Harold seldom spoke in groups. The attention didn’t agree with him. However, he had just made an excellent point about balancing cost/benefit ratios which garnered a nod from his supervisor. This moment was, therefore, unique, and Harold reveled in its newness. He took a strawberry from the fruit platter and bit into it with an immense, billowing satisfaction. Even this small act surprised him: here was a new man, a man who eats a strawberry when he wants. Here’s a man who isn’t afraid of food stuck in his teeth, whose grit is magnetic, and who laughs away doubt with confidence and charm.
Suddenly, he glimpsed an alternate version of his whole life, absent timidity and fear. A duplicate anthology of memories revealed itself, parallel to his own, the spectral filmstrip of an unrealized existence. As he glanced across the table, this new version of himself coalesced in the admiration of his colleagues, and the corpus of his imagined twin inflated like a balloon, voluminous and light. He realized then, with a familiar jolt of unrest, that he was at a crossroad, and his next decision would determine which of these two Harolds marched onward, and which dissolved into phantasma.
That’s when he began to cough.
He excused himself quietly and tucked in his chair. He slid the frosted glass doors of the conference room together, leaving a half inch between them so he could re-enter as silently as he left. He smiled at Tom, the young receptionist, walked to the restroom down the hall, and locked the door.
The strawberry didn’t feel caught in his throat. Behind the heart was more like it – as if the small red fruit were whittling a space for itself in Harold’s ribcage. He coughed, hammered his chest with his fist, and coughed some more. He turned on the faucet and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. I look different, he marveled. So different I hardly recognize this face, as if it were a photograph left in a pocket and warped in the wash.
He thought of a time when he was very little, no more than eleven years old, when it snowed the day after Thanksgiving. He put on his winter clothes, mittens first, then coat, and so on, tucking each layer into the next to create an impenetrable shell. He walked out the back door, past the edge of the grass, and into the wooded stretch his family shared with the neighbors. The creek, which rarely sang more than a trickle, even after it rained, was silent. When he reached the center of the woods, he lay down and looked up. The world was unnervingly still. No cloud moved in the sky. The branches were fringed with ice, far too heavy to be moved by a breeze if there were one. He thought, lying in the snow, that his beating heart and rising chest were the most turbulent elements of this scene, and if he could somehow calm the two, he could very well stop the movement of time itself.
Harold could no longer recall what it felt like not to have the strawberry inside him, fattening against his windpipe, a glowing red ember in the center of his chest. It was a part of him now. A second heart. This pulsing, molten core, throbbing with potential. O! the things he could do with two hearts instead of one! He wondered if this were how he should have been made all along, his true form, only now actualized, but the question drifted quickly from his mind.
He remembered the email his daughter sent him that morning. Something silly, a collection of jokes they were in the habit of forwarding to one another. A few made him laugh loudly at his desk. What a wonderful feeling, he thought, to laugh so freely and without the slightest concern for how one looks. The impulse came to him to laugh like that now. How wild! To laugh out loud, alone, and for no reason at all! How rash and carefree! The caprice delighted him and he knew without any doubt which Harold he had become. He felt his new heart swelling with joy, blossoming, a cardinal spreading its wings. Content, he allowed himself to float down to the cool tile of the bathroom floor and closed his eyes for a moment to rest.