Every heart tells a story.
That was what the Heart Scale Center advertisement whispered to Marcus and Grace as they stood outside the building. They clutched the newspaper between them, the paper flickering with promises pressed between black lines of vitalized ink. The scales in the picture moved up and down like the playground seesaw they used to jump on as children. Back when the city still made room for such things. Back when they were little and all that mattered was whether Marcus had remembered to bring the jump rope Grace liked when he knocked on her front door to play. Back before they’d been each other’s first kisses, first touches, first loves.
The parking lot swelled with cars, an attendant stacking them like bento boxes in a vertical iron grid. This place had become the most popular spot in the entire city; lines of eager people hoping to get an appointment stretched around the block.
“You sure you want to do this?” Marcus asked, trying to control his face and keep his expression blank. His mama always said his eyes told the world too much about him.
“You said you were up for it.” Grace removed their appointment card from her pocket.
He watched the calligraphy skate across the cardstock, forming and reforming their names.
Grace & Marcus.
Marcus & Grace.
She cradled it like a golden ticket.
He studied her face; the honey glow from the center’s lights sliced across the brown of Grace’s cheekbones as she fought an excited smile. “We jumped the six-month wait list,” she said.
“Coley got the appointments for us, didn’t she?” he asked.
Marcus felt her bristle.
“Well, it’s going to be great. Marisol and her girlfriend did it last weekend.”
“Aren’t they about to break up?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“And didn’t Jacob and Keisha try this too? They’ve been fighting ever since.”
They both paused to look up at the building. Marcus imagined the shadows from its towers growing larger, big enough to swallow him. Grace crinkled up her nose with curiosity, the pinch of it making the scattering of freckles on it hard to see. That look was usually his favorite, but maybe not today. He bit his bottom lip and fussed with his jacket.
“You scared?” she asked.
A shiver ran through both of their bodies, one colder than the few winter snowflakes starting to fall around them.
Marcus glanced away from her inquiring eyes. His heart did a somersault, and not because he was afraid of it being taken from his chest. Everyone said that part didn’t hurt. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to know exactly what his heart might reveal.
“No,” he replied.
“Then let’s go in.” Grace barreled forward.
* * *
The lobby glowed red. Its plush walls enfolded them into a pocket made of velveteen. It felt like they’d walked inside a literal heart.
Grace figured this was how it should be. She blinked twice to be sure the walls weren’t pulsing. She thought she could hear the thuds and thumps of a thousand heartbeats. Maybe it was the hearts sitting in golden sarcophaguses just beyond the door. Maybe it was just her own. Maybe it was all just part of the experience.
She’d heard so many great reviews of the whole thing.
Marcus’s hand found the small of her back, one of her favorite ways that he touched her.
They walked farther inside.
Almost every couch was filled with a person. A motion picture flickered across a silk screen, showcasing scowling couples entering the Heart Scale Center, stepping into separate rooms, then emerging with grins so big you could count all their teeth. The montage ended with the words, Welcome to a better way to love. Every heart tells a story. Find yours here.
She wondered if she and Marcus would be like that. Though they hadn’t been fighting lately, they hadn’t really been doing much of anything else, either.
A woman in a tailored blue suit sat at a large desk. Grace smiled at Marcus, then stepped forward. “Hello.”
“Welcome! We’re so happy you’ve come to learn about your hearts’ story. Last names, appointment card, and registration paper, please,” the woman said. A heart-shaped brooch began to vibrate on her lapel, drawing Grace’s attention.
Was it a real miniature heart?
Marcus nudged her.
She flinched and pulled out the card, then the paper, tattered and worn from weeks of folding and unfolding, running nervous fingers over every line, and scanning every detail of the procedure. She handed it to the woman. “Last names are Williamson and Tucker.”
The woman gave her a clipboard with several forms and a writing stylus. “Fill these out together, and bring them back to me when you’re done.”
Grace fumbled with the board. Marcus helped her catch it before it plummeted to the floor.
The entire room paused to look up at her. She flashed a sheepish smile. This wasn’t the time to be clumsy. That’s what her mama would say if she were still alive. She’d also probably tell Grace she had no business up in here. Some questions didn’t need answers.
But for Grace, every question had one.
She wanted to know all the things.
Grace and Marcus found a nearby couch to plop down on. They scanned the forms together. The ink revealed questions, one set for her and one set for him.
Is your heart healthy for removal? List any heart-related surgeries or diseases you’ve had.
Have you been in love before?
Are you currently in love?
Grace pointed the writing stylus at each one and searched Marcus’s eyes, trying to guess his answer before he said it. She knew him very well and prided herself on being able to anticipate how he felt about most things.
Even though he hated when she answered for him, she liked knowing that she could, that she knew the shape of him.
How many people have you loved?
This question made her sit upright. It was the reason why they were here. The tiniest tendril of apprehension curled in her stomach.
Her father had told her never to ask questions she didn’t want answered, and maybe this was one of those times when she should’ve listened. She and Marcus were high school sweethearts destined to become lovebirds, together forever. That was what everyone always said. But this question bubbled up any time things got too quiet: Has he ever loved another?
They’d taken short breaks. It was possible. And what would that mean?
As soon as they’d gotten their college acceptance letters, more questions had crept to the surface. Did they love each other enough to make it through going to different schools, different cities?
If the procedure showed that Marcus’s love for her was heavy, then she’d know what they should do. She’d ignore her best friend Coley’s warning that college changes you, silence her suggestions that she and Marcus break up and give each other clean slates. She’d have proof that they really belonged together. She’d have more faith and be able to stamp out those tiny doubts.
Grace nibbled her bottom lip.
“I don’t know the answer to the last question,” Marcus said. “Do I include, like, my mom, dad, grandparents?”
“I guess we could skip it. The form says we don’t have to answer them all.”
Grace searched his eyes for how he really felt. He glanced around like they were being watched. She looked back down. The vitalized ink swirled, almost too eager to complete the form.
The last question revealed itself: Do you understand the objective of the procedure?
The goal was to have your heart weighed. To have the organ plucked from your chest like a swollen cherry and placed on a set of golden scales. To goad the blood-soaked flesh into exposing its imprints, the names of those you’d loved scrawled along striated muscle. To have a machine divulge whom you loved the most, whether you wanted to admit it or not.
Every heart tells a story.
“You ready?” Grace asked.
Marcus replied, “Yeah.”
A line pulsed at the very bottom of the page. Prepare yourself for your heart’s true story.
Grace was certain she already knew her story. The largest name imprinted on her heart—aside from Mama’s and Daddy’s and her little sister Serenity’s—was Marcus’s. But her hands still shook, and she didn’t know why.
“Finished, right?” he asked.
They walked together to return the clipboard to the woman.
A door swung open, and a man appeared. “Grace Williamson?”
Grace raised her hand like they were in school and the teacher had called her name from a roster. She turned to Marcus. “I guess I’m first. It’ll be okay, right?”
“Of course,” he replied.
Grace kissed his check. It was warm with a deep flush she couldn’t see beneath the rich brown of his skin. He always carried too much heat, like he’d swallowed the sun. It was one of the things she liked most about him. She’d never grow cold when she was with him.
He took her hand and squeezed it.
She thought maybe she should just turn around, pull him forward, and walk straight out the door. Maybe she didn’t need to know. Maybe everything would be fine and her worries would drift away like rain clouds after a summer storm.
But maybe not.
Grace took a deep breath and released his hand.
* * *
Marcus scoured the waiting room for water. The answer he’d just given Grace about everything being okay lay thick and heavy on his tongue like cane syrup. He always told her those sorts of things, even if he didn’t believe them. That was what you were supposed to do. His pops always made sure his mama was good, even if he had to wrap a little lie inside something sweet.
“You got dragged here too?” the man beside him asked.
Marcus flashed a false smile and mumbled something that wasn’t yes and wasn’t no either.
When Grace had asked him to do this, he’d said what he always said to her: Sure. It was more reflex than real, mostly muscle memory. He didn’t know how to say no to her. He didn’t know if he had ever wanted to. When she cried, her hazel eyes appeared green, and her brown skin flushed pink, and he couldn’t handle it. He’d seen the same thing happen with his mama. Those tears haunted him. He’d say just about anything to make Grace smile, to keep her smiling.
“My girlfriend thinks I’m cheating,” the man said. “Yours too?”
“Nah,” Marcus replied.
He’d never do that to Grace.
He’d never behave like his pops.
He’d leave her first.
Even if he had to see those tears.
Marcus’s eyes darted around the room as more and more people disappeared behind the door Grace had gone through. He wondered what was happening to her.
“I didn’t even love that chick,” the man adds. “That shouldn’t show up on my heart, right?”
“I don’t know.” Marcus knew what his heart would show: that he loved his mama and his sisters and his brother and his pops and Grace.
But he didn’t know if that would be the case forever, and he wasn’t sure if the test would show that. If his curiosity about being with someone else might affect his love for Grace.
Marcus didn’t consider himself a person with secrets. Grace probably knew all there was to know about him, and there wasn’t much. His favorite things: the smell of a fresh pair of sneakers straight out of the box; the hum his grandfather’s old albums made when he first put them on the record player; the way his dog waited for him every day like he was the best person in the whole world. She knew about the weird stuff going on between his parents ’cause his pop kept making mistakes, and he’d told her all his nightmares about drowning in the new pool on his block. She knew he sometimes worried that the moon would get too close or that his little sister and brother might not return from school or that his parents’ fights would get so big they’d turn into a hurricane and destroy everything. Or that maybe he couldn’t be the perfect son, the one his mama counted on to put things back together.
He told Grace most things worth telling.
The man beside him loudly unleashed all the details of his affair while Marcus tried hard not to listen. The story of betrayal boomed like thunder, its rattle hitting him in the chest, excavating his greatest fears.
“Marcus Tucker?” an attendant called out.
Marcus leaped up, happy to be able to escape the man.
“Good luck,” the man said.
“Yeah, okay. You too, I guess,” Marcus replied. He didn’t believe in luck and wasn’t sure he needed it. He needed something else.
He ducked through the door and followed the attendant down a hall. Brass lanterns painted stripes across the floor. Marcus counted them as he walked. It was the only thing that kept him from panicking.
He felt like he was about to be outed in some way. That every half truth he’d ever told was about to be laid bare and given air, a monster growing from it. He had always told himself he wouldn’t be like his pop. He might not be perfect, but he wouldn’t outright lie, the big kinds of untruths that were just too-small Band-Aids over hemorrhaging wounds.
No, he’d never do that.
But when did a lie become a lie? Was wanting to love someone else wrong? Was wondering about it the same as not telling Grace the truth?
What exactly would his heart show?
Would it betray him?
His stomach fluttered as they stopped in front of a door marked number three. That was a lucky number, or so he’d always thought. Gram said important things came in threes. Birds of good fortune. Auspicious news. Storms. Nightmares.
“You’ll be in here.”
The door slid open.
Was Grace nearby? Marcus gazed at the other rooms and sucked in a deep breath, searching for her scent, the pineapple of her lotion seeping from her skin as if she’d swallowed the fruit whole.
He stepped inside.
A female nurse entered through another door.
“Have a seat,” she ordered.
He sat without thinking.
Always without thinking.
“Is there a fan in here?” he asked.
She didn’t turn around.
“It’s the perfect temperature for the procedure. The heart enjoys a specific climate. We like to honor that.”
“Have you had this done?”
“Absolutely. All of us who work here undergo the procedure.”
His hands quivered as she handed him a robe to change into.
“You afraid?” she asked.
Yes, he wanted to say.
“No,” he replied.
She glanced down at his chart. “If you love your partner, there’s nothing to worry about.”
That had never been a problem for Marcus. The problem was what came after.
* * *
“I’m a heartician, and I’m here to complete your procedure,” the man said to Grace. “Are you ready for answers?”
Grace turned her head in his direction. “I think so. But … like, how are the results presented?”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “First-timer?”
“A virgin,” he added.
She crossed her arms over her chest, the cold of the room suddenly hitting her.
“You should wait and see. Plus, I don’t want to ruin any part of the experience.” He draped a blanket over her, tucking her in like the table was a bed.
“I want to know. I like to know things.”
“Don’t they say that good things come to those… oh, I’ve forgotten the saying. In any case, trust is what brought you here, so trust that you will enjoy the process. You’re here to find answers, and the truth is always best.”
The truth was always complicated, and Grace was the type of person who liked every question to have an answer. She didn’t like the unknown. After her mom had died suddenly, she had never wanted anything creeping up on her again. Her dad said she was scared of her own shadow now. But she chose to believe the world would be better if everything had its place and every question had its answer, like pairs of matching socks. So she could prepare.
She was about to get her wish.
What if she didn’t like what she found?
This is a bad idea. Her best friend Coley’s warning grew louder and louder in her head, a wave about to crash into her.
As the heartician worked in a corner, Grace gazed around. She had expected a doctor’s office—a sink, a chair, unmarked cabinets, the scent of alcohol, a few brochures. But the room’s wonders unfurled like a set of gift boxes: cabinets full of viscera, drawers spilling over with odd metal instruments, and a golden sarcophagus waiting to receive her heart.
“You’ll love this process, and you’ll come back,” the heartician said.
“People do it more than once?”
“If you’re lucky, you’ll experience many loves in a lifetime.”
Grace pursed her lips with doubt. She was supposed to be with Marcus.
Marcus & Grace.
Grace & Marcus.
She had never given herself room to think about having another love. Not really. He was the one.
The heartician’s silver instruments hit the tray with a thud. “Some people don’t like entering new relationships without a good sense of what they’re getting into. To save themselves from heartbreak or have a starting place for couple’s therapy. I think it’s smart always to be prepared.”
Grace agreed about that.
His eyebrow lifted as he pressed a button on the wall. “Did he cheat, sweetie?”
The exam table rose beneath Grace. She flattened her hands against her sides. “No.”
“Oh! Then why are you here?” The heartician gazed down at her.
“To see if we should stay together.”
He paused. “We’re not fortune-tellers.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Her pulse raced. The man’s questioning eyes scattered her thoughts, disturbing them like a kicked beehive. “I want to know if we love each other enough. Is it heavy enough to, like…”
“I can’t tell you what’s on the road ahead. But I can tell you how much you love each other right now. Your heart will reveal its imprints. The deeper one is, the more love you have for a person. The fresher one is, the newer the love for a person. Scabbed imprints tell us about past loves that have gone away. And the weight of each one will tell us the value of your love for one person in relation to your love for other people.”
Grace filed that information away like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter. She’d analyze it, study every word, to make sense of it later.
The heartician patted her arm. “Ready?” He retrieved a glass thermometer. “Need to make sure you don’t have a temperature.”
Grace opened her mouth like a baby bird to receive the cold instrument.
His eyes remained fixed on the thin rod as the red line of mercury rose. He plucked it from her mouth and said, “No fever. We’re ready.”
She wasn’t so sure anymore.
The heartician placed a mask over her face.
It was too late.
A sweet-flavored steam entered her mouth.
* * *
In adjacent rooms, two hearticians removed knives from their trays. The lights dimmed, leaving only golden circles over the deep brown chests of Grace and Marcus.
Two perfect halos.
The edges of the knives were swift. Blood beaded along the lines they left behind, bracelets of crimson pearls.
The hearticians lifted the hearts of Marcus and Grace from their chests at the exact same moment.
“Healthy. Full of love,” one remarked.
The organs sat upright, beating and thudding and racing and humming.
Two doors slid open to a viewing room.
Both hearticians clutched the beating hearts and entered the shared space between Grace’s and Marcus’s rooms. Twin scales sat on a table. Beside them, two golden sarcophaguses waited eagerly to be filled.
The hearticians nodded at one another. Their assistants removed the lids of the sarcophaguses. The hearts were placed inside. A latch unhooked to reveal a window into each vessel.
Gently, they poured a liquid thick as cream over the hearts. It crept down the organs’ fibers, coating each muscle and chamber. “Prepare to note the imprints. Make sure to spell the names correctly. Aim for accuracy.”
“Notation ready,” an assistant replied.
The hearticians kneeled before the sarcophaguses, peering into the tiny glass windows.
Letters revealed themselves in the hearts’ flesh like cursive burns.
Names of beloveds.
“The familial imprints are present on both hearts. I see the names from their paperwork,” one heartician replied. “Make a note. Female heart has one large scabbed imprint and a small fresh imprint. Seems like a new love is budding.”
“Make a note. Male heart has one large imprint. Three quarters of it is scabbed. Seems like a fading love.”
“Take a photograph,” the first one ordered.
One assistant used a light box to capture the hearts’ likenesses. He pressed it to the transparent side of one sarcophagus, then the other. The flashes made the thudding hearts illuminate like bloody stars.
“Time to weigh.” The hearticians removed the hearts from their coffers and placed each on the left side of a scale.
“Now to see how much each imprint weighs to determine its importance and hierarchy.”
The assistants set velvet boxes beside the scales and flipped open the lids. A medley of small weights, tiny golden eggs, sat tucked into pockets.
“Read each name. The liquid will react. I will watch the heart and add to the scale until it levels,” one heartician said to the assistants. “You write down the official weights.”
The thudding hearts were gilded cherries, their secrets ready for plucking.
* * *
Grace and Marcus woke up with a start. They gasped for breath. They touched their chests. They clamped their eyes closed and listened for the beating of their own hearts. Grace turned her head to the right to find Marcus staring back at her from an adjacent bed.
“You okay?” he asked.
She reached out her hand. Marcus let his fingers graze hers. They twirled them. Twists of brown sugar and chocolate ganache.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Okay, I guess. I don’t remember anything.”
“How long have you been awake?” she asked with a yawn. “Are the results in?”
Marcus knew what she really wanted to ask: What do you think the results will say?
“Only a few minutes. I don’t know,” he replied. “Do you think we need to know?” His questions sizzled, almost like a lightning strike in the quiet room. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replied.
“Are you worried?” He squeezed her hand tighter.
“Are you?” Her eyes stretched wide, so wide they could’ve taken him in completely.
Neither of them answered.
“Do you think love lasts forever?” he asked.
Grace’s eyes watered, the hazel of them starting to lighten. “When my mama died, she told me that it did. She said, ‘Nothing real can be threatened. Not even by death. That is love’s greatest secret.’ Feels kind of silly. Ridiculous.”
“It’s not. Even when I want to hate my pops, I can’t stop loving him. Even though I try.” Marcus watched as fat tears left her eyes, a tiny rainstorm spreading across her cheeks.
One of his greatest fears.
A silence stretched between them.
“Do you think this will change anything?” he asked.
The door swung open.
“Yes and no,” she replied.
The hearticians walked in holding sheets of paper. The vitalized ink skittered across the pages. “Results are in.”
Marcus and Grace didn’t turn their heads.
Instead, they faced each other.
[Story edited by Alexa Wejko.]