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Authors: Thomas H. Cook

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BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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Or perhaps that is only how I wish to see it, a single victim, but a world of blame.

Luke placed the glass on the small wooden table beside his chair, pulled his old briar pipe from his shirt pocket and began to fill it with tobacco. “You remember the first time we saw her, Ben?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I knew he meant the time in the park, the time he’d seen Kelli for the first time. But I had seen her long before that, as a little girl, when she’d come into my father’s grocery with her mother.

“I’m Miss Troy” were the first words Kelli’s mother said to my father. She was a tall, slender woman with pale skin, light brown hair and an air of nervous distraction about her, as if she were continually trying to recall where she’d mislaid her keys. She flopped her shiny black purse onto the counter as she spoke, and it lay there like a dead bird between herself and my father. Overhead an old ceiling fan whirled slowly in the summer heat, and I remember that its breeze gently rustled through her hair.

“I’m Miss Troy,” she said, emphasizing the “Miss,” though without explanation, even after she’d added, “And this is my daughter, Kelli.”

It was the summer of 1952, long before much had really changed in the South, and a woman with a young daughter and no husband was not a common sight in a town like ours, where the Confederate battle flag still waved above the courthouse lawn, and the older ways of life it represented, a strict moral and social code, personal reticence, a world order that was essentially Victorian, still held sway. Miss Troy had clearly broken with that world, not only in having borne a child without a husband, but in declaring it so bluntly.

“Nice to meet you, ma’am” was all my father said. Then he smiled that quiet, knowing smile of his, the one that seemed to accept life on its own terms rather than as something that had somehow broken its promise to him. “And what can I do for you, Miss Troy?” he added.

“I’d like to buy a few things,” Miss Troy answered. “I’d like to put the bill on my mother’s account.” She said it almost sharply, her eyes still fixed on my father’s face, as if expecting him to turn her down. “My mother’s not well and I’m down here to see after her for a while.”

My father nodded, then glanced down at Kelli. “Mighty pretty little girl you got there,” he said gently. “How old is she?”

“Six,” Miss Troy answered matter-of-factly.

My father pointed to me. “This is my son. Name’s Ben. He’s the same age as your little girl.”

“Thelma Troy, that’s my mother,” Miss Troy said briskly. “She says you know her.”

“Yes, ma’am, I do.”

“Do you need to see some identification for me to put things on her account?”

The question seemed to surprise my father. “Identification? What for?”

“So you’ll know I’m really her daughter.”

My father looked at her curiously, in wonder at such cold formality. “No, ma’am, I don’t need to see any identification.”

Miss Troy gave him a doubtful glance. “So I can go ahead and do my shopping now? You don’t need to check anything?”

My father shook his head. “I’m sure you’re who you say you are, Miss Troy.”

“Well, thank you, then,” Miss Troy said, still a little coolly, but with some part of my father’s trust already warming her.

She went directly to her shopping after that, tugging Kelli along with her as she made her way down one of the aisles.

From the front of the store, I watched as the two of them moved among the canned goods and stacks of paper products. From time to time, Kelli would glance back at me, her face half hidden in the black curls of her hair. She was darker than her mother, with nearly black eyes, and she wore a white dress that had small green lines scattered across it so that, at first, I thought she must have been rolling in new-mown grass. But more than anything, I noticed how directly she stared at me, as if she were expecting me to challenge her in some way, demand something she had already determined to refuse.

“Hi,” I said as she passed by.

She did not answer but only continued to watch me
closely, her eyes evaluating me with what even then I sensed to be a fierce intelligence.

They left a few minutes later, Miss Troy holding her groceries in one hand and tugging Kelli along with the other, both of them passing quickly through the store’s old screen door, letting it fly back with a loud pop.

With a little boy’s purposeless curiosity, I followed after them, and stood on the wooden porch, my small hands sunk deep into the pockets of my faded blue overalls, watching them go.

They’d come in a dusty red pickup truck with black-wall tires and a rusty grille, an old model, scarcely seen anymore, with the headlights mounted on the front fenders, like frog’s eyes. Kelli sat on the passenger side, of course, the window rolled down so that I could see her slender arm as it dangled outside the door. When it pulled away, she glanced back at me, her face still locked in an odd concentration, earnest and unsmiling.

It is the absence of that smile that most haunts me now, and each time I recall it, I remember how serious she appeared even at that early age, how guarded and mistrustful, and how, years later, at the instant of her destruction, all the trust and belonging she had come to feel during the previous year must have seemed to explode before her eyes.

Within an instant, she was gone.

I remained on the porch, my hands still in my pockets, toying with one of the assortment of dime-store clickers I’d collected over the years. I was always clicking them, using them, as I realize now, to click away boredom, loneliness, fear. At night I clicked away the darkness. Alone in my backyard I clicked up imaginary friends. I suppose that as I stood on the store’s front porch that afternoon, I half believed that with a single innocent and fantastic click I could bring Kelli Troy back to me.

Such a wonder does not exist, of course. Only memory does, the standing miracle of life. And so, despite
the passage of over thirty years, the slightest thing can still return her to me. Sometimes, for example, I will glance out my office window, fix my eyes upon the gray upper slope of Breakheart Hill, and recall the many times I’d wanted to take her up that same hill and lie down with her. I had dreamed of it quite often during the time I knew her, and it was always the same dream, delicate enough, and tender, but unmistakably sensual as well. I would take her to the crest of Breakheart Hill, lower her upon a dark red blanket, and as the music swelled to a thrilling height, we would come together in that passionate embrace I’d seen in countless movies, a touch I had never felt, though many times imagined.

But nothing like that ever happened on Breakheart Hill. Something else did. Something that continually weaves through my consciousness, slithering into my mind from this corner or that, but always returning me to the past with a terrible immediacy, as if it had all happened yesterday and I was still reeling from the shock.

At times it begins with Sheriff Stone standing before me, his eyes slowly scanning the bare concrete walls of the little office where I worked on the high school newspaper. At other occasions it has begun with the sound of my father calling to me from the mountain road, his tall figure veiled in thick gray lines of rain. It has begun with my being ushered into a musty, cluttered room, an old woman’s voice coming from behind, ancient, gravelly, and unspeakably ironic in what she says to me.
Thank you, Ben, for doing this
.

At still other times it comes to me in a dream of that last day. It is midafternoon, and a breeze is rustling through the grass of my front yard. Across the way, my neighbor’s son blows a dandelion into the shimmering air, and suddenly in my mind I see Luke’s old truck come to a stop on the mountainside. He takes off his blue baseball cap and wipes his brow. He says, “You sure?” She says, “Don’t worry, Luke.” Then she smiles at him and gets
out of the truck. He lingers a moment, reluctant to leave her. “Go on, Luke,” she tells him. He nods, jerks into gear, then pulls away, the old truck lumbering down the hill toward town, a puff of blue smoke streaming from its dusty tailpipe. She watches him from her place at the edge of the mountain road, her hand lifted in a final wave, her bare arm weaving like a brown reed against the green wall of the mountain. She smiles slightly, as if to reassure him that she is safe from harm. Then she turns away and heads down the slope toward Breakheart Hill, disappearing finally into a web of trees.

Sometimes the dream ends there, too, with a faint smile still lingering on her lips. At other times, however, it goes on irrevocably, step by step, all the way to the instant when I see her body as it crashes through the dense forest growth, her legs torn by briar and shrubs, her face slapped mercilessly by low-slung branches. She runs desperately, dazed and terrified, her body bent forward as she rushes back up the steep grade of Breakheart Hill. At times she stumbles, her fingers clawing madly at the rocky ground until she pulls herself to her feet again and struggles forward, staggering up the slope, toward the point where the high ridge levels off at the mountain road, where she hopes Luke, by some miracle, may have returned for her. She is almost there when she falls, exhausted, unable to move. In the last moments, I see her face pressed hard against the ground, her snarled hair littered with bits of leaves. I see the shadow fall over her, watch her face twist around surreally, rotating slowly into an impossible angle. It is then that her eyes lift toward me. They are filled with a dark amazement, staring at me questioningly until the lights within them suddenly blink out.

And I wake up. I recognize my house, the wife who sleeps trustfully beside me, the adoring daughter whose picture hangs on the wall a few feet from my bed. In the darkness, I glance about silently, my eyes taking in the surrounding room. Everything appears steady, ordered,
predictable, the night table in its proper place, the mirror where it has always been. Beyond the window, the street remains well lighted, the road straight and sure. All that lies outside of me, the whole external world, seems clean and clear compared to the boiling muck within. My house, my family and friends, the little valley town I have lived in all my life, I can maneuver my way among all these things as smoothly as a fish skirts along the bottom of a crystal stream. It is only within me that the water turns murky, thickens and grows more airless each time I relive that long-ago summer day.

But I relive it anyway, my mood darkening with each return, a descent that confuses those who have lived with me these many years, particularly my wife, who senses that on those occasions when I grow distant and walled in, it is because something inexpressible has tightened its grip on me. Oddly enough, it is also at those moments when she seems to renew her attraction for me, as if, at its heart, gravity were romantic, that perhaps even more than youth or beauty, it has the power to rekindle love. And it is at that instant, perhaps more than any other, as my wife lies naked at my side, that Kelli Troy returns to me. Not as a body lying in a rippling pool of vines, but as she was while she was still herself, young and vibrant, filled with the high expectations that ennobled and inflamed her. And I see her on the mountainside, her body sheathed in green, balanced like a delicate white vase on the crest of Breakheart Hill.

I think that it is in this pose that Luke most often sees her, too, a vision that inevitably prompts one of the many questions that have lingered in his mind through the years, and which from time to time, when we are alone together, he will voice suddenly, his eyes drifting toward me as he speaks.
What was Kelli doing on Breakheart Hill that day? What was she looking for in those deep woods alone?

CHAPTER 2

B
UT THAT AFTERNOON, AS WE SAT ON THE PORCH TOGETHER
, Luke had a different question, one that, in its own peculiar way, I found far more threatening.

“Have you ever told Amy about what happened on Breakheart Hill?” he asked.

He meant my daughter, who is now the same age Kelli was in May of 1962. She was sitting only a few yards away, curled up in a lawn chair, reading silently beneath the shade of the large oak tree that towers above the yard.

I shook my head. “No, I haven’t,” I said.

Luke seemed surprised. “Why not?”

I couldn’t answer him with the truth, that whatever story I might tell my daughter would have to be a lie, and that it was really Luke himself who most deserved to hear the truth, since it was his incessant probing that had never let me rest, that had continually plucked at the slender thread that bound our lives together, year by year, unraveling it a little, and with it, the fabric of a long deception.

“It’s never come up,” I said, then moved quickly to a different story, briefer and with that philosophical edge
that I knew Luke enjoyed. “You know Louise Baxter, don’t you?”

Luke nodded.

“She brought her little boy in to see me last week,” I told him. “He’d just come back from a trip to Venezuela.” Then I went on to describe how the boy’s right thigh had been hideously swollen, the skin stretched tight over a large boil that had taken on a sickly yellow color.

“It looked dangerously infected, and I knew it had to be cleaned out,” I continued. “So I gave him a local anesthetic, then made a cut over the head of the boil and pried it apart.”

Luke nodded, waiting for my point.

“The inside of the boil was red, of course, very inflamed, but right in the middle of it there was a small fleck of pale green, and when I touched it with the tip of my scalpel, it flipped away from the blade.”

Luke suddenly looked more engaged.

“So I took a pair of tweezers and pulled it out.” I looked at Luke wonderingly. “It was a worm.”

“A worm?” Luke asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I looked it up in a book I have. It turns out that this particular worm is a common parasite in South America.”

It had wriggled savagely between the metal tongs, and as I’d watched its green body twisting maliciously, it had taken on a terrible sense of menace, as if, in this small worm, I had glimpsed some malevolence at the core of life.

BOOK: Breakheart Hill
4.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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