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Authors: Thomas H. Cook

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BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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Sometimes in the evening, when I’ve come down the mountain from the small, rural clinic I visit twice a month, I’ve let my eyes drift over toward the old building’s unlighted face, its silent bell tower robed in vines, its redbrick walls slowly crumbling into dust. At those moments, I’ve tried to imagine what it must look like inside the building now, with the wind slithering through cracked windowpanes, prowling the empty rooms and corridors, and finally lifting a ghostly dust up the broad staircase that rises to the second floor. I see no one, not even shadows. I hear none of the voices that once echoed down its hallways, nor even so much as the familiar sound of padding feet, groaning stairs or the clang of metal lockers. All I sense is its profound emptiness. It’s then that I’ve felt the urge to make the decision our town’s administrators have yet to make, to call in the wreckers with their heavy balls and pounding hammers, and let them do their work, administer, at last, the long-awaited coup de grâce.

Then I’ve glimpsed the flowers Luke has planted along the deserted walkway, small blooms in a great darkness, and thought,
Not yet
.

CHAPTER 5

I
T IS ODD HOW MANY THINGS CAN BRING IT ALL BACK TO ME
, sometimes even the most inconsequential things, perhaps no more than a chance remark. Only a few hours before I joined Luke at Miss Troy’s funeral, I examined a man in his early seventies who was complaining of shortness of breath, something he called a “summer cold,” but which could have been anything from a relatively minor allergic reaction to heart failure. The exchange that followed was entirely routine.

“Do you smoke, Mr. Price?” I asked.

“No.”

“Have you been having this trouble for a long time?”

“The cold, you mean?”

“The shortness of breath.”

“Awhile, I guess. But this time it was different.”

“How was it different?”

“Well, it was fast, the way it come on me. All of a sudden, I just couldn’t get a breath.”

“Where were you when that happened?”

“Walking across the pasture.”

“In high grass?”

“Weeds mostly. And those little yellow flowers, the ones that grow all around.”

“Goldenrod.”

“That’s right. They’re all over the place. Especially this summer, the way it’s dragged on so long. Reminds me of the one we had back in ’62.”

And with that one innocent reference, past and present collide, and I smell the violets again, feel the lingering heat of that summer long ago, and with it, the sharp urge that seized me so powerfully.

“You were still in high school back then, I guess,” the man says. He smiles wistfully. “Lord, at that age, the girls sure are pretty.”

And suddenly I see Kelli standing alone in a wide field of gently swaying goldenrod, her face very still, thoughtful, as if she is considering some aspect of a future she will never have. In such a pose she seems every bit as fiercely self-possessed as she was, confident of what lay ahead, with no sense that something might be lurking in the deep, concealing grass.

I feel my lips part with a whispered “So young.”

The man looks at me curiously. “What’s that you say?”

“Nothing,” I tell him, and the vision disappears, replaced by the sound of sirens as the ambulance and police cars rush up the mountain road to the place where Luke has summoned them, a sound that never really fades after that, but wails on through the generations.

“Nothing,” I repeat as I begin to examine him again. But I know that it is everything.

T
HE SUMMER OF 1961
SEEMED TO LAST FOREVER
. T
HE HEAT
dragged on through the month of September, and the leaves remained green long past their season. It became a major topic of conversation in Choctaw, the men in the
barbershop endlessly pondering the strangeness of it, the preachers marveling at God’s hand, the way He could stop the motion of the world, turn the seasons into fixed stars. October came and went, and still the green held its place, though toward the end of that month, the first lighter shadings began to outline the ridges that hung above us, and after that, the first yellows appeared, quite suddenly, as if sprinkled over the mountainside in a single night.

The human world went on as usual, of course. Slowly, the students of Choctaw High accepted the school routine. Mr. Arlington gave his first test, and before handing them back, he read one of my answers to the class. “Very well organized, Ben,” he told me, while several of my less well-organized fellow students winked at one another and shifted in their seats.

Miss Carver seemed less at loose ends by the end of October. We had finished reading
Wuthering Heights
by then, and most of us were working on the first essay she’d assigned. The topic was “The Perfect Husband,” and several students, all of them boys, had groaned when she’d written it on the board. Miss Carver had stood her ground, however, and eventually we all began to explore the subject, save for Marvin Craddock, who was mildly retarded and who had simply been passed from grade to grade over the years, as was the custom in those days.

Luke went out for the football team, and got a position as running back. For a while he seemed elated, and I even remember brooding that he might finally cast me aside and join the clique that orbited around the shining sun of Todd Jeffries, but he never did. At the first game he played well enough, but never with the kind of bone-crunching enthusiasm that Eddie Smathers tried to show, particularly when Todd was on the field, and which had already earned Eddie a reputation as being, in Luke’s words, “Todd Jeffries’s personal ass-lick.”

As for Todd himself, except for the Friday night
football games when he was clearly the star figure, he seemed less visible during that first six weeks. He spoke a few times at the weekly assembly, but always briefly, and with his eyes slightly averted. It was a look that deepened as the years passed, so that in midlife he would often cross the street to avoid contact with a fellow villager, sometimes roughly jerking his little boy, Raymond, along behind him. And it was a look that was still on his face the last time I saw him. He had just pulled the oxygen mask from his mouth and his breath was coming in sharp gasps. His body was now round and doughy, his face puffed and bloated, his skin swollen into soft folds, slack at the neck and along the once-sleek line of his jaw.

His son, Raymond, sat, slumped loosely, in a chair in the corner. At twenty-six, he already looked nearly twice that age, overweight and balding, with small, darting eyes. “Daddy’s going finally,” he said icily as I stepped up to Todd’s bed.

Todd’s eyes fluttered open briefly, and for a few seconds he stared at the ceiling with that look I remembered from his youth, baffled and ill at ease. Then he lapsed back into unconsciousness, the oxygen mask still clutched in his hand. I started to return it to his mouth, but Raymond stopped me.

“Leave it off,” he said sharply. “Just let him go.”

“But, Raymond, your father needs the—”

“Just let him go,” Raymond said, his voice now very stern, determined. And I saw him again as a little boy clinging fearfully to his mother’s hand as I knelt down to stare into the swollen purple folds that nearly closed over his left eye, silent and unsmiling, when I jokingly asked him if he’d done the same damage to the other guy.

“Just let him go,” Raymond repeated, raising himself from his seat slightly, as if prepared to pounce. “It’s what he wants. To die. It’s what he’s always wanted.”

I nodded, drew my hand away from the mask and made no further effort to intervene. “All right,” I said.
Then I let my eyes drift back toward Todd, at his unconscious yet strangely anguished face.

It was not a scene I could have imagined thirty years before. For in the fullness of his youth, Todd had looked almost immortal, tall and broad-shouldered, a local god, complete with his own minions, and a goddess forever at his side.

And Mary Diehl
was
a goddess, I suppose. Certainly she was as beautiful as any girl might ever wish to be. Luke practically drooled when she went past him in the school corridor, and Eddie Smathers was so struck by her that he seemed afraid to stand near her. Mary was tall, with long dark hair, and her eyes were a deep blue. But it was her skin that everyone noticed, a smooth ivory, as if each day she put it on anew so that it remained entirely without blemish. Even now, so much later in life, when she sits silently in the white room that is now her home, her skin still glows with the same ghostly sheen, and there are moments, as I sit with her, stroking her hand, when all her youthful beauty suddenly returns to her, miraculously returns, as if the work of time were no less impermanent than the things it turns to dust.

And so even now it seems odd to me that during all my high school years I never felt the slightest desire for Mary Diehl, and that she seemed nothing more than the female version of Todd Jeffries, godlike and utterly remote, and in whose presence I felt more like an insect than a person, small to the point of invisibility.

And yet it was finally Kelli Troy who seemed the most remote of all.

As it turned out, we had only one class together, Miss Carver’s, but I saw Kelli often during the day, sometimes standing at her locker, sometimes sitting on the front steps, sometimes heading toward the line of yellow buses that waited in the school driveway in the afternoon. She took the one that headed toward Collier, a rural community some ten miles from Choctaw, and she always sat
near the front, either reading or staring silently out the window. She hadn’t spoken in class very often, and we had never done more than greet each other casually outside it, but that first allure still clung to her, and in any group my eye would single her out, as if in a large tableau she had been painted by a separate hand, one that was stronger and more skilled. In class, I listened to her comments more carefully than I listened to the others, and more carefully responded to them. I held back smiles, not wanting to appear boyish, and compliments, not wanting to fawn upon her. I had entered that early, vaguely calculating stage of secret courtship in which you premeditate and approve every word and gesture, and yet I can’t say that at that early point I was swept away by her. There is a kind of love that penetrates you painlessly, like the tiniest of needles, working its way through you so slowly and secretively that you do not feel it as a sudden sting, but as a steadily intensifying atmosphere.

So it was with Kelli Troy.

Still, there are times when I imagine it another way, as a sudden, heaving passion, the two of us in the grips of a love like Catherine and Heathcliff’s, the one I was reading about in
Wuthering Heights
that fall. I have even imagined a destiny that might follow such a passion. In this particular fantasy, there is a moment of mad love, and after that, Kelli and I flee Choctaw on a train, the two of us huddled in a boxcar, clutching each other, laughing wildly as the lights grow small and the valley broadens hour after hour until it finally opens up and fans out like a great bay, and it is dawn, and we are young, and nothing real ever touches us again.

Or this less improbable rendering: A letter comes. It is from the medical school of a great university in Boston or New York. There is a place for me. There is money for me. I show it to Kelli, then take her naked shoulders in my hands. I say, “Come with me.” She draws herself
more tightly into my arms and presses her face against my chest, and I know that her answer is yes.

At other times, the same hands reach out for the same bare shoulders, but she does not face me. Instead, she is running up the steep slope that leads to the mountain road, running like they ran, the ones she later told me about, the ones who gave their name to Breakheart Hill.

For what really happened never truly leaves me, no matter how often my imagination insists upon rewriting it. I hear the blow that echoed through the trees, see her fall to the ground, then rise and begin to stagger up the killing slope, arms reaching for her as she lunges through the undergrowth. I hear her moan as she sinks, exhausted, to the ground, then the sound of footsteps as they close in upon her from the crest of Breakheart Hill, and finally her last words, spoken as the final glimmer of her consciousness flickered out. And after that each life returns to me, each life that was destroyed in the deep woods that day, their faces circling in my mind, one behind the other, like heads on a potter’s wheel.

BOOK: Breakheart Hill
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