Here’s my entry into Chuck’s newest challenge over at Terribleminds…
“Show it to me,” she said.
Lem held out the backpack and she snatched it from his hand. She unzipped the top and peered into it with her good eye. The one with the eyepatch over it seemed to be staring at him through the stiff black cloth.
“That’s it,” he said.
She held it at arm’s length and it hung there in there air. Lem stared at it.
“You want me to take it back?”
“Yes, I want you to take it back you idiot,” she said.
“Why?” he asked. “I did what you asked.” He accepted the bag and put it in his lap.
Callie dug out a pack of cigarettes and stuck one in her mouth. She shook her head left and right, a silent tsk-tsk. She patted her pockets for matches. Lem stared at the dangling cigarette. There was no heat in the cafe and it was cold as hell. He shivered.
A waitress appeared.
“What’ll you have?” Her voice, muffled by a black fleece balaclava, made Lem recoil. He could only see her eyes. Callie didn’t flinch.
“Hot coffee,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter what it costs,” Callie interrupted.
“Okay. And you Sir?”
“Tea I guess, whatever you have,” Lem said.
“H or L?”
“L is fine.”
“Back in a minute,” the waitress mumbled.
Callie lit her smoke and fanned the match. “That’s the best thing about life after the tip,” Callie said. “Nobody sweats the petty stuff. Like no-smoking laws.”
“There’s already so much wood smoke nobody notices,” Lem said.
“Aren’t you curious about why I gave you back the bag?” Callie asked.
“No,” he said. He had learned a long time ago that she it was pointless to question or argue.
“You’re just going to do what I say?”
“Of course,” Lem said. “Is that bad? You aren’t mad are you?”
Callie stuck the butt in her mouth to free her hands and snapped her dreads into a bungee behind her head.
“Not mad. Just sick to my stomach,” she said. “You’ve got my heart in that bag and still you’re taking orders.”
“What? Why? I thought that’s what you wanted,” he said.
The waitress came back with their mugs and set them down. Callie whipped a ten dollar bill from the front pocket of her fatigue jacket and slapped it on the table.
“It’s eleven-oh-nine with tax.”
Callie screwed up her mouth and rummaged for a dollar and a handful of coins. She took the last drag of her cigarette.
“Keep the change,” she said through the smoke.
When the waitress was gone Lem spoke first.
“Why are you mad?”
“I told you, I’m not mad,” Callie said. She dropped the butt of her smoke on the floor and stomped it out. “Disappointed. I thought you might turn out to be more than this.”
“More than what?” Lem asked. He hugged the bag and didn’t touch his lukewarm tea. Callie took a tentative slurp from her steaming mug. He couldn’t read her face.
“You know exactly what I mean,” she said.
And he did know. She had never liked him or respected him. All she wanted was the heart. And now that he had brought it to her, she was saying it more or less out loud.
“I don’t know…”
“Just drink your bathwater,” Callie said, “When you’re done you can go chuck the heart into the granary.”
“Me?” Lem asked. “Not me.”
“Yeah you,” she said. “It’s clear we’re headed for a breakup. I don’t need some pissed off ex-boyfriend ratting me out. You need to be as dirty as me.”
Lem gaped back at her.
“Shut your flytrap,” she said and sipped her coffee.
He did not touch the tea, only sat silently and watched her smoke another cigarette. She flicked the ashes on the floor and nobody noticed. Through the thin wall he could hear cross-cut saws slicing wood to feed the back room boilers. He knew something had to be done before there wasn’t a tree left on the planet, but he hadn’t done it for the trees. He had stolen the heart for her.
“What if the virus isn’t viable?” he said suddenly.
“Shut up stupid,” Callie said. She stood up abruptly and dragged him from the cafe by the shoulder of his coat. She walked him like a prisoner down the street to the granary, and showed her employee card to the attendant.
“Taking my friend here for a job interview,” Callie said.
Lem allowed her to push him up the metal stairs of the dark warehouse, higher and higher into the heights of the rafters where the smog of corn dust and wood smoke was suffocating.
They stood at last staring down at the massive hopper into which two conveyor belts fed corn in a never-ending stream.
“Throw it in,” she said, barely audible over the sounds of the steam-powered mill.
“I can’t,” Lem said. “Let’s not do it. It’s almost three hundred years old and the virus probably isn’t viable anyway.”
“That’s not the point,” Callie said. “I want you to feed that heart to the world. Do it!”
“It might not even be real,” he begged. “It’s only a legend anyway.”
Callie put her hands on the safety rail and stared at her boots.
“My god you are the most worthless sack of shit I have ever seen,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s Louis the XVs’ heart or Louis the mail-man’s heart. Throw the damned thing in the chute!”
“I hate you,” she said. “I really fucking hate you. You have no faith in what we’re doing, no self-respect, and no spine. You never did…”
Lem looked at her, her arms folded on the rail, her forehead resting on her arms. She was gone. Even if he did what she wanted it was no use — she had said things that she could never take back.
“I was never a person to you was I?”
“I hoped you would become one,” she said, still looking down. “But you never did. You’re a worm.”
Lem dropped his backpack and walked over to her. He put his arms around her waist and delicately lifted her over the rail and threw her into the hopper. She didn’t have time to scream before she was swallowed by the corn and gone.
After her he tossed in the heart, backpack and all.
“Did too,” he said.