For my entire life, Mom and Dad insisted they did not believe in the Piercy family curse. But when I got home from school today, the dining table was laid out with my favorites: pot roast and gravy potatoes, honey-glazed carrots, cranberry sauce, and that cold grape and broccoli salad Mom only ever makes in the summer.
I dropped my backpack onto the floor. It hit with a sharp thunk on the hardwood, drawing Mom’s head up. Dad glanced in from the den, where he sat next to my little brother Ellis at the computer.
“The last supper,” I said, calm as I could manage. I was tense already from my fight with Jonas after practice.
Dad scowled and turned Ellis’s head back to the monitor, dismissing me as melodramatic, and Mom said, “Jack,” like she used to when I was about to be sent to the stairs for time-out. “Go wash your face, and be back in a jiff.”
Giving her a stiff shrug, I turned to take the stairs three at a time, but she called, “Jack. Happy birthday.”
I paused where she couldn’t see me, one hand on the wall for balance. They could pretend my birthday the reason for the me-based meal if they liked. The curse wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t like you could skip the first born son if you wanted to have a second.
Grandma had told me about it when I was just a little kid. Seven or eight, I think, and she waddled with her cane into our old TV room to find me sprawled on the floor watching some cartoon. “Get outside, Jack!” she yelled, loud as I’d ever heard her. “Get outside and live while you can!”
I pushed harder into the beanbag propping up my back half, forcibly kept my eyes on the cartoon. “In a few, Gramma. It’s almost over.”
She towered over me, bright as an angel from her silver helmet hair to the pink and yellow old lady dress to the buckles on her sandals. “You don’t understand, boy.” Grandma lifted her cane and tapped the rubber end of it into my shoulder. “That TV is a waste of your eighteen years.”
It was such a weird thing for her to say, I felt cold. “Huh?”
Her cane pressed harder into my arm. “Your daddy hasn’t said anything? Hasn’t told you why you’ve got to enjoy the time you have?”
I sat, to get away from her cane. “No.”
With more strength than I expected, Grandma hauled me up and used me like a second cane, half dragging, half leaning on me. She set me down at the kitchen bar and told me this:
More than a hundred years ago, your great-great-great grandpa went out onto a hill where the Good Folk were known to dance, and begged them for favors. He was drunk, and desperate, and out of work, and you know when a door opened up in that earth he nearly dropped dead right there. But a thin little woman came out, beautiful as a saint, and took his hand and drew him inside where a splendid party was going. Food poured off of tables and wine flowed, a hundred perfect couples danced to flutes and fiddles, and in the center of it all was a King and a Queen. Your great-great-great grandpa got on his knees by the throne and said, “Oh, lordy, great King and grand Queen, give me a favor so I can save my family from starvation!” The shining Queen touched her King’s hand, and the King smiled. “Good man, I will grant your request. Our favor you will have, and your wife will have two sons. The first will be mine, the second yours. That second son will have two sons of his own, and the first will be mine, the second his. That second son will have two sons of his own. The first will be mine, the second his. And so long as there are two sons, one come to the hills and one for the sun, your family shall have our favors.”
And then Grandma shut her eyes and two thin tears pushed out through all the wrinkles.
Dinner was quick. Mostly because every time I opened my mouth other than to put food in, I said shitty things like, “Do you remember the last time you ate with your older brother, Dad?” Which only incited him to reply, “If you’d like the rest of your meal at all, cut it out.”
“Sure, Mom went to a lot of trouble to create this special memory. For you.”
“For us,” Mom said, her mouth tight.
I tried to reign it in. Thought about that last horrible thing I said to Jonas, and knew I was really just pissed at myself.
Ellis scraped his fork over his plate. He hadn’t eaten anything, but just pushed the carrots and beef to the edge, so the center was a big empty eye. I stood up and leaned over the table, pressing my hands down next to the salt and pepper. “This isn’t your fault, Ellis,” I said fiercely.
His shoulders hunched a little, and Mom and Dad watched me. Both with expressions I’d never seen before. And didn’t want to interpret. Lifting my chin, I said, “I’m done. Goodnight.”
Dad opened his mouth and Mom put out her palm to stop him. Her voice was quiet, and just a little bit desperate. “I don’t believe it, Jack. And at breakfast tomorrow, you’ll both see.”
I flung myself on my bed, stared at the ceiling, and wished I’d said, The problem, Mom, is I believe it.
It was the dreams that convinced me. After years of ignoring that weird afternoon with Grandma, three months ago I’d had the first one: It was me, laying in some tall grass while a little woman with a green cap cut my eyes out of my head.
And another a couple days later: The same woman standing on a stool in my kitchen, frying my tongue up with salt and pepper. I’d stood behind her, working my empty mouth open and shut, until she turned around and smiled a razor-sharp smile. “Shall make a fine gravy, Jacky-boyo.”
A third exactly thirty nights before my birthday: I opened my window into a red and purple world, and she hunched over flowers in the window-box. When I frowned, she pushed aside her brown hair and showed me the bones she was planting. It was all my first knuckles from my bleeding left hand.
On and on they went, making me cranky and irritable and turning my batting average to shit.
I stared at the ceiling harder, like it might save me, and thought about calling Jonas.
I’d tell him everything: why I’d been avoiding him. Why it wasn’t his fault. Why I wouldn’t be around for all his crazy prom-crashing schemes. Out of everybody, he deserved an explanation most.
But I didn’t. Better for him to think I just disappeared. Or died. Or whatever they’ll say about me tomorrow morning.
She climbed over my window sill just after midnight. The little woman from my dreams, her dark hair slinking after her. She stood and smiled, her luminous face filling my room, and beckoned to me with a slim hand.
“Why should I go?” I said. They had to have a reason. A threat to my family, a promise. There was no other way I’d get on my feet.
“You’ll come and you’ll bargain with my King, or I’ll cut your eyes out where you lay, feed your tongue to my hounds, and take your fingers to scatter in the garden.”
Simple as that. Just the truth.
I stood and she curled her hand around my first finger. Her skin was cool and soft as she pulled me to the window. I said, “I can’t go that way. What’s wrong with the stairs?”
A sly smile revealed three tiny sharp teeth. “Your father sleeps against your bedroom door.”
Enough of me knew this had to be a dream, all of it. The easy descent from the second story, the walk across the backyard, the shadows from the trees spreading together until we were surrounded by black dark enough to be a cave.
The little woman’s hand tugged constantly on mine, and her short legs had no trouble pulling me faster and faster. The ends of her hair wrapped around my wrist, tickling and warm. Even if I let go, she’d have me.
The darkness pressed so near, I closed my eyes and it made no difference. The earth was soft under my shoes, until the little woman said, “Step down, boyo,” and I did, onto stone.
I smelled wet rocks and sudden fire, and looked to see a tunnel leading deep and down. Torches burned silver, catching the wink of gems that peered out of the walls. She pulled, and I went. Down and around, into air that grew warmer and full of whispers.
The stairs ended at doors carved into the stone itself. The little woman touched her fingers to them, and they swung silently open. We entered into a huge room, enough for a football field or maybe a 747. The walls dripped silver water, and silver lights bobbed against the vaulted ceiling. Silver ribbons and silver curtains – everything here was monotone.
Except the people.
Tall and small, men and women and neither, they stood along the edges in vibrant dresses and sunset-colored suits, their hair all the colors of nature, and their eyes round and wide.
And staring at me.
I stared right back at the crooked noses and perfect chins, the gnarled green hands, the hunched backs, the beautiful lips, the tusks and horns and ears like dogs’. I thought, Jonas should be here, he should see this, and I imagined the hard lines of ink at the edges of all his notebooks, sketching skulls and thorns and sometimes eyes I was pretty sure were mine.
The little woman ignored it all, dragging me forward to the thrones. Just like in my Grandma’s story, a great King and a grand Queen sat, both more perfect than anything I’d seen – so perfect they almost disappeared.
The King lifted a hand and my little woman stopped. “Here is the one for the hills,” she said, and the King said, “Jack.”
I didn’t say a word. My hands curled into fists, but that’s it.
“Jack,” he said again, his voice lifting over the surge of whispers.
“That’s my name,” I said. It wasn’t anything they didn’t know.
The King smiled, I thought, though couldn’t be sure through all the shine of silver. “You’re the first son, and meant for these hills.”
“I don’t want to stay.”
“Of course not. You never do.”
“I have a life. I have…” I shrugged that same stiff shrug. It wasn’t his business what I had.
The Queen rose to her feet and spread her hands. “We are merciful.”
The King said, “We will offer you one chance. The same chance we offered your father’s brother, and his father’s brother, and his, and his, and each since the first first son.”
In a dream like this, the only thing to do was to agree. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t just wake up. What other choice did I have? I nodded.
“Say it.” The King definitely smiled then, and it darkened the shine.
“One chance,” I said. “Ok.”
The whispers erupted into laughter and cheering. Some sounded like growls, and others like barking. I curled my hands tighter and stood there. Waited.
“We will guess three times,” the King said, “why you cannot stay with us. Each time, you must answer truthfully if we are correct. Only truth can survive in the hills, Jack. If we do not guess, you will be free.”
The problem now was that I didn’t know why I couldn’t stay. The silver shine ate at my peripheral vision, narrowing it onto the King and the Queen, and I had no idea why I wasn’t just walking over to them and giving myself up. My knees shook, and it would feel so good to get down on them, to kneel and stay.
“Do you agree, Jack Piercy?”
I scrubbed at my eyes and said, “Yes.”
The King said, “I know why you wish to leave us, Jack.”
“Why?” I asked, thinking about Jonas again. About the first time he sat down too close to me at the cafeteria table last semester. This new guy who was all lanky arms and narrow nose. “I hear ya’ll are the baseball team,” he said, his elbow touching mine as he leaned in. “At least, the ones on the team who matter.”
“That’s for sure,” Adam, our catcher, said, eyes narrowed at Jonas’s obvious attack on my personal space.
I put down my soda and asked him if he was trying to eat my lunch with his elbow.
Jonas snapped his head around to me, and paused for just-too-long, before a grin stretched his face and he announced, “Your lunch isn’t what I’d like to eat” and I sat there inches away, dumb and blushing and wondering how he had known.
The team shrieked with laughter, grossed out and totally freaking delighted. Adam punched me in the shoulder and Liam said, “Dude, what position do you play?” meaning baseball, but Jonas gave him a long laugh before admitting he’d always been good at second base.
The King of the hill interrupted to offer me his first guess. “Because you can’t leave your family.”
I remembered three weeks ago when Jonas jogged out to me in the batter’s box. I swung and he turned his baseball cap around backwards. “You got a date for prom?”
Shifting my back foot, I slowly brought the bat over my shoulder again. “Not the kind I’m looking for,” I said, giving him back a little of his own.
He smiled his usual crafty smile. “Isn’t that interesting.”
I swung again, and it was wobbly. My balance was off. I shoved the end of the bat into the dust and Jonas walked on past me like he’d never meant to pause, and at just the last moment shifted so his shoulder bumped into mine. I couldn’t hit anything the rest of the day.
To the King I said, “No. It isn’t my family.”
He took one step down from the silver dais. His eyes were like mirrors as he said, “Because you have a dream of success.”
What I wanted to say was I have dreams of little fairy women who cut out my tongue on my eighteenth birthday, but instead thought of what Jonas had said just that afternoon, when he caught my hand before I slammed out of the locker room. He pulled me back in and said, “I have something for you, Jack.”
“You… what?” I didn’t understand because my eyes were tired and my head ached and I’d failed a quiz in chemistry because I couldn’t think past the drops of blood in my dream the night before. I couldn’t think past it being my birthday, my last day, and that I was spending it doing what I always did: ignoring the drones of my teachers, sweating in a field, pulling clothes out of a locker that smelled like mildew, trying hard not to think about a certain guy’s hands and the triumphant crow when he caught some poor teammate who’d tried to steal second.
“It’s your birthday, isn’t it?” he said, and he still had my hand. Or my first two fingers at least, loosely held in his.
“Well, congratulations,” Jonas mock-grimaced. “You can officially help vote our country further into debt.”
I was concerned that I hadn’t taken my hand away from him yet, and looked down at our fingers.
“Here,” he said, tugging a prom ticket out of his sleeve. “Let’s crash. It’ll be brilliant.”
“I can’t,” I said, like always, and tugged away.
“Jesus, Jack, why the hell not?” Jonas banged his hand into the lockers. The crash filled the room. “Everybody knows about you – about us. That there should be an us.”
I shook my head.
“Adam’s been running a pool for weeks – do you know how much money he’s made on you being such a coward? Makes me want to tear my damn hair out!”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, knowing in a few hours my family curse would take care of it – almost hoping it would.
“It matters to me.” Jonas stepped into my space, so close I had to hold totally still or we’d be together.
When I closed my eyes I saw the little woman, saw my tongue in her frying pan. I wanted to say yes, I wanted to move just enough that some part of me touched some part of Jonas. To buy a damn tux and screw what Dad said. To be myself.
But the curse. I couldn’t give Jonas anything, if it was all going to be over tomorrow.
“I don’t care,” I said, backing away. I picked up my bag and jerked open the locker room door. And Jonas said, “You’re so full of shit, Jack.”
In the cavern, the King waited for my answer, and his Queen put a hand on his shoulder.
“No,” I said, “it isn’t because I want success.”
They both smiled, and through the film of silver, I saw all the creatures smile. Moving in, step by step, pressing nearer to me, eager and ready to make me one of them.
The King said, “Truths, both of them. But here, here is the final guess from me, the guess that will bind you here. I can read it in your heart, as I read it in the hearts of your ancestors.”
I held my breath.
The King said, “You cannot stay with us, because there is a girl you haven’t yet kissed.”
Everything froze in one shocked moment and I laughed.
I laughed so hard it filled the room, drowning out the whispers and all the new frowns. I tilted my head back and laughed at the silver firelight dancing on the ceiling. “No!” I yelled. “That is not why I cannot stay!”
I sat up in my own backyard, laughter wedged in my chest.
The grass was cold and damp on my hands, soaking into my tee-shirt. Under me, the world turned, and over me, there was light in the sky.
I scrambled to my feet, swayed with dizziness. If it was dawn, I had time. Running around the side of the house, I unlocked my bike from the fence and jumped on. I careened down the grassy hill to the road, and broke onto asphalt with a thud. This early there weren’t many cars in the neighborhood. I pedaled hard, gasping for breath and cold because my shirt was wet and the wind gusted against me.
When I wheeled into Jonas’s yard, I dropped the bike with a jangle of metal, and thumped up his porch steps. Lights were on in the kitchen and upstairs. I knocked. As quickly and calmly as I could – I wanted to pound it down, to yell for him.
His mom opened the door, dressed for work with a towel hastily caught in her hands. “Jack?” she said.
“Is Jonas up? Is he here? Can he – ”
And Jonas charged over, pushed through his mom. “What are you doing?” he scowled, still half-sleeping, in sweats and a tee shirt. I lost all ability to talk. Like my tongue had been cut out.
He said, “Sorry, Mom, it’s fine,” and came onto the porch, pulling the front door firmly shut. “What the hell, man?” he said to me.
I closed the distance, and opened my mouth. Said nothing.
“What’s wrong with your eyes? Are you high?” Jonas grabbed my face, and before he could say anything else I touched his waist and twisted his tee shirt in my hands.
I kissed him.
And Jonas kissed me back.
image by salvez, flickr creative commons