Valentine’s Day was always busy at Piece of My Heart. The couple waited in the doorway for over a minute before I had a chance to dash over and greet them. The woman was staring up at the chandelier, wide-eyed, when I approached. The man returned my smile.
“Do you have a booking?” I asked.
“Jackson,” the man replied. “I called last week.”
They were an odd couple. She was so thin she looked like she might break in half. Her big blue eyes darted as if looking for danger. He stared at the ground as I led them to their table, watching his footing on the thick carpet. I slowed down to accommodate his limp.
I reached for the woman’s coat, but she recoiled. As Jackson helped her out of it, I noted the three stumps on his left hand. He handed me the fur, thanking me as I stepped forward to take it. I draped it over my weaker left arm, which immediately started to ache.
“Can I get you some drinks?”
House red. I offloaded the heavy coat in the cloakroom and headed to the bar. My arm throbbed. The surgeon who removed the triceps muscle was a butcher. He left me with nerve damage: a persistent tingling in the fingers of my left hand. When I showed Rita, she called me a stupid girl. She was right. It was an amateur job, not the kind of thing you’d get here at Piece. There was a reason we consistently received the best restaurant reviews in town; our gifting rooms were spotless, our surgeons highly trained, their knives sharp.
When I returned with the drinks, the woman was fanning herself with the menu. She laughed loudly as her partner talked, beads of sweat glistening on her forehead. After I poured the wine, I topped up her water glass.
“Would you like to hear today’s specials?”
“Please.” Jackson placed his right hand, which was only missing the little finger, on top of the left.
“Today we have a pomegranate syrup with toasted walnuts, served on a bed of wild rice.”
“That sounds delicious.” He was probably no older than forty, I realized, watching his handsome face, even though he moved like a much older man.
“We also have gnocchi with a spicy tomato sauce, garnished with smoked chillies.” I directed this at the woman. She seemed the squeamish sort, the type to drown a precious gift with unsophisticated flavours.
“I’ll have the pomegranate.” He reached across the table and took hold of his date’s hand. “Karen?”
“Gnocchi.” She gulped water. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” I jotted their order down on my pad. “And what gifts are we offering today?”
“Ring finger,” he said proudly, holding up his four-fingered right hand. “Both of us. To symbolize our commitment.”
Karen looked like she was going to throw up. Jackson reached for her shoulder. I caught a waiter’s eye across the floor and beckoned him over.
“If you would like to come with me?” I extended my hand to the woman. My colleague helped the man out of his chair and supported him as they made their way to the men’s gifting room.
The woman’s gown had tiny straps that left her shoulders and arms on display. She was intact, right down to the earlobes. Astonishing. Did she have no teenage flings? No college romance? She looked around twenty-five. How could someone get to twenty-five and still be intact? What was wrong with her?
I rubbed the nub where my left little finger used to be. I was twenty-five when I gave it to Samuel on our third anniversary. Our relationship was struggling after graduation. I thought the romantic gesture would be the salve it needed.
Gingerly, she took my elbow and we walked toward the women’s gifting room. Sticky with sweat, her body trembled against my arm. Fearful as a child!
“Wait.” She stopped suddenly. “Where’s the bathroom?”
I forced the frown off my face. “Right over here. I’ll wait for you outside.”
While Karen spent forever in the bathroom, I let my eyes drift to the closed door of the men’s gifting room. I imagined Piece’s male surgeon skilfully wielding the blade, wrapping up the wound, and transferring the gift to the kitchen. The chef could do amazing things with any gift, even something as small as a finger.
After nearly ten minutes, Karen emerged from the bathroom, seeming surprised to see me still standing outside the door. I flashed my biggest smile. “All better?”
“I can’t.” She covered her face with her hands.
Little tease! After her partner had brought her to the best gifting restaurant in town. Our tables don’t come cheap; bookings alone carry a hefty fee. And then to not even back out in advance, or when she got to the table, but to wait until he had already made his own gift? My heart lurched as I imagined the kind-eyed man biting his lip against the pain, telling himself this relationship was worth the sacrifice, when all the while this hussy was planning to leave him in the lurch. My damaged arm ached in sympathy. I knew how it felt to be abandoned by someone you thought you could trust.
“It’s a bit late to back out now.”
Of course, she had the right to do whatever she wanted; Piece wasn’t in the business of forcing couples to make gifts, but if word got around that this was a place feckless intacts ditched their dates… No, that wouldn’t do. I smiled sweetly. “Honey, it’s just a finger. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
She looked at her beautiful hands and then at mine. The pinkie stumps suddenly made me self-conscious. Her gaze rose to my ears, carved as though an animal had nibbled away at them. I resisted the urge to cover them up. Thank God my uniform hid my botched arm. The livid red scar would scare her away.
“Is it worth it?” she whispered.
Daniel, Samuel, Jonathan, Miles: the men to whom I gave these parts of myself. Each I thought would be the one. Each taught me a valuable lesson: trust no one. So many evenings, drinking alone after work, I’ve wondered how I could have been so wasteful.
“Sometimes it is.” I didn’t convince even myself.
I reached out my hand to her but she shuddered, as though I’d offered her a snake or tarantula. Before I could stop her, she turned and ran, speeding through the door in her kitten heels with a rustle of silk.
It was too late. She was gone. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my colleague leading her partner back to the table, his hand bandaged. I shuddered. I didn’t want to talk to the man, but I couldn’t leave him there alone.
He looked up as I approached, his eyes wide and frightened, as if he were expecting bad news. “I’m sorry,” I began. “Your partner…”
“She’s gone, hasn’t she?” He hung his head. “I knew it.”
“I really am very sorry,” I said. “Had you discussed your plans for this evening?”
“Of course! I’m sorry,” he said quickly, lowering his voice again. “Karen and I were probably rushing things. My wife died two years ago and I’ve just started dating again. I wanted to feel a part of someone again, you know?” He nodded at my scarred ears. “You and your husband must love each other very much.”
I blushed and quickly slipped my left hand into my pocket. “How many years were you married?”
“Almost twenty. We met as teenagers.” He took a bread roll from the basket. “My mother was horrified when I came home missing an earlobe; she was old-fashioned like that. But she got over it when she met Evelyn. We had a fairytale wedding, ceremony on the beach, and things only got better from there.” He stared at his pincer-like hands, which were crumbling the bread into pieces. “Evelyn was only thirty-eight when she got cancer. In the year before she died, I gifted her most of the muscle in my thigh.”
“It didn’t help?”
He laughed. “That stuff about human meat curing cancer was disproved years ago. I just wanted her to know I loved her. That’s the important thing, isn’t it? Knowing someone cares enough to give a part of themselves to you?”
He dropped the mangled roll on the table. “I wouldn’t have minded if Karen hadn’t wanted to make a gift. That would have been fine. She could have eaten; I would have had bread. But to run away from me, like I’m disgusting, like love is disgusting?”
Across the restaurant, another table was trying to get my attention. I ignored them. I touched Jackson on the shoulder and looked into his eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” I told him.
I rushed into the women’s gifting room. My chest was heaving, my left arm aching more than ever.
Rita looked up. “Where’s the girl?”
“She’s gone.” I leaned against the wall and tried to get a grip. Poor Jackson. He’d never trust again.
Rita snorted. She lurched across the kitchen and hung the bone saw back on the wall. “Probably just earlobes for the rest of the night. Kids these days can’t commit to anything.” She shook her head, the empty eye socket sweeping back and forth like a searchlight.
I put a hand on her arm. “Take mine.”
She laughed. “What?”
“My ring finger. Take that instead.”
“You want to give a gift to a customer? You don’t even know him.”
“Please, I know this is right.”
She shook her head. “You’re crazy.” But she got out the bone saw all the same.
While she cut, I considered how stupid I was being, again. I didn’t know this man. I’d decided he was worth my gift based on… what? A sob story about his dead wife? Or was it that he had even more scars than me, and yet here he was, still looking for love?
The numbing agent hadn’t fully kicked in, so I could feel the saw grating against the bone. I gritted my teeth. Finally, the finger came loose. One minute it was there, hurting like hell, and the next minute it came clean away, leaving only a sharp pulsing at the joint. When I wiggled my remaining fingers, pain shot like electricity through my hand, but I trusted Rita. She wouldn’t leave me with nerve damage, like the butcher who took my arm muscle.
“Don’t move.” She wrapped a bandage around my hand.
The finger lay on a silver plate like a piece of priceless jewellery. Rita carried it to the kitchen hatch. Under the plate she tucked the sheet from my order pad: pomegranate, walnuts.
There wasn’t much time. Thankfully, the kitchen staff were used to rushing orders; many a patron shilly-shallied waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in, while their partner breezed through the gifting without a hitch. While I waited, I fixed my make-up in the women’s bathroom, nervous as an intact preparing for her first date. When my wristband buzzed to tell me the meals were ready, I strode to the kitchen.
I picked up his plate in my good hand. Strange to think that lump of meat drizzled with purple syrup used to be a part of me. Even stranger to think that soon it would be gone altogether, the flesh digested and incorporated into his own flesh, only the bare bone remaining.
Jackson’s eyes darted around the restaurant. When he spotted me, he hung his head. I took a deep breath and gently set my gift on the table.
Hannah Whiteoak lives in Sheffield (UK) where she is an active member of the local writing community. Her work has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Ember, Microfiction Monday Magazine, and Asymmetry Fiction. She regularly posts microfiction on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak.
The heart photo was taken by lerkoz; it is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/valeriazolotoreva/