I Really Can’t Say
by Laury A. Egan
The night before my aunt’s funeral, I had dinner at a restaurant by a river. The tables were set along the bank so patrons could observe the inky blackness of the water as it slithered by. I ate a veal chop and drank three glasses of wine. Sometime later, I returned to Gould’s Funeral Parlor and entered a door marked “House of Rest.”
The entrance hall was unlit. I followed it, turning left into a pine-paneled room, whereupon I encountered Mrs. Gould, the owner of the establishment, or at least that’s who I presumed she was. She was sitting in a rocking chair, wearing a fringed shawl and a dress faded to the color of a dead pink rose. In her hand was a leather-bound black book from which she was reading aloud. Sonnets by John Donne was stamped on the front.
“Death be not proud . . . ,” she began, then stopped when she saw me, laying her book beside a China teacup and saucer. “Ah, Sarah, so you’re here.”
“Yes,” I replied, coming closer.
Mrs. Gould stood. Despite her bent posture, she was tall, her face gaunt, with skin stretched tight. Her gray, frizzy hair was wrapped around her head and pinned carelessly so that many strands were loose, backlit by the gold light shed from a table lamp.
“All of our other guests are in,” she said.
“How many do you have?” I asked.
“I really can’t say.”
I didn’t know what this meant, whether she didn’t know or wasn’t at liberty to tell me how many live denizens she had under her roof. I didn’t want to think about the dead ones.
She inserted a candle into a holder, lit the wick, and headed for a door to her left. I followed her, carrying my overnight bag, wondering why I had agreed to do this. A sense of foreboding washed over me as we walked down a dark hall illuminated only by her candle, turned, walked down more halls until we came upon five narrow doors such as might be found on a yacht. One was ajar.
“Do people do this often?” I asked, as second thoughts assailed me.
Mrs. Gould brought an arthritic finger to her lips. “Sshh,” she whispered. “Often enough.”
“I see,” I whispered back.
“Some find comfort staying with their deceased on his or her last night above ground,” she said. With this, she pushed the door open and reached for a metal-beaded pull chain attached to a ceiling light.
Instead of clicking on, the light took seconds to gain power, though even when it had reached its utmost strength, the tiny room remained murky. Below the light was a child’s-size bed covered with an apricot chenille spread and white sheets that were turned down into a precise triangle. An end table sat adjacent, and as my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw a dark wood coffin on the far side of the bed, placed parallel, almost hidden within the shadows. Its brass fittings gleamed.
Mrs. Gould turned to me. Still whispering, she said, “Some rooms are larger; some are more intimate like this one. The larger ones are used by families, of course.”
“Of course,” I agreed.
She gave me a wan smile. “But since it is just yourself and your aunt, well, I’m sure you will find this cozy.”
I nodded and returned her smile, though I felt terrified by the smallness of the room. With the furniture and the coffin, there were only a few feet of space for the two of us, and Mrs. Gould's body reeked of mothballs and old, dried skin. Thankfully, no odor emanated from the coffin, but the room was damp and airless, as if mold were climbing inside the white walls, which was likely because the room had no windows to allow sunlight or circulation. Only a back hatchway existed—or I assumed it did—from which the coffin could be wheeled in from the mortuary.
I set my bag and purse on the table.
“No doubt you will wish to get comfortable,” Mrs. Gould said.
Although I didn’t recall doing so, I had packed a nightgown in my overnight bag, but the thought of undressing was frightening. I would feel vulnerable without wearing my street clothes. I decided to leave them on. Just in case.
“What might happen?” I asked, as Mrs. Gould moved toward the door.
“Happen?” She turned to study my face. In the low light, her skin appeared nearly translucent. I could almost see the bone and sinew beneath her emaciated cheeks and forehead. “Oh, my dear,” she replied, frowning, “I really can’t say.”
With this, she left, closing the door.
Couldn’t say or wouldn’t?
The light was so dim that I wasn’t able to read the book I’d brought. There was nothing in the bare room to distract me. I lifted the spread and sheet and sat on the hard bed, listening to the springs jiggle and creak, and fighting the overpowering urge to flee. Instead, I forced myself to lie down, telling myself that I had asked to do this, and it was the right thing to do, though I couldn’t explain why this was so, nor could I recall anyone else doing such a thing. Mrs. Gould said there were others here, however, so I had company. Probably they were already asleep.
With trepidation, I turned on my side, facing away from the coffin, and pulled my feet under the covers. I left the light on and closed my eyes, which had the effect of making the room feel as if it were closing in, its walls cinching tighter and tighter. I listened to my own ragged breathing—the only noise I could hear—and wondered if my aunt’s deathly stillness could absorb all sound. Or perhaps the funeral parlor backed into a hill and I was buried deep within it? At this frightening thought, my heart began to race, and then an electric charge scurried over my skin, causing the hair on my neck to rise. As this happened, the faintest draft of cold air blew across me. My eyes flew open. From behind, out of the darkness, a skeleton hand emerged, the fingers clicking.
“Aahhhhh!” I screamed, throwing off the covers and bolting upright.
The hand and the coffin vanished. Through the window, the full moon illuminated my bedroom with its brightness. For a second, I felt reassured that I was awake and safe. Then I realized my chest was tight and getting tighter, like it was about to explode, and my arms were weak. Pain traced ragged lines in my jaw and neck. Suddenly, I could scarcely catch a breath.
“Help!” I cried, but there was no one in the house. I tried to reach the phone, but the pressure in my chest was crushing. I slumped over, face down on the pillows. Even though the wind was blowing outside, I couldn’t hear it. Everything had fallen silent.
“Sarah,” whispered a voice that I hadn’t heard in many years. My aunt’s voice.
Had I really awakened from the nightmare? Yes, but it was so dark, and I couldn’t move.
“Sarah, it’s time. You must come with me.”
Yellow sparks shot through the blackness. “To where?” I gasped.
“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry,” my aunt replied, “but I really can’t say.”
Laury A. Egan’s short story collection, Fog and Other Stories, is forthcoming from StoneGarden.net Publishing in May 2012, and her first novel, Jenny Kidd, will be published by Vagabondage Press in September. Her work has received nominations for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Web, storySouth Million Writers Award, and Best of the Net. Two of her stories were selected for “story of the week” by Short Story America, where they were read in 56 countries and are included in their first anthology. Her fiction has appeared in over 25 journals including Tryst, The Battered Suitcase, Paradigm, Rose & Thorn Journal, Corner Club Press, Greensilk Journal, Punkin House Digest, and anthologies published by Static Movement Press and Rebel Books (UK). Her two poetry collections, Snow, Shadows, a Stranger (2009) and Beneath the Lion’s Paw (2011) were published by FootHills. In addition to writing prose and poetry, she is a fine arts photographer. Web site: www.lauryaegan.com
"I Really Can't Say" will be included in Laury A. Egan's collection Fog and Other Stories.