The Beat Matters

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A nervous man prone to panic attacks discovers one night that, while still living, his heart has ceased to function.

Submitted: January 29, 2012

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Submitted: January 29, 2012



His hands were fluttering up and down in panic. James could only hear the sound of his ragged huffs of breath. Panic attacks were normal for him, and as always, he was convinced like an overly-religious believer that this time he would really die.

Calm. The Hell. Down, he scolded his thoughts.

He was alone tonight. Part of him was glad for that—he couldn’t bear (nor, he decided, could she) putting his wife through this again—while the terrified boy in him wanted nothing more than to have her by his side right now. Regardless, it was impossible. Her flight arrived tomorrow from New York and she was miles away. He thought about calling her. Maybe she was still awake. The clock. No, you idiot! It’s four-twelve! She needs her rest for tomorrow. By this point, James was already crossing his bedroom frenetically and galloping towards the kitchen. He needed water. He needed to breathe slowly. This always passes. It will pass as always. He won’t die. That’s ridiculous.

Panic attacks can vary in intensity. Scarcely do they come in moderations. They are a tornado of fear that sweeps through a person with no warning or invitation. Your palms sweat, heart rate increases, body goes numb, and it will almost always resemble a heart attack—James’s greatest fear. Imagine it. A false alarm heart attack. Every single night. Some days it would thrash his mood entirely, and often he would unjustly take his anger out on Justine. True, she couldn’t possibly understand what he was going through, but she tried her best to support him. He knew that and it birthed guilt in him.

He ingested three bottles of water in less than two minutes, feeling cold strays dripping and flowing down his chin and neck. Water made him feel safer. Like he was giving his body what it ultimately needed. But that was the scare of it—he didn’t know what it needed. He would just continue to breathe and drink and wait it out.

Inhale. Exhale. Gulp. Inhale. Exhale. Gulp. Pace the room.

Slowly he could sense himself beginning to calm down. Instinctively he reached for his heart to check its velocity. He pressed hard on his chest with his palm.


No, he thought. Impossible.


It’s impossible. I’m not pressing it correctly. I’m dreaming. His panic returned with full force. Impossible. He choked his wrist and with trembling hands checked again and again for a pulse.

No. No, no, no, no, no.

He couldn’t breathe. Every inhalation was like trying to lift a skyscraper with his bare hands. I’m imagining it. A heart only stops when you die, he recited in his head. Only when you die. And yet… and yet…

James stood in the black of his kitchen, struck with fear and confusion. It was four-seventeen. He was sweating, breathing ragged huffs of breath. He was alive, but the heart inside of his chest had retired from beating.


The following morning James refrained from phoning Justine. It would only frustrate him more to have to explain this madness over the phone and he would rather tell her in person anyway. He hadn’t gotten much sleep; at some point he found himself dosing off, near sleep, but immediately the thought pounced back into his memory and he pressed his chest with a hard thump. Void.

You have no heaaaaart! A voice in his mind whispered. That’s precisely how he’d heard it too. A demonic, heckling voice. Laughing at him in the darkness.

The sun was casting rays of light through his window now, and he could hear a bird whistling outside. Same damn bird as every morning. Typically it was a welcomed song, but today it sounded more like a cruel chuckle. The bird knows.

A concern swirled his mind—what would he tell Justine? How could she hope to understand? What doctor could remedy this absurdity?

James left his home and drove straight to the airport. The whole way there he felt like vomiting. The closer he got, it seemed, the more his nausea deepened. She was waiting for him outside, and he helped her put the bags in.

“No hug first?” she outstretched her arms and gave a weak smile.

He embraced her, although he didn’t want to.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just tired.”

“You slept badly? Another attack?”

“Yes,” he didn’t look at her. “And don’t call it an attack. I’m fine. I wasn’t attacked.

Justine lifted her arms in defense. “I’m sorry. You know what I meant.”

“Let’s just go. I’m tired.”

They drove home and the car was silent all the way there. James noticed that the car needed gas, and a blinking light and ticking sound continued to remind him of this, but he couldn’t imagine performing such a mundane task with this devil on his back. And so he drove on, even while Justine kept giving him petrified glances. He could see her in his peripheral, and his tongue clicked at his teeth in disgust. She won’t understand you, the mind-voice hissed. She’ll leave you in a heartbeat. Oh, wait, forget that last part, you freak!

“Shut up,” he muttered lowly.

Justine craned her neck quickly. “Did you say something?”

“No,” he grunted. “We’re here.”

James parked the car and began unloading her bags into the house. He hadn’t even noticed that he’d left the door unlocked when he’d departed in the morning. Inside, the house was still.

“It’s so good to be back,” he heard Justine say from behind him. She moved into the kitchen and James heard cabinets shuffling open and closed. She returned into the living room and smiled at him.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Nothing’s wrong,” another lie.

She moved closer. “I missed you. So much. I don’t want it to be like this.”

Closer still. James dropped his head until his chin was touching his chest.

“Don’t,” he whispered.

“Don’t what?” she pleaded, slowly inching towards him until her arms enveloped him.

James shook sporadically as she nuzzled her cheek against his chest. He didn’t know whether to move or stay completely still. Would she notice that his heart wasn’t beating? Could a person be so tuned to that? He decided that even if she did find out, it might be simpler than having to tell her himself. She would think he was joking if he tried that. Oh, as if he would joke about such a—

“James?” she spoke softly. He could feel her hot breath through the thin fabric of his shirt.

“Yes?” he said.

She moved back and met his eyes. Her eyes searched him until he felt weary and scared.

She swallowed, looked down at his socks, and looked up at him again.

“This is going to sound strange,” she said.

James tried to speak but couldn’t. Don’t, his mind begged.

She moved closer and pressed her palm to his chest.

“Baby,” she said with rigid eyes. “There’s—why…”

Again, James’ tongue was immobile and incapable of words.

“I…James, I can’t feel your heart beating. What—what is this?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” her voice spoke louder. “What happened? What is this?”

She persisted to press his chest harder until he flinched back in pain.

James swallowed and began to pace the room. He always did that when he was nervous. Or when he felt another panic attack coming on.

“Is that normal? What the hell is this!” she cried.

“Last night,” he recited in a clutter of words. “A panic attack came. My heart…my heart.

Another dry swallow. “I went into the kitchen. Water. Then I got water.”

He could see that Justine was doing her best to listen without panicking.

“Then—I don’t know. I felt my heart. No, wait. First, I was feeling better,” James said. “It was getting better. And I checked to see if my heart was still beating fast. You know, because when I get panic attacks it beats faster.”

He stopped and sat down. “Sit with me.” A frightened plea.

Justine sat beside him and began to caress his hair. She was still crying. “What do we do? What does this mean?”

He shook his head.

She looked ahead at the coffee table and sighed.

“I’ve never even heard of such a thing. But…you’re alive,” she said.

“I’m scared.”

“Baby, let’s take you to the hospital. Let’s go right now.”

“I’m scared,” James repeated, this time his face melting like a scared-stiff child with tears rushing down his face.

“Let’s go now. Right now. They’ll fix this.”

Justine got up from the couch and hurried into the kitchen to retrieve the car keys. James heard them jingle in her hand. He got up and wobbled to the car. The light outside was so bright that he had to walk with his hand against his face, only to see through the slits between his fingers. He thought he would collapse before he reached the car, but didn’t. The entire ride to the hospital—which was maybe fifteen minutes—was a total blur of images. He heard Justine talking the whole way there, but it sounded like a muffled noise he heard through a cement wall.

“Did you hear me?” she said.

“What?” he blinked. “No, I’m sorry. Repeat it.”

“I asked if you felt any different.”

James thought about it. Aside from the shock of it and his usual panic sensation, he didn’t.

“I’m just nervous that the doctor might tell me something bad,” he finally answered.

“Bad? Bad like what?”

“Bad like bad. Bad like…'James, you should be dead.’”


James was sitting with Justine in a waiting room after the doctors had performed tests on him. It wasn’t the waiting room they were in at first. This one didn’t have any magazines or a television set. Nor, as a matter of fact, did it have other patients. They were alone now. The room only had pamphlets. James didn’t want to look at them. Pamphlets on heart disease, liver disease, brain disease, all kinds of diseases. Disease-disease-disease!

“Put that down,” James ordered.

Justine lowered the pamphlet in her hands. “I’m just checking if any of your symptoms are—"

“I said put the damn thing down!”

She did as he demanded with stiff, even eyes. She crossed her arms and they sat in silence. The ticking of the clock sounded louder by the second, and the cold air smelled of medicine and rubber.

“This isn’t easy for me either, you know,” Justine said.

“I know,” James replied.

“I’m trying my best to help and keep you calm.”

“I know, Justine. I already said I know. I’m sorry. I’m just nervous about what they’re going to tell me.”

“Tell us.


“Nervous about what they’re going to tell us,” she corrected him. “This is my dilemma too. I love you. And your problem will always be my problem as well.”

At that moment, a nurse walked into the room. She had green scrubs on, and her brown hair was tied in a bun. “James, Doctor Gale is ready to see you. Your wife can come too.”

They followed the nurse out of the room. It felt as if his legs were marching without his permission. His mind was still at home. Somewhere in the past, on a day when things were normal. How had this occurred?

They shifted through a maze of hallways before the nurse motioned for them to enter a double door. This door was different from the rest. It wasn’t white; it was mahogany. It was an office.

Doctor Gale greeted them from behind his desk, also mahogany.

“Please, sit down,” he gestured with his hand.

Justine immediately stopped. “Why? Will this take long? So long you had to invite us into your office?”

James looked at her puzzled.

“Ma’am, please,” Doctor Gale said. “Just have a seat.”

They both did. James felt his eyes crossing. As if the vision of his independent eyes were merging into one distorted photo.

“Well?” Justine asked. Lucky for James, because he couldn’t utter a single word.

Gale pursed his lips into a tight line. “I’m just going to be forthright. James’s condition is rare, to say the least. No, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. His heart isn’t just at a fragile state, it’s completely deceased tissue. There’s no blood pumping through it, and yet James is here with us, breathing and walking and talking. All his other organs are perfectly healthy, too. I don’t mean to alarm you, because as of now there’s nothing to be worried about, but son, you should be dead.”

James tried to swallow but couldn’t. He could see Justine’s closed hand move over her mouth.

“But you’re not,” Gale added quickly. “And that’s what’s important. As of now, besides your heart of course, we don’t see any danger sneaking up on you. You’re healthy as any normal person. It’s a mystery, to say the least.”

Before any of them could respond, Doctor Gale went on.

“Now, given this spectacular scenario, we would like to keep you here for several days to run some more tests. Not only to be thorough, but for the advancement of the medical field in general. This could be a breakthrough in medicinal science. Of course, this would be completely free for you. It would be an honor for us.”

“You want to experiment on my husband?” Justine said, appalled. “For science?

“That’s a minor detail, miss,” he reassured her. “We would be helping him. It’s important that we discover what exactly is keeping your husband alive. This is the best way to know for sure what’s happening to him.”

“I’ll do it,” James finally spoke out. “Just find out what the hell is going on.”


James was trembling convulsively in his bed just before a nurse rushed in to his aid. She almost slid across the tile. Justine was waiting outside but ran in after her.

“What’s wrong?” Justine cried out.

The nurse seemed preoccupied with machines. James appeared as though he were trying his best to hinder his shaking.

“It’s nothing,” she finally answered. “He was asleep and he woke up in shock.”

Justine pulled up a chair beside his bed and grabbed hold of his arm.

James bit his lip. “I’m ff—fine,” he quivered.

It was turning on the third day since James had been detained from leaving the hospital. Each day a new test was conducted, and each day a new doctor arrived to examine this wonder of a man. The living man with no heartbeat. Three days, James wondered, and no hint of an answer.

Justine was advised to leave the room as soon as the doctor entered.

“Gale,” James murmured.

Doctor Gale walked in with a syringe in hand. “Here you go. Now, this is some stronger stuff for you. Pseudoephedrine. Big word, I know. Might put you out for a bit. Do you have any medical conditions I should know about?”

James almost said that he was prone to serious panic attacks, but then decided against it. He wouldn’t take me seriously if I told him that, he thought. He needed the shot to relieve his anxiety.

James shook his head. Before he could rethink the thought, the needle cut and swam deep into the skin of his arm, pricking his vein.

“Good,” Gale said. “Then you’re going to love this stuff. You’ll be in heaven. But if you’re a nervous fellow, you might not enjoy it as much. Minor hallucinations at most, nothing you can’t handle.”

James tried to speak.

“Whya…joualwhen,” he mumbled while his eyes flickered.


As every day, a crowd of students came hovering over him and began taking notes. They scribbled above him and squinted their eyes as if he were a lab rat. Anger and annoyance seized him. Where’s the progress? Where’s the promise?

The sedative kicked in instantaneously and James began to chuckle as Justine came in.

“Heh-heh-heh-heh,” he slapped his thigh.

Justine didn’t look the least bit amused. “What’s so funny?”

He continued laughing hysterically. Louder and louder.

“I cheated death!” he bellowed. “Doesn’t that deserve a good laugh? I cheated death and I cheated these stupid doctors!”

“James, enough,” her eyes were rigid.

“Why? What can they do to me? What can anyone do?”

The students continued their writing.

“That’s enough, James. Get some rest. You’re drugged up.”

He was way ahead of her. He remembered these thoughts before falling asleep:

Funny. Scribble on, fools. May not wake up again.


When he awoke, Justine was outside of the room doing more paperwork. She did it almost every day. James was watching television when he suddenly felt his mouth dry as wood. He felt his hands shaking again.

“Nurse,” he called, pressing a button beside his bed. It didn’t seem to be working. Light wasn’t on as usual.

Great,” he murmured. He tried and failed to sit upright on the bed. In an instant, his arms buckled beneath his weight and he collapsed on the mattress. All he could see through his vision was the television set playing some sitcom. An uncontrollable fear devoured his entire body and he felt a cold chill sweep through his body. It was as if his limbs weren’t connected to his body. James reached out to grab the same syringe the doctor had used earlier. It read Pseudoephedrine on the label. When did he take his last shot? he wondered. How long was he asleep?

Didn’t matter. The fear was overwhelming.

On instinct, James found a dark pink vein on his arm and pushed in the needle. In less than a minute, he felt his body relax. He lay on the bed trying to regain his breath when he heard a crackle sound near the wall. He looked and saw the lamp plug fly out of the wall socket with electrical sparks shooting forth from it. Then the room got consumed by shadows and the volume on the television increased until it was shouting at him. James covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut.

“I’m imagining it,” he shouted over the noise. “Why did I take that shot? What the hell was I thinking?”

His legs were asleep as he stood up, and a thousand fiery needles danced through the fibers of his skin. He had to sit back down. Then he rose again. He wobbled over to the door and could overhear people talking in the other room.

“—tough love,” he heard a voice cry out in laughter. “Poor bastard.”

Other voices laughing. They sounded like chipmunks. “Must’ve been one hell of a heartbreak! Talk about depressing.”

More chipmunk laughter. “I wonder what else doesn’t work.”

More laughing. He stumbled back. He couldn’t believe it—they were joking about him. He didn’t want to listen anymore. But he could still hear the laughing. It sounded like the sitcom laugh-track behind him. Was this how they were spending their—his—time? Making jokes about his condition!

James grew furious and returned to his bed. Those fools! Taking his pain lightly. His frustration. He was sick of being a lab rat, sick of being the occasion for mockery. He walked up to the door again and planned on complaining when he heard a familiar voice from within the group.

“Well, Gale, in answer to your last question,” Justine said, “his performance in bed is pretty lifeless too.”

Hysterical laughter.

James drove a closed fist into the wall and grabbed a large scalpel from the table. He rushed out of the room and met the crowd.

“You ignorant fools!” he shrieked.

Justine ran to him. “Baby, you shouldn’t be out of bed!”

“Don’t you dare!” he yelped. “You’re the worst of them all!”

Doctor Gale extended his arms. “James, get back to bed.”

“So you can mock me again? I don’t think I will.”

“No one is mocking you,” Justine cried out.

“Ah, I bet. I heard you! Laughing about my dead heart like I’m some poor bastard.”

“You’re not lucid,” Gale said. “Your eyes. Jesus, son, did you inject yourself?“

“You’re the poor bastards! All you heart-throbbing fools!” James raised his arm high to the ceiling, blade in hand. “I’ll outlive you all with my disease! Put that in your medical books!”

“He’s foaming,” Justine cried to Gale. “His mouth!”

James ripped off his hospital gown and was completely naked in front of the small group of employees and his wife.

“See?” he screeched. “I don’t need this.”

He lowered the blade and dug it into his chest until blood began spewing out.

“Oh my God!” they all screamed.

James was laughing uncontrollably as flesh toppled over his stomach, mixed with blood and guts. The gaping hole in his chest was growing larger with each scrape and scoop, until he snapped two of his ribs bare-handed and literally stabbed his heart right out of his chest. It was a wet, red blob of a ball, dripping fresh blood on the tile.

Two of the nurses fainted. Justine hadn’t stopped screaming.

“James, no!” Gale pleaded.

“Ha! I’ll outlive you all! This heart is a callused dead lump to me!”

James pushed through the crowd and ran out of the hospital. Justine almost fainted while begging the hospital security to catch him.

“We’re contacting the police,” one of the uniformed men said. “They’ll find him.”

“Alive,” she added.

“Yes, of course,” he turned. “Alive.”

Panic attacks can vary in intensity. Scarcely do they come in moderations. They are a tornado of fear that sweeps through a person with no warning or invitation. Your palms sweat, heart rate increases, body goes numb, and it will almost always resemble a heart attack—James greatest fear.

James would never have to worry about such things anymore. It had been a strange week for him. As he sprinted down the dark sidewalk, he thought about Justine. God, he loved her. He needed her.

But he was alone tonight. Part of him was glad for that, while the terrified boy in him wanted nothing more than to have her by his side right now. Regardless, it was impossible.

Damn it. Stupid drug, he thought. He knew it was the shot that caused this. Why did this have to happen to him? He didn’t want to be a part of this phenomenon any longer. Still, he continued running. He ran in fear. Ran in blind fury. Ran because his legs were already in the process.

The search to find him continued for nearly an hour, until James was found dead on his kitchen floor, naked with an empty bottle of water in his hand.

© Copyright 2019 Benjamin Cardenas. All rights reserved.

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