Possible Human Hearts

 In Short Fiction, Stories

Miranda carries a Styrofoam box with a large red cross on it. She’s trembling. I smell her sweat, tangy and sharp, all the way from the couch.

I stand up and reach out to her. My fingers feel stiff, and I realize I look like the monster from the black-and-white movie Miranda showed me two nights ago. A creature with rigid arms outstretched toward the creator, voiceless with need.

“Can I help?” I ask.

Miranda shakes her head. “I got it.”

She curls one leg around the door and slams it shut. Then she puts the Styrofoam box on the counter in the small kitchen. Miranda brings her hands to her face, sees the reddish brown smears on her palms and under her fingernails. She looks down at her chest, her stomach, taking inventory. Then lurches to the kitchen sink and heaves. I have never seen her vomit before. Her back arches in a perfect curve, like the cat we watched in another black-and-white film. Miranda has no tail, no thick hairs to stand on end.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

Miranda holds out her hand to wave me off.

“Fine, Theta,” she says. “I’m fine.”

She turns on the faucet, grabs the retractable hose and sprays the sink, then she turns the hose on her face. She opens her mouth to let the water in. Then she shuts off the hose and gargles. I gather she is not, in fact, fine.

She grabs a towel and wipes her face. The spray of the sink hose seems to steady her, despite the dark clouds of mascara under her eyes now. She turns and leans back against the sink, eyeing the Styrofoam box as if something might crawl out of it.

“Is there an animal in there?” I ask.

Miranda blinks.

“What?” she asks. “Oh, no. It’s what I promised, Theta. It’s what we’ve talked about.”

I stand a little straighter, place my hands on my hips.

I remember what we’ve talked about. Memory is something I am very good at.

“I understand,” I say.

Miranda nods. She seems more confident now. Her shoulders settle into the stone-like surety I admire. She lets me lean on those shoulders when we watch movies. When she wears shirts that expose her skin, I am able to scent the lotion on the long curve from her neck to her arms. Scents I know very well. In fact, I wish I could bottle them. Miranda had not laughed when I told her so. She said that is one of her projects, eventually, to bottle scents.

“But not just any scents,” Miranda had said excitedly. “Ephemeral scents. Memory scents. I want to bottle the scents of people’s loved ones after they die. Scents from childhood. Their first birthday. Their cribs. The smell of their favorite toy.”

When I asked her how she would get such specific memories, she had shrugged.

“Data mining a mind is no different than a computer,” she said. “It’s just a matter of digging deep enough.”

She explained it to me, motioning with her hands. At times, she pressed her fingertips to my forehead or the back of my skull, massaging the silicone skin, telling me what she could glean from that part of the brain.

When Miranda becomes inspired, her voice rises to higher decibels. It is like an aria. I am also exceptional with sound, and I enjoy Miranda’s sounds the most.

Miranda motions for me to sit on the couch, and I do. She brings the Styrofoam box to the coffee table and kneels beside it. She takes off the lid, and I smell plastic and a sharp, sweet, scent. I recognize the scent because I am adept with memory, recalling the smell of Miranda’s finger when she’d cut it while slicing vegetables for dinner.

Miranda lifts out a clear bag, and I’m not sure what I expected when it comes to the human heart. The way Miranda talks about the organ – the way the characters in the movies talk about hearts, the way they clutch their chests and exclaim whom their hearts belong to – has always led me to hypothesize that they look like lightbulbs, or perhaps more accurately, chandeliers. Like the enormous chandelier from the other black-and-white movie Miranda showed me. It was gigantic, and even though the film was in black and white, I imagined the light from the chandelier radiated in unfiltered color. The beams reflected little rainbows off the crystal, bending light. 

I know how light works, too. I know multitudes. But I do not know why Miranda sometimes frowns, or why, when she starts breathing hard and fast, she needs to go to the bathroom and lock herself inside. I hear her sob, counting forwards and backwards from eight, because eight is her lucky number. After counting, I hear her move on to solving complex calculus problems out loud. When her panic softens, she sifts through the latest alchemical formulas she pores over at night.

I know this process intimately, because each time it happens, I plant myself on the other side of the bathroom door and listen. I count Miranda’s breaths and time the length of the episode. I bottle each occurrence, cataloging it, and find myself hoping the number of breaths and the length of time is less than before.

There is still much I do not know, which is why I had asked Miranda for this favor.

Miranda stares at the heart as well.

“We’ll try this one first,” Miranda says, then seems to hesitate. “I’m good with numbers. Formulas. Metals. Not so good with bodies. Honestly, I don’t even know if this will work.”

I lean toward her as I sit on the couch, taking her hand in my own. She feels soft, warm.

“I’d like to…” I begin, searching for the right words. “What I mean to say is that I believe in you, Miranda.”

Miranda swallows and some of the color in her cheeks flushes into a red bloom. She looks as if she might vomit again. Instead, she sets the bag on the coffee table and cups my cheeks with both of her hands.

“I’ve said this before, but you already feel, Theta,” she whispers. “You don’t need a heart. You’re better than most without having one.”

I look into Miranda’s eyes. Her irises are bright, metallic. Gold and silver and copper swirling in on themselves. She probably does not notice, as I do, that the color changes from day to day. Today they are more gold, whereas yesterday they were silver.

“I’d like to try,” I say. “You promised.”

She nods. “I promised. But I want you to know in case this doesn’t have the effect you desire. Know that you are exactly who you think you are, Theta.”

Her thumbs brush against my jaw, and I wonder if I could sit on this couch forever, as long as her thumbs move like that.

Miranda’s hands fall away, the warmth on my face fleeting. Touch. That is another thing I am very good at.

The muscles in Miranda’s jaw twitch and pulse, and I cannot tell if she is angry or sad. Both, perhaps. Miranda has said that I am observant, so much more so than others, so much more perceptive than the previous ones. The thought of them makes my memories blur a little. I twitch. The Previous Ones.

“Did the others come this close?” I ask. “To loving you?”

Miranda leans away, and now there is too much space between us. Her jaw ticks and pulses. I hear her grind her teeth. It sounds loud to me, a roaring.

“I did not –the previous ones never came close to you,” Miranda whispers. “I don’t enjoy talking about them.”

“Because they failed?” I ask.

“Because I failed,” Miranda says. The last syllable comes out in a sob.

There is a long, extended silence. I used to fear silences. The loudness of the world made me think that any silence is a failure to connect. I used to speak in tumultuous waves, rushing into questions. Miranda was exhausted at first, especially because I couldn’t stand her going to sleep. Sleeping created deep silences, and I was left alone to navigate them. Then, one day, Miranda sat me down and showed me silent films. Old films where there was only music or text. Sometimes there were no sounds at all.

“Silence is not a bad thing,” Miranda said. “Silence can be good. A resting period. A pause. It is not a failure, Theta. It is a journey to the next moment.”

We watched many silent films that day. I leaned on her shoulder. I smelled the lotion on her skin. After Miranda went to sleep, I watched all the films again, memorizing them.

I let this particular silence between us extend. Miranda likely doesn’t want me to ask more questions, and I agree, because I might not enjoy her answers.

After the silence runs its course, Miranda goes back to the bag. She asks me to take off my shirt. I pry open the panel on my front. There is a small generator there, and Miranda has been working, at my request, to replace the generator with a human heart.

Miranda takes out her tools, a leather satchel that she keeps under the coffee table. In the satchel is a recorder, and she presses a button to turn it on.

“Heart Implementation Test 1,” Miranda says, following with the date, time, and – checking the dials on my generator – the state of my vitals. She puts the recorder down and opens the bag.

“You might black out,” Miranda says. “If the heart doesn’t take. Or perhaps if it takes too well. Don’t panic. I will bring you back.”

“I know you will,” I say.

Before she goes to open the plastic bag, sirens wail along the streets outside. Angry sounds. Usually, Miranda does not mind them, but at the sirens’ sudden onslaught, all color leaves her face. She stands, a visible tremor going from her neck to her knees. Her eyes widen into discs, her pupils dilate. She breathes hard and fast, like the thrumming of a piano. I wonder if she is counting in her head, and I decide to as well:

Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Miranda finds the remote control. She exits my movie database profile on the viewport screen in front of us. Miranda usually discourages me from watching the news.

“You are not ready for it,” she’d said. “You’d feel too much.”

Instead, I’ve watched more films. As many as I can find, but preferably the black-and-white ones. The old ones. The silent ones. Long forgotten. The ones that seem as desperate for a human heart as I am.

But this time, Miranda flips to the government channel. “Breaking News” flashes in red on the screen.

“An unregistered alchemist is believed to be the culprit in a theft of organs from the City Hospital this morning,” a voice said as an image of the hospital was shown on the screen.

It was a Pay-to-Stay Hospital. Miranda explained those to me, I remembered, and I was glad that she was the one to fix my ailments when they appeared. Few were so lucky. I saw Miranda’s knuckles turn bloodless as she clutched the remote.

The image of the hospital cuts to camera footage. The footage was in color but soundless except for a loud hum. From a helicopter, perhaps. The footage showed a figure running out of hospital with a Styrofoam box in her arms. She wore a jacket and large, thick sunglasses, no doubt to hide the metallic of her eyes. Multiple figures ran in pursuit. Some held weapons. They fired them on Miranda and, even though she stands before me now, I tremble at the sight. Bursts of light and lines of smoke erupted from the weapons, but Miranda is good at running, “at maneuvering,” she’s told me before. She can easily heal herself if given the time and proper metal, which she always keeps little discs of in her pocket. Miranda puts distance between the suits as she nears a busy street. Before long, there’s a blink of light, blinding and silver on the screen, and Miranda is gone. A Tether, as Miranda had described it once.

“Like cutting in a long line of people,” she’d said. “Only with matter.”

But it was not a clean cut. As Miranda stands near me, facing the viewport, I notice little beads of red staining the back of her shirt. The blood that was on her hands had not been from the bag.

The voice on the viewport continues:

“Although the hospital will not yet confirm, anonymous witnesses said possible human hearts were stolen. Since organic human hearts are rare and saved for government cloning, a military operation is underway to find the thief.  This is not the first time alchemists have targeted the City Hospital. The White House gave a brief statement moments ago, promising to capture the alchemist. Once caught, the suspect will be tagged and placed in one of the alchemical internment facilities until further notice.”

I turn from the viewport to Miranda. She is no longer trembling. On the contrary, she is completely still, like the frozen pictures in a book.

“You were in danger,” I say.

Miranda sighs, turning slightly to place a hand on my shoulder.

“You did not say this would be so dangerous,” I say.

A feeling inside me rises up. Rising and rising like the chandelier, when it was hoisted to the ceiling by the backs of a dozen humans.

Miranda says nothing. More silence. This one feels wrong.

Miranda’s voice begins in a whisper and rises with the feeling in my chest. “Do not let anyone tell you that you are anything but yourself. You are full. Filled. Limitless.”

She throws the remote control at the viewport, and the screen cracks. The red “Breaking News” flickers and blinks off. The rising in my chest plummets.

Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Two floors below, there’s the sound of glass breaking. Screams.

Miranda moves fast, circling the apartment and smashing smaller viewports, and tablets. Then she takes a small cube, her back-up server, and hands it to me to place in the notch she built into my lowest vertebrae. I reach behind me and insert the cube. A warmth spreads through me, and now I am filled, just as Miranda said. I process and process while Miranda works.

She’s prepared me for this. She calls it Eurydice.

Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Miranda goes to her desktop viewport, an older model. It’s filled with her formulas. Schematics. The black-and-white films she uploads to the viewport by the couch. Things that mean the most to her. Memories. 

She takes the desktop viewport in her hands. She folds it and holds it like a pillow to her chest. She hesitates only for a moment, then hurls it to the floor. When it hits, there’s a loud crack! A fissure erupts from the middle. There’s a single spark, and then nothing. The film database. All gone. A sounds rips from me. A sob.

Miranda drops to her knees in front of me on the couch.

“Do not be afraid,” she says.

She takes my face in her hands again, leans forward, and presses her lips to mine.

Perhaps a human heart is unnecessary after all.

Her breath feels hot. I smell her lotion, feel her presence. Like in the camera footage, a faint, glimmering starts to emanate from her skin. Her eyes shine like gold coins. She had never Tethered with someone before, but it seems she may try.

The light envelopes us.

“You are who you say you are,” she whispers against me.

“I am who I say I am,” I confirm.

The banging on the door rattles us both.

Lyndsie Manusos has work appearing or forthcoming in PseudoPod, Apex Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, PANK, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family and writes for Book Riot. 

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

Creator Spotlight:

Lyndsie Manusos
Author of “Possible Human Hearts”

What inspired you to write this story?

Maybe a year or two ago, I read a news article about “possible human hearts” being found in an alley. It was a jarring story, and I couldn’t get the term “possible human hearts” out of my head. For a while, I didn’t know what to do with it until a character popped in my head. She was stealing one, but why? That question led to more questions, which led to layers and explorations of emotion, body regulation, identity, and memory.

The first draft I wrote in one swoop, and immediately I sent it to a couple trusted readers because I was a little shaken by this story. Both characters feel and seek to feel at maximum volume through much of the story. Writing it was exciting and exhausting at the same time.

What do you hope readers take from this story?

Mostly, I hope readers are moved by the characters, how they are passionate for a freedom to create, discover, catalog, and to simply be. And hopefully my love for art shows a bit (I grew up watching films my parents and grandparents loved) and the way it changes and teaches over time. 

To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?

Many. This story was always around the same length with a similar arc, but I had to play a lot with the world and figure out the balance and character dynamic. I was lucky with this story in that I was submitting it for a little under a year before it was accepted. It’s okay if a story takes time to find itself in the drafting and editing process, and it’s also okay if it takes time to find a home.

Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.

You said “a book,” but can I recommend four books? Yes? Okay, so if you need books to escape into and are masterclasses in worldbuilding, read The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh, Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. These are very dear to my heart, and I am diving back into ALL of them during this unsettling time. 

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