At the Rise of the Hill ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in The Literary Hatchet.)
Freddy Chickwell’s mother called him at seven o’clock on Sunday morning, before he was even out of bed.
“I need you to come over right away!” she said.
“I can’t, mother!” Freddy said. “It’s too early. I don’t even have my eyes open yet.”
“You’re going to want to see this.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you on the phone. You have to see for yourself.”
“I’m going back to bed, mother. Please don’t call me until the sun is all the way up.”
“I never ask you for anything,” she said pitifully. “I’m asking you this one thing politely.”
“I’ll come, but only if there’s bacon and French toast.”
“How can you think of food at a time like this?” she asked.
“A time like what?”
He lay back on the bed and groaned. He had planned on going back to sleep but now that he was wide awake, he got up and dressed himself. He hated jumping out of bed and driving someplace first thing in the morning, but it appeared he had no other choice.
As he drove the six miles to his mother’s house, he thought of the different things that might have elicited such a call at an early hour: a large rat (spider) in the basement (bathtub); a bill that came in the mail for a large sum that she says she doesn’t owe and has no intention of paying; Aunt Jeanette has a tumor on her gallbladder; a large crack has appeared overnight in the foundation.
He pulled into the driveway and his mother came out the front door and down the steps, toward his car in a pink terrycloth bathrobe and fuzzy slippers; her hair was sticking out in spikes.
“Prepare yourself!” she said.
“For what?” he asked.
“He’s come back!”
“Need you ask?”
Freddy walked into the house behind her and there, sitting in the living room in the middle of the couch, was his father, who had been dead for a year. Freddy looked at his father and his father looked at him. There were no words.
His mother motioned Freddy into the kitchen. “What do you suppose is going on?” she asked.
“Who is that?” Freddy asked.
“Who do you think it is?”
“Well, I know who it looks like!”
“He’s been raising all kinds of Cain with me ever since he came back.”
“He says I went off and left him.”
“Left him where?”
“I told him I would never do that.”
“Mother, something’s not right here,” Freddy said. “People don’t just come back from the dead after a year.”
“Apparently some of them do!”
“Is he a ghost?”
“I don’t think so. He ate a big breakfast and then had to go to the bathroom. I don’t think ghosts do that.”
“If he’s not a ghost,” Freddy said, “it must mean he was never dead in the first place. How do you account for it?”
“I don’t account for it! I saw him go into his grave.”
“The only other explanation I can think of is that he’s a zombie come back to eat our flesh.”
“Oh, I don’t think he would ever do that!”
“I’m calling the police,” Freddy said.
“And what could they do?” mother asked. “They’d never believe he was dead in the first place. They’d just think we were a bunch of lunatics.”
“Then call his doctor.”
“He died, too. Right after your father.”
“Maybe he’s a hallucination that we’re both having,” Freddy said. “We were both so poisoned by the man all the years he was alive that we’re being affected by him from beyond the grave.”
“I just don’t know,” mother said. She sat down at the table with her cup of tea, lit a Pall Mall cigarette, and sniffled back tears. “I cared for your father while he was alive—truly I did—and I missed him after he was gone, but now that I’ve become used to having my freedom, I just don’t think I can go back to the way things were before.”
“I’m hungry,” Freddy said. “I haven’t had any breakfast.”
He ate quickly, pushed the plate back when he was finished eating, and fanned away his mother’s cigarette smoke. “Now that I’ve had a little time to think about this dispassionately,” he said, “I’ve decided on a plan of action.”
“What is it?” she asked anxiously.
“We’ll kill him. It’s as simple as that.”
“Oh, Freddy! Your own father?”
“Well, he’s already dead, isn’t he? If you kill somebody who’s already dead, it’s not really wrong, is it? Not really a crime?”
“I’m not sure how the law would look at it,” mother said. “Killing is killing, whether the person you kill is already dead or not.”
“I don’t expect you to do any killing. I’ll do it.”
“But how? I don’t want a mess in the house that I’ll have trouble explaining later.”
“Remember Echo Hill?”
“That old place? I haven’t been there for years.”
“I haven’t, either. If it’s like it was when I was in high school, it would be the perfect place to kill a person that’s already dead.”
“Oh, Freddy, I just don’t know about this.”
“Remember how they used to tell us kids how dangerous it was to go up there because of the air holes?”
“What are air holes?”
“It’s places where you can fall through the earth down into the old mine if you’re not careful. There are probably some new ones that have formed since.”
“That sounds dangerous!”
“Yes, but it’s the perfect place to hide a body. If a body falls down an air hole, it would never be found. The old mine is as big as the whole town and there’s deep water in places.”
“It sounds very forbidding.”
“We can take him for a Sunday drive up to Echo Hill. We’ll get him out of the car and walking around, and—boom!—he’s gone down an air hole. Just like that.”
“And what if somebody sees us?”
“They won’t, and if they do they won’t know what they’re seeing.”
“While I’m getting dressed,” she said, “you go in and visit with your father.”
Freddy went into the living room and sat down in the chair facing the couch. “How have you been doing?” he asked father.
“There’s some weeds growing along the back fence,” the old man said. “Somebody needs to get out there and pull them up, and I guess that somebody is going to be me.”
“I wouldn’t worry about any weeds, if I were you,” Freddy said.
“The whole place is goin’ to hell!”
“So, tell me. What have you been doing this past year?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve been…away, haven’t you? I just wondered what things were like where you were.”
The old man looked at Freddy with something like contempt. “What things?” he asked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mother came down from upstairs wearing a yellow pantsuit and matching wig that made her look like Doris Day. “Well!” she said brightly. “How are we getting along?”
“About like always,” Freddy said. “Not much in the way of communication.”
She bent over toward the old man and said very loud, as if being dead for a year might have made him partially deaf, “We thought it would be lovely to go for a little drive! It’s such a beautiful day!”
“Huh?” the old man said.
“Remember Echo Hill? We used to go up there for picnics with Betty and Waldo when we were young.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the old man said. “I never did.”
“Wouldn’t you like to get out of the house? Go for a little drive?”
The two of them together helped the old man off the couch, out the door and into the car. With him installed in the back seat, mother got into the front seat with Freddy.
“I just don’t know about this,” she said as Freddy started the car.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “I think I know what I’m doing.”
He drove out to the edge of town, past the bowling alley, the abandoned funeral home, the roller rink, a used car lot, a couple of taverns, and into farm country, where there were barns, silos, cows and young horses grazing in fields.
“Not much traffic today,” Freddy said.
He looked in the rearview mirror and saw that the old man was asleep in the back seat, his head lolled to the side.
“Isn’t this fun?” mother said. “I just love going for a drive in the country on a pretty day!”
Freddy came to the turnoff to go to Echo Hill, and it was exactly as he remembered it. “Won’t be long now!” he said.
He took a couple of turns onto old country roads that became narrower and more tree-encroached. Finally, he came to the end of the blacktop and turned onto a dirt road. There was a gate across the road, long-since fallen into disuse.
“Just like pioneering days!” mother said. “This reminds me of my childhood!”
At the big hill, the road was very rough; Freddy slowed to ten miles an hour to prevent any damage to the tires.
Mother rolled down the window. “Just smell that country air!” she said. A bumble bee flew in and she screamed.
After what seemed a very long, slow climb, Freddy came to the top of the hill from which one could see into the next state. The dirt road ended there, so he pulled the car onto a little rise off to the right that seemed dry and firm and didn’t have a lot of weeds growing on it. It was a place where he could easily turn around when the time came.
“How about if we get out here and scout around a bit?” Freddy said, giving mother a wink.
He started to open the door but was arrested by a sound that he didn’t identify, a sound of dirt sifting. Then the front end of the car lurched forward significantly.
“What on earth!” mother said.
Freddy wanted to see what was happening to the front end but, as he put his hand out to open the door, the ground gave way and the car slid downward, front end first, into a hole just big enough to admit one mid-sized car.
Down, down, down went the car, into darkness complete. Mother gasped and grabbed onto the dashboard as if she could arrest the car in its flight. The old man in the back didn’t make a sound. Freddy had a few seconds before the car hit the water in which it all became clear, all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place. Everything that had ever happened—his whole life—had been preparing him for this moment when it would all come to end.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp