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The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James
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I’m going to die today.
Definitely for a few minutes and maybe forever. Kate keeps telling me no way, nohow is it going to be forever, but she isn’t the one who’s about to have her most important internal organ switched out like a new swimsuit at the start of the summer.
I’ve imagined this moment a lot. I mean, a lot. Day in and day out, while Kate biked back and forth from our house to the bookstore she owns downtown about a million times a day to check on me, I would weave together this very moment in full color. And my imagination is fierce. One of the best on Juniper Island, if I had to guess. When you’ve spent most of the past two years on your couch watching the sun tick across the sky like I have, you’ve got a bunch of time to work on your thoughts.
There’s usually a lot of blood involved. Of course there is. It’s my heart, after all, puny as it may be, the lousy blood-bringer to all my other top-notch organs. The color is pretty, bright red against my pale skin and the white and steel operating room.
Then there are the noises and smells. A lot of people leave out noises and smells when they let their imaginations ramble, but not me. The scalpel zips down my sternum, and my body squelches and squishes as gloved hands dip into my open chest.
I know, I know. I’ve made my own stomach twist more than once, but this kind of stuff is not for the faint of heart.
Or actually, I guess it is.
“You’re doing it again,” Kate says. She sits on the edge of the pea-green pleather chair that doubles as a bed in my hospital room. There’s a book open on her lap, but I know she’s not reading it. She’s too busy watching me, watching the tubes hooked into my arms and nose, watching that machine beep-beep-beep, proving I’m still alive. Which I am.
My eyelids close heavily. They’ve been doing that a lot lately, dropping like an iron door every time I blink. I pry them open again. “Doing what?”
“Picturing things,” she says.
“We could play Frisbee instead. Did you bring a Frisbee?”
She smiles and shakes her head at me. “Just picture good things, okay?”
“Like running and going to the beach with—”
I cut myself off, but we both know who I was about to say. My official FBF—aka Former Best Friend. Even after four months of not having her in my life, she’s still a habit. A bad one.
“Like running and going to the beach this summer,” Kate finishes for me, conveniently leaving Margot Banks out of it.
“I called Suzette, just so you know,” Kate says.
“What? Why?” Suzette is Margot’s mom, who I’ve known since I was four, when Kate brought me from Nashville to Juniper Island, just off the coast of South Carolina.
“Because she loves you,” Kate says.
I roll my eyes, even though I know it’s true. But Suzette was never the problem.
“I told her we got the call and the surgery was today,” Kate goes on. “She said she was sending you all her good thoughts and she’d let Margot know what was going on.”
I wait for Kate to tell me more, that Margot had a message for me, even if it’s just a simple hello and, you know, good luck with that whole new-heart thing, and, while I’m at it, I confess I’m pretty much the worst friend ever, but Kate just sits there, her eyes going all misty on me again.
“Well, yeah, I’m allowed to cry.”
She stands up, her book sliding to the floor, but she doesn’t bend to pick it up. Usually, Kate’s a neat freak—everything in our house and the bookstore is just so. Before Margot’s debacle of a birthday party back in January, she and I used to play this game where we’d move something small, like a candle from the living room to the kitchen or a picture frame from one side of a shelf to the other, and see how long it took Kate to notice.
The longest she ever went was forty-seven minutes, and for twenty-one of those minutes, she’d been at the bookstore.
Now her book is facedown on the germ-filled floor, the pages all crinkled up, and she doesn’t even care. It’s a hardcover too. It’s because of me. I sucked the care right out of her. I’m ready to stop doing that.
She lies down next to me and tucks my hair behind my ear, then rubs circles into my temple over and over again the way she does when I can’t sleep.
I look at the machine next to my bed, my heart rate pulsing 62… 63… 64… 62.
“Are you scared?” Kate asks.
“What, about dying? Meh.”
“Sunny St. James.”
“You’re not going to die,” she says.
“But I am. For a few minutes after they snip the bad heart out—”
“Hey, I love that heart.”
“It’s still bad, right?”
She doesn’t say anything to that. Two years ago, when I was ten, I fainted during recess at school. Just totally face-planted in the rubber mulch. A day later, I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which pretty much means my heart is bad. A total failure.
“And after they cut it out,” I say, continuing my morbid lesson, “I’ll be dead. Like, actually dead while they put the new heart in and attach all the blood vessels and arteries and stuff.”
Kate sighs and rubs her forehead. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
I nudge Kate with my shoulder as hard as I can, which has about as much force behind it as a gnat smacking against a window.
“I wonder if death is like being underwater,” I say. “You know, like when you go really deep and then look up and everything is all dark and hazy and flowy. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?”
“Maybe death is like getting a big hug from the ocean.”
I smile and snuggle against her as much as the tiny bed and all the tubes will let me.
The truth is, I’m pretty scared. But I’m excited too. I think you can be both at the same time. I’m tired of being sick. I’m tired of thinking about Margot and her swim team friends and how much cooler they are than me because they can, you know, do more than just lie on a couch. I’m tired of seeing the ocean but not being able to dive under the waves. I’m tired of thinking about death too, even though I talk about it so much, Kate probably believes it’s my favorite thing.
But I don’t want to die. I want to turn thirteen. I’ve never even been inside Juniper Island Middle School and I’m technically supposed to start seventh grade this fall. I want to do amazing and awesome things I never thought I’d get to do, like bungee jumping and skydiving and water skiing. I want to go to an overnight camp and make myself sick on junk food with a best friend.
I want to have a best friend again.
And I really, really, really want to kiss a boy. Like, I want to kiss a boy so bad, my lips itch all the time. I don’t mean the kind of kiss that Kate pops onto my forehead every night or the way Dave kisses my hand sometimes when he’s being silly. I mean a real kiss. The kind that Margot has already had with Sam Blanchard and Henry Lee. The kind of kiss that could change my whole life.
Okay, fine, yes, I know kissing doesn’t seem like such a huge deal when my heart is gasping its last breath, but if I die without ever being really and truly kissed, I’m going to be so mad.
71… 72… 73…
Kate holds me closer. She always knows when my mind gets going because I get really quiet, and quiet isn’t exactly my usual thing. She pats my head like she’s trying to calm it down, then circles her thumb on my temple while she stares at me. Kate’s an excellent starer. When Margot and I would stay up too late during sleepovers, making all sorts of noise way past midnight, she’d open my door and stare at us. She didn’t even have to say anything. We knew she meant business and we shut up really fast.
This is a different kind of stare, though. I’m not in trouble, I know that, but she keeps looking at me, like her eyes are thirsty and I’m a cup of cold water.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. Which, yeah, might be a silly question considering where we are and what’s about to happen, but it’s more than that. I can tell. For the past few months, Kate’s been my number one best friend. We’re all each other has, aside from Dave, so I know her pretty well. I also know that wrinkle between her eyebrows means she wants to talk about my mom.
“You’re in love with Dave, aren’t you?” I say to throw her off her game.
Her eyes widen. I try to keep a straight face, but a grin tugs at my mouth. Dave’s her best friend from high school and everyone’s favorite person ever. He’s a musician with muscular arms, curly black hair, and dark brown skin and, true to his artistic nature, wears plaid shirts and black-framed glasses three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Even I think he’s cute and he’s about a million years old. It’s obvious to everyone but Kate that all the tortured love songs he writes are about her.
“Sunny, for goodness’ sake,” she says, but her cheeks are red. “No.”
She takes a deep breath and her smile flattens out again. “Sunshine.”
My weak little heart kicks up a notch. I tell it to calm down, but, like always, it doesn’t listen to me.
“I don’t want to talk about her, okay?” I say.
Kate sighs and that wrinkle disappears. Whenever she tries to bring up my mom—which happens every year on my birthday, every major holiday, and the first day of school like clockwork—I can never figure out if she’s relieved or sad when I shut her down. Either way, she’s always telling me it’s okay to have questions and I’m always telling her I don’t have any.
I was born in Nashville. My mother’s name is Lena and she was a musician, like Dave. My dad, whose name was Ethan, died in a motorcycle accident right after I was born. Then, when I was four, Lena couldn’t take care of me anymore, so she gave me to her best friend, Kate, because Kate was all she had. Kate had just bought Cherry Picked Books on Juniper Island, so she moved me down here with her. Kate, who’s been there every day of my life since. Kate, who cried a bunch when I got sick, but didn’t freak out and didn’t leave me, even when things were really bad. Kate, who’s here right now.
That’s all I need to know, right?
“Sunny,” Kate says. “Your mom—”
“Kate, come on. I’m about to kick the bucket. Let’s talk about puppies and rainbows.”
“Or how death is like an ocean hug?” Kate says, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, exactly.” I take the deepest breath I can and shove Lena right out of my head. “Now, do you think it’ll be cold or hot? Or maybe it’ll just be a whole bunch of nothingness, like before being born? That would be disappointing, wouldn’t it? I hope death is something.”
Kate groans again but smiles and presses her nose against my cheek. “I love you, Sunshine.”
Her voice sounds funny, even though she’s smiling. Before I can tell her I love her too, Dr. Ahmed comes into the room, her dark hair pulled into a tight bun. She doesn’t have her white coat on. Instead, she’s covered in green scrubs from head to toe. Behind her, two orderlies wheel in a gurney, maneuvering it right next to my bed.
Dr. Ahmed smiles down at me. She’s been my doctor for two years. She was the one to tell Kate and me that a transplant was the only thing that would save me. That was a year and a half ago.
Last night, the pager the United Network of Organ Sharing gave us went off in the middle of dinner. We were sitting on the porch so I could smell the sea, eating grilled cheese and talking about how maybe, if I wasn’t too tired, we’d go down to the beach later and dip our toes in the cool, early-May ocean. But we never got a chance because suddenly the pager that Kate always kept clipped to her front pocket started beeping at us. It had never gone off before and it could only mean one thing.
“We’re ready for you, Sunny,” Dr. Ahmed says now, placing a cool hand on my forehead after checking my vitals. “New life awaits.”
“Maybe,” I say.
She cracks a smile, used to my realism by now.
“I’ll do my best to make that a definitely, all right?”
I give her a thumbs-up and then she nods to the orderlies hovering around me. Kate inhales a shaky breath and kisses my cheek. She kisses it so hard, it almost hurts, but I’m glad. I can really feel that kiss. Remember it.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” Kate says as she gets up from the bed. “I’ll be right here, Sunshine.” Tears are already falling down her face, and her voice is thick, like she’s talking around a mouthful of peanut butter.
“One, two, three,” one of the orderlies says, and then they lift me up, like I’m a plank of wood, and set me gently on the wheeled gurney.
I can’t think of anything super-awesome or emotional to say as they start rolling me out of the room, so I just hold up my pinkie. Kate’s face is red and soaking wet and she’s making these soft whimpering noises that make my throat feel all thick. She wraps her little finger around mine and gives it a wiggle.
Then the scene changes. Kate’s gone and I’m zooming down the white-walled hallway, fluorescent lights bright overhead. We turn this way and that until they wheel me into a cold room. It smells exactly like I thought it would—almost like nothing, like a slate wiped clean.
Another doctor, with glasses, appears and puts a clear mask over my face. Dr. Ahmed is just behind him, her own mask in place. Nurses are everywhere, IV bags full of clear liquid and blood ready to go, all their faces covered up so they don’t sneeze or breathe on me.
“Count down from ten for me, Sunny,” the glasses doctor says. I nod, the good little patient, but my stomach is going crazy, like there are a million ants in there.
I let my eyes close.
I feel floaty, like there really is water underneath me. I’ll have to remember to tell Kate, but I’m not sure if I will because six… five…
I only make it to four before the ocean swallows me whole.
It turns out that being dead is a lot like dreaming.
The world feels soft and gauzy and slow, as though I’m underwater. In fact, I think I am underwater. Everything is blue. All sorts of blue—navy and cerulean, aqua and royal, all swirling together like a kaleidoscope.
Way off in the distance, I see a dark shape moving toward me. It gets closer and closer, bigger and bigger, and soon, I can tell it’s a person.
A woman. She has a graceful tail instead of legs and her hair is long and inky, just like mine.
She moves closer and closer, her hands scooping away the deep blue to get to me. I hear my name, thick and bright at the same time, and I know exactly who the mermaid is.
I know because the mermaid’s face is the same face that’s in this picture in my nightstand at home. Kate gave it to me when I was super-little. She thinks I threw it away a long time ago—because that’s what I told her—but instead I take it out every night after Kate goes to bed and think about how the face inside the photo looks just like mine, only older.
When I was seven years old, and eight and nine, and okay, maybe even ten, I would look and look at that picture and tell myself the lady inside was a mermaid. She was a mermaid and that was why she was gone. She was a beautiful, iridescent-tailed mermaid with long black hair who didn’t know what to do with a two-legged human girl. After a few years of pulling me up from the deepest parts of the ocean to gulp at the salty sea air, she finally decided that I fit better on land and left me nestled in Juniper Island’s sun-white sand for Kate to find. Then she disappeared into the great big blue, never to be seen again.
But now I’m in the sea with her. We’re together, so I know something’s off. Something about this isn’t real, so maybe I really am dead. I pump my human arms and legs to swim toward the mermaid. And the closer I get, the happier I feel, but my eyes sting with a whole bunch of sad tears that shouldn’t even be able to fall if I was really underwater.
Soon she’s right in front of me. Our hair flows together, jet-black against the glowing aqua sea. Her amber-brown eyes stare into my amber-brown eyes. Freckles spill across her nose and onto her cheeks.
“I didn’t know you had those,” I say.
“I knew you had those,” she says back. She smiles and reaches out a fingertip, touching the dots on my own nose and cheeks. “We match.”
She says it like it’s a good thing, like it matters. I don’t know if it matters or not, so I stay quiet, floating, floating, floating in the middle of all the blue.
“Oh, Sunshine, I’m so sorry,” she finally says. Underwater tears fill up her eyes.
“Only Kate and Dave call me Sunshine,” I say.
“They call you that because I did.”
I shake my head, and my hair breaks away from hers, lacy and flowy like jellyfish tentacles. She looks so sad and her mouth is still moving, but I can’t hear her anymore. She’s getting smaller and smaller because the ocean is pulling me away from her, pushing me up to the surface. My mermaid reaches out both of her arms, her tail flapping wildly to get to me, but it’s no use. I’ve got legs, lungs that need air, and for the second time in my life, the ocean spits me back up on land.
I guess land is a hospital bed.
The mermaid from my dream sits by my side in a pea-green pleather chair.
Her tail is covered up with a pair of torn jeans, and she’s wearing a gauzy black tank top. She has dark tattoos all over her bare arms, from her shoulders to her wrists. My eyes are all fuzzy, but I can see a million suns scattered over her skin, peeking out from between flowers and stars and trees. Her hair is black and her eyes are amber, just like mine, just like my dead-dream mermaid. She leans forward. There are freckles on her nose and a silver ring looped around her bottom lip, which is painted a pretty plum purple, just like a mermaid’s would be.
“Sunshine,” she says. Her eyes are shiny with tears. I squeeze my own shut and pop them open again. I must still be dreaming. Or maybe I really am dead and this is the afterlife. She takes my hand and I can feel the warmth. That smell that seems to soak into all hospital walls—pee and bleach and baked chicken—fills my nose, and I can hear the beep-beep-beep of my heart monitor.
No, not mine. Someone else’s.
“Sunny, you’re okay,” the mermaid says. I shake my head, because no, no, no, I’m not okay. I’m dead. I don’t have a new heart. They didn’t bring me back to life.
I yank my hand out of hers and tug at my hospital gown. It’s scratchy and smells like sleep, like I’ve been lying here for years and years. You’d think I’d get better clothes if I was dead. You’d think the sea would’ve just kept me.
The beep-beep-beep gets faster and faster. I pull on my gown and see a white bandage on my chest. It goes all the way down to right above my belly button. I have a tube in my arm, one in my nose. I pull, claw, because the mermaid is still here. She’s standing now, trying to grab my hands. She has legs.
“Sunny, calm down. Sunny!”
I thrash like a seal.
People in green and blue scrubs swell into the room like an ocean wave. I see Kate and no, no, no, she can’t be here. She can’t be dead too.
“Sunny, sweetie, it’s okay,” she says, taking my face between her hands. A nurse jabs a needle into some clear thing attached to the tube in my arm. Heat spreads into my chest like I swallowed warm water.
“Katie, what can I do?” my mermaid asks.
“I gave you ten minutes, Lena,” Kate says, her hands still on my face. “That’s enough for today.”
“There are way too many people in here anyway,” the nurse snaps. “One visitor at a time.” She presses a stethoscope to my chest, then checks the big white bandage. It hurts. It feels like I’ve been cut in two and sewn back up again.
“Katie,” my mermaid says, but Kate shakes her head.
“I knew this was too soon. You need to go.”
The mermaid’s face crumples. I think her name is Lena. I think she might be… I think she’s…
But my whole body is warm now, the beep-beep-beep steady as the tide, and the ocean takes me back again.
I wake up feeling like I’ve swallowed gallons of salty seawater and then promptly puked it all up. I’m floaty and fuzzy, and I guess I keep mumbling about mermaids and being in the ocean, because someone—judging by the snippy sound of her voice, an overtired nurse—keeps telling me I’m in Port Hope Children’s Hospital, which is solidly on dry land and a good half hour from Juniper Island.
When the fog clears a little, I have no clue what day it is. I’m sore all over, still have a tube up my nose and a needle in my arm, and can only see Kate for a few minutes at a time while I’m in the cardiac ICU. My chest feels weird—part numb, part oh-wow-that-hurts, and part… well, just weird. A bright red line crisscrossed with stitches runs from just below my throat to right above my belly button, a scar I’ll have for the rest of my life.
As it turns out, I’m not dead. But it sure was weird when I was.
“You weren’t dead, Sunny,” Kate tells me as she fluffs the unfluffable pillows on my bed. It’s now been about a week since the surgery and I’m well enough to move out of the ICU and into my own room.
“But I was. I kept dreaming about… mermaids. In the ocean and then in my hospital room. The ocean part was nice, but I could do without hospital room dreams, thanks very much.”
I don’t want to tell her that the mermaid was my mom. If I did, Kate would sit down and sigh and ask me if I want to talk about it, the answer to which is and always will be a ginormous Nope.
So I keep my mouth shut, but Kate rubs her eyes and sits down on the edge of my bed anyway, breathing out my name like it weighs a gazillion tons.
“Wow, you sure know how to put the clouds in Sunshine,” I say.
That gets a smile out of her and she runs a hand over my hair. “You’re still you. That’s good.”
I nod, but it gets me thinking. Am I? I don’t care what Kate says. I died. The old Sunny is gone. Forever. I have a whole new heart underneath my scar. Like, it’s not the heart I was born with. I put my finger on my neck, then right below my thumb, then press my palm to my chest. I feel the same thrum-thrum-thrum every time. It’s in there, doing its job. It hasn’t rebelled against me yet.
I can’t stop thinking about whose heart I have now. What their name was, if they ever got to kiss anyone. It had to be a kid, because I’m a kid and you can’t just stick any old heart in a kid’s chest. Whoever it was had to die. Whoever it was is dead-dead, not just dream-dead. And I’m alive because of them.
But with heart transplants, you never really know what will happen the next minute, the next second, even. My body can just up and say, “Um, no thanks,” to the new heart. Organ rejection, Dr. Ahmed calls it, meaning my body thinks the heart is an enemy combatant and starts attacking it. Death is pretty much a guarantee if that happens, so I have to take a bunch of pills and stay in the hospital for a long time so the doctors can poke and prod me a billion times a day.
So, yeah, I’m alive. For now. But now is long enough to start my New Life plan. Whenever I think about my New Life, I always see the words capitalized and in italics, like the title of an amazing music album or book. I’ve been cooking this plan up for months, just in case I ever did get a new heart. Now here I am and everything is going to be different.
But first, I’ve got to get out of this hospital, and to do that, I need to get stronger. So I don’t even complain when a lady named Viv comes to my room and makes me get out of bed. Then she makes me walk. Even with one of those old-people walkers, it takes me about five hundred hours to shuffle down the hall, but I get it done. And, aside from the fact that I’m sore everywhere and have to drink my food, I do feel better. I’m not short of breath and my ankles don’t swell up. When I get tired, it’s a good tired, the kind of tired I remember feeling after swimming hard or running down the beach with Margot.
My new heart hasn’t abandoned me yet. I’m getting stronger every day and soon, I’ll be able to go home. And then… Sunny St. James takes over the world.
Or, at least, my own little corner of it.
About three weeks after my surgery, I’m scarfing down some pudding. Butterscotch, to be precise. I used to hate pudding. The consistency freaked me out, and what in the world is butterscotch anyway? Now, though, it’s the nectar of the gods. It’s cool and smooth and doesn’t hurt my throat, which is still sensitive from having a tube shoved down it for hours and hours during the surgery.
Kate walks into the room with a vase of wildflowers the Cherry Picked employees sent over. Then, when she sets it down on the table next to my bed, she clears her throat and sighs. Sighing is what Kate does best, but something about this sigh makes Dave stop playing his guitar and sit up. He’s on the chair that turns into a really uncomfortable-looking couch, which Kate has been sleeping on every night. They share a look. They don’t think I catch these things, but they’re way wrong. I could write a whole book about all the looks Kate and Dave pass between them. I wish they’d just go on a date already.
- Praise for The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James:
- On Sale
- Mar 26, 2019
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers