Monthly Story #2 December 2018 - Mångata

For December’s Monthly Story, I chose one of the lightest and most upbeat stories from Phantoms Doused in Night, entitled Mångata. The story is almost untouched from the original 2013 version, with the slightest of changes to the text. It’s quite a short little story. I hope you enjoy it.

Mångata

 

As with all snowy December evenings, thoughts were consumed by Christmas. The glittering of snowflakes draped a sheet over the city as cars trudged through the slush of ice with bumpers close and engines humming. On footpaths, shopping bags and umbrellas bounced about like pinballs as high streets appeared as a sea of activity, with waves flowing in all directions. Buyers rushed from window to window as their eyes scoured the items beyond the glass with calculator minds crunching the likelihood that what they saw was the perfect gift, the one that will bring that cash-earned smile.

It was just past 4pm and to Jonathan, the rush and panic of last-minute shoppers and the excitement of children was a background noise that was irrelevant. He liked to wander, with no aim in mind. At twenty-nine, he was a man who appreciated the value of a casual saunter through a maelstrom of other peoples’ dashing, and where possible, he liked to stop and light up a cigarette. Then he could simply take in the blizzard of December weather and enjoy not being part of the frantic retail dependency. As he put out a near-finished smoke, he spotted a man carrying a child’s bike, boxed (assembly required) under one arm, with the other clutching what must have been four or five shopping bags, each bulging out with pointed corners of smaller boxes inside. He hoped that the man was parked nearby, or at least planning to hail a taxi soon.

Jonathan lingered around a paper seller’s stall and flicked through a few magazines, a new Marvel comic he hadn’t heard of, then reached for another when he noticed the disapproving look from the seller. With one hand on the comic, he returned it and turned away.

 

Anne was feeling a little ditsy this afternoon. She had known that there was something she had to get in town, but it was cloudy in her mind now. It can’t have been too important, but whatever it was, it had drawn her to the main shopping street, where a crush of people gave her a despairing desire to give up and go home. Traffic would be horrendous at this hour, so she decided to stick with her half-plan and battled the swarms and if it didn’t come back to her, she would at least find somewhere to sit for a while and grab a coffee.

As she weaved carefully through stalls and customers along the long pedestrian street, she felt the shoulder of someone colliding with her own, which sent her straight down onto the slippery ground. She looked up meekly at a man who almost fell himself as he tried to get her back to her feet. She shrugged him away irritably and caught her bearings.

“I’m so sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t see… I’m sorry, are you okay?”

She looked angrily at him, then at the news seller behind him who had also come to her aide. “It’s fine. I’m fine,” she spat, then continued on her way. She cursed the clumsy oaf, then noticed a store ahead. “Aha,” she remembered. “Of course!” She disappeared into a bookshop.

 

Feeling a little foolish, Jonathan decided to get out of everyone’s way. He drifted into a coffee shop a few doors down and waited in the doorway for a spot to appear. The sound of steaming milk and grinding beans was nothing compared to the chatter of happy shoppers, likely the ones who had finished for the day. A small table freed up in a tiny booth at the end of the shop, so he parked himself down and looked at the wall mounted menu over the end of the counter.

“Hi there. Welcome back!” a waiter said cheerfully as he spotted Jonathan. “So, what did she have?”

Puzzled, Jonathan responded. “Oh, I think you must have me mistaken with someone else…” He eyed the waiter, who in turn was puzzled.

The man was almost expecting it to be a joke. “Really? You’re not…?”

“I’ve never been in here,” Jonathan said. “What did she have? Who is she?”

“That’s so strange. I could have sworn… Well, you look just like one of our regular customers… His wife was having a baby and it was a while ago so… I thought it was you. Never mind. Sorry about that!”

“Sorry. Erm,” he said awkwardly. “I’ll have a black coffee, please.”

“Anything else?”

“No, thanks.”

“Coming right up. Sorry again!”

“Don’t mention it…”

He noticed a framed print of “The Persistence of Memory” on the wall opposite him, which he found amusing. He lounged aimlessly in wait for his coffee. The place was getting ever more packed with customers, but he was happy to stay put.

 

Anne targeted The Bean Counter opposite the bookshop once she had bundled her book into her handbag. As she crossed the street, she was tapped on the shoulder by someone.

“Hi Anne!” the enthusiastic woman said. She was lost in a huge winter coat that was too big for her and a hat that smothered her ears.

“Oh, hi,” Anne responded, not quite sure who the girl was. She knew that they knew one another, but it had obviously been a while since they’d met, as the woman’s name escaped her.

“What are you up to?”

“Oh, just doing a bit of shopping, you know,” she brandished her bag.

“Same. Just getting Pete’s present now,” the mystery woman announced. “That’s the last thing on the list for me this year, thank God!”

“Ah, yeah, that’s great! I eh, I just have to dash, okay, talk to you again soon. Hi to Pete,” she added, grateful that there was something she could throw in at the end to hide her complete lack of recognition. She waved and turned away, picking her brain as to where she knew the woman from. Was it college, maybe? No, it can’t have been that long ago if the woman didn’t make a fuss over their chance meeting. Who was she?

Anne entered the bustling coffee shop. For a moment, she thought of just leaving, but despite the queues, she ended up hanging about at the counter, tempted to order a take away rather than sitting down. As she pondered her choice, the line started to move a bit and people began sitting down beside strangers at all tables. She thought about sitting, then changed her mind. “Latte to go, please. Large.”

The man smiled and turned his back.

Anne spotted a space in the back. “Actually, why not, I’ll sit in. I’ll see if I can sit down there. I’ll take a blueberry muffin as well, please.”

“No problem. I’ll bring them down,” the waiter offered.

“Thank you.”

Anne stepped around a child’s buggy and put her bag down on a chair at the end of the shop. She said, “Is this seat taken?” then looked into the face of the man opposite it. “Oh,” she said, recognising him.

“No, please…” the man said, who in turn looked up to see her. “Oh, hello again,” he said. “Please…” he started.

Anne almost picked up her bag and went to leave, but then considered how rude it would be and hesitated.

“Let me buy your coffee for you, please,” Jonathan said. “It’s the least I can do for almost knocking you out, that time…”

Anne laughed through her nose quietly and smiled. “You know what,” she said. “I’m just going to say yes, because I really would like to sit down somewhere, and this is the only seat left.”

“I’m charmed by your honesty,” Jonathan smirked.

“That sounded…”

“Harsh?” Jonathan offered.

“Yeah, a little harsh. Sorry.”

“Okay, we’re even now, right?” Jonathan asked.

“Once you pay for my coffee, yes.”

“Okay, then.”

The waiter arrived, with Anne’s latte and muffin. “There you go.”

“Thanks.”

“A muffin as well,” Jonathan laughed. “I guess I’ll buy that too.”

“Anne,” she offered her hand.

“Jonathan.” They shook.

“How is it?” Jonathan asked.

“Delicious,” Anne answered.

“Your head, I mean. You hit your head earlier when you fell,” Jonathan smiled.

“Oh,” she laughed. “It’s fine. I’ve been a bit forgetful today, actually.”

“Since the fall?”

“No… Just in general. It’s weird, actually.” She took a long sip of her coffee and cut the muffin down the middle with a knife.

“You know, you look sort of familiar to me,” Jonathan said suddenly. He looked at her short black hair and tried to slot the thought into place.

“Really? I just had a feeling like that outside. A woman said she knew me, asked how I was, and frankly, I couldn’t tell what her name was or how she knew me at all… I am almost certain she had me pegged as someone else, but she knew my name.”

“Anne’s a popular enough name,” Jonathan suggested.

“Maybe.” Anne took her cigarette packet from her bag. She took one out and looked at it. “Is there smoking in here?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Damn.”

“I remember now,” Jonathan said. “Forget it, though, it’s pretty irrelevant.”

“Forget what?”

“I figured out who you remind me of. But it’s fine, never mind.”

“You can’t say that and expect me not to drag it out of you. Come on!” she returned the cigarettes to her bag.

“It’s a strange one. Just forget it.”

Anne gave a look.

“Okay, it’s unusual, right, but you remind me of someone from a book. A character.”

“I hope it’s not someone from one of those silly comics you were looking at back at the newsstand.”

“Whoa! Silly comics?”

“Yeah. Silly comics. You know, for kids.”

“I wasn’t looking at silly comics, I was looking at X-Men and Walking… Wait a minute, you’ve never read an X-Men comic?”

Anne scoffed. “Don’t make me laugh.”

“You are missing out. Comics are not just pretty pictures with stupid dialogue attached. At least, not any more. I’ll have to educate you.”

“Maybe another time,” Anne gave a playful smile and took a bite of her muffin. She held her hand over her mouth as she chewed.

“Unbelievable…” Jonathan said, shaking his head as he bit his lower lip in mild annoyance.

“So, who do I remind you of then?” Anne asked.

“Abberlaine Arrol.”

“A superhero? Can she fly?”

“No. She’s not a superhero, she’s a woman, elegant and smart looking. I was clearly mistaken.”

“Oh,” Anne teased. “What does she do? What book is she in?”

“She’s a little complicated,” Jonathan explained.

“Seems about right.”

“She’s from The Bridge, by Iain Banks. It’s just her description really, you look like her to me. That’s all.”

Anne stared into his face with a look of shock on her own. “Do you believe in coincidences?” she asked.

Jonathan thought about it for a minute.

Anne took a wrapped paper bag from her handbag and opened it. From within, she revealed a sleek white paperback book. The Bridge by Iain Banks.

 

When they finished up in The Bean Counter, they opted to go for a drink in a small trendy bar two streets down, where a small crowd was relaxed but with a buzz. It was a nice atmosphere, not too loud to talk, but not so quiet that each word resounded from wall to wall. They took a corner table, with Anne on the soft couch and Jonathan on a short bar stool.

They chatted about music as they drank their contrasting drinks. A pint of Guinness loomed over a Gin and Tonic while they agreed that The Bends was Radiohead’s real best album, even though OK Computer had some of their best individual songs. They both hated U2, but their opinions differed on just about everything else. She couldn’t stand electronic music, while he was actually wearing a Kraftwerk t-shirt. Within ten minutes they were certain that they were human polar opposites, but it was the conflict of opinion that made the conversation fun.

“You hungry? Want to get something to eat?” Jonathan asked.

Anne looked at her watch.

“Well if you have somewhere to be…”

“No, I’m just checking to see if Gulemo’s is open yet. You know it?”

“Pizza?”

“Yeah,” Anne smiled.

“Never been there.”

“You are fucking kidding me,” she teased. “They open in half an hour.”

“I’ll get in another round so,” he suggested. She didn’t need to respond. Jonathan got to the bar and an older gentleman, who was leaving with a newspaper under one arm nodded to him.

“Hi,” Jonathan said, politely.

“Congratulations, by the way. Haven’t seen you since! Hope all is well!” the man said with enthusiasm. He waved as he said it and was out the door before Jonathan could realise what was happening. He looked over his shoulder at the men at the bar, none of whom were facing the door.

“Okay…” Jonathan murmured to himself. That was weird. The barman was looking at him. “A Guinness and a G&T, please,” he said automatically. A sense of déjà vu swam over him.

“I’ll drop down the Guinness,” the man said.

“Thanks.”

 

In Gulemo’s, their chatter became more animated, as it turned out, the pizzeria was also a cocktail bar. Not one to refuse alcohol on invitation, Jonathan nodded happily when the waitress asked, “Would you like a cocktail with that?”

“What’s a screwdriver?” he asked.

“Vodka and orange,” Anne explained.

“Nah,” Jonathan discarded. “If I’m going to have a cocktail, it has to be a White Russian.”

“One White Russian…” the waitress repeated.

“Make it two. I’ve never tried it,” Anne explained.

Jonathan’s jaw hung open. “Never tried…”

The waitress courteously left the table and went back out of sight.

“Just like you’ve never had a Gulemo’s pizza…”

“We must educate one another further,” Jonathan mused.

“I think that can be arranged.” Anne smiled with a cheeky grin then looked down at the drinks menu. “Some interesting names they have for some of these…”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said softly, noticing that something was rubbing against his leg.

 

The pizza didn’t take long to eat, which was something that they were both grateful for, as there was a driving force that dragged them out of the restaurant. They needed somewhere out of light, out of sight. They felt compelled to stand in the darkened doorway of the building next door, where Anne clasped Jonathan’s head behind both ears and pulled him close. Their noses brushed lightly as she pressed her lips against his. He gave back some pressure and took a hard, sharp breath. They both blinked in surprise as their eyes met. He embraced her fully and held her head against his shoulder, for a long, long moment. It evaporated as she slowly turned to him again, pushed him gently against the panel of the door and kissed him forcefully. She leaned up to him, then went onto her toes as her lips forced his head right back against the wall.

Their fingers webbed as they pressed their bodies together. Their clothes were like walls that needed to be demolished, but there was nothing but air between them and a steady side street. People had been walking by, gone unnoticed to the two of them. Their magnetism was intense, but they each looked out from where they stood, in shadow, at cars drifting by and people avoiding looking directly at them.

“Come on,” Anne whispered. “Let’s walk a bit.”

“This way, then,” Jonathan suggested, and headed for the river. They walked side by side, her arm around his waist, his draped over her shoulder, like a familiar fit, but with an electric charge. They stepped as one, over cobbled streets and onto the riverside promenade, a walkway that jutted out over the water.

The night had taken the city hostage, its snowy sheen had been left to melt as clear skies, cloudless, were like a void of shadows fleeing the earth. Lights of white and yellow made the city look its best, hiding the daylight realities with a veil of pretty veneer. It always looked more like home at night, they agreed. They pottered along the walkway and turned up onto the small pedestrian bridge that arched over the black depths below. Over the keystone, right in the middle, they stopped and looked out, down the river towards the bay.

The moon, now on the horizon, looked like a gateway to tomorrow. It left a shimmering road of light along the surface of the water so palpable that Anne thought she could step onto it and walk right to the moon.

“It’s such a beautiful night,” she said, shivering in the chill wind.

Jonathan stood behind her and put his arms around her. “It truly is.” They fell into one another’s warmth as he smelled her hair. It was like an auburn autumn, peppered with smoke. “There’s a word for that,” he began. “The way it looks out on the water…”

“Oh?”

“I can’t remember what it is, though…”

“That’s helpful,” she joked, turning to him. He sniggered. The clocktower beyond struck on the hour. They kissed once more, for a long instant, before it was gone. They looked into each other’s eyes.

“I’m glad I knocked you over,” Jonathan said.

Anne chuckled. “Me too,” she responded. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

“Wait.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“Will I see you again soon?”

“I left my number in your back pocket,” she explained. “You were meant to find it later.” She laughed.

“Good thing I asked,” he smiled, “as I’d probably have washed it and lost you forever.” He retrieved a small folded piece of paper with ten digits on it.

Anne gave an amused grin as she waved her fingers at him and walked away, north of the river and round the bend.

Jonathan stood for a while longer and watched the snow begin to fall onto the moonlit river. Shortly after, he headed home.

 

Anne tried the elevator, but it was out of order. She decided to take the stairs.

Jonathan found himself hurrying up to his apartment, bounding up the stairs three at a time.

Anne rummaged for her keys in her handbag.

Jonathan typed Anne’s number into his phone’s contacts list as he walked along the balcony to his flat.

They looked up to see one another at number 12C. They glanced at the door and back at one another. Each had a key in their hand and a look of recollection on their face. They took one another’s hand and remembered. It was like switching on a bulb in their memory. Jonathan opened the door to his sister inside. She was holding a small baby, who she proffered to Anne.

“Did you guys have a nice time?” she asked.

“Yes,” Anne said, still slightly dizzy from the recollection.

“Then I’ll leave you to it. If I go now, I can catch the train back.”

“Thanks,” Jonathan said.

The door closed, leaving the three of them in the apartment. Anne put the sleeping baby down into her cot in the bedroom, with Jonathan at her side. As she led him down onto the bed beside her, she reached out to turn off the lamp. She knocked down a brochure from the dresser. It read: Have you ever wanted to have a second First Date? Now you can!

“When did you remember?” he asked as she opened his belt quietly but quickly.

“Just then, at the door. I have no idea how it worked,” she said, as he unhooked and tossed her clothes away to the floor.

“You know,” he whispered as their hands explored and lost their way, “I think we should remember more often.”

Monthly Story #1 November 2018 - Heartbroken

HEARTBROKEN can be downloaded for FREE in the Store. Alternatively, you can read it below:

Heartbroken

  

As the Queen lay sleeping on the enormous bed, the King asked the doctor to leave them alone for a few moments. He said that he wanted a word with his wife.

“My Queen,” he said with a harsh breath.

The Queen awoke slowly and uneasily, groaning about an ache in her back. “I have been lying here for too long,” she said. The Queen was a young woman, barely thirty years old and a treasure that the kingdom held so close to its heart. It felt as if she had always been Queen. To the King, her husband, a man of nearly fifty years of living, she was even more than that. She was his life. She was everything.

“My Queen,” he repeated. “I have just heard that the medicine is not working. It seems,” he looked out the window, away from the beautiful Queen’s eyes, “it seems that there is no more that the doctors can do for you.”

He turned his face back to see her reaction. The tears on his face were so human and so bare that he had never seemed so weak, but never more so like a King to the Queen.

“One’s strength is in one’s honesty and love,” she whispered. “You have searched everywhere for a cure to my illness, my King,” she felt tears of her own. “How long?” she begged.

The King sobbed, “Not long.”

 

As the following days passed, the streets of the Kingdom were silent, as if everyone who walked them was a ghost. The people remained in a state of despair, but quiet despair, in the hope that in their silence, the Queen’s last days might be free from the discomfort of a stressed and busy Kingdom. They collectively hoped that she would rest more easily. It was only a small gesture, and an unspoken one, but one that everyone did together for the Queen they loved so dearly.

 

The following Sunday morning, the King stepped out of the bedroom for the first time in three weeks. He was alone, his head sunken, his eyes closed, and his feet shuffled him slowly in the direction of nowhere. A maid spotted him instantly and called for the doctor. Upon the doctor’s inspection of the room, it was clear that their beloved Queen was dead.

“Your Majesty,” the doctor said sadly, “are you alright?”

The King clutched his chest. He couldn’t speak.

“Your Majesty?”

Again, the King clutched his chest but spoke no words.

The maid held the King by the arm and helped him to a seat in the next room. “He’s heartbroken,” she cried softly.

“Heartbroken,” agreed the doctor.

The King slumped down into the seat and began to lose his balance. With a quick jump, the doctor steadied him and held him securely upright.

“Fetch the nurse, I’ll need her help,” the doctor ordered, putting his hand on the King’s forehead to test his temperature.

It wasn’t more than a few seconds before the nurse dashed to the King’s aid. “What’s happening?”

“The Queen has finally passed,” the doctor said, sadly, “and the King appears to be taking it very badly.”

“Oh, Your Majesty…” the nurse began.

“He cannot hear you, he’s unconscious.”

“We must get him to a bed for rest then!”

“Yes, that is why I called you. Is there a bed ready?”

“Certainly,” the nurse responded, signalling for a guard nearby to come help them as they readied to lift the King.

 

After inspection with a listening device, the doctor made his prognosis. “It appears that the King’s heart is in fact broken. It is very slow to pump, and I think it will stop completely unless we do something about it.”

The guard who’d helped earlier didn’t look pleased. “But the King has no heirs. The kingdom will tear itself apart fighting over who should be the new King!”

“Yes, I know.”

“Word of this had better not get out of the castle,” the nurse added. “This must be a secret.”

“Yes, otherwise there will be major trouble. The people respect, love and admire their King, but if he dies, they will not be slow to challenge for their rights to be successors.” The doctor mused on something. “We must get the King a new heart.”

“Where do you propose we get one?” the guard pondered.

“Well,” the nurse spoke slyly, “we could give him the heart of one of the pigs. There are three of them scheduled for slaughter today for dinner at the inn and the hall. I could arrange acquiring one without any trouble.”

“That’s not actually a bad idea. It’s worth a try,” the doctor smiled. “Get one immediately.”

The nurse made her leave and shut the door behind her.

“A pig’s heart?” the guard asked, as if he’d heard the wrong words in his ears. He looked at the doctor with shock on his face. “A pig’s heart in the body of our King?”

“Yes, it can be done. I’ve done it before. Difficult, but possible.”

“Oh…”

 

When the nurse returned, the doctor had arranged the room so that he could perform the surgery.

“I got two hearts, just in case one of them doesn’t look good enough to you doctor.” She handed him a paper bag, stained red with blood.

“Can you wash them carefully and then place them on this tray,” he asked her, handing over a silver tray shinier than a chandelier.

“I’ll be right back.”

As the doctor waited, he began the difficult procedure of cutting into the King’s chest. In order to reach the broken heart, he had to cut some ribs, which proved difficult, but done slowly and carefully so that they could be placed back to heal later.

“Come here,” he said to the nurse once he was ready.

She came over to find that the doctor was holding the King’s heart in one hand, pumping it lightly with his fingers and beckoning her to come closer with the other hand.

She walked over slowly.

“You must hold the heart, and keep pumping it, just like this. Not too fast, and certainly not too slow. Understand?”

She nodded silently, with fear evident on her face, and took the heart carefully in her hand and began pumping.

The doctor cleaned around the cavity in the King’s chest and placed the new pig’s heart inside. Holding a point of the main artery and vein with one hand, he severed them from the original heart and attached them as quickly as possible to the new one.

The nurse was still pumping the King’s old heart for no reason, except perhaps out of fear that it might still kill him. She looked on in horror as blood seeped out and looked like it would never stop.

Before they knew it, the pig’s heart was attached fully and pumping by itself.

“You did it,” the guard said, his first words since the procedure began.

“It’s not working enough,” the doctor said, grabbing the second pig’s heart, trying desperately to find room inside the king’s chest for it.

“What are you doing?” the nurse begged.

“It’s not strong enough! It’s weak, just like his old heart. We need to give him two.”

He worked faster than before. The doctor managed to split the blood flow from the main arteries and veins with some of the bits of the pigs’ hearts. They both pumped out of sync but slowly started to match up and beat in one louder rhythm together.

“Astonishing,” the nurse said, never taking her eyes from the sight of the two hearts. “It’s like a grandfather clock…”

The doctor worked feverishly to put the King back together. His ribs were placed back into position, although with a bit of difficulty, and once satisfied, the doctor began to stitch him up.

 

That night, the doctor was surprised to find that the King was still not improving.

“What are we going to do?” the doctor asked himself.

“How well do you know him?” the guard asked.

“What?”

“How well do you know him?”

“A long time. I’ve been the Royal doctor for over twenty years.”

“That’s not what I asked you,” the guard went on. “Is he important to you? Do you know him like a friend would know him?”

“What makes you say that?”

“The way you worked earlier. I know it’s your job, but you seemed ever more determined to get things right.”

“I suppose I owe a lot to the King. He has been very kind to me over the years and I would consider him a friend.”

“Explains why you’d be desperate enough to give him a pig’s heart to save his life,” the guard joked.

The doctor laughed. “Yes, but I don’t think it’ll be enough. Maybe he’ll need more hearts to keep living. He’s the most heartbroken man I’ve ever seen. He adored the Queen. Lived for her. I don’t know what he’s going to do without her.”

“Hmmm...” The guard looked sullen.

“Can you get the nurse?”

“Certainly.”

“Nurse,” the doctor said once she arrived by the bedside.

“Yes, doctor.”

“Can you go back down to the barn and acquire another two hearts for His Majesty.”

“If you like. But I don’t see how two different hearts will be different to the two he has now. Pigs’ hearts are only so different from one another.”

“We’re not going to replace the two he has,” the doctor explained. “We’re going to give him another two.”

 

The doctor’s new plan required them to move the King to his throne room. His reasons for this were not clear to the others yet but would be soon. The doctor had a small hole cut in the wall directly behind the throne leading to the room behind and another through the back of the throne. He gave no explanation, except that it was essential for the King to survive. Once these small modifications were made, they moved the King to his throne and locked the door, closed all the windows and curtains and the nurse helped him prepare for the second operation.

After an hour, the doctor successfully cut through the King’s back and with the help of a very long length of vein and artery made from those of pigs, he trailed a link from the King’s hearts in his chest through the back of his throne, into the room behind and once in there, linked them to two more hearts, each in a separate jar, suspended in water, pumping in sync with the two in the King’s body. The procedure was inventive but scared the nurse and guard. Once it proved somewhat successful, their doubts were cast aside for the time being.

“There!” the doctor proclaimed, sitting the King back in his throne. If one stood in front of the King, as one should unless asked to come closer by His Majesty, one would not notice the strange external veins trailing to the room behind. They were resting in a small gutter of water, fashioned quickly by the guard.

“We have to cover the veins up,” the guard suggested.

“Of course. That is what I was planning next.” From the room behind the throne he revealed a long glass tube, long enough to go from the King to the other room. “This will do it.”

A few more minutes of inventive surgery and careful cutting made the King’s glass tube a reality. He was stuck to his throne, but he was alive. He was able to go on.

With some shock to the three of them, he awoke not long after.

“Pain,” he whispered.

“Your Majesty!” they all chorused together.

“I feel a lot of pain,” the King said.

“You’ve had an operation…” the doctor said slowly. “There is no easy way to tell you this, but you are confined to your throne in order to live, Your Majesty.”

“How?” he said with a groggy faulting voice.

“Well, it’s quite difficult to explain…”

“No,” the King stopped him. “The pain is not from that.”

“Your Majesty?”

“My Queen. She is dead?”

“Yes, she is.”

“Oh…” the King wept dearly. “Oh, I remember now…”

The nurse came to his side and wiped his brow. “We are all so truly sorry about the Queen, Your Majesty,” she said.

But the King did not hear her, for he had fallen back into sleep.

“Let me examine him,” the doctor pleaded.

After a few moments, he despaired. “It’s still not enough!”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s still not recovering.”

“What more can we do?”

 

The huge funeral for the Queen was somewhat alarming to the people of the land, because their King was not there. Many people assumed that he would speak to them; try to encourage them that life goes on, or something, anything that would lift their spirits. But no, nothing. The King wasn’t there. The people were alone. Their King was alone. The land seemed dead. Dead with its wonderful Queen.

Of course, the reason why the King was not there was because he was stuck to his throne. In the throne room with him was the nurse, feeding him intravenously, cleaning him, moving him to avoid bedsores and generally nursing him, much like her job described.

In the room behind the throne, the doctor worked frantically, waiting on the guard’s regular returns with bags full of hearts, taken not just from pigs, but also from cows, deer and even sheep. In order to keep all the hearts beating together, and thus keep the King alive, they also needed extra blood. This was more difficult to come by because the doctor insisted on clean, carefully selected blood, human if possible. For the most part they had acquired a lot of the right blood from volunteers, but the volunteers didn’t know that it was all, every drop of it, meant for the King.

The doctor was working for five whole days and nights at this stage, and it was when he decided that the King would be stable for a few hours that he took a quick nap, still in his surgical outfit, still by the countless jars of hearts, on the blood-soaked floor.

“Four hundred and eighteen,” someone said, rousing him from sleep sometime later.

“What?”

“That’s how my hearts he has,” the guard said, delivering a huge container full of hearts. “Four hundred and eighteen.”

“And no sign of it stopping either.”

“How many will it take to keep him stable?” the guard asked.

“He can be kept in stability for a few hours after adding a few more hearts, but he needs more and more continuously it seems. I can’t let him die. What more can we do but keep going? We must keep giving him hearts.”

“That’s madness,” the guard suggested. “We can’t keep him alive in here like this.”

“We have to; otherwise the kingdom will tear itself apart…”

 

Time passed by and the doctor, the guard and the nurse were growing somewhat accustomed to their lives of spending up to twenty hours of every day doing their job. The nurse continued to nurse the King, clean him and feed him and keep him company during his rare bouts of consciousness. The guard continued to collect hearts and jars and blood, all of which were becoming more and more difficult to come by as time went on. It got so tough some days that he would have to take a cart to the next nearest town and barter away some of the King’s most beloved treasures. They all agreed that the King would approve in order to stay alive, so after a while it felt normal for them to trade gold bracelets and beautiful cloth for piles of animal hearts and buckets of blood.

The doctor was becoming something of a weaver. His work of combining the hearts together and attaching them to the great main artery and vein that led back to the King on the throne was becoming so fast and so normally second nature to him that he was adding dozens of hearts every day. After two months passed, the king’s body was supported by over five and a half thousand hearts.

 

“Doctor,” the nurse and the guard approached him one day.

“Yes, what is it? Please tell me it’s the delivery of blood from you,” he begged, looking at the guard.

“No, sir, that’s not it. The blood is here, but there’s other things we need to discuss.”

“We can’t talk yet, I need to get that blood through to here, so we can connect these three hearts. We’re running out of room in here too. I need this much space to work,” he said, making an invisible line around his work area with his fingers, “and soon enough the jars will take that space up. We need to convert the room below this into another heart room…”

“Doctor!” the nurse shouted.

He was startled. “What is it then?” he shouted back.

“You look terrible,” she went on. “It’s too late. The King won’t survive. We have been trying to keep him alive for months now!”

“It’s been a long time now, sir,” the guard added.

“We can’t give up!” the doctor cried.

“We must let the King have his rest. His time has come. In fact, his time came with the Queen’s, and we have just been delaying his passing.”

“No!” the doctor shouted. “We can’t let him die!”

The guard and the nurse both went to speak, but the doctor stood up. “No!” he shouted again. “Now go and get the blood,” he roared at the guard. “I need it in here now. Then I want you to organise the clearance of the room below this one and make it off limits to the rest of the staff and everyone except us three. We’ll need to let another guard in on this so that he can guard the room below. That will be your decision. Pick someone you trust.”

The guard looked on at the doctor but didn’t dare try to argue with him again. “Very well,” he said.

“I know,” the doctor then spoke more calmly. “I know it’s a little bit difficult for us, but we can’t let him die.”

“I know,” the nurse conceded.

“Maybe we could get him to name an heir?” the guard suggested.

There was silence.

“That would make it easier for the people to accept it,” the guard added.

“And what if they don’t listen to him? What if they decide to ignore it?” the doctor suggested. “It’s too risky. We need to find a way to stabilise him and let him decide what to do. Until then, more hearts. Alright?”

 

They got back to work and in turn, doubled their efforts. Within two weeks, they had the King living just shy of eight thousand hearts when they realised that they could get no more. Most of the animals in the land were dead. The people were angry and hungry. They would not part with the few they had left. Rumours had begun to circulate that the King was feeding on the hearts of animals and nothing more, all in a madness of grief.

“He has seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight hearts,” the doctor said, standing in the second room full of hearts. “But it’s not enough.”

They returned to his work area in the first room full of hearts.

“You did everything you could…” the nurse smiled.

“Not everything…” the doctor said.

“What do you plan on doing now?” the guard asked.

“We’ve got one pig’s heart left,” the doctor said, looking at it on the tray in the middle of his work table.

“It probably won’t make much difference to the King,” the nurse conceded.

“Indeed. Which is why you’re going to give it to me,” the doctor said proudly, “and I will give the King my own heart.”

“That’s madness!” the guard cried. “You can’t live on a pig’s heart!”

“I’ve given a pig’s heart to patients before the King. I’ve told you that. And they have survived, most of them anyway.”

“But I can’t do the surgery! Please don’t make me,” the nurse pleaded.

“You’ve seen the procedure every day for the last few months done repeatedly. You’ve had more experience with it that anyone in the world, aside from me, of course. I think that makes you most qualified.”

The nurse looked shaken.

“We don’t have any time to lose.”

 

With seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine hearts, one of which was given to him by the doctor from his own chest, the King sat up by himself and went to sit forward.

“Careful now,” the nurse said. “You don’t want to tug the artery too much. You’re being kept alive by it.”

The King looked confused. The nurse, who was now used to talking about exposed arteries and veins, blood and heart surgery as if they were everyday things, took a moment to understand the King’s confusion, and once she explained to him the main points of the story, he seemed somewhat amazed by the whole thing.

“Where is the doctor?” the King asked.

“He needed some rest after the operation. Even though he just went through one himself, he insisted on giving you his heart personally.”

“He did the operation himself?” the King was shocked.

“He wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Am I going to be alright?”

“The doctor says you’re recovering much more quickly than he could have dreamed.”

 

The doctor sat in a chair in the throne room, eating dinner with the King. It was over a month since the last operation, but to the King it may as well have been years ago. Despite being confined to a small radius around his throne, he was happy, able to stand and walk two or three steps before needing to return to the throne, and was full of energy. He ate with newfound strength. He knew that it would only be a few more weeks before the doctor could remove the artery and the only heart, he’d need would be portable, like his own had been once before.

“How do you find your food?” he asked the doctor.

“It is fine,” he responded.

“Ah, so you are speaking today!” the King seemed delighted by this.

The doctor looked blankly at the food in front of him and tasted another bite of meat. He looked unmoved by it.

The King went on to ask him about how he was feeling, but the doctor was unable to answer. He sat, ate mechanically, unable to do anything more, and every now and again thumped his chest, trying to feel something, but always to the same shallow dissatisfaction. His complete lack of energy was disheartening, but he always smiled when he could, for he was happy that the King was able to go on living, but had no aim, no direction, for his heart was somewhere else.