Heart-Shaped Box

This new world was a vicious, sleek world made of street lights and tight jeans, sharp smiles and fast cars. This was a city, edited. A city, pared down to its bare minimums, beautiful and abusive.

Sharp as a bloody knife, and I didn’t think there was a place for me in it anymore until someone said my name.

“York St. James?” A hand on my arm made me jerk away, survival instinct kicking in before I could help myself. The guy didn’t seem offended; he just looked at my face like I was his personal Jesus. “Dude. Dude. You’re still alive. York St.-freaking-James is still alive. Is that your freaking guitar? Oh my God. You still have it.”

I cocked my head and looked at him. He wasn’t chubby, but he was soft, softer than me with my tight blue-jeans and scar-covered arms and shaved head. My eyes dropped to his nails: smooth, unlined. Then to skin of his hands: pink and healthy. I stopped thinking about the switchblade in my pocket. “Yeah. I’m alive.”

“Dude. You have to play for my club. Tell me yes. Dude, you haven’t been playing, have you? Why haven’t I heard you? Where’s the rest of The Wicked?”

I didn’t know, but I said, “Dead.” It was as good a guess as any.

He made a face, sort of like a snarl, weird in his soft face. “Whatever. We’ll find you a band.”


* * * * *

That was how it started. He found me a band amongst the sleek survivors, a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist. And another guitarist, Jude, whose angry chords made my guitar sound like an angel. We rocked even more than The Wicked, because now our sound was the lean, savage sound of the aftermath. And we had what the people wanted, because what they wanted was to escape.

The gigs started to run together like they had before, and on stage, it was easy to pretend that the city was almost the same. People knew my face and my name again, and they screamed it when I led the band onto the stage. If the crowd was thinner, well, it was easy to think there were more people waiting beyond the door.

It was only between gigs that the world was changed. Nights without gigs, Jude and I would leave the apartment that the band members shared, and we’d go in search of food and new gigs. We left the Porsches and the Hummers and the Maseratis parked on the stret, because the fact that we had them reminded us of the people who used to.

When we walked under orange streetlights, there were the clues to our changed city. There were the cheap cars with flat tires from sitting too long, abandoned for something better by the side of the road. There were the people you saw: they were the strong, the cunning, the wicked, the rich. I hadn’t seen gray hairs in months. I hadn’t seen children in years.

And then there were the locket sellers. They sat on the sidewalk, the streetlights reflecting off the silver boxes at their feet. Lockets, they were called, and the chill from them stretched all the way to the street where Jude and I walked by. On hot nights, condensation gathered on the lockets like so many tears.

Jude always looked away, his jaw set. But I didn’t. I always counted the boxes. And when we got back to the apartment, I locked myself in the bathroom and carved a line in my skin for every locket I’d counted. The blood bubbled up behind my razor and streaked down my arm and I felt less like the walking dead.

I wrote a song about the lockets. I called it “Carnivore.”

* * * * *

Jude was the first to notice the lines on my fingernails, even before I did. One night at a gig at Club Metallic, I saw him look to my hands during a riff, waiting for his cue. My guitar wailed higher, but his eyes didn’t look away. He missed his cue.

And I knew it had started. The dying.

Afterward the show, in the dark brown room behind the stage, Martin the bass player jerked me aside, his fingers tight around my shoulder. “You didn’t tell us you weren’t Made.”

I shrugged as if his hand didn’t bruise. “You didn’t ask.”

“Hell, man,” said Kell, the drummer. “You’ve got to get a locket.”

Martin rammed a fist into my chest, pushing me up against the wall. My guitar crashed to the ground behind me, the strings ringing dully. “Even York-rich-as-God-St. James doesn’t have the money for a locket. So you gonna come after one of us? We gonna have to sleep with one eye open?”

“You don’t take your hands off me, slick,” I said, “You won’t live long enough to worry about sleeping.”

Either Martin remembered my police record or he thought that Jude, coming closer with his guitar case held at a warning angle, might come to my defense. We were all of us dangerous these days. In any case, he let me go and flashed me a smile that wasn’t one. “You’re too good at what you do to die, asshole. So find a heart, just not one of ours.”

Jude looked at me as Martin left, saying more with that look than Martin had with all his words. I dropped my eyes to the pale white lines in my fingernails. Innocent-looking half moons like the one that hung in the New York sky above the club. But nothing was innocent in this world.

* * * * *
No one knew where the disease had come from. Well, scientists said birds, later, but they always say birds when they don’t know what they’re talking about. In a month, a hundred thousand people were dead before we even knew they were sick. Fingernails lined with faint moons. Fingertips fading to blue, hands going white.

I’d watched Eva throw up in between gigs, vomiting away her singing voice, and then her smile, and then her guts. I hadn’t kissed her in months, but I knew I’d been exposed, because everyone had been exposed. Everyone had been exposed and we were all waiting to die.

I drew lines in my skin with my razor, watching my blood escape, wondering if the disease escaped with it.

No one knew who first found out about the hearts. There were cultures that believed to eat your enemy was to conquer him completely and to take on his strength. We were that culture now. They’d found the fountain of youth and it was a human heart.

Suddenly the survival rate looked better.

I wrote a song. “Fifty Percent.”


* * * * *
It took weeks for me to realize that I wasn’t the only one throwing up between sets. I walked in on Jude leaning on the toilet after one of our gigs, his eyelids flickering like the florescent lights above us.

“Weakling,” I scoffed.

Jude didn’t raise his cheek from the seat, but he smiled at me. “You should know.”

“How long?” I asked.

He shook his head, just a little bit. “I don’t know. York, get a locket.”

I just stared at him. Jude, who couldn’t even look at them. “You said once there were children in those boxes.”

Jude closed his eyes. “I know I did. But they’re already
dead. You’re not.”

“I couldn’t afford one even if I wanted to.” I slid down the wall and leaned back against the tile, watching the pulse in my wrist. “And if I could, you’d deserve it more than me.”

He opened his eyes. “Don’t stop being an asshole now, York.”


* * * * *


I knew this was my last gig. Club Metallica again, which seemed fitting. My guitar was heavy on my back, sharp against my shoulder blades. In the dirty brown room behind the stage, I leaned it against a wall and drank a bottle of water. Drowning the nausea was the only thing that worked.

The guys who were there already were looking at me, eyes darting to me and away. I was the razor now, cutting them.

“Where’s Jude?” I asked.

Martin knelt to get something from his bass case, and then he turned to me. His voice was strung tight, savage and bitter. “He wanted me to give this to you.”

He held up a silver case, condensation on the outside, and Jude within.


Author’s Note: I was listening to "Brooklyn is Burning" by Head Automatica and wanted to write something savage and apocalyptic.

image copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater.


19 thoughts on “Heart-Shaped Box

  1. Just the right amount of blood, babe!

    Roll call of awesome lines:

    – This was a city, edited.

    – because now our sound was the lean, savage sound of the aftermath.

    – The blood bubbled up behind my razor

  2. Um, dude. *speechlessness* I kind of love this insanely. Which probably means I’m more than a little sick. But still. *blinks* Dude.

    I ❤ stories about bands almost as much as stories about dystopias.

    …and in other, more coherent news, I have a copy of Lament IN MY HANDS this very moment. (Along with Dead is the New Black, the third volume of Scott Pilgrim, and a Star Wars t-shirt)

  3. Yay! boingy boingy boingy! So. Weird. When we started Merry Sisters of Fate, it felt like Lament’s release was 8 thousand years away. And now . . .um . . . it’s sorta here.

    Have you read PEEPS? That’s a great band book with kind of this feel.

  4. Time has a weird habit of doing that. 😉 It’s always quite disconcerting. “But wait, I thought there was another month of summer left?”

    Yep, it and the sequel Peeps and TLD are two of my all-time favorite books. I am quite the fan of all things Westerfeld (especially the Midnighters). But there’s nothing I love more than the mixing of the supernatural and bands…or just bands at all. Love to write it too…the band dynamic is so fun. Plus music is just awesome. And sort of my life in ways that will never be healthy.

  5. Certainly gives meaning to the phrase ‘I heart you.’ I want friends like that. I’d give you a kidney, maybe a slice of liver. Lungs are no good and I need my heart.

    “I was the razor now, cutting them.” Favourite feeling line. Love ya work.

  6. Thanks, Simon. So . . . Tessa pointed out that this was actually the same plot from “Trading Voices” earlier this month. I didn’t even notice, but she’s right!

  7. I do that a lot, as I am slightly obsessed. I *might* have bought two copies of the entire trilogy to have both sets of covers, though I will never tell.
    But yeah, I kind of love them, because they’re basically my favorite books in ever, and featuring the most realistic (in a very cynical way) high school ever, and just a great cast of characters and cool mythology and yeah…and sadly they’re probably the least-known Westerfeld series.

  8. Mmm … Plot? The whole apocalyptic, savage thing. I wouldn’t notice the plot as much as Tess does, because you guys are professionals and write fiction. I comment about how the story makes me feel, or think.

    I enjoyed “Trading Voices” more because I had a stronger emotional response. This has a sf movie ‘I am Legend’ feel. “Trading Voices” – Stephen King/good read feel. Artist, author, screenwriter? Watch one/read one. Movie time — I’ll bring the kidney you bring the smiths chips.

  9. Oh. My. God. Maggie, you’ve hit upon my squee-button!

    It’s a well-known fact that am the biggest sucker for edgy/urban post-apocalyptica, but this is its own special creature, and I am in love with it ❤ ❤ ❤

  10. Igh kidney!

    I like Trading Voices better too — I think this is one that could’ve been longer/ revised. Some stories come out of the tap fine, and others you wish you could go back and tinker with.

  11. I’m not even sure why I like this story, but when the contest mentioned going back and commenting on a story, this was the only one I thought of. Maybe it’s my love of good bandfiction. Or post-apocalyptica. Or cities. Or all three, combined in one slightly imperfect sharp-edged package.

    Also, I’ve just really always liked the name Jude.

  12. Duly noted! This means we get to see Serafina fic! Yay!

    And I have to say that this is one of my favorite stories that I’ve written.

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