I hope everyone has a great Valentine’s Day weekend — sharing the joy that only romantic love can bring. While I don’t quite buy The Beatles’ “Love is all you need” sentiment, love is pretty high up there on the list. My son was busy this week making Valentines for the kids in his class, and that exercise reminded me of this short story I wrote 20 years ago; it remains one of my favorite short fantasy tales that I’ve written. It originally was published in Sirius Visions magazine in 1994 and was reprinted in my Vigilantes of Love collection. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
TRICIA TUGGED AT THE HEART on her sleeve. Her face wrinkled in complaint, but after awhile, it came loose, ripping from her arm with a sound like Velcro separated under water. She held the heart with pincer fingers, avoiding its clumsy pulsing attempts to reattach itself.
“Would you take this?” she asked the boy sitting at the other end of the bench from her. “I don’t want it anymore.”
His name was Mark Fisher, and his sleeve was not marred by any such organic accoutrement.
Mark scratched the back of his head. “It’s kind of gross,” he said quietly. “But it’s also kind of cool. Sure, I’ll take it…”
Tricia surrendered the drippy organ to the soft-spoken boy.
She’d seen him sulking around school a lot, and earlier had decided he’d be just the kind of sucker who’d accept the harness of a heart.
Let him, she thought, watching him toy with the steadily throbbing muscle. It climbed up his arm, a centimeter at a time, coming to rest just above the elbow.
She felt a strange hollow pain her chest and throat when a smile crossed Mark’s face. Determined to enjoy her new freedom however, Tricia skipped away, leaving her heart in the hands of the grinning boy.
Tricia thought she’d be ecstatic about getting free of the heart on her sleeve, but the farther she got from the bench where she’d left it, the slower her steps became. It had been a burden, she reminded herself – always announcing to people it was there, making it difficult to blend into a crowd, getting her into trouble in school and with her parents because of its compulsions — she was much better off without it. But as she answered the bell to return to class, her face hung listless, her arms dangled limp as muslin drapes in a house with no windows.
“Hey Trish – you wanna come over today after school?” a voice called from down the hall. Sally Ketchal, the most annoying kid in class. Tricia had found excuses for not going home with Sally a hundred times this year, but now she found her mouth dry of words. She shrugged and nodded.
“You will?” Sally squeaked. Tricia winced inside, but said nothing. “Great! We can play Barbies and maybe my sister will make brownies and…” Sally chattered beside her all the way to class, but Tricia didn’t hear a word.
In Tricia’s head, over and over, she listened to the slurping, tearing, horrible sound of the heart leaving her sleeve – and wondered why it had taken her will with it.
Math class seemed to drag on forever. Until something strange happened: Mark Fisher actually raised his hand and answered a question. She couldn’t remember ever hearing him speak in class before. But now, as he did, she saw her heart — now his heart — beat faster in satisfaction.
That night, Tricia tried to remember why she had wanted to give away her heart. From the moment it had left her arm, she’d felt empty — and bad things kept happening to her.
Mrs. Engelbright had called on her in class and she hadn’t been able to spit out the answer. Everyone around her smirked and whispered. Then she’d had to endure the inane prattling of Sally all afternoon because she couldn’t seem to open her mouth and change the subject, say shutup or anything. It was not a problem anyone would have ascribed to her before. And then, to top it off, she’d gotten grounded for being late to dinner. Instead of wheedling her way out of it as usual, she’d glumly accepted her punishment (as her parents passed each other sideways glances of shocked surprise).
Mom had lectured her over and over about not speaking her mind to any and everyone, but Tricia had now come to the conclusion that letting her heart rule her head was tons better than having no heart at all.
Lying in bed with tears dampening her pillow, Tricia decided she had to get back her heart, loud obnoxious ornament that it was. Without it, she felt as free as a lion in a cage.
* * * * *
Tom Harris looked up from the comics rack in surprise. It was that dweeby quiet kid – Mark. What could he want?
“Have you seen those Anne Rice comics they’ve got about that vampire? They’re really cool.”
“Yeah,” Tom grunted. “I’ve got ’em all.”
“No way!” Mark gushed, oblivious to Tom’s leave-me-alone stare. But Mark’s newfound enthusiasm was infectious, and the Anne Rice series was one of Tom’s favorites. Soon they were interrupting each other in excitement. By the end of the day, they were fast friends.
* * * * *
The following day during lunch recess, it was Mark who found Tricia, sitting silent on the bench outside. Their positions weren’t totally reversed – he was not there to trade away his newfound heart.
“How ya doing?” he asked, with a cheer Tricia remembered once being her own. “Okay,” she replied, but her eyes seemed far away. Trapped inside her ribs a voice was yelling, “I’m horrible, I want to scream, I want to cry and I can’t open my mouth! Please, please help me!”
But she only smiled sadly.
“Are you still glad you gave this to me?” he asked a little guiltily, pointing at the bright blob on his arm. He didn’t want to give it back, but he knew it must be pretty valuable. It was a very forward question for Mark, but he felt good asking it.
Tricia nodded, but Mark noticed the gleam in her eyes. She looked away, but not before he saw the tear tracing a slick path down her cheek.
He wanted to turn and run. His heart skipped a beat. She did want it back. He wanted to shut his mouth and walk away. But he couldn’t hide from what he saw – not with this heart on his sleeve. It seemed to push him at the girl.
Instead of retreating, he sat down next to her.
“You want this back, don’t you?” he said quietly. She shook her head again, but he pressed on. “Without it, you’re just like I was, aren’t you? You can’t say anything, can’t do anything – nobody sees you.”
She looked at him with a funny expression. “Yes,” she said, her voice trembling.
“I don’t ever want to be like that again,” Mark declared, thinking of all the times his face had reddened as he fled in angry impotence from the taunts and jeers of the other kids. Of all the times his parents had stood behind him nudging him forward, forcing him to stand in the middle of groups of people when he only wanted to run and hide. Of all the times he’d heard adults say things that he knew were just flat wrong, but his mouth had remained locked shut.
And then he smiled as a possibility came to him. It risked everything he’d gained in these short twenty-four hours, but if it worked…
“Maybe… Maybe we could share it,” he suggested.
Tricia looked puzzled. Mark slid closer to her on the bench, and then closer still, until their arms touched.
Her eyes widened and she moved away. She huddled in the corner like a trapped possum, pinned in by the armrest at the end of the bench.
“What?” she whispered.
And then Mark mushed his shoulder against hers, and she felt a familiar tug on her arm. Fingers of warmth and energy flowed into her, spreading through her body. She had felt dead, empty. Now she felt alive again. The scared lines vanished from her face and were replaced by a sparkle in her eye. Tricia felt her tongue loosen, her limbs lighten.
With the joy came a shadow of compassion; she didn’t want to sentence this boy to live in the deadly-quiet pit forever.
She saw his face darken, his lips clench, as the heart began tearing away from his arm. She realized what taking back her heart would mean to the boy. She couldn’t do this to him… not even if it meant her own imprisonment. She placed her hand on his skinny chest, closed her eyes and shoved.
* * * * *
When he pushed his shoulder against hers, Mark felt the vibrance and energy draining from his arm. Suddenly, he was afraid.
He didn’t want to give up the heart; he didn’t want to be the cowed, quiet loser that everyone ignored, a boy trapped within himself.
He desperately wanted to pull free of the girl, keep the heart to himself. But he reminded himself that the heart was hers, and if it wanted to go back to her, then he couldn’t keep it prisoner on his own arm. He understood the feeling of being trapped too well, and he saw in her face that the heart was even now keying open Tricia’s inner lock.
Mark felt his tongue tightening and inwardly cried, “No, don’t take away my voice again!”
Then Tricia’s hand was on his body, pushing him backwards, separating their heart-joined arms. With a rush of indrawn air, he felt their connection cut, and the playground spun dizzily before his eyes. He blinked, twice, trying to slow the divebomb attack on his senses.
Mark shook his head to clear the cobwebs and saw Tricia doing the same.
At the same moment, eyes wide, mouths open in surprise, each raised a finger to point at the other’s arm.
There, above each of their elbows, throbbing contentedly, perched a glowing, red, beating heart. They were smaller by far than the single heart the boy and girl had passed between them, but that didn’t matter.
Mark felt his tongue was tighter perhaps than it had been an hour ago, but certainly more free than before he had taken the quivering heart Tricia had offered him yesterday.
Tricia was smiling. Reaching slowly across Mark’s lap, she took his hand. The heart on his arm beat faster. Hers quickened visibly in response.
“Maybe I won’t get in so much trouble now that it’s smaller,” she mused.
“Maybe they’ll grow,” he answered, and they stood.
Hand in hand, neither yelling nor sulking, they answered the bell signalling the end of recess.
The Kindle and Nook
editions are currently on sale
for Valentine’s for just $1.99.