Esme walked back into her apartment, her eyes to the floor as she dragged her feet. She went out on to the balcony and looked out at city that she was eager to explore. Sally’s balcony was empty, the French windows shut, the curtains drawn and just a slither of light peeking through the top. She looked past the wall on the other side of Sally’s apartment and saw the top of someone’s head poking up over it. She called out to the boy who looked similar age to her, excited that she would have the chance to meet another neighbour.
“Hey there!” She waved her arms over her head and called again, “Hello!” but still the boy didn’t move. Puzzled, she tried a third time, and although the boy didn’t turn around, he sat upright in his chair and stretched his neck and arms, at which point Esme noticed his white ear plugs. She went into her apartment and looked in her rucksack for something light that she could throw at him to get his attention. She grabbed a pack of handy sized tissues, went back to the balcony, threw it at him, missed his head, but managed to land the tissues in his lap. He tugged the headphone wires downward and the earplugs popped out.
“Oh shit, my was music too loud? Sorry,” said the boy as he brushed his palms downward on his chest, checked his appearance, then ran his fingers through his long hair to brush it backwards.
“No, I couldn’t hear your music, just wanted to get your attention.”
“Oh, I see. What’s up?” The boy spoke fast as if he had drunk a gallon of coffee. His clear eyes and round rimmed glasses made him look like a caricature. He smiled and tossed the pack of tissues back at Esme who couldn’t help but throw a smile back.
“Err, nothing up. Just wanted to say hi. I’m your new neighbour.”
The boy suddenly looked shocked, as if he’d just realised that he’d lost his wallet. “Oh my god, that must mean that she got out!”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Hmm, forget I said that.” He patted his chest and said, “I’m Darren.”
“Esme? Ha ha, you mean the Esme? Chloe’s ex-school friend, cello player, Basketball Craig Esme?”
“Wow, she dished the dirt about me, huh?”
Suddenly the boy got up out of his chair and leaned against the separator wall. His eyes were now wide and animated, “She did it. She really did it. She got out.”
Esme felt a nervous tingling in her feet. She flicked her hair away from her eyes and asked, “What do you mean, she got out?”
“Well, let me guess. You’ve just moved in. You don’t have any keys. You can’t get out of the front door and the air con unit’s acting like an uninvited guest, right?” Darren’s head was tilted to one side and was looking at Esme from the upper right corner of his eyes. Esme found him somewhat condescending, yet he had recited her exact predicament.
“Now you’re scaring me a little. That’s exactly right.”
The boy beamed, that kind of smile that school kids do when they’ve won first prize in a sports day race. She continued, “So let me guess. You’re the guy that owns the building, you’ve got my key and you’re the one that’s locked me inside my own apartment.”
“Ha ha, wrong, wrong and wrong. But I do know a lot about this building.”
“Can I come over so that we don’t have to talk over the wall?”
“Will we disturb her?” Esme pointed towards Sally’s French windows, the flickering of a TV screen seeping through the top of the curtains.
“No, you can’t ever disturb her when she’s watching something. She sometimes watches her screen for hours at a time. Strange that I never hear any sounds from her though, I can play my games through my speakers dead loud and she never complains.”
“I thought you told me that you don’t have a key for your apartment?”
“I don’t. But if you agree, I’ll scale both walls and join you on your balcony.”
Esme hesitated. This guy already knew stuff about her, things about her and Chloe. And it seemed that he knew how things worked in the building. Perhaps he could reveal more about Chloe’s intention?
“OK, you can come over. But you leave when I ask you to leave, OK?”
“Agreed. You’re not gonna send me away once you hear what I’ve got to tell you.”
The boy pulled himself up on to the first wall, clambered over and jumped down onto Sally’s balcony. He gave a quick glance towards her French windows, then walked towards the second wall and scaled it, jumping down onto Esme’s balcony, straightening himself out with his hand stretched out to introduce himself. “Pleased to finally meet you.” He looked through Esme’s French windows into her apartment and Esme thought that she should have perhaps closed them before letting him over. His dark hair that fell over his face and he wore black tracksuit trousers, running shoesand a white t-shirt with a fierce looking anime character on the front. Esme looked at the t-shirt, then looked back at the boy.
“That’s Erza Scarlet, from Team Natsu,” he paused after seeing Esme’s blank expression. “Never mind.”
Esme was used to younger boys looking her up and down as if she were some foreign object, but somehow Darren’s eye contact was different – no gawping, just smiling. She didn’t have a younger brother, but she imagined this is how it would feel to have one.
“You say that you’re in the same boat as me. Locked in, no key, can’t escape the building?” asked Esme to break the silence.
“It feels like I moved in weeks ago, but to be honest I can’t quite remember. My parents set everything up for me. I was playing GTA San Andreas for a long time, waiting for a call from the internet company, but I realised that my mobile never had any signal no matter where I took it in the apartment. It’s like its been blocked or something. I was expecting a call about a job interview that Mum insisted that I apply for. Couldn’t really give a shit about it though and it must have been weeks ago now.”
Esme interrupted him, “You don’t really sound too bothered about it.”
His voice then changed and he spoke his first words that lacked an air of joviality. “Yeah, you’re right. I play my games, I watch movies. I get my groceries. You will too in time, I suppose. Nobody bothers me. What’s not to like about it? But I’m worried that it’s impossible to escape. It seems as though every way I try is blocked somehow. It was kind of exciting at first, a challenge, you know? Like all puzzles, there’s always a solution, a way to crack it, like collecting the set of those superpower stones in Final Fantasy VII.” He held his chin and looked up at the sky. “Jeez, I lost two buddies, a girlfriend and a school term in the time I spent getting those.”
“Have you tried shouting at people passing by for help?” suggested Esme.
“I tried shouting, but no surprise they don’t hear me.”
“But we’re only on the first floor. Couldn’t we find a rope or something and climb down?”
“No, it wouldn’t work.”
“The building won’t let you.”
“The building?” Esme laughed, expecting Darren to laugh in unison, but he looked serious.
“Look, I’ll show you. Get me something from your apartment. Something that fits in your hand. Something personal to you, that only you in the whole world could have.”
Esme walked back into her apartment and looked around. Apart from the bulky items of furniture, everything that Esme had was standard. Kitchen implements. Items that had been bought at the department store. She picked up an alarm clock from her bedside dresser. She turned to Darren and passed it to him.
“Everyone in this apartment building could have this same alarm clock. I really want something that is totally personal to you.”
Esme spotted her jewellery box. Her mother had given it to her during the first school year, and it had always been in Esme’s room, filled with little bits and bobs that she considered precious, always longing for it to be filled with jewellery. As a child she had spent hours in her room, thinking up new role-playing games that included the box, touching it, caressing it, opening it and pretending to take out an infinite number of rings and bracelets. Her mother had always made a point of referring to the jewellery box as ‘hers’. As if it were on long term loan and as if she didn’t trust Esme. The jewellery box was certainly unique – it stood upwards like a tiny wardrobe, with front doors that opened sideward to reveal the delicate trays inside. It was made of varnished wood and covered in gold jagged-shaped plating that decorated the corners, panels and hinges. Esme and her mother seldom agreed on anything, but one thing for sure they both agreed that the jewellery box was both beautiful and mystical – as if it held a hundred stories of its origin. It was the one thing that bound them together and equally had pushed them apart.
“If you don’t let me move out, I’ll burn your fucking jewellery box,” she’d said. Her mother had slapped her, and as soon as she did, her mum’s face had turned sour as if the air between them had turned to poison.
She picked up the box by the handle, supported it from the bottom as if she were carrying a bird cage. “Be careful as its been in the family for decades and has sentimental value.”
Esme seldom let other people handle the jewellery box, and she expected nothing less than some feat of magic from her new neighbour, most likely the corny trick to make a bank note disappear. Darren took it, then beckoned her to follow him back to the edge of the balcony where he threw the box over the edge using his powerful right arm as if he were pitching a baseball. The box went hurtling through the air, tumbling over itself in somersaults as gravity pulled it towards the ground and to its imminent destruction. Esme watched the box get smaller and smaller like a stone falling down to the bottom of a well. The anticipated smash, the crash, the bang – whatever the sound, never came.
“What the fuck!” Esme held her hands on the side of her face, her fingers holding her hair back like pins, her eyes and mouth wide open. “You’ve no idea what you’ve just done. I loved that box more than I loved…” she stopped mid-sentence. Her entire body felt frozen, but somewhere in the pit of her stomach was a fire, burning and laughing, the control that her mother’s jewellery box had on her was finally over. Esme pictured her mum crying, Esme standing over her and allowing her to weep, telling her mum the things that she wanted to say, the fire burning furiously as they exchanged the words that they both had wanted to, but never had. Esme’s hands felt hot and prickly as she stared out into the street below filled with houses and gardens that had greedily gobbled up the jewellery box. Esme breathed in and pushed her chest out. She looked over the balcony to check the remnants of the box, but couldn’t see any wreckage on the ground. “And what was the point in that?” demanded Esme with her arms on her hips. Darren smiled like a fox that had just caught a chicken, walked back towards the bedroom and beckoned Esme to follow him again.
“Get out of my apartment, now!” cried Esme, but Darren was already half way towards the bedroom. Esme folded her arms, reluctant to follow him this time after what he’d just done.
“Come on, this way, it’s worth seeing, I promise you,” he said. Her body felt like a rag doll, and she obliged with heavy footsteps.
“You see, the people who are the best at clocking video games take risks, try every door, press every button, step out of every boundary. I’ll show you what I’ve just done.” He didn’t need to coax her further into the bedroom, moving inside as if she had been swept up with the current of the sea. There on the dressing table, standing tall and proud, was her mother’s jewellery box. Esme walked towards it, cautiously as if she were approaching a beehive. She feathered her finger across the handle, engaging the slightest tactile contact to confirm that the box was indeed ‘impossibly still there’, returned to its original state as if it had gone back in time.
“That’s impossible. You tricked me. How the hell did you do that?” Esme checked for any change in the jewellery box, but couldn’t find any. It was unmistakably the same one.
“This always happens. I learnt this little trick when I tried sent a message over the balcony. I wrote on a piece of paper, folded it into a paper aeroplane, stuck a small coin to it and darted it over the balcony. When I went back inside, I actually shrieked when I saw the folded piece of paper still on the table. Normally nothing creeps me out. I unfolded it with shaking hands to see the coin and my own hand writing. It totally messed me up. I spent the rest of the day daring to throw other things overboard – my watch, then a bag of sugar, my Star Wars box set, hell eventually I tried my Gameboy. I played on Minecraft for the rest of the day to forget about it.”
“And you think this would happen to us if we jumped from the side?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to try it, but so far I haven’t had the balls to jump.”
“There must be a way without having to bail out over the balcony.”
“There is. Because Chloe got out.” Darren sat down on one of the balcony chairs and looked out towards the city. Esme sat on the other chair and stared at Darren.
“Oh wait, do you think I had something to do with that, that she got out because of something I did?”
“Maybe. I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what I do know. That Sally knows when we move about. When Chloe and I first met, she came to my apartment. She jammed a shoe in her door to stop it from locking, and by the time she’d got to my door and knocked on it, Sally stuck her ferret-shaped face out of her doorway and started to ask questions. Now I’m wondering if she was able to leave the building because she coaxed you here as her replacement.”
“She wouldn’t do that, we’re good friends. She called me first to offer me this apartment.”
Darren had his elbows on his knees, and tilted his head forward and looked at the ground.
“You know stuff, don’t you,” asked Esme. “What did she tell you about me?”
Darren hesitated, but sat upright and looked at Esme over the top of his glasses, “She was bitter. She never forgave you for dating that guy from the basketball team. Said it broke her heart. Said that you were a bitch and that it should be you cooped up in this prison of a building instead of her. She vented her anger to me about you. She hated you for what you did, but could never show it. She wished she could have spoken to you, gotten it out of her system, but from what she told me, I just don’t think she knew how to forgive you.”
“You think that she tricked me into moving in so that she got a pass to leave?”
“Maybe. But it still doesn’t explain how she was able to phone you. I’ve never had a signal since I arrived and there are no phone lines here.”
“Maybe she made a deal with Sally?”
They both looked at each other with nothing more to say.
“Look, I’m gonna go back to my apartment before she comes out,” said Darren eventually. “Have a think about it all. You know, I’m in no rush to leave this place as it looks after me quite nicely. But I can see you wanna leave, so I’ll help you if I can.”
“What do you suggest?”
“The air con unit in your room. It’s loud and buzzing and annoying, right?”
“Yes, I’m hoping that I’ll get used to it. Everyone tells me that it cannot be changed.”
“That’s not true. Try meditating next to it. Relax. Clear your thoughts.”
“It’s not gonna explode is it?”
“Not unless your brain explodes first when you meditate next to it,” Darren laughed, and Esme managed a chuckle. “Just give it a go, you’ll see what I mean.”
Darren got up out of his chair and looked towards his apartment. “I suggest we have another little conflab sometime tomorrow when Sally is watching her TV again.”