Dale Howard: Heartbeats

Fall '13 TOC


In a dark room there is a door that is never used because it can't be. A single bulb hangs from the ceiling so high that when the water drips, it never reaches the floor. But still the sound echoes as if the drops land somewhere far away.

It is here that Sam paces. But it is not the movement of a caged feral cat, back and forth and back, because the room is not big enough for it. It is a journey. A crucible in a circle, on the fringe of the room, orbiting the one light bulb like a dwarf planet so far away there is no heat or comfort.

Sam stalks gently. Around and around. Time is kept. It takes two heartbeats from the door to the far corner where there is a sink and toilet. Two more heartbeats to the solitary bed that would be disheveled if it had more than a single blanket and soiled pillow on it. Two more heartbeats crosses the room, and two more bring Sam to the beginning, where the door awaits a safe return. After eight heartbeats a drop of water echoes in the distance. Sam has realized that time has slowed since arriving in this room. It once took twelve heartbeats to make the circumference.

Eight heartbeats for every drop of water. 1000 drops of water and the tiny slot opens in the middle of the door, and a plate with food passes through. That is how Sam knows that half a day has passed. 1200 times the slot in the door has opened. nine million, six hundred and twenty thousand heartbeats. That is how time passes.

As Sam walks in a circle, a mantra is played over and over, silently with every heartbeat:


The mantra stops only for a moment; only for a second, when Sam passes the wall between the bed and the sealed door, because that is where Sam's only luxury stands. It goes from floor to an inch above Sam's head, and is just wide enough that a person could fit through it if they turned sideways. It gives a view of a cell just as unremarkable as the one Sam paces. But it is not the view of the room that a stops the mantra, it is the woman who inhabits it. She paces just as Sam does. Around the room in endless circles, her path taking her past the window, where she glances into the cell next to hers.

When she first came here, she was beautiful. Her hair was long and flowed down her back in a brown wave that she tied together with a simple thong. Now, her hair hangs limp and brittle around her face, the string she tied it with snapped in half, and lays on the floor where it fell. In the beginning, she would sit on the bed and stare out into the other room with intense and strong brown eyes. Now, her eyes are still intense, but the strength has left them after so many heartbeats in a room with no other windows except for one with a view into another cell, like some kind of cruel joke.

Their pacing mimics each other's to where they pass the window at the exact same time, their eyes meeting in understanding of each other, their shoulders coming so close to the window that it creates an illusion that they are touching for a brief second before moving on to the rest of a journey they take alone.

One moment, halfway in between 1000 heartbeats, Sam stops at the window and looks in. The woman stops and looks back, slight confusion touching her face. This isn't normal, this isn't part of the journey. It is because the traveling no longer comforts Sam as it once did. The mantra to breath has been spoken so many times that the words have lost all meaning. It is now just the woman on the other side that Sam finds solace in, and it is her support, her comfort that is required.

But the woman is in no shape herself to be any kind of anchor to the person she sees on the other side. Just a brief glance at her shows that she is fading slowly. Her complexion is pale, her eyes are beginning to sink, and the skin on her face is paper thin and coarse. Sam has never seen her smile, but now it doesn't look like she could attempt the simple feat if she wanted to. Even her clothes are faded from the blackness that they were, to a light gray, giving the illusion that she will slowly disappear, never to have existed at all.

They stare at each other for a long time. The woman puts her hand to the solid surface and Sam, as if they have the same idea at the same time, mimics her. They would feel the warmth of each other's touch if it wasn't for the cold hard plane between them.

At this distance, Sam can see the details in the woman's eyes. There is no more intensity coming from them. There is only a loneliness, a need, a depression. Sam is losing her slowly, and she needs to be touched, to be held. There are only so many heartbeats left in her.

There is no more pacing, no more journey. Sam and the woman sit cross-legged, their hands to the glass, watching each other, comforting each other with their presence. There has been no more counting of heartbeats since those beats betrayed the two and turned from a defiant ascension of time to a timer running down. Somewhere, the water drips unnoticed. The only thing that grabs their attention is the slot in the middle of the sealed door that opens and offers food. Besides that, there is only those two and the barrier between them.

And Sam gets an idea. Things are suddenly collected around the room, stockpiled and inventoried in the middle. The woman on the other side does the same. She gathers all she has and places it all in the same spot.

They begin to build. They take the pillowcase from the pillow, the springs from the bed, the mechanism from the toilet, the kit that is slid through the slot in the door, and they construct their devices. They hold each object in the air above their heads to make sure the other is using the same thing before applying it to their creation. The device has to be put together in a certain way or else it won't work. They are slow, but efficient because the slot in the door stopped opening when they never returned their mess kits. They have fewer heartbeats than ever now.

Finally the device is completed. It is studied with squinting eyes that scan obsessively for any mistakes, any malformations. But there is also a pause of introspection. It is devices like this that got Sam thrown into this room in the first place.

There is only one more thing the device needs. It needs a small current to charge the makeshift batteries Sam made out of the bed coils. The only source of electricity is the single bulb in the center of the room that hangs down like a noose. They both are hesitant since it is also the only source of light. But it needs to be done.

First, Sam takes a bedspring and pries open the slot in the door. A soft yellow glow filters into the room like aged vellum. It is not much, and there is no telling when the open slot will be discovered and closed, but it is enough to get done what needs to be.

Sam drags the metal bed frame to the center of the room, the legs grunting and groaning and screeching with rusted protest, and the woman does the same. Carefully the bulb is unscrewed and they are both washed in almost darkness. Sam feels around and by the minuscule light from the slot, undoes the socket so that wires are exposed. The device is held up to the wires and is charged slowly. Sparks emanate from the connection and there is hope that the device doesn't explode, and that the woman is doing the same thing on her side.

Time is uncounted, but it passes non-the-less. Eventually, Sam brings the device away from the wires and tries to put the socket back together again, but it is almost impossible without adequate lighting. After a while the task is abandoned and Sam gets off the bed. A switch is flipped on the device and it hums grumpily awake.

Sam feels towards the window and is grateful when the woman comes too, holding her device delicately in her hands like a wounded and frightened animal. There is so little light that they are only silhouettes to each other, a vague impression of comfort and hope. The devices are stuck to the window in the exact same place, and the two of them take a step back. They wait, but nothing seems to happen. There is no cracking or shattering or any other thing that is to be expected. The devices stay where they are, humming a tuneless song to themselves.

They despair silently to each other. The woman comes forward and reaches out her hand, and Sam does the same. But instead of a cold barrier, they are surprised to come in contact with each other. Warmth radiates off their palms as they touch each other for the first time, drawing unconscious strength from the other's contact.

Sam looks at the shadow of their hands for a long moment, before looking at the woman and smiling. Then, she entwines her fingers with the other woman's and steps through the wall and onto the other side.

They look at one another for a long time, their hands firmly clasped together as if they are afraid that if they let go they will lose each other forever. Finally Sam takes a brief glance around the room. She doesn't expect much, but from the poor illumination from the slot, she can see that this room is an exact mirror image of her own.

She turns back to her neighbor and embraces her, her arms wrapping around the other woman's waist with a strength Sam hasn't felt in a long time. The other woman wraps her arms around Sam's neck and gently caresses her hair.

"My name is Samantha," Sam says to the other's shoulder in a voice that is coarse and ugly from no use.

"So is mine," she replies.

"Are you alone here?"

"Not anymore."

They untangle themselves to look at each other, and Sam runs a hand through her companion's hair. Her companion moves into the caress, then leads Sam to the bed and pushes her gently down to sit at the edge. Her companion smiles at her then moves back to the wall, takes the device down and dismantles it. She unbends the mess kit parts and puts them on the tiny shelf in front of the slot. Then, she takes the parts from the toilet and puts them back as well.

When she is done she moves to the bed and gently pushes Sam down so that she is lying on the pillow. Her companion joins her and lays down, their noses almost touching. They stare into each other's eyes until suddenly the slot in the door is slammed shut and they are in utter darkness. The plate was never touched, so it is a guess as to whether they will ever be fed again.

But it doesn't matter because Sam's right hand is connected to her companion's left, and the solid embrace is pressed to her breast so she can feel the other's heartbeat. In the dark, next to a warm body, Sam smiles and begins to count a new ascending time.



Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
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