“Jimmy!” Grant whispered. He grabbed his sleeping brother’s shoulder and shook him. “Jimmy, wake up!”
Jimmy groaned. He opened one eye and looked at the Darth Vader clock next to his bed. It was 3:05 AM. He rolled over and pulled his Star Wars blanket up over his head. “Go away,” he mumbled.
Grant yanked the blanket away from Jimmy’s face and shook him again, with both hands this time.
Jimmy planted a hand on Grant’s chest and pushed him away. “Stop, I said!”
“You have to get up!”
“Something’s wrong with Mom.”
Jimmy sat bolt upright in bed, immediately wide awake. His heart slammed against the inside of his rib cage. He reached over and turned on the lamp, squinting against the sudden brightness. “Again?” He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
Grant nodded solemnly. His lower lip quivered.
“How do you know?”
“I got up to pee, and I saw her.”
Grant pointed at the ceiling out in the hall.
Jimmy pressed his cheek against the door frame, edging just close enough to the opening to see sideways into the hallway outside.
“Is she there?” Grant asked.
Jimmy shook his head, then closed the door. He turned to his little brother. For the first time, he noticed that the sleeves of Grant’s Spider-Man pajamas were two inches too short. He was growing up so fast. He’d be seven soon. “Are you sure you saw her?”
“Okay. I’m going out. You stay here.”
Grant’s eyes went wide. He shook his head. “Uh-uh. I’m coming too.”
“You know what can happen when she’s like this.”
“And you still want to come?”
Grant hesitated, then nodded again.
“Okay.” Jimmy put his hand on the doorknob, then paused. “And you know what to do if –”
“I know, Jimmy. Let’s just go, okay?”
Jimmy took a deep breath, then opened the door. He stepped quietly down the hall towards their mother’s room. The hardwood floor was cold under his bare feet. Grant stayed two steps behind him. He had grabbed the stuffed Spider-Man doll from his bed, which he now clutched tightly to his chest with both arms.
Jimmy kept his eyes on the ceiling as he walked. He glanced sideways into the shadows of the stairwell. There was nothing there. Nothing he could see, anyway.
A floorboard creaked under Jimmy’s foot. He froze, listening. There was a faint rasping sound coming from the direction of their mother’s bedroom. It sounded like breathing.
Grant reached out and tapped his brother’s shoulder. Jimmy drew in a short gasp and spun around. “What?”
“What if she won’t come down this time?”
“But what if she won’t?”
Jimmy put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “She will.”
Grant nodded. Jimmy turned and continued slowly down the hall. Grant followed.
The door to their mother’s room was open. The moonlight from the hallway window softened the darkness just enough for them to see to the foot of her bed. The covers were tossed on the floor.
Jimmy crept up to the door, then turned to Grant. He lifted his fingers to his lips. Shhh. He pointed at Grant, then to a spot on the floor, against the wall outside the door.
Grant nodded. He stepped back against the wall, to the spot where Jimmy had pointed. He hugged his Spider-Man doll to his chest even tighter.
Jimmy leaned into the doorway. His eyes scanned the ceiling. There was nothing there.
He relaxed a little and stepped into the room. The bed was vacant. A single pillow was in place on one side. The other side was empty.
Jimmy tried not to, but he couldn’t help but look at the wall at the head of the bed. It was crisscrossed with paint roller marks, from a recent paint job. The work looked hurried and careless, like whoever painted it was more concerned about covering something on the wall than they were about aesthetics.
“This is all your fault,” a voice whispered.
Jimmy spun around.
It was his mother.
On the ceiling.
Just like Grant had said.
She was pressed into the space directly above the bedroom door. Jimmy had walked right underneath her. She was laying on the ceiling just as effortlessly as a person might lay on the floor. It was as if gravity had inverted itself. As if the world had been turned upside down. But just for her.
Her back was against the ceiling. She had her knees drawn up to her chest, with the soles of her feet flat against the wall. Her arms were spread wide like a crucifix. Her fingers were cramped into claws, fingertips digging into the plaster.
Jimmy could see the veins in her arms. They stood out against her pale skin like rivers winding through a winter snowscape. Dark liquid pulsed through them, as if her blood had been replaced with crude oil. The same thick black lines branched upwards from the neck of her t-shirt, climbing her neck and spidering into her cheeks and temples. Even the blood vessels in her eyes were black.
She was clad in nothing but an oversized Yankees t-shirt. It was worn thin and faded with age. Jimmy recognized it immediately. It had been his father’s.
“Mama,” Jimmy said, his voice steady. He held his palms out in a calming gesture. “It’s alright. It’s just me. Jimmy. Come on down now, okay?”
“ALL. YOUR. FAULT!” she growled through clenched teeth. Long drips of spittle dangled from her blackened lips and dripped on the floor.
Grant’s face appeared at the edge of the doorway. Jimmy made a subtle gesture, a quick flick of the wrist. Stay out. Grant drew back into the hall.
“I know you’re upset,” Jimmy said. “But it’s going to be okay.”
His mother’s lips drew back from her teeth in an animal snarl. Her gums were black too. “He never wanted you.”
A warm flush heated Jimmy’s face. He shook his head. “Daddy was sick, Mama. And you are too.”
“NO!” she shrieked.
She thrust her legs against the wall, propelling herself across the ceiling until she was directly above Jimmy. The speed and suddenness with which she moved were startling. Jimmy stumbled backward, falling hard on his bottom. The back of his head hit the nightstand.
Out in the hall, running footsteps receded into the distance. Jimmy rolled his head sideways. He could see under the bed, past the dust bunnies and lost socks, straight through to the open bedroom door. A tiny masked face was looking back at him.
Grant’s Spider-Man doll.
It was on the floor in the hall.
Jimmy rolled his head forward again. He was on his back, looking directly up at his mother as she hovered against the ceiling overhead. Her eyes blazed with irrational fury. Every blood vessel in her face oozed with black liquid, fracturing her visage like the face of a shattered china doll.
“Get out of here,” she seethed. Rapid, hot breaths whistled in and out of her mouth.
Jimmy climbed to his feet. “Mama? I’m going to reach for you now,” he said. He slowly raised his arm towards the ceiling, fingers open. “I want you to take my hand.”
“No,” a small voice said. “Don’t touch her.”
Jimmy looked to his side. Grant was standing silhouetted in the bedroom doorway, clutching something small and black in both hands.
It was their father’s revolver, the .38 he had kept in his nightstand in case someone tried to break into the house while they were sleeping. It was meant to protect the family. It didn’t.
After their father was gone, their mother had moved the gun downstairs, to a box in the hall closet. She couldn’t bring herself to discard it, despite what he had done. It was the last thing he had held in his hands before he died. It was all she had left.
Jimmy and Grant weren’t supposed to know where the gun was hidden. But they did.
Grant pointed the gun up at their mother. The weapon looked huge and heavy in his tiny grip.
Jimmy kept his one hand extended to the ceiling. He held the other out toward Grant. He kept his eyes on his mother. “It’s okay, buddy. You can go back in the hall. She’s going to come down.”
“I don’t want her to.” Grant’s voice wavered. He tightened his grip on the pistol. “I want her to be gone.”
“Then do it!” she spat. “What are you waiting for?”
“No!” Jimmy said sternly. “Grant, don’t do anything. Just go out there and let me handle this.”
Grant put his finger on the trigger and took a step into the room. “It’s her fault Dad’s gone. Not yours. Not ours. Hers.”
“It’s nobody’s fault,” Jimmy said. “He was sick.” He reached his hand further towards the ceiling, almost on his tiptoes. He wiggled his fingers. “Mom, come on. Take my hand.”
Tears spilled from Grant’s eyes. “Don’t. Please. What if you get sick too?”
“I won’t,” Jimmy insisted. He turned his head and looked at his brother. “Look at me. I’m not lying.”
Grant looked at Jimmy for a long beat. His brother’s gaze was steady and sure. Grant’s grip on the gun slackened. His arms relaxed. He lowered the weapon towards the floor.
“Good,” Jimmy said. He looked back up at the ceiling and raised his arms back up to his mother. “Mom? We love you, okay? Both of us. Me and Grant. We’re here for you. Come on. Come down.”
His mother’s face changed. The fury in her eyes slowly flickered out. The black liquid began to recede from her face. The color of her lips faded from black to grayish-blue. A sob racked her chest. She reached down from the ceiling towards Jimmy’s outstretched hands. Their fingertips brushed, then intertwined.
Jimmy gently pulled his mother down from the ceiling. She descended slowly, horizontally, as if being lowered by strings. As she came down to his level, he turned her and guided her onto the bed. Her head settled onto the pillow. Her breathing relaxed. Her eyelids fluttered, then closed. The bedsprings squeaked as her full weight sunk into the mattress.
It was over.
Jimmy brushed her hair away from her face with his fingers. Her skin was cool to the touch. The black liquid was gone from her veins. Her lips were pink again. Jimmy planted a gentle kiss on her forehead. Then he walked over to Grant and took the gun from his hand. Grant let him.
“Let’s put this away,” Jimmy said.
“For next time?”
“There won’t be a next time.”
Jimmy put his hand on Grant’s back and guided him out of the room. He pulled the door closed quietly behind them. It latched with a click.
Jimmy bent down, picked up Grant’s Spider-Man doll, and handed it to his brother. “Don’t forget this.”
Jimmy led his brother back to their bedroom. Grant climbed into his bed. Jimmy pulled the Spider-Man blanket up under his brother’s chin. Grant yawned, then looked at Jimmy.
“You’re sure there won’t be a next time?”
Jimmy smiled, then nodded. “I’m sure.”
Grant smiled back, then closed his eyes. He rolled over to go to sleep. Jimmy straightened up and looked down at his brother.
Behind Grant’s ear, there was a tiny spiderweb of black veins.
A trickle of black liquid leaked from Jimmy’s nose.
He wiped it away with his sleeve, then lifted the gun.