood colds and her father’s supposedly cure-all foot rubs, which always turned into tickles halfway through.
“Thanks, Mom,” she said honestly. “It’s delicious.”
Her mother’s eyes lit up. “Try the matzo ball. I’ll go get your brother.” She slipped on her loafers and shrugged on her cardigan before making her way to the front door. Ever since Louis had bested Sonny Goodman and his gang, he’d spent all his time on his Big Wheel, riding all around the neighborhood. He didn’t even spend that much time on his beloved graveyard anymore.
At night, Milly dreamed of flying with Eric by her side. She dreamed of the glimmer in his eyes, the flush in his cheeks. She dreamed of the warmth of his hand in hers, holding her tight, keeping her from falling into the abyss of the open sky. The stars watched as they flew together to parts unknown. In her dreams, Milly always knew where they were flying to. In the morning, though, she could never remember.
She kept the window open and her covers snug to ward off the chill. Despite her mother’s chiding, she didn’t dare close it. Sometimes she dreamed that Eric returned and found his room empty; if he did come back, he needed to know there was still something to come home to. There was still her.
Even the most desperate tabloid reporters eventually tired of “the Eric Gibb story.” There were newer strange phenomena to report, and all their potential leads—Eric, his uncle, the Michaelsons—had either disappeared or clammed up. Various claims of fraud, fakery and pseudoscience popped up the moment the first news report aired on television; for every onlooker expressing their shock at seeing a boy and girl flying through the sky, there was some skeptic claiming that heatstroke and dehydration had caused the fair-goers to hallucinate.
To Milly, the reporters leaving meant going back to school. She didn’t care that people didn’t believe she and Eric really flew that day—she was all for furthering the disbelief, since it would protect him from scientific analysis and potential dissection in case he ever returned—but the thought of returning to a ho-hum existence after everything unbearable.
“Please,” she begged her mother, cheek pressed to the couch’s scratchy cushion, “Just one more week. I’m still healing.”
“I know it’s hard, sweetie,” Charlene said, bending over her daughter with gentle concern. Milly once would’ve enjoyed the doting, when her mother seemed concerned with nothing but her work and making sure Louis had his homework done. Now, though, Milly just found her overbearing. “But life goes on. You need to get back to normal. It hurts seeing you just lying on the couch when I get home. It’s not healthy.”
“I don’t care. I’m failing all my classes anyway.”
“For your sake, that better not be true.” Her mom’s eyes glimmered with humor. Milly just looked miserably at the ring on her finger, rubbing the silver band with her thumb. Paired with the Magen David necklace her father had gotten her, it seemed she was drowning in jewelry from lost loved ones.
School had always been a chore, but now, as Milly walked the halls with her textbook clasped to her chest and her bag weighing on her shoulder, stiffly ignoring the students calling her name and attempting to interrogate her about what happened at the fair, it seemed that much lonelier. She found it difficult to concentrate; she drew during class, ignoring her teachers’ lectures. Their words went in one ear and out the other. Nothing got through. Mrs. Sherman’s eyes were always kind, but even she took notice when Milly stopped turning in her English homework.
“Do you think Eric would want you to be so glum?” she gently pressed.
Milly looked at the door, eager to get out into the hall and blend into the crowd of students. She gave a shrug.
“I don’t think he would. I think he’d want you to understand why he left—understand and accept it.” Her voice softened. “You were better at understanding him than anyone.”
Milly’s hand tightened on the strap of her bag. “I do understand,” she said sharply. “He didn’t want to be taken away and put in a lab somewhere.” Like some alien in a stupid science-fiction story. But Eric isn't an alien. He's just a boy. Why doesn't anyone understand that?
Mrs. Sherman’s hands were folded in front of her on her desk. A gold wedding ring winked in the fluorescent light of the classroom. She seemed to be waiting for Milly to continue, which she did readily. “Don’t you miss him?” she snapped. “Don’t you want him to come back? Aren’t you worried about him?”
“Of course.” Mrs. Sherman’s voice was emphatic. “I’m very worried, Milly. I love him as much as you do.” Her eyes strayed briefly to the ceiling, looking thoughtful. “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘Sorrow looks back, worry looks around, faith looks up.’” She reached out and took Milly’s hand off her desk, holding it gently. Milly, startled, looked at her teacher’s face. Her eyes were solemn.
“I understand your pain,” Mrs. Sherman said softly, “but we need to have faith. We need to do that and then carry on with our lives. It’s all we can do.”
Milly blinked. She didn’t know what to say. How many times had she heard variations of that same thought from well-meaning mourners while sitting shiva? From her mom, even, in the few times she tried to talk about her late husband to Louis and her? “I need to get to class, Mrs. Sherman,” she said, clearing her throat.
“Wait.” Her teacher held up her index finger and began to scribble something on a yellow slip of paper. Milly felt a groan rise in her throat when she saw what was written on it. “I want you to talk this over with your parents,” Mrs. Sherman continued, handing her the slip.
Milly tucked it into her jeans pocket without a second look, face stony.
“Thank you, Mrs. Sherman, but I don’t need to talk to anyone,” she replied. I’m no wacko, she thought bitterly as she hurried out the door. Just ask Dr. Granata.
“I want a parent’s signature on that by tomorrow, whatever you choose!” Mrs. Sherman called, raising her voice so Milly could catch her words as she walked away. She hunched her shoulders as the door clicked shut behind her.
Her other teachers were not so sympathetic. Mr. Rodriguez lamented her grade in his biology class in a brief meeting after second period ended. “What happened?” he asked, pencil mustache twitching in frustration. “Even factoring in the extra credit you earned while working with Eric, your grade has been dropping. Looking at your junior high transcript, I thought you wouldn’t have any trouble achieving at least a high B in my class.”
Milly said nothing. She folded her arms across her chest.
“All I’m gonna say is that I’d like you to try harder. I know you can do it.” Mr. Rodriguez tried to catch her eye, but Milly avoided his gaze. He sighed. “You’re free to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Milly scrambled out of there as quickly as she could. At least Miss D. seemed to understand; during phys ed, instead of talking, she just took her aside and gave her a hug with her thin, muscled arms while the other kids were warming up. Milly leaned into the embrace for a moment, cheeks heating up. She’d never been hugged by a teacher aside from Mrs. Kleiner, from her old Hebrew school, after her father’s death. Mrs. Kleiner had smelled of sweet floral perfume; Miss D. smelled of men’s Old Spice. “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding genuinely regretful. “I know you two were close.”
Milly wondered if Miss D. would allow her to sit out on phys ed, but no—she still had to participate in the latest unit, basketball. She played as little as possible and kept to herself in the corner of the court. She watched others pass the brownish orange ball between them and toss it into the battered old basketball hoop, sneakers squeaking on the waxed gym floor.
Lunch was spent in the library. Milly idly flicked through a battered copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was Mrs. Sherman’s latest assignment in their literature unit after Shakespeare, while she ate. She was behind on the reading, naturally; still, she couldn’t muster the ability to write notes on what she read. It didn’t stick no matter how many times she pored over the same few verses, anyway, so eventually she snapped shut the book and gave up.
When she began to peel the orange that came with her lunch, she felt a moody pang. If Eric were here, I’d give this to him, and he’d give me his apple, she thought. Eric always seemed to grab the lunch bags with apples instead of oranges, which he preferred. Milly peeled her orange slowly. It was only then that she realized that there was a gaggle of girls watching her out of the corner of her eye. She turned in her chair, frowning.
The watchers stiffened, realizing they were caught. One, a sweet-faced black girl, stepped forward. “You’re Amelia Michaelson, the girl who flew,” she said boldly, meeting her eye.
That was what people knew Milly as. It sounded like a silly, presumptuous title despite its truth. “Well,” she hedged, “I didn’t fly. I mean, I don’t remember. It’s all kind of a blur. I had heatstroke.” She bit her lip, then added lamely, “I mean, lots of people had heatstroke that day, so.” She looked down at her half-peeled orange and picked at the skin with her fingernail.
“That’s amazing, what happened,” said the girl, seemingly undeterred by her excuse. Milly suddenly recognized her—she was Kacondra, a writer for the school newspaper, the Taft Gazette. Milly didn’t read the Gazette, but she’d seen Kacondra speak at mandated pep rallies, mostly talking briefly about current school events before the cheerleaders and school band took over. It was hard to forget a name like “Kacondra.” Like Colette, she’d recently cut her long hair. Previously styled in cornrows, she now wore it in a short afro pulled back with a white plastic headband. It matched the daisy pattern on her shirt.
“I wasn’t there,” Kacondra continued, “but I heard about it. We all did.” She gestured to her friends. “We wanted to interview you for the school paper, actually.” One of the other girls held up a notepad and pen, almost sheepishly.
Milly tried not to grimace. An interview in the school news was the last thing she wanted. “Oh, um, I’m sorry,” she began. “I’m not really...I mean, there’s not a lot to tell. There was no real flying going on.”
“Then what happened to Eric Gibb?” pressed a girl with wire rim glasses, frowning. “I mean, everyone saw him fly away.” She sounded hesitant, as if she couldn’t quite believe the words coming from her mouth.
“And he had to go somewhere,” pointed out Kacondra.
Milly opened her mouth. She could feel her face turning crimson. She wanted more than anything to run out of the library. Instead, she shrugged in what she hoped was an offhand way.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “Eric didn’t fly anywhere. We jumped off the school roof to get away from the institution people and were lucky enough to land in the bushes below. Eric ran before I could catch him, and I went home to grab his uncle to see if he could help me find him. But he was gone.”
It was a lie she’d often repeated to the investigators, scientists, and psychologists who’d first swarmed the scene in the day following Eric’s disappearance. Little believed it. Milly knew her explanation was flimsier than the plastic wrap formerly housing her sandwich, but it was all she had. She stood up, stuffed her uneaten food into her bag, balled it up, and popped the peeled orange slices into her mouth. “Sorry,” she muttered through bulging cheeks, “I gotta go.” She ran out the door.
Once outside the library, Milly chewed her slices rapidly, gulped, and promptly started to hack. She forcibly threw her lunch bag into a nearby trash can, coughing into her arm. She then leaned against the library’s cool brick exterior to catch her breath and let her rapid heartbeat go back to normal.
She was glad that Mona and her gang weren’t at their normal spot by the steps. They’d maneuvered over to the center of the quad, sitting on the dead grass with their legs spread out, carefree. Mona and Erin were fawning over Colette’s hair; she’d cut it in a short wedge style.
Milly folded her arms across her chest, watching them moodily. Mona had actually been one of the first to approach her after Eric left. She remembered seeing her in the crowd. Her double hoop earrings clicked against each other as she turned her face to the sky. Then, pushing past the onlookers, she accosted Milly from her spot on the ground, breathlessly asking what the hell was that and all sorts of other questions Milly was too busy hurtling down the stairs, barreling out onto the street, trying to keep Eric in view for as long as possible. Her heart pounded; she ran until her legs were sore and her throat ached, but he was too far away, already disappearing into the deep, mesmerizing blue. It was only when he was a dot on the horizon, with the thunder of the crowds’ feet pounding behind her, that she stopped running and realized she was crying. She turned and looked at the crowd. The parade of people’s rush of frantic questions washed over her like waves on a still sea. Her mother had made her way to the front of the mass of strangers; she embraced her daughter tightly. Milly remembered how her mother's relieved tears wetted her rumpled pajama top.
Now that she was back at school, Mona had tried to approach Milly a couple times, but she politely brushed her off every time. Now that Eric was gone, Mona and her friends seemed small, unimportant, somehow. Milly figured this was progress, in some way. But, standing alone near the library while Mona, Colette, and Erin hung out together on the grass, she had to admit that it didn’t feel like it.
Milly was reluctant to give Mrs. Sherman’s note to her mother, but she figured it would be worse not to. After the fiasco with Louis and his teacher’s notes, she wasn’t going to be forging her mother’s signature anytime soon. Her mother read it over dinner while Milly stared down at her baked potato, poking it with a fork. Louis was already putting butter onto his, snatching glances at his mother and Milly in turn.
Charlene’s lips thinned as she scanned the note. She looked at Milly. “What?” Milly asked.
“You’re not going to like this—”
“I don’t want to go, Mom.”
“You’ve been moping around the house. It might be good for you to talk to somebody.”
“I don’t need to talk to anybody. It’s not like he died.”
Louis suddenly dropped his fork. It clattered to his plate; Milly and Charlene both jumped at the sound. Their mother glared briefly in his direction before returning her attention to Milly. “Of course he didn’t,” she said. “That’s not the issue. He’s still gone.”
Milly thrust her chair backward as she stood up. “But he’s not dead!” she cried. “Everyone acts like he is, but he’s not! I don’t need to move on. There’s nothing to move on from!” She threw her fork down and stalked upstairs, ignoring her mother’s increasingly stern calls.
After flicking on the light, she fit her headphones over her ears and rifled through the box of cassettes under her bed, pulling out a Monkees tape. She slid it into her Walkman, turned it on, and pressed the forward button until it got to “I Wanna Be Free.” As the song began to play, she curled up on her bedspread, wanting nothing more than to be alone. Her heart ached. She closed her eyes.
She wanted to be free, too, in the way Eric was free. But he had flown away, leaving her stuck on the ground. He was out there somewhere, she knew it. But he was still gone. If he were smart—and Milly knew he was—he wouldn’t come back for a long, long time.
We could have faced the scientists together, she thought, feeling a lump rise in her throat. He didn’t need to go and leave me here all alone.
Someone knocked on the door. “I want to be alone right now,” Milly warned, raising her voice.
The door opened. It was Louis. “Hi,” he said.
Milly frowned. “Louis, I’m not in the mood.”
He wandered in and sat on her bed. The click of nails on wood followed, and Max jumped on as well, wagging his tail. Milly shifted her legs, reluctantly sitting up. Max sat next to Louis; she moved closer to the edge of the bed and ran his fingers through the dog's silky black-and-white fur.
“Mom’s mad,” Louis said frankly, looking at her.
“I don’t blame her,” she admitted. “Did she send you?”
“No. I came by myself.” Louis shifted on the bed, looking like he was trying to figure out how to say something. “Um, remember when I got all those notes sent home? And you signed them for me?”
“Yeah.” Milly knew what was coming. Even so, she felt surprised. Louis had never attempted to comfort or give advice to her before. And why should he? He was only eight. She couldn’t help but smile a little bit, touched and saddened by his maturity.
“Well.” Louis paused, looking at Max and rubbing behind his ears as he spoke. “I dunno. When you signed those notes, and then Mom found out and got mad, it just made things worse. But then Mom had the parent-teacher conference and it turned out okay. Eventually.” He wrinkled his nose, finally looking at his sister. “I mean, it stunk, but it wasn’t as bad as—why are you smiling?”
“Nothing.” Milly put her arm around him and pulled him close, placing a kiss on his forehead. Louis wriggled quickly out of her grip, jostling Max in the process, who got excited and started licking his cheek.
“Gross!” he cried. “What’d you do that for?” He pushed away Max’s wet nose snuffling at his face, laughing despite himself.
“I’m just proud of you. You’re growing up,” Milly replied.
“Nah.” Louis shook his head, blushing. “I’m just saying. It might make you feel better to just do what the note says.”
“Thanks, Louis. You’re a good brother.”
“I know. Come on, Max.” He patted his knees, and Max leapt off the bed to follow him out.
Once they’d left, Milly closed the door and went to her window. She looked out at Eric’s bedroom, feeling a familiar swell of melancholy. Still, his curtains fluttered, yet the windchimes were eerily still. She gazed at the scene for a little while, thinking. Then, she took a book from her bedside table. It was her mother’s old dogeared copy of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, a novel her mother recommended once.
“Plath and her poetry helped me through college,” her mother had professed when Milly was in eighth grade. “She’s a wonderful writer. I think you’d like her, once you’re old enough to understand her.”
Milly figured that, after everything she’d been through, she was definitely old enough to understand. So, she’d taken the book off her mother’s shelf and brought it to her own. She flipped through the pages until she got to what she was looking for—there, on page twenty-five, was a bookmark Geneva had helped her make. It was made of parchment paper. On it, front and center, winding up its length, was the rose Eric had saved for her, now pressed and dried so it would never wilt. She stroked its lone pink petal. It was no longer soft and velvety, but papery and creased. Still, she loved it. With this and her ring, she could always keep Eric near her.
Milly dressed in her pajamas and went to bed, the bookmark clutched to her nose. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep. If she focused really hard, she could almost smell the rose’s sweet scent. Or was she just imagining it?
Louis was probably right, she knew as she stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling. If she could only go to at least one counseling appointment, then her mom would probably get off her back, at least.
And maybe, she allowed, it would be nice to talk to somebody.