Cate Gardner is a British horror and fantastical author with over a hundred short stories published. Several of those stories appear in her collection Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits (Strange Publications 2010). She is also the author of four novellas:Theatre of Curious Acts (Hadley Rille Books, 2011), Barbed Wire Hearts (Delirium Books, 2011), In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair (Alchemy Press, 2013), and This Foolish & Harmful Delight (Egaeus Press, 2013). Her novella, The Bureau of Them, will be published by Spectral Press in 2014.
Barbed Wire Hearts
Eddie stood at a crossroads. A post hammered into the ground stated WRONG WAY, and there was no corresponding 'Right Way' for the other path. Bile pushed up Eddie's throat - he didn't fancy revisiting the curry his mum had made for tea. No wonder Stacey had sat as far from him as possible, his breath could set light to a half-dozen trees.
Eddie dug his hands into his pockets and shuffled along the wrong path. He wouldn't be surprised if a woodcutter, werewolf or a girl in a red cloak skipped by. The blood sky persisted giving no indication whether it heralded night or day, and his watch had stopped at nine-thirty along with his heart., Realising the path was leading him nowhere - huh, surprise - Eddie turned and considered turning back. Behind him, the forest yearned into forever, or at least farther than he could have walked. Heck, he may as well keep walking and get totally lost, after all that was what Stacey, Cheryl and half their year wanted. If he still owned his heart, he'd care. To his left a twit cracked. Beneath a footstep, he supposed.
Beneath a footstep, he hoped.
Crying 'hello' in a forest at night, lost and uncertain if monsters lurked, with the remains of his heart dribbling down his inner thigh, could prove fatal. Yet, he couldn't resist the urge.
“Hell,” he said, dropping the O.
The forest replied with a furious rustle of leaves accompanied by several twigs breaking (if not actual tree trunks). He'd teetered at the edge of outright panic since the trees first encircled him and any extra effects were wasted energy. He pushed his glasses up his nose, an act that added to his insecurity. Working with the logic that the forest couldn't continue forever, Eddie pushed on. Within a few steps, the trees thinned and the wasteland led to a warehouse and the type of landscape he'd expected to find surrounding his town.
Graffiti coloured the warehouse's listing walls, adding character and menace. Its roof was a corrugated metal sheet that looked like a toupee sliding off a shiny head. A burned out car guarded the entrance, and within the car sat a man. At least, Eddie thought it a man because goats didn't drive cars not even in phantom forests. He didn't need a sign warning him to approach with caution, but this wacko place provided one anyway. The back of his T-shirt should read 'idiot walking here'.
The goat-man climbed from the car. “Well, you are rather curious.”
Seriously. Eddie's mouth hung open. In what fucked-up world did a guy who looked like a goat get to play shocked at his arrival? The goat-man looked at Eddie through the thin lines of his pupils and scratched the white tufts of hair on his sharp chin. Twin boils played horns at his hairline. As well as the T-shirt, Eddie decided to have his knees tattooed 'weak' and his torso 'lily-livered'.
“You here to see me?” the goat-man asked.
Eddie shook his head as if his vocal cords had snapped alongside his mind and heart.
“You remind me of a fellow I used to know. Heartless he was” - the goat-man grinned - “until we met. You know anyone like that? Huh! You're awful quiet for someone who still has his tongue. Or did she cut out your tongue too? See, I know what's going on. She ripped out your heart and stomped on it.”
To which, the goat-man proceeded to jump on the spot. Legs leaping up to armpits, face determined, looking more frog. If only Stacey had grinned as heartily at him, then what remained of his heart wouldn't be sticky residue on skin and the inside of his jeans. Eddie didn't mean to sigh and allow air to whistle around his empty chest, but he did. The goat-man leaned forward and swallowed Eddie's exhaled air.
“Irwin Ghoate, I fear we got off on the wrong hoof. Let me guess” - Ghoate scratched his chin hair - “nope. Not getting a name.”
“Eddie,” Eddie said, not meaning to offer his name.
“Well Eddie,” Ghoate said, wrapping his arm around Eddie's shoulders. “I do believe we can come to a mutually beneficial deal that will benefit us mutually. You get me?”
Ghoate led Eddie into the warehouse, at least, that's what must have happened. To Eddie, it seemed he hadn't walked anywhere, that the building had formed around them and he stood at its centre, leaning against a steel table, wondering what the heck? Hearts lay with kidney-shaped metal bowls, others bulged inside jars. Further hearts drooped and dripped from the ceiling, and spiders spun webs about them, silk keeping the hearts in place.
“Beautiful, yes,” Ghoate said. “I know you agree. Hearts within bodies, overrated. Hearts outside of bodies, underrated. I'm a collector. Now don't screw your face at me. You lost your heart an hour ago and you're fine. In fact, no more heartache for you. I only wish I'd had your good fortune back in... Well, we're talking some time.”
Eddie's mouth flapped open. If spider webs broke, he'd drown in gore.
“I have just the thing for you,” Ghoate said.
The man rummaged through scalpels, jars and pencils, scissors, paper and glitter, and fussed until he'd made a red crepe paper heart. He handed it to Eddie.
“Oh, I forgot this,” Ghoate added.
Ghoate took a pot of glue, the white gloopy sort you found in infant schools. They looked at each other - Ghoate expectant, Eddie speechless.
“Really,” Eddie said.
“You're right. You look more of a broken heart.” Ghoate snatched the paper heart and tore it in half.
(C) Cate Gardner, 2014
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.