You slip. Fall. Wonder what you’ve broken this time. You wait for some new pain to sound alongside the slow tolling that’s rang inside of you through years of pills in the morning and pills at noon and pills again at bedtime and of trying to explain the ones your daughter finds forgotten in the organizer when she stops in to check on you. Through years of appointments with your rheumatologist between appointments with your cardiologist and home visits by the physical therapist young enough to be your grandson but damn those arms, that smile.
There’s no pain. Not just no new pain. All pain is gone.
Bells are jingling. Cold seeps in through the window.
When you try to get up, your fingers press not against linoleum but into plush pile. The words broadloom, Bigelow bubble up in your mother’s voice from somewhere deep inside you. The scent of gingerbread baking lights you up with warmth and dread all at once. Gooseflesh rises, you hear his fast, light footfall approaching, and then the ghost is there in bare feet and pajamas saying Josie Josie come on come on you have to see you have to see Josie come on.
He’s the same age, the only age he could be. The age he never made it past.
Then his hand has yours and he’s pulling you up on your feet and aren’t you spry all of a sudden. I’m up I’m up, you say.
Then, down the stairs. And the tree! And the lights! And there she is and there he is but oh dear Lord they look like college kids, fresh out of school.
You feel a ripple through the core of your being. The But, I’m… inside your head losing its struggle against the But, this is all around you.
Well, look who’s up to join us, says Dad. He folds the newspaper and sets it down on the table. His pipe! The woodsmoke patisserie aroma of it stills the whirlwind inside your head. It’s a scent that tells you this is right. This is normal. This is.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is playing on the radio.
We’ll be putting the gingerbread house together later, your mother says.
If she doesn’t burn the walls in the oven, your father says with a wink.
Your brother plays at being a wolf ravaging toast that’d wandered into his territory. Butter glistens at the corners of his mouth. His eyes, blue as ice, dance with life. He growls, warning you away from his prey, wet bits of bread stuck to his lips. He presses his fingers to his cheeks, makes like a fish kissing the inner curve of its bowl.
You remember like you’re remembering something from a swiftly fading dream. The slow, sickening groan. The ice giving way beneath him. All you could do was run. Run to get help. Help that came too late.
You remember seeing what you weren’t supposed to see when they pulled him out. His lips like a pale smudge of cornflower. Your mother saying oh God no.
Then your father makes a throaty ahem.
Your mother says, dear, not at the table.
And just like that, the horrible thing you saw slips away like a boat carried by a slow current ever outward, until it is shrouded in mist, until it is only a pale smudge that your brain can’t quite name.
Later that day, your mother asks you if you’re feeling alright. She touches the back of her hand to your forehead. You tell her you’re fine. Hm, she says. Are you sure you want to go skating? You could help me make the frosting for the gingerbread.
An impossible thought flickers, fades: you, on the floor, old.
Your brother has his coat on, his boots. His skates dangle across one shoulder, tied at the laces.
No, you say. You grab your coat off its hook on the wall.
Last one there is a rotten egg, your brother yells, running out into the winter.
Your fingers fumble as they try to work the buttons, getting them out of order. Your mother stops you, fixes it. You need to tell her. Tell her there’s no time. She fusses. Frowns as she inspects your skates before handing them to you in what feels like slow-motion.
The world feels like water.
You race out the door after him, your thoughts grasping at that smudge in the mist, desperate to hold on to just one thing.
Jason A. Zwiker’s writing has appeared in All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society, Apparition Lit, Eureka Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and Weirdbook. He was listed as an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (19th ed.).