The prompt was:
Everyone has a predetermined amount of heart beats from birth. Each person’s is different, and no one knows how many they have. How does your character live their life, when exciting themselves uses their beats faster?
The first time I saw her, my heart stopped. The summer breeze continued blowing the salty spray onto the pier, the waves continued rolling endlessly out to sea, and her eyes continued lighting up the world like two golden-brown suns that no clouds could shade. But my heart stopped beating right then and there in the presence of her pure, unrestrained beauty.
It wasn’t just the long blonde curls and curvaceous hips that brought my world to a halt. It wasn’t just the sun-kissed skin and warm, honest smile. Sure, in part, it was all of those things, but it was also the way she got down on her bare knees beside an overflowing trash can to help a struggling kitten out of a styrofoam cup, laughing as it climbed her cut-off jeans and put tiny brown paw prints on the bottom of her soft pink tank top. It was the love and care she devoted to an abandoned stray when the rest of the world deemed it unwanted. It was the passion that emanated from her very being as naturally as breathing.
The silence in my chest overshadowed the wonder of her existence as I came to take notice of its length. When my focus drew away from her and into myself, a lone thump sounded within me like the hollow echo that resonates through an empty cavern. Seconds later, another beat followed. Slowly, a steady rhythm picked up until it matched that of the waves crashing on the shore. Beat…breathe…exhale. Beat…breathe…exhale. I had never been more relaxed in all of my twenty-nine years.
It’s a funny thing, love. I’ve heard people say that when you fall in love, your heart beats faster. Adrenaline pumps through your veins and excitement clouds your mind, making it next to impossible to say the right thing, but everything you do becomes fueled by the raw desire to keep that feeling going. When you understand the concept of mortality, however, the mere idea of love—as exhilarating as I’m sure it is—seems utterly frightening.
You see, just as a story can only have so many words before the tale is well and truly told, a heart can only beat so many times before its song must come to an end. I had often worried that I wasted much of my youth stressing over circumstances out of my control. That I shortened my lifespan by worrying about shortening my lifespan. An ironic twist that I’m sure would be laughable if the punch line were something other than my own life.
That’s why, in ninth grade English class, I swore off love altogether. While watching Chelsea, a classic beauty from three seats down, recite an excerpt from an equally-classic Dumas novel, I had felt my pulse quicken and for almost a full minute, I had forgotten to breathe. I became a loner and a hermit, sticking to myself, avoiding women completely, choosing instead to focus on my studies and find a good, safe, mindless career path that would ensure a long and healthy—if somewhat boring—life.
But this…this was nothing like I’d imagined.
I must have been standing there staring for quite a while, because her bright golden eyes, twinkling with curiosity and amusement, left the kitten and met my own dull browns. Her lips spread wide in a smile that was only for me, and I knew I had been missing out during all those years I had spent alone.
The day passed us by. We walked, talked, played with the kitten I had quickly decided to adopt, and shared overpriced ice cream from a local shop. All the while, the tempo in my chest never rose above a waltz. She was my tranquility, and making her happy became my only goal. Everything I did for her felt “right.” There was no other way to explain it. She returned my love tenfold; we complemented each other perfectly. Within the year, she took my name, and life was good.
Only once did my heartbeat rise dangerously high during our years together—the day she gave birth to our daughter. A mirror image of her mother, she was born with a full head of bright blonde and a beauty that rivaled Aphrodite herself. As the joy overwhelmed me and I thought my heart would burst, my wife took my hand to her mouth and kissed my palm, then rested her cheek against my fingers and placed her other hand over my chest.
“Be still, my heart,” she whispered. And it did. For her, it did.
But happily-ever-after is never the end. Only five short years later, my wife’s heart stopped beating. An aggressive cancer, caught too late, had spread death throughout her body and a year’s worth of treatments had been ineffective. I will never understand why someone that spiritually beautiful inside and out would be given so few heartbeats when she had so much left to give.
My world spun out of control. I wanted to die right there with her, and as her skin grew cold, my own grew hot. My heart raced, and I spent the next six months doing whatever I could to keep my heartbeat above a samba. The faster my pulse, the closer I felt to my late wife. My daughter moved in with my mother to have a more stable home life, and I took full advantage of my lonely, unwanted freedom. I went skydiving and bungee jumping, I drove fast and recklessly, and I spent my nights between the sheets with attractive women doing exotic acts. The peak of these impulses rewarded me with just a few seconds of intense pleasure, when my heart’s cadence grew so fast that the individual beats slurred together into one deep, deafening vibration. In those moments, that singular sound blocked out the world around me and made me feel as if I were holding my wife again. Like I was looking into her eyes, lost in her smile. I couldn’t get enough.
I don’t know how many heartbeats I wasted chasing her ghost.
One night, I came home from work with the full intent of getting changed and going to the bar. To my surprise and dismay, my mother sat in my living room, with my almost-six-year-old daughter sitting beside her reading a book. My mother didn’t even say a word. She got up, put a hand on my shoulder, looked back to my daughter, then walked out the door.
Small hands folded the book gently and set it beside her on the couch. Long blonde curls bounced softly as she tilted her head up to look at me.
I didn’t know what to say. She had grown so much. It was like looking at an old childhood photo of my wife, down to the slope of her nose and the way her eyebrows curved when she was scared or unsure. I had no clue how to fill the silence, so instead I knelt in front of her and pulled her into my arms.
I’m not sure who started crying first; I only knew that tears soaked through both of our shirts and our sobbing filled the silence. As I took a deep breath, I felt it. The fast, steady rhythm of my broken heart pounding away in my chest. I had missed so many precious moments like this one that I could have spent with my daughter, instead choosing to throw those moments away along with uncountable beats of my already-tiring heart.
I closed my eyes and listened for my daughter’s heartbeat. It was slow and calm, the way mine used to be with her mother. Smiling, I took her hand to my mouth and kissed her palm, then rested my cheek against her small fingers and placed her other hand over my chest.
“Be still, my heart,” I whispered. And it did. For her, it did.