Milly strides into English class the Monday after the Flight. It is always "Flight" in her mind, not "flight", because capitalization is for very important things, and the only other really important thing she has ever known was when Dad left them. (She still doesn't like to think about that much, but it's getting easier.)
She ignores the stares and whispers sweeping the room and finds her usual seat. Mrs. Sherman catches her eye and winks at her just before the bell rings; she glances down, studying her left hand, and a solitary band of gold on one finger.
Geneva caught Milly just before she went into the cafeteria for lunch. "I think you're popular now. Everyone's dying to know all about it," she informed Milly, who had to laugh a little.
"Know all about what?" she answered with a grin.
"Flying, of course, silly! You could write a book about it and make millions of dollars." Geneva sounded truly inspired; this above all else told Milly it was probably not the best idea ever, but for a thought it wasn't too bad.
"Be realistic, Geneva," replied Milly, rolling her eyes as she picked up her tray.
"I am being realistic! I saw a lady on TV just the other night that did that," Geneva declared. "Of course it wasn't for flying, but it's the same idea. She got really famous, too. I bet you could make just as much."
Milly just stared at Geneva for a minute before being startled by the lunch lady handing her a plate. "You're serious," she said finally, as she turned back to face her friend.
"Well, why not? It can't hurt. I mean, the worst that can happen is no one buys it." Geneva grinned at Milly and lifted her tray over to the cashier.
Her lunch paid for, Milly turned and gave Geneva a look. "Can we move on from this discussion? I don't plan on writing a book about it."
"All right, if you're sure, but I think you're missing out on the best deal of your life!" Geneva surveyed the room before beckoning Milly to a sparsely-occupied table. Silence reigned for all of one minute before . . . "So, are you engaged now or something?" Milly found herself on the receiving end of Geneva's usual frank stare.
"Geneva, I'm only 14! I don't think you can get engaged that young," she retorted, blushing just a little. A bite of her pizza slice became an excellent cover-up.
"Well, he gave you a ring, didn't he? And you're wearing it on your left hand. That means engaged," Geneva informed Milly. "Of course, it's kind of hard for the relationship to go anywhere since we don't know where he is, but it's--"
"Geneva?" Milly interrupted. "Can we drop this subject, please?"
"Oh, all right," grumbled Geneva good-naturedly, picking up her own slice of pizza.
Milly breathed an inner sigh of relief at the break from questioning. No, they weren't engaged, but . . . she didn't know what to call it. They weren't a couple in the usual sense of the word; she couldn't say they were dating or anything. Maybe there weren't words for something like this.
One month later, the school holds prom. This wouldn't mean anything to Milly (as a freshman) except that three different upperclassmen ask her to go with them. She is flattered but lets them down gently; they were nice but she's also pretty sure they're only asking her because she flew with Eric.
Milly has had crushes on guys before. Justin Burke from her old school, the star from the last movie she'd seen with Dad Before. She remembers the twisty feeling in her stomach, the warm burst of delight that would wrap around her heart and tinge her cheeks with rouge. If that's a crush, she does not have a crush. There is no twisty feeling when she thinks about him; she just remembers feeling drawn steadily closer. There is no burst of delight, just a slowly spreading warmth and the sense of being home that had been so elusive in the months before.
"Mom?" Milly was stretched out comfortably across the couch on her stomach. The reel had stopped playing a while ago, but the videos were still flashing before her mind's eye.
A foot twitched over the arm of the chair where her mom had draped herself. "Hmm?" she replied, sleepily turning to face Milly.
"How did you know Dad was the one you wanted to marry?" Milly laid her cheek on her arms and eyed her mom, who blinked a couple times before speaking.
"Well . . . I don't know that there was any one thing that told me. He was funny, always had me laughing." She smiled wistfully at some fond memory. "He listened to me, really listened. And he had a good heart, a soft spot for the little things, the underdog. I don't remember any aha! moment. We just grew closer, and one day he proposed. You know the rest of the story." Milly felt her mom's eyes on her, speculating. "What brought this question up?"
Milly shrugged and propped her chin on her arms, looking away from her mom's prying eyes. "I just wondered, that's all."
Her mom scrutinized Milly. "Does this, by any chance, have something to do with Eric?" Milly kept looking forward. "I see." There was a long silence, during which Milly studied the grooves in the carpet and her mom studied Milly. "You know, he may never come back," she said quietly.
"He will," Milly insisted, "I know it."
"And if he does?" Milly didn't answer her, so she went on. "He'd still be autistic, you know. He doesn't do well around a lot of people, especially people he doesn't know. How would you date him?"
Milly was relieved her mother hadn't brought up the ring.
It's the last week of school and Milly can't sleep. She twists the band on her finger restlessly and finally gets out of bed. The window is open as usual, and the night air caresses her face.
She isn't excited about the end of school, exactly. She won't miss the homework, or the other students watching her. But she can still see Eric in English class and gym, without trying very hard.
She fingers the ring again. She still isn't sure what to think of it, or what to think about herself and Eric. She knows he's different, in ways that may always be there. In the back of her mind, she can hear Dad; "Mill, someday guys are going to come after you by the dozens." "Dad!" "What? They'd be pretty dumb if they didn't! But you have to remember to look for the ones that will love you for who you are." She doesn't think there's much of a problem with that. Eric has always loved her for who she is. The real question is, does she love him for who he is?
The students were joyously streaming down the halls and out of the school on the last day when Mrs. Sherman caught Milly's eye and beckoned her into the empty classroom.
"Yes, Mrs. Sherman?" Milly was curious, at this point. They hadn't talked a lot since Eric flew away.
"I just wanted to thank you again for what you did for Eric," she began.
Milly fidgeted her toes. "I didn't really do that much; he could already fly before I came along."
The teacher smiled. "I know. But you reached out to his world, tried to become part of it. That's something very special."
Milly's fingers twisted the ring absently as she smiled. "Thank you."
Mrs. Sherman eyed her for a moment before speaking. "Do you mind if I ask you about it?" She gestured to the gold band.
"Eric gave it to me the night before the Flight, when I found him in his house. I... I don't know what it means." Milly studied it again. It was unmarked, with no inscription.
"It was probably his mother's," Mrs. Sherman told her. "But I don't think he gave it to you because he thinks of you as his mother." She gave Milly a knowing smile, to which the girl blushed. "I assume you've thought about it?"
"I haven't thought about much else lately," Milly admitted with a sigh.
"What does your mother think?"
"She thinks I shouldn't consider dating him because he'd still be autistic," Milly said quietly.
"She's right about that, you know." Milly gave her a surprised look. "Oh, you've connected with him on a level no one ever has, and got him to speak for the first time ever, but that doesn't make him completely normal."
Milly glanced downward. Mrs. Sherman was right, but . . . somehow that didn't seem to change how she felt.
"However," Mrs. Sherman began, startling Milly's eyes into meeting hers, "there's nothing that says you have to be normal too."
"What... what do you mean?"
"I mean that it's really up to you. No one else can decide for you. It wouldn't be easy; Eric may never be there for you in the way that anyone else could, and I'm not even talking about the trouble with the scientists and researchers. In some ways, you would be very much alone." She searched Milly's face for something; Milly wasn't sure what. "But," she paused, "if you thought you could handle that, and decided it was worth it . . . I'd be the last person on earth to try to persuade you otherwise." Mrs. Sherman met Milly's uncertain look with a warm smile. "Let me know if you see him this summer?" she asked, turning to leave. Milly nodded. "Now go enjoy the break from school," the older woman called from the doorway before vanishing into the throng of eager students.
Milly watched her go, confusion clearing into a slow smile.
Milly spends the summer hanging out with Geneva and dodging the friends Louis brings over. The days are glorious and the nights warm; she keeps the window open, even during the thunderstorms.
A few more boys muster up their courage to ask her out: dates to the local Dairy Queen, the roller rink, the movie theater. She turns them down, amidst Geneva's shock. "You're turning down perfectly good dates?" she asks, aghast, but Milly just grins at her. The ring feels like it's part of her now; she takes it off only to shower or swim, and feels naked in the pool.
It's nearly dusk one evening when she bids Geneva goodbye at their gate and heads inside. Louis is actually reading a book in his room, and Milly can hear Mom playing something tinkly like a waterfall on the piano. She opens the door to her room and stops in her tracks. A delicate red rose is sitting in a vase on the windowsill. She knows deep down where it came from, but has to ask: "Mom, did you put a rose in a vase in my room?"
The waterfall stops suddenly. "No, I haven't been in your room all day," her mom calls back after a moment. Milly knows better than to even consider Louis. She peers out the window but can't see anyone. A big grin works its way up and she buries her nose in the fragrant flower. He was here! her heart seems to sing.
Autumn came too quickly for Milly. She was disappointed when Eric didn't appear in the weeks following the gift, but she wasn't about to lose hope. At some point he would fly back, and she would be ready. School, on the other hand, was driving her insane.
"I can't believe they expect us to read this and write an essay on it," Milly complained from her position sprawled across the carpet in the family room. She hefted the large tome and frowned at it.
Her mom's eyes peeked over the top of the new computer book she was studying. "Is it due tomorrow?"
"No, this Monday. He only gave it to us yesterday, though." Milly sighed and started gathering her books from the floor. "I'd better get to sleep. I'll fall asleep in Geometry tomorrow if I don't." The pile of books in her arms reached precarious heights and her mom hurried to take the top couple off before disaster occurred.
"I'll get those," she told Milly, picking up the last one and following upstairs. She opened the door for Milly and shivered. "It's getting cold these nights. You're still leaving your window open?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
Here we go, Milly thought, bracing herself for the next words.
"I'd better put Goldie in my room, then, so she doesn't freeze." She put the books on Milly's desk and picked up the bird cage. "You'll need a warmer blanket on your bed too," she called over her shoulder as she headed out of the room.
Milly stared for a minute, stunned, then grinned widely. "I love you, Mom!"
"I love you too," came the faint reply.
She isn't sure what woke her up. She rubs her eyes blearily in the dark and notes the time as after midnight, when her brain finally registers the figure sitting on the windowsill. "Eric!" she exclaims, sitting up in a flash.
He walks over to the bed; she catches his hand in hers and pulls until he's sitting on the edge. "Where have you been?" she asks, but she knows she might never get an answer to that. He looks into her eyes and reaches up, slowly, till his knuckles brush her cheek. She closes her eyes, squeezing teardrops out, and opens them to see through blurry vision as he leans closer.
His lips meet hers in their second kiss. It's slow and sweet, and she can't help but smile when they pull apart. "I love you, Eric," she tells him through her tears.
"I... love... you... Mil-ly," he says slowly, and she hugs him. His arms gradually slide around her, and she burrows into his sweatshirt.
She starts to get sleepy again, and sits upright. "Do you want to sleep here tonight, Eric?" He looks at her and begins to take off his shoes. She takes that for a yes. The bed isn't very big, but she squeezes herself to one side and he fits. He takes her hand in his as she closes her eyes and starts to drift off to sleep.
"Good night, Eric," she murmurs sleepily.
She's almost in dreamland when he responds. "Good... night... Mil-ly."