The distant crackle of tissue paper turned Eric’s head. From where he stood in the kitchen with Dr. Volkow, he saw his mother emerge from her bedroom with several red gift bags, each bristling with a jarring rainbow of tissue paper.
“Eric, Abram!” She arranged the bags on the dining room table. “When you’re through, come in here please!”
“We’re on our way.” Dr. Volkow gently lifted the beige stone cake stand from the counter and whirled; Eric grabbed his wrist suddenly, stopping him.
“If I drop this cake,” Volkow breathed, “there will be consequences.”
Eric let go. “We need to talk about this.”
Volkow’s eyes lingered quietly on Mrs. Hardwood as she organized paper plates, metal utensils and a white plastic cake knife as she waited for them. “Fine.”
“Before you leave tonight.”
“I said fine.” Volkow stepped around him.
Once all were seated, Mrs. Hardwood fawned over the appearance of the cake, showering Volkow with compliments which he graciously accepted and brushed off with ease. They sang no birthday song, per Eric’s humiliated pleas, and therefore his mother proceeded to serve cake as he awkwardly accepted gifts that Volkow slid across to him with a impeccably placid smile.
Eric tried to act normal, too. Unfortunately the harder he tried, the less normal he felt. With every gift Eric unwrapped, his hands became clumsier. He stammered over small talk. Unable to maintain any semblance of a poker face, he avoided eye contact with Volkow altogether, who was as steady as a rock, which only left him feeling as though he had nowhere to look.
If I can’t even act normal in front of my mother, Eric thought with a grimace, then there’s no way I won’t do something stupid to arouse at least some suspicion in an intense situation among the criminals of this city while I’m heroing as ‘Waveform’. Volkow was right to keep me in the dark about his plans but, thanks to me, that’s not an option anymore.
Digging halfheartedly through an abyss of yellow tissue paper in a cherry red gift bag, he listened absently to the lighthearted conversation between Mrs. Hardwood and the plain-clothed supervillain. I can’t be the reason he fails.
He found something in the bottom of the bag and pulled it out.
Oh, hey. The shirts I like.
Volkow had picked up a piece of pastel green tissue paper and was frowning at it.
Eric noticed nothing amiss about the paper. Whatever he decides to do about all this, about me, I want to trust him. Even though he lies as naturally as he breathes, I’m positive of at least one thing: he has a plan that he believes has a chance.
Volkow noticed Eric’s attention and misunderstood. “When I was young,” he explained, waggling the green paper, “we used the funnies to to wrap holiday gifts instead of wrapping paper. After gifts were exchanged, we enjoyed sitting around reading them.”
Eric shivered with nervous energy. “The what?”
“The funnies.” When the only response was a baffled look, Volkow said, “You know, the funny pages. The comics? The Sunday section of the newspaper that’s made up of three pages of comics and one page of puzzles and riddles.”
I’m gonna screw everything up, aren’t I? Eric giggled despite himself. “How old are you?”
“We aren’t so far apart in age that—you’re joking. You must be joking.” Confronted by an outburst of laughter from the young man, Volkow appealed to Mrs. Hardwood. “He must be joking.”
Eric rubbed a tear from his eye. “The last time I bought a physical newspaper,” he said, “was in high school for a current events project. I had to cut out an article or something.” A dormant memory flickered in an amusing way through his weary mind. He pointed at Volkow excitedly. “Oh my gosh, I remember, it was from the culture section and I had to write an essay STOP SHAKING YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN TO MY STORY!”
They bantered for a little while longer. Meanwhile, Eric gradually gave up on having positive notions about persuading Volkow to include him because, the more he thought about it, he wouldn’t include him either if he was Volkow. He considered pitching the idea of a long holiday to his mother to simply be out of the way for good measure. As it was getting late, Mrs. Hardwood bid them goodnight and retired for the evening, entrusting the care of their guest to her son.
The moment the bedroom door closed, Volkow shoved out of his chair. “That’s my cue.”
Heart leaping, Eric opened his mouth but stopped. No, Eric, you need to stay far, far out of his way. He clenched his fists under the table. At least that way, hopefully, he’ll have a better a chance of succeeding.
“If I include you, I need you to make me a promise.” Volkow was gazing down at him, his expression guarded and vulnerable. “I need you to promise to do things my way.”