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Fiction Sad Speculative

He found himself in front of the box again. Brian didn’t recall lowering the stairs to the attic. He hadn’t noticed his feet carrying him down the path his footsteps had created in the dust and insulation-covered planks. Navigating the clothes, decorations, and knickknacks - strewn about the attic floor during his impassioned rush to find the box in the moments after she’d walked out the door – didn’t register to him anymore.

Yet, here he was again. Staring at the half-empty box that contained one struggling heart, his heart. The other side only contained the hint of a stain where hers used to rest. 

Before she took it back.

Every time his fingertips rubbed along the matching clasps on either side of the ornate box, he could feel the rhythmic movement inside increase in intensity. Every time the lifted the clasps, he projected his inability to live without her onto Helen. Surely, after all this time, she felt like he did. Surely, she’d come back the night before, deposited her heart in its rightful place, and would be laying on the couch – their couch – downstairs when he went down.

Every time he opened the box, he saw his pitiful organ shrivel and shrink inside itself. The renewed realization that it was still alone always caused the poor muscle to deflate a little more each day. It seemed more a prune than the plum he’d first placed inside the box next to hers on their wedding day.

The cycle would begin anew each day. He’d slam the box shut. He’d lie to himself, tell himself that he’s over her. He’d consider a dramatic move, like taking his heart from the box to truly signify that he knew it was over. He’d back down, the “what if” in the back of his mind paralyzing him. He’d leave the attic unchanged from when he entered.

The cycle continued until one morning in late Fall when Brian, bundled up in the maroon scarf that Helen knitted for him for Christmas two years back, braved the chilly November air for a latte from the café three blocks away. The same café he’d run into Helen more than 7 years ago. He always ensured that he took the time to groom his short beard, dab on a few drops of her favorite cologne, and wear the scarf she gave him. He hadn’t seen her there since she left, but he didn’t want to risk showing her anything but him at his best.

He approached the small shop, its large front window decorated with fading temporary paint telling of the return of pumpkin spice flavors. They’d need to change it soon. Peppermint, if they didn’t change things up this year. He could never understand why anyone would want to drink coffee with peppermint. He often poked fun at Helen for her love of the drink.

As he got close, the glare from the morning sun disappeared from the large pane. He began to reach out for the handle of the old wooden door only to stop in his tracks. 

Helen was there. Not only that, but around her neck was the scarf he’d bought for her and the arms of a guy Brian had never seen before. She was smiling like she did when they first met, like she hadn’t done in years. He didn’t have to look in the box to know that his heart had slowed to a crawl. Everything seemed to slow down; he watched each motion, each word that caused her beautiful lips to move up and down, the way his arms wrapped tighter around her like a snake that weakly constricted its victims, the way he leaned in to where his mouth was next to her ear. He could hear the man’s words in his mind, telling her things that no other man should ever speak to his Helen.

His Helen…

At some point, his hand had lowered as he watched the scene unfold, the café window now a big screen projecting the most heart wrenching scene in an already depressing film. The door was now untouchable, the café forbidden. He could never go back; to the café, to the way things used to be…

To his Helen.

He reached up and tugged on the scarf, loosening it around his neck as he’d begun to feel hot despite the crisp gusts of November wind. His breaths came in short and quick. How could she do this to him? That was his smile, his laughter. And now, she gave it away to some other guy?

Never again.

Brian spun on his heels, marching the three blocks back to his house, glaring at the ground in front of him. His chest, still empty despite Helen’s insistence that he take his heart back months prior, was an oasis of cold in his otherwise red hot body. He wasn’t sure what to feel, but the anger that welled up inside him made the decision for him, overriding any other potential feelings he may have displayed.

He tore through the front door, pounding each step as he stormed to the second floor. He ripped down the stairs leading to the attic, bounding up the stairs in two long strides. He walked the same path through the dust that he’d traveled daily for months, including just an hour before, and scooped up the pitiful little sky-blue box. He didn’t bother with the clasps; he grabbed the edge of the lid from the side and tore it off the little ornate hinges.

Inside, dark and shriveled and beating in short, quick bursts, his heart sat by itself like it had since she took hers out months back.

“You fucking idiot,” he chastised himself. “You pathetic fool. She was never coming back, the damn whore. She can fucking have him, they can have each other. I hope they live happily ever fucking after.

He tore his heart from the box and threw the broken container against the far wall of the attic. Gripping tight on the shrunken organ, his hand forming a loose fist with his heart inside, he pulled his shirt and jacket up to reveal his bare chest. 

He pushed his heart back inside, punching through the thin layer of skin that had regrown over his chest cavity since he first pulled it out. It wasn’t as difficult to break through as the first time he did it. The strength gained in his rage also helped push through the flesh and bone that guarded his chest, though it also mutilated the tiny piece of muscle that had begun to grow in the months since his original heart had begun to die.

Brian deposited the sickly organ where it came from. The socket where he pulled his heart from all those years ago felt much larger than before as he pushed the tiny heart into place. 

It was time to get back out there. He would worry about Helen no longer. He wouldn’t spend countless hours imagining what it would feel like to have her walk through the door, or walking up to a box that she had long forgotten about. No, it was time to move forward, even if his friends and family all told him to take his time. He didn’t need time. 

He needed someone, anyone. Even with his heart back in its place and his newfound resolve to move on, the sinking feeling in his chest wasn’t dissipating. The only way to ease withdrawals was to take another hit. So too was the case with love, he surmised. 

It didn’t matter who it was, his heart couldn’t continue to survive on its own without another heart to latch onto. Once a heart has been removed and given away, it would never be able to work as well by itself as it did before. A heart longs to be with its partner once paired, as everyone knew. It’s why weddings included the boxing ceremony, so the two hearts could be together for eternity.

The thought of his boxing ceremony only strengthened Brian’s resolve to find someone new. If the last woman he tried to give himself to rejected him, he’d just find another. He decided that he would stick to casual flings, one-night stands and nameless sexual encounters for the time being. 

His heart, however, had other ideas. Each time it got close to another heart, it would stab into its socket, piercing the flesh around it with darkened arteries to try to push its way towards a potential new pairing.  Brian too latched on, growing instantly attached to any lady who would so much as bat an eyelash at him from across the room. Every woman felt like the one, every encounter felt like the beginning of a long-term relationship. The happiness and lust his heart pulled from others rejuvenated it, even if only slightly. It thirsted for more, always more. 

It began with Stacy, a shapely brunette who happened to also be the last woman at the bar at last call. Maybe it wasn’t a date per se, unless sheets counted the same as a fancy restaurant and moans the same as dinner conversation. That distinction didn’t matter to his heart, though. When he woke the next morning to find the other half of his bed empty, his chest ached all the same. Not quite as sharply as seeing Helen at the café, but it was on the same wavelength.

A parade of nameless women followed, including a couple of men Brian snuck in through the back door. Nights alone were terrifying with the prospect of having to face the aching, nagging feeling that he would always be alone. He avoided them at all cost.

Even nights not spent alone were the source of much pain, albeit delayed. Each empty bed, each unreturned text… they only served to squeeze down tighter on his little heart, wringing out what little remained of its capacity to love. Love others. Love himself. The more he lost that capacity, the more his heart tried to latch on to another. The more it longed for another, needed another, to fill the void created by loneliness and his unwillingness to allow a new heart to grow.

Brandy, one of the few women to stick around long enough for Brian to remember her name, caught his attention with her smile on her dating profile. When she walked into the pub that first night, she looked around the room trying to match his photo to the faces in the room. When she eyed him, her cheeks lifted and sent his overused heart into overdrive. She was definitely the one.

They chatted for hours, Brian playing the part of interested, compatible mate as well as he could manage. His ruse successful, he achieved the all-important second date. He went home and lay on his side of the king-sized bed, replaying every comment and response he gave in his mind to inspect his performance for any errors. There could be no further errors with this one, he thought.

The second date went as well as the first, as did the third and fourth. Brian’s heart could feel the reciprocation from Brandy’s, the attraction practically pulling his heart out of its oversized socket. Surely she felt the same.

He made his move on the fifth date, during the post-dinner stroll down Main Street. He waited until they passed the small café where Helen showed her true self all those months ago before popping the question.

“Will you take my heart. I give it to you as a sign of my love.”

The sight of his tiny prune heart caused her eyes to shoot open. The smile she’d shared so willingly for the past three weeks hid behind a pall that moved across her face. She looked away, wringing her hands.

“Brian, you know I like you…”

“Oh God.”

“…but it looks like you’ve already given your heart away. I’ve been with someone who was still hung up on his ex. I can’t do that again.”

No amount of pleading or attempts to convince Brandy that he was truly over Helen changed what he knew was coming. She never responded to another text after walking into the night. What did she know, anyway? He would’ve treated her like a queen. He even told her as much. She'd sent his little heart racing when she responded with that smile of hers, too. 

Once again, he made the choice to push the little heart back in his chest. It seemed to have a mind of its own; Brian could feel that it didn’t want to return, alone and unable to feed off the goodwill, kindness, and most of all, love of another. Still, he reopened the wound he’d never let heal in his chest, pushing the muscle through the skin, rib cage, and pain that always accompanied the act of replacing his weary heart.

Suzanne showed promise. The two weeks he spent with her felt magical. Surely, she was the one. He’d found her at last. His heart again felt full and happy, the proximity to her addicting. He texted her when he woke up in the morning to let her know she was on his mind. He texted her on his lunch break to ask what she was doing. He called the moment he walked out of his office. Whenever he wasn’t talking to her, he was worried she was thinking that he wasn’t thinking about her. 

The moment after he sent a message, the countdown began. He began to feel the tension in his chest, radiating out to the rest of his body. It crept its way into his brain, leaving trails of memories and anxiety in its wake. Before long, he was reaching for his phone, checking to see if she messaged back. If he saw nothing, his mind went into a tailspin of doubt, always crashing into his loneliness and leading to another message that tried to seem harmless but reeked of desperation.

He could feel her slipping away, so her agreeing to another Netflix night set his heart racing and his mind running. He had to secure her, ensure that she didn’t leave him. He presented his heart to her that night, assured that if she saw how much he’d fallen for her in such a short time that she would immediately reciprocate. That’s how it happened in the movies, after all.

“Oh… oh no, Brian. I’m sorry.”

“That’s, um, not the response I was hoping for.”

“I came over to give this one last shot, but even if I planned on seeing you some more, I can’t be with someone like you. Your heart, it’s not right. You need help.”

“But you can help me! You are the thing that makes my heart happy. Look how it jumps to life when near you.” Brian pushed his heart towards her, causing Suzanne to jump back.

“Oh honey, you need professional help. I can’t fix you, and I’m done trying to fix men who have the kind of baggage you do.”

And so it went, time after time. He couldn’t understand why women didn’t want a man who would give his all to them, who would bend to their every demand, every desire. He was giving them what they wanted, wasn’t he? His heart would be theirs forever, permanently tied to them if they would just give him the love he needed back.

He just needed their love. He need to find someone who would give it. He needed…

April. 

You’re too clingy, Brian. Please don’t text me again.

Yolanda. 

Yes, I got the flowers. How did you know where I work?

Elizabeth.

I’m talking to my ex, we’re going to get back together.

Joanne.

I don’t think it’s a good idea if we go on a date after all; you’re creeping me out.

Leanne… yes, Leanne. 

Such a big heart, full of love and kindness. She’s a veterinarian, says she values helping those in need, healing those who are hurt. His heart felt the sheer magnitude of her capacity to love on the first date.

She didn’t turn him down when he presented his heart on the fourth date. She pitied him, felt sorry for him.

She wanted to help fix him.

She was perfect.

August 28, 2021 03:45

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7 comments

03:51 Sep 02, 2021

Decidedly creepy! An effective, disturbing portrayal of covert narcissism, and an apt use of speculative metaphor. A couple places I stumbled to follow your thoughts in the narrative: "He ripped *down the stairs* leading to the *attic*, bounding *up the stairs*..." (He goes down to the attic *first*?) "A parade of nameless *women* followed, including a couple of *men*..." (So, were the men trans? Was he aware?) The story does leave me wondering, what would have happened if he *had* managed to regrow his heart from scratch? And what's goin...

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Michael Martin
16:27 Sep 03, 2021

I'm glad it worked for you! The thing is, when I first started writing this, I intended it to be more of a redemption story (as in, he learns that he needs to let it regrow) but my mind took it to a decidedly darker place (that tends to happen...). Thanks for the suggestions, I love getting these so I can work on improving my craft!

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Francis Daisy
14:22 Aug 29, 2021

Michael, Ouch! He literally gives his heart away and it comes back shriveled and dark. He is is such a dark and lonely place and has such a hard time climbing back out from this broken-hearted spot. The pain is real and can be felt in your descriptions. Well written prose. I feel like I need to go hug my family now...your writing always moves me! :)Amy

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Michael Martin
19:52 Aug 29, 2021

That's the biggest compliment you could give, that my writing moves you. The fact that I can make you feel something just by putting words on a page, it makes me feel like I'm doing something right. Thanks for the great feedback, and I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Zahra Naazir
10:13 Aug 28, 2021

Wow, I really like the lesson taught. A world where hearts are exchanged, what a tough world to live it. The story is beautifully told and the descriptions were tastefully vivid. The heart is one that really does hurt in a way where it infects all else. Anyone can relate to its afflictions. Thanks for this. Keep writing!

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Michael Martin
10:56 Aug 28, 2021

I sincerely appreciate the kind words; I've had this idea floating around for a while, the idea that each time you're in a relationship, you literally give your heart away. When that relationship ends, you have to regrow your heart... it takes time and you need to give yourself that time. I'm glad my story was able to get that across in some small way, and that you enjoyed it :)

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Ken Cartisano
05:21 Jul 07, 2023

Hi again Michael, I read your most recent story, was impressed with your writing and decided to see what else you had on your page. I was not disappointed as this story is excellently written too. There are some creepy elements, (the empty house, the dust on the floors) but they seemed designed to create suspense which they do very well. But the main character did not come across as threatening, he was just heartsick. And this is the real beauty of this story, the concept. You've turned the cliche's we use for love and breakups, and ma...

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