Excerpt from The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Killing Hills

by Chris Offutt

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt X
The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 21, 2022, 240 pages

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Amanda Ellison
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He walked slowly to a cistern at the corner of the old split-log cabin and brushed aside a skim of dead insects from the surface of the water. Cupping his hands, he drank from it, the cold liquid numbing his mouth. He'd read about a scientist who talked to water then froze it and examined the crystals, which changed depending on what was said. Kind words uttered in a gentle tone made for prettier crystals. The idea sounded far-fetched but maybe it was true. Humans were about sixty percent water and Mick figured it couldn't hurt to try. Nothing could hurt much worse than his head anyhow. He plunged his head into the water and talked.

When he needed to breathe, he lifted his head to gulp the air, then shoved his head back in the barrel and spoke. He'd spent the evening telling himself terrible stories about his past, his present, and his future—a circular system that confirmed his wretched sense of self, requiring alcohol for escape, which fueled further rumination. Now he struggled to find generous things to say about himself. As he spoke, bubbles rose to the surface and he tasted dirt.

The third time Mick came up for air, he saw a vehicle at the edge of his vision and assumed it was something he'd imagined. He wiped water from his eyes. The big car was still there, and worse, there appeared to be a human coming toward him. Worst of all, it was his sister wearing her official sheriff's uniform. To top it off, she was laughing.

"What do you want?" he said.

"Oh," Linda said, "checking on your hygiene in general. Looks like you're bathing regular. Taking a bug bath, that's what Papaw called it. How you doing?"

"Feel like I been shot at and missed, shit at and hit."

"At least your head is clean."

Mick nodded, the movement sending stabs of pain along his body. His head felt like the top of a drum tightened bolt-by-bolt until any pressure might rip his flesh. He'd overdone it, all right.

"Coffee," he said. "Want some?"

He went in the house, water streaming along his torso and light blue chambray workshirt. He filled a blackened four-cup espresso pot with grounds and set it on a camp

stove—a propane tank with stabilizing fins—and ignited the flame. Linda inspected a tin pitcher of water for bugs.

"Where's this from?" she said.

"Papaw's well."

"How long you aiming to live out here?"

"I need to change clothes."

Linda nodded once, a single curt movement of her head she used with most men. Everyone had their little ways, their routines. Mick's were odd, a product of living with their grandfather in this cabin as a child followed by fourteen years in the army. He'd been a paratrooper then joined the Criminal Investigation Division, specializing in homicide.

Linda moved languidly about the main room as if the space itself rendered time obsolete and slowed her motion. A homemade shelf bolted to a wall held the treasures of Mick's childhood—a trilobite, the striped feather of a barred owl, a mummified bullfrog he'd found in a shallow cave. A rock with three horizontal sections that resembled half a hamburger. Her grandfather had tucked blankets around her and pretended to take a bite—a moonlight ration, he called it. Linda grinned at the memory.

She went outside and followed a path to a wooden footbridge that crossed the creek to the next hillside. As children, she and Mick had built elaborate structures from sticks and leaves beside the creek, imagining it as a river town with a mill, rich families, wide streets, a hotel, and a movie house. Then they sat on the bridge and destroyed everything from above with rocks, delighting at a direct hit. The game was among her favorite memories but as she sat there now she realized that it marked a distinct difference between Mick and her. She'd liked creating the town while her brother had enjoyed its destruction.

Excerpted from The Killing Hills © 2021 by Chris Offutt, reprinted by permission of Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.

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