She sat on the windowsill, head pressed against the cool glass surface. It had been two hours since he had walked out of the door, shutting her away from him forever. If she stared at the driveway long enough she could see the outline of his blue Honda Civic idling while he packed the trunk.
She watched his ghostly memory lift up boxes and place them in the back. He slammed the trunk shut. He kicked the bumper and punched the hood, she flinched. From here she could just make out the red spreading across his knuckles. He flexed them, face contorted in pain and anger.
He got into the driver’s seat, let the window’s down and gunned the engine. Barely checking for anyone coming down the street, he floored it out of the driveway and down the street. There was only a stale taste of gas in the air to indicate he had ever been in her presence.
Over and over again that scene played. Over and over again she would flinch and let a tear slide down her cheek at his outward signs of frustration and anger. At the first little red dot, she would find her feet itching to get up and run to him. But she never moved, never ran out and caressed his injured hand, calmly cooing and trying to soothe him like he had done for her so many times before.
She wasn’t that woman. He knew it and she had always known it. She had thought he could change her. She had hoped he could open up the locked door hiding her heart. She had prayed he could break down that high wall she had enclosed herself in. She had placed her burden on his shoulders and had watched him struggle without raising a finger to help.
He wasn’t a magician. He couldn’t wave a magic wand and make her feel like she should again. He couldn’t say a handful of words and make her empathetic. She knew that now.
She let the sun rise just above the horizon before she pushed herself to her feet. She quietly made her way up to their (no her) room and opened the closet door. In the back of the closet was the box.
She pulled it out. It was a medium sized box made out of deep cherry wood. A silver padlock was all that was between her and the contents inside. Underneath the box was the small silver key.
She fumbled with the lock. Letting the cold metal spread out under her fingers. She slid her thumb over the raised letters. She felt the bumps as they tickled her skin. She felt this, she could feel the physical world. And now she was beginning to feel beyond that, a weird tickle edged into her chest. She rubbed it, hoping it would go away.
She pulled the key off the bottom and slid it into place. The lock clicked and opened. She palmed the key, squeezed it until the coldness was gone. She let the warm key fall to the carpet beside her.
She pulled off the lock and shut it with a click, placing it beside the silver key. Sliding her fingers around the edges she lifted the lid slowly.
Inside lay three hearts.Each looked exactly the same, like something straight out of an anatomy book. They were pale but that was because they were in suspended animation, or at least that was what the merchant had told her.
It had been over a month ago that she and been out at the mall when a certain stall had caught her eye. Standing off in the corner was an elderly man beside a stall with black and red trim. On the counter before him were all identical wooden boxes.
With her curiosity spiked she had wandered over and stood staring at the nondescript boxes. They were plain but she couldn’t take her eyes off of them.
“Hello, dear,” the man was at her elbow. He only came up to her shoulder. He wore a calm and sweet smile.
“Hi. What is inside?” she asked. Her eyes had scanned the area but there was no signs explaining what he was selling. No price ranges, no pictures, not one hint as to what was inside the beautiful boxes.
“Hearts,” he said simply. As if it was something everyone sold.
“Like gold hearts? Jewelry? Candy? Decorations?” she asked, trying to puzzle out exactly what he meant.
“No, actual hearts,” he explained.
She knew she should have turned on her heels and run off in the opposite direction. She should have shouted and hunted down a police officer. Tingles of fear and terror should have run up and down her spine. But she had only stood transfixed and even more curious.
“Now, before you scream they have never been inside a human. I’m no butcher. These are all my creations,” he reached over and lifted the lid. “See? They are artificial tissue but they work just like the one currently inside of your chest.”
She gazed fascinated at the objects before her. They were exactly like the ones she had seen in movies and paintings. Inside of her beat something similar, though these probably worked like they were supposed to. These probably could actually feel, beat with passion, sorrow and anger. Unlike her heart, that just beat to pump blood, nothing more. She reached out to touch one but he grabbed her hand faster then she would ever assume this elderly gentleman could move.
“No human contact. Not until they are to be used,” he said, releasing her shaking hand. “One touch activates them and then they only for work that particular person.”
“Why?” she didn’t know where that question had come from. She should have been wondering how he had made them or where he had gotten the idea.
“We all need a back up heart. Sometimes grief, hurt or anger can harm or destroy the heart. The work to repair these holes and dents takes some people their whole lives. That is time that could be spent in some much better ways. Without hurt or grief taking up all our time, we could rule this world. We could cure cancer, settle Mars and end poverty and war,” he explained, an excited smile on his face.
She nodded. He had a point, she knew that idea well. She had gotten so much done without those pesky emotions getting in the way. But these hearts could also feel, could possibly increase the dormant emotions that laid inside of her. She knew they were there, just not how to access them. With these hearts maybe she could actually feel, behave as all humans should. The idea terrified her, yet excited her at the same time.
She didn’t ask any other questions. She just held out her credit card for him to run through. He had said something about being careful about how and when each heart was used. She took in two words from each sentence, eyes remaining on the box in her hands.
“Thank you,” she had said. Once he went silent for more than a minute.
“Your welcome miss. Just remember to use them wisely,” he said.
She turned and left without a response to that statement. She didn’t have time to puzzle out his meanings or have second thoughts. She wanted to get home and hide these miracles before she could decide she was crazy.
When she had got home she had placed the box in the very back of her closet. She didn’t believe she would ever truly need them, but a small part of her felt more comfortable with them in the back there, just in case. Just in case she decided she was done with feeling only surface emotions. Done with hiding in her little shell not letting anyone close, not letting anyone see her feel.
Now she stared at the three hearts trying to decide which one to activate. She knew from the moment he had begun packing that she was going to end up in this position. Her old heart had flaked and cracked, each shard piercing holes throughout her chest. She had thought feeling the pain would be good, would wake her up. But she had been wrong. She didn’t understand this pain, didn’t know what to do with it and she didn’t want to learn. She was wrong at the mall, feeling wasn’t something she wanted to experience. She was human enough without of all of that. She just wanted it to end before it got out of hand and she ended up like one of those pathetic weepy girls on the daytime dramas she watched. She had counted the seconds it had taken him to pack, eager to go to her closet and end this whole ordeal.
She reached out and placed her index finger on the heart in the very middle. It slowly turned a dark brick red, the color getting deeper and deeper by the second. Then it beat one fast beat and she cried out.
She clutched her chest, tried to draw in a breath, tears soaking her cheeks. She was on her hands and knees trying to not pass out as the pain increased little by little. She clawed at her chest, desperate to get the hideous object out of her body.
As abruptly as it all started it ended. Her head was fuzzy and she breathed heavily as the pain faded to nothing but a memory. She sank back into the carpet, laying on her back and staring at the ceiling as her body calmed down. Once her head was no longer pounding and she didn’t feel sick she opened her eyes and sat up.
The heart sat in the velvet nest of the box, steadily beating. She didn’t touch it, she just closed the lid and pushed the box away.
She got to her feet, straightened her jeans and T-shirt and went into the kitchen. On the counter was a piece of junk mail with his name prominently displayed. She picked it up, ripped it in half and threw it in the trash can without a second glance.
Humming she began cleaning the kitchen. She arranged the cupboards to her preferred standards. Cleaned out the fridge from all the food he had loved and she hated.
For the remainder of the day she erased every bit of him from the house. She sang and danced as she cleaned up scraps of paper and made piles of things he had forgotten. Once the sun was set she felt content and as if the whole house was a wide open expanse.
Co-workers gave her small smiles and gentle words the next day when she revealed what had transpired the day before. Each apologized for her losing him. In response she shrugged and said, “It happens.” Every time the conversation ended abruptly. She went on her way, pretending those moments didn’t hurt. She was fine, perfectly happy and content.
Each day she would pull out the box and stare at the middle heart. It was so bright, not a scratch, wrinkle or tear could be seen. It was so perfect, not a thing marring its beautiful surface. Exactly how she liked it, safe and untouched.
The phone rang and rang and rang. She sighed and turned over in bed. She answered it with a grunt filled with sleep and annoyance.
“Yeah?” she didn’t even know who it was.
“Mandy, he’s gone,” they were simple words but she had no idea what they meant.
“Who is gone?” she asked.
“Jackson. He’s dead,” the mysterious callers said. Silence followed the statement. The caller didn’t utter a word or a single sound, not even a breath. Mandy didn’t quite know what to do.
“Oh,” was all she said, once the silence became too much. “Thanks for telling me,” she hung up the phone and put it back beside her night light. She yawned and turned back into the covers and pillows.
Not an hour later a hard knock sounded at the door. She was still in bed and the last thing she wanted was to get up. But the person was persistent. After the three series of knocks, and because she was afraid for her door’s safety, she got up. She didn’t do a double check in the mirror, she looked a mess and she didn’t care. Maybe she would scare the visitor away and she could go back to bed.
“What?” she snapped, as she opened the door. On the other side was her best friend, Tiffany.
“Oh, honey,” she pulled Many in for a tight, crushing hug.
Mandy wiggled out of her grasp. “For what?” she asked. She was still half asleep and irritable.
“For Jackson,” Tiffany said, eyes red from tears she had obviously been crying on the way over to Mandy’s place. She reached out to grab Mandy again but Mandy backed out of her reach, Tiffany’s hand just scraping dead air.
“I’m fine,” she said. She turned to head back into her kitchen. “Want some coffee?”
“You’re fine!? The man who left you, the man you loved with all your heart is dead. The man you planned a wedding to, a whole albums worth, is gone. You had children’s names and a dream house picked out! How can you be fine!?” she spun Mandy around. “He is gone, never to come back. You can’t reconcile, get married and tell your tough yet enduring love story to your grandchildren. You are not fine. So stop saying that! You say those words all the time. This time they wont work. Not with me, I’ve known you way too long!”
The mug fell from Mandy’s hand. Shards of ceramic flew across the floor and into her bare feet. Hot coffee seeped into her pajama pants, burning a hole in the knee. Mandy noticed none of this. Without a word to her best friend she ran to her bedroom.
She threw open her closet and dived for the box. Tiffany was chattering in an abnormal high pitched voice at her back. Mandy didn’t hear a word.
She open the lid, terrified of what she would find inside. Laying in the velvet was her heart clearly broken in half. The edges were jagged and crumbling into little slivers. She desperately tried to shove the halves back together but they would not go. She let out a frustrated and strangled sob.
Without thinking she placed her palm on the heart to the right. A piercing pain shot up her hand and into her chest. She screamed, red hot tears sliding down her cheeks. A pair of strong arms held her close, rocking her slowly back and forth.
It stopped and the world came back into focus. Tiffany was sobbing, stumbling over her comforting words. Mandy untangled herself, pushed the box away and stood up.
“What was in the box?” Tiffany asked, cheeks red and tear stained.
“Nothing,” Mandy pushed the closet door closed and put her hand out for Tiffany. “Let’s go have that coffee.”
Tiffany asked a number of questions, begging for answers. She hadn’t seen the contents clearly but she was suspicious. Mandy sidestepped everything, talking in a calm, low voice. Whenever Tiffany teared up she tried to look as sad and as hurt as her friend did. She played the mirror game with her for over an hour before she asked to be left alone. More out of exhaustion then anything else.
“Of course. If you need me you know where to find me,” Tiffany gave her one last hug before leaving.
As soon as her car was out of the drive and down the street Mandy released a great sigh of relief and small chuckle. A smile covered her face and she began to whistle a pleasant tune. With a little pat on her back and some self congratulations at her new found acting talent she began to clean up the mess she had made earlier.
Just as she was finishing her to do list for the day a text came in on her phone. It said, “Funeral is Wednesday at 9. I’ll pick you up.”
“Okay,” she sent back. She put her phone back on the counter and went to find her paints and canvas. The rest of the day she painted, completing a little over three pictures before dinner.
She turned off her phone for the duration of the next day and a half. She was tired of the constant bing of text messages and the endless ringing that followed those unanswered inquiries. Tiffany was playing her assistant. Insisting to everyone that all Mandy needed right now was solitude. That their constant barrage of questions was nothing but a hinderance.
Mandy spent the next day painting and researching. There was handful of studios in the area willing to display unknown artists. She made calls and three appointments. She cleaned her whole house and catalogued all of her pieces.
Wednesday dawned early and bright. Tiffany was at her house at a quarter to nine. Mandy wore a dark green sundress and had put her hair back in a simple ponytail.
“Huh,” Tiffany said as Mandy slid into the passenger seat. “I thought you’d wear that black and red top with your darkest jeans. Jackson loved that outfit.”
“Yeah, but I like this dress,” Mandy replied.
The drive was silent from that moment on. They arrived minutes before the service began. They found seats near the back of the church in the middle of a crowded pew. The church was packed, so many had come out to say goodbye to a promising life cut short. The mass was nice, calming and full of sweet words and memories of Jackson.
Mandy was getting antsy as the last speaker rose to speak. It had been over an hour and she was hungry and just wanted to go home.
“My brother was a hard headed man. He never took no for an answer. If he wanted it, he got it, almost every time.” He stopped for a moment and found Mandy’s gaze. “He told me to tell you this Mandy. He wanted you to know that he was sorry he didn’t fight harder for you and he hopes you’ll live out your life happily with the perfect man. But know that when you get to those gates he will be the first one to greet you with open arms and a kiss to take your breath away,” his voice choked up and he had to take a sip of water before he could finish his speech.
Mandy squirmed, feeling a sharp sting in her chest. She couldn’t breathe, everyone was suddenly right on top of the other, looking her way. All eyes staring and getting closer and closer. There was nowhere for her to go. So many unfamiliar faces staring at a wooden box with no one inside. Why were they doing this? Jackson wasn’t in there! That was just a set of skin and bones. There was nothing in there worth mourning! He was gone, not coming back no matter how hard they cried. All these words were useless, he couldn’t hear them and he didn’t care!
“I gotta get out,” she whispered urgently to Tiffany. “Get me out. Get me out,” She pleaded.
Tiffany stood and grabbed her hand. She pushed past the knees of the others in the row, some gave them harsh glares, others nodded in understanding. As soon as Mandy was free of the pew she broke out into the run and flew out the back of the church and onto the soft grass right outside of the door.
Mandy laid there trying to get breath into her constricted chest but it wasn’t doing any good. She sat up and put her head between her knees, the pain was only increasing.
“Honey, take a deep breath. I know this is hard but you’ll make it though,” Tiffany patted her back gently, rubbing slow circles around and around.
“Home,” Mandy chocked out through desperate sobs.
“Okay, okay,” Tiffany whispered.
Mandy allowed her friend to pull her to her feet. She draped her arm around her shoulders trying to not fall to her face.
“Deep breaths,” Tiffany kept cooing, but Mandy barely heard her. All she wanted to do get home to her closet, she just needed to make it a few more minutes.
Every red light was like shot to her heart, breaking another piece away. The pain was becoming blinding. Her head was getting fuzzy. Soon she wouldn’t be able to tell where she was let alone make it to the box.
Her brown door with its green trim brought tears of relief to her eyes. As soon as the tires stopped spinning Mandy was out of the car and running at her door. Shaky hands made finding the right key a difficult task.
Finally she found the key, opened the door and was inside. Not bothering to close the door or check for Tiffany she dashed to her closet, yanked open the door and pulled out the small wooden box. Still breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth she opened it and slammed her palm down on the last remaining heart.
Her limbs became numb, her chest stopped heaving and her vision began to clear. She laid back on the floor and let herself calm down. Her heart was just beginning to return to normal rhythm and wasn’t causing a cacophony of noise in her head when Tiffany showed up.
“Mandy what is going on!? She stood above Mandy’s limp body, confusion and anger criss-crossing her face. “What are those exactly?” she pointed at the broken and faded hearts as well as the bright one that was now beating strongly.
“Hearts,” Mandy replied, still slightly breathless.
“Human hearts?” Tiffany backed up a few steps.
“Artificial ones,” Mandy sat up. “They work as ours do though.”
“Work? I don’t understand. What have you done?” Tiffany bent down and picked up the box. Her eyes took in the two halves of the middle heart. The one on the right was in tiny shredded pieces. She reached out to touch the left one, the one still beating.
“Don’t!” Mandy jumped to her feet and grabbed Tiffany’s hand. “You’ll mess it up. Leave it,” she took her box back and closed the lid with a snap.
“This isn’t right,” Tiffany couldn’t tear her eyes from the box. “You can’t just get a new heart every time one gets hurt or breaks. I know you don’t like to show a vulnerable side to the world but this isn’t the answer. You can’t replace the feelings each time.”
“Why not?” Mandy asked. “Why should I have to be a mess? Barely able to function. Do you know how much time and energy that wastes? I don’t do that. That isn’t me. This person is me. This person who accepts the world and moves on. All that sadness does is slow me down and make life difficult.” Mandy slid the box back into its hiding place.
“It is human,” Tiffany sat on the edge of the bed. “We all have to go through it. We just do. You know that. Why did you buy those? Why now?” her voice was soft, strained from the constant comforting, screaming and confusion.
“Because I don’t have to. For a second I thought they would be a magic cure. Make me normal, then Jackson left and I realized that is the lat thing I could ever want. Pain and sorrow suck, and I don’t have to live that way.” Mandy shut the closet door.
“Really? You have none left. What are you going to do now?” Tiffany stated.
Mandy stopped with her hand on the door. She never thought about that. She had assumed these three would last forever. Assume she could live as she always had without an issue. Now she needed more.
“I’ll get more,” she said the words but a slow fear began to spread through her veins. Was that possible? The old man had rattled on about so much she couldn’t remember if the had mentioned how many times one could buy his hearts. Why would there be a limit though? He was a salesman, repeat customers kept him in business.
“Come on, let’s go,” She left her room, Tiffany close at her heels.
The mall was packed. Everyone was out to find that one item that would make the world seem less horrible. She hated crowds, but this was an emergency so she pushed her fears aside. She didn’t stop to gaze at the stalls or check out the best sales. As soon as her feet crossed the threshold she made a bee-line for the stall in the dark corner.
Once the black and red awning came into view she let out a sigh of relief. Half of her was sure he would be gone, a mirage to only appear once.
“I need a new box,” she said as way of greeting.
“Excuse me?” the man looked up, when he caught her face his friendly greeting died on his lips. “Oh, dear.”
Tiffany had reached the stall now and was worriedly looking between Mandy and the man. The fear on her face matched the panic rising inside of Mandy.
“What? Why,oh dear? I need a new heart. I destroyed the other ones,” Mandy pleaded. “Please.”
“Nope, sorry. One per person,” the man began straightening the boxes.
“No,” Mandy screamed. “I need more. My ex-love died. I can’t live with just this one. It’ll break soon.It will only last until I hear his name again. I can’t do that,” Mandy didn’t want to cry She didn’t want to break down here.
“Dear, I can’t help you. These are prototypes. This is just an experiment. You signed a contract, remember?” He straightened one box to line up perfectly with another box.
“Contract? I don’t remember but that doesn’t matter. This feeling thing sucks and I can’t do it anymore. I need more hearts. I need a way to stop this before I can’t move,” she knew she was rambling. Words were pouring out one after another and she had no idea if this man was even registering half of them.
“I’m sorry but I can’t give you anymore. I explained it all to you. This is just to see who is interested. I can’t be your dealer,” he chuckled at his own joke. “Can’t have addicts on my shoulders now can I?”
Mandy reached out and lifted the lid of one of the boxes. Her hand hovered over the heart on the right. “I can buy these or I can destroy your whole supply.” She reached out and opened a second box.
“You don’t want to do that,” the man didn’t reach out to stop her, didn’t shout out for help. He just wore a grim tight lipped grimace.
“I don’t? Why? Because I’ll die! I’m going to die either way. Why not go out with a bang,” she lowered her hands hovered inches away from the organs. “Give. Me. A. Box” she said each word syllable by syllable.
“No,” he said it quick and hard. “I won’t be responsible for your addiction or avoidance or whatever this is. You want to die, go ahead. You won’t be the first,” He took a step closer to her and said quietly so only she could hear. “I told you this was a risk, a bad purchase. People can run all they want but eventually the world catches up. I sell these for those who are stable enough to understand their potential. You won’t be the first to lose control and break in front of me. You chose to buy them, you chose to abuse them and now it is your choice to live or die.” He stepped back and held her gaze. “Your move.”
“Mandy?” Tiffany’s shaky voice sounded in her ear but it was far away, nothing but a whisper.
“You won’t sell me another box,” a statement not a question.
“Absolutely not,” the man shrugged. “Like I said it is your move. Learn to live this way or cease living. I don’t care.”
Mandy held herself completely still and closed her eyes. Jackson’s face looked back, eyes shinning with love and life. Mouth twisted in a sad little smile, the one he wore every time she failed him. He nodded slowly.
She felt her hands begin to shake. Her chest was tightening, and her limbs were going numb. Her eyes were moistening and she knew what was coming. A flood of tears and pain beyond anything she could imagine would crippled her and throw her onto the ground. That was her future.
“No,” she slammed her palms onto the two hearts. She couldn’t breathe, was choking on air. There was screaming but she couldn’t figure out from where or from who. The world began to fade as air became nothing but a memory. The last thing she saw before darkness took over was the man’s sad smile and slow wave.