A Million Heartbeats
by Maggie Graber
I’m not an insomniac. I’m just lying awake at 2 am.
I stare up at the dirty, white ceiling. There’s a crack that runs from one side to the middle, as if it will split open at any second causing the roof to crash down and kill me.
What will it say on my gravestone? Here lies Venus Taylor, the girl that lived in a trashy apartment?
Because that’s all I’ll be remember for. Anxiety crawls up my spine, but I fight against it before it can choke me. Think of something else.
I shiver and pull my comforter closer around my chin. We don’t have any heating and it’s November. My little brother, Zane, sleeps with Mom, which keeps them both warm. I don’t mind because I get to have my own room. I’d rather be cold than have his stinky feet in my face. It’s impossible to sleep when he’s in my bed.
Of course, I’m not sleeping anyways. I groan and roll over onto my belly. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. I press my face into the pillow until all I can smell is Mom’s detergent and pretzels. I hate the smell of pretzels. I have to sleep with it every night because when Zane used to sleep with me he’d eat pretzels before bed. It helped him to be able to sleep. No matter how many times Mom has washed it, it still smells like pretzels. Like insomnia. Which I definitely do not have.
There’s a whisper in the darkness and my body turns to ice. Is it the high school boys from down the street? They always try to break into houses and steal stuff. And beat up little boys.
My heart races with the memory. I rise from my bed slowly and reach for the large stick that I keep under my bed. A shape moves in the darkness. I leap forward and give it a hard thwack.
“Ouch!” The shape emits a high-pitched squeal. “V, it’s me!”
I squint in the darkness at the figure. Zane is lying on the floor and cradling his arm.
“Zane?” I bite my tongue to keep from saying a bad word. “What are you doing? It’s 2 am.”
“I know!” Zane whines. He pulls himself to his feet. “I was trying to sneak into your room before you took me out with your cane.”
“And why are you trying to sneak into my room?” I whisper, pulling myself to my full height so I will stay four and a half inches taller than him. He’s growing so fast, even though he’s only eleven.
“I can feel the magic.” Zane grins, then yanks me towards the window.
“What?” I gape.
He pushes open the window, cringing as it squeaks slightly, then pulls himself easily onto the sill.
“What in the world are you doing?” I reach out to grab him, but he’s too fast and disappears out the window.
I bite my tongue fiercely and rush to the window, peeking out after him. He’s climbing up the drainage pipe of our apartment building to the roof.
“Get down here at once, Zane Taylor!” I hiss. “Or else I’ll get Mom!”
He reaches the roof and sticks his head over the edge to see me. “Mom won’t be able to climb up here and get me.”
I clench my teeth and haul myself after him. I’m heavier than he is since I inherited Mom’s curves, and the pipe trembles forebodingly. I don’t dare look down, and I let out a sigh of relief when I reach the roof.
“What were you thinking?” I turn to face him with my most wrathful expression. I’ve practiced it a thousand times in the mirror to look exactly like Mom’s, and I’m proud of it.
He’s not even looking at me. He’s staring up, his eyes wide and his face glimmering with pale light.
“You-” I can’t remember what I was going to say, because suddenly my eyes are drawn to the sky.
Above me stretches the ceiling of heaven itself, a vast canopy of inky, fathomless darkness pierced by thousands and thousands of pure white lights. It hangs over me, a brilliant display of divine beauty that goes on and on and on.
“Can you feel it?” Zane whispers.
The sky reaches down and wraps me in the warmest embrace. This feeling, it’s what’s been keeping me awake. There are no words that can describe it.
“Listen.” Zane looks over at me and smiles, his face glowing in the light.
I try to protest, I try to say that we should get off this roof and get back into our beds. I try to say that I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I can’t. Not with the starlight filling every crack in my heart that I didn’t even know I had.
Instead, I listen. I listen, and I watch the stars. They pulse up in the sky like a million beating hearts. Then…voices. First, it’s indistinguishable, then it’s whispers. Voices whispering pleas and prayers.
“I don’t understand.” I press my hands over my ears, but I can still hear the voices.
“Shhh.” Zane grabs my hands. His fingers warm my freezing ones, and he presses my hands onto his chest.
“Listen to me.” He smiles.
I stare into his twinkling eyes and listen to him breathing. Soft and gentle as a feather. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
His lips aren’t moving.
His heart beats against my fingertips. Far above us I see a tiny star pulsing to the same rhythm.
I love you, V.
©Maggie Graber 2018