It was a tall, weather-beaten building with countless weather-beaten balconies jutting out of its sides. Milo, a plump and red-faced 9-year-old, had felt unsafe in the top floor drafty apartment since his grandma had sold her oceanside cottage and deposited him and his loyal and fat cat Ella into this leaning block of misery last July.
Of course, he always felt queasy in high places, afraid his usual clumsiness might send him hurtling through the air only to land as flat as a pancake on the concrete below—but there was something particularly terrifying about this place. Perhaps it was the way the ceiling fan pointed as if it might just send something—like Milo’s homework—through the doors to the balcony that would swing open if the lock system malfunctioned. That thing might just land on the balcony, coaxing you to climb out to retrieve it. (Kind-hearted but pessimistic Milo always assumed the worst would happen—that his weight would make the whole balcony crack off the side of the building, as he had thought one afternoon when his math homework had sailed out there—that homework never did come back, and it caused him to get in trouble in school for the first time the next day.)
Or maybe the scariness lay in the windows, low enough to the floor for even a boy of Milo’s height to fall out of. Or perhaps it was merely the place where you would land if you did fall: an enormous gravel parking lot with stones sharp enough to cut you if angled in the correct way. Milo often stood in his apartment (as far from the windows as possible, of course) wondering if there was a reason the apartment was so cheap: the plumbing worked and there was thick carpeting in some of the rooms, even—was it cheap because it was so high, which made you more likely to—
Snap out of it, stupid! Nobody else on the top floor is scared! Grandma, with her fear of dust bunnies hasn’t given its height a thought! There isn’t anything to be afraid of.
But Milo’s complete trust in his grandmother’s protection only reassured him for a short period of time. Soon he was back to thinking of his greatest fear: the balconies. Surely three minutes of standing on one would result in it cracking off the side of the building and tumbling 20 stories down to the lot below.
The first few days of living in the building resulted in his grandmother begging for her little boy safe home, because he had arranged so many sleepovers with friends that he hadn’t spent more than an hour in the apartment with her and Ella. Milo tried other excuses: “Can I camp out in the woods tonight, Grandma?” or “How ’bout we go to the Jersey Shore for a few nights? It’s summer break after all, eh?” But it was difficult. How can a child of age nine get out of spending time in his own home?
One average afternoon when the golden summer sun was sinking down the cityscape, Milo noticed something. While stepping into the spacious kitchen, he glanced down at the checkered tiles to find that the shiny, fake gold cat food bowl was just as he had left it 3 hours ago: full. Ella, the enormous tabby cat Milo had cared for and loved as long as he could remember (and long before that too—Milo’s memory was far from good), hadn’t eaten her food. “Pleasingly plump” did not describe Ella. There was no doubt about it—Ella was a very fat cat, who certainly would never miss a meal. But here the bowl was: full, full, full.
When he had come home from the outdoor swimming pool a few hours before, he had found a post-it attached to his door, decorated with his grandmother’s swirly and impossibly small cursive. He hadn’t bothered to read it closely—it probably said that she was at her “volleyball for old people” class at the gym, and that she would be home at 7:00. Milo found himself thinking of this note now: had Grandma gone to the vet with Ella, perhaps?
Milo fished out the note from his pocket (he had stuffed it in there on his frantic run from the bathroom—you see, Milo was afraid of the toilets at the swimming pool.) Squinting, he read what his grandmother had written:
This isn’t any usual volleyball class! It’s the big day, dear, my first competition! You may come if you wish (you know where the gym is, right?) but I know you have much to do. I’ll be home at 8:30! I hope to see you in bed when I get home if you decide not to come!
P.S. Don’t forget to lock the doors behind you.
Silly Grandma. In their old house, they had to lock the door and Milo was always forgetting, but in this house, all the doors locked immediately without any help from humans, but no matter. Milo found himself forgetting small details, too. He reread the note, giving it his full attention. Nothing about Ella, but what was this! Milo hated volleyball, so despite his deep love for his grandma, he wouldn’t watch her compete. That meant…8:30! It was 6:30 now, he had 2 more hours by himself! How very, very mature he was: such a long time in a terrifying top-floor apartment without Grandma! His excitement and fear set him in high spirits during his search for the cat. He closely looked in each crevice and crack that Ella’s hugeness could fit into. He even ventured near the windows, with the vibrant colors of the sky illuminating the floor below him. His high spirits sunk and sunk as he went on and on inspecting the house.
“Ella! Ellllaaa!” The only response was an eerie echo, that as far as Milo could tell wasn’t possible, because there was so much furniture in the house. A few minutes later, the last wisp of excitement had been suffocated by defeat, like a tiny patch of blue in a cloudy sky, gradually being covered by another gray blanket of fog.
Milo sat cross-legged on the beige velvet couch, vigorously biting his nails. He tried to think—where had Ella hidden in the old house? Under…under the bed? No. The space under there was much too thin for Ella. Under something, but what? The couch. The couch? The couch!
Milo moved from his position to lying on his stomach, legs dangling off the back of the couch, head dangling over the place where feet usually go. He squinted into the endless abyss, and relief washed over him. There she was, the big bundle of fur, probably fast asleep. He reached under and tugged gently on a roll of fat, to wake her up. To his amazement, it came loose, and loose. Is, is…What is this? What has happened to my cat!? Finally, Ella unraveled. The thing under the couch was a big bundle of fur—his grandmother’s fur coat.
This was simply too much. Tears poured down Milo’s face and snot dripped from his nose uncontrollably.
And then he heard a terrible creak, and the sound of something breaking. His tear-stained face swiveled around to face the—the—the balcony. There she was, fast asleep. Definitely her—in the last rays of daylight he could see ears, a nose and an enormous body. Ella was at the far end of the balcony, asleep. Milo’s stomach jumped up to his throat, and stuck there.
It was Ella this time, Milo told himself. Not math homework, Ella. Ella! The love of your life! In determined defiance, Milo robotically walked toward the balcony doors, knowing what the sound had been. The balcony was breaking.
Unaware of his movements, he opened the door—when it had blown shut behind Ella, it had locked. He tried to reach for Ella, call her name, but Ella was far away and totally out. Ella, your life. Ella, your only real friend. Milo took a foot off the floor that had scared him before, but now seemed as safe and sturdy as ever in comparison to the breaking balcony. Ella. He placed it on the concrete floor of the dangerous shelf which might take his life. Ella. Another foot on the balcony. Ella. Another step. Ella, Ella, Ella, another, another, Ella, Ella, Ella! A gust of wind. He was almost there! Ella. And then another gust, strong and fierce through the nighttime air. The door slammed shut behind him. He was locked out.