by Melissa Crandall
After the call came with news of her father’s death, Bryn stood on her apartment stoop three thousand miles away, sipping a tepid beer, and stared at the Cascades rising against the sky. Images from the past played against the line of mountains. Her chest felt empty, hollow as the Tin Man of Oz. Not with grief, but with its absence.
She didn’t attend the funeral, not even as a distant spectator hidden behind the line of trees at the rear of the cemetery. When the lawyer contacted her a week later to say that she—Bryn—was sole beneficiary of the small estate, she felt nothing, certainly not gratitude. She’d stayed away for ten years. What did any of it matter?
She considered hiring an agent to assess the value of what had been left and auction it off. Any proceeds could be donated to LGBTQ rights or some other charitable organization her father would have loathed. Instead, she booked a flight she couldn’t afford, packed a small bag, and headed east.
Her hometown had changed more than she realized. The quaint coffee shops, independent bookstores, and eclectic mom-and-pop emporiums she remembered from childhood had expired beneath an onslaught of big-name enterprises and nail salons. Even the library—a squat brick building cozy as a hug, where she’d spent long hours hiding among the stacks rather than going home—had been replaced by a sprawling, modern monstrosity. Traffic that had once rolled smoothly along Broadway now progressed by inches, horns blaring as impatient drivers jockeyed aggressively for parking spaces at the crowded curb. It was a relief to turn onto the side streets and wend her way toward the old neighborhood.
She parked the rental car in the driveway and sat for a long time just looking at the house. It wasn’t much—a small two-bedroom, one-bath Cape with faded yellow siding, white trim, and a front yard the size of a postage stamp. Red geraniums bloomed in boxes along the porch rail. It all seemed so normal that she half expected the Old Man to appear.
For a moment, she actually saw it happen—saw the door open, saw her father step out onto the porch in his trademark khaki work pants and plaid shirt, saw a broad hand lift—and then Bryn shuddered and the vision fractured into sunlight and leaf-shadow.
She bit her lip, a habit she thought she’d left behind, and reconsidered the wisdom of coming here. “Don’t be stupid,” she muttered. “He’s dead. It’s over.” She emerged from the car; closed the door. The day was warm, dry, and pleasant; the neighborhood quiet but for the distant burr of a lawnmower and the shouts of children at play. She removed a key from beneath a garden gnome—some things never changed—and unlocked the side door.
As it swung open, she was unaccountably assailed by a memory of Elizabeth—who’d moved out last month after a year together, explaining her departure by accusing Bryn of being cold, detached from everyone and everything; pleasant enough on the surface “but there’s nothing inside, no real warmth.” Elizabeth had cried as she spoke. “I try and try to reach you, but you never reach back.”
Bryn had remained silent throughout, not knowing what to say. Afterward, she’d cleaned the apartment, arranged her belongings to cover the absence of her lover’s things, and phoned for a take-out order from the local Chinese restaurant.
Sunlight slanted through the window above the kitchen sink, lighting a swirl of dust motes disturbed by fresh air from the open door. The curtains were the same pale yellow gingham her mother had hung right before she left, packing a suitcase and disappearing one night while her ten-year-old daughter slept and her husband worked the late shift.
Bryn moved deeper into the house rather than consider the old, unanswered questions of her mother’s abandonment. Everywhere she looked, things were exactly as they’d been when she ran away at sixteen—the green recliner parked before the television, the plaid couch in front of the windows, the rolltop desk, end tables, and lamps. She remembered the night of her departure vividly: the shouting, the fight. She’d struck the Old Man, something she’d never dared do before, and run like hell. It hadn’t been easy living on the streets—no money, eating from dumpsters, walking and hitching from place to place, always heading west—but it was better than remaining here and, anyway, she’d made it work out.
She opened the desk and sifted through its contents, uncertain what she might be looking for. The drawers contained neat files of bills paid, her father’s army records, and other detritus collected over sixty-one years of life. Nothing of interest.
A photo of Bryn and her mother, taken on vacation at some lake she barely recalled, sat in a plastic frame atop the desk. In the picture she was maybe seven, which put her mother in her early thirties. They wore bathing suits—Mom’s naked shoulders hunched, Bryn’s pale arms slender and unmarked—and looked unhappy, belying the sunlit water behind them.
She moved into the hallway, walls lined with aged paneling, floor covered in worn carpet her feet could read like Braille, and stopped at the closed door of her bedroom. She touched the scuffed brass knob hesitantly, then turned it and let the door swing inward.
She wasn’t certain what she’d expected to find, but it wasn’t this shrine to the girl she’s been. The bed was made up with the same quilted spread, the windows with the same bland wheat-colored curtains. Dusted shelves were lined with plastic models of spaceships, some dog-eared novels, and a few favorite children’s books—How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sun-faded posters of Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver decorated the walls along with faded felt pennants for the Minnesota Twins and Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish.
Bryn stared. Might her father actually have missed her once she’d gone? Had he regretted what happened between them? Would she have forgiven him if he was?
“Not a chance.” Her voice sounded loud in the tomb-like stillness of the house. Closing the door, she continued down the hall past the bathroom tiled in 1950s-era pink and black, to the bedroom where her father had died, and halted in the open doorway.
The room appeared disconcertingly lived-in, a shirt and pair of pants draped over the chair, the bedclothes thrown back where the paramedics had left them. Once more, Bryn experienced that odd psychic frisson, as if her father’s ghost might suddenly appear clad in his habitual sleepwear, an old white undershirt and baggy cotton boxers.
She went first to the bedside stand. Nasal spray, eye drops, a pair of reading glasses. She moved to the dresser, opening one drawer after another to root through the contents. Underwear and socks. Two neckties. An old wristwatch and a narrow case containing army insignia. Tee shirts and sweatshirts. An orange pasteboard box loosely tied with twine opened to reveal the knit stocking Bryn had hung on the fireplace each year for Santa to fill.
She opened the closet door. Footwear neatly lined the floor: sneakers and boots, dress shoes missing, having undoubtedly gone into the ground with dear old Dad. The shelf above held a fedora, rarely worn, and a stained Yankees ball cap. The rail hung with slacks and khakis, two jackets, casual button-downs, and polos. A faint odor of Old Spice aftershave clung to the cloth like a persistent memory.
With an abrupt motion, Bryn swept the hangers aside…
…and discovered her heart; pericardium opened with surgical precision but the organ itself intact, inferior vena cava and thoracic aorta dangling from the bottom. The superior vena cava, aorta, and pulmonary veins and arteries were bunched together at the top like flower stalks, a grisly bouquet bound by ugly black leather; a belt, slightly warped from having cinched the same waist for so many years, the buckle caught by one corner around a nail driven into the wall at the back of the closet.
She remembered that belt and how light had raced along the buckle’s sharp edge as it swung high and slashed down; what it felt like striking her flesh, tearing it, leaving the scars Elizabeth had learned not to ask about. Ten years on, Bryn understood that none of it was her fault, but still she struggled to breathe past the visceral panic engendered by the sight of that strap.
You make me so mad. I wouldn’t do this if you didn’t make me mad.
The heart pulsed, a single beat.
Bryn gasped. It couldn't be alive, not after so long. Her eyes must be playing tricks, fooled by a stray beam of sunlight through the bedroom window hitting the bureau mirror and reflecting into this dark space where something of her had remained—it was difficult to think lived—all these years.
The heart beat twice, as if gaining strength from her presence. Did it remember her?
Jaw clenched, Bryn stepped into the closet and with careful hands loosened the overhand knot that bound the organ. It took time and effort; the belt leather had dried and shrunk, making its hold on her heart difficult to undo. Eventually, it slid apart and the heart dropped into her hands. Cradling it against her chest, she walked through the house and out to the car, into the sunlight and warmth, where she picked up her cell phone and dialed Elizabeth, hoping she would accept the call so Bryn could tell her everything, at last.
Melissa Crandall writes fantasy, dark fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Tricks and Treats: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors, Allegory online magazine, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She is the author of three science fiction media tie-in novels. A nonfiction book, The Man Who Loved Elephants, is currently under consideration. She lives in Connecticut, where she spends her free time cooking, gardening, and beating her husband at Scrabble.