Fiction

2018

Heart in a Box

By Serena Fernandopulle
Milton Academy. Class of 2019.

When I was little, I used to put my left hand on my chest and hold my breath. Waiting for
the faint pumping I would feel under my skin, I would stiffen into a statue. Once I felt those tell-
tale beats, I would take my hand off and conclude that it was still alive. If I ran too fast, I would
press against my chest in pain as I felt it thrashing around my ribcage. This thing inside of me
was alive, separate from myself. It moved without my command. It felt foreign. It would
balloon, pushing my lungs until I gasped. As I lay still in bed, I could feel it moving in my body
because it never slept.
I overslept my alarm and woke up ten minutes before school. The first day of middle
school was in just minutes. I ran downstairs to eat a quick breakfast in my back-to- school outfit.
My mother had let me pick a new shirt, skirt, and shoes for the first day from that popular
clothing store that would sell ripped t-shirts for $50. She never usually let us buy extra things.
The smell of kimchi creeped up the stairs to meet me as I almost tripped in a hurry.
I scrambled onto the chair at the kitchen table and my mom placed a steaming bowl of
spicy pickled cucumbers, kimchi, egg, and rice in front of my watering mouth. Shoving the food
down, I felt the big lump travel down my throat and into my chest, making it feel tight. It stopped
moving once it reached right between my lungs, and my mom had to come over and hit my back
so that I could swallow properly. She looked at me from across the marble table the whole time
I was eating. Absentmindedly, she was fumbling with her yellow-gold chain, pressing it into her
chest until it turned red. The second I finished, she swooped in and took the bowl.
“You feeling ok?” she said.
“Ok mom, I’m fine, I gotta go,” I said. She opened her arms and instinctively, I folded
into them.
“Make some new friends,” she whispered in my ear, “and do your best at school.” She
held me for a couple more seconds, tight, like I was a flight risk. Her chest was pressed against
me so I could feel the beating in her chest. It was slower than mine. I settled in her softness as
her beast reached out from under her ribs and rested its warmth next to mine, separated only by
pulsing skin and clothes. My chest felt lighter. My arms reached around and touched her
shoulder blades, feeling her wings bristling from her back. I had never seen her fly.
“Ok mom, I’m really late.” I started towards the door but before I could leave, my mom
handed me the new lunchbox I had gotten.
“ 화이팅! (Fighting/You can do this!) ” my mom yelled in the doorway as I ran to the bus
stop a block away. My new sneakers hurt to move in, not flexible like my lungs that were
fluctuating with effort. I picked up speed, my little monster inside squeezed with anticipation. I
got to the stop and saw some other older kids in a circle, kicking dirt and laughing. With my
mind, I measured ten feet and stayed that far away from the kids as I pretended to be interested
in my new shoes. They were converse lace ups, neon green. My mom helped me pick them
out at the store. She had seen them on the store display and made me buy them. They were
the most vibrant shoes she had ever seen. I liked how they reflected green light off of them in
the rising sun-- grass on concrete.
It was just the kids, me, and a sparrow that was sitting on a telephone pole for five
minutes at the bus stop. It glanced at me then opened its thin wings and spun away. I kept my

eyes trained on it until a I heard a powerful, low pitched scream. I whipped around and saw the
school bus honking and spitting its way to the stop.
The bus pulled up and I got in the back of the line to board it. The bus driver yelled at
me to find a place to put my ass when I entered, so I scurried to an empty row in the middle of
the bus. The bus doors closed with a satisfying hiss. There were three girls my age chatting in
the row behind me. Remembering my mother's words, I held my breath and turned to make eye
contact with one of them. Her green eyes dialated as she saw my face. She looked down at
me.
“Cool shoes, where were they made? China?” she said, loud enough so her two friends
could hear. They both flipped their American brown hair and leered at my feet. The animal
inside of me was purring, as a cat does before it pounces on a flying bird. The one to the left of
the green eyed girl snorted as if she had drunk something toxic and the one to the right made
eye contact with both her friends, raising her plucked eyebrows into perfect upside-down U’s.
My chest started feeling heavy and I turned around to face the seat in front of me, tracing the
dried up gum and sharpied-in insults. The pumping was increasing and I felt myself being jolted
by its power. Before I knew it, my shoulders were shaking and I stuffed my face in my hands. I
took deep breaths to make it stop, but it kept squeezing my chest so tight, it was hard to
breathe. The world tiled around me.

****

At school, bodies moved against me so that every step I took I was pushed back. The
dim hallways were filled with energy that I couldn’t feel. It was finally recess. Everyone was in
their own pods of friends in the school yard, so I went to the closest one.
“Isn’t Emma Stone the most prettiest actress ever,” exclaimed one girl.
“No way, Jennifer Lawrence is better.”
“But Blake Lively has perfect hair.”
“I really like Jennifer Aniston,” I said, seeing the pattern. Ballooning air from my mouth
turned into a thick, yellow, fume that smelled terrible and wrong, like kimchi and pickles. I felt
this air coming from within my chest, as if my monster had been smoking a korean joint. One
girl with curls that defied gravity, clamped two thin and translucent fingers on her nose. Making
eye contact with her other friends, they all giggled and gagged. My chest was contorting so
much that it made me breathless. The two girls next to me started edging closer to the middle,
effectively cutting me off. I slowly backed away like I was trying not to startle a flock of birds, not
too fast but fast enough for my redding cheeks. I waved my hands in front of me, trying to
dispel this cloud of smells but it followed me everywhere. Cupping my hands together I smelled
my breath and the thing in my chest seemed to have jumped down into my stomach along with
my smelly breakfast.
The bell rang and I flew inside. I sat in my classes but couldn’t hear what the teachers
were saying. Everything was background noise. In English class, the windows were open and I
saw an American Goldfinch, those yellow, petite birds that I read about for science homework.
Sleeping on the tree outside our window, it ruffled its feathers and glittered almost gold in the
sunlight. Mesmerized, I wondered what its life was like, not having school and being free to
spread its wings and fly. All it had to do was sit on that warm branch and soak up the sun. My

chest started to franticly beat against its walls. I was confused until a long shadow overtook the
bird’s sunlight. A crow had come to the same branch, causing the Goldfinch to be pushed out of
sight. With a loud caw, it alerted the whole class to its presence and even my teacher stopped
to admire the crows glossy black feathers and large physic. I wanted the yellow bird to come
back.

****

Lunch time came around at 12:30 and I walked to the cafeteria. I got to my locker and
took out my new, Hello Kitty lunchbox. Excited to eat what my mother had made me this
morning, I traced over the kitten with huge eyes and the pink, frilly border. My grandmother had
bought this for me and sent it all the way from Virginia. I hugged it close to my chest, feeling my
monster beat against the metal sides. Taking it by its handles I walked to the cafeteria.
I pushed open the heavy doors and was assaulted by the clamour of lunch time. Most
people had bought lunch, but I did see some other lunchboxes as well which soothed the
increased throbbing in my chest. Finding an empty table, I neatly sat down, flattening my skirt
under me. I was about to take out the white rice container when I saw a shadow coming up
behind me. Not wanting to look back, I focused on taking out all the separate containers and
arranging them in no particular order.
“Look what she has now!” a voice behind me said.
“Is that even food?”
“I’m gonna puke”
The beast inside me was seizing so fast, I thought it would damage my lungs. Taking a
shaky breath, I turned to face them. There they were, flipping their American brown hair and
chewing minty fresh gum. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out, only the same
cloud of yellow smells. They all stepped back to avoid it, laughing and holding their nose for the
world to see.
“What is that two-year- old box you have there” one of them said.
“Oh I know, Herro Kitty” another said, using her middle fingers to pull her eyes to a slant.
They all doubled over laughing, but my chest felt like it was on fire. I had to pinch my thigh in
order to not cry out. The pain was growing with every sound coming from their mouths. Blindly,
I stuffed my food back in my pink lunchbox and tried to fly to the door. Just as I was ten feet
away from the exit, I tripped over my neon converse and my food went flying everywhere. I fell
hard on my back and heard a crunch underneath my shoulder blades. Kimchi juice splattered
my new, white shirt like I had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest. Not bothering to pick any of
it up, I grabbed my lunchbox and ran.
I sprinted to the bathroom. I didn’t care if anyone was already in here. I found the
smallest stall I could and locked myself in it. I couldn’t stop the convulsions in my chest. The
blindingly white walls were caving in on me. My monster kept beating faster and faster and
faster. I banged on my chest. I begged it to stop. It kept pushing against my rib cage, pushing
essential air out of my tired lungs. It was like a fearful, vicious, wild animal trapped within me. It
felt like it was trying to fly out of my chest. I pushed my hand between my two breasts and felt
it. It was snarling and about to break free. Pushing further with all my might, I reached within
my cage of ribs and for the first time, touched it. It was more soft and warm with life than I

imagined. Still frantically beating, it was no bigger than my fist. After one particularly strong
convulsion, agony spread from my chest to the tips of my fingers. My hand was still within my
chest, touching my torture. This flesh had grown with me and had anchored itself with my cells.
I knew I needed to take it out for this all to stop, needed a quiet, docile chest. With one decisive
pull, I ripped it from my chest and my body went still. My new green sneakers were now
crimson. My animal sat in my hands. It felt familiar in some distant way. I was surprised it didn’t
have any wings to fly away. Unconsciously, I stroked it as it strained to beat. There was a
yellowish fat that was tightened around it; no matter how hard I pulled it wouldn’t come off. I sat
on the chilling floor, cradling my heart. My heart was curled up, shivering against the cold it
wasn’t used to like a puppy dumped on the side of the road. I found my lunchbox. I placed it
inside, closing the lid. I put my lunchbox on the toilet seat. I unlocked the stall. I walked out of
the bathroom-- never felt back in me.