Across the Hill

Illustration by Kevin Silva.
Illustration by Kevin Silva.

Long blobs with circular eyes, no mouth and spiky heads. The ghosts assemble to form a line every sunset. Everyone always gathers to see where they’re going. On Saturdays, Dad takes us to the hill to watch by my request. An old woman perches on the side of the dirt road with some cardboard sign that reads, “Two dollars a view.” Dad says she’ll just tear up the paper anyway. 

When the show begins and we have found a spot to park in, I think to myself: Why is Olive so quiet? Usually, she mumbles about how it’s unethical to watch the ghosts, and how we should let them be instead of watching them like they are “puppets in a show.” She is quite smart for a 10-year-old. I turn to look at the backseat expecting to see her looking at her socks and scowling, but she is gone. No more than a second has passed when I turn to face forward only to see the heel of her pink cotton candy-colored sock flash in the distance where the ghosts are hovering away. My mouth hangs open as chills run down my spine, and Dad stays silent, unemotional, unmoved.

I open my mouth. I scream, “OLIVE!” Before Dad can say anything, I open the car door. I run down the hill, extending my left knee too far since the hill is so steep. My sister’s socks had made a wet imprint of her tiny feet on the cement following the dewy grass. The wind rushes past my ears, through my shirt, blocks my nostrils and whips my hair around. The sunset is blaring bright orange and pink streaks across the faint clouds and into my eyes. I feel a tug on the back of my shirt just before tripping on a rather large pebble. I think maybe it’s Olive playing a trick. I whip my head around.

“Findley, you scared the shit out of me. Don’t fuck around at the hill, okay? You could get hurt. Now get back in the car. There is nothing we can do, Olive chose to run.” My dad has collapsed on the gravel as well, panting and angry-looking. His gray hair sticks up a bit in the front. 

“But Dad—” 

“No,he says firmly. 

On the drive home, I watch the rest of the sunset and the ghosts from the right side-view mirror. I think about why he said no. He must know best. Maybe Olive is fine and this happens all the time. Maybe I am too young to understand, just like with Mom. All he ever told me about Mom was that she chose to leave too. He doesn’t like to talk about it.

When we arrive home there are about 20 cats on the lawn. An orange one in contrast with the faded blue house has red eyes and matted fur. It sits on the porch looking feral, lost and angry. I point to them but Dad ignores me and strides right on into our house. I walk up to the orange cat and say “pspspspsps.” It glares at me, blinks and walks away, all the way down the street, moving its torso side to side with sass. I want that one. The rest of the cats stare at me blankly, and it makes me kind of uncomfortable. Are they here because of Olive? I shake my head as I head inside and catch a glimpse of Dad blankly staring at the lawn. I think there is maybe a tear in his eye. I imagine him thinking about how he’s stuck with the less intellectual daughter.

Every time the phone starts ringing we think it might be her, calling from where the ghosts have gone.

Each Saturday, Dad and I still drive to the hill and watch the ghosts fade away. We have no choice; it is against the law not to. He always locks the car doors now and tells me it is so the begging woman doesn’t open one. Most days I am quiet and Dad always asks why with a pair of sunken eyes. I feel bad for him, but I don’t know why he asks me that. Maybe he doesn’t know what else to say or do. He is also quiet most days. Gray hairs bud from the front section of his hair. Sometimes I imagine what he was like before Mom went away. Even when Olive was here, he’d muster a smile and a joke. I wonder how many smiles he used to have.

One morning several weeks later, I sleep in because it is Sunday. My hair has become a nest from not brushing it. When I go out to water the plants in my polka dot pajamas that drag on the floor when I walk, and my zebra slippers flopping around, I see that sassy orange cat sitting beside the strawberry plants. “Pspsps,” I begin to coax the cat to me. She comes to me and rolls in the dirt.

A few minutes later, I go inside after watering the plants, and she sprints in after me. I stare at her and then grab a can of tuna from a stack and give some to her on a paper plate. The house smells like sadness and stale pizza. Dad is still sleeping. He sleeps most days now actually. At night I hear him shuffle out to the dining room table, where he usually sits in silence. I try to avoid it when he does that. I’m not sure why he does it, but it feels like I’m interrupting something.

She follows me everywhere, the orange cat, even into the bathroom while I comb and braid my long brown hair. I enjoy her company. For some reason, I feel like the cat is judging the shitty haircut Olive gave me a while back.

“Ahh, I don’t even care, dude, I think my sister fucked me up, she definitely didn’t do this right. Also, this is the most efficient hairdo, I leave it like this for weeks,” I say chirpily to the cheeky orange cat.

“This is the most efficient hairdo, I leave it like this for weeks,” the orange cat says, mocking me and tilting its head to the side and glaring at me. Olive would always do that. One time she made me so mad I threw a piece of wood at her foot. Maybe this cat is Olive. Maybe she has come back. 

“Hey, I thought we were friends,” I say to the cat, hurt by the imitation, especially if it’s Olive and this is what she came back to tell me.

“Hey, I thought we were friends.” 

“Stop imitating me!” I shriek.

“Stop imitating me!” the orange cat shrieks with delight in its eyes. Olive almost made me this mad in the past. My face turns hot and I grab a peach-scented candle from the bathroom cabinet shelf and throw it at the cat. She lays there dead and limp and I can’t look. I can’t take the sight of it or what I have done. Dad knocks on the bathroom door. I burst out crying right as Dad bursts in. He sees the cat with his hollow eyes.

“Findley, what happened? Was there a spider?” 

“No, Dad, the cat,” I sob and point, “I killed the cat.” 

“What cat, what are you talking about?” he says. My eyes widen as fat tears roll down my face. 

“Huh? How can you not see that cat?!”

“I don’t know, Findley,” he whispers. He widens his arms to give me a hug, which I lean into with my arms draped at my side and my chin’s weight between his shoulder and neck. I feel frozen. My thoughts race.

Does my dad need glasses? Am only I meant to see these cats? Is Olive messing with me? 

“I think we have to go to a psychiatrist,” Dad says quietly.

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