This story is by R.A.M. and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Welcome to the agency. I’m Sasha. Are you ready?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know why I’m here.”
“That’s normal, love. It can be overwhelming at first. Shall we continue?”
I glanced around. The small room had a soothing air to it despite the lack of furnishings.
Sasha took my hand and a warm feeling spread through me. “C’mon, Thalia, we’ve got a lot to cover.”
Sasha led me through pristine hallways. She rambled about a noble history and a protected order. I had a hard time concentrating on her words. A humming filled the back of my head every time I tried to recall what I’d been doing before I met Sasha.
“Thalia, are you listening? Your new responsibility cannot be taken lightly: Happily Ever After Renewal Training. We call it bestowing a HEART. I’m here to teach you how to give HEARTs to countless others who desperately need your help.”
Sasha swung open a side door and we stepped out into blaring sunlight. Stretched out before us lay a road lined with shops and boutiques. Beyond, a restless metropolis buzzed with life. I marveled as the door we came through disappeared. In its place stood a massage parlor.
“Why am I here again?” I asked.
Sasha raised an eyebrow. “You met some very specific requirements.”
“So, what do I do?”
“On the job training, love.” Sasha and I entered a restaurant and sat at the bar. She inhaled deeply through her nose as if tracking a scent. “Do you smell that?”
“Without a doubt.” Sasha’s gaze closed in on a young man at the end of the bar. She approached him like an old friend, lips parted in a dazzling smile. They exchanged a few words before she caressed the back of his neck and pulled him into a sultry kiss.
While the surprised man strove to regain his composure, Sasha excused herself and returned to our side of the bar.
“Watch,” she commanded with a smirk.
The young man stood to follow and popped a peanut into his mouth. Halfway to Sasha he stopped short. With hands clutched to his throat, he doubled over.
Sasha squeezed my shoulder, eyes wide.
At a nearby table, a young woman shouted, “He’s choking!” She shoved a startled waitress aside, wrapped her fists around the man and thrust up with all her strength. The peanut shot out like a cork.
The man gulped down several ragged breaths as the woman steadied him. Crisis averted, he turned and locked eyes with his rescuer.
“That’s it!” Sasha squealed.
“What’s it?” My voice shook. “He nearly died!”
“He met his soul mate. A single life threatening event was all he needed. Some Happily Ever Afters are much harder. Let’s try another shall we?”
As we exited, a stone formed in my stomach. I brushed it off. The notion that I could spread happiness outweighed my budding anxiety. “This time, it’s my turn. But I am not kissing—”
“Don’t be silly. It only takes a touch. After centuries in this business, you have to get creative or it gets boring.” Sasha winked.
Past the boutiques, an urban neighborhood teemed with familial vitality. Sasha paused at a small park and inhaled, eyes closed. I mimicked her actions and my senses filled with the smell of burnt rubber and asphalt. I followed the confusing smell to a girl about eight years old. She marched across the playground and took a swing, shoving its occupant into the dirt. The girl’s mother scolded, forcing a muttered apology.
“That girl needs a HEART,” I said.
“Spot on.” Sasha folded her arms. “In this case, you connect with her mother: Margo.”
Eager to help them, I approached Margo and offered my hand. At her touch, a flood of hopes and fears enveloped me. Despite the afternoon heat, I shivered. Margo spoke of her daughter with open devotion. She would do anything to ensure her daughter’s happiness. I smiled to myself, knowing her wishes were about to come true.
As we continued to the next block, a question burned on my tongue. “Tell me, Sasha.”
“How are we helping Margo’s daughter?”
“So glad you asked. In order for there to be a happily ever after, there must first be a ‘before’. We create the event that precedes happiness. The catalyst if you will. Cinderella is HEART’s greatest triumph. She endured abuse for years before she found her prince. Tribulation refines, smooths away the rough edges. Don’t you see?”
I shook my head.
“Happiness comes in all forms. It depends more on what happens inside a person than outside. From tragedy comes growth.” Sasha bent down and plucked a dandelion from the pavement. “See this flower?” She crushed it between her fingers, then dropped it into a crack. “By suffering an event, it will feed the next flower.”
My pulse quickened. “But, you killed it. The flower can’t be happy if it’s dead.”
“An event in one person’s life can create a HEART for another. Cinderella’s father, for instance. Have you ever reached into a man’s chest and silenced a beating heart?” She closed her eyes and grinned at the memory. “It’s exhilarating.”
Thoughts jumbled inside my head trying to piece together what I’d heard.
“That girl’s mother will suffer?” My voice jumped an octave. “For what? Teach her daughter a lesson?”
“She will not find happiness if she does not encounter misery.”
My breath caught in my throat. “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want out.”
Sasha gave me a pitying look. “Thalia. There is no out.”
I ran. I had to warn Margo. The staccato of my feet on the sidewalk competed with my pounding heartbeat. I rounded the corner before the park when without a sound Sasha appeared and seized me, dragging us both to our knees. “No use, love. It’s already happening.”
Tires squealed in the distance, followed by the sound of glass and metal crashing. “No!” I yelled between labored breaths. “She doesn’t deserve this.”
I yanked myself free of Sasha’s hold. “You have to stop!”
Sasha tutted. “Adversity is the best catalyst, Thalia. Though at times the HEART fails. The person we’re helping rejects our gift. Rejection steals happiness from others, you know. In extreme cases, the rejecting person must be removed from society.”
I gasped. “You kill them, too?”
Sasha laughed melodically. “No, silly. We recruit them.”
She ran a finger down my face and for the first time I felt the messy scars that laced my own skin. The humming in my head fractured into a symphony of memories. A small room with shelves of syringes and needles; transparent images that looked like grotesque Rorschach tests; a man in a white coat explaining how rapidly dividing cells were about to wreak havoc on my organs.
“I had cancer,” I whispered. “My parents sat over my hospital bed for months. I remember the IVs, the breathing tubes…and the matches.”
Not a muscle twitched as Sasha watched my recollections build.
I remembered wishing to die. I learned that the oxygen I needed to breathe could make fire burn faster and bigger. All I had to do was sneak a match from my mother’s purse.
And I did.
“The whole room went up in flames.” My flesh seared with memories of the fire, and I buckled to the ground. The grass smelled like burning plastic. A wave of nausea and pain rocked me.
Sasha sighed. “What would you like me to do?”
Tears streamed down my scarred cheeks. I heaved, but nothing came up.
Sasha knelt and reached her hand to me. “I’m offering you a HEART, Thalia. Take it or leave it.”
What did she mean?
With tremulous effort I grasped Sasha’s hand. In an instant the pain and nausea receded. Desperation shrank and tucked back into a faint humming.
I opened my eyes to a familiar hospital room. Oxygen hissed and IV pumps beeped. Muffled voices carried from the hallway.
“Mom? Dad?” My voice cracked. Pain throbbed in my throat where an endotracheal tube had recently been removed.
A hard edge poked out of the corner of my pillow. Reaching behind, I pulled out the object: a matchbook. Mom had carried that matchbook as a souvenir of our family vacation in Cabo last year.
In the hallway, voices grew louder and my mom swept into the room, eyes red from too many sleepless nights.
“Thalia, how are you, baby?” She leaned over the bed and kissed my forehead. “I’m so proud of you, you know? You’ve kept smiling through this whole miserable ordeal. You’re my superwoman.”
Mom squeezed my hand. “What’s this? Why do you have my matchbook?”
Her crinkled brow reminded me of Margo, so innocently unaware of the pain I was about to cause. Something inside me broke. The humming in my head faded into a calm assurance.
“Here, Mom.” I handed over the matchbook. “I don’t need it. I know why I’m here.”