Stupid Gabe, stupid dirty house, stupid unfair punishments. Kade kicks a loose nail in the worn floorboards. He should be out with Lana at the Valentine’s Day dance, but his dumb brother just had to start another argument. It’s not like Gabe ever gets in trouble for his part in them, either. Why does mom only ever believe him? Is it because he’s younger? Because his face has that round cherubic quality? Whatever the reason, the rest of his family is out to dinner and Kade is stuck at home cleaning out the disgusting attic like a loser.
“Ugh!” He punches the wall next to a rickety metal shelf and a small panel pops open. “What the hell?” It’s an old house, passed down through his family for generations, so loose drywall is probably the least pressing repair, but this looks different, intentional. He peeks into the open cavern, squinting against the cloud of dust that wafts out of the hole. There’s a box. The wood is dark, stained a reddish brown, and looks to be handcrafted into the shape of a heart.
Kade pulls it out and carefully opens the lid. It’s full of small slips of paper, yellowed at the edges but generally well preserved. He grabs the top one and unfolds it. His grandfather’s harsh scrawl is immediately recognizable from all the old birthday and Christmas cards. Kade has never known anyone else to write like he did. Every letter was uniform except one. Grandpa Liam’s Ns were always odd, almost-cursive and swirled at the bottom with a diagonal line across the middle.
'Your eyes are like the changing sky, blue that fades into darker night. Light blinks across them like shooting stars and, God, I wish love could be ours.’ Kade reads another. ‘I could lay myself down in your golden hair. No real gold is worth more, no sun shines as warmly, no beauty can compare.’ And another, ‘The way you scream for me is—’ Nope! No thanks, that’s enough of that.
He tosses the notes back in the box and shoves it away with gusto. It tips on its side and most of the little slips topple out onto the dirty floor, but he can’t be bothered to care.
They are love letters, or lust letters or something. Grandpa Liam never seemed like the romantic type, but clearly he was capable. Lana keeps saying he should be more romantic, but Kade has always figured he suffered from the classic Barrowman disposition. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all notoriously lacking in matters of the heart, but clearly that isn’t entirely true.
He picks up the closest fallen note. 'My dearest Nancy, your breath against my skin sparks me like the breath of life. It is with much sorrow that I confess you will not be with me past this night.’
Nancy isn’t his grandmother’s name. Her eyes aren’t blue and her hair has always been a chocolate brown. Maybe his grandpa had an awful breakup before he met Nana? It’s odd to think that his grandfather could have dated other women. It’s wrong in that skin-deep itching kind of way, but also because his marriage to Nana Eliza was always so strong. Still, even he knows that young love doesn’t last. Three couples in his class broke up just last week. Kade is going to marry Lana, though. Well, as long as she doesn’t break up with him for missing the dance.
He eyes the box again. Maybe he can find a few good lines to lay on her when she stops by later. Is it an invasion of privacy? Maybe, but grandpa has been gone for seven years. It’s not like he can do much about it. Kade grabs a handful of notes, skimming them with a half-attentive eye.
His fingers brush across a bigger piece of paper. The texture is different, thin and crisp like it had more time exposed to the elements. He holds it up to the light. It’s a newspaper clipping.
Nancy Malloy, Gone Too Soon
One of the few female students at Valor High School, Nancy Malloy (18) passed away on the evening of February 14, 1939. Police are still investigating the death, which has been called suspicious, and ask anyone with information to come forward. Nancy was a beloved member of the community and leaves behind her parents Mr. and Mrs. Paul Malloy.
Kade goes to Valor High, just like all of his family has for decades, and no one has ever mentioned a suspicious death. Sure, it was a long time ago, but what else happens in this good-for-nothing town? There is another clipping near the bottom of the box. With a bit more trepidation, he reads it.
One Year Since The Tragic Death of Eighteen Year-Old:
Nancy Malloy was found murdered by Eros Lake on Valentine’s Day in 1939. Her body showed signs of suffocation, but there was no evidence at the scene to lead police to her killer. No arrests have been made and it is presumed that the murderer is still at large.
Kade sets the clippings down and takes a deep breath. The box is nearly empty now, enough for him to spot a hand-painted N on the inside written with a curly tail and a line across the middle. It’s a stupid, fleeting thought, but Kade can’t help but wonder if the N stands for Nancy— if every N has stood for Nancy.
He sets his hand down and it crunches on one of the smaller notes. It’s one of the first, the lewd sounding one that made him spill the box. ‘The way you scream for me is like a siren song, but my love, all songs must end. When yours went silent under my hand, I knew you would never sing again.’
Oh, God. With shaky hands, Kade picks up the last slip in the box. ‘Nancy, I will try to hide away my thoughts of you, but you will always be the first secret held in my heart.’
The words hit him like a punch to the throat and leave him breathless: the first. The first, the first, the first.
His chest heaves with barely contained panic as he tears the whole panel off the wall. The wood splinters and slices his fingertips but the pain doesn’t register. Neither does the musty, rotting stench that follows. Kade sinks to his knees. The loose nail in the floorboard digs into his shin and his bloody fingers carve crescents into his palms.
There, tucked away on a hidden shelf, sit nine more heart-shaped boxes.