Jump for Heart
by Sunshine Barbito
Teacher licks her thumb and tells me that my heart is going to stop. That one day, if you don’t take care of it, your heart will kill you. I pinch the bottom of the permission slip and shake the page over my desk to dry her spit. She taps her long white fingernail, long enough to bite, on my desk, so I’ll put the paper back down.
Noah is the only cute boy in the class is the only tan-skinned-brown-eyed boy is the boy I have my first crush on. The boys around his table stare at me like they don’t know you shouldn’t stare. They make kissy faces at me. Teacher raises her voice to get our attention, she tells us the Jump for Heart Month competition to see who can jump rope the most hours, will work our hearts strong and muscled, so they don’t fill with sugar and junk food and evil, non-god pictures and headlines from the People magazines at the grocery store checkout, and attack us.
The clock on the wall above the painting of God ticks toward recess. The Jesus is one of those paintings whose eyes follow you, no matter how you try and squirm in your chair to duck away from him. Teacher turns to the white board and starts to draw a real human heart. Not the drawing kind you see everywhere on everything this time of year, when the air smells like plastic wrappers and the lollipops come in bags of a million.
Across the room Noah psssts at me. He waves a folded piece of notebook paper, then sneaks it under the table to a sticky-mouthed, juice box boy, who sneaks it to a wire glassesed Spongebob nerd, who sneaks it to the horse-girl next to me, who sneaks it onto my lap. Teacher’s marker squeaks on the white board, and she says, “This is your heart.”
I look at Noah, squeeze my legs tight together to keep from shaking out of my seat. He smiles a naughty smile at me.
Still drawing, Teacher says, “It pumps blood through your body,” she says, “from your head to your toes.”
Jesus stares at me, eyes on eyes. I turn my back on him and start to unfold Noah’s note. My stomach flips a happy flip, like when the day finally comes to switch from Mom’s house to Dad’s house.
Teacher fills in the heart drawing all red and goes, “You have to start exercising your heart now, while you’re still children.” She says, “Because when most of you grow up, heart disease will kill you.” She tells us that, Jesus says, our bodies are temples.
The note unfolds in my lap. My palms sweat and get sticky against the paper. Inside, there’s a drawing of a heart, not a real one, but the kind you know means heart and love and boyfriend and girlfriend. There’s an X over the heart, and underneath it, in Noah’s boy handwriting, the note reads, I know you like me, it says, I don’t like you too.
A loud clap jumps me back upright and I shove the note between my legs to hide it. Teacher points at me with her long white nail and I put my own bitten nails in my mouth. She says, “And you don’t forget to get your mom and dad’s signatures, okay?”
All of everyone else with their still-married parents, they awkward eye me.
The only divorced kid out of all these private-school-prisses.
I look at the giant red heart drawing and grab my chest. My heart feels like it could explode and maybe, really, it could. Noah and the kissy-face boys giggle and whisper and my face cooks. And I could kill myself or someone. Even the girls at my table start to laugh, like everyone knows that my like doesn’t like me back. My teacher points to the always watching Jesus painting and says that when we log our jump rope time, Mom or Dad needs to sign off to make sure we aren’t lying, and that if we lie at all, you-know-who will be watching.
She tells us that if you win you get Pizza lunch and your picture on the wall.
Teacher says that one day, eventually, everyone’s heart attacks them.
Mom walks into the store so fast I have to run to keep up. Her heels click-clack down the aisles and she whips her hair around, scanning the shelves for a rope. I bite my nails and follow her, picture Noah’s note in my backpack and pray that it’s stuffed down far enough that Mom won’t find it. Pray that even Jesus’s painting eyes can’t find it.
My mom goes, “They spring this shit on us last minute and Lord knows we can’t trust your dad to buy you the damn thing,” and she screams into the ceiling, “and does anybody even work here? Hello?”
I follow the click-clack until, finally, she stops in the toy aisle. She leans back and squints across all the barbies and babies and then she claps and grabs my arms. The rainbow wall of jump ropes stares at me and makes my head beat like a heart and I bite my nails. Mom smacks my hand away and tells me to pick one.
“I really need to win,” I say, and I want to tell her about everyone laughing at me in class, but she just grabs a purple and sparkly jump rope from the wall and tells me to come on.
At the checkout, Mom taps her toes at the cashier and the woman unloading her groceries ahead of us. I look up at a shiny, fake heart shaped pink balloon, clipped to the rack of newspapers and magazines. It sways side to side under the air conditioner. I hear my teacher’s voice in my head telling me that Jesus is watching, try and keep my eyes up, but they stray down to the Peoples next to me; wander right out of my head.
The cover is two blond-beautifuls is the prettiest couple in America is the happiest couple alive. The hot pink headline reads, Secret affairs, lies, and divorce. The magazine asks if their love can survive all the pain these two have caused each other. Mom claps the jump rope against her hand and tells me not to look at those. The sounds jumps me.
“Inappropriate,” Mom says, and she takes one of the Peoples from the shelf and drops it onto the checkout with my rope.
When we get to Dad’s, Noah’s note is a wet ball in my hand. I squeeze it and squeeze it and when Mom unclicks her seatbelt, I stuff it back into my backpack. My dad, my best friend, stands at his front door waiting for me. Mom opens my door and grabs my backpack, leaves me unbuckling and climbing out of my booster seat.
Her heels click-clack down the driveway toward Dad and I chase after her, after the note that will get me killed if they find it or I’ll die from my heart attacking me.
“I need your signature,” says Mom to Dad, and she starts to fish through my backpack.
Dad waves me over to hug him, and with eyes on Mom he says, “Every time you bring her back late it’s just more stress on her.”
Mom hands me the jump rope and tells me to go on and get started. She finds the permission slip and holds it up so Dad can see. They stay standing far away from each other like if they get too close, one might attack the other. Mom might attack the dad or Dad might attack the mom. I untwist the plastic band from the rope and let it free. The shiny silver streaks in the purple fabric sparkle in the sun. I stand by my dad and grab onto the plastic handles, send the rope over my head and jump over it again and again.
“Dad, watch,” I say, and a leg at a time, I skip over the rope. “I’m gonna win everyone,” I tell him, but he won’t break away from my mom.
“A fitness competition?” Dad asks her. He says, “They’re just kids,” says Dad, and he rolls his eyes.
I get closer to him, so that every time the rope swings over my head, it brushes his arm.
Mom smacks her forehead and goes, “Oh, so you’re anti health now?” she says, “Really nice.”
Dad steps away from me and tells me to stop hitting on him, give the adults some space while they’re talking. My cheeks flame. I take some steps away and send the rope over and over and jump, jump till my heart runs a million miles in my chest.
My mom, she explains Jump for Heart month to my Dad and he shakes his hand at her. He goes, “I don’t know about this.”
I hear my teacher’s voice in my head saying that if we don’t exercise, our hearts will die and I hear those sticky-mouthed, juice box boys laughing at me, at how my crush doesn’t crush me back. My mom gets down on her knees and opens my backpack all the way, says when she finds a pen or a pencil, she’s signing it and my dad better just sign it too.
And my heart takes a bath in my stomach like when Dad won’t play with me or tuck me to bed because he’s on the phone with Mom, always, in a fight. I let the rope fall dead and squeeze the handles to stop from killing myself or someone.
When she stands up, Mom holds the crumpled, palm-sweated unlove note from Noah.
She unfolds the note slow and reads it then folds it back up then hands it to Dad who unfolds it and reads it and then asks her over and over again what it is and then reads it then folds it back up. I look up to the sky. God’s always watching me and somehow, for some reason, he’s never doing anything to save me or them or anybody. Mom tells me to go inside.
At the front door, I touch my dad’s arm and say, “If you win, you get pizza, and they put your picture––,” but he stops me, and points into the house. Like he doesn’t even want to win.
Upstairs, even in my room, I can hear them yelling, my mom and dad like the blond-beautifuls on People magazine, their love dead and gone from the same things. Same headlines. I swing the jump rope over and over my head and picture that all red, angry heart that Teacher drew. Mom screams something like Dad is being ridiculous, and Dad screams back, tells her that I hate her, and he hates her too.
The floor creaks under my feet and I jump till my heart feels like it could attack me at any moment, and I picture how if just looking at evil things or eating junk food can kill you, then Noah and my mom and my dad could send my heart right out of my chest, not the drawing kind but the real thing, bloody and flopping like a fish out of water, on the floor.
The screaming stops. I let my rope fall and I palm sweat from my face. Footsteps squeak up the stairs. The back of my throat tastes like blood. I hide at the edge of my bedroom door and wait for Dad to come find me, and all I can hear is those kissy face, Spongebob boys laughing at me. The rope at my feet, purple and pretty, I picture how you could wrap it around your neck and choke yourself red cheeked to make all of it, everyone go away.
Dad gets to the top of the stairs. He sees me in my doorway and waves me over. He has an almost-smile on his face, like maybe he isn’t angry anymore. My dad has the permission slip in his hand. I sneak over to him and hold out my arms like to hug him, my best friend, my hero, who still plays with me after all the big screaming, ridiculous fights with Mom.
He pushes my hug away from him.
“You’re not doing that competition,” he says. He says, “You’ve been being inappropriate with that boy at school, sneaking notes,” he starts to walk away from me, “your mom and I just can’t handle all this stress with you right now.”
My dad starts down the hallway. My whole head cooks. The beating in my chest is an attack, a disease. I can feel it. With the purple handles in my sweating palms, I swing the rope over my head and start to jump. Down the hallway toward my dad, one leg at a time I skip, and he tells me to stop playing in the house. Closer, and closer, I swing the rope over me so that it hits on my dad’s back every time.
He turns around and he says, “Enough,” then keeps walking.
But I don’t stop.
Dad turns around and shuffles back toward the stairs. He steps onto the first stair. I hit his back with the rope again and again and again and without turning around he yells at me to quit it, right now, and he moves barefoot feet down the steps and I swing the purple, sparkly rope over my dad’s neck and it catches on his throat.
The handles pull me down to my stomach and Dad slips down the stairs, falls to his back.
Both handles together in my sweating palms, I pull and hold them and my dad kicks his legs and grabs at the rope that digs into his neck.
Dad is purple-skinned is not my best friend is a fish out of water.
Out of air father.
I picture Jesus with his eyes that never let you go, watching me, my every move, but just keep pulling on the jump rope that chokes on my dad by the neck because that’s all God does is watch, he never gets his hands dirty and I won’t be the only victim of the attack.
My elbows into the floor and I pull and wait for my heart to attack me and kill me and be over and done with it. But I look down at my dad’s kicking feet. His fingers press against his neck and try and tear the rope away. And my heart trampolines into my throat.
I let the plastic purple handles of the rope slip out of my hands. He slides down more steps and catches himself before the bottom. My dad, he gasps for breath and throws the jump rope off of his neck. He rubs his throat and then flips over to look at me. Dad’s red, beating, blood-eyes look like they could wander right out of his head.
And there goes my stomach again, like when you know you’re in trouble, and there’s no lie to tell, nowhere to run.
My dad, he stares at me and I stare at him, like we don’t know you shouldn’t stare.
I grab my chest and pray for my heart to stop.
About the Author
Sunshine Barbito is a twenty-one year old, emerging fiction writer. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have been showcased in multiple literary magazines; her most recent publication being her story "Baby", published by Sad Girl Lit in October. Since moving to the pacific northwest, Sunshine has worked as a freelance editor, collaborting on projects with Dark Horse Comics and Sega, including The Umbrella Academy and Fight Club 3. She spoke at a panel about crime stories in comics at the 2019 Portland Comic-Con to promote her first series as sole writer, Mafiosa. Sunshine attends a fiction workshop with a wonderful group of liars that not only taught her the basics of writing, but how to really see everything, the whole world, as a story. Sunshine intends to continue to pursue writing in New York City.