Remembering their family history is always the most enjoyable part-- their great-great-grandfather, Dominic, who was an immigrant from God-knows-where; their great-grandfather, Matthew the First, who was a bootlegger; and their grandparents, Matthew the Second and Sally, who ran moonshine as a couple. Their grandparents helped raise them, and the cousins have memorized every family story they ever learned growing up running in and out of their grandparents’ old trailer. They remember their fathers: Matthew the Third, Caleb, and Adam Storment, the three closest brothers the world had ever seen, who raised their children alongside each other and never envied each other anything. “The Storments are the best family in all of Mississippi,” the brothers told their children. “And they’re the best because they’re the strongest and the bravest and the most courageous.”
Their lives are good to remember, too-- summers at fishing holes, their dads teaching them to shoot, spending every Sunday crammed into a pew full of nothing but Storment children. They grew up as much in each other’s houses as in their own, a constant ebb and flow of Storment cousins in all three houses. “Where one goes, they all have to follow,” people used to say about the Storments, talking as much about the fathers as about their children. Storments stuck together-- it was the cousins’ family motto, repeated in whispers and shouts and war cries like some kind of anthem. “Storments stick together!” they’d roar at school, and then descend on whoever their enemy was like a terror. Their childhoods were good, they remember, and their family was good.
The most important thing they remember, though, is their promise. “Storments stick together,” they remind each other, and Katie Alyse, the oldest child of the oldest Storment brother, reminds them all of the pact they made on October 27, when they were huddled together in a hospital waiting room, waiting to find out whose dads had died and whose dad was going to prison. “We were raised as siblings, and we’re gonna stay siblings, no matter what,” Katie Alyse had told them once their mothers were out of earshot. “No matter what, okay? No matter what our dads did. We’re Storment siblings, and we come first. We stick together, no matter what our parents do.” And all eleven of them had whispered their promises, and Matthew the Fourth had dug out his pocket knife that he had gotten for Christmas when he was eleven years old and that night they had made a blood oath, every one of them, from Katie Alyse to Mandy, who was only eight. They were siblings, and they stuck together.
They remember these three things, standing next to their uncles’ and father’ graves, and then they celebrate. They celebrate that they’re the Storments, the best family in all of Mississippi, and they celebrate that they’re tough, and they celebrate that nothing can tear them apart.
This year, though, it’s different. This year, they’re not just celebrating. They’re also mourning. This is the tenth year since the death of two thirds of the Storment brothers: this is the year that Caleb Storment is released from prison. And so some Storment cousins may be celebrating the return of their father, but it doesn’t matter, because all the Storment cousins are mourning what they know will be the loss of their brother. Jonah Storment won’t be at the gathering next year, they all know that. Jonah Storment will be in prison, or Jonah Storment will be dead.
Caleb’s oldest son, Lee, speaks of it openly to Jonah at the gathering. They all know what’s going to happen, it’s been in the plans for the last ten years. It doesn’t mean they can’t hope they can change it.
“Rumor has it you’re gonna try to kill my dad.” Lee says, his back against Matthew the Third’s tombstone.
“Not much of a rumor, is it? I mean, it’s my plan.” Jonah replies, kicking at the dirt. He’s sitting on his own father’s tombstone, and he runs his finger through the grooves that make up his father’s name. Adam Storment. Beloved Brother. May He Rest in Peace.
“Don’t do it, Jonah.”
“I have to.”
“No, you don’t. It’s gonna ruin your life.”
“He killed my dad, Lee. He’s gotta pay.”
“The court says it was an accident.”
“We both know it wasn’t.”
Lee just sighs, because they all know he’s right. Caleb Storment killed his brothers- the court can say the words “accidental vehicular manslaughter” as much as it wants, but the Storment cousins know the truth. Caleb was much too good of a driver to ever accidentally do that much damage. Their dads stole from Caleb, and he killed them. There’s no getting around it.
The Storment cousins all have a secret hope that Mandy will be the one to get through to Jonah. She’s the youngest child of the youngest brother, and she’s everyone’s weak spot. Adam was her dad, too, and Jonah loves her more than life. When he dies, he’s already listed her as his main inheritor. It’s the only reason he’s bothered with working the last ten years.
“Jonah, just be our brother. That’s way more important than revenge.”
“He killed our dad, Mandy.”
“I know. Don’t you think I know that? He killed our dad. He doesn’t get to take my brother, too.”
Jonah just smiles and kisses her forehead. He’s doing this for Mandy, too. Caleb took away her opportunity to grow up with a dad. Jonah had gotten to grow up with three- Mandy had nothing.
They all cry when they leave this gathering, because they’ve never known what it’s like to lose one of their own, and they’re scared. Jonah’s scared, too, and he cries, because he loves his family, and he doesn’t want to leave them. But Caleb Storment tried to tear their family apart, and ten years isn’t enough to pay for that.
Jonah’s had a gun ready and loaded since he was twenty-two, waiting for the day his uncle is released from prison. He’s always known, since October 27, that this would be his path. He made a promise to his family, that they would always be first, that the Storment cousins would always be his priority. And so it’s his job to make sure the world knows that they’re his priority and that no one, not even his blood, will be forgiven for sinning against the Storments.
Jonah’s scared, of course. He doesn’t know what it’s like to kill a man, and he’s not sure that his uncle won’t kill him, too. But he was raised to be strong and brave and courageous, and so he knows he won’t falter when his time comes. Strong, brave, and courageous: the Storment brothers used to say that every time they were together, they use to drill into all their children. “The Storements are the best family in all of Mississippi,” they’d say. “And they’re the best because they’re the strongest and the bravest and the most courageous.” And the Storment brothers raised their children well, and that’s how Jonah knows he can do it. He’s a Storment, after all. He’s not going to back down.
What they’re all the most afraid of, though, isn’t that Jonah will kill his uncle and be sent to prison. What they’re most afraid of, every single one of them, is that Caleb will turn on his nephew like he turned on his brothers. They’re afraid that Caleb will look at the boy he helped raise, the boy he took fishing, the boy he rocked to sleep, and he’ll kill him, and the Storments will lose everything.
Maybe Caleb will be brave, though. Maybe he’ll have courage. Maybe he’ll see his nephew coming and he’ll recognize it as his penance, and he’ll go peacefully.
Maybe Jonah will be the brave one, maybe he’ll be strong enough to let it lie. Maybe he’ll find the courage to let his uncle go, to choose to live with his family instead of avenge them.
The Storments don’t know what will happen. And so, this year, at the cemetery, they mourn. And they celebrate that they’re the best family in all of Mississippi.