Malted Milk Balls

Brendan was forearm-deep in a box of malted milk balls when he realized it was empty. Chaos in a suburban pantry. There must be another box. He rampaged through the shelves with crazy eyes. Nothing. Ludicrous! He threw the door open, dropped to his knees, and began a search and rescue mission.

What are you doing?”

“Mom.” His eyes poked out from the door, “My milk balls. Where are my malted milk balls? I need them.”

“Calm down, jeez. You’re acting like a chocolate crazed five year-old for Christ’s sake.” He mocked a laugh and went back to looking. Sunlight beamed through the window above the sink and shined on Brendan. It was starting to set. Hot and worried, he asked if she moved his emergency box.

“Your emergency box?”

“Yeah. My substitute one – for when the main box is getting low.”

“Didn’t realize you were running a full scale operation here.” She walked to the kitchen table and sat down to read the newspaper.

Brendan asked again if she had seen the other box, but she hadn’t. He groaned. Talking was wasting time. He noted each box with a quick touch, knowing his chocolate gold would be revealed if he was thorough enough. On the fourth inspection, he still found nothing.

“Anyways,” his mother started again, “should I make you dinner? Or are you going out with friends?”

Brendan scoffed. Going out with friends had become a joke, a ridiculously improbable notion. His mother sighed and reminded him, as she did regularly, that phones worked both ways, and that he did, in fact, have friends.

“Not really.” He surveyed the pantry again, but it felt hopeless now. “And it doesn’t matter either way, I’d rather be by myself.”

“Well, alright. But it’s your last summer before you finish college. I’m just saying,” her eyebrows rose, “You’re going to regret not making the most of it.”

“I like relaxing, mom.”

“Being cooped up in the living room, playing piano, and shoving malted milk balls in your mouth like you’re preparing for hibernation doesn’t sound very relaxing to me.”

Silence. His mother quickly apologized. “You just seem antsy,” she explained.

After checking for the sixth and final time, he slammed the door and assured her that he was not antsy.

“Uh huh,” she laughed quietly. “Regardless, I’m just saying that maybe you should call someone up. Like Pete, or even Jane.”

Pete was interning with a top publishing house in New York City and wasn’t returning until late August. That idea was out. “Too bad,” his mother answered, “You guys were inseparable.” She waited for him to speak. He threw open the fridge. “And what about Jane?” she asked.

“What about Jane?”

“You two were cute together. You should get in touch – you guys still talk, right?”

“Barely.”

“Is she still doing a music major like you?”

“I don’t know, mom. I don’t think so.” Brendan hadn’t seen her since days before they left for college the first time – to different schools. She figured they each needed freedom to follow their own path, but that “hopefully” their paths would cross again. And he was supposed to believe that. What a load of shit. He shut the fridge door. “I’m going to get candy from the convenience store.”

“Are you sure you should do that?”

He stopped mid-step towards the backdoor, feeling too heavy to move. Was he suddenly taking up more space? Or did the kitchen shrink? His whole body stung.

“I’m just saying,” she went on, “cutting out sweets could make a drastic difference. It’s up to you, though. You look great. Way better than a couple years ago.”

Brendan thanked her, but never believed compliments about his body. Not fully, at least. Not since he realized his body was too similar to a marshmallow. And although he took advantage of his school’s gym for the last three years, he still felt soft and unchanged. Desperately stagnant.

He needed a distraction. He looked around the cupboards. He was like a kid in a hardware store: hundreds of things to do, but nothing seemed appealing. “I guess I’ll go for a run, then.”

His mother nodded and he shoved his feet into tennis shoes. There was no need to change – basketball shorts and a ratty t-shirt were his all day, every day outfit. Not particularly flattering, but he was built for efficiency and already out the door. He started slow down the driveway until he reached his normal, quick pace on the main road. The falling sun hit him like a bullet each time it shot through the mass of trees on the other side of the street. His legs gently ached, reminders of his run earlier that day.

Before long, Brendan was passing a small shopping plaza. The convenience store stared at him. He shook his head. His mother was right. No malted milk balls. Not today.

But on his way back around, he had second thoughts. His mouth was watering. Sweat covered his face. Brendan’s whole head, inside and out, was a boiling pot of liquid. It splashed with chocolaty compensations: Maybe one more box wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Just a small one. Or a bigger one. The biggest one. As a ceremonial last box. Maybe. He kept jogging.

He didn’t need the malted milk balls, but he sure as hell wanted them.

“How was your run?” His mother greeted him at the door, still sitting at the table.

He told her it was fine and opened the pantry again. His eyes darted to the blank space where a large, full box should’ve been sitting. After mourning briefly, he shut the door and sped to the living room.

Brendan sat at the piano and paged through a skyscraper of music. The messy stack stuck out in the spotless room. He tried to find something to play, but the notes looked like malted milk balls. Was he losing it? Could a “runner’s high” really be this intense?

He settled on a Chopin piece – one of his favorites – to calm his candied mind. It had been three years since he played it, but the music was still familiar to him. Soon he was playing the beginning at the right tempo and loving it. He looked down at his fingers while they rode the keys. His teachers always told him they were perfect for the piano. Long and slender. Not medium and husky like the rest of him. His fingers were the one part of his body he loved.

A clump of wrong notes forced him to look up at the music again. He worked on the problem section. Slowly. Deliberately. After a while he played it correctly and nodded, smiling, while he reached down for some… “Dammit.” The piano and candy were intertwined.

He collapsed onto the couch, just beyond the piano. His tongue longed for chocolate. He pulled out his phone and began playing games on it. Ding. A new message from Jane stopped him immediately:

“Hey, Brendan! I just got back from summer term and would love to see you. I have to run an errand, then I’m free for the rest of the night. Let me know. See you (hopefully).”

Throwing his phone against a pillow, he stood up and headed towards the door. He had suffered long enough. The sun was now below the trees and gave off an orange glow as he walked towards the shopping plaza. His tongue tickled, saliva gathering. Malted milk balls time. He walked faster.

Brendan arrived at the store in a short time. He followed a regimented path to the candy aisle, bought his malted milk balls, and scurried off with them in a bag.

As he walked outside, his free hand ripped open the box. The glorious chocolate scent exploded out of it. He was already searching for a handful.

“Brendan!” a voice called out, “Brendan, is that you?”

His heart stopped. “Jane.” He explored her legs, exposed by high-waisted shorts. Long and slender, just as they had always been. And, in that second, he swore that he would always see them that way, regardless of their actual shape. He hid the bag behind his leg. “Hi.”

She practically skipped towards him and leaned in for a hug, smiling the whole time. Brendan gave her a quick squeeze and pulled away while she still clung for a moment. “Did you get my text?”

“No. No, I don’t think so.”

“No big deal.” Her whole face bubbled with delight. “Jeez, how long has it- -“

“Three years.”

“Oh my. Was that summer the last time we…”

“Talked? Yeah.”

“I was going to say ‘saw each other.’ But, yeah. I guess you’re right. Texting isn’t really talking – it’s no substitute for the real thing!” She chuckled, embarrassed, but still happy. Brendan searched the parking lot, looking past her. “How’s the piano going? You been playing over the summer?” she asked.

“It’s going. I actually played some Chopin today, if you care.”

“Glad to hear you’re still playing. I barely have time for the violin anymore. But, Chopin? Did you play a solo of his for me at one point? A couple years ago? Gosh, I still remember that. That one was my favorite. How long did you work on that one? A month or two? I loved hearing you play those crazy solos. Hell, I even liked hearing you practice. You’re great.”

“Yeah, right.” Brendan laughed and agreed those were good memories.

She smiled even wider while she raised onto her tip-toes, peering into the bag. “What’cha got there?”

“Nothing.” He shielded the bag from her. “Just some sustenance…”

“What was that?”

“Nothing… I’ve – I’ve got to get going.”

“Brendan, wait. I hope I’m not keeping you from something important, but we should really get together soon. Get lunch or something. Catch up, you know?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe.” He looked down. The pavement was getting darker as the sky did. His eyes snapped back to her. “I mean, what do I have to say to you?”

“Exactly,” she answered. Confusion shot through his body and spread across his face. “What do you have to say to me, Brendan?”

“A lot. I have a lot to say to you.” Shaking his head, “You know what, forget it. I don’t want to see you. I’m happier without you.”

Instead of leaving, she persisted that they see each other and brought up lunch a second time. Brendan avoided her stare while she rambled.

“You broke up with me, Jane.”

“I know. But we were together for, what, two and a half years? That’s important – that’s huge!”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying that we’re both huge parts of each other’s lives; we loved each other, didn’t we? We shouldn’t just let that die out. I don’t want that to happen. It would be like,” she took a step closer and opened the bag he held, “It would be like having a big malted milk ball and then just putting it in the sun to watch it melt away, not doing anything to stop it.”

Jane let go of the bag before Brendan retightened his grip. The box hit the ground. Malted milk balls scattered everywhere. The sun had set and Brendan watched the candy roll into the darkness, disappearing.

They looked at each other, neither saying a word. The street lamps lit her face. Her green eyes glowed in the darkness. He hadn’t gotten over her – he had turned his back, but never walked away. He was finally turning back around. She was full of life. Able to build him back up. Was it worth it? To give her that much power?

“Jane.” She smiled slightly when he said her name. Maybe he didn’t have to give up anything. He just had to let go. “On second thought, lunch sounds great.”

“Actually,” she grabbed his hand, “are you free for dinner right now?”

He grinned and she led him to her car. Already he was spilling out stories from the last three years. He felt weightless.

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