The worst day of my life was not when I was quartered and pulled apart. Not when the dogs had torn my head away and ripped off my arms and legs.

That was a bad day…but not the worst day.

I had spent my life the past ten years working for Burton and Cheyenne McCoy on their farm. I owed both of them my life. I don’t remember anything before my path crossed with theirs.

Burton found me. He’d been driving his beat-up Chevy to the scrapyard. He had a small farm, but also stripped and scrapped old appliances, collecting discarded metal and selling it for cash. Most days that Chevy would be heaped so full, any potholes would cause the tail end to bottom out. There would be clouds of brown dust trailing him on the unpaved Nebraska back-roads all the way to the yard.

I don’t remember, but the way he tells it when he found me, I was in the ditch on the shoulder and and in no fit state. He said he couldn’t leave me like that, like roadkill in the ditch. Not in good conscience. Being the generous hearted man that he is, he pulled me into the cab of his truck and brought me home. Together he and Cheyenne worked at patching me up; fixing me until I was whole. That day was the first of the life that they’d given me. The person who left me in the ditch was unimportant. I could not recall them in any case, so there was naught to do to seek justice. I set about putting together a life with the McCoy’s.

Cheyenne was known around town as a healer. Many of the more bible-thumping citizens called her a witch. That kind of talk was always abandoned those same people as soon as they needed her help.

Cheyenne taught me about the spirits and I saw them working through her dozens of times with my own eyes. People would come to her and ask for help a few times each month–Cheyenne would help them asking for help from the spirits. The most common thing they brought were horses, but other animals sometimes as well. They’d pull up in the yard with a trailer. She’d tell me to stay inside where I usually listened at the windows.

“So-and-so from up the road, he’s the one what told me to bring him up here. Says you–um–breathe new life into things.”

Cheyenne was always all business and shared only the details the men needed to know:

“Eight hundred. You’ll pay for it now. You’ll come back Friday to collect your animal.”

“But it’s Wednesday,”–bafflement, always–“you can’t really mean to mend a broke leg Friday?”

“You’ll come back on Friday to collect your animal. After you leave with it, we are done. Simple.”

If they couldn’t pay, she’d send them away. It may seem cruel, but to Cheyenne it wasn’t. The horse’s life may end, but its spirit would endure–returning to live again.

After they had left, I would come outside and watch her watch the world that stretched out around us; a sea of corn that grew and grew for miles into the distance. I knew that she was reaching out to the spirits of everything around us without making a sound; with her mind. She told me as much. If you watched closely enough you could see her slow, steady breaths. You might see the black clouds as they began to swirl in the back of her eyes. When she was ready, she’d have me fetch her kit.

A horse with a broke leg is a sad sight. Most times they would be panicked but my job was to keep them calm. I had a knack for it. I’d brush my hands across their faces. They would sniff at me and even graze their tongues across my hand for a taste. They’d eat some straw from me, then I’d whisper “be still”…and they would be still. Cheyenne says this is on account of our kinship. She says my spirit must have been a horse before; said she doesn’t know where these things come from or where they go, she just calls out to them for their help.

After living on the farm with them for almost seven years, Cheyenne became pregnant. Their little girl was called Nina. For many years before that, I had helped around the farm, I helped with the animals and now, I was helping them care for a ba girl.

There’s a saying we’ve got here about the corn: “Knee high the fourth of July.” Little Nina and the corn were both up to my knee that summer day, she was three now. That’s when Shane Parsons came. He wanted to hurt us; our little family. That was the day that everything began to unravel.

The truck came to an abrupt stop and a man with a bowed gait and anger in his eyes, walked up to the porch.

I watched from the window. They stood at the top of the stairs up to the door, both of them with arms crossed, like an impassive wall as the man began to shout:

“YOU!” he pointed at Cheyenne as the words shot out, “that fuckin’ calf I brung you a week ago is FUCKIN’ DEAD!”

Cheyenne looked out into the corn beyond, the way she did when she called the spirits. She let his words hang, waiting.

Then: “It was cured when you left. There are no guarantees and no refunds. This has been explained. I could try again.”

The man was angered further, “Try again? What? Didn’t even last a week!”

“Incorrect,” she replied. “That was in June. A month has almost passed. I am not responsible after you agree to return home with it.”

“Burton, what the fuck? You just let your wife kill people’s livestock? This is how we feed our kids!”

Burton stared down coldly at Shane, his mouth in a hard line, he did not reply.

“Nothin? You got nothin?”

I saw him reaching behind his back for something. I was out the front door, crossing the threshold, pressing between them and racing down the steps before anyone had time to process or react. Shane had the knife in his hand the time I reached him and his eyes went wide with a mix of horror and confusion.

“The fuck!” he said in short-lived shock. Recognizing the danger that faced him as he beheld my dark eyes, he swung the knife. It caught my arm in a sideswipe but I felt no pain. I shoved him to the ground, wrenched the knife from his hand and found a home for the small blade in his chest. He screamed.

I stood then and turned to Cheyenne and Burton, their faces painted with shock. Regret chilled me like winter.

When Shane stood, shortly after, clutching his bleeding chest, we took off running in opposite directions. He: back to his truck, and me: to the fields. We’d heard later that he made it to the hospital and lived. He didn’t explain the wound.

Cheyenne found me in the barn later, as I sewed the gash closed. The look on her face was one of pride; not the anger that I’d feared. She told me that after what I’d done, surely Shane would not be back. She was wrong.

It was dead of night two months later. Everyone was asleep as I saw his approach, still a long ways off. Slowly moving through the corn. I went out to meet him in the rows.

Creeping quietly to where he snuck just a few rows to my left, I passed him. Doubling back around until I stood behind him.

I cleared my throat and at the sound, he spun, leveled the shotgun and fired; blasting a hole straight through me. To his horror, I remained upright and moved toward him, he tried to level the shotgun a second time but I knocked it away. Once he was on the ground I pounded until I made a hole in his chest. I could see his heart still beating weakly. Something came over me and I plucked it out. The only sound he made the entire time was the report of the gun.

I took the heart with me to the barn.

I can’t say what drove me to do what I did next.

I wanted it.

To keep it.

Inside of me.

There was a hole in my chest and inside, no heart to be seen. I was missing a piece I never knew I should have and here it was: in the palm of my hand. I placed it gingerly inside and sewed my chest back together around it.

For several days after, I felt the fear of the man as it emanated from within. It was exhilerating. I went about my work around the farm in a daze of ecstasy.

Then one morning, the feeling was gone. Cheyenne mentioned to me that I had begun to smell and I told her that I’d go wash. Once alone, I reopened the hole to find, with disappointment that the heart was the source. The stench of decay emanated from it. I took it out, tore it up, and flushed it down the toilet.

The emptiness I had lived with unknowingly for the past several years returned then. I couldn’t stand it. That night, I went out and found another. A few nights later, I wandered further and found another. And another. Another. Another. The stuff inside that each heart held was different. The preacher’s heart held a strange peace and acceptance of death. The woman who lived alone in the woods miles from anyone held contempt. Every heart, like every person, was unique. Children were best. Each time I took a heart, I’d put it in place and sew up the hole in my chest. I took to keeping the needle and thread in my pocket.

What would Nina’s little heart feel like? How would it beat? She was–no. That was a thing that I must not think–such a sweet little thing, trusted me–what? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Only a monster would entertain such dark delights. What was I becoming?

Burton and Cheyenne caught me in the act. The temptation was strong, and I decided to let myself take her tiny beating heart. They’d heard her scream too late, bursting through the door as I stitched the last stitch. They tackled me down to the ground. Cheyenne stabbed and stabbed and stabbed me with a kitchen knife but I found, with childish glee, that I could only laugh. Nina’s heart was incredible. When I wouldn’t die, they tied me up. Burton loaded me into his truck. With each pothole and bump, I prayed to bounce out and onto the road back into the ditch from where I’d come so that I might have chance to slink away.

One of the hearts I’d plucked: the man was full of sadness and suicide dreams. About to commit the deed when I climbed in through his open window. I found him cradling the revolver in his hands, looking morose and tired. He didn’t move at my approach. Not when I reached out and took the gun. Not when I reached inside of him and claimed my prize.

I knew this emptiness. I knew it before I had taken the heart for my own, and placed it inside. Yet, somewhere reverberating in this man’s heart is a little spark of hope–a spark of relief–of thanks. This, the gratitude he felt when he beheld my face and realized why I had come.

Who is there to bring

Me this same relief?

Who is there to take

This life from me?

Where is the permanence

Of death I seek?

I knew that comfort

Was fated to fade.

It departed as

That heart rotted away.

The worst day of my life was not the day of the dogs. No, not yesterday. Today is far worse.

Burton abandoned me in the cold of the scrapyard. He watched the deed from the other side of chainlink. He watched as I toiled and slapped at the dogs as they tore, rending me apart. He didn’t leave until I willed the struggling to cease in my legs and arms. Not until he had seen me ‘die’ with his own two eyes. I knew that was what he had been waiting for.

He left me then in over a dozen pieces, resolve on his grim face. He left to go mourn the loss of Nina with his wife.

When morning came, the rottweilers had given up on trying to eat. They’d got Nina’s heart out and let me be; slunk away in defeat. I had flailed and struggled as they tore into me, like a thing alive, yet they couldn’t find any other meat inside. Eventually they relented, leaving me in a damp puddle.

My left arm went to work. I watched through my one remaining eye; face half submerged in stagnant oily water. I willed it to claw at the ground until it reached the pocket where the needle and thread lie hidden. My hand began to sew. I waited patiently as the rest of me did the work; as my right arm gathered all of the pieces of me that we’re strewn–a few fingers here, a toe or two there, the missing eye, and endless and massive pile; a mound of my insides. When the rest of the work was complete, both hands lifted my head into place.

I was whole again the time the noonday sun was high in the sky. I knew these empty feelings wouldn’t leave. I resolved that if death would not come, I would chase the rush.

I stuffed the soaking mounds of straw back inside, through the heart-hole. Instead of sewing it closed this time, I decided it should be a pocket. I found my missing button-eye and used it to fasten my chest shut. I’d find another button for my face in time.

I would try them all. The sorrowful, the strong, the meek and daring. No two hearts would ever be alike. I would start with Nebraska, trying them them one at a time and ignore that niggling feeling that lurked in my mind as I buttoned back my chest each time: no matter how many times I tried to stitch up my emptiness, I would never be full.

Scarecrows are not meant for life. We are burlap and straw. If never death was to be found, I would live to chase the rush of it. Today was the day I resolved to become the monster I am. That was the worst day of my life–not necessarily the worst day for me but should we meet–for you…

It will be.

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