After the second job she came home and pulled the plate out of the fridge. It was beef and rice. She tilted her thermos and watched the cold coffee splash into the sink and run down the drain. The microwave beeped. She sat at the kitchen table and had dinner alone. This was long after Michael was to be asleep. Just as she finished eating he snuck out of bed. She heard him make his way to the kitchen but still acted surprised.
“You should be in bed, mister.”
He stood in the threshold and popped his toes on the linoleum. He hated socks.
“How was your first day?”
“I like second grade better,” he said.
“Maybe you’ll learn about the planets this year. That will be fun. You like space.”
He didn’t budge.
“Do you have any crackers?”
She had dozens. The hospital instructed all its nurses to distribute crackers to grieving families. There had been a study proving that certain foods, particularly chocolate, made people happy. She laughed then.
That was at least three months ago. The hospital was no longer give out chocolate bars- they had been gone after the first month or so- and was now onto these little packets of graham crackers. She reached into her purse and put it on the table.
“And chocolate milk.”
She hesitated. “That’s too much sugar before bed.”
He fidgeted in the threshold. She looked at his little feet. She bought him size sevens just last week. New shoes for school just like her mother had done for her every year. He’d probably need new ones come Christmas.
“After that, back to sleep.”
He opened the crackers while she poured the milk and mixed the chocolate syrup. She licked the spoon when she was done and set the glass on the table between them. They shared the crackers. Then they opened two more packets and ate those until the milk was gone. She washed the glass and the other dishes and then wringed her hands on a towel.
“Bed time,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek. He walked back to his room and pulled the covers around his body like a cocoon. His window was propped open and he stared at the street lamp for a long time.
In his dream the doctors scribbled notes on their yellow pads. The room was white and he sat in a raised chair. There was one window but outside was a deep red, almost black. This was Mars.
He followed the wires running from the metal hat on his head to the machines behind the doctors. The hat was tight and heavy. He didn’t want to wear it anymore. The machines buzzed and the doctors scribbled more notes. Then they flipped to new pages on their pads and whispered to one another. Then one of the doctors laughed.
He tried to get up but his hands were clasped to the chair. He tugged but the straps were tight around his wrists. He was sweating and felt drops above his eyebrows. He didn’t want to dream anymore. All the doctors were laughing now.
He kicked his legs. The doctors looked up from their pads, surprised. He pulled his right arm free.
Michael opened his eyes. He was in his bedroom. A yellow light shone under the door. He turned and stared at it. He could still taste the graham crackers in his mouth.
He pretended to be asleep as his mother came in. She picked clothes off the floor and put them in drawers. Next she leaned over his bed and kissed his forehead. She noticed the open window and closed it. About an hour later he got up and brushed his teeth. Tomorrow would be his second day.