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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Telltale Heart

by Sarah Raplee

Michael Truman blinked at the endless number of pink and red craft papers lining the aisle at Daffy Crafters. His hands turned cold. Why the hell had he thought shopping here was a good idea?
He removed his glasses and wiped the lenses with the edge of his green and yellow Oregon Ducks hoodie as if by doing so he could make the grandmotherly saleswoman droning on about shades of scarlet and rose disappear.
Yesterday Carrie had told him his dark retro frames made him look like a teenaged, nerdy Leonard from The Big Bang Theory. He sighed. Time to save for a new pair.
He donned his now-spotless spectacles and focused on the saleswoman’s smiling face. At least she seemed to be passionate about her work, the way he was passionate about engineeringand Carrie. He’d fallen for the redheaded stranger with sad gray eyes the moment she’d entered his hospital room last February and offered to trounce him at chess.
“We have free project guides if you need one,” the saleswoman said, gesturing toward a gaggle of middle-school girls huddled around the end cap. Her eyes danced. “It’s nice to find a young man romantic enough to make his sweetheart a special valentine.”
He didn’t bother to explain that:
  1. He was a high school senior. Carrie’d think he was a pathetic loser if he couldn’t design a valentine without help.
  2. She wasn’t his sweetheart.
  3. This was his chance to change that situation
Eying the package of lace paper hearts and the selection of multi-colored glitter pens in his cart, he shook his head. “Uh, thank you for your help, Ma’am. I can handle it from here.” 
Her doubtful smile belied her words. “I’m sure you can.” The girls’ strident chatter drew an anxious glance. She hurried down to referee.
      Gabe Harper’s mocking voice blindsided him. “New hobby, Mikey? Or are you trying to get in touch with your feminine side?”
      His face grew warm. He turned around with the intention of leaving the store before the situation got dicey. Gabe had a knack for showing up at the worst possible moment and then goading him into embarrassing himself in front of witnesses. He refused to engage the pain in his ass in public.
     “Don’t forget the red construction paper,” Gabe said, leaning on Michael’s cart. “Didn’t you learn anything in kindergarten?”
      The realization that Gabe’s taunts were justified brought Michael up short. He studied the (in Carrie's words) tall, dark and handsome boy blocking his way. Why was Gabe back after months of silence? He abandoned the cart and brushed past him toward the exit.
      “Really?” Gabe said behind him. “You can’t take a little friendly advice?”
      Exiting the store, Michael ignored his unwelcome companion. He didn’t slow down until he reached his old Jeep. “Actually, Gabe, I am taking your advice. You’re right. Carrie challenged me to create a valentine that expresses who I am and speaks to her heart. I am definitely not lace doilies and glitter pens.”
      “You need a whole new plan,” Gabe said, nodding. “I can help.”
      Michael raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I’m supposed to believe you’ll help me win over your ex-girlfriend?”
      Gabe went quiet for a moment. He stared at the toes of his black leather motorcycle boots as if considering his answer with care.
      As if Michael's reaction to his words mattered.
      Intent brown eyes focused on Michael's face. “I love Carrie, but we’re no good for each other. I’ve had a lot of time to think since I left town.” Gabe scowled. “Carrie deserves to love and be loved by someone who can give her everything she needs.”
      His heart thudded. Gabe sounded serious.
      “Carrie needs…you.”
      Michael grimaced and shook his head at Gabe's over-the-top pronouncement. No way would Gabe give him the go-ahead with his ex-girlfriend. “You almost had me.”
      “You gotta believe me, Michael!”
     “No, I don’t.” For once he had the upper hand. He smirked.
      Gabe sighed. “Tell you what. I'll bet you if you follow my advice Carrie will go out with you. If she doesn’t, I’ll clear out—forever. It’s a win-win situation for you.”
      For all his faults, Gabe’s word was his bond. And Michael hadn’t made any real headway with Carrie since Gabe left, not even during the months she’d played bedside angel while he was sick.
      What did he have to lose?
The Clockwork Heart
© 2012 Nick Pino  All rights reserved

      Later that night in his basement workshop Michael laid his pencil on the workbench with a satisfied smile. Picking up his graph paper sketch, he examined the side view he had drawn of a clockwork heart. The dimensions were identical to the dimensions of a real human heart. A windup key protruded from the back. He’d already designed the clockwork mechanism in his head. When Carrie wound his valentine’s key, the heart would actually beat.
      But what if his gift grossed her out? He picked up his Avatar mug and moistened his suddenly dry mouth with bitter coffee.
      The stairs creaked. He turned on his shop stool and watched Gabe descend.
      “I did some research,” Gabe said.
     Michael choked on a mouthful of coffee. Gabe was allergic to intellectual pursuits. Consumed by a coughing fit interlaced with uncontrolled laughter, he set his mug down
      “What?” Gabe said. His eyes dared Michael to speak. “A person can’t change? Get over it!”
      Damned if he didn’t almost believe him. How crazy was that?
      Gabe gazed past him at the heart drawing. “Is that your new design?”
      His hands started to sweat. “Yes. I’ll build a silver clockwork heart that really beats.” Why in hell had he exposed his heart to Gabe’s possible abuse?
    The taller boy nodded. “That’s more like it, Mikey.”
     He touched one finger to an old pocket watch on Michael’s project shelf, then stroked the back of a partially-built clockwork horse. His lips quirked in a wistful smile. “Carrie values honesty. This design channels your inner nerd in a good way. And I gotta admit you do quality work.”
      Michael eyed him with suspicion. “Then what do I need you for?”
      Gabe’s dark, intense gaze hooked his. “Modify this to show her you see what’s in her heart. And show her what’s in yours.” He glanced upwards. “Then pray.”

      Valentine’s Day dawned clear and bright. Michael’s nerves buzzed like his alarm clock. Everything hinged on Carrie’s reaction to his valentine.
      Sitting in the porch swing she opened the box’s red lid. Her raincloud eyes widened and her rose petal lips parted. “Michael, it’s beautiful.” Lifting his creation, she dazzled him with a smile that set his heart humming. After winding the key, she laughed at the lovely silver heart beating in her hands. When the rhythm slowed, her smile faded. Then the front sprang open like a locket, transforming one heart into two.    
     He held his breath while she studied what he’d engraved inside each one. Her trembling lips formed the names silently.
     Michael.  Gabriel. 
     She burst into tears and his dreams imploded. He ignored the pain that threatened to break his heart and pulled her onto his lap, rocking her until the sobs subsided. “I’m sorry,” he whispered over and over. “I’m sorry.” His future yawned like an open grave, empty and cold.
      After the storm of grief, because she was Carrie, she smiled and thanked him for his assassin’s gift as if the heart hadn’t mortally wounded her. If his own virus-weakened organ had still beaten in his chest, it would have shattered under the weight of his remorse. But his replacement heart, Gabe’s heart, pounded a relentless rhythm that anchored him on this side of life.
     Later, because he truly, madly, hopelessly loved her, Michael drove Carrie to the cemetery to visit Gabe’s less-than-restful resting place.
     Graveside, she closed her eyes and bowed her head. 
     Gabe’s image smiled back at Michael from the headstone, forever seventeen, his whole life ahead of him. A chill shook him. What was it like to die?
     Gabe whispered, Like losing Carrie.
      A knife twisted in their shared heart. Bittersweet tears ran down Michael’s face. I’m sorry, Gabe. I’m so goddamned sorry.
      I know, Michael. So am I.
       Carrie lifted her head and said, “It's time to say goodbye.” Her voice wavered on the final word.
       I know, Gabe whispered.
       Michael’s heart thudded.
       She squared her shoulders. “It’s time for us to move on.”
       I’ve been working on that.
       Michael’s heart thudded again. 
       Carrie clasped his hand with soft, strong fingers. “Thank you for giving me Michael.”
       He’s the one, Babe. 
       She nodded.
       Michael’s heart settled into a rhythm strong enough and sure enough to last another lifetime. Hand in hand, they walked away toward a bright future. Carrie gifted him with an uncertain smile. “Now what?”
        Michael grinned, sure that Gabe had won his last bet. “How about I buy you a cup of coffee? ”
© 2012 Sarah Raplee  All rights reserved
A special thank you to artist Nick Pino at for drawing the amazing Clockwork Heart.