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Hills and Hopes

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The hill was terrifying. The slope was impossible.
Youngsters these days, she thought vehemently. They could all run up this like it was nothing. Good Lord, she wanted to be young again. Tall and skinny and smiley, strawberry blonde like strands of silk. She supposed that made her vain.
It was a very long hike, she realized in frustration. It had never been long before. No, it really hadn’t. But the last time she had been here was at least thirty—thirty five?—years ago. So her memory was withering away too, just like the rest of her.
And yet her mind hadn’t, she thought tiredly. She could still think of things all too often, things that were pleasant and things that were petrifying. Honestly, that was disappointing. If there was anything she looked forward to in being elderly, it was that your mind crumbled down. There were so many memories she was ready to fuzz up and smack, pack up neatly and send off in a nightmare. But weren’t things just that way. She would lose every precious bit of bliss that she had vainly kept from heaven. Vain. Yes. She was very, very vain.
But she couldn’t help that now, could she. Not after 90 years of it.
The fog was starting to concern her. She hadn’t checked the weather yet, and seldom used the fancy gadget dear little Velma had dropped off the other day (was it iPod? iPade?). It fascinated her, and repelled her. The world was spinning so fast now; she wondered how people were still stuck to the ground.
Yes, the fog was gathering thick like a wreath around her shoulders, damp and tepid, like a slobbery dog’s kiss. It slapped her eyes and willed them to close. She stubbornly squinted instead.
The world became a fairy tale, as the harsh greens became soft in the dull light, flinty sun turning pebbles to gold. The grass grew hazy, like a delicate fur under her feet. A real wonderland. If only she had her prince. Though he was in a real safe haven now, somewhere between the stars.
Rats, she had done it again. Another bandage people used to cover up the not-so pretty things. Where was the spot between the stars? Surely it wasn’t really a place between “time and space,” or “forgiveness and hate.” Heaven. Haven. Refuge. Afterlife. How could someone place a label on something they knew so little about?
Maybe it was all too reassuring, like smack-dab evidence you didn’t just go POOF and all that memory didn’t just disappear. Or maybe some people just liked naming things.
That was what was so terrifying to most, wasn’t it? That was what made immortality as tantalizing as a plum, and death as bitter as celery. You were never forgotten. Your name was stained like blood into the history books, another name that millions would trace and glorify in their own versions of your life. And you, out of millions and gazillions of others, would eternally survive centuries more.
But she was tired of it all. She hadn’t even gotten to a century, and it was all quite enough. Her daughter Rosa was always biting her nails when she considered her mother’s health, desperate to keep her tied to this earth a little longer. And her daughter Velma was starting a new career in Chicago, fresh off the wedding podium and ready to become the artist of the millennium. It was all so very grand when you saw it that way.
But her own husband Dave was already gone to somewhere achy bones and cold coffee wasn’t a problem. Dave. She really did miss him. Maybe if he was here, still, she wouldn’t mind a century more. Or two.
But that was it. She couldn’t remember any high school friends that’d kept in contact recently, and most of her college buds had gone to live with their own retiring children. To her pharmacist, she was just another name on the list, and to the attendant at the Sunny Springs Retirement Center, she was just another lump of bones to push up the stairs.
Just like that skinny little pebble that’d wedged itself in the crook in her sneaker – it would only remain known to those by it. It was a painfully typical little rock. No other rock in Russia would even know it existed. When it was gone, it was gone. The world stayed the same.
The sun had slowly risen higher, defiant like a blinding eye in the skies above. The fog had also risen, revealing the stunning gold-tipped leaves shimmering in layers like scales. She was climbing higher and higher, the slope starting to upend her throbbing feet like a truck at a dump. And yet she still kept on climbing, squinting her wrinkly little eyes. There was a plateau at the very top, overlooking the fringe of the nearby National Forest, like a picnic blanket of grass where you sat and discussed stuff you were scared about but was going to happen anyways. High school. Jobs. Friends. Fights. It all seemed so small to her now.
And so why did she climb?
Her feet stopped their ascent as the thought hit her hard, and unhappy.
She climbed because she wanted to break her bones? She climbed because she wanted to remember where all those good memories had started? She climbed because the sun was mean and she had to beat it, despite the fact it was December’s winter in Florida and no cold had come? She climbed because her hair looked golden in the light?
By Lord, she didn’t know. And she just wished it would all end.
There was no more opportunity she could snatch at. There was no waking up in the morning and feeling like she could stomp on the world if she wanted. There were no dreams anymore, there were no hobbies or skills she held close. No one was watching. No one really cared. There was nothing but fingers of fire in her arthritis, and her thick, crumbling voice.
She could give up. Give up on life because there was nothing left for her. Nobody needed her anymore, nor did she need anyone. Everyone was growing or grown, shooting past her in their clicking technologies and blurry new concepts. Rosa would be fine, her little Jon was a good man, and they would be happy together; Velma was so full of life, there was nothing she couldn’t handle. It made her satisfied.
But there was something that still pulled her up the hill. Despite the slight perspiration that had stayed dormant the last thirty some years, and although her back was starting to hurt in muscles she hadn’t known existed, there was something she had to find at the top of the hill. There was something she had to reach, something she couldn’t stick her finger on and lug down for closer inspection. Something waiting. There was something up there that made a difference.
Unlike her.
And the thought of it, the realization, pulled her frail heartstrings up the hill, in each shaking step, battered after 90 years of memoir. She could reach it. She had to.
And so as the sun taunted her on its blue throne, she focused on each crinkling sneaker, pink in a rim of bending Velcro, fertilizer clinging to the fringes like tomato sauce. One two, one two. She felt her bones scrape in heavy reluctance, trudging like thick beams caked in mud, every bend of her knees met with fire and every footstep with sparks.
The hill was now starting to flatten slightly, the sparse grass widening into a circle of flowers, broad blues and snappish pinks. The ones that Dave had planted when they were feeling dull and useless, at the icy prospect of 60.
They had cost a trundle, and weren’t meant to last more than a season. And yet, even as Dave couldn’t come anymore and neither would she, someone had started to care of them, as winters trundled by and summers burnt off time. It warmed her heart like a roasted chestnut, and stayed there as she raised her face to the sun.
And it was no more a wonderland, it was a memory; she could smell cinnamon mingle in with the bittersweet pine of Rosa’s thirteenth birthday, Dave’s bumbling laugh when a bird had started following their kites, her own ear-to-ear grin as their dog fell asleep in the warm summer sun. She could see years and years drip by as the clouds transformed into the glory of sunset as Velma turned one, into the stormy morning she had come to cry for her Dave, when he was gone gone gone; when she had come to poorly water the dying flowers. There were tears still in this ground, there were smiles left on these grasses. There were words still left unsaid.
She closed her sore eyes and took a deep breath.

So this was triumph. Something thick, with a twinge of bitterness, forged in cold glory. It had been so long since she had last had this.
Victory. She had reached the top.
There was a small wind, and she felt it blow away every crease in her bones, every joint suddenly loose with realization. This was what mattered. Right here and right now. Life at its very best.
90 wasn’t so bad, after all.

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