When the Heart Sings

It’s been four years since my friend, colleague, collaborator, and general partner in crime David B. Silva died. Dave was just 62 years old when he passed away on March 13, 2013. To mark the anniversary, I am making my story “When the Heart Sings” available here.

I wrote this story a week or so after Dave’s death for inclusion in an anthology called Better Weird: A Tribute to David B. Silva, edited by Richard Chizmar, Brian James Freeman, and yours truly. The book, which includes stories and remembrance essays from many of Dave’s friends, went on to be published in e-book format and a limited edition hardcover by Cemetery Dance Publications. You can find the e-book version available for sale here.

Although the occasion was sad, I truly enjoyed writing this tale. I made the decision to set it in Dave’s own fictional universe, the small town of Kingston Mills, using many of the places Dave had invented: street names, stores, and so forth. The house and property of the story’s main character, John Page, is loosely modeled on Dave’s old home in the mountains outside Oak Run, California, where he lived for many years before later moving to Las Vegas. I first visited Dave in Oak Run way back in 1986, and the lonely beauty of the place has stayed with me ever since.

“When the Heart Sings” is a humble tribute to a good man and incredible writer. I hope that making the story freely available here will help it find a wider audience and remind others of the gifts Dave gave to all of us before he left.

 

WHEN THE HEART SINGS

Paul F. Olson

For Dave …

He saw her on Tuesday, coming out of the morning mist, like an apparition.

She was just a girl, no more than twelve, with short blonde hair and pale skin. She was thin, almost gaunt, dressed in faded jeans and a red nylon windbreaker, and for just a moment he thought he recognized her. She seemed familiar in the vague, uncertain way you remember someone you see at the grocery store once or twice a year. Is it the same person? Is it someone you know? Maybe, maybe not.

Page was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the bay window toward the woods, when she appeared, coming up the hill toward the house. He sat motionless, watching, partially because he couldn’t believe there was actually someone out there on his property, partially because getting up and walking anywhere took conscious thought and effort these days. His coffee cup was poised halfway to his lips. His heart was thudding in his chest, too heavy, too loud.

She moved lightly, gracefully, almost as if she were floating up the hill, although that couldn’t be; he could plainly see the matted footprints she left behind in the long, dew-damp grass.

“Not a ghost then,” he murmured, and the sound of his voice startled him almost as much as his choice of words. He didn’t have much occasion to speak out loud anymore, not since his dog had died in March, and not since his health had declined to this particular point, this unexpected and decidedly unpleasant point where it physically pained him to do yard work and trips into town were no longer regular occurrences but reserved for biweekly shopping trips, doctor’s appointments, and other necessities.

The girl paused at the top of the hill. She was standing where the grass gave out to dirt, just a few feet from the old picnic table and the remains of the rock ring where he used to build late-night campfires a million years ago. The girl raised her eyes and looked at the house—not in his direction but toward the far end. It seemed that she was gazing at his office window. He couldn’t shake the utterly irrational feeling that she was looking for him. The thought made that ridiculous sledgehammer in his chest hesitate briefly, then thud all the harder. He held his breath and waited.

Page studied her face—dark eyes and sharp cheekbones and skin that was almost transparent—and felt that twinge of familiarity again. He tried to remember the last time he had spoken to a child this age, or even seen one who wasn’t on television or in a movie. His nephew, who used to play outside this very bay window, was in his mid-twenties now, married, with a child of his own on the way. There was his old friend Amelia, who had worked at The Written Word bookstore on Fillmore Street and lived on Manzanita Road, where she often had neighborhood children over to swim in her pool. Many hot summer afternoons he would sit with her on the patio, drinking iced tea and chatting about nothing in particular as they watched the kids do shrieking, giggling cannonballs into the deep end. But Amelia had moved away from Kingston Mills two years ago. Or was it three?

The girl was studying the far end of the house with her dark, almost expressionless eyes.

He’d had enough.

He put down his coffee cup, stood, stretched, and started for the entryway, trying to ignore the way even those slow, simple movements intensified the pounding of his heart. He considered and rejected a half-dozen explanations for her presence on his property, the most obvious of which was that she lived in one of the new houses that had sprouted up in the last year or two along Millstream Road. But even that seemed unlikely, since the closest of those houses was nearly a mile away. Since the girl had come up the hillside from the woods, that most likely meant she had been following the creek, and that meandering path would have made it closer to a mile and a half—a rugged, difficult mile and a half.

He reached the door and went outside, where the humid morning air enveloped him like a blanket. He felt the pressure in his chest—a near constant these days—tighten to the point of genuine pain, and the simple act of breathing—not so simple anymore—immediately became a crushing labor.

He made his way around to the front of the house, reminding himself to be nice. He was painfully aware of how his appearance had changed, that his visage and carriage would delight a casting director looking to fill a bit part called “Crotchety Old Man.” The change, which seemed to come about in a series of rapidly-accelerating phases over the past eighteen months or so, was a source of endless, clinical fascination to him. But it would probably terrify the poor girl, who was, after all, just out for a walk, or perhaps had gotten herself turned around and lost, and in any case meant no harm. If he approached her loudly or brusquely or any way but cautiously, it would just compound the difficulty of the situation.

He forced a smile on his face, hoping he didn’t look too much like a grinning skeleton, and rounded the corner.

“Are you—” he started to say, but the words died on his lips.

The girl was gone.

He looked left and right and straight ahead, down toward the woods, but she was nowhere in sight.

He opened his mouth to call out, to say, “Little girl, are you there?” but stopped himself when he heard the words in his mind and realized they would make him sound like a wizened pedophile trying to lure his latest victim out of hiding. He spent the next few moments trying to determine just what to say—why was it so damnably hard to simply think these days—and finally settled on an understated and relatively harmless single word.

“Hello?”

There was no answer. There was no sound at all except a steady drip of water off the eaves of the house. The heavy mist enveloped everything and stole even the possibility of an echo coming back to him.

He looked for footprints, hoping to figure out what direction she had gone, but the only thing he could see was her original trail coming up the hillside from the woods and the creek, stopping at the edge of the dirt. The grass where she had walked was already beginning to lose the rough shape of the prints, the tall blades gradually springing back into place one and two at a time.

Where did you go, Clarissa? he wondered.

The question came abruptly. More than that, it came out of left field—the farthest, leftest of left fields he had ever imagined in his life. It caught him off guard, flustered, and entirely baffled him. That name, Clarissa—where had that come from? He couldn’t begin to say, yet it felt … right. It felt proper. More than that, it felt familiar. What he couldn’t tell is if that name and its familiarity was actually significant, or if it was just another of those endlessly surprising mental detours or short circuits or meltdowns that just a year or two ago would have been alarming but now seemed to be an inescapable part of his daily routine.

He waited a few moments more, scanning the fog, then turned and limped slowly back around the house. That single word, the name Clarissa, echoed in his brain with every step. On three separate occasions he came to an abrupt halt, certain that he’d heard footsteps behind him. But it was just the sound of his own ragged breathing, and when he looked behind him there was no one there.

***

That afternoon he actually got some writing done—only seven paragraphs and part of an eighth, but it was the most progress he had made on his current novel in several months.

Page normally sat at his desk for at least an hour every morning, and if his aching joints were not too bad and that constant band of pressure around his chest was not too tight, he sometimes managed another hour or two in the afternoon. But despite the minutes clocked at his keyboard, his forward momentum was halting at best, and the stack of manuscript pages next to his printer had not really grown in a year. He often found himself rewriting the same paragraphs, sometimes the same sentences, several dozen times before he was able to inch forward again, and occasionally he rewrote the same chapter over and over for weeks on end, hoping each new version would be better, though in truth they seldom changed much, if at all. He sometimes wondered is he was a ghost, if he had actually died years ago while working on this section of the book and now was condemned to repeatedly write and rewrite the same pages for all eternity.

Today, after his usual halting start, the words flowed a little easier. For a short time it almost felt as if some mental logjam had—not broken, but shifted just a little, letting bits and pieces of real language through for the first time in ages. While seven and a half paragraphs was nothing to advertise in The New York Times Book Review, it felt wonderful to him, the way he used to feel decades ago on those magic days, those days he would go on a tear, on a roll, when the words came out in a white-hot flood. On those days, instead of his usual five pages, he might churn out eight, ten, even twelve pages of good, solid copy. Today’s work felt almost like that. For a brief, beautiful time, he had even been able to imagine that the pain in his hands had eased and the pressure in his chest had loosened.

Eventually, of course, it all dried up again and he found himself engaged in the all too familiar pastime of watching the flashing cursor on his computer screen. He tried backing up a bit and rewriting the last few sentences, hoping to build enough momentum to smash through the block, but as usual it did not help. After a time he felt himself getting drowsy, as often happened during his afternoon sessions, and then he did that other thing he had been doing far too often lately: he fell asleep at his desk, slumped back in his chair, chin on his chest, mouth open, snoring raggedly.

He dreamed that he was on the phone with his agent, although he had not had an agent for more than ten years. Then he dreamed he was talking to his editor, although he didn’t have one of those, either, not since his last short story collection was released in 2006. When he awoke, he was no longer at his desk or even in his office. He was standing in front of the bookcase in his living room, which held the remains of what had once been an impressive collection, the few hundred volumes he had left after countless eBay sales to make ends meet.

The shock of awakening in another part of the house made him cry out—a small, strangled croak—and grip the nearest shelf for balance.

That was when he saw that he was holding a book. He stared at it blankly for a moment before recognition dawned. It was a copy of his first story collection, Black Stones, which had been published long, long ago—long enough to be considered an antique.

Like its author, he thought.

Obviously, he had walked here in his sleep. It seemed improbable, impossible, but there was no doubt it had happened. He had come here in his sleep and plucked the volume off the shelves. He could see the gap in the row of books before him, the narrow slot where Black Stones had been quietly residing just moments before.

Without thinking, he opened the cover and thumbed past the frontispiece and title page, past the listing of copyrights, past the dedication to his sister, until he reached the table of contents.

That was when it came to him.

Even before he scanned down the list of seventeen tales—tales that spanned the earliest years of his career, when he was publishing mostly in small, fan-produced publications and getting paid mostly in copies instead of cash—he knew what he had come here for. The answer arrived in an unaccustomed burst of clarity, so big and bright and bold that it seemed impossible he had missed it before.

The third story in the book was called “Shadow Child.” It was a modest effort, written when he was only twenty-three and sold to a magazine called Midnight Revels that was produced on a mimeograph machine and hand-folded, sometimes stapled and sometimes not. He recalled actually being paid cash for this particular story. An eighth-of-a-cent per word. Two thousand words, two dollars and fifty cents.

The main character of “Shadow Child” was a young girl, a runaway who lands on the streets of Chicago and is befriended by an older woman who may or may not be—but probably is—the devil. The girl was twelve, thin almost to the point of emaciation. Blonde. Pale.

Her name was Clarissa Berman.

He felt no shock at the revelation, and why should he? He had known all along that the young girl in his yard reminded him of a character he had written about more than forty years ago. He had known it the minute he saw her coming up the hill. It just took him a while to realize what he knew.

He flipped to page thirty-nine and read the first lines of the story: She was just a kid, no more than twelve, fair-haired and white-skinned, dressed in washed-out jeans with holes in the knees and a red nylon windbreaker. She was just a kid coming out of the Greyhound station with no suitcase, no backpack, no belongings of any kind, looking around as if searching for something, but even she could not say what.

He felt a chill reading those words—a single finger of ice that traced a fine line down the back of his neck. He looked up suddenly, sure that he had seen a flash of color or movement out the corner of his eye. There was no one there, but he still took a step toward the window to get a better look.

Was she still out there somewhere?

All he saw was his old truck and the first hundred yards of the driveway, before it curved out of sight into the woods on its winding way to Millstream Road.

His heart gave a sudden walloping flip-flop and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He groped for the shelf again and Black Stones slipped from his grasp, thumping on the floor at his feet. Only later, after the tilt-a-whirl sensation had passed, did he notice how the book had fallen, cover down, pages open.

“Of course,” he said aloud, as he saw how perfectly the volume had opened to page thirty-nine. “Why not? Of course.”

He bent to pick it up, but hesitated at the last second, as if afraid it might leap at him or bite him or burst into flames. But nothing of the sort happened, so he merely slapped the covers shut and slipped the book back into its slot on the shelf.

***

The next incident happened two days later, and this time there was no doubt, no misunderstanding, not even any momentary confusion.

Page was in the Mountaintop Market, loading his cart with Campbell’s vegetable beef soup, which on many days was the only thing he could reliably eat without upsetting his stomach, when a voice behind him said, “Excuse me, sir, did you drop this?”

He turned and saw a pretty young woman standing there, smiling politely and holding something out to him. At first he thought it was a box of Kleenex, but then he took his glasses from their perch atop his head, rested them on his nose, and saw that it was a book. Not just any book. His book. It was a battered, dog-eared paperback copy of his third novel, The Night Road, and an early one at that. He recognized the garish, purple-black-crimson, foil-embossed cover art as either a first or second edition from the late 1980s, before the book had gone out of print and was eventually picked up by another publisher, who reissued it with a more sedate—more literary, he had told himself hopefully at the time—design.

He wondered how to answer the woman, and decided she was not looking for a lengthy conversation. That ruled out the obvious gambit: No, I didn’t drop it, but it’s funny you should ask, because, well, this is going to sound crazy, but I actually wrote that book. I’m John Page. Can you believe it? Small world, isn’t it?  Nor did she look the type to be charmed by a doddering has-been of a writer, to ask for his life story or even just an autograph. She was young and busy and had places to be. All she wanted was an answer to her question, so he gave it to her.

“I’m afraid not, miss, but thank you for asking.”

He turned back to his soup, and froze.

There was a man standing in front of him. A man he knew. A man he recognized immediately. A man who could not be there.

There was none of the bafflement he had felt watching Clarissa Berman walk up the hillside toward his house. There was only one man who looked like this, one man who was broad and towering, with shaggy snow-white hair and a wild walrus mustache to match, who wore a brown cowboy hat tilted back on his head and a worn denim jacket half unbuttoned. Most of all, there was only one man who had that scar – a jagged, angry, reddish-white splotch that covered half of his left cheek.

It was Jarrod Walsh, the hero—antihero, actually—of The Night Road.

He looked for the young woman with the book, but she was gone. There was no one in the aisle but Page and Walsh, a writer and a man who did not exist, who lived only between the covers of an out-of-print pulp novel, who had sprung from Page’s own imagination and come to life in 1985 through the keyboard of an old Royal typewriter.

It occurred to him how lucky he was that Walsh did not exist. If the man was real, there would already be a dead writer lying on the cold tile floor of the Mountaintop Market. That was Walsh’s way. He did not take time for conversation. He didn’t even take a moment to size up his target, having already done that long before ever making physical contact. The way it worked with Walsh was that you saw him for one brief instant, barely enough time to register  that someone was standing in front of you. There was a flash of steel, a whisper of sound, and you were on the floor with your throat cut, bleeding out.

In the same half-second that Page thought these things, he also realized how insane it sounded. Thinking about a fictional character, his own fictional character, as if he were a real person—that was beyond the boundaries of craziness.

Then again, that fictional character was standing before him right now. He was, in words that Walsh himself might have used in the novel, as real as life, as big as sin, and twice as ugly.

The killer was looking at him with an odd expression. It was not the glassy, dispassionate gaze Page had written for him in the book. It seemed to him that there was a brighter light in Walsh’s eyes, a trace of real emotion. And the smile on his lips was not the sardonic expression you might expect. It was softer, more genuine, almost kind.

“Hello, Jarrod,” he said in a low, soft voice, not wanting anyone to overhear. He needn’t have worried; they were still alone in the supermarket aisle.

Walsh reached out slowly and rested a big, gnarled hand on Page’s forearm.

Page yelped and pulled back, shocked by the touch, which felt as cold as January granite. It sent a ribbon of pain unfurling up his arm and into his chest. His eyes widened, and he struggled to draw a breath.

“Jarrod—” he croaked, but it was too late. The killer was no longer there.

“Sir? Are you all right? Are you—”

He pivoted and let out a second, smaller cry when he saw the young woman still standing there, still giving him the same polite smile, but with a trace of concern now, as well.

“Do you need a doctor?” she said, and reached out for him. He shrank back, irrationally terrified of being touched again.

“Sir?”

He noticed that she was still holding the book. Except—

Except it was not a copy of The Night Road, not with the gaudy 1980s cover or the sophisticated design of the later editions, not battered and dog-eared, not with his name on the cover, not his book at all. It was the farthest thing from one of his books imaginable, an almost new trade paperback edition of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, one of Page’s favorites, although he had not read it in years.

He turned away abruptly and hurried up the aisle, leaving behind his shopping cart full of soup and a very confused woman holding a book that was not his and never had been.

***

“It’s sort of fascinating, don’t you think?”

Roger Norton’s voice on the phone was light and cheery, but it irritated Page nevertheless.

“In what way, exactly, do you find it fascinating?”

“Are you kidding me? A writer being visited by his characters? That’s pretty darn fascinating to me. It’s like an old episode of The Twilight Zone.

Page grunted. “Starring Burgess Meredith as the broken-down old writer, I suppose. I’m glad you find my situation amusing. But you’ll excuse me if I’m not amused.”

It had been a mistake to tell Roger about the visitations. He had realized that almost as soon as he launched into the story. He’d blurted out the first few sentences and suddenly realized that it was impossible to tell the tale without sounding like an utter lunatic. But by then it had been too late.

It was three days after the incident at the Mountaintop Market, and there had been two more visits since then. The first had happened that same day, just twenty minutes later, while he was driving home from Kingston Mills. He had seen a man standing on the side of the road, a hitchhiker, holding a sign that said SAN FRANCISCO BOUND, which just happened to be the title of another one of his early stories, another story that had been collected in Black Stones. As he had with Walsh—consciously—and with Clarissa Berman— unconsciously—he immediately recognized the hitcher as Franklin Hill, a secondary but colorfully memorable character in the San Francisco story, a drifter who runs afoul of a vampire truck driver while thumbing for a lift to the titular city by the bay. Page’s foot had come off the gas for just a moment, until he realized what he was doing and accelerated again, speeding past the grinning Hill, his swollen, aching hands shaking on the steering wheel.

The second visitor came the next night as he was lying in bed, struggling with his old man’s insomnia, trying to will himself to sleep. Random witching-hour thoughts capered through his mind, and Page eventually grew weary of fighting them off.  He sighed, rolled over, and opened his eyes to check the alarm on the nightstand. He had gone to bed at twelve-thirty and expected the clock to read one o’ clock, maybe one-fifteen. But he was horrified to see that it was already two-twenty. He had been lying there, sleepless, for nearly two hours.

He sighed again and closed his eyes, but they snapped back open immediately.

There was someone standing in the far corner of the room, faintly illuminated by the weak glow of the nightlight down the hall. For a moment he thought it was Jarrod Walsh again, but then realized that he was looking at a much younger man, a man whose hair was not white but blond. There were no bells or lightbulbs, no familiarity at all, until he noticed that the man was wearing a dark-colored tee-shirt. In the poor light he could not see what color it was, but he knew. It was red. And not just any red. Crimson. Harvard crimson. The reason he knew was because of the bold white letters emblazoned across the front of the shirt: YALE BULLDOGS TAKE IT UP THE ASS. As far as Page knew, there was no slogan like that in common usage and no shirts bearing those words. Except on one person, his character Adam Wintrop, and in one place, his novel Dead Water.

As soon as the realization came to him, he saw that Winthrop was not there anymore. The corner of the room was empty.

It was then he decided that he was losing his mind, but the thought was not as disturbing as it should be. Why should it be, really? After all, his mind was not the only thing that was on the way out. His body had his brain beaten by a considerable margin. Based on the deterioration of his health over the past few months, he would be dead long before his gray matter deserted him completely.

There was another issue, too. A much bigger issue.

For the past three days he had been writing in a way he had not written in … well, let’s be honest. Years. Decades, perhaps. It had started as soon as he arrived home from his encounter with Walsh and the sighting of Franklin Hill. He had brewed a pot of coffee, sat down at his computer, and written without pause for the next six hours. When he finished, he scrolled up and down the screen several times, checking and double-checking the word count and page numbers at the bottom, and was finally forced to admit that the impossible had happened. He had written fourteen pages of brand new copy.

And that was just the beginning.

Yesterday he had churned out seventeen pages. Today fifteen.

Along the way, he had somehow managed to complete part two of his novel—a segment he had started at least five or six years ago and had long ago despaired of ever finishing—and surged right on ahead into part three.

He could not comprehend where these newfound bursts of physical and creative energy had come from. Honestly, he was afraid of examining that question too closely, for fear of jinxing things, chasing away the stamina and inspiration before they had fully taken hold. But he had not been able to resist calling Roger and telling him about it. Roger was the one person left in his life who would understand and appreciate the miracle that was taking place. Roger, who had bought several of Page’s stories for a small press magazine he edited in the early 1990s. Roger, who went on to collaborate with Page on two novellas, an anthology project, and an aborted science fiction novel. Roger, who had struggled with his own bouts of creative drought in recent years.

Unfortunately, after Page finished happily babbling about his creative good fortune, he made the mistake of venturing into far shakier territory, and for a reason he could not now explain, he told Roger about the visitations.

“I don’t expect you to be amused,” Roger said now. “But you ought to be grateful. Don’t you find it sort of—I don’t know. Reassuring?”

“How so?” Page asked softly, gripping the receiver tighter and biting the inside of his cheek to keep from saying something he might regret.

“It’s like a homecoming,” Roger said, chuckling. “Old friends coming back to the place they were born. A reunion. So what if it’s all in your head? You’re connecting to your past, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Old farts like us, sometimes that’s all we have left. And you can’t argue with the results.”

“Results?”

“Look at what you’ve done since the girl showed up. In the past five years, how much new material have you written? A few thousand words? Three thousand? Ten thousand? And what have you done in the past few days? Sounds like about twelve thousand, maybe more. That’s nothing to shake a stick at, buddy boy. It sounds to me like your imagination is sparking for the first time in a long time. Is it a little weird? A little flaky? Okay, sure, maybe. But think of the guys who always write in their lucky socks or can’t do a page unless they have their favorite coffee cup next to them or can’t turn out a coherent sentence if their chair isn’t facing exactly north-northeast. Is what’s happening to you any stranger than that? So it’s weird. So what? Be weird, John. Be flaky. Who the hell cares, as long as it works?”

He talked to Roger a while more, and later, after midnight, walked back down the hall to his office. He lowered himself into his chair with a grunt, woke up his computer, and read again what he had written that afternoon. He didn’t know what he expected to find—absolute dreck, most likely. But what he discovered instead was something quite different. Almost all of it qualified as good, solid, passable prose. Some of it even approached the realm of first-rate material. And while there were a few spots that he’d chosen an awkward word or noticeably struggled to reach the end of a sentence, those problems could be easily fixed. As a matter of fact, he could fix them right now.

That was his last conscious thought for a very long time.

When he next became aware of his surroundings, the little clock in the computer task bar read 4:47 a.m. and the page count had grown from 286 to 319.

He looked up to see weak, gray, pre-dawn light filtering through the window. He also caught sight of his reflection—drawn features, mouth slightly agape, and wispy white hair standing up at severe angles, making him look like a troll that had just crawled out from its lair far beneath an ancient bridge.

But he only noticed that for a split second. Then he saw what was beyond his reflection, out in the yard.

There were dozens of them out there, filling the hillside between the house and the woods. Male and female. Young. Old. He recognized quite a few, among them Clarissa Berman and Jarrod Walsh, who were standing not far from each other, near the old fire ring. Others did not look familiar at all, but he knew who they were, what they were. They stood alone or in small groups. Some were wandering about aimlessly. Others were looking toward the trees near the creek or off to the east, where they could see the overgrown meadow and the horizon beyond. Some looked down at the dirt, while others looked toward the sky. Still others were gazing directly at the house, at him. He could actually feel their stares like physical touches, reaching him across the distance.

Page’s heart did a strange, heavy double-thud, and the half-light through the window seemed to grow dimmer. He glanced from the milling multitudes to his computer monitor, where the cursor was still flashing steadily halfway down page 319. He groped for the mouse, intending to save and close the file, perhaps, but he badly misjudged the distance and his arthritic fingers closed around empty air.

“Why—” he began, unsure what he was meaning to say. Then his voice was silenced as the gray light faded quickly to black.

***

The next twelve hours passed in a dreamlike fog.

Page woke up just seconds after losing consciousness and discovered that his yard was empty, as if no one had been out there just a few moments before, as if no one had ever been out there.

There was a terrible feeling in his chest, far worse that the usual discomfort. He was aware of a dreadful constriction, a crushing weight that seemed to be pressing down on his ribcage, and a bright pain in his shoulder and neck. Even the shallowest breaths had become an excruciating exercise.

He called the Kingston Mills Urgent Care Clinic, hoping for understanding from Mike Schrader, a physician who sometimes took pity on him, offering advice and even the occasional prescription over the phone. This time, however, the doctor would have none of that. Page had barely begun to describe his symptoms before Schrader had the volunteer ambulance on the way.  They arrived in less than fifteen minutes, but stayed much longer. It took nearly an hour, two phone calls between the EMTs and various doctors at the hospital, and Page’s signature on three separate documents before they finally accepted the fact that he was refusing treatment and would not be going for a lights-and-siren thrill ride that day.

During much of the time the medics were in his house, Page had an oxygen mask strapped to his face and a blood pressure cuff wrapped around his right bicep. He grudgingly admitted that the O2 made him feel a little better, but he still insisted that they disconnect the apparatus and leave him in peace. They finally did, in exchange for one small concession on his part—swallowing the baby aspirin they had been trying to get him to take from they moment they’d arrived.

To Page’s surprise, Schrader himself pulled into the driveway thirty minutes later, doing his best to hide his concern and appear disgruntled instead. He made Page lie down on the living room couch for a round of poking, prodding, and listening. He then repeated the whole procedure, and finally announced that Page had almost certainly had a heart attack. There was no way to know for sure, of course, not without hospitalization and tests, but all signs pointed to an infarction. He launched a detailed explanation that included a discussion of arrhythmias and blockages and valves that did not quite open and close the way they were supposed to. There were other things, too, some of which Page couldn’t follow and others that he might have followed, had he cared enough or had the energy to do so. He did recognize many of the specific terms Schrader used, including congestive heart failure, a diagnosis Page had first received nearly a year ago now.

“So do you want to pack your bag, or should I do it for you?” Schrader asked, and a weary Page was about to concede, about to say that he would be happy to pack his own bag if Schrader would only give him a hand up off the couch. But he stopped with the unspoken words still in his throat.

She was standing a foot or two behind the doctor, dressed the same way she had been dressed that day in his yard, faded jeans, red jacket. There was something in her hands, and he saw that it was a copy of Black Stones. His eyes darted to the shelf and the gap in his collection where the book had been removed.

Clarissa Berman held the book out to him and smiled shyly. The smile sent a completely new sensation fluttering through his chest. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, a feeling of sudden expansion, of light and heat, of air, of lilting flight, and Page thought, somewhat nonsensically, This is what it feels like. This is what it feels like when the heart sings.

Later, after he’d dispatched a genuinely disgruntled Schrader back to his clinic, Page shuffled down to the hall to his office and got back to work. Despite all that had happened since that morning, it took him no time at all to relocate the rhythm and recapture the forward momentum. The words flowed like water now, spilling in an effortless cascade from mind to fingertips to keyboard to screen in a way he could not recall experiencing in many years, perhaps ever. During his lengthy, inexorable decline he had often recalled the days of his youth, how exciting the writing had been back then, how it had made him feel, how strong, how vibrant, how vital. He remembered marathon sessions at the typewriter, ten or twelve hours at a stretch, during which the stack of pages grew and grew as if by magic. He remembered the invulnerability he’d felt at those times, the fiery desire to conquer the world with words, the absolute certainty that he could do it.

Even that had not felt like this.

He had not eaten in more than twenty-four hours, but he was not hungry. He had not slept in nearly two days, but he was not tired.

At some point Clarissa returned to him, still holding the copy of Black Stones she had taken from his shelf. She approached his desk slowly, tentatively, coming close enough that he could feel the soft brush of her arm against his. She laid the book down next to his monitor and stepped back, giving him that gentle smile again and making his heart take flight.

The hours went by and the cascade still flowed. He was amazed, overwhelmed at the way the story was taking shape and racing toward its destined conclusion. This story that had fought him for so many years, that had resisted every attempt to mold and shape it, to rouse it and kick it to life, was suddenly coming to life on its own.

His heart was pounding, his breath coming in tight, ragged spurts. He stared at the screen with avid, bulging eyes, great beads of sweat dotting his forehead.

The words flowed onto the page, afternoon flowed gently into evening, and one by one by one they came to him, all of them, every last one, the monsters and the lovers, the parents, the children, the believers and the skeptics, the curious, the oblivious, the seekers and the sought, the takers and the taken, the lost, the found. One by one by one they approached, carefully and cautiously, as Clarissa had. His desk slowly filled with their sacred offerings, the magazines and chapbooks, novels, anthologies, hardcovers and paperbacks and a few messy manuscripts that had never seen print. They formed a pile that became a stack that became a teetering mountain range – the disordered geography of his creative life.

They came to him and presented their gifts, but they did not leave. They merely stepped back to make room for the next, moved aside and filled the room behind him, spilling out into the hallway, down to the kitchen and the living room beyond, out the front door and down the driveway and who knew how far beyond that. The world was full of them, alive with them.

He turned only once and looked at the assembled throng. It was odd, he thought, for someone who had been alone for so long, who had come to love the isolation, who had accepted and even embraced the inevitability of living alone, dying alone—it was odd for someone so comfortable with solitude to feel comfort from such a mass of souls and spirits as these. Just the thought of it made him smile and laugh out loud, a sharp, jagged sound that became a hacking cough.

He could scarcely remember the time, just a few days ago now, when these beings had frightened him. How foolish that had been. There was nothing to fear. Not from them. Not for him. For him there was only gratitude.

He met their eyes and smiled, and it did not matter that his vision was beginning to fade. He could feel them smiling back at him, radiating warmth and love.

He turned back to the keyboard where the story was waiting, eager for the race to the end.

This is what it feels like when the heart sings, he thought again.

“Thank you,” he murmured. “Thank you, all. Thank you so much.”

His fingers, free at last of stiffness and pain, danced across the keys.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Paul F. Olson

 

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