(from Broken Heart Symphony In Four Movements)
“But you’re not my mum.” His chubby face flushed red, eyes jammed shut in frustration.
Alice sat carefully on the plastic airport furniture, bending in half to peer at the boy crouched under the table, wheat-colored hair falling loose towards the floor. Joey peeked with one eye at the strange woman, then clamped his peepers shut again. “You can’t make me go back to Eliot Drive.”
Alice kicked her feet and gazed at the ceiling. “I know I’m not your mom. I’m sorry. But, I am your aunt—”
“You’re not anyone’s mum!” Joey slapped his hand against the tile. “You’re loud, an’ smell funny, and don’t know when is my bedtime!” His lip quivered, setting his chin quaking. “And, and I don’t want to go to Eliot D-Drive because it’s messy. Everything is messy.”
Alice closed her eyes. “I’m sorry I’m not your mum,” she murmured.
She knew it must be so different for him. She herself never got used to her sister’s tidiness, a mini-mom, even at age twelve, when she was first allowed to babysit the younger Alice at the tender age of four. How she could live in a place not strewn with papers and books, with folded sheets and made beds she’d never understood. What is it like to live in neat boxes, set timetables, never spending late nights howling at the moon or spilling your soul on a canvas?
Safe, I suppose. Safer than me, anyway. Safer than here.
The realization pulled her from her fleeting meditation. Here they were, amid the television talk and footsteps of the travelers, weary and ragged. Her watching as he cowered.
It’s not his fault. He’s just a kid. No one’s fault, really, no one’s fault, sometimes life just yanks you from your parents and your home and your country and it’s no one’s fault, but a kid doesn’t know that. All he knows is that he’s burning up inside, falling through space and suddenly this person that he’s never met before is calling all the shots.
Alice slid from the plastic seat and crawled over to the whimpering child, huddling under the ketchup-smeared table. “Joey,” she whispered, reaching for him. He flinched. She dropped her hand in her lap, drumming her fingers on her leg. “Look, Joey—”
He scooted away from her. Staring intently at the ground, he spoke. “Are you even human?”
“What?” Alice laughed, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand.
“Are you an alien?”
“Why would you say that?”
Joey peeked up at her. “Mum said one time that, that…you have two hearts. And sometimes I think ‘m imagining it, but I think I hear two heartbeats. An’, an’ I thought if you’re an alien, maybe mum’s an alien too, and aliens are weird an’ sometimes they come back—”
“No,” said Alice, holding up a slender finger. “No, no, Joey, no. I’m sorry. She can’t come back. She won’t. I’m sorry. It’s just important to accept—oh. Oh.” Her own voice quavered. “Oh, I’m sorry.” Alice stroked the boy’s shuddering back. The sobs came in brutal, silent waves, tears bunching up behind clenched eyes, every once in a while a stray hiccup pushing its way past the barrier of his throat. Alice studied the dirt streaks on the underside of the table panels, willing her own tears away. Why didn’t he wail like a normal kid? Why didn’t he bawl? Alice longed for the noise, the shrieks, to give her permission to crumble at her edges and still know that she is stronger than a child.
How long did they sit on that airport floor, the watchful gaze of the social worker keeping his careful distance? Long enough for him to judge, she supposed. But he barely said a word. Carefully, Alice scooped up Joey, now gone limp, and carried him to the car.
They sat in quiet, Alice giving Joey shotgun despite his age. The silence stretched before them like the double-yellow lines painted brilliant strokes of lightning in the road. Rosy twilight pressed around them.
Finally: “Can I tell you a story?”
Joey stayed quiet, gazing at the trees sweeping past the window, but Alice caught the minuscule nod in the reflection of the glass.
“Okay. You asked me if I am an alien, which, you know, I’m not. But, I do have two hearts. Y’see, there was this boy—man—Ryan. He was my older brother. He was in the middle, three-and-a-half years older than me, and just as much younger than your mom, and he…well, we all went through tough times. Do you know what—um, well, you know, you yourself…anyway. Things were tougher for him than most. I don’t think anybody else really realized to what extent. I sure as hell didn’t. I mean, he was just my brother; taught me to play guitar, violent video games, make sandwiches. He was so kind.” Alice glanced sideways at Joey, forehead pressed against the window, his reflection thickening as evening fell around them.
“Kindness is important. So is doing the right thing. I mean, people say he did what he did out of desperation, or fear, or that he was pushed by the demons in his head. Which, you know, is probably true. But he’s also one of the few people I’ve ever met that knew right from wrong, really knew it. That’s important.
“I got sick. I don’t remember much about it. I was only…well, a bit older than you. I was nine. They said I had a weak heart. I was so tired all the time…I just slept. A stone-heavy sleep. I dreamed and drifted and forgot. And when it seemed like I’d never wake up, a miracle happened.”
Joey sat up and looked intently at her. Alice studied the road, enraptured. The pause stretched on like the streetlight shadows, so long that Joey’s eyes started to droop to the lullaby hum of the car on pavement. Then, Alice spoke again: “I keep telling myself that: a miracle.”
Alice glanced at Joey without turning her head, then flicked her eyes back to the road.
“Ryan gave me his heart. They cut it from his lifeless body and stitched it over mine. It is a weight in my chest now—no; it is a strength. My own heart is the weight. His holds my heart together, and it’ll keep holding on until mine gets strong enough to beat on its own. To keep me standing…alone.” Alice leaned back into the headrest. The car hummed along the road, moving more slowly now.
“Your mom blamed me for the longest time, you know?” Alice said. “She, she just—she thought he chose me over her. Dying for me over living for her. It wasn’t like that though—well, actually, I have no idea what was going through his head. All I know is that one day I stopped dreaming and he was gone, after kissing me awake with a heartbeat.”
The sun was completely vanished now, and night spread around them like a cloak, the occasional reflected sign a spark of color in the seas of shadow. Alice’s silhouette barely moved in the darkness, her eyes glistening, her profile resolute. Her shoulders hunched forward as she leaned over the steering wheel.
Joey coughed; she startled at the sound, then rolled her shoulders back and relaxed in the seat of the Corolla. She turned to him and grinned as the car swung round a bend in the road. “Anyway,” she said, “We’re family. Brother, sister, mother, cousin, aunt, whatever. And that’s just what family does for each other, you know? We die for each other. We live for each other. We help each other no matter how bad it gets. So I promise you this Joey: I swear on my foreign heart, my given heart, my weird-American-alien heart, that I will love you and do whatever I can for you. Because someone gave me his heart once. Who am I to hoard mine away?”
Joey blinked, considering the woman in the driver’s seat, unsure of what had just been decided. He nodded, for it was too late for words, and later still to feel much unsettled. After all, the car was warm, cozy, dark, and, for the moment, safe. Curling up in a ball, he let the smoothly rolling tires rock him to sleep. And they pulled into Eliot Drive.
—Lucy Merriman is a Senior English major at Kent State University. Her poetry has appeared in Pif and Grace Notes, her nonfiction has appeared in Long Weekends, The Burr, and Ohio Magazine, and her artwork and comics have appeared in Flywheel and Luna Negra. This is her first fiction publication.
This story is part two of Broken Heart Symphony in Four Movements.