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There's blood in the sink. She coughs again, and now there's a tiny brass gear. I hold her hair back, remembering ill-spent Friday nights.
"It's a secret," she says. Her lips and tongue are red. "It has to be."
She cleans the gear and folds it away into a white silk handkerchief with a dozen others: wheels, escapements, silver springs. Her dry cough has been punctuating our silences for months now. I ask how she hid the blood from me.
"Easily," she says.
This time it's a fine chain still engaged with a single sprocket. I call it proof that all the pieces fit together, that she's making something. I clean her face, tell her the pain will subside like it always does, tell her the fit is good news.
"It means this will stop," I say. "There can only be so many pieces."
She snatches away the towel, wipes the red smear from her mouth. "A 747 has six million parts," she mutters.
"That's not what this is."
"No. No, isn't."
And she tells me the first lie, a story about how her father bequeathed her a gold watch, which she discarded in a fit of pique, heedless of the strange stories surrounding its past. When I point out that she hasn't had a fit of pique in her life, that real people never have fits of pique, she laughs. "How do you know?"
Whenever she's out, I try to put the pieces together. Gears mate to axles, axles to armatures. I measure the empty spaces by eye, imagining the largest possible missing piece. It's a fool's errand; there's no way to know whether someday she'll find herself choking to death on some bit of brass or gold too large for a human throat. She's taken to dark jokes about watchmakers lately, though it's plain the clockwork engine is no watch.
Once, I find her in the kitchen with a carving knife and a contemplative expression. "Don't worry," she says, sliding the knife back into the block. "I already know I'd find nothing inside. That might be the whole joke."
And she tells me a story about falling in love with a clockwork man, how she had thought for so long that he would be enough, how she had never considered that the essential hollowness of such a being might be contagious.
I cut my palm and bleed for her, unsure of what I'm trying to prove.
She smiles. "That reminds me--the car's leaking antifreeze again. I can fix the hose, but we need kitty litter for the spill."
We make love for the first time in weeks. Afterward, she rushes to the bathroom and vomits behind a locked door. I take the clockworks from her dresser, meaning to smash or scatter them. Doubt intervenes. There's perfection here, a silent turning, a suggestion of intelligences alien and dispassionate but not without humor. I've puzzled out the interlacing of the armatures. They describe an organic shape, vaguely feminine, tapered, just larger than my closed fist.
When she emerges, pale and shaking, she presses a mainspring down into the silk and closes my hands around it. She says, "Did I ever tell you about the old gypsy woman I offended?"
"No wonder. You're supposed to call them the Romani. It's the preferred term."
"I never could keep with the times."
Then the silence opens again. I sleep on the couch, or try to. I hear her coughing all night and find a fine mist of blood on the pillow in the morning.
I tell myself it's inevitable, that there's an organic process of separation. She's been pushing me away. When I try to talk her about it, she just says, "Rejection is my defining characteristic," and walks away.
In the end, it's a coworker from sales. The coupling is passionless, a half-drunken tryst at a conference on the far side of the country. I don't feel guilt afterward. I don't feel much of anything. I'm surprised that Sales stays the night, but she does, drawing my head down to her breast. It's a sleepless night, wrapped in imperfect dark and the scent of her, all warmth and sweat-slicked softness.
Sometime around midnight, I realize I can hear ticking.
Even with a cheap stethoscope, I can hear the faint mechanical sounds beneath my own pulse. The temptation is to rush out into the street, to go from chest to chest, listening. But I already know what I would hear.
She's traded the silk handkerchief for a Tupperware container. The latest additions include slender tubes of mesh and gold irises meant to constrict or dilate with the turn of a cog. So I buy a set of jeweler's tools and go to work, drawing into being what already hovers in my mind.
She comes home and watches for a while, expressionless. Then: "You had no right."
The mechanical heart is half-finished. I resettle my glasses and try to ignore her. She sits down across from me.
"It's mad anyway. What rewinds the mainspring?"
The heart is a skeletal thing, clearly meant to surround an existing mass of veins and arteries. Even the chamber walls would have to be of the body's own making. I don't expect to find an answer to her question.
By nightfall, the heart is almost finished. It's missing a few pieces. Just a few. "It's almost over," I say.
She reaches out, touches the shining engine her body has rejected. She turns a gear, and valves flick open and shut. "I'm being left behind," she murmurs.
"Not so far behind." I pull her hand to my chest. "You can hardly hear the difference."
"It's beautiful."
I wish I could disagree. The device is the finest thing I've ever seen, the first sight to make me believe a human being is a little world made cunningly, or could be. I see a future in which a slender golden key juts from each chest, there for the turning as long as life remains unwearisome.
"Yes," I say at last. "It is."
"I guess it didn't fit." A slight tilt of the head. "I wonder what happens to the originals?"
The heart is finished. She watches it sometimes. We've made it through, or I tell myself we've made it through. The pain is over, and if she envies the faint, secret smiles traded among the rest of humanity, she gives no sign. We take care that no one discovers her deficiency because there's no way to predict the response.
I suffer a lingering disquiet. The gift is never spoken of as such, though the medical schools are making their own quiet adjustments to curricula. Accidents happen, and murders, and a thousand diseases, and the intimations of immortality and supervening benevolence remain only suggestions. Almost everyone has seen one of the hearts. Everyone has heard one. Overall, I think people are improved by the experience.
And yet, perhaps because of my marriage to someone left behind, I doubt. There are no words for it, no reasons. Perhaps there are no reasons for anything anymore.
We continue together in the fiction that nothing has happened, meeting and parting at breakfast with forced cordiality. I cannot escape the impression that she's waiting for something. When she turns the gears of her heart, she frowns, then catches my eye and winks.
It doesn't frighten me. Not exactly.
It's early April when she starts bleeding from her nose and eyes. This time, she calls me to the bathroom immediately. She's laughing, laughing mad, bent over white porcelain flecked in red.
It's a convex glass lens. I know without measuring that it is sized precisely for the human eye.
"Are you looking forward to it?" she asks, gasping. "Are you looking forward to being perfect?"
And now I can confess to being afraid.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 30th, 2018

Author Comments

Andrew James Dykstal is a federal proposal writer by day and fiction author by night, weekend, and lunch break. When not writing, he's reading strange books in stranger locations, wandering the wineries and wilds of Virginia, or trying to build something so spectacular in Kerbal Space Program that NASA will finally return his calls. In his youth, and long before the associated meme, he took an arrow to the knee.

- Andrew James Dykstal
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