I always said I’d give my life to have her.
She needed a kidney first. Never thought we’d end where we did; the kidney was easy enough. You can live with only one. So I gave the kidney, traded it for a kiss as I sat by her bedside in the hospital.
“Do you love me?”
She looked better already, astonishingly better, almost herself again, kissed me on the nose and laughed. “You’re so funny, Josh.”
“But do you love me?”
“You’ll leave,” she said, matter of fact. “When I get sick again.”
He limps down the corridor, stumbling and reaching out in the dark. Underfoot, there is water, or slime, or something. It rushes warm about his feet and legs; his blue jeans hang sodden below the knee. At steady intervals it surges to fill the space and he has to hold his breath. What remains coating his face tastes of copper and salt. He wears one shoe. The other, the left, vanished earlier in the corridor, perhaps tugged off by the current that now pulls at his legs when low, his backpack when high: he doesn’t quite recall. Anyway, it doesn’t matter; the foot was already numb. The air is warm, even hot. Ninety-eight point six, he thinks, and chokes on a giddy, desperate laugh. His heart beats, very, very loud.
I waited outside as she spoke with the doctors, then poked my head into the room as they filed out. She looked bright-eyed and chipper, as carefree as the day we’d met. She even sat on the edge of the bed as she had on the park bench, one foot tucked up beneath her, hands in her lap. There were no pig-tailed girls or ducks or Golden Retrievers for her to watch now, though, and instead she looked right at me, all laughing eyes.
“Are you leaving now?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “They’re bringing you a wheelchair, to get to the car.”
“Not leaving here.”
“I won’t leave you,” I promised. “I love you.” My sliced-open side twinged; I touched it briefly. “Are you ready to go?”
“I was born ready,” she said, though it wasn’t true.
He thinks again of how they met, in the park, his half-grown dog Sailor cheerfully forgetting how to heel, bounding and sunfishing at the end of the lead, stump tail wagging madly; the pup ended up on a park bench with his muzzle in a young woman’s lap before Josh could stop him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and, “Sailor, heel!” Treacherous Sailor bounced off the bench and back to his side.
“He’s lovely,” she said, and he noticed because no one else their age used “lovely” in casual conversation. “How old?”
So he told her, and they began to talk.
He thinks of this, and he thinks especially of the weather, and the sunshine brilliance. He doesn’t think of where he walks now, where the chamber shifts and the stuff at his feet churns and burns like acid, but somehow doesn’t damage him. It hurts even so, and he’s glad when he passes into a new space, the walls papery-fragile and the air rushing in great steady gasps. His heartbeat seems louder here, as if it echoes.
She recovered quickly, was back to work in next to no time. I woke one morning and clattered downstairs to find a box on the kitchen table, my name printed on the cardboard in neat black Sharpie. I opened it: a thank-you card, Hallmark, and a coffee maker with a box of filters.
“What’s this?” I asked, on the phone.
“A coffee filter.”
“Like the card says, thank you. For the kidney. It’s a joke.”
“Oh,” I said. “Ha.” I wondered if it was funny.
He thinks also, though he tries not to, of the time he found out her secret. He woke early in his memory, found himself alone in bed. She had been sick the day before, though she hadn’t complained; she’d seemed weak, anemic, and moved as if her whole skeleton ached. He waited and waited and then he waited some more, and finally he rolled out of bed. The bathroom light downstairs was on and he knocked on the door: “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said, voice muffled.
“Do you need anything?”
“No,” she said, “go back to bed.”
He was awake by then, and doesn’t. He went into the kitchen and put water on for the tea she drank last night in quantity. He returned to the bathroom after a while, noticed the door cracked open. Then it was all the way open and she was standing there, looking back, something staining red one corner of her mouth. He gazed past her, at the bathroom floor, seeing it as if it�and the dog, his wonderful dog, bonelessly limp upon it�was very far away.
She looked up at him. “I have this condition.”
Next time, she needed a lung; she told me one night when I wandered home from the restaurant. I couldn’t say I was surprised. I’d known for a week or so that something was wrong. She looked thin again, and pale. Colorless, as if I could see right through her if I didn’t look hard enough, or if I looked too hard.
“Someone ordered the special tonight,” I said, “but then they changed their minds.”
“I’m sick again,” she said. “Are you leaving now?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I love you. I gave you a kidney. I’d give you anything.” Even my dog, I thought, but didn’t say it out loud. Sailor was still a sore spot for her. For me, too, but I had to be strong.
She looked up at me and sideways, as if she was thinking about something important. “We don’t have to go to the hospital, this time. If you trust me.”
“It’s my condition. I can take care of it. If you trust me.”
“I do,” I said.
“It will only hurt for a moment,” she said.
He pauses in another passage like the first and drops his backpack in the slime, leaning on the shifting, squelching wall for balance as he catches his breath. He wonders how long he’s been walking. Hours? Weeks? Or only minutes? He looks at his wrist, squinting for focus, but the watch’s light doesn’t seem to function here. Nothing seems to function here. Only his memory, and of course his heart.
It took me longer to walk to work after that, but I came home to a bicycle pump in a box and a girl who was healthy, bright-eyed, smiling. Loving. My friends shook their heads when they saw me, which wasn’t often. “You’re getting weird,” one told me over coffee. “Absorbed or obsessed or something. Weird.”
She didn’t think I was weird. She held my hand in public and smiled at me like no one else existed, did other things in private, and her condition only caused problems every once in a while. Once, her left leg refused to support her weight. Another time, she woke one morning unable to see clearly. We always knew it was coming; she always began to fade. We always put things to rights. Even when I could barely see her smiling, I knew she counted on me.
Then she sickened again. Her voice grew soft, her touch weak; she sometimes whimpered in pain. She said it was her heart.
She also said, “I’m leaving.”
“I’ll help you,” I said. “I love you.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I love you,” I said.
“You can’t give me this. I can only take it. And then I’m leaving.”
The passage opens before him and he struggles into a larger space, cavernous, a slow rhythmic thrum filling his ears. He remembers how he used to wish he could be closer to her, a part of her, inseparable. Air rushes about him, and liquid with bright metal scent. He spills his backpack out, the coffee filters and bicycle pump, all her little gifts, and wavers among them. He pushes his hands out before him and walks again.
“What’s this?” I turned it over in my hands.
“A tin cup.”
“Like prisoners have, or like beggars.” She laughed, and kissed me on the nose. “You’re so needy, Josh. It’s a joke.”
“Oh.” I didn’t think it was funny.
“I’m leaving now. You’ll come with me.”
“Of course,” I said. “I love you.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I love you,” I said again.
It only hurt for a moment.
First he finds a band of hard-softness that yields beneath his hands, but only reluctantly. He moves on, dragging his left leg through the muck. The muscle gives way to something smooth and hard, arching high over his head. He moves on and the two alternate again, and again, an intricate cage, protecting. He brings up his other hand and his tin cup gift, knocks it lightly, experimentally, against the pillar. He stumbles forward once again, now dragging the cup, its ringing against bone echoing in the space, silent except for his beating heart.
Hannah Wolf Bowen lives in Massachusetts, where she shares an apartment with her dog and looks forward to winter. She spends her work days counting mice, wrangling monkeys, and herding cats. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Polyphony 6, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and she’s now a ChiZine fiction editor.
“Tin Cup Heart” was first published by Chizine.