By Steven Daniel
When I was a boy, my friend Ellie could almost fly. I remember the first time she showed me. We snuck up to the roof of our apartment building and I watched as she walked to the edge and stepped off. She didn’t fall, she just stood floating with nothing beneath her. Then she walked across the air to the building next door, waved at me from its roof, and came back. I ran out to meet her and put my hand over the edge, searching for an invisible platform.
“How’d you do that?” I asked.
“I just can,” she said. “I’ve always been able to do that. I just never showed you before.”
“That’s so cool, you can fly.”
“No, I can’t fly,” she corrected me. “I can walk on air, but I can’t go up or down.”
“That’s just not how it works.”
That first evening afterwards I tried to sort-of fly myself. Initially I tried stepping off my bed onto the floor, but one foot kept touching down before I could lift the other one. Next I jumped from my bed to a beanbag chair in the corner. I still didn’t fly, but it was fun until my dad barged in and yelled at me to stop or else he’d make me sleep underneath the kitchen table like a dog.
Dad used to yell at me a lot. I didn’t mind it then, because it meant he wasn’t yelling at mom. He would come home from work tired and quiet, then grab his bottles from the top cabinet and start drinking. I couldn’t quite understand drinking at the time. When I asked mom what was in the bottles, she told me,
“Something that’s not very good for him, sweetie.”
“You mean like poison?” I asked.
“Kind of like that, yes.”
“But if it’s poison why does he keep drinking it?”
She thought for a moment and said, “Well, it’s a special kind of poison that makes you want more of it even though it’s bad for you.”
That answer made me think of witches, and curses. That dad was under a spell and needed someone to break it for him. So one day during the summer when dad was at work and mom was taking an afternoon nap, I stole the dad’s drinks from the cabinet and got rid of them.
It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. First I had to drag over a chair in order to reach the cabinet. As I stepped up on it I glanced back towards mom’s room. Every time I would reach for the handle, I felt her running in to find me, even though every time I turned around there was no one there. Finally Ellie showed up and offered to stand watch for me. Every time the bottles clinked I whispered to her if the coast was still clear.
Ellie was also the one to suggest that I not throw them in the trash, that dad could just take them out again if I did that. So I put his drinks in a plastic bag and, gently as I could, set them by the door. Then I went in to mom’s room. Every step felt like I was on the bottom of a pool, trying to walk forward through the water. The bag glowed behind me, a beacon of misbehaviour. Finally I cracked open mom’s door. She was facing the window, her back to me. I whispered,
“I’m going to go visit with Mike. Is that okay?”
“That’s fine sweetie.”
I was halfway turned around when she said,
My left foot froze in the air. I stared at my knuckles that were clutching the doorframe. I was at the age when moms knew everything, when they seemed to have a radar that went off every time I did something wrong. I was convinced she knew what I was really doing.
“Just remember that if he needs to work, you let him work. Don’t bother him too much. And be back in time for dinner.”
“Okay, I know.”
Before she could say anything else I ran, grabbing the bag and dashing out the door, Ellie by my side. The bottles clinked and jangled all the way to the elevator, but I didn’t care at that point. I just needed to find Mike.
Mike was the janitor for the building. Still is, actually. I don’t live in that apartment anymore, but I’ll go and visit him once or twice a year to catch up. He was the first person to befriend mom and dad when they moved in shortly before I was born. The first time I ever met him was when he was vacuuming the hall outside our unit. He was whistling a song I didn’t recognize, and I asked him what it was.
“It’s called ‘Camptown Races’,” he told me. “Do you like it?”
“I guess. Is it your favorite song?”
“Well it’s one of my favorite songs.”
“Why were you whistling while vacuuming? Mom says vacuuming’s a chore, and chores are annoying. At least, it’s annoying when she makes me clean my room. I never feel like whistling when I’m cleaning my room.”
“Maybe I enjoy cleaning,” he said with a chuckle.
After that I started hanging out with him, following him around while he cleaned. Dad didn’t like it, said I needed to be playing with kids my own age. Mom countered that at least it got me out of the apartment.
When I stole dad’s bottles, the first place I went was Mike’s office. It was really a closet filled with cleaning supplies, but he called it his office. Mike wasn’t there, so I sat down by the door and waited, the bag tucked behind me so nobody could see them. When Mike came by, I told him I needed to get rid of something where people couldn’t see it. He led me around the hall and out a door to the big dumpster in the back alley.
“Now, you’re not doing anything you’re not supposed to, right?” he asked me. I didn’t think I could successfully lie to him if I opened my mouth, so I shook my head.
“Okay then,” he said. “Put it in here.” Then he showed me how the dumpster could lock so that only he could open it, and said that once the garbage truck came it would be gone forever. Then he hoisted me up so I could reach it, and even turned his face away while I was doing it. That was when I decided I liked Mike almost as much as Ellie.
“You can’t tell anyone about this, okay?” I say when we’re back inside.
“Kid, it’s not my custom to spread everyone’s secrets around,” he said. Back then I didn’t think much of it, but now I can’t help but wonder how many secrets got tossed into that dumpster over the years.
I hung out with Mike for a while after that, but I knew I had to go home eventually. The hallway leading to our door was longer than I remembered. The door itself seemed taller. I stood in front of it for a few minutes hoping mom might open it so I didn’t have to. Eventually Ellie told me to just go on, and I did.
Dad wasn’t home yet. I quickly ran to my room and hid under the covers. I was afraid of him questioning me once he found his bottles gone. I could never lie to dad any more than to Mike. Dad would pin me against the wall and tell me to look him in the eyes and tell the truth. If I didn’t meet those eyes he’d grab my face and turn it towards his and demand to know the truth again.
My pounding heart was so loud I almost didn’t hear the door open when dad returned. I held very still as I listened to him moving around, his voice drifting through the door as a mumble. He said something to mom. She answered. Then his voice started getting louder. And louder.
I didn’t hear the words. I didn’t want to. I shoved my pillow over my head and cried and waited for him to march into my room and confront me. But he didn’t barge in at full volume like I expected. When he entered, he knelt by my bed and spoke in a voice that was even, stern, and fast.
“Son, I’m going to ask you a question and you’re going to answer me.” He took the pillow off my head as he spoke. I dug my face into the mattress so I couldn’t see him. I felt like a snake caught in a garden of disobedience.
“Okay,” I said.
“Did you see Mom take anything out of the top cabinet today? The one near the back of the kitchen?”
I was stunned silent for a moment. What did mom have to do with it? But then that snake saw a crack in the garden wall, the crack of a half-truth.
“I didn’t see her take anything,” I said.
“You didn’t see her carrying any bottles around, perhaps?”
“She didn’t have any bottles. She made me lunch and took a nap and then I was in my room the whole afternoon.”
All true. Just not the truth he was searching for.
“Hmm. Fine.” Dad stood up and walked out, and I heard the front door slam. I lifted my head up, got out of bed, and peeked around my door. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, one hand on her forehead. When she saw me she forced a smile, got up and got dinner for me. She must have finished it just before dad got home; it was lukewarm. As I ate, I noticed a red mark on her cheek.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about me sweetie,” she said. Then she left and went into her bedroom, and I finished dinner alone. Dad came back as I was putting my plate in the sink. He was carrying cases of replacement drinks. I ran to my room without saying a word, and spent the rest of the night in silence.
I started to hate the silence after that. I made sure Ellie was always with me, always talking to me. We went up to the roof more frequently too. I would watch her float around midair, make her walk the length of the building with nothing beneath her. Sometimes I would ask her why she couldn’t actually fly.
“I don’t know,” she always said. “Maybe I just don’t feel like going any higher than this.”
“What if you jumped?” I suggested once. “Maybe you could fly for real if you jumped first.”
“But what if it doesn’t work and I fall?” She countered. “I don’t want to hurt myself. I’m delicate, you know.”
Delicate had been her favorite word ever since I’d learned it in school. She said it made her think of butterfly wings or mom’s fine china. I never thought Ellie was that delicate, but I never argued with her. One day, a few weeks after the incident with the bottles, dad asked me why I kept going outside the apartment, and if I was hanging out with Mike all the time. I told him no, that I was hanging out with Ellie.
“Ellie huh?” He fixed me with his eyes, but I wasn’t lying so they didn’t have any power. “Just wandering the halls?”
“Sometimes,” I said. Sometimes we went up on the roof. I didn’t say that part.
Dad leaned in close. It was the first time I noticed how bad his breath smelled.
“So tell me,” he asked, “when are you going to get some real friends?”
“Ellie is a real friend.”
“Ha. Not likely. Your ‘friends’ are her and that janitor. You need to hang out with boys your own age. I bet they bully you at school, don’t they? If you had any guts you’d just pop ‘em on the nose and you’d be part of the gang soon enough.”
I tried to tell him that I wasn’t bullied at school, that I played with boys at recess, that none of them lived close enough to play together during the summer, but he was halfway to the cabinet, unhearing.
“Should’ve made him play baseball,” he muttered.
“George,” Mom spoke up from where she was doing the dishes, “don’t be so hard on him. He was just at a birthday party a few days ago for goodness sake. And what’s the big deal with Mike? He’s a good person, we’ve known him for years.”
“He’s not,” dad said, prying the top off a bottle, “He’s a creep. You know I never liked the way he looks at you.”
“You only thought that after you started drinking.
Dad gave mom a look. It’s different from the look he would give me. It wasn’t a “tell me the truth” look. It was a look that said he would start shouting if everyone else didn’t shut up. I ran to my room while mom quietly tried to explain that lots of kids my age had friends like Ellie. Dad kept saying “A girl though? Ridiculous”. Sitting on my bed, I wondered if dad thought I was delicate. Whether that was a bad thing for a boy. It wasn’t something they’d mentioned in school.
The next time I got to see Mike I told him about dad not liking Ellie. I didn’t mention what dad said about Mike. I was a kid, but smart enough to know not to spread that around at least.
“Well, the nice thing about having friends like Ellie,” Mike said, “Is that nobody can tell you not to play with them.”
I liked Mike even more then, not because he had told me I could play with Ellie, but because he had called her my friend. So I kept playing with her, on the roof, in my room, wherever. Home had become a tightrope between silence and shouting. I did my best not to make dad angry, and never mentioned Ellie or Mike. Once school started up again, I always told him what happened that day and who I played with at recess. Then I’d leave when he started drinking, and talk to Ellie for the rest of the night.
One day I came home and the landlord was there. It was only the second or third time I’d seen him. He was a large man with a dark beard who always wore a cowboy hat. He made eye contact and smiled at me, but that just made me scared. He said he was there because someone had seen me go up on the roof. He knelt down and put a hand on my shoulder, explaining that it was dangerous up there, and that I shouldn’t go up anymore, but that it was partially his fault for not realizing the door was always unlocked. His breath didn’t smell bad like dad’s, and I wondered if that meant he didn’t shout often.
Dad laid down some rules then. No leaving the apartment alone, even to walk to the school bus. No hanging out with Mike, even though the landlord hadn’t mentioned him at all. Definitely no going up on the roof. He didn’t shout at me while he told me all this, but he did send me to my room until supper. Then afterwards he yelled, not at anyone in particular but at the world in general. Ellie tried to distract me. It didn’t work.
Another word I had learned in school was revenge. I got revenge on dad using Ellie. I started talking to her everywhere, out loud. I had her make funny faces at the dinner table and would argue with her in the middle of the living room. Dad ordered me to stop, of course. I did, but only for a little while. Then we’d start back up again, dad’s face getting redder the whole time. My teacher had said revenge was a bad thing, but it was actually really fun. Much more fun than being delicate.
But just like with all elementary school teachers, it turned out she was right all along. Dad began to drink at dinner, instead of just after. Mom tried to stop him, but he gave her the shouting look and went on anyway. Then one evening Ellie made a funny joke while I was taking a swig of milk and I laughed so hard I spilled it all over myself. Mom got up to grab some towels when Dad said:
“No. I’m done. I’m tired of you and your pretend friends. You can go to your room and forget dinner tonight.”
“Ellie’s my best friend,” I said.
“She’s not, she’s not even real,” he said. “You aren’t to pretend she is anymore.”
“Well…” I stammered, “Well then you can’t drink from those bottles anymore.”
“Don’t try to tell your father what to do,” he said. “You’re ignorant, and it isn’t your place.”
“But it is mine,” mom said. “And you know what George? He’s right. I’m tired of your drinking, tired of you terrorizing your family, tired of you not being the man I married. Your own son is afraid of you. What kind of father makes his son afraid of him?”
“Shut up. Shut up!” Dad rose and flung his hand back in one motion. His bottle flew across the table and splashed over me, alcohol mixing with the milk already on my shirt. I didn’t notice. I was staring statuesque as dad reached out and slapped mom across her face.
He’d done it before. Probably lots of times. But it was the first time I’d seen it happen.
Mom was shouting too, but I didn’t care. I jumped down from my chair and ran from the kitchen, trailing drops of liquid from my still-soaked shirt. I’d been to the roof so many times that I didn’t lift my head the whole way, and despite what our landlord had said the door was still unlocked, and when I was out I finally looked up at the first few stars of the evening sky. Ellie was there too.
“Do you want me to walk around some?” She asked.
“No. No I don’t. I want you to actually do something.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you walk around in midair which is cool, and you chat with me and make jokes and funny faces but you don’t actually do anything. You didn’t help me get rid of dad’s bottles. You didn’t make him stop drinking. You didn’t help mom.”
“Well of course not,” she said. “I’m your friend, not theirs. But I can make you feel better.”
“No you can’t. Not anymore. Not if you don’t help.”
“Oh. Well then I guess you don’t want me anymore.”
That’s when she learned to fly. She took one step, almost a skip, and lifted off, rising into the air. She looked down at me as she went, but she didn’t wave. She didn’t say sorry. Or goodbye.
“Ellie? Ellie come back.” Tears dripped down my face, but who cared? My clothes were wet anyway. I waited on the roof, begging her to return, apologizing again and again. She never came back down.
Mike found me eventually. I don’t know if someone saw me go up on the roof again, or if I’d just left the door open. I don’t even remember how long I stood there crying.
“Now kid, you know you shouldn’t be up here.” He said.
“Ellie’s gone,” I told him. “She flew away.”
“Well, maybe she just needs some time alone. Isn’t that the reason you came up here in the first place? To be alone?”
It wasn’t, it was to be alone with Ellie, which wasn’t the same thing at all. But it was easier to let Mike think he was comforting me. He led me back to the apartment.
The police were there. I learned later that a neighbor had finally gotten fed up with all the yelling and called them, but they didn’t really register at the time. Dad was still shouting, but at a cop. Mom was sitting on the couch over in the living room.
“Look, there he is,” Dad said pointing as we entered. “That janitor has been scheming to steal my wife and kidnap my son. Go arrest him.”
“Sir,” Mike said, “If I’m a kidnapper I’m the worst in the world. I found your son wandering the building and thought I’d better bring him back.”
Despite everything I managed a smile. Mike didn’t mention the roof. The police talked to Mike for a while before concluding dad was full of it and let him go. Dad shouted as he left,
“Why are you letting him get away? Arrest him, arrest him!”
I walked up to dad, a few teas still finding their way out. I met his eyes and made sure he could see those tears, could see how delicate his son was. I wonder if he thought I was crying because of the police, or because of him. I wasn’t. I was crying because of Ellie.
Sometimes I still cry because of Ellie. Every once in a while, when I have some time, I’ll return to that apartment complex. Mike still works there. We’ll go to a cafe during his lunch break and catch up on our lives. And sometimes he’ll let me up on the roof again. I’ll watch the sky and cry a little. But not because Ellie’s gone. Because I know I’ll never find another friend like her.
Steven Daniel lives and works in St. Louis, MO. He received a Bachelor’s in Classics and English from St. Olaf College, and a Master’s of Fine Arts from Arcadia University. When not writing or reading, he engages in the typical human activities of playing with his cats and making music, and the atypical activity of brushing up on his Latin grammar.