His Giant Heartbeat
by Natalia Theodoridou
I smoke with my back to the caravan while I wait for B and his client to finish. It’s a drippy afternoon, deep in the fenlands. We’ve parked the caravan next to a mere, marshy and rotten green. The air smells damp, the ground is soft and uncertain, the kind that might swallow you up whole if you put your foot down wrong. There are birds, and frogs, and foxes, far away. I guess it’s peaceful. Two years since humanity flatlined — well, most of us, at least — and the rest of the world doesn’t give a toss.
I inhale. The smoke burns my lungs. I close my eyes and savour the pain — there are so few things one can enjoy these days. B doesn’t like it when I smoke. He clings to old ideas. I get it.
Eventually, the client steps out of the caravan. A balding, pale man in his fifties. He smiles a tiny smile. The poor guy looks like an embarrassed ferret. I beam at him as he hands me a hundred quid. He went for the ultrasound, after all.
“Come again,” I say. I catch a glimpse of scar tissue poking up from the collar of his shirt. Heart surgery, probably. Imagine the irony behind that story.
“Will you be here a while, then?” he asks.
As if. As if there is a here, outside a nothing town in the middle of nowhere marshes. “A couple of days. We’re on our way to a concert down near the coast.” I point at the posters plastered on the side of the caravan. THE AMAZING BEATING HEART. This gig is the biggest one we’ve been able to land in a while. B is a cult sensation in these parts, apparently. “You should come,” I say, trying not to cringe at my half-hearted sales-pitch voice.
The man mumbles a thank you something something and backs away towards his car.
I let a couple of minutes pass as I watch the car speed away and disappear in the distance, wondering where they go when they leave, where they come from. Then I go back to the caravan. I linger near the door while B wipes gel off his shaved chest. His movements are slow. Resigned, almost.
“You OK?” I ask.
He doesn’t look up. “Fine,” he says.
He used to say he enjoyed the connection to the people that come to us. Brief, intense. He resents it now. One too many sad sacks pushing their ears against his chest, trying to find something they think they’ve lost. It’s not about his heartbeat at all, of course. His rare, rare heartbeat. He knows that. They know it too. Of course they do. But who would ever come out and say that? Not us, certainly; that’d be bad for business. And anyway, we need the money.
I miss you, I want to say. What happened to us?
“Dance with me?” I blurt out instead, for no reason at all, or no reason I care to figure out. There are some wounds even I don’t wish to put my finger on. And then I laugh nervously, because I regret asking right away. Remember how we used to dance, love, back when both our hearts beat? We didn’t even need any music, did we?
We never dance any more. Why don’t we ever dance any more?
B looks at me with the kind of look I don’t want to dwell on because, if I think about it too much, it might turn out to be pity or indifference. Or worse. My hand flies to my left breast pocket, feeling for what is no longer there. A habit, no good now. I pretend to look for my lighter, as if it matters.
At night, in bed, I lay my head on his chest, hungry for his warmth, his beat, his tempo.
He pushes me away gently. “Not tonight,” he says. “I’m tired.”
Tired? Or tired of me? I don’t ask. Thirty-five million beats a year is hard work, love. He used to say that, back when it was all new. The lub-dub fetish, the beating heart vice, the puns about cardiac arrests and heart failures — all of it. He doesn’t say anything now.
I retreat to my part of the bed and cross my arms, intensely aware of the silence in my own chest.
We have our first walk-in early the next morning. B has just finished his coffee. I don’t think he should be drinking that much coffee in the first place. I tell him so. He says it makes his heart go fast. Says it like that’s a good thing.
The walk-in is a young lad, barely any stubble on his chin, almost a boy. I look him up and down out of reflex — after a few months in this line of work, you stop judging. And it’s not like we ID people. We’re not doing anything illegal, or at least no one has bothered to pass a law about it. I guess people are still busy getting used to this dead-end world we live in now.
I point at the little chalkboard with our prices. “Stethoscope, ultrasound, or skin-to-skin?” I ask.
He looks at his shoes. “Skin-to-skin,” he whispers, so I make him wash his face while B peels off his shirt.
The boy pays me upfront. He holds the money out in front of him, avoiding my eyes, as if apologizing. I don’t know why they always pay me and not B. What do they take me for? Some kind of pimp?
I tend to leave the caravan when they do their thing, give them some privacy, but this time I don’t. I sit in the corner and watch.
B lies on the bed, bare from the waist up. I can see his pulse drumming the thin skin on the side of his neck, and I look away briefly, embarrassed, as if I’ve caught a glimpse of something illicit, or vulgar, better kept hidden under layers of clothes.
“Is it okay if I take off my T-shirt?” the boy asks.
B doesn’t normally allow that, so I expect him to say no. Instead, he glances at me and says it’s fine. He’s calm, reassuring, almost tender.
The boy kneels by the bed and leans over to place his ear on B’s chest. I can tell when he first hears the heartbeat. I can always tell. He takes in a sharp breath. Then he sobs, long and hard.
I chain-smoke as I drive us through the fens towards the coast.
“You smoke too much, love,” B says. An echo of old concern, I know, but at least he’s trying, even if it’s only out of habit.
I take the fag away from my lips and laugh. There are dark circles under his eyes. “No shit,” I say. He still makes me laugh.
B stares out the window. His fingers tap a silent rhythm on his knee, lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.
“Do you ever wish you knew them?” he asks after a while. “As people?”
I keep my eyes on the road. Would my heart beat harder now, if it could? “No,” I say. My hands are cold, and there’s this stiffness in my knuckles that makes gripping the steering wheel hurt. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask.
We don’t speak again the entire way.
But I do make up stories about them.
The balding man in his fifties spends his days watching heartbeat videos on YouTube — heart transplants, artificial heart experiments, heartbeat music compositions. He alternates between porn and hearts. At night, he has wet dreams of naked women holding pulsing hearts against their breasts and moaning.
He remembers what it was like to have a beating heart inside his chest — an animal trapped in a cage made of bone. He had always felt that thought made him unoriginal, somehow.
A couple of years ago, he had open-heart surgery that left him with a scar running down the middle of his chest. His wife nursed him back to health. When she was sure he would survive and he could make it on his own, she left him. Then, barely a month after that and before he had even gotten used to her things missing from their house, his heart stopped beating. Not just his. Everyone’s.
When he hears about the man with the beating heart on reddit, he imagines he should be excited, remembers what this excitement should feel like — a quickening of the breath, a hot, sharp pressure in his chest. He feels nothing. He doesn’t entirely believe in this man’s existence, but he goes out to find him anyway.
After he leaves our caravan, he drives all the way to the sea. He calls his ex-wife, but she doesn’t pick up. He thinks he hears a murmur in his chest, something shuffling, old and languid, like the world.
The lad has a different-yet-similar story. His girlfriend died just before everyone’s hearts stopped beating. She was completely healthy, until her heart just stopped. He was away on an exchange trip when it happened. Her parents couldn’t reach him. When he finally heard, he wished his own heart had stopped too. He wanted to be rid of this constant internal beating that bruised his insides, to be freed from this terrible solo dance. He wished the whole world’s heart would stop.
Days later, it did. He still blames himself.
I realize I imagine both these people are trying to recreate something lost because of a woman who was very important to them. This is probably not true. I am probably projecting, thinking wishfully. I’m aware of that. So?
The turnout at the concert is good — better than we expected. This should keep us going for a while. B really is a hit in these parts. The lady in charge of the venue tells us they even had to send people away. She elbows me conspiratorially and nods towards B.
“He’s quite the heartthrob, isn’t he?” she says, winking.
I pretend-giggle at her pun. “Isn’t he,” I echo.
We go on stage, and I kick us off with some Rainer Maria Rilke, my usual thing. “Who sings the distant heart?” I scream into the microphone, and the crowd goes wild while some technician is hooking B up to the amplifier. Yes, I am part of the programming now. THE PULSING MAN AND THE FLATLINE GIRL WHO SPEAKS VERSES ABOUT THE BEATING HEART OF GOD. I go on, rile them up, get them ready for what they want: “Who sings the distant heart which safely exists in the centre of all things?”
Then the technician retreats and it’s just B and me on stage — B all hooked up now, the lub-dub of his heart spilling from the loudspeakers, steady and tense and hypnotic. The crowd holds its fetid breath. What are they waiting for? I catch B staring at me, tired, exhausted, looking a thousand years old. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. I know, love, I want to say, thirty-five million beats a year is hard work. Did I say that out loud? No, I didn’t. And all of it on your own, by yourself, all the time. I’m dizzy. I don’t move. B doesn’t move.
I breathe into the microphone, my head light, my vision blurred. I think I spot the lad from yesterday in the crowd. People press in around him. He covers his eyes with his palms, and he mouths silent words. “I’m sorry,” I think he says. “I’m so, so sorry.”
B’s heart misses a beat right then. It rips through me, that pause, and my knees buckle for a second. As if on cue, I speak again into the microphone. “Dance,” I say quietly, my voice almost drowned out by his giant heartbeat pulsing seismic through our bodies, his tempo again present, moving, demanding. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. The crowd stares at B, rapt, electric, in adoration.
Do they love you more than I do? I want to ask. My chest hurts, still.
“Dance,” I say again, to B, to the crowd.
And they do dance, love, they do, they do.
About the Author
Natalia Theodoridou is a queer immigrant writer and editor, the winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, and a Clarion West graduate (class of 2018). Natalia’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nightmare, Fireside, and elsewhere. Rent-a-Vice, Natalia’s first interactive novel for Choice of Games, was a finalist for the inaugural Nebula Award for Game Writing.
About the Narrator
C. A. Yates has written lots of stories and poetry for the BFS Award winning press Fox Spirit Books. Her most recent work has appeared in Kristell Ink’s anthology Hanging on by Our Fingertips, Fox Spirit’s Furry anthology The Jackal Who Came in From the Cold, and she has had several pieces of flash fiction featured in the online magazine, The Sirens’ Call. She has also narrated for podcasts such as Pseudopod, Cast of Wonders, and StarShipSofa. She is currently working on a collection of her short fiction and poetry, as well as bashing away at a novella. Find her online at www.chloeyates.com and she tweets as @shloobee.