What Becomes of the Third-Hearted, by A. Merc Rustad

Her skin smells of crushed pearls, dried salt, silver fish scales woven into unfinished memories. Her eyes are sculpted starlight, holding the sadness of death a million years ago and a million yet to come.

When she holds out her hand, I turn and run. The sand has turned to glass and my heels crack the shore in tiny percussions like the breaking of my hearts.

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The world’s ending was quiet, demure, almost unnoticed.

In sleep, people faded into dreams—leaving behind only the soft remembrance of breath. The ones awake paused in every movement and shut their eyes. No panic, no fear. Gentler, perhaps, than any of us deserved.

I saw a few strangers awake and wandering, caught in their own quests, but none of them were you.

You and Tara were two states away and commuting back home when everything stopped. I sent you texts and called you until there was no cell reception and my voice hung in tatters in my throat.

I still whispered your name. Shelby. Shelby. Shelby. Until even whispers faded into nothing.

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Where are you? I know where you should have been. But the world is a scattered puzzle (ten million pieces, not all there) and I have no box cover to reference what it should look like now.

How do I find you?

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third01The woman is everywhere. She drifts at the corner of my vision, watches when I blink, and she never speaks. I turn to face her, and again she slides aside like a mirage. Her footsteps linger, weighted in the land and air alike. I don’t know what they will do if I touch them.

I clamber over coral growths thrust up where the highway used to stretch six lanes in both directions; a few pebbles of black, crumbled tar are all that’s left of the road.

Like that time Tara was three and she found a Magic Erase marker and scrubbed that cheap thrift-store painting of the whales until it was scraps of water enclosed in a frame. You were so furious at my daughter, but as the new step-parent, you tried your best to be reasonable. Did I tell you how much I appreciated that? I know you never quite liked the dolphin painting I replaced the whales with.

The horizon is slabs of darkness like great bricks stacked haphazardly, fire licking the spaces between like mortar. The sky is crumbling at the edges, raining pieces of blackness to reveal a bright, stardust void where clouds once swarmed.

I’m coming, Shelby.

(Am I? Can I, when I don’t know how to find you?)

My cellphone turned into a tiny turtle with ruby eyes and lorem ipsum painted on its shell after the reception disappeared. I set it loose in the glass sand and it burrowed toward waters that no longer exist.

I haven’t slept since the world ended. I can’t—if I lie down, if I dream, I will lose what little time I have.

I never thought I’d come to miss the gridlocked traffic roaring past in the distance, our backyard always a little too close to it to let Tara play on the fenced-in grass unattended.

How long will this reality last?

What happens after the end of the world?

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My mother told me we all have three hearts. Not in a physical sense; she clarified that when, at ten, I showed her anatomy photos in a textbook to prove her wrong.

“Your first heart is the smallest and scratchiest,” my mother said. “It holds all the wonder and loves you acquire as you grow up. Horseback riding, video games, books, playing in the pool, skating, comics—whatever you love, your first heart can absorb and grow to make room for all of these things. It can become any size you need. Your second heart is made for the people you care for. Your family and friends, your lovers—when you’re older—your spouse or spouses.”

“Where are pets?” I demanded.

“Second heart,” my mother said. “Why wouldn’t they be?”

third02She set her heavy leather gloves on the basement workbench next to her welding helmet. She’d been working on one of her iron sculptures, forged from scrap picked up at junkyards. The basement was concrete, empty except for the heavy wood tables and mother’s machinery and piles of scrap, smelling always of hot metal and oil and her sweat.

“Your third heart,” my mother said, “is a secret.”

“Then how do you know it’s real?”

She shrugged. “How do you know when anything is real?”

“Ugh, Mom.”

She grinned. “Morgan, you’ll know what your third heart is one day. It just takes time. No one’s is the same.”

I glared.

“I don’t want three hearts,” I yelled, tears in my eyes. I slammed the textbook onto the floor. “And I don’t want to look like this.”

“What do you want to look like?” my mother asked, confused, but at ten, I didn’t have the words I needed.

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There’s a wall of shale threaded with lady-slipper flowers made of papier-mȃché, tended by ants woven from yarn and silk. It blocks the coral highway now, humming in F-sharp minor with a melody I’ve never heard. It’s not music so much as sensory impressions—blueberries rinsed in the sink, peeling acrylic paint free of your fingers, humid July nights plagued by mosquitoes, jazz horns on the radio, baby powder on Tara’s skin, vacuuming the carpet, cuddling in bed after a hot shower, burning popcorn and hiding the taste with too much salt and butter.

The woman is almost at my elbow before I realize the wall is singing to me. Ants are tying minute poison-ivy chains over my toes. The sting snaps my focus out of the music. I jump back and stumble down the length of the wall. It has no holes, it has no top. How do I get around?

(Are you on the other side?)

What do you want? I demand of the woman. Why are you here?

She extends a hand, inviting. If I touch her skin, I fear I will disappear.

So again I run.

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My mother died before you and I met, but I have one photo left—of when Laura (my ex-wife), Tara (just a toddler then), and I visited her in the hospital. She smiled brighter than all of us, even faded and tired from chemo.

“How can you smile,” I demanded, when Laura took Tara out of the room to feed her.

“Why shouldn’t I?” my mother responded, squeezing my hand. “I’m going on a new adventure.”

“Don’t,” I whispered. “Please, Mom.”

“Honey…I want to tell you a secret.”

I pressed her hand against my cheek, hiding my face. She must have felt the tears.

“My third heart is a ship,” my mother said. “A beautiful sailboat painted like the sunset. I’m undocking and mastering the rigging. I’m going to sail past the universe and see things never before imagined.”

My shoulders shook harder. She pulled my head down against her side and stroked my hair like she did when I was small.

“I named my sailboat Morgan,” she said. “Because I’ll always be with you.”

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You sent me a selfie of you and Tara the night before the world ended. You were in a chic little café, Tara with an oversized mug of hot chocolate, you with your black coffee. You both made faces at the camera.

I was too tired to reply. So I just…deleted the text and pretended I’d never received it.

It was the last picture I could have had of you.

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third03The rain rumbles towards me. The wall never ends. The ants and spiders follow in geometric patterns, their exoskeletons shifting through the light spectrum and the color wheels I remember from high school art class.

(Are you on the other side? How can I find you?)

The woman watches, her hair coiled like wet leaves about her shoulders.

My knuckles clang like bells when I punch the wall. If you and Tara are behind this wall, I will find a way over or around or through. Somehow. I keep your faces like a tattoo printed against my eyelids, every detail, from your crooked smile to the mole behind Tara’s right ear.

I hope Laura is safe. We’ve always been good friends. When I find you, I’ll look for her next. I will look for everyone.

The first drops of rain spatter near my feet. The ground evaporates where the water strikes.

The wall is endless. I don’t have rope, or strength to climb.

I run again.

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As a teenager I bound my breasts and wore baggy clothing and demanded people call me he, him, and sir. I cut my hair myself. I dated girls. I was a man.

In my twenties, when I met Laura, I was a woman. We married after college and two years into our marriage I told her I was once more a man. Our divorce was amicable; Laura never questioned my gender, merely said she preferred to be married to a woman who was always a woman. We remained friends.

When I met you, Shelby, I felt like neither. I felt ten again, confused because pronouns fit like jeans two sizes two small, pinching, not fitting all the way.

To you, it didn’t matter. You called me “they” like I asked, and I knew I would love you forever.

I can’t lose you like this, a deleted selfie before the end of the world.

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There is no break in the wall, no doors or windows or bridges. The higher I climb, the faster the wall arches up towards the red sky. I slide down, covered in ivy and stung by little poems like insect bites.

Shelby! Tara!

Ever silent, the woman watches.

I face her, shaking, exhaustion chewing at every muscle and bone. I sink to the ground. The rain is close again. I don’t know how to go on. I don’t know where you are.

I’m so sorry, Shelby. Keep Tara safe. (Can you hold her for me?)

I look up at the woman, defeat encroaching like the rain. I can’t outrun her. What do you want? I whisper, wordless.

She offers her hand again, fingers curled like commas. In her palm is a tiny sailboat made of feather-edged paper, painted like the sunset.

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“What’s a heart, Baba?” Tara asked me as I read her a picture book one evening.

I tapped my chest. “It’s where you keep all the hugs and kisses and love, like a big balloon that never pops.”

Tara giggled. “My heart is as big as the balloon ride!” She stretched her arms as wide as she could. We’d floated up in hot air balloon the week before for your birthday, Shelby. Tara had never been so excited as when she looked out over the countryside and said we were as high as heaven.

“Yes, Boo,” I told her. “That big.”

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I stare at the sailboat.

My mother smiles—I know her eyes now, beyond the sorrow. She has traveled universes…and she has come back.

And I know, then, why she’s followed me.

Morgan is written on the sailboat’s side.

My third heart is a compass. I feel it, the hands swinging towards a magnetic north I can’t see. I pull it from my ribs, cupping it in both hands. You and Tara smile up at me, painted in photorealistic detail on the compass’s face. Your heartbeat and Tara’s hum in the compass’s smooth, round shape.

I look my mother, at the boat in her hand—

At the rain that is erasing this world—

At the wall I cannot climb—

But perhaps, in a boat, I might sail over it to where you and Tara are, Shelby.

I take my mother’s hand and feel the night wind in my face as the sail unfolds around me. She steers while I stand at the helm, compass in hand, guiding our course to find you.
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 merc_robothatA. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea — most of which are present in their work to some degree. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Mothership Zeta, and InterGalactic Medicine Show, as well as the anthology The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. Merc has considered making their tagline “The Robot Who Makes People Cry With Their Stories.” In addition to breaking readers’ hearts, Merc likes to play video games, watch movies, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: http://amercrustad.com.

Three More Hearts:

Indigo Blue, by Rachael K. Jones – Lucy and Justin went back ten years, long before the stay-alives and her illness, to the time she thought she would hit it big on the indie music scene. One summer she rounded up her poetry notebook and scraps of chords and recorded her own album in her capsule apartment in Port Darwin, borrowing pillows and blankets from all the neighbors to soundproof the closet.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings.

Serein, by Cat Hellisen – The water in the vase of flowers sitting on the mantelpiece is rank, eddies stirring the greening muck, the flower heads sagging, spilling petals. Next to the curling pale fingers of a dead iris, my sister smiles uncertainly from a school portrait. She was wearing glasses, before she got her contact lenses and re-invented herself.

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