Heart Sister - Michael F. Stewart - E-Book

Heart Sister E-Book

Michael F. Stewart

8,49 €


After his twin sister, Minnie, dies in an accident, Emmitt's world goes sideways. He’s lost his best friend and it feels like the family is falling apart without her. But Minnie was an organ donor and Emmitt soon receives an anonymous thank you letter from one of the transplant recipients. Inspiration strikes, and he decides to try and put his sister back together, in spirit. He’s going to track down each organ recipient and film them to show his parents the results of Minnie’s selfless act and help them move on. But when each recipient falls short of his expectations and the star of his film, the girl who received his sister’s heart, refuses to meet him, Emmitt has to turn to extreme measures to find her. What he doesn’t know is that his "Heart Sister" is hiding an agonizing secret, one that could push Emmitt to the breaking point.

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Seitenzahl: 310


Copyright © Michael F. Stewart 2020

Published in Canada and the United States in 2020 by Orca Book Publishers.orcabook.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Title: Heart sister / Michael F. Stewart. Names: Stewart, Michael F., author. Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20200184601 | Canadiana (ebook) 2020018461X | ISBN 9781459824874 (softcover) | ISBN 9781459824881 (PDF) | ISBN 9781459824898 (EPUB) Classification: LCC PS8637.T49467 H43 2020 | DDC jC813/.6—dc23

Library of Congress Control Number: 2020930594

Summary: After his twin sister's death, a teenage filmmaker tries to track down the recipients of her organs in hopes that it will help his parents move on from the loss of their daughter.

Orca Book Publishers is committed to reducing the consumption of nonrenewable resources in the making of our books. We make every effort to use materials that support a sustainable future.

Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

Edited by Tanya Trafford Cover images by Katie Carey Cover design by Rachel Page Typeset by Ella Collier Author photo by Natasha Stewart

Printed and bound in Canada.

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For my brother’s heart sister and her family.

Dear Heart Family,

Inside me beats your daughter’s heart. I am not allowed to tell you very much about myself. I would if I could. What I can tell you is that I am your heart daughter. If she had a sibling, then “Hiya, Heart bro or sis,” *waves* I am your heart sister. I will do everything I can to hold her close.

It makes me so sad to know I only live because of another’s death. But I’m not just alive because of her—I am born. I have never really lived, not yet, and your daughter’s heart is giving me a chance to begin.

Ever since I was a baby, I was protected because of my bad heart. Protected from exercise. Protected from even crying too hard. I came home early. Never learned to ride a bike or to swim. What if I fell off? What if I went too far? My only adventures came in books. And I didn’t dare to dream.

Now? Now I have a heart that can keep up with my dreams. I dream of climbing mountains. I dream of crossing oceans. Your daughter and me, we’ll adventure together.

I promise to be amazing, just like I know your daughter must have been. I want so much to know all about her.

Please write.










































Six weeks following my sister’s death, I find her heart’s location.

There’s an envelope on my mother’s dresser from the National Transplant Organization. Inside is a letter written in flowing script and pink ink.

“When did this come?” I ask my mom, wandering back through the kitchen with the letter and the reading glasses I’d gone searching for. I hesitate. Is she ready for this? She’s been on bereavement leave since the accident, but I don’t think her lying around all day is normal. Tissues litter a coffee table cluttered with cups of unfinished tea. Blinds let slip a thin ladder of light across the far wall. Plants droop at the windowsill.

I turn the lights on, awakening the room.

My mom waves me off from where she’s stretched out on the couch, staring at a daytime game show and patting our dog, Sirius, with slow strokes, his marble eyes unblinking. I’m expecting more from her, but I don’t know why.

“This is a letter from the person who received Minnie’s heart!”

“For one thousand dollars…what pyramid retains a limestone cap?” the television host interjects.

“Have you even read it?” I ask.

She winces, drawing her knees to her chest and curling into a fetal position. Quick, sharp breaths whistle out from her and then the spasm ends. She unfolds. I shut the lights back off.

My sister would have known what to say. She finished half of my sentences. She’d have known what to do. I find myself looking around for her, even though I know she’s gone.

My mom nods but ignores the letter, just as she ignores the glasses she asked me to find that I set on the sofa arm.

I gotta get her off the couch.

“Mom, you can’t just…” I jerk a thumb at the television. She clutches the remote to her chest.

The post date on the envelope says the letter was sent two weeks ago. It occurs to me that there might be more. I jog to the front door and open it to a cool-for-August day. Across the street a neighbor nods uncertainly at me as he sweeps his porch. The tightly packed, identical townhouses seem to lean away from ours. They are all somehow more colorful than ours with its bruised siding.

A dead squirrel lies twisted in the middle of the street, and I think I’ve got to tell Minnie about it. But then I remember. Again.

The mailbox is stuffed with several envelopes and a couple of community newspapers. I gather it all up and head back into the house. I dump the pile on the dark burl of the dining room table and sort through it. I spot another envelope with the same transplant-organization logo.

Now, guessing what could be inside, I wonder if I should open it. Who wrote it? Who else has my twin sister inside them? What if I hate them? It feels a little like I’m picking at the scabs of Minnie’s death. But wouldn’t knowing more about the people Minnie has saved help my mom find a way to feel that her daughter lives on? I need to be strong for her. Maybe I can decide if it’s something she should see.

I slip a fingernail along the edge and carefully pry open the seal.


Thanks for the corneas. The transplanters won’t let me say anything personal. Nothing that will allow you to draw any connections to me. I am a man who couldn’t see. And now I can. Thanks. It means a bunch.

See you. Off to catch butterflies.

A small child has scrawled a butterfly and a crayon-lettered note in the corner.

Grandpa helps me ride my bike.

The note is signed with an eyeball beside the butterfly.

I look at the envelope again. The return address is the transplant organization’s. Someone there functions as a go-between. But I grin at the note, because they missed something.

To me, this writer is asking to be found. He highlighted the rules and then gave me a personal clue. I’d give anything to have another minute with my sister. Even just a small part of her.

“Mom, check this out,” I say, waggling the note. “It’s from the guy who received Minnie’s eyes.” I stand in the doorway to the living room and wait for her response. The game-show host drones on. The refrigerator compressor rattles to life. It sounds an awful lot like a hospital room.

If my mother hears me, she gives no sign. Like she has every day since Minnie’s death, she just lies there, cradling the remote control and patting Sirius. Patches of his fur have been loved away.

She’s worse in the mornings. By the afternoon she usually gets up to brush her teeth, at least. But I’ve noticed she’s been getting off the couch later and later. And she seems very confused at times. Once I caught her just standing in the bathroom, holding a vase, clearly not sure how she or the vase got there.

Maybe she just needs proper nutrition. “Mom, do you want something to eat?”

Nothing. I swallow my irritation.

Sometimes I’ll make her toast and eggs, or even a complete meal like spaghetti. And there’s all the freezer food. That’s one good thing about a funeral. But it can be a bit like Russian roulette. You never really know what you’ll find in there, especially when your dad is the vegetarian “butcher.” People line up at his store, Slaughterhouse-Chive, every morning to buy vegetables that look exactly like meat, and so I guess a lot of people think everything they make for us has to be vegetarian.

I send my dad a text. I know he’s working on a big order for a wedding—including one hundred vegan lamb-like chops. The hundreds of brief text bubbles on my screen are the only real evidence of our current relationship. Minnie’s corneas went to a guy who loves butterflies, I text. He wrote us.

A minute later I get a reply. I miss your sister’s eyes.

They were green.

He doesn’t use her name. Ever.

I’m going to write back.

Maybe if my mom could hear how all the people who received Minnie’s organs are doing, it would help her snap out of this fog. I want my mom’s hugs back.

My dad replies with a turkey emoji. That probably means he’s crafting a tofurkey.

I guess I will need to go through this organ-donation group. I’ll start with my heart sister and try the direct approach first to see if this anonymity stuff is one-way. I sit down at the table and grab a sheet of paper.

Dear Heart Sister,

My name is Emmitt Highland, and I was happy to learn that you are the proud new owner of my twin sister’s heart. Her name was Minnie. She was sixteen years old. She played the guitar but secretly preferred the ukulele, and she loved movies—maybe even as much as I do. You know, I’m having trouble separating out what of her was me, and what of me was her. You know? When you’ve spent every waking moment together, you sometimes wonder where one of you begins and the other ends. You wonder who you are.

Her friends were my friends. We spoke another language that no one understood. And no one ever will again.

But there was one thing my sister loved to do that we didn’t share. Roadkill taxidermy. Yes, I’m totally serious. She made these incredibly detailed dioramas from trapped mice or squished squirrels she found on the walk home from school. She set them up like scenes in a movie, so they looked like humans playing video games or bungee jumping. Maybe you would like to come see them one day?

Please write us soon. Sorry for the slow reply. My mom’s pretty sick—in story terms, you could call it her darkest hour. She isn’t thinking too clearly. Maybe I can come meet you?



I struggle with whether to sign it Heart Brother. I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet. Not with how everything around the organ donation went down.

I head to my bedroom to grab an envelope. On my desk is a diorama my sister created for me, one of her first. Not her best work. The suturing on the bodies is obvious, and there are signs she might not have cleaned the hides quite well enough, but it always makes me smile. A mouse shouts from a director’s chair as other mice scurry about the set, one with a tiny mic boom, while two actor squirrels perform a fight scene. One squirrel is kicking the head of the other, who is falling forever to the ground. Minnie knew I want to be a film director.

In her more recent pieces, Minnie started combining different animals to create new creatures. Bird wings on chipmunks, mice heads on the body of a cat. Like a morbid Snow White, Minnie attracted dead animals. People brought her all kinds of deceased things—chipmunks, rabbits, a skunk once…even their own pets to be taxidermized. That’s how my mom still has our dog to pat. Sirius died a year ago.

I stroke the nape of the director’s fur, imagining him shouting orders. Action! Cut! I have this crazy idea. An idea that just might shove my mom off the couch. Might force my dad to whisper Minnie’s name. Might fill this gaping hole in my chest.


It’s not a crazy idea. It’s brilliant.

If Minnie honored animals by making them whole again, then maybe I can piece my sister back together too. In a way. In my way. I just need to find out where all her organs went and then place them in a diorama—a living diorama of my creation.

I visualize the scene. My mom and dad listening to and laughing with all the pieces of Minnie, other people who each somehow have internalized her, making them more powerful, more artistic, more compassionate. They hug. We all hug, and it’s like Minnie never left us.

Sunlight filters through the gauzy curtains of a bedroom now largely alien to me. The posters have been taken down, exposing chipped, burgundy-painted walls. Dusty pine shelves are nearly empty of books. The desk surface has been mostly decluttered except for broken pencils, a model of the flux capacitor from Back to the Future and the lonely diorama. Only a few items hang in the closet. My Empire Strikes Back duvet still covers my single bed, but I’m waiting for a new one. The stacked boxes around me are full of childhood stuff, things I want to leave behind, stuff that reminds me of Minnie more than it reminds me of myself. I’m sixteen now. Old enough to put away teddy bears, action figures and participation awards. The transformation started soon after Minnie’s accident. The bare walls reflect my loss. But the boxes, whether full of me or of Minnie, I’m not sure I’m ready to give away just yet.

I push the boxes up against the walls and toss stray laundry items onto my bed, clearing a Minnie-sized space on the floor. I grab a roll of my dad’s butcher paper from the closet and unroll it. I usually use it to brainstorm storyboards for movies, but today I need it to tell a different story. I always start with paper.

Laid out over the floor, waxen side down, the paper crinkles beneath my kneecaps. Three felt-tip markers—red, green and black—are on the nightstand. I have been using them to list the contents of the boxes. The acrid solvent smell of the uncapped black marker in my grip fills the room.

I draw Minnie’s outline from memory. I haven’t been able to look at a photo of her since the hospital. Even the picture of us cliff jumping together is face down on my shelf. But somehow her presence still fills my head as I begin. So often she would hang over my shoulder, bugging, suggesting, guiding.

The marker sweeps down, drawing her high forehead, a side-on profile of her face, cheeks, lips, everything plump, and a snub nose. My eyes fill with tears, but I keep drawing. I sit back to inspect the profile so far. It’s not her.

It is a caricature of Minnie. Her ski-jump nose is too pointy, her lips bulbous. My stomach roils. I need to get this right. I flip the paper and face the blank page head-on—like the accident? I shudder and then press the palms of my hands against my temples to will the images away.

The marker nib squeaks as I continue, outlining her bobbed hair, the rounded shoulders that shook when she laughed. Arms out like she’s ready for a hug. I’m hit with another wave of pain as I realize my sketch is starting to remind me of the chalk outlines in those old noir movie crime scenes. Why is this so hard? There’s a quaver in the wrist I’ve drawn. A tear drips from the end of my nose and beads on the paper. It’s not lost on me that I’m using butcher paper to map out the organs I need to collect. I’d be nauseated if I wasn’t sure that Minnie would love it.

I sketch her hand. Gentle, firm, probing, never clammy—at least, not until they were…fuh…I keep drawing.

Her torso was solid. She always said she loved how strong her body was. She never worried about her size. I mean, as far as I know, and she’s my best friend. Knew. Was. Was my best friend.

Our friendship made others jealous. We always knew what the other was thinking. We’d play games, telling people we could read each other’s minds. Then we’d prove it by guessing what the other was thinking. When our victims accused us of having planned it all in advance, we’d challenge them to give us categories—numbers, vegetables, animals, names. We’d always guess correctly, having played this game so often with each other. We shared what few friends we had—even her taxidermy group. But no one found their way into our inner circle of two. Still, though, sometimes I feel we all orbited her. I was just the moon, the closest thing in her sky.

When I start to draw her feet, I pause. If not flip-flops in summer or red patent-leather shoes at school, she wore bunny slippers. Actual former pet bunnies she named Left and Right the day she picked them from the Humane Society. They lived another two years before fulfilling their destinies. I could just do her barefoot—but her toenails were always a kaleidoscope of color, and the black marker can’t do them justice. I sketch in long, droopy bunny ears.

Finally I have an outline of my sister on the floor. That single teardrop has sunk in, the splotch a sad earring. I weight the curling edges of the paper with four of her favorite books—Calvin and Hobbes, Pet Sematary, Frankenstein and a book of Walter Potter’s curiosities.

I’m hit with another wave of pain. I sit back. The note from the guy who received her corneas crumples in my back pocket. I pull it out, smooth the envelope and shake the note free. It’s short. Too short. My parents will need more than some letters and a map of Minnie’s organs. But that’s where I have skills. This past June I spent more than half of my savings on a 360-degree video camera and virtual-reality gear. It’s money I should be saving for after high school, but now there’s only after Minnie.

I open my laptop and search parts of the body. It’s odd how little I know about my own biology. Where is my liver? That thing I can’t live without? Turns out it should be on the upper right of the abdomen. The kidneys on either side. The diaphragm—does that get transplanted? I know the stomach doesn’t. The lungs do. Pancreas, intestines—ew. The heart. I begin to transfer their locations onto Minnie’s outline.

My hand hurts from clenching the marker. The image of my sister’s organs all piled together on the floor flashes in my brain. I draw deep breaths to clear the horrifying images.

I stop for a moment and use my phone to cue up the wireless speaker on my desk to put on my sister’s favorite song, Jain’s “Come.” Not the score I would have picked for Minnie’s movie, but I can hear the quirky fun in Jain’s voice. I’d have chosen the theme from 8 Mile, or maybe Pulp Fiction, but that would be me. I hit play and cue the entire Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack to stream next.

I google what parts of the body are used in organ donations. Turns out a donor can save up to eight lives, but they can also improve the lives of over fifty people. I draw in some of the less likely parts carved from Minnie. Harvested. Skin, tendons, arteries, bone and eyes. Corneas.

When I finally meet the guy who has the corneas from Minnie’s beautiful green eyes, I’ll draw them on this outline as emerald butterflies. My heart sister may not have given me any clues, but he did.

The butterflies are how I will find him.


I’m guessing that the National Transplant Organization was founded long before social media existed.

It takes me fifteen minutes to figure out that people who hunt butterflies are called lepidopterists and that, in the Toronto area, only one posted on Twitter within days of my sister’s organs being harvested.

I can see! he tweeted. His handle is @mothman62. I trace it to a YouTube user who, with a shaky phone video, has captured not only some unusual moth activity, but also two street signs that are only a twenty-minute bike ride from my house.

I stuff my camera, tripod and portable green screen into my backpack. The camera has multiple lenses and image-stitching technology that creates three-dimensional immersive views.

I’ve experimented with VR—virtual reality—all summer, and I often go to sleep with my headset on, watching my sister playing her uke or sewing a new arrangement. It’s almost like she’s still with me, only just beyond my reach. The scene I gravitate to most often is from a cottage weekend from a few months ago. My parents had splurged on a vacation. It was a treat. A family trip before we grew out of them, with Divina and Hal, a couple of our friends. After the parents had gone to bed, the four of us stayed up at the campfire, talking. Minnie asked me to get out my camera and film us. It was almost like she knew I would need it one day.

Once I was set up, Minnie started firing questions at us by the light of the fire. “What is your name?” “If you were an animal, what would you be?” “If I were to put you in a diorama, what would it look like?” Stuff like that. We were laughing and so not-serious. I’d thought it was just part of our vacation. But the answers. They surprised me.

Whenever panic rises within me, that rolling wave of paralyzing grief, I pull the headset over my eyes and join her at the fire. It’s like I slide right under the wave.

I’ve decided that I’m going to ask her organ recipients those same questions. I’ll bring them into our campfire and make Minnie whole.

A mere two hours after the delivery of a letter designed to keep us apart, I am on a street corner watching for Mothman. His social-media profile pic indicates I’m looking for a largish black guy in his late fifties. I am relieved to be out of the house. Even if it proves to be a dead end, stalking butterfly hunters is a hundred times better than staying inside all day listening to “For ten thousand dollars, who…”

I prop my bike against the street sign and settle in to wait. I check out passersby. Cars jerk over speed bumps. The flutter in my stomach feels appropriate. I honestly don’t know what I’ll learn from Mothman, but I know my parents need more than the writer’s short thanks about seeing better. They deserve more than that. My sister does too.

A woman walks toward me along the sidewalk, tugging a little kid in a flouncing green dress. She has pigtails and ocean blue eyes. Will I recognize my sister in Mothman’s eyes? Do I want to? The woman clears her throat, and I realize I’ve been staring at her child in what is probably a creepy way. I avert my gaze and try to shrink my six-foot-plus frame into something less threatening. They cross the street.

A dozen more people pass with curious looks as I scan each of them for signs of Mothman. Finally I spot a man squatting by a bush. It looks like he’s holding a camera. From half a block away I can’t discern his features, but he’s wearing an inordinate amount of khaki, like he’s on safari. I grab my pack and bike and slowly approach, the bike derailleur clicking. As I near, he cocks an ear, and I can tell he’s no longer looking through the viewfinder of the camera, which is targeting something in the scraggly bushes.

He’s huge. Gray spackles his cropped hair, and a constellation of freckles scatter across his face.

“Hi,” I say. His gaze has such intensity that I can’t help but hold it. “Mothman?” I whisper.

The eyes burn fiercer. Not the same color as Minnie’s. His are brown.

“Who’s asking?”

“You have my sister’s corneas.” A moment of stillness stretches as thought catches up to words. A car rips past, undercarriage crunching over a speed bump. He stands, eyes dancing over me in a quick appraisal, perhaps of my intent, maybe my potential to be dangerous, and then it’s gone.

“You got my note.”

“Off to catch butterflies,” I say.

Mothman’s lips split into a grin, and his arms envelop me, plunging my face into his shoulder, hands rubbing my spine, camera body digging into my chest. “It’s all right, man. It’s all right.”

I force a laugh, trying to pull away from a kind of hug I haven’t shared since the funeral, which even then had felt awkward and compulsory but somehow comforting too. “Thanks, thanks. I’m good, I’m fine.” I pry free. Mothman’s hand lingers on my shoulder. It feels heavy and too intimate. He drops his arm.

“I’m Emmitt. Emmitt Highland. Can I talk to you for a bit?” I ask.

“You kidding? Of course you can. I really want to talk to you too. My name’s Gerry. Let’s sit over there.” He motions at a park bench and keeps talking as we walk toward it. “I’d hoped the note would work, but man, those transplanters really scour the letters. It was lucky my little clue managed to sneak through.”

I struggle for words. It is so strange to be looking at this man, at his eyes, knowing a part of my sister is with him. I move my camera to my lap so the lens is between me and Mothman. This small barrier helps me to calm.

We sit silently for a minute. Mothman follows the flight path of a butterfly.

“The tweet helped,” I say finally.

He looks like he is getting ready to hug me again. I scoot down the bench until I teeter on the edge. I lift my camera and zoom in on his face. If Minnie’s here, I’ll find her.

“Okay if I roll this thing? I’m working on a project,” I say. I will have to hone my pitch for anyone else I track down.

“Sure, sure. I’ve been dreaming of meeting her, you know. Your sister. I wish there was some way I could thank her,” he says. “I was a sniper in the army. Afghanistan. All sand and lost time. My eyes were everything. Until they weren’t, and they discharged me. Honorably, sure, but not honorably here.” He clutches his heart. “Know what I mean?” I shake my head. Talking to Mothman is like deciphering poetry. He sucks in a slow breath before continuing. “I can tell you all this. I can. We’re family, right?” I swallow and nod. “Sure, we are. Well, I’ve never told anyone, but I once shot a man. A bad, bad man. From over a mile away. The sort of target that is so distant you need to factor in gravity. I counted four seconds before the guy dropped. I thought my eyes were everything.”

I’m not sure what Minnie would think of having a sniper receive her eyes, but I’m nodding from behind the frame of my shot, and I keep the camera rolling.

He lowers his gaze. “So whose eyes have I got?” he asks. “All they’d tell me was she was a young woman. All these years and I finally have a woman’s perspective.” His laugh fills the day. “How did your sister see the world?”

I swallow, at first not trusting speech. “Minnie was my twin sister. She was a total pacifist. Hated war.” It’s too much truth. “I’m sorry.”

His eyes look back to his scuffed work boots, also khaki, and I realize it’s his uniform. He’s not on safari. He’s on deployment. Or at least is dressing like he is.

“Yeah, I’ve had three lives—sniper, blind man, butterfly catcher. Guess which one I like the most?”

Mothman has a “before Minnie” and an “after Minnie” too. “I’m pretty sure she loved butterflies,” I say in reply. “Live, still-fluttering ones.”

“Well, I don’t know many people, soldiers included, who don’t hate killing things. But the butterflies…I only take pictures. I don’t pin anything, man, just pictures.” A tear tracks down his cheek.

“Sorry, Gerry, but my sister would totally pin a butterfly. Trust me.” I burst out in a laugh that surprises me. “Minnie never had a good idea that didn’t require needles.”

“That’s a fine thing then. I won’t judge…” Gerry briefly covers his eyes with his fingers. “I’ll take good care of these, son,” he says.

I nod.

We sit in silence for a few moments, my camera still rolling. “How’d it happen?” he asks finally.

I shake my head. “She was hit by a car. The driver said she dashed into the road like she was trying to save something, but all there was on the road was a raven. She never regained consciousness.”

“Saving the bird,” he says.

“A long-dead bird,” I reply.

Gerry clasps my forearm and elbow with his hands and says, “Well, Emmitt, if you ever need me, I’m here.” He jerks his head toward an old house with a bowed porch roof and shingles that are starting to curl. “Just knock. If you want to hang out with me or just with her eyes.”

It’s not nothing, these words. I haven’t seen Divina or Hal since the funeral. Maybe they’re mourning too, and they don’t have any space to offer. Or maybe they’re uncomfortable around me, or they fear saying the wrong thing, or they think they’re intruding. I try not to believe it’s because they don’t care. But part of me wonders, were they only Minnie’s friends? Have they been boxed away with my room? I’ve never felt more alone. It’s not nothing, Gerry’s offer.

We stare at each other for a moment before his smile cracks again, and I start laughing. Briefly I really do have a piece of Minnie back. It gives me hope that maybe, if I manage to assemble the rest of her, the feeling will last forever.

“Gerry, I have a favor to ask,” I say.

“I’d give you a kidney,” he replies.

“Will you be in my movie?”


Around the campfire, MINNIE (16) sits with GERRY (late-50s). She has her guitar across her knees and plucks absently at the strings without realizing she’s doing it. She grins at him, face aglow, sparks flying into the night.


What’s your name?




If you were an animal, what would you be?


What? An animal?

“Run with it for a bit, okay?” I ask. Gerry shrugs and continues.


I’d be a mongoose.


If I were to put you in a diorama, what would it look like?



“Yeah, it’s like a miniature slice of life,” I say. “Anthropomorphic scenes. Imagine kids are running through an old-style museum and they see a mongoose you in your daily human life. What would it be doing?”


This is bizarre.

“Well, that’s my sister. During the winter she wore a coyote-head hat. A real one.”


Okay, well, my mongoose would be wearing a hat too. A top hat. Have one of those slick black canes. My coat, a big trench coat, would be on the ground for a lady mongoose to step on, and I’d be tipping my hat in appreciation, watching all the other mon—what’s the plural? Mongeese? Mongooses? The others wandering past. A gentleman. A watcher. A mongoose.


Cool. What would other people put in your diorama?


Jeez. How do they see me, you mean?

Gerry’s mouth tightens, and he glances down at his hands, hands that have pulled triggers.


It’d be real different. They’d put me on a rooftop with a clear line of sight for my scope. Something would be down there… maybe a weasel.


I’ve got a lot of brothers, sisters, moms and dads to answer to in the next life. I did my job—saved and protected many more people than I shot—but some people will only ever see a killer.

Gerry’s shoulders slump, defeated.


How can you make the diorama better?


We’re not really talking about dioramas anymore, are we?

“Were we ever?” I reply.


Yeah, okay then, sure. I see where you’re going. You know how in those dioramas you can see the glue coming unstuck sometimes? Or where some kid threw an apple core into the mouth of a T.rex in an exhibit? I’m gonna ignore that stuff. I make my own diorama better up here.

Gerry taps his head.


When I see something new, learn something I never knew before, that’s a good day. I don’t think I can fix the diorama—not the one others see. Just mine. There’s a reason why I chose the mongoose as my animal. They’re immune to snake venom. Eat cobras for breakfast. Gerry’s jaw flexes, much as it did on a mission, just before he relaxed to take the shot.


I will refuse to see hate. Ever see a pipevine swallowtail caterpillar? Ugliest damn things. But such beautiful butterflies.


I will look for the beautiful in every ugly thing.

Gerry’s eyes shine with determination. Minnie grins.


I think Minnie’s eyes are in the right place.

After I finish filming, Gerry looks at me. “You going to show me what you’re doing with all that?”

“At the end,” I say. “When this is over.”


The phone rings. And rings. I’m holding my mom’s bra. No one else has done the laundry for weeks. Having washed the clothes on delicate, I’m now hanging them to dry on a line that spans the basement ceiling. My dad used to do the laundry. I started doing my own when I ran out of clean clothes to wear. Then I began washing my parents’ after theirs began to reek. Already the line sags with my dad’s underwear. I pick up a green sock—my sister’s—from the basket. It must have been left in the dryer from an old load. I move to toss it into the garbage, stop myself, ball it up and throw it behind the dryer. I pick up another mom-bra. The phone keeps ringing. I drop the bra back into the laundry basket, wipe my hands on my shirt and run up the stairs to grab the kitchen handset.

It’s a woman named Martha from the National Transplant Organization.

“We’re looking for Emmitt Highland.”

“Here,” I say, breathing hard.

“Hello, Mr. Highland. We received your letter but regret that we are unable to forward it on to the organ recipient. It contains too much personal information. It’s important that the recipient not have any way to contact you.”

“I was hoping maybe the donor family could make contact if they wanted to.”

“Sorry, no, the process is entirely anonymous.”

I frown into the phone. “Even if we both agree that we want to talk?”

“Under no circumstances will we connect you.”


“There are reasons for anonymity.”

“None that make any sense.”

Through the kitchen doorway I see my mom prop herself up on her elbows and scowl at me. I have finally found something that makes her listen.

“Sorry,” I say into the phone, extra loud for my mom. “I guess I understand the whole medical privacy thing.” But I really don’t.

“You’re welcome to send a new letter, but please keep the details generic.”