At the Bottom of a Hilltop

By Gabriel Calle

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They stood at the top of the mountain. The hot breeze blew against their sweaty faces. The green pine poked into the clear sky. At the summit they stood on smooth boulders. They had climbed it many times. They knew each crevice, crack and hold. Gerard dropped his pack, and sat on a boulder facing south. Lionel stood and breathed the air rising from the stretching Adirondacks below.  

It had been a long hike up.  The hard rain from the day before turned the trail to mud. They slipped more than once. Lionel enjoyed the challenge. Gerard complained the entire way.  

Lionel hated standing there. He hated for the journey to end. He hated the rising smooth boulders of the last two miles before reaching the summit. He hated the open sky revealing rolling tops of trees. He hated knowing it had to end. The journey always had to end. He stood facing the direction his house would be and frowned. It had been less than a month since his discharge. And he couldn’t shake the need to walk, to run, to scratch the back of his hands until they turned red. 

Gerard unpacked a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread. He had cut the sandwich in neat fours and wrapped it in bright foil. He ate the crust first, in small bites. He sipped cool wine from a blue container. Lionel watched. He thought of his brother rolling down the jagged side of the mountain, breaking his limbs, the bones snapping with each flip of the body. He thought of his brother at the bottom, his broken shell on a pile of rocks.

“We should move to Switzerland,” said Lionel.  

“Why Switzerland?”  

“I read in a magazine that they all hike to get anywhere,” said Lionel.  

“Screw that. Once a month is good enough for me bro.” 

Gerard chewed slowly. He wiped the purple jelly from the corner of his lips. Lionel thought his brother should keep his mouth shut. He discovered with each day that he tolerated Gerard less and less. He also discovered that he could hardly tolerate anyone else that had come to visit him since he returned. But what had become even more intolerable than useless conversation about the weather or politics, was the house. It felt like a prison. It felt like cowering in the trenches with a full clip and water for days. It felt like a place for surrender. And he had learned in the military, from his friends, that surrender was never an option. 

“One day, I’ll hike the Appalachian trail,” said Lionel, mostly to himself.  

“That’s the one starts in Georgia?” 

“Yea, that be the one.”  

“And end in Maine?” asked Gerard.  

“Yea, it ends in Maine. Mount Katahdin” Lionel said. His eyebrows bunched in the middle. He bit a corner of his dry lip and he stared down at the smooth summit. He thought, again, of pushing Gerard over the side. He thought, again, of watching him tumble on the rocks, like the Afghani he shot on a dry hilltop. He thought of Afghanistan. The long patrols under the ripening sun. They patrolled every day. There was some mission, somewhere, to complete every day of that deployment. The sweat would sting his eyes. He hoped they would keep walking through that desert. Walk until they’d fall off the edge into complete darkness. Maybe, in that black void, there’d be the silence of mind he’d never known. 

“Yea, good luck with that Mount Kaka. Not this guy. Nuh uh,” said Gerard.  

Lionel reached into his pack and pulled out his own sandwich. Cooked ham and American cheese on stale white. He took one bite and threw the sandwich into the breeze in the direction of his home. Gerard sat with his back to him. Lionel walked over and thought again of the Afghani tumbling down the steep side of a crumbly hilltop. He remembered the look on the man’s dead face while he rummaged through his clothes. Dust had blown in the corners of the closed eyes. He looked asleep. The face slack, and mouth open. 

Lionel sat next to Gerard, placed an arm around his brother’s shoulders. He asked for a bite of the sandwich and a drink of wine. He thought he could never surrender himself to the house or to any place. But for now, unlike the dead Afghani, he’d surrender himself to his brother. For now, he’d give himself to the Adirondacks and the trees, and the open sky. And the sun, ripening orange in the west.

– Gabriel Calle