Beating Heart {Short Story Challenge}

He sat on the edge of the bed, alone and naked from the waist up, staring at his hands and the gun they held.  His once hardy complexion now flaunted the ghosts of his past, with pallid skin and the shadows of nightmares lurking around his dulled amber eyes.  The heart beat and the blood remained, dried and beginning to flake.

The only essence of humanity in the sparse room, characterized by peeling paint and dereliction, was a large wall teeming with depictions of a woman, sketched with dirt, coal dust, even blood.  He knew each one; the vitality of the woman infused into every stroke.


A sigh, barely audible.  How did it come to this?  He closed his eyes.  This was his last chance.  With a feeling of finality, he delved into the past, searching for answers.

♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥

It all started with… well, after her.  He knew there was something fundamentally wrong with him.  She brought it out of him, to the surface where he could no longer hide.  Rachael…

Rachael was a flaxen-haired beauty who looked older than her fourteen years, despite her short stature.  She only called him Lucas, instead of Luke, like everyone else.  Instead of being annoyed, he cherished her more.


Lucas was the night to her day.  A few years older, ready for his driver’s license, he stood tall, with dark, unruly hair and an easy smile.  He never called her Rachael, only my sun, though he truly meant “my beating heart, my world”.  She would place her hand on his chest, saying his heart belonged to her.


They met by chance, though they attended the same school.  It was a crowded Halloween party at a friend’s and she showed up with a date.  Luke found Rachael in the den, drinking a soda and sitting on her date’s lap.  She brought her eyes to the doorway, catching him standing there.  


Raising an eyebrow and giving him a knowing smile, she spoke.  “Are you Lucas?”


Surprised, he gave a tentative “Yeah, I’m Luke”, in reply.

Rachael rose from her perch and walked straight up to him, a hair’s breadth away.  Her light scent of lavender and mint intoxicated him.  On tiptoes, her words chanced to tickle his ear.  “I know a secret, Lucas.”

With a laugh like a whisper of bells she walked away, but he caught her hand and pulled her back.  His mouth feigned seriousness while his eyes gleamed with a hidden smile.  “Who are you?  What is this secret?”


Out came the laugh again.  Instead of answering, she slipped from his grasp and twirled from the room and out the front door.  His eyes followed her exit, shaking his head in amazement.  For the rest of the night Luke found himself watching her wherever she was.  It wasn’t until the time came for her to leave that he thought to ask for her phone number.  With a quick flick of her hand and the wiggling of fingers over her shoulder, he had the number and she was gone.


Less than a day later, Rachael’s phone rang; it was Luke.  They agreed to meet at a small green space between their respective houses.  It didn’t take long to arrive and she watched his arrival with a secret smile playing on her shapely lips.  Again, they found themselves drawn together like magnets, a breath of air between them.  He smelled of leather and spontaneity; she, vanilla and serenity.   They stood together, her hands on his chest and face upturned, his hands resting on her hips, staring into her azure eyes.  They did not speak; there was no need.

As the sky turned indigo, the horizon lingering with the fiery passion of the setting sun, he cupped her chin and brought his soft lips to hers.

♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥
 
They were inseparable.  Though they were in different grades and had no overlapping classes, Luke would be waiting by her locker after her journalism class, so they could have lunch together.  Even after weeks, Rachael’s eyes would light up to see him standing near the flagpole before school; she would run to him, jumping to wrap her arms around his neck as he spun with her momentum.
 
She listened to steady beat of his heart as her head rose and fell with his breath, molding herself to his side as they lay under a clear night’s sky scattered with stars.  He wrapped his arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
 
“Lucas?” she asked, her voice barely above whisper in the dark.
 
She felt the vibration of his response before she heard it.  “Hmm?”
 
Turning her head to look him in the eye – no, into his soul – she said, “I love you.”
 
Tucking the strands of hair falling across her face back behind her ear, his whole body lit up with joy.  “I love you, my sun.  Forever.”
 
They were in love and it complicated things.  Barely contained jealousy strained Rachael’s friendships.  Luke’s friends would joke about whether or not he had sealed the deal, to which he declined to comment.  They found solace with each other, a calm breeze to temper the blazing heat of peer pressure.
 
From the outside, their relationship seemed solid, but just beneath the surface, turmoil raged.  Luke loved her, but wanted more and was coming up empty.  Rachael’s heart ached for him, wishing she could give into his desire, but her innocence kept her from going too far.  Vultures circled, waiting for the break.

It wasn’t long before there were whispers:


They make such a cute couple!

I wish I had a guy like him.  He treats her like a princess.
Dude is so whipped.
Wouldn’t you be?  Look at her!
He won’t wait forever. 
She doesn’t deserve him.


Two months after they met, Luke was throwing a New Year’s Eve party.  All their friends were invited.  Rachael had on her party dress, a sparkly silver strapless with a slightly flared skirt, showing off just enough smooth, lean leg to keep the boys guessing.  He contrasted in dark denim and a form-fitting black scoop neck tee.

As the party started, they circulated the room together, holding hands.  It wasn’t long before they were mingling apart, her floating about like a butterfly and him keeping to the edges.  In the mounting chaos, she lost sight of him.


The clock was inching toward midnight and Rachael hadn’t seen Luke for a while.  She delved into the crowd in search of him.  Each time she asked, “Have you seen Lucas?” she was met with a head shake or finger pointed in a general direction.  She chewed on her bottom lip as her eyes darted around the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.  Having no luck in the hub of the party, she made her way up the stairs, where a smattering of people had taken refuge.


There were two doors to her left and one on the right.  The first door opened into the bathroom, dark and unoccupied.  On the right, the door to the office stood open, the soft glow of white Christmas lights filtering in through the window.  Rachael glanced in, assuming the room was empty.  Instead, her breath caught in her throat.


Two figures stood, caught in an intimate embrace, disheveled, their lips interlocked and heavy breath steaming up the window behind them.  Time slowed down.  Shocked, Rachael exhaled heavily, shutting her eyes tight, willing the image to go away.  The figures disengaged and looked toward the sound.  


Rachael opened her eyes and stared into Luke’s, the other girl forgotten.  She didn’t trust herself to speak and he lacked the words to explain.  Her lips parted slightly, a single tear running down her face reflecting the muted light.  She shook her head in disbelief, then turned and walked away.  He was too ashamed to follow.

♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥


School started again a few days later.  Luke and Rachael had not seen or spoken to each other since the incident.  He had racked his brain, trying to figure out how to salvage the relationship while attempting damage control; she spent the days staring out the window, despondent, with a hand clutched to her chest.  Only the gentle rain masked her silent tears from the outside world.


The area around the flagpole stood empty, the student body seeking shelter from the incessant rain.  Rachael went to class, speaking to no one and ignoring the sympathetic looks her classmates dispensed.  She walked the halls with quiet dignity in the face of deplorable rumors.


There he stood, at her locker.  It had taken Luke all morning to produce the courage to show his face to her.  She stopped in the middle of the hall – a short distance away – with a dead look in her eyes, and his nerve began to break.  The crowded hallway held its breath and the earth stood still.

“I… Rachael, my sun…” he started, taking a step and reaching a hand out to her.  She recoiled as if slapped.  He stayed, afraid to move, watching as she changed.
 
Her breath quickened.  The dead look was gone, replaced by a frenzied fire laced with cruelty.  “Don’t, Lucas,” she said in a low voice.  “Don’t call me that.  It’s a lie.”  The last word sounded more like a hiss.  
 
He opened his mouth to speak, dropping his hand, but venturing closer.  Her nostrils flared, rendering him speechless with nowhere to go.  Students caught in the slipstream of fury stood grounded, afraid of being caught in the slow burn.
 
She advanced on him without warning.  Keeping her voice soft, but vehement, she said, “After what you’ve done?  You have a lot of nerve, Lucas.”  She laughed bitterly, her cold stare never straying from his face.  “Your heart?  What a joke.  If it were the case, you’d be dead.”  
 
She spit out the last word.  He sucked in air through tight lips.  She closed her eyes and looked away, sickened by what she saw – the fear and shame registering on his face.  No one chanced a sound, except Luke.
 
“Rachael, I… I don’t…” he stammered, afraid she wouldn’t look at him, but also afraid she would.  Her focus snapped back to him and he jumped inside his skin.  Never had he seen such contempt.
 
“Don’t speak, Lucas.  Your time has passed.”  Her breath hitched, but the steely resolve remained.  “You said I was your sun – your beating heart, your world.  Now, it’s broken and we are done.”  
 
She started to walk away, but he instinctively reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back into him forcibly.  There was a collective gasp from the spectators.  He tried to speak again, but she had yanked her arm from his grasp and slapped him across the face.  Hard.
 
“We are done, Lucas.  Done!”  She took a few steps, then turned back, bringing her face within inches of his.  “You lied, but I didn’t.  I want you to remember that.  Your heart belongs to me.”  Rachael’s voice was barely a whisper, turning his blood cold.  She turned and never looked back.  He sank down onto his knees, watching her go.  The earth revolved again.
 
That night, Luke’s chest began to itch.
♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥
 
No one saw her after.  Some said she had switched schools, unable to bear being close to Luke; some said she died mysteriously – either by her own hand or something more nefarious.  The stories gained traction for a while, growing and changing, but eventually the world moved on. 
 
Luke began to move on, too, though his chest still itched constantly.  There was nothing physically wrong with him, no outward signs of  malady.  A trip to a general physician yielded no answers.  He tried a psychologist, who told him his symptoms may be psychosomatic and proceeded to request costly further involvement.  Eventually he gave up, surrendering himself to the maddening itch begging to be scratched.
 
He started dating again, casually at first.  He was an attractive boy a hint of rebellion, leaving him with no shortage of volunteers.  His daily life improved, but the nights plagued him.  The itch.  Horrible, aggravating itch.
 
After a few hook-ups and many sleepless nights spent scratching incessantly, he noticed a change.  A mark became visible on his pectoral, slightly left of his sternum.  At first he thought it was merely a result of his scratching – had managed to break the skin, but his skin was smooth.  Curious, he rubbed it, only to have it grow and turn crimson.  He stopped, frightened, but the mark continued to grow.  
 
The itch grew with the mark, but he no longer scratched it.  Despite the pride in his exceptionally toned body, he refrained from taking off his shirt.  He couldn’t look in the mirror, even as the mark took shape.  Terror seized him and he did not want to see what it had become.  There came a time when the itching stopped, but he still could not look.
 
His dating life had stopped as well.  He couldn’t stand to be alone with a girl, knowing what lurked just beneath the superficial surface of clothing.  It was graduation night before he found the determination to see what tortured him.  He stood at the mirror and stared.
 
On his chest was a heart.  Anatomically correct and strangely grotesque, it laid over his actual heart and seemed to pulse with every beat.  Tentatively he touched it.  It was viscous and moist, a hint of movement beneath his shaking fingers.  Nauseated, he raised his fingers to look at them – they were saturated with the dark red of congealed blood.  His stomach rolled violently and he almost didn’t make the toilet.  Afterward, he passed out.
 
♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥
 
Sophomore year at State, he met Anna.  It was the first time he’d felt anything since Rachael.  They started off casual – going for coffee, a movie.  The heart on his chest began to resemble a tattoo, smooth to the touch; it had stopped pulsating.
 
The relationship between Luke and Anna grew.  Their group dates became double dates, then dinner for two.  They held hands in public, kissed in private, kept things simple.  On Spring Break, they traveled to meet her parents, since his own mother had passed shortly after graduation.  The summer between sophomore and junior year, Luke surprised Anna with a trip backpacking around Europe.  
 
They flew to Barcelona and spent a week traipsing up and down Las Ramblas visiting small  la tiendas and el restaurantes, visiting la catedrals, admiring architecture, and sunbathing while drinking sangria.  It was on to Paris next for the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and spending time at the cafés and boutiques on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
 
From Paris, they hitchhiked to Berlin.  Browsing der Laden and das Lokal on Friedrichstraße in the central Mitte district kept them busy for a few days before the couple jettisoned off to Budapest to take in a show at the Opera Hall.
 
Their last stop was Rome.  After seeing the Colosseum, the Vatican museums, and San Clemente, Luke found a quaint, family-owned place called Hotel Bramante and talked his way into a room.  Anna swooned, the smell of saltwater wafting through the open window from the beach.
 
Romance permeated the air and Luke was finally ready to share himself with Anna.  It started off slow, with sweet touches and tender kisses.  As the mood heightened, so did the tempo.  First, her shirt, his belt; his fingers trailed along the inside of her waistband, causing goosebumps on her creamy skin.  She reached for his shirt and he hesitated, but only for a moment.  
 
Seeing his chest and the heart residing there, Anna was intrigued.  Taking the hand cupped around his neck, she ran her fingers down his chest, caressing the very spot he’d been trying to hide.  Nervous at first, he breathed a sigh of relief when her fingers made their way to the button of his jeans and dropped them to the floor.  His heartbeat was so intense, he could feel it pounding underneath the skin. 
 
No.  It was the other heart, pulsing and pumping.  Blood ran down his chest, staining his boxers and forming a puddle on the floor.  Anna looked up in horror, her hands covered in crimson.  Eyes wide, she screamed.  Luke tried to silence her, but his own hands were slick with the vital fluid streaming from him.  She wouldn’t stop screaming.  
 
His hands slipped from her mouth to her throat and squeezed, cutting off her shrieks abruptly.   Encouraged by the quiet, he tightened his grip.  Anna’s breath came in short burst at first, as she pawed at the fingers encircling her slender neck.   As her face turned red, then purple, her struggle lessened, then ceased.  He didn’t realize right away she was dead.
 
Realization and hysteria set in and he dropped her body unceremoniously on the floor, covering them both in more blood.  He pulled up his pants and fled, frantic and wild, ignoring everything in his way.  People who couldn’t avoid him were pushed from his path; obstacles were broken or hurdled as he put as much distance between him and the bloody scene.  The other heart still beat. 

Blindly he ran, stumbling, tears mingling with the blood on his face.  The night closed in around him and the world faded.  At the first blush of dawn, he stopped to take a breath, having chased the night away.  He didn’t recognize his surroundings, marked by isolation and crumbling stone.  The air was heavy with abandonment.


He sought shelter, finding a uninhabited room still containing a rusty bed frame and sagging mattress.  He curled up, ignoring the layers of dust, and wept.  Sleep took him as tears streaked his dirty face.  Images of death infested his dreams, but instead of seeing Anna’s face, it was Rachael haunting him.  


Reliving the nightmare, her bulging eyes accused him, a cruel smile played at blue lips.  He was frightened to wakefulness over and over; he forgot to eat.  Only when the ghost of Rachael began screaming in his subconscious as he cut off her air did he venture from isolation to beseech the local transients for a means to end his suffering.


His journey had concluded.  What was left for him without her?  Rachael was fated to frequent his nightmares, sinister and persistent.  Time had ended, but he had one last thing to say – he poured it out on the floor with blood.  


Confronted by the barrel of the gun, he closed his eyes.

♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥
 
A phone rang inside the house.  Rachael looked up from reading, the unfiltered sunlight glinting off the glass of Chardonnay.  Placing the book and glass on the sideboard, she slipped inside to answer the call.
 
Hours later, she was boarding a flight to Rome.  The coroner from the Polizia di Stato had a body somehow connected to her.  She spent most of her flight confused and concerned.
 
Upon arrival, Rachael found her way through the city to the morgue.  After identifying herself to the receptionist and attempting to explain why she was there, she was finally lead back to cold storage.  The assistant medical examiner pulled out a drawer containing a shrouded figure and proceeded to reveal the person underneath.  Lucas.  Barely recognizable, she stared at his lifeless form in a state of shock.  
 
Something was different, aside from the deterioration of his physical body.  On his chest, the other heart had died, turning black and radiating the decay out through his flaccid veins.
 
Her secret died with him.  A smile played at the corners of her mouth as she stepped out into the sun.

♥          ♥          ♥          ♥          ♥

 

Disclaimer:  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
 
“Beating Heart” ©Robin Allen 2014 

All rights reserved.  This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording, photocopying, offset, or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author, except by reviewers who may quote brief passages to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.


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