Though Your Heart is Breaking
For J. Danielle Dorn, whose bravery in sharing their own story gave me the courage to share mine.
Sarah stared down at the blood, dried and crusted on her hands. It had woven itself into the smallest creases of her palms, and she had a memory, fleeting, of how they’d looked when the blood was fresh. Like shiny leather gloves, elbow length. The kind of thing she might have worn to prom, back when she’d been young.
Now the blood had faded, cracked. Was peeling and flaking away whenever she moved, and she could tell it was driving the officer crazy, the one who was standing in the corner, watching her. Babysitting until the grown-ups returned, with more questions Sarah didn’t know how to answer. The strongest images in her mind were of her blood gloved hands, and snatches of a song, one she couldn’t quite name.
She turned her hands over and stared at the teeth marks, embedded deep in all four fingers of each hand. She frowned at them, still trying to discern what they meant. Because the odd thing was, the marks were only in the inside of her hands. Nothing marred the flesh of the outside, except dried blood.
Helena stared at the body, one hand cupping the other elbow, her free palm across her mouth. Dark eyebrows bunched; lips tight. Thinking.
“That is, hands down, the grossest thing I’ve ever seen.”
She glanced at Max, but he didn’t look like he was going to toss his cookies. He was bent close to the dead man’s neck, trying to get a visual on the inside of the throat. He’d thought there might be something in there, Silence of the Lambs style. It wasn’t a bad thought, and Helena marked another point in the invisible scorebook she kept for all new partners.
“It reminds me of something,” she said, walking another slow circle around the kitchen chair where the dead man slumped.
Max straightened, shook his head. “No way. Nothing like this has ever come across. I’d know – I’d remember something like that.”
Max was young, early thirties, and the newest detective on Helena’s squad, but he’d spent years studying and organizing the evidence archives, looking at all the open, and closed, cases that had passed through over the years.
She shook her head. “I don’t think it was a case…something else. I can’t quite…”
Taylor Eckles snapped another photo, standing on a step stool and aiming down into the exposed airway. “Looks almost like a weird kinda fuckin’ muppet, the way his face is spread like that.”
Max shot her a look, but Helena snapped her fingers.
“Betelgeuse. That’s what it reminds me of.”
Max moved to her shoulder, craned his head. “That old movie with the crazy Baldwin dude? I don’t see it.”
“It was one of the scenes after they cross to the other side, when they’re trying to scare the family. Geena Davis’s head’s all stretched out, her eyes are in her mouth? That’s kinda what this looks like.”
Max frowned, fished his phone out and a short search later was giving her a hesitant hand waggle. “I guess so. The way the teeth are, maybe.”
The victim, thirty-seven-year-old Brock Kirkland, had his upper and lower jaw broken. They’d been snapped back so far, it was like someone had crammed their hands down his throat and pulled in opposite directions. The result was a head broken nearly in half, starting at the guy’s mouth. The halves lay open, teeth exposed on either side and a direct view down the guy’s gullet. Torn skin hung in flaps where his cheeks had once been. Helena thought she could even make out the flaccid remains of a dimple, before deciding she should probably stop looking at it.
“Ready to head back?” asked Max when she turned her back on the corpse. There was more than a little relief in his voice.
She sighed. “I guess. I still don’t think it was her.”
He scrunched his mouth to one side. “You just don’t want it to be her.”
“C’mon, Maxie, you see that little thing having the upper body strength to rip that guy’s face in half?”
He shrugged. “Maybe she used something, an instrument of some kind. She could’ve -”
Helena scowled. “Who the fuck is humming that song? It’s driving me crazy.”
Max raised an eyebrow. “I don’t hear anything. What song is it?”
She listened, but it was gone. “Fuck if I know. Something old, I think.” She raised a finger. “Refrain from making the obvious jokes, please.”
Max sniffed. “I never make obvious jokes. Can we go back now?”
Helena tossed her gloves and booties into the waiting evidence bag. “Yeah. I’ve got more questions.”
Helena grabbed a bottled water and a couple pieces of dark chocolate from the stash at her desk. She tapped on the door and Randy Bellows, the cop she’d put on babysitting duty, squeezed past her on his way out the door. She glowered and stood her ground.
“Sorry, ma’am. Close quarters.” He grinned down at her, and she crossed her arms, shoved into his space.
“I don’t give a fuck how close the quarters are. You brush my tits like that again, you’re gonna lose a hand.”
“Sorry, ma’am.” He wasn’t, and didn’t care if she knew it. He would before too long.
Bellows leaned against the wall instead of fucking off like he should have. “That’s an odd bird in there.”
She didn’t ask him to elaborate. Usually, she appreciated observations from her team, but Randy Bellows wasn’t on her team, he just wanted to be.
He didn’t take the hint, looking back over his shoulder through the one-way glass. “I still can’t picture how she overpowered him, a big guy like that.” He waited, but when she didn’t answer, he finally pushed off the wall. “Anyway, hope you got some more insight on your little field trip and didn’t just go for Chinese.” He smirked, clapped Max on the shoulder, and kept walking.
Max watching dispassionately. “I’m sure he thinks that’s hilarious.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“Do you think he knows I’m Korean, and he’s trying to be a prick, or does he actually think all Asians come from China?”
“I’m not in his head, Max. Thank Christ. You coming?”
He shuffled into the room behind her, and Helena sat across from the blood-covered woman. She opened the bottle of water and pushed it across the table, then followed it up with the chocolate.
Sarah stared down at the foil-wrapped pieces and smiled. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. You want to wash your hands first?”
The other woman shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m trying to…remember.” She held her hands out in front of her, frowning at them.
Helena sat back, avoided Max’s eyes. “You don’t remember what happened?”
“Not…exactly, no. I saw the body, though. I know what it looks like.” She raised her hands. “What this looks like.”
Helena nodded. “So, you understand why you’re here, then.”
Sarah smiled again, a small amount of color returning to her pallid face. “I do.”
“So why don’t you start with how you knew the victim?”
She frowned; eyebrows drawn down. “I don’t know who – oh. You mean him.”
“Right. Brock Kirkland. How’d you know him?”
Sarah shook her head. “Oh, I didn’t. Not at all.”
Helena frowned. “Then how did he come to be in your home?”
The woman’s eyes slid to the side; her lips parted. “I…well, I believe I asked him in.”
Helena’s eyes flicked to Max’s face, but he was frowning, concentrating on Sarah. No smirk or judgment. Good. Give the kid another invisible star.
“And did you ask him in for…romantic purposes?”
Sarah laughed. “Sex, you mean? No, I didn’t, but it may have been what he thought.”
Helena leaned forward. “Was he coming on to you? A sexual assault?”
Max coughed – leading, she knew she was doing it. But she wanted to understand. And yeah, she wanted the circumstances to be mitigating. There was something calm, and a little broken about the woman sitting in front of her. But there was also something strong and shining, that Helena felt herself responding to.
The other woman shook her head, looked into her lap. “It wasn’t like that.”
Helena had never been good at waiting, but she tried, giving the suspect space. Finally, Sarah lifted her head.
“Do you remember, Detective, the absolute worst time someone told you to smile?”
Her breath caught in her chest. She did, actually, with vivid clarity. She didn’t need to look at Max to know he was confused, but it wasn’t a thing men dealt with.
The woman was waiting for a response.
“I do,” she said, and left it at that. It wasn’t a memory she wanted to recount. Standing in line at a Dollar General, a pack of maxi pads in one hand. Feeling the hope sliding down her leg, for the baby she’d wanted for so long. Nine days late, she’d been, after three years of trying. It wasn’t enough. She’d barely been holding herself together, then she heard the man behind her in line, in a loud whisper to his girlfriend.
“Would it kill her to smile? Jesus, like I want to look at a face like that.”
If she hadn’t been so hollow inside, Helena might have socked him. Punched him in the dick and asked him why he wasn’t smiling through the pain. But the hurt of the other was too near, too heavy, so she’d just paid for her pads and gone home to cry.
She didn’t say any of that here, now, because the grief of that time in her life was still too close, even a decade later. There’d never been a baby, and now there never would be. But even though she didn’t say it, she felt like Sarah read it on her. The other woman reached out with her blood-covered hand before stopping herself.
“I can see you do. I can, too. A lot of us do. You want to hear mine?”
Sarah turned to watch her own reflection in the glass. “I was leaving my doctor’s office. I was twenty-two, and I’d just gone to be tested for STDs, after being sexually assaulted.”
Max made a sharp movement in his forgotten corner, but neither of the women looked at him.
“I was clean, but they told me I’d have to wait and be retested for HIV. I’d locked my keys in my car, and had to call Pop a lock. The guy, when he showed up, was all smiles and flirting. It was like he had no idea where we were. And it was all I could do to respond, to even hear him when he spoke. I was dying on the inside, and he didn’t even notice. Then when he was leaving, he told me to smile.” Her bloody hands clenched together on the tabletop and Helena watched flakes crunch up and drift away.
“That’s fucked up,” said Max.
Sarah turned to look at him, offered another smile. “It really is, isn’t it?”
“Was that him? Tonight, the guy? Was he the one that told you that? Is that why?”
Helena sat forward, frowned at him.
“No,” said Sarah, turning to face forward again. “No, that was decades ago. I still remember, though.”
“So, what, then?” asked Helena. “What’s the connection?”
Sarah shrugged. “The connection is simple. He said it to me, tonight. I was walking home from the bus stop. It was cold, and I’ve been sick for a week. I was thinking about all the papers I had to grade, and the fact that I’ll have to move my mom into assisted living soon. She’s going to fight me on it, and I don’t blame her. He was leaving a convenience store, the one on the corner of Vine and Market?”
Helena nodded. She knew the one.
“And he just glanced at me, and told me to smile, it wasn’t that bad.” Her pale face scrunched up. “But it was. You know? It was.”
“Yeah,” Helena replied, her voice soft.
“So, I asked him to step up to my place. It was close, less than a block. I’m sure he thought he was about to get lucky, so he did. And then, when we got inside, I just…” Her voice faded; she dropped her gaze to her lap again.
Helena cleared her throat. “How?”
Sarah’s brow wrinkled. “That’s what I’ve been trying to remember. I’ve been looking at my hands and thinking of ways I must have done it. But…I can’t see it.”
“What do you see?”
Sarah looked up, past Helena to the room’s stark ceiling. “What is that? What’s that song? I keep thinking I remember the name, the lyrics, but every time I try…”
“Sarah. What do you see?”
Her gaze found Helena’s again. “I don’t see anything. That’s the trouble. It’s what I hear. Like the psychic scream of every woman who’s been told to smile through the pain. Not because it’ll make things better for her, you know? But so her face doesn’t bother the people around her.”
Helena frowned, watching her. Because for a moment it was as though she heard that scream as well. Not here, not now, but ten years ago, feeling hope slide out of her in thick, dark gouts.
She stood, pushed away from the table. “We’ll be back. Sit tight.”
Sarah didn’t seem to notice, staring at the ceiling again.
Max followed her out, and to the break room for coffee. He poured hers black, into the mug she liked. She went to the window, looked out into the night, smeared by too bright lights.
He moved to her shoulder, but not too close. Max was good with space bubbles.
“Pretty fucked up,” he said.
“All of it. What that guy said to her, back then. Right after…you know. And then tonight…” he cleared his throat. “Do you think it’s…I mean, is it always that bad? Like, enough to kill for?”
Helena thought about it. Seeing her own reflection transposed across the dark, dirty night. “No. Most of the time it isn’t. It’s annoying and condescending. Like the guy telling me to smile while I’m working out. Fuck off, right? I’m benching 160, so spot me or move on. But sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s the last thing you need, and it’s piled on top of a whole lot of other psychic baggage. The way our bodies are seen as out there for public consumption, commentary. Right down to the expression on our faces.”
Max sipped his coffee. “I never thought about it that way. I always thought it was a douchey thing to do, but think of saying that to somebody on the worst day of their lives.”
“Yeah.” She frowned, tilted her head. “Tell me you hear that.”
Max looked around. “The humming? Yeah, I think it’s her.” He jerked his head in the direction of Interview One, only a wall away from where they stood.
“You know the song?”
He frowned. “No, I can’t quite…but it does seem familiar.” He snapped his fingers.
“This turning into Westside Story?” snarked Bellows, edging in to get to the coffee. They both ignored him.
Phones began to ring, all over the station. Dispatch lit up with a hundred calls, but Helena was hearing something else. A cry, of a hundred thousand voices at once. She winced, dropped her coffee, and slapped her hands to her head as the scream shivved into her frontal lobe. She saw a thousand faces, unsmiling, unhappy, hurting. Felt their hearts breaking as one.
Max was at her shoulder, saying something, asking what was wrong.
Bellows leaned against the table. “Smile, boss. It’s not that bad.”
The scream stopped. The pain went with it, but then another scream started. This one from deep in Bellows’ throat. Helena watched, fascinated, as his eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth stretching impossibly wide. The skin strained, pulled tight. A nauseating crack as both jaws broke at once, and the man’s face split from his lips back to his ears. The top of his head flipped open, like a mangled Venus flytrap. His scream tapered off into a gargle, then even that went silent as he slid to the floor.
“Jesus,” said Max, retching beside her. “Jesus, what the fuck -”
The phones were still ringing. Screams in the street below, but above it all, Helena could hear singing. Maybe it was Sarah, or maybe it was only in her head, but it was a relief to recognize the song at last.
She looked into Bellows’ esophagus, spurting blood, and wondered if he was finding life worthwhile.
This story came about as a result of a thread started by Gemma Amor, on which many members of our community shared their thoughts. This is for them, and for all of us. Much love to our community – may we continue to inspire and lift each other up.
© 2020 Laurel Hightower
Read “Until I Think You Meant It,” the poem by Shane D. Keene that was inspired by this beautiful, terrifying story.
About the author: Laurel Hightower grew up in Kentucky, attending college in California and Tennessee before returning home to horse country, where she lives with her husband, son and two rescue animals. She works as a paralegal in a mid-size firm, wrangling litigators by day and writing at night. A bourbon and beer girl, she’s a fan of horror movies and true life ghost stories, and is one third of the Ink Heist podcast team. She is the author of one previous novel, Whispers in the Dark, and has several pieces of short fiction slated for publication in various upcoming anthologies.