The Hill -- a story dedicated to Gaylagreenspun.com : LUSENET : FRL friends : One Thread
The local joke about the hill was that it was so bad, you had to ride the brakes going UP. A twisting, narrow road had been blasted out of solid rock on a murderously steep grade. There were no shoulders on either side of the road. The westbound lane hugged the rocky cliff face going up. The eastbound lane going down hung inches from a sheer drop of up to two hundred feet at the highest point. No two sections of the flimsy guardrail were the same age, a grim reminder of failure. Worst of all, the hill coiled back on itself so sharply that it was impossible see more than a few feet ahead. It was a bad place to pass through, and a fatal place to stop.
The boy was trying to enjoy the novelty of riding in the front seat. The "big car" was his favorite, but he didn't feel well enough to pay attention to the unusual view through the enormous windshield. He shifted his weight in his booster seat slightly. Pain stabbed his hip where he had gotten a shot, and he gasped.
"John? What's the matter?" His mother looked at him with concern. "Are you going to throw up?" The boy shook his head and tried to smile. The fever in his face worried his mother.
The truck ahead of them slowed, but neither of them noticed.
"Hang on, Buddy. I'll have you on the couch with your favorite movie pretty soon." They had just been to the doctor. It was yet another unplanned expense, and she hated to think of it that way. It was unfair, in her opinion, to have to worry about spending money on a doctor. His daddy didn't make enough money for anything extra, and he didn't worry about emergencies like she did. She had grown increasingly bitter as their lives never improved. When her baby was at risk, she was angry beyond words.
She looked back at the road ahead and saw that the truck had stopped in her lane. She instinctively hit the brake hard. The engine died. The brake resisted, as though a brick were under her foot. The steering wheel locked. Inertia kept the big old car heading straight down the road toward the truck.
"John, hang on!" she snapped. The truck ahead of them began a slow, lumbering turn to the left. "Move!" she hissed at it helplessly. As the truck cleared her lane, they passed by with only inches to spare. The big old car slowed to stop. The woman slapped her hazard lights, cranked the starter, and the engine roared back to life. She glanced over at the boy and saw that he was on the verge of tears.
"Oh, honey, don't worry about this," she said. "This is why we wear seatbelts. And besides, we would've knocked that truck into the next county. This old monster will go through just about anything."
She was trying to make him laugh, but she was furious with herself. The boy should have been strapped into the back seat, not the front. She normally didn't let him ride up front for this very reason. They weren't in a safe place to stop. She couldn't switch his booster seat to the back, so he was stuck there for the time being.
Whatever was wrong with the car would have to wait until they got home and let his daddy look at it. The car was constantly breaking down, and his daddy insisted on trying to fix it himself to save money. She loathed this car, this lumbering leftover from an age of American superiority and excessiveness in all things. The damn thing was too big, too heavy, and too hard to steer. It was paid for, his daddy always replied when she complained. They had fought over it constantly. It was a symbol of his stubbornness, of her helplessness, and of their poverty. She hated the hardship they lived with, and the car had become the focus of her hatred. The engine coughed, and she punched the gas savagely.
She had forgotten about the hill ahead of them.
The westbound approach to the hill was a steep climb that made an arc of 300 degrees to the left before spiraling hard to the right. The big old car shuddered and nearly died thirty feet into the climb. The woman punched the gas again and got a surge of power too fast for the curve. She eased back on the gas, and the engine nearly stalled.
It was too late to stop. There was no place to turn around. She realized suddenly what could happen. If she gave it too much gas, the old car would overshoot the road and go over the cliff. If they stalled on the road instead, someone would come around the curve and hit them. She remembered hearing about a chain reaction crash on this hill that sent three cars over the edge.
"Baby," she said calmly, "we've got trouble."
The boy was instantly alarmed. His mother only called him "Baby" when the news was very bad, like when his grandmother had died. He was afraid to listen to her.
"If the car dies, we might get hit. More than one car might hit us. When everything stops moving, you have to get away from the car." She was grim. "Just get out and stay off the road."
"What about you?" he quavered. He was trying hard not to cry.
"You have to get out by yourself. Stay away from the car. If I can get out, I will, but you have to stay away from the car." The engine began a rhythmic coughing, and she said no more. Her attention was on the twin dangers from the road and her engine.
She kept their speed down as much as she dared on the first hard curve to the left, but the car swung dangerously close to the rock face to their right. A sharp turn to the right sent the old car weaving too close to the centerline. The driver of an oncoming pickup honked at them in protest on his way past.
The boy whimpered, but his mother ignored him. The second curve was a hard spiral to the right, and the heavy old car continued to inch closer to the centerline. The engine was shuddering badly, and she eased down a bit more on the gas. The engine sputtered. She gave it a bit more gas. The car suddenly surged, and they crossed the centerline with squealing tires.
"Can I pray?" the boy asked tearfully.
"Please pray," his mother answered through clenched teeth.
The road curved hard to the left, and the oversized chassis swung back toward the rocks on their right. The boy had his eyes closed tightly and did not see it, but his mother was horrified.
I put him there! He should be in the back seat!
The road spiraled back to the right, and the car was halfway over the centerline. Her arms ached with the strain of forcing the steering wheel over harder than it could be expected to go. Her tires were screaming. She found it unbelievable that no one had hit them head on. Again the road curved back to the left, and they swung like a pendulum back to the rocks. The next curve to the right might put them over the cliff.
They were going too fast for the road now. She swung the car around the curve to the right, and the car dipped low to the left front with an enormous screech. Immediately a hard curve to the left righted the front end, but the rear of the car fishtailed toward the rocks. A passing car swerved toward the guardrail with a screech of brakes. She only noted its color. Her hands were locked on the steering wheel, her arms were aching, and she was terrified.
My son! Please save my son! Her prayer was in cadence with the sputtering engine. It's not his fault! It's ours! It's MINE!
She kept them on the road with brute force as they rounded another curve to the right. The left front of the car dipped again, and suddenly she remembered the tire on that side was bald and leaking air. She had refused to put any more money into the old car after her last fight with the boy's daddy. The tire was about to blow. They were fully in the oncoming lane now.
His daddy will think this was his fault. It's my fault, all my fault! If they went over the cliff at this point, the drop was nearly straight down for over a hundred feet. The only hope they had was to head for the rocks on their right before the tire blew out. And the boy was on the right in the front seat, instead of in the back seat where he belonged.
Sixty feet ahead of them, the rock cliff on the right ended at the top of the hill. The ditch there would be wide enough to take the giant old relic safely. They weren't going to make it. The engine coughed and hesitated, then coughed again. She tried to give it a bit more gas, but the pedal was on the floor. The engine hesitated again, this time for a moment longer, and she nearly stood on the gas pedal. The engine coughed, surged a bit, and coughed again.
They weren't going to make it. If the engine died before she steered them to the rocks, they would barrel off the cliff to their left. She was defeated. Every decision she had ever made had led to this moment. Her son would pay for her mistakes. She gripped the steering wheel even harder and said one more prayer before sending her son into the rocks.
This wasn't Your fault. It was mine.
The old engine roared into life. Suddenly she was at the wheel of a gas-flooded rocket shooting nearly straight up toward the top of the hill. Two tons of American-made steel driven by the last of the giant American engines shot them out of the mouth of the hill and onto the rolling plain beyond.
She hit the brakes reflexively, and the mighty engine died. She yanked the gearshift into neutral and restarted the engine at fifty miles an hour. The engine sputtered and then settled into its normal growl.
"I didn't know you could do that," said the boy. His eyes were open, his face calm. The fevered flush in his cheeks had faded.
"I didn't know if it would work or not," said his mother, "but it's a tough old car. Are you ok?"
"Sure," her son answered. "I was praying to God all the way up."
"Well, it worked." Thank You! Thank You! "I guess God heard you asking for us to be safe?" she ventured.
"I didn't get that far," the boy said happily. "My teacher said that God wants to hear you say 'thank you' for all that you have before you ask for anything else, and I wasn't finished saying thank you before we got to the top."
-- helen (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 02, 2002
Wow, Helen!! That was worth waiting for.
Did you dedicate it to Gayla because she didn't nag? ;-)
-- Tricia the Canuck (email@example.com), March 03, 2002.
I don't know if it's because I didn't nag, because I showed her how to use bold and italics, or because I'm a firm believer in prayer (including the 'giving thanks' part!) :-) but I'm honored. Thank you Helen!
What an awesome beginning! Why in the world did they have to cross over the hill? To get to the doctor? What's the matter with the little boy?
-- Gayla (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 03, 2002.
The boy had pneumonia, but he's fine now. His daddy fixed the car. Come see me and I'll take you for a spin -- on the hill.
-- helen (email@example.com), March 03, 2002.
I'm all broke out in a cold sweat and my hands are still shaking. Good, good storytelling, (but don't do that no more!!!)
-- Lon Frank (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 03, 2002.
Ya had my attention with that one, Helen.
-- gene (email@example.com), March 05, 2002.
I think you're a wonderful storyteller Helen and the boys' Mum must be doing something awfully right to be raising such a beautiful little boy. Take care on the hill.
-- carol (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 05, 2002.
Glad you guys liked the story. I was pretty happy with the ending too. ;)
Maybe you just had to be there ... but having to choose literally between a rock and a hard place, actually making that choice, and then being spared having to take the choice at the last possible moment was ... well, for me, it was proof there is a God. If that boy had been in the back seat where he belonged, I would have ditched it in the first thirty feet and walked a couple of miles back to a phone. If I hadn't been running a bitchy internal monologue, we would have stopped long before we got to the foot of the hill. And then that boy just blew me away ...
What's that old saying? You'll never find an atheist in a foxhole.
-- helen drives a newer model now (email@example.com), March 05, 2002.
This was a TRUE story? YIKES!!!
-- Gayla (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 06, 2002.
Helen, your story was worth the wait! Wow!!
Now tell me, how long before the fingernail marks in my palm fade away??
-- Brooke (ReturnedToRegularBreathing@Hill.top), March 06, 2002.
Ahem...did anyone notice there was an appalling lack of mule in this story? >;)
-- helen (email@example.com), March 07, 2002.
Helen, your story was gripping enough that we never noticed the appalling lack of muleness. However, to remedy that lack, you can always write another story ;-) BTW, I kinda wondered if that wasn't another of your "more truth than fiction" stories. Did someone give you that ancient Chinese curse : "May you live in interesting times"?
-- Tricia the Canuck (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 07, 2002.
Tricia, if we wrote our family story in stodgy, totally truthful detail, the library would shelve it in the science fiction department. I tell mule tales because I don't want you all to think I'm a liar. >:)
-- helen (email@example.com), March 07, 2002.
Helen, write it up and I'll look for it there :-)
Just write it up!
-- Tricia the Canuck (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 09, 2002.