by Matthew Turbeville
Myrtis Graves returned from her daily walk up and down the road before her house to find the Town Car parked under her carport.
The girl was sitting on the steps leading up to Myrtis’s back door. She started sniffling when she saw Myrtis coming up the walk. Her name was Reagan, the daughter of Jake’s best friend, Kenny.
Myrtis saw Reagan still wearing her Sunday clothes. She lunged forward inch by inch, closing the space between Reagan and herself. “What’s wrong? Is it Jake?”
“Uncle Jake’s fine,” Reagan said, using the heels of her hands to rub right below her eyes. Jake was her uncle in theory alone; there was no blood involved. Jake and Reagan’s father had been best friends ever since they were little boys.
“What’s wrong with you then?”
Myrtis stood at eye level with Reagan. Looking the girl over, Myrtis felt a twinge of jealousy, not of the girl’s youth, but of the girl’s beauty. Myrtis had never been that pretty as a girl.
“I’m afraid for Jacob,” Reagan said, referring to her twin brother. Reagan tugged at the hair hanging about her shoulders, limp like a rat’s tail. “He’s upset.”
“Aw, that’s it? Lord, Reagan, you done got me worked up over nothing.”
“No — no, upset like Daddy.”
Myrtis’s face softened. She reached out and squeezed Reagan’s arm. “Let’s go inside.”
In the kitchen, Myrtis pulled a chair out from the dinner table and offered Reagan some tea.
“I’m good,” Reagan said.
Reagan slumped into the chair helplessly. “Mama Myrtis, I’m so afraid for him.” Reagan cried a little and straightened back up.
Myrtis watched Reagan skeptically. The girl was always after some attention, so this wasn’t so much of a surprise as an annoyance. If it weren’t for Myrtis, the girl might turn out like her mother, or worse, her grandmother.
Reagan shook her head.
“Well, that’s just nonsense.” Myrtis poured Reagan a glass of tea despite Reagan’s objections. “He’s just a boy.”
“He was reading up on curses. I don’t think it was for school, just something he took an interest in. Jacob says we’re cursed, our whole family is cursed.”
“That’s just nonsense,” Myrtis said again, less convinced this time.
“You have all the family trees,” Reagan said, referring to Myrtis’s work. “I wanted to see if it was true.”
They both looked over Myrtis’s shoulder at her library. Mabelle O’Connor liked to tell everyone about how Myrtis’s work wasn’t work or even a hobby, just Myrtis being a nosey gossip. Mabelle thought Myrtis didn’t know about her talk, but Myrtis made sure to cut Mabelle out of the O’Connor family tree after Mabelle died, replacing her name with Mr. O’Connor’s second wife.
Myrtis shook her head. “You know your Daddy and Papa were just troubled men. They had more problems than you and me. There’s no such thing as curses.”
“But Jacob’s convinced, and he’s just … he’s been at home crying and he wouldn’t even go to church today, and me and Mama, we don’t know what to do. I thought maybe if I could just talk with you, and see if someone in our family — ‘cause it wasn’t just Daddy and Papa, but Papa’s daddy too. And I don’t know about the men before him but … ”
The old woman turned and moved slowly into the next room. Reagan hesitated before getting up from the table and following Myrtis into her library.
Myrtis had two spare rooms in her house where she kept shelves of the books she’d compiled, filing cabinet after filing cabinet filled with her research. She’d spent so much time in these rooms, making sure to keep track of every family that mattered in town. There were only a few of them, but her research was extensive enough that one family might have multiple books, all filled with family trees and newspaper clippings of births and deaths.
Myrtis stopped at one shelf and peered at its contents, her eyes scanning over the book covers until she found it, covered in dust, lonely. Travis. She pulled it from the shelf.
“The men in your family, they’ve had troubles that we just can’t understand. Jacob doesn’t need to worry about this none. God doesn’t condemn nobody from the get-go.”
Myrtis flipped through the book. Page after page of family trees, tracing the Travis family all the way down to Jacob and Reagan. Twin brother and sister, they were the final branches on the tree. Sure enough, each of the Travis men had produced a son, someone to carry on his father’s legacy. And just like his father before him, each Travis man had offed himself in one way or another.
“You don’t wanna dwell on this. Tell Jacob that. It’s no good being stuck on the past.” Kenny’s father, a shotgun to the chest. Kenny’s grandfather, hanging in his closet. Myrtis winced at her own thoughts, how they could move from fantasy to a grimmer reality.
“They all did it, didn’t they — ” Reagan stopped herself. She reached for the book as Myrtis clutched it against her chest.
Myrtis shook her head. “Tell Jacob not to worry; he’s just a boy. He should be going to school and chasing after girls.”
After Jacob’s first suicide attempt, Myrtis decided to pay him a visit. The Travis family — what was left of them — lived in a large brick house on Main Street. The Travises were white-collar people who didn’t appreciate hard work and maybe that’s what made their men crazy. They had too much free time.
Abby Travis greeted Myrtis at the front door.
“Mama Myrtis,” Abby said. She looked surprised. Her lips were painted a dark red, and there were smudges of lipstick on her teeth.
Some of Abby and Kenny’s friends were gathered in the foyer. They all seemed to be waiting on something, but Myrtis busted right in, pushing past.
“I’ve come to see about the boy,” Myrtis said, readjusting the purse on her shoulder. She felt the loaded revolver she kept there. In Myrtis’s mind, you could never be too careful.
“He’s resting right now,” Abby said calmly. She had always been a weak woman, a pushover who never seemed to think for herself. Myrtis brushed right past her and began to climb the spiraling stairs up to the second floor.
Myrtis found the child in his bedroom, bandaged wrists crossed against his chest like he was already dead. She moved over to the bed and ripped the pillows out from under him. “Foolish child.”
“It’s gonna happen eventually,” Jacob said. He slurred his words. Myrtis glanced at his bedside table. Prescription bottle after prescription bottle, nothing but drugs lined up for days. Myrtis brought one of the bottles close to her face. ALPRAZOLAM. They really did want him to kill himself.
“Nothing’s gonna happen that you don’t want to happen.” This boy was as close to a grandson as she’d ever get. She looked at the bandages on his wrists and thought of all the blood that might have been hers. “So you’re just gonna give up and die.”
“You’re the one that keeps the histories,” Jacob said. He blinked up at her sleepily. “You know how this ends.”
“Stop being so dramatic. You sound like a woman.”
Downstairs, Myrtis asked Abby if she could talk with her alone.
“I think it’s best he come stay with me for a bit,” Myrtis said.
Abby’s eyes widened, astonished. “What do you mean?”
“I raised Kenny just as much as I raised my own boy. If someone’s going to fix Jacob, it’ll be me.”
“He’s been having such a hard time since his daddy … ” Abby choked on her words.
“I know it’s tough on a boy, but heartache’ll get us all at some point or other. He’s gotta learn to grow up and be a man.” Myrtis paused. They were in the newly remodeled kitchen. The trashcan was overflowing with McDonald’s bags, empty ice cream cartons.
“Reagan came to visit me about it. She saw it coming. This place is dragging him down.”
“It’s his home,” Abby said.
“Sometimes home can be tough on a boy. It makes it too easy for him. Your boy needs some tough love. Now, I ain’t ever done wrong by you or your children. Listen to me. I’m an old woman; I know what’s best.”
Myrtis didn’t have a problem getting Jacob out of the house. He slid down the stairs in a haze, his eyes glossed over, blinking lazily while he took everything in.
All the way home, they sat in silence. Myrtis kept watching Jacob out of the corner of her eye. It was the first time she’d driven in nearly ten years. Any other day, she would’ve gotten Jake to check on the Travises, but something in her gut told Myrtis to leave Jake out of this. It was Myrtis’s business.
They pulled in the driveway and sat in the carport with the car running while Myrtis looked Jacob over. “All these drugs, it’s gone take a while to wear off.”
The rules were simple: Jacob had to keep up his personal hygiene (bathe and clean his teeth and behind his ears), make his bed daily, cook his own breakfast, do his own laundry, and take walks with Myrtis each evening, up and down the road before her house.
And under no circumstances was Jacob allowed in the library.
“You can’t be looking in those books,” Myrtis said. “It’ll just upset you.”
Myrtis sometimes feared that she’d brought him into the very heart of things, with all of those books and histories at his fingertips.
Jacob would get upset and pull at his hair angrily. He balled up fistfuls of hair that he jerked at until Myrtis smacked him with the fly swatter she kept hanging in the kitchen.
“Boy, you must’ve lost your mind if you think I’m going to put up with this nonsense.”
She shook with clenched fists when he told her he was damned — he said it right in front of her, unblinking, unflinching, completely convinced of who he was and what his future entailed. Myrtis didn’t like to think there was anything in this world out of her control.
“You don’t know nothing about the future. When you get powers, let me know, but until then, I don’t want to hear a word about any of this fate nonsense.”
Myrtis stepped out on her back porch one day to find Jake waiting on the steps. Jake tapped his boots angrily against the bricks, biting his lips and mumbling to himself.
“Mama,” Jake said. “What’re you doing with this boy?”
“I’m giving him a hand,” Myrtis said. She wiped her hands on her apron and frowned at her son. He looked tired.
“Mama, he ain’t yours to take care of. Lemme take him home.”
“Ain’t nobody taking him anywhere until I knock some sense into him.”
Jake lurched forward. “Damnit, it’s none of your business.”
“Jacob Franklin Graves, you ain’t gonna talk to your mama like she’s some dog.” Myrtis shoved the screen door open right into him. She stood several steps above Jake so that she could look directly in his eyes.
Jake exhaled, looking away. He looked defeated.
“Mama, I’m sorry but Abby’s just — it’s causing a scene in town.”
“Now is it? ‘Cause I thought the boy cutting his own wrists woulda been causing a scene, but I guess you done proved me wrong.”
She wondered what people must be saying about her, this crazy old woman who’d stolen someone else’s grandson.
Myrtis retreated back behind the screen door. It clapped shut, and Myrtis peered at Jake, her eyes cutting across him. “Now you done lost your mind if you think you know more about the ways of this world than me. I got years on you and I got years on Abby. Y’all treat him like he’s some delicate little girl, but he’s a lot tougher than you let on.”
“Mama, the boy’s got problems. He’s been struggling with it for a while.”
Myrtis shook her head. “He’s just spoiled is all. He can live out here with me for a while.” Myrtis turned the lock on the screen door and stared defiantly out at Jake.
“I’ve lived a long life,” Myrtis said to Jacob over dinner one night. He sat across the table from her, cutting sloppily at his steak. “I’ve lived a long life, so I think it’s best I look after you, make sure you live a long life too. Stop scratching the plate with that knife. You’re gonna ruin my china. I’m gonna make sure you grow up healthy and strong. You’re gonna be just like your daddy.”
“Daddy killed himself,” the boy said bluntly. He let his knife squeal against the side of the plate, then quickly brought it to the palm of his hand. He pressed the blade firmly against this skin and glanced up at Myrtis, challenging her.
“Boy, you best not get any blood on my good tablecloth. I’ll beat you senseless.”
Myrtis reached across the table and snatched the knife from Jacob. He continued to stare at her, dumbfounded.
She didn’t let him see her hands shaking as she lowered the knife into her lap. Myrtis didn’t want anyone to know how she felt, how she doubted for a second her control over the situation, how close she believed she was coming to losing him.
“You’re gonna learn your manners,” Myrtis said. “Done lost your mind.”
As soon as Myrtis began to see that the boy could handle himself, she started assigning him chores. He had to make his own bed, wash his own clothes. He cleaned the dishes and mowed the grass. Any time he talked back to her, Myrtis smacked him with the fly swatter, landing it flat across his cheeks, turning them beet red.
Even on his better days, Myrtis would find Jacob cooped up in the house. Once, she walked in on him hiding in the back room with the book she’d compiled on the Travises. She touched his cheek delicately, pressing the jellyfish skin of her palm against the side of his face. Myrtis exhaled slowly. “I want you to get better,” she told him. “Give me the book.”
It was the first time he didn’t resist.
She took the book to her bedroom and hid it in her closet, underneath boxes of old photographs and the three guns she kept loaded there.
“You’re gonna have to do something about that hair.” She stared at Reagan as the girl walked up the back steps.
Reagan hesitated, pulling at her hair self-consciously. “I’ve been busy.”
Jacob came running out the house, a grin on his face.
“I made y’all dinner,” Myrtis said.
There were times when Myrtis thought she had him. She would watch him and think, yes, I was right. Not just about the power she could exude over Jacob — her age, her authority — but the way that, at ninety-one-years-old, Myrtis could still form a bond with a boy a quarter of her age. A bond like blood.
Jake was always the first to remind her that Jacob wasn’t her own, and she would always inform him that she had never been under that impression. But somewhere, deep in Myrtis’s stomach, a longing churned. She doubted she could part with this boy, even for a moment, but Myrtis had to remind herself that Jacob belonged to the Travises. He was Kenny’s boy.
Jake kept on so much that Myrtis actually began wondering whether it was her business at all. She couldn’t claim Jacob as her own, no matter how many weeds he pulled in her back yard.
They walked around the park one night in the moonlight. Myrtis had her arm looped through Jacob’s. Out in the distance, she could see the pond and the swamp beyond it. Myrtis shrugged the purse on her arm higher up on her shoulder.
“Your papa, he was a great man. Me and him were good friends,” Myrtis told Jacob. “But what’s strange is you ain’t nothing like him. You worry about that so much — you all sharing some fate, some curse — and that’s all nonsense.” Myrtis pulled Jacob so that he was facing her. She looked him up and down. “Fact is, you don’t remind me of your daddy in the slightest. It’s like you got none of your daddy’s blood in you, like you’re just your mama. I keep the histories of the people in this town, the histories of anybody who means anything. You ain’t got nothing to be worried about. ‘Cause you ain’t just a Travis. You’re a Graves too.”
They were walking back to the car when Myrtis noticed the man standing by the passenger side door. It was dark out so she couldn’t really see him, but Myrtis quickly became unnerved. She reached into her purse, felt the pistol there. She tightened her grip on the boy, pulled him close to her.
“Mama Myrtis — ” Jacob said, but Myrtis hushed him.
Myrtis and Jacob stopped walking altogether and watched the man. She felt the boy press up against her, acting like he needed protection. Myrtis’s heart beat uncontrollably in her chest and she continued to edge toward the car. It was an old car, something she’d had for generations, ever since before Jake was born.
Myrtis stopped right before the man, the boy pressed against her, and she asked, “What do you need?”
The man was homeless, surely. His clothes were dirty and old. He smelled. His teeth were discolored and he hadn’t bathed in days. He looked wild eyed at Myrtis.
“Just gimme your money,” the man said. He didn’t have a weapon that Myrtis could see, but she still held onto Jacob protectively.
“I advise you leave us be,” Myrtis said.
The man moved closer to Myrtis, and Myrtis looked down at Jacob and saw how much he looked like Jake, how they shared the same name.
When Myrtis saw something glint in the man’s hands, she pulled the pistol from her purse and fired three times in the night.
People in town loved Myrtis, so of course they protested outside the courthouse. Some of them came to the courthouse steps with signs. They waved them defiantly, proclaiming it unjust that an elderly woman be punished for protecting herself.
It was in the courtroom that Myrtis found out the boy had died. They’d taken him from Myrtis that night, insisting he needed to go home to his mother. Now, days later, Abby had found him in his closet, so much lighter than his grandfather, hanging there like a light bulb.
Myrtis wore a purple print dress meant for a woman her age. Her hair was pulled up into a tight bun, and she faced the jury with a stern face that said “I am nothing more than an old woman.” She held her head high when they read the verdict, not guilty, and she exhaled as if relieved, but really she was disappointed in how the verdict didn’t matter.
On the courthouse steps, Myrtis shielded her face. She didn’t want anyone to see her there, even her supporters, the people with the FREE MYRTIS posters held high above their heads. Jake had the car waiting around the corner, and her lawyers escorted her to it. She slid into the back seat.
Jake sat in the front seat. He wore sunglasses so that Myrtis couldn’t see his eyes. She didn’t have much to say to him, but finally what little anger she had came rushing out of her:
“Tell me I still have a granddaughter,” Myrtis hissed, leaning forward so she could look at Jake in the rearview mirror. “That boy might be dead, but tell me I still have a granddaughter.”
Jake didn’t speak.
“They’re my blood, tell me they’re my blood.” Myrtis clutched at the seats of the Lincoln Town Car. “This is the car she was driving. You came from their house, didn’t you? You came straight here from the house. You got all these secrets you ain’t been telling me and I’m your mama, I’m your mama, Jake.”
Myrtis reached to snatch the sunglasses from Jake’s eyes but he dodged her hands.
“You share the same name. You got the same hair, the same eyes. He was ours, and you couldn’t tell him.” Myrtis shook her head angrily at first, then sadly. “There was a curse, but it wasn’t his curse to have. I saved his life and then y’all just took it back. Y’all took it away.”
She shook her head with a fierce rage. “Y’all took him from me. Y’all took him from me.”
Myrtis sank back into her seat. She thought she might cry. Myrtis Graves never shed a tear over anything.
The Town Car drove on.
Matthew Turbeville was raised in Hogeye, South Carolina. He attended Clemson University and graduated with a degree in English Literature in 2014. He briefly attended Boston University’s MFA program before transferring to Florida State. He currently resides in Lake City, South Carolina, where this story is set. He lives with his family, dogs and eat lots of biscuits and barbecue.