The Stopped Heart

By: Julie Myerson

ONE





IT WAS A SUNNY DAY. THE SKY WAS THICK AND HIGH AND BLUE. Addie Sands was standing in the lane and she was screaming. There was blood everywhere. On her skirts, her wrists, her face. A dark hole where her mouth should be. There were no words. Nothing but the black taste of her screaming.

Nobody knew what to do. We all stared. We dared not go to her. I think some of us stepped away. At last my mother went over, grabbing her by the shoulders, seeing the blood, the mess of her hair hanging down, tears and cries and wet on her face.

For the love of God, Addie, what is it? What’s happened?

Addie moaned. She tried to twist her head away. She would not let herself look at my mother’s face.

Just tell me, my mother said.

Addie kept on weeping. She could hardly breathe for weeping. My mother had her by the shoulders. She kept hold of her.

Are the kiddies all right? Has something happened? Is it the school?

The kiddies. A quick, burnt feeling went through me.

Addie moaned and dropped to her knees. Right there in the lane with the sun high up above and dandelions and dust and horse dung all around.

I didn’t know, she said. How could I know?

My mother kept very still.

Know what? she said.

Addie could not look at her.

I thought he’d come to fetch the kiddies home.

Now my mother got it. Her face turned white. When at last Addie lifted her chin, her eyes did not go anywhere. They went straight through.

I thought he’d come to fetch them. I didn’t know what he was going to do. He had this great big happy smile on his face—

Addie gazed at my mother.

He was smiling all the time he did it, she said.

MARY COLES STANDS IN THE LANE. SKY STILL DARK, BUT ALREADY birds are singing. The cottage too. Dark and unsteady, turned in on itself. She keeps her eyes on it, unsure at first what she’s looking for, wondering if she’s even got the right one. The second cottage you come to after the humpback bridge, Graham said. Is it this one? Does she want it to be? Brick and flint. Run-down. One smashed windowpane under the eaves. Paint flaking off the door. The little gate—yes, the gate—so rotten it’s coming right off its hinges, he said.

She pushes the gate. The hinge gives, but the part that ought to move doesn’t. Some kind of plant or vine stopping it. She hesitates, not wanting to force it. It didn’t want me to go in, she hears herself telling him, it seemed to want to keep me out.

In the rented bungalow, in the middle of the night, she woke him up and told him her plan.

“What?” he said. “Drive there right now? On your own? Why on earth would you want to do that?”

She did not reply.

“Come here,” he said. “Come on. Come back to bed.”

But she was already up. Pulling on her jeans, sticking feet into boots, looking around for her keys.

“I need to see it. In the dark. I want to see what it’s like.”

He stared at her, pushing hair and sleep from his eyes.

“But you’ll see it tomorrow—”

“I want to do it now.”

“What, in the bloody middle of the night?”

“It’ll be light in an hour.”

He gazed at her. His face unreadable, a man used to absorbing the blows. He threw back the covers.

“All right, at least let me come with you.”

She lowered her eyes.

“Please. I don’t want you to. Don’t make me explain it. I just want to go there on my own.”

Now she shivers, fingers closing around the car keys in her pocket. She knows it’s empty. Empty for at least a year, he said, maybe more. More than a year? She lets go of the gate and stands for a moment, breathing in the earthy dawn smell of light and damp and things warming up. She thinks she hears an owl.

She had meant to go right up to it, look through the windows, see if she could get an idea of the inside. That’s what she told him. And she knows she could do it if she wanted to. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t even try.

Instead, she stands there motionless for perhaps thirty or forty more seconds and then, as if someone had walked up and shoved her out of the way, she turns and hurries back to the car.

SHE HOPES HE’LL BE ASLEEP WHEN SHE GETS BACK, BUT NO. EYES open, iPod in one ear. Curtains half-drawn to let the light in. The open suitcases still spread on the floor. A sweater. Her unzipped, kicked-off boots. He turns his head.

“That was quick.”

“You’re supposed to be asleep,” she says.

He smiles and puts an arm out from under the duvet, reaching for her. She stands there looking at it, the hand.

“Well?” he says.

“Well, what?”

She sits down on the edge of the bed, a little more heavily than she meant to. Feels him shifting his legs. She lets him hold her hand, warming her.

“You found it?”

She nods.

“And? Tell me.”

She hesitates.

“It’s nice.”

“Nice?”

“All I did was stand in the lane. I heard an owl. I think it was an owl. And then I came back.”

She feels him thinking about this. His eyes on her. His hand moving to her bare knee.

“You’re freezing.”

She says nothing. He takes hold of her hand again.

“All right, but what do you think? Is it what you imagined? Do you like it?”

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