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art by Melissa Mead

A Change of Heart

Rachel Halpern is a graduate of Grinnell College and the Alpha Writer’s Workshop. Her story “The Taste of Salt” previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction. She likes old books, fresh raspberries, and well-meaning monsters.

Clara got her first clue in preschool, just before naptime one day, as Ms. Weston read aloud from a massive gleaming book of fairy tales. Clara knew most of them already, though the versions were different, and this Snow White was stabbed with a poison comb before she ever touched an apple. Others, though, were entirely new to her, stories of huts with chicken legs and beautiful forest women with hollow backs.
And then there was the giant who hid his heart so he could live forever. The tale was all about the prince, about his perilous quest to find and destroy the heart, but Clara couldn't help feeling that it was bad enough to kill a person--anyone knew that was murder--and much worse after they'd gone to all that trouble. She didn't cry, because even at four she never cried, couldn't remember ever caring enough to cry, but she felt a strange solemnity come over her at the words like a shadow passing overhead. She could imagine the giant staring with awful, pitiful eyes as his heart was crushed, and she shuddered.
When Clara was thirteen, her parents sat her down in the living room and said they had to have a talk.
They said a, but Clara had a pretty good idea they meant the, and she tried to spare them the embarrassment by cutting them off at the pass. "I pretty much get the birds and bees thing," she told them, hoping that would be the end of it, but her parents just looked more uncomfortable, not relieved.
Clara's mother pushed dark curls neatly off her face into a clasp, the way she did when she was preparing for a confrontation, and said, "Darling, it's about your heart."
For a moment she thought they were trying a different angle on the birds and bees conversation, a sort of "when a man loves a woman" approach, but they looked so serious that it hit her, suddenly, that they meant her literal heart, her real heart. The one that never seemed to pound during gym class even when they had to run the mile, the one Dr. Annin never bothered listening to with her stethoscope and always said was doing just fine.
Clara had been sick when she was very small, sick enough that she remembered it hazily even though she remembered only flickers of that age. Learning to walk was one, the brief jolt of pride as she staggered across a room, a few flashes of places she'd been before she really started thinking for herself. Nothing more. But a lot of those flashes had bright white light and pale walls and cold dry sheets of paper on doctors' tables. She thought there might have been some surgeries, even, but it was hard to place anything from before she was three or four.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked, but she didn't feel the kind of fear they described in books, that people showed in movies, like she ought to feel now that she was probably dying.
"There's nothing wrong with you," her father said, with enough force that Clara supposed it must mean the exact opposite.
"So what is it, then?" she asked, trying not to sound like she didn't believe him.
"There was a procedure," he said, and then looked at her mother for guidance.
"Darling," her mother said again, and Clara had never quite understood pet names. Her mother wielded "Darling" like it could somehow soften whatever she said next, but Clara just found the extra syllables wearing, more time spent waiting for the answer.
"You were very sick when you were little," her mother said. "No one knew what was wrong with you, but you got sicker every day. We thought you might die. The doctors said there was nothing else they could do, that you had less than a week left. They were sorry--they were sorry--sorry they were so useless, I suppose. Pathetic."
"Then we met Dr. Annin," her father said quietly. "She said there was a procedure that no ordinary doctor would imagine, something theoretical, something... implausible."
Implausible was the word her father used for magic, Clara had learned, for the way that sometimes you met someone who could tell your fortune in seashells off the beach, stop a storm with the breaking of a chicken bone. Mostly you saw this stuff on TV, and no one quite knew how it worked, yet. So though there were people who could heal, if they tried, with burned coriander, who sang broken ships out of the sea, they were few and far between, and the charlatans far more common. Her parents did not hold with it, hesitated to believe in magic, mostly, not without good evidence. They did not even seem able to say the word. Clara could hardly believe they would listen to anyone, even a doctor, who said magic would save their child.
"It was the strangest procedure," her mother said. "She used a scalpel but also rose petals, and a cedar box lined with silk, and I can't remember what else."
"Oil-based paint," her father said. "I had to run to the art shop to buy some. Yellow, I think, and violet."
"We weren't allowed in the operating room for most of it," her mother said, "and she told us it never would have worked if you hadn't been so young, still malleable. It was an experimental procedure anyway. But at the end of it you were fine, and she gave us the box...." Here her mother trailed off, and Clara saw something that might have been disgust in her mother's face.
"What was in the box?" Clara asked, and it felt like a call-and-response story, like she had had to ask that question, just then, in just her usual disinterested tone, like a lever she could press to make her parents speak the truth.
Her father lifted a box from the floor beside him and passed it to her. It was roughly cube-shaped, made of smooth dark wood, and it felt heavier than it had any right to in her hand.
She opened it with only a slight hesitation, because the truth was better than not knowing, because she had never understood how fear could be strong enough to stop anyone doing anything.
The box was indeed lined with silk, pale gray and spattered with flecks of paint, yellow and violet and pale blue, a drip of the garish purple down the side as if by accident. At the center was--it took her a moment to realize it was a heart, not quite the shape she would draw on a page and not quite the shape in her anatomy textbook, but somehow neither and both at once, and just opening the box sent a wave of heat over her face, her heart emanating warmth in slow pulses. There wasn't a smell, exactly, more a texture to the air rising from it that felt softer and smoother than the air in the room.
It wasn't very big, but bigger than a baby's heart for sure. It must have been growing with her.
"This is mine?" she asked, even though she knew the answer, because she could not quite imagine letting even someone as reliable and serene as Dr. Annin, even someone terrifically implausible, cut the heart out of a child in hopes of saving it. It was like the giant's heart, she thought. She could imagine it being crushed slowly in front of her, felt the same quiet horror she had felt in hearing the tale. She could not hide her heart in an egg in a duck locked away on an island, however much she might like to, and it was horrifying to have it both beating and not beating in her hand, waves of warmth coming off it against her skin, hideously vulnerable and keeping her safe.
"How do I put it back in?" she asked, and looked up to see her parents' faces stiffen with horror.
"You can't," her mother said, as though the thought were terrible, even obscene. "You don't understand--you were dying. You had days, maybe hours, and no one knew how to stop it. That's all that's keeping you alive, as far as we know."
"Besides," her father said, and she thought he might be trying feebly to sound jovial. "We're pretty sure that makes you immortal. Don't you want to live forever?"
When Clara was fifteen, her best friend Nicole was almost killed in a hit-and-run. Clara went to visit her in the hospital carrying flowers, because that was how it was done, though she couldn't quite see why, since the flowers wouldn't do much for Nicole when she was in a coma.
Nicole's favorite color was orange--Clara had always said hers was as well, because people noticed, in grade school, if you didn't have favorites of everything--so Clara bought tiger lilies and carried them in a neat green-wrapped bouquet. The nurses put them in a vase and left her alone with Nicole comatose in the bed, their faces terribly sympathetic, and Clara stood wondering what she was supposed to do now.
"Sorry about the accident," seemed appropriate, so she said it, and then, a bit less confidently, "Get well soon."
That pretty much exhausted the set of things she knew to say to someone who was hurt, let alone someone who couldn't even hear her, so she stood fidgeting for a bit, and then went to look out the window at the sunlit parking lot and wondered how much longer she was supposed to stand there.
There was a tapping at the door and she turned to see the nurse just stepping in, murmuring something about being sorry to disturb her, and Clara said hastily, "No, it's all right, you can take care of her much better than I can," and was relieved when this earned her an approving smile instead of a frown.
"Well, aren't you grown up?" the nurse said, and Clara smiled uncertainly back because she wasn't sure if she was allowed to smile with Nicole in the bed next to her. Her parents would have told her to go with what she felt--they always wanted her to express her emotions--but she never really felt like smiling, any more than she felt like crying.
At any rate, the nurse kept smiling as she left the room, so Clara decided she must have done well enough. Out in the waiting room, her parents looked up in surprise.
"Done already?" her mother said, and her father hushed her quickly. Clara thought perhaps he assumed she was scared of hospitals, after they'd told her about her heart--they were still walking on eggshells about that two years after they'd told her, fourteen years after it happened. Clara supposed parents were like that.
"The nurse came in," she said, and that was an appropriate response, because her mother's slight frown lightened and they were able to leave the chemical-smelling hospital and return home. Clara went to her room to read because she was probably supposed to be fretting, and had almost forgotten about Nicole by the time her parents called her for dinner, caught up in reading The Great Gatsby for school and trying to understand any of the characters' motivations.
When Nicole got better, Clara walked to her house with a plate of brownies she and her mother had baked together. When she reached the house, Nicole's father looked haggard, but pleased to see his daughter's friend, and he waved her up to Nicole's room. Nicole wasn't allowed to get up yet, but she brightened when she saw Clara and even more when she saw the plate Clara was carrying.
"You brought me brownies!" Nicole said, beaming at her. "You are now officially my best friend for life."
Clara smiled a little, uncertainly, setting the tray on one of the bedside tables. "I thought we were already best friends for life."
Nicole said, "Clearly, I just never understood how much you deserved my admiration until this moment." In spite of what she'd said, she didn't actually reach to take one, and after a second Clara realized she had set the plate to Nicole's right, since she was right-handed, but that that arm was currently in a cast. She picked the tray back up and moved it to the other side of the bed as quickly as she could, before Nicole could protest, and Nicole looked at her in a different way--pleased and grateful, and maybe a little embarrassed, Claire thought; guessing people's feelings was hard, but she'd known Nicole long enough to recognize most of the signs.
"Thanks," Nicole said, her voice going suddenly quiet, and Clara nodded because she didn't know what else to say. "It's just..." Nicole shook her head sharply, as if that might clear the choking Clara could hear in her voice. "I really thought I was going to die, you know? It was... they say your life flashes before your eyes but I didn't have time for that, I was too scared to think about it, it was just..." She wiped impatiently at her eyes with her left hand. "And I can't even leave the house for two more weeks, and I have this cast on, and it hurts, and I know I should be grateful that I survived but I really just want my life back."
Clara could just about recognize fear and pain in Nicole's face, hear it in her voice, but it was literally unimaginable. She reached out to set her hand on Nicole's arm, the good one, as carefully as she could, and got a shaky smile in return.
"And here I'm spoiling your visit entirely," Nicole told her briskly, wiping her eyes again. "After you brought me brownies and everything."
"It's all right," Clara said. "You really should have a brownie, though. My mom helped me make them, so they're actually good."
Nicole laughed a little weakly and took a brownie, and Clara settled in next to her to talk about what she'd been missing at school. By the next time she visited, the story of the accident had morphed from that raw fear into something theatrical, vivid, more dramatic than painful. If she hadn't seen Nicole that first day, she would never have believed it, and she marveled at the kind of emotion nearly dying seemed to produce.
Perhaps she ought to try it sometime.
But she was busy, and anyway, she doubted it would work knowing that probably nothing could kill her. Nicole was always excited anyway, a swirl of test-taking anxiety and laughing energy; perhaps that kind of fear was something only Nicole would feel so remarkably.
When Clara was seventeen, Dr. Annin asked about her personal life at her yearly checkup. It was the first time Clara had not felt like a lab rat, only of interest as proof of Dr. Annin's implausible technique. She answered hesitantly as Dr. Annin took her blood pressure and poked things into Clara's ears, and when the normal exam was over, Dr. Annin asked her to wait.
"Just one more question," Dr. Annin said. "When, do you think, was the last time you were really angry?"
She'd asked it in the same tone she would normally have used to ask about Clara's last period or whether her cold had gone away, and Clara realized abruptly that Dr. Annin wasn't asking because she cared; she was collecting symptoms. Not worrying, but diagnosing.
Lying was an automatic response, and Clara said, "I don't know... Really, really angry? Because when Nicole got hit by a car, I wanted to kill that driver."
Dr. Annin frowned, as though this were not the answer she had been expecting. "It's all right not to feel things, you know," she said. "You can tell me the truth."
"I am," Clara said immediately, and hoped she was faking irritated well enough to pass. She was better at the positive emotions, the ones people usually wanted to hear. "My best friend got hit by a car. How could I not be upset?"
She'd meant it rhetorically, and Dr. Annin took it that way, but she almost wished she'd gotten a real answer. Why wasn't she upset? What was wrong with her? When she got home, her parents smiled at her and she smiled automatically back, a well-trained habit, and then wondered if perhaps, if she were normal, that smile would have been real.
She went to the bank that weekend and got her heart out of her family's safe deposit box. She sat in the cold gray room, box open on the table, and watched her heart silently beat, from moment to moment seeming real and not real, a heart and a metaphor, as she watched.
The table was under the air conditioning vent, leaving her shivering--she had always gotten cold easily. With Dr. Annin diagnosing her whole life, she was starting to wonder if that could be a symptom too. She'd let herself forget everything she knew about the circulatory system after bio class ended, but maybe with a heart she'd be warmer. That sounded nice.
Anger and pain and fear didn't, though, and dying sounded worse. She could still see the look on her parents' faces, her mother's certainty that putting her heart back in meant death as surely as if she'd thrown herself off a cliff. There were diseases that could be fatal in children that wouldn't hurt adults--if it had been one of those, she would probably be fine. If it was some degenerative disorder, though, her mother could be right.
She'd tried to be a good friend to Nicole, these last few weeks, but she hadn't quite understood why she ought to, and she had caught a few strange looks when she failed to respond with expected sympathy. If Clara's parents died, would it matter to her? She was sure it was supposed to.
Her heart felt foggy in her grip, not quite solid, like a lump of pure heat, and her skin tingled as she touched it.
Pressing it to her chest didn't work, even when she unbuttoned her shirt, and finally she dug in her backpack for scissors, broke them apart and drove one end into her chest. It hurt a little, more than a paper cut, and sharper, cleaner, colder where steel met skin. She prodded a bit at the hole and hoped her heart would fit, hefted it and pressed it to her chest again.
The heat seemed to slide from her fingers, trickling into the cut. It flowed faster and faster as she pushed, pouring out of her hands to drip down between her ribs. Then it was gone, and she felt the skin close under her fingers and, beneath it, a stirring like a drumbeat caught echoing in her chest. The rhythm was slow and steady, and though it was hardly proof, it seemed like she might have longer to live than her mother had suspected. She hoped so; dying held a jagged terror now that it hadn't when her mother first described it, and the beating in her chest sped up with the thought, her throat tightening with something that might be panic.
Her hands were bloody, and she started to wipe them on her jeans, realizing just in time that she shouldn't let her parents see the stains. They would worry, and now she understood why--looking at the blood on her hands was suddenly dizzying, brought a wave of nausea and the sudden inability to breathe. For a choked, frantic second she thought something had gone wrong with the heart, beating too fast, her breathing going wrong--was this what dying felt like? She wanted the blood off her hands urgently, smeared it on the silk inside the case until her skin was clean. With the blood gone, her heart rate started to fall, and she took deep breaths until she no longer felt like she might suffocate. She waited until she had mostly stopped shaking to return the box, empty now, to the safety deposit box.
When she walked out of the bank it was pouring, and the rain hit her like a physical blow, shockingly cold. The sheer energy of it made her grin, and she took off running on impulse, splashing through puddles and laughing until she had to stop and gasp for air. When she'd stopped laughing, the cold started to seep in again, and it was baffling how quickly her emotions shifted, now that she had them. Once the rain stopped being a novelty, it just felt cold and heavy and soaking, and she was grateful for the occasional awning, shielding her for a moment. Without the distraction of running, she could feel the fear already coming back, slow suffocating waves that the darkness only intensified. She was going to die--she might have only hours left to live.
She'd never been so aware of being alive. As she walked, she turned her face up to the rain, and smiled.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 23rd, 2013
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