It was an unsuspicious road. A gravel leeway, carved underneath hemlocks, cedars, and evergreens that blotted out the sky with their branches. The road wound a bit but was mostly straight ever since it left the highway two miles back. To either side of this road and set back into the woods, were houses; some small, others expansive, most of them simple.
It was a quiet place. Far enough from the city that one might not hear another sound in the dead of night from their front porch. It was a road just like many in rural Oregon. It was unremarkable and forgettable in every way, except one thing, it was the road I grew up on. But even that was unremarkable because my only contribution to the place was that I lived there and it would have remained dull and happy and glow like a post card if Mr. Belledyne had never moved into the house at the end of the lane.
I was twelve when I saw Mr. Belledyne for the first time. In those years I spent much of my time at home. My parents, both fervent christians and repulsed by the local school’s classes – especially sex ed, had taken me and my older brother out of public school, promptly bought a curricula more in line with their beliefs, and my mother held class for us in our living room. We were, from that moment forward, homeschooled.
I was lousy at making friends, so I didn’t protest. Jonathan, however, with his sandy hair and crystal eyes and laughter that stretched for miles, was quite popular at school. He complained loudly and often snuck out, straight after our class in the living room, to ride his bike to the local burger shack to see his friends, with whom he complained about our parents and their beliefs. He often didn’t come home until supper was served and was grounded many times, to no avail.
It was one of these afternoons, after class was finished and Jonathan had peddled away, that I saw the black Buick roll slowly past our front yard and soon disappear through the trees to the end of the lane. I was sitting on the front steps of our porch at the time, drinking an ice cold sparkling water, and my feet bare against the sun warmed planks of the steps.
Our house sat on a small rise and commanded a patchy vista of the road below, blocked only by a few large trees that hugged the front of our property. The road was just far enough away that it made it difficult to identify the make and model of cars and it was nearly impossible to see the driver. By the color or size of the cars we identified the drivers, which were usually neighbors or family. Mr. Belledyne was neither.
The screen door snapped at my heels as I ran inside.
“Mom! Mom! Did you see the car that just drove by?” I nearly shouted as I ran into the kitchen, the scent of freshly baked bread filled the room.
Mother was pulling the bread out of the oven. Her blonde hair was pulled tight in a pony tail which made her narrow features seem even sharper. She kept her gaze on the hot pan in between her mittened hands.
“Micah,” She said firmly. “How many time do I have to tell you not to shout, I can hear you just fine.” She turned her back to me, setting the bread down on the counter.
“But Mom,” I pleaded, quieter this time. “Did you see the car? It was black. ALL black. Even the windows were painted black.”
“Yes. I saw the car. And the windows aren’t painted black, they’re tinted. Tinted much too dark to be legal,” She said sourly.
“Tinted?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s like sunglasses for windows,” She said moving toward the stove.
Cool, I muttered under my breath.
“What was that?” She asked.
“Nothing. I was just wondering who it was. He drove to the end of the lane and hasn’t driven back. I thought you said no one lived at the end of the lane,” I said hurriedly.
“No one used to live at the end of the lane, Micah. But someone does now. Mr. Belledyne does. He bought the place last week.”
“Who’s Mr. Bella-ding?” I asked.
“Bella-dean, Micah. Not bella-ding. I don’t really know. The place was up for sale and he bought it. That’s all I know,” She said as she cleaned dishes near the sink.
I moved closer to her, propping my elbows on the counter and gazing out the wide windows in front of the sink. The sun was low in the horizon, evening had just begun.
“So, he’s our neighbor now? Mr. Belledyne?” I asked. Watching my mother’s hands as they methodically scrubbed the dishes.
“You could say that,” She said as she racked a dish with a clang.
“We should invite him over for dinner then or a potluck!” I exclaimed.
My mother stopped abruptly, clamping her hands on the edge of the sink for a moment. The only sound was the rush of the tap as it gushed into the sink. She slapped the lever down and the water stopped.
“I don’t think he’s going to be that kind of neighbor, Micah,” She said, flexing her jaw when she was finished.
“But-“ I began.
“No but’s. He’s just not going to be that kind of neighbor,” She said firmly, looking me in the eye and daring me to speak. I hated it when she gave me that look. It usually meant the next word out of my mouth would earn me a spanking. But I couldn’t understand why the prospect of dinner with a new neighbor had shaken my mother in such a way.
When the Newmans moved in last summer, she baked two pies immediately and invited them, including their angry terrier, over for dinner the following week. Two years ago, it was the Hendersons. Same story. They had two teenage boys who looked bored the entire evening and wouldn’t say a word to me but found Jonathan to be great company. I often saw the Henderson boys riding away with Jonathan when Johnathan biked to town, I was never invited. Even further back, there was a year that two families moved in down the road and my mother orchestrated a potluck. Several of the local residents joined and the food was better that year than the times when Grandma was still alive and cooked most of the food.
So, it was strange to me, that we wouldn’t have Mr. Belledyne over. After all, as I’d heard my mother tell many a new resident to the area, that’s what neighbors did.
“Why?” I asked, finally, and the look in my mother’s eyes told me I’d made a mistake.
She turned away, untying her apron and hanging it near the fridge. A fridge that was littered with photos, brochures, and bible verse magnets.
“Micah. It’s hard to explain. Mr Belledyne didn’t move out here to make friends, he came out here to be alone. He told us himself last weekend when you were out on your field trip,” She looked down for a moment, resting her eyes on the sink before snapping them back to me.
“He’s older and isn’t in good health and just wants a quiet life and to be left alone. No dinner, no potlucks, no snoopy neighbors. And I think it’s best if we do as he has requested, don’t you think?”
I nodded dutifully. Though my insides felt as if they’d popped like a balloon.
“Well. That’s no fun,” I said and looked down at the ground.
“I want you to promise me, Micah,” Mother said as she took a step closer and rested her hands on my shoulders. “That you will leave Mr. Belledyne alone. Okay?”
I nodded again. Unsure why she had become so serious.
“I want to hear you promise,” She said, cocking her head to the side.
“I promise,” I said.
I sighed heavily, the way twelve year olds only know how.
“I promise to leave Mr. Belledyne alone and won’t go bothering him,” I said, grinding the edges of my syllables to a sharpened point.
“Good. Thank you. Have you finished your homework?” She asked.
I started to nod but stopped, I was a terrible lier.
“Go get it finished, dinner will be ready in an hour and you don’t want me to tell your father you haven’t finished your schoolwork when he gets home.”
She was right, I didn’t want that. I turned away, grateful to be out from underneath her fingertips. I hadn’t realized until she let go of my shoulders just how hard she was squeezing.
I left the kitchen and as I passed the front door, I saw a boy about my age walking passed on the road. I went back to the door to see who it was, but as I waited, no one emerged from between the cloak of the trees. I’d believed I’d imagined it. But I let my gaze linger and looked to the right, where the road threaded into the forest and disappeared. I realized then that I’d never seen a house at the end of the lane, only a gate. Part of me wished that Mr. Belledyne wanted company, if only so I could see what kind of house he lived. But I promised.
And it would be only one of many promises I would break to her in the years to come.