Written by Bryan Caron (from his novel Threads)
He was born without a heart.
The doctor frightened his mother when he said there wasn’t a heartbeat. But she felt him kick and insisted her son was okay. To the doctor’s bewilderment, the child did indeed grow as any other healthy baby boy, and when she gave birth — and the baby cried — she was overwhelmed with excitement. New blood cells circulated throughout his body; the doctor had no other choice than to declare the baby as healthy as any other newborn. The baby’s mother didn’t care; she loved her son and treated him as if nothing was strange or unusual.
But nothing she did could keep him from feeling different. He was always tired, sometimes sleeping over fifteen hours a day, inadvertently making him a passive recluse and allowing him to hide from all of his classmates (and even some of his family) that dared dub him the heartless wonder. The remark hurt him more than his constant headaches, not because it was mean-spirited, but because he knew it was true. He could hear the hearts of others beat-beat-beat in their chests but could never hear his own; it made him long for the day when he could be like everyone else — feel what everyone else felt. But it was only a dream and he hated the world for having it.
This world would be a much better place to live in, if only I had a heart, was his one and only thought.
* * *
She was born with two hearts.
To listen to her hearts beat — boom-boomboom-boom — sounded like a never-ending stream of firecrackers. When she was awake, she was ready to love and live her life with joy and tenderness. When she slept, she dreamed of birds and flowers and white clouds against the clear blue sky. She loved everything and everyone around her, and found hatred to be an absent memory, as if she wasn’t capable of hate at all. It amazed her how anyone could be so cruel as to wish for war.
If only everyone had two hearts, she thought almost daily, with each new headline, this world would be one fantastic place to live.
* * *
They met one warm day in June.
He was fourteen and she looked to be about the same (maybe a year younger). She looked like every other girl he knew with the exception of her fire red hair. It was the hair that he watched for hours on end as her family moved into the house next door. He was almost fast asleep when the loud pop of the exhaust from the moving van abruptly woke him. He saw her, waving goodbye to the neighbor across the street. Her smile was brighter than the setting sun, as it always was, as she pranced back across the street to his house. The curtains were drawn when the knock bounced across the door.
“Go away,” he said. His voice was rough and heavy
She wasn’t about to give up. She knocked again.
“I said leave me alone. I don’t want you here.”
“Then why were you watching me all day?” she asked, feeling a little guilty for using it against him.
She saw him for the first time as he peeled the door open. As their eyes met, her hearts fluttered faster than a hummingbird. She giggled a sheepish giggle, giddy and fascinated. His head remained lowered, shy and reluctant.
“If all you’re here to do is laugh at me, you best be on your way,” he said, tired and a wee bit embarrassed. He started to close the door.
“No, wait,” she said, stopping the door with her warm hand on his. It sent chills through his body, turning him red. It made him wonder what might have happened to his heart.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh. You just make me feel funny inside. My hearts are tickling more than they ever have. Please don’t close the door on me.”
He couldn’t bring himself to look at her, denying her request for the chance to continue to ridicule his freakishness. He wasn’t sure how she could know, but she already made fun of him by joking about her “hearts.” He hated her for that.
“Wait,” she said again. Her smile never once faded. “Haven’t you ever felt this way? You know, a little uncomfortable and shy, without really knowing what to say?”
The sparks in her eyes were haunting. He had witnessed some of the other kids in his class talking about dating and love and what they did behind the bleachers (which in some instances went a little beyond the typical make-out session). But he didn’t understand any of what made the rituals so appealing, most likely because he didn’t have a heart. “No. Now stop making fun of me.”
“I’m not making fun of you.”
“Just go away. I don’t want to talk to you.”
“You certainly seemed interested when you were watching me move in.”
“I wasn’t watching you. I was observing a family move into a house.”
“You were observing a family move into a house?”
“Yes. I watch everything that happens. It’s what I like to do.”
“And do you ever come outside?”
“Only for school. But I hate it and I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“You’d rather stay locked away in your house like a gnome?” She jumped in giddy pleasure. “Or a vampire?” Her smile was charmingly sweet — and nauseating. “Are you a vampire? That would be simply fascinating if you were.”
“Why are you so happy?” he said, mad for no reason.
“Why are you so angry?”
“I asked you first.”
She giggled brightly. “This world is hardly in need of another mad, grumpy citizen. Why add to the sadness when you can brighten up the sky?”
“Oh,” was all he could think to say.
“So why don’t you follow my lead and turn that frown upside down?” she said, more childish and fun-loving than ever.
“Why should I be so happy when I have no idea how to feel even the slightest amount of joy?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. What’s wrong?”
He hesitated. She hadn’t been making fun of him. She really didn’t know what was wrong with him.
Should I tell her? Do I want to risk the ridicule?
“I’d rather not talk about it,” he said coolly.
“Oh, why not?” she asked playfully. “There’s nothing better than talking your sorrows away.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Now go away. You’re bothering me.”
He shut the door to leave her standing on the doorstep. He wasn’t sure if he offended her, but he didn’t think he ever could. And he was right. She simply skipped happily to the next house to introduce herself, and then on to the next, and the next, meeting and greeting everyone in the neighborhood.
* * *
For the next few days, she didn’t go back to see him, but she knew he’d always be watching. It became a game to do as much as she could outside. She rode her bike back and forth along the street, played with her old, dusty jacks on the sidewalk, and tried to fly her broken-down kite when it was only the slightest bit windy. Nothing she did prompted him to join her.
Finally, unsure if there was anything left she could do, she walked back up the walk to his door. Before she could knock, the door was opened. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I want to invite you to watch the sunset on the beach. My mama will take us.”
The day had been warmer than most, and a nice, cool ocean breeze might do him some good. Then again, he didn’t want to leave the protection of his home.
“No thank you. I don’t want to.”
“Oh, please. Don’t you ever have any fun?”
“I don’t like to have fun.”
“Who doesn’t like to have fun? What’s next? You don’t like to smile? You don’t want to ever love someone?”
His face got very grim, and though her smile was perched like a beautiful picture, she felt bad for hurting him.
“I don’t want to go to the beach. I don’t want to have fun. I don’t care about loving anything. I like my life the way it is, and I don’t need you to mess around with it.”
Her smile grew three sizes. “Yeah, right. Fine.” She pulled him onto the porch. His skin was unreasonably cold. She didn’t know what to make of it, but she ignored it, not wanting to offend him any further.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking you to my roof. We’ll watch the sunset from there.”
Before he could object, they were on her roof (the smell of steak from the grill almost made his lips curl). The whole way, her stomach tickled and she didn’t want to let go of him. She let the wind whip through her hair and took a deep breath of fresh air, sucking up the joy the distance (and the boy beside her) had to offer. Her hand remained on his back, even when he wrapped his jacket around his chest and huddled amongst himself, fighting the ache in his head and eyes.
He didn’t look up. She rubbed his back. After a few minutes, she lifted his head. He was asleep. Her smile opened wide with love. She shook him awake. “Hey. Don’t you fall asleep on me. You’re supposed to be learning how to have fun, remember?”
“I told you I didn’t want to. I want to go home.”
“Not until the sun goes down.”
“Why are you making me do this?”
“Why won’t you let me?”
He looked away, tired and dead.
“Hey,” she said. Her eyes were wild with admiration. “Tell me what’s wrong. I promise I won’t laugh.”
“I don’t have a heart,” he said in disgrace. “Okay. Now leave me alone. Go be with somebody normal like everyone else.”
He headed for the ladder.
“Wait. I don’t want to be with somebody normal.”
He looked at her, strangely surprised. “Why do you want to be with me? Why do you want to change me?”
“Do you want to be changed?”
He had to think of an answer, one that never came. They stood for a long time, trapped in awkward silence before she walked him home. On his front porch, she stopped him and said, “I have two hearts.” Then she kissed him.
* * *
For the next two years, she never left him alone and he didn’t keep her at a distance. She defended him, letting everyone know that he didn’t need a heart because he was generous enough to give it to her; he let her into his home and talked to her as a best friend. His attitude, his loneliness, his tired physique didn’t change, and neither did her hospitality, her smile, or her love. They helped each other finish high school and went on to the same college. He didn’t understand her, she didn’t understand him, but they remained together through the best and the worst.
One day, she came to his dorm with her teeth lighting her way. “I’ve got our answer.”
They sat down together. “I’m going to give you one of my hearts.”
“Look.” She handed him a pamphlet. “I talked to this doctor the other day. He said because the surgery would be experimental, he wouldn’t charge us.”
“No. You can’t do this.”
“But I want to do this,” she said. “You deserve to feel what it’s like to have a heart.”
He thought about it over the next few days, wondering all the while, What does it feel like to love? To smile? To feel the beat of my own heart?
“I’ll do it,” he told her one day at lunch. She was so happy, she missed her afternoon class in favor of kissing and hugging him.
Over the next few months, they had several conversations with the doctor about what was going to happen, the procedures and the risks, and then agreed with the few scrawls of a signature. The surgery went better than either of them expected.
In no time at all, both of them had one heart.
* * *
He felt more alive than he had ever felt. Every new day brought new feelings and new emotions, and he relished each one. His skin was warm and the air felt more dependable, like a mother holding her baby to her breast. He had fantasies about her (and on occasion, other pretty girls in his classes). Every time he’d see her, his stomach flew, and his heart lost all gravity. Butterflies couldn’t have been more precious than that feeling of whimsy. Every time he thought of her, and her willingness to give up her heart to him, he could think of nothing else but how gracious it was. In the halls, in bed, asleep, he always thought of her and her generosity. There was no one else he ever wanted to be with. He needed her to fulfill his life, and it felt right.
He finally understood what it meant to love.
* * *
She felt moody and didn’t like it one bit. She was more tired than ever, and in a lot of ways, stopped caring altogether. Her schooling wasn’t as precious as it used to be, and her feelings for him were beginning to sour — a sensation that angered her greatly. She woke up some mornings with sad eyes and a great big frown. It scared her. She worried about her death and thought of bad things happening to her and those she cared for. The people she loved haunted her dreams. She constantly took really hot showers and kept the heater way up in her room to fight the chills that clung to her body. Nothing helped; she was losing all desire to live. She finally understood what it meant to hate, to feel angry, and she was mad at herself for doing what she did. She wanted her old life back, but the only way she could do that was to hurt the only person she cared for so deeply that she would die for him.
* * *
“I want my heart back,” she said one night in his new apartment. Her eyes were shallow and worn; her appearance cold and brutal.
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“Why not? It’s my heart. I gave it to you.”
“I know, and I thank you for that. But I’ve grown too attached to it to give it up now.”
“Please,” she said, and cried for the first time in her life. “I need my heart back. I can’t live without it.”
“The doctor said you might feel this way. You just have to be patient.”
“I can’t,” she bawled. “It hurts too much. I need it back. Please, let me have it back.”
“You don’t give something this important to someone and then ask for it back. I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”
She cried for an hour. He tried to comfort her, telling her he’d help her find sleep and understanding. He let her sleep over that night and felt the chill in her body each time she woke with a new nightmare, returning to sleep with the tears of her pain.
At around 3 a.m., she woke and couldn’t get back to sleep. Thoughts of her second heart and how it made her feel kept her eyes wide open. Without it, she was dying; she could feel herself disintegrating inside. To see if she could walk off her anguish, she got up to go to the bathroom. When she was through, she looked at herself in the mirror. “It’s my heart. If he won’t give it to me, I’ll just take it back.”
She walked into the kitchen and grabbed a sharp knife from one of the drawers. Without hesitation, she silently inched her way back to the bedroom and sliced his chest open. He never felt a thing; he was dead before she was even through cutting. She shoved her hand into his chest and when she felt the beat of her heart’s love in her hand, she pulled it from his chest. She cried with joy at the recovery of her reason for being.
She quickly stabbed herself in the chest. A cold slice of ice ran the course of her body as the blood covered her icy skin. She felt weak in the knees and had to sit.
“You’ll make it all better,” she said and shoved the heart into her chest, placing it next to the other.
“You’ll make me happy,” she whispered. “Make me happy.” She forced herself to smile as the knife fell to the floor.