Jay made the visits so he could talk himself out. Unwork the daily knots of his routine life to someone who’d at least listen, if not really hear. Someone who’d offer the hospital room window her empty stare as he poured himself into her. It was nice to be close to another body, at least, for just an hour a week. Nice to have the illusion of togetherness. And his mom never spoke, so he always had the floor. That was nice, too.
Every Friday, Jay did this. Ever since his mom’s mind went. Since the strength drifted from her limbs like stale smoke and her eyes emptied and she spent her days all vacant, just staring. Every Friday, he spilled the lonely into her.
Jay spent most of his time alone now. A regret, if he thought about it long enough. So he didn’t. He just went to the office, came home, watched TV, read, drank, and visited the shell of his mom once a week.
It was good to have a routine.
Today, he was going to tell her about an annoying client at work. His new car. The dog he was thinking of getting maybe, but probably not, they’re so much work. He was going to remind himself, through her, that it was okay to be thirty-six and still unmarried. That it was alright he didn’t really have any hobbies or friends or a better job. That he didn’t have an actual house instead of that same apartment he’d had forever. She wouldn’t judge him. She’d just gaze at that window, listening. That’d make him feel better. He’d pour himself all out, then drive home, eat dinner in front of the TV (per routine) and wonder about the alternate lives he could’ve lived as he (per routine) read himself to sleep, drunk on red wine.
Jay was already thinking about what he might read that night as he parked in the lot below the hospital. He walked through the buzz-hiss of the fluorescents, listened to the shaky jerk of the elevator as it dragged itself down to him. He signed himself in at the desk, felt the uneven linoleum creak under his shoes. He dropped into the shit-old chair with the yellow stuff creeping out at the seams. He sighed, looked at his mom. And there she was. Sack of bones. Gazing at the window, ready to listen. All according to his routine. All pretty good. No regrets here.
Life was alright.
“Hey mom,” he said.
She flew across the bed, whipped out a hand, clamped her fingers around his wrist so hard he felt the bones grind against each other. She hoisted herself up off the bed—the most she’d moved on her own in years. She hissed at him, spat through cracked yellow teeth: “Get rid of it.”
Jay burst from the chair so hard, so fast, he kicked it across the room behind him. She held to him. “Get rid of it.”
The woman was almost eighty. Probably weighed that much, too. Just skin and bones and tubes in machines. But right now, her fingers were steel. For the first time in years, her eyes burned.
Obviously, this hadn’t been on Jay’s agenda.
“Mom?” he said.
Machines beeped, whirred, alarumed around them. A nurse rushed in, tried to ease his mom back onto the bed. But the old woman held to Jay like a bear trap.
“Mom?” The word trembled out of him.
“Ma’am,” said the nurse, trying to ease her against the pillow. The way he said it made it sound like an echo. “Ma’am, please lie down.”
Her voice was raw, slow: “Jay… Please. You have to get rid of it.” Grey spit bubbled between those broken teeth.
“Mom, get…get rid of what?” He had no fucking idea what she meant.
The machines blared. The nurse panicked, rushed into the hall to call backup. Jay’s mom widened her eyes, wide, wide, wide, until they almost popped.
“Destroy it,” she said. “Before it destroys you.” She started to gasp. Each syllable became a struggle. She had to shout over the scream of the machines and the nurse and Death clawing louder, faster at her throat. “It’s…killed… everyone…who ever…possessed it. Your great-grandfather…your grandmother…your father…your aunt, uncle…me.”
Bodies swarmed around them. Jay couldn’t see them, couldn’t hear them. Pastel-colored clouds whirling in the corners of his awareness. Nurses buzzing like bees. But his mom was all there was. Those eyes. Warning. Full of fire and fear.
He had no fucking idea what she meant.
“What do I need to…? Mom, I don’t know what you mean.”
“All who had it…”
His knees threatened a total collapse. “Cursed?” he echoed.
She yanked him closer. He nearly fell over the bed. She sucked in air so hard, every vein in her body filled, pushed against her skin, ready to break. “It’s in your home…”
“My… What… What’s cursed?” His mind swam and began cataloging everything in his apartment. What did he own that was cursed?
And why the fuck do people always seem to wait until their dying fucking breath to say this shit?
She was so scared. So scared.
“Destroy it,” she said. “Please, Jason. Before… Before…”
Before what, she never said. Her hand twitched. The heart rate monitor whined. Flattened her out into a single, piercing note.
Jay let the mass of bodies push him out of the way into the corner. Vaguely, he saw the paddles. The jerking, rigid dance of the body as they tried to pump something back into it. The machines trilling, whining, buzzing—useless. Because there it was. The dying breath. It came. It went. It took Mom with it.
None of this was routine at all.
Jay peeked around the door of his apartment, cautious, gazing inside at the vestibule. Nothing there seemed fatal. Nothing cursed. Just his shoes, the little end table. The bowl he’d made in fifth grade, now holding his keys and spare change. The large round mirror on the wall.
What the hell, Mom, he thought.
For the entire drive home, he’d drummed his fingers against the wheel, beating his brain for something. Anything. Nobody in his family had ever mentioned anything about a curse. There was no family legend about a dangerous object being passed around. Nothing. Why would there be? That was ridiculous. Stupid. So what the hell, Mom?
He wondered if it was all just a raving. A dying madness. But no. She’d been fully alert and conscious. She’d spoken. He’d never expected her to again. It was her who’d warned him. He’d recognized her, for the first time in years. Not just her body—that empty shell he’d gotten used to. No, this was real. For a second, his mom had been back. He’d seen her. And she’d used up her last breath to get this message across.
What the hell, Mom.
He felt stupid standing there. Was he actually considering the possibility that his family had been passing around some evil curse he needed to destroy? Some possessed thing that’d killed all who had it? Had he been watching too many B movies? Too much shitty Netflix?
He found himself clinging to the door. Realized how hard he was breathing, how he was still standing half-in, half-out of the apartment like a madman. His mom’s pained, frightened voice still rattled through his ears. His fingers dug into the wood of the door. And he realized that, yes, he was considering the possibility of a family curse. Was, in fact, considering it quite seriously.
He nodded, letting that wash over him. Okay. Fine. Disbelief suspended. So… what things usually hold curses?
He thought about it. A lot of his stuff had been free hand-me-downs. His couch, coffee table, bed frame. Much of it had been passed around, touched by a lot of hands in his family. So if he owned something with a long, fatal history, there were plenty of things it could be. But something as cliché as a cursed object (something that’d killed everyone who’d possessed it, for several generations) must be easy enough to single out. Right? Something old, maybe wooden. A doll? He didn’t have any dolls. And he felt like he could rule out a lot of the simpler things he owned. Things he’d bought himself, like the tv, this end table in the hall. All the kitchenware. His mattress. Those didn’t seem like they’d be…what, cursed? Haunted? He felt like he could also rule out things like that bowl from fifth grade. Nobody had owned that except his mom, and then him. No, it had to be something truly passed down. An inheritance of some kind.
Dolls and wooden shit, that’s all he had so far.
He moved inside. Finally let go of the door and allowed it to close behind him. He stood, rubbing a hand over his stubble. Thinking. He glanced at the mirror. The mirror glanced back, rubbing a hand over its stubble.
He paused. Blinked at his reflection.
The mirror had belonged to his grandfather, then his aunt. Probably others, too. Jay had inherited it when he went off to grad school, a long time ago now. It was old. And it was wooden (partially). So, sure. Why not.
He moved in front of the mirror and looked at himself straight-on. He hadn’t shaved that morning. A dark grey shadow crawled across his jaw. His shirt was untucked from his slacks, and the tie he had on had been loosened since the…the death. Otherwise, he looked normal. Just coming home from a day at the firm. Professional-looking (for the most part). Slightly tired. Gaining a little weight. The front of his shirt bulged more than it used to. But overall, he looked good. Actually, really good. He turned, examined his profile. Well, he was getting weird crow’s feet. He didn’t stand as straight as he used to. Definitely a paunch. But, really, he was looking good. He came from a handsome family. In fact, his family was famous for being good-looking. A very good-looking family.
A vain family.
He stepped back. Blinked again. The mirror blinked back. He raised a hand. Let it drop. Raised it again. Rested it against the side of the mirror. A chill ripped through him. If the mirror were…damn, it still sounded stupid…haunted, wouldn’t he have noticed? Wouldn’t he have felt it? Wouldn’t he have known?
His wrist throbbed where his mom had held to him. He could still feel her eyes on him. She’d been so scared. So sure…
“Screw it,” he mumbled.
He took the mirror off the hook and placed it on the floor, facing the wall. He stood back, clapped his hands together. He tried to convince himself that was it. Tried to feel different. Feel less cursed.
But he didn’t. He felt spooked. Empty. Confused. He felt alone. He felt like an orphan. He felt vain, and stupid.
He felt like he’d missed the mark.
He stared down at the back of the mirror. Tried to feel the vibe. Was anything in there? Any mortal curse upon the glass? Trapped souls or whatever? A ghost dimension? Anything like that? Could he feel it?
He felt like he needed a drink.
Then it struck him: the tumblers! He had his father’s set of whiskey tumblers and the matching old decanter. That had been in the family for a long time. That had been touched by a lot of hands Jay was related to.
Jay moved into the little dining room at the end of the hall. He opened the cupboard, took out the three red glasses and the odd-looking, rectangular decanter. He stood, awkward by the cupboard, arms full of glass. He wondered if “destroy” meant simply tossing these items or if he needed to smash them or something. Say an incantation, maybe. Burn some sage? He didn’t have any sage; what was he thinking?
He looked down at the glass. Suddenly, he lost himself in shards of memory. This set had been with him since his father died, eight years ago. He never used them now. Just drank straight from the bottle. Had learned to do that a while ago, on a bender after losing a major account at the firm, when he drove away his then-girlfriend. And the girlfriend after that. And the one after that, who’d said he was too reckless, too drunk, and that’d been the time he’d finally agreed. So he’d given himself a routine, allowed himself to drink only before bed. And the routine had driven away the next girlfriend, who’d claimed he had no sense of adventure. That had been… Jesus, three years ago already? Three years since he’d found himself alone. And probably for good because he hadn’t seen anyone since. Barely left the house except for work. He just stuck to his damn routine. His father—now that man had used this set of glass. Used it every day. In fact, it was possible these glasses had led directly to his premature demise at fifty-nine.
In fact, there were lots of drinkers in Jay’s family. Memories of family functions and drunken picnics, weekends at the lake, reunions, more and more, poured in on him. Booze had killed more than a few people he’d known.
He stared down at the set. He could have sworn he felt it whisper at him. Could have sworn, hiding in the clink of the glasses as they shifted against each other, that there were words. Calling to him.
Yes. This was it. He had it. He knew he did.
He took a garbage bag from under the kitchen sink. Dumped all the glassware inside, hearing the pieces crack and shatter against each other. He took the bag into the hall, back toward the mirror. He stopped. Picked the mirror up in one hand, held the bag in the other. He took both items into the outer hall, to the garbage chute. He threw them in and listened to them slide all the way down. Heard the crash at the bottom. He trudged back to his apartment. Stood in the vestibule, rubbing his stubble again. He tried to tell if he felt lighter. Safer. Cured.
No. He felt the same.
Goddammit, Mom. Why didn’t she tell him specifically what it was? What specific item would take him down? Or was his imagination getting the better of him? Had it gotten the better of his mom? What if his imagination was his curse? What if—
Then it struck him: the bookshelf! The tall, stained oak bookshelf that’d been passed down through his mom’s family for generations. Almost a hundred years! Old and made of wood! It now stood next to his bed, large and imposing. Definitely the sort of thing to contain some malevolence.
He ran down the hall. Within seconds, he was in the bedroom, yanking books off the shelves and leaving them scattered across the rug. The wing-flutter of thousands of pages echoed off the walls as he threw book after book after book onto the floor. He started to sweat, he was moving so quick, so feverish. Clawing at all the paperbacks and ponderous, yellowing volumes of Russian literature, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, C.S. Lewis, countless Agatha Christies…
He paused, panting. A copy of some old thing he’d read but couldn’t remember was in his hand, poised halfway between the shelf and the heap on the floor. He looked down at the pile of paper and ink, now almost two feet high. He leaned over, examined the titles.
Why do I have all these?
Just like the glass, he felt the books whispering to him. Found himself swallowed by remembrance. Was the ex who’d told him he was too boring right? Was she right to say he had no real sense of adventure? That he’d rather read than live? How many times had he vanished into a book? How many times had he ignored things happening around him for one more page, one more chapter? How many parties had he skipped to stay home and read? How many people and responsibilities neglected? How many real things had he missed because he was being sucked into some fiction? And how much of his routine (reading before bed, during lunch, on vacation) depended on these worlds that weren’t his own?
He was practically addicted.
A lake drifted into his mind. A dock. Warm, still day. Sitting there, alone, just shy of ten, a book in his lap. He couldn’t remember the title nor any of the contents. But it had been so important. He needed to read it, to see the end. He couldn’t swim with his cousins. He needed to know what happened. Not what happened in his own life, but the book. So he didn’t play in the sand with the other kids. Didn’t splash around in the cool mud and the weeds of the lake. Didn’t learn how to water ski. Or fish. Didn’t make friends. Didn’t enjoy high school. There had been some endless series of novels about a kid and a talking rabbit who solved crimes. He’d kept up with them for years. And now, he couldn’t even remember their names. If asked, he would say they didn’t matter. But he’d loved those books so badly that he never really went outside when he was young. Never played baseball or soccer. Never even learned the rules to basketball or how to throw a football. How many times had he been made fun of for that? And he still did this. Too many books and tv shows. How many friendships with the guys at work had that driven dents into? His friends had all drifted away. Everyone had drifted away. But it hadn’t seemed weird before now. No. He came from a family of readers. Everybody in Jay’s family read. His mother used to, all the time. In fact, she…
She was practically addicted.
The obviousness of it took the air out of him. Of course. The shelf had turned his family into loners. This was the curse. It had to be. This was…
Jay blinked. He found himself standing by the dumpster in the parking lot, sweat soaked through his clothes. Hair laminated to his forehead. The bookshelf stood miraculous before him, open-mouthed and bare. He didn’t remember bringing it down. Couldn’t explain how he’d managed to get the massive oak thing down two flights by himself. He stood there, reeling. Shoulders throbbing. Hands shaking.
Then he heaved the shelf up and over the lip of the dumpster.
And yet, he felt the same.
No. No, he didn’t feel the same. He felt worse.
He felt something in his back pocket. Fumbled at it, and saw that it was the book he’d paused on. How it had gotten in his pocket, he couldn’t say.
He threw that away, too. For good measure.
As soon as it landed on top of the shelf in the trash, something else exploded into his head: the rocking chair! It’d belonged to his uncle, his grandmother, maybe a great-aunt, too, he couldn’t remember. Jay had adopted it at some point about five years ago, and now it sat in his living room. Old and made of wood.
He marched back upstairs. He dragged the chair away from the TV, into the hall, and found himself again suddenly standing before the dumpster. He didn’t remember bringing the chair down, either. He’d been too far gone from his body, trying to remember what TV shows he’d spent countless hours watching in that chair. What countless days his uncle had spent doing it, too. Drinking, drinking. And his grandmother before that. Drinking, drinking, watching, watching. Maybe that chair had rotted them. Maybe it’d killed them.
The waste, he thought as he hefted the chair up over the lip of the dumpster. Think of all the waste…
As soon as the chair hit the bottom, another flash struck him: the pocket watch! Used until it cracked! An obsession with time, maybe? Was that it? Jay could remember enough evidence for that, too. Everyone checking their watches, worrying, worrying, worrying about time like it was air in a vacuum-sealed room.
He ran back upstairs, into his bedroom. He tore open the drawer of his nightstand, dug out the old pocket watch. He didn’t even stop to examine it, try to feel the vibe, the energy—he just sent it clattering down the chute in the hall, and as soon as he heard it crack apart at the bottom, there was another flash: the pens! His grandfather’s set of chrome pens from the 50s! (Business, business, business.)
Jay found those in his desk, sent them chasing down the chute after the watch, and when they were gone, there was another flash: Dad’s wallet! (Money, money, money.)
When that was gone, too, another flash sparked. The antique vase! Then another. The desk! And another. His mom’s hat, from when she’d been young and vain! And another. And another. And suddenly, Jay was zipping back and forth like lightning. He’d toss one thing away just to remember another.
The antique stereo! The dining room chairs! The cutting board! The bedframe! On and on and on. Down the chute, into the dumpster. He was a whirlwind of revelation and disposal, ripping through the apartment as he kept remembering, remembering, remembering stuff. All of it went crashing down the chute, into the dumpster. And he kept going back for more, more, more as new items struck him. As new vices and sins came whispering back to him through the fog.
It could be anything. Fucking anything in here could be cursed… He chewed on this as he lugged the coffee table down the stairs. His family had once used the thing to play poker every Wednesday night. They were all big gamblers. In fact, Jay’s cousin had killed himself after one very bad Vegas night of slots and loss. Who was to say his spirit wasn’t still squatting there, inside the table itself? Cursing Jay’s every breath? Or what if the table was the thing that’d driven him to suicide in the first place? It was possible, wasn’t it?
The TV stand. The bedroom lamp. The living room lamp. Every single lamp he owned.
To be sure, he dumped the fifth-grade bowl, too. Spirits could be anywhere. Could dwell on any vice. So why not the young pride with which he’d crafted the bowl? Jay’s whole family was full of pride. Pride and ego. Of course! A good thought. He yanked off his silver tie clip, tore the expensive tie from his neck, ripped the nice watch off his wrist. Threw all that away, too.
Nightstand, snow boots, Grandma’s china.
He tore apart his home, the history of his entire family.
When it was over, the garbage chute and the dumpster had feasted to capacity. Jay stood in the center of his living room. His heart slapped against his ribs. Sweat dropped into his eyes. Dark splotches now stained his entire home where the odds and ends had been removed. A black ring from the mirror on the wall. A large colony of dust bunnies in the corner, laid bare by the bookshelf. Trenches along the floor where he’d moved the coffee table and the chairs. Odd patterns in the dust of the cupboard from the decanter and the tumblers. Everywhere, cursed debris.
He turned. Turned. Turned again. Full circles. Thinking, thinking. But there was nothing else to get rid of. Nothing else to destroy. He’d done it all.
Jay sat cross-legged on the floor. He sat there for a long time, thinking. Remembering. Wondering if he’d gotten it all. He must have. He had to have.
And still. Something whispered to him from the corners. Kept calling to him from the dust.
After a while, he began to cry. He wrapped his arms around himself. He felt so alone. Even Mom’s body—even that had abandoned him.
And still. Sitting there, hugging himself, tears rolling, memory echoing off the walls—he still didn’t know. He’d thrown so much down the chute, into the dumpster. He’d worked so hard. But he didn’t feel it. Whatever family haunt he’d inherited, he didn’t feel like he’d destroyed it at all. In fact, he felt nothing but worse. Nothing but infected with an unsure, hollow ache, and the gentle, quiet wrack of sobbing, sobbing, sobbing.
And still. Hugging himself tighter, rocking harder, trying to think hard of anything else he’d missed in the total lonely empty of his home—Jay felt very cursed indeed.
Sam Rebelein recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. His work has appeared in Bourbon Penn, Shimmer, Every Day Fiction, and other places. If you liked “The Curse,” check out Sam’s story “Posed” in the inaugural issue of The Macabre Museum, just released on Halloween. Sam lives in Brooklyn and on Twitter @HillaryScruff.