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Empty Hearts

by Peter Medeiros

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 5

We went shopping. The cage had to seem more like a honeymoon suite.

I told Emily that a romantic setting was all about adjustable lighting. “That means we need to give them a couple lamps. Bright bulbs but heavy shades. Cream colors. A little bit of red on the bedspread, like a trim or something. We don’t want to overdo it.”

“That really works?” Em asked. “That makes a difference?”

“You know what the most important thing is when choosing a place for a first date? The thing that most correlates with both parties wanting a second date? Windows facing east. Big ones. Doesn’t matter the time of day, the hemisphere, nothing else.”

“Wow,” Emily said. “You know a lot about romance.” Smirked.

“I didn’t say that.” I realized I was incredibly hungry. “We also need to get them food. Real food, not the boxes of cereal you stashed in there. And wine, bad wine. Couples love to drink together almost as much as they love to complain together, and bad wine lets them do both. My ex and I did, anyway.” I silently corrected myself: Kamilla and I had merely believed we loved to do those things together. What we loved was an audience.

The next few days Emily and I made trips to a mall a little south of Shiver Rock. Emily asked if she had to handcuff me so I wouldn’t try rolling away on the highway. I said no, but she handcuffed me to the door anyway. Threatened to tackle me if I tried to run for it. I knew she could, too.

At night, when Babs and Martin went to sleep, Em jabbed them in the neck with a tranq so we could decorate without worrying about them waking up. Throw rugs and lamps. Posters from a print shop. Emily picked out a pair of lovers kissing beneath a red umbrella in front of the Eiffel Tower. I chose a picture of a thatched blue cottage in the country. People like to imagine retirement, co-ownership of land.

We expanded our outings to the Home Depot, second-hand stores, and antiques dealers where we couldn’t afford anything. People must have assumed we were a couple, shaking lamps at each other, arguing about what kind of light fixture was sexier.

We shopped for a King-sized mattress. Emily flopped down on her back and said, “I’m trying to imagine falling in love on it.”

I lay down next to her. This was at a used furniture shop. Middle of the day, no other customers. The owner stared at us from behind the counter. I think he had a shotgun under there. “They’ve known each other their whole lives,” I pointed out. “Even if Martin comes out and says it, what makes you think Babs will love him back?”

“After the heartfish killed Louie,” Em said, “she was so empty. All her dreams, that happy life she was supposed to have, the stuff you promised me and everybody promised her... it was all gone. She needs something to fill her up again. If we starve her, she’ll take anything.”

“That’s not very romantic.”

I could feel her roll over and look at me. I kept my eyes on the ceiling.

“I’m not talking about romance,” Em said. “I’m talking about survival here.”

We left them board games and a tiny television, complete with a VCR and a stack of John Hughes movies. Babs wrecked Martin at Scrabble, but he always wanted to play. Babs fell asleep during Sixteen Candles, her head limp on Martin’s shoulder. He watched her face for the last half hour of the movie.

Emily and I leaned forward in our seats, holding each other’s forearms with excitement, hissing, Wake her up and kiss her! But instead Martin threw himself from the couch in a burst of motion. He ran to the edge of the cage. Tore down the posters. Twisted his fingers through the grates and struck his head against the metal.

“I’m in pain,” he had told me. I moved to get up, to stop him from concussing himself, but Emily’s nails dug deeper into my arm.

Martin screamed, “Let us out, you sons of bitches! What do you want with us? If you’re going to hurt us, if you’re going to—”

Babs was awake, close behind him. Arms around Martin’s waist, her ear pressed into his back. “Marty, we can’t do anything. We can’t do anything like this.” She touched his face like she meant to cut off his breath. “Oh, Marty. You’re bleeding.” She turned him around. Checked to see if he’d need stitches, not gently.

“Kiss her,” I whispered again. Somehow it took less than a week for me to become invested in Babs and Martin’s nonexistent romance. Mostly as a kind of social experiment, I told myself. More exciting than squabbling with caterers, that’s for sure. I had to remind myself I was going to the police as soon as Em let me go.

But Emily swatted my arm with the back of her hand. “Jackass,” she said.

I felt childish and inane and, most of all, betrayed. By myself, for finding some kind of fun in this; and by Emily, for not sharing that fun.

That was the closest Babs and Martin came to kissing.

* * *

Sometimes the audio on Emily’s surveillance equipment would cut out completely, and Emily and I would make up lines for our prisoners, like we were watching a soap opera on mute. We had a flair for melodrama:

Oh, Martin. Spending so much time together, it’s like I finally see the real you. My darling Babs, as much as I despise this terrible prison, I could not wish for better company.

I sensed in this game a tacit apology from Emily, an acknowledgement that I was not, in fact, a jackass. But then I might have been imagining it.

* * *

After a week, Em and I were growing impatient. The evanescence of our project, the increasing need to get Babs and Martin in love and out of the cage crackled between us like static electricity. It pulled our faces closer to the screens, closer together. Every hour I reminded Em it was only a matter of time before someone found Louie’s body and sparked a manhunt for his missing widow. Emily got real quiet and said they would notice Babs was missing first. She got tired of repeating this.

At some point she had quit handcuffing me to furniture.

Em was ready for desperate measures. She decided to get her sister lingerie from a Frederick’s of Hollywood, to encourage Martin to pop the question. Besides, Emily figured, Babs and Martin would need fresh clothes anyway. “When Babs moved out,” she said, “I swore I’d never do another piece of her laundry.”

We drove three hours west to a strip mall in Dewitt. In the lingerie store Em asked, “What kind of thing does a man look for in fancy underwear?”

“A woman,” I said. But I was remembering Kamilla. She was a talker in bed, and she wanted me to be one as well. As if all those platitudes mean more when you’re naked, when you’re in the act. As if that act is not, itself, an act.

“Don’t be funny,” Em admonished.

I had reached a point where nothing I said in a courtroom could convince a jury I had been coerced into helping Em with her crime, and yet I was uncomfortable discussing my underwear preferences. I said, “I’m not going to play this game. What do you even need me for anymore?”

Em flipped through a discount rack and came back with this frilly black negligee with white fluffy bits along the bottom. “Does this, you know, do it?”

I rubbed my face. Tried not to picture Emily in the underwear. But then I did, and it did. It did exactly what Emily was asking. I could imagine her waking up in absurd nightwear, waking up next to me. Warm with sleep. Her hair reaching across the pillow towards my face.

I remembered the day I woke next to Kamilla and realized I felt nothing for her, that I’d spent years of my life playing along with the rhetoric of the youthful romance everybody’s supposed to experience. How easy it is to let your life collapse once you accept that you’ve only been reading from invisible cue cards. A protracted ceremony.

Emily frightened me with her absolute certainty that the feeling her sister saw in TVs and movies, the kind that gets people to the altar, happens outside of a script. It made me angry. It made me angry I had to remind myself. My particular brand of cynicism required regular renewal and maintenance, like a car or a gun.

“Sure,” I said, “it’s sexy. In a white-trash, tawdry, redneck kind of way. It’s exactly the kind of thing dreamt up for the kind of people who don’t know the difference between a truffle and a bonbon.”

“Lordee, I’ll put it back. Gawd.” She replaced the black lingerie and thumbed through the discount rack with a new kind of suspicion, like someone opening a door that might be trapped. She picked out a sheer red nightgown without consulting me and paid for it in cash.

Back in the parking lot, a balding cop was hovering around the minivan. He had a little plastic container with half a salad in it. Frowned like he’d done something wrong, when it was clear that Em and I were the ones in trouble.

“Maybe we should hold hands,” I said, “so we look like a couple and not criminals.” A week living like this had made everything seem more sensible. I was losing touch with objective criteria for what was a smart thing to do. My thinking must have taken on some of the momentum that kept Emily tilted forward, always moving.

The McLaughlins had probably got married without me, and there were two weddings this week I hadn’t contacted. Do sharks remind themselves, I wondered, that each moment spent still is a moment spent dying?

“That makes sense,” Em said, “holding hands.” But she only glanced at me, and my hand, the way Babs looked at Martin’s bloodied face. We did not touch. She had the lingerie bag gripped tight in one hand and took the keys from her pocket with the other. She nodded to the cop when we got close. Touched the tip of her dog-catching cap with the jangling keys. “How ya doin’, officer?”

“Doin’ fine, ma’am,” he said. “This your vehicle?” Emily told him it was. His frown deepened. He looked like a school principal. I was sweating and shaking. Couldn’t handle a diet of espresso the way Em could. Remembered being young and gangly and half-Korean in Queens, scared shitless of police.

The cop said, “Well, I was taking a look because of this cage you got rigged in there. Pretty neat! Do-it-yourself doggy paddy wagon, huh? But first, I saw the gun you got there. And it’s just, er, looks like you got some heavy artillery you’re packing.”

“Oh,” Emily said, “that looks worse than it is. Only fires bean bags.” Which was the truth, far as I knew. But Em was a terrible actor. Hands on her hips, smiling like she’d won a game at the county fair. Which is a real thing they have in Shiver Rock, a county fair. It cut my lungs out, how lousy she was at acting, at performance. At the Ellis wedding, Emily had asked me to get back in time for a dance; I had forgotten all about that. We had not danced.

The cop’s free hand drifted to his pistol but he didn’t unlatch it. “All right, ma’am. But I’d like to see your permit for the firearm all the same.”

Emily laughed like it was a joke. It did not sound like her laughter. “Heh. There’s no law for long-carry here in Arkansas. Or are you new on the force round here?”

“No law against long guns, miss, but I’m sure they’ll find something on the books about a goddamn grenade launcher. Now you open up this vehicle nice and slow and let me—”

Em feinted at him with a jab, then went down low to tackle him around the middle. Would’ve worked, I think, but the cop chucked his half-eaten salad at her on reflex. The little plastic container came open and a cloud of leafy greens got in Em’s way. She slapped lettuce out of the air. Now the cop was getting the gun out. I could see its snubby little tip clearing the holster.

And this heavy, solid feeling filled my lungs. Like cooling magma or concrete. Like water freezing and taking its container apart, bursting its seams. I wondered how Louie felt when he ate the heartfish. I barely knew the man, since he let Babs handle most of the big decisions, which were really my decisions, invitations and caterers and color schemes. But had he believed in the heartfish? And had he believed he loved Babs enough to risk his life in the ceremony?

I leapt forward. Two strides. Hands out.

A New York cop, a harder cop would have shot me. But this cop only spun around, both hands around his pistol and said, “Son, don’t you try it.”

Which gave Emily enough time to clear the space between them. She performed a complicated maneuver with both hands on the cop’s wrist and the gun leapt from his fingers. I thought about catching it but settled for scooting to the side and kicking the piece away when it hit the hot pavement.

Emily tagged the cop with a left cross that spun him all the way around. Kicked out his knees. Wrapped her right arm around the cop’s throat and grabbed her left bicep, left palm against the back of his head. Pulled back her shoulders. She spoke calmly through gritted teeth: “My sister deserved better than all this. My sister. You don’t know what I’d do, man. You don’t know or else you would’ve walked away.”

The cop went limp. Em brought him gently to the ground. She dry-sobbed, her hands near her face. For a second I thought she had killed him, but the cop’s chest was still rising and falling, his eyes rolling beneath the lids.

The lingerie had spilled from its bag when Em dropped it, red and lacey and ridiculous. Her keys lay next to it, the cop’s gun yards away. I hadn’t left New York so much as blown away, a papier-mâché person in an endless gale. So afraid of the way I let myself play the phony lover, the phony friend, I had to get away from the stage.

I saw myself taking that bullet, and it did not look like a movie, a bloody thread pulled out my back. I could not imagine what Emily would have done. I picked up the keys and looked out towards the highway and remembered how easy it had been in New York, the lying and the leaving.

I held the keys out to Emily. “Hey,” I said. “We have to go. Someone probably saw that. Or he’ll miss a check-in with his station. Or something.”

Em battered my chest with her open palms. I let her. Then I opened up my arms and she stepped into them. We held each other, her forearms locked behind my back. She could have broken me, I could feel it in her.

“I could’ve killed him,” she said, “if he wouldn’t let me get back to her. Just doing his job, but I would have.”

“I see that,” I said. “I can see that.”

* * *

Proceed to part 6...

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Medeiros

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