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Empty Hearts

by Peter Medeiros

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 1

It had been two days since Babs Forsyth and Louie Ellis got hitched, and I had no reason to think either one of them was dead in the literal sense. After the service, both families congratulated me in an offhand way I’d come to expect, embarrassed to have had someone else organizing their lives.

I ran out of business cards, each emblazoned with “Gavin Kwoong, Wedding/Event Designer” in size-14 gold Eras against a cream background. Other than that, nothing remarkable about the wedding.

I smiled along during the ceremony, drank a Bronx cocktail with too much OJ, got Louie’s alcoholic uncle home safe, and told lies about New York when asked about my life before moving to Arkansas.

By Monday I’d already forgotten about the Ellises. I had the MacLaughlin wedding on Thursday, and another two weddings the week after.

I rent a little office next to a pie shop in the four-block cluster of brick buildings that makes up downtown in Shiver Rock, Arkansas. I sat down with a coffee, opened my minifridge, poured out half a carton of hazelnut non-dairy creamer into the paper cup. I heard the bell above my door tinkle, and turned away from the blue loading screen to see Emily Forsyth, Babs’ sister, with an 8x11 printout of Louie’s dead body. His bare chest was open as if a cherry bomb had gone off inside his heart.

I was surprised. As I said, the Ellis wedding had been only two days ago. I hadn’t expected to see Emily again, except maybe in passing at Gina’s Grocery.

“Wow.” I sipped my coffee. “Okay, Louie and your sister never told me they wanted snuff stuff. And that is not from the photographer I hired. The lighting is abysmal.”

“Babs took it,” Em said, “on her phone. I printed it out so you could get a gander at the details.” She tossed the photo into my lap and took two steps back. She had a gun. It looked huge in her hands, like it was meant for clubbing someone to death instead of shooting them. “You promised me. You promised my sister was gonna be happy.”

I had spent time with Emily while planning her sister’s wedding. That was one big difference between New York weddings and Arkansas weddings: New Yorkers can’t wait to get rid of you, but Shiver Rock folks were vaguely insulted if you didn’t have time for an iced tea any day, any time.

Anyway, Emily was Shiver Rock’s dogcatcher. Her job involved work with all sorts of animals, but the town had never heard of “animal control services.” She owned a big net. She was also the Spock of the Ellis bridal party, the family member who appreciates the insane amount of time and effort my job requires and explains slowly and logically why you can’t change your flower orders the day before the wedding, no matter how much you badger Mr. Kwoong. I liked her.

But Emily didn’t look like a Spock right then. She was wearing dark jeans with no knees and green rain boots with a peacock tail design on them and a button-down sweater and a khaki baseball cap that served as her dogcatcher uniform. She had this stern anti-mutt look on her face, dialed up fierce. It made me feel small.

“Wow,” I said again. “Can I get you some coffee? Do you want me to call Babs for you? I’m sure if I just talk to her...” I picked up the phone.

Emily put the pistol near my face like she wanted me to suck it. I put down the phone.

She said, “You promised me that my sister was going to have a happy marriage, Mr. Kwoong. But the heartfish killed Louie because he didn’t have no love for Babs. You should have been the one to see it, that he never loved her. Babs called me to come pick her up last night. Now Louie’s dead and her elevator don’t go all the way to the top.”

“Her elevator,” I repeated.

“She’s distraught, Mr. Kwoong, on account of her husband’s dead.”

I tried to tell Emily that, objectively speaking, Louie’s death was neither my fault nor my problem. I was just the wedding planner. And Emily was assuming not only that the heartfish killed Louie, but that he had lied about being in love with Babs.

“How could I know?” I continued. “Sure, I’ve done a lot of weddings, but Louie had you and Babs and everybody else fooled! And how do we know it was the freaking fish? Could’ve been a really bad heart attack or a burst coronary, and the heartfish just happened to be there!” I had no idea what a burst coronary was.

“That all makes sense,” Emily said, like she was explaining why somebody’s favorite puppy was put down. “But don’t none of it change that you promised, and you didn’t come through on that promise. And now you’re gonna help me make it right.” She let the gun drop to her side. “Mr. Kwoong, you come quiet and help me get Babs a new husband or I’ll kill you dead.”

I knew she didn’t mean it.

That’s one thing you learn as a wedding planner: people say all kinds of stuff, not because they mean it, but because it’s part of a performance. My job is to facilitate that performance, the public ritual symbolic of a feeling that may or may not exist.

I’d lived in New York my whole life, until a year ago. My reason for leaving was simple: after almost a decade with Kamilla, my high school sweetheart, I woke up and realized I had never loved her. Where there should have been meaningful shared experience and trust, there was only this absence, like curtains opening on an empty stage with soft cones of light where the performers belong. Which is funny, since all her artsy friends called themselves actors.

Birthdays and anniversary gifts, so much time reading lines for some part neither of us believed Kamilla would get, celebration cakes from Valencia Bakery when she did. All performance. I had to get out.

Which is why I knew Emily wouldn’t kill me. Why she must have known we couldn’t replace Babs’ new husband the way you can replace a pet. She was posing.

Then again, a month after I moved to Shiver Rock, a grizzly bear stumbled into town and raided Jacko’s Ice Cream Shoppe. Emily tranquilized it rather than kill the thing and called in for out-of-state backup to relocate the grizzly. They found her sitting on top of the snoring bear. “It’d be a shame to kill a fella,” she said, “for wanting a nice cone on a hot day.” And I believe she meant it.

* * *

Oh, heartfish. Right.

Not fish, really. Big purple shrimp. Peculiar, I’m told, to Lake Cranston. Sort of a delicacy, though as far as I can tell they taste like regular shrimp if you shell them and roll them around in cayenne pepper and cumin, like the locals do. So worse than regular shrimp, is what I’m saying.

It was a small miracle the heartfish weren’t extinct. Shiver Rock grew out of a few fishermen’s shacks set up almost exclusively to harvest them. Only lake of its size in Arkansas, I’m told, and not many other edible fish in there. But two hundred years on, the industry is still going strong.

Well, strong for a fishing village in landlocked Arkansas. Strong for Shiver Rock, population three thousand, triple that for two weeks in June, the height of marriage season. Shiver Rock is what passes for a marriage destination in Arkansas, which is how it became my destination.

It’s a tradition for local newlyweds to eat two heartfish before the honeymoon. Live. Local lore says the still-living heartfish will burrow into your heart and, if it’s as full of love as it ought to be on your wedding day, glut itself on that love, die from overeating, and harmlessly dissolve into your bloodstream. Turns your crap bright orange, so they tell me. The love grows back.

And if you’re not in love, it burrows its way out of your chest like the little bastards from Alien. Not hard to imagine, since the heartfish are ugly as sin. Get their name from an asymmetrical profusion of wicked feelers sticking out of their rostrum, which resembles pulmonary arteries as seen on anatomy class models of the heart.

Supposedly all this is based on Quapaw legend, but probably somebody came up with it to sell more heartfish.

The only question is whether or not Louie Ellis saw it coming; if he was at all worried that he would wake up on the second day of his marriage, fix himself some instacoffee in a rented cabin twenty miles north of Shiver Rock, burn his tongue, drop the mug and stare out the window at the edge of the White River Wildlife Reserve, slump with his head against the glass and watch the heartfish open up his ribs and wriggle out, its curved tail still stuck around the mess of Louie’s lungs and its antennae scrabbling against the glass, arterial blood spraying out of him like foamy beer from a punctured can until six seconds later he slid down the window and died.

Anyway, that’s apparently what happened.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Medeiros

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