The Hill Behind the House
Michael C. Keith
Since he’d been a toddler, twelve-year-old Haley Morgan feared what was on the other side of the rocky hill that rose to the west of his family’s ranch. Even when he played, he would not go beyond a certain point, afraid that he might be seen by whatever evil he was sure lurked beyond. On horseback rides, he steered clear of the narrow trails that led behind Clifford Butte.
“Why’s that old hill called Clifford Butte, Mom? Our land goes all the way to it, right? Shouldn’t it be Morgan Butte?” Haley had asked, years earlier.
“It was called that long before your grandpa bought the ranch, honey. Bet almost a hundred years back. Maybe more.”
“Well, who was Clifford Butte?”
“Just Clifford, sweetie. Butte is another word for hill. I’m not sure who Clifford was.”
“Maybe Daddy knows. Bet Grandpa would . . . if he was still alive.”
“I don’t think your dad knows, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask him, Haley.”
To Haley’s disappointment, his father couldn’t tell him much about the hill behind the house either. Only that Clifford was probably a pioneer homesteader who had put his handle on it.
“When people first came out here from the East, they stuck names on everything. Guess it made ‘em feel like they belonged. Kind of like animals that spray on things to make them their own.”
Haley’s initial curiosity about the hill had turned into trepidation when he came to regard its moonlight silhouette as a giant head emerging from the dusty plains. His imagination quickly conferred grotesque characteristics on it, including a set of devilish horns. A series of unusual sightings over the next handful of years convinced him that the jagged skull-like mound at the far reaches of his backyard concealed awful secrets.
Among the many things that intensified his dread was the roar of thunder and flashes of lightning that came from its direction, especially on summer evenings. Haley had also witnessed large birds––hawks––hovering over the hill’s peak, only to vanish on its far side. Once he saw a plane disappear behind the rise as it streaked across the cloudless sky. He had waited with growing anxiety for it to emerge on the butte’s south side . . . but it never did. How could that be? Did something grab it? he wondered.
Then there were the countless stars that fell to earth behind the monster’s head and the sudden bright glows that followed. Some nights Haley lost count of how many there were, and it seemed to him like some horrible force was sucking up the heavens. When he talked about this with his parents, they assured him the world was not coming to an end as he feared.
“What’s in back of the hill, Mom?” Haley had asked numerous times.
“Just more of what’s in front of it, I suppose. Nothing back there that I know of. No roads go behind it. You should take a ride out there with your daddy and see for yourself.”
Haley mulled over the idea and eventually mustered the courage to propose the idea to his father, who agreed to take a horseback trip around the base of the butte. But days became weeks and then months and no such expedition took place. Who cares what’s back there, thought Haley in frustration, though his curiosity over Clifford Butte’s hidden side continued to deepen.
Haley could see the hill from his bed, and on most nights it was the last thing he saw before going to sleep. His dreams were filled with haunting images of the hidden world that lay behind the bluff, and he was always an unwilling part of them. Invariably they would end with him running away, pursued by something terrible that was out to seize him.
The morning following his twelfth birthday, Haley rose from his bed determined once and for all to see for himself what lay behind the hill . . . to demystify it. He saddled his horse and set out on his mission.
“C’mon, Kelly, you can come with us to that old dumb hill,” shouted Haley to his dog. “Bark if you see something, okay?”
As Clifford Butte drew closer, Haley’s resolve waned and then vanished completely when he heard a crack of thunder up ahead.
He turned his horse and called to Kelly. “We better get back home in case that storm gets to this side of the butte.”
Within minutes he was back on his front porch waiting for the storm to move beyond the butte, but as usual it never did. The next morning he was suddenly awakened as Kelly leapt from his bed and dashed out of the room. It was as if the dog was responding to a command, yet Haley had heard no voice. He went to his window and saw the retriever running toward Clifford Butte.
“No, no, don’t go there, Kelly,” he mumbled, quickly removing his pajamas and throwing on his jeans and t-shirt.
“Where do you think you’re going, Mister?” asked Sheila Morgan, blocking her son’s path to the front door.
“I’ve got to get Kelly,” he answered, breathlessly.
“Not before you have your breakfast. And where is Kelly going that’s so important you have to go after him?”
“Out to Clifford Butte.”
“So, what’s the matter with that? He wanders all over the territory every day.”
“But he’s going to the other side, Ma.”
“Why would he go there rather than any other place? What’s the big deal?”
“But, Mom . . .”
“Look, eat your cereal and do your chores. Then you can go after him.”
Too anxious to really eat, Haley nibbled at his breakfast enough to placate his mother and then headed out to locate his best friend. Kelly had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember, and if it hadn’t been for him, Haley would not have had anyone to play with, since the Morgans’ closest neighbors with kids his age were a dozen miles away.
Haley saddled up and galloped toward the looming object. For the first time ever, he rode around the side of the outcropping.
“Kelly,” he called softly, his heart racing.
He raised the volume of his voice as he rode deeper into the hill’s unknown landscape. When he reached what he calculated to be the dead center of the butte’s far side, he heard a whimper and spotted his dog. To Haley’s astonishment, Kelly was suspended in air. He slowly revolved while looking upward at the empty sky. A high pitch sound caused Haley to cover his ears. He climbed down from his horse and inched toward the dog, which hung at eye level with him.
“It’s all right, Kelly,” mumbled Haley, horrified by the bizarre sight before him. “What are you looking at, boy? There’s nothing up there.”
As soon as Haley made physical contact with the dog, Kelly dropped to the ground. The abrupt movement prompted Haley to do the same. Both he and his dog remained motionless on the parched terrain for several minutes until it felt safe enough to stand.
“Let’s go home, Kelly,” whispered Haley, moving toward his horse. In three quarters of an hour, they were back at the Morgans’ ranch.
“Made it in time for lunch, I see. And you found Kelly. I saw you coming from the side of Clifford Butte. Did you finally discover what’s behind it?” asked his mother.
“ Yeah . . .”
“Well, so what’s back there, honey?”
“Nothing. Same as in front of it . . . like you said. Just open space,” answered Haley, deciding to say nothing about what he’d actually seen.
For some inexplicable reason, something in him suggested that whatever existed out there
was better left unrevealed.
“That’s what I figured. More endless country. Just goes on forever. We got it out here in spades. Go sit on the porch with Kelly, and I’ll bring you a sandwich.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Haley gazed intently at Clifford Butte. Finally, he stood up and nodded in its direction.
The sun had set when Haley’s mother realized he was nowhere to be found. Both she and her husband checked all areas of the ranch and then found that their son’s horse was gone.
“I haven’t seen Kelly either,” said Mrs. Morgan, growing frantic.
“Well, where the heck could he be?”
“Maybe he went back . . .”
Sheila pointed in the direction of Clifford Butte. “He was there earlier today looking for Kelly.”
“But why would he go back this late?”
It was at that moment that the sky lit up behind the butte. The Morgans shielded their eyes from the intense glare and were nearly knocked off their feet by a sudden blast of wind from the west. As quickly as this happened, calm returned.
“Oh, my God. What was that?”
“I’ll call the sheriff,” said Mr. Morgan, rushing into the house.
While Haley’s horse and dog were eventually found in the next county, the search for him was officially called off after two weeks. The authorities declared him a missing person and circulated flyers with his picture throughout the state.
Unwilling to accept the fate of her son, Sheila Morgan made daily visits to Clifford Butte for the next twenty years until she was incapacitated by late stage cancer. In the final hours of her life, her child, unchanged by the passing of time, returned to her side.
“Where did you go, Haley?” asked Sheila, clutching his hand.
“Everywhere, Mom. I’ve been everywhere.”