Undone New England - THE HILL - Chapter One

Friday, October 7th

Gray, Maine

I’m driving out into the boonies. That’s okay, though. The boonies and I are old pals—we go way back.

Still Ridge road is out on the fringe of Gray, north of Bottle, and it’s a twisted length of rutted dirt and stubborn rocks, flanked on both sides by leaning birches, pines and maples. Yellow and gold leaves brush Betty’s side windows as I steer the old girl over or around the worst of the rocks and holes.

It’s a bit late. The sun is getting low—looking even lower here as I move closer toward the shadow of the hill. It turns the afternoon woods into a kind of false twilight up ahead. I’d rather be home, working in the garage or kicking back on the porch, but I got a call from the old Barlow place earlier today. Not the widow, but her nephew. Andrew or Amos or something. Says the mower’s busted and my number was on a card on the fridge. Those damned cards don’t always lead me into crazy. Sometimes they just do like they’re supposed to and bring in more honest work.

I don’t know this Andy guy or whatever his name is, but I know the old widow, Liv Barlow. She’s been around town for years. I’m sure you’ve seen her. Cool old broad. Sweet, but tough as nails. Doesn’t take any shit from anybody. I like her. And she never gave me any crap for being Weirded, either. Always treated me just like any other kid. If she needs her mower fixed, then I’d rather it be me that fixes it. Save her the trouble of having to kick somebody else’s ass for trying to overcharge a senior citizen or some shit.

The road turns sharply here. Betty groans, but she can handle it fine. I don’t know how that old lady gets her little station wagon up and down this drive. She must know the road like the back of her hand. Or maybe it knows her. I have the distinct feeling that it might be resisting me. 

Like I’m not wanted here.

But there’s work to be done, and I don’t see anybody else here to do it. 

Besides, I’m almost there now.

Jo rounded the last corner, finally spotting the old Barlow house. It perched on the hill’s lower slope, stark white against the deep shadows of the pines behind it, like a single white tooth jutting up from aged gums. All around, the grass had grown tall and ragged, nearly covering the steps of the front porch and threatening to swallow the side patio and its plastic furniture whole. 

The house itself looked to be in good repair. The paint was barely chipped and the shutters still clung proudly upright. There was some slight wear on the roof shingles where the rain and pine needles collected, but it looked to Jo like they had a couple more years left in them, at least. Despite this, the wildly overgrown yard lent the whole place a sense of neglect and abandonment. Like the entire house was about to be swallowed up by the landscape.

“Jesus,” Jo mumbled as she pulled closer. “How long has that damned mower been busted?” 

She swung Betty around in the wider part of the dirt driveway, parking over on one side, half in and half out of the long shadow cast by the steep hill. As she cut the engine and stepped out, she was struck by the silence of the place. No birds sang, and the air was still and soundless.

Is anyone even home? She looked at the windows for signs of life. They stared back like empty black eyes, reflecting the surrounding woods. 

Jo walked up the drive, feeling the absence of the sun’s warmth acutely as she crossed into the cool shadows. Beyond the house, the silhouette of the hill loomed, silent and impartial.

Jo passed the narrow walk to the front porch, the stone path all but invisible in the tall grass, and followed the driveway directly to the shed in the side yard. Finding the door securely locked, she shrugged and walked back to the front of the house, wading through the tangled grass toward the front porch.

“Hello, dear,” a high voice spoke behind her.

“Fuck!” Jo startled and spun around, her tail swishing wildly.

Liv Barlow stood at the driveway’s edge, dressed in a little blue sweater and floral skirt, her deeply wrinkled face pulled into a sly grin. “Language!” She said, clucking her tongue.

“Shit—sorry. Oh hell. Sorry!” Jo sputtered. She pulled off her hat and clutched it tightly, revealing her horns and yanking her hair up into a messy tangle in the process. She looked like a little kid caught misbehaving in church.

Liv Barlow chuckled lightly as Jo attempted to smooth her hair back down. “I’ve heard worse, dear,” she said, extending an arthritic hand. “Now come out of that jungle before you collect any ticks. We’ve been using the side door since the mower broke.”

“Speaking of the mower,” Jo said, “I tried to see if it was in the shed, but it was locked.”

Liv nodded. “Abel has the keys. He’s taken the bicycle into town to get some milk.”

Abel. That’s the name. Jo followed Liv around the corner and across the patio toward a pair of large glass doors.

“He should be back any minute now,” Liv continued. “Why don’t you come in and have a cup of coffee while you wait?”

“Thanks. That sounds nice,” Jo said.

The patio door opened into a small dining room filled with Wedgwood plates and antique furniture. Jo’s nose was instantly filled with the mingled odors of mothballs, perfume and wood polish. Liv guided Jo through a short hall into a small but comfortable kitchen.

“Please have a seat, dear.” She gestured at one of the old wooden chairs with their handmade crochet seat covers. “I’ll brew up some coffee.” She opened the top of the coffee maker, then paused. “I’m afraid all I have is decaf.”

Jo winced at the thought, but smiled politely. “That’ll be fine. Thanks.”

Once the machine was running, Liv joined Jo at the table. “Mad business,” she said.

“Uh…sorry, what?”

“The cab.” Liv gestured at the paper half folded on the table by Jo’s arm. One of the dailies from Portland. The headline read: CAB CRASHES AT DESTINATION—ALL OCCUPANTS MUMMIFIED.

Holy shit. I hadn’t heard about that one yet.

“Terrible. Those poor people,” Liv continued. “Terrible business.”

Jo nodded.

“Things were strange when I was young,” Liv said. She had the tone of someone accustomed to talking to herself. “We had the hexmarks, and the Weird has always been around, but it seems so much worse these days. Does it ever seem to you like it used to be…less? Less strange?”

“My life’s always been strange,” Jo said. Unsure of what else to say about it, she glanced out the little window over the sink. From this angle, she could see all the way to the top of the hill. It seemed to loom larger by the minute as the sun sank ever lower toward evening. A surge of wind rose, stirring the tops of the bristling pines on the hill’s crest. It gave the illusion of rising hackles.

“Wachanassewan,” Liv said, following Jo’s gaze. “It gets dark early on the eastern side. The sunrises are beautiful, but once the sun moves behind the hill, night seems to come faster here.”

“It looks bigger than I remember,” Jo said. It had only been a few years since she’d come by to repair a broken sump pump in the cellar, but she could swear that the hill wasn’t quite so tall then. Less oppressive.

“Wasn’t that in the morning?” Liv asked. “I’m sure it was. You finished at noon. I offered to make you a sandwich, but you had to run off for something or other.”

“Yeah, I think so.” So much for old folks having shitty memory, she thought.

“Yes.” Liv nodded, the mystery now solved to her satisfaction. “It always looks smaller in the morning and noontime. It’s only in the afternoon and evening that it really makes its presence felt.” She stared up at it with a look that Jo found slightly obsessive.

“Walter—my husband, rest his soul—he said it was special. Said the view and the breezes from the top had a rejuvenating quality. He would walk up to the top almost every day. Except for the last year. In the end, he couldn’t climb it at all—he was bed-ridden, you see. I think that was what really killed him. Not the cancer. It was having the hill taken away from him like that. Put him into a downward spiral. When they took him away to the hospital, he only lasted two days.”

Jo shifted in her seat, trying not to look uncomfortable. Talking about or even looking at corpses half-eaten by some freakish monster didn’t make her that uneasy. But thinking about a slow, lingering death in a hospital bed…. She shook her head. 

No biggie. In your line of work, there’s very little odds of that happening, she reminded herself.

The coffee maker beeped, mercifully drawing Liv away from the topic of her husband’s death. She poured two cups, then fetched a creamer from the fridge and a nearly empty sugar bowl. “Cream only, unless Abel comes back with the milk right this second. Let me get some more sugar from the pantry.”

She opened the pantry door and rummaged in the shelves. Jo was immediately struck by an earthy, musty funk that seemed to emanate from the pantry. As Liv emerged with more sugar, she caught sight of Jo involuntarily wrinkling her nose.

“The cellar,” she said, gesturing toward the closed door at the pantry’s far end. “It gets damp this time of year.”

“The pump’s not broken again, is it?” Jo asked, her professional pride suddenly at risk.

“Oh, no, no. It still works fine. It’s just those old fieldstone walls and all that cracked cement. The soil is very rich and moist on this side of the hill. Good for gardening, but bad for basements.”

Jo smiled.

“It’s almost evening anyway,” Liv said. “We get some fine breezes here in the evening, blowing down from the hilltop. It’ll move out that bad air. Do us all a world of good. Walter always did better in the evenings, even when he couldn’t climb anymore.”

“Mmm,” Jo said, trying again not to look too uncomfortable. “So, um, your nephew should be back soon, right?”

“Any minute now. I told him he could take the car instead of that old bicycle, but he loves getting outdoors and taking in the fresh air.”

“Right,” Jo said. “Fresh air’s great.” She added a little cream to her coffee, wishing even more that Abel had returned with the milk already, then picked up a couple of sugar cubes. As she lifted them, she caught a distinct whiff of that earthy funk again. She watched as Liv turned to glance out the window, then palmed the cubes and dumped them in her pocket. Liv looked back and smiled as Jo took a sip. Bitter, but not enough to make her grimace. Better bitter than that musty smell.

“Good, healthy air is so important,” Liv said. She went to the sink and wrestled the window up an inch or two, letting in a gust of crisp, cold air. “The evening breeze is starting to move our way. It’s a little chilly, but so good for the lungs. Can you smell it? How fresh and invigorating it is?”

Humoring her, Jo stepped up and sniffed. It smelled very crisp and fresh, rich with vibrant smells and the scent of pine. But it was so cold, Jo could hardly believe someone like Liv Barlow—a thin and delicate-looking old woman in her late seventies—would ever want to bask in it the way she was now.

“You don’t leave that open all night, do you?” Jo asked, slightly concerned. She had an unpleasant mental image of someone finding poor old Liv one winter morning, blue and frozen in her nightgown.

Liv looked slighted. “Well, if it’s too cold for you—“ she began.

Jo stepped away from her suddenly, spotting something out the larger side window.

From here, she could see the back of the shed where the mower was still being held captive. Leaning against the back wall, half covered in an old rotted tarp, was a bicycle. Fallen leaves and overgrown grass were tangled in the spokes.

“Hey,” Jo interrupted, “did you and Walter each have a bike, or did you only have one?”

“Oh…just the one,” Liv said, rising. “Were you thinking of going looking for Abel? He’ll be back any minute. Besides, you have that truck of yours….” She trailed off as she followed Jo’s gaze. “Oh. Yes. Well. I suppose he must’ve gone on foot, hmmm? No wonder he’s taking so long.”

“Right,” Jo said. Something’s off here, she thought. “Maybe I should come back tomorrow.”

“Oh, nonsense,” Liv said, gently steering Jo back to the table with a soft but gnarled hand. “Even on foot, he’ll be back any minute. No sense waiting all this time and then leaving just before he gets back. Let me get you some more coffee.”

Jo smiled thinly as Liv took her cup.

“Okay. Just fifteen more minutes, though. Then I think maybe I should go look for him.”

“He’ll be back and you’ll be on your way,” Liv chirped. “Just you wait and see.”

Jo got up again and walked to the sink, looking up through the small window at the top of the hill. “It’s getting dark. Real dark, not just in-the-hill’s-shadow dark.” The night breeze gusted again, stirring the little lace curtains. It smelled of pine and nighttime and tense expectation. “That breeze really is something though,” she said.

“Oh yes. It’ll get better as the sun goes down. The night air on Wachanassewan is unique. I’ve never felt anything else like it.”

“That name—is it Native American?” Jo asked.

“Probably,” Liv said, setting Jo’s cup back on the table, full and steaming. “Walter used to say it was from the Abenaki: wajo nasawan. I don’t know if that’s right, though. I don’t remember where he learned that, but that’s what he used to tell our friends. Wajo nasawan. ‘The Hill that Breathes.’”

Jo sat back down and cradled the warm ceramic, suppressing a small shudder. Part of it was from a sense of foreboding—part of it from some unidentifiable excitement.

Liv retrieved her own cup. Before she could bring it back to the table, something out the sink window caught her eye.

“Oh, good! I think I see Abel coming back now. I told you he’d be here!”

“Up the hill? I thought you said he went into town?” Jo hopped out of her seat again and leaned over the sink next to Liv. The old woman smelled heavily of perfume, but underneath was that same musty smell from the cellar door. Jo tried to ignore it and scanned the dark woods.

At first she saw nothing, other than the occasional sway of pine branches or fluttering of leaves. The sky above the peak was a darkening blue, the last bright colors of sunset now fading away to nothing. Something moved between the trees. It was the size of a man, but didn’t walk so much as slide in and out of view. As it did, at least one pair of limbs raised into the air, lashing like whips against the wind.

Jo’s heart pounded. “I don’t think that’s your nephew,” she said.

Liv chuckled dismissively. “Oh, yes. That’s my Abel. I’m sure of it. I can’t wait to introduce you. He’s such a delightful young man.”

To be continued in