Jack Harrell

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Hearts Fail

“Men’s hearts failing them for fear…”
—Luke 21:26

You wake in the morning, feeling a weight that touches your skin but not the blankets, not the pajama pants or tee-shirt you’re wearing. Light comes in through the curtained window but the room seems dim. You hear your wife breathing beside you. The weight makes it hard to turn and see. Her eyes are open but she doesn’t move. She doesn’t speak. She stares at the ceiling, at nothing. The room is the same as always—your grandmother’s armoire, its doors closed; the open closet door and the clothes hanging there; the clutter of books and papers on her nightstand by the lamp. You push against the weight to turn and check the time on your phone. It’s 10:34 AM. You went to bed at ten last night—you don’t know how you could have slept in so long.

You find it difficult to speak. But you manage to say “It’s past ten” to your wife.

She doesn’t move. After a long moment, she simply says, “Oh.”

You haven’t slept past 6:00 AM in years. Every morning you’ve gotten up for work, going to the same job. “I should be at work,” you say. But you don’t move. “I should get up.”

“Why?” your wife asks. Finally, she turns to you, slowly, as though her neck is stiff.

You look up at the ceiling. You can’t think of an answer. Minutes pass—hours, perhaps. You can’t think of anything but the weight pushing on your skin from the inside.

“What’s happening?” your wife asks.

This surprises you. You’d forgotten she was there. “I feel heavy,” you say. “I feel empty.”

Then she asks, her tone suddenly changed, “Where’s Megan?”

You remember your daughter. The thought of her comes distantly, like something you read in a book long ago. Megan is seventeen, your only child, and you love her. Her room is down the hall. She always gets up early, as early as you do, every morning. She has dance and clarinet and yearbook this year. In her Anat. and Phys. class, just a week ago, she and her lab partner, Christian, dissected a baby pig. This all comes to you at once.

“Did she go to school?” your wife asks.

“What time is it?” you ask.

Your wife turns toward you and lifts the phone still in your hand. “It’s 11:30,” she says. Then she says, “I need to find Megan.” Getting up, she makes sounds like someone lifting heavy weights. She walks slowly out of the room, wrapping a robe around her. She calls out, “Megan?”

After a long time, she comes back. Her eyes are wide as though she might be screaming, but she doesn’t make a sound. She stops in the middle of the room. “Megan’s not here,” she says. Then she says, “The front door is open.”

Somehow you rise from the bed, like a man pushing boulders off his chest. You walk with your wife to the front door, which stands wide open. Outside it’s an ordinary spring day, oddly calm and quiet. There are no cars, no sounds of people moving or doing.

Your wife’s Toyota and Megan’s Honda Civic sit in the driveway, under the carport. Megan’s car door is open. She sits at the wheel, the car engine not running. Her hands hang loosely on the steering wheel. “There she is,” your wife says. Her voice sounds like it comes from a distance.

The two of you go to Megan. Her hair is down and uncombed. She wears no makeup. This is not like her.

“Megan, honey,” your wife says, kneeling in the gap of the open car door. They embrace tiredly, burying their faces in each other’s shoulders. You stand near them and put a heavy hand on your wife’s shoulder.

“Everything is heavy,” Megan says. “I got dressed. That’s all I could do.”

Across the street you see a man lying in the grass at the park. He lays on one side, knees pulled up, arms folded over his chest like a hurt child. Over in the Hudson’s driveway Mr. Hudson, a teacher at the middle school, is sitting in his car, just like Megan, sitting with the car not running.

You go to the sidewalk and see someone walking down the middle of the street, a young man moving like someone sleepwalking. You recognize his face but don’t remember his name. You lift your arm, call out weakly, “What’s happening?”

He stops walking and looks at you blankly. “Does it matter?” he asks.

You return to your wife and Megan and see that your daughter is crying, sobbing slowly into your wife’s shoulder. “I’m trying,” she is saying. “I’m trying so hard.”

You walk past them, toward the house, which doesn’t seem to be the same color as you remember it. At the open front door, you hear a car and you turn, your hand just touching the doorframe. The car moves very slowly, swerving lazily into a tree, bringing its slow movement to a sudden halt. The driver gets out of the car, a middle-aged, red-haired woman wearing a green nightgown and no shoes, her hair a mess. She hobbles away slowly, the car door ajar. Your wife and daughter don’t move, don’t speak. You turn without a word and walk into the house.

You make it to the bedroom and find the TV remote. You switch through the channels. One plays a black-and-white Western, one is fuzzy with snow, another plays a 1980s sitcom. You turn to a news channel. What you see there doesn’t surprise you, though you’ve seen nothing like it before. The familiar newsroom is there on the screen, though the camera shot sits at an odd angle, showing television equipment that should be off camera. Two people sit at the anchor desk—a woman and a man. The woman sits in her smart anchorwoman blouse, but a lock of hair has fallen out of place. Someone walks listlessly between her and the camera. The man beside her is looking at someone off camera, his expression resigned. “I don’t know why it matters,” the off-camera voice says. “Why does any of it matter?” The woman puts her hands to her face and starts to softly weep.

You drop the remote, find your car keys, and walk outside. You feel you can barely move, as though the air itself is thick. Your wife is standing under the carport now, simply standing there. Megan isn’t with her. “Where’s Megan?” you ask.

“She started walking. She said she had to try.”

You take your wife’s hand and bring her toward the car with you. She doesn’t resist. You get her into the car. You are pushing to do all of this, pushing against some kind of weight on your skin, some kind of weight in your mind, in your soul. Before you get in the driver’s side of the car you notice the silence—no birds chirping, no squirrels moving in the trees, no insects buzzing. The world seems the same as always, only dimmer, a delicate amalgam of stillness and horror.

You begin to drive. You find it hard to make the car go faster. You look at your own foot on the gas pedal, wondering if there’s some obstruction, but everything about the mechanism seems normal.

“Where are we going?” your wife asks, speaking as if she’s not really interested in the answer.

You don’t respond. You drive toward 17th Street, the main thoroughfare through your part of town. You swerve around cars parked in the middle of the street, some unoccupied, others with their drivers inside, sitting and staring vacantly. You turn onto 17th and see an old man slowly crossing the street ahead of you. He’s in dark sweats, a white tee-shirt, walking oddly, wearing one unlaced dress shoe with the other foot bare. He isn’t watching where he’s going. Right before you pass him, an oncoming car approaches at just a few miles an hour. Not suddenly at all, the car hits the man and knocks him to the pavement. You swerve to avoid hitting him with your own car, barely missing him. The other car keeps moving, creeping so slowly. You look at your wife, afraid she might have seen it. But she’s staring blankly, dazed. In your rearview mirror you see the man roll over on the pavement, sit up, and put his hands to his head. You don’t stop for him. You’re too afraid that if you stop you might not be able to move again.

You pass the bank, where a woman is digging through her purse. Things spill from her purse—receipts, cash, credit cards, some tossed on the wind—but she keeps digging.

Your wife says your name, as though it’s a question.

“I turned on the TV,” you say. “Whatever it is, it’s everywhere.”

“All these years of living?” she says. “We kept going? We kept working and caring . . . but why? Didn’t we know it would all end?”

Before this day you got up every morning, worked hard all day and came home, exhausted, just to go through it all over again. A certain part of you always knew the futility of it—that everything you worked for would turn to dust someday, evaporate into nothing. But somehow you went on, until now. Everyone did, until now.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “Why did we do it?”

You hear something on the car radio, a voice. You turn up the volume. “Haven’t we always known it,” a sullen voice says. “Waking up, doing things, making things, not even for ourselves most of the time? Waking up and smiling because someone counted on us?” After a long pause the voice simply said, “Why?”

You push against the weight inside. It tells you to let go of the steering wheel. It tells you to lift your foot from the accelerator, let the car drift to the curb and stop forever. But you push. You grip the wheel, push on the gas pedal. You push harder and harder, wanting to give up. Then you feel it. Something changes, like pushing through a wall. The car goes faster, and the movement, the speed, begins to lift the weight inside. You push the gas pedal and go faster. The weight feels lighter. Faster still and you feel the will once more, the notion that there might come another day, a kind of living that is different than this, this dead weight of emptiness.

Of course, you know the car will run out of gas, eventually. And you don’t know what you’ll do then. But you push against the weight, mash the accelerator down. The car is moving even faster now.

At the edge of town, a woman walks toward your moving car. You swerve and barely graze her. Your wife is able to scream. In the rearview mirror you see the woman spinning to the ground. But you don’t slow down. You keep going because you have to. You’re on the edge of town now, driving 30, 40, 50 miles per hour. The faster you go the more you feel again what it was like to get up and move, to want something, even just a drink of water.

You turn to your wife, who’s not looking up at the road but staring at the floorboard of the car. You see her reach for the door handle. She pulls on the handle and leans her weight against the door, but you grab her. The pressure of the car moving 50 mph down the highway keeps the door from opening easily. You shout her name and shake her, startling her. “Look,” you shout, “look at the road.”

You know it now, that you will keep living, and how. You smash the gas pedal to the floorboard and this time it’s easy. With your hand on your wife’s shoulder, you shake her roughly. Her head moves loosely on her neck like a rag doll’s. “Look at it,” you’re shouting. “Look at the road. Look at the world going by.”

Some kind of recognition comes into her eyes, a startled look of awakening. “Where’s Megan?” she shouts, nearly crying.

You have to keep moving. Up ahead is a crossroads, a turn lane, a widening of pavement on both sides.

“We need to find Megan,” your wife says, and you know you can do this. You can start living with this one thing to drive you.

You lean forward in your seat, slam the brakes, twist the steering wheel. The squealing of the tires and your wife’s screams blend. They keep you wanting this one thing, the first thing you’ve wanted all day—to find your daughter, save your daughter.

You don’t know how many times the car spins. It comes to a halt and the dust begins to clear. The smell of burned rubber rises from the tires skidding on the pavement. You feel the weight descending on your skin, in your gut and soul. The car’s engine has died and the only sound comes from the radio, the voices. “I do want something,” one of the voices says. “I want to know where my mom is.” A man gets out of a car parked on the road nearby. He walks toward you and you roll down the window. “My friend, Jeff?” he says, leaning into your window. “Where’s Jeff?” he asks and turns away. In the distance you hear someone calling the name “Jeanne,” over and over. People are calling for each other, you realize. But even as you sit, the weight grows stronger. You could give yourself over to it so easily.

But you don’t. You won’t. You start the car and crush the accelerator to the floor. Your wife begins to groan. “No, no, Megan,” she says and begins to cry.

“Look at the road!” you shout as the car accelerates once more—10, 20, 30, 40 mile per hour. You shake her again. “Look!”

She sits up. She wipes away tears and looks at the road.

“We’ll find Megan!” you say.

“Yes, yes,” she repeats. “Yes, okay.”

“You want her?” you shout. “You want Megan?”

“Yes,” she says. “Go.”

You feel the lightness grow, like the sun rising.

“I feel it now,” she says. “Faster.”

You drive as fast as you can, toward home, to find your precious daughter. And to live.

Jack Harrell has been a fiction writer and essayist for twenty years. His second novel, Caldera Ridge, was published by Signature Books in 2018. He has also published a book of essays and a book of short stories, both with small presses in Utah. He teaches writing at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Photo credit: “10 chairs” by Bob May, via Flickr.com.

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