Well-intentioned high schooler Lyra breaks all the rules when she starts tampering with people’s heartstrings—a gift only she possesses. When people around the city begin going mad after their heartstrings are severed, Lyra is blamed, and with only the help of a charming stranger, tangled in secrets of his own, she is forced to track down the real culprit before her own heart is unraveled next.
It’s 8 o’ clock when the bell above the door clinks.
Really it should ring, but the thing’s been half-broken for as long as I can remember. Fixing it is on a list somewhere, I’m sure. Probably below repainting the store front and getting insulated windows for the display. But the shop’s blue paint is still flaking off like snow and I’ve been wading in the cool breath of winter since the sun went down at 5. So yeah, the bell still clinks.
I tighten my grey wool sweater as the door drags in an icy gasp and with it, the most peculiar woman I’ve ever seen. She’s a short mix-matched mountain of thickly layered scarves and coats, and if I didn’t know better I’d say someone’s grandma had escaped the looney bin. But I do know better. And that means like most of the people who walk through that door, she hasn’t come for our selection of fabrics and threads. Try as I might to make actual sales around here, people don’t visit Strings and Things at 8 o’ clock on a frozen Wednesday night for sewing supplies. They do, however, come to us for help.
“Welcome in.” I say, not letting the change in the room’s atmosphere affect me.
I bet Momma can already feel it. Like I do. The subtle whispers of a hurting heart snaking through the air, leaving a humming wake of soft ripples. But she hasn’t come out from the back, so she must not be listening. Sometimes she gets carried away balancing the books, drowns in numbers and drifts elsewhere. That’s the only thing that would keep her from hustling out here to shoo me away. Keep me from getting involved in breaking the family laws.
I could call Mom. Should call Mom. I tell myself I will…maybe…just after I take a look at things first.
As the bundled woman levers herself over the creaking floorboards, I flick glances towards the back room. Coast still clear, I stand up straighter and free the brown waves from the braid hanging over my shoulder—Dad says I look older with my hair down, hopefully old enough to look like I know what I’m doing.
“Good evening Ma’am. A couple of quick questions for you and then we’ll get started.” My smile is practiced, the same way I don’t even bother to ask what she needs. It’s my best imitation of the masterful confidence Mom wields.
After she grips the counter and nods her understanding, I reach below the register. Unlatching the false bottom drawer, I pull out the large logbook and flip it to the most recent page. I skim my pen to the next blank line about half-way down. Number 11 this month. Which would be great if we actually got paid.
“Alright.” I say, “Two questions we ask everyone. Don’t worry, this is private and only for our records. Can I start with your name? First and last please.”
The woman hesitates before answering with a paper thin warble, “Rosie Goodins.”
I quickly scrawl out her name. “And how did you hear about our services, Mrs. Goodins?”
“Please, call me Rosie. And, it was my neighbor. You helped her, you see, and she thought you might be able to help me too…” she tilts her head up and under the soft orange light hanging crooked above the register, I see the sparkle of wetness spilled in the folded skin around her eyes. “You can, can’t you? Help me?”
My heart becomes a clenched fist as I write ‘referral from friend’ and close the book. “I’ll do everything I can. I promise.”
She nods again and I send one more look towards the back before settling on Rosie’s gloved fingers where they rest on the counter.
I know I told myself just a peek, but every part of me aches to reach out and grab her hand, dive right into her heart and its burdens. Make a quick adjustment or two before Mom’s any the wiser. My arm inches closer, ready to do just that, but with the sort of sixth sense—literally, in her case—that only mother’s seem to have, Momma comes out from the store room clearing her throat and freezing me in place.
She shoots a pointed glare at my hand, hovering only a hair’s breadth from one of Rosie’s knit polka-dots and I feel my palms go sweaty. She watches close—real close—as I draw my arm away, the extra arch in her brow promising me we’ll talk about this later. My stomach sinks into my toes.
Joining us at the register, Mom looks like she always does lately. Her sharp hazel gaze is barely supported by the tired smudges beneath her eyes, blonde hair is choked in a crooked knot on her head, and her cream-sweater-black-slack pairing is checkered with wrinkles.
“I’ll be able to help you back here, dear.” She says to the old woman, shaving the hardness she’d cast at me into something soft and warm.
If Rosie’s confused by the exchange between us, she doesn’t show it. She follows my mom down the last aisle, stacked near to the ceiling with rainbow spools of thread and yarn of all types. I try to follow too, but as they disappear into the back mom’s voice sounds.
“Close up, Lyra. It’s a school night.”
With a groan, I make a U-turn, my promise to Rosie deflating with each step towards the front door.
Through the small chipped pane set in the door’s frame, the sky is a black smear and my favorite stars are missing. It’s been a dry winter so far and the worthless clouds do nothing more than blot out the glitter and keep in the cold. Beneath the stain of a sky, the sidewalks are empty and flickering streetlights cast strange shadows on brick walls. The dance of the shuttering light makes the row of buildings packed along the road look like a haunted mouth squeezed full of too many teeth.
For a moment, it looks like someone’s standing in one of the puddles of dark. Watching me watch the night. But then it’s gone and I’m thinking how stupid I am as I rub the chill from my arms. My breath fogs the glass as I flip the hanging sign to ‘Closed’ and slide the cool metal lock into place. Across the street, the book store does the same and I watch their neon ‘Open’ sign shut off. Another thing to add to the list—get a cool neon sign.
Tidying up the shop, I zig-zag through the rows of metal shelves, straightening rolls of fabric while shooing away any thoughts of how little product needs to be restocked, until finally I’ve made my way to the last aisle. Here, I spend a ridiculous amount of time fiddling with the same spool of navy thread. Unwinding and rewinding it, I listen to the conversation between my mom and Rosie leak through the gap in the door.
My mom’s voice is the honey she melts into my tea when I’m sick. “Now that I know a little bit about you Rosie, I’m going to start. I just need to hold your hand. Is that okay?”
“Will it hurt?” Rosie asks, the quaver in the question matching the nervous flutter her heart sends out.
“No, you won’t feel a thing but my hand in yours. It’s going to give me a better idea of why you’ve been feeling the way you have. Then I’ll be able to offer some guidance.”
“Okay. I’m ready.”
“Perfect. Now I’m gonna close my eyes and hold real still. If you can do the same, Rosie, that’ll help.”
It gets so quiet I don’t want to breathe, and when all that’s left is the soft settling of the building’s old bones, I know Mom’s started. She’s reading Rosie’s heartstrings, listening to their song, tracking them from source to attachment to find any frays, breaks, or snags that are causing Rosie’s heart to tremor like it was when she walked in.
The silence holds for one minute. Two. It’s taking longer than usual but I don’t worry. People’s heartstrings are a reflection of themselves and based on Rosie’s jumbled ensemble, I imagine hers create a multi-colored lacework of all sorts of tangled strands. Like when you try and teach a little kid Cat’s Cradle and the twists wrap all the wrong fingers. That kind of webbing takes time to sort through.
Another minute passes before Mom sucks in air, like she’s been underwater too long. I don’t blame her. All those emotions can be downright smothering sometimes. A lesson Momma would kill me for learning the hard way. If she knew I’d learned it, that is.
My mom is still a little breathy when she speaks again, “Ms. Rosie, you lost someone. Elaine?”
Now it’s Ms. Rosie’s turn to gasp, “Yes, I…It’s true then.” There’s a pause, the shuffling of someone pulling themselves together. Then Ms. Rosie continues, “My gran always told me about people like you. I thought they were just stories but…you have magic in those hands, don’t you?”
“Not quite. You can call it a strong intuition. Especially about matters of the heart.” I’m sure behind the door Mom winks at the woman. I swear it’s her favorite thing to do. Hell, Dad says I wouldn’t exist without that wink. Took just one and his heart dove straight out of his chest and right into Mother’s hands where it’s beat ever since. It seems to work on Ms. Rosie too, because words start to tumble out of her.
“Four years ago I lost her. Expected doesn’t mean easier, does it? The waves came, over and over, keeping me under. No air, no light, just pain.”
“But that isn’t why you’re here now.” It’s not a question.
Rosie lets out a sad sigh. “No. The waves are a memory now. But without them my heart is forgetting her.” The old woman’s voice becomes distant, disconnected. “It’s like I’ve healed but all wrong. I see her face in the lilies but it’s blurred, hear her favorite song on the wind and feel nothing. I need to feel when I think of her. Even if it’s a whole ocean of sad, wave after wave, at least I’ll know the love’s not gone. That it was there once. It’s cold in here.” I hear a thump, imagine she’s patting on her chest. “So cold now. Always cold. So please, fix my heart, even if that means breaking it again.”
“Oh, Rosie. The love is still there, I felt it. But it doesn’t have to be tied to sadness, to the loss. You’re exhausting your heart that way. It’ll take time, but you can learn to tie the love to all the good memories, the laughter, the life you shared. Then you can be sure the love you have won’t be going anywhere. I’ll show you how. It won’t be easy but you’ll get there, I promise.”
Mom starts describing the steps to Rosie, the mental exercises she tailors to people’s different needs, and it’s quiet, but I can feel the doubt, the hesitation swirling out from Rosie’s heart. She’s not quite sold on Mom’s instructions.
I’m trying to see what else I can sense, when a jostling at the front door sends my heart into my head and the navy spool of thread tumbling from my hands. I poke my head around the aisle’s end, remembering that creepy shadow in the street, and see the large shape of my dad through the glass. I don’t know I’m holding my breath until it comes whooshing out.
By the time he shoves the door open, I’m there to greet him while silently adding un-stick the sticky door to the fix list. He gives me a quick kiss on the head and I get a nice whiff of winter. Brisk cold and chimney smoke. He looks even wearier than Momma, but that’s what happens when you work two jobs—it shows. His overalls are full of mud and mystery that, as earnestly as he tries, never wipes clean, and his dark hair is all sorts of disheveled as he hefts his tool bag inside.
“Hey Lyra. I’ve got the early shift tomorrow so I’m gonna head straight to bed. Is your mother around?”
“She’s with a client.”
“Tell her goodnight for me then. Love ya, bug.”
“Love you. We left a plate for you in the fridge. If you need something to eat first.”
He mumbles in response and I sigh as he lumbers into the stairwell and climbs to our apartment on the second floor. It seems I only see him in comings and goings these days. But he does his best.
By the time I make it back to my listening spot, Mom’s finishing up. Ms. Rosie offers all she has for payment but of course my mother refuses.
“Don’t worry about it.” Mom says.
That’s her catchphrase. And while I appreciate the sentiment, someone’s gotta start worrying soon or we’ll be starving and homeless. And what good will we do anyone then? This whole thing was meant to be a side job when things started getting tight, but more times than not she won’t take even a cent, no matter how bad we need it. ‘We’ll find another way.’ She always says, ‘If you have the means to help somebody than it’s your duty to do it.’
Mom really follows through on that second part tonight, when she steps out of the store room to call Ms. Rosie a cab, one we’ll probably end up paying for. I act very busy with my thread, leashing my emotions as she passes until she’s gone and up the stairs. And that’s when I take my chance.
As I enter the room, Rosie looks up at me from her spot on a wooden chair in the center. She’s surrounded by boxes of inventory we don’t need and my mom’s desk is pushed into the far corner. I know time is against me so I don’t waste any on pleasantries.
“Rosie, I heard what you said. My Mother is great at what she does and I have no doubt that what she recommended will help you.” She starts to agree but I interrupt. “But it will take time. Lots of it.” I go to my momma’s desk and tear a corner off some scrap paper, then write as I talk. “I can help you now. Well not right now, now, but my way doesn’t take hardly any time at all.” I’m making a mess of the explanation, I can see it in her eyes, but I finish my note and continue anyway. “What I’m trying to say, is that if you find that Mom’s way is taking too long or you can’t stand the way you’re feeling for even one more day, then call me. Call me and I can help you. I could feel your doubt, your hesitation. Some people can’t afford to wait.”
I hear footfalls coming down the steps, so I rush forward and wrap Rosie’s hand around the note. I can’t wait for her response, so I leave her startled on that chair and duck out of the room right as Mom comes out of the stairwell. My heart beats out a pounding prayer Rosie has the sense to keep my number tucked away, which it seems she does, because no one comes out shouting my name or swinging the broom.
It’s only ten minutes later when Mom walks her to the car, and the second she comes back in, I feel it in the air. The same discussion we’ve had so many times before. Always starts with thunder and ends with lightning, rain, and disaster. It never goes well for me and usually I’d try and slink away, but for some reason I’m feeling brave. Maybe it was the sparkle in Rosie’s eye when I promised her my help.
“I saw you tonight. At the counter.” Mom says as soon as the door is closed and locked again.
“Saw me what?” I challenge.
Momma’s at war with herself, brow scrunching and lips pursing. She doesn’t like to yell but I’m pushing her. “Don’t you play games with me. I don’t need to read you to know what you were thinking. You were going to change her heartstrings.”
“Fine. You’re right. I was thinkin’ I might try and heal someone who’s hurtin’. What’s so bad about that? Isn’t that what we do here? And if we did things my way, we might actually be able to make some money!” in my frustration my g’s start disappearing and my Virginia twang takes over. I get that from her.
“We did help Rosie today Lyra. But the right way. The safe way.” She sighs and swipes at the baby hairs that have come loose at her forehead. “I know you mean well. And it makes me so proud that you have such a passion for helpin’ others and that you care about this family. But your gift needs to stay a secret. It’s too dangerous for you and too dangerous for people’s hearts.”
“Are you sayin’ I’d hurt someone?” I feel my own heart take a nosedive.
“No Lyra. Never on purpose. But I know you, and you’d never forgive yourself if you did. I’m tryin’ to protect you. You don’t know what you’re doin’. I just need you to understand that you are puttin’ this family at risk if you start touchin’ heartstrings. It’s forbidden!”