It was the year my boyfriend and I were playing a lot of sick.

Play, mental health experts say, is important. A basic psychological need, in fact.

We traded off: every month one of us fell terribly ill, tasking the other with the role of nurse. We’d both grown up before Project GetWell, meaning that while neither my boyfriend nor I could no longer actually get sick, we certainly remembered the joy of it. Who could blame us, for wanting to recreate this? We’ve only ever been human.

There were saltine crackers and ginger ale. Cold compresses and thermometers placed carefully under tongues. Soup. Cartoons. My boyfriend was less dramatic than me. His illnesses came on slower—sniffles before bed, a cough the following morning. Then chills. Headaches. Sometimes, the fever wouldn’t start until two days of symptoms had passed. He took pride in the build up, drawing out the tension until I was giddy. I preferred to surprise. I liked for him to find me in the bathroom, sprawled. I’d splash a cup of Campell’s SpaghettiOs into the toilet, moan about the pain in my abdomen. It was important that the nurse had a mess to clean up to calcify the illusion. The illusion was everything. It was all we had. Besides each other, of course. And our health! We had our health; we always would.

“Babe,” I said one day, wheezing. I stumbled over to where my boyfriend sat on the couch. “Babe, my chest hurts.” 

My boyfriend glanced up from his crossword. For a second, I thought I saw a fraction of real concern pull at his mouth. An artifact from before, maybe, when we were all made to occupy that surreal nightmare of a reality in which our bodies contained bombs, bombs that could go off without any reason or explanation.

“Yeah?” He leaned an ear to my chest. “Cough twice,” he instructed.

I tried not to grin. I’d had this planned for weeks. “Do you hear anything?” I asked, sitting up.

“We’ll keep an eye on it,” my boyfriend told me. “Let me know if it gets worse.”

He returned to his puzzle, but I sensed his excitement. He was always asking me to be spontaneous. Like most men, he wanted to be surprised. Like so many women, I was a multi- tasker, skilled at fulfilling the desires of multiple individuals at once. I went into the kitchen and started julienning onions for stir fry. We ate stir fry multiple times a week—habit more than desire. The thrill of eating whatever we wanted consequence-free had faded, leaving us to our old stand-bys: stir fry, roasted chicken, pesto pasta. We were admittedly uncreative when it came to taking advantage of Project GetWell’s benefits. Lately, though, I’d grown sick of our menu. I hungered for something new.

I was picky as a kid. Miss Piggy, my mother called me, which definitionally didn’t track; pigs ate non-discriminately whereas I approached meals with the utmost discernment. It had to do with her synesthesia—pigs being pink in a way that I also was. Pink as in princess, as in delicate, as in girl. My mother, she was more beast than woman. All teeth and self-reliant grit. There was no Dad, no men around to soften myself for; I should’ve been better. I should’ve been her. I can only imagine how disappointing I was. Always so timid, obedient with worry. As is the case for most anxious children, this was, I suppose, a fear of one day no longer being alive. I don’t know if my skittishness was borne in response to her and then bloomed to include everything else or if it was the fear that arrived first—evolving on its own, my mother simply one of the many things it grew to touch—but afraid of her I was.

Thanksgiving, the year I turned twelve, she gutted the wild turkey she’d shot so swiftly and with so little concern for the squelch of innards between her palms that I couldn’t help but imagine it—my body sliced open, her rough, cracked hands plucking out organs. I developed a childlike logic constructed in part by fairytales. Surely my mother would only get close, bring her mouth to my skin, inhale and bite down, if she found me appetizing. Surely she wouldn’t eat me if I wasn’t what she wanted. So I kept my parts small—bland and tasteless, weak—such that consuming them held no appeal. I ate selectively: tiny meals that wouldn’t fatten me. I walked on tiptoe, spoke in whispers. This was the way by which I remained closed. This was how I stayed intact.

Sometimes, I wished to be different. I suspected that if I could get over my fear of being opened up and let myself become what she liked, there might be something lovely to getting eaten. The warm cavity of her mouth swallowing me whole, the slick embrace of her digestive tube as I slid into her belly where I might sleep, held by the soft cradle of tissue.

Stupid, really. But surely it was the beast in my mother that spooked when the scientists came calling with their human genome models and man-made immune systems. Surely her ears were so feral that they mistook an offer of freedom—endless open plains of it—for that of a fence, a bridle.

After a week of light-headedness, distended neck veins, and shortness of breath, I told my boyfriend what was wrong. We’d just had sex, an ordeal that involved a variety of toys and rituals without which I’d found myself increasingly unable to orgasm.

“Chronic pericardial effusion,” I announced. Pericardial effusion was the build up of fluid in the sac that contained the heart, sometimes caused by Cardiac Angiosarcoma—cancer. But technically that information was irrelevant to the game. My words stalled in the air. Neither of us had ever been sick with a disease so elaborate. Time off wasn’t an issue for me—I worked from home doing social media outreach for the zoo—but my boyfriend studied water samples in a lab, and I could see him calculating how much vacation time he had left.

“It can go into remission,” I said. “With the right kind of care.”

He looked relieved, then. “Poor baby,” he told me, stroking my hair. “We’ll get you better.”

As we fell asleep, possibility swept into the room. It heightened our senses like the cold breeze of an incoming rain until we could feel each and every particle of dust in the air, the top sheet’s invisible fibers, the quiet pulse of what lived between us—how we could lose it to whatever was the matter with me.

The health of a relationship is a fragile thing. I met my boyfriend right after my mother passed, the metallic sheen of her death still coating the world, making it seem precious. This was a year and a half ago. My boyfriend, at that point a dude in a puffy coat and glasses, stood in the same line as me for a post-inoculation examination. There were protesters outside the clinic that day, and one of them, a teenager wielding a sign diagramming natural selection, squeezed past the wall of security. I met her gaze. Suddenly her face was centimeters from mine. She lunged, grabbing my collar.

“Do you have any idea what in the living fuck you’re doing?” She asked, at which point my boyfriend swiftly inserted the width of himself between us. 

It was like a movie, a sense of choreography to the whole scene. I cowered behind him, his frame miniaturizing mine. I didn’t mind that it was showy. I found my boyfriend spectacularly tall and was pleased with the density of his beard, though otherwise he was plain. Generic in the key of man. But I fell in love quickly. I fell in love with the sense that he wouldn’t leave me, with the possibility that I’d never want him to.

He did not resent what my mother had abhorred in me: the little scraps of girl I couldn’t seem to live without. In fact his understanding of himself seemed to depend on these scraps, and in turn I embraced this, leaning harder and harder into the girl as if it were a false wall and I was looking for where it gave. We weren’t so different than most couples, see? Each person asking the other to make it keep making sense.

I never told my boyfriend what my mother died of, only that it was cancer in the most general of senses. I was committed to a practice of not talking about her the way other people were committed to workouts or instruments. My boyfriend didn’t mind. He didn’t even mind that,  instead, she settled silently into the space between us, stowing away in our relationship like a virus infecting a cell. In the morning, shards of sunlight came through the window, blanketing my face. My boyfriend rose and went about his morning routine. Always the same—shitting, shaving, fifteen minutes on a guided meditation app he wanted me to download, too.

“We don’t know if we’re protected against mental deterioration, boo boo,” he’d say, waggling his iPhone. 

He was right; the data was inconclusive, the boundaries they were attempting to establish apparently too entangled. I pretended to doze, giving him the opportunity to admire me: skin gleaming like fine china, my beauty and frailty on display in equal measure. Finally he came to the edge of the bed. I sat up, dizzy with anticipation.

“Now,” my boyfriend said. He fluffed the pillows behind my head. “What can I get you?”

The question glinted before us. Symbolic—an indication that our game had started in earnest—and also not that at all, because whatever the ill one wanted, the ill one got.

Towards the end of my mother’s time in this world, I kept returning to the message boards. To corners of the internet wrought with people eager to share how they’d survived their bodies against all odds. Medication advice, book recommendations, diets that seemed to always involve either the strict elimination of a specific subset of nutrients or an exclusive devotion to that same food group. The message boards were where I found the her. The heart eater.

46 yo survivor of pericardial mesothelioma, she wrote. 3 yrs in remission. only 1 thing has worked. She’d included a lengthy paragraph detailing the nutritional benefits of heart meat: selenium, zinc, iron, folate and B-vitamins, all of which have a cardio-protective effect. This was true. I Googled it. I prefer it to be from deer or elk—anything goes, tho. Only thing, RAW. ok? Uncooked. Won’t work otherwise. Swear 2 u. im a lifelong hunter, so easy access. But local butchers good 2.

I rolled my eyes. Lifelong hunter. She probably harbored that same ego-laden belief the other hunters I knew subscribed to: that nothing could run from her, not even existence itself—something about being everywhere at once. As evidenced, I reluctantly realized, by the fact that my mother should’ve been at an oncology consultation across the state, and yet here she seemed to be, blinking at me through the screen.

The heart eater concluded the post with her phone number.

I didn’t tell my mother. Because it sounded both too much like myth—that a failing heart could be replaced simply by swallowing down a new one—and also not enough, by which I mean that if I’d told her, she would’ve done it. I could not chance this. Bacterial infections. Parasites. Instead, I went to the co-op and loaded up on folate supplements and B-vitamins and zinc infused teas. Four weeks later, she died. She died as I kept what could’ve been a cure to myself, lodging it away below my throat. It might’ve been genetic. I never needed to find out. I didn’t hesitate when the GetWell shot came out. I didn’t hesitate to become the sort of invincible my mother spent her whole life pretending to be.

“You need to eat a what?” My boyfriend asked. He placed a hand on my forehead—a joke we made when we thought the other person was acting febrile.

“Trust me,” I told him, kissing his cheek. I gave him the address of a butcher shop I’d Yelped and sent him on his way. My boyfriend, he wanted to be good. To play with me like I needed to be played with. While he was gone, I paced around in my socks and practiced my wheeze. He returned forty-five minutes later clutching a small package. The waxy paper crinkled with promise.

“Sit,” he told me. He covered me with a fleece blanket and propped the TV dinner tray over my lap. I heard the faucet running, the drawers rattling, a blade thudding gently against wood.

He carried it out to me. Chicken heart, chopped into glistening chunks marbled with milky fat. I picked up the fork and fumbled with it, pretending to need help.

“Here,” my boyfriend said. He cupped my chin in his palm. I manipulated my jaw into a slackened droop until it seemed like its weight was resting on his hand, like I was at his mercy. Really, my boyfriend’s experience of my jaw hanging open was made possible by how much control I retained, by the way I kept it the right amount of closed.

I murmured my thanks. “I couldn’t do this without you.”

The meat was satiny and supple, though upon biting into it I found it chewier and less yielding than I expected. My boyfriend fed me, piece after piece, eager to offer an antidote to the terrible ache surging through my chest. To help me get rid of it.

In the absence of disease, some people smoked packs of cigarettes. Some became very, very skinny. Others still inundated their insides with sugar and cream that refused to curdle into plaque. Drugs. Alcohol. Corporate jobs that sent their cortisol rocketing into an endless space that knew no limits. People have always had their vices, have always needed different things to be whole. Just because our bodies were better—streamlined and incorruptible—didn’t mean we were.

That first week, the butcher shop sufficed. Lamb hearts, turkey hearts, pig hearts. Luscious and oozing, a redness to the meat that I imagined tasted like romance. The night sweats subsided. My breathing came easier. Then, out of nowhere, a fainting spell. This unbearable constriction around my lungs. My boyfriend collected me from our carpeted bedroom where I’d collapsed.

“There’s a sharpness,” I said, rubbing the space beneath my throat. “Kind of stabbing but achey, too, like something heavy is stuck there.”

He massaged a circle into my sternum, listening.

“I don’t want you to feel any of that,” he said. “How can I make it go away?”

I led him to the garage, limping. My leg wasn’t injured, necessarily, but the heart could hurt you however it wanted, I decided. In the garage, I pointed to my mother’s shotgun.

“Some tougher hearts,” I told him. “That’s what I need.”

The following morning I sent my boyfriend to the woods as I would every morning after that for weeks. He’d never hunted before so it took him several days to procure each heart: fox, boar, raccoon. The meat was, indeed, gamey and fibrous, like swaths of thick leather that absorbed each twinge of pain, separating me from it. For a month or so my boyfriend committed himself to providing me with a constant supply of tough hearts, meaning he essentially ceased to exist to me, and my pericardial effusion did well with the decreased vasoconstriction, all the space I had to breathe.

Sadly, just as my boyfriend was perfecting his hunting skills, increasingly able to meet my needs and more present than he was absent, I had an episode. He was skinning a prairie dog in the garage one night, elbow deep in marrow, when I fell to the floor.

The pericardial effusion was breaking through my barrier of tough hearts. But it was coupled by a new sensation, too. This terrible pressure over my ribs, smothering me like one of those awful hugs that make it impossible to know where your body starts and ends. An underlying condition, I realized. Activated by the pericardial effusion, maybe, and exacerbated by some aspect of treatment. I understood then that my heart issues were more complicated than I’d thought. I curled up on the cement as the various hurts met one another, morphing into the same malfunction.

“Boo, what’s happening with you?” My boyfriend asked. He knelt. His eyes welled with tears. He could really act.

I was hesitant to explain the extent of my heart’s brokenness. That it couldn’t receive care without constricting seemed pathetic. I ached to be able to tolerate the fruits of my boyfriend’s labor.

“Maybe, like, wilder?” I told my boyfriend. “Hearts that are harder to catch. That can really run.”

I asked for bobcat, coyote, wolf. Hearts that wouldn’t carry the risk of toxins; their distance from all the ways we learn to be human leaving them untainted and pure. Nutrient- dense. My boyfriend began spending most of his time in the woods. He filled every vessel in the house with meat—the fridge, the freezer, the tub, even—until he was exhausted. Dark circles ringed his eyes. He returned home bruised and scratched, peeling from the elements. He began to waste away, burning more calories than he had time to consume.

It might sound like I was trying to get rid of my boyfriend.

Really, I was trying to keep him. I was trying to keep him the best way I knew how.

Sometimes, I thought I saw a glimmer of expiration in my boyfriend, a kind of going. He’d return from the hunt smelling of decaying organic matter—damp earth and soggy, mottled leaves—and I’d glimpse it: the shadow of an ending in its natural cycle. I’d reach for him, wanting to touch it. Suddenly all he’d killed for me, all that death I’d fed on, would make itself known in my veins, streaming directly to my heart such that I felt well enough for sex. The costume of our clothes falling away and him, sinking deeper into my opening until I was about to feel it—the goneness, the loss. Each time, it disappeared. Just as I was about to make contact, it’d be smothered out by the fleshy hereness of our connected bodies, consummated back to presence by the cradle of my boyfriend’s attentive tongue around my nipple, by his palm cupping my skull, by the gentleness with which he slipped out, leaving my opening to close.

I changed my treatment protocol yet again, wanting betterment so badly that I began eating only wild hearts in an attempt to streamline the process. My body transformed. My flesh sloughed off. In the absence of hips, thighs, or breasts, I became a sharp, bony creature punctuated by tufts of muscle, sinewy and dense. I grew hair in places where previously I’d had none—across my stomach, down my arms—while the hair on my scalp thinned, turning scraggly and brittle. My teeth, predictably, sharpened. My fingernails grew rapidly. After two weeks, I resembled one of the illustrations on our signs at the zoo showing the early stages of evolution. How the animal appeared before it became itself.

Despite this, my boyfriend’s devotion didn’t waver. I was losing every remnant of girl to the wild heart diet, yet he didn’t threaten to leave. He didn’t punish me. Apparently, my boyfriend wasn’t in it for the performance, for the part I’d played. He was in it for life.

Can a body survive without that which has always defined the limits of its existence?

The question needed a bigger font and cleaner verbage. It was the focus of some testing Project GetWell was doing at the zoo. They wanted to find out how animals who’d received the shot would fair without organs henceforth considered to be vital, and I was finishing the design on a series of graphics to post on Instagram the one time my boyfriend broke. He came into the bathroom to deposit that morning’s bounty. I was in the bathtub, laptop propped up on the edge. The hearts were so greasy and slippery, and I was feeding so often that it’d become easier for me to stay in the tub, surrounded by meat I could reach for whenever. My boyfriend tipped his bucket into my trough. The meat plopped as it landed, slick and dense.

“What happened to ginger ale?” My boyfriend asked, staring sadly. My gnarled, naked body submerged in pink, viscous fluid. “Saltines?”

But the thing about ginger ale and saltines is that I hadn’t actually been given ginger ale and saltines as a child, so I’d never developed an attachment to them. I wished there was a way to explain to my boyfriend how badly I wanted ginger ale and saltines to be enough. How badly I wanted that to taste like love to me.

This is why I called the heart eater. Concern over my devolvement. I suppose I wanted to know: was I okay? Was it normal to lose one’s humanity in an effort to stay alive? 

I had it in my head that the heart eater knew. It was a starless night. My boyfriend hadn’t yet returned from the woods. I found her number quickly, my fingers touching their way towards her.

It rang and rang. Then a beep, followed by the abyss of emptiness that indicated nobody was there. I glanced at the clock hoping I wasn’t trying too late. It read ten to midnight.

I left her a voicemail, describing my transformation. I talked into that void and hoped she was out there. That she’d listen to my message as I had to hers and know I was following her lead. “I hope you’re well,” I told the heart eater. “I hope you get this.”

But I wished she could’ve seen me. I wished she could’ve seen what I did because of her.

I made a decision, simple as that. To move beyond treating my symptoms. If I wanted to feel better, I needed to become better.

I thought I could fix my heart with his.

The following morning, I approached my boyfriend in the living room and asked him to stand up, handing over his hunting knife with shame. I was acting picky. I’d been served a multitude of hearts and proclaimed them all wrong, my mother turning me into exactly what she thought I was—a pig.

My boyfriend’s flesh was thin; the blade punctured his skin easily. He sliced in a circle, maneuvering the knife with great finesse.

I reached into his chest. I did it the way I’d want it done to me: careful and quick, like the arteries were a mess of wires that might go off if handled incorrectly. Because though our bodies had been diffused, made benign, wouldn’t we always carry around ourselves, our histories?

Surely each cell remained laden with shrapnel that might still detonate. Surely I knew this by now.

I pulled his heart out. It pulsed in my palm: sturdy and vigorous. Full. I brought it to my mouth and sunk my teeth in.

A strangled growl emanated from my depths as I allowed the act of consuming my boyfriend’s heart to consume me. I furled my jaw open until I no longer had a beginning or an ending and swallowed furtively, trying to embed my boyfriend’s heart in mine. Chewy muscle thumped against my molars. Another bite; like the sound of fabric tearing only duller, more fibrous. Fluid spurted. The taste was overwhelmingly sweet. Syrupy. Not quite to my preference, but what choice did I have? I gagged and sputtered; I did not stop.

As I chewed, the rhythm of my boyfriend’s half-eaten heart became increasingly sporadic against my palm. The color drained from his face. His eyes glossed over. I started to cry.

“Don’t cry,” he said, and I cried harder.

He collapsed onto the couch. He seemed on the verge of going. That’s when I felt it—the kick of something urgent and brisk in the arches of my feet. Then my pulse, ricocheting out of dormancy. Alert and awake and alive. Enough! I’d had enough. What was this sensation if not one of renewed wellness? It’d worked. Hadn’t it? I hastily moved to reinsert the mangled tatters of my boyfriend’s heart into his cavity.

He stopped me.

“I’m still here,” he said, shrugging. It was true. I’d cut a gaping wound into his flesh, turned his complexion ghostly and wan, and still, he remained. “Maybe I don’t need it.”

We stared at each other. I knew he was wondering a loose approximation of what I was wondering. If he’d always be there, beside me, even after I’d taken and maimed his heart. Or if we’d stepped over an uncrossable line, entered into a new world the likes of which simply couldn’t be survived.

“Keep chewing,” he told me. So, I did. I chewed, imagining, if there ever was an ending, the guilt I’d feel. The way he’d insist I not feel it.

Kieran Mundy’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Passages North, The Massachusetts Review, Joyland, and elsewhere and has been recognized in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2017 and 2019. She is a 2022 Best of the Net nominee and the recipient of Gulf Coast’s 2020 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, judged by Jenny Offill. Kieran holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon and has received funding and support for her work from Tin House, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center and Craigardan.