After they scattered his mother’s ashes at the top of the tallest hill in town, he walked through a cemetery and saw that people left flowers at graves.
Deeply entrenched in a series of one-sided conversations with God, in which he made every attempt to plead, barter, and bargain his mother back to life, he reasoned flowers must have been the answer. Not these single roses, though, nor these bouquets.
By moonlight, he plundered the gardens of neighbors, the parks. Unsatisfied with his yield, he shattered the front window of the florist’s shop and left with shard-freckled roses and daisies.
He loaded all of these flowers in the red wagon his mother bought him that past Christmas and wheeled them up the hill behind him. He tipped over the wagon at the peak, littering a mosaic of flowers to intermix with the dirt and the grass and his mother’s remains. Satisfied with his handiwork, he descended the hill to await his mother’s return.
She never came.
He played hopscotch with the boys on the street and remembered it was his mother who taught him the game. One of the boys tossed the stone and all at once he realized that the flowers were all wrong. He needed something more specific to his mother if he hoped to bring her back to him.
He loaded the wagon with stones. Too many it turned out, so that as he climbed the hill, he could no longer pull the wagon with him. He unloaded half and made the climb. Doubled back, reloaded, and did it again.
But his mother never came.
He tried again with sand from the beach where they had collected seashells, with leaves from the trees they walked under in autumns past, with wrappers from the sorts of chocolate bars she would have bought him at the corner store.
So dedicated was he that he stopped playing with the other boys. He stopped going to school. Didn’t make it home half the nights, sleeping instead on park benches, in tall grass, on tree branches midway through his searches for whatever he thought might return his mother fastest.
And so the girl found him one winter morning, shivering malformed snow angels in his sleep. She nudged him awake.
He thanked her for rousing him, coughed in his mitten, and said he had work to do. A wagon full of snow and ice to bring his mother.
She accompanied him up the hill. Pushed the wagon while he pulled it. Helped scoop clumps of snow over the peak until the wagon was empty. Then she asked what he was doing.
And he was too embarrassed to explain the rationale he’d long since stopped believing himself--that he’d ever thought he could bring his mother back. He was too shy, even, to explain that he was embarrassed.
It took him a matter of minutes to realize that she held his hand--before the numbness in his digits thawed and he could feel her against him.
They held hands walking down the hill and she kissed him on the cheek when they went their separate ways.
What a peculiar girl, he thought, and assumed he’d never see her again.
But the next day, she found him collecting purple twelve-ounce cans of the grape soda his mother loved and she joined him. And the day after that when he gathered newspapers. The day after that when stockpiled wheat pennies.
He always thought it strange that he couldn’t recall when he stopped collecting. When he stopped dragging his wagon behind him. When he stopped climbing that hill.
He and the girl held hands many more times. Sat together to watch the northern lights from the roof of the abandoned cannery at the edge of town, his arm over her shoulders, her legs stretched long across his lap. They kissed. Made love. Raised children. Grew old.
And after the children had moved out, and their dog had died, and he’d started paying neighborhood kids to mow the lawn not out of laziness or generosity, but because his back couldn’t abide walking back and forth along such long rows of grass--after all of that, the girl, now an old woman, was wheelchair bound and ill and ready to die.
She asked him to take her to the top of the hill.
He pushed her wheelchair up the incline, hitting all the same divots and crannies where the wheels of his wagon used to catch. The top of the hill, when they reached it, was littered with debris--vegetation and stones torn wrappers and the remains of soda cans and copper coins.
“All those days you came here, you buried your mother’s ashes deeper,” the old woman said, “You made the hill taller.”
He fell to his knees. Exhausted, yes, but all too keenly reminded of when he last frequented the hill and how he would soon have to say goodbye again. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed.
“You can always make the hill higher, even now,” she said. “You can always carry and drag and displace more things.”
A cold wind blew. The old woman’s white hair swirled around her and her chair rocked, threatening to tip or to roll.
He stared eastward. He and the old woman cast shadows that stretched over the remains of his youth, curving down the far side of the hill. Charcoal clouds approached and obscured what stars might have shined in the blackening sky. “It’s getting dark,” he said.
“Let’s turn around,” the old woman said.
He thought she meant for them to go. But when he spun her chair and looked ahead again, he saw a lighter sky. All magenta and periwinkle, the sun itself the littlest yellow oval on the horizon, ready to burn out to ash at any second.
He looked on in wonder.
“This happens every day,” the old woman said. “Whatever you might choose to do with your day, you can’t stop it.”
“I never would.”
They held brittle, veiny, shaking hands.
He watched the sunset and he loved the rest of his life.