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a yellowed-paper heart

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Ned Nickerson loses his fingerprints in 1962.

That's the first year he notices it, anyway.

That's the year that he meets her again, and everything changes.

--

Ned, in his years at Emerson (he's seen it change from a college to a university, he's changed his major at least once a year, he's gone to war and come back without anyone noticing), keeps making lists of what he hates. And first on the list, for as far back as he can remember, is that he hates being in love with Nancy Drew.

And he is in love with her. He's tried escaping it, but the liquor stores in this town are all false fronts, and absolutely no one will hear a word against her.

(There are a few who will, and being with her for so long has taught him where to find them: the docks, the back alleys, the dilapidated warehouses, the disreputable haunted houses so halfhearted that he can see the string threaded around the doorknobs, poised and waiting for some innocent kid with an inheritance to come along.)

When she's not around, he can feel himself becoming almost insubstantial. The colors grow vivid when she's near, and there is no one else in his entire world who has that specific shade of hair (reddish-gold, though sometimes it's redder than others), and there is no one else in his entire world who is as lucky or as perfectly consistently charming.

And sometimes, sometimes, there are things she miraculously doesn't know, that he does, and she flashes that grin at him, the kind of grin that would make a saint's knees go weak.

But in this purgatory, this purgatory where he stays nineteen for eighty years, that's as far as it will go. And the one person that makes him almost bloom, almost vibrate with desire at the sight of her, will never, never have him. His ridgeless fingers can touch her nowhere but the small of the back, the back of the neck, the lightest brush on the hand or arm. He'd think she was innocent if she never looked at another man the way he wanted her to look at him, and he'd think she was frigid if she ever showed any awareness, if she ever actually picked up on any of the hints he's dropped.

He wants to fall out of love with her with every single fiber of his being. He wants to graduate, wants to see the world, wants to go somewhere without the trip turning into another damn mystery, wants to make a name for himself and come back to her and hold a conversation with her that doesn't end with him begging her to come back into his life.

A long time ago, the first time (she threw her slippers, he doesn't know how he knows that, she threw her slippers with happiness when I called her to ask for a date that first time), the first time they met, things were different then. Things were better then. She was the one chasing him.

He sees a thousand other men every day who could be what he is, to her now.

--

He can sense that his sheer awareness will draw her, and so Ned hurries through, not thinking, to the gypsy carnival on the other side of town. The rich velveteen purple and dusky red and burnished gold are all pale and dead as winter grass, because she's not here. The crowd is as bland and unoffensive as a dozen shuffled cardboard set pieces in a school play, and the people here look happy enough, but no one ever falls in love, no one ever does anything interesting, unless she's around. It's not just him.

Nancy has fingerprints. The bad guys have fingerprints so she can find them. But Ned doesn't have fingerprints, no loops or whorls or ridges on his hands, and he is becoming one of them, one of the cardboard cutouts.

(He knows why. But he can't give it words or it will be real, more real than he himself is.)

So he bypasses the fortuneteller's tent, knowing that if he stepped inside he would hear a heartwrenching tale about old Romany and a long-lost child and a delicate intricate heirloom or birthmark or tangible priceless inheritance, back to the woods, to the man with the glinting dangerous eyes and the handlebar mustache (they are so easy to find, with those, like neon lights and alarms blaring), a cigarette. Scar on his right cheek. Someone with fingerprints, someone real.

"I need your help."

--

Ned has been saving money from his summer jobs for a long time. Wheat pennies, buffalo nickels, a gold dollar his grandfather gave him. He knows the signs and one day a rare Japanese coin will somehow surface in his collection and Nancy will connect it to an extortion case involving a lonely sad-eyed orphan and her long-lost family and he will be relegated to what he has been for years now, an attendant lord, meant to swell a progress, start a scene or two.

But, for now, he has enough, and a week later he has what he paid for. The vial is old, of course, and the liquid within deep purple and thick and malodorous, and the gypsy carnival has drifted out with the last fall of the autumn leaves, without incident, without tale of a curse or strange unearthly threats from beyond an uneasy grave.

Ned gazes down at it, wondering abstractly if that's the only way out: but the cardboard people die unmourned and he thinks that Nancy can't even die here, and there's probably no way he can either.

He shrugs and drinks it all in one long gulp, quick as the whisky he can never find, and it writhes, burns in his stomach.

Of course, he never thought that severing this would be easy.

--

When he wakes he's in a cold narrow bed, under an old quilt, in an Iowa farmhouse. The winter sunlight carries no heat, he can hear horses outside, and he has fingerprints again.

And for the first time in his entire existence he can't feel her. But the world is still here, immediate, around him. He can feel actual stubble on his cheeks when he touches them. His knee twinges a little (that hired goon kicked it, in a back alley in Mapleton back in '46) and there's a sore spot in his chest (iron bar across the ribs in that fight in '51) and he can feel how cold the air is when it hits the back of his throat.

His clothes have labels in them now. They feel odd when they scratch against the nape of his neck, the small of his back.

He follows the sound of the typewriter downstairs, and is momentarily distracted by the package of store-bought cinnamon rolls on the kitchen counter before he tracks it down.

There are books, more books than he has ever seen outside a library. A white-haired lady, her eyes still sharp, glances up at him from behind the typewriter as he peeks around the door.

He almost feels like he should kneel. Almost.

She pushes her glasses up, the side of her finger leaving a light smudge of ink over the bridge of her nose, and tilts her head.

"I should be worried, shouldn't I," she says finally. "That I've finally lost it."

"I can't answer that, ma'am, since I have no idea where I am."

She sighs and taps a few more keys, each stroke like a pound, and the platen slides across again with a loud chime. "Well, if you're here, you must want something."

Ned shoves his hands in his pockets, but that feels like too much, so he lets them drop again. "Did you make me?"

She laughs, at that. "No. Not really. You were a set of bones in a manuscript outline. I just gave you skin and a mouth and the kind of personality that would intrigue her."

"So everything I am... is just for her."

She shrugs. "Do you want me to obliterate you? I can't, not really. No silver bullets." She smiles, to herself, at that.

"Is she... here? Wherever we are?"

The woman nods at the bookshelf to his left. "Second shelf. You might like number seven."

He reaches for the volume. His heart leaps when he touches the book, and she's on the cover, but not the way she is now, not this subtle copy of herself.

Here, outside his limbo, she's like a fairy tale, one he can choose not to believe in.

--

Millie is having a cup of coffee out on the porch when Ned finishes the book and goes to find her. She's smiling, a little.

"I have to leave for work soon. Did you like it?"

"She's what she used to be," Ned says. He can't put the book down. Apparently it didn't work after all. "And I'm... I'm not that person anymore."

Millie takes a long sip of coffee. "That doesn't exactly answer my question."

He sighs. "I hate being in love with her."

Millie nods. "I think I would, too. Now."

"She doesn't care about me. She just uses me when she wants, and when I'm not around her... it's like nothing is nearly as important anymore."

"That's because you're a plot device, Ned," she says, as gently as she can. "You're there to fill in her gaps. And we didn't leave many."

"So what can I do to fix it?"

Millie shrugs and pulls open the screen door. "There's fresh paper in the left drawer in the desk."

--

He leaves a note (he has handwriting, here, that doesn't look like a typewriter) and goes out, for a long time. He finishes college and finds a job. He lies without guilt. He sleeps with women who don't have reddish-gold hair, and he thinks about things he's never even had the space to consider before, things like children, career, love.

And he keeps finding her, in the used bookstores that irrevocably draw him. He finds her in another one of those books, reads how she shared a forbidden kiss with Frank Hardy, and flings the book to the ground. Then he buys it just so he can burn it, and then he buys another copy just so he can read it, because it makes him sick, and he wants to reach through the pages and shake her, wants to reach back to the idiot he was and make him understand.

But he can't. He needs an exorcism. He needs to stop dreaming of her.

--

It's when he's sitting on that Iowa farmhouse porch that he realizes it.

Millie pulls up, a few years older, a camera bag slung over one shoulder. It's in her eyes; he can only see it because he's watching now.

"It's you," he says, wondering. "You made me fall in love with you."

"You say it like I meant for it to happen." She chuckles. "It was a sixty-dollar paycheck, honey."

"For you to write a story about her."

Millie dips her head. "And what you wanted, well, it wasn't in the cards."

Ned stands. "I want to undo it."

Millie laughs, sidling past him to walk through her front door. "You can't undo eighty years of history. Good luck trying."

Ned follows her in. "But you said— the typewriter. I'm full of ink. And you've put her—you—into my bones. Without her, I can keep doing this forever, but it's not real. So help me. Give me more than this."

Millie puts the camera down on the kitchen counter and sighs. "I can't change her, Ned. I made her a girl who would never settle down with a man. I made her a girl who would never need to have a job or pay the bills or have responsibility. You want a woman. Don't you."

"It wouldn't have mattered, huh."

"Her answer will always be, not yet."

Ned's face falls in disappointment. "But... you made her," he says slowly. "And I can make her too. I can fix her."

"She's not broken."

"A little girl who will never grow up? Never grow at all?" Ned shakes his head. "What's so wrong with growing up, Millie?"

"Nothing," Millie says. "And everything."

--

Millie has no gypsy-vial, no secret talisman. Just the typewriter, and it's not even the same one anymore. She has whisky, though, and it takes a lot to do this.

He sits down at her desk, surrounded by the artifacts of the life he left, and the blank page stares at him.

"If you do too much, she won't be the person you're in love with anymore," Millie says. She's hugging her knees. She should be unconscious, from the sheer amount of alcohol she's had.

"Of course she will."

The blank page stares at him.

"How do you know?" she whispers, mostly to herself.

"I can't love her the way she is, anymore," Ned says. "She needs a heart."

"She has a heart."

Ned shakes his head. "Give her a better one, Millie. Give her mine."