Cast of Wonders 413: Little Wonders 25: Hearts in Boxes
The Half-Life of a Broken Heart
by N. R. Lambert
We hear the nursery long before we see it. Feel it too, despite the heavily insulated walls. Deep metronomic concussions roll down the corridor and crash through us. When we reach the entry, marked simply, “Hearts,” the door slides open and a technician ushers us through. The nursery is aggressively antiseptic–shrill LED lighting, a gleaming steel tile floor, and between them, bed after bed of hearts. A chamber of chambers, bumping and pulsing in sync.
“They do that on their own.” The tech says, smiling, glasses glaring back at us.
“We’ve even tried to offset them intentionally, quite drastically, but still…they always sync up somehow. It’s rather uncanny, don’t you think?”
I take in the aortic rows, thrumming with whatever semi-organic solution they pump to sustain themselves. Uncanny isn’t the first word that springs into mind.
“Which one is mine?” I ask.
“You don’t want to guess? We encourage clients to try.” The tech gestures with her tablet. “They choose correctly just slightly above what would be random probability.”
“Huh,” you grumble, a shadow at my elbow. Your black dress a bit too on the nose, I think. You’ve been opposed to this since I first suggested it. Still, I’m glad you’re here. It feels like the first thing we’ve done together in 381 days. Even the sycamore sapling “we” planted in the yard to honor him–a growing thing for the boy who would not–you planted alone.
“Ready?” the tech smiles.
I nod. I am eager to cast off this weight, this damaged core, even if you contend it will make little difference.
The sterile air of the nursery chills me, the door of my chest chamber hanging open between my breasts as the tech retrieves my new synthetic heart–the one in the back right corner, third bed from the door–and brings it to me. She removes my old heart, wipes down the chamber and places the synth inside. I watch her hands make the final connections and wait for some new wonderful feeling to flood in. I expect joy. Or how I think joy might have felt; it’s so hard to recall anything that isn’t anguish. But what rushes in is different. It is…nothing. Still. Nothing is an improvement, isn’t it?
“How does it feel?” The tech asks, snapping the chamber door into place.
I’m unsure how to answer. I look to you across the room, but your eyes skim over my mine, fixed on something, or nothing, behind me.
“I’ll probably need some time to get used to it.” I say as I button my blouse over the new heart beating in the old space.
The tech places my old heart in a temporary organum capsule, then in a bed of other transplants. I wonder when it will sync up with the others. She seems to know what I’m thinking.
“It takes a few days to sync, but old transplants are generally discarded long before that happens.” She helps me to my feet.
“We’ll keep your original here in the nursery for 48 hours. After that we’ll dispose of it, or you can purchase a cormatory to preserve it at home. Do you understand?”
I nod and look for you, but you’ve already slipped out the door.
It is too windy for the hovers today, so we take the monorail home. I watch the city flash by my window and wait for something to strike the flint. Something to spark. I touch my chest; the old ache’s absence is a discomfort of its own.
“Does it hurt?” You’ve been watching me watch the world go by. Our new normal, but perhaps not for much longer.
“No. It’s just…different.”
You nod, but your eyes tell me you are unconvinced. You smooth your dress and pretend to look out the window too.
At home, long after you’ve fallen into another envy-inducing sleep, I am restless. It is not because of the synthetic–my new heart beats steadily and it does not hurt. Nothing hurts. I marvel at this for a moment. The grief–that slow poison, which would take eons to degrade out of my system on its own–is suddenly gone. I should be sleeping soundly for the first time in 382 nights. No more haunting the halls for hours, softly crying for him, dragging my pain behind me like a heavy and elaborate train. And yet I still find myself roaming the house. Seeking something. I am uncertain.
And then I know where to go.
After he was cremated, we brought him to the beach he loved so much and let the wind and waves take what was left. It is where we…where I, visit him. You stopped coming after the first time.
The heavy thump of the waves against the breakwater reverberates through me as I fight the wind to a quieter spot on the inlet. There is a ritual to this too. I come here. I cry until the salt from the wind whipped waves gradually replaces my own across my cheeks and for a few moments I am calm. Only then can I reach back and touch the old memories without burning my fingertips. Find the comfort in them. This is the closest I get to happiness.
Tonight, I expect I’ll skip the salt. Go right to the peace, crack open and be flooded with that happiness, with relief.
But my new heart knows nothing of loving that little boy. It only offers its sterile beat, which now, I note, is quietly syncing with the lapping of the waves.
You return with me to the nursery in the morning. You do not mention how you warned me, that you knew this wouldn’t work. I am grateful for this with the final beats of the false heart, and grateful again with the first beats of my old one as they return it to its spot in my chest.
It is both better and worse having it there. The pain washes through me. I feel my posture change, my shoulders roll forward and I shudder. You take my hand and squeeze it.
I look up. “How do you do it?” I ask again. I ask for the thousandth time. I feel I’ve been asking this question forever.
That night, I ache my old familiar ache. But I am adjusting, reintroducing myself to the deep breaths that keep me steady when the waves threaten to consume me, to upend my fragile footing on this damned impermanent sand.
A sound from the garden draws me to the window. You, in the semi-dark of a waxing crescent moon, digging at the foot of the sapling.
It is not deep, whatever you recover, nor is it large when it surfaces, tumbling off the end of your shovel into the soft pile of dirt. You drop to your knees to retrieve it. A flash of metal–a cormatory.
You open it and I hear it–the sound I’ve missed without even realizing it was gone, its absence drowned out by a greater loss. Unsteady and tumbling at first, but a beat for certain. Leaving the shovel and the hole behind you, you stand and head back toward the house.
I rush downstairs to find you at the kitchen sink. The faucet still running, you turn to face me, a trickle of muddy water seeps out from beneath your chest chamber, staining the front of your nightgown. The rhythm is stronger now, the wobbling is new, unfamiliar, but has a cadence of its own.
You look up and meet my gaze…and for the first time since we lost him, you weep.
A Heart, An Egg, A Lock of Hair
by Kelly Sandoval
She used to keep track of things. Of dates. Of names. Of time spent in one city before drifting to the next, staying unnoticed and unremarked. Of schools she attended, hands shoved in pockets, head down, saying, “My name is Jennifer (or Susan, or Emma, or Faith) and it’s nice to meet you.”
She used to remember her name.
It doesn’t matter. She has to tell herself this, over and over. All the leaving and forgetting and the years that burn up in her thoughts like kindling. They don’t matter. She’ll live forever. Young, wild, and unhurt.
“Eternity,” her mother once said, “is dark. Dark and so very cold.”
But what did she know? What could anyone that old know, about how it felt to be young and flush with power, and so very in love?
And then not so very in love. She’d done what any seventeen-year-old would do, with the world ending in every way that mattered. She made the pain stop. A trick she’d learned from her father. Cut down the center of your chest. Pull out your heart, feel it beating in your palms. Listen to the sound of it, the hollow thud of pain. Hide it, in the old way. An egg, a goose, a mountain, a cave.
Keep it secret. Try to forget.
She’s forgotten the lover. Forgotten the music of her mother’s voice. The chilly whisper of her father’s. But still, sometimes, she feels her heartbeat.
She feels it as she introduces herself again. “My name is– Claire? Claire. Right. And it’s nice to meet you.” There’s a giggle from the back of the class, and she looks up to see a girl in pink and black and too much lipstick, her smile like a bruise.
Somewhere, Claire’s pulse races. An eggshell shivers, a goose resettles, boulders tumble from a rocky cliff. A cave, long hidden, reveals itself.
In the sweaty, adolescent closeness of the classroom, Claire smells ice and pine. She stops breathing. It’s not like she needs to.
She makes a point of sitting in the front, of not meeting the girl’s eyes, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Friendships are dangerous. It’s a lesson she’s learned too many times. But she can’t bring herself to stay away entirely. She likes the sensation of nearby humanity, of routine and expectation. What else is there to do with eternity?
“What are you?” The girl asks, coming up behind her after class. She slips her arm through Claire’s, like some trusted confidant. “I mean, no offense. Your eyes are just like, woah, infinity. No edge. You know what I mean?”
Claire does, in fact, know what she means. Another reason to keep her gaze fixed on her shoes.
“I’m Rita,” says the girl. “But everyone calls me Ruin.”
“Do they?” Claire asks.
“Nah. But it’d be cool if you did. I’ll call you Nova.”
“Call me whatever you want.” Claire hears the grumble of shifting stone, a whole mountain throbbing to the urgent rhythm of her heart. She tries to remember the last time anyone touched her. She tries to remember her name. Ruin tugs her along, and she allows herself to be led.
There’s a trick to this, too. There’s a trick to everything. Ride the want, let the heart have its moment. Weave desire like a rope. Pull it taut when the time comes. Ruin is not the first to smile at her, not the first to lead her, shivering out into the day.
It’s autumn, like a thousand other autumns. The leaves fall around them as they walk, and Ruin catches one, hands it to her. It’s just a leaf, orange-brown, crumpled at the edges. Claire stuffs it in her purse without saying thank you.
The goose tries, and fails, to sing.
She follows Ruin home. Listens to her favorite bands, eats lukewarm pizza. Ruin sits on her bed, knees pulled to her chest, and monologues about her family. Her mom’s a lawyer, “totally uptight” and her dad’s “pretty cool, you know, for an old guy.”
“My mother’s dead,” Claire admits, after prompting. “A long time ago.”
Ruin leans her head against Claire’s shoulder, all wordless, unnecessary comfort. “Just you and your Dad, huh?”
“Something like that,” Claire says. “We haven’t spoken for a couple hundred years.”
Truth, she’s learned, is the easiest lie. Ruin laughs, just as she’s meant to. But then her eyes meet Claire’s and she swallows hard. “What are you?”
And Claire says, “A sorceress.”
Ruin laughs, low as a whisper, “I wish I were magic.”
Claire looks at Ruin, with her bright eyes and her bruised smile, and she wants to say, I know what to do. She wants to say, find an egg. Take out your heart. It only hurts the first few hundred years.
She learned centuries ago, about making friends. Foolish. Fruitless. But she is constantly forgetting things. Eternity is so very long. So very cold.
When Ruin hugs her goodbye, Claire grabs a few strands of her hair, tugging hard. She’ll apologize. Pretend it’s an accident. She’ll knot the strands with her own. Tie pink to brown and brown to pink. A simple spell, a binding. Claire no longer allows her loves to stray. It’s easier that way, companionship without complication.
Stones settle. The goose sleeps.
Claire feels nothing.
Ruin catches her hands. Touches a strand of pink and grins.
“Witch,” she says.
“Hold on.” Ruin runs to her dresser, picks up something slender and sharp. Without comment or ceremony, she grabs a handful of hair and saws through it, as close to the scalp as she can.
“There,” she says, pressing the mess of knotted strands into Claire’s hands. Freely given. No tricks. There’s power in that, too. It’s so hard to turn a gift against itself. Claire tucks the hair in her purse, beside the leaf, unsure now, what to do with either.
Somewhere, in a cave, on a mountain, under a goose, a shell cracks. Something begins to hatch.
About the Authors
N.R. Lambert is a speculative fiction writer from New York City. Her stories have been published by Fireside Quarterly, PseudoPod, Factor Four Magazine, and Metaphorosis Magazine, and will soon appear in the forthcoming anthology, DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS: A TRIBUTE TO ALVIN SCHWARTZ’S SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (HarperCollins, Sept. 2020). She’s also written for Entertainment Weekly, TIME, LIFE, and Tor.com. She was a 2019 U.S. National Park Service Artist-in-Residence at Fire Island National Seashore. In addition to her work as a pop culture author and freelance copywriter, she volunteers with Read Ahead NYC, a reading-based mentoring program for elementary school students. Find her online at nrlambert.com or on Twitter @Nanbits.
Kelly Sandoval is a speculative fiction author, Seattleite, and Clarion West graduate. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Shimmer, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015.
She’s currently writing Unveiled, a novel about the aftermath of the faerie apocalypse. She is also co-editing the upcoming Liminal Magazine with Shannon Peavey.
About the Narrators
Nichole Goodnight is surrounded by a menagerie of animals, including two cats, a hedgehog, a kitten, and a husband. She loves disc golfing and all sorts of console and PC gaming. Nichole started voice acting in commercials and animated shorts on YouTube, and discovered the NoSleep Podcast, where she is a frequent contributor, through a friend’s art stream!
Nichole has performed in such stories as I Found a Dead Girl’s Diary; Elsewhere, Kentucky; and Happy Childhood.
Caroline Reid is a science writer who has written for the European Southern Observatory and the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. She is the author of A Notch for a Raven. She is inordinately fond of time travel and is actually three badgers in a mackintosh.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.