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Empty Hearts

by Peter Medeiros

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


Martin was a mess when we got back. Knuckles were all torn up. A fresh gash across his face, worse than the old one. It was slick and red, yellowish around the edges. Television smashed, furniture overturned, one of the lamps bent in the middle. Parts of the cage bulged outward like it was attacked by a rhino.

The hidden microphones had temporarily quit while we were away. Em and I pieced together from silent video what had happened: another inexplicable fit from Martin, a freshly desperate attempt to break free.

“I don’t get it,” I told Em. “I’d expect this from Babs. I mean, she’s all screwed up from being freshly widowed, if you don’t mind me saying so. She doesn’t want to be here. But Martin? He gets to spend every day with her. It’s the guy’s dream come true. And we know he loves her, right? We know that.”

“Maybe he can’t stand the sight of her in a cage,” Emily said. “Maybe he was better off away from her, when he could imagine there was something there between them more than blood.”

When Em and I were done reviewing the tapes, Martin was passed out on the floor, surrounded by torn papers and bits of VCR like fragments of a broken shell. Babs sat cross-legged near his head, one of his hands in hers, stroking the knuckles. She had arranged her hair in a loose braid that fell past her shoulders. Her face was set like cooling mud. I hardly recognized the excited bride or the grieving widow in the set of her lips.

Through the rasp of the microphones, which were working again, we heard her say, “I don’t know why they’re doing this, Marty, whoever they are. But I think I was wrong, they’re not going to kill us. Sell us, maybe. But we’re going to survive this. I need you to get that inside of your head before you go off the handle like that. We come from tough folks, and we’re going to live.”

Em and I watched all this on the screens. Em said, “I have no idea if this is it or not. What we’ve been waiting for. My own sister. Most important person in the world to me, and I have no idea what she’s feeling. I want to know so bad.”

We had decided on the ride back from the strip mall that we had to let Babs and Martin go, whether or not they were in love. Maybe we’d get lucky and the cop wouldn’t remember us or the license plate. But, chances were, we had a lot of trouble coming down on us. I wondered what they do to wedding planners in Arkansas prisons, and what they do to Yankees, and which would be worse.

We hadn’t yet worked out the logistics of freeing Babs and Martin. It was probably as simple as leaving the cage open once they fell asleep. But when Babs finally lay down next to Martin and her gentle snoring joined his wracked breaths, Em stood without comment and took two stouts from her minifridge and left the boathouse without touching the cage. I followed.

She walked to the end of a little dock jutting out onto Lake Cranston. Took off her boots and rolled up her jeans and planted her butt on the edge. She mirthlessly played her feet in the water. Slapped the spot next to her.

When I sat down, she snapped the tops off the beers on the end of the dock. We skipped the caps out across the midnight water, disrupting a pale reflection of the galaxy. A bird swept silently overhead. Even in the dark of night, I felt its shadow on the back of my neck. Strange lights came from the Aerie across the lake. I wondered if it was a nocturnal wedding, and who had planned it.

“Are you going to go the cops,” Em said, “once I let you go?”

“Once you let me go,” I repeated. “Right.” Hard to see her face in the dark, but she might have smiled. Something might have passed between us. I felt an absurd but true regret that we had left that lingerie flapping in the parking lot, that it never got used. A silly regret, sure, but it felt full and solid through its center.

“How do you do it?” she asked. “Lordee, all those weddings. All those unhappy people.”

I said, “If Louie’s death wasn’t some freak accident and the heartfish really work like in the stories, if it wasn’t a burst coronary... it means all the weddings here in Shiver Rock — all the weddings where people don’t die, I mean — it’s all... true. True love.”

Em drew her feet out of the water and folded them beneath her, lotus style. “True love. I wish we could say that like it was a real thing. Not that I’m not a believer, but we don’t say it like we mean it.” She straightened her back and took a deep breath.

I thought I could see the fog pulled into her nostrils and sent back out, only darker, like smoke. She looked dense, like there was more person squashed inside of her than you should be allowed to carry around. She shouldn’t have been allowed to wrestle in high school. It probably wasn’t fair.

I had expected the feeling from the parking lot to fade, or at least to fade from view, like stage lights dying halfway through opening night. I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life, but that solidity persisted. I wanted to tell Emily I’d made up that crap about first dates and easterly-facing windows, that I’d been wrong when I thought love was a series of empty gestures. But I was scared those words themselves would have all the solidity of a Chinese lantern.

So I rolled up my sleeves and reached into the lake. Not sure how I knew they were there, but my hands wrapped around a pair of thick, ugly heartfish. Size of microwave breakfast sausage. Bloated and blood-colored. Their antennae groped the air slowly, drunkenly.

I looked at Emily until she met my eyes and put one of the heartfish in my mouth. I didn’t have to swallow; it pushed itself forward on its tail, slid down my throat. I felt warmth flood my chest like a vodka shot.

Emily said, “Aw, Gavin, you don’t know anything.”

But she took the other fish from my hand and ate it all the same.

I’m pretty sure she didn’t chew, that it was alive. I wanted to walk with Emily out of a movie theatre and into a cool evening beneath bright downtown lights and surprise her with a kiss. I remembered, keenly, waking next to Kamilla on a bright Wednesday in September and finding I had no words, no script for what I felt, and I hoped despite this the fish could glut itself on the contents of my heart. I hoped I would live.

Weak daylight had begun to creep over the pines without clearing the fog. Knifelike birds cut across the water, screaming at intervals as though in protest. Emily held my hand for a minute, then took it back and slapped my back. She said we should feed one of the heartfish to Martin to see what would happen, if it would be enough to convince Babs he was a good catch before we let them go.

She picked up her boots and drank her beer while walking, and again I followed. I wondered if I could live a life in Emily’s wake, behind her and behind on my beer. I wondered how many heartfish teemed, blind and groping, beneath the surface of the still water.

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Medeiros

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