The Really Big Heart
Me and Kyoko drive to Rochester and check into a hotel behind a diner. Dangling above the bathtub we find a human heart the size of a person. Slick with a shimmering, oily liquid, and beating with an irregular, staccato rhythm, the heart connects to a network of thick arteries that worm into the ceiling like electrical wires.
Kyoko looks at me and nods. She steps forward and rests her palm on the giant muscle. Accelerating its beat into a frantic sprint, the heart swings on the ropes of its arteries and thumps against the walls of the shower. Plaster crackles overhead. Shimmery liquid rains from the ceiling. Fat droplets patter against the top of my head.
Soaked from head to toe, Kyoko strips off her clothes and steps into the bathtub. She slips into the silvery liquid and stares at the dangling heart. She leans her head back and opens her mouth. She closes her eyes and waves at me to follow. Dropping my oily clothes on the floor, I join her in the tub and close the curtain behind me.
Shadows Inside the Sun
Me and Kyoko wake up in a bathtub in the middle of a desert. On our left, the wasteland stretches on forever. To our right, a sand-scoured skyscraper cleaves the wavy heat of the landscape. Built in the Soviet style of architecture, the building is a brutalist puzzle box of knife-slash window slits and reinforced concrete.
Me and Kyoko climb out of the bathtub. We look down at our bare bodies. We dash across the burning sand until we reach the cool blade of the building’s shadow. There we find a middle aged man sitting cross-legged in front of the entrance to the abandoned skyscraper.
The man wears a black cowboy hat and stonewashed blue jeans. An acoustic guitar rests on his lap. A black leather vest hugs his gaunt, sunbaked midsection. When the man sees us standing before him lost and unclothed, he begins plunking a simple melody using the F# pentatonic scale.
Covering myself with my hands, I turn to Kyoko. She looks at me, shakes her head, and steps forward, defiant in her nakedness. The man’s melody meanders along. The rusty strings of his guitar ring out with surprising brightness and clarity. The man stares at us and takes a deep breath. Kyoko rests her hands on her hips and stares back at him.
“I’m sorry, but could you move please?” she says.
Instead of answering, the man begins to sing in a reedy baritone.
There are shadows inside the sun
And stones stuck in our eyes
Our names decay like flesh
But time can never die
The man repeats these lines three times. With each refrain, his voice grows louder. More grizzled. Kyoko stares at him with a confused expression and waves her hands over her head.
“Hello! Can you please—”
The man ignores her and bellows the song at full volume.
Kyoko scoffs and shakes her head.
“Fuck this,” she says, and starts walking around the man to try to find a way into the building.
The man refuses to move. A pair of buzzards circle overhead. Kyoko wrenches the guitar from the man’s grip and tosses it into the sand.
The moment the guitar clangs against the ground, the man cries out in anguish and scrabbles through the dust to retrieve it.
“Why can’t you just leave me in peace!” the man yells, hugging the guitar to his chest. Moments later he rests the instrument on his lap and begins fingerpicking a new melody, this one vastly more complex than the first. Looking down at his guitar, the man begins to weep. “This is all I have left. Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?”
Kyoko looks at me and then down at the man.
“I’m sorry for getting angry,” Kyoko says. “We’ll leave you alone if you want. But are you sure you’re going to be safe out here by yourself? Don’t you want to come inside?”
The man shakes his head. He plays his guitar. He continues to weep.
“Just leave me alone,” he says.
“Okay,” Kyoko says, her voice softening into a whisper. She looks at me and gestures with her chin toward the front door of the skyscraper.
I nod and follow Kyoko into the abandoned building. I pass through the dark doorway. I look back and watch as the man sits outside, staring across the ruined landscape, swaying to the rhythm of his desolate song.
Me and Kyoko climb the massive staircase of the abandoned building, the grim reaper floating close behind. His yellow robe shimmers like sunlight glinting off still water. His cold breath curls around our necks like an arctic gust. Miniature sickles twirl from his baggy sleeves and slice apart the air in our wake.
Every twenty-two steps, we pass a pair of needle-thin windows. Outside, we see nothing but clouds and sky. Outside, the world is bathed in a pulsing red glow.
The red glow is a very ominous glow. But things have not always been this way. This glow was a gradual development. It happened over a period of time.
Looking to my left, I study Kyoko’s profile. After a while, I ask: how long have we been climbing this tower? When did we last smell the earth?
Too long, she says, flashing a quick smile.
She brushes a scythe of hair from her eyes. She rests a hand on my cheek. She redirects my gaze to the stairs ahead. Tripping, in this situation, would be bad.
Behind: the grim reaper exhales a frosty sigh. Behind: millions of tiny grim reapers fly from the void of his yellow hood.
The tiny grim reapers swarm around us like angry bees. Their multi-colored robes glimmer like polished gems in the strange light of the tower. The bony nuggets of their bodies burst upon contact with our skin.
Me and Kyoko break into a run and take the steps two at a time. My bare feet smack against the smooth granite of the stone staircase. My breath hisses with each shallow gasp of air. My legs burn cold with each skyward lunge of my stride.
Despite all this, we keep going. We run on. We run and run and run. We run until our skeletons scream. We run until we breathe the clouds. We run until we taste the moon. We run until our eyes turn to milk and there are no more stairs left to climb.
Steve Gergley is the author of the short story collection, A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (LEFTOVER Books ’22), and the forthcoming novel, Skyscraper (West Vine Press ’23). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, X‑R-A‑Y Literary Magazine, Barren Magazine, New World Writing, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/