On the weekends, Edmar visited the various museums spread throughout the boroughs. Her favorite, in the northern corner of the city, was the Medieval Palace, with its endless marble halls and artifact-filled recesses. It was there that she decided she wanted her very own nicho, a place to set a glowing candle or ancestral effigy. Only, hers would be in the center of her chest.
She considered performing the surgery herself. She would create a vertical incision in her sternum, peel back the flaps of skin, and embed a shadowbox therein. The elasticity of her flesh would bind it in place as it healed.
Or so she imagined.
She became unsure. She learned that the human fascia loses its resilience when severed. Her body would likely reject the implanted shadowbox within days, her system could be overtaken by sepsis, and she could die. She despaired. She abandoned the dream and resumed her staid life, her sullen countenance, and her job scanning kilometers of code for a typo or infection, while on the streets Nazis stormtrooped for their rights and politicians blathered.
The idea festered within her, however, interrupting her sleep with visions and dimensions. She rubbed her chest raw, imagining the feeling of the metal nestled there. She continued her research. Esoteric tomes and online forums alike boasted of radical transformations of much greater complexity and scale, and hers seemed feasible the more she considered it. She finally ordered a customized surgical steel unit four centimeters tall, two wide, one and a half deep.
No local plastic surgeon would consider such a procedure. Her meetings with these men—always men—were concluded in mere minutes. She widened her scope. One doctor on the opposite side of the country agreed to do it but said the shadowbox would rise from her chest like a tomb and would take no heat. It was an absurd idea, he said, and she might as well just stab herself with a hot kitchen knife. Edmar dismissed him, then hired an engineer to address the issues he’d raised.
Finally a female doctor in Brazil pledged to complete the job according to her specifications. The woman spoke no English; her assistant explained that Edmar would have to undergo a breast augmentation and a layer of silicone padding would be laid behind and around the shadowbox to create the recession she required.
She sold her car and took to commuting by bus. When summer arrived, she used her vacation time to fly to São Paulo. She was home four days later, though she nearly missed her flight due to security matters related to the metal in her sternum.
She told no one at work, not even Traugott the manager, and not her few friends and certainly not her scattered family. She remained covered throughout the summer as she healed. A female coworker commented on her enlarged breasts, and Edmar conceded to the rumor of augmentation.
“Good for you,” her colleague said, then in a hushed tone added, “I had lap band surgery.”
By the time the leaves revealed their intention to drop from the trees, the last scab had fallen away from the flesh surrounding the shadowbox. In the meantime, she had invested in custom long-burning candles and a substance with which to bind the stem to the shadowbox’s base.
Edmar had also dieted all summer. Her favorite dress now fit, a black, loose, thin-strapped model that revealed more skin than she’d ever deigned, including her cleavage—and the shadowbox between it. She affixed a candle, lit it. Her chest warmed slightly but not uncomfortably. The shadowbox glowed blue-orange. It looked, she thought, as if her heart were aflame.
Seeking a gradual and circumspect introduction to the world, she began with a foray to a nearby café. Few passersby understood what they were seeing, as it was easy to chalk it up to a trick of the light or to clever jewelry or some techno-tchotchke. Only the barista seemed to understand.
“I—I thought I’d seen everything,” he said.
Edmar smiled. “What do you think?”
“I don’t—I simply have no point of reference for it. It’s like my eyes see it but my brain doesn’t. I mean, is it real? You have a coffin in your chest and there’s a candle there?”
“It’s a nicho. Feel it. The heat, I mean. Lay your hand over it.”
He did so, quickly. “Wow. How does it stay lit?”
“With the love of Christ raging through me.”
“Oh. Yeah, I—”
“Just kidding. Special candles.”
As she sipped her warm drink—the combination of heats bringing on the need to urinate—word spread. Women younger than herself approached to take photos, saying, “What hashtag should I use?”
“I don’t know about such things.”
“Flaming heart? Nacho chest? Shadow girl?”
“I don’t think so.”
Two hours into her return to work, the office manager, Traugott, summoned her to the conference room for a meeting with Jutta from human resources. “Is this a religious thing?” Traugott asked.
“If so,” Edmar said, knitting her fingers together on the tabletop, “you would be wise to proceed carefully.”
“We don’t accommodate cults. Religions are mainstream.”
Edmar laughed. “It’s not religious. It’s me, your beloved Edmar.”
Traugott relaxed. “But why present yourself in such a provocative way?”
Edmar’s shoulders stiffened and a foreign shade of red flooded through her skin. “Why that delusional ring of hair around your skull—is it not decorative? And that tie as well—of no use except to sop up coffee by accident. That gleaming watch—how much did that status symbol cost?”
“I can remove the watch,” Traugott said, sliding his cuff over the timepiece.
“Edmar,” HR Jutta said, “we’re concerned it’s a fire hazard.”
“No more so than a cigarette.”
Traugott sat back. “Smoking is not permitted in the building. Be real, Edmar. What is this? You’re—”
“Plain, a regular person like me. Like Jutta. Common folk. This alteration is beyond the pale.”
Edmar looked to Jutta, who was peering at the tabletop as if the answer to this dilemma were inscribed there.
“Am I?” Edmar said, then immediately though I am. Edmar was aware of her thin lips and protruding ears. A child’s mouth and pale skin. A body that resisted toning and padded itself with fat at the mere scent of bread.
“I have a lawyer,” she proffered, no longer uncomfortable with such lies. “Are we done?”
“At least extinguish it when you arrive here,” HR Jutta said. “No lawyer can get you out of a case of workplace arson.”
“If I do that, will you promise not to force me to cover up?”
Jutta and Traugott conferred with a series of brow arches, hand gestures, and vague expressions.
“We’ll allow it,” Jutta said, and by the time Edmar had returned to her desk, work had spread that a woman was walking around with a flame in her chest.
She visited other coffee shops, a bar or two, careful not to spill her drinks or bump into coteries of rowdy young men. Her notoriety bordered on a mild sort of fame. She posed for hundreds of photos. She let a homeless man light her second candle of the night. The man, who was missing all but the lower nub of each ring finger, trembled as the match neared her chest, her breathing rapid with anticipation. When she ran out of candles one evening, she tucked a dead baby mouse, still pink and soft, inside, half hoping the warmth would rejuvenate it.
Men began to ask her out; dates followed. The candle, Edmar thought, softened her worst features. Often the men were fetishists, themselves covered with tattoos, horns protruding from their brows, split tongues or penises or both.
“This is not that,” she said to these candidates and left after one glass of wine or with her coffee in hand.
The man she preferred was Lammert, a handsome sculler whom she vetted thoroughly with the help of an investigations firm, drawing from the last of her savings to do so. He was not a closet fascist or accused rapist; he was “clean.” A second date followed. On the third she lay back with the candle still flame and let him mount her awkwardly, a distance between them.
“Be careful,” she said.
“I will never suppress your light,” Lammert said as the candle quivered between them.
A fourth excursion was planned, to the country. “Come see my sailboat,” he said. “It is small but nimble. We can run the inlet to the bay. There we can chase gulls and dive into the cool sea.”
“I cannot swim.”
“How do you bathe?”
“It’s complicated, but I manage.”
While packing, a twinge in her chest slowed her. She stood naked before the mirror and noticed scabbing, some pus, and an oily substance. By morning her sheets were soaked with her body’s suppurations. Come Friday afternoon the flesh had peeled back and discharges of various viscosity and discoloration were seeping out. The pain was a thunderclap, sharp and pulsating. She called the doctor’s office in Brazil only to receive a dead line, then called Lammert to cancel their outing.
She booked a time with one of the surgeons who’d refused her. “The warmth from the chest tray—” he said.
“—melted the silicone padding. Everything must come out.”
“It is imperative.”
“I will be nothing.”
“You could die.”
“I would rather.”
“Then this is not the office for you.”
After a day of consideration, she relented. Weeks of healing ensued, resulting in twisted pink flaps of skin, some thicker than others and layered in such a way that it resembled, Edmar thought, a vagina.
Lammert slipped into the ether, never to call again. Edmar returned to work, her reputation once again altered. She kept the sexually suggested gash covered at first, but any clothing, be it wool, cotton, silk, or synthetic, irritated her and brought on nausea. By the end of the day, she was baring her new chest to the world.
As the wound hardened into its new sexual iteration, Edmar settled into it, as if her body were the chassis supporting the thing in her chest. She returned to the cafes, the bars, the hashtags, the moderate level of recognition. But the infection lingered, creeping into the rest of her chest. The implants were removed, then, finally, the breasts themselves.
Her sick leave ran for months, and she was forced to ask her mother, a retired professor, for a loan. When well enough, Edmar walked the sidewalks of her town and sat on benches. That is, until she encountered a celebration for a supremacist who had been elected to office. His minions gathered in force, pumping their fists in the air and calling for purity, until a counter-protest turned the scene into a melee.
A letter of termination arrived. Then an eviction notice. Her belongings were set on the sidewalk, where it was picked apart by the public and animals alike. A few days later she turned up at her mother’s doorstep with a single suitcase, but upon seeing what her daughter had done to herself she recoiled. “No wonder men are waving flags in our faces. You give them fodder.”
“For a moment, Mother, I was myself.”
“You stupid, stupid girl. Don’t be yourself. Be Edmar.”
She took to the streets. She merged with the homeless; it was easy: she simply sat among them. Eventually she met the man who had once lit her candle. He recognized her and invited her to the park to share the contents of his thermos, a warm alcoholic beverage.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said to the man who had nothing, not even his ring fingers.
He put his arm around her. “At least you still have your mind. I lost mine years ago.”
She nodded and drank heartily, then tipped her cup toward him. “I have a long way to go.”
He refilled her cup.
Christopher X. Ryan lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he works as a writer, editor, and ghostwriter. Born on the island of Martha's Vineyard, he has an MFA from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado. His work has been published in a wide variety of journals, online, and in anthologies. He can be found at www.TheWordPunk.com.