Thanks to Jo Nahmanaick for reading and encouraging.
"At the park, Momma," I answered truthfully, unsure of the scale of the trouble I was in.
"The park-? Clara! Why didn't you come home after school? You know you have chores and responsibilities around here! I would expect Louisa to forget that before you." My mother propped her broom against the porch railing and gave me a stern look. I faltered under her stare and cast my gaze to the ground, my books held awkwardly at my side.
"Get in the house," my mother directed. Once inside, I went straight to the bedroom I shared with my sisters. Louisa was there on her bed, flipping through a catalogue.
"Louisa," I hissed. "You said you would tell Momma where I was going!"
"What?" Louisa looked at me blankly. "You never told me where you were going. You turned in another direction as we were walking home and did not say a word to me."
"That is not true! I told-" I stopped short. It was pointless to argue with Louisa over what I had and had not done. I shook my head in aggravation and stalked into the kitchen. I found my mother there stirring a pot of beef and vegetable stew, judging by the aroma. She must have heard the floorboards creak as I approached.
"Are you going to tell me why you were at the park?" my mother inquired sharply. She did not turn away from the stew.
"It was a nice day. I wanted to read by the pond."
"Were you there by yourself?" My mother dipped her wooden ladle into the stew, tasted of it, and turned the gas off on the stove. Supper was evidently done.
"No..." I answered honestly, not sure of what my story would be. I could not tell her I had been with Jonah.
"I know you were not with Don. He came by to ask for help with his math. Will you set the table please?"
I got six bowls and cups from the cupboard, handed them to my mother, and then retrieved the spoons and napkins from the cupboard drawer. I hoped my mother would ask no more questions on the subject of the park, and that none of this would be brought up to my father. The odds were not in my favor that evening.
All was well until my family began eating. I had been eating not even five minutes when my mother resumed questioning me about my whereabouts that afternoon.
"Are you going to tell your father and me who you were with at the park today?"
My mother spoke quietly. Her quiet tone was often more intimidating than her snappy or angry tones. The quiet seemed to imply a suppressed rage, although I knew I had done nothing to warrant that.
"Martha," I said quickly.
"You are lying," my mother said. "Either about being with Martha or that you went to the park to read."
"I truly did go to the park to read." I now felt uncomfortable. Louisa and Thomas were watching me with humored expressions.
"I bet she was with a boy," Thomas sneered, wrinkling his nose. The freckles scattered across his nose and cheekbones gave him an impish quality.
"I was not with a boy!" I protested.
"Who was it? I cannot think of anyone who is interested in you..." Louisa added. I felt my face growing red.
"Stop!" my father said sternly, looking pointedly at Thomas and Louisa. "I don't want to hear anything else about it. Please, everyone, eat."
My mother acted as though she was going to say something more to me but pursed her lips and decided against it. She knew I had not done anything wrong; she only cared because I had not been at home to help Louisa with chores. I was not questioned about my whereabouts and activities at the park for the rest of the evening.
I went to the park each day after school half expecting to see Jonah by the pond. Of course now I was sure to drop my books off at home – at least the ones I would not need – and complete one or two easy chores before escaping to the park. Eight school days passed before Jonah again found me at my spot beneath the cedar tree. It was another of those bright, airy days where everything felt fresh and alive. There were still, however, no baby ducks to be found.
Footsteps came from behind me. I did not have to mark my place in my book to know who the footsteps belonged to.
"Hello, Jonah," I greeted him casually. He came and sat beside me at his previous beyond-arm's-length spot.
"Hello," he said quietly.
"I see you managed to escape the mortuary again."
"The opportunity arose," Jonah shrugged. "I thought you would be here."
"You nearly got me in trouble last Tuesday," I told him, setting my book aside. "I let slip that I was at the park with someone, and I could not tell my mother I was with you. She would have been furious."
"Well... My mother insists that you and Mr. Aickman are Satanists, although I have never-"
Jonah laughed in a dry, sarcastic way. "Is that what people say about us now? That we're Satanists?"
"Just a few," I shrugged. "Most people in Goatswood only wonder about the séances in the cemetery."
"In the ceme-?" Jonah stopped short. Something passed over his face, and he looked down at the ground. "Oh. Yes. Aickman does get carried away at times..."
"What do you do at home?" I asked. "When you aren't working in the mortuary, what do you do?"
"To be honest, I spend a fair bit of my time conversing with spirits. I do not interact with many living people." There was a hint of bitterness, perhaps regret, in Jonah's voice.
"That sounds quite dreary," I remarked. "Can you not just shut them out?"
"Yes, but it takes more strength than I often have. I could never shut them out completely, regardless. They come to me even in my dreams."
"How do they know to find you?" The question sounded dumb when I asked it. I felt somewhat inferior to Jonah, although I was not sure why; it was as though he possessed a superior wisdom far beyond my reach.
Jonah shrugged in response. "I have not figured that out yet. The spirits, they know who can see them, sense them at the least... Spirits cling to those people they know can help them. Perhaps it is because I work in a funeral home, but the spirits flock to me. It becomes quite frustrating trying to do anything at all, really."
"Do you know anything else about the man with the auburn hair? The one you told me about last Tuesday?" Although I chose not to dwell on the idea of a burly man with a beard following me wherever I went, thoughts of who the man could possibly be had not been far from my mind as of late.
"No. He is here now, though. He was here before I even came. I think he is attached to you."
"Attached to me? What does that mean?" I asked. The thought was alarming.
"Most everyone has a spirit who is attached to them. Think of them as a guardian angel of sorts. There is usually a connection between the spirit and the person, but not always."
Instead of tearing at the grass, today Jonah was preoccupied with his shoelaces. He laced and relaced his shoelaces in intricate patterns as he spoke, occasionally hazarding a glance in my direction.
"What sort of connection?" I turned to face him, now intrigued by the concept.
"A deceased relative perhaps, or just a spirit looking out for you. There was a little girl whose parents brought her to a séance once. The little girl claimed to have a friend, a young man, who played with her often. The little girl's parents could never find the young man and thought it was a ghost haunting the land they lived on. He wasn't attached to the land, though; he was attached to the little girl."
"What was their connection?" I inquired.
"He was her brother in her last life." Jonah ceased playing with his shoelaces and looked at me somberly. "The little girl's parents did not believe me. They said it was nonsense."
"I am not sure I believe you."
"I would not expect you to," Jonah answered flatly. "You believe only what is written in the Bible, yes?"
I nodded. "We are given only one life."
"Do you believe everything you read?"
I opened my mouth and closed it, not sure of how to respond. When had our conversation taken a turn toward questioning my religious beliefs?
"I do not wish to debate theology with you, Jonah. You have gotten very off topic. I asked you what you like to do, and I mean aside from communicating with the dead, which you do not act as though you enjoy at all." I made sure my tone was matter-of-fact.
"The gift is not entirely bad." Jonah resumed playing with his shoelaces. "I like to read and draw."
"Is that all?" I asked.
"You sound surprised. I do not have as much leisure time as you, Clara," Jonah said. He was a bit snappy in his response.
"What do you draw?"
"Whatever comes to mind, I suppose. Sometimes things that spirits show me or things I see in my dreams..." Jonah fell quiet. He acted as though he had told me a secret he now regretted telling me.
"Are you good at it?" I asked.
"That depends on what you compare it to. I can bring you my sketchbook next time if you promise not to laugh at it."
"Oh, yes! Please do!" I said, more excitedly than I intended. Being rather unartistic myself, I had always envied those who could do things like draw and paint. The prospect of someone as mysterious as Jonah letting me take a peek into his mind via his artwork was exciting.
"What do you like to do? I know you like to read," Jonah responded. At last he turned himself toward me, biting his bottom lip as he did so.
I thought for a moment. "I like to travel, or I think I should anyway. I have always wanted to visit Britain and France, perhaps Italy as well. My family goes to Hammonasset Beach every summer, and I do like that very much."
"Can you swim?" Jonah asked, a hint of skepticism in his voice. I did not know what to make of that.
"Not very well, but I manage to keep myself afloat. Can you?"
"I could when I was small," Jonah replied thoughtfully. "I do not know if I still could."
"Does Mr. Aickman ever take you anywhere?" I asked.
"No," Jonah answered. "Occasionally we may visit one of his associates out of town, but we do not go anywhere for leisure. I believe Aickman enjoys his work too much to leave Goatswood often."
Something about the way Jonah emphasized the word "work" struck me. I got the impression that he was implying something other than mortuary duties. After all, there were not that many people dying in Goatswood.
"Jonah," I said hesitantly.
"When you speak of Mr. Aickman, I cannot help but notice that... the way you speak of him seems like... I do not know how to ask this, Jonah. Is there something... more that he does? Something that makes you uncomfortable?"
Jonah looked up at me, startled. He swallowed and looked back down at the ground. I noticed he had gone white, which did not seem possible with him being as pale as he was.
"You ask too many questions, Clara," Jonah muttered beneath his breath, looking out toward the pond. His tone was more solemn than I had ever heard it.
Review, please! I know my lovely readers are out there. It would be awesome if the review count hit 20 before chapter six! *hint hint*