A big thanks goes to Jo Nahmanaick for reading and encouraging.
If there had ever been a time for God to strike me down where I stood, that time was now. It was absolutely miserable, this funeral. I had loved my grandmother dearly of course, but all of the sniffling and sobbing was more than I could handle. I was the kind to keep my emotions private; public emotional displays made me uncomfortable. When my mother told me that my grandmother had passed, I promptly fled to my room and cried for three hours. After that I refused to think of her death. I wanted only to remember her as the spirited, loving, and jovial woman she had been before she had gotten sick. I wanted to remember the way she threw her head back when she laughed and the deep wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that meant she had lived a happy life. I wanted to remember the way she and my grandfather danced before he died. Although their clothes were worn and plain, when my grandparents danced they were a vision of royalty.
The woman in the casket lying before me was not my grandmother. This woman was a shadow of who my grandmother had been. The lines of her face were straight and stark. This woman was cold, still, and solemn. My grandmother had been none of those things. After paying my respects to the lady in the neatly-pleated grey dress, I left the parlor to find a place that felt less heavy. That surely would not be a fruitful search in a funeral home, however, especially this one. The air was stale and smelled like spoiled milk and old paper with a vague hint of lavender. It was unnaturally cold.
I sat down on a settee just outside the parlor and contemplated my surroundings. There was another parlor room across from me, although this one was empty. I knew from whispers heard around town that the room before me was where Ramsey and Jonah Aickman held their séances. My mother strongly disapproved of Mr. Aickman's side business. She was a very strict Christian woman who believed anything supernatural to be evidence of the Devil's presence. On numerous occasions I had heard her refer to the Aickmans as Satanists. She had agreed to arrange my grandmother's funeral through the Aickman Mortuary for the sole reason that the next closest funeral home was nearly two hours away. She had not wanted to travel that far.
Despite my mother's warnings not to talk to or have anything to do with Jonah Aickman, I found him strangely intriguing. I had gone to school with him until a few months ago, when Mr. Aickman had decided to homeschool him. Jonah was tormented relentlessly at school, both for his eccentricities and later for his involvement in Aickman's séances. I could not say that I had been a friend to Jonah; I had simply been among the few who had chosen not to bother him. He was a quiet, smart, handsome boy scarcely much older than me. He kept to himself and for understandable reasons. How could one expect to have normal friendships when you were known to everyone as a boy medium?
At that moment my younger sister, Edith, traipsed out of the parlor. She was looking at the ground, rubbing her eyes and sniffling.
"Clara, I want to go home..." she whined, coming to sit beside me on the settee. Edith was eight years old with a headful of brown ringlets and wide blue eyes. Already she was prized as the beauty of the family, whereas I and my fourteen-year-old sister Louisa were regarded as plain and ordinary. My stomach twinged with jealousy each time Louisa and I were compared to Edith; it just seemed unfair to be compared to an eight-year-old.
"I know, Edie," I told her softly, drawing her close with my arm. "So do I. We can't, though; not 'til Nanna's been taken to her resting place next to Papa."
Edith made a choking sound in her throat and began crying into my shoulder. I pulled her into my lap and held her close to me. A floorboard creaked in the room across from me; I looked up but saw no one. The room was dark and the sunlight slinking in through the curtains cast creepy shadows on the floorboards. I found it odd that Mr. Aickman kept the curtains drawn. You would think the sun would be welcome in a place as gloomy as this.
A door closed upstairs. Whoever it was was trying to be quiet; the footsteps were deliberately light and paused when a floorboard creaked. I looked up and tried to discern who it was in the dim light but could make out only a tall, thin figure. He came into the light from an upstairs window, and I recognized the figure as Jonah Aickman. Somehow our eyes met, and I looked away embarrassed. Jonah proceeded to descend down the stairs, and much to my horror he was still looking at me. I glanced around the corner into the crowded parlor to make sure my mother was not around. The last thing I wanted was for her to see me near Jonah and drag Edith and me back into the throng of mourners.
"H-Hello," Jonah greeted me timidly. He managed a small smile then seemed to realize smiling wasn't quite right for the occasion.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said awkwardly. His gaze was cast to the floor near my feet.
"Thank you," I answered. Edith looked up at Jonah from my shoulder and then resumed sniffling into my dress.
"Did you... do you go to Goatswood School? I thought I recognized you from my classes..."
"Jonah!" Mr. Aickman's stern voice cut in. "Come here, son."
Jonah's eyes widened as though he had been caught doing something wrong. He gave me a slight nod and hurried to Mr. Aickman's side. They disappeared around a corner.
I hesitated to call Mr. Aickman Jonah's father. I knew nothing of their relationship other than Mr. Aickman had adopted Jonah and given him his last name. I was unsure of Mr. Aickman's past before Jonah. For as long as I could remember he'd lived by himself – no wife, no children, no other family that I knew of. Jonah had lived with Mr. Aickman for almost four years; I was thirteen when Jonah made his first appearance in Goatswood.
"Clara, I need to go to the potty," Edith whimpered. She sat up, wiping the tears from her face. I nodded and stood, taking her hand and walking in the direction Mr. Aickman and Jonah had gone. I recalled there being a powder room beneath the large staircase.
As I waited on Edith, I risked a peek around the corner. All I saw was an empty kitchen, but there were muffled voices coming from further below.
"...do not want to go," Jonah mumbled.
"It is crucial, Jonah, if we..." It was Mr. Aickman's voice.
"...the jobs and the séances... never sleep at night... not her." Jonah was complaining about something. I could make out only fragments of what was being said and got the impression I should not have been hearing the conversation regardless. After standing outside the powder room for several more minutes, I knocked lightly on the door.
"Edith?" I called quietly. It was just loud enough for Mr. Aickman and Jonah to hear. The voices fell silent and footsteps came up the basement stairs. Edith opened the powder room door and emerged, her face dry and fresh again. Jonah came past me first and then Mr. Aickman. Jonah looked rigid and uncomfortable, and the glance he cast in my direction was pitiful. Mr. Aickman gave me a suspicious look as though he knew I had been listening to them talk.
"Ah, Mr. Aickman!" My uncle Nick came out of the parlor, his expression stoic and his tone business-like. Uncle Nick was usually very laid back and playful, quite unlike the Uncle Nick I saw now. Why, he looked almost as stern as Mr. Aickman.
Uncle Nick leaned against a large wardrobe in the foyer as he spoke to Mr. Aickman. I wasn't quite sure what they were talking about. I wasn't listening, only watching. With Edith, I went into the empty parlor room and sat down on the seats beneath the window. It provided me with the perfect vantage point.
Mr. Aickman was stiff and aloof. Everything about his mannerisms was strictly professional and impersonal. I supposed it would be hard though, owning a funeral home and not being impersonal. Surely Mr. Aickman knew everyone that came to rest on his metal gurney. It would be too hard to have attachments when you had a job like that.
Jonah looked plain nervous. He stood awkwardly by Mr. Aickman's side, his eyes darting around and looking at no one or nothing in particular. Occasionally his gaze would fall near Edith or me, and my stomach leapt at these moments. There was something about him... He looked so lonesome, almost to the point where he was afraid. He seemed to long for someone to speak to him and pull him away from Mr. Aickman. Someone at the very least should acknowledge he was there. Uncle Nick would not look at Jonah. Uncle Nick thought he was a freak, yet regarded Mr. Aickman no lower than he might regard the leader of a circus.
Uncle Nick and Mr. Aickman shook hands and dispersed. Mr. Aickman's eyes went to my direction, which made my stomach lurch even harder than when Jonah looked in my direction. He had a piercing stare, Mr. Aickman. I felt as though he could look right through me and know all of my innermost thoughts and intentions.
I sat quietly with Edith for what seemed hours, all the while having an eerie feeling of someone staring at me. Whether it was Mr. Aickman, Jonah, or someone else I did not know. I refused to look in the direction the stare was coming from. Finally, people began to file out of the funeral parlor toward the door. Louisa came into the parlor where Edith and I sat to tell us it was time for the burial.
The light blue sky and crisp autumn sun provided a strange contrast to the morbidity of the occasion. Brother Daniel, the pastor of the church my family attended, was saying a final prayer over my grandmother's casket. I felt hopelessly glum and bit my tongue so as to avoid crying. My mother had forced me to the forefront of the crowd, beside her and behind my younger brother Thomas, so that I was but inches from the gaping hole of the grave. It was as though my mother was trying to force me forward in the hopes the grave would swallow me instead of her mother. If Thomas went with me it would be all the better.
A breeze blew strangely low to the ground, whipping around my stockinged ankles and swirling a stray leaf away to my right. Mr. Aickman and Jonah lurked in the distance beneath a large cedar tree. I watched the leaf scurry and fall next to Jonah's shoe. He looked up, our eyes met, and I looked down. Something about him scared me a little. Jonah was awfully rigid, as he had been earlier, and had a fearful look in his eyes. They were such a startling shade of blue, not a color one was accustomed to seeing in the irises of another person. It fit, I supposed, an unnatural boy having an unnatural eye color. Mr. Aickman appeared oddly relaxed, given his usual austere demeanor, and looked to be perplexed by something only he could see. He was quite creepy, I decided. Everything about him unsettled me, from his old-fashioned beard to his dark, beady eyes to his cold, bony hands. My father had made me shake his hand before leaving the funeral home, and the cold tingle that shot through my body when I clasped Mr. Aickman's hand was one of the most unpleasant things I had ever felt.
"...And now for the family, for the loved ones and friends we ask that there might be a casting of our care upon you to find comfort in the knowledge that our dear sister in Christ is now with You. We ask that you would comfort and strengthen in the days ahead. Help the family and friends to rest and draw strength from You. These things we ask in the name of the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our Savior. Amen."
Even before Brother Daniel finished the prayer, my gaze was drawn back to the cedar tree. I was slightly startled by what I saw. Mr. Aickman and Jonah were gone.
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