As usual, Ellyn Mueller sits alone during 5th grade recess, leaning against the chain-link fence that edges the Baytown Elementary School playground. Reaching between her bumped-up knees, she draws a rose on the blacktop, using a piece of chalk she swiped.
It’s awkward, making space between her big feet, in her 14-year-old brother’s old Timberland boots. At least now she’s sitting. When she walks, the boots make her feel more clumsy than usual. According to her classmate Steph, those boots are two sizes too big and half as ugly as Ellyn.
She rolls the chalk on its side to shade the underside of a sawtooth leaf and smiles to herself. The leaf looks almost three dimensional. She’s about to apply the technique to her rose’s petals, when a shadow darkens her drawing. She stops shading but doesn’t dare look up.
Nervous sweat collects in Ellyn’s armpits, under her too-soon breasts, and between her rolls of stomach fat — the kind of sweat that smells bad, ever since she started getting her period.
“Seriously,” Steph says.
Ellyn knows her smell has drifted up to Steph’s perky nose. She peeks, but Steph’s eyes are not piercing Ellyn’s the way they do when she teases her.
Instead, Steph gazes at the rose as her lips fall into a soft smile. “That’s amazing.”
This is something art can do, Ellyn thinks. The art teacher, Mr. Parisi, has told her as much. A drawing is an expression of your true nature and has the power to bring people together.
“Thanks.” Ellyn’s voice cracks. She hasn’t spoken all day, not even at home. Her brother leaves for school an hour before she does, and since her mother’s been gone, her father sleeps in. When they do cross paths, he can barely look at her. She finally figured out why: he thinks it’s Ellyn’s fault that her mother killed herself. He’s probably right.
Ellyn’s face gets hot. Too afraid to see Steph’s reaction, she keeps her eyes on her drawing.
But then Steph squats beside her. “Can you show me how?”
Ellyn hesitates a few seconds, then sits up straighter.
Shifting over to make room for Steph, she demonstrates rubbing the side of the chalk onto a petal. Then she uses her fingers to spread the dust into thinner coverage to create the illusion of light.
“Here, you try,” she says, holding out the chalk.
Steph shades another petal.
“That’s good.” Ellyn mimics Mr. Parisi’s encouraging tone. “Now blend it like this.” She places her hand gently over Steph’s to guide her.
Steph jerks her hand away and twists her lips into a snarl of disgust.
“Don’t touch me. You stink.” She throws down the chalk and runs off shrieking, “She touched me! Gross! I need a cootie-shot, quick!”
Ellyn’s eyes burn, but she promises herself she won’t cry. She won’t look up to see Steph collapse into the circle of friends surely waiting for her, won’t listen to their squeals. Why had she touched her? Stupid, so stupid!
Ellyn folds in on herself. She tucks her elbows between her bent knees and bows her head, wanting to disappear. Inches away is the chalk, shattered on the pavement.
With her boots’ thick soles, she grinds the bits of white into dust and obliterates her rose.
Waiting until the warning bell rings before getting up doesn’t help. A cluster of Steph’s friends linger at the door. As she passes among them, she suffers what seems like an eternity of taunting moos. Blocking the entrance is Steph. She clutches her stomach and doubles over, faking an exaggerated series of gags.
Ellyn tries to bolt back to the playground, but the kids close in on her. The clanging bell and the crackling PA drift away, distorted, as if in some distant echo chamber, but the children’s voices and Steph’s retching ring clear.
Ellyn covers her ears, yet louder and louder it all sounds. She begins to shake. The shaking becomes violent, and the other children laugh.
“Look, she’s going crazy!” someone shouts.
Stop, she thinks. Stop!
But she’s caught in their circle, spinning, spinning, and there’s no way out. She closes her eyes against her tears, the sun paints a trail of red spots behind her eyelids, she’s lost, dizzy inside the whirl of shouting and retching until she finally screams, “STOP!”
The playground goes quiet. Ellyn drops her hands and opens her eyes.
Steph’s friends stand around her, frozen, their faces contorted by their cruelty. She’s afraid to breathe, but of course she must.
She coughs once, twice, and the still life before her remains. Beyond the children, just inside the door, stands their teacher, Mrs. LeVine, clipboard in hand to check them in, unaware of the bullying, as usual. No motion from her either. It seems the entire world has gone still. Not even the sound of a bird breaks the silence.
An unusual feeling drops over Ellyn, from her head to her toes. All her muscles relax. She stands taller. She takes a deep breath, and she knows what it is: relief. At last, no torment from outside, no hatred from within.
She walks among the other kids, pokes a tentative finger into Justin’s shoulder. Nothing. Bolder, she lifts the corner of Minna’s skirt all the way up until she sees her purple panties.
Ellyn whispers into Minna’s unhearing ear: “Purple is a stupid color for underwear.”
She does it again, screaming at the top of her lungs this time, then bursts out laughing, the way the others do after shouting something awful at her. It doesn’t feel as good as she always figured it must, since they do it all the time, but it definitely feels better to be the one shouting.
Now she stands before Steph. The girl’s frozen form is upright; she’s prepared to throw herself forward into vomiting position. Ellyn peers into her wide-open mouth, at those straight white teeth.
“Your breath stinks,” she says softly.
As she stares, she senses the pulse of blood through Steph’s soft, pink mouth flesh. She feels the life deep inside her and thinks she hears the secret thrum of the girl’s heart. Tentatively, Ellyn touches her fingers to Steph’s lips. She pushes them into her mouth and across her slick tongue.
Then, without understanding why or how, she snakes her hand down Steph’s throat.
Teeth dig into her elbow. Ellyn moves her hand around, feeling the spongy warmth of Steph’s lungs, surprised at how easily the tissue gives way. When her fingertips touch something firm and stirring, she clutches it and rips it out.
Sunlight glistens on Steph’s heart as it beats in Ellyn’s hand. With each pulse, blood oozes from shredded arteries and veins, painting her wrist crimson. Its life slows, then stops, and Ellyn’s eyes go wide. She wonders, for a moment, if she should return the heart to its place, but what good would that do, now that all its connections are broken?
Besides, the warmth of it is comforting, like a baby rabbit nestling against its mother’s body.
Newfound instinct sends her weaving among the children to the place she last stood. She closes her eyes and shuts away the kids’ menacing postures, her teacher’s ignorance of her suffering. Her pain returns as fury, and she finds herself squeezing the dead heart inside her fist.
When she opens her eyes again, the world around her reanimates. The final bell is ringing, and Steph finishes her forward lurch and releases a resounding retch. Mrs. LeVine tilts her head toward the sound, then goes back to her clipboard.
“Move, cow,” Steph says as she falls in line behind Ellyn.
Ellyn half turns and studies Steph for damage, but she’s the same mean girl she’s always been.
As they walk into the building, Ellyn opens her hand — no blood.
Instead, a tiny, heart-shaped charm sits on her chalk-dusted palm. It feels heavy for its size. Hot. Its silvery sheen glimmers under the fluorescent lights. She glances back at Steph, who walks as surely as the rest. Ellyn tucks the charm into her pocket.
The next morning, Steph doesn’t line up behind Ellyn. Two of her best friends are absent as well. There’s a buzz of gossip going around the room, which isn’t shared with Ellyn, as the kids take their seats. Mrs. LeVine quiets the class.
“Children,” she says, her voice unsteady, “I have sad news.” Wringing her hands, she continues. “Stephanie Kaden is — she died last night. A burst appendix.”
Like Mrs. LeVine, some of the girls are crying. Even Justin has tears in his eyes.
“Mr. Philips, the school psychologist, will—”
Ellyn doesn’t hear the rest. As she fingers the mysterious charm in her pocket, her own heart is drumming in her ears.
At two o’clock on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break, Mrs. LeVine tells the class, “I need to meet with Principal Agliori. You may all draw on the blackboard while I’m gone.”
Draw on the board! Ellyn’s pulse quickens.
The teacher shows red lipstick-stained teeth with her version of a smile. “I trust you’ll behave.”
Ellyn is out of her seat before the door closes behind Mrs. LeVine. She endures the teasing as she clumps to the front of the room to snatch two pieces of chalk — blue and white. Engrossed in outlining a soaring blue jay, she doesn’t at first notice Justin snickering.
“Moo,” he whispers.
Beside her beautiful bird, he’s made a pathetic attempt at drawing a cow with wings — a mockery of both her and her drawing. He writes “Ellyn Moo-ller” beneath it.
Ellyn picks up an eraser and wipes his handiwork away, then returns to her bird.
Justin starts another picture, and Ellyn erases that one too. He moves to another spot and begins again. She follows him like that, erasing as soon as he draws, until she hears him whisper to the kids nearby, “Everybody do it. It’s driving her crazy.”
She gives up. All of them are drawing flying Ellyn Moo-ller cows.
Ignore them, she tells herself. She concentrates on her jay’s wings as the whispers turn into laughter. When Justin lets out an extended Mooo-ooo, Ellyn backs away from the board.
Amy catches Ellyn’s eye before scribbling all over the blue jay.
Ellyn’s lower lip trembles.
“She’s crying,” Justin says, his brow furrowed.
He feels sorry about starting this whole thing, Ellyn thinks. But he shoves Amy out of the way, so he can smear the bird with his bare hands.
“Ouch, Justin! You’re so mean,” Amy laughs.
Ellyn begins to shake.
Justin releases his loudest moo yet.
“Stop,” Ellyn says, but he doesn’t. None of them do. She closes her eyes and screams, “STOP!”
It’s more difficult to push her hand into Justin’s moo-shaped mouth, but Ellyn manages. As she walks home, she plays her fingers over two charms in her pocket, enjoying the sense of relief a bit longer this time.
When school resumes the Monday after Thanksgiving, everyone knows that Justin and his family died in a plane crash. It was all over the news. Mr. Philips visits the class again, taking time to speak to each student privately. When he tells Ellyn that her silence comes from grief, she pretends to believe him with a solemn nod.
It’s a bleak December afternoon, and Mrs. LeVine drones through a math lesson. For the tenth time, Ellyn glances at the clock. Nine minutes until they go to art.
Finally, Mrs. LeVine erases the equations on the board.
“Mr. Parisi had to leave early today,” she says.
Ellyn’s mood tumbles until her teacher adds, “But there’s no reason we can’t be creative on our own.”
Soon, each child is set up with paints and brushes, a large sheet of paper, and a cup of water.
Savoring the round, nutty scent of fresh tempera, Ellyn creates a study of her new favorite shape. A rainbow-hued heart dominates the center of the page, and she’s sketched out a neat pattern of smaller ones for the background. She is precise. Starting from the right, so her left hand won’t drag wet paint across the image, she begins to fill them in with periwinkle blue.
Ellyn doesn’t look away from her painting, but she knows Minna, who sits in front of her, has turned around in her chair.
“Why do you stink so bad, cow?”
She fills in another heart, pleased with the light-to-dark blend she’s rendered.
“Answer me. Or should I speak cow? Moo-moo-moo moo?”
Ellyn doesn’t care what Minna is saying, only that she is distracting her.
“Shut up,” she murmurs, “you annoying idiot.”
“What?” Minna whips her sodden brush in the air above Ellyn’s desk. It leaves an arc of gray-black spatters across her painting.
Ellyn jumps up so quickly, her chair slams into Michael’s desk behind her.
“Watch it!” he says.
When Mrs. LeVine rushes over, Minna says, “She called me a name!”
“I heard it,” says Michael, though Ellyn doubts that’s true.
Mrs. LeVine firms her lips into a straight line and shakes her head at Ellyn. She looks at the clock and gives two light claps. “Let’s put it behind us. Back to our artwork now.”
Minna narrows her eyes at Ellyn before turning around, and Michael kicks her chair leg, giving her a jolt. Of course, the teacher notices neither.
Ellyn’s chest burns with the injustice of it all. “But my painting,” she says, slumping into her chair.
Mrs. LeVine finally looks at her work. She glances at Minna’s impassive back, then at the clock. Leaning a hand on Ellyn’s desk, she asks, “What happened? Did you have a spill?”
“No, I —”
“We can fix it.” She blots the spray of dirty water with a paper towel, but the splotches have soaked through. “You know, I think you can turn these spots into a string of tiny hearts.” She twirls Ellyn’s brush in paint and creates an inexpert heart of bruised blue on the page. “What do you think?”
Ellyn thinks it’s worse than Minna’s mess. She stares at her ruined painting as Mrs. LeVine walks away.
Minna turns and grins at Ellyn. “Your picture sucks.” Her words are a signal to the rest of the class.
The animal sounds and giggles begin. They are as quiet as a vibration. Ellyn barely hears them, but she certainly feels them. When she begins to shake, she hears Minna whisper, “Look, she’s going nuts.”
This time, there’s no false start. She covers her ears, shuts her eyes, and screams, “STOP!”
By February, Ellyn carries enough hearts in her pocket to sound a miniature chiming chorus when she jiggles them. Though they appear to be identical, each one resonates with an echo of its previous owner.
One is from her brother’s friend who stunk up their house with pot and said, You gotta stop eating so much anyway, fatty, as he devoured her favorite snacks.
Another is from the teenager who drove his quiet Prius up behind her as she walked home from school, then leaned on the horn. He howled when she screamed, getting a group of kids on the opposite side of the street to join in. They all followed her for blocks.
They deserved what they got, she would think to herself.
But some of the heart charms trouble her. Certainly, the old man at the deli who mistook her for a boy hadn’t meant any harm. After the third time he called her young man, her hand began to tingle, and she longed for that sense of relief. She couldn’t resist shouting STOP.
She tried to shake him, ran out into traffic — the vehicles and the people inside them unmoving. Even the traffic lights refused to change. Ellyn knew there was no way to restart the world unless she held a heart in her hand.
That time, she wept.
And perhaps worse: One day she goes through the charms spread out on her bed and realizes there are several she doesn’t remember collecting at all.
Each one had been a human heart that had pulsed and died in her hand. She senses that they once resided in man or woman, boy or girl, but what had been their crimes? What if some of the hearts belonged to people as innocent as that old man?
She holds her murderous hand up to the window and shivers.
Outside, the wind shifts clouds across the sky, and sunlight shimmers prettily over the charms. Ellyn rests her palms over their warmth, and her distress falls away. She thinks of all her damaged days, a mountain of wrongs. Her mother gone, her father’s neglect, her classmates provoking her. Mrs. LeVine trying to appease by painting an ugly heart.
A string of hearts.
She rummages through her art supply drawer and finds a spool of silky red ribbon. She cuts a generous piece and begins to work. The sun has set by the time Ellyn finishes knotting each heart in place. When her necklace is done, she puts it on, tying a bow at the nape of her neck. She is enveloped in a peace so splendid that she instantly falls into a dreamless sleep.
Ellyn awakens on Valentine’s Day with little of her usual trepidation. As she walks to school, the weight of her string-of-hearts necklace comforts her.
And then a miracle happens. There is no ridicule at morning line-up. During recess, it’s almost as if she’s just another kid at school.
Not that she has friends. She still seems to repel the others when she passes — a subtle shift in their positions that keeps them at a constant safe distance. It’s only a few feet, but she may as well be in a different building. Days and weeks pass. There’s an occasional unkindness when bad luck throws her too close to the others, but before the anger swelling in her chest overwhelms her, the perpetrators move away.
Ellyn touches her necklace, feeling bereft. Deep down, she understands that it’s not only because she’s lonely.
Her hand tingles until she shoves it into her pocket.
In September, Ellyn and her classmates join students from six other elementary schools at middle school. The presence of so many more children must have diluted her class’s collective memory. She was last year’s game. Now they are focused on cigarettes and making out behind the bleachers.
Ellyn falls into her art. While she draws and paints, she welcomes a fleeting amnesia that cloaks her pain.
Yet she has not forgotten the miseries of her previous years, and so never forgets to wear her string of hearts — until the day she does.
And it’s okay. Nothing bad happens. It seems she no longer needs its protective weight around her neck.
At home, she tucks the necklace into a box and stows it in the back of her closet. Eventually, she manages to hide both the box and its adjacent memories in the depths of her consciousness.
Still, she carries them wherever she goes — to college and after, to the city where she settles as an adult. Her art is her refuge. When, from time to time, her shame, her guilt, her fury threaten to rise to the surface, Ellyn does not hesitate to bury them again beneath layers of paint and clay.
Ellyn sits at the table in their darkened apartment, eyes closed, as per Kevin’s instructions. Embracing her from behind, he breathes warmth onto the back of her neck, and she flushes as she always does when he’s close.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Ellyn Mueller,” he whispers in her ear. “You can open your eyes now.”
Before her, the table is set with a red cloth. Candlelight gleams on a pair of flutes already sparkling with champagne. On her plate is a beribboned box, the perfect size for a ring. The thrill she feels finds its way to her fingers, and she has trouble untying the bow. Finally, she lifts the lid.
Inside is not a ring. Sitting on a bed of red velvet is a silver charm in the shape of a heart. Ellyn presses her lips together to hide her disappointment. For the last three of their six years together, she’s waited for Kevin’s proposal.
“It’s lovely,” she says, as a familiar worm of self-doubt threads its way inside her.
Their relationship is a sham. He’ll leave as soon as he understands the extent of her shortcomings — her artwork, her personality, all of it a fraud. She swallows the feeling down, as she has done many times.
Yet there is Kevin, gazing at her with that big, dopey grin of his. Irresistible.
She smiles back at him and reminds herself that her childhood suffering is behind her; it must be. Kevin deserves her trust.
“Give it here,” he says, open palm waiting.
“Hey, I just got it. You’re not going to steal it back, are you?” She lets herself laugh, and the release feels like redemption. After all, she’s a grown woman now. Her work is good, and their relationship is close to perfect. What difference would it make to label it a marriage?
“I can’t only give you a charm. You need something to hang it on.”
When she takes it from the box, her fingertips burn. Her ridiculous imagination. Yet she’s relieved to drop it into his hand.
“Close your eyes again?”
Ellyn complies, listening to his muffled footsteps move along the carpet.
“Kevin? What — ?”
“Shh,” he whispers, now just behind her. “You once told me Valentine’s Day is not just a holiday to you. More like your birthday …”
She always regretted having that conversation when they’d first met, explaining how her life had changed one February day, all the way back in elementary school. Of course, she’d given no details, but still, she’d hoped he’d forgotten, just as she tries so very hard to do.
“I want to celebrate you today.”
Her skin grows hot. From the base of her throat, a bead of sweat slides, snaking a path between her breasts.
“Hold up your hair,” Kevin says. His voice brings her a modicum of calm.
Ellyn does, wishing that he’d chosen a different shape for the charm — an artist’s palette, a paintbrush, a square, for God’s sake! She giggles, yet when Kevin kisses the top of her head, her body stiffens.
He reaches around and puts a necklace on her. Its warm, devastating weight rests upon her bare chest.
It can’t be.
She touches tentative fingertips to its many charms and leaps out of her chair. She struggles to breathe.
“Why — where did you —”
“I found it when I cleaned out the closet last week. It’s — ”
“Take it off me,” she says, hoping to settle her voice. “Please.”
“Why? What’s the matter? It’s just a kid’s necklace.”
“It’s not.” Louder, she says, “Take it off.”
“You don’t have to use it. I thought it was funny —”
“Fine,” Kevin says, giving her a smirk. “Calm down.”
But the string-of-hearts necklace won’t let Ellyn be calm. It bears down on her skin and her heart and her mind, and she feels herself devolve into a tormented eleven-year-old.
“Hurry up.” She begins to sob.
“I’m trying — there’s a knot …”
Her sobs turn into violent shaking. “You idiot! Get it the fuck off me!”
“Holy shit. What the hell, Ellyn?”
She rips at the necklace, but the knot holds tight.
Kevin leans close and speaks in a low growl. “You’re acting like a madwoman.”
“You’re ruining everything.”
“Me?” He snickers, and oh, how Ellyn despises that sound. “I do something nice, and you go nuts.”
“Don’t.” She closes her eyes.
“There’s something very wrong with you.”
She covers her ears.
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“STOP!” Ellyn screams. When she’s done, the profound silence squeezes in on her. She takes the shallowest of breaths, knowing that hers is the only breath in the room, the only breath anywhere. She lets her hands fall but won’t open her eyes. She doesn’t want to see what the silence has already proven.
“No,” she whimpers. Ellyn forces herself to look at Kevin, who’s as inert as one of her sculptures.
“Kevin,” she whispers. She grasps his shoulders and shakes him. “Wake up.”
She squeezes his hands, feeling their familiar, rough warmth. She grips them more tightly, digging hard with her nails.
“Move,” she demands. “Move.”
He won’t. Of course he won’t, but she has to keep trying, and she does, pounding his chest, his arms, again and again, until her fear and despair surge into something much darker.
Ellyn steps back to study Kevin. She draws her arm back and slaps him with all the brutality she can muster, but his last sneer is still frozen upon his face. She presses her stinging palm against her chest, and the memories inside the necklace swarm her.
“You gave me this to laugh at me, didn’t you, Kevin? To remind me what a loser I am!” Her pulse rages, sending fury to her every extremity. She blazes with hatred.
“It’s your fault this happened. Everything is your fault. Everything!” she shrieks, spraying his face with spit.
Her voice, harsh from screaming, startles her. It’s a stranger’s voice—a monster’s. Bile rises in her throat.
Ellyn panics. Think, she tells herself. Think.
And finally she understands. The solution to all her problems — her loneliness and pain, and the doubt, always the doubt — is within her, and within her grasp.
It’s so very easy. She gags only a little.
And as quick as an evening breeze, it’s done.