A house. A mansion. A mountain of brick-laid corners, shuttered windows and a steepled rooftop. Wood-hewn artistry catching the sunlight in the grain and softening it in the silken paint. The outer walls like the slopes of Everest, reaching to the windowsills and to the soffits and to the arches and to the balconies. Bright apexes framing dormer windows and pointing to the sky. Wrought iron and brass, like strange horns bent to make railings and a panoramic staircase leading to the front doors. French. Huge. Heavy. Carved by hand into a scene from some story which has never been read. The handles are gold, the hardware is gold, the grids in the tall windows are gold. In the night, the windows glow. They look like eyes in a jungle. Some creature whose retinas reflect with an orange glint the ounces of starlight that drip from the sky, refracted from the leaves and mist, and splashed against the glass that is always clearer than crystal. Always. The thing looks like the jeweled crown of a king sitting atop an anthill of tiaras, those silvery vines twisted into wreaths and worn by daughters of royalty. The manicured bushes are always green. Always. With corners like boxcars and curves like the waist of a classical guitar, they wind to greet the driveway. They embrace the lower story of the villa, swirling around to the back like the current of a summer stream hugging a stone in the center of the flow, where a bluebird has perched and transformed the wet rock lump into a flittering sight to be seen. The garden trees echo the reach of the house, shooting like geyser-spray up from the ground. The ivy sprawls, fanning the bricks on either side of the entryway, but it is not overgrown. It is perfectly beautiful. Perfectly grown, as if guided by invisible fingers all the way, to make the most rhythmic and soothing curves possible. The driveway is cobblestone, swept and always clear. Always. It reaches away from the steps which resemble a multiplied horizon one might see in a daze of strong wine. It bends down the hill and curves like a hook through the garden which fades to forest before the mansion. With another turn and one last graceful twist the cobblestone way spills through a white gate between red brick columns. Square as sky-scrapers they stand, like centurions holding open the ornamented trammels whose hinges are always well oiled. Always. From the street the mountain of windows and walls is hidden. A hedge lines the sidewalk, no wall or fence. The trees have been allowed to grow tall and overbearing. They reach across the driveway and shade it fairly well. They look like a crowd of hooded figures in the night, cutting a jagged line across the sky below which no stars may hang. They are black even when the moon is out. They are black as sin. Black as hell. Blacker than the night itself dares to be. But just beyond them is the house that could have been built by angels. Why do those trees stand and stare as they do? Why do such forbidding crags care to guard such a translucent gem of elegance and openness?
“What is behind those firs?” asked Heath.
“You don’t want to know,” said Hawk with wide eyes and a lying grin.
“If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t have asked.”
Hawk paused and stared… blank. Then a wheel cranked in his head, turning his eyes down and to the right.
“Hm. I guess you’re right…” he thought aloud, “…and you are always asking.” Hawk looked as if he had honestly never realized that questions are usually posed with the hope of having them answered. He was a clever boy when it came to certain things, but this fact that someone always questioning might equally be someone always wanting answers seemed to stump him. It was like seeing a zebra for the first time. He was surprised. Why would a donkey need stripes?
“Yeah…” followed Heath twisting the rubber grip on his handlebar. His bike was spray painted white, without breaks. His ten-year-old hands shot out from twelve-year-old sleeves which had once belonged to his twenty-two-year-old brother.
“Well, you know they say there’s a spooky old mansion back there.”
“Oh yeah. It’s supposed to be haunted and everything!”
“Hm. My brother told me one time that there was just a shack with a creepy old dude.”
“Oh no, no. It’s a mansion. But nobody lives there. Why do you think the gates always just hang open?”
“Always.” Heath affirmed.
“Always… The place is abandoned,” Hawk leaned in and his eyes grew wide again, “But you know what is even creepier?”
“What?” He had Heath speaking in a whisper now.
“Even though it’s empty, this servant and maid service comes every week to clean it.”
“Yeah. They come in by the carload every week and they go right up the drive way and out of sight. I saw ‘em myself just two weeks ago! They drive in these super fancy, big black SUVs. You’d think they were like, government officials but they all have the same bumper sticker that says ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ on ‘em.”
The boys sat on their bikes and marveled at the possibilities of this strange caravan from across the street. Hawk’s voice could be heard bouncing between the cookie-cutter houses that lined the rest of the lane. He rattled off numerous insights on countless mysteries into Heath’s wanting ear. He was eager to embellish and Heath was hungry for answers. Even though he knew Hawk was nothing more than a helium tank with hair, he listened and swallowed. The mystery of what lay behind those hooded trees began to resound like an eerie melody, calling from a distance, beckoning the questioner. It lingered on the air as Heath returned to his new home in the old neighborhood. The dissonant tune became a ringing in his ear as he pedaled his bike around the coul de sacs that summer. But it always seemed to contradict (in some secret way) the tales that Hawk had spun and the trifling excuses his brother had dealt out. If that skyline could have sung about what lay beyond, it’s lyrics would read not what you think… see for yourself… they’re all wrong… and you know it.
Heath’s brother, Luke was fond of medication. He called himself a progenitor of pharmaceutical philanthropy. At least that’s what he told Heath. But Heath was sworn not to discuss it with others. Not mom. Not your little friends. Nobody. As a result, Luke could always afford Hollister. Always. He was always adding decals to his lime green hatchback. Always adding shoes to the entryway closet. Always staying up late, locked in his room. Always. He somehow managed to profit enough from his not-for-profit business to spend days on vacation away from home, even when Heath and his mom were barely able to buy lunch meat for sandwiches. Last fall, when Heath told Hawk about this, Hawk Googled “pharmaceutical” and “philanthropy”. When he did, he discovered the AIDS epidemic in Africa. He read about missionaries and UNICEF. He wondered what Amnesty International was doing in Darfur and couldn’t for the life of him figure out what a micro-finance was. Hawk saw pictures of doctors in Venezuela and compared them to pictures of Luke. Then one day in early December, Heath found heroin, oxycodone precisely. He showed his mom and she cried. She called Aunt Christy and she cried. Luke was not a philanthropist.
“Sweety,” she said between coughs, “Luke is addicted to this. That means he’s a slave to it, and he can’t stop even if he wants to. If someone doesn’t help him, he’ll die from it.” Heath’s world changed with those words. His brother was condemned to die. His mother was already wasting away from leukemia. But things hadn’t always been this way. Before their mother got sick, Luke just drank and popped a few random prescription pills. It made sense now. Ever since they’d moved here last fall, he had become increasingly absent. At Christmas he and his mother fought because she found needles. Since then, four bottles of lager had tinked around in the back of the refrigerator, untouched. And Luke had yet to return.