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[Fiction] Eat Your Heart Out

By Mackenzie Kiera


I’m awake when doctors cut out my heart. My heart had been growing steadily for nine (ten, really it’s ten) months, and the weight of it has been encumbering, to say the least. My heart and I are both fine and healthy. It’s a totally normal thing, Harvest time. The doctors and nurses tell me women get their hearts cut out all the time all over the world, every day, every minute.


It’s normal. Perfectly normal.


Normal is what I tell myself when I’m laid down on a table and they they shave me down and paint my body orange with iodine. I’m numb from the medication that has been tapped into my spine and a white curtain goes up just below my neck, and they ask if the drugs have worked. Can I feel the scalpel? Does THIS hurt?


I say: “No,” and because I like to make people laugh, referring to the iodine, I say: “Does this color make me look fat?”


Everyone laughs. I’m excited. My joke, while said between shaky breaths, is proof that I am still me. For a minute longer, I am still whole.


They say: “YAY. Let’s get this heart out!” I nod.


Yes, this is what I want.


Cut out my heart.


I have been waiting my entire life for this. It sounds cliché, but that doesn’t make it untrue. It will only be a heart for a little while, then it will become a baby.


A fraction of the time. Gone in a blink. Long days, short years—is what people, older women, have said to me when my heart was growing, expanding my shirts and stretching out my bras. It’s all good and worth it, and I will treasure this time as it is precious.


I’ve had visions of my child. I found him in my dreams below a fog line through a valley of souls and dust where I held my hand down, waiting for someone to take hold, and I felt his fingers curl around my pinky. That’s when my eyes snapped open, and I knew my heart was growing.


The point is, I want this. I do.


They ask me why I’m nervous when they remove my organs.


My face is hot and wet from tears because my body, while numb, isn’t stupid and knows when it’s being harvested. I can’t feel much, but I can feel those beads of water trickle down my cheeks and pool in my ears.


The door to my right opens.


My husband, dressed in a surgical gown, cap, and mask, sits down with me. He holds my hand. He knows to talk to me. Before this, I’d instructed him to talk to me during Harvest time. Talk to me about anything, I’d said.


I try to latch onto his words—I think he’s talking about one of the strategy games he likes to play—but I’m swimming just below the surface of reality. It’s dark down here. I can’t quite follow his voice.


At first, my body begs me to run—then it starts screaming to go, but I can’t go anywhere or do anything because my chest and abdomen are flayed open and my intestines are not in my body anymore.


Why can’t I hear my heart thumping away in my chest? It’s quiet. Why can’t I hear it? Everything has gone dead and dull. What have they done?


They ask me, "Why are you I’m crying?” as they cauterize my veins. “You can’t feel it, right?” I smell burnt flesh and boiled blood.


I try to tell them, “Yeah, I’m okay.” But I only have this one heart I’ve felt it grow and move and beat, and they are cutting it out. Are they even being careful with it? Do they know this could kill me? I would die without it and I’m being crushed crushed crushed I can’t breathe what are they doing?


They hold my heart up high so I can see it above the white curtain shielding me from the sight of my own open body.


This is horrible.


“Success!” They say.


Held up high, my heart drips blood and thumps twice.


The thump, seeing my heart for the first time, breaks something inside of me. My soul and shadow uncurl and howl and shed their skins.


"Put it back!” I tell the doctors, but no one responds. Instead, my heart is presented to me in a white blanket featuring pink and blue stripes.


“Put my heart back!” I shout at the nurses. “It’s cold!” No one is hearing me.


My husband takes my heart in his arms. I want to hold it but my body is held down to the table with oceanic weight and my scream keeps coming out as a laugh.


How can I be alive if my heart is outside of my body?


It’s wrong.


“Its perfect!” Everyone says.


I’ve been told to be kind and polite and smile, so I whisper to myself through clenched teeth. I whisper: Please hurry. Please put me back together.


They don’t. At least, not the way I want to be. The way I used to be.


My lungs get squeezed. My intestines are pushed back in. I’m sewn back together as the doctor and nurses talk about their vacation.


This is how Frankenstein’s monster felt.


This is why he felt wrong.


This is why he hunted his maker past shipwrecks and ice floats.


“The cord is ready!” They announce.


I’d read about this. The cord is what connects my heart to my body until we can live without each other. I don’t quite know how it works beyond textbook facts, though. I nod, yes yes yes. I get it. I just want to leave this room. I just want to go home with my husband and my heart.


“It will feel tight at first,” my doctor says. She is wearing a mask, but I can tell she is smiling from the way her pencil-thin eyebrows raise up all wide, and her eyes fill with what looks like genuine kindness. “But as your heart turns into a baby, your cord will get more pliable and bungee-like.” Let me out. Please just get me out of here. “Keep it clean! Good luck, Mama!” Finally, I am wheeled out on the gurney—the bed I was just ripped apart on.


The room I leave behind has blood on the floor. It's in buckets and tubs that remind me of pan liners for a paint roller.


I’m placed in a dark room for bonding time, which feels ridiculous. It was just inside of me. The cord that connects us is intact. How much more bonded could we be? Why are they treating me as if my heart and I are just now meeting? My husband places my heart on my body. A sense of relief washes over me. I sort of feel whole again.


Maybe the worst is over, and we’re all about to be okay and so, so happy.


Step one. It was a doozy. That’s all.


My husband leaves to go get me water and a smoothie. I whisper to my heart that no one will ever, ever know it the way I do. I grew it and fed it and felt it thump and flutter and burn. I whisper how I have dreamt of it, how I crossed that dusted valley of shadows. Then it beats faster and faster and it shivers and pounds and a nurse wearing lime green scrubs tells me from the doorway in singsong:


“It’s hunn-gry! Chest is best, Mom!”


I don’t know what to do. I’ve never had a heart removed before.


Hearts are hungry?


I try to say “help me?” but it comes out as: “I can’t wait!” Perhaps the drugs are making my words come out different than I’d meant.


I hold my heart in front of me. It’s just a mass of ventricles, muscle, and blood. How could it possibly consume anything?


The nurse smiles in a way that makes me feel five years old and highly uncomfortable. Something bad is coming.


“Just try to relax. This is beautiful,” she says. Then, she presses my heart to the fresh wound on my chest where it was just exorcised from. My heart latches and sucks and clamps. I grind my teeth. Tears pinch out of my eyes. I dig my nails into the soft part of my hands. It feels like my heart is sucking blood up from the bottom of my toes with a straw.


I try to say: “It hurts,” but instead, I cry: “It’s beautiful!”


Why are my words coming out wrong?


The latch, the suck, the full-body pain is a dull sand shovel scooping my raw insides out again.


“So precious!” the nurse coos through yellowed, dying teeth.


My husband walks in. He’s carrying flowers, a smoothie, and a hamburger. He looks stressed and worried and grateful.


I want to say: I love you! Thank you! But instead I say: “Is that organic?”


I’m caught off guard. Why did I say that to my husband?


I love him. He brought me exactly what I wanted without having to ask.


When I spoke to my heart I said all the right words.


Why not to my husband?


What is wrong with me? I don’t give a shit where the burger came from. I just want to eat it.


I try speaking again.


Thank you, exactly what I wanted. “Only the best for our new bouncing baby!”


I cover my mouth. I can’t be trusted to talk anymore. It’s not even a Bouncing Baby yet.

It’s a freaking organ. Thirty minutes ago my heart was inside of my chest, snuggled in and safe.


“So? Is it okay?” He asks, holding out the bag.


He really looks hard, really looks at my heart as it nurses on my open chest cavity. I can see the confusion on his face pass into concern. What I mean is that his eyes get soft and his mouth sort of purses.


He knows.


Thank you. “This is so natural!” Oh my god, the wrong words again.


“Can I do anything for you?” He sits on the bed.


The singsong nurse comes over and snatches the food. She sets it down on a table by the door so very far away.


“Not yet!” she says “Mama needs ice chips first.”


My heart takes a long, horrible drink. I wince and cuss and press against the bed.

“Babe?” My husband goes to pick up my heart but instead of releasing me, my heart clamps down harder. My fresh insides twist. Bile stops in my throat—a threat—and I have to swallow and clench to keep it in.


Another nurse with short brown hair and glasses comes in and tears the sheets off my bare body.


I’m naked. Suddenly and without warning.


I’m shocked. Too shocked to say or do anything, plus my words can’t be trusted. My husband backs away fast. His eyes are wide. I look at myself.


I’m soaked in blood from the chest down.


I hadn’t even noticed.


My body is still numb from being Harvested. I didn’t feel the warmth. I didn’t feel the wet.


Maybe my head is a little dizzy. But how could I not know? My mind and body have always worked together pretty well.


“Get out!” The nurse grabs my husband and shoves him out into the hallway. Out of sight.


I wanted him here. I should say something, but if I open my mouth what will come out? What if I say something awful and it’s the last thing he hears and my heart and I die here alone without him after I’d just worked so hard to make us a nuclear family.


My heart shares in my panic. It thump-thump-thumps against my chest.


I want to back away but I can’t move and the nurses are in my face.


“Do you feel faint?” they ask.


“This is a lot of blood?” they say.


Oh, god am I going to die? I think.


“Everything is fine!” I shout with joy.


They clean me, roll me, and reassess. Someone just forgot to place some absorbent pads underneath me for excess fluids and it’s nothing to be alarmed about. It’s normal.


I clutch my heart and nod and nod and nod.


I just need to ride through this.


It will be better once I am home. My voice will come back and my heart will become a baby. It will all be okay.


Just have to get through.


My husband is allowed back inside. The nurse tells him that we had a scare, but I’m fine now and, “If you want,” she continues, “you can feed Mama those ice chips.” She hands him a spoon.


My husband looks at me sitting there, clutching my heart. He sort of, like, asks for permission silently, through eye-contact, in that language all spouses or partners have.


Spoon-feed you? Babe?


I try to make my face say: At least it’s you.


At that moment, I start to hate. It starts as a deep-down seedling feeling, but the roots are thick and they latch into my stomach and wrap all gnarled and ancient around my soul.


But, on the other hand, I’m really, really thirsty. Dreaming of lakes thirsty. If I were a pirate or some ancient mariner, I’d already be hanging over the boat with my mouth open wide gulping in cold sea water not caring if I go crazy later.


I nod. Ready.


He brings the spoon up to my lips.


****


Because I don’t trust my voice, I write a text to my husband. “Please go home and check on the dogs.” He says sure and that he’ll be back tomorrow to pack us up and bring us, me and my heart, home.


I’m closing my eyes. With my heart against my chest—where it was for so long—my body feels almost normal. I’m feeling, just the littlest bit, at peace.


I’m awakened by the most violent tug. One of the nurses—short brown hair and glasses has removed my heart from my chest and is stuffing it into the glass bassinet beside the bed. The cord connecting us feels taut like I could get dragged behind it.


My heart squeals. It’s too far away from me. It leaks a little blood onto the pink and blue blankets. I cry out: It’s too far. That’s not what comes out, though. “It’s all so beautiful!” I bite my lip and try to reach for my heart. The numbing meds are weights in my veins. The bassinet is so high. If I extend my arm, my fingertips graze it. My heart bubbles and guggles and one of the blankets is sticking to it. It looks uncomfortable.


Why would they separate us like this? We’d finally been asleep. We’d only just started to feel okay and safe. I’ve never been this far away from my heart in my life.


Give me back my heart, you fucking bitch.


“Please hand it back? I’m just going to feed my new blessing!”


The nurse smiles. “It’s against hospital policy for new hearts to sleep with their mothers. It’s safer in the bassinet. Why don’t you try to get some sleep separately? We don’t want any broken hearts now, do we, ladies?”


Ladies?


“No, ma’am!” my neighbor’s voice is chipper and alert. A hand with perfectly manicured blue nails pulls the curtain around me wide open. “Hi, Roomie!”


Roomie?


First off, she’s standing. How the hell is she standing after Harvest time. Second, her black hair is in one of those perfect buns. The kind that looks like she actually did it in front of a mirror with hairspray and a brand-new hair tie.


She has make-up on. She’s even changed out of the pale green hospital gown and into a fluffy pink robe. She’s short like me, and the tie from the robe cinches in her waist. How does she have a waist after Harvest time, also, I want a fluffy robe.


The nurse smiles on her way out. “Don’t cause too much trouble, Ashley.” She leaves.


I look at Ashley who is probably an “Ashleigh.”


“Hi,” I try. It comes out the way I wanted—the way I meant it to. Thank god. Maybe, around this other mom, I can have my voice back.


“Hi!” She smiles brightly. Then, her eyes fall to my heart. “Oh,” she says, grimacing a little, “has your heart not turned into a baby yet?” She bites her lip.


Shit, have I done something wrong? Already?


“Yours has?”


It hasn’t been long enough. I thought it would take days. Months, even?


“Oh, yeah, well, this is my sixth. You might say I’m old hat at this.” She sits down on her bed and reaches over towards her baby. “You want to see her?”


I nod.


Yes, yes, of course. I want to make sure it’s ugly.


Her baby is asleep in its glass bassinet. Ashley scoops her out. The little girl has a mound of curly red hair. Her dimples are perfect. Her little eyes are closed and her mouth is plump and puckers in her sleep which looks very restful.


She’s beautiful.


I look at Ashley; she smooths a strand of red-orange hair away from her daughter’s face, then breathes in the smell of her new baby.


Bitch.


I look at my own heart in the bassinet.


I want to smell it even though, now, in its current state, it will just smell like blood and viscera.


I reach up again. Once my heart becomes a baby, I know it will be even cuter and better and smarter than Ashley’s baby.


Mine will be the most beautiful.


“Oh, here.” Ashley sets her baby on her hospital bed and picks up my heart. I expect her to comment about how it’s still sticky or smells weird. She doesn’t—just hands it over to me. I place it back against my chest. It beats against me and I’m sated. We’re going to get out of this. We will. It will turn into a baby and I will be able to talk and move again.


“Probably just needs more blood. That’s why its not a baby yet,” Ashley says. “Don’t worry, Mama. It’s a beautiful process, Harvest time.”


“You…you mean that?”


I look into her eyes. She has fake eyelashes but her brown eyes are deer-big. I wonder if she is trapped inside there the way I was. Just because I can say the truth around this mom doesn’t mean she can say her truth to me.


What was I able to do when I was trapped by the nurses and doctors during Harvest time? Blink! I could blink. I tell Ashley: “Blink if you really feel like everything here is normal and fine and pretty.”


She cocks her head a little. “It’s the best, most normal thing you could do as a woman.”


It’s almost imperceptible, but I catch it. Her eyes dart to the bottom of her bed for a fraction of a second.


My legs are still numb, but my toes have started to wake up and tingle. Holding my heart against me, I stumble out of my bed and land at the foot of hers against her go-bag.


I’m expecting things like granola bars and aloe, witch hazel, gauze and slippers. Everything in my go-bag is useless. I had planned to have a natural Harvest time, so my items were arranged accordingly. I didn’t plan on being pulled apart with pliers, filleted, and stitched back together in places where my skin had never been attached before. I can’t even wear the comfy high-waisted sweatpants. They will go across my chest cavity, which will tear and snag and leak.


I unzip her go-bag and gasp.


There’s a severed arm in there.


There’s a shadow of a wedding ring on the ring finger. The hand is calloused, stained with something black and manly. Oil from car parts maybe. There are black redwood tree tattoos creeping up from the wrist to the elbow.


So generic. The trees are your life force. Whatever, Kyle.


It’s still leaking blood.


The softest, best little noise escapes from my heart. Does it even have a mouth yet? My heart leaps in my arms to get to the blood.


“It’s hungry,” Ashley says, climbing into bed with her perfect baby.


I look at my heart. It clearly wants to do something to the arm—but is the arm clean? This blood hasn’t come from my body but my heart is thumping so hard it’s about to wiggle out of my arms.


“I think you’re right,” I say.


“Eat up, little one!” Ashley coos encouragingly.


I set my heart down in the go-bag. It’s voracious and chomps at the arm. Dead fingers slide into the ventricles. Blood is absorbed through the veins that pulse along the outside. It’s a messy eater and blood soaks the deep blue cloth liner of the bag, turning it a velvety purple.


“Sorry about the stains,” I say. I pick up my heart. Bringing it to my shoulder feels good and maybe this is the part of Harvest time that is natural.


I reach up to pat it the way I’ve seen parents pat their babies in movies and grocery stores. My hand is met with skin.


Skin!


It’s changing—he’s changing. Veins slough off of him. They curl down to the ground and float in blood the way worms float and die in puddles.


His fresh, warm exterior feels good in a way nothing has ever felt good. It’s not chocolate or sex or wine—it’s like the time in college at the river when, before my friends could stop me, I leapt off the tallest rock into a collection of water below as the test to see if it was indeed a deep pool or if rocks and spears from ancient explorers were waiting for us, but this time it’s not so much falling but the actual feeling of being pulled down and its so fast and necessary. The hand of gravity reaches up, wraps around me, and yanks me down.


Down.


It’s sitting on top of a mountain with the Santa Ana winds who lift my hair and grab my dress and kiss my hands and legs.


Down.


Further.


It’s a hug from my late grandfather and my parents that turns into a spash and a spiderweb of all my relatives I’ve never met surrounds me. They found me in that dusty valley and they are reaching for me now, and this is how I reach back and electrify the strands—by having my own child


Life is real. Death is real.


Then, his little fingers hold mine, and the crash down to earth is the kind of landing I’ve seen in superhero movies that require just the three-pronged landing with two feet and-one hand.


Whump.


I’ve landed. I’m here.


Now I am become Mom. I am a dangerous thing.


“Sshhh. I’m here, darling. Mommy’s here.”


It must be all over my face because Ashley sighs. “Oh, Mama. He’s changing! Your baby is coming!”


I pat my baby’s back. It feels maybe a little bit hairy but it’s mine and, oh, gosh it’s not a heart and not quite all the way a baby.


It’s a heart-baby. Still, though? A baby. My baby.


It’s a many splendid things and exactly what I needed after Harvest time.


And Ashley. I needed Ashley—another mom to be with me.


But then my heart-baby starts to grumble and move and twitch and thrum thrum thrum thrum and mew. He needs to feed again.


“I can’t,” I say to Ashley, to her baby, to my baby, to the world. “I can’t feed him. I tried and it hurts so much. It hurts down to my toes.”


Ashley bites her lower lip again, then looks at her own baby who has started to mew as well.


“What do we do?” I ask.


The door to our room opens. Ashley smiles a thin, half smile at me.


“It’s all so natural.” Before she closes the curtain, I watch her reach for something underneath her pillow.


It’s sing-song nurse. She’s back. I can still see some of my blood on her lime-green scrubs from when she forced my heart to feed from me. Fucking bitch.


“Ah! How wonderful! You fed it enough for it to turn into a baby.”


“Him,” I correct her. “This is my son.” My voice. It’s coming back.


She folds her hands over each other and purses her lips.


“Almost! Looks like you still have some more feeding to do.”


I look down and it’s true. My heart-baby still has a large muscle around his face. His body is almost complete, but I can’t tell if he has my hair or my husband’s. Does he have the shape of my mother’s eyes?


“Let’s try feeding again?” she sings. “Chest is best!”


She presses my heart-baby against my chest and his heart-mouth grinds into my open cavity the way a key grates in an old lock. I go blind with pain.


Just when I need it, my voice leaves again.


Stop!


“I’ve been dreaming about this day!”


Take your hands off my baby!


“I left my career for this. So, worth it!”


Leave us alone!


“I can’t wait to have another!”


Then Ashley is above me. My senses were so focused on the blinding pain of feeding my heart that I didn’t see her open the privacy curtains.


She’s hovering above me, just above the sing-song nurse. Ashley sneers and says: “It’s all so beautiful,” and stabs the nurse in the side of the neck. It’s so fast. She’s so fast. Blood sprays her face and she pokes out her tongue and licks up the droplets. The nurse doesn’t scream, she can’t scream. She falls onto my bed and grasps at the weapon Ashely jammed into her neck.


I unlatch my heart-baby and sit up. The nurse sputters and wriggles. I’m faint. I have no blood left, I’m certain.


The nurse holds her neck. The blood underneath us pools and I’m sitting in a crimson mess, but really that has just been my day. I’m getting used to it.


Ashley jerks the weapon—a Leatherman—from the nurse’s neck.


It makes a cartiledge noise I recognize from the time I got my ears pierced at Clair’s.


She holds it out to me, her open palm beneath my chin. An offering. I take it. Ashely reaches over for her baby, who is still mewing.


I hold my heart against me with one hand, the Leatherman in the other. Using my knee as leverage, I fold the knife end in.


And go for the pliers.


With the serrated metal teeth, I grip the wound’s skin flaps and pull. Sing-song nurse wriggles a little but she’s going into shock and probably can’t feel much in death.


“Why are you crying if there is no pain?” I ask her, mockingly.


There is a perfect little hole in her neck now. Big enough to share. Big enough for two.


Ashley sets her daughter against the wound. She has to help her lean in a way that is comfortable, all while supporting her head.


“Now you, little man!” she smiles at my heart-baby like he’s just as put together as her own. He will be soon. He just needs to eat a little more. He just needs a little more time.


I set him down next to the cavernous wound. I stabilize his head with a pillow and watch as he latches and pulls and digs and eats.


Ashley and I lean back on the pillows. Our shoulders touch. Her fluffy robe is against my thin green hospital gown and I’m not even a little self-conscious.


Together, we watch the babies. My son’s hair comes in. His face becomes clear. He has his grandmother’s eyes—on my husband’s side. The hair that comes in is mine—passed down from my great-grandmother. I feel the ghost hands of relatives squeeze my shoulder in pride. Ashley’s daughter slurps contently. Mine coos in satisfaction.


Which reminds me, I never ate my hamburger. I glance around, looking for the bag my husband brought me. Ashley tracks my sight. She gets up and fetches the take out for us. She picks out a fry and then sits back down with me.


“It’s so beautiful,” she says around her mouthful, watching the babies.


I nod in agreement, fishing out my hamburger


“So natural.”


I take a bite of the meat. It’s delicious.




Mackenzie Kiera is a professor, an editor, and the cofounder and cohost of the dark fiction podcast Ladies of the Fright. She is also the author of over fifty articles, essays, short stories, and one novella that have appeared in varying places. Because that wasn’t enough, she has also built three business—an editing business, a car wash, and a mold inspection and remediation gig she and her husband run together. Most days, though, she can be found playing Legos with her son who is her absolute world.







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