I scanned the crowded streets searching for a rhythm I could join, a pulse I could lift. I was close to living—I could feel it. My blurred edges were tingling with almost. Almost skin. Almost life.
I watched the other Shades in their various stages of development. They floated along in the river of humans, writhing in the currents of emotion. Searching.
But I heard him first.
The throbbing filled my ears; a warm rush poured through my veins and filled me with the tempo of his existence. I followed the pounding until I found the beautiful, angry man under the umbrella of an old oak. Sun drizzled through gaps in the leaves, illuminating the fire in his hair and eyes.
I dropped, exhausted, into the skeletal lap of the park bench. My knee grazed his thigh, but he didn’t feel it. He held a black Sharpie in a sweaty death grip, scratching away in a bent spiral notebook. The strokes were heavy and the ink bled through the paper, leaving ghostly imprints on future pages. The notebook itself was coming unhinged. The metal coil twisted from its neat, measured punctures and scratched gently against his wrist. He didn’t feel that, either.
I don’t know if he was drawing, writing, or raving, but the pounding within his cage of ribs increased with every angry line.
I needed one of those beats.
I leaned back, making crosses with the slats of the bench and my shoulder blades. His breath was raw and ragged, slashing his lungs with December air. I sped mine to match, inhaling both him and the bitterness of the hard freeze. I leaned into him and tracked the blood through his veins. His currents flowed frantically, hurtling to his extremities, then back to his heart with the same intensity.
It was then that I snatched it. At the very second that the prodigal blood returned, homeward bound and triumphant, I seized the beat. I took it into myself, filling this dry dusty shell with life. It was all passion and pain, but it was life. It wasn’t quite enough to make me live—but it was enough to keep me going, enough to keep my core beating.
He jerked slightly, grabbing his chest, fingers probing for the missing thump. When the following beat came as expected, his body relaxed and he went back to scribbling furiously.
I rose, a little disappointed, and kissed him gently on the cheek. That he felt. Surprised, he looked for the source, covering the page with his elbow. His secrecy was endearing, yet misguided. I didn’t need to peek. I have a piece of his heart. With that palpitation, he became a square of the patchwork that is me, fashioned by the heartbeats of a thousand ardent souls.
One day soon, when I have collected enough, my heart will pound on its own. This spirit will become flesh, and I will live. It may be all passion and pain, cobbled from restless volatility and unspoken anxieties, but I will live.
And whenever my heart skips a beat, I’ll know I’ve nourished an old friend.
—J.G. Formato is a writer and teacher currently living in North Florida with her beautiful family. Her work has appeared in Syntax & Salt: Stories, Giants and Ogres (Fairy Tale Visions Reimagined), and freeze frame fiction.