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The Glass Heart
The girl lay, like a beached fish, limpid and crushed by the icy air. Inside her fragile skeleton, a vibrant heart still beat. Trussed in the flailing fabric of blood and opal intestine, the scarlet organ fluttered, lifting its sheets of tissue up and down, like the wet wings of a drowning butterfly.
The ocean waves crashing beside her were cold, but around the dying girl the March air was alive with heat. The land, presented with a disquietingly early spring, shifted and groaned as if one being.
Lucy was shuffling down the street, her black dress clinging to her shoulders. Her lungs, white sheaths of delicate, papery veins and cells, heaved as she forced herself to break into a panicked run.
She stopped for a second then, bending and putting her hands on her knees, above which hung the crumpled bottoms of her black stockings, gasping as agony pinched and stabbed at her insides. Her parents and doctors would be furious when they found out she had been running. With all their tests and blue wiring, they could not figure out how she survived, what with a heart made of glass in her chest.
The heart itself was the ordinary size and relative shape of a regular organ. Her veins and arteries ran directly in and out. It worked just the way a heart should.
However, because of an ill-fated operation, it had a small sickle-shaped crack down the center of it, and sharp tiny wedges of glass sometimes worked their way out and poked at her chest. This happened often, especially when she went running.
When even the best doctors couldn’t fix the heart, they brought in the glassmakers, men in dirty overalls who made balloons of colored hot wax into swirled vases of colored glass. Over Lucy’s open chest they melded with their small flames. Nothing worked, and Lucy’s heart remained just as breakable as before.
In a gap between the trees to her left, Lucy saw a thin swatch of shore. The beach was not even a real beach; just a small, sandy inlet. Little pieces of broken bottle and smooth seaglass twinkled up at her.
Leaving the dappled shadows of the neighborhood street, she stepped through pools of sun towards the ocean.The harsh, briny fingers of sea grass tickled her legs. The world at once seemed blurry, like she was watching it through a poor-quality video.
Suddenly, a twinkle of light caught her eye, small and oddly lustrous against the grainy shore. When her eyes fell upon the source of the light, she gasped. Perhaps she was bleeding on the sidewalk, unconscious, and this was only a hallucination brought on by loss of blood?
However she squinted, the image remained clear; a mermaid, covered in sea ropes and mounds of honeyed hair, lying with her iridescent scaly tail just touching the water. Tiny gill slits peeked out from her long neck, riddled with lavender veins.
Lucy limped towards her, clutching her throbbing chest and feeling the glass heart inside poke at the pillowy organs around it.
She knelt down by the mermaid girl, and the sand was damp and firm against her knees, a thousand tiny pebbles clumped together. She reached a hand out to touch the girl’s damp skin. Her hand moved to the wrist, where she felt a tiny flutter of a pulse still beating exhaustedly away.
Suddenly, the mermaid’s eyes fluttered and a trail of pink light glittered off her scales. The girl’s eyes were the color of fog, piercing and with hints of marine blue.
“Are you alright?” said Lucy, entertaining her hallucination.
“I’m dying,” whispered the mermaid.
“You... you need to go back into the water,” mused Lucy, laying her hands against the mermaid’s small body. “I’ll push you in. Just a second. I think I’m strong enough--”
Her speech was interrupted by a cry of agony as she felt the shards of her heart stab against spirals of intestine. “I have a bad heart,” Lucy explained quickly, biting her lip so that she tasted coppery blood.
“No...” rasped the mermaid. “Don’t put me in the water, please. I, too, am dying because of my heart.”
Lucy let her down. Suddenly, she heard a soft clatter, like the faint echo of a chime, quiet but penetrating as a whale’s song. A weakness coursed through her body. Instantly, she knew; at last, the glass heart had caved in on itself.
“What’s wrong with yours?” she asked breathlessly, wondering how many seconds she had left. The nearest house seemed miles away, up atop the jagged cliff, and she knew she would not be able to make the climb. Diamonds of light seemed to fall on the water as evening settled.
“It’s a strange tale,” breathed the girl, lifting a weak arm. “You see, I was born with a heart made of flesh and blood. Our merpeoples’ hearts are always simply translucent glass.”
Lucy stared at her. The ocean breathed in the distance. “And I was born with a glass heart, though mine is supposed to be made of flesh and blood, as yours is.”
“It seems we have each others’ hearts,” whispered the mermaid.
“If only there was a way to switch,” sighed Lucy, “but I suppose it’s not too bad to die by the sea. At least we’re somewhere beautiful.”
“What if,” said the mermaid. “You are sure that you will be dead momentarily?”
Lucy nodded, breathless.
“Here I have a knife. I came here to die, child, and if the agony struck I would use this to remove myself without so much strife... but might we at least try? Could we at least hold the heart we were meant to, for just a little while?” The mermaid’s foghorn eyes were pleading.
Above them the sun dipped into the trees, sending rays of speckled light over the beach. Plumes of smoke seemed to rise from the sea.
“I was a medic, back at my home beneath the waves - heart surgeries, I did perform on occasion,” the mermaid said. “We have so little time.”
“Then take it from me,” said Lucy, feeling as if she stood on the edge of a cliff.
“I’ll cut yours out first,” the mermaid muttered, and then an open flame ripped across Lucy’s chest, cutting through the blue fabric of her shirt, which was quickly turning a dark indigo.
Then the mermaid’s long fingers were reaching in, and her nails were painted glistening turquoise. There were small gossamer webs between her fingers. The pain was ragged, but her mind was gone. The sight of glass, colored crimson with blood and sun, shocked her eyes.
For a second, a moment hung forever in the closet of scorched time, Lucy believed that the mermaid would swim away with the heart, laughing at her trick. But then the knife winked again and sheets of blackness danced across Lucy’s eyes.
And then... and then, miraculously, fingers, shaking, bloodied, and wet, slipped something fleshy and tangible inside her ribcage. Her vision shimmered. The blood was overwhelming, but her heart! At least for a second, her body contained a real, live, flesh heart.
She could see the mermaid, lying unconscious on the shore. Glass glittered from inside her chest.
With a last burst of strength, she forced the mermaid’s body out to sea. Phosphorescent bubbles of blood turned to ribbons in the waves.
Agony was returning like a quiet and yellow-toothed fiend. She lay shaking on the sand, blistering in the heat. She rolled to her stomach, begging the blood to finally leave her, to die.
The hands that gripped her shoulders would not permit it, however. They were strong and smelled of sea salt and they carried her steadily away from the sea. Out of the corner of her eye, now swollen, she saw a faint twinkle of blue... a scale? a fin? and then, only blackness, or perhaps the indigo darkness of a land far beneath the waves.
When Lucy awoke, the room was white. The doctors shuffled their feet. Her mother shook her head and wiped back tears.
Her blonde-haired little brother leaned over the bed. “Lucy?” he said quietly.
“Yes?” she whispered.
“Mom won’t believe me, but I saw it. The dolphins carried you home.”
“What?” she replied, even quieter than before.
“I saw it. They swam you from the beach to our house. They saved you.” There was a knock on the door. “You don’t have to believe it, but I swear it’s true,” he added, before disappearing into the whiteness.
The reporters left without asking for quotes. The doctors provided no explanation. There would be no long talks or medical press conferences. The people, with all their brilliance, could not explain the sudden and random appearance of a perfect, ordinary flesh and blood heart inside their most infamous patient’s chest.
Ultimately, they did what most ordinary humans would do. When she asked her mother about it, she shook her head and smiled. “You’re safe,” she said. “Let’s put this behind us.”
The doctors provided no explanation; they sat with their wires and discussed checkups and antibiotics for the infection in her chest.
When she returned to the beach every so often, to those paths on some unusually warm days in early March, she would often find traces of the mermaid there - a pile of scales, reflecting all the colors of the universe, or small speckles of sea glass lying buried in the sand.
Years later, when Lucy returned to the hospital and asked for her records, she could find none outwardly stating that she had once possessed a glass heart. When she asked the doctor about it, he laughed. “An old hospital fable,” he said. “There never was any such thing.”
“But you were my doctor,” she said quietly. “You saw my glass heart with your own eyes.”
He shook his head. “Those were different times. There is no such thing. There never was, least not when I was here.” His head swiveled back and forth, as if he was trying to knock his words into his own mind. When faced with impossibility, the world turned to blank denial.
At night, she dreamed of things she had never seen - deep ocean waters, cerulean cities under the sea. The mournful echoes of the heart.