New Neighbors Move In

It was Saturday afternoon when I first saw her. Her family had moved into the house next door during the morning. She was 9 years old and had a 16-year-old sister as well as a widowed mother. Her father, I was later told, died when she was eight. That's why they moved from Sydney to Melbourne: to escape bad memories.

After my mum had a chat with the new neighbors, she told me the little girl's name was Lily Jenkins. Mum jokingly teased me about being curious over a 9-year-old, but, after a moment of nervousness, I laughed it off—and so did she.

Lily was barely four feet tall. She and her sister were both attractive girls, but Lily, I must say, was very beautiful. Her long brown hair framed a face that held two large, bright eyes. Everything about her was perfect: her small pink lips, her dimply cute bubbly grin, her little nose, and those big wide eyes that made her look so awake and fresh. Over time, I noticed that she didn't smile much and often seemed depressed—but when she did smile, for me her happiness was like a cure for depression.

A week after she moved in next door, I never really spoke to her or got to know her. I spied on her from my second-story bedroom window. In a manner that reminded me of Hitchcock's Rear Window, I looked inside her room and even inside her bathroom. I didn't use a telescope though since her house was right next to mine. One time Lily was so naïve she left her bathroom window open as she showered. Although I tried hard to catch a glimpse of her private parts, I never saw any more than her naked back. For many days I longed to talk to her—or even her older sister—but I didn't have the guts to approach them.

After school one day I was upstairs in my room spying into Lily's bedroom. The house next door was two stories high, and Lily's bedroom was on the second story, just as mine was. Lily was sitting on her bed. Lily's teenage sister Ella also had a bedroom upstairs. I often spied on Ella as well. Today Lily seemed sad, which I thought was strange because typically little girls were very bright and happy until they reached puberty, after which they become groggy and emotional. The behaviour I observed in the Jenkins sisters was the complete opposite of what I expected. As I spied, my mum walked up behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"Dinner's ready, Keith," said Mum. "What are you looking at?" She leaned over to the bedroom window to have a look for herself. "Eh, having a look at the girls next door, are you? Why don't you just go over and say hello to them?"

I shook my head. "I…I don't really want to."

"Don't be shy," said my mum, smiling at me. "They won't bite."

I remained silent, not really knowing what I was supposed to say.

"How would you like it if I invited the neighbors over for dinner at our house tonight?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't mind. Do what you want."

Mum patted me on the shoulders and turned around, ready to leave. "Make sure you come down for dinner in five minutes. I'll see if I can convince them to have dinner with us."

After my mum left, I walked over to the mirror and checked myself out. I wanted to make myself as presentable as possible.

Sometimes I spend so long looking at other people that I felt like I was looking at a stranger when I looked at myself in the mirror. My black hair was not brushed, but that was okay since any attempt to brush it made me look like I was trying too hard. I was 6-feet-tall exactly. My height was the result of a comfortable upbringing with a good, wholesome, and never-ending supply of food. But since I spent so much time indoors playing video games, reading books, or browsing the Internet, my skin was many shades paler than it should be. I was also skinny, and although my skinniness drew attention to my height, it also made me look nerdish. Girls on television are always going on about how they want smart men, but I think they're referring more to Shakespeare smarts instead of computer smarts.

I kept looking at myself in the mirror. My shoulders were starting to broaden, but they definitely weren't broad enough. Dad promised to buy me an exercise machine for my nineteenth birthday, which was only a few months away.

When I arrived downstairs, Dad was at the dinner table eating by himself. I sat opposite him and started eating.

"Where's your mother?" asked Dad.

"She's inviting the new neighbors over."

"Thank God those old neighbors moved out," said Dad. "They were trash. Hope these new neighbors are better."

I nodded silently and continued eating. Dad was right. Our old neighbors were mean people. One time, Dad got into a fight with them because one of their trees grew branches that went over our fence and invaded our property. Dad ordered the neighbors to cut the branches but they refused, saying they didn't have any powertools to cut it down with. The tree branch reached over the fence and almost touched my bedroom window. Dad was afraid that someone—maybe a robber—could climb the tree and enter our house through my bedroom window if I accidentally left it open one day.

Mum walked in through the front door by herself. She smiled at Dad and sat down next to me at the dinner table.

"Are the new neighbors coming?" asked Dad.

"They've already cooked their own dinner," said my mum. "I had a nice chat with Nancy, the mother. She's such a great mother…coping so well with her husband's death."

"What happened to the father?" Dad obviously didn't hear about the murder.

"There is no father, just a single mother." Mum remained silent for a while. "Nancy's husband was murdered. A burglar broke into their house in Sydney and shot him. Nancy now has to support two daughters with a teacher's salary."

"Was it murder or manslaughter?"

"The police haven't caught anyone, so no one's been to court yet."

Dad nodded silently. "Poor woman."

"Yeah, we should help Nancy out some time. She's got two adorable little girls though…uh, Ella and Lily, I think their names are. Our Keith seems to be quite interested in them." She looked at me and grinned.

My face went red when Dad looked at me. Dad smiled too but his smile was less friendly than my mother's. Mum smiled at me as if to say Aww, my boy is growing up. Dad smiled at me as if to say, Control yourself, you sick pervert. I continued to eat in silence. Mum and dad looked at me curiously for a while longer before they changed the subject of discussion. I tuned out when they started talking politics. Nothing was as boring as a discussion about John Howard.

After dinner, I went back upstairs and changed into my pajamas. As I changed clothes, a paper plane flew through my open bedroom window and landed on the carpet near my feet.

Realizing that I was half naked, I jumped away from the window and quickly pulled my pajama pants up. Someone, I realized, was spying on me.

My hands picked up the paper plane from the floor. Once unfolded, I saw big black writing on the paper. It was curvy writing. All the letters were in lower case. The dots on the i's were all shaped like love hearts. The writer obviously tried hard to make herself seem as feminine as possible. The paper said simply, HI! MY NAME IS ELLA. WHAT'S YOURS?

I walked over to the bedroom window and peeked out carefully, aware of what I was wearing: light blue pajama pants with teddy bears and pinks flowers all over it. The sky was cloudy. The moon was out. The night air was frosty cold. It was dark outside but in the neighbor's house the lights were on in Ella's bedroom. This room was directly opposite mine, just over the fence.

Also in her pajamas, Ella stood near her bedroom window. She smiled at me and started waving. As soon as I saw her, I distanced myself from the window and started changing out of my pajamas, putting on tracksuit pants instead. I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing on it. I wrote I'M KEITH before scrunching up the paper into a ball and walking over to the window to throw it out.

The ball of paper flew about five meters over the fence before it landed in Ella's bedroom. I saw the teenage girl running around in her room trying to catch the ball. Through her window her bedroom looked like a typical girly girl's bedroom. There were posters of boy bands like Human Nature and Backstreet Boys. I thought I caught a glimpse of an Eminem poster. It's a pity because I hated most pop music.

A paper plane flew back and hit me on the head. I said ouch and rubbed my head. Ella must've through I was pretending to be hurt because she started laughing out loud. I unfolded the paper plane and started reading:

C DA BIG TREE BETWEEN YOUR BEDROOM AND MINE? USE IT 2 CLIMB 2 MY ROOM.

There was a large tree growing in the neighbor's house whose branches reached my bedroom window. This was the tree the old neighbors refused to cut down. This was the tree my dad was afraid robbers could climb up one day to enter my bedroom. The tree had large branches that connected my bedroom window with Ella's bedroom window, so in theory I could climb on the tree branches and get into Ella's bedroom from where I was standing. But there were a number of reasons why I hesitated. I grabbed a fresh piece of paper and wrote a new message:

IT'S COLD OUTSIDE. THAT TREE MIGHT HAVE INSECTS CRAWLING ALL OVER. WHAT IF I SLIP AND FALL? WHAT IF THE BRANCH BREAKS?

For some reason, this time when Ella read the piece of paper, her face lost its enthusiasm. She seemed shocked with my reply. But within twenty seconds she threw another paper plane back. I unfolded the paper plane to reveal its bold and short message:

STOP BEING A GIRL! BE A MAN!

I couldn't believe what I was reading. How could she criticize me by calling me a girl when she was a girl? Dead feminists would turn in their graves if they realized the magnitude of pride modern females now have for their own gender. Furthermore, why did she want me in her room? Did she like me?

I'm eighteen years old and I've never had a girlfriend in my whole life. I've barely had a significant conversation with a member of the opposite gender.

After a few more minutes in which I debated in my head whether or not climbing over into Ella's bedroom was worth it, I finally probed a foot out and rested it on a branch. Ella looked at me cautiously from the other side, probably afraid I might fall. With my right hand I grabbed another branch and swung my whole body out. Now that I was outside, the frosty night air started to seep in through my tracksuit pants. I wore a thin t-shirt.

When I arrived at the other side and climbed into Ella's bedroom, my feet gave way. I almost fell. Ella grabbed me by the waist and shoulder. Her hands on my skin invoked strange emotions within me.

I took control of my balance and moved away from Ella. She stood where she was and looked at me. She wore pyjamas. It was ten at night but both the radio and the television were on in her room, suggesting to me that she was a regular night owl. Ella's bedroom was about five meters in width, length, and height, giving the room a total volume of 125 cubic meters. It was a fairly large room. The walls were pale pink with five-point stars stuck to the walls with sticky glittery paint.

I looked at Ella as she stood where she was. She looked at me silently. Why did I come here and what did she want with me? If my dad ever figured out where I was right now he'd crucify me. He was, after all, a Christian extremist.

Ella finally spoke. "Whattaya wanna do?"

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

She paused for a while and sat down on her bed. "I just wanna talk."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"Uh, hmm." Her face went funny as she looked up at the ceiling to think. "I wanted to ask you a question."

"Go ahead and ask."

"Do you guys like it when we chicks hold your hands in public?"

What an odd question to ask. I thought about it for a while. "Yeah, I don't mind."

Ella nodded. "Yeah, 'cos I've been holding hands with my boyfriend for a while now and all of a sudden he doesn't seem too keen on me anymore."

I was starting to get the impression that the only reason why she got me into her room was to reveal to me that she had a boyfriend. I was starting to dislike Ella.

Ella was tall, slim, and blonde. Her breasts seemed very large—a little too large for my liking. I'd bet my life she had breast implants. So big were those melons they made her look vain and trashy.

I suppressed these immoral thoughts and concentrated on reviving the conversation by changing the subject.

"I'm very sorry about your father's death." I tried to say this with as much formality as possible.

She seemed disappointed that I didn't continue with the boyfriend topic. "Yeah, well, I'm learning to move on. I can't let sadness beat me. What's past is past. I've got to move on."

"Of course," I said, aware that she was on autopilot conversation mode, regurgitating lines from Oprah and other daytime TV programs. Ella was no longer happy and enthusiastic. Speaking about her dead father brought about a burst of misery from within, filling her face with sorrow. I started to empathize with her and felt the first steps of emotional connection.

Ella spoke. "Can I ask you another question?"

"Sure."

"Did you…uh…did you enjoy your first time?"

Initially, I didn't understand what she meant, but she detected my confusion and clarified immediately.

"When you first had sex," she said bluntly, "did you like it?"

It took me a while to recover from her sudden burst of vulgarity. "I'm…I've never had…I'm a virgin." I spoke silently, a little ashamed of myself. I should have lied.

She smiled. "Really? Oh my God! That's so odd. You're like a priest." She laughed at her own priest comment. "Have you even kissed a chick?"

After I shook my head, Ella fell silent. She knew I was both honest and ashamed. I felt my face burning red. Why did I have to be so honest? Ella put her head down and sat still where she was, afraid to move.

"Are you a virgin?" I asked, breaking the silence.

"Yeah…but I'm only sixteen. How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

"Oh!" she said. "Well, it's normal for a chick to be a virgin, but it's weird for a guy to be a virgin, you know?"

A general feeling of unease took over my body. It was as if polluted blood pumped all over my veins and arteries. I couldn't identify whether it was shame, guilt, or regret, but whatever was the product of my pain, I knew the source: Ella. I needed to distance myself from her.

My bladder felt heavy. "Can you tell me where the toilets are?"

Three minutes later I was in the bathroom urinating in the new neighbor's toilet. The neighbor's bathroom was nicely fragranced. It had a different smell to the smell I was used to at home. After I washed and dried my hands, I walked back along the dimly lit top-story corridor, trying to find Ella's bedroom. Perhaps I could get back home before midnight tonight and get heaps of sleep before church tomorrow. I walked past a slightly opened door and heard noises. My head turned and my naturally curious eyes landed on a beautiful little girl.