exchange of hearts

written after seeing a Reddit prompt:
When two people get married, their hearts are surgically exchanged.  You just filed for divorce.

It was all I could do to stay on my feet, gaping at my husband. This was ludicrous- how could he do this to me? I had never fathomed the man I had married could be so.. well, heartless.

Only six years ago we had exchanged our vows and our hearts. Literally. It is believed that love is only true if you are willing to entrust your heart to your partner; your other half.
It’s not that we’d been unhappy.. Simply disconnected. For the past few months it had become difficult to keep up a conversation with one another. Frightened, I had finally broken down into a puddle at my husband’s cold side. I asked him what had happened, and what I could do to improve our situation. He simply explained to me that he had been thinking.
Tom had pointed out to me that we had fallen into a neutral stalemate. We weren’t warring, but had somehow lost what held us together. Looking back, I came to agree, but I was scared. Would it be easier to continue living life, two people physically together but in all other ways alone? Or would it be our best hope to risk the break?

To divorce meant to unbind ourselves from our wedding vows.
To unbind ourselves from each others’ hearts.

Another surgery of that magnitude was utterly terrifying. That kind of thing was meant to be experienced just once in life.
Then again, I had always done well under anesthesia.
Then again, Tom and I were barely thirty years old.
We were pretty healthy people.
We could do this.
But it had to be soon.
Aging and organ transplants have not exactly been known to get along all that well.

Tom had held my hand as we met with our attorney, amicably signing papers and rationing out our worldly goods.
Tom had held my hand, assuring me that everything would be okay, right up until I had already fallen asleep on my gurney.

And now Tom was sitting in front of me, his elbows resting on his knees, as I bring my parcel into the house for the last time, still wearing my hospital band.

He tells me that he had been a bit less cautious with his health than he had ever let on.
He tells me that seven months ago he was diagnosed with a malfunctioning heart.

And he smiles at me, as he tells me this fatigue is only going to worsen.
Quickly.
And he smiles at me, as the first tear slips silently down my face.

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Blue

Kerlir was my home; a hanging valley nestled between two large landforms of the Spinlocke Mountains.
Set on the edge of a ridge, our valley home had an incredible view. It widened into a plain of sorts, spilling over the edge of a cliff that dropped too far to scale or measure.

Thick, dark forests formed a curtain at the valley’s back.  To our sides, like blinders on carriage-bearing horses, rose our rocky guardians.  The two mountains had become something like gods to the people in my village; protecting us from the harsh northern winds of winter, the relentless burning of the summer sun.  Strong and tall, they watched over us, year after year.

I had thought of them more as demons, as I grew into a more- spirited– young woman.  They stood there, cold and distant, refusing to let me see the world outside of our valley, apart from the birds-eye view we gain at the cliff-edge.  Their sides were a slick, dark rock- Steep and impenetrable.

Our elders always warned against wandering into the forests.  The blackness emanating from their depths kept most out with no need for warning.  Only the men, armed with their axes and tools, would freely enter- and return.

A mighty river split the valley, flowing through the village, over the cliff-edge at its front.  During the winter it ceased flowing- it’s source cut-off; frozen, from a highland beyond the forest.
For this reason, winter’s end was always a time of incredible tension.  Our water supply would be reaching it’s end, and the water’s source would begin melting. While knowing this would allow our river to again flow into the valley, all were wary of… how.   The water’s return was unpredictable, sometimes trickling slowly after an especially cold year, while others, steadily gaining volume and back to the norm within a month.  Neither of these scenarios were our fears, though.
What we feared was the great flood; the onslaught of water after a large break in some far-off ice formation.  It had happened last when I was a small child, no higher than my father’s hip.  The water’s roar, the harsh snapping of thick tree trunks, the sudden surge of icy water.
That was what we feared.
That was why we remunerated.

The vernal equinox marked the coming of the waters.
Each year we had a festival, lasting for three days leading up until the equinox.
The first day was in honor of the Northern Mountain, guard against the winter winds.
The second, the Southern Mountain, guard against the summer heat.
The final day was of highest importance, honoring the river itself.  Attempting to sway its actions in our favor.

Every seventy-two years the festival was considered “most sacred”.   During the festivals of these years, attendance was strictly enforced, our garments the deepest blues, our adornments the finest jewels.  Children were harshly warned about insubordinate behavior and the consequences evoked, should they choose that way of being.
A temple would be raised at the height of the valley- where the dried riverbed meets the precipice, and the ending ceremony would be held at dusk on the third day.
A select group of elders ran the ceremony, leading the villagers in prayer to the river, citing poems of it’s greatness, and performing other slow, ritualistic motions in honor of the deity believed to be within.
These elders chanted and moved until the sun had dipped completely out of view from our valley’s tall perch- at which time they would begin the final, sacred, ending ceremony.

It was my twenty-second year upon this earth, when I encountered the most sacred of festivals.
I had been with my friends, eating freshly made street foods and watching the ceremonial dances that night, at the end of the third day.  It was such fun- my elderly neighbors had told me to commit every bit of this festival to memory, as most lived only to see one within their lifetime.
The sun was just beginning it’s descent in the sky as I separated from my friends to fetch some water for one of the elders- Making my way through the orchards, when the edges of my vision blackened, and everything went out of focus.  The blackness began to expand, and bright spots exploded behind my eyelids.

There was a sharp pain in my side, which spread like fire.  My eyes snapped open and my lungs expanded in what should have been an audible gasp.
But my mouth was covered and my eyes saw only darkness.
I willed my hands to uncover my face, only to find them bound.  The movement made me wince in pain, not that it was visible.
My eyes stung with tears, and my inhibited breathing was hard and ragged.  Someone was holding be tightly, a hand firmly grasping around my waist.
I focused on slowing my breathing, to tune into the sounds around me.
Chanting.
Louder than I had ever heard an elder chant.
Closer.

Suddenly the chant grew fierce, a harsh sentence in a language I did not understand.
And then suddenly a hood was lifted over my head, and I could see.
It was pitch dark with the exception of the torches, but I could tell where I was.

I was in the temple.
At the edge of the cliff.
I was in front of the villagers, standing together in blue robes; their dark faces staring out from under hoods of their own.
Although sure these were my people, they were unrecognizable to me.
Their glares were menacing.
They were shrouded figures.
In this moment, they were forms I did not know.

I strained my neck towards my captor, a large man in an especially ornate robe.  All I could see of his face was his mouth, set in a hard line.  The muscles of his jaw were flexed, as if he were clenching his teeth.
Now another man stepped forward from beside him, his hood hovering far, shrouding his entire face in darkness.  He carried with him a sapphire encrusted scythe.
He came to stand about three feet in front of me, slightly ajar so as to allow the audience to see me still.  He began to murmor, words I cared not to listen to.  My mind was already reeling, trying to comprehend the situation.
But then I heard the word “sacrifice”.
And my back broke out in a cold sweat.
He raised the scythe, poised to swing, when I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye.
One of the robed figures disbanded from the line that stood beneath the temple, rushing in my direction.
The man with the scythe swung around, catching the figure with the edge of his blade.
The figure had barely dodged in time, allowing for only his hood to be caught in the weapon’s path.  It ripped and fell aside, revealing a dark-haired man in a mask.  He acted quickly, weaving around the armed man before he could prepare a second strike, and hurdling straight into me, forcing us both over the cliff.

In the impact his mask was shifted to the side, revealing a sliver of his handsome face.
A sense of relief flowed over me, as I watched the corner of his mouth slip up into a smile, and his dark eyes caught a bit of light from the moon as we fell.
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drafted

This was the dream that I had last night.

The time was now (I was still a 20 year old college student), but our country was in a heightened state of war.  The draft was being used again, and I was drafted.  We were in such a war that it became necessary to even draft women, although still in fewer numbers than the men.

My family was really upset when I was drafted, and it didn’t really hit me until I had landed in my first battle.  My sisters tried to take my place, but the government’s choice was final, and there was nothing they could do.  My family had always been protective of me, because I am small and meek.
I do not quite remember my first battle; only that it was awful, and truly disheartening.  While our country seems to always win its wars, this one was taking out our soldiers with a fervor rarely witnessed by men.   When my platoon was loaded up into our train, I took out one of the photographs I kept in my pack.  This one of Witchaya and I before he had left for his study abroad in the summer to Japan.  I wished that I could call him and tell him everything, and assure him that I was safe for another day.  But these thoughts were overshadowed by doubt- the doubt that I would live through another battle.  The general expectancy from the time you land is two weeks.  Two weeks before you die and another is drafted to take your place.
I couldn’t even contact him if I tried- it was forbidden.  Our rails were hidden so that the enemy could not predict our movement.  Everything was on a need-to-know basis, and cellular phones would interfere with the cloaking devices if used within their range.  The enemy was always on the lookout for us, and any signal from electronics not rationed by the military would be traced.
My friend, Kaden Mylle, from training came over to sit with me as we moved to our next undisclosed location.  I tried to look out the window, but they were tinted so dark that the only thing you could detect was motion.  We were not to know where we were.  He sat with me most of the time, even though the other men missed his company.  He was my age, but unlike me, he looked it.  He was tall and broad-shouldered, with brown eyes and light brown hair.  Like the other men, he had stubble shadowing his face.  He pulled out a picture of his own, of a girl back home that he’d been going to school with.  Arielle Woodrich.  He’d had a crush on her since freshman year, but had never gotten up the courage to say it.

We sat there, both looking at our loved ones’ faces.  We had long ago (about two months- in our situation, that was a long time to know someone) told each other our stories.  We were lucky to have been grouped together after training- it was our only source of comfort.  Of normalcy.  We were war-siblings.  Every time we loaded up, we sought out each other, a wave of relief washing over us as we realized that we were not among those who were missing from our ranks.

We landed in a small city.  If you asked me where, I would not be able to tell you.  It was dusty and just about deserted, which was not exactly rare these days.  The war had caused evacuations all over the world.
Our latest barracks were in a square building, four stories high.  It looked vacant from outside, which was good for us.  Even though we had come in the middle of the night, we were still wary of being seen.  As military operatives, we were never out of danger.  We were always being hunted.

Although from the outside the building looked run down, caked with mud on the lower levels and spattered with dust, the inside was completely white.  The walls were cement, painted with a thick white paint, and the floors were a shiny white linoleum.  There were no windows leading to the outside.  The walls were doubled, so within the walls you see from the outside, silent with windows like dead eyes, were the walls we saw as we walked to our rooms.

I bunked with the Chinese girl, Lao, who usually sits in front of us on the train.  I did not know her first name.  She was quiet, which suited me just fine.  I did not need to talk.

I stripped off my jacket and boots, leaving me in my undershirt and pants.  I put my boots under the bed and rested the jacket over the rail at the foot of it.  As I lay down on my bed, with my pack between my body and the wall, I heard Kaden laughing in the next room over.  Somehow the guys always seemed to find ways to entertain themselves.  Laughing as if they were not in their current situation.  He came in to check on me, which I appreciated.  He had his towel slung over his shoulder.  I hopped off my bed and grabbed my own towel from the small table at the end of the room, between Lao’s bed and my own.  He waited for me at the door as I took off my socks, placing them with my jacket.
We’d gotten in the habit of sticking together.  It wasn’t uncommon- many soldiers paired up.  It was kind of like when we were six and we used the buddy system to swim in the lake.
We walked through the corridors, Kaden slightly leading, until we ended up in the shower room on our floor.  I’d gotten over the whole shock of seeing naked men back in training.  The room was large, with both public and semi-private showers, and men were filtering in and out.  Kaden lead me over to the last stall-shower along the wall, which was gladly left open.  The men were always considerate enough to leave at least a couple open for the women to use.
I stepped into the stall and Kaden stepped forward just to the side of it, where one of the big public showers began.  It was just the same as the row of cubicle-style showers, just without the walls between them or the curtain behind.  I pulled the curtain shut behind me and stripped down, wrapping myself in my towel so I could bring my clothes out to a bench just outside the stall.  I folded my clothes and placed them next to Kaden’s.  When I returned to my stall I took off my towel and hung it over the sidewall, where Kaden had hung his as well.
Kaden and I talk as we shower, although my voice has to be raised closer to a yell, since I’m shorter than most and my head doesn’t reach up over the wall.  The showerhead beats down over the top of me, so my voice tends to get drowned out.  Another soldier, Davis, gets in next to Kaden and we both say hi.  He knows who I am without seeing me, and says “hey LaMier”.

After we shower we both head back to our rooms in our towels.  Lao is already in her v-neck and sleep shorts, and I close the door and change into the same.  I put my towel over my head and rub it for a bit.  That’s about all I ever do to my hair, since it had to be cut pretty short when I arrived for training a couple months ago.  Luckily, not as short as the men’s hair, we still have between one and two inches.  A little “pixie” cut, they called it.

We stay in these barracks for three days.  On the third night, the men are busy playing some videogame they found.  The room at the end of the hall, a few doors down from Lao and my room, is where the console is, with a ring of men around it.  They took a little while to figure out how to use it, and have since gotten pretty enthused about the game.  None of us speak the language it uses, so the constant foreign voice in the room adds to their amusement.
I had little interest in the game, so I really just wandered between my room and Kaden’s.  He said that he’s glad the game wasn’t in his room, because the constant milling about of players and onlookers had created a bit of a mess.  Not that we’d be here much longer.  We were never “safe” for long.

Early the next morning, as in 2am, a group of the guys decided to go out “recycling”, which is just a pretty way to say looting.
Not that anyone would miss anything- it was deserted.
It was a rule among us, though, that if you were going to sneak out, you do it in the middle of the night, and in numbers, just in case it’s not as deserted as you expected it to be.  You could never be too careful.

The boys were about two blocks away from the barracks, looking through an old convenience store.  Kaden, being popular, had been recruited for the night, and he in turn had brought me along.  I didn’t really mind it; I would be killed soon enough, so why not partake in a small venture?  I just wished that we were better armed.

We all had our small, personal guns, as we were to have them on our person at all times.  Kaden and another man, Thompson, had larger guns, which we usually couldn’t get ahold of while in the barracks.

I kept with Kaden and Davis, and we were the lesser adventurous of the group.  The others had fanned out and were looking for anything entertaining.  We stayed in a center aisle, slightly crouched, in the shadows, with a view of the windows.  Most of the men had moved outside of the shop into the streets and to other buildings nearby.  There were still a few of us in the store when I heard it.  The first shot being fired.

Thompson gave his whistle and men shuffled outside.  We were to check the perimeter and take out any targets.  Hopefully it was just a rogue or two, and not an ambush.

We left the store and got into an alley.  One of the men found his way over to us and informed us that it was just a single shooter.  Then he asked Kaden to take care of it.  He was good at staying hidden, and had incredible aim.  He used to hunt with his father in Texas.

Kaden left me with Davis and the messenger, saying that he’ll meet me back at the barracks.  A couple minutes later we were clear to move out onto the streets.  We came out cautiously, guns at the ready.  The shooter was still there, about 250 meters down the road, his gun on the ground.  I didn’t know what he was doing.

A couple of our men were closer, about fifty meters from him.

And then he began to unzip his dirty, green canvas jacket.

Davis yelled, Thompson fired, and the man hit the button.

I screamed for Kaden.  He had been sneaking in close.  He had been somewhere in the shadows trying to get a good shot.
And then the fire was catching on the buildings on both sides of the street, and the crates to the side of the road.  Two of the men that were closer were limping, shrapnel impairing their movements.
Davis pushed me up from my knees and grabbed my arm, almost dragging me back to the barracks.  I was shocked.
When we got back, everyone was awake.  We all grabbed our packs, put on our jackets and boots, and loaded up.  The train was outside without us needing to even say anything.  It was a frenzy, a panic- yet somehow, perversely routine.  It all seemed so fast, so numb, like someone else was moving my body for me.  In no time at all we were back on a train with black-tinted windows, sitting silently in our seats.

I sat facing the window, as I always did, hoping to see something.  Something to focus my mind on.  Something to take me away from my current situation.  I pulled out the photo of Witchaya and I that I kept in my pack.  Then I reached in my jacket pocket and took out the photo of Arielle that Kaden had always kept in his.  Davis had brought his pack with him on the train, and given me the picture and Kaden’s extra set of tags.

I still felt numb, just sitting there, staring out the window.  Then I heard an all too familiar thud in the seat next to me.  For some reason I got excited and turned around.
It was Lao.
“Hi” she said, somewhat shyly, with her hands clasped together in her lap, “I’m Lao, Katie Lao”.

I nodded, and after a few seconds successfully forced my name out of my mouth.

She paused, as if unsure of what to say, and then said “I’m sorry”, nodding towards the pictures I held in my hands.

Katie and I sat together on that train for hours, days.

Then it was as if we were coming out from inside of a tunnel, as the windows of the train began to lighten and become transparent.  We could see outside.  It wasn’t the best view; the corners of the windows had a charred look to them, like a vignette on a photograph.  Probably warped by whatever mechanism had been used to blacken them.

For so long I had wanted to see outside, watch the trees pass by as we moved along.  But I immediately took back the thought.  I didn’t want to see.  I didn’t want to see the fire, the ashes, the blackened sky.  The helicopters being ripped from the air.  I’m sure that if the train carrying us wasn’t soundproof, I wouldn’t want to hear anything either.

I couldn’t even tell where the ground was- it must have been covered with ashes, blood, and smoke.   There were incredibly tall structures looming all about.  But they were all broken up into parts.  It took me a minute to realize that they were those giant storage containers, a hundred meters long each, as best as I could tell.  Big, rectangular, metal cargo stacked one atop the other, towering above the ground.  It seemed that we were crossing through a valley, like a giant flame-filled bowl of war and metal and ash.  You couldn’t even see the sky- it just faded from the charred ground to the fires licking up the containers, military vehicles, and upward slope, and sizzling into the blackness above.  It was a horrific scene that made my heart race.  If this was where they were dumping us next, then I am definitely not coming out alive.