Gunshots in the Hills
If you fell in there you’d never get out,” said Derek, squatting close to the cliff’s edge. He wore a red sweatshirt. Out of its front pocket he produced a hunk of pavement, swiped from the side of the crumbling state road.
“You think so?” asked Aiden. They were twenty miles from the deadliest part of the Appalachian Trail, in a part of Maine where everything was crumbling.
Aiden studied the gully below. The soil was loose and sandy. It was too poor for crops. The scattered trees were sumacs that bore their bitter fruits in cones of fuzz-covered berries. “Nah. That drop can’t kill you. The soil isn’t hard packed. And there’s underbrush to soften the fall,” said Aiden. He ran his fingers feverishly over a hole on the bottom seam of his TapouT tee-shirt, even though he knew it made the hole worse. It was his favorite shirt, black with silver writing. It came down to his mid-thigh.
The morning had been cold. The boys had started their trek by shivering and saying they felt fine. Now the day was too hot. Aiden kept pushing his glasses up. They didn’t fit right and whenever he sweated they slipped.
Derek narrowed his eyes and studied the gully. “Maybe the drop wouldn’t kill you, but you’d break your leg. Sure as shit you would. Out here that’s as good as dead. Once night came you’d die from exposure. Nobody would find you. Nobody at all,” he said. Derek was a sandy-haired and squat boy, the kind that would be all muscle for a few years before turning to fat for the rest of his life.
Derek chucked the hunk of pavement. It seemed to hold still in the air for a moment before plummeting into the gully. It dropped out of sight and made no sound.
“They’d find you if you had a gun,” said Aiden. “A gunshot would echo right off those hills and send the game warden coming.” He picked some mica off the ground and started pulling the clear layers off one at a time. It was hard work. His fingernails were chewed to the quick.
Derek grabbed a flat stone to throw next. It had ants crawling on it. Ants from the anthill he had stomped flat. He lobbed the rock, ants and all. “You’re wrong. No one would hear. Haven’t you heard about that old man?”
Aiden shrugged, which meant no.
Derek drew in a deep breath. “People have come out here to party for a long time. Back in the 70s there was an old man here who hated that kids partied in the gully. It just set his teeth to grinding. One night he couldn’t take it no more.” Derek straightened up and got close to Aiden. “So he grabbed his gun and stood on a cliff overlooking the gully. Maybe standing right where we are now. People were down there laughing and talking. The old man fired some warning shots to tell them to get out. But they didn’t hear him. So he shot ‘em dead.”
Aiden backed away from Derek. He squinted to see out over the gully. On the other side stood steep hills streaked yellow and green with the leaves of young trees − the kind of trees that could bend in the wind and not break. In the hills trees were always young. When one grew too big it couldn’t stand the battering of storms. Those hills held no shelter. The tree would fall and rot into dirt that fed the younger trees until it was their turn to die.
Aiden pursed his mouth. “I don’t think it’s true. Those kids would have heard those shots. Way out here it’s quiet.”
“Oh? You know everything now. How much are you willing to bet?” Derek grew sullen. His eyes, which usually glinted with trouble, were dull and harsh like the metal on a well-used ax. “I don’t like being called a liar. If you’re going to say I’m wrong you better be willing to bear out the truth.”
Aiden groaned. “Come on. Forget it. It don’t matter.”
“We can figure this out. We’ll get a gun tonight. My stepdad’s got plenty we can borrow. If he’s home, we can buy one. We got the money. Shouldn’t spend it, but we got it,” said Derek. The boys were flushed with cash from the potato harvest.
“I’d like to see them plant potatoes in them hills,” said Aiden, pointing, trying to distract Derek.
Derek looked at the hills. “No one could do it. Even if you pulled down all those trees. Nothing can make it out there.”
Derek turned back to Aiden, his posture more relaxed. “You said if you someone was in the gully they’d hear gunshots way up here on the cliff. And you’re wrong. Even if someone heard the shots it’d just come across as soft pops. No one would think twice. No one would suspect.”
“You’d hear it good. You’d know what it meant for miles around,” said Aiden.
Derek sneered. “Well let’s test it, if you’re sure. If you think you can get down in that gully and tell the truth,” Derek gave out a few rough chuckles. “Then we’ll find out. We’ll pop back to my house and grab my stepdad’s hunting rifle. It’s a loud one. It’ll give you the advantage.”
They climbed on the four-wheeler. It was Derek’s turn to drive. He wore the only helmet they had. Aiden had to duck down behind him, the side of his cheek against Derek’s shoulder blade. He screwed his eyes up tight to keep wayward branches and bugs from scratching up his eyes.
At Derek’s house they made two peanut butter and fluff sandwiches and wolfed them down with glasses of Mountain Dew. There was no one home except the boys. A rifle waited in the master bedroom. Derek slung it on his back and tossed a box of ammo into the four-wheeler’s back compartment. This time Aiden drove and Derek clung on, the gun on his back flapping in the wind.
The daylight was dying off. Aiden had grabbed a hoodie of Derek’s but it wasn’t enough to keep the chill away. His arms were aching from the four-wheeler’s vibrations and the cold.
When they stopped Derek pulled out a Crush soda, popped the tab, and kept it for himself. He opened a second one and passed it on.
“Time to go, Aiden.”
In the hills, the light had faded so much he could hardly tell the yellow leaves from the green. “Come on. Maybe you’re right. No one would hear it. Does it matter?”
“Course it matters,” he spit on the ground. “Now, you’re gonna walk out into the gully and head toward those hills. You’re gonna walk out and you’re gonna tell me when the gunshot fades into a soft pop. If it ever does. And I’m counting on you to be honest here. Don’t forget I’m trusting you.”
“I’m not going down in that gully! It’s stupid! There’s no way down!”
Derek was unmoved.
“Fuck you! If you want to test it then you can go down!”
“I can’t bring the gun into the gully. What if I fall and it gets broke or jammed up? And it wouldn’t mean nothing if I was shooting from down there. And what are you talking about no way down? There!” Derek pointed to a place where feet had trampled out the plants – a strip of loose, sandy dirt that wound its way down to the gully floor. “That’s the way down. Climb down that way and head for the hills. I’ll fire a round off every now and then. Put your arms up when you can hardly hear the gunshots. Then we’ll know if the partiers really couldn’t hear the old man coming.”
“This is stupid. I don’t care about the old man,” said Aiden. It was cold but he kept sweating. His glasses kept slipping. “And what’ll we do if the game warden comes running?”
“If a game warden comes running. Well, then you’d have been right all along. Wouldn’t you?”
“It’s fucking stupid and I’m not doing it. It’s getting dark. I could break my leg. Like you said I would!”
“You ain’t gonna break your damn leg if you climb down. Just if you fall. Plus, if you break your leg I’ll call and get you fished out. It’s only dangerous if you’re alone. And hey, if you break your leg you won’t have to play baseball in gym class no more. I bet you get real tired of standing around in right field.”
“Don’t be a smart ass,” said Aiden, looking at his feet.
“It’s hard when I’m smart and I’ve got an ass!” Derek yucked it up at his own joke. Aiden watched. Derek looked good laughing, his fat cheeks reddened with mirth. When Aiden laughed, his lip curled up too far and left him all gums and long, horsey teeth.
Aiden stuffed his hands deep into his pockets. He tried to walk down the steep slope looking nonchalant, hands still in pockets and hood up. But he caught a rock along the way and fell forward, slicing his left hand open on a chunk of broken beer bottle. He bit his lip and knit his forehead. Cutting his hand didn’t hurt half as much as being watched while falling.
With great indignity, Aiden turned around to climb hand-over-hand. Dirt clogged up the wound, mixing with the blood. Wet leaves and greasy mud made him go into uncontrolled slides for five or ten feet a time. He tried to hold on, but slid anyway, getting so much mud stuck under his fingernails they started to ache like they were about to pop off.
“Cocksucker,” he said, keeping it quiet so Derek wouldn’t hear.
“Hurry up, Aiden! I thought you didn’t want to be out there in the dark!”
“I’m fucking going!” Aiden felt a big pimple on his forehead pulse as his face flushed with blood.
When he got to the bottom he looked up. Derek thrust his rifle into the air, braced it against his shoulder, and brought it up − aiming it just north of straight ahead. He squeezed off a shot.
Aiden could see the recoil, the butt of the gun slamming against the inside of Derek’s shoulder. So loud. He was sure it was enough to summon a game warden. He turned his back on Derek and walked, holding his hand out from his body so the leftover blood dripped into the dirt and not on his pants. Aiden tripped over leathery vines and brittle thickets. He felt a heavy tingling in the front of his face. A runny nose was coming on.
Derek fired off another shot. “I think I’m right,” muttered Aiden. He tripped and stumbled over a rock. “But I don’t care if I’m right. I want to go home.” He turned around toward Derek and waved with both arms, crossing them and uncrossing them. Derek aimed and took another shot. “I know he can see me,” thought Aiden. He waved his arms again, faster. Derek kept shooting. Frustrated, he turned back away. “What is he playing at?” he thought. “I told him he was right. Ain’t that enough?”
Aiden’s hand hurt. He shivered. A numbing cold was setting in and the joints in his fingers were locking up. Once again he turned towards Derek and walked, head down, back toward the way up.
Derek kept shooting. The barrel was aimed low now, near the ground. The frustration drained out of Aiden and he found a cool, calm fear. Derek stood up there thinking no one could hear that gun. Aiden had told him so.
And if Derek shot Aiden dead no one would find him until spring when the pit parties started up again. Derek would lie about being with him. People got lost in these woods and died all the time.
But that gun was loud. Aiden was most often wrong but there was a chance he was right about this. There could be an old biddy calling the game warden, poking out each number with a careful stab of a bony finger.
Somehow it wasn’t the dying that scared him, but the being left behind. He didn’t want to rot out here with the sumac trees and the low plants that never got a chance to grow. Not in the shadow of the hills with their young trees.
Dizzy, Aiden walked towards the hills, where in heavy rain lumps of smooth white stone bubbled up like buried bones. The shots kept going off. He heard them getting closer to his left ear. The breeze carried a sound like Derek’s laugh.