Every night that summer I looked across the yard from my bedroom window into Callie’s, which glowed like something you could see from space. She was the prettiest girl in town, and there she was right next door, dancing around her bed, all pink sheets and teddy bears, swaying to music I couldn’t hear. She was almost always wearing a white bathrobe, and I imagined I could smell the freshness of her pale skin underneath, the polished armor of it.
I was the kind of boy who didn’t inspire a second glance, but everybody knew Callie. You must have known her too—why else would you have come? Her picture was always in the local paper, something about a beauty pageant she had won in the next county over, or a cheerleading competition where she had performed a particularly daring trick. She had even played Juliet in the school play, which everyone in town went to see. The production didn’t include Shakespeare’s original ending because a student had recently committed suicide in the high school gymnasium, so when Juliet woke up in the family crypt, Romeo was still alive, waiting for her there in the darkness.
I had caught my first glimpse of Callie at the supermarket early the previous year, when we were still new to town. We had moved because my father got reassigned to a new factory location out west of the city, past the river, too far to drive each day from our old apartment. A new development was going up around a small lake, and he said he had gotten a good price. We drove out and stood there in the empty lot where our house would eventually stand. “Just imagine,” said my father, gripping my shoulder. We looked out at the lake, the more untamed edges of which were already being smoothed down by bulldozers into the perfect circle it would eventually become. Later I would imagine that it had always been that way.
Callie moved to our neighborhood shortly after our house was finished. She lived with her grandparents, old people who were always early to bed, never seeming to keep track of where Callie went off to after dark. And she was always going somewhere, always with boys from around town. In the supermarket with my mother, my eyes burned as I watched her flirting with the boys shelving boxes of cereal, boys chopping meat behind the deli counter, boys bagging the groceries at the checkout lines. They fell over each other for her attention, trying to make her laugh, to make her see something special in them. I recognized the hunger in their eyes. And then one night the light in the bedroom next door caught my eye from where I lay unsleeping in my twin bed against the wall, and I saw her there at the window staring dreamily out into the tiny space between us.
I knew she couldn’t see me—saw that she was instead looking across at her own reflection in my window, occasionally putting a hand to her face or absently smoothing her hair—and I waited there, watching, until she turned off her light and went to sleep. Then I finally unclenched my fists and returned to my own bed.
The night you came, I was watching Callie through the window as usual. And I knew from the way she danced in front of the mirror that the boys were on their way to pick her up. The boys always came for her, arriving in their fathers’ cars, loud and bright in the Saturday night darkness. Sometimes it was only one boy, nervously clutching a flower or a wrapped gift. But sometimes they came paired or in groups, calling up to her from where they half-parked in the driveway. I knew there were parties in the rich neighborhoods a few exits down the highway, parties I heard about afterwards at school—gossip in the hallways about who had hooked up with whom, which party guest had gotten the drunkest, which girls had gone topless in the pool. And I knew that sometimes kids drove out to the state park, drinking and smoking all night beneath the stars, never thinking about those they hadn’t invited.
Tonight it was a group of boys, their movie star faces calling her name and urging her down to them. I heard them before I saw them, the engine noise of the car roaring into the quiet circle of the neighborhood. Then the light of their headlights brightened the bend toward the north side of the lake, and finally the car itself pulled into Callie’s driveway—a black SUV, polished and shining, reflecting the moonlight.
Callie came to her window to watch them arrive, still in her white bathrobe, craning her neck to look toward the front of the house. I shrank away into the shadows behind my own window, crouching beside my plastic laundry hamper. But she would never have looked in my direction anyway.
“Callie!” came the cry from the driveway, the boys leaning out the windows of the car and slapping the side of the passenger door. I recognized a few guys from school, Nathan and Jared, or was it Derek—all of them athletes who were unashamed in the showers after gym class, their perfect bodies begging to be seen. Nathan had played Romeo opposite Callie in the school play, and I remembered the way the girls in the audience leaned forward in their seats when he delivered his most heartfelt lines, as if he were speaking directly to them. “Arise, fair sun,” he said, “and kill the envious moon”—the words, from his mouth, sounding almost like a song.
Callie laughed from the open window. “Just a minute!”
Earlier she had pulled dresses from the closet and spread them out on the bed, and now she held them up to her chest one by one, striking poses as she examined herself in the mirror. The boys whistled for her from the car below, their faces turned up to the house and their eyes catching the light from the street lamps, glowing like excited fireflies. Watching the boys, I didn’t see Callie finish putting on her outfit, but finally I noticed her bedroom light wink out and a few seconds later she was dashing down the steps from her front porch. She had chosen an airy floral dress, backless except for the thin straps of her bra clinging to the tops of her shoulders, bright red like a dare.
“You’ll wake up the whole neighborhood with that screaming,” she said, squealing as the boys opened the door and all those hands reached out from the darkness to pull her inside. I held my breath as the car sped back out toward the highway, voices trailing away into the night until I was left alone with the muted neighborhood, the empty house below me, Callie’s dark bedroom next door. I felt a tug somewhere inside, the urge to take off running, part of me already racing after them into the night.
Like always, I waited at the window for them to come back. I passed the time by imagining what they were doing in town together, maybe sinking into seats in a crowded movie theater, everything dark, hands descending into secret places. Sometimes while waiting for Callie I would be reading an old paperback at the window, or sometimes I would doze off with my head against the wall, knowing I would wake up when the car returned. But that night I couldn’t concentrate on anything except the world outside. I looked down the street at all the other houses, the lights in the windows winking on and off like machines sending coded messages up into space. Then I was peering again into Callie’s empty window, my face almost pressed to the screen, when something caught my eye from below.
I looked down and noticed a pair of feet poking out from the bushes my father had planted by the side of the house. Sliding aside the screen, I leaned farther out, forgetting my fear of being seen, and that was when I first saw your white chest, your body alight in an almost lunar glow. You must have heard me, because you swept away the leaves of the bush with one arm and I saw your face staring up at me. It was like I was seeing my own reflection upon the surface of the lake in front of the house.
You held my gaze unblinkingly for a long moment before scampering back into the bushes, then dashing toward where the backyard met the woods.
None of the lights in the house were on. I had been upstairs since dusk, after my parents had left for bowling night with my father’s work buddies, and I also knew to keep the lights off in empty rooms to save money on electricity. I made my way through the hallway and down the stairs by memory, counting the steps on the staircase, then finally turning and walking into the living room. Through the windowed sliding door to the back patio I could see the yard faintly lit in the moonlight. Cheap lawn furniture we had bought at the department store in town was scattered across the concrete patio and in the freshly mowed grass. The line of trees behind the house stood tall and black.
I side-stepped along the wall of the living room past the small fireplace and the entertainment system. I stopped next to the patio door, keeping myself carefully obscured by the curtains. I heard nothing from the yard except the night sounds of unidentified insects calling out to each other, the occasional train whistle from the tracks running alongside the highway. I reached for the curtain hanging at the edge of the window and I pulled it aside slowly, incrementally, in a way I hoped was imperceptible from outside.
I sighed when I saw the empty yard, disappointed to see that you had gone.
I let the curtain fall back into place and I stepped toward the kitchen. I had skipped dinner again, but I knew there were microwaveable meals waiting for me in the freezer. Then I felt your gaze upon my back just before I flipped the lights on, and I turned sharply to see you standing at the glass door, looking in at me from the dark. You looked to be my age, and we carried ourselves with the same thin frame, slightly stooped at the shoulders. But you seemed breakable, like you needed someone to help keep you intact. The lightness of your face bore the weight of wet, overgrown hair. You were naked but seemingly unashamed, your arms hanging limply at your sides.
I went to the window and looked out at you, our faces mirrored in the glass. I opened my mouth to speak, but then I heard your muffled voice. “You don’t need to cry out. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Even now, I don’t know what compelled me to open the door. I don’t know if I would do it again—or is that something I tell myself, a way of not taking blame for what happened? But you kept casting glances back around to the side of the house, toward Callie’s, tensing at what I imagined were the sounds of an approach. And I was afraid you would run away before I got to speak to you.
Your skin was so wet. The water ran down your face from your matted hair and gathered in little pools at the base of your neck. You needed help. I felt the coldness of you through the glass, my own almost primal urge to protect you guiding my hand as I slid open the door. Then you crossed into the house, your hand lightly grazing mine as you passed me.
Upstairs in my room, I pulled out a pair of pajamas from my dresser and turned to where you waited in the doorway, naked and pale, as if you needed to be invited inside.
“Here,” I said, holding out the clothes. And in a moment you had concealed your damp body in my pajamas, the same striped pattern as the ones I was wearing. Together we moved soundlessly over the carpet to the window. You gripped the windowsill tightly, your hands curling into pincers.
“What’s out there?” I asked. “What are you running from?”
My stomach was clenched like a cramped muscle. No one but my parents had ever been in my room, and here you were so close to me, wearing my clothes. I saw into your mind as if I lived there, and I saw that you also knew the danger of bringing buried thoughts out into the world. You caught your lower lip with the edge of your teeth. Then you shuddered and turned away.
“I’m so cold,” you said.
I reached out to warm you and my mind went to Callie, her window across the yard dark and empty. She and the boys would have been finishing a movie by then, or maybe just getting to a party, doors being flung open for them, music and happy voices inviting them inside. There would be dancing in dark rooms, bodies pressed against one another, faces lit up briefly in flashes of neon before disappearing again into shadow.
We were still at the window when we heard the sound of the garage door opening downstairs. My parents were home already, which meant it was later than I thought. You looked questioningly into my eyes. My mind raced and my palms were wet as I thought quickly about what to do. I finally said, “Stay here, just stay here,” and I crossed the room and stepped into the hallway. As I pulled the door slowly shut, you narrowed into a sliver of window and body, your eyes big and floating.
“Keep quiet,” I said. “You can lie down on my bed if you’re tired.”
I thought for a moment of turning on the small television, something to make noise in case you stumbled against unfamiliar furniture, my video game controllers tangled on the carpet begging to trip you and send you hurtling to the floor, my books tossed chaotically across the floor like an obstacle course. I felt a desperate desire to hide you, having taken on the responsibility of keeping you unseen. But already I heard the door opening from the garage into the kitchen. I closed the bedroom door softly before descending the stairs, and when I looked from the landing I saw your wet footprints marking your path through the living room. I hoped they were invisible to someone who didn’t know to look.
I watched from the staircase as they came into the kitchen from the garage, my father laughing as my mother explained away a poor bowling score. “I was trying to let you win,” she said, “but you were just terrible! Barb and Mike were so embarrassed. The other team beat us by a mile.”
“Did you see their faces when you threw that gutter ball?” he asked. “No, you couldn’t have. Your jaw was on the floor.”
“I thought you were going to cry,” she said, pointing at him and laughing again. I flinched at the loudness of their voices.
My father opened a can of beer from the fridge and passed it to her before opening one for himself. “I’m a sensitive guy,” he said. “That’s why you married me.”
“I thought I married you for your money.”
He snorted and reached for her waist. “All those tips I was getting at the diner?” He pulled her close and I tensed at a muffled sound from my bedroom, a low moan. My mother glanced toward the staircase, but she didn’t see me hiding there in the dark.
“Do you think he’s okay?” she asked my father.
“It’s just a phase,” he said, trying to kiss her neck. “The whole shut-in thing. I went through it too.”
“I hope so, but—” Then she giggled when he tickled her. “You’ll make me spill my beer.”
“He’ll tell us when he’s ready,” said my father.
“If that’s even what it is.”
I was imagining you waiting for me in my bed, noiseless as a ghost. You were like a secret memory, something possibly from a dream. I suddenly needed to throw open my door to prove to myself that you were real. But then what? They would come upstairs, concerned about me as always, and they would see two of me standing there in the dark room—would see me doubled, broken apart.
Instead, I waited. I couldn’t let them know about you. I wouldn’t have even known how to tell them. Some things can’t be said without giving something else up, closing a door forever. But when I saw them holding each other and smiling into each other’s eyes, I wanted to break down the walls of the house to show them my secret self, the one hidden away.
“Enough about this for now,” said my mother. She kissed my father lightly on the mouth and then hung her purse by the door. “I’m exhausted.”
They moved together into the living room, still clutching their beer cans. I backed up the stairs as they approached, keeping always to the shadows. I made sure they didn’t notice your footprints and then I retreated silently back to my room like someone deep underwater clawing to the surface, pushing away the depths.
You seemed smaller when I returned, sitting on the edge of my bed with your head in your hands. But when I entered the room, you stood and walked with me back to the window.
“Did you come from the lake?” I asked quietly.
You squinted at me, our faces so close. In the dim light from outside, you seemed haunted. I thought maybe you were a ghost who had come to haunt our house. Maybe ghosts sought out new houses to haunt, sick of all those old cobwebbed attics and creaky staircases. Maybe they wanted something all their own.
“Are you a ghost?” I asked.
You laughed a hoarse croak and then fell to coughing. I winced at the sound of your retching, but I saw that you were trembling and I put my hand to your back to steady you. You felt skeletal beneath my hand, a cocooned creature having just emerged from the dark into new flesh, not yet knowing how to make yourself strong.
“You’ve been so kind to me,” you said, and I pressed my finger to your lips. Something flashed in your face when I touched you—something I recognized.
“I need to return this kindness with one of my own,” you said.
I remember your face at that moment, your jaw clenched resolutely. You wanted so badly to help me. “I don’t need anything. Just stay here. I’ll hide you,” I continued eagerly. I felt the breath coming out of you like something fungal, amphibious, the dankness of something long buried. “I won’t let anyone find you,” I said.
My mother knocked on the door. “Are you okay in there? Who are you talking to?”
I scrambled to my feet just as she opened the door without an answer from me. She stood in the doorway in her nightgown, the expression on her face concealed in the dark. I smelled the beer on her breath even from across the room. She didn’t step further inside, and I imagined a gulf of water between us, moonlight dappling a route across the still expanse.
“You know I’m here if you want to talk,” she said.
Something must have awakened in her, some sense of my secret self burrowing into the dark house and taking root there. I imagined her eyes crawling out of their sockets and roving through the shadows of my room, trying to exhume something I had hidden. But she only looked at me with a curious sadness, like she wanted to say something else but couldn’t find the words. And when I glanced quickly around the room, I saw that you had disguised yourself once more.
“I know,” I said.
She sighed and her face shrank away. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she said. “I’ll make pancakes.”
Then she quietly pulled the door shut behind her and you crawled out from under the bed, looking gravely into my eyes. The stillness of our secret was an island we could live on forever, floating unseen in the midst of a violent sea crashing always at our shores.
We settled close to each other once more at the window, kneeling together on the beige carpet. I wonder if the world felt as charged for you then as it did for me, both of us electrifying the darkness with our secret.
“What were you doing at the window when you saw me?” you asked.
I looked again out into Callie’s dark bedroom. I told you about her face, her hair, the way her body looked when she slipped out of the bathrobe and wrapped herself up in one of her thousands of dresses—the curves of her, the way she held womanhood up like a gown, something expensive in a store I wasn’t allowed to enter. I felt like I could tell you anything. And I told you how much the boys wanted her. I told you how it felt to wait for them to come back with her, those boys who came and called her name, then ushered her out into the world with them always at her side. The boys beneath the spotlight of the streetlamp glowing like the main attraction.
Then you said to me, “I know what you want.”
The car the boys had been driving earlier suddenly roared back into the neighborhood, and we both shrank away from the glare of the headlights. We breathed heavily from the sides of the window as we watched Callie emerge from the car, laughing as one of the boys held out his pursed lips for a kiss. She dashed toward the house, the boys clamoring from the driveway, whistling and calling out, “We can’t live without you!” They pretended to weep, spurned lovers cast aside. Nathan did his best Romeo, his arms outstretched as if to pluck her from a balcony.
You said again at my side, “I know what you want. I know what I can do for you.”
I felt a warmth seeping from your body like you were on fire, but I wouldn’t have stamped you out. I would have let you burn and burn for as long as you wanted. But then you stood up abruptly, stepped back into the shadows, and disappeared out the door.
I didn’t dare call out to you, but I was so scared, so scared that I had lost you. The boys were still there in the car, watching as Callie teased them from the porch—a porch I couldn’t see from my vantage point, but still I imagined her there as I watched the boys, imagined her returning their kisses and posing, hands on her hips, daring them to follow her and knowing all the while that they couldn’t. Then Callie was inside and the boys were gone, disappearing around the north end of the lake and back out toward the highway. But when I looked across at the house I saw that Callie’s bedroom was lit up like a bonfire, like a place to warm up from the cold, and you were looking at me from her window, your face framed by the darkness of the night that pressed in hard at the edges of you like a vise.
Callie was on her way upstairs, maybe turning down her hallway right at that moment, her bedroom door just a few steps away now—
But then you smiled at me, the lights went out, and I saw only my reflection staring back at me across the yard.
I closed my eyes and thought of the lake out there in the night, now tamed, a round window made to match the shape of the pale moon above. I waited for my heart to stop hammering away at the cage my body had made of it. I imagined you dashing through the dark of Callie’s house and diving once more to the depths of the lake, leaving only me to know your secret. And my mind flew forward to next Saturday night, the boys racing back down the street in their car, hollering excitedly over the noise of the engine, their voices rising to a thunder as they came closer. They would pull halfway into the driveway next door and call out her name, banging the sides of their car with anxious, ready hands.
But this time no one would answer. The house would stay dark. The window would be empty.
Then the boys would turn and see me up there in the window next door, where I would have been waiting for them all along. They would call my name, whistling and cheering, and then they would wait for me down on the street as I made myself ready for them, their hands excitedly slapping the sides of the car and filling the night with the sound of their love for me, their perfect faces catching the light as they gazed up at my window.
“You’ll wake up the whole neighborhood with that screaming,” I would say after dashing down from the porch to meet them, squealing as they opened the door, all those hands reaching out from the darkness to pull me hungrily inside. The engine would have been idling, thudding like the heart of a racehorse ready for a sprint, and then we would drive off together into a world that the beautiful boys were so excited to show me.
We would never talk about the girl next door. Eventually we wouldn’t even remember her name.