Tomato Heart

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by Stephanie Parent

Katrina spent the evening of October 31st preparing for the Halloween party, just like every year.

She boiled two pots of water, one for the spaghetti, one for the grapes and lone tomato. While the spaghetti writhed like worms trying to escape the inferno, she dipped the strainer of grapes and that plump tomato, red as a newborn, into the boiling bubbles, and then straight into the bucket of ice water. A dual baptism that left the skins soft enough to slip off like children’s jackets on a sunny autumn afternoon. She sliced the corn kernels, tough and clinging to the cob—the bitter tail end of the crop once the nighttime frost had come. Gathered the yellow pearls into one bowl, the limp spaghetti in a second, the split-skinned fruit in a third and fourth.  

The spaghetti went at the head of the table, congealing like the coils of a brain; then the grapes, eyes blind to this world but capable,  Katrina imagined, of peering into other realms. The corn, the exact size of baby teeth left under a pillow—Katrina had measured a kernel between two delicate fingers. And then, finally, the heavy red heart, almost as big as her clenched fist closing around the corn kernel, crushing it to a pulp.

Thus the game was prepared, the body parts assembled like pieces of a puzzle, ready to be solved by eager little hands. As darkness fell, Katrina sat at the head of the table to await her guest’s arrival. She gripped the knobs of the chair, the wooden ridges like knucklebones, the way she had for so many years. This time, she was sure, Danny would appear.

Danny and his friends had loved this—the guess-the-body-part game. Katrina had stood in the corner smiling at their squirming fingers, their squeals and the eyes that opened though the rules said, Don’t peek. Children with warm bodies, their pulses fluttering in their necks. The dismemberment on the table was a future too far off for any of them to fear.

Danny had reached for the tomato heart first, every year.

As Katrina sat and remembered, the last rays of sun slipped away. She could barely see the glass bowls on the table, now. Danny’s friends would be at parties with different kinds of games, spin-the-bottle and truth-or-dare. All too old to creep to her doorstep and take a handful of the Kit-Kats she’d left in a bowl painted like a pumpkin, with only one porch light on.

Kit-Kats, Danny’s favorite—he liked how their name matched the crunch of the wafers between his little teeth.

Danny’s friends were gone, but Katrina didn’t want the neighbors to know she was home.

The minutes click-clacked by, slow as the night she’d let Danny go trick-or-treating by himself, at eleven years old. “No one’s parents are coming, Mom,” he’d whined in his Batman costume with the black cape, the shoulder pads that turned him into a little man. The determination in his eyes, nearly as dark as that cape; so dark that no one noticed when he slipped, another shadow, into the starless night.

No one noticed, until it was too late.

Now Katrina sat in the black, the same black that must have enveloped Danny, at the end, and watched over her offering. She waited, and wished, and waited, and wished, till her heart turned raw, another pulpy, skinless fruit, and still there was only the empty room, the clock ticking from the kitchen like it had that night years ago—

On the table, a rattle. The corn kernels, clicking together like something more solid than vegetables; like marbles, like severed teeth. Katrina’s heart gave one great, desperate beat.

Kit, Kat, the corn seemed to say.

Mark? Katrina nearly said aloud, the words trembling, trying to tumble out. It’s working, it’s finally working…

But Katrina’s husband was gone. Had been for years, now.

Yet Katrina remained, clinging to her ritual, the magic spells that had driven all the living humans in her life away, till she had only this hope of resurrection, and here, at last, she saw that the tomato heart was pulsing, beating, opening and closing like a fist.

“Danny?” This time, she said the right name. “Danny? It’s Mom.”

The corn clattered, the grapes shuddered, the spaghetti writhed; Katrina held her breath, and then, beyond the table, the curtains billowed like the folds of a little boy’s Batman cape.

Katrina stood and stepped toward those curtains, that cape. Behind her the vegetable offerings made squirming squishing sounds. “Danny?” she said. “I’m so sorry I let you go. I’m so sorry you were lost, and alone. I—”

Some writhing, clammy thing slapped the back of Katrina’s neck, and she gasped. Spaghetti tendrils, sliding forward, reaching for her clavicles. The bowl that had held them fell to the floor and split into shards. Katrina turned back toward the table, and the grapes volleyed at her like tiny cannonballs, till she had no choice but to shield her face. Then the corn kernels, BB gun pellets, the bowls all flying and crashing and shattering the way, years ago, Danny himself had done.

Only the red beating heart on the table remained.

And Katrina asked herself, as she had so many times: what would make a brave little boy, a superhero in the making, climb to the top of the tallest tree and watch his friends leave him behind? What would make him leap to the ground till his bones crumpled like glass? What had chased him that night? Had it been human, or animal, or something—

The curtain rose and wrapped around her shivering shoulders like a caress. “Please, Danny.” Katrina kept her voice to a whisper, afraid she might make the tomato heart pitch toward her too, and then all would be lost. “Please, if only I knew what happened—”

The fabric tightened, pinning her arms to her sides, looping her neck in a noose. “Danny?” she called. “Danny, I’m sorry, I—”

The word fled along with her breath; the world went black, the corn and grapes transformed into a sea of pulsing stars; only that tomato heart remained clear, tattooing in time with her spluttering heart.

“Not Danny,” she heard, as the fabric pulled like a wire across her throat. The words low and deep, like a grumble from a grown man’s throat.

What? she asked only in her mind.

“The one who came for him,” rattled through her brain, a voice scattered as corn kernels ripped from the cob.

For a moment, Katrina fell limp, into the invisible embrace of this tormentor; and then the fight kicked in.

“How dare you?” she tried to scream. “How dare you take my precious, perfect boy?”

The fabric cut Katrina’s neck like a knife, but with that desperation that comes only from having the heart of your life ripped out, she fought. She reached with fingers that had become claws, she tore the fabric with all her might.

Her throat freed, she gulped and gulped.

A roar came, around and inside Katrina, loud and throttling and freezing cold; the sound of some evil, hungry thing that had always existed and would always exist. Some thing she could not see with human eyes; some thing from another realm. She turned to the window, desperate to fling herself through the glass, to break herself and bleed—anything to escape that awful sound.

This was what Danny had felt.

“No,” Katrina screamed, “I won’t let you win.” And she knew, then, what she had to do.

She turned to the table, stepping toward that pulsing tomato heart. The cold, crying presence flung her to her knees; and so she crawled. She crawled and crawled against the crushing pressure, till she gripped the table legs, clutching the knobs like ankle bones. She tugged herself up and that force slammed her down, but she reached, she reached the way she wished she could have reached for Danny, on that Halloween long ago.

She grabbed the tomato, the throbbing thing that held all her love for Danny, and she flung it into space.

The red heart volleyed past the flying curtains, into the window, and it broke open and slid in a thousand bleeding particles down the glass. It broke Katrina open, too, every ounce of love and grief and anguish exploding inside her till she fell to her knees and sobbed. She let it fill her, that red, red loss that would color every cell of her body for the rest of her life, even when, one day, she would get up and march forward and allow herself to step into the light.

She would step into the light, because that dark, dark presence, the one who had stolen the love of her life, had fled.

It was only Katrina in the room now, and the pulpy remnants of an ordinary tomato, and a spark in her chest that felt like hope.

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