Through the Window

With Justin grounded like nobody’s business, I had to resort to visiting him by climbing up a tree to his bedroom window.

Don’t worry. We talked about it in advance, just before school ended for the day. And nothing funny happened.

He told me at school that his parents had decided he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere except home and school, or have friends come over, or visit them himself. And this total seclusion was supposed to go on for two months. All because of one party. The whole thing sounded pretty ridiculous to me, but then, this punishment had come from the same folks who pretty much blacklisted me just because I started to dress like their definition of “Goth troublemaker.”

Unfortunately, every bit of it was serious. Justin hated the arrangement with a passion; I could feel it in every word he said about it before we had to run to class. Needless to say, he was all for defying the creed in some way while his parents remained unaware—even if that meant I’d have to do some sneaking around like some kind of creepy stalker. Yes, I said we discussed this ahead of time, but I still felt real weird about it.

I rode my bike and left it at the rack at the bus stop a few driveways down from Justin’s. The street was long and curved right ahead of the stop part way, and his house was just past that curve. Between each driveway rested long patches of grass that were starting to gain their springtime colors now that the snow had finally moved out. Trees lined each of the grass patches like makeshift fences, giving me plenty of places to duck and hide if I needed them. Add in my dark clothes and the small black bag tucked under my arm and shoulder, and I blended into the nighttime lighting pretty well. That was why I had a yellow scarf tucked away in the bag—for safety on the way home. But for now, I’d have to go the dangerous route.

The only other thing I had in the bag was a sketchbook that belonged to Justin. He’d left it behind in the art class just before mine, and by coincidence, I had picked the same seat he had. So when I had sat down for class, I noticed that the cubby under the table surface wasn’t empty; it was occupied by a sketchbook not assigned by the teacher. I had peeked under the front cover just enough to confirm whose it was and decided to return it to Justin as soon as I could. He’d be livid if someone else took it, or stole it like what happened in seventh grade.

That was a few classes before I found out about how he’d been grounded for two months; I finally learned about it before we had to run to biology. At least the sketchbook wouldn’t be parted from its owner for much longer.

After darting around a few trees—and making sure no one spotted me on the way—I spied the side of Justin’s house. He lived in a large two-story house with his parents and Tom the butler. It was one of those modern homes with the simple geometrically shaped rooms and the wide open spaces, but the exterior was designed to resemble a somewhat more old-fashioned mansion. The front doors were even flanked by white pillars. The yard was plain but carefully arranged with a perfectly cut set of bushes lining the front. Further back, the greenery wasn’t so uniform as all but three of the trees were a fair distance behind the house. One of the three strays sat real close to the house, so much so that one of the bigger branches stretched just past Justin’s bedroom window. That was the tree I’d have to reach.

I drew in a deep breath and thought, All right, Annabelle, you can do this.

If I were going to reach that tree successfully, I’d have to come in from the side yard. The front lawn was wide open; anyone in the house would be able to see me through the tall windows. The worst part was that the lights were on downstairs. That meant it’d be much easier to see someone like me darting through the yard, but it also meant Justin wasn’t home alone. On the one hand, I wasn’t too surprised since it was just past rush hour. On the other hand, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. Screwing up was not an option.

With an inward grimace, I steeled myself and cut across. Justin’s window was on the other side, unfortunately—his room was in the back corner of the house—so I had to maneuver around the trees in the back and come back around to where I wanted to go. I saw two lights on in the back as I went, one upstairs and one downstairs, but I was far enough away that I doubted anyone had seen me; I would’ve blended in too well with the shadows. I hopped from behind one tree to the other until I was close to the tree.

The light from Justin’s room filtered through the tree branches. The other windows on this side of the house were dark. I didn’t hesitate; I shot straight for the tree and began to climb. Luckily, the branches I needed to climb were solid enough to support my weight as I moved from one to the other. I was careful to disturb the more fragile branches as little as possible. Soon enough, I was level with Justin’s window.

He was sitting at his desk touching up the details on a drawing in his red school-issued sketchbook. To grab his attention—and in the quietest way I could manage—I reached over and gave the window a very quick pat. Justin must’ve had good ears because he stopped short what he was doing, looked at the window with those brown eyes of his, and then set his pencil down and rose from his seat. He flipped a switch on the little stereo on his desk’s upper shelf before he went to open the window.

I handed him the bag first, which he placed on his bed, then I followed by crouching down and shimmying through until I could slide into the room. Good thing the window was large enough for me to squeeze through without making a whole lot of noise. Once I was in, Justin closed the screen completely but not the window, which he left open ever so slightly. The stereo was playing some rock music, but I didn’t know the name of the song or the band.

Meanwhile, I darted for a spot behind his bed, where I could easily duck out of sight of his door. I took the bag with me while I was at it. We waited a good half a minute listening just in case someone might’ve heard me, but no one came knocking. Justin futzed a bit with the volume on the stereo before sat next to me.

He took one more quick glance at the door before settling down. “If we keep our voices down, we should be fine.”

“Okay. I figured that’s why you put the music on,” I said.

“I was thinking about it after we talked about you coming here after school, and I realized, ‘I should do something to hide her while she’s here.’”

“Good thinking.” With that out of the way, I opened the black bag and pulled out his sketchbook and handed it to him in a fan-shaped motion. “By the way, you left this at your seat in the art room. You know, the one that becomes my seat after you leave.”

Justin stared wide-eyed at the sketchbook, then me, before taking it back. “Holy crap…! I didn’t even realize I’d left it at school until I got home. Thanks.” He set it down on his left, out of my line of sight. “You didn’t peek through it, did you?”

I shook my head. “I only opened up the cover when I couldn’t find a name on the front. Didn’t look at anything else. I know you hate it when people look through your sketchbooks without asking you first.”

“All right. Phew. Had enough of people doing things behind my back this past week.” He had practically growled the last part. His brow furrowed, too, making it look like he was glaring at something on the wall ahead of us.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

At first, he was quiet. You know that look from the movies where the young guy glowers like he’s angry about everything? Justin had that look right about then, except I knew what had been bothering him all day. But after the song on the stereo changed a few moments later, the frown perked up into a small smile and he brought his sketchbook onto his lap. When he turned to me, he looked a bit apologetic. “How long have we known each other?”

I thought about it for a few seconds but drew a blank. “I don’t know. Since second grade? So about… eight years running now? And now that I think about it, we haven’t had a class together since seventh grade.”

“Right. Then let me show you this.” He moved the sketchbook until it was situated between us, after which he opened the cover. The first page was blank, as I’d seen in school. The second page had a drawing, this one a picture of a warrior in light armor standing upon a rock with her sword planted in the ground in front of her. She held her helmet under her left arm while her hair flowed in the wind. Aside from how it was a black and white sketch with inked lines, I could swear an image like it could appear in one of those role-playing game books.

I was absolutely breathless. “Oh, my gosh. This is gorgeous!”

“I don’t have too much of this book filled up,” said Justin, “but everyone I’ve drawn in here are characters from the same story.”

“A story you read or a story you wrote?”

“Wrote.”

“Ooh, nice. What’s it called?”

“Not sure yet. I’ve been beating around a couple of different titles in my head, but nothing’s sticking.”

From there, I asked to see a few more sketches, and Justin and I alternated on who flipped the pages. Following the warrior was an archer with a knife strapped to his upper thigh; after that, a mage in a set of robes that flowed with the motion of her spell; and after that, a prince or a king sitting upon his throne deep in thought. Justin said the four were the main characters and that theirs was a journey that would reshape their country. After the dramatis personae came a couple of setting concepts, as he called them, that were to help him better visualize some of the places the characters would venture through. The one that captivated me the most was the cathedral sanctuary and the rose window design just through the sheer amount of detail he put into it all.

Inspired as I was, I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous, too. Both of us were artists, but my backgrounds were stuck forever in work-in-progress mode. Put more simply, my backgrounds were epic fail. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from admiring my friend’s work.

After we talked some more about his story, I decided to get a question off my chest. One or two more songs had gone by on the stereo in the meantime, and no one in the house had come to the door yet, so I went right to it. “Can I ask what happened at the party?”

For the second time, he didn’t answer right off. He closed the sketchbook and set it down on his left again before giving me a short nod. “You know how my parents left on a trip for a week, right? Well, there’s not a lot to do when you’re all by yourself. I felt like throwing a party with my friends—a normal one, not the wild teen party. I didn’t want to pick up a huge mess after everyone, you know?”

“Yeah.” The laugh I made lasted a split second.

“So you know I told Carlos, Teresa, Steven, you—the usual gang. I invited you all over the night the butler went home early, and he knew I’d have friends over. Carlos asked if he could bring a couple of other friends along. I figured why not and told him yeah, he could.”

“Derek, right? I’m not sure I caught his name right before I had to go.”

“Yeah, him. He also brought two of his own friends along, other people Carlos knew but I didn’t.”

“So stuff went bad after I left.”

“Well after. You see, Derek brought some alcohol with him. I told him to get rid of it; I didn’t want it in the house. Turns out Derek and his two buddies just took the bottle to another room and drank the whole thing. When they came back to the rest of us, we could all tell; they smelled like—” He grasped for the right words, but then he threw his hands up and shook his head. “You don’t want to know. And then Derek, bright guy that he is, started harassing Teresa. She socked him pretty hard, but then he got back up and started swinging. He probably couldn’t see straight because he went right passed her, and then Carlos tried to stop him. It got awkward real fast. I called the police to get Derek and his pals out of there before they could cause any serious damage. That ended the party.”

“Did the police take you all in?”

“No. We all had to go outside, but they just asked me and the others some questions about what happened. They took Derek and his pals, though. I don’t know what happened to them after that, but they weren’t in school today.”

“Do your parents know what really happened?”

“Oh, I told them everything; they just didn’t care. As far as they’re concerned, I shouldn’t have had the party in the first place.”

“So you try to make sure everything’s good, try to do the right thing at every turn even when someone else screws it up for you; you’re upfront and honest about the whole thing—”

“And I get punished anyway, yeah.” The back of his head fell against the bed.

“That is completely unfair.”

“It is what it is now.” He let out a quiet puh sound. “You know that none of the people who came to the party even talked to me today? They all pretended like nothing happened. I mean, they didn’t get in trouble.”

“Not even Carlos?”

“No. The guy avoided me like the plague all through school today.” His sigh went long and drawn out. “You’re the only one who’s talked to me.”

Something in me went very hollow when I heard that. I patted his shoulder as the only thing I could think to do to console him when I couldn’t find any words, same as when we were little. Then I asked him, “How long did the party go on for? You know I was there for only an hour before I had to be home for my sister.”

“The police arrived at around nine, so that would’ve been about two hours after you left. Probably a good thing in retrospect. You didn’t have to be dragged into all the crap with everyone else.”

“Maybe, but I also wasn’t there to help you.”

He waved it off. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But I did worry. I’m still worried. That’s part of the reason why I’m here right now, under the radar.” I squeezed his shoulder and brought a smile to my face. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Thank you for listening,” he replied. “And for coming by despite all the risk involved.”

“Hey, you know me. I always got take care of people.”

Justin looked at me—like, really faced me this time—and smiled wide. “Yeah, you do. Like tonight. I have to remember that more often. Guess the whole mess has made me wonder who my real friends are.” It faded very quickly afterwards, though; he took yet another peek at the door, then at something on his desk. It must’ve been the clock because he turned to me and said, “It’s been a little over an hour since you showed up. Might not want to stick around for much longer.”

“Oh, geeze, really?” Not to sound too cliché, but I was sure my heart jumped into my throat. “Crap, you’re right. I need to scram.”

Justin went to the window and opened it while I grabbed my bag and tucked it under my arm.

“You think you’ll be all right?” he asked.

“I should be.”

“Okay.” Before I could move, he gave me a quick pat on the shoulder as if I were one of the boys. “Thanks for coming by. And for the sketchbook.”

I returned the gesture with a smile. “No problem.”

So I left going back the same way I had come—through the window, down the tree, around the yard, and down the street. I slung the yellow scarf on my shoulders once I got on my bike, and the whole trip home went by without incident. Even once I got into school the next day, I didn’t hear a word about someone sneaking around Justin’s property the previous night. No news is good news, as they say.

We caught each other during a class switch, the part of the day when Justin would leave the art class I was going to. We met by some of the yellow lockers right beside the door to the art room with only a brief moment of eye contact for us to understand each other. Despite that there was nothing we could really do about his punishment, his whole face was alight like he’d just received the most fantastic birthday present.

I could feel a smirk pop up on the side of my mouth as I approached him. “All right, funny guy. What’s up?”

He started with a chortle. “So, about last night—”

That made me almost double over. “Nice word choice there, Mister Writer.”

Justin’s very mature response consisted of sticking his tongue out at me. “As I was saying… I wrote a little bit more in that story last night.”

“Oh? What did you write?”

“The heroine has to sneak into the castle where the prince lives.”

“What? Why?” Then it hit me. “Was she trying to return a sketchbook to him?”

He let out a knowing laugh at that. “No. The prince has a mission for her, but he has to keep his head down, so to speak. Political reasons and all that.”

Now I could feel an unstoppable grin latching onto my face. “So what’s her mission?”

“Basically, to find evidence to prove his family’s innocence.”

“Didn’t you say she was some kind of lone former knight from a disgraced household? Someone without a lot of clout?”

“Yeah, but being an outsider in this case is actually pretty helpful.”

I couldn’t resist asking the next question. “Do you want me to help prove your innocence? Because I can totally do that.”

A sigh, then a shake of his head as he shifted from one foot to the other. “Maybe if my parents didn’t know all the details, but you already know where they stand. Seriously, even Tom can’t help me. I think I have to live with the punishment.”

“Oh.” There went some of my excitement, straight down the drain. “Makes me wish this were more like the stories—places where parents don’t give out such big punishments like yours do.”

Justin’s smile faltered, but I couldn’t see by how much because he turned away. “Yeah. Me, too.”

“It just isn’t fair,” I said.

“Well… maybe in the story, I can make things more fair.”

“Take a break from the real world for a while.”

“Yeah.”

We went our separate ways with pats to the shoulders. I had to admit that visiting him again in his room was very tempting—just to talk like old times, mind you—but this wasn’t like the story he was writing or any other by someone else. One huge risk was enough, and even though it all went smoothly, we didn’t want to push our luck. We could think of alternatives pretty easily now that we were actually focused on finding some.

So maybe, just maybe, these next few months would be a little easier for my old friend to endure.

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