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Empty Hearts

by Peter Medeiros

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

part 4

Emily worked out of a converted boathouse on the other side of the lake. It was going to be the headquarters for Shiver Rock Community College’s row team, but the college never got completed and there was never a row team. But there was a dogcatcher.

The building was bisected by a kind of pool lane where the boats were put in the water. Emily said she drained it in the winter and closed the locks so frozen water wouldn’t swell and break the floor tiles. She’d installed more of the big black cages and put down soft blankets for animals.

I helped carry Martin inside. Babs was asleep on a dirty cot in the largest cage, a tiny puncture wound in her neck. Breathing shallow. Her mascara was runny, sloping off to either side of her eyes like she was wearing a bandit mask. She wore a tight magenta sweater and loose sweatpants with “Ozarka College” running down one leg. I couldn’t imagine Emily in that sweater.

The boathouse had a small room with wide windows, separate from the rest of the building, I guess where the harbormaster or boat king or whatever would sit. Emily had covered the windows with thick blankets patterned with the night sky. She’d set up tiny video cameras in the big cage, and a neat row of four grainy monitors in the private room. “So we can watch how it’s going,” she said.

Realistically, I knew how this was going to end. Felt like Emily had tricked me into playing a game where we spun around in an open field with golf clubs and TV antennae like trash-picking ribbon dancers, even while there’s a lightning storm brewing above us: there was only one possible outcome.

The storm is a metaphor for the inevitable legal repercussions that, ideally, befall all kidnappers. It’s the police, in case you didn’t get that.

But I had to admit that Emily had done a lot of planning with very little time. Someone else would have taken a moment for reflection once they were shooting people with tranquilizer darts. Someone else would have asked herself, “Is my widowed sister really worth all this trouble?” Someone else would have drawn the line at people in cages and surveillance equipment and all the trappings of a horror movie.

I considered the two limp bodies in the huge cage. “So we can watch how it’s going?” I repeated. “You’re some kind of pervert. I knew it.” Immediate regret. Why was I trying to joke with Em? What if she took offense and decided to choke me out or something? I had friends in New York who liked to watch martial arts fighting. I thought it looked embarrassing, grown adults rolling over each other on the ground.

She smiled. “If it gets to that, I guess we’ll call it a success and we won’t have to watch. Babs wouldn’t, you know, do that with a fella if she wasn’t ready to hitch it up. Didn’t sleep with Louie until he popped the question. Told me so, anyways. You waiting for marriage, Gavin?”

“I, uh, no.” So much for the smooth cosmopolitan New Yorker gracing hick country with his refined presence and eloquent conversation. And I was wearing yesterday’s tie.

I remembered, briefly, Kamilla’s hands around my neck; she always loosened my tie, said it made me look like someone who could afford to act relaxed on the job. It was one of those things I wanted to remember, to remind myself why I left. I thought, Remember what you endured for the ghost of a feeling. No, not a ghost: a costume without even the mannequin to prop it up.

“Yeah, me neither,” said Em. “You gotta kick all the tires before you buy the car, right?”

“I don’t know how you all do it down here,” I said, “but I don’t take well to getting kicked in bed.”

That set her off, snorting and laughing. She had her ski mask on again, but pulled up like a hat and her hair piled underneath it. While she was rocking in her chair, a loose curtain of hair fell free. An empty wind almost moved me to reach out and fix it. After a minute, she settled down and said, “That’s good, Gavin.”

She reached beneath the desk with the monitors and came back with a six-pack. We hunkered down to watch our prisoners fall in love. I struggled to keep my focus, my eyes on the screen. I thought, Play along, Gavin. How long can this last?

Maybe too long. Emily looked perfectly at ease. She must have cleared her schedule for Babs. I imagined wolves stalking the streets, terrified men screaming into Emily’s unanswered voicemail.

* * *

Babs woke up first. She spotted Martin right away and stood over him for a minute. She looked like she was trying to decide if he was alive or dead.

I asked Emily if either of them would recognize the boathouse, but she said nobody ever visited her at work; we were still anonymous kidnappers. “Babs and me, we were interested in the same things growing up. She never much liked animals. Or the lake. Wanted to get away. But she came back.” I wondered how anyone could consider Ozarka College, maybe forty miles north, “away.”

Babs shook the cage. She cried into her hand for a minute. Screamed for somebody, anybody. Boring stuff, what you would expect.

When Martin woke up, they sat down and shared notes. Talked about masked intruders, tried to find significance in the fact that there was only one when Babs was taken. Tried to piece together what they could remember.

Martin said, “They must want some kind of ransom.”

“Marty,” Babs replied, “that is freaking stupid. They’re probably going to murder us. Might torture us first. Maybe they’re some kind of Satan-worshipers.”

Martin checked all the parts of the cage, feeling them with his palms, which Babs had already done. He asked her how she was feeling about a hundred times before she broke down and told him about Louie’s chest exploding while they were in the cabin. Martin asked if she had told anybody else about Louie’s death. Babs said she’d only talked to Emily.

“Oh, honey,” Martin said. “You should sit down. You need... uh, Christ... you probably need a drink.”

He was trying, I’ll give him that. I wondered if Martin would really be better off if Em’s plan worked and our two kidnapped lovers convinced themselves they belonged together. I wondered which would hurt Martin worse: the rest of his life spent pining for his cousin or the inevitable realization he had wasted his youth and transgressed social taboo for a misfiring of the brain. He would have been better off if we’d kidnapped him to Malibu or Reno or someplace he could fall in and out of lust with fewer consequences. Some place bigger than Shiver Rock, some place with lots of single women. Then again, New York was full of single women and I still sleepwalked through a flat-lining romance for a third of my life.

Babs put an arm across her chest and lay her forehead in her other hand. “What I need is to get out of here,” she said. “I need to be alone. And will you stop shaking the cage? They’re not going to come on out until they’re good and ready. Might not even be here.”

Em and I polished off the six-pack in under two hours. Babs told Martin to quit asking her how she was doing, because how she was doing was kidnapped by crazy people and locked in a cage with her cousin. “I love you, Marty, but you need to shut the hell up.” The word love seemed to hit Martin harder than Em’s wrestling moves.

“How long exactly are you expecting this to take?” I asked Emily.

Em tried to sip from her bottle of Croatia, but it was already empty. “Listen. Babs is maybe the only person who never noticed Martin’s torch for her. She wanted to see the world, you know. Shiver Rock was always too small, too weird. Wasn’t like darn California or Miami or New York or other places where things happen on TV. But college wasn’t good to her, and neither were any of the other places she went. Gone five years before she came home and met Louie. What I’m saying is, she only needs time to see how much Martin loves her. Can’t miss it if she’s locked up with the guy.”

I rolled my eyes. “Locked up in this place? People show each other that they love each other through performance, and performance needs a stage. And Martin can’t perform in this sort of environment.”

Em threw her feet onto the desk, crossed at the ankle. “Man, I don’t know about that performance stuff. I’m hoping Marty will finally work up the nerve to tell her straight if they spend some together. You don’t think the words mean nothing, but I say they do. You didn’t see Louie all torn up.”

She sounded so certain. More sure of this than I’d been of anything since I’d seen the Twin Towers fall and watched the smoke uncoil from the heart of the city and everything I suspected about the depth of people’s insanity and cruelty and their endless posturing was confirmed. I had just turned sixteen.

“Look,” I said, “you brought me on to help. You want Martin to spill his guts, we need to help him along. Set the scene. Trust me.”

Emily considered the monitors. Babs leaned against the cage, her shoulders slumped. She watched Martin crawl along the floorboards, knocking at intervals and presumably listening for the hollow reverberation of a crawlspace. “You already broke one promise to me,” Emily said, “so I can’t say as I trust you, wedding man. But you deserve a second chance. We’ll try it your way tomorrow.”

Second chances. Like honky-tonk and love-drinking death-shrimp, in New York that sort of thing seems like a fantasy.

At night Emily handcuffed me to a leg of her metal desk. We took turns with a poofy tan sleeping bag and a featherless pillow. She’d wake me up for my shift, get me in front of the monitors, and cuff my other wrist to a different leg of the desk. Fixed us espresso with a camp burner and a little moka pot. “Wake me up if either of them proposes,” she said.

“I promise,” I said, and wondered why I had.

* * *

Proceed to part 5...

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Medeiros

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