Lenora’s first heart arrived in a box of Rice Krispies. It fell into her cereal bowl with a damp thud, and for a brief moment she mistook it for a hunk of roast beef. It was crimson in spots and silver in others—as if parts of it had touched a hot skillet—but when Lenora, startled, splashed it with some 2%, it turned an all-over vivid fuchsia and fully came to life.
First, it twitched off a few grains of puffed rice, then it sputtered for a time, its veins and arteries unfurling like bean sprouts. When it finally it found its bossa nova, it thumped the cereal bowl clear across the table and onto the floor, where the bowl shattered and the heart escaped, dancing out of the kitchen and into the hall. Lenora wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation—she had no idea how to care for a heart—but she finally trapped it with an overturned spaghetti strainer, the same way she might secure an escaped hamster.
Lenora bathed the heart in the kitchen sink. She washed the cereal from it with care, as well as some dust and lint and two fragments of cereal bowl. When she was done, Lenora set the heart on a potholder and stared. She could tell the heart was happy. Its beat was now serene, and Lenora, single and childless, felt a rush of self-satisfaction that she had always assumed was reserved for the married and maternal. She went and found her old fishbowl. She filled it with tap water and three iron tablets. She added six drops of red food coloring. She put the heart in the bowl and put the bowl on her bedside table. By bedtime, its beat was synced with hers. Lenora knew it was better than a pet. Maybe even better than a baby or husband.
Lenora’s second and third hearts arrived as a pair on her front stoop, in a styrofoam box packed with dry ice and marked as fresh seafood. These two hearts were smaller and pinker, and not content in glass bowls. They only kept beating when Lenora let them perch on her shoulder like lovebirds, so she let the hearts have their way. When Lenora had to leave the house, she put the hearts into the refrigerator, where the cold, at first, sent them into a temporary hibernation, and she was able to go to the bank, the dentist, the grocery. But after a while, this tactic lost its effectiveness, and the two tiny hearts, furious when abandoned, wreaked havoc inside the fridge, smashing the butter flat and spilling soy sauce and ketchup. Eventually, Lenora let the two hearts perch on her shoulder all day. She went out less. She worked from home. She let a tooth nag her for longer than a tooth should nag someone. Lenora became a hermit, but she also became necessary.
The next ten hearts came into Lenora’s life in quick succession. In her mailbox, a giant brown heart. In her backyard, a violet one under a fern. On the hood of her rarely-used car, a dried-out specimen that required an hour of compressions. Bewildered by her new charges, Lenora took to wearing sunglasses. She wore a floppy brimmed hat and tried to never look down. She thought that this approach might keep her from seeing hearts, but the hearts found her anyway. They followed her home on brisk walks around the block. They appeared in her bed when she pulled back the sheets. Lenora could not escape the hearts until she had thirteen in total. They bounced on her shoulders, they jumped at her ankles. Save for the original heart, who was content in its bowl of metallic, pink water and never gave Lenora any trouble, the twelve other hearts demanded everything of Lenora. And Lenora gave them everything she had. Why shouldn’t she? The hearts loved her like she had never been loved.
Every night, before bed, Lenora sat on the floor. The hearts ran to her. They piled in her lap and beat their approval. Lenora was exhausted, but validated. She sang to them. She read to them the sorts of things hearts liked hearing. Pablo Neruda, mostly. But also the personal ads.
“Divorced, bi-racial female,” Lenora would begin and the hearts would flutter in her lap. “Seeks divorced, bi-racial male for long walks, long dinners, champagne.” If Lenora paused for too long between ads, the hearts would jump into the newspaper and rattle it. More, they seemed to say. Go on! Go on!
So, Lenora would. Single man, gay and Jewish, seeks badminton partner. Married but lonely atheist seeks backseat hugs in secret parking lots. Adventurous couple seeks adventurous couple for naked skydiving. Hippie seeks hippie for road/acid trips.
One night, when Lenora had read her heart out and the hearts were asleep, thumping contentedly in her lap, she came across a personal ad like no other. Never been married, it read. Never had kids. Not sure how to love, but ready to try.
Lenora couldn’t sleep that night. She kept the personal ad folded, in a square in her pocket, for a week. She washed the hearts and read them Neruda and let them take from her what they needed to take. But she did not read them the ad. When she finally decided to call the number, she did so in the car, locked inside, while the hearts hammered the hood and windshield like heavy rain.
“Hello,” Lenora said, when the voicemail picked up. “Ready To Try? This is Also Ready To Try.” The two hearts that Lenora had found on her stoop in the fresh seafood box pounded on the glass. Lenora thought they might explode. “I was wondering,” she said to the voicemail. “If you might like to meet.”
Ready To Try did. Later that day, Lenora received a thumbs-up emoji on her phone and a 7PM? And Lenora responded with her own thumbs-up and her address, before considering what she might do with the hearts, much less, what the hearts might do with her.
Lenora came up with a plan. She put on a long prairie skirt. She located her copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She ran around the house, the hearts at her heels, until the hearts were exhausted. Then she sat on the floor and called the hearts to her lap. Lenora read 89 of the 154 sonnets until finally, all the hearts were asleep. Gingerly, Lenora lifted her skirt full of hearts and closed the front of it with her fist. She stepped out of the skirt and walked in her underwear to the metal garbage can in the garage. She knotted the skirt and set the hearts down in the can. She noiselessly placed the lid on the can. She put two bricks on the lid. Then she put on a new, fresh skirt and lipstick and waited.
At seven, Ready To Try knocked on Lenora’s door. Lenora took a deep breath and looked through the peephole. Ready To Try was not what Lenora had expected. For starters, Ready To Try was taller and darker and more handsome than she’d let herself anticipate. Not to mention, Ready To Try was a woman. Lenora put her hand on the knob, and then she removed it. She put it back on the knob and took a breath. When Ready To Try knocked a second time, Lenora opened the door and smiled.
“Hello,” she said.
Ready To Try put out her hand. “Hello,” she said back.
Behind Lenora, past the kitchen, past the hallway that connected to the attached garage, Lenora heard a single metallic thump. And then she heard another. She gave an awkward smile and cleared her throat. The hearts were waking up, it seemed, and before Lenora could invite Ready To Try inside, the hearts launched into a distant, rhythmic banging.
“What’s that?” Ready To Try asked.
“Oh,” Lenora shrugged, walking out onto the stoop and closing the door behind her. “I have some shoes in the dryer.”
Lenora and Ready went out to dinner. They ate roast beef and talked about all the things they weren’t, all the things they’d never done, all the things they would probably never end up being. When they were finished, they went for a long walk. Lenora was afraid she might find another heart, or that another heart would find her, so she refused to look down. Instead, she looked right at Ready and Ready looked right at her. At the end of the night, on their way back to Lenora’s, Lenora worried about asking Ready in. Not because she wasn’t ready for Ready, but because of the hearts. How would Lenora explain the shoes still in the dryer?
“You’ll have to excuse my house,” Lenora said as they pulled in the driveway. “It’s pretty messy.”
The headlights from Ready’s car shone right at the front door, right into the house. “It’s also open,” she said, pointing. “I think you’ve been robbed.”
Lenora and Ready got out of the car. They approached the house warily. Inside the front door, Lenora turned on the foyer lights. She handed an umbrella to Ready for protection. She took another for herself.
“I don’t see anything odd,” Ready said.
Lenora looked around the front hall. She peered into the tiny living room, the tiny kitchen. Both was her-messy, but not thief-messy. “Excuse me,” she said. “I need to check on those shoes. In the dryer.”
Out in the garage, Lenora found the trashcan toppled. The lid had rolled into a corner. The two bricks had broken in half. The prairie skirt was off to one side, wrinkled and unknotted. The hearts were nowhere to be found.
Lenora ran back into the house. She flew through the kitchen and the living room, past Ready and into the bedroom. On the floor was the fishbowl, shattered. On the rug, a circle of damp pink. Lenora got down on her knees and looked under the bed. She stood and tore back the sheets. She went to the dresser and pulled out its drawers. She felt something inside her break free and rise—a scream that came out and brought Ready to her.
“What is it?” Ready appeared in the bedroom doorway. “Tell me what’s happening.”
Lenora fell to her knees and put her face in her hands. “My heart,” she said. “It’s gone. It was right here when I left, but now it’s gone.”
Ready reached out a hand to Lenora. “Let me help you up.”
Lenora shook her head. “You don’t understand. All the other hearts did something to it. They stole it,” she sobbed. “They took it. They took my one good heart away from me.”
Lenora cried into her hands. She thought of the sacrifices she had made to the twelve demanding hearts. She thought of how the first heart had needed next to nothing.
“Wait here,” Ready said.
Lenora looked up. She watched Ready leave. Eventually, Lenora went out into the living room and sat in the dark. Outside, she could see the beam of a flashlight bounce up and down. Ready was walking the yard in careful lines, down and back, left and right. Lenora went to window and watched. She grew still and serene. After some time, something returned and settled inside her, like something dropped into a bowl. Lenora went to the open front door and stood. “Ready,” she called out. “It’s okay. You can stop. You don’t have to look anymore.”
Ready paused as if making sure she had heard Lenora right. Ready and Lenora both stood still and quiet. Finally, Lenora waved and Ready waved back. And then Ready turned off the flashlight and headed back to the house in the dark, her footsteps thumping, thumping, thumping to where Lenora stood waiting.