Posted on September 4, 2015
Hey, I actually managed to hit the first Friday of the month for once!
Having said that, here are the rules about First Friday Free Fiction:
1) This story (Green Hills) is the intellectual property of and is copyrighted by me Jake MacMillan. You can read it here for free but don’t pass it around (if you want to share it with people send them here to read it) and definitely don’t share it or any part of it without attribution.
2) I’m not going to tell you anything about the story, i.e. – its genre or length or general subject matter, because as a genrista (a loyal follower of the Genrist), you are blind to such trappings and simply want to read a good story.
This month’s free story is called Green Hills. Enjoy.
Chipper was a road man, the kind of salesman everyone called by his nickname – except his wife who insisted on calling him Charles because “Chipper” was too juvenile a name for a man in his forties. He was a road man of the Big Buick, hand pumping, broad smile variety who had his nose to the asphalt ten to fourteen days in a row, but he was also a solid citizen and a good husband who called home every night to tuck in his wife and daughter.
He was a road man not because he loved sales but because he loved people. He could converse at length on any subject without being tedious or becoming bored. He could strike up a conversation with a stranger in a checkout line and walk away five minutes later with a lifelong friend who checked in with him on all the major holidays. People liked him, liked to be near him, drew off his good cheer the way they might take heat from a strong fire on a cold night.
Salesmen in general might be considered loathsome, overbearing creatures better avoided than embraced but not Chipper. His sales pitch was so low pressure it was practically nonexistent. He would walk into a restaurant and talk to the owner or the manager or the chef for as long as there was something to talk about – everything from the weather to sports to whose kid was going to college in the fall – and then he would turn to leave with nothing more than a gentle wave. And if his customer didn’t say, “Aren’t you going to take my order?” he would turn as if he had just remembered his reason for dropping by and ask, “So, how are you doing on peanut oil?” That was it. That was all there was to it.
He was a man of the road because he loved to drive. There was something about an open road and talk radio that cranked his natural hum up another notch – to bliss, or nearly that – and his territory was perfect for that sort of driving: Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. All three were wide open states crisscrossed with highways so long and straight you could climb in the back for a nap without having to pull over.
Chipper drove the speed limit, he was never in a hurry. He didn’t make appointments, he just dropped by, and if his customer wasn’t in at the moment then he would check back later. If they still weren’t in when he came back around, he would try again on the way home at the end of his run.
So it was only right that his terrible last day came when he was traveling through Oklahoma at the far end of his circuit, headed for Shasta, a small town with a big heart and a city limits sign that read, “Welcome to Shasta, Population: 300 plus you.”
Shasta was nestled in the middle of wide open farm land that was some wheat but mostly corn. It was constructed around two main streets, six cross streets, and twelve stoplights which was about right for the size of towns on his route. He passed on the Concorde Motel on the highway just outside of town and headed instead for the Little Inn downtown, the charming old WPA structure that stood across from the antique store that had once been a Ben Franklin’s Five & Dime.
It was like most towns in the wide open spaces. A few city blocks of buildings mostly dating back to the 20s and 30s, some gas stations made over to look modern, and a single movie theater. Seen from above, the town would appear to rise suddenly from the endlessly flat landscape in a flourish of mature elms and oaks and ash trees. There were trees everywhere in Shasta. They hung over the streets and shaded the yards of the old brick houses, each one of which had a screened porch attached to one side or the other.
The suburbs ran for a few blocks in all directions from downtown. Closest in were the large, brick homes, the ones with the spreading ash or oak trees in the front yard. Further out came the clapboard houses, the ones added after the war when all the GIs came home and wanted to raise families but didn’t want to live with their folks.
And just beyond that last suburban clapboard house the landscape opened up into wide blue sky and perfectly flat land, all of it farmed with geometric obsession.
Chipper had his Buick’s cruise control set on 65 right up until he pulled off the Interstate and caught a crosscut road through the fields that would take him to the main road into town. It was July then and the corn was high and the darkest shade of green. That color further brightened Chipper’s day and he realized that, whenever he thought of the color green, it was this green exactly that he saw in his mind’s eye: the green of corn nearly ready for harvest.
The trees over the suburban part of Main St. formed an arboreal tunnel that blocked enough light that he had to take off his sunglasses the moment he entered it. He was happy, listening to someone on the radio sound off about the real reason Iraq was falling to pieces, eyeing the pretty brick houses and their perfect yards, kids’ toys in the driveways, and dogs curled up on the screened porches with the comforting knowledge that these things were part of the sweet and clean forever that would rock him gently to sleep every night for the rest of this life. Seeing these things reminded him of the soothing rhythm and reliability of his life.
That sense of comfort was probably the reason he didn’t notice the lack of people out and about on such a nice day. That and because of all the cars parked on the street. Cars, parked or otherwise, gave off a feeling of movement. So when his Buick’s fat ass trundled into town, he had the feeling he was seeing the world as it was supposed to be.
When the bright sunlight flashed in his eyes as he drove out from under the tunnel of spreading oaks, he put his sunglasses back on so he could see despite the sun reflecting off the whitewashed buildings. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. He always worried about hitting someone when that happened so he tapped the brakes to slow down a little until he could see again. He needn’t have worried about hitting anyone that day.
His eyes adjusted as commercial buildings replaced homes and cars and pickups angled into spots in front of parking meters. The traffic light dutifully proceeded through its cycle of colors even though there were no drivers waiting.
Maybe he should have sensed something then, but there was never much traffic in a town like Shasta. And as for people on the street? It was hot that time of year and being three in the afternoon it was as hot as it was going to get all day. People were more likely to come out at dusk when the sun was low and the temperature had backed off to something more reasonable.
Or maybe it was just that the whole reason he liked coming to Shasta was The Little Inn. The woman who ran the inn was a furious and obsessive baker and the place always smelled like warm cookies and cakes and pies fresh from the oven. Her name was Julia Robertson which he always got a secret chuckle out of because of the movie actress by a similar name. He called her Pretty Woman.
He had an opening line for all the regulars on his route. For Julia Robertson at the Little Inn, it was, “I smell something gooood.” Just like Andy Griffith would say it. “I smell something gooood.” And then she would smile and bring out a plate of cookies or a slice of pie even before she checked him in.
It was probably that he was concentrating on that moment when he would say his opening line to her that he didn’t notice there weren’t any people around. No cars in motion. No mothers with strollers. No farmers hefting bags into the beds of their pickups. Nobody.
Life on the road was a series of moments to him, moments that he looked forward to before and cherished after. The first greeting when he walked into a customer’s store. The smile. The handshake. Taking the order was just business, he never cared much about that.
So he cruised down Main St., waiting patiently at each red light until he got to The Little Inn, and then turned into the alley and parked his car in the lot. He grabbed his valise and hanging bag from the trunk and trudged through the back door which fed into a narrow corridor that led to the front desk.
The first he noticed something was wrong was the smell. There wasn’t one. No cookies. No brownies. No cakes or pies. Just the dusty smell of an old building in which no other human had recently exhaled a breath. He furrowed his brow and continued down the corridor to the front desk, all set to ask Julia Robertson if she was feeling all right – but she wasn’t there. The front door was closed but not locked. The check-in desk was neat but unmanned. He crooked his ear up the staircase and heard not a sound from any of the rooms upstairs.
Were it not for the note on the check-in desk, he would have been worried about her. “Help yourself,” the note said. “Gone to Green Hills.” Julia Robertson’s unmistakable signature, honed in a calligraphy class many years ago, swirled and looped below it.
“Green Hills?” He had never heard of it, made a note to check his map later, and wondered for a moment if he should drive out to the Concorde Motel. No, the note she had left indicated she wouldn’t be gone long.
He decided to sign himself in. He did this, good naturedly trying to match the elegant calligraphy in her note, and then grabbed a brass key fob from the honeycomb of wooden slots behind the desk. On the base of the fob was a white porcelain disk with the room number inlaid in black. He pulled the key for #1 which was his favorite because it had a balcony that overlooked Main St. and at night the sound of cars passing on the street help him get to sleep.
He dragged his bags upstairs and took a moment to listen to the other doors to see if maybe someone else was staying at the Inn. No TV noise, no phones ringing, no talking, no footsteps. He was alone.
This probably should have raised at least a small alarm in him but it didn’t and the truth was that by then it was too late. It had probably been too late the moment he had turned from the crosscut onto Main St. Maybe even the moment he had decided to come to Shasta in the first place.
He dropped his valise on the bed and hung his suit bag in the armoire before heading downstairs and out into the street. He loved Main St. in towns like Shasta. People always stopped to pass the time. People always let you kiss the baby, told you how old the little guy was, how long the labor had lasted. Farmers would tell you when the last rain was, how the crops were doing, who was going to make All State that year.
He stepped onto the sidewalk, took a deep breath of small town air into his lungs, and then looked around. There were no people. No babies to kiss. No farmers to discuss the weather. Not even a cop to complain about the expired parking meters.
Now at long last, he finally understood that something was wrong. He put his hands on his hips and furrowed his brow. Was it a holiday? The harvest wasn’t due just yet. Sometimes that emptied a town – but not of every single person. Anyone too young or too old to work the fields would still be around. It was the craziest thing. Even on the Fourth of July, the most sacred of American holidays, there would be people on the street. But here they weren’t, as his father would have said.
A holiday. That was the first thing his mind settled on. Everyone was somewhere celebrating something. He didn’t bother at that early stage to wonder why cars were still nosed into slots with overdue parking meters.
Well, if he couldn’t get a fresh brownie from Julia Robertson then he might as well start visiting with his customers. He decided to start with Tom Greenburg, the manager of Nib’s Ribs. Nib’s was a very popular place in Shasta. Ribs weren’t a common menu item to these people, so eating at Nib’s was akin to eating something exotic like Chinese or Mexican. It was eating Southern.
Chipper decided to walk the six blocks instead of going back for his car. He didn’t use a laptop computer or an app on his phone for taking orders. Instead, he kept a small spiral notepad and a Bic pen in his pocket. His only concession to modern life was an iPhone and that was only so his customers could call in orders if they forgot something when he stopped by. He didn’t carry a sample case, either. The American Restaurant Supply Company catalog was two inches thick. A sample case would have been the size of a freight truck. Instead, he had the catalog memorized and the vocal talents to describe every item in mouth watering detail.
He stopped after three blocks to wait for the Walk sign and it finally occurred to him that he had passed five or six stores, all with plate glass windows, and hadn’t seen a single soul. What scared him, though, were the notes. He had seen them from the corner of his eye, not really paying attention, but the back of your mind had a way of pushing things forward when you were in trouble and right then he could see all those hand lettered signs on the doors of all those businesses.
He didn’t have to go back and read them – That part of his mind, the primitive part that knows about the dark, was quite sure what each of them said – but he did go back. The front of his mind, the part that new about electric lights and telephones and fire, had to see for itself.
“Help yourself,” each one said. “Gone to Green Hills.”
A shock of panic went through him, sweaty and ambiguous, and he started looking around. Down the side streets, up ahead. Behind him. Empty streets. Cars parked. It was maddening. Cars were parked everywhere but not a single person in any of them. He stopped himself, took out his handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his face. “Green Hills,” he said with a little laugh. “They’re just all gone off to Green Hills.”
And that probably would have been enough except for that nagging two word sentence that every note opened with: Help Yourself. At first, he had thought it meant they would be back soon, but now he realized the opposite was true. Who would leave their store unlocked with a note offering every bit of merchandise for the taking if they were planning to come back?
He turned down the side street, Nib’s Ribs now forgotten, and started into a jog. It was hot, the sun had an unobstructed view of the street at this hour of the day, and he immediately began to sweat under his arms and around his neck. He didn’t care. He wanted to get to those houses that crowded around downtown. He had to get to people. Someone. Anyone.
He came to the place where the shade trees covered the street and slowed down to cool off in the shadows – there was a pleasant breeze blowing then, cool and dry – and turned up the first walk he came to. This led him to a large brick home with Victorian gables and a screen porch that ran all the way down one side. There was a detached garage in the back and a driveway that was little more than a pair of concrete strips.
He banged on the screen door and then knocked a little lighter, trying to calm the rising panic. That was what scared him now: the shapeless black shadow climbing fist over fist up his spine. He couldn’t even put a finger on what terrified him so. He just knew that he was afraid.
No one answered, so he called through the screen door. “Hello? Hello, in the house!”
Silence. Not even a dog came to check out the noise. He darted off the steps and ran next door to another brick house in the cool of spreading shade trees. He banged on the screen door and got nothing. The doorbell. He ran around to the front door and pressed the small, lighted button set into the brick. He could hear it Ding Dong faintly inside. Footsteps? Did he hear footsteps? His heart began to beat a little faster, fear and hope mixed together. “Hello?”
No, it had been branches against the shingles he had heard. Off to the next house, running faster now, out of breath. No one home. And the next: no one home. And the next: still no one.
He went to the front door of the last house and didn’t bother to knock. He just turned the knob and pushed it open – knowing with a terrible certainty that it would be unlocked. It was cold inside the house. The nicer homes down here had air conditioning and they, by God, used it.
The living room was dark, filled with tasteful colonial furniture he associated with grandmothers and dowager aunts. There was a phone table in the front hall and next to it a message pad. He saw it and wanted to run outside. He thought he might be able to forget having seen it if he ran out right then but it was no use. It was there, it was real, he had to look at it. Had to touch it.
Someone had written Green Hills over and over on it. At first, the script was smooth and looping as though someone had been writing with an idle hand while on the phone or thinking about something else. Half way down the page the script became a little more intense. The loops tightened and the letters leaned forward as if they intended to march off the page. Maybe they were heading to Green Hills, too.
He didn’t want to turn the page, had a terrible feeling about what he would see, but did it anyway. Yes, the second page was worse. The script became manic, the letters pressed tightly together, leaning at a dangerous slant.
The last page was the worst. It was the last page that caused him to break out in a cold sweat. The script returned to gentle loops and dangling descenders before simply trailing off to blank space. It was if he had witnessed a terrible struggle on those pages. A struggle that had ended in surrender.
He had to call someone. He picked it up (Yes! A dial tone!) and punched in 911. It rang. And rang. It rang fourteen times before he hung up. Apparently the nice folks at Emergency 911 had wandered off to Green Hills, too.
Okay, that was local. A local number that rang at the police station right there in town. The state police would have to answer. They would help. He called 411 to get their number and let it ring 14 times before he hung up. Was 411 local? Had everybody in the state wandered off to Green Hills?
No, he had seen traffic on the highway right up until he had taken his exit. But no one on the crosscut. Not even tractors in the fields. No high school boys joyriding on the long dirt roads that sliced between farms.
Maybe the whole county had wandered off.
He was about to call someone else – or at least try to think of someone to call – when he saw movement from the corner of his eye. Something, or maybe someone, had gone by the window, heading by the front walk.
He dropped the phone and ran outside in time to see a young woman in a pretty dress, fancy like an Easter dress, strolling down the walk to where the street ended abruptly at the edge of a vast cornfield.
“Hey!” he yelled from the porch then reminded himself where he was and tried better manners. “Excuse me!”
She kept walking. Not fast, not trying to escape. She was sauntering, her narrow arms swinging loosely at her sides, her high heels clicking on the concrete. And she just kept walking.
He ran after her, caught her easily, and grabbed her arm. He must have been panicked. He never would have grabbed a strange woman by the arm in any other circumstance. “Excuse me! Hi, hello. I’m Chipper Prendergast. I was wondering…”
She turned to him, a dreamy smile on her face, and looked at him without actually seeing him.
“Can you help me?” he asked. “I’m wondering where everyone has gone.”
She turned her gaze back to her intended direction and began walking again. She didn’t exactly break his grip, just started walking until he let her go.
“Miss,” he said but she kept walking.
So he followed her down the end of the street where the shade gave way to bright sun on dark green stalks that stretched out to forever. He expected her to turn, maybe go into a house, or at least stop. But no, she walked down the muddy embankment and slid between rows of corn so tall they were higher than her head. He watched for another moment until the crops swallowed her and he was alone again.
He broke into a jog, coming to the point where the grass turned to dirt at the lip of the embankment, and stopped before that first step down into the field. Don’t go in there, a strained voice whispered inside his head, or you’ll never come out. Just like the rest of them.
He drew back, dry swallowed, and started running again. This time he was heading to his car. The heck with this mystery. He was going to get in his car and drive the heck out of town and call someone from the first rest stop. In Nebraska.
He was in a full run by the time he broke from the shadows into the nearly liquid sunshine and turned up the block for the Little Inn. He turned right at Main St. and kept running, all the stops out, more exercise than he had had in years while fear ran through his muscles like quicksilver and panic drove his heel.
Three blocks up, he came to Nib’s Ribs and that brought him up short. Nib’s? He turned around, looked behind him. Had he turned the wrong direction? Only six blocks from The Little Inn and he couldn’t for the life of him remember how to get there. It was so plain and so simple, but he couldn’t get it into his head. It was like a name stuck on the tip of his tongue. It just didn’t make any sense. The whole damn town was only ten blocks long.
He struggled for a moment and found he simply couldn’t think of it. Not its location nor the name of the woman who ran the place. He stood in the harsh light of a relentless sun, sweating through his shirt and damn near through his jacket. He stood legs apart like a drunk on Saturday night trying to remember where he parked his car.
He was thirsty. Parched. All he could think about was water at that point. Cool clear water. The kind you could drink all day. The kind they had up at Green Hills.
He turned back to Nib’s and, sure enough, the note on the door said he should come in and help himself.
The lights were on inside the rib joint and the juke box was playing a Patty Loveless tune. It was dark despite the lights, as bars and rib joints were likely to be. There was no one there, of course. Empty tables on one side. Empty bar on the other. He could hear the air conditioner hum. Every now and then the ice maker shuddered.
He went around the end of the bar and poked around until he found a small fridge with bottled water in it. The cold air chilled the sweat on his body so he pulled off his jacket and loosened his tie. His image in the mirror behind the bar shocked him: tie loose, jacket off, sweaty pits, hair mussed. He looked like every other salesmen in the world at that moment. It bothered him enough that he cinched his tie back up.
After drinking half the bottle of water, he screwed the top back on and put it away. It was good, sure hit the spot, but it was nowhere near as good as the water at Green Hills. Up there was this stream that gurgled by a clearing where the grass was soft and there weren’t any chiggers. You could lie down in that grass all day and never get bitten even once. And when you got thirsty, you could just lean over the bank of that stream and drink until you had your fill. No PCB’s in that water. It bubbled out of the ground from some subterranean source too deep for pollutants to reach it. Drinking that water was like drinking from the fountain of youth…
He snapped out of it and slapped himself across the face. There in the mirror over the bar, he saw a disheveled middle aged man agape in shock. What the hell was he talking about? He didn’t know anything about Green Hills. It was getting to him. Whatever it was, it was getting to him, too. Just like the rest of the folks in town.
He had to go. Right damn now. He had to go back to The Little Inn and get his car and get in it and drive like hell and get gone. Right damn now.
He tore out of Nib’s, his destination clear in his mind now, ran the three blocks in the scorching sun and made a left, back into the shade of the giant oaks, back down the walk, back to… the end of the street where he had seen the young woman disappear into the corn.
He felt lost then. Every time he thought he had it right, he had it all wrong. It frustrated him to the point of tears. He had a car. It was close by. He could get away if he could just remember how to get back to the Inn. He was good with directions. He could find his way home without a map or a GPS from the ends of the frigging Earth! Why couldn’t he find an inn that was only a few blocks away in a town he knew like the back of his hand?
“Tommy! Stop! Stop right now, young man!”
He whirled around in time to see another young woman, this one in a strapless gingham dress and tennis shoes, run across the intersection at Main St.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, wait!” Then he was running again.
He turned the corner onto Main and saw her corral a boy, maybe nine years old, a little tow headed guy in a pair of overalls and boots, by the arm. No shirt. Sunburned shoulders and cheeks. The woman, obviously his mother, scooped him up in her arms and shook her finger in his face. “You need to listen to me, young man.” She had a strange accent, slightly exaggerated vowels and sloughed consonants. He couldn’t place it but didn’t really care at that point. She was someone who wasn’t in the process of wandering off, though it looked like her son might be.
She didn’t turn to face him.
Again he had the frustrating experience of watching someone walk away from him without heeding his call. “Excuse me, please!”
The boy looked over his mother’s shoulder at Chipper, but it was just like the woman who had disappeared into the corn. He wasn’t seeing Chipper. He was seeing something far off on a distant horizon that was probably visible only to him.
Chipper caught up to the young mom and touched her shoulder. She screamed, did a little panic dance, and ran a few steps away before turning to see who had accosted her. She looked him up and down, apparently decided he wasn’t worth being scared of, and simmered down. “Oh, sorry, you scared me.”
Then he placed that accent. She was deaf. Probably from birth.
He said, “I’m sorry,” moving his lips with as much expression as possible.
“It’s okay,” she said with a self deprecating grin, “I’m used to it. Have you seen Walter?”
“My husband? Runs the pharmacy. You’re the sales fella that comes around to Nib’s, right?”
“Walter,” he said, remembering the narrow young pharmacist who was nonetheless a good ten years this woman’s senior. “Right. No, I haven’t seen him.” He stopped short of telling her about the note on the front door of the pharmacy. “What’s up with the little guy?”
“He’s so bad today,” she said. “Every time I turn around, he’s run off. Usually he’s a good boy. I think he’s sick. Look at his eyes. See that look? That’s a fever look. I wish I could find Walter.”
“Haven’t you noticed that no one is around?” he asked. He almost asked her if she noticed how quiet it was but caught himself in time.
She looked around, realizing it for the first time. “Where is everybody?”
“Green Hills,” he said. “According to the notes.”
“What’s Green Hills?”
“I have no idea.” He started laughing from the sheer relief of passing words with another person. He figured it was going to be all right then. When there was someone else around you could talk things through.
“Want some coffee?” she asked, then that smile again, she stuck out her hand. “Norma.”
He shook it, said, “Chipper.”
“C’mon, I’ve got a fresh pot on and you can help me keep an eye on the wanderer here.”
He followed her across the street from where the cornfield had beckoned him, down a similar sidewalk to a similar brick house with a screen porch along the side and a garage in back.
They sat on the porch where it was cool in spite of the sun and he drank his coffee black – like all salesmen, because you couldn’t count on having a bunch of condiments if you were on the road all the time. Black and strong. Good for the soul and a sure kick-start for conversation.
She sat down in a rocker next to him with her own cup and said, “I locked him in his room. I know it’s bad but he’s been so off today. I can’t get a moment.”
“Norma,” he said, choosing his words, “something strange is happening in town. People are gone. You’re only the second person I’ve seen today and I’ve been looking.”
“Something is going on,” she said, sipping her coffee. “People started wandering off last night. Walter was all upset about it, but I figure people’s business is their business. I don’t like to bother.”
“They could be in trouble,” he said.
“In Shasta?” She laughed, full of easy joy. “I figure it’s a Klan meeting. They’ve been sniffing around lately. Sometimes the fellas will go out just to be polite, but we don’t truck with their kind here. We’re good neighbors to all, no matter the color.”
Green Hills? Klan meeting? Not likely. “Walter’s gone.”
“Walter is fishing,” she said with a scowl. “That man only has two things on his mind and the other one is fishing. I swear. Found his rod and kit missing from the garage this morning, went around to the store and, you bet, there’s a note on the door. Man’s got a problem with fishing.”
“Yes, but…” Chipper stopped when he heard a crash from inside the house and looked around.
“What?” Norma asked.
She was panicked, turned his face to her, “I couldn’t see you.”
“Something crashed,” he said, carefully forming the words so she could see them.
She put her cup down and ran inside the house. Chipper didn’t know whether to follow or not. Most likely, he figured, it was the boy getting into more nonsense. He didn’t like being around when folks disciplined their children. That was a side of anyone you hesitated to see.
He waited for five minutes, until his coffee was cold, and then stood up and walked through the house. She wasn’t there as he knew she wouldn’t be. A very particular sense of doom in his soul had told him so. He had been with another person for a moment, just long enough to taste the sweetness of it before it was yanked away again. He let himself out, heard her calling after the boy, running after him down the street. He could follow them – but why? He knew where the kid was going. The end of the lane where the corn urged you to take that last step over the edge of the world.
Back at Main St., he stopped and put his hands on his hips and looked around. Empty street, empty town. Every time he thought about The Little Inn his mind wandered back down the lane. Back to Green Hills. To oblivion.
Tired of being hot and sweaty, he tossed his jacket on the ground and rolled up his shirtsleeves. Likewise, the tie went into the gutter. At Green Hills you could take your shoes off and run around barefoot in the grass. Hell, you could stick your sore feet in the cold spring, cool them right off. At Green Hills you could lie back in the grass and sleep like an innocent.
At Green Hills.
Oh, how he yearned to see its softly sculpted rolling hills. The stand of oaks that lined the clearing where the little stream burbled through. He was tired and hot. He’d been on the road a long time. Forever, it seemed. On the road making friends of strangers, but what sort of friends were they? Acquaintances, really. People you passed time with. Was that what life was about? Passing time until your time was done?
He sat down on the curb and put his head in his hands. He had wasted his life. Some brain chemical deformity had turned him into a robot, a gutless cyborg. What about all the great things he had been going to do? What had they been? He couldn’t even remember now. Maybe he’d always been a machine. He’d worked his whole life, worked since he was thirteen years old, and for what? A car he couldn’t even find.
He began to weep then. All the tears he had never cried rolled down his cheeks into his hands. He may never have had a soul before, but he had one now. He could feel it being shredded inside him. It was too late to start again. What would he do? Sign up as a late night DJ? Open a restaurant? The terrible truth, the one he hid from himself in the deepest part of his brain, was that he had never had big dreams, had never wanted to DO anything. He just liked people. That was all. He was the simplest sort of moron.
Well, he wanted something now. He wanted to go to Green Hills and lie down in the soft grass and maybe stick his feet in that cold mountain spring.
He got up, wiped his tears with a rough stroke of his sleeve, and went back to the lane where the woman had gone into the corn. A sad but hopeful smile broke on his face. He was going to Green Hills and it would be fine. He would relax and cool off and just generally wash away the debris of his life. Maybe he would even be able to start over as a new person.
He stood at the lip of the embankment and looked out across the corn. It wasn’t so far, really. Just a pleasant walk through the fields.
He collapsed that night after walking for fifteen hours straight. Didn’t even try to break his fall, just went flat on his nose and slept until the sun came up. He woke easily, still in a dream, and started walking again.
By noon, he was shirtless and covered with cuts and bug bites. They didn’t matter, though. Once you got to Green Hills there weren’t any bugs. Just soft grass and a cool spring-fed stream. He didn’t blink anymore. His gaze was permanently fixed on the horizon, on that place where cool waters ran and folks luxuriated like the kings of ancient Persia.
By nightfall he was stumbling forward and ever onward. The noise coming sharply from his pants pocket startled him into a state near waking. Ring. A ringing sound. A phone. A phone in his pants? Right, a phone. A phone. He pulled it out, thumbed it to life and put it to his ear just to see what it would say.
That didn’t even sound familiar. Wrong number. Number? Why would someone want to talk to a number? He said, “There are no numbers here,” and slipped it back in his pocket. He was smiling. Green Hills was close. He could smell the clean, wet grass. Could almost hear the brook babbling.
His pants rang again and he stopped. His mind, tired and disoriented, flitted back to the voice. It seemed so familiar. So close. Something about it made him think of comfort and love and… Jell-O shots. Lisa. The name swam lazily to the surface of his consciousness. The blonde girl at the bar in Cancun. Drinking Jell-O shots. With him.
Lisa. The girl on the beach with the bright orange bikini. He had said… What was it he had said? You’re a caution flag. She had laughed and he could see the laughter like bright sparkles on the water.
He answered the phone in his pocket. “Lisa?”
“Yes! Charles, where are you?”
“Long gone,” he said, smiling. “We had a time, though, didn’t we?”
“Charles, what is happening to you? You hung up on me!”
“Just no time for that now,” he said, “going to Green Hills. But feel free to help yourself.”
Then he dropped the phone on the ground and kept walking. He could hear Lisa’s voice, small and tinny, in the dark behind him but it didn’t mean anything. Just a girl he knew once a long time ago on a beach in Mexico. He pressed on into the night toward Green Hills.