I am excited to have my short story “The Hill” published by The World of Myth Magazine. Thank you, editors Stephanie J. Bardy & David K. Montoya!
Janine paced the floor with her hands clasped behind her. She didn’t know how she was going to continue on. All the things that used to bring joy to her world no longer gave her any happiness. Growing old and developing physical problems did not make matters any easier. She would never consider ending her own life, but she no longer cared if she lived or not. She used to love to hike, and run and horseback ride. Now those were things of the past. Janine still putzed around in her gardens, but even those looked less cheery nowadays. The tall grassy weeds seemed to take control of the meadows with a vengeance that she could no longer battle, and the deer ate all her prized wildflowers, that she had worked so hard to plant and cultivate for so many years. In spring the gardens were a profusion of yellows and blues, and buy mid-summer the tall red Cardinal Flowers would take over the entire upper yard. These would attract hummingbirds and butterflies to brighten her days. The house was also becoming too much to manage. Paint was peeling off the walls, and she could barely manage keeping up with the cleaning. Yet the thought of moving from the home she had once loved so much, filled her with dread. She continued to pace as searing hot tears ran down her cheeks.
Janine realized that everyone grows old and goes through many of the same feelings. But so many people still managed to hold on to the bright things in life. She thought that she would be able to, but was losing more of that part of her life with every passing year. She thought that she would be strong and capable forever, since she was an athlete in her younger years. Her husband passed away several years ago, and now her cats were the only thing that still filled her life with love. Although, she would never be able to let go of that one special cat that had left her several years ago. She found the bouncy black kitten while hiking through the nearby nature center one Sunday afternoon. He was an affectionate ball of energy following around the cub scout troop that was visiting there. The young boys were all excited petting and playing with the friendly kitten as he rubbed between their legs and reached up for more affection. She stopped in the office to ask the director of the nature center if they knew who owned the kitten. He said they had asked around and checked with local shelters and no one had claimed him. They really did not want him around there since he was hunting the birds, and the nature center was set up as a refuge for the native birds and wildlife of the area.
The next day she brought the kitten home and named him Ashland after the name of the nature center where she found him. She had several other cats at the time, but Ashland soon warmed his way into her heart to be her favorite. He was always following her and talking to her. Janine was smitten. For the most part, all the cats got along with each other. Ashland did have some bad behavior problems, but Janine loved him so much she put up with them. Ten years later, Ashland started to have some digestive complications. He stopped eating and had other physical signs that caused her to worry. After many veterinary visits and tests, it was determined that he had intestinal cancer. Janine could not bear the thought of losing her precious Ashland. He was a special cat. They had a sort of spiritual connection between them. There could never be another cat quite like her Ashland in her life, and she had had many cats ever since childhood. She decided to use most of her savings and her salary to do what she could for him. He had a successful surgery, and started chemotherapy at a veterinary specialty hospital. He had to be taken there twice a week every week for an infusion, and she had to administer many pills and liquids to him at home every day. He never seemed to mind it much and was doing very well. In fact, he became more playful and energetic, almost like a kitten again. Janine knew better, but she hoped that he was cured and would live a long life.
That went on for two and a half years, until one day when Ashland refused to eat again and started to become extremely lethargic. Janine knew it was time. She cried and cried, and felt sick all over at the thought of losing her precious cat. She brought Ashland into her bed that night, and cuddled up next to him, engulfing his tiny body with her own. But every time she put him back up on the bed, he kept jumping off and wanting to sleep on the cold bathroom tile. After several tries, she decided to lay down on the bathmat next to him and keep him company. A few times in the night, his breathing became so shallow that she feared he had left her. She would go into her warm bed to wait for morning, but as soon as she did, she would hear the pitiful little meow, and she returned to the hard bathroom floor to be next to him. It was obvious that he needed her there next to him. It was a long tortuous night. The next morning was his last one on this earth, as she wrapped him lovingly in a warm blanket and drove him to the vet one last time.
A week later when Ashland’s ashes were ready, she picked them up from the vet and took them to the nature center where she first found him. She carefully scattered the ashes in the garden where he first appeared to her. The garden was starting to fade and the ashes settled between the brown and green remnants of the ferns and wildflowers. She cried for weeks afterward. In fact, she never did stop crying after all these years later, and many other cats later.
Six years had passed since losing her Ashland, and while working in the back-patio area one late fall day she spotted a young black cat coming over the wooded hill behind her house. Her heart stopped for a moment because it looked so much like Ashland. She had always joked to everyone about how the day a black cat showed up at the nature center again, she would know it was her Ashland reincarnated. She would go to the nature center across the road often, hoping beyond hope. Could this be her beloved Ashland? Did he find his way across the road and back to her? The nature center was only just over the hill, about a quarter of a mile away. Her heart leapt, and she felt joy again for the first time in a long time.
The black cat showed up every day after that. She left food out for him on the screened-in back porch that had a cat door to access it. The cat was very friendly and loving. He craved attention almost as much as her Ashland used to. She did not dare name him Ashland, so she named him Ashy, that would be close enough to feel right. Ashy showed up several times each day for food and affection, but he could not be persuaded to come into the house. Janine tried to tempt him in with tuna and treats but he would run back out before she could close the door behind him. He wanted to be an outdoor cat. Janine was devising a scheme to grab him and take him to the vet for a checkup, but Ashy was always too quick for her. It was starting to get cold out at night so she needed to do something soon.
One evening in late September Janine went out to her back yard to call Ashy for dinner. He appeared on the hill like he always did, trotting down meowing loudly the entire way, as if to say “I’m here, I’m coming.” But this time he stopped half way down the hill. The hill was covered with a thick fog, and it was hard to see him. Janine started to go in the direction she heard Ashy’s cry. Janine had not climbed that steep hill for many years, since she was younger and had more strength and energy. Ashy started back up the hill. She followed the sleek black cat up the tree covered hill as he kept turning, and stopping to wait for her. He seemed to be calling her with a loud meow each time she halted to rest. Her heart was racing, and the exhaustion started to make her feel weak. Finally, when she arrived at the top, the entire woods were enshrouded in such a thick fog that she felt as if she was in some other world. Just then, she was surrounded by cats, so many cats, and she recognized each one of them. They appeared to be almost transparent, as if made out of the fog itself. She knelt down to reach out to them, and Ashy leapt into her arms wrapping his paws around her neck in a loving manner. Then, before her eyes, he turned into her beloved Ashland. Rivers of hot tears filled her eyes and she hugged him and kissed him on the head. Something strange was happening. Janine felt as if she was being lifted upward by the fog. She was not afraid, she only felt joy. A joy she had not felt in a very long time.
The next morning some neighbors stopped by to check up on Janine and see if she wanted a ride to church. When Janine did not answer the door, and her car was in the driveway, the neighbors used their key to let themselves in. She was nowhere in the house, and neither were her two elderly cats. They started to search outside when they saw a black cat standing halfway up the hill behind Janine’s house crying with all his might, as if he was trying to get their attention. They decided to follow him up the hill. At the top they were shocked to see Janine lying on the mossy ground under a tall oak tree. She was barefooted, in her nightgown, all curled up as if she was cuddling something. She had a peaceful look on her face. When the neighbors turned around, the black cat had vanished. No one knew what had happened, or why.
From somewhere in another dimension, Janine smiled down lovingly at her tearful neighbors as she continued to walk through the soft mist with her Ashland riding on her shoulders. On the other side of the hill, she could see her entire clowder of cats waiting for her. She would never be lonely again. She was home at last.