A Caring Heart

A Caring Heart

A Caring Heart (Horror) written by Grant Kauffman

Lacie Andersen had never met an upscale retail store she didn’t like, nor had she seen a dollar bill she didn’t desire. Not far behind her lust for the finer things and deep pockets was her desire to be seen as the owner of the pants holding said pockets. As such, she rarely missed out on a good party, the kind of party people of influence attended. In fact, it was at a fund-raising party where she met Frank Bartels, a bright young finance manager at one of Austin’s hottest real estate firms. From the moment she first discovered he was a promising and single up-and-comer, she was on him. Their courting process was short and steamy, just as she planned, and within six months of date number one, their big day was set. With a ring on her finger, Lacie could officially shed the label of gold digger. It had always bothered her to be called such an unflattering name. After all, there is something to be said for a girl who knows exactly what she wants, even if that something is a wealthy man.From Frank’s standpoint, it hadn’t taken long to realize he had gotten more than he bargained for. It literally began on their honeymoon, with her pestering him about advancement possibilities. She never let an opportunity pass without voicing her strategies to help him become not a partner at his firm, but rather the sole owner of his own. Day after day she was on him like a fight trainer, pushing him for greatness. After brutally long days in the office, poor Frank would come home to what he soon called “my second beating”.  Rarely a day went by without Lacie somehow working in a topic related to exorbitance. “Let’s go to Paris again.” “We should get a place in Aspen.” “We should hire that decorator that Anne uses.” “I want to be one of those couples who can go anywhere they want anytime they want by any means they want.” Want.  Want.  Want.  Those sort of comments made Frank cringe inside. However, on the outside, he’d just smile and give Lacie a kiss on the forehead. Lacie lacked the awareness to recognize when she was being patronized.

Part of the problem was this: Frank loved Lacie despite her faults.  He certainly had never been with a woman as gorgeous as she, so he tolerated the added pressure of her insatiable desire for anything related to wealth. There was only one little snag in her plan. Frank wasn’t rich. Yes, he made a nice living, but he was not wealthy by Lacie’s standards, nor did he think he’d meet her goals anytime soon. Early on in their marriage, it became obvious to him that he couldn’t earn the kind of money Lacie desired. Few men could. Frank operated under the assumption that there was always the potential for a catastrophic marital battle. However, once again, women like Lacie didn’t fall for guys like Frank, not unless their net worth was above the “I guess I can tolerate his looks” bar. Though he had been concerned prior to the “I do’s”, the wedding bells promising marital bliss rang nonetheless. The rice was thrown and the young couple set out on a new life together as Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bartels.

From an outsider’s viewpoint, life was perfectly normal, even enviable, for the Bartels, at least for the first few years. They bought their first home, a magnificent six thousand-square-foot palatial estate in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods just outside of Austin, Texas. They were welcomed with open arms by neighbors who primarily consisted of doctors, lawyers, and C-level executives from the thriving technology companies in Austin. They were the youngest couple on their block by at least ten years. So by all appearances, things were looking good for the young finance manager and his beautiful wife. But those on the inside—well, Frank to be specific—knew outward appearances could be deceiving.

An expert on home lending, Frank had benefitted from the liberal loan qualifications that had become available in the early 2000s, the very ones he’d cursed in previous years. “They’ll let anyone buy a house these days, no matter if they can afford it or not. It’s no longer about responsible home ownership and lending; it’s about closing as many loans as possible. It’s short-sighted, and trust me, this one is going to come back to bite this country in the ass one day. And it’s going to be huge.” He had said those same words to anyone who’d listen to him. Most of the time they fell on deaf ears, especially when those ears belonged to the brunette bombshell who’d taken on his last name. Current events were not the sort of thing Lacie cared much about. The only section of the newspaper she read was the society page. So against his better judgment, he bought the house.

They stayed in their massive home, just the two of them, for far longer than they should have, Frank keeping up with the interest-only mortgage payments without much problem. He’d always planned on paying down the principal, but there never seemed to be a good time to shell out a few thousand extra dollars every month, especially with Lacie demanding more and more out of him all the time. Every weekday morning, she’d put quotes from the famous names of American wealth next to his coffee. And every morning, Frank would play along and share his morning joe with Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Gates, Buffett and more.  He reasoned with himself that she meant well, but it got under Frank’s skin just a little bit more every day. By the time 2007 came around and the economy collapsed along with Frank’s firm, he’d grown tired of her daily attempts at motivation.

“How ‘bout you leave some quotes from the Bible or something?” he asked her one day.

“That’s what church is for, hon. Those stories are for Sundays. Speaking of which, did you see Dr. Wiseman and his wife at church last weekend? Those are two people we absolutely must get to know. Let’s find out what Sunday school class they attend and try to sit at their table. They would be a wonderful resource for us.”

Dr. Henry and Gina Wiseman were the owners of the one home in the neighborhood that Lacie Bartels had yet to see. Always one to invite herself over (if for no other reason than to snoop), Lacie had worked hard to put herself in a position to get to know them. After all, they were indeed just the sort of people Lacie envied the most. The good doctor and his bride of twenty-five years lived in the neighborhood partly because of its proximity to the Texas capital, where he served as the chief cardiologist at Presbyterian Hospital. Not only were they among the city’s most influential couples, but they also hosted some of the most sought-after events in town, including their annual Halloween party,  held in the small town of Marble Falls, a stone’s throw from Austin.

Sadly for Lacie Bartels, she and Frank never made the cut for a Wiseman party—not the highly coveted Halloween party, nor the Christmas, New Year’s or Fourth of July party. This didn’t stop her from trying, though. She had managed to sit next to the Wisemans at church a few times, even sparking up conversation with Gina about the life of a rising young star’s wife. Lacie knew an invite to a Wiseman event could land her in the society pages of the Austin American Statesman, and more importantly, it would be a critical stepping stone to her becoming the gala-thrower of the Austin area herself one day. Thus, her persistence abounded. Unfortunately for Lacie, these attempts at social climbing never quite went over with Gina the way they would with other socialites. You see, despite appearances, Gina wasn’t one. She was a lawyer, a damn good one, who had worked tirelessly over the years to build one of the most prestigious firms in Texas. She didn’t have much patience for people like Lacie Bartels. In fact, aside from their societal functions, work was just about all she did.

When she wasn’t actively growing her firm, Gina Wiseman was working with Presbyterian Hospital to raise money for one of the many charitable causes she championed. She sat on the board of multiple non-profits, all of them benefitting children. She had even started her own foundation to help children with life-threatening health conditions. In fact, this is what irked Lacie Bartels more than anything: the Wiseman parties were nothing more than fancy fund raisers for any one of their charities. With every event in which the Bartels were yet again snubbed, it was a reminder to her that they were not considered elite enough to attend such galas, that they were not considered wealthy enough to donate considerable funds to the various organizations. The Wisemans invited only the heavy hitters, which meant Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bartels were not included in their lineup. Well, Lacie Bartels was not content to concede defeat just yet. At least not before the economic collapse of 2007. She certainly wasn’t content during the two-year stretch that saw Frank lose his job and blow through his severance package. (Of course, none of the pending adversity prevented her from continuing to spend. “Just keeping up appearances, Frank,” she liked to say.)

By the time 2010 rolled around, Frank and Lacie’s house was for sale, but it was doing its best impersonation of The Thinker: just sitting there. Turns out no one was in the market for an overpriced house in an overpriced Austin neighborhood. By the time they sold it, they took a loss. Those damn interest-only loans are evil. Frankie got to see firsthand just how evil. By late 2011, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment, most of their belongings locked away in three storage units. Turns out Mrs. Bartels had accumulated quite a few things with Frank’s money, but unfortunately, with Frank still out of work and Lacie too prideful to accept the idea of having to work at all, they couldn’t make payments on the storage units. The passion Lacie had exhibited for acquisition was all for naught. Their things were sold at auction.

Broken and beaten down, Frank did his best to find work, finally taking a job at a retail store, one that specialized in gadgets and such. Still, Lacie was not about to take the downgrade in lifestyle lying down, although she certainly did some other things lying down. Yes, she had the expectation of living with a certain degree of luxury, and if Frank couldn’t give it to her, someone else would. Sadly for her, none of her extracurricular adventures resulted in a windfall. So she did what any self-respecting slave to materialism would do: she began making the rounds at local churches, visiting as many women’s Bible studies as she could stomach. But Lacie wasn’t there to get to know Jesus, unless, of course, He was willing to front her some cash. So Frank’s wife began making appearances at as many groups as she could, mustering up significant amounts of sympathy; she even managed to produce some tears on occasion. Her goal was to find a wealthy woman who might feel sorry enough for Lacie to lend a helping hand—the more substantial the hand the better. Very seldom did she even talk about Frank, unless it was to belittle him or to lie about his drinking, verbal and nearly physical abuse, and his womanizing ways. Nothing says marital bliss like a lying woman talking about her “cheating husband”, all in an attempt to manipulate good church folk into giving her money.

Early on, she was able to muster up some support, only not the kind she was after. She received all kinds of spiritual advice as women cried with her and prayed for her, but Lacie walked away knowing they’d never do anything else but offer up a few “God loves you” and “God has a plan” lines. To Lacie, it was all so phony— lip service, nothing genuine about it—but, of course, she never saw the duplicity in her own behavior. What she didn’t realize was that she was projecting an aura that was anything but genuine. You see, when she told the story of what happened to her and Frank, she was unable to hide the disdain she had for him, his failures, his sloppy physique, his defeated demeanor. She spoke with an edge, spewing venom about the man she’d married for the expectation of an easy life. Lacie Bartels was poison, and almost everyone who listened to her felt it. But one day, while attending a large gathering at one of the area’s largest churches, something extraordinary happened to her. The one thing she’d wanted more than anything else finally came to pass. It came a few minutes after Lacie had recited her prayer request for the group, and once again, her bitterness shone through. She simply was not able to hide the hatred in her heart. She was soon cut off by the group leader and returned to her seat. A few minutes later, she felt a warm, gentle hand on her shoulder. Lacie turned and looked into the loving gaze of the very woman she’d been trying to befriend for years: Gina Wiseman. She took Lacie in her arms and asked if she would join her for coffee, an offer Lacie simply could not turn down. They spent the better part of the afternoon together, Lacie venting, sounding far more like an angry badger than the humble and supportive wife she claimed to be. However, fortunately for Lacie, Gina Wiseman did not seem at all turned off by her hatefulness; in fact, she did not seem to notice Lacie’s bitterness at all. When they finally parted company, Gina asked if she could call Lacie. They ended up meeting several times, each time Lacie hammering harder on Frank, the “worthless piece of crap who can’t find a job”, letting her guard down a little more each time they met. They continued to meet a couple of times a week through the end of summer and into the fall, until finally in mid-October the moment Lacie had always dreamed of arrived.

“Lacie, dear, what would you say to an invitation to our Halloween party as my personal guest? You and Frank.”

Lacie was nearly in tears and accepted the invitation on the spot. She rushed home to Frank and told him the news. The next two weeks were a blur with all the excitement, and soon it was Halloween night. For the nearly three hours it took Lacie to get prepared for the party, she must have told Frank a dozen times, “If you screw this up for us…”

“This is a big opportunity for you and you will take advantage of it. And when you get that new job, don’t you ever forget who it was who made this happen. While you sat on your ass doing nothing, working in retail, I was out there doing everything I could for you, for my marriage. If you screw this up, Frank Bartels…”

Frank barely heard another word she said, having perfected an age-old technique that men from around the world have been practicing since Eve first browbeat Adam: he filtered out nearly everything his disgruntled wife said. Call it a survival instinct.

When they arrived at the party, Lacie made a grand entrance, aided by the announcement from Gina Wiseman herself that a very special couple had arrived. People actually formed two lines and applauded them as they entered. Lacie soaked in the attention she felt she was entitled to after all she had been through. The night wore on with both Frank and Lacie enjoying a number of alcoholic beverages. Frank spent most of his time talking with men he had not seen since the economy took a turn for the worse and turned his life upside down. It was a humbling experience having to face them and explain what had happened, but he was encouraged to see that he still had many friends despite his wealth or lack thereof. Lacie, on the other hand, worked the room like a true opportunist, bouncing from VIP to VIP, doing her best to leave an unforgettable impression. In the midst of flirting with a very handsome—and single—neurosurgeon, Lacie was interrupted by an announcement.

“Attention everyone,” Gina Wiseman announced while pinging her glass with a spoon. “I have a very special announcement I’d like to make.” The room settled, sans a few drunken murmurs. “We’ve had some touching moments of generosity exhibited at these parties over the years. It never ceases to amaze me, actually. The benevolence of you all, our friends and family, has led to some extraordinary tales of survival, of lives being changed and children being saved by what we accomplish at our four yearly gatherings. Tonight we have just such a story.” Just then Gina looked around the room as if searching for someone. She made eye contact with Lacie.

“Frank and Lacie Bartels have been through some trying times these past few years. They used to be neighbors of ours, back before the failing economy affected the lives of so many dear people. Sadly, Frank lost his job and they fell on hard times. Since that time, they have been struggling for far longer than anyone should. But something amazing has transpired since the last time I saw them, over four years ago.

“You see, I first became aware of the Bartels when Frank made a series of very generous donations to our foundation. His kindness helped pay for a very challenging transplant surgery that saved a little girl’s life. That little girl is standing right over there. Courtney, can you raise your hand, sweetheart?” A girl in her late teens raised her hand and waved to the gathering. Everyone applauded.

“I never knew what became of Frank and Lacie, except that even after they moved, Frank continued to make regular donations to our foundation. In fact, he never missed a month. The one thing I noticed is that his donations got smaller and smaller each month, until finally, he attached a letter stating that he was out of money and was unable to give anything more.” Gina took a moment to gather herself to avoid becoming emotional. “I was so moved by this that I reached out to him and met him for lunch one day. It was then that he told me his humble story and all that they had been through.  Oh, I almost forgot, with each donation, Frank enclosed a note, the same note every time. ‘I pray this donation will help someone. I also pray that my wife’s hateful heart can one day be transformed into a caring heart. Please pray for her. Frank Bartels.’ Well, obviously I had to track Lacie down and get to know her, which I have done over these past few weeks. Frank and Lacie, would you please join me up here?” The Bartels were ushered onstage and stood next to Gina and Dr. Wiseman. They were each handed a glass of champagne to toast. Lacie, understandably, had a somewhat puzzled expression on her face but was tipsy enough and prideful enough to miss some of the unflattering words Gina had spoken.

“Everyone, please raise your glass to the most caring heart I’ve ever witnessed—Frank Bartels.” The crowd erupted with a loud cheer and everyone drank to the toast. Before leaving the stage, Gina walked past Lacie and whispered, “Drink up, dear, it’s going to be an extraordinary night.” Lacie downed the rest of her champagne.

Within taking ten steps from the stage, a wooziness came over Lacie, and the room began to gyrate. People’s faces seemed to be changing shapes, growing and stretching. From Lacie’s perspective, everyone at the party was looking directly at her, smiling, laughing, even pointing fingers. Their voices began to change as well; they were muffled, hard to make out. It was like their vocal cords were being played at extra slow speeds. Soon the room began to spin. The faces laughed even harder. All those men and women, looking at her, laughing at her, smiling and pointing. Some were even applauding her. Faster and faster the room spun, until finally Lacie Bartels blacked out completely.

When Lacie awoke, she was laying on her back looking up at very bright lights and a room full of people looking down on her from above. Many stood with drinks still in hand, positioned behind what appeared to be a glass railing, smiling down at her. Although they were far away, she could still hear them making noise; apparently, the party was still going on. She’d obviously fainted, but as she awoke, she felt good, almost too good. She saw Dr. Wiseman approach her and motion for everyone to be quiet, and they obliged.

“How are you feeling, Lacie?”

“Well, actually, Dr. Zhivago, I’m feeling pretty groovy,” she slurred, and the crowd erupted with delight. Lacie, assuming that she had fainted and perhaps fallen, felt embarrassed at first and then redeemed by the applause. She began to sit up, but something stopped her. She giggled, feeling foolish to be stuck and obviously the brunt of someone’s joke. Once again, she tried to get up but was unable. The crowd applauded even louder. Lacie continued to laugh, but she was clearly unable to move and not in control.

“I’m stuck, Dr. Doolittle!” she shouted.

“Yes, Lacie you are. But at least you’re feeling happy, comfortable?”

Laci nodded with her eyes closed, a contented expression on her face. It was at about that moment when Lacie opened her eyes and noticed something odd: Dr. Wiseman wearing his blue scrubs and putting on a blue surgical cap. She tried to move again but couldn’t. She lifted her head and looked at her hands. They were bound at the wrists and upper arms. She managed to look down and saw something that snapped her out of her mental fog and awakened her to a sense of shock and absolute horror.  Lacie was securely strapped to a large table, her arms and legs bound by multiple leather restraints. Her shirt was removed, and her bare breasts were exposed for the entire room to see. To make matters worse, there was an IV in her arm.

“Oh my God!” she shouted but with a little bit of laughter in her voice. “You drugged me and now what? Is this what y’all do on Halloween to the new guests?”

Before she could say another word, a massive wave of sedation overtook her, her eyes rolled back, and she began to smile. She was unable to speak. She looked to her left and saw Frank, who was holding a glass of champagne, which he lifted in her honor. He gave her a reassuring smile.

“I’m so proud of you,” he said to her. An odd thing to say, she thought. She looked to her right and saw Dr. Wiseman standing beside another person dressed in full medical scrubs. It was Gina Wiseman.

“Tonight, my friends and family, we fulfill the prayer request of the most generous person I’ve ever encountered. Tonight, we are going to save a life. Lacie Bartels, your selfless act will never be forgotten. And when that little boy gets his new heart tonight, you can rest in peace knowing you saved an innocent life and helped end a miserable, hateful one.”

Dr. Wiseman’s mask was raised and placed over his face by an assisting nurse. Lacie tried to scream, but she now was unable to decipher between what she may be dreaming and what was real. She looked down and saw him poking her skin with the sharp end of a scalpel, but she felt nothing.

Lacie Bartels watched in an amused sort of horror as the good doctor plunged his scalpel into her chest, drawing a thin red line down to her abdomen, the blood billowing out and staining her pale skin. He lifted back the flaps of skin to the sound of cheers from the crowd. She glanced left and saw Frank cheering, his face filled with genuine joy. The sound of an electric saw snapped her out of her trance, and she heard her own sternum being sawed open. The last thing she remembered was seeing everyone above her, high above the operating suite, looking down and cheering. They cheered the wish of a loving man, a man who only wanted his wife’s hateful heart to be transformed into a caring heart, something that successfully took some eight hours to accomplish later that evening at Presbyterian Hospital in Austin, Texas, where a young boy named Carl Durkins was saved by the heart transplant he miraculously received.

The next morning, an angry, bitter woman, a lonely spinster who had been attending the women’s group at her church along with some “uppity rich lady”, a doctor’s wife, was nearly brought to tears by the news report of little Carl and the extraordinary generosity of an anonymous donor who’d passed away. There, standing next to the parents of this little boy, was the rich lady who’d been in her women’s group. It was the same woman who had driven her crazy with her “do-gooder attitude”. And it would be the same woman who would hand her a glass of champagne at the annual Christmas gala, the very one who would toast her and take her lungs to save a little girl. The woman took a long sip of wine and mumbled to herself. “I guess that lady has a caring heart after all.” And she raised her glass in a toast.

A Caring Heart is from the book Rattlebone Tales, Volume 1, a collection of short, scary stories. You can find the paperback and ebook on Amazon.com.

Grant Kauffman is also the author of Project 14: The Legend of Beelzebub’s Bluff, a young adult adventure/fantasy novel available as an ebook and in paperback on Amazon.com.