Zack Graham brings us an original story of high-Gogolian strangeness played out on the streets of Chicago. Teenage Joey's turbulent plungings might easily be dismissed as noxious angst, but Graham excels in capturing the awkwardness and vulnerability of adolescence. The perspective—distant as we are distant from ourselves in dreams, while simultaneously immersed in the illusion of sensory experience—invites questions of how much, if at all, we should sympathize with the person before us.
Joey’s heart was so broken his sternum hurt. He sat on his bed trying not to think about Amanda, his girlfriend of two years, who told him last Friday that their relationship wasn’t working out. Later that day, he’d found out she’d been cheating on him with the star of the basketball team, a six-foot-six Duke-bound senior named De’Von. Amanda was absolutely perfect. She was the love of Joey’s life. Had Joey told her he loved her enough? Did it even matter? Probably not. Joey imagined De’Von dribbling the length of the court, throwing down a monster dunk, and roaring to the crowd as Amanda screamed her head off from the sidelines. The thought made his chest sting.
Joey knuckled his chest to knead out the pain, but it did no good. Amanda in that off-yellow parka. Ow. The two of them splash-battling in her pool last August. Ow. The way she batted her eyelids up at him after they’d kiss. Ow.
Joey sat up and took his shirt off. His heart was a rubber ball bouncing against the walls of his ribcage, and the memories of his relationship made it bounce harder and faster, causing him more and more pain.
Each one was more painful than the last.
Joey fell backward, gasping for air.
And then, with one final, murderous CRACK!, Joey’s chest burst open and his heart flew out of his body, sailing across the room, smacking into his window, and sliding down until it landed atop his physics textbook, quivering in the sunlight.
Joey’d had many dreams in which he’d died. But when he died in those dreams he always woke up. Now he, impossibly awake, watched his heart expand and contract where it sat on his desk, its slimy surface rippling, pulmonary arteries and veins expanding and contracting as though drawing breath. Joey’s anxiety sucked the air out of him from within. Spinning. He might faint. He closed his eyes and tried to get ahold of his panic attack.
Concentrate on your breathing.
One breath at a time.
When you’re ready, open your eyes and focus on an object that relaxes you. That gives you joy.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the Michael Jordan poster hanging over his bed. It was a photo of “The Shot”, Jordan’s game-winning jumper against Cleveland in 1989, where he’d hung in the air so long before the release that it looked like he was levitating. The image warmed Joey from the inside out. His idol. The patron saint of Chicago. A real ball player.
You’re gonna be alright, Joey.
His panic attack fading, Joey sat up and found that he was, indeed, alright.
But that his heart was still beating on his desk. It almost looked… smug?
Joey opened the camera on his phone and looked at himself. There he was, half naked, his chest split open like he was undergoing a quadruple bypass, his internal organs showing, his heart missing. He was pure anatomy—red and green and orange and blue, squelching and sucking liquid from one blob to the next.
It took Joey a while to get over his initial repulsion, but after a minute or two of watching the active viscera, the rhythm of blood and breath, that little tickle at the back of his throat went away and he realized, despite all of the colors and all of the oozing, that his body looked kind of cool. He held his phone back a bit and smiled at the camera. He mean mugged like a gangsta rapper. He made a kissy face.
Just as he took his selfie, his heart hopped off his physics textbook and onto the bedroom floor.
Joey slid off his bed, watching his heart sploosh across the room, leaving bloody splotches on the carpet in its wake. He nearly managed to grab it, but it slipped through his fingers and hopped out the door.
By the time Joey had regained his composure and scrambled into the hallway, his heart was already hopping down the stairs. He shuffled down after it.
Joey followed his heart into the kitchen where he saw, to his horror, that it had jumped through the open window and into the backyard.
Joey grabbed an old overcoat hanging by the back door and dashed outside.
It was a perfect summer day in Chicago. The sun descended behind the trees. A warm breeze made the humidity bearable. It would have been a great evening for Joey and his friends to smoke weed in the park.
But instead, Joey was wrapped in an old overcoat to conceal his open chest cavity, sweating, following a bloody trail down Greenwood Avenue, doing his best to not think about the absurdity of his conundrum. He just had to find the damn thing. But where could it be headed?
He followed the heartprints a couple more blocks before they took a left on Kenilworth.
A whole new sense of dread filled Joey.
Two blocks down, his heart had taken a right.
Joey began to run.
He’d walked this walk so many times, but he’d only run from his house to Amanda’s house once—a couple months into their relationship, back when they were both freshmen. Terrified because no one was home but she thought she heard someone in the house, she called him. Joey sprinted out of the house and through the crisp fall night in a t-shirt, adrenaline and fear fueling him in equal measure. When he arrived at Amanda’s front door, she told him it was nothing, that her brother had just left a movie on when he went out. She hugged him thanks, but her parents didn’t allow boys in the house when they weren’t home, so he walked the long blocks back to his house shivering.
Joey now ran just as fast as he’d run that night. He was sweating, but he couldn’t take the coat off, so he ran hunched over, like a flasher fleeing the cops. Passersby gave him strange looks. So what if they thought he was the kind of guy that pulled his dick out in front of little boys in public parks. At least they didn’t see his lungs through the gaping hole in his sternum.
The longer he ran, the more his legs shook and the more he struggled to draw breath. He was losing strength quickly, more quickly than he ever had.
He followed the trail of blood down the alley behind Amanda’s house. As he approached her back fence, he finally saw his heart. Specks of gravel studded the ventricular muscle; the pulmonary artery puffed out dust with every beat. It pumped slowly. Jaggedly. Losing life.
Joey broke out into a sprint, letting his jacket fly open. Just as he stooped down to grab his heart, it squeezed under the fence into Amanda’s back yard.
Joey gritted his teeth, crouched down, and jumped. He wedged his elbows on top of the fence, vaulting his legs, and alighting in her yard.
And there, only a few feet in front of him, was his heart. It had stopped dead.
Five feet in front of his heart was Dexter, Amanda’s German Shepherd.
Joey had always hated Dexter. He hated German Shepherds, but Dexter most of all. Whenever Joey and Dexter encountered one another in the house, Dexter growled. Dexter always tried to eat the food off of Joey’s plate. Dexter chewed up Joey’s shoes until Joey started putting them in the laundry room closet.
Joey didn’t dare move for fear of provoking Dexter. He knew that when he did move, it would have to be fast. Drool fell from Dexter’s jaw in stringy gobs.
Dexter stared at Joey’s heart, teeth bared.
Joey curled his fingers into fists.
Dexter gnashed his teeth.
Joey and Dexter made eye contact.
Dexter leapt at the same time, jaws wide.
Joey got there first. His chest embraced his dusty, petrified heart, swallowing it, sealing shut, making Joey whole again.
Dexter sank his teeth into Joey’s shoulder. Joey howled and curled up into a ball.
“Dexter, stop!” A voice from the porch. Dexter obeyed, retreating inside.
“Joey? What are you doing here?”
Joey sat up to see Amanda, the love of his life, in jean shorts and a tank top, standing on her back porch. And right next to her: De’Von, all six-foot-six inches of him, wearing a long-sleeved Duke shooting shirt and sweatpants.
Joey, on the other hand, was sprawled across the back lawn wearing an overcoat in the middle of the summer. He was covered in grass and dirt, and bleeding from his shoulder.
“I… uh……” Joey stammered.
“Are you, like, stalking me or something?” Amanda asked.
“No! No. Nothing like that.”
“Joey, you know I care about you,” she said. “But please don’t make this harder than it is.”
She went inside, slamming the door behind her.
Joey closed his eyes and let out a sigh of relief.
“Yo Joey,” came a booming voice from above.
Joey opened his eyes to see De’Von standing over him.
“Come on man. Can't lay out here all night.”
Only then did Joey realize De’Von was offering to help him up. Joey extended his dirty, sweaty hand. De’Von lifted Joey to his feet as though he were a toddler.
“You good?” De’Von asked.
“Fine, yeah,” Joey snapped. He couldn't bring himself to look at De’Von. Tears and fantasies and memories welled up inside of Joey. It took every ounce of willpower he could find not to cry.
“You'll never be Michael Jordan,” Joey said before he could stop himself. “You'll never even come close.”
Joey looked up at De’Von, instinctually cowering in fear, but was surprised to find that De’Von wore an expression of pity.
“I was in love with this fine lil’ thing once. Shawna. Found out she was cheating on me with my cousin. I couldn't get outta bed for two weeks. Skipped practice. Almost got kicked off the team.”
De’Von put a gargantuan hand on Joey’s shoulder.
“You gonna be aight.”
Amanda was back on the porch.
“What are you doing? Come inside!”
“See you around, Joey,” De’Von said, then went back into the house.
Joey let himself out the back gate. He couldn’t help but rub his chest, where he felt his heart beating away as it always had. He took off the old overcoat and slung it over his shoulder as he walked, slowly, meanderingly, stepping off the sidewalk into the street and back onto the sidewalk again. He thought of Amanda, the love of his life, standing on her back porch in those jean shorts and that tank top. His heart smarted in his chest. He found the pain somewhat bearable.