Woman with a Golden Heart
I was famous once. Newspapers all across Cornucopius published headlines such as, “Mechanical Heart Saves Train Crash Victim” and “Fifteen-Year-Old Girl Survives Wreckage”. People love stories of miracles. There was also something amusing to them about the fact that saying I had a heart of gold wasn’t merely an expression.
We were coming home from the fair in the next city over. My sister, Agatha, then fourteen, was eating taffy, a pile of waxy wrappers growing on the bench between us. Our parents sat on the opposite bench, facing us. Mama reached across and gently took the box of the pastel candies off my sister’s lap. “Agatha, you’re going to make yourself sick!”
She took a bite of her last taffy and pulled if from her mouth, letting the thin, sticky strings fall on her face and hands. “No, I won’t. I’ve only had ten!”
I set my book down. “Do you remember when you ate an entire bag of lemon drops in an hour?”
“But I was only twelve, then.” Agatha tossed her blond hair over her shoulder. “My stomach is bigger now.” Papa pressed his lips together and looked out the window. I could tell he was trying not to laugh.
That’s what I remember. Apparently, the train derailed and I was impaled by a piece of metal in the heart. I guess it’s a memory I’ve repressed. My next one was coming out of a haze in the hospital with a mechanical heart transplanted by the best cardiologist in the country, Dr. Brownlow. I was the first successful recipient.
I feel fortunate the accident happened before the new government took over and made gold hard to come by. On the eve of my twenty-second birthday, a little over a year ago, the sale of all luxury commodities was made illegal. Papa, a jeweler, had to close his shop and use his metalworking skills at the newly-opened weapons factory. The shop was turned into a rations distribution center.
In the mirror, I secured my gray hat on top of my chestnut curls using a pearl-tipped pin, a relic from before the law was passed. Downstairs, Mama left me some toast and butter on the kitchen table with some coffee. Since Papa left for work before daylight arrived, breakfast became a little special thing for Mama and I. She sat down across from me and smeared some butter on her toast. “I know what you’re going to say, but I think we need to treat ourselves every so often.”
“I think that we should save up our rations, that’s all. What if something happens and food is harder to come by? Having more rations would mean that we could have a better chance to get some if a crisis like that happens.” I bit into my dry crust of toast.
She sighed and smiled, accentuating the wrinkles creasing her ruddy face. “Oh, Maureen! You’ve always been the practical one in the family.”
“It’s just hard to predict what the government’s going to do next.”
“But at least we’ve got our family. Things aren’t so bad with all of us around. Especially with the new baby coming!”
I smiled. “I really am looking forward to be an aunt!” I rose from my chair, slipped on my gloves, and grabbed my purse. “Speaking of which, I need to get to work.”
Mama began clearing the table. “I’ll be going to check on Agatha later today. Her pregnancy is making her so sick all the time! Maybe we should have her stay with us until she has the baby.”
“She’ll be fine! Layton is a good husband.” I kissed her forehead, then covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief before leaving.
As usual, I made my way through the sooty haze to my sister and brother-in-law’s home on my way to work. Turning Cornucopius’s focus from the wellbeing of its citizens to productivity and power made the air filled with particles emitted from the numerous factories that continue to materialize.
I looked up at the brownish-gray clouds covering the sky. A year ago, it was blue. Even though it hadn’t been that long, I still struggled to remember what shade it was. Cerulean? Robin’s egg? Cobalt? A man passing me uncovered his face for a moment. “What are you staring at? It’s not gonna change anytime soon.” He put his handkerchief over his mouth again and continued on in a huff.
When I reached my sister’s townhome, I knocked on the dark green door. “It’s open,” she called out from inside.
Agatha was hunched over in the parlor, one hand on her mouth and the other on her belly, which was just starting to grow. From the kitchen, Layton rushed in, carrying a large bowl. He shoved it in front of her as I quickly ran to hold back her hair. After she was finished, I grabbed a wet cloth for her to put on her head. “Mama is coming later today to take care of you.”
She slouched back, her face still splotchy from her nausea. “It’s only been three months and I’m already ready for this child to come out!”
Layton returned from cleaning out the bowl and set it near her. “I’m sorry this baby is making you so sick.”
“Of course you should be sorry! You’re the one who impregnated me.” Agatha narrowed her eyes at him.
“Well, it’s something we wanted.” He grabbed his scarf off the coat rack by the door. “Besides, you were the one who visited Maureen at work and flirted with me.”
“Fine, I’ll let you win this argument. I’m too sick to come up with a rebuttal,” my sister groaned. Married life wasn’t something I aspired to at the moment, though I enjoyed watching the creative things Agatha and Layton could argue about.
Layton and I proceeded to walk to work together. I glanced at him, only his blue eyes being visible, the rest of his face obscured by his dark gray scarf and floppy hat. When I began my job as a newspaper secretary, I didn’t think that one of the journalists would become my brother-in-law until Agatha visited me one day and fell in love with Layton. But I guess I could see why she did. His eyes were a nice shade of blue, perhaps the color of what the sky used to be. Or was it turquoise? I hoped the child would inherit them. Layton also had a practical aspect of him, which was a trait we both shared and I thought was one thing that made him a decent husband for her. However, he was just a little too serious at times. The reason he fell for her? That always puzzled me. She was quite talkative and stole all your sweets when you weren’t paying attention.
We approached the three-story brick building and proceeded to the second floor. Upon entering the office, lit from the smudgy light fighting through the windows along one wall, I inhaled the scent of paper and fresh ink. Layton took his place amongst the rows of desks while I sat at my post behind my typewriter at the front after we hung our hats and coats. I shifted around in my seat, my corset wobbling over my torso. Though it was laced as tightly as it could, it was still loose since it was custom-fitted over a year ago. Any money I earned that wasn’t going towards the household was being saved to buy a smaller one.
A few minutes later, the editor-in-chief, Mr. Rigby hurried in. “The steam trolley was packed today! Miss Jenkins, do you have beats assigned to all the reporters for today?”
I looked up from the files I was sorting through. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” He shuffled his way to his office at the back of the room.
At about noon, when the office was buzzing with the click-clacks of typewriters and journalists discussing their stories, a man came in. “Excuse me, Miss…”
I looked up from the schedule of events the paper was going to cover that was curling over the top of my typewriter. “May I help you, sir?” His black jacket and hat were both marked with the government seal. My eyes focused on it. It was blue; a lovely color for such an unlovely-looking man. Under his thick moustache, his mouth curved down at the corners. His bushy eyebrows casted shadows over his face. In his hand was a large envelope.
“I have to deliver an important message to the editor.”
“Well, I can deliver it to him for you.” I held out my hand, but the man clutched the envelope harder until it began to crinkle.
“No, I’d rather deliver it myself. It’s quite urgent.”
“I’ll take you to his office, then. Follow me.” I stood and walked down the center of the room, my skirt swishing as she did. For a moment, the click-clacking slowed down as the journalists glanced at the man from the government. I gripped the handle of the door leading to Mr. Rigby’s office and swung it open.
“What do you want, Miss Jenkins? By the way, when you’re done typing out the events schedule, can you move the interview with Mr. Hayes from tomorrow to next Wednesday? He’s got some sort of lawsuit with one of his factory workers that he needs to sort out.” The editor didn’t look up once from his reading.
“Mr. Rigby, a man from the government would like to see you. He says it’s urgent.”
The editor sighed. “Fine. Let him in.” I motioned for the man to enter and left, closing the door behind me. When I returned to my typewriter, the ribbon ran out, so I went to the supply cabinet across from the dim windows. As I pulled out a new inky spool, Mr. Rigby and the man exited the office and towered at head of the room.
The journalists and I glanced up at them, the click-clacks stopping to a halt, save for one journalist who was still tapping away. “Lawrence!” Mr. Rigby shouted. The man jumped and sat straight up in his chair, then the editor cleared his throat. “This representative from the government has just informed me of a mandate that is to be put in place immediately.” He held the paper in his hand closer to his face and peered through is spectacles. “All citizens must turn in all luxury commodities within the next four days. This includes jewels and all precious metals.”
“Even gold?” I blurted.
The representative smirked. “Well, gold is a precious metal, Miss. Surely, you would have known that.”
Mr. Rigby creased his brow. “Are you alright, Miss Jenkins?”
“Yes. I’m completely fine.” I hurried to my desk and fumbled with my typewriter, my heart ticking in my ears.
“Anyway, this is to be on the front page. Layton, since you cover politics, I’m assigning this to you. You all can get back to work.”
Piles of paperwork grew on my desk, all of which remained untouched. I didn’t know how long it’d been until I saw the shadow of Mr. Rigby stooping in front of me. “Why aren’t you doing your work, Miss Jenkins?”
“Huh?” I looked up, feeling as if I were suddenly taken out of a daze. “Oh. The mandate—my heart; I just can’t focus right now. May I please take the rest of the day off?”
Mr. Rigby grunted as he straightened himself. “If you must. But just so you know, it’ll be deducted from your paycheck.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rigby!” I rushed to gather my things and burst out of the office building, taking a rapid pace home. However, I soon realized that I forgot to cover my mouth and was consumed by the smog. My lungs tensed as I doubled over on the sidewalk, hacking up brownish-gray phlegm. A black vignette framed my vision, dotted with stars. Finally, I was able to fish my handkerchief from my purse and regain enough filtered air to walk again.
No one was home, which I was glad about. Upon reaching my room, I collapsed on my bed, still dressed in my outerwear. For as far as I knew, I could’ve been worrying about nothing. Perhaps the government would make my heart an exception to the mandate since it kept me alive. However, I figured that the same people who ordered Papa to work in a factory wouldn’t take any mercy on someone like me. My miracle transplant made nationwide news. They definitely knew and were figuring out what to do about it.
The gears in my chest ticked rapidly, as if a clock were going at least twice its speed. My brain was a racetrack for my thoughts. Unable to stop them, they grew and grew until I began to hyperventilate. When I was nearly dizzy, I heard Mama enter downstairs. An electrical pulse ran through me and I shot up, quickly removed my hat, gloves, and coat, and went to greet her.
She took a step back as soon as she saw me at the top of the stairs. “Maureen, you’re home early!”
I swiftly made my way down and kissed her on the cheek. “I wasn’t feeling very well, so Mr. Rigby let me leave early.”
Mama kissed my check in return. “You’re not feeling well? What’s wrong?”
“Has the latest paper been published?” I creased my brow.
“Unless it’s the one with the newest trade agreement with Sovia as the cover story, then no.”
I groaned as I lowered myself into a parlor chair and cupped my face in my hands. “There’s a new mandate. Layton’s covering it. He knows about it more than I do. You’ll know soon enough.”
Mama crouched in front of me. “I don’t know what this mandate is about, but whatever happens, we’ll be alright.”
It was difficult trying to take comfort in her words. A little after four, the time I would normally leave work, I saw Agatha and Layton pass the window and heard them knocking on the door. Mama rushed to open it. Before she could say anything, they ran past her and sat on the couch across from me. In Layton’s hand was a newspaper, still smelling of fresh pulp.
Agatha reached across and wrapped her arms around me. “Maureen! Are you alright?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be at home?”
She waved her hand in the air. “Oh, I’m feeling better now. I haven’t gotten sick in several hours, so I begged Layton for me to go along with him as soon as I read his cover story.”
I pointed to the paper. “Is that it right there?”
“Yes. Here, read it.” Layton handed it to me, then sighed. “I hate that I was the one who had to write it.”
The edges of the paper warped from the moisture in my hands, which were smudged with black ink, as I scanned the page several times. As of today, the possession of all luxury commodities is prohibited. This includes all precious metals, minerals, fine china, etc. Officials will be arriving at your residence to collect your items. Withholding such objects will result in a life sentence. “Does it say anything about transplants?”
Layton pointed to the second to last paragraph on the page. “Right here.”
Persons with implants produced from luxury materials will receive a summons in a timely manner. Preserving the life of the individual will be our upmost priority, but it is not a guarantee that he or she will retain the same quality of life after the removal process.
I read the two lines over and over again. “Layton, did it say anything else about it?”
He shook his head. “I wrote everything that was given to me.”
Mama reached for the paper. “Let me read it.” After she was finished, she tossed it on the coffee table and silently walked to the kitchen.
My sister, Layton, and I sat in the blaring quietness that suffocated the room until Agatha’s voice finally pierced it. “Maureen, we should go check on Mama.”
“Yes, I suppose we should.” We rose in unison and proceeded to the kitchen at the back of the house. Mama stood at the counter, staring out the window while cutting a carrot. Sometimes she got a thick slice, sometimes it was a flake, sometimes she was just cutting the air.
“You and Layton should stay for dinner. I’m making stew.” Her voice was monotone, coming from a place far away.
Agatha rushed to her side and took the knife and carrot from her. “Mama, you’re going to cut yourself! Let me help you.”
I sighed. “I guess I could help, too. The distraction would be nice.”
Mama still stared out the window. “You can prepare the peas, Maureen. I’ll heat up the broth.” However, she remained still until I finally coaxed her away.
Papa came home when dinner was almost prepared. Lately, I came to recognize his entrance by the way his joints creaked like a machine in need of oil. “Layton just showed me the front page. Do you know if this’ll affect you, Maureen?”
“She hasn’t received a summons, so we won’t talk about it,” Mama said in a stern tone. “The stew is ready.”
We sat around the kitchen table, the sounds of spoons clinking against bowls as our dinner music. Mama dabbed her face with a napkin. “So, Layton, Agatha, have you started thinking about names for the baby?”
Agatha smiled. “Well, I want Oliver for a boy or Penelope for a girl, both of which Layton hates.” She scowled at him.
He held his hands up in mock defense. “I never said I hated them! I just prefer Quincy for a boy and Beatrice for a girl.”
“Beatrice was the name of my friend who stole my beau away from me several years ago.”
“I like Beatrice, then.” Layton grinned.
Someone pounded on the door. Agatha set down her napkin and rose from the table. “I’ll get it.” She leaned over her husband’s shoulder. “If we’re having a daughter, we’re naming her Penelope.”
The rest of us turned our heads to try to catch a glimpse of who could’ve been interrupting us at this time of the evening, though it was hard to do so from the kitchen. A man’s voice drifted over. “Excuse me, are you Miss Maureen Jenkins?”
I stood and went to the door, where I found Agatha with a hand on her hip. “No, I’m not! I’m her sister. What are you doing here at this time of the day, anyway? You interrupted us during our dinner, you oppressive, insolent man! My papa was a successful jeweler until you closed his shop and shoved him in a factory to wear him down until there’s nothing left of him.”
“Agatha, are you sure you want to say that to a government official? He’s just doing his job.” I placed my hand on her arm and gently led her away.
She smirked and rubbed her belly. “Sorry, sir. I’m three months pregnant. One of those outbursts expecting women get.”
The man simply grunted as she stepped aside. Even though I had a strong feeling about the reason why he was here, I still asked anyway. “I’m Maureen Jenkins. What do you need me for?”
“I’m sure this must be an inconvenient time, so I’ll make this quick.” He handed me an envelope. “This is a summons for the retrieval of your artificial organ. We’ve scheduled an operation with Dr. Brownlow a week from now. That should give you enough time to prepare. Your boss knows of this and will arrange for a new person to take your place.”
My voice was soft. “Am I going to die?”
“Your fate is completely dependent on Dr. Brownlow’s procedure. All the information and paperwork you need is in the envelope I gave you. Have a good evening.” He spun around and briskly walked away.
I stood at the entrance, the door still ajar. It wasn’t until Mama spoke when I finally moved. “Would somebody please close the door? I’m starting to feel a draft coming in!”
When I closed the door, I noticed that everyone else was in the parlor and heard the entire conversation. I looked at the creamy envelope with a blue wax seal. “Well, I guess I should read this.” Then, I slowly made my way upstairs to inspect its contents in the privacy of my bedroom.
When a week passed, we gathered in at the entryway once more, when the world had undertones of blueish-gray as the night was beginning to turn into day. Mama and I were dressed in our coats and hats, one bag for the each of us by our sides. Papa was wearing his work uniform since he was to go to the factory not long after we left. He wrapped his bony arms around me. “I’ll come see you tonight. Don’t worry, sweetheart.”
Layton stepped forward. “When he gets off, Agatha and I will pick him up and we’ll all go together.” He removed his hat and fumbled with it. “I just hope that you’ll be back at work eventually. It won’t be right having a stranger working your job.”
“Just don’t die on me, Maureen!” Agatha tightly embraced me. “The baby needs to know that it has the best aunt in the world.”
I sighed. “I love you all, but I can’t make any promises.” Picking up my bag, I turned to Mama. “Shall we go?” I didn’t dare look behind me as I went out the door.
On the train, I rested my head against the window, watching gray streaks go by. “If it weren’t for the accident caused by this machine, we wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”
Mama reached across and took my hand. “Don’t talk like that!” She let out a shaky sigh. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Even this new government takeover. There’s some reason why the universe let all this happen.”
We rode on in silence, until the train left our city and went to the country. A wide smile spread across my face. “Mama, look at the sky. It’s blue!” Passengers scrambled to the windows like children, gasping at their rare chance to see the sky the way it used to be.
As I watched in awe, I realized that there was no shade of blue that was comparable to the color of the sky. Farms rushed passed, barns and little houses dotting the landscape. I wondered if the people living in them knew how lucky they were.
For a while, I forgot the reason I was on the train until we hit the capital city, where the air was even grimier than it was at home. When I got off at the station, the dust cloud stung my eyes, making them water.
A government steam car was waiting for Mama and me, which took us to the twenty-story building that was the hospital. By this point, my handkerchief, which was white when I got off the train, was already streaked with dirt. I stood in its shadow and looked up at it. A beige brick structure lined with identical black, rectangular windows. I took a deep breath and went inside.
I sat on a bed in a hospital room, wearing a simple white gown that a nurse gave me to put on. Unlike the clothes I normally wore, it showed the tip of the pink scar running down my chest. Dr. Brownlow entered and paused, absently fiddling with his round glasses. “Hello, Maureen. I honestly hoped that I would never see you again.”
“Me, neither. Especially like this.”
“You know, I think of you as my prodigy of sorts. I tried making hearts out of other metals, but gold, since it’s soft, was the only one that worked.” He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. “And now…”
I folded my hands in my lap. “I do appreciate that you saved my life eight years ago. But can you please tell me what’s going to happen to me now?”
Dr. Brownlow put his hands in his pockets and paced the room. “There’s one thing that I want to ask you, Maureen.” He stopped and spun to face me. “Do you want to die or do you want to live?”
I creased my brow. “Well, of course I want to live. My sister is pregnant I would do anything to see her child grow up.”
He sighed. “If you choose to live, you may not be happy with the alternative solution to your condition.”
“I don’t care. I want to live!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” I clenched the edge of the bed. Why did the doctor seem so hesitant to keep me alive?
“If that’s your final decision…”
He called in the nurse, who instructed me to lie down. My stomach filled with rocks that tumbled about. She rolled me out in the hall. “Mrs. Jenkins, your daughter is headed into surgery. Come say your goodbyes.”
Mama came to my side, her eyes glassy, and took my hand. “I’m going to be fine, Mama.”
Dr. Brownlow put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be your final goodbye. She’s going to survive.”
“I love you, Maureen.” Mama kissed my forehead.
The nurse grabbed the bedrail. “Are you ready?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
As she continued to roll the bed, my hand pulled apart from Mama’s. Her splotchy, somber face grew smaller until I could no longer see it. The sound of the wheels against the tile floor filled my head. I heard a set of metal doors open and found myself in the center of a room filled with mysterious machines and personnel milling about. The nurse clicked the brake on the bed’s wheels. “The patient is ready.”
I turned my head to the side and saw a tray of instruments: sharp scalpels, tweezers, odd shaped tools that looked like tiny torture devices. My sweaty hands gripped the bedsheet. No, I wasn’t ready!
A man approached me with a black, rubber mask. As he brought it closer, I could hear a hissing sound coming from it. “This is just a gas that will make you fall asleep. You won’t feel a thing. You’ll wake up when the surgery is over with your family next to you.” As he put the mask to my face, he said, “Now, count backwards from ten.”
Ten. I took a deep breath as the strange substance filled my lungs. Nine. My body started to feel lighter. Eight. The ceiling shifted in all directions. Seven. The sounds began to sound as if from a far-off place. Six. My hands let go of the sheet. Five. I woke up.
My eyes opened to a hazy world. After I blinked a couple times, the blurry shapes took form. At my side were Mama, Papa, and Layton. Agatha sat on the edge of my bed.
Dr. Brownlow approached us. “Good, you’re awake. I’m sorry, but this was the best solution.”
I tried to utter a “What?”, but all what came out was a tiny moan.
Mama put her hand on my arm. “Everything will be okay. We can have it arranged so that you’ll be moved to the hospital closer to home.”
Papa leaned on the bedpost at the foot of the bed for support. “I know you’re concerned about you not working and that I’ll have to take extra hours to make up for it, but we can think of something else you can do.”
“I can tell you all the interesting things that happen at the office.” Layton smirked slightly.
I would’ve questioned them or made some sort of response to their strange behavior, but the drugs still dominated my body. It would take great effort to even lift my hand.
“I’m just so glad that you didn’t die!” She reached for the end table and showed me a small bouquet of flowers. They were blue, like the sky. “I know you probably think that this was a big expense, but we think you need them. Just a little something to brighten up this drab room.” She wrapped her arms around me and I felt a painful tugging at my chest. “Sorry. I wasn’t supposed to meddle with them.”
I turned my head, following the length of tubes coming from my chest to a giant machine.