Jimmy sighed and turned over yet again, trying to muffle the sounds floating up from the basement with his pillow. It was his brother Harry’s eleventh birthday, and their parents had agreed to let him host three of his friends for a sleepover. That had been before Dad discovered that he was going to be away on a business trip, but Harry had pleaded so hard that they finally decided that he could still have his party as long as Jimmy took charge of their youngest brother so he wouldn’t be underfoot.
Danny was almost four now and a huge handful, although at the moment, deeply asleep, he looked like a sticky-faced little angel. He had only recently graduated to his own “big boy” bed and still slept tucked up against the wall, as if he missed the security of crib bars. Jimmy was tempted now to get out of his own bed and join him, to cuddle Danny’s warm, sweet-smelling body and let the soft sounds of his breathing lull him to sleep. But there was always the risk of waking him, and if that happened, there could well be hell to pay.
He tried instead to keep his eyes closed and count sheep like Mom was always telling him to. Sheep were boring, though. He preferred ducks. Maybe if he thought about ducks, counting them as they paraded past, he would dream about them later.
Just as Jimmy was finally drifting off to sleep, the door to their bedroom cracked open and a wide wedge of light spilled in. “Jimmy,” Harry hissed, slipping inside. “Are you still awake?”
“Sort of,” Jimmy mumbled, raising an arm to shield his eyes and squinting up at his older brother.
“Come downstairs,” Harry whispered. “We’re playing a new game and we need five people.”
Predictably, Danny sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes, and whined, “I want to play, too!”
“Forget it,” Harry said dismissively. “You’re too little. You’ll get scared.”
“I don’t get scared!” Danny thrust out his lower lip, which was starting to tremble. But it wasn’t just bravado, Jimmy knew. Danny hardly ever got scared. But he did get angry. And he was angry now. “And I’m not too little!”
“Shh,” Jimmy said soothingly, knowing that he had about five seconds to distract Danny before his little brother started screaming. “We know you’re not scared. But we promised Mom that you’d stay upstairs, remember?” He got up and squeezed Danny’s shoulder, so small and fragile under the thin t-shirt. “Tell you what. You stay here and go to sleep, and tomorrow you and I will play a special game. And Harry’s not invited.”
“Hear that?” Danny crowed, looking triumphantly past Jimmy at their older brother. “You’re not invited!” He snuggled back down docilely, and Jimmy tucked him in under the faded green comforter. “What kind of game we gonna play?”
“It’s a surprise,” Jimmy told him, smoothing his soft hair away from his forehead. “Now go to sleep. I’ll be back soon.”
Danny started making exaggerated snoring noises, although he ruined the effect by opening one eye. Jimmy smiled at him fondly, then stood up and followed their older brother out of the room.
Harry’s three friends were waiting for them in the basement rec room, where they had set up their sleeping bags. The overhead lights were off; only a couple of candles and Mike Goldberg’s flashlight held off the darkness. In the dim, unsteady illumination, flickering shadows loomed and receded. Jimmy suppressed a shiver, suddenly regretting his decision to come down here.
“Hi guys,” he said, hoping that he sounded braver than he felt.
“Hi guys,” Mike mimicked in a squeaky voice, and all of them including Harry, laughed.
“What are we doing?”
“We,” Jerry Feldman said, looking around at the older boys with a smirk, “are playing ‘Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.’” Jerry was the oldest and biggest of Harry’s friends, and he had never been very nice to Jimmy. Harry adored him and tried to imitate everything he did, and Jimmy didn’t like that very much either.
“And we need a dead body,” Mike said in a hollow voice. “Mwuh ha ha,” and he stuck the flashlight right under his face so that his features looked horrifyingly shadowed and distorted. Even though he knew that it was just Mike standing next to him, Jimmy had to fight the urge to jump away.
“Lie down,” Jerry ordered impatiently, pointing to the floor in front of him.
Jimmy folded his arms, trying to hide the fear he was feeling. “Why do I have to be the dead body?”
“Because you’re the littlest,” Harry explained.
“What are you guys going to do?” Jimmy asked, stalling for time.
“First we’re going to tell the story of how you died,” Mike leered. “And then we’ll do a black magic spell to make you so light that we can lift you up with only two fingers.”
“A black magic spell?” Jimmy repeated doubtfully. He didn’t think that Mom would like this if she found out, although he could hardly say that to Harry and his friends. “I don’t know, I…” On a sudden inspiration, he faked a wide yawn. “I’m really tired all of a sudden.”
“Then go back upstairs, you little faggot,” Jerry said, sounding bored.
Harry looked at his friend, and Jimmy could see a shadow of uncertainty in his eyes before they hardened. “Yeah,” he said, giving his younger brother a shove, although Jimmy could tell that it was only for show. “Just forget it. Go back upstairs with the other baby.”
“No, wait,” Jimmy said desperately, mentally kicking himself. This was his chance to prove that he was old enough to hang out with the big kids, and like an idiot he was totally blowing it. “Please, I’m… I’m in.” He quickly lay down on the carpet and, remembering a PBS special about the ancient Egyptians, crossed his arms tightly over his chest.
He heard some snickers, but shortly the older boys settled down and positioned themselves around him. When he slitted his eyes open, he could just make out “Silent Sam” Solomon kneeling down to hook his fingers under his feet. The ones inserting themselves under his left side poked him hard; that would probably be Jerry. He tried to ignore him and held as still as he could.
“Here lies the body of James Evan Wilson,” Harry intoned in a low, grave voice. “He died last week of… um… “
“You’re fucking it up, you dumbass,” Mike muttered.
“He died of cancer,” Jerry said loudly, drowning both of them out. “He was only seven years old.”
“Eight,” Jimmy said, his eyes popping open indignantly in spite of himself.
Jerry pinched him so viciously that Jimmy had to bite his lip to keep from yelping. “Shut up, you’re dead.”
“He was only eight years old,” Harry said firmly, rising once more to the occasion. “Now he lies here before us, light as a feather, stiff as a board.”
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” Mike agreed.
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” mumbled a new voice. That must be Sam.
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” said Jerry, pinching him again, but not so hard. Jimmy understood this to be a warning to keep still and silent no matter what happened. He almost nodded but stopped himself just in time. He tried to keep his breaths shallow so that his chest would move as little as possible.
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board…” As the voices droned on, Jimmy started to feel a little dizzy. A thrill of fear and excitement passed through his body as he imagined himself getting lighter and lighter, as if any second now he might just float away. It was all he could do to keep his eyes closed and not spoil the game by being a bad corpse.
And then, without any warning, he really was floating upwards as the other boys, still chanting, rose smoothly to their feet. Jimmy fought down a feeling of panic and told himself to relax and stay still. It was working! He kept moving up, up, hearing voices get closer and closer as he drew level with their faces, and then starting to recede once more.
Suddenly a high-pitched voice shrilled beside them, “Can I play?” Startled, the boys jerked apart, losing hold of Jimmy. His eyes flew open as he felt himself falling, and he instinctively twisted and put out his right hand to try to catch himself. He heard a sharp snap a second before the pain shot through his wrist.
If his mother hadn’t heard the crash, she couldn’t have missed the shrieks that Danny let loose when he saw his beloved brother hit the floor. Harry tried to shush him, but he only wailed the louder. “Is he deaded? Did you kill my Jimmy?”
For his part, Jimmy could only lie there, stunned, until the basement door slammed open and light flooded the stairwell. Their mother slapped down the steps in her dressing gown and slippers, her mouth pinched, her face white. “What on earth is going on down here?”
Jimmy scrambled to his feet while the other boys moved away from him, as if trying to dissociate themselves from the incident. Danny broke away from Harry and flung himself at their mother’s legs.
“James Evan Wilson!” Mom hissed. “I told you to stay upstairs and look after the baby!”
“I’m not a baby!” Danny roared, his face squinching up and turning bright red. Their mom knelt down and put her arms around him, looking stricken.
“Now look what you’ve done. All that we asked was for you to take care of your brother while your father was away, but no, you’re too selfish, you couldn’t even do that one little thing.” Before Jimmy could pull away, she reached out and roughly grabbed his injured wrist. He heard a high-pitched scream just before everything grayed out and then turned black.
When Jimmy woke up again, the air was bright and cool, and there was a weird kind of humming in the background. He felt sick to his stomach. Everything seemed kind of fuzzy and unreal, both inside his head and out. His right wrist was stiff and sore; when he twisted his neck and looked down, he saw that it was encased in a white cast, kind of like the one that his classmate Bobby Belden wore when he broke his arm last year. Jimmy fought to focus his eyes and found Harry and his mother sitting next to his bed, with Danny standing solemn-faced in front of them.
“Jimmy!” his mother said, jumping up to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank God you’re finally awake. Don’t be scared, sweetheart, we’re in the hospital.”
Now Jimmy looked past them, alarmed. Sure enough, they were in a room with pastel pink walls and harsh fluorescent lights that smelled sharply of disinfectant and something ugly and metallic. Every so often someone in a white coat appeared beyond the gap between the curtains surrounding both sides of his bed, always apparently in a terrible hurry.
Jimmy swallowed. The hospital was where his Grandpa Wilson had died. He looked up at his mother imploringly. “Am… am I going to die?” he whispered.
“What a dope,” Harry said, rolling his eyes.
Mom shot him a warning look before turning back to the bed with a reassuring smile. “No, sweetheart, of course you’re not going to die.”
He wanted desperately to believe her, but “Grandpa Wilson died,” he said.
“Grandpa Wilson was old,” Mom answered. “You’re still just a little boy.”
Jimmy heard Harry snickering, but he ignored him in favor of something much more important. “Little boys don’t die?”
“Good little boys don’t die,” Mom said firmly. She seemed to think that this should make him feel better, but the truth was that Jimmy felt more sick and frightened than ever. He turned his head away from her, hoping that he wasn’t about to hurl. That would make a huge mess, and his mother hated messes.
But now someone patted his left hand tentatively, and he heard Danny’s voice pipe up, “I’m sorry, Jimmy.” The little boy sounded like he might be about to cry, so Jimmy turned back towards him real quick. Mom definitely wouldn’t like that either.
“It’s okay,” he reassured him, trying to smile.
“I didn’t mean to scare Harry and his friends and make them drop you.”
“We weren’t scared,” Harry blustered, “you just surprised us.”
“Uh huh.” Jimmy winked at his little brother, wishing that his head wasn’t spinning so much. “That’s what you say.”
“That’s what you say,” Danny parroted, all smiles now. Disaster once again averted.
Jimmy suddenly felt very tired. He fought for a few seconds to keep his eyelids from fluttering shut, then finally gave in and let his head sink back against the pillows. Everything started feeling lighter and lighter, and at last Jimmy just floated away.