The Hill
by Brad Aiken

2nd runner up
2002 short story contest
  Splinters of lightning ripped through the darkness, illuminating the raging swells of the
Atlantic, which flickered in and out of view as rain pelted the Molly G.  The small tugboat
thrashed violently in the storm as she made her way up the coast toward Gloucester, caught
off-guard by a demonic nor’easter racing toward New England.  Thunder rumbling across
the sea could barely be heard amidst the crashing waves that shook the hull of the old boat.
  â€œI can’t believe it, Skeets,â€� Johnny shouted, struggling to be heard above the
fury, “I dragged your butt all over Europe for two years dodging Nazi shrapnel, I puked
myself green crossing the ocean, and for what?  Just so’s we can drown on this lousy
little tug a few miles from home?�
  The ship bringing troops home from the war in Europe had dropped the boys off in Boston
that morning, where they hopped on board the Molly G for the last leg of their trip. Skeets
Tyler and the Callahan brothers, Billy and Frank, were all coming home to the small seaside
town of Blanesport, just south of Gloucester.  Johnny was an orphan with nowhere in
particular to go.  He figured that returning to the States with his friends would be a good
place to start.  These were men with whom he had shared the horrors of war; he trusted
them with his life.
  â€œYou always said I was your guardian angel, Skeets …â€� Johnny was stopped in mid-
sentence as a wall of seawater whipped across the ship, slapping him in the face.  The salt
stung his throat.  He coughed harshly, but shook it off.  Johnny was tough.  â€œâ€¦ but I donâ
€™t know if I can get you out of this one, buddy.â€�
  The skies were pitch black; night had fallen prematurely as the storm took hold.  The
swinging lantern in the helm was the only thing that he could see as the lightning began to
move off into the distance.
  â€œCome on, Johnny.â€�  A strong hand grasped him by the arm.  â€œLet’s get inside
before we’re thrown over.â€� It was Billy.  They watched out for each other, these
four.  They had learned to do that.  You didn’t survive the trenches unless someone
watched your back.
  Johnny reached for the door. “Frank,â€� he shouted back, “you got Skeets?â€�
  Before Frank could answer, the Molly G was tossed sharply astern, and all Johnny could
feel was the cold New England water numbing him to the core.  Thrashing around desperately
in the icy void, he somehow grabbed onto a floating life preserver, and bobbed up to the
  â€œSkeets!â€� He called out, groping frantically in all directions.  â€œSkeets!â€�
  â€œRight here, Johnny,â€� a voice shouted back.  Miraculously, Skeets had found the same
life preserver, and was firmly attached to the other side, facing Johnny.  The Molly G
vanished quickly into the abyss of the raging storm.  The two men, merely inches from each
other, could see only darkness.  They searched for Frank and Billy, but to no avail.  The salt
water swelled their lips, and consciousness faded slowly in the chill of the night.

  â€œJohnny.â€� He heard Skeets call, but he couldn’t move.  Sharp grains of sand
pressing into his face began to awaken his senses.  He fought to open his eyes, which the rain
had rinsed clean of ocean salt.  It was still dark, but he could make out the outline of a
gentle hill rolling up from the still turbulent shoreline.
  â€œJohnny, come on.â€�  It was Skeets, but Johnny was too weak to answer.  â€œGet up.
Yer gonna freeze to death out here.�
  As consciousness slowly returned, Johnny could feel the biting cold of the air against his
wet skin.  The scent of the salty sea air, one that he used to love, hung all around him like a
thick, oppressive fog.
  â€œCome on, Johnny!â€�
  He forced himself to move, pushing slowly up from the sandy beach.  â€œI’m up, twerp,
I’m up.�
  â€œAtaboy, Johnny.  I knew you were still alive.  I just knew it.  Maybe I’m your
guardian angel now, huh, Johnny?�
  â€œJohnny felt a smile forcing itself upon his frozen cheeks.  â€œMaybe, Skeets. Maybe.â
  Johnny stood and looked around.  All he could make out was the form of a hill leading up
from the shore to the woods.  â€œWhere the hell are we, Skeets?  You know this place?â€�
  â€œYeah, Johnny, yeah.  We’re almost home.â€�  Skeets took him by the hand, and
pulled him up the hill.  â€œMy folks, they live just through the woods.  I used to play here
when I was a kid.  Come on, the trail’s right up there.â€�  He pointed, but all Johnny could
see were trees.
  They plunged into the woods.  â€œYou sure this is a trail, Skeets?â€�
  â€œSure, I’m sure, Johnny.  I told you, I grew up here.  I’ve been on this trail a
million times.�
  Johnny pushed the bushes aside as he fought his way through, following Skeets.  â€œSure
is overgrown.�
  â€œI guess the kids don’t use it no more, but this is it, I’m sure of it.â€�
  As they pushed on through the thick underbrush, the squishing of their boots in the mud
was interrupted only by a rare crackle from the occasional branch that had somehow
survived the deluge, only to be snapped in two by the returning heroes.
  â€œImagine the look on their faces when they see us, Johnny.  Just imagine.â€�
  Johnny smiled.  It was good to see Skeets happy again.
  â€œThere it is, Johnny!  There it is.â€�
  They had come to a clearing at the other side of the woods. Off in the distance, a small
home was silhouetted by the glow from a single lamppost;  there wasn’t another light as
far as the eye could see.  This lonely little house in the rolling hills was a welcomed sight for
sore eyes.
  Skeets ran toward the house.  Johnny, usually the one to pull Skeets to safety, struggled
to keep up as he fought the cramps in his legs.  Skeets paused at the front door to wait for
his friend. Johnny arrived a moment later, pausing at the bottom of the stairs to catch his
breath. His belly ached from the run, and the cold wind that swirled down his lungs with each
desperate gasp of air burned him from inside.   He stared up in disbelief.  Skeets was
standing on the porch, leaning effortlessly against the doorpost.