Once there was a boy taking his dog for a walk through the woods. Except that the boy had turned twenty-eight. And the dog was flying. Also, the woods was a golf course.
The boy—who went by Econ, though no one in his present life knew why—did not play golf. He had last played in high school, when things were different. The dog did not play golf either. Mug lived a normal dog’s life, with the one exception.
“Down, Mug,” called Econ. Mug swooped down within Econ’s reach, thick coal fur tangled with twigs and dried leaves, slobbery tongue hanging out. Econ thumped Mug’s side.
“Having fun, boy?” Mug wagged his tail, his hindquarters dancing like a kite, and rested a paw on Econ’s round shoulder. Then Mug rose up among the higher branches, where he discovered a squirrel.
“Arr! Arrrrrrr!” growled Mug.
“Chitchitchitchit!” the squirrel spat, leaping, losing its balance. Thuck! Five feet from Econ lay a lump of gray fur. Econ waited forever.
At last, he heard a tiny gasp. A hind paw twitched. The squirrel sat up. Econ had never seen a squirrel get its wind knocked out before. Mug caused many firsts.
“Ch…ch…chit,” the squirrel wheezed, dragging itself up an oak, and disappearing into a hole in the trunk. Mug did not pursue.
When Mug flew from sight, Econ again considered how to tell Mary June “no.” At first, he had thought he wanted to refuse simply because she had asked. He was more open-minded than the other guys in the home, but a girl proposing? Even if he wanted to marry her, how could he now? Did she plan to get him pregnant, too?
He pictured her. No, his reasons went beyond her boldness. For one thing, she had no chest. From her shoulders she dipped inward in front, and only expanded again—slightly—at her waist. Did she even wear a bra? She would be pretty, if…she looked more like a girl.
Another thing, she only spoke one language. He spoke three or four, depending on the day. He had two, American and Spanish, from before the home. Then he had learned French in a French restaurant. He knew another, but it only counted when he could remember the name of it.
Physical and intellectual things together proved they were incompatible—good word!—but what could Econ say? If he explained about her chest, she might hit him. Or she might cry. He wanted to avoid both, almost as much as he wanted to avoid marrying her.
The languages idea seemed safer, but he suspected she would either pretend to know others besides American, or—even worse—say that Econ did not know them. Econ knew what he knew, but fared poorly against argument. Sometimes, it took many days to re-convince himself of things. Mary June had never used this on him, but who could you trust when it came to marriage? He needed a true and safe explanation that she could not debate.
Econ and Mug arrived back at the gravel-colored, two-story home with twenty-eight windows. Econ knew all the windows; the sun warmed him when he sat by the good ones, even on freezing days.
Dawn waved from the front porch.
“Hi, Econ. Did you two have a nice walk?”
“How is Mug feeling today?” Last Thursday, Mug had thrown up all over the backyard. Kennel Cough, the vet had said. The vet cured Mug.
“I think his tummy feels better,” Econ said. “He went fast today.”
“Great! Where did you go?”
“Oh, just down to the next neighborhood.” Dawn stared at Econ, so Econ stared at the steps. Red ants crawling, gray paint peeling.
“Econ. Look at me. Did you let him on the golf course?”
“No, we, um…we just…yes,” he muttered. Econ could not lie; and it made him feel sick, and people knew. Dawn used this against him all the time.
“Econ, you have to stop taking Mug there. They’ve posted ‘No Dogs Allowed’ signs on the fence all around the course. If anyone sees him running or tearing up the grass, the dogcatchers will come and put him in the pound. Do you want to lose your dog?” Econ had nightmares about those white-coated men, carrying huge nets and chains, trying to corner Mug. In Econ’s dream, Mug always forgot how to fly.
“He doesn’t run around or hurt the grass at all,” Econ said, looking at her irises.
“What? Did you tie him outside the gate, or…?” Dawn looked puzzled. Then Econ saw her jawbones tighten into little fists. He dropped his head again. “Oh. Oh, Econ,” she said, softly, “Your dog doesn’t fly, Honey.”
“Yes he does, too,” Econ told himself. Dawn was unfair. He had not said anything about flying, but she was trying to unconvince him anyway.
“No, he really doesn’t. Dogs don’t fly.”
“But today, I saw him chase a squirrel from the top of a tree. It fell down right beside me. Knocked its breath out.”
“You may have seen a squirrel jump from a tree,” she said slowly, “but you have to accept that Mug only runs on the ground with you.”
“But he doesn’t even like to run anymore. You’re just trying to confuse me. You’re just making it hard for me to believe what’s true!” Econ yanked on Mug’s leash and rushed past Dawn, through the open door, and upstairs to his room at the end of the hall.
Slam! –Bvvvvv, the door vibrated for another second. Mug lay down by the bed and rested his muzzle on his white paws. He always knew when Econ felt upset.
At dinner, Econ said nothing to Dawn. He chewed his chicken fried steak and peas and stared. Larry never stopped talking or chewing.
“…then me and these guys go fly kites. All the kids fly their kites high, but mine flies the most highest. They all say, ‘Wow, lookit Larry’s kite! Him’s the best flyer!’”
Wayne scowled at Larry. “You don’t have no kite, you big fibber,” he rumbled. When angry, Wayne reminded Econ of a mean old farmer.
“Do, too! And then–”
“You don’t neither, it’s not in our room. Show me where you keep it.” Wayne always protested against Larry’s stories. For the millionth time, Econ felt grateful that neither of them shared his room.
“Well…a kid at the park loaned me it, so–”
“Yeah, right! He let you use his, and don’t even fly one? You liar.” Wayne’s pink cheeks bloodied maroon. Rick, Econ’s roommate, started humming.
“No, no, him had two,” Larry held up two hot dog fingers as proof while forking in another bite. “Him let me use the black one, and then–”
“You big fat liar!” Wayne screamed. “He didn’t neither have two kites and a black one!” Larry nodded and smirked at Wayne. Wayne lunged over the table, scattering oval white rolls, and swung his open hand at Larry’s head. Larry jerked back.
“Wayne!” Dawn commanded, not a shout but loud and cold enough to freeze Wayne. “You just finished supper again. Rinse your plate and cup. What’s your chore tonight?”
“Fine. That can wait. Go spend some time in your room thinking about how you should treat your friends.”
Wayne obeyed, but glowered at Larry as he stomped away. Larry watched Dawn. She ate two bites of peas and then took a long drink of milk from her cup. Finally, she looked up at Larry, sighed, and nodded.
“So I flew that black kite higher than anybody’s, higher than even any trees, and…”
Econ gulped his last mouthful. Why did Dawn side with Larry? Wayne tried to bully, but Larry was a liar. Dawn talked to Larry about it at goal planning every week, but she still let him go on at meals. Econ never lied like that—never lied at all—yet Dawn still did not believe him about Mug.
Econ took his dishes and left, feeling Dawn watching him. Rick kept humming. Larry kept talking.
Econ sat in the TV room watching “Scooby Doo” on Nick at Night.
–Brrring. The phone. Rick answered it.
“Mmmhello? Mmmwho? Mmmmmyeah, Econ’s here. Econ!” Rick shouted. Sometimes Rick hummed every word, other times none. Frequently, Rick just hummed. But Rick made a good roommate: he shared and never bullied or told long lies.
“Hello?” Econ said.
“Hi, Econ.” A squeaky, girl’s voice. Mary June. Econ had forgotten. He wanted to hang up but could not act that rudely to a girl, even when trapped. “Econ, I’ve been thinking about you today. Did you think about me today?”
“Yup,” mumbled Econ. True, but not helpful.
“You did? Hee-hee!” Mary June giggled. Econ felt funny in his chest whenever Mary June giggled, which was often.
Silence. Econ tried to think of a reason before she spoke again.
“Econ, remember what I asked you? At the Crafts Center?”
“Yup.” Here it comes.
“Well, I thought we could take a—hee-hee!—a walk tomorrow and talk about it. Do you want to take a walk tomorrow? With me? Hee-hee-hee!” He did want to take a walk tomorrow—with Mug. But this gave him longer to decide on the right words.
“Okay. What time?”
“How about ten? The sun should come out by then.”
“Okay. I’ll meet you at your house. I’ll see you—tee-hee!—see you tomorrow.”
“Yup,” said Econ.
“Bye,” said Mary June.
“Bye,” said Econ.
That night, Econ woke up thirsty. As he came out of the bathroom, Mug at his heels, Econ heard Dawn’s voice through her door.
“…loses privileges every day. The same, no improvement,” she said, her voice soft but clear in the silence. “Yes. No. If anything, his temper is worse. Hmm. I don’t know. Wayne’s supposed to see Doctor Briggs next week. Really? Sure, I’ll bring documentation. I know it’s not perfect, but I’m sure medication would help. As it is, they can’t stand him.”
Econ shuffled back toward his room. They wanted to dope Wayne. They had doped Luis, at Econ’s last home, ever since Luis pulled a knife on his house parent. Now Luis walked around looking cloudy. Econ felt sorry for Wayne. He opened his bedroom door and Mug slipped by to lie down again.
“Hard to say… I know. Believe me, had I gone through half that–his parents, the foster ‘care,’” she bit the word, “I would fantasize about more than just flying dogs.” Econ froze, breath stolen. “No. I confront him, but he won’t let it go… Eventually, but that doesn’t feel urgent to me. I’m just worried that he’ll get the dog taken away and trigger an episode. He’d probably end up back in the hospital. What would you suggest?”
Econ saw a flash of smothering white, smelled disinfectant and plastic, that tube jammed up his nose. He would never go back to the hospital. They hated him there, would not let him take walks or even get up for a long, long time. They did humiliating things to his privates.
“Okay. Thanks for checking in. Bye.”
Econ leaned against the door frame. His stomach pitched back and sideways like the time he rode on the ferry to Catalina Island. The harder he tried to stop thinking about the hospital, the clearer he saw the tubes, the needles, the ugly nurse, her huge, pimply nose nearly poking his cheek as she checked his tubes. She had—
Cold and wet rubbed his calf. Mug, sniffing a greeting. Econ bent down and grabbed the dog’s head in both hands, rubbing behind Mug’s ears, around his neck. God, thanks for Mug. Please don’t let them take him away. Econ rested his face against Mug’s back, breathed in the familiar, dusty smell.
“Econ. MmmmEcon!” Thin fingers gently pressed his shoulder. Econ squinted through one eye. His head was still on Mug. Rick stared down at him, eyebrows shoved high.
“I’m okay, Rick. Just fell asleep here. Stiff neck, that’s all.”
“Mmmmokay. Good. Afraid you had ammmattack.”
“‘Seizure,’ Rick. That’s what they call ‘em.”
Rick nodded; he would still call them “attacks,” but so what? Rick was a good roommate: he had woken Econ instead of getting Dawn.
Econ stood up. Mug, free to move again, stretched all four legs.
“You’re welcome,” Rick said clearly. Econ put his arm around Rick’s pointy shoulder blades. Rick allowed it for a moment, then slid away and hurried out the door.
Econ spent the whole morning—all of breakfast, morning chores, the hour afterward sitting on the front porch—silently telling Mary June “no.” Seizures. I get seizures. It’s not safe to marry anyone with seizures. No, you can’t catch seizures, they’re not…“contagious.” (“Contagious” and “seizures.” He could remember big words today. Good timing.) But seizures are dangerous. They prove I’m very sick. You don’t want to marry someone very sick. No, of course not. I understand. That settles it. They would shake hands and still be friends. Probably.
When Mary June arrived at 9:48 by Econ’s watch, he felt so confident of his explanation that he smiled and waved at her. She burst into giggles.
“Tee-hee, tee-hee-hee-hee. You look happy to see me, Econ.”
“Oh, um, I am, I guess—I have something to tell you, Mary June,” he blurted.
She smiled at him. When she smiled, her dimples showed. Too bad that…
“I thought you would,” she said, happy and serious now, not giggling. “Where do you want to walk?”
“How about the, uh,” he checked the doorway. No Dawn. “How about the golf course?” Both he and Mug liked walking there best; besides, Mug deserved trees this morning.
“Okay,” she said. He got up, hooked on Mug’s leash, and stepped down beside her. She touched his hand, held it. Hair stood on end all down his arms. He glanced at her, but she looked straight ahead. Come on! he urged himself.
“Mary June, I–”
“Uh-huh?” she asked, like breathing. She thought he was going to say “yes!” Now she would get upset and not shake his hand. She might hit him after all.
“Mary June, I’m sick. I mean, I get sick sometimes. Not like a cold or the flu or something that goes away. I get seizures. And you don’t want to mar–”
“I know that,” Mary June whispered.
Econ stopped. Mug, ten feet ahead, tugged the leash, then padded back and sat beside Econ.
“You know that?”
“Sure,” she smiled, patting Mug’s head.
“Doesn’t everybody in the homes know what everybody else has? Everybody who understands, I mean.” She was right. Econ knew Mary June shared one of his conditions: “troubled past.”
“You know that it’s dangerous for me, and I might die of it someday?”
Her smile disappeared, but her hazel eyes remained steady.
He wanted to sit down on the sidewalk and start thinking again. She did not care that he had—he almost knew the word, it started with an “e.” A good day for words coming back. She liked him anyway. What were his other reasons?
“Mary June, I speak more languages than you do. You wouldn’t understand the things I say a lot of the time. I know parlez vous francais and–”
“I know you do,” Mary June smiled again. How did she know so much today? Maybe she was having a good remembering day, too. “But I could learn the words you know–”
“But I might learn more words,” he interrupted.
“Well, I think I could learn those words, too. You know some things I don’t yet, but I don’t mind. Do you?”
“Um, no,” he heard himself say. He looked at her face, an instant at her chest, and then at her face again. Now what?
They started walking again. She no longer held his hand, but she walked close enough that their arms brushed Maybe I could…but is she…? Econ looked at Mug for help.
Mug provided the answer.
“Mary June,” he began in his serious voice, “I have something else to tell you. It’s very, very important to me, and, uh, no one else believes it.” He took deep breaths to prepare for her objections.
“Mug, my dog Mug, he’s…special. Because he can, um…” the word stuck to Econ’s tongue. He had never tried to tell anyone else. Dawn had interrogated him until it slipped out.
“He can fly.”
Mary June did not answer. She kept walking, so he and Mug walked, too. They had reached the golf course.
Econ avoided seeing the “No Dogs Allowed” sign, stood a moment with Mug panting beside him, and then walked through the gate. They tramped deep into the rough, where the most trees grew and the fewest golfers went. Econ breathed in the moist, greenish air. He almost wanted to hold Mary June’s hand here, cool skin in cool shade. Not that he would. Besides, soon she would laugh at him and leave. She still had not spoken.
Econ let Mug off the leash. Mug ran around, sniffing soggy clumps of leaves. Econ watched him, waiting for the moment when Mug detected a squirrel or chipmunk. No one else had ever walked with them here. What would happen?
Mary June cleared her throat a little. This is it, thought Econ. Off the hook. Why don’t I feel better?
“Econ, I like you very much.” No giggles. A very low giggle day. “How come you don’t want to marry me?”
Econ’s remaining answers tumbled against each other, leaving him mute.
“Don’t you like me?” she asked. Just saying “No” would end it. But he couldn’t. A robin started singing. He listened for a long time.
“Because girls,” he said finally, and stopped. This or her chest. No choice. “Because girls aren’t really, I mean, they shouldn’t be the ones who…” Econ trailed off, staring at Mug. Why can’t I fly right now?
“Are you mad that I asked you?” Mary June was staring at him, maybe crying already. Econ could not look.
“Not mad, no.”
“I was afraid you’d never ask me. Forrest Gump’s girlfriend asked him, and he said ‘yes.’” She spluttered, “I don’t mean that you’re…oooh.”
He heard sniffles. Definitely crying.
Econ focused on his shoelaces.
“Maybe you could think of it as me telling you I’ll say ‘yes’ if you want to ask?”
Econ turned to her. Her cheeks glowed pink from crying or blushing. Did he want to?
But Mug. She still did not believe about him.
“Mary June, I…I did feel strange that you had asked me. And I like you, too,” he added without planning to. “You remember things, and that helps me understand more, uh…” He felt shaky. She nodded, waiting.
“But Mary June, Mug really can fly. I wasn’t making that up. Sometimes he can’t do it when people—when I—don’t believe he can, so if you don’t believe it, and I’m with you a lot, then he’ll probably never be able to again. And I couldn’t–”
“Crap! Crap!” someone hollered.
Econ and Mary June jumped back.
“It’s gotta be right here somewhere.” Econ waited for the golfer with his silver club. Instead, he saw black work pants and a blue denim shirt with a name embroidered on the pocket. Econ’s chest turned to ice. No white coat, no net, but he knew. A dogcatcher, a dumb one, shouting. Then Econ realized that most dogs would start barking at a loud stranger. Mug would.
“What’s he doing?” Mary June whispered. The man had not seen them.
Econ put his mouth close to Mary June’s ear. “He’s trying to get Mug. We have to distract him.”
She nodded. “How?” she mouthed. Econ looked around. Maybe if they ran the other direction, the dogcatcher would pursue them, thinking they had the dog. But if he himself ran, Mug would certainly follow. Would Mary June understand? If she did, would she help? She had to.
“Run, Mary June,” he whispered to her earlobe, “run and make him chase you.” She stared at him for half a second, and then smiled.
“Tee-hee,” tinkled like miniature Christmas bells.
Then she ran in the opposite direction from where they had last seen Mug. Econ had had no idea she could move that fast. Skinny and graceful. She had almost disappeared when she yelled back, “Here, Boy!”
“Aha!” the dogcatcher shouted, crashing through the underbrush, neither skinny nor graceful. His foot caught a stump; he hopped twice and sprawled headlong into a sticker bush.
“Cra–ap!” he bellowed, pulled himself out, and stumbled along again.
Once the man passed out of sight, still cursing audibly, Econ laughed. He laughed so hard he choked and had to bend over with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. Epilepsy, he remembered.
Econ looked straight up to see Mug dropping heavily, landing on all fours right beside him.
“Urf,” Mug said again. He panted happily, looked around and then back at Econ with his ears perked up.
“Oh, Mug, she went to help you! She went to help you. Do you like her, boy? Do you?” Mug wagged his tail at the tone of Econ’s voice. “I hope so.” The boy rubbed his dog’s ears and together they walked through the woods.