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Rusted Heart

by Melissa Gilbert 11 months ago in Short Story
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Rusted Heart
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Agnes was the first to see it, but we all ran towards it anyways as if we could beat her there. We were cleaning up an atrium when a sharp sparkle caught her eye. Having spent five days cleaning this area, we were used to seeing sparkles that were merely the remnants of dust floating through the sun-soaked space. After Agnes got closer to investigate the source of the light, we all circled around like it was time for lunch and Agnes was our food distributer. From what I could see, it was an odd shape. I did not have a name for it, since I had never even seen a book. Frank to my right said it was very dirty. His sister Frances conjectured that “it looks like a type of metal, but why is it so small?” Everything any of us had ever seen that was metal, was quite large. Things like cranes, wrecking-balls, and other demolition machines.

We lived in the Field. We all huddled under roofs of nearly destroyed buildings at night and helped destroy them by day. There was nothing left of our old homes and not much memory to even miss them. I was twelve years old and the other three in my pod were eleven. Two boys, two girls. We had been here for five years now on this planet with daily food being dropped in by spacecrafts. It had been decided that being orphans meant that you should work to earn food since no one was around to provide for you.

Those of our kind, humans, predominantly lived on a space station now. The planet we once inhabited was covered in draught and dust. We were sent to help find anything of value, but most of the time we were just digging through crumbling piles of junk left by ancestors we never even met. Things would be different on the space station, though, since rain was not necessary. The scientists from some undisclosed location had developed the means of creating weather within a controlled box, so our food was grown in captivity. When the burning started, everyone had to flee on space stations in order to avoid death. Our parents were left on the planet after agreeing to stay and build a barrier around the one remaining landing strip, which was necessary for the space stations to land if something were to go wrong. For that sacrifice, we are with contempt. Our parents protected something valuable to everyone else on the planet, yet they could not protect their children from all of the people.

Everyone from every country lived throughout 10 space stations. Each one has its own ruler, voted on by the inhabitants. But if I think about it, I prefer life down here on the planet. There are too many people up there and no one has anything to do except the cooks and scientists. Everyone else just sort of—exists. I like having a sense of purpose, since it makes me feel closer to my parents. I know Agnes has said before that she hopes we get to stay doing this job forever. We spend days and nights together and get to decide who does what as a team. So many people on the space stations stay hooked up to simulations all day. I know it’s hard to have memories of a place that you can’t go back to, but I don’t understand how simulations can help. We will never have animals again. We will never have rain and snow. Everything about the planet’s environment is dead. Only the sun persists.

The sun. Shining on the metal item Agnes found. She kept staring at it in her hand while the rest of us went back to work. I decided to see what’s up. “So, what do you think it is Agnes? Do you think we should turn it into HR?” She looked at the item for a while longer and then looked up at me slowly, almost as if she had forgotten we were all there with her. “This reminds me of something my mom had at one time. I think it is supposed to go around your neck.”

I tried to imagine why someone might wear something around their neck on purpose. I had seen some of the other orphans with chains around their necks, but that was a type of punishment for not making adequate progress for the day. There were also some enclosures where people wore a brace of sorts around their necks, but this was for people who had issues with motion sickness, so again not something you would do for fun. This idea made me even more confused than if I had asked nothing at all. While I continued to think, Frank interjected “you know, with that being the only shiny we have found all week, maybe we can turn it in and get a day off of work?” I understood perfectly what Frank meant, but I didn’t get my hopes up. It wasn’t in the nature of HR to give freely to orphans. You had to be a regular citizen to qualify for freedoms like medicines, clothes, and entertainment. We orphans belonged to the only group of second-class citizens around. We had to work for everything or be left to die on this planet. Yet, we had no way of figuring out what the metal neckpiece was without HR or someone on the space stations.

While Frank, Frances, and I had our exchange, reality hit. Agnes had decided.

“Since we have no way of figuring out what this is, it doesn’t do us any good to keep it like a special prize. I’ll turn it over to HR.” Because Agnes was the first one to see it, Frank, Frances, and I had no rebuttal. We went back to work and waited for our food delivery. Once food came, we thought Agnes had forgotten about our item, but before our caretaker could leave, she ran up and showed him the item.

“I found it in the atrium of that building over there,” she said while pointing, “it looks a lot like something my mom used to have, but I can’t use it. Maybe someone on SS2 knows what it is.” The caretaker took the item then climbed back into his spacecraft to be seen another day.

After we finished our meal, it was time to find a resting place for the night. We had done a good job clearing out the atrium from earlier, so we made ourselves places to lay. A hard day at work makes for easy sleep, so we were asleep under the stars before long. And then we weren’t.

At some early morning hour when the stars were still visible, our daily spacecraft visit came much too soon. Were we somehow going to get a break or more than one meal as Frank had hoped? Were we simply being told to get back to work earlier than usual? Either way, the unmistakable sound of the spacecraft lowering over our area woke us all up with a start. Without any time to prepare ourselves, the SS2 Operator Miles Bradford stepped out of the spacecraft along with our usual caretaker and two HR servicemembers. “Good morning and sorry to waken you,” said the leader of SS2. I am here to brief you on the item you gave to caretaker Boris yesterday.” We all took a chance to briefly look at each other and at our caretaker (his name is Boris?) before looking back at Miles Bradford.

“As you already know, books and other antiquities no longer exist on the space stations. We had to take very little with us to preserve life over property. This particular item has caused a stir on SS2. Per regulations, the item was shown to myself and HR before being placed in a case for public viewing. For some reason, this item has been claimed by no less than 724 people. All want to claim this trinket for themselves as memorabilia from our planet, but we have no way of determining who it belongs to. Or at least, we didn’t. Early this day, Verina Baker came directly to the HR office to say that she knows what the item is and who it belonged to. Verina is our oldest citizen. As such, she has a deeper memory of how things were on the planet. She told us this is a heart-shaped locket. As seen here.”

Miles Bradford then placed his thumbnail between two creases in the item and it opened. There were now two pieces of the object and inside appeared to be a person! We could not help ourselves this time and each let out an audible gasp. Agnes stood frozen. As I looked up at Miles to see his response to our actions, I saw that he was fixated on Agnes. Now that I felt uncomfortable, I decided to see why Agnes was so still suddenly. “Agnes,” I inquired, “what does this mean to you?” I could feel Frank and Frances staring holes into me like I had stepped out of line and doomed us all. A quick glance revealed that Miles was still focusing on Agnes too, almost like he wanted the same answer I did.

After what felt like hours, Agnes reached out and took the locket from Miles. She looked hollow, like she couldn’t bring herself to say what had to be said. But with everyone waiting on her response, she finally gained the ability to speak again.

“This is a picture of me. I guess when I saw this and remembered that my mom used to have one, I never imagined that I found the one that was hers.”

It was time for Miles to look uncomfortable. “As much as it has caused an issue for everyone on SS2 to see this, I am glad you found it Agnes. Ever since its arrival, people have been different, almost like they have regained some of their humanity. For many years now, we have been floating above what used to be home and slowly losing our feelings. We don’t read books to learn about human struggles, we don’t tend to animals to learn about compassion. Our hearts have become as rusted shut as this old locket. Thanks to you four orphans, we can now see why we lost so much by leaving our trinkets.”

While we all stood shocked that one the biggest leaders could say such nice things, he shifted his weight a bit and water started to come from his eyes. For a brief moment we all foolishly thought it had started to rain, but then we started to feel uncomfortable. We had never experienced this before and did not know how to react. Before our confusion could linger for too long, Miles excused himself briefly, wiped his face, and began to speak once again.

“We now know the atrium where you found this locket was the final resting place for your parents, Agnes. I don’t know where your parents are Frank, Frances, and Anthony, but we will keep looking. They were heroes, so they deserve an honorable farewell. All of you come to me now. We will make sure you are taken care of from now on. There is no need for this second-class citizen nonsense. I will take you all as my own children if I have to.”

With this statement, everyone readied themselves for flight. Before we could go, Agnes needed to set one thing straight.

“Thank you for this chance Miles Bradford, but can I make one small request?”

Miles looked slightly pained at the delay but answered back, “of course Agnes, what do you need?”

“Well, I will be glad to see Anthony, Frank, and Frances taken in by you, but I would like to go live with Verina please. You see, I did not know she was still alive. She is my grandma.”

Short Story

About the author

Melissa Gilbert

I love to write, play video games, sew, knit, and embroider. I have a wonderful husband, 3 sons, and a cat. My favorite book/game categories are fantasy, mystery, dystopian, and some classics. I am also a full-time English teacher.

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