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Shattered Petals of Celadon

M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fantasy and science fiction. She's the author of the YA fantasy novels The Redwood Palace and Drift, which was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Topshelf honoree. She's written over thirty short stories, appearing in Podcastle, Analog, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. One of those stories was a Scribe Award winner. She endeavors to grow bushels of food, play heaps of board games, and read mountains of books. Find her at linktr.ee/mkhutchins.

Everyone has a heart box. Some boxes have mitred corners with beautifully contrasting splines. Some are dovetailed. Some have simple butt joints nailed from the outside. It doesn’t really matter. What grows inside them does. A curved seashell of curiosity. A hard scrap of metallic regret. An almost too-soft-to-touch feather of hope.
When I was seven, Logan stomped on my foot. He hadn’t thought anyone was watching. The moment he saw our teacher storming toward us, he called “Sorry!” and shoved his fear of being caught—an icy clod of earth—straight from his heart box into mine.
I started to cry. I wanted to throw away his fear, but I couldn’t touch it without getting my hands all muddy and gross. Red beads of distress popped into existence inside my heart box.
The teacher glanced between us. She poured her purple sands of exhausted-annoyance into my box. “He said he was sorry, Olivia. You’re supposed to say you forgive him.”
She was my teacher and she was upset at me, so I rummaged past the sand, dirt, and beads to where I kept a pale yellow daisy of patience, one I’d nurtured over the long, sunny weekend. I cupped it in my palm and reluctantly offered it to Logan.
He snatched it from my hand, crumpling and bruising it, laughing as he shoved it into his own box, then ran off to play.
“See? Don’t you feel better now?” my teacher asked.
I shook my head. There was nothing lovely left in my box, only the things that Logan and my teacher didn’t want to hold themselves.
“So selfish, Olivia. You can go in early from recess early and write, 'I will be kind to others' a hundred times in your notebook.”
I tried to pass her a spiky ball of indignant shock, but she batted it away into a puddle. “Pick that up and get inside.”
I knew what was expected of me the next time Logan hurt me--with a tetherball, to the face, on purpose. Sometimes it was better when he didn’t get caught. Then I didn’t have to take his fear or give up whatever small, bright treasure my own box held.
I knew what was expected of me years later when I was rear-ended in the high school parking lot. I knew what to do when my fast-food manager paid me my regular wages instead of the overtime rate. Or when my boyfriend cheated on me.
Everyone talked about apologies as if they always involved handing over nice things, like a clear marble of earnest regret or a silver star of empathy. And that did happen, sometimes. When that lady accidentally cut in front of me in the grocery store. When my brother was late to Thanksgiving dinner. When a hungry roommate poached my leftovers, felt bad about it, then ordered my favorite take-out for dinner.
The day I published my first research paper, my heart box overflowed with celadon petals of pride and confidence. Then I saw the list of authors. Me, the two other grad students who had worked on the paper, our professor, and James. Who had not worked on it at all.
Those petals all cracked into a fine gray-green dust of shock.
I knew that being upset would only leave me smothered in sands of derision or annoyance, but I drove to campus anyway and marched up three flights of stairs to our department, where James and the professor were already talking.
My professor spotted me and grimaced. “I knew you’d be the one to cause trouble, Olivia. I’ve already talked to Carlos and Paisley. They’re fine with it. James desperately needed a good credit like this stay on track for a tenured position. You should be happy about helping him out.”
The professor pressed an oily ribbon of unwanted embarrassment into my heart box.
James rubbed the back of his neck. “The professor told me that everyone else knew. That it was okay. I didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable!” The two of them had lied and cheated together.
James hefted a granite block of guilt toward me, embedded with a speck of clear regret. I stepped back, guarding the lid of my heart box.
“Don’t be like that! I wouldn’t have agreed if I’d known, but it’s too late now,” James snapped, piling orange globs of annoyance on top of the granite. “Take this. Take all of it.”
“I’m apologizing! I’m sincere!” He pointed at the speck of honesty in that. Some part of him did feel bad.
But if I couldn’t take that speck without also carrying all of his guilt for him, I wasn’t going to accept it. Instead, I dumped out that oily snake of embarrassment. I dumped out my fine gray dust and my smooth gray coins of betrayed hurt. I didn’t try to shove them into anyone’s box; I let them scatter on the floor.
“I will be writing the journal,” I said in a calm, neutral voice.
“You can’t!” the professor wailed, shoving his tightly coiled springs of fear at me.
“I can.”
“You’re being terribly unkind,” James glared.
I’d seen kindness--those brightly-colored pipe-cleaner-like things that were warm and fuzzy and fun to twirl around your fingers. Picking up that mess wasn’t kind. Not to me. Probably not to them, either.
“I’m not putting that in my box. I won’t try to shove it into your box, either. What you do with it is up to you,” I said firmly. Then I left.
When I got home, I wrote Carlos and Paisley. I wrote the journal. Only afterwards did I open my box again. For a moment, I thought a fuzzy white mold had taken over the whole thing--shame, perhaps?--and that my own box was condemning me.
I leaned closer, but it didn’t smell rank; it smelled like springtime. I poked the stuff with a finger. It was the cottonwood down of peace. Soft, still, calm.
For once, my box held only my own feelings. There wasn’t room for anything else.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

Author Comments

I was actually working on a completely different story with woodworking magic and heart boxes, and sometime in the process of that, my brain pilfered a few things and out came this story instead. I still haven't managed to put together the woodworking story, but I'm pretty happy with this one.

- M.K. Hutchins
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