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Heart Case

“Everything passes. Everything.”

Gully came to, gripped by a terrible sense of panic, and sat bolt upright in his chair, gnashing his teeth and pulling at his hair with both hands. A name was caught on the tip of his tongue. He wanted to scream it, but it wouldn't dislodge. And then the terror passed, like a swift cloud moving across the sun, and everything cleared. The room around him swam out of the gloom, and he saw dark wood floors, mirrored walls, a vast chandelier of gold and crystal hanging from a chain, glimmering in the light of a hundred candles. Gully took a great shuddering breath and wiped a sheen of cold sweat from his forehead.

His mind was filled with gray fog. How he came to be in this room, sitting in this chair, he didn't know. He looked down at himself and found that he was smartly dressed in tunic, leggings, and boots of supple leather, but the tunic was plastered to his chest and belly with sweat. He pinched a fold of cloth between his thumb and forefinger and pulled it away from his skin.

Gully glanced around the room. He was alone but sitting in the middle of a row of identical chairs. To his left was a large door, partly opened, revealing a long, shadowy hallway. Empty suits of armor on pedestals lined the hallway, and he thought he heard voices in the distance from places unseen. He tried to find something, some image, some sound, some sense, that connected to a memory, but he couldn't. It was as if he had come suddenly into existence, born of a terrible dream, in a place he had never known.

He felt cold, the deep cold that sinks into the bones and makes the whole body quake, but the cold didn't seem to be coming from the room. Indeed, the air in the room felt warm and smelled stagnant with old varnish and dust. Instead, the cold seemed to originate from within himself, as if he had swallowed ice, and it had lodged somewhere around his ribcage.

On the wall opposite his chair, one of the mirrors moved, startling him so badly that he nearly fell out of his seat. He grabbed both armrests and clamped down tight. It took a moment to understand what he was seeing, that the mirror was, in fact, a door into another room. As it opened, a heavy light poured through, and a person appeared. A woman in a long blue dress, she was looking right at him as soon as she came through the door, as if she had been expecting him. He didn't know her, he was sure of that. She had a striking face, dark eyes, yes, he would have remembered her. She had a scroll of parchment in her hand, and, as she approached, she held it up and unrolled it.

“Gully Benton,” she said, reading the name off the parchment. His name. That, at least, he recognized.

He wiped sweat off his cheeks and neck, dried his hand on the hem of his tunic, and rose, but his legs wobbled, sending him back into the chair. The woman rolled up the parchment and tucked it under her arm.

“You are Gully Benton?” she said again, sounding annoyed.

He tried to speak, but his throat was so dry that he only managed a wordless rasp. He swallowed, grabbed his throat and tried again. “Yes,” he managed. “Yes, I think I am.”

“You think you are?” she said, one eyebrow arched.

“I mean, I am,” he replied. “I am Gully Benton.”

“You were the one yelling in here?”

“I…I don’t know. I guess so.”

She sniffed, looked him up and down, frowned and said, “Come with me.” Then she turned and headed for the mirrored door.

Gully rose again, but slowly, giving his wobbly legs a chance to adjust to his weight. By the time he got to his feet, the woman was standing in the open doorway. She glanced over her shoulder and gave him a questioning look.

“Sorry,” he said with an apologetic shrug. “I think I might be…a little under the weather.”

She waved him through the door. “Give it time. It will pass.”

Taking awkward steps, arms spread wide like an acrobat performing a balancing act, he made his way across the room. His teeth chattered from the cold. “Are you certain it will pass?” he asked the woman. “I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with me. I think I might have fainted while I was waiting for you.”

“It happens sometimes,” she replied, the waving becoming a frantic roll of her hand. “It’s not a big deal.”

“Not a big deal? How do you know?” He almost fell, flailed his arms to regain his balance, and continued. “I’m so cold. So cold.”

“Everything passes,” the woman said, her voice sounding flat, emotionless, empty words. “Everything.”

The room beyond the open door looked warm, bright, lit by a row of large bronze lanterns on a shelf. It had a low ceiling, walls of painted plaster, a long cherry wood table surrounded by high-backed chairs. Scrolls and scraps of parchment were scattered across the table. Gully asked no more questions. The woman’s answers only made him feel worse. He entered the room and felt a change in the air, but it didn't touch the cold inside of him. He made his way to the table and leaned against it.

“Have a seat,” the woman said.

Gully pulled back one of the chairs, though it took some effort, and collapsed into it. He wanted to lay his head down on the table and shut his eyes, but he feared he might pass out again if he did. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the flickering light visible through the cracks in one of the lamps and waited for the sickness to pass.

“The Master will be with you momentarily,” she said. He heard the door close behind him, heard her crossing the room, hard-heeled shoes clacking on the floor.

“Why?” he asked.

She paused, still just out of his line of sight. “What did you say?”

“Why? Why will the Master be with me? I’m not…” He shook his head, but it only made him dizzy. “My mind is all, sort of, fuzzy. I can’t quite remember why I’m here.”

She was quiet for a moment, then strode up to the table, leaning in front of him, and gazed into his eyes. She seemed mostly curious, if not exactly concerned. He met her gaze briefly and looked away.

“You are here for employment, are you not?” she said. “This is the Museum of Artifacts. You are here to work, like all the others. Is that not the case?”

Nothing she said connected to any thought or memory he could find in his murky brain, but he nodded anyway. “Yes, that sounds about right. I’m here to work. Museum of Artifacts. I will make good money, yes?”

She shrugged and made the first and only smile he ever saw her make. “It’s work. Everyone has to work, right? Good pay, bad pay, no pay, everyone has to work. That what’s it’s all about, isn’t it?” She gestured toward the table. “Now, you’ve got some paperwork to fill out before the Master gets here. I’ll get you a quill and ink.”

Gully surveyed the vast pile of parchments and scraps spread across the table. “Which paperwork?”

“All of it on the table there,” she replied, walking away from him. “It won’t take but a few minutes, and then you’ll be all set.”

* * *

The Master of the Hall entered the room with a great flourish, waving both hands in front of him as if sweeping back an invisible curtain. Draped in a flowing robe of faded green and matching cloak with a pointed hood, gold rings on every finger, he made quite a first impression. He stepped up to the woman, and they spoke quietly for a moment, too quietly for Gully to hear them. Then he beckoned for Gully to follow him. Gully rose and followed him across the room to another door in the wall beside the lanterns. As he passed through, he gave the woman a last look, but she only stared back with dull disinterest, a perfectly expressionless face.

The Master led him down a narrow hallway, lush burgundy carpet on the floor, to a small closet. From the closet he retrieved a bundle of black cloth and a polished wooden club. He handed them both to Gully, who took them in his weak hands and stared at them, waiting for his obliterated thoughts to make sense of what he was holding. The Master, sensing his confusion, smiled and took the objects from him.

With a deft flip of one hand, he unfolded the black cloth, revealing a short cape with silver stitching on the back that formed the words, “Museum of Artifacts SECURITY.” The Master draped the cape over Gully’s shoulders with another deft motion and tied it in place, then pushed the club into his right hand.

“Keep the cape on at all times when you’re working,” he said, his voice deeper than Gully expected. “Wouldn’t want another employee to mistake you for a burglar. Follow me.”

Employee. That’s what he was. Gully understood that. He hadn’t read most of the paperwork, just scribbled his name wherever the woman told him to, but he had picked up bits and pieces. He was now an employee of the Museum of Artifacts. Apparently, a security guard. Well, why not? It was as good a reality to wake up to as any, he supposed.

The Master led him through another door into a dim little room with richly paneled walls, shiny gold candelabras in the corners, and padded benches. In the center of the room was a high pedestal, and on that pedestal was an object covered by a red silk cloth.

“This is where you will start your rounds each night,” the Master said. “From here, make your way down the hall, checking each room as you go. When you get to the end of the hall, instead of turning the corner, come back here and start over again. Keep doing that for twelve hours, then your shift is over. It’s really quite simple. Got it?”

Gully shrugged. “I suppose so. What is that?” He pointed to the object under the cloth.

The Master smiled. A strange smile, Gully didn’t like it. “Well, Gully, this is a museum. We house many rare artifacts here, rare and magical, and very valuable.” He walked over to the pedestal and grabbed a corner of the silk cloth. “This is our newest addition.” He swept the cloth away.

Gully stared at the object beneath the cloth for a long time, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. It appeared to be an intact human heart encased inside a clear cube. A fresh heart, still raw and red, perfectly preserved. Gully felt sick to his stomach.

“Like all of the objects here, this one is worth quite a lot,” the Master said. “Thieves are a constant nuisance.”

Gully looked away from the object. He felt faint and glanced longingly at the nearest bench.

“Now, the museum is closing for the night,” the Master said. “So you shouldn’t see anyone creeping around except other employees. But if you do find anyone else in here, unless they’ve got a black security cape on, you give them a few good whacks with the club. Can you do that?”

Gully nodded and brandished the club.

“That’s good,” the Master said. He gave Gully an appraising look, eyes narrowed, frowning, then made a little popping noise with his lips and said, “I think you’ll work out just fine. How are things in here?” He tapped his temple. “Thoughts clear?”

The question took Gully aback, and he stumbled for an answer. “Sort of foggy,” he said, at last.

“Well, don’t you worry about it,” the Master said. “There’s always an adjustment time when someone first starts working. It will pass.”

“Yes, sir,” Gully said.

The Master nodded, seemed like he might say something else, then turned and walked out of the room in a swirl of green. As soon as he was out of sight, Gully stumbled over to the nearest bench and sat down. He buried his face in his hands, felt the room swimming around him, and waited to pass out again. This is how it had happened before, he assumed, in the room with the mirrors. Sit down, close your eyes and pass out, and eventually come to with no memory.

“What is wrong with me?” he asked the empty room. Though he spoke quietly, his voice echoed down the hallway.

Sickness. Some kind of sickness. It had to be. He should be home in bed, assuming he had a home somewhere, not working in a dark, musty museum. He pulled his cape close around him and held it shut, but it did nothing to drive out the cold. He looked at the club in his hand, ornate and polished wood, it looked less like a weapon and more like a ceremonial object. He tested the weight of it and found it ungainly in his hand, and when he took a practice swing, it nearly flew out of his grasp. Fortunately, he didn't expect to need it. How many thieves could there really be breaking into a museum at night? It had to be a rare occurrence.

Gully rose, feeling a bit better for having rested a moment, and walked up to the pedestal in the center of the room. He ran his fingers along the side of the clear cube, found it warm, and drew back. It was crystal, not glass; light from the candles cast faint rainbows high up on the walls.

He sensed, more than heard, the intruder enter the room, like a breath tickling the back of his neck. Gully turned, too hard and too fast, and slammed his club into the side of the clear display case. The crystal made a high ringing sound, and the club fell from his hand. He stooped to retrieve it, but the intruder was upon him. A hand clamped down on his wrist and spun him around. Another hand clamped over his eyes and forced him backward, away from the display case. He heard a wheezing breath and the rustling of some kind of cape or cloak.

“No, no, you get out of here,” he said in a high and warbling voice, more frightened child than tough security guard. “You get out of here!”

The back of his legs bumped up against the edge of one of the benches, and he fell back, hit the wall, and slid down into a seated position. With his free hand he reached out and grabbed a fold of cloth, twisting it this way and that, trying to find his way to the flesh beneath, but the intruder slammed a knee into his stomach and forced him back against the wall.

“No, you go…” Gully said. “You go…”

The intruder released his wrist and grabbed him by the neck. Gully gnashed his teeth and tried to bite him, but his teeth only closed on open air.

“I’ve come for the heart,” the intruder said, sounding like he had pebbles caught in his throat. The voice of a madman. Gully opened his eyes, but his vision was still veiled. Between the intruder’s fingers, he caught a glimpse of a dark shape, an edge of black cloth. “You sit here and let me take it.”

The knee drew back from his stomach, the hand from his throat.

“Will you sit here and let me take it?” the intruder asked. “There is no need to for us to get hurt.”

The hand over his eyes eased up.

“I don’t want us to get hurt either,” Gully said. “Look, I don’t even have my club. I dropped it. It’s my first night on the job.”

“The job’s not worth it,” the intruder said. “So, you stay, sit still, and let me take the heart.”

The hand came away from his eyes, and Gully saw the intruder standing before him, but not clearly. There seemed to be a curtain of shadow between them, a place the light wouldn't touch, revealing only the shape of a man and nothing else. Gully blinked and rubbed his eyes, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Darkness wrapped around a human body. A trick, some kind of evil magic, had to be.

The shadow figure turned toward the display case, set his hands on top of it and bent down to gaze at the encased heart with unseen eyes. Gully did as he was told, he sat still and watched, but he felt a growing sense of alarm. He would lose his job for this. His first night would be his last night at the Museum of Artifacts. That in itself was bad enough, but it was more than that. This job, this evening, from the room of mirrors to the sheer tedium of filling out all of the paperwork to his little walk with the Master to this moment right here, all of it together contained the full measure of his memories and experiences. The job was all he had left in his brain. If he lost the job, he lost the only thing he knew.

Alarm became panic, and before he knew it, and very much without thinking it through, Gully leaped up from the bench and charged the shadowy intruder. The intruder saw him coming at the last second and started to turn, but Gully caught him around the hips and drove him back.

“You can’t have it,” he shouted. The tip of one boot caught a corner of the display case, and he went down, tackling the intruder. They hit the floor hard, and Gully used the momentum to drive his forehead against the intruder’s face. Somehow he missed and smashed his face into the floor instead. The thick carpet blunted the impact, but he still saw stars and tasted blood in his mouth.

He drew back and opened his eyes to survey the damage, expecting to find the intruder’s limp body beneath him, but he saw only carpet. He looked around frantically, but he was alone in the room. He picked himself up, wincing at each ache and pain, and searched the room, but the intruder was gone. Utterly gone. He peeked into the hallway, but it was empty in both directions.

Gully walked over to the heart case, limping. It felt like he had broken one of his toes. The case was intact, but there was a faint scuff mark on a corner of the pedestal where the tip of his boot had struck it. Gully felt panic again, and he clutched his hands to keep them from shaking. The thief had gotten away somehow. More evil magic. After long minutes of indecision and feeling sick to his stomach, he retrieved his club from the floor and turned.

And there stood the Master in the doorway, a look of curious annoyance on his face.

“What is all the yelling about down here, Mr. Benton?” he said, running the gold-drenched fingers of one hand down his fat cheeks. “Is there a problem?”

Gully started to speak, but the words caught in his throat. He coughed, swallowed and said, “Yes. A thief. A thief came in here, and we were fighting, and, well, I’m not sure where he went.”

The Master approached. Gully held the club to his chest and lowered his gaze.

“People don’t just disappear, Mr. Benton,” the Master said softly. “Not in here. You are bleeding.”

Gully touched the line of blood trailing from one nostril, the other trailing from his busted lip. “I did my job, sir.”

The Master made a thoughtful grunt. “And what did this person look like?”

“Well, that’s the strangest part,” Gully said. “He didn’t look like anything. Just darkness.”

“I see.” The Master took a deep breath. When Gully looked at him again, he was surprised to see a look of pity on his face. “Well, I think it’s pretty clear what happened here.”

“It is?”

“Some memory loss in inevitable,” the Master said, walking past Gully to the display case. “Confusion, as well. Other complications are not unheard of.” He rested one arm on top of the display case. “I do recall Eleanor saying something in passing about you fainting in the waiting room. Said you woke up screaming your own name.”

“Sir,” Gully said. “I swear. There was an intruder in here. He wanted the heart. He tried to take it, and I fought him off.”

The Master nodded and patted the top of the display case. “There was never an intruder in here, Mr. Benton. You were fighting with yourself. This,” he tapped the glass with a fingernail. “This is your heart.”

Gully shook his head. Surely he had misheard. “My…what?”

“Your heart,” the Master said.

“That’s…” Gully became very aware of the cold, the terrible cold that went all the way to the marrow. “That’s not possible. I would be dead.”

“We have ways of keeping people alive these days, Mr. Benton,” the Master said. “A heart is no longer necessary. In fact, it is quite inconvenient.”

Gully pressed his hand to his chest. From the moment he had awakened in the room of mirrors, he’d had a profound sense that something inside of him was wrong. And now he knew what it was. He had no heartbeat. The cold was coming from the hollow behind his ribs.

“It’s not possible,” he whispered. “I would be dead.”

“It is not only possible,” the Master said. “It is standard operating procedure for all employees. Now, don’t panic. You’ve simply lost your memories, probably a reaction to the drugs. They will come back in time.” He walked over to Gully and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Time and again, the heart proves to be a distraction. It reminds employees of self and life and outside, making it hard to concentrate during a long shift. Removing it just makes sense, and magic has developed so much in the last few years that a heart is not essential to life. Better to be rid of the thing. You understand that, don’t you, Mr. Benton?”

“No,” Gully said, reaching toward the display case. “That’s…that’s my heart.”

“Indeed, it is. Your heart came through the procedure in pristine condition. Most of them suffer quite a bit of deterioration, but not yours. We even put it on display. It looks that good.” He gave Gully a paternal pat with both hands, smoothed out his black cape and stepped back. “Now, look, if you want the heart back, you can have it, but not if you want to work. Just give me the word, and we’ll reverse the procedure, and you can go your merry way. You’ll be on the streets, of course, penniless, but you’ll have your heart.”

“I…” Gully looked at the heart, so red, flawless, floating in a crystal sea. He looked at the wooden club in his hands. And, really, what did he want? He didn’t feel much. His emotions were all jumbled up, had been since he awoke in the room of mirrors. It seemed like he should want his heart put back in his chest, but, in reality, he didn’t feel any particular attachment to it. He felt very little at all. Part of him had wanted it back, though, hadn’t it? The part that had fought him, the shadow self, but that version of Gully was gone, crushed to nothing on the museum floor.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I’ll work,” Gully said, at last.

The Master smiled, gave him a last pat and headed for the door. “Very good, Mr. Benton. You’ll make a fine employee,” he said as he headed out into the hallway.

Gully tipped a salute to the Master, sniffed, wiped the blood from his lip, and went back to work.

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