THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE ROAD
Moving in had been traumatic but also satisfying because at last we had a home. A real house, not like the series of rented apartments we’d lived in since I lost my job. ‘We’ being my son Caleb and me.
I used to be considered a talented and upwardly mobile graphic designer. ‘Was’ being the operative word since Zoog Designs no longer existed.
It had been a difficult few months for Caleb and me since I became unemployed.
I’d switched to homeschooling him because I had no clue what we were facing and it turned out to be a good decision. Lots of changes happened all too fast. Too many different schools wasn’t good for anyone, let alone a small-for-his-age, skinny boy with hair the color of wheat and more curiosity than the famous cat who got killed because of it. Who knew what he’d do in a series of schools where I didn’t know his friends, his teachers, or anyone at all? I wasn’t going to let that cat’s fate happen to Caleb because, unlike the cat, I doubted that satisfaction would bring him back.
So, after all those apartments and a switch to homeschooling, I was now the proud owner of a small house in the country with no neighbors in sight and no mortgage thanks to a portfolio manager who told me to sell my stock before Zoog went bankrupt.
It wasn’t a fortune but it was enough to pay for a very small house so far out in the country that I was the only person willing to even look at it, let alone buy it because everyone else thought about the long bus ride to school or the drive to work and passed on it. I didn’t have that worry and couldn’t wait to sign the papers.
After losing my job I’d become a free-lance graphic designer so I now made enough working from home to keep us fed and clothed as long as we lived frugally. In the country what was there to spend money on, anyway?
So we moved in. I let Caleb know there’d be no summer vacation for him. Lessons would continue at his desk from Good Will that was located beside my desk, also from Good Will. I’d design stuff and he’d get smart and we’d live happily ever after.
Or so I thought until the real estate agent, a lovely, grandmotherly woman named Lucy stopped by to see how we were doing. She knew we had no family, no friends in the area, and was a wee bit concerned about the remote location of the small house. So, being a decent person, once we were moved in, she stopped by with chocolate cake and a quart of ice cream.
Over treats beneath a huge tree of unknown species, she said, “The only possible problem I can see with your new life is the house at the end of the road.”
As I gulped and choked on cherry ice cream and chocolate cake, I looked down the road. I couldn’t see the house, of course because the dead end road was curvy and the house was over a mile away.
Can a house cause problems?
Her expression said it could.
What she didn’t say was what kind of problems they’d be.
The rest of the visit was pleasant enough considering my mind was on the house at the end of the road. But Lucy was kind and laughed a lot and when she left, I decided she’d been joking. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
Caleb saw her remark differently. Of course he did because he’s Caleb. “Can we go see that house?” He tugged at my sleeve in his eagerness but I wasn’t going traipsing around without thinking things through first, not a house that could be a problem. So I said it was time for dinner and afterwards it would be too late to go visiting people who didn’t know we existed. Visiting was a middle of the day thing.
I wasn’t sure Caleb bought my excuse but he stopped pestering me and the next day he seemed to have forgotten about houses at the ends of roads because he’d reached the Civil War in history and that grabbed his attention.
But after dinner he wanted to go visiting. Again I said it was too late and he subsided, disappearing into a movie about the Civil War that I quickly said could be counted as homework if he paid close attention and wrote a book report on it the very next day.
He nodded. Then he asked if we could visit the house at the end of the road as soon as he finished his report. I was caught and I knew it so I said if he wrote a really good report and there was still time for a walk to the end of the road then maybe we could go after I finished my own work. But only if the report was good enough to satisfy a picky teacher. Me. Then I repeated the word ‘maybe.’
I’ve learned to use that word a lot when dealing with Caleb but he knows me and figured that ‘maybe’ meant ‘yes’ so he erupted in a happy shout and turned his full attention back to the Civil War. I had peace for the space of the movie except for the part of me that wondered what we’d find when we actually checked out the house Lucy had mentioned.
The next day after a Civil War movie report written at warp speed that I couldn’t find fault with no matter how I tried, we set out for the house at the end of the road. It was a long walk and the closer we got the more uneasy I felt though I kept telling myself not to pay attention to the ramblings of a senior citizen real estate agent named Lucy. Then we rounded one last curve and reached the house.
I sighed in relief. “It’s a perfectly normal house.” Then I added, “It’s surrounded by a lot of green stuff but maybe the owner has a thing for bushes.”
Caleb was disappointed. “It’s just a house.” No ghosts jumped out at us. There was nothing scary at all. Just a normal house in the country surrounded by a lot of shrubs that hid it from the road. As if the neighbor didn’t want it to be seen.
He hollered. “Anyone home?” His shout was loud. Very loud.
“Caleb. Shhh!” I wished he’d been a bit more tactful but that’s Caleb. “They aren’t used to neighbors and might not want company.” But we listened for an answer.
A cat appeared in a window, white as snow and curious about us. Somewhere a dog barked. And as if on cue, music wafted through a window. But no one answered Caleb’s call.
We knocked and no one came to the door, after which I wimped out. “We didn’t bring a gift. Everyone in the country brings food when they visit a neighbor for the first time. Like chocolate cake.” Such as the one Lucy had brought us.
“Can I knock on the door again?”
“No. The dog is barking so I’m sure whoever lives here knows we are here and would be opening it if we were welcome. Which we clearly aren’t.” Keeping a firm grip on his hand, I started towards home. “Let’s go, Caleb.”
“Awww.” He came reluctantly, turning back every few feet just in case someone came to the door. But no one did.
As for me, I couldn’t get away fast enough. As we rounded that curve on our way home, something in me relaxed as happens when you’re being watched and the watcher stops watching.
Had someone been watching us?
If so, who were they?
What were they?
Caleb kept track of the days on the calendar on the wall. When Saturday rolled around, I found out why. “There’s no school on weekends, Mom. And no work, either.”
He knew how to get what he wanted. Learned it from his mom so I couldn’t complain. “Do you have something that you want to do?” As soon as the words were out, I wished them unsaid because of course the house at the end of the road would be involved.
About that, it seemed I was wrong. “We should learn more about where we live now. What it’s like,” he said. “It’s the country and there’s a lot of it out there.” His eyes danced and who can resist a kid with dancing eyes? “Let’s spend the day exploring.”
The area. The countryside. Not the house at the end of the road. “Good idea.” I said we’d start right after breakfast.
That suited him. “We’ll be gone a long time.” I waited because there would be more. There always was with Caleb. “I’ll bring my backpack and you bring yours.”
“Okay.” Since when did he prepare for anything? Was this a new Caleb?
Must be because he planned carefully. “Lots of food, of course, so we won’t starve during our travels.” As casually as possible he added, “Cake, of course. The one you baked after Lucy left because we were on a chocolate cake kick and we ate hers in one afternoon so we needed another one so we made one a couple days ago.”
I laughed. “Chocolate cake it will be.” We packed the cake carefully along with healthy snacks and thick sandwiches because cake alone wasn’t enough. I added sunscreen and made sure we had hats to protect us and light jackets to shed weeds and we were ready.
We set off, my heart singing because life was good and would get better with each passing day. I just knew it would and the butterflies and songbirds that surrounded us agreed with that sentiment, along with the scurrying small animals that we never saw who added their input to the day. I’d made the right decision when I bought the house in the country, never mind that there was a house at the end of the road that didn’t fit any definition of normal no matter what I’d told Caleb.
“Almost time for lunch,” I said after a couple hours of wandering.
“Not yet,” was Caleb’s reply. “Can we go just a little farther?” He pulled my hand. “Over that hill?”
“Okay.” Why not?
So we went over the hill and guess what was on the other side. The house at the end of the road. I sucked in my breath and wondered how Caleb knew his way around his new surroundings well enough to have managed to get us where he wanted us to be exactly when he wanted us to be there. I had no illusions about the time because as I stopped in shock and stared at the house, he turned his backpack around and rummaged inside.
“We have a cake this time so we can introduce ourselves and give the owner a cake as a gift.” He blinked innocently as if this hadn’t been planned from the start. “Because that’s what neighbors do in the country.”
I gazed at the house, my heart sinking and wished I knew what would happen when we knocked on the door. I wanted to turn around and run. But I knew Caleb wouldn’t follow. He was determined to enter the house at the end of the road, no matter what happened. Good or bad.
We went up to the house and knocked and waited with bated breath to see who would answer. If they’d be carrying an axe. Or a shotgun. Surely, I kept thinking, if the worst happened our bodies would be found before they rotted past identification.
No one answered. The white cat appeared in the window and meowed politely. Somewhere in another room the dog barked. And that music wafted through the rooms and out into the summer’s day. Soft, lovely, dance music.
But no one came to the door. No footsteps could be heard inside. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
“Let’s go, Caleb,” I said nervously and practically dragged him to the road and then towards our house as fast as possible, hardly giving him time to stuff the chocolate cake carefully back into his pack before rounding that curve that hid us from whomever was watching. Because someone was. I could feel it.
“What about our picnic?” Caleb wailed and fought against my push to get home.
“When we’re closer to home.” I pulled with renewed vigor and soon we were almost running along the road.
We didn’t have that picnic, at least not outside, because as we went, a thunderstorm developed, looming larger and darker with each step we took until, just as we turned into the yard the sky opened up and we were drenched before rushing into the kitchen and slamming the door behind us.
“Guess we’ll have an indoor picnic,” I said as brightly as I could manage considering that we were dripping water from every part of us.
“After we dry off,” Caleb added, inspecting the puddles on the floor with scientific interest and yelling because the thunder was so loud it was the only way he could be heard.
He looked through the window. “If someone knocked on our door right now we’d not hear them.”
Who would knock on our door? No one, that’s who. Except, as I opened my mouth to say so, I thought I heard a car. But no one turned into the driveway so I must have been mistaken. The house at the end of the road was getting to me. Making me hear things that didn’t exist. I’d better take a firm hold on my imagination before I lost it. So I turned to the backpacks we’d not needed because we’d not had a picnic and no one had answered our knock to be given a cake.
We dragged out sandwiches and other food and had that picnic lunch at the kitchen table. I noticed that the chocolate cake had disappeared and I didn’t ask about it because, after all, if it no longer existed then there’d be no reason to return to the house at the end of the road.
Which was fine with me because I’d already decided that as far as I was concerned that house was off limits to both Caleb and me and we’d never know who lived there and I had no wish to know. Caleb felt differently but he had no choice in the matter because he had to obey his mother. Me.
Neither of us should knock on that door again. It was a weird house. A strange house, never mind that it appeared normal. A haunted house?
Caleb must have been thinking something similar. “Do you think the house at the end of the road is haunted?”
I didn’t want to give him ideas because if he truly thought it was haunted there’d be no way to keep him from investigating. Not even the mom-is-boss thing would keep him away. “It didn’t look haunted.”
“I think it might be.” His eyes took on a dreamy look. “Maybe. Just maybe it is haunted.” Then the dreamy look disappeared, replaced by the sensible boy he can be and I gave a sigh of relief. The haunted house thing was likely no more than a passing thought. His next words proved me right. “Most probably it’s just some old person who hates company.”
I didn’t answer because I was afraid that if I said anything, I’d blurt out what I was thinking and I didn’t want him to know I was uneasy.
But I wondered.
What secret was the house at the end of the road hiding?
We watched the storm. It was loud. But it was brief. We watched it end and the sun return and the birds and butterflies come back out and the day become once again beautiful and sunshiny and wonderful in every way.
“Go.” I shooed Caleb towards the door. “Enjoy yourself.” I examined the kitchen floor that was still covered with water and mud. “I’ll deal with this.” And then I’d think about dinner and look for that missing chocolate cake and do a few other chores that meant nothing but took time. “I’ll join you later.”
He agreed and soon the door slammed behind him and he disappeared but I didn’t worry as I once would have because this was the country and he seemed to already know his way around.
So I sternly made myself stop worrying about him and set about putting my new house in order as the sun grew even more glorious and called to me to go outside and play. I never did find that chocolate cake and wondered how sick Caleb would get from eating an entire cake and decided I’d find out when I found him barfing in the bathroom.
But I did get the kitchen clean and the house in order and then I went to find Caleb because I was determined to finish the day the way it had started. Gloriously.
I didn’t find him. I called and then I yelled and then I screamed. No answer but he’d demonstrated that he knew his way around our new, acres and acres large country neighborhood. So where was he?
I sucked in my breath because I knew. He’d gone back to the house at the end of the road.
I took off running as fast as I could, knowing even as I charged ahead that he probably had taken a shortcut only he knew across fields and over hills so no matter how fast I ran he’d get there before I did.
I was right. I rounded that curve and plowed through all that underbrush around the house and was just in time to see him standing before the door, chocolate cake in his hands, as it opened.
I redoubled my pace and came up behind him with the intention of snatching him from whomever was about to steal my son. Instead I skidded to a stop as an elderly man with a smile sweet enough to melt ice accepted the cake from Caleb. With thanks.
“We were here before.” Caleb’s voice had only a touch of accusation and I held my breath and hoped that our neighbor wouldn’t react negatively and do something horrible to my son. Instead, he simply leaned closer to hear better as Caleb continued. “We came twice. We knocked and everything but you never answered.” Caleb stared accusingly at the elderly man. “Your cat was here. Your dog barked. Your music played.” He stood up straight and stared at the man who had a wreath of white hair and wore the kind of suit that went with cities instead of the middle of the country. “But you didn’t answer.”
I held my breath.
Had Caleb said exactly the wrong thing?
What would happen to us now?
The man took the cake and inspected it gravely as befitted a gift fit for a king. “That’s because I wasn’t here. In fact I just got home.” He looked over Caleb’s shoulder at me. “Had to drive through a downpour on the last mile or so of a rather successful business trip. Haven’t even had time to change.” His gaze moved from Caleb to me. “If I’d have been home of course I would have answered.”
I’d heard his car during the storm. He was telling the truth. So far.
Caleb’s eyes narrowed and the man backed a bit and indicated that we should follow him inside. “Come in and help me eat this magnificent cake and I’ll explain.”
“There’s an explanation?” Caleb clearly didn’t believe there was.
“Yes there is and it’s quite simple, really.” He opened the door wider and waited for Caleb to enter, which he did. I wasn’t about to let my son be in that house without me so I slipped past the elderly man who didn’t look like an axe murderer.
The white cat and a large, multi-colored dog came into view. The cat wove around Caleb’s legs while the dog almost knocked me over in its eagerness to introduce itself. The man, meanwhile, approached a seriously large and complex panel on the wall near the door and flipped a few switches and turned a couple of dials. The music stopped. The feeling of being watched disappeared.
“What’s that?” My son was fascinated. I made ready to run when the panel reached out and grabbed me.
“This is a smart house. I travel a lot on business and when I’m gone the house takes care of my cat and dog and watches for intruders.” He showed Caleb the control panel. “This controls everything and is why my pets are safe and fed and watered when I’m gone.”
“Cool” was Caleb’s comment.
My mouth hung open. “Does it watch people outside?”
“Yes it does.” He chuckled. “If you were here before, as your son says you were, then your visit was recorded and possibly you felt like you were being watched. Because you were.” He fiddled with something and a screen popped up along one wall. “Want to see?”
Caleb was fascinated, I was mortified, and the elderly man was intrigued by our previous visits as he asked, “You bought the house down the road?”
I nodded, unable to speak and he cocked his head towards my son. “And do you like animals, young man?” Caleb nodded. “Then perhaps you and I can work something out. Some kind of arrangement by which you can come and play with my pets when I’m gone.” The cat and dog were all over Caleb in search of affection. “They’d like that and so would I. A smart home is mechanical. A boy, however, is a thousand times better than the smartest house in the world.”
He shooed us towards a table and found a knife and some plates and soon we were enjoying our second chocolate cake since moving into our new home as we listened to our neighbor, Mr. Connor, explain the ins and outs of smart homes and show us our previous visits on that screen that had popped out of the kind of cabinet that all smart houses probably have.
He checked the clock on the wall. “By the way, I’m expecting company any minute. This chocolate cake will be just the thing for my company and I hope you’ll stay long enough to meet my son.”
Mr. Connor waved an arm to take in the entirety of the house. “He designed and installed all this. He’s very smart.”
At that moment there was a knock on the door that was pushed open without the knocker waiting for someone to answer. A man large enough to take my breath away walked in.
A man who was not only large, he was smart.
Who could make a house do whatever he wanted.
And who might not approve of his father’s neighbors.
“My son, Jay,” Mr. Connor said with a flourish. “Jay, meet my new neighbors.”
The man’s eyes went wide. “Someone finally bought that house down the road?” He came to the table and shook my hand and then Caleb’s. “I’d about given up hope that my dad would have neighbors.”
He hooked one foot around a chair and seated himself. Found a plate and pulled the cake close. “My favorite and I’ll bet my dad didn’t make it.” He invited me to enjoy what was evidently a family joke. “He loves cake but he doesn’t make it, thank goodness, because if he did the garbage would be full of uneaten cake.”
He took a bite. “Nope, he didn’t make this particular cake.” Examined Caleb. “Did you make it?”
Caleb giggled and said he’d helped and I knew Jay Connor had just become one of my son’s favorite people. So he’d better be as nice as he seemed, at first glance, to be.
The elder Mr. Connor happily took in the group around his table. “It’s about time.”
“For what?” Jay wiped his mouth before taking another bite.
Mr. Connor stared at his son. “That you meet someone who isn’t made of tin with circuits for a brain.”
This was an old conversation to Jay. “A human being, you mean, instead of a computer.”
Mr. Connor nodded. “A nice, very pretty female human being who lives near your dear old dad and makes chocolate cake and has a son who’s going to care for my pets while I’m away.” He sniffed. “That kind of human being.” He turned to me. “Do you have a husband?”
“Not any more,” I answered honestly.
He turned back to his son. “See, Jay. A nice lady who’s single.” He took my hand in his. “And what do you do for a living, dear lady?” I explained that I worked from home. “See, Jay. She’s doing the very thing I’ve been trying to convince you to do. She’s living and working in the country like you should be. Near or with your dear, old dad.”
He waved in my direction. “She’s exactly what you’re missing, son. What you need. A woman who makes chocolate cake and she’s right here. In the country. Next door.”
Jay slumped in embarrassment as Mr. Connor, who was seemingly unstoppable, continued. “That’s a hint, Jay, in case you didn’t recognize it. Take it to heart.” He stuck his face in his son’s face. “So do what she did. Move. To. The. Country.”
Jay didn’t know what to do. How to act. Until, rolling his eyes skyward, he gave up and shrugged in defeat. I didn’t blame him. His dad was somewhat formidable. “Maybe it’s time I listened to you, Dad.” He glanced my way to see how I’d react to his next statement. “I guess it’s time I move to the country.”
His father pounded on the table in triumph. “About time and you won’t regret it.” And then he passed more cake around as if handing out awards.
Jay looked at me again, his eyes eloquent with questions and more. Had he, too, been in need of a new life? A future? Was that why his father had been so insistent?
I didn’t know. Yet. But somehow as our looks met, I did know that some day we’d explore the possibility of friendship and the future because we would both live in the country and we’d be neighbors.
Maybe it would turn into something.
Either way, Caleb’s and my new life was about to get more interesting and even more wonderful than when we’d moved in and all because of the house at the end of the road.