Tears began to sting Jen's eyes as she slid into bed beside her sleeping husband. Better now than in front of the children, she told herself. The last thing they needed on Christmas Eve was to see their mother crying again. Three days ago - in the midst of the whirlwind of last minute shopping, gift wrapping, and holiday entertaining - Mehitabel had died. Charlie had found her after work, curled up in her favorite box. Jen knew that Mehitabel's passing was long overdue. The cat was 19-years-old, after all. Twenty come March. Rail thin. Arthritic. Her once-beautiful black fur faded and gray, stretched like tissue paper over her frail little body. "She could go at anytime," the vet had told her just weeks before during Mehitabel's last check-up. Still, when Charlie had found her body, Jen had been devastated. As she lay there, Jen asked herself the same litany of questions that had been tormenting her for the past three days. Had Mehitabel suffered in her last moments? Had she been afraid all by herself? Could Jen have made a difference if she'd come home at lunchtime? Or straight home after work? And what if she'd taken her back to the vet's when Mehitabel had stopped eating two days before she had died? But the question that was bothering her most of all had nothing to do with Mehitabel's last days. Instead, Jen was haunted by the question of where Mehitabel was now. She had never thought much about death before. Or, more to the point, about what happens afterwards. But now, as she thought of the piles of presents under the tree downstairs, Jen realized that she would gladly trade all the presents in the world to know that Mehitabel was safe and that she would see her again someday. She was still crying as she drifted off to sleep. And then, without warning, Jen found herself standing in the middle of her unfinished basement. The gray concrete floor felt like ice under her bare feet. What was happening? How had she gotten there? She had no recollection of coming down the stairs. Hadn't she been in bed? Just moments ago? Jen's breath caught in her chest. There, sitting in her favorite spot on top of the dryer, was Mehitabel. Mehitabel, the way she'd looked before she'd gotten old. The cat seemed to glow against the bare concrete block wall. My God, Jen thought. She's never looked so beautiful. Jen shook her head. This wasn't happening. Mehitabel was dead. And Jen was dreaming. Yes, she reassured herself, this was just a dream. Jen began to tremble as she recalled the nightmare she'd had a few years ago. It had started much the same way. Her childhood friend, a boy who'd been killed one summer, had appeared in her dream. And suddenly, the dream had turned terrifying. Her heart began to pound in her chest. She wanted out of this dream before it became terrifying, too. Jen hugged herself, closed her eyes, and willed the dream to end. It's only a dream, she told herself. Only a dream. "I'm fine now." The voice was female. Melodious. Gentle and wise. "I'm fine now," the voice said again as Jen stared at Mehitabel. "Everything's fine." Jen realized that the voice, which seemed to emanate from the cat, was actually in her own head. "You're not real," Jen said out loud. "You're a dream." Her voice quivered. Was it okay to let a dream know that you were frightened of it? Jen didn't know. "I am real," the voice in Jen's head told her. "Touch me. You'll see." The voice had taken on a bemused quality. Mehitabel was addressing her in the same tone that adults often use when trying to reassure frightened children. "Don't be afraid," the voice said. "Touch me. Touch me, and you'll see." Jen hesitated. Was this the moment when her dream would turn into a nightmare? She extended her arm. Slowly. As she did, her gaze moved to her trembling fingertips. And beyond. The gray concrete blocks behind the cat had vanished. Jen looked around. The entire basement was gone. She and Mehitabel were now in the whitest room Jen had ever seen. White walls. White floor. Everything so incredibly white that looking at it hurt her eyes. In an instant, the entire room exploded in a flash of white light so brilliant that she threw her arms over her head and dropped to the floor. A few hours later, Jen awoke for just a moment. As she lay there in bed, hovering in that space between sleep and wakefulness, she felt strangely comforted. She smiled as she thought of Mehitabel. And of her dream. Then she turned toward Charlie and drifted back to sleep. Jen would sleep for another four hours before awakening again on Christmas morning to discover the tufts of shiny black cat fur still clutched tightly in her right hand.
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