Closer

The windowpane frosted as Alex stared out beyond the backyard and the subdivision, into a field glossy with snow and moonlight.  The star-mottled sky was a deep blue, as if the chilly air itself was breathless, and the pale moon was circumscribed sharply, cleanly, with no mist or moisture to blur its dreaming lobe.  Alex moved a brontosaurus off the windowsill, fixing his eyes again on the distant hills.  The hills were black in the distance, and all else between lay suffused in waxy, wintry starlight.  The elms and the oaks to the left of the field were coated in ice, like white coral, and their crystalline branches did not stir.  The air itself did not stir, but was inert and lifeless in the frigidity of a frozen February night.

 Alex held his breath, squinting at a horizon undulating with hills.  Though a uniform blackness, there was one hill among the rest which he knew did not belong.  It was a stranger, and an imposter.

 Downstairs, Alex’s father was asleep on the couch, a Nature program still playing, the narrator’s soothing voice muffled by the floor.  Alex’s mother had gone to bed an hour before.  Alex had been shooed to bed an hour before that, yet had not fallen asleep.  Instead, he had slipped quietly out of bed to hold vigil as he had for the past three nights.

 The distant hill rumbled, and Alex pressed his face against the cold windowpane, his breath fogging the glass.  The hill that did not belong was now moving.  But his parents did not rouse from sleep, though the house trembled.  At first he had thought the movement was a trick of moonlight and his imagination, but as he watched the bristle-backed hill he came to mark its progress in his memory.  The tremors had become stronger, too, and the hill larger as it came closer.

 The house trembled again, and dogs barked throughout the subdivision in a cascade of agitation.  Alex’s father grumbled, rousing sleepily to curse his neighbors for their pets, and then turned up the volume on the television.  The Nature narrator spoke louder, now, about bears and hibernation and the need to eat to survive Winter.  Alex’s father succumbed once more to his own hibernation.

 Alex stared at the bristle-backed hill huddled among the other hills.  It seemed larger tonight, and, so, he knew it was closer.  He wondered what it wanted, and what it would do when it finally arrived at the subdivision.  He watched it for as long as he could, but toward the Witching Hour snow fell heavy and frequent.  It was difficult to discern the hills from the night.  Alex laid himself down in his bed again.  He did not have to watch the hill.  He knew it was moving closer.  He did not need to see it to know.  He could feel the tremors of its approach in the frame of the house.

       ***

 The next morning was not bright.  The heavy snow fell harder and thicker than before, packing the earth in crunchy, sparkling whiteness.  The sun was a gauzy apparition behind thick-folded linen.  Alex woke up late, having stayed up late for his vigil, and he came down for breakfast only to find lunch waiting for him.  It was a weekday, a schoolday and a workday, and he was confused by the fact that his parents did not bother to wake him and that they were, both of them, in their pajamas.

 “Snow day?” Alex asked.

 His parents did not answer.  Their eyes were stuck steadfastly to the television.  Alex stood behind the couch, staring at the News anchorwoman on the screen.  There were images of a gigantic hole in the earth, edged with the partial remains of houses, buildings, and a few cars here and there.

 “A sink hole?” Alex said in alarm.

 “Don’t worry, baby,” his mother said.  She did not take her eyes from the screen.  “It happened farther down the road.  New Hope.  No one from here was harmed.”

 “No one we know, at least,” her husband said.

 Alex immediately thought of the hill and the tremors in the night.  “It could happen here,” he said.

 His mother turned around in the couch and smiled at him.  Her smile could not hide the worry in her face.  “No one fracks around here, sweetie,” she said.  “It won’t happen here.”  She looked at her husband.  “Right, honey?”

 “Sure,” his father said.  “Still, it’s crazy.  Who would have thought that a sink hole would open up and swallow all of New Hope?  It’s a good thing we decided to settle here.  We could be the ones in that big pit right now.”

 Alex’s mother frowned at Alex’s father, then turned toward Alex again, trying to smile again.

 “It won’t happen here,” she repeated.

 She stared at the television again as the anchorwoman read the total number of people missing and/or presumed dead.  Over ten-thousand people had disappeared without a trace, all in a baffling, blinking instant.  No one seemed to have any answers as to how or why.

      ***

 It did not like the light.  Alex was certain of this.  When the snowstorm blew over, and the sun came out, the hill was gone.  There was no trace of if anywhere.  Only a gap remained between the two hills where the imposter formerly resided.  This knowledge did not reassure Alex.  He knew about nocturnal animals from school, and knew that they were no better or worse than animals that hunted by day, but the hill’s preference for the dark still struck him keenly with dread.  His father had often told him not to be afraid of the dark—that there was nothing that could harm him, even at night.  But Alex knew about rattlesnakes, and coyotes, and mountain lions.  And Alex knew about the black bears that lived in the woods, near the streams, and who slept in the cave system near the hills.  Later that night he saw a bear in the field.  The bear should have been hibernating, but it was running away.

 It looked afraid.

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