When Jay awoke in the middle of the empty street, he saw a beating heart at his side. Though his leaden gut told him that it wasn’t his, heavy air weighed down on the hole in his chest. The beating heart at his side didn’t seem to bleed, besides the occasional splutter from the exposed artery, and this terrified Jay. The closer he moved, the more his gut churned.
So instead, he tried to walk away and keeled over, clutching the hole where his heart should be. His hands passed through the hole, and this sent a jolt of fear through his body. Crawling back to the heart, the aching passed and Jay felt able to breathe again — even if he didn’t quite dare to do so.
He picked it up carefully with both hands, and the same cautious delicacy as a parent holding their child. Cradling it in his arms, he stood up.
He couldn’t remember how he had ended up here, but it felt familiar nonetheless. He looked around, as far as he could from where he was standing despite the dense fog. Beads of sweat were starting to form on his forehead. The street was full of cars, though they didn’t look like they had been used recently, and no window in sight was lit. Jay looked around and saw a bright-eyed face, staring at him from the alley. As he looked into his eyes, he felt the heart in his arms stop for a short moment, then speed up. The bright-eyed face turned and ran down the alley.
Before he knew what he was doing, Jay was following the man. Turning around the corner he saw the man pause to look both ways, then turn right. Jay followed his every step. He cut around the corner so tightly that he almost ran into the garbage cans lying on the floor, jumped over them and landed within arm’s reach of his quarry. He kept running. Clutching the heart in one arm and stretching out the other, he grabbed the man’s shoulder and turned him around, preparing all the questions he wanted — needed — to ask.
The face turned to him.
Jay found himself staring into those bright eyes again and sank to his knees, feeling all the power seep out of his bones. He fell forward.
Before his face could hit the ground, someone started pulling him by the shoulder, then the arm. He heard footsteps running away, but Jay could not keep his eyes from closing.
Jay woke up to the smell of varnished wood and fresh coffee. He opened his eyes and instantly regretted it, squinting to take in the neon lights covering the back wall of the café. As his eyes adjusted to the bright world around him, he began to hear the other voices, but they stopped talking just as quickly as he could count how many voices there were. Two. Jay leaned forward, still groggy.
“You’re awake!” A plaid-shirted barista exclaimed, putting the mug she had been in the middle of drying into the sink. She filled it with water then rushed over to the booth where Jay was sitting, placed it on the table and sat across from him.
“Who —” Jay realized that his arms were feeling light. “Where is it?” His hands scrabbled at the edge of the table.
“I put it in the back for safekeeping.” She smiled at him knowingly and prepared for more questions, but must have seen the urgency in his eyes. “I’ll go get it.”
“I’ve got it dear!” Another barista, this one red-haired, said, having just made herself a cup of coffee. It was pitch black outside the windows, Jay now realized, and both of them looked tired. She walked into the back room and came out cradling a heart. The heart. Jay’s eyes lit up and he loosened his grip on the table.
The red-haired barista handed him the heart. She leaned in to give the other one a kiss, before walking back to her coffee, which looked to Jay like it could still burn someone alive.
The plaid-shirted barista gave him a moment to calm himself, then leaned in slightly. “My name’s Elena, by the way.”
Jay held the heart again and took deep breaths. “I was leaving the café, already locked up, when I saw you running after someone. I turned the corner and a few steps later, you were there again. You were on your knees, collapsing. I was wary at first, but when I saw you clutching that heart, I knew you meant no harm.”
“… Thank you?”
“I’m assuming you have a lot of questions about everything, right?”
Jay nodded. “A few.”
He tried to find the right words. “Why was he running away from me?”
She paused, pursing her lips, then looked at the heart in his hands. “You think that heart is his?”
“I — I don’t know.”
“If it is, then, well, how do I put this… you stole his heart.”
“I could never steal anything!” He tightened his grip on the heart, then looked at it, shocked.
Elena chuckled. “I believe you, buddy.” She took a deep, contemplative breath. “Most of the time, people will either give their heart to someone or have one given to them. There’s no harm in it per se, but it’s always painful when someone doesn’t give you their heart, too. However, if people trade their hearts, they find that hole in their chest filled with a beating heart again, even if it’s not theirs.”
Jay furrowed his eyebrows and looked at the heart again, before looking back at her. Though he wanted to say something, ask something, find the answer that would solve everything, he couldn’t push the words off the tip of his tongue. They were frozen.
“I’m sure you’re wondering whether that’s what happened to you.”
“Well… why don’t you tell me what you know about the owner of that heart?”
“I… well, um, I woke up… with this heart… in the middle of the street — I don’t really remember anything from before — and I, uh, saw this guy who instantly ran away, so I thought I’d ask him, but then, uhm —” Jay had a pained, almost ashamed expression on his face.
“Then you collapsed when you were too close?”
“Yeah! Yeah. Exactly, yeah.”
“Your case isn’t as uncommon as you think, you know? You’re not alone and this is not the end, this is just the beginning.”
Jay stared at the table.
Elena looked at him and put on a calming smile. Jay could tell he was supposed to feel reassured but it wasn’t working yet. He just had more questions.
“But… but what is ‘my case’?”
“You gave him your heart, and he gave you his.”
Jay looked into her eyes, and the plaid-shirted barista froze. He searched her eyes for more answers, but realized quickly she could only give him this much.
He gave him his heart and was given one in return. Simple maths, really. Could it really be that simple, though? This thing that was causing him so much confusion was just a business deal all along, a trade for a common goal. But if Jay gave this other man his heart willingly, why did this heart not feel like it was supposed to be with him? Why did he feel like he was the middle man in a complex plot?
Jay took a deep breath. And another one.
Still, he heard truth in her words. He heard reasons to rejoice. Hope sparked in his eyes, travelling all the way down to his gut, stirring the butterflies lying fast asleep. Everything added up until he asked questions, poked around. The answers he found were not as happy as he had hoped. If this man ran away, it must be Jay’s fault, he must have done something wrong to the man. If the heart wasn’t becoming his… did it not accept him?
Those two questions rose up from the pits of his stomach, rising up quicker than the joy beginning to bubble in his chest. He felt his pulse speed up, so he took a deep breath, and another, and another. His eyes shifted around the café as he wracked his brains for answers. The first question had a clear answer, but the second…
Jay looked up to the plaid-shirted barista.
“You said that if we traded hearts we would find their heart in our chest.” Tears formed in Jay’s eyes as he began to assume the worst.
“I mean, generally, sure, but it’s not always that easy. It’s usually not that easy.”
“So what is ‘my case’, then?” His lips began to quiver and he slightly raised his voice.
“Sometimes trading hearts isn’t enough.”
She leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands. She paused. “Do you remember anything from before you woke up in the street?”
“Just my name. Jay.”
“Well, Jay, sometimes trading hearts isn’t enough because you fight against it. Sometimes you fight against it because you thought you hated the person, sometimes you fight against it because it doesn’t fit the version of yourself you grew up believing in.” Jay’s eyes lit up, remembering the silhouette of some moment far past the edge of his memory. “And sometimes you fight against it because it just doesn’t feel right in that moment.”
“I see.” Jay eyes shifted down, staring at the table as if it could somehow reawaken his memory.
After a short pause Jay leaned forward, opening his mouth to say something, then sank back into his thoughts. He needed to find the words for the right question, but they were all mixed together in his head.
“What did you mean with that second option? The version of myself I grew up believing in?”
“As a child, your life feels like a highway. Tons of traffic signs put up by your parents and a one-way track to the future. Sometimes, when you find the person you want to give your heart to, you find them in a small village far off the beaten track. It happens.”
“But why would that change anything?”
“If you’ve been on that highway for too long, if you really believe that your parents wanted only the best for you, and find your heart taken by someone that doesn’t fit in with that worldview, you have to start again. Crash through the walls set up for you and rebuild from scratch.
“My wife had to go through exactly that, and while I stood by her every step of the way, it was a terrifying time. It took months until her body could accept my heart, even if I had long accepted hers. I couldn’t help her as much as I would have liked to. She can’t remember all the pain she went through anymore, thankfully, although she can’t remember the happiness we shared before either.”
“Is that why he wasn’t holding a heart?”
“That’s what I think.”
Jay felt a dull aching in the hole in his chest. “Why would anyone put themselves through this? I’m all alone, I scared away the guy who has my heart, and I’ve lost my… my… me.” He started crying. “I’ve lost myself.”
“We don’t get to choose who takes our heart, but what you do get to choose is what happens now. It’s tough to lose your identity, but you get to choose who you want to be.”
“I don’t want to have to choose.”
“You don’t have to choose now, and your choice doesn’t have to be permanent. You’re off the highway now, and you can drive wherever you want to go. And don’t forget, we’re here for you.”
“Thank you, Elena,” he sobbed. She smiled at him, attempting to comfort him.
Although it was still pitch-black outside, someone knocked at the door. Elena looked up and saw a bright-eyed face peering anxiously through the window and stood up to open it, recognizing him. Jay stayed in his seat.
“Are you okay? I felt your heart beginning to speed up and it scared me!” He ran towards Jay and sat across him in the booth.
Elena closed the door again then went into the back. “I’ll be in the back if you need me!”
“Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay? You collapsed and — and — and then I panicked and then I saw you just lying on the street and I thought you were dead —”
“I’m… okay,” Jay mumbled, though he was sure that the man wouldn’t hear him.
“— and then you started running after me but I could tell you didn’t recognize me and that scared me, too, and then you grabbed me by the shoulder and collapsed again and I didn’t know what to do, and so I ran away, and I saw you were holding my heart, and I saw the hole in your chest and I —”
“I’m okay. Or at least, I think so.”
“You were right in saying that I didn’t recognize you, though.” Jay felt the heart in his arms begin to beat slower.
“I don’t know or understand what’s happening and what happened before, if I’m honest. But I know that I have your heart and you have mine.” Jay felt the heart begin to speed up in his hands.
“Well, Jay, my name is Magnus, and I’m here to help you get through this. I was scared before, so scared, and I still am, I mean there’s no telling what would happen if —”
Jay chuckled and blushed. Magnus smiled, his eyes widening; this moment felt oddly familiar to Jay.
“I’m going to stick by your side. Unless of course you don’t want—”
Jay reached out and snatched Magnus’ hand. “No way.”
Magnus’ smile turned into a grin as his eyes lit up. Jay had let go of the heart, and it was slowly ebbing in front of his chest.
Magnus gave Jay’s hand a squeeze and winked. “Don’t look down.”