Vasant (Spring) 2021 Stories - Justine Johnston Hemmestad


My Beating Heart
By Justine Johnston Hemmestad


Though my wife was fifteen years younger than I, she tried to offer me the peace of a Spring day in her sympathetic gaze when she reassured me that she understood why I left our humble home each week to see to the welfare of an obscure old man on the other side of town. It was a menial job, for I needed the money and she innocently allowed me to play devil’s advocate in my own life; the stories that were conjured in my mind were equal to a witches’ brew, and the settings in which I found myself fostered my imagination.


My nature was one of darkness. However, money was a constant dreg upon my soul, for the time I had to fret over it when I could have been writing weighed me down like bricks secured to a body and thrown into the river. But I had to move forth despite the constant resistance of debt collectors, bolstering their reminders of my real life.


I braced my jaw and squared my shoulders when the carriage I was a passenger in came to a stop before the dark house that possessed withered arms in place of trees, and an imposing sneer in place of windows and a door. There were secrets that slithered from the house and nestled into the corners of my brain, though I had yet to confront them so that I may discover what their provocations were. My ultimate goal was to understand myself, for if there was ever a time to learn the impetus of my inspiration, the old man for whom I worked and the house he lived in presented it.


As Oedipus stood before his father and slew him, I now faced the same choice with the old man; I stood at the bottom of his staircase, wringing my hands. Taking a deep, concentrated breath, I gripped the polished railing and ruminated on how the old man knew too much about me, and especially worrisome, he knew about my wife. He learned by watching me, as I watched him.


The work had almost been worth it though, for my duties to him had afforded me much free time to compose poems, many of which breathed new life into literature. The critics and rivals may not know it, but I yielded credit to their careers. I gave them something to emulate. My writing was as ominous as my life, but that I could not help, for the words arose from my soul. I intended to write that way. No other method was available to me in which I could banish the daemons that haunted me. No other way could I reckon with what happened to Jane –


I could murder the old man in his sleep, for I could think of no other way to escape his judgment of me. Or I could meet his glare and unshakably ask him what he knew about her. I could uncover his motive for leering at me. Was it as sinister a reason as I thought, or could I have misunderstood him? All my disdain, over the past month, based upon a misunderstanding? It was possible, I admitted that.


So I relied on my life’s greatest pleasure, hoping that writing would serve as the detective of my own past, or even of his. There had to be a key that unlocked the truth, and my duty was to watch for the clues. I tilted my chin back, gained all my courage, and stepped through the entryway with a natural scuff of my shoe. Silence loomed in the house when I shut the door behind me, nary did a draft shutter the curtains. Straight away, I methodically took each step with great suspicion toward his room.


The old man lurked around me during the days even though he could not rise from his bed, and always stared at me beneath the tuft of gray hair that dangled in front of his one normal eye – he penetrated me relentlessly with that eye; I could not escape him, nor could I escape his examination of ma. His imposing presence proved relentless. During the nights, I tried to secretively peer into his room, concentrating only on the slowly melting candles of the candelabra on the table beside his bed, for the sinking wax somehow manipulating time and darkness and the flames that flickered and danced reflected onto the single, uncovered window.


The window and the twisted, dull metal of the candelabra were adjoined by the haunting cobwebs that seemed to spin an alternate world into the darkness outside. My heart seized when the old man called me to his bed, as he often did when night overcame day, when he stared to me without a word in my horrified silence: “Boy!” he cried. I tried to never look at his single uncovered eye, though there were times when I could not help it.


Usually, the shadows offered safe recluse from his stare, for I knew what he expected of me – in my service to him I detested the massages he wanted for his feet; I could smell his ancient flesh the same as I could smell the floorboards rotting beneath my shoes or the decaying corpses in the graveyard behind the house. I could feel the headstones on my fingers in the guise of feet. No water was wet enough to wash away the smell of decaying flesh.


Though my young wife had been to the house before to see to my welfare after my nights away from our home, the old man never seemed to take notice that I indeed had a family. He simply brushed the hair out of his face and stared at me with his evil eye, as though he had the power to hide me away forever in service of his own distasteful ends. I did not want to remove the screen from his unhindered thoughts and twisted reasoning. His thoughts were as evil as his eye, I knew it.


“Come closer, or Jane will be disappointed,” the old man grumbled. Why must he throw a wrench into my heart I wondered, what had I ever done to him? Thus, I had my own visions of torturing him and smothering the life out of him, a welcomed thought amidst his devilish insanity. Oh – I could presume what he was thinking, and in fact I knew his state of mind all too well. I just needed to find out how much he really knew.


I casually crossed the threshold of his room. “Sir,” I answered. “What did you need of me?”


“Come here boy and let me look at you.”


“Sir, I beg your pardon” I acknowledged as I drew further into his room, “I am not a boy by any means.” Secretly, I harbored the deepest, darkest thought that tonight would be the very night I might snuff the life out of him. The pillows lay ready beside his head. All I need do is snatch one and hold it steadily over his face. No one would ever know, not even the police detectives who would surely come by later to investigate. I could never allow the old man to perceive my intention as I drew nearer to his bedside.


“Boy,” he said to me, “there is something I have not told you, something that I know I must.”


My murderous inclinations were unwillingly stalled. I said, “I am certain that whatever needs to be said can be said in the morning, Sir. I have a wife to return home to.”


“This cannot wait,” he wheezed.


The old man appeared frailer than he had at any other time – only his wide eye was luminous and all-seeing. I did not think about what impact murder may have on the rest of my life or even on my writing career. I took a step closer to the bed. “What is it?” I questioned through clinched teeth.


“I know what is troubling you tonight,” he said, “but I do need to tell you something before you leave here again.” I bit my bottom lip as he continued to investigate me, “Have you wondered why I have employed you though you are a stranger to me, and brought you into my house though you have your own family?” I shook my head, nor did I care. “My reason has been a secret to you, but now I will tell you.” The old man inhaled deeply, his eye unwavering, his jaw shrinking with closed mouth. The thought that I should seize the moment and push the pillow down onto his face darted through my mind. But he spoke again. “I knew Jane. She was a delicate woman. She showed me the same poetry she showed you.”


I could feel the tightness of my brow as my eyebrows drew together. “What are you saying?” I demanded.


“I know your secret; I know you loved Jane. She knew you loved her, but she knew she could never return your love. She died of a broken heart, but you did not kill her like you thought,” he coughed. “She died because she asked me to help her die.”


I took a step back from the bed. “Stop these lies, old man,” I seethed. “Jane is my wife! We are happy.” There was no question in my mind that I would be able to carry out my murderous intentions now, for the musty air I sharply inhaled was primed to welcome death.


“It is not a lie, I helped her die,” he said to me, his one eye unblinking. “I gave her the laudanum to do it; she could not live with her guilt. You have to admit that. She gave you the poetry books to stir a love in you for the written word, not to stir love in you for her…as listening to you read the poems stirred love in her for you.” The old man sighed, clutching the blanket up to his chest with both hands. “Jane could have been a poet herself, and she was so very beautiful. You were only a boy when she died, and her husband was making her life a living hell. I am certain she would have told you the truth about loving you if she had lived. She knew she would have too, and that is why she wanted to die.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head. “No! Stop this! I married her.”


“Face the truth, Edgar. You did not marry her because she killed herself. She is dead – you need to admit it so you can live your life and stop punishing yourself. Remember, boy, remember the truth.” The old man coughed then, more forcefully than I thought he was capable.


I stopped and met the old man’s eye, still hoping that he would die. I knew, deep in my mind, what he had done. Flashes of memory intruded my thoughts…a graveyard that was not in the back yard of the house in which I stood, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had to ask him, with all the desperation I felt, “Did she ask you for the laudanum, or did you give it to her without her knowledge?”


“You were only a boy infatuated with your friend’s mother! I loved her; I had to save her from a boy’s infatuation.”


“I was young, but I was more than a boy.”


“You were not. I simply carried out her wishes.”


“No,” I said loudly, my hands pressed to the sides of my head as though I could squeeze the wicked old man’s lies out. “She flowed through my dreams before I ever met her; she was fused into my soul. We were bound by poetry, until you took her from me. I live, carrying the weight of her death around my neck. I believed it was my fault because I loved her, when all along it was you who caused her death. A few more years and we would have married, thus I allowed myself to think we had. What made you think you could cast judgement in our lives?”


“You brought her misery on -” the old man weakly insisted. That was all I could take; the old man was a murderer. I narrowed my eyes; I had wanted to wait until he fell asleep to kill him, but I snatched up the pillow from behind his head and held it in both hands above his face. I slammed it down with great force. The back of his head hit the headboard with a thud. The old man’s muffled cries were meek, and to no avail. He first held his arms out as though to grip my arms, but my mind was made up. I was not going to stop. This old man had taken the life of my greatest love, and I needed to take his life.


When his lifeless hands finally fell from my forearms, I knew it was over. I took a single step back from the bed, but the claws of interest held me within the room; the old man made no move, not even a twitch. I tossed the pillow onto the foot of the bed. Then I turned and ran out of the room and down the stairs. My flight took me to the common room by the hutch where the silverware was stored, and I stopped to catch my breath and think about the old man’s confession. I gazed into the streaked mirror affixed to the back of the cabinet and stared as though my reflection could give me the answers I so vehemently sought.


Each time I saw my eyes blink, I heard the beating of my own heart – I knew I had to police my own thoughts. I slammed my fist onto the hutch, jolting a rusted spoon off the edge to clank upon the floor; a thought shot through my mind about the man’s younger, drug-induced days. Next to where the spoon had rest, an opened book’s pages suddenly fanned out as though the air itself had fingers.


I squinted and bent down toward the book. I recognized it, for it was one of Jane’s poetry books – Why was it on the floor in the old man’s abode? My own heartbeat leapt out from its pages, as though my life was bound to her through the poetry that the old man had stolen. My heart pounded louder and louder, until I could stand it no more. I clutched the book and threw it across the room toward the fire in the hearth. Sparks tossed into the air.


I could not imagine her with the old man, even in his youth. I knew he was but a surreal part of the atmosphere in which I survived. I could not help but wonder, could she have loved him as I had loved her? I longed for a stone-cold heart, a heart that felt nothing, a heart that merely lived in the world because it was meant to…and yet it was a heart that someone else could cleanse with love.


I gazed to my reflection in the mirror again. The edges were methodically blurred and seemed to slowly shift outward. My reflection had come to life, even while I continued to glare at myself with an internal rage. I slammed both fists down upon the hutch, jolting the glass shooters beside a decanter of alcohol.


“Boy!” The call was deafening. I stared into the mirror. I had gone insane. “Boy!”


My eyes opened wide in my horror. I peered toward the stairs. No, I could not allow myself to believe that the old man was still alive. I squeezed my brow, like I had squeezed the life from him. “Shut up old man, you are dead. I killed you like you killed Jane.”


“Boy, come up here! I am not done talking to you.”


I stepped slowly toward the stairs. I knew rationally that if he was not dead, I had to finish the job, for Jane’s sake. I took one precise step up at a time, trying to avoid the creak in the middle.


My breathing was shallow, scarcely heard by even myself. “Listen, old man,” I said under my breath, “you are meant to die; you will call me ‘boy’ no more.”


I softly stepped toward the old man’s room and pushed open the door, which opened with a loud groan. The old man, sprawled over the bed in death, suddenly sat up. I could not believe my eyes; I blinked heavily.


“Listen, boy,” he said, his eye still listless but not consuming my attention as much as it had only moments before. I was stunned more than I had been upon learning of Jane’s death. The pounding of my heart could not be ignored, for it sent the whole house into a haunting rhythm.


“You are dead,” I said blankly.


The old man ignored me. “I have not thanked you, boy,” he uttered breathlessly.


“You should not thank me. I killed you. Lay down on your deathbed.”


“You sent me to be with Jane, boy. I told her I would have her in death - and now I do.”


Aghast, I shook my head. “You cannot mean that.”


“I do mean it. And no one else knows that I sent her on before myself, no one but you.”


“I murdered you tonight. The deed is done.”


“You sent me to Jane,” he said, his countenance fallen as though lifelessness were returning to him as he spoke to me.


“I sent you to hell.”


“You sent yourself to hell.” I immediately turned away from the old man, for he was dead, and I need not waste my time conversing with a ghost.


I rushed back down the stairs, over the floorboards, and stood on the worn wooden floor before the hutch. I stared into my distorted reflection in the mirror again when the old man called “Boy!” I wondered how to silence the murderer, if being murdered was not enough.


I had uncovered the truth, I had gotten him to admit his misdeed, and yet he taunted me. I sat down in the chair beside the hearth, otherwise pleased with my deduction. I was as good of a detective as any I created in Dupin – nay, I was better, for Dupin was modeled on me.


“Lift up those loose floorboards, there, at your feet,” the old man suddenly appeared beside me and spoke. I was stunned; my jaw hung low. I had never seen him standing on his own recognizance before. “Go ahead, move the rug over.”


I leaned down and flopped the rug upon itself, then clicked one of the floorboards with the heel of my shoe. I tried to wedge my fingertips into the crevice befitting to the next. When one finger of one hand found the crack, I slowly lifted it up, unsure of what I would find. I lifted another floorboard, then a third. I could not trust this man, this murderer of beautiful women. I set the loose board to the side and slid onto one knee, peering into the void. “I see only darkness,” I said.


“There is more than darkness. Look closer.”


I bent nearer toward the void, lowering one hand cautiously within. My heart was beating so loudly that my chest ached; the sound was pounding in my ears. I wanted to tear my own heart out of my breast and leave it beneath the floorboards where my hand now searched, as my fingers grasped and fumbled at the burlap sack I now touched. “You have sacks down here,” I uttered. “Though how many, I do not know.”


“You thought the only graveyard was behind the house,” he wheezed. “I tell you there is another one beneath the floorboards of this house.” He stepped back from me, hunched over though raising his arms out. I could not breathe. “This is the house,” he said, “that I bought for her. This was where we would live. She hated her husband and I would have rescued her; but she loved you, and I was pushed to the wayside for a boy with nothing to his name but poetry.”


“If you really knew her, you would have known that poetry was her greatest wealth.” I took a deep breath and looked up. Then, I peeked over my shoulder and decided to wiggle another of the floorboards up, then another. The musty odor was stronger than I had ever imagined; animals must have gotten themselves caught below and rotted away. My nose curled, and yet I continued to yank up the floorboards.


“That is enough,” the old man said. “You do not need to open the hole up any more to know what I have buried in there. You understand, I did bring her back with me, to this house, meant for her to live out the rest of her days with me.”


“She is buried in the town cemetery with her family,” I countered, almost in a trance. I dreaded what he would tell me next.


“No, she is not. I took her from that place – she did not want to be there. She wanted to escape her husband, not spend an eternity with him.” The old man stared down to the opened floorboards and said, “I took her out of there in the dead of night and brought her here, to live with me.”


“You are mad!” I screamed as I shot to my feet.


“That I may be, but now I am also dead.”


“And you chose to do this?”


“I have my revenge against you, boy.”


“No!” I yelled and reached out for him to effortlessly fling him into the hole beneath the floorboards I had removed. I could not see an end to what lie beneath, only darkness, and the old man did not scream - for he was already dead. Indeed, there was not the resistance of flesh and bone when I pushed him in, but he followed where my mind willed him.


Truly, he lay dead in the bead upstairs; I had opened Jane’s grave and lay her back in it. I had uncovered the old man’s secret – the house was Jane’s tomb.


I backed away from the loosened floorboards in a stupor and glanced into the mirror at the hutch. My expression was the same – my eyes were encircled by darkness, deep wrinkles lined my forehead, with lighter ones crossing my eyes and mouth. I stared, burning the glass with my gaze. I tried to see something, anything at all, that reminded me of my love, for I strove to be as a writer for her. Then, I saw a turn of my brow, a lift in the right corner of my lips, and my low-set ears that allowed me to hear the faintest of deception.


I had learned the truth for her, and I would never let it rest. Her truth would break free through the stories I wrote; I would free her. The house would no longer be her tomb.


Justine Johnston Hemmestad from US has published a novella and a novel. She has stories in seventeen anthologies including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries, Death by Chocolate, and Tot Tales, and has a number of short stories, poems, and essays published in various magazines including The Nonbinary Review and Kaleidoscope. She also holds a Master's Degree in English Literature from Northern Arizona University.


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