“My daughter was born with a candy heart,” her mother says again. She lights a second cigarette, calls the girl’s aunts over while boys splash in the pool. “Show them what I mean,” she tells the girl, “and give your aunts a hug.”
The story grows, and because mothers make their daughters’ stories true, the girl soon has a whole box of candy hearts that she carries all the time. Gifts to give out one by one, Be Mine and Soul Mate and Crazy 4 U. One for the aunt with pepper in her teeth and another for her parents every morning, noon, and night.
One afternoon, she watches her brother climb the maple tree in the front yard. He throws whirlybird seeds at her from way up high and wears cheap sunglasses with neon yellow frames. She sits on the ground at the base of the tree with her Amelia Bedelia book, an ant making its way up her shin as the helicopters spin.
“Watch this,” the brother says, hooking his leg around a smaller branch, all the flat leaves trembling. The girl cranes her neck and says, “Wow,” and that’s when it all goes wrong. He shakes a bird’s nest right out of the tree. Something about the sunglasses must have darkened his judgment, because as the nest is falling, his shoe slips on bark and he comes tumbling, too, his chin smacking a branch as he goes.
For a moment, the girl thinks it’s a joke. His sunglasses have gone askew on his face, and next to him, a cluster of robins’ eggs, blue as Amelia’s coat, lay shattered within their own goo. The brother looks like he might laugh with the sunglasses crooked like that until he begins wailing with a mouth full of blood.
Enter the candy hearts: the girl calling for help while tossing the book while picking up shells while consoling her brother, checking for living chicks while holding his hand. U & Me, the heart she gives him says, its compressed sugar a paleish blue. XOXO—this, to the lost baby birds.
The candy hearts of her time, of her attention and her worry. It goes this way across the years, Best Day to the popular kids who invite her to the party in spite of themselves, You Bet to the boys who ask for favors in their cars.
Much later, once the girl is grown, she works with a man who comes into her office and collapses in her extra chair with his little clicking pen—click on, click off—and says, “I’m bored.” It’s a challenge he likes to set forth.
“Oh no,” she says, closing her spreadsheet, the one due at five. “What’s up?”
His house is too clean, he says. He’s finished the deck and taken a deer to the butcher. He’s all caught up at work—no more spreadsheets today. “I don’t get busy people,” he says, looking out the window, the pen clicking on, clicking off. Whiz Kid, she gives him, green as her eyes. She tells him a story about the wasp that lives in her grill, because he’s bored and a grill kind of guy. She asks for advice even though she lit the grill weeks ago; she’s already charred that wasp into nothing.
One morning not long after, he comes to her office, bored again, and she searches the box and comes up short. She’s run out of candy hearts. It had to happen sometime; a box only holds so much.
Monster, she tells herself that night, writing it on her other heart, the real one, the one made of muscle that beats under bone. But as she presses into an atrium with her pen, she notices something new. The rushing strength of her aorta, the ventricles hot with her blood. A heart more dynamic than sweet, that pumps the world in and then out. And it comes to her after so much time, that her mother was wrong all along. That candy is only sugar, and sugar is only dust.
Tomorrow she’ll go to her coworker. She’ll sit in his chair and she’ll ask him, “What stories have you got?” She’ll take the sandwich off his desk, and she’ll take the biggest bite. She’ll take the pen off his desk, click it on and then off and back on. She’ll do it until his spreadsheet is closed and his chair is turned her way. She thinks back on her brother, whirlybird seeds on her head, the nest falling down, her mother sending her through the circle of aunts to kiss them on their cheeks. Click on, click off, and beat after beat, she’ll see what he has to give.
Nicole VanderLinden’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review—where Lauren Groff selected her story as the winner of the 2020 NOR Fiction Prize—Shenandoah, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.