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By Alex Perry
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- ebook $6.99 $8.99 CAD
- Hardcover $16.99 $22.99 CAD
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Charlotte's Web meets My Sister's Keeper in this charming story told from the alternating perspectives of a boy with a fatal heart condition and the pig with the heart that could save his life.
Jeremiah’s heart skips a beat before his first soccer game, but it’s not nerves. It’s the first sign of a heart attack. He knows he needs to go to the hospital, but he’s determined to score a goal. Charging after the ball, he refuses to stop…even if his heart does.
J6 is a pig and the only one of his five brothers who survived the research lab. Though he's never left his cell, he thinks of himself as a therapy pig, a scholar, and a bodyguard. But when the lab sends him to live with Jeremiah's family, there’s one new title he’s desperate to have: brother.
At first, Jeremiah thinks his parents took in J6 to cheer him up. But before long, he begins to suspect there's more to his new curly-tailed companion than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, Jeremiah and J6 must protect each other at all costs—even if their lives depend on it.
My heart stopped before the game started.
The team was chanting in the huddle, and Paloma’s hand touched mine. I felt a flutter in my chest. I thought it meant one of the butterflies in my stomach got out. It didn’t.
My team shouted, threw their hands in the air, and ran to their positions. I stood still and jabbed at the new scar under my collarbone. I tried to push the flat box under my skin deeper inside my chest. That little box was my ICD, which had wires that work like defibrillator paddles, and they could either give a huge jolt to my heart or a tingling shock I could barely feel.
Paloma looked at me like I was about to drop dead. She was the fastest kid in sixth grade because her legs were long, but she liked playing sweeper so she could keep an eye on the game.
“Jeremiah, are you okay? Are you sick?” she asked.
I was supposed to be on the other side of the field beside Adnan. I shook my head.
She caught Coach’s eye and waved to him.
“I’m fine,” I insisted.
“You should rest if you need to.”
Coach blew his whistle and called a time-out.
A girl from the other team with curly pink hair yelled at me from across the field.
“Little boy! Little boy!”
My name is Jeremiah, not “little boy,” and there are two girls in my grade who are at least an inch shorter. Pink Hair clapped at me with each word. “There. Are. No. Time-outs. In. Soccer.”
I felt small. Well, smaller. I wanted to be in Dynamo Stadium, with twenty thousand fans cheering while I scored like Andrés Rossi. Instead, I stood awkwardly on a patchy field in Pelican Bayou Park, and everyone in the stands looked up from their phones to gape at me like goldfish. Coach ran over and led me away from the other players.
“You all right?”
There’s never actually been anything wrong. I’d never even had a heart attack and I was almost twelve. I was fine. I deserved to run. I could get a dog and walk him for miles, but Dr. Willis said I needed a transplant as soon as my new heart was ready. Until then, I was property of the ICD. Adnan says it’s like the arc reactor in Iron Man’s chest that keeps him alive. He’s wrong. It’s just a generator under my skin that’s smaller than Coach’s stopwatch. It doesn’t let me fly, but it’s the only thing that could restart my heart. I wasn’t allowed to play soccer until I got it. Even then, I had to beg Dr. Willis and my parents for months before they let me out here. I wouldn’t let the least interesting thing about me ruin my life.
“Thanks, but I’m fine. Just a little nervous.”
Coach smiled and said, “Then get to your position.” He patted me on the shoulder and jogged off the field.
I walked to my spot and told my heart to calm down. It felt like I’d been running. Adnan was watching me carefully. I gave him a thumbs-up.
“You got this, Iron Man,” he said.
Then Coach blew the whistle, and the ball flew through the air. I took off after it.
A raindrop rolled down my face. I looked up, but there wasn’t a cloud in sight. It was just sweat. It was August in Houston, but according to Dad’s weather app it wasn’t supposed to get brain-meltingly hot until after lunch. Yet for some reason, I was already gross. Paloma probably could smell me from across the field. As sweeper, she always watched the ball, but this time I hoped she was watching me. She caught me staring and pointed to my right.
There wasn’t time to be embarrassed. I turned my head, and the pink-haired girl had the ball. I fought to close the distance and show her what a “little boy” could do. My steps thundered louder than the deep bass of my heartbeat, and nothing could stop me. Freedom.
Pink Hair inched closer to the penalty area. Near me. Time to take the ball and force her off the field. I could already taste the off-brand Gatorade Adnan would pour over my head after I won the game.
Pink Hair’s shoulders turned toward the line. My heart vibrated. Excitement. Maybe. All the warmth in my body drained away.
Then it happened. Her foot slipped in the dew, and the ball rolled right in front of me. I took control of it. This was my chance, but something didn’t feel right.
Pink Hair caught up to me.
“I’m open!” Adnan yelled, but I needed to try for the goal. Pink Hair got closer. I dribbled faster.
“Over here, Jeremiah! Pass the ball!” Adnan yelled. Someone was coming up behind me. I kicked the ball again and pushed myself harder. The goal was so close.
Goose bumps popped onto my sweaty arm. Someone’s cheering for me.
The air thinned as if I had just sprinted up the stairs of a skyscraper.
My legs stopped working and I almost fell. I recovered, but a foot darted in front of me and the ball was gone. My heart sank into my stomach. Breathe in. Breathe in.
My heart quieted. Heavy. Bricks on my chest. Can’t get them off. Bricks in my chest. Can’t take them out. Pulling me down. A mountain of bricks on top of me. Crushing me. I tried to call for Dad, but I might as well have been buried alive.
“Jeremiah!” Dad yelled, running to me. Dad got fuzzy.
A jolt ripped through my chest. It felt like someone shot a ball out of a cannon that hit me in the back. I fell forward. The world twisted around itself, and it got too dark to tell if it stopped. Too dark to see the ball. Or Dad.
With dew on my cheek, dirt in my mouth, and the smell of cut grass in my nose, Pink Hair shouted through the blackness, “Give him a red card. He’s obviously faking it.”
I’m Jeremiah Six and I’m a pig. Kind of. Actually, Dr. Willis says I’m a chimera, which in my case means I’m a pig, but I have a human heart. Don’t hold that against me. I consider myself pighearted.
I have always lived in room 23 and slept in a bed as soft as a dropped burrito. Butlers scooped pellets into my bowl, and I made bigger pellets in my corner bathroom. Best of all, I’ve lived next to my brothers ever since I could remember. We had our own separate plastic enclosures, but we could see and hear each other.
Dr. Willis had named us all Jeremiah. We looked the same because we were all pigs and chimeras. Jeremiah One was a hot mess. The doctors called him deranged. Jeremiah Two was feisty but stuck up. Jeremiah Three was adventurous. Jeremiah Four was restless. Jeremiah Five was all heart. He’d push his nose to the plastic wall. It meant I love you.
Then there was me. I was the smart one. And the funny one. And the brave one. And the accurate-at-describing one. I also had a special power. If I made my thoughts still and quiet, I could hear my own pigheartedness deep inside. I’d tell myself the one most important word in the world. Of course, I’ve had to keep it to myself because pigs can’t talk.
I understood doctors, but they only understood me when I bit them. I tried to tell them I didn’t like stabbers or pinchers, but doctors aren’t smart. Biting is the universal language. Jeremiah One was fluent in it.
When we were little, we were cute. When we got older, we were revolting. Revolting means “rebelling.” Jeremiah One started it. He would scream at the doctors even if they didn’t bring stabbers. He bit the butlers so hard blood came out. Then Jeremiah Two started doing the same thing. Then Three. All the way down the line. After everyone was revolting, the doctors took Jeremiah One away.
A few days later, Dr. Willis gave us our own TV! She said that she hoped it would “calm us down.”
A TV is a big black box. Dr. Willis called it an old piece of junk. I called it a bribe. It worked. It was a great gift, but the greatest gift was the words and pictures it gave me. Everything made sense after I started watching. For example, I didn’t know that I was uneducated. Uneducated means that you don’t know anything about anything because the school bus doesn’t stop at room 23. I guess the TV was supposed to teach us everything we needed to know.
The TV was the kind of substitute teacher that also made threats: “All it takes is a pig and ten bucks and you can have a charbroiled pulled-pork sandwich on an artisan bun with a large order of fries and a drink included.” Then, the restaurant clown on TV would smile and stare at me while taking a huge bite of the sandwich. That meant I needed to hide under my cushion. I didn’t want to be charbroiled.
After Jeremiah One left, it got quiet. I became the new bad boy. That’s why the doctors decided to give me an ear tattoo. They took me to the X-ray room and stuck my legs in metal leg cuffs.
Give me a skull with a snake coming out of its eye and a dagger sticking out of the top, I said. But all they heard was “Oink.” The tattoo was on my ear, so I couldn’t watch them or admire it when they were done.
I changed my mind about the tattoo when I learned it involved sticking my ear in an ear chomper. I informed the doctors that I did not want a tattoo anymore by biting them. But they just put the muzzle on me. I hated it. Muzzles were for animals. Muzzles weren’t for me.
I still had four brothers left. They all got matching tats. A few weeks after our tattoos, two of my brothers shuffled out of room 23 on blue leashes. They weren’t like Jeremiah One. They didn’t hurt anyone. Jeremiah Three and Four were the best little porkers I’d ever seen. Right before they left, they were calmer and quieter than ever. They threw up a little and laid still most of the time, but they still got taken.
I’d never put up with something like that. If it were me, I’d fight. Later, Jeremiah Two left. He had purple ears and was asleep when he got wrapped in blue blankets. He rode out on the Magic Table. None of them ever came back.
Then Jeremiah Five started throwing up. I tried to warn him about the doctors, but Dr. Willis said “he wasn’t the crispiest bacon in the pan.” He was all heart and no brain.
Then the next day, he was too tired to stand. He slept with his eyes open. Dr. Willis came in to feed us, but she noticed Jeremiah Five and ran over to him.
Watch out. Bite her! I screamed through the plastic wall.
Dr. Willis put a blue leash around my brother’s neck. He didn’t move. I noticed my door. Dr. Willis left it cracked open.
I didn’t know what to do. I closed my eyes, concentrated, and my pigheartedness whispered the most important word in the world: brother.
I could try to run out and knock her down. I could save him. Instead, I hid under my cushion.
A butler helped slide Jeremiah Five onto the Magic Table. Dr. Willis pulled on the table until it grew tall. She folded a blue blanket over him. His eyes were still open, but he wouldn’t look at me. I peeked my head out a little farther. I needed to see him one last time, but I couldn’t run to him. If I tried anything, I might get taken away, too.
Don’t leave! You’re too handsome to go.
He looked like me until his ears turned purple.
Dr. Willis wheeled him out the door.
I’ll miss you, and I love you, Jeremiah Five, I said.
I didn’t save my brother. I oinked from under my cushion. It didn’t matter how much I wanted him back. Nothing a pig wanted mattered. The problem with being pighearted is that your heart can tell you exactly what to do, but you aren’t allowed to listen to it.
Afterward, it was just me, my butlers, and the doctors. Doctors and butlers are the two types of people. People are like pigs, except people get to decide what they do. Also, most of them are as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside. That’s why they have to wear clothes all the time. Doctors are like butlers. The difference is doctors only touch poop for medical purposes. Butlers collect it in treasure buckets and kept it forever. Sometimes the butlers pet me or talk to me. One time they even dropped a burrito on my head. That was the happiest day of my life. Butlers are almost as nice as pigs. They didn’t take my brothers away.
When the doctors checked on me, I’d give them a piece of my mind. I was revolting again.
What’s wrong with you? What have you done to him? I trusted you, Dr. Willis. I’d give you zero out of five stars. I would not recommend living in room 23! How would you like it if I took your brothers? What if I took Dr. Horton or Dr. Fryer?
All that came out was “Oink!” That’s why I was embarrassed about having a human heart. Humans are people, and people’s hearts don’t work right. If they did, how could they leave me all alone? From then on, I bit any doctor who stuck a hand into my room. Vengeance tasted better than burritos.
One day, Dr. Willis and Dr. Horton rushed in.
What’s wrong with you guys? I asked, but all they heard was “Oink.”
They looked as upset as they did when they found Jeremiah Five sleeping with his eyes open. Dr. Willis seemed like she was going to cry.
Dr. Horton pulled up a screen, and they both stared at something that might be a close-up of a pepperoni pizza. She said it was my X-ray. That’s actually my best angle because real beauty is on the inside. Dr. Willis zoomed in and looked at it very carefully.
“I think it’ll work,” she finally said. “The septum between the ventricles is fully formed. No trace of malformation, or under- or overdevelopment. All he needs is a few more months. Jeremiah has a real chance.”
She looked relieved. Staring at my scans had that effect on people. It’s not often that you get to look at something as perfect as me. Dr. Willis turned to me and bent over to scratch my head.
“Little guy, I think we’ve done it. I think we can save his life.”
Adnan sat with me in the hospital room. It was quiet until something behind me started beeping. I jumped. I tried to turn to see the screen, but tubes and wires tied me down.
“You should have seen the look on her face when the ambulance came,” Adnan said. “I know her. She was still whining about you needing a red card. Her name’s Monica. It was funny to see her face when she called you a faker and then the EMTs flew across the field like the angel Jibreel. But you missed it because you weren’t paying attention.”
Either Mom or Dad had been with me the whole time I was in the hospital, but today they had to go see Dr. Willis at Gen-e-heart next door. We were waiting for the operating room to be ready so the doctors could put a pump in my heart. It was important, but I didn’t want them to take me before my family got back. At least Adnan kept me company. Paloma was probably busy. She’d just make me nervous anyway. She worries too much.
Three nurses and two people in lab coats fluttered into the room. Adnan shrank into the corner like an owl. He kept turning his head and his eyes were huge. No one made him leave.
The doctors and nurses poked me, rolled me, and looked at the screens. They spoke quickly but not to me.
“What’s wrong? What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing, we might need to put you under in a little while, but there’s nothing wrong.”
Is it illegal for a doctor to lie?
“Just wait here, kiddo.”
The doctor forgot my name. They left. For a horrible second, I thought I was alone. Then Adnan appeared beside me. He towered over the bed. If we were both standing, I’d still look tiny. Every time he walked through a door; he’d slap the top of the doorway. Sometimes he barely had to jump.
We’ve been friends since I moved to Houston at the end of fourth grade, but I was never able to catch up to his height. Dr. Willis said I was growing fine, but I googled it and I think my heart was slowing me down. Seeing Adnan reminded me that I was different. But listening to him joke around made me forget again.
“You’d do anything to get out of a game.”
“What?” I checked the machine behind my head again.
“Are you trying to get out of talking to me by running off with some doctors? Well, too bad, because I’m going to be annoying you until you’re back at school.”
I looked at my blanket.
“Man, I’ve heard of faking an injury, but you got an ambulance and a hospital room and no one even touched you,” Adnan said, watching my face. He didn’t know it really was my fault.
“The doctors think something’s wrong. They’re not telling me everything,” I said.
Adnan pretended not to hear me. He stared out the window that faced the hospital courtyard. “Did you know you’re a little bit of a ball hog? I know you have other things to worry about, but have you ever heard of actually passing the ball? I was open the whole time. I thought this would be a good time to bring it up. Since you can’t go anywhere.”
I tried to hit him. I missed and laughed. I took a minute to catch my breath. Adnan waited.
“You know, Paloma cried when the ambulance came. She was so scared. But don’t worry, as soon as she realized that we’d get to replace you on the team, she got over it.” Adnan winked, then stared at me. “What really happened? Was it a heart attack? I noticed that you didn’t seem to be doing good. I wanted you to slow down, that’s why I kept yelling at you to pass. I thought the thing in your chest was supposed to…” He mimed defibrillator paddles on himself. Then he mimed getting shocked and fell down on the floor with his tongue out.
I turned away from him.
He didn’t know that I had realized I was in trouble.
He hopped back up and held my hand like my dad would. Like I was a little boy. I’m not. I snatched my hand away. Adnan either roasts his friends without mercy, or hugs and holds their hands like Mom does with my little sister, Justus.
“Are you feeling okay? What caused it? I mean, I know there’s always been this problem, but why now?”
I felt like I’d been running instead of lying in a hospital bed talking. I caught my breath. “I need a new heart. I was born with thick heart walls. They don’t pump good. When I ran, my heart”—I took a breath in—“started working too hard. They can’t fix it.”
A nurse appeared, ran an icy sensor over my chest, and made a worried face. He left without saying anything.
“If Jazmine had a heart, she could give you hers. She’s your big sister, so it would work.”
I had to wait until I was around twelve to get a new heart. I started getting ready after I turned eleven. Dr. Willis said it would be a few months before I could get the surgery. She gets people hearts. Mom and Dad say she’s saved other kids like me.
“Jazmine wants to be a doctor, so I’m surprised she isn’t here. She could experiment on you for free. Wait, isn’t it yours and Jazmine’s birthday soon?”
Adnan jumped out of his chair. “Did you get her a present yet? She’ll be mad. She won’t care if you were in the hospital. She wouldn’t care if you were dead. She’d still kill you. How about I save your life and get her a card? Your sister’s birthday is the same day yours is. You should remember it.”
“Yeah.” I didn’t want Adnan to go, but he jogged down the hall anyway.
A nurse and two orderlies burst in. They were going to take me, and Adnan would come back to an empty room. I didn’t know what would happen. Maybe I wouldn’t come back. Maybe I’d never see Adnan and my parents again. Maybe I would die, and they’d have to go see me in a drawer in the basement. The nurse pushed some buttons on my bed and left. I stared at the door and tried to make Adnan reappear using psychic powers I didn’t have.
But it worked this time. He returned from the gift shop with a card showing an old lady smiling without teeth. I signed it, “Happy birth day too you. From J to J.” Adnan set it on my bag.
“Perfect! She’ll definitely know you wrote it.”
What did he mean by that?
“Now I’ll solve your other problems. I’ll find your evil twin, fight him, and rip his heart out. Then I’ll stick it in you. Unless you’re the evil twin and he’s the good twin, then we’ll just ditch you.”
“There’s already a math test this week for the rest of us. Not you, though. Lucky.”
I turned my face away and pretended to look out the window. I nodded.
“So, when do you get to come back?”
My cheeks warmed up, and I tried to stop myself from crying.
Adnan turned his back and walked across the room.
“Do you think it’d be bad if I unplugged this?” Adnan stood next to a steel beeping machine with a large, flat monitor. It probably kept me alive. “I like having you around, but I’m also curious.”
I laughed so hard I didn’t notice the nurse and orderlies sweep in and surround me. I’d be fine. If I was in danger, then how could Adnan keep messing around? I could still hear him shouting jokes at me as they rolled me down the hall.
After Dr. Willis made my brothers into pigs in a blanket, I watched a lot more TV. It held a whole universe inside. It showed me things I didn’t even know to wish for.
Once, I saw a movie about a place called an orphanage. An orphanage is a kid zoo where people watch children sing and dance. Sometimes people will go to the kid zoo and pick out the cutest singer and dancer and take them home. They leave the other kids there until they get cuter. The people who take you home become your parents.
Parents were the tallest members of the family. But there were other family members, too. They’re called brothers. Sometimes brothers are boys, and sometimes they are girls.
If you’re a part of a family, then you have it made. You get a whole giant room with a bed and no one puts you in a sandwich. No one wraps you in blankets and takes you away. The TV showed me that if I found “parents,” they would give me replacement brothers. If that didn’t work, I had a backup plan.
During commercial breaks, I learned about the Rescue Ranch. The people who ran it were pighearted. Like me. The pigs were mayors and the people were butlers. The pigs don’t get a whole giant room with cable TV and premium channels for only fourteen dollars a month, but they’re not sandwiched or blanketed.
The lady at the Rescue Ranch was named Emily. She got promoted from head butler to Fairy Hogmother Saint. She has a buzz cut and a beautiful tattoo. She was a human lady, but besides that little detail, she looked just like me. That made her trustworthy. If I couldn’t find new brothers, I’d find her so she could break me out of here. I was starting to get desperate.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my brothers were the forever kind of gone. Jeremiah Five probably wasn’t asleep, and I was next. But who would come save me? I would have to do what the commercial said: “Call the Rescue Ranch and help save an animal today!” I was planning to work up the courage, but then Dr. Willis had a surprise for me: my very own people. They weren’t dressed like butlers or doctors. I didn’t want to get too hopeful, but when I looked up and saw the bald head of opportunity, I knew it was my turn. My chance to escape.
I listened to my pigheartedness and I could hear it: family.
The bald head was on top of my very own personal new dad. The exact kind that would get me a new brother. Dr. Willis also brought a short woman with brown-and-gray hair. She looked older than Dr. Willis, and her skin was much lighter. She must be Mom. Dad was skinny and had even less hair than Fairy Hogmother Saint Emily. His head reminded me of the rich man in the orphanage movie. He adopts the dancing kid. That meant I needed to dance.
It’s a hard-knock life for me, I am a pig, you see. I couldn’t remember the words to the song, but it didn’t matter because they only heard oinking. I made up for it with my moves. It was time for my hams to shine.
“What’s wrong with the pig? Is it having muscle spasms? Is it in pain?” asked Mom. It was a solid burn. I stopped dancing.
“He’s fine,” said Dr. Willis. “He’s a little small, but he is our only success so far.”
Darn right I am! I’m a success!
Dr. Willis kept going.
“I know that Jeremiah is awaiting major surgery, so I’ll make this quick so you can get back to him. We have a problem. Mixing human and animal DNA is controversial, and it might get outlawed any day now. The bosses are ending the donor chimera program. Instead, they’re pouring millions into new lab-grown hearts that don’t require pigs. They would like to take Jeremiah out of the study and put him on the human donor list, which means he’d wait for a human heart. But, in my medical opinion, it would be more dangerous for him. That heart would be someone else’s, and he could have complications. I still think the chimera, the pig, is Jeremiah’s best bet at living a long, healthy life.”
“Are you supposed to be telling us this?” asked Dad.
“Years ago, I promised you I would do everything I could to help Jeremiah, and you trusted me,” said Dr. Willis. “But the decision is yours. You have two options. You can either wait for a human heart to become available or take the pig home and keep it at your house for the next three months until the heart is ready for harvest. Otherwise, we’d have to destroy the pig. It has a good heart, and I think it’s your best bet.”
Wait, destroy the pig? What are they talking about?
“Are we even allowed to do that? Just take the pig?” said Dad.
“Gen-e-heart doesn’t officially want you to, but you have the right to choose whatever medical treatment you want for your son. If they refused, they risk getting sued and looking like they don’t care about kids. You’d need to sign some papers and take full responsibility for any, um, mishaps.”
“I’m not sure,” said Mom hesitantly. “Both of our families live in Florida. We moved to be closer to the hospital. We don’t have anyone here to help out.”
- On Sale
- Oct 26, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers