Jerome waits to hear the sound of the car backing out of the driveway before he dares to move. It's not that he can't move, rather where he can't move to.
He wants to go to the window. The one hidden behind a layer of curtain and blinds, ones that rattle loudly enough to expose his secret.
He knows that there's something better beyond these four walls.
His mother has convinced him that she can enter her car, safely tucked in the garage, drive to another garage and enter a store to work. She says the outside world is dangerous, and refuses to let him risk his safety for it. She'll risk hers, she proclaims, for them. To put food on the table.
She tells him that the world is ugly. Every night she checks the knot on the curtain to make sure that it hasn't come undone. If she could brick over the window, he knows she would, if it were legal. He likes to think neither is forcing your child into a bubble of a house, but he has no access to the internet without her sitting next to him, and there's no non-suspicious way to search that when the monitor power button is within her reach.
Slowly unknotting the curtain, he takes care to pull back the curtain. It has to look perfect when she returns. Not a wrinkle out of place.
The view from his window doesn't give him much. He's on the side, so it faces the neighbor's house. For once, he notices, the light is on in the bedroom. It hasn't been on in weeks, and now here is the room, lit, littered with boxes.
His doorbell rings. Mother has said never to open it. The door has been latched for years, so he sits still, hoping the visitor will go away. The only way in is the garage door, and his mother has closed it tight. Nobody is getting in or out.
One more sound of the doorbell. There isn't a third, so he resumes breathing and pulls the curtain back again.
Knock knock. There's a girl there, knuckles still raised in the air.
"Hi there." Her voice is high and sweet, opposite of the defeated tone of his mother. "I'm your new neighbor, Antonia. Ant for short."
Giving a slight wave, he finds his voice. "Jerome."
"My mother left a tray of cookies on your front porch, Jerome. It's her way of welcoming herself to the neighborhood. We thought you weren't home."
"It's the only place I ever am."
Those cookies don't leave the front porch. Well, rather, he doesn't see them inside the house. Ant mentions something the next day about a few being missing, asking why his mother hasn't brought them in. He explains that they don't use the front door. She wouldn't have noticed them. It must've been wild animals. He hears that they roam around, looking for victims. How could she be so brave to be all exposed, out in the open?
"What the heck are you talking about? The rabbits are more interested in veggies than eating any human brains. They're herbivores." She glances over to what must be a bunny. "Where'd you get such a stupid idea that that little guy could do any harm?"
"My mother told me there are monsters outside." Jerome thinks back to his mother's stories. There've been plenty, any time he questions why he can't leave the confines of the house.
The look on her face is one of confusion. Have her parents not warned her of the monsters? Do her parents not care for her life?
He can hear the garage door opening.
"I have to go." The blinds, the curtains, the knot- all of it try to block out the widened eyes of poor Ant. His mother can't know about her. Not until he figures things out. She's his only connection to the outside world.
By the time his mother reaches his room, he's doing push ups on the floor, fudging the count. She allows him exercise, as a means to avoid the doctor. There's a bike in the basement, stuck in place. He pedals and goes nowhere.
"Hope you worked up an appetite," she says, holding up a bag. "I'm putting dinner on now. Did you do your math assignment?"
He nods. He did the history lesson too. It was yet another war. He has to wonder if there's ever a moment of peace in history. His mother presents him with a lot of negative, and whenever she lets him rent a library book, she takes extra caution to remind him that it is a book of lies, a work of fiction. The world isn't this idealized place that they write about. It's a mere attempt of us humans to handle what we've been dealt.
The grass is green, like the books promised. So are her eyes. Ant's eyes are bright, full of hope and optimism, and green, flecks of green. Every morning the garage door sounds, and those green eyes are at his window. Except for Tuesdays and Fridays, because his mother has off those days, and the garage door doesn't budge.
He's happy that today is Wednesday.
"I missed you yesterday," she says. It's apparently summer vacation right now, which means no school. She's already asked him if he attends the local high school, to which he has responded that he studies at home, even now, when the sun is beating down on her.
"I missed you too," he says, shielding his eyes from the brightness.
She notices his discomfort and runs off for a moment, only to return with a towel. She stretches it far behind her, blocking out the world. It's just him, and her, and a noise she has explained as friendly birds eating out of the feeder her father has hung in the tree.
They've fallen into a pattern. She comes, cracks the mystery a bit more. And either this girl is insane, trapped in a fantasy world, or his mother is wrong, and keeping him from living life.
"Aren't your arms going to get tired?" It's a kind gesture, but he doesn't want her to exhaust herself over him. He's sure that she has better things to do with her summer. Once September hits, school will dictate her time, and short of whispering into the night, the window will be closed.
The time window, not his window. That's always closed.
"You going to open the window and let me in?" she asks. It's not the first time. She knows that he's trapped, and while she thinks he should just let the alarms go off as he opens the doors and taste the freedom, to smell the barbeque her dad has put on for lunch, she respects that the window will never open.
His fingers dance over the lock. Temptation grows within him every day. Yesterday it was hard not to open the curtain, to not see that face.
"I wish I could."
A week passes, and it's a Tuesday night when he pulls back the curtain. His mother is in the kitchen, prepping dinner. He only has a moment. But he knows that her grandmother was in the hospital, and he needs to make sure that she's okay.
He tapes up a sign. 'You okay?'
She's not at her window, the room dark, so he makes quick of closing everything again, covering the sound of the blinds with her using the mixer. He thinks he has gotten away with it, and does his best not to fidget at dinner. He fidgets all night, until she heads to bed, turning on that box fan of hers.
He tears his window dressings open.
There's a note taped to his window.
"She's alive. Just a heart attack. Sometimes the monsters are inside too." That sentence pummels him straight in the heart. Ant has taught him so much about the world outside that window. He's learned that the real monsters are in this house.
Fear and his mother. Fear of his mother, though he'd argue that's redundant.
The garage door opens Wednesday morning. She waits for the sound of the car to leave, popping up off the ground. She's holding her phone. The camera app is open, which isn't terribly unusual, as she's spent the last few days documenting the neighborhood for him. Yet on this particular day, her face could break from the size of her grin.
"I want you to look very closely at this picture," she says, turning the screen towards him, careful to block the glare.
"That's my mom in her car." He's already seen a picture of that. "What's the big deal?"
She zooms in, pointing directly at the big deal.
"Her window is down."
At that point, his world shatters, and he grips the curtains to steady himself. He's leaving greasy handprints, as a result of running from the breakfast table without stopping to wash up. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters, because her window is down, and everything is a lie, and Ant, still pointing at that open window is turning around to face him.
"Her window," he repeats, "is down."
"Sure is. You think maybe it's time you put the 'roam' in Jerome?" Her palm rests on the window, and he places his against it.
There's enough adrenaline in him to lift a car, but he doesn't need all that power. There's only one thing that he's lifting. The lock clicks.
Up lifts the window.