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The Telltale Heart

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The human heart is an amazing organ. Though only the size of your fist, it pumps about ten pints of blood through your lungs and around your body, providing oxygen to your cells in a complex process we call life. Without your heart, you would not be reading this.

Or most people wouldn’t. You have to take my word for this, my word as a surgeon who has cut open chests and seen a damaged heart trying to keep a body alive, a doctor who has heard a heart beating in the chest of every man, woman, and child I’ve ever examined.

I knew a man who had no heart.

If someone had told me this, I wouldn’t believe them. It’s true, though. I’m a doctor, and would know because I have taken his pulse many times, and even used my stethoscope on his chest, when he allowed it. A living, breathing man who had no pulse, no heart beat, no blood pressure.

As he put it, there’s only a large cavity where that organ should reside.

It was January, soon after I returned from Afghanistan, and I was looking for a flat share at the suggestion of Mike Stamford, an old pal. I already had a place to live (if what I was doing could be called living), a dismal bedsit that felt more like a tomb, and had decided I needed to find something better before I used my gun to put a bullet where it would end my life. I know that sounds grim. It was.

Mike knew a bloke who had the opposite problem, a nice flat he couldn’t afford, and no one to share the rent. He introduced us. I thought the fellow seemed odd, but he was brilliant as well, and the worst things about him were that he played the violin and sometimes didn’t talk for days. Hardly things I could object to, considering that the worst things about me were suicidal thoughts, enteric fever, and memories that woke me screaming most nights. I was not joking when I asked Mike, who’d want me for a flatmate? Even my neighbours in the bedsit complained about my nightly journeys back to Afghanistan.

But Sherlock Holmes, whose very worst day might mean he’d ignore me and play his violin, didn’t seem particularly interested in what vices I would bring to our living situation. I agreed to meet him later and look at the flat.

And that was how it began.

There was more to him than the violin, however. He was apparently some kind of crime-boffin who could deduce what had happened in a room from things most people wouldn’t even notice. I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies, but not one of them ever told me a pink suitcase was missing. Cardiff, string of lovers, Rachel, pink suitcase. All of that in just over two minutes.

I was intrigued. My own heart, which continued to beat only because I couldn’t muster the will to stop it, sprang back into action, pumping life through me as I followed this oracle around London— over rooftops and down allies, dashing through traffic and stopping random cabs to find a murderer. Not just a murderer— a serial suicide-whisperer. They take the poison themselves, Sherlock had said. But he didn’t know how they were talked into it. That was the puzzle.

His lack of a heart was not something I deduced. I’m not sure how anyone but a doctor could deduce it, and I was only his flatmate. I assumed that he was just a cerebral sort of person who set aside his feelings in order to do his job. Doctors do this too, and policemen. While an underlying level of caring is necessary, deep emotional involvement is not always useful when objectivity is needed. Sherlock Holmes was dispassionate, impersonal, and brilliant— but not inhuman.

About mid-way through our investigation, he suddenly announced that we were going to a restaurant. I was famished by that time, hungrier than I’d felt in weeks. It was odd, though. The owner himself greeted us and brought us the special, on the house, and provided a candle— more romantic, he said. Sherlock ate nothing, but I needed the fuel. I took the opportunity, now that I wasn’t chasing after him, to ask him a few questions.

I’ve had roommates who had girlfriends, and ones who’ve had boyfriends. These significant others often turn out to be nice people who don’t take liberties with a space they’re not paying for. But sometimes they become an issue between flatmates. They not only take up space, but use up your laundry soap, drink your tea, eat your biscuits, and publicly display their affection in ways that is awkward. Embarrassing.

What I mean is, I just wanted to know what other people might be visiting 221B Baker Street on a regular basis. I wanted to be prepared. So when I asked about girlfriends, and then about boyfriends, I wasn’t fishing for a relationship. God knows, I wasn’t exactly boy-friend material, what with the night-screaming and the general crankiness about my gut, my shoulder, and my damn leg.

But when he’d responded in the negative to both parts of my question— which was fine, absolutely fine— he looked me right in the eye and said, “While I’m flattered by your interest, John, I think you should know that I do not possess a heart.”

I chuckled. Okay, he wasn’t interested in anything romantic. Not a problem. It was just a joke, him being heartless.

“What happened?” I asked. “Somebody break it?

He gave me one of those looks that said I was an idiot, but he hadn’t really expected anything else. “The chemistry of love is incredibly simple,” he said, “and very destructive. I have merely pre-empted the possibility of destruction.”

At that point, we had a taxicab to chase, and my questions, not yet fully formed, had to wait.

Within a few hours, I had shot a cabbie— through the heart— in order to save my new flatmate. Not meant to be a kill-shot, but he died all the same. I saw them carry out his dead body on a stretcher. And I saw Sherlock, wrapped up in a blanket, talking to Lestrade. He didn’t look very upset, but a person in shock can look fairly normal.

When he’d deduced that it was my bullet that saved him from taking the wrong pill, he thought we should go for dim-sum, so I had to wait until we returned to our flat to examine him. He insisted that he was fine, that he hadn’t taken the pill, and wasn’t in shock (orange blanket notwithstanding). But I asserted my doctor credentials and put on my Captain Voice and insisted equally that it would not hurt for me to check him over.

He gave me a sidelong look, no doubt reading my intent. “Go ahead,” he said, smiling slightly.

I took his wrist between my thumb and forefinger. No pulse.

I lay my fingers on his neck, over the carotid. Nothing.

Finally, I took my stethoscope out of my bag and placed the diaphragm on his chest. When I heard nothing, I placed it on my own chest to make sure it was working. My own heart could be heard thumping away.

There were no sounds coming from his chest. I moved the bell of the scope around— there are people whose internal organs are reversed, you know, and his heart might have been leaning to the right, rather than to the left. And there are people— though it’s rare— who have mechanical hearts which do not beat like a normal heart, but produce a sort of clicking sound. I heard nothing.

I listened to his chest and his abdomen. As far as I could tell, he did not have a heart.

And there were no scars on his chest. Very odd.

“What do you think, Doctor?” He was smirking a bit, an I-told-you-so look on his face.

“It isn’t possible,” I replied. “Given what we know about the human body, it’s impossible for a person to be alive without a heart.” I studied him, frowning at the lack of theories that were occurring to me.

“In case you were wondering, I’m not a vampire,” he said. “Vampires do not exist.”

After what I’d just seen, I would not have been surprised if he had explained that vampires were a real thing, and he was one. I might even have believed him.

“I wasn’t thinking that. What are you, then?”

“A human, like yourself.”

“Not like me. I have a heart.”

He shrugged. “What good does it do you?”

I had no answer for that. I’d dated enough people to obtain a rather embarrassing nickname: Three Continents Watson. I don’t really want to go into how I earned it. It was meant to be ironic.

But dating is not the same as romance, and in that area, I was No Continents Watson. I had not won any hearts, nor had I given mine to anyone, male or female. I remained hopeful, however, that the lack of romance was temporary. Now that I had a place to live and a life that gave me interesting things to talk about, falling in love became a possibility.

Sherlock and I didn’t discuss his missing heart. It seemed overly intrusive to ask him how he happened to lose it, how he worked out the practical, physical details of his deficit, so I didn’t. Even though he seemed cold and removed much of the time, irritable when he was bored, and only really happy when there was a murder to investigate, I grew used to him. In fact, I began to like him.

Living with him was not difficult, if I overlooked his habit of keeping body parts in the refrigerator. The chemical experiments sometimes required us to open the windows, and occasionally someone called the fire department, but no harm was done. He played the violin, and I decided that the lack of a physical heart, while inexplicable, did not mean that he lacked feelings. He was kind to our landlady, Mrs Hudson, and she seemed very fond of him.

 

Someone blew up the building opposite 221, and suddenly our lives were even more interesting. The series of puzzles that followed (I’ve described them on my blog, so I won’t go into that here), well, to Sherlock, it was a game. He didn’t seem bothered by the terrified people who were strapped with explosives and made to relay the words of an insane criminal. A person had to be insane to set up something like that. And Sherlock, without a heart to distract him, found it fascinating.

One of the victims was blown up when she began to describe her captor’s voice. We exchanged a few words about that. I asked him if he even cared about the people who’d died.

“Will caring about them help me save them?” he asked.

It angered me then, how easy it was for him to do this. I thought of my time in Afghanistan, patching up boys who would go home to lives vastly different from the ones they’d left. The ones I couldn’t save, we zipped into bags and sent home. Caring about them made it painful, almost unbearable. If I could have done that without a heart, would I have chosen that?

No, I couldn’t imagine it. The fact that humans die, that one day we will all be dead, is what makes us human. Having a heart means pain, but that’s the price.

I swallowed my anger. Perhaps I had no right, having known from the first that he lacked a heart. He’d been very clear about that the evening we sat in Angelo’s with that romantic candle. I could have left then, walked out and taken my name off the lease if it bothered me. I stayed.

The game ended at a pool. It was midnight, and I was the one wearing explosives this time. I don’t remember exactly how that happened. The last thing I recall was telling him I was going to visit Sarah, the woman I’d been dating. I wasn’t very hopeful about that situation, but needed to spend a bit of time with someone who had a heart.

Facing Sherlock in an explosive vest will never be a cherished memory of mine. I saw something in his face as he recognised me— Doubt? Anger? Fear? It wasn’t something I could parse while standing there, expecting us both to be blown up. 

Obviously, that didn’t happen. But the moment stayed with me, the look on his face.

Moriarty, the dead cabbie had said. And here was the man himself, taunting Sherlock. Threatening him: I’ll burn the heart out of you!

“I’ve been reliably informed that I don’t have one.” He said this quietly, calmly.

Moriarty smiled. “But we both know that’s not quite true.”

A sociopath, I thought. Later, I wondered what he could possibly know about Sherlock’ heart.

At the moment, though, I was more focused on the explosives I was wearing, and his hands, as he tore the vest off of me. And the look we gave one another as he aimed his revolver at the explosives, ready to ignite them, even if it meant our own deaths, in order to stop Moriarty. Looking into Sherlock’s eyes, I knew that it was not a bluff.

We didn’t die that night. I thought about it as my sleepless night edged into morning. The flat was quiet, both of us having retired to our rooms soon after returning home. I lay in my bed and strained my ears, certain I’d heard something. I knew all the night sounds of the flat— the random street noises, the sound the boiler made when the thermostat kicked it on, the drip of the faucet I kept fixing, the squeak of Sherlock’s bedsprings when he was restless. What I was hearing was something new.

The stairs creaked a bit as I descended to the sitting room. I stood there, holding my breath, listening to a sound I didn’t recognise at first. Rhythmic, steady— like a heartbeat.

In the darkness I breathed, feeling my own heart pound, my ears straining to hear. No, it wasn’t my own pulse I was hearing. Silently, I stepped across the floor, pausing to see what direction the sound was coming from. By the time I had traced it to its origin point, I was standing outside Sherlock’s bedroom door.

Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. A sound I’d heard through a stethoscope a thousand times.

Sherlock Holmes had a heart.

 

I didn’t bring it up with him. As I’ve said, he sometimes didn’t talk for days. After the night at the pool, it was a week before he spoke to me. He had another case then, another one involving a phone. This phone contained compromising photos of a member of the Royal Family. It was owned by Irene Adler, aka The Woman.

Having deleted romance, Sherlock seemed rather confused by her flirtation, all the while maintaining his unflappable demeanour. I could see what was happening, though, and knew what I needed to do.

I could still hear his heart beating sometimes, usually at night when the flat was quiet. I didn’t know where he kept it, or whether he sometimes took it out to look at, or if he even was aware that it had become loud enough for me to hear. But I could not stand to think that this devious woman might find it. If she did, she would hurt it. I would not let her break his heart.

When he was out one day, I went into his room. The sound was louder in there, but it was difficult to tell where it was coming from. I opened drawers, saw his careful sock index. In the closet impeccable shirts hung next to bespoke suits. It was a great contrast to the sitting room, the kitchen, and every other square inch of the flat, where papers were scattered, books piled, experiments left unfinished. Standing in his room was like looking inside that orderly Mind Palace he always talked about, all of it organised so that he could put his hand on anything needed.

Where would a man like this keep his heart? Not under a stack of cold-case files, not in the fridge beside the produce. He would keep it close, but not within range of distraction. He kept it, but didn’t want to think about it.

A half an hour’s work found a loose board under the bed, and beneath that, a box. No, two boxes.

The first box was long and thin, no room for a heart. It contained a syringe and a bottle of cocaine. I knew of his drug problem, but he had sworn that he’d given it up. It was a stimulant for his mind, he’d explained, not recreational. He claimed it enhanced his thinking process. I’d almost responded that it might also stop his heart, but I know he would only have laughed. That was when I thought he didn’t own one.

The second box was larger, and when I took it from its hiding place, I could feel it vibrate with each pulse I heard. The box itself was plain wood, with a small brass latch. An ordinary box such as one might use to keep receipts or loose change or cigars. It felt heavy enough to hold what I assumed was inside.

Without blood, a heart is not red, but more of a flesh colour, with yellow fat deposits. Sherlock’s heart was beautiful, almost pink, like the inside of a seashell. I held it in my hand, feeling it pulse. “I will protect you,” I said.

I put the heart back in its box and took it upstairs, to my bedroom. The most important things I owned were stored in my trunk: papers from my army career and discharge, my medal, my uniform. I had a few mementos from childhood and university— photos, mostly, diplomas and certificates of various accomplishments. My grandfather’s pocket watch, in an envelope with a letter he’d written me.

The trunk was not nearly full. There was room for a heart here, I decided. Once I’d nestled the box inside, among my precious things, I closed the lid and clicked the padlock. Sherlock’s heart was safe.

 

I didn’t tell him that she was dead. He asked to keep her phone. In a normal person, one with a heart, this would be out of sentiment. I didn’t know what Sherlock Holmes felt.

My own feelings were changing. In my room with the door closed, I looked at his heart sometimes, held it in my hand, and at those moments, I felt something new. My own heart seemed to swell and beat more rapidly. Sometimes Sherlock’s heart beat more quickly when I did this. A sympathetic response, I suppose.

And sometimes my heart hurt, a deep ache that almost brought tears to my eyes. I wondered what this meant.

Sherlock did not notice that I had changed; nor did he say anything about the missing heart. After ignoring it for so long, perhaps he hadn’t even missed it.

 

We went to Dartmoor for a case involving a giant hell-hound. Sherlock seemed agitated, strangely unnerved by what we experienced there. “Emotions,” he growled. “The grit on the lens, the fly in the ointment.”

I’d never seen him so… emotional. I tried to talk him down a bit, but why would he listen to me? I was just his friend—

“I don’t have friends.” He said this with the utmost repugnance.

This shouldn’t have bothered me. Before, it wouldn’t have. Now, it hurt, and I was beginning to understand why my heart ached.

Now that I had held his heart in my hands, had made myself its protector, my own heart had finally awakened. I loved Sherlock.

 

Moriarty returned, as he’d promised, to burn the heart out of Sherlock. I worried, but knew his heart was safe in the trunk I kept at the foot of my bed. I should have worried more when I saw Sherlock’s reputation crumbling, when I saw charges brought against him for the kidnapping of children. Surely, anyone who knew him would see how ridiculous it was. But Donovan and Anderson had long expected it. One day, we’ll be standing around a body, and Sherlock Holmes’ll be the one that put it there.

She’d said that to me the day we met. A psychopath, she called him. One day he’ll cross the line.

People believed it.

 

When Sherlock fell to his death, when I saw his body broken on the pavement, my own heart broke. As a doctor, I know that there is such a thing as a broken heart, and that it can kill a person who experiences a devastating loss. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, it’s called. Not the same as a heart attack, but still deadly.

I sat in my chair that night, looking across at his empty chair. The flat was quiet. The pain in my chest was unbearable, as if a fist were squeezing my heart. Never again would Sherlock swirl through the door, telling me to come at once because the game was on. I would never need to worry about eyeballs in my mug or diseased livers in the produce drawer or the flat suddenly filling with pungent, eye-stinging smoke. No violin concerts in the wee hours, no morning texts inviting us to a crime scene. 221B Baker Street would be peaceful now.

I hated it.

My days were long and dull. I could not sleep in my bed, so I made do on the sofa. Each morning I awoke with a heavy weight on my chest, and barely stirred all day. Work was impossible; I could only just climb the stairs to the flat, after which exertion I would sit in my chair, unmoving for hours. Clearly something was wrong with me, something a cardiologist might have diagnosed. But I had little hope that whatever was wrong could be cured by medicine. I would simply fade away to nothing.

Closing my eyes in that still room, I heard a sound one night. I was used to it by now, hearing it softly thumping up in my room, but I hadn’t expected it now— not after I’d seen him bleeding out, broken and dying, while I stood helplessly by.

If a man can live without a heart, can he also die without one?

Clutching my chest and gasping, I staggered up the stairs, hearing it grow stronger, louder. My own heart strained to answer it, pounding against my ribs as if it were trying to escape. The pain was almost unbearable. I fumbled with the padlock, opened the trunk, and retrieved the box. When I opened it, there it was, beating steadily.

Sherlock’s heart lived.

I held it in my hands for a long time, turning it over, examining it. My own heart seemed to still as I sat there, feeling his heart beat.

I will burn your heart out.

Moriarty had stopped John Watson’s heart, as he said he would. Not with a bullet, but with a fall. I could sense it growing weaker as I sat there, and I knew that I would be dead before morning.

But by some miracle, Sherlock’s heart still lived.

Don’t be dead, I prayed, as much for me as for him.

 

This isn’t a fairy tale, but it has elements that science with all its cold, hard, logic cannot explain. Call it what you will. It is a fact that the heart is an amazing organ. It can survive a four-storey fall, and be broken by loss. It is pump that keeps us alive, and it is a child’s hand-drawn valentine. It is simply a muscle, and it is the seat of all emotion. Every human has a heart; it is what makes us human.

When I woke in the morning, I felt fine. In my chest, my heart was beating once more, but I remembered the events of the previous day and could not see how this was possible. I remembered my heart slowing, stuttering, giving up, and thinking that there would be nothing to save me.

I sat up, taking stock of my surroundings. The box was where I had left it, on top of my army trunk. The beating I heard, though, came not from the box, but from my own chest.

I had learned every facet of Sherlock’s heart. I had traced its contours, weighed it in my hands, and knew its pulse better than any sound in the world.

The heart in the box was not Sherlock’s. It was smaller, grey, and completely still. As I felt the blood rushing through my body, I knew that this small, dead heart was my own, and the one that beat in my chest was Sherlock’s. My own heart had broken and died, and Sherlock had given me his.

 

I lived, which is not to say I did not grieve. But it must mean something that his heart had not died when he landed on the pavement. Could his heart keep us both alive? This was not a question a doctor could answer, but in the heart that now kept me alive, I felt hope.

My new heart did not confer any new powers on me. I was still John Watson, always the last to suspect, often seeing, but never observing. Friends visited me in those early days, but people in general don’t know what to say to a person who has lost the one they love the most. Those visits were awkward, and before long, I had no more visitors.

The investigation into Sherlock’s death continued, but was no longer front-page news. Eventually Lestrade regained his rank and returned to investigating murders, Donovan was reprimanded, but not demoted, and Anderson was fired when he became obsessed with finding evidence that Sherlock Holmes was still alive.

I returned to working full-time as a physician. My shoulder and knee gave me no more trouble, and my hand did not shake. Though I did not mind treating sniffles and sore throats, cuts and scrapes, when I saw an opportunity to return to surgery, I took it. I had entered military service as a general surgeon and had experience treating serious injuries, so I took a position at a hospital as a trauma surgeon.

Mrs Hudson, who has one of the best hearts I have known, continued to take care of me. Molly Hooper avoided me, her eyes full of a guilty secret I did not want to guess. And a new receptionist started working in my area of the hospital.

My old heart would have sped up a bit when I passed her desk, or when she smiled and offered to get me coffee. I might have asked her out, and eventually decided that this was love. I might have taken her to a fancy restaurant and offered her a ring.

But my new heart wasn’t stirred by Mary Morstan. In fact, I felt a bit of a chill when I walked by her desk. If I’d had Sherlock’s brain as well as his heart, I might have been able to deduce why that was. Instead, I followed my feelings and kept my distance. When, in spite all of my subtle discouragement, she finally asked me out, I told her the truth. My heart is not my own.

Only a few weeks later, she disappeared. There was talk among the staff that she’d been leading a double life of some sort. An assassin, it was whispered. I never paid much attention to office gossip.

When a year had passed, Mrs Hudson asked me to go with her to his grave so she could place flowers. I had no interest in going there; in my heart I knew that his remains weren’t in that coffin. His heart continued to beat. But I went because she wanted it. We remembered him, laughing about the kidneys in the fridge and the bullet holes in the wallpaper. She cried and I comforted her. And I spoke to that black stone, though my words were meant for his heart. One more miracle, for me. Don’t be dead.

In my bed that night, I heard a familiar sound. It had been a while since I’d looked in that old box. I’d thought it dead, had put it away and almost forgotten it. But now it was beating— feebly.

I lifted the lid and looked at my old heart. It was no longer grey and still. It was weak, but not dead. One more miracle.

Lestrade took me out for a pint on my birthday that year. He’d given me a video he’d made for my birthday a few years back, the outtakes of a message he’d made of Sherlock apologising for missing my birthday party. I watched it and thought of how long it had been since I’d seen him. Will I ever see you again? I asked myself.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going to be with you again very soon.”

In my chest, his heart began to beat more quickly. I heard my old heart answer, pulsing in its box. Again I held it in my hands and saw how much stronger it had grown. It was a heart worthy of love.

 

It’s a cold night in November when he returns. I hear the key in the front door, his familiar tread on the stairs, his hesitation at the door of our flat. I do not need to wonder what he is feeling. The heavy thud against my ribs tells me everything: fear, hope, longing.

I stand, expectant, and see the moment he finally decides to turn the knob.

He’s thin, and he wears the kind of pain that comes from long, cold nights and lonely, desperate days, from months of thinking you’ve lost everything and everyone who loved you. He’s afraid it’s too late, that I will have given my heart to someone else. He stands there, shivering in an unfamiliar jacket and too-thin trousers. He is home.

I come to him, bearing my gift. There is no card or bow on the box, but it contains the only thing of value I have, the gift I should have given him long ago, when I first recognised his emptiness.

He opens the box. As he sees what it is, his hand covers his mouth and tears fill his eyes.

“This is my heart. I give it to you,” I say. “I took yours, to keep it safe, and it’s kept me alive. I want you to have mine now, because I love you.”

He takes my heart, holds it in his hands, cradling it like the most precious thing. “It’s perfect.”

 

The human heart is an amazing organ. And it is true that a person can’t live without one. You may think that it’s a nuisance to have a heart, or a dangerous disadvantage. You might lock it away so you won’t risk having it broken. Without a heart, you think you’ll be safe, but you won’t. 

A heart only truly becomes valuable when you give it away.

As we lie in bed together, he rests his head on my chest, hearing his own heart beating there. I can feel my heart in his chest, doing the same. It’s better this way, to keep each other alive.