The House On The Hill

What is happiness? The question played over and over in my head as I pondered the answer. Ever since unfortunate events overrode my life, I felt as if I had lost all sense of joy and gladness, and the concept of happiness appeared to have slipped my mind. Finally, one day, I could take it no more, so I packed my bags and pursued my dreams of travelling, hoping to find happiness. For several years I travelled to all corners of the globe exploring cities and towns which have names I can scarcely pronounce. Still, I felt that something was missing. At least, until that fateful day, when I found the house on the hill.

I was sightseeing in the countryside, a bag slung carelessly over my shoulder and a map grasped firmly in my hand. The sun was scorching as it beat down on my back, bathing my neck and forehead with beads of perspiration and basking my face with a warm, creamy glow. I trod up a steep hill, taking in what I can only describe as cascading beauty – fluffy white, cotton-candy clouds set against a backdrop of azure sky, a crystal clear stream that skipped gladly downstream, perfect sweet-smelling greenery that proved Mother Nature was working her magic, and the delightful sound of chirping birds. I could not wait to reach the top of the hill and glimpse what must be a glorious view.

At long last, I reached the peak of the little hill, but before I could take in the view, something else grabbed my attention – a huge mansion, glinting and gleaming in the sunlight. It really was a sight to behold. It had a spotless white picket fence that I often heard of in suburban tales, a jolly paint job with not a single flaw in its colour, windows of crystal clear glass backed with velvety curtains, a large wooden door and four storeys to its large foundation.

As I stood there gawking at the splendid house, the huge front door swung open, revealing a smiling, pretty woman with rather thick makeup in a beautiful long-sleeved dress.

"Hello," she said to me. Her voice was sweet and pleasant. "What's a girl like yourself doing outside in this heat? Come on in, and I'll make you some nice, cold lemonade." I considered her carefully. Being an avid fan of horror stories, this seemed a little odd, but eventually I decided that she was not a crazy axe murderer and obliged.

I stepped tentatively into the threshold of the mansion. I could feel the cold marble floor beneath the soles of my shoes as I glanced around the room I was in. It looked a little like a hotel lobby – a huge, opulent chandelier glistening with crystals, antique vases flanking the entrance, a large centrepiece in the midst of the circular room that resembled a fountain, and a couple of lush leather armchairs in the corner. I have to admit that I was flabbergasted. "Honey, we have a visitor!" the lady called. My brief feeling of unease faded as soon as I saw the middle-aged man with laughing eyes who emerged, hand-in-hand, with a young boy and a younger girl.

"What brings you to these parts?" the lady asked me. Her accent was that of a sophisticated, well-educated woman, but I detected the remnants of a southern accent.

I was about to tell her that I was looking for myself, but it sounded cliché and shallow in my mind, so I stated that I was travelling. She nodded pleasantly as she led me to the sitting room. I tried to keep track of the turns we took, but we made so many it was pointless. She handed me a glass of deliciously cool lemonade as I rested on a luxurious velvet sofa. After a while, I excused myself, saying that I had to make a move. Husband and wife walked me to the front door, always holding hands.

I felt as if I had met the happiest family alive – a loving father and husband, a devoted wife and mother, a pair of adorable and innocent children. However, as I bade them farewell, I caught a strange melancholy look in the wife's eyes, an odd sort of sadness that lingered even as she waved until I was out of sight.

That whole week, I could not get that look out of my head. Even as I explored vast plains of paddy, observed beautiful fields of flowers, and inspected species upon species of birds, my mind refused to dismiss the unsettling fact that there may be something about that family that was not as perfect as I had envisioned.

A week later, I trudged back over the hill to return to my starting point and move on to another city. It was dusk and the sky was darkening rapidly. I was slightly behind schedule – my train was leaving for a faraway town in less than half an hour. It was freezing, and my jacket was tightly wrapped around me like a vice as I raced across the green grass. My original plan was to stop by the house on the hill, but it was a little too late for that, so when the house loomed into sight, I ran right past it.

However, as I was about to start down the hill, I heard a sudden noise – the sound of raised voices. I stopped in my tracks and turned around just as the sound of something crashing, coupled with an agonized scream, echoed through the silent atmosphere. Fearing that something was amiss – a burglar, perhaps? – I approached the house and peered in through the window. My heart stopped beating for a few seconds, then proceeded to pound loudly in my throat. I swallowed with difficulty as I watched the scene unfolding before me.

The first thing I noticed was the two children huddled in the corner of the room, the older boy with his arm around his younger sister, both of them crouched as though frightened. My attention shifted to the other side of the room. There were several broken plates on the floor, an upturned table in the middle of the room, and bits of glass strewn on the expensive carpet. The couple was arguing – I could clearly see the wife's face without the thick layer of makeup now, and I gasped at the sight of it. She had several bruises on her face, leading down her neck in different shades – some had already faded, some were fresh. The long sleeve of her dress had been torn off, and I could see clusters of wounds on her delicate arm.

As I struggled to comprehend what was going on, a terrible thing happened. The husband reached out and punched his wife's already damaged face. Her knees buckled beneath her, and she slumped down against the wall, sobbing. I felt sick to my stomach, but I forced myself to continue watching. The boy in the corner turned towards me, and I saw that his fragile features had bruises to match his mother's. I caught a glimpse of the girl, and saw similar markings on her face. The husband turned away from his wife, and my breath caught in my throat as his eyes met mine.

In an instant I was up on my feet, dashing down the hill. I heard the house door swing open, but I did not dare look back, and sprinted off the hill as fast as my legs could carry me. I tried to report what I had witnessed to the town sheriff, but he looked at me as if I had lost my mind. "They're the sweetest family you'll ever find in this town," he assured me. Discouraged, I shuffled lamely to the train station.

I was far too late to catch my train, but none of that seemed to matter to me any longer. I was upset, but my hands were tied. Suddenly, I was sick of travelling and finding nothing. The facade of perfection that the family used to hide its dark secrets made me feel ill, and I suddenly longed for home. I purchased a ticket that would take me there, where my family had been waiting for me since I left.

That happened many decades ago. Today, I am in the town again, for my nephew's wedding. His place is just over the hill, but I have qualms about seeing that house on the hill once more. What if the family still lives there? What if they remember me? As I near the top of the hill, I am simply waiting, slightly anxious to see the house again.

Oh! What is this? My eyes are greeted by a peculiar sight. There is the house, exactly where it was last time, but the picket fence is gone, replaced by a vegetable garden. The paint is cracked and most of it has peeled off – from the harsh weather, I would guess – revealing a rather rotten-looking mixture of bricks and wood underneath.

It feels like déjà vu as I stare at the huge, once beautiful house, and the front door swings open. My heart jumps for a second as I see someone who looks like it could be the same lady who greeted me years ago – the same hazel eyes and olive skin – but I realize that this must be her daughter.

"Hello," she says, her voice baring uncanny resemblance to her mother's. "Come on in, ma'am, and I'll make you some tea."

I step into the home once more, but my eyes are no longer greeted by opulence. The chandelier is long gone, and the only thing in the circular entrance is a simple wooden desk with matching chairs in front of it.

"Oh, where are my manners?" she adds hastily. "Welcome to Chorale Bed and Breakfast. Last time you were here, it was but a strange family's house."

I stare at her, taken aback.

"That's right, I do remember you," she states calmly, barely batting an eyelash. "You're that traveller who saw my family's secret, aren't you?" When I do not reply, she goes on, "My parents left me this house, but left my brother all their money. He didn't turn out too well." A small twinge of regret colours her voice. She leads me through the cosy little home, introducing me to her husband and son. I meet several of her customers from all walks of life – a businessman, a quiet family from overseas, and a bunch of teenagers on summer vacation.

I am about to excuse myself, but she protests quickly. "Don't tell me you won't stay for dinner!" she exclaims. I decide that I can put off arriving at my nephew's for another hour or so and oblige. Dinner is a pleasant affair as all the guests gather around the table, give thanks and dig in to a healthy homemade meal.

Eventually, it is time for me to leave. I thank her for her warm hospitality and she tells me the pleasure was hers. "As you can see, we don't have much," she tells me as I prepare to leave. "But we have plenty."

I smile as I take a look around the humble home, and in that moment, I truly believe it. As I walk out the door and she waves me off, I see nothing but peace and joy in her quiet eyes, and something tells me that this is what happiness really is – love, hope, and family.

So here is where I finally discover the happiness that I had wasted years of my life seeking out, opening my eyes at last and realizing that material possessions can never add up to joy, genuine smiles, laughter and love. For all of this, I have to thank that house on the hill. It shall remain engraved in my memory and etched in my being for as long as I live.

The End