But My Heart Keeps Watching

~ Elad Haber

I built my father out of bones.

There are photos of him all over our house. I know what he looked like on his wedding day, on the beach with his shirt off, on a boat with my mother with wind in their hair, and holding a baby version of me, his smile as big as my tiny head.

On Sundays, we went to the cemetery to pay our respects. His grave was alone at the top of a hill. Most days my mother is fine, sad but functioning, but on Sundays she’s a mess. She cries and cries. She doesn’t remember to make me lunch or dinner.

I asked her once, years after my father had passed, “Mom, why are so sad?” And she said, “Because my heart is broken.”

The next day at school, I built her a paper-maché heart, painted it red and purple, her favorite colors, and gave it to her at night. I removed the gears from a clock and inserted it into the heart so that it looked like it was beating. I said to my mother, “I made you a new heart.”

She laughed and patted my head and said, “You’re sweet, Rose.”

But I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was being serious. I don’t know what I wanted her to do, but it definitely wasn’t laugh. I started crying and rushed to my room. I slammed the door so hard, it cracked a little.

 

My only memory of my father is when he used to take me to the city to visit the Museum of Natural History. He loved the history and we both loved the taxidermy.

The dinosaurs were my father’s favorite. We stood in front of the massive skeleton of the Tyrannosaur for what felt like hours. I could see he wanted to reach out to touch the elegant bones.

I asked him, after a while, “How do they know how it all fits?”

My father looked at me with a strange expression.

“Like,” I said, “No one has ever seen a T-Rex, right? So how do they know what it looks like?”

He smiled and pinched my cheek. “Bones are magic, Rosie,” he said. He was the only person who called me Rosie. Then we went back to staring at the bones and I wondered what life was like millions of years ago when the world was young.

 

One day I went to the cemetery on my own. I snuck out of school during lunch and made sure no one was following me. I thought I heard someone call out to me as I was getting on my bike, but the sound of the wind drowned it out.

I rode through the deserted daytime streets towards the rolling hills of the cemetery. I stood over my father’s grave for awhile. Then, as if he said something to set me off, I started cursing and punching at the ground. I shouted, “Why did you leave? Why did you make her sad?”

I started digging with my hands and crying. I didn’t know what had come over me.

I made a decent size hole in the earth by the time the sirens approached the hill. Truant officers rushed out of the car and ran towards me. They were angry.

Later, my mom came to get me from school. I saw her in the principal’s office crying. I was confused, because it wasn’t Sunday. Every once in a while the door would open and I would hear her say something like, “She’s acting out . . .”

 

After that day, everyone at school started treating me different. The other kids whispered as I passed them in the halls and the teachers talked slowly to me like I was dumb. The school suggested counseling and though it was expensive, my mom agreed. She took an extra shift at the hospital to pay for it and was home even less.

I spent more and more time alone. My mother asked other parents to drive me and pick me up from school. I’d come home and there would be dinner on the kitchen table, usually some drive-thru, and I would hear the TV on in her bedroom. I was never sure if she was asleep or at work. The red and purple heart was in the middle of a stack of forgotten mail in the corner of our kitchen. I listened to the tired ticks of the gears as I ate cold hamburgers.

For my plan to work, I needed help. I stalked a group of boys who hung out under a Banyan tree across from the soccer field. They played games out of their parent’s old D&D books. I guess the new editions were too expensive. I coaxed a couple of them to the nearby bleachers and traded phone numbers.

I needed to get my hands on my father’s remains. I wasn’t sure why. I felt the pull of it when I was at his grave. It was like a vision. I had to see it through.

I spent the rest of the night texting.

 

The boys told me over Messenger how it went down.

Three boys met up near the cemetery. They had stolen shovels and pick axes from their high school maintenance sheds. There was night-time security in the area so one of them was lookout on an adjoining hill while the other two crept towards my father’s grave. They had their cellphones on continuous three way conference call like some kind of away team mission in Star Trek.

Digging did not go well. The guys were weak and afraid. They told me they psyched themselves up thinking this was a morbid video game. They counted each shovel full as a point and kept a tally in their heads. They didn’t even consider the crime they were committing.

After a few tense hours, where once a security guard in a golf cart rolled by but didn’t see them, they had the casket uncovered. The two boys tied rags around their noses and mouths like they’d seen in the movies and opened the casket. They wouldn’t tell me what it looked like inside except it was “gross.”

I only needed a few bones for my project. They packed those in a duffel bag and left it at the lip of the hole. Then they went about refilling it. One of the boys almost collapsed and so he switched places with the lookout. They made it home before their parent’s phone alarms went off.

One of them sent me a message: “It’s done. Now, you’re turn. Send us pics!”

I googled some leaked nudes of movie stars and sent them the images with the heads cropped off.

Boys are so dumb.

 

The next morning, I picked up the duffel bag from behind a pile of garbage in the grassy field between the middle and high schools. I slung it over my shoulder and went straight home. I kept checking behind me as if I was being followed, but no one was there.

My father had used our garage as a work room. I remember it being so tidy and organized. He used to tinker with model airplanes and computers. After he passed, my mother never liked going in there. She had me bring boxes of junk in there every few months. There were so many now, they reached the low ceiling and blocked the lightbulbs. It was dark as a grave in there.

Over the last week, I had made some space between the boxes and uncovered my father’s old steel table and tool bench. I laid the duffel bag on the table and turned on a desk lamp.

The boys had done well and brought me the handful of bones I needed. I connected them with pieces of copper and hard silver wiring. It looked like a stick figure of a person.

From below the table, I pulled out two shoe boxes covered in dirt. These I had unearthed myself from our backyard. They were the bones of dead pets from my early childhood, a bird, a cat. I don’t know why my pets kept dying. Maybe that’s just what pets do. Each of the shoe boxes had the name of the pet drawn on the top with crayons and markers but the letters were faded and I didn’t remember their names.

I removed the lids from the boxes and carefully picked up a few of the skeleton remains and placed them on the table.

I worked slow and steady to get the pieces fused together. When I was done, the shape reminded me of a monkey, a kind of miniature human cousin. I used the skull of a cat as the head and the tiny stick bones of the bird to create fingers and toes. I threaded fishing wire between the larger human bones and the smaller animal bones to keep them together.

When I was done, I stepped away from the table and looked proudly on my creation. I had a fleeting thought that someone, like my mother, might see this and think it’s a grisly scene of violence and murder. They would ship me off to an insane asylum with a name like Shady Branches. But to me, it was beautiful. It was pieces of my past all put together.

I reached into one of the drawers of the work table where I had hidden a folder of photographs. I didn’t remove any of the pictures from the house. I snapped photos of them with my phone and then printed those out. The photos, once small enough to fit in a frame, looked grainy and weird when printed to fit on a page, but it was good enough. I placed the pictures of my father all around the bones.

Now, for the final touch.

I wasn’t sure what technique was going to work, so I decided to employ them all. I researched countless rites and rituals on YouTube and sent links to my phone. I bought incense from a rank smelling shop downtown and chicken guts from a butcher a few doors away. I brought them all back to the garage. Each night, I worked myself into a sweaty mess as I tried to coax my father’s soul back from the dead. I did rain dances and spun dreidels and even tried rake.

After a while, I gave up. I laid down amongst the beads and the sand and painted feathers and tried to sleep. I closed my eyes and after a moment, I heard a stirring like wind. I looked around to see if there were any open windows or doors. I heard it again, a rustle.

I leaped to my feet and looked at the skeleton on the table. When it didn’t move, my heart sank. And then one of the arms lifted. Then another. It pulled itself off the table like an awakening zombie. It stood on the table, barely two feet, with its stick figure body and tiny cat skull. It looked at me and, amazingly, a voice came out of the bones.

“Rosie?” it said.

I couldn’t speak.

The tiny skull took in the room and then looked down at its strange body. When it spoke again, I recognized the voice, the deep tones of my father.

“What am I doing here?” it asked me. “I don’t remember.” There was sadness in his voice, a profound confusion.

I took a step towards it and extended an open palm like I might greet an alien visitor.

“It’s okay,” I said, “I’m here. You’re back.”

 

We went everywhere together.

He spent most of the day in my backpack, which I kept perched on one shoulder. He would whisper jokes or words of encouragement to me during the school day. Sometimes I’d laugh in the middle of a quiet moment in class and the teacher and the other kids would just look at me and shake their heads.

A couple of weeks later, one of the boys who dug up his bones tried to talk to me during lunch. His name was Travis and he wore skinny jeans and had a flop of unwashed brown hair that covered his eyes. He asked me some questions but I couldn’t pay attention because my father became agitated as soon as Travis came close to me. He started banging on my shoulder through the backpack.

“I, uh”—ouch!—”I have to go,” I said and rushed out of the lunch room. I was hungry the rest of the day.

Later, I went under the bleachers by the football field and moved my backpack to the floor and unzipped the top. My father’s cat skull head peered up at me.

“Why did you do that?” I asked him.

“I don’t trust that boy,” said my father’s bones.

“He’s nice,” I said but I dropped it. I didn’t want to argue with my best friend.

That night, we watched TV together in the living room. My mom was at the hospital so my father laid on top of me on the couch. He liked to put his head to my chest and listen to my heartbeat. He said it made him feel human.

My phone let out an R2-D2 series of bleeps. It was Travis, texting me. He was asking me out on a date!

“Whoa,” I said.

My father looked up. “What is it?”

“Uh, nothing. No one.” I put the phone away and covered my mouth so he wouldn’t see my smile.

 

 

The next weekend, my mom was working a triple shift and would be out of the house from Friday morning to Sunday night. She left me some cash and made me promise to eat at least two meals a day and both of them cannot be pizza.

I texted Travis and told him the coast was clear for him to drop by that evening. I just needed to figure out something to do with my dad.

My father was one of those old guys who could spend all day watching war documentaries on the history channel. I placated him at first after his reincarnation in bone form. I would watch endless hours of commentary and grainy footage about World War 2 and reenactments of civil war battles.

On the Friday afternoon after school, mid-way through a documentary on Hitler’s breakfast habits, I got up and said, “I can’t watch any more of this!”

His tiny bone fingers pressed pause on the TV. “What do you mean?” he said.

“I just can’t!” I said, exasperated. “You watch whatever you want, I’m going upstairs to read.”

I left before he even had a chance to respond.

Once in my room, I went straight to my window where Travis waited, crouched in the shadows of my curved roof. I had never had a boy sneak up to my room before. It made my limbs tingle with excitement.

“Hey,” he said when I opened the window.

“Shhh!” I said and gestured for him to come in.

His expression was confused. “I thought you said your mom wasn’t home.”

I shrugged and thought quickly. “She still hired a babysitter!” I said with a sigh. “She’s watching TV downstairs. We have to be quiet.”

“Okay,” said Travis with a smile.

He sat on my bed and looked around at all my posters and dolls, remnants from my not so long ago childhood.

“Cool room,” he said and then patted the bed next to him.

I sat down, close but not too close, and said, “So, are you—”

He reached over and kissed me. It was short, dry, with a question mark at the end.

I nodded for him to continue and then he put one warm hand around the curve of my jaw and laid another long kiss on my lips. It was my first real kiss so I wasn’t sure what to do, but he went slowly and we took a few breaks to breathe.

After a few wonderful minutes, his hands went wandering on my back and down to the hem of my blouse. He tried a few times to lift my shirt up to my chin, but I quickly clasped his hand in mine and stopped him.

He released his lips from mine and said, in a whisper, “Come on, Rose. Let me see them.”

He tried again to lift up my shirt and I pushed back away from him. He looked surprised.

“Come on!” he said. “I knew the pic you sent was fake! If it wasn’t, you’d show them to me.”

He reached out again and I slapped away his hands. “No!” I shouted.

Just then, the door to my room burst open and my father, a diminutive skeleton of contrasting bone sizes, stood like a protective dog at my door.

My father’s tone was all daggers. “You leave her alone!”

Travis’ face was scrunched in disgust. “What the hell is that?” he said.

My father leaped like a long jumper from the doorway right onto the bed. He tackled Travis and both fell to the ground in a mess of limbs. They looked like they were wrestling, throwing each other on the ground and then back on top of the other.

“Get off me!” said Travis and he used two palms to shove my father back across the room.

Travis scrambled to his feet and rushed out of my bedroom. My father looked proud. He nodded at me and said, “You’re welcome.” I wasn’t sure what to say.

 

Word of the incident spread quickly through the town, as one might expect. Travis did not stay quiet. His report to his friends via text ended up on Facebook. From Facebook it went to Twitter, Twitter to Instagram, Instagram to Snapchat. After that, it left the ether of cyberspace and ended up in the real world in the form of phone calls to my mother.

My phone rang while I was eating cereal. It was my mom. She never called me while on shift. Occasionally she would text a “Doing OK?” but that was the usual limit of her communication. I swallowed a spoonful of Cheerios and picked up the phone.

“Yeah?” I said.

Her voice was already agitated, excessively punctuated. “Rose! I just got The. Strangest. Call. Do you have some kind of pet? It attacked a boy? Why was there a boy in the house? What is going on with you!”

I put the phone down without saying a word. As I put on my coat and shoes, I could hear my mom continuing to have a one way conversation with herself.

“Well? Well?” she said. “I swear, if you…”

I stopped listening.

My father was sleeping in the living room. I picked him up and put him in my backpack and left the house.

Outside, the morning was thick with fog. It was like it had been raining all night and suddenly someone pressed PAUSE and the rain just stopped and waited for input. The streets were slick wet and empty. I rode my bike, my hands gripped hard on the bars, back to where all this started, the cemetery and the gravestone atop a lonely hill.

My father was silent during the trip, a rarity. Usually he rattled off facts and advice as if it was nothing. He knew.

At the base of the hill, I stepped off my bike and let it fall to the ground. I crouched and swung my backpack in front of me. My father, all two and half feet of him, crawled out of the bag and climbed on top of me. He clutched my chest like a baby.

I walked him up the hill to his grave. I leaned down and he released his grip on me. He laid down on the grass and looked at me with hollow eye sockets that still somehow looked sad.

“Rosie?” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Can I hear it one more time?”

“Sure.”

I got down on my knees and leaned my chest towards him. He put one side of his tiny skull against my chest. I could feel my heartbeat reverberate his bone body.

He leaned back, satisfied. “It’s strong.”

“No,” I said. “It’s broken.”

Page of Cups

 

Elad Haber is a husband, father to an adorable little girl, and IT guy by day, fiction writer by night. He has forthcoming publications from Lightspeed and in thePlanetside anthology from Shacklebound Books and the No Ordinary Mortals anthology from Rogue Blade Entertainment.

You can follow him on twitter @MusicInMyCar or on his website: eladhaber.wordpress.com.

 [ issue 8 : fall 2022 ]

Another Night on Earth

~ J. A. W. McCarthy

The thing that gets me is the silence. No owl calls or cricket chirps puncturing the folds of night draped loosely overhead. No rustle of small creatures in the bushes, scattering from the vibrations of my footsteps. Not even an abrupt breath of wind to rattle the air around me.

And certainly no cars. Though paved, I get the feeling this narrow road has been unkind to many vehicles before mine.

I adjust the leather strap of my bag where it cuts across my chest and glance back at my car. My eighteen year old Volvo looks like an injured mare that’s stumbled into the dirt where a sidewalk should be, one end of its bumper dangling as loose as a busted jaw. Though it’s looked this miserable for quite some time, in the darkness my car seems to plead for my return.

Up ahead a house sits tucked into the land like a fat, squat ogre, invisible behind the trees if it wasn’t for the yellow porch light and the hazy white glow of the two windows on either side of the front door. I squint into the distance, trying to focus past the lone streetlight on the other side of the house, past the black ribbon of road that’s lost all of its texture in the dark, past the leaves overhead that have turned from grainy to flat against the bruised velvet of the endless night sky. Though it isn’t far, all that’s beyond this single structure smears together into a slick trash-bag black. If there are other houses they have been devoured by the same earth that cradles them.

As I continue to walk, the still air is cold but not quite icy, and strangely thick; when I open my mouth it rolls onto my tongue and pushes against my teeth, as acrid as late summer city heat. I look over my shoulder at my car again, now shrunk to something I can pinch between my fingers like I used to do to my brother’s head when we were little. You’re mine now, I would say, and he would either giggle or punch at me depending on his mood. I can do anything I want with you. I adjust my bag again, let the weight of it bounce against my hip with every step. My boot snags on a fissure in the road, and I’m grateful for the scrape of rubber against pavement, a small, predictable sound that makes a crack in the night.

I know I’ve reached the house’s driveway when the pavement turns to gravel beneath my feet. The little rocks crunch loudly with even my smallest movements, jagged teeth that push through the rubber soles of my boots until they’re chewing up the soft palate of my foot. Every step is suddenly too loud, too stark, too much. The people in the house will hear me coming, and I can imagine how people who live out in the middle of the woods might greet a stranger at their door this close to midnight. I pull my phone from my jacket pocket and turn on its flashlight, the only thing it’s good for out here.

My mother comes to mind as I crunch my way up the length of the driveway to the porch. Not that this house with its sagging roof and splintered white shingles resembles the sterile tract home I grew up in. The things she’s said so many times before echo inside my head: You should know better than to be out here at this time of night, and I don’t know why you insist on doing this, and Everyone knows what happens to girls like you. I creep from window to window, but the white curtains covering each one are just thick enough to reveal nothing more than the blurred movements of indiscernible shapes within. At this hour, my mother would’ve had the blinds sealed, sheers and curtains drawn, not even a soft frame of light promising life inside. What are you thinking, Judith? One of these days your luck is going to run out. Taking a deep breath I knock on the heavy front door, then slide my hand into my bag until my fingers hook the reassuring heft of my knife’s steel handle.

“Can I help you?”

The man who answers the door is old but tall and solid, his body filling most of the doorway. His long face shines waxy and jaundiced under the porch light, dragged down by the shadow-filled hollows beneath his eyes and cheekbones. I’m amazed by how quickly he’s come to the door—no shuffling on the other side as he studies me through the peephole, no sleep-leaden movements pricked by the acute anxiety of an unexpected stranger in the middle of the night—then I notice that he’s not in a bathrobe and slippers but a dark suit, the fuzz of wool standing out against what little flickering light seeps out from behind him. Regarding me with narrowed eyes, he asks the question again. I note with relief that his hands are empty.

“Oh, yes, sorry to bother you so late,” I stammer, forcing the friendly smile I practiced on the drive. “My car broke down a little ways down the road and I can’t get a signal out here, so I was hoping . . .” I wiggle my phone to give credence to my story before putting it back in my pocket. “I was hoping I could use your phone to call for help.”

The man doesn’t say anything for a long moment while the corners of my mouth twitch and I try to restrain myself from craning my neck to get a peek at who or what is in the room behind him. When he finally does move aside, a thick cloud of sweet and earthy smoke barrels out and into me, the same incense my mother used to burn on fish dinner Fridays.

The entire room behind him is hung with smoke, each slender wisp from the tens of incense sticks suspended along the walls pooling into one great swarm in the center of the room. As I step over the threshold, I bite the insides of my cheeks to keep from coughing, fearful that any minor offense may produce more imposing men, and guns, and my mother’s I told you . . . as my last dying thought. White pillar candles burn on every surface in the small living room, all in various states of dissolution atop the fireplace mantle, the coffee table, a hutch, the TV, even along the sloping back of the weathered plaid couch. Greasy stains dot the yellowing walls where the melted wax touches. The scent of spicy incense mixed with the artificial vanilla of the candles is overwhelming; even with my lips pressed shut, I taste an oily film forming on the roof of my mouth, the phantom of a perfect lozenge of wax cooling on my tongue.

Behind me there’s the heavy whoosh of the front door sliding shut, its corner nicking the wall of smoke. I unclench my jaw and let out a cough.

“Phone’s this way,” the old man says.

I follow him through a doorway at the end of the living room, apologizing again as we move into a narrow hallway lit only by more wall-mounted candles. I try to remember the details of the man’s wool suit as he shuffles along in front of me. Is there a matching vest? Does his white shirt have buttons? If he had looked like an Amish person, wouldn’t I have immediately thought that when he opened the front door?

We approach the entrance to what looks like a dining room. I pause here for a moment, hoping my host doesn’t notice.

A thick cloak of incense and candle smoke shrouds this room too, the tight space ablaze with tiny pinpoints of light poking through the white haze. A small circle of people—I count six—are gathered inside, their backs to me. They are all dressed in black, the men in suits and the women in long-sleeved dresses. A low murmur rises from their bowed heads, but I can’t decipher what they are saying. A prayer, I think, normal people in mourning, and though it makes sense, I am still not consoled by the absence of pentagrams and vivisected goats.

“Here.” The old man stands at the end of the hall, pointing into another open doorway.

“Yes, sorry,” I say, hurrying towards him. I try to parse what he might be thinking, but his sharply etched face is unreadable even when I am close enough to stand between him and the smoke that seeps out into the hallway.

After showing me the phone mounted to the wall, the man leaves me alone in the kitchen. The only light comes from yet another row of pillar candles on the small dining table. I listen to the shuffle of leather against wood as his footsteps retreat down the hall then stop at what I presume is the dining room with the others. My palm folds around the phone’s cool plastic handset, but I don’t lift it. Behind me is the backdoor, its uncovered window reflecting my face and neck glowing orange, subtly vibrating, another flame in the dark. I remember autumn nights in the backyard with my brother, our bodies trembling with giggles as we told scary stories with flashlights clutched under our chins. My stories were always scarier, though sometimes his stories made me cry. I remember feigning offense when he made me promise that I would call him if I ever got into trouble.You’re my little brother, I said. I should be rescuing you.

“Everything okay?”

My hand flies from the phone and plants on the counter. I dare a brief glance at what’s nearby: a wooden cutting board, a pie tin, a rolling pin—things that are closer to me than to the voice in the hallway.

“Yes,” I answer.

I force another confident smile as a young man emerges from the smoke. I’d noticed him with the others in the dining room, the back of his head the only one not peppered with grey. Unlike the old man who answered the door, this man’s dark suit looks modern with a subtle sheen skimming his lapels. Like the old man, thick shadows pool under his eyes and cheekbones.

“My car,” I lie again. “It broke down and I—”

“Everyone’s in the other room.”

He’s right in front of me now, his head tipped against the doorframe so that I am boxed in between him and the end of the counter. All I can do is step back, and he steps forward, towards me with each subsequent step I take. It isn’t long before my ass bumps the kitchen table, making the candlelight blur in waves on the wall behind him.

I repeat my brother’s phone number inside my head, a calming mechanism that I’ve been leaning on all too frequently lately. I still remember it, even though his phone was disconnected long ago.

The young man’s eyes are solid black, a speckle of orange dancing behind each glassy dome. “Give me a minute, then we’ll be ready,” he says.

I hold his gaze. I straighten my stance, picture the knife inside my bag gliding in one smooth movement into my hand, how the blade will scatter all of the tiny flames when I raise it above my head.

“Okay,” I say.

Once the young man leaves the room, I rush back to the phone and pull the handset from the wall. No dial tone; only silence. I tap the buttons that make up my brother’s number just for the satisfying click of plastic sinking into plastic. On the last number I hold my finger there, not wanting to release the button. I’m not ready. I’m turning towards the back door when the young man reappears.

He touches my arm. “Ready?”

The smoke in the hallway swirls around the people exiting the dining room, trailing them as they drift into the living room. The last person in the group, a small, brittle-looking woman, turns around as the young man is guiding me out of the kitchen. Her nose is a bruised red, her eyes swollen between the deep creases that encircle them.

“Were you able to reach a tow truck, dear?”

The young man tightens his grip on my arm. I want to shake him off, but not in front of her. “They’re on their way,” he says.

The old woman offers me a sad smile before the old man who answered the door turns back and leads her forward into the living room with the others.

“Her parents,” the young man explains once we push through the lingering smoke into the dining room. “I wish I could tell them so they didn’t have to suffer like this, but their beliefs . . . They wouldn’t allow it.” He stands in front of me, frantically waving his arms until the smoke clears a frame around him. “Sorry for the inconvenience—I know it was pretty elaborate. I’m Jacob, by the way.”

In the center of the room, where a dining table should be, is an open casket on a stand, its brass handles and glossy white surface sparking under the candlelight. As I approach, the young woman inside surfaces through the thick haze. Her skin is sunken and grey but not as bad as I anticipated, only ashen in contrast to her lacy white dress. Underneath the artificial vanilla and spice that’s clotted throughout the house, the treacly odor of decay rises, a feral animal surrounding the woman in its warm, wet fur.

The odors gather in my mouth, forming a coppery-tasting grit that settles in the crevices of my molars. I let loose a long string of coughs. Jacob’s eyes widen and jump, and he holds an index finger in front of his lips.

“I told the funeral home not to embalm her,” he says. “Everyone’s been complaining about all the candles and incense, but what else was I supposed to do?”

I nod. I’m thinking about my car a quarter mile down the road, the cool leather seat against my back, the gas pedal yielding so easily under my foot. How surprisingly smoothly it runs despite its age and condition. I imagine racing to my brother’s house to tell him about tonight, the way his voice would spike as he calls me crazy, if he was still alive to call me crazy.

My hand finds the bottom of my bag, squeezing through the pebbly leather until the knife’s handle is defined against my palm.

“Funny about the phone,” I say.

“I didn’t want any interruptions.”

Jacob joins me in front of the coffin. We both stare down at the young woman inside. Her dark hair is a stark contrast against the white silk pillowing her head. Her hands are folded atop her stomach, and a blue-black stain creeps over the edges of her fingers, pooling like the start of a bruise.

“She’s still lovely,” he says, taking his fiancee’s right hand into his. The disruption causes her other hand to slide from her stomach and land awkwardly, palm folded in half, at her side. Jacob adjusts it so that her palm is down and her arm is straight, then places her other hand gently back in the coffin. Tears bully the shadowy hollows under his eyes.

Slow, deep piano notes drift in from the living room. The low murmur of voices blends with the static of the recording, as beautiful and heavy as the smoke-bloated air around us. For a moment the room vibrates, every beating heart in the house collected under my feet.

Like in the kitchen Jacob shadows my movements, sliding closer to me with each increment that I move away. His hip bumps against mine, and I feel his entire body tighten inside his suit, a tremor hurtling through his limbs and into me. I step back, yank the knife from inside my bag, and raise it just as I imagined.

“Wait.”

Jacob reaches into his suit jacket and produces a thick white envelope, its seal misaligned by its bulging contents. I lower the knife and take the envelope from him. Though I don’t yet have a solid grasp of how much it should weigh, I slip the envelope into my bag without opening it. I will do that in the car, far away from here, counting the bills under my cell phone’s flashlight.

“Ready?” I ask.

This time Jacob gives me space when I raise the knife. I cut open the woman’s white dress and use the tip of the blade to sever each crude stitch holding closed the Y-shaped incision that splits her chest. Though heavy, the flaps of skin fold back easily like pages in a well-loved book. Jacob looks on from a few feet back as I spread the already bisected ribcage. He winces, though I don’t know if it’s from the sight of his beloved cleft before him, or from the cold mineral stench that is rising in front of us. My ears catch the sharp intake of his breath as my hand slides into the woman’s chest cavity.

Blood as dark as wet earth oozes over my hands; my fingers puncture a film like the skin on chilled gravy. I think of my brother again, how much warmer he had been—how he still smelled like something that breathes and beats and bleeds—then the look of disappointment that dragged down my mother’s face when he failed to rouse at my touch. After that, she chose not to see what I can do; she’s never witnessed the sunken faces lifting with joy, the grateful embraces thrown around her only daughter. My mother has never seen the admiration of strangers—more than I ever wanted from her—in that one crystalline moment that I give to them, but couldn’t give to her. Hands cupping the young woman’s heart, I look over my shoulder at Jacob and attempt a reassuring smile. He smiles back through tears that now flow freely. I gently squeeze the small, firm muscle in my palms. I do it again. I watch the woman’s face. I wait for her heart to punch to life in my grip.

Page of Cups

 

J.A.W. McCarthy’s short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Vastarien,LampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, andThe Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). Her debut collection Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories will be published by Cemetery Gates Media in August 2021. She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, where she gets most of her ideas late at night, while she’s trying to sleep.

You can call her Jen on Twitter and Instagram @JAWMcCarthy, and find out more at www.jawmccarthy.com.

 [ issue 3 :  summer 2021 ]