It had been nearly a month since Mr. Belledyne moved into the neighborhood and I’d yet to have seen his car drive past again. Being homeschooled gave me a lot of time to contemplate the road in front of our house and now it was April and the skies had been unusually devoid of rain clouds. I spent much of my day on the front porch, pretending to do my homework, while I waited for the rumble of a car that never came.
One particular Wednesday, I was seated on the steps with my back to the railing, the midday sun flashing white against the biology book in my lap, when everything changed.
Jonathan came out of the house. The screen door snapped behind him.
“Not finished, huh?” He asked as he descended the steps, passing me.
My face was knotted from squinting at my shiny book when I looked at him.
He laughed, a big bright laugh.
“Whats wrong with your face?” He asked between chuckles.
“It’s too bright.” I mumbled and relaxed my face.
“You know it’s easier to read in the shade, right?”
I bunched my face at him and he laughed again.
“See ya later.” He called over his shoulder and walked down the lane to his bike.
“Wait!” I called, setting my book down and running after him.
“What’s up?” He asked when I caught up.
“Don’t you think it’s strange,” I said, nodding in the direction of Mr. Belledyne’s house.
Jonathan looked in that direction and looked back at me, frowning.
“What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Belledyne,” I said with a hushed voice, afraid that if I talked too loud he or mother would hear us.
“What do you mean?”
“He hasn’t driven past in almost a month. A MONTH. Who stays at their house for a month without leaving?” I asked.
He scratched his head and looked down at his shoes.
“I dunno, Micah. Maybe he has a disability or something,” Jonathan said, less interested on the subject than I was.
“Like the Henderson’s grandpa?” I asked. Their grandpa had something wrong with his brain, he forgot things and couldn’t drive anymore. That would’ve made sense if that was true for Mr. Belledyne but I had seen him drive by once which meant he could still drive, even if he forgot things.
“Why do you care anyways?” He asked.
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and looked away from him.
“I dunno. Just figured he would drive by and after mom told me he didn’t want to come over for dinner, I-“
Jonathan interrupted me by laughing.
I bunched my face up and stared angrily at him, worried I’d said something stupid.
“Is that what Mom told you? That he didn’t want to come over for dinner?” Jonathan cackled.
“Yes,” I muttered.
“That hilarious. I was wondering what they might have told you,” He said as he stepped onto his bike and kicked the stand up.
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling flustered.
“To be honest, I don’t think Mom or Dad has spoken to Mr. Belledyne since he moved in. I don’t think he turned us down for a dinner invitation either,” Jonathan said as he clicked his gear shifter back and forth.
“Why not?” I asked, incredulous that Mom would have lied to me.
He chuckled but it was an uncomfortable laugh. He glanced up at the house before leaning close to me and whispering.
“There’s a problem with Mr. Belledyne’s skin. I think Mom and Dad are worried it’s contagious,” He said darkly.
“Like a disease? Like cancer?” I asked hurriedly.
“Cancer isn’t contagious stupid. It’s not a disease either. It’s just the fact that Mr. Belledyne is black,” Jonathan said and stared me in the eyes. His blue iris’s glittered in the sun. After a moment, he leaned back into his seat and spoke again. “Don’t tell Mom I told you this.”
“Is that really a good enough reason to not invite someone over for dinner?” I asked quickly, afraid that he would leave. As I thought of it, we didn’t have any black friends, not that I knew of any, aside from the Morgan girls I saw at church on Sundays but they were just really tan. Now that I thought of it, there weren’t any black people at our church at all. Why had I just realized that? And why did it matter, anyways?
“For some people, it is,” He said.
“But why?” I asked.
Jonathan wrung his face with his hands and growled.
“I really don’t know how to explain it. You’ll figure it out when you’re older.”
I nodded but I was still confused.
He began to back pedal his bike, making to leave, when he stopped.
“Say, do you really want to say hello to Mr. Belledyne?” He asked.
“Uh-huh,” I replied.
“Get your bike.”
It only took a few minutes for us to pedal to the end of the lane, Jonathan in the lead, where the large metal gate blocked our path. It wasn’t especially tall, maybe a foot taller than I was at the time, and the space between the vertical bars was large enough for a person my size to squeeze through. But it was closed, as I had expected, and that meant we weren’t supposed to go any further.
“We could climb it,” Jonathan said, a mischievous smile played across his face.
I shook my head violently. The idea of trespassing made my skin crawl.
“Ahh, come on. Like you said, he hasn’t left for a month. What if he’s hurt and no one knows about it. We’d be helping out.”
I started to back away from the gate.
“Don’t be so scared. You wanted to say hi to Mr. Belledyne, right? Well, I doubt anyone has since he moved in. Who knows, it might make him happy,” Jonathan said as he glanced toward the gate.
“You think so?” My voice quaked.
“Of course. I’m sure of it,” He said confidently.
We stashed our bikes at the edge of the road before we slipped through the fence. I was shaking and the sensation of the cold steel bars of the gate only made it worse. I’d never broken into anything before or been somewhere without permission. Yet, Jonathan acted confident, as if he’d done this many times before and I silently wondered if he had.
As we walked, the road curved to the left and began to slope down and out of sight. The trees seemed denser, huge branches reached over the road and blocked the sun. It was as if we’d walked from midday into late afternoon in only a few hundred feet. A breeze came through the forest and chilled my skin, my arms were covered in goosebumps. There was nothing but the sound of our sneakers against the gravel. Each step felt like an addition sentence as if, the further we went, made our our trespass that much more criminal. The gate, where our bikes laid, seemed like lightyears away.
“What do you think he’s like?” I asked Jonathan.
“I don’t know. Like most people I suppose. But I heard he was old, really old. And that he’d had an accident in the military or something, half of his face is burned off. Just pure bone and teeth on one side,” He said, as he walked one step ahead of me.
An image of two face from the Batman cartoons, flashed across my eyes.
“Really?!” I yelped, aghast.
“Yes, and I heard there is a deep well on his property. That he eats little boys and tosses there bones down the well. After a month, I bet there’s a whole heap of bones down there,” He said.
I stopped in my tracks, ready to run back.
He wheeled around and laughed at me.
“Easy now, I’m just fucking with you,” He said and laughed some more.
I wrinkled my nose.
“What’s fucking with you mean?”
“Uhh, it means… It just means I’m joking. That I made all that up,” Jonathan said, rubbing a finger studiously against his chin.
“Oh. Okay,” I said, then paused. “So he doesn’t have a well with kid’s bones in it?”
Jonathan laughed, throwing his head back. He shook his head.
“Come on. Let’s go,” He said, turning back down the drive and heading toward Mr. Belledyne’s again. “I don’t have all day for this.”
We followed the road for an excruciating ten minutes before we saw the house.
I gasped at the sight.
The house sat in a wide meadow. The grass was trim, brilliantly green, spreading to the surrounding forest, and as flat as a lake. Set back in the meadow and backed up to the forest was a mansion, massive and white with a sharp, almost angrily, sloped roof that was covered in gray shingles and broken by three dormers. On one side was a turret, like I’d seen on castles, except the top was covered with a roof that looked like an upside down ice cream cone. The front of the house had many windows that seemed like little black eyes staring at us. The front door was bordered by pillars and, in a wide asphalt driveway in front of the entrance, was the all black Buick. Darts of light glimmered off its paint from the sun.
Nothing stirred. I stared at the windows and realized all the blinds were drawn.
Jonathan and I stopped in our tracks.
“Whoa,” I breathed.
“Man, I’d heard it was huge but this is insane,” Jonathan said incredulously.
“You knew this was back here?” I asked.
“People talk. They said it was the mansion of some logging baron back in the day, back when people had slaves and stuff and lost most of their teeth by thirty,” Jonathan said quickly.
“What’s a baron?” I asked.
“It’s like someone who’s really rich and shrewd. Like they made a lot of money from being mean to other people, I think,” Jonathan said.
I looked at the house and wondered if thats why I’d thought it looked like an angry home. Maybe it was supposed to look like the baron.
“Come on!” Jonathan said.
He hurried down the driveway, heading for the front door of the house.
I froze. What did he think he was doing? We’d get caught!
“You wanted to meet him, right?” Jonathan called over his shoulder. “Don’t be a chicken!”
My cheeks flamed. If there was anything I wasn’t, it was a chicken. And, if Jonathan wasn’t afraid, then neither was I. Yet, as I hurried after him, my heart felt like it had leapt all the way up until it was pressing against my tonsils. It felt like my feet had been chopped off at the knees.
I caught up to Jonathan when he was about twenty feet from the front door.
If the house had seemed massive before, it was larger than life now. It rose up three stories and blocked the sun, we walked into its shadow and I shivered. The car seemed like a space ship, as we passed it, there was no chrome anywhere, just eternally black, like the center of someone’s eyes, like night. I looked up at the windows and thought I saw one of the blinds move. I pinched down hard with my teeth and the taste of blood filled my mouth like old pennies. I hadn’t realized I was biting the inside of my cheek until then.
Jonathan hopped up the two short steps to the front door and stopped, then turned around and smiled at me.
“You want to knock first?” He asked.
I shook my head and stuffed my hands in my pockets. He giggled. I began to protest but he turned around too quickly and pressed the button next to the door. Inside the house, we could hear the muffled ding-dong of the doorbell.
We waited in silence, only the sound of our hushed breath and the warm rush of blood in my ears. Jonathan locked eyes with mine as we stood facing each other in front of the door, his smiling irises were vibrantly blue and seemed to sparkle.
Five seconds became ten, then thirty, until a minute had passed, and no one came to the door.
“I guess no ones-“
Jonathan turned and pressed the doorbell again, this time leaving his finger on it for a full ten seconds. The chimes inside the house rang like a church bell at noon. He pressed his ear to the door and listened.
I held my breath. I wanted to leave, I didn’t want to meet Mr. Belledyne anymore.
“Nothing,” Jonathan said when he pulled his ear away from the door.
“Maybe he’s not home,” I offered.
“Maybe not,” Jonathan’s eye braised shot up for a moment. “But maybe-“ His voice trailed off as he turned toward the door again.
I watched in horror as he put his hand on the doorknob. I tried to stop him, I did, but my feet weren’t working like they should. I stared and everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
The door opened. It wasn’t locked. Not that it was uncommon out in the countryside, where everyone knew everyone, but it struck me as out of place. Like a house this nice and huge shouldn’t be left unlocked. It should have guards or a security system at least.
Jonathan looked back at me, his face jubilant.
“Guess it’s a let yourself in kind of place,” he said giddily.
“No, don’t go in there!” I whisper yelled at him.
He rolled his eyes.
“Come one, Micah. I’ve heard stories where old people get lost in their houses or get locked in a bathroom or something and can’t get out. What if Mr. Belledyne needs our help?” Jonathan said.
I’d never thought of it that way before, I was suddenly worried that something might be really wrong with Mr. Belledyne, maybe something tragic. But trespassing was still trespassing and mother made me promise that I wouldn’t go bothering Mr. Belledyne. A promise was a big deal, how would she trust me again if she found out? There was a growing weight in my stomach, as if I knew we would find something bad, really bad, inside the house but I felt a force beyond my power begin to pull me forward and I followed Jonathan as he tiptoed inside the entrance to the Belledyne mansion.
It was massive inside and dim. Every window was dampened by white blinds that allowed a gray flat light but left most of the place to black, reaching shadows. It smelled musty and unused, like a basement. There was another odor, something sweet yet rotten, like molding vegetables, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
The front door led to a huge red carpet with intricate designs that spread out in front of us like an island and was bordered by the brown hardwood floors. The walls where white and bare for the most part, an occasional painting or old photo hung here and there. To either side of us where french doors that were open to dark, cavernous rooms. The room on the left looked like a dining room with a long table and chairs but looked dusty, as if it hadn’t been used in ages. On the right side was what looked like a living room, couches and chairs, bookshelves and little tables were scattered around a large fireplace. The black smear of the fireplace made me think of a huge mouth. I looked away.
In front of us the entry opened into a large square room which, at the far end, led to a wide staircase that went up one floor and split to either side. Balconies wrapped around and I could see dark rectangles along the walls up there, doors, all of them closed.
I was so entranced by the size and beauty of everything that I failed to watch my feet. My shin struck something solid and I tripped, falling on my hands. The rug burned against my palms and elbows.
“Watch your step, idiot,” Jonathan scolded, laughing as he did.
I rolled over, giggling from fear and embarrassment alike. I looked to see what I tripped over an it was a tall ladder, laying on its side.
When I looked up and screamed.
Jonathan’s eyes followed mine.
“Oh, Jesus,” He mumbled as he covered his mouth and began to dry heave.
Above me, I saw the smooth bottom of two leather shoes drifting back and forth as if caught in a breeze. Attached to the shoes were two long legs, a torso, and, above the shoulders and horribly stretched, was a neck with a bloated and black face. A thick rope was strung from the man to the chandelier.
I stared, horrified but unable to move my eyes from the specter. It was Mr. Belledyne for his hands were as black as his face and even in death, I could see the melted and bare side of his face that confirmed some previous horror that Jonathan had told me about.
I stared, unable to move from my back. I felt like I was glued to the floor. I heard Jonathan stumble and wretch in the corner. I’d never seen a dead person before and Mr. Belledyne certainly was, no one could hang from their neck like that and not be.
“We- we’ve got to c-call the cops,” Jonathan strained the words out.
I looked over and he was bent over a large vase and braced himself against a wall table. He looked up at me then, wiping his mouth with his shirtsleeve.
“But we’re trespassing!” I nearly shouted. “We’ll go to jail.”
He waved me off.
“Doesn’t matter, Micah. We have to,” Jonathan said. He looked up one more time at Mr. Belledyne before turning his mouth back to the vase and puking again. When he was finished, Jonathan picked up the phone from the table and dialed. I walked over to him. I felt numb and didn’t allow myself to look back at the man hanging from the chandelier. I focused my eyes on Jonathan who looked back at me and rested his hand on my shoulder, then he dropped his eyes when the voice came on the line.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” I heard the voice say.
“Uh, yeah. There’s a dead person here,” Jonathan said, thumbing the cord from the phone.
“What’s your location, sir?”
“1438 Evendale Drive. It’s the old mansion at the end of the road,” Jonathan said and paused. “Mr. Belledyne’s house.”
“What is the injury to the person? Are they breathing?”
“He’s not breathing,” Jonathan said.
“Any wounds or blood?”
“No,” he replied.
“Where in the house is the victim?”
Jonathan paused and looked passed me and up. He took a deep breath.
“He’s hanging from the chandelier in the front room of the mansion,” Jonathan paused again. “From a rope around his neck.”
After Jonathan hung up, I pleaded with him to let us go home but he was firm, we had to stay and wait for the ambulance. We went outside and sat on the front steps. The afternoon was dwindling and clouds had moved in front of the sun. A chill began to creep into the air, into my bones, and I grabbed my shoulders and hunched over as I sat next to Jonathan. We didn’t speak for a long time but when we finally did, I was the first to speak.
“Do you think he hung himself?” I asked Jonathan.
“I don’t know. Lots of people do, I guess,” he said.
“I don’t know. Maybe he was really sad, like Jim in Gunslinger,” Jonathan offered.
I thought about it for a moment but Jim had only rode off alone into the sunset after he’d avenged the death of his fiancé, he had just disappeared into the flat line of the horizon, nothing like Mr. Belledyne. There had to be a difference.
“But he didn’t hang himself,” I said.
“Will you stop?!” Jonathan snapped. “I don’t know why. It’s possible he didn’t mean to or that it wasn’t even him that did it,” he finished.
“Like a set up? Like-“ I trailed off. I couldn’t bring myself to think that it had been murder.
“It’s happened in other places, a while back. George told me stories about it, about his grandparents in Oklahoma,” Jonathan said.
“Who’s George?” I asked.
He told me he was a friend of his, a black kid a year ahead of Jonathan in school. George’s family had moved out to Oregon about twenty years ago, in the seventy’s, because things were rough for their family back then and, when they heard that Portland was a more modern, welcoming city for people from all walks of life, they relocated their farm down of Five Mile creek. Jonathan told me that George’s grandparents had been harassed by something called a culture protectionist group who were all white and didn’t like black people owning businesses in the area, as George’s grandfather had. One time they even tied him to a tree at the edge of town and left him there for a day before a wandering group of girls found him. He might’ve died there if it wasn’t for those girls recognizing him, Jonathan had said.
“People really do that? Just because they’re black?” I asked, stunned.
Jonathan nodded soberly.
“I’m sorry, Micah, but there’s a lot of terrible things about adults that we don’t understand,” Jonathan said, placing a hand on my shoulder.
My head hurt and I dropped my face into my palms. A horrifying thought came to mind.
“Is that why mom and dad didn’t invite Mr. Belledyne over for dinner, like they did for the other neighbors?” I asked and looked at him through my fingers.
Jonathan’s mouth flattened to a grim line. He nodded. I looked back into my palms and groaned.
“Never grow up, Micah,” Jonathan said softly, reaching an arm further around me and pulling me closer. “Because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that grown ups are generally unhappy and they take it out on other people for no good reason. People like Mr. Belledyne.”
Jonathan’s voice sounded older and far wiser than the five years that separated our age. I wanted to cry then but I couldn’t, my head was in pain and I felt the world, the false empires that I’d believed in, begin to crumble and fall around me.
For the first moment in my life, I began to realize just how terrible people could be and it was more frightening than watching a scary movie because, going into the movies, you knew there was going to be a monster but with people, with life, the monsters could be anyone.
We waited in silence, Jonathan’s arm around me and my face tucked into his shoulder, for the sirens to come.