In our home town, in the nursery where we played and fought like adults. I find it deep in a box of toy cars, remnants of your blood on the plastic, a motorway pile-up in miniature. Children watch me, the strange old lady, as I rummage through the wreckage, feeling for the part of you still here.
The quarter-organ is cold to my touch, delicate like an expensive restaurant starter. Teeth marks and Plasticine cover the surface, the rainbow heart of a child.
It was here where we first kissed, you wrapping your arms around my neck as I cried. You took that as rejection, a piece of your heart falling into the box, pulsing for attention.
I place it in my bag. A young boy tugs at my hand, reminding me of you at that age. I mould him a substitute heart to play with, which distracts him for a while, but is no substitute for the real thing.
Our old college is gone.
I pace under the clock tower, eyes to the ground, bumping into every student who reminds me of you. The past is in my wake – birdsong from the park, the breeze of autumn, constellations hidden by the sun. These signals align, to a place where time is a myth, a dull pulse coming from a nearby garden.
It was here you saw me with my secret boyfriend, holding his hand on the college steps. When I said hello, you smiled with the bravest of faces. To you it then all made sense – why I no longer frequented the common room, why I was absent at parties. Your oldest friend became your first adult heartbreak.
The piece of your heart is in a skip, dusty and indistinguishable from the rubble. Rats pull at the membrane and bite at my hand, protective of the discarded teenage meat. I use my blood to distract them, the rats licking at my arm as I take it from behind their backs.
It is heavier than the first piece, a timeline of the flesh, ill-fitting in the present.
The family in my old house are oblivious to my entry, unaware a part of you still hides in the attic. A television is playing in the front room below, children arguing over the noise. My limbs ache as I pull myself into the attic, grating my clothes across the uneven floor. Dust and dead skin, layers of occupants before and after me, cover every surface. A mirror makes the room look twice as large, conflicting with my memories of the room being smaller.
The parcel remains unopened where I left it. Inside is a heart chamber pale and grieving.
Back downstairs, on the hallway carpet, is a stain the shape of your shadow. It came from the blood-soaked parcel you sent, days after the funeral of your wife. Sending you a card was a selfish mistake, the least I could do and the worst thing I did. Your reply two days later was polite and generic, accompanied by the parcel moist and warm. The delivery man had to force it through the letter box, juicing the contents onto my floor.
I step over the stain as I leave, a part of my old life banished forever.
The final piece is easy. I carry it with me always, protruding in my trouser pocket. It makes my walk deliberate and awkward. I always have to sit on one side, to avoid squeezing blood out from beneath me.
Now close to home, it pulses like a radar, leading me through the hospital to your private room. A doctor half our age tells me you can hear me, despite the mechanical hum of life support. Your body is thin like that of your past. I sit beside you for the first time in years, displacing the air around us. The piece of heart murmurs in my pocket, pushing at the fabric of my trousers, desperate for your warmth.
You gave me this final piece at our school reunion, as we spoke of the past, a lifetime of near misses. You told me all the times I made you cry. I told you of my new life – my second wind, the growth of my adult wings, the downsizing and escaping of my past.
We danced to the slow songs of old, a quarter of a heart to sustain you. When I rejected you for the final time, your chest burst open for all to see, the last piece falling into my hands. It was hot and alive, pulsing to all our songs, my arms outstretched as I ran from the room, taking it with me.
I place this piece on the tray above your bed, alongside the others in my collection. With all four pieces I attempt to repair you. My work is clumsy with old hands, staples and parcel tape holding the chambers in place. Doctors offer me drinks and professional opinion, watching me undoing and redoing their surgery, trying to fix what they cannot.
Finally, your eyelids flicker.
I stand back from the bed, waiting for you to see me, worried it might break the both of us once more.
Paul Thompson lives and works in Sheffield. His stories have appeared in Spelk Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Okay Donkey (Forthcoming) and the National Flash Fiction Day anthology 2019.