Heartbeats

Woman touches man's face.

There are twelve months in a year. Thirty days, give or take, in a month. Twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour, sixty seconds in a minute. The human heart beats a little faster than that; just a touch over eighty times every minute, if you’re in decent health and you don’t exert yourself too much. Eighty is a nice, round number. It’s around the average life expectancy of a human being, too. I’ve always found that a neat little coincidence. I couldn’t tell you why. It always just tickled me for some reason.

You get around thirty thousand days on earth, if you’re lucky. About seven hundred thousand hours. A little over three and a half billion heartbeats.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

My God, doesn’t that seem like a big number? Three and a half billion. Almost beyond imagining.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Nothing small can ever be divided up into billions. The scale of it just doesn’t make sense; the little things add up too quickly. It’s about as many bricks as there are in the Chrysler building. I know, because I looked it up one night when my failure to sleep became too much to bear. If each one of those heartbeats was a grain of sand, the sum total of an average human life would be more than fifteen tonnes. If each one was a single step, one placed after another, it would be enough to walk from the earth to the moon – seven times over. And what’s a brick, eh? What’s a step? What’s a grain of sand?

How are you ever supposed to pick one out of the many?

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

I first met him in August of 2012. I knew him for a little over five years. 1,969 days. Almost fifty thousand hours. Almost a quarter of a million heartbeats. Perhaps a little more, based on the fact that I could feel it racing in my chest whenever I saw him for the first time in a while; perhaps a little fewer, based on the way he made it skip a beat every time he kissed me.

Could I pick an individual heartbeat out of all of those? Oh, absolutely. I might even have been able to pick out a favourite, if it came down to it. The way I felt the first time he touched my hand, perhaps, when he curled his fingers around mine as we walked through the park near his apartment and I knew I was going to be spending the night. Or perhaps it came later: the rapid pitter-patter that followed the realisation that he wasn’t just goofing around and was actually proposing to me, in the kitchen of the tiny apartment we now shared, with the snow gently falling outside – that this man, this beautiful man, wanted to make me his.

We didn’t go away; we couldn’t afford to. We spent the whole week in our apartment – mostly in bed, let’s be honest – but he covered the window with a poster of the Eiffel Tower, because I’d always wanted to visit Paris and that was the best he could do. He smiled a goofball smile and promised me we’d get there eventually, but I didn’t care. I didn’t have a care in the world. I had never been more in love with him than I was at that moment. I didn’t even think it was possible to be more in love with him.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

And then, on the other side of the spectrum, there were the hated heartbeats too. The pang of concern as my phone buzzed one afternoon and I knew – I just knew – something was wrong. The tightness in my chest even as his sister tried not to worry me, trying to find the best way to tell me to drop everything and get to the hospital now without making me a nervous wreck. The way every heartbeat that followed seemed to ring in my ears as I raced out into the street to find a cab.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

He was dead by the time I got there. Undiagnosed heart condition. Genetic disorder. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, they said – as though naming it after the fact made any difference. Could have happened to anyone. No rhyme or reason to it whatsoever. It might have blown out then, or fifty years in the future.

Bad luck, they told me. That was all it was. Just bad luck.

I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? All I could think about was the time we might have had together. How many heartbeats he’d been robbed of. How many nights I might have rested beside him after sex, or just cuddled with him on the sofa, my head on his chest – and beyond that, how often I had been so close to him, so unaware of what was to come. How many times I had been soothed to sleep by the sound of those heartbeats, convinced that nothing could possibly be wrong with the world as long as I had him – and yet it was there all along. The thing that would take him from me.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

He was thirty-one.

Our daughter was seven months old.

She’s fine, by the way; I should tell you that right off the bat. As soon as I could, I arranged to have the doctors check her out, to see if she had the same abnormality that her dad did, and she came back clean. That was a good sign. As far as they could tell – although they’d need to keep an eye on her, just to be sure – there was no weird screwup lurking in her code, no dam waiting to burst. On balance, she got off lucky: his eyes, his hair, my heart. There’s a case of winning the genetic lottery if ever there was.

But still… I can’t help but wonder. Every time she rushes up to me and gives me a hug and I feel her little heart beating against mine, all I can think is, What if? What if the test was wrong, and she has what he had? What if there’s a little kill-switch lurking inside of her, and one day it’ll put me through all of that again? I don’t think I could bear it. I really don’t.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

I’m still a little younger now than he was when he died; not by much, and not for long, but still… just a little. I can expect to live for another fifty years. Perhaps even longer. Eighteen thousand days. Four hundred thousand hours. Two billion heartbeats that I was supposed to share with him – and what now? A noise without an echo. A tick without a tock. I try my best to carry on – for her, you know; I don’t know where I’d be without her – but it never seems to get any easier. The memory of it all never seems to fade away. He’s there, no matter what I do. No matter how hard remembering is, he’s there – and then, of course, he isn’t.

It’s worst of all when I’m lying in bed at night, in the dark, in the quiet, alone with my thoughts and that noise – that awful, terrible, repetitive noise, following me wherever I go, reminding me of what once was and what I’m missing. I hate it, and yet in a perverse sort of way I’m almost grateful.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

If it weren’t for those heartbeats, I’d swear there was nothing left inside me at all.

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The Balcony

Couple embracing.

‘Shh,’ he whispered, his lips close to her ear. ‘Eyes forward.’

She hadn’t heard him come in, hadn’t heard the swipe of the hotel keycard she had left for him at the lobby or the click of the door as it latched closed behind him. She hadn’t heard his soft footsteps on the hardwood as his approached her, predator stalking prey. She hadn’t been aware of his presence until he slipped his hands around her, his fingers entwining with hers, holding her grip against the steel balcony railing. She began to turn quickly – in surprise at the interruption, in need for home – but he stopped her with just a touch.

‘Shh,’ he whispered, his breath warm against her skin. ‘Eyes forward.’

She stared out over the city. The sea of lights had been mesmerising just moments earlier, but now all she wanted was to turn her back to them, to trade the gleam of Paris at night for the kiss of her lover.

Six months. Too long.

Six minutes. Too long.

He tightened his grip, holding her hands in place. You’re here now, his touch seemed to say. Back with me, where you belong. And this time, you’re not going anywhere.

She smiled at that. As if there was anywhere she’d rather be.

She felt the scratch of his stubble at the back of her neck, just below her hairline, just above the fabric of the dress he had asked her to wear for him on their first meeting in what felt like forever. It was his favourite dress; she knew that well enough. She couldn’t count the number of times she had caught him staring at her lasciviously from across the room when she wore it, nor the times he had taken her back home afterwards, away from prying eyes in cities all over the globe. The dress had been left on countless hotel room floors, tossed over chairs, left scrunched up and neglected even as she was stretched out on the bed next to it.

Next to him.

‘Shh,’ he whispered, planting butterfly kisses at the nape of her neck. ‘Eyes forward.’

She felt him stand tall behind her, pressing her body against the balcony railing – a brief moment of panic as she imagined tumbling forward and down, down, down to the street below, losing herself in freefall as she did every time she felt his touch… but then the safety of knowing that he was there with her, that no harm could come to her. His grip on her was absolute. She was safe.

He loosed his fingers from hers, tracing a path gently up her bare arms. She shivered, despite the summer evening; his fingertips were warm, but the faint hairs on her arms rose up in a frisson of need, calling for him. They ran to her shoulders and he pulled her gently backwards, kissing that sacred dimple at her neck. She wondered if he could smell the perfume she had picked out – the light jasmine scent she had been wearing the first time they had made love, when he kissed her in that exact spot and she felt her world catch fire.

‘Shh,’ he whispered, feeling her tense up beneath his touch. ‘Eyes forward.’

She let her eyes fall closed and smiled in the darkness. She could hear the city beneath her, busy even in the small hours of the morning; the steady rumble of traffic was dwarfed by the sound of his breath quickening next to her. She knew that sound: the ragged desperation that made it clear that she wasn’t alone in her desire.

She turned to face him, eyes still pressed firmly shut, and this time he made no move to stop her. She felt his hand on her neck, drawing her near; the stubble of his cheek against the smoothness of her own – and the slow exhalation of six months’ wait finally, finally at a close.

If you enjoyed this story, please check out my Patreon page or my available books. Patreons get access to these stories before anyone else, and any support helps me to continue doing what I do.