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Hearts, Sticky with Mulch and Jam

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor, and the Seriously Wicked series from Tor Teen. Her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton. Her first collection, On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, is available from Fairwood Press. She is one of the co-hosts of Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Podcastle, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. Find her at tinaconnolly.com.

The day Sarah gave birth to Paul, they carefully took her heart out of her chest and moved it to the outside.
She understood the procedure, of course--she had seen the parents at the playground, chasing after slide-climbing toddlers, their hearts flapping against their shirts, ka-thump, ka-thump. Sarah sat with her latte and watched a mother soothing a teary child smeared with grape jelly, mulch, and blood. Her heart, unnoticed, had flopped to one side. Sarah shuddered in revulsion at the mulch clinging to it, and vowed she would be more protective of her own.
That was an easy resolution at first. Paul--Paulie--was an infant, after all. No running with scissors for you, young man, Henry would joke, and then Sarah would scoop him to her breast protectively, the down of his head fitting right against her warm heart. Banish scissors, she would think. Banish scissors forever.
By six months, things were harder. Grabby Paulie would tug on her earring, glasses, and heart indiscriminately. He head-butted Henry's heart so hard there was a bruise there for weeks. Around that time, her college friend Ellie came to visit--Ellie had adopted two children, and thus also had an outside lung, one that swelled abruptly whenever her oldest did one of her death-defying leaps from couch to coffee table.
"How can you let her do that?" said Sarah. She hadn't meant to, but it slipped out after a weekend of watching the girl tornado around her living room.
Prickly Ellie took it the wrong way. "I could have sworn that was your furniture from college," she sniffed.
"No, I mean--don't you want to grab her? Scoop her up and hold her tight?"
Ellie rolled her eyes. The reunion was not going to be repeated anytime soon, both women could tell. "You have to let them grow, Sarah. You don't want to raise uptight worrywarts like your mother did, do you?"
"You have cheerios on your lung," Sarah told her.
At four Paulie went off to preschool. A year late, but Henry insisted he finally had to go. Sarah felt as if she were leaving her heart behind at the preschool as she left a sobbing Paulie that first morning.
That was a metaphor, though. Her heart was still there, beating against her chest as she drank her coffee and did the laundry, still bruised with how hard he'd held it when it was time to part.
It was still there when she nearly broke down in the middle of the grocery store, when it beat painfully in double time under the fluorescent glow of the pickle aisle. She pulled her cardigan around it, trying to hide its frantic rhythm. It beat like a heartbroken baby, sure no one was ever going to soothe its cries, and she numbly put five pickle jars in her cart while she pretended everything was fine, and normal, and that she was certainly not losing it over preschool.
The bruised heart seemed to calm if she held it, so she kept her hand cupped around it. She stuck her grocery list in that hand, an attempt to make everything look natural.
The cashier was the same lady as always on a Tuesday morning, the childless one who liked kids and gave Paulie an extra sticker. Sarah always picked her line on purpose, and now she did out of habit. Mechanically she took her groceries out of the cart--what was she going to do with all those pickles?
"Find everything okay?"
"We did," Sarah said by rote, and then felt her heart speed up again. No. Not we.
"You don't have your little man today," said the cashier.
"First day of preschool," said Sarah.
"That's tough," said the cashier, and something about the way she said it made Sarah look at her, really look for the first time. Her kind face was sad, and Sarah saw that what she had taken for an absence of extruded heart all these months was actually something else. If you looked carefully, just under her green apron, you could see the shriveled stump of where it had been.
Sarah felt her mouth fall open and she said, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize--"
The cashier shook her head. "Hit by a car. Long time ago."
"Did it--" Sarah pointed at the stump with a shaky finger. "Did it ever go numb?"
"No," said the woman. She put five pickle jars into Sarah's reusable grocery bag. "But I'd do it again anyway. You know that, right?"
Sarah nodded, numbly.
The cashier handed Sarah the plastic sticker container. "Take him one."
Sarah met Paulie at the door of the preschool. He ran to her and squeezed her tight, so tight she thought her heart would burst.
"I ran on the logs," he said. "And I got all the way to the top of the monkey bars, and I made three new friends."
Sarah pulled out the sticker the cashier had given her. She tore it free from its protective backing and handed it over, glossy and shiny and oh so small. "I'm proud of you, Paul," she said.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 28th, 2017

Author Comments

I've been thinking for awhile about how to express how peculiarly painful it is to be a parent. Simultaneously great and terrible, some days even little things are hard, some days you lose all perspective. Kind of like all your soft tender bits are tugged right out into the open, where they can be destroyed by careless, grubby fingers.

- Tina Connolly
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