Blinders

Annika Gidley

Andrew Penske's Heart


Everything would have been fine if Levi Fischer had only died a few days earlier. Had he died sooner Andrew would never have gone mad and Main Street of Little Town wouldn't possess that horrific stain. The gray which blankets Main Street, with its gray streets and gray buildings and gray people doesn't help any. The stain fairly glows, reflecting off of the armor worn by all the Little Town residents.
  The armor is not strange. It grows on everybody: men, women, and children, and comes in all sorts of varieties, some thick and rusting with age and others thin and smooth— all of it a steel wall vital to survival. You cannot live in Little Town without your armor. Andrew Penske tried to get rid of his and everybody knows what happened to him.
  He had been twenty-two years old and the son of two very well-liked people. What had happened to him, everybody agreed, was a tragedy. Especially given who his parents were, the public whispered, how could that boy have lost his mind like that?
  Old Mr. Penske, Andrew's father, was large and aloof with more armor around him than he had breadth; the man's protective coat measured almost a foot thick, and rust covered nearly every inch. His wife had only a thin layer of protection around her. It thickened considerably after the loss of her son, but while Andrew lived in the house, Mrs. Penske's armor had been smooth and light, causing her no trouble at all.
  Andrew still lived with his parents in their small house just as all his friends lived with their own parents in their own small houses. He worked for Mr. Morley, the town mortician and the proprietor of Morley & Sons Funeral Home. Andrew worked as Morley's assistant, answering phones and dealing with hysterical wives and setting up funeral parlors. He disliked the job, having taken it only to please his father. Somewhat of a disappointing child, Andrew's own armor had not grown in until he was nearly six years old, making him, by Little Town standards, a very late bloomer. Old Penske had never quite gotten over the embarrassment of having a late sprout for a son; their relationship had always been a strained one, though advancements had been made in the two years Andrew had worked for Morley. His armor had grown nearly two inches thicker.
   The spring morning Levi Fischer died was a busy one as several hundred people, including a handful of town officials, were expected to attend the funeral. It was also the day Morley decided to start what he called Andrew's "apprenticeship." The boy would prepare his first body, and what luck to have such a famous man as his first. A minor celebrity, Levi's armor was some of the thickest around. When they measured it before bringing him to the funeral home, they found it to be ten inches deep, only an inch and a half short of the Little Town record, Mrs. Fischer haughtily told Morley as she went over how exactly she wished her husband's body to be dressed for the funeral, much to the mortician's chagrin.
  Morley was about seventy. He had large ears and a long, thin mouth which occasionally curved into an odd smile that made the receiver squirm uncomfortably. He moved mechanically. His old, sturdy armor creaked and squealed but never seemed to cause him the discomfort endured by Mr. Penske, who was known to have joint problems and difficulty sleeping because of his heavy encasement. After Mrs. Fischer tired herself out talking of her husband's regional fame and left, Morley returned to the back room. Standing next to Levi Fischer, who was lying peacefully, he called Andrew in.
  "Yes, sir?" Andrew asked, hurrying to the door. Morley usually did not call him back while preparing a body.
  "I've got big news, boy. Today's your day; I'm teaching you how the business is really run. In a couple of years, it's all yours. Won't that put a grin on your dad's face, huh? You didn't think I was just keeping you around for the heck of it, did you?"
  Andrew didn't answer immediately. His mouth ran dry and his eyes widened as he looked frantically from the pensive dead man on the table to the leering alive one in front of him.
  No! His mind screamed immediately. No, no, no, no. I can't work here my whole life!
  Don't be stupid, he berated himself. Don't offend him. You can't turn this down. You can't.
  There was a pause and then "Okay, sir. Thank you."
  Morley's mouth curved into its uncomfortable smile; Andrew resisted the urge to avert his eyes.
  "Shall we get started then, my boy?"
  Morley painstakingly explained the process of removing the body's organs as he bent over Levi Fischer.
  "You must be very careful," he warned Andrew. "Some of them are valuable. If you damage or misplace one, you'll have plenty of unhappy people to answer to."
  Because of Levi's massive shell, his innards were all in excellent condition. Morley showed Andrew what to do with each and where to put them on the small table next to the body. They used sponges to carefully wash the body and dressed it in the suit Mrs. Fischer had left. As Levi's preparations wore on, Andrew's eyes dropped down to the table holding the organs.
  Something was wrong. Something was missing. What was it? Lungs? No, they were there. Brain was definitely there. Kidneys were where they should be. Heart. Where was the heart?
  "Sir?"
  "Yes?"
  "Where is his heart? You took it out, didn't you?"
  Morley pointed absently to a small object behind a kidney. At first it looked like a small, brown stone, but upon closer inspection, Andrew saw that it was indeed a human heart, shrunken down to the size of a pebble and just as hard as one.
  "Sir?"
  "What, Penske?"
  "Sorry, but why does his heart look like that?"
  "It's from the armor, boy. It's one of the side effects."
  "Oh."
  Andrew returned to work until a terrifying thought took hold of him. He looked up frantically and blurted out "Could my heart look like that, sir?"
  Morley let out a derisive snort.
  "Your heart look like that? No, no. Look at your armor, boy! There's barely three inches there. It'd be a miracle if yours looked like that."
  "But it could look like that one day?"
  "If you're lucky. Stop wasting time. We have a funeral to set up, and I don't want to give that woman any reason to come back here and complain."
  Andrew bent his head obediently and did not look up again until Levi Fischer rested safely in his casket, dressed to Mrs. Fischer's specifications. All the while Andrew kept his thoughts on the firm pulse he could feel beating from what he prayed was his soft, red, human heart.

  At home that night his mother greeted him as usual. His father grunted and continued watching T.V. They ate dinner as they always did with Mr. Penske sitting silently, and Mrs. Penske chattering ceaselessly about her day, her book club, and the neighbors. Andrew stayed quiet. His thoughts would not leave Mr. Fischer's heart: that cold, hard stone. He brought a hand up to his chest and placed it on top of his rib cage. Below the metallic prison he could feel the faint but steady heartbeat.
  Mine could look like that someday.
  Fear gripped him. The thought horrified him. To be dead and have a stone for a heart. Could it really happen to him?
  If you're lucky.
  He didn't want to be lucky. He didn't want a stone for a heart. It would make him no better than a statue: a cold, lifeless statue with a heart made of rock. His mother took his plate to the sink and began to wash it mindlessly as she did every night. Even his sweet mother's heart could someday be indistinguishable from a pebble on the beach. He knew his father's heart already matched Levi's, though Penske's was probably even smaller and harder, if that was possible.
  Andrew sat up quickly. A solution had come to him: a way to keep himself whole. It was perfect; it was genius. As soon as his mother had finished the dishes and his parents retired to the living room to watch T.V.—an intimate nightly ritual to which he was not invited—Andrew stood up and padded over to his mother's knife drawer. From it he chose a large chopping knife with a fine point at the tip which would suit his purpose well. Next he walked to her sewing basket and stealthily cut three pieces of string and slipped a needle in his pocket. Finally, from the cupboard he retrieved one of the freshly scrubbed bowls. With these materials in hand, he hurried upstairs to his bedroom.
  Once inside with the door shut, Andrew sat in the middle of the floor and threaded the needle. He placed it on the ground and put the bowl next to it and took a deep breath. Steeling himself, he gripped the handle of the knife. Slowly, he raised it to his chest. Selecting a spot near his left rib cage, he braced himself and inserted the point into his shiny, armored chest.
  The pain was excruciating. The knife pierced the armor and he thought he would have to scream or die, anything to stop the pain. Fire seemed to consume his entire body and soul, devouring him. This must be what Hell feels like, he thought. Yet he did not cry out; he did not scream; he shed no tears. Andrew endured his agony in silence, pushing the knife even further, leaving only the handle exposed. He felt it pierce his flesh and the small twinge of pain came as a relief to the torture he had first endured. Blood oozed out onto his shell and he welcomed it. It was cool, like a small river running down his torso. It baptized his chest and blessed his deed. He brought a hand to his chest and dipped a finger in the blood, enjoying the sight and feel of it: so foreign, so human. He couldn't look away.
  Soon, though, he forced himself to tear his eyes from it and turn his attention back to the wound on his chest. The cut was deep enough; he only had to widen it. He drew the knife back and forth, sawing apart his body and its protective casing. The fresh pain which ensued was laughable compared to the first wave that had consumed him. When he deemed the opening large enough, he removed the knife and set it down on the floor. Using two fingers, he pried the rest of the armor apart, gritting his teeth to keep from yelling out.
  The armor resisted. It tried to heal itself so it could smother him once more. It took all of Andrew's strength to fight and pry it open. Now it stayed where he wanted, the edges limp and curling, retreating in defeat. Carefully, he placed three fingers and a thumb inside of his gaping flesh and gently pried out his heart. He quickly dropped it into the bowl and hurried to get the needle. His armor was curling even more now, peeling off his body, shedding like a metallic exoskeleton. Within minutes it had fallen to the ground. For the first time since he was six years old, Andrew's chest was bare. His white skin shone in the moonlight and shrank back from the exposure. It wasn't durable and strong as he had always imagined, but weak and fragile. He felt exposed. He glanced at the heart lying in the bowl and then seized it. With careful, quick stitches he hurriedly attached his heart, still a lively red hue and pulsing feverishly, to the outside of his left arm.
  I'll always be able to see it, he thought proudly. I'll always know that it's a heart and not a rock. I can see it pulsing. I can hear it beating. I'll know if it starts to go bad.
  The gray corpse of his armor lay forgotten on the floor. Ten minutes of careful concentration found Andrew's chest sewn up. His mother had stitched up several of his wounds over the years; he knew how it worked. Carefully he cleaned the room and brought the knife and bowl back to the kitchen. His parents were still in the living room. Andrew cleaned the tools and put them away, the blare of the television masking the running water. He went upstairs and fell asleep, content with the knowledge that no armor would suffocate him that night.

  His mother screamed when he came downstairs the next morning. His father simply stared. Andrew went on as if he had heard nothing. Let them stare, he thought defiantly. He poured his coffee and walked to the door. Immediately, he was seized by Old Penske and spun violently around; his father's face so close to his the tips of their noses nearly touched.
  "You're not leaving this house," Penske said, his words choking slightly from his clenched jaw.
  "Why not?" Andrew asked mutinously, louder than necessary.
  "Not with that thing on your arm."
  "There's nothing wrong with it."
  "They'll go crazy."
  "Who's they?"
  "Everyone."
  "Nobody will even notice."
  "Yes they will, and they'll go crazy. You wouldn't know. I've seen a lot of things. They'll see it and they'll turn into savages."
  "They aren't going to do anything." Andrew stared back at his father and crossed his arms. Old Penske released him and the two men stood, each daring the other to flinch, staring at each other.
  "Suit yourself," Mr. Penske said finally, before resuming his seat at the table. Andrew opened the door and walked out. His heart rested on his arm, gleaming in the morning sun. He looked back and saw his father standing by the window; from a distance his rusty armor appeared to choke him.

  At first nobody noticed the heart sewn onto Andrew Penske's arm, but as he reached Main Street, heads began to turn. Against the gray of the town the brilliant red heart seemed to glow. The color was magnified to an intensity almost unbearable to look at. The pulse quickened, and more and more people stopped to gawk. Andrew could see the emotion rising in their eyes as they stared at the heart. It was shining and delicate, just sitting there upon the young man's arm. It had no armor around it, no wall guarding it from them. Nothing but time and space separated the people and the young man's heart. It was more exposed than anything they had ever seen. It was more alive than they had ever felt. It was more vulnerable than anything they had ever known.
  And so they attacked it.
  It seemed to Andrew they came from everywhere. People stabbed at the heart and pounded it; they screamed and cried as they assaulted it; they gloried in the brilliant red blood that spurted from it and they laughed at his screams of anguish. The people attacked the pulsing, living heart until nothing remained. When they finally dispersed, they left only a dark red stain on the street and a broken Andrew Penske lying beside it.
  That was the last anybody saw of him; the body disappeared mysteriously soon after, leaving the ugly stain which nobody could remove. Six months passed, and the townspeople soon tired of speculating about the whole debacle. An agitated Mrs. Penske returned home to her husband one night and joined him in the living room as she always did.
  "Have a good day?" she asked.
  "Mm," was the only response.
  "Well, mine was dreadful. Do you remember that little girl Maggie Carter? I think she's about eleven. Her family's the one that always leaves their Christmas tree up until February. Anyways, apparently she's been going around telling everyone she saw Andrew after everyone left him there to die in that street. She says he lived, that she saw him jump up and run down Main Street and out of town, laughing hysterically. Isn't that absurd? Of course I'm sure she made it up for attention. And did I tell you that Lynette Ringold had the gall to call me on behalf of the city council about that horrible stain on the street? She said something about us assuming responsibility for it. Said if we had only watched Andrew better we wouldn't be stuck dealing with this mess."
  "Tell her that stain's not going anywhere," Old Penske replied stonily. "We both know how stubborn Andrew was, and I reckon that heart was no different. If it wants to stay and remind us all of what we have done, that's exactly what it will do."
  "Oh, you always have to be so cryptic and pessimistic, don't you," Mrs. Penske admonished. "I doubt it has anything to do with Andrew at all. Those twits on city council just don't know what they're doing."
  "Whatever you say, Dear," Penske replied, opening his newspaper to a full page picture of his son. A small smile played at the corners of the famously stoic Old Penske's mouth.
  "He had a lot more courage than I ever would have guessed," Penske chuckled to himself. Andrew's eyes bore into his father's from the newspaper, his lips curled into a small smile. The two men looked much more alike than anyone had ever given them credit for.






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ANNIKA GIDLEY lives in Holland, Michigan where she is also a full-time student at Hope College. She is pursuing an English degree with an emphasis on creative writing and loves writing both fiction and creative nonfiction.





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