by Rebecca Schwarz
"He seemed like one who is full of joy, and had
My heart within his hand, and on his arm
My lady, with a mantle round her, slept."
Dante Alighieri — La Vita Nuova
Even when the room is vacant, the hearts beat without a sound, each to their own rhythm. Lined up in jars on shelves along the wall, their systolic contractions ripple the surface of the clear fluid that surrounds them. The hearts beat, peeping out from behind hand-written labels that list future recipients. The hearts beat, growing muscle tissue. Growing stronger.
• • •
There were new empty jars stacked in the tattered cardboard box by his door when Dan came back on shift; offerings left by unseen Clinic staff on their way from the employee parking lot to the floors above. Dan smoothed the crinkled sign taped to the painted cinderblock wall above the box. On his first day, he wrote "Only Glass" in thick grease pencil on the brown butcher paper.
Only glass, but any glass would do. He gathered them up, one pickle jar and a couple of large jam jars. Inside, he removed the store labels, loaded the jars into the boxy, white sterilizer under his worktable, and started it up. The Clinic could provide standard containers, but he preferred these for the variety of shapes and sizes. Better to fit each individual heart.
He turned on the old fluorescent magnifier lamp, put on his glasses, and pulled the plastic basin with yesterday's delivery into the bright circle of light; a heart the size of a lemon, soaked in a cloudy chemical bath. He gloved up, slid the basin over to the sink, and carefully poured the liquid out until the heart settled, quiet and cold, into the palm of his hand.
The sterilizer chugged companionably under the table as he inspected the heart. Most of the native muscle tissue had dissolved, revealing the translucent collagen underneath. The structure looked sound, no obvious congenital anomalies. Another twelve hours and he would know more. It would be entirely without color by then. A ghost. A scaffold ready to be hooked up to a blood supply and seeded with a recipient's stem cells.
Outside, the faint beat of her footsteps grew louder; rubberized work boots under her light, determined gait.
He poured fresh solution into the basin and dropped the heart in. She was so close he could hear the squeak of the plastic handle against the Styrofoam cooler she carried.
The medics were contractually obligated to deliver all donations, even what the thoracic surgeons pull in the OR. Most of the medics did't spend any more time in the basement than it took to abandon a cooler next to the appropriate growlab door. But Bea was different.
She knocked on his door.
"Just a minute," he said, frozen with anticipation for an instant before yanking off his gloves and opening the door. Bea stood there, smiling, her pale oval face made childish by the baseball cap she wore. She wasn't that young, but still quite a bit younger than he.
"Special delivery," she said.
"What's so special about it?" Dan asked, backing into the room so she could put the cooler on the table.
"Every heart is special," she replied.
They always started with this exchange. The candid way she looked at him made him think that maybe she saw something more than a rumpled middle-aged recluse, but he was sure she was like this with everyone.
He scrubbed the gray stubble on his chin with one hand and reached for the papers she held out.
"Let's see about that," he said. Their little litany over, he retreated to study the paperwork.
She dropped her cap on the table next to the cooler, the letters EMS stitched in white against navy, the back open to the last snap to accommodate her voluminous hair. A natural redhead, she always kept it bound in a short, thick braid that ended at the nape of her neck.
She walked past him, looking just like that picture Rossetti painted of his wife. The Beata Beatrix. He had a copy of it in a book of pre-Raphaelite paintings he found at a garage sale, when he used to go to things like garage sales. He'd read about her in the book. She'd been Rossetti's model, became his lover, then his wife. When she died young, he'd painted her over and over in lush, living colors. In the Beata Beatrix, an angel held a burning heart behind her.
He had thought of tearing the page out to hang on the wall above his workspace, but the resemblance would be too uncanny. She would see it, and what would he say? Instead, he kept the whole book hidden under the sloppy pile of forms at the far corner of his worktable.
The form in his hand was crammed with information in a tiny font, none of it relevant to him. The donor's name was redacted of course. He picked out the words "middle-aged," "male," and "uninsured." Most of the time the paperwork was nothing but a mass of fabrications, but that's the Clinic's business, not his.
"This one's new." She pointed to one he had just seeded with stem cells and hooked up to a blood supply. With barely any muscle grown yet, its contractions were still sporadic. It jerked in one convulsive beat. She let out a surprised chirp followed by a laugh.
He could imagine her at work. Her bright, friendly way so reassuring, putting those in need of rescue at ease as she delivered them to the Clinic.
He should say something; respond somehow. "It will be beating more regularly the next time you visit," he managed.
She smiled and turned back to the shelves, strolling along towards the hearts that were more developed. He gloved up again and busied himself with the cooler, breaking the seals and setting the top aside, digging through the crushed ice. He felt for the organ while watching her look into each jar.
He pulled it out. It was still warm enough to melt the ice chips clinging to it. The flaccid muscle jiggled, calcifications rimed the creases around the ventricles. This donor was elderly, sedentary, and had a terrible diet. The underlying scaffold would never be good enough for the Clinic. He put the organ back into the pink, slushy ice, resealed the top and made a note on the paperwork.
"So many new lives," she said.
"You save lives. I just refurbish the parts."
"They all look perfect."
"They aren't. Each heart has its foibles," he said and then couldn't help admitting, "but they're all quite good."
"The best. I'll never afford one of your hearts. Hand grown. You should hear the way the surgeons upstairs talk about your work."
"I'd grow one for you." His voice was barely audible even to himself. It would be easy. The Clinic required all staff to submit a sample of stem cells and the paperwork could be faked.
She moved along the rows of jars to the far end of the room.
He pulled down a transfer form and filled it in.
"You're not taking that one?" she asked.
"I'll send it to Dearborne Indemnity's Lab; they've got some new method to revitalize the collagen in older units. They combine what they can salvage with synthetic parts and…" He trailed off, sure that that was more information than she wanted.
She turned away from the far corner of the room, and the gurney he'd nicked from inventory to use as a bed, and strolled back to look out the window.
His lab was small, illuminated only by his work lamp and a narrow window that ran along the top of the long wall. Standing right up against the shelves, he could look up through the masses of surgical tubing feeding the growing hearts and see a cement culvert topped by a line of manicured grass and, above that, a strip of sky.
"It's snowing outside, you know. First snow."
He nodded and made a noise in his throat.
"You should come out and see it," she said.
"Maybe I'll have dinner in the Atrium Cafeteria."
She made a face.
"What? I like the food there," he said.
"When was the last time you went out?"
"I go out."
"You do not," she countered. "If you did, you'd know how terrible that food is." She blew a puff of air through her lips in exasperation. "Tell you what, John and I are grabbing a bite at the Fresh Up Diner on Drury Street. You could come with us."
John was her partner. He never brought deliveries to the lab, or if he did, he never knocked. Mostly Dan tried not to think about John.
"Oh, I don't know."
"Come on, there's a jump seat in the Ambulance. It's been slow all day, and we're dying of boredom. We'll have you back before you know it."
He took a step towards her and looked up. Big, flat snowflakes pinwheeled past the narrow window.
"I can see the snow from here," he said weakly.
She laughed, "You're hopeless."
She walked back over to the table, snugged her hat back over her hair and tucked a wayward tendril behind her ear.
"Maybe someday, Dan," she said and left.
He listened to her footsteps fade away and to the distant ding of the elevator door.
The Clinic complex sprawled across two city blocks. It contained six cafeterias, dozens of gift shops, and numerous chapels. With his employee badge he had access to the staff lounges, the media rooms, and the gym. The cafeteria in the atrium was his favorite, but not because of the food.
It took up half of the main building's second floor. One end overlooked the lobby's constant, muted traffic of doctors, patients, and visitors. The other side was floor-to-ceiling glass with a view of the street and, beyond that, the crowded buildings bound by a tangle of elevated highways. It was like being on the prow of a ship sailing through the endless, rumbling city.
Dan turned and stood before his shelves like a deaf man in a clock shop with only their silent pulsing motion for company. He tipped his head up, but the light was already fading, and he could no longer tell if any flakes still threw themselves against the warm cement.
He tried to think of the last time he had gone out. He'd lived on the other side of town before the divorce, before they'd buried their daughter. Even insured, they'd had to mortgage the house to get her into the Clinic. But not everything was as simple as a heart, as replaceable. Looking back now, it felt like after they'd admitted her he'd never left. That time in between when he'd lived alone, outside, had somehow dissolved in his memory.
He pulled off his scrubs and put on jeans and his old wool overcoat, grabbed the cooler with the new paperwork, and left, the weighted door of his lab swinging shut behind him. He rode the elevator up to the main level and followed the red arrows in reverse to the ER.
Doctors and nurses, insurance vendors, and billing agents moved from bay to bay, attending to people in all conditions. No one noticed him. He stuffed the cooler through the door in the large metal bin marked "Dearborne" and continued through to the lobby.
He kept moving, heart racing now, not daring to hesitate or stop. The room's architecture was utilitarian, less exalted than the atrium. People waited, arrayed across industrially upholstered furniture, sleeping or crying or filling out paperwork.
The doors slid open and he walked past the guards. An idling ambulance's lights glittered off the lobby windows spackled with melted snow. He didn't see John or Bea among the vehicles parked there.
He walked up the broad sidewalk that wound through the manicured grass and past the pink and orange impatiens planted rank and file on the hillock that marked the edge of the hospital grounds. The falling snow's fresh wetness mixed with the smell of the dark soil under the flowers. Behind him, the atrium cafeteria's lights shone out of the great windows, gilding the cars as they passed.
He walked past the guardhouse to the curb and hailed a cab. A tiny two-seater pulled over, and he got in. He had to collect himself before he could speak, but he finally said, "The Fresh Up Diner on Drury Street."
"Okay," the cabbie said.
"Just getting a bite to eat," he added with sudden exhilaration.
"Fresh Up it is then," the cabbie responded without interest and pulled into traffic.
The diner was farther away than he'd imagined, nearly a fifteen-minute drive, but it was a friendly-looking place despite the bars on the windows. He paid the cabbie and went in. The place was nearly empty. He didn't see Bea or John, so he sat in a booth by the window.
A hunched old man in black trousers and a little black vest came over and pulled out a pad and pen.
Dan told him he was waiting for friends. "A couple medics?" he ventured.
The waiter cupped his ear and leaned in.
"They drive an ambulance," he continued. "They eat here sometimes?"
"Oh, yes," the waiter said nodding. "Maybe they got a call," he said. "You still want to order something?"
There wasn't anything on the menu that he couldn't get at one of the cafeterias, so he ordered a cheeseburger and fries. He ate looking out the window. A few snowflakes blew around. The stoplight at the corner painted red, yellow, and green smears on the wet pavement. Cars rolled by, throwing up swishing splatters of water. He had to admit the burger was good; nothing out of this world, but better than hospital food.
When he got up to leave, the waiter was behind him in a coat and a funny little pork-pie hat. They walked out together and the waiter locked the diner's door.
"It'll be easier to catch a cab if you walk south a couple blocks," the waiter suggested, adding, "Be safe."
"You too," he replied.
The old man chuckled as he shuffled away, "I've got nothing anybody wants."
Dan started walking. The hospital was south anyway. The snow turned to rain, and the wet felt colder, or at least more miserable. He kept an eye out for a cab but none seemed to be around.
He walked through canyons between tall apartment buildings. Windows flickered blue from the TV screens nestled against interior walls.
He turned onto Cedar Street, which would take him directly to the Clinic. He could do this, he thought joyfully, treat himself to dinner out now and then, maybe even a movie.
The neighborhood changed; sidewalks became broader and emptier. Converted warehouses squatted, guarding empty lots restless with trash and balding patches of rattling grass. He picked up his pace.
Music, muffled by layers of brick and mortar, throbbed from one of the buildings, accompanied by the sound of unseen traffic. At each corner, clusters of bicycles hung chained to any available pole. A few looked intact, but most were stripped down to the skeletal remains of frames and forks. One lock held only a forlorn, bent wheel.
A rusty squeak began to replace the fading music; one of the broken bicycles calling out to him. He looked back just as a shadowy figure pedaled up to him. The man's face was scarred along his right eye where he'd had a poorly done implant. The eye itself glowed pale green. Night vision cornea.
"Sorry bro, did I startle you?"
Dan's mouth went dry. He couldn't think what to say. He concentrated on the rhythmic beat of his footfalls. Blood rushed in his ears, drowning out everything else. He thought of his growlab. His little cave with all his hearts beating warmly, and he thought of the woman in the painting, her face turned up, eyes closed in a silent thrill, a golden glow coming off her red hair.
The man continued to ride along beside him, his hair leapt away from his head in greasy, frightened tufts. The sleeves of his thermal undershirt ended in tatters around his wrists. His hands jerked the handlebars expertly, keeping the bike upright while matching Dan's pace.
Another man appeared at the end of the block. A faded tee shirt stretched across his muscular chest, massive shoulders dwarfing a pair of filthy backpack straps. Smiling, he walked towards them as if about to greet a couple old friends. He held a short pipe in one hand.
Dan looked over at the man riding along next to him and saw a battered Styrofoam cooler painted black and bungeed to the bike's rack. Somehow he kept walking, sucking in the cold air. His heart pounded like a fugitive in his chest. Even with his gray hair and glasses, he was relatively fit and young enough to qualify as a donor. He looked back at the man with the pipe. They would take his eyes, his liver, kidneys, lungs, and, of course, his heart. Then they would fence them all at one of the illegal clinics for their own cheap upgrades.
The big man closed the distance between them and grabbed his throat. Dan clutched at the man's thick fingers where they pressed into the flesh of his neck. Stars burst in his vision. He opened his mouth in a futile attempt to breathe, like a fish.
"You hold still and I promise this won't hurt much," the man said with a grin.
A siren screamed up behind them and Dan fell gasping to the pavement. The man on the bicycle was gone. The big man froze as the ambulance lurched onto the sidewalk and skidded to a stop next to Dan. He smelled burning rubber from the tires.
Bea opened the passenger door and braced herself between it and the windshield. She leveled a hunting rifle and chambered a round. The ambulance's lights strobed gold and red off the polished wood under her cheek. He turned back to see the big man running down the middle of the street.
A boom set his ears ringing, dulling the sound of the second shot. The man stumbled forward and fell, the pipe rolling away with delicate tinkling sound. He got up and walked toward the man slowly, legs heavy, like wading through water. The man rolled onto his back and squirmed as if he were trying to wiggle out of his clothes.
Dan knelt and pressed his hands over the man's chest where the blood bubbled out. The big man looked at him, his eyes wide, speechless. He wrapped thick fingers around Dan's wrist. Neither threat nor plea, it was as if he were adrift and wanted to prevent himself from sliding away on some invisible current.
The ambulance rolled up to them, and the engine settled into a rattling idle, heat washing over his back from the grill. Hands still pressed against the man's chest, Dan looked over his shoulder. Bea would know what to do. He was a grower, not a doctor. All he knew was to keep pressure on the wound.
John jumped out of the driver's side door and walked around to the back without a word to Dan or a glance at the man. The letters EMT glowed on the back of his Kevlar vest.
He could feel the man's heart stumbling, losing its rhythm. His pulse receded. The pause between each broken breath grew longer.
Bea knelt next to them, cut away the backpack's straps and yanked it out from under his back. She sat back and unzipped it while the big man followed her with his eyes. She pulled out a battered cooler with a hand-drawn biohazard symbol on its side.
"You can let go Dan, it's okay," she said.
Dan lifted his blood soaked hands off the man's chest. There was one last, long shuddering breath before his eyes emptied out.
John stood behind them kicking a gurney until it accordioned to street level.
"Damn poachers," he said.
Bea was peeling the man's fingers off Dan's wrist.
"Go on, Dan, get in," she said nodding toward the back of the ambulance.
He stood and walked, wobbling, to the back of the ambulance. Close up, he noticed the outline of the word "Brinks" under the Clinic's more recently painted EMS logo. He climbed in and sat on the long bench under the bright interior lights. The blood on his hands dripped onto the linoleum floor.
Bea and John slid the gurney with the poacher strapped onto it into the back. Bea climbed in across from Dan. John slammed the doors shut, and Bea leaned over to slide the deadbolt.
John climbed into the cab, turned off the lights, and pulled onto the street. Through the grill Dan could see the rifle mounted on the dash. He looked around at the cubbies in the back, loaded with medical equipment and also coolers.
Bea held out a wad of paper towels. He took them and wiped the blood off his hands.
"What in the world were you doing out there?" she asked.
He had to think for a minute. "I— I went to the Fresh Up."
"Oh no! We got a call. I never thought you would go out on your own."
"I had a cheeseburger," he said.
"Dan, I'm so sorry."
"Told you it was a bad idea," John said from the front.
"Shut up," she said and turned her attention to the poacher running a hand scanner over his body. "Don't listen to him," she said to Dan. "What do you know, his heart's an original," she continued. "One kidney, liver upcycled — three times."
"I called it in already, citizen's arrest." John said through the grill. "You arrested the shit outta that guy, Bea."
She rolled her eyes conspiratorially at Dan then returned her attention to the poacher. She began to cut away his clothes. Suddenly dizzy, he leaned back and closed his eyes listening to the snip snip of the scissors.
"You okay, Dan?" she asked in that insistent EMS tone.
With blazing efficiency, she pulled down half a dozen coolers, broke coldpacks into them and proceeded to open up the poacher, pull all his viable organs, and pack them for delivery. She took the heart last.
"Damn," she said to herself as she cut it free.
She looked up at him then hesitated. He felt nailed to the wall of the ambulance, unable to move. She grabbed a sheet with her free hand and pulled it over the poacher's remains.
"Sorry, Dan," she said, holding the heart up and sliding her finger through the perfectly round hole her bullet had made. "I think I ruined it."
Security waved John through; he pulled the ambulance into the ER lot and got out, rocking the truck when he slammed the door.
Dan looked at the heart.
"That's okay," he said.
She looked puzzled.
"Pack it up," he insisted. "I'll take it."
With a shrug she dropped it into a cooler, plopped a coldpack on top and closed it.
"Should I put paperwork in on it?" she asked uncertainly.
"No," he said and slid himself toward the door. She moved down and released the bolt. The door swung open and he stumbled out into the wind and freezing rain. The cooler swung against his leg as he lurched through the ER and somehow back to his lab. At his door, he rattled the handle desperately for a minute before he remembered his key card.
• • •
Two weeks passed before she returned to him. He'd heard her footfall in the hallway a few times, but each time she left her delivery next to the jar box.
It was late. He climbed onto his gurney in his scrubs and stared at the ceiling panels until he couldn't keep his eyes open any more.
Then she was there, her back to him, in the long red dress from the painting. Her unbound hair floated around her shoulders.
She studied the hearts in their jars, then selected a small one and took it off the shelf. The Sterifilm top tore away when she pulled the tubes out. She put the jar to her lips and drank the fluid. The heart skittered against the glass fibrillating until it disappeared into her mouth. His stomach lurched. He tried to make out the recipient's name on the jar's label.
She moved on to another jar, opened it and swallowed the heart.
"Bea," he called, but she ignored him, moving along the wall, replacing the empty jars on the shelves as she went. He had to stop her.
He got up, grabbed her by the shoulders, and spun her around. She smiled up at him, her chin wet with the fluid. He reached into his chest, his fingers working their way in until they wrapped around the slippery muscle. Its beat did not falter when he drew it out. Instead of blood, a bright blue flame poured out of the aorta and engulfed the organ, and he wondered how he hadn't felt that fire when it was inside his chest.
She said something, but he couldn't quite make it out.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm stuffed," she said. "I can't eat another bite." She smiled up at him in her friendly, guileless way. An empty jar fell from her hand, shattering on the floor.
He lurched awake, sheets wadded in his fists, the black plastic mattress slick with sweat.
Outside his door, someone dropped another jar in the jar box. He pressed his hand against his chest and his burning heart beat against it.
He got up and checked his inventory, assuring himself that all the hearts were accounted for. Then he went to the far corner, pulled out the poacher's jar and held it up to look at the collagen scaffolding. There was a moon-shaped gap where the ventricles should meet. It would never be a viable organ but might be coaxed to grow, to beat in its own way.
He went to his fridge and pulled out the vial of Bea's stem cells that he'd ordered. He drew out half of the golden liquid with a pipette and seeded the poacher's heart. He would save the other half in case she ever wanted him to grow her a heart she could use.
This heart was for him.
Copyright © 2013 by Rebecca Schwarz