Heart in a Jar: A Short Story
She is at it again, Ralph thought to himself as he sat down at a wooden table in a house decorated in what may be called a plain fashion - if one was feeling generous. Brown floral patterned wallpaper clung to walls with their final breath, and portraits of religious figures (Jesus, Mary and about half a dozen saints) tried harder still to hold on even tighter. I would like to cut her sternum open just to see if there is really a heart in there. Just to convince myself it wasn’t replaced by some dark wet bloody machine the day after our wedding.
“You are going to be the death of me, Angela. Please just drop it and come have a seat. You haven’t eaten in days.” Ralph pleaded. His voice was devoid of effort, reflecting years of trying (and failing) to bring life into a relationship which had died before the honeymoon had even started.
His marriage to Angela just over five years ago had been a lavish affair, and all those present on the day had left the reception with a firm belief that the happy couple would continue to be just that until the first of them passed away. A morbid end to a happy thought no doubt, but a reality none the less as it is one of the only two real options, barring an act of God.
Ralph’s parents had liked Angela from the first meeting. She was a woman after their tastes, and they hoped she would be the same for their son. The house - now falling apart due to five years of hopelessness - had been a wedding gift from Angela’s parents – a fact she never let him forget. As Ralph sat at the wooden table in an open space bordering the kitchen he thought back to that day. The open space had once been known as the dining room, but dining rooms need diners. Without these they become lonely chambers for lonely individuals.
If only I could go back, he thought as he looked over toward the staircase and listened for any sound that would provide some hint that she was on her way.
Angela had started their married life as a woman worlds removed from the angel Ralph had dated and eventually become engaged to. Ralph had first noticed the change during breakfast at the guest house where they had spent their wedding night. The wedding night itself had been uneventful and lacked any form of consummation. Angela had had more wine than her small frame could manage, but had remained jolly, flirtatious even. Ralph had therefore put her stand off-ish behavior the next morning down to a case of wine-flu. The changes over the years, the gradual regression of the woman he loved, had come fast at times and slow at others. Combined, they all made for the hell-scape he thought himself now trapped in. Sometimes, like now, they led to thoughts filled with dark seething hatred for the woman whose name he had come to believe was far too close to that of a heavenly being to not be some cosmic joke. He regretted these moments. He regretted many things.
She had spent the last five days cooped up in the bedroom they had once shared. Shared until Ralph had been confined to the living room couch three years ago.
“Honey…” Ralph called, bringing his thoughts under control and attempting to put some compassion back into his voice, “Please come down, I made your favourite… shank with mashed potatoes.”
“I’m not hungry, love. Go on without me.”
Gooseflesh charged over Ralph’s body. It started at his ears and ended at his toes within a second. A second during which his mind was barraged with emotions. Emotions, and questions.
Love? It was her pet name for him, or at least it had been. Hearing it coming from her mouth brought up feelings buried deep for years.
She actually spoke to me? This was the first time he had heard her voice in almost a week and the sound of it made him smile. Could she be warming up? Could she be leaning toward forgiveness for the things he said during the fight?
“Are you sure honey?” Ralph asked. He had a nagging feeling that any further dialog might be pushing it an inch too far. “I made the red wine sauce from our first anniversary. Do you remember how you loved it?”
No answer came, and Ralph knew he should have listened to the nagging feeling. He felt like a fool for trying and scolded himself for it. His ears turned a deep red as a mixture of embarrassment and anger flooded over him in waves. He pierced his fork into the shank in front of him and a torrent of sealed up juices exploded from the wound he had inflicted on the dead thing’s leg.
We seldom look at our food after the first bite has gone down to start its process of becoming tomorrow’s waste. We simply slice, lift, chew and repeat. A process not too dissimilar from the instructions on a shampoo bottle.
The popping sound made Ralph look down out of pure reaction. As he did, boiling fat and brine hit his face, soaking his glasses and burning his right cheek. He jolted up, lifting the table formerly known as a dining table with his thighs. It slammed down as he reached a standing position and Ralph’s first thought was not of the unknown degree burns to his face, but of the fact that he may have woken Angela from a slumber where she had forgotten his words. His stomach felt sick to its core at this, and he shot a guilty apprehensive look at the stairs fully expecting to see Angela descending for round two - delayed by a few days for reloading on her part.
No feet approached and not a single sound could be heard from upstairs. Ralph sighed, relieved. As he did, the searing pain of the shank juices manifested and he uttered a muffled scream into a napkin.
Once the initial pain had settled (or he had become used to it) Ralph removed his glasses and stared at them. They were blurry.
Of course they will be blurry, you idiot, he thought to himself. You’re blind without them.
Ralph’s body flinched as he heard what he thought were creaking floorboards upstairs. He stood, frozen in place and unable to breathe for moments.
Hey, at least your face now matches your ears, a rogue thought interrupted his panic and he let his shoulders drop a little, his lips almost smiling at his stupidity. It was one of those moments - rare as they may be - where he forgot about the tension-charged prison he existed in.
Ralph left the dishes unwashed in the sink that night. The pain of his burn had returned, and he reckoned there would be none of the usual repercussions of his laziness as she wasn’t going to be coming downstairs anyway. Not based on the past few days anyway. He opened the fridge out of boredom and habit and stared at the half empty illuminated vacuum in front of him for a minute, then shut it with a sigh and made his way to bed. Bed, of course being a simplified term for the couch he had been banished to.
Banished from my own bed. This must be some sick joke, Ralph cursed as his mind became dull and dark, dreamless slumber crept up on him. His last thought before his eyes closed for good that night was of the jar he thought he had glimpsed in the fridge as the door was closing. In that moment he thought no more of it, and now he wondered if he had seen it there before. Darkness took him and he slept.
Ralph woke from a sensation alien to him. Affection. He felt fingers running though his hair and opened his eyes. His blurred vision made it difficult to be certain, but the obvious explanation was the only one his mind would accept. Angela was sitting next to him in her white sleeping dress with her head tilted to one side.
“Are you alright Ralph?”
“I heard a commotion earlier and I’ve been lying awake wondering what it was. I thought I heard you screaming.”
Why does she care? Ralph thought to himself, still half asleep and dazed at the combination of hearing her voice and the sensation of affection.
“I burned my face. Angela, what are you doing down here?”
“Can’t I be downstairs in my own home, Ralph?”
Fuck, here we go. Round two.
“That’s not what I meant, Honey. It’s just…”
“I know Ralph, I understand. I’m sorry.” Angela’s voice sounded kind, and it scared him a little.
Ralph was now completely out of his daze and his heart had steadied after its initial shock of the current situation. What is happening? He thought. Play this nice, Ralph. Don’t fuck it up.
“Me too. The other day got out of hand.” Ralph tried to think back to the fight but could only remember that it had started over a something small.
Was it finances? Was it work? His brain refused to go back. How could he expect it to. She was still running her fingers through her hair, and feelings long forgotten were starting to wake up. Feelings both emotional and physical.
She looked down at the blanket covering his middle and giggled.
“You’re such a man!” the sound of her tease and joy made him smile.
Maybe I can salvage this. Scoop while it’s raining as they say. Yet Ralph could not shake the feeling that something was not quite right. Was it a trap? Was he dreaming? As his nature took over, he no longer cared. He sat up, resting on his elbows. She moved closer to him and the light from the streetlight outside the living room window illuminated her face. For a moment he saw the woman he had fallen in love with.
He could hold it no longer. He thought for a moment of their first time and the passion with which they had embraced one another. He leaned into her and their lips connected. Like two puzzle pieces made for one another.
Angela pulled back after a few passionate exchanges and Ralph startled back, knowing this was the end. She is toying with me.
She got up and stood by the side of the couch. Ralph looked up at her in confused amazement.
“Do you want to come to bed?” She beckoned, stroking a few strands of stray hair from over her chest to behind her left hear.
Ralph needed no second invitation. He held out one hand and felt a rush of exhilaration as she took it and pulled him up. She led him up the stairs and he wondered at the way her dress clung to her body.
As they reached the bedroom he had not visited in days, she turned around and embraced him. He pushed her to the bed and his mind hinted at déjà vu. She fell backward and his body shivered as gooseflesh crawled over him.
This is weird. He thought.
Ralph bid his thoughts farewell and lay with his wife for the first time in years. Their lovemaking that night was erotic and passionate. She wrapped her legs around his hips and squeezed, holding him hostage in her moment of ecstasy, willing him with all her body and the nails in his back to join her. He did, and as he lay beside her a minute later he was still gasping for air.
She looked over to him and he could make out nothing but a silhouette with the light coming in through the window behind her. He thought her hair looked thinner, but what would one expect after what had just happened.
The bed probably doesn’t know what hit it!
She kissed his forehead and turned over without saying a word. Ralph did the same, deciding not to push his run of luck by trying to hold her. He was asleep within seconds.
Ralph was awoken by the sound of over eager birds chirping before the sun had made as much as a hinting appearance. The sky outside was still dark, but in the dark blue way that woke the masses of winged bastards he had always hated. He turned over and saw Angela on her side, facing away from him.
Holy shit! That actually happened, he thought to himself as the realization that he was in his bed dawned on him. His bed. His.
After a moment of deliberation, Ralph inched closer to his wife. Tears were welling up in his eyes and the lure of connection was too strong to fight. He still approached slowly, and in small, planned movements like soldiers winning inch after bloody inch at a time on a battlefield.
He noticed that her hair was still looking thinner. Not slept on or orgasmed into disarray. Thinner. He also noticed a foul odour in the room, like raw meat left out of the fridge a day or two too long. As he moved closer to her, he thought he could see her skin moving. He moved his arm to the side of the bed to get his glasses but realized he had not brought them up to the room with him. How could he have? The moment had taken him. Taken them both, and he didn’t need a pair of spectacles to know when to find the important parts - however long it had been.
He was no more than a ruler’s length away when Angela abruptly turned around, looked at him for no more than a second, and jumped on him.
The woman now mounted on Ralph was not his wife.
It can’t be! God help me! Ralph’s mind uttered in a scream. He pulled back his lips and opened his mouth is an effort to give life to it. If he could only do this someone would hear and come save him from the beast holding him in place. As the begged and urged a scream which would never come, small wriggling things fell into his mouth, sliding down his throat and threatening to block his airway. He did not need to see them to know what they were. He had seen them next to rubbish bins left too long, seen them on dead creatures next to the road, seen them moving - he now realized - on his wife as she lay next to him not minutes earlier.
The thing on top of him now dug its nails into his chest and started to rock back and forth. Its breath (or whatever the wet heaving scratch could be called) became heavier, and Ralph felt shame and disgust overwhelm him as he felt his body respond to the movement.
No! Please! Not like this, not to this, His mind pleaded with its physical counterpart. It was no use. As nature and uninvited lust took over, Ralph felt fire rushing though his limbs. The creature arched its back and moaned a guttural moan at the ceiling before opening its mouth even further and bringing it down over Ralph’s head. Darkness swallowed him.
Ralph wondered in darkness, grasping with arms outstretched for anything which may feel familiar. The memory of the creature closing its mouth over his head still haunted him. Its double line of sharpened teeth, the guttural moan engulfing his head as it consumed him. Echoing in his ears.
Where am I?
He could feel his heartbeat quicken and hear his breath get more frantic with every step he took. He guessed he had been wondering around blind for at least ten minutes. His movement had been mostly in zig-zag circles, as he reckoned this would give him the best chance of encountering something, or god forbid, someone. He did not dare call out, fearing what he may notify of his presence in this unknown and blacked-out unknown.
As his arms reached without success for anything to anchor his person to, he took two more steps and froze suddenly. His feet had found something unwanted, something wet. Something warm and sticky. Ralph tried looking down and scolded himself for his stupidity.
You won’t see anything, you damn fool. It’s pitch dark and besides; you left your glasses next to the couch before the conjugal visit with that thing you married.
“That was not my wife!” Ralph exclaimed without thinking.
“Shit.” He now cursed under his breath. His not-so-internal monologue would certainly have alerted anyone or anything nearby of his presence.
Well done there Ralphie, gone and woke it didn’t you? It was not a thought anymore. It was a voice inside him, living in his mind and rebuking him.
“Shut up and keep it down,” Ralph whispered at it. “You might wake her. I mean it.” He corrected himself.
Ralph’s thigh hit something solid as he took another blind step in a direction he didn’t know, and he grunted at the pain the shot up to his hip.
No need to worry about me waking it Ralphie, you just went and woke its heart. The voice whispered to him, now seeming both apprehensive and taunting at the same time. Best stop being a clumsy mutt or you’ll meet it soon. It started snickering like a child up to no good; a wet nasal sound which made Ralph start whimpering as his lips trembled in fear.
As the snicker wound down, a faint vertical sliver of light appeared in the distance straight ahead of Ralph. It illuminated the area around it and the floor between Ralph and itself. As it grew, he realized it was the fridge door swinging open. It seemed to be inviting him to come closer, and as he looked down he realized what the warm sticky liquid was. A red carpet of blood led to the fridge like an invitation to Ralph’s own premier.
Time to claim your fame Ralphie. Time to have your minute in the limelight. Go on, meet your prize. Go and see what you have created. Go forth and wonder at your masterpiece.
Ralph walked forward despite of himself, his feet squelching through the carpet of congealed blood with every step; tumors of blood oozing between his toes and adorning his toenails like a grim varnish. The door continued to swing open slowly as he approached, and Ralph remembered the jar he had glimpsed inside it as he stared hopelessly at its uninteresting vacuum not twenty four hours earlier. Hours in which his life had become a waking nightmare where he longed for the days of banishment to a couch and a wife who no longer spoke.
As Ralph arrived at the door now fully open, he saw it. A simple glass jar standing alone in the middle of the only shelf the fridge now held. It was glowing red in the bright light of the lamp mounted on the right side of the fridge’s inner wall, and inside it was a human heart, beating steadily. Ralph stared at it blankly and his mind raced back to his high school biology class as he closed his eyes.
Mrs. O’Connor stands at the head of a packed classroom, and Ralph hides in his usual corner seat. His goal at school, as always, is to make it to the end of the day, and eventually the year, without getting noticed or asked to do anything. The room does not look the way he remembers it; a light fog seems to occupy every inch of it, and as Ralph looks around he realizes he cannot make out the faces of any of his classmates. Sam Higgins, Stacy Miller, Grant Goldberg, and Callum Striker. They are all lifeless bodies starting straight ahead with faces blurred and distorted, like a chalk drawing wiped over with a dry rag. Ralph shudders as his name is called from the front of the class. Mrs. O’Connor’s arms are outstretched and her hands open, palms facing to the ceiling and beckoning him to her with fingers opening and closing like the flapping wings of a bird laying on its back and dying.
Callum Striker breaks his statuesque freeze and looks over to Ralph. His face is still a distorted mess, but he tips his head to the left, motioning for Ralph to go. He repeats this motion and now looks like a metronome, menacing and repetitive.
Ralph gets up slowly, his body is shaking and he realizes that there is a wet spot in his crotch. It grows steadily as he walks through the seats where classmate after classmate mimics Callum’s actions as he walks past them. As he reaches the front of the class Mrs. O’Connor embraces him and whispers in his ear.
“Explain to the class what you have done Ralphie.” The voice is not her own, but rather the one from inside him as he wondered through his house blindly.
“I can’t, ma’am.” Ralph responds, respectful but scared of the only teacher he ever liked. His lips are still trembling, and he is certain he will start stuttering or crying if she asks the only question she can now.
“B-b-because I don’t know what I d-did ma’am.” His eyes well up with tears but he refuses to let them escape.
Tears are fine as prisoners, but as soon as they escape everyone will see. He thinks to himself and is relieved to hear his own voice inside his mind.
Mrs. O’Connor takes him by the shoulders and turns him to face the class. Her hands are icy cold and he closes his eyes, not wanting to see those faces staring at him with their expressionless darkness. It is no use though. Fingers unseen with long chipped nails scratch at his lids and force them open.
Ralph is no longer in Mrs. O’Connor’s Biology classroom. He is back in his house, but his classmates are still lined up in their seats, now arranged in his dining room.
Our dining room, he thinks. Ours. Our dining room has diners, ready to consume knowledge of…of what? Ralph has no damn idea.
Their faces stare up at him, urging him to tell them what he has done. All at once and in perfect unison, they reach into backpacks on the floor next to them and take out jars identical to the one in his fridge, placing them on their desks. Their heads start to tilt from side to side. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Perfect metronomes. In the back row he notices a woman, taller than the rest of the small crowd. It is Angela, face blurred and smudged like the rest, but her chalk is red, and she is wearing her white sleeping dress. Her one shoulder is exposed as the thin silk strap dangles from her shoulder. Her head is not tilting from side to side, but still, front-facing and eager.
“Tell them what you made Ralph. Tell them what you did to me. Tell them what you made me into.”
Ralph blinked and was alone. Standing in front of the empty fridge. Empty but for the jar, and the heart it held. Thumping, beating, murmuring to be put back where it came from.
“What do you want!?” Ralph screamed at the jar.
“I want to go home.” It replied.
“You are home, Honey. In our home.”
“Home was where I was before I met you. Before you sucked the very life out of me. Before you consumed my being”
“What are you…” Ralph began asking but shuddered and froze as the heart started pumping faster, leaking blood out of every exposed raw artery and vein.
From behind him, Ralph heard the classmates, now returned, call in unison.
He looked at the heart as it pumped again, and the jar started filling up. From behind him a second call came.
Ralph’s mouth started salivating and he turned around, facing the diners all seated neatly in their places. They now held their hearts cupped in both hands and squeezed in unison, making blood gush from the exposed arteries and veins, running down the edges of their desks and onto the hardwood floors. The diners furthest to the left and right were seated next to the florally wall-papered walls, and the blood from their hearts was leaving droplets which ran down to the floor like raindrops on a car window, finishing their morbid journey in a pool now ankle deep and threatening to fill the room.
Ralph turned again and looked at the jar in the fridge. It was overflowing and the excess blood was running down its sides, pooling at the bottom of the fridge and spilling onto the floor, joining the growing deepening pool.
“What are you talking about Angela?” Ralph pleaded.
“Oh Ralph. You blind, hungry fool.” The heart in the jar replied, and Ralph felt goose-flesh crawl over him as he heard affection coming from her voice once more.
The heart was beating wildly now, pulsating and growing as it did. All of a sudden, the jar burst and blood exploded over Ralph. It ran down his face and he licked his upper lip, unable to stop himself. A surge of energy jolted his body, and his eyes shone crimson in the light of the fridge.
Ralph felt arms embracing him from behind and shuddered at his wife’s touch.
“Did you enjoy my shank, love?” Angela asked, taking the back of his right hand in hers.
Ralph blinked again and as his eyes opened he looked at the hand she held. In it there was a heart, larger than the one in the jar. It was not beating, but rather vibrating in a low thrum, making Ralph’s hand tingle. His left hand was suddenly grabbed by hers and forced to his chest. He felt a gash, warm and wet.
“Got you back, you bastard.” Angela whispered in his ear as the realization of what he had done dawned on him. He tried to scream but her hands released his, made fists, and jammed themselves down his throat, muting him.
“Give me my body back!” Angela screamed, deafening him.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Baden CampbellWrite a Review