Looking up the giant green hill, Isaac wondered why they referred to the winner as King. Today’s victor would receive no crown. Real kings were worshiped, remembered fondly by legions of people long after their reign was over.
The official standing at the hill’s base blew his whistle. “Okay gentleman, crowd around.”
Including Isaac, six men were competing today. Two of them were twins who appeared to be in their thirties. They looked identical: shaved heads, brown eyes, matching black sleeveless shirts. Great, Isaac thought. Obviously, they’d work together, then battle it out between them. At least they were skinny though. Also, there was a tall lanky man with short blonde hair who’d been chain-smoking since Isaac had arrived. Next to him was a fat kid, no older than twenty, making him the youngest participant besides Isaac. He almost felt bad for these two, who were so obviously terrified that they’d lost already. While the lanky man chain-smoked, the fat kid bit his nails nervously.
The last man was the biggest of them—physically and figuratively. A bald-headed beast, aged forty-five. Most everyone knew who Deadly Daddy was. The nickname had been given to him after the inaugural event when—without shame or a moment’s hesitation—the man threw his eighteen-year-old son down the hill en route to becoming the first ever King of the Hill. A few weeks ago Deadly Daddy announced that he’d be competing again. Since then, Allentown had been buzzing with more anticipation for this year’s event than in the past.
Despite the rigorous training Isaac had done for the past year, despite the determination he had spent just as long building up, he’d almost withdrawn from this event to come back next year. Though his father claimed he could do just that, Isaac knew his family’s poverty would likely result in their starvation long before then. More importantly, his mother was sick. The vaccine was not covered by insurance (not that they had insurance anyway). The price: ten thousand dollars. The vaccine might as well not exist.
The title of King of the Hill didn’t matter; Isaac only wanted the three-million-dollar prize.
With the six participants gathered around the official, the crowd quieted down. At the bottom of the hill, where the six hopefuls stood, was a huge rectangle of grass roughly the size of a football field. About fifty feet behind this base were the bleachers, constructed ten years ago when The King of the Hill Championship first took place and Deadly Daddy forever integrated himself into the mind of every son with a frightening father. The event’s seventy-five hundred tickets sold out in hours each year, and the pay-per view buys this year had exceeded four million households, or exactly one-twentieth of the country formerly regarded as the greatest on earth.
“Okay guys, you know why you’re here. You’re aware what you’ve signed up for.” The official turned and looked at the crowd dramatically, his voice carrying through the mic on the collar of his zebra-striped shirt.
“This . . . is . . . Kiiiiiiiingggggg of the Hillllllllllllll.”
The crowd stood on their feet, cheering loudly. Isaac quickly scanned the crowd but couldn’t find his father or his girlfriend Bethany, the only two people he knew who’d been brave enough to attend. Whether not finding them was or wasn’t a blessing he couldn’t decide.
The official continued: “Remember folks, there’s only two rules. First, last man standing who gets to the top wins. Second,” he paused so the crowd could chanted along, “THERE . . . ARE . . . NO. . . RULES!”
Isaac tried to feed off the crowd’s frenzy, as if their electricity was contagious.
A huge, black board standing at the top of the hill switched on. Large yellow digital numbers appeared, starting at sixty and counting down.
“Line up gentlemen!”
The six combatants stood ten feet apart, with five feet of extra space on either side of the outermost men. Despite the cool March air, Issac felt sweat trickle down his face. He was lined up in the fourth position, with Deadly Daddy on his right and Lanky on his left. He hoped to quickly eliminate Lanky, then avoid Deadly as long as possible on the seventy-foot-wide hill.
Unsurprisingly, the twins lined up next to each other in the first and second slot. Lanky’s eyes were at their left corners, watching the twins suspiciously. Random chubby kid was to the right of Deadly Daddy, looking as if he wished for a time machine to travel back and correct his prideful decision.
“Bud,” a deep voice said. Due to the crowd’s volume, Isaac couldn’t place the voice’s origin. He looked behind him, thinking the official was talking to him, but the man was turn towards the crowd, gesturing for them to stand and cheer, to which they happily obliged.
He looked to his right. The muscular man was looking straight ahead. Though his mouth didn’t move, it was him talking.
“Wanna team up?” the infamous King asked.
“Together?” Isaac asked, not realizing until after how stupid he sounded.
“That’s right. You take care of the guy on your left, I’ll dispose of this chunky kid to my right. Then we’ll eliminate the twins. After that, we’ll fight it out.”
Isaac agreed, mostly because if he didn’t Deadly would probably eliminate him first, but also because he hoped to take Deadly by surprise at some point. Of course, Deadly might—even probably would—do the same to him.
Isaac agreed, hoping he’d just secured a fifty-fifty shot at winning. Probably more like a ten-ninety chance, he thought.
When the digital clock counted down to five, the crowd started chanting in unison.
A loud buzzer went off, and the six men scurried up the hill.
No more than ten seconds later, the game was on for real. Five feet north of the hill’s base, a white line had been chalked straight across. Once all six competitors passed it, the crowd’s volume grew with excitement.
Two large cranes, hooked on prearranged clips at the bottom of the hill, lifted the seventy-by-twenty foot square of land. Amidst an “ooh” from the crowd, the square cutout was pulled back, revealing a furiously burning fire pit. The cool air gained more than a bit of warmth from the powerful flames.
Each year, one ill-prepared competitor made the same mistake. This year, the lanky guy was guilty. With certain, terrible death so close behind, he couldn’t fight the urge to look back in horror.
Isaac was about ten feet higher than him. He took advantage. He started running downwards, picking up steam and drop kicking Lanky in the ribs. The man managed a “Hmph!” sound and immediately lost his weak grip and rolled to the death he had feared just seconds earlier. The crowd cheered louder.
At the end of the day, what this event—like everything else—came down to was money. The more entertaining the show, the more people attended and watched from home. The greater the viewership, the more profit to be made from advertisements. Isaac himself, in addition to the shirt, was sporting a pair of free shoes dedicated to a basketball star named Lebron, who himself had been something of a “king” a century earlier. They’d come in the mail last week, with a thousand-dollar check and a card wishing him luck.
As Lanky’s body disappeared into the fire pit, motion sensors detected his body and blue-colored flames spouted fifty feet high.
The crowd erupted, satisfied that they hadn’t had to wait long to see the day’s first elimination. Certainly the sponsoring shoe company just solidified an upswing in sales.
“And a man goes down!” The official’s voice pointed out. “We’re down to five!”
After the dropkick Isaac hit the ground hard, landing on his left hip. He momentarily rolled down but caught himself on a root that had burrowed under ground from a tree that no longer lived here. The crowd applauded his athleticism, and, despite their sadistic nature, his confidence rose.
After straightening himself out, he looked to his right. The chubby kid was face down, curled up in a ball. Over the roaring crowd, Isaac could just barely hear him begging Deadly to stop.
“Go home! Wanna go home! Please!”
A queasy feeling rushed into his stomach when he saw Deadly smiling with enjoyment. The former King’s fists were pounding mercilessly into Chubby’s exposed back and spine.
Deadly stood, looked out to the bleachers, and flexed his biceps, much to the crowd’s delight. Turning his back to the audience, he lifted the overweight boy, curled him once or twice, then fell backwards while hurling Chubby down the hill with minimal effort.
Like a bowling ball dropping down behind the pins, Chubby’s body dissapeared into the pit.
Isaac still lay there grasping the root. As mesmerized as the crowd by the action, he lost focus. Suddenly he realized he’d forgotten about the twins.
As if reading his thoughts, matching boots stomped down on each of his outstretched hands. Somehow they’d been agile enough to scale high out of sight, move to the right, and climb back down to where Isaac lay.
To help maintain his position, Isaac dug his fingers into the dirt beneath him. While it helped him remain steady, his hands were now in claw-like formations. The twin on his left stomped down on his raised, bent fingers. The impact was much worse than before. Isaac yelped with pain.
To make matters worse, the official had given instructions for the hill to be tilted up slightly, making it tougher to climb. The crowd voiced its pleasure.
He might have given up then had he not heard Deadly’s voice. “Hang on, I’m coming for ya! Don’t let go!”
The twin on Isaac’s right turned his attention to the former champ. The left-side twin stomped again. Isaac knew he wouldn’t last much longer.
He glanced to his right. Fifteen feet away, Deadly and the first twin weren’t quite going at it. Instead, they were circling each other like boxers in the opening round, trying to feel each other out.
Isaac turned his attention back to the twin in front of him. Just in the nick of time, he saw a booted foot about to crash down. Thinking quickly, he used his undamaged right hand to snatch his opponents ankle before impact. The move saved his fingers from being completely smashed, but the force of his pull caused the twin to fall backwards with both legs extended. Instead of his hand, the twin’s boot smashed into Isaac’s face, sending his outstretched body sliding down the hill. With the likelihood of death high, Isaac didn’t see nor feel the blood pouring from his broken nose. He fought the dazed feeling trying to overcome him.
His best move—his only move—was a desperate one. If I’m going, your going too, he thought. His grip tightened on the ankle as they slid toward the fire pit. On his back, the twin had no choice but to slide down with him, despite the frantic kicks of his left leg directed at Isaac’s bloody face.
Ten feet from the fire pit.
“I love you ma!” Isaac yelled, hoping his cancer-ridden mother (who couldn’t bear to watch) would see the dramatic moments on a later news broadcast.
Just as Isaac’s ankles lost solid ground beneath him, his body stopped sliding. The flames were far below his dangling feet, but hot enough for his legs to feel the blast of heat. He heard the crowd gasping, realized he was still alive, and looked up.
The twin’s body was twisted into a painful-looking position, but he’d managed to grasp the edge of a rock that protruded from the hill. His shaky fingers barely held the weight of himself plus Isaac. The twin’s fingers slipped inch by inch as if in slow motion.
With a deep breath, Isaac tugged the twin’s ankle as hard as he could while simultaneously rolling to his right.
The twin lost his grip. Isaac saw a look of terror in his eyes and heard a scream as the man slid passed him, trying and missing a desperate grab at Isaac’s leg. Into the pit he fell, his screams vanishing seconds later.
Knowing the theatrical blue flames were about to burst, Isaac stood halfway up and lunged forward as far as he could, which turned out to be maybe three feet. He just barely cleared—or at least delayed—a terrible death via fire. The heat of the flames reached his whole body and for a moment Isaac felt as if he had fallen into the pit. A few seconds the flames settled.
No sooner had the blue flames disappeared then he heard Deadly yell: “Watch it!”
Looking up, Isaac saw the second twin’s body, limp and most likely dead, rolling straight for him. He was reverse tumbling down the hill, like an actor falling backwards down a flight of stairs in a comedy movie.
Isaac’s quick-thinking brain and cat-like reflexes spared his life. Rather than lunge forward, he jumped straight up. The body rolled beneath him and he landed crouched down like a catcher in baseball. The delighted crowd cheered his agility.
Exhausted, he wanted nothing more than to rest, take a nap. But he had no wish to feel the heat of flames a second time. While the burns wouldn’t do any lasting damage, the rise in temperature was extremely uncomfortable. He sped forward as if imitating a cheetah, and made it far enough up the hill to only feel a mildly-warm sensation.
After the last few minutes of action, Isaac looked up and saw Deadly Daddy about fifty feet above him, unmoving, smoking a cigarette (which the crowd found highly amusing), staring down at him. Grateful for the opportunity to rest, Isaac closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath.
Then it hit him. Why the hell had Deadly warned him of the oncoming body? Sure, they’d agreed to work cohesively until the final two, but given the same chance he’d have kept his mouth shut watched the dead twin’s lifeless body barrel into Deadly, sending them both over the edge while he ran straight to the top and collected his check. Maybe the guy just wanted a good old-fashioned fight? The suspicion fit him, but Isaac wasn’t buying it.
Deadly waited patiently while Isaac cautiously made his way up the hill. It didn’t help that the official ordered the hill tilted again. It caused Isaac to lose both his footing and twenty feet worth of ground he’d gained. With a grunt of frustration, he’d willed himself to climb back up.
Finally, Isaac approached Deadly. The former champ flicked the butt of his second cigarette down the hill, then jumped towards Isaac so fast that all he could do was ball up in a fetal position like Chubby had earlier. Recalling how terribly that had turned out for him, Isaac tried to stand up before the beating began.
A large hand grabbed the back of his neck and shoved his face into the dirt. Unlike before, this impact made him fully aware of his broken nose, and he let out as much of a strangled cry as was possible.
“Stay down!” Deadly commanded. The way he said—under his breath yet with command—sounded conspiratorial to Isaac. Unless he was hallucinating—which was definitely a possibility—Deadly had told him to stay down for his own good, like a father teaching his son a necessary lesson.
As soon as the man climbed onto Isaac’s back, fists of thunder began to rain down. Isaac must have been imagining things, because he physically felt his skull being smashed to a pulp before he realized Deadly’s fists were barely making contact. When they did connect it was with a loose, open fist.
Isaac felt Deadly clamp his arms around his neck. That’s when he whispered into his ear.
“Listen kid, you’re mother is a fantastic woman. We knew each other a long time ago. Grew up together.”
Isaac felt for a second that he was dreaming, that none of this was happening. He’d wake up soon and have to go to the hill to compete.
Deadly must have sensed his mind slipping, because he gave Isaac’s face a hard slap to help snap him back into focus. Though it stung like hell, it worked. And the crowd certainly appreciated it.
“Let’s just say that she did me a favor once, a favor I promised I would never forget. To myself, I swore if there was ever a way I could pay it back, I would.”
Isaac, both baffled and exhausted, barely managed to say, “Wha . . . wha . . . ?”
Deadly, still softly choking him, chuckled. “I don’t exactly have the time to explain it kid. Listen, you get that check and you take care of her. Got it?”
Later that week, Isaac read the letter his mother received in the mail. It was from Jerry Sears, a.k.a. Deadly Daddy, confessing that he’d blown through his winnings in less than two years and had lived with nothing but a mountain of guilt since then. Everything was gone for him, and the only way to even slightly redeem himself before accepting the death he deserved, the deah he wished for, was to keep the one promise in life that he had truly meant.
“We gotta make this look good now. Throw an elbow at my face.”
Isaac wasted no time obliging. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to actually hit him, but his elbow smacked Deadly’s face so hard it hurt his funny bone.
Deadly threw another hard punch, putting a dent in the ground inches from Isaac’s eyes. “Again!”
Isaac threw another elbow, Deadly’s grip weakened.
Suddenly the crowd went crazy. Isaac looked up and saw why. A large bulldozer sat at the top of the hill, its large blade overflowing with thousands of tiny marbles. The only man in history to attempt running straight through them and had failed miserably. The rocks were dumped. They sped toward the two remaining combatants.
“Hit me! HARD!”
Isaac threw the hardest elbow yet. He felt Deadly break free. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the man spinning around while trying to steady himself. It looked so natural Isaac wasn’t sure how much, if any of it, was an act.
Deadly’s back was to the hill when the rush of rocks swept him off his feet. Isaac dug his hands into the dirt and held on for dear life as the same load pelted him all over.
He protected his face by laying it down sideways on the ground, watching as Deadly rock-surfed on his back all the way to the fire pit, finally sliding into feet first. He didn’t screamed as his body flew over the edge.
After a moment of silence and a surge of blue flames the crowd began chanting loudly: “Isaac. Isaac. Isaac.”
With every ounce of energy drained from his body, Isaac squared his shoulders to the incline of the hill. He took a death breath. Blood poured from his nose. His eyes stung with dirt. His fingers felt arthritic, but he could see his mother’s beautiful face at the top of the hill. Slowly but surely, he started making his way there.
Bio: Kevin Bannigan Jr. is an avid reader of all things weird, wonderful, and everything in between. He enjoys the writing of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Stephen King, among many others.
He has two published stories: Dealing With the Devil appears in Voices From the Gloom, Volume 1, published by Sirens Cal Publications.
With the Wind appears in the Rejected anothology, published by ACA books.
Both books can be found on Amazon.