Though it took me the better part of an hour to calm Jim down, I finally got him propped in a kitchen chair, sipping coffee. A hit of caffeine would have been nice, but I was worried how coffee would interact with embalming fluid. I eased into the chair across from him, my joints creaking like rusty hinges.
“Caroline,” Jim croaked. “You’re dead. How…?”
“Beats me.” I told him about waking in a coffin at the mortuary, about prying open a window and escaping into the night. At one point, I reached for his hand, then pulled back, unwilling to startle him further.
“What happened to me?” I asked.
His eyes widened. “You don’t know?”
I shook my head, feeling a suture pop loose somewhere below my neck.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Our Halloween party. I was dressed as Scarlet O’Hara, and you were…. “
“Right. Anyway, it’s sort of a blur. Lots of people in funny costumes. Bobbing for apples, loud music, jack-o-lanterns.” I stopped. “Jim, please just tell me how I died.”
He peered into the depths of his mug and took a deep breath. “It was an accident. You fell.”
“You told me you were going to the corner store for another bag of ice, but you never came back. Janice and I went to look for you and found you at the bottom of the stairs.”
I shivered. Our apartment building was old, the metal staircase rusty and unstable, its banister long since broken away. I’d always hated those blasted stairs, but the elevator hadn’t worked since the Stone Age.
“The police said you probably tripped over the hem of your costume,” Jim said.
I saw how that could happen. A long skirt is bad enough, but when you add hoops….
“How awful for you to find me like that.” I’m sure my eyes would have filled with tears at that point, had my tear ducts still been operative.
He nodded wordlessly.
Another memory surfaced and I pounded the tabletop, upsetting our sugar bowl. “It’s not fair! Just when things were finally breaking for us.” We’d thrown the party in celebration of more than just Halloween. The novel I’d written years before had caught the attention of an agent, and he’d auctioned it to a major publishing house for six figures. No more peeling paint, no more slinging hash at the local diner–no more rickety stairs.
“I know, sweetheart.” Jim was gazing into the depths of his coffee mug, unwilling or unable to meet my eyes. This time I did reach for his hand and, to his credit, he hardly flinched at the touch of my icy flesh.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said.
“I’ve been missing you for weeks.”
“Weeks? And they’re just now getting around to burying me?”
“There was an inquest. The cops said that’s standard procedure for any violent death.”
“Oh.” Something occurred to me. “Jim, what am I doing here?”
“You’re asking me?”
“I mean, why did I come back? And why like this? I’ve heard of ghostly visitations, but I’m not a ghost. You must admit it’s a little weird that my body is walking around instead of just my spirit.”
He snorted a weak laugh. “A little?”
“Okay, then, a lot.” My mind felt as stiff and awkward as the rest of me as I tried to think. “Do you suppose it’s because I died on Halloween?”
He stood up and moved away from the table. “Caroline, how am I supposed to answer that? I’ve never believed in all that psychic mumbo-jumbo.”
“Neither have I, really, but here we are. This is happening.” I’d read a few articles on the subject of hauntings, and struggled to remember details. My memory was so hazy. “Unfinished business,” I mused aloud. “Do I have unfinished business?”
“Want something to eat?” Jim asked suddenly.
I stared at him. “Have you lost your mind?”
“That’s not a good question to ask someone who’s conversing with a corpse,” he replied.
He had a point. “Sorry. No, I’m not hungry.” But as I watched him pop bread into the toaster, I realized it was a lie. Horrified, I found myself gazing at his plump forearm and smacking my lips.
I shook the nasty thought away, trying to concentrate on my problem. “Help me, Jim,” I pleaded. “I have a feeling that if I don’t figure out why I’m here, I won’t be able to move on to…whatever.”
He threw the toast down the garbage disposal, as I’d known he would. He’d only made it for something to do with his hands. “I don’t know, Caroline. Maybe you just wanted to say goodbye.”
“That makes sense,” I agreed softly. I pushed myself out of the chair and approached him. “Don’t worry, I won’t kiss you. But could you hold me for just a minute?”
He wrapped his arms around me, and I felt his body quiver–whether with sadness, cold, or disgust I wasn’t sure, and didn’t care to ask. Then I exited our apartment the same way I’d come.