Each night, my mother falls asleep with a book of curses on her bedside nightstand. It has been her sole source of intimacy for as long as I can remember, even long before my father left. After their separation, people revolved in and out of our front door, asking if she was coping effectively. I never heard her cry, so I said she was just fine. She slept alone for years before being admitted to the hospital, but she isn’t the type of woman to complain about that. I imagine that if she could speak now, she wouldn’t lament about the back-breakingly rigid hospital bed or the springs that dig into her sagging, sedentary skin. No. She would say this is just another one of her curses. The curses that began with me.
Some parents admit that their first child was an accident, an ill-planned, drunken-prom-night, high-school-bathroom kind of accident. Others viciously assert that the child was a mistake. I’d settle for either sentiment. Being birthed by a woman convinced that her first-born daughter is a curse comes with its own breed of therapy. My mother suspects that she unintentionally angered a Romani neighbor who knew she detested children. Maybe it was an overwhelming sense of desperation to have a well-mannered kid that brought her to settle on the name Hope.
By the time I reached elementary school, I adopted a foolish curiosity in the mystical enchantments and dark-magic found within the weathered, leather-bound book my mother read to me before bed. She studied the lore of different curses religiously, using them as a method of explanation—a method of comfort—for her lifetime of disasters. It didn’t take me long to realize what a shitty approach to life that was. I started poking holes in the stories she told. There were always aspects of the curses that she missed, and I took up the responsibility of pointing out the details she often neglected.
The sight of her diseased body, now a molding loaf of bread, plagues my mind with recollections of the cursed accounts she lives by. One was a story of two archaeologists who led an excavation team through the Egyptian pyramids in search of a mummy’s tomb. Hollywood took several swings at this legend, but I think that my mother told it best—probably because she actually believes in it. After endless days and nights of searching, which amounted to nothing but sand biting at the gaps between their toes, the crew discovered the vast burial site of a long-decayed king. Upon opening the sarcophagus, the archaeologists’ mouths overflowed with drool, completely overcome with greed. They took the riches hidden from within without a second thought. Weeks later, each one was struck with a variety of violent illnesses that eventually ended their lives.
Several months ago, my mother claimed that she, too, was hexed by the Mummy’s Curse. I, a twenty-five-year-old, sane, functioning adult, rolled my eyes and rejected her.
“Hope, I’m not playing around, I need the money.”
“You need therapy,” I retaliated.
“I’ll get it in Hell,” she huffed.
“Why don’t you sell that rock hanging around your neck?”
She glanced down at the midnight diamond. It sparkled under the light. “No.”
“Then, you’re fine. It’s just a bad cough. Grow a pair and get out of bed.” I grabbed her wrists and hoisted her into a standing position. “And put on some damn pants,” I added.
She led me into the kitchen and hysterically rambled about the reading of her great aunt’s will. After finding out that she was included for a claim in some of the furniture, my mother visited the home to make her selections. While there, she lost herself in the bedroom and accidentally found—and unlocked—her aunt’s hidden jewelry box. Inside was an antique, gold-plated wristwatch that caught her attention. She slipped it into her pocket and quickly found her way out of the room.
“Christ,” I exhaled, “why don’t you just sell that?”
“Well, I was just really stressed about everything, so I—”
“Used the money for weed?”
She didn’t answer.
I buried my head in my palms. “You aren’t cursed, Mother. You know why? It’s not a real thing! The archaeologists who uncovered the mummy’s tomb found more than just gold in there. They also found large traces of streptococcus and pneumonia.”
“Fine,” she said, getting to her feet, “I’m melting your brother’s basketball trophies and selling those.”
“Oh, stop. If you aren’t better by the end of the week, I’ll take you in.”
The ensuing days were flooded with overlong voicemails and delirious text messages sent from the heart of the witching hour. As the weekend arrived, I stayed true to my end of the bargain and brought her to the hospital for testing. Despite whatever supernatural nonsense my mother may claim, I wouldn’t put it past Great Auntie to cultivate disease amongst her extravagant jewelry.
My eyes don’t release their fixation on her body as the nursing staff comes in to readminister the medication. She lies, unflinching, in her comatose state. Although my gaze doesn’t move, my mind wanders into the stories of the cursed poisoned apple and the eternal sleep that accompanies it. I wonder which evil queen my mother managed to piss off, and which man she’ll trick into kissing her next.
It sure as hell won’t be her ex-husband.
My father, her infamous Last Choice for love, could hardly be defined as a doting parent. For my fifth birthday, my only wish was for him to show up to one of my parties. Three years later, he did, accompanied by some busty blonde he met at the bar. My mother wasn’t thrilled. In fact, she kicked him out. She was on a roll that day, too; she somehow found a curse in that God-forsaken book to blame me and my birthday on her unfaithful husband. She said to me that our lives were cursed by the Monkey’s Paw, and I am the one who activates it.
This unruly cycle continued for years. One week, it would just be my mother and me, then the next, she would pick him up off the street and invite him back in. With every passing rotation of this routine, I received a new lecture on the dangers of the Monkey’s Paw. I was told that its sole purpose was to twist my wishes and use them against me. A supposed unimaginable cost was appended to whatever I desired the most.
I fell victim to my mother’s paranoia frequently. During dinners, I prayed for him to come home, and sure enough, he would, but with alcohol bleeding from his pores. I begged him to take me to the park, and he did, but then he pissed behind a bush and was arrested for public indecency. I wouldn’t shut up about wanting a baby brother, and I got one, but that curse took its time to be fruitful.
I was only eleven when I sat down and pleaded with my parents, and any merciful god out there, to gift me with a sibling. It was the same year that my mother decided to dye her hair four different shades of Breakdown Burgundy.
“Hope, you were not a respectful resident of my uterus. I couldn’t handle another one,” my mother told me.
“I’ll clean my room the first time you ask! And I’ll do all the dishes and vacuuming while you’re pregnant. I won’t even ask to have friends over!”
My proposal appeared to impact my father, whose beady eyes pierced into my mother. “Hope may be onto something, Evalyn.” She averted her eyes at the sound of her name and quickly became transfixed by the twinkling diamond dangling around her neck. He continued, “Maybe another kid will help me turn my life around. We could use this as a fresh start.”
She shook her head. “You’re delusional.”
“Please, think about it,” I said, beginning to lose faith.
That night, however, they must’ve thought about it pretty hard because a few weeks later, my mother announced that she was pregnant. That was the first time I ever saw my parents look genuinely satisfied with one another. I wondered what made her excited to have another child, especially after despising the idea of raising me. I told myself it was because I turned out to be a perfect angel and not the dark-magic, reptilian monster that she prophesized I would become.
The pregnancy was uncharacteristically effortless to endure. I began to view my parents as viable sources of hospitality; they were more supportive and affectionate than ever before. My brother was single-handedly redefining our family long before he even had a single hand. I watched my mother remove the book of curses from her nightstand and bury it deep inside her closet. For the first time in forever, I felt like I could breathe in my own home.
As the years elapsed, my brother became my best friend. Although I had plenty of superficial friends at school, I knew that they only associated with me for my wallet—my father’s parents practically wipe their asses with dollar bills. My brother was everything I needed to combat the torment and rumors that circled around me. He always held my head while I cried into his lap over douche-bag boyfriends and starving dogs in animal shelter commercials.
He was the air in my lungs until there wasn’t any air left in his.
“Do you think they know?” He asked, worried that our parents discovered the secret dinner we planned for them one night.
“No, there’s no way. We were perfect spies for this mission,” I reassured him as I loaded the meat and vegetables into the backseat of the car. His eyes were delicate blueberries, and they sparkled under the light of the setting sun.
“Okay, Hope, but if you’re wrong—”
“When have I ever been wrong?”
He began counting silently on his fingers.
“What are you counting?” I asked.
“I totally hate you right now.”
We laughed as I jostled the key into the ignition and sped out of the parking lot. I began to question why I entrusted all of my trauma to a little boy. He wasn’t even ten-years-old.
He wasn’t even ten-years-old.
The sound of his oblivious hysterics reverberated through my mind when a truck instantly veered around a corner and obliterated the entire right side of my vehicle. I lost consciousness upon impact. My brother launched through the windshield and landed ten feet from our rolling car. He was reportedly disfigured and mangled beyond recognition.
Monkey’s Paw: I asked for a baby brother, and I got one, but he didn’t really get the chance to become much more than that.
I woke up in the hospital several days later. The room was empty. No mother or father or lover was waiting at my bedside for me to come to. It was just me and the corroding mustard wallpaper. The doctors contacted my parents soon after they interrogated my condition.
“He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt,” my mother spat as she threw open the door.
I couldn’t respond.
“How could you do this?” Her face was engulfed in flames.
“I guess you were right,” I mumbled.
“I cursed you. I cursed him. I cursed this whole damn shitshow.”
She clutched the blue jewel of her necklace. “That’s not good enough for me. You stole my baby boy.”
“I didn’t ask for this.”
“You don’t have to. This darkness follows you. You pass it on to people like some kind of infection.”
“Is this why you’re here? To blame and berate me?”
Her fingers laced around the diamond’s glistening surface, drilling into it with her jagged nails. As she turned to leave, she promised that she’d never forgive me. I said that I was well ahead of her. She slammed the door.
In the weeks of my recovery, my mother searched for occult explanations wherever she could. She blamed my interactions with black cats and broken mirror glass. She listed the moments I opened umbrellas indoors, walked under ladders, and spilled salt on our table. But it wasn’t enough. There wasn’t any bad luck or voodoo magic strong enough to explain his death. This was her way, and I would eventually learn to stop trying to change her.
After I was released from my exotic hospital getaway, I found all of my belongings in various trash bags on the front lawn. I collected my things, called a desperate ex, and moved into his apartment. I offered him a hundred bucks for the month.
“You can keep it,” he told me. “I prefer to be paid in tits and ass.”
While I prostituted myself for a place to sleep at night, my mother continued to ignore my phone calls and resumed reading from her book of curses. She was searching for an answer that wasn’t on any page of any book, let alone that one. My ever-rising self-esteem hit a significant boost when I walked in on my ex-boyfriend simultaneously mounting two different women. There was a camera positioned in the corner of the room.
“I know they say three’s a crowd,” he started, smirking at the lens, “but what about four?”
I left. I grabbed a handful of my things and set out to find my mother. I tried the front door and found it unlocked. For as superstitious as she is, she never forgot to bolt it shut. As the door creaked open, I knocked and announced my presence to the desolate foyer. The sound of erratic rummaging and shattering objects echoed throughout the house. I grabbed an umbrella from beside the entryway and brandished it into the empty air. No robbers or raccoons would stand a chance against my freshman semester of Introduction to Fencing.
Rounding the corner into the kitchen, I found my mother sprawled across the linoleum floor. Her hair was disheveled and greasy, twisted into untamable knots. A white powder was speckled under her inflamed nose. I watched in silence while her limbs furiously attempted to reposition herself upright. Our eyes connected for a moment, then she turned away and started to pick up the shards of a broken wine glass.
“Mother,” I said, getting to my knees.
“Daughter.” She rolled her eyes.
I looked to her for a moment and opened my mouth with the intention of scolding her, but the words retreated into my stomach. Instead, I crawled toward the mess and collected the fragments she neglected. We proceeded as if we were muted aside from the occasional “Ow, shit” from my mother when the debris burrowed into her hands.
I momentarily fled from the room and returned with a broom and dustpan. My mother leaned against the counter as I dumped the remaining pieces of glass into the trash. She stared at me with contempt burning in her lifeless retinas.
“My ex-boyfriend won’t let me stay unless I have a foursome with him and two other women,” I grumbled, severing the palpable silence.
“Which boyfriend was that?”
“The feminist one.”
My mother, without an ounce of grace, found a seat on the floor. “So, why are you here?”
“Because I love the woman who gave birth to me, and I am concerned for her?”
She was unamused.
“Where is my father?”
“Gone.” She turned away.
I pressed her to elaborate. I acknowledged that my father was never the loyal and devoted husband that he should have been. For Christ’s sake, he brought his side hoe to my eighth birthday. Shortly after my brother died, she explained, he stopped coming home at night. Initially, my mother accepted this as his method of coping. She even rejoiced at the thought of having a bed all to herself. However, he always managed to return with the expectation of being catered to. My mother, physically and emotionally exhausted, wished for him to give her some space.
“The Monkey’s Paw?” I interjected.
“You do believe.” She exhaled with a sad smile.
“No, Mother, I don’t. We aren’t making wishes on some ancient artifact. Sometimes, terrible things happen for inexplicable reasons, and we’re just expected to live with them. Attributing the worst parts of our lives to the paranormal isn’t healthy.”
“I don’t need my Gypsy-cursed daughter to be my life coach.”
“Then what do you need?”
She fidgeted with the skin around her thumbnail. “I need someone to tell me that your father’s mental illness isn’t my fault.”
“Mom.” She wouldn’t look at me. “It has never been your fault.”
She abruptly got to her feet, collected a stack of papers, and carelessly flung them before me. Three pages detailed the outlines of divorce negotiations while the rest described various mental illness diagnoses, treatment plans, and an indefinite hospitalization. I had seen iterations of similar documents growing up, but that didn’t stop the tears from pooling at the base of my eyes. Still, I refused to cry. My mother sunk back to the ground.
“They can’t keep him there,” I snapped.
“I don’t want him here.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“I don’t care.”
I watched as my mother’s body slumped completely against the floor, her head resting against the frigid tiles. She draped her arms over her chest, shielding the diamond necklace. Her breathing slowed until she drifted off to sleep under my unblinking gaze.
Even now, she lies frozen in time on a hospital bed, protecting the stone between her fingers. The nursing staff says that involuntary movements and reactions are possible when a person is in a coma. So, I guess staring Death in the eyes isn’t enough to prevent my mother from holding her sacred necklace. After twenty-five years of cradling it to sleep, her body must have engineered itself to do so in an unconscious state. She loves that stupid rock more than me. As a little girl, I would constantly ask her about it. She always told me the same story.
She was eight months pregnant and a self-proclaimed pain-in-the-ass at the time of her baby shower. Out of fifty distributed invitations, only ten people expressed interest in attending. Nevertheless, over two-hundred friends and family members showed up at the door on that wretchedly hot August evening.
Each time there was a knock at the door, she shot a look toward my father that said, “I want to die right now.”
“Just think about all the free shit, Honey,” he told her, crushing a can of beer in his hands.
“It’s not just about getting free shit,” she snapped, thinking about all the free shit she was going to get.
The festivities progressed at a painfully slow pace, likely as a test of my mother’s patience. Once she decided that she tolerated enough small-talk, she gathered as many guests as she could muster into the living room. She sat in the center of a palace of presents and began tearing through the assorted packages. After unwrapping enough boxes of diapers to support me into adulthood, my father’s parents presented her with a final gift.
As she carefully removed the silk wrapping, my grandfather said, “We wanted you to have something that you can cherish. Diapers and bottles are for Hope; diamonds are for you, Evalyn.”
“Oh, my God,” my mother stuttered.
“We initially considered purchasing Delhi’s Purple Sapphire since that would reflect Hope’s birthstone, but—”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” she interjected. “That thing is cursed. That necklace is the reason entire families are killed.”
“Well, may this one keep you safe,” my grandmother said in prayer.
My mother grinned down upon the piece of jewelry. Its chain was comprised of individual teardrop crystals, leading to a breathtaking diamond that appeared to encapsulate a midnight ocean. Its circumference was outlined by the same clear stones that were positioned on the chain. It generated its own light.
That light still shines from her neck now, seemingly draining it from my mother and all of those around her. A wailing siren from a nearby computer interrupts my daydream as an army of nurses frantically rushes her out of the room. My focus drifts from the doorway to the barren floor, where her bed used to rest. The leather-bound book of curses is there. I rub my eyes, convinced that its materialization is just an illusion, but it doesn’t disappear. Finding a seat on the floor, I open the cover and begin flipping through the pages. I let my tears fall, finally, exploding against the charcoal sketches of dangerous jewels and artifacts. Maybe there isn’t much of a difference between my mother and me; neither of us ever really learned how to say goodbye. The hospital staff flocks in and out of the room as I lay motionless at their feet. They find purpose in providing me updates that I don’t ask for.
They say her health is declining. They say she likely won’t make it through the night. They say I should be prepared for the worst. I say I’ve already lived through the worst.
My mother would say she was cursed.
Oh, My Word! This short story was inspired by real-life events! Click HERE to read a brief paragraph regarding the historical origins of Evalyn Walsh McLean. Jacob’s short story utilizes a hybrid of real and fantastical/magical elements. Let him know in the comments what you think of this project!
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