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I glanced up at the clock and sighed quietly. We had a half an hour to go until the end of English, my last class of the day here at Hampton High. Today was Friday, my favorite day of the week. That meant tomorrow was Saturday, the glorious day of peace and rest. I turned my attention back to my teacher, Mrs. Milton, who stood in the front of the room explaining our next project.
“You will each be assigned a play to do your project on, and you will decide what to do to earn the grade,” she explained. “The list of partners is on the back wall.” Just then the bell signaling the end of the school day sounded through the school. Students rushed from the room to catch the bus, but I was curious. Who did I get for a partner? I wandered to the back bulletin board, scanned the list of names, and stopped when I came to it, Amber Madison. Next to it was someone by the name of Michael Janson.
“Who is that?” I wondered aloud.
“That would be me,” said a voice from behind me. I jumped. When did someone come up behind me? I turned around to see the face of my partner. Shock was the first thing to register. He was tall—at least 6’2” with black hair and ghostly pale skin. He seemed nice enough.
“Oh,” I said, still looking him over. “Sorry. Are you new?”
He smiled. Beautiful. “Fairly, yes. My family moved in a month ago. From Washington,” he added.
“I see,” I said dumbly. “Well, I should get going. I need to be home.”
“Right. See you soon,” he said and walked swiftly out the door. What did he mean by “see you soon?” We wouldn’t see each other until Monday. As I thought this over, I gathered my books and headed to my car to drive home. I pulled into my driveway, and as I slammed my door shut, I noticed a shiny new car in the next driveway over. That house has been for sale for a year. Did someone finally buy it? I thought to myself. Just then I heard a knock on the fence.
“Hey, neighbor.” I turned in the direction from which the voice came. It was the new kid, Michael. So he was my neighbor now? I guess that explained why he’d “see me later.” I smiled at him. “Hey, Michael! You didn’t tell me we were neighbors,” I said accusingly.
He laughed. “I didn’t know, either. It’s kind of funny.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess I’ll see you before Monday, then,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess so. Hey, I’ll see you later. I have to help unpack,” he gestured toward the shiny BMW in the driveway with the trunk open. Now I noticed it was filled with boxes.
“Oh, okay. See you later, then,” I waved and smiled warmly at him. The only thing I could think about all night was my new neighbor. He was so different from all the guys around here. The way he acted, the way he dressed… different but not a bad different. Michael was shy but sweet, and with that thought, I headed inside.
The next day was Saturday, and as I slowly made my way out of bed, I found that my thoughts were once again drifting to Michael. I climbed down the staircase and headed to the kitchen for a big bowl of cereal, and to my surprise, I found my mother up, dressed, and eating an orange at the breakfast table. Usually my mom was always working, even on the weekends. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d been home on a Saturday.
“Hey, Mom,” I said cautiously, just in case something was wrong. When she looked at me, her face showed now signs of anything gone wrong, though.
Instead she smiled and said, “’Morning, baby. How are you?”
“Fine, I guess. Mom, what are you doing home?” She laughed at my question.
“I suppose I should have expected that question to arise. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a break,” she sighed. “The company’s not busy right now, so I decided to take a long over-due personal day.” She sounded so tired.
“That’s great, Mom! You deserve one.”
“I’m glad you think so. So, what are your plans for this lovely Saturday?”
I hadn’t actually thought about it, but I decided on a whim. “I’m going to see our new neighbors.”
“Oh, that’s a wonderful idea! I didn’t realize we had new neighbors,” she admitted. “Shows how observant I am, doesn’t it?”
“That’s okay, Mom,” I smiled. “You’ve been busy, so at least you have an excuse. I met the son yesterday at school. He’s in my grade. I guess I’ll meet the parents today.”
“All right,” she replied simply. I’d call Michael later, but right now I went to get the mail. As I walked to the end of our driveway, I heard something behind me, so I turned to look. I jumped.
“Michael?” I gasped.
“Yeah,” he looked guilty. “Did I scare you? I mean, I should have called first or something…”
“No, it’s okay. Really,” I assured him. “I’m just really surprised, that’s all.”
“Yeah, sorry,” he smiled, “I wanted to see you again.” He wanted to see me again? My heart lurched in my chest. “You know,” he continued, “we have that English project together.” Oh, he didn’t want to see me, he wanted to do homework. Of course. Disappointment flooded through me, but I quickly recovered.
“Can we go to your house? Or does your mom not want company yet?” I asked.
He paused briefly thinking that over, I assumed. “No, that’s fine. My house, 5:00?” he asked.
I smiled up at him. “Sounds good,” I told him. “See you then.” To pass the time until then, I lounged around, spent time with my Mom until Dad came home from work, and watched a movie on TV. Every minute, glancing quickly at the clock, glancing quickly at the clock, in anticipation of meeting with Michael. What would his house be like? Would his family be nice? After what seemed like days, it was finally a couple minutes to five, so I grabbed my backpack and headed over to the Jensons’ new home. When I got there, I rang the bell and waited awkwardly on the doorstep. Suddenly the door peeked open. It was a dark haired, brown eyed, beautiful woman who opened the door with a slightly hidden Michael behind her.
“Hello,” she said warmly, “you must be Amber.”
I smiled. “Yes, that’s me.”
“I’m glad Michael’s made a friend so soon. He’s been talking about you all day.” He blushed at that comment. “His father and I were so worried he wouldn’t fit in at a new school. He kept to himself back in Washington,” she went on as if he weren’t right behind her.
“Mom,” Michael spoke up quietly, “Amber and I have a project to work on.”
“Oh, of course. You don’t want to listen to me go on. Sorry, come on in, Amber,” she said apologetically. I stepped inside the house, and it was very dim due to the lack of windows. The windows that were there were covered in drapes, I noticed immediately. Although it was dark, I could see it was still very beautiful. Boxes were stacked up in a corner waiting to be moved outside, since all the unpacking had been finished, and they were, for the most part, settled in.
“Well, this is it,” Michael said once we were alone.
“It’s nice,” I replied honestly.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” he said. “Should we get to work?”
“Sure,” I answered. Then he started up the stairs with me on his heels. When we reached the top, he stopped at the first door on his left.
“This,” he said with his hand resting on the handle, “is my room.” He opened the door and stepped in. I did the same. Michael had a nice room. Unlike the rest of the house, it was bright and sunny. The walls were painted white and blue with posters of basketball and baseball players, bands, and singers… but no pictures of friends, I noticed. I remembered what his mom had said about him being a loner at his old school. He had a desk with a Dell computer sitting on it, and it was already hooked up. Overall the room was austere, but when you looked hard enough, it all fell into place; however, I did not know what to say to Michael. Thankfully he spoke before I could.
“It’s not much, but I like it. It’s kind of like my getaway place, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I totally get that.” He smiled.
“Most people ask why it’s so plain if it’s my getaway. You’re not going to?” he asked.
I laughed softly. “No. If that’s the way you are, who am I to judge?” He thought about that for a moment.
“Thanks,” he said when he finally spoke again, “that means a lot to me.”
“You’re welcome,” I smiled, “but it’s not a big deal.”
“But it is,” he countered. “A bigger deal than you know…” And he left it at that. We worked on our project for a while, but we were always talking about other things—why did you move? What was life like in Washington? Finally I glanced at the clock. “I should go,” I said, realizing I’d been at Michael’s for hours.
Was that disappointment I saw in his eyes? “Yeah, okay. Sure,” he said. “Um…I had a good time, Amber. Even if it was homework,” he joked. “We should do this again sometime.”
I smiled. “Yeah, that’d be great. Maybe I’ll come over tomorrow. Give me a call or something,” I told him as I scribbled my number on the back of a note card.
“I’ll do that,” he grinned. He walked me to the door, and his mom told me to come again.
At home I turned on my computer to check my email before I went to bed. The next day, I went to Michael’s again. Like the day before, we talked a lot. But this time, it was different.
When I got to the Janson’s, Michael let me in. In the family room his mom was sitting on the couch with a girl who looked to be around eight or nine years old. She was pretty—blue eyes, very light blond hair, and even paler skin than Michael.
“My sister,” he said when he saw me looking at her. “Her name is Isabell.”
“She’s so pale,” I whispered. That startled me. I hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
“So how about a tour?” he said, ignoring my comment.
“Sure,” I answered.
“All right,” he gestured to where his mom and sister were seated. “The family room. Over here on your left is the kitchen.” He walked and I followed. He talked and I listened. There was one room I was particularly interested in—the one he seemed to overlook. The one he did not show me. What was in there? Nothing? Something? As we sat in his room talking, I asked.
“Oh,” he said at first. There was a long pause before he started speaking again as if he didn’t want to or didn’t know how to tell me. “That was Isabell’s room.”
What was so hard about that? “Why didn’t you show it to me?” I asked slowly.
Michael sighed quietly. “I didn’t show you because her room is different from everyone else’s. See, my sister’s special.”
“Everyone is special,” I told him.
“Not like Is, though. She has a sun allergy. A very fatal sun allergy. So her room is designed to protect her. No windows, super sensitive lighting and all that. She has a special TV to watch and everything. Sometimes I feel bad for her, you know? What other little girls have to spend their life worrying about the sun even when they’re in the house?” he asked me. “It’s not fair. She’s a prisoner to disease…”
I thought about that for a while. He seemed to love his sister a lot. “You’re right. That really isn’t fair. She must miss out on so much,” I said.
“Yeah, but I try to tell her about things, explain them to her. Sometimes it’s just too hard. That’s why I spend so much time with her. Isabell doesn’t have a lot of friends because she gets home schooled and can’t go out during the day. I feel so guilty that I can, so I stay with her as much as I can.”
“You’re a good big brother, Michael. I bet Isabell loves you for that. I don’t have anyone like that. I’m an only child.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “I love my sister.”
“I sometimes wonder what it would be like to having a brother or a sister. Older or younger—it wouldn’t matter to me. Someone to talk to.”
H shifted positions. “Well, hey, I have an idea. I can introduce you to Is. You can come hang with us sometimes. That’d be fun, and I’m sure she’d like some female company,” he laughed.
“That would be fun!” I smiled and he did too.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s go meet her.”
“So soon? All right. Let’s go!” We walked across the hall to that mysterious door from earlier. He knocked softly and when no one answered, he opened it slowly.
Isabell?” he asked. “I have someone who want to meet you.” She turned to look at him. They were having a silent conversation with their eyes, but I was looking around her room. It was pretty. Above her bed, she had lighted panels made to resemble the sky on a sunny day. In fact, her whole room was decorated with the outside world being the central theme. The way she could have at least a little feel for what it was like, I thought. Along the far wall, there was a long dresser with a big TV resting on top of it.
“Amber,” he said turning to me. I looked back at him. “This is my sister, Isabell.” She smiled. At first it was shy and timid but quickly turned bright and cheerful.
“And Is,” Michael continued, “this is our new neighbor, Amber. She’s going to e over here sometimes. Can she hang out with us?”
“Yes,” she answered quietly. He thanked her with a smile, then a brotherly hug.
“Michael,” I began slowly. I didn’t want to ruin the sweet moment the two siblings were sharing. “I should probably get going. I told my mom I’d be home soon.”
He got up from where he’d been squatting on the floor next to Isabell. “Okay, here, I’ll walk you home.” I waved to Ms. Janson as we walked out the front door and into the yard.
“Your sister is so sweet!” I told him when we were in my yard.
“Yeah, she is,” he agreed. “She’s going to love you too. I know she will,” he promised. Michael raised his hand, waving goodbye as I walked inside. I shut the front door behind me and saw that my mom had been watching us.
“Our new neighbor?” she asked.
I nodded. “His name is Michael. He has a sister named Isabell, and his mom is Sarah.”
“I don’t know. As far as I can tell, it’s just the three of them.”
“I see,” she said, distracted.
“Well, I’ll see you in the morning, Mom,” I said and headed upstairs.
Mondays are the worst. As I drug myself out of bed, my eyes were barely open—just enough for me to see directly in front of me. School was not looking very appealing at 6:00 in the morning. I forced myself to get ready and drove to school in my little Chevy Cobalt.
The day went by relatively quickly. We watched movies in every class but one, making for an extremely light homework load. The summer months were soon upon us, and kids were getting restless. All you heard from the snippets of conversations you heard as you walked down the hallway was,
“—Any plans for the summer?”
“—hit the beach. Get a tan!”
Oh, the many leisurely joys of summer! I spent the next week lying around the house after school or trying to get my grades up as much as I could before it was officially too late. But before I knew it, it was finally the last day of school. It seemed to last four times as long as any other day; although, the clock said otherwise. Soon English was over, and the bell rang for the last time until September.
“So what are you into?” I asked her as we sat in Isabella’s condition-friendly bedroom. Michael sat close beside me. I’d noticed he continually but absently inched closer to my side. We had been growing closer and closer since school let out, and we’d been spending more time together. To be completely honest, I liked it.
“I like dolls. And flowers,” Isabella answered softly.
“Flowers,” I repeated.
“Before she had the disease, when she was a few months old, my mom would bring us outside to the huge garden. Back in Washington, Mom had a thing for flower gardens. She’d spend every minute with them if you’d let her,” he explained with a tiny smile.
“Her first and last memories of the outside,” I though aloud.
“Yeah, that’s one way to look at it. A bittersweet moment,” Michael whispered. Isabell yawned and I looked at the clock on her bedside table. It was 9:00.
“It’s getting late,” I said, smiling at Isabell. Michael saw that and smiled at me with a nod.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “I’ll walk you home, unless you’d like to stay…” There was hope in his beautiful green eyes.
I think I’ll head home,” I said, but I regretted that almost instantly, for I saw his face fall slightly.
“All right, then. Let’s go.”
That night, I didn’t get much sleep—tossing, turning, and thinking. And the morning finally came. It was a slow start. I took a shower, ate breakfast, and watched TV. Late morning, around 11:00, I received a call from Michael.
“Amber,” he said quietly. He sounded weird, “come quick. Please, just come.” What? Why? No time for questions, I thought. I got up and ran next door. I let myself in, not bothering with the doorbell. I arrived to find Michael and Sarah sitting on their couch. Blood-shot eyes, dark circles underneath them. Obviously they’d been crying. I was immediately consumed with worry.
“Michael!” I cried. “Michael, what’s wrong?” Sarah broke down in a fresh wave of tears.
“Isabell,” he whispered through his tears, his voice cracking on the last note.
“Isabell? What happened, Michael?”
“S-sh-she… oh, Amber. Amber, Is died…” he cried. “She burned. She got outside to see the flowers because we were talking yesterday… It’s all my fault! I brought up the stupid garden in Washington! Why? Why did I do that?”
I wrapped my arms around them both. I hugged them and let my own tears flow. “It’s not your fault, Michael. It’s not. Don’t blame yourself…” is all I could manage through my own tears.
The funeral was sad. Her family gathered at the cemetery and shared their sorrow and their grief. I stood with Michael, my arms around him. Flowers were placed on the little girl’s grave. Beautiful flowers… Afterwards Micahel and I talked. About life, death, Isabell. Everything. And that again was another night of insomnia. Although, I must have fallen asleep sometime, for I remember dreaming of flowers—big, beautiful flowers under a clear blue sky…