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Empty Hearts

by Peter Medeiros

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

part 3

Em kept the gun behind my back as we walked to her big blue minivan. Just my luck: Monday morning in downtown Shiver Rock, and there was no one around to see her kidnapping me, no one to call for help.

I rode shotgun. Em had ripped out the back seats and put in a black metal cage for her work as Shiver Rock’s dogcatcher. I kept my hands tucked under my thighs as she’d told me to. Em explained her plan while she drove.

Martin was to be Babs’ new husband. He already loved Babs, Emily said, and Babs liked him well enough. And second cousins ain’t the same as first cousins. “Babs is grieving now. Won’t hardly eat. Sister loving isn’t what she needs. She wanted a husband and all that. She watched a lot of soaps growing up, Mr. Kwoong. Got an idea about the way life’s supposed to go. Figure you seen a lot of that. And Martin’s the one can give it to her.”

“You’re saying we play match-maker?” I asked. “Em, how are we going to set them up on a date? Your sister is probably having some kind of trauma-induced mental reaction. I think it’s a little early for her to get back in the game, huh? It’s been less than two days since...” The photo of Louie’s gaping chest cavity swam in my mind. I felt my face turning purple and hot.

Em pulled over just in time for me to stumble out and ralf on the side of the road. She came around the minivan and patted my back. “’S okay,” she said. “I almost barfed too, when I got her. Then I realized how much the bastard must have been lying, all this time.”

Maybe Louie hadn’t been a lair. Maybe he was just confused. Maybe he didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. I almost said all that, but I was too busy revisiting the honey wheat bagel I’d eaten on my way to work.

“Anyway,” Emily said when we were back on the road, “I didn’t say nothing about a date. I think we just need to get them together. I don’t really know how dating works these days, nohow. It’s all done on phones.” Emily was younger than me, I was pretty sure. Hadn’t yet hit thirty. I didn’t point this out.

We pulled up to Bigwig’s Tackle Shop, a long L-shaped cabin on a little peninsula on the north side of Lake Cranston. Martin lived in a kitchen-sized trailer out back. I flinched when Emily reached behind my seat and came back with a pair of yellow ski masks, brown leather driving gloves, and two bulky black canvas jackets rolled up like they were fresh from a storeroom. Told me to put them on.

“This isn’t what I expected,” I said. Adrenaline and fear and a mixed sense of unreality and inevitability. I’d managed to avoid getting a parking ticket the entire time I lived in New York.

“Surprise,” Em said, her voice level, “you’re an accessory to kidnapping.” She took the clip out of her pistol and stored it in the driver’s side door. “Come on, wedding man. We’re only giving them what they want, anyway.”

Em put the gear on over her clothes and drew a long blue and black rifle out the back of the minivan. I followed her to the door of Martin’s trailer. She told me to wait there in case Martin got past her. I asked if she was going to kick the door in. She said that was silly, Martin would need to fix it later. And he was going to be her brother-in-law. Besides, who locks their door around here?

Em flung open the trailer’s door and charged inside. From behind her, I saw Martin perched on the edge of his couch, playing video chess and drinking a Croatia Stout. He looked her up and down. This defeated look on his face, the kind you see on best men when they realize their speech isn’t making sense through their own booze-haze.

“Guys,” Martin said, “I’ve had a real crummy couple of days. And I think you got the wrong place.”

Emily threw her voice down deep, spoke slowly and deliberately, like Teddy Roosevelt. “Man, your day is about to get a whole bunch worse.” She raised the rifle and fired.

The tranquilizer dart zipped into the beer in Martin’s hand, hard enough to shatter the glass in half. The dart stayed in the glass though, poking out of what remained of the bottle like a tiny umbrella.

“What if you stuck him in the eye?” I cried, unnerved. “Did you even plan this?”

“Hush up!” Emily hissed.

Martin tossed away the broken bottle as if it had scorched him. He stood up, rolling his shoulders. “All right, pal. That’s how it is.” He tried to stalk dramatically toward Emily, but he couldn’t quite manage it. There were lots of empties scattered around his trailer and they tripped him. He might’ve been drinking since the wedding.

Emily went to meet him. She threw the tranq gun to the floor and toed the line, hands far away from her body like she’d done this before. Martin threw a couple of wide haymakers, action movie punches.

Emily ducked both and came up with two hands on Martin’s left arm, one near the wrist and one inside his elbow. She pivoted into his body, hoisted him way up on her hips, and tossed him over her right shoulder, spinning as she did so. He landed on his coffee table. One of the legs came off.

“Sorry about this.” She held her fist above his face and then dropped to a kneeling position. Sounded like a hockey stick breaking in half. Martin was out.

While this was going on, I’d made a dive for the tranquilizer gun. I didn’t want to shoot Emily, and I wasn’t sure I could, but at least I could threaten her with it. Maybe train it on her as I backed into the woods, got somewhere with cell phone reception, called the cops, moved to Hawaii — another marriage destination — and never trusted another Spock again.

I hit my chin on the dirty carpet of Martin’s trailer and came up holding the gun with the grip upside-down. Emily was already up, breathing heavy but not panting. She peeled off the yellow mask. Her hair was sweaty, clinging to her face in places. No more dogcatcher look; more the look of a dog when it’s sure you’re going to hurt its owner. She wasn’t scared of the gun, not for herself.

I held it in front of me. She walked across the room and jerked it out of my hands. I wondered if it would have been better simply to make a break for the woods, and why I didn’t.

“Thanks for keeping me covered,” she said, toneless. “But it’s just got the one shot.”

I helped her heft Martin into the cage in the back of her minivan. He snored.

While we were loading him up, I spotted an honest-to-God grenade launcher in the minivan, tucked between the cage and the window. She caught me eyeing it and answered my unspoken question: “Oh, God. No, it only fires beanbags. For chasing off bobcats and such.” She chuckled. “And you from New York, huh?”

Driving south, I managed to shut up for all of five minutes. Then I said, “You think Babs is going to go for Martin even with his nose bent outta shape?” Before she could answer I heard myself ask, “You don’t think this is all a little extreme?”

Why did I bother? The second she let me go, I was going to the cops. Let it get extreme as long as Em thought we were even again when it was over.

“That, back there, was nothing,” Emily said. “I wrestled through high school.” She paused. “Gavin, it’s a matter of perspective. Maybe where you’re from folks don’t take promises or commitment too seriously. I’m not trying to judge. I don’t know what’s right, but I know what’s right for Babs. You ain’t got nobody you feel that way about?”

I almost told her then about New York, about Kamilla and her artsy friends. Cato, my main man, couldn’t understand why I had to get out, couldn’t see the flimsy cardboard nature of the bars we frequented, the rooftop parties, the living room theatre. The big surprise was how little each of them meant to me. The empty gestures. All my friends were better actors when they weren’t on stage.

There were times I almost told Kamilla about my childhood even though we agreed never to discuss each other’s families. Remembered Mom watching all those wedding shows on The Learning Channel, talking about Dad and the music and the cake like that day was their whole relationship. One day I realized, hey, I can do that. Easy as faking your way through homework.

All you need to know about wedding planning? Things go wrong when you try to appease people with logic, that’s what I got from Mom’s shows. If you just tell them what they want to hear and work with objective criteria you share with no one and squint real hard when sampling cake like you ate better for breakfast, well, it usually works out. Sure, there are courses you have to take, like with any job. Some of my fellow students even took it seriously.

The short answer to Emily’s question was no, I didn’t have anybody like that. Most folks don’t, which is why it wasn’t so shocking what happened to Louie. What was surprising was that if the heartfish thing was real, if the creepy shrimp killed Louie because he didn’t love Babs enough...what did that mean for all the vapid, vacuous couples I’d put together since coming to Shiver Rock? The ones who survived the heartfish? They’d all been in love, the real deal? It was hard to swallow.

I almost asked Emily if she could stand to love her sister like this, love her in a way that hounded her so bad she had to kidnap a fixit guy and smash his coffee table.

But instead I said, “So now you’re going to kidnap your own sister? Tie her up with bungee cords or something? That’s your idea of familial affection?”

“Already took care of that,” Emily said. “Didn’t want you to see it.”

* * *

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Medeiros

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