The Empty Hill

This is based off of a writing prompt from the Showing & Telling excerpt posted on the Facebook group by Kurt Schweitzer.


“We’re here.” Shawn stopped the car, but didn’t turn the engine off. Steve Miller crooned on quietly through the car stereo.

I looked over at her, sitting in the passenger seat next to him. I was still shocked by her appearance; just weeks ago she’d had an impressive mane of thick, curly silver hair, the sort that any grandmother would look at lustily. She’d seemed fuller then, a more impressive, powerful figure. Now, her shaved head, thin scar across her scalp, craggy wrinkles, and bent neck just made her look sad and frail. She was gazing out the window, to the beautiful emerald hill across the decrepit dirt road.

“Is that it, then? I don’t recognize it.”

“Yes, Momma. That’s the place. Remember? You sold the lot?”

“Yes, I remember, Em. It just looks different.”

Shawn grunted beside her. “It’s not so different. You can see the shape of the driveway along the side of the hill.” He pointed, tracing the indentation up to the hill’s crown. “And there used to be pine trees over there, lined along that crest over the road.”

I wished he wouldn’t be so straightforward about it, but I didn’t expect anything less. At least he wasn’t making puns.

“What do they do with the land now?”

His eyes flickered to me over the shoulder of his seat, a shadow of an unspoken question flashing between us. “The Kreiders? They have a couple more cows now. And a goat. Lawrence told me it was a small paddock.”

“Hrm.” She turned back to me, a frown creasing her withered face, shading her gray eyes. “I don’t think that’s enough space for four cows and a goat.”

I might have been as annoyed as her, months ago, but now I had other things on my mind. I gave her a plastic smile. “If they were home we could give them a piece of our minds.”

“Mother and daughter and son, a force to be feared. We’re basically the three musketeers of health food.” Shawn grinned meekly.

Mom sighed. “I don’t know if I ever had the courage to tell them I was vegan and gluten-free. Lawrence and Crystal were always so sweet. Such lovely people.” She pulled the latch and stepped out, steadying herself against Shawn’s car as she grabbed her four-toed cane. “I want to get closer.”

I rushed around the car to hold her left arm while she leaned on the cane in her right. Shawn turned off the engine and followed behind silently. We walked on the gentle, grassy slope where our driveway had slowly climbed up around the edge of the hill. We walked slowly, partly for Mom’s sake, and partly from the ache of nostalgia. I remembered where Mom had dotted the edge of the drive with sweet cherry bushes that we could pick this time of year and eat frozen until we ate the last of them in the winter. We passed where the climbing tree had once stood, the old white birch, where Shawn and William had played their Spider-man games of make-believe. There was a big rock in a patch of longer, uneaten grass, and I wondered if it had once been part of the stepping stones of Mom’s ornamental garden by the front door. The big slope on the other side of the hill had been shared with the Kohlways in the winter months, and I had tolerated the presence of Ana and Barbara for the sake of speeding down their snow-laden yard and building ramps of snow to soar over their driveway where it crossed our path.

I realized that grumpy old Temper was buried over there, where the twin pines had watched over the house and yard. Too-young Masala would be beside him; and energetic, happy border collie Macy; and quietly villainous Pepper; and pudgy, effeminate Zote. The pine trees were long gone now. We came to the curve in the driveway, and I had a sudden image of Dad nearly running me over on my bicycle as he pulled into the parking lot drunk. I shivered, clinging to my mother just as she clung to me.

I couldn’t remember when I had left this place. Shawn had stayed at school that summer, while Mom and I drove up to my first year at college. We didn’t cry when we separated, though Shawn told me she had called him that night in tears. But I couldn’t remember the moment of departure from here. I came back later of course, for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Spring Break for years to come. But this wasn’t my home any more, not the way it had been. Part of me had stayed in Connecticut as I drove back to Maryland. It bothered me that I couldn’t remember pulling out of the driveway, the last time that this would be my only home.

We were at the top of the hill now. The Kreiders had pulled down their house as well as ours, moving across the street and turning the entire hill into a pasture. There was a small fenced area near the back of where our yard had been, with four or five cows grazing contentedly, pointedly ignoring the goat in their midst; a weirdly comical sight. If Shawn was ever going to make a bad joke this trip, I thought, this would be his opportunity. But it didn’t come. We stood there silently, looking out over the land our mother had sold before moving into an apartment in the city, for who knows how long.

I saw Mom bend over out of the corner of my eye. She chuckled to herself, and began walking back down the hill.

I turned to Shawn, confused. He had one eyebrow raised and a quizzical quirk to his mouth. We turned back the way we had come. “Mom? What is it?”

She did not look back, or stop shuffling down the faded grassy path. She simply waved her left hand in the air, leaning on the cane in the other. In her wrinkly fingers she held a piece of jagged plastic, faded to a dull mossy green, but might have once conceivably been bright neon. It was torn and scraggly around the edges, with sharp protrusions like beastly teeth.

She’s going to cut herself on that thing. Doctor Joel said we have to watch her, that even a small cut can be significant. Shawn barked a laugh beside me, interrupting my train of thought.

“It’s a frisbee,” he said. “It’s a piece of one of Macy’s damn frisbees.”


“Remember?” He smiled and gestured broadly to the yard. “She would go through the plastic ones in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. We were always finding little pieces of plastic in the yard, in the house, in her teeth. We used to run over them with the lawn mower by accident. That’s why we went to the rubber ones.” He followed after Mom, shaking his head and smiling. “We left a piece of ourselves here after all. For years and years.”

About Julian Butcher

Julian is a physics student at Rochester Institute of Technology, and is an ardent writer, bookworm, baker, foodie, punwright, Whedonite, and music buff.
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2 Responses to The Empty Hill

  1. A very good story! It was worth all the effort of getting you on here. Now where’s the next one? 😉

    • Julian Butcher says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Not sure when the next one might be, I’m spending a lot of my free time prepping for Camp next week, but we’ll see what happens. Thanks for the pushing!

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