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Authors: Thomas H. Cook

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BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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On the way to the car, I drew Luke nearer to me.

“Drop Kelli and me off at my house,” I whispered. “I want to take her home myself.”

“Things must have gone pretty well,” Luke said with a sly smile.

“I just want to be alone with her,” I explained.

Luke did as I asked, using the fact that he had to get Betty Ann home before her curfew as a pretext, and so, shortly after the last dance, Kelli and I were in my old Chevy, headed toward Collier.

I had never seen her look happier, and just before she stepped out of the car and headed for her front door, I found out why.

“You know, for the first time I don’t feel like the new girl in school,” she said.

“I’m glad.”

She looked at me hesitantly, as if considering whether she should say more. “At first I was afraid that I wouldn’t like it here,” she said softly. “Coming from a big city, you know, and moving to a small town.”

I gave her my best sardonic smile. “Well, I guess Choctaw has its charms.”

“It’s taught me something,” Kelli said.

I could not imagine life in Choctaw teaching anybody anything.

“It’s taught me that basically every place has the whole world in it,” Kelli said. “Everything that happens happens everywhere.” She thought a moment longer, then added, “But maybe in a small place, a slower place, you can see it better.”

Suddenly Choctaw was as romantic a place as had ever been, or ever would be, and I knew for a certainty that it was Kelli who made it so. I felt a great yearning rush through me, wash over me like a wildly tumbling
waterfall, and I knew then that Luke had been right some weeks before, that this was what it was to be in love.

She reached over and gave my hand a quick, affectionate squeeze. “See you in school,” she said. She started to get out of the car, stopped, quickly opened her purse, pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to me.

“Something for the next issue,” she told me, “if you think it’s any good.”

I took the paper from her, then watched her swiftly cross the short distance from the car and disappear into her house. But I lingered in her driveway, unable to leave. I wanted to be in the same darkness she was in, feel the same tingling chill, hear the same breeze as it swept along the fields behind her house. In the car alone, watching her home for those few seconds before I pulled out of the driveway, I felt the exquisite agony both of her nearness and her distance, and I can say now, after the passage of three decades, that it was the most delicious torment I have ever felt, the single, searing instant when, in all my life, I was most fully alive.

The lights were still burning inside her house when I finally forced myself to pull out of the driveway and return home. As a drive, it seemed very long, as if I were moving through a steadily thickening darkness, rich but also frightening, since I realized that Kelli was the only person I’d ever felt this way about, the one person I could not leave behind.

Once at home, as I had done before, I took what she’d given me and read it:

I am the holder of lost claims
.
As years go by, what still remains
,
Echoed words, departed friends
,
The common means to common ends
.
The place that you are free to borrow
While your today becomes tomorrow
.
I am a monument to the slain
,
A tennis court, a lover’s lane
,
A sloping hill, a gabled school
,
A golden day, a golden rule
,
The patch of earth our fathers gave
For flowers and our common grave
.
I am a town
.

When I think of it now, it strikes me as odd that the poem didn’t alarm me in the way it demonstrated Kelli’s attitude toward Choctaw, how at home she had begun to feel within what I had always taken to be its pinched and arid world. And yet, it didn’t. I didn’t feel that I was losing her when I read it, that she was “going over to the other side,” or even that she had been unconsciously seduced by small-town life. Just the opposite, in fact, so that for the first time, I began to think that living with her in Choctaw, being married to her, having children and growing old with her, all of it in Choctaw, that this was the life I really wanted. I would still go to medical school, but after that, I could return to Choctaw, set up a small practice, become the beloved village doctor. I was able to envision the quiet honor that would accompany such a life, its daily pleasures and rewards, with Kelli always at my side.

I suppose it was at that point that I actually began to direct my efforts toward winning Kelli Troy, marrying her, making a life with her in Choctaw. I don’t know what methods I considered using for accomplishing that goal, but I do remember that over the next few months the notion of one day marrying her grew steadily in my mind, that at some point it took a conspiratorial direction, and after that, one might almost say that it metastasized into a full-fledged plot.

And it is as a plot that I have continued to think of it during all the time that has passed since then.

Some years ago, when Amy was still quite young, I bought a small cabin on the rim of the mountain. In the
late afternoon, she often played in the front yard while I stretched out in the hammock I’d hung on the front porch. Lying on my back one evening, I watched a spider spin its web in the far corner of that same porch. Gracefully, its long slender legs wove a perfect and nearly invisible conspiracy of space and fiber. It struck me that here was a creature that lived almost exclusively by entrapment, that much of nature lived by the same grim but irreducible principle, and that perhaps at base, so did man.

I said as much to Luke a week or so later as we sat together one evening while our children played in the yard only a few feet away. Luke cast his eyes out over the valley, then shook his head. “That leaves out accident,” he said. “It leaves out the fact that sometimes things just happen on the spot.”

“Maybe things don’t happen on the spot as much as we think they do,” I answered.

Luke’s soft blue eyes settled on the steep ridge that had turned nearly purple in the evening shade. I could see that something had suddenly darkened his mood, and that he was fighting to put it into words.

Unaware of the turn his mind had taken, I tried to help him with another quick remark. “Maybe accidents don’t play such a great role in life.”

Suddenly, his eyes shot over to me, fiery in their intensity, as if someone had lit a fuse in his brain. “Then what about Kelli Troy?” he asked in a voice that was unexpectedly demanding. “What about Lyle Gates? I mean, the way they happened to be on Breakheart Hill that day.”

I instantly recalled Lyle as he’d taken the stand on the last day of the trial, how he’d claimed to have seen Kelli as she’d passed by in Luke’s truck, then a few minutes later heard a low moan as he’d reached the upper slope of Breakheart Hill, but that he had not followed her there, nor done her any harm.

“He had some evidence to back him up,” Luke
added. “I mean, his car had been repossessed the week before, just like he said in court. So it probably was an accident that he was walking up the mountain in the first place.”

“Maybe.”

“And if Lyle hadn’t been walking up the mountain,” Luke went on, “he wouldn’t have seen Kelli at all that day. And if he hadn’t caught sight of her, well, then—” He stopped, thought a moment, then added, “That always bothered me, the way even Mr. Bailey had to admit that Lyle hadn’t planned it.

“And the way Lyle looked when he took the stand,” Luke said when I didn’t respond, his voice now more urgent than I had ever heard it, as if his memory were a knife point pressing him forward relentlessly. “Remember that, Ben? Remember how Lyle looked?”

I remembered very well. He’d seemed oddly small, like a child in a man’s suit, a baffled look on his face, as if he’d suddenly found himself in a world whose colors and dimensions were absolutely foreign to him. Even his voice had seemed soft and childlike as he’d described what had happened that day, the way he’d found Kelli lying facedown in the vines. She’d been trying to say something, he’d told the court, repeating a single phrase again and again, like a chant. He’d bent down to listen more closely, bent down to hear the last words that came from her:
Not you
.

“The story never made sense to me,” Luke said, suddenly drawing himself back, as if from a point of no return, but with his eyes still leveled motionlessly on mine. “Did it to you, Ben?”

I heard his question clearly, but I couldn’t answer it then.

Now I can.

PART TWO
CHAPTER 9

W
INTERS IN THE SOUTH ARE BLEAK, AND NOT LONG AFTER
Sheila Cameron’s Christmas party, winter settled in upon Choctaw with a raw and unforgiving earnestness. During that time, the town seemed like nothing so much as a small ship reluctantly at rest in its winter port, bobbing in the occasional wave, swept by the occasional wind, but otherwise motionless and dormant.

As usual, there were cold rains that winter, and they often turned to sleet, though rarely to snow. Tiny streams trickled from the metal awnings of the dry goods and jewelry shops that lined the town’s main street, and the cardboard political notices and advertisements that had been stapled to the wooden telephone poles grew sodden and began to peel away.

Except for the pines, the trees were bare, and the creeks and ponds, often frozen over, seemed locked in the same icy stillness that gripped the town, their clay banks now hard as granite in the cold. It was as if the brilliant colors that had enlivened fall and summer had been drained from the landscape, creating a world of brown and gray.

Not surprisingly, life took on a similar dullness, with most of the townspeople holed up in their homes and business places. The streets and park were generally deserted, the residential yards empty, the stone courthouse like a gigantic tombstone, gray and frozen.

In early January my father took to wearing a thick wool sweater, even with a fire blazing only a few feet away. Sitting in his chair, his feet sunk deep in a pair of old house shoes, he would read and shake his head, read and shake his head, though he rarely mentioned the nature of the story he was reading. Once, however, he looked up after a long round of head-shaking to tell me that if the Freedom Riders came to Choctaw, I was to stay clear of the bus station, and that on no account was I to join “that bunch,” as he called them, that might gather there in order to intimidate the riders.

“A person has a right to ride a bus,” he said in conclusion, the only comment he made as the South approached that terrible summer of 1962.

As for things at Choctaw High, they were as fixed in the same wintry stillness as the rest of the town. The football season had ended, and although the basketball season was in full swing, the games were sparsely attended, and the Friday pep rallies that had preceded each football game had given way to dull end-of-week assemblies in which Mr. Avery listed the usual complaints about chewing gum and smoking in the bathroom.

Under the pressure of this wintry monotony, relationships that had flourished throughout the preceding months began to unravel. Eddie Smathers broke up with Debbie McNair, and Sheila Cameron broke up with Loyal Rhodes, her college man, though she returned to him a short three months later.

But more than anything, it was the breakup of Todd Jeffries and Mary Diehl that set tongues wagging in the corridors of Choctaw High that winter. It was as if an ideal had been shattered, leaving those couples who remained
together feeling more vulnerable. I remember seeing Mary walking in a kind of daze through the noisy high school hallways, her books held like small shields against her chest, her face frozen in a look of stunned disbelief. As for Todd, I would sometimes spot him trudging wearily across the school parking lot, head bent against the icy winter wind. His friends surrounded him protectively, however, particularly Eddie Smathers, who had his own romantic troubles.

Even Luke and Betty Ann had their problems that winter, though they never actually broke up. Instead, they complained about each other, Luke that Betty Ann sometimes flirted with other boys, Betty Ann that Luke often paid too little attention to her. But even in their battles, they struck me as curiously comfortable with each other, as if some line had been drawn early on that neither would ever cross. Perhaps they had found a form of young love that even in its youth was strangely old, more settled and enduring. Or perhaps it was simply that Betty Ann never felt for Luke what Mary Diehl felt for Todd Jeffries, never assumed that in losing him she might be losing everything, and so never became subject to the terrible diminishment Mary faced each time she faced losing Todd. For why would she have fought for him so furiously, clung to him so desperately, if she had not believed that without him she was nothing?

“Mary looked like a ghost that winter,” Noreen once said to me. And she was right, although it was not Mary who occupied my thoughts at that time, but Kelli, though with perhaps the same sense of dread Mary must have felt each time she thought of losing Todd.

For I knew that in such a volatile situation, with so many couples breaking up, it was inevitable that a few unhinged males would approach Kelli, and they did. Eddie asked her out on a date the second week in January, but Kelli said no. The following week, Malcolm McCoy, Dr. McCoy’s wastrel son, made a play as well, and was
also turned down. A few others came forward tentatively, then ricocheted away from a rejection that seemed imminent.

Throughout January and February I watched them come and go, and at each approach I felt a mounting wave of fear. Even so, I remained reluctant to approach Kelli myself, not only afraid that she would turn me down just as she had the others, but that I would be left more exposed afterward than they had been, ridiculed and made fun of, since to love someone who does not love you is the only tragedy we laugh at and deride.

So I was stymied, unable to approach Kelli as Eddie and the others had, and because of that, forced to seek a different, less direct way. It was during this time that I began to imagine winning Kelli by bizarre and fantastical means. I imagined her deathly ill, but saved by a cure I was able to discover in the nick of time. After that, she would certainly fall in love with me. I imagined winning prizes and scholarships, becoming instantly famous. After that, I supposed, she would certainly fall in love with me. I knew that such scenarios were preposterous, and even childish, but they swam into my mind anyway, lingering there for hours at a time as I lay in my bed, my eyes trained on the dark ceiling.

BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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