The New Hill
The first real snowfall of the year had come on a Saturday morning which felt like being cheated since it would have meant a day off from school had the snow come on a weekday. But that wouldn’t stop Christopher from having fun. He pulled his winter boots out of the closet and set forth to the schoolyard which was conveniently across the street from his house.
Christopher lugged his sled behind the school and trudged through the knee-deep snow past the kickball field. At the edge of the schoolyard was the most popular sledding hill in Amon Heights. A crowd had already formed by the time he arrived. The blanket of white that covered the world around them muffled the shouts of glee
kid after kid flew down the short hill. When his turn came Christopher sat on his Flexible Flyer and kicked off over the precipice. The hill behind Amon Heights Elementary was a tree-studded slope that led down into a shallow dale. The roots of the trees jutted out in various directions, making it a somewhat bumpy ride. Careening over a large hump in the hillside, Christopher took to the air for a full second before crashing down into the snow and gliding swiftly to the bottom. When he slid to a stop his classmate Rusty loomed over him.
Rusty stood a bit taller than Christopher as did nearly everyone in his class including most of the girls. He wore a jacket that seemed unsuited for the weather over the top of a ratty old sweatshirt. The back of the jacket sported a patch that said, “We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll” in bold red letters. Rusty also wore tattered gloves and jeans strewn with patches. His longish brown hair hung over his eyes, but Christopher recognized him by his pointy nose and crooked teeth.
“Hey Wuss.” said Rusty, “Having fun on the baby hill?”
“Yeah.” responded Christopher. He understood the insult but felt it best not to acknowledge. Rusty frequently tormented the meeker kids so Christopher always tried to stay under his radar whenever possible.
Jimmy and Steve appeared behind Rusty, dragging brand new plastic toboggans with them.
“Hey Twistopher,” said Jimmy in a mock baby voice, “We’re going to the big boy hill, wanna come?”
Jimmy was what Christopher’s mom called a “sometimes friend”. When they were alone they got along fine, but in the presence of other kids (especially Rusty) Jimmy became cruel and acted like, well, like an asshole. His face, red and round seemed to have a perpetually snotty nose. Jimmy had been held back at least once. This made him the butt of a lot of jokes, but being the largest kid in class by far protected him from being bullied directly most of the time.
Steve’s face and hair were almost as white as the surrounding snow. He had a generally soft look to him and what Christopher could only describe as “wet” eyes - milky blue and always seemed irritated and lined with red.
“Sure,” said Christopher. He sensed that they were likely to make fun of him if he said no. There was a strong chance they would pick on him if he went along too, but perhaps not so badly.
Rusty led the way to the “big boy hill”.
A wide clearing spread out from the bottom of the slope. Behind that lay a thick wooded area. Christopher never entered the woods because his mom always told him it was a dangerous den for drunks and teenage “iniquity”. He didn’t know what that word meant, but his cousin TJ claimed to have found a soaking wet Hustler magazine in there once so he had a few educated guesses.
The boys slogged through the snow to the edge of the woods, a small forest by any stretch of the imagination at somewhat less than twenty acres. Once beyond the tree-line the snow-silenced sounds of children sledding behind them disappeared entirely.
Reaching into his jacket, Rusty procured a small hatchet. He looked at the other boys and said solemnly, “We need to mark our trail.” The other boys nodded but Christopher thought he was being a little dramatic. Rusty hacked twice at a tree near the edge of the wood before galumphing onward. As he went he did the same to every fifth or so tree that he passed.
After about ten minutes of meandering through the woods they came to a clearing that stretched around one hundred feet to the left and right of the boys and spread a couple hundred feet before them. At the center rose a mound that was almost perfectly semi-spherical and approximately seventy feet at its zenith.
“This is it, losers,” said Rusty, “the big boy hill.”
“What?” said Jimmy. “This wasn’t here yesterday.”
The other boys looked at him.
“That don’t make sense.” said Steve. “A hill is a hill every day. It don’t just show up.”
Jimmy defended his statement, “I’m telling you I walk through here to school every day. There’s no hill back here. Not even a clearing. It’s just woods all the way through.”
“Well,” said Christopher, “you must have walked past it before. The trees are dense. We couldn’t even see this clearing until we were right on top of it.”
“You’re dense.” said Rusty as if it settled the matter.
The four approached the hill. At the base they all stood for several seconds gazing upward.
“Why is it so...round?” asked Christopher.
“It’s a hill, dummy.” said Steve as if that answered the question.
“But-” began Christopher. Unfortunately he could not muster the vocabulary to explain the uncanny feeling that crept up his spine while staring at this wholly unnatural looking formation. It was just too...spherical...too smooth. Covered entirely in unblemished snow, it looked like a giant snowball half buried in the earth.
While he was contemplating the strange shape the others had already clambered halfway up the hill.
“Hey wuss!” shouted Rusty, “Are you coming or what?”
Christopher could not find his footing on the dome-like structure. He would climb a few feet through the deep frost and suddenly slip down to the bottom. On his third try he held his sled in front of him, driving it deep into the snow and using it to lift himself up. It was hard going but he eventually made it to the summit and promptly collapsed, out of breath.
Jimmy and Steve looked down at the smaller boy.
“Are you gonna make snow angels all day or what?” said Jimmy.
Christopher sat up to see Rusty had somehow acquired a large sheet of cardboard and was preparing to use it in lieu of a sled.
“Do you want to ride my toboggan?” asked Steve.
“Nah,” said Rusty as he kicked off over the crest, “This is better.”
He whooped as he disappeared out of sight down the hill.
Christopher stood and lumbered over to the spot Rusty had slid down. Oddly there was no indentation where the other boy had been sitting and no trail of disturbed snow behind him. It was as if the powder instantaneously replaced itself like water in a swimming pool, showing no sign of displacement. Looking around Christopher noticed that where he himself previously sat the snow was as perfect and smooth as ever and he saw no footprints to mark where he had trudged.
“It’s too smooth.” he said to Jimmy, but when he looked both of the remaining boys were already zooming down the hill.
Not knowing what else to do Christopher positioned his Flexible Flyer and pushed himself over the curve. The wind escaped his lungs in the most joyful shout he’d ever experienced. The rush in his chest spread through his body as Christopher and gravity became one. The world streaked by as he rocketed to the base of the hill moving faster than he’d ever felt himself move, even faster than the rush of the big coaster on the boardwalk that he’d found the courage to ride once the previous summer.
The momentum brought him nearly to the tree-line. By the time Christopher turned around the other kids were halfway up the hill already. The exhilaration of the ride was so great that he forgot all about the eerie experience of the hill and focused solely on making his way to the top once more so he could repeat the cycle.
After an hour of sledding and climbing the four boys were spent and languished at the bottom of the hill.
Steve edged his toboggan to the base and said, “I’m too tired to climb anymore.”
Jimmy followed suit and the two boys sat on their plastic sleds, holding the leads as if they could will themselves up the hill.
Christopher gripped his wooden sled in amazement as the two slid gently up the hill as if riding an escalator.
“WHAT!?!” he exclaimed. But the other boys silently rode their toboggans to the top as if it were perfectly normal to flaunt gravity in such an unearthly manner.
Rusty imitated the motion of the other boys on his sheet of cardboard. He simply crossed his legs and rode it to the summit like a flying carpet.
Christopher positioned his sled at the base and did the same. His stomach churned a little as some inexorable force pulled him slowly and surely up the hill.
“This is IMPOSSIBLE!” he shouted at the others but they didn’t seem to notice.
They were all waiting at the top when he arrived.
“What the heck just happened?” he asked.
“What?” said Jimmy.
“We all just broke the law of gravity.”
“Well, I don’t see no cops.” said Rusty.
“No,” began Christopher, “I mean we...”
“We what?” asked Steve.
“We were at the bottom and now we’re at the top.” said Christopher, exasperated.
“Yeah, dummy.” said Jimmy, “It’s called sledding. We’ve been doing it all day, remember?”
“Yeah but...” that was when Christopher became aware the other boys didn’t realize. They couldn’t see that this was all wrong. It was as if flying up a hill was perfectly normal to them.
Before he could protest any further the other boys were rushing down the hill.
That was when it went bad.
Rusty and Jimmy raced to the bottom. Rusty tugged at the front of his cardboard sled, curling it upward. Somehow this gave him a burst of speed that allowed him to outrun the aerodynamic toboggan.
Not wanting to interfere with the race, Steve went down the opposite side of the hill. Only Christopher saw what happened next. Steve was moving at the same breakneck pace they’d been experiencing all day. As he crossed the bottom of the slope he was split in two. Literally.
Steve’s toboggan, his clothes, and his body were divided in half right up the middle as if a gigantic invisible blade had sliced through him. The left and right sides of his body veered off in opposite directions. Christopher saw INSIDE Steve’s body. His bones and organs were exposed plain as day like a cross-section of human anatomy in a science textbook. The world went dark.
Christopher’s eyes opened an instant later. The other boys were standing above him looking down with genuine concern.
“He’s dead!” shouted Rusty.
“No. He’s breathing.” said Jimmy.
“How?” said Christopher as he sat up weakly. “How did it happen?”
“You were just laying there on the top of the hill,” said Jimmy. “It looks like you passed out.”
Then Christopher noticed that Steve was standing behind Jimmy, whole and seemingly unharmed.
“What happened to you?” Christopher asked Steve.
“What happened to me? What happened to YOU?” said the boy who’d previously been cut in half. “I went down the hill with you right behind me. When I looked you weren’t there. By the time we all made it up to the top you were knocked out on the ground. It looks like you fainted.”
“Boys don’t faint,” said Rusty. “Only girls do when they see a mouse or something.”
“I’m fine,” said Christopher, pointing at Steve. “He DIED!”
Christopher tried to tell the others what he saw. The other boy sledding down the hill and being sliced like an apple by some unseen force.
“I don’t see any blood.” said Jimmy, looking down the hill.
“It wasn’t like that,” said Christopher. “Everything stayed in place. It was like I could see his insides but everything kept working like normal.”
Rusty grabbed Steve by the shoulder and patted him down.
“Are you ok, Stevey?” he joked, “I hope it didn’t leave a mark when the invisible man killed you!”
“Nevermind.” said Christopher. “I guess I passed out and had a weird dream”.
“Did you eat a breakfast before coming out?” asked Jimmy. “My mom always says to eat a breakfast. That’s probably why you fainted.”
The boys walked carefully down the hill. They all had their fill of sledding that day.
Christopher towed his Flexible Flyer back home.
As he crossed the schoolyard on the way to his house he thought to look behind himself to check for footprints and sled tracks, relieved to see both trailing behind him.
By Monday most of the snow had melted. At school that day Christopher gazed out the window of his fourth grade classroom. He could barely see the treetops of the woods behind the school. There was no sign of a hill or even a clearing.
At recess he walked to the edge of the schoolyard and looked over the “baby hill” and past the dale. The melting snow became a gray-brown slush throughout the field before the woods.
Jimmy walked up behind him.
“What are you looking at?” asked the round-faced boy.
“The big-boy hill.” replied Christopher. “I can’t see it from here.”
“The what hill?”
“The hill we went sledding on the other day. It was right in the middle of the woods, in that clearing. I should be able to see it poking out over the trees, but it’s not there.”
“There’s no hill in the woods.” said Jimmy. “I walk through there every day on my way to school. If there was a hill, I would have seen it.”
“We went sledding there!” said Christopher, annoyed.
“Yeah.” said Jimmy. “We did go sledding. That was fun. I hope it snows again soon.”
“Boys!” shouted Mrs. Dempsey, the teacher’s aid. “Stay away from the hill! Get back to the playground.”
Jimmy and Christopher walked back toward the school, avoiding the kickball game that was being attempted on the cold blacktop of the school playground. Rusty was standing near the fire escape with Steve throwing clumps of dirty snow at each other.
“Ow!” said Steve after a direct hit. “You got it in my eye.”
“Rusty,” said Mrs. Dempsey, “No more throwing snow. We don’t want to hurt Steve’s big brown eyes.”
Christopher approached the pale-faced boy and looked closely at him.
“I’m ok,” said Steve. “I’m not some wuss.”
Christopher looked into Steve’s eyes. They were brown like Mrs. Dempsey said.
Christopher had known Steve since kindergarten and his eyes had always been blue.
He didn’t try to challenge it. He knew by then that any protest he made would fall on deaf ears. Steve and everyone else would claim that Christopher was remembering wrong and Steve’s eyes had always been brown. They might even suggest he get his own eyes checked for color blindness. Christopher resigned himself to the fact that others quite literally did not see things the same way he did. More importantly they didn’t remember things the same way he did.
Walking to his house after school Christopher thought about the other day. He ran the experience through his head over and over. The strange roundness of the hill. The bizarre thing that occurred to Steve. All of it started to feel like a dream. Maybe it had been a dream.
When he got to his front door Christopher remembered the marks Rusty had made with his little hatchet. He said they needed to “mark the trail”. It seemed silly at the time, but maybe Christopher could find the marks. If nothing else, he would have proof that the trip he took with the other boys really happened. He could show himself at least that it wasn’t just a dream.
He turned back around and headed across the street toward the school.
“Did you forget something?” asked the crossing guard, but Christopher marched past him without a word.
The field behind the school was wet and muddy with patches of brownish snow. Christopher slipped down the wooded slope into the patch of land that spread out before the tree line.He trudged over the cold wet earth. Once he got to the trees he found a thin layer of snow. It was easier to walk on than the soft terrain of the fields.
Christopher searched the trees for only a few minutes before locating one marked by Rusty’s ax. Then another and another. Soon he came to the spot where the clearing and the hill had been. Except there was no clearing and of course, no hill. Just more trees.
His mouth agape, Christopher counted his paces until he was certain he was standing right about where the foot of the hill had been. He found only trees.
One tree stood out.
It was larger than most and grew in a small opening in the wood. The clearing was at least ten feet in diameter which wouldn’t be remarkable if the rest of the wood hadn’t been so dense.
On the side of its trunk, about five feet up was a large burl that bore a striking resemblance to a smiling baby’s face.
“Are you for real?”, Christopher said to the tree, not expecting an answer. “What the heck is going on here?”
Looking down Christopher noticed a small yellow envelope at the foot of the tree. It was sealed.
He seized the envelope and ran out of the woods as fast as he could.
Before he knew it Christopher was standing on his own front porch, his chest heaving.
Christopher ripped off his gloves and tore open the envelope.
Inside was a little white card with a note on it in black ink.
THANK YOU FOR THE TREAT.
WE HOPE TO HAVE MORE SOON.
Christopher hid the note in his sock drawer and vowed to never go near the woods again.