Authors: R. R. Smythe
by R.R. Smythe
Published by Astraea Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
Copyright Â© 2013 R.R. SMYTHE
Cover Art Designed by AM Design Studios
For Connor. The light is always on.
“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”
~Louisa May Alcott
“Great hearts steadily send forth the secret forces that incessantly draw great events.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Home Is Where the Heart Is
I don't remember dying.
“Stand back. Clear!”
Nothing. A feeling of floating, weightlessness.
“Oh, please, please, baby.” My mother's voice, sounding uncharacteristically hysterical.
A spreading, burning under my ribcage. Followed by a surging river of heat to my heart. It stutters, rumbling like a kettledrum inside my ribs, and up into my skull.
“Come on, Mia.” My father, unglued.
The steady âbeep-beep-beep' of a monitor and the whooshing of a respirator. My chest rises up and down without my permission, a puppet to the machine. A rushing sound, like water filling a vacuum, clogs my ears. My new heart, my-new-heart, accelerates, beating so fast it feels as if it will take flight from my newly stapled sternum.
A dull, muted pain aches through my chest, which will, no doubt, intensify when the drugs wear off.
The monitor screams, wails like a kid's tantrum.
Two choked sobs. Momâ¦ and Beth.
Beth is here, how wonderful. I try to move my fingers, to tell her I'm okay. Don't cry.
My brain says lift, but all I get isâ
“Her fingers twitched. I saw them.” Beth's voice, relieved and oh-so scared.
My heart thrums, finally steady and even. It feels strange, too far back in my chest. Like an ill-fitting shirt. I raise my hands to try to scratch it, adjust it.
“Mia? Mia, can you hear me? We're all here, darling. Dad and Beth, and Claire is outside.”
the tube down my throat, choking me. I suck in for air, but my chest rises on its own, interfering with my breathing. I feel like I'm suffocating, despite the oxygen shoved up my nostrils.
“She's trying to breathe on her own. We need to adjust the respirator. Easy, Mia.” Dr. Starzel, my own personal medical savior.
Two unfamiliar, whispering, conspiratorial voices, “I can't believe they found a donor, just in time.”
“The report said it was a homeless girl. She was murdered.”
“For heaven's sake! She may be able to hear you. One more word and I'll have both of your babbling traps fired.” My father chastises the women, whom I guess to be nurses by the soft squeaks of their retreating shoes.
I have a murder victim's heart? Worry tickles the back of my brain. How did they find a donor? How â I'm struck with pain so blinding, I feel my brain shrivel inward. Like a cowering child. And hear nothing.
The weightless returns.
I feel the burning rush of something shoot into my IV. It's liquid fire.
I trace its path up my arm, into my brain, addling it. But relief is the trade-off. The pain backs off.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. It is the only sound I hear, for what seems a very long time.
Soft voices break through the darkness again. I have no idea how long it has been since I was last conscious.
A warm hand holds mine, gently rubbing my fingers. It's Beth, I can tell by the feel of her nails. They're manicured, rounded and smooth. I can smell her, too. Lilacs.
Her guiding voice cuts through the fog inside my head. “â¦for when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don't take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it. If it fails, they generously give her the whole.”
She's reading my favorite book. Little Women. The sole reason I came to know her. She's a descendent of Louisa May Alcott, and our mutual obsession brought us together.
It's so Beth, to know exactly what I need, how to reach me. I love her like a sister. She's my confidant, more so than my well-meaning, driven, type-A mother, Dr. Templeton. Who's much better at doctoring than she is at mothering.
I open my eyes. Blurred, stark images spear my eyeballs, shooting daggers into my head.
“Beth.” I lick my lips, which feel cracked and brittle like hard tack candy. Hard tack candy? Where did that come from?
“I have a migraine. A heart transplant can't be enough. I have to feel like my head's imploding too.” My voice is rough, just a whisper.
Beth's dark chocolate eyes widen in happiness. “Oh, Mia. You're awake.”
Her hands fly up to cover her mouth, like a kid who's been surprised with a present. She is childlike, so trusting and sweet. That's one reason I love her.
“I have to page your mother, she's doing her rounds. She waited a long time. I told her I'd sit with you. ”
She stands to get the nurse, but I squeeze her hand. “Bethy, don't leave me, okay?”
“Never, my love. Oh, and hereâ¦” She presses a notebook into my hand. “I thought you might need it.”
I squint, blinking my dry eyes. There is a letter wedged inside it. No doubt, a rejection from a short story I just submitted. I smile anyway.
Beth knows me too well. Knows I will scribble away my pain onto those pages.
I make a face.
Her eyes dart to the letter. “You are quite the storyteller â no matter what those rejection letters say. Now let me go page your mother. She will be cross if I don't.”
Suddenly, I'm afraid.
My mouth waters with fear.
I hold Beth's hand too long, waiting till the last possible second to release it. I'm alone, with all the monitors and lights. And this new heart. It's like a foreign presence and an uncomfortable silence, like sitting with a stranger.
I feel its strong beats, so much more powerful than my own, damaged heart. That felt at the end like it had only enough power to support a baby bird, not an eighteen-year-old girl. Woman â whatever I am now.
I couldn't walk anymore. The slightest exertion, going up and down steps, would leave me useless and breathless. And then I was crawling up the steps. Not in front of my parents or friends. Only when I was alone, so as not to alarm anyone. Then, into the wheelchair I went. I had nightmares of dying in it; its leg straps coming to life and binding me to it forever. Fusing us together, as one. Rage burns my cheeks. I sneer at my old wheelchair, sitting by the bed, taunting me. I kick out at it, tumbling it over with a metallic crash.
A lightning bolt of pain shoots down my chest and I wince.
I sit still, as goose bumps sprout all over my arms. I'm rarely angry. My mom used to call me the calmest baby on earth.
Now, hot, fast anger, like I've never ever felt, lights up my brain. I gasp for breath â at the cruelty of my situation. Why me? I grab a mirror from the bedside table, and yank down my hospital gown.
A red, raised, stapled incision cuts down my chest, separating my breasts like a long zipper. I picture Dr. Starzel with a pair of pliers, unzipping it to reveal my new, beating heart.
My heart chokes my throat and tears spring up and cut down my face, which is flushed red.
The monitors go wild. I feel the heart hammering against my ribcage like it recognizes its in the wrong body.
The door crashes open and Beth, Mom, nurses, and my best friend Claire all rush to the bedside.
“Oh, Mia, you're awake. Calm down, dear. Everything is fine,” Mom says, in her best doctor voice.
But everything isn't fine. Whispers fill my head. They're thick and heavy, like verbal spider webs, clotting up my thoughts. There isn't enough room for my brain.
I can't make out what the voices are saying. The sounds are muffled, like words muttered underwater.
I watch horror spread across the faces surrounding my bed like the wave at a football game.
The room shrinks to a pinprick, and the weightlessness returns.
Heart of the Battle
Five Months Later
Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. Atrial fibrillation. That's the name Dad gave it. I suck in big breaths, trying to slow it, trying not to panic. The beat vibrates my insides, like the skipping of a vinyl record.
Something is happening. Something more horrible than my heart dying in my chest.
In my head, I am running. It's so very real, like being stuck in a virtual reality game. As if I've stepped into the pages of a book. One of my own historicals. Am I hallucinating? Is it the anti-rejection drugs?
I no longer feel the softness of my old, black sweatpants; they've been replaced by the swish of heavy fabric, a dress. And leather boots that lace halfway up my calf.
Men. Men and their body parts litter the ground like a macabre human jigsaw puzzle.
I don't understand. Even if this is heart-related, even if I got a murdered girl's heartâ¦ how am I here? In a warzone? A warzone from a time long past?
Explosions rock my hearing; blasting sound waves against my skull in surround sound. I swing my head, feeling the danger. I hunker down instinctively.
Where am I?
Whose heart do I have?
A shrill piercing whizzes past my ear, and I drop to my knees. I register moaning, a steady undercurrent to the battle noise. Blood. There is so much blood; the grass is saturated and sticky, as if a red deluge has poured from the sky.
Gun powder, sweat, and the metallic smell of open wounds congeal into a sickly miasma.
I open my eyes, as if seeing for the first time. It is a battle. How?
I run faster, and stumble. My hand shoots out, catching me before I hit the ground. A gasp escapes my lips, and I clutch my hand back against my chest.
My head is shaking on its own. No, no. My fingers are coated in blood from where I've touched the ground. I irrationally feel it will infect me; incite my newly stapled sternum to burst open and join the river of red.
Whinnies of injured horses make me catch my breath, break my patchwork heart.
I think of my own horse and fervently wish she was here. To escape.
Hills surround me. I'm in the center of a natural basin, a basin of crimson. Blood gathers on the green grass in sickening puddles, like a sanguine rainstorm has erupted. All around me, men are dying in every imaginable way. One soldier crawls toward me, missing a leg. My mind flashes to every zombie flick I've ever seen. I shake my head to remove the images.
My mind whimpers, not wanting to see or believe. The whispers ignite, like a mental switch flicked.
My mind catalogues their uniforms, my history obsession still present despite the surrounding insanity. Blue, knee-length frock coats, faded brass buttons from neck to belly. My mind searches for the time period, and I almost hear the whispers' impatience. Their intensity is fading and scolding, fading and scolding and I feel their panic. My mind reels, disoriented, as they momentarily override my judgment. An underlying urge propels me forward. I'm crying now. I inhale and blast back an internal command, “Quiet!”
Their intensity dampens, but my mind still isn't totally my own. I still sense their thick, gossamer sounds entangling my thoughts.
I step over a severed, lost arm, still clutching a rifle.
A soldier reaches up, seizing hold of my dress with his two-fingered hand. Half of his face is missing. I shudder at the blackened hole under his eyeball, so deep. I see nickel-sized spot of white. Bone white.
“Please, Miss. Water?”
I look down and gasp. I do have water, around my neck in a sort of skin-flask. My fingers fumble, but I manage to get it open. I bend over to reach him. My hands shake so badly as I pour it into his mouth, half drains out the side, surreally filling one of the open wounds on his chest. A little tide pool of despair.
The whispers intensify, screaming in my ears â like an angry conscience on overdrive. A driving need twitches my legs â they're ready to bolt without me. To find something. No, someone. Who? Who am I to find?
I stand. My eyes drop and I watch my black boots weave through the dying and the dead, as if through someone else's eyes. I'm crying for the soldiers, but quietly. Moaning, just like they are â only from horror, rather than pain.
I scan the area. Not one human on their feet, save me. Only crawling soldiers. I look at their muskets. Black powder?
A keening squeal pierces my ears. My mouth instantly goes dry and my knees turn to water. What is that?
Something moves in my peripheral vision.
I whirl toward it and stare, gape-mouthed. Pigs swarm over the dead. Feral pigs are scavenging the soldiers' pathetic unprotected corpses. I feel rage on their behalfâthat men so brave should have their bodies unceremoniously mauled.