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On Freedom Hill
There was a reason why the people of Sawyer County called it Freedom Hill. It was their one pride, their one stake in history, that hill. It wasn’t much to anyone who drove by, just an irregular lump poking out of the dirt, patches of scraggly grass saving it from nature’s nakedness. To Sawyer County, it was the benign growth of the dying land that proved their worth, however obscure that worth was.
As the story went, a small, mostly inferior, British regiment had straggled away from the main army during the tumult of the Revolutionary War and stumbled unknowingly on the outskirts of Sawyer County. A militia resided in the county, mostly of prideful men and their dull sons, but for weeks on end they sat useless and unused. In an obscure twist in fate, they were tramping through the fields when the British men came into their sight. No one ever explained how the militia knew that the men, plainly dressed and their weapons sheathed, were British soldiers, but somehow they always knew and cocked their guns in warning. The British countered their threat, pulling out pistols and rifles enough for ten more men at least. Again, a lost page in the story persists: who fired the first shot is never revealed. Both sides bristled at the thought of a threat to their own kind, and every man fired in reaction. Had they looked down at their feet, they would have realized that they have moved far beyond the fields and planted themselves in the middle of a lone hill
The fighting continued for some time on the hill, and it was every man for himself, with the exception of two brothers. Arthur and David Jones were brothers, with Arthur being the youngest, but their closeness belied that fact. They had begun the fight side by side, but the plumes of smoke had forced them apart. David was the first to notice his brother’s absence and he frantically searched. A small clearing in the plumes of smoke found Arthur wounded and several long paces from his weapon. As David raced to his side, a cry of retreat rose among the minutemen. David was too far from Arthur to make a mad dash to him and too close to the British to flee. It was quite the position, but as every elder in Sawyer County told it, David ran to his brother’s side and dragged him valiantly for several yards until both were shot dead, right at the top of the hill. No one could say it was true, but no one ever tried to deny it. It was Sawyer County’s one minute of bloody glory, their one stab at freedom, hence the name.
Adam and his older brother Dan grew up in Sawyer County, fed on the story of Freedom Hill as a baby would be fed on milk. It was like food in that sense, something that they needed and leaned on in times of want, and everyone in Sawyer County was in want of something. They were in want of everything short of a miracle, and something more than government relief checks. Sawyer County was the kind of town that made it on the reel of the telemarathon at Christmas time, that one grainy clip that showed the scrawny children eating meager food and reading from dog-eared textbooks from the fifties, while their parents stared vacantly at their tilled field of broken dreams. They were suffering, to put it bluntly, but their insatiable pride would never let themselves or anyone else admit that. Food was scarce in the farming town that actually did very little farming, their ancient farmhouses sagged under the weight of blighted years, and their education was reduced to the bare minimum since it was no use when no one ever left.
That was true. No one ever did leave. This was the first fact of life that Adam and Dan learned when they were young. They never actually asked their mother or their father or their next door neighbor Cindy, who talked so much it was a wonder she never said it. No, the boys just understood it. Babies were born and raised there, spanked and kissed, dressed for a wedding and then a funeral. No one ever said anything about travels, only of the tale of Freedom Hill and the string of crop failures that followed one after another like a bad hand in cards.
There was one road that led out, however, and Adam and Dan were enthralled by it from the beginning. To them, it was pure magic. Situated just under Freedom Hill, it ran like a black river that sparkled only under the beam of sunlight. Two sharp bends marked the beginning and end, and to the boys’ delight, cars would whiz through it unexpectedly; the rabbit coming out of the silk hat. For as long as they could remember, Adam and Dan would sit alertly on the crest of the hill and wait for the cars to pass. When they did come, not so close together that it was expected but never rarely enough to be unaccounted for, the boys would jump into action.
Dan would begin and call out the type of car and the appearance of the driver. Adam would cut in and characterize them, playing a guessing game with their life. If it was a white haired old woman hunched over the wheel of her ancient car, Adam would say, “Cat lady, twenty at least!” because it sounded the funniest. An official looking man, cell phone pressed to his ear, was always childless and lonely, but he was the only one that didn’t know. That was Dan’s favorite, because it was humorous in a secret sort of way. It went like that for every car, every person that passed by Sawyer County unknowingly, but not unseen.
It wasn’t like the boys were resentful, or anyone in Sawyer County, for that matter. They were indifferent to their way of life, but painfully aware of the lives of others, which they hunted through the newspaper and the evening news, and took good care to point it out. So they weren’t spiteful, after all, only lonely. They were the one person in the corner of the room who knows everyone’s name but goes nameless himself.
The boys spent many years on top of Freedom Hill, personally chronicling the lives of strangers, but one year, it all stopped. That was the year Dan turned eighteen and broke every rule of Sawyer County. Dan was restless, different from his mother, father, and even Adam. He had a careful eye when he watched the six o’clock news and skimmed through the paper, and fostered a desire for a wider world. Sometimes, when the boys sat on Freedom Hill waiting for a car to pass, Dan would stare down the road longingly with wide eyes swimming with dreams. When they were older, Dan had power. He was grown and knew that whatever bound him to Sawyer County was a tie that he could sever. Dan had found a loophole when he decided to go away to college. He drove away that day in his father’s electric blue car, rusted with abandonment, his few things piled up behind his head in the backseat so high that Adam couldn’t even see him shake his hand in leaving. Adam followed after his car down the road under Freedom Hill, aimlessly trailing behind the billowing exhaust pouring out from the dilapidated muffler like a wanderer in the forest would follow a trail of smoke to find a fire that would elude him always. It began to rain when the blue streak pulled around the blind bend, and Adam sat on Freedom Hill in the deluge, weakly watching for more cars to pass. None came by that day.
Every day, as he would with Dan, now accompanying him as a broken memory, Adam would trek up Freedom Hill and try to guess the strangers’ lives as they came around the bend. It never worked. Adam could never spot the cars fast enough as Dan had, and by the time he had seen their flash of color, he missed the shadow of the face inside. Finding his one-man game a failure, Adam brought his girlfriend, Laney, to the hill and told her of the special plot. Whenever Laney would try to describe the person, she would only call out the license plate.
After that, Adam had given up totally and completely. Had he not been resentful before, he was much more than that now. He still found himself on Freedom Hill, but never to watch the cars. He would sit stiffly on the peak of the hill and watch them silently as they sailed by. He resented them for being free and liberated; he hated them for being able to drive by while he sat there, abandoned and lonely.
There was one car that passed by, however, that drove Adam away from the hill forever. It was an old car, a rusted blue jalopy with a decrepit muffler that choked out exhaust for every turn of the wheels. Adam watched it drive by, the driver a dark blur at the wheel as a sad memory would sit, hovering, in the back of a mind. Not waiting for the car to pass around the sharp bend, Adam left the hill without looking back, stumbling over the stunted grass that sprouted beneath his feet. Adam remembered a story that he knew quiet well and it was about Sawyer County’s Freedom Hill. There were holes in the story that grew wider and wider with the passage of time, but everyone always told it as the site of a battle between Sawyer County’s rag tag militia and Great Britain’s men. There were two brothers who were separated and the elder searched for the junior, and both were dead by the story’s end. It was always told that the eldest saved the youngest at the cost of both their lives, but Adam was sure that time had blurred the real answer.
Adam told his ending to the story from that day forth. Every person in Sawyer County had heard his story only once, never asking for it a second time. They very rarely talked about Adam’s idea, it was far too wrong to be right they said, much too sad to be the real history. Adam was convinced that he knew the truth. For anyone who would listen, who were few and far between, Adam would always tell that the eldest, fearful of an untimely end, had run away from his brother, who was shot where he lay. The fleeing brother was shot down as he ran, rolling all the way down Freedom Hill.