For the first time in months, Sheila could breathe easy. The physically inexplicable knot of nerves and emotions that caused the ever-present ache in the pit of her stomach was gone. She touched the little box inside her pocket and smiled.
She’d thought it would be bigger. How could something capable of causing so much joy and so much pain fit into something no bigger than a thimble? Her brain couldn’t begin to fathom it, but she knew if the pharmaceutical industry ever got ahold of such technology, they’d have to redefine what it meant to be “filthy rich.”
As it was, she’d stumbled onto the purveyor of her cure quite by accident. Walking the dirty city streets home from work, still fighting back the tears she’d been guarding against all day, she finally lost the battle when a gust of wind upended her umbrella.
She’d slipped into a little alley and finally surrendered, letting the rain cover up the evidence of her grief. She was rather caught up in the drama of it all when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked up, startled, to see a hunched old woman there, holding an unmangled umbrella above her head. There was something about her eyes and the curve of her mouth that was almost a smile that made Sheila wonder vaguely if she had once been beautiful.
“Come inside, dear,” the old woman had said.
Sheila was not usually the sort to run off with random strangers in alleys, but in that moment, she was of the opinion that she really had nothing else to lose. And so she followed the old woman through a door, hidden to all but the most observant by a façade of brick that matched the wall quite perfectly.
Her memories of what happened next were murky. She could glimpse the old woman handing her a cup of something warm that might have been tea. She could hear the story of her latest heartache spilling from her mouth. She could feel of the old woman’s hand as it held hers — her skin had been smooth and soft, but thin, like it would bruise easily.
When she stepped back out into the alley, it was as if she’d awoken from a very long nap. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and if it had not been for the verification from her phone that it was in fact the same day, she might have believed she’d slept through the entire winter. In her hand there had been a piece of paper, which she hadn’t noticed until a warm breeze tried to carry it away from her.
Contained Heart™ Instructions and Recovery
You have just undergone a very delicate procedure to remove your heart. It’s possible you may experience slight memory problems for a few hours following the procedure. This is entirely normal and not cause for alarm; however, if symptoms persists beyond seven days, please return for observation.
As discussed prior to your informed consent (please see attached), your heart has been preserved in a uniquely manufactured container, where it will remain safe and functional should you choose to have it reinserted some day. It is imperative that you keep it on your person at all times. Failing to adhere to this recommendation can have severe adverse side effects, as discussed prior to your consent. Please remember that the container also serves as your receipt for the procedure should you encounter any problems.
Your records will be kept on file in the event you choose to return to have your procedure reversed. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy your newly Contained Heart™.
She flipped to the attached page, which bore a photocopied list of benefits and warnings, punctuated by her signature. At the bottom, it said, “You will find your new Contained Heart™ waiting for you in: __________________” Scrawled above the line were the handwritten words “your right-hand skirt pocket.” And sure enough, that is where she’d found it. It was silver and cubic, with carvings that could have been simply decorative or perhaps instructive in some language or code she could never hope to decipher. It was both heavier and warmer than it should have been.
Weeks went by with nothing but good results. Her friends were surprised and relieved to see her smiling so easily again. With the heaviness of her heart in her pocket instead of her chest, she felt light and free — perhaps even invincible.
If she’d been able to recall more of the procedure and the conversation that preceded it, she would have been more careful. The old woman had warned her that hearts have a way of refusing to be contained. But Sheila did not remember this, and she had never been particular adept at protecting her heart.
After a particularly enjoyable evening out, during which she’d laughed and danced and charmed more than her fair share, she began to feel her mood slip, just the tiniest bit, as she stepped out of the cab that had carried her home. She chalked it up to one too many drinks, one too many dances, one too many hours in her impressively high-heeled shoes, and thought nothing more of it.
Until morning. When the light streaming through her window finally woke her, her limbs felt so heavy she could barely gather the will power to move them even an inch. And that’s when it hit her. She forced herself out of bed and onto the floor where her skirt lay discarded from the night before. She reached into its pocket, and her finger, horrifyingly, slipped through the bottom of it. She flipped it inside out and stared at her finger. Her pocket, it seemed, had come apart at the seams.
She scoured the floor for the little silver box. She searched the sidewalk outside her apartment. She called every cab company in the city. She begged the manager of the club until he let her search every booth, every crack in the dance floor, every bag of trash collected from the night before. Her heart was nowhere to be found.
She rushed to the alley in a panic, informed consent and instructions in hand. She walked up and down, banging all along the brick wall until the old woman finally stepped out.
“Please help me,” Sheila begged.
And once again, the old woman said, “Come inside, dear.”
Again she was handed a cup of something that might have been tea, but Sheila could not take comfort in it this time. She once again spilled the details of her sad story to the old woman’s patient ears. When she was done, the old woman took her hand again and squeezed it, but her eyes were sad.
“I’m so sorry, my darling,” she said, “but our specifications were clear. There is little to be done for those who are careless with their hearts.”
There was more pleading and more tears, but eventually she had to accept there was nothing the old woman could do for her. She let the old woman lead her out into the alley, and she did not protest when she closed the door. The sun had gone under the clouds. All Sheila could feel in that moment was the cold.
But there was something the old woman had not revealed. In her many years of research, she had learned many things about the heart. One thing was that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Another was that home is where the heart is. And so, the old woman could not guarantee it, but over the years she had seen many cases in which these two factors worked together quite well to work things out. But you cannot simply tell a woman who has lost her heart to take heart.
Across the city, a businessman late for a meeting hurried to the curb as he simultaneously signaled for a cab. Just as he reached for the handle, a glint of silver in a mound of grimy slush caught his eye. He squinted at it, but he couldn’t quite fathom what it could be.
“You in or out?”
He looked at the driver, impatience permanently etched onto his face. He looked at his watch. He was already so late. He took his hand off the handle. The cabbie yelled something rather rude and drove off. The businessman walked over to the pile of what had once been pristine snow and picked up the tiny box. It was heavy and warm. He put it in his breast pocket and signaled for a cab.
© 2011 Elizabeth Ditty