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Winner of the 2019 OWT Short Fiction Prize

Valentine’s Day was always busy at Piece of My Heart. The couple waited in the doorway until I had a chance to dash over and greet them.

“Can I take your name please?” I asked.

“Jackson,” the man replied. “We have a booking.”

They were an odd couple. She was so thin she looked like she might snap. Her big blue eyes darted as if looking for danger. He watched his footing as I showed them to their table. I slowed down to accommodate his limp.

When I reached for the woman’s coat, she recoiled. As Jackson helped her out of it, I noted the three stumps on his left hand. I draped the coat over my weaker left arm, which immediately started to ache.

“Can I get you some drinks?”

House red. I offloaded the heavy fur in the cloakroom and headed to the bar. My arm throbbed. The surgeon who removed the 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 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. Sweat glistened 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 missing only the little finger, on top of the left.

“Today we have pomegranate syrup with toasted walnuts, served on a bed of wild rice.”

“That sounds delicious.” He was probably no older than forty, although he moved like a much older man.

“We also have pasta 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.” Jackson said. He reached across the table and took hold of his date’s hand. “Karen?”

“Pasta.” She gulped water.

I jotted their order down on my pad. “And what gifts are we offering today?”

“Ring finger.” He held up his four-fingered right hand. “Both of us.”

Karen looked like she was going to throw up. Jackson squeezed 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 Karen. My colleague helped Jackson out of his chair and supported him towards the men’s gifting room.

Karen’s gown 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 about 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 eighteen when I gave it to Samuel.

“Ready?”

Gingerly, she took my elbow and we walked toward the women’s gifting room. Her body trembled against my arm.

“Wait.” She stopped. “Where’s the bathroom?”

I forced the frown off my face. “Right over here. I’ll wait for you.”

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 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.

I flashed my biggest smile. “All better?”

“I can’t.” She covered her face with her hands.

What a tease! Jackson had brought her to the best gifting restaurant in town. Our tables don’t come cheap. And she hadn’t even backed out in advance, but waited 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. 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,” I said.

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. “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 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.

I thought of Daniel, Samuel, Jonathan, Miles: the men to whom I gifted these parts of myself. Each time I thought he’d be the one. Many evenings, drinking alone after work, I’ve wondered how I could have been so wasteful.

“Sometimes it is,” I lied.

I reached out my hand but she shuddered, as if I’d offered 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.

“Wait!”

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.

He looked up as I approached, his eyes wide, as if he were expecting the bad news.

“I’m sorry,” I began.

“She’s gone, hasn’t she?” He hung his head. “I knew it.”

“I really am very sorry,” I said. “Had you discussed…”

“Of course! I’m sorry. 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, 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 at school.” 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 Evie. We had a fairytale wedding, ceremony on the beach, and things only got better from there.” He stared at his pincer-like hands, crumbling the bread into pieces. “Evie was only thirty-eight when she got cancer. 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. But to run away, like I’m disgusting, like love is disgusting?”

He shook his head. I touched his shoulder and looked into his eyes.

“I’ll be right back.”

I rushed into the women’s gifting room, my chest 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.

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.”

“What?”

“My ring finger. Take that instead.”

“You want to give a gift to a customer? You don’t even know him.”

“Please.”

She shook her head. “You’re crazy.” But she got the saw from the wall.

While she cut, I considered how stupid I was being. 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 it came clean away. When I wiggled my remaining fingers, pain shot through my hand, but I knew it would heal. I trusted Rita.

“Don’t move.” She wrapped a bandage around my hand.

There wasn’t much time, but the kitchen staff were used to rushing orders; many a customer dithered, waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in, while their partner breezed through the gifting. While I waited, I fixed my make-up in the women’s bathroom, nervous as an intact preparing for her first date.

Finally, I went to the kitchen and 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.

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Read more stories like this on my website: www.hannahwhiteoak.me or follow me on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak

Writer — follow on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak - website hannahwhiteoak.me

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